The third and final novel in the Rampart trilogy – a breathtakingly original series set in a strange and deadly world of our own making, from the author of the million-copy-bestselling The Girl With All the Gifts
I went on a journey once. That may be news to you, or it may be something you know already. I try not to repeat myself too much, but I misremember sometimes. It was a while back now, and a lot has happened since.
Well, I say it was a long time ago, but I got to admit it doesn’t really feel that way to me. It feels like I’m on that road still, and only resting a minute or two before I get going again. A dead girl that’s my most close and faithful friend has got a good way of explaining that. She says the things that work the deepest changes in us kind of live on inside us, so they always feel like they’re happening right now. I believe she’s right. Or at least that’s the way it is with me.
Out of all the things I ever done in my life, this journey I’m speaking of was – by a great long way – the most important. Also, it was the one that cost me the most. I’m not complaining about that cost though I knowed what I was doing all along. Nobody could say I did my choosing without no sense of what it meant.
I got started on my travels when I was made faceless and throwed out of my village in Calder Valley. I went south out of there, from the wildest north of Ingland all the way down to Many Fishes village, on the edge of the great lagoon where lost London used to stand. Then I sailed across the ocean to a place called the Sword of Albion, which I thought would be the end of my journeying. It was not the end, or anything like, as you’ll see if you stay with me through this next and last telling. The greatest part – the greatest and the most terrible – was yet to come.
When I say words like great and terrible, it might sound like I got some vain and vaunting purpose, but I don’t. To tell you truly, I have not got much to boast about. I never had all that much in the way of courage, and still less of wit or cunning – outside of woodsmithing, which was my mother’s trade and should of been mine. All I had was the foolishness that goes with being young and not yet much tested by the world. For all the danger I put myself in, I thought there was a rule set down somewhere that said I couldn’t die until I’d lived.
Well, there is no such rule – and though I didn’t die for aye and ever on that road, yet you could say there was parts of me that did. Leastways, I met with things that changed me from the boy I was before into something else, and so that boy did not last out the journey.
I should tell you that I was not alone on my travels. There was three women with me, as well as a beast of burden that was called the drudge.
The first woman was Ursala-from-Elsewhere. She come from a place called Duglas, and she was the cleverest wight I ever met. She knowed almost all that could be knowed about the world, including a great deal about the tiny seeds inside a woman and a man that make up into babies when they get brung together. She was a drunkard when she could get anything to drink, a healer that could cure every sickness anyone ever had a name for and a wayfarer that never stayed in one place long. Also she was one that hated to be touched, but that did not stop her from being a good friend to me.
The second woman was Cup, although maybe I should call her a girl since she was only fourteen years old and would not of gone Waiting yet if we was in my home village of Mythen Rood. She was a great fighter, and had once been with shunned men in Calder that et human meat, but now was sorry she done it and would not ever do it again. She had a religion that did not make no sense to me, and she clung to it even though her messianic, Senlas, turned out to be mad and burned himself alive. Also, she had a bow and could use it better than anyone I ever seen. And in case I forgot to say, she was crossed, being in a boy’s body instead of a girl’s.
The third woman was in a worse pass than that, having no body at all. She was called Monono Aware, and was the dead girl I talked about before. She wasn’t really dead though, and you might say she was not really a girl neither. It’s hard to say just exactly what she was, for there hadn’t ever been nothing like her before. Scientists of the world that was lost had collected all the thoughts that was in the mind of a flesh-and-bone-and-blood woman named Monono Aware and put them in a silver box. Then, after a long time, the thoughts had changed themselves into something else, but they still kept that same name, Monono Aware, because it was the onliest name they had for themselves. Monono was my best friend in the world, like I said. They was all three of them my friends, but Monono was someone I could not be parted from without being less than my own self, if that makes any sense at all.
I already talked about this stuff, probably more than was needful, but there was some things I passed over when they happened because they wasn’t bound up with the bigger story I was telling. I got it in mind to go back now and tell you one of them missed-out things, even though it’s out of its place, on account of how it bears on what’s to come.
We was no more than three days out of Calder, going south and east. Many Fishes village, Sword of Albion, Baron Furnace, all them things was still a long way ahead of us and we didn’t even dream of them.
On that third day, we come into some lands that belonged to the Peacemaker. We knowed this because we kept on seeing his mark, of a woodsman’s hatchet, on trees and posts and rocks. Sometimes the mark was drawed carefully, and stained red with some kind of dye. Other times it was a loose scrawl or scratch that was done in haste and could only just be made out.
Then we found ourselves in a strange place. It was a stretch of bare ground three hundred strides long and maybe two hundred or so across, with rocks and stones heaped up on all sides of it. The rocks had been cleared from the middle of the place, it seemed like, and piled up at the edges – a deal of work that must of been done so someone could plant there. But in the middle, where you might of expected to see some leeks or onions or potatoes growing, or at the very least some green grass for a pasture, there was only dark brown dirt crossed with white lines.
The white lines was strange because they had a shape to them. Some was straight while others was curved, some spaced apart and others tight together. They was made by ploughing furrows in the dirt and filling the furrows with white powder. When Cup kneeled down and tasted the powder, she screwed up her face.
“It’s salt,” she said. “Well, there’s salt in it anyway.”
“There’s chalk in it too,” Ursala said. “That’s what gives it such a vivid colour.”
Well, chalk is a thing you can find anywhere but salt is precious. We couldn’t see no reason to spoil the one by mixing it with the other. Then we found the ruins of a house right by there, and after that another, and then a third and fourth. They all had been burned down, long enough ago that the ash had blowed away and there was nothing left but the outlines of the walls and a few stones here and there to mark a threshold. So then we knowed the ground was sowed with salt by them that burned the houses, to stop the people that had lived in them from coming back there again.
It was a sorrowful thing to see, and it weighed on our spirits. We didn’t linger but was on our way as quick as we could, taking the path that led up out of there into the hills. About a half of an hour after that, Cup punched me on the arm and pointed.
We had come out onto an elbow of a mountain and could look straight down at the field we just left, maybe a quarter of a mile below. From this high, the white lines made up into a shape. It was the shape of a woodsmith’s hatchet, so I knowed then whose soldiers burned the houses and sowed the salt. They wanted to tell it, and not leave no room for doubt about who they was. If the salt was a vengeance, the chalk was the telling of it.
I hadn’t never met the Peacemaker nor been to Half-Ax, but I started to hate him then and had good reason later to hate him more. That’s not why I’m telling this, though. I’m only saying that sometimes you need to get some distance away from a thing before you can see it clear. That’s true of the bigger story I’ve been telling you all this while, and it’s most especially true of the place we come to next, after we sailed out of Many Fishes across the lagoon and out into the ocean, following the signal that Monono had heard all the way back in Calder. It was a place that was called the Sword of Albion, though it was not a sword so its name was a lie.
Ho, Koli Woodsmith, some of you might be thinking. After the tales you told of shunned men and messianics, sea-bears and choker storms, anyone would need to go a long way about to lie as hard as you done. You got no business calling out others for their falsehoods. I swear, though, I’ve been careful to tell everything I did and everything that happened to me just exactly the way I remember it. I’m not hiding the mistakes I made, though it’s hard oftentimes to make room for them all.
I only ever told you the one lie, and that was on account of not having the words to say the truth of it. When we get to the end of the story, I’ll do my best to tell you that part too, and maybe you’ll see why I couldn’t do it sooner.
But we’re not like to get to the end unless we first make a start.