Our month of sharing our excitement for The Path of Anger continues this week with chapter three. If you missed the first and second chapters, you can still catch up to fully enjoy the third. Antoine Rouaud’s epic fantasy was published last week – if you’ve got your hands on a copy, let us know what you think in the comments below. Enjoy!
All wounds heal.
Although the scars remind us of them. And if the pain is less keen,
It still cuts deep.
He had clearly slept for a long time, but the length of sleep didn’t matter when one had succumbed to the weight of so many tankards. He sat up in the rumpled bed with a splitting headache, as if a blade had been driven into the back of his skull. The rays of the noontime sun shone through the brown curtains, forming luminous columns upon the waxed wooden floor, far too bright for his half-awake eyes. He raised a hand over his eyes to mask the light, muttering words even he could not understand. It was one thing to try to forget who you were in drink. It was another to be reminded of it with your head beaten like an anvil. He had shed his boots and his vest, but he was relieved to find he was still wearing the rest of his clothes, and then disappointed again when he recognised the chamber. A few feet from him, a basin stood beside a tall cheval glass. Slightly tilted on its pivots, the mirror reflected a pale image of the knight he had once been.
The door opened slowly to reveal a lady, still beautiful despite her age, her curly hair falling on bare shoulders. Her green dress clasped her waist and a corset delicately uplifted her bosom upon which lay a pendant in the shape of a sword. The few wrinkles which gently ran from the corners of her ocean blue eyes did not mar her beauty. She advanced to the window, setting the platter in her hands down on a table bathed in sunlight. His throat dry, Dun-Cadal sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed the back of his neck with numbed fingers, hoping his headache would go away. The scent of lavender drifted towards him, making him forget the pain for an instant.
‘I suppose you don’t remember a thing,’ she said as she transferred a breadbasket, apples, a pitcher and a glass from the platter to the table top.
From the tone of her voice, it was certainly not shyness that made her stand with her back to the knight and her eyes on the platter. And it was not the first time he had woken here with no memory of reaching his bed.
‘A young red-headed woman brought you back,’ she said, filling the glass with fruit juice. ‘Well, not her so much as the Nâaga. He had to carry you here since your legs were already asleep.’
The Nâaga . . . Viola . . . little by little, his memory returned. And as it did, the terrible taste of remorse filled his mouth.
‘I talked . . .’ he murmured.
She raised her head. Tilted slightly to one side, it looked as though the sun bestowed a golden kiss upon her cheek. It made her look twenty years younger. Dun-Cadal’s weary heart raced and he realized that, with her, he would never feel so alive again.
‘The Saltmarsh,’ he replied.
She turned, her face rigid with contained anger. A single misplaced word on his part, one single mistake, and she would let it burst forth. From experience, Dun-Cadal knew that her wrath was best avoided.
‘She asked you questions about Frog,’ she said, her tone stinging.
‘But don’t worry, you were in no state to tell her anything.’
‘Mildrel,’ he whispered, as if seeking some excuse he could offer her.
She brought him the glass and held it out stiffly.
‘Drink. It’s Amauris berry juice.’
Without further prompting he swallowed a gulp and then, despite the drink’s bitterness, drained the entire glass.
‘I know, it tastes bad,’ she observed, ‘but it will prevent you from having a stomach ache. There’s bread and some apples as well.’
‘Mildrel,’ he said, clutching her hand.
He raised his eyes to her and it was worse than taking a sword point in the heart. She remained still, her eyes staring at the wall and her lips pinched. There was no need for her to repeat the same old reproaches, nor would he have been able to answer them. They had known one another for so long that even their most simple gestures spoke volumes. Sniffing the air, Dun-Cadal ventured a faint, tired smile.
‘Lavender,’ he said with a smile. ‘She smelled of lavender, just like you . . .’
‘She’s born of the Republic. And you know what the Republic has done to generals who failed to rally to its side,’ she said sadly. ‘Why did you talk to her? What were you thinking? You’ve been willing enough to lie until now, and suddenly you’ve given yourself away! ’
‘What do I care about the Republic . . . ? It means nothing to me.’ She snatched her hand from him and gave him a withering look, as if he were an unruly child who had done something naughty.
‘She can have you arrested at any moment—’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he sighed as he rose to his feet.
He walked painfully over to the basin at the far side of the chamber and was glad to see that it was already filled with warm water. He carefully undid the top buttons of his shirt and then, with a mounting impatience, he pulled it off over his head.
‘It matters to me,’ Mildrel insisted.
She hadn’t moved from her spot next to the unmade bed, her hands clutched together. Looking over his shoulder he saw her haloed by the sunlight, so beautiful, so dignified, in her controlled anger.
‘I don’t represent anything to anyone here,’ he replied. ‘Not any more. It’s been too long . . . What danger could I pose to them? The girl knows that all too well.’
He leaned over the basin, plunging his hands in and splashing his face. The warmth of the water soothed the worn skin of his face and he rubbed his eyelids, still sore from the effects of alcohol and the bright midday sun. His memories of the purges which had fol- lowed the fall of the Empire were as hazy as the steam rising from the water. So many knights had been judged by the Republic, so many proud, steadfast men had been sentenced, so much honour had been besmirched in public trials dictated by popular sentiment. He had survived it all, running before the heralds of the newborn Republic like a dog, even hiding out for two years in the forests of the North. And there Dun-Cadal Daermon and the others who had served the cursed Emperor were all finally forgotten . . .
‘That’s true. The only person you’re a danger to is yourself. And that’s been the case for longer than you think; it wasn’t the fall of the Empire that brought down the great Dun-Cadal Daermon.’
He froze, his arms resting on the edge of the basin and drops of water running down his face. The young boy’s image haunted him, and every time it aroused the same feelings of pain and dismay. His memories were nothing but an open, festering wound.
‘Losing Frog destroyed you.’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Really?’ She laughed, but it was a mocking, perfidious, disdainful sound. ‘And do you know what you’re talking about, with strange women? Did you even ask yourself what she wanted?’
Mildrel walked slowly towards the door, keeping her eyes on the old warrior’s bare back. A large scar crossed one of his shoulder blades, the kiss of an axe, from the days when he’d defended his ideal of a glorious civilisation, heart and soul. How she had loved to feel that scar beneath her fingers . . .
‘She’s a historian from Emeris,’ Dun-Cadal said as he continued to wash. ‘She wanted to speak to a soldier of the Empire.’
‘And she stumbled across you by sheer accident,’ she mocked him, opening the door. ‘In case you’ve forgotten, it’s foolish to be nostalgic for the old times in Masalia. Especially when so many councillors have been invited to celebrate Masque Night in the city.’
She waited for a reaction but Dun-Cadal was silent, his gaze lost in the steam from the basin. Since his arrival in Masalia he had paid no attention to anything but filling his tankard. Mildrel could bear it no longer. Only when she had shut the door behind her and her footsteps were no more than a distant echo did he straighten up.
He could not be angry with her, not for being worried about him. She had always worried. Worse still, she was always right. He had said too much to this Viola without knowing anything about her or her real intentions, if she were concealing any. It was the first time he had told anyone the truth during his alcoholic ramblings. If she were actually seeking Eraëd, would she accept his refusal to tell her where it was, or would she threaten to denounce him? And would the name Dun-Cadal Daermon be of any interest to the august councillors of the young Republic?
He was not even a shadow of his former self. The Knighthood had been dissolved along with the Empire. The animus had been forgot- ten. And still more serious in Dun-Cadal’s eyes, it seemed people no longer believed in the Book of Destiny and had little by little abandoned the old gods. Times were changing, as his aching body reminded him constantly. And, more forcefully, the sharp pains that ran down his right leg. He placed a trembling hand there as if hoping to calm them but it had no effect. He exchanged a glance with his reflection in the cheval glass.
‘Azdeki!!! You filthy piece of shit! Come back! ’
The pain was not merely physical. No, the real wound was located elsewhere, hidden deep inside.
He bore a scar of the worst kind, one which could not be seen but would be felt, burning and sharp, as long as his heart was still beating.
‘Azdeki! Tomlinn! ’
‘Azdeki! ’ he screamed as he lay in the swamp.
At that moment, the thought that Azdeki might abandon him to his fate was only a vague, farfetched hypothesis. Stunned by the fall and pinned by the weight of the horse crushing his leg, he wasn’t capable of reason. He was lost, with his body pressed into the thick Saltmarsh mud. Attracted by his cries, the rouarg appeared above his horse’s carcass, its maw smeared with blood and its large nostrils flaring in time with its heavy breathing.
‘Come on . . . ! ’ snarled Dun-Cadal, adrenaline masking any pain. . . adrenaline and a sudden fever. Standing on the horse’s remains, the rouarg towered over the injured knight, its muscles bulging beneath skin covered with patches of long green-and-black fur. Keeping a wary eye on the beast, Dun-Cadal searched the mud for his sword. The rouarg’s eyes narrowed, slowly opening its maw to release a putrid breath and a low growl. In the tall grasses, the knight heard the sound of two more monsters gradually approaching, drawn by his sweat and blood. His hand sank into the muck without finding any trace of his weapon.
‘Godsfuck! ’ he cursed.
Pain shot up his broken leg, pinned and slowly crushed beneath the combined weight of the horse and the rouarg. The beast roared, stretching its neck in challenge towards its imprisoned prey. Any hope of locating his sword and slashing at its maw was vain. Only one solution remained before the suffering became unbearable and he fainted. Inhaling deeply, he drew in his arms, a grimace of pain twisting his sweat-and-mud-stained face. He needed to focus his entire being on listening to the world, feeling every vibration around him, rising above the pain and melting into the air, becoming one with everything around him . . . He felt the animus, he became the animus. His leg awoke with agony, broken bones rending his flesh like razor blades.
The rouarg reared over him, ready to rip his head off with a swift snap of its teeth. Yet something prevented it. The monster stared at the trapped man with an air of disbelief; his hair was immersed in the stagnant water, his eyes half-closed, his features drawn with pain and fatigue. He stretched his hands forward, and the furious beast opened its jaws to reveal its steely fangs. The man had no means of reaching it and still less any hope of wounding it with his bare hands. And yet . . . an overpowering force propelled the rouarg, and the horse’s gutted carcass, far into the air.
At that instant, Dun-Cadal felt a sickening dropping sensation, every part of him jolting with the violent impact of a fall. He screamed to the point of dislocating his jaw, and when his cry finally faded he passed out.
In the distance, a snarling could be heard.
When he came to his senses for the first time, he saw a frog spying on him, its eyes blinking rapidly and its throat swelling in fits and starts.
When he opened his eyes again the frog had gone and he was alone with the tall grasses which seemed to be advancing across the marsh in slow waves. Raindrops formed craters in the black mud. The world was dark, but it was brighter than the blackness that engulfed him once more.
His eyelids fluttered slowly. The tall grasses were sparkling, bathed in blazing sunlight. And somehow he was . . . dry?
‘Bloody hell . . .’ he croaked, his voice terribly hoarse, his throat on fire.
He winced as he raised his head as far as he could. His neck was as stiff as an old piece of wood, but that was nothing compared to the rest of his body. He saw that he was stretched out on an old blanket, full of holes, spread over a patch of cracked earth at the edge of the marsh.
He was shaded by an old cart lying on its side, propped up by two big wooden logs. A makeshift splint made from branches and twisted grass supported his broken leg, wrapped in a blood-stained cloth. How had he got here? Who had brought him? And how long ago?
‘Don’t move too quickly,’ a childlike voice said. ‘Your leg is far from being knit back together. I did what I could, now only time will heal it.’
Seated beneath one corner of the cart, his legs folded under him, was a boy. Arms crossed on his knees, he stared at the knight with grey eyes and a solemn expression.
‘Your leg was a really ugly mess,’ he commented.
‘As bad as that,’ murmured Dun-Cadal.
‘There were bones sticking out in places,’ the boy said very calmly.
‘And you . . .’ His head ached and he had trouble moving, his body numbed by days of inactivity. But little by little, he regained his senses. ‘You brought me here . . . ?’
The child nodded without revealing the lower part of his face, hidden behind his arms.
‘The horse,’ he said. ‘With the help of a horse.’
He had a round face, just barely out of childhood, with tousled hair and a pale complexion. Dun-Cadal let himself fall back, short of breath. His head felt heavy and his vision was studded with tiny, fleeting stars. The blue sky rippled in his vision for an instant and then grew still.
‘You need to go easy,’ the boy continued. ‘You’ve been lying there for eight days.’
‘E-eight days . . .’ stammered the knight.
He tried to swallow but his throat was too dry. Seeing him so, with his head tilted back, gasping like a fish out of water, the boy seemed amused. He stood up and approached Dun-Cadal slowly.
‘I left you something to drink, there,’ he said, pointing to a small flask made from a sheep’s stomach placed next to the knight. ‘It’s all I could find. There’s more salt water than fresh hereabouts.’
Still eying his rescuer, Dun-Cadal sat up on his blanket with some difficulty, holding his injured ribs. He did not know what age to give the lad. Twelve, thirteen . . . perhaps fourteen years old, but not more. He was wearing a plain beige shirt, open at the collar, worn- out black trousers and boots held together with pieces of string. Brown locks floated across his brow and his face was so smeared with dirt he might have plunged headfirst into the mud.
‘Thank you,’ Dun-Cadal mumbled as he took the flask with a shaky hand.
He drank a gulp and almost spat it out immediately. It tasted foul but his thirst was so great he forced himself to swallow, grimacing. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his sword planted in the ground, not far from a pile of weathered crates half-covered with an old dark green cloth.
‘You’re a knight, aren’t you? A knight of the Empire,’ said the boy, his smile vanishing.
Dun-Cadal nodded carefully. His neck was too stiff to move it normally.
‘And you are?’ he asked.
The boy did not reply. He looked down at the dry earth where a slight breeze rolled bits of gravel across the ground between his boots. Dun-Cadal waited patiently but nothing broke the silence so he spent a moment scanning his surroundings in search of a land- mark to indicate his position. The lad had evidently dragged him some distance to extract him from the marshes he had been mired in. In the distance he could see the oaks of the forest bordering the Seyman river. On the far bank lay only swamps bristling with tall grasses and rushes rustling in the wind. An odd heat haze shivered above their wind-blown tips. He wondered if Azdeki had managed to build the bridge and cross the river . . . and then he remembered Azdeki abandoning him, and he felt his anger rising.
‘The Empire crossed the Seyman four days ago,’ the boy an- nounced, as he rummaged through some crates lying at the rear of the cart.
So Azdeki had built the bridge.
‘And we took Aëd’s Watch,’ Dun-Cadal sighed.
The revolt had been put down and Captain Azdeki was the hero of the battle of the Saltmarsh. He grimaced with his chapped lips. How ironic . . .
‘No,’ replied the boy tersely, coming over with some sort of box in his hands.
He sat cross-legged beside the knight, the box nestled on his lap.
‘They tried but they didn’t succeed,’ he said evasively, before adopting a bossy tone which did not suit him at all. ‘Now give me that flask.’
‘What do you mean, “they tried”?’
Seeing Dun-Cadal would not give him the flask if he did not answer, the boy reached out and snatched it, looking incensed.
‘What are you going to—’
‘I’m not going to poison you,’ the boy said grumpily. ‘It’s some- thing you need to drink to get better. Otherwise you’ll never be back on your feet.’
Of course the boy wouldn’t poison him. Dun-Cadal had seen his sword planted in the ground not far away. The lad had already had eight days to kill him if he wanted to. But the fact that he was going to such lengths to aid a likely enemy was intriguing. The entire region was at war . . . Dun-Cadal could not afford to forget that and place his trust in anyone. He had to be cautious.
‘Are you from the Saltmarsh?’ he asked.
The boy slid the box lid open and his nimble fingers plunged inside. They emerged as a fist clutching a wriggling green shape. As he placed it over the flask, he added:
‘But I saved you from the rouargs.’
‘How?’ asked the knight, disbelieving.
‘It’s a secret.’
Two long wriggling legs appeared from the boy’s closed fist. He squeezed and a steaming yellow liquid ran into the neck of the flask. Dun-Cadal understood what the boy held in his fist and looked away in disgust, saying:
‘Godsfuck . . . that’s a frog . . . you’re making a frog piss in the flask and I drank . . .’
‘It’s an ashala machal, a frog that lives in the rushes,’ the boy said as if reciting a lesson. ‘When they’re frightened they urinate and it’s very good for when you’re ill.’
‘Maybe.’ The boy smiled as he returned the frog to the box. ‘But the whole time you were unconscious I made you drink it. If your fever broke, it’s thanks to this. And I made an ointment from the mucus on their skin. The salt from the marshes was starting to eat away at the wound. But with the ointment, the pain was soothed. And their urine acts like a tonic so that you’ll get better.’
Dun-Cadal swallowed. He’d drunk some nasty things in his time, but agreeing to gulp down frog’s piss was asking a bit much.
‘And you expect me to drink this—?’
‘Do you want to die out here?’
They glared at one another while the boy held out the flask to him. No, of course he didn’t want to die out here. No more than he wanted to linger here. In the lad’s grey eyes he saw a determination that forced him to smile. The boy was willing to do anything to make him drink this concoction and, in his present state, trying to avoid it wasn’t a very good idea. To be sure, he could resist. He could even kill the lad, despite his wound. He was an Imperial general after all, not some small fry . . .
But there was something in the child’s eyes, a longing and an anger that aroused Dun-Cadal’s curiosity.
He drank a mouthful and it was now clear where the water’s foul taste came from.
‘Seriously,’ he murmured, narrowing his eyes, ‘who are you?’
The lad’s gaze was lost in the distant mist as he gathered up some pebbles lying at his feet and began to pitch them distractedly into the weeds.
‘You must have a name. What do they call you in these parts?’
‘I have no name.’
‘No name?’ Dun-Cadal asked in surprise.
‘Not any more. I lost it,’ the boy sounded aggrieved and his pebble throwing became more vigorous.
‘What about your family?’
‘Dead. There’s a war going on here, in case you didn’t know,’ he said sarcastically, scowling at Dun-Cadal. ‘I escaped Aëd’s Watch a long time ago . . .’
The boy reflected for a moment. Recalling painful events? Or searching for an answer that would seem credible? The general reminded himself that his young saviour was a child of the Saltmarsh, probably a rebel sympathiser and possibly a traitor to the Empire. Not killing Dun-Cadal was one thing, but the lad might still be trying to gain his trust for some reason or another.
‘Because of the war . . . I was frightened.’
As he swallowed another mouthful of the doctored water, Dun-Cadal watched the lad carefully.
‘And the cart? Was it yours?’
‘No . . . it’s old. It’s my shelter. I was hiding out here and then one day I saw you lot going by. You were attacked by the rouargs . . . and now here you are.’
The boy stopped pitching stones but his eyes remained lost in the distance, as if his mind were elsewhere.
‘There were three of them,’ remembered Dun-Cadal. ‘You fought off three rouargs all by yourself?’
‘I told you, I have a secret.’ He sprang up suddenly.
‘You need to rest. I’m going to try to find something for us to eat this evening. There are frogs as big as your fist, hive frogs we call them. They’re a bit like chicken.’
As the boy went to the rear of the cart to look for a bag, Dun-Cadal called out to him:
‘Lad! I appreciate your help, really I do, but I must rejoin my troops, they need— ’
The boy turned round, passing the bag’s bandolier over his shoulder.
‘Not yet. You’re still too weak.’
And then he disappeared behind the cart.
‘Lad! Hey! Lad! Come back! ’ the knight called.
But shout as he might, there was no reply. He fell back wearily against his blanket and allowed his eyelids to droop, his head feeling incredibly heavy. He tried hard to think about what he should or could do to locate the Imperials’ camp, but his fatigue overcame him and he slept.
When he awoke, the sun was setting behind the leaning cart and the boy was lighting a fire. Dun-Cadal struggled to rise up on an elbow. He felt as if his entire body had been trampled beneath the hooves of a furious horse. His wounded leg drew his attention in par- ticular, wrapped in a bandage that was starting to smell like rotten meat. The boy saw he was awake but said nothing. Indeed, they ex- changed no words at all until the boy brought him a small bowl filled with grilled frog legs. Witnessing the knight’s disgust, he stifled a giggle.
‘You find this funny, do you, lad?’ the knight sighed. ‘Seeing one of the invaders subjected to your . . . awful taste in food . . .’
‘The Saltmarsh has always been part of the Empire,’ replied the boy as he sat back down by the fire.
Dun-Cadal was surprised, almost letting go of the frog leg he was lifting to his mouth.
‘Happy to hear you say that,’ he said before biting off a piece of meat.
It did in fact taste like chicken. When he managed to forget the unpalatable appearance of the frog it came from, it wasn’t too bad. Night had fallen and only the glow from the wavering flames lit the boy’s face. His usual severe expression had softened.
‘This is how I’ve survived out here,’ he explained, pointing at the dish of frogs. ‘There are fourteen species in the western part of the Saltmarsh alone. In the entire region, there must be . . . thirty, forty different kinds of frog. They all have their uses. Some help to make poisons, others, remedies . . . With their skin, their drool, their urine
. . .’ He pointed at Dun-Cadal’s bowl again. ‘And some can be eaten . . .’
‘Is this what they teach at school in Aëd’s Watch?’ Dun-Cadal asked sarcastically as he chewed.
The boy bowed his head pensively as he slowly plunged the branch he was holding into the heart of the fire.
‘So, lad . . . tell me what happens next.’
‘Yes, next. You saved me from the rouargs and then you cared for my wounds as best you could. And although you think the Saltmarsh has always been part of the Empire, you are and you remain a Saltmarsh lad. So what will you do next? It seems to me I’m your prisoner . . .’
The boy let the burning piece of wood go and looked away.
‘Your friend’s horse is over there behind the cart.’
Dun-Cadal rose higher on his elbows, taking care not to move his broken leg, and saw the Tomlinn’s mount’s ears visible above the cart.
‘True. So that’s how you dragged me here . . .’ he recalled.
‘I wound a rope around your waist,’ explained the boy, miming how he had harnessed the knight. ‘Then I passed it under your arms. I attached the ends to the horse . . . and here you are . . .’
‘And here I am,’ repeated Dun-Cadal.
He stared at the boy while he finished his frog legs. He wasn’t very hungry, despite having gone eight days without eating, no doubt due to the pain. But as he swallowed the tender meat he slowly recovered his appetite.
‘You’re really something, lad,’ he said.
For the rest of the evening, Dun-Cadal tried to get the boy to speak but it was like talking to a wall. As he was drifting off to sleep, his last thought was a terrible one . . .
What if the lad turns me in to the rebels tomorrow?
That fear haunted him over the following days. His leg was still healing, the pain from his ribs burned him and every breath he took was torture. Whenever he tried to stand up, he thought he would faint. The boy changed his bandage three times and on each oc- casion he was able to take stock of the damage. The large, leaking wounds had been crudely sewn up in several places where the bones had broken and torn through the skin. It was not the work of one of the Empire’s finest surgeons, but the lad had done the best he could.
Several times the knight had sought to draw him out about him- self, but to little avail. Dun-Cadal was more skilled at wielding a sword than asking questions. And several times the boy left their improvised camp, riding away on Tomlinn’s horse to some Saltmarsh village.
Dun-Cadal tried to wait patiently during his absence, going over every possible strategy available to him if the lad betrayed him. But why then would he go to so much trouble to treat his wounds? Worrying over the paradox bore a hole in his skull. He tried to find a solution, any logical sequence that would allow him to guess at the lad’s real goal, until he finally decided to let matters take their course. Destiny was already written, he had no real control over the future. There was no fatalism or surrender in this idea, simply a quiet acceptance of events.
Days passed and no rebels showed up to arrest the wounded gen- eral. Although the lad said little, he continued to take care of his patient as best he could. Dun-Cadal contented himself with that. When he was strong enough to stand on his feet, using a plank from the cart as a crutch, the knight told himself he had spent more than enough time in the marshes.
‘You look like a wading bird . . .’ a voice behind him said in a mocking tone.
Dun-Cadal tried to keep his balance with his good leg.
‘You shouldn’t be doing this,’ the boy advised as the general struggled to harness the horse.
Each time his healing leg touched the ground, a fiery arrow raced up it and into his heart and his brow burst out in sweat. The horse had been quietly grazing behind the cart and did not seem to appreciate having a lame cripple trying to cinch a saddle upon its back.
‘The war goes on without me. I’ve recovered enough to go and find my men, lad,’ Dun-Cadal assured him.
But his perspiring face and his features drawn by pain contradicted his words.
‘You won’t be able to ride with that leg,’ the boy warned. ‘Waders don’t belong on horseback. You look funny like that, trying to keep your balance, but you’re going to fall over.’
‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ jested the knight as he finished buckling the girth beneath the horse’s belly.
In fact, he almost fell as he stepped back, the plank digging into his armpit despite the chain mail protecting his upper body. He was anxious to be rid of it. He placed one hand on the pommel of the saddle and used the crutch to heave himself painfully onto his mount. He had to try several times before he succeeded in lifting his injured leg over the horse’s rump. Then he let it slide across the saddle with a moan. His scabbard smacked against his unpolished armour and he thought he was going to pass out as his leg with its wooden brace knocked against the useless stirrup. But once he was settled in the saddle, his hands gripping the reins, he was able to catch his breath and wait for the pain to slowly subside.
‘You think so,’ he repeated in a murmur, staring into the distance. A heat haze covered the marshes and the sky was masked by the same white clouds that had greeted his arrival in the region.‘I must find my men.’
With a twitch of the reins, he urged the horse to a walk. Even this gentle movement made him grimace in pain, each time the splint tapped the saddle leather. If he was going to ride for hours with only one good leg, this was merely a foretaste of what he would have to endure.
‘What about me?’ the boy asked plaintively.
‘You? Well, live long and happy with your frogs and avoid armed men whenever possible. All hell may break loose around here . . . I still have a town to capture.’
‘You mean Aëd’s Watch?’ The boy was walking up beside them horse now, trying to catch the reins. ‘You don’t know what happened there—’
If the lad persisted in his efforts, he was going to stop the horse. Dun-Cadal gritted his teeth and kicked twice with his good heel to make the horse trot. The boy had to step aside to avoid being jostled. Seeing his frown, the knight gave him a mocking smile.
‘I should think that idiot Azdeki was unable to take the town and had to retreat.’
He held back a laugh, however, as his ribs ached with the slightest jolt. The pain made him want to vomit up his guts, but he imposed his will upon his body. He had to find his troops, lead the fight to the end and stamp out the revolt.
‘They lost,’ the boy said, ‘You said it yourself: the war went on without you.’ Dun-Cadal tugged slightly on the reins. The horse slowed. ‘The Empire lost the Saltmarsh four days ago.’
With one hand, the general turned the steed. A few feet from him, the lad was standing up straight, his balled fists close to his thighs. His face had reclaimed the angry expression he’d worn during the first few days and there was still a childish quality about it, as if he had just been punished and was about to throw a tantrum. Should Dun- Cadal believe him? He could accept that Azdeki had failed to capture the town, but the idea that he, a hundred thousand soldiers and a thousand knights using the animus had suffered a decisive defeat was quite simply unthinkable.
‘Aëd’s Watch was a trap. They held off your men and then launched a great attack,’ the boy said mournfully. ‘Your army was so surprised it couldn’t react in time . . . It was routed.’
‘How could that be . . . ?’ Dun-Cadal whispered, tight-faced and overwhelmed; the once proud and arrogant military leader suddenly an injured man reeling on top of a scrawny horse.
‘You’ll need to cross the enemy’s lines to rejoin your men,’ the boy said. ‘You’re lost out here, behind the rebels holding the borders of the Saltmarsh.’
Dun-Cadal leaned over the horse’s neck, one hand gripping the saddle pommel, and stared at the lad. He was well and truly stuck out here, all on his own. No one even knew he was still alive.
‘You should have told me sooner,’ he snapped. ‘Godsfuck, why didn’t you tell me sooner?’
‘How would knowing have changed anything?’
The insolent little imp gave him a strange smile that was at odds with his severe gaze.
‘You’re going to need me,’ he added.
‘For what? Now you want to help me escape the Saltmarsh as well as saving my life?’
Dun-Cadal’s voice had risen in both anger and despair. He tried to think things through, searching for a solution, any way out. But his leg was incredibly painful, an agony which ran up his thigh and bored its way through his guts to strike at his heart. The lad was right; he was not yet fit enough to ride.
‘You’re a knight.’
He gave Dun-Cadal a determined look.
‘Teach me to fight.’
‘What?’ exclaimed the general, startled.
‘Teach me to fight and I’ll help you escape from the Saltmarsh and find your troops.’
‘Because you think the two of us will be able to cross the enemy lines, just like that?’ Dun-Cadal asked in a mocking tone.
He placed a feverish hand on his damaged ribs. If he stayed on the horse any longer he was in danger of keeling over.
‘It’s possible,’ the boy insisted. ‘You have no idea what I’m capable of.’
‘I don’t know anything about you! I don’t even know your name! ’
‘You can give me whatever name you like,’ the boy said evasively.
‘Teach me to fight. You won’t be sorry.’
He didn’t move an inch, his shoulders slightly hunched but his dark eyes looking up at the knight, standing his ground without a hint of fear.
‘You, fight? At your age you want to take up arms?’
‘I’ll be a knight before you know it.’
‘Such confidence! It takes a long time to become a knight, lad.’
‘I can do it.’
‘You won’t be any use to me crossing enemy lines.’
‘I can do it,’ the boy insisted.
Each time the knight raised his tone, the boy answered in a low but firm voice.
‘You’re starting to annoy me! ’ bellowed Dun-Cadal as he drew on the reins. ‘You’re only a child! Stay in your place and stop dreaming of ridiculous things. The situation is too complicated for me to train you now.’
‘I’m not a child! ’ The boy pointed an accusing finger at the general. ‘And you won’t get far like that and you know it! But you’d rather go and tempt the demons out there than stay here and give your wounds time to heal. You could use all that time to teach me to fight, but no, you’d rather go and throw yourself into death’s arms on your own. Who cares that I know where the rebels are located, how many there are and how to get past them! And the two of us, together we can do it! ’
Out of breath, his mouth twisted in anger, he lowered his arm. He was on the edge of tears.
‘And I’m not a child,’ he repeated.
The horse snorted. It seemed tired too. Reluctantly, Dun-Cadal accepted the idea that he could not undertake the journey on his own.
‘Do you even know how to wield a sword?’ he asked.
The boy nodded and they went back to the cart. Dun-Cadal needed the lad’s help to dismount and, one arm around the shoul- ders of his young rescuer, he hobbled back to his blanket. Only when he was finally lying down did the pain in his leg subside . . . for the moment. He raised it with the help of an old crate to ensure the blood would drain better and not cause his foot to swell.
‘Help me take off my boot,’ he sighed.
He watched as the lad obeyed, searching his face for any signs that would tell him something more . . . A scar, an expression, a detail he’d overlooked up until now, the slightest clue that would reveal a shred of this lad’s past. Anything but this complete blank. Once the boy had removed the boot, he moved to the knight’s side and took the frog from its box to extract more urine from it.
‘If I’m staying then I’ll have to give you a name,’ said Dun-Cadal, lifting his chin.
‘If you like,’ the boy replied, shaking the flask to mix the water and urine together.
‘Let’s see . . . you called me Wader didn’t you? Why don’t I return the favour? As you seem to like those wriggling beasties you will be . . . Frog . . . I shall call you Frog.’
He waited to see if the lad would take offense but he merely nodded before opening the flask and passing it to the general.
‘It suits me,’ the boy said with a wistful smile, ‘Wader.’
Evidently, he was willing to put up with anything to achieve his goals, even a ridiculous nickname.
‘Sir Frog the knight . . . Do you want to be known as Sir Frog?’ Dun-Cadal asked jestingly as he took the flask.
But the glance the boy gave him made him to falter. In those grey eyes lay the force of an unbreakable will. The lad’s next words were quiet but firm, a mere murmur which nonetheless carved itself into Dun-Cadal’s memory, as powerful as any cry.
‘One day you’ll understand. Be certain of that. I shall be the greatest knight this world has ever known.’