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THE HEROES- CHAPTER FOUR: BLACK DOW

CHAPTER FOUR: BLACK DOW 

The stable doors shut with a bang like a headsman’s axe, and it took all of Calder’s famous arrogance not to jump clean in the air. War meetings had never been his favourite

style of gathering, especially ones full of his enemies. Three of Dow’s five War Chiefs were in attendance and, as Calder’s ever- worsening luck would have it, they were the three that liked him least.

Glama Golden looked the hero from his scalp to his toes, big- knuckle brawny and heavy-jaw handsome, his long hair, his bristling moustache, his eyelashes to their tips all the colour of pale gold. He wore more yellow metal than a princess on her wedding day – golden torc around his thick neck, bracelets at his thick wrists and fistfuls of rings on his thick fingers, every part of him buffed to a pretty shine with bluster and self-love.

Cairm Ironhead was a very different prospect. His scar-crossed face was a fortress of frown you could’ve blunted an axe on, eyes like nails under a brow like an anvil, cropped hair and beard an
uncompromising black. He was shorter than Golden but wider still, a slab of a man, chain mail glinting under a cloak of black bear-fur. The rumour was he’d strangled that bear. Possibly for
looking at him wrong. Neither Ironhead nor Golden had much beyond contempt for Calder, but luckily they’d always despised each other like night hates day and their feud left no hatred in the quiver for anyone else.

When it came to hatred, Brodd Tenways had a bottomless supply. He was one of those bastards who can’t even breathe quietly, ugly as incest and always delighted to push it in your face, leering from the shadows like the village pervert at a passing milkmaid. Foul-mouthed, foul-toothed, foul-smelling, and with some kind of hideous rash patching his twisted face he gave every sign of taking great pride in. He’d made a bitter enemy of Calder’s father, lost to him in battle twice, and been forced to kneel and give up everything he had. Getting it back only seemed to have worsened his mood, and he’d easily shifted all his years of bile from Bethod to his sons, and Calder in particular.

Then there was the head of this mismatched family of villains, the self-styled Protector of the North, Black Dow himself. He sat easy in Skarling’s Chair, one leg folded under him while the other boot tapped gently at the ground. He had something like a smile on his deep-lined,  hard-scarred face but his eyes were narrowed, sly as a hungry tomcat that just now spied a pigeon. He’d taken to wearing fine clothes, the sparkling chain that Calder’s father used to wear around his shoulders. But he couldn’t hide what he was, and didn’t want to either. A killer to the tips of his ears. Or ear, since the left one was no more than a flap of gristle.

As if Black Dow’s name and his grin weren’t threats enough, he’d made sure they were shored up with plenty of steel. A long, grey sword leaned against Skarling’s Chair on one side, an axe on the other, notched with long use, in easy reach of his dangling fingers. Killer’s fingers – scuffed, and swollen, and scarred at the knuckles from a lifetime of the dead knew what dark work.

Splitfoot stood in the gloom at Dow’s shoulder. His Second, meaning his closest bodyguard and chief arse-licker, stuck to his master tight as his shadow with thumbs hooked in his silver-
buckled sword-belt. Two of his Carls lurked behind, armour, and shield-rims, and drawn swords all agleam, others dotted about the walls, flanking the door. There was a smell of old hay and old horses, but far stronger was the reek of ready violence, thick as the stink in a marsh.

And as if all that wasn’t enough to make Calder shit his well-tailored trousers, Shivers still loomed at his shoulder, adding his own chill threat to the recipe.

‘Well, if it ain’t brave Prince Calder.’ Dow looked him up and down like the tomcat at the shrub it was about to piss on.

‘Welcome back to the good fight, lad. You going to do as you’re fucking told this time around?’

Calder swept out a bow. ‘Your most obedient servant.’ He smirked as if the very words didn’t burn his tongue. ‘Golden. Ironhead.’ He gave each a respectful nod. ‘My father always said there weren’t two stouter hearts in all the North.’ His father always said there weren’t two thicker heads in all the North, but his lies were no more use than money down a well in any case. Ironhead and Golden did nothing but  glower at each other. Calder felt a burning need for someone who liked him. Or at least didn’t want him dead. ‘Where’s Scale?’

‘Your brother’s out west,’ said Dow. ‘Doing some fighting.’

‘You know what that is, do you, boy?’ Tenways turned his head and spat through the gap in his brown front teeth.

‘Is it . . . the thing with all the swords?’ Calder took a hopeful look around the stable but no allies had crept in, and he ended up glancing at Shivers’ ruined frown, which was even worse than
Dow’s smile. However often he saw that scar, it was always more hideous than he remembered. ‘How about Reachey?’

‘Your wife’s daddy’s a day or so east,’ said Dow. ‘Putting on a weapontake.’

Golden snorted. ‘I’d be surprised if there’s a boy can grip a blade isn’t pressed already.’

‘Well, he’s scraping up what there is. Reckon we’ll need every ready hand when it comes to a battle. Yours too, maybe.’

‘Oh, you’ll have to hold me back!’ Calder slapped the hilt of his sword. ‘Can’t wait to get started!’

‘You ever even drawn the fucking thing?’ sneered Tenways, stretching his neck out to spit again.

‘Just the once. I had to trim your daughter’s hairy cunt before I could get at it.’

Dow burst out laughing. Golden chuckled. Ironhead gave the faintest of grins. Tenways choked on his spit and left a string of glistening drool down his chin, but Calder didn’t much care. He was better off scoring points with those who weren’t quite a lost cause yet. Somehow he needed to  win at least one of these unpromising bastards over to his side.

‘Never thought I’d say this,’ Dow sighed and wiped one eye with a finger, ‘but I’ve missed you, Calder.’

‘Likewise. I’d much rather be trading horseshit in a stable than back at Carleon kissing my wife. What’s to do?’

‘You know.’ Dow took the pommel of his sword between finger and thumb, turning it this way and that so the silver mark near the hilt glinted. ‘War. Skirmish here, raid there. We cut off some stragglers, they burn out some villages. War. Your brother’s been hitting fast, giving the Southerners something to  think about. Useful man your brother, got some sting in him.’

‘Shame  your father didn’t  have more’n  one son,’  growled Tenways.

‘Keep talking, old man,’ said Calder, ‘I can make you look a prick all day.’

Tenways bristled but Dow waved him down. ‘Enough cock- measuring. We’ve a war to fight.’

‘And how many victories, so far?’

A brief, unhappy pause. ‘No battle,’ grunted Ironhead.

‘This Kroy,’ sneered Golden back across the stable, ‘the one in charge o’ the Union.’

‘Marshal, they call him.’

‘Whatever they call him, he’s a cautious bastard.’

‘Baby-stepping coward fuck,’ growled Tenways.

Dow shrugged.  ‘Naught cowardly about stepping careful. Wouldn’t be my style with his numbers, but . . .’ And he turned his grin on Calder. ‘Your father always used to say, ‘‘In war it’s the winning counts. The rest is for fools to sing about.’’ So Kroy’s going slow, hoping to wear out our patience. We Northmen ain’t known for it, after all. He’s split his army in three parts.’

‘Three big bloody parts,’ said Ironhead.

Golden agreed, for once. ‘Might be ten thousand fighting men each, not even counting all the fetchers and carriers.’

Dow leaned forwards like a grandfather teaching a child about fish.  ‘Jalenhorm  to  the west. Brave but  sluggish  and apt to blunder. Mitterick in the centre. Sharpest of the three by all accounts, but reckless. Loves his horses, I hear. Meed to the east.

Not a soldier, and he hates Northmen like a pig hates butchers.

Could make him short-sighted. Then Kroy’s got some North- men of his own, spread out scouting mostly, but  a fair few fighters too, and some good ones among ’em.’

‘The Dogman’s men,’ said Calder.

‘Fucking traitor that he is,’ hissed Tenways, making ready to spit.

‘Traitor?’ Dow jerked forwards in Skarling’s Chair, knuckles white on its arms. ‘You dumb old rashy fuck ! He’s the one man in the North  who’s always  stuck to the same side!’  Tenways looked up, slowly swallowed whatever scum he’d been about to spit and leaned back into the shadows. Dow slid down limp again. ‘Shame it’s the wrong side, is all.’

‘Well, we’re going to have to move soon,’ said Golden. ‘Meed may be no soldier, but he’s put Ollensand under siege. Town’s got good walls but I ain’t sure how long they can—’

‘Meed broke off the siege yesterday morning,’ said Dow. ‘He’s heading back north and most o’ the Dogman’s lot are with him.’

‘Yesterday?’ Golden frowned. ‘How d’you know—’

‘I’ve got my ways.’

‘I didn’t hear anything.’

‘That’s why I give the orders and you listen to ’em.’ Ironhead smiled to see his rival cut down a peg. ‘Meed’s turned back north, and in quite the hurry. My guess is he’ll be joining up with Mitterick.’

‘Why?’ asked Calder. ‘Slow and steady all these months, then they just decide to take a rush?’

‘Maybe they got tired o’ cautious. Or maybe someone who has the say-so did. Either way, they’re coming.’

‘Might give us a chance to catch ’em off guard.’ Ironhead’s eyes were sparkling like a starving man just saw the roast brought in.

‘If they’re set on looking for a fight,’ said Dow, ‘I’d hate not to give ’em one. We got someone down at the Heroes?’

‘Curnden Craw’s there with his dozen,’ said Splitfoot.

‘Safe hands,’ muttered Calder. He almost wished he was down at the Heroes with Curnden Craw, rather than here with these bastards. No power, maybe, but a lot more laughs.

‘Had word from him an hour or two back, as it goes,’ said Ironhead. ‘He ran into some o’ the Dogman’s scouts up there and seen ’em off.’

Dow looked down at the ground for a moment, rubbing at his lips with one fingertip. ‘Shivers?’

‘Chief?’ Whispered  so soft it was hardly more than a breath.

‘Ride down to the Heroes and tell Craw I want that hill held on to. Just might be one or other o’ these Union bastards try to come through that way. Cross the river at Osrung, maybe.’

‘Good ground for a fight,’ said Tenways.

Shivers paused a moment. Long enough for Calder to see he wasn’t happy playing messenger boy. Calder gave him the barest look, just a reminder of what was said in the hallway at Carleon. Just to give whatever seeds were planted a little water.

‘Right y’are, Chief.’ And Shivers slid out through the doorway. Golden gave a shiver of his own. ‘That one gives me the worries.’

Dow only grinned the wider. ‘That’s the point  of him. Ironhead?’

‘Chief.’

‘You’re leading off down the Yaws Road. Point o’ the spear.’

‘We’ll be in Yaws evening tomorrow.’

‘Make it sooner.’ That got a deeper frown from Ironhead and a matching grin from Golden. It was as if the two sat on a pair of scales. You couldn’t nudge one down without hoisting the other up. ‘Golden, you take the Brottun Road and join up with Reachey. Get him on the way soon as his weapontake’s done, that old boy sometimes needs the spur.’

‘Aye, Chief.’

‘Tenways, bring your foragers in and get your lot ready to move, you’ll be bringing up the back with me.’

‘Done.’

‘And all of you march your lads hard, but keep your eyes open. Be nice to give the Southerners a shock and not the other way around.’ Dow showed even more of his teeth. ‘If your blades ain’t sharpened already, I reckon now’s the time.’

‘Aye,’ the three of them chimed in, competing to sound the most bloodthirsty.

‘Oh, aye,’ said Calder on the end, and giving his best smirk to go with it. He might not be much with a sword, but there were few men in the North who could handle a smirk better. It was wasted this time, though. Splitfoot was leaning down to mutter something in Dow’s ear.

The Protector of the North sat back frowning. ‘Send him in, then!’

The  doors were hauled open, wind sighing through and whisking loose straw across the stable floor. Calder squinted into the evening outside. Had to be some trick of the fading light, because the figure in the doorway seemed to fill it almost to the beam above. Then he took the step up. Then he straightened. It was quite the entrance, the room silent as he strode slowly to its centre except for the floor groaning under his every step. But then it’s easy to make the big entrance when you’re the size of a cliff. You just walk in and stand there.

‘I am Stranger-Come-Knocking.’

Calder knew the name. Stranger-Come-Knocking  called him- self Chief of a Hundred Tribes, called everything east of the Crinna his land and all the people who lived on it his property.

Calder had heard he was a giant but hadn’t taken it too seriously.

The North was full of swollen men with swollen opinions of themselves and even more swollen reputations. More often than not you found the man a good deal smaller than the name. So this came as a bit of a shock.

When you said the word ‘giant’, Stranger-Come-Knocking was pretty much what you thought of, stepped straight out from the age of heroes and into this petty latter time. He towered over Dow and his mighty War Chiefs, head among the rafters, black hair streaked with grey hanging around his craggy, bearded face.

Glama Golden looked a gaudy dwarf beside him, and Splitfoot and his Carls a set of toy soldiers.

‘By the dead,’ Calder whispered under his breath. ‘That is a big one.’

But Black Dow showed no awe. He sprawled in Skarling’s Chair easily as ever, one boot still tapping the straw, killer’s hands still dangling, wolf grin still curled around his face.

‘Wondered when you’d . . . come knocking. Didn’t think you’d come all this way your own self, though.’

‘An alliance should be sealed face to face, man to man, iron to iron and blood to blood.’ Calder had been expecting the giant to roar every word like the monsters in children’s stories, but he had a soft sort of voice. Slow, as if he was puzzling out every word.

‘The personal touch,’ said Dow. ‘I’m all for it. We’ve a deal, then?’

‘We have.’ Stranger-Come-Knocking  spread  one massive hand, put the web between thumb and forefinger in his mouth and bit into it, held it up, blood starting to seep from the marks.

Dow slid his palm down his sword, leaving the edge gleaming red. Then he was out of Skarling’s Chair in a flash and caught the giant’s hand with his own. The two men stood there as blood streaked their forearms and started to drip from their elbows. Calder felt a little fear and a lot of contempt at the level of manliness on display.

‘Right y’are.’ Dow let go of the giant’s hand and slowly sat back in Skarling’s Chair, leaving a bloody palm-print on one arm. ‘Reckon you can bring your men over the Crinna.’

‘I already did.’

Golden and Ironhead exchanged a glance, not much caring for the idea of a lot of savages crossing the Crinna and, presumably, their land. Dow narrowed his eyes. ‘Did you, indeed?’

‘On this side of the water they can fight the Southerners.’ Stranger-Come-Knocking looked slowly about the stable, fixing each man with his black eyes. ‘I came to fight !’ He roared the last word, echoes ringing from the roof. A ripple of fury passed through him from his feet to his head, making his fists clench, and his chest swell, and his monstrous shoulders rise, seeming in that moment more outsize than ever.

Calder found himself wondering what fighting this bastard would feel like. How the hell would you stop him, once he was moving? Just the sheer weight of meat. What weapon would put him down? He reckoned everyone else in the room was thinking the same thing, and not much enjoying the experience.

Except Black Dow. ‘Good! That’s what I want you for.’

‘I want to fight the Union.’

‘There’s plenty to go round.’

‘I want to fight Whirrun of Bligh.’

‘Can’t promise you that, he’s on our side and has some odd notions. But I can ask if he’ll give you a bout.’

‘I want to fight the Bloody-Nine.’

The hairs on the back of Calder’s neck prickled. Strange, how that name still weighed heavy, even in company like this, even if the man was eight years dead. Dow wasn’t grinning any more.

‘You missed your chance. Ninefingers is back in the mud.’

‘I hear he is alive, and standing with the Union.’

‘You hear wrong.’

‘I hear he is alive, and I will kill him.’

‘Will you now?’

‘I am the greatest warrior in the Circle of the World.’ Stranger- Come-Knocking didn’t boast it, puffed up and pouting as Glama Golden might have. He didn’t threaten it, fists clenched and glowering as Cairm Ironhead might have. He stated the fact.

Dow scratched absently at the scar where his ear used to be.

‘This is the North. Lot of hard men about. Couple of ’em in this room. So that’s quite a claim you’re making.’

Stranger-Come-Knocking unhooked his great fur cloak and shrugged it off, stood there stripped to the waist like a man ready to wrestle. Scars had always been almost as popular in the North

as blades. Every man who reckoned himself a man had to have a couple of both. But Stranger-Come-Knocking’s great expanse of body, sinew-knotted like an ancient tree, was almost more scar than skin. He was ripped, pocked, gouged with wounds, enough to make a score of champions proud.

‘At Yeweald  I fought the Dog Tribe and was pierced with seven arrows.’ He pointed out some pink blobs scattered across his ribs with his club of a forefinger. ‘But I fought on, and made a hill of their dead, and made their land my land, and their women and children my people.’

Dow sighed, as if he had a half-naked giant at most of his war meetings and was getting tired of it. ‘Maybe it’s time to think about a shield.’

‘They are for cowards to hide behind. My wounds tell the story of my strength.’ The giant jerked his thumb at a star-shaped mass that covered one shoulder, and his back, and half his left arm with flesh lumped and mottled as oak-bark. ‘The dreaded witch Vanian sprayed me with a liquid fire, and I carried her into the lake and drowned her while I burned.’

Dow picked a fingernail. ‘Reckon I’d have tried to put it out first.’

The giant shrugged, the pink burn across his shoulder creasing like a ploughed field. ‘It went out when she died.’ He pointed to a ragged pink mark that left a bald streak through the pelt of

black hair on his chest and appeared to have taken a nipple off.

‘The brothers Smirtu and Weorc challenged me to single combat. They said because they grew together in one womb they counted as one man.’

Dow snorted. ‘You fell for that?’

‘I do not look for reasons not to fight. I split Smirtu in half with an axe, then crushed his brother’s skull in my hand.’ The giant slowly closed one massive fist and squeezed the fingers white, muscle squirming in his arm like a giant sausage being stuffed.

‘Messy,’ said Dow.

‘In my country, men are impressed by messy deaths.’

‘Honestly,  they’re much the same here. Tell you what – anyone I call my enemy you can kill when you please. Anyone I call my friend . . . let me know before you give ’em a messy death. I’d hate for you to slaughter Prince Calder by accident.’

Stranger-Come-Knocking looked around. ‘You are Calder?’ That awkward moment wondering whether to deny it. ‘I am.’

‘Bethod’s second son?’

‘The same.’

He slowly nodded his monstrous head, long hair swaying.

‘Bethod was a great man.’

‘A great man for getting other men to fight for him.’ Tenways sucked his rotten teeth and spat one more time. ‘Not much of a fighter himself.’

The giant’s voice had suddenly softened again. ‘Why is every- one so bloodthirsty this side of the Crinna? There is more to life than fighting.’ He leaned down and dragged up his cloak be- tween two fingers. ‘I will be at the place agreed upon, Black Dow. Unless . . . any of the little men wish to wrestle?’ Golden, and Ironhead, and Tenways all took their turns to peer off into the furthest corners of the stable.

Calder was used to being scared out of his wits, though, and met the giant’s eye with a smile. ‘I would, but I make a point of never stripping unless  there are women present. Which is  a shame, actually, because I have an almighty spot on my back that I think would quite impress everyone.’

‘Oh, I cannot wrestle with you, son of Bethod.’ The giant might even have had a knowing smirk of his own as he turned away. ‘You are made for other things.’ And he threw his cloak over his scarred shoulder and stooped under the high lintel, the Carls swinging the doors shut on the gust of wind that blew in behind him.

‘He seems a good sort,’ said Calder, brightly. ‘Nice of him not to show off the scars on his cock.’

‘Fucking savages!’  cursed Tenways, which was rich coming from him.

‘Greatest warrior in the world,’ scoffed Golden, though he

hadn’t done much scoffing while the giant was in the room.

Dow rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. ‘The dead know I’m no fucking diplomat, but I’ll take the allies I can get. And a man that size’ll stop a lot of arrows.’ Tenways and Golden had themselves an arse-licking chuckle, but Calder saw beyond the joke. If the Bloody-Nine was still alive, maybe a man that size might stop him too. ‘You all know your tasks, eh? Let’s get to ’em.’

Ironhead and Golden gave each other a deadly glare on the way out. Tenways spat at Calder’s feet but he only grinned back, promising himself he’d get the last laugh as the ugly old bastard shambled into the evening.

Dow stood, blood still dotting the ground from the tip of his middle finger, watching the doors as they were closed. Then he gave a sigh. ‘Feuding, feuding, always bloody feuding. Why can no one just get on, eh, Calder?’

‘My father used to say, ‘‘Point three Northmen the same way, they’ll be killing each other before you can order the charge.’’’

‘Hah! He was a clever bastard, Bethod, whatever else he was.

Couldn’t stop the warring, though, once he’d started.’  Dow frowned at his blood-daubed palm, working the fingers. ‘Once your hands get bloody it ain’t so easy to get ’em clean. The Dogman told me that. My hands been bloody all my life.’ Calder flinched as Splitfoot tossed something into the air, but it was only a cloth. Dow snatched it out of the darkness and started winding
it around his cut hand. ‘Guess it’s a bit late to clean ’em now, eh?’

‘It’ll just have to be more blood,’ said Splitfoot.

‘I reckon.’ Dow wandered into one of the empty stalls, tipped his  head back, rolled his  eyes  to  the ceiling and winced. A moment later Calder heard the sound of his piss spattering the

straw. ‘There . . . we . . . go.’

If the aim was to make him feel even more insignificant, it worked. He’d been half-expecting them to murder him. Now it seemed they couldn’t be bothered, and that pricked at Calder’s pride. ‘Got any orders for me?’ he snapped.

Dow glanced over his shoulder. ‘Why? You’d only fuck ’em up or ignore ’em.’

Probably true. ‘Why send for me, then?’

‘The way your brother tells it, you’ve got the sharpest mind in the whole North. I got sick of him telling me he couldn’t do without you.’

‘I thought Scale was up near Ustred?’

‘Two days’ ride away, and soon as I learned the Union were moving I sent to him to join up with us.’

‘Not much point me going, then.’

‘Wouldn’t  say so . . .’ The sound of pissing stopped. ‘There it is!’ And started up again.

Calder ground his teeth. ‘Maybe I’ll go see Reachey. Watch this weapontake of his.’ Or talk him into helping Calder live out the month, even better.

‘You’re a free man, ain’t you?’ They both knew the answer to that one. Free as a pigeon already plucked and in the pot. ‘Things are just like they were in your father’s day, really. Any man can do what he likes. Right, Splitfoot?’

‘Right, Chief.’

‘Just as long as it’s exactly what I fucking tell ’em to do.’ And Dow’s Carls all chuckled away like they never heard finer wit.

‘Give Reachey my regards.’

‘I will.’ Calder turned for the door.

‘And Calder!’ Dow was just tapping off the drips. ‘You ain’t going to make more trouble for me, are you?’

‘Trouble? Wouldn’t know how, Chief.’

‘ ’Cause  what with all those Southerners to  fight . . . and unknowable fucks like Whirrun  of Bligh and  this Crinna-Come-Boasting  weirdness . . . and my own people treading all over each other . . . I’ve got about as much arse-ache as I need.

Can’t stand for anyone playing their own games. Someone tries to dig my roots from under me at a time like this, well, I’ve got to tell you, things’ll get fucking  ugly !’  He screamed the last two words, eyes suddenly bulging from his face, veins popping from his neck, fury boiling out of him with no warning and making every man in the room flinch. Then he was calm as a kitten again.

‘Get me?’

Calder swallowed, trying not to let his fear show even though his skin was all prickling. ‘I think I have the gist.’

‘Good lad.’ Dow worked his hips about as he finished lacing up, then grinned around like a fox grins at a chicken coop left open. ‘I’d hate to hurt your wife, she’s a pretty little thing. Not so pretty as you, o’ course.’

Calder hid his fury under another smirk. ‘Who is?’

He strode between the grinning Carls and out into the even- ing, all the while thinking about how he was going to kill Black Dow, and take back what was stolen from his father.