Authors: Craig R. Saunders
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery
The Fat Monk Inn was wide and low and steeped in shadow, day or night. Once, it had been a barn - the rafters had been packed with hay and tools. On the outskirts of the city of Naeth, it now served wayfarers, merchants...mercenaries. Warriors, maybe. Dark men with dark characters, rubbing shoulders with farmers or rubes, fresh from the fertile fields come to trade their stock and wares or to lose their shirts in games of Royal Houses, or scoop cad. There were plenty of dangerous men in the Fat Monk, too. They bore long blades and their eyes were narrow and sharp. In short, men like Shorn, and Bourninund and Wen Gossar.
Once, maybe, any one of the three fighters would have found cause to fight, to draw blood...to kill, even, on nothing more than a whim. But no more.
The three men sat quietly and unmolested in a corner near a small hearth with a dying fire. There was a large, round central hearth where most of the customers would sit. A large fire that would heat the room and light up unruly faces.
This fire was for the kettles, the pots. For warming the bread.
In the morning, it would be stoked, water would be boiled and bread warmed. Now it was low, the light sparse, the warmth more than enough for men accustomed to sleeping in makeshift shelters in rain or snow.
At this time of night (on the cusp of morning, in truth), most patrons had already moved along, or taken to their rooms to sleep. Wen, for his part, snored softly, sound asleep on a hard bench with his back to the wall. His fabled sword the Cruor Bract, once worth a pretty fortune when the blade had been sharp with rubies, peered from his shoulder. Just a sword, now, but a damn heavy one with the strongest of the three still alive to wield it.
Wen still held a mug of dark Sturman ale in one thick fist. With his dark skin, his bald pate, his utter stillness, he could have been mistaken for a shadow. But for the snoring, and the immense sword on his back. A dangerous kind of shadow, then. The kind that fights back.
Grey-haired and thick of beard, Bourninund was younger than Wen, though he looked older by far. He stared at the embers of the fire. Occasionally, he lifted his own mug to his lips, took a drink, wiped his lips and moustaches on his sleeve, then simply returned to watching the glowing logs in the grate, like it was the most interesting thing in the whole tavern.
Perhaps it was.
Shorn, the younger of the three dangerous men, was done drinking for the night. His own sword was at his back. On his arm he wore a shining steel brace, flared and sharp - the work of a master smith, and the only reason he was still able to wield his own heavy sword with two hands.
Once, he'd been fearless. Unstoppable.
Shorn snorted at the thought. Bourninund grunted, but was too tired or too drunk to involve himself in Shorn's thoughts this evening.
Shorn was a man with a warrior's soul. A man who knew himself like no other.
Or at least, I thought I did...
His bones and sinews remembered the hundreds of battles all too well. The cold and damp, the poor rations. The campaigns, the wars. Sleeping in blood-soaked fields, or passed out in a thicket on the way to the next battle...always, he'd known where to go. Someone had always pointed, and he had gone. His life had been simple enough. He was a soldier, never a leader.
So, now Renir and Drun were thick as thieves, lording it up in the castle that towered over the city. The castle, a bloated giant, looking down on the rest of them. Maybe Renir and Drun, too.
Shorn shook his head.
I'm just drunk...low and drunk...they want the lead, let them. I'm a soldier, right?
He was waiting. He knew how to wait. A soldier was, perhaps, better at waiting that fighting, even.
So what was the problem?
Exactly, Shorn...what is the problem?
He was waiting. He had his orders...
Because we're friends, damn it. Friends. Friends don't treat each other like...soldiers.
Shorn snorted again and this time he did take a drink. A long drink. He'd thought he was done for the night. Already his head swam with drink and dark thoughts, but drunk was better than sober when you couldn't think straight. And he couldn't think straight because there were too many damn thoughts, all jostling within his head. The head of a soldier, and he knew this. And yet, was he a simple soldier now?
They'd battled the Draymar barbarians and lived. Forged friendships that he thought even death could no longer break. They'd grown, learned, travelled, drunk together.
Met the Seafarers and won passage...met his son! Shorn shook his head, once again. That he should have a son...Poul.
He knew he would never see the boy again, but he'd made a mark, hadn't he?
Could it all be for nought? Nothing more left for him of note but to be fodder on a Protocrat's blade when the end, finally, came?
His hand was shaking now and he tried to steady himself to take another gulp of the heavy ale people drank in this city. His hand was shaking, he knew, because he was angry. He didn't want to be angry.
Bad things happened when he became angry.
With all the force of his will, Shorn steadied his hand and finished his drink. But his mind wouldn't still, no matter how much he tried to drown it.
It wasn't the friendship...it wasn't...
He was struggling, now, to get his thoughts to go in a straight line.
'Not the friendship...'
Bourninund didn't seem to hear him.
Not just that...they'd...what? They'd fought their way to the end of the world, even! To the frozen wastes of Teryithyr...into the heart of the volcano.
Who else in the world but they could boast such a feat?
They'd found the bloody Red Wizard, Gods help them.
Was this to be the pinnacle? Was there nothing more left for the three of them, warriors all, but to pit themselves in a final war, to die? And should they live, what would there be for men such as them? Games of Fiddler's Thirteen, drunk and dropping teeth? Sitting in their own stink, growing fat, spending what coin they had on drink and meat and women?
'No,' said Shorn, more loudly than he'd intended.
His outburst made Bourninund slop his ale onto his shirt.
'Brindle's balls, man. What's got into you? You've been maudlin ever since Renir went up to the castle. You soft on him?'
'Maudlin? I'm not maudlin, Bourninund. I'm angry. I'm bored. I'm drunk. I'm not maudlin in the slightest.'
'Could've fooled me,' said the older man. He shrugged and turned back to staring at the fire. 'Could get yourself up to the castle. If you wanted. You're not an outlaw no more, you know.'
Shorn was silent for a while. Then he smiled, the expression wicked on his deeply scarred face. The greatest scar, that which split his nose nearly in two, curved like a scimitar.
'You're right, Bourninund. You're wise, for an old man.'
'Damn right,' said Bourninund, his head nodding down onto his chest.
Shorn, too, nodded, then pushed himself up and strode quickly to the door and out into the night.
'What?' said Bourninund. Then his head fell against Wen's shoulder and the two of them snored happily in the warmth of the fire and the ale.
Once outside the Fat Monk, Shorn stood breathing the damp, chill air of the Naeth night. Drizzle came down, waking him from his anger and his drunken depression. He sensed something in that sudden moment of clarity, despite the fog of drink and the dim light.
His hand, his good right hand, was instantly on his sword. Shorn was drunk, yes, but his life was violence. Drunk, but still fast. His hand to sword, sword from scabbard...as fast, if not faster, than a man could think the action.
But this night, not fast enough.
A thud, dull, and a clatter of steel. He looked to his right hand, where his sword should be held. Looked for the blur of his great sword named Faerblane, in what should have been a glittering arc through the dimly-lit sky.
The sword was not in his hand, but on the stones beside his feet. His right hand was not moving as it should, but falling, like it had died.
And it had.
He stared down at the source of the sudden pain coursing through him and saw fat, black feathers at the end of an arrow shaft, jutting from his chest.
Struck my spine,
Crippled...on the right...
Blood feels...dirty. Still standing. Not for long. Poisoned. Crippled.
Get the poison out...live...call out...get...
'Oh,' he managed, then toppled forward with a thud against the cobbles of the city streets. The arrow pushed through so that the poisoned head pointed upward to the sky, but the archer was thorough and perfect. The barbed steel head and the shaft both were coated in poison.
The archer was the best there ever was. The best there ever would be. The archer's name was Guryon, the Planes' Assassin. He was not one soul, but many. The souls of all the assassins that ever lived, with one dread purpose their only reason for existing.
As the first rays of the new day broke the horizon, the Planes' Assassin went from one spot to the next instantly. It pulled the broken mercenary from the bloody cobbles, and vanished, taking Shorn with it.
Not matter what he'd done, Shorn would have been too late.
Naeth Castle stood atop a slight hill that brought its foundations higher than most other buildings in the city, and its towers to what seemed dizzying heights from below.
In a long, cold hallway of the castle, torches sputtered in the damp air. Wind whistled and rain dripped for the lintels above the high windows. The castle was old, the city's heyday centuries gone. It was a relic, a crumbling edifice from days past. More, perhaps, a monument to the memory of greatness than greatness itself.
Daylight might have broken, but for most, it was still night. Only when Rythe's largest sun, Carious, fully broke the curve of the world would most wake. The night was for brawlers and thieves, for drunkards and wicked men. The day for merchants and hawkers and Lords and Ladies alike.
One such lady slept, still. A lady who knew both worlds, the light and the dark. Outside her chamber, she was guarded. But few were guarded within their own minds, or from their own memories.
Cenphalph Cas Diem sat with legs crossed to one side of the lady's heavy wooden door. His long, straight sword was unsheathed on the floor beside his right hand. Though his eyes were shut he was not sleeping, but guarding, and maybe wishing he had power like Drun Sard, his friend and, perhaps, his conscience. Then, perhaps, he would have been able to give the Lady A'm Dralorn succour from her darkening dreams. Her tortures, both sleeping and waking, were more apparent than ever. She would hardly leave her rooms, merely picked at whatever food came to her. She was uncomfortably thin, now. Her face was drawn, her black eyes now black underneath and above, too.
But he was no mage, no priest. A warrior only. He could not heal her, no matter what he wished.
So he sat, legs crossed, sword upon the stone floor. Ordinary guards most often stood, for the simple reason that guarding was boring work...and boring work sends people to sleep.
Cenphalph was in no danger of falling asleep. He was more than ordinary. He was Sard. One of the remaining members of the ancient order, invested with speed, endurance, talent with the blade. A smart man, maybe, but not particularly educated in words or arts...smart in the ways of battle. A good man to have sitting beside your door should you be heart sick, suffering...and in danger, yes, though not, perhaps, the one that Tirielle A'm Dralorn would have chosen.
But then j'ark is dead, isn't he? She's stuck with me.
Cenphalph almost groaned right along with Tirielle the next time she cried out. Her anguish, even through her sleep and the thick door and the whistling winds, was plain. It hurt Cenphalph to hear it.
He was not immune to the pain she felt. She'd lost a lover she didn't know she had. Cenphalph had lost a brother. j'ark, perhaps the greatest swordsman among them, had died so that they could succeed in their task.
Had he been the best of them?
Now they were fewer, still. His brothers Yuthran and Briskle, Unthor, j'ark...
How long until we are all dust?
Cenphalph opened his eyes and sighed. He tried to keep his soul still, to meditate on the loss of his brothers, but his heart was...confused...no matter how he tried to still it. He knew what he needed. Action. A purpose. A renewing of the battle that had led him here to this distant land, this Sturma.
Waiting was hard, and dull.
Tirielle cried out in her sleep again and he shook his head, took his sword and pushed himself to his feet. He needed to do something...to act.
The hall was too narrow to practise his forms with the longsword. His remaining brothers would be at rest in their quarters, battling their own demons in their sleep. Up above him, he could feel Quintal and Drun, still waking. No doubt discussing their next step, their next move.
But he could feel something else, too. Something he'd felt already, and more closely than he'd like. A source of great power. Nearing.
For a time it had gone away, and he'd been glad.
Now it was coming back, and he wasn't sure he liked what that would herald. Yes, he wanted action...but the kind of action that he understood.
But this creature, this thing called Caeus that he felt in his blood...he was beyond mortal understanding. He was not mortal. Far from it. Caeus was closer to their enemy's kin than their own.
And yet they would do his bidding? Now, at the end of days?
The pull of the creature's power made Cenphalph's whole body irritable. Behind the door, Tirielle felt it, too. Her groaning became more panicked, more urgent.
There was no doubt. The Red Wizard returned.