K Parker: Shadow

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K Parker Shadow
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Shadow: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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K J Parker


Chapter One

He opened his eyes and looked down. He had no idea where he was. A long way below, he could see a man's body lying in churned-up mud beside a river. It lay sideways, as if in bed, one cheek submerged in a shallow pool, still enough to form a mirror. That struck him as a pleasantly absurd symmetry; one side of the man's face buried in mud, the other side duplicated by the reflection. There were red splashes in the pool that could be blood or, just as easily, something far less melodramatic. At first he assumed it was a peaceful scene, until it occurred to him to wonder why anybody would choose to sleep in such a position.

Then he heard voices. That was what put him on notice that something was wrong; because one voice belonged to the sleeper, the other quite definitely seemed to be coming from the reflection.

'I've had it with you,' the sleeper's voice said. 'I can't take any more of this; it's all completely out of control and I just don't want to know you any more. And look at me when I'm talking to you.'

(Instinctively he knew that the unconscious body was his own.)

'You've said all this before,' the reflection replied. 'You don't mean it. I'm not listening.'

'The hell with you,' the sleeper replied furiously. 'You know, that's probably what I hate about you the most, the way you just look away every time I say something you don't want to hear. Just for once, why can't you listen to me?'

'Because you never say anything worth listening to,' the reflection said. 'Oh come on, I've heard it all before. You aren't going to leave me, you wouldn't last five minutes without me to take care of you. On your own, you're nothing.'

'My God,' the sleeper said, after a pause. 'I'm listening to you, and I can't believe we ever had anything in common. Get out of here, go away. I don't want to see you ever again.'


'Yes, really. Can't you understand anything? From now on, as far as I'm concerned, you're dead.'


'More than that, even. You never existed. I've never heard of you. I don't know your name, or where you come from, or what you've been or done-especially that, for God's sake.'

The reflection laughed insultingly. 'Oh, right,' it said. And of course, all that was just me. You were never involved. You never did anything.'

'No,' replied the sleeper, 'I never did. It was all you. And now you're gone, completely out of my mind, like pulling a bad tooth. You were never here. You never existed.'

'If that's what you want,' said the reflection, sounding offensively reasonable. 'But I don't think you want anything of the sort. You need me. You'll be back. Same as the last time.'


'Same as the last time,' the reflection repeated, 'same as always. But I'll leave you to figure that out for yourself. You'll know where to find me.'

'Like hell,' shouted the sleeper. 'I'd sooner die first.'

'We'll see,' the reflection said; then the body stirred and lifted its head, and the movement shattered the reflection, scattering it in waves out to the edges of the pool.

He opened his eyes and looked up. He felt dizzy and his head was splitting. Just now he'd had the most unpleasant feeling, as if he'd been floating in the air and looking down at himself; but that wasn't how it was at all. Instead, he could see the black silhouette of a crow. It circled a couple of times, then turned into the slight breeze to slow itself down, opened its wings like a sail and glided down, pitching on the chest of a dead man who was lying next to him, a yard or so away. Having landed, the crow lifted its head and stared at him, as if to suggest that he had no right to be there. He remembered about crows; they'll sit in a tree watching you for hours at a time, and they won't stir till you leave. But they can't count; you want to nail a crow with a stone or a slingshot, take someone with you as you walk to the hide; when you're ready, send your friend out and the crow will watch him till he's out of sight, then he'll lift himself into the air on his big, stiff wings, sail in and pitch, right where you want him to be. Very smart birds, crows, with an instinctive knowledge of how far a man can throw a stone, but useless at figuring.

He meant to wave his arms and shout, because you always chase off crows, on principle. All he could manage, it turned out, was a vague flap of his hand and a croak in the back of his throat. It was enough to do the job, however, and the crow opened its wings and lifted, proclaiming as it went the subtle treachery of humans who lie still pretending to be dead, just to fool hard-working scavengers.

Just scaring off a bird was enough to make him feel dizzy and sick all over again. He lay back and stared at the sky, waiting for his memory to come back and explain to him how he came to be lying out in the open next to a dead body. Once he knew that, he'd know what to do; meanwhile, it'd do no harm to close his eyes again, just for a moment 'I had to make him go away,' somebody said. He recognised it as his own voice, the sleeper's voice from the dream, or hallucination, or vision, or whatever the hell it had been. 'He was always trouble, nothing but trouble and sorrow. We'll be much better off without him, you wait and see.'

Will we? he wanted to ask.

'Just put him completely out of your mind,' the voice replied. 'Trust me, I know him. Whatever happens, we've got to be better off without him.'

So he opened his eyes again, sat up and looked round. He found that he was in the bottom of a combe, with a rain-swollen river running down the middle. The water had slopped out on to the grass on either side, and where he was lying was churned up into a filthy mess of mud and brown standing pools. In it lay dead bodies, some on their backs, some face down and almost submerged. He was filthy himself, with a black tidemark a hand's span above both knees, and he was missing one boot, presumably sucked off when he'd stumbled into a boggy patch.

It's all right, he told himself, it'll all come back in a moment. He forced himself to stand up, in spite of violent protests from his head and knees. That gave him a better view, a broader perspective, but still none of it made any sense.

He looked down at the dead man lying next to where he'd been, trying to read him through the mud. A soldier, because he was wearing armour (boiled leather cuirass and pauldrons, cheap and cheerful and fairly efficient so long as you fight in the dry; over that a rough woollen cloak so sodden with blood and dirty water that it could've been any colour; trousers the same, the toes of the boots just sticking up out of the mud); cause of death was either the big puncture wound in the pit of the stomach or the deep slash that started under the right ear and carried on an inch or so into the leather of the cuirass, just above the collarbone. His face was just an open mouth and two open eyes, with drying mud slopped incongruously on the eyeballs, but whether it was a friend or an enemy he couldn't say.

He counted. Two dozen bodies, more or less (he could easily have missed one in the mud), and half of them were dressed like the first one he'd looked at; the other half were scruffier, tattier but kitted out in better armour-good steel scale, fine protection but expensive and a bitch to keep clean-and clothes that had once been good-quality civilian stuff. They didn't mean anything to him either, and that bothered him a lot, so he went to the trouble of pulling each of them out of the swamp, wiping the muck off their faces so he could see their eyes, but it didn't get him anywhere. Quite the opposite, in fact, since he went in over his knees more than once in the slough, and the thought of being stuck there, unable to move and with nobody living to pull him out, wasn't a cheerful one. Fortunately, by going flat on his face and clawing hard at the grass with his hands until the mud let go of his knees, he managed to get away with it. Apparently that was something he had a knack for.

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