John told me he doesn’t like to post naked excerpts on Black Gate. Well and good, I thought; it is after all a family site. Turns out though that it means I have to warm you guys up for the Prince of Thorns excerpt that follows.
If you’ve seen many reviews or comments on Prince of Thorns then it’s likely you’ll have read somewhere that it’s the very darkest of fantasy writing, that it’s brutal in the extreme, that it’s wall-to-wall rape… Obviously these are subjective judgements. My subjective opinion is that that’s all… rubbish (family site).
If you look at what’s actually on the page it’s relatively mild stuff. That it has made such a deep impression on so many, and stirred not a few to outrage, anger, and the occasional rant, I shall just have to pocket as a compliment to the writing!
This is described as an excerpt, but it’s an excerpt that starts at the beginning. Really, when you’ve taken the effort to make a story, where else would you want someone to start reading? Anything else would be rather like putting a sheet over the large painting you’ve just completed and attempting to whet the viewer’s appetite with whatever can be seen through a random hole four-inches square. Story needs context. Cut your prose free of its environment and it rapidly loses power. Strip out a line here or there and show it on its own and you make it look as silly as you like.
So read on and hopefully enjoy.
An Excerpt from Prince of Thorns
by Mark Lawrence
Ace (323 pages, $25.95, August 2011)
Warning: Contains adult language and themes.
Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallows-post and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching.
The town-square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, some peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage.
“Water! Water!” It’s always water with the dying. Strange ‒ It’s killing that gives me a thirst.
And that was Mabberton. Two hundred dead farmers lying with their scythes and axes. You know, I warned them that we do this for a living. I said it to their leader, Bovid Tor. I gave them that chance, I always do. But no. They wanted blood and slaughter. And they got it.
War, my friends, is a thing of beauty. Those as says otherwise are losing. If I’d bothered to go over to old Bovid, propped up against the fountain with his guts in his lap, he’d probably take a contrary view. But look where disagreeing got him.
“Shit-poor farm maggots,” Rike discarded a handful of fingers over Bovid’s open belly. He came to me, holding out his takings, as if it was my fault. “Look! One gold ring. One! A whole village and one fecking gold ring. I’d like to set the bastards up and knock ‘em down again. Fecking bog-farmers.”
He would too: he was an evil bastard, and greedy with it. I held his eye. “Settle down, Brother Rike. There’s more than one kind of gold in Mabberton.”
I gave him my warning look. His cursing stole the magic from the scene; besides, I had to be stern with him. Rike was always on the edge after a battle, wanting more. I gave him a look that told him I had more. More than he could handle. He grumbled, stowed his bloody ring, and thrust his knife back in his belt.
Makin came up then and flung an arm about each of us, clapping gauntlet to shoulder-plate. If Makin had a skill, then smoothing things over was it.
“Brother Jorg is right, Little Rikey. There’s treasure aplenty to be found.” He was wont to call Rike “Little Rikey,” on account of him being a head taller than any of us and twice as wide. Makin always told jokes. He’d tell them to those as he killed, if they gave him time. Liked to see them go out with a smile.
“What treasure?” Rike wanted to know, still surly.
“When you get farmers, what else do you always get, Little Rikey?” Makin raised his eyebrows all suggestive.
Rike lifted his visor, treating us to his ugly face. Well brutal more than ugly. I think the scars improved him. “Cows?”
Makin pursed his lips. I never liked his lips, too thick and fleshy, but I forgave him that, for his joking and his deathly work with that flail of his. “Well, you can have the cows, Little Rikey. Me, I’m going to find a farmer’s daughter or three, before the others use them all up.”
They went off then, Rike doing that laugh of his ‒ “hur, hur, hur” ‒ as if he was trying to cough a fishbone out.
I watched them force the door to Bovid’s place opposite the church, a fine house, high roofed with wooden slates and a little flower garden in front. Bovid followed them with his eyes, but he couldn’t turn his head.
I looked at the ravens, I watched Gemt and his half-wit brother, Maical, taking heads, Maical with the cart and Gemt with the axe. A thing of beauty, I tell you. At least to look at. I’ll agree war smells bad. But, we’d torch the place soon enough and the stink would all turn to wood-smoke. Gold rings? I needed no more payment.
“Boy!” Bovid called out, his voice all hollow like, and weak.
I went to stand before him, leaning on my sword, tired in my arms and legs all of a sudden. “Best speak your piece quickly, farmer. Brother Gemt’s a-coming with his axe. Chop-chop.”
He didn’t seem too worried. It’s hard to worry a man so close to the worm-feast. Still it irked me that he held me so lightly and called me ‘boy.’ “Do you have daughters, farmer? Hiding in the cellar maybe? Old Rike will sniff them out.”
Bovid looked up sharp at that, pained and sharp. “H-how old are you, boy?”
Again the ‘boy.’ “Old enough to slit you open like a fat purse,” I said, getting angry now. I don’t like to get angry. It makes me angry. I don’t think he caught even that. I don’t think he even knew it was me that opened him up not half an hour before.
“Fifteen summers, no more. Couldn’t be more…” His words came slow, from blue lips in a white face.
Out by two, I would have told him, but he’d gone past hearing. The cart creaked up behind me, and Gemt came along with his axe dripping.
“Take his head,” I told them. “Leave his fat belly for the ravens.”
Fifteen! I’d hardly be fifteen and rousting villages.
By the time fifteen came around, I’d be King!
Mabberton burned well. All the villages burned well that summer. Makin called it a hot bastard of a summer, too mean to give out rain, and he wasn’t wrong. Dust rose behind us when we rode in; smoke when we rode out.
“Who’d be a farmer?” Makin liked to ask questions.
“Who’d be a farmer’s daughter?” I nodded toward Rike, rolling in his saddle, almost tired enough to fall out, wearing a stupid grin and a bolt of samite cloth over his half-plate. Where he found samite in Mabberton I never did get to know.
“Brother Rike does enjoy his simple pleasures,” Makin said.
He did. Rike had a hunger for it. Hungry like the fire.
The flames fair ate up Mabberton. I put the torch to the thatched inn, and the fire chased us out. Just one more bloody day in the years” long death throes of our broken empire.
Makin wiped at his sweat, smearing himself all over with soot-stripes. He had a talent for getting dirty, did Makin. “You weren’t above those simple pleasures yourself, Brother Jorg.”
I couldn’t argue there. “How old are you?” that fat farmer had wanted to know. Old enough to pay a call on his daughters. The fat girl had a lot to say, just like her father. Screeched like a barn owl: hurt my ears with it. I liked the older one better. She was quiet enough. So quiet you’d give a twist here or there just to check she hadn’t died of fright. Though I don’t suppose either of them was quiet when the fire reached them…
Gemt rode up and spoiled my imaginings.
“The Baron’s men will see that smoke from ten miles. You shouldn’ta burned it.” He shook his head, his stupid mane of ginger hair bobbing this way and that.
“Shouldn’ta,” his idiot brother joined in, calling from the old grey. We let him ride the old grey with the cart hitched up. The grey wouldn’t leave the road. That horse was cleverer than Maical.
Gemt always wanted to point stuff out. “You shouldn’ta put them bodies down the well, we’ll go thirsty now.” “You shouldn’ta killed that priest, we’ll have bad luck now.” “If we’d gone easy on her we’d have a ransom from Baron Kennick.” I just ached to put my knife through his throat. Right then. Just to lean out and plant it in his neck. “What’s that? What say you, Brother Gemt? Bubble, bubble? Shouldn’ta stabbed your bulgy old Adam’s apple?”
“Oh no!” I cried, all shocked like. “Quick, Little Rikey, go piss on Mabberton. Got to put that fire out.”
“Baron’s men will see it,” said Gemt, stubborn and red-faced. He went red as a beet if you crossed him. That red face just made me want to kill him even more. I didn’t, though. You got responsibilities when you’re a leader. You got a responsibility not to kill too many of your men. Or who’re you going to lead?
The column bunched up around us, the way it always did when something was up. I pulled on Gerrod’s reins and he stopped with a snicker and a stamp. I watched Gemt and waited. Waited until all thirty-eight of my brothers gathered around, and Gemt got so red you’d think his ears would bleed.
“Where we all going, my brothers?” I asked, and I stood in my stirrups so I could look out over their ugly faces. I asked it in my quiet voice and they all hushed to hear.
“Where?” I asked again. “Surely it isn’t just me that knows? Do I keep secrets from you, my brothers?”
Rike looked a bit confused at this, furrowing his brow. Fat Burlow came up on my right, on my left the Nuban with his teeth so white in that soot-black face. Silence.
“Brother Gemt can tell us. He knows what should be and what is.” I smiled, though my hand still ached with wanting my dagger in his neck. “Where we going, Brother Gemt?”
“Wennith, on the Horse Coast,” he said, all reluctant, not wanting to agree to anything.
“Well and good. How we going to get there? Near forty of us on our fine oh-so-stolen horses?”
Gemt set his jaw. He could see where I was going.
“How we going to get there, if we want us a slice of the pie while It’s still nice and hot?” I asked.
“Lich Road!” Rike called out, all pleased that he knew the answer.
“Lich Road,” I repeated, still quiet and smiling. “What other way could we go?” I looked at the Nuban, holding his dark eyes. I couldn’t read him, but I let him read me.
“Ain’t no other way.”
Rike’s on a roll, I thought, he don’t know what game’s being played, but he likes his part.
“Do the Baron’s men know where we’re going?” I asked Fat Burlow.
“War dogs follow the front,” he said. Fat Burlow ain’t stupid. His jowls quiver when he speaks, but he ain’t stupid.
“So…” I looked around them, real slow-like. “So, the Baron knows where bandits such as ourselves will be going, and he knows the way we’ve got to go.” I let that sink in. “And I just lit a bloody big fire that tells him and his what a bad idea It’d be to follow.”
I stuck Gemt with my knife then. I didn’t need to, but I wanted it. He danced pretty enough too, bubble bubble on his blood, and fell off his horse. His red face went pale quick enough.
“Maical,” I said. “Take his head.”
And he did.
Gemt just chose a bad moment.
“Two dead, two wrigglers.” Makin wore that big grin of his.
We’d have camped by the gibbet in any case, but Makin had ridden on ahead to check the ground. I thought the news that two of the four gibbet cages held live prisoners would cheer the brothers.
“Two,” Rike grumbled. He’d tired himself out, and a tired Little Rikey always sees a gibbet as half empty.
“Two!” the Nuban hollered down the line.
I could see some of the lads exchanging coin on their bets. The Lich Road is as boring as a Sunday sermon. It runs straight and level. So straight it gets so as you’d kill for a left turn or a right turn. So level you’d cheer a slope. And on every side, marsh, midges, midges and more marsh. On the Lich Road it didn’t get any better than two caged wrigglers on a gibbet.
Strange that I didn’t think to question what business a gibbet had standing out there in the middle of nowhere. I took it as a bounty. Somebody had left their prisoners to die, dangling in cages at the roadside. A strange spot to choose, but free entertainment for my little band nonetheless The brothers were eager, so I nudged Gerrod into a trot. A good horse, Gerrod. He shook off his weariness and clattered along. There’s no road like the Lich Road for clattering along.
“Wrigglers!” Rike gave a shout and they were all racing to catch up.
I let Gerrod have his head. He wouldn’t let any horse get past him. Not on this road. Not with every yard of it paved, every flagstone fitting with the next so close a blade of grass couldn’t hope for the light. Not a stone turned, not a stone worn. Built on a bog, mind you!
I beat them to the wrigglers, of course. None of them could touch Gerrod. Certainly not with me on his back and them all half as heavy again. At the gibbet I turned to look back at them, strung out along the road. I yelled out, wild with the joy of it, loud enough to wake the head-cart. Gemt would be in there, bouncing around at the back.
Makin reached me first, even though he’d rode the distance twice before.
“Let the Baron’s men come,” I told him. “The Lich Road is as good as any bridge. Ten men could hold an army here. Them that wants to flank us can drown in the bog.”
Makin nodded, still hunting his breath.
“The ones who built this road… if they’d make me a castle —” Thunder in the east cut across my words.
“If the Road-men built castles we’d never get in anywhere,” Makin said. “Be happy they’re gone.”
We watched the brothers come in. The sunset turned the marsh pools to orange fire, and I thought of Mabberton.
“A good day, Brother Makin,” I said.
“Indeed, Brother Jorg,” he said.
So, the brothers came and set to arguing over the wrigglers. I went and sat against the loot-cart to read while the light stayed with us and the rain held off. The day left me in mind to read Plutarch. I had him all to myself, sandwiched between leather covers. Some worthy monk spent a lifetime on that book. A lifetime hunched over it, brush in hand. Here the gold, for halo, sun, and scrollwork. Here a blue like poison, bluer than a noon sky. Tiny vermilion dots to make a bed of flowers. Probably went blind over it, that monk. Probably poured his life in here, from young lad to grey-head, prettying up old Plutarch”s words.
The thunder rolled, the wrigglers wriggled and howled, and I sat reading words that were older than old before the Road-men built their roads.
“You’re cowards! Women with your swords and axes!” One of the crow-feasts on the gibbet had a mouth on him.
“Not a man amongst you. All pederasts, trailing up here after that little boy.” He curled his words up at the end like a Merssy-man.
“There’s a fella over here got an opinion about you, Brother Jorg!” Makin called out.
A drop of rain hit my nose. I closed the cover on Plutarch. He’d waited a while to tell me about Sparta and Lycurgus, he could wait some more and not get wet doing it. The wriggler had more to say and I let him tell it to my back. On the road You’ve got to wrap a book well to keep the rain out. Ten turns of oilcloth, ten more turns the other way, then stash it under a cloak in a saddlebag. A good saddlebag mind, none of that junk from the Thurtans, good double-stitched leather from the Horse Coast.
The lads parted to let me up close. The gibbet stank worse than the head-cart, a crude thing of fresh-cut timber. Four cages hung there. Two held dead men. Very dead men. Legs dangling through the bars, raven-pecked to the bone. Flies thick about them, like a second skin, black and buzzing. The lads had taken a few pokes at one of the wrigglers, and he didn’t look too cheerful for it. In fact he looked as if he’d pegged it. Which was a waste, as we had a whole night ahead of us, and I’d have said as much, but for the wriggler with the mouth.
“So now the boy comes over! He’s finished looking for lewd pictures in his stolen book.” He sat crouched up in his cage, his feet all bleeding and raw. An old man, maybe forty, all black hair and beard and dark eyes glittering. “Take the pages to wipe your dung, boy,” he said fierce-like, grabbing the bars all of a sudden, making the cage swing. “It’s the only use you’ll get from it.”
“We could set a slow fire?” Rike said. Even Rike knew the old man just wanted us angry, so we’d finish him quick. “Like we did at the Ronwood gibbets.”
A few chuckles went up at that. Not from Makin though. He had a frown on under his dirt and soot, staring at the wriggler. I held up a hand to quiet them down.
“It’d be a shameful waste of such a fine book, Father Gomst,” I said.
Like Makin, I’d recognized Gomst through all that beard and hair. Without that accent though he’d have got roasted.
“Especially an “On Lycurgus” written in high Latin, not that pidgin-Romano they teach in church.”
“You know me?” He asked it in a cracked voice, weepy all of a sudden.
“Of course I do.” I pushed both hands through my lovely locks, and set my hair back so he could see me proper in the gloom. I have the sharp dark looks of the Ancraths. “You’re Father Gomst, come to take me back to school.”
“Pr-prin…” He was blubbing now, unable to get his words out. Disgusting really. Made me feel as if I’d bitten something rotten.
“Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, at your service.” I did my court bow.
“Wh-what became of Captain Bortha?” Father Gomst swung gently in his cage, all confused.
“Captain Bortha, sir!” Makin snapped a salute and stepped up. He had blood on him from the first wriggler.
We had us a deathly silence then. Even the chirp and whir of the marsh hushed down to a whisper. The brothers looked from me, back to the old priest, and back to me, mouths hanging open. Little Rikey couldn’t have looked more surprised if you’d asked him nine times six.
The rain chose that moment to fall, all at once as if the Lord Almighty had emptied his chamber pot over us. The gloom that had been gathering set thick as treacle.
“Prince Jorg!” Father Gomst had to shout over the rain. “The night! You’ve got to run!” He held the bars of his cage, white-knuckled, wide eyes unblinking in the downpour, staring into the darkness.
And through the night, through the rain, over the marsh where no man could walk, we saw them coming. We saw their lights. Pale lights such as the dead burn in deep pools where men aren’t meant to look. Lights that’d promise whatever a man could want, and would set you chasing them, hunting answers and finding only cold mud, deep and hungry.
I never liked Father Gomst. He’d been telling me what to do since I was six, most often with the back of his hand as the reason.
“Run Prince Jorg! Run!” old Gomsty howled, sickeningly self-sacrificing.
So I stood my ground.
The dead came on through the rain, the ghosts of the bog-dead, of the drowned, and of men whose corpses were given to the mire. I saw Red Kent run blind and flounder in the marsh. A few of the brothers had the sense to take the road when they ran, most ended in the mire.
Father Gomst started praying in his cage, shouting out the words like a shield: “Father who art in heaven protect thy son. Father who art in heaven.” Faster and faster, as the fear got into him.
The first of them came up over the sucking pool, and onto the Lichway. He had a glow about him like moonlight, something that you knew would never warm you. You could see his body limned in the light, with the rain racing through him and bouncing on the road.
Nobody stood with me. The Nuban ran, eyes wide in a dark face. Fat Burlow looking as if the blood was let from him. Rike screaming like a child. Even Makin, with a horror on him.
I held my arms wide to the rain. I could feel it beat on me. I didn’t have so many years under my belt, but even to me the rain fell like memory. It woke wild nights in me when I stood on the Keep Tower, on the edge above a high fall, near drowned in the deluge and daring the lightning to touch me.
“Our Father who art in heaven. Father who art…” Gomst started to gabble when the lich came close. It burned with a cold fire and you could feel it licking at your bones.
I kept my arms wide and my face to the rain.
“My father isn’t in heaven Gomsty,” I said. “He’s in his castle, counting out his men.”
The dead thing closed on me, and I looked in its eyes. Hollow they were.
“What have you got?” I said.
And it showed me.
And I showed it.
There’s a reason I’m going to win this war. Everyone alive has been fighting a battle that grew old before they were born. I cut my teeth on the wooden soldiers in my father’s war-room. There’s a reason I’m going to win where they failed. It’s because I understand the game.
“Hell,” the dead man said. “I’ve got hell.”
And he flowed into me, cold as dying, edged like a razor.
I felt my mouth curl in a smile. I heard my laughing over the rain.
A knife is a scary thing right enough, held to your throat, sharp and cool. The fire too, and the rack. And an old ghost on the Lichway. All of them might give you pause. Until you realize what they are. They’re just ways to lose the game. You lose the game, and what have you lost? You’ve lost the game.
That’s the secret, and it amazes me that It’s mine and mine alone. I saw the game for what it was the night when Count Renar’s men caught our carriage. There was a storm that night too, I remember the din of rain on the carriage roof and the thunder beneath it.
Big Jan had fair hauled the door off its hinges to get us out. He only had time for me though. He threw me clear; into a briar patch so thick that the Count’s men persuaded themselves I’d run into the night. They didn’t want to search it. But I hadn’t run. I’d hung there in the thorns, and I saw them kill Big Jan. I saw it in the frozen moments the lightning gave me.
I saw what they did to Mother, and how long it took. They broke little William’s head against a milestone. Golden curls and blood. And I’ll admit that William was the first of my brothers, and he did have his hooks in me, with his chubby hands and laughing. Since then I’ve taken on many a brother, and evil ones at that, so I’d not miss one or three. But at the time, it did hurt to see little William broken like that, like a toy. Like something worthless.
When they killed him, Mother wouldn’t hold her peace, so they slit her throat. I was stupid then, being only nine, and I fought to save them both. But the thorns held me tight. I’ve learned to appreciate thorns since.
The thorns taught me the game. They let me understand what all those grim and serious men who’ve fought the Hundred War, have yet to learn. You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.
“What have you got for me, dead thing?” I asked.
It’s a game. I will play my pieces.
I felt him cold inside me. I saw his death. I saw his despair. And his hunger. And I gave it back. I’d expected more, but he was only dead.
I showed him the empty time where my memory won’t go. I let him look there.
He ran from me then. He ran, and I chased him. But only to the edge of the marsh. Because It’s a game. And I’m going to win.
Four years earlier
For the longest time I studied revenge to the exclusion of all else. I built my first torture chamber in the dark vaults of imagination. Lying on bloody sheets in the Healing Hall I discovered doors within my mind that I’d not found before, doors that even a child of nine knows should not be opened. Doors that never close again.
I threw them wide.
Sir Reilly found me, hanging within the hook-briar, not ten yards from the smoking ruin of the carriage. They almost missed me. I saw them reach the bodies on the road. I watched them through the briar, silver glimpses of Sir Reilly’s armour, and flashes of red from the tabards of Ancrath foot-soldiers.
Mother was easy to find, in her silks.
“Sweet Jesu! It’s the Queen!” Sir Reilly had them turn her over. “Gently! Show some respect—” He broke off with a gasp. The Count’s men hadn’t left her pretty.
“Sir! Big Jan’s over here, Grem and Jassar too.” I saw them heave Jan over, then turn to the other guardsmen.
“They’d better be dead!” Sir Reilly spat. “Look for the princes!”
I didn’t see them find Will, but I knew they had by the silence that spread across the men. I let my chin fall back to my chest and watched the dark patterning of blood on the dry leaves around my feet.
“Ah, hell….” One of the men spoke at last.
“Get him on a horse. Easy with him,” Sir Reilly said. A crack ran through his voice. “And find the heir!” With more vigour, but no hope.
I tried to call to them, but the strength had run from me, I couldn’t even lift my head.
“He’s not here, Sir Reilly.”
“They’ve taken him as a hostage,” Sir Reilly said.
He had part of it right, something held me against my will.
“Set him by the Queen.”
“Gentle! Gentle with him…”
“Secure them,” Sir Reilly said. “We ride hard for the Tall Castle.”
Part of me wanted to let them go. I felt no pain any more, just a dull ache, and even that was fading. A peace folded me with the promise of forgetting.
“Sir!” A shout went up from one of the men.
I heard the clank of armour as Sir Reilly strode across to see.
“Piece of a shield?” he asked.
“Found it in the mud, the carriage wheel must have pushed it under.” The soldier paused. I heard scraping. “Looks like a black wing to me…
“A crow. A crow on a red field. It’s Count Renar’s colours,” Reilly said.
Count Renar? I had a name. A black crow on a red field. The insignia flashed across my eyes, seared deep by the lightning of last night’s storm. A fire lit within me, and the pain from a hundred hooks burned in every limb. A groan escaped me. My lips parted, dry skin tearing.
And Reilly found me.
“There’s something here!” I heard him curse as the hook-briar found every chink in his armour. “Quickly now! Pull this stuff apart.”
“Dead.” I heard the whisper from behind Sir Reilly as he cut me free.
“He’s so white.”
I guess the briar near bled me dry.
So they fetched a cart and took me back. I didn’t sleep. I watched the sky turn black, and I thought.
In the Healing Hall Friar Glen and his helper, Inch, dug the hooks from my flesh. My tutor, Lundist, arrived while they had me on the table with their knives out. He had a book with him, the size of a Teuton shield, and three times as heavy by the look of it. Lundist had more strength in that wizened old stick of a body than anyone guessed.
“Those are fire-cleaned knives I hope, Friar?” Lundist carried the accent of his homelands in the Utter East, and a tendency to leave half of a word unspoken, as if an intelligent listener should be able to fill in the blanks.
“It is purity of spirit that will keep corruption from the flesh, Tutor,” Friar Glen said. He spared Lundist a disapproving glance, and returned to his digging.
“Even so, clean the knives, Friar. Holy office will prove scant protection from the King’s ire if the Prince dies in your halls.” Lundist set his book down on the table beside me, rattling a tray of vials at the far end. He lifted the cover and turned to a marked page.
““The thorns of the hook-briar are like to find the bone.”” He traced a wrinkled yellow finger down the lines. ““The points can break off and sour the wound.””
Friar Glen gave a sharp jab at that, which made me cry out. He set his knife down and turned to face Lundist. I could see only the friar’s back, the brown cloth straining over his shoulders, dark with sweat over his spine.
“Tutor Lundist,” he said. “A man in your profession is wont to think all things may be learned from the pages of a book, or the right scroll. Learning has its place, sirrah, but do not think to lecture me on healing on the basis of an evening spent with an old tome!”
Well, Friar Glen won that argument. The sergeant-at-arms had to ‘help’ Tutor Lundist from the hall.
I guess even at nine I had a serious lack of spiritual purity, for my wounds soured within two days, and for nine weeks I lay in fever, chasing dark dreams along death’s borderlands.
They tell me I raged and howled. That I raved as the pus oozed from slices where the briar had held me. I remember the stink of corruption. It had a kind of sweetness to it, a sweetness that’d make you want to hurl.
Inch, the friar’s aide, grew tired of holding me down, though he had the arms of a lumberjack. In the end they tied me to my bed.
I learned from Tutor Lundist that the friar would not attend me after the first week. Friar Glen said a devil was in me. How else could a child speak such horror?
In the fourth week I slipped the bonds that held me to my pallet, and set a fire in the hall. I have no memory of the escape, or my capture in the woods. When they cleared the ruin, they found the remains of Inch, with the poker from the hearth lodged in his chest.
Many times I stood at the Door. I had seen my mother and brother thrown through that doorway, torn and broken, and in dreams my feet would take me to stand there, time and again. I lacked the courage to follow them, held on the barbs and hooks of cowardice.
Sometimes I saw the dead-lands across a black river, sometimes across a chasm spanned by a narrow bridge of stone. Once I saw the Door in the guise of the portals to my father’s throne room, but edged with frost and weeping pus from every join. I had but to set my hand upon the handle…
The Count of Renar kept me alive. The promise of his pain crushed my own under its heel. Hate will keep you alive where love fails.
And then one day my fever left me. My wounds remained angry and red, but they closed. They fed me chicken in soup, and my strength crept back, a stranger to me.
The spring came to paint the leaves back upon the trees. I had my strength, but I felt something else had been taken. Taken so completely I could no longer name it.
The sun returned, and, much to Friar Glen’s distaste, Lundist returned to instruct me once more.
The first time he came, I sat abed. I watched him set out his books upon the table.
“Your father will see you on his return from Gelleth,” Lundist said. His voice held a note of reproach, but not for me. “The death of the queen and Prince William weigh heavy on him. When the pain eases he will surely come to speak with you.”
I didn’t understand why Lundist should feel the need to lie. I knew my father would not waste time on me whilst it seemed I would die. I knew he would see me when seeing me served some end.
“Tell me, tutor,” I said. “Is revenge a science, or an art?”
The rain faltered when the spirits fled. I’d only broken the one, but the others ran too, back to whatever pools they haunted. Maybe my one had been their leader; maybe men become cowards in death. I don’t know.
As to my own cowards, they had nowhere to flee, and I found them easily enough. I found Makin first. He, at least, was headed back toward me.
“So you found a pair then?” I called to him.
He paused a moment and looked at me. The rain didn’t fall so heavy now, but he still looked like a drowned rat. The water ran in rivulets over his breastplate, in and out of the dents. He checked the marsh to either side, still nervy, and lowered his sword.
“A man who’s got no fear is missing a friend, Jorg,” he said, and a smile found its way onto those thick lips of his. “Running ain’t no bad thing. Leastways if you run in the right direction.” He waved a hand toward where Rike wrestled with a clump of bulrushes, the mud up to his chest already. “Fear helps a man pick his fights. You’re fighting them all, my prince.” And he bowed, there on the Lichway with the rain dripping off him.
I spared a glance for Rike. Maical had similar problems in a pool to the other side of the road. Only he’d got his problems up to the neck.
“I’m going to fight them all in the end,” I said to him.
“Pick your fights,” Makin said.
“I’ll pick my ground,” I said. “I’ll pick my ground, but I’m not running. Not ever. That’s been done, and we still have the war. I’m going to win it, Brother Makin, It’s going to end with me.”
He bowed again. Not so deep, but this time I felt he meant it. “That’s why I’ll follow you, Prince. Wherever it takes us.”
For the moment it took us to fishing brothers out of the mud. We got Maical first, even though Rike howled and cursed us. As the rain thinned, I could see the grey and the head-cart off in the distance. The grey had the sense to keep to the road, even when Maical didn’t. If Maical had led the grey into the mire I’d have left him to sink.
We pulled Rike out next. When we reached him the mud had almost found his mouth. Nothing but his white face showed above the pool, but that didn’t stop him shouting his foulnesses all the way. We found most of them on the road, but six got sucked down too quick, lost forever; probably getting ready to haunt the next band of travellers.
“I’m going back for old Gomsty,” I said.
We’d come a way down the road and the light had pretty much gone. Looking back you couldn’t see the gibbets, just grey veils of rain. Out in the marsh the dead waited. I felt their cold thoughts crawling on my skin.
I didn’t ask any of them to go with me. I knew none of them would, and it don’t do for a leader to ask and be told no.
“What do you want with that old priest, Brother Jorg?” Makin said. He was asking me not to go; only he couldn’t come out and say it.
“You still want to burn him up?” Even the mud couldn’t hide Rike’s sudden cheer.
“I do,” I said. “But that’s not why I’m getting him.” And I set off back along the Lichway.
The rain and the darkness wrapped me. I lost the brothers, waiting on the road behind. Gomst and the gibbets lay ahead. I walked in a cocoon of silence, with nothing but the soft words of the rain, and the sound of my boots on the Lichway.
I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. It’s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.
And there he hung, Father Gomst, priest to the House of Ancrath.
“Father,” I said, and I sketched him a bow. In truth though, I was in no mood for play. I had me a hollow ache behind my eyes. The kind that gets people killed.
He looked at me wide-eyed, as if I was a bog-spirit crawled out of the mire.
I went to the chain that held his cage up. “Brace yourself, Father.”
The sword I drew had slit old Bovid Tor not twenty-four hours before. Now I swung it to free a priest. The chain gave beneath its edge. They’d put some magic, or some devilry, in that blade. Father told me the Ancraths wielded it for four generations, and took it from the House of Or. So the steel was old before we Ancraths first lay hands upon it. Old before I stole it.
The birdcage fell to the path, hard and heavy. Father Gomst cried out, and his head hit the bars, leaving a livid cross-work across his forehead. They’d bound the cage-door with wire. It gave before the edge of our ancestral sword, twice stolen. I thought of Father for a moment, imaged his face twist in outrage at the use of so high a blade for such lowly work. I’ve a good imagination, but putting any emotion on the rock of Father’s face came hard.
Gomst crawled out, stiff and weak. As the old should be. I liked that he had the grace to feel the years on his shoulders. Some the years just toughened.
“Father Gomst,” I said. “Best hurry now, or the marsh dead may come out to scare us with their wailing and a-moaning.”
He looked at me then, drawing back as if he’d seen a ghost, then softening.
“Jorg,” he said, all full of compassion. Brimming with it, spilling it from his eyes as if it wasn’t just the rain. “What has happened to you?”
I won’t lie to you. Half of me wanted to stick the knife into him there and then, just as with red-faced Gemt. More than half. My hand itched with the need to pull that knife. My head ached with it, as if a vice were tightening against my temples.
I’ve been known to be contrary. When something pushes me, I shove back. Even if the one doing the pushing is me. It would have been easy to gut him then and there. Satisfying. But the need was too urgent. I felt pushed.
I smiled and said, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
And old Gomsty, though he was stiff from the cage, and sore in every limb, bowed his head to hear my confession.
I spoke into the rain, low and quiet. Loud enough for Father Gomst though, and loud enough for the dead who haunted the marsh about us. I told of the things I’d done. I told of the things I would do. In a soft voice I told my plans to all with ears to hear. The dead left us then.
“You’re the devil!” Father Gomst took a step back, and clutched the cross at his neck.
“If that’s what it takes.” I didn’t dispute him. “But I’ve confessed, and you must forgive me.”
“Abomination….” The word escaped him in a slow breath.
“And more besides,” I agreed. “Now forgive me.”
Father Gomst found his wits at last, but still he held back. “What do you want with me, Lucifer?”
A fair question. “I want to win,” I said.
He shook his head at that, so I explained.
“Some men I can bind with who I am. Some I can bind with where I’m going. Others need to know who walks with me. I’ve given you my confession. I repent. Now God walks with me, and you’re the priest who will tell the faithful that I am His warrior, His instrument, the Sword of the Almighty.”
A silence stood between us, measured in heartbeats.
“Ego te absolve.” Father Gomst got the words past trembling lips.
We walked back along the path then, and reached the others by and by. Makin had them lined up and ready. Waiting in the dark, with a single torch, and the hooded lantern hung up on the head-cart.
“Captain Bortha,” I said to Makin, “time we set off. We’ve got a ways before us till we reach the Horse Coast.”
“And the priest?” he asked.
“Perhaps we’ll detour past the Tall Castle, and drop him off.”
My headache bit, hard.
Maybe it was something to do with having an old ghost haunt its way through to the very marrow of my bones, but today my headaches felt more like somebody prodding me with a stick, herding me along, and it was really beginning to fuck me off.
“I think we will call in at the Tall Castle.” I ground my teeth together against the daggers in my head. “Hand old Gomsty here over in person. I’m sure my father has been worried about me.”
Rike and Maical gave me stupid stares. Fat Burlow and Red Kent swapped glances. The Nuban rolled his eyes and made his wards.
I looked at Makin, tall, broad in the shoulder, black hair plastered down by the rain. He’s my knight, I thought. Gomst is my bishop, the Tall Castle my rook. Then I thought of Father. I needed a king. You can’t play the game without a king. I thought of Father, and it felt good. After the dead one, Id begun to wonder. The dead one showed me his hell, and I had laughed at it. But now I thought of Father, and it felt good to know I could still feel fear.