Lost in the wide and barren North, Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp, runs into Cracknut Whirrun on a bridge far too narrow for the expansive egos of either. With the King of the Northmen and the High Priestess of Thond in pursuit, can Shevedieh, the greatest thief in Styria, persuade either one of these proud heroes to step aside?
Somewhere in the North, Summer 576
“This is hell,” muttered Shev, peering over the brink of the canyon. “Hell.” Rock shiny-dark with wet disappeared into the mist below, water rushing somewhere, a long way down. “God, I hate the North.”
“Somehow,” answered Javre, pushing back hair turned lank brown by the eternal damp, “I do not think God is listening.”
“Oh, I’m abundantly aware of that. No one’s bloody listening.”
“I am.” Javre turned away from the edge and headed on down the rutted goat-track beside it with her usual mighty strides, head back, heedless of the rain, soaked cloak flapping at her muddy calves. “And, what is more, I am intensely bored by what I am hearing.”
“Don’t toy with me, Javre.” Shev hurried to catch her up, trying to find the least boggy patches to hop between. “I’ve had about as much of this as I can take!”
“So you keep saying. And yet the next day you take some more.”
“I’m bloody furious!”
“I believe you.”
“I mean it!”
“If you have to tell someone you are furious, and then, furthermore, that you mean it, your fury has failed to achieve its desired effect.”
“I hate the bloody North!” Shev stamped at the ground, as though she could hurt anything but herself, succeeding only in showering wet dirt up her leg. Not that she could have made herself much wetter or dirtier. “The whole place is made of shit!”
Javre shrugged. “Everything is, in the end.”
“How can anyone stand this cold?”
“It is bracing. Do not sulk. Would you like to ride on my shoulders?”
Shev would have, in fact, very much, but her bruised pride insisted that she continue to squelch along on foot. “What am I, a bloody child?”
Javre raised her red brows. “Were you never told only to ask questions you truly want the answer to? Do you want the answer?”
“Not if you’re going to try to be funny.”
“Oh, come now, Shevedieh!” Javre bent down to snake one huge arm about her shoulders and gave her a bone-crushing squeeze. “Where is that happy-go-lucky rascal I fell in love with back in Westport, always facing her indignities with a laugh, a caper and a twinkle in her eye?” And her wriggling fingers crept towards Shev’s stomach.
Shev held up a knife. “Tickle me and I will fucking stab you.”
Javre puffed out her cheeks, took her arm away and squelched on down the track. “Do not be so overdramatic. It is exhausting. We just need to get you dry and find some pretty little farm-girl for you to curl up with and it will all feel better by morning.”
“There are no pretty farm-girls out here! There are no girls! There are no farms!” She held out her arms to the endless murk, mud and blasted rock. “There isn’t even any bloody morning!”
“There is a bridge,” said Javre, pointing into the gloom. “See? Things are looking up!”
“I never felt so encouraged,” muttered Shev.
It was a tangle of fraying rope strung from ancient posts carved with runes and streaked with bird-droppings, rotten-looking slats tied to make a precarious walkway. It sagged deep as Shev’s spirits as it vanished into the vertiginous unknown above the canyon and shifted alarmingly in the wind, planks rattling.
“Bloody North,” said Shev as she picked her way towards it and had a tentative drag at the ropes. “Even their bridges are shit.”
“Their men are good,” said Javre, clattering out with no fear whatsoever. “Far from subtle, but enthusiastic.”
“Great,” said Shev as she edged after, exchanging a mutually suspicious glance with a crow perched atop one of the posts. “Men. The one thing that interests me not at all.”
“You should try them.”
“I did. Once. Bloody useless. Like trying to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even speak your language, let alone understand the topic.”
“Some are certainly more horizontally fluent than others.”
“No. Just no. The hairiness, and the lumpiness, and the great big fumbling fingers and . . . balls. I mean, balls. What’s that about? That is one singularly unattractive piece of anatomy. That is just . . . that is bad design, is what that is.”
Javre sighed. “It is the great shame of creation that we cannot all be so perfectly formed as you, Shevedieh, springy little string of sinew that you are.”
“There’d be more bloody meat on me if we weren’t living on high hopes and the odd rabbit. I may not be perfect but I don’t have a sock of bloody gravel swinging around my knees, you’d have to give me . . . Hold on.” They had reached the sagging middle of the bridge now, and Shev could see neither rock face. Only the ropes fading up into the grey in both directions.
“What?” muttered Javre, clattering to a stop.
The bridge kept on bouncing. A heavy tread, and coming towards them.
“There’s someone heading the other way,” muttered Shev, twisting her wrist and letting the dagger drop from her sleeve into her waiting palm. A fight was the last thing she ever wanted, but she’d reluctantly come to find there was no downside to having a good knife ready. It made a fine conversation point, if nothing else.
A figure started to form. At first just a shadow, shifting as the wind drove the fog in front of them. First a short man, then a tall one. Then a man with a rake over his shoulder. Then a half-naked man with a huge sword over his shoulder.
Shev squinted around Javre’s elbow, waiting for it to resolve itself into something that made better sense. It did not.
“That is . . . unusual,” said Javre.
“Bloody North,” muttered Shev. “Nothing up here would surprise me.”
The man stopped perhaps two strides off, smiling. But a smile more of madness than good humour. He wore trousers, thankfully, made of some ill-cured pelt, and boots with absurd fur tops. Otherwise he was bare, and his pale torso was knotted with muscle, criss-crossed with scars and beaded with dew. That sword looked even bigger close up, as if forged by an optimist for the use of giants. It was nearly as tall as its owner, and he was not short by any means, for he looked Javre more or less in the eye.
“Someone’s compensating for something,” muttered Shev, under her breath.
“Greetings, ladies,” said the man, in a thick accent. “Lovely day.”
“It’s fucking not,” grumbled Shev.
“Well, it’s all in how you look at it, isn’t it, though?” He raised his brows expectantly, but when neither of them answered, continued, “I am Whirrun of Bligh. Some folk call me Cracknut Whirrun.”
“Congratulations,” said Shev.
He looked pleased. “You’ve heard of me, then?”
“No. Where the hell’s Bligh?”
He winced. “Honestly, I couldn’t say.”
“I am Javre,” said Javre, puffing up her considerable chest, “Lioness of Hoskopp.” Shev rolled her eyes. God – warriors, and their bloody titles, and their bloody introductions, and their bloody chest-puffing. “We are crossing this bridge.”
“Ah! Me too!”
Shev ground her teeth. “What is this, a stating-the-obvious competition? We’ve met in the middle of it, haven’t we?”
“Yes.” Whirrun heaved in a great breath through his nose and let it sigh happily away. “Yes, we have.”
“That is quite a sword,” said Javre.
“It is the Father of Swords, and men have a hundred names for it. Dawn Razor. Grave-Maker. Blood Harvest. Highest and Lowest. Scac-ang-Gaioc in the valley tongue which means the Splitting of the World, the Battle that was fought at the start of time and will be fought again at its end. Some say it is God’s sword, fallen from the heavens.”
“Huh.” Javre held up the roughly sword-shaped bundle of rags she carried with her. “My sword was forged from a fallen star.”
“It looks like a sword-shaped bundle of rags.”
Javre narrowed her eyes. “I have to keep it wrapped up.”
“Lest its brilliance blind you.”
“Ooooooooh,” said Whirrun. “The funny thing about that is, now I really want to see it. Would I get a good look before I was blinded, or—”
“Are you two done with the pissing contest?” asked Shev.
“I would not get into a pissing contest with a man.” Javre pushed her hips forward, stuck her hand in her groin and indicated the probable arc with a pointed finger. “I have tried it before and you can say what you like about cocks but they just get far more distance. Far more. What?” she asked, frowning over her shoulder. “It simply cannot be done, no matter how much you drink. Now, if you want a pissing contest—”
“I don’t!” snapped Shev. “Right now all I want is somewhere dry to kill myself!”
“You are so overdramatic,” said Javre, shaking her head. “She is so overdramatic. It is exhausting.”
Whirrun shrugged. “It’s a fine line between too much drama and too little, isn’t it, though?”
“True,” mused Javre. “True.”
There was a pause, while the bridge creaked faintly.
“Well,” said Shev, “this has been lovely, but we are being pursued by agents of the Great Temple in Thond and some fellows hired by Horald the Finger, so, if you don’t mind—”
“In fact I do. I, too, am pursued, by agents of the King of the Northmen, Bethod. You’d think he’d have better things to do, what with this mad war against the Union, but Bethod, well, like him or no, you have to admit he’s persistent.”
“Persistently a shit,” said Shev.
“I won’t disagree,” lamented Whirrun. “The greater a man’s power swells, the smaller his good qualities shrivel.”
“True,” mused Javre. “True.”
Another long silence, and the wind blew up and made the bridge sway alarmingly. Javre and Whirrun frowned at one another.
“Step aside,” said Javre, “and we shall be on our way.”
“I do not care to step aside. Especially on a bridge as narrow as this one.” Whirrun’s eyes narrowed slightly. “And your tone somewhat offends me.”
“Then your delicate feelings will be even worse wounded by my boot up your arse. Step aside.”
Whirrun swung the Father of Swords from his shoulder and set it point-down on the bridge. “I fear you will have to show me that blade after all, woman.”
“Wait!” snapped Shev, ducking around Javre to hold up a calming palm. “Just wait a moment! You can murder each other with my blessing but if you set to swinging your hugely impressive swords on this bridge, the chances are good you”ll cut one of the ropes, and then you”ll kill not just each other but me, too, and that you very much do not have my blessing for.”
Whirrun raised his brows. “She has a point.”
“Shevedieh can be a deep thinker,” said Javre, nodding. She gestured back the way they had come. “Let us return to our end to fight.”
Shev gave a gasp. “So you wouldn’t step aside to let him past but you”ll happily plod all the way back to fight?”
Javre looked baffled. “Of course. That is only good manners.”
“Exactly!” said Whirrun. “Manners are everything to a good-mannered person. That is why we must go to my end of the bridge to fight.”
It was Javre’s turn to narrow her eyes. She was almost as dangerous an eye-narrower as she was a fighter, which was saying something. “It must be my end.”
“My end,” growled Whirrun. “I insist.”
Shev rubbed at her temples. The past few years, it was a wonder she hadn’t worn them right through. “Are you two idiots really going to fight over where you fight? We were going this way! He’s offering to let us go this way! Let’s just go this way!”
Javre narrowed her eyes still further. Blue slits, they were. “All right. But don’t think you’re talking us out of fighting, Shevedieh.”
Shev gave her very weariest sigh. “Far be it from me to prevent bloodshed.”
Whirrun wedged his great sword point-down into a crack in the rocks and left it gently wobbling. “Let’s put our blades aside. The Father of Swords cannot be drawn without being blooded.”
Javre snorted. “Afraid?”
“No. The witch Shoglig told me the time and place of my death, and it is not here, and it is not now.”
“Huh.” Javre set her own sword down and began, one by one, to explosively crack her knuckles. “Did she tell you the time of me kicking you so hard you shit yourself?”
Whirrun’s face took on a contemplative look. “She did predict my shitting myself, but that was because of a rancid stew and, anyway, that happened already. Last year, near Uffrith. That is why I have these new trousers.” He bent over to smile proudly upon them, then frowned towards Shev. “I trust your servant will stay out of this?”
“Servant?” snapped Shev.
“Shevedieh is not my servant,” said Javre.
“She is at least a henchman. Possibly even a sidekick.”
Shev planted her hands on her hips. “We’re partners! A duo!”
Javre laughed. “No. Duo? No, no, no.”
“Whatever she is,” said Whirrun, “she looks sneaky. I don’t want her stabbing me in the back.”
“Don’t bloody worry about that!” snapped Shev. “Believe me when I say I want less than no part of this stupidity. As for sneaking, I tried to get out of that business and open a Smoke House, but my partner burned it down!”
“Sidekick at best,” said Javre. “And as I recall it was you who knocked the coals over. Honestly, Shevedieh, you are always looking for someone to blame. If you want to ever be half of a duo you must learn to take responsibility.”
“Smoke House?” asked Whirrun. “You like fish?”
“No, no,” said Shev. “Well, yes, but not that kind of Smoke House, you . . . Forget it.” And she dropped down on a rock and propped her chin on her fists.
“Since we are making rules . . .” Javre winced as she hitched up her bust. “Can we say no strikes to the tits? Men never realise how much that hurts.”
“Fine.” Whirrun lifted one leg to rearrange his groin. “If you avoid the fruits. Bloody things can get in the way.”
“It’s poor design,” said Shev. “Didn’t I say it? Poor design.”
Javre shrugged her coat off and tossed it over Shev’s head.
“Thanks,” she snapped as she dragged it off her damp hair and around her damp shoulders.
Javre raised her fists and Whirrun gave an approving nod as the sinews popped from her arms. “You are without doubt an impressive figure of a woman.” He put up his own fists, woody muscle flexing. “But I will take no mercy on you because of that.”
“Good. Except around the chest area?”
“As agreed.” Whirrun grinned. “This may be a battle for the songs.”
“You will have trouble singing them without your teeth.”
They traded blows, lightning quick. Whirrun’s fist sank into Javre’s ribs with a thud but she barely seemed to notice, letting go three quick punches and catching him full on the jaw with the last. He did not waver, only took a quick step back, already set and watchful.
“You are strong,” he said. “For a woman.”
“I will show you how strong.”
She lunged at him with a vicious flurry of blows but caught only air as he jerked this way and that, slippery as a fish in the river for all his size. Meat slapped as Javre caught his counters on her forearms, growling through gritted teeth, shrugged off a cuff on her forehead and caught Whirrun’s arm. In a flash she dropped to one knee, heaved him over her head and into the air, but he tucked himself up neat as Shev used to when she tumbled in that travelling show, hit the turf with his shoulder, rolled and came up on his feet, still smiling.
“Every day should be a new lesson,” he said.
“You are quick,” said Javre. “For a man.”
“I will show you how quick.”
He came at her, feinted high, ducked under her raking heel and caught her other calf, lifting her effortlessly to fling her down. But Javre had already hooked her leg around the back of his neck and dragged him down with her. They tumbled in a tangle of limbs to the muddy ground, rolling about with scant dignity, squirming and snapping, punching and kneeing, spitting and snarling.
“This is hell.” Shev gave a long groan and looked off into the mist. “This is . . .” She paused, heart sinking even lower. “You two,” she muttered, slowly standing. “You two!”
“We are . . .” snarled Javre as she kneed Whirrun in the ribs.
“A little . . .” snarled Whirrun as he butted her in the mouth.
“Busy!” snarled Javre as they rolled struggling through a puddle.
“You may want to stop,” growled Shev. Figures were emerging from the mist. First three. Then five. Now seven men, one of them on a horse. “I think perhaps Bethod’s agents have arrived.”
“Arse!” Whirrun scrambled free of Javre, hurrying over to his sword and striking a suitably impressive pose with his hand on the hilt, only slightly spoiled by his whole bare side being smeared with mud. Shev swallowed and let the dagger drop into her hand once again. It spent a lot more time there than she’d like.
The first to take full shape from the mist was a nervous-looking boy, couldn’t have been more than fifteen, who half-drew his bow with somewhat wobbly hands, arrow pointed roughly in Whirrun’s direction. Next came a selection of Northmen, impressively bearded if you liked that kind of thing, which Shev didn’t, and even more impressively armed, if you liked that kind of thing, which Shev didn’t either.
“Evening, Flood,” said Whirrun, dabbing some blood from his split lip.
“Whirrun,” said the one who Shev presumed to be the leader, leaning on his spear as if he’d walked a long way.
Whirrun began to conspicuously count the Northmen with a wagging finger, his lips silently moving.
“There are seven,” said Shev.
“Ah!” said Whirrun. “You’re right, she’s a quick thinker. Seven! I’m touched Bethod can spare so many, just for me. Thought he’d need every man, what with this war against the Southerners. I mean to say, they call me mad, but this war? Now that’s mad.”
“Can’t say I disagree,” said Flood, combing at his beard with his dirty fingers, “but I don’t make the choices.”
“Some men don’t have the bones to make the choices.”
“And some men are just tired of their choices always turning out the wrong ones. I know being difficult comes natural to you, Whirrun, but could you try not to be just for a little while? Bethod’s King of the Northmen, now. He can’t have people just going their own way.”
“I am Whirrun of Bligh,” said Whirrun, puffing up his considerable chest. “My way is the only way I go.”
“Oh, God,” muttered Shev. “He’s the male Javre. He’s the male you, Javre!”
“He is certainly in the neighbourhood,” said Javre, with a note of grudging appreciation, flicking away some sheep’s droppings which had become stuck in her hair in the struggle. “Why does only one of you have a horse?”
The Northmen glanced at each other as though this was the source of some friction between them.
“There’s a war on,” grunted one with shitty teeth. “Not that many horses about.”
Shev snorted. “Don’t I know it. You think I’d be walking if I didn’t have to?”
“It’s my horse,” said Flood. “But Kerric’s got a bad leg so I said he could borrow it.”
“We’ve all got bad legs,” grunted a big one with an entirely excessive beard and an axe even more so.
“Now is probably not the time to reopen discussion of who gets the horse,” snapped Flood. “The dead know we’ve argued over that particular issue enough, don’t you bloody think?” With a gesture, he started the men spreading out to the right and left. “Who the hell are the women anyway, Whirrun?”
Shev rolled her eyes as Javre did her own puffing up. “I am Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp.”
Flood raised one brow. “And your servant?”
Shev gave a weary groan. “Oh, for—”
“She’s not a servant, she’s a henchman,” said Whirrun. “Or . . . henchwoman? Is that a word?”
“Partner!” snapped Shev.
“No, no.” Javre shook her head. “Partner? No.”
“It really doesn’t matter,” said Flood, starting to become impatient. “The point is Bethod wants to talk to you, Whirrun, and you”ll be coming with us even if we have to hurt you—”
“One moment.” Javre held up her big hand. “This man and I are in the midst of resolving a previous disagreement. You can hurt whatever is left of him when I am done.”
“By the dead.” Flood pressed thumb and forefinger into his eyes and rubbed them fiercely. “Nothing’s ever easy. Why is nothing ever easy?”
“Believe me,” said Shev, tightening her grip on her knife, “I feel your pain. You were going to fight him for nothing, now you’re going to fight for him for nothing?”
“We stand where the Goddess puts us,” growled Javre, knuckles whitening where she gripped her sword.
Flood gave an exasperated sigh. “Whirrun, there’s no call for bloodshed here—”
“I’m with him,” said Shev, holding up a finger.
“—but you’re really not giving me much of a choice. Bethod wants you in front of Skarling’s chair, alive or dead.”
Whirrun grinned. “Shoglig told me the time of my death, and it is not here, and it is not—”
A bowstring went. It was that boy with the wobbly hands, looking as surprised he’d let fly as anyone. Whirrun caught the arrow. Just snatched it from the air, neat as you like.
“Wait!” roared Flood, but it was too late. The man with the big beard rushed at Whirrun, roaring, spraying spit, swinging his axe. At the last moment, Whirrun calmly stepped around the Father of Swords so the axe-haft clanged into its sheathed blade and stabbed the bearded man in the neck with the arrow. He dropped spluttering.
By then everyone was shouting.
For someone who hated fights, Shev surely ended up in a lot of the bastards, and if she’d learned one thing it was that you’ve got to commit. Try your damndest to negotiate, to compromise, to put it off, but when the time comes to fight, you’ve got to commit. So she flung her knife.
If she’d thought about it, Shev might have figured that she didn’t want to weigh down her conscience any more than she had to, and killing a horse wasn’t as bad as killing a man. If she’d thought about it more, she might have considered that the man had chosen to be there while the horse hadn’t, so probably deserved it more. But if she’d thought about it even more, she might have considered that the man probably hadn’t chosen to be there in any meaningful sense any more than Shev had herself, but had been rolled along through life like a stone on the riverbed according to his situation, acquaintances, character and bad luck without too much chance of changing anything.
But folk who spend a lot of time thinking in fights don’t tend to live through them, so Shev left the thinking for later and threw at the easiest target to hit.
The knife stuck into the horse’s hindquarters and its eyes bulged. It reared, stumbled, bucked and tottered, and Shev had to scramble out of the way while the rider tore desperately at the reins. The horse plunged and kicked, the saddle-girth tore and the saddle slid from the horse’s back as it toppled sideways, rolled over its rider bringing his despairing wail to a sharp end, then slipped thrashing over the rocky verge of the canyon and out of sight.
So Shev ended up with horse and rider on her conscience. But the sad fact was, only the winners got to regret what they did in a fight, and right now Shev had other worries. Namely, a man with the shittiest teeth she ever saw and a hell of an intimidating mace. Why was he grinning? God, if she had those teeth, you’d have needed a crowbar to get her lips apart.
“Come here,” he snarled at her.
“I’d rather not,” Shev hissed back.
She scrambled out of the way, damp stones scattering from her heels, the screech, crash and clatter of combat almost forgotten in the background. Scrambling, always scrambling, from one disaster to another. Often at the edge of an unknowable canyon, at least a metaphorical one. And, as always, she could never quite get away.
The shitty-toothed maceman caught her collar with his free hand, jerking it so half the buttons ripped off and driving her back so her head cracked on rock. She stabbed at him with her other knife but the blade only scraped his mail and twisted out of her hand. A moment later, his fist sank into her gut and drove her breath out in a shuddering wheeze.
“Got yer,” he growled in her face, his breath alone almost enough to make her lose consciousness. He lifted his mace.
She raised one finger to point over his shoulder. “Behind you . . .”
“You think I’m falling for—”
There was a loud thudding sound and the Father of Swords split him from his shoulder down to his guts, gore spraying in Shev’s face as if it had been flung from a bucket.
“Urrgh!” She slithered from under the man’s carcass, desperately trying to kick free of the slaughterhouse slops that had been suddenly dumped in her lap. “God,” she whimpered, struggling up, trembling and spitting, clothes soaked with blood, hair dripping with blood, mouth, eyes, nose full of blood. “Oh, God.”
“Look on the sunny side,” said Whirrun. “At least it’s not your own.”
Bethod’s men were scattered about the muddy grass, hacked, twisted, leaking. The only one still standing was Flood.
“Now, look,” he said, licking his lips, spear levelled as Javre stalked towards him. “I didn’t want things to go this way—”
She whipped her sword from its scabbard and Shev flinched, two blinding smears left across her sight. The top part of Flood’s spear dropped off, then the bottom, leaving him holding a stick about the length of Shev’s foot. He swallowed, then tossed it on the ground and held up his hands.
“Get you gone back to your master, Flood,” said Whirrun, “and thank the dead for your good luck with every step. Tell him Whirrun of Bligh dances to his own tune.”
With wide eyes Flood nodded, and began to back away.
“And if you see Curnden Craw over there, tell him I haven’t forgotten he owes me three chickens!”
“Chickens?” muttered Javre.
“A debt is a debt,” said Whirrun, leaning nonchalantly on the Father of Swords, his bare white body now spattered with blood as well as mud. “Talking of which, we still have business between us.”
“We do.” She looked Whirrun slowly up and down with lips thoughtfully pursed. It was a look Shev had seen before, and she felt her heart sink even lower, if that was possible. “But another way of settling it now occurs to me.”
“Uh . . . uh . . . uh . . .”
Shev knelt shivering beside a puddle of muddy rainwater, muttering every curse she knew, which was many, struggling to mop the gore from between her tits with a rag torn from a dead man’s shirt, and trying desperately not to notice Javre’s throaty grunting coming from behind the rock. It was like trying not to notice someone hammering nails into your head.
“Uh . . . uh . . . uh . . .”
“This is hell,” she whimpered, staring at her bedraggled reflection in the muddy, bloody puddle. “This is hell.”
What had she done to deserve being there? Marooned in this loveless, sunless, cultureless, comfortless place. A place salted by the tears of the righteous, as her mother used to say. Her hair plastered to her clammy head like bloody seaweed to a rotting boat. Her chafed skin on which the gooseflesh could hardly be told from the scaly chill-rash. Her nose endlessly running, rimmed with sore pink from the wiping. Her sunken stomach growling, her bruised neck throbbing, her blistered feet aching, her withered dreams crumbling, her—
“Uh . . . uh . . . uh . . .” Javre’s grunting was mounting in volume, and added to it now was a long, steady growling from Whirrun. “Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .”
Shev found herself wondering what exactly they were up to, slapped the side of her head as though she could knock the thought out. She should be concentrating on feeling sorry for herself! Think of all she’d lost!
The Smoke House. Well, that hadn’t been so great. Her friends in Westport. Well, she’d never had any she’d have trusted with a copper. Severard. No doubt he’d be far better off with his mother in Adua, however upset he’d been about it. Carcolf. Carcolf had betrayed her, damn it! God, those hips, though. How could you stay angry at someone with hips like that?
“Uh . . . uh . . . uh . . .”
“Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr . . .”
She slithered back into her shirt, which her efforts at washing had turned from simply bloody to bloody, filthy and clinging with freezing water. She shuddered with disgust as she wiped blood out of her ear, out of her nose, out of her eyebrows.
She’d tried to do small kindnesses where she could, hadn’t she? Coppers to beggars when she could afford it, and so on? And, for the rest, she’d had good reasons, hadn’t she? Or had she just made good excuses?
“Oh, God,” she muttered to herself, pushing the greasy-chill hair out of her face.
The horrible fact was, she’d got no worse than she deserved. Quite possibly better. If this was hell, she’d earned every bit of it. She took a deep breath and blew it out so her lips flapped.
“Uh . . . uh . . . uh!”
Shev hunched her shoulders, staring back towards the bridge.
She paused, heart sinking even lower than before. Right into her blistered feet.
“You two,” muttered Shev, slowly standing, fumbling with her shirt-buttons. “You two!”
“We are . . .” came Javre’s strangled voice.
“A little . . .” groaned Whirrun.
“You may want to fucking stop!” screeched Shev, sliding out a knife and hiding it behind her arm. She realised she’d got her buttons in the wrong holes, a great tail of flapping-wet shirt plastered to her leg. But it was a little late to smarten up. Once again, there were figures coming from the mist. From the direction of the bridge. First one. Then two. Then three women.
Tall women who walked with that same easy swagger Javre had. That swagger that said they ruled the ground they walked on. All three wore swords. All three wore sneers. All three, Shev didn’t doubt, were Templars of the Golden Order, come for Javre in the name of the High Priestess of Thond.
The first had dark hair coiled into a long braid bound with golden wire, and old eyes in a young face. The second had a great burn mark across her cheek and through her scalp, one ear missing. The third had short red hair and eyes slyly narrowed as she looked Shev up and down. “You’re very . . . wet,” she said.
Shev swallowed. “It’s the North. Everything’s a bit damp.”
“Bloody North.” The scarred one spat. “No horses to be had anywhere.”
“Not for love nor money,” sang the red-haired one, “and believe me, I’ve tried both.”
“Probably the war,” said the dark-haired one.
“It’s the North. There’s always a war.”
Whirrun gave a heavy sigh as he clambered from behind the rock, fastening his belt. “’Tis a humbling indictment of our way of life, but one I find I can’t deny.” And he hefted the Father of Swords over his shoulder and came to stand beside Shev.
“You aren’t nearly as funny as you think you are,” said the scarred one.
“Few of us indeed,” said Shev, “are as funny as we think we are.”
Javre stepped out from behind the rock, and the three women all shifted nervously at the sight of her. Sneers became frowns. Hands crept towards weapons. Shev could feel the violence coming, sure as the grass grows, and she clung tight to that entirely inadequate knife of hers. All the fights she got into, she really should learn to use a sword. Or maybe a spear. She might look taller with a spear. But then you’ve got to carry the bastard around. Something with a chain, maybe, that coiled up small?
“Javre,” said the one with the braid.
“Yes.” Javre gave the women that fighter’s glance of hers. That careless glance that seemed to say she had taken all their measure in a moment and was not impressed by it.
“You’re here, then.”
“Where else would I be but where I am?”
The dark-haired woman raised her sharp chin. “Why don’t you introduce everyone?”
“It feels like a lot of effort, when you will be gone so soon.”
Javre sighed. “This is Golyin, Fourth of the Fifteen. Once a good friend to me.”
“Still a good friend, I like to think.”
Shev snorted. “Would a good friend chase another clear across the Circle of the World?” Under her breath, she added, “Not to mention her good friend’s partner.”
Golyin’s eyes shifted to Shev’s, and there was a sadness in them. “If a good friend had sworn to. In the quiet times, perhaps, she would cry that the world was this way, and wring her hands, and ask the Goddess for guidance, but . . .” She gave a heavy sigh. “She would do it. You must have known we would catch you eventually, Javre.”
Javre shrugged, sinews in her shoulders twitching. “I have never been hard to catch. It is once you catch me that your problems begin.” She nodded towards the scarred one, who was slowly, smoothly, silently easing her way around the top of the canyon to their right. “She is Ahum, Eleventh of the Fifteen. Is the scar still sore?”
“I have a soothing lotion for it,” she said, curling her lip. “And I am Ninth now.”
“Nothingth soon.” Javre raised a brow at the red-haired one, working her way around them on the left. “Her I do not know.”
“I am Sarabin Shin, Fourteenth of the Fifteen, and men call me—”
“No one cares,” said Javre. “I give you all the same two choices I gave Hanama and Birke and Weylen and the others. Go back to the High Priestess and tell her I will be no one’s slave. Not ever. Or I show you the sword.”
There was that familiar popping of joints as Javre shifted her shoulders, scraping into a wider stance and lifting the sword-shaped bundle in her left hand.
Golyin sucked her teeth. “You always were so overdramatic, Javre. We would rather take you back than kill you.”
Whirrun gave a little snort of laughter. “I could swear we just had this exact conversation.”
“We did,” said Javre, “and this one will end the same way.”
“This woman is a murderer, an oathbreaker, a fugitive,” said Golyin.
“Meh.” Whirrun shrugged. “Who isn’t?”
“There is no need for you to die here, man,” said Sarabin Shin, finding her own fighting crouch.
Whirrun shrugged again. “One place is as good for dying as another, and these ladies helped me with an unpleasant situation.” He pointed out the six corpses scattered across the muddy ground with the pommel of his sword. “And my friend Curnden Craw always says it’s poor manners not to return a favour.”
“You may find this situation of a different order of unpleasantness,” said the scarred one, drawing her sword. The blade smoked in a deeply unnatural and worrying way, a frosty glitter to the white metal.
Whirrun only smiled as he shrugged his huge sword off his shoulder. “I have a tune for every occasion.”
The other two women drew their swords. Golyin’s curved blade appeared to be made of black shadow, curling and twisting so its shape was never sure. Sarabin Shin smiled at Shev and raised her own sword, long, and thin, and smouldering like a blade just drawn from the forge. Shev hated swords, especially ones pointed at her, but she rarely saw one she liked the look of less than that.
She held up the hand that didn’t have the knife in. “Please, girls.” She wasn’t above begging. “Please! There really is no upside to this. If we fight, someone will die. They will lose everything. Those who win will be no better off than now.”
“She is a pretty little thing,” said the scarred one.
Shev tidied a bloody strand of hair behind her ear. “Well, that’s nice to—”
“But she talks too much,” said Golyin. “Kill them.”
Shev flung her knife. Sarabin Shin swept out her sword and swatted it twittering away into the mist as she charged screaming forward.
Shev rolled, scrambled, ducked, dodged, dived while that smouldering blade carved the air around her, feeling the terrible heat of it on her skin. She tumbled more impressively than she ever had with that travelling show, the flashes of Javre’s sword at the corner of her eye as she fought Golyin, the ringing of metal crashing on her ears as Whirrun and Ahum traded blows.
Shev flung all the knives at her disposal, which was maybe six, then when those were done started snatching up anything to hand, which, after the last fight, was a considerable range of fallen weapons, armour and gear.
Sarabin Shin dodged a hastily flung mace, then an axe, then carved a water-flask in half with a hissing of steam, then stepped around a flapping boot with a hissing of contempt.
The one hit Shev scored was with a Northman’s cloven helmet, which bounced off Shin’s brow opening a little cut, and only appeared to make her more intent on Shev’s destruction than ever.
She ended up using the fallen saddle as a shield, desperately fending off blows while the snarling woman carved smoking chunks from it, leaving her holding an ever smaller lump of leather until, with a final swing, Shin chopped it into two flaming fist-sized pieces and caught Shev by her collar, dragging her close with an almost unbelievable strength, the smoking blade levelled at her face.
“No more running!” she snarled through her gritted teeth, pulling back her sword for a thrust.
Shev squeezed her eyes shut, hoping, for the second time that day, that against all odds and the run of luck she would find a way to creep into heaven.
“Get off my partner!” came Javre’s furious shriek.
Even through her lids she saw a blinding flash and Shev jerked away, gasping. There was a hiss and something hot brushed gently against Shev’s face. Then the hand on her collar fell away, and she heard something heavy thump against the ground.
“Well, that is that,” said Whirrun.
Shev prised one eye open, peered down at herself through the glittering smear Javre’s sword had left across her sight. The headless body of Sarabin Shin lay beside her.
“God,” she whimpered, standing stiff with horror, clothes soaked with blood, hair dripping with blood, mouth, eyes, nose full of blood. Again. “Oh, God.”
“Look on the sunny side,” said Javre, her sword already sheathed in its ragged scabbard. “At least it is not—”
“Fuck the sunny side!” screamed Shev. “And fuck the North, and fuck you pair of rutting lunatics!”
Whirrun shrugged. “That I’m mad is no revelation, I’m known for it. They call me Cracknut because my nut is cracked and that’s a fact.” With the toe of his boot he poked at the corpse of Ahum, face down beside him, leaking blood. “Still, even I can reckon out that these Templars of the Silver Order—”
“Golden,” said Javre.
“Whatever they call themselves, they are not going to stop until they catch you.”
Javre nodded as she looked about at the King of the Northman’s dead agents. “You are right. No more than Bethod will stop pursuing you.”
“I have nothing pressing,” said Whirrun. “Perhaps we could help each other with our enemies?”
“Two swords are better than one.” Javre tapped a forefinger thoughtfully against her lips. “And we could fuck some more.”
“The thought had occurred,” said Whirrun, grinning. “That was just starting to get interesting.”
“Wonderful.” Shev winced as she tried to blow the blood from her nose. “Do I get a vote?”
“Henchpeople don’t vote,” said Javre.
“And even if you did,” added Whirrun, giving an apologetic shrug, “there are three of us. You’d be outvoted.”
Shev tipped her head back to look up at the careless, iron-grey sky. “There’s the trouble with fucking democracy.”
“So it’s decided!” Whirrun clapped his hands and gave a boyish caper of enthusiasm. “Shall we fuck now, or . . . ?”
“Let us make a start while there is still some daylight.” Javre stared over the fallen corpse of her old friend Golyin, off towards the west. “It is a long way to Carleon.”
Whirrun frowned. “To Thond first, so I can pay my debt to you.”
Javre puffed up her chest as she turned to face him. “I will not hear of it. We deal with Bethod first.”
With a sigh of infinite weariness, Shev sank down beside the puddle, took up the bloody rag she had used earlier and wrung it out.
“I must insist,” growled Whirrun.
“As must I,” growled Javre.
As though by mutual agreement they seized hold of each other, tumbled wrestling to the ground, snapping, hissing, punching, writhing.
“This is hell.” Shev put her head in her hands. “This is hell.”
“Two’s Company” copyright © 2016 by Joe Abercrombie
Illustration copyright © 2016 by Tommy Arnold