Over the last couple of months we’ve been celebrating the launch of Nathan Hawke’s Gallow series with lots of brilliant extracts and short stories. Today marks the publication of the second book, Gallow: Cold Redemption, and if you’ve missed out you can catch up on all the other short stories and extracts here. Enjoy!
9 – Valaric the Wolf
Location – Tarkhun
Falgir Longarm raised a hand and stopped walking. Behind him thirty Lhosir warriors grumbled to a halt and stood around, groaning and stretching their legs. They were, as far as Falgir could tell, in the middle of nowhere with nothing but this stupid old road stretching ahead of them – probably all the way to the end of the world if anyone could be bothered with walking far enough to find out – and only ever deep dark forest on either side. Hardly anyone lived out here south and east of Tarkhun and frankly Falgir could see why. The trees didn’t want to be disturbed. They resented him for even being there. They were even trying to take the road back, though the Marroc still used it enough to keep it passable.
“Tane took a thousand men into the Shadowwood. If the Marroc are to be believed, the road leads through the forest to the mountains and a hidden valley with an old fortress and a route across the Isset. Go ahead and see how the land lies.” The Screambreaker’s orders. Falgir had been half drunk at the time and it was pretty clear the Screambreaker was punishing him for what he and his men had done outside Tarkhun and in that Marroc hamlet whose name he couldn’t even remember any more. It hadn’t seemed fair then and it didn’t seem fair now. His men had fought hard and were hungry for the spoils of war and so was he and so he’d let them all have what they wanted. Why not? What was the point of all the fighting if not for the plunder that came after?
Why not? Because now here he was, that’s why. He let out a long heavy breath and glared at the trees. They’d been walking all day, they were tired and surly and hungry and whether the Screambreaker liked it or not, Falgir had had enough for one day. They’d make their camp here and speed be damned. At least it was warm. Be even warmer if the trees ever deigned to let the sun touch the ground.
Behind him several of the others had thrown off their helms and dropped their shields and were sitting on edge of the road, sucking at skins of water from the Isset. Falgir dropped his own shield and was about to do the same when Hardis Hardhand suddenly pitched over and fell flat on his back. Falgir stared, bemused, and the forest was so quiet and still that it took him a couple of seconds to see the arrow sticking out of Hardhand’s eye, and in that time Henris Redface toppled over with another arrow in the back of his neck; then a moment later Erki Blackfinger was staggering about with one sticking out of his throat and Jassi Dogface was bellowing and hopping from one foot to the other with a shaft right through his hand. Something hit Falgir in the ribs hard enough to make him stagger and double over but not hard enough to punch through his mail. He snatched up his shield and dropped to a crouch. “Arrows! Marroc!” Not that any of the rest of them needed telling by now – they all had eyes as good as his, after all. For a few seconds everyone was moving and shouting at each other and then they were all crouched in a circle, shields locked together, eyes peering over the rims with their helms firmly back over their heads.
The arrows stopped. The forest returned to its silence as though nothing had happened. He had four men down dead on the ground – he hadn’t even seen what happened to Yurk Flamebeard but he wasn’t moving – and Dogface with his hand and Jeski One-Thumb was limping about with an arrow in his thigh just above the knee. He stared at the darkness between the trees. The arrows had come from the north side of the road, a little to the east. “Longshanks, bring yours with me. Silverborn, start back. I think we’ve found enough.” He waited a little longer, a few hundred heartbeats now since the first arrows flew. When no more came he took Longshanks and his brothers and cousins off into the woods. They crept carefully in a line, shields up high. The Marroc had to be out there. He’d find their spoor or else spook them into running so he could chase them.
Two hours later they hadn’t found a thing. They must have been almost a mile into the trees when they heard a sudden scream and then shouting in the distance behind them. He led his men running back but they were far too late and by the time he got to the road the Marroc had vanished again. Silverborn and the rest of the men he’d left behind were scattered around and every single one of them was dead, some of them hacked up so bad that he couldn’t even tell how they’d died. Or rather, which wound had killed them. They looked as though they’d been savaged by a pack of bears.
He stared up at the sky. They had another two or three hours before the sun set and then maybe another half an hour of twilight if they were lucky before it got so dark that none of them would be able to see their own hands in front of their faces underneath these trees. Then he took a long hard look at the bodies.
“Back to Tarkhun,” he said sharply. “Now.” He set off at a brisk walk. Wasn’t right, leaving the dead out in the open like this, not speaking them out to honour the deeds they’d be remembered for. Wasn’t right and his men felt it, but staying here and building a pyre would take up the rest of the day and then they’d be stuck out here through the night and. . .
The others weren’t following him. That shit-stain Longshanks was ignoring him as though he hadn’t heard or seen and was busy telling his men to go back out into the woods in twos and threes and gather wood.
“Back to Tarkhun now is a long walk,” said Longshanks as Falgir came back. “That what you were going to say?” He was nodding as though he was quite sure that was what Falgir had been meaning, though they both certainly knew better. “Best we stay and see these men on to the Maker-Devourer’s cauldron.”
“Likely as not we’ll follow them if we do,” grunted Falgir.
“Man can’t turn his back on his fate.” Longshanks could turn his back on Falgir, though, and he did, and that right there and then was the end of Falgir being a leader of any men except himself.
Whoever it was that killed Silverborn and the rest, they didn’t come back that afternoon, nor in the evening either. Longshanks had his pyre and they tossed one corpse after the next onto the flames and spoke them out, told the uncaring skies and the hostile trees everything that mattered of each man who’d died: who they were and how they’d taken their name and who’d given it to them; of the battles they’d fought and the sons they’d sired. It all came out, the good and the bad. That Hardis Hardhand had murdered his own brother by clubbing him from behind when they were both drunk and all over some woman who didn’t want either of them, they spoke that out as loudly as they spoke of his courage at Selleuk’s Bridge beside the mighty Lanjis Halfborn. The truth of a man’s life, that was all that mattered, bare and raw and unadorned. They’d almost lost the light before they even started and by the time they threw the last man onto the flames – Silverborn himself – and spoke him out, the night was half gone. Afterwards they sat in twos and threes, backs to the pyre, letting it warm them and light up the forest, dozing and talking softly to one another while they waited for the dawn. Even so, Falgir must have closed his eyes and slept an hour or two before the sun rose.
He opened them, groggy-headed. The air stank of burned flesh and wood smoke. There was someone prodding him, and when he stared at the face looking down at him, it took him a moment to understand why it had no beard.
He started to scramble to his feet and then stopped at once. Someone had lifted up his mail coat and there was a spear point pressed hard between his legs.
“Ah go on, Jonnic, you can geld that one of you want.” He didn’t see who spoke. Before he could move again the spear jabbed sharply into his crotch with a hideous pain that made him scream and curl up into a ball, hands pressed between his legs. He lay there, howling, waiting for the Marroc to finish him but they didn’t. They walked away and left him there.
Eventually he managed to get up. His hands were covered in his own blood and every step was burning agony. The rest of the Lhosir, Longshanks and his men, lay scattered around the pyre. They were covered in blood and their beards had been cut off their faces and the skin from their chins too. They’d died without a sound. In their sleep, most of them, their throats cut. A few had been shot in the face by an arrow from a man standing right over them, the shaft driven through so hard that it had gone right through the skull and into the earth beneath. Dead, every single one, and their swords and axes and spears and shields taken.
He thought the Marroc had gone and so he took his time, but in the end there wasn’t anything to do except head back to Tarkhun and hope he didn’t bleed to death on the way and that he got there before night brought the wolves out hunting and found him helpless and smelling of fresh blood. But as he limped away, a single Marroc came out of the trees again. Falgir growled and started to run as best he could, bent half over in pain, but the Marroc just watched and laughed and called out after him: “Run, you gelded dog, run. Go back to the Widowmaker and tell him what happened here. Tell him to come on through the Shadowwood whenever he wants. Tell him that Valaric the Wolf waits for him.”