The Malazan Saga Returns: Read Chapter Four of Steven Erikson’s The God Is Not Willing

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New York Times bestselling author Steven Erikson continues the beloved Malazan Book of the Fallen with The God Is Not Willing, first in the thrilling new Witness sequel trilogy—publishing November 9, 2021 with Tor Books.

Picking up right after the conclusion of The Crippled God, this opening entry in a truly epic saga continues the story of the unmatched warrior, Karsa Orlong, as he returns to his people. Karsa must travel the breadth of the world and cross paths with many of the survivors of the final cataclysmic showdown in order to make it back home.

Read Chapter Four below, and find previous excerpts here.

 

Chapter Four

The XXXI Legion barely mustered two-thirds strength upon arriving in Nathilog, as the ocean crossing had been disastrous, beset by unseasonal storms. If this was not enough for the beleaguered soldiers, rumours of the Desert Plague among the ranks forced the harbour-master into quarantining the fleet in the bay, patrolled by fire-ships. This delay in disembarking was but one error in all that followed. Why make note of it as being of particular significance? Let us just say that the mood of the soldiers was not pleasant.

Brath of Worthless Ingot
History of This and That
The Great Library of Morn

 

There wasn’t much in Damisk’s past that he was proud of, and there wasn’t much of the world that he liked. At least, not when it came to the world of people. Too many of them were stupid. They couldn’t think clearly enough to save their lives. The worst part was, they didn’t know they were stupid. Every failure had an excuse, every loss was someone else’s fault. Stupid people always had a reason to be angry but didn’t have the capacity to understand that they were angry because they were frustrated, and they were frustrated because they didn’t understand, and they didn’t understand because they were stupid.

But stupid people could be excused for doing and saying the things they did. They couldn’t help it, after all. It was the smart people who had no excuse. And that was another thing: even smart people could be stupid on occasion, or stupid about some things even if smart about others. More often than not, in Damisk’s experience, many people were smart about everyone around them, yet stupid about themselves.

Was there ever a civilization, in all the world’s history, where honesty wasn’t rare? The honesty that looked both ways, that is. Inward and outward.

At the end of all these thoughts, however, Damisk ever returned to a simple truth about himself. He wasn’t particularly smart, but neither was he particularly stupid. When he revisited the conclusion that he didn’t much like people, he always included himself.

‘It’s not about good and evil,’ he now said to Rant, as they sat at the small fire with its bed of coals and almost smokeless heat. ‘And I should have warned you earlier, a hunter spends a lot of time alone. Too much time alone, in fact. So, when that hunter finds company, why, he tends to have a lot to say. Do you mind?’

The huge half-breed shook his head, the lower half of his face still greasy from the meat. He was barefoot, but the soles of those feet looked toughened. He had taken his hide tunic off earlier, pounding out some of the water, only to then put it back on, since it would dry tight and brittle otherwise. That tunic was slave’s garb, probably the only clothing available in a size that would fit the lad. Damisk had helped remove the harness and returned it to his pack, out of sight. It was still undecided, in the hunter’s mind, whether Rant was stupid or smart, especially since Teblor were slow to mature, not physically, but mentally.

‘Good and evil, Rant. Sages talk and write about them all the time. Temple priests. Magisters, executioners. And they talk about those two things as if someone was around to judge, some god or gods, maybe, or even the universe itself. But no one is, or if they are, they ain’t talking. So those mortals, the sages, priests, magisters, they make themselves tall and stern and then claim that they’re the ones entrusted to do all the judging. And they back up that claim in the usual way. Holy texts, Imperial Law, the City Watch, soldiers, the typical sword-in-the-shadows always there, hovering, hiding behind the sweet talk.’

Damisk paused. It was hard to tell if Rant was understanding any of this, or even listening. Stupid people could put on masks of concentration and attention, but they were paper-thin masks, and behind it was something small and lost in the fog.

‘My point is, your mother’s not evil. Neither are you. Let me tell you what the Wilds have shown me, way out beyond civilization and its web of lies.’ He held up his hands, palm tilted to catch the last of the day’s light. ‘No good and evil, no right and wrong. The real scales upon which we are all judged is much simpler, Rant. Take a life, no matter how short or long. What’s it made up of? Well: choices, deeds, promises, beliefs, mysteries, fears, a whole list of things—whatever you care to think of, in fact. That’s what makes a life. Want to see it in terms of good and evil, of right and wrong? That’s not the way of the Wilds, because those words are really about people judging other people and the problem with that is, you can’t find truth studying the scales if your own eye’s skewed. And everyone’s eyes are skewed, whether they admit it or not.’

Damisk studied his upturned palms. ‘A soul collects marks, Rant. Like you’d find on a factor’s ledger. Some are burned into the surface. Some are placed there with a kiss. Forget good and evil, right and wrong. Think instead in terms of suffering and blessing.’ He paused, studying the half-breed’s heavy-boned face. ‘That’s the only ledger that counts. Take a life, like I said before, and now look back on it. Choices, deeds, promises. Which ones made for suffering, and which ones blessed?’

He lifted his hands higher and then let them drop. ‘Every mortal soul lives a thousand lives, even more, but that don’t mean a thousand ledgers for each soul. No, it’s just one ledger, the same ledger. The soul brings it with it every time it lands in a body, and that body plays out its life, adding one mark at a time. Suffering. Blessing. And there’s no escaping it, no cheating, no hiding it all away. What I call the Wilds is just raw nature, the universe itself, and it misses nothing and never blinks. And that’s how souls pay for every choice, every decision, every promise, broken or kept.’

‘Pay how?’ Rant asked.

‘Whatever you put in, you get back. Spend a lifetime making others hurt and suffer, your next lifetime delivers the same upon you. No escaping it. Those scales of justice, Rant, they ain’t out there somewhere. Those are just flawed reflections.’ He jabbed his own chest. ‘They’re in here. Justice doesn’t exist in the Wilds, you see. I spent a lifetime looking for it out there, never found it. No, justice resides in each soul. So, when you cheat and think you got away with it, you didn’t. When you cause suffering in someone, either directly or with your own indifference, the ledger inside records it. And the scales tip, and that suffering will return to you, and your soul will one day know the anguish you delivered.’

He studied Rant’s face for a moment, and then shrugged. ‘Your mother was raped by Karsa Orlong, caught up in the blood-oil curse, and you came of that. And she was stained by that blood-oil, driven half-mad, and that’s never gone away, and yet somehow, she managed to raise you, keep you safe for as long as she could. Rant, she suffered, but it’s not your fault. In fact, you, you’re her blessing. And that’s why she sent you away, to keep you safe.’

If a spoken word could brand itself upon a listener’s face, then ‘blessing’ did so now, and Damisk watched the eyes widen, the shock’s sudden slap slowly sinking deep its sting, until what had at first hurt now delivered warmth, like a woman’s caress. This was a boy who didn’t know he’d been loved by anyone, especially not his mother. Damisk had been worried that Rant hadn’t followed the track of what he’d said. He needn’t have. The lad was a long way from grown-up and that made him seem slow, clumsy, a simpleton. He was none of those things.

A life unloved was slow to awaken. It often never did.

‘Damisk?’

‘Aye?’

‘My mother worked with men in the village. In her room. And they paid her. But then she worked with me, that last night. But I couldn’t pay her.’ He paused. ‘I don’t think I’m still her blessing.’

Damisk stared at the boy. He struggled to keep his voice calm. ‘And after that happened, she drove you out of the house?’

Rant nodded.

‘And said she’d cut her throat if you stayed.’

He nodded again.

Damisk wanted to put his hands to his face and weep. He drew a deep, shuddering breath, and then another. ‘That was the blood-oil fever. What she did to you, it was the blood-oil. What she did after—driving you away—that was the real her. The mother who raised you and loved you. Two different people, Rant, in one body.’

‘I never liked the blood-oil one. She scared me.’

‘She did something terrible to you, Rant, that night. Something no sane mother—or father—would ever do. Most that do that to their child don’t have the blood-oil as an excuse. And the marks they burn on their ledgers promise a dire retribution. I can’t even pity people like that.’ He struggled to keep his hands from trembling. ‘The curse of the blood-oil is a madness. Your mother must have fought against that desire for years. When you stopped looking like a child, she lost the battle. And then, as the fever passed, her guilt devoured her whole.’ He paused, not wanting to say what he was thinking. But Rant needed to understand. ‘If she did take her own life, it was the guilt and shame and horror and fear that made her do it. Not you.’ He studied Rant’s face.

‘She was beating her own face,’ he said. ‘So much I barely recognized her.’

‘Maybe, as a final, desperate act, she didn’t want you seeing her face when memories of that night start to torment you. Abide by that if you can. It wasn’t her, not your mother at all. But someone else. Someone else who did that wrongness to you.’

‘That one didn’t bless me, then.’

‘No, that one cursed you, Rant.’

‘But my real mother, she loved me and blessed me.’

‘The only way she knew how, yes. If you can, forgive your mother, but never forgive the blood-oil woman who raped you.’

Rant wiped at his eyes. ‘I don’t know how to do any of that, Damisk.’

‘I don’t think I do, either,’ Damisk confessed.

‘Damisk?’

‘Aye?’

‘I think you saved me to tell me this. But not for me, because I’m nobody special. I think you did it to leave a mark on your soul, a good mark. Because…’

‘Because of all the bad ones?’ Damisk brushed his hands together and grunted to his feet, his legs feeling weak under him. ‘Toss those bones into the fire, will you? There’ll be a wind tonight. We’ll need to move deeper into the forest.’

As the lad set about his work, Damisk collected up his bow and quiver, forcing his thoughts back to the present. Leave the rest for now. It’s too much for us both. All the madness in the world—what can one man do? What can one child do?

All my talk of justice, and then he tells me that. Karsa Orlong, you have a lot to answer for. When this bastard son of yours finds his anger, when he realizes the full extent of the betrayal—not by the woman who could not help herself—but by the man who cursed her with blood-oil, by you, Karsa…

Damisk rubbed at his face, drew another deep breath to take stock of his surroundings, of this moment. The passage of the caribou had chewed up everything underfoot. Every twig and branch up to a certain height had been swept away, making the forest look different. No obvious game-trails remained, and he didn’t know this particular stretch.

Slow going, in other words. He stood facing the rough climb that awaited them, until Rant was done and had moved up alongside him. Then Damisk turned to the half-breed. ‘My soul’s next life will arise in the rotting bones of the bleakest, blackest valley, and there it’ll stay.’ He scratched at his beard. ‘One mark of blessing? Well, it’s a start.’

 

The ridge they found that seemed unbroken was well inland. The lake could not be seen, even though Damisk knew they were walking parallel to its shoreline as they trekked westward. But even this uplifted ribbon of bedrock was rumpled, fissured and pocked with sinkholes. In most of these places, there was only black mud left, the beds of lichen and moss churned up by countless hoofs. They would need to move past the land the caribou had crossed before they could hope to find standing water. Damisk hoped they would reach such an area before it got too dark.

Few of the jack-pines and black spruce along the ridge grew to their fullest height and girth, and from many of them their roots snaked over the bedrock like ropes or limbs as they sought out cracks and declivities, making the footing uncertain and treacherous as the gloom slowly descended. The cool air shifted into cold, but without winter’s bite: a sure sign that the season of growth was upon the world.

The season for hopes, for renewed ambitions and enlivened resolve. The season for all the delusions to rise up once more, filling the fresh night air with their haunting promises. Damisk’s mood soured. He’d seen too many of these seasons, felt all too often the hollowness at the core of renewal, the rot hiding within.

In the course of his single lifetime as a hunter, he had seen the game disappear in an ever-widening circle, with the settlement of Silver Lake at the centre. Too many believed the world was unchanging, eternal in its cycles. The roll-over of one season into the next, year after year, deceived them into believing this. To Damisk’s mind, that most comforting lie was among the foremost traits of stupidity.

Nor was change unpredictable. It was in fact the very opposite. With eyes open and thinking fully engaged, so much of what came was not only predictable, it was inevitable.

He thought to explain this to Rant, the giant child at his side, laying out his theory of how the world worked; that its most powerful constant wouldn’t be found in natural laws, in the needs of eating and sleeping and breeding. Wouldn’t be found in how places rose and then fell, either. Wouldn’t be found in seasons, or traditions, or all those borders animal and human scratched out on the ground.

Lad, the most powerful constant is stupidity. Nothing else comes close. Stupidity kills all the animals, empties the sky of birds, poisons the rivers, burns the forests, wages the wars, feeds the lies, invents the world over and over again in ways only idiots could think real. Stupidity, lad, will defeat every god, crush every dream, topple every empire. Because, in the end, stupid people outnumber smart people. If that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t suffer over and over again, through generation after generation and on for ever.

But the lad was young, too fresh to the world for such grim lessons. He had enough horrors to deal with. Besides, it did nothing to tell someone such things. Stupidity needed no allies among the wise, because there was nothing out there that could challenge it.

The shadows lengthened, darkness taking the ridge. But at last they were clear of the swath left by the herd. Ahead was a tangle of toppled black spruce and beyond it was a broad depression in the bedrock, filled with a pool of meltwater.

‘This will do,’ said Damisk, eyeing the vertical root-walls of the fallen trees.

Rant settled into a squat, his expression troubled. But he was not yet ready for words, so Damisk chose not to prod him. Instead, he walked close to examine the walls of roots, stones and dirt, where despite the failing light he’d seen pale glints of something amidst the tangle.

Bone didn’t survive long in this area: the soil was too acidic, and the forest was filled with scavengers, both small and large. Usually, little was left, barring antlers and the rare fragment of jawbone, held together by hard teeth, and these he’d find scattered here and there on the bedrock, or nestled sun-bleached in beds of lichen and moss. Black spruce had short lives, thirty or forty years, so these root-walls were not especially large.

Strange, then, that these root-mats were studded with what looked like canine teeth, wolf or wolverine, or bear. He plucked one loose and squinted at it in the gloom. Then he drew out a second one. ‘Shit,’ he muttered. He replaced both fangs and turned to Runt. ‘Sorry, not here. We have to leave.’

The young Teblor half-breed looked up, his brow knotting in confusion.

‘I didn’t think they came this far south,’ Damisk said, unslinging his bow and quickly stringing it. He drew out an arrow made for larger game, the iron point long and x-shaped, and nocked it.

Rant unsheathed his knife.

Night had settled around them.

‘Quiet now,’ Damisk whispered, ‘and follow me.’

They set off westward along the ridge for a half-dozen paces, and then Damisk led his oversized charge down onto the flanking slope facing the lake, to keep them both below any sight-line from inland. They were forced to slow down, stepping carefully among the tumbled, sharp-edged rocks and the boles of fallen trees, slipping between dead branches with the spaces between them draped in cutworm silk.

Damisk’s mouth was dry. He considered guiding them down closer to the lake’s rocky shore, but even there the water could only be reached by descending sheer cliff-faces of rotten rock, and that didn’t change for the rest of the lake’s reach into the west, until it curled southward at its far end. He cursed himself for not filling his flask at the pool of meltwater. Panic had taken him, if only momentarily.

They arrived at an overhang, slightly hollowed out, and Damisk drew Rant into its meagre cover. They crouched down. Damisk held the nocked arrow in place with the index finger of his bow-hand, gesturing the boy closer with the other hand. ‘Saemdhi,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Hunters from the north, said to dwell on an island ringed in ice. They must be tracking the herd, but there’s more to it. The fangs I found were put there probably today—we might well have passed right through them. Meaning they know about us.’

‘What fangs?’ Rant asked in a whisper.

‘Among the roots. Sealion, bigger than a bear’s canines. The Saemdhi hunt seal when they don’t hunt caribou. Those fangs are claiming territory.’

Rant’s face, barely visible in the darkness, seemed to be regarding him blankly.

Sighing, Damisk said, ‘The lake’s north forest is Korhivi hunting land, only the Korhivi don’t have the numbers of the Saemdhi. And if the Saemdhi are down here, then they’ve already gone through the Korhivi.’

‘Gone through?’

‘Killed them, Rant. All of them.’

‘All?’

‘There’s been no Korhivi fleeing into the settlements. That I know of. Given the chance, they would’ve, since we trade with ’em and we get along, mostly. The Saemdhi, well, that’s a different story. Nobody gets along with them. I said they hunt seal and caribou, and that’s true enough. But none of that’s part of their rite of passage into warriors. No, for that, they have to head north, as far north as they can go, and each one does it alone. And doesn’t come back unless they’re carrying the head of a White Jheck.’

‘What is a White Jheck?’

‘Ah, Rant, the world’s big but it ain’t empty. If I told you that white bears and even grey bears will run from the White Jheck, will that do?’

‘And these Saemdhi hunt them?’

‘Aye.’

‘How?’ Rant pointed at Damisk’s bow. ‘With that?’

‘Maybe. Poison-tipped? That’d be the safest option, at a distance and quick-acting besides. You can get poisons from some lichens. To be honest, I can’t imagine any other way, except for snares and traps. Nobody said the White Jheck were smart, after all.’ He paused, and then shrugged and said, ‘Unless of course it’s all made up. It’s not like I’ve ever actually seen a White Jheck. But I’ve seen a Saemdhi warrior, and that’s worrying enough for me.’

‘If they know about us, why haven’t they killed us, too?’

‘If I had to guess, you’re keeping us both alive, Rant. Or more accurately, the Teblor blood in you.’

‘The Saemdhi know the Teblor?’

‘Some of the oil in blood-oil comes from them,’ Damisk said. He shrugged again. ‘Seal, whale, or something similar. Traded with the Teblor for mountain hardwoods. If we meet any, we’re likely to see Teblor-style weapons among them, just scaled down.’

‘I have seen a Teblor wooden sword,’ said Rant.

Damisk nodded. ‘The dried-out one behind the bar at Three-Legged, aye. A properly cared-for sword in the hands of a Teblor can cut through a soldier’s chain-and-leather hauberk. Crumple Malazan shields, too, not to mention helmets.’ He scratched at his beard. ‘Doubt a Saemdhi could, though. Still, it’s not like I’m armed for fighting, is it?’

‘I wonder…’ ventured Rant, and then he fell silent.

‘What do you wonder?’ Damisk asked. ‘Out with it.’

‘Well… if they saw us when I was wearing the slave rigging.’

Damisk could feel the blood draining from his face and limbs. He sagged lower, the arrow tilting up from the string, the notch suddenly freed. ‘Ah, shit, you ain’t dumb at all, lad, and here I am wishing you were.’

‘But we took it off,’ Rant added. ‘They would’ve seen that, too.’

‘If they know me for a slave tracker, that might not matter.’

‘I’ll protect you, Damisk. I’ll tell them.’

Damisk re-nocked his arrow. ‘I doubt they’ll stop to chat, Rant, but I appreciate your words.’

‘What are we going to do?’

‘I’m tempted to leave you here. For now,’ he added quickly. This boy had seen enough abandonment. ‘I can move fast and quiet and give ’em a good chase. They might swing back to find you, but even if they do, it won’t be to hurt you. Just tell them you want to join your people.’

‘You just said you were coming back.’

‘If I can, I will. That’s a promise. Wait through the night, maybe into midday tomorrow. If I’m not back by then, I’m dead. Follow the lake-shore, west. When you get to the far end, keep the nearest mountain on your right and follow the cut. It’s a bit of a climb, but it’ll take you to a pass. You’re looking for old stairs, Rant, cut into the rock, and bones, lots of bones. And a waterfall.’

‘And then?’

‘Climb and keep climbing. Sooner or later, you’ll be spotted by a Teblor tribal. Phalyd or Kellyd.’ He tossed over the two remaining hare carcasses, both of which had been slow-cooked earlier.

‘You are expecting to die,’ Rant said.

‘I’ll see you before noon tomorrow,’ Damisk said. ‘Bed down here and try to get some sleep.’ He turned to make his way back up the slope.

‘Damisk?’

He paused and glanced back. ‘What?’

‘Is my father truly a god?’

Damisk hesitated, and then said, ‘He wasn’t back then. Just a warrior, a raider. What he is now I don’t know. Stories are just stories, until you come face to face with the truth of things. Don’t live by ’em, Rant.’

Rant looked down. ‘Just a raider, then.’

‘Lad, he was a warrior like none I’ve ever seen. Like none of us in Silver Lake had ever seen. Aye, we chained him. For a time. But they say he lives still, far to the south. Free. Unbowed. And maybe that’s all it takes to become a god. I wouldn’t know either way.’

‘I would like to—’

‘It may not be worth it,’ Damisk cut in, hearing the harshness in his tone, but that was needed. For this, at least. ‘You were born of rape, and rape is a brutal act, and what happened to your mother, at Karsa’s hands, well, that was worse, because it was from the blood-oil. Karsa brought it to his lips out of desperation and rage—the whole raid had gone into the shit-hole. His friends were dead or about to be. What he did to her wasn’t about power, or domination, or any other pathetic need. It was the act of a rabid beast, unthinking, unfeeling, uncaring. And that’s what he left her with. That, and you. Don’t look to Karsa Orlong for anything, Rant. Stay with the Teblor. Make your life among them and leave it all at that.’

Rant might have shrugged in response; it was too dark to be sure, but it was clear, after a long moment, that the lad wasn’t going to reply. No empty promises at least.

Damisk turned back to the slope and began climbing. He’d done what he could.

Maybe blood-oil was just an excuse. There were always excuses, weren’t there? He shook his head. Truth was, he wasn’t fooling anybody, not himself and not, it seemed, a half-grown half-breed.

Damned drakes gang-raped hapless ducks every damned spring, after all. There were whole strands of nature that were, simply put, utterly fucked up. Threads of madness, bitter and frenzied. But in the Wilds, what creatures did, they did unthinkingly, without the wits to know better. People didn’t have that excuse.

Except for the blood-oil. Except for the fact that Karsa Orlong, wounded and hunted, had been kicking through doors, crashing into rooms. If he’d found a fucking cow, he would’ve raped it. Instead, he found Rant’s mother.

He didn’t know for certain, but any child produced of that fever might well have blood-oil deep in his body, like a fuel awaiting a spark. Enough townsfolk thought as much, and they eyed Rant with fear and because of it, they would have killed him eventually. For all Damisk knew, they were right.

But what blood-oil did to a Teblor wasn’t the same as what it did to a lowlander. Teblor weathered the fever, broke through the frenzy, and came back to themselves. A lowlander’s mind simply snapped. And Rant had half of one and half of the other. Among the Teblor, then, he might be safe. Among lowlanders, possibly not.

The moon was behind clouds and still low on the horizon. The forest was silent as Damisk slipped back onto the ridge, staying hunched over. He stilled, holding his breath, eyes tracking. Nothing. Still, the hairs lifted on the back of his neck.

Aye, they’re out there.

 

Rant had never been in a forest. His entire life he had spent in Silver Lake. The houses, the alleys, the beach where the boats were drawn up and the gulls fought over fish-guts, the main street and the old gates still unrepaired after the Uprising. The garrison barracks and the factor’s house, which had burned down twice and had been rebuilt only once in Rant’s memory, leaving charred ruins where he’d hidden when the stone-throwers were on the prowl. The only wild things he’d seen were the town’s feral dogs. Every other beast was already dead—brought in by hunters—when he set eyes upon it. That, and the skulls, of course.

If he’d thought of the forest, he’d imagined it crowded with terrible beasts, and savages and Teblor raiders. It had never occurred to him that it was mostly empty, mostly quiet, and so unrelievedly dark as soon as night fell.

Yet Damisk said there were hunters out there. Murderers of all the Korhivi, those strange quiet people wearing furs and hides who crept to the town’s edge to trade their wares, once in the spring and once just before the winter snows. They would never come again, now. He tried to picture them all dead, lying on the needle-carpeted ground in their camps. Slain children and babies left to starve or die to wolves or bears. Places of blood and hearths heaped in ash.

There was no prowess in such killing. No reason for it. No glory. And there was another worry, one that now gnawed at him. If these Saemdhi thought nothing of slaughtering whoever got in their way, then Silver Lake itself might be in danger. His mother, and all the children and everyone else.

There was hardly anyone left in the garrison.

He looked down and found that he was still gripping his knife. The blade’s dull gleam made him think about the Malazan troops that used to visit the town. It had been almost two years since the last time. Their arrival had made some people happy, while others would curse under their breaths, because the Malazans belonged to an empire and that empire had invaded Genabackis and conquered all the Free Cities, and now no one was free any more.

If the Saemdhi attacked Silver Lake, who was there to defend it?

He could go back. Warn them.

Rant crept out from the hollow. He could see patches of glimmering from the lake, between branches and twigs. If he made his way down to the shoreline, he could follow it back to the boat. He could row it across and be the hero, and who would kill a hero?

But maybe the Saemdhi wouldn’t keep going. They had no boats, after all, so how could they hope to cross the lake? What if he warned everyone in town and the Saemdhi never came? Then they would kill him for sure.

He didn’t know what to do.

‘Sanc fris ane orol.’

The voice was a woman’s, coming down from directly above the overhang, and thus out of sight.

Chest pounding twin beats, Rant crouched lower, motionless, the grip of the knife suddenly slick in his hand.

‘Tre’lang ane Teblor?’

Was she speaking to a companion at her side?

‘I was telling you to avoid the lake,’ said the voice. Faint scraping sounds, and then a figure dropped down to land lightly in front of Rant.

He ducked deeper into the hollow, knife out.

He could not tell her age, but her face was pale as moonlight. She wore furs but they were matted and clogged with something black. Sticks jutted from her—no, not sticks. Arrows. He counted six that he could see, two of them buried deep in her chest. Her hair hung long, loose and tangled.

‘The half-breed,’ she said. ‘Shattered son for the Shattered God. I once thought to kidnap you. Save you from your fate. But it seems you’ve saved yourself.’

‘How do you live?’ Rant asked her.

‘You think someone could survive this? Don’t be foolish. I am dead. Quite dead. But… restless. It wasn’t the best way to go. They made sure of me first, knowing I was their greatest threat. I hit the ground before the first one stepped into the camp, and being dead, I could do nothing to stop what followed.’

‘Korhivi.’

‘You call us that, but our ties to the Korhivi are few. You lowlanders never asked, but we called ourselves by another name.’ When she shrugged, he heard fletching move like stiff brushes among the twigs at her back. ‘Does not matter now, as we are gone.’

‘The Saemdhi.’

‘They don’t know what to do about the lake. Six of them track your friend, but the rest are above the shore. Their Bone-Throwers say nothing, hiding their fear.’

‘Why do they fear the lake?’ Rant asked.

‘It was not always a lake,’ she replied, taking a step closer and then settling into a squat. Now he could make out her face. It had been pretty in life. It wasn’t pretty any more, and nothing shone from eyes that sat deep and dull as stones. ‘Lowlanders call it Silver Lake. We call it Tarthen’ignial. The Valley of the Tarthen Stones. Before the waters came, it was a sacred place, with tall stones standing in rows down the length of the valley, and in the centre a mound of skulls. Tartheno and Imass. It’s said the Imass skulls remain alive, even now, looking out into a flooded world of silt and dead trees.’

Rant’s gaze edged past her, out to the gleaming water of the lake. ‘I swam half of it.’

‘And they watched you, I’m sure. Waited for you, even, to drown and sink down, to sit before them as have so many others. Were they disappointed? Who knows.’

‘But it’s all under water now,’ said Rant. ‘We fish in the lake, drag nets and hook-lines.’

‘You do, and nets have been lost, yes? Those standing stones are now webbed, old rope and lines tangled about them like offerings. You doubt me? I have been down there, walking among them. There are advantages to being dead.’

Rant considered that and was unconvinced.

‘The Saemdhi will not harm you,’ she then said. ‘Your friend they will kill.’

‘He saved my life. If I tell the Saemdhi—’

‘Most of them don’t understand Nathii, the language you speak. Forget him, you’ll not see him again.’

‘What do you want with me?’

‘The ice of the north was created by the Jaghut. Omtose Phellack. But the Throne of Ice lost its power long ago. It’s said the Lord of the Ice has returned, and that the great war with the Imass is over.’ She paused to cackle, and then spat out something the colour of lake-water. ‘How can I argue any of that, with Death’s Gate now guarded by The Bird That Steals? But if the Throne is again occupied, the one sitting in it has done nothing. And now the magic fades. Tell your Teblor kin, the ice of the north has melted, all of it, and the floodwaters are coming. Tell them they must flee.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘But will you remember my words?’

He hesitated, and then nodded.

‘Did you see the herd?’

‘Yes.’

‘Fleeing the waters. And now the Saemdhi, also fleeing the waters. More will come. Wolves, bears, the Jheck.’

‘Why would the Teblor believe me?’

‘You are the Son of the Shattered God.’

‘Why would they believe that?’

‘They will know.’

Rant settled back. ‘I will do as you say, but only if you save Damisk.’

‘The pup would bargain? With a dead witch, no less!’

‘Save him.’

‘It may already be too late. Besides, I haven’t got much longer like this. Already I can feel the tug of oblivion. Soon I will leave this body and my powers in your realm will be much diminished. The dead can only haunt when they are filled with hate. I am not. The Saemdhi may have angered me, with their wanton slaughter, but because I understand their panic, I cannot hate them.’

‘Save Damisk.’

The dead witch scowled, making a face that Rant knew he would see again in his nightmares. ‘This is what I get for being helpful? Very well. I will try. As for you, stay here tonight, in your little cave. Then head west, into the—’

‘I know. I will find the Teblor. Damisk told me.’

She studied him in silence for a long moment, and then turned away. ‘Who heeds the dead?’ she muttered.

If the question had been meant for him, she didn’t wait around long enough for him to think of a response. Now he was alone once more, the silence of the night closing in again. Rant settled deeper into the hollow, putting his back to the ragged stone. What did it mean to travel west, skirting the lake for as far as it went? To climb into the mountains on narrow trails? To find a staircase made of bones and carved rock? He closed his eyes and tried to imagine these things, seeing himself in these strange places, many days from now.

But the only sensation he felt, welling up inside, as if eager to drown him, was loneliness.

He missed his mother. He missed Damisk. He even missed the dead witch. And, for the briefest of moments, he missed being in the settlement, dodging the stones being thrown at him.

What was it like to feel safe? He didn’t know, and he wondered if he ever would.

 

The massive outcrop of shale-stone sat tilted on the bedrock, some lone remnant of this place having once been different from what it had become. Damisk was two-thirds up the cliff-side, lying prone on a ledge covered in guano. Almost within reach above him, on the underside of a projecting shelf of slate, was a row of swallow nests, silent and, he suspected, still unoccupied this early in the season. He was thankful for that, as it meant no shrill alarms from birds huddled atop eggs. He held his bow horizontally, out over the lip, an arrow resting on the grip’s small indent.

At the base of the cliff, five shapes slipped among the brush and fallen trees, bodies and limbs wrapped in leather and strips of fur, heads covered in scalps cut from the Korhivi. One was armed with a short recurved bow made of antler and horn, and the arrows in her quiver looked long. She’d yet to nock one to the gut string, but he knew that the point would be as long as his forearm, a barbed thing of bone polished and gleaming, the shaft immediately above it probably smeared with poison.

The other four carried javelins, stone atlatls sheathed at their hips.

Damisk slipped his fingers around the string of his bow and slowly drew it back. The woman with the bow was bigger than the men, broad-shouldered and heavy-boned. She remained a half-dozen paces behind the others, pausing every few steps to scan the area. She’d yet to lift her gaze to the cliff-side.

He waited until she paused once more, and then let fly.

The arrow sank into her between shoulder and neck, the angle taking it down the length of her torso. When she fell to the ground, the Korhivi scalp slipped away to reveal a shaved pate mottled with dried blood.

Damisk withdrew his bow and sank deeper into the shadow beneath the overhang. He heard sudden motion below, but no voices. They were converging on their fallen comrade. When they saw the arrow’s entry angle, they would turn to the cliff, scanning it as their eyes worked to the very top. Seeing nothing.

This spur of shale could be slipped around, paths found to take them up onto the ridge. Two would go to the right, two to the left. They would close in on the spot directly above Damisk.

Thirty heartbeats later, Damisk edged out slightly to study the base. The woman’s body had been flipped onto its back. The bow and quiver were both gone. The other four Saemdhi were nowhere to be seen. His gaze returned to the corpse. There was a blackish stain on her forehead—he couldn’t make out much more than that, but he knew that the woman’s own knife had been driven to the hilt between her eyes, to take into the precious iron blade her soul. And, somewhere nearby, that knife had then been driven into the trunk of a tree. Her spirit now belonged to this place, and this place now belonged to the Saemdhi.

Damisk moved out and began climbing down. There was moonlight now, both a boon and a curse. Without it he would never have managed to kill the woman with the bow, nor seen his hunters approaching the base of the cliff. But his enemy could see as well as he could, possibly better. His only advantage was that they were dwellers of the tundra, not the forest. Like any hunter, they knew how to remain motionless, drawing slow, deep breaths. But when they moved through the underbrush, they made noise.

Damisk didn’t.

Reaching the base, he crouched for a few heartbeats, checking his own gear, making certain it was closely bound and unlikely to catch twigs and branches, and then approached the corpse. As he expected, his arrow had been broken, the iron point cut out of the body and pocketed.

The dead woman’s broad, flat face held a peaceful expression, despite the black slit dividing her forehead. He set off for the tree-line.

He’d only begun his circuit when he found the knife in the tree. Antler grip, a bone spinal disc for a hilt, and a cheap blade of trader’s iron. It snapped with little effort.

Now you wander lost, and long may the Korhivi ghosts chase you. Only fools believe that vengeance does not live on past death, and by the spirits I hope it finds you.

He moved in among the trees again, heading westward. He doubted he would catch up to the two hunters ahead, so he didn’t try, angling instead back towards the lakeshore—the route he’d be least likely to take.

Forty paces along, he came across a low game-trail cutting inland, and there found the corpse of another Saemdhi. The man’s neck had been broken. A dozen Saemdhi arrows had then been pushed into his chest, mouth, eyes and ears.

A Korhivi survived, then. An angry one at that.

Shaken by the sight, Damisk stepped over the body and continued on.

Good and evil belonged nowhere in the world outside a mortal’s thoughts. Even blessing and suffering, which surely did exist, could turn slippery in the hand. Was a quick death a blessing? Did saving a life doom it to years of suffering?

He didn’t know. Everything was slippery, if you thought about it long enough.

Damisk wanted to be hopeful for Rant’s fate, not just for the journey, but among the Teblor, too. Half-breeds skidded in the blood between two worlds. Often, neither world welcomed them for long.

Rant was Karsa Orlong’s son, and that could be his salvation, or his death-sentence.

But of the two, which is more merciful?

Far more quickly than he anticipated, the hunters were on his trail once more. This time, they moved without heed against making noise. Anger then. A knife found broken, a new battle born, one of curse and counter-curse. Should they catch him, his death wouldn’t be quick.

He ran fleet as a deer through the black woods.

 

Excerpted from The God Is Not Willing, copyright © 2021 by Steven Erikson.

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