Twenty eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild.
Twenty eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern's jaws snap shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip the head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men - or worse, a company of mercenaries - against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.
It takes all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it.
The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he's determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery, it's just another job. The abby is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can't deal with.
Only it's not just a job. It's going to be a war. . .
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The Red Knight
By Miles Cameron
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Miles Cameron
All right reserved.
Albinkirk—Ser John Crayford
The Captain of Albinkirk forced himself to stop staring out his narrow, glazed window and do some work.
He was jealous. Jealous of a boy a third of his age, commanding a pretty company of lances. Riding about. While he sat in a town so safe it was dull, growing old.
Don’t be a fool, he told himself. All those deeds of arms make wonderful stories, but the doing is cold, wet and terrifying. Remember?
He sighed. His hands remembered everything—the blows, the nights on the ground, the freezing cold, the gauntlets that didn’t quite fit. His hands pained him all the time, awake or asleep.
The Captain of Albinkirk, Ser John Crayford, had not started his life as a gentleman. It was a rank he’d achieved through pure talent.
And as a reward, he sat in this rich town with a garrison a third the size that it was supposed to be on paper. A garrison of hirelings who bossed the weak, abused the women, and took money from the tradesmen. A garrison that had too much cash, because the posting came with the right to invest in fur caravans from the north. Albinkirk furs were the marvel of ten countries. All you had to do to get them was ride north or west into the Wild. And then come back alive.
The captain had a window that looked north-west.
He tore his eyes away from it. Again.
And put pen to paper. Carefully, laboriously, he wrote:
A Company of Adventure—well ordered, and bearing a pass signed by the constable—passed the bridge yesterday morning; near to forty lances, each lance composed of a knight, a squire, a valet and an archer. They were very well armed and armoured in the latest Eastern manner—steel everywhere. Their captain was polite but reserved; very young, refused to give his name; styled himself The Red Knight. His banner displayed three lacs d’amour in gold on a field sable. He declared that they were, for the most part, your Grace’s subjects, lately come from the wars in Galle. As his pass was good, I saw no reason to keep him.
Ser John snorted, remembering the scene. No one had thought to warn him that a small army was coming his way from the east. He’d been summoned to the gate early in the morning. Dressed in a stained cote of fustian and old hose, he’d tried to face down the cocky young pup in his glorious scarlet and gold, mounted on a war horse the size of a barn. He hadn’t enough real soldiers to arrest any of them. The damned boy had Great Noble written all over him, and the Captain of Albinkirk thanked God that the whelp had paid the toll with good grace and had good paper, as any incident between them would have gone badly. For him.
He realised he was looking at the mountains. He tore his eyes away. Again.
He also had a letter from the Abbess at Lissen Carak. She had sent to me last autumn for fifty good men, and I had to refuse her—your Grace knows I am short enough of men as it is. I suppose she has offered her contract to sell-swords in the absence of local men.
I am, as your Grace is aware, almost one hundred men under strength; I have but four proper men-at-arms, and many of my archers are not all they should be. I respectfully request that your Grace either replace me, or provide the necessary funds to increase the garrison to its proper place.
I am your Grace’s humblest and most respectful servant, John Crayford
The Master of the Guild of Furriers had invited him to dinner. Ser John leaned back and decided to call it a day, leaving the letter lying on his desk.
Lissen Carak—The Red Knight
“Sweet Jesu,” Michael called from the other side of the wall. It was as high as a man’s shoulder, created by generations of peasants hauling stones out of fields. Built against the wall was a two-storey stone house with outbuildings—a rich manor farm. Michael stood in the yard, peering through the house’s shattered main door. “Sweet Jesu,” the squire said again. “They’re all dead, Captain.”
His war horse gave the captain the height to see over the wall to where his men were rolling the bodies over, stripping them of valuables as they sought for survivors. Their new employer would not approve, but the captain thought the looting might help her understand what she was choosing to employ. In his experience, it was usually best that the prospective employer understand what he—or she—was buying. From the first.
The captain’s squire vaulted over the stone wall that separated the walled garden from the road and took a rag from Toby, the captain’s page. Sticky mud, from the endless spring rain, covered his thigh-high buckled boots. He produced a rag from his purse to cover his agitation and began to clean his boots. Michael was fussy and dressed for fashion. His scarlet company surcoat was embroidered with gold stars; the heavy wool worth more than an archer’s armour. He was well born and could afford it, so it was his business.
It was the captain’s business that the lad’s hands were shaking.
“When you feel ready to present yourself,” the captain said lightly, but Michael froze at his words, then made himself finish his task with the rag before tossing it back to Toby.
“Apologies, m’lord,” he said with a quick glance over his shoulder. “It was something out of the Wild, lord. Stake my soul on it.”
“Not much of a stake,” the captain said, holding Michael’s eye. He winked, as much to amuse the onlookers of his household as to steady his squire, who was pale enough to write on. Then he looked around.
The rain was light—just enough to weigh down the captain’s heavy scarlet cloak without soaking it through. Beyond the walled steading stretched fields of dark, newly planted earth, as shining and black in the rain as the captain’s horse. The upper fields toward the hills were rich with new greenery and dotted with sheep. Good earth and fertile soil promised rich crops, as far as the eye could see on both sides of the river. This land was tamed, covered in a neat geometric pattern of hedgerows and high stone walls separating tilled plots, or neatly scattered sheep and cattle, with the river to ship them down to the cities in the south. Crops and animals whose riches had paid for the fortress nunnery—Lissen Carak—that capped the high ridge to the south, visible from here as a crenelated line of pale stone. Grey, grey, grey from the sky to the ground. Pale grey, dark grey, black.
Beyond the sheep, to the north, rose the Adnacrags—two hundred leagues of dense mountains that lowered over the fields, their tops lost in the clouds.
The captain laughed at his own thoughts.
The dozen soldiers nearest him looked; every head turned, each wearing matching expressions of fear.
The captain rubbed the pointed beard at his chin, shaking off the water. “Jacques?” he asked his valet.
The older man sat quietly on a war horse. He was better armed than most of the valets; wearing his scarlet surcote with long, hanging sleeves over an Eastern breastplate, and with a fine sword four feet long to the tip. He, too, combed the water out of his pointed beard while he thought.
“M’lord?” he asked.
“How did the Wild make it here?” The captain asked. Even with a gloved hand keeping the water from his eyes, he couldn’t see the edge of the Wild—there wasn’t a stand of trees large enough to hide a deer within a mile. Two miles. Far off to the north, many leagues beyond the rainy horizon and the mountains, was the Wall. Past the Wall was the Wild. True, the Wall was breached in many places and the Wild ran right down into the country. The Adnacrags had never been cleared. But here—
Here, wealth and power held the Wild at bay. Should have held the Wild at bay.
“The usual way,” Jacques said quietly. “Some fool must have invited them in.”
The captain chuckled. “Well,” he said, giving his valet a crooked smile, “I don’t suppose they’d call us if they didn’t have a problem. And we need the work.”
“It ripped them apart,” Michael said.
He was new to the trade and well-born, but the captain appreciated how quickly he had recovered his poise. At the same time, Michael needed to learn.
“Apart,” Michael repeated, licking his lips. His eyes were elsewhere. “It ate her. Them.”
Mostly recovered, the captain thought to himself. He nodded to his squire and gave his destrier, Grendel, a little rein so he backed a few steps and turned. The big horse could smell blood and something else he didn’t like. He didn’t like most things, even at the best of times, but this was spooking him and the captain could feel his mount’s tension. Given that Grendel wore a chamfron over his face with a spike a foot long, the horse’s annoyance could quickly translate into mayhem.
He motioned to Toby, who was now sitting well to the side and away from the isolated steading-house and eating, which is what Toby tended to do whenever left to himself. The captain turned to face his standard bearer and his two marshals where they sat their own fidgeting horses in the rain, waiting for his commands.
“I’ll leave Sauce and Bad Tom. They’ll stay on their guard until we send them a relief,” he said. The discovery of the killings in the steading had interrupted their muddy trek to the fortress. They’d been riding since the second hour after midnight, after a cold camp and equally cold supper. No one looked happy.
“Go and get me the master of the hunt,” he added, turning back to his squire. When he was answered only with silence, he looked around. “Michael?” he asked quietly.
“M’lord?” The young man was looking at the door to the steading. It was oak, bound in iron, and it had been broken in two places, the iron hinges inside the door had bent where they’d been forced off their pins. Trios of parallel grooves had ripped along the grain of the wood—in one spot, the talons had ripped through a decorative iron whorl, a clean cut.
“Do you need a minute, lad?” the captain asked. Jacques had seen to his own mount and was now standing at Grendel’s big head, eyeing the spike warily.
“No—no, m’lord.” His squire was still stunned, staring at the door and what lay beyond it.
“Then don’t stand on ceremony, I beg.” The captain dismounted, thinking that he had used the term lad quite naturally. Despite the fact that he and Michael were less than five years apart.
“M’lord?” Michael asked, unclear what he’d just been told to do.
“Move your arse, boy. Get me the huntsman. Now.” The captain handed his horse to the valet. Jacques was not really a valet. He was really the captain’s man and, as such, he had his own servant—Toby. A recent addition. A scrawny thing with large eyes and quick hands, completely enveloped in his red wool cote, which was many sizes too big.
Toby took the horse and gazed at his captain with hero-worship, a big winter apple forgotten in his hand.
The captain liked a little hero-worship. “He’s spooked. Don’t give him any free rein or there’ll be trouble,” the captain said gruffly. He paused. “You might give him your apple core though,” he said, and the boy smiled.
The captain went into the steading by the splintered door. Closer up, he could see that the darker brown was not a finish. It was blood.
Behind him, his destrier gave a snort that sounded remarkably like human derision—though whether it was for the page or his master was impossible to tell.
The woman just inside the threshold had been a nun before she was ripped open from neck to cervix. Her long, dark hair, unbound from the confines of her wimple, framed the horror of her missing face. She lay in a broad pool of her own blood that ran down into the gaps between the boards. There were tooth marks on her skull—the skin just forward of one ear had been shredded, as if something had gnawed at her face for some time, flensing it from the bone. One arm had been ripped clear of her body, the skin and muscle neatly eaten away so that only shreds remained, bones and tendons still hanging together… and then it had been replaced by the corpse. The white hand with the silver IHS ring and the cross was untouched.
The captain looked at her for a long time.
Just beyond the red ruin of the nun was a single clear footprint in the blood and ordure, which was already brown and sticky in the moist, cool air. Some of the blood had begun to leech into the pine floor boards, smooth from years of bare feet walking them. The leeched blood blurred the edge of the print, but the outline was clear—it was the size of a war horse’s hoof or bigger, with three toes.
The captain heard his huntsman come up and dismount outside. He didn’t turn, absorbed in the parallel exercises of withholding the need to vomit and committing the scene to memory. There was a second, smudged print further into the room, where the creature had pivoted its weight to pass under the low arch to the main room beyond. It had dug a furrow in the pine with its talons. And a matching furrow in the base board that ran up into the wattle and plaster. A dew claw.
“Why’d this one die here when the rest died in the garden?” he asked.
Gelfred stepped carefully past the body. Like most gentlemen, he carried a short staff—really just a stick shod in silver, like a mountebank’s wand. Or a wizard’s. He used it first to point and then to pry something shiny out of the floorboards.
“Very good,” said the captain.
“She died for them,” Gelfred said. A silver cross set with pearls dangled from his stick. “She tried to stop it. She gave the others time to escape.”
“If only it had worked,” said the captain. He pointed at the prints.
Gelfred crouched by the nearer print, laid his stick along it, and made a clucking sound with his tongue.
“Well, well,” he said. His nonchalance was a little too studied. And his face was pale.
The captain couldn’t blame the man. In a brief lifetime replete with dead bodies, the captain had seldom seen one so horrible. Part of his conscious mind wandered off a little, wondering if her femininity, the beauty of her hair, contributed to the utter horror of her destruction. Was it like desecration? A deliberate sacrilege?
And another, harder part of his mind walked a different path. The monster had placed that arm just so. The tooth marks that framed the bloody sockets that had been her eyes. He could imagine, far too well.
It had been done to leave terror. It was almost artistic.
He tasted salt in his mouth and turned away. “Don’t act tough on my account, Gelfred,” he said. He spat on the floor, trying to get rid of the taste before he made a spectacle of himself.
“Never seen worse, and that’s a fact,” Gelfred said. He took a long, slow breath. “God shouldn’t allow this!” he said bitterly.
“Gelfred,” the captain said, with a bitter smile. “God doesn’t give a fuck.”
Their eyes met. Gelfred looked away. “I will know what there is to know,” he said, looking grim. He didn’t like the captain’s blasphemy—his face said as much. Especially not when he was about to work with God’s power.
Gelfred touched his stick to the middle of the print, and there was a moment of change, as if their eyes had adjusted to a new light source, or stronger sunlight.
“Pater noster qui es in caelus,” Gelfred intoned in plainchant.
The captain left him to it.
In the garden, Ser Thomas’s squire and half a dozen archers had stripped the bodies of valuables—and collected all the body parts strewn across the enclosure, reassembled as far as possible, and laid them out, wrapped in cloaks. The two men were almost green, and the smell of vomit almost covered the smell of blood and ordure. A third archer was wiping his hands on a linen shirt.
Ser Thomas—Bad Tom to every man in the company—was six foot six inches of dark hair, heavy brow and bad attitude. He had a temper and was always the wrong man to cross. He was watching his men attentively, an amulet out and in his hand. He turned at the rattle of the captain’s hardened steel sabatons on the stone path and gave him a sketchy salute. “Reckon the young ’uns earned their pay today, Captain.”
Since they weren’t paid unless they had a contract, it wasn’t saying much.
The captain merely grunted. There were six corpses in the garden.
Bad Tom raised an eyebrow and passed something to him.
The captain looked at it, and pursed his lips. Tucked the chain into the purse at his waist, and slapped Bad Tom on his paulder-clad shoulder. “Stay here and stay awake,” he said. “You can have Sauce and Gelding, too.”
Bad Tom shrugged. He licked his lips. “Me an’ Sauce don’t always see eye to eye.”
The captain smiled inwardly to see this giant of a man—feared throughout the company—admit that he and a woman didn’t “see eye to eye.”
She came over the wall to join them.
Sauce had won her name as a whore, giving too much lip to customers. She was tall, and in the rain her red hair was toned to dark brown. Freckles gave her an innocence that was a lie. She had made herself a name. That said all that needed to be said.
“Tom fucked it up already?” she asked.
The captain took a breath. “Play nicely, children. I need my best on guard here, frosty and awake.”
“It won’t come back,” she said.
The captain shook his head. “Stay awake anyway. Just for me.”
Bad Tom smiled and blew a kiss at Sauce. “Just for you,” he said.
Her hand went to her riding sword and with a flick it was in her hand.
The captain cleared his throat.
“He treats me like a whore. I am not.” She held the sword steady at his face, and Bad Tom didn’t move.
“Say you are sorry, Tom.” The captain sounded as if it was all a jest.
“Didn’t say one bad thing. Not one! Just a tease!” Tom said. Spittle flew from his lips.
“You meant to cause harm. She took it as harm. You know the rules, Tom.” The captain’s voice had changed, now. He spoke so softly that Tom had to lean forward to hear him.
“Sorry,” Tom muttered like a schoolboy. “Bitch.”
Sauce smiled. The tip of her riding sword pressed into the man’s thick forehead just over an eye.
“Fuck you!” Tom growled.
The captain leaned forward. “Neither one of you wants this. It’s clear you are both posturing. Climb down or take the consequences. Tom, Sauce wants to be treated as your peer. Sauce, Tom is top beast and you put his back up at every opportunity. If you want to be part of this company then you have to accept your place in it.”
He raised his gloved hand. “On the count of three, you will both back away, Sauce will sheathe her weapon, Tom will bow to her and apologise, and Sauce will return his apology. Or you can both collect your kit, walk away and kill each other. But not as my people. Understand? Three. Two. One.”
Sauce stepped back, saluted with her blade and sheathed it. Without looking or fumbling.
Tom let a moment go by. Pure insolence. But then something happened in his face, and he bowed—a good bow, so that his right knee touched the mud. “Humbly crave your pardon,” he said in a loud, clear voice.
Sauce smiled. It wasn’t a pretty smile, but it did transform her face, despite the missing teeth in the middle. “And I yours, ser knight,” she replied. “I regret my… attitude.”
She obviously shocked Tom. In the big man’s world of dominance and submission, she was beyond him. The captain could read him like a book. And he thought Sauce deserves something for that. She’s a good man.
Gelfred appeared at his elbow. Had probably been waiting for the drama to end.
The captain felt the wrongness of it before he saw what his huntsman carried. Like a housewife returning from pilgrimage and smelling something dead under her floor—it was like that, only stronger and wronger.
“I rolled her over. This was in her back,” Gelfred said. He had the thing wrapped in his rosary.
The captain swallowed bile, again. I love this job, he reminded himself.
To the eye, it looked like a stick—two fingers thick at the butt, sharpened to a needlepoint now clotted with blood and dark. Thorns sprouted from the whole haft, but it was fletched. An arrow. Or rather, an obscene parody of an arrow, whittled from…
“Witch Bane,” Gelfred said.
The captain made himself take it without flinching. There were some secrets he would pay the price to preserve. He flashed on the last Witch-Bane arrow he’d seen—and pushed past it.
He held it a moment. “So?” he said, with epic unconcern.
“She was shot in the back—with the Witch Bane—while she was alive.” Gelfred’s eyes narrowed. “And then the monster ripped her face off.”
The captain nodded and handed his huntsman the shaft. The moment it left his hand he felt lighter, and the places where the thorns had pricked his chamois gloves felt like rashes of poison ivy on his thumb and fingers—if poison ivy caused an itchy numbness, a leaden pollution.
“Interesting,” the captain said.
Sauce was watching him.
Damn women and their superior powers of observation, he thought.
Her smile forced him to smile in return. The squires and valets in the garden began to breathe again and the captain was sure they’d stay awake, now. Given that there was a murderer on the loose who had monster-allies in the Wild.
He got back to his horse. Jehannes, his marshal, came up on his bridle hand side and cleared his throat. “That woman’s trouble,” he said.
“Tom’s trouble too,” the captain replied.
“No other company would have had her.” Jehannes spat.
The captain looked at his marshal. “Now Jehannes,” he said. “Be serious. Who would have Tom? He’s killed more of his own comrades than Judas Iscariot.”
Jehannes looked away. “I don’t trust her,” he said.
The captain nodded. “I know. Let’s get moving.” He considered vaulting into the saddle and decided that he was too tired and the show would be wasted on Jehannes, anyway. “You dislike her because she’s a woman,” he said, and put his left foot into the stirrup.
Grendel was tall enough that he had to bend his left knee as far as the articulation in his leg harness would allow. The horse snorted again. Toby held onto the reins.
He leaped up, his right leg powering him into the saddle, pushing his six feet of height and fifty pounds of mail and plate. Got his knee over the high ridge of the war-saddle and was in his seat.
“Yes,” Jehannes said, and backed his horse into his place in the column.
The captain saw Michael watching Jehannes go. The younger man turned and raised an eyebrow at the captain.
“Something to say, young Michael?” the captain asked.
“What was the stick? M’lord?” Michael was different from the rest—well born. Almost an apprentice, instead of a hireling. As the captain’s squire, he had special privileges. He could ask questions, and all the rest of the company would sit very still and listen to the answer.
The captain looked at him for a moment. Considering. He shrugged—no mean feat in plate armour.
“Witch Bane,” he said. “A Witch-Bane arrow. The nun had power.” He made a face. “Until someone shot the Witch Bane into her back.”
“A nun?” Michael asked. “A nun who could work power?” He paused. “Who shot her? By Jesu, m’lord, you mean the Wild has allies?”
“All in a day’s work, lad. It’s all in a day’s work.” His visual memory, too well trained, ran through the items like the rooms in his memory palace—the splintered door, the faceless corpse, the arm, the Witch-Bane arrow. He examined the path from the garden door to the front door.
“Wait on me,” he said.
He walked Grendel around the farmyard, following the stone wall to the garden. He stood in his stirrups to peer over the wall, and aligned the open garden door with the splintered front door. He looked over his shoulder several times.
“Wilful!” he called.
His archer appeared. “What now?” he muttered.
The captain pointed at the two doors. “How far away could you stand and still put an arrow into someone at the front door.”
“What, shooting through the house?” asked Wilful Murder.
The captain nodded.
Wilful shook his head. “Not that far,” he admitted. “Any loft at all and the shaft strikes the door jamb.” He caught a louse on his collar and killed it between his nails. His eyes met the captain’s. “He’d have to be close.”
The captain nodded. “Gelfred?” he called.
The huntsman was outside the front door, casting with his wand over a large reptilian print in the road. “M’lord?”
“See if you and Wilful can find any tracks out the back. Wilful will show you where a bowman might have stood.”
“It’s always fucking me—get Long Paw to do it,” Wilful muttered.
The captain’s mild glance rested for a moment on his archer and the man cringed.
The captain turned his horse and sighed. “Catch us up as soon as you have the tracks,” he said. He waved at Jehannes. “Let’s go to the fortress and meet the lady Abbess.” He touched his spurs ever so lightly to Grendel’s sides, and the stallion snorted and deigned to move forward into the rain.
The rest of the ride along the banks of the Cohocton was uneventful, and the company halted by the fortified bridge overshadowed by the rock-girt ridge and the grey walls of the fortress convent atop it, high above them. Linen tents rose like dirty white flowers from the muddy field, and the officer’s pavilions came off the wagons. Teams of archers dug cook pits and latrines, and valets and the many camp followers—craftsmen and sutlers, runaway serfs, prostitutes, servants, and free men and women desperate to gain a place—assembled the heavy wooden hoardings that served the camp as temporary walls and towers. The drovers, an essential part of any company, filled the gaps with the heavy wagons. Horse lines were staked out. Guards were set.
The Abbess’s door ward had pointedly refused to allow the mercenaries through her gate. The mercenaries had expected nothing else, and even now hardened professionals were gauging the height of the walls and the likelihood of climbing them. Two veteran archers—Kanny, the barracks room lawyer of the company, and Scrant, who never stopped eating—stood by the camp’s newly-constructed wooden gate and speculated on the likelihood of getting some in the nun’s dormitory.
It made the captain smile as he rode by, collecting their salutes, on the steep gravel road that led up the ridge from the fortified town at the base, up along the switchbacks and finally up through the fortress gate-house into the courtyard beyond. Behind him, his banner bearer, marshals and six of his best lances dismounted to a quiet command and stood by their horses. His squire held his high-crested bassinet, and his valet bore his sword of war. It was an impressive show and it made good advertising—ideal, as he could see heads at every window and door that opened into the courtyard.
A tall nun in a slate-grey habit—the captain suppressed his reflexive flash on the corpse in the doorway of the steading—reached to take the reins of his horse. A second nun beckoned with her hand. Neither spoke.
The captain was pleased to see Michael dismount elegantly despite the rain, and take Grendel’s head, without physically pushing the nun out of the way.
He smiled at the nuns and followed them across the courtyard towards the most ornate door, heavy with scroll-worked iron hinges and elaborate wooden panels. To the north, a dormitory building rose beyond a trio of low sheds that probably served as workshops—smithy, dye house and carding house, or so his nose told him. To the south stood a chapel—far too fragile and beautiful for this martial setting—and next to it, by cosmic irony, a long, low, slate-roofed stable.
Between the chapel’s carved oak doors stood a man. He had a black habit with a silk rope around the waist, was tall and thin to the point of caricature, and his hands were covered in old scars.
The captain didn’t like his eyes, which were blue and flat. The man was nervous, and wouldn’t meet his eye—and he was clearly angry.
Flicking his eyes away from the priest, the captain reviewed the riches of the abbey with the eye of a money-lender sizing up a potential client. The abbey’s income was shown in the cobbled courtyard, the neat flint and granite of the stables with a decorative stripe of glazed brick, the copper on the roof and the lead gutters gushing water into a cistern. The courtyard was thirty paces across—as big as that of any castle he’d lived in as a boy. The walls rose sheer—the outer curtain at his back, the central monastery before him, with towers at each corner, all wet stone and wet lead, rain slicked cobbles; the priest’s faded black cassock, and the nun’s undyed surcoat.
All shades of grey, he thought to himself, and smiled as he climbed the steps to the massive monastery door, which was opened by another silent nun. She led him down the hall—a great hall lit by stained glass windows high in the walls. The Abbess was enthroned like a queen in a great chair on a dais at the north end of the hall, in a gown whose grey had just enough colour to appear a pale, pale lavender in the multi-faceted light. She had the look of a woman who had once been very beautiful indeed—even in middle age her beauty was right there, resting in more than her face. Her wimple and the high collar of her gown revealed little enough of her. But her bearing was more than noble, or haughty. Her bearing was commanding, confident in a way that only the great of the land were confident. The captain noted that her nuns obeyed her with an eagerness born of either fear or the pleasure of service.
The captain wondered which it was.
“You took long enough to reach us,” she said, by way of greeting. Then she snapped her fingers and beckoned at a pair of servants to bring a tray. “We are servants of God here—don’t you think you might have managed to strip your armour before you came to my hall?” the Abbess asked. She glanced around, caught a novice’s eye, raised an eyebrow. “Fetch the captain a stool,” she said. “Not a covered one. A solid one.”
“I wear armour every day,” the captain said. “It comes with my profession.” The great hall was as big as the courtyard outside, with high windows of stained glass set near the roof, and massive wooden beams so old that age and soot had turned them black. The walls were whitewashed over fine plaster, and held niches containing images of saints and two rich books—clearly on display to overawe visitors. Their voices echoed in the room, which was colder than the wet courtyard outside. There was no fire in the central hearth.
The Abbess’s people brought her wine, and she sipped it as they placed a small table at the captain’s elbow. He was three feet beneath her. “Perhaps your armour is unnecessary in a nunnery?” she asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “I see a fortress,” he said. “It happens that there are nuns in it.”
She nodded. “If I chose to order you taken by my men, would your armour save you?” she asked.
The novice who brought his stool was pretty and she was careful of him, moving with the deliberation of a swordsman or a dancer. He turned his head to catch her eye and felt the tug of her power, saw that she was not merely pretty. She set the heavy stool down against the back of his knees. Quite deliberately, the captain touched her arm gently and caused her to turn to him. He turned to face her, putting his back to the Abbess.
“Thank you,” he said, looking her in the eye with a calculated smile. She was tall and young and graceful, with wide-set almond-shaped eyes and a long nose. Not pretty; she was arresting.
She blushed. The flush travelled like fire down her neck and into her heavy wool gown.
He turned back to the Abbess, his goal accomplished. Wondering why the Abbess had placed such a deserable novice within his reach, unless she meant to. “If I chose to storm your abbey, would your piety save you?” he asked.
She blazed with anger. “How dare you turn your back on me?” she asked. “And leave the room, Amicia. The captain has bitten you with his eyes.”
He was smiling. He thought her anger feigned.
She met his eyes and narrowed her own—and then folded her hands together, almost as if she intended to pray.
“Honestly, Captain, I have prayed and prayed over what to do here. Bringing you to fight the Wild is like buying a wolf to shepherd sheep.” She looked him in the eye. “I know what you are,” she said.
“Do you really?” he asked. “All the better, lady Abbess. Shall we to business, then? Now the pleasantries are done?”
“But what shall I call you?” she asked. “You are a well-born man, for all your snide airs. My chamberlain—”
“Didn’t have a nice name for me, did he, my lady Abbess?” He nodded. “You may call me Captain. It is all the name I need.” He nodded graciously. “I do not like the name your chamberlain used. Bourc. I call myself the Red Knight.”
“Many men are called bourc,” she said. “To be born out of wedlock is—”
“To be cursed by God before you are born. Eh, lady Abbess?” He tried to stop the anger that rose on his cheeks like a blush. “So very fair. So just.”
She scowled at him for a moment, annoyed with him the way older people are often annoyed with the young, when the young posture too much.
He understood her in a glance.
“Too dark? Should I add a touch of heroism?” he asked with a certain air.
She eyed him. “If you wrap yourself in darkness,” she said, “you risk merely appearing dull. But you have the wit to know it. There’s hope for you, boy, if you know that. Now to business. I’m not rich—”
“I have never met anyone who would admit being rich,” he agreed. “Or to getting enough sleep.”
“More wine for the captain,” snapped the Abbess to the sister who had guarded the door. “But I can pay you. We are afflicted by something from the Wild. It has destroyed two of my farms this year, and one last year. At first—at first, we all hoped that they were isolated incidents.” She met his eye squarely. “It is not possible to believe that any more.”
“Three farms this year,” said the captain. He fished in his purse, hesitated over the chain with the leaf amulet, then fetched forth a cross inlaid with pearls instead.
“Oh, by the wounds of Christ!” swore the Abbess. “Oh, Blessed Virgin protect and cherish her. Sister Hawisia! Is she—”
“She is dead,” the captain said. “And six more corpses in the garden. Your good sister died trying to protect them.”
“Her faith was very strong,” the Abbess said. She was dry eyed, but her voice trembled. “You needn’t mock her.”
The captain frowned. “I never mock courage, lady Abbess. To face such a thing without weapons—”
“Her faith was a weapon against evil, Captain.” The Abbess leaned forward.
“Strong enough to stop a creature from the Wild? No, it was not,” said the captain quietly. “I won’t comment on evil.”
The Abbess stood sharply. “You are some sort of atheist, are you, Captain?”
The captain frowned again. “There is nothing productive for us in theological debate, my lady Abbess. Your lands have attracted a malignant entity—an enemy of Man. They seldom hunt alone, especially not this far from the Wild. You wish me to rid you of them. I can. And I will. In exchange, you will pay me. That is all that matters between us.”
The Abbess sat again, her movements violent, angry. The captain sensed that she was off balance—that the death of the nun had struck her personally. She was, after all, the commander of a company of nuns.
“I am not convinced that engaging you is the right decision,” she said.
The captain nodded. “It may not be, lady Abbess. But you sent for me, and I am here.” Without intending to, he had lowered his voice, and spoke softly.
“Is that a threat?” she asked.
Instead of answering, the captain reached into his purse again and withdrew the broken chain holding a small leaf made of green enamel on bronze.
The Abbess recoiled as if from a snake.
“My men found this,” he said.
The Abbess turned her head away.
“You have a traitor,” he said. And rose. “Sister Hawisia had an arrow in her back. While she faced something terrible, something very, very terrible.” He nodded. “I will go to walk the walls. You need time to think if you want us. Or not.”
“You will poison us,” she said. “You and your kind do not bring peace.”
He nodded. “We bring you no peace, but a company of swords, my lady.” He grinned at his own misquote of scripture. “We don’t make the violence. We merely deal with it as it comes to us.”
“The devil can quote scripture,” she said.
“No doubt he had his hand in writing it,” the captain shot back.
She bit back a counter—he watched her face change as she decided not to rise to his provocation. And he felt a vague twinge of remorse for goading her, an ache like the pain in his wrist from making too many practice cuts the day before. And, like the pain in his wrist, he was unaccustomed to remorse.
“I could say it is a little late to think of peace now.” He sneered briefly and then put his sneer away. “My men are here, and they haven’t had a good meal or a paid job in some weeks. I offer this, not as a threat, but as a useful piece of data as you reason through the puzzle. I also think that the creature you have to deal with is far worse than you have imagined. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s far worse than I had imagined. It is big, powerful, and angry, and very intelligent. And more likely two than one.”
“Allow me a few minutes to think,” she said.
He nodded, bowed, set his riding sword at his waist, and walked back into the courtyard.
His men stood like statues, their scarlet surcoats livid against their grey surroundings. The horses fretted—but only a little—and the men less.
“Be easy,” he said.
They all took breath together. Stretched arms tired from bearing armour, or hips bruised from mail and cuirass.
Michael was the boldest. “Are we in?” he asked.
The captain didn’t meet his eye because he’d noticed an open window across the courtyard, and seen the face framed in it. “Not yet, my honey. We are not in yet.” He blew a kiss at the window.
The face vanished.
Ser Milus, his primus pilus and standard bearer, grunted. “Bad for business,” he said. And then, as an afterthought, “m’lord.”
The captain flicked him a glance and looked back to the dormitory windows.
“There’s more virgins watching us right now,” Michael opined, “Then have parted their legs for me in all my life.”
Jehannes, the senior marshal, nodded seriously. “Does that mean one, young Michael? Or two?”
Guillaume Longsword, the junior marshal, barked his odd laugh, like the seals of the northern bays. “The second one said she was a virgin,” he mock-whined. “At least, that’s what she told me!”
Coming through the visor of his helmet, his voice took on an ethereal quality that hung in the air for a moment. Men do not look on horror and forget it. They merely put it away. Memories of the steading were still too close to the surface, and the junior marshal’s voice had summoned them, somehow.
No one laughed. Or rather, most of them laughed, and all of it was forced.
The captain shrugged. “I have chosen to give our prospective employer some time to consider her situation,” he said.
Milus barked a laugh. “Stewing in her juice to raise the price, is that it?” he asked. He nodded at the door of the chapel. “Yon has no liking for us.”
The priest continued to stand in his doorway.
“Think he’s a dimwit? Or is he the pimp?” Ser Milus asked. And stared at the priest. “Be my guest, cully. Stare all ye like.”
The soldiers chuckled, and the priest went into the chapel.
Michael flinched at the cruelty in the standard bearer’s tone, then stepped forward. “What is your will, m’lord?”
“Oh,” the captain said, “I’m off hunting.” He stepped away quickly, with a wry smile, walked a few steps toward the smithy, concentrated… and vanished.
Michael looked confused. “Where is he?” he asked.
Milus shrugged, shifting the weight of his hauberk. “How does he do that?” he asked Jehannes.
Twenty paces away, the captain walked into the dormitory wing as if it was his right to do so. Michael leaned as if to call out but Jehannes put his gauntleted hand over Michael’s mouth.
“There goes our contract,” Hugo said. His dark eyes crossed with the standard bearer’s, and he shrugged, despite the weight of the maille on his shoulders. “I told you he was too young.”
Jehannes eased his hand off the squire’s face. “He has his little ways, the Bourc.” He gave the other men a minute shake of his head. “Let him be. If he lands us this contract—”
Hugo snorted, and looked up at the window.
The captain reached into the palace in his head.
A vaulted room, twelve sided, with high, arched, stained glass windows, each one bearing a different image set at even intervals between columns of aged marble that supported a groined roof. Under each window was a sign of the zodiac, painted in brilliant blue on gold leaf, and then a band of beaten bronze as wide as a man’s arm, and finally, at eye level, a series of niches between the columns, each holding a statue; eleven statues of white marble, and one iron-bound door under the sign of Ares.
In the exact centre of the room stood a twelfth statue—Prudentia, his childhood tutor. Despite her solid white marble skin, she smiled warmly as he approached her.
“Clementia, Pisces, Eustachios,” he said in the palace of his memory, and his tutor’s veined white hands moved to point at one sign and then another.
And the room moved.
The windows rotated silently above the signs of the zodiac, and the statues below the band of bronze rotated in the opposite direction until his three chosen signs were aligned opposite to the iron-bound door. And he smiled at Prudentia, walked across the tiles of the twelve-sided room and unlatched the door.
He opened it on a verdant garden of rich summer green—the dream memory of the perfect summer day. It was not always thus, on the far side of the door. A rich breeze blew in. It was not always this strong, his green power, and he deflected some with the power of his will, batting it into a ball and shoving it like a handful of summer leaves into a hempen bag he imagined into being and hung from Prudentia’s outstretched arm. Against a rainy day. The insistent green breeze stirred through his hair and then reached the aligned signs on the opposite wall and—
He moved away from the horses without urgency, secure in the knowledge that Michael would be distracted as he moved—and so would the watcher in the window.
The captain’s favourite phantasms depended on misdirection more than aethereal force. He preferred to add to their efficacy with physical efficiency—he walked quietly, and didn’t allow his cloak to flap.
At the door to the dormitory he reached into his memory palace and
leaned into the vaulted room. “Same again, Pru,” he said.
Again the sigils moved as the marble statue pointed to the signs, already aligned above the door. He opened it again, allowed the green breeze to power his working, and let the door close.
He walked into the dormitory building. There were a dozen nuns, all big, capable women, sitting in the good light of the clerestory windows, and most of them were sewing.
He walked past them without a swirl of his scarlet cloak, his whole will focused on his belief that his presence there was perfectly normal and started up the stairs. No heads turned, but one older nun stopped peering at her embroidery and glanced at the stairwell, raised an eyebrow, and then went back to her work. He heard a murmur from behind him.
Not entirely fooled then, he thought. Who are these women?
His sabatons made too much noise and he had to walk carefully, because power—at least, the sort of power he liked to wield—was of limited use. The stairs wound their way up and up, turning as tightly as they would in any other fortress, to foul his sword arm if he was an attacker.
Which I am, of a sort, he thought. The gallery was immediately above the hall. Even on a day this grey, it was full of light. Three grey-clad novices leaned on the casemates of the windows, watching the men in the yard. Giggling.
At the edge of his power, he was surprised to find traces of their power.
He stepped into the gallery, and his sabaton made a distinct metallic scratch against the wooden floor—a clarion sound in a world of barefoot women. He didn’t try to strain credulity by willing himself to seem normal, here.
The three heads snapped around. Two of the girls turned and ran. The third novice hesitated for a fatal moment—looking. Wondering.
He had her hand. “Amicia?” he said into her eyes, and then put his mouth over hers. Put an armoured leg inside her thighs and trapped her—turned her over his thigh as easily as throwing a child in a wrestling match, and she was in his arms. He rested his back plate against the ledge of the cloister and held her. Gently. Firmly.
She wriggled, catching her falling sleeve against the flange that protected his elbow. But her eyes were locked on his—and huge. She opened her lips. More there than simple fear or refusal. He licked her teeth. Ran a finger under her chin.
Her mouth opened under his—delicious.
He kissed her, or perhaps she kissed him. It was not brief. She relaxed into him—itself a pleasing warmth, even through the hardened steel of his arm harness and breastplate.
“Don’t take the vows,” he said. “You do not belong here.” He meant to sound teasing, but even in his own head his voice dripped with unintended mockery.
He stood straight and set her on the ground, to show that he was no rapist. She blushed red from her chin to her forehead, again. Even the backs of her hands were red. She cast her eyes down, and then shifted her weight—he watched such things. She leaned forward—
And slammed a hand into his right ear. Taking him completely by surprise. He reeled, his back hit the wall with a metallic thud, and he caught himself—
—and turned to chase her down.
But she wasn’t running. She stood her ground. “How dare you judge me?” she said.
He rubbed his ear. “You mistake me,” he said. “I meant no hard judgment. You wanted to be kissed. It is in your eyes.”
As a line, it had certainly worked before. In this case, he felt it to be true. Despite the sharp pain in his ear.
She pursed her lips—full, very lovely lips. “We are all of us sinners, messire. I struggle with my body every day. That gives you no right to it.”
There was a secret smile to the corner of her mouth—really, no smile at all, but something—
She turned and walked away down the gallery, leaving him alone.
He descended the stairs, rubbing his ear, wondering how much of the exchange had been witnessed by his men. Reputations can take months to build and be lost in a few heartbeats and his was too new to weather a loss of respect. But he calculated that the grey sky and the angle of the gallery windows should have protected him.
“That was quick,” said Michael, admiringly, as he emerged. The captain was careful not to do anything as gross as tuck his braes into his hose. Because, had he taken her right there against the cloister wall, he would still have re-dressed meticulously before emerging.
Why didn’t I? He asked himself. She was willing enough.
She liked me.
She hit me very hard.
He smiled at Michael. “It took as long as it took,” he said. As he spoke, the heavy iron-bound door opened and a mature nun beckoned to the captain.
“The devil himself watches over you,” Hugo muttered.
The captain shook his head. “The devil doesn’t give a fuck, either,” he said, and went to deal with the Abbess.
He knew as soon he crossed the threshold that she’d elected to take them on. If she’d decided not to take them on, she wouldn’t have seen him again. Murder in the courtyard might have been closer to the mark.
Except that all the soldiers she had couldn’t kill the eight of them in the courtyard. And she knew it. If she had eight good men, she’d never have sent for him to begin with.
It was like Euclidean geometry. And the captain could never understand why other people couldn’t see all the angles.
He rubbed at the stinging in his ear, bowed deeply to the Abbess, and mustered up a smile.
She nodded. “I have to take you as you are,” she said. “So I will use a long spoon. Tell me your rates?”
He nodded. “May I sit?” he asked. When she extended a reasonably gracious hand, he picked up the horn wine cup that had obviously been placed for him. “I drink to your eyes, ma belle.”
She held his gaze with her own and smiled. “Flatterer.”
“Yes,” he said, taking a sip of wine and continuing to meet her stare over the rim like a proper courtier. “Yes, but no.”
“My beauty is long gone, with the years,” she said.
“Your body remembers your beauty so well that I can still see it,” he said.
She nodded. “That was a beautiful compliment,” she admitted. Then she laughed. “Who boxed your ear?” she asked.
He stiffened. “It is an old—”
“Nonsense! I educate children. I know a boxed ear when I see one.” She narrowed her eyes. “A nun.”
“I do not kiss and tell,” he said.
“You are not as bad as you would have me believe, messire,” she replied.
They gazed at each other for a few breaths.
“Sixteen double leopards a month for every lance. I have thirty-one lances today—you may muster them and count them yourself. Each lance consists of at least a knight, his squire, and a valet; usually a pair of archers. All mounted, all with horses to feed. Double pay for my corporals. Forty pounds a month for my officers—there are three—and a hundred pounds for me. Each month.” He smiled lazily. “My men are very well disciplined. And worth every farthing.”
“And if you kill my monster tonight?” she asked.
“Then you have a bargain, lady Abbess—only one month’s pay.” He sipped his wine.
“How do you tally these months?” she asked.
“Ah! There’s none sharper than you, even in the streets of Harndon, lady. Full months by the lunar calendar.” He smiled. “So the next one starts in just two weeks. The Merry month of May.”
“Jesu, Lord of the Heavens and Saviour of Man. You are not cheap.” She shook her head.
“My people are very, very good at this. We have worked on the Continent for many years, and now we are back in Alba. Where you need us. You needed us a year ago. I may be a hard man, lady, but let us agree that no more Sister Hawisias need die? Yes?” He leaned forward to seal the deal, the wine cup between his hands, and suddenly the weight of his armour made him tired and his back hurt.
“I’m sure Satan is charming if you get to know him,” she said quietly. “And I’m sure that if you aren’t paid, your interest in the Sister Hawisia’s of this world will vanish like snow in strong sunshine.” She gave him a thin-lipped smile. “Unless you can kiss them—and even then, I doubt you stay with them long. Or they with you.”
“For every steading damaged by your men, I will deduct the price of a lance,” she said. “For every man of mine injured in a brawl, for every woman who complains to me of your men, the price of a corporal. If a single one of my sisters is injured—or violated—by your Satan’s spawn, even so much as a lewd hand laid to her or an unseemly comment made, I will deduct your fee. Do you agree? Since,” she said with icy contempt, “Your men are so well disciplined?”
She really does like me, he thought. Despite all. He was more used to people who disliked him. And he wondered if she would give him Amicia. She’d certainly put the beautiful novice where he could see her. How calculating was the old witch? She seemed the type who would try to lure him with more than coin—but he’d already pricked her with his comment about Sister Hawisia.
“What’s the traitor worth?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I do not believe in your traitor,” she said, pointing on the enamel leaf on a wooden platter by her side. “You carry this foul thing with you to trick fools. And I am not a fool.”
He shrugged. “My lady, you are allowing your dislike for my kind to cloud your judgment. Consider: what could make me to lie to you about such a thing? How many people should have been at that steading?” he asked.
She met his eye—she had no trouble with that, which pleased him. “There should have been seven confreres to work the fields,” she allowed.
“We found your good sister and six other corpses,” the captain countered. “It is all straightforward enough, lady Abbess.” He sipped more wine. “One is missing when none could have escaped. None.” He paused. “Some of your sheep have grown teeth. And no longer wish to be part of your flock.” He had a sudden thought. “What was Sister Hawisia doing there? She was a nun of the convent, not a labourer?”
She took a sharp breath. “Very well. If you can prove there is a traitor—or traitors—there will be reward. You must trust that I will be fair.”
“Then you must understand: my men will behave badly—it is months since they were paid, and longer since they’ve been anywhere they might spend what they don’t have. The writ of my discipline does not run to stopping tavern brawls or lewd remarks.” He tried to look serious, though his heart was all but singing with the joy of work and gold to pay the company. “You must trust that I will do my best to keep them to order.”
“Perhaps you’ll have to lead by example?” she said. “Or get the task done quickly and move on to greener pastures?” she asked sweetly. “I understand the whores are quite comely south of the river. In the Albin.”
He thought of the value of this contract—she hadn’t quibbled at his inflated prices.
“I’ll decide which seems more attractive when I’ve seen the colour of your money,” he said.
“Money?” she asked.
“Payment due a month in advance, lady Abbess. We never fight for free.”
Lorica—A Golden Bear
The bear was huge. All of the people in the market said so.
The bear sat in its chains, legs fully extended like an exhausted dancer, head down. It had leg manacles, one on each leg, and the chains had been wrought cunningly so that the manacles were connected by running links that limited the beast’s movement.
Both of its hind paws were matted with blood—the manacles were also lined in small spikes.
“See the bear! See the bear!”
The bear keeper was a big man, fat as a lord, with legs like tree trunks and arms like hams. His two boys were small and fast and looked as if they might have a second profession in crime.
“A golden bear of the Wild! Today only!” he bellowed, and his boys roamed through the market, shouting “Come and see the bear! The golden bear!”
The market was full, as market can only be at the first breath of spring when every farmer and petty-merchant has been cooped up in a croft or a town house all winter. Every goodwife had new-made baskets to sell. Careful farmers had sound winter apples and carefully hoarded grain on offer. There were new linens—shirts and caps. A knife grinder did a brisk trade, and a dozen other tradesmen and women shouted their wares—fresh oysters from the coast, lambs for sale, tanned leather.
There were close on five hundred people in the market, and more coming in every hour.
A taproom boy from the inn rolled two small casks up, one at a time, placed a pair of boards across them and started serving cider and ale. He set up under the old oak that marked the centre of the market field, a stone’s throw from the bear master.
Men began to drink.
A wagoner brought his little daughter to see the bear. It was female, with two cubs. They were beautiful, with their gold-tipped blond fur, but their mother smelled of rot and dung. Her eyes were wild, and when his daughter touched one of the cubs the fearsome thing opened its jaws, and his daughter started at the wicked profusion of teeth. The growing crowd froze and then people shrank back.
The bear raised a paw, stretching the chains—
She stood her ground. “Poor bear!” she said to her father.
The bear’s paw was well short of touching the girl. And the pain of moving against the spiked manacles overcame the bear’s anger. It fell back on all fours, and then sat again, looking almost human in its despair.
“Shh!” he said. “Hush, child. It’s a creature of the Wild. A servant of the enemy.” Truth to tell, his voice lacked conviction.
“The cubs are wonderful.” The daughter got down on her haunches.
They had ropes on them, but no more.
A priest—a very worldly priest in expensive blue wool, wearing a magnificent and heavy dagger—leaned down. He put his fist before one of the cubs’ muzzles and the little bear bit him. He didn’t snatch his hand back. He turned to the girl. “The Wild is often beautiful, daughter. But that beauty is Satan’s snare for the unwary. Look at him. Look at him!”
The little cub was straining at his rope to bite the priest again. As he rose smoothly to his feet and kicked the cub, he turned to the bear master.
“It is very like heresy, keeping a creature of the Wild for money,” he said.
“For which I have a licence from the Bishop of Lorica!” sputtered the bear master.
“The bishop of Lorica would sell a licence to Satan to keep a brothel,” said the priest with a hand on the dagger in his belt.
The wagoner took hold of his daughter but she wriggled free. “Pater, the bear is in pain,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. He was a thoughtful man. But his eyes were on the priest.
And the priest’s eyes were on him.
“Is it right for us to hurt any creature?” his daughter asked. “Didn’t God make the Wild, just as he made us?”
The priest smiled and it was as terrible as the bear’s teeth. “Your daughter has some very interesting notions,” he said. “I wonder where she gets them?”
“I don’t want any trouble,” the wagoner said. “She’s just a child.”
The priest stepped closer, but just then the bear master, eager to get a show, began to shout. He had quite a crowd—at least a hundred people, and there were more wandering up every minute. There were half a dozen of the earl’s soldiers as well, their jupons open in the early heat, flirting with the farmers’ daughters. They pushed in eagerly, hoping to see blood.
The wagoner pulled his daughter back, and let the soldiers pass between him and the priest.
The bear master kicked the bear and pulled on the chain. One of his boys began to play a quick, staccato tune on a tin whistle.
The crowd began to chant, “Dance! Dance! Dance, bear, dance!”
The bear just sat. When the bear master’s tugging on the chains caused her pain, she raised her head and roared her defiance.
The crowd shuffled back, muttering in disappointment, except for the priest.
One of the soldiers shook his head. “This is crap,” he said. “Let’s put some dogs on it.”
The idea was instantly popular with his mates, but not at all with the bear master. “That’s my bear,” he insisted.
“Let me see your pass for the fair,” said the sergeant. “Give it here.”
The man looked at the ground, silenced, for all his size. “Which I ain’t got one.”
“Then I can take your bear, mate. I can take your bear and your boys.” The sergeant smiled. “I ain’t a cruel man,” he said, his tone indicating that this statement was untrue. “We’ll put some dogs on your bear, fair as fair. You’ll collect the silver. We’ll have some betting.”
“This is a gold bear,” said the bear master. He was going pale under his red, wine-fed nose. “A gold bear!”
“You mean you spent some silver on putting a bit of gilt on her fur,” said another soldier. “Pretty for the crowd.”
The bear master shrugged. “Bring your dogs,” he said.
It turned out that many of the men in the crowd had dogs they fancied against a bear.
The wagoner slipped back another step, but the priest grabbed his arm. “You stay right here,” he said. “And your little witch of a daughter.”
The man’s grip was like steel, and the light in his eyes was fanatical. The wagoner allowed himself, reluctantly, to be pulled back into the circle around the bear.
Dogs were being brought. There were mastiffs—great dogs the size of small ponies—and big hounds, and some mongrels that had replaced size with sheer ferocity. Some of the dogs sat quietly while others growled relentlessly at the bear.
The bear raised its head and growled too—once.
All the dogs backed away a step.
Men began to place bets.
The bear master and his boys worked the crowd. If he was hesitant to see his bear in a fight, he wasn’t hesitant about accepting the sheer quantity of silver suddenly crossing his palm. Even the smallest farmer would wager on a bear baiting. And when the bear was a creature of the Wild—
Well it was almost a religious duty to bet against it.
The odds against the bear went up and up.
So did the number of dogs, and they were becoming unmaneageable as the pack grew. Thirty angry dogs can hate each other as thoroughly as they hate a bear.
The priest stepped out of the ring. “Look at this creature of Evil!” he said. “The very embodiment of the enemy. Look at its fangs and teeth, designed by the Unmaker to kill men. And look at these dogs men have bred—animals reduced to lawful obedience by patient generations of men. No one dog can bring down this monster alone, but does anyone doubt that many of them can? And is this lesson lost on any man here? The bear—look at it—is mighty. But man is more puissant by far.”
The bear didn’t raise its head.
The priest kicked it.
It stared at the ground.
“It won’t even fight!” said one of the guards.
“I want my money back!” shouted a wheelwright.
The priest smiled his terrible smile. He grabbed the rope around one of the little cubs, hauled the creature into the air by the scruff of the neck, and tossed it in among the dogs.
The bear leaped to its feet.
The priest laughed. “Now it will fight,” it said.
The bear strained against its manacles as the mastiffs ripped the screaming cub to shreds. It sounded like a human child, terrified and afraid, and then it was gone—savaged and eaten by a dozen mongrels. Eaten alive.
The wagoner had his hands over his daughter’s eyes.
The priest whirled on him, eyes afire. “Show her!” he shrieked. “Show her what happens when evil is defeated!” He took a step towards the wagoner—
And the bear moved. She moved faster than a man would have thought possible.
She had his head in one paw and his dagger in the other before his body, pumping blood across the crowd, hit the dirt. Then she whirled—suddenly nothing but teeth and claws—and sank the heavy steel dagger into the ground through the links of her chain.
The links popped.
A woman screamed.
She killed as many of them as she could catch, until her claws were glutted with blood, and her limbs ached. They screamed, and hampered each other, and her paws struck them hard like rams in a siege, and every man and woman she touched, she killed.
If she could have she would have killed every human in the world. Her cub was dead. Her cub was dead.
She killed and killed, but they ran in all directions.
When she couldn’t catch any more, she went back and tore at their corpses—found a few still alive and made sure they died in fear.
Her cub was dead.
She had no time to mourn. Before they could bring their powerful bows and their deadly, steel-clad soldiers, she picked up her remaining cub, ignored the pain and the fatigue and all the fear and panic she felt to be so deep in the tame horror of human lands, and fled. Behind her, in the town, alarm bells rang.
Lorica—Ser Mark Wishart
Only one knight came, and his squire. They rode up to the gates at a gallop, summoned from their Commandery, to find the gates closed, the towers manned, and men with crossbows on the walls.
“A creature of the Wild!” shouted the panicked men on the wall before they refused to open the gates for him—even though they’d summoned him. Even though he was the Prior of the Order of Saint Thomas. A paladin, no less.
The knight rode slowly around the town until he came to the market field.
He dismounted. His squire watched the fields as if a horde of boglins might appear at any moment.
The knight opened his visor, and walked slowly across the field. There were a few corpses at the edge, by the dry ditch that marked the legal edge of the field. The bodies lay thicker as he grew closer to the Market Oak. Thicker and thicker. He could hear the flies. Smell the opened bowels, warm in the sun.
It smelled like a battlefield.
He knelt for a moment, and prayed. He was, after all, a priest, as well as a knight. Then he rose slowly and walked back to his squire, spurs catching awkwardly on the clothes of the dead.
“What—what was it?” asked his squire. The boy was green.
“I don’t know,” said the knight. He took off his helmet and handed it to his squire.
Then he walked back into the field of death.
He made a quick count. Breathed as shallowly as he could.
The dogs were mostly in one place. He drew his sword, four feet of mirror-polished steel, and used it as a pry-bar to roll the corpse of a man with legs like tree trunks and arms like hams off the pile of dogs.
He knelt and took off a gauntlet, and picked up what looked like a scrap of wool.
Let out a breath.
He held out his sword, and called on God for aid, and gathered the divine golden power, and then made a small working.
“Fools,” he said aloud.
His working showed him where the priest had died, too. He found the man’s head, but left it where it lay. Found his dagger, and placed a phantasm on it.
“You arrogant idiot,” he said to the head.
He pulled the wagoner’s body off the mangled corpse of his daughter. Turned aside and threw up, and then knelt and prayed. And wept.
And finally, stumbled to his feet and walked back to where his squire waited, the worry plain on his face.
“It was a golden bear,” he said.
“Good Christ!” said the squire. “Here? Three hundred leagues from the wall?”
“Don’t blaspheme, lad. They brought it here captive. They baited it with dogs. It had cubs, and they threw one to the dogs.” He shrugged.
His squire crossed himself.
“I need you to ride to Harndon and report to the king,” the knight said. “I’ll track the bear.”
The squire nodded. “I can be in the city by nightfall, my lord.”
“I know. Go now. It’s one bear, and men brought it here. I’ll stem these fools’ panic—although I ought to leave them to wallow in it. Tell the king that the Bishop of Jarsay is short a vicar. His headless corpse is over there. Knowing the man, I have to assume this was his fault, and the kindest thing I can say is that he got what he deserved.”
His squire paled. “Surely, my lord, now it is you who blaspheme.”
Ser Mark spat. He could still taste his own vomit. He took a flask of wine from the leather bag behind his saddle and drank off a third of it.
“How long have you been my squire?” he asked.
The young man smiled. “Two years, my lord.”
“How often have we faced the Wild together?” he asked.
The young man raised his eyebrows. “A dozen times.”
“How many times has the Wild attacked men out of pure evil?” the knight asked. “If a man prods a hornet’s nest with a pitchfork and gets stung, does that make the hornets evil?”
His squire sighed. “It’s not what they teach in the schools,” he said.
The knight took another pull at his flask of wine. The shaking in his hands was stopping. “It’s a mother, and she still has a cub. There’s the track. I’ll follow her.”
“A golden bear?” the squire asked. “Alone?”
“I didn’t say I’d fight her in the lists, lad. I’ll follow her. You tell the king.” The man leaped into his saddle with an acrobatic skill which was one of the many things that made his squire look at him with hero-worship. “I’ll send a phantasm to the Commandery if I’ve time and power. Now go.”
“Yes, my lord.” The squire turned his horse and was off, straight to a gallop as he’d been taught by the Order.
Ser Mark leaned down from his tall horse and looked at the tracks, and then laid a hand on his war horse’s neck. “No need to hurry, Bess,” he said.
He followed the track easily. The golden bear had made for the nearest woods, as any creature of the Wild would. He didn’t bother to follow the spoor exactly, but merely trotted along, checking the ground from time to time. He was too warm in full harness, but the alarm had caught him in the tiltyard, fully armed.
The wine sang in his veins. He wanted to drain the rest of it.
The dead child—
The scraps of the dead cub—
His own knight—when he was learning his catechism and serving his caravans as a squire—had always said War kills the innocent first.
Where the stubble of last year’s wheat ran up into a tangle of weeds, he saw the hole the bear had made in the hedge. He pulled up.
He didn’t have a lance, and a lance was the best way to face a bear.
He drew his war sword, but he didn’t push Bess though the gap in the hedge.
He rode along the lane, entered the field carefully through the gate, and rode back along the hedge at a canter.
But no bear.
He felt a little foolish to have drawn his sword, but he didn’t feel any inclination to put it away. The fresh tracks were less than an hour old, and the bear’s paw print was the size of a pewter plate from the Commandery’s kitchens.
Suddenly, there was crashing in the woods to his left.
He tightened the reins, and turned his horse. She was beautifully trained, pivoting on her front feet to keep her head pointed at the threat.
Then he backed her, step by step.
He saw a flash of movement, turned his head and saw a jay leap into the air, flicked his eyes back—
“Blessed Virgin, stand with me,” he said aloud. Then he rose an inch in his war saddle and just touched his spurs to Bess’s sides, and she walked forward.
He turned her head and started to ride around the wood. It couldn’t be that big.
It was right there.
He gave the horse more spur, and they accelerated to a canter. The great horse made the earth shake.
Near Lorica—A Golden Bear
She was being hunted. She could smell the horse, hear its shod hooves moving on the spring earth, and she could feel its pride and its faith in the killer on its back.
After months of degradation and slavery, torture and humiliation she would happily have turned and fought the steel-clad war man. Glory for her if she defeated him, and a better death than she had imagined in a long time. But her cub mewed at her. The cub—it was all for the cub. She had been captured because they could not run and she would not leave them, and she had endured for them.
She only had one left.
She was the smaller of the two, and the gold of her fur was brighter, and she was on the edge of exhaustion, suffering from dehydration and panic. She had lost the power of speech and could only mew like a dumb animal. Her mother feared she might have lost it for life.
But she had to try. The very blood in her veins cried out that she had to try to save her young.
She picked the cub up in her teeth the way a cat carried a kitten, and ran again, ignoring the pain in her paws.
Lorica—Ser Mark Wishart
The knight cantered around the western edge of the woods and saw the river stretching away in a broad curve. He saw the shambing golden creature in the late sunlight, gleaming like a heraldic beast on a city shield. The bear was running flat out. And so very beautiful, Wild. Feral.
“Oh, Bess,” he said. For a moment he considered just letting the bear go.
But that was not what he had vowed.
His charger’s ears pricked forward. He raised his sword, Bess rumbled into a gallop and he slammed his visor closed.
Bess was faster than the bear. Not much faster, but the great female was hampered by her cub and he could see that her rear paws were mangled and bloody.
He began to run her down as the ground started to slope down towards the broad river. It was wide here, near the sea, and it smelled of brine at the turn of the tide. He set himself in his saddle and raised his sword—
Suddenly, the bear released her cub to tumble deep into some low bushes, and turned like a great cat pouncing—going from prey to predator in the beat of a human heart.
She rose on her haunches as he struck at her—and she was faster than any creature he’d ever faced. She swung with all her weight in one great claw-raking blow, striking at his horse, even as his blow cut through the meat of her right forepaw and into her chest—cut deep.
Bess was already dead beneath him.
He went backwards over his high crupper, as he’d been taught to. He hit hard, rolled, and came to his feet. He’d lost his sword—and lost sight of the bear. He found the dagger at his waist and drew it even as he whirled. Too slow.
She hit him. The blow caught him in the side, and threw him off his feet, but his breastplate held the blow and the claws didn’t rake him. By luck he rolled over his sword, and got to his feet with it in his fist. Something in his right leg was badly injured—maybe broken.
The bear was bleeding.
The cub mewed.
The mother looked at the cub. Looked at him. Then she ran, picked the cub up in her mouth and ran for the river. He watched until she was gone—she jumped into the icy water and swam rapidly away.
He stood with his shoulders slumped, until his breathing began to steady. Then he walked to his dead horse, found his unbroken flask, and drank all the rest of the contents.
He said a prayer for a horse he had loved.
And he waited to be found.
West of Lissen Carak—Thorn
A two hundred leagues north-west, Thorn sat under a great holm-oak that had endured a millennium. The tree rose, both high and round, and its progeny filled the gap between the hills closing down from the north and the ever deeper Cohocton River to the south.
Thorn sat cross-legged on the ground. He no longer resembled the man he had once been; he was almost as tall as a barn, when he stood up to his full height, and his skin, where it showed through layers of moss and leather, seemed to be of smooth grey stone. A staff—the product of a single, straight ash tree riven by lightning in its twentieth year—lay across his lap. His gnarled fingers, as long as the tines of a hay fork, made eldritch sigils of pale green fire as he reached out into the Wild for his coven of spies.
He found the youngest and most aggressive of the Qwethnethogs; the strong people of the deep Wild that men called daemons. Tunxis. Young, angry, and easy to manipulate.
He exerted his will, and Tunxis came. He was careful about the manner of his summons; Tunxis had more powerful relatives who would resent Thorn using the younger daemon for his own ends.
Tunxis emerged from the oaks to the east at a run, his long, heavily muscled legs beautiful at the fullness of his stride, his body leaning far forward, balanced by the heavy armoured tail that characterized his kind. His chest looked deceptively human, if an unlikely shade of blue-green, and his arms and shoulders were also very man-like. His face had an angelic beauty—large, deep eyes slanted slightly, open and innocent, with a ridge of bone between them that rose into the elegant helmet crest that differentiated the male and female among them. His beak was polished to a mirror-brightness and inlaid with lapis lazuli and gold to mark his social rank, and he wore a sword that few mere human men could even lift.
He was angry—but Tunxis was at the age when young males are always angry.
“Why do you summon me?” he shrieked.
Thorn nodded. “Because I need you,” he answered.
Tunxis clacked his beak in contempt. “Perhaps I do not need you. Or your games.”
“It was my games that allowed you to kill the witch.” Thorn didn’t smile. He had lost the ability to, but he smiled inwardly, because Tunxis was so young.
The beak clacked again. “She was nothing.” Clacked again, in deep satisfaction. “You wanted her dead. And she was too young. You offered me a banquet and gave me a scrap. A nothing.”
Thorn handled his staff. “She is certainly nothing now.” His friend had asked for the death. Layers of treason. Layers of favours asked, and owed. The Wild. His attention threatened to slip away from the daemon. It had probably been a mistake to let Tunxis kill in the valley.
“My cousin says there are armed men riding in the valley. In our valley.” Tunxis slurred the words, as all his people did when moved by great emotion.
Thorn leaned forward, suddenly very interested. “Mogan saw them?” he asked.
“Smelled them. Watched them. Counted their horses.” Tunxis moved his eyebrows the way daemons did. It was like a smile, but it caused the beak to close—something like the satisfaction of a good meal.
Thorn had had many years in which to study the daemons. They were his closest allies, his not-trusted lieutenants. “How many?” Thorn asked patiently.
“Many,” Tunxis said, already bored. “I will find them and kill them.”
“You will not.” Thorn leaned forward and slowly, carefully, rose to his feet, his heavy head brushing against the middling branches of the ancient oak. “Where has she found soldiers?” he asked out loud. One of the hazards of living alone in the Wild was that you voiced things aloud. He was growing used to talking to himself aloud. It didn’t trouble him as it had at first.
“They came from the east,” Tunxis said. “I will hunt them and kill them.”
Thorn sighed. “No. You will find them and watch them. You will watch them from afar. We will learn their strengths and weaknesses. Chances are they will pass away south over the bridge, or join the lady as a garrison. It is no concern of ours.”
“No concern of yours, Turncoat. Our land. Our valley. Our hills. Our fortress. Our power. Because you are weak—” Tunxis’s beak made three distinct clacks.
Thorn rolled his hand over, long thin fingers flashing, and the daemon fell flat on the ground as if all his sinews had been cut.
Thorn’s voice became the hiss of a serpent.
“I am weak? The soldiers are many? They came from the east? You are a fool and a child, Tunxis. I could rip your soul from your body and eat it, and you couldn’t lift a claw to stop me. Even now you cannot move, cannot summon power. You are like a hatchling in the rushing water as the salmon comes to take him. Yes? And you tell me ‘many’ like a lord throwing crumbs to peasants. Many?” he leaned down over the prone daemon and thrust his heavy staff into the creature’s stomach. “How many exactly, you little fool?”
“I don’t know,” Tunxis managed.
“From the east, the south-east? From Harndon and the king? From over the mountains? Do you know?” he hissed.
“No,” Tunxis said, cringing.
“Tunxis, I like to be polite. To act like—” He sought for a concept that could link him to the alien intelligence. “To act like we are allies. Who share common goals.”
“You treat us like servants! We serve no master!” spat the daemon. “We are not like your men, who lie and lie and say these pretty things. We are Qwethnethogs!”
Thorn pushed his staff deeper into the young daemon’s gut. “Sometimes I tire of the Wild and the endless struggle. I am trying to help you and your people reclaim your valley. Your goal is my goal. So I am not going to eat you. However tempting that might be just now.” He withdrew the staff.
“My cousin says I should never trust you. That whatever body you wear, you are just another man.” Tunxis sat up, rolled to his feet with a pure and fluid grace.
“Whatever I am, without me you have no chance against the forces of the Rock. You will never reclaim your place.”
“Men are weak,” Tunxis spat.
“Men have defeated your kind again and again. They burn the woods. They cut the trees. They build farms and bridges and they raise armies and your kind lose.” He realised that he was trying to negotiate with a child. “Tunxis,” he said, laying hold of the young creature’s essence. “Do my bidding. Go, and watch the men, and come back and tell me.”
But Tunxis had a power of his own, and Thorn watched much of his compulsion roll off the creature. And when he let go his hold, the daemon turned and sprinted for the trees.
And only then did Thorn recall that he’d summoned the boy for another reason entirely, and that made him feel tired and old. But he exerted himself again, summoning one of the Abnethog this time, that men called wyverns.
The Abnethog were more biddable. Less fractious. Just as aggressive. But lacking a direct ability to manipulate the power, they tended to avoid open conflict with the magi.
Sidhi landed neatly in the clearing in front of the holm oak, although the aerial gymnastics required taxed his skills.
“I come,” he said.
Thorn nodded. “I thank you. I need you to look in the lower valley to the east,” he said. “There are men there, now. Armed men. Possibly very dangerous.”
“What man is dangerous to me?” asked the wyvern. Indeed, Sidhi stood eye to eye with Thorn, and when he unfolded his wings their span was extraordinary. Even Thorn felt a twinge of real fear when the Abnethog were angry.
Thorn nodded. “They have bows. And other weapons that could hurt you badly.”
Sidhi made a noise in his throat. “Then why should I do this thing?” he asked.
“I made the eyes of your brood clear when they clouded over in the winter. I gave you the rock-that-warms for your mate’s nest.” Thorn made a motion intended to convey that he would continue to heal sick wyverns.
Sidhi unfolded his wings. “I was going to hunt,” he said. “I am hungry. And being summoned by you is like being called a dog.” The wings spread farther and farther. “But it may be that I will choose to hunt to the east, and it may be that I will see your enemies.”
“Your enemies as well,” Thorn said wearily. Why are they all so childish?
The wyvern threw back its head, and screamed, and the wings beat—a moment of chaos, and it was in the air, the trees all around it shedding leaves in the storm of air. A night of hard rain wouldn’t have ripped so many leaves from the trees.
And then Thorn reached out with his power—gently, hesitantly, a little like a man rising from bed on a dark night to find his way down unfamiliar stairs. He reached out to the east—farther, and a little farther, until he found what he always found.
Her. The lady on the Rock.
He probed the walls like a man running his tongue over a bad tooth. She was there, enshrined in her power. And with her was something else entirely. He couldn’t read it—the fortress carried its own power, its own ancient sigils which worked against him.
He sighed. It was raining. He sat in the rain, and tried to enjoy the rise of spring around him.
Tunxis killed the nun, and now the lady has more soldiers. He had set something in motion, and he wasn’t sure why.
And he wondered if he had made a mistake.
Harndon Palace—The Queen
Desiderata lay on the couch of her solar chewing new cherries and savouring the change in the air. Because—at last—spring had come. Her favourite season. After Lent would come Easter and then Whitsunday, and the season of picnics, of frolics by the river, or eating fresh fruit, wearing flowers, walking barefoot…
… and tournaments.
She sighed at the thought of tournaments. Behind her, Diota, her nurse, made a face. She could see the old woman’s disapproval in the mirror.
“What? Now you frown if I sigh?” she asked.
Diota straightened her back, putting a fist into it like a pregnant woman. Her free hand fingered the rich paternoster at her neck. “You sound like a whore pleasing a customer, mistress—if you’ll pardon the crudity of an old woman—”
“Who’s known you all these years,” the Queen completed the sentence. Indeed, she’d had Diota since she was weaned. “Do I? And what do you know about the sounds whores make, nurse?”
“Now, my lady!” Diota came forward, waggling a finger. Coming around the screen, she stopped as if she’d hit an invisible barrier. “Oh! By the Sweet Lord—put some clothes on, girl! You’ll catch your death! It’s not spring yet, morsel!”
The Queen laughed. She was naked in the new sunlight, her tawny skin flecked with the imperfections of the glass in her solar’s window, lying on the pale brown profusion of her hair. She drew something from the sunlight falling on her skin—something that made her glow from within.
Desiderata rose and stood at the mirror—the longest mirror in the Demesne, made just for her, so that she could examine herself from the high arches of her feet, up her long legs, past her hips and thighs and the deep recess of her navel to her breasts, her upright shoulders, her long and tapered neck, deep cut chin, a mouth made for kissing, long nose and wide grey eyes with lashes so long that sometimes she could lick them.
She frowned. “Have you seen the new lady in waiting? Emmota?” she said.
Her nurse chuckled alongside her. “She’s a child.”
“A fine figure. Her waist is thin as a rail.” The Queen looked at herself with careful scrutiny.
Diota smacked her hip. “Get dressed, you hussy!” she laughed. “You’re looking for compliments. She’s nothing to you, Miss. A child. No breasts.” She laughed. “Every man says you are the beauty of the world,” she added.
The Queen continued to look in the mirror. “I am. But for how long?” She put her hands up over her head, arching her back as her chest rose.
Her nurse slapped her playfully. “Do you want the king to find you thus?”
Desiderata smiled at her woman. “I could say yes. I want him to find me just like this,” she said. And then, her voice coloured with power, she said, “Or I could say I am as much myself, and as much the Queen, naked, as I am clothed.”
Her nurse took a step away.
“But I won’t say any such thing. Bring me something nice. The brown wool gown that goes with my hair. And my golden belt.”
“Yes, my lady.” Diota nodded and frowned. “Shall I send some of your ladies to dress you?”
The Queen smiled and stretched, her eyes still on the mirror. “Send me my ladies,” she said, and subsided back onto the couch in the solar.
Lissen Carak—The Red Knight
At Ser Hugo’s insistence, the master archers had set up butts in the fields along the river.
Men grumbled, because they’d been ordered to curry their horses before turning in, and then, before the horses were cared for, they were ordered to shoot. They had ridden hard, for many long days, and there wasn’t a man or woman without dark circles under their eyes.
Bent, the eldest, an easterner, and Wilful Murder, fresh back from failing to find a murderer’s tracks with the huntsman, ordered the younger men to unload the butts, stuffed with old cloth or woven from straw, from the wagons.
“Which it isn’t my turn,” whined Kanny. “An’ why are you always picking on us?” His words might have appeared braver, if he hadn’t waited until Bent was far away before saying them.
Geslin was the youngest man in the company, just fourteen, with a thin frame that suggested he’d never got much food as a boy, climbed one of the tall wagons and silently seized a target and tossed it down to Gadgee, an odd looking man with a swarthy face and foreign features.
Gadgee caught the target with a grunt, and started toward the distant field. “Shut up and do some work,” he said.
Kanny spat. And moved very slowly towards a wagon that didn’t have any targets in it. “I’ll just look—”
Bad Tom’s archer, Cuddy, appeared out of nowhere and shoved him ungently towards the wagon where Geslin was readying a second target. “Shut up and do some work,” he said.
He was slow enough that by the time he had his target propped up and ready for use, all nine of the other butts were ready as well. And there were forty archers standing a hundred paces distant, examining their spare strings and muttering about the damp.
Cuddy strung his bow with an economy of motion that belied long practice, and he opened the string that held the arrows he had in his quiver.
“Shall I open the dance?” he said.
He nocked, and loosed.
A few paces to his right, Wilful Murder, who fancied himself as good an archer as any man alive, drew and loosed a second later, contorting his body to pull the great war bow.
Bent put his horn to his lips and blew. “Cease!” he roared. He turned to Cuddy. “Kanny’s still down range!” he shouted at the master archer.
Cuddy grinned. “I know just where he is,” he said. “So does Wilful.”
The two snickered as Kanny came from behind the central target, running as fast as his long, skinny legs would carry him.
The archers roared with laughter.
Kanny was spitting with rage and fear. “You bastard!” he shouted at Cuddy.
“I told you to work faster,” Cuddy said mildly.
“I’ll tell the captain!” Kanny said.
Bent nodded. “You do that.” He motioned. “Off you go.”
Kanny grew pale.
Behind him, the other archers walked up to their places, and began to loose.
The captain was late to the drill. He looked tired, and he moved slowly, and he leaned on the tall stone wall surrounding the sheepfold that Ser Hugh had converted to a tiltyard and watched the men-at-arms at practice.
Despite fatigue and the weight of plate and mail Ser George Brewes was on the balls of his feet, bouncing from guard to guard. Opposite him, his “companion” in the language of the tiltyard, was the debonair Robert Lyliard, whose careful fighting style was the very opposite of the ostentatious display of his arms and clothes.
Brewes stalked Lyliard like a high-stepping panther, his pole-arm going from guard to guard—low, axe-head forward and right leg advanced, in the Boar’s Tooth; sweeping through a heavy up-cut to rest on his right shoulder like a woodcutter in the Woman’s Guard.
Francis Atcourt, thick waisted and careful, faced Tomas Durrem. Both were old soldiers, unknighted men-at-arms who had been in harness for decades. They circled and circled, taking no chances. The captain thought he might fall asleep watching them.
Bad Tom came and rested on the same wall, except that his head projected clear above the captain’s head. And even above the plume on his hat.
“Care to have a go?” Tom asked with a grin.
No one liked to spar with Tom. He hurt people. The captain knew that despite all the plate armour and padding and mail and careful weapon’s control, tiltyard contests were dangerous and men were down from duty all the time with broken fingers and other injuries. And that was without the sudden flares of anger men could get when something hurt, or became personal. When the tiltyard became the duelling ground.
The problem was that there was no substitute for the tiltyard, when it came to being ready for the real thing. He’d learned that in the east.
He looked at Tom. The man had a reputation. And he had dressed Tom down in public a day before.
“What’s your preference, Ser Thomas?” he asked.
“Longsword,” Bad Tom said. He put a hand on the wall and vaulted it, landed on the balls of his feet, whirled and drew his sword. It was his war sword—four feet six inches of heavy metal. Eastern made, with a pattern in the blade. Men said it was magicked.
The captain walked along the wall with no little trepidation. He went into the sheepfold through the gate, and Michael brought him a tilt helmet with solid mesh over the face and a heavy aventail.
Michael handed him his own war sword. It was five inches shorter than Bad Tom’s, plain iron hilted with a half-wired grip and a heavy wheel of iron for a pommel.
As Michael buckled his visor, John of Reigate, Bad Tom’s squire, put his helmet over his head.
Tom grinned while his faceplate was fastened. “Most loons mislike a little to-do wi’ me,” he said. When Tom was excited, his hillman accent overwhelmed his Gothic.
The captain rolled his head to test his helmet, rotated his right arm to test his range of motion.
Men-at-arms were pausing, all over the sheepfold.
“The more fool they,” the captain said.
He’d watched Tom fight. Tom liked to hit hard—to use his godlike strength to smash through men’s guards.
His father’s master-at-arms, Hywel Writhe, used to say For good swordsmen, it’s not enough to win. They need to win their own way. Learn a man’s way, and he becomes predictable.
Tom rose from the milking stool he’d sat on to be armed and flicked his sword back and forth. Unlike many big men, Tom was as fast as the tomcat that gave him his name.
The captain didn’t strike a guard at all. He held his sword in one hand, the point actually trailing on the grass.
Tom whirled his blade up to the high Woman’s Guard, ready to cleave his captain in two.
“Garde!” he roared. The call echoed off the walls of the sheep fold and then from the high walls of the fortress above them.
The captain stepped, moved one foot off line, and suddenly he had his sword in two hands. Still trailing out behind him.
Tom stepped off-line, circling to the captain’s left.
The captain stepped in, his sword rising to make a flat cut at Tom’s head.
Tom slapped the sword down—a rabatter cut with both wrists, meant to pound an opponent’s blade into the ground.
The captain powered in, his back foot following the front foot forward. He let the force of Tom’s blow to his blade rotate it, his wrist the pivot—sideways and then under Tom’s blade.
He caught the point of his own blade in his left hand, and tapped it against Tom’s visor. His two handed grip and his stance put Tom’s life utterly in his hands.
“One,” he said.
Tom laughed. “Brawly feckit!” he called.
He stepped back and saluted. The captain returned the salute and sidestepped, because Tom came for him immediately.
Tom stepped, then swept forward with a heavy downward cut.
The captain stopped it, rolling the blade well off to the side, but as fast as he could bring his point back on line, Tom was inside his reach—
And he was face down in sheep dip. His hips hurt, and now his neck hurt.
But to complain was not the spirit of the thing.
“Well struck,” he said, doing his best to bounce to his feet.
Tom laughed his wild laugh again. “Mine, I think,” he said.
The captain had to laugh.
“I was planning to chew on your toes,” he said, and drew a laugh from the onlookers.
He saluted, Tom saluted, and they were on their guards again.
But they’d both shown their mettle, and now they circled—Tom looking for a way to force the action close, and the captain trying to keep him off with short jabs. Once, by thrusting with his whole sword held at the pommel, he scored on Tom’s right hand, and the other man flicked a short salute, as if to say “that wasn’t much.” And indeed, Ser Hugo stepped between them.
“I don’t allow such trick blows, my lord,” Hugh said. “It’d be a foolish thing to do in a melee.”
The captain had to acknowledge the truth of that assertion. He had been taught the Long Point with the advice never use this unless you are desperate. Even then—
The captain’s breath was coming in great gasps, while Tom seemed to be moving fluidly around the impromptu ring. Breathing well and easily. Of course, given his advantages in reach and size, he could control most aspects of the fight, and the captain was mostly running away to keep his distance.
The last five days of worry and stress sat as heavily on his shoulders as the weight of his tournament helm. And Tom was very good. There was really little shame in losing to him. So the captain decided he’d rather go down as a lion than a very tired lamb. And besides, it would be funny.
So—between one retreat and the next blow—he swayed his hips, rotated his feet so that his weight was back, and let go the sword’s hilt with his left hand. Eastern swordsmen called it “The Guard of One Hand.”
Tom swept in with another of his endless, heavy, sweeping blows. Any normal man would have exhausted himself with them. Not Tom. This one came from his right shoulder.
This time, the captain tried for a rebatter defence—his sword sweeping up, one handed, coming slightly behind Tom’s but cutting as fast as a falcon strikes its prey. He caught Tom’s sword and drove it faster along its intended path as he stepped slightly off-line and forward, surprising his companion. His free left hand shot out, and he punched Tom’s right wrist, and then his left hand was between the big man’s hands, and Tom’s aggressive pursuit of his elusive opponent carried him forward—the captain’s left hand went deeper, and he achieved the arm lock, and twisted, in complete possession of the man’s sword and shoulder—
And nothing happened. Tom was not rotated. In fact, Tom’s rush turned into a swing, and the captain found himself swinging off Tom’s elbow and the giant turned to the left, and again, and the captain couldn’t let go without tumbling to the ground.
His master-at-arms had never covered this situation.
Tom whirled him again, trying to shake him off. They were at a nasty impasse. The captain had Tom’s sword bound tight, and his elbow and shoulder in a lock too. But Tom had the captain’s feet off the ground.
The captain had his blade free—mostly free. He hooked his pommel into Tom’s locked arms, hoping it would give him the leverage to, well, to do what should have happened in the first place. The captain’s sense of how combat and the universe worked had received a serious jar.
But even with both hands—
Tom whirled him again, like a terrier breaking a rat’s neck.
Using every sinew of his not inconsiderable muscles, the captain pried his pommel between Tom’s arms and levered the blade over Tom’s head and grabbed the other side, letting his whole weight go onto the blade.
In effect, he fell, blade first, on Tom’s neck.
They both went down.
The captain lay in the sheep muck, with his eyes full of stars. And his breath coming like a blacksmith’s bellows.
Something under him was moving.
He rolled over, and found that he was lying entangled with the giant hillman, and the man was laughing.
“You’re mad as a gengrit!” Tom said. He rose out of the muck and smothered the captain in an embrace.
Some of the other men-at-arms were applauding.
Some were laughing.
Michael looked like he was going to cry. But that was only because he had to clean the captain’s armour, and the captain was awash in sheep dip.
When his helmet was off, he began to feel the new strain in his left side and the pain in his shoulder. Tom was right next to him.
“You’re a loon,” Tom said. He grinned. “A loon.”
With his helmet off, he could still only just breathe.
Chrys Foliack, another of the men-at-arms who had hitherto kept his distance from the captain, came and offered his hand. He grinned at Tom. “It’s like fighting a mountain, ain’t it?” he asked.
The captain shook his head. “I’ve never—”
Foliack was a big man, handsome and red-headed and obviously well-born. “I liked the arm lock,” he said. “Will you teach it?”
The captain looked around. “Not just this minute,” he said.
That got a laugh.
Harndon Palace—The King
The king was in armour, having just trounced a number of his gentlemen on the tilt field, when his constable, Alexander, Lord Glendower—an older man with a scar that ran from his right eyebrow, all the way across his face, cleaving his nose from right to left so deeply as to make most men he met wince—and then down across his face to his mouth, so that his beard had a ripple in it where the scar had healed badly, and he always looked as if he was sneering—approached with a red-haired giant at his back.
Glendower’s scar couldn’t have suited a man worse as he was, as far as the king was concerned, the best of companions, a man little given to sneering and much to straight talk unlaced by flattery or temper. His patience with his soldiers was legendary.
“My lord, I think you know Ranald Lachlan, who has served you two years as a man-at arms.” He bowed, and extended an arm to the red-bearded man, who was obviously a hillman—red hair, facial scarring, piercing blue eyes like steel daggers, and two ells of height unhidden by the hardened steel plate armour and red livery of the Royal Guard.
Ranald bowed deeply.
The king reached out and clasped his hand. “I’m losing you,” he said warmly. “The sight of your great axe always made me feel safe,” he laughed.
Ranald bowed again. “I promised Lord Glendower and Sir Ricard two years when I signed my mark,” the hillman said. “I’m needed at home, for the spring drive.”
Sir Ricard Fitzroy, so indicated, was the captain of the guard.
“Your brother is the Drover, I know,” the king said. “It’s a troubled spring, Ranald. Alba will be safer if your axe is guarding beeves in the hills, rather than guarding the king, safe in Harndon. Eh?”
Ranald shrugged, embarrassed. “There’ll be fighting, I ha’e na’ doot,” he admitted. Then he grinned. “I have no doubt, my lord.”
The king nodded. “When the drive is over?” he asked.
“Oh, I have reason to come back,” he said with a grin. “My lord. With your leave. But my brother needs me, and there are things—”
Every man present knew that the things Ranald Lachlan wanted involved the Queen’s secretary, Lady Almspend—not an heiress, precisely. But a pretty maid with a fair inheritance. A high mark for a King’s Guardsman, commonly born.
The king leaned close. “Come back, Ranald. She’ll wait.”
“I pray she does,” he whispered.
The king turned to his constable. “See that this man’s surcoat and kit are well stored; I grant him leave, but I do not grant him quittance from my service.”
“My lord!” the man replied.
The king grinned. “Now get going. And come back with some tales to tell.”
Ranald bowed again, as ceremony demanded, and walked from the king’s presence to the guardroom, where he embraced a dozen close friends, drank a farewell cup of wine, and handed the Steward his kit—his maille hauberk and his good cote of plates beautifully covered in the royal scarlet; his two scarlet cotes with matching hoods, for wear at court, and his hose of scarlet cloth. His tall boots of scarlet leather, and his sword belt of scarlet trimmed in bronze.
He had on a doublet of fustian, dark hose of a muddy brown, and over his arm was his three-quarter’s tweed cloak.
The Steward, Radolf, listed his kit on his inventory and nodded. “Nicely kept, messire. And your badge…” The king’s badge was a white heart with a golden collar, and the badges were cunningly fashioned of silver and bronze and enamel. “The king expressly stated you was to keep yours, as on leave and not quit the guard.” He handed the badge back.
Ranald was touched. He took the brooch and pinned his cloak with it. The badge made his tweed look shabby and old.
Then he walked out of the fortress and down into the city of Harndon, without a backwards glance. Two years, war and peril, missions secret and diplomatic, and the love of his life.
A hillman had other loyalties.
Down into the town that grew along the river’s curves. From the height of the fortress, the town was dominated by the bridge over the Albin, the last bridge before the broad and winding river reached the sea thirty leagues farther south. On the far side of the bridge, to the north, lay Bridgetown—part and not part of the great city of Harndon. But on this side, along the river, the city ran from the king’s fortress around the curve, with wharves and peers at the riverside, merchants’ houses, streets of craftsmen in houses built tall and thin to save land.
He walked down the ramp, leading his two horses past the sentries—men he knew. More hand clasps.
He walked along Flood Street, past the great convent of St. Thomas and the streets of the Mercers and Goldsmiths, and down the steep lanes past the Founders and the Blacksmiths, to the place where Blade Lane crossed with Armour Street, at the sign of the broken circle.
The counter was only as wide as two broad-built men standing side by side, but Ranald looked around, because the Broken Circle made the finest weapons and armour in the Demesne, and there were always things there to be seen. Beautiful things—even to a hillman. Today was better than many days—a dozen simple helmets stood on the counter, all crisp and fine, with high points and umbers to shade the eye, the white work fine and neat, the finish almost mirror bright, the metal blue-white, like fine silver.
And these were simple archer’s helmets.
There was an apprentice behind the counter, a likely young man with arms like the statues of the ancient men and legs to match. He grinned and bobbed his head and went silently through the curtain behind him to fetch his master.
Tad Pyel was the master weapon smith of the land. The first Alban to make the hardened steel. He was a tall man with a pleasant round face and twenty loyal apprentices to show that the mild disposition was not just in his face. He emerged, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Master Ranald,” he said. “Here for your axe, I have no doubt.”
“There was some talk of a cote, of maille as well,” Ranald added.
“Oh,” Tad nodded absently to his apprentice. “Oh, as to that—-Continental stuff. Not my make. But yes, we have it ready for you.”
Edward, the apprentice, was shifting a wicker basket from the back, and Ranald opened the lid and looked at the river of gleaming mail, every ring riveted with a wedge so small that most of the rings looked as if they’d been forged entire. It was as fine as the hauberk he’d worn as a King’s Man.
“This for thirty leopards?” Ranald asked.
“Continental stuff,” the master replied. He didn’t actually sniff, but the sniff was there. Then the older man smiled, and held out a heavy pole with the ends wrapped in sacking. “This would cut it as a sharp knife cuts an apple.”
Ranald took it in his hands, and was filled with as sweet a feeling as the moment that a man discovers he is in love—that the object of his affection returns his feelings.
Edward cut the lashings on the sacking, revealing a sharp steel spike on one end, ferruled in heavy bronze, balancing an axe blade at the other end—a narrow crescent of bright steel, as long as a man’s forearm, ending in a wicked point and armed with a vicious back-hook. All balanced like a fine sword, hafted in oak, with steel lappets to guard against sword cuts.
It was a hillman’s axe—but incomparably finer, made by a master and not by a travelling smith at a fair.
Ranald couldn’t help himself, and he whirled it between his hands, the blade cutting the air and the tip not quite brushing the plaster of the low room.
Edward flattened himself against the wall, and the master nodded, satisfied.
“The one you brought me was a fine enough weapon,” the master said. “Country made, but a well-made piece. But the finish,” he winced. And shrugged. “And I thought that the balance could be improved.”
The spike in the butt of the haft was as long as a knight’s dagger, wickedly sharp and three-sided.
Ranald just smiled in appreciation.
The master added two scabbards—a sheath of wood covered in fine red leather for the axe, and another to match for the spike.
Ranald counted down a hundred silver leopards—a sizeable portion of two years’ pay. He looked admiringly at the helmets on the counter.
“They’re spoken for,” the master said, catching his eye. “And none of them would fit your noggin, I’m thinking. Come back in winter when my work is slow, and I’ll make you a helmet you could wear to fight a dragon.”
The air seemed to chill.
“Naming calls,” Edward said, crossing himself.
“Don’t know what made me say that,” said the master. He shook his head. “But I’d make you a helmet.”
Ranald carried his new maille out to his pack horse, who was not as fond of it as he was, resenting the weight and the re-packing of the panniers it necessitated. He came back for the axe, and put it lovingly into the straps on his riding horse, close to hand. No one watching doubted that he’d handle it a dozen more times before he was clear of the suburbs. Or that he’d stop and use it on the first bush he found growing by the road.
“You ride today, then,” the master said.
Ranald nodded. “I’m needed in the north,” he said. “My brother sent for me.”
The weapon smith nodded. “Send him my respects, then, and the sele of the day on you.”
The hillman embraced the cutler, stepped through the door, and walked his horses back up the old river bank.
He stopped in the chapel of Saint Thomas, and knelt to pray, his eyes down. Above him, the saint was martyred by soldiers—knights in the Royal Livery. The scene made him uncomfortable.
He bought a pie from a ragged little girl by the Bridge Gate, and then he was away.
“There goes a fearsome man,” said the master to his apprentice. “I’ve known a few. And yet as gentle as a lady. A better knight than many who wear spurs.”
Edward was too smitten with hero-worship to comment.
“And where’s our daring mercer?” asked the master.
“Late, your worship,” said his apprentice.
Tad shook his head. “That boy would be late to his own funeral,” he said, but his voice suggested he had nothing but praise for the mercer. “Pack the helmets in straw and take them round to Master Random’s house, will you, Ned?”
No matter how kind your master is, there’s no apprentice who doesn’t relish a trip beyond the Ward. “May I have a penny to buy baskets?”
Master Thaddeus put coins in his hand. “Wish I’d made him a helmet,” he said. “Where’d the thought of a dragon come from?”
Harndon Palace—the Queen
Desiderata sat primly on an ivory stool in the great hall, its stucco walls lined with the trophies taken by a thousand brave knights—the heads of creatures greater and smaller, and a very young dragon’s head, fully the size of a horse, filling the northern wall beneath the stained glass window like a boat hull protruding from the sea. To her, it never quite looked the same way twice, that dragon—but it was huge.
She sat peeling a winter apple with a silver knife. Her hair was a halo of brown and red and gold around her—a carefully planned effect, as she sat in the pool of light thrown by the king’s beloved rose window. Her ladies sat around her, skirts spread like pressed flowers on the clean checkerboard marble floor, and a dozen of the younger knights—the very ones who should have been tilting in the tiltyard, or crossing swords with the masters—lounged against the walls. One, the eldest of them by half a dozen years and some fighting, was called “Hard Hands” for his well-known feat of killing a creature of the Wild with a single blow of his fist. It was a story he often told.
The Queen disliked men who boasted. She made it her business to know who was worthy and who was not—indeed, she viewed it as her sacred role. She loved to find the shy ones—the brave men who told no one of their deeds. She thought less of the braggarts. Especially when they sat in her hall and flirted with her ladies. She had just determined to punish the man when the king came in.
He was plainly dressed, in arming clothes, he smelled like horses and armour and sweat, and she wrapped herself around him and his smell as if they were newly wed. He smiled down into her face and kissed her nose.
“I love it when you do that,” he said.
“You should practise your tilting more often, then,” she said, holding his arm. Behind the king, Ser Driant stood rubbing his neck, and behind him, Ser Alan, and the constable, Lord Glendower. She laughed. “Did you defeat these poor knights?”
“Defeat?” asked Driant. He laughed ruefully. “I was crushed like a bug in an avalanche, my lady. His Grace has a new horse that’s bigger than a dragon.”
Ser Alan shrugged. “I was unhorsed, yes, lady.” He looked at Ser Driant and frowned. “I think it rude to suggest the king’s horse rolled you on the sand,” he said.
Driant laughed again. He was not a man who stayed downcast for long. “There’s a great deal of me to hit the ground,” he said, “and that ground is still frozen.” He rubbed his neck again, peering past the Queen to her ladies sitting with their knights. “And you lads—where were you when the blows were being dealt and received?”
Hard Hands nodded appreciatively. “Right here in the warm hall, basking in the beauty of the Queen and all these fair flowers,” he said. “What man goes voluntarily to fight on frozen ground?”
The king frowned. “A man preparing for war?” he asked quietly.
Hard Hands looked about him for support. He’d mistaken the bantering tone of conversation for permission to banter with the king.
The Queen smiled to see him humbled so swiftly.
“Out beyond the walls are creatures who would crack your armour to eat what lies within—or to drink your soul,” said the king, and his voice rang through the hall as he walked beneath the rows of heads. “And alone of these fair flowers, Ser knight, you know the truth of what I say. You have faced the Wild.” The king was not the tallest man in the room or the handsomest. But when he spoke like this, no other man could compare.
Hard Hands looked at the floor and bit his lip in frustration. “I sought only to entertain, Sire. I beg your pardon.”
“Seek my pardon in the Wild,” the king said. “Bring me three heads and I will be content to watch you flirt with the Queen’s ladies. Bring me five heads and you may flirt with the Queen.”
If you dare, she thought.
The king grinned, stopped by the younger man and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Hard Hands stiffened.
He did not want to leave the court. It was plain to see.
The king put his lips close to Hard Hand’s ear, but the Queen heard his words. She always did.
“Three heads,” the king whispered through the smile on his lips. “Or you will stay in your castle and be branded faithless and craven.”
The Queen watched the effect on her ladies and held her peace. Hard Hands was quite a popular man. Lady Mary, who was known as “Hard Heart” had been heard to say that perhaps his hands were not so very hard, after all. Seated nearest to the Queen, she pursed her lips and set her mouth, determined not to show the Queen her hurt. Behind this vignette, the king waved to his squires and set off up the main stairs to his arming room.
When the king was gone, Desiderata sat back down on her stool and picked up her sewing—an arming shirt for the king. Her ladies gathered round. They felt her desire and closed themselves against the younger knights, who looked to Hard Hands for leadership. Or had. Now they were disconsolate at losing their leader. They left with the sort of loud demonstration that young men make when socially disadvantaged, and the Queen laughed.
Hard Hands stopped in the arch of the main door and looked back. He met her eye, and his anger carried clearly across the sun beams that separated them.
“I will come back!” he shouted.
The other young men looked afraid at his outburst, and pushed him out the door.
“Perhaps,” purred the Queen. She smiled, much like a cat with a tiny piece of tail sticking out between its teeth.
The ladies knew that smile. They were silent, and the wisest hung their heads in real, or well-feigned, contrition, but she saw through all of them.
“Mary,” said the Queen gently. “Did you let Hard Hands into your bed?”
Mary, sometimes called Hard Heart, met her eye. “Yes, my lady.”
The Queen nodded. “Was he worthy?” she asked. “Answer me true.”
Mary bit her lip. “Not today, my lady.”
“Perhaps not ever—eh? Listen, all of you,” she said, and she bent her head to her ladies. “Emmota—you are latest amongst us. By what signs do you know a knight worthy to be your lover?”
Emmota was not yet fully grown to her womanhood—fourteen years old. Her face was narrow without being pinched and a clear intelligence shone in her eyes. She was nothing next to the Queen, and yet, the Queen admitted to herself, the girl had something.
But in this instant, her wits deserted her, and she blushed and said nothing.
The Queen smiled at her, as she was always tender for the lost and the confounded. “Listen, my dear,” she said softly. “Love only those worthy of your love. Love those who love themselves, and love all around them. Love the best—the best in arms, the first in the hall, the finest harpist, and the best chess player. Love no man for what he owns, but only for what he does.”
She smiled at all of them. And then pounced. “Are you pregnant, Mary?”
Mary shook her head. “I did not allow him that liberty, my lady.”
The Queen reached out and took Mary’s hand. “Well done. Ladies, remember—we award our love to those who deserve us. And our bodies are an even greater prize than our love—especially to the young.” She looked at each in turn. “Who does not yearn for the strong yet tender embrace? Who does not sigh for skin soft as fine leather over muscles as hard as wood? But get with child—” she locked eyes with Mary, “—and they will call you a whore. And you may die, bearing that bastard. Or worse, perhaps; find yourself living meanly, rearing his bastard child, while he rides to glory.” She looked at the window. “If you are not locked away in a convent.”
Emmota raised her head. “But what of love?” she asked.
“Make your love a reward, not a raw emotion,” the Queen said. “Any two rutting animals feel the emotion, child. Here, we are only interested in what is best. Rutting is not best. Do you understand?”
The girl swallowed carefully. “Yes, I think so,” she said. “But then—why would we ever lie with any man?”
The Queen laughed aloud. “Artemis come to earth! Why, because it is for the love of us that they face terror, girl! Do you think it is some light thing to ride out into the Wild? To sleep with the Wild, eat with it, live with it? To face it and fight it and kill it?” The Queen leaned down until her nose almost touched the sharp point of Emmota’s nose. “Do you think they do it for the good of humanity, my dear? Perhaps the older ones—the thoughtful ones. They face the dangers for us all because they have seen the alternative.” She shook her head. “But the young ones face the foe for just one thing—to be deemed worthy of you, my dear. And you control them. When you let a knight into your lap you reward him for his courage. His prowess. His worth. You must judge that it has been earned. Yes? You understand?”
Emmota gazed into the eyes of her Queen with worship. “I understand,” she said.
“The Old Men—the Archaics of long ago—they asked ‘Who shall guard the guardians?’?” The Queen looked around. “We shall, ladies. We choose the best of them. We may also choose to punish the worst. Hard Hands was not deserving, and the king found him out. We should have known first—should we not? Did none of you suspect he was merely a braggart? Did none of you wonder where his prowess lay, that he made no show or trial of it?”
Mary burst into tears. “I protest, madame.”
The Queen gave her a small embrace. “I relent. He is a good man-at-arms. Let him go prove it to the king. And prove himself worthy of you.”
The Queen nodded, and rose to her feet. “I go to attend the king. Think of this. It is our duty. Love—our love—is no light thing. It is be the crown of glory, available to the best and only the best. It should be hard won. Think on it.”
She listened to them she went up the stairs—broad marble stairs of that the Old Men had wrought. They didn’t giggle, which pleased her.
The king was in the Arming Room, with two squires—Simon and Oggbert, as like as two peas in a pod, with matching freckles and matching pimples. He was down to his shirt and his hose and his braes. His leg harnesses still lay on the floor having been removed, and each squire held a vambrace, wiping them down with chamois.
She smiled radiantly at them. “Begone,” she said.
They fled, as adolescent boys do when faced with beautiful women.
The king sat back on his bench. “Ah! I see I have won your esteem!” he grinned, and for a moment he was twenty years younger.
She knelt and undid a garter. “You are the king. You, and you alone, need never win my esteem.”
He watched her unbuckle the other garter. She buckled the two of them together and placed his leg harnesses together on a table behind her, and then, without hurry, she sat in his lap and put her arms around his neck and kissed him until she felt him stir.
And then she rose to her feet and unlaced her gown. She did it methodically, carefully, without taking her eyes off him.
He watched her the way a wolf watches a lamb.
The gown fell away leaving her kirtle—a sheath of tight silk from ankle to neck.
The king rose. “Anyone might come in here,” he said into her hair.
She laughed. “What care I?”
“On your head be it, lady,” he said, and produced a knife. He pressed the flat of the point against the skin of her neck and kissed her, and then cut the lace of her kirtle from neck to waist, the knife so sharp that the laces seemed to fall away, and his cut so careful that the blade never touched her skin through the linen shift beneath it.
She laughed into his kiss. “I love it when you do that,” she said. “You owe me a lace. A silk one.” Her long fingers took the knife from him. She stepped back and cut the straps of her shift at her shoulders and it fell away and she stabbed the knife into the top of the table so that it stuck.
He rid himself of his shirt and braes with more effort and far less elegance, and she laughed at him. And then they were together.
When they were done, she lay on his chest. Some of his hair was grey. She played with it.
“I am old,” he said.
She wriggled atop him. “Not so very old,” she said.
“I owe you more than a kirtle lace of silk,” he said.
“Really?” she asked, and rose above him. “Never mind the shift, love—Mary will replace the straps in an hour.”
“I was not being so literal. I owe you my life. I owe you—my continued interest in this endless hell that is kingship.” He grunted.
She looked down. “Endless hell—but you love it. You love it.”
The king pulled her down and hid his face in her hair. “Not as much as I love you.”
“What is it?” she asked, playing with his beard. “You are plagued by something…?”
He sighed. “One of my favourite men left me today. Ranald Lachlan. Because he has to make himself a fortune in order to wed your Lady Almspend.”
She smiled. “He is a worthy man, and he will prove himself or die trying.”
The king sighed. “Yes,” he said. “But by God, woman, I was tempted to give him a bag of gold and a knighthood to keep him by me.”
“And you would have deprived him of the glory of earning his way,” she said.
He shrugged and said, “It is good that one of us is an idealist.”
“If you are in a giving mood,” she said, “might we have a tournament?”
The king was a strong man with a fighter’s muscles, and he sat up despite her weight on his chest. “A tournament. By God, lady—is that what this was in aid of?”
She grinned at him. “Was it so bad?”
He shook his head. “I should be very afraid, were you to decide to do something I didn’t fancy, inside that pretty head. Yes, of course we can have a tournament. But the wrong men always win, and the town’s a riot for a week, and the castle’s a mess, you, my dear, are a mess, and I have to arrest men whose only crime was to drink too much. All that, for your whim?” He laughed.
Desiderata laughed, throwing her head back, and she read his desire in his eyes. “Yes!” she said. “All that for my whim.”
He laughed with her. And then frowned. “And there are the rumours from the north,” he said.
“Rumours?” she asked. Knowing full well what they were—war and worse in the northlands, and incursions from the Wild. It was her business to know them.
The king shrugged. “Never mind, love. We shall have a tournament, but it may have to wait until after the spring campaign.”
She clapped her hands. Spring was, at last, upon them.
Lissen Carak—The Red Knight
Amy’s Hob managed to get his nag to a gallop for long enough to reach the Captain in good time. The company was stretched out along the road in march order—no wagons, no baggage, no followers. Those were in camp with a dozen lances as guards.
“Lord—Gelfred says he’s found its earth. Away in the forest. Trail and hole.” Amy’s Hob was a little man with a nose that had been broken as often as he’d been outlawed.
The scout held up his hunting horn, and in it was a clod of excrement.
The fewmets, thought the captain, wrinkling his nose in distaste. Gelfred’s revenge for his impiety—sometimes close adherence to the laws of venery could constitute their own revenge. He gave the scout a sharp nod. “I’ll just take Gelfred’s word for it, shall I?” he said. He stood in his stirrups and bellowed “Armour up, people!”
Word moved down the column faster than a galloping horse. Men and women laced their arming caps and donned their helmets—tall bassinets, practical kettle hats, or sturdy barbutes. Soldiers always rode out armed from head to foot—but only a novice or an overeager squire rode in his helmet or gauntlets. Most knights didn’t don their helmets until they were in the face of the enemy.
Michael brought the captain’s high-peaked helmet and held it high over his head to slide the mail aventail, the cape that protected the neck and depended from the lower rim of the helmet, over his shoulders. Then he seated the helmet firmly on the padded arming cap, visor pinned up.
The captain motioned for his squire to pause and reached up to pull the ends of his moustache clear of the mail. He was very proud of his moustache. It did a great deal to hide his age—or lack of it.
Then Michael adjusted the fall of the aventail over his breastplate, checked the buckles under his arms, and pushed the gauntlets on to his master’s hands, one at a time, while the captain watched the road to the north.
“How far up the road?” he asked Hob.
“A little farther. We’ll cross the burn and then follow it west into the trees.”
He had the second gauntlet on, and Michael unbuckled the captain’s riding sword and took his long war sword from Toby, who was standing between them on foot, holding it out, a look of excitement on his plain face and a biscuit in his free hand.
Michael handed the shorter riding sword down to Toby, and girded him with the sword of war. Three and a half pounds of sharp steel, almost four feet long.
The weight always affected the captain—that weight at his side meant business.
He looked back, standing a little in his stirrups, feeling the increased weight of his armour.
The column had tightened up.
“How far?” he asked Hob.
“A league. Less. Not an hour’s walk.” Hob shrugged. His hands were shaking.
“Standard front, then. At my word—Walk!” called the captain. He turned to his squire. “Whistle. Not the trumpet.”
Michael understood. He had a silver whistle around his neck. Carlus, the giant trumpeter and company armourer, shrugged and fell back.
The column shifted forward, into a walk, the horses suddenly eager, ears pricked forward and heads up. The chargers quivered with excitement—the lighter ronceys ridden by the archers caught the bug from the bigger horses. Along the column, the less able riders struggled to control their mounts.
Up a long hill they went, and then back down—to a burn running fast with the water of two days’ rain. Hob led them west into the trees.
Now that they were at the edge of the Wild, the captain had time to note that the trees were still nearly bare. Buds showed here and there, but the north country was not yet in spring, and snow lay in the lee of the larger rocks.
He could see a long way in these woods.
And that meant other things could see him, especially when he was resplendent in mirror-white armour, scarlet and gilt.
He led them on for another third of a league, the column snaking along behind him, two abreast, easily negotiating the sparse undergrowth. The trees were enormous, their branches thick and long, but stretching out high above even Bad Tom’s head.
But when an inner sense said that he was courting disaster—imagine that taloned monster in among this column before we were off our horses and ready—he raised his right fist to signal a halt and then spread his arms—always good exercise, in armour—and waved them downwards, once. Dismount.
He dismounted carefully, to Grendel’s disgust. Grendel liked a fight. Liked to feel the hot squirt of blood in his mouth.
Not this time, the captain thought, and patted his destrier’s shoulder.
Toby came and took his head.
“Don’t go wandering off, young Toby,” the captain said cheerfully. “All officers.”
Michael, already off his horse and collected, blew a whistle blast. Then handed the captain a short spear with a blade as long as a grown man’s arm at one end and a sharp spike at the other.
Jehannes and Hugo and Milus walked up, their armour almost silent.
“Gelfred has the beast under observation. Less than a league away. I want a spread line, heavy on the wings, light in the loins, and every man-at-arms with an archer tight to his back.” The captain glanced about.
“The usual, then,” said Jehannes. His tone suggested that the captain should have said as much.
“The usual. Fill the thing full of arrows and get this done.” This was not the right moment to spar with Jehannes, who was his best officer, and disapproved of him nonetheless. He looked around for inspiration.
“Thick woods,” Jehannes said. “Not good for the archers.”
The captain raised his hand. “Don’t forget that Gelfred and two of our huntsmen are out there,” he said. “Don’t let’s shoot them full of arrows, too.”
The rear two-thirds of the column came forward in an orderly mob and rolled out to the north and south, forming a rough crescent two hundred ells long, in three rough ranks—knights in the front rank, squires in the middle, both men covering an archer to the rear. Some of the archers carried six-foot bows of a single stave, and some carried heavy crossbows, and a few carried eastern horn bows.
The captain looked at his skirmish line and nodded. His men really were good. He could see Sauce, off to the north, and Bad Tom beyond her. What else could they do? Be outlaws? He gave them purpose.
I like them, he thought. All of them. Even Shortnose and Wilful Murder.
He grinned, and wondered who he would be, if he had not found this.
“Let’s get this done,” he said aloud. Michael blew two sharp blasts, and they were moving.
He’d counted two hundred paces when Gelfred appeared off to his left. He waved both arms, and the captain lifted a fist, and the line shuffled to a halt. A single shaft, released by a nervous archer, rattled through the underbrush and missed the huntsman by an ell. Gelfred glared.
Milus spat. “Get his name,” he growled. “Fucking new fuck.”
Gelfred ran to the captain. “It’s big,” he said. “But not, I think, our quarry. It is—I don’t know how to describe it. It’s different. It’s bigger.” He shrugged. “I may be wrong.”
The captain weighed this. Looked into the endless trees. Stands of evergreen and alder stood denser than the big, older oaks and ashes.
He could feel it. It knew they were there.
“It’s going to charge us,” the captain said. He spoke as flatly as he could, so as not to panic his men. “Stand ready,” he called. To hell with silence.
Behind him, Michael’s breathing grew louder.
Gelfred spanned his crossbow. He wasn’t wearing armour. Once he had a bolt on the stock, he stepped into line behind Michael.
The captain reached up and lowered his visor, and it fell across his face with a loud snap.
And then his vision was narrowed to the two long slits in his faceplate, and the tiny breathing holes that also gave him his only warning of any motion coming from below. His own breath came back into his mouth, warmer than the air. The inside of the helmet was close, and he could taste his own fear.
Through the slits, the woods went on and on, although they seemed darker and stiller than before.
Even the breeze had died.
No bird song.
No insect noise.
Michael’s breathing inside his dog-faced Thuruvian helmet sounded like the bellows in a forge running full-out at a fair. His first time, the captain thought to himself.
The line was shuffling a little. Men changed their stances—the veterans all had heavy spears, or pole-axes, and they shifted their weight uneasily. The crossbowmen tried to aim. The longbowmen waited for a target before they drew. No man could hold a hundred-pound weight bow for long at the full draw.
The captain could feel their fear. He was sweating into his armingcote. When he shifted, cold air came in under his arms and his groin, but the hot sweat ran down his back. His hands were cold.
And he could feel the tension from his adversary.
Does it have nerves too? Fear? Does it think?
No birds sang.
The captain wondered if anyone was breathing.
“Wyvern!” shouted Bad Tom.
It exploded from the trees in front of the captain—taller than a war horse, the long, narrow head full of back-curved teeth, scales so dark that they appeared black, so polished they seemed to be oiled.
It was fast. The damned things always were.
Its wave of terror was a palpable thing, expanding like a soap bubble around it—the full impact of it struck the captain and washed over him to freeze Michael where he stood.
Gelfred raised his crossbow and shot.
His bolt hit something and the creature opened its maw and screeched until the woods and their ears alike rang with its anger.
The captain had time to take his guard, spear high, hands crossed, weight back on his right hip. His hands were shaking, and the heavy spearhead seemed to vibrate like a living thing.
It was coming right for him.
They always do.
He had a long heartbeat to look into its golden-yellow eyes, flecked with brown—the slitted black pupil, the sense of its alienness.
Other archers loosed. Most missed—taking panicked shots at ranges far closer than they had expected. But not all did.
It ran forward over the last few yards, its two powerful, taloned legs throwing up clods of earth as it charged the thin line of men, head low and forward, snout pointed at the captain’s chest. Wings half open, beating the air for balance.
Gelfred was already spanning his crossbow, confident that his captain would keep him alive for another few heartbeats.
The captain shifted his weight and uncrossed his hands—launching the hardest, fastest swing in his repertoire. Cutting like an axe, the spearhead slammed into the wyvern’s neck, into the soft skin just under the jaw, the cut timed so that the point stopped against the creature’s jawbone… and its charge rammed it onto the point, pushing it deeper and then through the neck.
He had less than a heartbeat to savour the accuracy of his cut. Then the captain was knocked flat by a blow from its snout, his spear lodged deep in the thing’s throat. Blood sprayed, and the fanged head forced itself down the shaft of his spear—past the cross guard, ripping itself open—to reach him. Its hate was palpable—it grew in his vision, its blood lashed him like a rain of acid, and its eyes—
The captain was frozen, his hands still on the shaft, as the jaws came for him.
But his spearhead had wide lugs at the base, for just such moments as this and the wyvern’s head caught on them, just out of reach. He had a precious moment—recovered his wits, put his head down, breaking the gaze—
—as in one last gout of blood, it broke the shaft, jaws open and lunged—
The hardened steel of his helmet took the bite. He was surrounded by the smell of the thing—carrion, cold damp earth, hot sulphur, all at once. It thrashed, hampered by the broken spear in its gullet, trying to force its jaws wider and close on his head. He could hear its back-curved teeth scrape, ear-piercingly, over his helmet.
It gave a growl to make his helmet vibrate, tried to lift him and he could feel the muscles in his neck pull. He roared with pain and held hard to the projecting stump of the shaft as the only support he had. He could hear the battle cries—loud, or shrill, depending on the man. He could hear the meaty sounds of strikes—he could feel them—as men’s weapons rained on the wyvern.
But the creature still had him. It tried to twist his head to break his neck, but its bite couldn’t penetrate the helmet for a firmer grip. Its breath was all around him, suffocating him.
He got his feet beneath him and tried to control his panic as the wyvern lifted him clean from the ground. He got his right hand on his heavy rondel dagger—a spike of steel with a grip. With a scream of fear and rage, he slammed it blindly into the thing’s head.
It spat him free and he dropped like a stone to the frozen ground. His dagger spun away, but he rolled, and got to his feet.
Drew his sword.
Cut. All before the wave of pain could strike him—he cut low to high off the draw, left to right across his body and into the joint behind the beast’s leg.
It whirled and before he could react, the tusked snout punched him off his feet. Too fast to dodge. Then threw back its head and screamed.
Bad Tom buried his pole-axe in its other shoulder.
It reared away. A mistake. With two wounded limbs, it stumbled.
The captain got his feet under him, ignored the fire in his neck and back, and stood, powering straight forward, coming at it from the side this time. It turned to flatten Bad Tom, and Jehannes, suddenly in front of it, hit it on the breastbone with a war hammer. Its face was feathered with barbs and arrows. There were more in the sinuous neck. Even as it turned and took another wound, in the moment that the head was motionless it lost an eye to a long shaft, and its body thrashed—a squire was crushed by a flick of the wyvern’s tail, his back breaking and armour folding under the weight of the blow.
Hugo crushed its ribs with a mighty, two-handed overhead blow. George Brewes stabbed it with a spear in the side and left the weapon there while he drew his sword. Lyliard cut overhand into the back of its other leg; Foliack hammered it with repeated strokes.
But it remained focused on the captain. It swatted at him with a leg, lost its balance, roared, and turned on Hugo who had just hit it again. It closed its jaws on the marshal’s head, and his helmet didn’t hold, The bite crushed his skull, killing him instantly. Sauce stepped over his headless corpse and planted her spear in its jaw, but it flung her away with a flick of the neck.
The captain leaped forward again and his sword licked out. This time, his cut took one of the thing’s wings clean off its body, as easy as a practice cut on a sapling. As the head turned and struck at him the captain stood his ground, ready to thrust for the remaining eye—but the head collapsed to the earth a yard from him, almost like a giant dog laying his head down at his master’s feet, and the baleful eye tracked him.
It whipped its head up, away from the point of the sword, reared, remaining wing spread wide and thrashing the men under it, a ragged banner of the Wild—
—and died, a dozen bolts and arrows catching it all together.
It fell across Hugo’s corpse.
The men-at-arms didn’t stop hacking at it for a long time. Jehannes severed the head, Bad Tom took one leg off at the haunch, and two squires got the other leg at the knee. Sauce rammed her long rondel into every joint, over and over. Archers continued to loose bolts and arrows into the prone mound of its corpse.
They were all covered in blood—thick, brown-green blood like the slime from the entrails of a butchered animal, hot to the touch, so corrosive that it could damage good armour if not cleaned off immediately.
“Michael?” the captain said. His head felt as if it had been pulled from his body.
The young man struggled to get his maille aventail over his head, failed, and threw up inside his helmet. But there was wyvern blood on his spear, and more on his sword.
Gelfred spanned his crossbow one more time, eyes fixed on the dead creature. Men were hugging, laughing, weeping, vomiting, or falling to their knees to pray, others merely gazed blank-eyed at the creature. The wyvern.
Already, it looked smaller.
The captain stumbled away from it, caught himself, mentally and physic-ally. His arming cote was soaked. He went instantly from fight-hot to cold. When he stooped to retrieve his dagger, he had a moment’s vertigo, and the pain from his neck muscles was so intense he wondered if he would black out.
Jehannes came up. He looked—old. “Six dead. Sweet William has his back broken and asks for you.”
The captain walked the few feet to where Sweet William, an older squire in a battered harness, lay crumpled where the tail and hindquarters had smashed him flat and crushed his breastplate. Somehow, he was alive.
“We got it, aye?” he said thickly. “Was bra’ly done? Aye?”
The captain knelt in the mire by the dying man’s head. “Bravely done, William.”
“God be praised,” Sweet William said. “It all hurts. Get it done, eh? Captain?”
The captain bent down to kiss his forehead, and put the blade of his rondel into an eye as he did, and held the man’s head until the last spasm passed, before laying his head slowly in the mire.
He was slow getting back to his feet.
Jehannes was looking to where Hugo’s corpse lay under the beast’s head. He shook his head. Looked up, and met the captain’s eye. “But we got it.”
Gelfred was intoning plainchant over the severed head. There was a brief flare of light. And then he turned, disgust written plain on his face. He spat. “Wrong one,” he said.
Jehannes spat. “Jesu shits,” he said. “There’s another one?”
North of Harndon—Ranald Lachlan
Ranald rode north with three horses—a heavy horse not much smaller than a destrier and two hackneys, the smallest not much better than a pony. He needed to make good time.
Because he needed to make good time he went hard all day and slept wherever he ended. He passed the pleasant magnificence of Lorica and her three big inns with regret, but it was just after midday and he had sun left in the sky.
He didn’t have to camp, exactly. As the last rays of the sun slanted across the fields and the river to the west, he turned down a lane and rode over damp manured fields to a small stand of trees on a ridge overlooking the road. As he approached in the last light, he smelled smoke, and then he saw the fire.
He pulled up his horses well clear of the small camp, and called out, “Hullo!”
He hadn’t seen anyone by the fire, and it was dark under the trees. But as soon as he called a man stepped from the shadows, almost by his horse’s head. Ranald put his hand on his sword hilt.
“Be easy, stranger,” said a man. An old man.
Ranald relaxed, and his horse calmed.
“I’d share my food with a man who’d share his fire,” Ranald said.
The man grunted. “I’ve plenty of food. And I came up here to get away from men, not spend the night prattling.” The old fellow laughed. “But bad cess on it—come and share my fire.”
Ranald dismounted. “Ranald Lachlan,” he said.
The old man grinned, his teeth white and surprisingly even in the last light. “Harold,” he said. “Folk around here call me Harold the Forester, though its years since I was the forester.” He slipped into the trees, leading Ranald’s packhorse.
They ate rabbit—the old man had three of them, and Ranald wasn’t so rude as to ask what warren they’d been born to. Ranald still had wine—good red wine from Galle, and the old man drank a full cup.
“Here’s to you, my good ser,” he said in a fair mockery of a gentleman’s accent. “I had many a bellyful of this red stuff when I was younger.”
Ranald lay back on his cloak. The world suddenly seemed very good to him, but he remained troubled that there were leaves piled up for two men to sleep, and that there were two blanket rolls on the edge of the fire circle, for one man. “You were a soldier, I suspect,” he said.
“Chevin year, we was all soldiers, young hillman,” Harold said. He shrugged. “But aye. I was an archer, and then a master archer. And then forester, and now—just old.” He sat back against a tree. “It’s cold for old bones. If you gave me your flask, I’d add my cider and heat it.”
Ranald handed over his flask without demur.
The man had a small copper pot. Like many older veterans Ranald had known, his equipment was beautifully kept, and he found it without effort, even in the dark—each thing was where it belonged. He stirred his fire, a small thing now the rabbit was cooked, made from pine cones and twigs, and yet he had the drink hot in no time.
Ranald had one hand on his knife. He took the horn cup that was offered him, and while he could see the man’s hands, he said “There was another man here.”
Harold didn’t flinch. “Aye,” he said.
“On the run?” Ranald asked.
“Mayhap,” said Harold. “Or just a serf who oughtn’t to be out in the greenwood. And you with your Royal Guardsman’s badge.”
Ranald was ready to move. “I want no trouble. And I offer none,” he said.
Harold relaxed visibly. “Well, he won’t come back. But I’ll see to it that the feeling is mutual. Have some more.”
Ranald lay under his cloak without taking off his boots and laid his dirk by his side. Whatever he thought about the old man, there were plenty of men who would cut another’s throat for three good horses. And he went to sleep.
Thaddeus Pyel finished mixing the powder—saltpeter and charcoal and a little sulphur. Three to two to one, according to the alchemist who made the mixture for the king.
His apprentices were all around him, bringing him tools as he demanded them—a bronze pestle for grinding charcoal fine, spoons of various sizes to measure with.
He mixed the three together, carried the mixture outside into the yard, and touched a burning wick to them.
The mixture sputtered and burned, with a sulphurous smoke.
“Like Satan cutting a fart,” muttered his son Diccon.
Master Pyel went back into his shop and mixed more. He varied the quantities carefully, but the result was always the same—a sputtering flame.
The boys were used to the master’s little ways. He had his notions, and sometimes they worked, and other times they didn’t. So they muttered in disappointment but not in surprise. It was a beautiful evening, and they went up on the workshop roof and drank small beer. Young Edward, the shop boy and an apprentice coming up on his journeyman qualification, stared at the rising moon and tried to imagine exactly what the burning powder did.
In all his imagings it was something to do with a weapon, because at the sign of the broken circle, that’s what they did. They made weapons.
Albinkirk—Ser John Crayford
Ser John was taking exercise. Age and weight had not prevented him from swinging his sword at his pell—or at the other four men-at-arms who were still willing enough to join him.
Since the young sprig had ridden through with his beautifully armed company, the Captain of Albinkirk had been at the pell three times. His back hurt. His wrists hurt. His hands burned.
Master Clarkson, his youngest and best man-at-arms, backed out of range and raised his sword. “Well cut, Ser John,” he said.
Ser John grinned, but only inside his visor where it wouldn’t show. Just in that moment, all younger men were the enemy.
“Ser John, there’s a pair of farmers to see you.” It was the duty sergeant. Tom Lickspittle, Ser John called him, if only inside his visor. The man couldn’t seem to do anything well except curry favour.
“I’ll see them when I’m done here, Sergeant.” Ser John was trying to control his breathing.
“I think you’ll want to—to see them now.” That was new. Lickspittle Tom never questioned orders. The man gulped. “My lord.”
That makes this some sort of emergency.
Ser John walked over to his latest squire, young Harold, and got his visor lifted and his helmet removed. He was suddenly ashamed of his armour—brown on many surfaces, or at least the mail was. His cote armour was covered in what had once been good velvet. How long ago had that been?
“Clean that mail,” he said to Harold. The boy winced, which suited Ser John’s mood well. “Clean the helmet, and find me an armourer. I want this recovered in new cloth.”
“Yes, Ser John.” The boy didn’t meet his eye. Lugging armour around the Lower Town would be no easy task.
Ser John got his gauntlets off and walked across the courtyard to the guard room. There were two men—prosperous men; wool cotes, proper hose; one in all the greys of local wool, one in a dark red cote.
“Gentlemen?” he asked. “Pardon my armour.”
The man in the dark red cote stood forward. “Ser John? I’m Will Flodden and this is my cousin John. We have farms on the Lissen Carak road.”
Ser John relaxed. This was not a complaint about one of his garrison soldiers.
“Go on,” he said, cheerfully.
“I kilt an irk, m’lord,” said the one called John. His voice shook when he said it.
Ser John had been a number of places. He knew men, and he knew the Wild. “Really?” he said. He doubted it, instinctively.
“Aye,” said the farmer. He was defensive, and he looked at his cousin for support. “There was tre of ’em. Crossing my fields.” He hugged himself. “An’ one loosed at me. I ran for ta’ house, an’ picked up me latchet and let fly. An’ tey ran.”
Ser John sat a little too suddenly. Age and armour were not a good mix.
Will Flodden sighed. “Just show it to him.” He seemed impatient—a farmer who wanted to get back to his farm.
Before he even undid the string securing the sack, Ser John knew what he was going to see. But it all seemed to take a long time. The string unwinding, the upending of the sack. The thing in the sack had stuck to the coarse fabric.
For as long as it took, he could tell himself that the man was wrong. He’d killed an animal. A boar with an odd head, or some such.
But twenty years before Ser John had stood his ground with thousands of other men against a charge of ten thousand irks. He remembered it too damned well.
“Jesus wept. Christe and the Virgin stand with us,” he said.
It was an irk, its handsome head somehow smaller and made ghastly having been severed from its sinuous body.
“Where, exactly?” he demanded. And turning, he ignored Tom Lickspittle, who was a useless tit in a crisis. “Clarkson! Sound the alarm and get me the mayor.”
Lissen Carak—The Red Knight
Patience had never been the captain’s greatest virtue, and he paced the great hall of the convent, up and back, up and back, his anger ebbing and flowing as he gained and lost control of himself. He suspected that the Abbess was keeping him waiting on purpose; he understood her motives, he read her desire to humble him and keep him off guard; and despite knowing that he was angry, and thus off guard.
Gradually, frustration gave way to boredom.
He had time to note that the stained glass of the windows in the clerestory had missing panels—some replaced in clear glass, and some in horn, and one in weathered bronze. The bright sunlight outside, the first true sign of spring, made the rich reds and blues of the glass glow, but the missing panes were cast into sharp contrast—the horn was too dull, the clear glass too bright, the metal almost black and sinister.
He stared at the window depicting the convent’s patron saint, Thomas, and his martyrdom, for some time.
And then boredom and annoyance broke his meditation and he began to pace again.
His second bout of boredom was lightened by the arrival of two nuns in the grey habit of the order, but they had their kirtles on, open at the neck and with their sleeves rolled up. Both had heavy gloves on, tanned faces, and they bore an eagle on a perch between them.
Both of them bowed politely to the captain and left him with the bird.
The captain waited until they were clear of the hall and then walked over to the bird, a dark golden brown with the dusting of lighter colour that marked a fully mature bird.
“Maybe a little too fully mature, eh, old boy?” he said to the bird, who turned his hooded head to the sound of the voice, opened his beak, and said “Raawwk!” in a voice loud enough to command armies.
The bird’s jesses were absolutely plain where the captain, who had been brought up with rich and valuable birds, would have expected to see embroidery and gold leaf. This was a Ferlander Eagle, a bird worth—
—worth the whole value of the captain’s white harness, which was worth quite a bit.
The eagle was the size of his entire upper body, larger than any bird his father—the captain sneered internally at the thought of the man—had ever owned.
“Raaaawk!” the bird screamed.
The captain crossed his arms. Only a fool released someone else’s bird—especially when that bird was big enough to eat the fool—but his fingers itched to handle it, to feel its weight on his fist. Could he even fly such a bird?
Is this another of her little games?
After another interval of waiting, he couldn’t stand it any more. He pulled on his chamois gloves and brushed the back of his hand against the talons of the bird’s feet. It stepped obligingly onto his wrist and it weighed as much as a pole-axe. More. His arm sank, and it was an effort to raise the bird back to eye level and place it back on its perch.
When it had one foot secure on the deerskin-padded perch, it turned its hooded head to him, as if seeing him clearly, and closed its left foot, sinking three talons into his left arm.
Even as he gasped, it stepped up onto its perch and turned to face him.
“Rawwwwwwwk,” it said with obvious satisfaction.
Blood dripped over his gauntlet cuff.
He looked at the bird. “Bastard,” he said. And he went back to pacing, albeit he now cradled his left arm in his right for twenty trips up and down the hall.
His third bout of boredom was broken by the books. He’d given them only a cursory glance on his first visit, and had dismissed them. They displayed the usual remarkable craftsmanship, superb calligraphy, painted scenes, gilt work everywhere. Worse, both volumes were collections of the Lives of the Saints, a subject in which the captain had no interest whatsoever. But boredom drove him to look at them.
The leftmost work, beneath the window of Saint Maurice, was well-executed, the paintings of Saint Katherine vivid and rich. He chuckled to wonder what lovely model had stood in a monk’s mind, or perhaps a nun’s, as the artist lovingly re-created the contours of flesh. Saint Katherine’s face did not show torment, but a kind of rapture—
He laughed and passed to the second book, pondering the lives of the devout.
What struck him first was the poor quality of the Archaic. The art was beautiful—the title page had a capital where the artist was presented, sitting on a high stool, working away with a gilding brush. The work was so precise that the reader could see that the artist was working on the very title page, presented again in microcosm.
The captain breathed deeply in appreciation of the work, and the humour of it. And then he began to read.
He turned the page. He imagined what his beloved Prudentia would have said about the barbaric nature of the writer’s Archaic. He could all but see the old nun wagging her finger in his mother’s solar.
Shook his head.
The door to the Abbess’s private apartments opened and the priest, hurried past, hands clasped together and face set. He looked furious.
Behind him, the Abbess gave a low laugh, almost a snort. “I thought you’d find our book,” she said. She looked at him fondly. “And my Parcival.” She indicated the bird.
“I can’t see how such a brutally bad transcription merited the quality of artist,” he said, turning another page. “If that’s your bird, you are braver than I thought.”
“Am I?” she asked. “I’ve had him for many years.” She looked fondly at the bird, who bated on his perch. “Can you not see why the book is so well wrought?” she asked with a smile that told him that there was a secret to it. “You do know that we have a library, Captain? I believe that our hospitality might extend as far as allowing you to use it. We have more than fifty volumes.”
He bowed. “Would I shock you if I said that the Lives of the Saints held little interest for me?”
She shrugged. “Posture away, little atheist. My gentle Jesu loves you all the same.” She gave him a wry smile. “I am sorry—I would love to spar with you all morning, but I have a crisis in my house. May we to business?” She waved him to a stool. “Still in armour,” she said.
“We are still on the hunt,” he said, crossing his legs.
“But you killed the monster. Don’t think we are not grateful. In fact, I regret taking the tone I did, especially as you lost a man of great worth, and since you were so very effective.” She shrugged. “And you have done your work before the new month—and before my fair opens.”
He made a sour face. “My lady, I would like to deserve your esteem, and few things would give me greater pleasure than to hear you apologise.” He shrugged. “But I am not here to spar, either. Unworthily, I assumed you kept me cooling my heels to teach me humility.”
She looked at her hands. “You could use some, young man, but unfortunately, I have other issues before me this day or I would be happy to teach you some manners. Now, why do you say you do not deserve my regard?”
“We have killed a monster,” he acknowledged. “But not the one that killed Sister Hawisia.”
She jutted out her jaw—a tic he hadn’t seen before. “I must assume that you have ways to know this. You must pardon me if I am sceptical. We have two monsters? I remember your saying the enemy seldom hunts alone this far from the Wild—but surely, Captain, you know that we are not as far from the Wild as we once were.”
He wished for a chair with a back. He wished that Hugo were alive, and he hadn’t been saddled with internal issues of discipline that should have been Hugo’s. “May I have a glass of wine?” he asked.
The Abbess had a stick, and she thumped it on the floor. Amicia entered, eyes downcast. The Abbess smiled at her. “Wine for the captain, dear. And do not raise your eyes, if you please. Good girl.”
Amicia slipped out the door again.
“My huntsman is a Hermetic,” he said. “With a licence from the Bishop of Lorica.”
She waved a hand. “The orthodoxy of Hermeticism is beyond my poor intellect. Do you know, when I was a girl, we were forbidden to use High Archaic for any learning beyond the Lives of the Saints. I was punished by my chaplain as a girl for reading some words on a tomb in my father’s castle.” She sighed. “You read the Archaic, then,” she said.
“High and low,” he answered.
“I thought as much… and there cannot be so many knights in the Demesne who can read High Archaic.” She made a motion with her head, as if shaking off fatigue. Amicia returned, brought the captain wine and backed away from him without ever raising her eyes—a very graceful performance.
She wore that curious expression again. The one he couldn’t read—it held both anger and amusement, patience and frustration, all in one corner of her mouth.
The Abbess had taken Parcival the eagle on her wrist, and she was stroking his plumage and cooing at him. While the arm of her throne-like chair helped support the great raptor, the captain was impressed by her strength. She must be sixty, he thought.
There was something about the Abbess—the Abbess and Amicia. It was not a similarity of breeding—two more different women could not be imagined, the older woman with an elfin beauty and slim bones, the younger taller, heavier boned, with strong hands and broad shoulders.
He was still staring at Amicia when the Abbess’s staff thumped the floor.
The word hermetic rolled around the captain’s busy brain, and curled itself in the corner of Amicia’s mouth. But the staff took his attention.
“Assuming I believe you—what does your huntsman say?” the Abbess demanded.
The captain sighed. “That we got the wrong one. My lady, no one but a great Magus or a mountebank can tell us why the enemy acts as they do. Perhaps one of them is calling to others for reinforcements. Perhaps you have a nest of them. But Gelfred assures me that the signs left by Sister Hawisia’s killer are not the same as those of the beast we slew and my men—all of them—are exhausted. It will take them a day to recover. They’ve lost a gallant leader, a man they all respected, so I am sorry, but we will not be very aggressive for a few days.” He shrugged.
She looked at him for a long time, and finally crossed her hands on the top of her staff and laid her long chin on them. “You think I do not understand,” she said. She shrugged. “I do. I do not believe you seek to cheat me.”
He didn’t know what to make of that.
“Let me tell you my immediate concerns,” she said. “My fair opens in a week. The first week of the fair is merely local produce and prizes. Then the Harndon merchants come upriver in the second week to buy our surplus grain and our wool. But in the second and third weeks of the fair, the drovers come down from the moors. That is when the business is done, and that’s when I need my bridge and my people to be safe. You know why there is a fortress here?” she asked.
He smiled. “Of course,” he said. “The fortress is merely to guarantee the bridge.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “And I have been lax in letting my garrison drop—but if you will pardon an old woman’s honesty, soldiers and nuns are not natural friends. Yet these attacks—I hold this land by knight service and garrison service, and I do not have enough men. The king will send a knight to dispense justice at the fair and I dread his discovering how my penny-pinching ways have put these lands at risk.”
“You need me for more than just monster-hunting,” he said.
“I do. I would like to purchase your contract for the summer, and I wonder if you have a dozen men-at-arms—archers, even—who could stay when you go. Perhaps men you’d otherwise pension off, or men who’ve been wounded.” She shrugged. “I don’t even know how to find a new garrison. Albinkirk used to be a fine town—and a place where such men could be found—but not anymore.” She took a deep breath.
He nodded. “I will consider it. I will not pretend, since we are being honest with each other, that my company does not need a steady contract. I would like to recruit, too. I need men.” He thought a moment. “Would you want women?”
“Women?” asked the Abbess.
“I have women—archers, men-at-arms.” He smiled at her chagrin. “It’s not so uncommon as it once was. It is almost accepted over the sea, on the Continent.”
She shook her head. “I think not. What kind of women would they be? Slatterns and whores taught to fight? Scarcely fit companions for women of religion.”
“You have a good point, my lady. I’m sure they are far less fit as companions then the sort of men who are attracted to a mercenary company.” He leaned back, stretching his legs to ease the pressure on his lower back.
Their eyes met, sharp as two blades crossed.
She shrugged. “We are not adversaries. Rest if you must. Consider my offer. Do you need a service for the dead?”
For the first time, he allowed himself to feel warmth for the lady Abbess. “That would be greatly appreciated.”
“Not all your men reject God as you do?” she said.
“Much the opposite.” He rose to his feet. “Soldiers are as inclined to nostalgic irrationality as any other group—perhaps more so.” He winced. “I’m sorry my lady, that was rude, in response to your very kind offer. We have no chaplain. Ser Hugo was a gentleman of good family who died in his faith, whatever you may think of me. A service for the dead would be very kind of you, and would probably do much to keep my people in order—ahem.” He shook his head. “I appreciate your offer.”
“You are really quite sweet in your well-mannered confusion,” she said, also rising. “We will get along well enough, Ser Captain. And you will, I hope, forgive me if I counter your blatant lack of respect for my religion with an attempt to convert you to it. Whatever has been done to you, it was not Jesu who did it, but the hand of man.”
He bowed. “That’s just where you are wrong, my lady.” He reached for her hand, which she offered, to kiss—but the imp in him could not be stopped, and so he turned it over and kissed her palm like a lover.
“Such a little boy,” she said, but she was clearly both pleased and amused. “A rather wicked boy. Service tonight, I think, in the chapel.”
“You will allow my company into the fortress?” he asked.
“Since I intend to employ you as my garrison,” she replied, “I will, in time, have to trust you inside the walls.”
“This is a sharp change of direction, my lady Abbess,” he said.
She nodded and swept towards the inner door to the convent. “Yes it is,” she said. She gave him a very straight-backed courtesy. “I know things, now.”
He stopped her with his hand. “You said the Wild is closer now. I’ve been away. Closer how?”
She released a breath. “We have twenty farms which we have taken from the trees. There are more families here than when I was first a novice—more families. And yet. When I was young, nobles hunted the Wild in the mountains—expeditions into the Adacrags were a knight errant’s dream. The convent used to host them in our guest house.” She glanced out the window. “The border with the Wild used to be fifty leagues or more to the north and the west of us, and while the forest was deep, trustworthy men lived there.” She met his eyes. “Now, my fortress is the border, as it was in my grandfather’s time.”
He shook his head. “The wall is two hundred leagues north of here. And as far west.”
She shrugged. “The Wild is not. The king was going to push the Wild back to the wall,” she said wearily. “But I gather his young wife takes all his time.”
He smiled. And changed the subject. “Tell me what the book is?” he asked.
She smiled. “You will enjoy puzzling it out for yourself,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to deny you that pleasure.”
“You are a wicked old woman,” he said.
“Ah,” she smiled. “You are beginning to know me, messire.” She smiled, all flirtation, and then paused. “Captain, I have decided to tell you something,” she said. She wasn’t hestitant. She was merely careful. “About Sister Hawisia.”
He didn’t move.
“She told me that we had a traitor in our midst. And that she would unmask him. I was supposed to be at the farm that day. She insisted on going in my place.” The Abbess looked away. “I’m afraid that monster was meant for me.”
“Or your brave sister unmasked the traitor and he killed her for it. Or he already knew she intended to unmask him, and set a trap.” The captain hadn’t shaved in days, and he scratched absently under his chin. “Who knows of your movements and decisions, my lady?”
She sat back. Her staff smacked against the floor in real agitation. Their eyes met.
“I am on your side,” he said.
She was fighting tears. “They are my people,” she said. She bit her lip and gave her head a shake that moved the fine linen folds of her wimple. “Bah—I am not a schoolgirl. I will have to think, and perhaps look at my notes. Sister Miram is my vicar, and I trust her absolutely. Father Henry attends me at most hours. Sister Miram has access to everything in the fortress and knows most of my thoughts. John le Bailli is my factor in the villages and the king’s officer for the Senechally. I will arrange that you meet them all.”
“And Amicia,” the captain said quietly.
“Yes. She attends me at most hours.” The Abbess’s eyes locked with the captain’s. “She and Hawisia were not friends.”
“Why not?” asked the knight.
“Hawisia was gently born, nobly born. She had great power.” The Abbess looked out the window, and her bird bated slightly at her movement.
“Put him back on his perch, please?” she asked.
The knight collected the great bird on his fist and transferred his great weight to the perch. “Surely he is a royal bird?”
“I had a royal friend, once,” said the Abbess, with a curl of her lips.
“And Amicia is not gently born?” the Red Knight prodded.
The Abbess met his glance and rose. “I will leave you to make such enquiries yourself,” she said. “I find that I am uninterested in gossiping about my people.”
“I have angered you,” said the knight.
“Messire, creatures of the Wild are killing my people, one of them is a traitor and I have to hire sell-swords to protect me. Today everything angers me.”
She opened the door, and he had a glimpse of Amicia, and then the door closed behind her.
Given an unexpected moment of freedom, he walked to the book. It stood under a window of Saint John the Baptist so he began to turn the pages, looking for the saint’s story.
The Archaic was painful, stilted, ill-phrased, as if a schoolgirl had translated the Archaic to Gothic and then back, making grievous errors in both directions.
The calligraphy was inhuman in its perfection. In ten pages, he could not find a pen error. Who would labour so over such a bad book?
The secret of the book merged in his mind with the secret that hid in the corner of Alicia’s downturned mouth, and he began to look more carefully at the lavish illuminations.
Facing the tale of Saint Paternus was a complex illustration of the saint himself, in robes of red, white and gold. His robes were richly embellished, and in one hand he held a cross.
In the other hand he held an alembic instead of an orb, and inside the alembic were minute figures of a man and a woman…
The captain looked back to the Archaic, trying to find the trace of a reference—was it heresy?
He stood up, releasing the vellum cover. Heresy is none of my concern, he thought. Besides—whatever that smug old woman was, she was no secret heretic. He walked slowly across the hall, his sabatons clinking faintly as he walked, and his mind still on the problem of the book. She was right, damn her, he thought.
Heading North—A Golden Bear
The mother bear swam until she could no longer swim, and then she lay up all day, cold to the bone and weary from blood loss and despair. Her cub sniffed at her and demanded food, and she forced herself to move to find some. She killed a sheep in a field and they fed on it; then she found a line of bee-hives at the edge of another field and they ate their way through the whole colony, eight hives, until both bears were sticky and drunk on sugar. She licked raw honey into the wounds the sword had made. Men were born without talons, but the claws they forged for themselves were deadlier than anything the Wild might give them.
She sang for her daughter, and called her name.
And her cub mewed like an animal.
When Lily was stronger, they went north again. That night, she smelled the pus in her wounds. She licked it and it tasted bad.
She tried to think of happier days—of her mate, Russet, and her mother’s den in the distant mountains. But her slavery had gone on too long, and something was dimmed in her.
She wondered if her wound was mortal. If the warrior man had poisoned his claw.
They lay up another day and she caught fish, no kind she recognised, but something that tasted a little of salt. She knew that the great Ocean was salted, perhaps the river had a spring run of sea fish.
They were easy to catch, even for a wounded bear.
There were more hives at a field edge, whose outraged human guard lofted arrows at them from his stone croft. None of them struck home, and they slipped away.
She had no idea where she was, but her spirit said to go north. And the river flowed from her home, she could taste the icy spring run off. So she kept moving north.
The Great North Road—Gerald Random
Gerald Random, Merchant Adventurer of Harndon, looked back along the line of his wagons with the satisfaction of the captain for his company, or the Abbot for his monks. He’d mustered twenty-two wagons of his own, all in his livery colours, red and white, their man-high wheels carefully painted with red rims and white spokes; the sides of every wagon white with red trim, and scenes from the Passion of the Christ decorating every side panel, all the work of his very talented brother-in-law. It was good advertising, good religion, and it guaranteed that his carters would always form his convoy in order—every man, whether they could not read or figure or not, knew that the God Jesu was scourged by knights in their guard room, and then had to carry his own cross to Golgotha.
He had sixty good men, mostly drapers’ and weavers’ men, but a pair of journeymen goldsmiths and a dozen cutlers, and some bladesmiths and blacksmiths, a handful of mercers and grocers too, all armed and well armoured like the prosperous men they were. And he had ten professional soldiers he’d engaged himself, acting as his own captain—good men, every one of them with a King’s Warrant that he had borne arms in the king’s service.
Gerald Random had such a warrant himself. He’d served in the north, fighting the Wild. And now he was leading a rich convoy to the great market fair of Lissen Carak as the commander, the principle investor, and the owner of most of the wagons.
His should be the largest convoy on the road and the best display at the fair.
His wife Angela laid a long white hand on his arm. “You find your wagons more beautiful than you find me,” she said. He wished that she might say it with more humour, but at least there was humour.
Excerpted from The Red Knight by Miles Cameron Copyright © 2013 by Miles Cameron. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
All this book needs is more conflict between the characters. It's all too straight forward. Great story, good dialogue between characters, but all of them seem to get along. The story moves at a good pace, the plot grows with the pages. Waiting for the second.
I'm very happy to report I just found a new favorite author to go with my short list of tried and true favorites. 'The Red Knight' has a well developed and believable plot with several entangled sub plots, a company of likeable characters as well as the required detestable and nasty monsters/villains. Believable and gritty battle scenes with some well handled love interests to add some spice without turning into soft core porn. I'm eagerly looking forward to the second novel of this series and recommend the book to anyone who enjoys a good read!
Enjoyed this very much. Imaginative and entertaining. I became invested in the characters and their world. Looking forward to the rest of the series!
While I really enjoyed the characters and the plot, very frequently there would be spelling, grammatical and continuity errors in names, and how certain mechanics of the world work. For those of you just getting into the series, this is probably the best edited of the 3 currently out, with the quality of editing sharply deteriorating over the 3 books. Hell, a minor character who appears in all 3 books has had his name spelled slightly different in all 3 books, and this is not an entirely uncommon occurance. I give this one a 3 star because it does have a fairly memorable cast of characters, a somewhat new twist to how magic works, and an overall enjoyable story. This entire series would be so much better with a quality editor.
The premise sounded interesting, so I thought I would give it a try. I really, really liked the book. The characters were varied and interesting. The plot was well-paced and there were several surprises along the way. I enjoyed this book so much, I plan to pre-order the sequel. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who enjoys fantasy/adventure.
A really good read
Really good book if you like battles and magic. Slow going at first and then the author hooks you in and you can't easily put the book down!
Mr. Cameron lives the life. Authentic. I love learning new things and words. I hated waiting for the second book.
This was really a great book it brought be back to early D&D games where you just rolled around trying to protect the town from monsters attacking it. It has a very similar feel but with a lot of character. All of the characters had a good depth to them which really made the book that much better when reading. The story line was not over the top and was well played out all in all a good read.
Wonderful read...complex, exciting, & leaves you wanting more
I tired on tracking all the Medieval characters speaking current slang. Lots of single syllable words in long sentences does not convey intensity, only poor editing.
The five star review I thought I was giving to Blood Song somehow got posted here instead. I haven't read this yet but am looking forward to it.
Great story, waiting on the next installment.
Loved this book! A great read and I will be adding it to my collection of books that I read more than once! I recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction and fantasy reading.
Okay that headline is slightly misleading as there are many "heroic" characters, but they are more anti-hero than anything else. The main characters (and there are many) are not nice people. They are murderers, thugs, abusers and very, very ambitious. I didn't enjoy reading the book and set it aside several times while trying to read it.
On par with Rothfuss, Sanderson, and Weeks. Absolute Magic!