Authors: Simon Brown
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Fantasy fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy Fiction; Australian, #Locks and Keys
DAW BOOKS, INC.
Copyright © 2000, Simon Brown
All rights reserved
DAW Book Collectors No. 1272.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
This book is dedicated with much love to my nephews and nieces—Alice, Amy, Andrew, Ben, Bennett, Billy, Caleb, Christopher, Daniel, James, Jane, Kea, Kylie, Lachlan, Louise, Nate, Phillip, Rebecca, Tara and Thomas.
I would like to thank Alison Tokley, Sean Williams, Jack Dann and Sara Douglass for all their advice and support during the writing of this book. I would also like to thank the wonderful work done on my behalf by Stephanie Smith, Julia Stiles, Garth Nix, Russ Galen, Betsy Wollheim and Debra Euler.
Kingdoms are but cares,
State is devoid of stay, Riches are ready snares,
And hasten to decay.
Pleasure is a privy prick
Which vice doth still provoke;
Pomp, imprompt; and fame, a flame; Power, a smouldering smoke.
Who meanth to remove the rock
Owt of the slimy mud, Shall mire himself, and hardly scape
The swelling of the flood.
—King Henry VI of England (1421-1471)
Ager, still not forty, crippled by war and itinerant by nature, had sat down for a quiet drink in the visitor’s room in the Lost Sailor Tavern. He fidgeted in his seat, trying to ease the pain in his crookback but without avail; the ax blow that had cut tendons and bone all those years ago had been too deep to ever fully repair. He took a sip of his drink, a strange, sweet, and warm brew that tickled all the way down his gullet, and took in his surroundings.
The room was busy, but not crowded. Aproned staff wandered between tables, taking orders and delivering drinks. The guests were a mixed lot of merchants, sailors, off-duty soldiers, local dock workers, and a handful of whores. A couple of the women had thrown him glances when he first entered the room, but on seeing his misshapen back and his one eye had quickly turned away. He did not care. He had not slept with a woman for fifteen years, and sex was more a memory than a desire these days.
Suddenly the seat opposite his was taken. He looked up and saw a youth dressed in farming gear of woolen pants and shirt and a dirt-stained coat; his round face was arse-smooth, his eyes brown, his gaze intent. The youth nodded a greeting and Ager returned the favor, noting there were plenty of vacant tables around.
“You were a soldier,” the youth said bluntly. “I can tell. I have seen wounds like those before.”
“There’s nothing special about losing an eye,” Ager replied calmly, “and many are born with a crookback.”
“The injuries are rarely seen together. An arrow in the eye, perhaps? And a halberd or spear in the back?”
“Right about the eye, wrong about the back.”
“Judging from your age, sir, I would guess these happened during the Slaver War.”
Ager found himself increasingly curious about this strange young man. “And what would you know about the Slaver War?”
“I’m interested in everything about it,” the youth replied with surprising earnestness. “In what battle did you receive your wounds? Or were they inflicted in different battles?”
“The battle at Deep River,” Ager told him.
The youth’s reaction surprised him. His eyes seem to light up like lanterns, and he said in a subdued voice, “I have searched for you for many years.”
The youth shook his head. “No, no. I mean, someone who was at Deep River.”
Ager leaned forward across the wooden table, moving aside the cup he had been drinking from, and said, “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t,” the youth replied levelly. “It’s Pirem.”
Ager nodded, trying to recall whether he knew the name. A distant memory sparked. “I knew a Pirem once,” he said quietly. “A long time ago.”
“There are many Pirems in Theare,” the youth said reasonably.
“This one was a soldier. He was in my company during the Slaver War.”
“He fought with you in the battle at Deep River?”
The man shook his head, then looked away. His single eye, as gray as a winter sky, looked as if it was searching for a memory in the drifting blue smoke that wafted from the kitchen through the common room.
“No; he died before then. Caught a sniffle that traveled to his lungs. He died in a delirium, thinking he was back with his wife and children.”
He returned his gaze to the youth. “Most of our losses during the war were to disease and not battle. Did you know that?”
Pirem blinked. “I remember reading something about it.”
“You read?” Ager asked loudly, clearly impressed. The skill of reading was rare enough to hint there was more to this boy than suggested by his farmer’s clothes. He tried to study the youth’s hands, but there was not enough light to catch that much detail.
“No more difficult a skill than ploughing,” Pirem said, keeping his voice low. The veteran’s exclamation had drawn attention to their table. “And talking of names, I don’t know yours yet.”
“Ah, now, names are not things you should pass on so easily.” He smiled easily. “Pirem.”
“I trust you.”
The statement was made with such direct simplicity that Ager was flattered. “Ager, and don’t worry about my last name. Why are you so interested in the Slaver War?”
“My father fought in the war.”
“Many fathers fought in the war.” Ager’s eye bunked. “And sons and brothers.” He rested back in his chair and a brief spasm of pain flickered across his face. Pirem looked concerned, but Ager waved a hand in dismissal.
“My father died while I was still a baby,” Pirem added.
“He fought at Deep River?”
“Yes. He fought in almost every battle of the war.”
Ager heard something like anger in Pirem’s voice. “He didn’t survive?” Pirem shook his head. “What was his name?” Pirem hesitated. “If you trust me with your name, you can trust me with that of your dead father’s. Maybe I knew him.”
Pirem opened his mouth to speak but closed it quickly. Ager waited, emptying his cup and catching the attention of one of the tavern’s bustling staff to indicate he wanted a refill.
“His name was Pirem, too.”
“God, the world is truly filled with your namesakes, isn’t it?”
Before Pirem could reply, a thin boy wearing a white apron streaked with dirty handprints was by their table and filling Ager’s cup with a warm brew, smelling of clove, different than his first drink. He tried an experimental sip and decided he liked it even more.
“An‘ who’s payin’ for it?” the boy demanded, holding out his hand. Pirem handed over a coin before Ager could dig out any coppers from his purse.
“Bugger me!” the boy cried. “That’s a whole penny! I can’t change that, sir. I’ve only got three eighths on me…”
“Keep his cup filled during the night,” Pirem ordered, clearly concerned at the attention their table was getting once again.
The boy disappeared with a smile as wide as the city walls; there was no way the cripple would ever drink through a whole penny in one night, and he would pocket the remainder.
“You don’t have to ply me with drink to talk,” Ager said gruffly. “I’m no pisspot babbler. If you really want to know about the war, I’ll talk until winter.” His face darkened. “No one wants to remember it anymore.”
“I want to know about Deep River,” Pirem said. “None of the books I’ve read can tell me much about it, and there weren’t that many… many…”
“Survivors?” Ager laughed harshly. “No, there weren’t many of us. But there were none left of the other side. None at all.”
“Was it an ambush? The histories say different things, as if no one can make up their minds about it.”
“That’s because no one will ever know, now that Elynd Chisal is dead.” Ager’s voice caught, and he gulped quickly from his cup. “Only General Chisal knew what was really happening during that bloody war. He was the best soldier Kendra ever produced.”
Pirem leaned forward eagerly. “Please. Tell me everything you can.”
Ager settled in on himself and closed his good eye; the empty socket, a shallow bowl of skin furrowed with scars, stared vacantly at Pirem.
“The general had learned of a Slaver camp on the other side of Deep River. He decided to go after it before they got news of us. He was always like that, taking the battle to them. It was hot, dry as a priest’s mouth. My section was in the vanguard. We scrambled down the ravine and waited for the rest of the division to catch up. General Chisal himself was with the second regiment, his own Red Shields, followed by a squadron of dismounted Hume cavalry, pissed off at having to leave their mounts behind; but they were horse archers and it never hurts to have a few bows around to sweep the enemy’s ranks before you hit him with sword and spear. Last in the line was a militia regiment, all huff and bluff, but green as baby shit through and through. When we were all down, we started up the other side. We hadn’t gone more than a hundred steps when it started.”
“The Slavers attacked?”
Ager nodded. “Oh, yes. First arrows, and then boulders. Their shooting wasn’t that accurate, and the boulders were easy enough to dodge, but with so many of us stuck on the slope some had to be unlucky.”
“So the general was caught by surprise? It
Ager shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. He knew the enemy scouts would have to be asleep to miss us scrambling down the ravine, and would have plenty of time to organize some kind of defense. I think he counted on them not being able to shift their whole force to the river in time to stop us getting up the other side.” He smiled grimly. “And he was right.”
“What happened then?” Pirem urged.
“The general ordered the archers to keep down the Slavers while the rest of us scrambled up as quickly as we could. We had almost reached level ground, but then two companies of Slaver mercenaries charged down slope. That shook us, I can tell you. We were exhausted, and the archers had to stop shooting because we were hand-to-hand. It was hard fighting them back up the slope, but we outnumbered them.” Ager grinned then. “And my company beat the Red Shields to the top.”
“But that wasn’t the end of it, was it?”
Ager’s grin melted away. He shook his head. “No. That’s when the real battle started, and when I got my wounds.” He drank another mouthful and opened his mouth to resume when a shadow fell across the table. He glanced up to see who it was, and then all thought froze in his brain.
Pirem turned as well, and let out a low groan. “Oh, God, not again,” he muttered.
A giant of a man glared down at the pair. His flat blonde hair, starting to gray, was cut close to his scalp, a short salt-and-pepper beard covered most of his face, and his eyes were narrowed to slits. He wore a long cloak, but there was no disguising the shape of the long sword that hung from his waist.
“Damn,” Ager said, but softly and without anger.
The stranger placed his large hands on Pirem’s shoulders. “You’d better come back with me.”
“But, Kumul, I’ve finally found someone who fought at Deep River!”
The one called Kumul briefly lifted his gaze to Ager. “You’re being fed chicken shit by someone desperate for company and a night’s drinking. Only a handful survived that battle, and you’ll find none of them in this place.”
Pirem turned back to Ager, his eyes pleading for him to refute the words, but the look was lost on him. The crookback could not take his own eyes off the giant man. “It
you, isn’t it?”
Kumul frowned. “Now that’s an asinine question.”
“Captain Alarn,” Ager said. “Captain Kumul Alarn, of the Red Shields.”
Kumul flinched, and Pirem took one of his hands. “You see? This man knows you! He must have fought during the war!”
“Many men know me,” Kumul said levelly, “and how do you know which side
fought on?” He stared accusingly at Ager, but the man could say no more for the moment—his skin had gone the color of limestone. Kumul grabbed the youth’s coat in both hands and lifted him to his feet. “Let’s not waste any more time here,” he said.
Ager stirred suddenly. “No! Wait!” But Kumul ignored him, half-dragging and half-carrying Pirem along with him. Bundling the youth past one of the servants, he exchanged a nod with her. Pirem caught the signal.
“One of your informers, Kumul?” Pirem demanded. “Or one of your whores?”
Kumul grunted, gave another tug that almost had the youth in the air. They had reached the exit when Ager, struggling hard against his crookback, caught up with them.
“Captain Alarn! Wait!”
Again, Kumul ignored him. He used a shoulder to barge open the heavy wooden door and pulled Pirem after him. Ager was not put off and followed them onto the crowded street. He bumped into a passerby, mumbled an apology, lurched forward, and managed to catch the tail of Kumul’s cloak.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Kumul cried, and spun around, one hand still on Pirem and the other pulling free his cloak from Ager’s grasp, showing the design on his jerkin and exposing his sword. “Do you recognize the livery, man? I am no longer Captain Alarn of the Red Shields. They are gone and forgotten! I am Kumul Alarn,
of the Royal Guards. Now leave us alone or I’ll arrest you!”