Authors: Raymond E. Feist,Joel Rosenberg
Tags: #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction
‘So what do we do?’
‘The obvious: we try to keep Baron Morray from falling off his horse and breaking his neck while we’re on patrol, or falling down the stairs and breaking his neck when we’re at Morray and Mondegreen. We get him back to LaMut intact and breathing, and hope to be relieved of this duty there. If somebody tries to kill him, we stop them; if we can’t, we be sure to capture at least one assassin alive, and make sure he is able to tell who paid him, which won’t have been us.’
‘And if we can’t?’
Pirojil just frowned at him. That was obvious. ‘We kill everybody within reach, grab their horses and anything of value they have on them, and then we see if we can outrace the price on our heads.’
‘And what do you think are our chances of that?’
‘–on a good day.’ Pirojil arched an eyebrow. ‘If you have a better alternative, don’t sit on it–trot it out and let’s talk about it.’
Durine shook his head. ‘No. I’ve no better idea, and that’s a fact.’
‘Then we go with–’
,’ sounded from below. Tom Garnett’s voice carried well. ‘
We’re wasting daylight.
‘We’d better get down before they leave without us,’ Pirojil said.
‘Yes, I suppose so.’ Durine nodded, and his massive brow wrinkled. ‘But I see what you mean. Very clever of the Swordmaster, eh?’
‘I mean, if somebody does manage to kill Baron Morray out here, or if he does have a fatal accident, wouldn’t the Swordmaster know that we’d be blamed and would have to run for it?’
‘So he wins either way.’
Pirojil had to nod. The Swordmaster would win, either way, at that. A dead baron wasn’t an insuperable problem–the war had been almost as lethal for the nobility as it had been for the common soldier–but feuding barons getting the idea that assassination was acceptable was another thing altogether. Much better to blame the three freebooters, who had had no connection with any nobility faction. Someone would make it obvious they had just decided to kill and rob the Baron themselves–and whether Pirojil, Kethol and Durine were killed, captured, or escaped was immaterial; that’s what the official story would be.
Maybe Durine wasn’t really so stupid after all.
The Swordmaster surely wasn’t.
They were only an hour south of Mondegreen when the Tsurani attacked.
There was no warning, at least none that Durine noticed, not even in retrospect. Neither Kethol nor Pirojil had any, or they would have given a signal.
One moment the company was riding, in two ragged columns, down a farming road, a frozen, fallow field of hay on each side, and the next moment, dozens of black-and-orange-armoured soldiers were swarming out of the ditch where they had lain, hidden beneath a layer of hay.
Durine spurred his horse into the soldier who, broadsword in his hands, was making for Morray. The horse ploughed into the Tsurani, knocking him down, while Durine leapt to the ground on the far side.
That was the trouble with being mounted. You were too dependent on the movements of the horse, and with anything but a superbly trained warhorse under you that was hopeless. Durine needed solid ground beneath his boots if he was going to stay and fight, and he
going to stay and fight.
He leapt back to avoid a wild swing from another Tsurani swordsman, then lunged forwards, kicking at his deceptively fragile-looking breastplate while hacking down at another opponent.
There were shouts and screams of pain all around him, but Baron Morray was still on his horse, and Durine slapped the flank of the mare with the flat of his blade, sending the animal galloping down the road with the Baron clinging desperately, towards where Kethol and Pirojil were still mounted.
It was always tempting to underrate the locals–a professional mercenary, if he lived, survived far more fighting than all but the most seasoned Eastern soldiers, and far more than Westerners–but Tom Garnett was no green captain, eager to fall into a Tsurani trap: he was already leading the front of the column out onto the field, attempting to outflank the attackers quickly, and not simply galloping into the secondary ambush that almost certainly waited for the company down the road.
Durine found himself awash in a sea of orange-trimmed black armour. He lashed out with feet, sword, and his free fist, hoping to clear enough space to make his own escape before he was drowned in Tsurani.
He more felt than saw or heard Pirojil at his back, and moments later, Pirojil was joined by half a dozen lancers, who had apparently circled around to strike at the Tsurani from the rear.
One horseman impaled a screaming Tsurani on his lance, lifting him up and off the ground for a moment, until his lance snapped with a loud crack. Flailing wildly with the broken haft of his lance, the Mut managed to club several of them away before one leapt upon him from behind and bore him down to the ground.
Durine would have tried to go to his aid, but he was busy with two of the Tsurani himself. He kicked one towards where Pirojil had dismounted–Pirojil had just dispatched his latest opponent, and could handle an off-balance soldier easily–then he ducked under the wild swing of another Tsurani’s two-handed black sword, and slashed in and up, into and through the smaller man’s throat.
Blood fountained, as though he had pulled the bung out of a hogshead of crimson wine.
The look in the eyes of a man you were killing was always the same.
This can’t be happening to me
, it said, in any language.
. Durine had often seen that expression on the face of a man who was facing the imminence of becoming a thing, and he didn’t need to see it again; he kicked the dying man away.
Three Tsurani hacked at the legs of a big grey horse, sending horse and rider tumbling to the ground as the animal screamed in that strange, high-pitched horsy shriek that you never could get used to. But one of them miscalculated: as the horse fell, it fell on the Tsurani, crushing him in his black armour with a sodden series of snapping sounds.
It was all Durine could do not to laugh.
The Tsurani were, as always, determined and capable warriors, but they were outnumbered, and lying for hours in ambush in the bitter cold had slowed them down: it was only a matter of a few minutes until most of them lay on the ground, dead and dying.
The screams were horrible to hear.
Durine half-squatted, panting for breath. No matter how long you had been doing this, it still always took something out of you.
One of the Tsurani on the ground near Durine was still shrieking loudly. A wound to his groin that still oozed fresh, steaming blood onto the frozen ground. Durine straightened himself and walked over, then hacked down, once, at the back of the Tsurani’s neck. The man twitched once, and was still, save for the flatulent sound as he fouled himself in his death.
Sudden death was rarely dignified.
‘Wait.’ Tom Garnett dismounted from his horse and braced Durine. ‘We take prisoners when we can. That man could have been one of the slaves that the Tsurani keep, and be of no danger to us at all.’
Durine didn’t answer.
‘Well, man, did you hear me?’
‘Excuse me.’ Pirojil stepped between them. ‘I think you might want to see something, Captain,’ he said, kneeling over the dead man and turning him on his back. The Tsurani’s head flopped loosely where it was still attached to the body.
Pirojil stood, toeing away a dagger from the Tsurani’s hand. He waved at the dead Tsurani and said, ‘Perhaps, Captain, you would not have wanted to have your last thought to be that your mercy had been misplaced.’
Durine hadn’t seen any dagger, and it wouldn’t have mattered. The Tsurani was dying, anyway, and it hardly made any difference whether he went on his way now, or in a few minutes. At least this way his screams wouldn’t aggravate Durine’s headache.
They would be bad enough to face in his dreams.
The regulars had two sullen Tsurani prisoners, their hands tightly bound and then leashed by the neck, under the care of a pair of lancers, although that was hardly necessary, as they weren’t struggling. Captured Tsurani were either utterly intractable, and you eventually had to kill them, no matter how many times you beat them bloody, or how well you treated them while they were chained heavily enough to control them–or utterly tame. One of the locals had tried to explain to Durine that this was something to do with Tsurani honour: if captured, they assumed the gods cursed them or some nonsense like that; but Durine knew that once they gave up, they seemed resigned to spend the rest of their lives as slaves. Durine didn’t understand, and he didn’t particularly want to; where to put a sword in one was about all he needed to know. Though he did recall one of the Muts telling him the black-and-orange ones were called Minwanabi, and they were a particularly tough and evil bunch of bastards. Durine shrugged and walked away. He didn’t plan on staying in the north long enough to discover what the other tribes were named or how evil they were. All Tsurani seemed tough enough.
The two tame ones were the only survivors among the Tsurani, though. Easily two dozen of the enemy lay dead on the ground, accompanied in death by four Muts and two horses. One soldier wept as he knelt over his horse, feeling at its neck to be sure that its heart had stopped beating.
Silly man. Getting so attached to something made of meat. Meat died and spoiled.
Lady Mondegreen and Baron Morray sat on their horses, overlooking the scene. Baron Morray’s handsome face was impassive, if a little pale, but the lady’s complexion was almost green, and she was distracted enough to wipe a trickle of vomit from the corner of her mouth with her sleeve instead of her handkerchief.
‘I’ve…I’ve never seen a battle before,’ she said, quietly.
‘Battle?’ Baron Morray shook his head. ‘This was barely a skirmish.’
‘What are they going to do with them?’ she asked.
‘Leave it to the landholder,’ he said. ‘It will be his responsibility.’
Durine nodded. Just as well it wasn’t Durine’s job to break the frozen soil and bury the bodies; that would be long and hard work, but it was somebody else’s problem–disposing of the corpses would be for the local landholder or franklins to do, depending on whose field this was. The Mut soldiers would be wrapped in blankets and carried along to be given a proper cremation at Mondegreen. The Tsurani would probably end up fertilizing the fields.
It was all dirty work, certainly, but if the locals got to the scene quickly enough–and they would–there would be a couple of hundredweight of fresh horsemeat as payment for their work. An ignominious thing, perhaps, for a trusty mount to end up in a peasant stew, but that was the way of it.
Tom Garnett remounted his horse. ‘I’ve got half the company chasing after the archers who lay in ambush, and I’m going to have to take the rest out after those who ran away here. We’ve got to run these dastards to ground before dark, or they’ll be breaking into cottages and killing bondsmen. They’re no military threat, not now, but…’
Durine nodded. ‘But you still don’t want them killing your people.’
That was the problem when dealing with an enemy so far behind his own lines. Retreat wasn’t a practical option.
Durine didn’t know much about what was and wasn’t a military threat, but a scared man with a black blade almost as long as he was tall was the sort of thing he wouldn’t have wanted to encounter unawares.
It apparently took Kethol a moment before he realized that the Captain had been talking to him.
‘Yes, sir,’ he said at last.
Tom Garnett indicated the two nobles and their coteries, huddling together further down the road. ‘You three and a squad under Sergeant Henders will bring the civilians on to Mondegreen, and the rest of us shall meet you there.’
Kethol made a sketchy salute with his blade.
Pirojil halted his horse. He paused to let the column catch up to him before kicking it into a walk next to the grizzled lancer sergeant.
‘There’s no need for outriders, Sergeant,’ Pirojil said. ‘I’d just as soon we keep everybody together.’
‘That’s very interesting, freebooter,’ Sergeant Henders replied, his frown and tone in sarcastic counterpoint to his even words. ‘I’ll tell you again, I am always so very glad to have another opinion as to how I should run my squad.’ He raised himself in the saddle. ‘Hey,
’ he shouted. ‘Yes, Sanderson, I mean you, you poxy son of a misbegotten cur. You and Scrupple take the point!’ Then he turned to shout at another pair of riders. ‘Williams! Bellows! You two are up as flankers–smartly now, or we’ll see if you can run ahead faster without your horses. I said
!’ He turned back to Pirojil. ‘Always happy to have advice, Pirojil, and particularly from a man as well-favoured as your good self,’ he said, the sneer only at the edges of his mouth and voice. ‘But I’d just as soon know if we’re facing another ambush.’
‘We’re not going to see another ambush between here and Mondegreen,’ Pirojil said. ‘Maybe a straggler or two, but more likely they’ll be too busy running away.’
‘If you say so,’ the sergeant said, making no motion to recall the outriders.
Pirojil bit his lip, then decided to try again. ‘Look, Sergeant, if there were more Tsurani within tens of miles of here, their commander would surely have used all of them for the ambush. The Tsurani commanders aren’t stupid; they’re just greedy. As it was, he split his forces too small, hoping the attack would drive the column into a killing zone for his archers.’
‘I thank you much for that opinion, Pirojil,’ the sergeant said. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a squad to run. Shouldn’t you be off counting your high pay or wiping Baron Morray’s backside or something useful?’
Pirojil shook his head. There was no point in trying. It was impossible to convince somebody who wouldn’t be convinced, and while the three of them were in charge of the nobles, they hadn’t been explicitly left in charge of the party, or even of the sergeant’s squad. Now instead of having one rider away from the column, they had four, just because a sergeant got irritated at getting some good advice.
Tom Garnett should have been more direct and simply put the party under Kethol’s command. The three mercenaries had understood that he had
for them to be in charge, but the sergeant didn’t, or affected not to. Pirojil could either live with that, or fight it out, with him, Kethol and Durine against the entire squad; and then they would have to make their escape rather than explain to Tom Garnett why they had killed all of his men–assuming that they could, of course.
Pirojil relaxed. So be it. For now.
It would probably be necessary to have Durine take the sergeant aside at some point and work this out, privately. He didn’t particularly like asking Durine to do that, but he was used to doing things he didn’t like. He’d had to do it a time or two before. That was the nice thing about having Durine beat somebody up: they didn’t lose their comrades’ respect by having Durine mess up their face just a little. Few men could stand up to Durine and no one–so far–could emerge unscathed from a fight with the big man.
He tried to be philosophical about it.
Relationships between regulars and mercenaries were always uncomfortable. Forget, for just a moment, that regular soldiers thought of freebooters as little more than land pirates, mostly because during peacetime, and around the fringes of war, they spent more time hunting them down than working with them.
Even when mercenaries were employed by the Crown, there were conflicts built into the relationship. The freebooters tended to report directly to an officer, who was expected to take a long view of things and understand that too many unnecessary fatalities among the mercenaries inevitably meant widespread mercenary desertion or revolt. It usually didn’t work out when mercenaries had to answer to a sergeant, who would be much quicker to expend a mercenary than one of his own men, and while few mercenaries died in bed, even fewer wanted to spend their whole, short lives on point, or worse. The second or third time a mercenary company was ordered to be first over the wall, they started considering the wisdom of their employment choice.
Relations between the mercenaries and the regulars were unlikely to get any better in Mondegreen. The regular soldiers would be housed in the barracks at Mondegreen Castle. But Baron Morray would be housed in the Residence, and therefore Kethol, Durine and Pirojil would be as well, with the three of them sleeping in soft featherbeds, their every need being tended to by beautiful maidservants. At least that’s what the regulars would think.
It wouldn’t actually be that way, of course, but that was the way the story would be told around the barracks. Never mind that they would probably be bedded down on damp reeds in the kitchen, except for whichever of them drew the short straw and spent the night sleeping on the stone floor across the threshold of the Baron’s bedchamber. And the maids were almost certain to be old, fat, ugly, or all three. But, the regulars would complain that the mercenaries were getting a soft assignment.
Pirojil slowed his horse to allow Baron Morray and Kethol to catch up with him, while behind, Durine trailed Lady Mondegreen and her maids.
Kethol arched an eyebrow; Pirojil shook his head. Kethol shrugged.
The Baron eyed them curiously. After a few moments, when neither of them answered the unvoiced question, he cleared his throat for attention. ‘What was that all about?’ he asked imperiously.
‘Nothing for you to bother yourself with, my lord,’ Kethol said, when Pirojil didn’t immediately answer. ‘Just a minor disagreement between Pirojil and the sergeant.’
‘All that from a shake of the head?’ Morray was visibly sceptical.
‘Yes,’ Pirojil said. But that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the Baron. ‘Kethol and I’ve been working together for years; Durine’s been with us only a little less. After so much time together, my lord, each of us knows how the others think.’
The Baron raised an eyebrow as if questioning the remark.
‘You don’t mask your thoughts to the man at your back, my lord. If a man insists on keeping his thoughts to himself all the time, well, you find somebody else to watch your back.’
The Baron scowled. ‘I’m not overly impressed with the three of you,’ he said. ‘You distinguished yourself with bravery during the ambush, certainly more than one would expect from a bunch of freebooters, but your swordwork was clumsy–at least what I saw of it–and if Lady Mondegreen hadn’t spurred her horse so quickly, she would have been brought down by the Tsurani without much trouble at all.’
Kethol started to open his mouth, but desisted at Pirojil’s head-shake.
‘We’ll try to do better, next time, my lord,’ Pirojil said. He had already had enough of arguing with somebody who would not be persuaded for one afternoon.
But you couldn’t trust Kethol to keep his mouth shut about such a thing. Kethol would have to explain himself–it was one of his few weaknesses–and that would do nobody any good at all.
Pirojil pointed a finger toward the front of the column, tapped the finger against his own chest, jerked his thumb toward the rear of the column, and spurred his horse.
Lady Mondegreen’s eyes held steady on Kethol as he dropped back beside her, replacing Durine. ‘How soon do we arrive, Kethol?’ she asked.
If he remembered right, and he did, the outer wall of Mondegreen Town was just beyond the next bend, across a stream, and then over a ridge. ‘I believe we should be there within the hour, Lady.’ Why the Lady of Castle Mondegreen wouldn’t know the area around the keep better than a soldier who had only been through here once, during the war, he didn’t know. ‘We’ll have you safe in your own bed this night, and may it be a comfort to you.’
‘I’ve some comfort in my own bed, that’s true,’ she said. ‘Though my husband is a good man, a gentle man, but a very sick man, and has been, for the past few years.’
, he didn’t say.
And is that why you spend your time warming other men’s beds?
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ he did say. It seemed like the appropriate response.
She pursed her lips momentarily. ‘Others suffer far worse than do I.’
‘Is the Baron much older than you?’
She frowned. ‘Yes, he is. And is there something wrong with that?’
‘Not at all.’ Kethol shook his head. ‘But it must be difficult–’
‘Yes, it’s difficult.’ She patted at her belly. ‘It’s difficult when you marry an older man, and are expected to produce an heir, and don’t.’ She started to say something more, then stopped herself.
‘There’s no need to watch your words around me, Lady,’ Kethol said. ‘I’m not loose of tongue, and I’ve got no stake in local matters.’
She didn’t look at him. ‘How fortunate for you,’ she said, through tight lips.
They rode in silence for a few minutes.
‘I seem to have something of a widespread reputation,’ she said at last.
‘Perhaps.’ Kethol shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t know. The only gossip I get to hear is usually about how one sergeant is a glory-hound, or another officer will never send his men out in front of him if he doesn’t have to–the private lives of our betters isn’t a topic for barracks conversation.’
Which wasn’t entirely true. It might not have been a topic for
’s barracks conversation, but some of the Mut soldiers gossiped like fishwives, and Lady Mondegreen was often a subject of their chatter. If you believed the gossip–and Kethol never either believed all or none of it–she flitted from bed to bed with wild abandon, looking for the satisfaction that her ancient husband couldn’t have given her.
She looked at him, long and hard, as though trying to decide something.
A crow fluttered down and took a perch on an overhanging tree limb, and cawed down at them.
Well, as long as it didn’t shit on him, he didn’t mind.
Pirojil shook his head. Unless you knew how and where to look, the castle didn’t look like the weapon that it actually was.
Castle Mondegreen rose, huge and solid and dark on its hill, looming above the town below. On top of its six towers watchmen stood, probably bored out of their minds, but even more probably happy to be bored. It didn’t take much experience with battle to teach you that combat was far less romantic in real life than in all the tales, ballads and legends.
Of course, it wouldn’t take long before the sights and sounds and particularly the smells of war would fade in the memory, and it wouldn’t be long before young soldiers would be puffing their chests and strutting about, bragging of the great deeds they would do the next time the alarm horns sounded. Some of them would do very well. Some of them would die, and all of them would be changed, in ways many of them would not recognize until years later, if ever. A soldier’s life gave you plenty of time for introspection, but many just pissed that time away.
Pirojil himself had pissed away many an hour that could have been spent just thinking about things. On the other hand, he had not wasted all his hours, and he had long ago worked out that it was dangerous to keep weapons too near you. Necessary, yes, but dangerous–weapons changed people, and not just enchanted weapons.
Like the castle itself.
Originally, Castle Mondegreen had been built by some cousin of the conDoin family, as a way to establish a permanent foothold in Yabon. While invited in to help drive out the Brotherhood of the Dark Path and their allies, many of the Yabonese had not expected the Kingdom to stay in Yabon once the enemy had been dislodged. Like neighbouring Bosonia, Yabon had been a far-flung colony of the Empire of Great Kesh.
Unlike Bosonia, which had many Keshian colonists living there, Yabon had been an administrated district with a few Keshian nobles and many Yabonese tribal chieftains and lords. The Kingdom’s position was that once the Dark Brothers and their ilk were driven away, the natives were unable to protect themselves and therefore Yabon required a permanent Kingdom garrison. A rescue had turned into a conquest.
Some lords and chieftains had welcomed the Kingdom, and were rewarded with titles and lands. Other locals had, as locals did, resented their conquerors, and were primed for revolt in the early years. During that time, the remnants of the old regime would eye the new rulers, usually waiting and sometimes probing for weaknesses, ready to throw off the yoke of the newly-appointed Kingdom earl and his lickspittle barons.
And that was what the castle was for. Let the old regime raise an army in the countryside, let them gather together horses and men, bows and breastplates and swords, and let them rant and rave and fume as they would–so long as the new rulers controlled the castle.
Sometimes, the revolt could be put down by the Baron’s troops riding out and dispersing the rebels. More often, the trouble could be stopped at the much smaller wall around the town, protecting not just the nobility in the castle, but those loyal to the new regime who were, during the early years, the only ones permitted to live in the town, directly under the protection of the Baron.
But sometimes, the occupying troops would have to retreat into the castle, and wait to be relieved by the Earl’s troops. Stockpiled food and water were as much a part of the castle’s armoury as stockpiled arrows and bolts. As conquests go, Yabon’s was a relatively mild one, and by the third generation after the Kingdom annexed the former Keshian colony–which just happened to be Pirojil’s generation–Yabonese and Kingdom were interchangeable, except maybe for a bit of a funny accent in Yabon.
And so, the castle stood: a monument to persistence, just as the tumble down wall of the town was a monument to mutability, to how things never lasted.
Pirojil couldn’t tell how much of the town’s wall had been destroyed in the war–the Tsurani had broken through into Mondegreen Town on their way to the castle–and how much had been cannibalized before the Tsurani invasion by locals seeking building materials. After a generation or so of peace, the wall around the town was more of an inconvenience than a benefit, and it took a wise ruler to remember that walls were important.