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‘Riders approaching,’ proclaimed Berran, his voice cutting through the wind. ‘Too many to be Wulhard’s lot.’
Hal’s eyes scanned the valley below where a thick mist was setting. He soon spotted blurred movement along the serpentine pass to the south swiftly winding round toward the encampment. Their commanding officer, Markus, had chosen the spot with care; the tall moss-laden stones upon the rise shrouding the many tents scattered behind from the road.
‘Who else could be out there?’ asked Hal.
Berran shrugged, ‘whoever it is, they must be out of their damned minds with the all the svinari roaming around.’
Hal cared little how mad they might be. More men meant more blades, and less chance of being ripped apart by those bastard pigs. Twice the beasts had ambushed them along the pass; Hal’s company suffering heavy losses as a result. Nobody had expected to encounter svinari so far north of the grey lands, and Hal feared what this could mean for the surrounding settlements of Bhanburg.
‘I think somebody should inform the commander of the arrivals, eh?’ said Berran, the tilt of his head indicating he thought that somebody should be Hal.
‘Aye, I’ll see to it,’ grumbled Hal. ‘You just remember to scream loudly should they kill you before we return.’
Berran pulled his usual smirk, still able to maintain his jovial nature despite the situation. Hal was entirely bereft of his. ‘Why, of course. What kind of sentry do you take me for?’
‘What kind indeed.’
Hal turned and began making his way towards the large circle of stones where Markus’ tent awaited. The night air was chill, the accompanying breeze forcing him to wipe tears from his eyes. He caught faces looking up from the dark as he darted through the encampment, heard the soft murmuring of their fearful voices.
‘Has Wulhard returned?’
‘Do the svinari come?’
‘Ah hell, here we go…’
As though somehow privy to the news, Markus had appeared from his tent already fussing with the scabbard around his thick waist. The grizzled soldier’s beard appeared silver in the moonlight and he smelt as if he had been drinking.
‘Have something for me, lad?’ asked Markus, his round bloodshot eyes regarding Hal intently.
‘Aye, riders fast approaching, sir. Not our own.’
The old man frowned at the news, ‘still no sign of Wulhard?’
‘No. Luckily no sign of svinari either.’ The mere mention of the beasts sent a shudder through Hal.
‘Let’s not consider ourselves fortunate just yet. Plenty of mean bastards out here without a pair of hind legs.’ Markus ducked back into his tent and returned with a lit torch. ‘Come, let’s go greet our guests.’
Several of the surrounding men rose to their feet and followed behind as Markus headed towards the camps edge. Clinks of breastplates being adjusted, and helmets being tightened resounded through Hal’s ears. They found Berran peering out beyond the last wall of rock with his sword already drawn, his usually pale complexion noticeably paler still. The commander clasped a reassuring arm on the blonde youth.
‘Easy, lad. We don’t want to cause any unnecessary theatrics.’ Markus stepped just ahead of the rock formation, calm as you like, waiting for the approaching horseman. ‘Who goes there?’ he bellowed.
Several figures emerged from the dark, riders atop pale geldings barely recognisable through the murk. A burly shape slowly dismounted, followed by others several paces behind. Hal had yet to discern their numbers, but he guessed there was a good score or more.
Fast losing his patience, Markus yelled once more, ‘I said, who goes—’
‘Whilst we are glad to find company in such bleak surroundings, I would ask you to please lower your voice. There’s all manner of creatures lurking this night.’ The iron voice calling back was not menacing, but the confidence it carried brought the hairs on Hal’s neck standing on end.
‘Aye, and what manner of creature are you?’ Markus demanded.
‘The kind you want at your side, old friend.’
‘Friend?’ Markus raised the torch higher to get a better look. The newcomers slowly stepped into the light, the first being a tall warrior with thick white furs draped over his shoulders. Dark hair fluttered in the breeze across his worn bearded face, but Hal could make out his smile easy enough. ‘Rastagr! By the devils, is that you?’
Hal heard gasps of surprise from the men standing behind him.
‘The Damned himself, come to our aid.’
‘I thought he’d be bigger?’
Markus and the newcomer embraced, patting each other heavily on the back.
‘How does an old goat like you stay alive this long?’ asked Rastagr.
‘Ask me again in the morning.’ replied Markus, before pulling back. ‘What in the depths are you doing out here?’
‘We’ve been tracking a horde all the way from Arnos. We found some corpses at the foot of the pass. Your men?’
Markus spat on the ground, ‘Aye. Lost some goodn’s today, Rast, it bloody pains me. Have a few more of them out there now scouting ahead for us, looking for signs of Petric’s company.’
‘Petric? The little Gravian lordling?’ Rastagr scoffed.
‘Aye, the very same. He’s currently leading a sizable force to Meinhor. We were due to caravan with them before we were waylaid.’
Rastagr gazed back at the pass beyond them, ‘So, we’re holding for reinforcements?’
‘Better than riding blind, no?’
‘Aye, but it’s risky,’ added Rastagr, a grave look in his eyes. ‘Be warned, Markus, this is no ordinary horde we face. We should talk alone.’
‘Aye, we’ll talk. In the meantime, we’ve got some grub on the go, your lads must be starved?’
Rastagr smiled brightly, his hard eyes softening. ‘And I suppose you’ve some ale too?’
‘More ale than men, you’ll find.’
Rastagr looked over his shoulder, ‘See. I told you lot it was worth the journey, didn’t I?’
A few chuckles filled the air as the rest of Rastagr’s party made their way forward. A grim looking woman with a heavily scarred face was the first to enter, leading her horse by the reigns. She was introduced as Black Marta. Hal had never heard of her before, though Berran appeared absolutely thrilled as Marta barged past him, half knocking the fool on his arse. An impossibly tall man was next to step into the ring of stones, his shield near enough the size of Hal itself. His big bald head may have been reflecting the moon, but Hal was certain nobody would be telling him that.
‘Who’s the giant?’ asked Markus.
Rastagr swung his thumb toward the big lump, ‘This here is Fragile.’
Markus barked laughter at that, ‘Fragile, eh? He don’t look much fragile to me!’
Rastagr tipped forward onto his toes, reminiscent of a merchant overselling his goods. ‘On account of his temper, you see. It don’t take much to make Fragile here angry. But when he’s angry, well…’ he followed with a low whistling sound.
Markus scratched his chin, grinning. ‘Aye, I hear you,’ and he slapped the big man on the arm as he passed by. ‘Good to have you here, lad. Good to have you all. Come, if we’re going to die tonight, we’d best have a drink.’
‘So, what happened next?’ slurred Berran, his mouth hanging dumbly open with anticipation.
All eyes were on Black Marta as she regaled the group with another of her bloody tales. She was perched upon a rock, her hands dangling loose over a spear laid across her lap. Hal had to admit, despite her looking about as welcoming as a mace to the head, she certainly knew how to keep you engaged. On another night, and in a much different locale, Hal thought he might even have been enjoying himself. Marta leant back on her rock, a thin smile slowly spreading across her gaunt face.
‘If I remember correctly, by around the fifth stomp the bastard shit himself!’ she chortled.
The group roared with appreciation, Fragile’s big hand coming down on Hal’s shoulder with enough force to near enough send him to the dirt. The big man then pulled him close, the beer upon his beard dampening Hal’s face.
‘She ain’t lying,’ yelled Fragile, right into Hal’s ear. ‘I carried the poor sod out to the barn to sleep it off. Never smelt anything like it.’ And he raised his tankard towards her, another wave of laughter spreading throughout the camp.
Hal was growing weary of feigning enthusiasm and he looked desperately around camp for anything to provide him with an opportunity to excuse himself. He spotted Rastagr kneeling at the edge of camp, his palms on the ground, fingers spread out in the dirt. Hal nudged his elbow into Fragile’s ribs, nodding in the direction of Rastagr.
‘What’s he doing?’
Fragile’s smile faltered as he cleared his throat. ‘Rast is searching, by the looks of it.’
‘Searching?’ Hal asked. ‘Searching for what?’
‘If I had to hazard a guess, little man, I’d say he’s searching for a way out of our impending demise. He’s got the gift, our Rast. Or curse, depending on who you ask.’
Hal’s eyes went wide, ‘So it’s true? Rastagr can see the future?’
‘Not so much as that from how he describes it. More in the fashion of glimpses and feelings surrounding certain events.’
Hal’s mind was reeling from the weight of questions pouring forth. ‘Did he ever tell you your fate, Fragile?’
‘I never asked him,’ the big man answered, between long slurps of his beverage. ‘I don’t tend to respond well to bad news; hence the name.’ Fragile’s heavy fingers scratched at his bald pate whilst eyeing the Damned from afar, ‘I can’t tell you why he ever chose me for company. My reputation’s no less stained than Marta’s. But fighting alongside Rast has given me a lot in life. If I ever get the chance to alter his own fate, I’d still consider it a debt only half paid.’
Rastagr slowly rose to his feet, puffing out his cheeks. He turned wearily toward the company and made his way over to stop beside Markus as silence befell the group.
‘Make a fire, men. We’re going to need the light soon enough.’
‘A fire?’ exclaimed Markus.
‘Aye. The enemy knows we’re here, Markus, but our only chance of salvation does not. You’ve all been as loud as dying mules out here. What difference will a little fire make now?’
A guilty silence flitted between the group before Markus barked the order.
‘Right, you heard the man. Let’s get a bloody fire going, I’m freezing my tits off.’
As the commotion began, Berran came stumbling towards the commander with a most dire expression.
‘What is it, Lad? Have the blasted svinari come?’
‘No, sir. We’re down to our last keg of ale.’
Markus sighed deeply. ‘Well, now that is grave news.’
Hal stood holding his hands out toward the fire, the cold threatening to creep into every crevice along his body. Berran was supposed to be keeping watch too, but the fool had managed to drink himself asleep whilst trying to keep up with the newcomers.
‘Quite the entertaining lot, your friends.’ It was Rastagr. Somehow, he’d snuck up on Hal without the slightest sound.
‘Aye, likewise. Your arrival certainly helped lift our spirits somewhat.’
Rastagr stood across from him, his hands coming out to join Hal’s over the flames. He remained gazing at the youth, the intensity of his expression accentuated by the shadows cast. ‘It makes a nice change. I’m far more accustomed to cold glares and ill feeling upon my arrival, truth be told. Much like how you’re looking at me now in fact.’
‘Well, they do say where the Damned goes blood tends to follow.’ Hal had said the words without thinking, wincing at the sound of them.
He caught a flicker of a sad smile at Rastagr’s mouth, the warrior’s eyes drifting toward the fire, ‘the Damned…’ he whispered slowly. ‘Have you any idea why they call me that, boy?’
‘Because you know the moment you’re going to die. Seen it, they say.’
‘Aye, I’ve seen it, and a lot more besides. I’ve seen more death than any man in Bhanburg, I’d wager.’
Hal was fighting the urge to ask the very question he’d been mulling over since his earlier conversation with Fragile. A senseless battle he decided, considering the circumstances. ‘Was it tonight, Rastagr? Are we all going to die here on this bastard rock?’
‘Some of us.’
Hal swallowed. ‘Then why come here?’
‘Because certain people would perish if I didn’t. Those that are needed for what is to come. Great men that can help us restore things to how they once were.’ Rastagr paused, presumably worried his point was being lost on Hal. It was. ‘Long before you and I were born this kingdom was thriving, a stark contrast to the pitiful wasteland it’s become.’
‘Aye, I know of the stories. But we have peace now, Rastagr. The four kingdoms are one! We haven’t had a war amongst ourselves for generations.’
‘Aye, we’re one. Though it’s Bhanburg that continues to bleed whilst the rest of the kingdoms are kept safe from the horrors to the south. And what do those perfumed bastards in Amarron do but sit idle whilst we suffer? They’re all too busy enjoying the sanctuary that’s paid for with Burg’n blood, I reckon.’
Hal hadn’t thought of it that way, though it was hard to argue the point. An awkward silence followed, though it was clear Rastagr was not done talking.
‘What is your name?’ he asked, finally.
‘Haleck, though everyone knows me as Hal.’
‘Alright then, Hal. Listen, soon this Wulhard will be returning and he won’t be coming alone. Best you ready yourself, boy. When the time comes, do your duty and make sure to keep Markus safe. He’s a good man, as are you.’
‘A good man, am I?’ Hal answered through jittered teeth, ‘I’m nothing but a bloody coward, Rastagr, terrified of my own shadow.’
Rastagr cocked a brow, ‘Is that so? Then why have you not attempted to run? A true coward would have fled long before now.’
Hal looked to the ground, a meek laugh escaping him. He soon felt his eyes begin to fill with tears at the corners. ‘Perhaps I’m too afraid to…’
An audible breeze swept through the camp, ruffling many of the tents scattered around the base of a slight incline behind the stones.
‘I think you’re too hard on yourself, boy. We’re all of us afraid, make no mistake. But I have a good feeling about you. I know the heroes when I see them.’
Hal snorted, ‘my father used to say it’s the cowards that survive whilst the heroes die crawling beside each other in filth.’
Rastagr stretched his neck, ‘no offence, but your father sounds like a fucking idiot.’
Much to his surprise, Hal had laughed at that. He quickly wiped the tears from his face before looking the Damned in the eye. ‘Still, he’s lived longer than any man in this company.’
Rastagr placed a hand across Hal’s shoulder, giving it a tight squeeze. ‘We all fall eventually, Hal. It’s what we drag with us to that destination which proves our worth. I know that when the time comes, I’ll be able to count on you.’
It took Hal a moment to collect himself, but by the time he’d managed, Rastagr was gone, disappearing into the dark once more. He turned slowly back to the fire, his mind trying to make sense of what the Damned had said to him.
What had started as a faint rumbling of hooves along the pass had steadily built into a crescendo that mirrored Hal’s increasing anxiety. Wulhard lead his squad back toward the camp with haste, his pocked face straining against the elements, his urgency setting gooseflesh along Hal’s arms.
‘Make fucking way,’ cried Wulhard, riding straight into the centre of the stones and not giving a damn for any fool not heeding his words. Five men followed, each as haggard as Wulhard himself. ‘Markus! Markus, where are you?’
The old man scrambled out from his tent and fast approached, the entire company getting to their feet. ‘By the makers, Wulhard, we began to expect the worst.’
‘The worst is coming, Markus,’ Wulhard replied, dismounting his steed. ‘Svinari are right up our arses, more than we could count.’
‘And you just lead them straight to us?’ a voice called out.
‘What were we to do?’ Wulhard retorted. ‘They’d only have swarmed this position eventually.’
‘Aye, he’s right,’ said Rastagr, stepping out from the steadily increasing crowd, Marta and Fragile flanking him on either side. ‘Better you all know what’s coming.’
Markus spat onto the ground cursing. He turned toward Rastagr, ‘Is Swift-Feet with them?’
The Damned nodded a reply, ‘The big one too, Rip-Neck.’
‘Those fucking things have names?’ Wulhard spat.
‘Aye, friend. They’re full of a great many surprises you’ll find.’
Wulhard stepped before Rastagr, his face twisted with anger. ‘Appreciate the education, friend, but we’re all pretty aware of that or we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this fucking predicament to begin with!’
A low growl came from somewhere deep in Fragile’s throat. ‘Do you want me to crush this little worm for you, Rast?’
‘No, no, big man. Plenty of fight on its way as it is. Our friend here is understandably distressed is all, no harm done.’
Markus pulled Wulhard back, a concerned expression upon his countenance. ‘Are you in fighting shape?’
‘Aye, but I’ll need a weapon. Lost my axe in one of them little fucker’s skulls.’
Markus smiled. ‘Good, let’s hope you gave them something to think on then, eh?’ Though judging by Wulhard’s expression, Hal doubted it had done anything other than make the svinari more determined to tear them apart. ‘Any sign of Petric out there?’
Wulhard shook his head, looking uncomfortable on his feet, ‘I’m sorry, Markus. I failed you all.’
‘Nonsense, lad,’ and Markus slapped a blade into Wulhard’s grip before raising his voice, ‘Form perimeters. I want every gap between those stones filled with polearms. Archers on the rise. And all of you keep your blades loose, things are about to get bloody.’
Rastagr slipped an exceptionally large flail into the grip of one hand and held a spiked shield in the other. He certainly looked the warrior of legend at that moment, yet Hal found himself no less worried for it.
‘Where will your men be, Rast?’ asked Markus.
‘Where we’re supposed to be.’
The answer appeared good enough for Markus who remained centre of the camp, drawing his longsword.
The large fire at Hal’s back cracked against the furious wind, carrying with it sounds that threatened to undo his resolve.
The abyss before them was abode with fiends, their echoes and howls spreading along each side of the rise. Heads turned at all angles gazing into the pitch, each man feeling his impending doom breathing at his neck.
Black Marta twisted the blunt end of her spear into the ground, what was left of her brow rising as Rastagr sprung onto a large stone to stand above the men. ‘Do I sense another of your fine speeches?’
‘Nothing you haven’t heard before, I fear,’ replied Rastagr, the corners of his lips raised.
Marta shrugged her shoulders, ‘still… might be the last time I ever get to hear it.’
Wasting no more time, Rastagr roared at the top of his lungs, his rumbling voice reverberating along the unseen valley below. ‘I am Rastagr, the Damned! Fates chosen! Fates champion! I have seen my death, and it is not today!’ He raised his arm, letting the heavy flail hang loose from his grip, the spiked steel dangling freely in the breeze. ‘Come! Let the Breaker of Worlds taste your flesh. Come! Come and meet your destiny!’
A deep silence followed, so deep in fact that Hal felt himself drawn towards it. Then the pass became alive with a deafening din, inhuman shrieks, defiant, fearsome, pierced Hal’s skull with their intensity.
Markus guffawed at the response, ‘Well, lad, you certainly got the little bastards riled up. Now, let’s piss them off some more, shall we?’ And the old man screamed himself, as did all the men, Hal included, if only to blanket out the mad cries of the svinari for a moment.
Hal’s eyes met Berran’s who smiled thinly at him. Hal nodded to his comrade and gripped his sword tighter. If he was going to die, he’d meet the makers like a man, standing and fighting alongside his brothers.
A barbed spear, black as midnight, appeared through the chest of a nearby archer. The dying man yelped, letting loose his arrow before collapsing into a twisted heap. More projectiles followed, some clanging off shield and stone, others piercing flesh.
A sea of twisted shapes emerged from the dark. The svinari broke upon the shield wall, spilling into any available gap whilst arrows reigned down from above. Many of the beasts fell screeching, shafts protruding from their thick hides, spears splintering under the weight of their oncoming waves.
One had made it through the breach, darting towards Hal with its snarling teeth bared, thick black bristles of hair running along its elongated neck. The svinari raised a crude wooden haft, an axe-blade of jagged stone swung up with murderous intent. Hal realised his own blade was still at his side and he quickly brought it up to meet his attacker.
Blood sprayed Hal’s face as Rastagr’s flail cracked into the creature’s skull, sending its corpse flinging away. With Rastagr’s back now turned, Hal caught a glimpse of a svinari seizing the opportunity to leap from atop a high stone, axe raised over its head.
‘Behind you!’ Hal cried.
Black Marta’s spear caught the pig mid-flight, plunging deep into its gut. The beasts own weight tore itself apart as it fell toward the dirt. More of the svinari came now, swarming over the stones and forcing the defenders back. The air was scented with iron, black ichor spraying under the moonlight, snuffing out the little of the ground still visible thanks to the fire.
‘By the makers, this is fantastic!’ yelled Fragile. Hal saw the big man sweep a svinari from its feet using his shield, his axe taking the beasts arm clean off at the elbow.
Berran was busy struggling with another, his shield keeping its snapping jaws away from his throat. Hal reached them quickly and hacked his blade along the creatures back, sending it to the ground.
‘There’s no end to them, Hal,’ breathed Berran. ‘Look!’
And he did, turned just in time to see the shield wall smashed, soldiers flung far back through the air as a giant monstrosity appeared, far bigger than any other svinari Hal had ever seen. It leant back on its hind legs and roared, a single horn above its nose streaked with gore. Wulhard charged the new threat, bringing his bloodied sword down, but the fiend was deceptively quick for its size and caught his arm. Wulhard was lifted from his feet screaming before the giant sank its teeth deep into his neck, ripping Wulhard’s head off and throwing the remains away like a child tossing an unwanted toy.
‘Damned!’ the creature bawled, its thundering voice stopping Hal’s breath dead inside his throat.
‘The bastard thing spoke!’ croaked Berran.
‘Rastagr did say they were full of surprises.’
Rastagr himself appeared from the mass on the higher ground, men parting to let him through. ‘Where is your leader, Rip-Neck?’
The creature named Rip-Neck bared its teeth before charging. Marta and Fragile stepped ahead of Rastagr and advanced cautiously to apprehend the beast. ‘We’ll deal with this fucker,’ grunted Marta, ‘you just keep Markus safe.’
Fragile met Rip-Neck first, the beast’s fist pounding his shield hard enough to send the large man sprawled onto his back. Marta’s spear lanced out stabbing deep into the creature’s thigh before it could advance and providing Fragile enough time to get to his feet.
Hal turned at his arm being tugged. Berran was pulling him toward the higher ground where Markus and the company remaining at the top were now forming a circle. Rastagar’s flail was driving the beasts back on one side, bodies littered the ground at his feet.
A spear stabbed clumsily at Markus and the old man dodged round it, his sword chopping into the attacker. ‘Come on!’ he screamed as more svinari advanced. Hal parried a blow aimed for his face and he drove his pommel crashing into the svinari’s skull, sending it staggering back into the throng.
‘Take this, boy. You’ll need it!’ shouted Rastagr, quickly shoving his spiked shield into Hal’s grasp. Hal had no time to say his thanks before Rastagr had spun on his feet, his flail sending the next pig spinning to the ground.
On and on they fought, hacking and slashing and stabbing and at every moment expecting to fall, split or ripped apart by frothing mouths. Hal’s sword-arm was caked in warm blood, his other completely numb under the constant battering of his shield.
Berran collapsed to his knees beside Hal, holding a wound to his guts. A spiked club cracked him on the back of his skull with a sickening thud. Hal screamed and thrust his sword through the killer’s mouth, the blade exiting out the back of its head. He felt Markus pull him back further, the circle growing steadily smaller.
A lithe svinari dashed forward, ducking under a wild sing before spearing the tired soldier right through. Markus had noticed the new arrival and growled before thrusting low with his blade. The svinari stepped away from the blow, its spear whipping out in return with incredible speed. Markus was too drained to stop it in time, yet somehow Hal had found the strength to bat it aside with his own blade.
Together now they advanced on the beast. Markus brought is sword arcing down though it was dodged easily enough. Hal followed by ramming the svinari with his shield, delighted by the welp it gave as the spikes tore into its flesh. The creature then spun away from the shield and Hal felt the spear enter his side and follow right through and out the other end. Markus grabbed hold of the haft, not letting the beast reclaim it and followed with a vicious swing. The svinari danced back away from the blow and sank back into the ranks of pigs behind.
A horn blasted, causing all heads to turn towards the valley, svinari included. Torches could be seen in the distance, hundreds of them heading towards the encampment. A standard could be seen floating amongst the fires, a red castle above green cliffs, Petric’s standard.
‘It’s Petric, we’re saved!’
‘Don’t let the beasts escape!’
Reluctantly, the svinari began a swift retreat, their scathing hisses filling the night air behind them as they departed. Not a single svinari remained fighting by the time Petric’s company had arrived.
Hal lowered himself against a rock wall, Markus helping to ease him down.
‘That fiend you fought was none other than Swift-Feet, leader of the blasted svinari.’
‘I can see how the name applies,’ replied Hal, shuddering as the burning pain from his wounds increased with each passing second.
‘You saved my life back there, lad. I’m thankful, truly.’ And he clasped Hal’s hand in his, folding his second around it.
Another hand squeezed his shoulder. It belonged to Rastagr who was sporting a fresh wound over his right eye. ‘I knew I could count on you to keep him safe. You done well, boy, I’m proud of you.’
‘What of the others?’ Hal asked, gazing up at the Damned.
‘Marta and Fragile managed to push that big bastard back. Got a few cuts and bruises between them but they’ll be alright.’
Footsteps approached in the dirt, cutting the discussion short and Markus drifted away to discuss strategy with Petric, releasing his grip on Hal’s bloody hands.
Rastagr lingered behind, something in his eyes troubling Hal. To what extent did Rastagr know of his fate? When tracing back the events, he guessed a lot. Orchestrated it even.
‘You knew, didn’t you?’ said Hal, the taste of iron quickly filling his mouth.
‘Aye, I knew. I always know, Hal.’
‘Then why did you not you stop it?’
Rastagr reclaimed his shield from the ground and straightened, his disposition growing cold. ‘We each have a part to play. You could not escape your fate any more than I can escape mine. Believe me, I’ve tried to alter the path many times before.’
Hal’s eyes stung and he coughed red spittle, felt it dripping down to his chin. ‘Is that true? Or did I take a wound that was destined for you?’
Rastagr turned to leave, glancing over at Hal one final time, ‘It saddens me that you revel not in your victory. You have died well, Haleck, serving your kingdom and those that would see it rise from the ashes. It is a death many would envy you for.’
Hal let his head drop to the cool stone, a strangled cackle of laughter escaping him, ‘Aye, a hero’s death… in the filth beside the others.’
Moments later he heard Rastagr join with Markus and the orders given to move at once, less the beasts might return in vast numbers. The sun would be rising shortly, so delaying served them no purpose, and removing the dead would only slow them down. Before long, Hal heard the rumbling of hooves slowly dissipate as the surviving warriors rode for Meinhor.
Hal fought one last mighty battle to turn his head, coughing more blood onto the stones as his weight shifted. He caught Berran’s dead eyes staring back at him from afar, his broken mouth twisted into a mocking smile.
He Cares Not From Whence It Comes
Aurelio sat down heavily in his old wooden chair. It was stiflingly hot under his chainmail. Sweat rolled down his cheeks and soaked into his Watch tabard. Muffled sounds of the city wandered in through his office’s tiny window, the scent of horse and human waste wafting in on the sea-salted breeze. It was almost enough to take him away from the dead body lying on his table in front of him. Almost.
“Damned Faery Fire,” grumbled Aurelio, looking down at the three tiny red crystals in his palm. “That’s the seventeenth overdose this week. Nestor, where’d you find her?”
Guardsman Nestor bobbed his head, too busy poring over the body.
The guardsman slurped up a bit of orange drool, rearranged a filthy worn scabbard, and looked at him. “Inspector?”
“Where did you find her?”
“Two blokes was goin’ through her pockets down the alley, near the tav’ in Bootmaker’s Barrow.”
“What’d you do with them?”
“The two men, Nestor.”
“I let them go. They weren’t hurtin’ nobody. She was already dead.”
Aurelio took in a deep, calming breath, and rubbed his temples to ease the growing ache behind his eyes. He took a closer look at the girl.
She was scrawny. Her ribs were long ridges under taut skin, and her stomach was hollow and drawn like a famine victim. Vacant red eyes with heavy black bruise bags under them stared at the ceiling. Yellow, cracked teeth poked out between pale, raw lips. She was probably twenty summers old, at most.
“Nestor, where are her belongings?”
“Her things. The items you found on her body.”
Doing his best to pretend his pockets weren’t lined with whatever she’d had left on her, Nestor shrugged.
Aurelio drew his forearm-length blade and placed it on his table. “Nestor.”
Nestor reddened. His eyes darted nervously around the room. Aurelio spun the blade around in a circle, the steel of the crosspiece grinding against his desk, before catching it, the point aimed at Nestor’s guts.
“Nestor. Don’t make me cut the stuff out of you.”
With a grimace the Guardsman tucked his hands into the greasy folds of his tabard and pulled out a beaten leather palm-sack of belongings.
Aurelio motioned, and Nestor dropped it on the table.
It was soft to the touch, despite its worn appearance. A small icon was burnt into it – a chalice with a laurel wreath beneath it. Aurelio’s eyes widened.
“Flip her over. Flip her over, right now.”
Nestor did as he was bid.
Aurelio sucked a breath through his teeth as he saw the chalice and laurel branded on her shoulder blade.
“Oh, Nestor, you stupid bastard,” he sighed, pulling off his black cloak and laying it over the body.
His head began to throb mercilessly in a way that no amount of temple-rubbing would relieve. Aurelio lifted his palm again, squinting at the red crystals in his hand. He caught little hints of movement within, like flames or dancers writhing ethereally. Watching them was mesmerizing, the promise of warmth and safety in their fire calling him to its bosom. All he had to do was put them in his pipe and—
“Inspector?” said Nestor, startling him. “She’s just some lass nobody gives no shit about. Why you acting like I just brung you your own kid?”
“Because it’s worse than if you brought me my own child.”
Nestor moved to speak, confusion on his ugly features. Aurelio’s chair crashed into the wall, his shout filling the room like a raging fire.
“Because that is Prince Arcaledon’s daughter. And you let her killers get away!”
* * *
Nestor hung from his skinny neck, piss drizzling down his legs and out the holes in his boots. His face was purple, his tongue swollen and lolling over his fat blue lips. His eyes were locked on Aurelio.
Aurelio looked at his boots and rubbed his temples.
“Best you keep looking, Inspector.” The voice was hard and unyielding. “Best take it in. If you don’t find the man who sold her the Faery Fire before Prince Arcaledon returns from the wars in the west, you’ll be up there next.”
Rosen was a short, hard man in his middle fifties with white hair cut short and a face as if chiselled from granite.
“I understand, Lord Protector Rosen,” said Aurelio, a little too hurriedly.
“Do you? Do you really?” sneered Rosen. “Do you truly grasp the ineptitude you have allowed to flower under your command?”
Aurelio held his tongue.
Rosen took a deep breath, grasping his hands behind his back, belly straining his rich velvet jacket’s gold buttons. He turned away from Aurelio and the grisly hangman’s stand set up on the battlement to look upon the city before the castle keep.
“From Wallshadow, to Gatesmouth, Rylen’s Bridge, up through the Singles, and all the way across to the Gold Quarter, whatever this stuff is – this Faery Fire – it’s causing havoc.”
Aurelio nodded his head, focusing on the towering battlements of the city wall and the immense gate at its centre two miles distant.
“Where is the stuff coming from?” said Rosen.
“Those that wake say it’s from the Fey.”
“The Fey?” Rosen snorted. “I credited you with more intelligence than that, inspector. Our ancestors drove the Fey into the great seas a thousand years ago. No, this is Man’s work. No other creature is so good at destroying their own.”
“As you say, lord protector,” said Aurelio.
Rosen kept staring out over the city. “What’s the count?”
“This week? Seventeen, so far, lord protector.”
“I mean, since the first case.”
“Four-hundred and thirty-two,” said Aurelio. “That’s not including the butcher’s bill of the gangs –“
“They matter not.”
Rosen favoured Aurelio with an icy stare.
“The gangs and the drug-trade are not your concern,” said the lord protector. “In fact, the other four-hundred and thirty-two citizens are none of your concern either.
“The royalty pay our wages. Arcaledon’s daughter is all that matters. Find those two men and give them to me. I’ll take care of the city and this problem, you just find me two murderers.”
Aurelio bowed. “Lord Protector, I won’t fail.”
He was waved away without further word. Aurelio took one last look at Nestor as the body swung in the wind and headed for the closest door.
“And, inspector?” Aurelio turned back to face Rosen. “Don’t be afraid to get bloody.”
* * *
The tiny room stank of sex, sweat and alcohol. Aurelio and the battlement-jawed Sergeant Carraw filled most of the space. A pot-bellied, very drunk young man on a tiny straw bed filled the rest. The door behind them shuddered with weak impacts and the shrill complaints of the working girl they’d dragged off the man and thrown out.
“Who do you think you are?” protested the youth, without much vigour. “Do you know who I am?”
“One more word out of you and I’ll slit you, ear-to-ear,” snarled Aurelio.
The youth’s mouth dropped open, sobs falling from his shaking lips.
“Sergeant, how’d you find him?”
“Was nearby – “
“I can smell the wine on your breath, sergeant. How about you just be honest with me?”
The burly sergeant licked his lips nervously before giving in. “Was at the bar, having a wine – only one, mind you, for lunch, and all, on me break – when I hears this young fella bragging to a whore about nailin’ a royal in an alley yesterday. Some bloke nearby hears what’s what, and calls him a liar. Young fella’s not impressed. They fight. One goes home with a slashed arm. This young fella comes up here with that lass what’s outside, proud as a rooster.”
Aurelio looked down at the youth. “That true?”
The youth scrabbled back and hammered into the wall, head shaking vigorously, shaking chin dripping spit and terror.
“Do you know who it was, that young woman you killed?”
The youth shook his head some more. “No! I swear!”
“So you did kill her. You just didn’t know who she was.”
“I… I didn’t…”
Squatting down, Aurelio drew his long knife and began to pick the grime from under his fingernails with it. He was right in close, taking all the venom he had in his body and working it into his face and voice with practiced ease.
Snot blew off the youth’s nose as he began to sob with renewed vigour.
“Prince Arcaledon’s daughter. Twelfth in line for the throne.”
Aurelio coughed and stood, his hand under his nose as the stink of shit filled the room.
“Oh, fer fuck’s sake,” growled Carraw.
Pulling his glare from the youth, Aurelio put a hand on Carraw’s shoulder.
“Sergeant, a word, if you will,” said Aurelio, motioning with his blade.
Carraw moved in close. “Sir?”
“This is the last time I find you drinking on duty. The last time, do you hear me?”
The big sergeant nodded, considerably abashed.
“You held the line with me when they came for us on the Red Plain. I’ll not forget that as long as I live.” Aurelio held up a hand for silence before Carraw could speak. “However, if I ever find you having a taste on crown-paid time again, you’re back on the streets brawling for coppers where I found you after the war.”
Immense shoulders stooping even further, Carraw’s face pinched and the red hue of his cheeks deepened. Aurelio peered over his shoulder. The youth stared at them, eyes still wide open and mouth working soundlessly.
“Get him his pants, sergeant,” ordered Aurelio. “I want to present him to the Lord Protector within the hour.”
Carraw balked a moment, eyeing the growing stain on the floorboards.
Aurelio leaned into the big man’s ear, his voice low. “Rough him up a bit first. For appearances. The Lord Protector did ask me spill some blood.”
The big sergeant pulled out a pouch of tabac, stuffed a pinch up each nostril, rolled his shoulders, and moved in. The first punch near took the youth’s head off, flattening his nose across his face in a spray of blood. The second punch doubled him over. Aurelio didn’t quite look away in time before Carraw slammed his boot into the youth’s dangling stem and berries.
“One more will do, sergeant,” said Aurelio.
Grabbing a fistful of hair, Carraw drew back his ham-sized knuckles to land the final blow.
The door slammed inwards.
“If that blow lands, you both die right here.”
Aurelio had his blade out in a flash and wheeled around just in time for the point of a duelling sword to come to rest between his collarbones. He met the cold, hard, soulless eyes of a killer. She had him.
With her free hand, the swordswoman pulled out a small chain and symbol from around her neck. The silver circle swung in front of Aurelio’s face.
Aurelio’s temples began to pound with a vigour he’d not managed to reach before.
She grinned, perfect white teeth at odds with her scarred and weather-beaten face. The tip of the blade was steady in her hand.
“I’m known as Shadow Six, currently under contract with the Circle Priesthood,” said the woman. “This young lord belongs to us.”
Her grin widened. “Lord Atteceo Dara Moreno; Son of the Archbishop. Future Centre of the Circle.”
* * *
Carraw’s boots stopped kicking and started swinging as his body finally gave out. Aurelio used his sleeve to wipe away the sweat dripping from his forehead. On an overhanging balcony, Atteco smiled, his red and purple bruised face holding back none of his pleasure at the big Guardsman’s death.
Atteco’s face hardened when he spied Aurelio looking at him. He spat over the balcony and limped away bow-legged. Shadow Six remained a bit longer, her gaze impassive as she watched Aurelio. She twisted a crude smile and whirled away, disappearing into the dark beyond with amazing speed.
“Just what the fuck do you think you are doing?” snarled Rosen.
The lord protector held him in a glare that could have frozen a charging bull at thirty paces. “Your incompetence is baffling. Moreno will be the Centre of the Circle within the next five years. He’ll be the father of our faith, and you allowed one of your men to beat the shit out of him.”
Aurelio felt his ire rise. “But, my lord, with all due respect, the Lord Moreno was not wearing a badge of office, nor was he with his retainers, and Sergeant Carraw heard him brag of ‘nailing a royal the day before’. It was a logical conclusion.”
Rosen’s glare intensified. He moved his face in closer to Aurelio’s. “The Lord Moreno is not your man, irrespective of what evidence you think you have.”
“But, my Lord Protector – “
“The Lord Moreno is not Princess Helen’s killer.”
Aurelio clamped his teeth down on his next argument. He took a deep breath, and continued.
“What would you have me do? You won’t let me chase the gangs or whoever is making and selling Faerie Fire. You won’t let me speak to Lord Moreno –“
“Inspector. Find another suspect.”
“The only other lead to the second suspect we had was in Nestor’s head, and you hung him. There is no other suspect.”
“Find someone else.”
“There is nobody else.”
“You can’t have him.”
“No man is above the law, lord protector. You taught me that.”
Rosen squeezed the bridge of his nose, the veins on his neck sticking out. “The church is strong. You can’t take them on, and I certainly won’t support you to do so. Forget the trade and the gangs and the drug. Just find me someone to put in front of Arcaledon when he gets back. Find me a murderer.”
“You want me to pin this on someone I know is innocent?”
Rosen’s patience snapped. “I don’t care who you pin this on. I don’t care if they are guilty as sin, or innocent as a flower. You find someone. You bring them here. You sign off on the case as fully investigated and proven. Then, when Arcaledon returns, you and I will stand here, sombre as judges as the guilty dances the rope before a distraught, but satisfied, prince.”
Aurelio sighed. His temples began to pound with renewed vigour.
“I understand, lord protector.”
“I hope you do, Inspector. If not, then I swear this city will see the first bloody-vee in four centuries – and it’ll be carved into you.”
* * *
“You’re a difficult man to find, inspector.”
Aurelio lifted his head from the table. He didn’t bother shifting his gaze above the tight-fitting black leather shirt in front of his eyes. His head hurt too much for that.
“My face is about another foot north, inspector.”
Wiping the drool from his chin and getting a noseful of his own horrendous breath, Aurelio swept his hand out to where he remembered leaving his last few coppers. The table was bare.
A mug was pushed before him, the sound of it grating over the table like somebody trying to cave his head in.
“No. No more drink.”
“That, inspector, may have been the smart decision about six hours ago. This is water.”
Aurelio sucked in a deep breath and sat up. Shadow Six sat before him. His hand grasped at air at his hip where a thick leather-bound handle should have been.
Shadow Six placed his knife on the table.
He reached for it. His nails scrabbled against the wood as she whisked it away. With a resigned sigh, Aurelio wrapped his hand around the water and took a deep draught. Clenching his stomach to hold it down as his guts tried to rebel against him, he sucked down another. The remainder went over his head.
Aurelio’s vision began to clear. Shadow Six sat, patiently waiting for him.
“Are you here to kill me?”
She smiled, like a wolf. “No.”
“I suppose that’s a relief.”
“I could, though,” she said brightly. “I could make it painless, and your nightmare of an existence could be over.”
She spoke to Aurelio as if she were offering a friend a cup of wine.
“Why, then?” asked Aurelio gruffly.
“To offer you some professional advice.”
She leaned in, close. “How long have you been putting off pointing the finger at some poor bastard for Arcaledon to hang when he gets back from the western borders?”
Aurelio rubbed his temples. “Three weeks, I think.”
Shadow Six blew out her cheeks. “Three weeks. Lord Protector Rosen must be pleased.”
“I’ve not seen him since they hung Carraw. I’m afraid -”
“Afraid? Aurelio De Rendon? Afraid?” She barked out a loud laugh. “The men that stood beside you on the Red Plain may disagree with you.”
“Ain’t many of us left,” mumbled Aurelio, inspecting his hands, annoyed at being interrupted.
The sounds of early morning drinkers and the smell of fresh wine casks being de-corked filled the silence between them. Aurelio studied her, as she no doubt studied him. She was handsome, beneath those scars, no doubt.
“What’s your real name?”
Shadow Six stood, a smirk on her face. “It should be enough for you to know that there are six of us in my team. I allow you to see me. My sisters do not.
“Finish the job. Pick someone and just do it.” She drew a few inches of her blade from its sheath. Her voice went low, almost a whisper. “Else, the next time you see this steel, it’ll be jutting from your chest.”
Before he could respond, Aurelio was alone, his knife spinning on the table before him. He reached out and took it, nearly stabbing himself in the leg as he tried to sheath the blade.
A bulky man smelling of last night’s wine moved to sit opposite him.
“Mind if I sit?”
Aurelio looked at him a moment. He was heavily bearded, scarred, four teeth in his top jaw remaining, eyes red and raw. Scars on nearly every bit of skin showing spoke of a life spent fighting. If there was a man who looked capable of violence, it was this brute.
Forcing a smile, Aurelio bade the man take a seat. “Please.”
The big man sat, his immense fist holding two mugs of ale. Aurelio fingered the crosspiece of his knife. It’d be so easy. Arrest this man, sign off on the investigation, and he could have his life back.
“I remember you,” the bearded man said, sliding a frothing mug over to Aurelio. “I knew I seen you somewhere, but wasn’t sure till that woman spoke of it. But now I remember where I knows you from.”
Aurelio’s fingers moved without his say-so, gripping his blade and beginning to draw it. The man was far bigger than he was. He’d have to be quick and brutal.
“I fought with you, captain. Third company.”
Aurelio’s hand fell to his lap with his heart, both useless pieces of him as good as dead.
“You were there?” he whispered, the taste and smell of blood coming up on him from nowhere.
The man smiled, his face warm. “Yes, sir, I was there. I seen what you did. I seen you save us all.”
A tear rolled down Aurelio’s cheek before he could stop it. He leapt up, his stool flying backwards, and stumbled from the tavern.
* * *
Aurelio wandered the dark streets of Wallshadow for hours, staring at nothing in particular, letting his feet take him where they would. People in their hundreds streamed past him. More than a few gave him a shoulder, snarling curses, but by and large he was left alone.
He openly watched a cloaked man swap a small pouch for a silver coin with an older woman who tucked it to her breast like it was a babe. There were three dead bodies in an alleyway, all the hallmarks of a Faerie Fire overdose on their wretched faces. A child, no more than six summers, sat drooling in the throes of a high on a balcony staring at him with eyes black and red – only the slightest ring of blue around his pupils.
Aurelio sighed, the nausea in his guts mixing with the sickness of his soul to the drumbeat of his aching head. Every man he saw reminded him of a soldier: a father, a brother, a son, someone who had stained the white sands of the plain red. Another man he had failed and another man he had left behind. Just like he was failing these people.
Then he saw her.
“You slimy piece of shit,” he whispered as Shadow Six and two large men moved into a single-storied house, a figure in a dark green cloak right behind them.
Moving quickly and quietly through the crowd, Aurelio made it to the ramshackle wall of the house and found a gap in the boards to see inside. He was just fast enough to see a leather bag big enough to hold a pumpkin passed from the man in the green cloak to one of Shadow Six’s men. In return, she counted out gold coins into the man’s pale, delicate hand.
Shifting the hood of his cloak, the man turned, the light catching the side of his face for a moment. Aurelio’s jaw dropped as he saw a face of ageless beauty, marred only by fluorescent blue eyes. He barely stifled his surprise as he caught a glimpse of a pointed ear. Then, the man melted into the shadows and was gone.
Shadow Six spoke to her men. Aurelio strained to listen. “We move. He’ll want to see this batch for himself before it goes to market.”
Aurelio ducked back from the corner as the three came out. The biggest of Shadow Six’s men held the leather sack as they moved into the flow of people.
Aurelio followed from afar, darting behind stalls and corners when his quarry turned to check their trail. Greasy sweat covered him from head to toe, his desperate shallow breaths laced with three weeks of drinking damage. As they moved deeper into the decrepit streets of Wallshadow, closer to the colossal city walls, the sickening stink of human waste began to creep up his nose.
The three rounded a corner up ahead and were lost from sight. Aurelio slipped and slid as he ran into the alley to follow them, and nearly slammed into the man carrying the leather sack. Barely managing to arrest his momentum, he all but threw himself behind a group of commoners haggling over a skinned dog. He peered through the crowd as Shadow Six lazily reached out and grabbed an apple from a street vendor before she moved on.
Breathless, heart slamming into his chest, blinking stinging sweat from his eyes, Aurelio moved off after them again. The stench grew stronger as they neared the city wall. The not-too-distant sound of the open sewer waterfall gushing out through the battlements to the ocean below was getting louder. Likewise did the voice in his head telling him to run away – to just grab everything he owned and flee the kingdom.
The three in front of him stopped as a figure in a black cloak with a full hood beckoned them into a house. Aurelio stopped at the window, trying to ease his breathing.
“You’re late,” stated a voice Aurelio knew all too well.
“Yes, master. My apologies.”
“I expect better from you, Shadow Three.”
Aurelio’s heart stopped. A blade nudged the back of his neck. Hot breath whispered against his ear.
“I told you, ‘just do your job’.”
Mustering his courage as best he could, Aurelio stood and turned to face Shadow Six.
“I even spoke loud enough so that big idiot nearby would hear me and come over. He was perfect. One lie. One death. You were free after that.”
Aurelio sighed heavily. “What’re you going to do?”
She grinned, leant back, and kicked him full in the chest.
* * *
“The hero wakes.”
Aurelio’s body ached like it had after the Red Plain. No question; he’d taken a kicking while he’d been out.
Lord Protector Rosen squatted down, the thick lines of his cloak hood bunched around his neck. Shadow Six stood on the left and right of him. Rosen looked over his shoulder at each of the women.
“You’re not seeing double, Inspector Aurelio. Being identical siblings is a useful trait of the Shadows. Being merciless killers is another.”
One of the Shadows smiled and walked out of sight. Aurelio tried to turn his head to follow her, but a white spike of pain put an end to that. He needn’t have bothered. She returned a moment later, playfully twisting his forearm length blade in her dexterous hands.
Aurelio was dragged to his feet. He let fly a scream of pain as his head snapped back and the world swam before him. He could feel his feet dragging against the ground, and soon open sky appeared above as they forced him outside. The stink of the sewer grew so strong he gagged.
“Inspector,” began Rosen, “I gave you chance after chance to do your job as I asked. It was a simple task. Bring me somebody to take Lord Moreno’s place at the gallows.”
Hanging from whoever was holding him up, Aurelio frowned hard at Rosen. “Faerie Fire. You’re the one selling it.”
Rosen smiled cruelly. “We of the council have to pay for the war in the west somehow.”
“You’re killing our people, to pay for your wars? The king would not stand for it!” growled Aurelio, doing his best to stand up.
“The king cares not where the money comes from. Besides, having people throw their money at us to feed their addiction is far simpler than taxing them.”
“You f –“
Pain exploded in his guts. Warm fluid drizzled down to his legs. Aurelio looked down. His knife was buried in him up to the crosspiece, his shirt going dark red around it. His legs gave way a moment before he was lifted up by many hands pressing into his back and the back of his thighs, and he found himself staring into the sky once more.
Lord Rosen’s face appeared in the corner of his eye, right up close.
“Out you go, with the rest of this city’s waste.”
Someone chuckled and Aurelio was raised even higher. They tipped his feet up, like they were emptying a trash tray. As they threw him he reached out, fist grabbing thick material. He was airborne for a heartbeat before jerking to a painful stop.
“No!” screamed Rosen. “Let me go!”
Opening his eyes revealed a brick wall in front of him, flowing sewage and a long drop below, and Lord Protector Rosen barely hanging on to one of his people above.
Rosen stared back, inverted, eyes wide, every muscle straining, free hand desperately trying to unclip the cloak brooch that kept him attached to Aurelio. One of the men Rosen had brought was hanging on to his legs. The Shadows watched impassively, unable to do anything. Aurelio held on for all he was worth and dragged his knife from his belly.
“Lord Protector Rosen,” he grated as he pulled himself up closer. “I hereby find you –“
“The king made me do it! He made me!”
Rosen’s cries were getting shrill.
“I hereby find you guilty of murder.” He swung his arm back. “Justice be done in the name of the king.”
“I’m not responsible! This isn’t justice!”
Aurelio couldn’t help a grin. “Doesn’t sound like he’d care from whence it comes.”
He drew himself up with all his remaining might and drove the blade into Rosen’s neck right before his strength gave out.
The world whirled around him: Rosen trying to hold his throat together, open sewer, wall, sky, Rosen’s hand falling away limp, open sewer, wall. He struck the water with a bone-jarring slap. Dark brown enveloped him, spewing down his throat, filling his vision. He rolled with the momentum of the river, grabbing a breath here, bouncing off the stone wall there.
He felt himself gain momentum quickly, the steady rush of the sewer turning to a roar, before he was sickeningly falling. Aurelio got one last view of the city walls as he fell past the white cliffs towards the ocean below.
He grinned. The pounding on his temples had stopped.