Tyranny comes in many guises, and tyrants thrive in palaces and one-room hovels, in back alleys and playgrounds. Tyrants abound on the verges of civilization, where disorder frays the rule of civil conduct and propriety surrenders to brutal imposition. Millions are made to kneel and yet more millions die horrible deaths in a welter of suffering and misery.
But leave all that behind and plunge into escapist fantasy of the most irrelevant kind, and in the ragged wake of the tale told in Lees of Laughter's End, those most civil adventurers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their suitably phlegmatic manservant, Emancipor Reese, make gentle landing upon a peaceful beach, beneath a quaint village at the foot of a majestic castle. There they make acquaintance with the soft-hearted and generous folk of Spendrugle, which lies at the mouth of the Blear River and falls under the benign rule of the Lord of Wurms in his lovely keep.
Make welcome, then, to Spendrugle's memorable residents, including the man who should have stayed dead, the woman whose prayers should never have been answered, the tax collector everyone ignores, the ex-husband town militiaman who never married, the beachcomber who lives in his own beard, and the now singular lizard cat who used to be plural, and the girl who likes to pee in your lap. And of course, hovering over all, the denizen of the castle keep, LordAh, but there lies this tale.
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“Behold!” Arms spread wide and braced against the wind, Lord Fangatooth Claw the Render paused and glanced back at Scribe Coingood. “See how this bold perch incites me to declamation, Scribe?” His narrow, hawkish features darkened. “Why are you not writing?”
Scribe Coingood wiped a drip from his nose, worked his numb fingers for a moment, and then scratched out the one word onto the tablet. Here atop the high tower, it was so cold that the wax on the tablet had chipped and flaked beneath the polished bone point of his scribe. He could barely make out the word he had just written, and the biting ice in his eyes didn’t help matters. Squinting against the buffeting wind, he hunched down, pulling tighter his furs, but that did nothing to ease his shivering.
He cursed his own madness that had brought him to West Elingarth’s Forgotten Holding. He also cursed this insane sorcerer for whom he now worked. He cursed this rotting keep and its swaying tower. He cursed the town below: Spendrugle of Blearmouth was a hovel, its population cowering under the tyranny of its new lord. He cursed the abominable weather of this jutting spur of land, thrashed by the wild ocean on three sides on most days, barring those times when the wind swung round to howl its way down from the north, cutting across the treeless blight that stretched inland all the way to yet another storm-wracked ocean, six days distant. He cursed his mother, and the time when he was seven and looked in on his sister’s room and saw things—oh, what was the point? There were plenty of reasons a man had to curse, and with infernal intimacy he knew most of them.
His dreams of wealth and privilege had suffered the fate of a lame hare on the Plain of Wolves, chewed up and torn to bits; and the wind had long since taken away those tattered remnants: the tufts of blood-matted fur, the wisps of white throat-down, and the well-gnawed splinters of bone. All of it gone, scattered across the blasted landscape of his future.
Chewing on the end of his graver, Coingood considered setting that description down in his secret diaries. A lame hare on the Plain of Wolves. Yes, that’s me all right … was that me or my dreams, that hare? Never mind, it’s not like there’s a difference. Not when he was huddled here atop the tower, miserably subject to his lord’s whim, and Hood knew, a manic, eye-gleaming whim it was.
“Have you written it down now, Scribe? Gods below, if I’d known you were so slow I would never have hired you! Tell me, what did I say? I’ve forgotten. Read it back, damn you!”
“M-m-master, y’said … er … ‘Behold!’”
“Is that it? Didn’t I say anything more?”
“S-s-something ’bout a bold p-p-perch, M-m-milord.”
Lord Fangatooth waved one long-fingered, skeletal hand. “Never mind that. I’ve told you about my asides. They’re just that. Asides. Where was I?”
The lord faced outward again, defiant against the roaring seas, and struck a pose looming ominously over the town. “Behold! Oh, and note my widespread arms as I face this wild, whore-whipped sea. Oh, and that wretched town directly below, and how it kneels quivering like an abject slave. Note, too, the grey skies, and that fierce colour of … grey. What else? Fill the scene, fool!”
Coingood started scratching furiously on the tablet.
Watching him, Fangatooth made circular, tumbling motions with one hand. “More! Details! We are in the throes of creativity here!”
“I b-b-beg you, m-m-milord, I’m j-j-just a s-s-scribe, n-n-not a poet!”
“Anyone who can write has all the qualifications necessary for artistic genius! Now, where was I? Oh, right. Behold!” He fell silent, and after a long, quivering moment, he slowly lowered his arms. “Well,” he said. “That will do for now. Go below, Scribe, and stoke up the fires and the implements of torture. I feel in need of a visit to my beloved brother.”
Coingood hobbled his way to the trapdoor.
“Next time I say ‘Behold!’,” Fangatooth said behind him, “don’t interrupt!”
“I w-w-won’t, M-m-milord. P-p-promise!”
* * *
“There he was again!” Felittle hissed through chattering teeth. “You seen him too, didn’t you? Say you did! It wasn’t just me! Up on that tower, arms out to the sides, like a … like a … like a mad sorcerer!”
Spilgit Purrble, deposed Factor of the Forgotten Holding yet still trapped in the town of Spendrugle of Blearmouth, at least until winter’s end, peered across at the young woman now struggling to close the door to his closet-sized office. Snow had melted and then refrozen across the threshold. He’d need to take a sword to that at least one more time, so that he could officially close up for the season and retreat back to the King’s Heel. As it was, his last day maintaining any kind of office for the backstabbing mob ruling the distant capital and, ostensibly, all of Elingarth, promised to be a cold one.
Even the arrival of Felittle, here in these crowded confines, with her soft red cheeks and the overdone carmine paint on her full lips, and those huge eyes so expansive in their blessed idiocy, could do little to defeat the insipid icy draught pouring in past her from around the mostly useless door. Spilgit sighed and reached for his tankard. “I’ve warmed rum in that kettle, mixed with some wine and crushed blackgem berries. Would you like some?”
“Ooh!” She edged forward, her quilted coat smelling of smoke, ale and her mother’s eye-watering perfume that Spilgit privately called Whore Sweat—not that he’d ever utter that out loud. Not if he wanted to get what he wanted from this blissful child in a woman’s body. And most certainly never to that vicious hag’s face. While Felittle’s mother already despised him, she’d not yet refused his coin and he needed to keep it that way for a few more months, assuming he could find a way of stretching his fast-diminishing resources. After that …
Felittle was breathing fast as Spilgit collected the kettle from its hook above the brazier and poured out a dollop into the cup she’d taken down from the shelf beside the door. He considered again the delicious absence of guilt that accompanied his thoughts of stealing Felittle away from her tyrant of a mother; away from this miserable village that stank of fish all summer and stank of the people eating that fish all winter; away from her mother’s whores and the sordid creatures that crawled into the King’s Heel every day eager for more of the old wick-dipping from that gaggle of girls only a blind man would find attractive, at least until the poor fool’s probing fingers broke through the powdery sludge hiding their pocked faces. Away, then, and away most of all, from that deranged sorcerer who’d usurped his own brother to carve out, in broken bones, spilled blood and the screaming of endless victims, his private version of paradise.
Oh, there was no end to the horrors of this place, but Lord Fangatooth Claw sat atop them all like a king on a throne. How Spilgit hated sorcerers!
“You’re still shivering, darling,” he said to Felittle. “Drink that down and have another, and come closer. Now, with only this one chair, well, sit on my lap again, will you. That’s surely one way to get warm.”
She giggled, swinging her not-ungenerous backside onto him and then leaning back with one arm snaking round the back of his neck. “If Mother saw this, she’d hack off your mast and roast it on a fire till it was burnt crisp!”
“But my sweetheart, are we not dressed? Is this not entirely proper, given the cold and the cramped conditions of this office?”
“Oh, and who else do you do this with?”
“No one, of course, since you are the only person to ever visit me.”
She eyed him suspiciously, but he knew it to be an act, since she well knew that he entertained only her. Felittle missed nothing in this village. She was its eyes and ears and, most of all, its mouth, and it was remarkable to Spilgit that such a mouth could find fuel to race without surcease day after day, night upon night. There were barely two hundred people in Spendrugle, and not one of them could be said to be leading exciting lives. Perhaps there was a sort of cleverness in Felittle, after all, in the manner of her soaking in everything that it was possible to know in Spendrugle, and then spewing it all back out with impressive accuracy. Indeed, she might well possess the wit to match a … a …
“Blackgem berries make me squirt, you know.”
“Squirt water, of course! What else would I squirt? What a dirty mind you have!”
… sea-sponge? “Well, I didn’t know that. I mean, how could I, since it’s such a … well, a private thing.”
“Not for much longer,” she said, taking another mouthful.
Spilgit frowned, only now feeling the unusual warmth in his lap. “You call that a squirt?”
“Well,” she said, “it’s just that it got me all excited!”
“Really? Oh, then should we—”
“Not you, silly! Fangatooth! On the tower, with his arms spread wide like I said!”
“Alas, I didn’t see any of that, Felittle. Busy as I was in here, putting things in order and all. Even so, for the life of me I can’t see what it was that excited you about such a scene. He does that most mornings, after all.”
“I know that, but this morning it was different. Or at least I thought it was.”
“Well,” she paused to drink down the rum, gusted out a sweet sigh, and then made a small sound. “Oop, it’s all going now, isn’t it?”
Spilgit felt the heat spreading in his crotch, and then his thighs as it pooled in the chair. “Ah, yes…”
“Anyway,” she continued, “I thought he was looking at the wreck, you see? But I don’t think he was. I mean—”
“Hold on, darling. A moment. What wreck?”
“Why, the one in the bay, of course! Arrived last night! You don’t know anything!”
She shrugged. “Nobody’s been down to look yet. Too cold.”
“Gods below!” Spilgit pushed her from his lap. He rose. “I need to change.”
“You look like you peed yourself! Hah hah!”
He studied her for a moment, and then said, “We’re heading down, darling. To that wreck.”
“Really? But we’ll freeze!”
“I want to see it. You can come with me, Felittle, or you can run back to your ma.”
“I don’t know why you two hate each other. She only wants what’s best for me. But I want to do what her girls do, and why not? It’s a living, isn’t it?”
“You’re far too beautiful for that,” Spilgit said.
“That’s what she says!”
“And she’s right, on that we’re agreed. The thing we don’t agree on is what your future is going to look like. You deserve better than this horrible little village, Felittle. She’d as much as chain you down if she thought she could get away with it. It’s all about her, what she wants you to do for her. Your ma’s getting old, right? Needing someone to take care of her, and she’ll make you a spinster if you let her.”
Her eyes were wide, her breaths coming fast. “Then you’ll do it?”
“Steal me away!”
“I’m a man of my word. Come the spring, darling, we’ll swirl the sands, flatten the high grasses and flee like the wind.”
“Okay, I’ll go with you!”
“No, down to the wreck, silly!”
“Right, my little sea-sponge. Wait here, then. I need go back to the Heel and change … unless you need to do the same?”
“No, I’m fine! If I go back Ma will see me and find something for me to do. I’ll wait here. I wasn’t wearing knickers anyway.”
Well, that explains it, doesn’t it. Oh darling, you’re my kind of woman.
Except for the peeing bit, that is.
Copyright © 2012 by Steven Erikson