Authors: Tim Lebbon
Crewmen shouted, waves thudded into the ship as they swung booms and changed direction, harpoons hissed and whistled as they were fired, and three times something immense struck the vessel, impacts knocking Bon and the others down, wood creaking and metal bracings shrieking. The attack did not last for long, but Bon was far more afraid than he had expected. He was thinking of Leki in the neighbouring hold, and when after the second impact someone shouted that they’d been breached, he heard water hissing in and the cries of those drowning, and Bon dashed across to the separating wall. Banging on the wood, he shouted her name. Screamed it. It was only as an old man grabbed his arm to quieten him, and he pressed his ear to the wall, that he realised the hull had not been compromised at all.
Later, a guard opened the hatch and threw down several bags.
‘What happened?’ someone asked. ‘Did they kill the spineback?’
‘Kill it?’ the guard scoffed. He slammed the hatch, laughing.
The Heretic Land
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Tim Lebbon
Copyright © 2011 by Ian Irvine
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
For Stephen Susco
fellow seeker, good friend
With thanks to Bella and Jenni
‘All the ancient histories … are just fables that have been agreed upon’
After six days at
sea, following a storm that almost swamped the ship, a waterspout that toyed with them for half a day, and an attack by sea scorps that left three crewmen swelling until their skin split and bones ruptured, it was the food that almost killed Bon Ugane.
‘I mean it,’ the woman said. He’d noticed her before, emerging from the second hold with other prisoners and walking the deck during exercise periods. He could hardly
notice her. But they had not spoken until now. ‘Don’t eat it. I’ve cooked flatfish all my life, and that one is diseased. The colour of the flesh, the texture …’ She shrugged.
‘There’ll be nothing else from them today,’ Bon said. His stomach was rumbling, and he’d already lost weight from hunger and sea sickness.
‘So go hungry.’
He looked down at the meagre meal their guards had presented him with, watched and listened to the other prisoners chomping down on their fish, lifted it close to his nose to take a sniff, then tipped it over the railing.
woman said. She held out her plate to him. She’d already eaten most of the good meat. ‘Go on.’
Bon scooped up the thin fins in one hand and stared at them. The woman paused in her chewing, offended. Bon smiled and ate, nodding his thanks as the stringy, spiky fins came apart in his mouth.
They’d been allowed up out of the holds to eat today. The sea rolled as waves clashed from two directions, colliding with thunderous impacts, flinging spray skyward to be caught by the easterly wind and blown stinging across the ship’s deck. Wave tops rolled white, and flying fish drifted through the spray as they hunted unsuspecting prey. The sky was a deep, threatening grey, and far to the west the clouds had burst, rain falling in silent sheets. They’d only seen one spineback today, and rumour had it the last reported sighting of a deep pirate was a hundred miles east of here. This was as calm and safe as the Forsaken Sea ever was, and the crew’s good cheer had filtered across to the usually gruff, hard guards.
The dozen guards leaned against the railing or strolled the deck in pairs, casual, chatting, weapons sheathed. They were recruited from the Steppe clans that lived across Alderia’s central regions, where the Harcrassyan Mountains and Chasm Cliffs ravaged the landscape and effectively divided the continent in two. The tallest, strongest people on Alderia – with stocky limbs for negotiating slopes, and vicious teeth for catching prey whilst clinging to rock faces – through the years those generations that left their challenging hunting heritage behind had naturally found their way into the military. Most worked for regional armies or the prison ships, and those few that excelled might even find their way into the Spike, the Ald‘s own expansive personal defence force. Bon had always found an irony in Alderia’s ruling elite requiring their own
guard, when they professed to encourage freedom and peace for all.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked after he’d managed to swallow the remains of the fins.
‘Name?’ the woman asked. ‘Oh, so we’re straight onto the formalities. Name, where am I from, what did I do that put me on this ship? Life fucking story. But I left all that behind. We’re all heading for a new life.’
Perhaps she saw Bon’s face drop a little, because her rant faded almost as soon as it had begun.
‘My life’s been this shit for years,’ he said. He smiled, not to show that he was joking, but that he could live with it.
The woman smiled back. ‘Lucky you. Head start.’
‘And I know where you’re from,’ Bon said.
‘Is it so obvious?’ She held up one splayed hand, the thin webs between her long fingers almost transparent.
‘I thought your sort might just jump overboard and escape.’
She looked at him for some time, expressionless, eyes never leaving his face. He glanced away first, and when he looked back she was still staring.
‘My sort?’ she asked at last.
‘Amphys,’ Bon said.
‘Well, at least you use the polite name. Most just call us floaters.’ She glanced around at the other prisoners sat across the deck – one woman had tried standing when they’d first been brought up, and had been kicked back down by a guard – and she and Bon shared a silent moment. It was strange. He had not felt truly comfortable in a woman’s presence since his wife’s death, and now he was sitting with this amphy stranger and feeling more settled than he had since they’d left Alderia’s coast on their journey north towards banishment. Maybe it was her straightforward manner, her easy way of talking. Or perhaps it was the hint of exoticism that all amphys held for
him, and had done ever since his parents had first welcomed an amphy friend into their home thirty years before. Many people hated them because they were different, or more graceful than most, or often simply because hating came easy to some.
‘Lechmy Borle,’ she said, holding out her hand palm up. ‘Leki to my friends. Haven’t got many of those on board, that’s for sure.’
‘Bon Ugane,’ Bon said. He pressed his hand to hers, and they pushed against each other. It was a formal greeting, but their smiles diluted some of the formality.
‘I can’t just jump and swim,’ Leki said. ‘A distant cousin of mine was arrested and deported seven years ago. He jumped ship a day out and was never seen again.’
‘Maybe he swam along the coast, made a new life for himself?’
‘He’s dead. The bone sharks got him, or some other wildlife. Or the deep pirates. They come that far south, sometimes, if pickings are thin to the north. Or more likely he drowned.’
‘We’re good swimmers,’ Leki said. ‘I can hold my breath for a lot longer than you. But we’re not fucking fish.’
Bon chuckled. It felt good, and he thought it was simply because he was talking to someone like a person for the first time in days. Other prisoners had engaged him in conversation, but it was always light, and rarely developed into anything more than cautious platitudes. The disgraced Fade priest in his hold seemed immune to anyone’s efforts to enter into conversation. Bon wondered what the priest had done to deserve this, and how he had offended Alderia’s official Fade religion. But when Bon had approached, he had not even lifted his eyes. The guards spoke sometimes. But even those who were more fair and reasonable would not grow familiar with the
prisoners, because they knew what was to become of them.
‘They say it’s two more days to Skythe,’ Bon said.
‘And the worst of the storms are always closer to the Duntang Archipelago.’
‘Great. I think I’ve already vomited everything that’s not tied down.’
Leki laughed silently. He watched her as she glanced away, eyeing her up and down. The amphys had always fascinated him, and it went way beyond their webbed hands and feet, and their wider chests that contained the larger lungs. It was the less obvious differences that he found more compelling. They were all blue-eyed, a trait unique to them. They were usually taller than the northern Alderians, and though their limbs were streamlined, they were much stronger. They wore clothing only out of water, and they were always loose and flowing, their natural grace matching the swish of cloth. Their favoured material was sea-spider silk, shimmering with a rainbow of colours from the natural oils. Waterproof, strong and light, their clothing was one of the amphys’ main exports from Alderia’s three southern states.
Leki was dressed in a dirty, shapeless jacket and trousers, with a heavy belt and clumsily stitched leather boots. She’d probably lost her own clothes the moment she was arrested.
Bon was intrigued, but he had no wish to be pushy. If her story came naturally, he would be interested to hear. If not, it made little difference. He was simply grateful that she had spoken to him at all. It almost made him believe he had a future.
‘They’ll be putting put us back in the holds soon,’ Bon said. ‘Maybe we should try—’
‘Spineback,’ Leki said softly.
miles to port.’
‘Must be big if you can see it that far out.’ He stretched up to see past Leki, out over the port railings and across the angry grey ocean. He spied nothing, and feared she was teasing. He didn’t know her.
Then one of the three lookouts up in the skynests sounded his horn twice, and the deck erupted into chaos. Crewmen dashed back and forth, and the guards started urging the prisoners back towards the two ladders leading down into the holds.
a big one,’ Leki said as she and Bon stood together. ‘But don’t worry.’
As they were parted and shoved towards different ladders, Bon turned to look past his fellow prisoners and their animated guards. He spotted the shimmer of weak sunlight on a spineback’s slick skin, and seeing the upright spikes along its back from this distance meant they must be taller than a man. The huge beast was cutting through the waves towards them, and occasionally it reared up, revealing a wide head and heavily toothed mouth.
How can she tell me not to worry?
‘Get a shift on!’ a guard growled, and Bon obeyed. The fear was palpable – prisoners hurried, guards shouted, and the activity across and above the ship’s deck was frantic. Harpoon guns were uncovered, and heavy, glass-tipped harpoons were loaded, the guns’ steam mechanisms pumped and primed. Sails billowed, booms swung, rigging creaked and whipped as the ship turned to face the threat, offering a narrower target for the spineback to tear through. The crew started singing a strange song in their own seafaring language, a bastardisation of Alderian blended with the ancient languages found written in western coastal caves. The song beseeched Venthia, the Fade god of water, to help them. Bon did not believe in Alderia’s Fade religion and its seven deities, and yet he found
great irony in this – the crew prayed to a god which even devout Faders contended had vanished from the Forsaken Sea at the time of the Skythian War six centuries before. Sending criminals across such godless waters was the Ald’s favourite way of getting rid of them.