<![CDATA[Swords and Sorcery Magazine - Archive]]>Sun, 21 May 2017 19:47:34 -0700Weebly<![CDATA["A Sojourn In Crost" by Jeffery Scott Sims]]>Sat, 29 Apr 2017 15:02:26 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/a-sojourn-in-crost-by-jeffery-scott-simsLord Morca, wizard and warrior of ancient Dyrezan, marched alone this day, he who had led a great army into the unknown east that he might conquer and thereby heighten the glory due to himself and his people.  There in that magical and forbidding eastern realm he had fought and bested the fearsome Rhexellites, creatures of evil, yet those dread foes, brilliant mages like the Dyrezanians, had called up strange allies at the moment of irrevocable defeat, and the legions of their assailants had been in a single unforgettable night overthrown, shattered and scattered.  Morca, helming the rear guard, escaped the all encompassing destruction, but his few remaining companions fell one by one until now, many leagues gone from the field of battle, he marched alone.

Alone, that is, save for his four-footed friend, which one might deem a pet, if one were prone to jest:  the magnificent black tiger Treenya, a prize of his southern campaigns; a graceful animal despite her menacing size, devoted servant to her master, vicious enemy of his enemies.  Many a Rhexellite last felt on this earth the slash of her fangs and claws.  Now she licked the dry hand that caressed her, sat suddenly on her large haunches, growled demandingly.

It was hot, the landscape sere, the horizon barren.  Large black birds circled.  Morca sighed.  He removed his broken helmet--the last of his battle armor--to wipe his steaming brow, revealing his damp, unclipped black hair and hard, unshaven hawk features.  Besides the sword at his belt he carried two pouches, one for water, the other food.  The former sagged, the latter lay limp where tied at his waist.  He said, “Dear girl, I have nought more to give.  Let us count on luck, for in this fell land effort avails not.”

So Morca clapped his helmet back on and wearily trudged onward, the big cat shortly falling in behind, occasionally growling in her throat with peevish dissatisfaction.  They made as they could toward the west, where (should they get so far) they must come of times to the great sea, and should they be able to cross that, they would enter again with delight the fabled provinces of glorious Dyrezan.  Such a fair eventuality seemed unlikely.  This was alien territory, saturated with evil magic spawned by the ill-favored Rhexellites and other unknown forces.  Since fleeing the disaster Morca and his staunch companion had experienced several encounters with dangerous weirdness.  His scrolls and implements of magic were lost to him since the debacle.  The hero of Dyrezan longed now for nothing more than a temporary safe haven, a place of normality where he might replenish and recuperate before his trek required of him still more heroic endeavors.  Such a spot probably did not exist this side of the far off sea, and that, he feared, was simply too far.

As he trudged with dusty step Lord Morca prayed, muttering olden charms of adoration to majestic Xenophor, Master of All, Creator and Destroyer; prayed that salvation should arise before he--even he!--descended into hopeless despair.  The prayers cheered him, fired his soul with fierce joy.  His tired eyes, half blinded by the cruel sun, scanned the low, drab hills ahead.  The scene vouchsafed him but dust, and rocks, and odd spiky shrubs.  His spirits sagged.  Still he peered, and he thought to see more.  Indeed, this was no fever dream.  Tall towers of white, thin spires of silver he saw upraised above those hills.  No more than an hour’s march they lay before him.

Said he, “Treenya, something lies yonder.  Make we for it.  Be on your best ware, though.  Know we too well that habitation in these parts means foe more readily than friend.  We shall seek them, then grant them the boon of proving themselves.”

Treenya agreed, in her fashion.  Morca divided the remaining water, and when that was gone they bent to with a will and increased pace.  The hills rose, the beckoning towers dropped from sight.  A narrow, forsaken pass allowed egress.  Soon the gap through the hills widened, the lifeless mounds fell away, and before them lay their immediate goal.

Morca would not style it a city, but it was very more than a village:  a fair town of stone, mostly gray limestone and pinkish granite, yet decorated with those lovely marble towers and those gleaming spires of precious metal.  It looked a goodly town under the noonday sun, differing vastly from the ugly dark dwelling places of the Rhexellites.  Those Morca counted as other than human, and innately hostile to his kind; these, he hoped, were folk with whom reasonable intercourse could prevail.

Entering the precincts, Lord Morca beheld at small remove examples of the citizenry, and the sight cheered his heart.  They were fair like their town, and his first attempt at accosting one proved fruitful.  He spied an old woman carrying water in an earthen urn clasped in her arms, to whom he boldly advanced to declare himself.  “I am Morca,” he said, “lord of far Dyrezan.  I beseech you to gift me of that water, and to reveal the name of this your home, for it is strange to me.”  She replied, in excellent tongue that he need not decipher, “Noble man, drink your fill.  This be Crost, ever friendly to visitors, seldom though they come.”  Morca quaffed, and it was as if life flowed into him.  Said he, “My cat, too, desires favor, if you will; a little more water.”  The old woman shrank back from his companion, who growled menacingly at her; an unnatural reaction on the beast’s part, he thought, for Treenya normally behaved as trained by her master, save against definite enemies.  Morca warmly chided his feline friend for impoliteness.  At this she crouched submissively, accepted the cooling liquid, though only from his hands.

“I will see Crost,” he announced.  Morca thanked the woman with a bow, pressed on with Treenya warily padding behind.  They passed wholesome cottages of stone and thatch surrounded by expansive plots of tilled ground.  Soon cottages gave way to more impressive structures as they entered the splendid core of Crost.  Now public works of marble loomed on both sides of a wide lane, and the towers and spires shone and glistened overhead.  The grandeur of Crost amazed Morca, given the sad nature of the countryside.  How did the place thrive?  Numerous pedestrians at work or play came his way, along with occasional, unhurried riders on horseback, and to them he plied his questions.  “Who rules here?  Who are your people?  How come you to inhabit this land?  Do the Rhexellites threaten?”  These he asked, and more, yet though his counterparts in conversation were invariably good-natured and brisk to embrace his presence, their responses continually failed to satisfy.  He received no worthwhile answers, and it displeased him that Treenya snarled at each speaker.  He concluded that she was badly out of sorts, the result, mayhap, of longing for fresh meat.  That craving must be sated.

He inquired of lodgings, took directions, repaired with his tiger into a side street past the long facade of a walled manor, came in good time, as shadows stretched long, to a pretty public garden containing a lively, upwelling fountain.  There they drank and washed.  Just beyond this they arrived at the designated inn.  This was a stout, two-story affair of small blocks and sloping wooden roof, with a broad porch scaled by little granite steps that led into an inviting open doorway.  Inviting also was the keeper, a big, jolly man with full beard and his head tightly wrapped in a turban like so many of his fellows.  From the porch he cheerfully bawled, “Approach, esteemed Morca, enter within to seek our delights.  The trail is lengthy, and cares weigh heavy, but here you will be at peace.”  Morca froze at the steps, where Treenya brushed his thighs and gave throaty warning, and he cautiously observed, “Overmuch it puzzles, to be hailed by name where no man knows me.”  Replied the innkeeper with a deferential nod, “So should it, except that you are our visitor, and here the infrequent visitor is loved as a guest, and the presence of such a one is quickly talked about our Crost.  When, in addition, we are informed that our guest boasts of noble birth, be not alarmed when I your eager host tarry outside my humble hostelry in wait on your august appearance.”

“Well said, my man,” conceded Morca.  “My needs are few.  Evening approaches; already a chill breeze stirs.  Bed and board I want, and shelter for my kittenish companion, who I assure is tame to my friends.  A handful of coins clink still in my purse.  Strike we a bargain?”

“Enter, and we will do it.”  So the deed was done.  Within Morca and the innkeeper agreed on easy terms.  A pair of servants were delegated to attend to Treenya, her master being assured that a clean and spacious hutch in the stables--that, plus a store of bloody goat’s flesh--would hold her in content.  The cat went with them, yet only when ordered directly with repeated firmness.

The main hall of the inn was a brightly lighted place of simple tables and benches, with tapestries of colored geometric designs hanging from the walls, torches between the draped ornamental sheets providing the illumination.  A long counter across from the front door gave onto the kitchen entrance and racks holding jugs of wine.  No request was necessary to have one of those jugs conveyed to Morca’s table.  His host said, “Call me Brutan.  I and my slaves live to serve you.  Allow me to fill your goblet.  It is my pleasure, lord.  The fare, prepared by my daughter Beccal, is simple but tasty.  I trust it will please your palate.”

“Bring it on, at once,” Morca commanded.  Brutan clapped; a young, dark-eyed girl, elegantly dressed and most tempting to the eye, appeared from the kitchen flanked by helpers bearing steaming platters.  With a winsome smile she laid utensils for his use, and then the servants deposited his feast before him.  He savored the sight and aroma of fowl roasted with herbs and exotic vegetables, brown bread, and luscious fruit.  Morca dived in without another word.  They of the inn continued to hover near while he ate.  When he had rapidly progressed to sopping gravy with a handful of bread crumbs Brutan spoke.  “Beccal, our guest hungers still.  Have you more for him?”

“Truly I do, Father,” replied the girl.  I go swiftly to fetch it.”

“You have a lovely daughter,” Morca noted when she had gone.

“She is a sweet lass, charming and thoughtful to excess,” Brutan said proudly.  “The meal suits?”

“I anticipate more, my host, with another jug to wash it down.  Tell me, have you lived in Crost all your life?”

“Forever.”

“It was a great boon to me, albeit a chancy one, to find your town.  So much less did I expect on my present course.”  Morca frowned.  The repast had cleared his head, a welcome condition not yet influenced by wine.  “I have ventured the wide world, without finding a place quite like it.  I am intrigued.  This is a large town, almost a city, yet it seems curiously isolated, surrounded by a realm which is practically desert.  I see no evidence of trade; you speak of uncommon visitors; somehow you thrive.  Does your oasis draw caravans in season?”

Brutan replied, “Lo these ages have passed away since I served a strange face.  We are terribly out of the way nowadays, not like it was in the old days.  We live simply and quietly now.  We sleep a lot between labors.  We have more time for rest than formerly.”

Second helpings of all were whisked onto the table, Beccal withdrawing with a bow afterward.  Morca ate slowly, ruminating as he chewed.  “My man,” he said, “this will not do.  Your statements perplex.  I wonder that your people are allowed to exist.  I thought this land within the compass of the Rhexellites.  Surely their borders lie close.  Do not they vex you with demands and torment you with cruelties?”

Brutan pondered, bemused.  “I know not of these Rhexellites,” he said at last.  “Do you hunger for another course?”

“No,” Morca stated with a grunt.  “It astounds that my mention of the Rhexellites should mystify.  Until lately they were the scourge of all the lands this side of the sea.  Possibly the arid barrier defied their powers (though I gave them more credit for the greedy, adventuresome fiends that they were), but you must have heard of them.  Perhaps, then, you find commerce with the Peoki fisher tribes of the coast?”

“I dare say, although these terms of yours still mean nought.”  Brutan commenced removing the detritus of the meal.  Amidst the clatter of his efforts he said, “There is much latent magic hereabouts, which perhaps protects us from common evils.  No one wishes us harm here, nor are we feared in foreign parts.  Crost is a land of peace.  Crost is very old; it has always been what it is, and always will be.  Here one may rest without end, as within a comforting dream.  Think on it, my guest, my Lord Morca, whose life is strenuous and wearying.  A man must tire of always carrying the sword.  Much might a man give for the peace which resides here.”

“I will take your word for that.”  Indeed, weariness fell on him now like a toppling wall.  He said, “I fear that Crost is too peaceful to contain me.  Ever do I break out of the confines of the calm.”  Then:  “However, I choose the rest you offer.  Give me a soft bed.”

“As you command.”  Brutan clapped once more.  Beccal practically raced into the hall, stood demurely in waiting attitude at her father’s side.  “Daughter, escort our guest to his room.  We must make him comfortable.”

“Does he stay with us, Father?”

“For the night,” Morca clarified.

“Sleep well, Lord Morca,” said Brutan, “and I beseech you, sir, to heed my words.  Crost spreads wide its arms in eternal invitation to strangers.  Think on this offer of mine, which is for no less than a lifetime of hospitality.  Perhaps by morning you will believe what I say, and accept Crost as your home.”

Morca answered with a grin, not caring to dispute the point, which he supposed was intended well.  He followed Beccal up the narrow stairs to the upper floor, along the wood-paneled corridor to the room at the end.  She held the door for him.  It was a fine room for an inn, not too cramped, airy with a large open window closed only by drapes.  Furnishings were typically meager yet wholly serviceable.  The bed, especially, invited immediate attention.  Morca thought to throw himself into it at the first opportunity.

He said to the girl, “My tiger, Treenya, will miss me.  She may not relish alien surroundings.  After whiles, my dear, you must honor me by accompanying me to her.  Would you that?”

“With pleasure,” she replied.  She smiled.  Beccal was truly a lovely girl.  Morca speculated as to the limits of her geniality.  He considered pressing the matter.

“Maybe,” he said, “Crost harbors attractions I have overlooked.  Someone should point them out to me.”

“I can show you,” sad she, “after you have rested.”

He was desperately tired and, he realized bitterly, too much wine had taken its toll.  He was good for nothing now.  Thinking fond notions of later, he saw Beccal out, closed his door, prepared to sleep.

Twin stands flanked the headboards of the bed.  One, toward the window, bore a single oil lamp, his only illumination.  On the other, nearest the empty, ajar closet, he placed his helmet, his sword, his pitiful baggage.  Briefly he paced to the window, pulled aside the curtain, absorbed the view.  A pale thin moon hung in the darkening east over the pretty town.  No one was about now, and the place was very dark.  The people of Crost, he mused, were lapsing back into their dreams.

The thought reminded Morca of the nightly ritual he accepted as duty.  Though his magical supplies were gone, he yet possessed his studied esoteric skills, and he charmed himself to admit only true dreams, that no lies or similar connivance should intrude on his slumber.  This done, he took to bed, covered himself with thick blankets, was lost to the world.

A dream did come.  He dreamed of Crost, as he knew it, and more.  He saw Crost bustling with activity, thronging with people of all races, traders wealthy and mages wise and grandees glorious.  He heard chanting from the towers and singing in the streets.  He saw it by night, with a thousand points of light gleaming from the windows, and above the stars, organized into constellations unknown or oddly distorted.  With the curious ability of dreams to see what no fleshy eye could see he beheld the venue of Crost, saw its place in a world he did not recognize.  Surely there were no Rhexellites in the land; there came to him images of folk like those of Crost, towns and, yes, great cities rising from the green hills and fertile plains, and busy ports by the sea where big ships sailed.  Through it all he wandered, dazed, asking ever, “What is this?  Where is this?”  And the people smiled and bowed, yet never said they a word.

The scene changed.  Fires in the sky, portents in heaven--the Gods angered or bored, he surmised--and the green land was blasted and blighted, and the crops withered, and the dry scrub and the jackal crept in where civilization had reigned.  The abandoned centers of dwelling dropped to pieces as he watched, a year flashing by in an instant, centuries in the span of a sigh.  Again Crost uprose before him, and to his amazement he observed it decaying like the others.  The cruel ages scoured and plucked at the facings of its stones.  He saw this happening to Crost only by night.  In a momentary glimpse of dazzling radiance he beheld no explicit detail, but felt with all his dream senses a strange pulsation of power, a miasma of the arcane enshrouding and concealing what lay behind or within.  He strove to peer through the magical shield...

Morca started awake.  Deep inside his mind a tiny voice shrieked of danger.  Cheek pressed to pillow, he stared through the dim light vouchsafed by the dying lamp.  There his helmet and sword and meager things on the stand, beyond them the closet door, open a thin black gap.  That was as it should be.  About to turn, he noticed blemishes on the wall by that door, gray stains, vague discolorations, unrecollected encrustations of what seemed dirt.  He had rejoiced in a tidy room.  His eyes scanned up the wall.  It was filthy, reeking of squalor and decay.  As he watched a greenish, dampish spot spread, exuded a yellow burst of swirling particles.  A fat spider watched him from the paneling with its many hateful eyes.

He launched himself out of bed, saw by the sputtering lamp that the entire room was overlaid with grime, with fungus, that the structure about him was collapsing in on itself.  The bedding, that had seconds before contacted every portion of his body, was soiled and rotten.  Chitinous things scuttled on webs in the corners.

Morca cried out, seized his sword and his bags from the crumbing stand, toppling it with his forgotten helmet, fled into the corridor.  The door fell at his touch.  He stomped down the black passageway, risking life to walk on the disintegrating surface.  He rushed down the nighted stairs, almost hurtling headlong when he stepped where a step was not, then into the main hall, cavernous, cold, littered with fallen stones, stars mocking him through great holes in the sporadic roof.  He bellowed for Brutan, got echo for answer.  He raced into the lane.  He stood, astounded, in a street of Crost.

It was a dead habitation:  a thousand, ten thousand years dead.  Before him stretched a wilderness of ruins, heaps of stony debris, broken walls, weathered foundations barely protruding from rubble.  Beyond, amidst a tangle of weeds and dense, ugly shrubs he spied the glint by starlight of pooled water, a pathetic spring where he had seen a fountain play.  Farther still the jagged stumps of forgotten spires and fallen towers disgraced a dismal skyline.  Close by nasty things slithered in the dirt.

Morca dashed to the rear of the ruinous inn.  He shouted her name, heard Treenya’s furious roar.  It came from behind the remnants of wall of a broken down stone compound.  Morca called again, and Treenya leapt onto the wall, slid on her sleek belly down the sloping wreckage.  She sprang to his side, jumped up and pressed massive paws to his chest.

“Down, girl,” he cried with a harsh laugh.  “Let us frolic when the undead corpse of Crost lies behind us.”  Morca filled his water pouch at the forsaken oasis; they then began threading their way between the stony trash which clogged the lanes, making for the west.  They did not get far before fresh obstacles intervened.

Moving shapes swayed in the darkness.  They looked passably human, until they came too close.  There were two in the van, a large, bearded man horribly lacking at the extremities, with the flesh of his corpulent trunk hanging in wet folds, and a smaller form, obscurely feminine, skeletal to a sickening degree, with far too much bone revealed by the peeled-back flesh of its face.  The former nightmare said, in a voice that was the ghost of Brutan’s, “You woke too soon, Lord Morca.  That is not meet.  Had you rested quietly, you would have joined us.  Rest more, and always.”  And the other whispered sweetly, “I would have come for you, Lord Morca.  Magic awakened me for you; only your feeble arts hold us apart.  Crost calls you to me.  Come, cradle your head in my arms.”  The vile apparition held out bony horrors to him.

Morca’s sword whistled from its sheath.  “To battle, Treenya,” he said grimly.  The huge black cat sprang, claws slicing the cold air.  Morca lunged, chopped at the larger form.  Chunks flew.  Treenya shredded her target with claws and teeth, then recoiled from the sodden refuse, squalling and spitting out filth.  “That is not dessert,” Morca cried.

More horrific shapes closed, hideous arms reaching.  Morca advanced at a trot, his steel blade singing and slashing.  Feline talons flexed and ripped.  Then they were through the press and running, with the last corroded ruins of flesh and stone falling behind.  Hills rose darkly about them.  They emerged onto the farther plain as dawn woke the eastern horizon.

The first rays of the sun peeped over the world to bathe in crimson behind them the tops of fabulous towers.  The needle tips of silver spires glowed as if on fire.  Lord Morca surveyed for a spell the weird vision.  “Does Crost think to lure me again to enchanted doom?” he asked, of Treenya or the wind.  “Whatever antique powers survive here should give me credit for more sense.  This way I shall not pass again, be my guts ever so empty.”

His furry companion rubbed his free hand with her massive head, gutturally purred.  Morca grinned.  “Got we a decent meal from this adventure,” he declared; “under the circumstances, a fair trade for a little peril.”  He sheathed his sword.  A warming wind plucked at the long hair of his helmless head.  The barren lands stretched before.

Lord Morca of Dyrezan said, “We have a long way to go, my friend.  May all our adventures treat us so kindly.”


©March, 2017 Jeffery Scott Sims

Jeffery Scott Sims  has recently published a book of weird tales, Eerie Arizona, as well as many short stories in various publications. His work has appeared previously in Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["The Sword Over the River Thar" by Brian Dyke]]>Sat, 29 Apr 2017 14:59:05 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-sword-over-the-river-thar-by-brian-dykeMy father grew up a short walk from the River Thar, in the flood plains below the foothills of the city of Highcrag in the sprawl of ancient barbarian tribes that had been tamed and settled near High Mountain and the lesser ridges in her shadow. At a young age he had been conscripted into the hoplite of the old King Kreel Maug and his wild war against the gleaming towers of Ferin, a common experience for many young men of the Crawl in those days.
 
Very early, he became known as a killer worth his mettle and a welcome hand on the edge of any spear-charge. As a soldier, his reputation grew fast and he was soon sent to serve as a trusted scout in the service of the Hawktail Rangers of the Red Tribe, a pathfinder along the darkest roads of Kol. This was no small feat.
 
After the war, and perhaps another after that, my father bought land east of the great River Thar upon the heart of the Crawl and married the blue-eyed and brown haired lass that would become my very own mother. Together they built a home and raised a family. My father hung his sword above the mantle and invested his bloody coin in a plow. I was born not long after my older sister, Kula.
 
Unfortunately, to sow fields and raise stock was not my father’s fare. While he put his head down and drove the sorrowful blade of peace into the unforgiving ground, the fire in his forgiving eyes flared like blue stars in the night. His mind wandered, and soon enough, he daydreamed of his memories of war and days gone by. Likewise, he struggled to grow much of anything. Often had to sell his sword and leave my mother home alone with both children to fend for ourselves. Between the cold breeze of the southern hills and the icy gusts of the mountains to the north, we had many nights of want and loss. Not far from our home, the river Thar ran wild and dropped unseen into the lonely depths under the sacred embrace of High Mountain. At night, the roar of her flow put me to bed over the rumble in my empty stomach.
 
I have a very early memory of my loving mother as she wailed and screamed at the meager sight of one fall’s harvest. “We will starve!” she shouted as the woman both hugged my father and beat his chest. My father only rubbed her on the head with love as she gripped his arms tight.
“I am sorry,” he whispered as he eyed the blade above the hearth. Right there, I could see the fire burn in his azure eyes. Even as a boy, I knew those portals longed for brotherhood, for far-flung exotic places, and, especially, for the solace of roaring battle.
 
Thankfully, we did not starve, though the blade above the hearth was gone one afternoon soon after and back at my father’s side. That day, he left for Stillwater Keep for the Baron Jaeger’s call to arms against the lizard folk of the Pines. He kissed me and my sister on the cheek as he left, a pile of gold and a slaughtered pig lay on the table next to my smiling mother. Needless to say, I was a thin lad but I always felt loved.
 
Whenever he came back, I used to go down with him by the rocks of the River Thar, near the broken chasm at Norwich Falls. It was a sacred place to most, not far from our hut. Many said the gorge was haunted, but with my father and his sword not far, I never worried of any danger. As the day would wear on, we’d both fish the deeper pools and pull out a nice supply of keepers. It seemed besides ghosts, tasty bluefin trout loved the place and, so too, the fish loved to hide from the larger reaper scat and dragonpout in the shadows by the overhanging cliffs. They were almost always hungry. A fly or a worm often did the trick.
 
When the fish weren’t biting, we’d sit down on blankets of soggy lichen and watch the water spill into the endless pools down into the lower gorge. We never went down there. One of the biggest pools sent the whole Thar down even deeper to the depths of oblivion, a mighty waterfall that only the eyes of the phantoms at the bottom could possibly envision. The sound was like thunder from the rocks around, and you could hardly shout over the noise so close to the edge. All that was left was to find a nice spot, eat your lunch and just take the deaf splendor of it all.
While I stared at my father’s eyes by the river Thar, I could always see within him something distant and lost. His blue portals always glimmered to me of worries, sword hands left behind, and of unfinished oaths sworn in blood-stained halls. He spoke little of his thoughts, and I never asked him about his troubles.
 
My dad and I sat there for long stretches and said nothing at all to each other. The roar of the water flooded our empty heads. I can’t say what my dad pondered, but mostly, I thought of fish.
Not far off, the canyon hung wide over-head and changed into a cave bigger than any I have ever seen in all my years. This was the true jewel of Norwich Falls; there were paintings of this place, set high in frescoes and in the stone temples of Highcrag and Stillwater…even the thin-skinned mariners of far-off Ferin heard the legend of this magnificent vista. “The cross roads of heaven and hell” …or so the work of art was called.
 
If you had the right spot on the rock, you could see down deeper into that cut, over the glass like sheets of dropping water, beyond the unseen waterfall and into the great chasm of what men once called the “Old Road”. To call it a cavern would not do it justice. There was a ruin down there, among a myriad of other wonders undreamed. Upon the edge of the void in-between, I always knew the best place to sit for a panoramic view of the subterranean land along that old black highway. Far off, the ancient tiles of stone were adjoined by glowing mushroom forests that quivered under the pallid light of the maw. The old road was an underground vein of days long gone by, a path beset by deep chthonic lakes and sprawling phosphorescent valleys of odd tubers and stalks. It was nothing like the pines and hardwoods of my simple place above, and thus I thought it was something wonderful.
 
Whatever those doomed depths were, they were a weird and wicked portal to me, though certainly the vista was beautiful when glimpsed from a safe perch. Of course the Thar too, mighty as she was, fled down under the rock and joined the haunted caves as it plunged forevermore into the depths, to fill the mountain’s strange thirst.
 
The Old Road was a legend for some, but we of the valley knew it to be something very real. Mostly hidden, in some spots the way to that ancient dungeon road had been upheaved into the world of the red sun. Some would have called it a thing of evil. Neither I nor my kin did. Despite her beauty, few wayfarers sought the pilgrimage to glimpse the place. My father always said it was “a miracle for the eyes of men to behold,” Even in the wild lands of Kol, few treasures were so misunderstood. Norwich Falls was one of those places.
 
My father pointed to me the barely visible limits of the cobbled path, a twisting road of engineered mastery. Down there a huge arch sprawled into a land bridge over what must have been the Thar.  Fit for a royal caravan or wide enough to accommodate an entire army, the old road was truly impressive. Not far from the rocks of the path, what looked like the side of another chasm was, in fact, the outside of some monolithic wall, a stronghold of some sort, built into the very rock of the deeps.
 
Once in a great while, you could see the trotting form of some blowhard knight or glossy armored paladin gallop along the path. Who knew what foolish errand such a person was on? My father always laughed at them and threw a stone into the mist below.
 
We never dared go down and explore.
 
“The Drake Elves built this road, and all that lay under Kol,” My father told me once. “Why did they build such a place?” I asked.
 
“They were all slaves to the demons from below. At the wrong end of a whip they cut the mighty highway and lay her bricks through the mountain and the depths of Kol,” he added. ”Even better, with demons to drive them on, their jagged swords and targ shields conquered all the lands above and below the road they forged,”
 
“Drake Elves?” I asked. “Are those the men we still see riding the path down so deep?”
 
“No.” My father replied with a snicker. “Those are just men, I’d guess. The Drake Elves are long gone from this Earth…and so are their demon masters,”
 
“Gone?” I demanded “What happened? Why would they leave?”
 
“I cannot say little one,” my father sighed. “The Drake Elves broke their bonds one day and were never heard from again,” he added. “There is no tale of their last days…and their name has faded to time….but the road remains,”
 
“So they left?”
 
He just looked at me and nodded. He rubbed my head and patted me on the top of my head as he always did. “There is a yoke of freedom that all men must suffer,” he finally said. “It is not easy to understand,”
 
Again the next winter, my father left once more for war, drafted in the raiding party of King Maug’s son, Kreel Sauger, during the last fued of the Broken Kalladash. I swear, he half fought off a look of ecstasy on his face as the shirtless red-skinned riders came to fetch him with a spare horse. He nearly bowled over my mother on his way for the blade that hung above our hearth. So I learned later, he was once again made a scout for the King, bound to range the bloody hills and woods to our east as it smoothed into the plains of the Kalladash. He was gone for three long years this time.
 
During that time, my mother cried every night as she waited for him by the window. When she did, I went down to the river and tossed rocks into the dark and deep pools. For those three years, despite thin times, I somehow grew bigger and stronger, but I never dropped a line to fish there, not once.
 
When my father came back, he didn’t want to fish much anymore either. The lines formed sharper in his gaunt face now. He was sad most of the time, and spent his days staring at the walls and into the sky. By night, he would eye his blade endlessly above our mantle. Some days I would find him cleaning it and oiling the edge without end. He would go for long walks into the wild at times, and sometimes be gone for days. During that time, few crops in our field grew straight, and often my father would curse the soil with blistered hands and bloody paws as he eyed the half-barren ground.
 
Every now and then, however, he would wink at me and take me down to the river Thar, to the wild edge of those waters to fish her swirled current and pull trout by the dozen from her edge. The fires in his eyes cooled for that moment. As always, we would sit on our spot and eat our lunch as we scanned for the steel plated crusaders as they galloped along on heavy horse and quested into the darkness of the Old Road below. He watched me now, as I pointed to the clopping form of a horse and rider as they rode along the endless stretches that led down past the mushroom forest, past the haunted citadel and into the black void of the unknown. True to his form, he chuckled at the pompous figure and tossed a rock into the void.
 
One time, I asked him there, why he mocked those knights with polished plate and those who dressed so fair on their way down into the pit?
 
All he did was laugh and say “There are soldiers and there are crusaders,”
 
Again, we never spoke much on those trips. Our language was much simpler, and it was heaven. Still, back at home the crops languished, the house fell in to rot, and the cupboard grew bare. My mother wailed again, once more for hunger and loss. My father had brittle bones now, and his back split when he worked the plow. His joints and knees gave out as he advanced in age and labored with that great edge in the soil. The plowshare did him no favors. As he stumbled, I could see his eyes, how they still burned with that same fire of lament for untold broken spear-charges and faceless comrades he left behind.
 
Soon, I became a soldier myself. Without enough food in the stocks one winter, I left the Crawl for nearby Highcrag and, with strangely no protest from him, took my father’s longsword with me. With his good name, I enlisted into the Hawktail Rangers as a scout and was sent to train in the southern hills of the Red Tribes with the same crimson-skinned devils that had made a warrior of my dad. I learned how to range those hills fast and, like my father, grew better and better with both blade and bow.
 
During my training, I visited home at times and saw him and his half-dead fields of corn and parsnips. He was a bent old man now, and could hardly make the trip down to the Thar. Without the life of a soldier, without the promise that one day men would call him and his blade, he dwindled to nothing even faster. I knew then he would be gone soon, far before his time. No demon masters would come to call for him any longer, save for a drink and a tall tale.
 
My father would eye the blade and my lacquered breastplate the same way we both used to look at the deep roads down below the River Thar. I could still see the same old thoughts in his eyes as he burned with a loss of things he could never unsee. I understood now. When we did go down to the river, he stayed back like some ancient dog and watched me scale the rocks and slime. He gazed at me from afar as I sat in our spot and peered out over the edge of the waterfall.
 
For three years I served in the King’s guard, and saw plenty of terrible things of my own. No longer did I think of the strange thoughts that burned in my father’s eyes and wonder “why”. I remember one day, as I sat in a hole during a lull in the charge of nearby heavy horse. Over my head, arrows flew like flocking birds and the war drums sounded. Next to my tired body, another half-dead Ranger of the Red Tribe and I spoke between rushes of the attackers. We sat in the filth of our dead comrades and talked, not of battle or blades, but of fish and rivers. I mentioned him of the great Thar and the runs of fat Bluefin trout in the early summer. I told him of those ebony walls of the time-lost citadels buried under Kol and the power of that unseen waterfall. So too, he told me of the Red Hills. He spoke of riding the forests on horseback into the plains, hunting the Magra herds, and of spear-fishing the lonesome lakes of Ilik-Tharn, the Thar’s noble sister. Our people were not unalike. We laughed together as the war horn sounded to charge again and the spears began to shake.
 
I never saw him after that, nor did I ever get his name.
 
Not long after, my service ended and I came home for good. With my newfound status, I had the means to buy my own land not far from my old hut. A cottage much like the one I grew up in with a warm hearth and a solid foundation. My mother was gone now, and my father was little more than a tiny shade waiting for the Priests of Gur to wrap him. But I was as alive as ever. Soon enough, I found a woman and married her. I set my hearth in a new house and plowed fields of my own. As I set my father’s sword above that fireplace, he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered that he was proud of the man I had become. He winked at me with pride when my daughter was born. Then, not long after, a son with golden hair graced our home.
With time, I bought my own plow and, like my father, fought with its cumbersome shape every day. Blood and sweat stained my eyes as I dragged its angled form over the tough ground. Eventually though, I learned its mystery just as sure as the nicked blade above our hearth. In the fall, I stalked game and hunted the nearby forest within the low hills of the north in the shadow of the great High Mountain.
 
One day, those same red-skinned Rangers from the south came to our new home and offered me an empty horse.
 
“The drums have sounded in the east,” the crimson warrior said to me as my wife and children stood behind me in the wind. He looked at me and waited for my reply.
 
I smiled at the rider, pointed to my family and home, my fields and old twisted father, and told them I could not go.
 
From within the cottage, I saw for a moment the old man’s eyes burn with blue flames of unfinished vengeance. Yet, as he gazed at the tattoos of those red men and the horse with no rider, the fury of those orbs died down and once more and my father looked to be something softer. He smiled at me as the demon-blooded warlords nodded and rode off into the hills. Sure enough, I could hear the sound of the drums not far off. I did not think about it for long and that afternoon, I went to fish down by the river Thar. I had not known what my father would say to me, but he just laughed, spit off into the wind, and grabbed his pole.
My father died that next season. At his funeral, I saw the red-skinned Rangers of the south again and all those left alive who had fought with him. There were few men fit to hold a blade left who recalled his deeds. A wreath of Psag-flowers was sent in his honor with bundled reeds from the great apex of the Karau, the very soul of the Crawl. I, his only son spoke a few words. Then, we all stood silent around his pyre as I lit the flame and burned those same branches. Later, I took his ashes and set them above the mantle of my home… next to his sword wherein they both felt the warmth of our family hearth for days after.
 
Not long after, I took those ashes and went down to the river with my son and daughter. That day, I fished the wide pools with them both and sat upon the steeped rocks of the great gorge. Just as I had done with my father, we ate lunch in the mist and dangled our feet over the impossible edges. Far below, the old road throbbed in the darkness and the subtle sway of mushroom trees danced behind the steam. For a moment, I thought of my father and the blue bonfire in his eyes. Then, I said goodbye as I tossed the urn of his ashes down below into the wet oblivion.
 
He fell now to the bottom of the falls at last, to go that final stretch of a descent that neither of us had ever dared. Only now, he would glimpse those magnificent falls from the bottom pools and look upon the water as it was always meant to be watched.
 
My children looked at me confused. There above the ruins of the old road, I told them of the Drake Elves and their demon masters as we lunched on the rocks. I told them the same story of how they forged so much at the end of a whip but faded away not long after.
 
“All that is left to tell their tale is this old road that leads underground,” I said with a smile.
 
“Their broken shields and bones are buried underneath,”
 
When my daughter asked me “why” I said the same thing my father had, but now I understood more of it.
 
“The yoke of freedom is not an easy thing to understand,”
 
They both laughed at me as we watched the distant form of an errant knight charge along the ancient cobblestones deep below. You could not hear the sound of his horse’s hooves as the river roared around us. I did not wonder for long where he was headed. Thinking of my father, I laughed and tossed a small rock into the impossible expanse.  After a few minutes, I cast my line back into the pools and we fished some more.
 
That night, our house was warm and a bubbling stock of fish roasted on the stove with boiled potatoes and ripe carrots. While the plates were laid before us, I eyed my father’s sword as we sat down to eat. Together, we said thanks for men like my father whose blue eyes once burned for us all. I said thanks for the red-skinned men from the south who rode for my family somewhere far away. I looked at my children and wondered if they too would take that sword from its mantle and one day leave me a wrinkled old bag…left to dream of big fish.
 
In my bed afterwards, while my children slept sound, I dreamt with my loving wife by my side.
In those dreams, I saw the Old Road and the river Thar. I saw a warrior there, below the edge of the darkness along the distant cobbled path and ruined oblivion. For a moment, I thought he was just another ghost among the rocks. Then the form of a man shaped more clearly in my mind. His sword looked so familiar in the phosphorescent gleam of the depths, as did his blue eyes. He stood upon the old road and looked upward at the falls, he looked right through me, bidden by drums ever distant as he called for his red-skinned comrades who rode with an empty horse saved him. From my normal vantage, I could not see the cascading waters, only his burning azure eyes through the rusted slits of a horse hair helm. Behind him, an army of scaled elves clamored with spears at their side.
 
As for demons….I saw none.
 
After I left this place, I slept soundly in my bed.  The rain fell softly outside, and not far off, I could hear the roar of the great waters of the river. I did not dream any longer of old battles, crusaders, yokes of freedom, demons, or any more drake elves. Instead, I thought of my family, fields, the laughter of my children, and perhaps most of all, I dreamt of the deafness that is the great River Thar and the fish that run deep within. 



© March 2017 Bryan Dyke

Bryan Dake hails from Vermont. This is his first published story.]]>
<![CDATA["The Ghost Stone" by Debra Young]]>Fri, 31 Mar 2017 00:34:17 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-ghost-stone-by-debra-youngFrom the moment Kamau stepped into the shaman’s cave, carrying Anawe, who burned with fever and lay unconscious in his arms, he felt uneasy. His worry about his sick sister was a part of it. In the firelight’s glow, sweat glistened on her face and chest, rivulets dripped onto the wool blanket spread beneath her on the hard-packed dirt floor. Welts marked her fevered skin as if she’d been lashed with a whip. The other part, Kamau decided, was the shaman’s perfunctory attitude. He acted as if he’d been expecting them.
 
“Put her there,” he commanded Kamau, pointing to the blanket by the shallow pit where fire burned with unnaturally white flames.
 
“I am Tausele,” the shaman said. Long scars carved a thin line from beneath each black eye to the corner of his wide mouth, as if his face had been scored with the tip of a knife. A snakeskin loincloth wrapped about his hips, shining slickly in the firelight. Black lacing around his left arm rippled. In the flickering firelight, what appeared to be leather strips were two serpents entwined from the shaman’s wrist to his elbow.
 
“Well met,” said Kamau. “I am Kamau of the Edanye as are you, I see.” The shaman’s bare chest was scarred with the tiger-claw totem of the Edanye tribe. Kamau bore such a scar as well. “My sister Anawe. Ill for two days now.”
 
Tausele gave Kamau a measuring gaze. The Edanye warrior met the other man’s stare. He fished a hide pouch from a pocket in his cloak. Opening the pouch, he jiggled a few pearls into his palm. “For you. What can you do for her?” He tilted the pearls back into the pouch, pulled its drawstring tight, and handed it to the shaman.
 
“What the gods allow, I shall do,” said Tausele.
 
Squatting, he inspected Anawe the way he might look over a slave in the market. Kamau watched anxiously as the shaman touched her forehead, then her chest. Spreading his long fingers, he pressed upon her, grunted, as if satisfied, and went to shuffle about in the shadows. Kamau unbent himself from crouching by Anawe’s side, rising tall. The fire captured his shadow and pasted it against the walls.
 
“Abadde,” he said, addressing the shaman formally. “She is too close to the fire.” He knelt and slid his arms around Anawe, gently gathered her. He need only move her so that the pale flames were not too hot on her fever-wracked body.
 
“Leave her be!” Tausele shook a feathered stick at Kamau. “The fire draws the elili from her.”
Kamau lowered Anawe to the blanket. He wiped her face with his fingers, smoothing moisture from her skin, hoping the elili, the evil spirit making her ill, would be forced out of her by the  fire’s magical power.
 
Tausele came out of the shadowed corner carrying something in his hands that glowed in a color Kamau had never seen before.
 
“Ja’a o jua le’le!” Holding his hands over the fire, the shaman’s voice rose and fell rhythmically with the intonation of sorcerous syllables. The flames leapt, drew the glow from Tausele’s hands and subsided, burning green with the strange color trembling in its midst.
 
“What is that?” Kamau pointed.
 
“Her soul,” said Tausele, flames flickering in his eyes.
 
Kamau’s heart dropped and a feeling like the rush of spiders prickled his skin. Shocked at the shaman’s betrayal, he jerked his dagger from its scabbard. Before the shaman could say another word or perform another trickery, the Edanye warrior grasped a fistful of the shaman's braided hair and jerked back his head, baring his throat to the dagger’s keen edge.
 
“Give it back to her,” he said. “Now!”
 
Tausele, his head awkwardly canted in Kamau’s grip, gazed at him without fear. “The bones foretold one such as you would come.” Kamau caught the whiff of bitter marro-seed on his breath. “Do as I tell you, she lives. Disobey me,” he lifted his hands, palms open. “She dies.”
 
He should have sought a Karan healer as Anawe had asked him to do, but he’d heard Karan healers were even stranger than those of a tribal shaman. He’d feared what a bendau, outlander, healer might do to her. He’d thought he could trust an Edanye shaman.
 
Feeling like a fool, Kamau bridled his anger, released Tausele, and sheathed his dagger. He glared at the shaman, his hands fisted. How gratifying it would be to break a few of his bones. But Anawe’s soul burned at the heart of the fire.
 
“What do you want?”
 
Tausele rubbed the spot on his throat where the edge of Kamau’s blade had rested, giving the warrior a narrow-eyed stare.
 
“Fetch me the dzomba,” he said. “What men call the ghost stone. Her life for stone.”
 
“Lying fenga!” said Kamau. “Hurt her and I shall kill you.”
 
Tausele gave him a grim mocking smile. From a brace of hooks on the wall he took a long spear and tossed it. Kamau caught it with the quickness of a striking snake.
 
“The spearhead is salt,” said Tausele. “Only it can kill the demon that guards the dzomba.”
 
“Why do you not go yourself, shaman?”
 
“An abaje marks my soul,” he said. “Were I to cross, I would not be able to return.” He pointed to Anawe.  “Fail me, she dies, her soul becomes mine.”
 
 
 
Kamau stumbled drunkenly, his belly roiled, his senses lost in the sorcerous wind. He found himself at the threshold of a doorway, an arched opening engraved with glyphs that wriggled like worms. Gray radiance shadowed the air. He shivered, his leopard-skin cloak robbed of its warmth in the penetrating cold. Against his chest he felt the icy touch of the charm on its leather cord. The shaman had used it to send him into Odaalei, the vale of damnation.
 
Hefting the spear, Kamau stepped into an unfathomable darkness. He was grateful to feel ground beneath his feet. A whisper of wind swirled around him. His ears strained for a sound beyond his thumping heart and the rush of his breath. He could be standing on nothing more than a finger of ground, about to step into the yawning throat of a chasm.
 
A glow stole through the dark, dissolving it to smoke, mist, light. Crouching, ready to fling the spear at whatever came, Kamau looked left and right, expecting to see the demon the shaman had spoken of. He heard the shimmering tintinnabulation of bells.
 
Before his eyes the air whirled, a gathering of mist. From it spun a girl, dancing; black as obsidian, her braided hair swinging at her waist, bangles and bells around her ankles and wrists sang silver.
 
“Welcome!” She bowed to him, speaking in a voice as bright as the song of her bells. “Welcome to my abode, mortal.”
 
Kamau regarded her, glanced beyond her, his gaze sliding along the chamber’s vaporous walls.
 
“You be not the demon,” he said.
 
“ I am Njen." She pranced a few steps and shook her tambourine. “You have come for the dzomba.”
 
Another lie from Tausele. He’d come prepared to fight a monster, and was faced with a dancing girl.
 
“How do you know that?”
 
“You are not the first.”
 
“Where lies the demon?”
 
“There be no demon here,” she replied. “Only I.”
 
“Then you must be the demon,” he said.
 
She laughed. “Then it must be so.” She raised her tambourine and shook it rhythmically. “Demon am I, demon am I,” she sang, dancing around the chamber, bells ringing with mockery. “The dzomba is easily found if you answer my riddle.” She lifted the tambourine, tapped it rhythmically against her palm, gazing at him. “Will you answer my riddle, mortal?”
 
“Speak it.”
 
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone, through blood is the dzomba found. Answer truly and you will know its name,” she said.
 
“What manner of evil be this stone?”
 
“The dzomba gives power over the living and allows great command of the dead. Brings them back clothed in flesh as they were when alive. None can tell the difference.”
 
She clapped her hands. An hourglass appeared, floating in the air, filled not with sand, but with water. As he watched, a single drop dangled and fell, followed by another. Kamau thought of Anawe, beaded with sweat, swaddled in fevered sleep from which she might never awaken, if he failed. Yet it was unlikely the dog of a shaman would set them free once the dzomba was his.
 
“You must answer before the last drop falls. If you fail, you will be taken.”
 
“Taken?”
 
“Your soul into Odaalei,” she said. She twirled away from him, and vanished, bells fretting the air.
 
The mists closed about Kamau, obscuring everything but the patch of ground he stood on and the water-filled hourglass. Curses sprouted and flared in Kamau’s thoughts. He could only return from this place once he had the dzomba in his hand. He avoided looking at the hourglass. He strode forward, his gaze fixed on the ground with each step. Njen’s riddle floated in his thoughts. He considered it but the words were as meaningless as the wind. Yet meaning hid within them, like scent on air. Once he found the dzomba and was back in the world, he’d wring blood from Tausele, he swore. Kamau paused, stared into the roiling mists. After a moment, he looked down and away. Unwholesome images trembled at the edge of his consciousness. If he stared too long at them, he’d start laughing or yelling or moaning. Neither was a welcome.
 
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone,” he muttered. He glanced up in irritation and caught sight of the hourglass. Liquid glossed its bottom. “Through blood is the dzomba found,” he said, trying to see meaning in the words.
 
Carefully he turned around, and retraced his steps. Stopped. It made no difference where in this place he was. Njen had not denied his accusation, he recalled. She’d mocked him. He recalled then the other thing Tausele had told him.
 
 
 
In a chamber swathed in mist Njen sat still as stone, one hand on her knee that rested on the floor and her other arm up, elbow resting on her raised knee. Her eyes were closed, her bells and bangles silenced. She remembered. Her life had not been long as such time was counted. She’d been a court dancer, trained in the sensual arts practically from birth. She’d been as entrancing as the black lilibar-flower and as poisonous as its heartbud. The son of the prince had truly loved her. So much the fool was he. His weakness had made it easy for her to lure him to the ruined temple, to push him into the nest of vipers in an abandoned well. The Consort had promised her freedom and wealth if she rid her of the crown heir.
 
But she, whose heart knew neither loyalty nor honor, had been betrayed. Bound hands and feet in a sack of wool, she was thrown from the wall of the palace into the sea. She’d awakened in Odaalei, eternity her prison, condemned to spend endless time, guardian of the dzomba. She wished for the peace of death, but no mortal, those shamans and other seekers who disturbed Odaalei with their greedy efforts, had ever answered the riddle correctly. In her endless span of empty time, moments of seeping regret for her evil deeds assaulted her. Ancient words, an echoing cry in her darkness, roused her from her bitter memories.
 
 
 
“Call the demon,” Tausele had said. “Command thrice that it come.”
Kamau set the spear on his shoulder and shouted into the mists, “O’le’le ngahe!” The alien syllables tore from his throat and a knife danced in his mouth. He tasted blood and metal on his tongue. He spat. Twice more he had to call.
 
“O’le’le ngahe!” His throat burned as the syllables fell into the mists. Nausea coiled in his stomach. He leaned on the spear and cursed the shaman. Drawing breath he shouted the razor-edged command a final time. “O’le’le ngahe!” Kamau spat a gobbet of blood, the last syllable twisting out of him. He fell to his knees, heaving dryly, gripping the spear tightly. Bells sang around him. Getting to his feet, he steadied himself, and raised the spear.
 
Njen swayed out of the mists. “What is your answer?” She pointed at the hourglass. “Odaalei waits.”
 
Kamau saw that the bottom half was nearly full.
 
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone,” he said. “You are indeed the demon. The dzomba is your heart.”
 
He glanced at the hourglass and saw with relief that no more drops fell. He looked at Njen, expecting her to transform into a gruesome thing. But she did not.
 
“You have saved yourself from Odaalei.” She gently shook her bells.
 
Kamau held the raised spear, felt the weight of it in his hand. Reluctance stayed his arm. Compelled by rough circumstance, he’d sliced the life out of men, but to strike down this dancing girl, who appeared to be no more than sixteen summers old, no older than his youngest cousin. Yet she was a damned soul and if he had failed to answer the riddle, no doubt she would have torn his heart from his chest.
 
“My sister dies if I return without the stone.” He raised the spear again.
 
 “You have answered the riddle truly,” she said, gazing at him without fear.
 
But still Kamau hesitated, caught by her calm wait for true death. She sat down, cross-legged, in a jingling rain of bells, and patted the open ground in front of her, regarding him solemnly.
 
 “Sit, O Mighty One with the Spear,” she said.
 
Kamau sat and laid the spear across his thighs.
 
“Tell me of the one who sent you here.”
 
He told her about his sister’s illness, about his seeking the shaman Tausele’s help to heal her, about the shaman’s betrayal.
 
“That one!” said Njen, her laughter high and ringing. “The mists whisper of that one. He is marked, did you say?” At Kamau’s nod, she said, “Long has his soul been forfeit.” The bells at her wrists jangled. “If you would have the dzomba, you must kill me. Then you shall know its true name.”
 
Kamau stood, leveled the spear at her. On the field of battle, he’d killed; in defense of his life, he’d killed, in defense of someone else’s life, he’d killed. Here he faced a creature of darkness and could not find it in himself to send her into eternal death. His hesitation mingled with his disgust at having to do the wicked shaman’s bidding.
 
“I long to pass to my next life, should the gods will it, or rest forever.” Njen rose to her knees, a breath away from the sharp tip of the salt crystal. “I would throw myself upon the spear, but I cannot. Were I to do so, I would become a wraith in a far worse place than this. Spare me that, warrior. Free me from this damnation.” She spread her arms, her bells jangled. “Please.”
 
“If you would have it so,” he said, still hesitating. Then added, “You will be free of Odaalei. No longer damned.”
 
“Everything I have ever known has long been dust,” she replied.
 
Kamau thrust his spear into her chest, stepping back as green flames sprang over her. She spoke the name of the dzomba as she burned, her body swirling into ash. Where she’d knelt lay a glistening black stone. Kamau closed his fist about it.
 
As before, great prickly wings of wind wrapped about him, tore his senses from him, casting him into a black void like that of dreamless sleep. He dropped stumbling into the world he knew, back in the fire-bright cave. He gripped the dzomba tight in his fist, its weighty cold freezing his hand. If the shaman thought Kamau would simply hand it over, he’d soon know better.
 
“Oai’ ga’hla‘ai’ le’le!” shouted Tausele.
 
Kamau’s limbs became as stone. One of the serpents freed itself from Tausele's arm and streaked toward him, piercing his chest, its tiny head hard as an arrow. His heart thumped sluggishly, the serpent coiling about it, trailing ice. Anawe lay as he’d left her, locked in the fever’s death-like grip, her soul caged in Tausele’s green fire. Kamau strained against the binding chant, but his effort was futile.
 
Tausele’s hands inscribed the air with shimmering glyphs. More sorcerous words slithered out of his throat. Kamau felt the dzomba gripped in his fist burn with an icy heat. His thought of holding it back to win Anawe’s freedom was no more than dust now. Though his body was frozen in Tausele’s spell, his hand opened like a flower. Tausele snatched the falling stone.
 
“Soon all the world will know my name, all will come to know Tausele, Death’s Master.” The shaman smacked his lips. “Even Death will fear me.” He went to the fire, holding the dzomba on his palm. “The fire will reveal its name to me, thus its power will be mine.”
 
He dropped the dzomba into the flames, knelt and leaned closed, his face limned by firelight. He frowned, drew back, leaned once more toward the fire, peering at the black stone in the flames. He spoke a word, reached and snatched it out. He studied it, turning it over and over in his hand, and lifted his gaze to Kamau.
 
“Is this not the dzomba?” He got to his feet. With a sharp gesture at Kamau, he said, “Speak!”
 
Kamau felt his throat soften, the meaning of Njen’s final words coming clear to him. Without hesitation, he intoned the true name of the dzomba in the way Njen had spoken it. Blood welled in his mouth. He spat it out, not minding this time.
 
Light, black-rimmed and as keen-edged as a sword, lanced from the dzomba, slicing the air with serpentine lines. A rushing wind whirled through the shaman’s cave, the cold gray mists of Odaalei wrapped about Tausele like pythons. He cried out, his terrified shout dying on the edge of the vanishing void. The cold petrifying Kamau melted from him and his limbs lost their heaviness. He felt something leathery crowding the back of his throat and heaved, hawking out Tausele's serpent, dead. Disgust and repulsion shivered through him. The glaucous flames burning near Anawe flickered out, and the white glow at their heart disappeared.
 
“No!” Kamau searched the ground for the black dzomba. It too was gone, and…he could not remember its name.
 
He knelt by Anawe, who lay as if dead. He cursed Tausele, hoping the shaman fell into Odaalei’s deepest, darkest, most demon-infested abyss. Grasping Anawe by her shoulders, he shook her as gently as he could, willing her eyes to open.
 
“Wake, Anawe. Wake!”
 
But she did not awaken. Kamau sat back on his heels, not believing, grief rising in his heart. The light of dawn touched the moss-mottled walls of the shaman’s cave, and he heard the strident bird-calls of bharies, winging in the day. The glazed blue bead of Anawe’s necklace, nestled in the hollow of her throat, trembled, and she opened her eyes. She pushed up on her elbows, her gaze flitted around the shaman’s cave and arrowed suspiciously back to him.
 
“Next time I shall do as you say,” he promised.
 
Kamau grinned, and inhaled deeply the pure green scent of the morning’s first breath.



©February, 2017 Debra Y0oung

Debra Young has published an anthology of dark fantasy, Grave ShadowsHer work has also been seen in The Horror Zine and Dark Fire Fiction.  This is her first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["Trouble at the Viscount Tavern" by Tom Lavin]]>Fri, 31 Mar 2017 00:31:10 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/trouble-at-the-viscount-tavern-by-tom-lavin“I expect you fellows will want to have a look at this!
 
Deon slammed the book down on the table, hoping to attract the attention of his friends with a satisfying thump, but in the merry bustle of the tavern the sound was rather feebler than he had hoped. The book’s cover read: Giselder Farnbrak’s Herbs and Homely Cooking.
           
Ruald glanced down at the book, then back up at Deon, the drooping lids of his eyes suggesting nothing but boredom. “You’ve taken up cooking,” he said blandly. Tenny and Guimer chuckled.
           
“I can see why you might think so,” Deon said, failing to repress a grin, “but as of yet I have not taken up cooking—I think I’ll leave that to Tenny, since he’s been at it for ten years already. No—actually, it’s a fake cover.” He opened the little book up and pointed at the inside edges of the cover, which had been shoddily stitched together. He flashed each of his friends a glance under his wave of fair brown hair, a smirk still on his lips. He was certain he had them curious now.
           
“I see,” Tenny said, scratching at his wispy beard. “So what is it then?”
           
“I’m glad you asked, Ten. A wise question. What it actually is”—here Deon leaned in close and lowered his voice, as if someone in the crowded tavern might hear anything he was saying—“is a book of spells.
 
Tenny half-chuckled, a broad grin creeping across his pudgy red cheeks. He waited for Deon to confess he was joking and tell him what he really meant. Deon held his gaze expectantly. That was what he really meant.
 
“A book of spells,” Ruald intoned, “this is very serious. We can’t have you messing around with spells, Deon—you’ve only had one ale and you’re already slurring your words.”
 
“Well, let us have a look at it then,” Guimer said, his rough voice rising above the din. He snatched the book from the table and opened it; it looked preposterous in his huge hands. “Where’d you find this eh?”
 
“Someone left it in one of the rooms at the Fairview—was lucky I found it before my brother got his hands on it.”
 
Guimer brought the little book right up to his face, so close it was touching his great red beard, and he said in a booming voice: “Devil come forth into this world! Into this very tav—”
 
“No, no, don’t read it!” Tenny shouted, frantically waving his hands. Guimer looked up from the book and laughed.
 
“I was making it up! I can barely even read the damn handwriting, you fool!” he said, showing Tenny a page of black scrawls. “Besides, you don’t really believe this nonsense, do you?”
 
“Well, not really,” Tenny said, smiling sheepishly. “But just in case . . .”
 
“Give it back here,” Deon said, “my eyes are still young, I can read it. I’ll only read a little so we don’t end up turning into boars, or something else horrible. You must hear some of this stuff—it’s all very strange.”
 
He opened the book and started leafing through, his features screwed up in concentration. With his fair hair and thin, pointed features he looked like a squirrel intent on opening a nut.
 
“Here--Bestow Misfortune, apparently. Seems rather tame really, when you think about setting people alight, or turning them to ice, or whatnot, the sort of things you hear from people who travel too much—anyway, so it says: Devil bestow misfortune upon thee, that your life may be long, yet bitter and sorrowful, and full of pain, and so on. Rather odd, isn’t it?”
 
Deon looked up and met Ruald’s gaze. The man’s face was blank—it was merely his cold blue eyes and upturned mouth that made him appear filled with distaste for everything around him. “And so on?” he said, “Finish it. Don’t say this stuff scares you. We already have one frightened pup at the table.” He motioned lazily at Tenny without looking at him.
 
Deon smiled and raised his eyebrows, the equivalent of a shrug, and said: “Just in case.” He took a swig from his tankard to avoid Ruald’s eyes.
 
“To hell with that,” Ruald said, “find something tame if you must, and read that. Then when we see that nothing happens we can read the rest, and laugh at you two for being so pathetic.”
 
“Alright, alright, alright. I’ll find something,” Deon said. “Gods you can be grumpy sometimes. I’d hate to see what you’re like when you don’t have an ale in front of you.” He leafed furiously through the book, muttering to everyone and no one.
 
It was an early Friday evening at the tail-end of summer, and The Viscount was filled with bodies. Still more were piling in through door just behind Deon, and as they passed him on their way to the bar they glanced down at the table. They had heard nothing, they merely knew from Deon’s lively mutterings and the intense interest the others seemed to be paying him that he was up to something strange.
 
Summon gold—that sounds like a good idea. I’ll be almost out after another ale. Here we go--Devil summon gold coins within your purse, as lustrous as any in the land. Diyaban talan s’baa. Diyaban talan s’baa. Diyaban talan s’baa.
           
Deon had spoken the words as solemnly as he could—he had always pictured wizards as old grey men intoning their spells with an air of melancholy—and despite themselves Tenny and Guimer glanced around, as if gold was about to fall from the ceilings of the tavern. Nothing happened. Ruald snorted contemptuously. “Check your purses!” Deon hissed, fumbling in his overcoat.
           
“Nope. Nothing,” Tenny said.
           
“Same here,” said Guimer.
           
Deon sighed, looked down at the table and shook his head. “Shame. I almost believed it would work for a moment.”
           
“How old are you, Deon?” said Ruald, his voice tired. He picked up the book from the table and began leafing through it, looking mildly amused.
           
“I’m thirty years the month next,” Deon said, “and don’t try and mock me for it, I know you’d give your left arm to be thirty again. You’re on your way to becoming a grumpy old man, Ruald—there, I’ve said it.”
           
Ruald couldn’t help but smile, as was often the case when he listened to Deon’s rambling. He passed the book back to the young man, open. “Try this one—I’ll buy you an ale if you read it, which I’m sure you won’t, you coward.”
           
“Well, that’s hardly fair. If you’re so brave and mighty, you read one, and we’ll see what happens.”
           
Ruald held Deon’s gaze for a moment, a sardonic smile crossing his face. “Alright then,” he said, and took the book back again. He flipped through the pages for a moment, looking no more excited than if he had actually been reading Giselder Farnbrak’s Herbs and Homely Cooking. The eyes around the table watched him silently. Tenny gulped his beer. Finally, Ruald began:
           
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart—”
           
Don’t!” Tenny shrieked.
           
Guimer and Deon fell about laughing. Ruald shot a tired look at Tenny, whose face had blushed red.
 
“Come on, you coward, let the man finish,” Guimer said. “Let’s see some spells flying about the tavern, eh? It hasn’t had much excitement in a long time, has it?”
           
“I don’t like it,” Tenny said, shaking his head, “what does it say this—spell—even does?”
           
“Nothing,” Ruald said. “It says nothing, and it does nothing, because it’s nonsense.”
           
A scruffy looking man standing behind Ruald leaned over the table, looking at Tenny. “I didn’t think anyone still believed those old wives’ tales,” he said, a thin smile spreading across his face. “I agree with this gentleman here”—he motioned at Guimer—“let’s scare some of the locals.”
 
“Well, there’s believing and there’s taking precautions,” Deon said. “I don’t believe in it, but what if I’m wrong? What if we’re about blast the tavern back to the stone age? I’ve never seen any magic, but I’ve never set eyes on the source of the Winterwind—or the sea for that matter—yet I’m sure they exist.”
 
The scruffy man held Deon’s gaze for a moment, his face severe. His skin was the color of leather, cracked and broken with age and covered with thick black stubble. A great mane of greasy black hair hung down his shoulders. “And I’m sure you’ve never seen a woman in the flesh, naked in a bedchamber neither,” he said, “but I assure you, they do exist.”
 
Guimer and Tenny roared with laughter, and even Ruald manager a slight chuckle. “He’s got you there lad!” Guimer shouted. Deon held up his hands and smiled, but his face turned pink.
 
“I have, actually, despite nature’s gifts in many areas, seen—that which you just mentioned. Regardless, it seems rather beside the point. If anything it supports my argument.”
 
The scruffy man glanced down at Ruald. “Come on then—read the damn thing in full. Nice and loud. Or shall I do it?”
 
“That’s alright,” Ruald said bluntly, and started reading again: “Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa. Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa. Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa.” The men held their breath. People standing around them peered down at the group, frowns crossing their faces. Glances were shared between friends. The volume of conversations dropped, the sound of the strange words Ruald had spoken troubling people’s minds. The colorful cheeriness of the tavern seemed to have darkened slightly, as when the face of a foreigner appeared at the door. Deon, Ruald, Guimer and Tenny looked around. Nothing happened.
 
“Well, I guess I’m a coward,” Deon said, “but it does pay to be one on occasions, so let’s not dwell on it. I’ll try another one.” He snatched the book from Ruald and started reading once more:
 
Diyaban bamapan godaa d’bansaa karan ekato bibat jantu talan. Diyaban—”
 
“I would much rather you didn’t,” said a voice.
 
The voice had come from a man standing behind Deon. The eyes of the table looked him over: he was a gentleman, and he wore a fine grey coat with ruffled white plumes at the end of the arms. His skin and hair were almost exactly the same shade of grey, which was only a shade lighter than the grey of his coat. He looked as prim and cold as a corpse dressed for a funeral, and his eyes rested on the men at the table with unhidden disdain.
 
“And why’s that?” Guimer growled. “Don’t tell me you believe in this stuff. I don’t, and I don’t care if you do.”
 
“Whether I believe in it or not isn’t relevant,” the gentleman said, his voice imperious, “what matters is that you are using a vulgar language—the tongue of the barbarians from the south—which I happen to understand some of, and it is most unpleasant to have to listen to. I would rather you refrain from speaking in such a manner—after all, as you say, nothing will happen, so you might as well talk amongst yourselves properly.”
 
A quiet as close to silence as was possible had fallen over the tavern. Deon felt as if every eye in the room was turned in his direction, the sockets of the animal heads on the walls included. Guimer’s face flushed a deeper red than his hair, and his lips quivered. Suddenly he leapt to his feet.
 
“I’ll be damned!” he roared, “I’ll be damned! This is our tavern! We’ve been coming here, sitting on this table for going on fifteen years, you pompous bastard! And you come in and tell us what to say, what to do, acting like the lord of a damned manor! Your manor’s that way, matey! You don’t like hearing us—clear out!”
 
A number of cheers went up around the tavern. The gentleman’s face had remained as calm as a lake throughout Guimer’s outburst, his great forehead and crooked nose giving him a look of noble severity. He seemed completely oblivious to how out of place he was amongst the merry red faces of the tavern. For some reason Deon felt suddenly afraid.
 
“There is but one table available,” the gentleman began, his voice icy, “it is next to yours. That is where I wish to sit and drink my ale. I hoped not for a confrontation, but if you continue speaking in this vulgar language I shall speak with the barman, whom I trust is more respectable than the likes of you.”
 
Read the damn spell,” the scruffy man growled.
 
He was staring darkly at the gentleman. The gentleman turned to him and held his gaze, and it looked to the men at the table like a demon facing a ghost: one man dark and wild, his black eyes shining, the other cold, white and reserved. For a moment there was silence—then Guimer leant forward, snatched the book from Deon and slammed it down before him.
 
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!” he yelled, his face pressed down to the book’s pages, “Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa! Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!
 
The gentleman sighed in disgust, turned sharply and strode over to the bar. Deon watched as he spoke with the barman, who looked him up and down, glanced over at his regulars around the table, and laughed.
 
“They pay me well, they can do what the hell they like!” he shouted, laughing. All the while Guimer continued chanting, his voice rising louder and louder:
 
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa! Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!
 
The table rocked with laughter. The dark haired man behind Ruald was smiling broadly, and he turned to Guimer and shouted: “louder! Louder!”
 
The gentleman grimaced, buttoned his coat vigorously, shot a dark look at the scruffy man, a darker one at Guimer, and then turned to go. Deon felt a slight pang of guilt, but he was enjoying himself too much to care. As the gentleman turned to the door Guimer’s shouting reached its peak, becoming a roar of exultant victory and a last insult towards his adversary. Every face in the tavern was turned towards the commotion, and most were laughing and smiling at the sight of the gentleman’s back.
 
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa—”
 
An ear-rending scream split the sounds of the tavern, silencing the mouths and chilling the hearts of everyone in the room. It was not the voice of one man, or even one entity: it was a chorus of horror, pure, breathless, never-ending. It was like the wind’s whispering had risen to a deafening shriek, and there wasn’t a mind in the tavern conscious of anything but a fear as pure and black as onyx. In the same instant a darkness such as could not be found in the deepest cavern descended, as quickly as the snuffing of a candle. Deon could make out nothing. It was not a mere absence of light: it was as if something physical had eclipsed his sight, erased his memory, emptied his mind, and left nothing but the terrifying screaming.
 
A point of light formed in the darkness. It began to grow, the colors twisting and changing from a searing yellow to a sickly purple. It pulled at the men in the tavern, drawing their sight and their bodies steadily towards it. They did not try and fight it, as they had all but ceased to exist: they had been reduced to nothing but the unholy screaming in their ears, the impossible blackness, and now the light that swirled before them, blinding and terrifying. The light continued to grow, until it had filled everyone’s minds.
 
Then they heard underneath the screaming a low, sonorous voice chanting. It was in the same language as the spell, yet somehow its meaning rang clear and true in their minds.
 
Alor bisaa sen hayan,” they heard, and they knew that their world was ending.
 
Apan ashaa yantan ekaa bisaa asak,” they heard, and they knew that all that awaited them was pain.
 
Anantaa jan’kaa an taa bedanaa,” they heard, and they knew that it was to be eternal.
 
Suddenly a clear, booming voice rang out, and it sounded as if it was from another world—the world they had almost lost.
 
Debilan tamat apanaa samabet!” The voice shouted, loud and defiant. “Debilan tamat apanaa samabet! Debilan tamat apanaa samabet!
 
The screaming and chattering was twisted off and sucked away into the light. The light itself swirled inwards, shrinking, like blood running down a drain. Slowly the blackness resided, and dull light crept back into the tavern with all the caution of a panicked animal. The room stood aghast and silent. The candles had been snuffed out. The food and drink on the tables had been cast about at random. People found themselves lying on the floor, or across tables, or clutching the walls with their fingernails. The only man standing was the scruffy man with the greasy black hair. He held the book of spells in his hand and a sinister smile across his lips.
 
He turned and glanced down at Deon, his eyes twinkling. “I’ve been looking for this for a while,” he said, flashing a mischievous grin. Deon, sprawled on his back with his toppled chair still between his legs, couldn’t make a sound. The man stepped over him, then over the gentleman, and the eyes of the room watched him with silent horror. He opened the door and walked out into the evening air, the book safely back in his pocket.



© February 2017 Tom Lavin

Tom Lavin is from the United Kingdom and currently teaches English in Asia. Lavin is a newcomer to Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["Only the Guilty Live" by Robert Mammone]]>Sat, 25 Feb 2017 23:23:12 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/only-the-guilty-live-by-robert-mammoneWhen the Cataphracts came for Marduk, he sat sprawled amidst the splintered remains of a table and chairs, the unconscious and bloodied bodies of several men beside him.

‘Beetles,’ Marduk shouted, his voice slurred. He took a swig from his mug then dashed it ringing across the flagstones. Around him, a huddle of silent, watchful men stepped back as the pair of iron helmeted Imperial guardsmen crashed through the doorway. A black-clad man with a white face and dark eyes followed them.

‘Where were you at Skalak’s Pass?’ Marduk roared, spittle flying. He tried to stand, slipped on spilled beer and fell.

The Cataphracts watched him impassively from behind slit-eyed helms, massive breastplates muddy red in the crackling firelight. Marduk struggled to his feet, loudly cursing when he slipped once more. He tried again and stood. He swayed, hands loosely bunched by his sides. His jaw jutted out. The cheekbone under his right eye had purpled and blood stained the knuckles of both hands.

‘Enough,’ said the man in black. The room went quiet. Outside, pennants snapped in the chill breeze along the muddy lane leading to the docks. The shouts of drill sergeants on a distant parade ground echoed. Inside, a hungry expectation grew as the crowd sensed the tension rise.

‘Enough?’ Marduk spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor. He flicked his wrist and a dagger in his sleeve dropped into his palm. The edge shone bright. With the other hand, he groped for his sword.

Immediately, the Cataphracts drew their swords, the shriek of metal loud. Marduk smiled in cool anticipation.  

‘I held the line at Skalak’s Pass,’ he said. ‘While you huddled in the valley like terrified sheep, my men and I held the line. Good men died because cowards like you refused to do what was right.’

A Cataphract started forward before his partner grabbed his armoured forearm with a heavy gauntleted hand and pulled him back.

‘Right?’ The Cataphracts parted and the dark-eyed man stepped through the gap. ‘Is not guarding the Imperator their one and only task?’

The men in the room murmured amongst themselves. A forest of gibbets crowded Execution Hill; the low hanging fruit of deserters and traitors tainted the air with their rot. The ugly stink of treason clung like a sickness. Was there to be another adornment?

‘Men bled and died that day to save the Empire and its Imperator,’ Marduk said. His hand gripped the sword hilt so hard his knuckles shone white.  

‘The Imperator honours their sacrifice. You act is if you don’t care that as an Imperial officer brawling and drinking dishonours the Imperator’s name and risks a court martial. Or worse.’

Marduk looked at the man and spat more blood onto the floor.

‘Janos, isn’t it? I’ve seen you skulking around Blevin’s tent. I’ll remember you.’

Janos’s eyes narrowed. ‘See you do.’ He looked around the tavern.

‘For the love of God, aren’t there are better places to get drunk and forget?’

‘Who says I want to forget?’

‘Men who want to forget come to places like this,’ Janos said.

Marduk considered him for a moment. ‘What do you want?’

‘General Blevins wants to see you.’

‘Really? And if I don’t?’

‘I have orders to bring you in. Blevins didn’t specify whether you should be conscious or not.’

Marduk considered this for a moment. He slammed his sword back into the scabbard and tucked the dagger into his sleeve. Looking around at the groaning bodies and shattered furniture, Marduk reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins which he tossed over the bar. They fell in a bright rain on the flagstones.

‘For your trouble, barkeep,’ Marduk said, before turning back to Janos. ‘Come on then. Let’s see what Blevins wants.’  

Marduk turned to one of the Cataphracts. He looked through the helmet slit at the blank glare. Laughing, he rapped the heavy breastplate with his knuckles then followed Janos out.

A bitter wind carried the salty tang of the harbour. Watery light filtered through grey, racing clouds. A desperate sense of exposure rushed through Marduk. He turned to go back inside. The Cataphracts blocked him. Marduk felt a headache bloom. He sighed, turned and slogged through the mud after Janos.

                              


Janos left him outside the pavilion and marched off with the Cataphracts. Tents stretched in all directions. Canvas snapped and rolled in the breeze, suffused with an eye- watering stink from the latrines lining the nearby creek. Clanging steel caught Marduk’s attention. Two men practised with swords. One saw him, saluted and returned to the bout.

‘Damnation,’ Marduk whispered. The memory of the line at Skalak’s Pass returned to him, red and howling, leaving an ache of longing and despair. He balled his trembling hand into a fist. Gritting his teeth, Marduk straightened his tunic and stepped into the pavilion’s quiet darkness. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw an officer sitting at a desk, reading a report. The officer spared him a glance then his eyes dropped back to the page.  

‘The general is expecting you.’

Marduk didn’t bother to salute. He walked deeper into the pavilion.

Lanterns hanging from timber joists lit the interior. A camp bed, several chairs and a desk were the only furnishings. Behind the desk sat a great bear of a man looking at a piece of paper through a large magnifying glass. A sword in a scabbard sat on a chair, the gold embossed leather marking his rank.

Marduk saluted.  

‘General.’

Sunken eyes beneath bushy, greying eyebrows regarded Marduk. He thought the old man looked exhausted.

‘You’re drunk.’

Marduk bristled. ‘I’ve been drinking. I’m on leave.’

‘Not anymore. I’ve just had it cancelled.’

‘Cancelled?’ Marduk’s face clouded. ‘My men and I have only just returned. We’ve chased rebels all over the Severini Hills for the best part of three weeks.’

‘Don’t grandstand, Marduk. I know where you’ve been. I sent you there.’

‘Then you owe me.’

‘I don’t owe you a damn thing,’ Blevins said. He sat back and rubbed at his right temple.  

‘Then I’ll resign my commission.’

‘You’ll do what?’ Blevins’ face grew mottled.

‘You heard me. Push me and I’ll be on the first ship home.’

‘I’ll have it sunk,’ Blevins said, his full lips turning up. Marduk didn’t take the hint.

‘I’m not a tinker’s toy. You can’t wind me up and send me off to kill and kill again. There are limits…’ Marduk faltered and clenched his fist.

Blevins regarded him for long seconds. He slumped back in his chair.

‘You’re my best man out in the field, Marduk,’ Blevins said, his voice low. ‘I need someone I can trust. You don’t know the pressure I’m under. The campaign…’ Blevins’ voice trailed away, and he shook his head.  

Marduk felt his stomach clench to see the old man so desperate.  

‘All right,’ he said, loathing himself despite his words. ‘One more time.’

Blevins nodded. ‘That’s what you said after Skalak,’ he said, his smile brittle.

Marduk shrugged. ‘And here we are.’

‘Tell me about the Severini job. Mission accomplished?’

‘It’s in my report.’

‘Try to humour your commanding officer, there’s a good lad.’

Marduk watched Blevins for a moment then straightened his shoulders. ‘Acting on orders, we infiltrated a rebel encampment straddling a supply route across the Severini Hills. We dispersed the camp and captured a majority of the rebels, with the loss of no men on our side.’

‘And on their side?’

‘We had ourselves a little hanging party. Those rebels won’t trouble us again. Until the next lot emerge from the usual places,’ Marduk said.

Blevin’s eyes narrowed. ‘There’s always more. Until there isn’t, the Empire relies on us doing our duty.’ His voice held no warmth.

‘Wasn’t Skalak’s Pass enough, General?’ Marduk’s headache pressed painfully against the inside of his skull.

‘Damn it, Marduk,’ Blevins said. ‘You get to play that card only so many times before it becomes as worn as a whore’s virtue.’

The two men looked at each other for a long moment. The fabric of the tent rippled and Marduk felt a cold breeze across the back of his neck.

Blevins tapped the paper on the desk and shook his head. ‘Another two weeks and the passes will be blocked for six months.’

‘Leaving your besieging forces isolated.’

‘They’ve enough supplies and men to last the winter.’

‘So what so important it can’t wait for spring?’

‘I don’t have the luxury of time. I need you for something… delicate.’

Adrenaline trickled through Marduk’s veins. It felt cold, and it hurt. The kernel of excitement blooming in his chest sickened him.

‘What’s the mission?’

‘Retrieval.’

‘Where?’

‘It’s a delicate matter. You’re aware our new regime in Glorka province has fallen?’

‘That’s, what, the fourth attempt in the last two years?’ Marduk laughed.

Blevins stared hard at him. He rose to his feet and lumbered over to the flap. Pulling it aside, he leaned into the gap.

‘Halk! Find out what’s happened to my lunch. I’m about to gnaw the leg off my chair. And make sure they’ve warmed my wine.’ Without waiting for a reply, Blevins dropped the flap.

‘You should be more careful,’ Blevins said, returning to his chair.

‘Halk’s spying on you?’

‘Has been for the last five months. Trust is in short supply in the Imperator’s palace. At court, they play politics with words and knives. The boy should never have gone.’

Marduk sighed and rubbed eyes that felt raw. His head throbbed. ‘So where in Glorka province is our friend?’

‘The capitol,’ Blevins said, heavily.

‘Holy God,’ Marduk swore. ‘In that meat grinder? We’ve had it under siege since Evinstide.’

‘We will take it back. Again,’ Blevins said.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Roland D’ath.’

‘Wasn’t there something about a political attaché being kidnapped?’

‘That’s him.’

‘So we’ve lost a pen pusher. It’s not the first time.’

‘This pen pusher is the son of the Duke of Fellwatch.’

‘Tomas D’ath. Is that old lizard still alive?’

‘Not anymore. That’s the problem. The Imperator is having trouble on the Great Council. With D’ath dead and his seat empty, the numbers are precarious. There’s talk one of the Council factions is manoeuvring to have Roland declared dead and put up one of his cousins in his place.’

‘They should never have sent the boy.’

Blevins shrugged. ‘Glorka’s a sinecure. It’s Imperial policy to re-establish rule there by selling government positions to the highest bidder. Fellwatch spent a small fortune buying his son the position, expecting a fivefold return on his investment. Remember the joke about never getting between a duke and a bag of gold? With D’ath it was doubly so. Short of marching a division in to haul Roland home, I’m relying on you to fix it.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better to involve the commander of the siege?’

‘I only received the orders last night. You will be just as quick and more reliable.’

Marduk nodded. ‘How do I manage the siege?’

Blevins smiled tightly. ‘Carefully. Perhaps it will be all over by the time you get there. One hopes for quick success lest the siege shatters the Treasury once and for all.’

Marduk looked up.

‘Virgins quiver less in their marriage bed, Marduk. Surely the hero of Skalak’s Pass can take the truth.’

‘Execution Hill is full of men who told the truth, General.’

Blevins’ good humour drained away. He nodded.

‘And I’ve signed the orders myself, more times than I care to remember. Still, you have to know all of it.’ He tapped the table and allowed himself a tight smile. ‘Look on the bright side, Roland may be dead.’

‘Dead? Is the mission is stillborn before it begins? Have you… have I been set up to fail?’

‘Maybe. I’m in enough disfavour at court right now.’ Blevins shook his head. ‘Haven’t you heard? The sycophants who whisper in the Imperator’s ear claim I’m an incompetent drunk with a fondness for boys. Apparently the rebellion can be brought to heel with a bugle call and a mounted charge, sabres drawn.’ He grinned sourly. ‘Your success buys me time and the Imperator’s confidence.’

Marduk couldn’t resist looking over his shoulder at the flap leading outside. He leaned forward, his hands gripping the desk tight.  

‘You’ve an army here, hardened and battle ready. March it home. The people will flock to you. It’s past time someone dealt with the dolt on the throne. He’s bleeding us dry out here.’

Marduk was dismayed to see real fear creep across Blevins face. The old man shuffled. He coughed and shook his head a fraction. Marduk felt the hope drain out of him.

‘So there’s no other way?’

‘None.’ The colour slowly returned to Blevins’s face. He pulled a leather wallet from beneath a pile of papers and held it out.

Marduk took the wallet and opened it. Inside were several sheets of paper. He lifted out the topmost and glanced over it.

‘Who are these people?’

‘You’ll know them well enough before you return. Glorka is no picnic.’

‘My men can handle it.’

‘You’re one of my best, but you’ll need locals to get you in and out. One name on that list, Colm, is the son of colonists. He knows the lay of the land better than any of your men.’

Marduk scowled. He checked the names again and looked up in alarm.

‘Valens? I’m not taking a Keeper.’

The general leaned on his desk, which creaked under his weight. The lantern light shifted. Shadows crawled across the canvas. A chill breeze caressed Marduk’s neck.

‘I’m not giving you a choice. Glorka is dangerous. Colm will be useful, but if you want to find D’ath and get out in one piece, then a Keeper and a Child is your best hope. We’ve given it the scent.’

‘I’m sure you have,’ Marduk said, feeling sick.  

Blevins ran a hand over his face. Marduk realised how tired he looked.

‘You have your orders. I’m relying on you to keep the court dogs from my door.’ He hesitated a moment.

‘I thank you for your confidence. But there’s nothing to be done about it. Don’t you see?

Marduk swallowed his response. He saluted and left.

                              
 

A long line of men in red and black, pikes balanced on shoulders, marched by Marduk as he stamped his boots free of mud and entered the confines of a whitewashed building. He walked between bales of fodder on one side and nailed crates on the other. The smell of oiled steel mingled with the thick scent of hay. Light filtered through gaps in the roof, setting the dust ablaze. Raised voices grew louder with each step. Grimacing, Marduk let his hand stray to his sword hilt as he entered a large open space.

‘Get your damned hands off me, she-devil.’ A broad shouldered, bald man stood toe to toe with a taller woman with skin was so black it was almost blue. She glared at him with murder in her eyes. A figure in uniform stood to one side, looking unsure. When he saw Marduk, he hastily saluted. Marduk waved his hand at him as he moved to break up the confrontation.

‘What’s all this about?’ he roared in his best parade ground voice.

The black woman looked at him. Sweat glistened in her close-cropped hair. ‘Tell this pig to keep his hands to himself,’ she spat, returning her gaze to the bald-headed man.

‘Why would I touch filth like you? Back home, you’d be-‘

She slapped him hard across the face. His head snapped back. He put a hand to his reddening face and drew his sword with the other. The woman reached for hers. Before either could square off, Marduk stepped in and pushed them away.

‘Put that bloody thing back before I break it over your head.’ The bald-headed man’s eyes bulged, but he read the intent in Marduk’s face well enough. He slammed the sword back into the scabbard and folded his arms over his chest.

‘You,’ Marduk said, stabbing a finger at the woman. ‘You keep your hands to yourself.’

The woman opened her mouth in outrage, but saw the look on Marduk’s face. Compressing her full lips into a thin line, she nodded curtly.

‘Who are you?’ the bald-headed man asked, not hiding the sulking tone in his voice.

‘Captain Marduk.  

‘Marduk?’ the man said. His face took on a boyish joy. ‘The hero of Skalak’s Pass? That Marduk?’

‘Yes, that Marduk,’ Marduk said. ‘And you are..?’  

‘Colm. Colm Landhalter.’ Colm puffed out his chest. ‘It’s an honour to serve with you.’  

Marduk looked coolly at him for a moment then switched his gaze to the woman.

‘You,’ Marduk said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Inari.’ She crossed her sinewy arms, displaying the scars criss-crossing her skin.

‘That’s it? Inari?’

‘She’s a slave. She doesn’t have a last name,’ sneered Colm.

‘Not a slave anymore,’ she said.

‘Where’s your master?’ Colm said.

‘Dead. I cut his throat from here to here,’ Inari said, running her thumb across her throat. Her look of satisfaction chilled Marduk.

‘A runaway. I could claim you as my own,’ Colm said.

Inari stormed forward, hands reaching for his eyes. Marduk pulled her back.

‘Easy,’ he whispered in her ear. Inari glanced at him and he saw the hurt and rage in her eyes.  

‘General Blevin’s just freed her,’ Marduk said, looking around the room. ‘Though anyone who kills their master is free enough in my book. I’ll have no truck with slaves or slavers, do you understand?’

Colm nodded.

‘And you, Corporal. It’s Sol, yes?’

‘Sir,’ Sol said, saluting again. His long face was blank, shoulders thrust back.

‘Less of the sir, if you don’t mind. We’re not on the parade ground.’

‘Sir,’ Sol said, before checking himself. Inari laughed; a bright sound at odds with her earlier anger. Sol’s face coloured.

‘Which regiment, Corporal?’

‘Fifteenth Rangers. Six months in Glorka.’

‘Good. We’ll need those skills.’ Sol nodded, opened his mouth to speak, then shut it.

‘Spit it out,’ Marduk said, knowing what Sol was about to ask.

‘I was in the first relief column. After Skalak, I mean,’ Sol said, reddening.

‘I know what you mean,’ Marduk said. He felt his face stiffen.

‘I want to say it’s an honour. What you did, up there.’ Sol’s Adam’s apple bobbed. ‘It’s an honour.’

Nodding, Marduk abruptly turned to address Inari.

‘What about you?’ he asked, trying to mask the tension in his voice. ‘Why were you chosen?’

‘Pit fighter,’ Inari said, her eyes distant. ‘I know the capital. They trained me to fight. They thought I was a joke, something to make the crowd laugh in between all the real bouts. I showed them.’

Marduk nodded, heard the sound of trumpets and shouting men and felt a brief surge in his chest.

‘Our mission is clear,’ he said, looking at each of them. ‘We’re to retrieve a man important to the Imperator. I’m putting my trust in people I’ve never met. We will only succeed if you keep your egos in check,’ he said, letting his gaze settle on Colm for a moment. ‘I don’t care about your prejudices. What I want is your experience and obedience. We’re going into a war zone.’

The hollow rattle of a chain reached Marduk before he heard the slow clapping. Feeling a chill steal over him, he turned and watched a figure in black emerge from the corridor.

‘Given the shouts I heard from the street, I half expected there to be a brawl. No doubt if I wait five minutes, my patience will be rewarded.’ The speaker’s rich voice accentuated his contempt. Beneath a tall, broad-brimmed hat, flashing eyes glared. He rattled a chain hanging from his wrist and the links clicked like tumbling dice. Marduk heard shuffling and then the Child stood next to Valens.

Black hair, unwashed and stringy, hung over its face. A rusted iron collar sat loosely round its neck with the chain welded to it. A grey smock, stained with sweat, hung to bony knees. It didn’t look as if it felt the cold. Chalk white arms showed veins as black tracks. Marduk glimpsed wide black eyes staring from beneath the ragged fringe and saw a deep red tongue, almost purple, lick pale lips. Behind those lips, sharp as needles teeth gleamed white.

‘We can’t take a girl with us,’ Colm said. He walked up and stood beside Marduk. ‘What foolishness is…’ His voice choked off when he saw the Child. It looked at him, face blank and predatory at the same time. Blood drained from his face.

‘What is it?’ Marduk said.  

‘Nothing,’ Colm said, suddenly angry. ‘I thought… nothing.’

‘It’s not a girl. Tell them, Valens.’

‘Marduk’s right,’ Valens said. ‘What you think you see is wrong. Don’t forget that. The Child is extremely dangerous. Your soul may depend on you keeping that in mind.’ Marduk noticed that for all his outward arrogance, Valens kept his distance from the Child.  

‘Dangerous is just a word,’ Colm snapped. ‘What is it?’ He stared hard at the Child and chewed on a thumbnail.  

‘Death,’ Marduk said. ‘The Keepers call them and shape them and bind them. They’re a tool, a lethal, disgusting tool.’ He ignored Valens’ glare.

‘We’re crossing Glorka province to get to the capitol. There, the Child will be better than any bloodhound. It has his scent. It will find our man. The Child…’ Marduk’s voice trailed off when he saw the black eyes focus on him. His hand trembled. He forced the words out. ‘It is death.’ He paused and exchanged a glance with Valens.

‘You were chosen because of your skills and experience. We will survive if we work together. If we don’t, I won’t carry your corpse back with me.’

Marduk let that sink in. Sol looked sober. Colm glanced at Inari, who scowled at him.

‘Good then,’ Marduk said, pulling out a map from the leather wallet. ‘Gather round.’  

The Child remained in place, idly scratching at its chest while staring at the floor. Marduk unfolded the map and spread it over a crate.  

‘We sail at high tide tonight. We’ll land here in three days and go overland to Waterford, where we’ll meet…’

                              

  

Marduk squinted at the drizzle. The salt tang of the sea had dissipated that morning. He looked back and saw the bright silver line marking the coast had vanished. He heard the sound of boots squelching in the mud and saw Colm trudge towards him, his scabbard slapping against his leg. Branches rattled, shivering in the bitter breeze.

‘Anything?’

Colm glared at him with murder in his eyes. His cheeks bulged over clenched jaws. ‘They reckon rebels lurk in the hills,’ he grunted. ‘Stripped them of what little they had and sent them running. Sheep.’ He spat in the mud and swore.

Marduk looked around the grey wilderness shrouding what remained of the village. They had arrived an hour ago, climbing steadily from the dunes until they reached a wide plain split by a sluggish, ice-choked river. Abandoned buildings stood along the road. The lack of people reinforced the oppressive emptiness.

Slow moving figures near a pile of bricks and shattered wood caught Marduk’s eye. One gestured to Marduk until another figure pulled them back.

‘Come on. Let’s go eat.’

Colm nodded. Turning, Marduk heard the wail of a baby echo across the wasteland. He flinched, but kept on.

Marduk heard the rattle of the chain before he entered the half-collapsed building. The slap of bare feet on dirt followed. The chain rattled again, louder this time. He felt gooseflesh sweep across his skin. Balling his fists, Marduk walked inside.

A fire burned in the centre of the open space, circled by shattered bricks. Acrid smoke collected beneath the low roof. Around the fire rested the others.

‘Colm says there are rebels operating across the ridge to the east,’ Marduk said, going over to a pot of bubbling porridge.

The chain rattled. Unwillingly, Marduk allowed his eyes to follow the links snaking into a darkened corner. The other end remained tethered to Valens’ wrist. From his place beside the fire, Valens looked at Marduk with hooded eyes.

‘We should set the Child onto the refugees. Bloody parasites.’ Colm said. Thin laughter echoed from the shadows. Marduk felt ice trickle down his spine and he turned furiously on Colm.  

‘It isn’t a dog, you bloody fool,’ he said, seething. More laughter from the shadows, loud and hysterical. Everyone turned to look at Valens, who watched with disdain.

‘This isn’t the theatre,’ Marduk snapped. ‘We’re not here to watch you put on a show. Bring that thing to heel.’

‘As you wish,’ Valens said, glancing around at the surroundings. The chain drew taut. Valens flinched and some of his arrogance faded. He grabbed the chain and pulled hard. More laughter drifted towards them, but softer this time.

‘Corporal?’

‘Sir?’

‘You’re on first watch.’

‘Sir.’

‘There’s a good soldier boy.’ Sol reddened at Inari’s words.

‘You’ve got last watch, Inari,’ Marduk said sharply. She scowled but said nothing. Wrapping her cloak tight, Inari rolled over and closed her eyes. Marduk beckoned to Sol and together they walked over to the doorway.

‘Take the lantern. Walk the perimeter every half hour. I doubt the refugees will bother us, but if they do wake me at once. Don’t be brave. The brave die first.’

                              


Marduk completed another circuit. The storm clouds had passed, leaving a heavy covering of snow and revealing a sky speckled with bitter stars. He glanced at them, shivered at the black gulfs and turned towards the shelter.

A noise made him to a stop. He cocked his head, strained to hear and finally made out words carried ethereally on the air. It was nonsense talk; a stream of babble that made his skin crawl. Resting his hand on his sword hilt, he eased inside the building. The dying embers turned the shadows bloody.

Sol snored quietly. He turned over, muttering. Inari was a shadow on the ground, her sword across her chest, hands clutching the hilt. Valens curled towards the fire, his face a valley of black and red. The chain ran from his wrist into the dark then back around to where the Child sat on its haunches beside a slumbering Colm, muttering into his ear.

Marduk froze. A horrible fascination gripped him. Colm’s face was white. He shuddered. His hands twitched like pale spiders on the hard packed ground.

Colm’s lips moved but no sounds emerged. Marduk fancied that Colm responded to the Child’s words. It was only when Colm began to moan that Marduk moved.

He strode across the open space, sword drawn in a ringing clang. Inari sat up, her eyes wide and sword clutched in one hand as she scrambled to her feet. Marduk kicked Valens on his way passed and the Keeper groggily woke. Two more strides and Marduk held the edge of his sword against the Child’s bare neck.

Its head craned around and Marduk heard clicking bones. Its eyes fixed on him and he thought for a horrified moment that he saw movement within. He swallowed. The Child smiled at him.

‘Back,’ Marduk said. He cleared his throat. ‘Get away from him.’ The Child smiled and placed a possessive hand on Colm’s shoulder.

At that point, Colm woke. Marduk saw the confusion and fright in his eyes. Then Colm saw the Child looming over him. He scrambled aside, boots scattering embers across the dirt. The Child giggled and its breath stank of the grave.

Valens roared. With a rush of wind that scattered the dying fire, his free hand lit incandescent blue and he struck the Child about the head with it. Sparks flew and the howling Child slunk away, its hair hanging in the dirt. Valens followed, striking it several more times, cursing it with each blow. Finally, the blue light faded and he staggered back to the dying fire.

No one spoke. Valens composed himself with an effort, the mask settling like a closing tomb door. He looked at Colm, seemingly indifferent to his fright.

‘Assuming you remember anything it said, ignore it. That goes for everyone. It speaks only to tempt you back to Hell with it.’

Marduk heard the defiance in his voice, but saw the fear in his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak but Valens turned his back, laid on his bedroll and was asleep in moments.

Marduk went over to Colm.

‘You all right?’ Colm started at the sound of Marduk’s voice.  

‘I’m fine. Fine,’ he said, distracted. A look crossed his face, one that Marduk struggled to place. Colm returned to his bedroll. He wrapped himself in a blanket and sat staring at the fire.

Marduk stood. He exchanged a glance with Inari, who shrugged her shoulders and went back to her spot beside the fire. Marduk contemplated the chain lying on the floor. Then he realised the look that had passed across Colm’s face.

Recognition.

                              
 

They woke to find the Child sitting on Valens’ chest. Blood ran from its mouth. It looked at them with lazy, well-fed eyes. It smiled, revealing pieces of flesh clogging the gaps between its teeth. Sol vomited noisily.

‘Damnation,’ Colm said, reaching for his sword. The Child laughed. Marduk grabbed Colm’s arm.

‘Leave it. There’s nothing we can do.’

Valens’ blood steamed in the cold. Marduk noticed the startled look on the dead man’s face.

‘Inari?’ Marduk said. ‘Last watch was yours. What happened?’

Inari watched the Child uneasily. The Child smirked.

‘I slept,’ she said with frightened wonder. ‘Dreamed of summer, grassy fields and a warm breeze. Bees. I heard bees. Its doing,’ Inari said, tilting her chin at the Child. The Child delicately licked its fingers.

Sol returned to the tense circle. He wiped his mouth on the back of a trembling hand. His face was the colour of porridge.

‘You all right?’ Marduk asked. Looking anything but, Sol nodded.

‘We should kill it,’ Colm said.

‘We can’t,’ Marduk said. He circled Valens’ body, keeping his distance from the Child. Its head twisted on its neck like an owl. The end of the chain remained attached to the manacle around Valens’ out flung wrist.

Contemplating the chain, Marduk knelt and touched it.

Intense cold spiked into his forearm. Gasping, he gripped the chain with numb fingers. The Child stared at him with a smile playing on its lips.

‘What did you say?’ Marduk said. He rubbed his temple. The others looked at each other.

‘It said nothing,’ Colm said. He looked at the Child and fingered his hilt.

‘Never mind,’ Marduk said. Not trying to hide his trembling hand, he undid the pin holding the manacle in place. He paused and looked at the Child. It grinned at him. Gritting his teeth, Marduk roughly pulled the manacle free of Valens’ wrist and slipped his own in place. He closed it and pushed the pin home. He flexed his hand and felt the metal settle against his skin. An intimate warmth replaced the cold. The sensation filled him with horror.

‘Let’s pack up and go. We need to be at the ford before sunset.’

                              


Breaking camp, they left Valens’ body wrapped in his cloak. Clouds milled, leaching the colour from the air. Piles of brick and shattered wood marked buildings long raked over by scavengers. Fat snowflakes tumbled from a seething sky into rapidly growing drifts of white across the landscape.

‘Look at that,’ Sol said, his voice tight.

A gibbet creaked from a canted pole; its tattered contents slumped to one side. The snapped end of a leg bone jutted through a gap, fragments of skin fluttering in the frigid breeze. An upside down skull screamed silently at them.

The Child laughed. Marduk tugged on the chain, the rattle of the links muted in the cold.

‘Can’t you keep it quiet?’ Inari said, scowling. The Child turned its wide, solemn eyes on Inari until she looked away.

Marduk pulled on the chain and the Child led them on, its bare feet leaving a trail of brown slush in the pristine snow.

Near the edge of the village, a camp appeared. The remains of a fire smoked. Around it laid several cracked bones, the marrow sucked dry. Colm looked around and snorted.

‘Damned refugees bleed the country dry.’

‘The way I hear you tell it, you were a refugee yourself,’ Inari said, pulling her cloak tight. The hilt of her sword bulged against the fabric.

‘I was nothing like them,’ Colm shouted at her. ‘My family was nothing like…’ His voice choked and he turned away. ‘This was good land,’ he said after a moment. ‘Wheat and rye. Now look at it. Dead. Everything is dead.’ He stared at Inari, his face haunted. ‘Including my family.’

‘Enough,’ Marduk snapped. His head ached with cold and exhaustion and the scar across his shoulder burned. ‘What’s between us and the ford?’

Colm stared at him. His face was unreadable. ‘The track leads through a stretch of wood to the top of the ridge, then down into the valley and on to the ford.’

‘And there are rebels on the ridge?’

Colm nodded. ‘Rebels. Bandits. They’re all the same.’

‘No doubt,’ Marduk said. ‘We’re well armed and prepared. We might be lucky and not cross paths. What about the town itself?’

‘Waterford? I remember it being big when I was a lad. Haven’t been there for twenty years.’

‘It’ll be a ruin, that’s for sure,’ Inari said.

Nodding, Marduk looked around and saw that Sol had dismounted and stood over a bundle of rags lying on the ground.

‘Corporal? ’  

Sol looked up, stricken. Marduk swung from the saddle and walked over to him.

‘Nothing but bad memories here. Come on, we have to le–‘ The look on Sol’s face Marduk had seen countless times. Disbelief and dismay. He glanced at the rags.

They weren’t rags. Marduk grabbed Sol by the arm and pulled him away.

‘Not much glory, is there?’ Marduk said, not unkindly. The Child’s presence was a pressure on his mind. ‘Put it aside and don’t think about it.’

‘How do you do it, sir?’ Sol asked. ‘How do you cope with it all?’

‘One day at a time,’ Marduk growled. He gritted his teeth and tried to put the sight of the baby’s stiff blue arm from his mind.

He climbed into the saddle and waited for Sol. Then they pushed on.

                              


On the ridge as the night swooped, they came for them. Sol led the way, with Marduk stationed at the rear. Inari and Colm sat huddled in their cloaks, horses plodding along a trail swiftly vanishing beneath the falling snow. Bloody light from the setting sun filled their eyes. Snow swarmed through the twilight. The trees were black in the fading light, flat against the rusty sunset. Icicles shivered in the naked branches, their mournful clink an odd counterpoint to an eerie wind rising over the ridge a half mile ahead before it fell on them like a pack of wolves.

A flash of steel alerted Marduk. He cried a warning as he drew his sword and urged on his horse. The chain on his wrist clattered and he felt the briefest of tugs before it went slack again.

Startled, Sol looked back and saw Marduk wielding his sword. He drew his own as did Inari and Colm as half a dozen figures emerged out of the snow and charged at them.

‘Bandits,’ Colm shouted, his voice high and unsteady and excited. His horse reared and threw him into a deep bank of snow between two oaks. Freed of its burden, the horse bolted; a black streak that bowled over two of the bandits before it disappeared round a bend.

Exhilaration filled Marduk. Snow swirled around the clearing, rendering the edges of it soft and uncanny. The sunlight shifted, descended from red tinged with black, to black tinged with red. Shadows danced. He heard ringing steel and Inari chanting in a high-pitched howl. Wheeling his horse around, Marduk charged a bandit and chopped with his sword.

The vibration that shivered up his arm was almost ecstasy. Shouting, Marduk drove the bandit back. He had enough time to see how bedraggled the man was, his cheeks pinched with cold and hunger, clad in rags. Then Marduk’s sword bit deep into the flesh between neck and shoulder and the bandit fell shrieking.

Blood splashed across the churned snow. Marduk turned and prepared to cross the clearing when the weight of the chain on his wrist grew heavy. He fell backwards to the ground.

The world went silent. Dazed, Marduk lay in the snow. A shadow loomed on his right and he waited for the killing blow. To his surprise, the figure reached out and pulled him to his feet. Sol mouthed words. Marduk shook his head and Sol’s lips moved again.

‘-right, sir?’ he yelled. Marduk’s hearing returned, overwhelming him with the sounds of battle. Shaken, he nodded and looked around. The Child sat on a dying man’s chest, laughing into his face. The bandit opened his mouth to scream and the Child gently placed a hand over it. His eyes bulged then rolled back into his head. The Child turned to look over its shoulder at Marduk. His gorge rose at the sly look of delight in its eyes.

‘Watch out.’ Sol spun around and engaged a bandit. Barely beating back a frenzied attack, Marduk surged forward and forced the bandit on the defensive. He glimpsed Sol cut down his attacker and Inari leap back from a blow. Skidding as she landed, Inari fell to one knee and then launched herself at the bandit who strayed too close.

Parrying a low cut, Marduk focussed on the man in front of him. The bandit looked well-fed, his clothing, thought dirty and wet, of a decent cut. His face held a desperate fury, of a plan gone desperately awry.

‘Run,’ Marduk yelled at the bandit as he fended off a blow. ‘Your men are dying for nothing.’ The bandit hesitated, surprised, then pushed forward. He cut low then high, hoping to catch Marduk off guard. Marduk defended for a moment then peeled off a series of cuts that forced the bandit back, towards the tree line.

They stood off for a moment, Marduk panting, the adrenaline turning to bile in his mouth. His chained wrist tugged him back and he pulled hard on it. He saw the bandit follow the chain to the Child, then his eyes widened at what it was doing to the corpse it straddled.

‘Run,’ Marduk said, nearly begging this time. ‘Or you’ll be next.’ A heartbeat, then the bandit put his fingers to his lips and whistled.

‘Back,’ he yelled, moving towards the trees. The survivors looked up, hesitated, then joined him. In a moment, as the snow thickened, they vanished into the treeess, leaving silence to envelope the clearing.

‘Anyone hurt?’ Marduk said, doing his best to suppress the tremor in his voice. Ignoring the look Sol gave him, Marduk began to circle the clearing. The chain went taut. A sudden rage came over him and he turned and pulled, dragging the Child of the corpse’s chest and into the snow. It came up snarling and spitting blood from its red-rimmed mouth. But when it saw Marduk, it calmed instantly and sat on its haunches, blinking slowly.

Inari came up, wiping her sword clean on a piece of torn cloth.

‘Nothing wrong with me,’ she said. Her eyes were wide and she breathed in ragged, excited gasps. ‘Worry about him.’

Looking over her shoulder, Marduk saw Colm struggle to his feet. He stood, spluttering and wiped chunks of snow from his hair and clothes.

‘Blasted horse,’ he said, not looking anyone in the eye. ‘Where is the damned thing?’

‘Somewhere up the trail,’ Sol said, trying to suppress a smile. He shared a look with Inari, whose lips quirked, and then suddenly both were laughing.

‘You’ll not laugh at me,’ Colm snarled, drawing his sword. The shriek of metal rang in the chill air. The Child smiled, its eyes narrowing in anticipation. Colm marched up to Inari, his sword pointed at her heart.

‘Keep your mouth shut or you’ll get a taste of this.’

Inari stood her ground. Sol stepped in and batted Colm’s sword away.

‘My commander always said only draw your weapon if you mean to use it,’ Sol said. He levelled his sword at Colm.

Wallowing, Colm looked between Sol and Inari and then slammed his sword back into its scabbard. He looked around the clearing at the bodies.

‘There’ll be more of that scum soon enough.’

‘Move the bodies to the edge of the clearing,’ Marduk ordered. Sheathing his sword, Sol helped Inari drag a corpse off the trail.

Marduk walked over to the bandit he had killed. Blood from the deep, ragged wound in its neck had melted the snow into a crimson slush. Marduk grabbed the corpse under the shoulders and dragged it beside the other bodies.

He wiped his hands then gripped them together when one trembled. The chain jingled, the soft sound echoing across the clearing.

‘Come on,’ Marduk called, his voice harsh. ‘I want to get off this ridge.’ Little more than a hint on the horizon, the sun stained red the churning clouds. He climbed onto his horse.  

‘Get up,’ he said to Colm, extending his hand. ‘Let’s go find your horse.

Colm grunted and with Marduk’s help, swung up behind him. As he did, the wind swept in, bringing with it the sound of screaming.

A few hundred yards along, they found Colm’s horse. Foam covered its mouth and it panted heavily. Colm slid to the ground and began to swear, loudly and profanely. The horse’s right foreleg had broken, the cannon bone bulging against the skin. As Colm approached, the horse tried to stand and screamed again when its shattered leg flopped about.

For a moment, Marduk was back at Skalak’s Pass, the wind soughing between the peaks, men heaving and cursing and fighting. The stink of blood hung in the air and he saw horses, crammed in tight by the press of men, scream shrilly over the frantic struggles of the men.

Inari sat in the saddle, immune to the beast’s agony. Marduk dismounted and saw Sol had reached the horse first. Sol drew his dagger and held it against his side. He knelt and placed a hand on its neck, stroking the hide until the horse grew silent. He waited a moment, then quickly sliced the blade across its neck. Blood fountained across the snow, thick and black against the white. The horse shivered and fell back, a last streamer of steam escaping its slack mouth.

‘You should walk all the way to Glorka,’ Sol said to Colm, pointing with his dripping dagger. ‘Bloody fools like you deserve nothing less.’

Colm rode with Marduk until they made camp. He sat silently, huddled beside the fire, until it was his turn to stand watch.

                              
 

The next morning broke bright and cold. While Sol and Inari brushed and fed the horses, Marduk walked to a rocky outcrop and stared down into the valley.

‘Bad business last night,’ Colm said, coming up and standing beside him. Black smudges marked the skin under Colm’s eyes and his flesh hung loose on his skull. He held a steaming mug in one hand and handed another to Marduk who took it with a nod of thanks.

‘We got through it,’ Marduk said, taking a cautious sip. He nodded at the heat and flavour and swallowed another mouthful. He pointed into the valley.

‘How far is Waterford?’

‘A few hours,’ Colm said. He pointed to a grey smudge half way along the valley floor.

‘The ford is there. The town was larger when I was a lad. Before we fled, we heard rumours it had been overrun and burned.’

‘Any chance of trouble?’

‘I doubt it. No one trades here anymore. Bandits have moved on to richer pickings.’

Taking another sip, Marduk spent a few moments matching the landscape with the map he held in his head. He glanced at Colm.

‘When did you flee?’

‘Almost a year now,’ Colm said. His face had gone still.

‘Family?’

‘Lost them. The panic…’

The chain rattled. Colm started.

‘What did you see?’ Marduk whispered. A fresh chill stole across his skin. He resisted the urge to look behind, to follow where the chain led.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Before. Back at the port. When Valens came with the Child. You looked-‘

Colm swallowed. ‘Nothing. I saw nothing.’ A crimson flush drowned the pallor in Colm’s face.

‘Were you married?’

Colm nodded, his eyes distant. ‘Wife. Daughter.’

Marduk looked out over the valley again, then dashed the contents of his mug into the snow.

‘The world’s a shit hole,’ he said. ‘We break camp in five minutes.’

The Child followed Marduk back to the camp, while Colm stayed on the outcropping, gaze fixed on the view without seeing it.

                              
 

The ruins of Waterford stood black and stark against the snow. On either side of the road leading in, bare trees clawed the empty sky. A squat mill, its stone shattered and its conical bulk black with soot, stood beside the river. The windmill’s creaked in the freshening breeze, its ragged sails flapping uselessly.

‘What now, Captain?’ Sol asked. He gazed around the town with haunted look.

‘We wait,’ Marduk said, dismounting. Colm had already climbed down and stood beside the cloven millstone, staring at the river. Marduk secured his horse, then pointed to Inari.

‘You and Sol check the perimeter. If you see anyone or anything, I want to hear you before I see you running back here, is that clear?’

Inari flourished a mock salute and slid to the ground. She looped the reins over a piece of wood then joined Sol. Marduk saw how close they walked together and shook his head.

‘Trouble?’ Colm said.

‘Not if they keep their hands off each other.’

‘Thought you’d stop that sort of thing. Unnecessary distraction.’

‘More trouble that its worth. They’ll look out for each other, which means they’ll look out for us.’

Colm snorted and turned to the river.

‘My father had slaves. In his will, he wanted them freed. I sold them instead. Got my start that way.’

Before Marduk could respond, he heard a sharp whistle. He and Colm turned to see Inari jogging back, scabbard slapping her leg.

‘Boat,’ she said, slowing to a walk. ‘Sol’s giving him a hand tying up.’

The boatman stood on the bank. He scratched at the dirty yellow beard fringing his face. One of his eyes was a puckered crater, the other bulging out as he glared at the sky. A scrim of white hair poked out from under a rotting woollen cap. A patched tunic over worn leggings completed his disreputable look.

Beside him stood a boy, thin and pale, in clothes as good as rags.

‘Which one of you is Marduk?’ the boatman asked. ‘Couldn’t be you,’ he pointed to Inari, cackling. She folded her arms over her chest and scowled.

‘I am,’ Marduk said. ‘You’re Marat?’

‘Assuredly,’ Marat said. He had the dark cast of the local population and a thick accent that verged on the guttural. He looked curiously at the Child, then his eye widened and he hurriedly glanced away. Taking off his cap, he scratched at something in his flaking scalp, examined his nails and jammed the cap back on.

‘What about the boat?’ Marduk said.

Marat pointed to a craft bobbing alongside the blackened remains of a pier. It sat low in the water.

‘That will get us to the capitol?’

‘Nothing else will as fast.’ Marat’s mouth worked and he muttered to himself. ‘Of course, there’s no one else alive but me who can take you.’ His chuckle sounded like a mouthful of broken teeth grinding together. ‘Money up front,’ he said abruptly, as if the idea had just occurred to him. He held out a bony hand. Marduk took a jingling bag from his pack and tossed it to Marat, who plucked it from the air.

‘What about the horses?’ Inari said.

‘This scamp will take care of them.’ Marat paused pawing through the contents of the bag and laid a possessive hand on the boy’s shoulder. He flinched at the old man’s touch.

‘An ill fed boy?’ Inari’s eyes narrowed.

‘He’ll do,’ Marduk said, signing to Inari to be quiet.

‘She’s got a lip,’ Marat said. ‘Put the iron collar back on her. That shuts them up.’ Sol grabbed Inari by the elbow as she started towards Marat. She shook him off and stood glaring at the boatman.

‘What’s your name?’ Marduk asked the boy.

The boy looked uncertainly at the boatman.

‘He don’t have a name. Found him wandering lost a few months back. He’s a mouth to feed, but he’s been useful once or twice. Haven’t you?’ The boy nodded, clearly miserable.

‘Come on then,’ Marduk said. ‘I’ll show you the horses.’

‘He’s extra,’ Marat said.

‘Extra?’ Sol said. His eyes narrowed.

‘Five lodos. I have to feed him.’

‘Really? You feed him?’ Sol’s anger was evident.

‘Five lodos when we return,’ Marduk said, flashing a warning look at Sol. ‘And only if you get us back.’

Marat considered this for a long while, while the others waited impatiently. Finally, he nodded. ‘Go on,’ he said, pushing the boy forward. ‘You two,’ Marduk said, pointing to Sol and Colm. ‘Let’s get this gear stowed then we’ll find shelter for the horses.’

Out of sight, Marduk found the boy’s silence dragging on him. The Child walked on his left, with the boy on his right. Marduk wondered how strange all three of them might look to anyone coming down the street.

‘Do you remember your name, lad?’ Marduk asked as they came to the horses.

The boy nodded.

‘What is it?’ Colm said.

‘Luka.’

‘Well, Luka. Do you think you can look after our horses?’

Nodding, Luka reached out and touched Marduk’s horse, running his hand over its hide.

‘Colm, you stay with him. Sol and I will scout for shelter.’

‘What do you think?’ Sol said as they walked through the ruined village. They went passed a rotting corpse half buried under shattered wood and brick. Marduk had to tug on the chain to drag the Child away from inspecting it.

‘What do I think? We need to get to the capitol as soon as we can.’

‘I meant the boy.’

‘I know what you meant,’ Marduk snapped. He stopped before a shed. One side had collapsed, but the remaining walls and most of the roof was intact. He grunted, then nodded.

‘The sooner you learn we can’t fix everything wrong in the world the better.’ He rubbed his face, heard the bristles of his greying beard rasp. ‘This will do. The boy should be safe enough. Come on, let’s go back.’

Marduk lifted Luka onto the back of his horse, and the boy smiled for the first time since they had met. He handed him down once the horses were inside the shed and helped Sol hobble each.

‘You’ll be right, lad,’ Colm said. Colm pulled a stick of jerky from a wax paper pack and handed it to Luka. The boy, eyes wide in winder, took the meat and bit on it. Colm nodded, then placed the bundle on top of a pack sitting beside the boy. ‘Make sure you eat. The old bastard doesn’t care an inch about you,’ he said, gruff and suddenly embarrassed.

Marduk glanced at Sol and then knelt before the boy. ‘If Marat isn’t back in three days, take a horse and ride east. Do you understand?  You’ll find a village there. At least, that’s what the map says. Someone will take you in. Three days, all right?’ The boy, cheeks fat with food, nodded. As them men left, he waved to the Child. It ignored him.

Colm looked at Marduk as they walked back. ‘Any chance the old man won’t return in three days?’  

‘Stranger things have happened,’ Marduk said, fingering his dagger hilt and smiling sardonically. ‘The old bastard may just do the right thing and die.’

Back at boat, an impatient Inari had her back to Marat who stood mumbling to himself.

When Marat saw the men return, he looked querulously at them. ‘What have you done with him?’ He anxiously twisted the cap in his hands.

‘The boy’s well enough,’ Colm said. He heaved his pack into the boat, setting it to rocking back and forth. Ice clinging to the bank cracked and bobbed away.

‘Come now, Marat,’ Marduk said, clapping him on the back so hard the old man almost fell. ‘We’ve been promised a peasant boat trip. Let’s go.’

Marat started to speak when the chain rattled and the Child stepped from behind Marduk. The old man’s eyes widened and his sickly face drained to the colour of dough.

‘Yes, yes,’ Marat stammered. ‘In you get,’ he said, irritable and suddenly frightened. He climbed in and staggered to the stern where he gripped the tiller like a drowning man.

The others settled into the boat. The Child perched on the bow. Marduk cast off then settled beside Sol.

‘Feels like a Sunday row in the capitol,’ Marduk said, lifting an oar into place.

‘Really?’ Sol said.

Marduk squinted, remembered. ‘No. Let’s get started. The sooner we get there the less time we have to stomach Master Marat’s fine company.’


 

Chunks of ice thudded against the hull. Marduk felt the cold bite through the manacle at his wrist like an icicle thrust deep into the bone. The Child hummed quietly to itself. The others huddled along the length of the boat, the chain snaking between them like a glistening snake. Marduk shifted and tried to stretch his legs. Colm cursed when Marduk kicked him. The Child looked around, its eyes black and gleaming. Soot ran in black tracks down its face. Colm but his lip and subsided into a sullen glare. The Child turned back and resumed its humming.

Blackened trees loomed. Here and there, charred fence posts emerged from the dead weeds like crumbling teeth. Near a bend they saw the left bank choked with the burned, rotting corpses of dozens of cattle. Marduk watched Sol track the remains with wide, frightened eyes until they disappeared into the fog. Colm cursed again. The tension grew worse.

‘Not long now.’ Marduk glanced at Marat standing in the stern, hand braced on the tiller as the boat drifted down the central channel.

‘This used to be good land,’ Colm said, his voice an angry mutter. ‘Cattle. Sheep. Families grew rich here.’

‘Rich,’ Inari spat, sending ripples across the water.

‘That’s right. They worked hard, raised good families. All gone now. The land is a ruin.’

‘Built on the backs of slaves,’ Inari said. She looked ready to leap at him until Sol grabbed her shoulder. Her head snapped around. They exchanged a look, then she subsided and shrank into her cloak. A bitter wind blew across the river, sending the boat yawing towards the bank. Marat swore and struggled for a few moments until he straightened their course.

‘Did you hear that?’ Sol said, sitting straighter.  Marduk lifted a hand. A distant cry drifted over them. They heard a thunk and a whistling shriek, then a cracking sound, like a walnut under a hammer.

‘The siege,’ Marduk said. Hands drifted to weapons. The mist swirled and they saw a distant, roiling black column against the sky.

‘Like I said,’ Marat cackled. ‘Not long now.’

More signs of life emerged. Or at least, its wreckage. Piers loomed, burned and shattered. At one point, they passed under the gaping remains of a bridge. Cemented stones on either bank jutted out over the water for several paces. The central span lay broken-backed in the water. Corpses became more common. Tumbled bones in rotten rags littered either bank. Now and then a bloated, waxen corpse drifted by, hair swirling in the water, twisted features gaping at the sky.

The blare of trumpets transported Marduk back to Skalak Pass. Sleet fell sideways in the howling gale. A triple line of men roared and held the line and washed their spears in the blood of their enemies. He shook his head and clasped his shaking hands.

The thud of thousands of feet echoed across the water. Shouts and cries went up with the rattle of drums. A wooden clatter rang out and Sol looked up before glancing at Marduk who stared stonily ahead.

‘What is it?’ Inari said.

‘They’re storming the walls,’ Sol said, shaking his head. ‘They’ve lifted ladders into place.’

‘That’s good then,’ Colm said, looking eagerly into the mist. Then they heard the screaming start.

‘Frontal assaults on fixed positions should only occur after sappers have undermined the foundations of the walls,’ Marduk said. ‘That’s what the manual says. I’d like to strangle the officer who gave the orders. I doubt a sapper has been within a hundred miles of these walls.’

The screams were joined by the heavy thud, thud, thud of falling bodies. Distraught, Sol gripped the side of the boat until his knuckles turned white. Hesitant at first, Inari laid a hand on his shoulder.  

‘River’s taking us a little ways north,’ Marat said, as if he hadn’t heard the sounds of combat. To their rear, Marduk heard trumpets sound the retreat; the earlier joyful blare replaced by an insistent dirge that stirred yet more memories.

The mist deepened until they sank into a world of white. Visibility shrank to a few feet. Marat scanned the water with jerky movements of his head that reminded Marduk of a fearful bird.

The Child looked avidly into the mist. Water beaded its hair, creating a glittering fretwork.  There was a moment when Marduk saw a lost little girl, far, far from home. Then the rust stains on the iron collar seemed to darken and run red into its smock. The Child craned its head to look at him, at an angle that should’ve shattered the vertebrae like kindling.

Marduk’s throat grew unaccountably dry. He coughed and winced at the rasping sound. He unscrewed his canteen and swallowed a mouthful of tepid water. At the stern, Marat softly called out.

‘Here we go.’ The boat angled towards the left bank. The mist parted, revealing a weed choked side channel.

‘Get out the oars, boys,’ Marat said, his voice high and wheezing. ‘There’s no current here.’

Without a word, Sol and Colm slid the oars into the oarlocks. They entered the channel with a rustling sound.

‘Easy as you go,’ Marat said.

Sol and Colm rowed. The sounds of retreat faded and a thick silence settled. Uneasy, Marduk looked around. Vague, twisted shapes swam through the mist. A dim silver coin, masquerading as the sun, rode the sky. The diffuse light struck Marduk with a sudden fear that he would never see clean sunlight again. He caught the Child slyly looking at him and wondered if the chain that linked them was the only connection they shared. His skin crawled.

Inari huddled against the side of the boat. Her head jerked at every sound.

‘It’s the waiting that’s the worst,’ Marduk said, his voice low. Startled, Inari almost jumped out of her seat.

‘It’s not the waiting,’ Inari said, shaking her head. Her full lips thinned to a dark line and vertical groves appeared either side of her mouth. ‘This was where I was sold the first time. Slave market,’ she said, answering Marduk’s unspoken question. ‘Sold to someone like him,’ she said, tilting her chin at Colm, whose face went red. ‘I was twelve.’

‘Hush,’ Marat hissed. ‘Ship those oars. We’re here.’

A wall reared out of the mist. It stretched either side of the channel, moss and lichen clinging to the grey bulk. A narrow tunnel appeared, like a hole in a tooth. Rusted bars covered the entrance though Marduk saw several had broken off. He doubted the rest would resist for more than a minute or two.

‘Out you get,’ Marat said. He looked exhausted and unwell. Water dripped from his beard and the dark skin under his eyes hung loose.

‘That’s how we’re getting into the city?’ Colm said. ‘What are we, sewer rats?’

‘How deep is the water?’ Sol peered dubiously over the side. He flinched. Marduk saw something furry and dead bobbing along in the water.

‘No more than two or three feet. A hundred yards in there’s a set of iron rungs fixed to the wall. They lead to a room in an abandoned building.’ Marat coughed, the phlegmy sound rebounding from the tunnel mouth.

They gathered their gear. Marduk went in first, the stagnant water rising to his waist. Holding his sword over his head in one hand, he took his pack from Sol and waded to the bank where he rested it. The Child followed. The water stopped at its shoulders. It moved easily, like an eel in search of prey. Marduk watched Sol help Inari into the water, steadying the boat as she entered. Colm almost fell in, catching himself on the muddy bank with an outthrust hand.

Without ceremony, Marat used an oar to turn the boat. ‘Noon tomorrow,’ he said. ‘And the next day if you’re not here. After that…’

They watched the boat disappear into the mist.

‘What now?’ Inari said, looking at the bars.

‘That’s our way in,’ Marduk said. He pulled a small lamp from his pack. ‘Weapons only. Leave your gear behind.’ The others nodded.

While Marduk lit the lamp with a flint, the Child slipped between the bars. Water slapped quietly against the crumbling brickwork.

‘When we enter,’ Marduk said to Inari. ‘You’ll lead us to the Palace.’

‘I thought the Child could do it,’ Inari said.  

‘It can, but it will take the most direct route. I don’t fancy fighting every step of the way just because the Child prefers a straight line through street fighting.’ He ignored the idiot grin that spread across its face.

‘Once we get into the Palace, the Child will be our bloodhound.’

‘And when we find Roland?’ Sol asked. ‘What then?’

‘If he’s imprisoned, we free him,’ Marduk said.

‘And if he’s gone over to the rebels?’ Colm said.

Marduk shook his head. ‘One problem at a time.’ He ignored the look Inari shared with Sol. ‘Let’s get these bars sorted.’

Sol worked on the badly corroded bars. One snapped off in his hand while another bent enough for him and Colm to enter. Inside, the light was dim and the air thick and rank. Moss hanging from the ceiling gave off a faint light.

Marduk raised the lamp. Cockroaches, as long as a thumb, skittered away from the light and disappeared into cracks. Fists of nitre clung to the low ceiling.

‘Ready?’ Marduk said. The others nodded. The chain tugged at his wrist. Turning, Marduk followed it into the gloom.

Every few yards the chain snagged on the bottom of the tunnel, forcing Marduk to stop and work it free. He glanced over his shoulder at one point and saw the tunnel mouth had receded to a bright pinpoint of light.  

‘How far?’ Colm muttered, looking fearfully at the low ceiling. Sweat beaded on his scalp and he had look of a frightened animal.

‘Relax,’ Sol said. Colm ignored him. Marduk saw his eyes drift to the chain. He knew exactly what the man was thinking.

Squeals ripped through the air. A sleek rat perched on a shattered brick. Its black fur bristled and sharp, yellow teeth flashed. Red eyes glared at them.

Colm gagged. A flash and the rat convulsed and fell dead. Inari appeared out of the gloom and pulled her dagger free of the bleeding corpse.

‘I don’t agree with him much, but rats are disgusting.’ She cleaned the blade and slid it back into her belt.  

Marduk held up his hand. The others stopped.

‘What is it?’ Inari whispered. She peered at the ceiling and saw a trickle of dust begin to fall. ‘I thought I heard-‘

Vibrations rippled the bricks, making them pop and crack. Dust fell, turning the water muddy. A rat jumped from brick to brick, chirruping loudly before it disappeared into a hole.

‘What the hell was that?’ Colm said, looking terrified. The vibrations stopped. They looked at each other, then at the ceiling.

The tunnel convulsed, sending them reeling against the walls. Bricks shattered with a sound like breaking bones. A black wave of rats swam amongst them towards the distant light.

‘Back,’ Marduk shouted. ‘The walls coll-‘

A giant fist smashed into the tunnel. A titanic roar of collapsing stone and earth swallowed the world. Marduk fell, the weight of the chain dragging him under the water. He fought to regain his footing. When he did, he surged from the water, gasping for air.  

‘Sol! Inari! Answer me, damn it. Colm?’

As the dust cleared, Marduk saw the others pressed against a wall, lit by a shaft of light. Colm looked dazed, his eyes locked on something in the depths of the tunnel. Sol cradled Inari, who bled from a cut above her ear.

Marduk made to move towards then when the chain at his wrist brought him up short. Annoyed, he tugged at it then realised the far end had snagged. Cursing, he followed the links until he came to a mound of dirt and shattered rock.

‘Where is she?’ Colm yelled, coughing up a thick wad of muddy phlegm. ‘Where’s Daria?’

Heaving on the chain, Marduk pulled a few feet free before it caught. Light lit the Child’s arm and leg emerging from a pile of shattered stone and earth.

‘You bastard,’ Colm shouted at Marduk. ‘You’ve killed her.’ He came at Marduk, fist pulled back. Marduk grabbed Colm by the wrist and throat and forced him against the wall.

‘Get a grip you bloody fool.’

‘You’ve killed her,’ Colm sobbed. ‘You’ve killed her.’

‘That’s not your daughter,’ Marduk hissed. ‘Listen. It isn’t Daria. It’s a thing. Daria is dead. Your daughter is dead.’

The strength ran out of Colm. He slumped against the wall and wept. Marduk let go, aware of the manacle digging into his flesh. He looked at Colm who stared with wet eyes for a long moment before lunging at the mound. Frantic, he sent clots of dirt and brick flying. Marduk watched for a moment, then signalled to Sol.

Sol left Inari leaning against the wall with a rag pressed against her head. Together he and Marduk helped Colm dig into the mound, unearthing the Child.  

Colm stood over the body, his eyes unreadable. Marduk thought the Child’s face peaceful, drained of its habitual slyness.

‘Is she…is it dead?’ Sol asked.

Before Marduk answered, the Child’s eyes snapped open. For the briefest moment, something terribly lost and alone lurked in their black orbits. As quickly, its gaze hardened and turned blank. The Child sat. Cracked bones realigned with muffled pops. Colm took several steps back, his face white as curdled milk. The Child shook itself, rested on its haunches, and regarded them with unblinking eyes.

‘What happened?’ Inari said, joining hem. She peered at the light, wincing as she dabbed at her cut. The bleeding had stopped, but Marduk noted her unfocussed eyes.

‘Wall breach. Catapults, maybe. Or grappling hooks. That charge may’ve been a diversion while they brought down the wall. Whatever it was, this is the result.’ Marduk looked up the steep incline towards the light and tried to ignore the uncomfortably close presence of the Child. A brick toppled and bounced towards them.  

‘There’s no time to dig through that. We’ll have to climb up to the street.’

The others nodded. Inari swayed. Sol put an arm around her waist. She tried to shrug him off, but he murmured something to her. She nodded and leaned against him.

‘Colm. Colm?’

Colm looked groggily at Marduk. ‘Yeah?’

‘Are you all right?’

Colm nodded.  

‘Can I rely on you?’

‘What are you talking about? Of course you can.’ Something of his old bluster returned. Marduk exchanged a look with Sol, who shrugged.

‘Good. I’ll go first, then you and Sol will help Inari. Wait for my signal before you come.’

Marduk scrambled up the steep mound which shifted with each step. Bricks clattered into the water. The Child kept up, nimble hands and feet finding holds. Finally, he reached the top of the mound, beneath a ragged lip. Head down, Marduk listened.

Scuffling. A woman screamed. Men laughed. Grim-faced, Marduk waited. The screams died to whimpers; the laughter to eager grunts. After a few minutes, the men moved. Marduk straightened and his head and shoulders emerged from the hole.

Large blocks of shattered stone lay in a heap extending for fifty yards either side. Arms and legs stuck out at odd angles. Blood squeezed between the stones and dribbled onto the cobbled ground.

An open door across the rubble-strewn street beckoned. Heaving himself out, Marduk scrambled to his feet. He heard shouting at the far end of the street. A squad of men in familiar uniforms ran across the gap, whooping and yelling. He heard more screams, more laughter. Gritting his teeth, Marduk turned and signalled to Sol. Then he ran across the street and entered the doorway.

The hot, coppery smell of blood struck him. Gagging, Marduk drew his sword and edged through a room filled with shattered furniture into a short corridor. Beyond laid a room at the rear. Inside, he saw a man, a woman and boy slumped against a wall. Their slashed throats hung open to the bone.

A cold breeze swept through the room. For a moment, Marduk wondered about their lives under the Imperial siege, promised protection but given none. Squeezing his trembling hand into a fist he returned to the front room.

The shouting faded. Looking across the street Marduk saw the collapsed remains of the wall. A body, an arrow jutting from its throat, lay atop the rubble. A crow landed on its chest. It strutted in a circle and then pecked at the corpse’s face.

Whistling low, Marduk signalled Colm who climbed out and staggered across the street. His dazed look troubled Marduk.

‘Get in,’ Marduk said when Colm reached him. ‘And stay out of the back room.’ Colm nodded and Marduk watched him settle against a wall, his gaze distant.

Marduk readied himself to signal Sol when he heard the tramp of approaching men. He shrank back into the doorway.

‘There’s resistance at the palace.’

‘Another siege? We just got away with this one.’

‘At least Janos will be happy. He pushed hard for this.’

‘And the men? Should we concentrate our forces?’

‘Not yet. Janos was explicit. Maintain a token force around the palace and let the rest of the lads off the leash. After a few hours, we move in. He wants to send a message to the locals that rebelling again isn’t worth the candle.’

The men walked out of earshot. Marduk, his mouth a grim line, glanced towards the backroom.

‘Janos? What’s that bastard doing here?’ He felt a sick rage grow. The he realised he could see the Child.  

Frantic, he looked around and saw the chain snaking through the broken furniture to the rear. Signalling Sol to cross with Inari, Marduk turned and followed the chain.

The Child squatted in front of the dead boy, its head cocked to one side. A fall of greasy hair hid its face. Marduk watched it reach out to touch the boy’s face, just as Sol and Inari arrived. The Child snatched its hand back and turned to Marduk. Confusion gave way to slyness. Marduk swallowed and left.

In the front room, Marduk went over Inari who crouched beside a wall.  

‘Focus on my finger,’ Marduk said. Inari lifted her head and squinted as he moved his hand from left to right.

‘Congratulations. You’ve a mild concussion,’ Marduk. ‘If you want to vomit, and you probably will, make sure it’s not anywhere near me.’ He tore a strip from his shirt and handed it to Inari.

‘Best I can offer. Keep that pressed to the cut until it stops bleeding.’  

He looked up at Sol. ‘Stop hovering like a love-sick puppy, Sol,’ Marduk said. Inari’s eyes widened, then her grin broadened.

Sol reddened. Marduk shook his head. ‘Easy. Men can laugh about these things.’

Sol smiled briefly then went to the doorway.

‘Why don’t we join the others?’ Sol asked, looking into the street.

‘Politics, mostly.’ Marduk said. ‘War is better without politicians constantly interfering. If D’ath is a traitor, he’s an embarrassment to the Imperator. We get him out and the high ups can deal with him. If he’s a captive, freeing him makes him a hero, and the Imperator needs a hero on the Council. If we leave him to the regular soldiers, he’ll be just another corpse on a pile that’s getting bigger by the hour. And we’ll get the blame.’

Sol looked unhappy. ‘So we’re on our own?’

‘That’s right,’ Marduk said, rising to his feet and stretching his back.

‘If we have to fight our own men…’

‘Wake up, Sol,’ Inari said. Her familiar alertness had almost returned. ‘I saw the world from a slave pen. Life isn’t what you hope, but only what it is.’

‘Where’s Colm?’ Marduk said, looking around. The chain shifted and they heard Colm sob.

Marduk reached him first. The corpses were still where they sat, twisted and grotesque. The Child still crouched in front of them. Colm knelt nearby, one hand stretched towards the Child. A mad, desperate hope filled his face.

‘Colm, come back.’ Marduk kept his voice as calm as possible. He saw the Child’s eyes flick towards him then back to Colm. That gaze, that black, empty, cunning gaze sent a spike of fear through Marduk.

‘Please. Colm.’

Marduk saw Child’s lips twitch. Was it amusement, he wondered later. If so, who had amused it?

‘Daria? Oh God, Daria.’

The slyness dropped from the Child’s face, revealing terror and fear and love and hope. It called to Colm.

‘Daddy!’

The words struck Colm like a thunderbolt. He sagged to both knees, his mouth working soundlessly. Trembling, Colm lifted his arms to embrace the Child.

‘Colm, no!’ Paralysed, Marduk watched as a look of triumph emerged on the Child’s face, the change as seamless as the shift from day into night. It leaped towards Colm, swift and sure and hungry. Before Marduk could draw his sword, the Child buried its mouth into Colm’s throat.

Colm’s mouth dropped open and never closed again. His body shivered. The Child nuzzled him, an obscene parody of a daughter’s kiss. A thick stream of heart’s blood spilled over his lips and fell into the raddled mess of the Child’s hair. Then, with an awful ripping sound, the Child staggered back, cartilage and flesh hanging from its ruin of a mouth.

Inari vomited, a hacking cough mixed with a ragged sob. Sol drew his sword and moved to attack. Marduk stepped in and pushed him back.

‘Don’t,’ Marduk said. Rage swept through, gone as soon as it erupted, leaving him with a desolate weariness.

Beads of sweat stood on Sol’s shocked face. ‘We have to kill it.’

‘We can’t.’ Marduk shook his head. ‘Even though it damns us, we still need it.’

‘It’s killed two of us,’ Sol shouted. ‘How can we trust it not to kill us all?’

‘We don’t have a choice,’ Marduk said, refusing to look at Sol. ‘Without the Child, we can’t complete our mission.’

‘Damn our mission,’ Sol said, pointing his sword at Marduk.

‘Go then,’ Marduk said. ‘If it’s all too much, go. Marat will be waiting. Take Inari with you. Go.’ 

Sol’s eyes flicked to Inari, who wiped her mouth clean. She shook her head.  

‘Damn you,’ Sol said, sheathing his sword. ‘Damn you and your mission.’ He went back to the front room where he stood in the doorway, jaw clenched.

The Child giggled. Its face and hair were thick with blood. It smiled at Marduk then pulled a chunk of flesh from Colm’s ruined neck. Marduk felt something slip deep inside him. His vision went black. When he regained control, Marduk found he had looped the chain around the Child’s neck and had pulled it tight.

‘You’ve never fooled me,’ he hissed, nearly gagging on the Child’s carrion stink. ‘You played on a father’s grief, but you don’t fool me.’ He raised his hand, displaying the links welded to the manacle.

‘I know about the chain. It’s not just a leash. Each linked sanctified with blood to keep you in check. At least a little.’ Marduk wiped away the sweat dripping into his eyes.  

‘So when I do this,’ Marduk said, gripping the slack and tightening the chain. ‘It hurts.’ The Child’s face went black and its hands scrabbled at the links biting deep into its throat. Black eyes bulged and rolled back in its head.

As if from deep underwater, Marduk heard shouting.  The words were distorted, distant. A fist struck him. Inari loomed in front of him, mouthing working silently. He shook his head, and the fugue cleared. He saw the Child slumped over, blood tinged drool hanging from its slack mouth. Marduk loosened the chain and let the Child fall to the floor.

‘Not all the Keeper’s lore is secret.’ He leant over and stabbed a blunt finger into the Child’s forehead. It felt like poking a mountain. ‘There’s intelligence in there,’ he said. ‘So you understand I know how to make your existence a hell on Earth. As much as you disgust me, I’ll keep you alive as long as you’re useful. That–‘ and here he pointed to Colm’s corpse-‘cannot happen again.’

The Child’s eyes hardened into diamond points of malice. Marduk matched it until the Child nodded. He dropped the chain in a rattling pile between them. ‘Let’s go,’ he said to Inari.

‘Is Sol right?’ Inari said, her voice low. ‘That thing just slaughtered Colm. How can we go on?

‘We’re at war,’ Marduk said. His voice sounded distant to him. ‘You get the same offer I gave Sol. The boat is waiting. Go if you want. If you do, you’ll miss your only chance to make the people who made you a slave pay. The rebel leadership are men thrown off their plantations when the Empire came. Men who bought and sold you. Will you give up that chance?’

‘Who are you?’ Inari asked, horrified.

‘I’m Marduk. I held the line at Skalak’s Pass while everyone else died or ran. Are you going to run? Are you?’ he said, pointing at Sol. ‘It’s been easy until now,’ Marduk said. ‘A little gallop on horseback, some swordplay and a soft ride in a boat. Not anymore. It’s death out there. Two men at each other’s throats with knives in a dark alley while the world burns. Don’t you understand? You either cut and run, or stay and win. There is no other choice.’


 

The afternoon sun guttered towards night. The sky flamed one last time and fell into bloody rust. Mist filled the street. Doorways yawned open. Buildings burned, sending gouts of smoke billowing into the sky. Corpses hung out of windows and littered the streets, heads broken or throats slashed wide and bloody. Screams filled the night.

Inari led the way, ghosting ahead through shadows that deepened into black clots. The road from the shattered wall swiftly narrowed, then split, then split again until they were deep into a warren of streets filled with stinking refuse and chokepoints that made it impossible to turn and retreat.

‘Look at this,’ Sol said. His gaze was haunted. Bloody, broken bodies lay strewn across the alley. Blood puddled in the gutters. Dead faces stared at them.

‘It’s war,’ Marduk said. He tugged on the chain bringing the Child to heel. ‘Move.’

Inari took them deeper into the city. Chaos. Soldiers stumbled drunk from ruined taverns; women screamed as men shouted and laughed. Marduk saw a child, thumb in its mouth, standing in a doorway. Blood flecked its face.

Inari hissed and held up a hand. They paused in shadows inside an entrance to a high walled courtyard.

‘What do you see?’ Marduk whispered. Inari inclined her head towards a group of men lounging around a burbling fountain.

‘Imperials,’ Inari said. ‘Rebels.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s too dark to tell.’ Her eyes had a peculiar gleam in the faded light. Her hand clinched the hilt of her sword.

‘Rebels, I think. Probably given up and having fun on their way out.’ Marduk said. ‘I count…five?’

Inari nodded. She licked her lips.

‘Is there another way?’

Shaking her head, Inari indicated the alley on the far side. ‘That way saves us time. Going back and around means we might miss our chance at D’ath.’

Gritting his teeth, Marduk drew his sword and signed to Sol to do the same. They waited a moment and heard snatches of drunken singing. He touched Inari’s shoulder.

‘Go,’ he said.

Running into the courtyard, Inari cried out, an ululating wail that raised the hair on Marduk’s arms.

Sprawled on the cobbles and sharing a jack of wine, the soldiers didn’t react for a few heartbeats before they reached for their weapons. One struggled to his feet only for Inari to cut him down. He fell, screaming, trying to hold together the bloody ruins of his face.

‘Come on,’ Marduk roared. Loosening the chain with a flick of his wrist, he ran into the courtyard and engaged the first soldier unlucky enough to be in his way.

Anger replaced surprise in the rebel’s face. He ducked, spun around and pulled out his sword in the same motion. He turned the impetus into a savage cut at Marduk’s face. Swaying back, Marduk felt the wind of the blade across his eyes. He cut high, stepped back and stabbed low and turned his wrist in a wrenching motion.

Mouth a black hollow in a face gone white, the soldier dropped his sword and clutched at his spilling guts. He slipped in his blood, fell to his knees then tumbled backwards when Marduk cut his throat. Panting, Marduk spun around.

Dead soldiers littered the ground. Inari and Sol leaned over corpses. Sol wiped his sword clean, checked it nicks in the remaining light, then slid it home. Inari glared around the courtyard and Marduk thought she looked disappointed.

‘How does it feel?’ Marduk said. Spite crept into his voice and he shook his head in disgust at himself. The fountain’s burbling sounded obscene.

‘You said it yourself. This is war. They taught me to kill, to fight in the pit for their amusement until I died. They stole my life.’ Inari kicked a corpse and spat on it. ‘Who’s dead now, dogs?’

The Child, perched on the edge of the fountain, clapped its hands. The light had fled and glittering stars took its place. Marduk thought he saw tiny pinpricks of ice shining in the vast black gulfs of the Child’s eyes. He pulled the chain and it jumped to the ground.

Shouts punctured the night. They heard men approaching from two directions.

‘Enough. We’re running out of time.’ With the jangle of the chain, they jogged across the courtyard into the alley and disappeared into the dark.

                              
 

They paused at an intersection. The city burned. Sparks spiralled into the orange-tinged air. Smoke hung low and frightened people streamed passed, faces black with soot. Inari, Marduk thought sourly, was enjoying herself at the sight.

‘How close now?’ Marduk said.

‘Five, ten minutes,’ Inari said, nodding to the far side of the intersection. ‘Except there’s an army between us and the palace.’

Marduk rubbed his face. He heard the clink of the chain and looked back. The Child sat on its haunches and examined something that squirmed in its hands. A mouse. It popped the creature into its mouth. Too tired to feel disgusted, Marduk pointed to a street that ran between two tall buildings.

‘If we can’t go through, we’ll go over.

They crossed the intersection. The fighting had passed as had the stream of fleeing civilians. They entered the street Marduk had indicated. It ran narrowly between two long buildings that rose high overhead.  

The roar of a crowd from the far end reached them, a many-headed beast hungry for war. Bonfires cast lurid light across the palace walls.

‘Stay here,’ Inari said. She ran off before Marduk could stop her.

‘Damn it,’ Marduk said. He looked at Sol, who stood watching the Child toy with another mouse.

‘You all right?’

‘Bit of a balls up,’ Sol said. He stood with his back to the wall. Flames bled scarlet over his lean features. Marduk saw him favour his injured leg.

‘He was just lucky.  How are you with it?’

‘I’ll be fine. I should’ve kept a better eye out.’

Marduk shook his head. ‘You were luckier. Street fighting is bloody hard.’

Footsteps. Inari resolved from the shadows and scowled at the swords pointed at her.

‘What did you see?’ Marduk said.

‘There’s a mob of soldiers blocking the entrance to the palace grounds. They’re tired and dirty and eager for blood. The rebels have barricaded the palace’s inner gates and have archers stationed in the windows. They’re ready for a fight. Unless we want to get ground up like meat between them, we’ll need another way in.’

‘There is.’ Marduk indicated an open door. ‘We take the stairs to the roof.’

The quiet building appeared to be government offices. Papers were scattered everywhere and desks and chairs pushed aside. Marduk expected armed men to emerge from the shadows and attack, but they met no one on the way.

Emerging through a narrow door, the group found themselves standing in a gutter that ran between two peaked slate roofs. With the Child at his heels, Marduk led the others to the edge of the roof.

Six feet of empty air separated them from the building on the other side of the alley.

‘You’re joking,’ Inari said, staring into the three-storey gap.

‘You just see how funny I am,’ Marduk said. He rattled the chain, snagging the Child’s attention.

‘You and me, together,’ he said. Marduk took several steps back as the others made room. Without waiting, he ran.

The chain rattled as Marduk leaped. He arced across the gap, arms and legs pin-wheeling. Then he crashed and rolled across the roof, rising to his feet in time to see the Child make the jump.

Its body had a terrible grace; arms and legs flung back, head up and mouth open. It landed on its feet, bounded a few steps and halted.

After he signalled to Sol, Marduk backed up to make space. Despite his injury, Sol managed the leap without trouble. He landed with a grunt, waving off Marduk’s help. He nodded his thanks then turned to wait for Inari.

She didn’t want to do it.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Marduk said. He shouted over the background roar of the crowd. ‘The great huntress is afraid of heights.’

‘Come over here and say it,’ she yelled, looking at the gap at her feet.

‘How about you come over here so I can say it to your face,’ Marduk said.

Inari glared at him for a moment then stalked back. She sized up the distance to the edge of the roof and began to run. It was only when she was in the air that Marduk realised her eyes were tightly shut. Sol caught her as she landed. Inari shrugged him and turned her angry gaze on Marduk.

‘Don’t waste your anger on me,’ he said. ‘These buildings form the edge of the inner square the palace sits within. There’s an annex at the rear we can reach by moving from rooftop to rooftop. A few more jumps unless you want us to venture through her meat grinder below?’


 

‘Look at all those people,’ Sol said, leaning against the wall and gazing down.

 A sea of people occupied the palace’s inner grounds. Light flickered from bonfires scattered through the ruins of the garden. Craters were all that remained of uprooted oaks and maples, reduced to kindling to feed the many fires dotting the churned remains of once rolling lawns. Makeshift tents, little more than broken saplings and rotting blankets gave meagre shelter for the thousands crammed into the space.

‘Where are they going?’ Inari said, pointing to a line of men marching away.

‘Wherever it is, I don’t like it,’ Marduk said. ‘Why pen all these people and then leave?’ He looked at the others. ‘We have to get inside.’

‘There,’ Sol said, pointing to the peaked roof of a skylight. Marduk had to tug the Child to bring it to heel; it lingered by the parapet staring at the refugees.

The skylight looked onto sheet-covered furniture. It seemed to Marduk like a room full of ghosts.

‘This is our way in,’ Marduk said.

‘What about patrols?’ Sol said.

‘The rebels are pulling out. We can use the confusion to our advantage.’

They heard shouts, then the clatter of bricks and collapsing timber.

‘They’re forcing the main barricade,’ Sol said. Marduk nodded.

‘We have to go.’

They made short work of the skylight. Glass fell into the room, covering the sheets in a glittering rain.

With the others holding the chain, Marduk descended hand over hand. He cleared space, then waited as Inari descended. Sol came next, wincing when he reached the ground. They looked up at the Child staring at them.

Marduk held up his arms, feeling foolish. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Jump.’

Smiling, the Child leaped onto the edge of the skylight. It ignored the remaining glass that cut its bare feet. It waited a moment, then fell.

Marduk caught it neatly in his arms. He looked into its eyes, saw something black squirming within and hastily let it down. Nodding to the others, he led the way into the corridor.

                              
 

Marduk knelt in front of the Child. The sound of booted feet approached. Sol and Inari stood on either side, swords drawn, talking urgently. Marduk ignored them and instead spoke to the Child.

‘I know what you can do. Merge, isn’t that what the Keepers call it?’

The Child nodded, solemn as a monk at prayer.

‘Do it. Before they come.’

A dozen men crashed through a set of doors at the far end of the corridor. ‘Drop your weapons,’ one ordered.

‘What do we do?’ Sol shouted.   

‘We surrender,’ Marduk said, ignoring Sol’s startled look. Marduk stood and raised his hands.

‘We’re here to kill Roland,’ Marduk said cheerily. ‘I expect he’ll want to speak with us.’

‘Drop those weapons,’ the leading soldier yelled again. Marduk complied. Sol did the same. Cursing, Inari followed suit. The soldiers swarmed and pushed them down the corridor.

‘Move it!’

Amidst the confusion, Marduk glanced quickly over his shoulder and glimpsed the Child standing in the middle of the armed men. They ignored her, and soon she vanished from sight. The chain felt lighter. But it was the weight of the dagger strapped to his inner wrist that grew heavier with each step.

                              
 

The palace was in uproar. People filled the corridors and spilled into rooms. Looting spread through the building. For a moment, the men taking Marduk, Sol and Inari paused by a large window which looked out over the inner square. Fighting had broken out. Men moved in and out of the dancing shadows cast by bonfires, a struggling sea that rolled through the refugee camp, sending civilians fleeing into the night. Already hundreds lay dead.

‘Bring them in,’ someone shouted from in front of a set of doors crowded with people. The escort pushed and shoved until it cleared a space for their captives. Ignoring the scowls and suspicious glares, Marduk led the others through the doors and into a small room dominated by a long table.

A broad-shouldered man sat at the head of the table . A dozen other heavily armed men flanked him. Several wore blood soaked bandages.

The man at the head of the table looked up when Marduk and the others entered. He rose from his seat, a smile spreading across his lean face.

‘Can it be?’ he said. ‘Marduk? In God’s name, it truly is.’

Before anyone could react, he stepped forward and folded Marduk in a bear hug.

‘The hero of Skalak’s Pass,’ he said. ‘I was there when the Imperator pinned a medal on your chest. What a day that was.’ His smile faded. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I was here to rescue you, but it seems that option isn’t available anymore,’ Marduk said, looking at the men crowded in the room.  

‘We found them in the east wing, Commander,’ a soldier said.

‘You’re not here to burgle me, are you Marduk?’

‘I’m here on business, Roland,’ Marduk said. ‘Just business.’

Roland’s harsh laugh raised Marduk’s hackles. His hand started to tremble.

‘Business, is it? That old bastard Blevins sent you after me, didn’t he?’ Roland clapped his hands together in mocking applause.

‘That depends,’ Marduk said.

‘On what?’

‘If you come quietly, there won’t be any need for bloodshed.’ The weight of the dagger dragged at him.  

Roland’s laughter boomed again. The other men around the table chuckled, and the tension eased.

‘Come quietly? Hardly. You cannot shake an empire to its very foundations and do it quietly.’

‘Why? Why betray your Imperator? Why betray your people?’

‘He talks of betrayal,’ Roland said, shaking his head and getting more chuckles from the men seated at the table. ‘This from a man sent here to die. A hero of the Empire, cast aside on a suicide mission.  You will die here tonight. The Imperator gave up the gains you shed blood for at Skalak’s Pass, now he has tossed you on the dung heap. My men and I are ready to leave, but we will make sure the rats feast well tonight.

‘Fine words,’ Marduk said. ‘Stop hiding behind them and answer me; why did you betray your people?’

They betrayed us, Marduk,’ Roland yelled, his smile melting away to reveal the rage beneath. ‘They betrayed me.’ Spots of red rode his cheekbones and spittle flecked his lips. ‘You don’t know it, but I was at Skalak too. You got the medal but I spilled just as much of my blood as you did. I saw my friends die just as your friends died.’ He stopped, breathing heavily. Some of the other men around the table glanced uneasily at each other.

‘We held the Pass for them and they bargained it away,’ Roland whispered. His voice hardened. ‘They should kneel before us.’

‘I have a job,’ Marduk said.

‘You have a job,’ Roland sneered. ‘Listen to yourself. Time was you had a spine. Spine and spirit. All I see before me is a husk.’

‘And all I see before me is murdering scum,’ Inari said hotly.

Roland looked at her and smirked.

‘You’re nothing but a slave. Born to the yoke. When did your people ever lift a finger for their freedom?’

‘Have a care,’ Sol said.

Roland laughed. ‘Come now, Marduk. Don’t tell me your crack team is a lovelorn couple? Where are your hard men?’

‘No man speaks for me,’ Inari said. ‘What are you doing with all those people outside?’

‘Cattle,’ Roland said dismissively. ‘The dregs of the city. The poor, homeless, slaves. Fortunately, I have found a use for them.’

‘What?’ Marduk said.  

‘Just as a dying fire needs fresh fuel to let it roar again, so a cause needs its martyrs. The rebellion has suffered setbacks. It needs to find fresh life. The massacre of innocents is reason enough for the entire province to rebel again.’

‘With you at its head?’ Marduk said

‘Of course. All those dead children, all those raped mothers, all those brave fathers senselessly butchered by Imperial soldiers. I would be negligent to scorn such an opportunity.’

‘And with you at its head, you’ll march on the Imperial capital and assume the throne?’

‘You think I jest. I see it in your face. You never dreamed higher than the next battle, the next tavern. My father had friends on the Council, men who thought as he did. Who think as I do. The Imperial dynasty is weak, degenerate. The rebellion will go badly for the Imperator. The Treasury will bleed dry. Mothers will march on the palace demanding their sons come home. The Imperator will order their execution. Amid the unrest, we will strike. Our allies on the Council will rise with us. Childishly simple.’

‘And my people? Why kill them? Arm them, and they will fight for you.’ Inari’s breath came in short, frantic gasps.  

Roland looked curiously at Inari. ‘They’re more use dead than alive.’ He laughed again.

Catching her captors off guard, Inari broke free of the men holding her and flung herself at Roland, tearing at his face with her hands. They struggled together and then Roland had her by the throat.

A forest of swords rose, penning Sol, who struggled against the men holding him.  

Roland smiled and squeezed Inari’s throat tight. Her eyes bulged and she gasped for breath.

‘You mean nothing to me,’ Roland hissed, spittle flecking her face. Blood leaked from a gouge beneath his right eye. Her struggles became weaker, but still she flailed at him. He smirked, then drew a knife.

‘No!’ Sol cried. He threw himself forward and a soldier clubbed him to the ground where he lay groaning.

‘She doesn’t deserve this,’ Marduk said. ‘Let her go.’

‘What, this?’ Roland rammed the dagger into Inari’s stomach over and over. Blood spilled from her shuddering body. Spent, Roland let go her throat and she fell next to Sol.

‘You bastard,’ Marduk said without emotion. ‘You bloody bastard.’A stunned silence filled the room.  

‘The men and I revered you,’ Roland said, staring at his bloody hand. ‘You were the last man standing in your line and we damn well looked up to you.’

Marduk shook free of the hands holding him. Leaning forward he felt his cheek brush Roland’s. He briefly clenched his left hand into a fist and felt the dagger secreted up his sleeve slip drop into his palm. He glimpsed one of the men at the table react to the dagger, then another man with a thick moustache seated placed a restraining hand on his arm.

‘I survived Skalak,’ Marduk whispered as he stabbed Roland in the chest. Roland gasped and fell against him. Marduk twisted the dagger, probing for his heart. ‘You never did.’

Roland fell to the floor in a graceless heap. A tense silence filled the room as Roland’s men looked at each other.

‘More feared than loved,’ Marduk said. ‘As I thought. The Imperator’s men will be here soon. Leave now, or die here. Go.’

The rebels looked uncertainly at each other. The man with the thick moustache stood.

‘He was mad,’ he said to Marduk, looking briefly at the corpse. ‘Brilliant, but mad. You have done us a favour. In return, we give you your life.’ He signalled to the others and led them out through the door.  

The door closed with a soft thud, leaving Marduk with Sol and Inari. A band of steel wrapped itself around Marduk’s chest. His lungs burned and the dagger weighed like a mountain. He dropped it beside Roland’s corpse.

‘Damn you,’ Marduk whispered. ‘Wasn’t Skalak enough?’

Sol cradled Inari’s limp body. Her eyes stared at the ceiling. Screaming came from the gardens.

‘How do we stop it, Captain?’ Sol asked. He looked lost, bewildered. He hugged Inari tight to his chest and stroked her hair.

‘We can’t,’ Marduk said. He listened as the sounds of the fighting outside went quiet. Stillness filled the room. Then the crash of iron shod boots. The doors flew open and two Cataphracts entered. A chill settled over Marduk. He knew before he saw him that –

Janos strode into the room. His bald scalp gleamed in the flickering light. He stopped between the silent Cataphracts.

‘Always the butcher’s way with you, Marduk,’ Janos said, looking around.

‘What are you doing here?’ Marduk said.  

‘Tidying up. The Imperator tired of Blevins’ fumbling in Glorka. By his command I’ve taken charge of the campaign.’

‘What about Blevins?’

‘General Blevins is Execution Hill’s latest adornment.’ Janos smiled in delight.

‘And me? Roland?’

‘I advised the Imperator that you would’ve put some much needed steel into Blevins’ spine if you had been allowed to stay with him. All I had to do was suggest a mission into Glorka and Blevins leaped at it. Strange what pressure will do to a man’s judgement, no matter how experienced. As for Roland, killing him kept you away from Blevins and removed a thorn in our side at a stroke. Once I tidy up the loose ends here, we won’t have to worry about crushing the rebellion.’

‘Do you think slaughtering thousands of civilians will crush the rebellion? Have you and that inbred freak on the throne gone completely insane?’

‘Have a care, Roland. You can die cleanly or…otherwise.’ Janos looked around him. ‘The Imperator is happy to put Glorka to the sword if it keeps the other provinces in check. Nothing like spilling a little blood to set an example.’

‘The lives of all those people out there are playthings? You’re no better than this fool,’ Marduk snarled, kicking Roland’s corpse. The closest Cataphract pivoted towards him. Marduk spared him a look of disgust.

‘Great men understand that sacrifices are required. The Imperator holds power. Roland tried to snatch it. Now, I’d like my property back, if you don’t mind.’

‘Property?’

‘Yes. The Child. Where is that catamount, Valens?’

‘Valens?’ Marduk began to laugh. Janos fingered his sword hilt. Marduk’s laughter trailed away.

‘Valens was your inside man? You should’ve chosen better.’

‘What do you mean?’ Janos looked uneasy.

‘He’s dead,’ Marduk said. He briefly smiled.

‘Dead? What do you - where’s the Child?’

‘I wondered when you would ask that.’ Marduk lifted his arm, displaying the manacle. The chain had vanished.

‘It’s mine now,’ he said. He whistled. The air shimmered and the Child stepped back into reality. It smiled to show off its sharp teeth.

Janos fell back, blood draining from his face.

‘Kill it,’ he ordered, his voice cracking.

The Cataphracts crashed forward, their heavy swords raised.

Marduk flicked his wrist and the chain snaked back and forth across the floor like a rustling metal snake. The Child smiled hugely and clapped its hands together in delight. It leaped at the Cataphracts.

Later, while it sat in the ruins of the men, drawing symbols in steaming blood, the Child watched Marduk use his dagger to peel away Janos’ face. Sol had vanished, plunging into the chaos in the gardens, sword drawn, mind broken, howling like a wild beast.

When Marduk finished with Janos, he stumbled, like a drunkard, over to where the Child crouched. Marduk knelt. His bones and heart.

‘A deal. You and me, a deal. Do you understand?’ His throat hurt, sore from screaming.

The Child’s face, caked in blood once again, creased in amusement.

‘I’ve always understood, Marduk,’ it said in a voice young, ancient, and infinitely terrible. ‘Better than you know yourself.’

Marduk’s hand stopped shaking. He flexed his fingers.

‘We’re going home.  Someone has to pay for all this.’ The screams from the gardens had long since faded, replaced by shouted orders inside the palace. Marduk smelled smoke.

‘Who will pay?’ Marduk, the Child eagerly asked.

‘The Imperator. His wife. The Crown Prince. His followers and courtiers and servants and supporters. All on the Great Council, the very machinery ruling the Empire. None deserves to live. All of them must pay.’  

Marduk rose to his feet and began to unshackle the manacle around his wrist. ‘I will give you your freedom, and you will give me the Imperator’s head. I want blood to run hip deep in the Palace. Do we have an agreement?’

The Child looked at him, blinked slowly, and then a huge, hungry smile crept across its face.




© January, 2017 Robert Mammone

Robert Mammone is a banker by day and a writer or horror and fantasy by night. He has been writing since 1989. His work has appeared previously in Swords & Sorcery.When the Cataphracts came for Marduk, he sat sprawled amidst the splintered remains of a table and chairs, the unconscious and bloodied bodies of several men beside him.

‘Beetles,’ Marduk shouted, his voice slurred. He took a swig from his mug then dashed it ringing across the flagstones. Around him, a huddle of silent, watchful men stepped back as the pair of iron helmeted Imperial guardsmen crashed through the doorway. A black-clad man with a white face and dark eyes followed them.

‘Where were you at Skalak’s Pass?’ Marduk roared, spittle flying. He tried to stand, slipped on spilled beer and fell.

The Cataphracts watched him impassively from behind slit-eyed helms, massive breastplates muddy red in the crackling firelight. Marduk struggled to his feet, loudly cursing when he slipped once more. He tried again and stood. He swayed, hands loosely bunched by his sides. His jaw jutted out. The cheekbone under his right eye had purpled and blood stained the knuckles of both hands.

‘Enough,’ said the man in black. The room went quiet. Outside, pennants snapped in the chill breeze along the muddy lane leading to the docks. The shouts of drill sergeants on a distant parade ground echoed. Inside, a hungry expectation grew as the crowd sensed the tension rise.

‘Enough?’ Marduk spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor. He flicked his wrist and a dagger in his sleeve dropped into his palm. The edge shone bright. With the other hand, he groped for his sword.

Immediately, the Cataphracts drew their swords, the shriek of metal loud. Marduk smiled in cool anticipation.  

‘I held the line at Skalak’s Pass,’ he said. ‘While you huddled in the valley like terrified sheep, my men and I held the line. Good men died because cowards like you refused to do what was right.’

A Cataphract started forward before his partner grabbed his armoured forearm with a heavy gauntleted hand and pulled him back.

‘Right?’ The Cataphracts parted and the dark-eyed man stepped through the gap. ‘Is not guarding the Imperator their one and only task?’

The men in the room murmured amongst themselves. A forest of gibbets crowded Execution Hill; the low hanging fruit of deserters and traitors tainted the air with their rot. The ugly stink of treason clung like a sickness. Was there to be another adornment?

‘Men bled and died that day to save the Empire and its Imperator,’ Marduk said. His hand gripped the sword hilt so hard his knuckles shone white.  

‘The Imperator honours their sacrifice. You act is if you don’t care that as an Imperial officer brawling and drinking dishonours the Imperator’s name and risks a court martial. Or worse.’

Marduk looked at the man and spat more blood onto the floor.

‘Janos, isn’t it? I’ve seen you skulking around Blevin’s tent. I’ll remember you.’

Janos’s eyes narrowed. ‘See you do.’ He looked around the tavern.

‘For the love of God, aren’t there are better places to get drunk and forget?’

‘Who says I want to forget?’

‘Men who want to forget come to places like this,’ Janos said.

Marduk considered him for a moment. ‘What do you want?’

‘General Blevins wants to see you.’

‘Really? And if I don’t?’

‘I have orders to bring you in. Blevins didn’t specify whether you should be conscious or not.’

Marduk considered this for a moment. He slammed his sword back into the scabbard and tucked the dagger into his sleeve. Looking around at the groaning bodies and shattered furniture, Marduk reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins which he tossed over the bar. They fell in a bright rain on the flagstones.

‘For your trouble, barkeep,’ Marduk said, before turning back to Janos. ‘Come on then. Let’s see what Blevins wants.’  

Marduk turned to one of the Cataphracts. He looked through the helmet slit at the blank glare. Laughing, he rapped the heavy breastplate with his knuckles then followed Janos out.

A bitter wind carried the salty tang of the harbour. Watery light filtered through grey, racing clouds. A desperate sense of exposure rushed through Marduk. He turned to go back inside. The Cataphracts blocked him. Marduk felt a headache bloom. He sighed, turned and slogged through the mud after Janos.

                              


Janos left him outside the pavilion and marched off with the Cataphracts. Tents stretched in all directions. Canvas snapped and rolled in the breeze, suffused with an eye- watering stink from the latrines lining the nearby creek. Clanging steel caught Marduk’s attention. Two men practised with swords. One saw him, saluted and returned to the bout.

‘Damnation,’ Marduk whispered. The memory of the line at Skalak’s Pass returned to him, red and howling, leaving an ache of longing and despair. He balled his trembling hand into a fist. Gritting his teeth, Marduk straightened his tunic and stepped into the pavilion’s quiet darkness. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw an officer sitting at a desk, reading a report. The officer spared him a glance then his eyes dropped back to the page.  

‘The general is expecting you.’

Marduk didn’t bother to salute. He walked deeper into the pavilion.

Lanterns hanging from timber joists lit the interior. A camp bed, several chairs and a desk were the only furnishings. Behind the desk sat a great bear of a man looking at a piece of paper through a large magnifying glass. A sword in a scabbard sat on a chair, the gold embossed leather marking his rank.

Marduk saluted.  

‘General.’

Sunken eyes beneath bushy, greying eyebrows regarded Marduk. He thought the old man looked exhausted.

‘You’re drunk.’

Marduk bristled. ‘I’ve been drinking. I’m on leave.’

‘Not anymore. I’ve just had it cancelled.’

‘Cancelled?’ Marduk’s face clouded. ‘My men and I have only just returned. We’ve chased rebels all over the Severini Hills for the best part of three weeks.’

‘Don’t grandstand, Marduk. I know where you’ve been. I sent you there.’

‘Then you owe me.’

‘I don’t owe you a damn thing,’ Blevins said. He sat back and rubbed at his right temple.  

‘Then I’ll resign my commission.’

‘You’ll do what?’ Blevins’ face grew mottled.

‘You heard me. Push me and I’ll be on the first ship home.’

‘I’ll have it sunk,’ Blevins said, his full lips turning up. Marduk didn’t take the hint.

‘I’m not a tinker’s toy. You can’t wind me up and send me off to kill and kill again. There are limits…’ Marduk faltered and clenched his fist.

Blevins regarded him for long seconds. He slumped back in his chair.

‘You’re my best man out in the field, Marduk,’ Blevins said, his voice low. ‘I need someone I can trust. You don’t know the pressure I’m under. The campaign…’ Blevins’ voice trailed away, and he shook his head.  

Marduk felt his stomach clench to see the old man so desperate.  

‘All right,’ he said, loathing himself despite his words. ‘One more time.’

Blevins nodded. ‘That’s what you said after Skalak,’ he said, his smile brittle.

Marduk shrugged. ‘And here we are.’

‘Tell me about the Severini job. Mission accomplished?’

‘It’s in my report.’

‘Try to humour your commanding officer, there’s a good lad.’

Marduk watched Blevins for a moment then straightened his shoulders. ‘Acting on orders, we infiltrated a rebel encampment straddling a supply route across the Severini Hills. We dispersed the camp and captured a majority of the rebels, with the loss of no men on our side.’

‘And on their side?’

‘We had ourselves a little hanging party. Those rebels won’t trouble us again. Until the next lot emerge from the usual places,’ Marduk said.

Blevin’s eyes narrowed. ‘There’s always more. Until there isn’t, the Empire relies on us doing our duty.’ His voice held no warmth.

‘Wasn’t Skalak’s Pass enough, General?’ Marduk’s headache pressed painfully against the inside of his skull.

‘Damn it, Marduk,’ Blevins said. ‘You get to play that card only so many times before it becomes as worn as a whore’s virtue.’

The two men looked at each other for a long moment. The fabric of the tent rippled and Marduk felt a cold breeze across the back of his neck.

Blevins tapped the paper on the desk and shook his head. ‘Another two weeks and the passes will be blocked for six months.’

‘Leaving your besieging forces isolated.’

‘They’ve enough supplies and men to last the winter.’

‘So what so important it can’t wait for spring?’

‘I don’t have the luxury of time. I need you for something… delicate.’

Adrenaline trickled through Marduk’s veins. It felt cold, and it hurt. The kernel of excitement blooming in his chest sickened him.

‘What’s the mission?’

‘Retrieval.’

‘Where?’

‘It’s a delicate matter. You’re aware our new regime in Glorka province has fallen?’

‘That’s, what, the fourth attempt in the last two years?’ Marduk laughed.

Blevins stared hard at him. He rose to his feet and lumbered over to the flap. Pulling it aside, he leaned into the gap.

‘Halk! Find out what’s happened to my lunch. I’m about to gnaw the leg off my chair. And make sure they’ve warmed my wine.’ Without waiting for a reply, Blevins dropped the flap.

‘You should be more careful,’ Blevins said, returning to his chair.

‘Halk’s spying on you?’

‘Has been for the last five months. Trust is in short supply in the Imperator’s palace. At court, they play politics with words and knives. The boy should never have gone.’

Marduk sighed and rubbed eyes that felt raw. His head throbbed. ‘So where in Glorka province is our friend?’

‘The capitol,’ Blevins said, heavily.

‘Holy God,’ Marduk swore. ‘In that meat grinder? We’ve had it under siege since Evinstide.’

‘We will take it back. Again,’ Blevins said.

‘What’s his name?’

‘Roland D’ath.’

‘Wasn’t there something about a political attaché being kidnapped?’

‘That’s him.’

‘So we’ve lost a pen pusher. It’s not the first time.’

‘This pen pusher is the son of the Duke of Fellwatch.’

‘Tomas D’ath. Is that old lizard still alive?’

‘Not anymore. That’s the problem. The Imperator is having trouble on the Great Council. With D’ath dead and his seat empty, the numbers are precarious. There’s talk one of the Council factions is manoeuvring to have Roland declared dead and put up one of his cousins in his place.’

‘They should never have sent the boy.’

Blevins shrugged. ‘Glorka’s a sinecure. It’s Imperial policy to re-establish rule there by selling government positions to the highest bidder. Fellwatch spent a small fortune buying his son the position, expecting a fivefold return on his investment. Remember the joke about never getting between a duke and a bag of gold? With D’ath it was doubly so. Short of marching a division in to haul Roland home, I’m relying on you to fix it.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better to involve the commander of the siege?’

‘I only received the orders last night. You will be just as quick and more reliable.’

Marduk nodded. ‘How do I manage the siege?’

Blevins smiled tightly. ‘Carefully. Perhaps it will be all over by the time you get there. One hopes for quick success lest the siege shatters the Treasury once and for all.’

Marduk looked up.

‘Virgins quiver less in their marriage bed, Marduk. Surely the hero of Skalak’s Pass can take the truth.’

‘Execution Hill is full of men who told the truth, General.’

Blevins’ good humour drained away. He nodded.

‘And I’ve signed the orders myself, more times than I care to remember. Still, you have to know all of it.’ He tapped the table and allowed himself a tight smile. ‘Look on the bright side, Roland may be dead.’

‘Dead? Is the mission is stillborn before it begins? Have you… have I been set up to fail?’

‘Maybe. I’m in enough disfavour at court right now.’ Blevins shook his head. ‘Haven’t you heard? The sycophants who whisper in the Imperator’s ear claim I’m an incompetent drunk with a fondness for boys. Apparently the rebellion can be brought to heel with a bugle call and a mounted charge, sabres drawn.’ He grinned sourly. ‘Your success buys me time and the Imperator’s confidence.’

Marduk couldn’t resist looking over his shoulder at the flap leading outside. He leaned forward, his hands gripping the desk tight.  

‘You’ve an army here, hardened and battle ready. March it home. The people will flock to you. It’s past time someone dealt with the dolt on the throne. He’s bleeding us dry out here.’

Marduk was dismayed to see real fear creep across Blevins face. The old man shuffled. He coughed and shook his head a fraction. Marduk felt the hope drain out of him.

‘So there’s no other way?’

‘None.’ The colour slowly returned to Blevins’s face. He pulled a leather wallet from beneath a pile of papers and held it out.

Marduk took the wallet and opened it. Inside were several sheets of paper. He lifted out the topmost and glanced over it.

‘Who are these people?’

‘You’ll know them well enough before you return. Glorka is no picnic.’

‘My men can handle it.’

‘You’re one of my best, but you’ll need locals to get you in and out. One name on that list, Colm, is the son of colonists. He knows the lay of the land better than any of your men.’

Marduk scowled. He checked the names again and looked up in alarm.

‘Valens? I’m not taking a Keeper.’

The general leaned on his desk, which creaked under his weight. The lantern light shifted. Shadows crawled across the canvas. A chill breeze caressed Marduk’s neck.

‘I’m not giving you a choice. Glorka is dangerous. Colm will be useful, but if you want to find D’ath and get out in one piece, then a Keeper and a Child is your best hope. We’ve given it the scent.’

‘I’m sure you have,’ Marduk said, feeling sick.  

Blevins ran a hand over his face. Marduk realised how tired he looked.

‘You have your orders. I’m relying on you to keep the court dogs from my door.’ He hesitated a moment.

‘I thank you for your confidence. But there’s nothing to be done about it. Don’t you see?

Marduk swallowed his response. He saluted and left.

                              
 

A long line of men in red and black, pikes balanced on shoulders, marched by Marduk as he stamped his boots free of mud and entered the confines of a whitewashed building. He walked between bales of fodder on one side and nailed crates on the other. The smell of oiled steel mingled with the thick scent of hay. Light filtered through gaps in the roof, setting the dust ablaze. Raised voices grew louder with each step. Grimacing, Marduk let his hand stray to his sword hilt as he entered a large open space.

‘Get your damned hands off me, she-devil.’ A broad shouldered, bald man stood toe to toe with a taller woman with skin was so black it was almost blue. She glared at him with murder in her eyes. A figure in uniform stood to one side, looking unsure. When he saw Marduk, he hastily saluted. Marduk waved his hand at him as he moved to break up the confrontation.

‘What’s all this about?’ he roared in his best parade ground voice.

The black woman looked at him. Sweat glistened in her close-cropped hair. ‘Tell this pig to keep his hands to himself,’ she spat, returning her gaze to the bald-headed man.

‘Why would I touch filth like you? Back home, you’d be-‘

She slapped him hard across the face. His head snapped back. He put a hand to his reddening face and drew his sword with the other. The woman reached for hers. Before either could square off, Marduk stepped in and pushed them away.

‘Put that bloody thing back before I break it over your head.’ The bald-headed man’s eyes bulged, but he read the intent in Marduk’s face well enough. He slammed the sword back into the scabbard and folded his arms over his chest.

‘You,’ Marduk said, stabbing a finger at the woman. ‘You keep your hands to yourself.’

The woman opened her mouth in outrage, but saw the look on Marduk’s face. Compressing her full lips into a thin line, she nodded curtly.

‘Who are you?’ the bald-headed man asked, not hiding the sulking tone in his voice.

‘Captain Marduk.  

‘Marduk?’ the man said. His face took on a boyish joy. ‘The hero of Skalak’s Pass? That Marduk?’

‘Yes, that Marduk,’ Marduk said. ‘And you are..?’  

‘Colm. Colm Landhalter.’ Colm puffed out his chest. ‘It’s an honour to serve with you.’  

Marduk looked coolly at him for a moment then switched his gaze to the woman.

‘You,’ Marduk said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Inari.’ She crossed her sinewy arms, displaying the scars criss-crossing her skin.

‘That’s it? Inari?’

‘She’s a slave. She doesn’t have a last name,’ sneered Colm.

‘Not a slave anymore,’ she said.

‘Where’s your master?’ Colm said.

‘Dead. I cut his throat from here to here,’ Inari said, running her thumb across her throat. Her look of satisfaction chilled Marduk.

‘A runaway. I could claim you as my own,’ Colm said.

Inari stormed forward, hands reaching for his eyes. Marduk pulled her back.

‘Easy,’ he whispered in her ear. Inari glanced at him and he saw the hurt and rage in her eyes.  

‘General Blevin’s just freed her,’ Marduk said, looking around the room. ‘Though anyone who kills their master is free enough in my book. I’ll have no truck with slaves or slavers, do you understand?’

Colm nodded.

‘And you, Corporal. It’s Sol, yes?’

‘Sir,’ Sol said, saluting again. His long face was blank, shoulders thrust back.

‘Less of the sir, if you don’t mind. We’re not on the parade ground.’

‘Sir,’ Sol said, before checking himself. Inari laughed; a bright sound at odds with her earlier anger. Sol’s face coloured.

‘Which regiment, Corporal?’

‘Fifteenth Rangers. Six months in Glorka.’

‘Good. We’ll need those skills.’ Sol nodded, opened his mouth to speak, then shut it.

‘Spit it out,’ Marduk said, knowing what Sol was about to ask.

‘I was in the first relief column. After Skalak, I mean,’ Sol said, reddening.

‘I know what you mean,’ Marduk said. He felt his face stiffen.

‘I want to say it’s an honour. What you did, up there.’ Sol’s Adam’s apple bobbed. ‘It’s an honour.’

Nodding, Marduk abruptly turned to address Inari.

‘What about you?’ he asked, trying to mask the tension in his voice. ‘Why were you chosen?’

‘Pit fighter,’ Inari said, her eyes distant. ‘I know the capital. They trained me to fight. They thought I was a joke, something to make the crowd laugh in between all the real bouts. I showed them.’

Marduk nodded, heard the sound of trumpets and shouting men and felt a brief surge in his chest.

‘Our mission is clear,’ he said, looking at each of them. ‘We’re to retrieve a man important to the Imperator. I’m putting my trust in people I’ve never met. We will only succeed if you keep your egos in check,’ he said, letting his gaze settle on Colm for a moment. ‘I don’t care about your prejudices. What I want is your experience and obedience. We’re going into a war zone.’

The hollow rattle of a chain reached Marduk before he heard the slow clapping. Feeling a chill steal over him, he turned and watched a figure in black emerge from the corridor.

‘Given the shouts I heard from the street, I half expected there to be a brawl. No doubt if I wait five minutes, my patience will be rewarded.’ The speaker’s rich voice accentuated his contempt. Beneath a tall, broad-brimmed hat, flashing eyes glared. He rattled a chain hanging from his wrist and the links clicked like tumbling dice. Marduk heard shuffling and then the Child stood next to Valens.

Black hair, unwashed and stringy, hung over its face. A rusted iron collar sat loosely round its neck with the chain welded to it. A grey smock, stained with sweat, hung to bony knees. It didn’t look as if it felt the cold. Chalk white arms showed veins as black tracks. Marduk glimpsed wide black eyes staring from beneath the ragged fringe and saw a deep red tongue, almost purple, lick pale lips. Behind those lips, sharp as needles teeth gleamed white.

‘We can’t take a girl with us,’ Colm said. He walked up and stood beside Marduk. ‘What foolishness is…’ His voice choked off when he saw the Child. It looked at him, face blank and predatory at the same time. Blood drained from his face.

‘What is it?’ Marduk said.  

‘Nothing,’ Colm said, suddenly angry. ‘I thought… nothing.’

‘It’s not a girl. Tell them, Valens.’

‘Marduk’s right,’ Valens said. ‘What you think you see is wrong. Don’t forget that. The Child is extremely dangerous. Your soul may depend on you keeping that in mind.’ Marduk noticed that for all his outward arrogance, Valens kept his distance from the Child.  

‘Dangerous is just a word,’ Colm snapped. ‘What is it?’ He stared hard at the Child and chewed on a thumbnail.  

‘Death,’ Marduk said. ‘The Keepers call them and shape them and bind them. They’re a tool, a lethal, disgusting tool.’ He ignored Valens’ glare.

‘We’re crossing Glorka province to get to the capitol. There, the Child will be better than any bloodhound. It has his scent. It will find our man. The Child…’ Marduk’s voice trailed off when he saw the black eyes focus on him. His hand trembled. He forced the words out. ‘It is death.’ He paused and exchanged a glance with Valens.

‘You were chosen because of your skills and experience. We will survive if we work together. If we don’t, I won’t carry your corpse back with me.’

Marduk let that sink in. Sol looked sober. Colm glanced at Inari, who scowled at him.

‘Good then,’ Marduk said, pulling out a map from the leather wallet. ‘Gather round.’  

The Child remained in place, idly scratching at its chest while staring at the floor. Marduk unfolded the map and spread it over a crate.  

‘We sail at high tide tonight. We’ll land here in three days and go overland to Waterford, where we’ll meet…’

                              

  

Marduk squinted at the drizzle. The salt tang of the sea had dissipated that morning. He looked back and saw the bright silver line marking the coast had vanished. He heard the sound of boots squelching in the mud and saw Colm trudge towards him, his scabbard slapping against his leg. Branches rattled, shivering in the bitter breeze.

‘Anything?’

Colm glared at him with murder in his eyes. His cheeks bulged over clenched jaws. ‘They reckon rebels lurk in the hills,’ he grunted. ‘Stripped them of what little they had and sent them running. Sheep.’ He spat in the mud and swore.

Marduk looked around the grey wilderness shrouding what remained of the village. They had arrived an hour ago, climbing steadily from the dunes until they reached a wide plain split by a sluggish, ice-choked river. Abandoned buildings stood along the road. The lack of people reinforced the oppressive emptiness.

Slow moving figures near a pile of bricks and shattered wood caught Marduk’s eye. One gestured to Marduk until another figure pulled them back.

‘Come on. Let’s go eat.’

Colm nodded. Turning, Marduk heard the wail of a baby echo across the wasteland. He flinched, but kept on.

Marduk heard the rattle of the chain before he entered the half-collapsed building. The slap of bare feet on dirt followed. The chain rattled again, louder this time. He felt gooseflesh sweep across his skin. Balling his fists, Marduk walked inside.

A fire burned in the centre of the open space, circled by shattered bricks. Acrid smoke collected beneath the low roof. Around the fire rested the others.

‘Colm says there are rebels operating across the ridge to the east,’ Marduk said, going over to a pot of bubbling porridge.

The chain rattled. Unwillingly, Marduk allowed his eyes to follow the links snaking into a darkened corner. The other end remained tethered to Valens’ wrist. From his place beside the fire, Valens looked at Marduk with hooded eyes.

‘We should set the Child onto the refugees. Bloody parasites.’ Colm said. Thin laughter echoed from the shadows. Marduk felt ice trickle down his spine and he turned furiously on Colm.  

‘It isn’t a dog, you bloody fool,’ he said, seething. More laughter from the shadows, loud and hysterical. Everyone turned to look at Valens, who watched with disdain.

‘This isn’t the theatre,’ Marduk snapped. ‘We’re not here to watch you put on a show. Bring that thing to heel.’

‘As you wish,’ Valens said, glancing around at the surroundings. The chain drew taut. Valens flinched and some of his arrogance faded. He grabbed the chain and pulled hard. More laughter drifted towards them, but softer this time.

‘Corporal?’

‘Sir?’

‘You’re on first watch.’

‘Sir.’

‘There’s a good soldier boy.’ Sol reddened at Inari’s words.

‘You’ve got last watch, Inari,’ Marduk said sharply. She scowled but said nothing. Wrapping her cloak tight, Inari rolled over and closed her eyes. Marduk beckoned to Sol and together they walked over to the doorway.

‘Take the lantern. Walk the perimeter every half hour. I doubt the refugees will bother us, but if they do wake me at once. Don’t be brave. The brave die first.’

                              


Marduk completed another circuit. The storm clouds had passed, leaving a heavy covering of snow and revealing a sky speckled with bitter stars. He glanced at them, shivered at the black gulfs and turned towards the shelter.

A noise made him to a stop. He cocked his head, strained to hear and finally made out words carried ethereally on the air. It was nonsense talk; a stream of babble that made his skin crawl. Resting his hand on his sword hilt, he eased inside the building. The dying embers turned the shadows bloody.

Sol snored quietly. He turned over, muttering. Inari was a shadow on the ground, her sword across her chest, hands clutching the hilt. Valens curled towards the fire, his face a valley of black and red. The chain ran from his wrist into the dark then back around to where the Child sat on its haunches beside a slumbering Colm, muttering into his ear.

Marduk froze. A horrible fascination gripped him. Colm’s face was white. He shuddered. His hands twitched like pale spiders on the hard packed ground.

Colm’s lips moved but no sounds emerged. Marduk fancied that Colm responded to the Child’s words. It was only when Colm began to moan that Marduk moved.

He strode across the open space, sword drawn in a ringing clang. Inari sat up, her eyes wide and sword clutched in one hand as she scrambled to her feet. Marduk kicked Valens on his way passed and the Keeper groggily woke. Two more strides and Marduk held the edge of his sword against the Child’s bare neck.

Its head craned around and Marduk heard clicking bones. Its eyes fixed on him and he thought for a horrified moment that he saw movement within. He swallowed. The Child smiled at him.

‘Back,’ Marduk said. He cleared his throat. ‘Get away from him.’ The Child smiled and placed a possessive hand on Colm’s shoulder.

At that point, Colm woke. Marduk saw the confusion and fright in his eyes. Then Colm saw the Child looming over him. He scrambled aside, boots scattering embers across the dirt. The Child giggled and its breath stank of the grave.

Valens roared. With a rush of wind that scattered the dying fire, his free hand lit incandescent blue and he struck the Child about the head with it. Sparks flew and the howling Child slunk away, its hair hanging in the dirt. Valens followed, striking it several more times, cursing it with each blow. Finally, the blue light faded and he staggered back to the dying fire.

No one spoke. Valens composed himself with an effort, the mask settling like a closing tomb door. He looked at Colm, seemingly indifferent to his fright.

‘Assuming you remember anything it said, ignore it. That goes for everyone. It speaks only to tempt you back to Hell with it.’

Marduk heard the defiance in his voice, but saw the fear in his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak but Valens turned his back, laid on his bedroll and was asleep in moments.

Marduk went over to Colm.

‘You all right?’ Colm started at the sound of Marduk’s voice.  

‘I’m fine. Fine,’ he said, distracted. A look crossed his face, one that Marduk struggled to place. Colm returned to his bedroll. He wrapped himself in a blanket and sat staring at the fire.

Marduk stood. He exchanged a glance with Inari, who shrugged her shoulders and went back to her spot beside the fire. Marduk contemplated the chain lying on the floor. Then he realised the look that had passed across Colm’s face.

Recognition.

                              
 

They woke to find the Child sitting on Valens’ chest. Blood ran from its mouth. It looked at them with lazy, well-fed eyes. It smiled, revealing pieces of flesh clogging the gaps between its teeth. Sol vomited noisily.

‘Damnation,’ Colm said, reaching for his sword. The Child laughed. Marduk grabbed Colm’s arm.

‘Leave it. There’s nothing we can do.’

Valens’ blood steamed in the cold. Marduk noticed the startled look on the dead man’s face.

‘Inari?’ Marduk said. ‘Last watch was yours. What happened?’

Inari watched the Child uneasily. The Child smirked.

‘I slept,’ she said with frightened wonder. ‘Dreamed of summer, grassy fields and a warm breeze. Bees. I heard bees. Its doing,’ Inari said, tilting her chin at the Child. The Child delicately licked its fingers.

Sol returned to the tense circle. He wiped his mouth on the back of a trembling hand. His face was the colour of porridge.

‘You all right?’ Marduk asked. Looking anything but, Sol nodded.

‘We should kill it,’ Colm said.

‘We can’t,’ Marduk said. He circled Valens’ body, keeping his distance from the Child. Its head twisted on its neck like an owl. The end of the chain remained attached to the manacle around Valens’ out flung wrist.

Contemplating the chain, Marduk knelt and touched it.

Intense cold spiked into his forearm. Gasping, he gripped the chain with numb fingers. The Child stared at him with a smile playing on its lips.

‘What did you say?’ Marduk said. He rubbed his temple. The others looked at each other.

‘It said nothing,’ Colm said. He looked at the Child and fingered his hilt.

‘Never mind,’ Marduk said. Not trying to hide his trembling hand, he undid the pin holding the manacle in place. He paused and looked at the Child. It grinned at him. Gritting his teeth, Marduk roughly pulled the manacle free of Valens’ wrist and slipped his own in place. He closed it and pushed the pin home. He flexed his hand and felt the metal settle against his skin. An intimate warmth replaced the cold. The sensation filled him with horror.

‘Let’s pack up and go. We need to be at the ford before sunset.’

                              


Breaking camp, they left Valens’ body wrapped in his cloak. Clouds milled, leaching the colour from the air. Piles of brick and shattered wood marked buildings long raked over by scavengers. Fat snowflakes tumbled from a seething sky into rapidly growing drifts of white across the landscape.

‘Look at that,’ Sol said, his voice tight.

A gibbet creaked from a canted pole; its tattered contents slumped to one side. The snapped end of a leg bone jutted through a gap, fragments of skin fluttering in the frigid breeze. An upside down skull screamed silently at them.

The Child laughed. Marduk tugged on the chain, the rattle of the links muted in the cold.

‘Can’t you keep it quiet?’ Inari said, scowling. The Child turned its wide, solemn eyes on Inari until she looked away.

Marduk pulled on the chain and the Child led them on, its bare feet leaving a trail of brown slush in the pristine snow.

Near the edge of the village, a camp appeared. The remains of a fire smoked. Around it laid several cracked bones, the marrow sucked dry. Colm looked around and snorted.

‘Damned refugees bleed the country dry.’

‘The way I hear you tell it, you were a refugee yourself,’ Inari said, pulling her cloak tight. The hilt of her sword bulged against the fabric.

‘I was nothing like them,’ Colm shouted at her. ‘My family was nothing like…’ His voice choked and he turned away. ‘This was good land,’ he said after a moment. ‘Wheat and rye. Now look at it. Dead. Everything is dead.’ He stared at Inari, his face haunted. ‘Including my family.’

‘Enough,’ Marduk snapped. His head ached with cold and exhaustion and the scar across his shoulder burned. ‘What’s between us and the ford?’

Colm stared at him. His face was unreadable. ‘The track leads through a stretch of wood to the top of the ridge, then down into the valley and on to the ford.’

‘And there are rebels on the ridge?’

Colm nodded. ‘Rebels. Bandits. They’re all the same.’

‘No doubt,’ Marduk said. ‘We’re well armed and prepared. We might be lucky and not cross paths. What about the town itself?’

‘Waterford? I remember it being big when I was a lad. Haven’t been there for twenty years.’

‘It’ll be a ruin, that’s for sure,’ Inari said.

Nodding, Marduk looked around and saw that Sol had dismounted and stood over a bundle of rags lying on the ground.

‘Corporal? ’  

Sol looked up, stricken. Marduk swung from the saddle and walked over to him.

‘Nothing but bad memories here. Come on, we have to le–‘ The look on Sol’s face Marduk had seen countless times. Disbelief and dismay. He glanced at the rags.

They weren’t rags. Marduk grabbed Sol by the arm and pulled him away.

‘Not much glory, is there?’ Marduk said, not unkindly. The Child’s presence was a pressure on his mind. ‘Put it aside and don’t think about it.’

‘How do you do it, sir?’ Sol asked. ‘How do you cope with it all?’

‘One day at a time,’ Marduk growled. He gritted his teeth and tried to put the sight of the baby’s stiff blue arm from his mind.

He climbed into the saddle and waited for Sol. Then they pushed on.

                              


On the ridge as the night swooped, they came for them. Sol led the way, with Marduk stationed at the rear. Inari and Colm sat huddled in their cloaks, horses plodding along a trail swiftly vanishing beneath the falling snow. Bloody light from the setting sun filled their eyes. Snow swarmed through the twilight. The trees were black in the fading light, flat against the rusty sunset. Icicles shivered in the naked branches, their mournful clink an odd counterpoint to an eerie wind rising over the ridge a half mile ahead before it fell on them like a pack of wolves.

A flash of steel alerted Marduk. He cried a warning as he drew his sword and urged on his horse. The chain on his wrist clattered and he felt the briefest of tugs before it went slack again.

Startled, Sol looked back and saw Marduk wielding his sword. He drew his own as did Inari and Colm as half a dozen figures emerged out of the snow and charged at them.

‘Bandits,’ Colm shouted, his voice high and unsteady and excited. His horse reared and threw him into a deep bank of snow between two oaks. Freed of its burden, the horse bolted; a black streak that bowled over two of the bandits before it disappeared round a bend.

Exhilaration filled Marduk. Snow swirled around the clearing, rendering the edges of it soft and uncanny. The sunlight shifted, descended from red tinged with black, to black tinged with red. Shadows danced. He heard ringing steel and Inari chanting in a high-pitched howl. Wheeling his horse around, Marduk charged a bandit and chopped with his sword.

The vibration that shivered up his arm was almost ecstasy. Shouting, Marduk drove the bandit back. He had enough time to see how bedraggled the man was, his cheeks pinched with cold and hunger, clad in rags. Then Marduk’s sword bit deep into the flesh between neck and shoulder and the bandit fell shrieking.

Blood splashed across the churned snow. Marduk turned and prepared to cross the clearing when the weight of the chain on his wrist grew heavy. He fell backwards to the ground.

The world went silent. Dazed, Marduk lay in the snow. A shadow loomed on his right and he waited for the killing blow. To his surprise, the figure reached out and pulled him to his feet. Sol mouthed words. Marduk shook his head and Sol’s lips moved again.

‘-right, sir?’ he yelled. Marduk’s hearing returned, overwhelming him with the sounds of battle. Shaken, he nodded and looked around. The Child sat on a dying man’s chest, laughing into his face. The bandit opened his mouth to scream and the Child gently placed a hand over it. His eyes bulged then rolled back into his head. The Child turned to look over its shoulder at Marduk. His gorge rose at the sly look of delight in its eyes.

‘Watch out.’ Sol spun around and engaged a bandit. Barely beating back a frenzied attack, Marduk surged forward and forced the bandit on the defensive. He glimpsed Sol cut down his attacker and Inari leap back from a blow. Skidding as she landed, Inari fell to one knee and then launched herself at the bandit who strayed too close.

Parrying a low cut, Marduk focussed on the man in front of him. The bandit looked well-fed, his clothing, thought dirty and wet, of a decent cut. His face held a desperate fury, of a plan gone desperately awry.

‘Run,’ Marduk yelled at the bandit as he fended off a blow. ‘Your men are dying for nothing.’ The bandit hesitated, surprised, then pushed forward. He cut low then high, hoping to catch Marduk off guard. Marduk defended for a moment then peeled off a series of cuts that forced the bandit back, towards the tree line.

They stood off for a moment, Marduk panting, the adrenaline turning to bile in his mouth. His chained wrist tugged him back and he pulled hard on it. He saw the bandit follow the chain to the Child, then his eyes widened at what it was doing to the corpse it straddled.

‘Run,’ Marduk said, nearly begging this time. ‘Or you’ll be next.’ A heartbeat, then the bandit put his fingers to his lips and whistled.

‘Back,’ he yelled, moving towards the trees. The survivors looked up, hesitated, then joined him. In a moment, as the snow thickened, they vanished into the treeess, leaving silence to envelope the clearing.

‘Anyone hurt?’ Marduk said, doing his best to suppress the tremor in his voice. Ignoring the look Sol gave him, Marduk began to circle the clearing. The chain went taut. A sudden rage came over him and he turned and pulled, dragging the Child of the corpse’s chest and into the snow. It came up snarling and spitting blood from its red-rimmed mouth. But when it saw Marduk, it calmed instantly and sat on its haunches, blinking slowly.

Inari came up, wiping her sword clean on a piece of torn cloth.

‘Nothing wrong with me,’ she said. Her eyes were wide and she breathed in ragged, excited gasps. ‘Worry about him.’

Looking over her shoulder, Marduk saw Colm struggle to his feet. He stood, spluttering and wiped chunks of snow from his hair and clothes.

‘Blasted horse,’ he said, not looking anyone in the eye. ‘Where is the damned thing?’

‘Somewhere up the trail,’ Sol said, trying to suppress a smile. He shared a look with Inari, whose lips quirked, and then suddenly both were laughing.

‘You’ll not laugh at me,’ Colm snarled, drawing his sword. The shriek of metal rang in the chill air. The Child smiled, its eyes narrowing in anticipation. Colm marched up to Inari, his sword pointed at her heart.

‘Keep your mouth shut or you’ll get a taste of this.’

Inari stood her ground. Sol stepped in and batted Colm’s sword away.

‘My commander always said only draw your weapon if you mean to use it,’ Sol said. He levelled his sword at Colm.

Wallowing, Colm looked between Sol and Inari and then slammed his sword back into its scabbard. He looked around the clearing at the bodies.

‘There’ll be more of that scum soon enough.’

‘Move the bodies to the edge of the clearing,’ Marduk ordered. Sheathing his sword, Sol helped Inari drag a corpse off the trail.

Marduk walked over to the bandit he had killed. Blood from the deep, ragged wound in its neck had melted the snow into a crimson slush. Marduk grabbed the corpse under the shoulders and dragged it beside the other bodies.

He wiped his hands then gripped them together when one trembled. The chain jingled, the soft sound echoing across the clearing.

‘Come on,’ Marduk called, his voice harsh. ‘I want to get off this ridge.’ Little more than a hint on the horizon, the sun stained red the churning clouds. He climbed onto his horse.  

‘Get up,’ he said to Colm, extending his hand. ‘Let’s go find your horse.

Colm grunted and with Marduk’s help, swung up behind him. As he did, the wind swept in, bringing with it the sound of screaming.

A few hundred yards along, they found Colm’s horse. Foam covered its mouth and it panted heavily. Colm slid to the ground and began to swear, loudly and profanely. The horse’s right foreleg had broken, the cannon bone bulging against the skin. As Colm approached, the horse tried to stand and screamed again when its shattered leg flopped about.

For a moment, Marduk was back at Skalak’s Pass, the wind soughing between the peaks, men heaving and cursing and fighting. The stink of blood hung in the air and he saw horses, crammed in tight by the press of men, scream shrilly over the frantic struggles of the men.

Inari sat in the saddle, immune to the beast’s agony. Marduk dismounted and saw Sol had reached the horse first. Sol drew his dagger and held it against his side. He knelt and placed a hand on its neck, stroking the hide until the horse grew silent. He waited a moment, then quickly sliced the blade across its neck. Blood fountained across the snow, thick and black against the white. The horse shivered and fell back, a last streamer of steam escaping its slack mouth.

‘You should walk all the way to Glorka,’ Sol said to Colm, pointing with his dripping dagger. ‘Bloody fools like you deserve nothing less.’

Colm rode with Marduk until they made camp. He sat silently, huddled beside the fire, until it was his turn to stand watch.

                              
 

The next morning broke bright and cold. While Sol and Inari brushed and fed the horses, Marduk walked to a rocky outcrop and stared down into the valley.

‘Bad business last night,’ Colm said, coming up and standing beside him. Black smudges marked the skin under Colm’s eyes and his flesh hung loose on his skull. He held a steaming mug in one hand and handed another to Marduk who took it with a nod of thanks.

‘We got through it,’ Marduk said, taking a cautious sip. He nodded at the heat and flavour and swallowed another mouthful. He pointed into the valley.

‘How far is Waterford?’

‘A few hours,’ Colm said. He pointed to a grey smudge half way along the valley floor.

‘The ford is there. The town was larger when I was a lad. Before we fled, we heard rumours it had been overrun and burned.’

‘Any chance of trouble?’

‘I doubt it. No one trades here anymore. Bandits have moved on to richer pickings.’

Taking another sip, Marduk spent a few moments matching the landscape with the map he held in his head. He glanced at Colm.

‘When did you flee?’

‘Almost a year now,’ Colm said. His face had gone still.

‘Family?’

‘Lost them. The panic…’

The chain rattled. Colm started.

‘What did you see?’ Marduk whispered. A fresh chill stole across his skin. He resisted the urge to look behind, to follow where the chain led.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Before. Back at the port. When Valens came with the Child. You looked-‘

Colm swallowed. ‘Nothing. I saw nothing.’ A crimson flush drowned the pallor in Colm’s face.

‘Were you married?’

Colm nodded, his eyes distant. ‘Wife. Daughter.’

Marduk looked out over the valley again, then dashed the contents of his mug into the snow.

‘The world’s a shit hole,’ he said. ‘We break camp in five minutes.’

The Child followed Marduk back to the camp, while Colm stayed on the outcropping, gaze fixed on the view without seeing it.

                              
 

The ruins of Waterford stood black and stark against the snow. On either side of the road leading in, bare trees clawed the empty sky. A squat mill, its stone shattered and its conical bulk black with soot, stood beside the river. The windmill’s creaked in the freshening breeze, its ragged sails flapping uselessly.

‘What now, Captain?’ Sol asked. He gazed around the town with haunted look.

‘We wait,’ Marduk said, dismounting. Colm had already climbed down and stood beside the cloven millstone, staring at the river. Marduk secured his horse, then pointed to Inari.

‘You and Sol check the perimeter. If you see anyone or anything, I want to hear you before I see you running back here, is that clear?’

Inari flourished a mock salute and slid to the ground. She looped the reins over a piece of wood then joined Sol. Marduk saw how close they walked together and shook his head.

‘Trouble?’ Colm said.

‘Not if they keep their hands off each other.’

‘Thought you’d stop that sort of thing. Unnecessary distraction.’

‘More trouble that its worth. They’ll look out for each other, which means they’ll look out for us.’

Colm snorted and turned to the river.

‘My father had slaves. In his will, he wanted them freed. I sold them instead. Got my start that way.’

Before Marduk could respond, he heard a sharp whistle. He and Colm turned to see Inari jogging back, scabbard slapping her leg.

‘Boat,’ she said, slowing to a walk. ‘Sol’s giving him a hand tying up.’

The boatman stood on the bank. He scratched at the dirty yellow beard fringing his face. One of his eyes was a puckered crater, the other bulging out as he glared at the sky. A scrim of white hair poked out from under a rotting woollen cap. A patched tunic over worn leggings completed his disreputable look.

Beside him stood a boy, thin and pale, in clothes as good as rags.

‘Which one of you is Marduk?’ the boatman asked. ‘Couldn’t be you,’ he pointed to Inari, cackling. She folded her arms over her chest and scowled.

‘I am,’ Marduk said. ‘You’re Marat?’

‘Assuredly,’ Marat said. He had the dark cast of the local population and a thick accent that verged on the guttural. He looked curiously at the Child, then his eye widened and he hurriedly glanced away. Taking off his cap, he scratched at something in his flaking scalp, examined his nails and jammed the cap back on.

‘What about the boat?’ Marduk said.

Marat pointed to a craft bobbing alongside the blackened remains of a pier. It sat low in the water.

‘That will get us to the capitol?’

‘Nothing else will as fast.’ Marat’s mouth worked and he muttered to himself. ‘Of course, there’s no one else alive but me who can take you.’ His chuckle sounded like a mouthful of broken teeth grinding together. ‘Money up front,’ he said abruptly, as if the idea had just occurred to him. He held out a bony hand. Marduk took a jingling bag from his pack and tossed it to Marat, who plucked it from the air.

‘What about the horses?’ Inari said.

‘This scamp will take care of them.’ Marat paused pawing through the contents of the bag and laid a possessive hand on the boy’s shoulder. He flinched at the old man’s touch.

‘An ill fed boy?’ Inari’s eyes narrowed.

‘He’ll do,’ Marduk said, signing to Inari to be quiet.

‘She’s got a lip,’ Marat said. ‘Put the iron collar back on her. That shuts them up.’ Sol grabbed Inari by the elbow as she started towards Marat. She shook him off and stood glaring at the boatman.

‘What’s your name?’ Marduk asked the boy.

The boy looked uncertainly at the boatman.

‘He don’t have a name. Found him wandering lost a few months back. He’s a mouth to feed, but he’s been useful once or twice. Haven’t you?’ The boy nodded, clearly miserable.

‘Come on then,’ Marduk said. ‘I’ll show you the horses.’

‘He’s extra,’ Marat said.

‘Extra?’ Sol said. His eyes narrowed.

‘Five lodos. I have to feed him.’

‘Really? You feed him?’ Sol’s anger was evident.

‘Five lodos when we return,’ Marduk said, flashing a warning look at Sol. ‘And only if you get us back.’

Marat considered this for a long while, while the others waited impatiently. Finally, he nodded. ‘Go on,’ he said, pushing the boy forward. ‘You two,’ Marduk said, pointing to Sol and Colm. ‘Let’s get this gear stowed then we’ll find shelter for the horses.’

Out of sight, Marduk found the boy’s silence dragging on him. The Child walked on his left, with the boy on his right. Marduk wondered how strange all three of them might look to anyone coming down the street.

‘Do you remember your name, lad?’ Marduk asked as they came to the horses.

The boy nodded.

‘What is it?’ Colm said.

‘Luka.’

‘Well, Luka. Do you think you can look after our horses?’

Nodding, Luka reached out and touched Marduk’s horse, running his hand over its hide.

‘Colm, you stay with him. Sol and I will scout for shelter.’

‘What do you think?’ Sol said as they walked through the ruined village. They went passed a rotting corpse half buried under shattered wood and brick. Marduk had to tug on the chain to drag the Child away from inspecting it.

‘What do I think? We need to get to the capitol as soon as we can.’

‘I meant the boy.’

‘I know what you meant,’ Marduk snapped. He stopped before a shed. One side had collapsed, but the remaining walls and most of the roof was intact. He grunted, then nodded.

‘The sooner you learn we can’t fix everything wrong in the world the better.’ He rubbed his face, heard the bristles of his greying beard rasp. ‘This will do. The boy should be safe enough. Come on, let’s go back.’

Marduk lifted Luka onto the back of his horse, and the boy smiled for the first time since they had met. He handed him down once the horses were inside the shed and helped Sol hobble each.

‘You’ll be right, lad,’ Colm said. Colm pulled a stick of jerky from a wax paper pack and handed it to Luka. The boy, eyes wide in winder, took the meat and bit on it. Colm nodded, then placed the bundle on top of a pack sitting beside the boy. ‘Make sure you eat. The old bastard doesn’t care an inch about you,’ he said, gruff and suddenly embarrassed.

Marduk glanced at Sol and then knelt before the boy. ‘If Marat isn’t back in three days, take a horse and ride east. Do you understand?  You’ll find a village there. At least, that’s what the map says. Someone will take you in. Three days, all right?’ The boy, cheeks fat with food, nodded. As them men left, he waved to the Child. It ignored him.

Colm looked at Marduk as they walked back. ‘Any chance the old man won’t return in three days?’  

‘Stranger things have happened,’ Marduk said, fingering his dagger hilt and smiling sardonically. ‘The old bastard may just do the right thing and die.’

Back at boat, an impatient Inari had her back to Marat who stood mumbling to himself.

When Marat saw the men return, he looked querulously at them. ‘What have you done with him?’ He anxiously twisted the cap in his hands.

‘The boy’s well enough,’ Colm said. He heaved his pack into the boat, setting it to rocking back and forth. Ice clinging to the bank cracked and bobbed away.

‘Come now, Marat,’ Marduk said, clapping him on the back so hard the old man almost fell. ‘We’ve been promised a peasant boat trip. Let’s go.’

Marat started to speak when the chain rattled and the Child stepped from behind Marduk. The old man’s eyes widened and his sickly face drained to the colour of dough.

‘Yes, yes,’ Marat stammered. ‘In you get,’ he said, irritable and suddenly frightened. He climbed in and staggered to the stern where he gripped the tiller like a drowning man.

The others settled into the boat. The Child perched on the bow. Marduk cast off then settled beside Sol.

‘Feels like a Sunday row in the capitol,’ Marduk said, lifting an oar into place.

‘Really?’ Sol said.

Marduk squinted, remembered. ‘No. Let’s get started. The sooner we get there the less time we have to stomach Master Marat’s fine company.’


 

Chunks of ice thudded against the hull. Marduk felt the cold bite through the manacle at his wrist like an icicle thrust deep into the bone. The Child hummed quietly to itself. The others huddled along the length of the boat, the chain snaking between them like a glistening snake. Marduk shifted and tried to stretch his legs. Colm cursed when Marduk kicked him. The Child looked around, its eyes black and gleaming. Soot ran in black tracks down its face. Colm but his lip and subsided into a sullen glare. The Child turned back and resumed its humming.

Blackened trees loomed. Here and there, charred fence posts emerged from the dead weeds like crumbling teeth. Near a bend they saw the left bank choked with the burned, rotting corpses of dozens of cattle. Marduk watched Sol track the remains with wide, frightened eyes until they disappeared into the fog. Colm cursed again. The tension grew worse.

‘Not long now.’ Marduk glanced at Marat standing in the stern, hand braced on the tiller as the boat drifted down the central channel.

‘This used to be good land,’ Colm said, his voice an angry mutter. ‘Cattle. Sheep. Families grew rich here.’

‘Rich,’ Inari spat, sending ripples across the water.

‘That’s right. They worked hard, raised good families. All gone now. The land is a ruin.’

‘Built on the backs of slaves,’ Inari said. She looked ready to leap at him until Sol grabbed her shoulder. Her head snapped around. They exchanged a look, then she subsided and shrank into her cloak. A bitter wind blew across the river, sending the boat yawing towards the bank. Marat swore and struggled for a few moments until he straightened their course.

‘Did you hear that?’ Sol said, sitting straighter.  Marduk lifted a hand. A distant cry drifted over them. They heard a thunk and a whistling shriek, then a cracking sound, like a walnut under a hammer.

‘The siege,’ Marduk said. Hands drifted to weapons. The mist swirled and they saw a distant, roiling black column against the sky.

‘Like I said,’ Marat cackled. ‘Not long now.’

More signs of life emerged. Or at least, its wreckage. Piers loomed, burned and shattered. At one point, they passed under the gaping remains of a bridge. Cemented stones on either bank jutted out over the water for several paces. The central span lay broken-backed in the water. Corpses became more common. Tumbled bones in rotten rags littered either bank. Now and then a bloated, waxen corpse drifted by, hair swirling in the water, twisted features gaping at the sky.

The blare of trumpets transported Marduk back to Skalak Pass. Sleet fell sideways in the howling gale. A triple line of men roared and held the line and washed their spears in the blood of their enemies. He shook his head and clasped his shaking hands.

The thud of thousands of feet echoed across the water. Shouts and cries went up with the rattle of drums. A wooden clatter rang out and Sol looked up before glancing at Marduk who stared stonily ahead.

‘What is it?’ Inari said.

‘They’re storming the walls,’ Sol said, shaking his head. ‘They’ve lifted ladders into place.’

‘That’s good then,’ Colm said, looking eagerly into the mist. Then they heard the screaming start.

‘Frontal assaults on fixed positions should only occur after sappers have undermined the foundations of the walls,’ Marduk said. ‘That’s what the manual says. I’d like to strangle the officer who gave the orders. I doubt a sapper has been within a hundred miles of these walls.’

The screams were joined by the heavy thud, thud, thud of falling bodies. Distraught, Sol gripped the side of the boat until his knuckles turned white. Hesitant at first, Inari laid a hand on his shoulder.  

‘River’s taking us a little ways north,’ Marat said, as if he hadn’t heard the sounds of combat. To their rear, Marduk heard trumpets sound the retreat; the earlier joyful blare replaced by an insistent dirge that stirred yet more memories.

The mist deepened until they sank into a world of white. Visibility shrank to a few feet. Marat scanned the water with jerky movements of his head that reminded Marduk of a fearful bird.

The Child looked avidly into the mist. Water beaded its hair, creating a glittering fretwork.  There was a moment when Marduk saw a lost little girl, far, far from home. Then the rust stains on the iron collar seemed to darken and run red into its smock. The Child craned its head to look at him, at an angle that should’ve shattered the vertebrae like kindling.

Marduk’s throat grew unaccountably dry. He coughed and winced at the rasping sound. He unscrewed his canteen and swallowed a mouthful of tepid water. At the stern, Marat softly called out.

‘Here we go.’ The boat angled towards the left bank. The mist parted, revealing a weed choked side channel.

‘Get out the oars, boys,’ Marat said, his voice high and wheezing. ‘There’s no current here.’

Without a word, Sol and Colm slid the oars into the oarlocks. They entered the channel with a rustling sound.

‘Easy as you go,’ Marat said.

Sol and Colm rowed. The sounds of retreat faded and a thick silence settled. Uneasy, Marduk looked around. Vague, twisted shapes swam through the mist. A dim silver coin, masquerading as the sun, rode the sky. The diffuse light struck Marduk with a sudden fear that he would never see clean sunlight again. He caught the Child slyly looking at him and wondered if the chain that linked them was the only connection they shared. His skin crawled.

Inari huddled against the side of the boat. Her head jerked at every sound.

‘It’s the waiting that’s the worst,’ Marduk said, his voice low. Startled, Inari almost jumped out of her seat.

‘It’s not the waiting,’ Inari said, shaking her head. Her full lips thinned to a dark line and vertical groves appeared either side of her mouth. ‘This was where I was sold the first time. Slave market,’ she said, answering Marduk’s unspoken question. ‘Sold to someone like him,’ she said, tilting her chin at Colm, whose face went red. ‘I was twelve.’

‘Hush,’ Marat hissed. ‘Ship those oars. We’re here.’

A wall reared out of the mist. It stretched either side of the channel, moss and lichen clinging to the grey bulk. A narrow tunnel appeared, like a hole in a tooth. Rusted bars covered the entrance though Marduk saw several had broken off. He doubted the rest would resist for more than a minute or two.

‘Out you get,’ Marat said. He looked exhausted and unwell. Water dripped from his beard and the dark skin under his eyes hung loose.

‘That’s how we’re getting into the city?’ Colm said. ‘What are we, sewer rats?’

‘How deep is the water?’ Sol peered dubiously over the side. He flinched. Marduk saw something furry and dead bobbing along in the water.

‘No more than two or three feet. A hundred yards in there’s a set of iron rungs fixed to the wall. They lead to a room in an abandoned building.’ Marat coughed, the phlegmy sound rebounding from the tunnel mouth.

They gathered their gear. Marduk went in first, the stagnant water rising to his waist. Holding his sword over his head in one hand, he took his pack from Sol and waded to the bank where he rested it. The Child followed. The water stopped at its shoulders. It moved easily, like an eel in search of prey. Marduk watched Sol help Inari into the water, steadying the boat as she entered. Colm almost fell in, catching himself on the muddy bank with an outthrust hand.

Without ceremony, Marat used an oar to turn the boat. ‘Noon tomorrow,’ he said. ‘And the next day if you’re not here. After that…’

They watched the boat disappear into the mist.

‘What now?’ Inari said, looking at the bars.

‘That’s our way in,’ Marduk said. He pulled a small lamp from his pack. ‘Weapons only. Leave your gear behind.’ The others nodded.

While Marduk lit the lamp with a flint, the Child slipped between the bars. Water slapped quietly against the crumbling brickwork.

‘When we enter,’ Marduk said to Inari. ‘You’ll lead us to the Palace.’

‘I thought the Child could do it,’ Inari said.  

‘It can, but it will take the most direct route. I don’t fancy fighting every step of the way just because the Child prefers a straight line through street fighting.’ He ignored the idiot grin that spread across its face.

‘Once we get into the Palace, the Child will be our bloodhound.’

‘And when we find Roland?’ Sol asked. ‘What then?’

‘If he’s imprisoned, we free him,’ Marduk said.

‘And if he’s gone over to the rebels?’ Colm said.

Marduk shook his head. ‘One problem at a time.’ He ignored the look Inari shared with Sol. ‘Let’s get these bars sorted.’

Sol worked on the badly corroded bars. One snapped off in his hand while another bent enough for him and Colm to enter. Inside, the light was dim and the air thick and rank. Moss hanging from the ceiling gave off a faint light.

Marduk raised the lamp. Cockroaches, as long as a thumb, skittered away from the light and disappeared into cracks. Fists of nitre clung to the low ceiling.

‘Ready?’ Marduk said. The others nodded. The chain tugged at his wrist. Turning, Marduk followed it into the gloom.

Every few yards the chain snagged on the bottom of the tunnel, forcing Marduk to stop and work it free. He glanced over his shoulder at one point and saw the tunnel mouth had receded to a bright pinpoint of light.  

‘How far?’ Colm muttered, looking fearfully at the low ceiling. Sweat beaded on his scalp and he had look of a frightened animal.

‘Relax,’ Sol said. Colm ignored him. Marduk saw his eyes drift to the chain. He knew exactly what the man was thinking.

Squeals ripped through the air. A sleek rat perched on a shattered brick. Its black fur bristled and sharp, yellow teeth flashed. Red eyes glared at them.

Colm gagged. A flash and the rat convulsed and fell dead. Inari appeared out of the gloom and pulled her dagger free of the bleeding corpse.

‘I don’t agree with him much, but rats are disgusting.’ She cleaned the blade and slid it back into her belt.  

Marduk held up his hand. The others stopped.

‘What is it?’ Inari whispered. She peered at the ceiling and saw a trickle of dust begin to fall. ‘I thought I heard-‘

Vibrations rippled the bricks, making them pop and crack. Dust fell, turning the water muddy. A rat jumped from brick to brick, chirruping loudly before it disappeared into a hole.

‘What the hell was that?’ Colm said, looking terrified. The vibrations stopped. They looked at each other, then at the ceiling.

The tunnel convulsed, sending them reeling against the walls. Bricks shattered with a sound like breaking bones. A black wave of rats swam amongst them towards the distant light.

‘Back,’ Marduk shouted. ‘The walls coll-‘

A giant fist smashed into the tunnel. A titanic roar of collapsing stone and earth swallowed the world. Marduk fell, the weight of the chain dragging him under the water. He fought to regain his footing. When he did, he surged from the water, gasping for air.  

‘Sol! Inari! Answer me, damn it. Colm?’

As the dust cleared, Marduk saw the others pressed against a wall, lit by a shaft of light. Colm looked dazed, his eyes locked on something in the depths of the tunnel. Sol cradled Inari, who bled from a cut above her ear.

Marduk made to move towards then when the chain at his wrist brought him up short. Annoyed, he tugged at it then realised the far end had snagged. Cursing, he followed the links until he came to a mound of dirt and shattered rock.

‘Where is she?’ Colm yelled, coughing up a thick wad of muddy phlegm. ‘Where’s Daria?’

Heaving on the chain, Marduk pulled a few feet free before it caught. Light lit the Child’s arm and leg emerging from a pile of shattered stone and earth.

‘You bastard,’ Colm shouted at Marduk. ‘You’ve killed her.’ He came at Marduk, fist pulled back. Marduk grabbed Colm by the wrist and throat and forced him against the wall.

‘Get a grip you bloody fool.’

‘You’ve killed her,’ Colm sobbed. ‘You’ve killed her.’

‘That’s not your daughter,’ Marduk hissed. ‘Listen. It isn’t Daria. It’s a thing. Daria is dead. Your daughter is dead.’

The strength ran out of Colm. He slumped against the wall and wept. Marduk let go, aware of the manacle digging into his flesh. He looked at Colm who stared with wet eyes for a long moment before lunging at the mound. Frantic, he sent clots of dirt and brick flying. Marduk watched for a moment, then signalled to Sol.

Sol left Inari leaning against the wall with a rag pressed against her head. Together he and Marduk helped Colm dig into the mound, unearthing the Child.  

Colm stood over the body, his eyes unreadable. Marduk thought the Child’s face peaceful, drained of its habitual slyness.

‘Is she…is it dead?’ Sol asked.

Before Marduk answered, the Child’s eyes snapped open. For the briefest moment, something terribly lost and alone lurked in their black orbits. As quickly, its gaze hardened and turned blank. The Child sat. Cracked bones realigned with muffled pops. Colm took several steps back, his face white as curdled milk. The Child shook itself, rested on its haunches, and regarded them with unblinking eyes.

‘What happened?’ Inari said, joining hem. She peered at the light, wincing as she dabbed at her cut. The bleeding had stopped, but Marduk noted her unfocussed eyes.

‘Wall breach. Catapults, maybe. Or grappling hooks. That charge may’ve been a diversion while they brought down the wall. Whatever it was, this is the result.’ Marduk looked up the steep incline towards the light and tried to ignore the uncomfortably close presence of the Child. A brick toppled and bounced towards them.  

‘There’s no time to dig through that. We’ll have to climb up to the street.’

The others nodded. Inari swayed. Sol put an arm around her waist. She tried to shrug him off, but he murmured something to her. She nodded and leaned against him.

‘Colm. Colm?’

Colm looked groggily at Marduk. ‘Yeah?’

‘Are you all right?’

Colm nodded.  

‘Can I rely on you?’

‘What are you talking about? Of course you can.’ Something of his old bluster returned. Marduk exchanged a look with Sol, who shrugged.

‘Good. I’ll go first, then you and Sol will help Inari. Wait for my signal before you come.’

Marduk scrambled up the steep mound which shifted with each step. Bricks clattered into the water. The Child kept up, nimble hands and feet finding holds. Finally, he reached the top of the mound, beneath a ragged lip. Head down, Marduk listened.

Scuffling. A woman screamed. Men laughed. Grim-faced, Marduk waited. The screams died to whimpers; the laughter to eager grunts. After a few minutes, the men moved. Marduk straightened and his head and shoulders emerged from the hole.

Large blocks of shattered stone lay in a heap extending for fifty yards either side. Arms and legs stuck out at odd angles. Blood squeezed between the stones and dribbled onto the cobbled ground.

An open door across the rubble-strewn street beckoned. Heaving himself out, Marduk scrambled to his feet. He heard shouting at the far end of the street. A squad of men in familiar uniforms ran across the gap, whooping and yelling. He heard more screams, more laughter. Gritting his teeth, Marduk turned and signalled to Sol. Then he ran across the street and entered the doorway.

The hot, coppery smell of blood struck him. Gagging, Marduk drew his sword and edged through a room filled with shattered furniture into a short corridor. Beyond laid a room at the rear. Inside, he saw a man, a woman and boy slumped against a wall. Their slashed throats hung open to the bone.

A cold breeze swept through the room. For a moment, Marduk wondered about their lives under the Imperial siege, promised protection but given none. Squeezing his trembling hand into a fist he returned to the front room.

The shouting faded. Looking across the street Marduk saw the collapsed remains of the wall. A body, an arrow jutting from its throat, lay atop the rubble. A crow landed on its chest. It strutted in a circle and then pecked at the corpse’s face.

Whistling low, Marduk signalled Colm who climbed out and staggered across the street. His dazed look troubled Marduk.

‘Get in,’ Marduk said when Colm reached him. ‘And stay out of the back room.’ Colm nodded and Marduk watched him settle against a wall, his gaze distant.

Marduk readied himself to signal Sol when he heard the tramp of approaching men. He shrank back into the doorway.

‘There’s resistance at the palace.’

‘Another siege? We just got away with this one.’

‘At least Janos will be happy. He pushed hard for this.’

‘And the men? Should we concentrate our forces?’

‘Not yet. Janos was explicit. Maintain a token force around the palace and let the rest of the lads off the leash. After a few hours, we move in. He wants to send a message to the locals that rebelling again isn’t worth the candle.’

The men walked out of earshot. Marduk, his mouth a grim line, glanced towards the backroom.

‘Janos? What’s that bastard doing here?’ He felt a sick rage grow. The he realised he could see the Child.  

Frantic, he looked around and saw the chain snaking through the broken furniture to the rear. Signalling Sol to cross with Inari, Marduk turned and followed the chain.

The Child squatted in front of the dead boy, its head cocked to one side. A fall of greasy hair hid its face. Marduk watched it reach out to touch the boy’s face, just as Sol and Inari arrived. The Child snatched its hand back and turned to Marduk. Confusion gave way to slyness. Marduk swallowed and left.

In the front room, Marduk went over Inari who crouched beside a wall.  

‘Focus on my finger,’ Marduk said. Inari lifted her head and squinted as he moved his hand from left to right.

‘Congratulations. You’ve a mild concussion,’ Marduk. ‘If you want to vomit, and you probably will, make sure it’s not anywhere near me.’ He tore a strip from his shirt and handed it to Inari.

‘Best I can offer. Keep that pressed to the cut until it stops bleeding.’  

He looked up at Sol. ‘Stop hovering like a love-sick puppy, Sol,’ Marduk said. Inari’s eyes widened, then her grin broadened.

Sol reddened. Marduk shook his head. ‘Easy. Men can laugh about these things.’

Sol smiled briefly then went to the doorway.

‘Why don’t we join the others?’ Sol asked, looking into the street.

‘Politics, mostly.’ Marduk said. ‘War is better without politicians constantly interfering. If D’ath is a traitor, he’s an embarrassment to the Imperator. We get him out and the high ups can deal with him. If he’s a captive, freeing him makes him a hero, and the Imperator needs a hero on the Council. If we leave him to the regular soldiers, he’ll be just another corpse on a pile that’s getting bigger by the hour. And we’ll get the blame.’

Sol looked unhappy. ‘So we’re on our own?’

‘That’s right,’ Marduk said, rising to his feet and stretching his back.

‘If we have to fight our own men…’

‘Wake up, Sol,’ Inari said. Her familiar alertness had almost returned. ‘I saw the world from a slave pen. Life isn’t what you hope, but only what it is.’

‘Where’s Colm?’ Marduk said, looking around. The chain shifted and they heard Colm sob.

Marduk reached him first. The corpses were still where they sat, twisted and grotesque. The Child still crouched in front of them. Colm knelt nearby, one hand stretched towards the Child. A mad, desperate hope filled his face.

‘Colm, come back.’ Marduk kept his voice as calm as possible. He saw the Child’s eyes flick towards him then back to Colm. That gaze, that black, empty, cunning gaze sent a spike of fear through Marduk.

‘Please. Colm.’

Marduk saw Child’s lips twitch. Was it amusement, he wondered later. If so, who had amused it?

‘Daria? Oh God, Daria.’

The slyness dropped from the Child’s face, revealing terror and fear and love and hope. It called to Colm.

‘Daddy!’

The words struck Colm like a thunderbolt. He sagged to both knees, his mouth working soundlessly. Trembling, Colm lifted his arms to embrace the Child.

‘Colm, no!’ Paralysed, Marduk watched as a look of triumph emerged on the Child’s face, the change as seamless as the shift from day into night. It leaped towards Colm, swift and sure and hungry. Before Marduk could draw his sword, the Child buried its mouth into Colm’s throat.

Colm’s mouth dropped open and never closed again. His body shivered. The Child nuzzled him, an obscene parody of a daughter’s kiss. A thick stream of heart’s blood spilled over his lips and fell into the raddled mess of the Child’s hair. Then, with an awful ripping sound, the Child staggered back, cartilage and flesh hanging from its ruin of a mouth.

Inari vomited, a hacking cough mixed with a ragged sob. Sol drew his sword and moved to attack. Marduk stepped in and pushed him back.

‘Don’t,’ Marduk said. Rage swept through, gone as soon as it erupted, leaving him with a desolate weariness.

Beads of sweat stood on Sol’s shocked face. ‘We have to kill it.’

‘We can’t.’ Marduk shook his head. ‘Even though it damns us, we still need it.’

‘It’s killed two of us,’ Sol shouted. ‘How can we trust it not to kill us all?’

‘We don’t have a choice,’ Marduk said, refusing to look at Sol. ‘Without the Child, we can’t complete our mission.’

‘Damn our mission,’ Sol said, pointing his sword at Marduk.

‘Go then,’ Marduk said. ‘If it’s all too much, go. Marat will be waiting. Take Inari with you. Go.’ 

Sol’s eyes flicked to Inari, who wiped her mouth clean. She shook her head.  

‘Damn you,’ Sol said, sheathing his sword. ‘Damn you and your mission.’ He went back to the front room where he stood in the doorway, jaw clenched.

The Child giggled. Its face and hair were thick with blood. It smiled at Marduk then pulled a chunk of flesh from Colm’s ruined neck. Marduk felt something slip deep inside him. His vision went black. When he regained control, Marduk found he had looped the chain around the Child’s neck and had pulled it tight.

‘You’ve never fooled me,’ he hissed, nearly gagging on the Child’s carrion stink. ‘You played on a father’s grief, but you don’t fool me.’ He raised his hand, displaying the links welded to the manacle.

‘I know about the chain. It’s not just a leash. Each linked sanctified with blood to keep you in check. At least a little.’ Marduk wiped away the sweat dripping into his eyes.  

‘So when I do this,’ Marduk said, gripping the slack and tightening the chain. ‘It hurts.’ The Child’s face went black and its hands scrabbled at the links biting deep into its throat. Black eyes bulged and rolled back in its head.

As if from deep underwater, Marduk heard shouting.  The words were distorted, distant. A fist struck him. Inari loomed in front of him, mouthing working silently. He shook his head, and the fugue cleared. He saw the Child slumped over, blood tinged drool hanging from its slack mouth. Marduk loosened the chain and let the Child fall to the floor.

‘Not all the Keeper’s lore is secret.’ He leant over and stabbed a blunt finger into the Child’s forehead. It felt like poking a mountain. ‘There’s intelligence in there,’ he said. ‘So you understand I know how to make your existence a hell on Earth. As much as you disgust me, I’ll keep you alive as long as you’re useful. That–‘ and here he pointed to Colm’s corpse-‘cannot happen again.’

The Child’s eyes hardened into diamond points of malice. Marduk matched it until the Child nodded. He dropped the chain in a rattling pile between them. ‘Let’s go,’ he said to Inari.

‘Is Sol right?’ Inari said, her voice low. ‘That thing just slaughtered Colm. How can we go on?

‘We’re at war,’ Marduk said. His voice sounded distant to him. ‘You get the same offer I gave Sol. The boat is waiting. Go if you want. If you do, you’ll miss your only chance to make the people who made you a slave pay. The rebel leadership are men thrown off their plantations when the Empire came. Men who bought and sold you. Will you give up that chance?’

‘Who are you?’ Inari asked, horrified.

‘I’m Marduk. I held the line at Skalak’s Pass while everyone else died or ran. Are you going to run? Are you?’ he said, pointing at Sol. ‘It’s been easy until now,’ Marduk said. ‘A little gallop on horseback, some swordplay and a soft ride in a boat. Not anymore. It’s death out there. Two men at each other’s throats with knives in a dark alley while the world burns. Don’t you understand? You either cut and run, or stay and win. There is no other choice.’


 

The afternoon sun guttered towards night. The sky flamed one last time and fell into bloody rust. Mist filled the street. Doorways yawned open. Buildings burned, sending gouts of smoke billowing into the sky. Corpses hung out of windows and littered the streets, heads broken or throats slashed wide and bloody. Screams filled the night.

Inari led the way, ghosting ahead through shadows that deepened into black clots. The road from the shattered wall swiftly narrowed, then split, then split again until they were deep into a warren of streets filled with stinking refuse and chokepoints that made it impossible to turn and retreat.

‘Look at this,’ Sol said. His gaze was haunted. Bloody, broken bodies lay strewn across the alley. Blood puddled in the gutters. Dead faces stared at them.

‘It’s war,’ Marduk said. He tugged on the chain bringing the Child to heel. ‘Move.’

Inari took them deeper into the city. Chaos. Soldiers stumbled drunk from ruined taverns; women screamed as men shouted and laughed. Marduk saw a child, thumb in its mouth, standing in a doorway. Blood flecked its face.

Inari hissed and held up a hand. They paused in shadows inside an entrance to a high walled courtyard.

‘What do you see?’ Marduk whispered. Inari inclined her head towards a group of men lounging around a burbling fountain.

‘Imperials,’ Inari said. ‘Rebels.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s too dark to tell.’ Her eyes had a peculiar gleam in the faded light. Her hand clinched the hilt of her sword.

‘Rebels, I think. Probably given up and having fun on their way out.’ Marduk said. ‘I count…five?’

Inari nodded. She licked her lips.

‘Is there another way?’

Shaking her head, Inari indicated the alley on the far side. ‘That way saves us time. Going back and around means we might miss our chance at D’ath.’

Gritting his teeth, Marduk drew his sword and signed to Sol to do the same. They waited a moment and heard snatches of drunken singing. He touched Inari’s shoulder.

‘Go,’ he said.

Running into the courtyard, Inari cried out, an ululating wail that raised the hair on Marduk’s arms.

Sprawled on the cobbles and sharing a jack of wine, the soldiers didn’t react for a few heartbeats before they reached for their weapons. One struggled to his feet only for Inari to cut him down. He fell, screaming, trying to hold together the bloody ruins of his face.

‘Come on,’ Marduk roared. Loosening the chain with a flick of his wrist, he ran into the courtyard and engaged the first soldier unlucky enough to be in his way.

Anger replaced surprise in the rebel’s face. He ducked, spun around and pulled out his sword in the same motion. He turned the impetus into a savage cut at Marduk’s face. Swaying back, Marduk felt the wind of the blade across his eyes. He cut high, stepped back and stabbed low and turned his wrist in a wrenching motion.

Mouth a black hollow in a face gone white, the soldier dropped his sword and clutched at his spilling guts. He slipped in his blood, fell to his knees then tumbled backwards when Marduk cut his throat. Panting, Marduk spun around.

Dead soldiers littered the ground. Inari and Sol leaned over corpses. Sol wiped his sword clean, checked it nicks in the remaining light, then slid it home. Inari glared around the courtyard and Marduk thought she looked disappointed.

‘How does it feel?’ Marduk said. Spite crept into his voice and he shook his head in disgust at himself. The fountain’s burbling sounded obscene.

‘You said it yourself. This is war. They taught me to kill, to fight in the pit for their amusement until I died. They stole my life.’ Inari kicked a corpse and spat on it. ‘Who’s dead now, dogs?’

The Child, perched on the edge of the fountain, clapped its hands. The light had fled and glittering stars took its place. Marduk thought he saw tiny pinpricks of ice shining in the vast black gulfs of the Child’s eyes. He pulled the chain and it jumped to the ground.

Shouts punctured the night. They heard men approaching from two directions.

‘Enough. We’re running out of time.’ With the jangle of the chain, they jogged across the courtyard into the alley and disappeared into the dark.

                              
 

They paused at an intersection. The city burned. Sparks spiralled into the orange-tinged air. Smoke hung low and frightened people streamed passed, faces black with soot. Inari, Marduk thought sourly, was enjoying herself at the sight.

‘How close now?’ Marduk said.

‘Five, ten minutes,’ Inari said, nodding to the far side of the intersection. ‘Except there’s an army between us and the palace.’

Marduk rubbed his face. He heard the clink of the chain and looked back. The Child sat on its haunches and examined something that squirmed in its hands. A mouse. It popped the creature into its mouth. Too tired to feel disgusted, Marduk pointed to a street that ran between two tall buildings.

‘If we can’t go through, we’ll go over.

They crossed the intersection. The fighting had passed as had the stream of fleeing civilians. They entered the street Marduk had indicated. It ran narrowly between two long buildings that rose high overhead.  

The roar of a crowd from the far end reached them, a many-headed beast hungry for war. Bonfires cast lurid light across the palace walls.

‘Stay here,’ Inari said. She ran off before Marduk could stop her.

‘Damn it,’ Marduk said. He looked at Sol, who stood watching the Child toy with another mouse.

‘You all right?’

‘Bit of a balls up,’ Sol said. He stood with his back to the wall. Flames bled scarlet over his lean features. Marduk saw him favour his injured leg.

‘He was just lucky.  How are you with it?’

‘I’ll be fine. I should’ve kept a better eye out.’

Marduk shook his head. ‘You were luckier. Street fighting is bloody hard.’

Footsteps. Inari resolved from the shadows and scowled at the swords pointed at her.

‘What did you see?’ Marduk said.

‘There’s a mob of soldiers blocking the entrance to the palace grounds. They’re tired and dirty and eager for blood. The rebels have barricaded the palace’s inner gates and have archers stationed in the windows. They’re ready for a fight. Unless we want to get ground up like meat between them, we’ll need another way in.’

‘There is.’ Marduk indicated an open door. ‘We take the stairs to the roof.’

The quiet building appeared to be government offices. Papers were scattered everywhere and desks and chairs pushed aside. Marduk expected armed men to emerge from the shadows and attack, but they met no one on the way.

Emerging through a narrow door, the group found themselves standing in a gutter that ran between two peaked slate roofs. With the Child at his heels, Marduk led the others to the edge of the roof.

Six feet of empty air separated them from the building on the other side of the alley.

‘You’re joking,’ Inari said, staring into the three-storey gap.

‘You just see how funny I am,’ Marduk said. He rattled the chain, snagging the Child’s attention.

‘You and me, together,’ he said. Marduk took several steps back as the others made room. Without waiting, he ran.

The chain rattled as Marduk leaped. He arced across the gap, arms and legs pin-wheeling. Then he crashed and rolled across the roof, rising to his feet in time to see the Child make the jump.

Its body had a terrible grace; arms and legs flung back, head up and mouth open. It landed on its feet, bounded a few steps and halted.

After he signalled to Sol, Marduk backed up to make space. Despite his injury, Sol managed the leap without trouble. He landed with a grunt, waving off Marduk’s help. He nodded his thanks then turned to wait for Inari.

She didn’t want to do it.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Marduk said. He shouted over the background roar of the crowd. ‘The great huntress is afraid of heights.’

‘Come over here and say it,’ she yelled, looking at the gap at her feet.

‘How about you come over here so I can say it to your face,’ Marduk said.

Inari glared at him for a moment then stalked back. She sized up the distance to the edge of the roof and began to run. It was only when she was in the air that Marduk realised her eyes were tightly shut. Sol caught her as she landed. Inari shrugged him and turned her angry gaze on Marduk.

‘Don’t waste your anger on me,’ he said. ‘These buildings form the edge of the inner square the palace sits within. There’s an annex at the rear we can reach by moving from rooftop to rooftop. A few more jumps unless you want us to venture through her meat grinder below?’


 

‘Look at all those people,’ Sol said, leaning against the wall and gazing down.

 A sea of people occupied the palace’s inner grounds. Light flickered from bonfires scattered through the ruins of the garden. Craters were all that remained of uprooted oaks and maples, reduced to kindling to feed the many fires dotting the churned remains of once rolling lawns. Makeshift tents, little more than broken saplings and rotting blankets gave meagre shelter for the thousands crammed into the space.

‘Where are they going?’ Inari said, pointing to a line of men marching away.

‘Wherever it is, I don’t like it,’ Marduk said. ‘Why pen all these people and then leave?’ He looked at the others. ‘We have to get inside.’

‘There,’ Sol said, pointing to the peaked roof of a skylight. Marduk had to tug the Child to bring it to heel; it lingered by the parapet staring at the refugees.

The skylight looked onto sheet-covered furniture. It seemed to Marduk like a room full of ghosts.

‘This is our way in,’ Marduk said.

‘What about patrols?’ Sol said.

‘The rebels are pulling out. We can use the confusion to our advantage.’

They heard shouts, then the clatter of bricks and collapsing timber.

‘They’re forcing the main barricade,’ Sol said. Marduk nodded.

‘We have to go.’

They made short work of the skylight. Glass fell into the room, covering the sheets in a glittering rain.

With the others holding the chain, Marduk descended hand over hand. He cleared space, then waited as Inari descended. Sol came next, wincing when he reached the ground. They looked up at the Child staring at them.

Marduk held up his arms, feeling foolish. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Jump.’

Smiling, the Child leaped onto the edge of the skylight. It ignored the remaining glass that cut its bare feet. It waited a moment, then fell.

Marduk caught it neatly in his arms. He looked into its eyes, saw something black squirming within and hastily let it down. Nodding to the others, he led the way into the corridor.

                              
 

Marduk knelt in front of the Child. The sound of booted feet approached. Sol and Inari stood on either side, swords drawn, talking urgently. Marduk ignored them and instead spoke to the Child.

‘I know what you can do. Merge, isn’t that what the Keepers call it?’

The Child nodded, solemn as a monk at prayer.

‘Do it. Before they come.’

A dozen men crashed through a set of doors at the far end of the corridor. ‘Drop your weapons,’ one ordered.

‘What do we do?’ Sol shouted.   

‘We surrender,’ Marduk said, ignoring Sol’s startled look. Marduk stood and raised his hands.

‘We’re here to kill Roland,’ Marduk said cheerily. ‘I expect he’ll want to speak with us.’

‘Drop those weapons,’ the leading soldier yelled again. Marduk complied. Sol did the same. Cursing, Inari followed suit. The soldiers swarmed and pushed them down the corridor.

‘Move it!’

Amidst the confusion, Marduk glanced quickly over his shoulder and glimpsed the Child standing in the middle of the armed men. They ignored her, and soon she vanished from sight. The chain felt lighter. But it was the weight of the dagger strapped to his inner wrist that grew heavier with each step.

                              
 

The palace was in uproar. People filled the corridors and spilled into rooms. Looting spread through the building. For a moment, the men taking Marduk, Sol and Inari paused by a large window which looked out over the inner square. Fighting had broken out. Men moved in and out of the dancing shadows cast by bonfires, a struggling sea that rolled through the refugee camp, sending civilians fleeing into the night. Already hundreds lay dead.

‘Bring them in,’ someone shouted from in front of a set of doors crowded with people. The escort pushed and shoved until it cleared a space for their captives. Ignoring the scowls and suspicious glares, Marduk led the others through the doors and into a small room dominated by a long table.

A broad-shouldered man sat at the head of the table . A dozen other heavily armed men flanked him. Several wore blood soaked bandages.

The man at the head of the table looked up when Marduk and the others entered. He rose from his seat, a smile spreading across his lean face.

‘Can it be?’ he said. ‘Marduk? In God’s name, it truly is.’

Before anyone could react, he stepped forward and folded Marduk in a bear hug.

‘The hero of Skalak’s Pass,’ he said. ‘I was there when the Imperator pinned a medal on your chest. What a day that was.’ His smile faded. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I was here to rescue you, but it seems that option isn’t available anymore,’ Marduk said, looking at the men crowded in the room.  

‘We found them in the east wing, Commander,’ a soldier said.

‘You’re not here to burgle me, are you Marduk?’

‘I’m here on business, Roland,’ Marduk said. ‘Just business.’

Roland’s harsh laugh raised Marduk’s hackles. His hand started to tremble.

‘Business, is it? That old bastard Blevins sent you after me, didn’t he?’ Roland clapped his hands together in mocking applause.

‘That depends,’ Marduk said.

‘On what?’

‘If you come quietly, there won’t be any need for bloodshed.’ The weight of the dagger dragged at him.  

Roland’s laughter boomed again. The other men around the table chuckled, and the tension eased.

‘Come quietly? Hardly. You cannot shake an empire to its very foundations and do it quietly.’

‘Why? Why betray your Imperator? Why betray your people?’

‘He talks of betrayal,’ Roland said, shaking his head and getting more chuckles from the men seated at the table. ‘This from a man sent here to die. A hero of the Empire, cast aside on a suicide mission.  You will die here tonight. The Imperator gave up the gains you shed blood for at Skalak’s Pass, now he has tossed you on the dung heap. My men and I are ready to leave, but we will make sure the rats feast well tonight.

‘Fine words,’ Marduk said. ‘Stop hiding behind them and answer me; why did you betray your people?’

They betrayed us, Marduk,’ Roland yelled, his smile melting away to reveal the rage beneath. ‘They betrayed me.’ Spots of red rode his cheekbones and spittle flecked his lips. ‘You don’t know it, but I was at Skalak too. You got the medal but I spilled just as much of my blood as you did. I saw my friends die just as your friends died.’ He stopped, breathing heavily. Some of the other men around the table glanced uneasily at each other.

‘We held the Pass for them and they bargained it away,’ Roland whispered. His voice hardened. ‘They should kneel before us.’

‘I have a job,’ Marduk said.

‘You have a job,’ Roland sneered. ‘Listen to yourself. Time was you had a spine. Spine and spirit. All I see before me is a husk.’

‘And all I see before me is murdering scum,’ Inari said hotly.

Roland looked at her and smirked.

‘You’re nothing but a slave. Born to the yoke. When did your people ever lift a finger for their freedom?’

‘Have a care,’ Sol said.

Roland laughed. ‘Come now, Marduk. Don’t tell me your crack team is a lovelorn couple? Where are your hard men?’

‘No man speaks for me,’ Inari said. ‘What are you doing with all those people outside?’

‘Cattle,’ Roland said dismissively. ‘The dregs of the city. The poor, homeless, slaves. Fortunately, I have found a use for them.’

‘What?’ Marduk said.  

‘Just as a dying fire needs fresh fuel to let it roar again, so a cause needs its martyrs. The rebellion has suffered setbacks. It needs to find fresh life. The massacre of innocents is reason enough for the entire province to rebel again.’

‘With you at its head?’ Marduk said

‘Of course. All those dead children, all those raped mothers, all those brave fathers senselessly butchered by Imperial soldiers. I would be negligent to scorn such an opportunity.’

‘And with you at its head, you’ll march on the Imperial capital and assume the throne?’

‘You think I jest. I see it in your face. You never dreamed higher than the next battle, the next tavern. My father had friends on the Council, men who thought as he did. Who think as I do. The Imperial dynasty is weak, degenerate. The rebellion will go badly for the Imperator. The Treasury will bleed dry. Mothers will march on the palace demanding their sons come home. The Imperator will order their execution. Amid the unrest, we will strike. Our allies on the Council will rise with us. Childishly simple.’

‘And my people? Why kill them? Arm them, and they will fight for you.’ Inari’s breath came in short, frantic gasps.  

Roland looked curiously at Inari. ‘They’re more use dead than alive.’ He laughed again.

Catching her captors off guard, Inari broke free of the men holding her and flung herself at Roland, tearing at his face with her hands. They struggled together and then Roland had her by the throat.

A forest of swords rose, penning Sol, who struggled against the men holding him.  

Roland smiled and squeezed Inari’s throat tight. Her eyes bulged and she gasped for breath.

‘You mean nothing to me,’ Roland hissed, spittle flecking her face. Blood leaked from a gouge beneath his right eye. Her struggles became weaker, but still she flailed at him. He smirked, then drew a knife.

‘No!’ Sol cried. He threw himself forward and a soldier clubbed him to the ground where he lay groaning.

‘She doesn’t deserve this,’ Marduk said. ‘Let her go.’

‘What, this?’ Roland rammed the dagger into Inari’s stomach over and over. Blood spilled from her shuddering body. Spent, Roland let go her throat and she fell next to Sol.

‘You bastard,’ Marduk said without emotion. ‘You bloody bastard.’A stunned silence filled the room.  

‘The men and I revered you,’ Roland said, staring at his bloody hand. ‘You were the last man standing in your line and we damn well looked up to you.’

Marduk shook free of the hands holding him. Leaning forward he felt his cheek brush Roland’s. He briefly clenched his left hand into a fist and felt the dagger secreted up his sleeve slip drop into his palm. He glimpsed one of the men at the table react to the dagger, then another man with a thick moustache seated placed a restraining hand on his arm.

‘I survived Skalak,’ Marduk whispered as he stabbed Roland in the chest. Roland gasped and fell against him. Marduk twisted the dagger, probing for his heart. ‘You never did.’

Roland fell to the floor in a graceless heap. A tense silence filled the room as Roland’s men looked at each other.

‘More feared than loved,’ Marduk said. ‘As I thought. The Imperator’s men will be here soon. Leave now, or die here. Go.’

The rebels looked uncertainly at each other. The man with the thick moustache stood.

‘He was mad,’ he said to Marduk, looking briefly at the corpse. ‘Brilliant, but mad. You have done us a favour. In return, we give you your life.’ He signalled to the others and led them out through the door.  

The door closed with a soft thud, leaving Marduk with Sol and Inari. A band of steel wrapped itself around Marduk’s chest. His lungs burned and the dagger weighed like a mountain. He dropped it beside Roland’s corpse.

‘Damn you,’ Marduk whispered. ‘Wasn’t Skalak enough?’

Sol cradled Inari’s limp body. Her eyes stared at the ceiling. Screaming came from the gardens.

‘How do we stop it, Captain?’ Sol asked. He looked lost, bewildered. He hugged Inari tight to his chest and stroked her hair.

‘We can’t,’ Marduk said. He listened as the sounds of the fighting outside went quiet. Stillness filled the room. Then the crash of iron shod boots. The doors flew open and two Cataphracts entered. A chill settled over Marduk. He knew before he saw him that –

Janos strode into the room. His bald scalp gleamed in the flickering light. He stopped between the silent Cataphracts.

‘Always the butcher’s way with you, Marduk,’ Janos said, looking around.

‘What are you doing here?’ Marduk said.  

‘Tidying up. The Imperator tired of Blevins’ fumbling in Glorka. By his command I’ve taken charge of the campaign.’

‘What about Blevins?’

‘General Blevins is Execution Hill’s latest adornment.’ Janos smiled in delight.

‘And me? Roland?’

‘I advised the Imperator that you would’ve put some much needed steel into Blevins’ spine if you had been allowed to stay with him. All I had to do was suggest a mission into Glorka and Blevins leaped at it. Strange what pressure will do to a man’s judgement, no matter how experienced. As for Roland, killing him kept you away from Blevins and removed a thorn in our side at a stroke. Once I tidy up the loose ends here, we won’t have to worry about crushing the rebellion.’

‘Do you think slaughtering thousands of civilians will crush the rebellion? Have you and that inbred freak on the throne gone completely insane?’

‘Have a care, Roland. You can die cleanly or…otherwise.’ Janos looked around him. ‘The Imperator is happy to put Glorka to the sword if it keeps the other provinces in check. Nothing like spilling a little blood to set an example.’

‘The lives of all those people out there are playthings? You’re no better than this fool,’ Marduk snarled, kicking Roland’s corpse. The closest Cataphract pivoted towards him. Marduk spared him a look of disgust.

‘Great men understand that sacrifices are required. The Imperator holds power. Roland tried to snatch it. Now, I’d like my property back, if you don’t mind.’

‘Property?’

‘Yes. The Child. Where is that catamount, Valens?’

‘Valens?’ Marduk began to laugh. Janos fingered his sword hilt. Marduk’s laughter trailed away.

‘Valens was your inside man? You should’ve chosen better.’

‘What do you mean?’ Janos looked uneasy.

‘He’s dead,’ Marduk said. He briefly smiled.

‘Dead? What do you - where’s the Child?’

‘I wondered when you would ask that.’ Marduk lifted his arm, displaying the manacle. The chain had vanished.

‘It’s mine now,’ he said. He whistled. The air shimmered and the Child stepped back into reality. It smiled to show off its sharp teeth.

Janos fell back, blood draining from his face.

‘Kill it,’ he ordered, his voice cracking.

The Cataphracts crashed forward, their heavy swords raised.

Marduk flicked his wrist and the chain snaked back and forth across the floor like a rustling metal snake. The Child smiled hugely and clapped its hands together in delight. It leaped at the Cataphracts.

Later, while it sat in the ruins of the men, drawing symbols in steaming blood, the Child watched Marduk use his dagger to peel away Janos’ face. Sol had vanished, plunging into the chaos in the gardens, sword drawn, mind broken, howling like a wild beast.

When Marduk finished with Janos, he stumbled, like a drunkard, over to where the Child crouched. Marduk knelt. His bones and heart.

‘A deal. You and me, a deal. Do you understand?’ His throat hurt, sore from screaming.

The Child’s face, caked in blood once again, creased in amusement.

‘I’ve always understood, Marduk,’ it said in a voice young, ancient, and infinitely terrible. ‘Better than you know yourself.’

Marduk’s hand stopped shaking. He flexed his fingers.

‘We’re going home.  Someone has to pay for all this.’ The screams from the gardens had long since faded, replaced by shouted orders inside the palace. Marduk smelled smoke.

‘Who will pay?’ Marduk, the Child eagerly asked.

‘The Imperator. His wife. The Crown Prince. His followers and courtiers and servants and supporters. All on the Great Council, the very machinery ruling the Empire. None deserves to live. All of them must pay.’  

Marduk rose to his feet and began to unshackle the manacle around his wrist. ‘I will give you your freedom, and you will give me the Imperator’s head. I want blood to run hip deep in the Palace. Do we have an agreement?’

The Child looked at him, blinked slowly, and then a huge, hungry smile crept across its face.




© January, 2017 Robert Mammone

Robert Mammone is a banker by day and a writer or horror and fantasy by night. He has been writing since 1989. His work has appeared previously in Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["The Sword Imperial" by James Van Pelt]]>Sat, 25 Feb 2017 23:19:49 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-sword-imperial-by-james-van-peltAs he had for the last year, Hndred chopped wood and built fences and cleaned the stables for old Bakken the innskeeper. The young man worked a month before he’d earned enough credit to pay for an evening in the The Broken Beast. He left his field at sunset, walked three miles on the darkening road to the inn where he put in hours by moonlight or starlight. The month finished, Bakken, a short, burly figure whose dark, curly hair receded at his forehead, tallied Hndred’s time, double-checking his figures, before saying, “You have been helpful once again. My inn is open to you when you return. It’s good your appetite does not match your size, or a month labor wouldn’t be enough to feed you.”
 
The next day, Hndred laid out the guardsman tunic that had been his father’s prize possession from his days before he became a farmer, and the fine pants of brushed wool. He quit the field early, washed, dressed, his father’s jacket tight across his shoulders—for the son had outgrown the father--and then set out for the Broken Beast, a hand barrow before him, filled with fresh produce for the inn’s kitchen, and hiding a leather-wrapped parcel beneath. Hndred walked despite rumor of Bandihai raiding parties from the north, who waylaid travelers on the road. They had grown much worse of late, men wearing green leathers, carrying double-edged knives and cruel curved swords. Hndred heard they’d sacked Talfer on the Yent, a village a half-day’s walk up the harbor road. They’d emptied its treasury and burned the mill.
 
Hndred arrived before the evening trade, took a stool and table near the fire, ate the dinner Bakken’s kitchen had prepared, which, no matter what, tasted better than any meal Hndred prepared for himself. Tonight Bakken filled him with roasted hare, pepper-seasoned and covered with savory gravy. Hndred mopped his plate clean with a hunk of rough bread, then ordered a mug of Bakken’s mead. He drank slowly while waiting for the inn to fill.
 
The Broken Beast sat near the junction of three roads, one which led to the harbor on the distant sea, one from the forests and fields of the western plain, and the third, the long road that traders and travellers from the south used. They met at the Broken Beast and fed into the King’s Way, a hard day’s travel to King’s Keep and the royal city. Wondrous wanderers came to the Broken Beast, nobles and merchants, mercenaries and knights errant. They took meals and rest in Bakken’s place, bringing report of their journeys and tales of the heroic past. Hndred sat on his stool to listen, to ask questions when invited, to join in the singing when song broke out. Tonight, though, Hndred thought about his hidden parcel in the barrow out back, and wished to hear about swords.

 

Two years ago, a week after his father died, leaving him the farm, Hnrdred plowed the field, readying it for the spring planting. He plodded thoughtlessly behind the ox, holding the plow steady, stopping only to toss aside rocks he turned up. Grief fogged his thoughts. Only Hndred and father survived the sickness in the winter that killed his mother, sister and two brothers. Now, Hndred was alone. The plow bumped over another obstruction. Hndred lay it down, dug out a rock half as big as his head, and cast it off the field. He didn’t know, but other farmers talked about him, about his size and strength. The rock flew much farther than anyone else could have flung it, if they would have attempted as unlikely a feat.
 
Why bother planting? Hndred thought. If there is no rain, the crop will fail and I will die. If there is rain, insects could come and eat the grain before I harvest, and I will die. Or marauders might burn the fields, or a flood, or, worse, the crops might thrive, and I will gather them, live through the winter just to plant again in the spring. He could see nothing in the future that wasn’t grey and hopeless.
 
The ox needed little direction. Dirt turned away from the plow, leaving the groove for him to plant, then it fetched against another rock, nearly tearing the handles from his hands. The ox stopped on its own. Hndred dropped to his knees and dug with bare hands, but the obstruction was dirt-clotted cloth, not a stone, and much larger than a rock. He dug the long shape free and laid it across his legs. Rotted leather strings held the package closed but broke when he tugged them. He unwrapped the heavy fabric, an oiled canvas. The top layers shredded under his hands, but the deeper ones were whole. Whatever was within had been well protected. Then the last layer fell away. Sun glinted off metal and multiplied into a thousand shards from the single jewel imbedded in its hilt. Hndred looked upon it dumbly, and then drew the sword from its unmarred sheath. When he touched the blade, it hummed like a living thing. He took his hand back. The ox turned to look at him, as if he wondered why they were not continuing. Hndred had only plowed half the field so to his left the dirt was dark and fertile, ready for seed, and to the right the stubble covered land showed how much was left. The field was quiet, but it had given up a secret. He touched the blade again. This time, it was cool and smooth, without imperfection, totally out of place. How was it possible that a sword was buried in his field?



A lone man came through the door first, a satchel slung over his shoulder, perhaps a messenger. Next, three soldiers. The two holding pikes looked no older than Hndred, but their captain wore a sword in a fine-tooled scabbard and carried himself like a man of many campaigns. Soldiers often told the best stories. Hndred saluted with his mug when they sat near him. Night had fallen without. A fire at each end of the hall and oil lamps hung from the rafters provided a smoky light. Four waiters served the tables, three women and a boy. The women attracted attention, but woe to the traveller who bothered them. The threat of banishment from the Broken Beast kept the servants safe.
 
“I defended the east gate during the Pretender’s siege,” said the captain. His companions leaned in. “Only two beside myself had seen battle before that day. It was close work on the causeway. A knife served better than a sword. The Pretender brought three times our force to bear. I tell you, more than one of my men cried in their sleep after seeing their fires on the mountain the night before.”
 
“Weren’t you afraid?” asked one of the soldiers. “How could you stand against such a force?”
 
The captain took a long drink. “The King’s Keep was built for defense, boy. I could hold the walls against an army with a handful of milkmaids and a dozen stable boys. The Pretender’s head swung above the main gate the next day, ah, but there was labor befitting a soldier on the causeway. I got this there.” He touched a thick red scar along his neck.
 
“One of the Pretender’s followers? Did you kill him?”
 
The captain laughed. “Not so brave as that. One of my green young men swung an axe too wide.”
 
Hndred couldn’t restrain himself. “Does your sword have a lineage, sire? Is it storied?”
 
The captain turned to him. “Are you a historian, perhaps?” He laughed. “You look more like a farmer.”
 
Hndred stood, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to offend.” More than once he’d been rebuffed when he asked questions.
 
The captain leaned back in his chair. “A very big farmer. No, no offense. Ah, perhaps I am mistaken. Your coat is castle-cut—not a farmer--but I don’t know you.”
 
“I farm. The coat was my father’s. He once served.”
 
The captain nodded. “You are looking for a tale then, something to dream about as you toil among quiet grains and attentive livestock?”
 
His men laughed at that, but with good humor. Hndred thought that this would be an interesting night.
 
“I do like a fine story about swords when I hear it if you have one to share.”
 
The captain drew his sword and placed it on the table. “Are you superstitious, farmer? Have you heard that a sword holds the soul of every man it kills? Do you know of the swords that betray their masters, breaking when most needed and proving faithless in the end?”
 
Hndred pulled his stool close. “I would listen to such stories.”
 
“Would you be disappointed if I told you that a sword is just a tool, no more special than a hammer to a carpenter or a brush to a painter?”
 
Hndred sagged on the stool.
 
“I see you would.” The captain twisted the hilt, flipping the blade over. “So I have two portraits for you. The first is about the sword as a common tool. Through much practice, a man can learn to use this tool to defend himself and to kill if needed. Wars are won by men who wield them well. Kingdoms are gained or lost when the metal sings, but the sword itself means much less than the man. Champions make stories with swords, not the other way around. But, there are rare swords, contrary tools that seem sometime bigger than the metal the smithy pounded them from. Give a man a choice of five swords that are the same, one will speak to him when he grasps it. One will leap out in battle faster than it should. It will not break when the club strikes it. It holds its edge. Such swords are passed on. They become legendary. They earn names.”
 
“Can you tell me about such?” asked Hndred.
 
Men at nearby tables stopped their conversations. Soldiers told the best stories. The captain settled in and spoke.



The Bramble Knight fought in the mêlée at seven major festival, winning every battle and standing alone as the defeated tended their injuries and bandaged their pride. They say he fought like a coyote who baits a puppy into leaving the safety of its yard, only to carry the animal off for a meal. He retired before the onslaught, seeming to keep himself unscathed as much by accident as by plan. A practiced eye, though saw that he never backed into a wall. His feet and wrist were a wonder.
 
He talked while he fought. “I’m sorry, sire,” he’d say, “that I have not fallen yet. Your swordsmanship is a marvel. Oh, that was good. I don’t know how I am so lucky.”
 
And then his opponent would be on the ground, wondering how he got there, and he’d hear the Bramble Knight talking to someone else. “Please accept my apologies. I don’t know how I was allowed in this year. I’ve been injured. See how my shoulder sags. Nice thrust, sire,” and then the other man would suddenly be without his weapon and have to yield.
 
They say the Bramble Knight’s sword glinted gold in the sun, that by torch light it flamed red, and that when struck it rang like a bell.
 
So the Bramble Knight rose in the king’s service and became the prince’s personal guard. One day, when the young prince was hunting, assassins surrounded them in the wood, three seasoned killers who hoped to make short work of the prince and his single companion.
 
“We are no match for you,” said the Bramble Knight. He had not even drawn his sword.
 
One man wielded an axe; another a spear, and the third a sword in one hand and a fisherman’s hook in the other. Surely they planned an easy conquest.
 
The spearman thrust at the Bramble Knight whose sword had somehow cleared the scabbard, clipping the spear point and disappearing into the man’s side. “I was only trying to scare him,” the Bramble Knight said to the prince, who had drawn his own sword.
 
The other two moved to flank the Bramble Knight, ignoring the young prince. They were not careless or inexperienced. Like wolves, they knew how to kill. This was no joust, no polite melee with padded weapons and codes of behavior.
 
“Maybe we can talk,” said the Bramble Knight. His sword pointed down as if he wasn’t sure how to handle it. “You gentlemen can hardly be blamed for mistaking us for important people, but we cannot be worth your trouble.”
 
The axe man feinted as if to swing. The Bramble Knight flinched away. He appeared to stumble. The assassins grinned and moved as if on a signal.
 
Then the axe man staggered back, looking puzzled, a rose blossoming in his chest, and the other swordsman had lost a hand. He had no time to scream before the Bramble Knight pivoted and the blade blurred into a neck-high scythe.
 
The prince said later that the Bramble Knight’s sword whispered when it dealt death. It slipped through enemies like a fish in a river. The knight held the sword in front of him, looking at it as if he’d not seen it before. No blood stained the metal. “We make a good couple, this blade and I.”
 
So the sword became known as Bramble’s Bride. When the Bramble Knight died in his old age many years later, the prince who had become king held a great tournament with Bramble’s Bride as the trophy, and the sword has passed on the same ever since.


 
Two years earlier, Hndred took the sword from the field, leaving the ox and plow unattended. No one saw him, but he held the treasure close. Any sword, the plainest of construction, was valuable at market, the making of them taking rare knowledge and skill. This weapon, though, looked to be worth a thousand such ordinary swords. In his low-roofed house, he grasped the hilt with both hands, pointing it in front of him. The tip vanished into sharpness. Touching its edge drew blood. He swung the blade in a wide arc. It was much lighter than it looked and didn’t pull at his wrists. Hndred struck a pose like he imagined his father might at a tournament, his hands close to his waist, the sword up and tilted so it passed the side of his face, then the farmer lunged forward with it. He stepped and swung as if defending an attack from behind. Hndred smelled the battlefield, the clash of arms, the screams of triumph and moans of the defeated. He saw himself, sword at his side, standing before the king and royal court, presented as a hero. The balladeers rushed to write songs about him. But mostly he hoped they would see his father in him. He was his father’s son. Reluctantly, he returned the sword to its sheath and put it under his mattress.
 
He might be a champion in his imagination, but the ox and field needed tending.
 
That night, though, by the cooking fire’s low light, he brought the sword out again and watched the smoldering reflection in the metal. Once again, he heard horse’s hooves thudding, the rip of banners in the wind, and the joy of battles unfought.



A wealthy trader bought the captain and his men a round. “For another story,” he said.
 
The captain thanked the trader for the drink, and seeing that the crowd had turned their attention to him, sighed. “Facing a man with a sword is not so glorious as you seem to think.” He caught Hndred’s eye, as if he was for the moment addressing him only. “It is a fearsome weapon that leaves terrible wounds. A man can be split from crown to crotch. The blade makes a sound when it hits bone that you will not forget, and the vibration weds itself to a man’s hands. I have felt a fighter’s last second flee through my sword. The lost man never laughs again. He never raises his mug at an inn to spin a tale.” The grizzled fighter lifted his mug to the men around him.
 
“So I’ll tell you a story about the Ungallent, a sword that served no men but led to their ruin. The worst weapon in a kingdom beset by a terrible enemy.
 
“It was not a pretty sword. No artist’s attention went into its hilt, an unadorned, functional spot for a man to grasp, and it would look as any other sword, but the metal had taken a taint at the smithy, a blue-grey streak that ran partly down the blade. A squire, handing it up to his master on a platform died first. The knight claimed he never touched the weapon, that his unaneled squire held the naked blade above his head and then it slipped, while others said the knight brushed his fingers against the metal and drew back, as if the sword had warned him away. The squire, though, died instantly as the weapon’s weight drove the point home.”
 
“That was a stupid way to handle a sword,” said one of the soldiers.
 
“Indeed,” the captain agreed.
 
Hndred swallowed hard. Stories of the supernatural disturbed him. He’d spent too many nights in the dark of the family home, laying awake, wondering if he heard the murmur of his father in the wind outside.
 
“The knight threw the sword away, but a stable hand retrieved it. War went badly, and every weapon might be of use. A soldier, though, saw the stable boy with it on the street and took it from him, his own sword being bent and dull. The soldier bragged to his friends about his new sword. None of them knew that it had been discarded. During a drill, the soldier’s training partner struck at his neck, a blow that soldiers block hundreds of times in practice, but the Ungallent caught on the soldier’s leg leaving him open for a killing stroke.
 
“The blade passed from soldier to soldier, giving each one bad luck or maiming or killing him. Soon, all misfortune of any kind was blamed on the blade. Meanwhile, battles were lost. The opposing army marched into the kingdom’s fields and burned them. The soldiers put the Ungallent in a closet to never be used, but stories, being what they are, go on and are told again and again. The king’s grandmaster, commander of all the armies, came to the soldiers’ quarters. An imposing man, a veteran of hundreds of campaigns, feted for his victories in his youth, now a beaten general, he called the men to him. ‘Let me see this sword, the one you call Ungallent. Bring it to me.’
 
“Reluctantly, they obeyed. Surely such a sword would not be the one to give the grandmaster when his hour was so dire. The sword lay on a table in the common room, while the man who brought it rubbed his hands hard against his pants, sorry that he’d touched the evil blade. The grandmaster called his servant to him who carried in a magnificent scabbard, the pinnacle of an artist’s efforts, inlaid with gold and silver filigree. Gems glittered on it. Gold cords dangled. The soldiers’ eyes grew wide. The wealth of a mighty house would be broken to pay for a scabbard such as this.
 
“The grandmaster held the Ungallent and inspected it. ‘It is indeed an ordinary-looking article. This is the one of so many tragedies?’
 
The soldiers nodded.
 
“Satisfied, the grandmaster put the Ungallent into the beautiful scabbard. Such a joining of the beautiful and demonic had never been seen before. Angels must have cried as that marked blade slid into its holy home.
 
“The grandmaster instructed his servant. ‘Take this as a present to the enemy’s camp with this scroll. Tell him it is from the king, and that he asks mercy. The sword is our gift, a family heirloom passed from father to son through the generations. It is our dearest possession.”
 
“On the battlefield the next day, the enemy’s armies stood at the castle gates. The enemy king rode with his army on this last battle, intent on making the victory his. On his waist, the jeweled scabbard glittered and shone, a shining symbol of the castle’s defeat. Surely the kingdom’s ruin awaited, but the enemy king’s horse shied when crossing the moat bridge, a horse that by all accounts had been the most steady of steeds. It shied, and the king fell into the water. The weight of his armor and his treacherous sword pulled him under. He could not be saved. During the loss and confusion, the castle guard rushed from within. The army without its king fled, and the grandmaster lead his troops in pursuit, slaughtering them who would not surrender and disarming the rest.”
 
Hndred asked, “What became of the sword?”
 
The captain finished his mead. “I am dry after such a story.” Someone hurried to replace it. After a long drink, he said, “The Ungallent was taken to sea and dropped in a deep place. You can be sure that no boat’s crew was as nervous as the sailors who transported that cursed sword.”
 
Bathed by the inn’s firelight, the crowd facing him, the captain appeared to Hndred to be the sagest of men. He was one to be trusted, one who could lead men in battle, one whose wisdom penetrated the mysteries. Or it could be the mead had worked its way upon the young farmer’s mind as is its wont to do, so that the most ordinary of women walked like princesses, the must dullard of men became savants, and inane pronouncements of the unlearned sounded profound.
 
A trader from the south began a ballad, drawing attention away from the captain and his men, but Hndred had no interest in poetry tonight. He felt a kinship with the captain gained through the many evenings Hndred had spent practicing with the sword, mimicking knight’s moves from tournaments. He imagined himself bringing enemies to their knees, presenting his sword to the king, taking a place in the king’s guard as his father once had. His wrist, already grown strong through farm labor, no longer tired, no matter how long he swung the sword. The magnificent sword must have chosen him. No accident would bring such a boon.
 
So, with confidence in his heart, Hndred approached the captain as his men laughed at a ribald part of the trader’s ballad.
 
“Captain, if I may, I need your opinion on a sword that I have found. No man other than myself has seen it since it came from my field. It had been buried.” Even as the words left his lips, Hndred regretted speaking. What would he appear to be to a captain in the king’s service other than an unschooled farmer? A fool. How could he dare bother a man who’d fought real battles, gave orders that were followed not because of his rank but because of the respect earned through real accomplishment. At best, the captain would dismiss him, maybe mock him before the crowd.
 
The captain gazed thoughtfully upon Hndred, his hands cupping his mug. “You ask about swords not from idle curiosity then?”
 
“My presumption, sir.”
 
“Let’s see this discovery of yours then. I have been sitting on this stool forever.”
 
Hndred led the captain through the hall. Many tables were empty now. Only the carousers listening to stories remained at one end by the fire. Bakken’s staff cleaned dishes and pots as the two men passed through the kitchen.
 
The captain liberated a lamp that cast a buttery light at their feet. Outside, the warm and windless evening welcomed them with silence. Hndred uncovered the long shape in his barrow, then carefully undid the cloth he’d used as a shroud until the scabbarded blade lay revealed. Lamplight caught the jewel set in the hilt, and in the softer light, the metal shifted from well-polished bronze to silver and back.
 
The captain sucked in a breath, ran his hand down the unadorned sheath. “May I draw the sword, boy?” He sounded reverent.
 
The captain paused before touching the hilt, “My hands are unclean. If this is truly a great sword, I hope it forgives me.”
 
The sword revealed itself in a smooth motion, then the captain held the lamp close to inspect it. Hndred wished he’d kept the prize hidden. No farmer deserved to own a weapon such as this. Only a great fighter or the most noble of knights could be worthy. The captain would take it from him.
 
“You say that it was wrapped in oilcloth and buried in your field?”
 
Hndred nodded.
 
The captain turned the blade over in his hand, thoughtfully. “So it must have been stolen and then hidden; or perhaps someone pursued, knowing he could not save it, used your field to keep it from passing into bad hands. I know many stories about swords, including ones that were lost or secreted, but I don’t know of this one.”  He swung the sword once, sheathed it, and handed it to Hndred. “Swords seek their owners, though. I know that. There must be a powerful reason it made its way to your field and that you found it. Whoever the smith was who formed that sword was a master, but it’s not a battle blade. The jewel in the hilt speaks to ceremony or a gift. No nicks, no wear, I doubt your sword has seen true use.”
 
Hndred held the sword’s weight in his hands. He had fought a hundred battles with it in his mind. As he fell asleep, he heard the sharp metal slice the air. Dust from men’s feet pounding the tourney grounds filled his nose. He had wondered if the dreams were really the sword’s memories relived within him. In the dreams, he saw a familiar hand holding the hilt, a familiar arm flexing and bulging and wielding the sword with glorious skill. “A champion owned the sword, I know.”
 
The captain opened his mouth to speak, then cocked his head.
 
In the distance, horse hooves thudded against the road.
 
“Strange that a party would ride so late,” said Hndred.
 
The horses stopped at the inn. Hndred started toward the building’s corner to see who they were. The captain held him back.
 
Shouts came from inside. Metal clashed on metal. A man cried out. Two cooks burst through the back door. “Bandihai!” one shouted as he fled into the dark.
 
Hndred would have rushed into the inn, the beautiful sword in hand, but the captain, whose own weapon now caught the lamp light, said, “There will be too many of them. Only my soldiers and myself are trained to fight, and I will bet my men had no time to arm themselves. The Bandihai are robbers and cowards. They will take our valuables, and, if the mood strikes them, kill some or all. If the women did not escape, they will suffer their own fates, and the Bandihai may burn the inn. We have one play, if you are willing to take part, farmer.”
 
He explained his plan to Hndred.



The captain stepped into the smoky dining hall. Hndred stayed back, in the shadows. Against the far wall, the merchants and tradesmen stood, facing a half-dozen leather-clad Bandihai whose curved swords threatened them. On the floor, clutching his bleeding arm, a soldier glared defiantly.
 
The Bandihai leader, a tall man whose blond hair caught the ceiling light, gave orders. “Your money purses into the bag, and do it smartly. I’d rather not search for them among your corpses.”
 
Kicking plates to the floor, the captain mounted a table. The Bandihai and their leader turned to face the intrusion.
 
“You have made a mistake coming here,” announced the captain. “It is time for you to leave.”
 
The leader whose scarred face showed he’d survived many encounters, laughed. “You are bold to face us, old man, but you must see how you are outnumbered. Only this boy soldier among your friends attempted to fight, and look at the wound he suffered. So be quick about it and join the rest. We’ll liberate you of your coin, and if you’re lucky, we’ll spare you despite your impertinence.”
 
“You may try,” said the captain, “but I do not think you want to fight. You shall surrender immediately.”
 
The Bandihai leader laughed even harder until his face turned dark with it. When he regained his breath, he gestured to two of his men. “Kill him now.”
 
The captain put up his hand. “Attacking me would be a mistake.”
 
“Why?” said the leader, profoundly amused.
 
“You do not think I have been a warrior for so long and grown this old by accident, do you? If so, send your men, but you misunderstand my mission.”
 
The leader raised a hand to hold his men back. “What is your mission?”
 
“I am an old campaigner as you have pointed out,” said the captain. “I led men at Torshein Gap against the Lendilian horde until we prevailed when nine out every ten of our troops fell. I protected the infant king at the liege lord’s court against his treacherous cabinet. I have trained with tournament victors and been victorious myself, but now I fulfill my greatest calling. If you value your life, you will not ask me to reveal it. Put down your arms. Save yourselves while you can.”
 
The Bandihai leader did not appear nervous. “I will risk it. What is your calling, old man?”
 
The captain gave Hndred the signal behind his back. Hndred walked into the light, his treasure revealed. Polished as a mirror, the blade gathered the room’s light, and quivered in Hndred’s grip. He moved aside a heavy table with one hand and stood still while the captain spoke.
 
“I am now footservant to the champion of the Sword Imperial, bane of a thousand armies, protector of the great kingdom, the blade that was never forged but has been forever and will forever be. The bearer of the sword, my master, can not be defeated.”
 
The leader of the Bandihai looked up at Hndred who stared back. The captain’s directions had been clear: “Look him in the eyes. Do not waver. Consider him as you would a pig before slaughter, and when the moment is ripe, step toward him boldly.”
 
Hndred had said as they stood behind the inn. “What if I am not brave?”
 
“When you heard the Bandihai engage, you ran toward the noise. Your instinct is to fight. I believe you would make your father whose jacket you wear proud.” He reached up to clap Hndred upon the shoulder. “Plus, you hold a sword like they have never seen.”
 
The Bandihai leader did not move, but Hndred imagined what he must see: the captain, moving aside for a giant bearing a sword that was brighter than any of legend. As the captain said, it was the Sword Imperial.
 
For the moment, Hndred felt like a myth made real. It was the sword, of course, the pull of it in his hand, like an extension of his arm, glowing and warm. Hndred had said, “But what if they attack. I have no training.”
 
“You are the biggest man I have ever met, which means you have the longest reach. Fell them like trees. No style needed for that, and if they attack, you will be fighting for your life anyway.”
 
Hndred believed he had become a man whose enemies would melt before him. It must have shown on his face, in the strength of his arm. A tableau of frozen expressions stared at him, the Bandihai and their leader, the merchants and tradesman, the wounded soldier on the floor. Standing as he was, one arrayed against the many put him in the hero’s place. If men were to write songs, they might remember the night that Hndred bore the Sword Imperial.
 
The Bandihai leader blinked. Hndred stepped forward. The men with their curved swords broke for the door, tripping over each other in their rush to exit. The leader retreated a step, glanced back at his fleeing men, then turned and rushed after them.
 
For a moment, glory filled the farmer like heady drink. Hoofbeats echoed on the highway. Then the men crowded round him, cheering and yelling like boys.



Later, the captain talked to Hndred in front of the inn. His men busied themselves in the stable, packing their horses.
 
“For a moment, I was convinced you were the champion I said you were. You didn’t hold the weapon like a farmer, nor did you appear frightened.”
 
Hndred didn’t know what to say.
 
“You could come with us,” said the captain. “A soldier’s life is hard, but it has its advantages. It is not a choice to make quickly, though. You will need training, and many start much younger than you. Still, think about it. We will come this way again in a week. Tell me your answer then.”
 
The captain’s men brought the horses around the inn, both dressed for the road. “All is ready, sir,” said the wounded one, his bandaged arm secured to his chest. Soon, the three were mounted.
 
“Our duties call,” said the captain.
 
They trotted in the direction the Bandihai had fled.
 
Hndred watched until they were out of sight. Before their dust had settled, he knew that he didn’t need a week. Nothing that he’d left at the farm seemed important. His oxen could fend for itself. Perhaps his neighbors would plant the fields. It did not matter.
 
The young man took the package from his barrow, unwrapped it and strapped the Sword Imperial to his back. Was the blade a legend or not? Was he the kind of man who they’d make songs about? Hndred didn’t know, but if he started walking now, he could catch the captain and his men where they made camp.
 
His legs were long, his stride mighty, and he wagered they’d find for him a place by the fire. 


©January, 2017 James Van Pelt

James Van Pelt is a former teacher turned professional writer. His work has appeared in many places, including Realms of FantasyAdventures in Sword & SorceryAsimov’sand Daily Science Fiction. His most recent novel, Pandora's Gun, came out in 2015. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["Princess in a Bottle" by Christopher G. Hall]]>Sat, 25 Feb 2017 23:17:25 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/princess-in-a-bottle-by-christopher-g-hallCat-eye Jack savored the ale as best he could, despite the fact that he was light of purse and heavy of head. His latest misadventure had cost him every coin he had—and it had nearly cost him his life. It turned out that the so-called “notorious Camyrian thief” he had been hired to kill was in fact a powerful prince. Even worse for Cat-eye, the prince’s guard had anticipated an assassination attempt and promptly arrested their sovereign’s would-be murderer.  Though Cat-eye had talked his way out of the gallows, he was forced to pay a hefty fine. So here he sat at the bar of the Bloody Buckler —probably the poorest alehouse in the poorest city in all of Lanyr —piqued and penniless.

 

At least I’m in good company he thought, as Ragruk clapped his massive stony hand on his back. Somehow, Ragruk had picked up on Cat-eye’s foul mood. He could be surprisingly sensitive for a half-troll, Cat-eye mused. He could also snap a man in two with his bare hands, Cat-eye reminded himself, smiling for the first time in several days.  

“That’s better, mate,” Ragruk smiled a giant grin, revealing his large, rocklike teeth. “At least you’ve got a friend to buy you a drink!”

Cat-eye chuckled, “And another one, I hope. It’ll take more than a pint to make me forget my lot tonight, I fear!”  

In response, Ragruk slammed another silver piece on the battered oaken bar. The barkeep frowned at the noise, but after one look at Ragruk’s massive frame, he kept his mouth shut. He scooped up the silver and, moments later, returned with a decanter of ale. As he placed the container before them, he kept his head down, avoiding eye contact. They probably don’t get too many half-trolls in the Bloody Buckler, Cat-eye thought to himself, amused.  

He was halfway through his second tankard when he noticed the stranger watching him from a corner table. Cat-Eye first caught sight of the dark-clad form reflected in the polished shield that hung on the wall behind the bar, and he had the disconcerting feeling that the man, whoever he was, was looking him right in the eyes. Cat-eye nudged Ragruk and whispered in Thieves’ Cant, the secret language of ruffians and rogues, “Don’t look now, but someone’s watching us,”

The Half-troll’s gemlike eyes widened in surprise, “Where?” He responded, also in Thieves’ Cant.  

“Here.” The voice was neither Cat-eye’s nor Ragruk’s—somehow the stranger had heard their whispers from across the large, crowded room, and evidently, Thieve’s Cant had done nothing to conceal the meaning of their words from him.  

Cat-eye turned to regard the man and placed his hand on the hilt of his dirk —this bar was a rough place, and Cat-eye had learned an outlaw’s caution. His profession had made him several enemies he knew about, and dozens more might lurk in the shadows, unseen, their sharp blades gleaming.  

“No need for that,” the stranger spoke in a low, hissing tone. His voice carried across the room so that it sounded as if he were standing right next to them. “I seek your services, not your skull.”

Cat-eye shuddered, but it was more the stranger’s bearing and the sound of his voice than his choice of words that put Cat-eye ill at ease. And though he could not see the stranger’s face, Cat-eye could feel the man’s eyes upon him.  

“Join me,” the stranger spoke, indicating two open seats at his table.  

Cat-eye looked to Ragruk, but the half-troll merely shrugged, clearly waiting for his friend to take the lead. “Rhia’s fortune!” Cat-eye proclaimed at last as he rose from his barstool, “If you can pay me enough, consider my services at your disposal!”  

 

Cat-eye and Ragruk joined the stranger at his table. The flimsy wooden chair creaked in protest beneath the half-troll’s hulking weight, but Cat-eye ignored the sound, focusing instead on what he could make out of the stranger’s face amidst the shadows of his hood.  

“So,” Cat-eye began, hoping his cavalier manner masked the strange uneasiness he felt in this stranger’s presence. He could not put his finger on it, but something about the man struck him as unearthly, almost ethereal, as though he might suddenly melt into the shadows that wreathed the tavern’s poorly lit common room. “You said you seek my services? What know you of my ‘services’ then, and pray, tell how you came about such information?”

“There is no time to dawdle over such inconsequential matters,” the stranger’s eyes caught the light, glinting beneath the hood. “A most valuable treasure has been stolen. I need you to get it back.”  

Ragruk scratched his enormous head with his equally enormous hand, as Cat-eye assayed the stranger pensively. “Well, I’ll need to know where —and what —this treasure is before I agree to anything. And I’ll need to know what you can pay us. But before we get to any of that, there’s something else I must know —why me? If you won’t tell me how you have come to know whatever knowledge you have of me, then at least tell me why you have chosen me for this task.” At the moment he needed any coin he could get, and this stranger’s offer was the only opportunity in sight. He might just have to take this job, even if the one who offered it seemed more akin to the shadows in the room than to those who peopled it.  

The stranger hesitated for a moment, then said, “Surely you know that you have some renown among…shall we say, ‘less affluent’ citizens of this realm?”  

Cat-eye Jack gave no indication to confirm or deny the stranger’s words. After a moment, the stranger continued, “You are an expert at obtaining things from even the most guarded and gated places, are you not? And there is talk, also, of your ability to recognize objects of…special value.”  

Cat-eye Jack unconsciously straightened the eye patch he wore to conceal the false eye that had earned him his name. Ever since he’d first worn the crystalline orb with designs like a cat’s eye swirling within —a treasure stolen from a sea-hag’s cave —he’d gained the ability to see things others could not. When he looked upon magical artifacts, such as those that the great mage-kings of ancient days made (and the inferior copies made by their modern day counterparts), he could see a faint glow, as if such objects gave off their own light. Some magical artifacts were practical and benign—like the cat’s eye that Jack wore —but others were stranger and more malevolent. In light of the man’s last words, Cat-eye felt certain that the “valuable treasure” of which the stranger spoke must be some sort of magical object. He cringed inwardly. More often than not, magical objects meant trouble. “How much coin might you be persuaded to pay, up-front, for this little venture?”

Cat-eye Jack was sure the stranger smiled beneath the hood as he produced a pouch the size of his fist and laid it upon the table with a clink. The sound was enough. Cat-eye did not need to see the shimmer of gold to know the bag’s contents.  

“So where did you say this ‘treasure’ was?”  

 

From the dark street below, Cat-eye Jack surveyed the slender shape of Lord Camberwell’s tower, which gleamed like a shaft of silver in the moonlight. He whistled softly to himself —he had quite a climb ahead of him.   

Lugging his grappling hook and coil of rope, he approached the tower yard. An iron gate, at least twice his height surrounded the sumptuous grounds within. Statues of mythical beasts and legendary heroes adorned the yard, and fragrant plants perfumed the chill night air. Here at the postern gate, he spied no guards, but only moments before, as he snuck down the quiet street, he’d seen two men armed with halberds and clad in iron plate mail posted at the tower’s front entrance. Taking a final look to be sure he was not risking discovery, Cat-eye waved a hand three times above his head, a signal for Rugrak who lurked some sixty paces away, waiting, watching for the signal with his night-seeing eyes. This night was not the first time the two had practiced this method—Cat-eye scouting ahead, moving stealthily into a safe and unseen position while the larger, noisier Rugrak trailed at a distance, relying upon his superior night vision to keep his companion in sight and to spot the signal when it came.  

Rugrak trundled toward the gate noisily—stealth was not among his strong suits. But Cat-eye had known none other capable of what Rugrak did next. The half troll laced his fingers together, held them out so that Cat-eye could easily place his foot upon them, and hoisted him over the spiked iron gate. Cat-eye landed almost soundlessly in the soft grass on the other side. Rugrak backed away, taking up a hiding place in a nearby alley. The two had argued for a while, but Cat-eye had convinced the half-troll to stay behind, since he was certain that stealth and a fine touch would serve them best on this errand. Rugrak had resisted at first, wanting to join Cat-eye in his search for the artifact, but the half-troll finally agreed to stay behind, knowing that his friend was right in what he said: there was no way that Rugrak could infiltrate the tower undetected, and to fight the entire complement of the duke’s guard was a risky proposition, even for the two experienced warriors.  

So Cat-eye would slip within the tower to seek the artifact alone. The stranger had told him the object he sought appeared to be an ordinary green glass bottle. The stranger had remained stubbornly vague regarding what it was that made this particular bottle so valuable he was willing to pay a hefty sum of gold for it —five gold dragons up front and twenty more once the artifact was in his possession. But the man’s reasons mattered little to Cat-eye, so long as he was paid, and paid well.

Putting aside thoughts of gold and the feasts and finery it would purchase, Cat-eye twirled his grappling hook in a tight circle until it gained sufficient momentum, then released it and watched in satisfaction as it sailed through the air and hooked firmly with a solid clank on a crenel at the tower’s top.

Cat-eye waited the span of a few heart-beats for good measure—to insure that no unseen sentinel had heard his grappling hook. Then, satisfied that he could make the climb unnoticed, he grasped the rope firmly between his hands and began scaling, moving swiftly and smoothly, like a spider ascending a strand of web.  

About two thirds of the way up the tower, some forty feet above the ground, Cat-eye spied a small, unshuttered window. Peering within, he saw a small chamber, sparsely furnished and illuminated by an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. Cat-eye swiveled upon the rope, out of view of the window—this looked to be a guard’s post, and if the burning lamp was any indication, the chamber would not be empty for long.   

Sure enough, moments later Cat-eye heard a man’s voice, a gruff baritone grumbling about the chill in the air. Cat-eye considered his options: he could overcome the man by force, thus gaining entry to the tower, or he could search for another way in. From past experience, he guessed that the treasure he sought was locked away in a room somewhere near the tower’s peak, so this entrance might not prove his best option in any case. On the other hand, it sounded as though the guard was alone, and from what Cat-eye had seen of the room within, it appeared to have no open doors or windows through which he might be seen should he enter. Cat-eye ceased his deliberations suddenly when he heard the sound of splintering wood followed by a howl of pain and an unsettling gurgling noise from somewhere within.

Cat-eye risked a peek to see what had happened. There, within the tower, a shadowy, four legged figure crouched over a fallen human form. The dog-thing had ripped the man’s throat out —his dead body still twitched grotesquely as blood poured from his wound, gathering into crimson pools upon the cold stone floor. But the true horror revealed by the flickering lamplight was the creature itself.  Basically canine in aspect, there was something ghastly and uncouth about the thing. Its proportions were not those of a normal dog, nor even those of their wild wolfen cousins. The head of the thing was overlarge, but the jaws in particular were disproportionate to the rest of the creature. The size of its maw, and the way the dagger-like teeth within glistened in the lamplight gave the impression that the thing’s sole purpose was to feast upon living flesh. Its fur was jet black, but lacked the wholesome luster that a black dog’s might possess. Instead, the thing’s coat appeared dull and wretched, as though it were composed of shadows and filth. As he witnessed the grisly scene, Cat-eye realized that the thing had not seemed to see him yet. It was too busy sating whatever dark urges compelled it to feast so fervently upon the fallen guard.

Jack swiveled his body out of view of the window once again. An icy terror shot through him. He’d seen monstrous creatures before —man-eating plants from the jungles of Khung, giant spiders who dwelt beneath the Camyrian sands, hoary giant folk of the northern steppes —but never had he felt the uncanny revulsion he felt as he watched this unearthly hound gorge itself with such passion and greed upon the unfortunate guard. Fighting back fear, he steadied himself and risked another glance through the window. The creature was gone. The only proof of its existence was the splintered wood of the chamber door, and the ruined heap of bones and tattered flesh that had once been the guard.  

 

Murmuring a prayer to Rhia, goddess of luck, Cat-eye swung himself into the chamber. Once inside, he padded to the room’s only exit with expert silence, and peered out the door into the hallway beyond. Torches burned from iron wall sconces illuminating the chamber sufficiently for Cat-eye to see that it was empty. Swift and silent as a fox, Cat-eye slinked down the corridor to the open door at the opposite end.  

As he poked his head out the doorway, he spied a grand stone stair, spiraling both above and below him. His task would take him up to the next floor, or the one beyond that, where he hoped to find a treasure store or vault of some sort. From what he knew of nobility—even petty nobility such as Lord Camberwell—vanity required them to keep many valuables in their homes, which sometimes proved a boon to skilled thieves such as himself. Caution, however, required that such valuables be kept well guarded and under lock and key, which sometimes proved an impediment. And what of the wolf-thing? he wondered. Facing a handful of human guards was one thing, but Cat-eye shuddered at the thought of facing that fell beast alone. He drew his twin daggers from his belt and glanced about anxiously, shaken by the thought of the creature loose within the castle walls.   

After taking a moment to brace himself, and seeing no sign of the creature, he hurried up the stairs. When he reached a door, he noticed that it was open, just a crack. Had the creature passed through this way? It seemed unlikely, but not impossible: perhaps the door had partly closed again by a quirk of its design, or perhaps a breeze had blown it nearly shut. As Cat-eye looked through the narrow opening into the room beyond, he saw no sign of the thing. He did, however, spy a large, ornate door on the opposite side of the spacious chamber, guarded by two men bearing pole-arms and wearing plate armor. As likely a place as any I’ve seen for a lordling to store his treasure! Cat-eye thought. Now, how to get past those guards…

In a sudden frenzy of shadow and blood, the dog-thing reappeared. While logic told him it must have skulked through the shadows of the chamber and taken the guards by surprise, from Jack’s vantage point it seemed to materialize before the men as if by magic. Now it rent at their flesh with the same hateful ardor it had shown mere minutes before as it gorged itself with the meat of its first victim.  

Cat-eye shuddered at the thing’s ferocity, but he also recognized his fortune in its unexpected attack. The guards were no longer an obstacle, one of them still stood, slashing desperately at the shadowy form with his glaive, but it was clear that the man would soon share his companion’s fate as fodder for the devouring jaws.  

Cat-eye quickly assessed the situation. If he moved fast enough, he might make it past the thing unnoticed as it occupied itself with its ghastly feast. Murmuring another prayer to Rhia, and holding his twin daggers at the ready, he bolted for the festooned door. He turned its bejeweled handle and found it locked. Horrorstruck, he turned to face the dog-thing, but it still did not seem to notice him. It had knocked the guard onto his back and now clawed at the man mercilessly, splintering the wooden handle of his glaive with its massive paw.  

Cat-eye sheathed his blades and from a pouch at his belt withdrew several slender metal shafts, each about the length of his forefinger. Some were straight while others crooked or curved at the end. Two of these he inserted into the door’s lock, and worked frantically while still the beast fed upon the last of the guards, whose glaive now lay, broken and useless on the blood stained floor.  

Though it felt to Cat-eye as if long minutes passed while he worked at the lock, he had the door open within the span of a few heartbeats. The dog-thing still was occupied itself with what was left of the unfortunate guardsman, but Cat-eye knew he had only moments before the thing was upon him.  

Rushing frantically, he entered the room to search for the green-glass bottle. Ornate statues inlaid with gems and adorned with gold filigree lined the chamber’s walls, and relics of all sorts were scattered about the place. His ensorcelled eye detected no glow of enchantment on any of the objects, and his panic mounted —would he meet his end here, cornered in this chamber by that unwholesome beast? Then he spotted a cabinet near the rear of the treasure chamber with bottles of myriad shapes and sizes arranged upon its shelves.  

He searched through the phials with his cat’s eye, breaking his concentration only to glance frantically toward the chamber door, where he could hear the cracking of bones, and where he knew that death lurked on shadowy limbs. At long last he saw the faint glow of sorcery radiating from a large, emerald green bottle with a gourd shaped bottom and a long, slender neck. As he scooped the bottle (and a few assorted portable valuables) into his sack, he thought he caught a glimpse of something shimmering within the green glass container, a radiance distinct from the shimmer of magic. But he did not dare delay long enough to examine it. He could almost feel the clamp of those gigantic jaws upon him.  

Cat-eye reached the door, fully expecting the thing to be waiting there, its teeth bared, ready to devour him. What he found instead was a relief: a circle of guards, evidently alarmed by the sounds of combat, thronged the beast, prodding it with their glaives. The goddess of luck must be laughing this eve, he thought, a thief glad to see the castle guard!  

But the feeling of relief quickly gave way to horror, as the thing bowled several guards over in a single strike from one of its massive limbs. Cat-eye dashed for the nearest window; while a fall from this height might injure him, it was preferable to facing this creature that scattered armed and armored men like children’s toys.

 As he raced through the chamber Cat-eye could feel its eyes upon him, but he reached the window in time, leapt onto sill and looked down, bracing himself for a jump. From this height, the grand statues in the courtyard below looked no larger than his outstretched hand, and for an instant his head swam with vertigo. Steadying himself, he dove out the window, aiming for a soft patch of shrubbery in the garden below.  

He tucked into a ball and rolled as he landed, but even cushioned by the undergrowth, the impact was enough to wind him. As he regained his feet, a strange voice distracted him from his discomfort. High and bell-like, the voice warbled strangely, as if heard underwater, “Careful! Ouch! What are you doing?”

Impossible as it seemed, the voice could only be coming from one place —the bag he wore slung over his shoulder which contained the artifact and his other loot. Looking to the window above, Cat-eye saw no sign of the dog. This brought him little comfort though, as he recalled its surprise attack on the guardsmen outside the treasure chamber. Still, the curiosity was too much to bear; he decided to risk a moment to examine the contents of his bag more carefully.  

He withdrew the strange glass bottle. In its depths he could clearly see the light he had only half noticed before. Through his ordinary eye he could only make out a subtle glimmer, like starlight reflected on water, but through his cat’s eye, he saw a tiny, luminescent form, unmistakably female and basically humanoid save for its large wings. The tiny creature stared at him peevishly from within the glass bottle. “Uncork this prison at once!” She shouted in tremulous tones.  

Cat-eye blinked, bemused.  

“Are you deaf? Hurry! Surely enemies of the crown are moving against me, sending their devouring hounds to gobble me up! That witch will rue the day she captured me within this bottle and sold me for crude earthly gold!”  

Cat-eye shook his head, bewildered. Whatever this thing was, he had never seen its ilk before. It seemed like a thing from a children’s tale come to life. But the very real threat of the fell hound forced him out of his daze and into action. Frantically he raised his hand again to signal to his half-troll companion. Within moments, the half-troll appeared and quickly flung a rope over the iron gate. Cat-eye stuffed the bottle back into his sack. Whatever the thing was and however fiercely it protested, it would have to wait until he was in safer surroundings.   

Cat-eye climbed smoothly over the tower gate and landed on the other side next to Rugrak. Just then, the shadowy dog-thing bounded from the tower window, landed soundlessly upon the ground, and clambered toward the gate. All the while, the little captive in the green glass bottle shrieked and shook her fist, demanding to be released. Just as Cat-eye and Rugrak turned to flee from the terrible hound, a familiar hooded figure emerged from the shadows of the street beyond and held forth a bony hand. “Give me the bottle!” the stranger cried as the dog-thing scrambled over the gate.  

     Rugrak was often confused, but from the puzzled expression on his craggy face, rarely was he so confused as in that moment, as the stranger reached for the bottle and the hound leapt over the gate.  

“First the gold!” Even in perilous moments like these Cat-eye Jack’s roguish money-sense held firm.  

The stranger tossed him a heavy bag of what felt like gold coin, and Cat-eye responded by throwing him the bottle, then drew his daggers and turned to face the hound.  

But now that it had spied the bottle, the creature seemed to care for nothing else. Ignoring Jack and his massive companion, the creature leapt upon the robed stranger, but not before the man was able to uncork the bottle. Now freed of its glass prison, the winged creature swept into the sky upon diaphanous wings, trailing a stream of glittering emerald dust behind as it soared away into the darkness.  

On the street below, the stranger still grappled with the hound, clutching it by the throat with one hand as he drew a shining blade from beneath the folds of his robes with the other. The two locked in deadly struggle for long moments, but Cat-eye stood watching, unable to take action, as if he were watching two gods of legend —or two demons —do battle.

The relentless jaws snapped on empty air again and again and the canine form twisted back and forth, dodging blow after blow from the stranger’s radiant blade. Finally the stranger landed a blow squarely across the dog-thing’s midsection, cleaving it neatly in two. The thing’s wretched jaws continued to clamp mechanically as its head and forelegs separated from its hindquarters, but the stranger did not pause. He continued to slash at the shadowy beast until nothing remained of it but ribbons of shadows and dust. When he was finished, there was no trace of the creature save a small patch of darkened earth, easily mistaken for ashes.   

 

Cat-eye Jack and Rugrak the half-troll stood stunned, unable to speak after what they had witnessed. The stranger removed his hood for the first time since they had met him, revealing long, silvery hair and slender, noble features. “From your faces I take it you wish to know what has happened here tonight. Suffice it to say that a selfish and terrible woman captured our princess, trapped her in that bottle and sold her to Lord Camberwell as a curiosity. I cannot give you the story in full, but know that you have earned the thanks of all the fay folk. In particular, we of House Aladyr thank you.”

“But, that dog…” Cat-eye shook his head as if waking from a dream.  

“Not all fay are of the same sort,” the silver haired stranger smiled, “and just as your folk resort to treachery and murder for power, so too do some of us. Suffice it to say that captivity made Princess Aladyr vulnerable, and that her enemies seized upon this and sent assassins after her.”   

Rugrak and Cat-eye continued to stare awestruck as the stranger donned his hood once again and departed along the darkened street, a faint silvery gleam seemed to linger for an instant where he stepped, though it might have been a trick of the light.  

After a moment, Cat-eye slapped the half-troll on the back. “Whatever this night has brought us my friend, at least we have money for ale —and more!” The half troll grinned, a stony, toothy grin, and the two ambled away in search of mirth and merriment.



© January 2017 Christopher G. Hall

Christopher G. Hall lives in Northern California and teaches at Sierra College. This is his first appearance in ​​Swords & Sorcery. ​]]>
<![CDATA["Smoke Out" by Melanie Smith]]>Tue, 31 Jan 2017 14:38:00 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/smoke-out-by-melanie-smithIt wasn’t the dragons that were the problem, it was the unicorns.  Sure enough, the dragons weren’t easy:  they leaked out hot streams of copper alloy piss as they undulated in the air above the town, which spattered down on the houses below to start the odd conflagration, to cause the odd scald.  This calescent incontinence was more of an inconvenience than their propensity to breathe flame:  after all, they only belched a bonfire when they were really riled, and even then purely as a last resort:  vomiting fire drained the creatures, and their innards’ embers would be cool for many days afterwards, rendering them weak.  Docile even.  The dragons swarmed now and again, as wasps do: usually in the autumn when they were getting in the mood to hibernate, but as long as they were let be they didn’t cause us too much trouble.  And blackthorn smoke warded them off if things looked like they were getting out of hand.  We left out a few goats in a field south of town, the odd criminal, too, and they would mostly just take those and lit on back to the mountains, their shadows rippling across the grasslands, the smell of blood and metal diminishing with their departure.  And then we would clear up the cooled and stinking clag of their urine, patch up damaged thatch, bind the occasional burn, and get on with things.  We needed them, you see.  They could be dangerous, but their dung was a miracle mineral manure that we collected and spread over our farmed fields:  our crops grew ten times the size they rightly should, and in half the time.  Our town had known dragons since its incorporation way back in the blurred and distant past, and had never known want, or famine, or even the smallest hint of hunger.

But the unicorns were something else.  Terrible creatures, thrice the size of a shire horse, with a razory run of plates along their backs that marched up their thick necks to culminate in a wickedly serrated horn.  This protuberance rose from between piggy eyes and was barbed: these barbs were poisonous, so if you didn’t die of the initial goring and subsequent voiding of your intestines, you’d be cut down by a lung liquefying toxin.  They were less predictable than the dragons, too, and entirely immune to appeasement.  More intelligent.  They came for the first time one winter ten years back.  Our stores were fat with grain and salted meat, and, as with the heartbeat of the countryside around us, the pulse of town life had slowed with the dropping temperatures.  Folk stayed by their fires, content and nodding and waiting for spring.  The dragons were asleep, too, and the fields were covered in an opalescent blanket that, from time to time, was whipped into a misty aerial froth that hung in the air for hours.

They came at dusk, with the purpling of the horizon, when the trees were black shapes against an ice-cream sky and the last rooks were circling.  I became aware of an oscillating judder, felt in my feet; this pounding syncopation quickly spread so that I felt its jarring beat in my legs, my hips, in the push and pull of my own heartbeat, and I was on the verge of pulling up the floorboard for my blade when the town siren began its long scream. By now, that seemingly subterranean thunder had resolved into the almighty pounding of hooves, and then the first scream came.  God help me, I took one look outside my cottage, and retreated, pulling up that floorboard after all, not to retrieve my weapon, but to lie alongside it in the crawlspace, pulling the board back atop me so that I lay in a webby tomb, listening to the deaths of my neighbours and the awful rampaging of the monsters I had so briefly seen outside.

When I emerged just before dawn the next day, the town was slick with blood and shit.  The survivors told their tales and, at the fading of the sun, those of us that remained sought refuge in the crypt beneath the church, where we huddled in a cloud of our own rimy breath until daybreak.  But the unicorns didn’t return that year, and we never knew what they wanted, other than gore and grief, for our stores went unmolested, our barned cattle unharmed.  It has been said since that it is our dread that feeds them, but I think that is just old world nonsense.  More like they do not come to us out of hunger – their bellies seemed pretty full to me, what little I saw of them – for I believe their prey lies elsewhere.  I think that they come to us for sport, in the wintertime, when whatever doorway leads to us opens and they are allowed brief access.  I had a brother once who ventured west, way beyond the smoking lakes and the crystalline passes that mark the northern border of our principality.  He went to hunt the mountain lions, and he returned many months later with a sackful of pelts and stories of his many trails.  I asked him how they had tasted, those mountain lions that he had snared.  He told me they had tasted awful; he had subsisted happily on fish and berries.  His joy in their killing was not the base jubilation of the survivor who knows his empty stomach will be filled, but a narrower pleasure – to my mind, a hollow euphoria.  Perhaps it is this these horned terrors feel in what passes for their brains when they come to hunt us.

They came again one winter dusk the following year, putting to smoking ruin our hopes that their previous visit had been a one off aberration.  They sensed the traps we had laid.  Their leathery hides proved impervious to blade or bow.  They leapt our ditches with brutal grace.  And blood spattered bright on our frost-scummed streets once more.

And so, as the last of the next year’s leaves shivered and fell, I shouldered on a pack and left for the mountains.  I knew that I would probably not survive: no dragons had been sighted for a week, and we presumed they had begun their hibernation, but no-one knew for sure.  And autumn was always dicey when it came to dealing with dragons:  they were sleepy and slow and angry as their blood cooled and the heat in their bellies banked to low embers.  It was only during this season that we in the town would be wary when their bulging shadows fluttered over our streets and squares.  If we could spare them, two or three felons would be tied up alongside the goats in the field just beyond the boundary line, and this seemed to appease the beasts, for the most part.

But, should I have encountered a dragon in my trek towards their home in the stony fastness, I fully expected a charry death.  A quick one, if I was lucky.
And yet, as I clambered higher into the foothills, the skies remained clear and blue, free of cloud and beast, the quality of the air so crisp and sharp that, looking back, I could easily make out the small details of the distant town:  the flag topped turrets of the Elders’ Seat, the jostle and push of the market square, the gloomy squat of the town jail.  I surged on upwards and, after a day’s travelling, I finally reached the yawning hole in the rock-face where we believed the dragons slept through the winter.  As I approached, a hot metallic smell assailed me, filling my lungs, so that I used a rag to cover my mouth and nose as I came closer.  Piles of half molten dragon dung still steamed and hissed all around the cave mouth, and, from deep within that hellish hole, I thought I could make out the distant huff and wheeze of the sleeping beasts.

Here I stopped, and, putting my bound pack down on the snow scrimmed ground, I set up a rudimentary camp, and waited.  Hours passed, and days, and the weather drew in close and cold as I huddled beneath my furs and chewed on strips of salted meat.  The nights were long and bitter, and many were the times, come dawn, that my entire body was without sensation, and I watched as the first blooms of frostbite flowered on my toes and fingers.  I watched the town, always.  Sometimes it appeared to float on a scrappy cloud of mist, sometimes it was a lone patch of mute colour amid a sea of hoar.  And sometimes it disappeared entirely, and those times were the worst.

But there finally came an indigo dusk when the grasslands beyond the town’s borders sparkled with a half frozen, diamond dew that winked and glittered at me across the miles to where I lay, now well beyond shivering, outside the dragons’ cave.  A sharp prickling innervated the muscles of my back and neck and I was up and standing, insensible to my blackened feet, even before I saw the herd of unicorns materialize out of the murk of the forest that flanked the town.  I struck my tinder and set its spark to the stacked pile of blackthorn that I had kept covered and dry during the many days of my watch, and saw how the barbed wood took the flame and gobbled it, as if it were the wood eating the fire, and not the other way around.  The first screams rose thin and distant from the town as I kicked the conflagration, trailing blackthorn barbs, into the coaly blackness of the cave. I heard the wood skitter and woof as it slid into the great hole, thick gouts of pungent smoke trailing behind it in ragged flags.

I could not bear to look down at the town, so I watched the entrance to the cave instead.  At first, there was nothing.  And then there was.  A chorus of enraged, damp screams split the twilight and, wasp-like, a swarm of dragons, woken by the blackthorn smoke and utterly enraged, flew out into the winter night.  They were clearly confused, flying haphazardly, snuffling sparks, and murderous.  In their semi-sentient state they did not notice me at all, lying prone on the ground, but instead began to coalesce together with more purpose, and flocked as one towards the town, desiring only destruction.

Townsfolk died that night, to be sure, and many as the result of my actions.  But I have learned to live with that, for the dragons, alive to some ancient instinct, perhaps, wiped out every single last unicorn that winter evening.  They swooped down on them, tearing and terrible, with a ferocity that we had never seen directed against our own kind.  They breathed what fire they could, and the stink of roasted flesh reached me up on my rocky perch. And they did not cease until the final horned monster was destroyed, even as its dying struggles mortally gored the dragon it fought.  I cannot describe to you the noise that the unicorns made as they perished: hearing it near drove me mad.

 It is winter again now, and the tale I have told you concerns events ten years past.  And in all that time, we have never been troubled by another unicorn.  Nor by the dragons, either, who flew away that night and did not return come spring.  The crops we grow now are of the standard size and, on occasion, they fail, and we know what it is to feel the pinch of hunger when the days diminish and the fields are frozen.  And I would be remiss if I did not record that many of us here still watch the skies as the land wakes again each year, and listen, with something like longing, for the drag and waft of great wings overhead.



©December, 2016 Melanie Smith


Melanie Smith lives and writes from Gloucestershire, England. Her story "The Locked Door" appeared in The Flash Fiction Press in November. This is her first appearance in ​Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["Getting Better" by Rob Francis]]>Tue, 31 Jan 2017 14:34:29 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/getting-better-by-rob-francis“They dead?”
 
Agris squinted at the sun, the rictus that passed for a smile on his battered face making him seem almost a corpse himself.
 
Leos looked down on the two withered bodies by the side of the dirt track, flaking skin stretched and taut enough to see the white of bone beneath. In places the skin was torn, knuckles and cheekbones poking through. He scratched at his whiskers.
 
“In my expert opinion, I’d say: almost definitely.”
 
Leos had seen his fair share of the dead. He’d come across pretty much every representation of humanity cold and still at one point or another. Each one had been a lesson in his ongoing education on the theme of The World Doesn’t Give a Shit. But something about this pair bothered him especially.
 
It wasn’t that they were probably a young couple with no more than two score years between them. Nor the way they had died side by side, the boy’s arm over the girl’s back, perhaps comforting her towards the end. And it wasn’t the way their skin was powdery and pale, stark against the yellow and grey of their exposed teeth and erupted bone; though that was bad enough. After a moment he had it.
 
“They still have their eyes.”
 
Agris turned from his contemplation of the sky and stretched out his neck, the cracking of his bones making Leos wince. The big man looked down at the bodies for the first time, a long look that suggested some deep thinking.
 
When no words of wisdom seemed forthcoming from his partner, Leos nudged him in the right direction.
 
“These lands are full of scavengers, ‘Gris. Why would they graze the flesh and not take the eyes? The eyes always go first. Caws, rats, grass hogs – they all love eyes. Remember when you almost lost one that time the bailiffs were after us, sleeping with your eyes open? Caw almost pecked it out.”
 
Agris nodded happily at the memory. “True, true.”
 
“They must have been in the sun for ages, from the state of the skin. Seems odd they have any flesh left.”
 
The two men stood in silent observation for a moment longer, then Leos felt his interest begin to wane. He turned back to the road. It was still a long way to Pit Town on foot, and soon the day would be too hot for walking.
 
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s find a decent stand of tar trees and rest up. If I don’t eat some smoked grass hog soon I’ll forget how awful it tastes.”
 
Leos had wandered a dozen paces before he realised Agris wasn’t following. His hulking frame was hunched over the roadside dead, brow furrowed and nose held almost to the milky flesh of the boy’s arm. Leos watched in fascinated horror as he gave a long, hard sniff.
 
“Gods, ‘Gris! What are you doing?”
 
Agris slipped a stiletto out of one of his boots and slid it into the withered limb, prying up the skin. A small cloud of dry white flakes drifted into the air.
 
“I’ve seen this before. Before.” Agris’s face spasmed, and Leos waited for the trembling to subside. His partner had an impressive selection of physical and vocal tics, and Leos had learned patience with them a long time ago. Agris’s fighting prowess was worth having to watch him gurn away whilst repeating himself half the time.
 
Finally Agris drew in a breath. “These bodies are fresh.”
 
“’Gris, the flesh is half-gone, and the skin–”
 
“It’s milk-rot. I told you, I’ve seen, seen it before. A sickness. Saw a whole town dying… from it, once.”
 
Leos knew better than to ask. Agris had some kind of troubled past that he never really spoke about, unless you counted garbled screaming during his night terrors. It was better to take what nuggets he offered and never dig for more.
 
“Milk-rot? Never heard of it.”
 
“It kills the skin and makes the bones brittle. The dead and dying look wasted, and half-rotted. That explains the eyes – animals are smart, smart. This pair wouldn’t taste good.”
 
“Shit.” Leos’s guts gave a shiver and his arse clenched up tight. “Can we catch it?”
 
“Not, not from the dead.” Agris stood and slowly licked his stiletto, his big red tongue wrapping around the blade. He winked at Leos and grinned. Or perhaps that was involuntary. Leos couldn’t always tell.
 
Leos felt vaguely nauseated. “Let’s go.”
 
“There’s more.” Agris pointed to the bodies again with the dagger, spittle dripping from its tip. “The wrists all have chafing, hardly any skin left, any skin. Prisoners.”
 
“So they escape, then get sick and die on the road? Unlucky bastards.”
 
“If they were on this road, they must have come from Pit Town, or nearby. Must have.”
 
Leos nodded. “We’d best be careful. Looks like a shitty way to go.”
 
Agris laughed, a shrill squeal like that of a little girl. “No worries, Leos. You get sick, I’ll put this through your heart quick as you like, quick.” He waved the stiletto. “No suffering for my friend.”
 
Leos shivered, despite the midday sun. “Thanks ‘Gris,” he managed. “Friends like you are hard to find.”
 
Agris beamed and rammed the blade back into his boot.
 
They continued down the road in silence.
 
 
*
 
Pit Town was even less impressive than its name suggested. From the rise overlooking the settlement, Leos could see a crossroads with just over a dozen small wooden buildings huddled around it like frightened sheep, each more dilapidated than the last. Lean cattle grazed the surrounding scrubby fields, and crude fences enclosed planted rows of what was probably dry cabbage and nut carrot. A small stream ran past the edge of the town, though there was little flow that he could see. Little sign of anything moving, in fact.
 
“I’ve taken shits bigger’n this place. Shits.” Agris snarled and then burst into a giggle that trilled into the still evening air. “You think he’s down there?”
 
Leos shrugged. “Lady Scree said he had family here, and after Pit Town there’s only dry scrub for fifty leagues at least. Unless he’s hiding up there with the miners,” he nodded towards the range of half-forested, half-cleared hills that ran to their left, “then Pit Town makes the most sense. Either way, someone may have seen him, heard from him.
 
“Thing is...” Leos looked at Agris for a long moment. “I can’t see any signs of people living down there. What if they’re all dead from that milk thing, like those poor bastards by the roadside? We going to find a pile of corpses, or houses full of the sick? Might be best to wait and watch.”
 
“We could ask them.” Agris pointed towards the settlement. Leos turned to see two figures approaching along the path. Two men, with a bedraggled dog between them.
 
Leos watched them near. Their clothing spoke of a poverty Leos was familiar with – tunics and trousers sewn together from odds and ends of different materials in a variety of shades of brown and grey, making a dull patchwork. Their shoes were flat sections of tar tree bark, worn smooth and tied in place with string. Either they were vagrants, or Pit Town was severely lacking in prosperity. Clothing aside, each looked very unlike the other – one tall and broad, the other short and wiry. Each carried a spear, though the taller man’s seemed to have been broken at some point in the past and was really little more than a rusty iron spike on a stick.
 
Leos looked down at his own scuffed and tattered clothing and wondered if he and Agris presented a similar image to others at first sight. For some reason the thought made him nervous. He caught himself fiddling with the handles of his knives, and had to force his hands to relax.
 
“Agris!” he hissed. Behind him he heard the rustle of cloth, followed by a satisfied grunt and spattering sound as Agris took a piss. Leos sighed. Agris began to whistle.
 
When the patchwork men were a couple of dozen paces away, Leos made his overture. “Good evening sirs! This Pit Town?”
 
The tall man shook his head. “You’re not welcome here, strangers.”
 
Leos turned to Agris, and was relieved to see that the big man’s hand now gripped only the hilt of his scimitar. He raised his eyebrows. “Everywhere we go, the love pours forth.”
 
Leos turned back to the patchwork men. “We’re looking for Tapper Drake.” The eyes of the shorter man widened just for a moment, and then narrowed again. Leos smiled. “We were told he has kin here. You kin?”
 
Short shook his head. “Tap left years ago. Not seen him since.” The man glanced down at the dog that stood at his feet, and Leos took a moment to study it. It was a sheepdog, well past its prime. Hair balding and matted, one eye milky white. The animal seemed awfully still and quiet. It watched Leos silently.
 
“You’re not welcome,” Tall said again, though he seemed almost sorry to be delivering the news. “Nothing for you in Pit Town. We’re closed to strangers.”
 
Leos heard Agris shift his weight and stifle a giggle. He could read his partner well, and decided to end the conversation before the pair were a patchwork of body parts rather than just clothing. “Come then, Agris. Best be looking for Tapper elsewhere!” He turned and gently pushed the big man back, and together they traipsed back along the dirt track they had spent several days traversing. Agris was muttering under his breath, but Leos knew he wouldn’t do anything stupid now. No more stupid than usual, anyway.
 
After a few dozen steps, Leos looked back to see the men and their dog still standing in the road, watching them leave. Short raised a hand towards him, though whether in farewell or some kind of appeal, Leos wasn’t sure. Then the pair turned and trudged slowly back towards town.
 
The sheepdog stood for long moment, watching, and then it too turned and began to trot away.
 
 
*
 
 
There were no lights from the buildings. Pit Town was as dark as the grave, and Leos and Agris crept unobserved around the small houses, listening at doors and peering through gaps in the shutters. Every house was deserted.
 
A sliver of moonlight escaped the clouds and the pair exchanged wry nods. Hours before, they had covered their clothes, skin and hair with ash and blackened their blades with tar tree sap. It all seemed a bit unnecessary now.
 
“I suppose we’ll be next.”
 
Leos and Agris both froze at the voice, which seemed to be coming from one of the larger buildings at the heart of the settlement. Together they sidled down the side of the building, finally coming to a stepped wooden frontage that led up to the main door. On the road in front were two dark shapes that Leos found hard to discern for a time, until the clouds shifted and the town was drenched in the light of the full moon for an instant.
 
Two men, sitting on the hard ground and sharing a flagon: Tall and Short, the welcome party. Leos looked up at the entrance to the building. Above it swung a shingle on which someone had drawn a white pick-axe and added the words ‘The Miners Resst’. An inn, Leos supposed.
 
“The others will be back soon.” Tall leaned towards short and dropped his voice a little, though he was clearly well into his cups. “Young Scratch will bring back the miners in a few days, and she’ll have others to… work with. We’re no use, she told us that.”
 
“Never been so happy to be useless,” agreed Short. “Still scares the shit out of me though. Where did she come from? What does she want?”
 
“Touched by the gods,” said Tall. “You saw. Dead lizards walking around, half-rotted. Scratch’s old sheep hound, too. Never seen the like.” He took the flagon. “Once they’re back, we run.”
 
Short nodded. “I’ve a cart all set in the stables. Enough food to get us to Promise Heights. I ain’t ending up like that poor bastard in there.” He waved behind him at the inn. “I wonder what those two lads wanted with him. They looked serious.”   
 
“Trouble, no doubt.” Tall hawked and spat. “Been enough of that since she turned up. We’re best out of it.”
 
“Aye. You think young Linya and Rood made it?”
 
“She’d already given ‘em the rot, set to work on ‘em. If they made it more than a few leagues I’d be surprised.”
 
A silence descended. Leos watched the pair for a moment, thinking about what he’d heard and wondering where their dog was. Nowhere nearby presumably, or it would’ve sniffed Agris out long ago.
 
Leos motioned to Agris, and the two of them retreated back down the side of the building to the rear, where the back door was partially hidden by several old barrels.
 
“Now what, now?”
 
“Well,” said Leos, “It sounds like Drake might be in the inn.” He paused. “Probably with someone dangerous, and possibly in a bad state.” He sighed. “I suppose we’d better go get him, if we want to get paid. Lady Scree needs her information. You got your picks?”
 
Agris winked and pulled a finger-length piece of metal from his pocket. His meaty paw jabbed the pick inside the lock and then with surprising delicacy he began to wiggle it around, tongue poking out with concentration. Moments later the lock clicked, and Agris retreated with a flourish, leaving Leos to open the door and creep into the inn.
 
He found himself in a dark narrow corridor lined with doors. At the end, a door stood ajar, and Leos could see a faint glow through the opening. He gently eased his blackened dirk from its sheath and moved forwards, feet apart and weight spread as evenly as possible, hoping that none of the floorboards would creak.
 
He was half way to the door when Agris galumphed into the inn behind him, sounding like a pony trying to kick its way out of a barrel. 
 
Leos winced and rushed forwards, giving up all attempt at stealth. Springing through the door, he came upon a scene that made little sense.
 
The main room of the inn had been cleared, all the tables and benches piled around the edges, and in the middle stood a naked man, held upright by ropes lashed around his wrists that led up to rings set in the ceiling timbers. A circle of candles on the floor covered him in jaundiced light. The man’s skin was white and thin, and the bones of his knees and elbows had torn through it. He seemed barely conscious and was swaying, drool dangling from his bottom lip, eyes half open. Across one eye there were three long pale scars; marks described by Lady Scree herself.
 
Leos and Agris shared a glance. Tapper Drake.
 
At his feet was the mangy sheepdog they had seen on the outskirts of Pit Town. It sat staring up at Drake, and at first Leos thought that a leash or rope hung from its muzzle, but then he realised that its jaw bone was gone, and it was the dog’s tongue dangling free.
 
Slowly it turned to regard Leos, and he started as a voice came out of the shadows.
 
“Oh. You came anyway.”
 
A small girl emerged from the corner of the room, barefoot and clothed in a faded grey dress. Leos would have guessed her age at around thirteen or fourteen, though her face was lined and streaked with dirt, so he couldn’t be sure. Her eyes were a smoky white and restless in their sockets, and he knew she was blind. 
 
Agris growled and slid his scimitar from its scabbard, but Leos raised a halting hand.
 
The girl remained quite still. “I’m not sure I can use you, but you came anyway. That’s going to be a problem.” The dog bobbed its head as if in agreement, tongue flailing.
 
“What is this?” Leos peered around the gloom in search of anyone else, but there were only the benches, the tables, the candles, the shadows, the dog, the girl and the drooling wreckage of Tapper Drake. “Who are you?”
 
“Mist,” said the girl. “The mercies called me Mist, back at the sanctuary. They said the fog brought me to them as a baby.”
 
“What’s happened to him?” Leos nodded at Drake, and the dog turned to look before returning its attention once more to Leos.
 
“The hills here are sacred, and the people of these lands are their children, growing in their shadow. They are more attuned to my Art than most.” Both girl and dog closed their eyes for a long moment before Mist continued. “And yet still I can’t bring them back like the animals. Even using the rot to prepare them. People are so difficult. I’m getting better, though.”
 
“Lych charmer,” whispered Agris. Leos thought he heard a touch of respect and admiration in his partner’s voice.
 
Mist smiled. “Yes, I have heard myself called that. I can bring animals back, and when I do, I can see through their eyes.” She barked a laugh. “The gods are hard but fair with their gifts. They gave me no eyes but let me use many others.”
 
“I’m not sure that’s a healthy pastime for a young girl,” said Leos doubtfully. He still held his dirk but was unsure what to do with it. Where was this going? Back to basics, he decided. “Anyway, I don’t really care about all that. We came for him.” He waved the blade in Drake’s direction.
 
“He’s busy,” said Mist, moving to stand beside the dog. “Until the others arrive, he is my last subject.”
 
“Why bring them back?” asked Agris in a low voice that made Leos’s stomach knot.
 
Mist looked confused. “Why not? It’s what I do. Why does the painter paint, the sculptor sculpt, the killer kill? Because that’s their purpose.” She pointed at Drake. “This is mine.”
 
Agris stepped forwards, scimitar positioned across his body. “Causing others to suffer?”
 
Mist sneered. “You’ve caused your fair share, I’m sure.”
 
Leos nodded. “Can’t argue with that. But we need him. Alive.”
 
On an unspoken cue he and Agris moved as one, Leos towards the girl and Agris towards Drake. Mist snarled and raised her hands. Leos felt a sharp tightness in his chest, as if a heavy weight had been placed upon it.
 
A strangled scream from outside stopped everyone. Leos felt the pain subside and backed away, sucking in air, eyes fixed on the door to the street.
 
“What? No, wait!” Something banged hard against the door, and whoever was protesting outside fell silent. Leos and Agris shared a meaningful look. They both know the sound of things turning to shit when they heard it. Together they edged towards the door they had entered by.
 
The door handle turned, stopped, and then the door burst inwards, two figures rushing into the room. They looked nightmarish, tattered and torn and horribly pale. The roadside lovers, Linya and Rood. Leos couldn’t believe how fast they moved, especially given their very literal lack of vitality, and both he and Agris stared in shock as Rood ran a knife through Tapper Drake’s chest, while Linya leapt at Mist. The girl wore an expression of both joy and surprise as the dead woman bore her down, and Leos heard her cry “It worked! But I can’t see– “ before Linya’s blade started to rise and fall.
 
“Run!” shrieked Leos, but Agris was already charging, scimitar whipping at the man’s head. Rood stepped backwards but not far enough, and the curved blade cored a groove in his face that almost split his skull in two.
 
Leos cursed and rushed at Linya, knife in each hand, running them through her chest, momentum carrying her back against the wall. The blades jammed hard into the timbers and she was pinned. Leos lurched back before her flailing hands could reach him and turned to Agris, who was busy hacking the limbs off Rood, though the separate parts still writhed pitifully.
 
Linya spat and hissed, tugging against the knives, though they held fast. Her words seemed garbled but Leos thought he could make some of them out. In particular the phrase ‘pair of bastards’.
 
He crossed to Mist. The girl’s dress was ripped and sodden with blood, her throat gouged open. But there was a twisted smile on her face. Leos supposed she had died happy, or at least as happy as anyone could be whilst being repeatedly stabbed.
 
Agris joined him. “Talented,” he said. “But misguided. With a proper mentor...” Then he shrugged, and nodded at Drake. “Not gonna get... anything for Lady Scree now, anything.”
 
Leos looked at Tapper Drake’s dangling corpse for a long moment. Not a nice way to go, despite the man’s odious character and history of botched assassination attempts on important and ruthless people. The sheep hound lay next to Drake, looking like it had died days ago.
 
He stood before the woman, still squirming against the wall. “Can you understand me, Linya?”
 
A pause, low hissing. “Yes.”
 
“Why come back? To this place.”
 
“All is rage and hate. Here. Now.”
 
“And death?”
 
“Nothing.”
 
Leos nodded sadly. “But you remember your life?”
 
“Yes. Some.” Her eyes drifted to Rood’s dismembered body. “I remember him.”
 
“Feel pain?”
 
She shook her head.
 
Leos turned. “Agris. Get a bedsheet and some rope. And bring in the guards. They’ll be just outside the door I expect. If they’re still clinging to life, give ‘em a push. I’ll see what supplies I can rustle up.”
 
*
 
As the sun rose they left Pit Town behind. Smoke rose into the sky from the burning inn. It had seemed the cleanest way to end things. Ash on the wind. The returning miners wouldn’t know what had happened, and that was for the best.
 
Agris led a donkey pulling an old cart, both of which they had found in a stable. The cart had been laden with bags of food and a few farming tools, just as Short had described. Now most of the supplies were slung on Leos’s back, and the cart held the wrapped and bound body of Tapper Drake, the smell wafting in the breeze already starting to become offensive.
 
Agris wrinked his nose. “You sure this is a good idea, Leos?”
 
Leos shrugged. “Whatever the lych child did, it worked for the roadside lovers. Might be it’ll work for young Tapper.”
 
Agris grunted. “Maybe we should have just kept the head.”
 
“No-one knows how this works, ‘Gris. Can a dead mouth talk without a pair of dead lungs? These are the mysteries of life, I suppose. Or death. Or whatever is in between.”
 
When, less than a league further on, Tapper started thrashing and cursing inside his wrappings, Leos couldn’t help but grin. “By the gods, I’m a clever bastard.”
 
Agris snorted. “Let’s hope he remembers who hired him, or we still… might not get paid.”
 
“Even if he doesn’t, I’m sure someone would pay for a genuine reanimated corpse,” said Leos. “Pay well. Can’t be many of ‘em knocking around.”
 
“Money for us, and only a half-dozen dead this time, dead,” said Agris, baring his rictus grin again. “We’re getting better at this.” The big man dropped back and began chatting to Tapper, trying to start some kind of conversation.
 
Leos sighed and turned his face into the wind. It was going to be a long walk back to Lady Scree.



©December 2016 Rob Francis

Rob Francis is a British writer and academic. He has publish numerous non-fiction works. His story "A Fine Bounty" appeared in Swords & Sorcery in November of 2015. His fiction has also been seen in numerous other publications including Everyday Fiction and SpekLit.]]>
<![CDATA["The Blade That Seeks" by Edward H. Parks]]>Tue, 20 Dec 2016 20:07:37 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-blade-that-seeks-by-edward-h-parksThe ship pitched and swayed again, as it had all morning. Uncle Gelearde lurched over to the gunwale and retched. His belly was empty after a long night on this gusty sea, and he suffered through another lengthy round of dry heaves.
 
 “Could help you with that, you know.” Aunt Clotilde sounded miffed.
 
 “Keep your pouch in your cloak, woman!” Gelearde waved his arm at her without looking up from the rail.
 
 Galwyn shook his head. His aunt and uncle, though brother and sister, argued and bickered frequently like an old married couple.
 
 “Look up, Uncle. I can see Utoa on the horizon. We’ll be there in a few hours.  Keep your eyes on the island. Looking at the water will only make you feel worse.”
 
 “Thank you, boy.” Gelearde straightened up and looked to the northwest. The hills of Utoa Island were shrouded in the overcast sky.
 
 Gelearde’s profile reminded Galwyn of the head on a coin: bushy eyebrows, an aquiline nose, and a finely trimmed, pointed beard jutting from his chin.
 
 “Aunt Clo probably could help with your seasickness,” the younger man ventured.
 
His uncle shook his head and untied the chinstrap on his cap. Gelearde regarded his nephew with pride. The boy he once knew had grown into a tall man and a skilled soldier.
 
“Her skills are too unpredictable. I’ll take my chances until we land.” He managed a weak smile. \
 Clotilde brushed a wisp of her wild, frazzled hair from her brow.
 
 “Ungrateful old goat!” she sniffed.
 
 Galwyn looked up at the frigate birds wheeling over the ship and went over the details of their commission again in his mind. He recalled the audience with King Vortryx in Port Cunin. The market by the quays had bustled with merchants hawking their wares and screaming gulls hovering over the fishing boats. And looming above it all, the King’s lavish palace perched on its bluff facing the sea. The long climb to the gate had felt like a pilgrimage to see the fabled monarch.
 
 “Your reputation precedes you, Master Gelearde,” the King smiled indulgently. The ancient sovereign had a reputation as a stern ruler, but his court was filled with smiling people of every description, chatting with each other in low murmuring voices. A tall soldier in armor stood off to one side of the throne. Much like Galwyn, Gelearde thought to himself. Clotilde and Galwyn stood back with the courtiers while Gelearde ascended the dais before the throne.
 
“You are too kind, Sire,” his Uncle said.
 
“Not at all, not at all! You are a scholar and a man of many talents. You come highly recommended. Isn’t that so, Neguan?” He glanced at the soldier next to him, who nodded in response. “And that is why I have sent for you.”
 
The King was a very old man, but he still had a strong voice.  He was stooped over from a crooked back, and leaned on a large bronze staff. “Do you see this talisman?” The King fingered a large gold medallion that hung from his neck, with a dark red gem at its center. “It is an heirloom of my family, and is one of two identical pieces that were made. The other one was stolen from this palace many years ago by a former close and trusted advisor.” He paused and scowled as he regarded the gem.
 
“Pray go on, Sire,” Gelearde urged.
 
“Sendatur!” The King spat the name as if it were an insult. “He was my father’s advisor before me and served my family for many years. I have good reason to suspect that he was the thief. He was always jealous of me.”
 
 “And how can I be of help to the Crown?” Gelearde remained impassive.
 
 “Sendatur left the court and returned to his home island of Utoa. I sent men after him, but they never found him or the medallion, and the trail has now grown cold. I’m sure he’s dead by now. You should start there.” The King held Gelearde in a steely gaze. “The talisman belongs to me, and I would have it again before I die. I want you to ascertain its whereabouts and return it here. You will be richly rewarded, I assure you.”
 
 “Very well, Sire.” Gelearde bowed. “I will go to Utoa.” 
 
***
 
 They took passage on a small trading vessel that plied the Cunin Archipelago with cargo and passengers, and after several days at sea were now approaching a fishing town on the coast of Utoa.
 
 The sky cleared as they spent the day visiting various shops and boats in port. Gelearde spoke with proprietors and fishermen. Clotilde, listened intently and asked the occasional question. Yes, they had certainly heard of Sendatur. Old Utoan family. No, they thought he had died years ago. They believed that Sendatur’s family had a burial mausoleum at the peak of one of the hills. No one goes there anymore. The three of them purchased walking staves and other supplies, then took lodging in the inn for the night.
 
 They rose before dawn and packed their things. Gelearde’s appetite returned and he ate a hearty breakfast. Clotilde sipped tea in the dark and ate a roll with butter and honey. Galwyn, still accustomed to military fare, ate his usual bread and meat. The little band left at first light and began the long trek up and inland. It was not an easy trek for the two siblings, and Galwyn made them pause at regular intervals. Evergreen trees had given way to scrub and boulders when they paused for lunch.
 
 “Well, look who’s dropped in on Dortok’s little fiefdom!” A burly man stood in their way with a sword in his hand.
 
 Galwyn started to his feet, reaching for his sword.
 
 “Galwyn, don’t!” It was Aunt Clotilde.
 
 “Yes, Galwyn, don’t. Just look around you.” The man leered jocularly.
 
 Galwyn glanced slowly to either side. They were surround by armed men crouching in the brush. He let out a sigh of exasperation, and sat back down, disgusted at himself. How could he have been so careless?
 
 “Passing through Dortok’s realm merely requires a modest toll - every coin in your purse!” He and his brigands laughed together.
 
 “Duck”, Clotilde said to Gelearde through clenched teeth. He knew that tone all too well, and immediately dropped to the ground like a cut rope.
 
 Muttering and gesturing, Clotilde unleashed a spray of jagged ice crystals from her hands at the nearest group of ruffians. They cried out in agony as the frozen shards tore their flesh. Gelearde could feel the bone-chilling cold on his skin, and shielded his face with his hand. Galwyn swept his leg against Dortok’s ankle and leapt to his feet as the man toppled to the ground. He drew his sword and held the point to the man’s throat.
 
 “That’s Captain Galwyn to you, you cur. Chief of the Uldum Night Watch am I.” 
Gelearde slowly climbed back to his feet and looked around. Several men lay moaning and bleeding, their bodies contorting in pain and covered with frost. The others had fled. He looked down at their leader, now not quite as haughty as he had been a moment ago. 
 
 “I’m pleased we found you, Master Dortok. We’re searching for something, and we could use a guide who knows the area.”
 
 
Yes, Dortok knew where the mausoleum was. He knew enough about it to stay away. 
 
“I lost two men there last full moon. They went poking about that hilltop and never came back. I’m not going near that place!” Dortok was a sullen now as he was jovial before.
 
“Yes, you are,” Galwyn replied. He followed behind Dortok, sword at the ready.
 
The Mausoleum was a squat stone building covered in carved runes, human figures, and boats. The only door faced east. Two decomposed bodies lay nearby.
 
 Gelearde approached the door cautiously, and withdrew a leather sack from beneath his cloak. He rummaged for and found a thin metal rod. The end was fashioned into the shape of a dragon’s claw and clutched a small crystal ball. He waved the rod slowly about as he walked, pausing occasionally to dwell on something that caught his interest, and wrinkling his nose at the stench of the corpses.  Finally, he stood before the door.
 
 “Clo, you still have some of the dweomer dust, don’t you?”
 
 She produced a small pouch and walked up to join him, also wrinkling her nose, then placed it in his outstretched hand and backed away.
 
 Gelearde took small pinches of light gray powder from the pouch and flicked them at the large metal hinges, the rusted iron bar, and other features of the stone door. The others perceived no effect, but he nodded knowingly to himself.
 
 Finally, he backed away and withdrew a bone wand from his sack. He waved it in a large circle and muttered an incantation.
 
 Suddenly, the iron bar crackled with lightning that spread and ran around the rim of the door frame. Acid hissed from the latch and dripped to the ground, bubbling and smoking. And small darts shot up vertically from the ground in front of the door, right where Gelearde had been standing.
 
 Dortok squealed and turned to leave. Galwyn grabbed the man’s collar with his free hand and held the bandit in place.
 
 They entered into an antechamber lined with stone statues, presumably likenesses of members of Sendatur’s family. Another stone door stood opposite the one they came in.  Once again Gelearde repeated his examination with the crystal ball.
 
 “This one is safe,” he proclaimed. “No traps.”
 
 “After you,” Galwyn gestured Dortok to the door with his sword.
 
 The bandit approached the door with trembling knees. He put one palm on the door, then drew it away quickly. Nothing happened. The man giggled with relief, then pushed the door open.
 
The stone door creaked and dragged slowly against a tangled mass of cobwebs that filled the doorway in the room beyond. The strands were as thick as canvas thread. A multi-legged creature, its abdomen the size of a large cat, scuttled amazingly fast down from the ceiling into the middle of the doorway. Dortok shrieked and sprang back.
 
 “Move!!” Clotilde bellowed, and everyone sprang away from the door.
 
 Clotilde quickly uttered a spelled and pointed her finger at the beast. A large spark shot from her fingertip to the creature, enveloping it in a mass of electrical arcs and sparks. The thing shuddered and hissed, paralyzed to move, and the cobwebs caught fire in a flash. When it was over, a huge spider lay dead in the doorway, its legs still twitching.
 
 “Should’ve let me go first,” Clo said, and pulled a necklace out of her tunic. The pendant glowed to life, its shine revealing shapes ahead through the doorway. She proceeded through, kicking the smoking corpse aside without as much as a glance down.
 
 “Hate spiders,” she mumbled to herself.
 
 In the center of the main crypt lay several sarcophagi, and stone benches lined the walls. The benches were crowded with urns and figurines. Gelearde followed Clotilde and called the others in.  He moved among the stone caskets, peering down at their carvings and inscriptions. Finally he motioned Dortok over.
 
 “Help me get this lid off.” The brigand looked back to the door, saw Galwyn regarding him coldly, and decided to comply. The lid fell to the floor with an echoing thud.
 
 “Hello, Sendatur, you old fox,” Gelearde spoke to the mummified body of an elderly man, still bearded with long white whiskers. Sendatur lay clothed in a gold-threaded robe, his teeth showing in a grim rictus. Gelearde thought he smelled something odd. He bent down and sniffed. There it was, bitter like old roots.
 
 “Poison!” he exclaimed.
 
 While Gelearde and Dortok searched the body and its casket, Clotilde perused the figurines and Galwyn wandered around. One of the other caskets caught his eye. The name stamped into a metal plate on the side read “Tryvor”. An inscription was carved on the lid that he could read.
 
Our kith, but not our kin. Yet welcome to dwell within.”
 
Kith, but not kin? This person was not from Sendatur’s family? Galwyn shoved the stone lid aside. Another mummified body lay within, but this one had been a young man, perhaps the same age as Galwyn himself. Thick locks of red hair clung to the man’s skull and a downy beard, just beginning to fill in, adorned his chin. The strong lines of his brow and jaw suggested that he had been a handsome fellow. The dead man was garbed in fine leather leggings, boots, a luxurious tunic, and a chainmail shirt. He clutched the hilt of a fine sword and scabbard to his chest. Who was this Tryvor? A warrior? Or a soldier like himself? He could see several brown-crusted slits in the man’s neck. Stabbed! He felt sympathy and kinship for this long-dead comrade, a brother-in-arms who displayed a noble aspect, even as a shriveled corpse, and who had been ruthlessly cut down in his prime.
 
 Gelearde finally stood up from his examination of Sendatur’s resting place.
 
 “It’s not here,” he said to no one in particular.
 
 “I know”, replied Clotilde. “But I think there’s something over here.”
 
 Gelearde hastened over and pulled out his crystal ball rod again. He waved it over several urns and figurines, then settled on a particularly old urn in the middle of all the clutter. Clotilde and her brother looked at each other knowingly. She removed the lid and he plunged his hand into the ashes inside. He presently pulled out a metal chain and held it aloft. A gold medallion with a red gem dangled and glittered in the light of Clotilde’s pendant. The is gem was bright red like a fire opal, not dull red like the King’s, but the two pieces were clearly identical.
 
 Just then the two noticed Galwyn bending over the other sarcophagus.
 
 “No!”, they cried in unison, but it was too late.
 
 Galwyn had desired to look at the dead man’s fine sword for himself, to examine its blade and feel its heft. But as soon as he touched the hilt, he stiffened and uttered a stifled moan. Then he drew the sword swiftly and held it high above his head. The blade was as black as ink.
 
 “At last!” he said. “A true swordsman!” But it was not quite Galwyn’s voice. 
 
 The man who stood before them now spoke in deeper, more sonorous tones, and his voice echoed, as if the crowded burial chamber was more like a great pillared temple.
 
 “Galwyn!” Clotilde exclaimed. “Now you’ve done it!”
 
 Gelearde approached slowly. “May I see that sword?”
 
 Galwyn lowered the blade to point at his uncle. “None may take this now.”  Gelearde stopped in his tracks and thought for a moment.
 
“Excuse me, but who am I addressing at the moment?”
 
 “I,” intoned the voice, “am Retaliator.”
 
 “And what are your intentions here?”
 
 “I seek the one who killed my master, so that I may slay him.” 
 
“Who is that talking?” Clotilde interjected.
 
 “Ssss!” Gelearde shushed her with a slice of his hand. “It’s the sword!”  Gelearde pondered the situation again, uncertain. How to handle this?
 
 “You are now held by the hand of Captain Galwyn, your new owner and a most worthy master.”
 
 “My master is dead. No one owns me. This one is strong. He will carry me to my vengeance.” Galwyn’s eyes were turned up in his head, half-lidded.
 
 “But he is our companion. He travels with us.” Clotilde joined the conversation.
 
 “I will seek my own path.”
 
 “Do you know where your quarry is now?” she asked. (“Good, Clo!” Gelearde whispered). 
 
 The voice paused for a dozen heartbeats.
 
 “No.”
 
 “Then you will find what you seek as easily with us as by yourself,” she retorted testily.
 
Gelearde put his hand on her shoulder, as she seemed about to say something else. He didn’t want her to antagonize the sword.
 
 “We travel widely,” he said, “and I have many skills. If you join us, I will help you find what you seek. I will help you to deal out justice.”
 
 Another lengthy pause. “I will accompany you.”
 
 Galwyn’s hand slid the blade into its scabbard. He belted the weapon around his waist, then blinked several times. He turned to his aunt and uncle.
 
 “What happened? Why are you two looking at me like that?”
 
 “Seems you’re possessed now,” Clotilde answered the bewildered young man. “Should never just go reaching for a strange blade like it’s a new toy, you know.”
 
 “Dortok?” Gelearde called out. Where had he gotten to? He searched the room with his eyes. The bandit was cowering behind Sendatur’s casket, his eyes as big as plums.
 
“You aren’t thinking of bringing your little band back here to plunder this tomb, now are you?” The brigand opened his mouth, but did not answer.
 
“I’ll just reset the traps, you know, and add a few of my own that are even worse. Do you understand?” This time the man nodded his head vigorously.
 
“I think you can go now”, the older man said gently.
 
 
“So this is a magic sword, ay? What does it do?” Galwyn held it up in the light. They were half way down the hillside, and paused for a rest. The black blade was shiny like obsidian, and scrawled with runes that looked like pure gold.
 
 “Not just a magic sword, Galwyn: a purposed sword. Those are rare, and always named.
But I’ve never heard of this one before.” He paused to stroke his beard as he pondered that. “Hmm, this one appears to have been crafted to avenge its wielder in case of death.  So it must seek out whoever killed Tryvor. Perhaps once it fulfills its purpose it will truly serve you. What does it do? I imagine it has some magical abilities that will manifest themselves the next time you are in combat, but its main power is the ability to compel cooperation for its purpose.”
 
“Very disciplined magic, this,” Clotilde ventured. “Very orderly and purposeful. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was crafted to be good at fighting others. Good against armor or other weapons, perhaps. Or it protects the wielder.” She brushed a curl of blonde hair out of Galwyn’s eye, as she had so often done when he was a child. “And it won’t stop until it has its vengeance.”
 
 Gelearde nodded in agreement. “Likely so.”
 
 “But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life chasing after some murderer!” Galwyn protested.
 
 “Be at ease,” his uncle said soothingly. “The sword lay in that sarcophagus for a long time. The one it seeks is probably long dead by now.” 
 
“Well, it doesn’t think so!  Wouldn’t it know that?”
 
 “It’s not all powerful, now is it?” Clotilde answered for her brother. “If the killer were on the other side of the world it couldn’t sense his presence. Gelearde is right: you probably have nothing to worry about.” And she continued down the path.
 
 “Probably?” Galwyn sheathed the sword and followed her.
 
 “I’ll reason with it,” he said.
 
 “Can’t reason with it!” Clotilde admonished, not turning around.
 
 “Then I’ll throw it into the sea!” he shouted.
 
 “Can’t throw it away, either.”
 
“The sword is not a living thing, Galwyn”, Gelearde added. “It’s … it’s a magical force, you see. It’s not intelligent the way we are. It only exists to fulfill its purpose. And one of its powers is the ability to control you whenever it needs to in order to achieve that goal. You cannot defy it. You’ll just have to live with it until I can came up with something.”  The young man glowered and said nothing.
 
 
The journey back to Port Cunin was much like the trip out. Gelearde retched at the railing and Clotilde sipped tea in their cabin. But Galwyn sat by himself in the bow and brooded at the horizon as if it were his impending doom.
 
“It doesn’t heed my commands, Uncle,” he said to Gelearde without looking up. “Nor does it give me commands, either. In fact, it doesn’t speak to me at all. But when I try to throw it into the sea…well, I just can’t”.
 
Gelearde patted his shoulder without answering.
 
The next morning saw the King’s palace looming over Port Cunin from its cliff by the sea.
 
“Why are we here?” Galwyn asked Gelearde as they disembarked, but his voice was deeper again. It was Retaliator.
 
“The palace here has learned men and a library. I hope to find out more about Tryvor and who killed him,” the older man answered.
 
“Very well,” Galwyn said, and blinked at his uncle.
 
 When they reached the palace they were ushered immediately into the throne room by a smiling young courtier. Gelearde proceeded first toward the throne dais.
 
 “Success, Sire! We found the … hey!” He was rudely shoved aside from behind, interrupted in mid-sentence.
 
It was Galwyn, charging the throne with the black blade in his hand. The golden runes glowed red now.
 
“Murderer!! You doom is at hand!” Galwyn bellowed.
 
 Gelearde was bewildered. “What? Him??” He looked from Galwyn to the King.
 
 A cry of alarm arose from the courtiers and servants. Most of the palace soldiers were caught off guard and just stared, but their captain drew his sword and interposed himself between his king and this attacker. This was the man the King had called Neguan. Galwyn brought the black blade down in a high arc onto the other soldier’s upraised shield, splitting it nearly in two in a shower of sparks. The man cried out in pain as he was battered to the ground. He rolled away and held his shield arm as his sword clattered across the floor.
 
 Galwyn strode purposefully up to the throne. Surprisingly, the King stood his ground and held his staff at the ready. Galwyn swung Retaliator at the King’s head. The old man parried the blow, and the sword glanced off the metal shaft in another shower of sparks. But the King’s staff did not break.
 
 The palace soldiers regained their composure and moved forward to engage Galwyn.
Gelearde turned to Clotilde.
 
 “Help him!”
 
Clotilde gestured again as she had on the hillside. This time, a flurry of ghostly hands appeared. They swarmed around the soldiers, batting their helmets askew, and deflecting their weapons. They could not mount an effect attack. The combat by the throne continued as a duel between two men.
 
 Gelearde stood by her confused, shaking his head as he struggled to understand what was happening. Galwyn feinted low, then swung again at the King’s head. This time the sword caught the edge of the royal crown. The headpiece flew off the king’s head, and with it a white wig. The crowd gasped as they saw that Vortryx had a full head of close-cropped black hair. The King flung off his great cloak and stood straight, revealing a muscular physique. He noticed the magic being used against him, and stole glances at Clotilde as she continued her incantation. A sinking feeling overcame Gelearde. This man is not what he seems, and he has skills to be reckoned with. 
 
But then sudden comprehension dawned on him. He leaned over to speak into her ear.
 
 “Clo, the King’s medallion!” She nodded her head.
 
 As suddenly as it began, the combat ended, and in blood. Vortryx bought time to act with a skillful move. He parried Galwyn’s sword, trapped the blade against the floor with the headpiece of his staff, and then spun in the other direction, catching the young man across the temple with the spiked tailpiece. Galwyn was knocked unconscious and toppled backward, bleeding from the head and losing his grip on Retaliator.
 
 Clotilde ended her incantation and began a new one just as Vortryx reached inside his tunic. The medallion was ripped free of his neck, and flew across the room to her hand. But then the King drew his dagger and threw it, burying the blade in Clotilde’s sternum. She cried out and fell back into Gelearde’s arms.
 
 The King now stood alone, looking triumphantly down at his newest victims.
 
 “Seize them!” he bellowed at his soldiers, gesturing wildly. “Seize them all!” But none of the soldiers moved. They looked at the King with fear and revulsion. His sweat ran down his face, washing off the expertly applied maquillage he had worn for so long. They stared uncomprehendingly as they saw now that he was not an old man at all. On the floor behind him lay his cloak, with a cushion sewn in below the nape of the neck to make him appear hunchbacked.
 
Vortryx turned toward where his palace captain lay on the ground.
 
 “Neguan! Give the order!”
 
 But Neguan, too, refused to move.
 
 “Sire, what are you?”
 
 Gelearde looked down at Clotilde’s face. She was still breathing. He looked around for something hard and readily at hand. There! Neguan’s sword lay on the floor nearby. He grabbed the medallion from Clotilde’s clasped hand and lunged across the floor for the sword.
 
Vortryx must have sensed something wrong, something that threatened his being even more than a magical black sword. He whirled around in time to see Gelearde kneeling on the floor, placing the medallion on the cold stone, and raising Neguan’s sword high above his head.
 
 “STOP!!” the King screamed with both arms stretched out in supplication.
 
 Gelearde ignored him and brought the flat of the blade down on the gem. The jewel in the medallion shattered into dull red sand with a noise like a thunderclap.
 
 Vortryx screamed and clutched his chest, falling back onto the steps leading up to his throne. The spell of the medallion broken, his face shriveled and withered as he aged all of the stolen decades of his life in mere moments.
 
 Gelearde walked over to the black blade lying near Galwyn. He saw that his nephew was coming around. Enough, he thought. Galwyn was his own man, not a pawn in some ancient feud. The scholar from Uldum looked at all the destruction this cur of a king had wrought. His sister lay dying, and his nephew clutched his injured head with bloody hands. All members of the court stood slack-jawed, coming to grips with the reality that they had spent their whole lives serving...what? A man, or a monster? And Neguan, the captain of the palace soldiers, still lay on the floor clutching his shield arm. That was likely broken, but he still had one good arm. Yes, the man still had one good arm.
 
 Gelearde took careful aim, and kicked the black sword Retaliator across the floor at Neguan. The weapon spun horizontally, whirling across the polished stone and coming to rest against the soldier’s thigh. Neguan’s body stiffened, and he looked down curiously at the sword.  He grasped the hilt and awkwardly stood up, wincing in pain, then strode purposefully to the throne dais.
 
Vortryx, now showing his more than one hundred years of age, lay gasping and wheezing as he watched Neguan approach. Only his eyes moved in the shriveled husk of his face.
 
 “No, Neguan! Not you!”
 
 But Neguan ignored his pleas, and stood over the King with the black sword held high. Gelearde heard the deep, echoing voice again, the one from the crypt, as Neguan proclaimed Retaliator’s judgement for all to hear.
 
 “Here lies a craven assassin and murderer. Let justice be done!” And he plunged the sword into the King’s chest.
 
 The blackness flowed down the length of the sword’s blade from its hilt to the point, like ink dripping off a quill, revealing a silvery metal. The red runes faded and were gone. The King was dead. Retaliator now appeared as an ordinary sword, albeit an ornate and very fine quality one.
 
 “Aunt Clo!” Galwyn was now stumbling over to the stricken woman.
 
 Gelearde rushed to her side.
 
 “If I am not the most addlepated dunderhead!” he castigated himself.
 
 “Uncle?”
 
 “The other medallion!” He pulled out the duplicate piece with the fiery red gem and placed it around her neck.
 
 “What are you doing?” Galwyn’s speech was still slurred.
 
 “I don’t know! Trying to activate this thing! If she was awake she could tell me.”  He rummaged in his leather sack and began tossing items out.
 
 “And I am twice a dunderhead!”
 
 “Whuh?” The young man shook his head still groggy.
 
 “Tryvor, Vortryx. They’re practically the same name.” He shook his fist at the dead king’s corpse. “They were brothers!”
 
 Neguan had joined them, still holding the now perfectly normal-looking sword.
 
 “I’m sorry, sir. We didn’t know what he was.”
 
 “Never mind that now! Where is it?” He dumped out all of the remaining contents of the sack: rods, and wands, feathers and lenses, small vials, and… there!
 
“The triggerstone!” Gelearde exulted. “It’s got to work!” 
 
He held a small stone of murky, translucent blue, chased with white quartz veins. Gelearde pressed the blue stone against the red gem and muttered an incantation he had heard Clotilde use a long time ago. He hoped he got it right. Finally, the blue stone began to hum in his hand, and medallion’s red gem glowed softly. Clotilde stirred and coughed. The magic of the medallion was now tuned to her.
 
 Gelearde pulled out a kerchief, then placed it against Clotilde’s chest. The King’s dagger was still embedded there. With one swift move, he pulled the dagger out and applied pressure to the wound. Clotilde gasped and cried out in pain. Then he placed the medallion on top of the spreading blood stain and pressed gently.
 
 The gem stopped glowing, and then its bright red color began to turn darker. Color returned to Clotilde’s cheeks as it faded from the gem, and she breathed more steadily. She brushed Gelearde’s hand aside and pressed the medallion against the wound herself. It would take all the of the jewel’s magic to heal her back from the brink of death. When the gem finally turned completely black it crumbled into a pile of obsidian sand. Gelearde gently pulled the medallion away. There was no trace of a wound under her bloodstained tunic. He turned the medallion over and noticed a symbol embossed on the back. He recognized it from the crypt on Utoa. It was Sendatur’s family crest.
 
 
 
 That night they stayed in a suite at the palace as Neguan’s guest. Gelearde slipped out the next morning while Clotilde and Galwyn still slept. He made his way down to the royal library, and was surprised to find Neguan sitting in the corridor by the great door, cradling the sword Retaliator across his knees.
 
“I thought you might come, Master Gelearde,” the soldier said. He looked down at the sword in his lap. “I can find no mention of it in any of the texts.
 
“I’m not surprised,” the scholar answered. “I think it may be very old, from the ancient empire even. May I examine it?”
 
The soldier stood up and backed up a step, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
 
“I don’t need to touch it, just look at it”, Gelearde reassured him, his eyebrow raised.
 
Neguan slowly held the sword out, point down, clutching the hilt with both hands. The older man took out his small crystal ball and held it to his eye. He leaned forward and made an act of closely examining the sword, looking slowly up and down the length of the blade.
 
“It is a fine sword,” he declared, straightening up. “Those worn runes at the hilt merely spell its name in the old continental scrit. They must have been covered by the blackness before. And the scrollwork is also from another age. Retaliator is ancient. Well, may I enter the library?”
Clotilde and Galwyn were still asleep at noon. The smiling courtier from the throne room swept into the suite to greet them with a flourish, the left again to summon a troop from the kitchen to bring them a sumptuous lunch.
 
 Galwyn set down his spoon and adjusted the bandage around his head. “I still don’t understand how Sendatur fit into this whole thing.”
 
 “Neguan filled in details while you were still sleeping,” Gelearde replied. “Everyone at court remembered that Vortryx had an older brother, but the story was that he disappeared on a hunting trip when they were both young men and was never found. My guess is that Vortryx murdered him to put himself in line for the throne. Then when their father died soon after that, Vortryx was crowned king.”
 
 “Bet that Vortryx murdered his father, too.” Clotilde added.
 
 “Yes, it’s interesting that all this transpired soon after Vortryx returned from his education abroad.”
 
“He was a rotten one, that one was!” she interjected. “You don’t learn murder and poison and disguise just anywhere! He fell in with an assassin’s guild somewhere on his journey!”
 
 “I believe you’re right, Clo. More partridge?”
 
 “But what about Sendatur?” Galwyn reminded him.
 
 “Oh, yes. Well, that medallion was no Vortryx family heirloom. He lied about that. It belonged to Sendatur’s family. That gem held great healing magic, and Vortryx wanted it to prolong his miserable life. I think Sendatur was a bit of a wizard.”
 
 Galwyn thought about that for a moment. “So Sendatur made those medallions.” 
Clotilde shook her head, and swallowed some partridge.
 
“Uh-uh. Much too old. Those were made centuries ago, by an ancestor, no doubt. But he would have known what they are and how to use them.” 
 
“Yes, I believe that Sendatur suspected Vortryx of everything: the murder of his brother, the likely murder of the old king, and his desire to possess that medallion. I further speculate that he used his skills to locate and conceal Tryvor’s body.”
 
 Galwyn shook his head again. “But then how was the sword involved in all this?”
 
 “Ah, that’s where Neguan helped me the most. He gave me access to the palace library. There were some journals written by courtiers there, including one from Sendatur himself, from when the previous king was still alive. You see, it was known that Tryvor had a magic sword, an artifact from well before the Season of Chaos. But he made no mention of it being a purposed sword. It was simply an artifact of great martial prowess, befitting of a crown prince. That suggests to me that Vortryx didn’t know its true nature either, and so didn’t bother with it.” 
 
“But Sendatur would have found out about the sword, though, wouldn’t he?” Clotilde thought out loud. “When he found the body, the sword would’ve rejected him! Not suitable, not a swordsman.”
 
 “Yes!” Gelearde agreed. “Then Sendatur could have made sure that no one handled the body who the sword would want to possess. Himself, or anyone not skilled with a sword.”  He turned back to his nephew. “It seems that Sendatur interred Tryvor’s body in his family crypt on Utoa as a trap for Vortryx, and to guard the second medallion. This must have happened after Vortryx stole the first medallion. He knew that his own days were likely numbered. And they were. Vortryx poisoned Sendatur, after all.”
 
“He knew?” Galwyn looked puzzled.
 
 “Sendatur knew that Vortryx would come looking for the second medallion, sooner or later.” Clotilde explained. “Vortryx probably thought the medallion would last forever. What did he know about magic? But it started to wear out.”
 
 “The burden of keeping Vortryx young gradually drained the gem. He used it for almost a century, progressively making himself look older with his assassin’s disguise skills, while staying young, thanks to the medallion. That’s why the gem was already dark when we first saw him. When he finally realized what was happening he knew he had to have the second medallion to keep living agelessly, at least for another century or so.”
 
 “So now Retaliator is just a normal non-magical sword?” Galwyn seemed disappointed.
 
 “Oh, no! It’s still magic. I detected that when I was with Neguan this morning.”
 
 “Then what will happen to it?”
 
 “Retaliator will serve Neguan from now on.  After all, it was he who dealt the deathblow to Vortryx. And if Neguan is ever murdered, the blade will turn black again, and Retaliator will not rest until Neguan’s death is avenged.”
 
 “Well, isn’t that just wonderful!” Galwyn said sarcastically.
 
 “What’s wrong, nephew? I thought you wanted to be rid of that sword.”
 
 “I thought I did, but it was great sword. It almost cut Neguan in two! When will I ever get the chance to have a sword like that again?
 
 Clotilde clucked her tongue and cuffed Galwyn on the shoulder.  “I liked you better when you were possessed!” 




©November, 2016 Edward H. Parks


Edward H. Parks writes both science fiction and fantasy. His has appeared in Interstellar FictionPerihelion, and one of the Third Flatiron Publishing anthologies.]]>