Click here to read Episode 4
The dice were not favouring Rajir. He looked at yet another fistful of ones, twos and threes, taunting him from the table, and threw a handful of coppers at them, standing.
‘I’ve had enough of this, you whoresons,’ he grumbled.
‘Your luck could change at any moment, sir,’ said Falcon, the new recruit, his black hair tumbling chaotically about his face. He was no more than a footman, a spear carrier as green as his own eyes, but he had stood out from the new crop of axe-fodder for his confidence, and his skill with a blade. He also had a way with dice, and was not at all intimidated by Rajir or any of the other officers.
‘So could yours, peasant: I might decide to fuck you in the arse with my sword.’
Falcon grinned up at him, teeth and eyes flashing. Beside him Erdafel roared with laughter, and slapped him on the back with a hand like a rack of lamb. Whether Rajir would let a mere spearman laugh off a remark like that would depend on his mood; sometimes he might make them sweat for a while, but something told him Falcon was not a victim. He’d probably have to kill the man before he could make him crawl.
‘You’re leaving us even-handed,’ complained Sentuin, between gulps of ale. ‘Megano-dice is a pile of horse-shit with four players.’
‘Horse-shit…’ mused Amudr, never happier than when he was dicing. ‘I was wondering what it was in your beard, and I believe you’ve put your finger on it. I think I’ll roll over and let you fighters settle it three-handed.’
Amudr had nearly lost his life to gambling; it had been a hard-earned lesson, but he always knew when to stop. Rajir poured himself more ale from the jug on the table, listening to the banter with a sense of comfort. Home, for him, was a tent full of soldiers; he had once hoped to have a wife and father sons, but what would be the point? His family name was dirt, and he had no estate. His brothers of the sword were his family; there were good women who were glad enough to be camp followers, and knew better than to bother him with any brats they might spawn.
Erdafel growled wordlessly. ‘With three dice is just fuck shit!’ he bellowed, in his usual speaking voice. ‘Erdafel not too happy with you, little thin man!’
Amudr raised an eyebrow as he stood, smoothing down his robe. ‘Erdafel had better hope I’m happy with him next time he gets sliced up or catches the clap, big loud man,’ he said dryly.
Erdafel roared with laughter. ‘Erdafel just make your sister very, very happy, then she begging you to fix me up!’
Falcon gathered up the dice and began to rattle them in the cup.
‘Game’s over, soldier,’ Sentuin told him, also heaving himself up onto his crutches. ‘I’m going back to my forge, and you’ll be wanted for drill in a quarter watch, rest day or no.’
‘Fair enough,’ said the recruit, in his manure-thick city voice. He stood, and made to leave.
‘Wait a minute, spearman,’ said Rajir.
Falcon turned from the tent-flap and came to something resembling attention. Erdafel came to the table and, not bothering with a cup, lifted the jug and poured ale through a large hole in the yellow thatch that covered his face. Rajir sipped, and looked the recruit up and down.
‘You’re a big man… Falcon,’ he observed. ‘Strong, deft, quick. You know horse-shit about the military life, but you handle a long blade like a born swordsman. You also don’t scare easily… or well, I should clarify myself: when it comes to battle, you will shit yourself, but there’s nothing that can prepare a man for mass butchery. But you’ve not seemed intimidated, rubbing shoulders with battle-hardened men, even with Erdafel here, who makes his best friends piss in their breeches.’
Falcon shrugged. ‘I’ve learned that if a man is going to hurt me, then he will. There’s little point fretting about it; and I’ve also learned that I can hurt most men worse than they’ll hurt me, and sooner. If any man wants me to cower before him, I’ll set a turd in his teeth and be on my way. No disrespect.’
Rajir smiled. ‘I like that; next time you tell me something like that, you’ll remember to put ‘sir’ at the end of it.’ He met and held the man’s gaze, until Falcon remembered what little he’d been taught, and looked past Rajir into the middle distance. He stepped to one side, observed Falcon’s slovenly profile, and continued. ‘We could have use for a man like you, better use than marching you out in front so some enemy hipparch can enjoy killing you while we charge his flank. Perhaps. Where did you learn to fight?’
Falcon hesitated, half-forming a word.
‘I’m not asking you to name a place or a teacher, spearman. I won’t ask you your real name, or what you’re running away from; if we asked such questions we’d have no recruits. I’m just curious: were you a bodyguard, perhaps?’
‘No, sir, but I had need to guard myself often enough. We have fellowships of scholars in Megano, some of them teach a man to fight, if he pays. I paid.’
Rajir nodded. ‘I’ve heard of these fellowships. What did you learn, then? Just fencing, or anything else that might be of use to us?’
‘I studied the sisters, sir,’ Falcon replied, patting the two curved knives at his belt, ‘and the sword. I also learned to wrestle, and to strike with my arms and legs; I was a prize-fighter for a little while.’
‘Prize fighter?’ bellowed Erdafel, delighted. Rajir rolled his eyes, knowing what was coming next.
‘I’ve seen you with a footman’s sun-sword in the practice square: did you learn anything else? Can you handle a moon-sword?’
‘Aye, I trained with a sabre, sir, and the smallsword that gentlemen wear in Megano.’
‘Although you’re no gentleman,’ pointed out Rajir.
‘Prize-fighter,’ grinned Erdafel, beginning to limber up. ‘What prizes you win?’
Falcon looked from one to the other of them. Rajir lost patience with him.
‘Keep your eyes forward, spearman!’ he snapped. ‘If we want looking at then we’ll tell you.’
‘Yes sir,’ said Falcon, unperturbed. ‘I am no gentleman, as you say, but I did win some cash as a fighter. Including these scars on my face.’
Erdafel cracked his knuckles. ‘You took some beating?’
‘I never lost a fight, sir, but my face got well pounded in my last; that’s why I stopped, so I might stay pretty.’
The mountainous Suluf roared with laughter. ‘You so pretty Erdafel nearly thought you were his horse! So you think you wrestle good?’
‘No man ever had cause to complain I was too gentle with him. Sir.’
Rajir took a step back. He had questions for Falcon, but he could tell that they would have to wait. Falcon’s eyes were still forward, but they were flickering; he was clearly aware of what was coming, and preparing his defense.
Erdafel set the ale jug down carefully, and launched himself at Falcon without warning, tackling the smaller man at head height and flattening him under his bulk. Rajir had seen Erdafel fight many times, and although he could overpower most men by virtue of his size, he was a crafty wrestler, quick and analytical.
Falcon had been preparing mentally, but was clearly taken off balance by the speed and suddenness of Erdafel’s attack when it came. He responded sensibly though, and went down easily, tucking all his limbs in under his torso. Erdafel kept him pinned to the floor with one massive paw on the back of his neck while he attempted to prise an arm out and bar it with the other; Falcon’s arm came out a little way, but he was stronger than Erdafel had expected, and pulled it back in. Erdafel increased his efforts to straighten it, relieving the pressure on Falcon’s head a little, and suddenly the other man was twisting like a fish beneath him, rolling him off balance and kicking himself into a standing position. Erdafel roared his appreciation of the manoeuvre and wasted no time in closing for a second attempt. Rajir dragged the dice table out of their way: it was his own booty, a nicely inlaid rosewood piece from Optep, and he didn’t want to see it reduced to matchwood.
Erdafel’s arm came out like lightning, in what was meant as a grab, but would knock most men to the ground if it connected as a blow. Falcon’s torso swayed as he dodged beneath his opponents hand, his feet not giving ground, and he clasped it in both hands; then his feet were unexpectedly off the floor, and he was swinging forward between Erdafel’s legs, pulling his hand with him. The move was almost too quick for Rajir to follow; in the next moment, Falcon had his legs locked around Erdafel’s head, his arm barred back between his legs, and most of his bodyweight on the elbow. Erdafel howled with pain and beat out his submission with his free hand.
Falcon sprang away laughing, and Erdafel rose immediately to his feet, grinning ruefully. ‘You not lying, prize-fighter,’ he panted, then caught Falcon in a bear-hug. Rajir’s brother Ukhand had secured Erdafel’s undying loyalty by beating him at quarter-staves: he guessed that Erdafel would be Falcon’s most vocal advocate now. That might not be such a bad thing, but Ukhand would have his own views on whether an untried spearman could be offered any more trusted position, particularly a man with so loose a grasp of military discipline.
A guard put his head through the tent flap, not overly concerned, as Erdafel was a keen impromptu wrestler, and he had heard such noises on many previous occasions.
Rajir waved him away, and as he did so a child’s head appeared at the level of the guard’s midriff, calling for Rajir’s attention. The guard clouted him, but Rajir had recognised his face, and called him through.
‘What is it, boy?’
‘It’s the ship, sir, the Yellowbird, she’s just been seen coming into the harbour! I come told you like what you said!’
Horses were saddled and swords buckled on, and Rajir rode to the wharves to meet his brother, and hear the news from Dorna, which he hoped would be better than he’d heard from the ships that had arrived in the last few days. He took Amudr with him, in case there were injuries that needed his attention, Senafos, to give the young noble something to feel important about, and Erdafel to see to the horses (although he could not have stopped Erdafel from coming if he had wanted to).
By the time they had ridden from the camp outside Tua into the centre of the city, and down to the docks, the Yellowbird had already moored. Not only had it moored, but a good proportion of the Blackswords had disembarked with their horses and gear, and were standing on the pier looking grim. Rajir could see immediately that something was amiss; they were standing well away from the sailors at work on the rail, and it seemed strange that anyone had left the ship before it had been made completely fast, or all the sail taken down.
‘Welcome, brother,’ Rajir called, and he could see in Ukhand’s face that it had been defeat.
‘Where are the others?’ asked Amudr. ‘Are there injured still aboard?’
None of the ten lancers gathered on the quay appeared badly injured, although Irtain’s face was swathed in filthy bandages.
‘No, Master Amudr, there are not,’ replied Ukhand heavily.
‘Then…’ Amudr began, but ceased, as Ukhand’s meaning became apparent.
Nobody spoke. The extent of their losses was appalling. Rajir dismounted, and embraced his brother silently.
Senafos gaped, and spoke the obvious truth that the others couldn’t bear to voice.
‘But… twenty men and forty horses went: have only ten of each come back?’
Nobody replied. Erdafel went to each of the ten in turn and embraced them. Then he took the greatsword he called ‘Big Fucker’ from his back and flung it down on the deck of the pier, so hard that the wood rang out with a low, booming note. ‘Shit fuck!’ he roared, and stomped away from the others, bawling and sobbing like an infant. Rajir knew he was grieving as much for the horses as for the men.
‘We best make ready and return to camp,’ said Maghîllin. ‘Accidents happen at docks, and we don’t want them happen to us.’
Rajir looked a query at his brother.
‘We had some trouble aboard,’ Ukhand told him sourly. ‘Three sailors died.’
He spared an angry glance for the twins, and Rajir guessed roughly how things might have fallen out; an importunate sexual advance could have dark consequences when Ashurra was its object.
‘On the other hand,’ said Umbaral brightly, ‘the battle for Dorna may be lost, but we’ve come back with ten times as much treasure as we hoped to win, and there are ten less shares to give out. So let’s get back to camp and drink a toast to our fallen.’
None of the others looked at him, or replied, but they finished making ready (a straightforward task, as they had boarded the Yellowbird with only the gear they carried) and rode off the pier, heads bowed, as slowly as if they bore the bodies of the fallen to their burial.