Authors: Ian C. Esslemont
Tags: #Fantasy, #War, #Azizex666, #Science Fiction
The treat dragged on past the mid-day and into the afternoon and still Traveller made no move to break off. Ereko wondered at such uncharacteristic patience. Normally it was Traveller who chafed to be on, who resented any delay or obstruction in his path. Surely he must see that this man sought to delay them – perhaps he had sent for the rest of his men and now waited for their arrival.
Talk then turned to the subject that preoccupied all the inhabitants of the continent to the north: the state of the Shieldwall, the strength of the ranks of the Chosen, and of Korelri readiness to repel the Riders this coming winter season. Speculation all the more anxious and uncertain these last years now that the Malazans had drained off so much of the needed Korelan strength.
Ereko watched the chief closely then for some sign that he knew: that word had reached him through the mouths of traders who had traversed the pass before them this season. Word of two outlanders who have been named deserters from the Wall. Traitors condemned by the Council of the Chosen with all swords and hands raised against them within northern lands. Yet the man's eyes betrayed no such knowledge; they glittered with animal cunning, yes, but appeared empty of the triumph and satisfaction that hidden advantage can bring.
Eventually, much delayed, the rambling exchange ended and the chief groaned and grumbled as he pushed himself to his feet. His followers rose with him. Their hands went to knife-grips and hatchet handles, and their eyes to their chief for any sign or direction. Traveller backed away from the fire. ‘Many thanks for your hospitality.’
The chief laughed his exaggerated good humour. ‘Yes, yes. Certainly, certainly.’ He waved away his followers. ‘Good travelling. To the coast. Ha!’
Ereko and Traveller backed away for a short time then returned to
their path. Traveller struck a south-west course. They walked in silence, listening. They came to a narrow stream that descended steeply among boulders, foaming and chuckling its way west to the coast, and Traveller followed it.
‘I make it to be two,’ he said after a time.
‘Yes. The youths, I think.’
‘They'll wait till night.’
‘Yes. How many, do you think?’
‘More than the six. That's for certain.’
They pushed through a bracken of fallen trees and dry branches, jumped from rock to rock. ‘Why did you not break things off?’
Traveller's nut-brown features drew down into a pained grimace. ‘I hoped to show him that we were not afraid to travel alone. To make him think about that, and what that might mean.’ He shook his head. ‘But the fool did not appear to be the thoughtful kind.’
‘Perhaps he knows.’
Traveller glanced to him. ‘Then nothing will stop them from coming for us tonight.’
They made camp among a tumble of boulders. Traveller struck a small fire but sat with his back to it. Ereko sat across the fire and sometimes watched the darkness and sometimes watched Traveller. The man sat with his sheathed sword across his lap, waiting, and Ereko wondered again at this man who could show such gentleness and what was called, generally,
and yet be willing to cut down a handful of ill-armed and untrained rabble, youths included, none of whom could possibly stand a chance against him.
‘Let us just keep going,’ Ereko urged again across the fire. ‘Why stop at all?’
‘I'll not watch my back all the way to North Citadel. Any fool can get lucky with a bow.’
Ereko eyed him, perplexed. Yes, that was true; at least in Ereko's own case. Though he aged very slowly, he could still be killed by mundane physical trauma. But what of Traveller? Was he not beyond such concerns? Obviously not. He was yet a man. He lived still. Clearly, he remained wary of that unlooked-for bolt from behind. Perhaps no matter how competent – or miraculously exquisite in Traveller's case – one's skills in personal combat, a random bolt or arrow could always spell the end.
Extending his awareness out through the earth, Ereko could sense them: a handful of men down the slope closer to the stream. They were gathered together, hesitant perhaps because of Traveller's and
his refusal to sleep. Would they wait until they did? He prayed not; already the delay was agonizing.
He glanced back across the dim glow of the embers to find that Traveller had already reached the same conclusion. He now lay wrapped in his bear-hide cloak, pretending sleep. Ereko followed suit by easing himself down the rock he leant against and although he did not feel the cold or heat as sharply as humans, he pulled up his own broad cloak of layered pelts and let his head droop.
They waited. From a great distance up the mountains a wolf's howl drifted through the night and Ereko wondered if it was one of the shaggy pack that had shadowed them across the ice wastes north of the mountains. Owls called, and an even more distant booming as of an avalanche or the cracking of an ice field echoed among the mountain slopes.
A three-quarter moon emerged from behind thick clouds and Ereko sensed the men advancing. They had been waiting for better light; he cursed himself for not thinking of it.
Traveller threw himself aside as arrows and a crossbow bolt thudded into his bedding. Ereko had already rolled into shadow and now crouched, waiting. He held his spear reversed for he couldn't set aside his pity, yet.
A surprised scream of fear and pain tore through the cold night air only to be cut off almost instantly and he knew Traveller was now among them. The scream destroyed any pretence to silence or stealth so now shouts sounded all around.
‘Where is he?’
Tullen? You see him?’
Sandals scraped over stone. Fallen branches snapped. A head appeared silhouetted by the silver moonlight. Ereko lashed out with the butt-end of his spear and connected in a meaty yielding thump. Iron rang from stone. A crossbow cracked its release and simultaneous pain knocked the wind from his chest. The blow rocked him and he fell. As he lay he blessed the efficacy of this human mail he'd adopted and damned these human missile weapons; they were a constant plague.
Someone stood over him. Moonlight revealed one of the youths. He lashed out, tripping him, then wrapped a hand over his mouth and pulled him tight.
he mouthed and waited, motionless in shadow.
Someone approached the camp. He came to stand next to the fire's dying embers. By the fitful sullen light Ereko saw that it was
Traveller. The red glow – the colour of war – it suited him; he carried his sword in one hand and its narrow length gleamed slick and wet. His cloaks were gone, revealing his tight shirt of supple blackened mail. He crossed to Ereko and touched the tip of his sword to the youth's chest. Blood, black in the dark, ran down to pool over the layered untreated hides. The youth's eyes swelled huge. His breath was hot and panting against Ereko's hand. It felt to him that he held a trembling colt fresh from foaling. ‘The others?’ Ereko asked.
‘One got away.’ His eyes did not leave the youth. The sword point pressed down further, broke the surface of the leather.
‘No. I forbid it.’
‘He'll just come back. He and his friends will shadow us. Wait for their chance. For
‘No. This I will not allow. He is just a child. A child.’
Traveller's eyes flickered then. The fey spell of battle-fury broke, revealing something beneath, something that made Ereko look away, and the man lurched aside. ‘Get him from my sight.’
Ereko whispered, ‘Run now. Don't stop.’ The youth scrambled away, gulping down air, sobs rising in his breaths.
Traveller threw himself on to his bear-pelt cloak. Ereko lay holding himself silent and still as if some enchantment might shatter should he speak or move. In time, the man slept, his breath steadying. Ereko lay awake listening to the night and sensing the mood of this new land. Expectant, it seemed. He wondered whether pain such as he glimpsed in his companion's eyes could ever be healed. Perhaps never. As he should very well know.
Before the new moon he and Traveller topped a hillock to the view of a forested coast, tidal mudflats and the ocean stretching beyond to the western horizon. Some humans, Ereko knew, called this the Explorer's Sea, for so much of it remained to be discovered. Others named it the White Spires Ocean for the islands of floating ice that menaced its mariners. His own people, the Thel Akai, named it Gal-Eresh: The Ice Dancer. ‘What now?’ he asked of Traveller.
Crouched on his haunches, the man took a pine twig from his mouth and shrugged. ‘We follow the coast. Find a settlement.’
‘South, then? We go south?’
‘For now.’ And he started down the forested slope. Ereko followed, sighing his irritation. Oh, Goddess, why did you speak to me of this most difficult of men? Why did you break your silence of
centuries to say to me when he appeared dragged out in chains on to the Stormwall:
this one shall bring your deliverance.
By that time Ereko had long lost count of his seasons upon the Stormwall. The Korelan winters had come and gone one after the other. The storms unique to the Riders had gathered their ferocity in ice-rafted waves and nimbuses of power that flickered in the night sky as auroras. He came to know that slow stirring of potential just as well as the change of season. The winds would always swing to a steady hard south, south-west pressure that chilled even his bones and left an overnight frost glittering in the morning light on the stone battlements. Snow-flurries blasted the wall during the worst of the storms – and the Riders themselves were never far behind any snow.
Malazan soldiers had been appearing on the wall for some years by then. They came in chains, captured prisoners of war. Their Korelan guards threw them weapons only just before the waves of Riders hit. They acquitted themselves well. The bravest and most cunning turned those weapons upon themselves thereby leaving a portion of the wall unmanned until a replacement could be brought up. Few cowered or wept when the Riders finally appeared cresting waves of ice-skeined ocean to assault the wall, as even some trained Chosen have from time to time. For who could possibly prepare themselves for such a sight as that? A collision of Realms, should certain theurgical scholars be believed. The power-charged impact of alien eldritch sorcery countered purely by brute stubbornness, courage and martial ferocity.
‘Who is that?’ he had asked of his Korelan guards. They answered easily enough as he had stood the wall for longer than some of them had been alive.
‘They say he's a Malazan deserter,’ the guards explained. ‘Caught on a ship trying to run the blockade. The Mare marines say he fought like a tiger so they set fire to the ship beneath him and pushed off. They say he saw reason then. Jumped ship and swam to them. They handed him over to us to stand the wall.’
He watched them drag the man to an empty slot a few hundred yards down the curving curtain wall. The Korelan guards fixed his ankle fetters to the corroded iron rings set into the granite flagging then freed his arms. Ereko studied his own lengths of ankle chain and listened once again for the Enchantress's soft voice. But she was silent. No further guidance would be his.
He resolved to act as soon as a quiet night presented itself. But such a night never came and within weeks the first of the Riders’
storms were upon them and thousands of Korelan soldiery jammed the wall.
They followed the forest's edge south. In the evenings they clambered down to the sand and rock shore to collect shellfish. The first sign of human settlement they met was the fire-blackened and overgrown remains of a fort: a choked trench faced by burned ragged stumps of logs surrounding an open court. The court held a burnt barracks longhouse and the beginnings of a stone and mortar central keep abandoned, or sacked, in mid-construction. They slept wrapped in their pelts in the dry, grass-gnarled court. The fire cast a faint glow upon the vine-shrouded stones of the keep's curving wall.
‘They were here,’ Traveller announced while leaning back on his pelts, his dark brooding gaze on the ruined tower.
Ereko peered up from his share of the fish they'd found trapped in a tide-pool. ‘Who? Who was here?’
The Crimson Guard. Like the old bandit said. This was their work.’