The thrilling opening chapter in an epic new fantasy from the author of The Malazan Book of the Fallen…
Many years have passed since three warriors brought carnage and chaos to Silver Lake.
Now the tribes of the north no longer venture into the southlands. The town has recovered and yet the legacy remains.
Responding to reports of a growing unease among the tribes beyond the border, the Malazan army marches on the new god’s people. They aren’t quite sure what they’re going to be facing.
And in those high mountains, a new warleader has risen amongst the Teblor. Scarred by the deeds of Karsa Orlong, he intends to confront his god even if he has to cut a bloody swathe through the Malazan Empire to do so.
Further north, a new threat has emerged and now it seems it is the Teblor who are running out of time. Another long-feared migration is about to begin and this time it won’t just be three warriors. No, this time tens of thousands are poised to pour into the lands to the south. And in their way, a single company of Malazan marines . . .
Please enjoy this free excerpt of The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson, on sale 11/09/2021.
Inauspicious beginnings often deliver the deadliest of warnings.
Sayings of the Fool
Sliptoe Garrison, Culvern Crossing, east northeast of Malybridge, Genabackis
A pale sky made for a colourless world. The season had yet to turn. The thickets to either side of the cobbled road leading to the fort and the town that crowded against one of its sides remained a chaotic hue of browns, dull reds and duller yellows. Buds had finally appeared, and where there had been ice in the drainage ditches and in the fields beyond, there was now water, stretching out in grey puddles and shallow lakes reflecting the blank sky.
Someone once said – Oams couldn’t recall who – that the world was heaven’s mirror, the tin kind, scratched and mottled and pitted as if to mock heaven’s own face. No doubt, a point was being made by the observation. Strange how things said that made no sense could stay in the memory, while all the truths just fell away, abandoned in the way of things that had little relevance.
Any soldier who denied the lust for danger was a liar. Oams had been in the ranks since he was fifteen. Twenty-one years later, he’d been running from that truth for his entire adult life. While it was hardly alone back there, all the other pointless truths stayed in its shadow. The addict’s pleasure was always a guilty one, to be sure, the towering stalker he always found at his side when he stood looking down on a corpse that, had things turned out badly, could have been Oams himself. Living was easier, he reflected, when you could kill your fear. Then stare at its bloodless face, waiting for your heartbeat to slow and your breaths to settle.
And tomorrow was another day, another fear, another face, relief flowing like the sweetest drug in the veins.
He was a soldier and he couldn’t think of ever being anything else. He’d die on a battlefield, showing his killer his bloodless face, and probably he’d see, in his last moments, his enemy’s own towering stalker. Because everyone knew, death was the one truth you couldn’t outrun.
The north forest was at his back. His mount was weary, and it wouldn’t do to stay unmoving for too long, lest its muscles tighten up, but Oams remained motionless in his saddle. A few moments longer wouldn’t kill either of them. He hoped. At least enough time for his heart to slow down and his breaths to settle.
When it came to a spirit rising up from the worn cobbles in front of a person, there was no telling the mischief it might have in mind. It’d be a mistake to confuse sorcery and its warrens with the unseen worlds where the dead were far from alone. And the pantheon of gods and ascendants, caged in their temples, rising and dying like flowers as one age gave way to another, belonged to a realm different from all those inarticulate primal forces hanging on in the Wilds and other forgotten places.
The tall, spectral thing before him now was almost formless. Barely human, outlines vague and elusive, its central mass a dark stain through which jagged streaks of something flickered as if agitated, trapped. All dull as the sky, dull as the lakes and puddles.
He’d been waiting for it to say something, wondering why his horse was paying it no attention at all. And as the moment stretched, his mind wandered over past battlefields – especially the last one – wondering if there was something he’d missed. Something like his own death. After all, did the dead even know they were dead? Was there a memory back there that he’d flung away, in some spasm of horror and regret? The savage burn of a spear-point sinking into his chest? The agony of a stomach wound, an opened throat, a bleeder in the thigh?
‘Is that it, then? I’m dead?’
His mount’s left ear flicked, alert and awaiting his next words.
The answer the apparition gave was unexpected. It swirled towards him, its darkness filling his vision, the chaotic skein of something arcing and slashing on all sides, and its embrace rushed through him, a shudder, and then a shiver that rolled like a wave. He tracked it passing over, around, and within his body.
And then it was gone.
Blinking, he looked around. Nothing but the dull, colourless world, a cool morning of early spring, the faint sound of trickling water, barely a breath of wind. His gaze dropped slightly to the road, to the place directly beneath the apparition’s appearance, and his eyes focused on a single cobble, mud-smeared but somehow different from all its companions.
‘Shit.’ He dismounted, reeled momentarily in the wake of that embrace, and then stepped forward and crouched down, wiping at the cobble’s surface, stripping away the sheen of muddy water. Revealing a carved face. Round, empty eyes, grooves to frame the nose into a rough, elongated triangle, a downturned mouth.
‘Fuck Genabackis,’ he muttered. ‘Fuck Culvern Wood, fuck all the dead people long gone, fuck all the forgotten spirits, gods, spectres and fucking everything else.’ He straightened, swung back to his placidly waiting horse. Then he paused as he recalled that ecstatic shiver. ‘But most of all, whoever you were, if that was a fuck, I’ll fucking take it.’
Edging the north side of the fort was an abandoned graveyard, a strange mixture of beehive tombs and mounded urn-pits along with mostly sunken, tilted platforms, hinting at more than one ancient, longforgotten practice by equally forgotten peoples. When the Malazan 3rd Army had built the fortification, way back during the conquest, the trench and embankment had cut into the cemetery where the various grave markers edged onto the level area mapped out by the engineers. Some of the upturned stones, brickwork and platforms had been used to lay the foundations for what began as a wooden wall but was now mortared limestone. The unearthed bones had been discarded and left scattered here and there among the high grasses flanking the trench and cursus; some still remained visible, the shards splintered and bleached white among the tangled stems.
Messy work back then, but necessity was a harsh master. Besides, the damned cemetery was in the middle of nowhere, leagues from the nearest town, with only a handful of villages and hamlets within a half-day’s trek – not that the locals bothered, since they one and all insisted that the graveyard wasn’t theirs.
The southern side of the fort was marked by the new graveyard, with small rectangular stone-block crypts in the Genabarii style and a single longbarrow packed with the mouldering bones of a few hundred dead Malazan soldiers, on which a small forest was now growing. This cemetery was flanked by the fort wall through which a new gate had been built, and otherwise surrounded by the town that had grown up with the imperial outpost.
The land beyond the eastern wall was maintained as a training and marshalling ground, settlement prohibited, although sheep were allowed to graze there to keep the area from becoming overgrown.
The fort had been raised a hundred paces from Culvern River. In the intervening decades, the spring floods had been steadily worsening, and now the river’s bank was less than thirty paces from the fort’s western wall. In this narrow strip, the 2nd Company of the XIVth Legion had made their camp.
The sergeant had walked away from the sound of the rushing water, as he did every morning, since it was a sound he hated. Heading inland and skirting the fort to his right, he strode into the overgrown snarl of the abandoned cemetery, remembering the first time he’d seen it.
They’d been bloodied by an unexpected clash with the Crimson Guard, and news from the south was making the name Blackdog a curse word. One of the problems was that the Bridgeburners had been split up, two companies sent off to support the 2nd Army up here in the northeast, while the rest went down towards Mott.
The sergeant settled onto a slightly tilted stone platform, staring across the embankment to the solid stone wall of the fort. He remembered when it was nothing but wood and rubble. He remembered how his back ached between working the spade and swinging the pick, breaking up grave markers while the wood teams cut down an entire nearby copse to raise the first walls.
There had been a rawness in the air back then, or perhaps that was just him. Certainly wilder out here, on the very fringes of civilized settlement. It was the early days of the Bridgeburners being thrown into one nightmare after another. So, hope was alive, but it’d been getting fragile.
Peace had settled its suffocating blanket since then, snug around traders, innkeepers, crafts-people, sheep-herders and farmers and all the rest. Stone replaced wood, empty land sprouted a town. None of that seemed, or looked, real.
He hadn’t ever expected to return here. Not to a place where he’d twice pushed a spade into the earth, first to build a fort, and then to dig out a barrow, watching red-splashed friends being rolled into it. A soldier’s loyalty died to a thousand cuts, until it seemed there was no hope of finding it again – not to an empire, not to a commander, not even to a faith. He’d seen companions slip away, deserting, even among the famed Bridgeburners, too far gone and too alone in their heads to meet anyone’s eyes. He’d been damned close to that himself.
Years later and far to the southeast, in the rain outside Black Coral, High Fist Dujek Onearm had unofficially dissolved the Bridgeburners. The sergeant remembered that moment, standing in the deluge, listening to that torrid rush of water from the sky, from the mortally wounded Moon’s Spawn hanging almost directly overhead. A sound he had come to despise.
He should’ve done like the others, then, the few who were left. Just walked away. But he’d never been one to settle down anywhere. Not even the tempting delights of Darujhistan could hold him. Instead, he wandered, he circled, wondering what it was about loyalty that haunted him.
Was it any surprise that he found himself in the Malazan ranks once more? And had anything changed? The squads of marines never seemed to, despite the endless succession of faces, voices, histories and all the rest. Commanders came and went, some good, some bad. Years of peaceful postings were punctuated by nasty scraps, the restless oscillation without end. It was, he could see now, always the same. The Malazan Empire’s last moment, he had become convinced, would be when the last marine went down, on some useless battlefield at the back-end of nowhere.
No, nothing out there had changed. But inside, inside the one ex-Bridgeburner still serving in the empire, it was a different story.
Black Coral. After the rains, after the white salt had been scuffed from the shoulders of his leather jerkin, and his dry eyes had been pulled from what he had been, not yet finding what he would become, he had walked to a barrow. A glittering mound, sparkling like all the world’s wealth, where he left his sigil of silver and ruby, his fire-licked burning bridge.
Strange, how a man he’d never met could have changed him so. A man, he had been told, who gave his life to redeem the T’lan Imass.
Itkovian. You of the single mad gesture, the appalling promise. Did you imagine what it would make you? I doubt it. I don’t think you spared that a single hood-damned moment, when with clear eyes you went and forgave the unforgivable.
He’d not known much of that at the time. But in his near-aimless wandering, he closed a circle upon his eventual return to Black Coral, to see what had been made of the place where the Bridgeburners died. And had come face to face with the birth of a god, a faith, a hopeless dream.
You still didn’t blink, did you? So newly born, you gave only a wry smile at your impending death. While so many of us stepped forward, driven to defend you. Strange compulsion of loyalty, not to you, but to an idea, what you embodied.
No amount of abuse, no extreme of sensation, emotion, terror or lust; no place in all the worlds real and imagined, could disavow or discard this one, loving need.
Now there was a loyalty no mortal could shake, a need a mortal couldn’t help but turn back to, eventually, when all the distractions turned brittle and hollow and a long life neared its end.
In all his years, a soldier among soldiers, then a wanderer among strangers, a veritable sea of faces had been brushed by his searching gaze, and in each and every one of them he had seen the same thing. Often disguised, hidden away, but never well enough. Often denied, with bold defiance or uneasy diffidence. Often blunted, by drink or smoke.
Longing. Look for it, in every crowd, and you will find it. Paint it any colour you choose: grief, nostalgia, melancholy, remembrance, these are but flavours, poetic reflections.
And it is the redeemer, holding redemption in his hands, who would answer our longing. If we but ask.
As it turned out, he wasn’t quite ready to do that, and even had he been, how would it look? Play out? What comes when longing is at last appeased? Was salvation something to be feared, the removal of the last thing to live for? Was longing for redemption no different from longing for death? Or were they fundamental opposites?
Distant motion drew his attention and he saw his night-blade, Oams, riding in from the east. So, that work was done. Still, it’d be worth hearing the report first-hand, before the call to gather came.
The sergeant stood, hands on his hips as he arched his lower back. Two days ago, not far from here, he’d been shovelling another hole. For the spill of familiar faces into the ground, and good night, one and all.
When Oams caught sight of his sergeant out among the old graves and tombs, he angled his mount off the track and rode to meet him. He was still thinking about that apparition, to be honest. Hard to drag his thoughts away. Nothing like that had ever happened before. It should have frightened him, but it hadn’t. He should have recoiled from its embrace, but he didn’t. And maybe that stone head, driven down into the ground and now part of an imperial cobbled road, had nothing to do with the spectre.
He had been thinking about the soldier’s lust, that cold light in the eyes, thinking about the trouble soldiers slid into when they finally buried the sword. And it had been the man now awaiting him at the edge of the cemetery that brought on those thoughts. The man too long in the ranks, but with nowhere else to go.
Oams reined in and dismounted. Hobbling the horse, he walked to meet his sergeant. ‘It was what you figured it would be, Spindle.’
‘Sorted,’ Oams replied. He shrugged. ‘I didn’t have much to do, to be honest. He was already taking his last breaths. Only thing keeping him alive was all that rage. In fact, he might’ve tried thanking me for killing him, but couldn’t get the words past all the blood in his mouth.’
Grimacing, Spindle glanced away. ‘Now that’s a comforting belief.’
‘I thought so,’ Oams said easily. After a moment, he shrugged again and said, ‘Well, I’d best stable the horse. And then it’s the tent and a whole lot of sleep—’
‘Not yet,’ the sergeant cut in. ‘Captain’s called us all to meet.’
‘New fucking orders? We just got ourselves seriously slapped down. We’re still licking wounds and ignoring all the empty chairs at the game table. Company’s down to three fucking squads and they want to send us off again?’
Eyeing him, Oams remained silent for a few moments, and then he looked around. ‘This place gives me the creeps. I mean, bodies on a battlefield is one thing – that all went down at once, half a day’s worth of work. It’s the role we play, so I’d better be comfortable with it, right? But graveyards. Generations of the dead, one on top of another on top of another and so on. For centuries. It’s depressing.’
‘Is it?’ Spindle asked, now studying Oams with an unreadable expression.
‘Smacks of . . . I don’t know. Futility?’
‘Why not continuity instead?’
Oams shivered. ‘Aye. The being dead kind.’ He hesitated, and then asked, ‘Sergeant, you ever think about the gods?’
‘No. Should I?’
‘Well, was it them who made us? And if they did, what the fuck for? And if that’s not bad enough, then they go around messing in our affairs. It’s like they can’t leave off and let us go our own way; like some damned chaperone who refuses to leave the fete, and there you are, breathing mutual lust with some beauty and both of you looking for some bushes to hide behind, and . . .’ Seeing the incredulous look on his sergeant’s face, Oams let the thought drift away. He rubbed swiftly at his face and offered up a sheepish smile. ‘Iskar take me, I’m tired.’
‘Go stable your horse, Oams,’ said Spindle. ‘You might have time for a bite or two before we gather.’
‘Aye, I’ll do that.’
‘And well done on the . . . mission.’
Oams nodded. And then returned to his mount.
The sun was a brighter white in a white sky, not yet noon. The sound of meltwater trickling in the narrow trench running parallel to the wall hung in the background. The rooster that had been crowing since dawn suddenly let out a strangled sound, and then fell ominously silent.
Stillwater stood watching the big, heavy soldier shrug his way into his mail shirt. Once again, iron links snagged strands of his long, filthy hair, tearing them from his scalp so that, here and there on his torso, golden glints floated above the blued iron. While he never made a sound when he did this, a few of the plucks were always savage enough to redden his pitted face and make his blue eyes watery.
With the mail shirt settled and pulling down his already sloping shoulders, he collected up his belted sword. Somehow, there were long wispy strands of red-blond hair caught up in the bronze fittings of the scabbard, too. Cinching the belt tight above his hips, he paused to scratch at his flattened, crooked nose, surreptitiously wiping at a tear leaking down from his left eye, took another moment to brush at his worn leather leggings, and then faced her.
‘Iskar’s limp, Folibore, we’re just walking to the command tent.’ She pointed across the compound’s central marshalling grounds. ‘There. Where it’s always been.’
‘I have always believed that preparation is the soldier’s salvation, Stillwater.’ He squinted across the compound. ‘Besides, the most deceitful paths are the ones that look easy. Should I get Blanket for this? He’s in the latrine.’
Stillwater pulled a face. Blanket made her nervous. ‘Well, how long has he been in there?’
Shrugging, Folibore said, ‘No telling how long it’ll take.’
‘Why, what’s wrong with him?’
‘Nothing. I told you. He’s in the latrine.’ He paused. ‘In the latrine. Dropped that amulet his grandmother gave him.’
‘The amulet with the inscription? The one that says kill this boy before he grows up? What kind of keepsake is that? Blanket’s not right in the head, you know.’
Looking uncomfortable, Folibore shrugged again.
‘Never mind,’ said Stillwater. ‘Let’s go. I doubt the captain’d be happy with a Blanket covered in shit anyway.’
They set out.
‘Ignore the others,’ Folibore said. ‘I for one appreciate your natural wit.’
‘Your natural wit.’
She glanced across at him quizzically. Heavies were a strange lot. What was it that made the mailed fists in every squad so weird? They had one task, after all, and that was to plunge face-first into whatever maelstrom was coming at them. Get up front, weather the onslaught, and then punch back. Simple.
‘You don’t even need to be literate,’ she said.
‘Back on that again, Stillwater? Listen, reading’s easy. It’s what you do with all the words now in your head that’s hard. Consider. Ten people could read the same damned words and yet walk away with ten different interpretations.’
‘That’s why it’s a rule to keep us heavies away from written orders.’
‘Because they confuse you.’
‘Exactly. We get trapped in all the permutations, the nuances, the inferences and assumptions. It’s all so problematic. What does the captain really mean, after all? When he writes, say, “advance to the front”. The front of what? What if I’d had a run-in with some loanshark and now there’s a contract out on me? Then it would more accurately be “retreat to the front”, wouldn’t it? That is to say, if I took that order personally.’
She glanced at him again. Too big for comfort, bony brows and massive, squarish head under that patchy long hair, a flattened face mostly swallowed up by the red beard framing the huge battered nose, small blue eyes with the most delicate lashes. ‘You’re saying that’s what happened to First Squad? The heavies got hold of the orders and half a bell later, they’re all dead?’
‘I’m not saying that’s what happened to the First,’ he replied. ‘Merely one among a long list of possibilities. And you’d probably know better than me.’
‘So what do you think happened to the First, Folibore?’
‘You’re asking me? How would I know? How would anyone know?’
She scowled. ‘Someone does.’
‘So you keep saying. Listen, forget the First. They’re gone. Dead. A real mess.’
‘What kind of mess?’
‘The real kind, obviously.’
They were nearing the command tent when Corporal Snack appeared from one side and intercepted them. ‘Just the two I was looking for!’
Stillwater winced at the knowing look Folibore gave her. Him and his warnings about easy paths.
Snack was struggling to cinch his belt, pawing bemusedly at his prodigious belly as if surprised to find it there. ‘Where’s Blanket?’ he demanded. ‘We need the whole squad for this. Captain’s waiting.’
‘He’s down in the latrine,’ Stillwater said. ‘Swimming in piss and shit looking for his amulet.’
‘The one he keeps up his butt hole?’
‘That’s a good guess,’ Stillwater said.
‘The one that once shot out of his butt on a spear of flame?’
‘Best fart fire ever seen, sir,’ Folibore said, nodding solemnly. ‘Bet you’re still sorry you missed it.’
‘Sorry ain’t the word,’ Snack said. ‘Well, go get him then. Both of you, that is. So there’s no argument.’
‘Then all three of us are going to be late,’ Folibore pointed out. ‘You might want to reconsider that order, based on the exacerbation being compounded, sir. One soldier not here right now, but then three not here. That’s half the Fourth Squad, sir.’
‘More than half,’ Stillwater chimed in. ‘No one’s seen Anyx Fro for days.’
Snack’s heavy brows lifted. ‘Anyx is still in our squad? I thought she got transferred.’
‘Did she?’ Stillwater asked.
Those brows now knitted. ‘Didn’t she?’
‘Wasn’t there an order come down?’
‘I never saw no order.’ Snack threw up his hands. ‘And now Anyx Fro’s been transferred!’
‘No wonder she’s not been around,’ Folibore said.
‘Hold on, Snack,’ said Stillwater. ‘As our corporal, how come you didn’t know about any transfer or orders or anything? It’s not like our sergeant never tells us anything.’
Snack stared at her in disbelief, fleshy face reddening. ‘Yes it is! That’s exactly how it is, you dim-witted witch! He never tells us anything!’
‘Anyway, more than half, then,’ Stillwater insisted. ‘The heavy’s got a point. Who’s all here for the Fourth? Right, the corporal and the sergeant. The rest of us are taking a bath in the fucking latrine. Won’t that smell bad when all the sergeant can do is shrug about his missing squad?’
‘Oh, Stillwater,’ said Folibore, ‘you should know I’m laughing inside.’
‘Such an innocent expression on your sweet face. And oh,’ he added, looking over her shoulder, ‘here she is now.’
Stillwater and Snack turned to see Anyx Fro slouching her way in their general direction. The corporal stepped forward. ‘Anyx! Over here, damn you!’
It wasn’t quite a straight path that she took, but it was a good try. Anyx was looking pale, but then, she always looked pale. That said, her eyes were drooping a bit more than usual. Cursed with a sickly disposition, was Anyx Fro. ‘Poor Anyx,’ Stillwater said as the woman joined them.
‘Why poor me anything?’ Anyx demanded. ‘Why are you all looking at me anyway?’
‘Corporal Snack said you’d been transferred,’ Folibore told her.
‘Have I? Oh, thank the gods.’
‘No!’ Snack said. ‘You haven’t been transferred, damn you. But you’ve been missing for days.’
‘No I haven’t. I knew where I was the whole time. Look, wasn’t there a call for the Measly Company to meet up?’
‘We don’t like that name,’ Snack said.
‘Who’s we?’ Anyx asked. ‘Not the we that calls us the Measly Company, that’s for sure. Which is pretty much everyone, Corporal.’
Their conversation was interrupted when Sergeant Drillbent emerged from the command tent.
Suddenly flustered, Snack said, ‘All here, Sergeant, except for Blanket who’s shitting amulets in the latrine. I mean—’
Stillwater, being merciful, cut in, ‘He means Blanket’s in the shitter for real.’
‘Oh,’ said Folibore, ‘I do love you, Stillwater.’
‘What?’ she demanded. ‘What did I say now?’ She returned her attention to Drillbent. ‘Point is, Sergeant, Blanket’s no loss for this meeting. Since without his amulet he can’t whistle out of his butt anyway.’
‘Captain was not impressed—’ began Anyx.
The sergeant’s grunt stopped her, and everyone else. All eyes were now on Drillbent, who then glanced up at the mostly white sky. After a moment he squeezed shut his mild, hazel eyes and briefly pinched the bridge of his oversized nose, before swinging about and heading back into the command tent. A faint gesture told them to follow.
Stillwater gave Snack a quick shove against one shoulder. ‘After him, idiot. It’s all good.’
Copyright © Steven Erikson 2021
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