Read a sample from REIGN OF IRON by Angus Watson
Bloodthirsty druids and battle-hardened Iron Age warriors collide in the third volume of this action-packed historical fantasy trilogy which will appeal to fans of Joe Abercrombie and HBO's Game of Thrones
The water from the great wave receded. Spring walked down Frogshold hill. Her knees jarred on the steep slope but she didn’t notice. People were shouting at her but she hardly heard them. She was aware of Lowa’s voice telling everyone to leave her be. Somewhere deep down she was grateful, but over the top of that a dull but overwhelming rage exploded into her mind. It was all Lowa’s fault! If only they’d never met Lowa! She and Dug might have been travelling together and getting into adventures, but, no, all because of Lowa, Spring had had to kill the only person, bar her mother, she’d ever loved. He’d looked after her and done a million things for her without ever asking for anything. She’d never done anything in return, then she’d killed him.
She found Dug’s hammer leaning against a pile of stones that might once have been a storage hut, its head half buried. She pulled it free with a schlock of wet mud, slung it over her shoulder and walked away. She didn’t look for his body because there were no bodies. All had been washed out to sea as the wave retreated, she guessed, to be a feast for the fish and the birds. She hardly noticed the rain, drizzle at first but then a downpour like the tears of a million mourners, washing the mud from the hammer’s head and the broken land.
* * *
At first she walked along the coast, but the devastation that she’d caused with the flood was too harrowing – the few people left alive rummaging through wreckage and wailing multiple bereavements – so she headed inland. She walked all day, all night, all the next day and on. She ate nothing, drank nothing and did not sleep. She’d killed so many that she deserved no comfort. The only thing she saw was her arrow piercing Dug’s forehead. The only thing she could hear was the scream of tens of thousands of men and women crushed by the giant wave. She didn’t feel the blisters form, pop and bleed on her feet. She didn’t feel the handle of the hammer wear through the material of her smock and the skin on her shoulder.
After several nights – she neither knew nor cared how many – she emerged from a wood onto a grassy hillside at dawn and collapsed on the dew-soaked grass to die. Sensing someone was there, she looked up. Her father King Zadar was looming over her, shaking his head, a twist of disapproval on his usually dispassionate face. He opened his mouth to mock her but was silenced by dogs’ barking. Sadist and Pig Fucker, the dogs that Dug had inherited by killing Zadar’s champion, Tadman, bounded up, tongues lolling. They champed their ghostly jaws into the increasingly spectral Zadar until he disappeared. Tyrant dispatched, the dogs looked at her stupid-eyed, saliva drooling in cords, tails wagging. Sadist scurried forward to lick her.
“Back, Sadist, leave her. That one does not like the licking,” said someone in an accent from the far north of Britain. Dug Sealskinner strode up behind his dogs. Spring’s arrow was still protruding from his forehead, its feathers quivering as he walked.
“You’re alive!” Spring’s tiredness and sorrow evaporated. Her energy flooded back for an instant, then all flowed out again as she realised what Dug’s appearance must mean.
“So I’m dead, too?”
“So you’re talking to me from the Otherworld because I’m about to die?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I’m just in your mind, nowhere else. You’re really talking to yourself.”
“I see. But I’ll see you soon, when I die?”
“I’d rather you stayed alive.”
“Why? I killed you. I don’t deserve to live.”
“Probably true, but someone needs to look after the dogs.”
Pig Fucker barked, Sadist stared vacantly. Spring nearly smiled.
“If I have to look after them I’m going to change their names.”
“No. We’ve discussed this. You cannot change a dog’s name. I don’t know why Tadman gave them those names, but he did and that’s that.”
“You’re dead. Why should I do what you say?”
“Because you did this, you wee badger’s bollock.” Dug turned to show the sharp end of the arrow protruding from the back of his head.
“I’m sorry! But it was all Lowa’s fault.”
Dug sighed. Were his eyes bigger and browner now that he was dead, she wondered? “No, Spring,” he said, shaking his head, “it was not Lowa’s fault. By bringing those armies together so you could finish them off by killing me she saved us all. Well, you all anyway.”
“If we’d never met her you’d be alive.”
“Maybe, but a lot of other good and helpless people would be dead and a lot of shitty people would be busy ravaging the land and killing the rest of them. You must not blame her. As you know very well, because I’m just part of your mind talking to you.”
“Bollocks to that. If you are part of my mind you’re a stupid part. It was all Lowa’s fault.”
“Fine. I’m not going to convince you, but you could at least help me out with the dogs? You did put an arrow through my head and my wee dogs are all alone.”
Spring sighed. “All right. But there’s nothing ‘wee’ about those dogs, and I don’t want you rolling the ‘you put an arrow through my head’ dice every time you want your own way.”
“You assume you’re going to see me again?”
“You said you were in my head.”
“So I’ll see you again when I want to.”
“Not if you die now, and you’re not far off it. You should’ve died of thirst sometime yesterday or the day before, and the hunger’s not good for you either. So hurry up and get something to drink then something to eat very soon, or the dogs’ll be alone. There’s a stream in the woods at the bottom of this hill. Head for that.”
“Sure, just magic me to the bank and I’ll drink. Or how about a mug of beer right here?”
“Magic you? No no no. Do you not get what you did?”
“What do you mean?”
Dug shook his head. “And you’re meant to be the bright one. Your magic came from me, and you killed me. I’m not blaming you, you had to do it to produce power enough to collapse a great big fuck-off island and create a wave that Leeban or any sea god would have bragged about for centuries. But I’m gone now and that’s it for you, magic-wise. No more, ever. You’ll have to walk to the stream, like everyone else would, without complaining.”
The idea of walking almost made Spring pass out. “I don’t think I can walk.”
“Then you’ll have to slither. You can do it!” Dug winked and disappeared.
Spring opened her eyes. The sun’s rays stabbed into her brain. When her vision had swum into a cloudy semblance of normality, the woods were a long way away. She was buggered if she was going to slither down the hill. She had dignity. She would crawl.
She pushed up onto her hands and set off.
With the rational part of her mind begging her to give up, collapse and die, she crawled down the slope, hands and knees sliding on the slick grass. When she reached the trees, darkness bloomed. She thought for a confused moment that night had come, then realised that it was her vision failing. Consciousness teetered. Her hands slid away, her arms buckled, she face-planted into the grass and closed her eyes. The relief was amazing. A quick rest couldn’t hurt, could it? So what if she died? The dogs would understand and surely they were big enough to look after themselves? They were certainly ugly enough . . .
“Wake up, Spring!” shouted a northern voice, startling her.
Come on, she told herself. She tried to push up into a crawl, but could not. So, she thought, I’ll be slithering after all.
Digging elbows and feet into soft soil, she pushed herself under the shade of the branches and on through leaf litter and twigs. She managed to lift her head and saw a blackbird watching her from a log, head cocked. She opened her mouth to tell him to piss off or help her, not just perch there, but her throat was too dry and she only rasped at him quietly.
Finally, the shallow gully of the stream.
She tumbled down the bank, floppy as a boneless squirrel, and squelched face first into the water. Mud filled her mouth and clogged her nose.
Oh, she thought. How apt. The girl who killed thousands with a giant wave was going to drown in a shallow stream. But she managed to twist her head so her face was only half submerged. She lapped cold, delicious, muddy water. Soon she had the strength to slide the rest of her body down into the stream, kneel, and drink water from her cupped hands.
A good while later she managed to stand. Shivering with cold and shuddering with effort, she staggered to a blackberry bush.
* * *
Two days later the young archer crested the rise and walked down the track to Dug’s farm, his hammer over her left shoulder, its shaft wrapped with moss and cloth to prevent further chafing. Her right shoulder was coated in a poultice to soothe the hammer’s earlier rubbage.
Dug’s sheep ran to the fence, bleating accusingly, but there was no sign of the dogs. She’d expected the huge, idiotic animals to come bouncing up the track barking a happy welcome as usual, but Pigsy and Sadie were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps someone from the nearby village had taken them in?
She turned the corner into Dug’s yard. Dug’s yard . . . She staggered under the weight of the grief, then straightened. She could indulge her grief later. Right now she had things to do. There were dogs to be found, chickens to be fed, honey to be collected, sheep to be reassured and—
“Ahem!” someone fake-coughed behind her.
There were five men, clad in British-style smocks and tartan trousers which didn’t quite fit, as if they’d borrowed or stolen them. Two of the smocks were holed and blood-stained: evidence, Spring guessed, of what had happened to their previous owners. The men’s hair was cut short in the Roman way, which wasn’t unusual since plenty of Britons those days aped Roman styles. Each carried a short, double-edged legionary’s sword on his belt, which was more unusual but not unheard of. People liked to copy the Romans. But everything about this lot looked foreign – their skin, their eyes, the way they stood, the set of their mouths – and Spring was pretty much certain that they were, in fact, Roman. Now what, by all the bristly badgers’ arses in the world, would five Romans be doing at Dug’s hut?
They were a tough-looking lot, apart from the man in the centre, who looked extraordinary, right up with the druid Maggot in the gang of weirdest-looking weirdos that Spring had ever seen. He was toweringly tall and bulky, but with a tiny ball of a head. Black, pinprick eyes stared out of his tanned, wrinkled face. Despite his preposterous appearance, he had the expression of a man who took himself very seriously. His hair, suspiciously jet for someone his age, was greased and wrenched back from his leather-look forehead into a pert little ponytail.
She looked around. Pigsy and Sadie were nowhere. Even the chickens that usually scratched about in the yard despite Dug’s efforts to teach them to scratch about elsewhere had buggered off. There was no way she’d get through the door or any of the windows before they were on her, and they were blocking the mouth of the yard. She was caught, with no help on hand.
She couldn’t fight five. If they’d had the decency to run at her from several hundred paces across an empty field, and she’d had a bow and some arrows, then she’d have taken out the lot of them, no bother, but she’d left her bow on Frogshold and they were right next to her. All she had was Dug’s hammer, which she had trouble lifting, let alone wielding. One of them would have been unassailable. Five . . . Clever words would be needed to save her here.
“First of all, I’d like you all to know,” she said, smiling and thinking that they probably wouldn’t be able to understand British, “that you look a bunch of prize pricks. I’d heard that Romans were ugly, but if I had pigs that looked like you I’d paint faces on their arses on market day and make them walk backwards into town.”
Four of them looked blank, but the big one’s eyes narrowed even further. He raised his sword.
“And the second thing,” added Spring quickly, “is that I surrender, totally. If you’re here to rob, go for it. Rob away. If it’s slaves you’re after, I will be a brilliant slave – compliant, happy and diligent, I promise. If you want to rob and take me as a slave, go for your lives. I will not stand in your way. I’m sure clever Romans like you know that you’ll get much more for me if I’m unharmed.”
The tall, fat one smiled a nasty smile. The ball of fear that had been growing in Spring’s stomach bobbed up into her throat.
“We’re not here to rob you, or to take you,” he said in Gaulish, which was pretty much the same as British, with an accent that sounded like a man holding his nose and trying to sound tough at the same time.
“Well, that’s marvellous,” said Spring. “In that case, perhaps I can get you some food, then you can help me look for the dogs and—”
“We’re here to kill you,” interrupted the large man.
Spring swallowed. “I see. Why?”
“That, I do not know,” said the man, “but we have been well paid, and we will get more when we present your corpse. Much more.”
“Where do you have to present my corpse?” Spring tightened her grip on the hammer. Dug could have beaten ten men like this with the weapon. Help me, Dug? she pleaded silently. There was no reply.
“We will take it to Gaul.”
“Who wants it?”
“Honestly, I do not know. Someone rich and important because only the powerful use middle men and only the rich can afford me.”
“My body’s going to be in a much better condition if you leave it alive until we get to Gaul,” Spring tried. “I promise to keep it well fed and make sure it doesn’t get knocked about too much.”
The large man chuckled. “Believe me, I’d like to keep you alive a little longer. You are funny, and you remind me of two of my daughters. But if we kill you here, it greatly reduces your chance of escape.”
“Yes, I see your point . . .” Spring’s mind raced. She pulled the hammer from her shoulder. By Toutatis’ thunderbolts, it was heavy. “We’re going to have to fight, aren’t we? I should warn you, however, that I’m very good with this. I suggest you retreat. I swear I’ll never tell anyone you were here or that you chickened out. Your secret will be safe with me.”
The leader smiled and gestured to the two men on his right. They raised their swords and came at her.