The soldiers had the eyes of ravens
Their weapons hung black as talons
Their eyes gloried in the smoke of murder
To the shock of iron-heeled sticks
I drew closer in the cripple’s bitter patience
And before them I finally tottered
Grasping to capture my elusive breath
With the cockerel and swift of their knowing
They watched and waited for me
‘I have come,’ said I, ‘from this road’s birth,
I have come,’ said I, ‘seeking the best in us.’
The sergeant among them had red in his beard
Glistening wet as he showed his teeth
‘There are few roads on this earth,’ said he,
‘that will lead you to the best in us, old one.’
‘But you have seen all the tracks of men,’ said I
‘And where the mothers and children have fled
Before your advance. Is there naught among them
That you might set an old man upon?’
The surgeon among this rook had bones
Under her vellum skin like a maker of limbs
‘Old one,’ said she, ‘I have dwelt
In the heat of chests, among heart and lungs,
And slid like a serpent between muscles,
Swum the currents of slowing blood,
And all these roads lead into the darkness
Where the broken will at last rest.
‘Dare say I,’ she went on,‘there is no
Place waiting inside where you might find
In slithering exploration of mysteries
All that you so boldly call the best in us.’
And then the man with shovel and pick,
Who could raise fort and berm in a day
Timbered of thought and measured in all things
Set the gauge of his eyes upon the sun
And said, ‘Look not in temples proud,
Or in the palaces of the rich highborn,
We have razed each in turn in our time
To melt gold from icon and shrine
And of all the treasures weeping in fire
There was naught but the smile of greed
And the thick power of possession.
Know then this: all roads before you
From the beginning of the ages past
And those now upon us, yield no clue
To the secret equations you seek,
For each was built of bone and blood
And the backs of the slave did bow
To the laboured sentence of a life
In chains of dire need and little worth.
All that we build one day echoes hollow.’
‘Where then, good soldiers, will I
Ever find all that is best in us?
If not in flesh or in temple bound
Or wretched road of cobbled stone?’
‘Could we answer you,’ said the sergeant,
‘This blood would cease its fatal flow,
And my surgeon could seal wounds with a touch,
All labours will ease before temple and road,
Could we answer you,’ said the sergeant,
‘Crows might starve in our company
And our talons we would cast in bogs
For the gods to fight over as they will.
But we have not found in all our years
The best in us, until this very day.’
‘How so?’ asked I, so lost now on the road,
And said he, ‘Upon this bridge we sat
Since the dawn’s bleak arrival,
Our perch of despond so weary and worn,
And you we watched, at first a speck
Upon the strife-painted horizon
So tortured in your tread as to soak our faces
In the wonder of your will, yet on you came
Upon two sticks so bowed in weight
Seeking, say you, the best in us
And now we have seen in your gift
The best in us, and were treasures at hand
We would set them humbly before you,
A man without feet who walked a road.’
Now, soldiers with kind words are rare
Enough, and I welcomed their regard
As I moved among them, ’cross the bridge
And onward to the long road beyond
I travel seeking the best in us
And one day it shall rise before me
To bless this journey of mine, and this road
I began upon long ago shall now end
Where waits for all the best in us.
THIS HAD, IN THE END, BEEN A WAR OF LIBERATION. KOLANSII CITIZENS had emerged from the city, and after five days of hard labour the vast trenches, revetments and redoubts had been transformed into long barrows. Three such barrows now stood to mark the Battle of Blessed Gift, where the Letherii, Bolkando, Gilk and Teblor had fought the army of Brother Diligence; and at the foot of the fissured ruin of the Spire, three large barrows of raw earth rose to commemorate the fallen Imass, Jaghut, K’Chain Che’Malle and Kolansii, with one smaller mound holding the remains of two Malazans. And it was at this last place that figures now gathered.
Remaining at a respectful distance, close to the now-abandoned work camps of the diggers, Lord Nimander stood with Korlat and his uncle, Silchas Ruin. Along with Skintick and Desra, and Apsal’ara, they had accompanied the troops commanded by Captain Fiddler on this long, tedious journey to the coast.
It was not hard to mourn the death of brave men and women. Nor even reptilian soldiers bred for war. There was no shame in the tears that ran from Nimander’s face when he came to learn of the slaughter of the Imass in the moment of their rebirth. The survivors had departed some days ago now, into the north – seeking their leader, he had been told, whose fate after the battle remained unknown.
And the brother of his father, standing now at his side, had grieved over the destruction of an old friend, Tulas Shorn, in the draconic War of Awakening. The sword strapped to Silchas Ruin’s hip still held bound to its blade the souls of three surviving Eleint from Kurald Emurlahn. The details of this binding were still unclear to Nimander, and his uncle seemed to be a man of few words.
More rain threatened from the east, and Nimander watched the dark grey wall of clouds drawing ever closer. He glanced over at Korlat. Something had awakened her own grief, and it had struck deep in the Sister of Cold Nights. And as the distant figures now closed about the small barrow, he saw her take a half-step forward and then halt.
‘Korlat,’ said Nimander.
She caught herself, turned to him wretched eyes. ‘Lord?’
‘It is not our place to intrude upon them at this time.’
‘But I believe it is nevertheless fitting that we convey our respect and honour in some fashion. I wonder, could I ask you, Sister of Cold Nights, to represent us by attending their ceremonies on our behalf?’
Something was released from her face, suddenly softening it, awakening once more her extraordinary beauty. She bowed to him. ‘Lord, I shall go at once.’
Nimander watched her make her way towards the ceremony.
Beside him, Silchas Ruin said, ‘She was ever favoured by your father, Lord.’
‘Silchas, she gave her heart to a human, a Malazan, who died in the conquest of Black Coral.’
The white-skinned man was silent for a moment, and then said, ‘He must have been … formidable.’
‘I imagine so.’
‘My experience with these Malazans has thus far been brief – I recognize the uniforms from my … attempt on Letheras. To say that they have earned my respect is something of an understatement. I would not willingly cross them again.’