CHAPTER TWO: THE PEACEMAKER
He stood by the window, one hand up on the stone, fingertips drumming, drumming, drumming. Frowning off across Carleon. Across the maze of cobbled streets, the tangle of steep slate roofs, the looming city walls his father built, all turned shiny black by the drizzle. Into the hazy fields beyond, past the fork of the grey river and towards the streaky rumour of hills at the head of the valley. As if, by sulking hard enough, he could see further.
Over two score miles of broken country to Black Dow’s scattered army. Where the fate of the North was being decided.
‘All I want is just for everyone to do what I tell them. Is that too much to ask?’
Seff slid up behind him, belly pressing into his back. ‘I’d say it’s no more than good sense on their part.’
‘I know what’s best anyway, don’t I?’
‘I do, and I tell you what it is, so . . . yes.’
‘It seems there are a few pig-headed bastards in the North who don’t realise we have all the answers.’
Her hand slipped up his arm and trapped his restless fingers against the stone. ‘Men don’t like to come out for peace, but they will. You’ll see.’
‘And until then, like all visionaries, I find myself spurned. Scorned. Exiled.’
‘Until then, you find yourself locked in a room with your wife. Is that so bad?’
‘There’s nowhere I’d rather be,’ he lied.
‘Liar,’ she whispered, lips tickling his ear. ‘You’re almost as much of a liar as they say you are. You’d rather be out there, beside your brother, with your armour on.’ Her hands slid under his armpits and across his chest, giving him a ticklish shiver.
‘Hacking the heads from cartloads of Southerners.’
‘Murder is my favourite hobby, as you know.’
‘You’ve killed more men than Skarling.’
‘And I’d wear my armour to bed if I could.’
‘It’s only concern for my soft, soft skin that stops you.’
‘But severed heads are prone to squirt.’ He wriggled around to face her and pushed one lazy fingertip into her breastbone. ‘I prefer a quick thrust through the heart.’
‘Just like you’ve skewered mine. Aren’t you the swordsman.’ He squeaked as he felt her hand between his legs and slid away sniggering across the wall, arms up to fend her off. ‘All right, I admit it! I’m more lover than fighter!’
‘At last the truth. Only look what you’ve done to me.’ Putting one hand on her stomach and giving him a disapproving frown. It turned into a smile as he came close, slid his hand over hers, fingertips between hers, stroking her swollen belly.
‘It’s a boy,’ she whispered. ‘I feel it. An heir to the North. You’ll be king, and then—’
‘Shhhhh.’ And he stopped her mouth with a kiss. There was no way of knowing when someone might be listening, and anyway, ‘I’ve got an older brother, remember?’
‘A pinhead of an older brother.’
Calder winced, but didn’t deny it. He sighed as he looked down at that strange, wonderful, frightening belly of hers. ‘My father always said there’s nothing more important than family.’
Except power. ‘Besides, there’s no point arguing over what we don’t have. Black Dow’s the one who wears my father’s chain. Black Dow’s the one we need to worry on.’
‘Black Dow’s nothing but a one-eared thug.’
‘A thug with all the North under his boot and its mightiest War Chiefs taking his say-so.’
‘Mighty War Chiefs.’ She snorted in his face. ‘Dwarves with big men’s names.’
‘That rotten old maggot? Even the thought of him makes me sick.’
‘I hear he has a tiny little prick. That’s why he frowns all the time.’
‘Even tinier. Like a baby’s finger. And you have allies.’
‘You know you do. My father likes you.’
Calder screwed up his face. ‘Your father doesn’t hate me, but I doubt he’ll be leaping up to cut the rope if they hang me.’
‘He’s an honourable man.’
‘Of course he is. Caul Reachey’s a real straight edge, everyone knows it.’ For what that was worth. ‘But you and I were promised when I was the son of the King of the Northmen and the world was all different. He was getting a prince for a son-in-law, not just a well-known coward.’
She patted his cheek, hard enough to make a gentle slapping sound. ‘A beautiful coward.’
‘Beautiful men are even less well liked in the North than cowardly ones. I’m not sure your father’s happy with the way my luck’s turned.’
‘Shit on your luck.’ She took a fistful of his shirt and dragged him closer, much stronger than she looked. ‘I wouldn’t change a thing.’
‘Neither would I. I’m just saying your father might.’
‘And I’m saying you’re wrong.’ She caught his hand in hers and pressed it against her bulging stomach again.
‘Family.’ He didn’t bother saying that family could be as much a weakness as a strength. ‘So we have your honourable father and my pinhead brother. The North is ours.’
‘It will be. I know it.’ She was swaying backwards slowly, leading him away from the window and towards the bed. ‘Dow may be the man for war, but wars don’t last forever. You’re better than him.’
‘Few would agree.’ But it was nice to hear it, especially whispered in his ear in that soft, low, urgent voice.
‘You’re cleverer than him.’ Her cheek brushing his jaw. ‘Far cleverer.’ Her nose nuzzling his chin. ‘The cleverest man in the North.’ By the dead, how he loved flattery.
‘You’re certainly better looking than him.’ Squeezing his hand and sliding it down her belly. ‘The most handsome man in the North . . .’
He licked her lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘If the most beautiful ruled you’d be Queen of the Northmen already . . .’
Her fingers were busy with his belt. ‘You always know just what to say, don’t you, Prince Calder . . .’
There was a thumping at the door and he froze, the blood suddenly pounding in his head and very much not in his cock.
Nothing like the threat of sudden death for killing a romantic mood. The thumping came again, making the heavy door rattle. They broke apart, flushed and fussing with their clothes. More like a pair of child lovers caught by their parents than a man and woman five years married. So much for his dreams of being king. He didn’t even command the lock on his own door.
‘The damn bolt’s on your side isn’t it?’ he snapped.
Metal scraped and the door creaked open. A man stood in the archway, shaggy head almost touching the keystone. The ruined side of his face was turned forwards, a mass of scar running from near the corner of his mouth, through his eyebrow and across his forehead, the dead metal ball in his blind socket glinting. If any trace of romance had been lingering in the corners, or in Calder’s trousers, that eye and that scar were its grisly end. He felt Seff stiffen and, since she was a long stretch braver than he was, her fear did nothing for his own.
Caul Shivers was about the worst omen a man could see. Folk called him Black Dow’s dog, but never to his burned-out face. The man the Protector of the North sent to do his blackest work.
‘Dow wants you.’ If the sight of Shivers’ face had only got some hero half way horrified, his voice would have done the rest of the job. A broken whisper that made every word sound like it hurt.
‘Why?’ asked Calder, keeping his own voice sunny as a sum- mer morning in spite of his hammering heart. ‘Can’t he beat the Union without me?’
Shivers didn’t laugh. He didn’t frown. He stood there, in the doorway, a silent slab of menace.
Calder tried his best at a carefree shrug. ‘Well, I suppose everyone serves someone. What about my wife?’
Shivers’ good eye flicked across to Seff. If he’d looked with leering lust, or sneering disgust, Calder would’ve been happier. But Shivers looked at a pregnant woman like a butcher at a carcass, only a job to be done. ‘Dow wants her to stay and stand hostage. Make sure everyone behaves. She’ll be safe.’
‘As long as everyone behaves.’ Calder found he’d stepped in front of her, as if to shield her with his body. Not much of a shield against a man like Shivers.
‘And if Black Dow misbehaves? Where’s my hostage?’
Shivers’ eye slid back to Calder, and stuck. ‘I’ll be your hostage.’
‘And if Dow breaks his word I can kill you, can I?’
‘You can try.’
‘Huh.’ Caul Shivers had one of the hardest names in the North. Calder, it hardly needed to be said, didn’t. ‘Can you give us a moment to say our goodbyes?’
‘Why not?’ Shivers slid back until only the glint of his metal eye showed in the shadows. ‘I’m no monster.’
‘Back to the snake pit,’ muttered Calder.
Seff caught his hand, eyes wide as she looked up at him, fearful and eager at once. Almost as fearful and eager as he was. ‘Be patient, Calder. Tread carefully.’
‘I’ll tiptoe all the way there.’ If he even made it. He reckoned there was about a one in four Shivers had been told to cut his throat on the way and toss his corpse in a bog.
She took his chin between her finger and thumb and shook it, hard. ‘I mean it. Dow fears you. My father says he’ll take any excuse to kill you.’
‘Dow should fear me. Whatever else I am, I’m my father’s son.’
She squeezed his chin even harder, looking him right in the eye. ‘I love you.’
He looked down at the floor, feeling the sudden pressure of tears at the back of his throat. ‘Why? Don’t you realise what an evil shit I am?’
‘You’re better than you think.’
When she said it he could almost believe it. ‘I love you too.’ And he didn’t even have to lie. How he’d raged when his father announced the match. Marry that pig-nosed, dagger-tongued little bitch? Now she looked more beautiful every time he saw her. He loved her nose, and her tongue even more. It was almost enough to make him swear off other women. He drew her close, blinking back the wet, and kissed her once more. ‘Don’t worry. No one’s less keen to attend my hanging than I am. I’ll be back in your bed before you know it.’
‘With your armour on?’
‘If you like,’ as he backed away.
‘And no lying while you’re gone.’
‘I never lie.’
‘Liar,’ she mouthed at him before the guards closed the door and slid the bolt, leaving Calder in the shadowy hallway with only the sappy-sad thought that he might never see his wife again. That gave him a rare touch of bravery and he hurried after Shivers, catching up with him as he trudged away and slapping a hand down on his shoulder. He was more than a little unnerved by the wood-like solidity of it, but plunged on regardless.
‘If anything happens to her, I promise you—’
‘I hear your promises ain’t up to much.’ Shivers’ eye went to the offending hand and Calder carefully removed it. He might only rarely be brave, but he was never brave past the point of good sense.
‘Who says so? Black Dow? If there’s anyone in the North whose promises are worth less than mine it’s that bastard’s.’
Shivers stayed silent, but Calder wasn’t a man to be easily put off. Good treachery takes effort. ‘Dow won’t ever give you more than you can rip from him with both hands, you know. There’ll be nothing for you, however loyal you are. In fact, the more loyal you are, the less there’ll be. You’ll see. Not enough meat and too many hungry dogs to feed.’
Shivers’ one eye narrowed just the slightest fraction. ‘I’m no dog.’
That chink of anger would have been enough to scare most men silent, but to Calder it was only a crack to chisel at. ‘I see that,’ he whispered, as low and urgent as Seff had whispered to him. ‘Most men don’t see past their fear of you, but I do. I see what you are. A fighter, of course, but a thinker too. An ambitious man. A proud man, and why not?’ Calder brought them to a halt in a shadowy stretch of the hallway, leaned in to a conspiratorial distance, smothering his instinct to cringe away as that awful scar turned towards him. ‘If I had a man like you working for me I’d make better use of him than Black Dow does, that much I promise.’
Shivers raised one beckoning hand, a big ruby on his little finger gleaming the colour of blood in the gloom. Giving Calder no choice but to come closer, closer, far too close for comfort. Close enough to feel Shivers’ warm breath. Close enough almost to kiss. Close enough so all Calder could see was his own distorted, unconvincing grin reflected in that dead metal ball of an eye.
‘Dow wants you.’