by Tim Lebbon
Extract from Chapter One
Beko Havison lived in the basement rooms beneath a tavern. He was a Serian – a soldier from Mancoseria ready to sell his experience to the Guild of Voyagers and he had accompanied Nomi on her second voyage to Ventgoria. It had been a relatively trouble-free journey, other than her sickness, but she had always seen the potential in him. They had talked a lot on that trip, and he had professed a love of free poetry, but the raw strength that had seen him through five voyages was obvious. He could talk endlessly about moonlight touching the stark branches of a lightning tree, but he could never hide his scars.
The tavern was still boarded up, and a drunk lay unconscious on its steps. Nomi thought of waking him and telling him that dawn had come and gone, but he did not look like the sort of man who’d take kindly to being surprised. There was a short curved knife in his belt, the blade keen, bone handle smooth and darkened from use.
She stepped over his splayed legs, cringing at the smell, and walked down the short flight of stone steps to the basement door. It was open, and Beko Havison was smiling at her.
“Beko! You surprised me.”
“You come to visit, and I surprise you?”
“How by all the gods do you live here?” she asked. The drunk growled something indecipherable in his sleep.
“Nobody looks below a tavern,” Beko said. ”Makes me anonymous. Besides, it’s not so bad here. A rough place, but the food is to die for.” He held out his hands and Nomi grasped them. ”Good travels.”
Nomi grinned. ”I hope so.”
“Ah!” Beko said. ”Work. Then welcome to my humble abode.”
The basement consisted of one huge room with a curtained bathroom in one corner and a large bed along one side. With the front door closed, the only outside light came from three slits just below ceiling level, one at the front and two at the rear. They were glazed with thick, misted glass, and dust on the outside further reduced the light. Candles flickered around the room, casting flickering shadows. The ceiling beams were low enough that the warrior had to duck in places.
All available wall space was taken up by weaponry.
“Very homely,” Nomi said.
“I have to store the tools of my trade somewhere.”
There were a dozen swords of varying shapes, lengths and designs. Several bows hung on the walls, the smallest the length of Nomi’s arm, the longest as tall as the room. A collection of intricately designed quivers lay on the long table along the room’s rear wall, and there were tall wooden pots from which the feathered ends of hundreds of arrow protruded like deadly flowers. Knives made from metal, bone and hardwood hung on strings, along with an assortment of other cutting, crushing or hacking weapons. She could also see the crossbow with which Beko had hunted fowl and wild pigs in Ventgoria.
Nomi shivered. She could not help wondering which blades, arrows and axes had killed people.
She knew that Beko had killed. They had talked about it. Hers was the most trouble-free voyage he had been on, he had told her. The one previous to that had been with a woman named Ghina Bleed, one of the most senior Voyagers of the Guild. They had gone south as far as the great lake south of the Pavissia Steppes and whilst mapping the lake’s shores, they had been besieged by a large, organized band of marauders, coveting the Voyagers’ horses, equipment and weapons. The fight had lasted for eight days, and when the marauders finally fled, they left a hundred dead behind. How many of those Beko was responsible for he had not said, but Nomi did not believe that numbers really mattered. The voyage lost only four members, and it had become infamous in Guild history.
“Drink?” Beko asked.
Nomi’s head was still spinning from her unaccustomed intake of morning cydrax. She shook her head and watched Beko pour himself some root wine from a tall clay bottle.
“Please, sit,” the soldier said. He sat in one of the chairs around a low table and Nomi sat opposite, relaxing. ”Remember I promised I would show you this?” He indicated the table, shifting aside a plate dirtied with leftover food.
“Your trial carving!” Nomi leaned forward and gasped when she saw the table’s hardwood surface. ”Is that your seethe-gator?”
She touched the carving, and for an instant Nomi imagined the rough wooden edges to be seethe-gator teeth. She moved her fingertips across the deadly creature’s image, its spines and serrated teeth, those long, hooked limbs which made it so deadly and then she noticed the flicker of a figure beside it. It was so expertly carved that the candlelight revealed only its shadow: ridges and knots cut here and there to form the insubstantial image of a man. The seethe-gator was twice his size.
“I took it with nineteen throwing knives, fifteen arrows, six crossbow bolts, and a sword for its head.”
Nomi shook her head in awe. ”How can you and your people live in such a place?”
“My people have lived there forever,” he said. ”Mancoseria is our home, and the seethe-gators have always been there, too. Yet for me, I don’t live there anymore. I live here.”
“Of course,” Nomi said. ”I’m sorry. I…”
“It was a long time ago. And that was the creature that took her. I killed it. I’ve had my revenge. It’s not every Serian who gets to kill such a seethe-gator for their trial.”
Nomi sat back, amazed once again at the soldier’s history. So much death, such harsh times. She tried to Beko fighting the terrifying animal carved in the tabletop.
“I’d like to offer you work,” she said at last.
“But not Guild work.” Beko rested his feet on the trial table, heels crossed atop the seethe-gator’s head.
“No, not Guild. There are reasons. And it would be myself and a friend.”
“Yes.” She’d forgotten how sharp Beko could be.
He nodded slowly, looking at her over the top of his mug.
What did I tell him about Ramus and me? She could not remember. They had spent many nights eating around camp fires, and their discovery of Ventgorian airbacco had turned much of the voyage hazy and indistinct.
“He’s a remarkable man,” she said. ”He reads, and not just the modern Noreelan languages. He’s read old books, too. He knows so much, and for this voyage.”
“So it is a voyage. You were being a bit evasive, Nomi. It’s not like you.”
“True. But with this one, there’s nothing defined or known.”
Beko leaned forward and placed his mug on the table. ”The very soul of voyaging.”
“Are you interested?”
“I’m intrigued,” he said. ”Which for me, amounts to the same thing. I’ve been here for almost half a year without a voyage. And the last one was with that fool Geary, a tiresome stomp down the Western Shores. We found nothing but sand and dead fish.”
“I’ll want you as captain.”
He frowned. ”How many more Serians do you need?”
“Can you find five more who’ll do private work?”
He nodded. ”Of course. But what do I tell them?”
“Nothing for now.” She looked down at Beko’s trial table again, and the shifting candlelight made the seethe-gator move. ”Only promise them the voyage of a lifetime.”
“Well,” Beko said, picking his mug up and drinking more wine. ”I’m more intrigued than ever.”
Nomi caught him staring at her when she looked up.
“This needs to be kept quiet, Beko. I mean it.”
“I’m sure.” He smiled. ”But as captain, I think I deserve something to spur me on. Don’t you?”
“Something? Not for the first time, Nomi felt uncomfortable in Beko’s presence. He was a big man, intimidating when he wanted to be, yet gentle and caring when the mood took him. A man of contradictions; a lover of poetry who slept in an armory.
“Tell me where we’re going, Nomi.”
“That’s your price?”
“I won’t breathe a word.”
Nomi relaxed back into the chair. ”We’re going to the Great Divide.”
The soldier’s face did not change, but his eyes grew dark.
“The voyage of voyages, Beko! Perhaps the one to end them all.”
“What’s down there?”
She looked away. ”We don’t know yet.”
“I don’t lie, Beko. We don’t know what’s down there. That’s why we’re going.”
He stood and walked behind her, a heavy shadow in the shady basement. In the tavern above them a piece of furniture scraped across the floor. Someone muttered, and somebody else laughed. ”Opening time soon,” Beko said. ”More drinking in the day, singing in the evening, and fighting in the night. More wine dripping between the floorboards. More puking drunks.”
“We could be drinking around a camp fire two nights from now.”
“I’ll come, of course,” Beko said. I made up my mind when I showed you my trial table.
“I saw the excitement in your eyes. You don’t hide much.”
She sighed with relief, but said, “You haven’t even asked about pay.”
Beko turned. He was holding a round stone, and he drew the blade of a short knife across its surface. ”I know that Ventgorian fruit has made you rich. Come back this evening and I’ll give you a price.”
Nomi nodded, and jumped when something thudded onto the floor above them.
Beko rolled his eyes. ”Dragging out last night’s drunks to make room for tonight’s.”
“Yes. Very homely.” Nomi went to the door and opened it to the smell of vomit.
“Nomi,” Beko said.
She turned around, looking back into the cavern of a room.
“Thank you for asking me.”
“Who else would I go to?” Then she shut the door, climbed the steps into the street and went to find a runner.