The Hammer

The Hammer

by K. J. Parker


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A new stand-alone novel from the acclaimed author of The Company and The Folding Knife.

Gignomai is the youngest brother in the current generation of met'Oc, a once-noble family exiled on an island for their role in a vaguely remembered civil war.

On this island, a colony was founded seventy years ago. The plan was originally for the colonists to mine silver, but there turned out not to be any.

Now, an uneasy peace exists on the island, between the colonists and the met'Oc. The met'Oc are tolerated, in spite of occasional cattle stealing raids, since they alone possess the weapons considered necessary protection against the island's savages.

Gignomai is about to discover exactly what it is expected of him, and what it means to defy his family. He is the hammer who will provide the spark that will ignite a brutal and bloody war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316038560
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 01/05/2011
Pages: 421
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.08(h) x 1.14(d)

About the Author

K.J. Parker is a pseudonym.

Read an Excerpt

The Hammer

By Parker, K. J.


Copyright © 2011 Parker, K. J.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316038560

Seven Years Before

When Gignomai was seven years old, his brother Stheno gave him three chickens.

“They’re not yours, of course,” Stheno said, “you’re just looking after them. Food and water twice a day, muck ’em out when the smell gets bad, make sure the fox doesn’t get them. No big deal. Father thinks it’s time you learned about taking responsibility.”

“Oh,” Gignomai said. “How about the eggs?”

“They go to the kitchen,” Stheno said.

For a week, Gignomai did exactly as he’d been told. As soon as he woke up, he ran out into the yard, being careful not to slam the door in case it disturbed Father in his study, and went to the grain barrel, where he measured out a double handful of wheat into the battered old pewter cup he’d found in the barn. He scattered the grain all round the foot of the mounting-block, filled the tin pail with water, counted the chickens to make sure they were all there and made a tour of inspection of the yard palings. One paling was rotten at the base, and Gignomai was worried that a fox could shove against it, break it and get in. He reported his concerns to Stheno, who said he’d see to it when he had a moment. Nothing was done. Two days later, something broke in during the night and killed the chickens.

“Not a fox,” his brother Luso said, examining the soft earth next to the broken palings. Luso was a great hunter, and knew everything there was to know about predators. “Look at the size of its feet. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a wolf, only we haven’t seen one of them for years. Most likely it’s a stray dog from town.”

That made sense. Town was a strange, barbarous place where common people lived, barely human. It followed that their dogs would run wild and murder chickens. Luso undertook to patrol the woods with his gun (any excuse). Stheno told Gignomai not to worry about it; these things happened, it wasn’t his fault (said in a way that made it clear that it was, really), and if you kept livestock, sooner or later you’d get dead stock, and there was nothing more to be said. That would have been fine, except that he then issued Gignomai with three more chickens.

“Try to take better care of them,” he said. “The supply isn’t exactly infinite, you know.”

For three days, Gignomai tended the chickens as before. For three nights, he sat in the bow window overlooking the grand double doors of the hall. He was too young to be allowed out after dark, and from the bow window you could just about see the far western corner of the yard. He managed to stay awake for the first two nights. On the third night he fell asleep, and the predator broke in and killed the chickens.

“Not your fault,” Stheno said wearily. “For a start, you wouldn’t have seen anything from there, and it was dark, so you wouldn’t have seen anything anyway. And even if you’d seen something, it’d have taken too long. You’d have had to come and wake me up, and by the time I’d got out there, the damage would’ve been done.”

It was the same large, unfamiliar paw print. Luso still maintained it was a dog.

“You didn’t mend the broken paling,” Gignomai said.

“I will,” Stheno replied, “soon as I’ve got a minute.”

Custody of the remaining dozen chickens was awarded to one of Luso’s huntsmen. The paling didn’t get fixed. Two nights later, the leftovers from two more hens and the cock were scattered round the yard.

“We’ll have to get a cock from one of the farms,” Luso said. The met’Oc didn’t condescend to trade with their neighbours, but from time to time Luso and his huntsmen went out at night and took things. It wasn’t stealing, Mother said, but she didn’t explain why not. Stheno tied the paling to the rail with a bit of twine from his pocket. Gignomai knew why he hadn’t mended it: he had the farm to run, and he did most of the work himself because the farm workers were weak and lazy and not to be trusted. Stheno was twenty-one and looked like Father’s younger brother rather than his son.

The next night, Gignomai climbed out through the kitchen window. He’d noticed some time before that the catch didn’t fasten; he’d made a note of this fact, which could well be strategically useful, but had decided not to squander the opportunity on a pointless excursion. He took with him a horn lantern he’d found in the trap-house, a knife from the kitchen and some string.

The predator came just before dawn. It wasn’t a dog. It was huge and graceful and quiet, and it nosed aside the broken paling as though it wasn’t there. It jumped the half-door of the chicken-house in a single fluid movement, and came out a short time later with a dead chicken in his jaws. Gignomai watched it carefully, and didn’t move until it had gone.

He thought about it. The predator was a wolf. He’d seen pictures in the Bestiary in Father’s library, and read the descriptions in Luso’s Art of the Chase. Quite likely it was the last surviving wolf on the Tabletop, or maybe in the whole colony. The met’Oc had waged war on the wolves when they first came here. Luso had always wanted to kill a wolf, but he’d only ever seen one, a long way away. This wolf was probably old, which would explain why it had taken to burglary; they did that when they were too old and tired to pull down deer, and when they were alone with no pack to support them. There was no way a seven-year-old could fight a wolf, or even scare one away if it didn’t want to go. He could tell Stheno or Luso, but they almost certainly wouldn’t believe him.

Well, he decided. The job had to be done or it’d kill all the chickens, and nobody else was going to do it because they wouldn’t believe he’d seen a wolf.

He thought hard all the next day. Then, just as it was beginning to get dark and the curfew came into force, he went as unobtrusively as he could to the chicken-house, chose the oldest and weakest hen and pulled her neck. With the knife he’d borrowed from the kitchen and neglected to return, he opened the guts and carefully laid a trail of drops of blood across the yard to the woodshed, where he put the corpse on top of the stacked brushwood. He scrounged some loose straw from the stables and laid it in the shed doorway, and found a stout, straight stick about three feet long, which he leaned up against the wall. It was the best way of doing it that he could think of. There’d be trouble, but he couldn’t help that.

The wolf came earlier that night. Gignomai had been waiting long enough for his eyes to get accustomed to the dark, and besides, there was a helpful three-quarter moon and no cloud. He watched the wolf’s nose shove past the paling and pick up the scent of blood. He kept perfectly still as it followed the trail, pausing many times to look up. It was suspicious, he knew, but it couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Old and a bit stupid, but still a wolf. He made sure of his grip on the lantern, and waited.

Eventually, the wolf followed the blood all the way into the woodshed. Gignomai kept still until the very tip of its tail had disappeared inside; then he jumped up, took a deep breath, and crept on the sides of his feet, the way Luso had taught him, across the yard. He could smell the wolf as he groped for the stick he’d put ready earlier. As quickly as he could, he opened the front of the lantern and hurled it into the shed, hoping it’d land on the nice dry straw. He slammed the door and wedged the stick under the latch.

Nothing happened for a disturbingly long time. Then he heard a yelp—a spark or a cinder, he guessed, falling on the wolf’s back—followed by a crash as it threw itself against the door. He’d anticipated that, and wished he’d been able to steal a strong plank and some nails, to secure the door properly. But the stick jammed against the latch worked just fine. He could see an orange glow under the door. The wolf howled.

He hadn’t anticipated that. It was guaranteed to wake the house and bring Luso running out with his gun. Luso would open the door and either he’d be jumped by a maddened, terrified wolf, or the burning lintel would come down and crush him, and there’d be nothing Gignomai could do. He considered wedging the house door with another stick, but there wasn’t time and he didn’t know where to find the necessary materials. Then the thatch shifted—it seemed to slump, the way lead does just before it melts—and tongues of flame burst out of it, like crocuses in spring.

Stheno came running out. Gignomai heard him yelling, “Shit, the woodshed’s on fire!” and then he was ordering people Gignomai couldn’t see to fetch buckets. One of the farm men rushed past where he was crouching, unaware he was there, nearly treading on him. Quickly Gignomai revised the recent past. As soon as it was safe to do so, he got up quietly and headed for the house door. Luso intercepted him and grabbed his shoulder.

“Get back to bed. Now!” he snapped.

Gignomai did exactly as he was told, and stayed there until the noise in the yard had died down. Then he made his way down to the hall. Stheno and Luso were there, and Father, looking extremely irritable. Stheno was telling Father that the woodshed had caught fire; they’d tried to put it out but the fire had taken too good a hold by the time they got there and there had been nothing they could do. Luckily, the fire hadn’t spread, but it was still a disaster: half the winter’s supply of seasoned timber had gone up in flames, along with twelve dozen good fence posts. Father gave him a look that told him that domestic trivia of this nature wasn’t a good enough reason for disturbing the sleep of the head of the family, and went back to bed.

Next day, Stheno went through the ashes and found the twisted frame of a lantern. Some fool, he announced, had left a light burning in the woodshed, and a rat or something had knocked it over, and now they’d all be cold that winter. It would go hard, he implied, with the culprit if he ever found out who it was. But his enquiries among the farm hands produced a complete set of perfect alibis, and Stheno had too many other things to do to carry out a proper investigation.

The attacks on the chickens stopped, of course, but nobody noticed, having other things on their minds.

Gignomai wasn’t proud of what he’d done. Clearly, he hadn’t thought it through. On the other hand, he’d done what he had to, and the wolf, quite likely the last wolf on the Tabletop, was dead and wouldn’t kill any more chickens. That was important. The violation of the family property wouldn’t happen again, so there’d be no need for him to repeat his own mistake. Accordingly, he didn’t feel particularly guilty about it, either. It was a job that had needed doing, and he’d done it.

A little while later, when he thought it was all over, his sister came to him and said, “You know the night of the fire.”

“What about it?” Gignomai replied.

“I was in the kitchen,” she said. “I went down to get a drink of water, and when you came in, I hid and watched you climb out of the window.”

“Oh,” Gignomai said. “Have you told anyone?”

She shook her head. “Why did you burn down the woodshed?” she asked.

He explained. She looked at him. “That was really stupid,” she said.

He shrugged. “I killed a wolf,” he said. “How many kids my age can say that?”

She didn’t bother to reply. “I ought to tell Father,” she said.

“Go on, then.”

“But I won’t,” she said, after an agonising moment. “He’d just get mad, and then there’d be shouting and bad temper and everybody in a mood. I hate all that, specially when it goes on and on for days.”

“Fine,” Gignomai said. “Up to you, of course.”

“You might say thank you.”

“Thank you.”

“It was still a really stupid thing to do,” she said, and left the room.

After she’d gone he thought about it for a long time and, yes, she was right. But he’d done it, and it couldn’t be helped, and it had to be done. The only criticism he could find to make of himself was idleness and lack of foresight. What he should have done was stack brushwood in the old cider-house, which was practically falling down anyhow (Stheno was going to fix it up sometime, when he had a moment) and would’ve been no great loss to anybody.

Next time, he decided, I’ll make sure I think things through.


Excerpted from The Hammer by Parker, K. J. Copyright © 2011 by Parker, K. J.. Excerpted by permission.
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