Knaves over queens, p.36
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.36
 

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  Roger waited a few moments to let Asif’s desperation simmer, then nodded. ‘I understand, Mr Manzoor. It’s not easy to make a life when the world’s against you. Leave the matter with me. I’ll have someone speak to your debtors, I’m sure they can be made to listen to reason.’ Roger allowed the hope to flicker in Asif’s eyes before crushing it again. ‘I trust you have enough to repay the original amount?’

  ‘I …’ He shook his head. Now the tears started to flow.

  ‘No need for that, Mr Manzoor. I will cover it.’

  He sniffed and looked up. ‘You will?’

  ‘Yes. Consider it a gesture of friendship.’

  Roger held out his hand. It had grown back over the years, along with his arm … but not quite as it was. Where his left hand was smoothed wood, his right was covered in a thick layer of bark, and shoots sprouted randomly on his arm no matter how often he trimmed them. The fingers were thicker too, the arm chunkier, still recognizable as a human limb but more an approximation than an exact replica.

  Asif took it and shook it without hesitation, with the kind of reverence normally reserved for the Queen. ‘Thank you, Green Man. Thank you.’

  ‘Think nothing of it. I’m sure that if I needed something, you’d do the same for me.’

  ‘I would, I would.’

  Roger guided him to the door. ‘I wish you and your family the best, Mr Manzoor.’

  He’d not been alone long before there was another knock at the door. No further meetings were scheduled which meant trouble of one sort or another.

  ‘Come in.’

  Wayfarer stepped into the room with an early copy of tomorrow’s paper. Her skirt was shorter than he would have preferred, and her penchant for wearing sunglasses at all times troubling, but in all other ways she was the product of a decent education and Roger was lucky to have found her.

  ‘Is something wrong?’ he asked.

  She gave an emphatic nod as she offered him the paper.

  Roger took it and saw the problem marked in inch-high letters.

  TEENAGE JOKER KILLED BY OWN UNCLE!

  Any joker killed by a nat demanded retaliation by the Twisted Fists. As it had happened on his turf, it would be up to him to see that five non-joker lives were taken as an example.

  ‘This came around the same time,’ added Wayfarer. ‘For your eyes only.’

  It was a small envelope containing a list of names. Sometimes Roger got to pick the targets for the strike himself. Sometimes not. He sighed. It was no surprise to find the joker’s uncle on it, but the police would be expecting them, and he couldn’t afford the attention a dead policeman would bring.

  While he worried about that, a second name leapt out at him, one he’d come across in a previous life: Tristan Dove. Decorated naval officer and adviser to the government. He sighed a second time. What was Black Dog thinking? If the Fists killed a military hero they’d be vilified in the press.

  Wayfarer waited until he looked up. ‘Should I mobilize the crew?’

  ‘Yes, but we’re going to need some extra help on this one.’ He folded the list and handed it back to her. ‘I want eyes on these targets, up-to-date pictures, locations, and itineraries if you can.’

  She nodded, vanishing the list in the manner of a street magician. ‘Done.’

  ‘And find the Hunter.’

  ‘Herne? The one who did the …’ she made a gesture with her index finger which would have made Roger blush if he were still able, ‘… movies?’

  ‘Yes,’ he snapped. ‘That one.’

  Wayfarer’s eyebrows briefly appeared over the top of her sunglasses and then she left, leaving Roger to wonder how he was going to stop the mess he’d just been handed from blowing up in his face.

  They met on the cliffs under the setting sun, its last rays poking through cloud cracks. Roger paused to enjoy the feel of sunlight on his skin. The great outdoors had never held much appeal before his transformation, but being cooped up inside windowless rooms had really made him appreciate the simple joy of open space and the freedom to just walk.

  It was tempting to simply pick a direction and go, but he diligently waited with Wayfarer for the other figure to join them at the top. There was too much work to do to go walking. A joker had been killed and the Twisted Fists needed to respond. This meant Roger had to organize a strike. It was a little like being a god, he mused, choosing who would live and who would die. Except that in this case Black Dog was the god and not him. A status quo Roger was less than happy with. While his usual crew dealt with the other four on the list, he was dealing with Tristan Dove, a man seen by many as a hero, which was why Roger was going to use a third party for maximum deniability.

  Herne the Hunter was an impressive figure, an antlered giant, wild and muscular. Dark-red fur covered his legs, all the way from thighs to cloven hooves, matching the hair on his body and thick mane on his head. He was handsome with it, more mythical than monstrous. Roger would have hated him for that alone, but the Manchester United football shirt and shorts were additional incentive.

  They’d met before, when Herne had called on the Fists to cover up a murder. He’d given his name as Dylan then. Roger was glad he knew it; Dylan was so much less impressive a moniker than Herne. It was easier to attach insults to as well. Dylan the disaster, Dylan the desperate, Dylan the degenerate. He was also Dylan the extremely dangerous, which was why Roger had called for the meeting in the first place.

  Herne held up his hands as they approached. ‘I know I’m late,’ he rumbled. ‘Roads are a joke.’

  Roger couldn’t help but look at his watch. ‘Not to worry.’

  ‘Traffic was mad.’

  A genuine smile found its way onto Roger’s face, and he exchanged a look with Wayfarer. The meeting had been arranged for six, sharp. He’d told Herne it was at five, banking on the other joker’s unreliability. Whether they knew it or not, everyone would run on his time. ‘Yes, well, shall we get down to business?’

  ‘Yeah,’ replied Herne, uncertainly. There was a nervousness to him that irritated Roger. ‘You sure you want to do this?’

  ‘Absolutely.’ And this was true. He wanted to send Herne after their quarry. That way, when he failed to find Dove, Roger could blame the Hunter, and pick a new target more to his taste, satisfying the needs of the Fists and allowing a good man to enjoy his twilight years. ‘We have all the details here.’ He gestured to Wayfarer and she offered the file.

  Herne flicked through the document, his owl-slitted eyes barely seeming to register the details. ‘What’s our problem with him?’

  ‘It’s in the file.’

  Herne straightened a little, and Roger realized he’d misjudged how tall the knave was. Eight foot, at least, and that was before factoring in those antlers. ‘Yeah, but I’m asking you. What you want me to unleash, does he deserve it?’

  It was a good question, one that Roger had asked himself many times. ‘He is part of the establishment that keeps us down. An adviser to the Prime Minister in matters of security.’

  ‘Oh, why didn’t you say so? I’m happy to put down any friend of that bitch.’

  Roger ground his teeth to stop himself from saying anything. How he wanted to put this animal in his place! But no, he needed Herne, and that meant he had to keep his peace. ‘Do you have everything you need?’

  ‘I need something of his. Something personal. You got it?’

  ‘Wayfarer?’

  She stepped forward and offered Herne a handkerchief, stolen from Dove by a hotel maid who owed the Green Man a favour.

  Herne took it and sighed. ‘You sure you want to do this? Last chance.’

  ‘I am.’

  ‘Right.’ A battered silver horn hung from Herne’s neck. He lifted it to his lips, took a deep breath, and paused. After a moment he seemed to become aware that they were staring at him expectantly. ‘Right,’ he said again, and blew.

  The sun had slipped below the horizon as they’d talked, allowing a chill to creep in. Roger didn’
t feel it but he saw Wayfarer shiver, and silently chided the fashions designed to see all young women dead of exposure.

  He’d only looked away from Herne for a moment but when his gaze returned to the knave, it was as if something else inhabited the man’s body. The horn at his lips now glinted gold, not silver, and a green light burned within Herne’s eyes in a way that was most unsettling. He seemed even taller too, if such a thing were possible.

  ‘Let the quarry run!’ roared Herne. ‘Let it scurry, dart, and hide. It matters not, for the hunt has come. To me, hounds, to me, horse, to me—’ He stopped, looking down at himself. ‘Eh?’

  An expression of confusion and disgust crossed the hunter’s face and Roger nodded approvingly as Herne ripped the football shirt from his body, casting the rags into the sea. A second later, Roger stopped nodding, as the shorts were torn free and sent after them, exposing Herne in all his glory.

  ‘Sweet Jesus!’ exclaimed Wayfarer.

  ‘That’s … unfeasible!’ exclaimed Roger.

  Herne blew on the horn a second time, longer, deeper than the first, and from nowhere a mist rolled in, driven by a rising wind. Up till now, Roger had always thought of the wild card virus in scientific terms. There were many aspects of it he did not understand but was able to fit into a framework of genetic manipulation and altered physics. This, however, felt like something else entirely. This felt like myth and magic.

  And perhaps it always had been. After all, his own body had become living wood. Had he been in denial all these years? As the mists closed about them, Roger felt his grip on a world of logic and order become slippery.

  Herne blew his horn a third time and the nearest edges of the mist rippled and changed, giving birth to a black stallion with eyes that burned with the same green fire as its master’s. Roger shook his head. This was too much. The sooner Herne was on his way, and Roger could get back to normality, the better.

  Two more horses trotted out after Herne’s stallion, like ghosts, and Roger gasped as Wayfarer pulled herself onto the nearest one.

  ‘What are you doing?’ he demanded.

  ‘I don’t know!’ she replied. ‘What are you doing?’

  Absently, he’d reached up to the second horse’s neck and begun to pull himself onto its back. No, this wasn’t part of the plan at all. This is not happening. And yet here he was, sitting astride a horse for the first time in his life as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

  Even through her sunglasses he could see a faint green glow around Wayfarer’s eyes. He wondered if his own had changed.

  More shapes were coming out of the mist: hounds. Over two dozen red-eared, green-eyed monsters, padding silently to form a great pack at their back. They were smaller than the horses but not by much.

  Herne threw down Dove’s handkerchief and the pack rushed forward to sniff at it, tails wagging in excitement. ‘Let noses lead us through the night, till sharp eyes find our mark, and sharper points let the crimson from his veins!’

  The hunter leapt onto his stallion and raised a hand to the sky, and the hounds roared, and then, they were riding, flanked by the mist and the wind.

  While most of Roger was on a horse, swept up in the madness of the hunt, a part of him remained untouched, and it worried him. He had not planned for this eventuality, had not even conceived it as a possibility. He did not wish the Fists to be connected to an attack on Tristan Dove …

  Still, all was not lost. Twelve hours ago he’d sent a warning via Churchill that an attack was coming, with a strong recommendation to relocate Dove somewhere else, preferably abroad. No matter how many hounds Herne conjured, it wouldn’t matter if Dove had already left.

  They’d met not far from Dove’s house, a large estate that enjoyed views of the Cornish sea, and it did not take long for it to come into sight. To Roger’s horror, he saw lights on in the hallway and at least one upstairs.

  But he’d sent word specifically to avoid this! Surely Churchill had heeded his warning? Yes, argued a voice in Roger’s mind, he must have done.

  This meant that either the lights were there to create the illusion of the house being occupied by people, or that a trap had been set. An ambush had always been a possibility, one that he’d been happy to entertain when it was just Herne carrying out the strike. He needed to remove Wayfarer and himself from the hunt immediately.

  And yet, despite that thought being loud in his mind, he did not slow the horse, nor did he call out to Wayfarer. In fact what he did was ride all the faster, doing his best to keep pace with Herne as he accelerated down the hill towards the house.

  They came down like a force of nature, the thunder of hooves, the baying of the hounds, the howl of the wind, unstoppable. They tore past the house, close enough to see the flowers painted over the front door and the small swing in the back garden, and then it was behind them, a darkening shape soon swallowed by the mist.

  ‘But …’ began Roger, pointing over his shoulder, ‘his house is over there!’

  He wasn’t sure if Herne could hear him over all the noise but the hunter replied in a voice just as loud, ‘The hare runs fast but we are wise to his tricks.’

  For hours they rode across fields and hills, the horses and hounds keeping a brutal pace, Roger’s thoughts running wild alongside them. The experience was a lot like being drunk, except he wasn’t saying horrible things to people or being sick or blacking out in the toilet.

  Several villages were passed, and more than one farm, but if anyone heard their passing, none were stupid enough to let themselves be seen. At last they came to a stop on a rocky patch of beach. The moon had broken free of the clouds, casting a pale glow upon the waves. The horses panted while the hounds prowled restlessly along the water’s edge.

  Of course, thought Roger. They had caught Dove’s trail and followed it as far as they could, but it ended here. Thank goodness he had specified the need to get Dove out of the country. It was getting easier to think clearly, the grip of the hunt weaker now that its energy was no longer focused.

  ‘Wayfarer? Are you still with me?’

  She nodded, though her nod was lacking in conviction. ‘Can we go home now?’

  ‘Yes. I think we’ve had more than enough excitement for one night.’

  From further down the beach one of the hounds barked happily, and Roger’s heart sank. The rest of the hunt trotted over, and soon the whole pack was echoing the first hound’s eagerness. Roger followed their gaze. They were looking out to sea.

  He couldn’t make anything out at first, but there was a light just visible in the distance, a gentle winking above sea level, like a low-slung star. It was a ship but it was too far for them to reach.

  Roger breathed a sigh of relief.

  Herne’s horse reared, kicking its front legs in the air as its rider spoke. ‘No hill, no stone, no cracked earth shall stop us. No gate shall bar our way, no feint lead us astray, for blood’s red path guides our feet, thick as Neptune’s sea.’

  Even the magic of the hunt could not stop Roger rolling his eyes at that one. He glanced over at Wayfarer but she was as rapt as the rest of the pack, staring out to the ship that he was certain Dove was on. It was more than an assumption. Roger knew it for a fact. He suspected that Wayfarer, Herne, and the pack knew it too.

  Once more they surged forward, the hooves of their horses sending up a spray of foam as they raced out across the water. To Roger’s amazement, he saw that they were not ploughing into the sea but skimming across the top of it.

  He looked left and right to be sure, and a second time because it was so hard to credit. Yes, they were definitely riding over the surface of the water, and the hounds were still alongside them. No, he was not drunk. No, he was not dreaming, though he rather wished he was.

  As they got closer, he could see that it was a patrol boat. Unarmed but fairly fast. The captain of the vessel had either heard or seen them as more lights came on, and its engines kicked into life.

  Amazing as the horses and ho
unds were, they seemed bound to the same speeds as their natural counterparts. As the boat reached its top speed, the distance between them stopped shrinking, and then, by inches, began to grow.

  Herne leaned back on his horse and reached into the mists which seemed to gather around his hand, thicken and take shape, until a spear had formed under his fingers, thick and heavy, green flames licking around its golden tip.

  It flew from his hand with the speed of a missile, crossed the quarter of a mile of ocean between them in less than a second, and punched into the back of the boat. There was a groan as the engines stuttered and cut out, and then a hiss as water sloshed in through the new hole.

  By the time the hunt had caught up, the boat was tilting, the front end lifting up as the back took on more and more water. Herne’s horse hopped easily from the surface of the sea onto the deck of the boat. Roger’s and Wayfarer’s followed.

  As they charged up the sloping deck, Roger saw the crew hurriedly trying to lower the lifeboats. Dove was among them but blocked from view by a number of soldiers pointing guns. There was no preamble or warning – things had gone too far for that – the soldiers simply opened fire.

  The lead hounds stumbled as bullets struck them and faded bloodlessly into the mists. Whoever the soldiers were, they were well trained. Rather than baulk at the sight of the hunt, they simply discharged their weapons, reloaded, then fired again.

  Roger ignored them, his eyes drawn to the lifeboat that Dove was boarding. He was so intent on his target that he didn’t see the rifle swing in his direction. It was only after the bullet hit him in the chest that his rational mind was able to get him to attend to the real threat. By then he had been knocked off his horse and dumped onto his back.

 
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