The old stones of this road have rung with iron black-shod hoofs and drums where I saw him walking up from the sea between the hills soaked red in sunset he came, a boy among the echoes sons and brothers all in ranks of warrior ghosts he came to pass where I sat on the worn final league-stone at day's end — his stride spoke loud all I needed know of him on this road of stone — the boy walks another soldier, another one bright heart not yet cooled to hard iron
Mother's Lament Anonymous
1161st Year of Burn's Sleep
103rd Year of the Malazan Empire
7th Year of Empress Laseen's Rule
"Prod and pull," the old woman was saying, "'tis the way of the Empress, as like the gods themselves." She leaned to one side and spat, then brought a soiled cloth to her wrinkled lips. "Three husbands and two sons I saw off to war."
The fishergirl's eyes shone as she watched the column of mounted soldiers thunder past, and she only half listened to the hag standing beside her. The girl's breath had risen to the pace of the magnificent horses. She felt her face burning, a flush that had nothing to do with the heat. The day was dying, the sun's red smear over the trees on her right, and the sea's sighing against her face had grown cool.
"That was in the days of the Emperor," the hag continued. "Hood roast the bastard's soul on a spit. But look on, lass. Laseen scatters bones with the best of them. Heh, she started with his, didn't she, now?"
The fishergirl nodded faintly. As befitted the lowborn, they waited by the roadside, the old woman burdened beneath a rough sack filled with turnips, the girl with a heavy basket balanced on her head. Every minute or so the old woman shifted the sack from one bony shoulder to the other. With the riders crowding them on the road and the ditch behind them a steep drop to broken rocks, she had no place to put down the sack.
"Scatters bones, I said. Bones of husbands, bones of sons, bones of wives and bones of daughters. All the same to her. All the same to the Empire." The old woman spat a second time. "Three husbands and two sons, ten coin apiece a year. Five of ten's fifty. Fifty coin a year's cold company, lass. Cold in winter, cold in bed."
The fishergirl wiped dust from her forehead. Her bright eyes darted among the soldiers passing before her. The young men atop their high-backed saddles held expressions stern and fixed straight ahead. The few women who rode among them sat tall and somehow fiercer than the men. The sunset cast red glints from their helms, flashing so that the girl's eyes stung and her vision blurred.
"You're the fisherman's daughter," the old woman said. "I seen you afore on the road, and down on the strand. Seen you and your dad at market. Missing an arm, ain't he? More bones for her collection is likely, eh?" She made a chopping motion with one hand, then nodded. "Mine's the first house on the track. I use the coin to buy candles. Five candles I burn every night, five candles to keep old Rigga company. It's a tired house, full of tired things and me one of them, lass. What you got in the basket there?"
Slowly the fishergirl realized that a question had been asked of her. She pulled her attention from the soldiers and smiled down at the old woman. "I'm sorry," she said, "the horses are so loud."
Rigga raised her voice. "I asked what you got in your basket, lass?"
"Twine. Enough for three nets. We need to get one ready for tomorrow. Dadda lost his last one — something in the deep waters took it and a whole catch, too. Ilgrand Lender wants the money he loaned us and we need a catch tomorrow. A good one." She smiled again and swept her gaze back to the soldiers. "Isn't it wonderful?" she breathed.
Rigga's hand shot out and snagged the girl's thick black hair, yanked it hard.
The girl cried out. The basket on her head lurched, then slid down onto one shoulder. She grabbed frantically for it but it was too heavy. The basket struck the ground and split apart. "Aaai!" the girl gasped, attempting to kneel. But Rigga pulled and snapped her head around.
"You listen to me, lass!" The old woman's sour breath hissed against the girl's face. "The Empire's been grinding this land down for a hundred years. You was born in it. I wasn't. When I was your age Itko Kan was a country. We flew a banner and it was ours. We were free, lass."
The girl was sickened by Rigga's breath. She squeezed shut her eyes.
"Mark this truth, child, else the Cloak of Lies blinds you forever." Rigga's voice took on a droning cadence, and all at once the girl stiffened. Rigga, Riggalai the Seer, the wax-witch who trapped souls in candles and burned them. Souls devoured in flame — Rigga's words carried the chilling tone of prophecy. "Mark this truth. I am the last to speak to you. You are the last to hear me. Thus are we linked, you and I, beyond all else."
Rigga's fingers snagged tighter in the girl's hair. "Across the sea the Empress has driven her knife into virgin soil. The blood now comes in a tide and it'll sweep you under, child, if you're not careful. They'll put a sword in your hand, they'll give you a fine horse, and they'll send you across that sea. But a shadow will embrace your soul. Now, listen! Bury this deep! Rigga will preserve you because we are linked, you and I. But it is all I can do, understand? Look to the Lord spawned in Darkness; his is the hand that shall free you, though he'll know it not —"
"What's this?" a voice bellowed.
Rigga swung to face the road. An outrider had slowed his mount. The Seer released the girl's hair.
The girl staggered back a step. A rock on the road's edge turned underfoot and she fell. When she looked up the outrider had trotted past. Another thundered up in his wake.
"Leave the pretty one alone, hag," this one growled, and as he rode by he leaned in his saddle and swung an open, gauntleted hand. The iron-scaled glove cracked against Rigga's head, spinning her around. She toppled.
The fishergirl screamed as Rigga landed heavily across her thighs. A thread of crimson spit spattered her face. Whimpering, the girl pushed herself back across the gravel, then used her feet to shove away Rigga's body. She climbed to her knees.
Something within Rigga's prophecy seemed lodged in the girl's head, heavy as a stone and hidden from light. She found she could not retrieve a single word the Seer had said. She reached out and grasped Rigga's woolen shawl. Carefully, she rolled the old woman over. Blood covered one side of Rigga's head, running down behind the ear. More blood smeared her lined chin and stained her mouth. The eyes stared sightlessly.
The fishergirl pulled back, unable to catch her breath. Desperate, she looked about. The column of soldiers had passed, leaving nothing but dust and the distant tremble of hoofs. Rigga's bag of turnips had spilled onto the road. Among the trampled vegetables lay five tallow candles. The girl managed a ragged lungful of dusty air. Wiping her nose, she looked to her own basket.
"Never mind the candles," she mumbled, in a thick, odd voice. "They're gone, aren't they, now? Just a scattering of bones. Never mind." She crawled toward the bundles of twine that had fallen from the breached basket, and when she spoke again her voice was young, normal. "We need the twine. We'll work all night and get one ready. Dadda's waiting. He's right at the door, he's looking up the track, he's waiting to see me."
She stopped, a shiver running through her. The sun's light was almost gone. An unseasonal chill bled from the shadows, which now flowed like water across the road.
"Here it comes, then," the girl grated softly, in a voice that wasn't her own.
A soft-gloved hand fell on her shoulder. She ducked down, cowering.
"Easy, girl," said a man's voice. "It's over. Nothing to be done for her now."
The fishergirl looked up. A man swathed in black leaned over her, his face obscured beneath a hood's shadow. "But he hit her," the girl said, in a child's voice. "And we have nets to tie, me and Dadda —"
"Let's get you on your feet," the man said, moving his long-fingered hands down under her arms. He straightened, lifting her effortlessly. Her sandaled feet dangled in the air before he set her down.
Now she saw a second man, shorter, also clothed in black. This one stood on the road and was turned away, his gaze in the direction the soldiers had gone. He spoke, his voice reed-thin. "Wasn't much of a life," he said, not turning to face her. "A minor talent, long since dried up of the Gift. Oh, she might have managed one more, but we'll never know, will we?"
The fishergirl stumbled over to Rigga's bag and picked up a candle. She straightened, her eyes suddenly hard, then deliberately spat on to the road.
The shorter man's head snapped toward her. Within the hood it seemed the shadows played alone.
The girl shrank back a step. "It was a good life," she whispered. "She had these candles, you see. Five of them. Five for —"
"Necromancy," the short man cut in.
The taller man, still at her side, said softly, "I see them, child. I understand what they mean."
The other man snorted. "The witch harbored five frail, weak souls. Nothing grand." He cocked his head. "I can hear them now. Calling for her."
Tears filled the girl's eyes. A wordless anguish seemed to well up from that black stone in her mind. She wiped her cheeks. "Where did you come from?" she asked abruptly. "We didn't see you on the road."
The man beside her half turned to the gravel track. "On the other side," he said, a smile in his tone. "Waiting, just like you."
The other giggled. "On the other side indeed." He faced down the road again and raised his arms.
The girl drew in a sharp breath as darkness descended. A loud, tearing sound filled the air for a moment, then the darkness dissipated and the girl's eyes widened.
Seven massive Hounds now sat around the man in the road. The eyes of these beasts glowed yellow, and all were turned in the same direction as the man himself.
She heard him hiss, "Eager, are we? Then go!"
Silently, the Hounds bolted down the road.
Their master turned and said to the man beside her, "Something to gnaw on Laseen's mind." He giggled again.
"Must you complicate things?" the other answered wearily.
The short man stiffened. "They are within sight of the column." He cocked his head. From up the road came the scream of horses. He sighed. "You've reached a decision, Cotillion?"
The other grunted amusedly. "Using my name, Ammanas, means you've just decided for me. We can hardly leave her here now, can we?"
"Of course we can, old friend. Just not breathing."
Cotillion looked down on the girl. "No," he said quietly, "she'll do."
The fishergirl bit her lip. Still clutching Rigga's candle, she took another step back, her wide eyes darting from one man to the other.
"Pity," Ammanas said.
Cotillion seemed to nod, then he cleared his throat and said, "It'll take time."
An amused note entered Ammanas's reply. "And have we time? True vengeance needs the slow, careful stalking of the victim. Have you forgotten the pain she once delivered us? Laseen's back is against the wall already. She might fall without our help. Where would be the satisfaction in that?"
Cotillion's response was cool and dry. "You've always underestimated the Empress. Hence our present circumstances ... No." He gestured at the fisher-girl. "We'll need this one. Laseen's raised the ire of Moon's Spawn, and that's a hornet's nest if ever there was one. The timing is perfect."
Faintly, above the screaming horses, came the shrieks of men and women, a sound that pierced the girl's heart. Her eyes darted to Rigga's motionless form on the roadside, then back to Ammanas, who now approached her. She thought to run but her legs had weakened to a helpless trembling. He came close and seemed to study her, even though the shadows within his hood remained impenetrable.
"A fishergirl?" he asked, in a kindly tone.
"Have you a name?"
"Enough!" Cotillion growled. "She's not some mouse under your paw, Ammanas. Besides, I've chosen her and I will choose her name as well."
Ammanas stepped back. "Pity," he said again.
The girl raised imploring hands. "Please," she begged Cotillion, "I've done nothing! My father's a poor man, but he'll pay you all he can. He needs me, and the twine — he's waiting right now!" She felt herself go wet between her legs and quickly sat down on the ground. "I've done nothing!" Shame rose through her and she put her hands in her lap. "Please."
"I've no choice anymore, child," Cotillion said. "After all, you know our names."
"I've never heard them before!" the girl cried.
The man sighed. "With what's happening up the road right now, well, you'd be questioned. Unpleasantly. There are those who know our names."
"You see, lass," Ammanas added, suppressing a giggle, "we're not supposed to be here. There are names, and then there are names." He swung to Cotillion and said, in a chilling voice, "Her father must be dealt with. My Hounds?"
"No," Cotillion said. "He lives."
"I suspect," Cotillion said, "greed will suffice, once the slate is wiped clean." Sarcasm filled his next words. "I'm sure you can manage the sorcery in that, can't you?"
Ammanas giggled. "Beware of shadows bearing gifts."
Cotillion faced the girl again. He lifted his arms out to the sides. The shadows that held his features in darkness now flowed out around his body.
Ammanas spoke, and to the girl his words seemed to come from a great distance. "She's ideal. The Empress could never track her down, could never even so much as guess." He raised his voice. "It's not so bad a thing, lass, to be the pawn of a god."
"Prod and pull," the fishergirl said quickly.
Cotillion hesitated at her strange comment, then he shrugged. The shadows whirled out to engulf the girl. With their cold touch her mind fell away, down into darkness. Her last fleeting sensation was of the soft wax of the candle in her right hand, and how it seemed to well up between the fingers of her clenched fist.
The captain shifted in his saddle and glanced at the woman riding beside him. "We've closed the road on both sides, Adjunct. Moved the local traffic inland. So far, no word's leaked." He wiped sweat from his brow and winced. The hot woolen cap beneath his helm had rubbed his forehead raw.
"Something wrong, Captain?"
He shook his head, squinting up the road. "Helmet's loose. Had more hair the last time I wore it."
The Adjunct to the Empress did not reply.
The mid-morning sun made the road's white, dusty surface almost blinding. The captain felt sweat running down his body, and the mail of his helm's lobster tail kept nipping the hairs on his neck. Already his lower back ached. It had been years since he'd last ridden a horse, and the roll was slow in coming. With every saddle-bounce he felt vertebrae crunch.
It had been a long time since somebody's title had been enough to straighten him up. But this was the Adjunct to the Empress, Laseen's personal servant, an extension of her Imperial will. The last thing the captain wanted was to show his misery to this young, dangerous woman.
Up ahead the road began its long, winding ascent. A salty wind blew from their left, whistling through the newly budding trees lining that side of the road. By mid-afternoon, that wind would breathe hot as a baker's oven, carrying with it the stench of the mudflats. And the sun's heat would bring something else as well. The captain hoped to be back in Kan by then.
He tried not to think about the place they rode toward. Leave that to the Adjunct. In his years of service to the Empire, he'd seen enough to know when to shut everything down inside his skull. This was one of those times.
The Adjunct spoke. "You've been stationed here long, Captain?"
"Aye," the man growled.
The woman waited, then asked, "How long?"
He hesitated. "Thirteen years, Adjunct."
"You fought for the Emperor, then," she said.
"And survived the purge."
The captain threw her a look. If she felt his gaze, she gave no indication. Her eyes remained on the road ahead; she rolled easily in the saddle, the scabbarded longsword hitched high under her left arm — ready for mounted battle. Her hair was either cut short or drawn up under her helm. Her figure was lithe enough, the captain mused.
"Finished?" she asked. "I was asking about the purges commanded by Empress Laseen following her predecessor's untimely death."
The captain gritted his teeth, ducked his chin to draw up the helm's strap — he hadn't had time to shave and the buckle was chafing. "Not everyone was killed, Adjunct. The people of Itko Kan aren't exactly excitable. None of those riots and mass executions that hit other parts of the Empire. We all just sat tight and waited."
"I take it," the Adjunct said, with a slight smile, "you're not noble-born, Captain."
He grunted. "If I'd been noble-born, I wouldn't have survived, even here in Itko Kan. We both know that. Her orders were specific, and even the droll Kanese didn't dare disobey the Empress." He scowled. "No, up through the ranks, Adjunct."
"Your last engagement?"