Toll the Hounds Prologue
"Speak truth, grow still, until the water is clear between us."
With many thanks to Steven Erikson and the hardworking folks at Transworld Publishers, if you haven't seen it already, here is the prologue to Book 8 of the Malazan series, Toll the Hounds. (Apologies for the format being a bit awkward)
Meditations of the Tiste Andii
“I have no name for this town,” the ragged man said, hands plucking at the frayed hems of what had once been an opulent cloak. Coiled and tucked into his braided belt was a length of leather leash, rotting and tattered. “It needs a name, I think,” he continued, voice raised to be heard above the vicious fighting of the dogs, “yet I find a certain failing of imagination, and no one seems much interested.”
The woman, standing now at his side, to whom he companionably addressed these remarks, had but newly arrived. Of her life in the time before, very little remained. She had not owned a dog, yet she had found herself staggering down the high street of this decrepit, strange town, clutching a leash against which a foul-tempered brute tugged and lunged at every passer by. The rotted leather had finally parted, freeing the beast to bolt forward, launching an attack upon this man’s own dog.
The two animals were now trying to kill each other in the middle of the street, their audience none but their presumed owners. Dust had given way to blood and tufts of hide.
“There was a garrison, once, three soldiers who didn‘t know each other,” the man said. “But one by one they left.”
“I never owned a dog before,” she replied, and it was with a start that she realized that these were the first words she had uttered since … well, since the time before.
“Nor I,” admitted the man. “And until now, mine was the only dog in town. Oddly enough, I never grew fond of the wretched beast.”
“How long have you … er, been here?”
“I have no idea, but it seems like for ever.”
She looked round, then nodded. “Me too.”
“Alas, I believe your pet has died.”
“Oh! So it has.” She frowned down at the broken leash in her hand. “I suppose I won’t be needing a new one, then.”
“Don’t be too certain of that,” the man said. “We seem to repeat things here. Day after day. But listen, you can have mine – I never use it, as you can see.”
She accepted the coiled leash. “Thank you.” She took it out to where her dead dog was lying, more or less torn to pieces. The victor was crawling back towards its master leaving a trail of blood.
Everything seemed knocked strangely askew, including, she realized, her own impulses. She crouched down and gently lifted her dead dog’s mangled head, working the loop over until it encircled the torn neck. Then she lowered the bloody, spit-lathered head back to the ground and straightened, holding the leash loose in her right hand.
The man joined her. “Aye, it’s all rather confusing, isn’t it?”
“And we thought life was confusing.”
She shot him a glance. “So we are dead, aren’t we?”
“I think so.”
“Then I don’t understand. I was to have been interred in a crypt. A fine, solid crypt -- I saw it myself. Richly appointed and proof against thieves, with casks of wine and seasoned meats and fruit for the journey –" She gestured down at the rags she was wearing. “I was to be dressed in my finest clothes, wearing all my jewellery.”
He was watching her. “Wealthy, then.”
“Yes!” She looked back down at the dead dog on the end of the leash.
“Not any more.”
She glared across at him, and then realized that such anger was, well, pointless. “I have never seen this town before. It looks to be falling apart.”
“Aye, it’s all falling apart. You have that right.”
“I don’t know where I live -- oh, that sounds odd, doesn’t it?” She looked round again. “It’s all dust and rot, and is that a storm coming?” She pointed down the main street towards the horizon, where heavy, strangely luminous clouds now gathered above denuded hills.
They stared at them for a time. The clouds seemed to be raining tears of jade.
“I was once a priest,” the man said, as his dog edged up against his feet and lay there, gasping with blood dripping from its mouth. “Every time we saw a storm coming, we closed our eyes and sang all the louder.”
She regarded him in some surprise. “You were a priest? Then … why are you not with your god?”
The man shrugged. “If I knew the answer to that, the delusion I once possessed -- of enlightenment -- would in truth be mine.” He suddenly straightened. “Oh, we have a visitor.”
Approaching with a hitched gait was a tall figure, so desiccated that its limbs seemed little more than tree roots, its face naught but rotted, weathered skin stretched over bone. Long grey hair drifted out unbound from a pallid, peeling scalp.
“I suppose,” the woman muttered, “I need to get used to such sights.”
Her companion said nothing, and they both watched as the gaunt, limping creature staggered past, and as they turned to follow its progress, they saw another stranger, cloaked in frayed dark grey, hooded, of a height to match the other.
Neither seemed to take note of their audience, as the hooded one said,
“You have called me here,” said the one named Edgewalker, “to … mitigate.”
“This has been a long time in coming.”
“You might think that way, Edgewalker.”
The grey-haired man -- who was clearly long dead -- cocked his head and asked, “Why now?”
The hooded figure turned slightly, and the woman thought he might be looking down on the dead dog. “Disgust,” he replied.
A soft rasping laugh from Edgewalker.
“What ghastly place is this?” hissed a new voice, and the woman saw a shape -- no more than a smeared blur of shadows -- whisper out from an alley in flowing silence, though he seemed to be hobbling on a cane, and all at once there were huge beasts, two, four, five, padding out around the newcomer.
A grunt from the priest beside the woman. “Hounds of Shadow. Could my god but witness this!”
“Perhaps it does, through your eyes.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
Edgewalker and his hooded companion watched the shadowy form approach. Short, wavering then growing more solid. Black-stick cane thumping on the dirt street, raising puffs of dust. The Hounds wandered away, heads lowered as they sniffed the ground. None approached the carcass of the woman’s dog, nor the gasping beast at the feet of her newfound friend.
The hooded one said, “Ghastly? I suppose it is. A necropolis of sorts, Shadowthrone. A village of the discarded. Both timeless and, yes, useless. Such places,” he continued, “are ubiquitous.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Shadowthrone. “Look at us, waiting. Waiting. Oh, if I were one for decorum and propriety!” A sudden giggle. “If any of us were!”
All at once the Hounds returned, hackles raised, gazes keen on something far up the main street.
“One more,” whispered the priest. “One more and the last, yes.”
“Will all this happen again?” the woman asked him, as sudden fear ripped through her. Someone is coming. Oh, gods, someone is coming. “Tomorrow? Tell me!”
“I would imagine not,” the priest said after a moment. He swung his gaze to the dog carcass lying in the dust. “No,” he said again, “I imagine not.”
From the hills, thunder and jade rain slashing down like the arrows from ten thousand battles. From down the street, the sudden rumble of carriage wheels.
She turned at that latter sound and smiled. “Oh,” she said in relief, “here comes my ride.”
He had once been a wizard of Pale, driven by desperation into betrayal. But Anomander Rake had not been interested in desperation, or any other excuse Ditch and his comrades might have proffered. Betrayers of the Son of Darkness kissed the sword Dragnipur, and somewhere among this legion toiling in the perpetual gloom there were faces he would recognise, eyes that could meet his own. And what would he see in them?
Only what he gave back. Desperation was not enough.
These were rare thoughts, no more or less unwelcome than any others, mocking him as in their freedom they drifted in and out, and when nowhere close, why, they perhaps floated through alien skies, riding warm winds soft as laughter. What could not escape was Ditch himself and that which he could see on all sides. This oily mud and its sharp black stones that cut through the rotted soles of his boots, the deathly damp air that layered a grimy film upon the skin, as if the world itself was fevered and slick with sweat. The faint cries -- strangely ever distant to Ditch’s ears -- and, much nearer, the groan and crunch of the massive engine of wood and bronze, the muted squeal of chains.
Onward, onward, even as the storm behind them drew closer, cloud piling on cloud, silver and roiling and shot through with twisting spears of iron. Ash had begun to rain down on them, unceasing now, each flake cold as snow, yet this was a sludge that did not melt, instead churning into the mud until it seemed they walked through a field of slag and tailings.
Although a wizard, Ditch was neither small nor frail. There was a roughness to him that had made others think of thugs and alley-pouncers, back in the life that had been before. His features were heavy, angular and indeed, brutish. He had been a strong man, but this was no reward, not here, not chained to the Burden. Not within the dark soul of Dragnipur.
The strain was unbearable, yet bear it he did. The way ahead was infinite, screaming of madness, yet he held on to his own sanity as a drowning man might cling to a frayed rope, and he dragged himself onward, step by step. Iron shackles made his limbs weep blood, with no hope of surcease. Figures caked in mud plodded to either side, and beyond them, vague in the gloom, countless others.
Was there comfort in shared fate? The question alone invited hysterical laughter, a plunge into insanity’s precious oblivion. No, surely there was no such comfort, beyond the mutual recognition of folly, ill luck and obstinate stupidity, and these traits could not serve camaraderie. Besides, one’s companions to either side were in the habit of changing at a moment’s notice, one hapless fool replacing another in a grainy, blurred swirl.
Heaving on the chains, to keep the Burden in motion, this nightmarish flight left no energy, no time, for conversation. And so Ditch ignored the hand buffeting his shoulder the first time, the second time. The third time, however, was hard enough to send the wizard staggering to one side. Swearing, he twisted round to glare at the one now walking at his side.
Once, long ago, he might have flinched back upon seeing such an apparition. His heart would have lurched in terror.
The demon was huge, hulking. Its once royal blood availed it no privilege here in Dragnipur. Ditch saw that the creature was carrying the fallen, the failed, gathering to itself a score or more bodies and the chains attached to them. Muscles strained, bunched and twisted as the demon pulled itself forward. Scrawny bodies hanging limp, crowded like cordwood under each arm. One, still conscious though her head lolled, rode its broad back like a newborn ape, glazed eyes sliding across the wizard’s face.
“You fool,” Ditch snarled. “Throw 'em into the bed!”
“No room,” piped the demon in a high, childish voice.
But the wizard had used up his sympathy. For the demon’s sake, it should have left the fallen behind, but then, of course, they would all feel the added weight, the pathetic drag on the chains. Still, what if this one fell? What if that extraordinary strength and will gave way? “Curse the fool!” Ditch growled. “Why doesn’t he kill a few more dragons, damn him!”
“We fail,” said the demon.
Ditch wanted to howl at that. Was it not obvious to them all? But that quavering voice was both bemused and forlorn, and it struck through to his heart. “I know, friend. Not long now.”
Ditch shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Again the wizard had no answer.
The demon persisted. “We must find one who does. I am going now. But I will return. Do not pity me, please.”
A sudden swirl, grey and black, and now some bear-like beast was beside him, too weary, too mindless to even lunge at him -- as some creatures still did.
“You’ve been here too long, friend,” Ditch said to it.
An interesting question. Did anyone know what would happen when the chaos caught them? Anyone here in Dragnipur?
In his first moments following his kissing the sword, in between his frenzied attempts at escape, his shrieks of despair, he had flung questions at everyone -- why, he’d even sought to accost a Hound, but it had been too busy lunging at its own chains, froth fizzing from its massive jaws, and had very nearly trampled him, and he’d never seen it again.
But someone had replied, someone had spoken to him. About something … oh, he could not recall much more than a name. A single name.
She had witnessed many things in this interminable interlude in her career, but none more frustrating than the escape of two Hounds of Shadow. It was not for one such as Apsal’ara, Lady of Thieves, to besmirch her existence with the laborious indignity of tugging on a chain for all eternity. Shackles were to be escaped, burdens deftly avoided.
From the moment of her first stumbling arrival, she had set upon herself the task of breaking the chains binding her in this dread realm, but this task was virtually impossible if one were cursed to ever pull the damned wagon. And she had no desire to witness again the horrible train at the very end of the chains, the abraded lumps of still living meat dragging across the gouged muddy ground, the flash of an open eye, a flopping nub of a limb straining towards her, a terrible army of the failed, the ones who surrendered and the ones whose strength gave out.
No, Apsal’ara had worked her way closer to the enormous wagon, eventually finding herself trudging beside one of the huge wooden wheels. Then she had lagged in her pace until just behind that wheel. From there, she moved inward, slipping beneath the creaking bed with its incessant rain of brown water, blood and the wastes that came of rotting but still living flesh. Dragging the chain behind her she had worked her way on to a shelf of the undercarriage, just above the front axle, wedging herself in tight, legs drawn up, her back against slimy wood.
Fire had been the gift, the stolen gift, but there could be no flame in this sodden underworld. Failing that, there was … friction. She had begun working one length of chain across another.
How many years had it been? She had no idea. There was no hunger, no thirst. The chain sawed back and forth. There was a hint of heat, climbing link by link and into her hands. Had the iron softened? Was the metal worn with new, silvery grooves? She had long since stopped checking. The effort was enough. For so long, it had been enough.
Until those damned Hounds.
That, and the inescapable truth that the wagon had slowed, that now there were as many lying on its bed as there were still out in the gloom beyond, heaving desperate on their chains. She could hear the piteous groans, seeping down from the bed directly above her, of those trapped beneath the weight of countless others.
The Hounds had thundered against the sides of the wagon. The Hounds had plunged into the maw of darkness at the very centre.
There had been a stranger, an unchained stranger. Taunting the Hounds – the Hounds! She remembered his face, oh yes, his face. Even after he had vanished…
In the wake of all that, Apsal’ara had attempted to follow the beasts, only to be driven back by the immense cold of that portal -- cold so fierce it destroyed flesh, colder even than Omtose Phellack. The cold of negation. Denial.
No greater curse than hope. A lesser creature would have wept then, would have surrendered, throwing herself beneath one of the wheels to be left dragging in the wagon’s wake, nothing more than one more piece of wreckage, of crushed bone and mangled flesh, scraping and tumbling in the stony mud. Instead, she had returned to her private perch, resumed working the chains.
She had stolen the moon once.
She had stolen fire.
She had padded the silent arching halls of the city within Moon’s Spawn.
She was the Lady of Thieves.
And a sword had stolen her life.
This will not do. This will not do.
Lying in its usual place on the flat rock beside the stream, the mangy dog with the misshapen hip lifted its head, the motion stirring insects into buzzing flight. A moment later, the beast rose. Scars covered its back, some deep enough to twist the muscles beneath. The dog lived in the village but was not of it. Nor was the animal one among the village’s pack. It did not sleep outside the entrance to any hut; it allowed no one to come close. Even the tribe’s horses would not draw near it.
There was, it was agreed, a deep bitterness in its eyes, and an even deeper sorrow. God-touched, the Uryd elders said, and this claim ensured that the dog would never starve and would never be driven away. It would be tolerated, in the manner of all things god-touched.
Surprisingly lithe despite its malformed hip, the dog now trotted through the village, down the length of the main avenue. When it came to the south end, it kept on going, downslope, wending through the moss-backed boulders and the bone-piles that marked the refuse of the Uryd.
Its departure was noted by two girls still a year or more from their nights of passage into adulthood. There was a similarity to their features, and in their ages they were a close match, the time of their births mere days apart. Neither could be said to be loquacious. They shared the silent language common among twins, although they were not twins, and it seemed that, for them, this language was enough. And so, upon seeing the limping dog leave the village, they exchanged a glance, set about gathering what supplies and weapons were near at hand, and then set out, on the dog’s trail.
Their departure was noted, but that was all. Others would take over the caring for the two toddlers left behind, as these things were done when need demanded.
South, down from the great mountains of home, where condors wheeled between the peaks and wolves howled when the winter winds came.
South, towards the lands of the hated children of the Nathii, where dwelt the bringers of war and pestilence, the slayers and enslavers of the Teblor. Where the Nathii bred like lemmings until it seemed there would be no place left in the world for anyone or anything but them.
Like the limping dog, the two girls were fearless and resolute. Though they did not know it, such traits came from their father, whom they had never met.
The dog did not look back, and when the women caught up to it, the beast maintained its indifference. It was, as the elders had said, god-touched.
Back in the village, a mother and daughter were told of the flight of their children. The daughter wept. The mother did not. Instead, there was heat in a low place of her body, and, for a time, she was lost in remembrances.
“Oh frail city, where strangers arrive…”
An empty plain beneath an empty night sky. A lone fire, so weak as to be nearly swallowed by the blackened, cracked stones encircling it. Seated on one of the two flat stones close to the hearth, a short, round man with sparse, greasy hair. Faded red waistcoat, over a linen shirt with stained once-white blousy cuffs erupting around the pudgy hands. The round face was flushed, reflecting the flickering flames. From the small knuckled chin dangled long black hairs -- not enough to braid, alas -- a new affectation he had taken to twirling and stroking when deep in thought, or even shallowly so. Indeed, when not thinking at all, but wishing to convey an impression of serious cogitation, should anyone regard him thoughtfully.
He stroked and twirled now as he frowned down into the fire before him.
What had that grey-haired bard sung? There on the modest stage in K’rul's Bar earlier in the night, when he had watched on, content with his place in the glorious city he had saved more than once?
“Oh frail city, where strangers arrive…”
“I need to tell you something, Kruppe.”
The round man glanced up to find a shrouded figure seated on the other flat stone, reaching thin pale hands out to the flames. Kruppe cleared his throat, then said, “It has been a long time since Kruppe last found himself perched as you see him now. Accordingly, upon finding himself here, Kruppe has concluded that you wished to tell him something of such vast import that none but Kruppe is worthy to hear.”
A faint glitter from the darkness within the hood. “I am not in this war.”
Kruppe stroked the rat-tails of his beard, delighting himself by saying nothing.
“This surprises you?” the Elder God asked.
“Kruppe ever expects the unexpected, old friend. Why, could you ever expect otherwise? Kruppe is shocked. Yet, a thought arrives, launched brainward by a tug on this handsome beard. K’rul states he is not in the war. Yet, Kruppe suspects, he is nevertheless its prize.”
“Only you understand this, my friend,” the Elder God said, sighing. Then cocked its head. "I had not noticed before, but you seem sad."
"Sadness has many flavours, and it seems Kruppe has tasted them all."
"Will you speak now of such matters? I am, I believe, a good listener."
“Kruppe sees that you are sorely beset. Perhaps now is not the time.”
“That is no matter.”
“It is to Kruppe.”
K'rul glanced to one side, and saw a figure approaching, grey-haired, gaunt.
Kruppe sang, “‘Oh frail city, where strangers arrive … and the rest?"
The newcomer answered in a deep voice, "… pushing into the cracks, there to abide.’”
And the Elder God sighed.
“Join us, friend," said Kruppe. "Sit here by this fire: this scene paints the history of our kind, as you well know. A night, a hearth, and a tale to spin. Dear K’rul, dearest friend of Kruppe, hast thou ever seen Kruppe dance?”
The stranger sat. A wan face, an expression of sorrow and pain.
“No," said K'rul. "I think not. Not by limb, not by word.”
Kruppe's smile was muted, and something glistened in his eyes. "Then, my friends, settle yourselves for this night. And witness.”