King’s Men

King's Men

 

THE MONASTERY

 

The wind whipped across the mountainside, howling like a demon. There were no trees to impede it, only straggling gorse bushes clinging low to the ground, and against it Mick’s heavy woollen coat may as well have been thin cotton. He huddled in on himself, aware of his companion doing the same. Their ponies seemed unaffected; shaggy-haired little beasts with sure feet, far more sensible than long-legged horses on this kind of terrain.
For nearly a week of travelling they had been lucky with the weather. It had been cold but fair, helping them gain back some of the two days they had lost picking their way through a saturated bog. Now the dark clouds congregating overhead threatened a soggy end to that good fortune. Mick hoped they could reach the monastery in time to avoid a soaking. He clicked at his pony, encouraging it to pick up the pace as they climbed towards the pass that cut through the ridge above them.
Aidan rode up beside him just before they crested the rise. ‘How much further?’ he asked, his cheeks ruddy.
‘Not far,’ Mick reassured him. He glanced up at the sky. ‘I hope.’
Aidan snorted. ‘Bloody ridiculous, living in the middle of nowhere.’
‘I’m told monks like it like that.’ Mick knew that Aidan would pick up the teasing note in his voice; they had known each other for years. With their similar looks – thick black hair, black stubble, square jaws – people often mistook them for brothers.
‘Godfrey had better be pleased to see us.’
‘He will be,’ said Mick. ‘I don’t imagine the last two years have exactly been the most interesting in his life.’
They crested the rise, and the world opened up before them. They were at the head of a valley, steep-sided and deep, as though some god had dealt the earth a mighty axe-blow, splitting it like dried wood. A lake filled the bottom, so black and still that there was no telling its depths. At the far end of the lake, a mile or so distant and partially concealed by what had to be the only trees for miles, was a cluster of stone buildings. Beyond them the land fell away again to a broad plain, and the grey sea in the distance.
Mick started down the slope, out of the wind into blessed silence, but Aidan reined up and squinted ahead.
‘Something’s wrong.’
‘What?’ Mick followed Aidan’s gaze but could see nothing unexpected.
‘There, and there, see? At the monastery. There’s been a fire.’ Aidan turned to Mick with a lopsided smile. ‘Young eyes see better than old, I guess.’
‘Call me old again and I’ll beat you to a pulp.’ Mick returned none of the other man’s humour. He tugged absently at his earring as he tried to make out the details of the distant buildings. ‘You’re right, something’s wrong. And here we are prancing about on the skyline like idiots, just like in Dema, and you remember what happened then. Get moving.’

 

The closer they got to the monastery, the more apparent the devastation became. Most of the wooden roofs had gone; the outbuildings were nothing more than piles of charred wood. Black soot stains outlined every smashed window. In places, grey smoke still curled up, reaching for the sky.
Mick dismounted at the edge of the trees; the monastery’s small orchard. He tied his pony up to a low branch of an apple tree, signalling to Aidan to follow suit. He made sure that both his weapons – his gun for speed, his long knife for silence – were within easy reach, and held a hand up for caution as they continued on foot. The smell was terrible, burned wood mixed with other burned things that Mick didn’t even want to think about.
The first fat drops of rain began to fall as they walked in among the grey buildings. The smell of smoke here was almost overpowering; Mick heard Aidan cough, and it was only through an effort
of will that he managed not to do the same. The silence was just a precaution; it seemed that there was nobody left to hear them.
They reached the central cloister unchallenged, and took shelter from the rain under the intricate arcade.
‘What do we do now, boss?’ asked Aidan. ‘Get out of here sharpish, I say.’
Mick shook his head thoughtfully. Several cold drops of water dislodged themselves from his hair and ran down inside his collar. ‘We came here to find Godfrey. We can’t leave without him. Split up, search everywhere. If you find anything, shout. There’s nobody else to hear but us.’
Mick took the closest door, stepping into the refectory. Wooden benches had been kicked everywhere before they had been torched, leaving the floor dotted with precarious charcoal structures. He was just beginning to pick his careful way through them when he heard Aidan’s wordless shout.
Backtracking quickly and following the sound, he found Aidan in the chapel. It was a small building, no more than an isolated monastery required. The narrow stretch of grass separating it from the cloister had saved it from the fire, but not from desecration; the pews were all overturned, and the murals on the walls defaced. Aidan was at the top of the nave by the altar, kneeling over a prone figure dressed in a brown robe. Mick ran up beside him.
‘He’s still alive,’ whispered Aidan. ‘Barely.’
Mick knelt on the cold stone floor and touched the man’s shoulder. He was elderly, with wild white hair that reminded Mick of nothing so much as a puff of cottongrass. The front of his robe was dark with blood. Mick made a guess.
‘Father Clement?’ he asked softly. ‘Father Clement, can you hear me?’
The man stirred and opened bloodshot blue eyes. He opened his mouth to speak and his throat worked, but no sound came out.
‘Aidan, fetch a water bottle and a blanket.’
Aidan left the chapel at a run.
While he was waiting, Mick took off his coat and tucked it behind the old man’s head, all the while speaking quiet reassurances.
‘Are you Father Clement?’ he asked, when he thought he had got the man as comfortable as possible.
The abbot nodded. Mick nodded back, and stayed there, holding his hand, until Aidan returned.
‘Here.’ Mick uncorked the water skin and let a trickle into the abbot’s mouth, a bit at a time, until Clement signalled he was satisfied. Aidan laid the blanket gently over him.
‘Who are you?’ croaked the abbot.
‘My name’s Mick Donohue. What happened here?’
‘Mick Donohue.’ Clement thought for a moment. ‘The mercenary… a friend of Brother Godfrey’s.’
‘Not today. Just an errand boy. King’s errand boy. We came for Godfrey.’
The abbot smiled ghoulishly, each of his teeth outlined in blood. ‘And they came for you. You were supposed to be here yesterday, they said. They were here for you and Godfrey. When I couldn’t produce you, they…’ His voice trailed off, and he flapped a hand towards a barred door to one side of the altar.
At a glance from Mick, Aidan went over. He lifted the bar from the door with difficulty and pulled it open, drawing a loud creak from its tired hinges. The most awful smell washed over them in a blast of warmer air, and Aidan gagged. Mick covered his nose with his sleeve.
‘They burned them.’ Aidan’s voice shook. ‘They locked the monks in the crypt and they burned them.’
A tear escaped from the corner of Father Clement’s eye. ‘I tried to open the door.’ His voice was hoarse. ‘I tried, but…’ He gestured down at himself, his hand trembling.
‘You did all you could,’ said Mick quietly. Turning to Aidan, he mouthed, ‘Godfrey?’
Aidan spread his hands helplessly. ‘No way to tell,’ he whispered. ‘Not any more.’
‘Who were they?’ Mick tried to keep his voice gentle as he addressed the dying man, but he still noticed the edge to it.
‘King’s men. They were the king’s men, king’s errand boy. Come for you and Godfrey. I sheltered Godfrey for two years at my king’s command, let him live his masquerade among us, kept him safe, and I was happy to do service for my king, but this?’ He shuddered as he stopped for breath. ‘This is…’ He trailed off into silence and his eyes fluttered shut.
‘Clement? Father Clement?’ Mick touched the abbot’s shoulder, and drew his knife. When Clement opened his eyes again, Mick showed him the sharp blade. ‘I can make it quicker for you, Father. A clean end. Just say the word.’
Clement smiled his gruesome smile again. ‘No, my son. There are too many murders on your soul already. I would… not have one more added, not for my sake. I… am an old man. I can wait a little longer to die.’ He closed his eyes, his breath rough and uneven.

 

The abbot died a little over an hour later, as the dusk was closing in and the rain pattered steadily down on the roof. Between them, Mick and Aidan wrapped the abbot in the fine linen altar cloth and laid him on the altar.
‘D’you think it’s true?’ asked Aidan. ‘They came for us?’
Mick gathered up his jacket from the floor and reached for the letter kept safe and dry inside it. ‘The king gave me this, to give to Father Clement the morning after we arrived.’ He broke the royal seal and unfolded the paper.
Aidan’s knuckles were white as he gripped the edge of the altar. ‘What is it?’
Mick held up the letter so Aidan could see the perfectly white sheet of paper. ‘Blank,’ he said.
They heard the sound of heavy footsteps squelching through the mud at the same time. Both Aidan and Mick spun, their guns ready in their hands, as a man walked through the door. The newcomer was tall and bald, wearing dripping wet labourer’s clothes, and seemed incongruously calm to be faced with two armed men.
‘You’re late,’ he said. ‘And you really should set some kind of lookout.’
‘Godfrey!’ Mick holstered his gun and strode down the chapel to embrace the newcomer. ‘Don’t sneak up on us like that; you’ll get yourself killed.’
‘You could try.’ Godfrey gestured to the shrouded figure on the altar. ‘Father Clement?’
Mick nodded.
‘Bloody shame. He was a good man. Hello, Aidan. Keeping well?’
‘Godfrey,’ interrupted Mick. ‘What happened here? The abbot said the king’s men came for us. You and me both.’
‘You and me and anyone with us,’ confirmed Godfrey. ‘That would be Aidan too. Only you had to go and be late, didn’t you?’
‘That wasn’t our fault,’ interjected Aidan.
‘Be that as it may,’ continued Godfrey. ‘They had a royal warrant to kill us all. Father Clement barred the doors against them, and they didn’t like that very much. I only got out because they didn’t expect any of the monks to know how to make a fist, let alone throw a punch. Grabbed these clothes on my way, shaved my tonsure off when I knew I was well away, and I’ve been waiting for you two to show up all day.’ He rubbed his bald head self-consciously. ‘I was hoping that you’d know what the hell happened.’
Mick shook his head.
‘Damn. Some mistake, maybe?’
‘Not likely.’ Aidan picked up the blank letter and held it out for Godfrey to inspect. ‘That don’t look accidental to me.’
‘Nor me.’ Godfrey looked at the paper front and back, then let it fall to the floor.
Mick tugged at his earring. ‘The king’s getting old,’ he said. ‘He sees shadows in every corner, ghosts in every shadow. He had the captain of the guard hanged for treason two months back.’
‘What? Big Brendan?’ Godfrey snorted. ‘My left shoe’s more likely to be treasonous.’
‘And if the king decided Big Brendan can commit treason?’ Mick left the words hanging in the air.
For a long moment the only sound was the rain on the roof. ‘Why does this shit always happen to us?’ spat Aidan. ‘First in Allevasse, then Dema, now bloody here. I’m sick and bloody tired of running away from people who want to bloody kill me.’
‘There’s an alternative to running,’ said Mick. ‘Fight.’
‘Bollocks to running,’ Godfrey snarled. ‘I bloody hate it. We should end this on our own terms. Show the world what happens when a king tries to kill his own men.’
‘You’re talking treason,’ said Mick quietly.
Godfrey shrugged. ‘Don’t see what difference it makes, myself. The king seems to think I’m guilty already. May as well prove him right; he’ll never admit he’s wrong.’
Mick nodded. ‘Aidan?’
Aidan swallowed. ‘You’re in charge,’ he said, eventually.
‘I am. We fight.’

 

Night had fallen completely by the time they finished burying Father Clement. They left the monks in the crypt; there was nothing they could do for them. Once they were done, they scavenged what they could from the monastery and loaded up both ponies with supplies. They set off into the rain, three men leading two ponies, slipping on the mud under their feet.
‘There’s a man I know who can get us a boat to Chalce,’ Godfrey said. ‘Down by the sea, maybe ten miles from here.’
‘Can he be trusted?’ asked Aidan.
‘Aye.’
They walked for a few moments in cold silence before Mick spoke. ‘Then we go there,’ he said. ‘But before we set sail, I want to send a message to the king.’
He could not see Aidan’s face in the dark, but the astonished tone in his voice was enough. ‘A message? What kind of bloody message? Gather the household guard, the lads are coming to get you?’
Mick’s smile was grim. ‘A blank one,’ he said.

 

THE CITY

 

Dawn in Chalce. Mick walked the streets alone, his hands in his pockets. In one respect, walking alone through this part of the city in the half-light before sunrise was close to suicidal. In another, only a blind man would fail to spot the outline of his pistol beneath his jacket. Carrying a gun conferred a level of untouchability in a country where nobody else possessed any weaponry more advanced than a crossbow. Not to mention that it made them very employable – or so they had thought when they had arrived. Now it apparently made them very killable as well.
His route took him past one of the city’s three cathedrals. He stopped and watched from across the street as the priests filed in to sing matins, past the twin statues of the king flanking the great door. Mick’s lip curled. The king who was worshipped as the representative of god on earth – a god Mick didn’t even believe in. The king who renounced his name as he claimed his throne because the representative of god on earth needed no name – but Mick knew what it had been. The king who had gone insane, believing himself to be a representative of god on earth, and slaughtered an entire monastery full of monks who had only been there to worship him in the first place.
Mick turned away. He walked until the sun cleared the horizon and the market-men were beginning to lay out their stalls, then turned his feet towards the river and the shed they had rented out at the quays. They were living, sleeping and eating there, the three of them in a space no larger than a small guardroom. Three weeks now. No wonder he needed some time to himself.
The smell of fish hung in the air as he returned. It had pervaded all their belongings, their hair and clothes, to such an extent that Mick was no longer certain he would ever be free of it.
‘What’s the craic?’ Aidan asked through a mouthful of the cold soup he was eating for breakfast, as Mick entered the shed.
‘Slums are edgy as a knife. Uptown not much better.’
‘Good,’ said Godfrey. ‘Fucking uncivilised city. I want to go home.’ His hair had grown out by a bare inch, bristling in every direction. Mick thought it gave him the look of a startled hedgehog, but knew better than to say so.
‘We’ll go home just as soon as we can be certain we won’t get knifed in our sleep when we get there.’
‘And find an employer with decent plumbing.’
‘Aye.’ Mick grinned as he pulled out his gun. ‘Though there are advantages in being somewhere less civilised.’ He checked it was fully loaded and thrust it back into his waistband.
‘You’re just as dead from a crossbow bolt,’ said Aidan.
‘Aye. But crossbow bolts only come your way one at a time.’
‘Not if you’re facing an army.’
Godfrey reached out and smacked Aidan on the shoulder. ‘Right little ray of sunshine, you are.’
‘What d’you expect?’
‘Are we ready, then?’ cut in Mick, before a full-scale argument could develop.
Aidan put down his empty bowl. ‘Aye, boss.’
‘I reckon we are,’ added Godfrey.
‘Right, then. Let’s to work.’

 

They took only what they strictly needed and could easily carry, leaving all their other possessions in the shed. If they succeeded, they wouldn’t be coming back. If they failed, they wouldn’t be going anywhere except three shallow holes in the ground.
Godfrey was right, Mick thought as they moved through the streets. This was a primitive country, a primitive city, all stone walls and unpaved streets. Whatever had motivated him to come here? Because your last employer was trying to kill you, he reminded himself. It seemed like he brought out the worst in his employers.
Enough. A casual observer might not notice, but the whole city was nervy as a mouse who sniffed a cat. Mick made one sharp gesture and his men pulled away from him. Now all three of them were heading in different directions, three men with hard expressions. Three men who looked like they knew what was going on. Three men who would stop and talk to people, to stall holders, to street sellers, to idlers. To the people who would pass on every interesting snippet of information they heard. Rumours, gossip – outright sedition.
And the people were ready to hear it. They had been ready for weeks, hungry for an excuse, and for three weeks Mick had fed that hunger. Now he laid a feast, among the perfumed skirts of the prostitutes and the green smell of the vegetable market.
New taxes coming, to pay for war.
Conscription coming. Every man between sixteen and thirty.
Curfew planned. New laws. Dissent punishable by death.
Even at noon, the sun was no more than three-quarters of the way up the sky, and a chill breeze funnelled through every narrow alley. Still, it was midday as midday ever was in this part of the world, and that was the signal to stop talking. They met in Palace Square.
‘Nice and quiet,’ observed Godfrey, looking round.
‘Worryingly quiet, you might say,’ added Aidan with a smirk.
Mick grinned back and tugged on his earring. ‘You might also say it all depends on your point of view. And I wouldn’t want to have the point of view of the captain of the guard right now.’ He remembered nights drinking with Big Brendan, and he remembered the large man’s feet kicking desperately at thin air as the hangman’s noose grabbed at his neck. He remembered the cold silence of the crowd, and the clenched fists of Cal, Brendan’s brother, standing beside him. Three men had called themselves captain of the guard since then, each lasting a shorter time than the last before simply vanishing in the night – or the day. The current captain, at least as far as yesterday, was called Lorcan. Mick had run a mission with him three years ago when they had first arrived in Korad, and remembered a self-confident young man with a natural authority to him. Another five years and he might have made a good leader. It was a shame.
Together, the three men sauntered out into the middle of the near-deserted square. The royal palace and other civic buildings rose up around them, dark towers brushing the sky. Eyes watched them from all around, silent and invisible, but undoubtedly there.
‘Feel exposed any?’ asked Aidan.
‘Speak for yourself,’ said Godfrey. ‘I’m fully dressed.’
‘Shut up, both,’ said Mick. He went no further than that, recognising the banter as a disguise for nerves. Long time since any of them had felt nerves. Long time since they’d tried anything this insane.
‘Our friends?’ Aidan nodded towards the opposite side of the square and a group of men gathered in the deep shadow of an archway.
‘Our friends.’ Mick walked forward, leaving Aidan and Godfrey in plain sight as he approached the archway. ‘Good to see you turned up, Cal. Thanks for bringing your lads.’
One of the men stepped out of the shadows just far enough that the sun illuminated a pockmarked forehead and flattened nose. ‘Me lad delivered your piece of paper. Didn’t hang around to see how it was took.’
‘No need for him to,’ said Mick. ‘Tell your lad thanks, from me. Are we on, then?’
‘We’d bloody better be. Elsewise I’ll be raisin’ hell.’
Mick smiled. ‘Raising hell is what I want you to be doing, Cal. You do it better than anyone.’
Cal grunted and turned away, addressing the men gathered behind him. ‘You heard the boss. Get going.’
With wolfish grins or silent nods, the men drifted off in different directions around the edge of the square. Only Mick and Cal saw each of them gain speed and purpose, just as soon as they were out of sight of the palace.
‘Don’t you have somewhere to be?’ asked Cal. ‘Waitin’ for someone?’
‘Aye. I can leave the rest to you?’
‘Course you bloody can. Y’said it, raisin’ hell is what I’m good at.’
Mick nodded. ‘Do it, then.’ He returned to Aidan and Godfrey. ‘Drawing enough attention?’
‘Aye, I reckon so.’ Godfrey’s eyes were fixed on the barred window above the palace gates. Behind the bars something moved, and sunlight gleamed on polished metal for the briefest of moments.
‘They haven’t shot us,’ observed Aidan.
‘Bright lad,’ said Godfrey. ‘Good of you to notice.’
Aidan glared at him. ‘I meant – ’
‘He knows what you meant.’ Mick drew his pistol and aimed it at the window, enjoying the sudden flurry of movement it elicited. A crossbow bolt clattered to the ground a few metres in front of them. ‘See?’ He re-holstered his gun. ‘You should trust me more. Let’s go.’

 

It was blacker than witching hour. Which was good in one respect, because it meant that Mick could be almost certain he was alone. After all, what kind of lunatic would come down here without light? Apart from himself, obviously.
On the other hand, it did mean that he had to focus that much more on his other senses to guide him. To listen to the water splashing around his feet, without thinking too hard about what else might be in it. To run his hand along the slimy wall and pretend he touched nothing but innocent moss. To sniff his way to fresh air through the foul without thinking – well, without thinking anything, really.
It was less than half a mile and couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes, but he was still grateful when empty space opened up beneath his left hand. He took the turning and found the bottom step sooner than he had anticipated, tripping and almost going face-first in the muck.
Twenty nine steps up. Mick counted them. At the top, just a little light crept around the edges of a heavy wooden door. He reached out, found the broken lock and the knot of rope that now held it closed. It was still his handiwork; nobody else had come through since he, Aidan and Godfrey had used the sewer as their entrance to the city three weeks ago.
Two knife slashes dealt with the knot, and the door swung outwards. Mick stepped out on to hard-packed earth – the dry moat beneath the landward city walls. A few feet away, tethered to a misshapen tree, a horse munched on the scrubby grass.
‘Thank you, Cal,’ Mick murmured as he approached it. This was no shaggy mountain pony, but a sleek, long-legged beast, built for speed and distance. Cal had provided a lightweight saddle, and a pack with a few days’ food and water. Blessing the man under his breath, Mick greeted the beautiful creature with a gentle scratch on the nose.
He didn’t worry about being spotted as he moved out from the shelter of the walls and manoeuvred the horse out of the moat. From the distant shouts drifting over the walls, the guards would be more concerned with what was happening inside the city, and any that were looking their way wouldn’t raise any fuss about one man leaving.
Up on level ground, he mounted. The line of the forest sheltered him as he skirted the edge of the city. At one point, a distant explosion had him smiling grimly to himself. A few minutes later smoke began to rise inside the walls; first one column, then two and three, then at least a dozen.
There was movement in the trees up ahead. Mick pulled his gun and kept it steady until he heard Aidan’s voice.
‘If you shoot me, boss, I’ll bloody kill you!’
‘Just checking.’ Mick waited for Aidan to duck under some low-hanging branches. ‘How goes it?’
‘Well.’ Aidan smiled. ‘The crowd’s gathering in Palace Square. Cal and his lads have them well riled up. And it seems Cal’s boy is a proper little firebug.’
‘Is he now?’ Mick tugged at his earring. ‘Then things might move faster than I thought.’

 

Mick and Aidan waited at the crest of a rise, from where they could survey the two city gates closest to the palace. The sun hung low in the sky, hazed with smoke from the single, massive pillar of smoke into which the thin columns had merged. The slope beneath them was lit by a shifting orange light from the fires; ash drifted towards them on the breeze.
‘We’re on the skyline, boss.’ Aidan’s horse shifted nervously even as he did.
‘I know.’ Mick kept his back straight and a tight hold on the rein. ‘We’re doing things differently now. Hadn’t you noticed?’
‘Aye,’ Aidan admitted, then, ‘He should be here by now.’
‘Godfrey, or the king?’
‘Both.’
They turned together at the sound of hoofbeats approaching from behind.
‘Only me!’ came a shout. ‘Don’t shoot us!’ Cal set his horse to a gallop up the last of the slope. ‘Thank god I found you.’ He held his reins one-handed; his other hand busy steadying the boy of around twelve who sat in front of him.
Mick ran through all the possible scenarios in his mind, and found he liked none of them. ‘Godfrey.’
Cal shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, friend. Sorry both. The guards caught up with us setting the ‘splosives off in the sewers. Crossbowed him straight, they did. And I don’t think me and my lad are welcome in the city no more.’ He squeezed the lad around the waist. ‘This’s me lad, Bren. Named for his uncle, who done the family so proud.’
Was the expression on his face anything like that on Aidan’s? Mick thought it possible. His hands were shaking, but not from fear.
‘Look, lookit!’ Bren pointed. ‘There!’
Almost invisible in the smoke-shadows, a knot of horsemen had emerged from one of the gates and was riding for the trees.
‘Young eyes,’ said Aidan.
‘I’ll not quibble.’ He was cold now. Very cold. Grieve later. ‘Last one to kill a king has to row us home.’

 

With the ash blowing like grit in his face and the horse’s steady gallop eating up the distance, Mick could almost empty his mind and forget. Almost.
Aidan was level with him; glancing sideways he could see his friend’s profile black against the fire-glow. Another set of hoofbeats sounded from behind – gods, that had better not be Cal with his boy.
They had been seen, but they were between the riders and their destination. The only other place they could go was back to the city, and Mick could well imagine that was not a tempting prospect. Closer now, he could count six, all told. About what they had planned for – a small party, for speed. Two-to-one odds, with Godfrey. Three-to-one, without.
Their targets put on a fresh turn of speed and veered to one side, hoping to bypass them, but Mick and Aidan had the fresher horses and were coming downhill. As they closed, Mick finally gave vent to the wild yell of fury that had been building inside him for three weeks. Aidan’s voice rose to join his, then Cal’s. Gods, he really was following. Six-to-two-and-a-half, then, assuming Cal would be hampered some by Bren.
Slowly, warily, realising that they had no choice, the riders drew up into a loose group. Four of them lifted crossbows from their saddles, one drew a sword. The last, in the middle of the group, gripped the pommel of his saddle and glared at them from under grey brows.
‘Highness.’ With his gun in one hand and long knife in the other, Mick pressed his knees inward to keep his horse still. ‘Can’t say I’m glad to see you. Can’t say I’m surprised, either. Running away from that?’ He let the tip of his knife twitch towards the city.
The king pointed at him. ‘Traitor. Kill him.’
Mick spread his hands. ‘Really? Highness, I’m hurt.’ In truth, he couldn’t think of much except the four crossbow bolts aimed at his heart. But they hadn’t fired yet, and that had to be a good thing.
‘What are you waiting for?’ screamed the king. ‘Kill him!’
Mick sketched a mocking bow. ‘I don’t kill so easy as a monastery full of monks, Highness. And I can still shoot with a crossbow bolt in me; done it before. Can your men still shoot me with a bullet in them?’ Why was he not dead yet? Then he took a closer look at the man with the sword – Lorcan. He had his hand slightly raised, out of sight of the king. Mick was certain that if that hand dropped it would be the end. It was good to know who really gave the orders here.
‘I am god on earth!’ Spit flew from the king’s mouth. ‘You’ll die when I say you die!’
Aidan rode up beside Mick. ‘With all due respect, Highness, we don’t even believe in your god. And it don’t look to me like we’re dying right now.’ He nudged Mick’s foot with his own, dropping a hint. Mick took it, although puzzled as to why, and stepped his horse a little to the side. Three crossbow bolts followed him; one stayed on Aidan. None on Cal, he realised – Bren was keeping him safe.
Lorcan’s face was impassive. ‘What do you do here, Donohue?’
‘You know what. You’ve seen my death warrant.’
‘And I should let you? And dance for the hangman?’
‘You’ll dance that dance anyway, Lorcan; you know you will.’ And he did; Mick could see it in his face. He could also see why Aidan had moved him to one side – the lines were clear.
Yes, he could fire with a crossbow bolt in him – as long as it wasn’t right between his eyes – but fire straight? Possibly not. But if his first shot took out the guard closest to him, that man’s falling body would block the shot of the man behind, giving him a fraction of a second’s grace. He was willing to bet that Aidan had positioned himself similarly.
‘Lorcan.’ Cal spoke softly. ‘My brother said you were a good sort. Cut your losses, mate. Come on, now.’
The king made a snatch at the sword, and Lorcan wrenched it out of his reach. ‘Traitor! yelled the king, and a gunshot exploded. Mick threw himself forward, aiming, ready to dodge crossbow bolts, but a remarkable stillness descended. No more shots were fired, no crossbow bolts flew at him. The guard he was aiming at didn’t react to him; he looked stunned more than anything else.
The king fell to the ground with a thud.
Lorcan lowered his sword.
Mick sat up and looked around, catching Aidan’s eye as he did so. Aidan shook his head – he hadn’t been the one to fire. Cal?
Not Cal. He looked just as shocked as the guards. Bren. The gun was still in his hands, though his young arms were trembling with the weight. Godfrey’s gun.
The boy looked at Mick. ‘Took it off ‘im in the sewers.’ He looked down at the body of the king and frowned. ‘He killed me uncle.’
‘Aye,’ said Mick softly. ‘Aye, he did.’ He sat up and turned to Lorcan. ‘With us?’
The young captain turned to look back at the city. Mick knew it wasn’t much of a choice he was presented with. ‘I’ll be held as guilty as you,’ said Lorcan.
‘You will.’
Lorcan nodded. ‘With you.’
The other four guards had already stowed their crossbows. Mick looked at them askance.
‘I’ve no wish to face the hangman,’ said one. ‘If you’ll let me travel with you, just to Risharr, I’ll be gone then.’ The other three nodded.
Mick tugged at his reins. ‘If you travel with me to Risharr, and I like you, might just be I’ll keep you.’ He turned his horse without waiting for a reply. If these men were to be his, they had to learn he was in charge.
Aidan rode up beside him as they turned their backs to the burning city. ‘Got ourselves a crew, boss?’
‘Maybe.’ Mick smiled. ‘Maybe.’

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