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Before They Are Hanged

Joe Abercrombie

The First Law: Book Two

For the Four Readers

You know who you are

PART I

“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”

Heinrich Heine

The Great Leveller

Damn mist. It gets in your eyes, so you can’t see no more than a few strides ahead. It gets in your ears, so you can’t hear nothing, and when you do you can’t tell where it’s coming from. It gets up your nose, so you can’t smell naught but wet and damp. Damn mist. It’s a curse on a scout.

They’d crossed the Whiteflow a few days before, out of the North and into Angland, and the Dogman had been nervy all the way. Scouting out strange land, in the midst of a war that weren’t really their business. All the lads were jumpy. Aside from Threetrees, none of ’em had ever been out of the North. Except for Grim maybe. He weren’t saying where he’d been.

They’d passed a few farms burned out, a village all empty of people. Union buildings, big and square. They’d seen the tracks of horses and men. Lots of tracks, but never the men themselves. Dogman knew Bethod weren’t far away, though, his army spread out across the land, looking for towns to burn, food to steal, people to kill. All manner o’ mischief. He’d have scouts everywhere. If he caught Dogman or any of the rest, they’d be back to the mud, and not quickly. Bloody cross and heads on spikes and all the rest of it, Dogman didn’t wonder.

If the Union caught ’em they’d be dead too, most likely. It was a war, after all, and folk don’t think too clearly in a war. Dogman could hardly expect ’em to waste time telling a friendly Northman from an unfriendly one. Life was fraught with dangers, alright. It was enough to make anyone nervy, and he was a nervy sort at the best of times.

So it was easy to see how the mist might have been salt in the cut, so to speak.

All this creeping around in the murk had got him thirsty, so he picked his way through the greasy brush, over to where he could hear the river chattering. He knelt down at the water’s edge. Slimy down there, with rot and dead leaves, but Dogman didn’t reckon a little slime would make the difference, he was about as dirty as a man could be already. He scooped up water in his hands and drank. There was a breath of wind down there, out beyond the trees, pushing the mist in close one minute, dragging it out the next. That’s when the Dogman saw him.

He was lying on his front, legs in the river, top half up on the bank. They stared at each other a while, both fully shocked and amazed. He’d got a long stick coming out of his back. A broken spear. That’s when the Dogman realised he was dead.

He spat the water out and crept over, checking careful all around to make sure no one was waiting to give him a blade in the back. The corpse was a man of about two dozen years. Yellow hair, brown blood on his grey lips. He’d got a padded jacket on, bloated up with wet, the kind a man might wear under a coat of mail. A fighting man, then. A straggler maybe, lost his crew and been picked off. A Union man, no doubt, but he didn’t look so different to Dogman or to anyone else, now he was dead. One corpse looks much like another.

“The Great Leveller,” Dogman whispered to himself, since he was in a thoughtful frame of mind. That’s what the hillmen call him. Death, that is. He levels all differences. Named Men and nobodies, south or north. He catches everyone in the end, and he treats each man the same.

Seemed like this one had been dead no more ’n a couple of days. That meant whoever killed him might still be close, and that got the Dogman worried. The mist seemed full of sounds now. Might’ve been a hundred Carls, waiting just out of sight. Might’ve been no more than the river slapping at its banks. Dogman left the corpse lying and slunk off into the trees, ducking from one trunk to another as they loomed up out of the grey.

He nearly stumbled on another body, half buried in a heap of leaves, lying on his back with his arms spread out. He passed one on his knees, a couple of arrows in his side, face in the dirt, arse in the air. There’s no dignity in death, and that’s a fact. The Dogman was starting to hurry along, too keen to get back to the others, tell them what he’d seen. Too keen to get away from them corpses.

He’d seen plenty, of course, more than his share, but he’d never quite got comfortable around ’em. It’s an easy thing to make a man a carcass. He knew a thousand ways to do it. But once you’ve done it, there’s no going back. One minute he’s a man, all full up with hopes, and thoughts, and dreams. A man with friends, and family, and a place where he’s from. Next minute he’s mud. Made the Dogman think on all the scrapes he’d been in, all the battles and the fights he’d been a part of. Made him think he was lucky still to be breathing. Stupid lucky. Made him think his luck might not last.

He was halfway running now. Careless. Blundering about in the mist like an untried boy. Not taking his time, not sniffing the air, not listening out. A Named Man like him, a scout who’d been all over the North, should’ve known better, but you can’t stay sharp all the time. He never saw it coming.

Something knocked him in the side, hard, ditched him right on his face. He scrambled up but someone kicked him down. Dogman fought, but whoever this bastard was he was fearsome strong. Before he knew it he was down on his back in the dirt, and he’d only himself to blame. Himself, and the corpses, and the mist. A hand grabbed him round his neck, started squeezing his windpipe shut.

“Gurgh,” he croaked, fiddling at the hand, thinking his last moment was on him. Thinking all his hopes were turned to mud. The Great Leveller, come for him at last…

Then the fingers stopped squeezing.

“Dogman?” said someone in his ear, “that you?”

“Gurgh.”

The hand let go his throat and he sucked in a breath. Felt himself pulled up by his coat. “Shit on it, Dogman! I could ha’ killed you!” He knew the voice now, well enough. Black Dow, the bastard. Dogman was half annoyed at being throttled near to dying, half stupid-happy at still being alive. He could hear Dow laughing at him. Hard laughter, like a crow calling. “You alright?”

“I’ve had warmer greetings,” croaked Dogman, still doing his best to get the air in.

“Count yourself lucky, I could’ve given you a colder one. Much colder. I took you for one of Bethod’s scouts. Thought you was out over yonder, up the valley.”

“As you can see,” he whispered, “no. Where’s the others at?”

“Up on a hill, above this fucking mist. Taking a look around.”

Dogman nodded back the way he’d come. “There’s corpses over there. Loads of ’em.”

“Loads of ’em is it?” asked Dow, as though he didn’t think Dogman knew what a load of corpses looked like. “Hah!”

“Aye, a good few anyway. Union dead, I reckon. Looks like there was a fight here.”

Black Dow laughed again. “A fight? You reckon?” Dogman wasn’t sure what he meant by that.

“Shit,” he said.

They were standing up on the hill, the five of them. The mist had cleared up, but the Dogman almost wished it hadn’t. He saw what Dow had been saying now, well enough. The whole valley was full of dead. They were dotted high up on the slopes, wedged between the rocks, stretched out in the gorse. They were scattered out

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