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Authors: Paul Kearney

Corvus

Corvus

The Macht Book 2

Paul Kearney

 

For Marie

 

This book would
not have existed without patience and hard work of Jon Oliver and John Jarrold,
and I am grateful to them both for their encouragement and their sheer
professionalism

 

 

PART ONE

 

THE SPEAR BY THE
DOOR

 

ONE

THE
QUIET WATER

AS
always, he
halted on the crest of
the last ridge. Leaning on his spear, he looked down in the gathering
blue-shadowed dusk and something like a sigh ran out of him.

Before him, the
land poured down in darkening folds and hollows until it met the flat shadow of
the glen at the river-bottom. A flash of red there, as the river glanced up at
the last light of the sun. Then the mountainsides all around seemed to crowd
together as if huddling against the night, and the valley was blanked out, like
a conjurer’s trick. But in the midst of that quiet darkness, he could see a
light burning, steady and yellow.

The spear creaked
under his weight. The leather straps of pack and shield dug into his shoulders.
The heat of the day broke past him, a warm passage of air rushing down to fill
up the cool darkness of the river-bottom below. He closed his eyes as the air
kissed the glimmering sweat on his forehead, and turned, straightening.

Behind him, on the
northern slope of the ridge, a long line of men sat by the side of the track.
Every one of them was burdened with packed cuirass and strapped shield. Every
one had a spear in his fist. They looked up as he turned to them, and their
eyes were pale glitters as the sunset shattered across the mountains behind
them.

“This is me,” he
said. “I leave you here.”

Word went down the
line. The men rose to their feet in a ripple of movement, like a snake
shivering itself awake down the length of the track. Three burdened figures at
their head made an arrowpoint of burdened shapes. One of them bore a banner, a
staff of yew wood with a tattered flag that rippled idly in the breezes of the
dusk. Upon its tattered face could just be made out the snarling, stylized
muzzle of a dog or wolf.

“We’ll call on you
before the first snows,” the banner-bearer said, a massively built fellow with
a battered, craggy forehead and eyes like shards of blue glass below it. He
grinned, showing broad yellow teeth, some of which had been ornamented with
silver wire.

“No, you won’t.
You’re full of shit, and you’ve too much gold in your pouch. Don’t spend it all
at once, Kesero. And keep a wind-eye open for those fellows from Machran;
Karnos, especially. The New Year comes, and you’re looking for jobs again.”

“And you, Rictus?”
another of them said. He was younger, a long, lean, red-haired man who would
have been pretty as a girl were it not for the deep scarred hole below his left
eye which dragged the lower lid downwards, unbalancing his face, giving a him a
look at once mocking and mournful.

“What about me?”

“Will we be seeing
you after the turning of the year?”

Rictus paused. His
gaze swept down the track over the scores of men who lined it silently, all of
them looking up the ridge at him. The last of the sun caught his eyes and
flashed back out of them in a red glare. He was a big man with a shock of
yellow hair veined grey, broad in the shoulders, long in the arm, and there was
not an ounce of excess flesh on his face. As his lips thinned, so the outline
of his teeth could be seen behind them, and an old seam of scar tissue paled
out from his lower lip and down his chin.

“I’ll wait for the
New Year, Valerian, and see what Antimone brings me,” he said at last, making
the words lighter with a smile.

Valerian hitched
his pack up higher on his shoulders. “Well then, here’s to Hal Goshen, boys,”
he said, his lop-sided face like two halves of different masks. “Here’s to red
wine and wet women. I’ll come up with Kesero, Rictus, and dig you out of your
burrow before the snows bury you too deep.”

He raised his
spear above his head and pointed it towards the east. “Dogsheads!” he cried,
and the word was caught up by the mountains and flung echoing around the high
country. “March on – we can make ten more pasangs before Phobos rises.”

Behind him, the
long files of men started out, taking a stony track along the crest of the
ridge with the last light of the sun on their backs. Valerian held out a hand,
and Rictus shook it. Then the big, crag-faced bannerbearer, Kesero, did the
same. They led the line of burdened figures off, and Rictus stood and watched
them go. As the men passed him on their way east, they each and every one
nodded at him. A few struck their spears against their chests in salute. By the
time the rearguard had gone by it was almost fully dark, and the stars were
glimmering overhead in their tens of millions.

A dark shape
uncoiled itself from the shadow below Rictus and stood to become a compact,
black-bearded man with a face as sharp as a fox’s nose.

“Well, are you
going to stand there until Phobos finds you, or are we to get on home?” the man
asked waspishly. He yawned, and rubbed his eyes.

“It’s all downhill
from here, Fornyx,” Rictus said. “Tonight you’ll sleep in a bed with a fire at
your feet.”

The two men set
off down the ridge to the glen below, from which the sound of rushing water
could now be heard. They moved quietly, and their sandaled feet ate up the
downslope with the steady pace of men who have been marching all their lives.

“You’re not
retiring. You just tell them that to mess with their heads,” Fornyx said,
picking at his teeth with a thumbnail as he walked.

Rictus strode
along in silence, eyes fixed on the single point of light in the widening glen
below them.

“And if you were,”
Fornyx went on, “Why bury yourself up here in the hills? It’s a hard scrabble
up this high, Rictus.” When he received no response, he went on, “Any city in
the Harukush would shower you in gold just to have your spear planted on their
walls. You could live like a king, had you a mind to.”

“We have no kings,”
Rictus said quickly. “And me, I’ve no wish to set myself up as one. Damn it,
Fornyx, don’t you ever shut up? You love these hills as much as I do. And
besides, there’s enough gold buried under Andunnon’s hearth already.”

Fornyx grinned,
looking more vulpine than ever. The top of his head barely reached the taller
man’s shoulder, but the muscles in his arms and legs were like corded wires,
and he kept pace with Rictus’s long stride without obvious effort.

“I find
conversation an amusement, and if no-one will talk to me, then I’ll amuse
myself until they do.”

“Well, amuse
yourself in silence for a moment, will you? Stop here.”

They halted,
almost on the brim of a mountain river, which fell flashing from a rocky bluff
to the west and ran along the bottom of the glen, foaming and purling in its
stony bed. Rictus breathed in the cooling air deeply.

“Smell the pines?”
he asked. “There’s still garlic growing on the far bank, and thyme, too. I
wonder how the barley did this year.”

“The same as it
did last year, I shouldn’t wonder,” Fornyx said with a snort. “Aise and Eunion
will have the place blooming, as they always do. Come, let’s cool our feet.” He
began splashing across the silver-flashing river.

Rictus watched him
go, smiling slightly. In the hanging woods that carpeted the upper sides of the
glen, an owl hooted as though it, too, wondered what was keeping him. His hand
went up to his neck, and there at the lip of his cuirass it brushed against a
cord of rawhide upon which hung a wolf’s tooth and a rounded fragment of coral.
Then Rictus began to wade across the cold, fast-flowing river in Fornyx’s wake.

 

The dogs came
. out barking as they
approached the eaves of the farm, but their barks changed to delighted yips and
whines as they caught the scent of the two men. Big, brindled hunting hounds,
they bounced around Rictus and Fornyx like pups, tongues lolling happily. A
square of light opened into the night, dazzling, wiping out the stars and
making the glen around them into depthless black space.

A woman stood
outlined in the threshold, firelight and lamplight flickering out behind her
along with the laughter of children. She snapped a word to the dogs and they
calmed down at once, grinning happily. The laughter within ceased. Rictus
stepped up to the door.

The woman who
confronted him there was tall, iron-coloured in hair and eyes. She was wrapped
in a finely spun woollen shawl the same saffron hue as the light behind her, so
that she seemed bathed in bright warmth. She had a long face, strong-jawed as a
man’s, and as she saw Rictus and Fornyx her eyes widened a trifle, but that was
the only way the face changed. She reached back inside the house and produced a
shallow dish.

“My lord. Welcome
home,” she said, a voice as low as heather honey.

Both Rictus and
Fornyx took salt from the dish and tasted it. “Antimone bless us all,” Fornyx
said.

“Aise,” Rictus
said. And he bent to kiss the woman on the forehead.

She stood aside. “Come
in. Since you sent word from Nemasis we have been expecting you, this month and
more.” A slight pause, long enough to be noticed. “It’s late, but there’s still
some supper to be had.”

Rictus had to
stoop to enter the house, and he blinked as the lamplight and woodsmoke within
pricked his eyes.

A long, low
mountain farmstead, built and flagged with stone, thatched with reeds from the
riverside. It had a hearth the shape of a beehive opposite the doorway, from
which floated the faint fragrance of baked bread. Oil lamps hung from the
rafters, suspended by silver chains - he had brought those back from the
Avensis siege, fifteen years ago - and the heavy pine table and benches he and
Fornyx had hammered together with much drunken profanity some decade before
remained, darkened with age and use.

There were
unfamiliar touches though: a new loom stood in the shadows of the north wall,
and a bronze hinged chest had replaced the old one he had stored his scrolls in
for as many years as the house had stood.

And the people had
changed also. Eunion came forward from his place by the fire, touching his fist
to his chest. He rose more stiffly than Rictus remembered, and there was even
less hair on his skull, but the lively intelligence in the dark eyes was the
same.

“You are welcome
home, master,” he said, still using the term although Rictus had freed him many
years ago.

“Are you well,
Eunion?”

“As well as
always, sir. The lady keeps the life in me.”

The newcomers
dumped their gear on the stone floor, unclipping the fastenings on their
armour. Eunion took the black cuirasses from their backs one by one and set
them reverently on the cross-shaped stands at the gable wall. The rest of their
gear followed, until it seemed that there were two helmed and armoured men
squatting in the shadows there, scarlet cloaks on their shoulders.

Aise had already
disappeared out the back door and they could hear her clapping her hands for
the slaves. Rictus thought to stop her - he wanted no fuss - but then thought
better of it. It was her household, after all, and well over a year since he
had been in it.

“Well, aren’t you
going to speak to me?” he asked the two slim, upright figures by the fire. “Don’t
you know me?”

“Always,” one of
them said, and then sprang forward into his arms. He spun her round, laughing,
breathing her in, feeling the litheness of her youth against him, then set her
down and stared at her.

“Gods above, Rian,
you’re taller still - will you never stop growing?”

“Not until I’m as
tall as you,” she retorted. “One day I’ll look you in the eye.”

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