The Dread Wyrm

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Автор Камерон Кристиан

Miles Cameron

The Dread Wyrm


Across the north of the Nova Terra and the Antica Terra, spring came. It came, too, in Galle and Etrusca, in Arelat Arelat, where men had begun to learn to fear the night again, and in Iberia, where it came early. But it came first in the fields of Occitan, where husbandmen and goodwives got down to the serious work of manuring and planting fields as soon as the ice in the old furrows was thawed and the ground began to soften. Depending on the wealth of the farmer, from yeomen with stone houses and two ploughs’ worth of oxen or big horse teams, to tiny huts on the edge of the debatable lands, where a young couple would harness themselves-together-to a homemade plough and the biggest child would drive it, furrows were cut in the cold ground, and every day those furrows crept north, from Occitan’s early sun to the borders, and in some cases fire-blackened fields of Jarsay, and then north again to the Albin and the Brogat, where there were fewer peasants and more yeomen, but also more farm labourers with no land at all; where big iron ploughs cut the earth deeper to make up for the later sun.

South to north, then, the earth was turned wherever the hand of man reached.

And the same sun that warmed the fields warmed the tiltyards. In the castle courtyards, or by the stables, or under the outermost walls, or in the old castle ditch were the fields of Mars, the hard places where young men and a few women learned to be hard. Older men stretched aching muscles and warmed winter-stiffened joints and cursed their fading youth or their blossoming age. Men who lived by war looked at the increase of their waists and worked harder during the abstention of Lent, and their strokes at pell and quintain were quickened by war and the rumour of war. In the west of Occitan and Jarsay and the Brogat, spring brought raids from the Wild; hungry men and worse things dared the fickle weather to strike at isolated holds and forest homes, and some knights had more than practice by the first Sunday in Lent. The same dragon’s-eye view that might have shown the peasants turning the earth would have shown smoke rising from burned steads all along Man’s western frontier with the Wild.

In safe places farther from the threat of irks and boglins, the fighting professionals heard of the King’s tournament in Harndon, and dreamed about it. New harnesses were made or fitted; mail was repaired, older harness polished and mended and polished again as warriors prepared to join the retinues of the great lords who would fight before the King of Alba himself. Words of the preparations for the tournament were spread by jongleurs and troubadours and singers and whores, tinkers and mercenaries and sheriffs and monks and any other man or woman who travelled the hideous mud of the thawing roads.

And, from Occitan to the Brogat, rumour said that in Morea, the Red Knight had won another surprising victory before the ground thawed and made himself master of the whole country. In Occitan, men sang a new troubadour song about him and his Red Company, and when a troubadour sang that he was recruiting, twenty younger sons hugged their mothers and donned their armour and rode north to a far-off place called the Inn of Dorling.

It was spring, and young men’s fancy turned to war.

Chapter One

The Inn of Dorling-The Company

Sauce was standing on a table in a red kirtle that laced up under her left arm-laces that showed she wore no linen under it. She was singing.

There’s a palm bush in the garden where the lads and lassies meet,

For it would not do to do the do they’re doing in the street,

And the very first time he saw it he was very much impressed,

For to have a jolly rattle at my cuckoo’s nest.

Aye the cuckoo, oh the cuckoo, aye the cuckoo’s nest,

Aye the cuckoo, oh the cuckoo, aye the cuckoo’s nest,

I’ll give any man a shilling and a bottle of the best,

If he ruffles up the feathers on my cuckoo’s nest.

Well some likes the lassies that are gay well dressed,

And some likes the lassies that are tight about the waist,

But it’s in between the blankets, that they all likes the best,

For to have a jolly rattle at my cuckoo’s nest.

I met him in the morning and he had me in the night,

I’d never been that way before and wished to do it right,

But he never would have found it, and he never would have guessed,

If I had not shown him where to find the cuckoo’s nest.

I showed him where to find it and I showed him where to go,

In amongst the stickers, where the young cuckoos grow,

And ever since he found it, he will never let me rest,

’Til he ruffles up the feathers on my cuckoo’s nest.

It’s thorny and it’s sprinkled and it’s compassed all around,

It’s tucked into a corner where it isn’t easy found,

I said, “Young man you blunder…” and he said, “It isn’t true!”

And he left me with the makings of a young cuckoo.

Her voice wasn’t beautiful-it had a bit of a squawk to it, more like a parrot than a nightingale, as Wilful Murder said to his cronies. But she was loud, and raucous, and everyone knew the tune and the chorus.

Everyone, in this case, being everyone in the common room of the great stone inn under the Ings of Dorling, widely reputed to be the largest inn on the whole of the world. The common room had arches and bays, like a church, and massive pillars set straight onto stone piers that went down into the cellars below-cellars that were themselves famous. The walls were twice the height of a man, and more, hung with tapestries so old and so caked in old soot and ash and six hundred years of smoke as to be nearly indecipherable, although there appeared to be a great dragon on the longest wall, the back wall, against which ran the Keeper’s long counter where the staff, and a few favoured customers, took refuge from the army of customers out on the floor.

Because on this, the coldest spring night of Martius yet, with snow outside on their tents, the Company of the Red Knight-that is, that part of the company not snug in barracks back in Liviapolis-packed the inn and its barns to the rafters, along with several hundred Moreans, some Hillmen from the drove, and a startling assortment of sell-swords and mercenaries, whores, travelling players, and foolish young men and women in search of what they no doubt hoped would be “adventure,” including twenty hot-headed young Occitan knights, their pet troubadour and their squires, all armed to the teeth and eager to be tested.

The crowd standing packed on the two-inch-thick oak boards of the common room floor was so dense that the smallest and most attractive of the Keeper’s daughters had trouble making her way to the rooms behind the common. Men tried to make way for her, with her wooden tray full of leather jacks, and could not.

The Keeper had four great bonfires roaring in the yard and trestle tables there; he was serving ale in his cavernous stone barn, but everyone wanted to be in the inn itself, and the cold snap that froze the water in the puddles and drove the beasts of the drove to huddle close in the great pens and folds on the Ings above the inn was also forcing the greatest rush of customers he’d ever experienced to pack his common room so tightly that he was afraid men would die or, worse, buy no ale.

The Keeper turned to the young man who stood with him on the staff side of the bar. The young man had dark hair and green eyes and wore red. He was watching the common room with the satisfaction that an angel might show for the good works of the pious.

“Your blighted company and the drove at the same time? Couldn’t you have come a week apart? There won’t be enough forage for you in the hills.” The Keeper sounded shrill, even to his own ears.

Gabriel Muriens, the Red Knight, the Captain, the Megas Dukas, the Duke of Thrake, and possessor of another dozen titles heaped on him by a grateful Emperor, took a long pull from his own jack of black, sweet winter ale and beamed. “We’ll have forage,” he said. “It’s been warmer in the Brogat. It’s spring on the Albin.” He smiled. “And this is only a tithe of my company.” The smile grew warmer as he watched the recruiting table set against the wall. The adventurous young of six counties and three nations were cued up. “But it’s growing,” he added.

Forty of the Keeper’s people, most in his livery and all his kin, stood like soldiers at the long counter and served ale at an astounding rate. Gabriel watched them with the pleasure that a professional receives in watching others practise their craft-he enjoyed the smooth efficiency with which the Keeper’s wife kept her tallies, the speed with which money was collected or tally sticks were notched, and the ready ease with which casks were broached, emptied into pitchers, the said pitchers filled flagons or jacks or battered mugs and cans, all the while the staff moving up to the counter and then back to the broached kegs with the steady regularity of a company of crossbowmen loosing bolts by rotation and volley.

“They all seem to have coin to spend,” the Keeper admitted grudgingly. His elder daughter Sarah-a beautiful girl with red hair, married and widowed and now with a bairn, currently held by a cousin-stood where Sauce had been and sang an old song-a very old song. It had no chorus, and the Hillmen began to make sounds-like a low polyphonic hu ...