Read Hand of the King's Evil - Outremer 04 Online

Authors: Chaz Brenchley

Tags: #Fantasy

Hand of the King's Evil - Outremer 04 (5 page)

There was more, the marshal was a master at setting fires to burn in men's hearts; but Anton's attention drifted. He remembered how he had seen Marron and the others, the night they fled — how they had been grouped in the court below his window, at the foot of that same Tower of the Kings Daughter, all lit by a glowing ball of fire. That had been a sharp blue witchlight, not at all what Fulke described - but still, it was all of a piece. They had looked like travellers balked, or warriors defeated. That had been his thought then, and was still his thought now. He had wondered ever since, why there? It was the furthest part of the castle from the gate, not guarded perhaps but overlooked by all the knights' windows, a nonsensical place to meet. Unless they'd had some other objective, another way to leave perhaps, some mystical door that the prisoner from Surayon could open, except that they had found it closed against them
...

He thought that what Marshal Fulke had seen was no sleeping vision; he wondered if perhaps it was not either a visitation from the God, but rather simple truth. This was after all a land of miracles and magic, and not all beneficent. There had been ample proof of that, when Marron had slaughtered his troop in the stables. With a blood-demon by all reports, a monster of terrible strength - something that he had perhaps come by within the tower? For sure the boy had owned no supernatural powers earlier, Anton himself could testify to that; only the native charms of shyness and beauty, a pair of eyes that could snare a man's heart
...

It might be blasphemy, he thought, to question a divine vision. It was certainly disobedience to his vows, to question the affirmation of his superior. Well, let it be so. One further sin on his conscience, what did that matter, one among so many? And no, he would not be confessing it before they marched.

Having no squire now, he made what use he could of his confreres', what little time he could beg their servants from them - he who had been so independent for so long, forced to plead for service; he had been spoiled in more than the one way, he thought, by a few short weeks of Marron - and was still kept unaccustomedly busy on his own account, packing and preparing for what must be a lengthy absence, what could be months of campaigning in the field.

And so it wasn't until the following morning, when the castle and all the chaos of a dawn march lay hours at his back, when he had at last the peace of a steady horse below him and the silence of his brethren all around him, that he found the time and the space to think a little. Even that silence had been slow in coming, for all the rigour of the Order's rules. Young men who ride to battle will be talkative, and his fellow knights spoke to Anton now as though he were one of their own: only a little older than most and a finer swordsman than any, a favourite of Marshal Fulke's too and so very much worth their time. He was still not used to that. A sudden popularity was hard to deal with, harder to set aside.

Eventually, though, the weight of cloak and armour under a fierce sun beat down the most insistent tongue. With his hood drawn up and its rim hanging low to shade his eyes from the glare, Anton could feel himself alone amid a crowd, as he had been for so long before this.
Before Marron
...
For some few years he'd all but hidden at the Roq, given implicit licence to hide by virtue of his name and fame. Or infame, rather, the truth and rumours that attached to any whisper of that name. He'd rarely left the castle walls, except to patrol the borderlands where there were none to whisper, only wild tribes who fled at sight, the occasional Sharai raiding-party to be tracked or attacked.

His recent venture east as part of Juliannes honour-guard had been curtailed, but had still reaped a taste of trouble among the Elessi.

Now, though - now he was headed directly into the heart of Outremer, and could not hope to escape the public eye. All down this long road there would be petty grandees offering food and wine and hospitality, offering their sons to the adventure, perhaps throwing their marriageable daughters into this lordly company. Blustering barons, hopeful boys and giggling girls alike would seek to learn his name.

Above all there would be constant fresh arrivals, recruits come to join this building army. The Order might make the hammerhead, but every hammer needs a solid shaft. There were swords, bows, axes in their hundreds aboard the wagons at the columns tail. Any man who offered would be armed and welcomed to the march; every lordling who answered the preceptors summons would be given his place of honour, and would mingle as of right among the knights. Anton could no more lie about his history than he could hope to hide his face. Anton d'Escrivey rode out into the world again, after so long silence; let the world make what it would of the fact, of him. He would be interested to see the results.

And might see them sooner even than he'd budgeted for; a group of men was waiting at a crossroads up ahead, two of them mounted and the rest afoot. Some minor noble and his eldest son, this ought to be, with a dozen retainers, all that their estate could spare. First to join, and they would carry that like a banner, Anton thought:
before the horde, before our liege lord even, there were the Ransomers and there was us, they treated us like brothers
...

So much so that Fulke himself rode on ahead to greet them, to offer
honour where it was so manifestl
y d
ue, so manifestl
y expected. He could be a diplomat, then, as well as an inspired preacher; whether he was or could learn to be a soldier, that was yet to be seen.

There was - of course! - a shrine at the crossroads; there was also,
mirabile dictu,
a spring that still gave water in this height of summer. Or not such a miracle, perhaps: he'd grown so used to the drouth of the Roq and its lands of dust, he'd forgotten how fertile the Kingdom was in its long lie between the mountains and the sea. Even one morning's ride south into Tallis, a rising purple shadow to the east gave better protection from the desert wind and the drifting sand. There was more roll than jut to the hills, more soil than rock, more green than grey. The spring was a slow bubbling pool rather than an overrunning freshet and they daren't let the animals near for fear of their hooves churning it into an undrinkable mire, but if the column rested for an hour—and if the brothers and squires worked all that hour, fetching and filling with their knees in the mud — every horse and ox could be refreshed.
Never lose a chance to water your mount
was an order ingrained into every man of the Order, after a few months' service at the Roq. Of course, they would pause.

And of course the knights would not scurry about with their boys and their black-robed comrades, after they had all knelt before the shrine to say the midday service with Marshal Fulke. Of course they would gather in a separate and super
ior group, to eat and talk quietl
y among themselves. And of course Anton would linger with them, sooner than make a target of himself, one man apart from all. And of course the nobles son would drift away from his father, towards the young men whose dress and armour bespoke their rank, whose bearing and demeanour must seem so attractive.

He was an open-faced, cheery lad no older than the squires who were busy tending their masters' horses, sixteen or seventeen at most, and he was possessed of a tongue that wouldn't stop wagging. Anton was more accustomed to shyness and quiet obedience among the young, after his years in the Order; this boy was almost a revelation, certainly a reminder that he was riding into a different world.

..
This isn't my place, not really, it ought to be my brothers, to ride with Father; but he's been sick for weeks, he's had the fever, and our mother wouldn't let him come. He swears he's well enough now, but he's thin yet and he can't stop coughing. So Father said I could come in his stead. Mother was against that too, she thinks I'm too young, but he said he wouldn't ride alone while he had two sons and one strong enough to bear arms for the King and the God. It's what I've always wanted anyway, always. Not Roben, that's my brother, he has a farmer's soul, Father says, he loves our land and never wants to leave it; it's a blessing,

think, that he's been so ill. Now that he's getting better, I mean. He can stay, as he really wants to, and I can go to the war.

'Roben would never make a soldier anyway, but I think I will. I mean, I hope so. I've never been afraid to fight. Not that Roben's afraid, I don't mean to say that; nor a weakling either, it's just that his heart's in the land, do you see what I mean
...
?'

'Emphatically,' Raffel murmured. 'Halben, a soldier's first duty is service—which is generally taken to include standing quiet among his betters, as a good servant does. Do you think you could manage that?'

'Oh. Forgive me, sieur. My mother always says I was born with a brook running out of my mouth, but

'I'm sure she does. Its all right, lad, I was teasing. It is true, though, that a young warrior should look first to serve; have you ever thought of offering your service to the God? As we do, I mean, as knights of the Order?'

'All my life,' the boy said simply. 'Father wouldn't countenance it, though, he says its too expensive. If I had been the elder, then perhaps; I think he would have liked to see my brother take the white for a year, and earn his badge. But Roben doesn't want it, and Father won't pay for me to stand in my brother's place.'

'He may change his mind, if he sees you do well with us.' Even from where he stood on the edge of the circle, Anton could see the look on the boy's face, and guessed that that idea had already occurred. He hid his smile better than some of his confreres, but then lost it completely as Raffel went on, 'If you cannot make your vows to the Order, you can at least offer us your service before we come to battle. One among us has need of a squire, if you would be willing . . . ?'

Of course Halben was willing, his speaking face said so even before his thrilled voice could confirm it. Anton felt his own face darken in response, with that clouding scowl he'd seen so often mirrored in others' wide and frightened eyes. For once he took the necessary moment to dispel it, before he pushed his way through the mill to where he had least intended to find himself, the centre of the circle and the focus of each man's gaze. Raffel wouldn't frighten, after all, and the boy was an innocent in this, he didn't deserve even the margin of Anton's anger.

He didn't deserve even as much as Anton must give him, here and now.

'A soldier's duty is to serve, perhaps; a soldier's wisdom is never to volunteer, at least until he knows to what he has promised himself. To whom. I am the one my brother speaks of so casually. When you have heard my name, you may not be so eager to stand as my servant.'

'Sieur, I will gladly attend any Knight Ransomer who thinks me worthy
...'

Perhaps there was some trace left after all of Anton's scowl; the boy stuttered into an unaccustomed silence, as their eyes met.

'It is not your worthiness that is in question, Halben.' Anton tried a smile, but even he could feel the bitterness of it as he went on, 'I am called Anton d'Escrivey. If you have not heard that name, you should ask your father's advice before you commit yourself to it.'

No need for that, transparentl
y. The boy had heard the name, and some at least of the stories attached to it. He went first pale, and then scarlet beneath his farmer's tan; his feet carried him backwards seemingly against his intent while his arms flailed to shape excuses in the air, while his tongue ran loose and desperate. He should not give himself against his father's express desire, his father would in any case require a squire's service of him, his mother had always cursed him for a clumsy oaf who couldn't serve a cup of wine without spilling it, and usually on whichever poor man it was whom he was serving
...

By the time the lad had squirmed his way through the press of men at his back and scurried off to join his parent, still apparently crying alibis to the wind, Anton had a better hold of his temper.

'Raffel,' he said, and felt pleased with himself for the moderate tone in which he said it, 'that was not fair.'

'Was it not? Then I apologise. But you could not have hoped to keep the secret longer than a day or two, Anton. There will be many more who join us, and there must be some to know you, you have not changed so much

'I have no intention of keeping secrets. I meant that it was unfair to the boy, to offer me as the fulfilment of his dreams. He was all on fire with delight, with this chance and this company; likely now some part of him at least wants to creep home to his mother.
‘‘
He
will know that he can never be quite comfortable with us again, even if you do not.'

And never a word about his own discomfort, or his own distress. To have been offered a lively younger son as squire and companion, a boy who couldn't stop talking about his brother - no, that had been neither fair nor kind, at a time when Anton must needs confront ghosts with every mile of the ride, and it was the ghost of his own brother who overshadowed all. Almost, Anton could find himself longing to be back at the Roq again, and only yearning for Marron's impossible return. Almost
...

All afternoon, small groups of men joined the column, petty nobles and landowners with their retinues. There were enough youngsters among them that Halben found his courage, left his fathers side and spread his whispers widely:
you see that man, that one there, the dark head and the haughty glare? That's Anton d'Escrivey Yes, that's right, the fratricide who fled his brother's body and his father's wrath to hide in the arms of the Order. They say he's a boy-lover too, that his brother caught him at it and so died; and he asked me to be his squire,
me...

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