A Novel of the Malazan Empire
North territory of a new land
Of the Jaghut wars:
Seventh century of the 12th Lamatath campaign
33,421 years before Burn’s Sleep
The woman ran at a steady unhurried pace. her breath came as long level inhalations through the mouth and out through her wide nostrils. Sweat darkened the front and back of her buckskin shirt. Her moccasins padded silently over stones and pockets of exposed sandy soil. That she was running up a wide rocky mountain slope, and had been for most of the day, attested to iron strength and endurance. She dodged round slim poles of young pine, white spruce and birch. She jumped rocks and slid and scrambled up steep gravel talus fans. She knew she could outpace her pursuers, but that she would never shake them from her trail. Yet still she ran on.
She knew that once they tired of the chase, they would take her. She judged it ironic that the same desperate urge to continued existence that drove her also lay behind their relentless pursuit – though they had relinquished their claim to it long ago.
Still she scrambled on up the slope, for one hope remained. One slim unlikely chance. Not for her survival; she had given that up the moment she glimpsed the hoary eldritch silhouettes of her pursuers. The one slim chance lay for vengeance.
Knife-edged broken rock cut her fingers as she scrabbled for handholds. It flayed her moccasins. The surrounding steep slopes of tumbled stone and talus heaps were just now emerging from winter; ice clung to shadowed hollows and behind the taller boulders. Snow still lay in curved dirty heaps, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding gravel. She took vigour from the chill bite of the high mountain air, knowing it perfectly natural rather than any invoked glacial freeze. Taking cover in a stand of pine, she paused to risk a glance behind: no movement stirred upon the slope below, other than a smallish herd of elk just now clattering their way downvalley. No doubt disturbed by her passage.
Yet she knew she was not alone. She also knew her pursuers needed not to show themselves to run her down. She’d hoped, though, they would at least grant her this one small gesture.
A lone figure did then step out from the cover of tumbled glacial moraine. It was as if she’d willed its appearance. The tattered remains of leathers flapped about its impossibly lean frame. A dark ravaged visage scanned the slope, rising to her. The white bear hide that rode atop the head and shoulders hung as aged and winddried as its wearer. She and he locked gazes across the league that separated them – and across a far larger unbridgeable gulf as well.
So far behind? she wondered. Then she understood and in that instant threw herself flat.
Something shattered against the rocks next to her. Flint shards thinner than any blade sliced her buckskins and flensed the skin beneath.
She jumped to her feet and returned to scrambling up the slope. She reached a ridge that was a mere shoulder of the far taller slope: a jagged peak that reared far above. Here she paused a second time, exhausted, her lungs working, drawing in the icy air.
Then she screamed as a spear lanced through her thigh, pinning her to the bare stony surface. She fell back against a rock and took hold of the polished dark haft to draw it. A skeletal hand knocked hers aside.
The same fleshless visage that had caught her gaze below now peered down at her. Empty dark sockets regarded her beneath the rotting brow of a white tundra bear. Necklaces of yellowed claws hung about the figure’s neck – presumably the claws of the very beast it wore – while the scraped hide of the beast’s forelimbs rode its arms down to the paws tied with leather bindings to its own hands. Ribs darkened with age peeked through the mummified flesh of its torso. Rags of leather buckskin lay beneath the hide, all belted and tied off by numerous leather thongs. A long blade of knapped flint, creamy brown, its tang wrapped in leather, stood thrust through a belt. ‘Why flee you here, Jaghut?’ the Imass demanded.
‘I flee destruction,’ she answered, her voice tight with suppressed pain.
Others of the Imass warband now walked the ridge. The bones of their feet clattered on the rocks like so many stones. ‘Caves above, Ut’el,’ one of their number announced, pointing a flint blade higher up.
The Imass, Ut’el, returned its attention to her. ‘You would seek to lure us to ambush,’ it announced.
‘If you say so.’
‘I am disappointed. You have brought death to your kin as well.’ It faced one of the band. ‘Take scouts. They are occupied?’
This Imass dipped its hoary skull where the flesh and hair had fallen away in patches. ‘Yes, Bonecaster.’
Bonecaster! the woman marvelled. A mage, shaman, of the breed! If she should bring this one to destruction then all would have been worth the struggle.
The Bonecaster returned its attention to her. She sensed its mood of disappointment. ‘I had thought you a more worthy prize,’ it murmured, displeased.
‘As we had hoped for more worthy successors.’
‘Victory is the only measure of that, Jaghut.’
‘So the victors would soothe themselves.’
The undying creature raised its bony shoulders in an eloquent shrug. ‘It is simply existence. Ours or yours.’
She allowed herself to slump back as if in utter defeat. ‘You mean the elimination of all other than you. That is the flaw of your kind. You can only countenance your family or tribe to live.’
‘So it is with all others.’
‘No, it is not. You are merely unable to see this.’
‘Look about, Jaghut. Raw nature teaches us…’ Ut’el’s whisper faint voice dwindled away as he slowly raised his bone and dried tendon features to the higher slope.
‘How fare your scouts, Bonecaster?’ she asked, unable to keep a savage grin from her face.
‘They are gone,’ he announced. His gaze fell to her. ‘Others are there.’ He now shook his nearly fleshless head in admiration, and, it seemed to her, even horror. ‘My apologies, Jaghut. I would never have believed any entity would dare…’ He drew his flint blade. ‘You are a desperate fool. You have doomed us all – and more.’
‘I am merely returning the favour.’
All about, the remaining Imass warriors flinched as if stung, drawing their blades of razor-thin flint. ‘Purchase us what moments you can,’ he told them flatly. His tannin-brown visage remained fixed upon her.
The warriors dipped their heads. ‘Farewell,’ one answered, and they disappeared into snatches of dust.
Above, figures now came pouring from the cave mouths: stone grey shapes that ran on oddly jointed legs, or all four limbs at a time.
‘I am tempted to leave you to them,’ Ut’el said. ‘But we Imass are not a cruel people.’
‘So you would absolve yourselves over the centuries, yes?’ She took hold of the spear haft. ‘That is fortunate. Because we Jaghut are not a judgemental people.’ And she heaved herself backwards in one motion, yanking the spearhead from the ground to tumble off the ledge, spear in hand.
He swung, but the blade cut just short of her as she slipped from the narrow ridge. Her buckskins snapped in the wind. ‘I leave you to…’ she yelled as she plummeted from sight down the sheer thousand-foot drop.
. . . your doom, Ut’el Anag, Bonecaster to the Kerluhm T’lan Imass, finished for her. He turned to face the high slope. The grey tide of creatures had finished his band and now closed upon him.
In what he considered his last moments, he raised his flint blade to his face. He watched how the knapped facets reflected the clouds overhead, how the reflections rippled like waves on clear lake water.
No. This is not yet done. I so swear.
He stepped into the realm of Tellann as the first of the clawed hands snapped closed upon the space he once occupied.
* * *
Hel’eth Jal Im (Pogrom of the White Stag)
51st Jaghut War
6,031 years before Burn’s Sleep
Here evergreen forest descended mountain slopes to a rocky shore. Shorebirds hunted for crabs and beetles among tide-pools and stretches of black sand beaches. From their perches on tree limbs and among the taller rocks larger birds of prey watched the shorebirds and the glimmer of fingerlings in the shallows.
A morning mist hung over the bay. The air was still enough for sounds to cross from one curve of the shore to the other. The figure that arose from the seaweed-skirted boulders was not out of keeping with the scene. The tattered remains of leathers hung from its withered, mummified shoulders and hips. A nut-brown flint blade hung thrust through a crude twisted-hair belt tied about its fleshless waist. Over its head of patches of stringy hair and exposed browned skull it wore a cap cut from the cured grey hide of a beast more at home on sundrenched savanna than temperate boreal forest.
Similar figures arose, one by one, here and there about the shore. They gathered around the first arrival, and though gender was almost impossible to tell among their fleshless desiccated bodies, skin little more than paper-thin flesh over bone, this one was female and her name was Shalt Li’gar, and she was of the Ifayle T’lan Imass.
‘What land is this?’ one of the band, J’arl, asked. In answer, she raised her head as if taking the earth’s scent through the exposed twin gaps of her nostrils. ‘I know it not,’ she judged. ‘No account of it has been shared with me, nor with those with whom I have shared.’
‘Others of us must have found it before, certainly,’ another, Guth, commented.
‘And what became of them…?’ Shalt answered, thoughtfully, peering into the mist to the far shore of the sheltered bay.
The other ravaged faces turned as well and all were silent and still for a time. So quiet and motionless were they that an eagle flew overhead to stoop the waters, its talons slicing the surface. It rose with a fish struggling in its claws, and perched in a nearby half-dead fir to tear at its meal.
The faces of all the Imass had turned silently to follow the course of its flight.
‘Favourable, or unfavourable?’ J’arl asked into the continued silence.
‘Are we the eagle?’ answered another. ‘Or the fish?’
Shalt extended a withered arm to the bay. ‘Others are fishing as well,’ she pronounced.
They started picking their way round the curve of the shore.
First to emerge from the mist were the prows of hide boats pulled up on the strand of black gravel that climbed steeply to the forested rocky slope. Smoke trailed through the trees. Shalt glimpsed a stout log structure high on the slope. Figures now came running down a trail. They carried spears armed with stone heads, maces of stones tied to wood handles. They wore stained and beaded leathers and animal hide capes.
‘Humans,’ Guth observed, unimpressed. ‘We should search inland.’
‘Pity they choose not to talk,’ Shalt judged, almost with a sigh. ‘We will scout inland.’
J’arl thrust up a withered hand, all sinew and bone. ‘I ask for a pause. There is something…’
Shalt regarded him. She tilted her age-gnawed head. ‘A presence?’
‘Something,’ he repeated, wary, as if unwilling to say more.
The local people had formed a line inland. They yelled and shook their weapons. Shalt studied them: much taller than she and her stock. Prominent jaws, large teeth. Similar in features – probably the descendants of a small breeding population. Such was not so unusual among her own kind, long ago.
Her band was disappearing one by one, moving on, when one of the locals shouted something Shalt understood: ‘Be gone, demons from the outside!’
The words used made all her remaining band reflexively draw their blades. For they were in the Jaghut tongue. Shalt stepped forward. ‘Whence came you by this language?’ she asked in the same tongue.
‘It is known to us of old, demon,’ an elder answered, sneering.
Known? she repeated, wonderingly. How can this be?
‘And we have been warned of your kind,’ he continued. ‘Be gone! You are not welcome here.’
Shalt raised her chin, the flesh worn away from one side of her mandible, and scented again, deeply. What came on the air staggered her, and were she not of the Imass she would perhaps have fainted into unconsciousness from the challenge it presented to her very core.
‘Abomination…’ J’arl breathed in an exhalation of cold air. He raised his blade.
No! Shalt cried to herself. They are human! We mustn’t slide down this path… it will lead us to annihilation.
J’arl started forward and Shalt acted without thought. Her blade sliced through vertebrae at the juncture of neck and shoulder. J’arl slumped, though she knew he was not finished utterly.
Up and down the shore her band exploded into a whirling mêlée of Imass striking Imass. Flint blades clashed and grated in a burst of clamour that sent all the nearby birds skyward in alarm. A group coalesced round Shalt, who directed them into a line defending the milling locals.
‘Flee the coast!’ she shouted to the people as she blocked a strike from Guth. ‘Flee!’
‘They will be found,’ Guth promised her as he strained. ‘If not us, then others.’
Shalt cut him down as well and wept as she fought, for he had been a companion of uncountable years.
She spared the mêlée a glance and despaired. The aggressors far outnumbered the defenders. Yet she was First of the Band for a reason and she fought even as all her allies fell about her. She was last, giving ground, suffering strikes that shaved dried flesh from her limbs and cut rotted hide from her shoulders. Now her skills overcame the constraints of the attackers, who fell one by one before the two-handed blade, so thin as to be translucent, that she flicked and turned as lightly as a green branch.
A blow took her skull. It severed bone down past her right occipital ridge. Yet even as her skull shattered she dropped this last aggressor and wailed at the necessity, for it was Bruj’el, a bull of a warrior, and cousin to her mate gone these many centuries.
She turned to the people. She could sense her animating spirit fleeing its flawed vessel. Her Tellann-provided vision was darkening, withdrawing. She fell to her bony knees. She dropped her blade to brace herself with one hand and breathed out one last fading sigh to the staring, awed figures.
Ian C. Esslemont’s Assail is published in the UK tomorrow, by Transworld Books. Esslemont is the author of four other Malazan novels, also published in the UK by Transworld: Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne, and Blood and Bone.