Yes, I know we are a bit late. But better late than never, right!?! Thanks to the folks at Night Shade Books, here's an excerpt from Glen Cook's A Path to Coldness of Heart. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
At long last, the conclusion to Glen Cook's Dread Empire saga has arrived! King Bragi Ragnarson is a prisoner, shamed, nameless, and held captive by Lord Shih-kaa and the Empress Mist at the heart of the Dread Empire.
Far away in Kavelin, Bragia's queen and what remains of his army seek to find and free their king, hampered by the loss or desertion of their best and brightest warriors. Kavelina's spymaster, Michael Trebilcock, is missing in action, as is loyal soldier Aral Dantice. Meanwhile, Dane, Duke of Greyfells, seeks to seize the rule of Kavelin and place the kingdom in his pocket, beginning a new line of succession through Bragia's queen, Dane's cousin Inger. And in the highest peaks of the Dragona's Teeth, in the ancient castle Fangdred, the sorcerer called Varthlokkur uses his arts to spy on the world at large, observing the puppet strings that control kings and empires alike, waiting... For the time of the wrath of kings is almost at hand, and vengeance lies along a path to coldness of heart.
Year 1017 AFE:
King Without a Throne
The fugitive walked the plain alone, striding purposefully. The caravan job had not lasted. Despite peace looming there was little trade. No caravans were headed this way.
He glanced to his right. The riders still paced him. Occupying his attention while others closed in? The plains tribes were not populous but were the reason caravans needed guards. They would steal anything from anyone. Nobody was too poor not to be robbed.
He sensed no other presence, though. They must be keeping track till they could summon help.
There were two of them. They were cautious. They did not like the odds. They must suspect that he was more dangerous than he looked.
He strode on, sling in hand in case he kicked up a hare or game bird. If those two tried nothing sooner he would visit them after dark. He could use a good plains pony.
A grouse flushed. He did not react fast enough. His bullet fell short. He produced another stone and walked on. His homeland was only days away. He should decide where to go first.
He had to arrive as a wanderer, not as himself. He would go where rootless men gathered. There he could discover what he needed to know to cope with today’s kingdom.
The land grew more arid, the grass shorter and scruffier, soon revealing patches of dun earth. The grass sea was about to give way to mild desert. Not far ahead, though not yet visible, lay mountains which masked the heart of Hammad al Nakir.
The riders had to make a decision soon. Tomorrow he would reach country where they would not be welcome—though they were not likely to be noticed. He considered what he would do in their position. He would move in the middle of the night.
He moved as soon as it was dark. There was no moon. Pitfalls seemed to multiply.
Despite all, he found the other camp before the riders left to find him. And rediscovered the quality of mercy.
They were boys, probably brothers, the eldest no more than fifteen. They were trying to work up their courage. Neither really wanted to do anything but neither wanted the other to think he was a coward.
Haroun could not follow their dialect well but did figure out that their main motive was a need to please their father, who was a hetman and wanted them to come home with proof that they had done something brave.
Haroun’s own people were nomadic in the main. They enjoyed similar traditions.
The boys finally worked themselves up. They didn’t have to take foolish chances. They could tell the truth when the old men asked about their efforts to count coup. For that was what this was. Not really robbery but boys wanting to mark their transition into manhood.
Had an experienced warrior followed them? Probably not. A guardian angel would stand out on the plain.
The essence of the rite of passage was that the candidates had to do for themselves.
He gave them ten minutes, then entered their camp. They were not fastidious. He placed a gold coin in each of their leather jacks, then readied their horses. One gentle spell kept the ponies quiet. He led them to the trace that passed as a road headed into the desert kingdom.
The villain who had given up those coins would not object to them passing on to boys who needed something good to happen.
Haroun wished he could be a fly buzzing round when they, absent their ponies, returned to their people carrying gold enough to buy a herd.
Varthlokkur had restrained his darker nature in order to spend an afternoon with the four strange children who constituted his makeshift family. Only Smyrena was his own get. Ethrian was his grandson. Even to him it seemed odd to have a grandson so much older than his daughter. But it was a bizarre world. He had added a few bricks of strange himself.
Ethrian was a thin, dark youth. In his best moments he had haunted eyes. Madness was his relief from memories of being the Deliverer, a monster managed by a revenant evil that considered itself a god. The Deliverer used its armies of the dead to punish the wrong people for injuries he imagined had been done to him. The revenant had misled him.
Escaping had cost Ethrian love and sanity, a price not yet fully paid. Some days he did nothing but lie curled in a ball. Others he sat and rocked, eyes vacant, an age and countless miles away. His mind held millennia of memories not his own. He was never sure what was then and what was now.
The wizard did what he could to keep the boy anchored. He had no faith in the boy’s chances for recovery, yet did his best for Nepanthe’s sake. She would not concede any chance that Ethrian could not be saved Smyrena could be a spooky little beast, normal one moment, possessed the next. She did not cry. She seemed too alert and attentive for an infant. She enjoyed the presence of the Unborn. Varthlokkur found that dreadfully unnatural. Radeachar was an instrument. It ought not to have friends.
He told himself that Smyrena would grow out of it.
Mist’s brats were disturbingly normal. Fathered by Nepanthe’s brother Valther back when Mist had entertained no hope of becoming Empress again, they were exotic hybrids, scary in their beauty. The girl was older. The boy was growing faster. Right now they looked like twins. They worked hard to maintain that pretense, though there was no need. There was no survival imperative here.
They did know who they were. Varthlokkur showed them their mother occasionally. He meant the look at their heritage as a caution, not a kindness. He wanted them to know that they could be in danger for no greater cause than being the children of that woman, however much they remained separated from the Dread Empire.
He lied to them, too. He told them their mother had left them with their aunt for their protection. He told them Mist had been dragged into Dread Empire politics unwillingly and had been terrified of the risks to them.
Insofar as he recalled, Mist had left them as hostages she was not concerned about losing.
His cynicism ran deep.
Seldom did he encounter anything that rendered him more sanguine. Nepanthe joined him. She was cheerful. She went directly to Ethrian, petted and fussed. Varthlokkur and Smyrena both watched with a touch of jealousy.
* * *
The fugitive entered his homeland. He did not relax. He was a stranger even here. The people of Hammad al Nakir, of whatever political or religious persuasion, distrusted strangers.
He moved slowly, avoiding tribal camps, till he reached the oasis called al-Habor. It was more developed than when he had visited as a boy. More permanent structures had been added and new orchards had been planted, but then disaster had found the town. Most of it had fallen apart since. Today it was dying.
And provided proof that some men did not care about issues that had tormented their people for two generations. Al-Habor had become a haven for rootless men. The forgotten King Without a Throne could begin gathering the strings of his life here.
Haroun was not there when the sun set. When it rose he was seated against an adobe wall, snoring, one of a half-dozen probable miscreants.
* * *
Yasmid, with Habibullah behind her, an intimidating shade, considered the foreigners Elwas al-Souki had invited to Sebil el Selib. The tall, fat one was a Matayangan swami eager to put distance between himself and his blasted homeland. He was the color of pale mahogany.
His companion, a smaller man of low caste, was darker and less healthy. Nervously, he translated for the bigger man.
Elwas repeated himself. “Swami Phogedatvitsu specializes in overcoming addictions.” He wilted under Yasmid’s disapproval. She was angry down to her toenails. The presumption of the man! But she could not just run him off. Not with Habibullah watching. Not after the miracle he had wrought at the salt lake.
Al-Souki’s success irked Yasmid. The history of the Faith was speckled with military geniuses who became liabilities after they won their reputations. That started with her uncle Nassef, who had been with her father from the beginning. Nassef, as the Scourge of God, helped build a wide, wild religious empire. And had been a thorough-going bandit when the Disciple was not looking. He had been ambitious, too, systematically eliminating anyone who stood between him and succession to the Peacock Throne. He had wanted Yasmid as his child bride so he could unite Royalists and Faithful under his rule.
Fate had delivered Yasmid to Haroun bin Yousif instead.
The Faithful never lacked brilliant commanders but few were moved more by faith than by ambition and greed.
Yasmid was not ready to believe that Elwas bin Farout al-Souki was something new.
She made a “Get on with it!” gesture.
Al-Souki said, “Phogedatvitsu can conquer an addiction as deep as your father’s. I beg you, allow him to try.”
She had mixed feelings. And a sense of shame.
She was not sure she wanted her father freed. If he recovered, his daughter would become a simple ornament to his glory. A saint at best. How shameful. How dare she put herself ahead of God’s Chosen Disciple?
Despite all, including her long love for the King Without a Throne, she believed in her father’s message. He had a unique relationship with God. Much as she reveled in being God’s stand-in hand and voice, directing the Faithful, she did not have that direct relationship herself. She was a custodian, nothing more.
“Elwas, I will give you the chance you want. The foreigner can try to rescue my father. I will make him wealthy if he succeeds.”
“You won’t be disappointed, Shining One,” the prostitute’s son promised. “It may take a year but the world will gain its soul back. El Murid will be a golden beacon once more.”
After al-Souki left, Yasmid asked Habibullah, “Is he for real?”
“Totally. And he’s not unique. He just doesn’t mind letting the world know.”
Yasmid looked like she had bitten into something sour.
Habibullah began to frown. Did he wonder what her problem was?
Elwas bin Farout al-Souki had offered her a chance to spark new life into the flames of the Faith.
Habibullah was her slave emotionally but he was, as well, one of the oldest of the Believers. He coughed gently to remind her that the One was watching. This might be His mercy at work.
“Call him back.”
Habibullah was not gone long.
Yasmid looked al-Souki in the eyes, hard. He was not accustomed to that from a woman. His gaze dropped. She said, “You have one hundred days to show me real progress. If Phogedatvitsu is a con artist his corpse will join the hundred thousand already fertilizing Sebil el Selib. No more talk. Habibullah, arrange to house and feed those men.”
Giving Habibullah that task was meant to put both men in their place. She felt petty doing so.
* * *
Al-Habor was the well to which social gravity drew the lost souls of the desert. Even the flies and parasites had yielded to despair. Soul-shattered veterans of decades of war haunted al-Habor, shaking, muttering, afraid, or just staring at something only one man could see. They did not talk much. They survived on the charity of Sheyik Hanba al-Medi al-Habor, the local tribal chief. Hanba bore the marks of the wars himself. They had cost him a hand, an eye, and three sons. He could not afford the charity he provided. The wars had seen to that, too.
Still, he did provide.
Al-Habor once was a major crossroads. It was of minor importance still. Trade remained limited because fighting could return any time. The oasis was sweet and reliable and strategically valuable.
Half the mud-brick buildings were abandoned. The best preserved were infested by squatters.
Haroun settled in unremarked. Few would have cared had he announced himself. Al-Habor was the end of the road. No roads led to a future elsewhere. Al-Habor clung to the souls it collected. Haroun found it bleak enough to dampen a brilliant spring day at high noon. Nobody cared about one more bum fallen into the cauldron. He did not learn much. Lack of care meant a lack of information. Only travelers had any real news. Few of those would waste time on a soul-shattered tramp whose real goal must be to mooch or steal something.
Insidious tendrils of despair shadowed Haroun’s own heart. He should move on before he became lost himself.
There were those who preyed on the lost. The most virulent was a big, stupid man called the Bull. The Bull ran with a timid killer known as the Beetle.
It was unusually cold. Haroun had formed an unspoken alliance with two others. Between them they had found enough fuel for a small fire. They sat round that, no man meeting another’s gaze.
The Beetle and the Bull appeared. The Bull rumbled, “The Bull is hungry.”
Nobody responded. Only Haroun had anything edible. He did not intend to share.
The Bull kicked the little fire apart. “I said…”
Haroun slipped a knife into the back of the Bull’s right calf. He sliced down, then sideways. At first the Bull did not feel pain enough to understand. He tried to turn. His leg did not cooperate. Haroun leaned out of the path of his collapse.
The Bull roared, tried to get up. Haroun’s blade entered his right eye. “Breathe without leave and I’ll take the other, too. Your old friends will have great sport with a blind Bull.”
The Beetle tried something stupid. Haroun disarmed him. He settled beside the Bull, nursing partially severed fingers.
“Would you like to spend your remaining days dependent on the good will of the Beetle?” The Bull abused his partner with only slightly less vigor than he did everyone else. “No? You’re less stupid than I thought. I’ll leave you one eye, then. I’ll take it first time you do something to offend me, though.”
The Bull looked into Haroun’s eyes. He saw no mercy there. He did see a dark future for those who angered the man. He eased back, rose slowly, let the Beetle help him limp away.
One of the others said, “I remember you.” He said nothing more. He lowered his head, went to sleep.
The second man acknowledged events with a nod and a shudder. He placed curds of dried camel dung on the resurrected fire, then lay down on his left side.
Haroun noticed changes next morning. Word had spread. His presence was acknowledged subtly everywhere. Had his fireside companion truly recognized him? If so, it was definitely time to leave. Most of the walking dead here had followed El Murid.
Did he dare reclaim his animals and gear? Would the stable keeper even deal with him now that he could not be distinguished from the sort of man he pretended to be?
Nothing developed, though, except the exchange of whispers amongst the lost. Haroun got the news himself three times. No one named a revenant champion from days gone by. The man from the fire had changed his mind or had not been believed. Either was convenient.
* * *
Haroun wakened suddenly. Someone had come too close. He sensed no malice, however. He feigned sleep, let the situation develop. He was seated against an adobe wall in a pool of shadow. Moonlight illuminated what could be seen through cracked eyelids. A breeze tumbled the skeleton of a brushy weed.
Someone settled to his right. The man smelled familiar. He would be the companion who never spoke.
A long time passed before the man whispered, “A courier came from Al Rhemish.” The man had trouble talking. He stammered. “He told the Sheyik’s night boy to gather fodder for twenty horses for four days.” Someone would be coming out from the capital. Haroun could not be the reason. Megelin’s few incompetent shaghûns would waste no time spying on no-account towns awash in human flotsam. It likely meant only that a Royalist band would pass through on its way somewhere to make someone miserable.
Haroun did not respond. His companion did nothing to suggest that a response was necessary.
Next morning the Sheyik’s men came looking for day labor. Haroun joined the volunteers. Some went looking for fodder. Haroun was in the group set to cleaning the Sheyik’s stable and corral. He did not see the point, nor did he learn anything useful.
His companions cared not at all. Shifting horse manure or no, it was all the same. The slower they worked the longer they would be employed.
Haroun wandered off, vacant-eyed, as often as he dared. The Sheyik’s men would find him and bring him back to the corral. He learned nothing about the layout inside the adobe wall screening the Sheyik’s residence, which was a minor fortress built of mud brick.
Back behind his pitchfork, Haroun wondered why he felt compelled to study the place. Because someone had a notion that important things were about to happen? Or because of some unconscious premonition of his own?
He had those infrequently. He had learned to pay attention. But they were not universally trustworthy. A premonition had made him murder an innocent prince and princess.
Someone was coming. Someone with an escort. Who it would be was secret but it had to be someone firmly convinced of his own importance. Come sundown Haroun’s work party scattered into al-Habor after being fed. Like the others, bin Yousif stuffed himself till his stomach ached and carried away whatever he could hide about his person.
He fell asleep against the same wall behind another tiny fire. The same men shared the warmth. Both had been part of the work party. They were rich tonight, as al-Habor’s lost understood that state. Haroun drifted off wondering if they three would not now offer too much temptation to the Bulls of al-Habor.