For those of you who enjoyed chapter one of The Path of Anger by Antoine Rouaud last week, we are continuing on with the Gollancz generosity with chapter two here. Gillian and Simon discovered this at the Frankfurt book fair and we think it’s something very special. Check out last week’s post for the first chapter and the story of how Gollancz came to publish this extraordinary fantasy.
Fifteen years ago. The air had been fresh despite the overcast sky but there was a rumbling in the background. A dull roaring which continued to swell, sweeping over the tall grasses of the marshes. There were no signs of any storm, just heavy clouds of sparkling white, edged with hints of grey as if to better define their shapes. There was no need for direct sunlight to blind the men at their posts in the trench. The dazzling clouds alone achieved that effect.
There was no storm, or even anger, in the air, only a sense of fulfilling one’s duty.
‘You should step back, Dun-Cadal,’ advised a voice.
A black shape came hurtling out of the sky in a perfect arc, followed by a sharp whistle. Even before the sound lowered in pitch, the ball of rock and tow, covered with burning grease, crashed to the ground right in front of the knight without his taking the slightest step to avoid it.
‘You think so . . . ?’ murmured Dun-Cadal as he stared at the horizon.
Before him stretched saltwater marshes and swamps, so long and wide that the most distant portions were blurred by haze. He could hardly make out the outline of the enemy camp. Lowering his eyes to the boiling crater at his feet, he observed the streams of smoke coming off the hot ball. He turned it over with a kick.
‘Negus,’ he said in a pensive tone. ‘I’m getting the sense they’re growing restless over there.’ He spun round with a mocking smile on his lips. ‘Shall we give them a rude awakening?’
The small round man, squeezed into his armour, raised his eyes to the sky before replying:
‘If you are thinking up ways to get yourself killed before even crossing blades with them, then it would indeed be quite rude on your part.’
They had been waiting on the edge of the Saltmarsh for two weeks now without a single blow being struck. Just a few catapult shots that never managed to hit their targets. The Imperial Army had not even made use of its own artillery yet. The Saltmarsh revolt was, if possible, to be suppressed without bloodshed. Tucked up in the warmth of his palace in Emeris, the Emperor believed that the fear generated by his regiments would be enough to persuade the insurgents to lay down their weapons. But although no sword had been unsheathed during the last two weeks, neither had any been abandoned on the field of battle . . .
Dun-Cadal joined his brother-in-arms and patted his shoulder.
‘Have no fear, Negus. I can always detect the smell of death. And here, except for salt, nothing has pricked my nostrils.’
He had short brown hair, which the wind barely ruffled. A small goatee surrounded his thin lips and his face, while still youthful in appearance, was marked by a life of combat. This was not his first battle and he was counting on it not being his last. He had just arrived and had insisted on assessing the situation himself before other generals could paint the picture for him in a more flattering light. He jumped down into the trench and waited for his friend to do the same before continuing his inspection.
He had lost count of the fights they had come through together, from small skirmishes to great fields of battle. Of all the Empire’s generals. Negus had always been his closest friend, a kindred spirit who dismissed the rumours about Dun-Cadal and accepted his rough character. Dun-Cadal came from the House of Daermon, whose title of nobility only dated back a century. Negus’s line- age, on the other hand, had been associated with the aristocracy, from the first Kingdoms right up to the Empire. Affable by nature, Anselme Nagolé Egos, more commonly known as Negus, had never seen their difference in social standing as reason to despise a man who had repeatedly saved his life in the midst of chaos. Their friendship, known to all, was unstinting, as deep as the rift valleys in the wild territories and as enduring as the stones from the Kapernevic mines. The dangers they had faced together only con- firmed it and the bond between them resembled something like true brotherhood.
All along the dug-in line, soldiers were studying the horizon, spears at their side. As the two generals passed, they tried to look sharp de- spite being tense, saluting with a fist pressed against their chest. They all knew of Dun-Cadal and his bravery in combat. All of them felt a sincere admiration for him. Seeing him walk past at Negus’s side might have been reassuring in other circumstances but, although it was heartening, the commanders’ presence was not enough to dispel the prevailing mood. The troops were distressed by the waiting, and the situation was becoming unbearable – as witnessed by the excrement stagnating at the bottom of the trench and the terrible odour. It had been two weeks since they had arrived and already the camp was suffering from the poor conditions in the Saltmarsh. Mud and swamp combined to prevent the soldiers from disposing of their waste properly.
‘They’re terrified,’ observed Negus.
‘They don’t look too frightened.’
‘They dare not. They belong to Captain Azdeki’s unit.’
‘Azinn’s nephew? That young good-for-nothing?’ Dun-Cadal ex- claimed in surprise.
‘Didn’t they warn you at the border? He’s been in charge of the region for the past two years. He’s the one who’s held it since the revolt began.’
‘Held it?! ’ scoffed Dun-Cadal. ‘That idiot can’t even keep a hold on himself.’
‘There hasn’t been a battle up until now,’ retorted Negus as he climbed a makeshift ladder leading to the edge of the camp, ‘so one might argue he has held it.’
Really? Etienne Azdeki, nephew of Baron Azinn Azdeki of the East Vershan baronies, was not known for his level-headedness and still less for his ability as a strategist. The fact that the Emperor had placed him in charge of the Saltmarsh region could pass for a mere mistake, but now that war had come to these lands he was supposed to control he became a risky proposition. Etienne Azdeki had been appointed captain without any experience of combat. Acting as he should never entered his mind. Acting as he pleased, on the other hand, was his sole rule of conduct.
‘No matter,’ Dun-Cadal said aloud. ‘The Emperor sent me here to coordinate the troops. Azdeki will have to content himself with following my orders.’
‘Cocky as always, Daermon?’ said Negus with a smile.
‘Out here I feel like I’m in a courtesan’s arms! ’ Dun-Cadal replied with a wide grin. ‘In love as in war, in war as in love! ’
Tens of thousands of dark green tents stretched across the marsh- es, standing among the reeds and the tall grasses. Here and there, knights were training in single combat, surrounded by circles of attentive spectators. The waiting was an even more serious risk than battle itself. Boredom blunted the soldiers’ readiness. It gave them too much time to contemplate the dangers they faced. It robbed them of any spontaneity once combat was engaged. Two weeks was not much in the course of a war, but was far too long without even a skirmish to break the enforced idleness. Dun-Cadal feared the Salt- marsh rebels were counting on this lethargy to impose their own rhythm on the forthcoming battle.
But as soon as he drew aside the flaps of the command tent erected at the centre of the camp, he knew it was too late to deal with the revolt swiftly.
‘They’re massing most of their forces here . . .’
Bent over a large model representing the Saltmarsh, a knight in black armour pointed to a line along the edge of a small forest. Facing him, a thirty-year-old man with a gaunt face and an aquiline nose jutting over thin pinched lips was listening attentively, his hands clasped behind his back. His silver breastplate depicted a proud eagle holding a serpent in its talons. It was the emblem of the Azdeki family, an heirloom of their rise to glory during the great battles between the civilised forces of the Empire and the nomadic Nâaga, before the latter were finally subjugated.
‘Our scouts have tried to get as close as possible, to accurately determine the number of their catapults, but they’ve been spotted every time. Two of them did not return.’
There were five knights surrounding this small-scale model of the battlefield, all of them wearing family colours which identified them as members of the provincial nobility. Their families had sworn allegiance to the Emperor and sent their sons off to the military academy in order to serve with honour in the Imperial Army. Only the most experienced among them ever reached the rank of general, but owing to his appointment as captain of Uster county, Etienne Azdeki had authority over those present. They were merely reinforcements and, despite their superior military rank, were bound to comply with his commands.
All of them except Dun-Cadal. Upon catching sight of him, the young nobleman stiffened.
‘You’d better count on there being twice as many catapults as you saw when you controlled this situation, Azdeki,’ said Dun-Cadal as he advanced towards them, not even acknowledging the soldiers’ salutes with a glance.
‘General Daermon,’ Azdeki greeted him tersely.
He made a slight bow. Even that simple gesture seemed to be an effort.
‘Azdeki,’ Dun-Cadal replied with a smile, before addressing the entire group. ‘What a pleasure to see you again, and so eager to kick peasant arses!’
‘You didn’t waste any time getting here,’ the man in black armour observed gleefully.
‘I came as quickly as I could, Tomlinn. Although I’m having trouble understanding why the situation has not evolved since the uprising began.’
Dun-Cadal caught a glimpse of Azdeki’s lip curling in a bitter grimace The Emperor respected his general’s judgement more than that of any other man. There were rumours about why this was so, but few could claim to know the truth behind them. The idea that there might be a bond of friendship between the Emperor and this provincial nobody, despite his promotion to the highest rank, was simply inconceivable to most aristocrats. But instead of feeling hurt by this, Dun-Cadal responded to their restrained contempt with an unstinting flow of withering comments. No one would dare complain.
For he was here at the request of His Imperial Majesty, to redress an extremely . . . embarrassing situation.
‘Now, explain what’s going on,’ requested Dun-Cadal.
His tone had become less stern. Although these generals might dislike him, he nevertheless had complete confidence in them. Two of them had even been his classmates during military training and he felt a certain affection for them. Although the feeling was not mutual, Dun-Cadal felt at ease in their company. He knew these men were gifted when it came to battle and that was really all that mattered to him. Tomlinn, the man in black armour with a bald head and a large scar across his face, began to speak as he walked around the model. He was one of the few on friendly terms with Daermon.
‘The county of Uster has demanded its independence. The rest of the Saltmarsh region has rallied to its call.’
‘I did what I had to do,’ Azdeki immediately broke in to say. A heavy silence fell, which his quavering voice tried to dispel.
‘For two years, I’ve tried to keep hold of the region, but these peasants won’t accept that the Count of Uster betrayed them. I was only applying the law! ’
Azdeki may have been acting in accordance with the Emperor’s orders, but Daermon could not have cared less. Nor was he interested in the reasons behind the revolt or the manner in which it had been dealt with. Only the consequences warranted his attention.
‘These peasants have raised the army which stands before you and does not appear at all frightened by the might of the Empire,’ observed Dun-Cadal.
‘I deemed it preferable not to attack,’ Azdeki replied. ‘And the Emperor trusted my judgement. I’m not a warmonger.’
‘That, I don’t doubt for an instant,’ the general replied scornfully.
‘Daermon,’ sighed Negus from behind him.
Azdeki was visibly seething, standing straight with his hands joined at his back. For a brief instant Dun-Cadal thought the man might dare to respond, but instead he drew in a deep breath and kept still.
‘The strategy might still work,’ conceded Negus. ‘Once they realise we have more than a hundred thousand soldiers, plus a thousand knights capable of employing the animus . . . surely they will see that any combat would be in vain. And we’ll keep the Empire intact with- out shedding even a drop of blood.’
‘The Count of Uster was well-liked in these parts. Many doubt he betrayed the Empire,’ Tomlinn interjected as he approached Dun-Cadal.
‘They no longer trust us,’ added a massively built man wearing blood-red armour.
Standing at Azdeki’s side, he pushed forward a wooden block rep- resenting an Imperial legion.
‘Rebellious sentiment has made them bold, but when they see exactly how many we are, they will recognise their error and order will be restored.’
‘So you hope, but you’re wrong. You should have attacked them from the very start,’ declared Dun-Cadal, sweeping away the blocks of wood with his hand. ‘You should have shown them, rather than waiting for them to see for themselves, General Kay. All this means nothing; they have been lulling you into a false sense of security. Believe me, I can sense this sort of thing.’
Kay took a step back, his head bowed. He had known Dun-Cadal for some time and was one of those who criticised the general. He was too sure of himself . . . too arrogant. And even when he was right, it did not excuse his lack of tact. The world was changing and it seemed Dun-Cadal was the only one not following the current; too rooted in his own certainties, too confident in the abilities which, thus far, had been the source of his strength and fame. All of those present here were of high lineages, unlike Daermon. Dun-Cadal was a conceited upstart . . . but for now it was better to be on his side than against him.
‘The problem would have been resolved once and for all. But in- stead you dithered. You dithered and complicated matters . . . and everything would have been so simple if you had attacked first. It would have been child’s play.’
‘And if there were some other way to—’ Kay objected.
‘You’re asking yourselves too many questions! ’ Dun-Cadal roared.
A whistling noise could be heard, growing louder and more stri- dent, piercing their ears.
‘No more dithering,’ he muttered, before yelling: ‘Down! ’
The top of the tent ripped apart. All the officers dove to the ground, arms over their heads, their hearts pounding wildly. A fireball crashed down upon the model, splashing hungry flames against the walls of the shelter. It only took a few seconds for the whole tent to become a blazing inferno with flames running up the wooden poles in flickering waves. Lying on his belly, Dun-Cadal tried to spit out the dirt he’d swallowed in his fall. With an abrupt movement, he turned over and calmly took stock of the trap which had ensnared them. To his right, he recognised Kay’s red armour rising from the ground with a stagger.
‘Kay! With me! ’ Dun-Cadal yelled as a thunderous roar came from outside.
Close by, obscured by the spreading black smoke, he glimpsed Negus’ round silhouette helping Tomlinn and Azdeki to their feet. Dun-Cadal spat out another clod of earth, feeling a burning in his lungs.
‘I’m here,’ Kay replied at last in a groggy voice.
Like Dun-Cadal, the general clasped his hands together and brought them down, inhaling deeply. Their lungs were burning, but they ignored the pain as they stretched their arms out in front of them, releasing as much air, and animus, as possible. A violent gust of air parted the flames, tearing away what was left of the tent and breaking the burning poles in two. The fire continued to spread over the remnants of their shelter, but already the pungent air of the salt marshes was dispersing the smoke. The entire camp was in upheaval. Soldiers were yelling and running towards the trenches, as knights with unsheathed swords pointed the way for them. And more flaming balls were still falling from the sky. This time, the Saltmarsh rebels’ aim was true.
With Negus propping up Azdeki, both still dazed, Dun-Cadal passed before them, hand on the pommel of his sword.
‘You should have attacked first,’ he growled.
‘Th-there aren’t that many of them,’ stammered Azdeki, his eyes reddened from the smoke.
Amidst the soldiers’ cries there came a dull thudding sound, like a giant’s footsteps.
‘A rouarg! ’ Kay exclaimed in dismay, drawing his sword from its scabbard.
Not just a rouarg, but twenty of them, with bristles like dark pikes sprouting from their round backs, maws dripping with white slaver and long powerful forelegs ploughing through the swamps as they charged forward. Behind the furious beasts rose a wall of flames. The Saltmarsh rebels had smoked them out of their lairs and goaded them into a destructive rage. The peasants could not match the Imperial Army’s numbers . . . but they had the resources of an entire region at their disposal.
‘They stand a good three metres tall at the withers,’ comment- ed Negus as he pushed himself away from Azdeki. ‘Six tons of anger.’
He also drew his sword and placed a firm hand on Dun-Cadal’s shoulder.
‘My friend, what exciting lives we lead! ’
They exchanged a smile before joining the trenches at the edge of the camp. Once there, they endeavoured to organise the defensive lines. The rouargs were only a first taste of the onslaught to come; behind them the enemy troops were advancing. Some knights re- mained behind to coordinate the men charged with extinguishing the fires. The balls covered with flaming tow were still falling at a steady rate. Then, suddenly, there was only silence. A dark veil slipped be- neath the white clouds, formed by streams of smoke rippling in the wind. It was soon punctured by swarms of arrows. Perched on the lip of the trenches, the Imperial archers quickly nocked new missiles on their bowstrings.
‘Stand! ’ ordered Tomlinn, marching behind them, brandishing a sword. ‘Loose! ’
Whistles, roars, crackling . . . no sound managed to stifle the thumping hearts of the soldiers at their posts, watching in horror as the huge rouargs charged towards them. They were too close now for the archers to arm their bows in time, and even if they could the creatures’ skins were too thick to be pierced by a small metal point. Whistles, roars, crackling . . . and then the screams which accompanied the deafening crash as the beasts leapt over the trenches, their maws twisted in rage. The black smoke dis- persed in wavy ribbons. Between the rouargs, the white of the clouds was mixed with the grey of metal, sparkling body armour with the brown of surcoats. And then blood began to stain the earth red.
Off in the distance, the rebels’ drums began to beat as their troops advanced.
A few of the rouargs did not manage to break through the Imperial lines, their bare bellies riddled with spears. But those that succeeded were free to rampage at will, the savage beasts thirsting for blood, biting, crushing, ripping apart anything that came within reach of their giant jaws. As he was tossed about in one monster’s maw a soldier screamed until his vocal chords broke, before finally being flung into the air. He landed with a heavy thud a few feet away. No further sound came from his broken body. His pale face was marked by a trickle of bright red blood running from the corner of his mouth.
Although the rouargs wreaked mayhem in the Imperial ranks, they were guided only by their own fear of the flames behind them. The terrifying beasts were themselves terrified. Most of them man- aged to flee into the marshes, carrying off tattered tents snagged on their hind legs, broken carts . . . and several limp bodies of Imperial soldiers.
‘Get out of the way! Get out of its way! ’ ordered Dun-Cadal, as a lone rouarg found itself encircled.
It showed its fangs, with its wide, high turned-up nostrils quivering and black bristles standing erect on its round back. Its eyes narrowed for an instant and then the beast charged. Dun-Cadal just had time to sidestep, barely avoiding one of the forelegs. Three of his men were less fortunate and were thrown into the air like wisps of straw.
The circle immediately re-formed around the animal and Dun-Cadal chose its flank to deliver his attack. But his sword failed to leave even a scratch on its armoured hide. The Rouarg let out a howl, digging its claws into the ground before spinning round. The general took a leap backwards. Spears broke against the monster’s thick furry side, enraging it further. It kicked out in all directions, breaking the circle. Some soldiers were trampled and others were torn to pieces by the sudden snaps of its jaws, before the beast reared up defiantly on its hind legs.
Through the smoke Dun-Cadal spotted its weak point. The belly. It was the only solution available to him. A well-placed sword stroke beneath the beast, where the thinner skin revealed the presence of some thick purple veins. He inhaled a gulp of air, held his breath and launched himself at the creature.
‘Feel the animus, be the animus. Feel it, Frog! ’
His heart was beating so slowly that he could barely hear it. Each gesture, each movement around him, seemed as slow as the progress of a snail across a leaf.
‘It’s there, the magic. In every breath you exhale . . .’
The rouarg reared up again, its maw wide open.
‘It’s like music, Frog . . . It’s not enough to simply listen. Feel it . . . legato . . .’
In mid-dash, Dun-Cadal went down on his knees, sliding across the damp ground, flattening the tall grasses. Time stood still for him. Burning embers hung in the air, their red glow standing out against the immaculate white clouds.
‘Staccato . . .’
The embers whirled, the grasses sprang up again, the general’s heartbeat accelerated. He felt everything, perceived every movement, anticipated every action. Bent backwards, his rear end almost touch- ing the heels of his boots, he kept his eyes fixed on the beast’s exposed belly. He expelled the air from his lungs, pointing his sword at the brown skin and its bulging veins.
‘Feel the animus, Frog. Breathe as one life with it. Breathe in the same rhythm with it . . . And strike! ’
The rouarg lifted its maw to the sky, howling in pain as the blade perforated its body. Dun-Cadal rolled to the side to avoid being crushed. The monster collapsed with a harrowing death rattle.
‘They’re coming! ’
‘Resume your positions! Halberdiers! I want halberdiers here!
‘Hold fast! ’
The orders could barely be heard over the drum rolls. On his knees in the mud, Dun-Cadal stared at the still-warm body of the rouarg. Before he could rise, an arrow landed just a few inches from his right foot.
‘Dun-Cadal! ’ Negus called from somewhere behind him.
Once he stood up, the general went to join his friend by the trenches. Facing them, thousands of soldiers in mismatched kit were advancing to a drummer boy’s beat. Behind them, the crisp snap of bowstrings resounded. A swarm of arrows rose, slicing through the clouds of smoke with a hiss. The first wave plunged down upon the rebel troops, piercing armour, riddling shields, planting themselves deep in the damp earth.
It was the opening blow of the battle of the Saltmarsh. The first confrontation between these two armies. It was brief but bloody. The Empire had the advantage of numbers, the rebels that of surprise. The stampeding rouargs had opened numerous breaches in the Imperial lines, the artillery barrage had set fires in the heart of the Imperial camp and the rebels made good use of the resulting chaos. It required all of the knights’ discipline to reorganise their troops. Clamour, thunder, the clash of swords, bodies charging at one another, shouts . . . Clamour . . . thunder . . . and the animus . . . That was what the rebels lacked and they were well aware of the fact. When the Imperial generals deployed the animus, they beat a hasty retreat.
All in all, the first battle of the Saltmarsh lasted only ten minutes. Ten short minutes during which two thousand soldiers died. Stand- ing at the lip of a trench, watching the fading sunlight wash over the still corpses in the broken tall grasses, Dun-Cadal cursed Azdeki’s dithering. All the conditions needed to inflict a stinging blow against the Empire had been allowed to gather. Within the week, half of the Kingdoms would hear of the Saltmarsh revolt. About the peas- ants who had stood up to the greatest army in the world . . . People always took delight in stories like this. Just so long as they did not rally to the Saltmarsh cause. The effort to contain the revolt in this region had already been botched, but if other counties or baronies showed leanings towards independence, the situation would quickly become unmanageable. It would no longer be a simple rebellion, but a revolution.
Sitting on a corpse’s broken armour, an enormous crow fluttered its wings as it plunged its beak into a seeping wound.
‘The sky has turned red . . .’
Dun-Cadal nodded, letting his gaze drift out over the salt marsh- es. Beneath the grey clouds, the glow of the setting sun cast a curious coppery veil just above the tall grasses. Negus halted at the general’s side, his thumbs hooked into his belt, bearing a wide raw cut on his round face.
‘. . . as it often does the evening after a battle,’ he continued with a sigh.
‘What do they want?’ Dun-Cadal suddenly asked. ‘What are they seeking? War? For this is no longer merely a rebellion.’
‘We’ve seen harder fighting than this. And they retreated in the end. In two months’ time, we’ll no longer speak of it.’
‘No, my friend,’ the general replied, shaking his head, an expression of disgust on his face. ‘They’ve won.’
He caught the puzzled gaze of the small man encased in his mud-spattered armour.
‘They know what they’re doing, believe me. This is only the beginning. Everyone will remember the battle of the Saltmarsh, because they managed to bring the Empire to its knees.’
Behind them, the camp was still smoking, tents lay in tatters and soldiers hobbled about . . . The whole place was a shambles.
In the days that followed, Dun-Cadal tried to regain control of the situation, collecting all available information about the opposing forces: Who? What? How? Once the Count of Uster had been executed, Etienne Azdeki had ordered the disbanding of the county guards throughout the Saltmarsh region. In view of this, and after seeing the enemy’s strategy, Dun-Cadal supposed that the former county guard captain, Meurnau, was leading the revolt. But he had no hard proof of this. Over the next months, the Imperial forces suffered a series of lightning attacks and skirmishes which prevented them from advancing into the marshes. Several times, their enemies used the same tactic again: smoking out the rouargs’ giant lairs and sending the frightened beasts against the Imperial outposts, before launching a lethal attack. Wandering through the tall grasses, the Imperial Army did its best; if not to advance, then at least not to retreat. Between the unfamiliar territory of the deep marshes, in which numerous men weighed down by armour drowned, the rouargs who delighted in chewing up their flesh and the constant harassment by enemy troops, the Saltmarsh soon earned a sad notoriety.
Hell was on earth . . . and it burned in the marshlands.
General Kay lost his life along with fifty of his men trying to establish a bridge across the Seyman river. He was only the first of several generals to fall. In addition to fighting, they also had to contend with the diseases carried by mosquitoes and the putrid swamp water. And despite the sweat dripping from the soldiers’ faces and their fixed, feverish eyes, they needed to remain alert.
‘I want these catapults repaired at once! ’ ordered Captain Azdeki. Facing him, three ill-looking soldiers were on the receiving end of this order. They had not slept for two days and despite their fever they were supposed to repair the two catapults damaged during the previous assault. Since the arrival of General Daermon, Azdeki had been seeking any means to reassert his authority. The soldiers weren’t fooled.
‘They need to be operational by this evening,’ continued Azdeki, looking tense.
‘Yes, Captain,’ acknowledged one of the soldiers in a feeble voice.
‘No rest breaks until you’ve finished—’
‘Take three hours! ’
Azdeki’s head snapped around. Accompanied by Negus, Dun-Cadal passed behind him without even giving him a glance. He preferred to devote his entire attention to the tottering soldiers.
‘You can barely stand on your feet,’ observed the general. ‘Go and get some rest. Azdeki, the catapults can wait. The men come first.’
The soldiers could not refrain from smiling in relief, which they barely managed to disguise when Azdeki shot them a black look.
‘General Daermon! ’ he called.
But both Dun-Cadal and Negus walked away without paying him any heed.
‘General Daermon! ’ Azdeki repeated as the two men entered a large violet tent decorated with the golden symbol of the Imperial general staff, a slender sword circled by a crown of laurels.
Fists clenched, the captain followed them inside. Sitting in a small armchair, Dun-Cadal was removing his mud-crusted boots, letting out a moan of relief. In the corner, Negus was filling two tankards with wine.
‘General Daermon! ’ roared Azdeki. ‘By what right do you—’
‘Save your breath, Azdeki,’ interrupted Dun-Cadal in a dreadfully calm voice. ‘You’re so red in the face it looks like your head will explode.’
‘Explode? Explode?! ’ the captain said indignantly, spreading his arms wide. ‘This time, you’ve really gone too far! ’
‘I remind you that you’re under my command. You too, go and rest for three hours.’
In the shadows, Negus smiled faintly as he brought a tankard to his lips.
‘I don’t have time to rest! No one here has time to rest, Dun-Cad- al. And I demand that in front of my men you address me by my rank. That’s Captain Azdeki.’
He was seething. Like his troops, he had not slept, or only very little, for days now.
‘You arrive by order of the Emperor, proud and arrogant. You demean me in front of my men, countermanding my orders for one reason or other—’
‘Perhaps because they were bad orders,’ Dun-Cadal suggested mildly as he scraped the mud from one of his boots.
‘Oh, spare me that, please,’ sighed the captain, pointing an accusing finger at the general. ‘My family is close to the Emperor, too, and I know why and how you came to be promoted so quickly! Don’t ever forget, Dun-Cadal! Don’t ever forget where you came from or how you became a general. It was not due, in any way, to your sense of honour! ’
Dun-Cadal did not raise an eyebrow, did not lift his head, and did not seem upset by the young officer’s insinuations. He contented himself with removing the excess filth from the leather boot with his gauntleted hand. As he busied himself with this task he said in an ominously dry tone:
‘Don’t you forget that you are only a captain . . . Azdeki. And if we find ourselves in this situation, if so many men have perished, it is your fault. Don’t forget that if your uncle had not dandled you on his knee, you would not even be in this tent speaking to me.’
He stopped rubbing his boot as soon as the tent flaps fell shut behind Azdeki’s exit.
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ said Negus, bringing him a tankard of wine.
‘His anger will pass soon enough,’ Dun-Cadal grumbled.
‘It’s not a matter of anger, my friend . . .’ Negus leaned forward with a sad expression. ‘You’ve humiliated him.’
It was far worse than that. They already had more than enough trouble dealing with the rebels. Adding tensions within their own camp and, what’s more, among their commanders, was suicidal. They might as well have accepted their defeat immediately.
‘He’s too sensitive,’ said Dun-Cadal dismissively. ‘The result of inbreeding, no doubt.’
Negus chose to ignore this comment and with a weary step went to sit down on an old chest, his gaze lost in his tankard. The quarrels between the ancient families of the East and those of the West, ennobled more recently, were common currency. But there was more than that going on between Daermon and young Azdeki. Sooner or later, blood would be spilled.
‘Does the fact that he was dubbed a knight by the Emperor him- self still rankle you so much?’ asked Negus in a hoarse voice.
Dun-Cadal waited a moment before replying, carefully removing his iron gauntlets. When he finished, he let out a sigh before turning to his friend, looking hurt.
‘My grandfather started off as a captain, did you know that? Fighting against the Toule kingdom.’ A strange smile stretched the corners of his lips as his gaze wandered around the tent’s interior. ‘He was the first soldier from the House of Daermon. Ah, those Toules! They put up a devil of a fight, the unbelievers . . . It was a holy mission, capturing their kingdom. Bringing them to the light of the gods and the Sacred Book.’
He was seized by emotion as he pictured his ancestor taking up arms and waging war for a just cause. The Daermons had earned their nobility through sacrifice.
‘He came across a gigantic library during the capture of Toule,’ Dun-Cadal continued. ‘They wrote books of their own, can you imagine that? They gave themselves that right! What—’
His voice suddenly choked up.
‘He burnt the books,’ he resumed, shaking his head. ‘He burnt them all. And then the Toulish troops fell upon him and his men. He lost an arm there.’
‘I know how much your grandfather gave the Empire, Dun-Cadal, you don’t—’
‘Yes I do! ’ Dun-Cadal cut him off brusquely. ‘That’s my whole point. The Azdekis have had great knights in their family, as well as great statesmen, but Etienne is not one of them. Has he even unsheathed his sword once, since he was given charge of the Salt- marsh? Has he displayed his courage? His family fought in the great Nâaga incursions, but he flees before his enemy. This is the type of man who will bring about the Empire’s downfall, Negus. Not all nobles are knights, but all knights must earn their title.’
‘He graduated from the academy,’ objected Negus calmly. ‘As we all did.’
He drank a sip of wine keeping his eyes fixed on Dun-Cadal, who remained with his head down and his jaws clenched.
‘He earned his dubbing.’
‘Men are dying under his command.’
‘Many have died under your command as well.’
‘Never so uselessly,’ said Dun-Cadal with feeling. ‘Would you put your life in the hands of Etienne Azdeki? In the midst of battle, would you entrust your life to him? Tell me truthfully, Negus . . .’
He looked into his friend’s eyes. His anger had faded into his usual self-assurance, certain he’d won the argument.
‘No . . .’ Negus admitted weakly.
‘No man would,’ Dun-Cadal concluded. ‘He lacks the charisma to persuade his troops to follow him. And when faced with danger, his decisions are always the wrong ones.’
It was only a few weeks later that Dun-Cadal realised how mistaken he was on Etienne Azdeki’s account. Before he met the lad.
Although, Kay had been unable to build a bridge permitting them to cross the Seyman river and advance further into the Saltmarsh lands, they had not given up on the idea. A new expedition was sent with Tomlinn, Azdeki and Dun-Cadal at its head. If they were to have any hope of bringing the conflict to an end they needed to capture the town of Aëd’s Watch. And it was located on the far side of the river.
Moving cautiously through the marshes, the expedition numbered sixty in all, with half the men hauling pre-built sections of the bridge. The three commanders went back and forth on horseback, urging their troops on. They rarely resorted to abuse, aware of the difficulty of the task. Weighed down by their armour and weapons, the soldiers also had to bear the burden of the wooden structures. And in addition to the physical effort, they had to put up with the pestilential odour of the sludge. In this area, the salt marshes blended with the swamps.
They were only an hour’s march away from the river when Dun-Cadal’s attention was drawn by something in the rushes. Pulling on his mount’s reins to force it to turn round, he trotted back up to Tomlinn at the head of their column.
‘We’re being spied on.’
‘I sense that, too,’ Tomlinn agreed with a grim face. ‘How many, do you reckon?’
‘I don’t know . . . a dozen maybe. Scouts,’ he suggested in a low voice.
To the west, beneath the scarlet rays of the setting sun, the rushes moved strangely among the tall grasses, as though someone was part- ing them with extreme caution. There was only one way to make sure. Dun-Cadal threw Tomlinn an amused glance before he gave the flanks of his horse a nudge with his heels. He galloped over to Captain Azdeki at the other end of the column and just as he drew up he warned:
‘There’s movement to the west. Keep the formation close together but get the men ready to respond to an attack.’
‘We’re flanking the enemy, General Daermon. It’s surely wild ani- mals, not rebels. Going over there would be a waste of time.’
‘That was an order,’ murmured Dun-Cadal, clenching his jaw before hissing, ‘Captain Azdeki.’
Although certain he was right, the young captain decided to obey and while the general rode back towards Tomlinn he alerted the soldiers who were advancing at a slow walk.
‘Be on your guard. There’s danger to the west,’ he said. ‘When the moment comes, be ready to act swiftly.’
Wild animals . . . or rebels. The idea that Azdeki might be right did not even occur to the general. The presumptuous young officer always made the wrong choices. Why would be it otherwise in this case? Seconded by Tomlinn, he moved away from the column. His horse shied as if aware of a danger close by. A reassuring pat on his neck induced it to move forward once more. Nothing in the tall grasses seemed threatening. A few mosquitoes buzzed by their ears and the smell of the sludge was almost unbearable. But there was no sign of any enemy.
The horses’ hooves sank into the muck, hampering their progress. Another few yards and they would no longer be able to extricate themselves from the natural trap of the quagmire. Nevertheless, the two generals picked their way forward, the tall grasses springing up again behind them with a slight hiss. Soon the soldiers in the distance were only silhouettes beyond the rushes, growing faint in the haze from the heat.
The wind quickened, bending the wild grasses and forming ripples on the stagnant water. And along with the breeze there came a long snarl.
A black shape sprang from the marsh, carrying Tomlinn off before he had time to react. Riderless, his horse reared and whinnied, before fleeing westward. There was a growl, then a second and a third, moving off through the reeds. Yanking his sword from its scabbard and holding the reins in a firm hand, Dun-Cadal felt his temples beating like drums.
He saw shadows rolling about in the grasses.
‘Azdeki! ’ he yelled. ‘Azdeki! ’
But his call went unanswered. With a sharp jerk on the reins, he forced his mount to make a hazardous about-turn. Its hooves sank further into the sludge.
Off in the distance, the captain was ordering his men to advance.
‘Blast it! ’ Dun-Cadal swore.
He could finally see the shapes more clearly: three rouargs with green fur and black spots. They uttered roars that sounded like a challenge.
‘Tomlinn! ’ he called, sweeping the air with his sword. ‘Tomlinn! ’ He heard a cry of pain a few feet away, beneath the heaving round back of one of the beasts. ‘Azdeki! ’
The impact was so violent he could almost hear his ribs crack. The rouarg’s jaws closed on his forearm guard, its fangs nearly piercing the metal before the beast carried him down in its fall. And with them came the horse, whinnying in terror, its eyes bulging, two black marbles surrounded by white.
An enormous jolt was followed by a sound like ripping cloth as the rouarg began to gut the fallen horse. There was a sharp snap and Dun-Cadal felt his leg break beneath the weight of his mount. Trapped, his head bathed in the loathsome sludge, he caught a glimpse of the tops of the tall grasses slowly dancing in the wind.
All was quiet now, as the grunts of the feasting rouarg grew distant. Almost as quiet as the trickle of blood making a groove in the mud, mixing with the filthy marsh water until it looked like wine . . .
‘Frog . . . I shall call you Frog . . .’
A sharp, bitter wine with such peaceful little ripples in the tankard of an old knight lost in Masalia. Far, far away from the Saltmarsh.
‘Frog . . .’
‘Frog?’ asked Viola.
His eyes gone vague, Dun-Cadal’s head swayed as if he didn’t know where to look. There were not many customers left in the tavern. How long had he been talking? Longer than he would have liked. Once again, he had been betrayed by his inebriated state. At their table, the merchants from Serray were humming now, close to sleep, their eyelids drooping and their jugs empty. The small man who had begged Dun-Cadal for a loan took advantage of their inattention to pick their pockets.
‘You were saying: “I called Azdeki with all my might, Azdeki, Azdeki”,’ recounted Viola, ‘and then suddenly, out of the blue, you said “Frog”.’
Although the tavern had emptied, a thick cloud of smoke still floated in the air.
‘Ah,’ Dun-Cadal sighed.
And then he added in a thick voice, with a sad smile playing at the corner of his mouth:
‘Frog was the lad. The lad who saved my life.’
Was it the smoke that had made his eyes grow red? His expression immediately hardened. He has spoken too much, said too much, told too much.
‘It’s nothing, forget it,’ he muttered with too much spit in his mouth.
‘He’s drunk too much,’ declared the tavern keeper as he gathered up the empty jugs at the adjoining table. ‘You should get him home.’
Surprised, Viola raised her eyebrows.
‘Home? But where?’
‘The courtesan Mildrel’s house. It’s two streets away from here. That’s where we usually leave him when he’s just a barrel on legs,’ the tavern keeper explained before returning behind his counter with a weary, heavy step.
Dun-Cadal leaned dangerously forward, his nose falling into his tankard, his eyes half-closed.
‘The lad . . .’ said Viola thoughtfully.
And then, as though he had lost none of his vigour, the knight lifted his head, a strange gleam lighting up in his wide-open eyes like the sparkle of a tear.
‘He was the greatest knight this world has ever known.