From an award-winning author comes a powerful new epic fantasy. When the age of spellcasting ends, the greatest of kingdoms will fall . . .
As Peter Büber climbed, he left spring behind him. The mountain peaks, stark and blinding, immense and razor-edged, made him feel the most insignificant creature that ever dragged itself across the land.
The valley behind him, narrow, deep and shadowed, was nevertheless showing the first flush of green. Ahead of him was nothing but white snow that stretched from summit to summit and covered everything between.
Büber stopped and planted his walking-stick in the ground. He pulled on a pair of fur-lined mittens, sat a furry hat hard over his shaved scalp, and took up his stick again. The wind was tearing loose snow from the exposed upper slopes and trailing it like cloud in the blue sky. The higher he went, the colder and more open the terrain became.
He aimed for the first cairn of rocks, a couple of stadia uphill – snow stuck to its top like a crown, but its flanks were dark and clear. His boots crunched through the crust of ice with every footstep, leaving a trail of holes through which poked the first moss and tough alpine grasses of the year.
He reached the cairn breathing hard. He needed to slow down; it had been months since he’d been up this high. His rough stubble was already coated in moisture, and it was threatening to freeze. So he wiped at his scarred face with his sleeve and leant back against the cairn, letting the weak sun do its best.
Recovered, he set off towards the second cairn, using a more measured pace. He planted the end of the stick, listened to the soft crush as it landed, then moved his feet, left and right. Repeat. There was a natural rhythm to his stride now, one that let him walk and breathe easily.
Past the second cairn, and on to the third – simple to find as only black rock against white snow can be, but he knew from bitter experience how hard it was trying to keep on course when the clouds descended and the precipices shrouded themselves in fog. Not today though. Today was glorious, bright and clean, and it was a pleasure to walk to the top of the pass and check the snow depth. It didn’t even need to be clear, just shallow enough for the carts and wagons to wade through, and the short route to the Mittelmeer would be open again.
Büber, thinking contentedly of olive-skinned women, missed the first rumble of sound. He caught the echo, though. He stopped mid-stride, as frozen as the air.
Avalanches were common this time of year. He’d seen trees, buildings and people swept away and entombed in suddenly rock-hard snow that fell from mountaintops like a flood. They started with a crack and a whisper, then built like an oncoming storm to be the loudest thing he’d ever heard.
The last of it faded away, and he couldn’t see the tell-tale sign of a plume of snowy air rising from the slopes. Everything was quiet again, the sound of even the wind muffled and distant.
It was said that there were foolish hunters and old hunters, but never foolish old hunters. Büber wasn’t old, not yet, but he had every intention of living long enough to prove both his friends and his enemies wrong.
He stayed still for a while, scanning the east and west slopes with a practised, hand-shadowed gaze, but there was nothing he could spot. Perhaps it had been something in the next valley along, then, reverberating from peak to peak.
More cautiously, pausing at every cairn to listen, he walked higher and higher. The gradient wasn’t that bad – the Romans who’d used it a thousand years earlier had picked out the route and built one of their wide roads south to north. Büber’s ancestors had made the reverse journey, on their way to crack Rome’s walls and set its temples ablaze. But up near the head of the pass, there were no smoothed stones or compacted gravel left. The via had worn away to soil and rock, just as it once was, and probably always would be.
He looked behind him. The line of cairns stretched away into the distance. Looking ahead, he could see three more before the slope took them out of sight. Almost there.
He trudged on. The snow rose over the turn-downs on his boots, and almost up to his knees. Not much, considering how high it would have been piled at Yuletide; warm air from the south helped clear the pass sooner. Difficult to walk in, all the same.
Difficult to run in, too.
The ground started to dip away to the south: he was there.
He plunged his walking-stick down, pulled out his knife and bent low to notch the wood. His breath condensed about him as he marked the snow level, not as proof – any idiot could stand at the bottom of the valley and guess – but for tradition. He’d been shown how to do it by a man now five years dead, and at some point he’d have to show some other rough kid from the mountains that this is what happens when you want to declare the pass open.
The flake of wood he’d cut fell to the snow. By the time he reported to the prince and the first ceremonial wagon was rolled up the via, even this covering would be little more than slush.
When he straightened up, he saw them.
They were in the far distance, coming down from the very top of the Aineck and almost invisible against the background: three large – and one of them was really very big – figures. They cast long black shadows that rippled against the contours of the snow, moving purposefully towards him.
There wasn’t much meat on him, but giants weren’t particularly picky about their choice of game. If they caught him, they’d eat him: quite how they’d spotted him at such a distance was a mystery left for later.
Time to go. If he turned around now, he’d just about beat them to the lower slopes, and at this time of year they wouldn’t venture much below the snow line. While one man out on his own was prey, a crowd of them with spears was a predator. Giants were just smart enough to care about the difference.
Büber jerked out his walking-stick and took a last look around, just in case he’d missed something obvious. He was about to turn and follow his footsteps back when he saw a pack slowly sway into view. Then the ass it was strapped to. Then the man driving the ass on with a switch.
It wasn’t him who’d attracted the giants’ attention. It was this idiot.
And it wasn’t just one idiot, because as Büber ran forward, his boots sinking deep into the snow, he could see a whole line of men and beasts snaking up the pass from the south.
He stopped again and stared. Maybe twenty donkeys, each with a pack tied high on their backs and roped together, and a dozen men at intervals down the chain, encouraging their charges to climb.
“Hey!” Büber waved his arms. “Hey, you!”
The lead driver raised his clean-shaven chin from his chest and looked uncertainly at Büber. He kept on coming though, switching the ass’s hindquarters as it struggled upwards with its load.
“Giants,” called the huntmaster. “Over there.” He pointed.
The driver looked behind him and shouted something in a language that sounded like Italian. Büber didn’t understand a word of it.
“Ah, fuck it.” Büber squinted at the flanks of the mountain, but the snowy slopes were clear. “Fuck!”
He knew he should have kept the giants in sight. They could be anywhere now: together, split up, ahead, or coming over the ridge behind them.
“Giants,” he said again. He mimed their size by lifting his hands as far over his head as he could and stamped the ground. What was the word? Stupid foreigners: why couldn’t they speak German like civilised people? “Gigante. Si. Gigante.”
Now he had their attention. The driver relayed the message down the line, and he definitely said “gigante” at some point. One man in particular took notice and slogged his way up the rise to Büber.
His clothes showed he was rich in a way Büber would never be. But then again, Büber wasn’t about to see a substantial portion of his wealth eaten by giants, which was exactly what was going to happen if this man wasn’t careful.
“Greetings in the name of the Doge, signore.”
“Yes, that. Prince Gerhard, Carinthia, welcome. Giants, you Venetian cretin. Three of them, over to the east, though gods only know where they are now.” Büber looked very carefully at all the places a creature twice his height might hide. “You have to get off this mountain now. And what are you doing here anyway? Didn’t anyone tell you the pass is closed?”
“Pah. You Carinthians. You do not own this pass.”
“Yes. Yes, we do. We open it and we close it and between times we make sure that people like you don’t get butchered up here.” Büber’s head snapped around at something he thought he might have heard. “Save what you can and get ready to run.”
“There are no giants,” said the Venetian, warm beneath his furs. “Are you sure it was not dwarves you saw?”
“Oh, I’m sure.” The donkeys plodded on. The first one was past him, the second one going by now. Their breath made little clouds and frost sparkled on their brown coats. They were making too much noise, and even he could smell them. Their scent must be driving the giants into a frenzy.
“You are a prince’s man?”
“Yes.” Büber’s hand dropped to the pommel of his sword. It would be mostly useless against a foe whose reach was far longer – he carried a Norse-style blade, short and broad – but he felt better knowing it was there. “I’m the master of the hunt, and you need to listen to me.”
“You wish for me to turn back because you think I should have waited for your permission.”
“You should have waited until it was safe.” Where were they? Giants usually just waded in, fists swinging. One blow was enough. What were they waiting for?
“Your ploy will not work. Besides, we have a little insurance of our own.” The Venetian nodded at a man walking by. Dressed head to toe in a long red hooded cloak, it was only the tip of a nose and a sly, confident smile that Büber saw. “You Carinthians do not have a monopoly on magic.”
“No. We just have the best.” Büber had had enough. He’d seen the giants, he’d warned the merchant. He couldn’t force them to turn back, or to abandon their cargo, or to sacrifice half the donkeys in order to try and save the other half, and themselves into the bargain. And besides, magicians gave him the fear in a way even a fully grown dragon didn’t. “I’ve got my duty to do, and it’s not to you. Good luck.”
With all that donkey flesh available, the giants weren’t going to bother with him, just as long as he got clear. When it was all over, when he’d got back down into the valley and made his report, he could come back with a squad of spear-armed soldiers and a hexmaster or two. And there might be something of the merchant’s cargo worth salvaging.
The line of the train occupied the lowest point of the valley, so Büber turned perpendicular to it, and scaled the lower slopes of the mountain on the west side. He could keep them in sight, and put them between himself and the giants. Who were still nowhere to be seen. It concerned him that something that big could hide in plain sight. He had a commanding view over the whole of the upper pass.
He hadn’t imagined them. He’d swear any number of oaths, to the gods, on his honour, on his parents’ graves, that he’d seen those three long shadows shambling down towards him.
The lead driver tapped his jenny onwards towards the next cairn, and suddenly, from over the brow of the hill, came an immense rushing. When they wanted to, giants could move fast, using their long, tree-trunk-sized legs to devour the ground. Snow, knee-deep for a man, was simply kicked out of the way. They came in an arrowhead, the biggest one in the lead, the smaller two flanking.
The driver was rooted to the spot for far too long, and started running far too late. He was enveloped in a blizzard-like wall of white, along with his charge. He re-emerged, flying, limbs tangled, propelled like he’d been shot from a catapult. The donkey went straight up: giants did that, throwing their victims high in the air so that they would land, broken, behind them.
The animals were still tied together. The second one in line was jerked over and dragged before the rope snapped. The giants didn’t stop. They thundered down the now-static formation, smashing their hands down like hammers and stamping on anything fallen.
And there was nothing Büber could do to help. The men at the back of the line ran more or less in the same direction, back to the south. The merchant, screaming uselessly at the wanton destruction of his property, and equally pointlessly for his guards to stand and fight, was knocked casually aside with enough force to shatter his ribcage, even with the cushioning effect of all his fine furs and padded coats.
The only one who looked like he was going to take the giants on was the Venetian sorcerer. He’d dodged to one side to avoid the initial onslaught: now he planted his feet and lifted his arms.
Three donkeys remained, still tied on to at least four or five of their dead or dying stablemates. They panicked and brayed and pulled, they rolled and twisted. The first giant slowed to a walk and reached down with its horny fingers splayed wide, catching a donkey’s head and crushing it by making a fist.
With the animal still in its grasp, it turned to look at the magician.
The man had crossed to Büber’s side of the valley, so the hunter had a good view, and despite both the urge to run and a clear path to take now the giants had gone past, he hesitated.
If this red-cloaked magician was any good, Büber might not have to run after all.
The giant dropped the donkey in a wet heap, and bared its long yellow peg teeth. It opened its mouth wide, wider than it had any reason to go, and roared out a geyser of white breath, spit and green mucus. The other giants – a female with pendulous dugs, and a juvenile already her height – stopped tearing chunks of bloody flesh and slippery entrails to view the scene.
The man in red rocked back on his heels and steadied himself. Büber had never seen such confidence, and he waited for the fireworks to begin.
The big giant was ugly even for its kind. Its face was more battered and scarred than even Büber’s, and its hair was matted and growing in tufts. Old and angry, it glared down with its coal-black eyes at this weakling stick-thin figure that had the temerity to defy it.
The magician raised his hands, and the ink of his tattoos started to flow.
Nothing happened, and the giant charged.
It took a mere four steps to close the space between them and a perfectly timed duck-and-lift to scoop the man into the air. The cloak billowed as he flew: arms and legs flapped hopelessly against his useless scarlet wings.
He landed at the giant’s feet, spread-eagled and on his back. He looked more surprised than hurt, but only because his surprise was very great.
The giant raised its foot, and a vast pale slab with curling toenails the colour of bone broke free of the snow. It brought it down hard on the magician, and then leant forward to apply extra pressure.
Büber heard the crack, and suddenly realised he was alone, up a mountain, miles from home, with only three pissed-off giants for company.
Now he started running.
There was a moment when he thought one of them would chase him: actually several moments, because every time he glanced fearfully over his shoulder, the baby of the group was looking at him even while it gathered up another handful of donkey – or man, he couldn’t tell and didn’t want to tell – and crammed it into its already red-stained maw.
When he thought he was far enough away, he slithered down the icy slope to the line of cairns, and kept his pace up until his lungs burnt, his vision swam and he could taste blood.
He leant his back against a cairn, hauling thin alpine air, and coughing like he had the plague. The sweat started to freeze on him, chilling his body and making him shiver. He knew what that would mean: he had to keep moving, but he still gave himself a few more moments to rest his hands on his knees as he tried to get his breathing under control.
There was a sound, stone on stone. Not right behind him, but too close all the same. He crouched down in the lee of the cairn and slowly, slowly, drew his sword. He stayed as still as he could, trying to trust his abilities to keep him hidden, but after a while, the waiting became unbearable.
He leant out ever so slightly. The giants’ child was at the next cairn along, dragging some bloody morsel behind it, but searching for him. Büber ducked back, and prayed to the gods he hadn’t been seen.
When he looked again, the giant had gone, and just a circle of red-spattered snow marked where it had been standing.
Büber hurried away, down the slope, to where spring was waiting for him.
Frederik Thaler was already sitting down in a quiet corner, his stoneware mug placed squarely on the table in front of him, when Büber arrived outside.
He only had to turn his head to see the light flicker at the windows, the image of boots and legs and torso warping as they moved behind the imperfect glass, a man in green and brown tripping down the steps from street level to the beer cellar’s door. Then Thaler lost sight of him behind the heavy wood. The moment stretched out, beyond what could be expected of someone in need of a drink to turn the latch and push.
Thaler was almost resigned to getting up and seeing if the door was stuck when it finally opened. He sagged back down and waved.
“Peter, over here.”
Not that there were many other drinkers in the cellar at that time in the morning; just a couple of old sots in opposite corners. Thaler knew them both, and their stories. They were harmless enough, and even at their drunken worst neither was fool enough to mess with one of the prince’s men.
Büber didn’t seem to agree with Thaler’s judgement. He ducked his head under the black oak beams and looked hard at the cellar’s patrons. It was a far from casual glance: he had a hunter’s eye and he was looking for predators.
Thaler frowned and unnecessarily moved his drink a fraction to the left. Then back to the right.
With a grunt that might have signalled either grim satisfaction or unsettling compromise, Büber turned to Thaler’s table and dragged a chair aside. As he sat down, he unhooked his satchel and placed it in front of him.
“We’re supposed to be alone.” Büber twisted around and scowled at the host, idly wiping out washed mugs with a piece of stained linen. “Hey. Liquor. Now.”
Thaler leant forward slightly and raised an eyebrow. “Are you trying to get me barred?”
“We have bigger problems than you finding a new drinking hole that meets your exacting standards.” Büber scraped his stubbled chin with a hand that still had three fingers. He nodded at his satchel, and took another careful look around.
The host brought a platter with two short pewter cups, and a stone bottle of spirit. He was bandy-legged and rolled as he walked. But give credit to the man, he never spilt a drop, even when he was juggling half a dozen beers. He put the cups down and unerringly filled them from the unstoppered bottle.
“Thank you, Mr Lodel,” said Thaler, and he smiled weakly. His efforts were returned with blank-faced disdain. When the host had gone again, he thumbed the lid of his mug open and took a pull of the short beer inside.
“Look in the damn bag,” said Büber. “But carefully.”
Thaler put his mug back down in the exact position it had previously occupied, and put his hand out for the leather strap.
Büber’s other hand – the one with only two fingers and a thumb, which made it look like a claw – shot out and gripped his forearm hard enough to bruise. “Don’t let anyone else see.”
“Peter, you’re hurting me.” Thaler tried to shake free, but he was far too weak and the hunter far too strong.
Then, like he was breaking a hex, Büber shook his head violently and let go. “Sorry. I’m . . . just look in the bag.”
Thaler started to undo the buckles, and noticed that whatever was inside was too long to be contained properly. Its cloth-wrapped end was poking out. He frowned again and continued pulling the straps through the metal rings.
The top of the bag flopped open, and he held the sides apart. The only thing inside was the wrapped object, just a little longer than his forearm.
“It’s not going to bite me, is it?”
“Oh, it’s dead. Very dead.” Büber had taken hold of his liquor but hadn’t raised it to his lips yet. He looked down at the trembling surface. “You’ll be wanting something a sight stronger than beer once you’ve seen it.”
Keeping most of it in the bag, Thaler teased aside the cloth with his fingers. They came into contact with fine, white ivory, still with a dusting of leaf-mould fragments. He stopped. He put both his hands down by his side to push his plump body more upright. His palms were moist. No, more than that: actually wet, and they weren’t going to dry out in the smoky heat of last night’s fire.
Unlike his mouth, which was suddenly parched, such that he had to force his tongue away from his palate.
He wiped his hands on his breeches and went back into the bag for a second go. He grasped one corner of the cloth and tugged it so that it unwound just a little.
The ivory was straight, conical, with a slight spiral at the point. The groove wound around the shaft, deepening with each turn.
He stared at the unicorn’s horn for a while, then carefully rewrapped it and pushed the bag closed.
As soon as his hands were free, he snatched at his liquor and tossed it back in one throat-searing gulp. Nothing was quite in focus. Then everything slipped back into place, and he was able to speak again.
“What have you done?” he said.
Büber took a measured sip, the cup looking tiny in his fist. “Done? I’ve done nothing.”
“If they catch you with that.” Thaler looked down, and realised the bag was closer to him than it was to Büber. He pushed it pointedly back across the table. “If they catch you with that, they’ll press you for sure.”
The hunter checked he had enough digits for what he needed, and held up the two fingers of his two-fingered hand. “This isn’t the first I’ve found.”
“Does this look like the face of a man who’s joking?”
“Your face never looks like you’re joking. Even though I know otherwise.” Thaler remembered his beer and flipped the lid again. “Peter. It’s a . . .”
Büber held a finger to his lips, then beckoned Thaler closer.
“With the first one, I did what anyone in my position would do. Mark where it was, tell the Order and lead them to it. I didn’t even touch it.”
“What did they do?”
“They turned out mob-handed and spirited it away. I got . . .” – he shrugged – “. . . not exactly a sack of cash, but enough for some decent whoring down Gentlemen’s Alley.”
Thaler chewed the tip of his tongue between his teeth, then said: “Is it real?”
“What? The money, the whores or the . . . that?”
Thaler scowled and nodded at the satchel. “That. Is that one real? I didn’t feel anything when I touched it. Oh gods, I touched it.” He hurriedly checked his hands for any spreading stain or erupting pustules.
They were already marked with ink, dark lines in the creases and folds of his flesh that only served to make the paleness that surrounded them stand out more. His nails were neat and whole, fingertips soft and sensitive. No creeping black rot or green decay. For now.
“You’re a virgin, Frederik, and a good man. You’re not going to die.” Büber saw off the rest of his liquor. “And, despite not being either, neither will I.”
“What happened to the . . . body?”
Büber shrugged again, like it was a thing of no consequence. “Wasn’t there. No blood, or hair. No signs of butchery. Or even a hunt. A bit of trampled undergrowth, a day old. And that, sitting in the middle. Like it was thrown away with the rubbish.”
Thaler leant back and looked over his shoulder out of the window. Everything seemed normal out there. Townsfolk were walking past, both ways. A small cart, over-enthusiastically guided by a boy and his steering pole, propelled itself the other way. Voices were raised between him and the owner of a foot he’d run over.
No, the Old Town seemed much as he’d left it. It was only in the beer cellar that things had changed.
“Do you know how much that’s worth?” asked Thaler.
“To the right sort of buyer? I’ve a fair idea.” Büber took control of the satchel and fastened it tight. He placed it on the floor against the leg of the table closest to Thaler.
“It’s worth more than either of our lives, that’s for certain.” Thaler knew that as contraband, a whole horn could empty a treasury. “Take it back to where you found it. Tell the Order and let them deal with it like before.”
“There might be a problem there.” Büber scraped his fingers at his cheeks, where the stubble was starting to show white. “Once. Yes, I can accept that. I’ve seen all sorts in the forest, some really strange shit that you only get to read about in your books. Twice? That’s starting to be a pattern. I might not be able to write, and can barely read my own name, but I know signs. I know the sun and the wind. I know the rocks and I know the rivers. I know the peaks and the plains and, above all, I know the forest. And the hexmasters know that much about me. Though they look down on me and pity me, if I tell them about this second one they will come and kill me to keep me quiet.”
Thaler had to concede that the huntmaster had a point, but still felt a duty to argue. “They wouldn’t. You’re a prince’s man.”
“The prince rules because it’s beneath the Order to rule. Come on, Frederik. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
He was right, and Thaler gave in with a slump of his shoulders. “So what – or who – is taking them?”
“I don’t know. I’ll tell you what it looked like: as if the animal had curled up to go to sleep, and then simply melted away like snow.”
“Leaving the most valuable part of it behind.” A whole beast, blood and skin, valuable of course, but dwarfed by the riches the horn commanded. It didn’t make sense.
“I’m scared, Frederik.” Büber looked across the table at Thaler. His eyes were big and bright and blue. “I’ve been scared before. By bigger beasts than this. But this is the Order.”
Thaler shivered, then steadied himself. “There has to be an explanation for this. Someone, somewhere will know. They’ll have written about it.”
“So you think the answer is in that vast pile of books you call work?”
“Yes.” It was as close to a creed as Thaler would go. “It will be.”
“What,” said Büber, “if it’s not? I’ve never heard of anything like this before. And neither have you, admit it.”
“No, but that’s the point of books, Peter. People write things down so they don’t have to remember it all in their heads and it isn’t lost when they die.” Thaler realised he was banging the table with his fist, and he self-consciously wrapped his fingers around his mug to stop himself doing it again. “You should talk to a scribe: get him to write down everything you know. Or at least take an apprentice.”
“I work better alone.”
“And when you die, everything you know will have gone.” Thaler opened the lid of his mug and swigged emphatically. “All that lore. All that craft. What a waste.”
Büber chewed at the stump of one of his missing fingers and said nothing.
“Leave it with me,” said Thaler. “I can hide it somewhere in the library – where no one will find it, obviously. As to what it means, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll be as discreet as I can.”
“I never said I wanted your help,” said Büber, raising his head.
“Of course you didn’t. Proud man like you? Even your scars all face forwards.” Thaler’s beer had almost gone. He finished it off and flipped the lid closed. “Why would you need the help from some inky-fingered book-lover who’s never done a real day’s labour in his soft, comfortable life?”
“You want me to apologise?”
“No. I want to know why I had a messenger hammering on my door at an hour when a gentleman like myself was bound to be either in bed or at breakfast.” Thaler waited. He was good at waiting. So was Büber, but it was the hunter who cracked first.
“Because . . .” he started, and pulled a face.
“There’s no one else I can trust. That I know I can trust absolutely and won’t sell me to the hexmasters for big bag of shiny coins. There? Better?”
“They could offer me books.”
“Please don’t make me beg, Frederik.”
Thaler held up his hand. “I swear by all the gods—”
Büber interrupted. “Your word is enough. It’s always been enough. No vows. How long have we known each other?”
“Twenty years. I can’t even remember how we met.”
“I do,” said Büber, with a curious passion. “You were a wet-behind-the-ears junior librarian and my old huntmaster wanted my profession on the town’s register. You put a line through the word ‘apprentice’ so that it just read ‘huntsman’. We didn’t even speak.”
“But . . .” A memory flared bright in Thaler’s mind.
“You reached out and shook my hand.”
“So I did. And after that there was the faerie-lore.”
“And I told you I couldn’t read.”
“So I read the whole damn book to you.” Thaler sat back and stared out of the window again. “Was that really twenty years ago?”
“Twenty summers, twenty winters. I lost fingers, toes, my hair and my good looks.” Büber ran his hand over his shaved scalp. “And you got fat.”
Thaler poked his own belly with a rigid forefinger. It was true. It was the beer. And the pastries. And the books. His stomach had grown large and round, not exactly like a dumpling, but close.
“I’ll find you some answers, Peter.” He held out his hand, just like he had before. “You have my word.”
Büber’s claw came across to grasp it. There. Done.
Prince Gerhard stared down over the battlements at the procession coming up the road to the Chastity Gate. Two columns of spearmen barely seemed to contain the one shaggy-coated barbarian they were escorting. The Teuton was big, with a long-handled axe strapped across his back, and his horse, led behind, was a massive, ill-tempered brute that needed two men just to keep its head down. The prince jutted his chin. The same damnable farce every year: a different face to be sure, but their sheer stiff-necked belligerence was a race trait.
“Felix. I want you to attend this audience.”
The prince’s son had to lean further over the bastion wall to get a good look at the Teuton commander, and Gerhard felt a moment of weakness, a cold wash in the blood that made him reach out to grip the back of the boy’s tunic.
Oblivious to the drop and his father’s reaction, Felix wriggled forward more, and lay on his stomach on the rough stone. “You think he’ll fight you? That doesn’t seem very wise.”
“What have you learnt about the Teutons?” As the guard disappeared under the gatehouse, he increased his hold and pulled the boy backwards. He couldn’t lift him like he used to, but the child was still small for his age.
“The Teutons are a barbarian people from the north where the land is poor and marshy. They lack all honour and hire themselves out as mercenaries to whoever has the coin to afford them. They fight mainly as heavy cavalry, and are brutal and ill-disciplined in battle. They call their hexmasters shamans, but their battle-magic is very limited.”
“A little short on detail,” grunted Gerhard, “but good enough for now. Do we give them leave of passage to join the armies of the south?”
“Why not, boy?”
“Because,” and Felix’s voice became uncertain, “they are untrustworthy?
And no one deserves having the Teutons set on them?”
“Maybe you should address this barbarian horseman: you’ve a decent enough appraisal of the situation.” He placed his hand on the boy’s head and buried his fingers in the dark hair. So like his mother. “We need to get ready. What do the Teutons fear most?”
Felix took his cue and glanced back down at the gatehouse. The man was back in sight, now without his horse and his axe. The way he leant forward, attacking the slope, showed his intent.
“They fear looking weak.”
“So we must strip him of everything, while reminding him of our strength. I’d rather not have that bunch of savages within a hundred miles of a Carinthian boundary stone, but that’s not in my gift. I can keep them out of my lands though – that’s something that the Protector of Wien can’t take for granted.”
Gerhard removed his hand from his son’s head, and they walked along the battlements to the next tower. The town – his town – sat happy and warm in the spring sun, and outside the walls, so did the farms and the forests and the mines. All at peace, all prosperous, all content.
“Do we fear looking weak, too?”
“Carinthia is never weak. This is the thing, boy: I could raise an army if the need arises, but that’s not where our strength lies.” Gerhard waited while the turret door was opened for him. The servant following him around was all but invisible until he was required. The pause was long enough for the prince to look across the river, to the steep wooded hill that squatted opposite both the crag the fortress sat on and the town that clung to its skirts.
On top of the hill was a tower, tall, black, glistening.
Felix followed his gaze. “Then why are we . . .?”
“Because our Teutonic friends need reminding. Every year, those that can head south for the fighting season, and none of them return. If they live, they invariably stay, given the choice between going home to a frozen swamp that’ll be in perpetual twilight for the next six months, and warming their toes in the Mittelmeer while Italian girls peel them grapes. So every year I have to re-educate the sons-of-bitches that they should leave my palatinate free of their stench.”
Even if Felix didn’t yet understand the attractions of the girls, he could see the point. “So they don’t love their home?”
“Gods, no. Why would they? It’s a miserable shit-hole fit only for little bitey flies and eels.” Gerhard waited again, and the door opened out into the courtyard. “And for some inexplicable reason, your stepmother doesn’t like me swearing in front of you.” He tapped the side of his nose.
A man, talking with men, needed to be free with his language. They needed to know their leader was someone who knew a good two dozen names for his manhood, and who wouldn’t faint if they heard the gods being cursed.
Perhaps it was time to take more of an interest in the education of his heir. Not his only heir any more: thanks to his new wife, he had spares, but all the same . . . Felix was thirteen this year. It was about time he was weaned off the milk his tutors gave him. More riding, more hunting, more of the martial disciplines – that Genoese fop Allegretti could stay because of his ability to make an edge sing – and more of the civil arts too. Starting now.
“Dress plainly, boy. But put some steel on your belt. Something you know how to use. No point in turning up with some great pig-sticker you plainly can’t lift.”
“Signore Allegretti has been teaching me to use two swords at once. He says the style is very popular in the south,” ventured Felix.
“Has he indeed?” Gerhard thought it sounded like a dangerous affectation. “Can you beat him yet?”
Felix scowled. “Not yet.”
“And does the signore hit you with the flat of his blade when he wins?”
“Yes. Sometimes twice if I’ve been stupid.”
“Good.” It had been years since Gerhard had been thrashed by his old sword-master, but the lessons had stuck, both in his body and in his mind. Nothing fancy for him: just a longsword, light and strong, one-handed, two-handed, hews and blocks. If he had to, he could take that fat, greasy barbarian in single combat. Using a magical sword, naturally. “Go and get ready. Hurry.”
Felix ran into the fortress ahead of his father, and Gerhard walked at a more measured pace, through the doors and corridors and into the Great Hall at its centre. It was a big space, lit by both daylight and bright globes of enchanted crystal. Look up and, after the dimness of the entrance, a visitor would be blind.
At the far end of the hall was a raised platform. On feast days, the high table would be set out there: his lady on his right, his favoured men with him. Today, there was nothing but a single high-backed chair.
And Trommler. There was always Trommler.
“You know what we should do?” Gerhard stepped up onto the dais and slumped into the throne.
“What, my lord?”
“Send the hexmasters up to the Baltic coast and get them to turn it into glass. That’d solve a few problems. And” – the prince wagged his finger – “half of Europe would thank me.”
Trommler stroked his white beard with his fingers. “The Order wouldn’t trouble themselves with a matter so trifling as the Teutons.”
“Hah. Trifling or not, we’ve one at our gates, and another three hundred on our borders.”
“They’re camped near Simbach. The Bavarians have moved them quickly through.”
“Who paid who this year? These calculations can be so difficult.”
“Not that my lord would ever have to worry about that, but I understand not a single penny changed hands. The Teutons were granted forage, and a thousand spearmen ensured they went at such speed they could barely graze their horses.” Trommler clearly agreed with the Bavarians’ tactics, judging by his thin grin.
“I don’t know whether to be impressed or just a little bit angry. Are those spears still poking at them?”
“The last I heard, they are, my lord.”
“Send word to the captain of the Bavarian spears, and impress on them that the Teutons are to march through Austria and Styria. If he lets them cross the river before Passau, I’ll have his bones mixed with those of the Teutons and dumped on the north bank. You might want to send that message to Mad Leopold too, just in case he feels led to countermand me.”
“As you wish, my lord. I’ll let the Order know.”
There came the sound of running footsteps and the jingling of metal rings. Felix skidded to a halt in front of the dais and presented himself for inspection. As he’d promised, he wore two swords: a longer one on his left hip, a short one on his right. It would have looked better if the child had actually grown. Something he could always talk to the hexmasters about, for certain. A leader needed to be at least as tall as the men he commanded.
“Good enough, boy. Come up here and stand at my left. Listen to what I say, and watch the Teuton carefully. Don’t speak, even if he tries to goad us. Remember that we’re better than he is: stronger, richer, more educated and more civilised. We have every advantage that he doesn’t.”
“Yes, Father.” Felix jumped up and took his place.
“We’re doing this not because we enjoy it, but because we rule. Our subjects need to be protected from these creatures.”
The doors at the far end of the hall clattered open. The light from outside darkened as the doorway was filled with figures. The Teuton strode in, and behind him, the guards, spears lowered for the threshold and then raised upright again.
The man was even more impressive close up. Tall, strong, pale, bear fur slung over his shoulder and mail on his chest. A man of note in his homeland, then.
Gerhard remained seated. He would have risen for an equal or a friend.
The Teuton’s bow was poorly executed – nowhere near enough bend on that front leg – and his insolent eyes stared at Gerhard, not the ground. When he rose again, he crossed his arms in front of him and stood with his legs a shoulder-width apart.
Gerhard leant forward a little. The chair creaked behind him.
“What’s his name?”
Reinhardt, the captain of the guard, started to approach the dais, but the Teuton shouldered him aside and announced himself.
“Walter of Danzig,” said the Teuton. If he’d hoped his fame had spread beyond the fly-bitten north, it hadn’t made it quite as far as Juvavum. Unlike his stench, which was primal.
“So, Walter of Danzig. What do you think Prince Gerhard of the Palatinate of Carinthia can do for you?”
“I have a hundred horse to take over the mountains. I’ve come ahead to see there are no delays on the road.”
Gerhard considered having the man executed on the spot and his body sent back to his companions in quarters. He looked to his right, where Trommler was as stony-faced as he always was at meetings like this, giving no sign of any emotion above bored detachment – perhaps having seen it all before, he was genuinely bored. To his left, Felix’s tense fidgeting showed he knew the Teuton had shown total disregard for any form of civilised behaviour, but also that his father’s warning was still uppermost in his mind.
There was no reason why Gerhard should let this Danzig off quite that lightly. A bit of play first, then.
“Let me consider this suggestion for a moment.” He steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them, seemingly deep in thought. Then he straightened up. “No.”
The Teuton stiffened. “What do you mean, no?”
“I would have thought the meaning to be self-evident, Walter of Danzig.” Gerhard smiled warmly. “We appear to be able to talk to each other with some measure of understanding, so a simple ‘no’ ought to be easily comprehended by such an exalted person as yourself.”
“I have a hundred—”
“Three hundred, my lord,” said Trommler to Gerhard, his interruption perfectly timed.
Walter scowled and grimaced.
“And I believe both the road and the pass belong to you, my lord.”
“And the land beyond the pass, Chamberlain?”
“Yours also, my lord.”
“Ah.” Gerhard stroked his lips and looked back to the Teuton. “You seem to want to give me reasons to refuse you: reasons I don’t really need because my word is law in this land. You bring your brawling, thieving bunch of mercenaries halfway across Europe, and everywhere you go, you cause trouble. You arrive at my borders having been chased at spear-point through Bavaria, you lie about your numbers, you insult my ears with your accent, and then you have the gall to act surprised when I refuse you and your men passage.”
The Teuton ground his jaw in silence, and eyed his guards. He was currently weaponless, but his snatching a spear was always possible. Then he grew very still. He’d noticed a figure all in white standing half obscured behind a pillar. All in white, even to the extent of having a veiled face.
Gerhard nodded in satisfaction. “Your act is poor, Master Walter. You came here expecting the answer you received, so you decided to be just plain rude instead. Perhaps you thought the Prince of Carinthia had grown weak, or stupid, since last year when a different ugly, sweaty brute stood in your place and mangled good, honest German with his stinking barbarian tongue.”
“Wolfgang of Ludsen, my lord.”
“And what did we do with him, Chamberlain?”
“Cursed his manhood, my lord.”
“Pardon? I’m not sure I heard right.”
“His cock rotted off, my lord, over the course of a few weeks.”
“Yes. That was it.” Gerhard rubbed his palms together, gratified that, at last, Walter of Danzig had gone even paler under the veneer of dirt. “Clearly not deterrent enough. What shall we do this time?”
“I want to return to my men,” said the Teuton, mustering as much of his dignity as remained. He glanced again at the white-shrouded hexmaster in the shadows, and Gerhard knew that although they’d brought their own shaman along with them, it was so much hedge-magic against the high arts of the Order.
“I have not finished with you,” roared the prince. The spearmen flinched, and the order wasn’t even directed at them. “This is my decision: I’m going to have you pressed, and when you’re dead, I’m going to strap your shattered bones to your horse and send it back to your pox-ridden army.”
The Teuton turned to find a score of broad-bladed spears pointing at his guts. He spun back, and reached up for his axe. His hand found nothing.
“This is what happens when you pick a fight with Carinthia,” said the prince mildly. “You can’t win. You just get to choose how you lose.”
The Teuton straightened up. “You have done me wrong, prince, and you will pay for this.”
Gerhard did no more than raise an eyebrow. Trommler hadn’t moved, except to rest himself against the side of the throne, and Felix was stock-still.
“I see no reason to be provoked by you. A civilised man keeps his speech honest, and his temper checked. Take him away, and send word when the stones have been prepared. I’ll want to watch.”
Walter of Danzig spat on the floor and deliberately turned his back on the dais. He looked down at the spear-heads and, growling deep in his throat, knocked one aside with his hand.
The guards marched the Teuton away. Once the Great Hall’s door banged shut again, the white-robed man – or woman, it was impossible to tell – drifted across the floor towards the dais.
“Father,” said Felix, “won’t the rest of them cause trouble for us?”
“Barbarians that they are, I don’t think even they’re quite as stupid as to ignore just how flat pressing makes a man.” Gerhard rose from his throne and bowed. The white-swathed head dipped briefly. “Your presence honours us, as always.”
Again, the slight movement of the head to acknowledge the prince’s will, then the figure walked off, stage right, back into the shadows. A door clicked and creaked, then shut with an echo.
Gerhard couldn’t tell if there had been a real person underneath the concealment, or whether the clothes were merely animated. No concern of his really. He gave them the peace to pursue their studies, and half the palatinate’s taxes. In return, their power shielded the land more certainly than any standing army. Like the tree and the mistletoe, they sheltered within his branches and made his rule sacred.
Or was it the other way around?
“Yes, my lord?”
“We could do with keeping an eye on the Teutons, just to make sure.”
“Master Büber is in town. I’ll have him fetched to the castle.” Trommler trotted off, leaving the prince and his son alone.
“So,” said the prince. “What did you think of that, boy?”
“You’re really going to press him?” Felix looked at his hands.
“Yes. He deserves nothing less, and it’ll keep his stinking brothers away from Carinthia at no extra effort to us. They can do what they like to Bavaria or Wien. My people are my concern.”
“And you’re going to watch?”
“Gods, have you really never been to a pressing before? That’s a gap in your education, one which we can happily fill by the end of the day.” Gerhard saw the boy grow white-lipped. “This is what princes do, Felix. They hold the power of life and death in their hands, and the sooner you realise that, the sooner you’ll be ready to take my place, on this throne.”
Felix glanced sharply around.
“Oh, I’ve a few years left in me yet. You won’t be expected to assume these duties until you’re ready. Now get down there” – Gerhard nodded at the space in front of the dais – “and show me your hews.”
The boy reluctantly hopped down off the platform, and pulled out his longsword. The blade rang as he freed it from its scabbard, and as he moved into his roof guard position the edge of the steel glowed with a subtle blue light.
Felix held his stance, concentrated on his breathing, and, when he was ready, swung the point of the sword down and away, dancing lightly on his feet to execute a squinting hew, then again into a part hew. He pressed forward strongly, the tip always in motion as he slipped from one attack to the next, ending each move with the appropriate guard before bringing the blade around again.
When he reached the end of the dais, he retreated as if facing a stronger opponent, switching from guard to guard as the imaginary blows rained down on his slight form.
He was pink with effort by the time he reached his starting point.
“Not bad, boy. Not bad at all.” Gerhard pushed his sleeves up. “Let me show you how to do that in battle.”