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Crack'd Pot Trail
A Malazan Tale of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach
By Steven Erikson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Steven Erikson
All rights reserved.
"There will always be innocent victims in the pursuit of evil."
The long years are behind me now. In fact, I have never been older. It comes to a man's career when all of his cautions — all that he has held close and private for fear of damaging his reputation and his ambitions for advancement — all in a single moment lose their constraint. The moment I speak of, one might surmise, arrives the day — or more accurately, the first chime after midnight — when one realizes that further advancement is impossible. Indeed, that caution never did a thing to augment success, because success never came to pass. Resolved I may be that mine was a life gustily pursued, riches admirably attained and so forth, but the resolution is a murky one nonetheless. Failure wears many guises, and I have worn them all.
The sun's gilded gift enlivens this airy repose, as I sit, an old man smelling of oil and ink, scratching with this worn quill whilst the garden whispers on all sides and the nightingales crouch mute on fruit-heavy branches. Oh, have I waited too long? Bones ache, twinges abound, my wives eye me from the shadows of the colonnade with black-tipped tongues poking out from painted mouth, and in the adjudicator's office the water-clock dollops measured patience like the smacking of lips.
Well I recall the glories of the holy cities, when in disguise I knelt before veiled tyrants and god-kissed mendicants of the soul, and in the deserts beyond the crowded streets the leather-faced wanderers of the caravan tracks draw to the day's end and the Gilk guards gather in shady oases and many a time I traveled among them, the adventurer none knew, the poet with the sharp eyes who earned his keep unraveling a thousand tales of ancient days — and days not so ancient, if only they knew.
They withheld nothing, my rapt listeners, for dwelling in a desert makes a man or woman a willing audience to all things be they natural or unnatural; while I, for all the wounds I delivered, for all the words of weeping and the joys and all the sorrows of love and death that passed my tongue, smooth as olives, sweetly grating as figs, I never let a single drop of blood. And the night would draw on, in laughter and tears and expostulations and fervent prayers for forgiveness (eyes ashine from my languid explorations of the paramour, the silk-drenched beds and the flash of full thigh and bosom) as if the spirits of the sand and the gods of the whirlwinds might flutter in shame and breathless shock — oh no, my friends, see them twist in envy!
My tales, let it be known, sweep the breadth of the world. I have sat with the Toblai in their mountain fastnesses, with the snows drifting to bury the peeks of the longhouses. I have stood on the high broken shores of the Perish, watching as a floundering ship struggled to reach shelter. I have walked the streets of Malaz City, beneath Mock's brooding shadow, and set eyes upon the Deadhouse itself. Years alone assail a mortal wanderer, for the world is round and to witness it all is to journey without end.
But now see me in this refuge, cooled by the trickling fountain, and the tales I recount upon these crackling sheets of papyrus, they are the heavy fruits awaiting the weary traveler in yonder oasis. Feed then or perish. Life is but a search for gardens and gentle refuge, and here I sit waging the sweetest war, for I shall not die while a single tale remains to be told. Even the gods must wait spellbound.
Listen then, nightingale, and hold close and sure to your branch. Darkness abides. I am but a chronicler, occasional witness and teller of magical lies in which hide the purest truths. Heed me well, for in this particular tale I have my own memory, a garden riotous and overgrown yet, dare I be so bold, rich in its fecundity, from which I now spit these gleaming seeds. This is a story of the Nehemoth, and of their stern hunters, and too it is a tale of pilgrims and poets, and of me, Avas Didion Flicker, witness to it all.
There on the pilgrim route across the Great Dry, twenty-two days and twenty-three nights in a true season from the Gates of Nowhere to the Shrine of the Indifferent God, the pilgrim route known to all as Cracked Pot Trail. We begin with the wonder of chance that should gather in one place and at one time such a host of travelers, twenty-three days beyond the Gate. And too the curse of mischance, that the season was unruly and not at all true. Across the bleak wastes the wells were dry, the springs mired in foul mud. The camps of the Finders were abandoned, their hearth-ashes cold. Our twenty-third day, yet we still had far to go.
Chance for this gathering. Mischance for the straits these travelers now found themselves in. And the tale begins on this night, in a circle round a fire.
What is a circle but the mapping of each and every soul?
The Travellers Are Described
In this circle let us meet Mister Must Ambertroshin, doctor, footman and carriage driver to the Dantoc Calmpositis. Broad of shoulder and once, perhaps, a soldier in a string of wars, but for him the knots have long since been plucked loose. His face is scarred and seamed, his beard a nest of copper and iron. He serves the elderly woman who never leaves the tall carriage, whose face is ever hidden behind the heavy curtains of the windows. As with others here, the Dantoc is on pilgrimage. Wealth yields little succour when the soul spends too freely, and now she would come bowl in hand to beg before the Indifferent God. On this night and for them both, however, benediction is so distant it could well be on the other side of the world.
Mister Must is of that amiable type, a walking satchel of small skills, quick to light his pipe in grave consideration. Each word he speaks is measured as a miser's coin, snapping sharp upon the wooden tabletop so that one counts by sound alone even when numbers are of no interest. By his singular squint people listen to him, suspicious perhaps of his cleverness, his wise secrets. Whiskered and solid, he is everyman's footman, and many fates shall ride upon his shoulders anon.
* * *
The second circle is a jostled one, a detail requiring some explanation. There are two knights among the Nehemothanai, the stern pursuers of the most infamous dread murderers and conjurers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, and close upon the corpse-strewn trail of these two blackguards are these dangerous men and women, perhaps only days from their quarry. But there is more to their urgency. It is said a mysterious woman leads a vengeful army, also seeking the heads of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. Where is she? None here know.
Tulgord Vise has announced himself the Mortal Sword of the Sisters, and he is purity in all but name. His cloak is lined in white fur downy as a maiden's scented garden. The bold enameled helm covering his stentorian skull gleams like egg-white on a skillet. His coat of polished mail smiles in rippling rows of silver teeth. The pommel of his proud sword is an opal stone any woman could not help but reach out and touch — were she so brave, so bold.
His visage glows with revelation, his eyes are the nuggets of a man with a secret hoard none could hope to find. All evil he has seen has died by his hand. All nobility he has granted by his presence he has sired in nine months' time. This is Tulgord Vise, knight and champion of truth in the holy light of the Sisters.
Wheel now to the other knight, so brash as to intrude upon the Mortal Sword's winsome claim to singular piety. By title, Arpo Relent is a Well Knight, hailing from a distant city that once was pure and true but now, by the bone-knuckled hands of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, a sunken travesty of all that it had once been. So does the Well Knight charge, and so too is announced the very heart of his vow of vengeance.
If blessed white bolsters the mien of Tulgord Vise, it is the gold of the sun to gilt Arpo Relent's stolid intransigence and the concatenation of comportment between these two knights promise a most uncivil clash to come. Arpo is broad of chest. Sibling swords, long-bladed and scabbarded in black wood filigreed in gold, are mounted one upon each hip, with pommels like golden eggs that could hatch a woman's sigh, and proud indeed of these weapons is Arpo Relent, and most unmindful of sighs is this paragon of chastity, and what might we make of that?
* * *
With the company of three brothers who might well beat up gorillas for merriment, Relish Chanter could be destined to live a life unplucked, and had not Tiny Chanter himself stared hard at the haggle of artists and said, clear as the chop of an axe, that any man who deflowered sweet Relish would get cut so clean not even a starving sparrow could find the worm?
In the middle of this stark, blood-draining pronouncement from her biggest brother, Relish had wandered off. She'd heard it a thousand times, after all. But what is known at present and what is to become known are different things. For now, let us look upon this most charmingly witless woman.
Black silk, as all know, is the mourner's vanity, and one is reminded of such flowing tresses when looking upon Relish's hair, and in the frame of such dangerous honey there resides a round face with cheeks blushed like slapped buttocks, and raven feathered lashes slyly offering obsidian eyes to any who would seek to claim them. Fullest of bosom and pouched below the arms, sweetly round of belly and broad-hipped, this description alas betrays a sultry confession, as I am yet to note clothing of any sort.
* * *
But such brothers! Tiny's mother, lost in the forest of Stratem beneath a most terrible storm, found refuge in a cavern, plunging straight into the arms of a cave bear, but in the instant of crushing contact, all notions of culinary anticipation alighting fires in the bear's brain quickly vanished and in their place a sudden expostulation of amorous possibility lifted them both heavenward. Who would knuckle brow at the audacity of such claims, when the offspring of the wrestlers' pact stood solid and true before all witnesses? The giant man's eyes dispensed all confusion regarding the contrariness of his name, for they were beastly small and rimmed in lurid red with all manner of leakage milking the corners. His nose was a snubbed snout glistening at the scent of blood. His teeth had the busyness of rodents. He bore the muscles of three men misaligned upon his ursine frame and hair sprouted from unlikely places to match the unlikely cunning of the words trickled out from between curling lips.
His brothers held him in much terror, but in this detail's veracity one must roll in a bed of salt given the malice of their regards upon the turn of Tiny's montane back. Midge Chanter was twin to Flea Chanter, both being the get of their mother's misadventures upon a sea strand where walruses warred in the mating season and she had the tusk-gouged scars to prove it. Such origins are beyond argument, lest whiskers twitch and malodorous weights heave upward and close in deadly lunge. Unlike Tiny and his beastly cloak, Midge and Flea wore with brazen pride the hides of their forbearer.
Other siblings abound, t'was said, but mercy held them at bay with a beater's stick, elsewhere and of their grim tale we must await some other night here at the flames of poetic demise.
* * *
Among the circle of hardened hunters but one remains. Silent as a forest and professional as a yeoman, Steck Marynd is no boister of past deeds. Mysteries hide in the crooks of roots, and if eyes glitter from the holes of knots their touch is less than a whisper upon death's own shadow. He is nothing but the man seated before us. His face is flat, his eyes are shallow, his lips thin and his mouth devoid of all depth. His beard is black but sparse, his ears small as an ape's and muscled as a mule's as they independently twitch at every whisper and scuff. He chews his words into leather strips that slap wetly at night and dry up like eels in the day's sun.
Upon the back of his shaggy horse he carries a garrison's arsenal, each weapon plain but meticulously clean and oiled. He has journeyed half the world upon the trail of the Nehemoth, yet of the crime to spur such zeal he will say nothing.
* * *
We now turn, with some relief, to the true pilgrims and of these there are three distinct groups, each group seeking blessing at a different altar (though in truth and as shall be seen, they are all one and the same). Sages, priests and scholars stiffen their collars to unwelcome contradictions that nevertheless speak true, but as I am none of these worthies, uncollared as it were, that which on the surface makes no sense disturbs me not. Thus, we have a host of parallel tracks all destined to converge.
The Dantoc Calmpositis, eldest among the venerable Dantocs of Reliant City, must remain a creature unknown. Suffice it to say she was the first to set out from the Gates of Nowhere and her manservant Mister Must Ambertroshin, seated on the high bench of the carriage, his face shielded by a broad woven hat, uttered his welcome to the other travelers with a thick-volumed nod, and in this generous instant the conveyance and the old woman presumed within it became an island on wheels round which the others clustered like shrikes and gulls, for as everyone knows, no island truly stays in one place. As it crouches upon the sea and sand so too it floats in the mind, as a memory, a dream. We are cast out from it and we yearn to return. The world has run aground, history is a storm, and like the Dantoc Calmpositis, we would all hide in anonymity among the fragrant flowers and virtuous nuts, precious to none and a stranger to all.
Among the pilgrims seeking the shrine of the Indifferent God is a tall hawk of a man who was quick to offer his name and each time he did so an expectant look came to his vultured eyes, for did we not know him? Twitches would find his narrow face in the roaring blankness of our ignorance, and if oil glistened on and dripped from the raven feathered hair draped down the sides of his pressed-in head, well, none of us would dare comment, would we? But this man noted all and scratched and pecked his list of offenders and in the jerking bobs of his rather tiny head anyone near would hear a grackling sound commensurate with the duly irritated; and off he would march, destination certain but unknown, in the manner of a cock exploring an abandoned henhouse.
Well attired and possibly famous and so well comforted by material riches that he could discard them all (for a short time, at least), he proclaimed for himself the task of host among the travelers, taking a proprietary air in the settling of camp at day's end beginning on that first night from the Gates of Nowhere, upon finding the oddly vacated Finder habitations past the old tumulus. He would, in the days and nights to come, grasp hold of this role even as his fine coat flew to tatters and swirling feathers waked his every step, and the cockerel eye-glint would sharpen its madness as the impossible solitude persisted.
Clearly, he was a man of sparrow fates. Yet in the interest of fairness, our host was also a man of hidden wounds. Of that I am reasonably certain, and if he knew wealth so too he had once known destitution, and if anonymity now haunted him, once there had roosted infamy. Or at least notoriety.
* * *
Oh, and his name, lest we forget, was Sardic Thew.
* * *
Seeking the shrine of an altogether different Indifferent God, we come at last to the poets and bards. Ahead, in the city of Farrog, waited the Festival of Flowers and Sunny Days, a grand fete that culminated in a contest of poetry and song to award one supremely talented artist the Mantle proclaiming him or her The Century's Greatest Artist. That this is an annual award, one might hesitantly submit, simply underscores the fickle nature of critics and humans alike.
The world of the artist is a warrened maze of weasels, to be sure. Long bodies of black fur snake underfoot, quick to nip and snick. One must dance for fame, one must pull up skirts or wing out carrots for an instant's shudder of validation or one more day's respite from the gnawing world. Beneath the delighted smiles and happy nods and clasped forearms and whatnot, resides the grisly truth that there is no audience grand and vast enough to devour them all. No, goes the scurrilous conviction, the audience is in fact made up of five people, four of whom the artist knows well and in so knowing trusts not a single utterance of opinion. And who, pray tell, is that fifth person? That stranger? That arbiter of omnipotent power? No one knows. It is torture.
But one thing is certain. Too many artists for one person. Therefore, every poet and every painter and every bard and every sculptor dreams of murder. Just to snap hand downward, grasp hard the squirming snarling thing, and set it among one's foes!
Excerpted from Crack'd Pot Trail by Steven Erikson. Copyright © 2009 Steven Erikson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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