“Well, I find it an excellent plan,” announced Poulder warmly. He smirked across the table at Kroy. “I am entirely in favour, Lord Marshal. I am at your disposal in any way you should think fit. I shall have my men ready to march within ten days.” His staff nodded and hummed their assent.

“Five would be better,” said Burr.

Poulder’s plump face twitched his annoyance, but he quickly mastered himself. “Five it is, Lord Marshal.” But now it was Kroy’s turn to look smug.

Crown Prince Ladisla, meanwhile, was squinting at the map, an expression of puzzlement slowly forming on his well-powdered face. “Lord Marshal Burr,” he began slowly, “my detachment is to proceed down the western road to the river, correct?”

“Indeed, your Highness.”

“But we are not to pass beyond the river?”

“Indeed not, your Highness.”

“Our role is to be, then,” and he squinted up at Burr with a hurt expression, “a purely defensive one?”

“Indeed. Purely defensive.”

Ladisla frowned. “That sounds a meagre task.” His absurd staff shifted in their seats, grumbled their discontent at an assignment so far beneath their talents.

“A meagre task? Pardon me, your Highness, but not so! Angland is a wide and tangled country. The Northmen may elude us, and if they do it is on you that all our hopes will hang. It will be your task to prevent the enemy from crossing the river and threatening our lines of supply, or, worse yet, marching on Ostenhorm itself.” Burr leaned forward, fixing the Prince with his eye, and shook his fist with great authority. “You will be our rock, your Highness, our pillar, our foundation! You will be the hinge on which the gate will hang, a gate which will swing shut on these invaders, and drive them out of Angland!”

West was impressed. The Prince’s assignment was indeed a meagre one, but the Lord Marshal could have made mucking out the latrines sound like noble work. “Excellent!” exclaimed Ladisla, the feather on his hat thrashing back and forth. “The hinge, of course! Capital!”

“Unless there are any further questions then, gentlemen, we have a great deal of work to do.” Burr looked round the half-circle of sulky faces. No one spoke. “Dismissed.”

Kroy’s staff and Poulder’s exchanged frosty glances as they hurried to be first out of the room. The two great generals themselves jostled each other in the doorway, which was more than wide enough for both of them, neither wanting to turn his back on the other, or to follow behind him. They turned, bristling, once they had pushed their way out into the corridor.

“General Kroy,” sneered Poulder, with a haughty toss of his head.

“General Poulder,” hissed Kroy, tugging his impeccable uniform smooth.

Then they stalked off in opposite directions.

As the last of Prince Ladisla’s staff ambled out, holding forth to each other noisily about who had the most expensive armour, West got up to leave himself. He had a hundred tasks to be getting on with, and there was nothing to be gained by waiting. Before he got to the door, though, Lord Marshal Burr began to speak.

“So there’s our army, eh, West? I swear, I sometimes feel like a father with a set of squabbling sons, and no wife to help me. Poulder, Kroy, and Ladisla.” He shook his head. “My three commanders! Every man of them seems to think the purpose of this whole business is his personal aggrandisement. There aren’t three bigger heads in the whole Union. It’s a wonder we can fit them all in one room.” He gave a sudden burp. “Damn this indigestion!”

West racked his brains for something positive. “General Poulder seems obedient, at least, sir.”

Burr snorted. “Seems, yes, but I trust him even less than Kroy, if that’s possible. Kroy, at least, is predictable. He can be depended on to frustrate and oppose me at every turn. Poulder can’t be depended on at all. He’ll smirk, and flatter, and obey to the tiniest detail, until he sees some advantage to himself, and then he’ll turn on me with double the ferocity, you’ll see. To keep ’em both happy is impossible.” He squinted and swallowed, rubbing at his gut. “But as long as we can keep them equally unhappy, we’ve a chance. The one thing to be thankful for is that they hate each other even more than they do me.”

Burr’s frown grew deeper. “They were both ahead of me in the queue for my job. General Poulder is an old friend of the Arch Lector, you know. Kroy is Chief Justice Marovia’s cousin. When the post of Lord Marshal became available, the Closed Council couldn’t decide between them. In the end they fixed on me as an unhappy compromise. An oaf from the provinces, eh, West? That’s what I am to them. An effective oaf to be sure, but an oaf still. I daresay that if Poulder or Kroy died tomorrow, I’d be replaced the next day by the other. It’s hard to imagine a more ludicrous situation for a Lord Marshal, until you add in the Crown Prince, that is.”

West almost winced. How to turn that nightmare into an advantage? “Prince Ladisla is… enthusiastic?” he ventured.

“Where would I be without your optimism?” Burr gave a mirthless chuckle. “Enthusiastic? He’s living in a dream! Pandered to, and coddled, and utterly spoiled his whole life! That boy and the real world are entire strangers to one another!”

“Must he have a separate command, sir?”

The Lord Marshal rubbed at his eyes with his thick fingers. “Unfortunately, he must. The Closed Council have been most specific on that point. They are concerned that the King is in poor health, and that his heir is seen as an utter fool and wastrel by the public. They hope we might win some great victory here, so they can heap the credit on the Prince. Then they’ll ship him back to Adua, glowing with the glamour of the battlefield, ready to become the kind of King the peasants love.”

Burr paused for a moment, and looked down at the floor. “I’ve done all I can to keep Ladisla out of trouble. I’ve put him where I think the Northmen aren’t, and with any luck won’t ever be. But war is anything but a predictable business. Ladisla might actually be called upon to fight. That’s why I need someone to look over his shoulder. Someone with experience in the field. Someone as tenacious and hard-working as his joke of a staff are soft and lazy. Someone who might stop the Prince blundering into trouble.” He looked up from under his heavy brows.

West felt a horrible sinking sensation in his guts. “Me?”

“I’m afraid so. There’s no one I’d rather keep, but the Prince has asked for you personally.”

“For me, sir? But I’m no courtier! I’m not even a nobleman!”

Burr snorted. “Aside from me, Ladisla is probably the one man in this army who doesn’t care whose son you are. He’s the heir to the throne! Nobleman or beggar, we’re all equally far below him.”

“But why me?”

“Because you’re a fighter. First through the breach at Ulrioch and all that. You’ve seen action, and plenty of it. You’ve a fighter’s reputation, West, and the Prince wants one himself. That’s why.” Burr fished a letter from his jacket and handed it across. “Maybe this will help to sweeten the medicine.”

West broke the seal, unfolded the thick paper, scanned the few lines of neat writing. When he had finished, he read it again, just to be sure. He looked up. “It’s a promotion.”

“I know what it is. I arranged it. Maybe they’ll take you a little more seriously with an extra star on your jacket, maybe they won’t. Either way, you deserve it.”

“Thank you, sir,” said West numbly.

“What, for the worst job in the army?” Burr laughed, and gave him a fatherly clap on the shoulder. “You’ll be missed, and that’s a fact. I’m riding out to inspect the first regiment. A commander should show his face, I’ve always thought. Care to join me, Colonel?”

Snow was falling by the time they rode out through the city gates. White specks blowing on the wind, melting as soon as they touched the road, the trees, the coat of West’s horse, the armour of the guards that followed them.

“Snow,” Burr grumbled over his shoulder. “Snow already. Isn’t that a little early in the year?”

“Very early, sir, but it’s cold enough.” West took one hand from his reins to pull his coat tighter round his neck. “Colder than usual, for the end of autumn.”

“It’ll be a damn sight colder up north of the Cumnur, I’ll be bound.”

“Yes, sir, and it won’t be getting any warmer now.”

“Could be a harsh winter, eh, Colonel?”

“Very likely, sir.” Colonel? Colonel West? The words still seemed strange together, even in his own mind. No

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