A 2020 Nommo Award Finalist
A Book Bub Best SFF Books of the Summer Pick
"A phantasmagorical picaresque through a lushly realised underworld, populated by a grotesque bestiary of fantastical creatures. . . . This twisty example of the new weird genre examines love, loss and loyalty, packing skilful world-building and a powerful emotional punch into a little over 200 pages."—The Guardian
She lived where the railway tracks met the saltpan, on the Ahri side of the shadowline. In the old days, when people still talked about her, she was known as the end-of-the-line woman.
Vasethe, a man with a troubled past, comes to seek a favor from a woman who is not what she seems, and must enter the nine hundred and ninety-nine realms of Mkalis, the world of spirits, where gods and demons wage endless war.
The Border Keeper spins wonders both epic—the Byzantine bureaucracy of hundreds of demon realms, impossible oceans, hidden fortresses—and devastatingly personal—a spear flung straight, the profound terror and power of motherhood. What Vasethe discovers in Mkalis threatens to bring his own secrets into light and throw both worlds into chaos.
Praise for The Border Keeper
"Beautifully and vividly imagined. Eerie, lovely, and surreal."—Ann Leckie
“A labyrinth of demons, dead gods, cranky psychopomps, and broken all-too-human lives. Hall is by turns wry and lush, genuine and venomous. So can I have the next one already?”—Max Gladstone
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
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SHE LIVED WHERE THE railway tracks met the saltpan, on the Ahri side of the shadowline. In the old days, when people still talked about her, she was known as the end-of-the-line woman.
She had other titles, many more, although most lay forgotten and buried now. Whispers of her presence rustled down through the centuries, a footnote here, a folksong there. Rumours. Myths. Yet she did not dwell in a house of bones, or eat children, or carve hexes into the entrails of men beneath the light of the full autumn moon. In most respects, she appeared no different from other people.
She had been called the destroyer of empires. Mistress of the dead, the whispers went. But those few who knew better gave her the title of yaWenzta, the border keeper.
Her domain was silent. Beyond the fine wire fence of the shadowline, beyond the border of the world, lay Mkalis. The pan stretched white and pitiless to the horizon, a salt heat haze of mirrors, dreams, and thirst. Mkalis, where gods and demons waged endless war for dominion over nine hundred and ninety-nine realms. No Ahri-dweller survived it, not without permissions and a guide.
The border keeper's house might once have been a terminal station, but the trains had stopped running over a hundred years before. Metal tracks blistered with corrosion. The wind buried steel and the sun transformed wood into pale marble, so that from a distance the railway glittered like tarnished jewellery. Fool's gold.
Many would have called Vasethe a fool. Many, in fact, had. Yet here he was, walking along the backbone of the desert. His black hair was bound in a loose ponytail, his ear rimmed with silver hoops. A gourd sloshed at his hip. Hidden beneath his shirt, a large tattoo splayed out across his brown shoulders in an illegible tangle of black swirls and switches. His gait gave the impression of easy nonchalance; step roll change, step roll change, and every now and again his fingers would caress the scar that bisected his neck — an ugly white mark like a root or tumour, an underground thing. He did not leave footprints in his wake.
At the end of the tracks, the border keeper's sandstone house shimmered, the walls warping in a liquid haze. All was quiet and bright. A tumbledown fence surrounded the building and, as Vasethe drew nearer, he saw small trinkets strung to the posts. Chains of green-glass beads, cloves stuffed in fine mesh, amputated dolls' legs bound in raffia. They hung on the fence like detritus after a storm.
Vasethe unlatched the gate, making a point to rattle the chain, and stepped inside the yard. Salt crystals crunched beneath his boots. The front door was weathered white with age and heat. Vasethe knocked six times; clear, but not too loud. The temperature was scarcely cooler beneath the tattered awning, and sweat stuck his hair to his neck.
No one answered. The ragged gauze curtains covering the windows remained still.
He did not knock again. After a minute of standing in the doorway, he sighed and rubbed the stubble shading his jaw. Turning away from the door, his eyes fell upon the shale slab sitting below the front window. The fossil of a prehistoric fish swam through the crumbling grey stone. His gaze rose.
The frame of the awning was fixed to the wall at two points, where wooden beams held the wasted canvas taut. The left beam lay above the slab; the right was within reach if he stood on the window ledge and stretched.
The thick twine securing the canvas was encrusted with salt, and resisted efforts to be tugged free. Vasethe's nails splintered, but he worked at the knots until they loosened. He lowered the canvas to the ground.
Exposure had reduced the awning to a gauze-thin layer that tore under the lightest pressure. He probed the canvas with his fingers. Although the outer edges were salvageable, a vast swath in the centre was not.
He cut away this section with a small knife that he kept in his boot, and measured the width of the amputated canvas before setting it aside. The shadow cast by the wall lengthened, but the heat did not abate. Beyond the yard, the flatlands glittered with illusions. The water in Vasethe's canteen ran dry.
He unrolled his sleeping tarp and removed three feet of fabric off the end. Then, with a wicked needle from his pack, he stitched the tarp to the awning. Occasionally, the needle slipped and pierced the skin of his forefinger or thumb, leaving a regular pattern of bloody splotches beside the rows of neat cross-stitches.
Once he had finished, Vasethe stepped onto the shale slab. He restrung the awning so that it sat flush against the wall. Satisfied, he got down and took a seat in the shade to watch the last rays of sunlight disappear behind the horizon.
"Bodies decompose slowly around here."
The voice drifted out of the window. Vasethe did not react; he remained seated, staring out at the desert.
"Bacteria do not thrive in this environment." A key jangled in the lock and the front door opened. "So, I don't like people dying near my house."
"I wasn't planning on dying," he said.
"Then what are you doing here?"
The woman was smaller than Vasethe had expected; blue-black skin, fierce, with a disconcerting face. Something about the set of her features was odd, but in isolation they seemed ordinary. She wore a grey shift, no shoes, no jewellery, and held herself with a brusque arrogance, like royalty. It was difficult to judge her age.
"Do people often die near your house?" he asked.
"Depends. Not recently."
"I see." Vasethe stood and dusted off his pants. Upright, he was a head taller than the woman in the doorway. He held out his hand. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"I'm not. There is blood on your hands."
"They aren't fatal wounds."
For the first time, the expression on her face changed. The corner of her mouth twitched. "The cold will kill you, not blood loss. Out here, exposure is a predator. If not the cold, then dehydration. You have no more water."
"A predicament." He did not sound concerned.
"So, you force me to choose. Do I let you die in my yard and endure the presence of your desiccated remains for decades? Or do I brave your company for the night and then send you on your way?" "There is a third option."
"Oh, there are more than three, stranger," she said. "For example, I could obliterate you with a snap of my fingers. I could toss you across the shadowline and let the Ageless devour you. I suppose I could even bury you. So many choices, but the first two are the only ones I'm considering right now. Unless you really annoy me, that is."
She sighed and moved aside. A gust of cool air brushed Vasethe's bare arms. "Come in, then."
The interior was dark and sparse. A faded rug dressed the sandy floor, the threads worn to a uniform brown. A mound of battered cushions lay in a heap under the window; a cracked butane lantern hung low from the ceiling.
"What should I call you?" Vasethe asked, eyeing the lantern as he stepped through the door.
"Whatever you want, stranger."
"Will Eris do?"
At the sound of the name, the air shivered. A shadow crossed her face.
"I had hoped that one was forgotten," she muttered.
"Not quite. Not by everybody."
Eris hesitated, then left him standing in the middle of the room as she disappeared into her kitchen.
"My name is Vasethe," he called after her. "I'm glad to finally meet you."
She did not respond.
Vasethe sank into the pile of cushions. Alone, his legs trembled and his muscles went slack. The last phase of his journey had taken five days. Five days with little food or water, following the railway tracks through the desert.
Eris reappeared in the doorway with a tray. She set a chipped ceramic teapot and a single blue cup on the ground beside him. A chain of pink stargazers circled the lip of the cup.
"Drink," she said.
For a moment longer she appraised him, then returned to her kitchen.
He poured from the pot and breathed in the steam. Cardamom, rooibos. A faint citrus aroma, some irretraceable and familiar scent just beyond his grasp. Too hot to drink; he placed the cup back on the tray to cool.
"Why did you do that?" Her voice floated out of the kitchen.
"You could hardly walk. Why were you renovating my house?"
Vasethe traced the pattern of stargazers with his fingernail. The tiny stigma of the flowers had been gilded in silver. Eris started chopping something; a knife hit the surface of a cutting board in a stream of clicks.
"The fabric had worn through," he said.
"It should be more effective now."
"Oh, so I can provide shade to other romantic fools? Fill my yard with their bones?"
"Who said anything about romantic?"
"You're all the same. All here to demand miracles."
He drank from his cup. The tea tasted strong and bitter; it stung his throat as he swallowed.
"I'll admit," she continued, "no one has tried to bribe me with household chores before. I commend the novel approach. But I'm much too old to fall for it, stranger."
Oil hissed in a pan.
Vasethe took another sip of his tea, let the warmth spread tendrils inside his chest, and set down the cup. He exhaled.
"I first heard stories about you in a common room at Utyl University," he said. "In those accounts, you were named Wrengreth, Destroyer of the City of Addis Hal Rata, Queen of Snakes."
"The storyteller had poetic tastes, it seems."
"She was reading from Mish's Compendium. 'And so Wrengreth, with hair ablaze and skin dyed scarlet with blood, descended upon Addis Hal Rata, the heart of the 41st realm, home of the Goddess Fanieq, and smote all who lived there, down to the children, the dogs and the rats. And when she roared, the mountains flinched to hear her grief, and the snakes fled their holes to assemble as her army, till all the ground writhed with their reptile flesh.'"
The hissing subsided; Eris had added a liquid into the mix. The smell of onions and turmeric made his mouth water.
"Any truth to the poetry?" he asked.
"I can't say I recall that many snakes. You must have an exceptional memory."
He poured himself more tea. "So, you killed the inhabitants of an entire realm?"
"I slaughtered Fanieq and everyone else in my path." She emerged from the kitchen carrying a bowl. "Eat."
He took the bowl from her. "Won't you join me?"
Her teeth flashed. "Most certainly not."
* * *
A full moon rose over the pan and ghosts whispered in the bright white wideness. The bundle of dolls' legs clattered against the fence.
The woman, the border keeper, once Wrengreth, for now called Eris, held silent conference in the yard. Her arms were held outstretched like wings.
A few feet beyond the yard stood the shadowline. At first inspection, an ordinary fence, if very long — it stretched as far as the eye could see. Not especially sturdy, just four wires strung to wooden posts, reaching only thigh-high.
But on closer investigation, the strangest property of the fence became apparent. Although the moon's glow illuminated the yard, the house, and Eris, light did not reflect from the wires or the posts. The entire fence remained a uniform black, as if dipped in pitch. It did not cast a shadow on either side.
Vasethe gazed out over the scene. He was about to lie down and go back to sleep, when it materialised.
It did not seem to cross distance; there was nothing to preface its arrival. He blinked, and the creature appeared. It stood perhaps a hundred paces from the shadowline.
The creature was taller than a man but thin and mangled, like an ancient desert tree flayed by the salt wind. It was missing its right leg, balanced only on the left. Bone gleamed; part of the creature's skull was visible where the blackened skin had peeled away. The rest of its face remained shadowed. It gave the impression of unsteadiness, like it was poised to fall.
It did not move. It just stood there. Watching.
The dolls' legs rattled furiously, the glass beads clinked against one another, but Eris held still. Vasethe watched her a while longer, then lay down and slept.CHAPTER 2
CLOSE TO THE SHADOWLINE, temperatures only cycled between extremes. Darkness was frozen and light blistering.
When night dropped away, the heat took its place. Warmth melted the frost that beaded the handle of the water bucket beside the well; it hit the sand, hit the walls, hit the tracks.
"Stranger." Eris's voice had a dangerous edge.
Vasethe sat on the shale slab beneath the awning, polishing his boots with a rag. He had recovered since the evening before; his skin had lost its ashen pallor and his eyes were sharp and alert.
"What have you done to my floor?"
Eris had returned to the house after midnight. Vasethe feigned sleep when she passed him, had heard her unsteady breathing.
"I'm not sure what you are referring to." He tried to look worried, failed. "Have I damaged it?"
"You washed it."
"Nonsense." He resumed buffing his boot. "When would I have had time for that?"
"I can only imagine during the early hours of this morning."
He folded the rag and tucked it into a pocket in his pack, then stretched his legs. "Are you offended?"
"I haven't decided yet." She crossed her arms. "I'm trying to work out how you swept and washed the floor without waking me."
"I'm a light sleeper."
"Very quietly." Vasethe stood up. Eris hung in the doorway, watching him. Guardedly. With interest. "I used your well. I take it that it endlessly refills itself? Like your teapot?"
"Who are you, stranger?"
"No one really. I've been a scholar, a cook in a bar, a messenger, worked a brief stint as a priest, shafei herder, even shorter stint as a tailor's assistant ..."
"There isn't all that much to me."
"On a hiatus."
"It's a strange place to rest." Eris stared out at the shimmering tracks. They stretched towards the indistinct horizon, swallowed by heat and distance.
Vasethe followed her gaze. "I should be going."
"What did you study?"
"I was never particularly focussed, to be honest. I started out in medicine and got distracted by history and linguistics."
"Thank you for your hospitality." He held out his hand.
Eris did not take it.
"Is something wrong?"
"It's been a long time," she said, "since I last had company. Since adopting this body, I haven't spoken to anyone."
He lowered his hand.
"Stay," she said, as if the idea had just occurred to her. "For one more day. I want to know what's happening in the rest of Ahri."
She disappeared into the house.
A faint smile crossed Vasethe's face. He followed her into the clean room and set his pack down. Although Eris had not noticed, he had also washed the gauze curtains and cushions. The room was perceptibly brighter and smelled of soap.
She fetched a spool of leather cording and wad of black feathers from her bedroom. While Vasethe spoke, she knotted the them together.
He started broad. He described the escalating tensions between Utyl and Rabri Uhm, the rise and fall of empresses, the routing of terrors from Feki Road. He drew a pad of crumpled paper from his pack, and sketched while he spoke, illustrating his stories with rough caricatures and drafts of landscapes.
Her interest in major world events proved secondary to her desire for the particulars; she hungered for the smaller details of ordinary lives. She wanted to know what people valued, their songs and fireside stories, customs, their individual tragedies and triumphs, feelings. Vasethe told her about rain festivals and initiation rituals, the strange superstitions held by inhabitants of the volcanic isles in the far north, self-proclaimed necromancers of the western gambling towns, villages of children. He described the great libraries of Utyl, Kwasa's famed harbour, the crystal caves of Pol. All the while, he spoke with an insider's knowledge but never about himself.
Eris completed her feathered ward and set it aside. Her wariness faded by degrees. She offered the occasional contribution of her own, about the nomads who used to occupy Chenash, or about long-dead travellers from Jiksem or Phon who had knocked on her door in years past. She joked about their prowess in bed.
The sun moved across the sky and they migrated to the kitchen. A furrowed wooden table took up most of the space, surrounded by three rickety chairs. Eris opened the door to her pantry and brought out handfuls of peaches and bright peppers. She set them down on the table. Later, when she opened the pantry a second time, Vasethe saw that more had replaced those taken.
While he spoke, she pitted the peaches and basted them in cinnamon, thyme, and pomegranate molasses. Vasethe cut the peppers and scraped away the tiny white seeds. He recounted the intrigue surrounding the assassination of the crown prince of Pol, laying out the factions and rumours. The light fell; Eris lit a candle and roasted the peaches in her oven. When the fruit turned brown, she emptied the oven tray into a single bowl and gave it to Vasethe. She started searing the peppers with a handful of brown grains and cashew nuts.
The dolls' legs rattled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Border Keeper"
Copyright © 2019 Kerstin Hall.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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