Dust of Dreams: Book Nine of The Malazan Book of the Fallen

T

here was light, and then there was heat.

He knelt, carefully taking each brittle fold in his hands, ensuring that every crease was perfect, that nothing of the baby was exposed to the sun. He drew the hood in until little more than a fist-sized hole was left for her face, her features grey smudges in the darkness, and then he gently picked her up and settled her into the fold of his left arm. There was no hardship in this.

They’d camped near the only tree in any direction, but not under it. The tree was a gamleh tree and the gamlehs were angry with people. In the dusk of the night before, its branches had been thick with fluttering masses of grey leaves, at least until they drew closer. This morning the branches were bare.

Facing west, Rutt stood holding the baby he had named Held. The grasses were colourless. In places they had been scoured away by the dry wind, wind that had then carved the dust out round their roots to expose the pale bulbs so the plants withered and died. After the dust and bulbs had gone, sometimes gravel was left. Other times it was just bedrock, black and gnarled. Elan Plain was losing its hair, but that was something Badalle might say, her green eyes fixed on the words in her head. There was no question she had a gift, but some gifts, Rutt knew, were curses in disguise.

Badalle walked up to him now, her sun-charred arms thin as stork necks, the hands hanging at her sides coated in dust and looking oversized beside her skinny thighs. She blew to scatter the flies crusting her mouth and intoned:

‘Rutt he holds Held

Wraps her good

In the morning

And then up he stands—’

‘Badalle,’ he said, knowing she was not finished with her poem but knowing, as well, that she would not be rushed, ‘we still live.’

She nodded.

These few words of his had become a ritual between them, although the ritual never lost its taint of surprise, its faint disbelief. The ribbers had been especially hard on them last night, but the good news was that maybe they had finally left the Fathers behind.

Rutt adjusted the baby he’d named Held in his arm, and then he set out, hobbling on swollen feet. Westward, into the heart of the Elan.

He did not need to look back to see that the others were following. Those who could, did. The ribbers would come for the rest. He’d not asked to be the head of the snake. He’d not asked for anything, but he was the tallest and might be he was the oldest. Might be he was thirteen, could be he was fourteen.

Behind him Badalle said,

‘And walks he starts

Out of that morning

With Held in his arms

And his ribby tail

It snakes out

Like a tongue

From the sun.

You need the longest

Tongue

When searching for

Water

Like the sun likes to do . . .’

Badalle watched him for a time, watched as the others fell into his wake. She would join the ribby snake soon enough. She blew at the flies, but of course they came right back, clustering round the sores puffing her lips, hopping up to lick at the corners of her eyes. She had been a beauty once, with these green eyes and her long fair hair like tresses of gold. But beauty bought smiles for only so long. When the larder gapes empty, beauty gets smudged. ‘And the flies,’ she whispered, ‘make patterns of suffering. And suffering is ugly.’

She watched Rutt. He was the head of the snake. He was the fangs, too, but that last bit was for