A thousand years later, and Europe has become an almost civilized place. The rulers of the old Roman palatinates confine their warfare to the short summer months, trade flourishes along the rivers and roads, and farming has become less back-breaking, all due to the magic, bestowed by gods, that infuses daily life.Even the barbarians' gods have been tamed: where once human sacrifices poured their blood onto the ground, there are parties and picnics, drinking and singing, fit for decent people and their children.But it looks like the gods are going to have the last laugh before they slip quietly into ill-remembered obscurity...
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By Simon Morden
OrbitCopyright © 2014 Simon Morden
All rights reserved.
As Peter Büber climbed, he left spring behind him. The mountain peaks, stark and blinding, immense and razor-edged, made him feel the most insignificant creature that ever dragged itself across the land.
The valley behind him, narrow, deep and shadowed, was nevertheless showing the first flush of green. Ahead of him was nothing but white snow that stretched from summit to summit and covered everything between.
Büber stopped and planted his walking-stick in the ground. He pulled on a pair of fur-lined mittens, sat a furry hat hard over his shaved scalp, and took up his stick again. The wind was tearing loose snow from the exposed upper slopes and trailing it like cloud in the blue sky. The higher he went, the colder and more open the terrain became.
He aimed for the first cairn of rocks, a couple of stadia uphill–snow stuck to its top like a crown, but its flanks were dark and clear. His boots crunched through the crust of ice with every footstep, leaving a trail of holes through which poked the first moss and tough alpine grasses of the year.
He reached the cairn breathing hard. He needed to slow down; it had been months since he'd been up this high. His rough stubble was already coated in moisture, and it was threatening to freeze. So he wiped at his scarred face with his sleeve and leant back against the cairn, letting the weak sun do its best.
Recovered, he set off towards the second cairn, using a more measured pace. He planted the end of the stick, listened to the soft crush as it landed, then moved his feet, left and right. Repeat. There was a natural rhythm to his stride now, one that let him walk and breathe easily.
Past the second cairn, and on to the third–simple to find as only black rock against white snow can be, but he knew from bitter experience how hard it was trying to keep on course when the clouds descended and the precipices shrouded themselves in fog. Not today though. Today was glorious, bright and clean, and it was a pleasure to walk to the top of the pass and check the snow depth. It didn't even need to be clear, just shallow enough for the carts and wagons to wade through, and the short route to the Mittelmeer would be open again.
Büber, thinking contentedly of olive-skinned women, missed the first rumble of sound. He caught the echo, though. He stopped mid-stride, as frozen as the air.
Avalanches were common this time of year. He'd seen trees, buildings and people swept away and entombed in suddenly rock-hard snow that fell from mountaintops like a flood. They started with a crack and a whisper, then built like an oncoming storm to be the loudest thing he'd ever heard.
The last of it faded away, and he couldn't see the tell-tale sign of a plume of snowy air rising from the slopes. Everything was quiet again, the sound of even the wind muffled and distant.
It was said that there were foolish hunters and old hunters, but never foolish old hunters. Büber wasn't old, not yet, but he had every intention of living long enough to prove both his friends and his enemies wrong.
He stayed still for a while, scanning the east and west slopes with a practised, hand-shadowed gaze, but there was nothing he could spot. Perhaps it had been something in the next valley along, then, reverberating from peak to peak.
More cautiously, pausing at every cairn to listen, he walked higher and higher. The gradient wasn't that bad–the Romans who'd used it a thousand years earlier had picked out the route and built one of their wide roads south to north. Büber's ancestors had made the reverse journey, on their way to crack Rome's walls and set its temples ablaze. But up near the head of the pass, there were no smoothed stones or compacted gravel left. The via had worn away to soil and rock, just as it once was, and probably always would be.
He looked behind him. The line of cairns stretched away into the distance. Looking ahead, he could see three more before the slope took them out of sight. Almost there.
He trudged on. The snow rose over the turn-downs on his boots, and almost up to his knees. Not much, considering how high it would have been piled at Yuletide; warm air from the south helped clear the pass sooner. Difficult to walk in, all the same.
Difficult to run in, too.
The ground started to dip away to the south: he was there.
He plunged his walking-stick down, pulled out his knife and bent low to notch the wood. His breath condensed about him as he marked the snow level, not as proof–any idiot could stand at the bottom of the valley and guess–but for tradition. He'd been shown how to do it by a man now five years dead, and at some point he'd have to show some other rough kid from the mountains that this is what happens when you want to declare the pass open.
The flake of wood he'd cut fell to the snow. By the time he reported to the prince and the first ceremonial wagon was rolled up the via, even this covering would be little more than slush.
When he straightened up, he saw them.
They were in the far distance, coming down from the very top of the Aineck and almost invisible against the background: three large–and one of them was really very big–figures. They cast long black shadows that rippled against the contours of the snow, moving purposefully towards him.
There wasn't much meat on him, but giants weren't particularly picky about their choice of game. If they caught him, they'd eat him: quite how they'd spotted him at such a distance was a mystery left for later.
Time to go. If he turned around now, he'd just about beat them to the lower slopes, and at this time of year they wouldn't venture much below the snow line. While one man out on his own was prey, a crowd of them with spears was a predator. Giants were just smart enough to care about the difference.
Büber jerked out his walking-stick and took a last look around, just in case he'd missed something obvious. He was about to turn and follow his footsteps back when he saw a pack slowly sway into view. Then the ass it was strapped to. Then the man driving the ass on with a switch.
It wasn't him who'd attracted the giants' attention. It was this idiot.
And it wasn't just one idiot, because as Büber ran forward, his boots sinking deep into the snow, he could see a whole line of men and beasts snaking up the pass from the south.
He stopped again and stared. Maybe twenty donkeys, each with a pack tied high on their backs and roped together, and a dozen men at intervals down the chain, encouraging their charges to climb.
"Hey!" Büber waved his arms. "Hey, you!"
The lead driver raised his clean-shaven chin from his chest and looked uncertainly at Büber. He kept on coming though, switching the ass's hindquarters as it struggled upwards with its load.
"Giants," called the huntmaster. "Over there." He pointed.
The driver looked behind him and shouted something in a language that sounded like Italian. Büber didn't understand a word of it.
"Ah, fuck it." Büber squinted at the flanks of the mountain, but the snowy slopes were clear. "Fuck!"
He knew he should have kept the giants in sight. They could be anywhere now: together, split up, ahead, or coming over the ridge behind them.
"Giants," he said again. He mimed their size by lifting his hands as far over his head as he could and stamped the ground. What was the word? Stupid foreigners: why couldn't they speak German like civilised people? "Gigante. Si. Gigante."
Now he had their attention. The driver relayed the message down the line, and he definitely said "gigante" at some point. One man in particular took notice and slogged his way up the rise to Büber.
His clothes showed he was rich in a way Büber would never be. But then again, Büber wasn't about to see a substantial portion of his wealth eaten by giants, which was exactly what was going to happen if this man wasn't careful.
"Greetings in the name of the Doge, signore."
"Yes, that. Prince Gerhard, Carinthia, welcome. Giants, you Venetian cretin. Three of them, over to the east, though gods only know where they are now." Büber looked very carefully at all the places a creature twice his height might hide. "You have to get off this mountain now. And what are you doing here anyway? Didn't anyone tell you the pass is closed?"
"Pah. You Carinthians. You do not own this pass."
"Yes. Yes, we do. We open it and we close it and between times we make sure that people like you don't get butchered up here." Büber's head snapped around at something he thought he might have heard. "Save what you can and get ready to run."
"There are no giants," said the Venetian, warm beneath his furs. "Are you sure it was not dwarves you saw?"
"Oh, I'm sure." The donkeys plodded on. The first one was past him, the second one going by now. Their breath made little clouds and frost sparkled on their brown coats. They were making too much noise, and even he could smell them. Their scent must be driving the giants into a frenzy.
"You are a prince's man?"
"Yes." Büber's hand dropped to the pommel of his sword. It would be mostly useless against a foe whose reach was far longer–he carried a Norse-style blade, short and broad–but he felt better knowing it was there. "I'm the master of the hunt, and you need to listen to me."
"You wish for me to turn back because you think I should have waited for your permission."
"You should have waited until it was safe." Where were they? Giants usually just waded in, fists swinging. One blow was enough. What were they waiting for?
"Your ploy will not work. Besides, we have a little insurance of our own." The Venetian nodded at a man walking by. Dressed head to toe in a long red hooded cloak, it was only the tip of a nose and a sly, confident smile that Büber saw. "You Carinthians do not have a monopoly on magic."
"No. We just have the best." Büber had had enough. He'd seen the giants, he'd warned the merchant. He couldn't force them to turn back, or to abandon their cargo, or to sacrifice half the donkeys in order to try and save the other half, and themselves into the bargain. And besides, magicians gave him the fear in a way even a fully grown dragon didn't. "I've got my duty to do, and it's not to you. Good luck."
With all that donkey flesh available, the giants weren't going to bother with him, just as long as he got clear. When it was all over, when he'd got back down into the valley and made his report, he could come back with a squad of spear- armed soldiers and a hexmaster or two. And there might be something of the merchant's cargo worth salvaging.
The line of the train occupied the lowest point of the valley, so Büber turned perpendicular to it, and scaled the lower slopes of the mountain on the west side. He could keep them in sight, and put them between himself and the giants. Who were still nowhere to be seen. It concerned him that something that big could hide in plain sight. He had a commanding view over the whole of the upper pass.
He hadn't imagined them. He'd swear any number of oaths, to the gods, on his honour, on his parents' graves, that he'd seen those three long shadows shambling down towards him.
The lead driver tapped his jenny onwards towards the next cairn, and suddenly, from over the brow of the hill, came an immense rushing. When they wanted to, giants could move fast, using their long, tree-trunk-sized legs to devour the ground. Snow, knee-deep for a man, was simply kicked out of the way. They came in an arrowhead, the biggest one in the lead, the smaller two flanking.
The driver was rooted to the spot for far too long, and started running far too late. He was enveloped in a blizzard-like wall of white, along with his charge. He re-emerged, flying, limbs tangled, propelled like he'd been shot from a catapult. The donkey went straight up: giants did that, throwing their victims high in the air so that they would land, broken, behind them.
The animals were still tied together. The second one in line was jerked over and dragged before the rope snapped. The giants didn't stop. They thundered down the now-static formation, smashing their hands down like hammers and stamping on anything fallen.
And there was nothing Büber could do to help. The men at the back of the line ran more or less in the same direction, back to the south. The merchant, screaming uselessly at the wanton destruction of his property, and equally pointlessly for his guards to stand and fight, was knocked casually aside with enough force to shatter his ribcage, even with the cushioning effect of all his fine furs and padded coats.
The only one who looked like he was going to take the giants on was the Venetian sorcerer. He'd dodged to one side to avoid the initial onslaught: now he planted his feet and lifted his arms.
Three donkeys remained, still tied on to at least four or five of their dead or dying stablemates. They panicked and brayed and pulled, they rolled and twisted. The first giant slowed to a walk and reached down with its horny fingers splayed wide, catching a donkey's head and crushing it by making a fist.
With the animal still in its grasp, it turned to look at the magician.
The man had crossed to Büber's side of the valley, so the hunter had a good view, and despite both the urge to run and a clear path to take now the giants had gone past, he hesitated.
If this red-cloaked magician was any good, Büber might not have to run after all.
The giant dropped the donkey in a wet heap, and bared its long yellow peg teeth. It opened its mouth wide, wider than it had any reason to go, and roared out a geyser of white breath, spit and green mucus. The other giants–a female with pendulous dugs, and a juvenile already her height–stopped tearing chunks of bloody flesh and slippery entrails to view the scene.
The man in red rocked back on his heels and steadied himself. Büber had never seen such confidence, and he waited for the fireworks to begin.
The big giant was ugly even for its kind. Its face was more battered and scarred than even Büber's, and its hair was matted and growing in tufts. Old and angry, it glared down with its coal-black eyes at this weakling stick-thin figure that had the temerity to defy it.
The magician raised his hands, and the ink of his tattoos started to flow.
Nothing happened, and the giant charged.
It took a mere four steps to close the space between them and a perfectly timed duck-and-lift to scoop the man into the air. The cloak billowed as he flew: arms and legs flapped hopelessly against his useless scarlet wings.
He landed at the giant's feet, spread-eagled and on his back. He looked more surprised than hurt, but only because his surprise was very great.
The giant raised its foot, and a vast pale slab with curling toenails the colour of bone broke free of the snow. It brought it down hard on the magician, and then leant forward to apply extra pressure.
Büber heard the crack, and suddenly realised he was alone, up a mountain, miles from home, with only three pissed-off giants for company.
Now he started running.
There was a moment when he thought one of them would chase him: actually several moments, because every time he glanced fearfully over his shoulder, the baby of the group was looking at him even while it gathered up another handful of donkey–or man, he couldn't tell and didn't want to tell–and crammed it into its already red-stained maw.
When he thought he was far enough away, he slithered down the icy slope to the line of cairns, and kept his pace up until his lungs burnt, his vision swam and he could taste blood.
He leant his back against a cairn, hauling thin alpine air, and coughing like he had the plague. The sweat started to freeze on him, chilling his body and making him shiver. He knew what that would mean: he had to keep moving, but he still gave himself a few more moments to rest his hands on his knees as he tried to get his breathing under control.
There was a sound, stone on stone. Not right behind him, but too close all the same. He crouched down in the lee of the cairn and slowly, slowly, drew his sword. He stayed as still as he could, trying to trust his abilities to keep him hidden, but after a while, the waiting became unbearable.
He leant out ever so slightly. The giants' child was at the next cairn along, dragging some bloody morsel behind it, but searching for him. Büber ducked back, and prayed to the gods he hadn't been seen.
When he looked again, the giant had gone, and just a circle of red-spattered snow marked where it had been standing.
Büber hurried away, down the slope, to where spring was waiting for him.
Excerpted from Arcanum by Simon Morden. Copyright © 2014 Simon Morden. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"With Equations Of Life, Morden has got hold of the comfortable old beta-tested cyberpunk genre by the scruff of its digital neck and released it in a smooth alpha version ready to take on all comers in the new age. I never thought I'd want to know what happens next to a smart-mouth anti-hero heart-attack victim in a ruined Metrozone city - but I do.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Arcanum by Simon Morden is fantasy without the magic. It tells the story about a kingdom and what happens to it, it's people and the magical creatures who live there when the magic disappears. I enjoyed the story even though it is not typical fantasy which usually has magic appearing throughout the whole book. I look forward to reading more by this author.
I checked it out from my library and read it. It is truly amazing. Frequent action scenes throughout, dynamic characters, and amazing plot line. I would certainly reccomend this book to everyone
I actually bought this book and barely finished it. Nothing dynamic at all. Characters carbon cut outs of Hollywood created stereo types. The world situation a bit basic. You seen the type in bad movies. Bad characters that are completely incompetent in the actions they take. Miracle scientific discoveries without the pain of discovery at the perfect time to save the day. Like discovering that the Dwarves have gun powder and making use of it in weaponry. Do the the bad guys who have had it for who knows how long have any use but lighting a fire? No... Magic fades but one with no reason can still use it. No reason why just pass more debris under the bridge. I would not recommend this book. World creation is moot. Seems more like Hollywood quips and scenes rather than a developed world and believable story line. I like reading fantasy with real worlds created for characters. The characters are larger than the world presented to you. This is more like Fantasy Land.