care to carry some supplies for us?”

Threetrees was known for his patience, but there was a limit to it, and Dogman reckoned they were awful close. This prick of a boy had no idea what he was stepping on. He weren’t a man to be toyed with, Rudd Threetrees. It was a famous name where they came from. A name to put fear in men, or courage, depending where they stood. There was a limit to his patience alright, but they weren’t quite at it yet. Luckily for all concerned.

“Mules, eh?” growled Threetrees. “Mules can kick. Best make sure one don’t kick your head off, boy.” And he turned around and stalked off, down the road the way they came, the scared folks shuffling out the way then crowding back in behind, all shouting at once, pleading with the soldiers why they should be the ones to get let in while the others were left out in the cold.

“That weren’t quite the welcome we was hoping for,” Dogman muttered. Threetrees said nothing, just marched away in front, head down. “What now, chief?”

The old boy shot a grim look over his shoulder. “You know me. You think I’m taking that fucking answer?” Somehow, the Dogman reckoned not.

Best Laid Plans

It was cold in the hall of the Lord Governor of Angland. The high walls were of plain, cold render, the wide floor was of cold stone flags, the gaping fireplace held nothing but cold ashes. The only decoration was a great tapestry hanging at one end, the golden sun of the Union stitched into it, the crossed hammers of Angland in its centre.

Lord Governor Meed was slumped in a hard chair before a huge, bare table, staring at nothing, his right hand slack around the stem of a wine cup. His face was pale and hollow, his robes of state were crumpled and stained, his thin white hair was in disarray. Major West, born and raised in Angland, had often heard Meed spoken of as a strong leader, a great presence, a tireless champion of the province and its people. He looked a shell of a man now, crushed under the weight of his great chain of office, as empty and cold as his yawning fireplace.

The temperature might have been icy, but the mood was cooler still. Lord Marshal Burr stood in the middle of the floor, feet placed wide apart, big hands clasped white-knuckle tight behind his back. Major West stood at his shoulder, stiff as a log, head lowered, wishing that he had not given up his coat. It was colder in here than outside, if anything, and the weather was bitter, even for autumn.

“Will you take wine, Lord Marshal?” murmured Meed, not even looking up. His voice seemed weak and reedy thin in the great space. West fancied he could almost see the old man’s breath smoking.

“No, your Grace. I will not.” Burr was frowning. He had been frowning constantly, as far as West could tell, for the last month or two. The man seemed to have no other expressions. He had a frown for hope, a frown for satisfaction, a frown for surprise. This was a frown of the most intense anger. West shifted nervously from one numb foot to the other, trying to get the blood flowing, wishing he was anywhere but here.

“What about you, Major West?” whispered the Lord Governor. “Will you take wine?” West opened his mouth to decline, but Burr got in first.

“What happened?” he growled, the hard words grating off the cold walls, echoing in the chilly rafters.

“What happened?” The Lord Governor shook himself, turned his sunken eyes slowly towards Burr, as though seeing him for the first time. “I lost my sons.” He snatched up his cup with a trembling hand and drained it to the dregs.

West saw Marshal Burr’s hands clench tighter still behind his back. “I am sorry for your loss, your Grace, but I was referring to the broader situation. I am talking of Black Well.”

Meed seemed to flinch at the mere mention of the place. “There was a battle.”

“There was a massacre!” barked Burr. “What is your explanation? Did you not receive the King’s orders? To raise every soldier you could, to man your defences, to await reinforcements? Under no circumstances to risk battle with Bethod!”

“The King’s orders?” The Lord Governor’s lip curled. “The Closed Council’s orders, do you mean? I received them. I read them. I considered them.”

“And then?”

“I tore them up.”

West could hear the Lord Marshal breathing hard through his nose. “You tore… them up?”

“For a hundred years, I and my family have governed Angland. When we came here there was nothing.” Meed raised his chin proudly as he spoke, puffing out his chest. “We tamed the wilderness. We cleared the forests, and laid the roads, and built the farms, and the mines, and the towns that have enriched the whole Union!”

The old man’s eyes had brightened considerably. He seemed taller, bolder, stronger. “The people of this land look first to me for protection, before they look across the sea! Was I to allow these Northmen, these barbarians, these animals to raid across my lands with impunity? To undo the great work of my forefathers? To rob, and burn, and rape, and kill as they pleased? To sit behind my walls while they put Angland to the sword? No, Marshal Burr! Not I! I gathered every man, and I armed them, and I sent them to meet the savages in battle, and my three sons went at their head. What else should I have done?”

“Followed your fucking orders!” screamed Burr at the very top of his voice. West started with shock, the thunderous echoes still ringing in his ears.

Meed twitched, then gaped, then his lip began to quiver. Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes and his body sagged again. “I lost my sons,” he whispered, staring down at the cold floor. “I lost my sons.”

“I pity your sons, and all those others whose lives were wasted, but I do not pity you. You alone brought this upon yourself.” Burr winced, then swallowed and rubbed at his stomach. He walked slowly to the window and looked out over the cold, grey city. “You have wasted all your strength, and now I must dilute my own to garrison your towns, your fortresses. Such survivors as there are from Black Well, and such others as are armed and can fight you will transfer to my command. We will need every man.”

“And me?” murmured Meed, “I daresay those dogs on the Closed Council are howling for my blood?”

“Let them howl. I need you here. Refugees are coming southwards, fleeing from Bethod, or from the fear of him. Have you looked out of your window lately? Ostenhorm is full of them. They crowd around the walls in their thousands, and this is only the beginning. You will see to their well-being, and their evacuation to Midderland. For thirty years your people have looked to you for protection. They have need of you still.”

Burr turned back into the room. “You will provide Major West with a list of those units still fit for action. As for the refugees, they are in need of food, and clothing, and shelter. Preparations for their evacuation should begin at once.”

“At once,” whispered Meed. “At once, of course.”

Burr flashed West a quick glance from under his thick eyebrows, took a deep breath then strode for the door. West looked back as he left. The Lord Governor of Angland still sat hunched in his chair in his empty, freezing hall, head in his hands.

“This is Angland,” said West, gesturing at the great map. He turned to look at the assembly. Few of the officers were showing the slightest interest in what he had to say. Hardly a surprise, but it still rankled.

General Kroy was sitting on the right-hand side of the long table, stiff upright and motionless in his chair. He was tall, gaunt, hard, grey hair cropped close to his angular skull, black uniform simple and spotless. His enormous staff were similarly clipped, shaved, polished, as dour as a bevy of mourners. Opposite, on the left, lounged General Poulder, round-faced, ruddy-skinned, possessed of a tremendous set of moustaches. His great collar, stiff with gold thread, came almost to his large, pink ears. His retinue sat their chairs like saddles, crimson uniforms dripping with braid, top buttons carelessly undone, spatters of mud from the road worn like medals.

On Kroy’s side of the room, war was all about cleanliness, self-denial, and strict obedience to the rules. On Poulder’s it was a matter of flamboyance and carefully organised hair. Each group glared across the table at the other with haughty contempt, as though only they held the secrets of good soldiering, and the other crowd, try as they might, would never be more than a hindrance.

Either were hindrance enough to West’s mind, but neither one was half the obstacle that the third lot presented, clustered around the far end of the table. Their leader was none other than the heir to the throne, Crown

Вы читаете Before They Are Hanged
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату