Click to enlarge and spotlight cover
With the whole of Europe balanced on the brink of war, an Austrian regiment is sent to the furthest frontier of the empire to hold the border against the might of Prussia. Their garrison, the ancient house called Pokoj.
But Pokoj is already inhabited, by a company of ghosts from every age of the house's history. Only Drozde, the quartermaster's mistress, can see them, and terrifyingly they welcome her as a friend. As these ageless phantoms tell their stories Drozde gets chilling glimpses not just of Pokoj's past but of a looming menace in its future.
Meanwhile the humourless lieutenant Klaes pursues another mystery. Why are the people of the neighbouring village so surly and withdrawn, so reluctant to welcome the soldiers who are there to protect them? What are they hiding? And what happened to the local militia unit that was stationed at Pokoj before the regiment arrived?
The camp follower and the officer make their separate journeys to the same appalling discovery—an impending catastrophe that will sweep away villagers and soldiers alike. But to stop it would pit Klaes against his entire regiment and Drozde against the one man in the world she truly fears.
Perhaps neither of them can prevail. If they do, it will be with the help of the restless dead. . . .
In The House of War and Witness by Mike Carey, Linda Carey & Louise Carey, the whole of Europe is balanced on the brink of war. An Austrian regiment is sent to the farthest frontier of the empire to hold the border against the might of Prussia. Their garrison, the ancient house called Pokoj. But Pokoj is already inhabited, by a company of ghosts from every age of the house's history. Only Drozde, the quartermaster's mistress, can see them, and terrifyingly they welcome her as a friend. As these ageless phantoms tell their stories Drozde gets chilling glimpses not just of Pokoj's past but of a looming menace in its future. A gorgeous novel from the husband-wife-daughter team of the Careys. (You might know Mike as M.R. Carey, author of the bestselling The Girl with All the Gifts.) – Sandra Kasturi
There was a border up ahead, though the trees were so thick here that no sign of it could be seen. The forest stretched for many miles in all directions, and the trees were the same ahead of them as behind. Nevertheless, the border was there. Not half an hour ago the ground had risen and the trees with it, and through the trunks they had all seen the flash of the river. On the other side of it was Prussia.
The men were too hungry and dispirited to celebrate much at the sight, though it meant their long march was almost at an end. Not so much a march, Colonel August had to admit: there had been no road for two days, and the officers had been leading their horses more often than riding them. It wasn't possible to maintain an orderly column among so many damned low-hanging branches, not with an infantry company more than two hundred strong. But at least they'd all kept up, and after his threat to cut the rations of the next man who complained, the grousing no longer reached his ears.
"There's a great house here? Really?" Lieutenant Klaes said. He looked again at the map, hand-drawn for them by the landlord of the last inn they had stopped at, three days ago. It was crude, but better than the official map, which showed a swathe of beautifully depicted trees with a single cross at the edge and blank space beyond.
The colonel—newly promoted from lieutenant colonel for the purposes of this assignment—didn't bother to look at either document. "It'll be where command says it is," he pronounced with easy confidence. "The family hasn't used it in years, apparently. I think we're still trying to find someone to accept the requisition papers."
"And the village: Narutsin? Outlandish name."
"Outlandish place, no doubt. But this close to the border, what do you expect? There's a small detachment there already: local forces. Their captain can fill us in on the peculiarities of the natives if he's halfway competent. And if it's really a backwater, so much the better in some ways. It'll discourage the men from fraternising."
"It's not so much the men I'd worry about," muttered Klaes as a burst of girlish laughter reached them from far back among the trees. The women—that is, the respectable women—were all in the rear party, together with a couple of the older sergeants for protection, the pack-mules and the baggage. They were the officers' wives, who were too delicate to travel at a soldier's pace and would arrive later in the day, following the trampled path left by the company. But a few of the camp followers, mostly washer-women and whores, had managed to tag along with the men. They kept to the back of the column where their presence was not too obvious, but Klaes could not ignore them: giggling and flirting and disrupting every attempt at good order. One of them, the gypsy girl Drozde, had a laugh that could drown a church bell. He turned to glower over his shoulder at the noise.
A cry from one of the scouts brought his attention back to the road ahead. Klaes glimpsed a straight edge through the trees and the grey of stone: a building. Only a few more minutes' walk confirmed it. The trees thinned, and through them the soldiers could see the gables of a house.
It stood on a rise too insignificant to be called a hill, the trees straggling around it on three sides. On the fourth were the house's grounds, maybe a dozen fields' width. Part might once have been laid out as lawns and herb beds, but all that could be seen there now was scrubby grass and a tangle of the same bushes they'd been pushing through for the last few days in the forest.
The house and its grounds were surrounded by a stone wall that might once have kept out intruders but was crumbling now in several places. Beyond it were the villagers' fields, jealously reclaimed from the forest and still more jealously guarded from each other with partitions of ditches or stick-fences. In the distance they could just make out the village itself: low, grey-brown buildings topped with a haze of cooking smoke.
After two miles the road crossed a bridge. It was yet another landmark that did not appear on their inadequate map, but the garrulous innkeeper at Kastornya had told them to look out for it. "It's a bridge over nothing! You'll see for yourself. It's where the river ran—not the big river, the Oder, but the small 'un. Mala Panev, I think they call it. Only then they dammed Mala Panev as she comes out of the hills—trying to make some good pasture, I reckon, but there's none to be had up there. So now there's just this big cut in the land. This big dry cut, see. And they call it the Drench."
This was a concern to Colonel August, and he stopped to take some measurements—or rather to allow Klaes to do so. It was not the Drench itself that troubled him. That was, indeed, only a dip in the land, five or six feet deep and no more than twenty wide at this point. It was dry at the bottom apart from a thin trickle and some standing pools, and even if there had been no bridge the officers would not have had to dismount to lead their horses down the gentle slope.
But the guns, which were a day behind them, were another matter. Lieutenant Dietmar needed well maintained roads, and given how few there were to choose from, would almost certainly be obliged to take this one. So it was of some moment to determine whether this wooden bridge would take their weight.
Klaes drew out a tape and stick that he kept about his person and solemnly did his calculations. His original posting had been with the corps of engineers, and he had learned a great deal there about the mechanics of this and that. Fortification, transport, sapping and undermining. Intellectually, it had suited him well, and he still evinced a fascination with such technical minutiae, but he had turned out to have little willingness to get his hands dirty, and so had found his way into a regular regiment by the quickest way.
But now Klaes inspected the bridge and pronounced it sound. And his commander accepted the verdict, knowing that if there was one thing Klaes could be relied on to do well, it was to weigh and measure.
Once over the bridge they halted at the edge of the trees while August gave orders: Sergeant Janek to run and take word to Lieutenant Tusimov in the rear, while the other sergeants relayed the order to halt along the rest of the column. The main body of the company would remain where they were, awaiting further instructions. A smaller group, headed by Klaes, was to accompany August into the village to meet the burgomaster.
"He won't be expecting us," Klaes observed. "It's clear your message miscarried, sir, or else he would have sent someone to meet us along the way."
"Still, he will come out to us," said August. "We're marching over two hundred men onto his land. If the mayor's not the first to greet us, he's not the one we should be dealing with."
In fact, it was not the burgomaster they met first. The season was late autumn, the ground still boggy from the first rains of the season, and the company were concentrating on their feet as they crossed the fields. They had been keeping to a narrow track between two harvested plots, but the hedges which served as boundary markers here had been allowed to grow straggly and wild. Privates Leintz and Rasmus swerved to avoid a bush in their path and ran into a man hiding behind it.
He started up from them like a pheasant, flapping his arms. His eyes were wide with terror.
"It wasn't," he said, high-voiced. "I didn't. I don't know a thing about it!"
He stood for another moment goggling at them. Then he turned and ran off across the field, his boots picking up fresh clumps of mud with each step.
"Local dullard," said Leintz, watching the man's lumbering retreat. "There's always one."
"More than one, I'll bet," Rasmus said. "Place like this, it's probably their main crop."