K Parker: Memory

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K Parker Memory
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Memory: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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K J Parker


Chapter One

Precepts of religion. Every victory is a defeat. Every cut made is a wound received. Every strength is a weakness. Every time you kill, you die.

In which case, he thought, clawing briars away from in front of his face as he ran, the enemy must be taking a right pounding, the poor buggers. A dry branch snapped under his foot, startling him and throwing him off balance for a split second. Slow down, he urged himself; haste breeds delay. Another of those wonderful precepts.

Behind him, he could hear them, a confused noise, like a huge blind animal crashing through the brittle dead trees. Not a good place for a battle; not a good place for anything much, but certainly not for a battle, where you need to be able to see what's happening. Only the idiot son of a congenital idiot would pick a fight in a wood-can't see, can't move, can't hold the line, can't communicate, can't swing, can't do any bloody thing. Slow down, before you fall over and do yourself an injury.

Precepts of religion, he thought. Every strength is a weakness; well, quite, and by the same token every bloody stupid idea is a stroke of genius. Such as attacking a larger, better armed, better led enemy in the heart of a dark, boggy, overgrown forest-dumbest idea in the history of mankind; stroke of genius.

Twenty-five yards; that far he could see, at best, and no further (all these goddamned trees in the way), so he didn't have a clue what was going on, other than that he and what was left of his command were doing their best to run away from the enemy, last seen over there somewhere, unless (as he secretly suspected) they'd mislaid their sense of direction along with their courage and their brains, and were going round in circles-in which case, any moment now, they were due to crash into the back end of the enemy line. Fat lot of good it'd do them, heavy infantry in dense scrub. The finest spearmen in the Empire, trained to the utmost pitch of perfection to fight shoulder to shoulder (each man sheltered by his neighbour's shield, each man's shield sheltering his neighbour; what more perfect metaphor could there be?)-only that was precisely what they couldn't do, not with all this fucking lumber in the way. So instead they were puffing and stumbling from briar-tangle to sog-pit, either chasing or being chased, and a thousand years hence historians would pinpoint this moment as the decisive battle that changed the world for ever, and it'd all be his fault He saw them in the shadows, the debatable shades of grey between the black and green stripes, and for an agonised moment he couldn't make up his mind: our men or theirs? Then a little logical voice chimed in somewhere at the back of his mind: axes, they've got axes, none of our lot have got axes, they've got to be the enemy. He swung round, to see how many of his men were still at least vaguely with him, then wheeled back, waved with his sword and yelled, 'Charge!' Probably not a good thing to do, since they were already running as fast as they could go (under the misapprehension that they were running away; easy mistake to make); but they were broad-minded, they forgave him and carried on running, and a few seconds later he could hear shouts and the clatter of ironmongery as battle was joined. Great, he thought, I love it when things work out; and then he noticed that he was right up where the fighting was, and the man in front of him wasn't on his side. The last thought that crossed his mind before he diverted all his attention to not being killed was, Hang on, though, what about the Seventh Light Infantry? They're on our side and they've got axes. Every careless mistake is in fact the right answer. Precepts of fucking religion.

The man in front of him was just a man. A big, long, skinny bastard with a turkey neck, huge nose and knuckles, slashing at his head double-handed with an axe; he sidestepped, only to find there was a tree standing where a lifetime of diligent study and training dictated he ought to be, and he couldn't go there. So he ducked behind the tree instead. It did just as well as the low backhand parry in the fourth degree; in fact considerably better, since the skinny bastard's axe lodged itself in the soft, rotten wood and stayed there, defying the skinny bastard's best efforts to get it free. Nothing simpler, meanwhile, than to nip out round the other side of the tree and stick him under the armpit-not a true lunge from the middle ward, nothing like it at all, but it got the job done, and the poor dead bastard slid obligingly off the sword blade and flopped in a heap on the soft ground.

If that was supposed to prove a point or something, he thought, I'm far from convinced. He looked round, both ways and then behind, but for the moment at least he was mercifully alone. Remarkably so, in fact. Last time he'd looked there had been people everywhere, but now there wasn't a living soul (important distinction) to be seen. The battle, presumably, had got tired of waiting for him and gone on without him. Annoying, to say the least, since he had no way of knowing whether it was a winning battle going away in front of him, or a losing one that had swept past him while his attention was engaged elsewhere. I hate forests, he thought.

Precepts of religion, he muttered to himself; but just for once, there wasn't one that seemed even remotely relevant, so he pressed on forward to see what would happen. Silly, to be chasing after the war-his war-panting and yelling 'Wait for me!' like a fat man after the carrier's cart. Luckily, it hadn't got far. The battle was still there, just over a little stony hump and through a clump of holly bushes; it had contrived to get itself caught up in a tangle of brambles, like an old unshorn ewe.

Which wasn't how the historians would describe it, a thousand years hence. They would feel obliged to mention the wide, black, boggy rhine lurking under the mess of waist-high brambles (like it was somehow intentional, a clever idea on somebody's part) into which the enemy, retreating, had obligingly stumbled and got hopelessly stuck. And there they were, poor unfortunate bastards, mired in the smelly, wet black shit up to their thighs; it'd take a lot of clever men a long time and probably a couple of miles of rope to get them out of there, but that wasn't the job that needed doing. If only. But no, instead of that comparatively simple task, he had to do something really clever. He had to kill them.

By some miracle, his men hadn't charged down on them screaming battle-cries and got hopelessly stuck as well. They'd held back on the top of the rise-not common sense, he'd never accuse them of that, it was probably just that they were too pernickety to push through the briars and risk a scratch or two-and were waiting for someone to tell them what to do. Someone; anyone; him.

On the other side of the rhine (it was an old drain, he observed; dug a hundred years ago in a vain attempt to draw off the surface water from the hillside, but all it had done was silt up and make things infinitely worse) he could see a dozen or so of the enemy, also standing about listlessly, also trying to figure out what they were supposed to be doing. Best guess was, they'd somehow managed to scramble through the mud, maybe treading on their comrades' shoulders to get across, and now they were thinking that maybe it was their duty to go back and try and help get them out, except that then they'd get stuck too, and everybody would end up dead. Safe to ignore them, he thought, they'll get scared and bugger off as soon as I've thought up a way of slaughtering their friends. Meanwhile the main part of the enemy forces (as the historians will describe them) were still floundering in the stinking mud, every frantic effort to get loose pulling them in deeper.

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