Return of the Crimson Guard
A Novel of the Malazan Empire
By Ian C. Esslemont
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2008 Ian Cameron Esslemont
All rights reserved.
'The wise say that as vows are sworn, so are they reaped. I have found this to be true.'
Prince K'azz D'Avore Founder of the Crimson Guard
The Weeping Plains, Bael Subcontinent 1165th year of Burn's Sleep 11th year of Empress Laseen's reign 99th year of the Crimson Guard's Vow
On the edge of a tiled rooftop, a small tent heaved and swayed under the force of the battering wind. It was nothing more than an oilskin cape propped up by a stick, barely enough to keep off the worst of the pounding rain. Beneath it sat a youth squinting into the growing murk of storm and twilight. Occasionally he glimpsed the ruins of surrounding buildings wrecked by the siege and, if he looked hard enough, he could just make out high above the rearing silhouette of the Spur.
What, he wondered, was the point of having a watch if you couldn't see a damned thing?
The Spur towered alone, hundreds of feet above the plains. Local legend had it an ancient power raised it when the world was young – perhaps the warlock, Shen, occupying it now. Kyle knew nothing of that. He knew only that the Guard had besieged the rock more than a year ago and still wasn't anywhere near to taking it. What was more, he knew that from the fortress on its peak Shen could take on all the company's mage corps and leave them cross-eyed and panting. He was powerful enough for that. And when a situation like that comes around, Stoop had told him, it's time for us pike-pushers to stick our noses in.
Stoop – a saboteur, and old enough to know better. He was down in the cellar right now, wielding a pick in his one hand. And he wasn't alone – with him worked the rest of the Ninth Blade alongside a few other men tapped by Sergeant Trench. All of them bashing away at the stone floor with hammers and sledges and picks.
The wind gusted rain into Kyle's face and he shivered. To his mind the stupid thing was that they hadn't told anyone about it. Don't want anyone stealing our thunder, Stoop had said grinning like a fool. But then, they'd all grinned like fools when Stalker put the plan to Trench. They trusted his local knowledge being from this side of Seeker's Deep, like Kyle himself. Stalker had been recruited a few years back during the Guard's migration through this region. He knew the local dialects, and was familiar with local lore. That was to be expected from a scout, Kyle knew.
The Guard had bought him from a Nabrajan slave column to help guide them across the steppes. But he didn't know these southern tongues. His people raided the Nabrajans more often than they talked to them.
Kyle pulled the front fold of the cloak tighter about himself. He wished he understood the Guard's native tongue, Talian, better too. When Stoop, Trench and Stalker had sat with their heads together, he'd crept close enough to overhear their whispers. Their dialect was difficult to make out, though. He'd had to turn the words over and over before they began to make sense. It seemed Stalker had put together different legends: that of the ancient Ascendant who'd supposedly raised the Spur and started a golden age, and this current 'Reign of Night' with its ruins. Since then he and the others had been underground taking apart the walls and stone floor, Stoop no doubt muttering about his damned stolen thunder. Kyle whispered a short prayer to Father Wind, his people's guiding spirit. If this worked he figured they were in for more thunder than they'd like.
Then there was the matter of these 'Old Guard' rivalries and jealousies. He couldn't understand the first of it even though he'd been with the Guard for almost a year now. Guard lore had it his Ninth Blade was one of the storied, established a century before, and first commanded by a legendary figure named Skinner. Stoop put a lot of weight on such legends. He'd hopped from foot to foot in his eagerness to put one over the Guard's mage corps and its covert Veils.
The rain fell hard now, laced by hail. Above, the clouds in the darkening sky tumbled and roiled, but something caught Kyle's eye – movement. Dim shapes ducked through the ceiling of clouds. Winged fiends summoned by Shen on the Spur above. Lightning twisted actinic-bright about them, but they circled in a lazy descent. Kyle peered up as they glided overhead, wings extended and eyes blazing. He prayed to Wind for them to pass on.
Then, as if some invisible blade had eviscerated it, the leading creature burst open from chin to groin. It dissolved into a cloud of inky smoke and its companions shrieked their alarm. As one they bent their wings and turned towards the source of the attack. Kyle muttered another prayer, this one of thanks. Cowl must be on the roster tonight – only the company's premier mage could have launched so strong an assault.
Despite the battle overhead, Kyle yawned and stretched. His wet clothes stuck to his skin and made him shiver. A year ago such a demonstration would have sent him scrambling for cover. It was the worst of his people's stories come to life: fiends in the night, men wielding the powers of a shaman but turned to evil, warlocks. Then, he had cringed beneath broken roofs. Now, after so many months of sorcerous duelling the horror of these exchanges had completely worn away. For half a bell the fireworks kept up – fireworks – something else Kyle hadn't encountered until his conscription into the Guard. Now, as though it was there for his entertainment, he watched a green and pink nimbus wavering atop a building in the merchants' district. The fiends swooped over it, their calls harsh, almost taunting, as they attacked. One by one they disappeared – destroyed, banished or returned of their own accord to the dark sky. Then there was nothing but the hissing rain and the constant low grumble of thunder that made Kyle drowsy.
Footsteps from the tower at the corner of the roof brought him around. Stalker had come up the stairs. His conical helmet made him look taller, elegant even, with the braided silk cord that wrapped it. No cloak this night – instead he wore the Guard's surcoat of dark crimson over a boiled and studded leather hauberk, and his usual knee-high leather moccasins. The man squinted then sniffed at the rain. Beneath his blond moustache his mouth twisted into a lazy half-smile. Stalker's smiles always made Kyle uneasy. Perhaps it was because the man's mouth seemed unaccustomed to them, and his bright hazel eyes never shared them.
'All right,' he announced from the shelter of the stairwell. 'We're set. Everyone's downstairs.'
Kyle let the tented cape fall off his head and clambered over the roof's broken tiles and dark gaps. Stalker had already started down the circular stairway, so Kyle followed. They were halfway down before it occurred to him that when Stalker had smiled, he'd been squinting up at the Spur.
The cellar beneath was no more than a vault-roofed grotto. Armed and armoured men stood shoulder to shoulder. They numbered about thirty. Kyle recognized fewer than half. Steam rose from some, mixing with the sooty smoke of torches and lanterns. The haze made Kyle's eyes water. He rubbed them with the back of his hand and gave a deep cough.
A hole had been smashed through the smoothly set blocks of the floor and through it Kyle saw steps leading down. A drop ran coldly from his hair down his neck and he shivered. Everyone seemed to be waiting. He shifted his wet feet and coughed into his hand. Close by a massive broad-shouldered man was speaking in low tones with Sergeant Trench. Now he turned Kyle's way. With a catch of breath, Kyle recognized the flattened nose, the heavy mouth, the deeply set grey-blue eyes. Lieutenant Greymane. Not one of the true elite of the Guard himself, but the nearest thing to it. The man waved a gauntleted hand to the pit and a spidery fellow in coarse brown robes with wild, kinky black hair led the way down. Smoky, that was his name, Kyle remembered. A mage, an original Avowed – one of the surviving twenty or so men and women in this company who had sworn the Vow of eternal loyalty to the founder of this mercenary company, K'azz D'Avore.
The men filed down. Greymane stepped in followed by Sergeant Trench, Stoop, Meek, Harman, Grere, Pilgrim, Whitey, Ambrose and others Kyle didn't know. He was about to join the line when Stalker touched his arm.
'You and I – we're the rear guard.'
Of course, Kyle reflected, as the Ninth's scouts, the rear was where they ought to be given what lay ahead. They'd been watching the fireworks for too long now and seen the full mage corps of the company scrambling on the defensive. Kyle was happy to leave that confrontation to the heavies up front.
The stairs ended at a long corridor flooded with a foot of stagnant water. Rivulets squirmed down the worked-stone walls. Rats squealed and panicked in the water, and the men cursed and kicked at them. From what Kyle could tell in the gloom, the corridor appeared to be leading them straight to the Spur. He imagined the file of dark figures an assembly of ghosts – phantoms sloshing wearily to a rendezvous with fate.
His thoughts turned to his own youthful night raids. Brothers, sisters and friends banding together against the neighbouring clan's young warriors. Prize-stealing mostly, a test of adulthood, and, he could admit now, there had been little else to do. The Nabrajans had always been encroaching upon his people's lands. Settlements no more than collections of homesteads, but growing. His last raid ended when he and his brothers and sisters encountered something they had no words for: a garrison.
The column stopped abruptly and Kyle ran into the compact, bald-headed man at his front. This man turned and flashed a quick smile. His teeth were uneven but bright in the dark. 'Ogilvy's the name.' His voice was so hoarse as to be almost inaudible. 'The Thirty-Second.'
'Kyle. The Ninth.'
Ogilvy nodded, glanced to Stalker, nodded again. 'We'll have the spook this time. Ol' Grey's gonna get Cowl's goat.'
Cowl. Besides being the company's most feared mage, the Avowed was also second in command under Shimmer and the leader of the Veils, killers of a hardened kind Kyle couldn't have imagined a year before. He had seen those two commanders only from a distance and hoped to keep it that way.
Stalker frowned his scepticism. 'This Greymane better be as good as everyone says.'
Ogilvy chuckled and his eyes lit with a hidden joke. 'A price on his head offered by the Korelans and the Malazans too. Renegade to both, he is. They call him Stonewielder. I hear he's worth a barrelful of black pearls.'
'Why?' Kyle asked.
Ogilvy shrugged his beefy shoulders. 'Betrayed 'em both, didn't he? Hope to find out exactly how one of these days, hey?' He winked to Kyle. 'You two are locals, ain't ya?'
Kyle nodded. Stalker didn't. He didn't move at all.
Ogilvy rubbed a hand over the scars marbling his bald scalp. 'Well, I've been with the Guard some ten years now. Signed on in Genabackis.'
Kyle had heard much of that contract. It was the company's last major one, ending years ago when the Malazan offensive fell to pieces. All the old hands grumbled that the Malazan Empire just wasn't what it used to be. And while the veterans were close- mouthed about their and the Guard's past, Kyle gathered they often opposed these Malazans.
'This contract's been a damned strange one,' Ogilvy continued. 'We're just keeping our heads down, hey? While the mage corps practise blowing smoke outta their arses. Not the Guard's style.' He glanced significantly at them. 'Been recruiting to bust a gut, too.'
The column started moving again and Ogilvy sloshed noisily away.
'What was that about?' Kyle asked Stalker as they walked.
'I don't know. This Ogilvy has been with the Guard for a decade and even he's in the dark. I've been doing a lot of listening. This company seems divided against itself – the old against the new.'
The tall lean scout clasped Kyle's arm in a grip sharp as the bite of a hound. They stopped, and the silence seemed to ring in Kyle's ears. 'But I'll tell you this,' he said, leaning close, the shadows swallowing his face, 'there are those in this Crimson Guard who have wandered the land a very long time indeed. They have amassed power and knowledge. And I don't believe they intend to let it go. It's an old story – one I had hoped to have left behind.'
He released Kyle's arm and walked on leaving him alone in the dark and silence of the tunnel. Kyle stood there wondering what to make of all that until the rats became bold and tried to climb his legs.
He found Stalker at a twisted iron gate that must have once spanned the corridor. He was bent low, inspecting it, a tiny nub of candle cupped in one hand.
'What is it?' Kyle whispered.
'A wreck. But more important than what is when. This is recent. The iron is still warm from its mangling. Did you hear anything?'
'I thought maybe something ... earlier.'
'Yes. As did I.' He squinted ahead to a dim golden lantern's glow where the column's rear was slowly disappearing. He squeezed a small leather pouch at his neck and rubbed it. A habit Kyle had noticed before. 'I have heard talk of this Greymane. They say he's much more than he seems ...'
Kyle studied the wrenched and bowed frame. The bars were fully half as thick around as his wrist. Was the northerner suggesting that somehow Greymane had thrust it aside? He snorted. Ridiculous!
Stalker's eyes, glowing hazel in the flame, shifted to him. 'Don't be so quick to judge. I've fought many things and seen a lot I still do not believe.'
Kyle wanted to ask about all these other battles but the man appeared troubled. He glanced to Kyle twice, his eyes touched by worry as if he regretted speaking his mind.
In the light of Stalker's candle Kyle could make out a short set of steps rising beyond the gate. It glittered darkly – black basalt, the rock of the Spur. The steps had been worn almost to bowls at their centre. He straightened; his hand seemed to find the grip of his tulwar on its own. Stalker shook out the candle and after a moment Kyle could discern the glow of lantern light ahead.
They met up with Ogilvy who gestured up and gave a whistle of awe. The tunnel opened to a circular chamber cut from the same rock as the steps. More black basalt, the very root-rock of the Spur. The dimensions of the chamber bothered Kyle until he realized it was the base of a hollow circular stairway. Torches flickered where the stairs began, rising to spiral tightly around the inside of the chamber's wall. Squinting up, he saw the column slowly ascending, two men abreast, Smoky and Greymane leading. He stepped out into the centre and looked straight up. Beyond the men, from high above, dark-blue light cascaded down along with a fine mist of rain. The moisture kissed his upturned face. A flash of lightning illuminated a tiny coin-sized disc at the very top of the hollowed-out column of rock. Dizzy and sickened, Kyle leant against one slick, cold wall. Far away the wind howled like a chained dog, punctuated by the occasional drum-roll of thunder.
Without a word, Stalker stepped to the stairs, a hand on the grip of his longsword. His leather moccasins were soundless against the rounded stone ledges. Ogilvy slapped Kyle on his back. 'C'mon, lad. Just a short hike before the night's done, hey?' and he chuckled.
After the twentieth full revolution of the stairs, Kyle studied curving symbols gouged unevenly into the wall at shoulder height. They were part of a running panel that climbed with the stairs. Portions of it showed through where the moss and cobwebs had been brushed aside. It seemed to tell a story but Kyle had never been taught his symbols. He recognized one only: the curling spiral of Wind. His people's totem.
After a time his legs became numb, his breath short. What would be there waiting for them? And more importantly, what did Smoky and Greymane plan to do about it? Just ahead, Ogilvy grunted and exhaled noisily through his flattened nose. The veteran maintained an even pace despite a full mail coif, shirt and skirting that hung rustling and hissing with each step. Kyle's armour, what cast-offs the guard could spare, chafed his neck raw and tore the flesh of his shoulders. His outfit consisted of an oversized hauberk of layered and lacquered horn and bone stripping over quilted undershirts, sleeves of soft leather sewn with steel rings – many of these missing – studded skirting over leather leggings, gloves backed with mail, and a naked iron helmet with a nose guard that was so oversized it nearly rested on his shoulders. Kyle had adjusted its fit by wrapping a rag underneath. The combined weight made the climb torture. Yet one morning a year ago when Stoop had dumped the pieces in his lap he had felt like the richest man in all Bael lands. Not even their tribe's war-leader could have boasted such a collection. Now he felt like the company's beggar fool. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont. Copyright © 2008 Ian Cameron Esslemont. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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