THE HILLS
by Joseph Flynn

TYNE DUNLEY WAS not pleased as he reached the last stack of coins on the table. After a ten-mile ride in the rain to reach the old man’s keep, the paltry offerings before him made it seem a deliberate waste of his time. The crown had always had trouble collecting from the Rawley lands; supposedly they were more apt to pay with excuses than coin, but of late the job had become more dangerous than it was tedious, even costing a few of Tyne’s predecessors their lives. He’d been given the position following his proficient display in the Southlands, and after a few months’ work it seemed he might be the one to squeeze blood from the Rawley stone, literally if need be.

‘You’re short again, Lord Rawley,’ he said in a needle-thin voice.

To his friends Lord Rawley was an easy-going man, quick to laugh and quicker to eat with a joviality that could make anyone feel like family. Tyne and Lord Rawley were not friends however, and the cherry red anger that now marred his face was becoming expected of their exchanges. ‘Of course I’m short, ye damnable vulture!’ he yelled. ‘Ye come ’round to collect twice a Moon’s turn! How am I supposed to make that kind of coin?’

‘My lord, you agreed to these instalments for your payments. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.’

‘I agreed to fair pay! This is robbery!’

‘This is the law, Lord Rawley, the same law that gave you this castle.’

‘Nae, my keep was no gift from your king! ’Twas iron that built this castle, and it was steel that kept the wild men from its walls. Down in the valleys scraps of parchment might coerce the common men to do your bidding, but up here the Rawleys put down the law with mud and blood.’

Tyne looked out a nearby window at the darkening sky and sighed. The sun had begun setting long before he’d been able to get Rawley to submit to any payment, and in the hours since then his patience for the old man’s bluster had gone. Each lord he had worked with was the same: always trying to pinch a penny here or cut a cost there, even if that meant dodging a tax or selling his people out to bandits. Years working with such men had built resentment in a younger Tyne, and now that he had some power of his own, he resolved to never let them evade their responsibility again.

‘Your ancestors may have laid this castle, my lord, but you only still live in it because the King allows it,’ he began. ‘Far be it from me to threaten a lord, but I speak for the crown, and the crown has no problem replacing its wilful subjects.’ Tyne leaned back and knocked on the door behind him. At his summons two men dressed in boiled leather barged into the small study, their crooked features made menacing by candlelight.

‘And who are these brutes, eh? You’re a pup grown too big for his leash if ye think ta threaten me in my own home,’ growled Rawley.

Tyne remained unfazed, ‘I’m afraid you misunderstand; these are King Garte’s men, and unlike you they do whatever he tells them to. So no, I am not threatening you: the King is.’

He watched the sweat bead at the lord’s brow and smirked. Rawley was small time in the eyes of the king, Tyne knew. Garte was more focused on spending money than collecting it, and Rawley at least tried to pay when he could. But a lax king breeds lax subjects, and Tyne felt that Rawley had gotten far too comfortable in his high seat.

‘Where,’ Rawley began, ‘Where does the King expect all of this coin to come from? My arse? This land is a sponge; Duggan and his hill tribes steal all the money comin’ in, so I can’t afford to pay for men to get rid of the bleedin’ hill tribes who keep doin’ the stealin’! It’s a damn circle!’

Tyne fingered a goblet that Rawley’s servant had set out; wine and bread had been offered, as was the custom, but Tyne didn’t drink on the job. His fingers brushed along the ornate patterns on the rim, making sure the burnished gold caught the light.

Rawley understood his meaning, ‘That’s not an option.’

‘And why not?’ asked Tyne. ‘Surely you have some spare cutlery or an extra tapestry that you might part with?’

‘I own no mere “tapestries”! Hung about my halls are heirlooms of the Rawley name, passed down since long before your greatest grandsire squirted out your family line in the back of a stable! I will not beggar my family of its keepsakes for the sake of a grasping tax man.’

‘My lord, you are a beggar.’

Rawley’s face twisted in anger, so tight that Tyne half expected him to explode. Instead, the old man let out a tired sigh and slumped back in his chair. ‘I can’t,’ he said in a voice above a whisper, ‘Nae, I won’t do it. Your cutthroats can have at me if they must, but I can’t trade away my history.’

‘You’re a fool,’ said Tyne.

‘I’m a Rawley,’ growled the hill lord, confidence returning to his candour, ‘And that’s more important to me than being a lord ever was.’

‘Then we shall find a lord who has his priorities straight. Boys?’

At Tyne’s command, the two toughs rushed Rawley, throwing him over his chair to the hard stone floor. The taller of the two men, Enny, stepped on his back while the shorter yanked the rings from his fingers. Despite the old man’s cries, no one appeared at the door to help. After all the jewellery had been taken from his person, Tyne called the sellswords away.

‘You say this Duggan fellow has all your money up in the hills, right? It’s quite cold out there; how do you think he would like a nice, warm castle to hold all that gold?’

Rawley moaned and rubbed at the blood on his lip. ‘Ye do that and you’re a bigger fool than I. Ye can’t just throw a castle at some bandit and call him a lord!’

‘For being “just some bandit” he seems to have a lot of the money we’re looking for. Besides, if he is as influential as you say, I doubt the people will have any trouble falling behind him. As for you,’ he said as he scooped Rawley’s payments into a sack, ‘On the morrow I’ll be explaining your refusal to pay to the king. I’d recommend gathering your things and preparing to find a new home; perhaps with all those tapestries you could make a Rawley-themed tent.’

No one in the Rawley household met Tyne’s gaze as he and his men stalked away from the old lord. Rawley’s younger daughters withdrew in fear at his approach and his grandson silently glared through teary eyes. Tyne stopped and pulled loose the dagger at his hip, smirking as the boy’s nerve slipped. One last reminder for the family before he exited into the storm-soaked night.

Tyne pulled his cloak about himself as he marched through the rain to where his palfrey awaited him. His hired hands fell in beside him as he mounted, and the small company sauntered down the muddy path with naught but lanterns to guide them.

The plan had been to meet up with Sam Bennet, a fellow collector, at a small inn that sat near the base of the highlands a few miles ahead, but the incumbent weather made that idea seem impractical. As the rain came heavier and the mud became marsh, Tyne decided a camp would be prudent. He waited as the men searched the land near the trail and was pleased when Enny came back with tell of a small cave that they could take shelter in for the night. The ‘cave’ as it were, was more of an outcrop at the base of a cliff, but it kept the rain off all the same.

After the horses had been attended to, all three sat down around the lanterns and shuffled to get comfortable in the cramped space. The lanterns gave off little heat, and very soon the cave echoed with the sound of chattering teeth. ‘Enny,’ said Tyne, ‘See if you can’t scrounge up some kindling. It doesn’t pay for us to die of chill.’

The big man grunted and took one of the lanterns with him into the dense brush. The other swordsman, Gert, remained where he sat against the rock wall, bringing sword to whetstone in slow, purposeful movements. Tyne studied the weathered features of his companion; the slitted eyes and wrinkled grimace made him seem older than the cliff face beside him. At times he had trouble telling the difference between the two.

An hour had passed since Enny had left and still they lacked a fire. Tyne watched the lantern’s light flicker in its cage, dimming as it travelled down the wick.

‘Where is he?’ he asked.

Gert’s eyes didn’t move from the tree line.

‘Do you think he’s alright?’

The mercenary spoke in a voice as rough as his face. ‘Don’t know.’

Tyne scoffed, ‘Well, can you go find out?’

‘No.’

‘No? You’re paid to do what you’re told.’

‘Not by you,’ he said as he stood. ‘And he’s only getting paid if he comes back; that’s his job, not mine.’

Tyne made to speak but was silenced by Gert’s hand. Both men waited quietly with ears trained towards the shadows. If Gert had seen something, Tyne had no idea. He squinted ineffectually at the tree line as though it might help his hearing.

One of the horses screamed in unearthly tones and for a moment Tyne feared that it was the forest itself calling after him. Gert sprinted towards the sounds of distress moments too late, as all three horses galloped into the trees. He let out a curse and drew his sword.

‘Is someone the-’ Tyne began before Gert again clamped a hand on his mouth. He held up a leather strap, fresh cut from a bridle.

‘We’ve been found,’ he whispered. Before Tyne could protest, Gert had grabbed the lantern and blown out the candle within.

‘You idiot!’ yelled Tyne. ‘That was our only light!’

The sellsword replied with a fist to his mouth, knocking him to the jagged rocks below with a mouthful of blood. The next moments were a hazy din of steel on stone, the cries of men, and the crack of bones. The quiet came after one last crunch and Tyne prayed for the darkness to conceal him.

A great shock of lightning crashed into a distant tree, casting its light across the camp. Three men in furs stood shoulder to shoulder at the entrance surrounded by the fresh dead. The middlemost man held an iron mallet at his hip which dripped with blood and brain in tandem with the rain.

‘You there,’ he called. ‘Drop your weapons, lest you want to join your friend on the end of my hammer.’

Tyne rubbed at the dagger on his belt, considering his chances. As he went for the hilt his hand brushed against Rawley’s coins.

‘I have no weapons,’ he said, ‘But I have coin if you can promise my safety.’

‘I can’t promise you much of anything, tax man, but I’ll take your coin just the same.’

Tyne heard the man’s footsteps scraping nearer until they seemed to strike something metal. After a moment of fiddling, the man struck flint on steel and reignited the discarded lantern. The fresh light unearthed two more occupants in the cave who had waited in shadow, as well as the crimson stain that had been Gert.

The man brought the light to his face, revealing a much nobler visage than Tyne had expected. Even his furs were of finer make, draped over a grey-blue gambeson the likes of which could only be found in the wardrobes of lords. As he spoke, a cunning smile crossed his lips. ‘That’s right, Tyne Dunley, we know exactly who you are. Been watching you haul coin through these hills for some time.’

‘Then you know of my worth? I could make a fine hostage.’

The man laughed at his offer. ‘How much is a tax collector’s ransom these days?’

Thunder rumbled outside, playing at the nerves of a few of the warriors. One of the men at the entrance spoke up, ‘Duggan, we have to get moving before the bridge-’

‘The bridge will hold,’ he snapped. ‘If it’s flooded over, we’ll just cross in the morning.’

‘Duggan?’ asked Tyne.

Duggan’s grin widened, ‘Is my reputation so that even you have heard of me?’

Tyne laughed at his good fortune, drawing confused stares from the assembly. When he at last gained control of himself he spoke, ‘You are just the man I wanted to see!’

Duggan’s eyebrow rose, ‘I am?’

‘You are! I was actually just on my way to tell King Garte that you might be the man to take on Rawley’s lordship!’

As Tyne’s words echoed about the cave, nobody dared move a muscle. The soon-to-be-lord’s blue eyes pierced Tyne, looking beneath the skin at his heart. At last, he chuckled and shook his head.

‘I’ve been offered many things by those begging for their lives, but never a lordship. How do I know you’re good for it, Dunley?’

‘You know who I am: I work directly for King Garte and can get an audience with him without issue! A whisper in his ear and I could give you your own castle, titles, and all the profits of these lands! You’d be a fool not to accept!’

Duggan shook his head and sighed, ‘If that is so, then fools must be pretty common in these parts. Maybe you haven’t heard this before, but we men and women of the hills have always called Rawley the “Lord of the castle”. Do you know why that is?’

Tyne hesitated, ‘Why do you call him-’

Duggan’s face came in close, ‘Because I’m the lord of everything else.’

His hand reached under Tyne’s cloak and pulled free his dagger. ‘And you should know that when you try to parley,’ he said as he pressed the knife to his chin, ‘You are only as good as your word.’

Tyne’s breath held in his throat. He closed his tear-filled eyes as the blade drew blood. He tried to whimper out some final words, but the hill lord silenced him with a firm grip on his face.

‘You’re a rat, Tyne. You pushed around Old Man Rawley and you’d have me sit his chair so you can do the same to me.’ Duggan tossed away the knife and pulled out Tyne’s coins. ‘These are not yours to offer; they belong to the men and women of these hills, and your attempt to buy me with them is spit in my eye. A thief would do better selling me my own clothes.’

He smacked Tyne to the ground and pulled him back up. ‘And that castle that you promise isn’t yours to give either. That old man may not give a piss about us, but he is one of us all the same. Like as not he told you about his heritage, but I doubt he mentioned that those stones were laid by the Rawley tribe, and that same blood runs through my lord uncle as it does through me. Whatever whelp thinks to take it must needs go through me first.’

He stood up, those same chiselled features that marked him as royalty now drawn tight with sinister purpose. ‘On your knees,’ he commanded.

Tyne did as he was bid, muttering out pleas for mercy between his sobs.

Duggan handed the lantern and his cloak to a nearby tribesman and placed his hammer against Tyne’s forehead, smearing it with Gert’s remains, ‘Here we have Tyne of Dunley, hopefully the last of his name, here to answer for the crimes of larceny, extortion, and deceit towards myself and the people of these lands. While the lowlander King might have exempted you from punishment, my court knows no such mercy and so I, Lord Duggan of the High Hill, sentence you, Tyne the Tax Man, to death by hammer!’

A slow chant began among the men, rising in din along with the rise of Duggan’s red hammer. All the macabre joy and charisma of the barbarian was gone, and in his place stood a lord the likes of which Tyne had never seen in the Southlands or in King Garte’s High Hall. This was no duke of parchment but a true lord of mud and blood. There was naught left to say, no last words to speak. In one blood curdling instant the hammer swooped low, and the last thing that Tyne Dunley ever saw were his tears, twinkling in the lantern light like so many gold coins.

 

 


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