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Authors: Paul Kearney

The Ten Thousand

BOOK: The Ten Thousand
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The Ten Thousand

The Macht Book 1

Paul Kearney


For John McLaughlin and
Charlotte Bruton


Grateful acknowledgements to:

Mark Newton, Christian Dunn,
Patrick St Denis, Darren Turpin and James Kearney. And Marie of course, as









By the sea, Rictus
had been born, and now it was by the sea that he would die.

He had thrown away
his shield and sat on a tussock of yellow marram grass, with the cold grey sand
between his toes and a blinding white lace of foam from the incoming tide
blazing bright as snow in his eyes.

If he lifted his
head there was real snow to be seen also, on the shoulders of Mount Panjaeos to
the west. Eternal snow, in whose drifts the god Gaenion had his forge, and had
hammered out the hearts of stars.

As good a place as
any to make an end.

He felt the blood
ooze from his side, a slow promise, a sneer. It made him smile. I know that, he
thought. I know these things. The point has been made. A spearhead from Gan
Burian has made it.

He still had his
sword, such as it was, a cheap, soft-iron bargain he’d picked up more out of a sense
of decorum than anything else. Like all men, he knew his real weapon was the
spear. The sword was for defeat, for the black end when one could no longer
deny it.

And he still had a
spear, Eight feet tall, the old, dark wood of the shaft scored now with new
scars of white. It had been his father’s.

My father. Whose
home, whose life I have now thrown onto the scales.

Again, he smiled
under the heavy helmet of bronze. But it was not a smile. It was the final
baring of teeth that the bayed animal must show.

And so they found
him, three winded foot-soldiers of Gan Burian who had also cast aside their
shields, but to aid pursuit, not flight. These too had their spears, every
point bloodied, and in their eyes there was that glaze which comes to men from
wine, and sex, and killing. They gave a shout as they sighted him, this bowed
figure by the shore of the sea, his tunic bloody at the side. And now they
darted a change of course as swiftly as fish in shoal, teeth bared. Happy. As
happy as man can be. For what can make man happier than the annihilation of his
enemy when all is at risk: his woman, his child, the place he calls a home? The
men of Gan Burian had defended their city from attack in a wrenched,
bowel-draining fight which had lasted all of the morning. They had won. They
had won, and now, how bright the sky seemed, and how good did the fine salt air
off the sea taste in their mouths. The sweetest of all dishes. And now, they
would savour a little more of it.

Rictus saw them
come, their feet raising little surfs of sand as they bounded across the dunes
towards him. He stood up, ignoring the pain as he had been taught. He filled
his lungs with that good, cold air, that salt, that slake of earth. Closing his
eyes, he smiled a third time; for himself. For the memory of the sea, for the

Lord, in thy glory
and thy goodness, send worthy men to kill me.

He leaned on the
spear a little, digging the spiked butt into the sand, sinking it past the
gleam of the bronze. He waited, not even bothering to touch the leather
scabbard wherein lay his contemptible little sword. Past his head there broke a
black and white formation, a piping squadron of birds. Oyster catchers, frightened
off the flats of sand by the men who approached. He was as aware of their
wingbeats as he was of the slow pulse in his side. Death’s abacus, the beads
knocking home ever slower. A moment of strange bliss, of knowing that all
things were the same, or at least could be the same. The drunken clarity of
pain, and fearlessness. It was something—it truly was something—not to be
afraid, at this moment.

And they were
here, right before him. He was startled, as he had not been startled all day,
not even when the shield-lines met. He had been prepared for that crash all his
life, had expected it, had wanted it to be even grander than it had been. This
was different. It was seeing other ordinary men with his murder in their eyes.
Not anonymous, but as personal as could be. It shook him a little, and that
uncertainty translated into a white-cold flood of adrenaline through each of
his nerves. He stood, blinked, forgot the pain and pulse of his life-blood as
it trickled out ol him. He was the beast at bay, about to snarl at the hunters.

They spread about
him; ordinary men who had killed their fellows and found it quite good. A sport
almost. They had come uncertain and apprehensive to battle, and had prevailed.
With the breaking of their enemy’s line they had found themselves heroes, part
of what might one day be history. Later they would reform into their phalanxes
and would make the light-hearted march to the city of their foes, and would
there become conquerors. This—this killing—was no more than a garnish on the

Rictus knew this.
He did not hate these men who had come to kill him, as he was quite certain
they did not hate him. They did not know that he was an only son, that he loved
his father with a fierce, never-to-be-spoken adulation. That he would die to
save the least of his family’s dogs. They did not know that he loved the sight
and smell and sound of the sea as another man might love to let gold coin
trickle through his fingers. Rictus was a bronze mask to them. He would die,
and they would brag to their children of it.

This is life, the
way things work. All these things, Rictus knew. But he had been taught well, so
he took his father’s spear in both fists and ignored the pain and started
thinking about how to kill these smiling men who had come about him.

With a short,
yipping yell, the first bounced in to attack, a high-coloured face with a black
beard framing it, and eyes as bright as frosted stones. He held his spear at
the midpoint of the shaft, and thrust it at Rictus’s collarbone.

Rictus had grasped
his own weapon at the balance-point, a short arm’s length from the butt, and
thus had a longer reach. Two-handed, he clapped aside the point of his attacker’s
spear and then reversed the grip of his own—all in a movement which was as
beautiful and fluid as the steps of a dance. As his own spear spun, it made the
other two men jump backwards, away from the wicked edge of the aichme, the
spearhead. Two-handed again, he lunged with the sauroter, the lizard-sticker
they called it, a four-sided spike of bronze which was the aichme’s
counterweight. It struck the black-bearded man to the left of his nose, punched
through the thin bone there for the depth of a handspan before Rictus jerked it
out. The man staggered backwards like a drunkard, blinking slowly. His hand
came up to his face, and then he sat down hard on the sand as the blood came
spurting from the square-sided hole in it, steam rising in the cold air.

Another of the
three screamed at this, raised his spear over his shoulder and charged. Rictus
had time only to throw himself aside and went sprawling, his spear levered out
of his grasp as the aichme plunged in sand. As he got up the third man seemed
to rouse himself also, and stumped into the fight unwillingly. He was older, a
greybeard, but there was a black calm about his eyes. He moved in as though
thinking about something else.

Rictus rolled as
the second man’s spear stabbed the sand at his side. He got his arm about it
and clamped the spearhead against his injured ribs, the pain scarcely felt. Then
he kicked up with both feet and one heel dunted his attacker in the groin. The
man’s cheeks filled. Rictus came up off the ground at him, climbing up the
spear-shaft, and butted him in the face with all the strength left in his
torso. The bronze of his helmet rang, and he was glad of it for the first time
that day. The man fell full length on his back and coiled feebly in on himself
and the red ruin of his face.

A moment of
triumph, so brief it would not even be recalled later. Then something seized
the horsehair crest of Rictus’s helm from behind.

He had forgotten
about the third man, had lost him in his brief, bloody map of things.

The crest-box
grated against bronze, but the pins held. A foot thumped into the hollow of
Rictus’s knee. He tumbled backwards, his helm askew so that he was blinded. His
feet furrowed the sand uselessly. Someone stood on his chest, and there was a
grating noise, metal on metal, as a spearpoint lifted the chin of his helm,
slicing open his lower lip as it did so.

The older man, the
greybeard. He had hair like a sheep’s pelt on his head and his eyes were dark
as sloes. He wore the old-fashioned felt tunic of the inner mountains,
sleeveless, ending above the knee. His limbs were brown and knotted with blue
veins over the bunched muscles. One handed, he raised the aichme of his spear
until it rested on Rictus’s throat and pricked blood there.

When Rictus
swallowed the keen spearpoint etched fire on his throat. He felt the blood
flowing more freely from his side now, darkening the sand under him. It was
trickling down his chin also. He was leaking at the seams. He breathed out,
relaxing. It was done. It was over, and he had done something to make them
remember him by. He looked up at the washed-pale blue of the sky, the fading of
the year’s glory, and the oyster catchers came piping back into it to resume
their places on the strand. He followed their flight as far as he could with
his eyes.

The older man did
also, the spear is steady in his fist as if it had been planted in stone.
Behind him, his two companions were thrashing in the sand, struggling and
hooting with sounds that seemed barely those made by men. He glanced at them,
and there was naked contempt in his face. Then he stabbed his spear in the
sand, bent, his foot pushing the air out of Rictus’s lungs, and yanked the helm
clear off the younger man’s head. He looked at him, nodded, then tossed it
aside. The sword followed, flicked through the air like a broken child’s

“You lie there,”
he said. “You try to get up, and I finish you.”

Rictus nodded,

The man poked his
finger into the bloody lacerated hole in Rictus’s side, and Rictus stiffened,
baring blood-slimed teeth. The man grinned, his own teeth square and yellow,
like those of a horse. “No air. No bubbles. You will live, maybe.” His eyes
sharpened, danced like black beads. “Maybe.” He see-sawed his bloody hand in
the air, then slapped Rictus across the face. A blunt forefinger with a filthy,
over-long nail tapped Rictus on the forehead. “Stay here.” Then he
straightened, using his spear to ease upright again and grimacing, like a man
who has been remonstrating with a child.

“Ogio! Demas! Are
you men or women? You keen like girls.” He spat.

The hooting noises
subsided. The two other men helped each other to their feet and came staggering
over, feet dragging in the sand. One of them drew a knife from his belt, a
long, wicked, sliver of iron. “I take this one,” he said in a gargled tone that
was horrible to hear. He was the one with the hole in his face. It jetted blood
with every word as if to lend them emphasis.

“You tried. You
failed. He is mine now,” the older man said coldly.

“Remion, you see
what he has done to me? I am likely to die now.”

“You will not die,
if you keep it clean and don’t stick your fingers in it. I’ve seen men live
with worse.” Remion spat again. “Better men than you.”

“Then kill him

“I’ll do as I
please, you rat’s cunt, whatever you say. Now see to Demas. He needs his nose

Some moment had
passed, some kind of unspoken compact had been made. There would be no more
fighting now. The time which had been— that time of license and slaughter and
free-flowing violence—that had gone now, and the normal rules of life which men
lived their lives by were slipping back into place. Rictus sat up, feeling it,
but hardly able to put the knowledge into rational thought. They would not kill
him now, and he would not hurt them either. They were all civilized men again.

The older man,
Remion, was cutting strips off the hem of his tunic, but the felt frayed under
his knife. He cursed, then swivelled to regard Rictus. “Off with that shirt,
boy, I need something to plug this man’s face.”

Rictus hesitated,
and in that second the eyes of all three of the other men fastened on him. He
drew his tunic over his head, gasping at the pain in his side, and tossed it to
Remion. All he had on now were his sandals and a linen breechclout. The wind
raised gooseflesh off his limbs. He clamped his elbow to his injured side. The
blood was slowing. He spat scarlet into the sand.

Remion ripped the
tunic to strips, discarding the blood-soaked part under the armpit. His two
companions uttered hoarse, low growling sounds as he saw to their hurts. There
was a crack as he levered Demas’s nose back into place, and the man screamed
and clouted him on the side of the head. He took it in good part, shoving Demas
on his back in the sand and laughing. He slapped Ogio’s hand away from his
punctured face and stared intently at the bloody hole, wiping around it.

BOOK: The Ten Thousand
13.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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