The Two of Swords: Volume One


By K. J. Parker

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“Why are we fighting this war? Because evil must be resisted, and sooner or later there comes a time when men of principle have to make a stand. But at this stage in the proceedings,” he added, with a slightly lopsided grin, “mostly from force of habit.”

A soldier with a gift for archery. A woman who kills without care. Two brothers, both unbeatable generals, now fighting for opposing armies. No one in the vast and once glorious United Empire remains untouched by the rift between East and West, and the war has been fought for as long as anyone can remember. Some still survive who know how it was started, but no one knows how it will end. Except, perhaps, the Two of Swords.

World Fantasy Award-winning author K. J. Parker delivers the first volume of his most ambitious work yet-the story of a war on a grand scale, told through the eyes of soldiers, politicians, victims, and heroes.


The Rules of the Game

Deal nine cards, face upwards.

The Stakes

Director Procopius of the Imperial Academy of Music and Performing Arts came by the scar when he was eighteen months old, on the day when his father, in a drunken rage, stabbed his mother sixteen times before turning the knife on his baby son and then himself. The scar, an inch wide, ran from his left eye to the right corner of his mouth, and he knew that for as long as he lived, regardless of what he achieved (and he had already achieved so much), it would always be the first thing people noticed about him and their most abiding impression. He knew that they would burn with curiosity to know how he’d got it, and would be far too polite or embarrassed to ask.

Just before the battle, General Moisa gave orders to strike camp, form columns and retreat. Immediately one of his junior officers stormed into his tent, forcing his way past the sentries. He was a good-looking young man with curly blond hair, rather a round face; stocky build, medium height. “Permission to speak freely,” he said. His name was Senza Belot.

Moisa was putting his maps back in their case. He was a tidy man, who took care of his possessions. “Well?”

“With all due respect,” Senza said, “are you out of your mind? Sir?” he added quickly. “We’ve got them pinned down, we’re between them and the road, it’s flat as a chessboard and they’ll have the sun in their eyes. And you want to run away.”

Moisa looked at him. He liked Senza. “We’re outnumbered three to one,” he said.

“Exactly,” Senza replied. “There’s a lot of them. Far too many. Unless they get control of the road, they’ll have run out of food by this time tomorrow. They’re desperate. We can slaughter them.”

Moisa nodded, as though this was an exam and Senza had scored full marks. “We don’t have any arrows,” he said.

Senza had opened his mouth to make his next point. He stood there with it open for a couple of heartbeats. Then he said, “What?”

Moisa took out one of the maps, unrolled it carefully and weighted down the corners with four pebbles from the jar of corner-weighting-down pebbles he always had by him. “There.” He prodded the map with a sausage-like finger. “Ten carts, a hundred thousand arrows, supposed to be here at first light today. Got washed away by a flash flood crossing the Euryphiale.” He lifted two pebbles and let the map roll itself up again. “No arrows, no battle. Bloody shame, but there it is.”

Senza looked at him, like an idiot staring straight into the sun. “Is that all?” he said.

Moisa smiled. “It’ll do,” he said.

Then came the first recorded instance of the Senza Far-Away Look, so familiar nowadays to audiences of cheap novels and market-square melodramas. Moisa later said he rolled his eyes, which isn’t quite how the Look is portrayed in the classical tradition. “Permission to do something about it. Sir.”

Moisa shrugged. “How long?”

“Hour.” Senza frowned. “Maybe two. But after one hour you’ll know I’ve succeeded.”

Senza’s elder brother Forza was reckoned to be the most promising soldier of his generation, already in command of a battalion at the age of twenty-one. It was a shame he was on the other side. “All right,” Moisa said. “Talk to me.”

Shortly after that, the retreat was called off, the army assumed the standard chest-and-horns formation against the enemy front, and six hundred of the elite Seventh heavy infantry advanced in a long double line, followed by two pike regiments in squares of five hundred, preceded by thirty of the great pavises that Moisa had prepared for the siege of Thrassa. The pavises were big shields, made of ox hides stitched together, about the size of a warship’s sail, hung on square wooden frames and mounted on carts. They headed straight for the centre of the enemy line, which was mostly made up of archers covered by triangles of light infantry.

“He’s going to try and punch through,” said the enemy general (his name is not recorded). “He must be mad.”

His aide, Colonel Forza Belot, grinned. “He hasn’t got any arrows,” he said.

The general frowned. “That’s interesting,” he said. “How did you know that?”

“Little bird told me. They all got washed away crossing some river. So, he’s got two choices, go home or try and smash through. He can’t break our heavy infantry, so he’s going for the soft middle.” He shrugged. “It’s what I’d do, if I was desperate.”

“We’ve got ten thousand archers in there,” the general said. “It’s crazy.”

“Yes,” Forza replied. “Sometimes you have to be.”

The line advanced, the sails of the pavises billowing in the strong tailwind, until they came into medium range of the Western archers. “Well?” the general asked.

“Let ’em have it,” Forza replied.

The archers loosed. They were levies from the northern hill country, trained from childhood to shoot fast and far. They let go twenty volleys in just over two minutes. The six hundred men-at-arms in the front two ranks were wiped out. The advance stopped dead and immediately withdrew, taking long-distance fire until they were out of range. The general, watching from the hilltop, grinned and turned to Colonel Forza. “Well,” he said. “That’s that.”

“Maybe,” Forza said.

The Easterners completed their withdrawal, and the front ranks parted to let them through. The pikemen resumed their positions in the line, but the pavise carts passed on to the rear, where Moisa and the archers were waiting.

“There you go,” Senza said. “Arrows.”

The archers scrambled up on to the carts and started pulling arrows out of the pavises. “Twenty volleys,” Senza went on, “ten thousand archers, that’s two hundred and forty thousand arrows. Say eighty thousand misses, five thousand hits on the Seventh, that’s still—”

Moisa nodded. “Enough,” he said. Then he added, “You didn’t tell me about the Seventh.”

Senza shrugged. “They had to have something to shoot at,” he said, “and we don’t need those men today. What we need is arrows, not heavy infantry.” He smiled. “Plenty more where they came from.”

Moisa now had enough arrows for ten volleys. In the event it only took him seven to win the battle, but he was unable to press home his advantage, mostly because of an inspired rearguard action by the Western Nineteenth Foot, under Colonel Forza Belot. The Westerners then cut across the marshes to reach the road, where they met their supply train. A week later, the situation was more or less exactly how it had been at the start of the campaign.

Six months later, the newly commissioned Colonel Senza Belot of the Eastern Fifth attended a reception at the Winter Palace, where he found himself talking to the widow of an officer of the Seventh. She gave him a polite smile over the rim of her wine glass and said, “I think you’re the man who sent my husband to his death.”

Senza put his glass down. “Permission to speak freely.”

“Yes, why not? I’d be interested to hear what you’ve got to say to me.”

Senza took a moment. “When I barged into Moisa’s tent,” he said, “I had maybe three seconds to get his attention and sell him on a plan of action. In those three seconds I considered two options. One was to take our best men, the Seventh, your husband’s unit, loop round a long way to the west into some dead ground I’d spotted, sneak up on the enemy baggage train and try and drive off a dozen or so carts full of arrows. It was a reasonable plan, I think. I’d had my eye on those arrow carts for about a week, on and off, while we were playing footsie with the Westerners up and down the Belsire river. I knew they’d be out back of the camp, and that their general probably hadn’t figured out about the blind spot. But to get there without being seen would’ve taken an hour, during which time our army would’ve been standing about doing nothing, which would’ve looked very odd, which could’ve put the other side on notice we were planning some sort of prank. Also, if it had all gone wrong we’d have got a good smacking and no arrows; even if it all went just right, I’d have had to leave the Seventh behind to hold off pursuit while we got the arrows safely back to our lines, and they’d have been slaughtered by the Western lancers. The other alternative, which is what I actually did, was pretty well foolproof, and we were pulling arrows out of the pavises three quarters of an hour after it all started. Your husband would’ve died either way. He could have died fighting bravely against overwhelming odds, to give Moisa the seven shots he needed to win the day. As it was, he walked straight into an arrow storm and probably had no idea what hit him. That’s really all there is to it.”

The widow looked at him for a moment. “You thought all that in three seconds.”

“That and other things. I’ve only told you the relevant bits.”

She fidgeted with her glass. “But it all came to nothing anyway,” she said. “There was a stalemate before the battle; there’s the same stalemate now. Nothing’s changed at all, except that a lot of men were killed, and you got your promotion.”

“Yes,” Senza said. “But at the moment, my job’s winning battles, not winning wars. If I’d been in Moisa’s shoes, I’d have done what I originally intended, turned round and gone home. Really, he should’ve known better than to listen to me.”

“I see,” the widow said. “Thank you. Tell me, is there anything you care about other than your own career?”

Senza smiled gravely. “Yes,” he said. “One thing.”

“Go on.”

“I want to find my brother Forza and cut his throat,” Senza said. “Now, please excuse me, there’s someone over there I need to talk to.”

The Cards


The Crown Prince

The draw in Rhus is to the corner of the mouth; it says so in the Book, it’s the law. In Overend, they draw to the ear; in the South, it’s the middle of the lower lip—hence the expression, “archer’s kiss.” Why Imperial law recognises three different optimum draws, given that the bow and the arrow are supposedly standardised throughout the empire, nobody knows. In Rhus, of course, they’ll tell you that the corner of the mouth is the only possible draw if you actually want to hit anything. Drawing to the ear messes up your sightline down the arrow, and the Southerners do the kiss because they’re too feeble to draw a hundred pounds that extra inch.

Teucer had a lovely draw, everybody said so. Old men stood him drinks because it was so perfect, and the captain made him stand in front of the beginners and do it over and over again. His loose wasn’t quite so good—he had a tendency to snatch, letting go of the string rather than allowing it to slide from his fingers—which cost him valuable points in matches. Today, however, for some reason he wished he could isolate, preserve in vinegar and bottle, he was loosing exactly right. The arrow left the string without any conscious action on his part—a thought, maybe: round about now would be a good time, and then the arrow was in the air, bounding off to join its friends in the dead centre of the target, like a happy dog. The marker at the far end of the butts held up a yellow flag: a small one. Eight shots into the string, Teucer suddenly realised he’d shot eight inner golds, and was just two away from a possible.

He froze. In the long and glorious history of the Merebarton butts, only two possibles had ever been shot: one by a legendary figure called Old Shan, who may or may not have existed some time a hundred years ago, and one by Teucer’s great-uncle Ree, who’d been a regular and served with Calojan. Nobody had had the heart to pull the arrows out of that target; it had stayed on the far right of the butts for twenty years, until the straw was completely rotten, and the rusty heads had fallen out into the nettles. Every good archer had shot a fifty. One or two in the village had shot fifty with eight or fifty with nine. A possible—fifty with ten, ten shots in the inner circle of the gold—was something completely different.

People were looking at him, and then at his target, and the line had gone quiet. A possible at one hundred yards is—well, possible; but extremely unlikely, because there’s only just enough space in the inner ring for ten arrowheads. Usually what happens is that you drop in seven, maybe eight, and then the next one touches the stem of an arrow already in place on its way in and gets deflected; a quarter-inch into the outer gold if you’re lucky, all the way out of the target and into the nettles if you’re not. In a match, with beer or a chicken riding on it, the latter possibility tends to persuade the realistic competitor to shade his next shot just a little, to drop it safely into the outer gold and avoid the risk of a match-losing score-nought. Nobody in history anywhere had ever shot a possible in a match. But this was practice, nothing to play for except eternal glory, the chance for his name to be remembered a hundred years after his death; he had no option but to try for it. He squinted against the evening light, trying to figure out the lie of his eight shots, but the target was a hundred yards away: all he could see of the arrows was the yellow blaze of the fletchings. He considered calling hold, stopping the shoot while he walked up the range and took a closer look. That was allowed, even in a match, but to do so would be to acknowledge that he was trying for a possible, so that when he failed—

A voice in his head, which he’d never heard before, said quite clearly, go and look. No, I can’t, he thought, and the voice didn’t argue. Quite. Only an idiot argues with himself. Go and look. He took a deep breath and said, “Hold.”

It came out loud, high and squeaky, but nobody laughed; instead, they laid their bows down on the grass and took a step back. Dead silence. Men he’d known all his life. Then, as he took his first stride up the range, someone whose voice he couldn’t identify said, “Go on, Teuce.” It was said like a prayer, as though addressed to a god—please send rain, please let my father get well. They believed in him. It made his stomach turn and his face go cold. He walked up the range as if to the gallows.

When he got there: not good. The marker (Pilad’s uncle Sen; a quiet man, but they’d always got on well) gave him a look that said sorry, son, then turned away. Six arrows were grouped tight in the exact centre of the inner gold, one so close to the others that the shaft was actually flexed; God only knew how it had gone in true. The seventh was out centre-right, just cutting the line. The eighth was in clean, but high left. That meant he had to shoot two arrows into the bottom centre, into a half-moon about the size of his thumb, from a hundred yards away. He stared at it. Can’t be done. It was, no pun intended, impossible.

Pilad’s uncle Sen gave him a wan smile and said, “Good luck.” He nodded, turned away and started back down the range.

Sen’s nephew Pilad was his best friend, something he’d never quite been able to understand. Pilad was, beyond question, the glory of Merebarton. Not yet nineteen (he was three weeks older than Teucer) he was already the best stockman, the best reaper and mower, champion ploughman, best thatcher and hedge-layer; six feet tall, black-haired and brown-eyed, the only possible topic of conversation when three girls met, undisputed champion horse-breaker and second-best archer. And now consider Teucer, his best friend; shorter, ordinary-looking, awkward with girls, a good worker but a bit slow, you’d have trouble remembering him ten minutes after you’d met him, and the only man living to have shot a hundred-yard possible on Merebarton range—

He stopped, halfway between butts and firing point, and laughed. The hell with it, he thought.

Pilad was shooting second detail, so he was standing behind the line, in with a bunch of other fellows. As Teucer walked up, he noticed that Pilad was looking away, standing behind someone’s shoulder, trying to make himself inconspicuous. Teucer reached the line, turned and faced the target; like the time he’d had to go and bring in the old white bull, and it had stood there glaring at him with mad eyes, daring him to take one more step. Even now he had no idea where the courage had come from that day; he’d opened the gate and gone in, a long stride directly towards certain death; on that day, the bull had come quietly, gentle as a lamb while he put the halter on, walking to heel like a good dog. Maybe, Teucer thought, when I was born Skyfather allotted me a certain number of good moments, five or six, maybe, to last me my whole life. If so, let this be one of them.

Someone handed him his bow. His fingers closed round it, and the feel of it was like coming home. He reached for the ninth arrow, stuck point first into the ground. He wasn’t aware of nocking it, but it got on to the string somehow. Just look at the target: that voice again, and he didn’t yet know it well enough to decide whether or not it could be trusted. He drew, and he was looking straight down the arrow at a white circle on a black background. Just look at the target. He held on it for three heartbeats, and then the arrow left him.

Dead silence, for the impossibly long time it took for the arrow to get there. Pilad’s uncle Sen walked to the target with his armful of flags, picked one out and lifted it. Behind Teucer, someone let out a yell they must’ve heard back in the village.

Well, he thought, that’s forty-five with nine; good score, enough to win most matches. And still one shot in hand. Let’s see what we can do.

The draw. He had a lovely draw. This time, he made himself enjoy it. To draw a hundred-pound bow, you first use and then abuse nearly every muscle and every joint in your body. There’s a turning point, a hinge, where the force of the arms alone is supplemented by the back and the legs. He felt the tip of his middle finger brush against his lip, travel the length of it, until it found the far corner. Just look at the target. It doesn’t matter, he told himself. It matters, said the voice. But that’s all right. That helps.

He’d never thought of it like that before. It matters. And that helps. Yes, he thought, it helps, and the arrow flew.

It lifted, the way an arrow does, swimming in the slight headwind he presumed he’d allowed for, though he had no memory of doing so. It lifted, reaching the apex of its flight, and he thought: however long I live, let a part of me always be in this moment, this split second when I could’ve shot a hundred-yard possible; this moment at which it’s still on, it hasn’t missed yet, the chance, the possibility is still alive, so that when I’m sixty-six and half blind and a nuisance to my family, I’ll still have this, the one thing that could’ve made me great—

Uncle Sen walked to the target. He wasn’t carrying his flags. He stood for a moment, the only thing that existed in the whole world. Then he raised both his arms and shouted.

Oh, Teucer thought; and then something hit him in the back and sent him flat on his face in the grass, and for a moment he couldn’t breathe, and it hurt. He was thinking: who’d want to do that to me; they’re supposed to be my friends. And then he was grabbed by his arms and yanked upright, and everybody was shouting in his face, and Pilad’s grin was so close to his eyes he couldn’t see it clearly; and he thought: I did it.

He didn’t actually want to go and look, just in case there had been a mistake, but they gave him no choice; he was scooped up and planted on two bony shoulders, so that he had to claw at heads with his fingers to keep from falling off. At the butts they slid him off on to his knees, so that when he saw the target he was in an attitude of worship, like in Temple. Fair enough. Arrows nine and ten were both in, clean, not even touching the line. They looked like a bunch of daffodils, or seedlings badly in need of thinning. A possible. The only man living. And then he thought: they won’t let me pull my arrows out, and they’re my match set, and I can’t afford to buy another one—

And Pilad, who’d been one of the bony shoulders, gave him another murderous slap on the back and said, “Nicely, Teuce, nicely,” and with a deep feeling of shame and remorse he realised that Pilad meant it; no resentment, no envy, sheer joy in his friend’s extraordinary achievement. (But if Pilad had been the shooter, how would he be feeling now? Don’t answer that.) He felt as if he’d just betrayed his friend, stolen from him or told lies about him behind his back. He wanted to say he was sorry, but it would be too complicated to explain.

They let him go eventually. Pilad and Nical walked with him as far as the top of the lane. He explained that he wanted to check on the lambs, so he’d take a short cut across the top meadow. It’s possible that they believed him. He walked the rest of the way following the line of the hedge, as though he didn’t want to be seen.

It was nearly dark when he got home; there was a thin line of bright yellow light under the door and he could smell roast chicken. He grinned, and lifted the latch.

“Dad, Mum, you’re not going to believe—” He stopped. They were sitting at the table, but it wasn’t laid for dinner. In the middle of it lay a length of folded yellow cloth. It looked a bit like a scarf.

“This came for you,” his father said.

He said it like someone had died. It was just some cloth. Oh, he thought. He took a step forward, picked it up and unfolded it. Not a scarf; a sash.

His mother had been crying. His father looked as though he’d woken up to find all the stock dead, and the wheat burned to the ground and the thatch blown off.

“I shot a possible,” he said, but he knew it didn’t matter.

His father frowned, as though he didn’t understand the words. “That’s good,” he said, looking away; not at Teucer, not at the sash. “Well?” his father said suddenly. “Tell me about it.”

“Later,” Teucer said. He was looking at the sash. “When did this come?”

“Just after you went out. Two men, soldiers. Guess they’re going round all the farms.”

Well, of course. If they were raising the levy, they wouldn’t make a special journey just for him. “Did they say when?”

“You got to be at the Long Ash cross, first light, day after tomorrow,” his father said. “Kit and three days’ rations. They’re raising the whole hundred. That’s all they’d say.”

It went without saying they had records; the census, conducted by the Brothers every five years. They’d know his father was exactly one year overage for call-up, just as they’d known he had a son, nineteen, eligible. It would all be written down somewhere in a book; a sort of immortality, if you cared to look at it that way. Somewhere in the city, the provincial capital, strangers knew their names, knew that they existed, just as people a hundred years hence would know about Teucer from Merebarton, who’d once shot ten with ten at a hundred yards.

He wasn’t the least bit hungry now. “What’s for dinner?” he said.

He woke up out of a dream, and all that was left of it was someone saying, he must’ve had eyes like a hawk, and then he remembered: what day it was, what he had to do. He slid off the bed, found his clothes and wriggled into them by feel, because it was too dark to see.

The idea was to leave the house before anyone else was awake. Nice idea, but Teucer had always been clumsy. He sideswiped a chair with his thigh, and the chair fell over, and something that must’ve been on the chair clattered on to the flagstones, making a noise like chain-making at the forge, only a bit louder. He realised that it was his bow, quiver, knapsack and tin cup. He lowered himself to his knees and groped on the floor till he’d found them all. The noise he made would’ve woken the dead, but there was no sound from the other room. Mum and Dad would be wide awake, so presumably they’d guessed what he was doing. Well.

He’d put his boots in the porch the night before, the sash stuffed into the leg of the right boot. He wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to wear it yet; in theory, he knew, you were a soldier from the moment it was handed to you (so when he shot the possible, was he already a soldier?) and so he guessed he was entitled to wear the damned thing. But old men in the village who’d been in the service told all sorts of blood-curdling stories about what happened to raw recruits who broke the secret laws of military protocol. There were, he knew, thirty-six different ways of wearing the sash: only five of them were correct, and two of those were reserved for twenty-year men. Unfortunately, either the old men hadn’t specified, or he hadn’t been paying attention. He fished it out, shoved it in his pocket and put his boots on.

The sky was cloudless, before-dawn deep blue, and it had rained in the night so everything smelt sweetly of wet leaves and slaked earth. He walked up the yard, stopped by the corner of the hay barn and looked back. He knew this moment. It was one of the best, getting up early and walking round the fields to see if he could shoot a couple of rabbits, maybe a fox, a deer if he was absolutely sure nobody was looking. On such days he’d always stop and look back at this point, just in case there was a rabbit sitting out on the edge of the cabbage bed. No such luck today. He grinned, turned easily and walked on, taking care to make no sound, out of force of habit.

Pilad and Musen were waiting for him by the oak stump on the top road, silhouettes against the blue sky. Musen was wearing a hat and a scarf, which seemed a bit excessive for the time of year. He nodded as Teucer came up, grunted, “All right, then?” Pilad was eating an apple.

“Where’s Dimed?” Teucer asked.

Pilad shrugged. “Shacked up, probably. Last taste of home, that sort of thing.”

“Do we wait?”

“No chance.” Musen stood up. “Catch me getting in trouble because he can’t be arsed to get up in time.”

Teucer glanced at Pilad, who nodded, threw away the apple and rose to his feet. “He’ll catch up,” he said.


  • "Parker's acerbic wit and knowledge of human nature are a delight to read as he explores the way conflict is guided, in equal measure, by the brilliance and unerring foolishness of humanity . . . . Thoroughly engaging."—RT Books Reviews

On Sale
Oct 17, 2017
Page Count
512 pages

K. J. Parker

About the Author

K.J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt. He was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines; interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

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