Malice, page 1
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FOR MY CHILDREN,
HARRIETT, JAMES, EDWARD AND WILLIAM.
AND OF COURSE MY WIFE, CAROLINE,
WITHOUT WHOM IT WOULD ALL MEAN NOTHING.
There have been many helping hands along the way. Firstly I must say a thank-you to Paul Isted, whose thumbs-up was just the encouragement I needed at a pivotal moment.
I would also like to thank those that took the time to read my doorstep of a manuscript, when I am sure they all had much better things to be doing. Edward Gwynne, Mark Brett, Dave Dean, Irene Gwynne, Mike Howell, Alex Harrison, Mandy Jeffrey, Pete Kemp-Tucker, and my good wife Caroline, without whom I would never have put pen to paper in the first place.
Thanks are due to John Jarrold, my agent extraordinaire, for his belief and guidance – a true gent and a scholar, if ever I met one – and also to Julie Crisp and Bella Pagan, my editors at Tor. Their polishing skills are immense.
Thanks also to my mate Andy Campbell for some cracking photos, affectionately referred to as The Blackadder Sessions.
Oh, and a note to my oldest friend Sadak. Are you going to read this now?
But from the author of all ill could spring
So deep a malice.’
John Milton, Paradise Lost
The Year 1122 of the Age of Exiles, Wolf Moon
Forest litter crunched under Evnis’ feet, his breath misting as he whispered a curse. He swallowed, his mouth dry.
He was scared, he had to admit, but who would not be? What he was doing this night would make him traitor to his king. And worse.
He paused and looked back. Beyond the forest’s edge he could still see the stone circle, behind it the walls of Badun, his home, its outline silvered in the moonlight. It would be so easy to turn back, to go home and choose another path for his life. He felt a moment of vertigo, as if standing on the edge of a great chasm, and the world seemed to slow, waiting on the outcome of his decision. I have come this far, I will see it through. He looked up at the forest, a wall of impenetrable shadow; he pulled his cloak tighter and walked into the darkness.
He followed the giantsway for a while, the stone-flagged road that connected the kingdoms of Ardan and Narvon. It was long neglected, the giant clan that built it vanquished over a thousand years ago, great clumps of moss and mushroom growing between crumbling flagstone.
Even in the darkness he felt too vulnerable on this wide road, and soon slithered down its steep bank and slipped amongst the trees. Branches scratched overhead, wind hissing in the canopy above as he sweated his way up and down slope and dell. He knew where he was going, had walked the path many times before, though never at night. Nineteen summers old, yet he knew this part of the Darkwood as well as any woodsman twice his age.
Soon he saw a flicker amongst the trees: firelight. He crept closer, stopping before the light touched him, scared to leave the anonymity of the shadows. Turn around, go home, a voice whispered in his head. You are nothing, will never equal your brother. His mother’s words, cold and sharp as the day she had died. He ground his teeth and stepped into the firelight.
An iron cauldron hung on a spit over a fire, water bubbling. Beside it a figure, cloaked and hooded.
‘Greetings.’ A female voice. She pushed the hood back, firelight making the silver in her hair glow copper.
‘My lady,’ Evnis said to Rhin, Queen of Cambren. Her beauty made him catch his breath.
She smiled at him, wrinkles creasing around her eyes and held out her hand.
Evnis stepped forward hesitantly and kissed the ring on her finger, the stone cold on his lips. She smelled sweet, heady, like overripe fruit.
‘It is not to
He sucked in a breath. ‘No. There is nothing for me if I turn back. This is my chance to . . .’
His brother’s face filled his mind, smiling, controlling, ruling him. Then his mother, her lips twisted, judging, discounting.
‘. . . matter. Gethin has arranged a marriage for me, to the daughter of the poorest baron in Ardan, I think.’
‘Is she pretty?’ Rhin said, still smiling, but with an edge in her voice.
‘I have only met her once. No, I cannot even remember what she looks like.’ He looked at the cauldron on its spit. ‘I must do this. Please.’
‘And in return, what would you give me?’
‘The whole realm of Ardan. I shall govern it, and bow to you, my High Queen.’
She smiled, teeth glinting. ‘I like the sound of that. But there is more to this than Ardan. So much more. This is about the God-War. About Asroth made flesh.’
‘I know,’ he whispered, the fear of it almost a solid thing, dripping from his tongue, choking him. But exciting him, too.
‘Are you scared?’ Rhin said, her eyes holding him.
‘Yes. But I will see it through. I have counted the cost.’
‘Good. Come then.’ She raised a hand and clicked her fingers.
A hulking shadow emerged from the trees and stepped into the firelight. A giant. He stood a man-and-a-half tall, his face pale, all sharp angles and ridged bone, small black eyes glittering under a thick-boned brow. A long black moustache hung to his chest, knotted with leather. Tattoos swirled up one arm, a creeping, thorn-thick vine disappearing under a chainmail sleeve, the rest of him wrapped in leather and fur. He carried a man in his arms, bound at wrist and ankle, as effortlessly as if it were a child.
‘This is Uthas of the Benothi,’ Rhin said with a wave of her hand, ‘he shares our allegiances, has helped me in the past.’
The giant drew near to the cauldron and dropped the man in his arms to the ground, a groan rising from the figure as it writhed feebly on the forest floor.
‘Help him stand, Uthas.’
The giant bent over, grabbed a handful of the man’s hair and heaved him from the ground. The captive’s face was bruised and swollen, dried blood crusting his cheeks and lips. His clothes were ragged and torn, but Evnis could still make out the wolf crest of Ardan on his battered leather cuirass.
The man tried to say something through broken lips, spittle dribbling from one corner of his mouth. Rhin said nothing, drew a knife from her belt and cut the captive’s throat. Dark blood spurted and the man sagged in his captor’s grip. The giant held him forward, angling him so that his blood poured into the cauldron.
Evnis fought the urge to step back, to turn and run. Rhin was muttering, a low, guttural chanting, then a wisp of steam curled up from the cauldron. Evnis leaned forward, staring. A great gust of wind swept the glade. A figure took form in the vapour, twisting, turning. The smell of things long dead, rotting, hit the back of Evnis’ throat. He gagged, but could not tear his eyes away from where two pinpricks glowed: eyes, a worn, ancient face forming about them. It appeared noble, wise, sad, then lined, proud, stern. Evnis blinked and for a moment the face became reptilian, the eddying steam giving the appearance of wings unfurling, stretched, leathery. He shivered.
‘Asroth,’ whispered Rhin, falling to her knees.
‘What do you desire?’ a sibilant voice asked.
Evnis swallowed, his mouth dry. I must take what is owed me, step out from my brother’s shadow. See it through.
‘Power,’ he rasped. Then, louder, taking a deep breath. ‘Power. I would rule. My brother, all of Ardan.’
Laughter, low at first, but growing until it filled the glade. Then silence, thick and heavy as the cobwebs that draped the trees.
‘It shall be yours,’ the figure said.
Evnis felt a trickle of sweat slide down his forehead. ‘What do you want in return? What is your price?’
‘My price is you,’ the swirling figure said, eyes pinning him. ‘I want you.’ The lips of the ancient face in the steam twitched, a glimmer of a smile.
‘So be it,’ said Evnis.
‘Seal it in blood,’ the ancient face snarled.
Rhin held her knife out.
See it through, see it through, see it through, Evnis repeated silently, like a mantra. He clenched his teeth tightly together, gripped the knife, his palm clammy with sweat and drew it quickly across his other hand. Curling his fingers into a fist, he stepped forward, thrusting it into the steam above the iron pot. Blood dripped from his hand into the cauldron, where it immediately began to bubble. A force like a physical blow slammed into his chest, seemed to pass through him. He gasped and sank to his knees, gulping in great, ragged breaths.
The voice exploded in his head, pain shooting through his body.
‘It is done,’ the voice said.
The Writings of Halvor
Discovered in 1138 of the Age of Exiles, beneath the ruined fortress of Drassil. Over two thousand years after it was written
The world is broken.
The God-War has changed all things, Asroth’s scheming, Elyon’s wrath, corrupted and destroyed so much. Mankind has vanished, annihilated or fled these shores, and we are so few, now. We giants, Sundered, the one clan split beyond all reconciliation.
A thousand years I, Halvor, have lived, Voice of the King. Now great Skald is dead, his kin scattered. I shall not live a thousand more. I lament the past, I remember and weep.
I am still the Voice, though I do not know who will listen. But if I do not speak, do not write, then there will be nothing for those who follow. All that has happened would be forgotten. And so I shall write a record . . .
When the starstone fell we should have listened to mankind and turned our faces from it, but its power sang to us, called us. Just as Asroth planned.
Asroth was first-created, Elyon’s beloved, captain of the Ben-Elim, the Sons of the Mighty. But that was not enough for him, the great deceiver. He spread his deep malice and his lies amongst the Ben-Elim, until a host grew about him. The Kadoshim they became: the Separate Ones.
Elyon saw, but could not bear to raise his fist against his beloved, and so war raged between the Kadoshim and the Ben-Elim, there in the Otherworld, the place of Spirit. Asroth was defeated and banished to a solitary portion of the Otherworld.
Then Elyon continued his plan of creation, making the worlds of flesh, of which earth was first. Giants and men were created as lords of this earth, immortal overseers of all else that roamed or grew, and they lived in harmony with their creator and all that he had created.
And Asroth hated us.
Asroth’s starstone fell to earth, vast and filled with power. Somehow it carved a link between the world of flesh and spirit, between the earth and the Otherworld. Men were fearful of this strange object, but the giants forged from it, made items of wonder and power, great Treasures. First was the cauldron, its power used to heal. Then a torc, given to Skald, the giant’s king, and a necklace for Nemain, his queen.
Asroth used the starstone to spread his influence on earth, whispering, corrupting. Skald was slain, the first murder, his torc stolen, and death entered the world, immortality stripped from all things as Elyon’s punishment and warning. Then came the Sundering. War erupted, giant fighting against giant, and the one clan became many. More Treasures were carved from the starstone, this time things of war: spear, axe, dagger. And finally a cup, said to bring strength and long life to all who drank from it.
The mantle of death fell upon the world as war spread. Mankind was caught in it, giving their oaths to the giant clans in the hope of capturing the Treasures and restoring their immortality. Blood was spilt in rivers, and Asroth rejoiced.
Finally, Elyon’s wrath was stirred. He visited his judgment upon the
When his judgement was almost complete Elyon heard something, echoing in the Otherworld. The laughter of Asroth.
Elyon realized the extent of his foe’s deception, saw that all had been done to bring him to this point. In horror he ceased the Scourging, leaving a remnant alive. Elyon’s grief was beyond all comprehension. He turned from us, from all creation, and retreated to a place of mourning, cut off from all things. He is there still.
The Ben-Elim and Kadoshim abide in the Otherworld, their war eternal. Asroth and his fallen angels seeking to destroy us, the Ben-Elim striving to protect us, a token of their abiding love for Elyon.
And here in the world of flesh the breath of life goes on. Some strive to rebuild what was lost in this place of ash and decay. As for me, I look upon the world and mourn, here in Drassil, once-great city, heart of the world. Now broken, failing, like all else. Even my kin are leaving: Forn is too wild, too dangerous, now, they say, and we are too few. North they are going, abandoning all. Abandoning me. I shall not leave.
I dream now, and in those dreams are glimpses, perhaps, of what may come to be, a voice whispering. Of Asroth’s return, the deceiver made flesh, of the Ben-Elim’s last great stand, and of the avatars waging the God-War once more . . .
I shall stay and tell my tale, hope that it may serve some purpose, that eyes shall see it and learn, that the future will not repeat the mistakes of the past. That is my prayer, but what use is prayer to a god that has abandoned all things . . .
The Year 1140 of the Age of Exiles, Birth Moon
Corban watched the spider spinning its web in the grass between his feet, legs working tirelessly as it wove its thread between a small rock and a clump of grass. Dewdrops suddenly sparkled. Corban looked up and blinked as sunlight spilt across the meadow.
by John Gwynne / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes