Sunday 7 October 2012

Death In The Dark

The rain that had been falling steadily for the last week had turned the grey soil to a sticky glutinous muck which got on everything. I felt it splash on my shins right through the tops of my closed boots, and my feet sank in up to the ankles at every step. When I opened my mouth to curse, the mud was gritty on my teeth.

The guard at the Hammer’s tent watched me spit, his scarred face expressionless though he must be feeling as miserable as I was, if not more. Rainwater dripped from the rim of his helmet and soaked the cloth of his uniform. The bronze of his armour was so plastered with mud that it seemed to be one with his clothing. When I came up to him he held his spear so that it barred my way.

“The Hammer is expecting me,” I said. The guard stared at me for a long moment, and then raised his spear and stood back. I could feel his eyes on the back of my head as I bent to enter the Hammer’s tent.

“You summoned me, Great Prince?” I asked by way of announcing myself.

The Great Prince Matsya, whom men called the Hammer of God, looked up from a stack of clay tablets he was reading. In the flickering light of the lamp, his eyes were black holes, so deeply sunken below his jutting brows that I could not make out the expression and hence gauge his mood. That was bad, because the Hammer’s moods might decide whether someone summoned to his presence was to live or to die.

All the way since receiving his summons, I’d been thinking over the last few days, trying to remember if I’d slipped up somewhere, made some fatal blunder. Why else should the Hammer wish to see me? A mere financial clerk in the pay office is hardly a warrior, so it wasn’t as though he’d want to send me on a mission to scout out the enemy’s defences – or give me an award for bravery.

Not, I thought, that many bravery awards were being given out these days. We’d been sitting here outside the enemy’s walls for almost six months now, and there had been almost no fighting. Plenty of misery, with the heat and dust earlier and now the rain and mud, but no fighting.

“Great Prince?” I repeated, when the Hammer did not say anything. “You asked me to come.”

Nodding slowly, the Hammer sat back, put down the clay tablet in his hand and motioned me forward. The floor of his tent was covered with boards overlaid with skins, to keep out the worst of the moisture, but it undulated under my feet as I stepped toward him, and the air was so humid that water dripped from the walls of the tent.

“So you’re Likho,” the Hammer said. His voice was punctuated by the drumming of rain on the tent. “Sit down, and let me have a look at you.”

Simultaneously relieved and a bit unnerved at this unexpected courtesy, I sat, perhaps a little too hard. The stool creaked, a squeak audible over the rain.

“You lot in the clerks’ offices eat well,” the Hammer observed critically. “Two of my warriors would fit in you.”

This was, of course, unfair. I’m on the plump side but hardly as fat as that. However, I said nothing, and while the Hammer continued to look me over, I took the opportunity to observe him.

The last time I’d been this close to the Hammer of God had been at the very start of the siege. That had been on an intensely hot day when the wind off the plain had been whipping dust against the walls of the paymaster’s tent, so that we’d had to close the flaps in spite of the temperature. The Hammer had come on a tour of inspection, with his full retinue in tow, and sat at a table going over the records of the army’s finances, his brow furrowed with concentration. We’d hardly dared move or breathe all the time he’d been there. At last he’d grunted, nodded his head at us, and left. After that day we clerks had only ever seen him, if at all, at a distance.

He had lost weight in the last months. He had always been thin, but now looked almost gaunt, his skin stretched tight over his skull. His hair hung long and stringy over his shoulders, and his cheeks were shaded with beard. A cluster of pimples bloomed at the corner of his lower lip. He looked tired, and ill. But his arms and shoulders under the cloth of his cloak were still as powerful as ever, and his voice rumbled as before, like thunder rolling inside his chest.

“Likho,” he said, continuing his scrutiny, the shaded sockets of his eyes roaming over my face and body. “Do you know why I have called you here?”

“No, Great Prince.” Even had I known I would not have admitted it. The Hammer would not appreciate being told that there was a leak in his inner circle. “I only know that you summoned me, so I came.”

The Hammer steepled his fingers under the beaky jut of his nose. When he spoke, it seemed an unexpected change of topic. “The siege has been going on for a long time.”

“Yes, Great Prince.”

“Much longer than we expected,” the Hammer said. “And things are getting worse. Just listen to that rain!”

We listened together to the rain. Condensed moisture dripped from the roof of the tent on to our sodden clothes.

“How are the army’s finances?” the Hammer asked suddenly.

I swallowed. “Not good. The men have not been paid in a long time, and there is insufficient money left to pay for repairs and provisions either.”

The Hammer nodded as though it was no news to him. Almost certainly it wasn’t. “So, this siege can’t be maintained much longer,” he said. “The weather’s getting worse, the men are ill and demoralised, and now we’re running out of money.” He paused. “Either we have to crush them quickly, or else we’ll have to withdraw.”

 “Um,” I said noncommittally. I had no idea why he was telling me any of this. As a mere finance clerk, I didn’t have anything to do with his strategies. “I see.”

“Do you?” he asked, raising his eyebrows and staring, so that I wished I hadn’t spoken. “Good, then you’ll understand why I sent a message to the other side a couple of days ago.”

“A message, Great Prince?”

“Yes.” The Hammer scratched at the pimples on his lip. “I invited them to a duel.”

“I don’t understand,” I replied.

“See here, Likho,” the Hammer said, still rubbing at his lip, “As bad as our situation is, that lot in the fort up there must be quite as badly off if not worse. At least we have some access to food and other supplies. By now they must be hovering on the brink of starvation if not already there.” He raised an eyebrow. “So you understand that it’s as much in their interest as ours to bring this thing to a close as early as possible.”

“Yes...” I said. “But, a duel?”

“Of course,” the Hammer said. “Single combat between their best fighter and ours – one on one, the winner’s side to take the prize of victory. That’s what I suggested. If their man won, we’d raise our siege and go away. If our man won, we’d take their fort and let their army withdraw. The whole thing would end with a minimum of trouble. Doesn’t it make sense to you?”

“Yes, Great Prince,” I said. “If you put it that way.”

“I do put it that way,” the Hammer responded. “And the enemy thinks the same way too, since they agreed to my suggestion right away. The fight’s slated for tomorrow morning.”

“But...” I stopped, unwilling to go on further.

“But it won’t be popular with our commanders, you were going to say,” the Hammer cut in. “And you were going to say it wasn’t in the glorious tradition of our army. Besides, it left too much to chance. After all, their man might be better than ours.” He raised the eyebrow again. “Is that what you were about to say? Well?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again. The Hammer noticed my hesitation and laughed.

“Never mind,” he continued, and, taking up his great plumed helmet, began to wipe it clean with a piece of cloth. “It doesn’t matter what you think. The fact is that I’m not an absolute fool. We don’t have the strength to take the fort by storm, whatever my commanders think – and as we both know, we can’t carry on this siege much longer. So this is really the only chance we have of victory.

“Besides, I didn’t just pick the idea out of thin air. We have several great fighters in our army, but one of them stands above all the rest in strength, valour and fighting ability.” He glanced up briefly and went back to shining his helmet. The large dent on the side, caused by the blow of a war-axe earlier in the campaign, was a ravine of shadow near the crown. The Hammer had killed the attacker himself, and wore the dented helmet as a badge of pride. “Have you heard of Soovar?”

“Soovar?” I frowned, trying to remember. The name rang a bell.

Think, man. He’s won more battle-honours than the rest of the army put together.”

“Oh, yes, I remember hearing the name now.” I’d seen him once or twice too, a squat heavy-shouldered figure, not particularly tall, with a broad face and eyes set very far apart. “He’s going to fight for us tomorrow?”

The Hammer’s mouth twisted. “He was,” he told me, putting down the helmet. “He isn’t anymore.”

“Why?” And, I wondered again, why was the Hammer telling me all this?

“Because,” the Hammer said, “someone murdered him last night. Stabbed him from behind, right here in the camp. That’s why.”

I didn’t say anything. Rain drummed on the tent.

“I want to know who did it,” the Hammer said at last. “I want to know who doesn’t want this single combat to take place...who doesn’t want us to win. And you’re going to find out for me.”

“I, Great Prince?” I felt a cold weight settle in my stomach. “Why me?”

“Because I say so.” The Hammer grinned, a humourless smile filled with jagged teeth. “I’ve heard you’re a clever young man, and bold for a financial clerk. At least, you’re bold enough to embezzle a small fortune from the paymaster’s coffers, and clever enough to cover your tracks so nobody knows.” He stared at me, his eyes bereft of expression. “Except that I know.”

“Great Prince,” I protested, “I have never...”

“Ah, save that for someone who’s stupid enough to believe you.” The Hammer shook his head and picked up his clay tablets again. “I know how much you stole, and I know the tricks you used to fudge the accounts. But I’ll ignore your thieving this long as you find the murderer. If you fail...but you won’t fail, will you?”

“No, Great Prince,” I whispered, my gut clenching with terror.

“Good,” he said. “You have till tomorrow morning to find me the killer. It’s not very much time, so you’d better get moving.”

“I shall need to make inquiries,” I pointed out. “I may have to question people, but I am a mere clerk and they may refuse to answer.”

Without looking at me, the Hammer picked up one of the clay tablets from the stack and handed it to me. “Just show them this,” he said. “It gives you full authority, in my name, to ask anything you want of anyone you want. I’ll want it back tomorrow, of course. Now get out of here and get to work.”

Fear metallic in my throat, I went.


My first port of call was the part of the camp which housed the soldiers. I needed to know something about the dead man before I could find out who killed him. I didn’t even know to which unit he’d belonged, or when or where he’d died. Cursing the Hammer under my breath, I trudged through the rain towards the personnel tent.

On the way I passed the infirmary. It was so full of sick soldiers that some of them were sitting on the floor at the doorway, staring out glumly into the rain. An orderly was mixing something in a pot, the smell of which wafted my way and nearly turned my stomach. I grimaced. The Hammer was right about the men being sick and demoralised, just as he was right about the army running out of money. And he was right about my theft, too. I cursed him again, and I cursed my own greed as well. If I hadn’t stolen that money, I wouldn’t be in this situation now.

It was already completely dark, and lightning flashed, so far away that the noise of the thunder was lost in that of the rain. But the lighting illuminated the enemy’s fort and its walls of stone and timber, its watchtowers full of watching eyes. I wonder what the men in the towers were thinking at that moment, and I wondered if I’d have changed places with them.

The personnel tent was closed. A sentry stood inside the entrance, sheltering from the rain. I approached him, but he merely shook his head stupidly at my questions. Giving up on him, I set out for the rows of soldiers’ tents.

The first tent I looked into was a kitchen, where grease-spattered cooks hovered over steaming pots and blew on fires through pipes in an attempt to keep them burning. For once, the smell of cooking failed to raise my appetite. A harassed looking head cook frowned at me. “What do you want? You clerks have no business here.”

I raised a hand pacifically. “I was looking for someone, a soldier, on the orders of the Hammer himself. It’s important, can’t wait till tomorrow, but the personnel tent’s closed. Never mind, I’ll ask in the other tents.”

“Wait,” the head cook said. “You say it’s on the orders of the Hammer? Well, I’ve been cooking for them all through the campaign, so I know a lot of them by name. Which one do you want?”

I cast my mind back to what the Hammer had said. “Soovar.”

“Soovar?” The head cook rubbed his neck. “Isn’t he the famous one? He’s in the Wild Boar regiment, isn’t that right? I think they’re up in the trenches tonight.”

“No,” another of the cooks said. “They came back yesterday. They’ll be in their tents.”

“Ah,” the head cook agreed, nodding. “I forgot. Yes, they’re back early. You’ll find the Wild Boar regiment’s tents two rows down. But,” he added, “they’re a rough lot. Mind you don’t get eaten alive, a nice fat morsel like you.” Guffawing at his own wit, he turned back to his cooking.

 Hunching my shoulders against the rain, I went back into the night to look for the Wild Boar Regiment.


Soovar?” the sergeant-at-arms frowned. “What d’you want with him?”

“The Hammer wants him,” I said. “I’m just his messenger.” I hadn’t yet shown the sergeant-at-arms the Hammer’s clay tablet. Even if he could read, which was doubtful, all it would have done was make him cautious about what he said. I’d use the tablet only if I had to, not otherwise.

“Well, the Hammer can’t have him,” the sergeant-at-arms said. “Not unless he’s got a necromancer on call. Soovar’s dead.”

I simulated surprise. “You don’t say! How did that happen? Was he lost in a skirmish with the enemy?”

The sergeant-at-arms snorted. “Nothing so glamorous. Someone just put a knife between his shoulders right here in camp last night.” He peered at me. “You sure the Hammer sent you to ask for him?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

The sergeant-at-arms shrugged.  “The Hammer called for him yesterday, didn’t he? Just after we’d got back to camp. Sent for him properly, too, with a soldier, not some fat little clerk. So it seems kind of odd that he’d want him again just like that.”

“The Hammer did?” I asked. “He must have forgotten to mention that to me. Anyway, he wants the man again, so he sent me. But since he’s dead...” I began to turn away. “Did he mention why the Hammer wanted him?”

“No, but he was always a close-mouthed bastard. Won’t the Hammer tell you if you ask him? Since you’re his personal messenger and all.”

I decided to ignore that. “Any idea who did it? I asked. “Just in case the Hammer wants to know.”

The sergeant-at-arms shrugged. “Could be anybody. Just about anyone could’ve done it.”

I turned back to him, frowning slightly. “Anybody? Wasn’t he rather...well-regarded in the lines?”

The sergeant-at-arms glanced over his shoulder at the other men in the tent, and they all laughed. “Hell,” someone said, “even a clerk should have better sense than that.”

“What do you mean?”

The sergeant-at-arms looked at me. “Just think how you’d react if one of your office clerks got all the attention, all the praise and rewards and promotions. Do you really mean to tell me you wouldn’t resent him and be glad if he was put out of the way?”

“But,” I said, “wasn’t this Soovar a great warrior, who won through against overwhelming odds, time after time? Didn’t he win battles almost singlehandedly? How does that compare with some clerk winning recognition in the office?”

The sergeant-at-arms grimaced. “You’re welcome to think whatever you want,” he said. “Well? Anything else you’d like to ask?”

“Um...” I thought for a moment. “Where was he killed?”

“Found him lying between the stockade and the end of the row,” the sergeant-at-arms said. “He’d come back from the Hammer, dumped his kit, and was off again. I reckon whoever killed him just followed him and did it there. It’s pretty dark.”

“Who found him?”

“The patrol,” the sergeant-at-arms said. “They came around as usual, but by then he was already dead.”

“Where was he going? Can you tell me?”

“Why all these questions?” The sergeant-at-arms peered at me suspiciously. “Anyone would think you’re more than just a messenger-boy for the Hammer.”

I shrugged with elaborate unconcern. “Call it simple curiosity,” I said. “Besides, you know how the Hammer is. He’s liable to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, like if I can’t tell him who killed his prime warrior.”

“Prime warrior.” The sergeant-at-arms hawked and spat. “I suppose the prime warrior was off to see his woman.”

“His woman?” I repeated. “He had one?”

“One of the camp whores, of course,” the sergeant-at-arms told me. “What did you think? Which other women are here?”

“I didn’t know there were any left,” I confessed. “I thought they’d all drifted away.”

“Yeah, most of them have no use for us once we don’t have money for them – haven’t been paid in a while, as you know.” The sergeant-at-arms bared his teeth in a crooked and humourless smile. “But a few of them are still around. This one, she was kind of sweet on Soovar. I think they were thinking of moving in together when the campaign was finished. I heard him saying something about that more than once.”

“So where do I find this woman?” I asked.

“In the hookers’ tents, where else? You know where they are, I’ll be bound.”

“All right, thanks. You happen to know her name?”

The sergeant-at-arms looked back over his shoulder. “Anyone happen to know Soovar’s woman’s name?”

Apparently, nobody did. “It’s the short fair one with the birthmark on her cheek,” one of the men said. “You can’t miss her. There are only six or seven of them left anyway.”

“Right,” I told him, “thanks.” I’d already left the tent when the sergeant-at-arms called to me.

“Hey – you’re actually investigating the man’s death, aren’t you? That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

I turned and looked at him until he began shifting nervously from one foot to another. “Perhaps,” I said.

He came out of the tent into the rain. “Does the Hammer know you’re doing it?”

“He’s the one who ordered the investigation,” I said. “I have a tablet of authority from him. Do you want to see it?”

“No, no.” He looked quickly back at the tent, as though wary of having anyone else seeing him talking to me. “Look,” he said, “I don’t want to get anyone into trouble. But it’s just that things aren’t as clear as you seem to think they are. For one thing, this Soovar...” He hesitated.

“What about him?” I prompted.

“If he was a hero, I’ll eat my winter cap. Oh, I don’t mean he was a fraud, not really. He just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. You know, a detachment’s ambushed, and fights its way out of the ambush, but everyone’s killed but him – so he gets all the credit. We make a frontal charge, and he’s the only man in the first line to survive long enough to reach the objective, and he gets the credit for winning the battle by himself. You get the idea?”

“I see,” I said drily. “Now, about last night...”

“I swear none of us had anything to do with that,” the sergeant-at-arms said. “None of us liked him overmuch, but he wasn’t someone you could hate, was Soovar. He never threw his weight around or acted like his battle honours were anything but plain dumb luck, not around us. You can ask any of my men – none of us would’ve killed him.”

“All right, we’ll leave that aside for now. You say this Soovar dumped his kit and went to his woman’s tent? How do you know that?”

The sergeant-at-arms blinked. “He went out of the tent and turned left.” He pointed. “That’s the way to the back stockade, isn’t it? And that’s where they found him. Where else would he have been going?”

“He always went that way?”

“It’s the shortest way. Otherwise you have to go round by the centre of the camp and that’s more than twice as long.”

I shook my head, trying to clear it, and wishing I’d had some experience in this sort of thing. There were questions I should be asking, but which I couldn’t think of at the moment. “Where’s his body now?”

The sergeant-at-arms looked at me as though I was stupid. “Buried, of course. Where else? You think we’ll leave it lying around to rot and stink up the place? We already have stink enough with the mud and the rain and the overflowing toilet trenches.”

“So...” I temporised. “What happened to his kit?”

“We drew lots for it, of course. Like everyone else’s who gets killed. Someone got this, someone else that. I didn’t get anything, though,” he added mournfully. “I was hoping for his gauntlets, he had a good fine pair.”

“Who do you think killed him?” I asked again.

He shook his head, his eyes wary. “I don’t know. My boys didn’t, and I didn’t. That’s all.”

“Anything more you want to tell me?”

“Nothing.” He swallowed nervously. “Look, if you’re satisfied...”

I remembered something I’d heard. “The head cook seemed a little surprised that your regiment was back from the front line yesterday. Was that unexpectedly early or something?”

“Yeah, we were supposed to be there for another three days. We got a message recalling us. Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. Who sent the order?”

“The Hammer, of course. Who else?” He shifted from foot to foot restively. “Is that all?”

“If I have any more questions,” I told him, “I’ll be back.”

He nodded, looking unhappier than ever, and curiously diminished, as though he were melting in the rain. 


He was lying on his face, with his arms thrown over his head,” the patrol leader said. I’d come across the patrol quite fortuitously as I’d walked away from the Wild Boars’ tents. “I nearly stumbled over him. It’s dark as the inside of a pig back there, and you can hardly see anything.”

“You were coming the other way, like tonight?” I asked.

“Yes, and he was lying with his head towards us.  At first we thought it was a drunk passed out in the mud, but when I tried to rouse him I realised he was dead. Then we dragged him into the light and we found he’d been stabbed in the back, in the base of the neck. Someone must have been following him.”

“Following him?” I repeated. “Couldn’t it be that someone was lying in wait for him?”

The patrol commander shook his head. “You haven’t been back there, have you? There’s no space for someone to sneak past him and stab from behind. No, depend on it, someone followed him in there.”

“How long had he been dead, could you tell?”

“How should I know? He was already cold, but with the mud and rain, no wonder.”

“What about the last tent, the one behind which he was lying? Did the people there say anything?”

“It’s just a storage tent for heavy gear. There wasn’t even a sentry.”

I tried to think what to ask next. “What about the wound? What was it like?”

The patrol leader shrugged. “Nothing special. Any of our daggers could’ve done it.”

“All right.” I thought for a moment. “So, could it be an outsider? Maybe one of the enemy infiltrating the camp?”

The patrol leader laughed shortly. “If it wasn’t for that tablet of yours,” he said, “I’d tell you where to stuff that suggestion. If any of those scum up there managed to get out of their fort and through the lines, and then past the sentries, the patrols would get them. You can bet your fancy little clerk’s job on that.”

“So it’s someone from the camp,” I said unhappily. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m saying it isn’t some enemy infiltrator,” the patrol leader said. “If you think it’s someone the enemy paid, well, then, that’s up to you. But who’d want to kill some random soldier like that? He wasn’t a war captain or anything.”

I shook my head. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

The patrol leader grinned. “I’d bet you a week’s salary you don’t, but then we aren’t exactly being paid anything, are we?”


The prostitutes’ section of the camp was large at one time, but as the sergeant-at-arms had told me, most of them had gone since the soldiers no longer had the money for them. Now only three or four tents stood where once there had been a dozen or more, and in the rain and mud they looked anything but inviting.

I’d gone around by the back way, between the stockade and the end of the row of tents, the way the sergeant-at-arms had said Soovar had taken the last night, before he’d been killed. The space between the tent and stockade was dark and narrow, with hardly any room to turn around, even for me, let alone a broad-shouldered muscle-bound individual like the dead man. The patrol leader was right, I decided; whoever had killed Soovar had come to him from behind. Even if he’d heard them, he would have had a hard time turning round in that space.

The space was so narrow, in fact, and so dark, that I could have almost imagined that someone was following me, waiting to plunge a knife into my back. It was only with the utmost self-control that I stopped myself from looking back over my shoulder, but I was almost running by the time I came out of the other side of the space. I felt absurdly proud of myself for not looking back.

The first of the hookers’ tents I looked into held only one tired-looking woman, who was dozing with her head propped on an arm. She woke with a start when I entered. “Yes?”

“It’s all right,” I said quickly. “I just want to meet someone.”

She was a big woman, tending to heaviness, and her round face was topped by a mass of wavy hair. Obviously she wasn’t the woman the soldiers had described to me. “Meet whom?” she asked, frowning.

“I don’t know her name,” I said. “She’s short and fair, with a birthmark –“

“Oh, that’s Red Rose,” she said with profound disdain. “What do you want with her? I can show you a much better time.”

 “It’s not what you think,” I said. “I really do need to meet her, on official business.”

The big woman snorted. “If she’s not left, you’ll find her in the next tent but one. Is the little chit in some kind of trouble?”

“No, no. I’m just making some inquiries. What do you mean, if she’s not left?”

“Someone knocked off the little chit’s man last night, didn’t they? She’s hardly going to hang around now that he’s gone.” She sniffed. “Never saw what he saw in her, myself.”

“Red Rose, is that her name? Next tent but one, you said.”

“Red Rose is what we call her, because of the blotch on her face. Who cares what her real name is?”

“Well,” I said, “thanks very much.”

“You sure you won’t be back? Clerks have money, unlike the troops.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’d love to, but I’m on official business, as I said.”

“Your loss,” she said, shrugging, and laid her head back on her arm. By the time I left the tent she was to all appearances already asleep.

The next tent but one was the smallest in the whore’s line, and so dimly lit that at first I thought it was empty. Then I saw that someone was sitting on the bed on the far side, wrapped in shadow and hunched over in an attitude of abject misery.

“Go away, whoever you are,” she said as I entered. “I’m not open for business.”

“Are you Red Rose?” I asked. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“That’s what they call me. But I’m not open for business, so leave me alone and go away.” 

“You misunderstand, Red Rose,” I said. “I’m here to talk to you, not for...the other thing. I have to ask you about Soovar.”

“What about him?” She stirred, raising her head for the first time. Even in the flickering light of the tiny oil lamp she looked extraordinarily pretty, and might have been beautiful but for the large mark on her cheek. “He’s dead.”

“Yes, I know. I’m trying to find out who killed him.”

“What good will that do?” Her voice was filled with misery. “Will that bring him back to life? Will that bring back my happiness again?”

“Don’t you want to know who killed him?” I asked. “Don’t you want him punished?”

“Punishing him isn’t going to make any difference to me,” she said. “It’s not going to put the pieces of my life back together.”

“You must have loved him very much,” I said. “Since his death is causing you so much pain.”

She laughed suddenly. “You can’t even begin to imagine what you’re talking about, clerk. What’s your name?”

I was surprised at the question. Not one of those I’d questioned earlier had bothered to ask. “Likho.”

“Well, Master Likho, come here, come a little closer.” She picked up the lamp and held it close to her face, on the side with the birthmark. “See this? Take a good look.”

It was dark red, the colour of clotted blood, and did look a little like a rose. I took the opportunity to get a closer look at her eyes. They were swollen and reddened, with tear tracks at the corners. “I’ve seen it,” I said.

“You came here just now,” she said, “asking for Red Rose. Well, I’m not Red Rose. This thing on my cheek is Red Rose! I don’t even have a name of my own anymore but this. You know what kind of men come to me? Those who want to see if it really looks like a rose, or are too drunk to care whether it’s there or not, Master Likho.”

I had a sudden flash of intuition. “But Soovar didn’t?”

“No,” she said, putting the lamp down and turning away from me. “He’s the one man in my whole life that didn’t. To him I was a woman, not a hooker, and my name was Hiran, not Red Rose. Can you begin to imagine what it is to have someone call you by your name, Master Likho?” Her voice caught on a sob, and she rubbed at her eyes angrily. “You don’t even know what love means if you don’t know that.”

I waited for her to calm down. “Hiran...”

“No. I’m Red Rose to you. Hiran is for Soovar, nobody else. What do you want?”

“Just to ask you a few questions. I’d appreciate it if you’d answer them. The Hammer of God is taking a direct interest in tracking down Soovar’s killer, you see, and he sent me to make inquiries.”

She laughed again, that same mirthless laugh. “I’ll bet. Your  Hammer must have had reasons of his own. His heart isn’t bleeding for Soovar.”

“Well, your Soovar was the greatest warrior in the army, and –“

“Don’t give me that. Soovar might have dressed up like a soldier and carried weapons around, but he wasn’t any warrior. He hated every minute of it.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“Right here,” she said, pointing to the cot. “We’d lie here after making love, and he’d tell me how much he hated the whole life, how he hated fighting and wanted to get away. We were going to leave at the end of this campaign, go back to his village and start a family.” Her voice broke. “Now I’m going to go away myself. Tomorrow. I can’t bear to be here a moment longer.”

“Going away alone might be dangerous.”

“Do you think I care anymore what happens to me? Is there anything else you wanted to ask?”

I resisted the urge to turn round and leave. “Did you know he was coming to you last night?”

“His unit came off the front line, didn’t it? I heard they’d come back, so I knew he would come to see me. While he was in camp, he never missed a night.” Her voice began to break, and she choked back a sob. “I kept waiting, and waiting, but he never came. And then someone told one of the other women, and that bitch practically broke her neck rushing to tell me, and stood gloating while I cried.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. It sounded horribly inadequate, for all that I meant it completely.

“Oh, I bet you are.” She’d hunched back into that position of utter misery, and the lamp was so dim now that I could make out nothing more than a silhouette. “I bet you are.”

I stood there a few moments longer, and then left her alone with her grief.

It seemed entirely fitting that it was still raining.


You’re the Hammer’s guard, aren’t you?” I’d come across the man while trudging through the mud wondering where to go next. He’d looked vaguely familiar, and it was only from the scar on his face that I recognised him. “Remember me? I was at his tent earlier.”

“Yeah?” He peered at me. “Oh yeah. What do you want?”

At the moment what I wanted was to fall into bed and sleep, but if I wanted to keep on living I couldn’t think of sleep tonight. “The Hammer’s guard’s been changed, has it?” I asked, more to say something than because I was interested. “You’ve been relieved?”

“No,” he said. “The Hammer just told me to go and get some food inside me and then have some shut-eye.” He yawned. “I’ve more than earned it, he said.”

“You mean he’s not got any guards now?” I asked, surprised. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Why would it be dangerous in the middle of camp?” the soldier asked me. “Half the time he doesn’t have any guards.”

“Well...someone was murdered in camp last night. Isn’t the Hammer worried?”

The guard laughed, not unkindly. “He’s more than able to take care of himself. You didn’t answer my question, clerk. What do you want?”

I fumbled under my tunic for the leather bottle of wine I’d been carrying around all night. I’d been planning to drink it back in my tent but the Hammer’s summons had put paid to that plan. “Have some?”

He took a swig. “Thank you kindly. I needed that.”

“You’ve been on duty all day?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything. Besides, he was probably the first person all evening who hadn’t insulted me. “I’m not surprised you’re tired.”

“Well, it beats sitting in a front line trench ass-deep in water.” He took another mouthful of the wine. “It’s not really much of a job, just standing at the door and looking fierce to impress visitors. I’m just there for prestige value, if you come down to it.”

“Still, it must be boring.”

“Boredom’s better than getting killed,” he said, and finished off the wine in one long swallow. “Sometimes it isn’t so boring. That meeting yesterday afternoon, for instance...”

“What meeting?”

“Why, between the Hammer and his war-captains.” The guard laughed. “The fur fairly flew, I can tell you. Even from outside the tent I could hear it all, they were shouting so loud. Especially the Hammer and the Bull – they were yelling at each other till I thought they’d come to blows.”

“The Bull was there at the meeting?”

“He’s the Hammer’s deputy, isn’t he? Of course he was there.”

“So...what were they talking about?”

A wary look entered the man’s eyes. “Why don’t you ask them that yourself?”

“Oh, I just wondered. It isn’t important.”

“I’d better go get fed and to bed,” he said. “I’ve to get back on guard first thing in the morning.”

“All right,” I nodded. “Rest well.”

“Yeah. Thanks for the drink.”



The Bull’s tent was larger and better appointed than the Hammer’s, and brightly lit even this late at night. Two guards stood outside, their crossed spears blocking the entrance, which was even protected by an awning. You’d never guess the Bull was only First Warlord and not the Great Prince himself.

“He’s busy,” the nearer guard snapped. “Come back some other time.”

“I have a tablet of authority from the Hammer himself.” I held the tablet under the man’s nose, shielding it from the rain with my other hand. “My business won’t wait.”

Reluctantly, the two of them stood aside, and moved away the spears. Ducking under the tent’s awning, I entered.

The Bull was reclining on a mattress, clad only in a loose tunic, holding a naked woman in his arms. He glared at me. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”

“Your pardon, Lord. I have an urgent commission from the Great Prince. I would not have disturbed you otherwise.”

The Bull sat up, pushing the woman away. I glanced at her and looked away quickly, though she seemed quite unself-conscious of her nudity. She giggled.

“What commission?” the Bull asked, tugging at his tunic. His hands were huge, his forearms roped with muscle. His thick neck grew out of the base of his skull and merged into his shoulders. He looked every bit the brute which had lent him its name. “What the hell does the Hammer want?”

“One of the army’s soldiers was murdered in camp here last night,” I said. “The Hammer has ordered me to find out who killed him.”

The Bull frowned angrily. “So who cares if some lout gets it in the neck during a drunken brawl? It’s always happening.”

“It wasn’t a drunken brawl, Lord,” I said. “The victim was one of the army’s most famous warriors, and the Hammer meant him to fight the enemy’s man in single combat tomorrow morning. But he’s dead.”

“That idiotic old idea again,” the Bull snapped. “I told the Hammer that it leaves far too much to chance. Don't tell me he actually went ahead with it? Sometimes I think the man’s past it.” He glared at me, his huge hands opening and closing. “So why come to me? Do you think I know who knocked the bugger off?”

“No, Lord,” I answered quickly. “I just wanted to ask your opinion on the plan, so that I could think of alternate avenues of approach to the problem.” It sounded like rubbish to my own ears, and I could see the Bull was far from convinced. “You didn’t agree with the Hammer?”

The Bull snorted. “That’s no secret. From the beginning of this siege I’ve been saying the Hammer is making a total mess of things. We could have taken the offensive, dug tunnels under the walls, sent raiding parties with ladders. But no, all he does is sit and wait, until we’re drowning in our own filth. And then he comes up with this ridiculous plan. I tell you, the man’s past it. You’d think he was trying his best to lose.”

To avoid having to agree or disagree, I looked away from him and at the woman. She was playing with the Bull’s plumed helmet, trying it on for size. It settled on her shoulders, the nosepiece covering her face past the chin. She squeaked.

“Take that thing off,” the Bull told her. “And, you...” he pointed at me with a finger as thick around as the haft of a spear. “Get out of here. If the Hammer wants me to answer any more questions, let him come and ask me himself.”

I went.


My legs were trembling with exhaustion by the time I got back to the line of tents occupied by the Wild Boar regiment. I had no clear idea why I’d come back there, but I knew there was something I’d missed out. I’d been playing the evening’s conversations over in my mind, and they were beginning to form a kind of haze of bits and fragments of data, which stubbornly failed to fall into a pattern. Whatever I’d missed was the piece that might make the pattern begin to form.

It was late, and most of the tents were in darkness. But the tent in which I’d met the sergeant-at-arms still had a lamp burning, and when I entered I found the sergeant-at-arms himself sitting at a table, sipping morosely from a goblet of wine. A wedge of bread stood on the table, untouched. My stomach grumbled at the sight of it, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since midday.

“Well, look who’s here,” the sergeant-at-arms said truculently. “What are you doing here again? I thought we’d seen the last of you.”

“I said I’d be back if I had questions,” I said. Uninvited, I sat down opposite him and tore off a piece of the bread. It was stale and hard, almost tasteless. “I have questions.”

“What questions?” He seemed to be full of some emotion I could not at first identify. Then I suddenly realised he was frightened. “I already told you all I know.”

“Did you?” I asked. “Are you sure?” I paused a moment. “You told me none of your men had anything to do with Soovar’s killing. How do you know that?”

“How do I know that?” He was clearly taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“I thought I was clear enough. All your regiment isn’t quartered in this tent, is it? Your outfit occupies this entire row, right?”

“Yeah. So?”

“So, if you were in this tent when Soovar dumped his kit and left, just how do you know one of your men in one of the other tents didn’t follow him and stab him in the passage back there? Care to tell me that?”

He said nothing. His eyes were wide and afraid.

“In fact,” I said, “if you’re telling the truth, the only way you could know that would be if you’d been watching him. Only if you’d seen him go all the way down to the stockade and turn into the passage could you be sure that none of your men had followed him. Am I right?”

The sergeant-at-arms still said nothing.

“And, in that case, there’s one inescapable conclusion. If you saw him go down there, you must have seen whoever it is followed him and murdered him. The passage isn’t that long – nobody could have come up later and caught up with him in it. Whoever killed him must have been following almost at his heels. Well?” I paused. “Or are you lying, and is it one of you who killed him? Maybe even you, perhaps?”

The sergeant-at-arms’ lips moved. “No,” he whispered, faintly. “It wasn’t any of us who killed him, I swear.”

“But you saw who did,” I prompted.

“I don’t know for sure,” he whined. “Soovar went out, and then I had to pee, so I went out too. I walked a bit further away from the tent before I emptied my bladder, so that the rain wouldn’t wash the urine back inside, you know. And I could see him walking along. Just as I finished he reached the stockade and turned into the passage, and then someone came out of the tent at the end. I was a bit surprised, because it’s a storage tent – nothing in it except wooden pallets and tools. This person followed Soovar into the passage, and I came back inside before I got soaked right to the skin. That’s all I know.”

I leaned forward. “So what makes you so sure that it wasn’t one of your men lying in wait? You recognised him, didn’t you?”

The sergeant-at-arms swallowed, his larynx bobbing up and down in his throat. “I can’t be sure, you understand,” he said. “I just got a look at a distance.”


“But,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “I could see the helmet he was wearing. It was the Hammer himself, I tell you.”


Despite the lateness of the hour, the Hammer’s tent still had a lamp burning, and he was still sitting where I’d seen him earlier. There was no guard at the entrance, so I walked right in. “Great Prince?”

The Hammer grunted. “Well, Likho? Do you have something to report?”

“Great Prince,” I said, “this is difficult. Do I have your permission to speak frankly?”

The Hammer sat back and frowned. “Go ahead.”

“It’s no secret that your war-captains don’t agree with your strategy, Great Prince,” I began. “One might even say some of them are violently opposed to it.”

“You mean the First Warlord,” the Hammer replied. “Don’t beat about the bush. What about it?”

“One might say that it could occur or the other of sabotage the single combat by killing our man.” I swallowed, my throat dry. “Great Prince, one of the officers of Soovar’s regiment saw his killer following him, just before the murder. The killer had evidently been lying in wait for him.”

“Oh?” The Hammer leaned forward, his eyes glittering in the lamplight like wet stones. “Who is it?”

“My witness couldn’t say. But the killer wore a helmet like yours.”

We both glanced at the plumed helmet. “Not many like this in camp,” the Hammer observed. “In fact...” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye.

“In fact,” I completed, “there are only two.”

“Precisely.” The Hammer sighed deep with satisfaction. “Tomorrow, I will call a meeting of the war captains. You will be summoned to this meeting, and you will tell all you know. Leave nothing out. Is that clear?”

“As the Great Prince desires.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be under my protection.” He grinned at me. “Now go and get some sleep. You’ve earned it.”

Bowing, I left the tent as quickly as I could.


Mind the stones,” I said. “They’re slippery.”

Red Rose didn’t say anything. All the morning she’d ignored me, though she’d allowed me to walk by her side. Now at last she glanced at me. “What do you want from me, exactly?”

I held up my hands. “From you? Nothing. I’m just running away, like you, and I thought you’d be glad of the company.”

I’d hurried from the Hammer’s tent to my own, packed what I could carry, and rushed to Red Rose’s tent. I’d got there just in time to catch her setting out. We’d fallen in step, and I’d used the Hammer’s tablet as our ticket past the guards at the camp gate. Once outside, I’d thrown it away. Now it was dawn and the camp was already a fair way behind us.

“What are you running from?” she snorted. “You have your clerk’s sinecure.”

“Many things,” I replied. “For one thing, I, uh, happened to misplace some funds, and the Hammer knows about it. For another, he intends to use me as a weapon against the Bull.”

She looked me up and down. “You, a weapon? I don’t follow.”

“You know the Hammer asked me to investigate Soovar’s death. Well, you were quite right, he had a motive. You see he wanted Soovar to take part in a single combat today, to the death, against whoever the enemy put up.”

She turned to me, her eyes wide with shock. “Single combat? Soovar could never have done that. He hated fighting.”

“It doesn’t matter whether he could or couldn’t,” I said. “The Hammer wanted it. But Soovar was killed. And,” I added, “the Bull strongly opposed the Hammer’s single-combat strategy.” I glanced at her. “The sergeant-at-arms of Soovar’s unit saw someone with a plumed helmet who was following him, and had to be the killer. What does that tell you?”

“A plumed helmet? But only the Hammer and the Bull...”

“Right,” I said. “The Bull. And, today, I was ordered to attend a meeting in which I’d accuse the Bull to his face of killing Soovar, and thus deliberately sabotaging the Hammer’s strategy.” I paused while we negotiated a steep slope. The rain had fallen to a drizzle, but the way was treacherous. “How long,” I asked reasonably, “do you think I’d have survived that meeting? Do you still wonder that I’m running away?”

She was silent for a long time. “So it was the Bull,” she said, her voice full of hate. “He was the one who killed Soovar.”

I shook my head. “That’s what I told the Hammer,” I said. “But it isn’t true, of course.”

“It isn’t?”

“Of course not,” I said. “From the first it was obvious that this was a carefully planned murder, plotted well in advance in cold blood; just the kind of killing that the Bull couldn’t do. He’s a direct, forceful man, without a smidgen of subtlety in him.”

“I don’t understand. I thought you just said...”

I held up a hand. “Let me explain my reasoning to you,” I said, “and you point out to me any flaws you might find. All right?”

“Go ahead,” she said reluctantly.

“I was surprised from the beginning,” I started, “that this investigation was handed to me. I even asked the Hammer why, and he said something about my being clever enough to embezzle money from the accounts and cover my tracks. Well, I’m not denying I stole the money, but it seemed a little strange that a thieving finance clerk should be thought capable of running a murder investigation – and that in the course of a single night. And, of course, it was strange and unaccountable – if you believe that I was intended to track down the real killer.

“I didn’t actually think of this at first. But a few minutes’ conversation with Soovar’s regiment’s soldiers gave me a few pieces of information. First, the regiment wasn’t supposed to be in camp that day – they’d been ordered back out of turn. Also, Soovar himself wasn’t the bloodthirsty warrior people thought him to be. He was actually an accidental hero who didn’t enjoy one moment of his unwanted fame.”

“I told you so,” she said.

“Right, so you did. Don’t you think the Hammer knew it as well? After all, he’d have had to be completely certain of his main warrior before sending him into a fight to the death, right? Also, Soovar had been summoned to the Hammer’s presence immediately after the regiment was called back to camp, without even getting a chance to drop his kit in his tent. Do you see the significance of that?”

“I suppose the Hammer wanted to tell him about this...single combat.”

“Perhaps,” I nodded. “Now, whoever killed him had been waiting for him, and therefore had known he’d come to you. He came to you each night when he was in camp, you told me. I take it that this wasn’t exactly a secret.”

“No. No, it wasn’t. Everyone knew I was his special woman.”

“At this point I discovered something. While the Bull stayed in a well-guarded tent and amused himself with women in his spare time, the Hammer seldom kept a guard around after dark, and was essentially on his own. Even though a murder had been committed in camp the night before, a murder apparently aimed at sabotaging his grand strategy, he did not think of abandoning this practice. What does that tell you?”

Red Rose glanced at me. “That he wanted the freedom to wander around the camp unobserved?”

“What else?” I asked. “Now, there’s one thing that had been puzzling me from the beginning. Why should someone like the Hammer, who’s never been known to be particularly concerned with preventing bloodshed, want to try something as unsure and risky as single combat? You might have the better army, the better strategic position, everything; you might be on the verge of victory – and yet if your man doesn’t fight well enough, you’d lose it all. Even I, who’s never touched a sword, know that. Does that sound like the Hammer to you?” 

She shook her head.

“The Bull may be a man without a subtle bone in his body,” I said, “but he’s no fool. Why should he want to sabotage the Hammer’s strategy, when, if it had failed, it would be the Hammer’s failure and not his? Wouldn’t he be more likely to let the single combat go ahead and root for Soovar’s opponent? He would. They’ve been rivals for years, and the power struggle’s been coming to a head throughout this campaign, hasn’t it?

“The Bull also said something to me which I didn’t mark at the time, but which I remembered later. He told me that the Hammer had mishandled the siege from the beginning; that the Hammer seemed to be trying to lose.”

“But why should the Hammer wreck his own idea of single combat?”

“There’s another interesting thing,” I replied. “Except for the Hammer’s statement to me, I couldn’t find a single bit of evidence that single combat with the enemy had actually been arranged at all. Yes, it had apparently been discussed in a meeting, with a fair bit of acrimony, but there isn’t any indication that it went any further than that. Even the Bull seemed surprised that it had gone beyond a discussion. As a matter of fact, the enemy would have been remarkably stupid to agree to any such thing. They must have known that we wouldn’t suggest such a thing unless we were at the end of our tether.

“In fact, the whole thing didn’t make sense, but I wasn’t given time to think about it and decide that it didn’t make sense. I was given a deadline – this morning – and ordered to produce the killer by then. And, you know, it’s only because of my inexperience and stupidity that I stumbled on the truth at all.”

“Inexperience and stupidity?” she asked, surprised. “You seem to have thought it out well enough so far.”

“Not a bit of it. I didn’t ask the right questions at the right time, or else I’d have concluded right out that the Bull was to blame, which was what I was intended to conclude.” I told her what the sergeant-at-arms had said the second time I’d talked to him. “Now, if I’d had some more experience, I’d have thought of asking those questions at the outset, and as soon as I heard that the killer had been wearing a plumed helmet like the Hammer’s, I’d have concluded the Bull was the killer. I wouldn’t have wandered around in the rain discovering awkward little facts that didn’t fit the narrative.”

“I still don’t understand that,” she confessed. “How did you know it was the Hammer? It could have been the Bull, after all.”

“Two things,” I said. “First, why on earth would the killer want to wear a highly recognisable helmet, which only two people in the camp possessed? Why, indeed, unless the killer wanted to be seen? At a distance, at night, who would recognise him except by the helmet? Obviously, it would make no sense for the Bull to be recognised. But if the Hammer were the killer, and he wanted to be taken for the Bull...he would want to be seen.

“And there was another thing. I asked the sergeant-at-arms repeatedly whether he thought it might be another helmet, not the Hammer’s. He was adamant though that it was the Hammer’s, though he couldn’t explain why. Well, I know why. The two helmets are identical...except for a deep dent in the crown of the Hammer’s. Even from a distance, it’s the kind of thing one notices, though one might not register it consciously.”

 “Why did the Hammer call Soovar to him as soon as the regiment returned?” Red Rose asked. “What did he say to him?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. But I think it was some kind of good news – something Soovar would want to share with you at the earliest. Maybe the Hammer promised him a reward, or gave him an early discharge from the army. But it would be something that would make Soovar rush to you, right on that the killer could be waiting at the right spot at the right time.”  

"Tell me something," she said. "Why did you go and report to the Hammer? You could have just sneaked out of camp and left him waiting."

I thought for a moment. "It's not so easy to explain," I said. "I suppose the best explanation would be that I wasn't quite sure. After all, I'm a complete amateur, and all this was simply my speculation, with no proof to back me up. I could have been wrong."

"But when you met him?"

"But when I told him it was the Bull, I saw his satisfaction. Then I was sure."

"I understand what you mean," she said. "One does not rejoice if one finds one's deputy sabotaging one's war effort. It's not normal."

"You're right. It isn't."

We walked in silence for a while. “What do you suppose is going on in the camp right now?” Red Rose asked at last.

“I don’t know,” I repeated, “and, frankly, I don’t want to know. With any luck they’re too busy fighting among themselves to bother about us. As long as they leave us alone I don’t give a damn what they do.”

She touched my hand, for the first time. “Likho,” she said, “I’m glad you came with me.”

“I’m glad I came,” I said. “...Hiran.”

For a moment her face froze, and then she nodded slightly. “Hiran,” she said.

We walked on through the freshening rain.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012


  1. Well, I had decided it was the Hammer but, of course it was pure instinct. Nice one, Bill.



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