Winter always was my favourite season. Is this yet winter? I do not know. There is some technical definition, something based on calendars and the position of the sun, but I think one simply becomes aware that the tide of the seasons has irrevocably turned; that the animal in us smells winter. Disregarding the imposed grid of our chronology, winter is something inflicted upon our half-world, something taken away from the land by the cold and cooling sky and the low and lowering sun, something that permeates the soul, and enters the mind through the nose, between the teeth and across the porous barrier of the skin.
A raw wind picks and stirs small spirals of leaves across the broken grey surface of the road and dumps them scattering in the cold puddles of water at the bottom of the ditches. The leaves are yellow, red, ochre and brown; the colours of burning in the midst of this damp chill. Some leaves remain on the trees overlooking the road; no ice rims the ditches' mean trickle, and on both sides of the plain the hills are free of snow under a mid-day sun within a wide slice of cloud-free sky. But still it feels like all autumn's past. Northwards, in the distance, a few mountains hide behind a grey besieging fleet of clouds. Perhaps there is snow there, on those peaks, but we are not allowed to see it yet. The wind comes from the north, pushing veils of rain down the hills towards us. Across the fields to the south some trample-blonde and wasted, some harvested and earth-bare, a few pitted with craters columns of smoke climb, shifted aslant by the freshening breeze. For a moment, the wind smells both of rain and burning.
Those around us, our fellow refugees, mutter and stamp their feet on the greasy surface of the road. We are, or were, a stream of humanity, a surge of outcast people, arterial and quick in this quiet landscape, but now something holds us up. The wind dies again, and on its ebb I smell the sweat of unwashed bodies and the scent of the two horses pulling our makeshift wagon.
You reach up from behind me and hold my elbow, squeezing.
I turn back to you, brushing a wisp of jet-black hair away from your brow. Around you are clustered the bags and chests we thought to take, stuffed with whatever we hoped might prove useful for us but not too tempting to others. A few more precious items are hidden within and beneath the carriage. You have been sitting with your back to me in the open carriage, looking back along our route, perhaps trying to see the home we left, but now you are twisting round on the seat, trying to see past me, a frown troubling your expression like a flaw in a statue's marble face.
'I don't know why we've stopped,' I tell you. I stand up for a moment, looking out over the heads of the people in front of us. A tall-bodied truck fifty metres ahead hides the view beyond; the road here is straight for a kilometre or so, between the fields and the woods (our fields, our woods, our lands, as I still think of them).
This morning, when we and our few servants joined the flow of people, carts and vehicles, it stretched unbroken out of sight both up and down the road; a continuity of the displaced, all moving, shuffling, eyes cast downwards, trundling from roughly west to vaguely east. I had never seen such a mass of people; a river of souls upon that road. They reminded me of childhood paper-people, outlines cut from compressed newspapers and then pulled out, all linked, all similar, all slightly different, all taking their shape from what has been removed and fragile, flammable, disposable by their nature demanding some suitable ill-use. We joined them easily enough, fitting in yet standing out.
Some noises come from ahead. They may be shouts; then I hear the dry crackle of small-arms fire, sparse and sharp in the resuming wind. My mouth becomes dry. The people around us families, mostly, little groups of kin seem to shrink in on themselves. I can hear a child crying. A couple of our servants, leading the horses, glance back at us. After a while, a new, closer smudge of smoke rises from beyond the tall truck ahead. A little later still, the queue of people and vehicles starts to move again. I flick the reins and the two brown mares clop onwards. The tall truck's exhaust gives up a cloud of smoke.
'Were those shots?' you ask, turning and standing and looking past my arm. I smell your scent, the soap from your last bath this morning in the castle, like a floral memory of summer.
'I think so.'
The mares edge us onward. The smell of the truck's diesel fumes lies briefly across the wind. Tied, hidden, under the carriage there are six drums of diesel, two of petrol and one of oil. We left our vehicles in the castle yard, reckoning the horses and this carriage could take us further towards whatever safety's to be found than could the motors. There is more to that calculation than just miles per gallon or kilometres per litre; from all the rumours, and indeed from the little we've seen so far, working vehicles, and particularly those capable of going off-road, attract the attention of exactly those we are currently trying to avoid. Just so the castle, seemingly so strong, only draws trouble to it. I have to keep telling myself and you that we have done the best thing, leaving our home to save it; those no doubt already picking over it are welcome to what they can carry.
The smoke ahead of us grows thicker, comes closer. I think perhaps a more possessive, less protective soul than mine would have burned the castle, this morning, when we left. But I could not. It would, no doubt, have felt good to deprive those threatening us their stolen reward, but still I could not do it.
Uniformed men with guns uniforms and weapons both various, irregular are shouting at the tall truck ahead of us. It lumbers off the road and into the entrance to a field, letting those behind it pass on by. The column of refugees ahead, a stream of folk, all heads and hats and hoods and wobbling piled-up carts, stretches towards the horizon.
We come to the source of the smoke, and by that rising column, ours stops again. By the road there is a burning van; it lies tipped in the ditch, not quite on its side; an open trailer behind it sticks its rear into the air, its contents spilled from beneath a dark tarpaulin. The van pulses with fire, flames spilling from its broken screen and windows, smoke bustling from its flung-open rear doors. Our fellow travellers, at least those on foot, bunch to the far side of the road as they pass it, perhaps fearing an explosion. More uniformed men are picking at the scatter of goods spilled from the van's trailer, oblivious to the nearby fire. Spread on the ditch-bank near the van, what looked at first like two more piles of rags are both bodies; one face down and one, a woman, staring up to the sky with wide, immobile eyes. A brown-black stain discolours her jacket down one side. You stand, looking, too. A pitiful, desperate moaning comes from somewhere ahead.
Then, beyond the smoke and flames and the van's tilted roof, where a luggage rack had broken free and spread bags, drums and containers across the coarse grass and stunted bushes there is movement.
It was there we saw the lieutenant first, rising from beyond the wreck's full bloody flames, her figure distorted by that rising heat as though through twisting water; a rock to foul the flow.
A shot comes from where the tall truck is, stopped at the gate leading to a field ahead, opposite the entrance to a forest track. People duck around us, the horses start momentarily and you flinch, but I am held by the gaze of the figure beyond the flames. Some more shots crack out, and I turn at last, gaze torn, to watch people stumbling from the tall truck, hands raised or on their heads as more men in uniforms herd them away, drop the tailgate with a thud and start to rummage through the vehicle. When I look back, you are seated again, and the uniformed woman I saw through the flames is stepping, flanked by two of these irregular soldiers, to the door of our open carriage.
Our lieutenant (though I'll admit we did not think of her as such then) is of average build, but with an air of gracefulness about her movements. Her plain face is dark, nearly swarthy, her eyes grey under black brows. Her attire is composed of many different types of uniforms; her stained, scuffed boots come from one army, her torn fatigues from another, her grimy, holed jacket from yet one more, and her crumpled cap sporting wings as part of its insignia appears to have originated in an air force, but her gun (long and dark, sickle-shaped magazines neatly taped back-to-back and upside down) is spotlessly clean and gleaming. She smiles at you and tips her cap briefly, then turns to me. The long gun rests easily on her hip, barrel threatening the sky.
'And you, sir?' she asks. Her voice possesses a roughness I find perversely pleasant, even as my skin crawls at a buried menace in her words, a promissory threat. Did she suspect, did she foresee something even then? Did our carriage mark us out within that crowd, a jewel set in a baser band, appealing to the predator in her?
'What, ma'am?' I ask, as somebody screams. I glance away to see a group of the soldiers gathered around somebody lying on the roadside, a few metres in front of the burning van. The refugees file past this group as well, keeping well away.
'Have you anything we might want?' the uniformed woman asks, swinging lightly up on to the carriage's kick-step and with another smile at you leaning over to lift the edge of a travel rug with the muzzle of her long gun.
'I don't know,' I say slowly. 'What is it you want?'
'Guns,' she shrugs, glancing, eyes narrowed, at me. 'Anything precious,' she says to you, then uses the long gun's muzzle to peek under another rug across the carriage from where you sit, pale-faced, wide-eyed, staring at her. 'Fuel?' she says, looking at me again.
'Fuel?' I say. It crosses my mind to ask if she means coal, or logs, but I leave the thought unsaid, intimidated by her manner and her gun. Another sobbing scream comes from the small huddle of men ahead of the truck.
'Fuel,' she repeats, 'ammunition ' Then a shriek comes from the group of men clustered ahead of us (you wince again); our lieutenant glances in the direction of that awful wail, a tiny frown forming and disappearing on her face almost in the same instant as she says, ' medical supplies?' A look of calculation appears on her face.
I shrug. 'We have some first-aid material.' I nod towards the mares. 'The horses eat grain; that's their fuel.'
'Hmm,' she says.
'Lucius,' someone says from ahead of us. Our servant mutters something in return. Two men walk from the small group gathered on the road; one of the irregulars and the Factor from the village. He nods to me. Our lieutenant steps down from the carriage and walks to him, then stands with her back to us, head bowed, talking to the Factor. He glances up at us at one point, then walks away. The lieutenant returns, steps up again, pushing her cap back over her dun-coloured, scraped-back hair. 'Sir,' she says, smiling at me. 'You have a castle? You should have said.'
'Had,' I reply. I cannot help but glance back in its direction. 'We've left it.'
'And a title,' she goes on.
'A minor one,' I grant her.
'Well,' the lieutenant exclaims, gaze sweeping round her nearby men. 'What should we call you?'
'Just my name will do. Please call me Abel.' I hesitate. 'And you, ma'am?'
She looks, grinning, round her men, then back at me. 'You can call me lieutenant,' she tells me. To you she says, 'What's your name?' You sit, still staring at her.
'Morgan,' I tell her.
She remains looking at you for a moment, then slowly turns her gaze to me. 'Morgan,' she says slowly. Then another cry comes from the group huddled on the road. The lieutenant frowns and looks that way. 'Stomach wound,' she says quietly, two fingers tapping on the polished veneer of the carriage's door. She glances at the two bodies lying by the burning van. She sighs. 'Just first-aid stuff?' she asks me. I nod. She taps the buxom quilting on the inside of the door, then steps down and walks towards the group crouched ahead on the road. The knot of men opens, the soldiers making way for her.
A young uniformed man lies on his side in the centre of the group, hands clutched round his belly, shivering and moaning. Our lieutenant goes to him. She lays her long gun down on the road surface as she crouches, stroking the lad's head and talking quietly to him, one hand at his brow, the other doing something at her hip. She nods a couple of the others out of the way they retreat then bends down and kisses the young soldier full on the mouth. It looks a deep, lingering, almost passionate kiss; a string of saliva, caught in the sunlight slanting over the trees, connects them still as she pulls slowly away. Her lips have hardly left his when the pistol she has placed at the boy's temple fires. His head jerks as though kicked hard, his body spasms once then relaxes and some blood flicks up and out across the road. (I feel your hand on my shoulder, clutching at my skin through the layers of jacket, fleece and shirts.) The young soldier uncurls and flops loosely on to his back mouth open, eyes closed.
The lieutenant stands promptly, shouldering her rifle. She spares the dead soldier a last look, then turns to one of those who had been clustered round the wounded lad. 'Mr Cuts: see he's buried properly.' She holsters the still smoking automatic pistol as she glances at the two civilian bodies lying by the burning van. 'Leave those two for the dogs.' She walks back to our carriage, shaking a grey kerchief out of a pocket and dabbing at her face, removing a few small spots of the youth's blood. She jumps up on to the step again, folding her elbows over the carriage door.
'I was asking about guns,' she says.
'I ha I have a shotgun and rifle,' I tell her, my voice shaking.
I glance up the road. 'We may need them for '
'Where are they?'
'Here.' I stand slowly, and look down at the box beneath the coachman's seat. The lieutenant nods to a soldier I had not noticed on the other side of the carriage, who jumps up, opens the box, searches it and hauls out the oil-heavy bag in which I stowed the guns; he checks inside, then jumps back down.
'The rifle is not of a military calibre,' I protest.
'Ah. That'll mean it can't shoot soldiers, then,' the lieutenant says, nodding ingenuously.
I glance round in the direction we were travelling. 'For pity's sake, we don't know what we might meet further on '
'Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that,' she says, climbing a step higher on the carriage and giving another nod. The same soldier who took the guns clambers up beside me again. He proceeds to search me, efficiently but not roughly, while the lieutenant alternately grins at me and smiles at you, who look on, gloved hands clenched but visibly trembling. The soldier has a sour, almost fetid odour. He finds nothing he judges worth exhibiting, save the heavy bunch of keys I put into my pocket this morning. He throws them to the lieutenant, who catches them one-handed and looks at them, holding them up and turning them against the light.
'A mighty bunch of keys,' she says, then looks at me, inquiring.
'The castle's,' I tell her. I shrug, a little embarrassed. 'A keepsake.'
She rolls them clinking round her hand, then with a flourish pockets them in her torn jacket. 'You know, we need some place to hole up for a while, Abel,' she tells me. 'Bit of rest and recreation.' She smiles at you. 'How far is this castle?'
'It took us since dawn to get this far,' I tell her.
'Why did you leave? A castle ought to be protection, no?'
'It's small,' I tell her. 'Not very formidable. Not formidable at all. Just a house, really; it used to have a drawbridge, but now there's just an ordinary stone bridge across the moat.'
She makes a show of being impressed. 'Oh! A moat...' She draws smirks from the soldiers around her (and I notice for the first time how tired and beaten-looking many of them are, as some gather round us, some carry away the body of the young soldier and others start to usher the people behind us round our carriage and onwards down the road. Many of them seem wounded; some are limping, some have arms in frayed slings, some dirty bandages on their heads like grey bandanas.)
'The gate is not very strong,' I say, and feel that my words sound as lame as some of these grubby, motley soldiers. 'We were worried it would be sacked if we stayed and tried to hold out,' I continue. 'There were soldiers there; trying to take it, yesterday,' I conclude.
Her eyes narrow. 'What soldiers?'
'I don't know who they were.'
'Uniforms?' she asks. She looks slyly around. 'Any better than ours?'
'We didn't really see them.'
'What sort of heavy equipment did they have?' she asks, then when I hesitate waves one hand and suggests, 'Tanks, armoured cars, field guns...?'
I shrug. 'I don't know. They had guns; machine-guns, grenades...'
'Mortar,' you say, gulping, startled eyes looking from me to her.
I put my hand on yours. 'I'm not sure about that,' I tell our lieutenant. 'I think it was...a rifle grenade?'
Our lieutenant nods wisely, seems to think for a moment, then says, 'Let's take a look at your castle, Abel, shall we?'
'It's easy enough to find,' I tell her. I glance back the way we've come. Just '
'No,' she says, opening the carriage door and swinging her short frame up and in to sit across from you. She levers some bags aside to get more comfortable and places the long gun across her knees. 'You take us back,' she tells me. 'I always wanted to ride in a carriage like this.' She pats the plush surface of the seat. 'And a little local knowledge can be useful.' She fishes inside her jacket some sort of dark, ceremonial thing, torn in a few places, stained and smudged with dirt then pulls out a gleaming silver case, opening it and offering it to you and me. 'Cigarette?'
We each refuse; she takes out a cigarette then puts the silver case away.
'I don't think going back is a good idea,' I say, trying to sound reasonable.
She is taking off her cap, pushing a hand through her short, mouse-brown curls. 'Well, too bad,' she says, frowning to inspect something inside her cap and running one finger round the inside rim. 'Consider yourself requisitioned.' She puts her cap back on and glances up at me with a small cold smile. 'Turn the carriage round and head back there.' She pulls a lighter from a breast pocket.
'But it took us since dawn,' I protest. 'And that was with the flow. It'll be after dark '
She shakes her head quickly. 'We'll put the trucks in front.' She flicks the skip of her cap. 'People get out the way for a truck with a machine-gun; you'd be amazed. It won't take too long.' She makes a delicate twirling motion with one finger as she lights her cigarette with her other hand. 'Turn around, Abel,' she says through a cloud of exhaled smoke.
The tall truck ahead of us has been driven into the field; its diesel fuel is being siphoned off. We turn round in the gateway and a couple of jeeps and two six-wheel trucks with camouflaged canopies drive out of hiding in the forest track opposite. The soldiers who investigated the remains of the burning van load petrol cans and plastic drums into the back of one of the trucks, which go ahead of us back up the road, into the stream of refugees, horns blaring, a soldier standing proud of the leading truck's cab where a machine-gun points out. The people part and scatter before the trucks like water round the bows of a ship; it is all I can do to keep up. The mares break into a canter for the first time that day.
One of their jeeps follows immediately behind us. It too has a machine-gun, mounted on a post behind the front seats. The second jeep remains behind; two of the soldiers and our servants will bury the young soldier and then follow us.
The carriage rattles, sways and shakes; the damp wind courses round my face, cold and quick. The carriage's shadow, wheels flickering, is thrown long and spindly across the verge by the watery sun. The lieutenant looks pleased, and sits cross-legged with the gun balanced against one thigh, her cap on a bag beside her, her hand absently pushing through her short char-brown hair. She smiles at us both in turn. You look up at me, put one gloved hand up to mine.
Behind us, the refugees close up again and continue on their way. The burning van in the ditch makes a noise like a distant cough and a dark blister of smoke rolls upward into the greying sky, joining the smoke from all the other burning vehicles, farms and houses across the plain.
Copyright © 1997 by Iain Banks