Here's an excerpt from Mark Smylie's The Barrow, courtesy of the folks at Pyr. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map. When a small crew of scoundrels, would-be heroes, deviants, and ruffians discover a map that they believe will lead them to a fabled sword buried in the barrow of a long-dead wizard, they think they've struck it rich. But their hopes are dashed when the map turns out to be cursed and then is destroyed in a magical ritual. The loss of the map leaves them dreaming of what might have been, until they rediscover the map in a most unusual and unexpected place. Stjepan Black-Heart, suspected murderer and renegade royal cartographer; Erim, a young woman masquerading as a man; Gilgwyr, brothel owner extraordinaire; Leigh, an exiled magus under an ignominious cloud; Godewyn Red-Hand, mercenary and troublemaker; Arduin Orwain, scion of a noble family brought low by scandal; and Arduin's sister Annwyn, the beautiful cause of that scandal: together they form a cross-section of the Middle Kingdoms of the Known World, brought together by accident and dark design, on a quest that will either get them all in the history books, or get them all killed.
Her breathing was hard but measured by the time the group reached the rocky outcroppings near the top of the summit. She looked up at the stone circle above them and slowed, watching Guilford’s crew disappear into the earth one by one. The entrance into the earth looked to her like it must have been a natural fissure in the rock at some point. But the carved narrow arch, eight feet in height, that became visible through the split in the rock was clearly made by men. She saw that Guilford’s crew was about to leave her behind and sped up, sliding her rapier and one of her point daggers out of their sheaths as she did. She caught up with Gap Tooth and Porter just as they slipped through the entrance, and she barely had time to think before she was through the arch into the darkness.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. Gap Tooth had a torch out in one hand and a heavy axe in the other, and that helped a bit, but not much. She could see several torches appearing and disappearing ahead of them as they moved through the earth. In the flickering torchlight she could see that they were in a narrow shaft that appeared to have been carved out of the rock itself, and she felt more than saw the packed earth under her boots. Behind her the entrance was a bright vertical crack in the dark; the wind whistled past the opening, making it sound like someone was whispering behind her, and she suppressed a quick shudder. The group was moving forward and she followed. She saw the torches ahead of her lowering into darkness, and soon she was at the top of a narrow stone stair leading down into the earth. Gap Tooth went ahead and she had to be careful following, as his torch was right below her and it sputtered and coughed smoke and embers into her face if she was too close behind. The stairwell was steep and narrow, and it almost felt like it was more like a ladder made of stone; if there had been defenders below it would have been a tough fight. The ceiling of the stairwell was close enough that she could put her hand against it to help brace her way down.
They hit the bottom of the stairs and found themselves in a small room, a landing of sorts. Arches were set in the four walls, one being the arch they had descended into the room through, and the other three opening onto stone stairs leading downwards. Each arch was set with human skulls along its entire curved length, and each skull was marked on the forehead with an ugly black rune. She didn’t know magic, not the way that Stjepan and Harvald did, but she instinctively knew the runes were bad runes. Her left hand, holding the dagger, went to her chest, and she felt for the amulet tucked under her doublet with a couple of spare fingers: a bit of amber with an insect trapped inside it, set in a gold chain and enchanted. It had been a gift from Stjepan, back when she’d first done a job with him. “To ward off black magic and the Evil Eye,” he’d told her. And she’d believed him.
She watched and listened as Stjepan talked with Harvald and Guilford on the other side of the small (and now very packed) room. Everyone was crowded in on each other, trying to stay in the center, trying to stay away from the stairwell openings. Too close, she thought. No room to fight swords here, daggers only.
“. . . No, the spirits here are long gone,” Stjepan was saying as he con sulted a map in his hands. “The account we found in the archives said that during the Wars of the Throne Thief an expedition mounted out of Truse had come here, and that a company of priests and magisters led by none other than the knight Sir Olsig had worked a great ritual and driven all the trapped guardian spirits out.”
“The Ghost Killer himself. Trust us, if there were still ghost wardens present here, we’d already be in big trouble by now,” said Harvald. He looked around at the arches, eyeing the skulls that decorated the arches with a kind of wary nonchalance. “Can you imagine the struggle to purify this place? All these skulls . . .”
Guilford shuddered. “Who were they, do you think?” he asked. “Victims of the Nameless Cults? Or adherents, letting themselves be bound here as guardians?”
“Doesn’t really matter,” said Harvald with a shrug. “The end result is the same.”
Stjepan moved in front of the archway to the left of the one they had entered from and slipped the folded map back into his stiff square satchel. He pulled out a piece of chalk and marked the side of the arch with an arrow pointing down. “This one, according to the map in the archives,” he said to the group. “I’ll go first. Follow the downward arrows, then reverse them if you have to get out.” He gave them all a wry half-grin, and Erim watched as he took a torch and started down the narrow, steep staircase.
Her whispers grew more urgent now. Once long ago this had been a place of great power, until the book-men had come from their tower on the Plain of Stones and rendered this sacred place silent with violence and the curses of their false Divine King. Long years it had taken the Faithful to restore the temples and shrines, and her chest swelled with pride to think of what had been accomplished; but with that pride came despair, as well. If only she’d had a few more years, or had known how to bind the guardian ghosts. The Nameless at Dyre Callum had promised to teach her the ritual, but always they delayed, and raised the price, and now it was too late. And so she whispered what she knew, and called for His help.
Downward they’d gone, hitting on three landing rooms like the first one above them, and on each landing Stjepan had picked out and marked an archway down; after the first one on the left, he picked out three on the right. Some of the landings had other stairs going up rather than just the one they entered through. Erim started to have an inkling that the whole hill must have been honeycombed with stairs and rooms going up and down. By the fourth landing, she could feel the weight of the earth around and above them, all those narrow steps winding back up through the dark, and she could feel the panic starting to eat in the back of her throat. The air here was totally still, dead. She could see it in the wide eyes and sweating brows of the other men as well. The descent had started to take its toll on them.
“Two hundred and six,” she heard old Jon Pastle whisper.
“What?” hissed Porter.
“Two hundred and six steps, so far,” old Jon whispered back. “I counted ’em.”
“Aye, I was counting too,” said Llew the Stew. “Thought it was two hundred and four, meself, but close enough.”
“Fuck me,” someone moaned, but she couldn’t tell who it was.
Erim had never been good with numbers bigger than she could count on fingers and toes, thus ten times ten she could handle up to a hundred; so the idea of being two hundred and six steps below the earth was only slightly more scary than the idea of counting that high. Men who knew the lore of numbers, like Stjepan and Harvald, and could count and do addi tions in their heads, always impressed her; but then, Stjepan and Harvald were practically magicians. Llew the Stew used to be a steward, hence his name, so it made sense that he could do numbers; but she was a bit sur prised that old Jon Pastle could count in his head like that. Then again, he probably didn’t become old Jon Pastle without learning a few tricks. She wished she’d been smart enough to even think of counting the steps, though she wasn’t sure what good it did them.
Luckily this landing seemed different than the others. Instead of opening onto more staircases up and down, the archways opened onto straight level passages lined with stone slabs. Stjepan picked one, marked it, and slipped through it, followed quickly by the rest of them. Erim found herself last again, though being rearguard had now taken on a dif ferent tenor. Behind her stretched the inky blackness of empty tunnels and stairs up and down through the earth, and the darkness was starting to fill her with fear. She hurried to keep up with Gap Tooth and his sputtering torch as their short column moved through into a wider antechamber, with pillars carved out of rock and black arches opening into who knew what, and then a turn and out into a short passageway again. She was starting to get worried that if she panicked she wouldn’t know how to get out, that she’d forget to look for the markings and take a wrong turn. Or if the torches all went out; how would they even see the chalk marks?
Suddenly they slowed, and she almost ran right into Gap Tooth’s back. She wasn’t sure what was happening ahead, but the entire group was moving with caution, backs crouched, weapons and shields up. Instinctively she did the same, adopting a fighting crouch, dagger and rapier ready, side stepping her way forward. The moment she did she found herself calming, the familiar pose triggering a steady breath. Ah, right, that’s what training’s for, she thought to herself. It was an odd feeling—fear and excitement coursing through her, preparing her body for a fight or for flight, and yet at the same time the calm of her training settling in, centering her, making her feel safe and certain. I know what to do, she thought. I’ll just kill whatever comes in front of me.
And then she was moving in behind Gap Tooth into a large under ground chamber, and she straightened and let out a long slow breath of relief and wonder as she walked forward. The torchlight from the others spread out with them throughout the room, lighting its high walls and ceiling with flickering hues of red and black and orange and illuminating other archways opening out in its walls to other dark chambers. Several great columns flanked the central aisle of the chamber, carved with obscene images and strange, barbaric letters that she couldn’t read, and there were frescoes of some kind on the soot-darkened walls. But at that moment it wouldn’t have mattered, because she couldn’t take her eyes off the great bronze idol that grinned at them from the other side of the chamber.
Twenty feet tall it must have been, depicting the seated body of some demonic creature, the top of its head and horns almost reaching the ceiling. It cradled a massive brazier in its cross-legged lap with its hands, and there was a wide stone altar set before it. She brushed her hair out of her eyes so she could see it better, and wondered for a moment how they’d even gotten the massive idol into the chamber; perhaps the bronze had been poured and fired right there? Or perhaps some foul sorcery had moved it through the earth? She stared at its face, at a wide flat nose, a grinning mouth of ser rated teeth, two great spiraling horns jutting out and up from its forehead. Beneath heavy brows flickered two sources of reflected light: its eyes were great red gemstones easily the size of her head. Her eyes trailed down and she saw that the creature’s nipples were two large spikes jutting out from its chest, and that behind the brazier its long thin phalli emerged from its lap like a thick curved spear. Given the broadness of the idol—it was probably twenty feet wide at its base—the thinness of the phalli struck her as almost comical; but the bronze phalli had to be almost eight feet long, curving upward at an angle over the brazier to a sharp, barbed head. She swallowed hard and blinked.
“What the fuck is it?” she finally asked. It was the first time she’d spoken in hours, and she forgot to pitch her voice low as she usually did. She glanced around quickly, mentally kicking herself, but she saw that the others were so busy that they must not have noticed. Harvald and Stjepan were already hauling themselves up the side of the great bronze idol, and about half of Guilford’s crew were excitedly but quickly overturning urns and pots scattered along the walls and corners of the chamber, emptying the temple offerings into their bags and satchels, while the other half stood guard at dark entryways.
But Guilford heard her and responded, though if he noticed that she sounded more like a woman than usual he gave no sign. “One of the Rahabi, the evil spirits of the Underworld,” he said as he walked over to watch Harvald and Stjepan’s progress up the idol. He’d moved quick and one of his satchels was already heavy with coin and metal, poured out of one of the offering urns. “Might be a Bharab Dzerek, if I’m not mistaken. Spirits of iron and fire, amongst the guardians of the Six Hells, and often they are patrons to those in the Nameless Cults who worship Nymarga, the Mask of the Devil. For we are indeed in one of their temples.” He made a sign to ward off Evil, and she followed suit.
Harvald paused midway up the statue, using one of its spiked nipples as a foothold, and turned back toward them. “I’ve read about how they use an idol like this,” he said casually. “Some of their victims are slaughtered on the altar there. But for their special rituals, they impale their victims alive on this giant spear of a cock right here, and light the brazier up all nice and hot, and roast them over the fire.” He grinned, waving up at a set of chains and ropes and pulleys that hung in the dark up by the ceiling. “Barbaric, don’t you agree?” Something in his voice made her think that he didn’t really find it all that barbaric.
It was not hard to remember what she’d heard as a little girl about the Six Hells, back when she listened to the old wise women whispering in the herb gardens, back when she still went to the Divine King’s temples. The Old Religion of Yhera, the Queen of Heaven, did not agree on much with the younger cult of the Divine King, but they both agreed that there were Six Hells in the Underworld. They both agreed that Hathhalla, the lion-headed goddess of vengeance, had created and ruled the Six Hells, and that she had appointed Servant-Rulers for each of the Six Hells to act on her behalf.
On the first Five Hells there was common agreement about who ruled them and whom they were for. The Servant-Ruler of the First Hell was Amaymon, the Whisperer, the Prince of Intrigue and Secret Power. He was served in turn by the Baalhazor, great barbed and horned demons, and he ruled over a Hell reserved for the greedy and corrupted, such as thieves and grave robbers. The Servant-Ruler of the Second Hell was Geteema, who was once the beloved sister of Geniché, the Queen of the Earth and the Dead, before Geteema turned on the Queen of Heaven and waged war against the ancient people of Düréa. She was served by the Golodriel, winged demons with vulture heads, and ruled over a Hell reserved for the jealous, the covetous, and the ambitious. The Servant-Ruler of the Third Hell was Ishraha, the Rebel Angel, who had rebelled against the Divine King and been thrown down for his impudence. He was served by the Nephilim, great giants and hell-goblins, and ruled over a Hell reserved for betrayers, oath-breakers, and usurpers. The Servant-Ruler of the Fifth Hell was Irré, the Black Goat of the Wilderness, the Black Sun, the bow-bearer of plague and fire. He was served by the Bharab Dzerek, great demons of fire and iron (a statue of one of which she was apparently standing before), and ruled over a Hell reserved for the merciless, callous, and savage, such as murderers, pillagers, warmongers, and destroyers.
Most of the men she was with were destined for either the First or Fifth Hells, she would guess.
Both the Old Religion and the cult of the Divine King agreed that the Sixth Hell had no ruler, just an empty throne reserved for Nymarga the Devil for when his spirit finally passed into the Underworld. But after that they parted company a bit. In the folk lore of the Old Religion, Hathhalla had set a pack of the Tiranhim and Iyyim, wolf and jackal demons, to rule a Hell reserved for the eaters of unsanctified meat until Nymarga arrived to take his rightful place. But the temple priests of the Divine King rejected that interpretation of the Sixth Hell, as they rejected sacrificing meat to the old gods, and so they said instead that the Sixth Hell was for apostates, idolaters, and heretics who rejected the divinity of the King of Heaven and made sacrifices in the old way.
She’d eaten unsanctified meat in her time, so she sort of hoped the Divine King’s priests were right, but in Erim’s mind this argument was strictly for the temple priests and hidden priestesses; none of those Hells really mattered to her. The only Hell she cared about was the Fourth Hell, ruled by Ligrid, the Queen of Perversion. Ligrid was served by the Gamezhiel, demons of lust and sex that could seduce or rape the unwitting and unwilling, and Ligrid ruled over a Hell reserved for the depraved and lecherous, such as rapists and molesters. For the perverted, the licentious, and the wicked.
For people like her.
She stared at the phallic spear. She couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be suspended spread-eagled in the air and lowered onto that evil-looking tip. Which hole would they use as their entry point? Would it feel good at first, then turn to pain? And then the fire would come . . . if only they didn’t roast you in the fire ...
Erim shuddered, and almost sobbed, and she shook herself out of her fear and wonderment. Do something, she thought. Set yourself a task. She was about to go collect some loot—it was why she was there, after all—but then a glint of light off the altar top caught her eye. She stepped forward and inspected the altar before the huge idol; the surface of the altar was smeared and splattered with black ichors and dark dried liquid, but some of it looked fresh. She reached out with a finger to test some smears of liquid on the stone surface, and she experimentally tasted a drop off her finger. She spat to the side.
“Black-Heart. This altar’s been used recently. Blood. Probably human. This temple’s still active,” she called out huskily. Old Jon and Smitt perked up their ears at that and walked over, nervously standing beside their captain as they looked over the altar.
“I thought you said this temple was desanctified and purified by the priests during their raid,” said old Jon. “And that they’d left all the temple offerings behind, refusing to take the blood money.”
Stjepan had managed to work himself up on top of the idol’s head, and he was leaning over its brow, trying to get the gemstone out of its right eye with a small curved metal pry bar. He didn’t look away from his work as he responded. “Aye, so it said in the archives. But that was two hundred years ago. Plenty of time for the Nameless Cults to rededicate it. And to add to the offerings in the meantime.”
“Fuck me,” said Smitt angrily. “Boys, hurry it up!” he called out, and the men ransacking the temple offerings started to move faster.
“Shit, Harvald,” said Guilford. “I told you someone was watching us come in here.” He looked around in disdain. “Fucking hill people. All sorts of forbidden shit hidden up here in their caves and chasms, where the sunlight of our Divine King does not shine so brightly. An active temple? Getting in here was too easy. Where are the fucking guards? Where are the priests? Why no new guardian spirits?”
Harvald grinned casually down at them, perched on the shoulder of the great idol. “Come now, Guilford,” he called down. “The Nameless Cults might be forbidden but they can be found anywhere, even in the bright, prettily decayed streets of our beloved capital.”
“Aye,” agreed Stjepan, though he didn’t bother looking up from his work. “Even amongst the priests of the Sun Court of your Divine King.”
“You’re a heathen fucking Athairi bastard, Black-Heart,” Guilford replied, though there was no heat in his words and he grinned amiably.
“You keep your Old Religion shit to yourself.”
“Stjepan may be Athairi and a heathen, but he’s our heathen,” said Harvald. He was the only one amongst them to always call Stjepan by his real name, Erim had noted.
Guilford gave a short bow. “Aye, one of the High King’s own fucking cartographers, at our service.”
“Aye, as long as all this remains our little secret,” Stjepan said. And with another grunt he succeeded in prying out the gemstone eye with a loud pop.
They moved in the dark with her now, her Nameless. Sharpened bone spears dipped in shit and poison, curved swords and wicked implements of pain and war, fierce masks of horn and brass, short horn bows pulled with fire-sharpened arrows; pride and despair filled her again. The roll of the bones had been bad, very bad, and so she whispered still, promising fresh blood and meat and spirits bound in chains, promising herself to her Liege for Him to do with as He pleased. She hoped that He heard her, hoped so very much that He did.
Harvald hefted the gem in his hand while Stjepan stuck his hand into the empty eye socket of the idol, searching.
“Look at the size of that gem,” Guilford said quietly.
Harvald smiled down at him. “Here, catch,” he said. He tossed the gemstone down to Guilford, and Erim’s eyes went wide and her heart leapt into her throat as it caught the torchlight in its blood-red facets tumbling through the air. In a flash she pictured it shattering against the stone floor, but it landed smoothly (albeit heavily) in Guilford’s hands. He grunted in surprise but didn’t drop it. Guilford weighed it for a second with a grin, then wrapped it in a soft cloth and slipped it into his shoulder bag, already crammed with cooper, silver, and gold coins. “As per our agree ment,” Harvald called down.
“What, you’re just giving it to him?” Erim said, her mind boggled.
Harvald laughed. “Ah, young impressionable Erim. Things are never what they seem. Never get distracted by the obvious bright bauble.” Stjepan, having not found anything in the hollow space behind the right eye gem, scrambled across the top of the idol’s head to its left gemstone eye and he began working to pry it out; Harvald followed across the idol’s face as he spoke, using its nose and teeth and brow as hand and foot holds. “There’s treasure, and then there’s treasure. The real treasure here isn’t these gems, but what we hope to find behind them.”
Guilford leaned closer to Erim. “Don’t listen to the University boys, kid,” he said conspiratorially. “They’ll just get you deep in the shit. Better to stick to the simple things in life. Gold, wine, women . . . and gems the size of your fucking head.” He winked at her and she felt a little warm inside.
“Maybe the gems are fake?” she asked him. “You know, made of paste or something?” She’d heard of clever men who could do that back in Therapoli.
“No, I’m pretty sure they’re real,” Guilford said. “Red topakh crystals out of the mountains on the other side of the Red Wastes. They’re not as valuable as you might think, but these two specimens will fetch a high enough price for me to be able to buy myself a house back in Vesslos’ Free Quarter.”
Stjepan pried out the second gemstone with another loud pop.
She could hear them now, in the great temple, defiling it. Rage built inside her, displacing the fear, the hopelessness, and she whispered fiercely, summoning Him up from the dark depths of Hell. Something was coming, she could feel it now, but would it be too late? Did He come himself, or send a blessed servant?
Stjepan handed the second gemstone to Harvald, who tossed it down to Guilford. Stjepan didn’t mind giving up the crystals as part of the pay for Guilford and his crew, who were worth every penny amongst the dangers of the Manon Mole, but he still felt a pang of regret as the gem sailed through the air, and he silently wished that Harvald were not so cavalier about it. “Here, a matched set,” Harvald called down as Guilford caught it. Harvald, coming from the landed Orwain family, holding the Barony of Araswell, could shrug off a thousand shillings or two with nonchalant ease, but that was several years’ wages for Stjepan and most of the men.
“You two are fucking crazy,” Guilford said, shaking his head as he wrapped the second gem in cloth and slid it into his satchel. He hefted the satchel over his shoulder, tying a spare strap across his chest to secure it. It was very heavy now, and he gave himself a small shake to try and settle all the weight he was carrying properly.
Harvald grinned down at them. “Maybe, but you’re right here under the ground with us, yeah?”
“Too true, too true,” Guilford laughed. “A baseborn fool am I, am I, sings the bard.”
Stjepan tried to ignore them as he fished around in the second eye socket, biting his lower lip. This hollow was a little deeper than the first, and his fingertips brushed against something hidden far back within it. “Definitely something . . . ah, got it!” he said, and he slowly pulled out a long slender copper tube faintly inscribed in runes. Holding it carefully, he inspected it with narrow eyes.
He could see three different runes etched repeatedly in the copper surface, all from the Labira Grammata, sometimes called the Witch Runes of ancient Ürüne Düré, sometimes the Riven Runes. One was a ward rune useful against magic and divination; the second was a rune of structure, to give strength to the scroll tube; and the third a hex rune. The second and third runes were inscribed in touching pairs, so that in some way their magic was combined. The hex rune gave him pause; often they triggered at the mere sight of them. But he was protected by his own charms and amulets, and had not felt or heard any of the usual signs that his own wards had been challenged by an active and dangerous spell. So something else, then, tied to the structure of the tube.
“Runes of warding against detection,” he said quietly to Harvald. “And against it being opened, I think. A hex of some kind on whoever does the deed.”
Stjepan moved back from the edge of the idol’s head so that Harvald could clamber up and look. The top of the idol’s head wasn’t perfectly flat, instead being slightly curved, but there was plenty of room for the two of them to settle in and spread out a bit. Harvald slipped a carefully wrapped torch from one of his satchels along with a small packet of powdered and enchanted ajuga flowers. He crushed the packet open in his palm and blew the contents onto the torch, and suddenly it bloomed with a heatless blue flame, lighting the top of the idol’s head so they could see what they were doing. Stjepan pulled a soft cloth from one of his satchels and set the scroll tube on it so it wouldn’t roll. The two of them looked at each other as they knelt and crouched over the scroll tube, Harvald with an irrepressible grin, Stjepan with a small smile finally tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Harvald reached into one of his satchels with his free hand and pulled out a small vial of clear elixir. Stjepan knew it would be a potent of the wormwood plant, prepared as a bane against enchantments. They started whispering the words of the cleansing rite together over the scroll tube, as Harvald poured a bit of the liquid in the vial onto it. “Demes matta, illume matta, porte a matta. Grammata illuso resistrata libri. Grammata libri. Porti ouset matta. Grammata illuso resistrata libri. Grammata libri!”
Stjepan could feel a bit of pressure building up behind his ears, as though he had climbed to a great height, and they both started repeating the words of the spell faster and faster as the pressure built. Stjepan started to feel dizzy, and fear gripped him that whoever had made the inscriptions had done so too well. But then the runes on the tube began to glow, faintly at first, then more strongly as though they were etched in liquid fire. The runes grew very bright, and for a moment Stjepan thought his head might burst, and then all of a sudden the runes fizzled and popped with smoke. They both froze in mid-syllable for a moment, and then relaxed as the runes dimmed.
Stjepan waved away the smoke as Harvald grinned and laughed.
“What’s in the tube, then?” called up Erim.
“If we’re lucky, a map,” Stjepan said with a slight cough.
Erim peered up at them. “What? A map? A map is worth more than these gems?” she asked. Guilford chuckled.
“Well, that depends on what the map is to,” Stjepan said. “How’d we get here, to this treasure, young Erim?”
Erim paused, thinking for a moment. “Well . . . a map, yeah?” she finally called up to him.
“Yes, copied from the cartographer’s archives at the High King’s Court,” Stjepan said as he inspected the ends of the tube until he found the seam of the cap on one end. “And how do we get to the next treasure?” Stjepan slowly uncapped the tube, and paused, holding his breath. When nothing happened, he relaxed and let out a long sigh. He tilted the tube and carefully slid out a rolled piece of parchment.
Slowly, slowly, her Nameless slid forward, filtering through the outer chambers, bristling with death and vengeance. Firelight flickered ahead from the great temple, and glistened off barbed points and horns and chains. Her fevered whispering dropped low. If only the roll of bones had not been so bad, she would have been filled with joyful gladness at the slaughter that was about to commence.
Erim smiled brightly. “Another map,” she said. “That map.”
Stjepan unfurled the parchment paper on top of the bronze idol’s head as gingerly as he could. He had spent a long time handling maps and papers that were centuries old and practically disintegrated in his hands, and he had no desire for their prize to be snatched away from them now that they were so close. But he was happily surprised that the parchment appeared to be soft and supple. As it opened, his tone became almost reverent. “For the likes of us, the map is always the thing,” he said quietly. “It leads us to the next prize, the next journey, full of possibilities and promise.” Stjepan spread the parchment out, slowly revealing a set of symbols, drawings, letters, and diagrams.
What a thing of beauty, he thought. His face relaxed into a smile for the first time in days, and he lost his train of thought staring at the map.
“Every map is a chance to remake ourselves and our fortunes, find a way out of the lives that imprison us,” Harvald said, picking up where Stjepan had left off, his tone almost as reverent. Almost. “And this map . . . if it’s what we think it is . . . this one could be a map to end all maps.”
“They’re fucking dreamers, kid, always looking for the treasure that will let them write their names in the history books,” said Guilford. He clapped a hand onto Erim’s shoulder. “Trust me, keep your eyes on the prize in your hands, the one you can actually touch, not the one in your mind’s eye that you can only get in your dreams.” She swallowed hard, looking up at his handsome face, feeling the warmth of his hand on her shoulder. Part of her wanted to melt inside. He didn’t seem to notice, and he turned and looked up the idol. “What’s this map supposed to be to, then, Black-Heart?”
“The Barrow of Azharad,” said Stjepan in a whisper, staring at the map. Harvald opened his mouth as if to stop him, and then just winced when he realized it was too late, and hoped that no one had heard what Stjepan had said.
But if a pin had dropped in that chamber then, it would have been as loud as a clarion bell.
She froze, hearing the words spoken in the great temple, and her Nameless froze with her. She had heard the words in the tongue of the lowlanders, the Middle Tongue: the Barrow of Azharad, one of them had said. She’d heard him as clear as day. And she was filled with rage and wonder and disbelief. Could it be true? Could such a Secret have been hidden inside her own temple all this time? She suddenly understood why the Servant of the Bright King was there. But in an instant she also knew she would have no part of the great endeavor, and she felt a hollow pit opening inside her, the rage and wonder turning to despair and giddy hope; she stifled a sob, and cursed the uncaring bones.
“What’d he fucking say?” hissed the Stick, standing tall and straight and with a frown on his face. They were all standing and looking up at the top of the idol now, the urns and offering pots forgotten.
“The Barrow of Azharad,” said Guilford quietly. His grip on Erim’s shoulder had suddenly gone hard, his fingertips digging into her flesh even through the doublet, but he didn’t realize what he was doing. She bit her lip against the pain, and against something else. Erim was a bit confused; she could sense the others in his crew coming closer, the sudden tension in the chamber.
“The Barrow of Azharad,” Guilford said again, and laughed suddenly. He’d heard any number of men, in any number of taverns and street corners, claim they were going after that barrow. Hell, he’d had any number of peddlers offer to sell him a map to it. Or to the tomb of Palé Meffiré and her enchanted horn, to the Barrow of Githwaine the Last Worm King, to the secret hiding place of the Throne Thief, to any of dozens of legendary hoards and treasures. And he’d known better each time, had laughed and moved on. But Harvald and Stjepan were different. Stjepan was different.
Stjepan didn’t bullshit.
Particularly there, in that place. Deep under the ground, standing before a great bronze idol of one of the Bharab Dzerek, with the blood of who knew how many victims smeared on its altar and its great phallic sacrificial spear, Guilford could feel it in his bones. There was no way Stjepan would bullshit him. Not about this. And he knew that map was real. He could feel it in his bones, and he laughed the laughter of a man who suddenly real ized he was going to be rich beyond his wildest dreams. “You’re . . . you’re going after Gladringer. You’re going after fucking Gladringer,” Guilford said, having to repeat it to himself in order to get his head around the idea.
“Well,” said Harvald faintly, smiling and trying to make the best of a bad situation. “If the map is real.”
“You fucking cheap bastards!” Guilford roared, suddenly very angry. Erim thought he was about to rip her arm right off. She hadn’t felt him draw it but his broadsword was in his free hand, the tip pointed up toward Harvald and Stjepan up above them. She wasn’t sure what to do. “You think to foist us off on these fucking coins and a pair of gems while you go after the sword of the fucking High Kings?”
Stjepan snapped out of his reverie and in an instant realized the mistake he had made. Cursing inwardly, he stood up on top of the idol, his head almost touching the ceiling, and looked down on Guilford and the others gathering on the other side of the great brazier below them. “Don’t worry, Guilford,” he said calmly. “You and your crew can be in on that job too. My word on it.”
“Black-Heart, you better fucking believe—”
She could hear the dissension in the great temple before them, and she took a deep breath and a step forward. This was their moment. As she did, so did her Nameless, and one of them accidentally let the barbed metal tip of his spear catch on a low-hanging arch. She whirled on the Nameless responsible, fixing him with the Evil Eye, but the damage was done.
She cursed the bones. They were always right.
Guilford cut himself off before finishing his sentence; almost everyone on the temple floor turned to the left as one and raised their shields and weapons.
The sound they’d all heard from the dark of the outer chambers, despite their fixed attention on the sudden prospect of fame and fortune, had been unmistakable.
The sound of metal scraping against stone.
Everyone froze, poised as though prepared for war and listening, staring at the yawning black arches that were visible beyond the columns on the left flank of the chamber. Gap Tooth Tims was closest to the arch from whence the sound had seemed to come. He swallowed hard, then inched forward until he reached the line of columns. He paused there, one of the thick massive columns by his left shield side, almost using it as cover as he peered intently into the dark arches beyond. He raised his shield, an old steel heater that had kept him safe through many a fight, until the top was almost level with his eyes, and lay the tip of his broadsword to rest on top of the heater, pointing into the inky blackness beyond the arch.
Erim found herself holding her breath along with everyone else as they watched his progress. She felt a sudden pang. Gap Tooth was her line mate. She should be backing him up. But Guilford hadn’t let go of her shoulder, in fact he had pulled her back until she was almost behind him and he had practically placed himself as a shield between her and the arches. It was an oddly chivalric gesture, and for a moment she wondered: does he know?
And then Gap Tooth was turning and yelling “We are discovered!” and she didn’t have time to think about anything else but death.