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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Great Moments in Fantasy - The Chain Breaks

Though I really have to fill in the blanks with some older fantasy moments, I couldn't resist my first Erikson great moment, this one from Deadhouse Gates.  It won't be the last, my favorite Erikson moments are yet to come.

Ok, some background.  Deadhouse gates, which I haven't yet completed my review for is a real slog.  All of the characters have such harrowing awful experiences, that it can be quite heavy at times.  And the end, of course doesn't get any better.  So--if you haven't read the novel, and are considering it.  This is a massive spoiler.  DO NOT READ BELOW!

Why this moment?  It's a classic movie moment.  It's simply made for, written by a generation of film goers.  I suppose that might make it cheesy or trite, but it's so tragic, and it really comes out of no where. 

By way of introduction, the High Fist Coltaine has lead a column of over thirty thousand refugees about five hundred leagues, being harried the whole way by the Army of the Apocalypse, a revolutionary holy war, that overthrew the Malazan conquerors.  There have been massive slaughters, like that at Sekala, or at the river Vathar, where fisherman we're hooking the bodies of dead and bloated refugees from the river for weeks afterward.  The army sent its refugees onward to the safety of the Imperial City of Aren, but the did so at the cost of their lives, staying behind to engage the enemy and buy the refugees time.  One last thing you'll need to understand.  Coltaine is a plainsman, a horselord, and the shamans of his tribe, when they die, they're essence is contained in living vessels which collect and deposit their metaphysical load in an unborn child of the same tribe.

The Death of Coltaine

A strange murmering was building from Aren's walls, a sound of darkness that filled the dusty air.  Sliding down from the saddle, Duiker felt his heart begin to thunder.  Nether's hand pulled him through the crowd of Garrison Guards and refugees.  He felt other hands reach out, touch lightly as if seeking a blessing or conferring one, then slip past.
       An arched doorway suddenly yaned before him, leading to a gloomy landing with stone steps rising along inside of the tower wall.  The sound from the city walls was building to a roar, a wordless cry of outrage, horror and anguish.  It echoed with mad intent within the tower, and rose in timbre with each step that the warlock and the historian climbed.
      On the middle landing she swept him past the T-shaaped arrow slits, edging them both behind the pair of bowmen pressed against the narrow windows, then on, up the worn stairs.  Neither archer even so much as noticed them.
       As they neared the shaft of bright light directly beneath the roof hatch, a quavering voice reached down.
       "There's too many ... I can do nothing, no, the gods forgive me--too many, too many ..."
      Nether ascended the shaft of light, Duiker following.  They emerged onto the broad platform.  Three figures stood at the outer wall.  The one on the left Duiker recognized as Mallick Rel--the advisor he had last seen in Hissar--his silks billowing in the hot wind.  The man beside him was probably High Fist Prmqual, tall, wiry, slope-shouldered and wearing clothes that would beggar a king, his pale hands skittering across the top of the battlement like trapped birds.  To his right stood a soldier in functional armor, a torc on his left arm denoting his commander's rank.  He held his burly arms wrapped around himself, as if trying to crush his own bones.  The stress bound within him seemed about to explode.
     Near the hatch sat Nil, a disarrayed jumble of limbs  The young warlock swung a gray, aged face toward Duiker.  Nether swept down to wrap her brother in a fierce hug that she seemed unwilling or unable to relax.
      The soldiers lining the walls to either side were screaming now, a sound that cut the air like Hood's own scythe.
      The historian went to the wall beside the commander.  Duiker's hands reached out to grip the sun-baked stone of the merlon.  Following the rapt gaze of the others, he could barely draw breath.  Panic surged through him as his eyes took in the scene on the slope of the closest burial mound.
       Above a contracting mass of less than four hundred soldiers, three standards waved: the Seventh's; the polished, articulated dog skeleton of the Foolish Dog Clan; the Crow's black wings surmounting a bronze disc that flashed in the sunlight.  Defiant and proud, the bearers continued to hold them high.
      On all sides, pressing in with bestial frenzy, were Korbolo Domn's thousands, a mass of footsoldiers devoid of all discipline, interested only in slaughter.  Mounted companies rode past them along both visible edges, surging into the gap between the city's walls and the mound--though not riding close enough to come within bow range from Aren's archers.  Korbolo Dom's own guard and, no doubt, the renegade Fist himself had moved into position atop the mound behind the last one, and a platform was being raised, as if to ensure a clear view of the events playing out on the nearer barrow.
     The distance was not enough to grant mercy to the witnesses on the tower or along the city's wall.  Duiker saw Coltain there, amidst a knot of Mincer's engineera and a handful of Lull's marines, his round shield a shattered mess on his left arm, his lone long-knife snapped to the length of a short sword in his right hand, his feather cloak glistening as if brushed with tar.  The Historian saw Commander Bult, guiding the retreat toward the hill's summit.  Cattle-dogs surged and leaped around the Wickan veteran like a frantic bodyguard, even as arrows sweept through them in waves.  Among the creatures one stood out, huge, seemingly indomitable, pin-cushioned with arrows, yet fihting on.
     The horses were gone.  The Weal Clan was gone.  The Foolish Dog warriors were but a score in number, surround half a dozen old men and horsewives--the very last of a dwindled, cut-away heart.  Of the Crow, it was clear that Coltain and Bult were the last.
     Soldiers of the Seventh, few with any armor left, held themselves in a solid ring around the others.  Many of them no longer raised weapons, yet stood their ground even as they were cut to pieces.  No quarter was given, every soldier who fell with wounds was summarily butchered--their helmets torn off, their forearms shattered as they sought to ward off the attacks, their skulls crumpling to multiple blows.
     The stone beneath Duicker's hands had gone slick sticky.  Iron lances of pain shot up his arms.  He barely noticed.
     With a wrenching effort, the historian pulled back, reaching out red fingers to grip Pormqual--
     The garrison commander blocked him, held him back.
     The High Fist saw Duiker, flinched away.  "You do not understand!" he screamed.  "I cannot save them!  Too many!  Too many!"
     "You can, you bastard!  A sortie can drive right to that mound---a cordon, damn you!"
     The commander's low growl reached Duiker.  "You're right, Historian.  But he won't do it.  The High Fist won't let us save them--"
     Duiker struggled to free himself of the man's grip but was pushed back.
     "For Hood's sake!" the commander snapped.  "We've tried--we've all tried--"
     Mallick Rel stepped close, said softly, "My heart weeps, Historian.  The High Fist cannot be swayed--"
     "This is murder!"
     "For which Korbolo Dom shall pay, and dearly."
     Duiker spun around, lurched back to the wall.
     They were dying.  There, almost within reach--no, within a soldier's reach.  Anguish closed a black fist in the historian's gut.  I cannot watch.
     Yet I must.
     He saw fewer than a hundred soldiers still upright, but it had become a slaughter--the only battle that remained was among Kporbolo's forces for the chance of delivering fatal blows and raising grisly rophies with triumphant shrieks.  The Seventh were falling, and falling, using naught but flesh and bone to shield their leaders--the ones who had led them across a continent, to die now, almost within the shadow of Aren's high walls.
     And on those walls was ranged an army, ten thousand fellow soldiers to witness this, the greatest crime ever committed by a Malazan High Fist.
     How Coltaine had managed to get this far was beyond Duiker's ability to comprehend.  He was seeing the end of a battle that must have run without cessation for days--a battle that had ensured the surivival of the refugees--and this is why that dust cloud was so slow to approach.
     The last of the Seventh vanished beneath swarming bodies.  Bult stood with his back to the standard bearer, a Dhobri tulwar in each hand.  A mob closed on him and drove lances into the veteran, sticking him as they would a cornered boar.  Even then he tried to rsie up, slashing out with a tulwar to chop into the leg of a man--who reeled back howling.  But the lances stabbed deep, pushed the Wickan back, pinned him to the ground.  Blades flashed down on him, hacking him to death.
     The standard bearer left his position--the standard itself propped up between corpses--and leaped forward in a desperate effort to reach his commander.  A blade neatly decapitated him, sending his head toppling back to join the bloody jumble at the standard's base, and thus did Corporal List die, having experieinced countless mock deaths all those months ago at Hissar.
    The Foolish Dog's position vanished beneath a press of bodies, the standard toppling moments later.  Bloody scalps were lifted and waved about, the trophies spraying red rain.
    Surrounded by the last of the engineers and marines, Coltaine fought on.  His defiance lasted but a moment longer before Korbolo Dom's warriors killed the last defender, then swallowed up Coltaine himself, burying him in their mindless frenzy.
     A huge arrow-studded cattle-dog darted to where Coltaine had gone down, but then a lance speared the beast, rasing it high.  It writhed as it slid downt he shaft, and even then the creature delivered one final death to the enemy gripping the weapon, by tearing out the soldier's throat.
     Then it was too was gone.
     The Crow standard wavered, leaned to one side, then pitched down, vanishing in the press.
     Duiker stood unmoving, disbelieving.
     A high-pitched wail rose behind the historian.  He slowly turned.  Nether still held Nil as if he were a babe, buty her head was tilted back, raised heavenward, her eyes wide.
     A shadow swept over them.
     And to Sormo the Elder warlkoc, there on the wall of Unta, there came eleven crows--eleven--to take the great man's soul, for no single creature could hold it all.  Eleven.
    The sky above Aren was filled withc rows, a black sea of wings, closing from all sides.
     Nether's wail grew louder and louder still, as if her own soul was being ripped out through her throat.
     Shock jolted through Duiker.  It's not done--it's not over--he spun round, saw the cross being raised, saw the still living man nailed to it.
    "They'll not free him!" Nether screamed.  She was suddenly at his side and staring out at the barrow.  She tore at her hair clowed at her own scalp until blood streamed down her face.  Duiker grasped her wrists--so thin, so hcildlike his hands--and pulled them away before she could reach her own eyes.
    Kamist Reloe stood on the platform, Korbolo Dom at his side.  Sorcery blossomed--a virulent, wild wave that surged up and crashed against the approaching crows.  Black shapes spun and tumbled from the sky--
     "No!" Nether shrieked, writing in DUiker's arms, seeking to fling herself over the wall.
     The cloud of crows scattered, reformed, sought to approach once again.
     Kamist Reloe obliterated hundreds more.
     "Release his soul!  From the flesh!  Release it!"
     Beside them, the garrison commander turned and called to one of his aides in a voice of ice, "Get me Squint, Corporal.  Now!"
     The aide did not bother darting down the stairs--he simply went to the far wall, leaned out and screamed, "Squint!  Up here, damn you!"
     Another wave of sorcery swept more crows from the sky.  In silence, they regrouped once again.
     The roar from Aren's walls had stilled.  Now only silence held the air.
     Nether had collapsed against the historian, a child in his arms.  DUiker could see Nil curled and motionless on the platform near the hatch--either unconscious or dead.  He had wet himself, the puddle spreading out around him.
     Boots thumped on the stairs.
     The aide said to the commander, "He's been helping the refugees, sir.  I don't think he has any idea what's going on ..."
     Duiker turned again to look out at the lone figure nailed to the cross.  He still lived--they would not let him die, would not free his soul, and Kamist Reloe knew precisely what he was doing, knew the full horror of his crime, as he methodically destroyed the vessels for that soul.  On all sides,s creaming warriors pressed close, seething on the barrow like insects.
     Objects started striking the figure on the cross, leaving red stains. Pieces of flesh, gods--pieces of flesh--what's left of the army--this was a level of cruelty that left Duiker cowering inside.
     "Over here, Squint!" he heard the commander growl.  A figure pushed to DUiker's side, short, squat, gray-haired.  His eyes, buried in a nest of wrinkles, were fixed on that distant figure.  "Mercy," he whispered.
     "Well?" the commander demanded.
     "That's half a thousand paces, Blistig--"
     "I know."
     "Might take more than one shot, sir."
     "Then get started, damn you."
     The old soldier, wearing a uniform that looked as if it had not been washed or repaired in decades, unslung the longbow from one shoulder.  He gathered the string, stepped into the bow's plane, bent it hard over one thigh.  His limbs shook as he edged the string's loop into its niche.  THen he straitened up and studied the arrows in the quiver strapped to his hip.
     Another wave of sorcery struck the crows.
     After a long moment, Squint selected an arrow.  "I'll try for the chest.  Biggest target, sir, and enough good hits and that'll do the poor soul."
     "Another word, Squint," Blistig whispered, "and I'll have your tongue."
     The soldier nocked the arrow. "Clear me some space, then."
     Nether was limp in Duiker's arms as hed ragged her back a step.
     The man's bow, even strung, was as tall as he was.  His forearms as he drew the string back were like hemp ropes, bundled and twisted and taut.  The string brushed his stubbled jawline as he completed the draw, then locked it in place with a slow, even exhalation.
     Duiker saw the man tremble suddenly, and his eyes widened, revealing themselves for the first time--black, small marbles in red-streaked nests.
     Raw fear edged Blistig's voice. "Squint--"
   "That's got to be Coltaine, sir!" the old man gasped.  "You want me to kill Coltaine--"
     Nether raised her head and reached out one bloody hand in supplication.  "Release him.  Please."
     The old man studied her a moment.  Tears streamed down his face.  The trembling stilled--the bow itself had not moved an inch.
    "Hood's breath!" Duiker hissed.  He's weeping.  He can't aim--the bastard can't aim--
     The bowstring thrummed.  The long shaft cut through the sky.
     "Oh, gods!" Squint moaned. "Too high--too high!"
     It rose, swept through the massed crows untouched and unwavering, began arcing down.
      Duiker could have sworn that Coltaine looked up then, lifted his gaze to greet that gift, as the iron head impacted his forehead, shattered the boan, sank deep into his brain and killed him instantly.  His head snapped back between the spars of wood, then the arrow was through.
      The warriors on the barrow's slopes flinched back.
      The crows shook the air with their eerie cries and plunged dcown toward the sagging figure on the cross, sweeping over the warriors crowding the slopes.  The sorcery that battered at them was shunted aside, scattered by whatever force--Coltaine's soul?--now rose to join the birds.
     The cloud descended on Coltaine, swallowing him entire and covering teh cross itself--at that distance they were to Duiker kike flies swarming a piece of flesh.
     And when they rose, exploding skyward, the warleader of the Crow Clan was gone.

1 comment:

  1. The greatest moment of fantasy...