With the Wind
Downside frowned towards the burned-out shells of hovels and houses. Couple of chimney stacks still stood, couple of charred beams poked at the pink morning sky. He cleared his throat, worked the results around his mouth like he was tasting ale, then spat ’em out. He loved a good spit, did Downside. Might’ve been his favourite pastime. After killing folk.
‘Just like the village I came from, this,’ he said.
‘Aye,’ said Clover, ‘well. Villages all look much the same when they’re burned.’
‘You say that like you’ve seen a few.’
‘There was a time back in the wars . . .’ Clover thought about it and gave a sorry grunt ‘. . . ’fore you lot were born, I daresay, when burned villages were a more common sight in the North than unburned ones. I’d hoped those days were behind us but, you know. Hoping for a thing often seems the best way o’ bringing on the opposite.’ There was another gurgling retch behind and Clover turned to look. ‘How can you have any puke left?’
‘It’s just . . .’ Flick straightened up, wiping his mouth. ‘A sort o’ snot coming out now.’ And he peeked at the display from the corner of his eye, as if looking sidelong might make it prettier.
You could tell it had been people once. A hand here. A face there. But mostly just bits of meat, nailed up high or dangling in the burned trees at the centre of the village, where the rain had washed the ash into a black slurry. There was something coiled snakelike around a trunk which Clover had an unpleasant sense might be someone’s guts. A scene from a nightmare, and no mistake.
‘Fucking flatheads,’ muttered Flick, then he hunched over and coughed up another string of drool.
‘By the dead!’ shouted Clover, near jumping in the air with fright. Sholla had slipped out of the bushes, silent as regrets, and was squatting not a step to his side, one eye big and white in her ash-smeared face and the other just a gleam behind her tangled hair. ‘Creep up on them, girl, not on me! I near shat myself!’ He was worried he might’ve, just a streak.
‘Sorry.’ She didn’t look sorry at all. She never looked much of anything. Deadpan as an actual pan, this girl.
‘I should hang a bell on you,’ muttered Clover, bending over and trying to calm his racing heart. ‘What is it?’
‘The flatheads left tracks. Took some sheep with ’em. Wool tufted on the trees. Tracks all over. Couldn’t have left bigger ones if they’d driven a wagon. I could track ’em easy. Want me to track ’em? I’ll track ’em, shall I?’ Maybe she spent so much time on her own, only trees for company, that she’d poor judgement now on quantity of words. It was either too few in little stabs or too many in a flurry. ‘Want to follow, Chief?’
Clover still didn’t much like being called chief. The tallest flower is oft the first clipped, and no one he’d called chief down the years had lived to enjoy a pleasurable retirement. ‘No, I don’t much want to follow, as it happens.’ He held a hand out to the nailed-up offal. ‘Adding my own innards to such a display in no way appeals.’
There was a pause. Sholla’s one visible eye, and the gleam of the one hidden, slid to Downside, and he shrugged his great shoulders. They slid to Flick, who groaned, and straightened, and wiped his mouth again. They slid to the display, which still sat there in the trees, of course. They slid back up to Clover. ‘Shall we follow, though?’
Clover puffed out his cheeks. They’d been puffed out ever since Stour gave him these scrapings from the pot and told him to hunt Shanka. But when your chief gives you a task, you get to it, don’t you? Even if it’s far from the task you’d have picked.
‘Aye,’ he grunted. ‘We shall.’
Flick knelt in the wet brush, twisting his spear nervously in his pale fists. ‘What you thinking about?’
Clover stood, trying to find a gap in the leaves so he could peer into the valley, grunted as he stretched one aching leg, then the other, then squatted down again. ‘The past. Choices made. Things done.’
‘Regrets, eh?’ Flick nodded sagely, like he knew all about regrets, though if he’d seen sixteen winters Clover would’ve been surprised.
‘Might be a parade o’ triumphs and successes, mightn’t it?’
‘Didn’t look that way.’
‘Aye, well.’ Clover took a long breath through his nose. ‘You’ve got to blow with the wind. Let go of the past. Dwelling on your mistakes does no one any good.’
‘You really think that?’
Clover opened his mouth to speak, then shrugged. ‘It’s the sort of shit I always say. Keep talking and I’ll more than likely crack out the one about choosing your moment.’
‘I’m like a wife who’s served the same stew every night for years, and hates it more each time, but can’t cook aught else.’
Downside looked up from checking his axe to grunt. ‘Who wants to marry that bitch?’
Clover puffed out his cheeks again. ‘Who indeed?’
That was when Sholla came bounding up the gully, springing from rock to rock, making no effort to stay quiet this time. She flung herself into the bushes and slid to a stop in the undergrowth beside Clover, breathing hard and her face shining with sweat but otherwise not looking much bothered by a deadly chase through the woods.
‘They coming?’ asked Flick, voice shrill with fear.
‘All of ’em?’ asked Downside, voice growly with excitement.
‘You sure?’ asked Clover.
She glanced at him through her hair, which had a couple of bits of twig stuck in it. ‘I am irresistible.’
‘No doubt,’ he said, with the ghost of a grin. It was the sort of thing Wonderful might’ve said.
Then Clover heard ’em, and the grin faded fast. A howling first, like a pack of wolves far off, making the hairs on his neck prickle. Then a clattering and clanking, like armoured men coming on the rush, making his mouth turn dry. Then a mad snuffling and gibbering and hooting somewhere between a crowd of hungry hogs and a gaggle of angry geese, setting his palms to itch.
‘Ready!’ he hissed, men shifting in the undergrowth all around him, gripping their weapons tight. ‘And as Rudd Threetrees used to say, let’s us get them killed, not the other way around!’ He gave Sholla a nudge with the rim of his shield. ‘To the back, now.’
‘I can fight,’ she whispered. He saw she’d pulled out a hatchet and a wicked-looking knife with a long, thin blade. ‘I can fight better than your champion puker here.’
Flick looked a little hurt, but he looked a little green, too.
‘I’ve got plenty o’ folk can fight,’ said Clover, ‘but just the one who can sneak up on a squirrel. Get to the back.’
He saw a flicker of movement in the trees, then another, then they burst from the branches and into the open, swarming up the gulley, funnelled between the steep rocks and straight towards Clover. Exactly the way he’d planned. Though the plan didn’t seem such a clever one right then.
A vile mass they were, whooping and warbling, skittering and scuttling, limping on legs of different lengths, all teeth and claws and mad fury. All twisted and misshapen, mockeries of men, squashed from clay by children with no knack for sculpting.
‘Fuck,’ whimpered Flick.
Clover caught his shoulder and gripped it hard. ‘Steady.’ At a moment like that, everyone’s thinking about running, at least a bit, and it only takes one doing it to convince ’em all it’s the best idea. Before you know it, you’re being hunted through the woods instead of celebrating a victory. And Clover’s knees were getting far too stiff for doing the hunting, let alone for being the prey.
‘Steady,’ he hissed again as the Shanka scrambled closer, sun glinting on the jagged edges of their crude weapons and the plates and rivets they’d bolted into their lumpen bodies.
‘Steady,’ he mouthed, watching, waiting, feeling out the moment. He could see their faces now, if you could call ’em faces. One at the front wore a bloodstained woman’s bonnet and another waved a man’s rusted sword and a third had a horse’s skull over its own face and a fourth a helmet made of spoons bent in a fire or maybe they were nailed into its skull, the rough flesh swollen around the strips of metal.
Grab the moment, ’fore it slips through your fingers.
‘Spears!’ roared Clover, and men popped from the undergrowth, long spears all pointed down the gully so there was nowhere for the flatheads to run to. They checked and clawed and skittered, surprised by that thicket of bright blades. One couldn’t stop and went tumbling onto the spears, took a point right through the throat and hung there, spitting dark blood and trying to turn around and looking somewhat surprised that it couldn’t.
Clover almost felt sorry for it. But feeling sorry’s always a waste of time, and specially in a battle.
‘Arrows!’ he roared, and men leaned out over the rocks at the sides of the gully. Bows sang and shafts fluttered down among the Shanka, bounced, rattled, stuck into flesh. He saw one flathead flailing, trying to reach with one twisted arm to where an arrow was sticking from its neck. The archers drew and strung and shot, easy as shooting lambs in a slaughter-pen. A spear went flying up the other way but bounced from a rock, harmless.
The Flatheads were shook up, now. Seems Shanka and men don’t behave all that differently when they’re bottled in a gully with shafts showering down on ’em. One tried to climb the rocks and caught three arrows, dropped off on top of another. A third charged at the spears and got stuck through the guts, ripped open all up its side and a metal plate torn from its shoulder, bloody bolts showing underneath.
Clover saw one flathead dragging another that had an arrow in its chest, trying to get it to the back. Almost like something a person might do. A better person than he was, anyway. Made him wonder if flatheads had feelings like people, as well as blood and screams much the same. Then an arrow stuck into the head of the one doing the dragging and it fell with the other one on top and that was that for the demonstration of human feelings. On either side.
Clover got the sense they were ready to break.
‘Axes!’ he bellowed, and the spearmen split apart, pretty neat. Not too far from what they’d practised, which was quite the wonder under the circumstances. The best fighters Stour had given him came pouring through the gap, mail and shields and good axes smashing into the flatheads from uphill with a sound like hail on a tin roof.
Downside was right at the front, of course. He was a bad bastard. Mad bastard. Fought with that total lack of concern for his own safety that men usually grow out of fast or die of even faster. Hell of a fighter, but no one wanted him ’cause he’d a habit of getting carried away and not really caring who he smashed on the backswing. Or even the frontswing.
Still, when you’re sent to fight monsters, it’s a good idea to have a monster or two of your own. That, and the way he was never happier’n when he was charging at the Great Leveller reminded Clover of himself twenty years past, when they still called him Jonas Steepfield and misfortunes hadn’t taught him to tread lightly. He was just congratulating himself on staying well clear of the action when a spearman gave a screech, dropped clutching at his shoulder, and a giant flathead came roaring out of the pack, a great studded club in its fists.
Clover never saw a Shanka so big nor so covered in iron. They liked to rivet any metal they could find into their skin, but this one was covered all over with hammered plates. A mist sprayed from its mouth as it bellowed, and it sent a man reeling with its club. Others scrambled back, and Clover was not ashamed to say he was with them, jaw well lowered and shield well raised.
The great Shanka took a step forward, lifting its club, then squawked and dropped wobbling on one knee. Sholla had slipped up behind, now set her knife between two of the plates on its head and smashed the pommel with the back of her hatchet calm as hammering a nail. Made this hollow bonk and drove the knife into the Shanka’s skull to the grip, popped one of its eyes right out of its metal-cased head.
‘Fuck,’ said Clover as it crashed down at his feet with a sound like a chest full of cooking pots.
‘Told you I could fight,’ said Sholla.
Looked like that was the end of it. The last few flatheads were running. Clover saw one cut down in a shower of blood, another fall with an arrow in its back, a couple bounding away down the gully even quicker than they came.
‘Let ’em go!’ Clover roared up at the archers. ‘They can take the message back. They stay north of the mountains, we’ll have no quarrel. They come south, the Great Leveller’s waiting.’
Downside watched ’em run, eyes wide and wild, spit in his beard and blood streaking his face. No one wanted to tell him stop and honestly Clover didn’t much, either. But that’s the thing about being chief. You can’t just throw your hands up at everything and say it’s someone else’s problem.
So Clover stepped towards him, one palm raised, the other just tickling the grip of the knife in the back of his belt. There’s no bad time to have one hand on a knife, after all.
‘Easy, now,’ like he was trying to calm a mean-tempered dog. ‘Calm.’
Downside stared at him, quite mildly, if anything. ‘I am calm, Chief,’ he said, and wiped blood out of his eyes. ‘Bleeding, though.’
‘Well, your own face is a poor choice of weapon.’ Clover let go his knife and surveyed the axe-hacked, spear-stuck, arrow-pricked corpses clogging the gully. Fight won, and he hadn’t even needed to swing in anger.
‘By the dead,’ muttered Flick. There was a flathead spitted on the end of his spear, still twitching.
‘You got one,’ said Downside, putting a boot on its neck and hacking its skull open.
‘By the dead,’ muttered Flick again, then he dropped his spear and was sick.
‘Some things don’t change,’ said Sholla, busy trying to prise her dagger out o’ the big Shanka’s skull.
‘Worked out just the way you said, Chief.’ Downside rolled a dead flathead over with his boot and left it goggling at the sky.
‘You should never have doubted me,’ said Clover. ‘The first weapon you bring to any fight ain’t a spear or an arrow or an axe.’
Flick blinked at him. ‘Sword?’
‘Surprise,’ said Clover. ‘Surprise makes brave men cowards, strong men weak, wise men fools.’
‘Ugly fuckers, ain’t they?’ said Sholla, tugging, tugging, then nearly falling over backwards as her dagger suddenly came free.
‘I find myself on shaky ground when it comes to criticising others’ looks. Weren’t you a butcher’s boy once, Downside?’
‘Reckon you can take the lead on carving these bastards, then.’
‘What d’you want from ’em, sausages?’
Some of the others laughed at that, ready to laugh at anything now the fight was done and they likely had a fat gild coming.
‘Trouble with sausages is you can’t tell what’s in ’em,’ said Clover. ‘I want no one to be in any doubt. Make us a display like they did with those folk at the village. We might not speak the same tongue as Shanka, but heads in trees gets the point across in every language. Toss a few in that sack for Stour while you’re at it.’
‘You want to impress a girl, take a bunch o’ flowers.’ Flick gave a sad sigh. ‘You want to impress a King o’ the Northmen, bring a sack o’ heads.’
‘’Tis a sorry observation,’ said Clover, ‘but only the truer for that.’
‘Don’t think much o’ flowers myself,’ said Sholla.
‘Never saw the point of ’em.’
‘They’ve got no point. That’s the point.’
She tipped her head to the side, thinking that one through.
Downside was frowning at the Shanka corpses, weighing his axe and wondering where to start. ‘Never thought o’ myself as a man who fills sacks with heads.’
‘No one sets off in that direction,’ said Clover, puffing out his cheeks one more time. ‘But before you know it, there you bloody are.’
From the author of DIVERGENT comes an all new adult fantasy series