The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh-eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard’s paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.
The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some eighty years ago, thanks to Nall’s ‘Engine’, a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the Engine created the Misery – a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a No Mans Land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the Engine fails to launch. Galharrow only escapes because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together, they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic’s defences. Far across the Misery a vast army is on the move, as the Empire prepares to call the republic’s bluff.
Prepare yourself for an unforgettable read . . .
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 eye piece 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 cut- throats 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 said. 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.’ ‘Easy work.’
‘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. ‘Hardly.’
‘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 wood smoke 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 said. 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, and 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 re-joined 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 and 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.
Excerpted from Blackwing © Ed McDonald 2017