The Rebel and the King

(Mark Wood – 19 June 2811)

'Excuse me, sir. There's a man outside the camp asking to speak to a "Mitt Alhammittsson". At this morning's briefing, the Commander said we were to inform you immediately.'

'You see, Moril,' said Mitt, uncoiling from the stool. 'I told you he'd come to us.'

'You should stay here,' said Navis, loosing his pistol from its holster and cocking it in one smooth move as he headed for the door. 'It's probably a trap.'

'I'll take my chances,' said Mitt, but Navis had already disappeared. 'Coming, Moril?'

Moril trotted out his usual 'a King needs a Singer by his side' in response, but really he wouldn't have missed it for, well, a hot dinner that wasn't stew. Who was this fighter whose capture was so important that Mitt had left his half-built capital behind him to spend months living in a series of military encampments, even though they'd been at peace for years now? He followed his King out of the hut and across the camp, dodging round huts, tents, horses, provisions, bales of silk for Alk's latest project, Navis barking orders and soldiers running to obey them, the cwidder beating time against his chest as he struggled to keep up with Mitt's longer stride. At the gate, the guards took one look at Mitt's face and threw it open.

The clearing beyond the palisade was usually a leafy respite from all the bustle of the camp, but now some twenty people were huddled there, guarded by twice that number of soldiers. Most were so ragged and dirty it was hard to tell whether they were men or women. Moril thought they looked more exhausted than dangerous. Then the one nearest the gate turned – a man with a beard, dressed in a peculiar mixture of furs and rags. He had the look of someone who'd once been bulky but now was his own ghost. Moril clutched the cwidder tighter. Hatred that concentrated hurt.

The man walked up to Mitt. Mitt stepped forward. Navis, who'd appeared out of nowhere as usual, moved to flank him but Mitt waved him back. The two stood face to face. It was a performance, Moril realised, and he and Navis and the others were the audience.

'Hello, son,' said the man.

'You were never my father,' said Mitt.

'If you hadn't murdered your mother, she'd teach you more respect. Stepson, then.'

Mitt made a sweeping bow. 'Hello, stepfather.'

Shocked exclamations rang out on both sides of the clearing. Only Navis' face didn't alter. Either he'd known, or he was covering his emotions even more effectively than usual.

'When did I murder Milda?' continued Mitt conversationally, as if no one else in the clearing existed but the two of them.

'Your mother was raped and raped again and then beaten to death in the sack of Holand,' said the man in the same conversational tone. 'Oh, I forgot, that was the southern earls. So hard to tell the difference with that bastard Haddsson standing right behind you. It was your little sister Enna that you murdered. She starved to death in the siege.'

'I'm sorry.'

'You'll be glad to know, your other sister survived the siege. Being the older she had a bit more reserves. We escaped together. You got to murder her too.'

'She was at your camp.' Moril couldn't see Mitt's face, but his voice sounded bleak.

'You can't even remember her name, can you? Died screaming and her own brother, her own murderer, can't remember her name.'

'It was a long time ago.'

'A long time indeed!' The man threw back his head and laughed. 'Long enough to forget all your fine ideals, long enough to forget all your old friends. You'd like to forget you ever knew any of us! "A free soul" you used to call yourself.' He spat on the ground. 'You wouldn't know freedom if it fucked you up the arse!'

'I never forgot you, Hobin. And as for freedom—'

The man – Hobin – reached into a leather pouch slung from his belt, half hidden among all his strange clothes. 'I'll make sure you never forget me,' he said.

'If that's a threat,' interjected Navis, moving deliberately to Mitt's side without taking his eyes off Hobin for a second, 'then there are fifty men with guns trained on you, and I promise that they will drop you where you stand before you could ever touch the King. Give yourself up and the King will guarantee you – all of you – a fair trial.'

'Go on, Haddsson, protect your precious little puppet. I'm sure he'll make you an earl if you crawl at his feet for long enough.' Quick as lightning, Hobin snatched something out of the pouch and thrust it high above his head in one square fist. 'There's only one way for a man to be free in Dalemark now.'