K Parker: The Belly of the Bow

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K Parker The Belly of the Bow
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    The Belly of the Bow
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    Фэнтези / на английском языке
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It was an awkward business, that clash of arms in the darkness. The man he came up against must have taken him for one of his own, because he turned to meet him with his shield lowered, started to say something but never got the chance to finish. Gorgas shot him from about four feet away, and he could hear the arrowshaft snap under the force of such a close impact. The man went down without a sound, and Gorgas looked around quickly. He could no longer tell friend from enemy himself, which was disconcerting. He quickly nocked another arrow and started to flex the bow, ready to make the last pull and push to full draw as soon as a target presented itself. In the event, he didn’t have long to wait. Someone barged towards him, presumably an enemy, certainly too close to take risk. He opened his chest into the strain of the bow, and something snapped.

For a moment he wasn’t sure what had happened. Something had hit him hard, in the face and the pit of the stomach simultaneously, and his fear told him the enemy had taken him and he was done for. But the man he’d been about to shoot had brushed past him, gone on a few paces and suddenly fallen; and then Gorgas realised that his own bow had broken at full draw, and the two ferocious blows he’d taken were the two limbs of the bow striking him. He swore joyfully, at the same time gloriously happy to be alive and furious that his favourite bow was broken. Why would it do that after all these years? he demanded angrily as he let go of the handle and fumbled for his sword. Of all the rotten luck

Someone was standing directly in front of him, no more than a foot or so away. Gorgas pulled out his knife – the damned thing snagged in the sheath, nearly didn’t come out – and stabbed quickly. The other man gave a little sigh and folded up, his own weight pulling him off the knife. As he slid to the ground, Gorgas saw that he was an enemy.

When he looked round again, he realised it was over. There were men with torches running down the slope from the stockade – his reserves, too late and not needed. Just in time he remembered to give the order to disengage, before anybody mistook anybody else for an enemy. That, he realised as he stepped over the body of the man he’d just killed, had probably happened a few times in the course of the evening’s events; but in the dark nobody else would know, there’d be no point worrying about it. These things happen.

The torchlight showed him a sight he could be well satisfied with. About seventy of the enemy had dropped their weapons and sat down as soon as they’d realised they’d been had; the rest of the raiders were dead, most of them taken out in the first two volleys. He’d lost seven killed and a score or so injured, only a handful seriously. There was one man with an arrow through his lung; he wasn’t going to make it and that was unfortunate, since none of the raiders had carried bows. He noticed another man whose face had been cut open from the cheekbone to the lip, so that his cheek was peeled back to show his teeth and jaw. There were enemy wounded too, but the Bank’s policy was quite clear there and saved him the trouble of making a decision.

‘All right,’ he said in a loud voice, ‘looks like we’re all through here. We’ll get some sleep and bury the bodies in the morning.’ He looked round and found the young clerk he’d been next to before the ambush. ‘Get the wounded up to the farm, organise some clean water and bandages. You’d better put them in the main house. The rest of us can go in the long barn.’

The young man nodded and hurried away. He looked very shaken, appropriately enough for a kid after his first taste of combat, and having something to do would help take his mind off things. Gorgas knelt down and picked up two pieces of stick joined by a waxy string.

‘That’s your bow,’ said a voice above his head. He nodded.

‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘The bitch snapped on me right in the middle of things. Pity, I’d had it years.’

The other man, a senior clerk who worked in his office, sat down on the ground beside him. ‘It went off all right,’ he said.

‘Can’t grumble,’ Gorgas replied. ‘Except for this. I’d better go and talk to the farmer. After all, that’s what we’re here for.’

He stood up and walked away, taking the broken bow with him. Somehow he couldn’t bring himself just to throw it away.

The farmer and his family were in the main house, the man piling up wood on the fire, his wife fussing round another man with a slight but messy scalp wound, while the children scampered about the place with jugs of water, blankets and strips of linen torn for bandages. Gorgas suddenly found he wasn’t in the mood for being praised and thanked, but the whole point of the exercise had been to show these people that he could protect them, so he had to go through the motions, say the right things – it was nothing, a pleasure, that’s what we’re here for, time we showed those bastards they can’t do that kind of stuff any more. He was good at it, usually. Tonight, though, he just wanted to wash and go to sleep, and in the morning go home to his own house and family.

‘We owe you everything,’ the farmer’s wife was saying, ‘everything. We’ll never forget what you’ve done for us, risking your lives and…’

‘That’s all right,’ he replied, perhaps a trifle curtly. ‘Like we told you at the beginning, it’s all part of the service. You just be sure and tell your neighbours.’ He remembered something. ‘Now then,’ he went on, ‘we’re going to need some ground to bury the bodies. If it’s all right by you, we’ll dig the grave there, where the fighting was. My men want to be on their way, we’d rather not spend time in the morning ferrying corpses about.’

The farmer clearly didn’t like the sound of that, and Gorgas could see his point; it was fallow right now, but the battlefield was a good flat strip of land that probably yielded a decent crop, far too valuable to waste. He suppressed a grin, thinking of what his father would have said if someone had suggested burying a couple of hundred bodies in their back two-acre. ‘That’s settled, then,’ he said. ‘We’ll see to it in the morning. No need for you to bother.’

The farmer looked at him and said nothing. He could read the man’s eyes, the thought of having to go back and dig up two hundred graves, load the mouldy remains into a boat and tip them out in the sea. Days, even weeks of work before the patch would be ready for the plough, when they should be harrowing for the winter barley. He was right, it wasn’t fair. ‘On second thoughts,’ he said, ‘why don’t we cart them down to the sea for you? It’ll be no trouble.

The farmer’s face brightened and he nodded; a man of few words, clearly. His wife made up the balance with a further gush of gratitude. Gorgas stifled a yawn and went out to the barn.

Maybe they’re used to this sort of thing, he thought, as he walked across the courtyard. The place was recognisably a farm – every inch of space used for something, nothing for show, everything for a purpose – but it wasn’t like the farms among which he’d grown up. The stockade of twelve-foot stakes, the thick walls and massive gates, a fortified tower instead of a farmhouse; as if the life wasn’t hard enough already. Why did people do this sort of thing to each other? Pointless question; it’s the way things are here. They must like it like this. He suggested as much to his friend the senior clerk.

‘I don’t think so,’ the clerk replied. ‘They’re just used to it, that’s all. Amazing what you can grow up not noticing, just because it’s always been there. Our farm wasn’t much different from this. A lot bigger, of course,’ he added quickly, ‘we were a good family. But the same basic shape – perimeter, except ours was stone, and we had a gatehouse as well as a tower. Once, back in my great-grandfather’s time, we were besieged for six days.’ He sounded proud of that; Gorgas didn’t follow it up.

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