To celebrate the publication of Red Country (out where all good books are sold on tomorrow) we’re bringing you a sneak peek inside the first three chapters of Joe Abercrombie’s brand new novel. Today, return to the world of Red Country with the third chapter . . .
Oh, and because this is a celebration we’ll be giving you a chance to win a signed copy of Red Country later this week.
Chapter Three: Just men
The rain had stopped. Shy peered through trees alive with the tap-tap of falling water, past a felled trunk abandoned on its trestles, part-stripped, the drawknife left wedged under a curl of bark, and towards the blackened bones of the house.
‘Not hard bastards to follow,’ muttered Lamb. ‘Leave burned-out buildings wherever they go.’
Probably they thought they’d killed anyone cared enough to follow.
What might happen once they noticed Lamb and Shy toddling after in their rickety wagon, she was trying not to think about.
Time was she’d thought out everything, every moment of every day– hers, Lamb’s, Gully’s, Pit and Ro’s, too – all parcelled into its proper place with its proper purpose. Always looking forwards, the future better than the now, its shape clear to her as a house already built. Hard to believe since that time it was just five nights spent under the flapping canvas in the back of the cart. Five mornings waking stiff and sore to a dawn like a pit yawning under her feet. Five days following the sign across the empty grassland and into the woods, one eye on her black past, wondering what part of it had crept from the cold earth’s clutches and stolen her life while she was grinning at tomorrow.
Her fingertips rubbed nervously against her palm. ‘Shall we take a look?’ Truth was she was scared what she might find. Scared of looking and scared of not looking. Worn out and scared of everything with a hollow space where her hopes used to be.
‘I’ll go round the back.’ Lamb brushed his knees off with his hat and started circling the clearing, twigs crunching under his boots, a set of startled pigeons yammering into the white sky, giving anyone about fair notice of their arrival. Not that there was anyone about. Leastways, no one living.
There was an overgrown vegetable patch out back, stubborn soil scraped away to make a trench no more than ankle-deep. Next to it a soaked blanket was stretched over something lumpy. From the bottom stuck a pair of boots and a pair of bony bare feet with dirt under the bluish nails.
Lamb squatted down, took one corner and peeled it back. A man’s face and a woman’s, grey and slack, both with throats cut deep. The woman’s head lolled, the wound in her neck yawning wet and purple.
‘Ah.’ Shy pressed her tongue into the gap between her front teeth and stared at the ground. Would’ve taken quite the optimist to expect anything else, and she by no means qualified, but those faces still tore at something in her. Worry for Pit and Ro, or worry for herself, or just a sick memory of a sick time when bodies weren’t such strange things for her to see.
‘Leave ’em be, you bastards!’
First thing Shy took in was the gleam on the arrowhead. Next was the hand that held the drawn bow, knuckles white on dark wood. Last was the face behind – a boy maybe sixteen, a mop of sandy hair stuck to pale skin with the wet.
‘I’ll kill you! I’ll do it!’ He eased from the bushes, feet fishing for firm earth to tread on, shadows sliding across his tight face and his hand trembling on the bow.
Shy made herself stay still, some trick to manage with her first two burning instincts to get at him or get away. Her every muscle was itching to do one or the other, and there’d been a time Shy had chased off wherever her instincts led. But since they’d usually led her by an unpleasant route right into the shit, she let the bastards run off without her this time and just stood, looking this boy steady in the eyes. Scared eyes, which was no surprise, open wide and shining in the corners. She kept her voice soft, like they’d met at a harvest dance and had no burned-out buildings, dead folk or drawn bows between them.
‘What’s your name?’
His tongue darted over his lips, point of the arrow wobbling and making her chest horrible itchy about where it was aimed.
‘I’m Shy. This is Lamb.’
The boy’s eyes flicked across, and his bow too. Lamb didn’t flinch, just put the blanket back how he’d found it and slowly stood. Seeing him with the boy’s fresh eyes, he looked anything but harmless. Even with that tangle of grey beard you could tell a man would have to be real careless with his razor to pick up scars like Lamb’s by accident.
Shy had always guessed he’d got them in some war up North, but if he’d been a fighter once there was no fight in him now. Some kind of coward like she’d always said. But this boy wasn’t to know.
‘We been following some men.’ Shy kept her voice soft, soft, coaxing the boy’s eyes and his arrow’s point back to her. ‘They burned our farm, up near Squaredeal. They burned it, and they killed a man worked for us, and they took my sister and my little brother . . .’ Her voice cracked and she had to swallow and press it out smooth again. ‘We been following on.’
‘Reckon they been here, too,’ said Lamb.
‘We been tracking ’em. Maybe twenty men, moving quick.’ The arrow-point started to drift down. ‘They stopped off at a couple more farms on the way. Same thing. Then we followed ’em into the woods. And here.’
‘I’d been hunting,’ said the boy quietly.
Shy nodded. ‘We were in town. Selling our crop.’
‘I came back, and . . .’ That point made it right down to the ground, much to Shy’s relief. ‘Nothing I could’ve done.’
‘They took my brother.’
‘What was his name?’
‘Evin. He was nine years old.’
Silence, with just the trees still dripping and the gentle creak as the boy let his bowstring go slack.
‘You know who they were?’ asked Lamb.
‘I didn’t see ’em.’
‘You know why they took your brother?’
‘I said I wasn’t here, didn’t I? I wasn’t here.’
‘All right,’ said Shy, calming. ‘I know.’
‘You following after ’em?’ asked the boy.
‘We’re just about keeping up,’ said Lamb.
‘Going to get your sister and your brother back?’
‘Count on it,’ said Shy, as if sounding certain made it certain.
‘Can you get mine, too?’
Shy looked at Lamb, and he looked back, and he didn’t say nothing.
‘We can try,’ she said.
‘Reckon I’ll be coming along with you, then.’ Another silence. ‘You sure?’ asked Lamb.
‘I can do what needs doing, y’old bastard!’ screamed the boy, veins popping from his neck.
Lamb didn’t twitch a muscle. ‘We don’t know what’ll need doing yet.’
‘There’s room in the wagon, though, if you want to take your part.’
Shy held her hand out to the boy, and he looked at it for a moment, then stepped forward and shook it. He squeezed it too hard, that way men do when they’re trying to prove they’re tougher than they are.
‘My name’s Leef.’
Shy nodded towards the two bodies. ‘These your folks?’
The boy blinked down at them. ‘I been trying to do the burying, but the ground’s hard, and I got nothing to dig with.’ He rubbed at his broken fingernails with his thumb. ‘I been trying.’
‘Need some help?’ she asked.
His face crushed up, and he hung his head, and he nodded, wet hair dangling.
‘We all need some help, time to time,’ said Lamb. ‘I’ll get them shovels down.’
Shy reached out, checked a moment, then gently put her hand on
the boy’s shoulder. She felt him tense, thought he’d shake it off, but he didn’t and she was glad. Maybe she needed it there more than he did.
On they went, gone from two to three but otherwise not much changed. Same wind, same sky, same tracks to be followed, same worried silence between them. The wagon was wearing out on the battered tracks, lurching more with each mile rattled behind those patient oxen. One of the wheels had near shook itself to pieces inside its iron tyre. Shy felt some sympathy, behind her frown she was all shook to pieces herself. They loaded out the gear and let the oxen loose to crop grass, and Lamb lifted one side of the wagon with a grunt and a shrug while Shy did the best she could with the tools she had and her half-sack of nails, Leef eager to do his part but that no more than passing her the hammer when she asked.
The tracks led to a river and forded at a shallow spot. Calder and Scale weren’t too keen on the crossing but in the end Shy goaded them over to a tall mill-house, stone-built on three stories. Those they were chasing hadn’t bothered to try and burn this one and its wheel still slapped around merrily in the chattering water. Two men and a woman were hanged together in a bunch from the attic window. One had a broken neck stretched out way too long, another feet burned raw, dangling a stride above the mud.
Leef stared up big-eyed. ‘What kind o’ men do a thing like this?’
‘Just men,’ said Shy. ‘Thing like this don’t take no one special.’ Though at times it felt to her that they were following something else. Some mad storm blowing mindless through this abandoned country, churning up the dirt and leaving bottles and shit and burned buildings and hanged folk scattered in its wake. A storm that snatched away all the children to who knew where and to what purpose? ‘You care to go up there, Leef, and cut these folks down?’
He looked like he didn’t much care to, but he drew his knife and went inside to do it anyway.
‘Feels like we’re doing a lot of burying lately,’ she muttered.
‘Good thing you got Clay to throw them shovels in,’ said Lamb. She laughed at that, then realised what she was laughing at and
turned it into an ugly cough. Leef ’s head showed at the window and he leaned out, started cutting at the ropes, making the bodies tremble.
‘Seems wrong, us having to clean up after these bastards.’
‘Someone has to.’ Lamb held one of the shovels out to her. ‘Or do you want to leave these folks swinging?’
Towards evening, the low sun setting the edges of the clouds to burn and the wind making the trees dance and sweeping patterns in the grass, they came upon a campsite. A big fire had smouldered out under the eaves of a wood, a circle of charred branches and sodden ash three strides across. Shy hopped from the wagon while Lamb was still cooing Scale and Calder to a snorting halt, and she drew her knife and gave the fire a poke, turned up some embers still aglow.
‘They were here overnight,’ she called.
‘We’re catching ’em, then?’ asked Leef as he jumped down, nocking an arrow loose to his bow.
‘I reckon.’ Though Shy couldn’t help wondering if that was a good
thing. She dragged a length of frayed rope from the grass, found a cobweb torn between bushes at the treeline, then a shred of cloth left on a bramble.
‘Someone come this way?’ asked Leef.
‘More’n one. And fast.’ Shy slipped through after, keeping low, crept down a muddy slope, slick dirt and fallen leaves treacherous under her boots, trying to keep her balance and peer into the dimness—
She saw Pit, face down by a fallen tree, looking so small there among the knotted roots. She wanted to scream but had no voice, no breath even. She ran, slid on her side in a shower of dead leaves and ran again. She squatted by him, back of his head a clotted mass, hand trembling as she reached out, not wanting to see his face, having to see it. She held her breath as she wrestled him over, his body small but stiff as a board, brushed away the leaves stuck to his face with fumbling fingers.
‘Is it your brother?’ muttered Leef.
‘No.’ She was almost sick with relief. Then with guilt that she was relieved, when this boy was dead. ‘Is it yours?’
‘No,’ said Leef.
Shy slid her hands under the dead child and picked him up, strug- gled up the slope, Leef behind her. Lamb stood staring between the trees at the top, a black shape stamped from the glow of sunset.
‘Is it him?’ came his cracking voice. ‘Is it Pit?’
‘No.’ Shy laid him on the flattened grass, arms stuck out wide, head tipped back rigid.
‘By the dead.’ Lamb had his fingers shoved into his grey hair, grip- ping at his head like it might burst.
‘Might be he tried to get away. They made a lesson of him.’ She hoped Ro didn’t try it. Hoped she was too clever to. Hoped she was cleverer than Shy had been at her age. She leaned on the wagon with her back to the others, squeezed her eyes shut and wiped the tears away. Dug the bastard shovels out and brought them back.
‘More fucking digging,’ spat Leef, hacking at the ground like it was the one stole his brother.
‘Better off digging than getting buried,’ said Lamb.
Shy left them to the graves and the oxen to their grazing and spread out in circles, keeping low, fingers combing at the cold grass, trying to read the signs in the fading light. Trying to feel out what they’d done, what they’d do next.
He grunted as he squatted beside her, slapping the dirt from his gloves. ‘What is it?’
‘Looks like three of ’em peeled off here, heading south and east. The rest struck on due west. What do you think?’
‘I try not to. You’re the tracker. Though when you got so damn good at it, I’ve no notion.’
‘Just a question of thinking it through.’ Shy didn’t want to admit that chasing men and being chased are sides to one coin, and at being chased she’d two years of the harshest practice.
‘They split up?’ asked Leef.
Lamb fussed at that notch out of his ear as he looked off south.
‘Some style of a disagreement?’
‘Could be,’ said Shy. ‘Or maybe they sent ’em to circle around, check if anyone was following.’
Leef fumbled for an arrow, eyes darting about the horizon.
Lamb waved him down. ‘If they’d a mind to check, they’d have seen us by now.’ He kept looking south, off along the treeline towards a low ridge, the way Shy thought those three had gone. ‘No. I reckon they had enough. Maybe it all went too far for ’em. Maybe they started thinking they might be the next left hanging. Either way we’ll follow. Hope to catch ’em before the wheels come off this cart for good. Or off me either,’ he added as he dragged himself up wincing into the wagon’s seat.
‘The children ain’t with those three,’ said Leef, turning sullen.
‘No.’ Lamb settled his hat back on. ‘But they might point us the right way. We need to get this wagon fixed up proper, find some new oxen or get ourselves some horses. We need food. Might be those three—’
‘You fucking old coward.’
There was a pause. Then Lamb nodded over at Shy. ‘Me and her spent years chewing over that topic and you got naught worth adding to the conversation.’ Shy looked at them, the boy stood on the ground glowering up, the big old man looking down calm and even from his seat.
Leef curled his lip. ‘We need to keep after the children or—’
‘Get up on the wagon, boy, or you’ll be keeping after the children alone.’
Leef opened his mouth again but Shy caught him by the arm first.
‘I want to catch ’em just as much as you, but Lamb’s right – there’s twenty men out there, bad men, and armed, and willing. There’s noth- ing we could do.’
‘We got to catch ’em sooner or later, don’t we?’ snapped Leef, breath- ing hard. ‘Might as well be now while my brother and yours are still alive!’
Shy had to admit he’d a point but there was no help for it. She held his eye and said it to his face, calm but with no give. ‘Get on the wagon, Leef.’
This time he did as he was told, and clambered up among their gear and sat there silent with his back to them.
Shy perched her bruised arse next to Lamb as he snapped the reins and got Scale and Calder reluctantly on the move. ‘What do we do if we catch these three?’ she muttered, keeping her voice down so Leef wouldn’t hear it. ‘Chances are they’re going to be armed and willing, too. Better armed than us, that’s sure.’
‘Reckon we’ll have to be more willing, then.’
Her brows went up at that. This big, gentle Northman who used to run laughing through the wheat with Pit on one shoulder and Ro on the other, used to sit out at sunset with Gully, passing a bottle between them in silence for hours at a time, who’d never once laid a hand on her growing up in spite of some sore provocations, talking about getting red to the elbows like it was nothing.
Shy knew it wasn’t nothing.
She closed her eyes and remembered Jeg’s face after she stabbed him, bloody hat brim jammed down over his eyes, pitching in the street, still muttering, Smoke, Smoke. That clerk in the store, staring at her as his shirt turned black. The look Dodd had as he gawped down at her arrow in his chest. What did you do that for?
She rubbed her face hard with one hand, sweating of a sudden, heart banging in her ears hard as it had then, and she twisted inside her greasy clothes like she could twist free of the past. But it had good and caught her up. For Pit and Ro’s sake she had to get her hands red again. She curled her fingers around the grip of her knife, took a hard breath and set her jaw. No choice then. No choice now. And for men the likes of the ones they followed no tears needed shedding.
‘When we find ’em,’ her voice sounding tiny in the gathering dark- ness, ‘can you follow my lead?’
‘No,’ said Lamb.
‘Eh?’ He’d been following her lead so long she’d never thought he might find some other path.
When she looked at him, his old, scarred face was twisted like he was in pain. ‘I made a promise to your mother. ’Fore she died. Made a promise to look to her children. Pit and Ro . . . and I reckon it covers you too, don’t it?’
‘I guess,’ she muttered, far from reassured.
‘I broke a lot of promises in my life. Let ’em wash away like leaves on the water.’ He rubbed at his eyes with the back of one gloved hand.
‘I mean to keep that one. So when we find ’em . . . you’ll be following my lead. This time.’
‘All right.’ She could say so, if it helped him. Then she could do what needed doing.