The David Gemmell Award-shortlisted author of Age of Iron returns with the final book in his West of West trilogy, in which a mismatched group of refugees must battle monsters, an unforgiving land and each other as they cross a continent to fulfil a prophecy.
The Squatch Chief
Berlaze the chief squatch was twice the height of a tall man and built like a family of buffalo stitched into a single skin. Apart from his leathery face and the palms of his enormous hands, he was covered in coarse black fur. Sofi Tornado had expected him to smell like a bear that’s been dead for a week, and he did.
She’d met one squatch before – Ayla, who’d helped the Calnians and the Wootah escape from the Badlands. Ayla had been fearsome enough, but compared to Berlaze she was about as scary as a baby chipmunk. He looked down at Sofi with his wide nose, thin lips and black eyes squashed together into the sort of expression you might find on a parent who’s caught you trying to abduct their child.
Sofi tried to think of something to say, but it was pointless. Berlaze was going to kill them. One of the few facts that Calnian scholars knew about squatch was that they always killed humans. The mystery here was why the Owsla and the Wootah were still alive.
The desire to fight – the need to fight – fizzed in her limbs. She was Sofi Tornado, captain of the Owsla. She longed to smash Berlaze’s knee with her hand axe and jam her dagger-tooth knife through his eye. Despite his size, it would have been easy. If it weren’t for the fact that Berlaze could kill her with a thought.
The squatch had appeared from nowhere and slaughtered their guide without touching him. Sofi, Paloma Pronghorn and Wulf the Fat had attacked. Sofi was meant to be unbeatable, Paloma was the fastest person on earth and Wulf, although nothing compared to the alchemically enhanced Owsla, was a capable warrior by normal measures.
Sofi remembered only attacking, then waking with the feeling that her skull was squeezing her mind. Wulf had called it a mind crush, which was about right.
The giant squatch gathered around their chief didn’t ease the situation at all. A few were taller and a couple were stockier than Chief Berlaze. They made the Wootah and Calnians, standing a few paces behind Sofi, look like infants. Even mighty Chogolisa Earthquake, taller than any man and strong as two dozen, looked slight next to a squatch.
The squatch’s gods, it seemed, had collaborated with their hirsute worshippers to humble Sofi. All around the pastureland that the squatch called home, black cliffs soared from green, forested slopes to impossibly high snow-coated, jagged peaks. Even if Sofi could persuade Berlaze to release them, her women and the immeasurably less capable Wootah would have to scale those summits.
For the thousandth time, Sofi wished she was back in Calnia, killing at the empress’s behest, blinded to moral qualms by the daily dose of dried rattlesnake. Sofi slightly enjoyed the paradox that if she still had rattlesnake in her diet, she would have killed Yoki Choppa for taking the rattlesnake out of her diet. But only slightly.
The pale male said we needed to let you live, Berlaze thought at her. Every word pressed inside her skull, each one a mini mind crush. He said you are on a quest that will save us all. I cannot believe for a moment that it is true, but do amuse me by trying to explain.
“Have you been troubled by disasters and monsters?” she asked.
Squatch business is not your business, boomed Berlaze into her mind.
Sofi winced – these louder thoughts squeezed her skull all the more – then continued. “As I’m sure you know, there has been a rash of tornados, storms like we’ve never seen before, earthquakes and other disasters recently. We’ve heard that monsters roam the far side of these peaks. We have seen one ourselves – an impossibly large flying beast that burst and unleashed a swam of killer wasps.”
What of it? sneered Berlaze.
“Our prophet Ottar the Moaner—”
The idiot boy?
“The boy, yes. Both he and our warlock, Yoki Choppa, agree on the cause of the monsters and the disasters.”
“At The Meadows, several hundred miles beyond the Shining Mountains,” Sofi nodded towards the westward peaks, “there is a force causing all of this. It means to exterminate all life.”
What is this force?
We don’t know.
How will you stop it?
She was interrupted by a yell from Ottar. She turned.
The boy was flapping his arms and gabbling at his sister.
“What’s he saying, Freydis?” Sofi asked.
“He can feel the rage of the force at The Meadows. It’s stronger. He says—”
Ottar grabbed Freydis’s arm and spoke earnestly. Sofi was finding the boy easier to understand and caught the odd word – monsters, death, more death – but couldn’t decipher the whole.
Ottar finished talking and nodded hard.
What did he say? asked Berlaze.
Sofi felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe Berlaze hadn’t completely dismissed them.
Freydis skipped over, blonde hair blowing about her face, button nose jutting bravely up at them. “Sofi Tornado, do you remember the tornado that killed Chnob the White, and the dragon that burst into wasps and killed Gunnhild Kristlover?”
Sofi nodded. She was glad the girl was addressing her and ignoring Berlaze. The Wootah might have had very little experience outside the narrow world in which the Goachica had confined them, but they were usefully unflappable.
“Ottar says those were nothing,” Freydis continued, big blue eyes widening. “The disasters are going to get bigger and there are going to be more of them, and there’s an army building in The Meadows. Herds and herds and swarms too of monsters like the wasp dragon, and bigger monsters, too. Much bigger! They will kill everyone.”
And we will rejoice when they succeed, Berlaze thought at them.
Freydis treated the fourteen-foot-high, thickly muscled ogre to the same look she’d given Ottar the day before when he’d cried after jamming a stick too far up his nose.
“The squatch will also die,” she said.
Berlaze loomed over the little girl. Keef the Berserker and Erik the Angry started forward. Wulf stopped Erik. Sitsi Kestrel, the Owsla’s big-eyed archer, placed a restraining hand on Keef’s arm.
We will destroy the Warlock Queen’s monsters! Berlaze mind-bellowed.
“You can fight them, Chief Berlaze.” The girl held her ground and the beast’s gaze. If his words pained Freydis’s mind the way they pained Sofi, she didn’t show it. “But they’ll kill you all. Easily and quickly.” The child nodded as if agreeing with herself.
Berlaze stared. Sofi worried he was going to mind-crush her, but then he shook his head and walked back to Sofi.
He seemed more relaxed. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.
There is a lot to hate about humans, he thought at her, less boomingly now. It’s difficult to say what aspect of your foul characters I loathe the most. But it may very well be your arrogance. Have you considered for a moment that we might have our own prophets and alchemists? No. We have fur on our bodies. How could we also have minds in our heads? Well, we have, and they are far superior to yours. We can do more than kill weak creatures like you with them. We have known since last winter that the troubles are caused by a force in The Meadows. We know that the force is the Warlock Queen.
“Warlock Queen?” Sofi asked before she could stop herself.
You see, you insignificant fool? We know more than you. Several moons ago I sent twelve of my best across the mountains to find the Warlock Queen and put a stop to her ruin. Berlaze looked at the gathered Wootah and Calnians, black nose creased in distain. What can tiny, weak, stupid humans hope to achieve that my own squad cannot? Each of my squatch is worth all of you and more.
“Ottar the Moaner will stop the Warlock Queen,” said Sofi. She wanted to ask Berlaze what he knew about the Warlock Queen, but checked herself. “Before any of the Wootah knew The Meadows existed, the boy said he had to get there. Before we met the Wootah, our warlock Yoki Choppa’s alchemical bowl showed the same.”
She glanced back at Yoki Choppa for help. He shrugged. Verbose as ever.
“The prophesy is not clear,” she admitted.
Berlaze looked at Sofi, then each of the Calnians and Wootah in turn.
It’s no good, thought Berlaze. Maybe there’s something in your prophesy, but I hate humans too much. I am going to have to kill all of you, now.
Sofi leapt at him.
Her mind exploded and she fell.
STOP! she heard as she landed. The pressure released in her head. She rolled and came to her feet.
STOP! the voice in her mind repeated. A squatch was running towards them. She was a long way off, but Sofi recognised the sound of her steps from when she’d fled the Badlands.
“’s’Ayla,” confirmed Ottar.
Ayla slowed to a walk.
Hello, Ayla, thought Berlaze.
Ayla is Berlaze’s daughter? Well, that’s a lucky turn of events, thought Sofi. Possibly.
Where have you been? asked the chief. We haven’t seen you for, what, a year?
I was captured by the Badlanders. I escaped a moon ago. These people helped me.
That wasn’t quite true, thought Sofi. If anything, Ayla’s intervention had saved the Wootah and Calnians from Beaver Man’s clutches. But she wasn’t going to argue the point.
Without them, Ayla continued, I would be dead in the Badlands. So please will you give them whatever provisions they require and send them on their way?
No, thought Berlaze. I am about to kill them.
But they saved me!
They are humans. They are selfish and cruel. If they did save you – which I seriously doubt – it was only incidental to saving themselves. They will die.
Father, no. These are good creatures. They are on a quest that will help us all. Let them go.
Berlaze’s facial features wrinkled and pulsed in thought.
In a way, thought Sofi, it would be easier if Berlaze did kill them all. Ayanna, Empress of Calnia, had dreamed that the Wootah – or Mushroom Men as they’d been known – would destroy the world. She’d sent Sofi Tornado and her Owsla to kill them all. Yoki Choppa had stopped them, and said that Ottar the Moaner was in fact going to save the world and they must escort him and the rest of the Wootah to The Meadows.
Sofi had believed the warlock and was doing what he asked. However, she was trying to keep her distance from the Wootah because, when the quest was over – if they succeeded – Sofi would have to decide whether the empress’s orders still stood. She didn’t see why they shouldn’t – a prophecy was a prophecy. So, if they did make it to The Meadows and stop all the terrors, she would have to slaughter the Wootah to prevent them destroying the world.
She looked at them, as they waited to hear if they were to die that day. Thyri Treelegs stared pouty defiance. Keef the Berserker was smiling with genuine swagger. Sassa Lipchewer, Erik the Angry and Wulf the Fat were all trying not to look scared, and succeeding to a degree. Finn the Deep was trying not to look scared and failing, but he was gripping the hilt of his sword and was probably ready to use it. Bodil Gooseface was looking about with her mouth open, more perplexed than scared. Little Ottar the Moaner was splay-legged on the grassy ground, poking his finger into the soil and singing.
No, Sofi wasn’t looking forward to killing them all, so it would be something of a relief if Berlaze did the job, even if he took her life too.
After an uncomfortably long time, the hulking hominid looked back down at Sofi. I will give you my decision at sunset. You will wait by the lake. If any of you try to escape, you will be killed.
Thank you, Father, thought Ayla.
Berlaze smiled at his daughter, then turned to Sofi. His face was still twisted in a smile, but it wasn’t a kind one.