The snow clotted on the ground like blood in a wound. From his vantage point halfway up Mount Atinos, Roland could see the smoke curling up from the chimneys of Wintersholm, crowded by a penumbra of evergreens on the southern edge of the valley. He picked up his wolf-skin cloak and fastened it around his broad shoulders, then he turned and pushed his boot into the sleeping form of Prince Carolus. Seeing him stir only slightly beneath his bear pelt, Roland drew back his foot and delivered a swift kick to the younger man’s ribs.
“Cur!” Carolus shouted, throwing back his blanket and struggling to his feet. “You are assaulting a prince of the realm. That is high treason, even for you!”
Roland smiled, a broad grin that showed all of his worn, yellowed teeth. “Daybreak was a half hour ago. The youngling has had enough of my compassion, royal or not.”
“You may be my father’s champion,” Carolus said, using a rocky outcrop for balance as he pulled himself up to a standing position, “but one day I’ll take my place on the throne, and where will you be then?”
Roland grunted and swung his battle axe over his shoulder. “Most likely, I will be cold in the earth.”
“Do not presume your soul will enter the Hall of the Ancients then.” Carolus’s his lithe form shivered in the bitter morning, his translucent skin betraying the delicate web of veins on his hands as he brushed his blonde hair from his face.
“Maggots will be my only reward, young princeling. I am sure of that. Now, get your pack together. We have much ground to cover.”
Roland took one last look over his shoulder at the smoke rising from Wintersholm. He thought about the people he had seen in the outer wards as they rode toward the gates. The victims of the sleeping plague - there had been so many of them, frost lighting on bodies piled high on wooden carts, more doomed souls sitting in doorways oblivious to the biting chill, the snowflakes falling in lolling mouths, stinging unresponsive eyes. He remembered the sounds of children crying, mothers weeping, husbands wailing – but worst of all were the vacant faces of the afflicted, the living-dead who could hear those same sounds and not be moved to any response at all. One by one, the people of his city were becoming statues.
“I ask again ‘champion’ – you are sure this path will take us to the Snow Mage?” Carolus’ nasal voice, not long deep in its maturity, pulled Roland back to the task at hand.
“Aye,” the older man grunted, and he shifted his girdle round his pressing middle. “Sure as an axe blade.”
“But you will still not let me see the map?”
Roland shook his head, kicked out the remains of the camp fire and strode through its ashes. “Time to go, lad.”
He could hear the boy muttering behind him as he pulled one furred boot after the other through the thickening snow. It was the coldest winter in a hundred years – so cold, the wolves were eating each other.
It was a whole day’s journey to where they needed to be, Roland knew, up the increasingly treacherous slope of the mountain and into the stinging mouth of the blizzard. The silence between him and his young companion did not bother him, but he could sense how nervous it made Carolus. For four decades he had faced men on the field of battle, and he could smell anxiety like it was sour milk. It was one of the things that had kept him alive in those early years – the ability to know which battle he could win, which men he could fight and which he must bow to. Carolus’s father, King Glenalph, never gave off the scent his son was now reeking of – that was one of the reasons Roland had bowed to him for so long – at least, not until their last meeting, not until the ageing monarch had told Roland his plan. The recollection made a bolt of anger surge through his veins.
“What if the Snow Mage won’t help us?” Carolus, some way back from Roland, shouted through the banshee wind. “What if we are wasting our time, and our lives?”
Roland stopped, allowing the prince to gain ground. “That’s why you’re here, young master. The wizard will not listen to a grizzled old retainer, but a high-born – your silver tongue is a weapon, even if your sword arm is not.”
Carolus drew level. He was shivering even beneath his many layers: his leather armour, his sheep’s fleece, his bearskin cloak. “I have a weapon sharper than any sword, Roland – my mind.”
Roland laughed. “Your mind is indeed sharp, but I would always trust my weapon arm over my head. My muscles serve freely and give what they give out of instinct. Knowledge, my lord, always comes at a price.”
“In any case,” Carolus said. “I may not be the master swordsman, but I can shoot an arrow through a stag’s eye two hundred yards off.”
Roland laughed. “Did you never wonder why you won every royal archery contest you ever entered?”
Carolus’ shoulders dropped, his mouth slacked open as if Roland had hit him across the face. The champion felt a sudden lurch of shame, and reached out a gloved hand to touch the boy on the shoulder. “I jest. You marksmanship is known throughout the land There is none to equal you.”
The boy pulled his arm back and out of Roland’s grip. “My father will hear of this, make no mistake. You are my servant, champion, I expect fealty.”
“I promise you,” Roland said solemnly. “My very soul is the crown’s.”
He held the boy’s gaze, watching as those brittle blues darted around in microscopic movements. There was no doubting Roland’s words and, after a few moments, Carolus seemed satisfied of this.
“Lead on,” the boy said. “We are alike then, in at least one characteristic.”
The days were short, and it was growing dark by the time they reached their destination – the unwelcoming slit in the rock that marked the entrance to the Snow Mage’s domain.
“The wizard lives in a cave?” Carolus said, as they approached.
“The best place for a magic user, prince,” Roland replied “A place where they can do no harm.”
The air was thin so high up on the mountain, and the valley behind them was shrouded in mist. Roland could feel each breath becoming harder to take; the build-up of lactic acid in his muscles made his legs ache with every step. Behind him, he could hear the prince’s laboured breathing. Looking around, he could see Carolus’s pale skin now an angry red. Such a delicate boy, more interested in playing his flute than practising his swordplay – a creature not built for adventures, not designed for hard living. Roland ran his hand through his straggly beard – the bristles were hard and frost-covered. Prince Carolus was no warrior, and kings who could not fight would not last long in this world. As he was pondering this, the prince’s boot slipped on a patch of ice and he fell, twisting his body round and landing shoulder first in the snow. He yelped like a much-younger boy. Roland dropped his pack and hurried down to help. The prince lay prone, the heavy snow beginning to slowly cover his form beneath its icy blanket. For just a moment, Roland wanted to scoop his mighty hands underneath the body of the child and lift him up, carry him back down the mountain and to his bed. But this was not his way – and he had been given a duty.
“Get up, my liege. We have further to go.”
Carolus groaned and lifted his head from the snow. His eyes were wet, whether with snow-melt or something else, Roland did not know. The champion sighed and held out his hand, but Carolus pushed himself to his knees, and then – with shaking legs – to his feet.
“I am aware of the importance of our mission,” he said, lifting his pack and hefting it onto his shoulder.
Pride – he was his father’s son in one way, at least.
The entrance to the cave was flanked by sculptures of two skeletons in full battle armour, visors up, holding out their gauntleted hands in a warning not to enter. There was also some kind of writing – in characters alien to Roland – carved into the lintel above the entrance.
“That script,” the prince pointed to the letters. “It’s Eldertongue.”
“Well. I imagine they’re asking us to wipe our feet. Come on,” Roland stepped into the darkness without another word.
“No,” Carolus said, his voice flat and quiet. “It’s a warning. That character there means ‘king’ or ‘lord’, and the one next to it – the one next to it is ‘death’.”
Roland turned around. Carolus stood silhouetted at the entrance, the fading daylight at his back. “You read Eldertongue?”
“There are some old parchments in the palace library.”
“Well, the Eldermen left these parts an age ago. Whatever they were warning us about has been and gone. The wizard lives here now.”
“Then he truly must not want visitors.” Carolus remained standing at the entrance, the edges of his feet grazing – but not crossing – the threshold.
“Nevertheless, we have a quest, young master.”
“The lives of everyone in our city – including your father, your sister – hang on us finding a cure to the sleeping plague. And the Snow Mage is the only man we know who may be able to help.”
Carolus nodded, and stepped into the darkness.
They lit torches and passed far enough into the passageway for the chill wind to be a distant call, like people speaking in hushed tones in an adjacent room. Then, as the passage began to widen, they decided to make camp. They ate the cold trail meats Roland had been saving for this last leg of the journey. The champion watched the prince chew delicately on the tough flesh while he ripped through it with his sharp canines. When they had finished, they unrolled their bedding and put out the torch. After a few moments in the darkness, Carolus said:
“Will we reach him tomorrow, then, the wizard?”
“We are tired,” Roland replied “And we must be alert before we venture any further.”
“Are you expecting trouble?”
“A warrior always expects trouble, my prince.”
“What if I cannot persuade him to help?”
Roland rolled over onto his side. He had not taken off his belt and he could feel his dagger, in its scabbard, pressed against his thigh.
“Roland?” Carolus said. “What if I cannot do it?”
“You will do your duty, prince,” Roland said. “And I will do mine.”
Roland did not know for how many hours he had slept. It was as dark when he opened his eyes as it had been when he had closed them. He lit a torch and sat upright. Carolus was still sleeping, curled up tight into a ball beneath his bear pelt, his blonde hair fallen over his face. Roland sat watching him breath in and out, and he was reminded of his own sons – all three of them killed in battle – and how, when they were young, he used to watch them sleep and wonder about their dreams, wonder too what the world had in store for them. Blood, blood, and more blood, that’s all they had seen. Roland let the prince sleep until he was ready to wake of his own accord. Then they gathered their things and ventured deeper into the darkness.
A further twenty minutes in, the tunnel opened out into an enormous hall, carved into the centre of the mountain and held up at intervals by huge pillars of stone which stretched up to a vaulted roof. Bolts of daylight shot through the hall from shafts carved into the top of mountain, lighting the chamber in a sepulchral blue. Frost clung to every surface and, at the far end of the hall on a raised platform accessible by a tall staircase, a large block of ice stood like an altar. Roland watched his breath misting in the air as he entered the chamber. He extinguished his torch and instructed Carolus to do the same.
“This is where he lives, the Snow Mage?” the prince said.
“Not all men require the comforts of a warm hearth,” Roland said. He stepped further into the hall, looking to his left and to his right.
“There is no-one here.”
“Keep it low, to a whisper.” Roland began to creep around the edge of the hall, staying as close to the wall as possible, setting each foot down carefully. Carolus followed, mimicking his precision, until they were about halfway across - when he heard the prince curse and drop his pack, the gold and silver trinkets he had brought to appease the wizard ringing out like cymbals on the stone floor.
“This is hopeless,” he said. “There is no-one here.”
“Shhhh!” Roland hissed, ducking low as if he were avoiding a missile. “We must be quiet.”
“Or what?” exclaimed the prince. “We are not here to sneak up on the enchanter – we want his attention. We should be waving our hands, we should be blowing a trumpet. We should be calling out: SNOW MAGE, SNOW MAGE, THE PEOPLE OF WINTERSHOLM REQUEST YOUR SUCCOUR” – these last words he shouted, his hands cupped over his mouth.
“You see?” he said, smiling. “There is nobody here, Roland.”
A rumbling sound, like the beginnings of an avalanche, emanated from the back of the hall. The floor shook, and dust and ice began to be shaken down from the shafts in the ceiling; several large blocks crashed to the floor and shattered like fallen chandeliers. Roland grimaced. “Best nock an arrow, young master,” he said. As he pulled his battle axe out of its holster, a gigantic humanoid form loomed out of the darkness at the other end of the hall, almost scraping the ceiling of the chamber fifty feet above them.
He heard Carolus pulling a bolt out of his quiver, heard the arrow head knocking against the bow. Expert marksman or not – the boy’s nerves would be the end of him. “Get back to the passageway,” said Roland, “it can’t follow us in there.”
“What is it?”
“Some kind of golem – an enchanted guardian.”
With each step the golem took, the ground shook. The creature was carved out of the earth itself – it had legs and arms and a body like a man but its head was a mere ring of stone set on its broad shoulders. Within that ring was a hollow wherein glowed an evil red light – like the heart of a furnace.
“You have fought one of these before, champion?” said Carolus, as the creature lurched towards them and they backed away.
“Aye,” said Roland.
“And what was your winning strategy?”
“My strategy?” Roland spat. “My strategy was to run, young prince.” As he said this, the golem stopped and angled its great, featureless head down towards the intruders. An ominous stillness took the air.
“And what is your plan now, retainer?”
“Much the same,” said Roland. “Except this time, run faster.” Roland spun around – the prince was ducking in his shadow. He heard a keening whine from the direction of the golem, and he grabbed Carolus and pushed him back towards the cave entrance. Behind them, the air erupted in flames as a tunnel of fire shot out from the titan’s head. Roland could hear it singeing his wolf-skin cloak as they ran.
They ducked behind one of the great pillars. The ground shook beneath them as the golem advanced further into the chamber. Roland could feel his blood pounding in his ears and hear his breath short and ragged in his lungs. Carolus, however, seemed strangely calm, his anxiety dissipated.
“It would appear as if our wizard is not fond of guests,” he said.
“It would take an army to bring that thing down,” Roland replied, already feeling his face burn with shame at the failure of their quest. He knew he could not return empty-handed – and that meant he could not return at all.
“You must go back to Wintersholm, my prince,” he said. “Tell your father he must find another way.”
The ground stopped shaking and, a moment later, a column of fire seared the earth to the right of the pillar they were huddled against. Roland could feel the heat against his face. He began to prepare himself to meet his death. He put his hand on Carolus’s shoulder. “I will distract the creature for as long as I can. You must make a dash to the exit. Do not look back.”
Carolus seemed almost to be laughing – it was not the reaction Roland had expected. “I have come too far to go back now,” he said. “Give me your rope.”
Roland looked down at length of climbing rope tied to his belt, but he did not see its relevance. “We cannot win against a creature such as this.”
“Hand me your rope, vassal.” Carolus held out his hands and Roland, wrinkled brow furrowed further in confusion, did as he asked.
“I have a duty to protect you,” Roland said.
“You have a duty to follow orders,” Carolus replied. “Now,” he pointed at the far wall. “I want you to draw the creature’s attention in that direction – trying not to get yourself killed.”
“And what are you going to do?” asked Roland.
The ground started to shake again as the golem lumbered forward. Tiny pieces of ice and rock were shaken off the pillar and fell, dusting their heads in crystal fragments. Carolus began unfurling the rope. “When I call to you, I want you to try and lure the beast over here – between these two pillars.” He pointed at the next pillar along to their left. “I’ll be doing what I can to attract its attention too.”
“This is madness, my lord. There can be no victory here,” Roland said, still perplexed as to his prince’s plans.
“I am giving you an order, retainer. Now go!” The prince’s blue eyes shone with a steel Roland had not seen in them before, a hardness that reminded him, for the first time, of the king. He nodded and turned, stepping out of the shadow of the pillar and facing the golem –only yards away. The creature stopped its advance and turned its great, featureless head towards him. Roland lifted his axe in the air – it felt good to be holding the weapon in his hands even if he knew it was useless here. Then he let out an ululating war cry and dashed to his right, just as the air behind him erupted into flames. As he ran, he could hear the creature turning slowly to face him, and he hoped that he could buy Carolus enough time to do whatever it was he needed to do.
When he made it to another pillar he stopped and ducked his head around to see what the golem was doing – it was lumbering in his direction exactly as planned. He stepped out from the pillar again and hefted his axe in the air. “Over here,” he shouted at the creature, “follow me”, and he began to run to the next pillar along. As he was running, he heard Carolus call, ordering him to turn around and guide the creature back. He spun on his heels and ran towards where the prince had told him, narrowly avoiding being incinerated by another bolt of flame that burst out behind him and knocked him to his knees. Prone, he was prepared for the worst – but it didn’t come. He heard a whistling noise and, looking up, saw the prince was already drawing the golem’s attention by shooting arrows at the creature’s head. He was doing no damage, but he was succeeding in luring it towards him. It was only as the golem’s leg hit the rope – tied tight between the two pillars as a tripwire – and began to teeter and loses its balance, that Roland realised what Carolus had done. The prince was running backwards, towards the entrance passageway, as the golem tipped over and fell, crashing forwards onto the surface of the chamber and sending a great cloud of dust and ice billowing up.
Roland was still on his knees when the prince’s hand reached out from the swelling ice cloud and pulled him to his feet. Behind him, the red glow from the golem’s head faded out.
“Not bad,” Roland said, surveying the broken form of the giant as the dust cleared from its body.
“The intellect is a weapon too, my dear champion,” said Carolus, a wide grin splitting his mouth. “And it is sharper than any axe you may care to carry.”
Roland grunted and pointed at the icy altar deeper in the chamber. “We must head farther in.”
Their footsteps echoed through the cavern as they approached the steps, and the blue light from above began to turn a darker hue.
“You must take the lead now, my liege,” Roland said when they reached the staircase. “It is not for the likes of me to approach.”
The victor’s confidence of a moment before disappeared and Carolus looked like a small boy again – unworldly and in need of a strong hand to guide him. Roland could not keep his gaze. “I will be behind you,” he whispered. Carolus nodded and began climbing the steps. “Be careful now,” Roland said as they ascended. “The ice is thick here. It would be a long way to fall.”
They picked their way up the staircase. The higher they climbed, the more likely a fall would result in certain death. Roland had the peculiar sensation of feeling sweat dripping down his chest and arms and seeing his breath frosting in the air at the same time. Carolus seemed sure-footed, but Roland could see the prince’s hands shaking as he reached out to steady himself.
When they reached the top, they stepped out onto a small platform. The block of ice in front of them was illuminated by one large shaft of blue light coming down from a hole in the mountain above. Roland could feel an intense cold radiating in waves from the altar – like a furnace in negative.
“There is,” Carolus whispered, pointing at the ice block, “a body in there.”
“I know,” said Roland, hefting his belt up and gripping his dagger. There was, indeed, the dark form of a man encased within the ice – less of an altar now and more of a tomb.
Suddenly, everything around the platform disappeared into blackness – as if the daylight shining through the holes above had been cut off. Only the platform and the frozen bier remained in existence, and the chill in the air became deathly. A voice, like a fist knocking against a hollow wall, addressed them:
“Who approaches? Dost thou bring me succour, or hast thou come to torment me?”
Carolus glanced over his shoulder and Roland nodded.
“I am Prince Carolus Boniface of the city of Wintersholm. I come to seek the help of the great wizard on behalf of my beleaguered kingdom.”
Roland tightened his grip on the pommel of his dagger. Carolus stood rigid, every nerve and muscle in his body taut. After a short pause, a dark laughter rang around the cavern. Carolus looked back at Roland, mouthed a question – “What should I do?” – but Roland had no answer. He started to pull his dagger free of its sheath, the metal shining blue in the subterranean light.
“You come to seek my aid, noble prince?”
“Yes,” Carolus said, his voice shaky and faltering. “The people of my father’s kingdom are being struck down with a terrible sickness – a plague wherein their bodies remain well but their minds decay, as if they are awake while sleeping, as if they are unconscious with their eyes wide to the world.”
“The sleeping sickness. I am aware of this malady.”
“Great wizard,” Carolus unshouldered his pack and brought out the gold treasures and jewel-encrusted trinkets they had brought with them. “My father the king is willing to pay any price to secure your assistance.”
More laughter – a dread sound that chilled Roland to the marrow.
“I have the answers that you seek prince of Wintersholm, but why do you assume your treasure will procure my assistance?”
“My father has authorised me to pay any price, great snow mage.”
“Do you even know whom you address?”
Carolus looked round again at his retainer, but Roland would not look at him. He nodded in the prince’s direction, urging him to persist.
“The great wizard of the ice, the snow mage who lives in this cave. Your name is unknown to me and for that I must apologise. Forgive my ignorance – my people are desperate and we believe only you can help us.”
“I am no wizard of the frosts, prince of men. Step closer to my prison and see from whom it is you petition for aid.”
Carolus stepped closer to the block of ice, and Roland did likewise. He could see the dark form within become a little clearer as he did so, as if the ice crystals in which the figure was encased had rearranged themselves for greater transparency to aid their seeing. There was no living man, no magic user, inside that frozen water, but a black-robed skeleton, crowned with an iron circlet and clutching a dark sceptre.
“You speak to the king of the dead, the emperor of the underworld, the Lich Lord.”
Carolus staggered back, almost falling, and drew his sword. Roland was behind him in an instant, holding him up and pressing his hand down to sheathe the blade.
“We are not here to fight.”
“But Roland, this is not the wizard.”
“No,” Roland whispered. He could see the prince trembling and hear his chattering teeth. “But he is the one we seek.”
“Many centuries have I passed in this prison of ice. I have the answers that you need –the cure for this sickness – but the price of my assistance is my freedom.”
“Roland,” Carolus hissed. “This cannot be what my father intended. We cannot release this creature from his captivity.”
“Shhh,” Roland whispered, and he held the prince close to his chest, as he remembered holding his youngest son the day he joined the royal cavalry. How strange it was he was only able to show such affection shortly before it would never be possible to do so again? He had known Carolus all his life, had watched him grow, had done his best to train him in the ways of the warrior-kings. He was like Roland’s fourth son and, despite their differences, he loved him. Yet there was only one way to free the Lich Lord from his tomb, only one way to melt the ice of his prison and save the people of Wintersholm from the sleeping plague – it was the only reason the king had sent his son to such a dark place. It had not for the vassal, Roland knew, to suggest the monarch may have volunteered to go in his son’s stead.
“Legend has it,” Roland said, “That the blood of the Eldermen runs in the veins of the kings of Wintersholm.” He felt Carolus stiffen, his hands start to push his champion away, but Roland already had his dagger in his hand, and before any further distance opened between them he had slid the blade deep into Carolus’ chest. Roland held the dagger in, feeling the shock ripple through the prince’s body, and guided Carolus over to the ice containing the Lich. He whispered that he was sorry as he laid the prince down on the bier, stroked the boy’s blonde hair and said it again as he watched those delicate blue eyes darting about in shock, as his limbs twitched and jolted in pain and he pleaded noiselessly for help.
“Only Elder blood can break the spell,” Roland said, and he pulled his dagger out and closed his eyes as the dark red blood pooled and spread out under the body of the prince. For the first time in his life, tears rolled down his cheeks. He could hear the ice beginning to melt.
Halfway down Mount Atinos, Roland could see the verdant darkness of the Grunewald drawing closer to him. He longed to be off the mountain, to lose himself in the shade of the ancient pine forest, to be in a place where he could not see the sky. It was evening, and his fire was not lighting. Further south, the chimneys of Wintersholm sent pillars of smoke into the granite-grey skies. He gave up trying to light the fire and stood, picking up his pack and deciding he would keep walking for as long as the dwindling daylight would allow. The sooner he arrived back in Wintersholm, the more lives he would save. He unrolled the scroll the Lich Lord had given him and looked at the instructions. Not all the ingredients for the cure would be findable within the confines of the valley. Search parties would need to be sent in several directions, other kingdoms and domains would need to be trespassed and other rulers bargained with if all the necessary items were to be found. The body gives what it gives freely, Roland reminded himself, but knowledge always comes at a price.
© April, 2013 M. R. Timson
M. R. Timson lives in London, England. This is his first published story.
The bell on the shop door rang as it opened. Vritin blast them, another one, and she was two days behind making charms she had already sold. Brenna kept her head down, no eye contact. Don't they have important things to shop for? Like food and clothing instead of pimple potions and dieting charms. She blamed her own work; she had made a powerful good luck charm. Now she hated the customers it drew into her shop.
"Excuse me. Are you the witch Brenna Gorsey?"
She melted from the low baritone voice, the words brushed up against her ears like silk. Satisfied with her work, she slid the magical viewer off of her forehead and saw the asymmetric bent hat of a wizard. "I'm Brenna. Need an enchantment? I can help you out. And since you're a brother in the arts, I can give you a discount."
He wasn't much taller than her, medium and kind of on the skinny side. Not the wiry skinny suggesting hidden strength. Just not a lot of meat on the bones. He dressed in plain woolens and expensive-looking riding boots. A practical man who put a lot of money on his feet.
"No. Thanks, though. I'm a Constable for the Order. We've had a complaint. You sold someone a good luck charm. Uhhh. Sorry, but I don't understand the problem. The owner said it works and it's dangerous."
He came here to make trouble. She owned the charm, so this must be lucky. The Order was a better buyer than any individual because they never gave up a magical object once they owned it. "I do have a piece that makes the owner lucky, and it's for sale."
His light brown eyebrows moved up toward the hat. "A real good luck charm can't exist. The magic needed to change the way the universe works requires unlimited energy."
"So if it's impossible, why are you here?"
"They said it's dangerous, so I'm here to take the charm."
"No, you can't do that. Come in. Shut the door." She got up from the workbench and stretched. "At best, I make a few coppers a day. Taking the charm without paying will ruin me."
Think fast, girl, and sell. She didn't want the good luck, but she couldn't toss it away. She wasn't giving it up for less than thirty-five gold. "It's right here in the shop. Looks very stylish. Try it on; I bet it'll look good on you. Come in, come in."
Two small steps took him into the shop. "You've packed a lot into this tiny shop. How long have you been open?"
"Four years now. My parents gave me a bit of money when I finished my training. I used it to open a shop. Can't say I like it much, but I don't know what else I should be doing as a witch."
"Hey, what are these? Stuffed animals?" He took another two steps into the shop, and peered into a case.
She waited. Everybody does this to her, no exceptions. She knew what she wanted to sell them, and they went looking all around the shop peering at things they didn't need and taking hours until she got them focused again. The shop didn't help. She had fit in whatever display cases she could steal or get cheap and added shelves to them. Few people ever walked past an open shelf full of magical oddments and curios.
"What's your name, friend? I don't know what to call you."
"Constable Manfredrick Fresnal."
"Can I call you Manni?"
He shook his head no.
In the small strip of floor space in between the selling area and her workshop, she had set up a cooking brazier and assorted chairs surrounding a scarred wooden table. She lit the oil lamp, put water on for tea and sat down to watch his progress. He made it to the next shelf. "Those're lady's charms. To enhance their natural beauty, of course. Aren't you here to buy the good luck charm?"
He turned away from the displays. "You're a lot younger than I expected. Sorry, back to business. Why did customers complain if it worked?"
"Manni, I'll tell you the story of the charm. Have a seat, this is the best chair. I'll get the tea."
While she ran around, he sat. Brenna said, "A couple of months ago, a nice young man came into the shop. He claimed he attracted the ladies, talked them into having wine in his bedroom. If you follow me. But before they got there, the cat would die or they'd come down with a mysterious illness. He wanted a love charm to make him more successful."
The wizard nodded his understanding. She slurped from her cup and added another two spoons of sugar. "Manni, to be honest with you, I rushed it and messed up the spell. I don't know what happened. But he brought it back three weeks later."
He put his hand up and she paused. "It took him three weeks to figure out it didn't work?"
"Other way around. Any woman he talked to went out to dinner or other stuff. And they said yes. His schedule got crowded. Before, he chased ten to get one in bed. With the charm, if he talked to ten, he'd get twelve in the sheets. Say a sister or a good friend came along."
"And he complained?" From the look on the wizard's face, he had never considered this possibility.
"The lover-boy was forced to make excuses. He started drinking. There wasn't enough time. Him turning down women?"
He laughed. She enjoyed the warm and sincere sound. Manni said, "Despite your stirring story, I don't quite feel sorry for him."
"It got worse. Women waited outside the doors of the lady friends he spent the night with. When he sat down in a restaurant, they stopped by to stuff underclothes in his pockets with their names written on. It was too much. Suicidal, right? So he brought back the good luck charm and made me give him a refund."
"Logic says it's a love charm, not luck. The strength of the love charm wasn't a good idea. I still need to take it, because of the complaint."
"You're obsessed with taking my charm."
"I'm fascinated with it. It's the sort of thing that will get the people higher up in the Order to notice me. I could get promoted and sit inside instead of trudging all over dealing with bad tempered wizards."
This proved he was hooked. She bustled over to the door and put up the wooden Closed sign. She needed to focus. "Then buy it; it'll be nice and legal, and Virtin knows the Order has piles of gold."
"Are you sure it's for good luck? I really need to be able to prove that to the Order."
"At the time I thought it was just a love piece, and the overactive kid had used up a lot of its power." She scratched her nose with the teaspoon. "So when a young woman came in asking for a potion to get her husband in the mood, this was the perfect person to sell it to. She didn't need a lot of magic. Come to think, why would a married woman try to get her own man in bed? It seems odd, somehow."
"I'm not married, but a lot of my friends are. I've been taught not to comment on those things." He sipped at his tea, and a surprised smile came over his face. "This is good, the the cinnamon and orange you've added to it perks up the other flavors. Most people don't treat me this nice. I mean, when I'm on a job as Constable I get threats, but no drinks. See, that's why I need to be promoted."
"It's nice you have plan. Most people don't know what they want, so they think they're lucky when they aren't. Remember the housewife? She's a young banker. Matters had been falling off in bed."
"And you're going to tell me it didn't work." He smiled and shook his head.
"These are all real people. I can give you their names and tell you how to find them."
"Sorry. It's the way you tell it."
She grinned back at him. He needed a little more time with her and the charm, and he would be offering her the money. "She bought the stupid thing. Her banking business took off, and her personal investments did too. Merchants offered her shares in cargos that couldn't lose money even if the ship sank. Soon they moved into a chateau, riding in a shiny black carriage with footmen and those silly feathered things on the horse's heads."
"What about her husband?"
"He still loved her, but he hated his life. She didn't want him working, so she told him to quit. He told her he was leaving. Shocked, she assumed the love charm hadn't worked. She made me take it back. Hells-spawned bankers. She got what she paid plus interest!"
"And then? Didn't she continue to make money?"
"Not as much. Two of the ships she invested in were forced to sell their cargos at a loss, four of the clients left. She went back to an average banker's income. And her husband stayed."
"Wasn't she happier at the end? She kept her husband."
"Happier, yes, but not lucky. There's a difference. See, a lot of people don't think about that stuff. The charm seems to latch on to what you want, not what is best for you. If the Order buys it, then you wizards can take it apart and see how it works."
Manni finished off his tea and put his hand over the cup when she lifted the pot to pour. "Why not just keep it?"
"I never go out anymore. I don't want to be busy, I want to be rich. The charm brings a lot of people into the shop, but I'm only making a couple of coppers off each one. It's worth much more. I can get thirty-five in gold for it, but it keeps coming back."
She went over and pulled the charm out of the cash box. He leaned forward in his chair as she held it up to show off the tasseled linen square embroidered with a heart done in silk thread. "This is it, the cause of so much trouble."
His eyes narrowed, and he studied her, as well as the charm. Brenna picked up the magic viewer she wore earlier and brought both over to the table. "See for yourself."
He fit the leather strap on his head, and the sheet of polished alabaster that had been enchanted to pick up magical energies fell into place. He peered at the charm and gasped. "I've never seen this color in an enchantment. And the way it swirls. It's unique."
"See, I told you."
"But it's not good luck. I need proof. I need something amazing to show them back at the Order."
"Right. And I've told you that every person, everyone who purchased this, brought it back. They got their money refunded. Hells, the banker got interest." She waved her hand at the charm. "As long as they're holding it, I don't have a choice. I give them the gold. They're lucky and I'm not."
Manni didn't react at once, but the corners of his mouth twitched up. "No shopkeeper wants lucky customers. I can't help laughing. You made an incredible charm, but it brings bad luck, because you can't sell it."
"You're wrong. I can sell it. Whenever I want." She reached over and grabbed the charm, holding it up in the air. "See, I own the luck. I've sold it a half dozen times. But once I sell it, I can't prevent it from coming back."
"Now you've convinced me. The Order will want this. How about twenty-five gold?"
"I think thirty is good. Let me write out a sales contract."
"Sales contract? For a charm?" Manni shook his head. "What happened to trust between wizards?"
"I'm a witch, we don't trust wizards."
"All I've got is twenty-five."
"Ahh...I'll take it. You have to sign this. The Order will agree to never return this charm for any reason until the end of time."
It felt too easy. She ran around the shop collecting red tissue paper to wrap it in and an attractive box.
"I'm not one of the council members, just a lower level wizard. They'll sign the contract at the next meeting."
"I can't wait that long, I need to get rid of this thing as soon as I can. It's ruining my life."
He pulled out a heavy leather coin bag. "Sell it to me. I have the twenty-five gold. And I'll bring the charm and the contract to the next meeting of the Order."
Her eyes followed the leather filled with gold as he put it down on the table. "So I can get my money right away. Sounds good."
When she grabbed the coin bag, she felt off-balance. This happened every time she sold the idiot thing. Two deep breaths left her oriented again. She handed the charm to its new owner.
"Thanks." He glanced at it and stuffed it into his leather bag that sat on the table. Manni blinked three times. "I read a review of the new play by ApWellen in the broad sheet this morning. It's got a funny name, The Duchess Rides a Cow
. Come see it with me. I'll get us box seats."
Now she blinked. He didn't seem the type to ask a girl to a play without a lot of umms and ahhs. Why the sudden change? "Of course, that's a marvelous idea. Did you see his last play? Another odd title, Falling Down Wizards
, but a great mix of comedy and social commentary."
"I did see it. In his new one the aristocrats get to be the fools."
It had been months since she talked with a male her age. "It's a great idea. Let's make a night of it and have dinner, too."
What did she say? The plan was to sell the charm and never see it again. Sure, he's kind and good looking, and she could listen to his voice all night. With the money she got today, she might do whatever she wanted. But she couldn't. She was going on a date with him, he owned the charm and she would do what it said.
The charm had fooled her into letting him buy it without the contract. It would come back, it always did. She'd be left sitting in the shop with no gold, too many customers and a good luck charm. Ready to start over. She wasn't going to do that again, not and stay sane.
Smiling, she got up, and as she stood she dropped the gold in front of him so it touched his hand. And her hands just happened to brush up against his bag. She grabbed it and ran to the brazier, fumbling inside as she went. She had often heard money couldn't make her happy. So far good luck prevented her from testing the idea. Being depressed hadn't made her rich either. And she knew of only one way out. She must end it all.
After a last look at her greatest achievement as a witch, she gave a quick jerk of her hand and tossed the good luck charm into the fire.
Manni jumped up from the table and ran over. He cursed at his burnt fingers as he grabbed the flame-covered charm. Tossing it onto the floor, he stomped on it, leaving black soot marks and crushing the charred remains that used to be worth enough for her to buy two houses.
"What are you doing?" Manni panted after his quick sprint.
"The charm made me miserable, and I couldn't make it stop. So I killed it."
"You can't make another one?"
She shook her head.
"Are you sure? How hard have you tried?"
"I can't remember all of the words I used in the spell. Maybe I mispronounced one. Who knows? But the longer I worked at it, the less enthusiastic I became. I'd rather give this up and become a ladies maid."
"Are you crazy? I need this charm. I don't want to be walking in the rain the rest of my life. I need to be promoted." The corner's of Manni's mouth turned down, and he sniffed.
Brenna feared he might cry right in front of her. Yuck. He needed comforting, so she reached out and took his hands, giving them a gentle squeeze. "I'm sorry. I truly am. I feel I did you a favor, too. Think. Were you unhappy with your life before you came into the shop?"
"Well, no. I mean, I did daydream about a better job, but I never felt the pressure to change until today."
"The good luck charm gave you bad advice. Wait a few days."
"I still think you're a nice person, that's not going to change." He gave her hands a squeeze and slipped away.
"Thanks. A sincere thanks. All that effort to sell the charm distracted me. I needed you here. To show me how quickly it turned against me," Brenna said.
"Like in one of ApWellen's plays?"
"And that's another thing the charm did. Don't feel you're obligated to take me to the play. I'll understand."
"You're wrong. The enchantment worked. I was willing to give you a lot more of the Order's gold than I should have. It felt right then, but doesn't now. Uuuhh." He scratched his head. "It's different. Ummm. I want to go to the play with you. Because you're you." His ears darkened. "If you don't mind. You'll have a good time, and I promise not to talk too much."
What a weak invitation. But cute. And complimentary, she hadn't heard much flattery in the last three months.
"Stop by tomorrow at five. I'll buy dinner. Business has been good, and I need to celebrate."
"Thanks. I need to go get tickets. And a carriage." He smiled. "Uh, bye. I'll see you tomorrow at five."
He left, and she knew he would be back. She didn't get the money that she worked so hard for, and the charm had been destroyed. The guy stayed, for now. She gave it three weeks. They'd go out and have some fun doing things together, but he wasn't what she was looking for.
She still wanted the money. She would just have to sell potions and charms a few coppers at a time to get it.
© April, 2013 Ray Krebs Ray Krebs loves reading and writing, which he pursues after battling in the sales and marketing arenas. This is his first publication, and he plans more soon. He is inspired by real history and mythology. You can find him at www.raykrebs.com.
Women wept on the side of the road. Smoldering debris littered the horizon while soot and black smoke choked the air. Wagons were reduced to splinters and homes were decimated. The outskirts of the small mountainside village were but a preview of what waited ahead.
Dorrin and his companion Vess, a siren, walked along the roadside, surveying the worn faces around them. Dorrin rubbed his bald head, the gold rings piercing his ears glinted in the morning sun. His tall frame, lean and toned, was a contrast to those around him. He rested one hand on the hilt of his long sword even though knew these villagers were of no threat.
The spirits of these people were broken, their heads hung low. They were but shadows, lost and afraid. Dorrin smelled the fear on them like ale on a drunkard stretched across a tavern floor.
In the village center a group of men repaired a well, the only source of water. A small temple was missing its roof. Dead cattle fell where they’d been grazing; some had bites taken out of them. More groups of villagers dragged away the dead cattle---cows, goats, and sheep---while rounding up the live ones into makeshift corrals.
Dorrin noticed an enormous stone table in front of the temple, tipped onto its side. A pile of fruit and vegetables were on the ground in front of the table along with a half a dozen dead chickens. A young boy with ragged clothing and a dirty face walked towards Dorrin and Vess with one of the chickens in his arms, tears dampened his face as he mumbled something to the dead bird.
“Lad?” Dorrin stopped the boy as Vess kneeled beside him, maternal instincts rippled through her. “What has happened to your village?”
“Our God was angry at us again,” he answered between sniffles.
“What God is this?” Vess asked.
“The God of the Mountaintop.” The boy pointed at the cloud-capped peak looming over them.
“This is Mount Marrow,” Vess said. “No God lives on this mountain.”
“Ours does,” the boy continued. “When our offering isn’t right he breaks things and sometimes takes people and animals with him. We make all kinds of different offerings and he never likes any of them. This time father took Nona my pet chicken, killed her and put her on the offering table. God of the mountaintop was angry anyway and now my only friend is gone.”
“Sebastian,” a weary peasant woman called. “Leave the strangers alone.”
“Yes mother.” Sebastian ran to his mother’s waiting arms.
Dorrin turned approached the woman as Vess got to her feet. He bowed his head slowly. “You have a fine son. Noble and honest.”
“Thank you,” she said without a smile or particular interest in the tall, muscular man.
“We are travelers,” Dorrin continued. “Our journey takes us through many a mighty mountain range. At the base of Mount Marrow we find your village has been attacked, nearly destroyed. Your son tells a tale of an angry mountain God.”
“Please, forget our village and our burden or a horrid fate will befall you both.”
“We have seen many burdens but yours is quite strange and unjust.”
“He is an implacable God, fierce and angry. We have not yet understood his desires. We fail and deserve our fate. Each month on the night of the full moon we make an offering to the God. Each time we are wrong in pleasing him he goes into a fury and punishes us. For the next month we will seek a new offering. Perhaps a virgin.” She eyed Vess.
“No one deserves this fate,” Vess interjected. “How long has this been happening?”
“It began eight months ago. It was the first time he visited us, by the light of the full moon he came down from the mountain and showed himself to us…demanding offerings. He said he would keep returning until we showed proper homage.”
“Something is amiss here.” Vess turned to Dorrin.
“Agreed,” he said. “We will speak to your God and discover why he is displeased.”
“No!” A gruff male voice called.
Dorrin and Vess turned to find a crowd of men around them, holding bits and pieces of their village, faces worn and gaunt.
“It would be death to seek out the God of the mountaintop,” the red-haired man stepped in front of Sebastian and his mother. “No one dares set foot on that summit. Our God is all knowing…all seeing. He will discover your treachery and kill you. He is as tall as the great trees in the forest down below. He sees in front and behind at once. Not even an army could challenge him.”
“We have faced death many times my friend,” Dorrin said with a smile. “And we are both still here to tell the tales. All we want is to speak with him. Surely, any God would welcome that of us mere mortals.”
“I am unsure…our faith led us to this mountain many years ago. My ancestors have always worshiped at the foot of this Mountain. Their stories tell us of a great one that will come out of the mountain to guide us.”
“Your God is not guiding you,” Dorrin said. “He is destroying you. No God destroys his followers.”
“He is right!” A voice called from the crowd. Other voices began to follow. The small village gathered around the strangers, a hint of hope suddenly in their eyes.
“Let them at least try, my husband,” Sebastian’s mother placed her hands on the red-haired man’s shoulders. “We can be no worse off than we are now.”
“You may be right, Lillia.” He turned to Dorrin and Vess. “I am Tormas.”
“I am Dorrin and my companion is Vess. Fear not, we will find out why your God is so angered.”
“Bless you,” Tormas said with a half-smile. He bowed his head.
Dorrin looked around at the crowd and like an ocean wave watched relief wash over their faces. Even Sebastian smiled as if for the first time in his young life.
Vess took Dorrin’s hand and led him out of the crowd and to the slopes of the mountain. “One day your good deeds are going to get us killed.”
“Well, today is not that day. I thought you enjoyed a good mystery…gets your blood flowing?”
“We have no idea what dangers wait up there for us.”
“And there’s the mystery part. Vess, these people are being tormented. They need someone’s help.”
“Why does it always have to be us? So be it. Onward, do-gooder.”
Dorrin let out a belly laugh so hard he nearly split his britches. He turned to the villagers, unsheathed his sword, brought it to his chest and saluted.
Some of them clapped. Some of them wept. All eyes were on him.
“Show off,” Vess whispered.
The pair turned to the mountain and began their ascent.
The path that Dorrin and Vess took up the mountain was steep and covered with gravel. Boulders the shape of Troll teeth lined the edges. The higher they climbed the thinner and colder the air became. The sun rose high and reached its peak signaling that it was midday. They hoped to reach the top before dark, the way would be much more treacherous after nightfall.
The path soon twisted around the mountain in switchbacks. Vess looked briefly over the edge and averted her eyes. She swallowed air.
“Afraid of the height?” Dorrin laughed. “You? A siren most men would run screaming from?”
“We all have our limitations,” she shot him a sly gaze as the sun glimmered in her emerald eyes. “Now don’t we Dorrin?”
“Of course my lady. Just keep looking to the skies. Never mind the way down, it will come soon enough.”
As the path rose and fell, the pair discovered a flowing mountain spring nestled among a patch of flat ground and stopped to rest. Dorrin pulled a pouch from his leather belt and emptied it onto a rock. Vess joined him in some bread and fruit. They drank from the spring, enjoying the icy water. The water reminded Dorrin of the first time he saw Vess.
Dorrin had stowed away upon a brigand ship. After days and nights of sleeping, he was stirred by a violent storm that battered the ship in the dead of night.
It wasn’t the storm that roused his interest. Rising above the crashing thunder and howling winds he heard desperate screams and as hard as he tried, he could not turn his back on them.
Risking the wrath of the wretched seaborne thieves’, Dorrin stormed to the deck and witnessed a crowd of enraged men taunting a woman tied to a pole. Her raven locks danced in the wet winds, and her violet-hued skin radiated in the flashing lightning that ignited the horizon.
The men around her, brutish and savage, brandishing blades and sickles, gagged her and yelled: “Skin her alive! She is the enemy of men, a demoness! Skin her now!”
Deformed and scarred faces leered, toothless mouths drooled with delight, eyes burned with insanity as the crowd whipped into a frenzy and advanced on the helpless maiden.
“I do not believe the lady has stood trial,” Dorrin interrupted and before the brigands could react he leapt over them with acrobatic skill. Coming down behind them, Dorrin swept his sword under their feet and sent them on their backs.
A sudden wave of confusion seized the men and while they writhed, Dorrin cut the ropes from the woman and slung her over is shoulder. He climbed straight up the pole in the pounding rain and howling wind.
The woman thrashed and kicked her feet until Dorrin tore the gag from her mouth. She looked at him in shock before finding her voice again. “Are you mad?”
“Some have told me I am.”
“You are quite outnumbered. Why would you risk your life for me? I am a siren. All of your kind fear and hate me even though I have never used my songs against any man.”
“Twenty against one is not a fair fight.”
“Does twenty against two make it better?”
“You are quite a prize, I see. Would you rather I let them skin you?”
She laughed despite the seething crowd beneath them. Arrows and tridents whistled by their heads as their attention was drawn back to the situation at hand. “Do you have---” Strong winds ripped at them, threatening to toss them into the black sea. “An escape plan?”
“No…but I’m working on it.”
“Let me help.” She opened her ruby lips and began to sing. A song pierced the storm and reached into the night. Moments later a Roc burst out of the ebon clouds and scooped the two of them up. To the fury of the brigands they vanished into the night sky.
High in the mist and wind, they lifted above the storm in the claws of the Roc where the skies were calm. The siren leaned over and kissed Dorrin on the lips. Her lips tasted sweet and tickled his own.
“I am called Vess,” she said.
“And I am called enchanted. You are unlike anyone I have ever encountered.”
“Or will again, I’m sure.”
She was right. Dorrin had yet to meet a woman quite like Vess and from that night on they were inseparable. He wouldn’t have it any other way. She set his blood afire and energized his spirit and every time they touched, it was magic.
“You’re staring again,” Vess said as she bent to the spring and drew more water to her lips by hand.
“Forgive me. I never tire of soaking in your beauty.”
“You have a one track mind my sweet man.” Vess walked to Dorrin and climbed into his lap. They kissed and gooseflesh rippled across the small of his back. Her kisses never failed to inspire a new reaction in him. As he closed his eyes to enjoy her touch, a crackle of falling rock caught his attention.
“Vess, I think we…”
Before he could finish his thought a massive wolf lunged down upon them. Its fur was the color of charcoal, its yellow eyes were inflamed, and its claws were as long and sharp as daggers. It crashed into the pair, collapsing them to the ground. With a snarl it swatted at Vess but the siren managed to roll out the way, tumbling against some boulders.
Dorrin reached for his sword but the wolf was quick and on top of him in seconds. It pinned the swordsman down and lashed across his chest and shoulders. Scarlet streamed the air as the beast’s jaws widened and drool pooled into Dorrin’s face.
“A song would be nice right now!” Dorrin managed to holler above the wolf’s barks.
Vess shook her head and got to her feet. She parted her lips and began to sing; a melodic sound filled the air.
“It’s not a male!” Vess suddenly realized and grabbed the nearest stone from the ground.
“Blast!” Dorrin called while using his bare hands to hold the beast’s jaws inches away from his face. The weight of the creature threatened to crush his ribcage, the pain splintered through Dorrin, he gasped for air and through blurred vision saw Vess behind the wolf, her arms above her head.
The beast was smart as well as strong. It kicked with its rear legs and hit Vess in the solar plexus. The rock plummeted from her hands and she soared backwards. The wolf turned and seethed, preparing to lunge on her.
It crouched to jump when Dorrin sat up, grabbed hold of Vess’s lost rock and swung hard.
A great shriek escaped the dark wolf and it fell onto its side. A gush of blood poured from its head. Dorrin rushed to his feet and retrieved his sword and without delay plunged it deep into the animal’s chest. It howled with a baleful echo and went still.
Dorrin turned to see Vess recovering, wiping the dirt from her face and leather bodice. “Are you alright?”
“Never better.” Her eyes widened. “You’re hurt.”
“A flesh wound,” he mused wiping his bloodied hands on his sleeveless vest.
“Yes and I’m a descendant from royalty. Remain still.” She placed her hands gently on his bleeding wounds and sang softly. The bleeding stopped and the scratches all but faded from his skin. “There, they’ll be gone by nightfall.”
“You’re too good to me.” He put his hand on her shoulder, his palm was blistered from wielding his sword; his skin was dry and cracked.
“Not so. Your good deeds know no bounds. You save strangers, you relieve villages of their plights, stop injustice and protect the weak. My fate was sealed until you happened by chance to be aboard that ship. Why are you so driven? When so many choose to turn their backs…”
“That is why. Because so many turn their backs. Once I was weak, I was defenseless. When I was but a boy not much older than the one we met in that village, a tribe of flesh-eaters caught me alone in the forest of my homeland. They beat me, broke my leg and were about to devour me when a champion rode them down. He slew them all and took their heads. He mended my leg and brought me home. I never knew who he was, this fair-haired man upon a black stallion, and I was never able to thank him but this is my way of doing just that. I carry on his work because someone must. This world needs it.”
“You never told me that story.”
“I didn’t think you’d be interested.”
“It’s more than interesting. It’s captivating. You have a creed not many would adhere to. You are a rare man.”
“So I am told. The wolf means we are close.” He changed the subject. “It is connected to this would be God. I can feel it in my blood. We must get to the bottom of this and end it soon.”
Dorrin began up the mountain again as Vess trailed behind. She could not take her eyes off him. “If the wolf’s death is discovered many will suffer. There’s no time to waste. Let’s keep moving.”
They increased their climb and pushed onward without further rest.
A thunderous rumble rocked the mountain. Dorrin and Vess looked up and saw the peak shake. Suddenly a roar pealed through the air as rocks of every shape and size rolled down the mountainside.
The avalanche came down at full force. The vibration nearly sent the two of them off their feet. Dorrin acted swiftly and took Vess into his arms. He leapt into the air with her in tow. A second roar followed by dwindling laughter rose above the rockslide, catching Dorrin’s attention.
Dorrin flipped through the air and sailed over the army of rocks that crashed by, but the biggest of them were still to come. He held Vess tight in his left arm and drew his long sword with his right. His legs snapped together and straightened as he aimed for the edge of the cliff.
The pair went right over the edge of the trail while the tumbling boulders passed by. They fell into a gnarled tree with ancient branches and Dorrin used his sword to catch onto a limb and brace them from falling. Rock dust clouded the air and, dirt sprinkled their bodies like volcanic ash. A thick pasty taste hung in Dorrin’s mouth. Vess sneezed. Even the sound of that was music to Dorrin’s ears.
“We must be getting close,” Vess said.
“It seems so. The God must not be in the mood for guests today. How inhospitable of him. Did you hear the roars and laughter?”
“Not with all that rumbling. Your senses must be above most others, my love.”
“Indeed. Sometimes I find they are when they need them to be. By the laughter he thinks we’ve been destroyed. We’ll just have to drop in unannounced.”
“I’m sure that will go over well.”
Dorrin hauled both of them up and they crawled over the dirt and scattered rocks that nearly buried the trail up. They dusted themselves off and continued.
The last bit of the trail curved at an angle and snaked through a cluster of jagged rocks. From their vantage point, they could see the peaks of the lower mountains around them. The rest of the mountain range stretched before them, shrouded in mist. Dorrin soaked in the fantastic view before climbing over the jagged rocks. Vess followed behind him slowly, watching her every step.
They hopped down onto the last bit of exposed land where the trees has stopped growing. Dorrin turned back and took Vess’s hand, helping her over the treacherous cluster with its blood-stained surface…blood…
Dorrin took a step back to study the blood and something popped under his feet. He and Vess looked down at the same time and saw a sea of bones littering the ground around them.
As far as the eye could see human and animal bones covered the ground. Ribcages, femurs, jaws, skulls all strewn in disregard, some bearing bite marks, others still with bits of flesh attached to them.
“By the Gods,” Vess murmured.
“This is not any God. It has the hunger of a God but not the soul of one. His true intentions reveal themselves. Careful where you step, bone may be a sharp as any sword.”
A growl wafted from just over the horizon.
“We have stepped into a lair,” Vess said, her hands trembled. “This entire mountain is one big lair.”
“Fear not. Feeding time is over.”
“Or it has just begun,” she said with a whisper.
Dorrin drew his sword and crept slowly on the tips of his toes trying not to attract attention to himself. Vess followed his every move, his every twitch. She mimicked him with great effort to keep her presence hidden.
Something stirred at the top of the mountain, on the other side of the peak where the mount sloped and a great boulder blocked the sun. Shadowy movement. Something massive…huge.
Dorrin’s grip tightened, despite the cold sweat soaking his head and chest, he climbed the last incline of Mount Marrow. He was as quiet as the dead, guarding his arrival as he came to set eyes on it. Vess joined his side and her mouth gaped. She said nothing but two voices filled the air around them.
“The village should be destroyed. It is useless,” the voice bellowed. “I grow tired of it.”
“No, it gives us gifts. It gives us food. I am enjoying the game. I am their God.”
“Stupid! You are not their God. There is no God on this mountain.”
The sounds of slurping and chewing cut between the arguing voices but immediately returned to bickering. Fighting, disagreeing, nasty disposition, and always hungry, these were the tell-tale signs of a creature thought long extinct. Dorrin pulled back and whispered to Vess. “It’s a Darg.”
“You mean a…”
“Yes, a two-headed giant. I didn’t think any were left. Most of them killed themselves. Their heads have two separate minds. This leads to terrible arguments. They never agree on anything. Their tempers were legendary leading them to slay themselves or fight each other instead of their foe in the middle of battle. This one is starting to get testy. The two heads want different things from the village already.”
“So this kind of giant is extremely rare?”
“Nowadays yes. It must have stumbled upon the village after taking refuge on the mountaintop. They cooked up this God scheme to frighten the villagers and get free food rather than hunt or battle for it and risk getting killed because of a disagreement. The two heads decided to work together for a change. Looks like that’s about change.”
“Clever for a great oaf,” Vess said as a roar broke the air.
“Intruders!” The two heads called as the great beast dropped the half devoured human torso from its grip and took up a spiked club the size of a tree trunk. “Crush them!”
The two-headed giant’s twelve-foot body, seemingly a cross between a humanoid and an ogre, was covered in animal skins. Great tusks protruded from beneath black lips. Tufts of coarse hair sprouted down its crooked spine and covered the knuckles of its massive hands.
The Darg crawled to its clawed feet and stormed towards the two humans in its midst. “I see a woman!” The right head called.
“I see a man!” the left one said.
“Kill and eat them both will we.” They said in unison.
“It’s not polite to impersonate a God,” Dorrin called, taking a defiant stance and raising his sword. “As you said there is no God on this mountain. So it’s time you left the village and its people in peace.”
“It is no business of yours!” The right head screamed. “You should not have climbed my mountain, you will be the village’s next offering!”
Two sets of black eyes glared, two snout-like noses sniffed the air, and two mouths drooled with hunger. It raised the spiked club with both hands and swung hard.
Dorrin and Vess scattered just as the club smashed, unearthing stones and crust. The aftershock sent both of them to the ground.
“Eat the woman first,” the right head said.
“No, the man has more meat,” the left replied.
With no further argument the Darg turned to Dorrin and lunged, swinging its club wildly. Dorrin scrambled across the ground, lifted his sword but the giant smashed it out of his hand.
Dorrin dragged himself out of the way of the next blow and rolled flat on his stomach. “Vess!” he called desperately.
Vess stood and lifted her arms, a breeze rippled through her hair. She sang a song into the wind and the mountain echoed with sweet tones.
The right head stopped and turned to look at Vess, it smiled with entranced glee. Spittle escaped its lips. The right arm it controlled loosened its grip on the club but the left…
The left head ignored the song and grew enraged. “Do not listen!” It growled at the right. “It is a trick… a trick!” Its other half was fully enchanted and oblivious. “I will do it myself!” The left head roared and with its left arm took the club and spun around to face Vess.
“Only half Vess!” Dorrin yelled. “Only half is under your spell. Run, it’s still dangerous, run!” The Darg swung the club up then down and stomped its left foot. The ground quaked and Vess tripped off her feet and fell to the ground and went silent. Her song died.
“Vess!” Dorrin yelled and the Darg turned back to him, the heads worked together again. The giant grabbed hold of Dorrin’s leg with its free right hand and whipped him through the air.
Dorrin landed on his back hard, pain wracked his body and he gritted his teeth. For a moment darkness eclipsed his vision. A ringing resounded in his ears. He inhaled and opened his eyes. In the sky above he saw shadow vultures circling, black winged scavengers waiting for him and Vess to die. Vess? He turned to see her lying next to him, she was groaning but alive.
“Pretty one,” Dorrin said, reaching for her. “We got to get up. It’s not going to stop. I can’t find my sword and…”
The Darg was upon them. It took hold of both and tossed them through the air. They landed back in the bone yard behind them. Dorrin tasted blood in his mouth. Something hot burned through him. A bone pierced his left shoulder, the agony bit through him but he fought back the screams. His chest pounded and his stomach churned.
“No,” Vess cried. Tears dampened her face as she crawled to Dorrin’s side. She was heavily bruised but unhurt. “Hellfire on him. You are badly hurt.” Her hand hovered above the bone, its point razor sharp.
“No, do not fool with it. It will rip your delicate fingers. These bones are…by the Gods. It’s right here Vess.”
“What is… are you mad?”
“Some have called me so. Our weapons are right here. Hand me a as many shattered ribs as you can then act dead.”
The Darg laughed and laughed like thunder. It bellowed and stomped its feet, rejoicing. “Onto the kill! Fresh meat for supper.” It barreled its way over the top of the peak and down the trail of bones. It spotted Dorrin writhing on the ground. It sniffed the air and looked around. “The woman is dead.” It noticed Vess’s prone body between it and Dorrin.
“Come,” Dorrin called. “Finish it! You will not have your meal so easy. You will not be a God so recklessly. You will not torment the mountain village anymore. Take me as I took your wolf!”
“You!” It wailed. “You killed our pet!” With that the Darg grew enraged and thrashed the air with spite. It raced toward Dorrin, club in hand. As it reached Vess’s body, she sprang across its feet with all of her weight and tripped it.
The Darg came towering down as if in slow motion. Dorrin sprung into action and lifted all the sharpest rib bones he could hold. The giant fell upon him, covering him with his massive girth.
Screams filled the air, the loudest Dorrin and Vess had ever heard. The huge body convulsed madly. The great belly expanded once and went still. With all of his strength, Dorrin shoved the body aside and crawled from beneath it.
He got to his feet and looked down on the Darg, its chest and stomach were embedded with bones, plunged deep into its heart. Dorrin bowed his head to the creature before slowly locating his sword.
Returning to the body, he swung his blade, claiming both heads as his prize, something Vess had always seen him do, a contrast to his benevolent nature, but now, by his childhood story she understood clearly what it meant.
“Come,” he said to Vess. “We need to get down the mountain and free the village of its curse.”
The villagers gathered in the center, their faces masks of anticipation. Dorrin and Vess stood before them and Dorrin threw the pair of giant heads to the ground at their feet. A collective gasp hurried through the crowd.
“It is no God!” Dorrin called. “It is mortal just like all of you. A mortal creature terrorizing the weak and helpless because it could, because it was hungry, and because it wanted a game. You are free now.”
Tormas and his wife Lilia came out of the crowd. Sebastian, with a new pet in his arms, joined their side. “Thank you,” Tormas said, his eyes bright, instilled with new life and his smile as wide the road. He shook Dorrin’s hand. “We owe you our lives. We owe you our bounty, our very souls.”
“You owe us a place to sleep.” Dorrin smiled.
“Anything,” Tormas said. “We have a room for you and your companion any day for the rest of your lives.”
Sebastian threw himself around Dorrin’s leg and hugged him tightly. He rubbed the boy’s head and looked up at Vess. “And you wonder why I do this.”
In the night the village rested peacefully for the first time in months. A hush came over the mountains and all that could be heard was a soft singing, barely a whisper in the wind.
Vess ran her fingers gently over Dorrin’s shoulder wound and finished the last of her song. His strength slowly returned and his mind rested. “One day your good deeds are going to get us killed,” she said.
“Well today was not that day.” He grinned and pulled her to him with a kiss.
© March, 2013 John GroverJohn Grover has been published both online and print in such markets as Flesh and Blood Magazine, Morpheus Tales, The Willows, Wrong World, Silver Blade, Best New Zombie Tales by Books of the Dead Press, the Northern Haunts anthology by Shroud Publishing, and the Epitaphs anthology by The New England Horror Writers. He is a member of the New England Horror Writers Association and the author of several collections and chapbooks, more info on these works can be found on www.shadowtales.com.
Nothing burned like the grasslands. I should know. The place was hungry for fire. It begged for it in a dry, rustling language that called me from the green hills. It always seemed to know me –to know that I was the one who heard its pleas.
I was. That was why I left the shade of the trees and came there, where the wind was made manifest in vast seas of golden sheaves. There, I could remake the land in my own image, if only for a day. Even a single day as a god is a day worth having.
In my village, smothered in the old forest, my command of fire was nothing more than a trade, like the rope-makers or the young women who chewed the hides to make them soft again. I drove off the darkness. I lit the cooking fires and aided the smiths. My portion of respect and power was no greater than theirs.
I suppose I should have been grateful. I had heard enough stories from travelers about places in the world where calling fire would be seen as a disgraceful, alien act. A curse to be shunned or worse. I knew such stories were true, but I could feel the power in me balking at the words. I felt it uncoiling, straining against the narrow confines of my little life and my tradesmen’s lot. “Let them come and try to shame or bind us,” it whispered. “We will burn the world.”
I never said such things aloud. But, each autumn, when I made the three-day hike to the grasslands, then I gave voice to the power inside me. Even before my time the grasses burned most years, touched off by a lightening strike or careless campfire. It was always part of the natural cycle of that place, and for me, it became a calling and place of healing and renewal.
Last year, on the last day of my journey to the forest’s edge and the fields beyond, a rain shower filled the woods with noise, a steady staccato on the canopy above. It didn’t matter. The fields might burn slower, with great clouds of white building like land-bound thunderheads, but burn they would. Nature had its agenda and I had mine.
By the time I reached the edge of the forest, my hands were shaking. Normally, I simply felt uneasy towards the trees; it’s a mix of love and hatred for their potential to burn. But, the closer I got to escape, the more that uneasiness grew to a toxic loathing. When I finally saw the trees thin into scraggy brushland, I found myself tearing off strips of bark and burning it to ash in my cupped hands, just to dull my growing urge to burn every branch and twig within sight.
The heat from my outstretched palms had nearly kindled the frayed edges of my shirtsleeves when I finally pushed through the last of the briar bushes and willowy dogwoods that stitch the forest hills to the grasslands. A wide, shallow stream took a winding course along the boarder between the hills and the grass. Water is rarely a friend to me, but there I happily waded into the waist-high reeds and turned to scowl at the wall of trees. I raised my hands in defiance and half-dared myself to set the nearest trees burning. I imagined a swelling wave of fire that traced its way back to my village, burning the forest and my old life to downy grey ash.
But, while I can make fire, I can’t conjure food or medicine. Clothing or shelter. Companionship or purpose. Like fire, I can’t live on bare stones and earth.
I turned back to the stream and splashed my way toward the amber fields.
“Hello, old friend,” I said with genuine affection as I climbed the bank and reached the first grasses. They rustled and swayed in the gentle breeze as the last big drops of rain signaled the end of the autumn shower. I took it as a good omen.
I found a smooth grey rock and sat. I liked to be at eye-level with the grasses when I began. That way, I could imagine that each blade of grass was the trunk of a mighty tree, and that I was bringing fire to a vast, immeasurable forest.
I rubbed my palms together and began to stretch my fingertips toward the grass. Only once a year was I allowed this pleasure, and I tried to savor it, to be present and deliberate. I paced myself. Trying to call the fire slowly, gradually. I had certainly had enough practice reigning in my talent while lighting tallow candles and heating tea kettles. I could burn the field a blade at a time if I had the patience.
At first, nothing but a few ribbons of pale smoke wound their way up from the closest patch of damp grass. Then I narrowed my eyes and prepared to apply my will until the first tongues of flame appeared.
“Then, it’s true,” said a gravely voice, so near by I rolled right off of my rock in surprise. As I toppled to my side, a heavy net of thick rope with lead weights at each corner hit the stone where I had been seated with a wet thud.
I rolled free of the net and stood to face the thrower. Three men in soldiers’ gear stood not more than twenty feet off, drawing swords.
“The world has no place for your kind!” shouted the closest solider.
“And what kind is that?” I replied. I did my best to keep fear from my voice, but it still came out a little squeaky, I thought. I was no fighter. I wasn’t even trained in basic combat like the other men in the village. As long as I could remember, I was being passed about like flint and tender –a tool. The usual rules and traditions of education and apprenticeship never seemed to apply to me. You don’t train the washpot or the butter-churn. Why train me?
“You, monster, are an unnatural sorcerer. A disciple of evil. We heard news of one such as you in these lands and the villagers whom you have been plaguing told us where to find you!” said the solider. “You will be brought to justice for your crimes!”
“They… they what?” I answered, my mind racing. “What crimes? I heat soup pots and help in the shaping of horseshoes. What crimes?”
My indignation grew as I spoke. I knew that many of the villagers distrusted my gifts. I received more than my share of sidelong glances at gatherings and festivals, and more than once I found children hanging charms to ward off evil on my door, or tucking them into the thatch. I had even seen the miller’s wife toss salt after I had passed. But, I had never expected this.
I was no demon. I had no demonic pact. Fire came when I called. It always had. I spilled no blood and made no oaths. I called fire, and it came. Fire was my ally, and together we had served the village more than most.
“You have been a curse on those simple people and there is no forgiveness for monsters. You’ve already had more of our words and time than you deserve, creature.” With that, the lead solider raised his sword and charged forward.
When I worked with Geoffrey in the smithy, he would often ask me to heat a little section of iron no more than the length of a man’s thumb, to make it supple and malleable. At first it was hard. It would take all of my concentration before the narrow section of metal would glow a dull orange and Geoffrey would continue his hammering. Now, I can heat a bit of metal to a glowing glede with hardly a thought, rather it be a nail or a horseshoe or three sword handles in the hands of three noisy men at arms.
The advancing men screamed in unison and flung their weapons to the ground. Each man stared down at his weapon in shock and horror, as if it was a close friend who had just betrayed him in some hitherto unimaginable way. I smiled. I had never done anything like that before, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wanted to try it.
“I am not a monster,” I said, finding new strength creeping into my voice. “But, I am also not going to roll over and die for you pack of half-wits.”
The soldiers looked at one another. I could see that some of the resolve had drained from their leader’s face, but in its place I saw a wild-eyed look like a cornered animal darkening his features. He quickly produced a small water-skin from the back of his belt and dowsed the sword handle. It hissed and steamed. Then, he reached down, protecting his hand with the leather of the now emptied water-skin, and reclaimed his weapon.
Whenever I would boil water for a midwife or for old Greta when she was preparing for a feast, I always enjoyed the fact that I could feel the liquid heating. I could feel the tiny streams of bubbles quickening and racing to the surface of the water. It’s hard to explain, but when I call fire I can almost perceive through it. Feel what it feels, in a manner of speaking.
So, if possible, I thought it in my best interest not to simply cook these fools alive. I imagined what I would feel of boiling fat and crackling skin if I loosed unchecked fire on my attackers. I shuddered.
The other soldiers followed their captain’s lead and began emptying their water-skins onto their weapons. I could, of course, just heat the skins themselves, but I knew the longer I toyed with such half-measures and determents the less my chances of survival. I couldn’t hold them off forever. Not like that.
I struck my best “evil sorcerer” pose and gestured menacingly. I felt ridiculous.
“Last chance,” I said, “leave me now or I’ll roast you where you stand.”
The leader of the band gripped his sword with both hands and gave me a look that plainly said, “you won’t have a chance,” and then he leapt forward.
I was never very fast, but I am faster than a man wearing chainmail and trying to swing a sword wrapped in a water-skin. I darted for the grass, just managing to sidestep a sweeping blow that looked more than capable of splitting my head like a rotten log.
I didn’t look back, but the moment I was among the tall grasses I thrust my arms out like wings and screamed for fire. In all my life, I had little more than whispered to fire. Coaxed it. To release all of my will and command the blaze with everything I had was euphoric.
The whole field seemed to be on fire all at once –an ocean of fire. I watched mountains of while-hot light spring up from nothing and overwhelm all the landscape. It was like a new day, a beautiful dawn of flame that made the old day seem like empty night by comparison.
I don’t know how far I ran, moving untouched through the inferno. It seemed like a lifetime. Nor do I remember when my legs gave out and I fell into dreamless sleep.
When I awoke, I was alone in a desert of ash, nearly naked and covered in soot. I didn’t know which way I had come. It didn’t matter. My village had sent those men. It wasn’t a home anymore. I got to my feet and turned in a circle. There was nothing but scorched earth and clouds of pale smoke that drifted aimlessly along the blackened horizon like masterless ships.
A knot grew in my throat, and with it came a thought: What if, in giving up all control, I had burned the whole world? What if that’s what I had always wanted? What if I am a monster?
As if in answer to my question, I heard the far off screech of a hunting kestrel rise and fall somewhere to the north. The world laughed my fears aside. I felt tired and relieved and very small. I wiped the soot from my eyes and started walking. Fire cannot live on bare earth and neither can I.
© March, 2013 Jarod K. Anderson Jarod K. Anderson is a fan of comic books, John Milton, tattoos, pulp detective novels, herpetology, folklore, video games, and all things sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Growing up, he wanted to be either a ninja or a maple tree. These aspirations led him to teach college English. Teaching freshman English led him to change careers. He lives in Ohio. You can find him online at: www.jarodkanderson.com.
Donna Stone walked into the town square wishing for better timing and a good bowl of soup. It was close to Longest Night, though she hadn't gotten a look at the stars in several days of wet fog and drizzle, punctuated by the occasional stinging downpour. She'd begun her walk home under a burning desert sun in high summer, and with three fourths of the distance passed on her map, it was the time of year when snow would be falling in the mountains that ringed her homeland.
But in these hills, it was just endless wet chill. The smell of smoking meat had lured Donna from the merchant road onto a sheep trail, a track of loose gravel and mud that descended into a sheltered valley and a tiny village.
Fog shrouded the houses with their stone walls and wood shingle roofs, and Donna followed the sounds of murmuring voices to the village common where she walked right into trouble.
A hundred people, maybe more, were herded into the center of the town square by the fountain. A cluster of armored horsemen glared down the shafts of spears and axes. More armed men patrolled on foot and a pairs of them were posted as guards at the four roads leading into the square.
Donna knew a shakedown when she saw one. She'd heard plenty of stories these last few weeks of travel. With the winter closing in, the wars to the south were on hold. Even where it doesn't snow, nobody wants to slog their armies through endless mud. Better to wait until after the rains let up. But no one wants to pay mercenaries to sit around and do nothing either. And with all of the conscription that had been going on, villages were vulnerable, as many of their own fighting men had yet to return from the wars.
Donna was a mercenary herself. She knew winter. If you drank through your pay in the first week off, then you had a cold and damp season to look forward to with few chances for paying work. Too many men gave in to the temptation to simply take what they wanted by force, and to band together in the hopes of more loot.
Donna emerged from the fog, too close to avoid being seen. She wasn't sure she would have bothered trying to avoid the mess if she could have. She was too tired, too wet, and too cold. Donna wanted her bowl of soup.
One of the guards dismounted and approached her, making some noise about getting over with the rest of the peasants. Donna glared at him and he stopped short. Smarter than most, she thought. Donna usually had to fight two or three before they took her seriously.
This man was small and lean, and he'd gotten close enough to Donna before he stopped that she could smell the beer and puke on him. He probably hadn't been eating well before tonight.
He looked up at Donna. She was six feet and then some, and she probably had a hundred and fifty pounds on the guard. That threw people off more than the fact that she was a woman sometimes.
But the leader recognized her, or at least he knew her by reputation.
"Donna Stone, the demoness of Dracairne." He dismounted and stepped past his soldier to meet her. This man wasn't going to be intimidated. He matched her height and he was solid muscle clad in heavy armor that his frame carried easily.
"I haven't heard that nickname," Donna replied. "The battle of Dracairne was a mess and I spent most of it in a ditch ducking arrows. Were you there?"
"I try to be more selective in my causes. That one was hopeless."
"We won," Donna pointed out.
"You bought time, but the city may still fall in the Spring. That's the way I heard it, anyway. What brings you here, Stone?"
"The merchant road, and the smell of a hot meal," Donna said.
The townsfolk were watching the exchange intently. This was a routine to them, Donna realized, and tonight was the first break they'd had in it for some time.
"I'm Jeth Holt. Commander Holt. I've got a good band of fighting men here. They're strong and they're hungry for a fight, but they're undisciplined. You whipped that rabble into shape at Dracairne. Turned them into a capable force. I need a lieutenant who could help me do that with my men."
He was worried. That was a good sign. Donna liked it when she made men nervous. He had the numbers on his side, but he didn't trust them.
"What is going on here?" she asked, moving closer to where Commander Jeth Holt stood. "A training drill?"
"Oh, we're just doing our part to keep the region free of bandits. You know how it goes in the winter."
Donna knew. She glared at Holt, unsmiling, eyes steady.
"Hey, I give them every chance to handle the job themselves," he said. "I've got a standing offer. Anyone wants to fight me for the position, I'll even give them a week to prepare."
Donna went for her knife. "Why wait?" she hissed.
Holt's hands went to his shoulders, and Donna got the knife out and closed half of the distance to his gut. People tended to underestimate Donna's speed, because they focus on her size. Sure, she wasn't going win a foot race, but she'd trained her hands to be fast. This time, though, it was Donna who underestimated Holt. She'd been counting on him going for his sword.
Instead, he went for a pair of fighting sticks in a shoulder harness, and he struck three blows in a blur of motion. He hit her wrist, a stinging blow to seize up her hand and get her to drop the knife. But she clenched her fist to lock her grip as the blow landed.
The next two strikes hit her thigh and she had to shift her weight to her back foot. Donna was still standing, and Holt looked impressed by that, but her hand and her leg were barely functional. This fight was going bad quickly, and Donna hadn't even put a scratch on Holt.
But just like the villagers, Holt was lulled into his own routine.
He stepped back, twirled the fighting sticks into a guard position, and gave a quick bow.
"One week, Donna Stone. I hope you'll put up a bit of a fight when I return."
He turned his back to her and walked to his horse. Donna considered taking the knife in her left hand and throwing it into his back, but she didn't like her odds. He had too much armor, and too many men eager to prove their worth if she only wounded him.
She watched him gather up his men, willing herself to stand steady and ignore the pain shooting up and down her arm and her leg.
Holt rounded up his bandits and they rode off into the fog, shoving and knocking down a few nearby villagers just to get in a last laugh or two.
Then the villagers started to disappear into the fog as well.
Donna expected as much. She could probably get back to the merchant road before Holt managed to put together a party to track her down. If he really pushed the pursuit, she might have to leave a body or two in her path to discourage him, but she was confident she could be done with Holt if she wanted to.
She didn't want to.
She slowly shifted her weight onto the bruised leg. It held her. She'd be walking with a limp, at least until she rested it overnight, but no lasting damage done.
Donna tried taking a step and a hand gripped her arm to steady her.
She looked down to find a slightly-built old woman.
"I've got a bed and a warm fire. My name is Clarette. You are welcome in my home, Donna Stone."
Donna turned and made the best formal bow she could manage while making sure she kept her footing.
Some of the other villagers gathered close now. Not all of them, but enough.
Enough to plan.
Donna straightened up and spoke loudly.
"I'm not running away. In one week's time, I'll fight Jeth Holt and I'll win. I'm Donna Stone, the warrior woman, the Demoness of Dracairne. And I'll train for this week with secret techniques I've learned in distant lands, and when Holt returns, he'll regret the day he ever set foot in…"
"Glaston." A girl supplied the name of the village. She looked doubtful, but Donna thought there was a tiny spark of hope in her eyes.
Donna had to complete the bargain. A service offered, a price asked. Bandits, farmers, soldiers. They were all creatures of routine.
"I will fight him for you in a week's time." Donna looked around at the faces gathered near. "For the price of…"
She hesitated for a moment because she had not actually thought this through. Then she remembered what she wanted. The only thing she wanted.
"For the price of a warm bed for this week, and a hot bowl of soup every night."
Donna awoke on the first day, with pain in her back from Clarette's too-small bed. The stone-walled cottage didn’t have much room, and Donna had to duck to avoid the ceiling beams.
Donna had awoken with the dawn as she was accustomed to, and she found Clarette up and dressed, chopping turnips by the stove.
"For your soup tonight. These will keep your strength up. Do you need anything else?"
Turnip soup sounded wonderful after weeks of cold trail rations.
"Not a thing," Donna replied as she laced up her boots. "Oh, except if you can spare a stout stick. A staff will have better reach than a knife against those fighting sticks that Holt uses."
Clarette pointed Donna toward the shed, and Donna rummaged through dozens of broom handles and rakes until she found a staff with the right weight and balance.
She bid Clarette good day as Clarette put the turnips into a pot of water to boil, and she made her way back to the village square.
Donna didn't intend to hide what she was doing. Many of the villagers had slipped away before they heard her promise to take on Jeth Holt, and if she was going to put her life on the line in exchange for lodging and soup, Donna was at least determined that the townsfolk were going to see her doing it.
Donna started out with staff exercises. The staff would certainly be a better weapon than a knife against Holt's fighting sticks, but Donna had also chosen it because the staff exercises she knew were good for stretching out tight muscles. Donna worked at half-speed. Footwork, then blocks, then strikes and spins. The deep bruises in her thigh and her forearm still ached, but the sore muscles from the night on the cramped bed loosened up, and she began to grow more comfortable with the fighting movements. The body could get locked into a routine too. Donna knew this, and she knew she'd gotten too much into the routine of walking these last few weeks.
She worked at an easy pace, taking rests when she needed to. The sun came out after an hour, and Donna noticed someone watching her. It was the girl who'd spoken to her the night before. She was in her teens, slender and wiry. She sat on the steps of the little public house that faced the town square and she watched as Donna switched from staff work to practicing hand-to-hand techniques.
When she stopped to rest, the girl walked over to her.
"Thank you," she said.
Donna shook her head. "Don't thank me now. I still don't know if I can take the guy."
"We should all be thanking you just for trying. No one else has even tried."
"Fear is what men like Jeth Holt are good at," Donna said. "Unfortunately, sometimes they're good a fighting too. But I'm also good at fighting. And besides, I know secret techniques from fighting masters in far lands."
The girl smiled.
"Is there anything you need?" she asked. "My father owns the tavern."
Donna made a show of looking around her.
"You know, there is one thing I could use. Clarette was kind enough to loan me this staff, and all I need to practice with it is some open space. But I can tell that Jeth Holt is a dirty fighter. Once I get those sticks away from him, it may come down to hand-to-hand. And practicing those techniques is best done with a fighting partner."
The girl looked back at the tavern. "I can ask if someone would…"
"What's your name?" Donna asked.
"Me? I'm Glenna. But… Jeth Holt is a lot bigger and stronger than I am."
"I'm a lot bigger and stronger than you are too," Donna said. "Let me show you how you throw someone bigger and stronger than you. Then we can practice."
Donna practiced letting Glenna throw her around all afternoon.
When she returned to Clarette's cottage that night, she got a bowl of the best turnip soup she'd ever tasted.
Glenna was waiting for Donna in the town square the next morning with two young men.
"This is Lars," Glenna introduced the taller boy. "Last night at the tavern there was, well… Lars, you explain…"
"Well, Ma'am. People had been drinking and one thing got to another and a fight broke out and…"
"This big man knocked Lars down and I got between them and…"
"He took a swing at Glenna and she ducked and threw him! Landed him on a heap of chairs." Lars looked at Glenna in amazement.
"Oh, that." Donna smiled. "That's what I meant about routine. Practice it enough and it sticks. You were lucky, Glenna. He must have come after you just like we practiced. I only had time to show you a couple of moves. I'm glad I taught you one that helped."
"Lars and his cousin want to know if they could practice with us," Glenna said.
Donna walked a short distance away. "All right. I need to get my practice in, and better to practice with a choice of opponents. Glenna, you come at me and I'll run through the techniques for your friends."
They practiced all morning.
At noon, Glenna went into the tavern and returned with bread and cheese, and they sat and ate and rested.
"Do you really think you can win?" Lars asked Donna.
"You never really know with these things." Donna spoke between bites of crusty bread.
"Well, we believe you can," Lars assured Donna. Getting tossed around by Donna and Glenna had apparently given him new appreciation for Donna's fighting skills. "Is there anything else we can do to help you get ready?"
"Do you know where you get the stones for your walls and chimneys?" Donna asked.
"Sure," Lars said. "The quarry is pretty close by. You just follow the creek that feeds the mill pond. What do you need rocks for?"
"Strength exercises. My family are stoneworkers. I was always big, but I got strong hauling rocks with my brothers."
That afternoon, the four of them set out with picks and baskets.
"Will you really get stronger in just a few days?" Glenna asked. She seemed skeptical of the whole idea and was wishing they could get back to learning fighting.
"It's part of the ritual," Donna assured her.
"Ritual? You're doing magic now?"
"A kind of magic. Mostly it's just about routines. Sticking to routines that work and breaking routines that don't. If I know I have to fight and I have time, I do strength exercises."
Donna showed them some simple exercises, practicing punching and blocking while holding fist-sized rocks, and then she started filling a basket with rocks of the same size.
"Hauling baskets of them strengthens the whole body," Donna explained.
The others joined in and they struggled back to town and deposited four baskets of rocks on the edge of the town square.
"What now?" Glenna asked.
"Rest, and then one more run to the quarry."
Glenna wasn't happy to hear that, but she went along with it.
When they returned a second time, three more lads and one girl were waiting in the town square to ask if Donna would be teaching fighting again.
They all practiced until sunset and when Donna returned to Clarette's cottage, she found a hot bowl of barley soup in beef broth with carrots waiting for her.
It was the best she'd ever had.
Donna had a dozen partners to choose from the next morning. Since she couldn't spar with all of them at once, she paired them off, with the boys and girls from the previous day showing some basic techniques to the newcomers. There were older men joining in this time, and a couple of matronly women as well.
After practicing for most of the morning, a grey-haired man who'd been watching from the sidelines approached Donna.
"Most of the folk here say you're fixing to get yourself killed," he said. "But my granddaughter thinks differently. Figured I'd see for myself."
He gave a nod in Glenna's direction.
"She's been a big help. I hope I don't disappoint her," Donna said.
"Well I hope you kill that bastard Holt, but I still don't give you much chance. I've seen too many times when courage, sticks, and stones go up against good weapons and armor. Weapons and armor win."
Donna shrugged. "I've got to work with what I have."
Glenna's grandfather reached into the bag that was hooked to his belt and removed a ten-inch steel spearhead.
"Thought maybe you could rig up something. I had it in an old box from my soldier days."
Donna looked it over. "Good steel, but the weight doesn't feel right, and I'd have to find a shaft for it. Clarette has a bunch of poles and staves in her shed. Did any of your friends serve in the war with you? Maybe they have some more of these blades. Between those and the different shafts I might be able to put together a passable weapon."
Glenna's grandfather went to ask around, and that afternoon, Donna sat down with a bundle of staves and a bag of about twenty spearheads in various states of rust. She cleaned them and matched them up and soon had fifteen working weapons to choose from.
When she walked back out onto the village square to practice her spear drills, she found she had well over fourteen partners. She had the ones who didn't have spears go and get staves and sharpen one end, and she drilled spear techniques until sunset.
Clarette served a bowl of potato cream soup that night that was the best Donna had ever had.
"Ethan, could you help me?" Donna walked over to the edge of the square where Glenna's grandfather watched along with a growing crowd of the town's elders.
"I have to admit, I'm impressed," the tavern keeper said.
Donna had formed her training volunteers into two lines and equipped them with a mix of weapons. They'd come at her with clubs, staves, spears, and fists, and she'd thrown or disarmed them in turn. She ran the practice at half-speed, but Ethan watched as the pacing crept up until Donna was essentially facing real attacks by time she finally called a halt.
"Don't tell me that people are starting to think I might win?" Donna laughed.
"Some of us are. What can I do to help?"
Donna turned and pointed to the crowd.
"This is wonderful," Donna said, "But I need to make sure I'm getting the most out of my training. Jeth Holt is strong and he's fast, and he's skilled. Everyone wants their turn practicing with me, but I need to pick a few of the strongest and fastest and focus on pairing up with them. Everyone who's been coming here has been so enthusiastic about helping me get ready that I don't want to just send them home. So I was wondering if you could help me give them a way to be useful."
"I guess I could help. What, exactly did you have in mind?"
"You spent some time as a soldier?"
Ethan looked away. "That was a long time ago."
Donna put an arm around the older man's shoulder. "But not so long that you've forgotten, right? Look, I just need you to keep them involved. They've got all of these spears and staves. Go through some basic formation drills with them. They want to know how to use their weapons, and I don't have time to work with them all one-on-one, but one man can show them how to work together."
Ethan turned back and his eyes met Donna's.
"What are you playing at here?"
Donna shook her head. "Not playing. Just getting ready for my fight. And earning my soup."
Donna returned to the group and selected ten of the strongest men who had joined the practice, and then called Lars and Glenna over.
"Me?" Glenna asked.
"You've been at this the longest. I need to go up against skill as well as strength," Donna said. "Besides, we're going to keep improving our strength, starting right now."
Glenna groaned as Donna walked over to the rock baskets, picked one up and headed down the path to the quarry. The dozen chosen fighting partners, Glenna included, picked up their own baskets and fell into line behind Donna while Ethan got the rest of the volunteers lined up in rows.
Donna worked on hand-to-hand fighting with her twelve well into the night.
When she got back to the cottage, there was spicy bean soup on the woodstove, and it was the best Donna had ever tasted.
Glenna struggled with the weight of her rock basket as she followed Donna along the path back from the quarry.
"Donna! Wait!" She moved to drop the load, but then thought better of it and placed it down carefully.
Donna stopped and turned. She didn't put her load down.
They stood there for a moment. Donna wanted to do one trip to the quarry after a full day of training.
"You aren't going to leave us," Glenna said.
Donna shook her head. "Yes, I am. But not today or tomorrow. Not until after Jeth Holt has been has been dealt with. Did you think I was going to walk away from this before it was done?"
"No! Of course not! I…" She stood where she was and looked down at the path. "Yes. I don't see what we've done to make this worthwhile for you. You're risking your life, and for what? Some soup? It would be too easy to just walk away. Anyone could choose that."
"I won't." Donna still held the basket of rocks on her shoulder.
"All right," Glenna said. "Then I know something that could help you."
Donna put down her load of rocks and followed as Glenna led her into the woods.
"Lars found this when he was hunting." Glenna stood with Donna on a hillside looking over a mud-filled depression.
"This was a swamp at the end of summer," Glenna said. " Jeth Holt led one faction of the mercenaries. He had a rival for leadership, and he settled matters by leading his rival and those loyal to him into an ambush crossing the swamp. The dead men sank in the muck and the swamp turned into a pond when the winter rains came."
Donna looked down on the mud. "But it's been raining almost nonstop. Why isn't this under water?"
"There was a dam of rocks and logs. It gave way a few days ago and the water flooded into the creek. Lars found it like this, with the bones of the dead mercenaries exposed in the mud."
Donna understood. "Weapons and armor. It's ghoulish, but I'd rather borrow from the dead than join them."
But after an hour of digging, Donna had only managed to find a set of forearm guards that fit her and a lightweight cavalry sword. They'd excavated a small pile of other weapons and armor, which they'd put aside. Nothing else fit Donna.
"Maybe something can be hammered into shape," Donna said.
"There's more down there. We should bring more people to dig," Glenna suggested.
"I need to get back to training," Donna said. "Let's haul back what we can now."
They each took a bundle.
As they neared the village, they encountered Clarette gathering wild mushrooms in a basket for Donna's soup that night.
Donna smiled in anticipation.
Donna blocked a high thrust, and reversed her grip on her staff as she stepped back. She was giving ground and her opponent pressed the attack. Another block, then a quick sidestep. People didn't expect a woman the size of Donna to sidestep anything.
Donna jabbed the end of the staff into Glenna's ribs, just a touch, but enough to make her lower her guard, and then Donna was in close with her staff pressed against the side of Glenna's neck and Glenna signaled to concede the match.
"You are very good at this," Donna said.
"I keep losing." Glenna stepped back into her guard stance.
"So did I. For a lot longer than you will. The staff and I took a long time to get along. I kept wanting to throw it on the ground and wrestle. Of course, if I tried that, my opponent still had a staff. It almost never ended well."
It was the last day of training. Donna had chosen Glenna to stay and spar with her. The other eleven of her main fighting partners were making a last trip out to scavenge weapons and armor from the swamp. There still wasn't enough to make Donna a really effective suit of armor, but the village blacksmith had promised to cobble together what he could work with while the rest of the weapons and armor that were uncovered went to the villagers helping with the training. He'd promised to work all night.
As Donna got set to finish up the day's training, Ethan handed her a small bottle.
"This is the strong stuff. I managed to hide it from Holt and his thugs. Used to call this liquid courage."
Donna took it from him.
"Is there anything else you need?" he asked.
"Maybe one more thing. A blessing. Do you have a priest in the village?"
Ethan shook his head. "My cousin Albus is the speaker when someone dies. But he's not officially a priest of anything."
"He'll do," Donna said.
Ethan turned toward the spectators, pointing to a bald man with a beard that was red-brown streaked with grey. Donna caught Ethan by the shoulder.
"Tomorrow," Donna said. "Blessings can wait for tomorrow. Tonight is for soup and sleep."
Ethan smiled. "Clarette told me she made her pea soup tonight. That's one of her best."
And it was.
Donna considered allowing herself a bit of extra time to sleep in the morning, but her body was used to waking with the dawn, and the bed really wasn't that comfortable. She'd be better rested from walking and light exercise than from staying crammed on the small bedframe. Clarette had a breakfast of smoked meat and rolls prepared, and Donna ate a small amount. She didn't know when to expect Commander Holt, so she wanted to be ready at any time.
She opened the cottage door to find the air clear and the sky blue. It was cold, but dry.
She strolled into town and found the square already crowded and bustling with activity. Firepits had been dug, and large pots were being set to boil while Ethan was supervising a group of cooks who were busy husking corn and chopping potatoes.
"Expecting to celebrate?" Dona asked.
"The last portion of our payment. If you win, there will be enough soup for everyone."
"And if I lose?" Donna asked.
"Then I'll piss in it myself before I serve it to Jeth Holt."
Donna smiled and waved to Glenna, who was practicing fighting with Lars and some of the other boys and girls of the village.
Then she looked for Albus the village holy man.
"May we talk a bit?" Donna asked.
"Oh, of course. Ethan told me you'd want to speak with me. He told you that I'm not an ordained priest, right?" The man looked unsure if he wanted to lead Donna somewhere more private or have the conversation right where they were.
Donna chose for him.
"Walk with me," she said, then turning to Ethan she called out, "We're walking the path to the quarry. Send Glenna for me if Commander Holt shows his face before we return!"
As soon as they were out of sight of the village, Donna handed Albus the small bottle Ethan had given her. Liquid courage. She hoped it lived up to that.
"An offering. Take one swig now," Donna said.
Albus' eyes lit up and he drank deeply.
"What god do you worship, Albus?"
"Any and all of them. When we need a prayer said here, people turn to me, whether it's to Kel Sunspark to raise up the crops, or to Alaendra of the Mists to guide the dead on their way."
"I worship Mantek the Lawgiver," Donna said. "Because in addition to giving people laws so that they could live together as civilized folk, Mantek also gave us discipline and routine and ritual."
"Some people were saying this is all a magic ritual to defeat Commander Jeth Holt," Albus said.
"Oh, it is," said Donna. "Seven nights, seven bowls of soup. And now we are going to pray to Mantek seven times, and we are going to drink seven times from this bottle."
Donna put the bottle to her lips seven times, but only drank after the last prayer. The liquor probably wouldn't have lasted otherwise. When they were finished, only a few drops remained. She poured it out as a libation to Mantek and to whatever gods might help.
"It's time to go back," Donna said, "but I want you to say a prayer for Glaston when we return. I want you to pray in front of everyone who has been kind enough to come and watch me practice, everyone who has come today to see Jeth Holt dealt with once and for all."
"What do you want me to say?" he asked.
"Well," Donna said, "think of everything that Holt has done to your village while we walk back. I'm sure you'll think of something to say."
Donna quickly filled her bag of fist-sized rocks from the quarry and they walked back to the village in silence.
Ethan met Donna at the edge of the crowd.
"Holt and his men have been seen on the merchant road. They'll be here soon."
Donna nodded. "Good. Albus will lead us in prayer."
It wasn't a prayer.
Albus recounted every injustice, every hurt inflicted on the villagers. His voice started out low, but rose to a frenzied pitch as he demanded to know how the gods could have let this happen, how the people of Glaston could have let this happen.
"Liquid courage, indeed," Donna whispered to herself as she watched her ritual come to fruition.
Men and women were taking up spears and staves, strapping on bits of armor from the pile that had been left in the town square. Boys and girls were taking rocks from the piles where full baskets had been emptied.
Donna saw Lars directing some of the younger children to climb up onto the roofs of cottages.
Some villagers lit torches from the fires that were heating the soup kettles.
Donna saw Ethan running to the crowd standing with the spears and staves. He was yelling, "No, no! In line! Like we practiced!"
"There they are!" some called out.
The villagers of Glaston had spent a week breaking out of their routine.
Holt's bandits were still stuck in a routine of their own. And that routine definitely did not involve facing down an armed militia.
Holt stopped in his tracks, and he took a moment too long to decide between ordering attack or retreat.
Donna didn't hear what he did finally order, because it was lost in the screams of villagers on the roofs of every house in the lane. The yells were accompanied by a hail of fist-sized rocks.
Donna had noticed a lack of discipline in Holt's soldiers. Their horses, it turned out, weren't very disciplined either.
Horses threw riders. Men charged at the cottages and were met with more rocks. Baskets of rocks were dumped down on them. Donna had done a lot of her strength training in the last seven days, and all of her helpers had done a lot more.
The cottages were solidly built, and even though the village looked vulnerable to attack, it proved to be better tactical ground than Holt had ever considered.
When Ethan ordered the spearmen to charge, they came up fast on Holt's scattered mercenaries and wheeled to trap a small group of them against the stone walls of the
public house while a contingent of them spun to guard the flanks. Donna jogged forward to position herself in the ranks as Ethan barked out orders again and they moved on another small group of the mercenaries.
By the time Commander Holt managed to get any significant number of his forces regrouped, a fourth of his men were already down.
Holt probably still could have gotten away with most of his force. But he was as much a creature of routine as any of his men. He didn't believe what he was facing, so he ordered his men to attack. The ranks of the villagers buckled as some of the mercenaries broke through their front line, but the numbers caught up with the mercenaries at that point.
Across the fighting, Donna spotted Holt. He wasn't bothering with the fighting sticks, and he had a space of a few paces around him as the villagers kept clear of his sword.
Donna set her spear.
"Bad idea, giving me my choice of weapon," Donna said. "But at least now you know a little more about what went on at Dracairne."
Holt stalked toward Donna, but he never got there. Lars hit him first, ducking under his blade to slam into the back of his legs. Holt kicked and pulled his boot free when Lars tried to hold on, but he was still off balance as he tried to regain his feet. Glenna pulled him into a throw, and Holt went down hard in the dirt, and the villagers swarmed him.
That was all it took. The mercenaries who weren't dead, hurt, or trapped fled for the hills.
"You're leaving." Glenna found Donna by the quarry path, well away from the celebration.
Donna nodded. "I said I'd leave after Jeth Holt was dealt with."
"You never got to fight him," Glenna said.
"Well, I told you I was going to use magic."
Glenna shook her head. "And you’re not even staying for your soup."
"I'm not," Donna said. "But you should go have some. It will be the best you've ever tasted. I promise."
© February, 2013 Rick SilvaRick Silva has been involved in small press publishing since his college days. He published and edited Kinships magazine. Along with his wife Gynn, Rick is a partner in Dandelion Studios (dandelionstudios.com), a small press comic book company. Rick co-writes the Dandelion Studios comics Zephyr & Reginald: Minions for Hire, Stone, Kaeli & Rebecca, and Perils of Picorna. His prose short stories have been published in anthologies by Apex, Flying Pen Press, and Crossed Genres, and he was a featured contributor for the fiction webzine The Edge of Propinquity. Rick Silva grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, attended Cornell University, and currently teaches chemistry at a high school on Cape Cod, where he resides with his wife and son, and three cats.
Two great polished mirrors faced each other across the stone space of Odin's hall. Stood between them, his face repeated again and again in the silvered surfaces, Thorvald was reminded of the priest at the entrance.
'Within Odin's hall,' the priest had said as he placed Thorvald's sword on the altar, 'you will face yourself over and over again. Every you that could have been will be seen by our lord. Only if you are the most heroic, the most fearless, the greatest that you could be, only then will you be chosen for Ragnarok.'
Now, as he stood between the mirrors, surrounded by his other selves, Thorvald wondered if he was the greatest he could be. Surely not. If he was the greatest he would have fought on, and his warband with him. Perhaps they would have retreated to the forests and harrassed the invaders from there. Perhaps they would have taken to the long boats, raiding the coast like their ancestors had. Perhaps they would have charged the foe head on one final time, screaming their battle cries to the last.
But then, who could fight the gods themselves?
Thorvald looked in the mirror, wondering which of the thousands of faces had fled to the forests, which had gone to sea. Would he look different after feeling the salt spray on his scars, the wild wind blowing his beard? He could not tell how different each face was from his own. Were they different at all, or was this his one true and only face?
Other things also showed in the mirrors. The sides of Odin's elaborately carved throne, angular, square-edged serpents writhing up its sides. They did not flow as they did in the carvings of his people, but twisted at sharp angles, from the pointed tips of their tails to their flat nosed heads and jagged teeth. Behind the throne was a purple curtain, and it twitched for a moment, then was swept aside as Odin himself stepped into the room.
The Aesir was as magnificent as Thorvald had imagined. His footsteps shook the floor as he ascended the dais to his throne. His shoulders were wide as the mightiest warrior, draped with chainmail and furs. His all concealing helmet, with a hole for only one eye, was carved with scenes of hunting and battle, encrusted with flat blue gems that shimmered as he tilted his head. A long dark beard flowed from beneath the helmet, running almost to his waist. In his hand he held the spear Gungir, ten feet long and viciously barbed.
His magnificence was all the greater by comparison with the men who followed him round the throne, ledgers in hand, quills at the ready. The Aesir's servants from across the great ocean with their pale brown skin, their coal black eyes and their feather fringed clothes. They all seemed obsessed with writing, from the guard keeping tally at the city's gate to the scribe at the guest hall recording everyone's name. Three times on the way into the palace Thorvald had given details to some scribbler on parchment, never an account of his heroic deeds, merely of his name, his age, his home.
The petty minds of the palace clerks were reflected in their mincing appearance. They wore tunics and skirts of white, thin cloth with embroidered borders, such as a woman might take pride in. They blackened the skin beneath their eyes and wore delicate jewellery, its gold threads barely holding in the blue gems that looked so bold on Odin's helm. Why did the gods surround themselves with such petty delicacy?
'Thorvald Jorundson,' Odin boomed. 'Step forward.'
Thorvald bowed his head as he approached the Aesir. Even Odin's boots were weighty with iron, the better to trample his foes.
'My lord,' Thorvald said, 'I spoke to your messenger at Viborg market. He said that you wanted warriors, even those who had defied you, brave men to sail the sea and fight in Ragnarok.'
'And have you defied me?' The room rattled at Odin's voice. It was deep and rich, flavoured with the accent of the gods and their followers from over the sea. Thorvald's father's father had told him that, when they first arrived, the gods did not speak in the tongues of men, but only in their own lilting language. In time, as their identities were revealed, they had learned the language of their conquered subjects.
Thorvald looked up. If he was to face his god, he would do so like a man.
'When you came from over the sea, in my father's father's time, our family did not believe you were who you claimed. We went to the hills. For forty years we have ambushed your men, raided your farms, hunted your messengers.
'But we have seen the wonders you make. The great stepped temples. The roads and bridges. The stick that roars. We have seen other kin bands enslaved by them. Mighty warlords bent to your will. The isle of Britain brought to its knees, as it once was by our forefathers. We believe now that you are the Aesir, and we wish to fight for you in the final war.'
Odin's one eye twinkled, a spark of light in the shadowed pit of the helm. He rose, towering over Thorvald.
'You understand what it is you ask?' he said. 'To leave everything behind. Your homes, your lands, your possessions. Even your blades will be left here for your journey across the sea. The swords of your forefathers will be left to rust, while you take up new arms in the land where Ragnarok rages.'
Thorvald nodded his head. He had heard rumours of this, but he had heard many different rumours. Some said that those who took Odin's offer sailed off the edge of the world and into oblivion. Some said that they sailed back through time, to be reborn at the dawn of legends, spirits with no end or beginning. Some said they were nothing more than sacrifices to the gods, their blood running red down stepped temples in a land where the sun shone brighter and the forest grew greener. But these were the tales of non-believers. Thorvald had listened to them eagerly in his youth, the stories fuel to his defiance. But he was tired now and age had granted him wisdom. Only the gods could achieve the things he had seen, and if the mighty Odin called him to war then he would willingly go.
'I understand, my lord,' he said, 'and my men will follow me.'
'How many men do you lead?' Odin asked.
'Thirty,' Thorvald replied. 'Thirty-nine women and five children follow us.'
A scribe's jewellery jingled like bells as he noted the numbers. He shivered and pulled a fur closer around his shoulders. The leaves were barely brown on the trees, and already it was too much for these woeful specimens.
'Yours are brave men?' Odin asked.
Odin took a step down from the dais. He lowered Gungir and thrust the spear's tip at Thorvald. 'Place your throat to the point and swear it.'
Thorvald stepped forward. The blade pricked his skin, a trickle of blood running down his neck and into the matted furs across his chest. 'I swear it. They are the bravest, the strongest, the hardiest I have ever known.'
Odin raised the spear and placed a hand on Thorvald's shoulder. Thorvald was overwhelmed by awe.
'There is a place for you, Thorvald Jorundson,' Odin said. 'You and all your kin band. You will sail together across the sea, with your wives and children for comfort, and you will fight for me in the end time.'
Thorvald suppressed a confused frown. Why were the women and children coming? Even the eldest boy child lacked the strength to strike with a spear, and what was the point in giving comfort when they went to death or glory?
'Something bothers you?' Odin asked sternly.
'I...' Thorvald looked up at his magnificent visage, the great dragon writhing down the front of the helm, and he swallowed his doubts. 'No, my lord.'
'Very well.' Odin turned and strode away. 'My servants will tell you what to do. Good luck in what is to come, Thorvald Jorundson. I hope you find a mighty death.'
The curtain lifted and Odin disappeared behind the throne.
One of the scribes stepped forwards. His head jutted out, and Thorvald was tempted to punch it right in, to crumple his haughty glare into broken teeth and face powder. He even wore perfume, the scent of flowers cloying in the nostrils of honest men.
'Where are you staying?' the scribe asked. He had Odin's accent, but none of his gravitas.
'Harald Strongarm's guest hall,' Thorvald replied. 'By the harbour.'
There was a scratching of quill on parchment before the scribe looked up again. 'There is no boat for four days,' he said. 'Someone will come to inform you of the details.'
Without the least gesture of respect the servant turned and disappeared around the throne. Thorvald glared after his reflection in the mirror. Such spindly limbs, so easy to break. They could barely lift the curtain behind Odin's seat. Why, Thorvald wondered, did the gods of legend use such pitiful men?
Another servant held the hanging open for the scribe, and they paused to exchange some inanity in their strange language. As they did so, Thorvald saw past them into the chamber behind the throne.
Odin stood reflected in the mirror, out of his boots, a full foot shorter than he had seemed. His fur cloak fell from one skinny shoulder, a wad of padding visible between them. Assisted by two servants, he lifted the great helm from his head, his long, manly beard coming away with it to reveal a smooth, effeminate face, the skin around his eye darkened, fragile rings of turqoise and gold dangling from his ear. Gungir lay abandoned on the ground, a servant treading on it as he passed with a tray of drinks.
Shock and confusion roiled through Thorvald's mind. What was he seeing? Where was the mighty Odin of legend? Was his appearance merely a trick? He knew the arrival of the gods had not been as his forefathers had expected. Their boats were strange, their customs alien, their servants not real warriors but sorcerers who killed from afar and closed for the fight only when they were forced. Everything they had done since to earn men's trust, the shows of strength and signs of honour, was it all a lie?
But the father of the gods was meant to be cunning as well as strong. Maybe he had chosen this illusion to bring his people together. A clever ruse to overcome the strangeness that came with divinity. Yes, thought Thorvald, that must be it.
But the thought did not sit easy in his heart. He turned, and each footfall stretched out like an hour as the sound of his boots echoed back at him. He watched the guards who lined the hall. They looked small, complacent, dressed not in armour but in coloured tunics, bright white with a blue trim. He could kill them all with his hands, the hands that clenched and unclenched at his sides, if not for the sticks that roared, that killed from a league away. Each guard had a stick at his shoulder, and a shorter one at his side. Was this really Odin's way, for his warriors to slay with such magics, rather than with true might?
He reached the door. The priest was by his altar in the porch, the weapons piled upon it. He sniffed as Thorvald approached, looked out across the city, smoke rising from a thousand chimneys, pigs and children squeeling in the streets.
'My sword,' Thorvald said.
'You won't need that old thing,' the priest said. 'Odin will arm you for your journey.'
Thorvald hesitated, looking at the priest's narrow, rat-like face.
'Does Odin always appear like this?' he asked.
The priest frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'So tall and strong. So powerful.'
'Of course. He is Odin.' The priest shook his head. 'Now hurry on. There are other supplicants waiting.'
As he trudged through the city, boots thick with street mud and sewage, Thorvald turned the audience over in his mind, seeking to understand what he had seen. Odin had judged him on the things that mattered, on his strength and prowess in battle. To feel the tip of Gungir at his throat, to gaze into that one eye and feel his life in the balance, it had filled Thorvald with fear and honour. He had been judged by a god, and been found worthy, as he had hoped.
But how had he been judged? He had not been challenged to combat, by Odin or any of his guards. He had not told the tales of his glories, described the battles won and lost, the enemies defeated, the prizes taken. He had not even shown his scars. How did Odin know that he was worthy? The Aesir was wise, his one eye all seeing. Could he see into Thorvald's past, or pierce the depths of his heart to find out what lay there?
One eye. He had only seen one side of Odin's face as the curtain was pulled back, and so had only seen that one eye. Something about it had not seemed right, but was that just his doubts tricking him? There was no time for doubt in battle, no space for it in a warrior's heart. Thorvald pushed the feeling back down and strode on through the city.
The crowds parted before him like a smooth sea before a longship's prow, scurrying away from the burly, scarred veteran. Locals or travellers, Norsemen and foreigners, minions of the gods and their halfbreed spawn, all stepped out of his way, fleeing the sight of his scowl. Some wore the plain clothes of honest travellers, others the patterned cloth and feathered trims of the foreigners, their bright colours matching the painted stone of the Aesir's buildings. The layered barracks, rising in steps half the height of a man, the raised platforms of public granaries, even Odin's hall itself, a tall jagged pyramid amidst the hunched hovels of the locals.
He took a long route back to Harald Strongarm's guest hall, past the market place with its bustle and chatter and down towards the sea. There he stood a while at the docks, watching the ships loading and unloading. Some were being filled with copper and tin from the mountain mines. Others with sheep and wool from the hills, or cloth dyed pink or pale blue. But many carried men. One of the vessels of the gods had just arrived, fresh from its journey across the ocean. Soldiers marched down its plank, shivering in their flimsy tunics, looking around them with wide eyed wonder. They stared at the paleness of the natives, at the crude Norse clothing, at the wattle and daub huts that lined the older parts of the docks. Some of them stared at Thorvald, but he kept his anger in check. He knew that he was a fearsome and fascinating sight, and had no need to challenge them in their insolence, these men who carried the death sticks, men with strange customs and stranger names like those he had met in Viborg - Tecocoitzin and Acacitli, Centehua and Uacalxochitl.
Men were boarding ships as well. One was being loaded with slaves - men, women and children captured in war or bought from Frankish traders. They tramped up the boarding plank in chains, heads hanging in shame and misery, their clothes little more than rags, bones showing through their wasting flesh. Another vessel was being boarded by a band of warriors, brave men with their heads held high, muscled and scarred, their clothes simple but well kept, many of them wrapped in furs. They were followed by their kin, women leading young children up the plank and onto the creaking deck. The men boarding the ships could not have been more different. Yet the two ships were all but identical. The same hulls, the same masts, even the same flags snapping in the breeze, a pennant carrying the angular image of a winged snake. The glorious warriors heading for Ragnarok travelled the same way as the bedraggled slaves.
More people travelled these days, and a warrior could not rely on finding hospitallity in the hall of a local lord, earning a night by the fire with the news he carried and the stories he could tell. Those warlords had given way to the gods and their ever-distant servants, and guest halls like Harald Strong-arm's were now a weary traveller's best hope. These guest halls took in anyone, but they did it at a price. Olaf, Thorvald's brother and second in command, had been shocked when Harald told them that they must pay to stay. It had been all Thorvald could do to stop Olaf punching Harald and starting a fight with his armoured guards. Now Olaf skulked in the shadows at the edge of the hall, watching the others as they sat by the fire and bought ale with their dwindling stores of gold.
Thorvald pulled a stool over and settled down beside Olaf. They sat for a while in silence, watching Old Sven tell the tale of how he had lost his finger and gained a herd of cattle. Sven was growing grey, and the story grew longer with each telling, but Thorvald still remembered how well they had eaten that winter, and how well his father had respected Sven.
'I was granted an audience with Odin,' Thorvald said at last, watching Sven down a horn of ale as he reached the climax of his story. 'We leave across the ocean in four days.'
Olaf almost smiled as he looked at his brother. 'This is good,' he said. 'There is no honour here any more. No glory to be had, no spoils to be taken. We will go to fight, that the world can be born anew.'
Thorvald nodded. He wanted to be able to share his brother's pleasure, his sense of anticipation at what was to come. But he couldn't shake the image of warriors and slaves marching to the same fate, or of the thin, alien Odin he had seen revealed in the mirror. He touched the scar that ran down the left side of his face, a memento of his most closely fought and best celebrated battle. Had he dodged an inch the other way the Norwegian raider would have taken his eye, maybe more. Instead the man had met his own end, his blood spilled crimson across white sands, his boat in flames. No-one had escaped them that day, and even with his face sliced open Thorvald had walked away with pride.
'You and Odin, you nearly had much in common,' Olaf said. 'Which eye is he missing?'
'The left,' Thorvald said.
'How does it look? As scarred and ugly as you?'
Thorvald shook his head. 'It was hidden by his helm.'
Olaf nodded. 'The gods go ever ready for war.'
Thorvald looked him in the eye. 'What would you say if I said he was not as I expected? That the gods, underneath it all, look not like warriors but servants and clerks?'
Olaf laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. 'I would say that you are a funny man. The world has become so weak I can almost believe it.'
Thorvald looked away. Night was falling outside, but the hall was brightly lit, the fire reflecting off a mirror that hung between the beer barrels. It was not as highly polished as Odin's, the image it reflected warped and dirty, but it cast light back across the room. Thorvald stood and went to face the mirror, staring at his reflection. Was it one of his other selves that stared back, a Thorvald from another life, a wiser Thorvald, a stronger Thorvald? He raised his left hand to his scar, running the finger down puckered flesh and time-hardened skin. In the mirror, his other self raised its right hand in the same slow, sad gesture. This much, at least, they shared.
Thorvald stood at the base of Odin's palace, looking up at the grand edifice, its layers of yellow-grey stone like a giant's staircase rising towards the sky. Each layer was half the height of a man, and ascending them would have been an undignified task if not for the steps that ran up the front, flanked by angular carvings of men and beasts. At the summit, above the hall's main entrance, a pair of altars were flanked by flag poles, banners flying the Aesir's sign of the world snake.
In the courtyard before the palace the ball game was being played, Odin's soldiers facing off against a band of half castes and servants. Thorvald had seen the game once before, in a town they had passed through on the road, where the Asgardians kept a fort and a temple. The teams had played for an hour or more, throwing the ball back and forth, running with it up the court, bouncing it off the wooden walls of their arena. Afterwards, Thorvald had handled the ball, felt its strange texture, firm yet yielding. He had thrown it against the wall himself, astounded by the way it bounced, the force with which it flew back at him. The players had laughed at his amazement, used to the wonders the gods brought.
Here, the stakes of the game were higher. The leader of the winning team, the priest had explained, would ascend to Odin's chamber and be granted fine jewels for honouring the gods. The loser would be led to the top of the temple when the sun was at its height, his blood flowing down the sides in sacrifice. Rust brown stains showed where other players' blood had poured from the summit. It seemed a waste of good men to Thorvald, and a fool way to die, but there were still men eager to take their place in the game, for their glory and that of the gods.
Thorvald walked slowly up the steps, approaching the priest at his altar, the guardian of the doorway to divinity. The priest's face screwed up into a web of wrinkles, turning into a deeper frown as Thorvald came within the range of his failing vision.
'I know you,' the priest said. 'You were here three days ago.'
Thorvald nodded. 'I have a question for Odin,' he said.
The priest's laughter was the croaking of a crow. 'You do not simply walk up and ask the all father questions,' he said. 'You have had your turn.'
Thorvald scowled. He was not surprised. No god should be so idle that they sat waiting for him, but this setback did nothing to quell his inner turmoil. 'Maybe you can answer then,' he said. 'Are priests not the mouthpiece of the gods?'
'We do have insight greater than most, due to our enlightened position. ' The priest puffed out his chest, running a hand across the top of the altar. 'Go on, what's your question?'
Thorvald pointed up the temple steps, to the dark stain at the top. 'Does this happen to all those who strive for the gods but fail?'
'Oh yes,' the priest said. 'There is no place for failures in Valhalla.'
'So those who could never succeed, the weak and the useless? Are they sacrificed as well?'
'Men are needed to build and work the land,' the priest said. 'If all but the greatest were sacrificed, who would do that? No, only a proportion of the poor, a few hundred, are sacrificed, at the appropriate festivals.'
Thorvald nodded. There had always been sacrifices. His grandfather had told him how, even before the Aesir arrived, sacrifices had been made to them at the beginning of summer, and at times of great change. Blood spilt to gain the gods' favour, some dying that others might live.
'There is not much blood for hundreds of people,' he said, still looking up the temple.
'It happens elsewhere,' the priest replied.
'Across the ocean?'
'Yes. In Valhalla.' The priest had trouble with the word, its hard edges softened by his smoothly lilting tongue. 'It is... closer to the gods.'
'So the slaves boarding the ships, they will be sacrificed?'
'You are a clever man, I can see that. There's no getting past you. Yes, the slaves are to be sacrificed, but we do not tell them this before they board the boats. It makes them more...' He paused to find the word. 'More cooperative.'
Thorvald nodded. 'And those boarding the other boats?'
'The other boats?'
'The boats I and my men will board, to cross the ocean for Ragnarok?'
'Oh!' The priest's laughter was different this time, high and womanish. 'Well, those ships go to a different place, where you will be armed and sent to fight. Of course. But excuse me now, I see other supplicants coming.'
'Wait.' Thorvald grabbed the priest's arm, squeezing tight the nut brown flesh. 'How will I know I am getting on the right ship?'
'Because Odin sent you,' the priest said. 'And who could doubt the word of Odin?'
Thorvald skulked at the edge of the hall, shrouding himself in shadows. The others sat around the fire, drinking and eating their fill, one last raucous night before they boarded the boat to destiny. Even Olaf joined in the laughter, happy now that action was near, now that he had the prospect of violence.
A hunched figure wobbled out of the firelight, a ramshackle silhouette tottering on legs made uncertain by age and mead. Old Sven, Sven the Scabbed as the men called him, came to sit beside Thorvald. Sven was the oldest of the kin band. His days as a warrior were near their end even when Thorvald was a child, and yet the thread of his life wound on, while men younger than him went screaming into the darkness. He had taken more wounds and survived more diseases than any man Thorvald had ever met. His muscles had withered away, and his hair fallen out leaving straggly grey whisps, yet still he lived on.
'Chief!' The word whistled through the gaps between Sven's remaining teeth. 'S'not good, you sitting out here on your own. C'mon and drink with us!' The old man slumped onto the bench beside Thorvald, tried to drape a companionable arm across his shoulders, and almost slid to the floor.
'Do you remember when the gods came?' Thorvald asked.
Sven nodded. 'I was young.' He contemplated the end of his own waggling finger, came to a conclusion. 'The ships. And the death sticks. People said they must be gods. We didn't believe them. More fool us!'
'Did you see Odin?' Thorvald asked.
Sven snorted. 'Wasn't called Odin then,' he said. 'Or was, but not in their words. Moctezuma, they called him. Before they learned our names for them.' He raised his contemplative finger again. 'What sort of name's that? Moctezuma?'
'Did you see him?' Thorvald asked.
'Your grandfather did.' Sven shook his head. 'Said he just looked like a man. A funny skinned little man.'
'When I saw him in his hall, he was grand and tall, in furs and armour,' Thorvald said. 'He was everything a god should be, proud and strong. But then, I thought I saw him for a moment, his reflection in a mirror as he disrobed, and he was as you describe, nothing more than these other foreign men, fragile and effeminate.'
Sven's face piled wrinkles on wrinkles, a thoughtful frown further crumpling his skin. 'You think there is a trick here? That he is not Odin?'
Thorvald shrugged. 'Maybe Odin has good reason to present himself as other than he is. There are many stories of the gods using trickery.'
'One god more than others,' Sven said. 'Not all of the Aesir are mighty warriors. There is another...'
'You think he is Loki?' Thorvald glanced around as he spoke the name. It was said that naming Loki, in the wrong time and the wrong place, could summon him from the shadows. 'That he did all this?'
'Maybe. Whoever these people are, they are not of our world. But that does not mean they are who they say they are.'
Thorvald stared at the men laughing around the fire. Was he about to lead them into the trickster god's trap? To doom his kin? To destroy his honour?
'Why would he,' Thorvald avoided Loki's name, 'want us?'
'Why does any god want sacrifices? For his own honour and his own power.'
Sven passed his tankard to Thorvald, who took a long drink from it. The ale was watery and poorly brewed, but it soothed his throat and stoked the fire in his belly.
'What can I do?' he asked.
'Nothing.' Sven took back the tankard, drained what was left. 'You cannot defy Odin. Unless you're sure it is not him, better do as he says. I've seen many things in my life, but I know this. There's more dishonour in disobeying a rightful lord than in being tricked by a wily god.'
Thorvald stood between Harald Strongarm's ale barrels, staring at his other self in the grimy mirror. By the last flickerings of that night's fire he could see his face, a patchwork of shadows and light that shifted as a breeze toyed with the fire. Most of his men were sleeping now, ready for their great journey in the morning. A few still talked around the fire, telling hushed stories of their adventures. Their forefathers had raided across the sea, fought with axe and sword to claim a piece of fertile land. Now they were leaving, travelling to their own fight. To Ragnarok.
Or to a pitiful death, sacrificed on the trickster's altar.
Thorvald ran a finger down his scarred cheek. What would he face in that final battle at the end of the world? Ice giants who could crush him as easily as he squashed an ant? Dire wolves of fire and fury that that would rip him assunder with a flick of their claws? Warriors more mighty than any man he had met, strong as bears and swift as swallows? Was this what was worrying him? Was his search for a trick nothing more than a coward's way out, an excuse not to face a certain death?
The right hand of the mirror Thorvald caressed its scar, lost in its own thoughts.
The right hand.
A scar on his right cheek, though he was injured on the left.
The Odin he had seen in the hall still had his right eye, and so did the Odin in the mirror. But if the mirror Odin had his right eye, the figure he reflected had his left.
The Aesir in the hall had two eyes.
'Up!' Thorvald roared.
His men rose in an instant. They had slept many nights with one eye open, watchful for their enemies. That instinct was strong. Even the groggiest put his hand straight to his sword.
'We have been tricked,' he hissed. 'It is not Odin who asks us to board his ship. It is the deceiver.'
No-one questioned him. The same instinct to follow their leader, the honour that had nearly doomed them all, led them to follow him now, as Thorvald grabbed a burning brand from the fire, took a knife in place of his abandoned sword, and stormed out into the pre-dawn street.
The city blazed behind them as they ran into the wooded hills. Thorvald could hear the crackle of ships smouldering at their docks, and the rattle of the death sticks as Loki's soldiers pursued him and his men, trying to pick them off by the weak light of the rising sun. His band was smaller than an hour before. Some women and children had been too slow, and Sven had turned at the city gate, holding up the soldiers while the others escaped. One last act of heroism from an old drunk. They would tell his tale down the generations, the grey haired ancient who dared to defy the gods.
But the tales were not over. They would not rest, Thorvald swore. They would bring fire and bloodshed to this land, until Loki was driven back into the sea, every last invader butchered or drowned. He swore it by the blood in his veins, by the beating of his heart, by the thrill that filled him as they ran, to freedom and a new dawn. Theirs would be tales to last until the true Ragnarok.
They would live free, or they would die trying. And this Thorvald, this one out of the thousands that could have been, he was determined to live.
© February, 2013 Andrew Knighton Andrew Knighton lives and occasionally writes in Stockport, England, turning his respectable history degrees into the far more entertaining form of short stories. When not working in his standard issue office job he battles the slugs threatening to overrun his garden and the monsters lurking in the woods. He's had over forty stories published in places such as Murky Depths, Redstone SF and the Steampunk Reloaded and Steamunk Revolution anthologies. You can find out more about his writing atandrewknighton.wordpress.com
My mother used to tell me not to worry, that all people found their purpose and their place in the world, but even as a boy I doubted the people of my village would find such a place for me. I was born the third son of the blacksmith, and before I could even talk I understood that my father saw me as just another mouth to feed. He had already begun to teach his trade to his other sons before I came to bother him, and he had no more room in the workshop for an extra pair of hands at the bellows. So I stayed in the house with my mother. She named me Indigo after her father, but my brothers and sometimes even my own father liked to call me Little Worm and Maggot.
We lived in the village of Halaran where the winds blew harsh and gritty down from the mountains, sweeping unhindered across the rocky planes towards the cliffs that looked out over the sea to the island of the royal city, to Aderwyn. The men toiled in that hard land, but we did not go hungry and we had good storytellers among us. Being the last village on the road to the port at Branoth we had many visitors. We sold lodgings, food, and ale to the travellers, and we could also raise a tribute for the hearing of our tales.
When I got older, but still as a child, I would often go to the cliffs and gaze down the coast to Branoth nestling in its estuary, or out to the towers of the Royal city. Aderwyn had always been famous for its accountants, actuaries, auditors and clerks. From the towns in the lowlands of Araulth all the way down to Caradoth many a young boy with a talent for numbers left home bound for that island, hoping to find ledger work there, or perhaps an accountant’s apprenticeship that would lead to a good solid career, but not me. As my father often told me, he could not afford for me to have such dreams or wild fancies.
Yet even then I loved to count. I would sit there for hours auditing the clouds above the city, keeping a tally of the ships coming in and out of the port on the eastern side of the island. I would go home and tell my father how many shillings the king had made that day from mooring fees alone, searching his face for some sign of approval or pride, but I never found any. My mother would hug me tightly and say that they would make me exchequer to the royal household one day, but my father just sat there, pretending not to see me, wishing that I did not exist.
I first met the Gont called Phrat on a hot summer day during my thirteenth year. I spent all the days that summer lost in a world of numbers, imagining what I would do with the gold that accountants and actuaries were rumoured to earn. How I would buy my father's workshop and throw him out to live on the streets, but not before I made him watch me count my money.
Gonts only live in the north. They are short enough to hide in the long grass, and having green skin, it is easy for them to lurk unseen, waiting for unsuspecting travellers. Many an unwary foreigner has fallen foul to Gontish trickery while passing near Haralan. This one came and sat next to me, plonking himself down uninvited as I counted a fleet of tall ships leaving Aderwyn. He claimed to be a Gontish sorcerer, a claim that I first regarded with downright suspicion. Gonts are well known for being liars, thieves, pickpockets, chicken poachers, and confidence tricksters, but their claims of sorcery were rarely backed up with any practical demonstrations. Still, he carried a bonestick and his leathery skin bore tattooed symbols that were clearly cabalistic in nature. In my head I could hear my mother telling me that even Gonts had a place and purpose in the world, so I did not chase him away as now know I should have. I ignored his prattle though, but Gonts have a way of drawing you into a conversation with them.
"I've seen you here often doing your counting," he said with his high pitched, grating voice.
"What of it Gont?" I snapped.
"I beg your pardon sir. I did not mean to cause offence or to disturb you from your craft, but as a sorcerer and a seer I felt an obligation to come to speak with you, knowing what I know."
I knew speaking with it was a mistake. People had always warned me of conversing with the Gontish folk, but he had, I admit, tugged on my curiosity.
"And what is it you know, Gont?" I asked.
"Your future sir," he said. "I have never spoken to a... to a Counter of Aderwyn before, and I may never again. So I had to come and talk to you."
"Oh be off with you Gont. My father doesn’t even need me to count the horseshoes in his workshop. Counter of Aderwyn indeed!”
"But Sir, I am not mistaken. And not just a Counter, but the Counter of Aderwyn, the Exchequer himself."
I stood up and brushed the dirt and dead grass from my backside. "Gont you are not only a liar, but if you think that I will believe this rubbish then you are also an idiot."
If I had stayed there a minute longer I would have squashed the gont like an insect, or booted him off the cliff into the sea, and I had more sense than that. It is still bad luck to kill a Gont, despite their nature. So I started to walk away.
"Think what you will of me sir," shouted the Gont, "but when they make you Exchequer, Phrat will bless you. With your permission, of course."
"Do what you will Gont," I said.
As I walked away I realise what I had said, and I cursed my own stupidity. A sorcerer may only use magic on you if you give him your permission, and I had done just that. But so what? What chance did I have of becoming the most powerful man in the land, second only to the king. Whatever my place in the world turned out to be, I knew for certain that it would not be that.
Later that year, my mother died of the sweating sickness. I had only just turned fourteen, but in the villages of the north people considered fourteen years enough of a childhood. After that a boy had to start making his own way in the world. Yet I still had no trade or purpose. I could do nothing of value to my people, and I had no one left to love me; no one to stop my father from lashing out at the useless boy who did nothing but eat precious food and wander the cliffs counting.
Eventually the villagers tired of filling my belly for free and chased me from the village. I went up into the hills to live there away from their cruel fist and vicious tongues. Yet even after all the names they had called me, after all the beatings, I still craved a purpose. I still wanted their acceptance. I sat at night huddling inside a stolen blanket weeping at the brutish way they had treated me. Strangely though, it was because of that cruelty and the anger it nurtured in me that at last I, Indigo the Useless, found a purpose.
As the days passed, I became dark and wild looking. Those same villagers who once spat at me and damned my uselessness now grew wary of me, and I liked that. Parents would scare their children into coming home before dark with tales of my trips into the village when daylight ended. "The Indigo will get you," they said. As small payment for this they left out half rotten vegetables, turning cheese and bread dotted with the first signs of mould in the village square. I took it gladly.
People began to tell stories about how I had eaten ten or fifteen children, but they were lies. I never ate more than three. I know the number exactly because I kept count. In all that time I never lost my love of counting. I would sit and count anything; clouds, sheep, whatever. None of that mattered though. What mattered was that children started to do what they were told because of me.
I thought that was to be my lot in life, but then during the time of the wolf Beroth, the Beast of Halaran as some called him, when things changed for me again. I had lived in those hills for three years, huddling by whatever fire I could make, almost dying each winter. That third winter was the harshest any could remember, and the beast came down from the mountains looking for easy prey. His taste for blood was insatiable, and he killed so many sheep and cattle that I could spend a couple of hours each morning counting the carcasses left strewn across around the hills.
As I sat there one morning counting, ten, eleven, twelve sheep dead, I saw a shepherd come over the hills. He came, following the valley up from the village as I counted. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. I paid him little attention, just enough to notice the crossbow he carried. Had he come for me? Did they think I had killed the sheep? Still, I let nothing stop the counting. The beast had enjoyed a busy night. Forty-five sheep living and twenty-one corpses. And lurking out of sight, skulking behind a boulder, I counted one Beast of Halaran.
The hunter had not seen him. The wolf advanced. He crept low along the ground, sniffing the sweat of the man, yellow eyes fixed ahead, not seeing me. The wolf sprang. So did I.
"What are you doing boy?" shouted the shepherd, raising his crossbow at me.
I realised afterwards how close I had come to being mistaken for the Beast of Halaran myself, but at the time I was too busy tearing the wolf’s throat out with my teeth to be scared.
I stood up and wiped the wolf's blood from my mouth. I would always remember the taste. Even at the end of my story I would taste that thing’s blood in my mouth, its gristle between my teeth, its salty sweat, all conspiring together to choke me.
"Forty-five sheep alive here today," I said. "Twenty-one killed last night, two the day before, one the day before that, four the previous night."
"You count well for a savage," said the shepherd, unable to tear his eyes from at the dead wolf by my feet. "How comes a savage like you would save a civilised man like me?" But he was not asking me. He was asking himself.
"Food?" I said, thinking that saving his life might at least warrant some fresh bread.
"Come with me lad," he said, and I followed him imagining the delights I was about to receive.
But he did not feed me. He took me down to the town and showed me to my father and told him what I had done. Now my father looked on me with proud eyes. He took me to Alderman Gill, Halaran’s own counter, and told him that even the wildness had not driven the sorcery of numbers from me. Gill tested me with some tasks of counting and some simple sums, each of which I answered correctly. Then he took me inside, fed me, cleaned me up, and made me his apprentice.
Given time and Gill's stick the wildness soon ebbed away from me. I learnt of ledgers and tithes, of taxes and levies and I soaked up this new knowledge, this numerical sorcery as my father would call it, with a voracious appetite. Soon I was helping the alderman collect and count the tithes gathered from the story telling, and manage the village accounts.
Despite his harsh tongue and his cruel stick, the Alderman was more of a father to me than my own had ever been, and I grew to love him. He made my head dizzy with stories of the accountants of the Royal city. What glory and wealth that could be had for a man of numbers there! Then, on my sixteenth birthday he called me to him.
"Indigo there is nothing else that I can teach you,” he said. “You have a choice. You can stay here with me and have a good and simple life, or go to the Royal city and learn from my old teacher, the Exchequer Karn.”
I was confused. Part of my heart belonged in the hills and cliffs of Halaran, and wanted to stay and become Alderman myself one day, but there was all that money waiting to be counted. To be owned.
"True father," I said, "I will go to Aderwyn and learn to be a master of numbers so that I may return and see the pride in your face."
Two days later he sent me off to Branoth, the port town where travellers sailed for Aderwyn carrying a letter of introduction from himself to the Exchequer, the Master Karn, my key to the city.
When I first arrived I wandered the city for days, not because I could not find my way through the maze of streets, but because the wealth of the place overwhelmed me. There were houses there with gardens big enough to hold the whole of Halaran. The roads twisted and turned, each one taking me to some new marvel, but all ultimately led to the steps of the King's palace.
On the third day I decided I should make myself known to Exchequer Karn, not least because I had spent most of my money. I came to the front steps of the palace but found a crowd gathered there. At the top of the steps stood a man in the robes of a counter and a man in black, his face covered with a hood. He held the counter with one hand and an axe in the other. Both stood before a stained, wooden block, and I knew its purpose without needing to ask.
The hooded man began to speak in a voice that chilled me with its cold authority. "This man, Counter Dwythe of the Royal House has been found guilty of wilful, deliberate and fraudulent accountancy, and so the King's law judges his life to be forfeit."
The crowd jeered and laughed as the counter sobbed and protested. They laughed even harder when a pool of piss appeared on the ground between his legs, and I laughed with them. How pathetic, I thought. I would never miscount, and if I did I would hide it well. If by some chance they did catch me, I would not whine like a little girl, pissing my robe before they cut off my head. The condemned counter handed the man some coins, who forced his neck onto the block, tying him in place with a leather strap.
The executioner looked strong enough to cut through his neck with one blow. But he did not. I counted three leisurely strokes before the man's head came off, and he screamed more loudly with each one: a gurgling, choking scream. Each blow showered the crowd with blood, and made them cheer even more.
After the execution I went to find Exchequer Karn. Even before my studies with Alderman Gill I knew that the Exchequer of the Kingdom stood second only to the King in authority and some people talked of him as the man that held the real power in Araulth. So I was not without a certain amount of trepidation when I met him. My concerns turned out to be justified.
He was not a kindly man like the Alderman, but a man steeped in the seriousness of his position. He carried a hardwood staff with him at all times, and his robes of office flapped around his bony body when he struck out at me with it. He possessed a curious strength and each blow bruised me. When not shouting at me, or trying to hit me with his staff, his keen eyes peered at me from those sunken pits in his dour face, watching me for errors in my work.
We men of the plains are full of pride, people say. Some say it as a compliment and others as a criticism, but a man of the plains I was. Despite the fine robes they gave me to wear and expensive food they gave me to eat, that pride remained. When this cruel old man sneered at me, or called me stupid I convinced myself that this was because of where I came from, so I started to mock him whenever I could. I took every possible opportunity to make him look stupid among the rich and lordly folk of the Royal house. It was easy. I was a better counter than him. He knew it. I knew it. The King knew it.
My fame grew around the city, and before long I had many admirers, especially among the daughters of the wealthy merchants and princes who found my roughness and course country language a welcome change from the soft-skinned, lavender scented boys who usually courted them. Oh, those were fine days! Rich men employed me to audit their household expenses or calculate their taxes for them. I would go to their houses and do the day’s work by lunchtime. In the afternoon, I would take their wives or their daughters to bed. In time, I did not even need to count my own money. I had so much that counting it became a full time job for someone else to do.
Exchequer Karn began to look old next to me with his plodding, pedantic methods. And then, one day while browsing the ledgers of the King's kitchens, I discovered a mistake. Not a serious mistake I admit, but of course I felt it my duty to bring it to the King's attention.
The Exchequer spoke with gracious humility in his retirement address to the Council of Actuaries, and he shook my hand as he handed over his duties to me. In his speech he acknowledged that I, Indigo Withell, was the better man for the job. The next day I moved into the Exchequer's quarters in the palace. I no longer had to go to the houses of my clients to enjoy their women. They came to me. At any time of day I could send a messenger to any that I fancied, and they would come. Even the King's daughter, the Princess Elaine, could be seen coming out of my bedchamber at night. Each time she visited me she squealed with pleasure as I counted her fingers, her toes, the hairs on her head, and her breasts. Then one morning I counted the soldiers around my bed as they came to arrest me.
My trial lasted months, and the crowds that had once admired me came to delight in my downfall. On the first day, the clerk of the court read out the long list of charges: disrespecting the Monarch, Adultery (there was no shortage of men willing to come forth and press this charge) and of course, miscounting. The old Exchequer, now recalled to his position, smiled to himself as the clerk read that one out.
I hired the best lawyers in the kingdom. Why not? I could afford them. They dragged the debate out for months, but my guilt had been established long before I had even been arrested. The old man was much more devious and clever than I had given him credit for. He had planted the evidence long before I had taken his job for him, and it was faultless. The jury took only one hour to return the verdict of guilty on all charges.
My only visitor as I waited slumped against the wall in the dark, damp, death cell, was a smug looking Gont.
"I had forgotten you," I said to him, my head bowed to my chest. Was my last day on earth to be cursed with the mocking of a foul Gont?
"Maybe you did," he said, "But I did not forget you, or my bargain with you."
"If you want to give me a gift then perhaps you might start by loosening these chains and carving a tunnel out of here. Or do you have no magic after all?"
"Oh I have magic," he said. "And I will fulfil my bargain."
"Why bother, Gont?" I snapped. "My head is to be removed from my neck tomorrow morning."
"Nevertheless, a deal is a deal," said the Gont and he smiled a smile that filled me with more dread than the thought of the executioner's axe. He turned and knocked on the cell door to be let out. "Tomorrow I shall give you my blessing. I shall make you immortal," he said.
"I should like to see you make a headless man immortal," I shouted after him as he sauntered out of the cell, but he did not reply.
The next morning they came for me. The walk from the death cell to the steps of the palace was far too short. I found the executioner already there waiting for me. He read out my crimes as I had seen him do that day I first arrived in the city.
"A handsome tip will see my axe through your neck in one clean blow," the executioner said to me. I felt piss running down my leg, and heard the crowd roar with laughter.
"Have pity on me," I said as I began to sob. "All my wealth is gone, taken by the lawyers. Given my current situation I am not sure exactly what I have paid them for, but it is gone nonetheless. Will you not take pity on a simple Counter and make my end quick and clean?"
He grasped the back of my neck and forced my head over the edge of his block. "Count my strokes, Counter," he said, "for there will be many."
I screamed as the first stroke sliced my flesh, and again as the second sliced through the sinew and tendons. I did not notice the pain as he hacked through bone and cartilage with his third and fourth stroke, but I tasted the blood as it frothed into my mouth, as salty and delicious as the blood of that great wolf all those years ago. Five strokes, six strokes, and I prayed for the darkness to take me, but it did not come. On the seventh he struck the wood of the block and the world span around me, flipping in arks over me as my head bounced down the stairs.
I came to rest at the feet of the crowd who fell into silence as I mouthed my protests of innocence. As I lay there, two green feet shuffled toward me through the crowd. The Gont leant forward to I could see his face, close enough for me to smell the strange spices on his skin.
"Enjoy your immortality," he said, and then he slipped away into the crowd.
I begged at him to remove his spell as he walked away, but a head without a body to support it can manage only a whisper, or at best a hiss. I never saw the Gont again after that day. But, the joke is on you Phrat, wherever you are. Because of you I have a purpose now. I sit in a glass box in the Royal Museum and children come to be frightened by the head of the traitor that will not die, and it is my box, my own box. It belongs to me, and once a week a man comes to clean it. How many of you can claim such a palace? And still I can count. I count the visitors, and I count the insults. What better way to spend eternity than Counting?
© January, 2013 Phil Davies
Phil Davies was originally trained as a sculptor and photographer, but over the last few years has turned his attention to writing fiction. He has had short fiction published in the Aphelion web based magazine, and non-fiction work published in the form of game reviews, mainly for Adventure Classic Gaming. He has also been a photographic contributor to a number of books, most recently one called Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, which was published by The History Press.
Winter's chill gnawed at his flesh. Naked except for a rough breechclout, Varus stood in the Death Pit and waited for a Beast.
In his right hand he gripped a short sword, a spiked buckler in the left.
Fifteen feet above, the crowd peered down. Their faces – human, inhuman and unhuman – tense with expectation.
The ground beneath his feet was saturated with blood. But that was to be expected, the pit had already seen half-a-dozen bouts this morning. Six men dead and it was not yet noon.
No matter, he had fought in worse conditions; in the forests of Germania, for one, watching his comrades die under the spears and axes of the Sicambri, the Tencteri and the Cherusci...
“Keep your mind on the business at hand
,” a voice whispered in his mind. “Leave the past alone
, think about the battles yet to come
“Do your work, sorcerer,” Varus muttered under his breath. “And let me do mine.”
His words emerged as great grey clouds. Aye, winter in Gehenna was a harsh mistress, and she was still young yet. Wait until she's a crone and she'll strip the skin from you.
Varus hawked and spat upon the red, churned mud.
“Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen,” Hildicas the Sythian bookmaker called in his high sing-song voice. “I'm giving good odds on the Centurion.”
“Optio,” Varus muttered. “I'm an optio, damn you!”
“Good odds? How much?” Barcaradin's voice, he recognised it even over the babble of the crowd.
“Forty to one.”
Not bad, Varus thought, Better than I would have offered.
,” the whisper said. “And
, by the Seven Gods
, I think it's a big bastard
“Aren't they always?”
Varus waited, tense but ready, as a big burlap-covered cage was lowered into the pit. The covers were whisked away by hooked poles from above and he could see his opponent for the first time.
“Fuck!” he said.
It had the aspect of an ape – short powerful hind legs, a chest ridged with muscle, long forearms that ended in spade-wide hands tipped with vicious claws. Something of a lizard - bony scales glinted white where they poked through the Beast's dark fur. There was wolf in there, too. And men, of course, or at least what had once been men. A tiny head upon massive shoulders, blood-rimmed eyes that glared with hatred and pain.
A big bastard, all right, but he'd fought – and killed – bigger.
The front of the cage lifted open. And the Beast emerged.
For all its bulk, it moved swiftly, crossing the length of the pit – some thirty paces or more – in less than four heartbeats.
But Varus was prepared for it.
He ducked under the first slash of those razored claws, rolling up to come up on his feet at the Beast's left flank. The short sword – the gladius he had brought into this hellish world – flashed out at the creature's leg.
By rights it should have bitten deeply, severing flesh and tendons, but the keen edge did no more than score a thin red line. The Beast grunted and swiped back at him, the blow catching the edge of his buckler and tearing it from his grasp.
He swore, the foulest oath that he could call to his lips, and retreated, trying to put distance between himself and the Beast.
It followed, hands extended, drool spilling from its tiny, lipless mouth.
“Barcaradin,” Varus said, low in his throat. “What are you waiting for?”
,” the sorcerer whispered in reply. “They'll know something is wrong if you win too easily
A swipe from those claws raked out at him. He danced back, but a second swipe – Mars, this thing was quick – caught his side.
Good luck and instinct saved him from serious harm, but the claws dug into his flesh, leaving a six-inch furrow in their wake.
The crowd roared, a hundred or more voices sounding as one.
Hot blood streamed down his hip and thigh, steaming in the frigid air.
Varus struck back with a blow that would have taken a man's hand off, a blow that merely nicked the Beast's hide.
“Barcaradin,” he said, his voice controlled and low. “This thing is going to kill me.”
“Have I ever allowed that to happen in the past
“There is a first time for everything.”
The Beast sprang forward and Varus threw himself to one side, adding his own blood to the stinking mud as he fell.
But he was on his feet as the Beast turned, flicking filth from his eyes, grinning through a mask of gory muck.
“Do it now, Barcaradin, or by the Gods, my shade will haunt you through your next ten lives.”
“As you wish
A single word, whispered so softly that human ears could not hear it, but that passed across his soul as bitter as the wind from Old Mother Gehenna.
And with that word, his pain fell away, the cold fell away. The bloody earth beneath his feet pumped strength into him – the strength of the six that had already died that day.
Their strength - and their fury – channelled by the sorcerer's word.
He would have leapt to the attack there and then – sprang at the Beast and torn its tiny head from its shoulders, pulled open its chest with his bare hands and ate its heart – but no, Barcaradin was right, better not to arouse suspicion. Push the voices down, do not listen to them. Remember who you are, Optio Varus.
He allowed the Beast to draw blood once more – opening a shallow cut along his chest - then he stepped into its embrace, driving his sword deep into its thigh, twisting the blade to shatter bones into a dozen fragments.
To an onlooker it would look like a lucky strike that penetrated between the scales, the last act of a desperate man.
But he had crippled the Beast, slowed it by half at least,
He slammed his weight against the injured limb for good measure and rolled out from under the its shadow.
The Beast lunged again – pain meant nothing, for it had suffered from the very moment it had risen from the Maker's slab – but the shattered leg would not support its weight and it lurched, bending at the waist.
Into the waiting blade of Optio Septimus Varus.
The point of the gladius – good Roman steel – crashed through its skull, searching for, and finding, the tiny brain.
He pulled the blade free and moved back again. The creature did not know it, but it was dead, its movements less than instinctive, clumsy, slow and without power.
Everything after that was farce.
Every cut and parry, every slip and grunt was for the benefit of the crowd. Or rather for the eyes of the bookmakers and moneylenders, if they sensed trickery...
A final attack, a fountain of blood, and the Beast lay dead at his feet.
Varus stood with his head bowed, fighting the wrath within him. His breath came in great gasps of foul air, his legs trembled.
And laughter echoed in his head.
“Now do you trust me
“I never doubted you for a moment, Barcaradin. How much did we make?”
“Five hundred in silver
“Not bad at all
Afterwards, he slept for the better part of two days.
His wounds were superficial – nothing a few stitches and a healing balm couldn't deal with – and, as they said in the Legion, bones heal. But the exorcism to rid him of his six new companions left him exhausted and soul-scarred.
It had taken every ounce of his will and discipline to climb out of the pit as the voices inside him screamed for blood, more blood.
He took his prize money – thirty in gold – from Hildicas the bookmaker, all too aware of how his fingers trembled, the snarl that twisted his lips. But he fought to control them. Fought and won.
“You are a skilled warrior,” Hildicas said. A fat man in vermilion robes, narrow little eyes under a magnificent black brow. “But you are lucky too. Charmed
one might say.”
“I bear no charms,” Varus said. He still wore nothing more than the breechclout, and he stank of the pit.
“I am aware of that,” Hildicas said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice, “and I certainly meant no insult.”
“It is a well that you did not.” Kill him, his blood commanded and his hand went to the sword at his waist.
“I might have use for a man such as yourself.”
Hildicas shrugged. “A bodyguard? A trainer for those who would fight in the pit? Anything to save those poor Beasts from your steel.” Hildicas had lost money – not much by his standards, perhaps – but then he was a man from whom every penny was a prisoner.
“No,” Varus said curtly. “I am travelling south. To the City of Sundered Princes.”
“Then you are a fool,” Hildicas said without malice or judgement. “But if you are departing D'reth then you are no concern of mine.” He handed him the purse of gold pieces with no more good grace than a man loses a limb. “When do you leave?”
“In a day or two.”
“Will you fight again before thent?” he cast a glance towards the pit and the slowly dispersing crowd.
“No,” Varus said. “It is not my intention to do so.” Yes, I want to kill and kill and kill again to release the anger and desperation that fills me.
“Good,” Hildicas said, and his tone indicated that their conversation was over. But as Varus turned the bookmaker spoke again. “Is it true what they say about you, Centurion? That you are a man displaced in space and time?”
“All true,” Varus said. “That and any other lie you care to believe.”
When he awoke, Barcaradin was there. The sorcerer sat on a chair in the corner of the room, leafing through a small, leather-bound book, looking at the pages but not really seeing them.
“About time,” he said when he saw Varus stirring. “I thought we might have lost you. That last soul – Sevrin, he called himself – was a stubborn bugger.” He stood and crossed to the bed on which Varus lay. “You still in there, Sevrin?” he reached down and made to slap Varus across the face.
But the blow did not connect, the optio's hand shot up to grip his wrist.
“Sevrin's gone,” Varus said.
“It never hurts to check.”
“It never hurts you.” He swung his legs out of the bed and stood up. Gods, but he was still weak as a kitten. He poured a cup of water and his hand shook as he did so. “And you, are you gone, too?” He ran a hand across his closely cropped scalp.
“Gone,” Gavriel Barcaradin said. “The connection spell has long since worn off.”
“Good, I don't want you in my head.”
“You're looking well, Varus,” Barcaradin said. “Fighting fit, I'd say.” He picked up the book and put it away inside his tunic, the movement only slightly hurried. “Time for us to wish a fond farewell to the fair city of D'reth.” He was half-way to the door as he spoke.
Varus pulled on a shirt and leggings. His sword was in its scabbard, the blade recently polished, keen as a razor, and he strapped it to his waist.
“Nothing we can't avoid if we leave now.”
“What have you done this time?”
The sorcerer turned to him, a hurt expression on his face. “Nothing except look after the welfare of my good friend and travelling companion, Septimus Varus.” But Gavriel Barcaradin, whatever else he was, was no actor.
“How much trouble are we in?”
“Not much, I think. None, I hope.” Barcaradin said. “There was a man at the Pit, Braven Acht, I met him once, years ago, I think he may have recognised me. If he did, odds are he'll have told the moneylender that we used magic to win.”
“And how do you think Hildicas will take that?”
Varus lifted a red cloak from where it lay on the floor and pulled it around his shoulders.
“Then we should waste no more time. I'm strong enough to ride, and if I'm not just lash my hands to the bridle.”
“Well spoken.” The sorcerer grinned, boyish despite his ragged beard and habitually sombre clothing. He was as tall as Varus, but slender where the Roman was sleek and well-muscled, as pale as the Roman was dark.
Outside, the narrow street was quiet, except for the distant tolling of temple bells, the faint shriek of the Sacred Hawks that flew around Shiatan's Tower in the centre of the city.
Hildicas was there, a dozen bravos at his back and a little monkey-faced man by his side.
“Is that the sorcerer?” he said.
“Yes,” the monkey-faced man said. “Sorry about this, Master Barcaradin, But business is business.”
“No apology necessary, Master Acht,” Barcaradin said. “I would have done the same in your place.”
“You owe me five hundred in silver, thirty in gold,” Hildicas said. “More than that, you owe me blood.”
“Ah, yes, but no more than a pint or two at best,” Barcaradin said. His hand crept towards his tunic, to the leather-bound book – the grimoire – hidden there.
“Much more than that, I fear,” Hildicas said. He turned to his bravos. “Take them alive if you can, dead will be just as good.”
“As you wish,” said their leader, a bull of a man in red livery.
The skirmish began with no more preamble than that.
Varus did not waste his breath in idle talk, he drew his sword and stepped to meet them. Barcaradin would need time to weave his magic, time which Varus would have to buy.
The bravos were not skilled swordsmen – the gutter sweepings of D'reth, for the most part – but there were a few who knew the way of the blade. Worse than that, there were twelve of them.
Even if he had been at his full strength, Varus could not have taken twelve men, but he could let the bastards know they'd been in a fight. And if he should never see his homeland again – if he should never see his world
again – then that was the Will of the Gods.
He took the first two quickly. They were young men, barely bearded, too eager to please, easy prey for a hungry sword. But even as the second man fell, Varus' strength – what little remained – deserted him. A hilt of a sabre, wielded by the bull in red, crashed against his temple and he fell, stunned. As his vision faded he saw Barcaradin fall, the grimoire knocked from his hand before he could find the passage he sought, a dirty cudgel striking his stomach then, as he doubled in pain, the back of his head.
The sorcerer struck the cobbles beside Varus, the light going rapidly out of his eyes.
But before consciousness left him Varus heard, or thought he heard, the sorcerer whisper a word. An ancient word, pregnant with meaning.
“Remember,” Barcaradin said.
Then darkness claimed them.
Thoughts racing through his head, images that were glimpsed only briefly, like those seen in the lightning of a midnight storm.
A battle in the forest... betrayal... rain and mud and blood and steel.... the faces of barbaric warriors... a weeping Prefect falling on his sword... darkness again... a chamber that stank of mould and rotten meat... the screaming mouth of an idol older than mankind itself... an endless fall through space, through time itself for all he knew... and then... and then....
He had heard the word once before, from the lips of a Levantine merchant.
It meant Hell.
A bucketful of freezing water awoke him. He could smell rancid earth, was lying with one cheek in thick mud, and as he rose, earthen walls towered above him.
The Death Pit, Vulcan's balls, he was back in the Pit!
“Awake at last, Master Centurion.” Hildicas said from above.
Varus lifted his head. Night had fallen, the moon pin lit with stars. Hildicas stood at the far lip of the pit, a torch in one hand.
“You made a mistake when you tried to cheat me,” he said, his tone conversational. “Worse than that, you robbed me of an honest bout.”
“Come down here and I will rectify that oversight.”
Hildicas laughed, a warm throaty chuckle.
“I think not,” he said. “But, I assure you, I will have my bout tonight, Centurion. Perhaps you should thank me for this, for no matter how terrible your death may be, it will have been kinder by far than the ministrations of the Sundered Princes.”
He stepped aside, and, with his bulk removed, Varus could see Barcaradin.
The sorcerer had been tied to a stake, his hands stretched above his head, fingers bound so that he could not move them; his mouth stopped with a dirty strip of cloth. Blood dripped from a cut on his temple, one eye swollen shut, his cheek decorated with a livid purple bruise.
“You die first, then the wizard.
” Hildicas said the final word as though it were an oath. “There will be no magical aid this time. Nothing but your own steel.”
He threw the weapon into the pit, it caught the brittle starlight as it fell.
Then the bravos were wheeling a cage forward to totter on the earthen lip. They did not open it, plainly terrified of the contents, but simply tipped it over the edge.
As it struck the ground, the door bounced open...
And a monstrosity emerged.
A snake, he thought at first, a giant snake.
But no, it was not that. True, it moved on its belly, but it did not slither. Rather, it propelled itself forward on the many pairs of arms than ran along its length. It had a woman's face.
She was beautiful, even in her agony, a final jest from the Makers who had crafted this thing from living flesh and dark sorcery. She saw him and smiled, her mouth opening the length and breadth of her skull to reveal venomous fangs, each as long as a dagger.
Worse, she was between him and his sword.
She scuttled towards him, arms pushing easily through the slime, and he ran forwards. When they were no more than a foot apart, he leaped, vaulting across her shoulders, heedless of the fangs that snapped at his heels, the upreaching hands that sought to grab him. Her impetus carried her past and he landed behind her, only a pace or two from where his sword lay in the mud.
With a blade in his hand he felt whole again, though the walls of the pit swam before his vision and the breath caught in his throat.
The Snake-Woman spun around, her tail whipping out at him. Hands raked at his flesh, pummelled him. He slashed back with the gladius and saw fingers fall like petals, a gout of blood as bright as his scarlet cloak. The creature screeched and its head came round, too fast for him to defend against it.
Fangs clamped down upon his sword-arm and he felt bones crack. Without thinking, he jammed his left thumb into the creature's eye. The eye was hazel, flecked with gold – like the eyes of a woman he had known once in Lugdunum.
What was her name?
Arnemetia... or something like that.
He could feel the creature's venom on his arm, seeping into his torn flesh, burning like ice and fire. Pain made it hard to think... harder to remember... no, not Arnemetia, that was not what he needed to remember. It was a word... a word that Barcaradin had whispered. It was... it was...
It was a power.
He spoke it through clenched teeth and it almost tore him in two. He had never known pain like it. A scream was wrenched from his lips as he pulled his mangled arm free from the creature's grips, tearing the fangs from its mouth as he did so. He shifted the sword to his left hand and stuck down at the snake-thing, biting deep into its shoulder.
And there was something in its single, gold-flecked eye. Something more than hatred and pain.
There was fear.
It recoiled from him, scrambling up the hard-packed dirt wall, digging its hands into the earth, heedless of shattered bones, oblivious of all but its need to escape from the terrible thing in the Pit.
Varus laughed, the sound high pitched and half-insane. The Beast was offering itself as a ladder out of the pit. He reached down and grabbed a broken spar from the cage, then vaulted onto the snake's back, sword in his left hand, jagged wood in his ruined right.
But though he could feel the bones grind beneath his skin he felt no pain. Or at least he felt no more pain, the agony in his being burned brighter than a star, so perfect that it energised rather than crushed him.
He clambered up its back, digging his weapons into leathery flesh to assist his ascent, then pulled himself free of the pit.
A wild slash all but decapitated the first bravo who charged him, and he sent the splintered wood – swift and accurate as an arrow – into the throat of another. The rest fled when they saw the killing madness in his eyes.
Varus turned to Hildicas.
The portly bookmaker had not ran with the others, rather he stood beside Barcaradin, a slim dagger in his hand, pulling at the gag that kept the wizard silent.
“What have you done?” he screeched. “What have you done. Stop him, in the name of the Seven Devils, stop him. Speak the words!”
But it was too late. Varus was already by his side.
His sword lifted and fell – once, twice, three times. The vermilion robes turned crimson, then almost black with dark heart's blood and the body of Hildicas tumbled into the Pit.
But it was not enough. There were other lives to be taken, other blood to be spilled. A city to be ravaged if he wished it, a world to be put to the sword...
“Varus,” Barcaradin's voice. “Septimus Varus.”
The sound that Varus made in reply was no more than a howl.
“Forget, Varus. Forget.”
Varus staggered and fell to his knees – agonised ecstasy replaced with honest pain – and he screamed into the uncaring night.
“Cut me free, Varus,” Barcaradin said. “Hurry, damn your lazy hide.”
The Roman rose and lurched forward on unsteady feet, a slash with his sword cut the cords restraining Barcaradin's left hand.
“The word,” he said. “It almost destroyed me.” Then he sank down again, allowing the pain to take him.
“I'm truly sorry, my friend,” Barcaradin said as he freed himself. “It was the only thing I could think of.”
“Bones heal,” the Roman said, then the merciful hands of Orpheus took him.
They rode away from D'reth just before dawn, heading south.
Two bloodied men on stocky ponies. Varus had his sword. Barcaradin his little book. Their purses were as empty as when they had first come to the city but at least they lived.
Bones heal, wounds scar.
And so they rode south.
Towards the City of Sundered Princes, somewhere just beyond the horizon.
© December, 2012 James LeckyJames Lecky
is an actor and writer from Derry, N. Ireland. His fiction has appeared both on line and in print in a number of different publications including Beneath Ceaseless Skies
, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly
, Sorcerous Signals
and Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction
. His occasional ramblings on various subjects can be found at http://jameslecky.blogspot.co.uk/
The night was dark, the moon was covered by clouds and only flickering torches lit the castle's corridors.
The guard patrolling them expected no trouble - his Lord was not hosting any guests, there was no local turmoil and the castle was well protected by design, by location and by the ruling family's long-standing fearsome reputation.
He knew he was not good enough to be part of his Lord's personal guard, but he was still competent and experienced and took his job seriously enough to check the old grating that was, technically, a possible route inside.
Having examined it, he relaxed again, strolled back the way he had come and stopped by a torch gone dead in its sconce to see if he could bring it back to life again.
The figure that emerged from the shadows behind him was such a surprise, and slit his throat with a knife so quickly, he didn't realise he was dead until he saw his body slump to the floor.
"Hellfire," he said with annoyance but no real rancour, acknowledging he had been bested if not fairly, then at least professionally and cleanly. "I guess I'm dead, then."
The guard was devout in his religion and sincere in his beliefs, so he was not surprised by the presence or the appearance of the Death. "How did I die?" he asked.
The rotting figure, pierced by arrows and swords, bleeding from gashes, with bone showing through one cheek and intestines visible through a rent in its battered and torn armour, pointed. Further along the corridor, the guard saw the figure ghost along a corner. "Hellfire," he said again, with more feeling this time, when he recognised the set of the figure's wide hips.
The figure was wearing soft leather and rough silk, all of it fine enough to be light, soft enough to be supple and soundless and with a rough surface that refused to reflect any but the most direct light. It melted in and out of shadows and avoided three servants and two more guards before it came to a doorway with a permanent guard on it.
The second guard was younger, still being tested, and had been placed in a position of low responsibility and low risk of needing to exert it or, more importantly, think about it, and did not realise he was dead until he tried to shift the position of his pike and realised he was no longer holding it.
He was not devout in his religion and had few beliefs not directly connected to his Lord or his mother, so when the ghastly figure of the Death came he discovered that a mind capable of giving a spectre clothes could not quite stretch to a weapon, and he was left uselessly clutching at a hilt that was not there.
"No!" He wailed, sinking to his knees. "I can't die! I can't fail this too!"
YOU CAN AND YOU HAVE.
Once again the Death pointed, to where the figure had finished very carefully opening the lock on the door with a key it should not have had, and was slipping through. The dead need no light to see by and the figure's soft black costume, while not tight, was not loose enough to catch on sharp edges of masonry and so revealed quite a lot, even to a naive boy. The guard's horror evaporated in favour of an equally base emotion. "Oh, wow!"
The figure moved with purpose, showing prior knowledge of not only the castle's layout but its routine as well. It slipped without hesitation into a doorway, let a guard pass and moved swiftly and surely behind him down the corridor and into an alcove a second before a second guard turned the corner and would have seen it.
When the two guards met, nodded and turned back on the next leg of their patrol, the figure emerged from the shadows again and ghosted after the second guard, blade held at the ready, but was able to duck behind a statue without needing to use it.
The figure detoured through a nondescript door into a much less well-finished corridor and ran lightly through the servant's pathways, the sound of hurrying or tired footsteps giving it plenty of forewarning to find a hiding place, even back-tracking if necessary.
Unfortunately for the stable-hand trying to catch a breath without being shouted at, he picked the same hiding spot as the shadowy figure. He opened the door and slipped inside safely, but when he closed the door behind him he was seized around the chin and mouth and had his throat slit before the latch had fallen.
Those who work with animals are not strangers to death, and the Death who confronted the stable-hand was less of a shock than the dying had been.
"Devil's arsehole," he said violently. "Who was ..."
The assassin had to hide in the store-room for a minute as a maid passed with a tray of plates, so the stable-hand had time to see who had killed him. Everyone passed through the stables, eventually, so he recognised the slender legs, broad hips, and narrow waist. He couldn't help laughing, and clapped his hands soundlessly with delight.
"Hot damn! Touched me, finally!"
The figure ended up at a small window with no glass or shutters. It carefully scanned outside, then pushed its head further out, scanned around still further, scanned again, then, with no sound, smoothly pulled itself out the window despite not apparently being able to fit and headed up the outside wall, where the stonework was rough and weathered but close-fitting and, to a casual inspection, not offering any grip to anything larger than a lizard.
The figure made its way easily up three floors' worth of stonework until it came to a much more expensive set of windows, all glassed and all closed and all shining with torchlight.
Moving at the pace of growing moss, it pushed its head up, froze, then just as carefully withdrew. It moved sideways, underneath another window and to the next, and repeated its inspection.
Apparently satisfied, it reached up, fiddled with an unremarkable patch of stone and the window opened smoothly. The figure pushed it wider, producing no noise from the frame or hinges, and flowed inside with a cat's liquidity.
Once inside, the figure closed the window and moved silently to the door, where it listened intently for 100 heartbeats before trying the door and, finding it silent, opened it, slipped out and closed the door again.
The Lord of the castle, sitting at his desk in his bed chamber with papers strewn in front of him, pinched the bridge of his nose. He had been poring over reports and correspondence for long enough to get tired, and he had just caught himself having to read a sentence twice.
That was not good. That could result in mistakes. It was time for bed.
He shuffled his papers together, opened a drawer and put the neat bundle inside, closed the drawer, blew out the candle on his desk, and stood up. Only the keenest of watchers could have seen the Lord palm from out of the desk drawer a long, curved dagger of the kind favoured for close-quarters fighting by the desert tribesmen he had finally been able to conquer only the previous year.
The figure in black slipped into another corridor, closed the door behind it and then stood stock-still for a long moment, a twitch in its hands betraying an inner turmoil, before abruptly but still stealthily pivoting on its heels and moving one door along from where it had emerged into the richly carpeted and decorated corridor - the door corresponding to the window it had avoided.
Once more, it bent and began its listening.
The Lord of the Castle moved around his bed-chamber blowing out the remaining candles and torches, checked the shutters on his windows carefully, checked the door and then, in a darkness relieved only to the most sensitive eye by light filtering in from the sky outside, sat down on a chair in the darkest corner of his room, next to his bed, and became perfectly still and, apparently, instantly invisible.
The figure in black lifted the door's latch with glacial slowness and the quietness of a shadow falling, waited another 100 heartbeats and then tried the door. Finding it silent, the figure pushed the door open and slipped inside.
The Chancellor, engrossed in maps and trying to plan multi-level political games with up to seven players and the constant threat of war, spotted something at the bottom of his vision and glanced down to see his body falling backwards, his throat the wrong shape. He spared a brief moment of reflection for the professional note that there was no blood on the table or any of the highly valuable documents it held, before turning to see who was dragging his body into a corner, out of immediate sight.
The shock of that sight was the first time in his career he had been rendered entirely speechless and he was left with the bitter knowledge that, at the end, he had been comprehensively outplayed.
The Lord of the Castle waited 10 times 10 times 10 heartbeats and, hearing and seeing absolutely nothing, deemed it safe at last to go to bed.
As he pulled the covers up, not even the most astute watcher would have been able to detect where the exotic fighting dagger had gone to rest.
The figure's final barrier was the pair of doors leading into the Lord's chamber where, from the time he closed them at night to the time he personally opened them in the morning, nobody was permitted to go on pain of deeply unpleasant death.
Two guards stood before the doors, and another two at the other end of the antechamber. So it was quite surprising that none of them saw, heard or felt anything and they all, in fact, survived the night.
The figure had, apparently, disappeared.
Two hours later, the Lord awoke instantly a heartbeat before his right wrist was pinned to the bed. His left arm came up, but it was not even clear of the bedclothes before there was a knife at his throat.
He prudently froze. The moon had been uncovered by clouds and there was now enough light for him to see the figure crouched above him. It waved his trophy fighting dagger in front of his face and then held that to his throat while sheathing its own. It kept its knee on the Lord’s wrist.
The figure's face was completely covered. There was even a gauze, woven coarsely from fine thread, over its eyes. But he recognised the set of its head and shoulders anyway.
His voice was commendably neutral.
"Who else did you think could get through?"
"I've never seen you dressed so ..." the Lord, unusually, had to grope for the right word.
The Lord's eyes dropped to the figure's chest. "Constrictingly."
"Lots of strapping."
"They get in the way, otherwise."
"Oh, I can imagine."
"And, since you have avoided the issue, no, I have not spent the past ten years merely whoring my way from bed to bed, no matter how many reports you may have received from your spies."
"I am sorry to hear that."
"I bet you are."
"How?" From the tone of voice, this was evidently a change of subject.
"I arranged the ceiling when I was eight."
"That would have meant corrupting ... Oh, I'm not surprised. Eight would still have been barely young enough."
"It was well worth it."
"I am sure it was, even with him. I must compliment you on your planning, then."
"Oh, it was just inquisitiveness, then."
"Then I must compliment you on your opportunism."
"That is such an ugly word."
"Then I must ..."
As his blood spread across the sheets, the spectre of the Lord balled its fists and began swearing with a depth, breadth, fluency and volume that befitted a man of his broad and comprehensive education.
The Chancellor was missed first, when he failed to be the first to assemble for their Lord's daily emergence from his chambers. Then he was found.
The castle was sealed and every occupant roused.
When the Lord failed to appear, a small battalion of minor dignitaries and nobles, none of whom wished to admit to cowardice, tried to evaluate each other's standing, authority, and ability to be coerced, and someone may even have broken before the head of the guard remembered that, in the absence of the Chancellor or an immediate successor, he was only one with authority to knock on the doors to the Lord's chambers. There was no heir apparent to the Chancellor's position, and no other member of the ruling family in residence.
The head of the guard swallowed and then knocked, and then shouted, and then deputised two petrified junior guardsmen to open the doors while he shouted "Lord! Murder! Calumny! The Chancellor has been murdered!"
There was no response, so five mid-ranking guardsmen crept, terrified, inside. Only one was killed by the traps but three were injured, two severely.
Then they found their Lord.
With no wife (an unfortunate and unexpected accident while riding) and no offspring (same accident), and the Chancellor not there to manipulate matters otherwise, the title passed to the Lord's sister. She was eventually found, after a frantic hunt, halfway through a whirlwind, largely unscheduled and entirely unpredictable tour of the plains cities and surrounding fiefdoms.
She rushed back, suitably distraught, and proved surprisingly fast at settling into her inherited duties, immediately rearranging the upper echelons of castle authority, appointing a new Chancellor and grieving appropriately for her brother.
There were many who questioned (privately) how such a notoriously hedonistic and flighty member of the otherwise famously hard family could possibly replace her brother and survive, and although she wore the traditional personal dagger at her hip, there were many who hinted (privately) that the wear on the handle and the scabbard had been put there by a lover who had gifted it to her.
The fact that some people from both groups either mysteriously disappeared or were caught plotting sedition and faced swift and final trials, was probably coincidence.
The fact that many plotters, seeking to charm or flatter their way into her good graces, proved fatally distracted by her own abundant charms on constant and carefully posed display (she had picked up many skills, as well as dresses, in the warmer and frequently amoral southern cities), was undoubtedly not a coincidence - after all, had she not survived childhood with her brother and ultimately won a stipend from her father to travel and study, a stipend not later cancelled by her brother when he won the throne?
Some were even sufficiently informed to comment that she had, really, been serving as an ambassador in other courts. Those who were inclined to question her efficacy in this role, given the stories that came back about her exploits, kept their doubts to themselves, which showed that they were learning.
And nobody, absolutely nobody, voiced the thought that, as she sat upon the throne in her elaborate and revealing dresses, the smile she bestowed upon her court was a little like a pampered cat who had, undetected, stolen the cream and gotten away with it.
© December, 2012 Jonathan Hepburn
Jonathan Hepburn has recently returned to writing after an unconscionably long time away. He has a story in the upcoming beer-themed anthology A Six Pack of Stories from Story Brewhouse as well as one in the Coming Together charity erotica anthology Arm In Arm In Arm. He is a journalist interested in science and a writer across a range of speculative fiction genres.