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The Steel Remains

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The Steel Remains Cover

ISBN13: 9780345493040
ISBN10: 0345493044
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

Chapter One

When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options. You can smell his breath, take his pulse, and check his pupils to see if he's ingested anything nasty, or you can believe him. Ringil had already tried the first course of action with Bashka the Schoolmaster and to no avail, so he put down his pint with an elaborate sigh and went to get his broadsword.

"Not this again," he was heard to mutter as he pushed through into

the residents' bar.

A yard and a half of tempered Kiriath steel, Ringil's broadsword

hung above the fireplace in a scabbard woven from alloys that men had

no names for, though any Kiriath child could have identified them from

age five upward. The sword itself also had a name in the Kiriath tongue,

as did all Kiriath- forged weapons, but it was an ornate title that lost a lot

in translation. "Welcomed in the Home of Ravens and Other Scavengers

in the Wake of Warriors" was about as close as Archeth had been able to

render it, so Ringil had settled on calling it the Ravensfriend. He didn't

like the name especially, but it had the sort of ring people expected of a

famous sword—and his landlord, a shrewd man with money and the

potential for making it, had renamed the inn the same way, setting an

eternal seal on the thing. A local artist had painted a passable image of

Ringil wielding the Ravensfriend at Gallows Gap and now it hung

outside for all the passing world to see. In return, Ringil got bed and

board and the opportunity to sell tales of his exploits to tourists in the

residents' bar for whatever was dropped into his cap.

All that, Ringil once remarked ironically in a letter to Archeth, and a blind eye turned to certain bedroom practices that would doubtless earn Yours Truly a slow death by impaling in Trelayne or Yhelteth. Heroic status in Gallows Water, it seems, includes a special dispensation not available to the average citizen in these righteous times. Plus, he supposed, you don't go queer baiting when your quarry has a reputation for rendering trained swordsmen into dogmeat at the drop of a gauntlet. Fame, Ringil scribbled, has its uses after all.

Mounting the sword over the fireplace had been a nice touch, and

also the landlord's idea. The man was now trying to persuade his

resident celebrity to offer dueling lessons out back in the stable yards.

Cross blades with the hero of Gallows Gap for three Empire- minted

elementals the half hour. Ringil didn't know if he felt that hard up yet.

He'd seen what teaching had done to Bashka.

Anyway, he dragged the Ravensfriend from the scabbard with a

single grating clang, slung it casually over his shoulder, and walked out

into the street, ignoring the stares from the audience he had been

regaling with tales of valor about an hour ago. He guessed they'd follow

him at least part of the way to the schoolmaster's house. It couldn't do

any harm, if his suspicions about what was going on were correct, but

they'd probably all cut and run at the first sign of trouble. You couldn't

blame them really. They were peasants and merchants, and they had no

bond with him. About a third of them he'd never even seen before

tonight.

Introductory comment from the treatise on skirmish warfare that the Trelayne Military Academy had politely declined to publish under his name: If you don't know the men at your back by name, don't be

surprised if they won't follow you into battle. On the other hand, don't be surprised if they will, either, because there are countless other factors you must take into account. Leadership is a slippery commodity, not easily manufactured or understood. It was simple truth, as gleaned in the bloody forefront of some of the nastiest fighting the free cities had seen in living memory. It was, however, the Lieutenant Editor in Trelayne had written kindly, just too vague for the Academy to consider as viable

training material. It is this ambivalence as much as any other that leads us to decline your submission. Ringil looked at that last sentence on the parchment and suspected a kindred spirit.

It was cold out in the street. Above the waist he wore only a leather

jerkin with loose half- length sailcloth sleeves, and there was an unseasonal

early chill sloping down the spine of the country from the

Majak uplands. The peaks of the mountains that the town nestled under

were already capped with snow, and it was reckoned that Gallows Gap

would be impassable before Padrow's Eve. People were talking again

about an Aldrain winter. There had been stories circulating for weeks

now, of high- pasture livestock taken by wolves and other, less natural

predators, of chilling encounters and sightings in the mountain passes.

Not all of them could be put down to fanciful talk. This,Ringil suspected,

was going to be the source of the problem. Bashka the Schoolmaster's

cottage was at the end of one of the town's cross streets and backed onto

the local graveyard.As by far the most educated man in the tiny township

of Gallows Water— its resident hero excluded— Bashka had been handed

the role of temple officiator by default, and the house went with the

priest's robes.And in bad weather, graveyards were a fine source of meat

for scavengers.

You will be a great hero, a Yhelteth fortune- teller had once read in

Ringil's spittle. You will carry many battles and best many foes.

Nothing about being a municipal exterminator in a border- town

settlement not much bigger than one of Trelayne's estuary slums.

There were torches fixed in brackets along the main streets and river

frontage of Gallows Water but the rest of the town must make do with

bandlight, of which there wasn't much on a night this clouded. True to

Ringil's expectations, the crowd thinned out as soon as he stepped onto

an unlit thoroughfare. When it became apparent where he was headed

specifically, his escort dropped by more than half. He reached the corner

of Bashka's street still trailing a loose group of about six or eight, but by

the time he drew level with the schoolmaster's cottage— the door still

gaping open, the way its owner had left it when he fled in his nightshirt—

he was alone. He cocked his head back to where the rubberneckers

hovered at the far end of the street. A wry grin twitched his lips.

"Stand well back now," he called.

From among the graves, something uttered a low droning cry.

Ringil's skin goosefleshed with the sound of it. He unshipped the

Ravensfriend from his shoulder and, holding it warily before him,

stepped around the corner of the little house.

The rows of graves marched up the hill where the town petered out

against outcroppings of mountain granite. Most of the markers were

simple slabs hewn from the self- same stone as the mountain, reflecting

the locals' phlegmatic attitude to the business of dying. But here and

there could be seen the more ornately carved structure of a Yhelteth

tomb, or one of the cairns the northerners buried their dead under,

hung with shamanistic iron talismans and daubed in the colors of the

deceased's clan ancestry. As a rule, Ringil tried not to come out here too

often; he remembered too many of the names on the stones, could put

faces to too many of the foreign- sounding dead. It was a mixed bag that

had died under his command at Gallows Gap that sweltering summer

afternoon nine years ago, and few of the outlanders had family with the

money to bring their sons home for burial. The cemeteries up and

down this stretch of the mountains were littered with their lonely

testimony.

Ringil advanced into the graveyard, one bent- kneed step at a time.

Clouds broke apart overhead, and the Kiriath blade glinted in the

sudden smear of bandlight. The cry was not repeated, but now he could

make out smaller, more furtive sounds. The sounds, he reckoned

unenthusiastically, of someone digging.

You will be a great hero.

Yeah, right.

He found Bashka's mother, as it seemed, grubbing around in the dirt

at the base of a recent headstone. Her burial shroud was torn and soiled,

revealing rotted flesh that he could smell from a dozen paces upwind

even in the cold. Her deathgrown nails made an unpleasant raking

sound as they struggled with the casket she had partially unearthed.

Ringil grimaced.

In life, this woman had never liked him. As temple officiator and

priest, her son was supposed to despise Ringil for a worthless degenerate

and a corruptor of youth. Instead, as a schoolmaster and man of some

education himself, Bashka turned out to be far too enlightened for his

own good. His easygoing attitude to Ringil and the late- night phil -

osophical debates they occasionally got into at the tavern earned him

vitriolic reprimands from visiting senior priests. Worse still, his lack of

condemnatory zeal gave him a reputation in the religious hierarchy that

ensured he would always remain a humble teacher in a backwater town.

The mother, naturally enough, blamed the degenerate Ringil and his

evil influence for her son's lack of advancement, and he was not

welcome in the schoolmaster's house while she drew breath. This latter

activity had come to an abrupt halt the previous month, following a

swift and unquenchable fever, sent presumably by some preoccupied

god who had overlooked her great righteousness in religious matters.

Trying not to breathe through his nose, Ringil tapped the flat of the

Ravensfriend on a convenient grave to get her attention. At first she

didn't seem to hear the noise it made, but then the body twisted

wrenchingly around and he found himself looking into a face whose

eyes had long ago been eaten by whichever small creatures took care of

that sort of thing. The jaw hung slack, most of the nose was gone, and

the flesh of the cheeks was mottled and holed. It was remarkable that

Bashka had even recognized her.

"Come on out of there," said Ringil, readying his sword.

It did.

It came through the dead woman's rib cage with a cracking, sucking

sound, a corpsemite fully a yard long not counting the tendril appendages

it had used to puppet the corpse's limbs. It was gray in hue, not unlike

some species of smooth- skinned maggot, which its body in many ways

resembled. The blunt snout of the thing ended in chomping jaws set with

horny ridges that could shatter bone, and Ringil knew that the tail end

looked much the same. Corpsemites didn't excrete their waste, they oozed

it from pores along the slug- like body, a substance that, like their saliva,

was lethally corrosive.

No one knew where they came from. Folklore had it that they were

originally lumps of witch's snot, hawked up and animated to voracious

life by their evil owners for reasons most of the tales were rather vague

on. Authorized religion insisted variously that they were either ordinary

slugs or maggots, possessed by the souls of the evil dead, or demonic

visitations from some cemetery hell where the spiritually unworthy

rotted, fully conscious, in their graves. Archeth had had a slightly saner

theory: that the mites were a mutation produced by the Kiriath's

experiments with lower life- forms centuries before, a creature designed

to dispose of the dead more efficiently than conventional scavengers

would.

Whatever the truth, no one was quite sure what level of intelligence

the corpsemites had. But somewhere in their evolution, natural or

otherwise, they'd learned to use the carcases they fed upon for a whole

host of other purposes. A body could serve them as a hiding place or an

incubation bed for their eggs; if not too badly decayed, it might become

a means of rapid motion or disguise; and, in the case of humans or

wolves, it could be a digging tool. It was the use of human corpses that

triggered the spate of zombie sightings throughout the northwest

whenever the winters were hard.

Ringil had occasionally wondered whether the corpsemites didn't

also manipulate carcasses as a form of play. It was entirely his own

macabre idea, conjured up when he first read about the creatures in

accounts by travelers to the Kiriath wastes. After all, he reasoned to his

father' s librarian, a corpsemite's own secretions would eat through a

wooden casket nearly as fast as a corpse's decaying hands could open it,

so why else would they bother? The opinion of the librarian, and later of

his father, was that Ringil was a very sick young man who ought to

concern himself, as his elder brothers already did, with more natural

pursuits like riding, hunting, and bedding the local wenches. His

mother, who no doubt already had her suspicions, said nothing.

From his one or two previous encounters with these creatures,

Ringil also knew that they could be very—

The corpsemite flexed its body free of the encaging ribs, leapt

straight at him.

—fast.

He hacked sideways, rather inelegantly, and succeeded in batting the

thing away to the left. It hit a headstone and dropped to the ground

writhing, sliced almost in half by the stroke. Ringil brought the sword

down again and finished the job, mouth pursed with distaste. The two

severed halves of the creature twisted and trembled and then lay still.

Demons and the souls of the evil dead were not, it seemed, up to

repairing that kind of damage.

Ringil also knew that corpsemites moved in groups. As the slimy

filigree of a tendril appendage touched his cheek, he was already

spinning around to face the next one. The drops of secretion burned.

No time to wipe it off. He spotted the creature, coiled on top of a

Yhelteth tomb, skewered it on reflex. The tendrils recoiled and the thing

made angry chittering noises as it died. Ringil heard a clatter of

response from the other side of the tomb and saw movement. He

stepped wide around the worked stone slab, saw the two smaller mites

hauling themselves up out of the wreckage of a rotted coffin and its

equally far- gone contents. A single downward blow sliced them both

irreparably open, body fluids gushing like pale oil from the wounds. He

did it again, just to be sure.

The fifth mite landed on his back.

He didn't think at all. In retrospect, he guessed it must have been

pure revulsion that drove him. He dropped the sword with a yell,

reached down to the fastenings of his jerkin, and tore them open with

both hands. In the same motion he shrugged himself halfway out of the

garment while the corpsemite was still finding out that the leather was

not his real skin. The jerkin sagged under the creature's weight, helped

him to pull clear. The tendrils around his waist and over his shoulders

were still creeping toward each other and they didn't have time to

tighten against the movement. His left arm came free and he whirled

like a discus thrower, hurling the bundle of jerkin and mite off his right

sleeve and away among the headstones. He heard it hit something solid.

Tendrils had touched him on the chest and back— later he would

find the weals. Now he snatched up the Ravensfriend and stalked after

his jerkin, eyes and ears open for any remaining members of the group.

He found the garment, partially dissolved, at the base of an ancient

moss- grown slab near the back of the cemetery. Not a bad throw, that,

from a standing start. The corpsemite was still trying to disentangle itself

from the leather and flapped confusedly at him as he approached. Its

jaws were bared and it was hissing like a new sword in the cooling

trough.

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered and plunged the Ravensfriend down

point- first, impaling the mite on the earth. He watched with somber

satisfaction as it died. "That was clean on today, you little shit."

He stayed among the graves long enough to start feeling the cold

again, and to take a brooding interest in the slight but unmistakable

paunch that was beginning to threaten the aesthetics of his narrowhipped

waist. No further corpsemites showed themselves. He took an

uncontaminated shred of his jerkin as a rag and cleaned the body fluids

off the Ravensfriend's bluish surfaces with fastidious care. Archeth had

insisted the Kiriath blade was proof against all and any corrosive

substances, but she had been wrong about things before.

The final outcome of the war, to name but one.

Then, finally, Ringil remembered that the creatures had touched

him and, as if on cue, the blisters they'd left began to burn. He rubbed at

the one on his cheek until it burst, deriving a certain brutal amusement

from the thin pain he got out of it. Not what you'd call a heroic wound,

but it was all he'd have to show for the evening's exertions. No one

would be coming out here to check on the carnage until it got safely

light.

Oh well, maybe you can narrate it into a couple of pints and a fowl platter. Maybe Bashka'll buy you a replacement jerkin out of sheer gratitude, if he can afford it after he's paid to rebury his mother. Maybe that towheaded lad from the stables will listen in and be impressed enough to overlook this gut you're so intent on developing.

Yeah, and maybe your father's written you back into his testament.

Maybe the Yhelteth Emperor is a queer.

That last was worth a grin. Ringil Angeleyes, scarred hero of Gallows

Gap, chuckled to himself a little in the chill of the graveyard, and

glanced around at the silent markers as if his long- fallen comrades

might share the joke. The quiet and the cold gave him nothing back.

The dead stayed stonily unmoved, just the way they'd been now for nine

years, and slowly Ringil's smile faded away. A shiver clung at his back.

He shook it off.

Then he slung the Ravensfriend back across his shoulder and went

in search of a clean shirt, some food, and a sympathetic audience.

From the Hardcover edition.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 1 comment:

dreamerinchains, January 19, 2012 (view all comments by dreamerinchains)
Richard K. Morgan's prose is even more beautiful and savage in this unique fantasy setting than it is in his science fiction novels. The story has an edge like a blade of unknown metal, bright and aching; the worldbuilding is detailed and mysterious; and the wry sense of humor with which the characters are fashioned makes it impossible to put down.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780345493040
Author:
Morgan, Richard K
Publisher:
Del Rey Books
Author:
Morgan, Richard K.
Subject:
Fantasy - Epic
Subject:
Fantasy - General
Subject:
Science Fiction and Fantasy-Fantasy-Epic
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20100131
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
448
Dimensions:
9.22x6.08x.97 in. .95 lbs.

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