The war is over, and army priest Tomas Piety heads home with Sergeant Bloody Anne at his side. But things have changed while he was away: his crime empire has been stolen and the people of Ellinburg--his people--have run out of food and hope and places to hide. Tomas sets out to reclaim what was his with help from Anne, his brother, Jochan, and his new gang: the Pious Men. But when he finds himself dragged into a web of political intrigue once again, everything gets more complicated.
As the Pious Men fight shadowy foreign infiltrators in the back-street taverns, brothels, and gambling dens of Tomas's old life, it becomes clear:
The war is only just beginning.
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After the war we came home.
Sixty-five thousand battle-shocked, trained killers came home to no jobs, no food, and the plague. What the fuck did Her Majesty think was going to happen?
“Drink up lads,” I said. “It’s on the house, now.”
“That it is,” Bloody Anne said as she threw the innkeeper out of the door and locked it behind him.
He had wanted silver, for food and beer barely worth half a clipped copper. That was no way to welcome the returning heroes, to my mind, and it seemed Anne had agreed with me about that. She’d given him a good kicking for his trouble.
“That’s done then,” she said.
Bloody Anne was my sergeant. Her hair was shorter than mine and she had a long, puckered scar that ran from the corner of her left eye down almost to the tip of her jaw, twisting the corner of her mouth into a permanent sneer. Nobody messed with Bloody Anne, not if they knew what was good for them.
“You drinking?” I asked, offering her a tankard.
“What do you think?”
She had a gravelly voice that had been roughened by the smoke of blasting powder and too many years of shouting orders. No amount of beer would soften that voice, but that didn’t stop her trying every chance she got. We sat at a table together and she took the cup from me and drained half of it in a single swallow.
A couple of the lads were dragging the innkeeper’s daughter up some splintery wooden stairs while the others tapped a fresh cask. Kant grinned at me from those stairs, his hand already thrust down the front of the girl’s kirtle. I shook my head to tell him no. I don’t hold with rape and I wasn’t allowing it, not in my crew.
I’m a priest, after all.
Over Anne’s shoulder, I watched Kant ignore me and drag the girl up onto the landing and out of sight. Those were the times we lived in.
All the same, there were limits.
I got to my feet and shoved the table away from me, spilling our wooden tankards of warm beer across the sawdust-covered floor of the inn.
“Oi,” Anne complained.
“Kant!” I shouted.
Kant stuck his head back around the rough plaster arch at the top of the stairs.
“Let the girl go,” I said.
“Good one, boss.”
He grinned, showing me his shit-colored teeth.
Bloody Anne turned in her seat and saw what was going on.
“Enough, Corporal,” she growled at him, but he ignored her.
It made me angry, that he thought he could ignore Anne like that. She was a sergeant and he was only a corporal, although that sort of thing didn’t matter much anymore. Kant was a head taller than me and maybe thirty pounds heavier, but I didn’t care. I knew that didn’t matter either, and more to the point Kant knew it too. There was a devil in me, and all my crew knew it.
“No,” I said, letting my voice fall into the flat tone that warned of harsh justice to come.
“You’re joking,” Kant said, but he sounded uncertain now.
“Come here, Kant,” I said. “You too, Brak.”
Spring rain blew against the closed shutters, loud in a room that was otherwise plunged into nervous silence. A smoky fire crackled in the grate. Kant and his fellow would-be rapist came back down the stairs, leaving the girl crying in a heap on the top step. She had maybe sixteen or seventeen years to her, no more than that, putting her at barely half my age.
I could feel Anne and the rest of my crew looking at me. Men set down their tankards and bottles to watch. Even Fat Luka put his cup down, and it took a lot to stop him drinking. The crew knew something had been ill done, and when something was ill done in my eyes there was always harsh justice.
Bloody Anne was giving me a wary look now. Sir Eland the false knight just stood there sneering at everyone like he always did, but he was watching too. Billy the Boy was halfway to drunk already, but then he was only twelve so I supposed I had to let him off not being able to hold his beer. Grieg and Cookpot and Black Billy and the others just watched.
I met Kant’s eyes and pointed at a spot on the boards in front of me.
“Come here,” I said. “Right now.”
A log popped in the grate, making Simple Sam jump. Kant glared at me but he came, and Brak followed in his wake like a little boat trailing behind a war galleon.
“Would you like someone to fuck, Kant?” I asked him.
Kant was bigger than me, huge and ugly. Kant the Cunt, the crew called him, but never to his face. His chain-mail byrnie strained across his massive barrel chest over a jerkin of boiled leather. The scars on his face stood out livid and red as he started to get angry right back at me. I remembered how he had earned those scars at Abingon, forcing his way through the breach in the west wall when the citadel fell. Kant had led his squad over a mound of corpses, and never mind the archers waiting for them. He had taken an arrow through the cheek for his trouble. He had kept fighting, had Kant, spitting blood and teeth as he swung his mace into this head, that shoulder, those balls, crushing and bludgeoning and forcing his way forward. Bludgeon and force, that was how Kant the Cunt made his way in the world.
Kant was a war hero.
But then so was I.
“Course I want someone to fuck,” Kant said. “Who don’t?”
“You want to fuck, Kant?” I asked him again, and this time my voice went soft and quiet.
All the crew had been with me long enough to know what that tone meant. That tone meant the devil was awake and there was harsh justice coming for sure, and soon. Kant was drunk, though, not booze drunk but rape drunk, power drunk, and I knew he wasn’t going to take a telling. Not this time.
“Yeah, I fucking do,” he said.
I didn’t like Kant. I never had liked Kant, truth be told, but Kant was a good soldier. In Abingon I had needed good soldiers. Now I needed good men, and the Lady only knows the two ain’t necessarily the same thing.
“Come here,” I said again. “If you want to fuck, come here and fuck me.”
I held Kant’s gaze. I wouldn’t have put it past him, under other circumstances. If I had been some other man, some peasant lad, I doubted Kant would have been picky. A hole was a hole as far as he was concerned, and if he could stick his cock in it then it made him happy.
“Tomas . . .” Anne started to say, but it was too late for that and I think she knew it.
The Weeping Women hung heavy on my hips. They were a matched pair of beautifully crafted shortswords that I had looted from a dead colonel after the last battle of Abingon. I had named them Remorse and Mercy.
My crew knew all too well what the Weeping Women could do in my hands.
“You didn’t ought to force yourself on lasses, it’s not right,” Black Billy said. He nudged the man beside him with his elbow. “Ain’t that so, Grieg?”
Grieg grunted but said nothing. He was a man of few words, was Grieg.
“Lady’s sake,” Brak muttered, scuffing his foot at the beery sawdust underfoot while Kant tried to stare me out. “We was only having a bit of fun, like.”
“Does she look like she’s having fun?” I asked.
Kant saw me point to the girl, he saw my eyes and hand move away from him, and he took his moment. I had thought he might, for all that I had hoped he had more sense. He was quick, was Kant, and he was brutal, but he wasn’t any kind of clever.
He lunged at me, his hand going to his belt and coming out with a long knife in it. I dipped and turned, and swept Remorse out of her scabbard and across his throat in a vicious backhand cut. Kant dropped in a great spray of red foam, bubbling and cursing as he fell.
I could feel Billy the Boy looking at me.
“Good fucking deal,” he said, his voice not yet broken, and he drained his tankard.
“Fuck,” Brak said.
“That’s what you wanted, Brak,” I said. “The offer’s still open. My arse, if you can come and take it.”
He looked at me, and at Kant bleeding out on the floor and at the length of dripping steel in my hand. He shook his head, and that was as I had expected. Brak was Kant’s second, but he had barely twenty years to him and he was only tough when he had the big man in front of him.
“Nah,” he said at last. “I ain’t in the mood no more.”
“Didn’t think so,” I said.
I wondered where this left Brak now, in the pecking order of my crew. Truth be told, I didn’t care. That was Brak’s problem, not mine. Staying boss was my problem—how they sorted out their own hierarchy was up to them.
Matters of rank and the chain of command had gone to the whores after Abingon, but I had been the company priest. That put me in charge of the crew by default after the captain died of his wounds on the way home. That and I was used to leading men, and no one else was.
Simple Sam stood looking down at Kant for a long moment, then gave him a hefty kick as though checking to make sure he was dead.
“What’s the colonel going to say about this, Mr. Piety?” Sam asked.
“We ain’t got a colonel anymore, Sam lad,” I told him. “We’ve been disbanded, remember?”
“Means they’ve stopped paying us,” Anne grumbled.
She was right. Our regiment had gone from being three thousand paid, organized murderers to three thousand unpaid, disorganized murderers.
That had gone about as well as might be expected.
“Bollocks,” Sam muttered, and kicked Kant again to show us what he thought of that.
The Lady only knew what had happened to our colonel, but the rest of us had stayed together in a loose mass of independent crews as a matter of habit more than anything else. There were nearly three thousand men camped in and around this town, but no one was really in charge anymore. No, I wouldn’t be getting court-martialed for killing Kant. Not these days I wouldn’t.
I looked down for a moment and gave thanks to Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows for my victory. She hadn’t guided my hand, I knew that much. Our Lady doesn’t help. Not ever. She doesn’t answer prayers or grant boons or give a man anything at all, however hard he might pray for it. The best you can hope for from her is that she doesn’t take your life today. Maybe tomorrow, aye, but not today. That’s as good as it gets, and the rest is up to you.
She was a goddess for soldiers and no mistake.
“Well done,” Sir Eland the false knight said in my ear. “You’ve kept them this time, at least.”
He was a sneaky bastard, was Sir Eland. I hadn’t known he was there until I felt his hot breath on the back of my neck. I turned and looked at him, carefully keeping a bland expression on my face. Sir Eland had been the captain’s champion, this man who called himself a knight. He was nothing of the sort, I knew. He was just a thug who had stolen himself a warhorse and enough ill-fitting armor to carry off the lie. He was about as noble as my morning shit. All the same, he was dangerous and he needed watching.
“Sir Eland,” I said, and forced myself to smile at the false knight. “How gratifying to have your support.”
I turned away before he could say anything else. I could feel his eyes on my back, boring through my black hooded priest’s robe and my chain-mail byrnie and boiled leather jerkin and linen shirt all the way through to my heart. Oh, yes, Sir Eland the false knight would stab me in the back the first chance he got, I knew that much. It was my job to not give him that chance. That was what it was, to be a leader of men like these.
At least Anne hated him as much as I did, that was something. I knew she had my back, she always did. I made my way across the inn to the table where Billy the Boy was sitting. Kant was still lying on the floorboards in a spreading pool of his own blood, but no one seemed to be in any sort of hurry to move him. I sat down at the scarred trestle table across from Billy, and nodded to him.
The lad looked up, the light catching the smooth planes of a face that had never seen a razor. A slow smile crept across his moist young lips.
“Speak, in the name of Our Lady,” he said.
“I killed Kant,” I confessed to him, keeping my voice low.
“It was his time to cross the river,” Billy said. “The Lady knows Kant needed killing and she forgives you. In Our Lady’s name.”
He had, at that. No one would miss Kant, I knew that much.
Billy was only twelve years old but he wore mail and a shortsword like a man. I might be a priest, but Billy was my confessor, strange as that may seem. I bowed my head before the child.
“In Our Lady’s name,” I repeated.
Billy the Boy reached out and brushed the cowl back from my face to put a hand on my forehead. It looked ridiculous, I knew, me giving confession to this child-man. I was the priest there, not him, but Billy was special. Billy was touched by Our Lady, all there knew that. That was the only reason the crew left a young lad like him alone. I remembered when Billy had first joined us, an orphan refugee from the sack of Messia. The regiment had been recruiting by then, replacing its losses, and had taken Billy even young as he was.
Sir Eland had taken a shine to him at once. He liked lads, did Sir Eland. He had tried to get into Billy’s bedroll one night, to have his way with him. To this day I don’t know exactly what had happened, and to be sure Sir Eland was never likely to raise the matter in conversation. All I remembered was a campfire by the roadside. I’d had the watch that hour, and the rest of the crew were curled up asleep in their blankets as close to the fire as they could get. I remembered a sudden shrill scream in the darkness.
It hadn’t been Billy who’d screamed, but Sir Eland. Whatever he had tried to do to Billy, and I supposed really that was his business, his attention hadn’t been wanted. Billy had done . . . something, and that had been the end of it. That was how the pecking order got worked out, and no one had ever mentioned it again. The crew adapted and moved on, and after that Billy the Boy was one of us.
The one touched by the goddess.
“Thank you, Billy,” I said.
He shrugged, indifferent. So simply was atonement given. There was no expression at all in his flat brown eyes, and Lady only knew what went on in his head.
I got up and looked around the room, my gaze taking in the rest of the crew. They were drinking and laughing and cursing once more, throwing dice and stuffing their faces with whatever Cookpot had found in the kitchen. At some point the girl had run away, and I thought that was wise of her. Simple Sam was being noisily sick in a corner. All was well.
Right up until six armed men kicked the door in, anyway.
“Fuck!” Brak shouted.
It was his favorite word, I had to give him that.
I sat quiet and stared at the newcomers as my crew drew steel all around me. I knew the one who led them, but I hadn’t thought to see him again. I kept my hands on the table in front of me, well away from the hilts of the Weeping Women.
Six men shouldered their way inside with the rain blowing in behind them. Their leader shoved the hood of his sodden cloak back from his face and showed me a savage grin.
“Fuck a nun, Tomas Piety!” he said.
I stood up.
“Brother,” I said.
My brother Jochan looked around him and roared with laughter. He was four years younger than me but taller and thinner, with wild hair and a three-day growth of beard on his prominent, pointed chin.
“Fucking priest?” he said, staring at my robes. “How are you a fucking priest? If I’m any judge half your crew are puking shitfaced and you’ve fucking killed one of them yourself.”
Thanks to the mercy of Our Lady, Jochan wasn’t a judge. Still, I had to admit he had the right of it this time. I showed him a smile that I didn’t feel.
“Those are the times we live in,” I said.
“Fucking right,” Jochan agreed, and turned to his crew. “Lads, this is my big brother Tomas. I ain’t seen him since the war started but he’s a fucking priest now, apparently. Still he’s all right, despite that. His boys won’t mind sharing, will they?”
That last was pointed at me, I knew. I shrugged.
“Be our guests,” I said. “Ain’t like we paid for it.”
If my crew could feel the tension between my brother and me they had the sense not to show it, and that was wise of them.
Jochan’s lads started helping themselves to beer and food, and he came and joined me and Bloody Anne at our table. I didn’t know any of his crew. Jochan and me had ended up in different regiments, and if he was here now I could only assume he had led his handful of men across country from wherever they were supposed to be to join us here.
“Oi!” he shouted. “Woman! Bring us beer.”
Anne’s head snapped around in anger, but he didn’t mean her.
One of his men came over with tankards for us, then went to rejoin the others. He was as rough-looking as the rest of them and there was nothing remotely womanly about the fellow, to my mind. I raised an eyebrow at Jochan.
“Woman?” I asked.
“Aye, that’s Will the Woman,” Jochan said. “We called him that because every time Will kills a man he weeps afterward. Mind you, he’s killed so many fucking men it ain’t funny no more, but you know how a name sticks.”
“He must have wept a lot, at Abingon,” Anne said.
“Aye,” Jochan said, and fell silent.
We had the war in common, us brothers, if little enough else. The war, and the memories of it, of home before it and of childhood things long past and best forgotten. We were nothing alike, me and Jochan. We never had been. We had worked together before the war, but I would never have called us friends. My aunt had always told me that I didn’t feel enough, but to my mind Jochan had always felt far too much. Perhaps between us we made a whole man. I wouldn’t know. That was a philosophical question, I supposed, and this was no time for philosophy.
I looked across the table into my brother’s eyes, and in that moment I realized what the war had done to him. Jochan had always been wild, but there was a feral quality to his stare now that I hadn’t seen before. I could almost see the flare of the cannon in his pupils, the clouds of dust from falling walls rolling across the whites into corners that were as red as the rivers of blood we had waded through. Whatever little sanity Jochan had possessed before the war, he had left it in the dust of Abingon.
“Brother,” I said, and reached out a hand to him across the rough tabletop.
Jochan lurched to his feet and drained his tankard in a long, shuddering swallow, spilling a good deal of it down the front of his rusty mail. He turned and hurled the empty vessel into the fire.
“What now?” he bellowed. “What now for the glorious Piety boys, reunited at the outskirts of Hell?”
He leaped up onto the table and kicked my tankard aside, spraying beer carelessly across Kant’s cooling body. He’d have looked drunk to anyone who didn’t know him, but I knew Jochan wasn’t drunk. Not yet, anyway. Jochan was Jochan and this was just his way. He’d never been quite right in the head.
“What now?” he roared, arms outstretched as he turned in a circle before the assembled men.
His own crew were obviously used to this sort of thing, whereas my lads watched him with a mixture of suspicion and barely concealed amusement. Best they keep it concealed, I thought. One thing you didn’t do was laugh at Jochan.
Simple Sam obviously never got that note, not that he could read anyway. He sniggered. I remembered this, from the schoolrooms of our shared, lost youth. I remembered how some of the other boys had laughed at Jochan, once.
No one laughed at Jochan a second time. Not ever.
He launched himself off the table without a word, without a warning, and plowed into Simple Sam. Sam was a big lad but he was slow in body as well as mind, and Jochan caught him full in the chest with his elbow and slammed him back into the wall. He had Sam on the floor a second later, and then the beating started. His fist rose and fell in a merciless rhythm.
I couldn’t let that pass, brother or not. Bloody Anne made as though to rise, to make something of it, but I put a hand on her arm to tell her to be still. Sergeant she might be, but Jochan was my brother and that made him my problem, not hers.
“No,” I said, in that special voice that even Jochan recognized.
He knew what harsh justice looked like, and he’d felt it once or twice himself when we were young.
He let Sam go and turned to face me, blood dripping from his knuckles.
“No, is it, war hero?” he sneered. “What’s your big fucking plan then, Tomas?”
He was testing me, I knew that. Testing the limits of that harsh justice, with his men around him and mine with me. I’d like to say no one wanted a bloodbath, but I wasn’t sure that was true. Even though we outnumbered them better than two to one, I didn’t think Jochan could see that, or that he would care even if he could. I knew I didn’t want blood, though, not now. That wouldn’t help anyone.
“We go home,” I said. “We go home with my crew, and yours, and any of the rest of the regiment who’ll follow us. We go home and pick up where we left off.”
“Pick up what?” Jochan demanded. “The county is on its fucking knees, Tomas. There’s plague. There’s famine. There’s no fucking work. And we won this fucking war?”
“Aye, we won it,” I said. “We won, and Aunt Enaid has been keeping the family business for us while we’ve been away.”
“Away?” he roared at me. “We’ve been in Hell! We come home as devils, tainted with what we’ve seen.”
I looked at him, at the tears in his mad eyes.
Jochan had always felt too much, and I not enough. If the war had changed me I had noticed it little enough. Running the business back home, running a crew in Abingon, it was all the same to me save that the food was better back home and there was more drink to be had. I spread my hands in a gesture of conciliation.
“You have a place at my side, Jochan,” I told him. “You’re my brother, you’ll always have a place. Come home with me.”
He spat on the floor in empty defiance, then sniffed and looked down at his boots.
“Aye,” he said, after a moment. “Aye, Tomas.”
He had always been like this, after his rages left him. Quiet, contrite. Sometimes tearful, like now. I could see he was fighting to hold that back in front of his men, and that was wise of him. Will the Woman might get away with weeping in front of that lot, but I didn’t think Jochan would. Not if he wanted to stay the boss of them, anyway.
I looked at Simple Sam, sitting half unconscious in front of the fireplace with blood streaming from his broken nose and one eye already swollen shut. Anne got up and handed him a rag for his nose, but she held her peace about what had happened. Sam had been lucky, all things considered. He wouldn’t have been the first man Jochan had beaten to death with his fists.
So there we were, the Piety boys.
I had been intending to return home anyway, with my crew and any others I could raise from what was left of the regiment, return home and reclaim what was mine. Jochan’s lads would follow him, I was sure, and in time they would become my lads.
I might well need them. Aunt Enaid had been keeping the family business, I had told Jochan. I hoped that was true, but I wasn’t prepared to bet on it. I wouldn’t have bet a clipped copper on it, truth be told, not with the state of what I had seen so far since we had returned. That was only in the countryside, mind. The Lady only knew what the city looked like by then.
“Good,” I said. “That’s good, Jochan. Have another beer, why don’t you? There’s plenty.”
There was plenty, and that was good too. There was famine, as I have written, and the land south of there had been foraged to within an inch of its life. This inn, though, this nothing little country inn in the middle of this nothing little market town, this place still had barrels in the cellar and stringy meat and a few root vegetables in the kitchen. That meant we were ahead of the main march of the army, and for that I gave thanks to Our Lady.
I sat back in my chair, thinking on it while the boys drank themselves silly all around me. After a while Bloody Anne came and sat with me again, a fresh tankard in each hand. She put them down on the table and gave me a look. Anne wasn’t as drunk as the others, perhaps wasn’t drunk at all. It was hard to tell, with her.
She was my second, in my eyes anyway, for all that Sir Eland assumed that role was his. I didn’t know how much I could trust Anne, not really, but I knew I couldn’t trust Sir Eland at all. Oh, I would trust Anne with my life on the battlefield, make no mistake. I had done in fact, many times, and had been pleased to call her my friend, but now that we were nearly home? Now we were almost home and business was calling, that might be a different matter.
“Have a drink, boss,” she said.
She pushed one of the tankards toward me. I nodded and took it, took a swallow to say thank you even though I didn’t really want it.
“Did you notice what this town was called, Anne?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “Someone’s ford,” she said. “Harrow’s Ford? Herron’s Ford? Something like that.”
“Anything strike you as queer about it?”
Again, she shrugged. “Market town,” she said. “All the same.”
She was right; they were all the same. Burned out or starved out or everyone dead from the plague, every single one we had come across on our long, slow march back home. Until this one.
“This one isn’t,” I said. “This one’s not dead.”
“Soon will be,” she said. “There’s three thousand hungry men here.”
She had a point there, I had to allow.
Those were the times we lived in.
We might as well make the most of it while it was still there.
Excerpted from "Priest of Bones"
Copyright © 2018 Peter McLean.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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