La Miseria es tierra de nadie: una peligrosa y corrupta frontera entre la República y los Reyes de las Profundidades. Cuando los traidores, ladrones y espías tratan de burlar a la autoridad, van a parar a la Miseria. El trabajo del capitán Ryhalt Galharrow es rehabilitarlos, siempre que no hayan sido presa de las retorcidas criaturas que habitan en sus cambiantes y contaminadas arenas. Hay una paz tensa, incluso para un hombre de la experiencia de Galharrow. Pero es un lugar necesario, porque la única defensa de la República contra los Reyes de las Profundidades es la «Máquina» de Punzón, un arma de poder incomparable que protege las fronteras del desierto, siempre y cuando no empiece a fallar…
«Ed McDonald está a la altura de Joe Abercrombie y Brandon Sanderson. Deja lo que sea que estés leyendo y empieza Blackwing.» —Booknest
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Copyright © 2017 by ECM Creative, Ltd.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Somebody warned them that we were coming. The sympathisers left nothing behind but an empty apartment and a few volumes of illegal verse. A half-eaten meal, ransacked drawers. They’d scrambled together what little they could carry and fled east into the Misery. Back when I wore a uniform, the marshal told me only three kinds of people willingly enter the Misery: the desperate, the stupid, and the greedy. The sympathisers were desperate enough. I gathered a dozen stupid, greedy men and set out to kill them.
We left Valengrad on an afternoon that stank of drains, regret, and the end of another bad summer. The money didn’t justify the risk, but hunting men was what I did, and I didn’t intend to allow our quarry to get far. Half the rabble I’d raised hadn’t been out in the Misery before; they were practically shitting themselves when we headed out through the city’s narrow gate. Within a mile, they were asking about gillings and dulchers. Two miles out and one of them began to cry. My old-timers laughed, reminded him we’d be back before dark.
Three days later the arseholes were somehow still ahead of us. Nobody was laughing anymore.
“They made for Dust Gorge,” Tnota said. He fiddled with the dials on his astrolabe, held it up to eye the distance between the moons. “Told you they would. Didn’t I tell you that, Captain?”
“Like balls you did.” He had. The footprints in the grit were proving him right.
“I sure did.” Tnota grinned at me, mustard-yellow teeth stark in his treacle-dark face. “I remember. You came into the bar with the papers, and I said, “I bet they make for the gorge.” Figure that earns me an extra share.”
“Even if this job paid well enough for extra shares, you still wouldn’t get one. And it doesn’t,” I said.
“Not my fault. I don’t pick the jobs,” Tnota said.
“That’s the first time you’ve been right today. Now keep quiet and plot us a course.”
Tnota raised the glass eyepiece towards skies the colour of a week-old bruise. Dirty golds, hints of green, torn purples and ugly blood browns merged together, an easel of ruptured fluids and broken capillaries. He counted on his fingers, traced an invisible line from one moon to the next. The cracks in the sky were quiet, barely a whisper passing through the banks of restless cloud.
Everything in the Misery is broken. Everything is wrong. The sooner we shot the bastards and were heading back west, the happier I would be.
We rode through banks of grit and sand, the rock black and red and drier than salt. Something rises up from the Misery. You can feel it all the while, like air, but it’s your enemy rather than your friend. It soaks into you, gets in your gums until you can taste the poison. I just hoped it’d be over soon.
Three days into the Misery, cutting south and east over black sands, we found the remains of their stolen horse. Whatever had torn its legs off, the sympathisers we were hunting had done the smart thing. They’d left the horse to its fate and run. A temporary respite, since they couldn’t outrun us now. I could read relief in the way the men sat in their saddles. We’d have a pair of heads bagged and slung by sundown, be heading back towards what passes for civilisation along the border.
I took my flask from my coat and shook it. Not the first time I’d done that. It remained as empty as it had been on the last three occasions. Since I was out of brandy, that meant we only had small beer to drink, and not a great deal of that. The Misery is dangerous for groups of heavily armed soldiers. That a pair of untrained, unprepared, and unarmed civilians had stayed alive and ahead of us for three days was enough to give me nerves. Another reason to get this over with as quickly as possible.
The sand wrote a trail clear to see. Ahead of us lay Dust Gorge, a narrow fissure in the earth. The gash cut through the landscape of shifting dunes, caustic sand and brittle stones. The lightning-bolt corridor mirrored one of the rents in the sky, the split in the earth a reflection of the damage in the heavens. One of the sky’s cracks began its high, sonorous wailing, causing my troop of not-soldiers to reach for spirit-stones and amulets. Free company men might have grit but they also have more superstitions than a priest on festival day. They wanted out of the Misery as much as I did. It was making them jumpy, and jumpy soldiers make a mess of even simple work. A generous man might call my troop of cutthroats soldiers. Generous men are generally idiots.
“Nenn, get up here,” I called as we approached a slope that led down into the gloom. She was chewing blacksap, jaws working, teeth dark as tar. There is no more irritating sound this side of the hells. “You have to chew that stuff?”
“All the ladies chew it.” She shrugged.
“Just because some duchess has a mouth full of rotten teeth, it doesn’t mean you have to imitate her sycophant friends.”
“Can’t blame me for fashion, Captain. Got to keep up appearances.”
Why Nenn thought anyone would be looking at her teeth when she was one nose short of a face was as baffling as the trend. Chew, chew, chew. I knew from experience that telling her to stop would be as pointless as telling Tnota to keep it in his trousers.
I glared at her anyway.
“You got work for me, Captain?” Nenn asked. She paused, spat half a lump of blacksap into the sand.
“We’re going down. Just me and you.”
“Just the two of us?” The wooden nose strapped to her face didn’t wrinkle, but the skin between her eyes creased.
“There’s only two of them, and they aren’t even armed. You don’t think we can handle it?”
“It’s not them I’m afraid of,” Nenn said. She spat the rest of the blacksap the other way. “Might be anything in there. Might be skweams. Dulchers.”
“Might be a big pot of gold too. But we’re too far south for dulchers anyway.”
“And for skweams?”
“Just get your shit sorted. We’re going down. We need both heads intact if we’re going to get paid, and you know how the lads can get. Can’t trust them not to get carried away; courts don’t pay out if there’s any way they can avoid it. Remember what happened at Snosk?”
It was Nenn’s turn to scowl.
“Yeah. I remember.” Snosk was a bad memory for all of us. Missing out on a full job’s pay over a technicality doesn’t sit right with anyone. To this day I’d still have argued that you could just about make out a face if you arranged the pieces right.
“Good. So get bright and ready up.”
I dismounted. My legs were sore from the saddle, the ache in my lower back crackling in a way it wouldn’t have ten years ago. Didn’t spend enough time in the saddle anymore. Getting soft. Soft, not old, that’s what I told myself. Tnota got down to help me ready up. He was even older than I was, and though I could trust him not to put a sword through anybody’s face, that was only because he’s about as useful in a fight as a wax helmet. More likely to injure himself than anyone else, and it was Nenn’s brand of nasty I needed down there. Tnota checked over the straps on my half armour, primed my matchlock as I selected weapons from the arsenal on my saddle and belted them on. I strapped on a short-bladed cutlass and a long-bladed dagger. No room to swing anything longer than an arm down in the gorge. I’d been down there before, a few years back. It didn’t get very wide. More alley than valley.
Nenn looked suitably fierce in blackened steel. Tnota sparked up a flame and got our match-cords smoking, the firearms primed and ready to spit lead. Didn’t plan to use them. A matchlock ball will make an awfully big mess of something, but like Nenn said, there might be skweams. Might be anything down in the dark guts of the soured earth.
The sooner we cut the sympathisers’ heads off and started back towards the city, the better.
“There’s only three places you can climb out of the gorge,” I said. “You remember where the others are?”
Tnota nodded. He pointed the other two out to me, one about a mile off, the other half a mile east of that.
“Good. If we flush them out, ride them down and wait for us.”
“Tnota’s in charge,” I hollered at my boys, and they almost looked like they were paying attention. How I’d managed to pick up such worthless gutter rats I couldn’t recall. Out of brandy, twenty miles into the Misery and a troop of vermin at my heels. Somewhere in my life, things had gone very, very wrong.
A slope of loose rock and ancient, fossilised tree roots led down into the crevice. Not easy to navigate when you have a weapon to carry and the walls are only seven feet apart. There wasn’t a great deal of light, just enough to pick out some poor footing. It was hard to avoid kicking showers of grit down into the dark, but we kept quiet as we could. Dust Gorge was deep. Probably one of the reasons that the enemy liked to use it as a meeting point for their spies and sympathisers. Our patrols didn’t often sweep this deep into the Misery, nearly out of the Range altogether, but if they did they wouldn’t go poking around down in the dark. Even the officers had more sense than that.
The air possessed a dry cold, no moisture at all. Trees roots protruded from the rock around us. A thousand-year-old forest had stood here once, back before the Misery had come into being. Only the roots remained now, as dry and grey as old bones. There was no water in the Misery, and the occasional oily black pool helped nothing to grow.
“I have a confession to make,” I said.
“You got religion all of a sudden?” Nenn grunted.
“You wanted to get me alone in the dark?”
“Unlikely.” I picked my way around a boulder. I put too much weight against it, and it crumbled away like chalk. Nothing in the Misery lasts. “The court are paying more than I said. Not a lot more, but enough that it got me thinking.”
“You lied about the fee?”
“Of course. I always lie about the fee.”
“Yes. But anyway. Got me thinking maybe these targets are more than just sympathisers.”
“No. What if she’s a Bride?”
“There are no Brides in Valengrad,” Nenn said, too quick for conviction. As we descended, the lattice of roots above blotted out both light and wind. Nenn blew on her match-cord, kept the tip red and smoking. The glow lit her face red as a devil’s. The smell of burning slow match was comforting in the dark, like woodsmoke but bitter, acrid.
“They’d love us to believe that,” I said. “The citadel found one last year. A big one, near wide as a house. Burned the building down around her, claimed it was just a fire.”
Nenn tried to snort. She’d never lost the habit. Sounded odd without a real nose to hawk it back through.
“Bullshit. It was just some fat old whore who pissed off the wrong officer. Squawks get funny when some lowborn doxy turns them down. He burned the brothel out of spite and made excuses.”
Nenn would believe what she wanted to believe and not an ounce of truth more.
“Regardless. If there’s a Bride down here, I don’t want any of the men near her. You know what can happen.”
“What makes you think you can resist a Bride better than they can?” Nenn asked. I lowered my voice. Sounds didn’t carry far along the tangled walls of the gorge, but no harm in being careful.
“Nothing. I just trust you to ignore me and blow her head off.”
“Thought you said not to spoil her face?”
I gave her a serious look, entirely lost in the gloom.
“If she’s a Bride, blow her fucking head off. Got it?”
“Got it, Captain Galharrow, sir, blow her fucking head off, sir Be a bloody shame though, all this work for nothing.”
“Would be. Better than the alternative. If they’re marked we’ll get paid anyway.”
I slipped on loose gravel and Nenn reached out to steady me. The stones rattled away down the narrow incline. We both froze. If they were still down here, we’d need to be more careful. Talk was distracting. Time to shut up and get bright. There was a curl in the rock ahead, and I brought the butt of my matchlock up against my shoulder as I slipped around the corner. Just more gully. We crept on. Slow-match smoke trailed lazily behind me in the dead air. I hoped that the lack of breeze meant it wouldn’t carry on ahead of us and warn her. The smell is unmistakable. If she was a Bride, our best chance lay in taking her by surprise.
“Look,” Nenn whispered. “Light.”
The pale, artificial glow of phos light around the next bend. I crept forward, placing my feet against solid rock as daintily as a man of my size can manage. Should have paid more attention in my dancing lessons. Nenn moved more nimbly, something about her reminding me of the stray cats in the city, all lean tautness and hiss. She rounded the rock wall with her weapon raised.
I half expected her to give fire, but she paused and I swept around close behind. The gorge widened, not a lot, but fifteen feet feels like a good lot of space when you’re cramped down in the earth. The sympathisers had made a little camp for themselves. They had a pile of worn old blankets next to some sticks they’d failed to light into a fire. An empty bottle lay on its side. The light was coming from a small lantern, the phos globe within it guttering. The battery coil was nearly spent.
Our quarry sat with their backs against the rock wall. They were both dead. No doubt about that. Eyes bulged wide in their sockets, jaws hung open. Side by side, propped up like a pair of grisly puppets ready to launch into action. Alive, she would have been ordinary. A woman in her middle years with brown curls caught beneath a white cap, blue eyes flanked by crow’s-feet. In death, her face and dress were stained with flakes of dried blood. It had leaked from her nose, her ears, her mouth. He’d gone the same way. His uniform was stained with worse than Misery dust and sweat.
In life I wouldn’t have looked twice at either one. In death I couldn’t take my eyes away.
My unease intensified, rising from my guts to my chest. No visible wounds, just a lot of blood. Hadn’t seen anything like this for a long time. The things in the Misery are vicious but they kill like animals. This was bloody, but it was neat. Almost like they’d sat there, waiting to be killed.
“Something got them,” Nenn said. Has a real talent for pointing out the obvious, my Nenn.
“No shit. It might still be here.” I didn’t know what in the hells it was, but it had done our job for us. I sucked in match smoke, took comfort in the acrid tang.
“It’s long gone. Blood’s been dry for hours.”
Nenn lowered her firearm. She sat down on a large stone, looked across at the corpses with an expression that didn’t usually register on what was left of her features. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Didn’t want to ask. I found a small pannier and rifled through its contents. Part of me hoped I’d find something that I could sell to the marshal or the courts, make all this worth a little more of our while. They had little enough. A few jars of salt fish, not enough coins to make a decent wager. No secret missives, no maps to enemy tunnels, no list of sympathisers and spies in Valengrad. She’d been a Talent, a phos-mill worker. He’d been a lieutenant serving in an artillery company. Whatever their reason to abandon humanity and run out into the Misery, they’d taken it to their grave. Which, I guess, we were standing in.
What a waste. Waste of my time, waste of the court’s money to pay me, waste of their stupid lives. They hadn’t even brought enough water to make it halfway into the Misery, let alone across it to the empire beyond. Waste upon waste upon waste.
Time to get some heads and get out of there.
I froze as I saw something down in the grit and sand of the floor. I stared at it a few moments, unable to bring myself to move. Listened.
“We need to get out of here.”
“What is it?” Nenn was going through their pockets.
“We have to go.”
Nenn caught the fear in my voice. She glanced over, caught sight of the footprint. Such a small thing. It shouldn’t have terrified us the way it did. She looked at me wide-eyed.
“Get the heads,” I whispered. “Fast. Fast as you fucking can.”
There are a lot of bad things in the world. Some of them are people, and some of them happen to live in the Misery. The worst of them come from beyond the Misery, far to the east. I knew chance could have formed that childlike footprint, maybe just a scuff in the sand. But it could have been made by a Darling.
My breath came too shallow. Perspiration pricked a course down my neck. I listened for the slightest sound and kept my matchlock raised. I gripped it hard, tried to stop my fingers from trembling.
“Come on, come on,” I hissed.
Nenn is very efficient and she wasn’t about to abandon our prize, not after three days of breathing Misery dust. She took out her sword and went to work like a butcher. I fingered the barrel of my weapon, checked the match was rigged to hit the flash pan. In the quiet of the gorge, everything seemed still. Nenn began to slice and saw, arms working hard and fast. I scanned the ground again, but it was just the one footprint. Half the size of an adult’s. Both of the sympathisers had larger feet than that.
“Not fast enough,” I hissed.
“Got it,” Nenn said. She yanked her prize free of clinging threads of gristle. She was going to need a bath. “They’re always heavier than I expect.” She held up the heads for me to inspect. All in one piece.
“Don’t wave them around like that. Have some respect.”
“I don’t have two shits of respect for sympathisers,” Nenn said. She spat on the dead man’s decapitated body. “They want to go join the drudge so much, they think being human is such a problem? I’ll treat them inhuman if that’s what they want.”
“Enough. Let’s move.”
We wrapped the heads in one of the old blankets. The blood might have had time to dry, but that didn’t mean that whatever had gracked them had gone far. Beneath my armour, my shirt was wet through with sweat.
We retraced our steps back to the mouth of the gorge, scrambling across the loose rock. The need for stealth ground against the desire to get clear, the heads bouncing along in the makeshift sack looped through my belt. Nenn was right, they were heavy, but we still scrambled fast through the scree and the desiccated grey roots. I kept an eye behind us the whole way, skittering backwards as often as forwards. My pulse was up, my guts starting to turn sour. Part of me expected that when we climbed out we’d find the company nothing but dismembered bodies. I reminded myself that the blood had dried. The killer had done his work and gone.
My fears were unfounded. My arsehole soldiers gave a cheer when we climbed out, red-stained sack in tow.
“All smooth?” Tnota asked. I ignored the question.
“We’re going,” I called. “Saddle up, move your sorry fucking arses. Move! Anyone not saddled in half a minute gets left behind.”
The good humour evaporated. They were a sorry-looking bunch, but they heard the urgency. Nenn practically vaulted into her saddle. My men didn’t know what had us spooked, and they didn’t need to.
“Think we can get to a Range Station tonight?” I asked Tnota.
“Unlikely. Hard to chart a course, and we’re at least sixteen standard miles in. Red moon’s starting to rise, and she’s throwing off the normal lines. I need an hour to plot a good course if you want due west.”
“It’ll have to wait.”
I kept to my word, put my feet in the stirrups and kicked my horse to a gallop. I lashed the reins, kept my eyes westward and didn’t let up until Dust Gorge had vanished from sight. I drove a hard pace until the horses were near blown.
“Captain, we have to stop or I’m going to lose all reference for positioning,” Tnota insisted. “We get lost out here and you know what happens next. We have to stop.”
Reluctantly, I allowed the horses to slow to a walk, then a half mile on from that, drew to a halt.
“Be quick,” I said. “Fastest course home.”
Finding your way in the Misery is never easy. Without a good navigator you can travel the same direction for three days and find yourself back where you started. Another reason I hadn’t wanted to risk Tnota down in the gorge. The only constants in the Misery are the three moons: red, gold, and blue. Too far away to get twisted around by all the poisoned magic leaking out of the earth, I guess.
I went to make some water against a rock. As I laced up, the inner side of my left forearm started to sting. I fastened my belt and told myself I was imagining it. No. Definitely getting warmer. Hot, even. Damn. It was neither the time nor the place for this.
It had been five years since I’d heard from Crowfoot. Part of me had wondered if the old bastard had forgotten all about me. As he sought to contact me now, I realised what a foolish notion that had been. I was one of his playing pieces. He’d just been waiting for the right time to move me.
I stepped around behind a dune, drew back my sleeve. My arms carry a lot of ink, memories in green and black and blue. A small skull for every friend I’d lost on the Range. Too many fucking skulls. Couldn’t remember who a lot of them were for, now, and it wasn’t the skulls that were starting to heat anyway. On the inside of my forearm, an intricately detailed raven stood out amongst the crude soldiers’ tattoos surrounding it. The ink sizzled and began spitting black as it grew unpleasantly hot. I yanked off my belt, wrapped it around my upper arm like a tourniquet. Past experience told me I’d need it.
“Come on then,” I growled through my teeth. “Let’s get it over with.”
The flesh strained upwards as something sought to escape my skin. My whole arm began to shake, and the second thrust hurt more than the heat. Steam sizzled from the flesh as it turned red, burned. I winced, gritted my teeth, squeezed my eyes shut as my skin stretched to its limit, and then I felt the ripping as the raven forced itself up and out of me. Big fucking bird, a raven. It came out through the torn flesh, sticky and red like a newborn, hopped down onto a rock and looked up at me with black eyes.
I clenched my jaws shut against the pain. No use showing weakness. Crowfoot would have no sympathy anyway.
I bowed my head to the bird. The Nameless aren’t gods, but they’re far enough from mortal that the distinction matters little, and gods and Nameless both like us on our knees. No point in speaking. Crowfoot never listened to what I had to say. I had no idea whether he could hear through the bird or whether it just came to say its piece. The raven’s beak opened and I heard his voice, a growl of gravel and phlegm. Sounded like he’d smoked a bowl of white-leaf every day since the war began.
“GALHARROW,” it shrieked at me. Furious. “GET TO STATION TWELVE. ENSURE SHE SURVIVES. DO NOT FUCK THIS UP.”
The sticky red raven cocked its head at me, then looked down at the ground as if it were just an ordinary bird looking for worms. Maybe after it gave its message that’s all it was. A few moments later it jerked rigid, its eyes burned with flames, a puff of smoke boiled from its beak, and it collapsed dead to the ground. I wiped blood from my forearm. The wound was gone but the pain remained. The raven tattoo was back in place again, faint against the skin like an old man’s ink. The bird would come back to full definition in time.
“Change of plan,” I said as I rejoined my troop. “We’re going to Station Twelve.”
I received a few puzzled looks, but nobody argued. Good thing too. Pulling rank is that much harder when you have absolutely no idea why you’re doing it.
Tnota looked up at the moons. Cool blue Clada had sunk down against the horizon. The bright bronze cracks carved the sky into discoloured pieces. Tnota licked a finger, checked the wind, then knelt and brushed fingers through the grit.
“Twelve ain’t the nearest Station, Captain. Won’t make it before dark,” he said. “Can get us out of the Misery, then take south along the supply road.”
“That the fastest way?”
“Fastest is direct. But like I say, won’t be out the Misery come dark.”
“Fastest course, Tnota. There’s an extra share in it for you if there’s ale in my hand before we lose the light.”
Tnota grinned. We’d be there.
The horses were spent, but I didn’t think any were damaged. They wanted out of the unnatural tundra as much as their riders. Smart animals, horses.
Two moons had dipped down beyond different horizons, leaving only Clada’s slender sapphire crescent to gloss the night sky as we approached Station Twelve. Tnota had cut some strange, risky route through dunes with long snapping grass, but we’d made it with all our limbs intact. He might not have a shred of violence in him, but the old boy could have navigated for the marshal if he hadn’t been such a degenerate. We left the growling of the stained sky behind us, forsook the bright white-bronze gashes running through it and fell into the more natural night west of the Misery.
The Station was aglow with hollow light, a pair of phos-powered search beams conducting lazy sweeps of the approach. One of them caught us, followed us as we drew near. A lone, half-interested face peered down over the battlements. The fortress was standard design, same as its four dozen sisters spread along the length of the Range. High stone walls, big guns, flags, narrow windows, the smell of manure. Standard fortress stuff.
“A jester’s hat,” Nenn said as we approached. I arched an eyebrow at her. She pointed upwards. “That’s what they always remind me of. The arms of the projectors. They look like the four fronds sticking out of a jester’s hat.” I followed the line of her finger, high. Four vast metallic arms rose from the top of the central keep, arching spider legs of black iron, illuminated from below by weak yellow phos light. They even had black-iron globes at their points, hollow bells silhouetted against the red of the sky.
“I don’t think the projectors tell any good jokes,” I said.
“Can’t say I agree,” Nenn grinned. Her eyes had the same gleeful intensity as a cat’s when it gets its claws into a mouse. “There’s something funny about all those drudge walking into the Range, getting turned to ash. That count as a joke?”
“No,” I said. “Just means you got a twisted sense of humour. Now shut up, I need to work out what I’m going to say to the Station commander. And for fuck’s sake, stop chewing that shit.”
Nenn ignored me and carried on talking through a wad of blacksap. When you’ve ridden around together as long as we had, got stinking drunk together more days than you’ve been sober, you end up having to tolerate a degree of insubordination. Some people wrongly assumed we were lovers, as though scars sought out scars. She claimed to be a hellcat in the sack, but I could never have dealt with either her spitting or her complete lack of regard for manners. With that wooden nose on her face she’d never be asked to sit for an artist, but my own portrait wouldn’t exactly moisten the ladies at court. I’d breathed the grit of a dozen sandstorms, drunk more liquor than most men drink water, and if anyone tried to compliment me on having a jaw like an anvil, can only say it’s certainly taken enough of a pounding. I guess I could see why people thought we made a neat pair.
We had to ride all the way around to the western side of the fortress. No gate faces the Misery. The Range Stations exist to keep the east to the east, wardens against the things that used to be men. Spirits alone know what they are now.
The gate sergeant looked us over, peering through a head-sized window in the gate. He yawned, wine on his breath, but the seal I showed him dashed the insolence from his face. The embossed iron disc told him I was Blackwing. Not a lot of love for the Blackwing amongst the state troops. Some of them saw us as little more than head-takers, bounty hunters, heard stories of innocent men accused and put to the question. They resented that we had no regulation buttons to polish, no drills to conduct, and they spat and called us rats when they thought we couldn’t hear them. But mostly they feared that one day the Blackwing would turn accusing, soulless eyes in their direction. Everybody has something to hide.
“You know if there’s any high-ranking women here? Officers? Nobility?” I asked.
“Sorry, sir, so sorry. Only just started my shift. There’s some fancy-looking carriages parked up in the yard, though. Have to belong to the cream I guess.”
I scowled at him. His uniform was crumpled, like he’d just thrown it on. His belt wasn’t even done up. Standards seemed to have fallen a long way since the last time I’d been down this way. The old officer in me rose past the years of contempt to snap at him.
“Since you’re manning the gates of a Range Station, shouldn’t you know who’s here, Sergeant?”
He gave me a bitter look. My seal told him that he had to let us inside, but he didn’t take his orders from me, and he didn’t have to put up with my shit. Not unless I had dirt on him, which I didn’t. The guilty are so much more malleable.
“Listen, feller. My little one’s been up all night with the wet cough. Probably won’t last much past the week, and that’s got my wife wallowing in her own self-misery. You want to add to my worries? Go make a complaint to the duty captain.” He spoke past me to my men. “Get in. Mess hall’s through the gatehouse. Avoid the ruby ale. Gave some of us the shits.”
I hung back, but decided not to point out that it was forbidden for children to enter a Range Station. Probably wouldn’t have been helpful.
“Show me the recent arrivals.”
The duty sergeant shrugged, hugged himself as if to say I was letting cold air into the fortress and he needed to get on with closing up the gate. I took the ledger and leafed through it.
Whoever had arrived with the carriages hadn’t been written into it. The record was sketchy at best. I scanned the signatures of recent entries. It wasn’t just Crowfoot’s lady I was looking for. I figured I’d know Maldon’s signature by his dreadful handwriting if I saw it, but there was nothing listed but supply caravans, changes of guard units and the occasional doxy signing in and out over the last couple of months.
Gleck Maldon had been a good friend and a powerful ally before the magic had got into his brain. A good man, far as any man that kills for a living can be called good. He’d ridden as artillery for me a score of times over the years. Then he started barking moonwards, so they’d locked him in the asylum, but Spinners of Maldon’s ability don’t find walls a significant impediment. He got loose. Loose, and dangerous. Finding him in the ledger had been a long shot. I asked the sergeant anyway.
“You see a man come through here, tall, about fifty? Brown hair gone grey at the wings?”
“Can’t say I remember anyone like that specifically. He got a name?”
“Gleck Maldon. A Spinner, out of Valengrad. Would likely have sounded a little crazy.”
The sergeant shook his head and took the ledger back like I was intruding by reading it.
“No sorcerer types here. Not for a long while.”
I thanked him though I didn’t feel like it. There wasn’t any reason Maldon might have come this way save that it was south, and south was a direction, and any direction was better than being where he was meant to be: locked in the asylum back in Valengrad. I put Maldon out of my mind. He’d gone to ground. I missed him.
The doors clunked shut behind me and the gate sergeant began to crank a heavy handle, a portcullis beginning its slow descent. I never like feeling locked into a place.
“Want to buy me a fancy ride like that one, Captain?” Nenn grinned, drawing my attention to the stable block. She’d spotted the spring-mounted carriage, the kind usually occupied by the same courtly ladies who wouldn’t frig themselves off to my portrait. The wheels were meant for the well-paved avenues of city boulevards and looked to be in need of attention after clattering along the poorly tended border roads. Painted blue, chased with golden embellishments, its owner had to be cream. Probably the lady Crowfoot had sent me after.
“When you start listening to my orders, I’ll start buying you pretty things,” I told the swordswoman at my side.
“Wonder what brings the cream out to Station Twelve,” Nenn said. “Nothing here for nobility.” Nenn didn’t like the higher-ups any better than I did.
“There’s nothing out here for anyone,” I said. “The food’s shit, the beds are worse, and soon as you look east, reality starts getting jumpy. Problem is, the higher up you’re born, the less sense you arrive with. Probably some fool looking to raise a commission, wants to see life on the frontier. One good look out over the Range, a taste of the Misery, should be enough to send her back the way she came.”
Nenn always enjoyed hearing me bad-mouth the elite. I didn’t have many kind things to say about them. My experiences with the ruling class hadn’t been much better than hers.
I dismissed the company for the night. They’d find some open barrel to dip and waste the evening singing badly and losing money to each other. As long as they didn’t get into fights or steal anything, I didn’t give a shit. They headed off to drink away the Misery shakes. Getting the shakes was normal when you got out from under the sundered sky. I figured whatever magic we’d soaked up out there had to leave the body and the shaking got it out, but that was just a guess. It wasn’t as though the Nameless ever chose to let us know why their magic affected us the way it did, and it wasn’t as though we had the guts to ask.
Crowfoot was to blame for the Misery, if attributing blame to something like him counts for anything. He and the other Nameless are beyond the reproach of us whimpering mortals. Some people formed cults around them as if they were gods, but if Crowfoot is a god then creation isn’t worth spit. For two centuries, the Nameless have warred with the Deep Kings and their empire, Old Dhojara, and what had been accomplished in that time? A lot of weeping, a lot of bones turning yellow beneath the Misery’s sands. We’d managed stalemate, not even peace—and in the central states, they don’t even understand that only the Engine and the Range Stations provide any protection against the Deep Kings at all. They don’t know how close we stand to the gallows, how tight the noose is cinched around our neck. But my master would not stand to be defeated, not if he had to sacrifice every last man, woman and child in Dortmark to do it. Which he would. When he burned the Misery into the world as a last defence, he proved as much.
A small battalion of administrators, clerks, and serving staff got in my way and repeatedly told me that the commander was busy. I ignored their protests, pushed past sputtering officials. Crowfoot’s direct intervention made this urgent. The Nameless don’t waste a drop of their power unless it matters. Hoard it closer than gold. I almost made it to the commander’s chamber before a few soldiers stopped me and I got threatened with chains. I snarled at them some. It didn’t make me feel any better, and it didn’t make them let me through.
Blackwing is a small organisation, if we can even be called that. There’s no coordination between us, no uniformity of purpose. I knew the names of seven others, but three of those names were false and I had no idea where any of them were. We were Crowfoot’s shadowed hands, his eyes and his enforcers. We were both beyond and beneath the military, operatives bearing the silent commands of the Nameless—when they bothered to give them. I’d gone five years without a real order. Free to work my own way with whatever resources I could scrape together. The men I’d taken into the Misery were hired hands, little better than mercenaries. Probably worse. Those clerks should have been stumbling over themselves to get me what I wanted, but during Crowfoot’s prolonged absence, fear of the Blackwing had waned thin.
He was back now. Their fear would return.
“What in the hells is he doing that can’t wait?” I demanded.
“See those carriages out front?” an unintimidated captain asked, his uniform so clean it seemed he never went outdoors. “Commander’s in with some she-devil who’s been raising hell the last two hours. She’s some big-cream Spinner, a count’s sister. Got connections to Prince Herono.” He looked me over with a critical eye. Maybe I had the dark wings on my shoulder, but they lay beneath the dirt of three days’ travel. I’d brought home a lot of dust and dried sweat, and my breath probably stank from all the liquorice root I’d chewed out there. He agreed he’d send someone to find me when the commander was done with the lady. Also suggested that I take a bath before presenting myself. I suggested that he could take his suggestion and shove it somewhere unmentionable.
Expletives aside, I didn’t have any way to get to see the commander short of cracking skulls, and even Crowfoot’s instruction wasn’t a licence to grack folks when I got pissed off. At least if Crowfoot’s mystery woman was in there with the commander, she was safe enough for now.
“Who’s the cream?” I asked.
“Nobody I ever met before.” The captain didn’t want to engage with me, but he enjoyed knowing more than I did. He shrugged. “Lady Tanza, I think it was.”
I felt the name like a sledgehammer to the chest. Nearly staggered. Swallowed hard and tried to get my thoughts into order.
“Ezabeth Tanza? A woman about my age, dark hair?”
“That’s her name. No idea what she looks like. Wears a veil, like they do in the south.”
The Misery shakes were starting to get to me. I told myself it was definitely the Misery shakes, nothing more. I bothered the quartermaster for liquorice—better than beer for keeping the shakes at bay—and chewed a root as I headed towards the roof. Liquorice, half a bottle of brandy, and cold night air, can’t beat all three together.
I headed upwards, always best to head up if you need to clear your head. The glass light tubes were running at just half power on the upper levels, leaving the stairwells and corridors depressingly shadowed. Some prince was slacking on his obligations. These days, they put their silver into silks and vineyards, marble palaces and buying indulgences for their concubines instead of maintaining the Stations they were responsible for. Memories are short. Away from the frontier, it was easy to forget that the enemy’s desire to wipe us out hadn’t slackened just because we had Nall’s Engine to protect us. We had never defeated the Deep Kings, hadn’t even come close. They were the hurricane and we’d found a parasol. Eighty years of stalemate were nothing to them, they’d been ancient long before their eyes ever turned to our land.
I passed a wide arch of double doors, heavy black-iron chains strung across their face, heavier locks securing them. I stopped, an old commander’s instinct making me pause. This was the operating chamber from which the arching projectors of Nall’s Engine—what Nenn had called the jester’s fronds—could be activated. Dust lay in a light film over the chain. Nobody had been in to oil the machinery for a while. Nall’s Engine was our only real defence if the drudge or their masters ever came at us in force. Any child knew that.
In the time of my grandfather’s grandfather, with the Dhojaran legions and the Deep Kings marching victorious against the last nine free cities, Crowfoot had unleashed the Heart of the Void. It was a weapon, or it was an event. Maybe a spell, damned if I know. Some things you never want to learn. Whatever it had been, it was bad. A weapon the like of which the world had never seen before, or, thank the spirits, since. He used the Heart of the Void to blast the Misery into existence. Tore cracks in the sky, choked the land with poisoned dust. Hills burned, fields boiled, rivers ran to stone. The cities of Adrogorsk and Clear were ours, and turned in a screaming instant from centres of learning and culture to collateral damage in a tempest of unleashed power. They melted and burned, their citizens warped and died. The Deep Kings reeled, wounded by the attack, but they were not defeated. When they regathered their strength the war continued across what had become the Misery, the Deep Kings hurling their numberless armies against our dwindling resources. We could not have held. But the lives of a generation of young men and women bought time for another of the Nameless, Nall, to raise his Engine along the border. The Engine destroyed King Nivias and threw the drudge back for a second time. Stalemate ensued. Peace, of a sort, ensured by the engine and the Stations: outlying control points from which our vigilant commanders could remotely activate the Engine should the Deep Kings ever send their forces into range. They’d only tried it once, well before I was born. The Engine had blasted new craters across the Misery. They had not tried again. And now it was dusty. Forgotten. The Station commander was a fool to put it beyond easy reach. Just because the wolf pack fears your sling doesn’t mean you stop carrying stones.
The warden had already pissed me off by not seeing me directly, and my mood was blackening by the second. I’d report his laxness to the marshal when I got back to Valengrad. Nobody likes a tell-tale, but they’d like the city-states being overrun by the drudge even less. The Station commander was an idiot. It was a petty revenge to take for making me wait, but the older I got, the pettier I found myself becoming and the less I found myself caring.
I breathed the night up along the battlements, knocking back warm slugs from my bottle and wishing I’d paid less money for better liquor. The sun had set, Clada’s sour blue light keeping the night cool and dim. Now and then, the Misery made a click or a crack as the earth shifted and groaned. The fading light revealed the rims of the larger craters, testament to the devastating power that the Engine would unleash on any army stupid enough to enter the Range. It was here, along this line of fortresses, that a hundred years of war had been ground to a standstill. The blasts that had created that stalemate had left their scars deep in the earth. Nobody and nothing moved out there in the poisoned lands of the Misery.
Are you out there, Gleck? I thought. Out there, somewhere? Did you lose that much of your mind? The smartest part of me, the part that had got me out alive at Adrogorsk and kept my head on my shoulders over two decades ranging the Misery, told me that I was speaking to a dead man. Gleck Maldon had got strange, maybe mad. It happened with Spinners, sometimes. He’d been a good man, as sorcerers went. He hadn’t gone north, hadn’t gone west. South was looking increasingly unlikely. I looked down at the liberal spread of inked skulls on my left arm, picked out a spot to remember him.
Ezabeth fucking Tanza. Not a memory I’d wanted to dredge up again. Decades had crumbled away since I first sat across the table from her. I’d been trying to purge the memory ever since. Twenty years, a wife, children, and years of stalking through the nightmare wasteland behind me and still her name could deliver an uppercut right to the balls. I had no doubt I had to escort her to Valengrad. If I’d thought Crowfoot had any kind of human emotion in him, I’d have thought it was some kind of sick fucking joke.
A drinking song drifted up from the food hall. Off-duty soldiers sang about a sailor leaving his bonny lass behind and getting himself drowned. We were a long way from the sea.
I lit a heavy cigar, drew and blew a cloud of smoke. Drink. Smoke. Chew liquorice root. Forget. Done and distant, a sour memory of something that never happened. Hadn’t heard a whisper of her since. She likely had a husband. Children. What she was doing out at a Range Station I couldn’t guess. Didn’t want to try.
Sad fact was, she probably wouldn’t even recognise me. Twenty years. A different name. A broken nose, scarred cheeks, scarred jaw. She sure as hell wouldn’t be expecting that lace-frilled boy to be doing this crap for a living. I tossed the butt of my cigar out over the wall, had another swig.
I looked down into the yard. The gate sergeant yawned, stretched. The last of the summer evening’s warmth had fled upwards, and he had a blanket around his shoulders. The singing had grown louder, even more discordant, which was incredible. The gateman sat down on a stool and shivered. A lonely, boring job on a cold night. If it were me, I’d have been drunk. Or asleep. Probably both.
A little kid walked out of the keep and started rolling a small keg over towards the gateman. I wondered if it was the dying one. Didn’t look dying if it was strong enough to roll a heavy-looking barrel. The presence of children was another thing I’d have to report. The Range Stations were supposed to be military positions, but over the years, things had got slack. First they started letting in the whores, then those whores became wives, and both whores and wives made babies, and somehow Nall’s Stations had turned into small communities. Was it really so long ago that we’d been fighting the drudge out in the Misery? Didn’t seem so long to me.
The gateman got up, looked over at the child, who stopped some feet away. He stiffened slightly. The child spoke, pointed down at the barrel. The sergeant seemed to shiver, then he took the barrel, hefted it, and set it down by the portcullis. By the weak light of the tubes above the gate, I saw the red rolling down the sergeant’s face, bleeding from nose, from eye, from ear. He hammered the keg open and dark sand spilled over his feet. His jaw hung open as the red dripped down his front and into the blasting powder.
The chill of realisation struck me. The child—the Darling—was running. I started to run too as the sergeant reached up and smashed open a lighting tube. Sparks spat around him in a bright shower. I saw them descending, white and beautiful, almost lazy in their fall.
I clapped my hands over my ears.
The gate exploded.