It’s time for the final part of our serialisation of extracts from Antoine Rouaud’s brilliant new fantasy, The Path of Anger, which is available now. Today we have chapter four to share with you, but if you’ve need to catch up, you can still read chapters one, two and three on the blog. Enjoy!
‘Attack someone from behind?
There’s no honour in ﬁghting like that! ’
‘There’s no honour at all in killing someone, lad. No matter how you strike.
There’s no glory to be had in taking a life.’
Everything she knew of the world came from books. Her long years of study at the Great College of Emeris had made her impressive- ly erudite, but all that knowledge consisted merely of words. Here, she was discovering their true meaning. She was finally seeing the living embodiment of those written works, copied and recopied down the centuries by the monks of the Order of Fangol. Until now these servants of the gods had been the sole masters of writing. Recording the voices of the gods themselves, set down in the Sacred Book. But the Liaber Dest vanished long ago, while the Empire had been overthrown and the rules had changed. Knowledge was no longer supposed to be the sole preserve of the elite. In the Republic, a young peasant girl like Viola could be taught the history of her world and how to relate its events with the help of a quill dipped in ink. But what had she really seen with her own eyes? The leafy paths of the village where she had been born, and later, the long and wide avenues of the Imperial city of Emeris. But what else? Nothing but words in books, describing the former Kingdoms in a poetic way.
So the simple act of walking along the cobbled streets of Masalia seemed to mark a new stage in her life. All along the street, traders exhorted passers-by to try their magnificent goods: vegetables, spices that pricked the nostrils, braided necklaces, lace-trimmed fabrics, dried meats, or the still bloody chops from a pig slaughtered right by the stalls . . .
The noon sun at its zenith bathed the city in light and the heavy scent of musk and citrus fruit floated in the air. In the days of the Empire, Masalia had been the only city where someone who dreamt of something better might achieve their goal. Now that the Republic ruled the destinies of its peoples, the advantages of this city had spread like an unexpected wind of hope throughout the former Kingdoms. Viola was a perfect example of this, a blacksmith’s daughter who had proved quite brilliant and completed her studies at the Great Col- lege, hitherto reserved for the nobility. What career lay ahead of her now? That of a historian, cooped up in a library with ancient tomes? Or that of an archaeologist, travelling the world in search of antique artefacts and idols? Who would she fall in love with? With whom would she raise a family? What was her place in this new chapter of the world, now everyone had the chance to choose their own future . . . ?
She pondered all these questions without really expecting to find any answers, and the possibility that there might be more than one pleased her. Her parents had not, at any point in their lives, had a chance to consider their futures. Her father had been a blacksmith like his father before him, while her mother barely knew how to write her name. The Fangolin monks had taught the skill of writing to some, but they ensured they alone mastered the art.
‘Miss, try the flavours of the Sudies Islands! Spices like you’ve never tasted before! ’ hailed a smooth-faced man with an olive complexion. His round belly almost rested on his stall, its surface covered with bags of spices.
She gave him a brief smile and nodded disinterestedly before pass- ing two men brawling in the middle of the street. No one paid them much attention, and she had other things to do than stroll about the city. She had been charged with a mission and was intent on carrying it out. Finding Eraëd, the Emperors’ sword, was not a passing whim but rather a conscious effort on the part of some to honour the past. Eraëd . . . the sword was much more than a symbol, it was a legend- ary object, said to have been forged at the beginning of time.
Leaving the market street, she spotted the dried-up fountain that stood at the centre of a small square paved in red and white cobblestones. There, among the tall, prosperous-looking houses with balconies bright with flowers and wide windows, was the townhouse where she had left Dun-Cadal the previous night. It was not hard to recognise in the light of day. It was the only house whose curtains remained drawn and there were young women with exposed shoulders parading in front of the door. Long skirts fell to their bare feet, and they wore fine, brightly coloured cloth that clung perfectly to their curves. They were selling their charms to the highest bidder, and they had come to the right address for proper training. It was murmured here and there that Mildrel had been one of the most prominent courtesans of the Empire, sharing bedchamber secrets as she distributed both her favours and her advice in the shadowy light of private salons.
Viola adjusted her spectacles before seating herself on the lip of the fountain. A stone cherub stood in the middle with its wings spread wide and one knee bent, as if about to take flight. She observed the passers-by: traders in Masalia on business, dirt-stained travellers wearily leading their mounts, and even some Nâaga swaggered past, staring all about them. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she finally spied the familiar figure of a badly-shaven old knight.
Dun-Cadal emerged from Mildrel’s house, raising a hand to shade his face from the sun. In his other he held an apple and he lifted it to his mouth to take a bite. Two of the girls pacing before the door greeted him with broad smiles. The bright sunlight reflecting off the paving stones was dazzling. For someone whose eyelids already bore the weight of a hangover, the glare was almost unbearable.
‘I was afraid you’d never come out of there,’ a voice said behind him.
He threw a glance over his shoulder, munching on a piece of the apple. Viola approached with a light step, her hands clasped behind her back and two rebellious curls falling before her ears. So the young red-headed woman was not going to leave him alone. He examined her from head to toe with a frown.
‘You again . . .’ he grumbled hoarsely.
‘Did you miss me?’ she asked with a smile, rocking on her feet like a child. ‘As female company goes, I think you did rather well for yourself last night.’
Dun-Cadal walked away, grumbling as he went. Viola kept up with him.
‘I see you’re just as pleasant as you were yesterday,’ she said in a jesting tone.
‘Your savage isn’t with you?’ the knight groused. ‘Too busy drawing more tacky things on his face?’
‘Oh well, if you’re missing him then don’t worry, you’ll see him soon enough.’
‘I could easily manage without that . . .’
He picked up his pace, eating his apple with an irritated air. To be pestered like this, so soon after waking, was intolerable. As was the hammer beating an anvil within his head. And it was compounded by all the sounds of Masalia; its street peddlers and hawkers. . . even its seagulls gliding past in the cloudless sky. Dun-Cadal shouldered his way through the crowd with Viola still dogging his heels.
‘Have you come back to threaten me?’ he asked.
‘Threaten you? With what?’
‘Now that you know who I am—’
‘I’m not about to put you on trial,’ Viola interrupted as she moved up to his side.
A trader coming towards them with a cask in his arms almost ran into her. She sidestepped to avoid him and then swung back to follow in the knight’s wake. The trader went on his way without missing a step, whistling as he went.
‘I’m seeking something other than vengeance,’ she added.
‘I won’t help you find the rapier.’
‘That sword belongs to history! ’
‘And that history is long over.’
At the end of the street, they could see the swaying masts of the ships anchored in the port. Eager to leave all this frantic activity behind and spend a quiet moment in front of a full tankard, Dun-Cadal turned right. But a tattooed colossus stood at the mouth of the alley with his arms crossed, one corner of his mouth twisted into a strange smile. Their eyes met and, judging by the old general’s scowl, there was nothing friendly in their glances.
‘I said you’d see Rogant again,’ Viola murmured behind him.
Dun-Cadal turned round and headed for the port. Viola hurried to catch up with him before he disappeared into the crowd.
‘Dun! Wait, Dun! ’ she cried. ‘Wait for me! ’
‘Why should I wait for you?’ he asked firmly. ‘The only thing I’m waiting for is the moment when you lead the Republican Guards to me.’
‘The civil war is over, General,’ Viola replied. ‘Get that through your skull. You really believe I’d turn you in on the faint hope that you’ll talk to me from a gaol cell?’
‘The thought occurred to me.’
‘Be serious. I’d have to be an idiot to try something like that.’
‘That occurred to me as well,’ the knight said sarcastically.
A multitude of proud, tall ships lay moored in the harbour, rock- ing gently on the water. Some sort of escort party was disembarking from one of them, composed of guards dressed in red and sky-blue armour, holding halberds and wearing swords at their side. At their head, two less heavily-armed soldiers bore standards with the colours of the arriving dignitaries. The councillors . . . so the rumours were true. He had known several of them in his previous life. He halted and felt Viola’s slight body press up against his back.
‘Why would I denounce you,’ she murmured, ‘when so many who prospered far more than you under the Empire, yet never even de- fended it, are now the elected representatives of the people?’
There were four of them here, mostly old and wrinkled, wearing rich red cloaks adorned with gold fleurs-de-lys and trimmed with cream fur. Of these four, Dun-Cadal recognised three of them. The Duke of Azbourt, a cruel man with a deeply creased faced, massively-built despite his advanced age, who had long ago retreated to his northern duchy and made no effort to seek the Emperor’s favour. The Marquis of Enain-Cassart was a small man with a high-pitched voice, wearing a tightly curled powdered wig and a large smile on his face, who walked with the help of a cane. He had frequented the palace corridors in Emeris and proclaimed his loyalty to the Empire until the day it fell. What sort of deals had made him a candidate to represent his region in the Council? His personal wealth had certainly played a part. The third councillor in line was a personage unknown to the knight, much younger in age, with a thin scar beneath his right eye, but Dun-Cadal felt sure he had connections with the first two. As for the last man . . . Dun-Cadal shook his head, gritting his teeth.
‘I don’t know if you ever met again after he abandoned you in the Saltmarsh,’ Viola said, ‘but Etienne Azdeki is now one of the Republic’s most prominent councillors. Others will be arriving soon for Masque Night. If the people don’t hold their pasts against them, why should they hold yours against you?’
She stood at his side, her gaze drifting over the crowd that had gathered around the officials and their escort. He had paid no heed to the Republic’s affairs, trying to forget about the world and hoping the world would forget about him. Although he had once known the Emperor himself, he cared little about who governed now, choosing to dwell in a reality apart. But some had risen again from the ruins of the Empire.
‘Congratulations, General, you’ve just realised that this world is neither black nor white, contrary to what you believed in the Empire’s heyday . . .’
Something wasn’t right. He had a sense . . . but it was still too vague for him to understand the mounting fear inside him. His distraction partly accounted for his stinging retort:
‘Don’t play this little game with me.’
‘I can be sarcastic, too. Only I have a few advantages over you.’
‘Those being . . . ?’
‘I don’t stink of sweat, and I’m much prettier than you.’
Dun-Cadal couldn’t hold back his smile, although the air around him seemed heavier, as if foreboding some disaster. No, truly, some- thing wasn’t right. But the scent of lavender had beguiled him for an instant. She wasn’t lying about her pretty face, either.
‘I don’t mean you any harm, General, rest assured about that.’
She gazed at him, her eyes so beautiful, so green, with fine long eyelashes. Their light was barely disguised by the glasses of her spectacles. How could he resist the quiet charm radiating from her, the resolute will contained in a velvet glove? He had the impression that she was stroking him, as if he were an old wolf she was trying to tame. And he found himself liking the experience. He had even day-dreamt that she could have been Mildrel’s daughter. The way the lavender scent clung so deliciously to both women’s throats . . . Without a word he bit hard into the apple, tearing off a chunk as if were meat on a bone, and looked away.
But the ominous feeling was more distinct now. It was so obvious to him; his warrior’s senses telling him to remain on his guard.
‘Don’t move,’ he ordered, watching as the procession left the docks and crossed the big square just behind them.
Before a wide building whose front steps were framed by tall white marble columns, four carriages awaited the new arrivals.
The motley crowd was still pressing around the councillors, excited and curious enough that only the honour guard formed up by the halberdiers prevented the most intrepid from accosting their Council representatives. Although Azdeki, Azbourt and the unnamed stranger showed little interest in the people who had come to greet them, Enain-Cassart seemed delighted by their warm welcome. He squinted in the glare of sunlight reflecting off the paving stones, but anyone observing him could see a gleam of joy peeping through the slit between his eyelids.
‘General . . . ?’ ventured Viola.
He raised a hand towards her, warning her to remain silent, and walked towards the square, hunting for anything unusual within the crowd. He could feel it, picture it . . . death, was lurking somewhere nearby, ready to pounce. But on whom? In what form? He couldn’t say, but he could sense it. And when he spotted the hunched figure hidden by an old patched cloak and a hood with rippling folds, he knew, even though it looked like an old man hobbling among the onlookers, gazing intently at the marquis.
Dun-Cadal finally reached the crowd, the cheers aggravating his still aching head. He took one last bite of the apple and let it fall to the ground. The core was quickly crushed by passing feet. The figure advanced. There were cries of joy, laughter, and then a commotion started a few feet away. Curses and insults were exchanged and sev- eral halberdiers left their formation to aid their companions. A fight had broken out at the edge of the procession, small but enough to distract the guards. And the closer Dun-Cadal came, the more his alarm grew. Whatever happened would happen soon.
The cloaked figure stumbled against a guard. The latter almost seemed to apologise to the old man, but his smile vanished as his legs gave way beneath his own weight.
Very soon . . .
The old man held the soldier’s body for a few seconds before let- ting it drop silently and creeping up behind the marquis’ back. A short distance away the halberdiers were separating three sailors from what looked like a furious Nâaga.
The old man straightened up suddenly, but the movement seemed curiously slow to Dun-Cadal’s eyes. With a twitch of his shoulders, he shed the patched cloak and hood, revealing a much younger man dressed in a green cape, with a thinner hood still masking his face in shadow. On his belt, two daggers sat next to the dull pommel of a sword. He wore leather bracers on his wrists and his relaxed stance was evidence of an extraordinary composure.
Dun-Cadal came to a sudden halt, his breath cut short. He had been trained to seek out, recognise and detect the approach of assassins. He had protected the Emperor by becoming his shadow, watching for the slightest sign of suspicious movement at the Imperial court. When the Marquis of Enain-Cassart slowly turned round, he knew it was already too late.
‘Now then, young man—’
The councillor’s beaming smile vanished as the blade pierced his throat. There was no cry, nor any word, just bubbles of blood that flowed into his mouth before trickling from the corners of his mouth.
Fast and precise. And without any sign of remorse and regret, or even satisfaction at a duty accomplished. But Dun-Cadal could guess what the man was feeling. He had done similar work for years. To defend the Empire it had sometimes been necessary to strike first . . .
Enain-Cassart fell to one side without the time to realise that his life was ending, and the cheers died away in general astonishment. For a brief moment, lasting no longer than the space of a breath, there was only the distant sound of water lapping in the harbour. And the flapping of the assassin’s green cape, caught in the wind, against his boots. The sound matched the beat of blood in Dun-Cadal’s temples and hypnotised the general.
Killing. He’d done it himself, many times, in the same manner.
‘You were an assassin, weren’t you?’
That was before the Emperor had allowed him to train a successor and be promoted to the rank of general in reward for his services. He’d given his uniform to his student . . .
To Dun-Cadal’s right, a woman with dirty hair tied back in a ponytail and pink cheeks covered in tiny red veins stood gaping. When she finally recovered enough to speak, her voice rang out across the dumbstruck square.
‘Assassin! ’ she screamed.
And the crowd finally began to stir, panicked citizens fleeing the scene while the halberdiers hastily escorted the three remaining councillors to their carriages. Alone, standing over the marquis’ body, the assassin seemed to take a perverse pleasure in watching the stampede. He hardly moved when the guards surrounded him, spears and halberds levelled in his direction.
Dun-Cadal had forgotten about that uniform from the very moment another man had donned it in his place. He had left it behind, like a legacy. A simple green cape . . . a ghost from his past. The general breathed heavily, darting brief glances at the handful of onlookers still lingering a few feet from the scene, as curious as they were frightened. For years he had tried to drown his memories in al- cohol, and in the last few hours his entire past had resurfaced. From Eraëd to Frog . . . from Azdeki to the man who’d replaced him at the Emperor’s side.
‘Throw down your weapons! ’
‘On your knees! Get down on your knees! ’
‘Throw down your weapons! ’
The soldiers’ peremptory commands were barely audible above the general commotion. Their spears were still pointing at the assassin. He seemed to accept the situation, looking in turn at the face of each man threatening him. His closed lips did not tremble, in fact he was terribly calm. Why? Why was he behaving this way? Any other assassin would have committed his crime as stealthily as possible, using the crowd’s movements to make good his escape.
Only when a soldier dared to move forward did he finally react, seizing the man’s spear with a firm hand and giving it a sharp tug to bring it towards him. His hapless victim was unable to parry the dagger thrust into his chain mail with enough force to perforate the metal mesh before digging into the soldier’s abdomen.
This was a message. A warning. A threat directed at all of the councillors. As he climbed into his coach, Azdeki turned back to watch the scene. The circle of soldiers around the assassin tightened. At its centre, two daggers slashed the air and the clatter of blades and armour filled the square. And then, before the astonished eyes of the old general standing a few yards away, the killer emerged from the ring. A dagger in each hand, he shoved two soldiers aside and nimbly bounded out into the square.
It was him . . . Reyes’ protector, his loyal assassin . . . the Hand of the Emperor . . . Why? How? Dun-Cadal was borne away on a floodtide of emotions and questions. But there were no answers, no comforting explanations. He had to know for sure . . . He had to stop that man! He ran, following in the wake of the guards. Onlookers dispersed ahead of the fugitive, yelling in alarm. No man dared to stand in his path. But another squad of soldiers deployed in a street that ran into the square, positioned to intercept the criminal and looking confident. There was no possible escape, the old man kept repeating that to himself.
The assassin didn’t even slow at the sight of the wall of spears blocking the street. He dodged right with a twist of his hips, sprang on top of a barrel at the bottom of a rusty drainpipe and took a flying leap towards the flower-laden balcony of a house across the way. The stunned soldiers halted in their tracks. Behind them, Dun-Cadal spotted an alley to his left and ran into it, coughing from his exertions. It had been a long time since he run this hard, but he paid little heed to his laboured breathing or to his still-pounding head. Looking up, he saw the assassin’s silhouette. He was climbing a rooftop with ease.
‘Stop him! Stop him! ’
‘He went that way! ’
‘We can’t lose him! ’
An alley, a street, and then another . . . Several times, Dun-Cadal almost collided with startled passersby. As he ran, he tracked the assassin, jumping from roof to roof. His shoulder slammed into a woman carrying a basket of laundry. Grimacing, he struggled to keep his balance, ignoring the woman’s insults, and resumed his chase. After five minutes, however, a sharp stitch in his side forced him to come to a halt. His hand pressed over his heart he leaned against a wall, listening to the guards’ distant shouts. Breathing heavily, his face and lungs on fire, he drew in air deeply as he gathered his wits. The days when he had fled over rooftops, taken bold leaps, employed the animus, were long gone. He had been one of the greatest knights. And now?
He was nothing but a crazy old fool, lost in Masalia, waiting and hoping for a violent death to find him in some dive in the city’s slums. But it wasn’t death that had found him, no. It was a young red-head, and she’d brought his entire past with her . . . Closing his eyes, he heard a voice, a murmur from the past . . .
‘I’m ready . . .’
His knees folded and he slid down the wall, his face covered in sweat . . .
‘I’m ready! ’
‘No. I won’t change my mind, Frog.’
The lad’s words, so long ago, just before their destinies became linked. With unexpected aplomb, he had told Dun-Cadal he was ready to leave the Saltmarsh, to cross the rebels’ lines, to fight and to kill other men. Heedless that it was an entirely different matter to their training with sticks, Frog had believed he was ready to commit irrevocable deeds. Because a life once taken could never be returned . . .
‘Yesterday you said I’d made enormous progress!!! ’
‘For an armless man, learning to lift a sword with his feet consti- tutes enormous progress,’ Dun-Cadal replied with a sly grin. ‘That doesn’t mean he’s capable of defeating an army.’
With the help of his makeshift crutch, he hobbled back to the leaning cart. In the two months he had been here, this was the first day he had managed to remain standing for more than two hours without suffering for it.
‘You’re . . . stupid,’ spat Frog, balling his fists with a fierce scowl. Weary, the general slowly sat down on a crate and propped his crutch against the worm-eaten cart. The sun was setting in the dis- tance, bathing the tall Saltmarsh grasses in a blood-red glow. He had become accustomed to the young boy’s insolence and was almost amused by it. He even put up with being called Wader. No one had dared give him a nickname before and his acceptance of one now wasn’t because he was separated from his army. The lad had come to represent a part of himself that might survive his own death; his knowledge, and . . . No, even more than that. Frog had become the son he had dreamt of so often and been unable to offer Mildrel. As he watched Frog, standing a few feet away from the campfire, his fists pressed hard against his thighs in a pose of sullen anger, he felt no regret about agreeing to teach him the art of war. The lad handled himself well and, more importantly, a raging desire to learn burned within him, to the point of consuming him. Dun-Cadal had felt the same when he was younger, but never to this extreme. The fire had to be dampened from time to time; Frog still had many things to learn. Among them, patience.
‘Stupid for wanting to keep you alive? Yes, perhaps.’
‘You don’t understand anything . . .’ the boy sighed before sitting down.
‘I understand that you’re in a hurry to leave here. Me too! You’ve been feeding us on whatever you can pilfer from Aëd’s Watch. And it’s crap . . . although it’s a bit tastier than those frogs you hunt out here . . . Speaking of which,’ he pointed at the boy, screwing up his face in disgust, ‘your hive frogs, they sit heavily on my stomach. Try to find something else.’
‘That’s exactly my point! It’s time to go! ’ Frog protested, rolling his eyes.
‘Not yet. You’re not ready and neither am I,’ said Dun-Cadal, low- ering his finger to indicate his outstretched leg.
It seemed sturdier now, enough that he had decided to remove the splint, but he had to build up the muscles before he could attempt anything at all. He would need another month before chancing a frantic escape across the enemy lines. He’d already reconciled himself to the idea, having no other real choice. And the one factor that had convinced him this plan was the lesser evil was Frog’s determination. He had started to train the lad without much conviction until he noticed that, after nightfall when he believed his teacher was asleep, Frog continued his exercises. He saw the boy’s silhouette brandish- ing the wooden stick that served as his training sword, and later, as the days and nights passed, using the knight’s own sword. Frog only permitted himself a few hours of sleep but he never complained. He kept his efforts secret, but every night he practised his moves.
‘Tomorrow… tomorrow, we’ll try a different lesson,’ said Dun-Cadal.
He picked up the flask lying at his feet and opened it slowly. Frog went to sit down under the far corner of the cart, swearing to himself.
‘You know how to parry and you’ve learned some offensive thrusts. Tomorrow I’ll show you how to attack someone from behind.’
‘Attack someone from behind?’ Frog asked in surprise as he drew up his legs. It was his favourite position, masking his lower face behind his knees, just as Dun-Cadal had seen him sitting the first time.
‘There’s no honour in fighting like that! ’ he protested.
Dun-Cadal forced himself to drink a mouthful of Frog’s peculiar remedy. It had proved effective, but he had stop himself from gagging each time he swallowed any of the mixture, even a drop. He gulped some more before leaning towards the lad.
‘There’s no honour at all in killing someone, lad.’ His voice was suddenly grim and subdued. ‘No matter how you strike. There’s no glory to be had in taking a life.’
The only sound was the crackling of the fire in the twilight. The pair stared at one another. Finally, Frog lowered his eyes to his knees.
‘You haven’t always been a knight, have you?’
Dun-Cadal set the flask down at his feet, cracked his knuckles and yawned.
With the foot of his healing leg he scuffed the ground before him, pensive. The lad hadn’t earned the right to learn more about him. If he opened up, it would change their relationship. Could he trust the boy with the truth? He was a child of the Saltmarsh . . . an enemy who had saved his life and rebelled against his own kind, instead of holing up at Aëd’s Watch. Would he be able to understand the course his mentor’s life had taken?
‘You were an assassin, weren’t you?’ asked Frog bluntly. Surprised, Dun-Cadal raised his eyes.
‘What’s the difference between an assassin and a knight, do you think?’
Looking puzzled, Frog poked the fire.
‘One kills for money and the other for duty?’ he offered finally, not certain it was the right answer.
‘That’s a very simplistic view,’ Dun-Cadal sighed. ‘Believe me, lad, one day you’ll understand.’
They ate soon after, relishing a rabbit that Frog had pinched the previous day from the Aëd’s Watch market. It made a pleasant change from hive frogs. That evening, they exchanged a few simple words, almost enjoying one another’s company, and fell asleep in a serene state of mind, far from the uproar of the revolt.
The month that followed was, by and large, similar to the preceding ones. Frog learned to wield a sword more effectively, including parries and stealthy attacks. And each night, when he believed his mentor had fallen asleep, he continued to practise the moves he had learned during the day. As Dun-Cadal’s leg strengthened, dark rings grew under the lad’s eyes. But the general didn’t comment. He watched the boy suffer, endure, and become exhausted to the point of falling to his knees, his face lined by the ordeal of training. Each time it happened, Frog picked himself up without his mentor ordering him to do so. How far would he go? Dun-Cadal neither criticised nor praised him. He limited himself to teaching and kept his admiration to himself when he saw the lad start to combine the moves he had been taught, wincing from the pain in his muscles.
The general had come across more gifted pupils in his day, but none with this degree of dedication. It was close to madness: the lad compensated for his faults with an unbending determination. Frog was convinced he would become the greatest knight the world had ever known, and after three months together, Dun-Cadal was starting to believe he had every chance of succeeding.
‘Arm straight. Straighten your arm! ’
In the middle of the tall grasses, the boy was pointing the general’s sword before him, his face expressionless. The sun was playing hide-and-seek with the heavy grey-edged white clouds. The day before, a patrol from Aëd’s Watch had passed close by their camp. The noose was tightening around them.
‘Straighter,’ said Dun-Cadal, raising his pupil’s arm with a nudge of his stick.
Frog glared at him from of the corner of his eye but immediately focused on the sword before him.
‘Now parry! ’
With a brusque movement, he stretched one leg behind him, bent the other and brought the sword up towards his head.
He turned the blade to strike at an imaginary enemy on his flank.
‘Your feet, lad, pay attention to your feet.’
‘I am paying attention,’ Frog objected, abandoning his pose to relax his aching muscles.
He had been slashing the air with the blade for five hours now without a single break, and this was the first time he had made any complaint. Dun-Cadal had been waiting for this moment when his pupil finally showed signs of impatience. He knew the lad was over-confident, too sure of himself, too ready to throw himself into the wolf ’s jaws. The enemy’s lines had not advanced, the Empire was no longer retreating. And the two of them were still barely surviving out here, in the heart of the marshes.
‘Really?’ said Dun-Cadal with a smile, wielding his stick like a sword.
He traced circles in the air with the point before slowly walking over to place himself in front of the boy.
‘Resume your position,’ he ordered. Letting out a sigh, Frog obeyed.
‘Parry! ’ shouted the general as he brandished his stick.
Frog parried the blow, but felt a sharp stab in his hand as the general struck.
He hadn’t had time to finish the move before Dun-Cadal side- stepped, lunging to strike the boy’s extended leg. Frog bent his knee, stifling a cry of pain. The stick whipped at the back of his head and then hard against his shoulder. Overbalanced, he fell hard to one side.
The lad cursed, lying with half his face plunged in the mud, and then breathed heavily.
‘Your leg is stretched out too far. If a blade doesn’t cut it, a club will break it,’ Dun-Cadal said in a calm voice. ‘Get up.’
Frog stood up with a scowl. Anger was visibly rising within the boy. For the first time, it was strong enough to burst through his patience.
‘Keep your arm held very straight—’
‘What good does it do?’ the boy raged. ‘If my arm is straight? If I have my feet here or there? Well? You’re doing this to stop us leaving. Because you’re scared. You’re no great knight. I saved your life for nothing! ’
He flung the sword down in disgust.
‘I should have let the rouargs eat you,’ he snapped, turning away.
‘So that’s why . . .’
Dun-Cadal’s features shifted, a thin smile appearing on his lips. The lad was still a mystery to him and he’d made little progress in learning more. A new side was revealing itself at last. To his surprise, he realised he was moved by the fact.
‘So that’s why you saved me.’ Frog had his back to the knight, hands on his hips, staring at the marshes in the distance. ‘To teach you to fight, help you escape from the Saltmarsh . . . and after that?’ Dun-Cadal spoke quietly, his gaze fixed on the boy who had saved his life out of self-interest. He had kept his guard up for so long, done everything he could to remain aloof, but as the days passed he had grown fond of Frog. What was the lad fleeing, for him to pin so much hope on becoming a knight of the Empire?
‘What will you do, Frog . . . after that?’
‘After what?’ the boy snapped, exasperated.
‘After we cross the lines and rejoin my army.’
Frog turned slowly, his gaze still furious but his face gradually softening.
‘I told you I would help you get through the lines.’
‘That’s not why you asked me train you.’ The lad looked troubled.
‘Why?’ insisted the general. ‘What are you running away from?’ The boy fidgeted and his expression grew suddenly sad.
‘There’s nothing left for me here,’ the boy finally said. ‘Nothing at all.’
Dun-Cadal let the silence stretch, hoping the lad would break it with a confession. But there was no sound except the rustling of the wind in the tall grasses.
‘You want to fight in order to kill people, is that it?’ Frog did not react. ‘Well, I’m teaching you how to stay alive. You made a distinc- tion between being an assassin and being a knight, but in the end what you want, going about it like this, is to become an assassin.’
‘No, that’s not it, Wader, it’s—’
‘I’ve been teaching you to stay alive from the beginning be- cause tomorrow, when we try to cross the lines, I don’t want to lose you.’
‘You don’t understand, it’s—’ Frog stopped, surprised.
‘What did you just say?’ he asked, excited. ‘You said—’
‘You saved my life. And you rarely complain. You’re enduring these exercises as few knights have managed before you.’
‘You just said—’
‘I have respect for that, lad. But if you don’t listen to me, you’re going to die in combat. And I would never forgive myself for that.’
Frog finally held his tongue. He was listening this time. And seeing him listen, Dun-Cadal knew that he found the right words to make him reflect a little.
‘Tomorrow. You’re ready,’ he said simply, before turning on his heel.
But Frog’s voice stopped him.
‘No.’ The general spun around and was surprised to see the lad, sword in hand, arm outstretched. ‘Show me more.’
The wind in the tall grasses, the sun slipping between the clouds, the croaking of frogs in the distance . . . The life of the Saltmarsh went around them, heedless of the man and the lad lost in its midst. It took no notice of the fact that a bond had just grown between them which would change the world.
‘Teach me . . . I’m not ready.’