Toll the Hounds (The Malazan Book of the Fallen #8)

by Steven Erikson


Speak truth, grow still, until the water is clear between us.

-Meditations Of The Tiste Andii

‘I have no name for this town,’ the ragged man said, hands plucking at the frayed hems of what had once been an opulent cloak. Coiled and tucked into his braided belt was a length of leather leash, rotting and tattered. ‘It needs a name, I think,’ he continued, voice raised to be heard above the vicious fighting of the dogs, ‘yet I find a certain failing of imagination, and no one seems much interested.’

The woman standing now at his side, to whom he companionably addressed these remarks, had but newly arrived. Of her life in the time before, very little re¬mained. She had not owned a dog, yet she had found herself staggering down the high street of this decrepit, strange town clutching a leash against which a foul-tempered brute tugged and lunged at every passerby. The rotted leather had finally parted, freeing the beast to bolt forward, launching an attack upon this man’s own dog.

The two animals were now trying to kill each other in the middle of the street, their audience none but their presumed owners. Dust had given way to blood and tufts of hide.

‘There was a garrison, once, three soldiers who didn’t know each other,’ the man said. ‘But one by one they left.’

‘I never owned a dog before,’ she replied, and it was with a start that she realized that these were the first words she had uttered since… well, since the time before.

‘Nor I,’ admitted the man. ‘And until now, mine was the only dog in town. Oddly enough, I never grew fond of the wretched beast.’

‘How long have you… er, been here?’

‘I have no idea, but it seems like for ever.’

She looked round, then nodded. ‘Me too.’

‘Alas, I believe your pet has died.’

‘Oh! So it has.’ She frowned down at the broken leash in her hand. ‘I suppose I won’t be needing a new one, then.’

‘Don’t be too certain of that,’ the man said. ‘We seem to repeat things here. Day after day. But listen, you can have mine-I never use it, as you can see.’

She accepted the coiled leash. ‘Thank you.’ She took it out to where her dead dog was lying, more or less torn to pieces. The victor was crawling back towards its master leaving a trail of blood.

Everything seemed knocked strangely askew, including, she realized, her own impulses. She crouched down and gently lifted her dead dog’s mangled head, working the loop over until it encircled the torn neck. Then she lowered the bloody, spit-lathered head back to the ground and straightened, holding the leash loose in her right hand.

The man joined her. ‘Aye, it’s all rather confusing, isn’t it?’


‘And we thought life was confusing.’

She shot him a glance. ‘So we am dead, are we?’

‘I think so.’

‘Then I don’t understand. I was to have been interred in a crypt. A fine, solid crypt-I saw it myself. Richly appointed and proof against thieves, with casks of wine and seasoned meats and fruit for the journey-’ She gestured down at the rags she was wearing. ‘I was to be dressed in my finest clothes, wearing all my jewellery.’

He was watching her. ‘Wealthy, then.’

‘Yes.’ She looked back down at the dead dog on the end of the leash.

‘Not any more.’

She glared across at him, then realized that such anger was, well, pointless. ‘I have never seen this town before. It looks to be falling apart.’

Aye, it’s all falling apart. You have that right.’

‘I don’t know where I live-oh, that sounds odd, doesn’t it?’ She looked round again. ‘It’s all dust and rot, and is that a storm coming?’ She pointed down the main street towards the horizon, where heavy, strangely luminous clouds now gathered above denuded hills.

They stared at them for a time. The clouds seemed to be raining tears of jade.

‘I was once a priest,’ the man said, as his dog edged up against his feet and lay there, gasping, with blood dripping from its mouth. ‘Every time we saw a storm coming, we closed our eyes and sang all the louder.’

She regarded him in some surprise. ‘You were a priest? Then… why are you not with your god?’

The man shrugged. ‘If I knew the answer to that, the delusion I once possessed of enlightenment-would in truth be mine.’ He suddenly straightened. ‘Oh, we have a visitor.’

Approaching with a hitched gait was a tall figure, so desiccated that its limbs seemed little more than tree roots, its face naught but rotted, weathered skin stretched over bone. Long grey hair drifted out unbound from a pallid, peeling scalp.