The ghost then surprised him by stepping forward, reaching down and touching the fiddle. Straightening, he walked past them, to stand facing the lowland to the west.
Fiddler stared after him, frowning.
Sighing, Hedge spoke low at his side. ‘She’s out there, sembled now – they’re keeping their distance. They’re not sure what’s happened here. By the time she comes, it’ll be too late.’
‘Who? By the time who comes?’
‘The woman he loves, Fid. Korlat. A Tiste Andii.’
Tiste Andii. Oh … no.
Hedge’s grunt was strained with emotion. ‘Aye, the sergeant’s luck ain’t never been good. He’s got a long wait.’
But wait he will.
Then he caught a blur of motion from a nearby jumble of boulders. A woman, watching them.
Fiddler hugged himself, looked over once more at Mallet and Trotts. ‘Take care of him,’ he whispered.
And then Whiskeyjack was marching past. ‘Time to leave, you two.’
Mallet reached down and touched the fiddle before turning away. Trotts stepped past him, squatted and did the same.
Then they were down over the edge of the hill.
Moments later, Fiddler heard horses – but in the gloom he could not see his friends riding away.
A voice spoke beside Cotillion. ‘Well done.’
The patron god of assassins looked down at the knives still in his hands. ‘I don’t like failure. Never did, Shadowthrone.’
‘Then,’ and the ethereal form at his side giggled, ‘we’re not quite finished, are we?’
‘Ah. You knew, then.’
‘Of course. And this may well shock you, but I approve.’
Cotillion turned to him in surprise. ‘I knew you had a heart in there somewhere.’
‘Don’t be an idiot. I just appreciate … symmetry.’
Together they turned back to face the barrow once again, but now the ghosts were gone.
Shadowthrone thumped his cane on the ground. ‘Among all the gods,’ he said, ‘who do you think now hates us the most?’
‘The ones still alive, I should imagine.’
‘We’re not done with them either.’
Cotillion nodded towards the barrow. ‘They were something, weren’t they?’
‘With them we won an empire.’
‘I sometimes wonder if we should ever have given it up.’
‘Bloody idealist. We needed to walk away. Sooner or later, no matter how much you put into what you’ve made, you have to turn and walk away.’
‘Shall we, then?’
And the two gods set out, fading shadows as the dawn began to awaken.
Toc Younger had waited astride his horse, halfway between the motionless ranks of the Guardians and Whiskeyjack and his two soldiers. He had watched the distant figures gathering on the barrow’s gnarled summit. And now the three ghostly riders were returning the way they had come.
When they reached him, Whiskeyjack waved Mallet and Trotts on and then reined in.
He drew his mount round, to face the barrow one last time.
Toc spoke. ‘That was some squad you had yourself there, sir.’
‘My life was blessed with fortune. It’s time,’ he said, drawing his horse round. He glanced across at Toc. ‘Ready, Bridgeburner?’
They set out side by side.
And then Toc shot Whiskeyjack a startled look. ‘But I’m not a—’
‘You say something, soldier?’
Mute, Toc shook his head.
Gods below, I made it.
In the luminescent sky high above the plain, Gu’Rull sailed on the currents, wings almost motionless. The Shi’gal Assassin studied the world far below. Scores of dragon carcasses were strewn round the barrow, and there, leading off into the west as far as Gu’Rull’s eyes could see, a road of devastation almost a league wide, upon which were littered the bodies of Eleint. Hundreds upon hundreds.
The Shi’gal struggled to comprehend the Otataral Dragon’s ordeal. The flavours that rose within him threatened to overwhelm him.
I still taste the echoes of her pain.
What is it in a life that can prove so defiant, so resilient in the face of such wilful rage? Korabas, do you crouch now in your cave – gift of a god wounded near unto death – closing about your wounds, your sorrow, as if in the folding of wings you could make the world beyond vanish? And with it all the hate and venom, and all that so assailed you in your so-few moments of freedom?
Are you alone once more, Korabas?
If to draw close to you would not kill me – if I could have helped you in those blood-filled skies, upon that death-strewn road – I would join you now. To bring to an end your loneliness.
But all I can do is circle these skies. Above the ones who summoned you, who fought to free a god, and to save your own life.
Those ones, too, I do not understand.
These humans have much to teach the K’Chain Che’Malle.
I, Gu’Rull, Shi’gal Assassin of Gunth’an Wandering, am humbled by all that I have witnessed. And this feeling, so strange, so new, now comes to me in the sweetest flavours imaginable.
I did not know.
Settling the last stone down on the elongated pile, Icarium brushed dust from his hands and slowly straightened.
Ublala – with Ralata sitting nearby – watched the warrior walk to the edge of the hill, watched as Icarium dislodged a small rock and sent it rolling down the slope. And then he looked back at the barrow, and then at Ublala. The morning was bright but there were clouds building to the east and the wind carried the promise of rain.
‘It is as you said, friend?’
Icarium wiped at the tears still streaming down his face from when he’d wept over the grave. But the look on his face wasn’t filled with grief any more. Just empty now. Lost. ‘Ublala, is this all there is of me?’ He gestured vaguely. ‘Is this all there is to any of us?’
The Toblakai shrugged. ‘I am Ublala Pung and that is all I ever am, or was. I don’t know if there’s more. I never do.’
Icarium studied the grave again. ‘He died defending me.’
‘But I don’t know who he was!’
Ublala shrugged again. There was no shame in weeping for the death of a stranger. Ublala had done it many times. He reached down, picked up a potsherd, examined the sky-blue glaze. ‘Pretty,’ he said under his breath, tucking it behind his belt.
Icarium collected up his weapons, and then faced north. ‘I feel close this time, Ublala.’
Ublala thought to ask close to what, but already he was confused, and so he put the question away. He didn’t think he’d ever go back to find it. It was where all the other troubling things went, never to be gone back to, ever.
‘I am glad you found a woman to love, friend,’ Icarium said.
The giant warrior smiled over at Ralata and received a stony stare in return, reminding him how she’d said she liked it better when it was just the two of them. But she was a woman and once he sexed her again, everything would be all right. That’s how it worked.
When Icarium set out, Ublala collected up the useful sack he’d found, shouldered it, and went to join the warrior.
Ralata caught up a short time later, just before Icarium happened to glance at the pottery fragment Ublala had taken out to admire again, and then halted to face one last time the low hill they’d left behind. Icarium frowned and was silent.
Ublala was ready to turn away when Icarium said, ‘Friend, I have remembered something.’
Perched upon the stones of a bridge