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The Steel Remainsby Richard K Morgan
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
"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
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.
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