Chapter 2: The Hindrunn
There was always one oasis of calm in the Black Kingdom. Regardless of what war ravaged the rest of it, the great fastness at the border, the Hindrunn, would be safe. Built over centuries by one of Roper’s ancestors, it was a thirteen-hundred-year-old honeycomb of black granite, lead and flint. Its presence, so dark and malevolent when observed from Suthdal—the land below the River Abus, occupied by the Sutherners—was the reason the border had barely changed over centuries. Within its tangle of broad, cobbled streets dwelt the legions.
When these returned, tradition dictated that they should be greeted by the women and children of the fortress. Crowds would line the streets, armed with little bunches of herbs to be thrown into the path of the legions. The bitter smell of rosemary, lemon balm and comfrey, crushed underfoot, was an evocation of celebration and relief. The warriors had returned home and once again they had been successful. Word would already have reached the Hindrunn of who had fought with particular bravery or skill and their names would be called out by the throng. The young boys would watch their warriors, imagining the day when the armour of the Black Kingdom would fit them and when it would be their turn to march through these streets.
The Sacred Guard would be first to enter the Great Gate. They would march in step, always in step, up the cobbled street; the crowds on each side ever-optimistic about the gap through which their legionaries could squeeze. People would lean from the upper windows of the houses to throw their herbs and the warriors, stern and proud, would try not to grin. Roper had been there once; part of the crowds that welcomed back the legions. He had not imagined taking his father’s place, resplendent on a white horse at the front of the column, but a little further back, wearing the armour of a guardsman. Black Lords might be rare, but they were born. A Sacred Guardsman was self-forged; made through his own merits. There could be no more splendid thing and it had been decades since the Black Legions had failed on the battlefield.
The crowds were not accustomed to defeat.
So it was that when news reached the fastness that the legions had been whipped, that they were marching home with their tails between their legs and that the great Kynortas, Black Lord of forty years’ dedicated service, had fallen on the battlefield, the reaction was first one of incredulity. It was simply unthinkable that the legions could have failed so badly and the report of tens of thousands of Sutherners swarming across the Black Kingdom must be exaggerated. Then the stream of refugees began to arrive, confirming that at their back was a marauding enemy force, and the incredulity turned to anger. Some were claiming that the army had not even fought the Sutherners. They had just turned and run in the face of a strong defensive position and a swarm of angry arrows. This was not just a defeat: it was humiliation. What seemed even clearer was that Roper had wilted in the crucible, as so many are wont to do, and having inherited command, had panicked and insisted on retreat. He had not even stayed long enough to retrieve his father’s body; it had been left to be stripped and degraded by the Sutherners.
Roper was not sure who had commanded the army on the bleak march back to the Hindrunn. It did not seem to have been him. Nobody came to ask him for orders and Roper did not know to whom he should volunteer them or what form they should take. Indeed, he had been ignored by all but two people on the march. The first was a surgeon, who had silently extracted the arrow from his shoulder and staunched his wounds. Roper had gritted his teeth as the head was dragged from his flesh and had no more than a couple of deep breaths to sustain him before a glowing brand was pressed into the wound. He made no sound, but the hiss and smell like cooked meat had been too much. His vision faded into white and he swayed where he sat. When it was over, he was unsure whether he had stayed conscious or not.
It was at the same time that Roper’s second visitor approached: Uvoren. He stood quietly and watched Roper setting his jaw, again apparently fascinated by the wounds, though he must have seen many. He smiled roguishly at Roper. “A troublemaker, eh, lord?” Lord. “Never seen our army’s leader ride alone into a press of the enemy before.”
Roper looked up at Uvoren, teeth gritted. “Not fast enough.”
Uvoren shrugged. “You couldn’t have saved him, lord. He was dead already. It was bold to try, but not clever. But having retreated… well, you’ll need to be careful from now on. The Hindrunn won’t take kindly to it. As we enter the fortress tomorrow you must ride at the head of the column.”
“I would advise so. Your subjects must know that you unquestionably command this army.”
Roper nodded. “I understand.”
Uvoren glanced down at Roper’s battered plate armour that lay resting against the surgeon’s supplies. The chest-plate had been punctured by a thrust of considerable power; damage sustained during Roper’s struggle for survival in the flood waters. “You must find some new armour as well. The Black Lord should appear invincible. You don’t want people to know you’ve been brawling like a gutter-rat.”
Roper nodded again. Uvoren stared at him a little longer before turning away, a strange smile on his lips. Roper did as he was told, donning fresh armour and taking the lead of the column as the shadow of the fortress fell over the horizon. The legionaries looked up at him with accusatory eyes as he rode past, though they said nothing. Roper hunched into the unfamiliar horse that he had had pressed upon him on the battlefield, looking away from his soldiers.
There was no shout of welcome as the Great Gate opened; just the clunk of the locking bars being withdrawn. It was a sapphire dusk; nearly nightfall. The first stars had begun to glow overhead. The rain had stopped but moisture clung to the air, creating a chill. Roper led the first ranks through the gate and saw that the streets beyond, as ever, were thronged with women and children. But they bore no herbs.
Roper straightened his back and stared ahead. Steady, now. His home had never felt so unfamiliar. Where usually they would have been cheering and calling out, the crowd was breathtakingly silent. The only movement as Roper rode past was of eyes: hundreds of eyes following him. His horse’s hooves sounded indecently loud on the cobbles and suddenly, in his shiny new armour, Roper felt abashed. The silence stretched.
He could hear the guardsmen trying to soften the pounding of their boots behind him; those heroic men attempting to withdraw inside their armour altogether. A low hiss escaped one of the spectators and was taken up by others around. It crossed the deserted road and rose like a waterfall on both sides. Roper’s lungs seemed to fill impossibly as the hiss grew and grew, as though it were Catastrophe herself, the great chain-mailed serpent that would overturn the world, rising from the earth. The hiss burst, and suddenly the crowd was in open disdain, hooting and whistling as the burning-faced legionaries entered the Hindrunn. A girl called that the legionaries should leave their weapons with the women; they would acquit themselves more honourably than their men had. The crowd laughed and jeered.
Roper rode alone at the front, burned by the contempt radiating from either side and the hatred at his back. He would be blamed for all of this. It might be the worst humiliation the legions had ever suffered and it was all his.
But this was not the worst realisation that was breaking over him. Another far worse, far more significant thought had invaded his mind. Accidentally, with no will or intent, Roper had made a terrible enemy.
Roper sat alone at the end of the great table that occupied the Chamber of State. The table was made of vast lengths of oak, so enormous that they could not have come from any living tree. Kynortas had explained to Roper that the wood had been extracted from a simmering bog to the south which preserved the ancient line of trees that had once dominated Albion. Now, the table dominated a large granite chamber, whose floor was covered by bearskins and which was well illuminated, even at this hour, by two-score oil lamps. Flames stirred in a brutally heavy stone fireplace that had been chiselled into one of the walls.
He had been here many times before at Kynortas’s side, brought to witness negotiations, campaign plans and even disciplinary hearings. He was not sure why he was here now.
An aide, one of the young warriors seeking a role in high command some day, had arrived at Roper’s quarters to tell him that he and Uvoren were to meet here as soon as Roper was able. Roper had hobbled down to the room as fast as he could on his damaged leg, expecting to arrive late to a full war council where the legates debated how to stem the tide of Suthern soldiers now sweeping across the Black Kingdom, aides galloping through the corridors outside to prepare their warlike nation’s revenge.
Instead, the room had been deserted.
Roper had sat down at first in his usual seat, to the right of the seat his father occupied—the Stone Throne. Soon afterwards, he had shifted to his left; he should occupy his father’s place. He had now been seated there for an hour. Only one person had come; an irritable legionary who trimmed and charged the oil lamps. He did not acknowledge Roper and Roper did not know what to say to him. He felt foolish sitting silently on the Stone Throne, and even more foolish after the legionary departed and he was left alone in the chamber.
Roper was tormented by the realisation that had come to him as he had entered the gate and left him more and more desperate as he sat alone in this room, waiting for Uvoren.
The Captain of the Guard arrived after an hour and a half. He threw open the door and marched for a seat at Roper’s end of the table, followed by ten companions. From the crests that they bore, Roper counted four Sacred Guardsmen, two Ramnea’s Own legionaries and two legates. With them were a pair dressed in embroidered robes: a Councillor and a Tribune. The final Sacred Guardsman, who drew his own chair as though he scarce had time for sitting, was in possession of an exceptionally long black ponytail that reached down to his waist. Where the others all looked strained, this man appeared merely impatient.
Uvoren did not introduce Roper. Indeed, he did not acknowledge him. “We have plans to make,” he said shortly.
“Make them quickly,” said the man with the long ponytail. “Jokul has summoned me for two hours at my earliest convenience. I don’t want to spend this entire night in council.”
Uvoren smiled at the man. “Two hours with Jokul? Just one might kill you.”
The ponytailed man nodded. “I’m worried it might not.”
There was a slight pause and then the table rippled with laughter.
“That man gets thinner every time I see him,” said one of the Sacred Guardsmen.
“I’ve seen buzzards follow him around when he goes outside,” said Uvoren. They all laughed again. Roper joined in, but stopped when Uvoren stared at him, that smile on his lips again. “You shouldn’t laugh at Jokul, Roper.” Roper. “He is a public servant of many years. Nor should you be sitting in the Stone Throne. It remains unoccupied for three days after the death of the Black Lord as a mark of respect.” He gestured to one of the places further down the table.
Roper did not move for a moment. He did not believe Uvoren and stared at him stubbornly. He felt the combined gaze of the table focus on him and realised this was a contest of will he could not win. Retreat, again. He stood and moved further down the table. The ponytailed man watched him dead-eyed as he sat down. “What is your name, Guardsman?” Roper asked, looking for some initiative.
“Lictor,” responded the man.
“That is a title,” said Roper.
“Yes. It is my title.”
And my title is Lord, thought Roper, though he said no more. He knew this man by reputation, if not to look at. A lictor was the disciplinarian of a fighting unit, charged with ensuring that the soldiers do as they are told. He had the remit to beat his fellow soldiers to death if he wished, though they could not lay a hand on him. It was an influential position, traditionally given to a man of surpassing self-confidence and bravery. Evidently the role fitted the ponytailed man like a glove: it was he who had killed Earl William.
Roper knew his name and his reputation well: this was the sprinter Pryce Rubenson, twice honoured with a Prize of Valour. He was almost as famous as Uvoren himself; known throughout the Black Kingdom as one of the finest athletes it had ever produced and as much a hero to the young women of the land as to its warriors.
Roper learned much over the next hours.
The legate of the Blackstones told what had been happening beneath the flood waters. “Clever bastards. Caltrops. I’ve seen them before in Samnia: jagged iron spikes which always face upwards, sprinkled in front of my legionaries, thick as grass. They baited us with a false charge to make sure we were running when we hit the trap.” The legate had shaken his head. “Now that was clever. And the nerve, to get the timing just right. I’m rather sorry you killed Earl William, Pryce. It can only hasten the rise of Bellamus. In him, we have a worthy enemy.”
“I’m not sorry,” said Uvoren. “The bickering between Bellamus and Lord Northwic was all that stopped our retreat turning into a full-blown disaster.” He had turned to look sourly at Roper.
“I ordered the cavalry to keep clear of the Blackstones,” Roper blurted. This elicited a stony silence from the other men at the table.
“Be silent, Roper,” said Uvoren finally. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Your father was just passable as a leader; limited, but passable. You have absolutely nothing going for you.” Everyone at the table besides Pryce laughed. Uvoren grinned. “What are you doing here?”
“You told me to come,” said Roper. He wanted to say more, but knew Uvoren would undermine him, whatever his words.
“He told you to come?” put in another guardsman with a sweaty face. “If you can do exactly as you’re told, you might rule after all, Roper.” The table laughed again.
Roper kept quiet. He knew his first taste of command could scarcely have been worse, but he had not expected it to be met by this naked aggression. Uvoren, who had seemed so charming and friendly under Kynortas’s gaze, had turned on Roper. This was his enemy: Uvoren the Mighty. The most esteemed man in the country and its most glorified warrior. They had started playing a game and Roper had not even known. That was why he had told Roper to change his armour: so that it would look as though he had commanded and panicked from afar, and not been involved in the fighting. That was why he had asked Roper to ride at the head of the column: so that the blame was placed squarely on his shoulders.
The laws of succession were clear; Roper must rule. But Uvoren, one of the most influential and respected warriors of the age, at the head of the Lothbroks, one of its greatest houses, was trying to make Roper’s position so untenable that an exception would be made. Uvoren had seemed to support the retreat but it was Roper who had taken the blame for it. After that, and with such an obvious and capable rival to his succession, who would support Roper? What chance did a nineteen-year-old with no experience and no name other than that bequeathed to him by his father stand against the greatest warrior alive?
He had no idea where to begin; no idea where he would find the allies to support his claim. But he knew where to find his enemies.
They were right here; at this table. Uvoren’s war council.
Roper memorised them all. He remembered their names, their stations, their countenances. He observed who was personally close to Uvoren, who merely a crony. He watched the way they sat, deduced their characters and weaknesses. Was there resentment in the eyes of Uvoren’s sons, Unndor and Urthr? Was Asger, the sweaty-faced second-in-command of the Sacred Guard, rather unintelligent? He found himself particularly transfixed by the Sacred Guardsman next to him: Gosta. He said very little during the council and was rarely asked for his opinion. Sometimes he was given an order which he accepted with a mute nod. Roper knew nothing of him, but Uvoren treated him as though he were a faithful hound. The other officers appeared wary of Gosta. Even Pryce was leaning away from him in some distaste.
Before Roper was arrayed an influential power block: men of wealth and prestige who would support Uvoren’s claim to the Stone Throne. If Roper wanted to rule, he would have to break them all; one by one.
And, of course, there was Uvoren himself, who now spoke. “Forget Boy-Roper, he isn’t relevant. Our position is dire. The Blackstones are at half-strength, morale has plummeted and we did not anticipate returning the legions to the Hindrunn. We need more food. The Skiritai have suggested that the Sutherners do not intend to besiege us; they’d rather harry our eastern lands. We must put a stop to that. That is tomorrow’s task. Until then, I’m going to bed.” Uvoren stood and so did the rest of the council. The long-ponytailed Pryce did not wait to be dismissed, stalking past Roper and out of the Chamber of State. Roper remained in his seat. Uvoren stared at him, eyes narrowed. Roper returned his gaze stubbornly. “A Blackstone reported to me today, Roper, informing me you had made him a Sacred Guardsman. Don’t ever try and put your own men in my unit again.”
“That is my right, Uvoren,” said Roper, flushing.
“You think so?” Uvoren sounded incredulous. Then he laughed at Roper’s furious expression and leaned over to pat him on the cheek. “Calm yourself, Roper.” He chuckled, now pinching Roper’s cheek. “You take life so seriously. You’re not upset about your father, are you?” Roper said nothing. Uvoren laughed again. “It was a good death,” he said, carelessly. “Peers, tomorrow. Goodnight.”
They filed out of the chamber, leaving Roper alone again. He stood and moved back to the Stone Throne, obstinately sitting back down. He rubbed his fingers over the smooth arm rests; polished by the grip of a dozen Black Lords and, most recently, his father. The Black Lord does not cry. So Roper howled instead.