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Memories of Ice
Book Three of the Malazan Book of the Fallen
By Steven Erikson
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2001 Steven Erikson
All rights reserved.
Memories are woven tapestries hiding hard walls — tell me, my friends, what hue your favoured thread, and I in turn, will tell the cast of your soul ...
Life of Dreams Ilbares the Hag
1164th Year of Burn's Sleep (two months after the Darujhistan Fete) 4th Year of the Pannion Domin Tellann Year of the Second Gathering
The bridge's Gadrobi limestone blocks lay scattered, scorched and broken in the bank's churned mud, as if a god's hand had swept down to shatter the stone span in a single, petty gesture of contempt. And that, Gruntle suspected, was but a half-step from the truth.
The news had trickled back into Darujhistan less than a week after the destruction, as the first eastward-bound caravans this side of the river reached the crossing, to find that where once stood a serviceable bridge was now nothing but rubble. Rumours whispered of an ancient demon, unleashed by agents of the Malazan Empire, striding down out of the Gadrobi Hills bent on the annihilation of Darujhistan itself.
Gruntle spat into the blackened grasses beside the carriage. He had his doubts about that tale. Granted, there'd been strange goings on the night of the city's Fete two months back – not that he'd been sober enough to notice much of anything – and sufficient witnesses to give credence to the sightings of dragons, demons and the terrifying descent of Moon's Spawn, but any conjuring with the power to lay waste to an entire countryside would have reached Darujhistan. And, since the city was not a smouldering heap – or no more than was usual after a city-wide celebration – clearly nothing did.
No, far more likely a god's hand, or possibly an earthquake – though the Gadrobi Hills were not known to be restless. Perhaps Burn had shifted uneasy in her eternal sleep.
In any case, the truth of things now stood before him. Or, rather, did not stand, but lay scattered to Hood's gate and beyond. And the fact remained, whatever games the gods played, it was hard-working dirt-poor bastards like him who suffered for it.
The old ford was back in use, thirty paces upriver from where the bridge had been built. It hadn't seen traffic in centuries, and with a week of unseasonal rains both banks had become a morass. Caravan trains crowded the crossing, the ones on what used to be ramps and the ones out in the swollen river hopelessly mired down; while dozens more waited on the trails, with the tempers of merchants, guards and beasts climbing by the hour.
Two days now, waiting to cross, and Gruntle was pleased with his meagre troop. Islands of calm, they were. Harllo had waded out to a remnant of the bridge's nearside pile, and now sat atop it, fishing pole in hand. Stonny Menackis had led a ragged band of fellow caravan guards to Storby's wagon, and Storby wasn't too displeased to be selling Gredfallan ale by the mug at exorbitant prices. That the ale casks were destined for a wayside inn outside Saltoan was just too bad for the expectant innkeeper. If things continued as they did, there'd be a market growing up here, then a Hood-damned town. Eventually, some officious planner in Darujhistan would conclude that it'd be a good thing to rebuild the bridge, and in ten or so years it would finally get done. Unless, of course, the town had become a going concern, in which case they'd send a tax collector.
Gruntle was equally pleased with his employer's equanimity at the delay. News was, the merchant Manqui on the other side of the river had burst a blood vessel in his head and promptly died, which was more typical of the breed. No, their master Keruli ran against the grain, enough to threaten Gruntle's cherished disgust for merchants in general. Then again, Keruli's list of peculiar traits had led the guard captain to suspect that the man wasn't a merchant at all.
Not that it mattered. Coin was coin, and Keruli's rates were good. Better than average, in fact. The man might be Prince Arard in disguise, for all Gruntle cared.
'You there, sir!'
Gruntle pulled his gaze from Harllo's fruitless fishing. A grizzled old man stood beside the carriage, squinting up at him. 'Damned imperious of you, that tone,' the caravan captain growled, 'since by the rags you're wearing you're either the world's worst merchant or a poor man's servant.'
'Manservant, to be precise. My name is Emancipor Reese. As for my masters' being poor, to the contrary. We have, however, been on the road for a long time.'
'I'll accept that,' Gruntle said, 'since your accent is unrecognizable, and coming from me that's saying a lot. What do you want, Reese?'
The manservant scratched the silvery stubble on his lined jaw. 'Careful questioning among this mob had gleaned a consensus that, as far as caravan guards go, you're a man who's earned respect.'
'As far as caravan guards go, I might well have at that,' Gruntle said drily. 'Your point?'
'My masters wish to speak with you, sir. If you're not too busy – we have camped not far from here.'
Leaning back on the bench, Gruntle studied Reese for a moment, then grunted. 'I'd have to clear with my employer any meetings with other merchants.'
'By all means, sir. And you may assure him that my masters have no wish to entice you away or otherwise compromise your contract.'
'Is that a fact? All right, wait there.' Gruntle swung himself down from the buckboard on the side opposite Reese. He stepped up to the small, ornately framed door and knocked once. It opened softly and from the relative darkness within the carriage's confines loomed Keruli's round, expressionless face.
'Yes, Captain, by all means go. I admit as to some curiosity about this man's two masters. Be most studious in noting details of your impending encounter. And, if you can, determine what precisely they have been up to since yesterday.'
The captain grunted to disguise his surprise at Keruli's clearly unnatural depth of knowledge – the man had yet to leave the carriage – then said, 'As you wish, sir.'
'Oh, and retrieve Stonny on your way back. She has had far too much to drink and has become most argumentative.'
'Maybe I should collect her now, then. She's liable to poke someone full of holes with that rapier of hers. I know her moods.'
'Ah, well. Send Harllo, then.'
'Uh, he's liable to join in, sir.'
'Yet you speak highly of them.'
'I do,' Gruntle replied. 'Not to be too immodest, sir, the three of us working the same contract are as good as twice that number, when it comes to protecting a master and his merchandise. That's why we're so expensive.'
'Your rates were high? I see. Hmm. Inform your two companions, then, that an aversion to trouble will yield substantial bonuses to their pay.'
Gruntle managed to avoid gaping. 'Uh, that should solve the problem, sir.'
'Excellent. Inform Harllo thus, then, and send him on his way.'
The door swung shut.
As it turned out, Harllo was already returning to the carriage, fishing pole in one massive hand, a sad sandal-sole of a fish clutched in the other. The man's bright blue eyes danced with excitement.
'Look, you sour excuse for a man – I've caught supper!'
'Supper for a monastic rat, you mean. I could inhale that damned thing up one nostril.'
Harllo scowled. 'Fish soup. Flavour —'
'That's just great. I love mud-flavoured soup. Look, the thing's not even breathing – it was probably dead when you caught it.'
'I banged a rock between its eyes, Gruntle —'
'Must have been a small rock.'
'For that you don't get any —'
'For that I bless you. Now listen. Stonny's getting drunk —'
'Funny, I don't hear no brawl —'
'Bonuses from Keruli if there isn't one. Understood?'
Harllo glanced at the carriage door, then nodded. 'I'll let her know.'
Gruntle watched him scurry off, still carrying his pole and prize. The man's arms were enormous, too long and too muscled for the rest of his scrawny frame. His weapon of choice was a two-handed sword, purchased from a weaponsmith in Deadman's Story. As far as those apish arms were concerned, it might be made of bamboo. Harllo's shock of pale blond hair rode his pate like a tangled bundle of fishing thread. Strangers laughed upon seeing him for the first time, but Harllo used the flat of a blade to stifle that response. Succinctly.
Sighing, Gruntle returned to where Emancipor Reese stood waiting. 'Lead on,' he said.
Reese's head bobbed. 'Excellent.'
* * *
The carriage was massive, a house perched on high, spoked wheels. Ornate carvings crowded the strangely arched frame, tiny painted figures capering and climbing with leering expressions. The driver's perch was canopied in sun-faded canvas. Four oxen lumbered freely in a makeshift corral ten paces downwind from the camp.
Privacy obviously mattered to the manservant's masters, since they'd parked well away from both the road and the other merchants, affording them a clear view of the hummocks rising on the south side of the road, and, beyond it, the broad sweep of the plain.
A mangy cat lying on the buckboard watched Reese and Gruntle approach.
'That your cat?' the captain asked.
Reese squinted at it, then sighed. 'Aye, sir. Her name's Squirrel.'
'Any alchemist or wax-witch could treat that mange.'
The manservant seemed uncomfortable. 'I'll be sure to look into it when we get to Saltoan,' he muttered. 'Ah,' he nodded towards the hills beyond the road, 'here comes Master Bauchelain.'
Gruntle turned and studied the tall, angular man who'd reached the road and now strode casually towards them. Expensive, ankle-length cloak of black leather, high riding boots of the same over grey leggings, and, beneath a loose silk shirt – also black – the glint of fine blackened chain armour.
'Black,' the captain said to Reese, 'was last year's shade in Darujhistan.'
'Black is Bauchelain's eternal shade, sir.'
The master's face was pale, shaped much like a triangle, an impression further accented by a neatly trimmed beard. His hair, slick with oil, was swept back from his high brow. His eyes were flat grey – as colourless as the rest of him – and upon meeting them Gruntle felt a surge of visceral alarm.
'Captain Gruntle,' Bauchelain spoke in a soft, cultured voice, 'your employer's prying is none too subtle. But while we are not ones to generally reward such curiosity regarding our activities, this time we shall make an exception. You shall accompany me.' He glanced at Reese. 'Your cat seems to be suffering palpitations. I suggest you comfort the creature.'
'At once, master.'
Gruntle rested his hands on the pommels of his cutlasses, eyes narrowed on Bauchelain. The carriage springs squeaked as the manservant clambered up to the buckboard.
Gruntle made no move.
Bauchelain raised one thin eyebrow. 'I assure you, your employer is eager that you comply with my request. If, however, you are afraid to do so, you might be able to convince him to hold your hand for the duration of this enterprise. Though I warn you, levering him into the open may prove something of a challenge, even for a man of your bulk.'
'Ever done any fishing?' Gruntle asked.
'The ones that rise to any old bait are young and they don't get any older. I've been working caravans for more than twenty years, sir. I ain't young. You want a rise, fish elsewhere.'
Bauchelain's smile was dry. 'You reassure me, Captain. Shall we proceed?'
They crossed the road. An old goat trail led them into the hills. The caravan camp this side of the river was quickly lost to sight. The scorched grass of the conflagration that had struck this land marred every slope and summit, although new green shoots had begun to appear.
'Fire,' Bauchelain noted as they walked on, 'is essential for the health of these prairie grasses. As is the passage of bhederin, the hooves in their hundreds of thousands compacting the thin soil. Alas, the presence of goats will spell the end of verdancy for these ancient hills. But I began with the subject of fire, did I not? Violence and destruction, both vital for life. Do you find that odd, Captain?'
'What I find odd, sir, is this feeling that I've left my wax-tablet behind.'
'You have had schooling, then. How interesting. You're a swordsman, are you not? What need you for letters and numbers?'
'And you're a man of letters and numbers – what need you for that well-worn broadsword at your hip and that fancy mail hauberk?'
'An unfortunate side effect of education among the masses is lack of respect.'
'Healthy scepticism, you mean.'
'Disdain for authority, actually. You may have noted, to answer your question, that we have but a single, rather elderly manservant. No hired guards. The need to protect oneself is vital in our profession —'
'And what profession is that?'
They'd descended onto a well-trodden path winding between the hills. Bauchelain paused, smiling as he regarded Gruntle. 'You entertain me, Captain. I understand now why you are well spoken of among the caravanserai, since you are unique among them in possessing a functioning brain. Come, we are almost there.'
They rounded a battered hillside and came to the edge of a fresh crater. The earth at its base was a swath of churned mud studded with broken blocks of stone. Gruntle judged the crater to be forty paces across and four or five arm-lengths in depth. A man sat nearby on the edge of the rim, also dressed in black leather, his bald pate the colour of bleached parchment. He rose silently, for all his considerable size, and turned to them with fluid grace.
'Korbal Broach, Captain. My ... partner. Korbal, we have here Gruntle, a name that is most certainly a slanting hint to his personality.'
If Bauchelain had triggered unease in the captain, then this man – his broad, round face, his eyes buried in puffed flesh and wide full-lipped mouth set slightly downturned at the corners, a face both childlike and ineffably monstrous – sent ripples of fear through Gruntle. Once again, the sensation was wholly instinctive, as if Bauchelain and his partner exuded an aura somehow tainted.
'No wonder the cat had palpitations,' the captain muttered under his breath. He pulled his gaze from Korbal Broach and studied the crater.
Bauchelain moved to stand beside him. 'Do you understand what you are seeing, Captain?'
'Aye, I'm no fool. It's a hole in the ground.'
'Amusing. A barrow once stood here. Within it was chained a Jaghut Tyrant.'
'Indeed. A distant empire meddled, or so I gather. And, in league with a T'lan Imass, they succeeded in freeing the creature.'
'You give credence to the tales, then,' Gruntle said. 'If such an event occurred, then what in Hood's name happened to it?'
'We wondered the same, Captain. We are strangers to this continent. Until recently, we'd never heard of the Malazan Empire, nor the wondrous city called Darujhistan. During our all too brief stay there, however, we heard stories of events just past. Demons, dragons, assassins. And the Azath house named Finnest, which cannot be entered yet, seems to be occupied none the less – we paid that a visit, of course. More, we'd heard tales of a floating fortress, called Moon's Spawn, that once hovered over the city —'
'Aye, I'd seen that with my own eyes. It left a day before I did.'
Bauchelain sighed. 'Alas, it appears we have come too late to witness for ourselves these dire wonders. A Tiste Andii lord rules Moon's Spawn, I gather.'
Gruntle shrugged. 'If you say so. Personally, I dislike gossip.'
Finally, the man's eyes hardened.
The captain smiled inwardly.
'This is what you wanted to show me, then? This ... hole?'
Bauchelain raised an eyebrow. 'Not precisely. This hole is but the entrance. We intend to visit the Jaghut tomb that lies below it'
'Oponn's blessing to you, then,' Gruntle said, turning away.
'I imagine,' the man said behind him, 'that your master would urge you to accompany us.'
'He can urge all he likes,' the captain replied. 'I wasn't contracted to sink in a pool of mud.'
'We've no intention of getting covered in mud.'
Gruntle glanced back at him, crooked a wry grin. 'A figure of speech, Bauchelain. Apologies if you misunderstood.' He swung round again and made his way towards the trail. Then he stopped. 'You wanted to see Moon's Spawn, sirs?' He pointed.
Like a towering black cloud, the basalt fortress stood just above the south horizon.
Boots crunched on the ragged gravel, and Gruntle found himself standing between the two men, both of whom studied the distant floating mountain.
'Scale,' Bauchelain muttered, 'is difficult to determine. How far away is it?'
'I'd guess a league, maybe more. Trust me, sirs, it's close enough for my tastes. I've walked its shadow in Darujhistan – hard not to for a while there – and believe me, it's not a comforting feeling.'
'I imagine not. What is it doing here?'
Gruntle shrugged. 'Seems to be heading southeast —'
'Hence the tilt.'
'No. It was damaged over Pale. By mages of the Malazan Empire.'
'Impressive effort, these mages.'
Excerpted from Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson. Copyright © 2001 Steven Erikson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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