The old stones of this road
have rung with iron
black-shod hoofs and drums
where I saw him walking
up from the sea between the hills soaked red
in sunset he came, a boy among the echoes
sons and brothers all in ranks
of warrior ghosts he came to pass
where I sat on the worn final
league-stone at day's end—
is stride spoke loud all I needed
know of him on this road of stone—
he boy walks
another soldier, another one
bright heart not yet cooled
to hard iron
1161st Year of Burn's Sleep
103rd Year of the Malazan Empire
7th Year of Empress Laseen's Rule
Prod and pull," the old woman was saying, "'tis the way of the Empress, as like the gods themselves." She leaned to one side and spat, then brought a soiled cloth to her wrinkled lips. "Three husbands and two sons I saw off to war."
The fishergirl's eyes shone as she watched the column of mounted soldiers thunder past, and she only half listened to the hag standing beside her. The girl's breath had risen to the pace of the magnificent horses. She felt her face burning, a flush that had nothing to do with the heat. The day was dying, the sun's red smear over the trees on her right, and the sea's sighing against her face had grown cool.
"That was in the days of the Emperor," the hag continued. "Hood roast the bastard's soul on a spit. But look on, lass. Laseen scatters bones with the best of them. Heh, she started with his, didn't she, now?"
The fishergirl nodded faintly. As befitted the lowborn, they waited by the roadside, the old woman burdened beneath a rough sack filled with turnips, the girl with a heavy basket balanced on her head. Every minute or so the old woman shifted the sack from one bony shoulder to the other. With the riders crowding them on the road and the ditch behind them a steep drop to broken rocks, she had no place to put down the sack.
"Scatters bones, I said. Bones of husbands, bones of sons, bones of wives and bones of daughters. All the same to her. All the same to the Empire." The old woman spat a second time. "Three husbands and two sons, ten coin apiece a year. Five of ten's fifty. Fifty coin a year's cold company, lass. Cold in winter, cold in bed."
The fishergirl wiped dust from her forehead. Her bright eyes darted among the soldiers passing before her. The young men atop their high-backed saddles held expressions stern and fixed straight ahead. The few women who rode among them sat tall and somehow fiercer than the men. The sunset cast red glints from their helms, flashing so that the girl's eyes stung and her vision blurred.
"You're the fisherman's daughter," the old woman said. "I seen you afore on the road, and down on the strand. Seen you and your dad at market. Missing an arm, ain't he? More bones for her collection is likely, eh?" She made a chopping motion with one hand, then nodded. "Mine's the first house on the track. I use the coin to buy candles. Five candles I burn every night, five candles to keep old Rigga company. It's a tired house, full of tired things and me one of them, lass. What you got in the basket there?"
Slowly the fishergirl realized that a question had been asked of her. She pulled her attention from the soldiers and smiled down at the old woman. "I'm sorry," she said, "the horses are so loud."
Rigga raised her voice. "I asked what you got in your basket, lass?"
"Twine. Enough for three nets. We need to get one ready for tomorrow. Dadda lost his last one—something in the deep waters took it and a whole catch, too. Ilgrand Lender wants the money he loaned us and we need a catch tomorrow. A good one." She smiled again and swept her gaze back to the soldiers. "Isn't it wonderful?" she breathed.
Rigga's hand shot out and snagged the girl's thick black hair, yanked it hard.
The girl cried out. The basket on her head lurched, then slid down onto one shoulder. She grabbed frantically for it but it was too heavy. The basket struck the ground and split apart. "Aaai!" the girl gasped, attempting to kneel. But Rigga pulled and snapped her head around.
"You listen to me, lass!" The old woman's sour breath hissed against the girl's face. "The Empire's been grinding this land down for a hundred years. You was born in it. I wasn't. When I was your age Itko Kan was a country. We flew a banner and it was ours. We were free, lass."
The girl was sickened by Rigga's breath. She squeezed shut her eyes.
"Mark this truth, child, else the Cloak of Lies blinds you forever." Rigga's voice took on a droning cadence, and all at once the girl stiffened. Rigga, Riggalai the Seer, the wax-witch who trapped souls in candles and burned them. Souls devoured in flame—Rigga's words carried the chilling tone of prophecy. "Mark this truth. I am the last to speak to you. You are the last to hear me. Thus are we linked, you and I, beyond all else."
Rigga's fingers snagged tighter in the girl's hair. "Across the sea the Empress has driven her knife into virgin soil. The blood now comes in a tide and it'll sweep you under, child, if you're not careful. They'll put a sword in your hand, they'll give you a fine horse, and they'll send you across that sea. But a shadow will embrace your soul. Now, listen! Bury this deep! Rigga will preserve you because we are linked, you and I. But it is all I can do, understand? Look to the Lord spawned in Darkness; his is the hand that shall free you, though he'll know it not—"
"What's this?" a voice bellowed.
Rigga swung to face the road. An outrider had slowed his mount. The Seer released the girl's hair.
The girl staggered back a step. A rock on the road's edge turned underfoot and she fell. When she looked up the outrider had trotted past. Another thundered up in his wake.
"Leave the pretty one alone, hag," this one growled, and as he rode by he leaned in his saddle and swung an open, gauntleted hand. The iron-scaled glove cracked against Rigga's head, spinning her around. She toppled.
The fishergirl screamed as Rigga landed heavily across her thighs. A thread of crimson spit spattered her face. Whimpering, the girl pushed herself back across the gravel, then used her feet to shove away Rigga's body. She climbed to her knees.
Something within Rigga's prophecy seemed lodged in the girl's head, heavy as a stone and hidden from light. She found she could not retrieve a single word the Seer had said. She reached out and grasped Rigga's woolen shawl. Carefully, she rolled the old woman over. Blood covered one side of Rigga's head, running down behind the ear. More blood smeared her lined chin and stained her mouth. The eyes stared sightlessly.
The fishergirl pulled back, unable to catch her breath. Desperate, she looked about. The column of soldiers had passed, leaving nothing but dust and the distant tremble of hoofs. Rigga's bag of turnips had spilled onto the road. Among the trampled vegetables lay five tallow candles. The girl managed a ragged lungful of dusty air. Wiping her nose, she looked to her own basket.
"Never mind the candles," she mumbled, in a thick, odd voice. "They're gone, aren't they, now? Just a scattering of bones. Never mind." She