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Road Brothers

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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‘Sleeping beauty, woken by the princess’s kiss,’ I said.

And so I set off to find her.


This was the first Broken Empire short story I wrote, prompted by a reader daring me to do a Jorg/fairy-tale mash-up. It’s framed around Sleeping Beauty but has a nod to Goldilocks and even Rapunzel! Chronologically it takes place between the two threads in Emperor of Thorns, before the Wedding Day thread in King of Thorns, on Jorg’s return to Ancrath from his first visit to Vyene. Hakon is a character seen in The Red Queen’s War trilogy.

Did Katherine wake Jorg using her dream-magic, or was it just a failure of the ageing machinery? That’s for the reader to decide.

Bad Seed (#ulink_708b9985-27ad-5525-a925-ed00002d8346)

At the age of eight Alann Oak took a rock and smashed it into Darin Reed’s forehead. Two other boys, both around ten years old, had tried to hold him against the fence post while Darin beat him. They got up from the dirt track, first to their hands and knees, one spitting blood, the other dripping crimson from where Alann’s teeth found his ear, then unsteadily to their feet. Darin Reed lay where he had fallen, staring at the blue sky with wide blue eyes.

‘Killer,’ they called the child after that. Some called ‘kennt’ at his back and the word followed him through the years as some words will hunt a man down across the storm of his days. Kennt, the old name for a man who does murder with his hands. An ancient term in the tongue that lingered in the villages west of the Tranweir, spoken only among the greyheads and like to die out with them, leaving only a scatter of words and phrases that fitted too well in the mouth to be abandoned.

‘You forgive me, Darin, don’t you?’ Alann asked it of the older boy a year later. They sat at the ford, watching the water, flowing white around the stepping-stones. Alann threw his pebble, clattering it against the most distant of the nine steps. ‘I told Father Abram I repented the sin of anger. They washed me in the blood of the lamb. Father Abram told me I was part of the flock once more.’ Another stone, another hit. He had repented anger, but there hadn’t been anger, just the thrill of it, the red joy in a challenge answered.

Darin stood, still taller than Alann but not by so much. ‘I don’t forgive you, but I wronged you. I was a bully. Now we’re brothers. Brothers don’t need to forgive, only to accept. If I forgave the blow you might forget me.’

‘Father Abram told me …’ Alann struggled for the words. ‘He said, men don’t stand alone. We’re farmers. We’re of the flock, the herd. God’s own. We follow. To stray is to be cast out. Strays die alone. Unmourned.’ He threw again, hit again. ‘But … I feel … alone here, right among the herd. I don’t fit. People are scared of me.’

Darin shook his head. ‘You’re not alone. You’ve got me. How many brothers do you need?’

Alann fought no more battles, not with his first wreaking such harm. They watched him, the priest and the elders, and hung about by his guilt the boy stepped aside from whatever small troubles life in the village placed in his path. Alann Oak turned the other cheek though it was not in his nature to do so. Something ran through him, something sharp, at the core, not the dull anger or jealous loathing that prompts drunks to raise their fists, rather a reflex, an urge to meet each and any challenge with the violence born into him.

‘I’m different.’ Spoken on his fourteenth name-day, out in the quiet of a winter’s night while others lay abed. Alann hadn’t the words to frame it but he knew it for truth. ‘Different.’

‘A dog among goats?’ Darin Reed at his side, untroubled by the cold. He swept his arm toward the distant homes where warmth and light leaked through shutter cracks. ‘With them but not of them?’

Alann nodded.

‘It will change,’ Darin said. ‘Give it time.’

Years fell by and with the seasons Alann Oak grew, not tall but tall enough, not broad but sturdy, hardened by toil on the land with plough and hoe. He walked away from his past, although he never once strayed further than Kilter’s Market seven miles down the Hay Road. He walked away from the whispers, from the muttered ‘kennt’, and all that came with him from those days was Darin Reed, the larger child but the smaller man, his fast companion, pale, quiet, true.

The smoke of war darkened the horizon some summers, and once in winter, but the fires that sent those black clouds rising passed by the villages of the Marn, peace still lingering in the backwaters of the Broken Empire just as the old tongue still clung there. Perhaps they lacked the language for war.

Sometimes those unseen battles called to Alann. In the stillness of night, wrapped tight by darkness, Alann often wondered what a thing it would be to take up sword and shield and fight, not for any cause, not to place this lord or that lord in a new chair – but just to meet the challenge, to put himself to the test that runs along the sharp edge of life. And maybe once or twice he gathered his belongings in the quiet after midnight and set off from his parents’ cottage – but each time he found Darin, sat upon the horse trough beside the track that joins the road to Melsham. Each time the sight of his blood brother, pale beneath the moon, watching and saying nothing, turned Alann back the way he came.

Alann found himself a woman, Mary Miller from Fairfax, and they married in Father Abram’s church on a chill March morning, God himself watching as they said their vows. God and Darin Reed.

More years, more seasons, more crops leaping from the ground in the green storm of their living, reaped and harvested, sheep with their lambs, Mary with her two sons, delivered bloody into Alann’s rough hands. As red as Darin Reed when he lay there veiled in his own lifeblood. And family changed him. The need to be needed proved stronger than the call of distant wars. Perhaps that was all he had ever looked for, to be valued, to be essential, and who is more vital to a child than its ma and pa?

Time ran its slow course, bearing farm and farmer along with it, and Alann watched it all pass. He held his boys with his calloused hands, nails bitten to the quick, prayed in God’s stone house, knowing every hour of every day that somehow he didn’t fit into his world, that he went through the motions of his life not quite feeling any of it the way it should be felt, an impostor who never knew his true identity, only that this was not it. Even so, it was enough.

‘None of them see me, Darin, not Mary, not my sons, or Father Abram. Only you, and God.’ Alann thrust at the soil before him, driving the hoe through each clod, reducing it to smaller fragments.

‘Maybe you don’t see yourself, Alann. You’re a good man. You just don’t know it.’ Darin stood looking out across the rye in the lower field.

‘I’m a bad seed. You learned that the day you came against me.’ Alann bent and took up a clod of earth, crumbling it in his hand. He pointed across the broken earth to where Darin’s gaze rested. ‘I sowed that field myself, checked the grains, but there’ll be karren grass amongst the rye, green amongst the green. You won’t see it until it’s time to bear grain – even then you have to hunt. But come an early frost, come red-blight, come a swarm of leaf-scuttle, then you’ll see it. When the rye starts dying … that’s when you’ll see the karren grass because it may look the same, but it’s hard at the core, bitter, and it won’t lie down.’ He dug at the ground, then, turned by some instinct, looked east across the wheat field. Two strangers approaching, swords at their hips.

‘It’s a bad day to be a peasant.’ The taller of the two men smiled as he walked across the field, flattening the new wheat beneath his boots.

‘It’s never a good day to be a peasant.’ Alann straightened slowly, rubbing the soil from his hand. The men’s grimy tatters had enough in common to suggest they had once been a uniform. They came smeared with dirt and ash, blades within easy reach, a reckless anticipation in their eyes.

‘Where’s your livestock?’ The shorter man, older, a scar threading his cheekbone leading to a cloudy eye. Close up both men stank of smoke.

‘My sheep?’ Alann knew he should be scared. Perhaps he lacked the wit for it, like goats led gently to their end. Either way a familiar calm enfolded him. He leant against his hoe and kept his gaze on the men. ‘Would you like to buy them?’

‘Surely.’ The tall man grinned, a baring of yellow teeth. Wolf’s fangs. ‘Lead on.’

For a heartbeat Alann’s gaze fell to the soldiers’ boots, remnants of the fresh green wheat still sticking to the leather. ‘I’ve never been a good farmer,’ he said. ‘Some men have the feel for it. It’s in their blood. The land speaks to them. It answers them.’ He watched the strangers. Conversations carry a momentum, there’s a path they are expected to take, a cycle, a season, like the growing of a crop. Take the rhythm of seasons away and farmers grow confused. Turn a conversation at right angles and men lose their surety.

‘What?’ The shorter man frowned, doubt in his blind eye.

The tall man twisted his mouth. ‘I don’t give a—’

Alann flipped up his hoe, a swift turn about the middle, sped up by kicking the head. He lunged forward, jabbing. Instinct told him never to swing with a long weapon. The short metal blade proved too dull to cut flesh but it crushed the man’s throat back against the bones of his neck and his surprise left him in a wordless crimson mist.

Without pause, Alann charged the soldier’s companion, the shaft of his hoe held crosswise before him in two outstretched hands. The man turned his shoulder, reaching for his sword. He would have done better to pull his knife. Alann bore him to the ground, pressing the hoe across his neck, pinning the half-drawn blade with the weight of his body.

Men make ugly sounds as they choke. Both soldiers purpled and thrashed and gargled, the first needing no more help to die, the second fighting all the way. When soldiers poke a hole in a man and move on, leaving him to draw his last breaths alone, there’s a distance. That’s battle. The farmer though, the death he brings is more personal. He gentles his beast, holds it close, makes his cut, not in passion, not with violence, but as a necessary thing. The farmer stays, the death is shared, part of the cycle of seasons and crops, of growing and of reaping. They name it slaughter. Alann felt every moment of the older man’s struggle, body to body, straining to keep him down. He watched the life go out of the soldier’s good eye. And finally, exhausted, revolted, trembling, he rolled clear.

Getting to all fours, Alann vomited, a thin acidic spew across the dry earth. He rose to his knees, facing out across the next field, rye, silent and growing, row on row, rippling in the breeze. It hardly seemed real, a dead man to either side of him.

‘You should get up,’ Darin said. Solemn, pale, watching as he always watched.

‘… they called me kennt.’ Allen’s mind still fuzzy within that strange and enfolding calm. ‘When I was a boy, the others called me kennt. They knew. Children know. It’s grown men who see what they want to see.’

‘You can walk away from it.’ Darin looked down at the dead men. ‘This doesn’t define you.’

‘Forgive me then.’ Alann got to his feet, drawing the sword the soldier had failed to pull and taking the dagger that he should have reached for instead.

‘You need to forgive yourself, brother.’ Darin offered him that smile, the only one he ever had, the almost smile, sadder than moonset. The smile faded. ‘You have to go to the house now.’

‘The house! They came from the house!’ Even as Alann said it he started to run up the slope toward the rise concealing his home. He ran fast but the sorrow caught him just the same, a chokehold, misting his eyes. His life had never fitted, his wife, his children, always seeming as though they should belong to someone else, someone better, but Mary he had grown to love, in his way, and the boys had taken hold of his heart before they ever knew how to reach.

Alann ran, pounding up the slope. The flames had the house in their grip by the time he cleared the ridge. The heat stopped him as effectively as a wall. Some men, better men perhaps, would have run on, impervious to the inferno, impervious to the fact that nothing could live within those walls, too wrapped in grief to do anything but die beside their loved ones. For Alann though, the furnace blast that blistered his cheeks and took the tears from his eyes, burned away the mist of emotion and left him empty. He stepped back from the crackle and the roar, one pace, three paces, five until the heat could be endured. He dropped both weapons and stared into his empty hands as if they might hold his sorrow.

‘I’m sorry.’ Darin, standing at his side, untouched by the heat, untroubled by the run.

‘You!’ Alann turned, hands raised. ‘You did this!’

‘No.’ A plain denial. A slow shake of his head.

‘You brought this curse … you never forgave me!’

‘It didn’t happen for a reason, Alann. These things never do. Hurt spills over into hurt, like water over stones. There’s no foreseeing it, no knowing who it will touch, who will be left standing.’

Alann knelt to take up the sword and the knife.

‘You’ve got to get to the village, warn the elders. There needs to be a defence—’

‘No.’ Alann’s turn to offer flat refusal. He turned and walked toward the shelter where the sheep huddled against winter storms. Kindling lay stacked in the lee of the dry-stone wall, and in a niche set into its thickness, wrapped in oil-cloth, an old hatchet, a whetstone alongside. Alann thrust sword and dagger into his belt and took the hand-axe, and the stone to set an edge on it.

‘There’s another side to this, Alann. It’s a storm like any other, the worst of them, but it will end—’

‘You want me to rebuild? Find a new wife? Make more sons?’ Alann scanned the distant fields as he spoke, his hands already busy with the whetstone on the hatchet blade. He could see the lines where the soldiers had set off through the beet, angling towards Warren Wood. Robert Good’s farm lay beyond, and Ren Hay’s, the village past those. Alann pocketed the stone and set off after his prey at a steady jog.

Darin was waiting for him at the wood’s edge.

‘You’ll die, and for nothing. You won’t save anyone, won’t get revenge. You’ll die as the man you never wanted to be. God will see you—’

‘God sent the soldiers. God made me a killer. Let’s see how that turns out.’

‘No.’ And Darin stepped into his path, careless of the hatchet in his brother’s hand.

‘It’s over.’ Alann didn’t pause. ‘And you’re just a ghost.’ He stepped through Darin and went on into the trees.
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