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Malazan Book of the Fallen #04: House of Chainsby Steven Erikson
Verge of the Nascent, the 943rd Day of the Search
1159 Burn's Sleep
Grey, bloated and pocked, the bodies lined the silt-laden shoreline for as far as the eye could see. Heaped like driftwood by the rising water, bobbing and rolling on the edges, the putrefying flesh seethed with black-shelled, ten-legged crabs. The coin-sized creatures had scarcely begun to make inroads on the bounteous feast the warren's sundering had laid before them.
The sea mirrored the low sky's hue. Dull, patched pewter above and below, broken only by the deeper grey of silts and, thirty strokes of the oar distant, the smeared ochre tones of the barely visible upper levels of a city's inundated buildings. The storms had passed, the waters were calm amidst the wreckage of a drowned world.
Short, squat had been the inhabitants. Flat-featured, the pale hair left long and loose. Their world had been a cold one, given the thick-padded clothing they had worn. But with the sundering that had changed, cataclysmically. The air was sultry, damp and now foul with the reek of decay.
The sea had been born of a river on another realm. A massive, wide and probably continent-spanning artery of fresh water, heavy with a plain's silts, the murky depths home to huge catfish and wagon-wheeled-sized spiders, its shallows crowded with the crabs and carnivorous, rootless plants. The river had poured its torrential volume onto this vast, level landscape. Days, then weeks, then months.
Storms, conjured by the volatile clash of tropical air-streams with the resident temperate climate, had driven the flood on beneath shrieking winds, and before the inexorably rising waters came deadly plagues to take those who had not drowned.
Somehow, the rent had closed sometime in the night just past. The river from another realm had been returned to its original path.
The shoreline ahead probably did not deserve the word, but nothing else came to Trull Sengar's mind as he was dragged along its verge. The beach was nothing more than silt, heaped against a huge wall that seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. The wall had withstood the flood, though water now streamed down it on the opposite side.
Bodies on his left, a sheer drop of seven, maybe eight man-heights to his right, the top of the wall itself slightly less than thirty paces across; that it held back an entire sea whispered of sorcery. The broad, flat stones underfoot were smeared with mud, but already drying in the heat, dun-coloured insects dancing on its surface, leaping from the path of Trull Sengar and his captors.
Trull still experienced difficulty comprehending that notion. Captors. A word he struggled with. They were his brothers, after all. Kin. Faces he had known all his life, faces he had seen smile, and laugh, and faces---at times---filled with a grief that had mirrored his own. He had stood at their sides through all that had happened, the glorious triumphs, the soul-wrenching losses.
There were no smiles, now. No laughter. The expressions of those who held him were fixed and cold.
What we have come to.
The march ended. Hands pushed Trull Sengar down, heedless of his bruises, the cuts and the gouges that still leaked blood. Massive iron rings had been set, for some unknown purpose, by this world's now-dead inhabitants, along the top of the wall, anchored in the heart of the huge stone blocks. The rings were evenly spaced down the wall's length, at intervals of fifteen or so paces, for as far as Trull could see.
Now, those rings had found a new function.
Chains were wrapped around Trull Sengar, shackles hammered into place on his wrists and ankles. A studded girdle was cinched painfully tight about his midriff, the chains drawn through iron loops and pulled taut to pin him down beside the iron ring. A hinged metal press was affixed to his jaw, his mouth forced open and the plate pushed in and locked in place over his tongue.
The Shorning followed. A dagger inscribed a circle on his forehead, followed by a jagged slash to break that circle, the point pushed deep enough to gouge the bone. Ash was rubbed into the wounds. His long single braid was removed with rough hacks that made a bloody mess of his nape. A thick, cloying unguent was then smeared through his remaining hair, massaged down to the pate. Within a few hours, the rest of his hair would fall away, leaving him permanently bald.
The Shorning was an absolute thing, an irreversible act of severance. He was now outcast. To his brothers, he had ceased to exist. He would not be mourned. His deeds would vanish from memory along with his name. His mother and father would have birthed one less child. This was, for his people, the most dire punishment---worse than execution by far.
Yet, Trull Sengar had committed no crime.
And this is what we have come to.
They stood above him, perhaps only now comprehending what they had done.
A familiar voice broke the silence. 'We will speak of him now, and once we have left this place, he will cease to be our brother.'
'We will speak of him now,' the others intoned, then one added, 'He betrayed you.'
The first voice was cool, revealing nothing of the gloat that Trull Sengar knew would be there. 'You say he betrayed me.'
'He did, brother.'
'What proof do you have?'
'By his own tongue.'
'Is it just you who claims to have heard such betrayal spoken?'
'No, I too heard it, brother.'
'And what did our brother say to you all?'
'He said that you had severed your blood from ours.'
'That you now served a hidden master.'
'That your ambition would lead us all to our deaths---'
'Our entire people.'
'He spoke against me, then.'
'By his own tongue, he accused me of betraying our people.'
'And have I? Let us consider this charge. The southlands are aflame. The enemy's armies have fled. The enemy now kneels before us, and begs to be our slaves. From nothing, was forged an empire. And still our strength grows. Yet. To grow stronger, what must you, my brothers, do?'
'We must search.'
'Aye. And when you find what must be sought?'
'We must deliver. To you, brother.'
'Do you see the need for this?'
'Do you understand the sacrifice I make, for you, for our people, for our future?'
'Yet, even as you searched, this man, our once-brother, spoke against me.'
'Worse, he spoke to defend the new enemies we had found.'
'He did. He called them the Pure Kin, and said we should not kill them.'
'And, had they been in truth Pure Kin, then...'
'They would not have died so easily.'
'He betrayed you, brother.'
'He betrayed us all.'
There was silence. Ah, now you would share out this crime of yours. And they hesitate.
'He betrayed us all, did he not, brothers?'
'Yes.' The word arrived rough, beneath the breath, mumbled---a chorus of dubious uncertainty.
No-one spoke for a long moment, then, savage with barely bridled anger: 'Thus, brothers. And should we not heed this danger? This threat of betrayal, this poison, this plague that seeks to tear our family apart? Will it spread? Will we come here yet again? We must be vigilant, brothers. Within ourselves. With each other. Now, we have spoken of him. And now, he is gone.'
'He is gone.'
'He never existed.'
'He never existed.'
'Let us leave this place, then.'
'Yes, let us leave.'
Trull Sengar listened until he could no more hear their boots on the stones, nor feel the tremble of their dwindling steps. He was alone, unable to move, seeing only the mud-smeared stone at the base of the iron ring.
The sea rustled the corpses along the shoreline. Crabs scuttled. Water continued to seep through the mortar, insinuate the Cyclopean wall with the voice of muttering ghosts, and flow down on the other side.
Among his people, it was a long-known truth, perhaps the only truth, that Nature fought but one eternal war. One foe. That, further, to understand this was to understand the world. Every world.
Nature has but one enemy.
And that is imbalance.
The wall held the sea.
And there are two meanings to this. My brothers, can you not see the truth of that? Two meanings. The wall holds the sea.
This was a flood that would not be denied. The deluge had but just begun---something his brothers could not understand, would, perhaps, never understand.
Drowning was common among his people. Drowning was not feared. And so, Trull Sengar would drown. Soon.
And before long, he suspected, his entire people would join him.
His brother had shattered the balance.
And Nature shall not abide.
Copyright © 2006 by Steven Erikson
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