Nimander looked at his uncle, wondering.
Tentative, weakened by a sudden feeling of temerity, Korlat’s steps slowed when she was still forty or more paces away from the gathering of dignitaries. Off to her left, assembled in formation, stood the ranks of Malazans – the army known by the name of Bonehunters. Beyond them, arrayed on a higher vantage point, were the far more numerous ranks of the second Malazan army, the Host.
To her right, where the K’Chain Che’Malle had encamped, the Ve’Gath and K’ell Hunters had formed up in a facing line, the Matron foremost among them. A human woman was walking out from that formation, on a route that would intersect Korlat’s own.
Perhaps she would find strength in that company. Failing that, she doubted she would manage to get much closer. Her heart felt laid bare – she had believed her days of deepest grief were past. But seeing those Malazan marines – seeing Hedge, Quick Ben and Kalam – had cut her open all over again. When they had seen her – when at last Nimander had judged it time to approach that fated barrow – they had but nodded in greeting, and she could admit now that the distance they had maintained since had hurt her in some way.
Perhaps they thought that she had been intent on stealing their sergeant away from them. Perhaps, even, they blamed her for his death. She did not know, and now she had been commanded to join them once more, at this place where two Malazan marines were interred.
She had selected a polished jet stone from her modest collection – knowing how the humans would smile at that, these small leather bags the Tiste Andii always carried, with a stone to mark each gift of the owner’s heart. She possessed but a few. One for Anomander Rake, one for her fallen brother, Orfantal; one for Spinnock Durav – who cared nothing for her low birth – and one for Whiskeyjack. Soon, she had begun to suspect, she would set out to find two more. For Queen Yan Tovis. For Lord Nimander.
These stones were not to be surrendered.
To give one up was to set down a love, to walk away from it for evermore.
But it had been foolish, finding a stone for a man whose love she had known for so brief a time. He had never felt the way she had – he could not have – she had gone too far, had given up too much. They’d not possessed the time to forge something eternal.
Then he had died, and it was as if he had been the one doing the walking away, leaving his own stone behind – the dull, lifeless thing that was her heart.
‘The dead forget us.’ So said Gallan. ‘The dead forget us, and this is why we fear death.’
She had thought … there on that distant barrow now called the Awakening … a whisper of something, a presence arriving old and achingly familiar. As if he had looked upon her – as if she had felt his eyes – no, you foolish woman. It was his soldiers gathered on that hill. If he was there at all, it was for them.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the woman from the K’Chain Che’Malle ranks. Korlat had come to a halt with her memories, and now she looked on this stranger, offering a rueful half-smile. ‘My courage fails,’ she said.
The human woman, plain, past her youth, studied her for a moment. ‘What is that,’ she asked, ‘in your hand?’
Korlat thought to hide it away again, but then sighed and showed the black stone. ‘I thought … a gift. For the barrow. I have seen such practices before …’
‘Did you know them?’
After a moment, Korlat turned to retrace her steps. ‘No. I am sorry. I did not.’
But the woman took her arm. ‘Walk with me, then, and I will tell you about Mortal Sword Gesler and Shield Anvil Stormy.’
‘I was presumptuous—’
‘I doubt it,’ the woman replied. ‘But you can hold on to your tale, if you like. I am Kalyth.’
Korlat gave her own name.
‘They won free the heart of the Crippled God,’ said Kalyth as they drew closer. ‘But that is not how I remember them. They were stubborn. They snapped at each other like … like dogs. They mocked their own titles, told each other lies. They told me lies, too. Wild stories of their adventures. Ships on seas of fire. Dragons and headless Tiste Andii – whatever they are …’
Korlat turned at that, thought to speak, then decided to remain silent.
‘In the time I knew them,’ Kalyth went on, not noticing her companion’s reaction, ‘they pretty much argued without surcease. Even in the middle of terrible battle they bickered back and forth. And all the while, these two Malazans, they did all that needed to be done. Each and every time.’ She nodded towards the Spire.
‘Up there,’ she said, ‘they climbed through walls of fire, and at that moment I realized that all those wild tales they told me – they were probably all true.
‘Stormy died on the stairs, keeping a wild witch away from the heart. Those flames he could not in the end defeat. Gesler – we are told – died saving the life of a dog.’ She pointed. ‘That one, Korlat, the one guarding the barrow’s entrance. See how they await me now? It is because I am the only one the dog will let pass into the chamber. I dragged Gesler’s body in there myself.’
When the woman at her side stopped talking then, Korlat looked down and saw how her face had crumpled – with her own words, as if their meaning only now struck true. She very nearly collapsed – would have done so if not for Korlat’s arm, now flexing to take the woman’s weight.
Kalyth righted herself. ‘I – I am sorry. I did not mean – oh, look at me …’
‘I have you,’ Korlat said.
They went on.
This side of the small round barrow, the group of humans parted before them, as many eyes on Korlat as on Kalyth. She saw Hedge there, along with Quick Ben and Kalam, and the grey-bearded man she now knew to be Fiddler, Whiskeyjack’s closest friend. Their expressions were flat, and she weathered their regards with as much dignity as she could muster. Near them stood a mother and daughter, the latter, though little more than a child, pulling hard on a stick of rustleaf – and on this one’s other side stood an older woman doing the same with her own, beside a handsome young man. She saw a White Face Barghast chieftain grinning openly at herself – his desires made plain in the amused glint in his eyes.
Just beyond Whiskeyjack’s old squad stood a man and a woman – possibly siblings – in the company of an older man weighed down in the robes of a High Priest, the gold silk patterned in the sinewy forms of serpents. Behind this group stood a man picking at his teeth and beside him, seated on a stool, was an artist, sketching frantically on bleached lambskin with a wedge of charcoal. At his feet was a bloated toad.
Arrayed in a semicircle around this group was an honour guard of some sort, facing outward, but as Korlat and Kalyth approached they smartly turned round, gauntleted hands lifting to their chests in salute. And she saw that they were the soldiers who had fought at the Awakening.
Kalyth leaned close against Korlat and disengaged her arm. ‘I believe there are burial gifts,’ she said, nodding to a soldier’s chest waiting beside the barrow entrance. ‘I will take it inside.’ She looked up at Korlat. ‘I will take your gift, Korlat, if you like.’
She held up her hand, opened it to look at the gleaming stone in her hand.
There was a commotion from Whiskeyjack’s squad and Korlat faced them, ready to retreat – to flee this place.
‘Captain!’ snapped the plain woman behind the marines.
Korlat saw that the squad had reached for their weapons, swords now half drawn. At that woman’s bark they had halted their motions, and Korlat stared, frightened and dismayed by what she saw in their faces.
The plain woman stepped round to place herself between Korlat and the squad. Standing directly in front of Fiddler, she said, ‘What in Hood’s name do you think you’re doing?’
‘Forgive us, Adjunct,’ Fiddler replied, eyes still on Korlat.
‘Explain yourselves! High Mage! Kalam – one of you, speak!’