‘A lifetime of enemies has its own price.’
This debut epic fantasy from a British writer of incredible talent tells the tale of the Twenty, a band of mercenaries hunted by an unknown killer. Filled with unique voices and incredible world-building, this stunning novel will please any fan of Joe Abercrombie or Mark Lawrence.
My name’s Gant and I’m sorry for my poor writing. I was a mercenary soldier who never took to it till Kailen taught us. It’s for him and all the boys that I wanted to put this down, a telling of what become of Kailen’s Twenty.
Seems right to begin it the day me and Shale got sold out, at the heart of the summer just gone, down in the Red Hills Confederacy.
It was the day I began dying.
It was a job with a crew to ambush a supply caravan. It went badly for us and I took an arrow, the poison from which will shortly kill me.
I woke up sodden with dew and rain like the boys, soaked all over from the trees above us, but my mouth was dusty like sand. Rivers couldn’t wet it. The compound I use to ease my bones leeches my spit. I speak soft.
I could hardly crack a whistle at the boys wrapped like a nest of slugs in their oilskins against the winds of the plains these woods were edged against. I’m old. I just kicked them up before getting my bow out of the sack I put it in to keep rain off the string. It was a beauty what I called Juletta and I had her for most of my life.
* * *
The boys were slow to get going, blowing and fussing as the freezing air got to work in that bit of dawn. They were quiet, and grim like ghosts in this light, pairing up to strap their leathers and get the swords pasted with poison.
I patted heads and squeezed shoulders and give words as I moved through the crew so they knew I was about and watching. I knew enough of their language that I could give them encouragement like I was one of them, something else Kailen give me to help me bond with a crew.
“Paste it thick,” I said as they put on the mittens and rubbed their blades with the soaked rags from the pot Remy had opened.
I looked around the boys I’d shared skins and pipes with under the moon those last few weeks. Good crew.
There was Remy, looking up at me from his mixing, face all scarred like a milky walnut and speaking lispy from razor fights and rackets he ran with before joining up for a pardon. He had a poison of his own he made, less refined than my own mix, less quick, more agony.
Yasthin was crouched next to him. He was still having to shake the cramp off his leg that took a mace a month before. Saved his money for his brother, told me he was investing it. The boys said his brother gambled it and laughed him up.
Dolly was next to Yasthin, chewing some bacon rinds. Told me how her da chased her soak of a mother through the streets, had done since she was young. Kids followed her da too, singing with him but staying clear of his knives. She joined so’s she could help her da keep her younger brother.
All of them got sorrows that led them to the likes of me and a fat purse for a crossroads job, which I mean to say is a do-or-die.
Soon enough they’re lined up and waiting for the Honour, Kailen’s Honour, the best fightbrew Kigan ever mixed, so, the best fightbrew ever mixed, even all these years later. The boys had been talking up this brew since I took command, makes you feel like you could punch holes in mountains when you’ve risen on it.
Yasthin was first in line for a measure. I had to stand on my toes to pour it in, lots of the boys taller than me. Then a kiss. The lips are the raw end of your terror and love. No steel can toughen lips, they betray more than the eyes when you’re looking for intent and the kiss is for telling them there’s always some way to die.
Little Booey was the tenth and last of the crew to get the measure. I took a slug myself and Rirgwil fixed my leathers. I waited for our teeth to chatter like aristos, then went over the plan again.
“In the trees north, beyond those fields, is Trukhar’s supply caravan,” I said. “Find it, kill who you can but burn the wagons, supplies, an’ then go for the craftsmen. Shale’s leadin’ his crew in from east an’ we got them pincered when we meet, red bands left arm so as you know. It’s a do-or-die purse, you’re there ’til the job is done or you’re dead anyway.”
It was getting real for them now I could see. A couple were starting shakes with their first full measure of the brew, despite all the prep the previous few days. “I taught you how to focus what’s happening to you boys. This brew has won wars an’ it’ll deliver this purse if you can keep tight. Now move out.”
No more words, it was hand signs now to the forest.
*Jonah front, Yasthin, Booey and Henny with me. Remy group northeast at treeline*
We ran through the silver grass, chests shuddering with the crackle of our blood as the brew stretched our veins and filled our bones with iron and fire. The song of the earth was filling my ears. Ahead of us was the wall of trees and within, the camp of the Blackhands. Remy’s boys split from us and moved away.
*Slow* I signed.
Juletta was warm in my hands, the arrow in my fingers humming to fly. Then, the brew fierce in my eyes, I saw it, the red glow of a pipe some seventy yards ahead at the treeline.
*Two men. On mark*
I moved forward to take the shot and stepped into a nest of eggs. The bird, a big grey weger, screeched at me and flapped madly into the air inches from my face, its cry filling the sky. One of the boys shouted out, in his prime on the brew, and the two men saw us. We were dead. My boys’ arrows followed mine, the two men were hit, only half a pip of a horn escaping for warning, but it was surely enough.
I had killed us all. We went in anyway, that was the purse, and these boys primed like this weren’t leaving without bloodshed.
As we hit the trees we spread out.
*Enemy left* signed Jonah.
Three were nearing through the trunks, draining their own brew as they come to from some half-eyed slumber. They were a clear shot so I led again, arrows hitting and a muffled crack of bones. All down.
In my brewed-up ears I could hear then the crack of bowstrings pulling at some way off, but it was all around us. The whistle of arrows proved us flanked as we dropped to the ground.
The boys opened up, moving as we practised, aiming to surprise any flanks and split them off so a group of us could move in directly to the caravan. It was shooting practice for Trukhar’s soldiers.
I never saw Henny or Jonah again, just heard some laughing and screaming and the sound of blades at work before it died off.
I stayed put, watching for the enemy’s movements. I was in the outroots of a tree, unspotted. You feel eyes on you with this brew. Then I saw two scouts moving right, following Booey and Datschke’s run.
I took a sporebag and popped it on the end of an arrow. I stood up and sent it at the ground ahead of them.
From my belt I got me some white oak sap which I took for my eyes to see safe in the spore cloud. I put on a mask covered with the same stuff for breathing.
The spores were quick to get in them and they wheezed and clutched their throats as I finished them off.
I was hoping I could have saved my boys but I needed to be in some guts and get the job done with Shale’s crew.
Horns were going up now, so the fighting was on. I saw a few coming at me from the trees ahead. I got behind a trunk but I knew I was spotted. They slowed up and the hemp creaked as they drew or shots. There were four of them, from their breathing, and I could hear their commander whispering for a flanking.
I opened up a satchel of ricepaper bags, each with quicklime and oiled feathers. I needed smoke. I doused a few bags with my flask and threw them out.
“Masks!” came the shout. As the paper soaked, the lime caught and the feathers put out a fierce smoke. My eyes were still smeared good. I took a couple more arrowbags out, but these were agave powders for blistering the eyes and skin.
Two shots to tree trunks spread the powders in the air around their position and I moved out from the tree to them as they screeched and staggered about blind. The Honour give me the senses enough to read where they were without my eyes, better to shut them with smoke and powders in the air, and their brews weren’t the Honour’s equal. They moved like they were running through honey and were easy to pick off.
It was then I took the arrow that’ll do for me. I’d got maybe fifty yards further on when I heard the bow draw, but with the noise ahead I couldn’t place it that fraction quicker to save myself. The arrow went in at my hip, into my guts. Something’s gave in there, and the poison’s gone right in, black mustard oil for sure from the vapours burning in my nose, probably some of their venom too.
I was on my knees trying to grab the arrow when I saw them approach, two of them. The one who killed me was dropping his bow and they both closed with the hate of their own fightbrew, their eyes crimson, skin an angry red and all the noisies.
They think I’m done. They’re fucking right, to a point. In my belt was the treated guaia bark for the mix they were known to use. No time to rip out the arrow and push the bark in.
They moved in together, one in front, the other flanking. One’s a heavy in his mail coat and broadsword, a boy’s weapon in a forest, too big. Older one had leathers and a long knife. Him first. My sight was going, the world going flat like a drawing, so I had to get rid of the wiser one while I could still see him, while I still had the Honour’s edge.
Knife in hand I lunged sudden, the leap bigger than they reckoned. The older one reacted, a sidestep. The slash I made wasn’t for hitting him though. It flicked out a spray of paste from the blade and sure enough some bit of it caught him in the face. I spun about, brought my blade up and parried the boy’s desperate swing as he closed behind me, the blow forcing me down as it hit my knife, sending a smack through my guts as the arrow broke in me. He took sight of his mate holding his smoking face, scratching at his cheeks and bleeding. He glanced at the brown treacle running over my blade and legged it. He had the spunk to know he was beaten. I put the knife in the old man’s throat to quiet my noisies, the blood’s smell as sweet as fresh bread to me.
I picked up my Juletta and moved on. The trees were filling with Blackhands now. I didn’t have the time to be taking off my wamba and sorting myself out a cure for the arrow, much less tugging at it now it was into me. I cussed at myself, for this was likely where I was going to die if I didn’t get something to fix me. I was slowing up. I took a hit of the Honour to keep me fresh. It was going to make a fierce claim on the other side, but I would gladly take that if I could get some treatment.
Finally I reached the caravan; smoke from the blazing wagons and stores filled the trees ahead. The grain carts were burning so Shale, again, delivered the purse.
Then I come across Dolly, slumped against the roots of a tree. Four arrows were thrusting proud from her belly. She saw me and her eyes widened and she smiled.
“Gant, you’re not done . . . Oh,” she said, seeing the arrow in me. I might have been swaying, she certainly didn’t look right, faded somewhat, like she was becoming a ghost before me.
“Have you a flask, Gant, some more of the Honour?”
Her hands were full of earth, grabbing at it, having their final fling.
“I’m out, Dolly,” I said. “I’m done too. I’m sorry for how it all ended.”
She blinked, grief pinching her up.
“It can’t be over already. I’m twenty summers, Gant, this was goin’ to be the big purse.”
A moment then I couldn’t fill with any words.
“Tell my father, Gant, say . . .”
I was raising my bow. I did my best to clean an arrow on my leggings. She was watching me as I did it, knowing.
“Tell him I love him, Gant, tell him I got the Honour, and give him my purse and my brother a kiss.”
As I drew it she looked above me, seeing something I knew I wouldn’t see, leagues away, some answers to her questions in her eyes thrilling her. I let fly, fell to my knees and sicked up.
Where was Shale?
My mouth was too dry to speak or shout for him, but I needed him. My eyes, the lids of them, were peeling back so’s they would burn in the sun. I put my hands to my face. It was only visions, but my chest was heavy, like somebody sat on it and others were piling on. Looking through my hands as I held them up, it was like there were just bones there, flesh thin like the fins of a fish. My breathing rattled and I reached to my throat to try to open it up more.
So much blood on him. He kneeled next to me. He’s got grey eyes, no colour. Enemy to him is just so much warm meat to be put still. He don’t much smile unless he’s drunk. He mostly never drinks. He sniffed about me and at my wound, to get a reading of what was in it, then forced the arrow out with a knife and filled the hole with guaia bark while kneeling on my shoulder to keep me still. He was barking at some boys as he stuffed some rugara leaves, sap and all, into my mouth, holding my nose shut, drowning me. Fuck! My brains were buzzing sore like a hive was in them. Some frothing liquid filled up my chest and I was bucking about for breath. He poured from a flask over my hip and the skin frosted over with an agony of burning. Then he took out some jumpcrick’s legbones and held them against the hole, snap snap, a flash of blue flame and everything fell away high.
There was a choking, but it didn’t feel like me no longer. It felt like the man I was before I died.