Last Argument of Kings Extract
“Cold night!” shouted the Dogman. “Thought it was meant to be summer!”
The three of ‘em looked up. The nearest was an old man with grey hair and a face looked like it had seen some weather. Just past him was a younger man, missing his left arm above the elbow. The third was no more’n a boy, stood down the end of the quay and frowning out at the dark sea.
Dogman faked a nasty limp as he walked over, dragging one leg behind him and wincing like he was in pain. He shuffled under the lamp, dangling on its high pole with the warning bell beside it, and held up the jar so they could all see.
The old man grinned, and leaned his spear against the wall. “Always cold, down by the water.” He came up, rubbing his hands together. “Just as well we got you to keep us warm, eh?”
“Aye. Good luck all round.” Dogman pulled out the stopper and let it dangle, lifted one of the mugs and poured out a slosh.
“No need to be shy, eh, lad?”
“I guess there ain’t at that.” Dogman sloshed out some more. The man with one arm had to set his spear down when he got handed his mug. The boy came up last, and looked Dogman over, wary.
The old one nudged him with an elbow. “You sure your mother’d care for you drinking, boy?”
“Who cares what she’d say?” he growled, trying to make his high voice sound gruff.
Dogman handed him a mug. “You’re old enough to hold a spear, you’re old enough to hold a cup, I reckon.”
“I’m old enough!” he snapped, snatching it out o’ Dogman’s hand, but he shuddered when he drank from it. Dogman remembered his first drink, feeling mighty sick and wondering what all the fuss was about, and he smiled to himself. The boy thought he was being laughed at, most likely. “Who are you anyway?”
The old boy tutted with his tongue. “Don’t mind him. He’s still young enough to think that rudeness wins respect.”
“S’alright,” said Dogman, pouring himself a mug then setting the jar down on the stones, taking time to think out what to say, make sure he didn’t make no mistakes. “My name’s Cregg.” He’d known a man called Cregg once, got killed in a scrap up in the hills. Dogman hadn’t liked him much, and he’d no idea why that name came to mind, but one was about as good as another right then, he reckoned. He slapped his thigh. “Got poked in the leg up at Dunbrec and it ain’t healed right. Can’t march no more. Reckon my days at holding a line are over, so my chief sent me down here, to watch the water with you lot.” He looked out at the sea, flapping and sparkling under the moon like a thing alive. “Can’t say I’m too sorry about it, though. Being honest, I had a skin full o’ fighting.” That last bit was no lie, at least.
“Know how you feel,” said One-Arm, waving his stump in Dogman’s face. “How’re things up there?”
“Alright. Union are still sat outside their own walls, trying everything to get in, and we’re on the other side o’ the river, waiting for ‘em. Been that way for weeks.”
“I heard some boys have gone over to the Union. I heard the Dogman was leading ‘em.”
“That a fact?”
“So I heard. Mean bastard, that. Huge big lad. They call him Dogman ’cause he bit some woman’s teats off one time.”
Dogman blinked. “Do they now? Well, I never saw him.”
“I heard the Bloody-Nine was up there,” whispered the boy, eyes big like he was talking about a ghost.
The other two snorted at him. “The Bloody-Nine’s dead, boy, and good riddance to that evil fucker.” One-Arm shuddered. “Damn it but you get some fool notions!”
“Just what I heard, is all.”
The old boy swilled down some more grog and smacked his lips. “Don’t much matter who’s where. Union’ll most likely get bored once they’ve got their fort back. Get bored and go home, across the sea, and everything back to normal. None of ‘em will be coming down here to Uffrith, anyway.”
“No,” said One-Arm happily. “They’ll not be coming here.”
“Then why we out here watching for ‘em?” whined the boy.
The old man rolled his eyes, like he’d heard it ten times before and always made the same answer. “Cause that’s the task we been given, lad.”
“And once you got a task, you best do it right.” Dogman remembered Logen telling him the same thing, and Threetrees too. Both gone now, and back in the mud, but it was still as true as it ever was. “Even if it’s a dull task, or a dangerous, or a dark one. Even if it’s a task you’d rather not do.” Damn it, but he needed to piss. Always did, at a time like this.
“True enough,” said the old man, smiling down into his mug. “Things’ve got to get done.”
“That they do. Shame, though. You seem a nice enough set o’ lads.” And the Dogman reached behind his back, just like he was scratching his arse.
“Shame?” The boy looked puzzled. “How d’you mean a—”
That was when Dow came up behind him and cut his neck open.
Same moment, almost, Grim’s dirty hand clamped down on One-Arm’s mouth and the bloody point of a blade slid out the gap in his cloak. Dogman jumped forward and gave the old man three quick stabs in the ribs. He wheezed, and stumbled, eyes wide, mug still hanging from his hand, groggy drool spilling out his open mouth. Then he fell down.
The boy crawled a little way. He had one hand to his neck, trying to keep the blood in, the other reaching out towards the pole the warning bell was hung on. He had some bones, the Dogman reckoned, to be thinking of the bell with a slit throat, but he didn’t drag himself more’n a stride before Dow stomped down hard on the back of his neck and squashed him flat.
Dogman winced as he heard the boy’s neck bones crunch. He hadn’t deserved to die like that, most likely. But that’s what war is. A lot of folk getting killed that don’t deserve it. The job had needed doing, and they’d done it, and were all three still alive. About as much as he could’ve hoped for from a piece of work like that, but somehow it still left a sour taste on him. He’d never found it easy, but it was harder than ever, now he was chief. Strange, how it’s that much easier to kill folk when you’ve got someone telling you to do it. Hard business, killing. Harder than you’d think.
Unless your name’s Black Dow, of course. That bastard would kill a man as easy as he’d take a piss. That was what made him so damn good at it. Dogman watched him bend down, strip the cloak from One-Arm’s limp body and pull it round his own shoulders, then roll the corpse off into the sea, careless as dumping rubbish.
“You got two arms,” said Grim, already with the old man’s cloak on.
Dow looked down at himself. “What’re you saying exactly? I ain’t cutting my arm off to make for a better disguise, y’idiot!”
“He means keep it out o’ sight.” Dogman watched Dow wipe out a mug with a dirty finger, pour himself a slug and knock it back. “How can you drink at a time like this?” he asked, pulling the boy’s bloody cloak off his corpse.
Dow shrugged as he poured himself another. “Shame to waste it. And like you said. Cold night.” He broke a nasty grin. “Damn it, but you can talk, Dogman. Name’s Cregg.” He took a couple of limping steps. “Stabbed in me arse up at Dunbrec! Where d’you get it from?” He slapped Grim’s shoulder with the back of his hand.
“Fucking lovely, eh? They got a word for it, don’t they? What’s that word, now?”
“Plausible,” said Grim.
Dow’s eyes lit up. “Plausible. That’s what y’are, Dogman. You’re one plausible bastard. I swear, you could’ve told ‘em you was Skarling Hoodless his self and they’d have believed it. Don’t know how you can keep a straight face!”
Dogman didn’t feel too much like laughing. He didn’t like looking at them two corpses, still laid out on the stones. Kept worrying that the boy’d get cold without his cloak. Damn fool thing to think about, given he was lying in a pool of his own blood a stride across.
“Never mind about that,” he grunted. “Dump these two here and get over by the gate. Don’t know when there’ll be others coming.”
“Right y’are, chief, right y’are, whatever you say.” Dow heaved the two of them off into the water, then he unhooked the clapper from inside the bell and tossed that into the sea for good measure.
“Shame,” said Grim.
“Waste of a bell.”
Dow blinked at him. “Waste of a bell, I swear! You got yourself a lot to say all of a sudden, and you know what? I think I liked you better before. Waste of a bell? You lost your mind, boy?”
Grim shrugged. “Southerners might want one, when they get here.”
“They can fucking take a dive for the clapper then, can’t they!” And Dow snatched up one-arm’s spear and strode over to the open gate, one hand stuffed inside his stolen cloak, grumbling to himself. “Waste of a bell… by the fucking dead…”
The Dogman stretched up on his toes and unhooked the lamp, held it up, facing the sea, then he lifted one side of his cloak to cover it, brought it down again. Lifted it up, brought it down. One more time and he hooked it back on the pole, little flame flickering inside. Seemed a tiny little flame right then, to warm all their hopes at. A tiny little flame, to be seen all the way out there on the water, but the only one they had.
He was waiting all the time for the whole business to go wrong, for the clamour to go up in the town, for five dozen Carls to come pouring out that open gate and give the three o’ them the killing they deserved. He was bursting to piss, thinking about it. But they didn’t come. No sound but the empty bell creaking on its pole, the cold waves slapping on stone and wood. It was just the way they’d planned it.
The first boat came gliding out the darkness, Shivers grinning in the prow. A score of Carls were pressed into the boat behind him, working the oars real careful, white faces tensed up, teeth gritted with the effort of keeping quiet. Still, every click and clank of wood and metal set the Dogman’s nerves to jumping.
Shivers and his boys hung some sacks of straw over the side as they brought the boat in close, stopping the wood scraping on the stones, all thought out the week before. They tossed up ropes and Dogman and Grim caught ‘em, dragged the boat up tight and tied it off. Dogman looked over at Dow, leaning still and easy against the wall by the gate, and he shook his head gently, to say no-one was moving in the town. Then Shivers was up the steps, smooth and quiet, squatting down beside Dogman in the darkness.
“Nice work, chief,” he whispered, smiling right across his face. “Nice and neat.”
“There’ll be time to slap each others’ backs later. Get the rest o’ them boats tied off.”
“Right y’are.” There were more boats coming now, more Carls, more sacks of straw. Shivers’ boys pulled them in, started dragging men up onto the quay. All kinds of men who’d come over the last few weeks. Men who didn’t care for Bethod’s new way of doing things. Soon there was a good crowd of ‘em down by the water. So many Dogman could hardly believe they weren’t seen.
They formed up into groups, just the way they’d planned, each one with their own chief and their own task. A couple of the lads knew Uffrith and they’d made a plan of the place in the dirt, the way Threetrees used to. Dogman had every one of ‘em learn it. He grinned when he thought of how much Black Dow had carped about that, but it was worth it now. He squatted by the gate, and they came past, one dark and silent group at a time.
Tul was first up, a dozen Carls behind him. “Alright, Thunderhead,” said Dogman, “you got the main gate.”
“Aye,” nodded Tul.
“Biggest task o’ the lot, so try and get it done quiet.”
“Quiet, you got it.”
“Luck then, Tul.”
“Won’t need it.” And the giant hurried off into the dark streets with his crew behind.
“Red Hat, you got the tower by the well and the walls beside.”
“That I have.”
“Shivers, you and your boys are keeping a watch on the town square.”
“Like the owl watches, chief.”
And so on, past they went, through the gate and into the dark streets, making no more noise than the wind off the sea and the waves on the dock, Dogman giving each crew their task and slapping ‘em off on their way. Black Dow came up last, and a hard-looking set of men he had behind him.
“Dow, you got the headman’s hall. Stack it up with some wood, like we said, but don’t set fire to it, you hear? Don’t kill anyone you don’t have to. Not yet.”
“Not yet, fair enough.”
“And Dow.” He turned back. “Don’t go bothering any womenfolk either.”
“What do you think I am?” he asked, teeth gleaming in the darkness, “some kind of an animal?”
And that was it done. There was just him and Grim, and a few others to watch the water. “Uh,” said Grim, nodding his head slowly. That was high praise indeed from him.
Dogman pointed over at the pole. “Get us that bell would, you?” he said. “Might have a use for it after all.”
– — –
By the dead, but it made a sound. Dogman had to half close his eyes, his whole arm trembling as he whacked at the bell with the handle of his knife. He didn’t feel too comfortable in amongst all those buildings, squashed in by walls and fences. He hadn’t spent much time in towns, in his life, and what he had spent he hadn’t much enjoyed. Either burning things and causing mischief after a siege, or lying around in Bethod’s prisons, waiting to be killed.
He blinked round at the jumble of slate roofs, the walls of old grey stone and black wood and dirty grey render, all greasy with the thin rain. Seemed a strange way to live, sleeping in a box, waking all your days in the exact same spot. The idea alone made him restless, as though that bell hadn’t got him twitchy enough already. He cleared his throat and set it down on the cobbles beside him. Then he stood there waiting, one hand on the hilt of his sword in a way that he hoped meant business.
Some flapping footfalls came from down a street and a little girl ran out into the square. Her jaw dropped open when she saw them standing there, a dozen men all bearded and armed, Tul Duru in their midst. Probably she never saw a man half so big. She turned around sharp to run the other way, almost slipping over on the slick cobbles. Then she saw Dow sitting on a pile of wood just behind her, leaning back easy against the wall, his drawn sword on his knees, and she froze stone still.
“That’s alright, girl,” growled Dow. “You can stay where y’are.”
There were more of ‘em coming now, hurrying down into the square from all around, all getting that same shocked and scared look when they saw Dogman and his lads stood waiting. Women and boys, mostly, and a couple of old men. Dragged out o’ their beds by the bell and still half asleep, eyes red and faces puffy, clothes tangled, armed with whatever was to hand. A boy with a butcher’s cleaver. An old man all stooped over with a sword looked even older than he was. A girl at the front with a pitch fork and a lot of messy dark hair, had a look on her face reminded Dogman of Shari. Hard and thoughtful, the way she used to look at him before they started lying together. Dogman frowned down at her dirty bare feet, hoping that he wouldn’t have to kill her.
Getting ‘em good and scared would be the best way to get things done quick and easy. So Dogman tried to talk like someone to be feared, rather than someone who was shitting himself.
“The headman among you?” he growled.
“I’m him,” croaked the old man with the sword, his face all slack with shock at finding a score of well-armed strangers standing in the middle of his town square. “Brass is my name. Who the hell might you be?”
“I’m the Dogman, and this here is Harding Grim, and the big lad is Tul Duru Thunderhead.” Some eyes went wide, some folk muttered to each other. Seemed they’d heard the names before. “We’re here with five hundred Carls and last night we took your city off you.” A few gasps and squeals at that. It was closer to two hundred, but there was no point telling ‘em so. They might’ve got the notion that fighting was a good idea and he’d no wish to end up stabbing a woman, or getting stabbed by one either, if it came to that. “There’s plenty more of us, round about, and your guards are all trussed up, those we didn’t have to kill. Some o’ my boys, and you ought to know I’m talking of Black Dow—”
“That’s me.” Dow flashed his nasty grin, and a few folk shuffled fearfully away from him like they’d been told hell itself was sat there.
“… Well, they were for putting the torch straight to your houses and getting some killing done. Do things like we used to with the Bloody-Nine in charge, you take my meaning?” Some child in amongst the rest started to cry a bit, a wet kind of snuffling. The boy stared round him, cleaver wobbling in his hand, the dark-haired girl blinked and clung on tighter to her pitch-fork. They got the gist, alright. “But I thought I’d give you a fair chance to give up, being as the town’s full with womenfolk and children and all the rest. My score’s with Bethod, not with you people. The Union want to use this place as a port, bring in men and supplies and whatever. They’ll be here inside an hour, in their ships. A lot of ‘em. It’s happening with or without your say so. I guess my point is we can do this the bloody way, if that’s the way you want it. The dead know we’ve had the practice. Or you can give up your weapons, if you’ve got ‘em, and we can all get along, nice and… what’s the word for it?”
“Civilised,” said Grim.
“Aye. Civilised. What d’you say?”
The old man fingered his sword, looking like he’d rather have leant on it than swung it, and he stared up at the walls, where a few of the Carls were looking down, and his shoulders slumped. “Looks like you got us cold. The Dogman, eh? I always heard you was a clever bastard. No-one much left here to fight you, anyway. Bethod took every man could hold a spear and a shield at once.” He looked round at the sorry crowd behind him. “Will you leave the women be?”
“We’ll leave ‘em be.”
“Those that want to be left be,” said Dow, leering at the girl with the pitch-fork.
“We’ll leave ‘em be,” growled Dogman, giving him a hard look. “I’ll see to it.”
“Well then,” wheezed the old man, shuffling up and wincing as he knelt and dropped his rusty blade at Dogman’s feet. “You’re a better man than Bethod, far as I’m concerned. I suppose I ought to be thanking you for your mercy, if you keep your word.”
“Uh.” Dogman didn’t feel too merciful. He doubted the old boy he’d killed on the dock would be thanking him, or the one-armed man stabbed through from behind, or the lad with the cut throat who’d had his whole life stolen.
One by one the rest of the crowd came forward, and one by one by one the weapons, if you could call ‘em that, got dropped in a heap. A pile of old rusty tools and junk. The boy came up last and let his cleaver clatter down with the rest, gave a scared look at Black Dow, then hurried back to the others and clung to the dark-haired girl’s hand.
They stood there, in a wide-eyed huddle, and Dogman could almost smell their fear. They were waiting for Dow and his Carls to set to hacking ‘em down where they stood. They were waiting to get herded in a house and locked in and the place set fire to. Dogman had seen all that before. So he didn’t blame ‘em one bit as they all crowded together like sheep pressed up in a field in winter. He’d have done the same.
“Alright!” he barked. “That’s it, then. Back to your houses, or whatever. Union’ll be here before midday, and it’d be better if the streets were empty.”
They blinked at Dogman, and at Tul, and at Black Dow, and at each other. They swallowed and trembled, and muttered their thanks to the dead. They broke up, slowly, and spread out, and went off their own ways. Alive, to everyone’s great relief.
“Nicely done, chief,” said Tul in Dogman’s ear, “nicely done.”
Dow sidled up from the other side. “About the women, though, if you’re asking my opinion—”
“I’m not,” said Dogman.
“Have you seen my son?” There was one woman wasn’t going home. She was coming up from one man to another, half-tears in her eyes and her face all wild from worry. The Dogman put his head down and looked the other way. “My son, he was on guard, down by the water! You seen him?” She tugged at Dogman’s coat, her voice cracked and wet-sounding. “Please, where’s my son?”
“You think I know where everyone’s at?” he snapped in her weepy face. He strode away like he had a load of important stuff to do, and all the while he was thinking – you’re a coward, Dogman, you’re a bastard bloody coward. Some hero, pulling a neat trick on a bunch of women, and children, and old men.
It ain’t easy, being chief.