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THE HEROES- CHAPTER THREE: THE BEST OF US

 CHAPTER THREE: THE BEST OF US

Your August Majesty,

We are entirely recovered from the reverse at Quiet Ford and the campaign proceeds. For all Black Dow’s cunning, Lord Marshal Kroy is driving him steadily north towards his capital at Carleon. We are no more than two weeks’ march from the city, now. He cannot fall back for ever. We will have him, your Majesty can depend upon it.

General Jalenhorm’s division won a small engagement on a chain of hills to the northeast yesterday. Lord Governor Meed leads his division south towards Ollensand in the hope of forcing the Northmen to split their forces and give battle at a dis- advantage. I travel with General Mitterick’s division, close to Marshal Kroy’s headquarters. Yesterday, near a village called Barden, Northmen ambushed our supply column as it was stretched out along the bad roads. Through the alertness and bravery of our rearguard they were beaten back with heavy losses.

I recommend to your Majesty one Lieutenant Kerns who showed particular valour and lost his life in the engagement, leaving, I understand, a wife and young child behind him.

The columns are well ordered. The weather is fair. The army moves freely and the men are in the highest spirits.

I remain your Majesty’s most faithful and unworthy servant, Bremer dan Gorst, Royal Observer of the Northern War

 

The column was in chaos. The rain poured down. The army was mired in the filth and the men were in the most rotten spirits. And mine the most rotten in the whole putrefying swarm.

Bremer dan Gorst forced his way through a mud-spattered crush of soldiers, all wriggling like maggots, their armour running with wet, their shouldered pikes poking lethally in all directions.

They were stopped as solid as milk turned rank in a bottle but men still squelched up from behind, adding their own burdens of ill temper to the jostling mass, choking the thread of muck that passed for a road and forcing men cursing into the trees. Gorst was already late and had to assert himself as the press tightened, brushing men aside. Sometimes they would turn to argue as they stumbled in the slop, but they soon shut their mouths when they saw who he was.

They knew him.

The adversary that had so confounded his Majesty’s army proved to be one of its own wagons, slid from the ankle-deep mud of the track and into the considerably deeper bog beside.

Following the universal law that the most frustrating thing will always happen, no matter how unlikely, it had somehow ended up almost sideways, back wheels mired to their axles. A snarling driver whipped two horses into a pointless lather of terror while a half-dozen bedraggled soldiers floundered ineffectually about the back.

On both sides of the road men slithered through the sodden undergrowth, cursing as gear was torn by brambles, pole-arms were tangled by branches, eyes were whipped at by twigs.

Three young officers stood nearby, the shoulders of their scarlet uniforms turned soggy maroon by the downpour. Two were arguing, stabbing at the wagon with pointed fingers while the other stood and watched, one hand carelessly resting on the gilded hilt of his sword, idle as a mannequin in a military tailor’s.

The enemy could scarcely have arranged a more effective blockage with a thousand picked men.

‘What is this?’ Gorst demanded, fighting and, of course, failing, to sound authoritative.

‘Sir, the supply train should be nowhere near this track!’

‘That’s nonsense, sir! The infantry should be held up while—’

Because the blame is what matters, of course, not the solution.

Gorst shouldered the officers aside and squelched into the quagmire, wedging himself between the muddy soldiers, delving into the muck for the wagon’s back axle, boots twisting through the slime to find a solid footing. He took a few short breaths and braced himself.

‘Go!’ he squeaked at the driver, for once forgetting even to try to lower his voice.

Whip snapped. Men groaned. Horses snorted. Mud sucked. Gorst strained from his toes to his scalp, every muscle locked and vibrating with effort. The world faded and he was left alone with his task. He grunted, then growled, then hissed, the rage boiling up in him as if he had a bottomless tank of it instead of a heart and he only had to turn the tap to rip this wagon apart.

The wheels gave with a protesting shriek, lurched from the bog and forward. Suddenly straining at nothing Gorst stumbled despairingly then flopped face down in the mire, one of the soldiers falling beside him. He struggled up as the wagon rattled away, the driver fighting to bring his plunging horses under control.

‘Thanks for the help, sir.’ The mud-caked soldier reached out with a clumsy paw and managed to smear the muck that now befouled Gorst’s uniform even more widely. ‘Sorry, sir. Very sorry.’

Keep your axles oiled you retarded scum. Keep your cart on the road you gawping halfwits. Do your damn jobs you lazy vermin. Is that too much to ask? ‘Good,’ muttered Gorst, brushing the man’s hand away and making a futile attempt to straighten his jacket.

‘Thank you.’ He stalked off into the drizzle after the wagon, and could almost hear the mocking laughter of the men and their officers prickling at his back.

Lord Marshal Kroy, commander-in-chief of his Majesty’s armies in the North, had requisitioned for his temporary headquarters the grandest building within a dozen miles, namely a squat cottage so riddled with moss it looked more like an abandoned dunghill. A toothless old woman and her even more ancient husband, presumably the dispossessed owners, sat in the doorway of the accompanying barn under a threadbare shawl, and watched Gorst squelch up towards their erstwhile front door.

They did not look impressed. Neither did the four guards loiter- ing about the porch in wet oilskins. Nor the collection of damp officers infesting the low living room, who all looked around expectantly when Gorst ducked through the door, and all looked equally crestfallen when they realised who it was.

‘It’s Gorst,’ sneered one, as if he had been expecting a king and got a pot-boy.

It was quite the concentration of martial splendour. Marshal Kroy was the centrepiece, sitting with unflinching discipline at the head of the table, impeccable as always in a freshly pressed black uniform, stiff collar encrusted with silver leaves, every iron- grey hair on his skull positioned at rigid attention. His chief of staff Colonel Felnigg sat bolt upright beside him, small, nimble, with sparkling eyes that missed no detail, his chin lifted uncomfortably high. Or rather, since he was a remarkably chinless man, his neck formed an almost straight line from his collar to the nostrils of his beaked nose. Like an over-haughty vulture waiting for a corpse to feast upon.

General Mitterick would have made a considerable meal. He was a big man with a big face, oversized features positively stuffed into the available room on the front of his head. Where Felnigg had too little chin Mitterick had far too much, and with a big, reckless cleft down the middle. As if he had an arse suspended from his magnificent moustache. He had affected buff leather gauntlets reaching almost to the elbow, probably intended to give the impression of a man of action, but which put Gorst in mind of the gloves a farmer might wear to wind a troubled cow.

Mitterick cocked an eyebrow at Gorst’s mud-crusted uniform.

‘More heroics, Colonel Gorst?’ he asked, accompanied by some light sniggering.

Ram it up your chin-arse, you cow-winding bladder of vanity.

The words tickled Gorst’s lips. But in his falsetto, whatever he said the joke would be on him. He would rather have faced a thousand Northmen than this ordeal by conversation. So he turned the first sound into a queasy grin, and smiled along with his humiliation as he always did. He found the gloomiest corner, crossed his arms over his filthy jacket and dampened his fury by imagining the smirking heads of Mitterick’s staff impaled on the pikes of Black Dow’s army. Not the most patriotic pastime, perhaps, but among his most satisfying.

It’s an upside-down sham of a world in which men like these, if they can be called men at all, can look down on a man like me. I am worth twice the lot of you. And this is the best the Union has to offer?

We deserve to lose.

‘Can’t win a war without getting your hands dirty.’

‘What?’ Gorst frowned sideways. The Dogman was leaning beside him in his battered coat, a look of world-weary resignation on his no less battered face.

The Northman let his head tip back until it bumped gently against the peeling wall. ‘Some folk would rather keep clean, though, eh? And lose.’

Gorst could ill afford to strike up an alliance with the one man even more of an outsider than himself. He slipped into his accustomed silence like a well-worn suit of armour, and turned
his attention to the nervous chatter of the officers.

‘When are they getting here?’

‘Soon.’

‘How many of them?’

‘I heard three.’

‘Only one. It only takes one member of the Closed Council.’

‘The Closed Council?’ squeaked Gorst, voice driven up almost beyond the range of human hearing by a surge of nerves. A nauseating after-taste of the horror he had felt the day those horrible old men had stripped him of his position. Squashing my dreams as carelessly as a boy might squash a beetle. ‘And next . . .’ as he was ushered into the hallway and the black doors were shut on
him like coffin lids. No longer commander of the king’s guards. No longer a Knight of the Body. No longer anything but a squealing joke, my name made a byword for failure and disgrace. He could
see that panel of creased and sagging sneers still. And at the head of the table the king’s pale face, jaw clenched, refusing to meet Gorst’s eye. As though the ruin of his most loyal servant was no more than an unpleasant chore . . .

‘Which of them will it be?’ Felnigg was asking. ‘Do we know?’

‘It hardly matters.’ Kroy looked towards the window. Beyond the half-open shutters the rain was getting heavier. ‘We already know what they will say. The king demands a great victory, at twice the speed and half the cost.’

‘As always!’ Mitterick crowed with the regularity of an overeager cockerel. ‘Damn politicians, sticking their noses into our business! I swear those swindlers on the Closed Council cost us
more lives than the bloody enemy ever—’

The doorknob turned with a loud rattle and a heavy-set old man entered the room, entirely bald with a short grey beard. He gave no immediate impression of supreme power. His clothes were only slightly less rain-soaked and mud-spattered than Gorst’s own. His staff was of plain wood shod with steel, more walking stick than rod of office. But still, though he and the single, unassuming servant who scraped in after him were out- numbered ten to one by some of the finest peacocks in the army, it was the officers who held their breath. The old man carried about him an air of untouchable confidence, disdainful owner- ship, masterful control. The air of a slaughterman casting an eye over that morning’s hogs.

‘Lord Bayaz.’ Kroy’s face had paled, slightly. It might have been the very first time Gorst had seen the marshal surprised, and he was not alone. The crowded room could not have been more
dumbstruck if the corpse of Harod the Great had been trundled in on a trolley to address them.

‘Gentlemen.’ Bayaz tossed his staff carelessly to his curly- headed servant, wiped the beads of moisture from his bald pate with a faint hissing and flicked them from the edge of his hand. For a legendary figure, there was no ceremony to him. ‘Some weather we’re having, eh? Sometimes I love the North and sometimes . . . less so.’

‘We were not expecting—’

‘Why would you be?’ Bayaz chuckled with a show of good humour that somehow managed to seem a threat. ‘I am retired! I had left my seat on the Closed Council empty once again and was seeing out my dotage at my library, far removed from the grind of politics. But since this war is taking place on my very doorstep, I thought it would be neglectful of me not to stop by. I have brought money with me – I understand pay is standing somewhat in arrears.’

‘A little,’ conceded Kroy.

‘A little more and the soldier’s veneer of honour and obedience might swiftly rub away, eh, gentlemen? Without its golden lubricant the great machine of his Majesty’s army would soon stutter to a halt, would it not, as with so much in life?’

‘Concern for the welfare of our men is always uppermost in our minds,’ said the marshal, uncertainly.

‘And mine!’ answered Bayaz. ‘I am here only to help. To keep the wheels oiled, if you will. To observe and perhaps, should the occasion call, offer some trifling guidance. Yours is the com- mand, Lord Marshal, of course.’

‘Of course,’ echoed Kroy, but no one was convinced. This, after all, was the First of the Magi. A man supposedly hundreds of years old, supposedly possessed of magical powers, who had supposedly forged the Union, brought the king to his throne, driven out the Gurkish and laid a good section of Adua to waste doing it. Supposedly. Hardly a man noted for a reluctance to interfere. ‘Er . . . might I introduce General Mitterick, commander of his Majesty’s second division?’

‘General Mitterick, even sealed away with my books I have heard tales of your valour. An honour.’

The general fluffed up with happiness. ‘No, no! The honour is mine!’

‘Yes,’ said Bayaz, with casual brutality.

Kroy charged boldly into the ensuing silence. ‘This is my chief of staff, Colonel Felnigg, and this the leader of those Northmen who oppose Black Dow and fight alongside us, the Dogman.’

‘Ah, yes!’ Bayaz raised his brows. ‘I believe we had a mutual friend in Logen Ninefingers.’

The Dogman stared evenly back, the one man in the room who showed no sign of being overawed. ‘I’m a long way from sure he’s dead.’

‘If anyone can cheat the Great Leveller it was – or is – he. Either way, he is a loss to the North. To the world. A great man, and much missed.’

Dogman shrugged. ‘A man, anyway. Some good and some bad in him, like most. As for much missed, depends on who you ask, don’t it?’

‘True.’ Bayaz gave a rueful smile, and spoke a few words in fluent Northern: ‘You have to be realistic about these things.’

‘You do,’ replied the Dogman. Gorst doubted whether anyone else in the room had understood their little exchange. He was not entirely sure he had, for all he knew the language.

Kroy tried to usher things on. ‘And this is—’

‘Bremer dan Gorst, of course!’ Bayaz shocked Gorst to his boots by warmly shaking his hand. For a man of his years, he had quite the grip. ‘I saw you fence against the king, how long ago,
now? Five years? Six?’

Gorst could have counted the hours since. And it says a great deal for my shadow of a life that my proudest moment is still being humiliated in a fencing match. ‘Nine.’

‘Nine, imagine that! The decades flit past me like leaves on the wind, I swear. No man ever deserved the title more.’

‘I was fairly beaten.’

Bayaz leaned close. ‘You were beaten, anyway, which is all that really counts, eh?’ And he slapped Gorst on the arm as if they had shared a private joke, though if they had it was private to Bayaz
alone. ‘I thought you were with the Knights of the Body? Were you not guarding the king at the Battle of Adua?’

Gorst felt himself colouring. I was, as everyone here well knows, but now I am nothing but a wretched scapegoat, used and discarded like some stuttering serving girl by his lordship’s caddish youngest son.

Now I am—

‘Colonel Gorst is here as the king’s observer,’ ventured Kroy, seeing his discomfort.

‘Of course!’ Bayaz snapped his fingers. ‘After that business in Sipani.’

Gorst’s face burned as though the city’s very name was a slap.

Sipani. And as simply as that the best part of him was where he spent so much of his time: four years ago, back in the madness of Cardotti’s House of Leisure. Stumbling through the smoke,
searching desperately for the king, reaching the staircase, seeing that masked face – and then the long, bouncing trip down the stairs, into unjust disgrace. He saw smirks among the over-bright
smear of faces the room had suddenly become. He opened his dry mouth but, as usual, nothing of any use emerged.

‘Ah, well.’ The Magus gave Gorst’s shoulder the kind of consoling pat one might give to a guard dog long ago gone blind, and occasionally tossed a bone for sentimental reasons.

‘Perhaps you can work your way back into the king’s good graces.’

Depend upon it, you arcane fuck-hole, if I must spill every drop of blood in the North. ‘Perhaps,’ Gorst managed to whisper.

But Bayaz had already drawn out a chair and was steepling his fingers before him. ‘So! The situation, Lord Marshal?’

Kroy jerked the front of his jacket smooth as he advanced on the great map, so large it had been folded at the edges to fit on the biggest wall of the mean little building. ‘General Jalenhorm’s division is here, to our west.’ Paper crackled as Kroy’s stick hissed over it. ‘He is pushing northwards, firing crops and villages in the hope of drawing the Northmen into battle.’

Bayaz looked bored. ‘Mmmm.’

‘Meanwhile Lord Governor Meed’s division, accompanied by the majority of the Dogman’s loyalists, have marched southeast to take Ollensand under siege. General Mitterick’s division remains between the two.’ Tap, tap, stick on paper, ruthlessly precise. ‘Ready to lend support to either one. The route of supply runs south towards Uffrith over poor roads, no more than tracks, really, but we are—’

‘Of course.’ Bayaz rendered it all irrelevant with a wave of one meaty hand. ‘I have not come to interfere in the details.’

Kroy’s stick hovered uselessly. ‘Then—’

‘Imagine yourself a master mason, Lord Marshal, working upon one turret of a grand palace. A craftsman whose dedication, skill and attention to detail are disputed by no one.’

‘Mason?’ Mitterick looked baffled.

‘Then imagine the Closed Council as the architects. Our responsibility is not the fitting of one stone to another, it is the design of the building overall. The politics, rather than the tactics. An army is an instrument of government. It must be used in such a way that it furthers the interests of government.

Otherwise what use is it? Only an extremely costly machine for . . . minting medals.’ The room shifted uncomfortably.

Hardly the sort of talk the toy soldiers appreciate.

‘The policies of government are subject to sudden change,’ grumbled Felnigg.

Bayaz looked upon him like a schoolmaster at the dunce ruining the standard of his class. ‘The world is fluid. We must be fluid also. And since these latest hostilities began, circumstances have not flowed for the better. At home the peasants are restless again. War taxes, and so on. Restless, restless, always restless.’ He drummed his thick fingers restlessly on the table-top.

‘And the new Lords’ Round is finally completed, so the Open Council is in session and the nobles have somewhere to com- plain. They are doing so. At tremendous length. They are impatient with the lack of progress, apparently.’

‘Damn windbags,’ grunted Mitterick. Lending considerable support to the maxim that men always hate in others what is most hateful in themselves.

Bayaz sighed. ‘Sometimes I feel I am building sandcastles against the tide. The Gurkish are never idle, there is no end to their intrigues. But once they were the only real challenge to us abroad. Now there is the Snake of Talins, too. Murcatto.’ He frowned as if the name tasted foul, hard lines deepening across his face. ‘While our armies are entangled here that cursed woman continues to tighten her grip on Styria, emboldened by the knowledge that the Union can do little to oppose her.’ Some patriotic tutting stirred the assembly. ‘Put simply, gentlemen, the costs of this war, in treasure, in prestige, in lost opportunities, are becoming too high. The Closed Council require a swift con- clusion. Naturally, as soldiers, you all are prone to be sentimental about warfare. But fighting is only any use when it’s cheaper than the alternatives.’ He calmly picked a piece of fluff from his sleeve, frowned at it, and flicked it away. ‘This is the North, after all. I mean to say . . . what’s it worth?’

There was a silence. Then Marshal Kroy cleared his throat.

‘The Closed Council require a swift conclusion . . . do they mean by the end of the campaigning season?’

‘The end of the season? No, no.’ The officers blew out their cheeks with evident relief. It was short-lived. ‘Considerably sooner than that.’

The noise slowly built. Shocked gasps, then horrified splutters, then whispered swear-words and grumbles of disbelief, the officers’ professional affront scoring a rare victory over their usually unconquerable servility.

‘But we cannot possibly—!’ Mitterick burst out, striking the table with one gauntleted fist then hastily remembering himself.

‘I mean to say, I apologise, but we cannot—’

‘Gentlemen, gentlemen.’ Kroy ushered down his unruly brood, and appealed to reason. The lord marshal is nothing if not a reasonable man. ‘Lord Bayaz . . . Black Dow continues to evade us. To manoeuvre and fall back.’ He gestured at the map as though it was covered in realities that simply could not be argued with. ‘He has staunch war leaders at his side. His men know the land, are sustained by its people. He is a master at swift movement and retreat, at swift concentration and surprise. He has already wrong-footed us once. If we rush to battle, there is every chance that—’

But he might as well have reasoned with the tide. The First of the Magi was not interested. ‘You stray onto the details again, Lord Marshal. Masons and architects and so forth, did I speak about that? The king sent you here to fight, not march around. I have no doubt you will find a way to bring the Northmen to a decisive battle, and if not, well . . . every war is only a prelude to talk, isn’t it?’ Bayaz stood, and the officers belatedly struggled up after him, chairs screeching and swords clattering in an ill- coordinated shambles.

‘We are . . . delighted you could join us,’ Kroy managed, though the army’s feelings were very clearly the precise opposite.

Bayaz appeared impervious to irony, however. ‘Good, because I will be staying to observe. Some gentlemen from the University of Adua accompanied me. They have an invention that I am curious to see tested.’

‘Anything we can do to assist.’

‘Excellent.’ Bayaz smiled broadly. The only smile in the room. ‘I will leave the shaping of the stones in your . . .’ He raised an eyebrow at Mitterick’s absurd gauntlets. ‘Capable hands. Gentlemen.’

The officers kept their nervous silence, as the First of the Magi’s worn boots and those of his single servant receded down the hallway, like children sent early to bed, preparing to throw
back the covers as soon as their parents reached a safe distance.

Angry babbling broke out the moment they heard the front door close. ‘What the hell—’

‘How dare he?’

‘Before the end of the season?’ frothed Mitterick. ‘He is quite mad!’

‘Ridiculous!’ snapped Felnigg. ‘Ridiculous!’

‘Bloody politicians!’

But Gorst had a smile, and not just at the dismay of Mitterick and the rest. Now they would have to seek battle. And whatever they came for, I came to fight.

Kroy brought his fractious officers to order by banging at the table with his stick. ‘Gentlemen, please! The Closed Council have spoken, and so the king has spoken, and we can only strive to obey. We are but the masons, after all.’ He turned towards the map as the room quieted, eyes running over the roads, the hills, the rivers of the North. ‘I fear we must abandon caution and concentrate the army for a concerted push northwards. Dogman?’

The Northman stepped up to the table and snapped out a vibrating salute. ‘Marshal Kroy, sir!’ A joke, of course, since he was an ally rather than an underling.

‘If we march for Carleon in force, is it likely that Black Dow will finally offer battle?’

The Dogman rubbed a hand over his stubbled jaw. ‘Maybe. He ain’t the most patient. Looks bad for him, letting you tramp all over his back yard these past few months. But he’s always been an unpredictable bastard, Black Dow.’ He had a bitter look on his face for a moment, as if remembering something painful.

‘One thing I can tell you, if he decides on battle he won’t offer nothing. He’ll ram it right up your arse. Still, it’s worth a try.’ Dogman grinned around the officers. ‘ ’Specially if you like it up your arse.’

‘Not my first choice, but they say a general should be prepared for anything.’ Kroy traced a road to its junction, then tapped at the paper. ‘What is this town?’

The Dogman leaned over the table to squint at the map, considerably inconveniencing a pair of unhappy staff officers and giving the impression of not caring in the least. ‘That’s Osrung. Old town, set in fields, with a bridge and a mill, might have, what . . . three or four hundred people in peacetime? Some stone buildings, more wood. High fence around the outside. Used to have a damn fine tavern but, you know, nothing’s how it used to be.’

‘And this hill? Near where the roads from Ollensand and Uffrith meet?’

‘The Heroes.’

‘Odd name for a hill,’ grunted Mitterick.

‘Named after a ring of old stones on top. Some warriors of ancient days are buried beneath ’em, or that’s one rumour, anyway. You get quite a view from up there. I sent a dozen to have a look-see the other day, in fact, check if any of Dow’s boys have shown their faces.’

‘And?’

‘Nothing yet, but no reason there should be. There’s help nearby, if they get pressed.’

‘That’s the spot, then.’ Kroy craned closer to the map, pressing the point of his stick into that hill as though he could will the army there. ‘The Heroes. Felnigg?’

‘Sir?’

‘Send word to Lord Governor Meed to abandon the siege of Ollens and and march with all haste to meet us near Osrung.’ That got a few sharp in-breaths. ‘Meed will be furious,’ said Mitterick.

‘He often is. That cannot be helped.’

‘I’ll be heading back that way,’ said Dogman. ‘Meet up with the rest o’ my boys and get ’em moving north. I can take the message.’

‘It might be better if Colonel Felnigg carries it personally. Lord Governor Meed is . . . not the greatest admirer of Northmen.’

‘Unlike the rest of you, eh?’ The Dogman showed the Union’s finest a mouthful of sharp yellow teeth. ‘I’ll make a move, then. With any luck I’ll see you up the Heroes in what . . . three days?
Four?’

‘Five, if this weather gets no better.’

‘This is the North. Let’s call it five.’ And he followed Bayaz out of the low sitting room.

‘Well, it might not be the way we wanted it.’ Mitterick smashed a meaty fist into a meaty palm.

‘But we can show them something, now, eh? Get those skulking bastards out in the open and show them something!’ The legs of his chair shrieked as he stood. ‘I will hurry my division along. We should make a night march, Lord Marshal! Get at the enemy!’

‘No.’ Kroy was already sitting at his desk and dipping pen in ink to write orders. ‘Halt them for the night. On these roads, in this weather, haste will do more harm than good.’

‘But, Lord Marshal, if we—’

‘I intend to rush, General, but not headlong into a defeat. We must not push the men too hard. They need to be ready.’

Mitterick jerked up his gloves. ‘Damn these damn roads!’ Gorst stood aside to let him and his staff file from the room, silently wishing he was ushering them through into a bottomless pit.
Kroy raised his brows as he wrote. ‘Sensible men . . . run away . . . from battles.’ His pen scratched neatly across the paper.

‘Someone will need to take this order to General Jalenhorm. To move with all haste to the Heroes and secure the hill, the town of Osrung, and any other crossings of the river that—’

Gorst stepped forwards. ‘I will take it.’ If there was to be action, Jalenhorm’s division would be first into it. And I will be at the front of the front rank. I will not bury the ghosts of Sipani in a headquarters.

‘There is no one I would rather entrust it to.’ Gorst grasped the order but the marshal did not release it at once. He remained looking calmly up, the folded paper a bridge between them.

‘Remember, though, that you are the king’s observer, not the king’s champion.’

I am neither. I am a glorified errand boy, here because nowhere else will have me. I am a secretary in a uniform. A filthy uniform, as it happens. I am a dead man still twitching. Ha ha! Look at the big idiot with the silly voice! Make him dance! ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Observe, then, by all means. But no more heroics, if you please. Not like the other day at Barden. A war is no place for heroics. Especially not this one.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Kroy let go of the order and turned back to peer at his map, measuring distances between stretched-out thumb and forefinger.

‘The king would never forgive me if we were to lose you.’

The king has abandoned me here, and no one will care a stray speck of piss if I am hacked apart and my brains splattered across the North. Least of all me. ‘Yes, sir.’ And Gorst strode out, through the front door and back into the rain, where he was struck by lightning.

There she was, picking her way across the boggy front yard towards him. In the midst of all that sullen mud her smiling face burned like the sun, incandescent. Delight crushed him, made his skin sing and his breath catch. The months he had spent away from her had done not the slightest good. He was as desperately, hopelessly, helplessly in love as ever.

‘Finree,’ he whispered, voice full of awe, as in some silly story a wizard might pronounce a word of power. ‘Why are you here?’ Half-expecting she would fade into nothing, a figment of his
overwrought imagination.

‘To see my father. Is he in there?’

‘Writing orders.’

‘As always.’ She looked down at Gorst’s uniform and raised one eyebrow, darkened from brown to almost black and spiked to soft points by the rain. ‘Still playing in the mud, I see.’
He could not even bring himself to be embarrassed. He was lost in her eyes. Some strands of hair were stuck across her wet face. He wished he was. I thought nothing could be more beautiful
than you used to be, but now you are more beautiful than ever. He dared not look at her and he dared not look away. You are the most beautiful woman in the world – no – in all of history – no – the most beautiful thing in all of history. Kill me, now, so that your face can be the last thing I see. ‘You look well,’ he murmured.

She looked down at her sodden travelling coat, mud-spotted to the waist. ‘I suspect you’re not being entirely honest with me.’

‘I never dissemble.’ I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you . . .

‘And are you well, Bremer? I may call you Bremer, may I?’

You may crush my eyes out with your heels. Only say my name again. ‘Of course. I am . . .’ Ill in mind and body, ruined in fortune and reputation, hating of the world and everything in it, but
none of that matters, as long as you are with me. ‘Well.’

She held out her hand and he bent to kiss it like a village priest who had been permitted to touch the hem of the Prophet’s robe—

There was a golden ring on her finger with a small, sparkling blue stone.

Gorst’s guts twisted so hard he nearly lost control of them entirely. It was only by a supreme effort that he stayed standing.

He could scarcely whisper the words. ‘Is that . . .’

‘A marriage band, yes!’ Could she know he would rather she had dangled a butchered head in his face?

He gripped to his smile like a drowning man to the last stick of wood. He felt his mouth move, and heard his own squeak. His repugnant, womanly, pathetic little squeak. ‘Who is the gentleman?’

‘Colonel Harod dan Brock.’ A hint of pride in her voice. Of love. What would I give to hear her say my name like that? All I have. Which is nothing but other men’s scorn.

‘Harod dan Brock,’ he whispered, and the name was sand in his mouth. He knew the man, of course. They were distantly related, fourth cousins or some such. They had sometimes spoken years ago, when Gorst had served with the guard of his father, Lord Brock. Then Lord Brock had made his bid for the crown, and failed, and been exiled for the worst of treasons. His eldest son had been granted the king’s mercy, though. Stripped of his many lands, and his lofty titles, but left with his life. How Gorst wished the king was less merciful now.

‘He is serving on Lord Governor Meed’s staff.’

‘Yes.’ Brock was nauseatingly handsome, with an easy smile and a winning manner. The bastard. Well spoken of and well liked, in spite of his father’s disgrace. The snake. Had earned his place by bravery and bonhomie. The fucker. He was everything Gorst was not.

He clenched his right fist trembling hard, and imagined it ripping the easy-smiling jaw out of Harod dan Brock’s handsome head. ‘Yes.’

‘We are very happy,’ said Finree.

Good for you. I want to kill myself. She could not have given him sharper pain if she had crushed his cock in a vice. Could she be such a fool as to not see through him? Some part of her must have known, must have delighted in his humiliation. Oh, how I love you. Oh, how I hate you. Oh, how I want you.

‘My congratulations to you both,’ he murmured.

‘I will tell my husband.’

‘Yes.’ Yes, yes, tell him to die, tell him to burn, and soon. Gorst kept the rictus smile clinging to his face while vomit tickled at his throat. ‘Yes.’

‘I must go to my father. Perhaps we will see each other again,
soon?’

Oh, yes. Very soon. Tonight, in fact, while I lie awake with my cock in my hand, pretending it’s your mouth . . . ‘I hope so.’

She was already walking past. For her, a forgettable encounter with an old acquaintance. For him, as she turned away it was as if night fell. The soil is heaped upon me, the grit of burial in my mouth. He watched the door rattle shut behind her, and stood there for a long moment, in the rain. He wanted to weep, and weep, and weep for all his ruined hopes. He wanted to kneel in the mud and tear out the hair he still had. He wanted to murder someone, and hardly cared who. Myself, perhaps?

Instead he took a sharp breath, squeaking slightly in one nostril, and squelched away through the mud, into the gathering dusk.

He had a message to carry, after all. With no heroics.