Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Seven

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THE GODLY VAGRANT

Laden with new equipment, the five travelers refilled their waterskins and left their routed waylayers bound and pleading to blazed boles at the bridge, forded the waterway and bivouacked on the edge of the dale. In the morning they trudged back along the road and by afternoon found themselves passing a dessicated field, occupied by a forsaken farmhouse. Valyncort shook his head, slowing his well-shorn steed from canter to trot. He looked east to where a dissolute door creaked on rusting hinges above which perched a murder of crows, their cruel, charcoal-beaked heads tilted in idle curiosity.

“When last I passed this house it was thick with children. Helping their mother churn milk. I still remember the taste. The yard was abuzz with the yammering of cockerels. Now it lies silent as a sepulchre.”

“A bad season, a bad harvest, perhaps. One is all it takes.” Siles remarked glumly as he observed the decrepit abode. “A common enough story.”

“I wonder what became of them.”

“Perhaps they moved to a bigger farm.” Tessel put in with a hopeful smile.

“Aye, and perhaps I’m blood to the queen of Tor.” Hulmarra scoffed, slowing her horse behind Valyncort.

Tessel pursed her lips. “Why must you say such things?”

“It takes education to be so addle-pated as to ignore the evidence of your eyes. Look at the field. Naught growing but weeds, and them only slight.”

“That doesn’t mean that’s why they left.”

“Your wits are flat as your chest.”

Siles laughed and slapped his thigh. Kosif leaned head to hand, massaged his temple and glared.

“You three squawk louder than the crows.”

“Got something against crows?”

“Rats with wings. Though I understand why you would like them, being, as they are, the familiars of pilfering knaves.”

“Who pissed in your vitri?”

Valyncort ignored the fracus and rode ahead, veering from the road to the backyard of the abandoned lot where a number of neatly arranged stones stood out from the low yellowed grass. Graves. Unnamed and four in number. Before each monument lay a flat pile of blackened vegetation, bound with a thin length of twine. Floral offerings. As the rider turned the corner of the deteriorating grange, the chattering avians scattered to the east in a whorl of oily plumes, cresting distant menhirs that encircled a diminutive stupa, scarcely more voluminous than a cottage and little taller than a tool-shed.

As the watcher surveyed the far structures, the quarreling of his confederates grew louder. Shrill words blended to a squamous mass of sound. Indecipherable in amarulence.

“Enough. All of you.”

The chatter subsided. All eyes turned to the watcher. His visage severe. He gestured toward the west where dark clouds roiled like monstrous snails.

“Storm’s coming. Shelter’s up ahead.”

Returning to a canter, the group watched the land swiftly ascend to a low, pine-crowned escarpment, where, due the impassibility of the topology, the road turned sharply to the left, and vanished westward amidst a cluster of rocky outcroppings. To the right of the trail, less than a hundred paces distant, lay the small stone-ringed shrine Valyncort had spotted from the farmhouse-yard. The building stood in disrepair, portions of the hemispherical roof and the trail-facing wall had long ago crumbled, leaving uneven and widening holes. The gaps were girded by several tarps affixed by means of ropes and weights and fluttered lightly with the breeze. Verdant grass and ground ivy grew densely about the structure, yet not a stray blade nor vine surmounted it.

The quint led their sumpters off the road, hitched them to adjacent smooth-barked trees and advanced toward the shrine. Valyncort, who had donned his aketon and brigandine to ward off the growing chill, took the lead, striding confidently, a hand on his pommel. As he made to pass the first standing stones he gave a grunt and fell face-first to the ground, his foot caught on a tripwire laid between the two massive orthostats that flanked him. A loud creak resounded. A grinding of metal on metal.

“A trap!” Siles gasped, throwing himself away from the stelae. Hulmarra crouched. Silifrey trembled. Kosif raised a brow.

Nothing.

Then the creaking came again. And again. And again. Tracking with the pressure or lack there of from Valyncort’s foot.

The wayfarers followed the sound to the top of the leftward lith, where rested a rusted weathervane in the shape of a haughty cockerel. The thin length of wire that had incurred the watcher’s imbalance wound about the battered grooves of the two nearby columns and had been secured to the base of the rooster-shaped ornament. Valyncort lifted his foot from the wire. The competing tensions having been alleviated, the weathervane ceased its sibilation.

Hulmarra looked from the lith-borne device to the wire and followed its curvature beyond the two closest standing stones. To the two second-closest stones, then third second-closest, then fourth and so on until the pillars and the barely visible wire wound between them disappeared about the circumscribed edifice. “Its an alarm system.”

“Could be this is a depot for those rogues at the bridge. Might be they weren’t the only members of their band.” Siles rattled off aloud.

Kosif put his arm out and helped the captain off the ground and withdrew the sickle he had seized from the highwayman at the dale. “If so, they’re certainly aware of us.”

Valyncort nodded as he stood and drew his brand quietly from its hip-bound sheath.

“Be on guard.”

Hulmarra shifted her posture with the confiscated feather-staff, from walking-stick to polearm, spacing her legs further apart, knees bent, hide-bound hands curling about the two evenly spaced grip-straps. Siles drew Beron’s brand and clutched it in a reverse grip, hunching, eyes darting over the darkening emerald landscape. Tessel unsheathed her ornate hip-bound seax and held it waveringly with two hands as might a nightmare-plagued child a candle. After a few steps, the linguist looked to Siles and awkwardly attempted to copy his stance, sliding her dagger to her right hand, thumb to pommel, hilt to wrist, extending it level with her chest.

Thus prepared, the coterie advanced in single file. Muscle taunt. Senses primed.

As they neared the facade a gale rustled the canvas screening the aperture in the wall adjacent the entrance. Tessel leapt back, face contorted with fright, blade tucked to chest as a pendant, a scream stifled in her gulping slender throat. Hulmarra shook her head and brushed past the woman and Valyncort and made to enter. He placed a firm hand on her shoulder.

“You can’t cover both corners at once. We go together.”

The pathfinder visaed the suggestion with a curt half-jounce of her head and back to back the pair charged through the tarp-palled portal.

Hearts as footfalls beat a rising thrum. All still, save for the rasping of the wind and the clattering of heels on aged stone.

Thunder rolled.

Within the perforated cenotaph was a low-ceiled, circular chamber of unadorned stone, and against the elegantly tapestried wall opposite the doorway stood a statue of extraordinary craftsmanship, being of a scant-garbed and beautiful woman of realistic scale with a hole in her chest where the heart should be, her delicate hands extended in solicitous sorrow. Before the effigy lay a coarse linen rug, faded and frayed, dented from supplication. Beside the carpet rose a grey candelabra which bore residue of recent use. All else was bare.

“Empty.” Valyncort declared after surveying the interior to his satisfaction.

The other three members of the party entered. Kosif bent to the candelabra, examining the wicks. “Someone was here recently.”

“Not here now,” Siles said as he took a seat upon the thick linen floor covering. “Well, someone should bring the horses round.”

The others agreed and, after a short respite spent gulping from their nearly depleted waterskins and scrying the sanctum’s interior, headed out to retrieve the horses, leaving Hulmarra behind to prepare the structure for the coming storm. She sat with her back to the statue on the rug and began to light the recently spent candelabra, singing quietly all the while.

“Wits, like ya gold, to the wind they’ll blow, as leaves in the autumn, as flakes in the snow, when The Sharper comes, his smile in tow, to run his wicked game.”

A smooth, unfamiliar whistle sounded over the tune, following the metre of the woman’s verse. Given the peculiar acoustics of the chamber, she presumed it was Siles, whistling from beyond the structure, his voice carrying in from the aural gaps in the wall.

“Oh, ladies n’ lads, now what ‘ave ya done? Feeling so clever, n’ think’n ya’ve won, but cards on the table and ya debt is spun, when ya play The Sharper’s game.”

Rearward footsteps, light and near preceded a man-shaped shadow which tore the pathfinder from her revelry. She whipped about, nearly upsetting the tallow-holder, and beheld a lithe stranger with wild black hair bearing a tattered cloak which fell to his shins and a dark cloth bandage over his right eye. His skin was smooth as sheared-shale and pale as sun-burnished bone and his unconcealed eye gleamed gold-green above a dark ring suggestive of insomnolence. He smiled gently.

“Delightful.” The man’s visage and tone, though strange, was so open and amiable, and his dress so humble, the icy fear fled Hulmarra as swiftly as it had gripped her.

“We didn’t know anyone else was here. I-“

At that moment Valyncort stepped through the threshold and froze, hand going to the handle of his blade, the others returning and pausing behind him, their faces full of perplexity. The stranger held out his hands in congenial appeal. “You’ll have no need of that here, Watcher.”

“How did you know I was a watcher?”

“Your garb makes it plain, sir.”

“Yours does not. You are?”

“Erdn d’Arke. Custodian to this forlorn gardr of our lady of woe. And, I hope, for a time, your host.”

“You’re a prestr?”

“Aye.”

Siles scratched his barbate chin and looked left and right. “Where in the pits of Tarkhoum did you come from?”

Erdn motioned to a wide tapestry behind the statue of the goddess. He pulled it aside and revealed a hidden stair that descended to a cellar.

“Cleva.”

“Unfortunately, a necessary precaution in these turbulent times.”

Valyncort relaxed and released the handle of his blade and stepped inside. “Forgive my rudeness. We were waylaid on the road but a day forgone and feared those same rogues had confederates here installed.”

“How dreadful. Yet, thankfully, you err.”

“You live here?”

“Aye. Marta provides. As she welcomes. What do they call you, Watcher?”

“Valyncort of Urvolsk.”

“Well, Valyncort of Urvolsk, I have one further question.”

“Ask it.”

“Would you care for tea?”

“Yes, please.”

The man parted his cloak and unslung a metal carafe from about his neck and removed two delicate, well-polished ceramic vitris from mantle-screened pockets. He handed one to Hulmarra, the other to Valyncort and poured the vessels full of a chilled aromatic brew. The others introduced themselves and the prestr greeted each with a curt half bow and a bowl from one of his manifold pockets, his expression waxing to concern as he beheld Siles by candlelight.

“You are injured, sir.”

Siles flicked the tattered shoulder of his jacket, beneath which a bloodstained shawl was visible. “Ah, this? Token of them rogues a’ whom our friend jus’ spoke. Lanced me with that monstrous contraption.” Siles gestured to the feather-staff at Hulmarra’s feet. The prestr knelt beside the woman, observing the staff.

“I see I’m not the only one whose met with an errant blow.” Siles made a motion about his eye, mirroring the stranger’s patch.

“Were you a soldier, sir?” Tessel asked excitedly.

“Nay. I was conscripted. In Tor. Press-ganged to the Asherian Reach. I told them, as a Martaen, I could be of more use mending spirit or flesh than rending it, but their forces were depleted. They needed fresh bodies. So they pressed a blade to my hand and shortly thereafter an Asher pressed his blade to my eye.” All listened intently to the prestr’s tale, sympathy stark on their faces, save for Kosif whose attention diverted to the colorful tapestry which hung adjacent the statue.

“I’m sorry.” Tessel said quietly.

Erdn gave a dismissive wave. “You’ve no cause to be.” He then returned to Hulmarra’s staff. “May I see it?”

“Of course.”

Hulmarra handed the prestr the weighty pole and he turned it with quizzical dexterity and extended and retracted its hidden metal quills. “Cunning design. It is said the devotees of Lanowick the Barrower favor such devices.”

“Who is this Lanowick?” Siles inquired, taking a seat on the cold stone floor and stretching out his weary legs, groaning slightly as his mangled shoulder bumped against the curving calcimined wall.

“An outlaw with a legion of like-minded outcasts under his command. It is said he makes his home in the old barrows to the west, hence his title. But such are only rumors. Are you on pilgrimage?”

“What makes you think that, prestr?” Kosif asked with confusion.

“I have heard that the Watchers were initially founded as a religious order and she bares the sign of our lady of woe.” Erdn gestured to the heart-shaped necklace that hung at Hulmarra’s bosom. The man sat on the prayer mat beside the woman and smiled. His expression kindly and curious.

“My brother gave it to me.” She reached to her chest and clasped the amulet. Her fingertips traced the gleaming contours of the battered ornament.

“A fine induction, prestr,” Valyncort remarked. “But an erroneous one. I disdain secrecy, but due my oath, I am afraid we cannot divulge our purpose. Suffice it to say we are headed north.”

“Ah. So its a matter of state then.”

“I did not say as much.”

“You didn’t have to. Well, well, I shan’t further pry. You’re welcome to spend the night. You all look as if you could use a good rest.”

“That we could. You have our thanks. And if you will accept it, my coin.” Valyncort fished into the purse strapped to his belt and extended a handful of gelt.

“By my vows, I couldn’t.”

Valyncort pressed the mintage to the man’s palm. “Then consider it a donation to this humble house of god.”

“That is most kind of you, sir. Thank you. And may Marta bless thee.”

After they had finished their drinks, the prestr dredged a number of blankets from the cellar and all settled into a peaceful slumber save for the host and Kosif, who poured over the codex by the flickering light of the candelabra.

“Your novel must be quite engrossing,” Erdn offered quietly.

“Its not fiction.”

“What is it?”

“An old history.”

“Might I take a half-gander?”

Kosif lowered the tome.

“I mean no offense, prestr, but you’d not be able to read it.”

“Its not written in Austrene?”

“Nay, but a more originary tongue.”

“Drat. Languages were never my forte. Are there pictures?”

“Aye. Take care not to crumple the pages.” Kosif extended the book to the prestr, who took it carefully and scanned the pages for several minutes before returning it to its owner. Some minutes later, the prestr laid down upon one of his thick blankets and closed his eyes as did Kosif thereafter, who dreamt of a strange form moving in a sea of clouds.

In the morning, Valyncort woke early and found his companions dossed on makeshift beds, save for the shrine-keeper and Tessel, who were nowhere to be seen. He stretched his sleep-stiff limbs and ambled out into the moist morning air. The jade-verdigris ground was dually soaked with the residue of the previous night’s deluge and the ardent rays of the ascendent sun. Crows stood upon the warm and unmantled sarsens around which colorful insects wove wild patterns in pursuit of pollen and prey.

“She’s around back.”

Valyncort whirled to the source of the voice. Erdn crouched upon the roof of the sanctuary, checking the heavy stones which held the tarpaulins taunt against the decaying shrine. The roof-bourne fixer pointed to the left where Tessel stood, half-obscured by one of the drying obelisks. Valyncort advance with a broad smile which dissipated as he beheld the woman’s sorrowful expression.

“What’s the matter?”

Tessel shook her head, auriferous locks bouncing. “Nothing.”

The woman turned upon a heel and made to stroll away whereupon Valyncort caught her gently about her arm and stayed her.

“Come now. Talk to me.”

“The bridge,” the woman paused, irked and ashamed. After a beat she looked away. “I can’t do anything right.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When those brutes attacked, I thought to restrain the horses. But after I put my hands on the reigns, after they hurt Siles, I froze. I was useless.”

“Nonsense.”

“Its true.”

“If not for your warning, Hulmarra would have taken a bolt to the back, which she’d not have weathered so well as our stony, hooded friend.”

“Perhaps. But perhaps if I’d been more active, he might have never got the chance to shoot Kosif.”

“That’s an absurd standard to hold yourself to.”

“Is it? Erdn maintains this entire sanctum by himself. I couldn’t even move a horse.”

“That is hardly the same thing.”

“Quite. Moving a horse is much simpler. I was so terrified. Just as I was at Vatn’sla, on Kosif’s bridge. Hulmarra said I lacked constitution. I had thought she was just being horrid. That it was merely her nature to scorn and mock. Now I see.”

“See what?”

“She was just being honest.”

As Valyncort opened his mouth in rebuff, Erdn’s jovial, self-assured voice drifted over the star-warmed and crow-thick air.

“One without fear is also without caution. One without caution is also without courage. For courage is but caution’s willful disregard.” The prestr leaned against the nearest menhir, wiping the residue of sky-shaved rock from work-worn hands with an old length of soft linen. “A crow does not disregard caution. A man does. Which here is master?” The birds cawed from their stony thrones.

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Six

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BEYOND THE PALISADES

Saddled five in number, Valyncort’s company moved leisurely northward along the road from Urvolsk in the auspices of an ungelid dawn. Dew gleamed with the nascent light of the risen star as swallows spun toward cloudless azure skies from the boughs of diminutive trees which lined the surrounding fields. Save for a merchant caravan less than a league ahead, Valyncort’s company was the cobbled-lane’s only occupants, beyond which lay naught but a few scattered bowers, small plots of farmland, verdant hills and multicolored forests for miles in every direction. After some twenty minutes of silence, Siles began metrically rapping his left knuckles upon his saddle and struck up a tune, breaking the monotonous clipping of the pack-horses.

“There once was a road, twas big n’ wide, upon it, five queer folk did ride; before them all seemed glittering gold, none knowing what their fate did hold – on the way to Taalo. Twas said: that kingdom was a’ split in two, a gathering dark to there eschew; and into that scene a’ harrow n’ loss the riders rode, sayin’ damn the cost – on the way to Taalo.”

Valyncort, who rode beside the singer in the middle of the pack, let out a heavy sigh.

“I’m beginning to think you enjoy vexing me, Siles.”

“Not at all my lord. Ya don’t fancy a tune every now and then?”

“You’re always so severe, Valy,” Tessel chided from the back of the procession. She tilted to Siles with a sincere toothy smile. “Pay him no mind. I thought it was lovely.”

“Thank ye, miss.” Siles jerked his thumb behind him to the vanishing umber palisades of Urvolsk. “Been sitting in that gaol near the year entire. Weren’t much else to do but sing. Took a liking to it.”

“More so than the warden, I’d imagine.”

“Is it the heat, my lord?”

“Mh?”

“That’s put you in so churlish a mood?”

Hulmarra glanced over her shoulder, her usual grim tone replaced by one of curiosity. “Tell me, locksmith, do you know ‘The Sharper’s Game?'”

“A, yes, that I do. A new one. Heard it at the pub some, what was it, two years back. Hows it go again?” He scratched his chin, silently mouthing words and patted his thigh like a drum. One two-three. One two-three. “Wits, like ya gold, to the wind they’ll blow, as leaves in the autumn, as flakes in the snow, when The Sharper comes, his smile in tow, to run his wicked game.”

The bowwoman nodded and murmured along, “Aye, that’s it.”

“Oh, gods below, Hulmarra. Not you too.”

“What? Its a good song. Don’t you lot have marching chanteys in the army?”

“Unfortunately. Don’t tell me you’re going to start singing too, Kosif?”

Kosif, who along with Tessel formed the rear of the cavalcade, and who alone had said nothing since their departure, looked up from a small leather-bound book clasped in one hand. “I am better at making instruments than playing them. I leave the commission of frivolity to its experts.”

After their discussion the troupe advanced further north with scant discourse to a crossroad accompanied by a battered signpost whittled to two arrows, which leftward read, “To Thekjaburg,” and rightward, “To Braffold.” There Silifrey slowed her mount and addressed her companions with sheepish curiosity. “I know you said before we departed the plan was to take the road to Thekjaburg, but, isn’t Braffold road the straighter route to Taalo?”

Kosif addressed the woman without taking his eyes from his book. “The straightest path is not always the optimal one.”

“You’re both right. If we were to take the western way,” Hulmarra gestured with a hide-bound hand to the alluded thoroughfare, which cut over a buckled meadow, distance-crowned by low, foreboding crags. “The terrain is more rugged, with no towns inbetween. Least none I know of. We’d have no place to resupply. We have stock enough, perhaps, to make it to Braffold before running dry, but that’s only if we ration our vittles, which I doubt any of you are keen to. We could hunt, of course, but game would be scare.”

“Ah. I see.”

“I’ve heard talk of giant snakes that dwell in the craglands,” Siles put in as he dabbed his brow with a bit of cloth he kept in his coat. “My mate Dal said he once heard of one over thirty paces from snout to tail.”

Valyncort loosed a “Pah!”

“Its true.”

“Giant. I don’t know. But plenty of standard size. Some venomous. Most not.”

Tessel shivered at the pathfinder’s words, prompting a canny smile from the locksmith as he folded his rag and stuffed it in his coat pocket. Valyncort, with mounting impatience, rode to the fore, shifted in his saddle to face the rest of the company and raised his powerful voice in command.

“We take Thekjaburg road as planned. Come. We’re wasting time.”

As the riders pressed on, Siles made to pass Kosif, who as yet occupied the hind position, whereupon the latter averred.

“I don’t believe a word of it.”

“What?”

“Your snake story.”

“Hm?”

“I saw you smile, Mr. Rathdam. Like a child filching candy. No one told you a tale about giant snakes. You only said that to frighten the woman. And well you did. You probably don’t even have a friend named Dal.”

“Do I seem the type to do such a thing?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I might say the same of you. The trick you did back at the forge. With the seax. Impressive. But still just a trick. At first I thought it might have been wire work, but it moved to you with too fluid a motion for that. Still, I’ll figure it. Only a matter of time.”

“There was no trick.”

“Come off it. Perhaps the others are superstitious enough to believe your theatrics evidence of sorcery, but I’m not so credulous. There’s no such thing as magic.”

“I did not say there was. I said only that I deployed no ruse.”

Siles waited. The artificer didn’t elaborate. Instead he produced a wrapped piece of charcoal and plied the stick to the page. Frustrated, the lockpick concluded the conversation with a mild shake of his head before sallying back to the middle of the queue. With formation resumed and attentions reprimed, the company hastened their pace. After several leagues down the road the intense heat prompted a succession of disrobment. Tessel removed her guady Skyn vestments, pulled her shawl over her delicate brow to shade her eyes and produced a small paper fan to assiduously ply against the mounting humidity. Valyncort unfastened his wolf-hide cloak, revealing his slashed-sleeve doublet, and folded it into one of his saddle bags on top of his aketon and brigandine. Siles removed his coat and muttered a curse to the god of weather and dabbed his slick skin with his kerchief. Hulmurra produced a woven straw hat to gird against the relentless rays and removed her overcoat and tied it about her slender waist. Only Kosif, well accustomed to the heat of the river forge, remained unperturbed by the swelter, and rode with his dark hood up and his head down, reading and writing all the while, glancing away only to bridle his straying beast back behind the others.

By midday the travelers descended to a small valley embowered with dying trees, whose crinkled beige leaves thickly canvassed the ground where grass grew sparse and xanthous, obscuring errant efts and water voles, which skittered to the damp darkness of their burrows as vultures cut wide arcs above the tatty, incongruous canopy. Through the center of the dell wound a brook too large for a grown man to leap and too small for a boat to ford, which bisected the road over which a mossy stone bridge extended. At the near end of the viaduct a grizzled man sat a campfire just off the thoroughfare and rose as Valyncort’s company drew near. As the riders dismounted, Valyncort studied the camper’s dress, which consisted of a dark blue aketon, emblazoned with a stag crowned with stars, one for each of the provinces of Austr, all unified under the Urvolsk Concord some two hundred years past. The man appeared to be an officer of the Consulate.

“G’day, sir. What do you roast?”

“Pork,” the gambesoned man responded gruffly. “You lot of a mind to cross?”

Valyncort nodded. “We’re on our way to Thekjaburg.”

“Aight.” The officer scratched his stubbly chin. “But you’ll be paying the toll first.”

Valyncort’s brows rose and he folded his arms across his breast. “What toll would that be?”

“Didden ye hear?”

“I’d not ask if I had.”

“Came down from the consulate of late. Ten gelt per head.”

“Ten? A hefty sum for such a paltry crossing.”

“Bridges need to be maintained some-ways.”

As the men conversed Kosif scanned the scenery, fixating on the half foliage-obscured campfire and the spit which had been raised above it, beyond which grew tangled brush through which a wide trail had been carved.

“Let me just retrieve my purse.”

“Aight.”

Valyncort walked back to his companions, brows knit in thought.

“Did I hear him right? Ten gelt per crosser?” Hulmarra demanded with considerable ire.

“That’s right. Said it was a recent Consulate decree.”

“Pft. We should blockade the road and demand as much to let ’em piss on home, see how they like it.”

He smirked at the thought, then lowered his voice. “It is curious I’ve heard nothing of this tax.”

“That is odd,” Tessel assented with a bob of her shimmering golden head.

“Perhaps you’re presuming too much my lord.”

“How so Siles?”

“Well. Is tax law something you and our dear Proconsul spend much time discussing?”

“No, but its still peculiar I’d heard no mention of it during my stay at The Hall nor from any of the criers. Something queer is going on. Something crooked.”

“Like what?” Siles pressed in disbelief.

“That, I can answer,” Kosif replied dispassionately. He stood shorn of his peculiar gauntlets, his hood down, a leather-gloved hand taunt upon the reigns of his pack horse, his carnelian-violet gaze roving over the shaded foliage as he spoke. “There’s four legs of pork roasting. Too much for one man to consume in one sitting. Particularly in this inclement weather. The guard is not what he appears.”

“What do you mean?” Tessel asked, scrunching her face in confusion.

“I mean this supposed bagman has friends nearby. Observe. The foliage is bent where they made a path.”

“Cut away some too.” Hulmarra added. “Wasn’t deer.”

“Indeed.”

“Four portions of pork suggests four men.” Valyncort concluded direly.

“Quite. We can scarcely suppose they all left to relieve themselves simultaneously. Which means they’re either foraging or hiding. But why forage as a meal is being prepared? This suggests the latter. A Consulate-approved collector would have no reason to hide his companions. Same as you, I’ve heard nothing of such a policy from my friends at the Consulate. Nor from any of the criers or pamphleteers. Why would they not announce it? The answer. There is no such policy. The implication. This man is not a Consulate collector.”

“There a problem?” The guard called, discerning the peculiar looks being flung about from the murmuring assembly.

“In a way. Some here thinking we should take another way on account of the levy,” Siles called back with put-on-crossness. After a scoff of “G’luck with that” from the guard, Siles turned back to his familiars and dropped the guise. “What’re we to do then? We can’t take the horses through the stream. Not hereabouts anyways.”

“I shall ask the man to prove his station.”

“Oh, Valy, I don’t like this,” Tessel mewled softly. “If he’s a charlatan he might get violent.”

“Perhaps,” he replied as he rustled in his saddle bag and withdrew his coin purse and a stout quadrangular piece of boiled leather ornamented with an intricate engraving of a stern owl with folded wings, clutching a dagger and a bundle of wheat in its talons.

“Its the surest path to clarification,” Kosif declared evenly. Siles and Hulmarra quickly agreed and after a wordless exchange, Valyncort returned to the ponte levyer, with Siles and Kosif in tow. The soldier produced a jangling bag of coins and held it up to the gambesoned obstructor, whose eyes shimmered with anticipation. As the sentry reached out to seize the bag, Valyncort drew it back.

“Before we conclude our affairs, I had a question I wished to ask of you.”

“Well?”

“What garrison are you from?”

“Garrison?”

Valyncort raised his owl-emblazoned ailette and brandished it before the man, whose eyes went momentarily wide.

“You’re a watcher.”

“Captain Esser Meyrin Valyncort, at your service.” The man did not respond to the name, prompting a flicker of annoyance to dance across the watcher’s face before he continued. “You see, sir, the Urvolsk garrison is where I was trained; its hospital has been my home for many years. From that familiarity I can say with confidence you were not dispatched therefrom. So from which garrison do you hail?”

“The,” the man paused unsteadily, trailing off, subtly working his jaw, blinking rapidly. “The garrison at Thekjaburg.”

Valyncort’s eyes narrowed slightly. “There is no garrison at Thekjaburg.”

The levyer went rigid. His eyes flicked right to Kosif, then left to Siles. Both visages intent and critical.

“That’s a look I’ve seen before,” Siles chimed. “Had it myself when they put the shackles on.”

“I know you’re thinking of doing something untoward,” Valyncort put in sternly. “I would advise against it. Instead, tell me the nature of this game you’re playing.”

“I may be playing, Watcher, but not alone.” Soon as the words left the imposter’s mouth, he whistled. Loud, clear and piercingly. Whereafter, two men jumped from the thrushes to either side of the company, flanking them. One held a sickle. The other, a feather staff. The false tollman grinned barbarously. “Shoulda just given me the coin.”

“Its all yours,” Valyncort replied, hurling his coin-purse at the man’s head. The pouch struck the imposter in the temple with a jangling thud and tore a groan of agony from the brigand who reeled backwards, pawing at his belt for his weathered baselard. Valyncort rushed forth and kicked the stunned man onto the bridge, as he did, the two armed footpads leapt into the fray as the horses bucked and whinnied and Hulmarra and Tessel hurried to restrain them.

The sickle-wielder advanced cautiously from the right toward Kosif, as the bulky balding staff-wielder ran from the left at Siles, who gave a yelp and ducked a heavy horizontal blow. As the swipe whistled past his skull, Siles cocked his head and loosed a taunt. “If one is what one eats, you must be keen on molasses.” The larger man scowled and, in the same moment, pushed up swiftly on a flat protrusion in the upper handle of his staff whereafter there came a suppressed shearing as three raw metal spikes sprouted from the end of the heavy pole. With a grunt of exertion the large man, without advancing, reversed the direction of his swipe and brought the studded truncheon into the safecracker’s shoulder. The leftward barb burrowed into flesh. Siles spasmed with pain as his shirt went red, stumbling backward, as he did, his assailant pulled the pronged pole free and spun, connecting the opposite, unadorned end of the staff with the lockpick’s gut.

As Siles was brought low, and Valyncort nimbly drew his brand to bout with the man on the bridge, Kosif faced the third ambusher some seven feet away, whose fearsome black billhook was raised level with the metallurgist’s throat. As the brigand advanced, Kosif removed his hands from his robes, his arms bearing thick-plated obsidian-colored gauntlets. He then assumed a curious posture, his right foot forward, his right hand held before him, palms toward his foe, his fingers spread, slightly curled, as if in preparation of a grapple, his left arm tucked behind his back.

“I would garner neither pleasure nor grief in spilling your overheated blood.”

“That’s outta my hands.”

“Like your sickle.” As he spoke, Kosif extended his right hand. The curved blade shook in the brigand’s grasp and spun free of his clutches, arcing to Kosif’s right palm. The marauder’s chapped mouth parted with astonishment; his limber leering posture dissipating to petrified rigidity.

“H-how?”

Kosif tilted the blade in his hand, catching a stray beam of light from the forest canopy, then transferred it to his left hand, placing his right hand behind his back in the same motion, where it spun up from his palm, levitating as if in the midst of a invisible and sky-defiant stream.

“No weapon forged is as potent as the properties which subtend it.”

“S-sorcerer.”

“On your knees. Or your skull shall be my sheath.”

The man assented to the command and raised his hands in entreaty. “Mercy.” Was all he managed to whimper.

Catching the unusual display from the corner of his eye, the staff-wielding caitiff turned from where he stood over a beaten and bloody Siles. “What in Marta’s name-” The next instant he crumpled to the ground, a cruel black sickle buried in his left leg. “Oh gods! Beron, help me!”

“Beron, is it?” Valyncort quipped as he effortlessly fended a wild strike from the highwayman. Having fixed the whole of his attention upon the watcher, the brigand had failed to apprehend the curious events occuring behind him. Not even his companion’s anguished cry tore him from the increasingly one-sided duel.

“Bastard.”

The imposter leapt forward like a feral beast, eyes wild with panic, and brought his unusually heavy baselard in a wide arc toward his foe’s clavicle. Much to the brigand’s surprise, Valyncort stepped blithely into the blow, dropped the point of his hand-and-a-half and caught the hilt of his opponent’s blade with his crossbar at an angle incongruous to grip. Fluidly, Valyncort twisted forte, foible and body to the right, drove the pretender’s brand from its owner’s grasp and sent it clattering to the heel-worn cobblestones of the bridge. The pretender loosed a rattling gasp of horror. Without hesitation, Valyncort half-reversed his motion and slammed his weapon, pommel-first, into his unarmed foes’ gut, pulled back, and brought the flat of his blade against the man’s brow in the same area striken by the coin-purse. Groaning, the pretender fell to one knee, clutching his gut with one hand, his bruised and bloody brow with the other.

“I yield. I yield.” The man threw his hands out in fearful supplication. Valyncort lowered his brand and retrieved his enemy’s heavy shortsword from off the ground. He froze as he counted. “One. Two. Beron makes three. There’s one more!” Valyncort called to his companions, without taking his gaze from the disarmed man on the bridge.

Rustling of greenery preceded a high thin sound. Something flew from the trees. The next instant, Kosif’s body jerked.

“Behind you!” Tessel screamed to Hulmarra, who had retrieved her bow and quiver. The pathfinder whirled, arrow notched, string drawn, spying a incongruous shade and let her arrow fly. A howl let out of the foliage whereafter a portly man donned in furs tumbled to the ground at the treeline, clutching his shoulder, a crossbow clattering from his hand.

Birds spun up from the treetops and a cool breeze blew in from the south.

All eyes turned to Kosif.

He looked down to behold a metal quarrel jutting from his black robed chest.

“Blow for blow, you bastard.” The staff wielder growled from where he crouched upon the ground, holding his wounded leg.

Kosif seized the armament buried in his chest with his right hand, pulled it free and tossed it coldly at the staff wielder’s feet. The tip was bloodless.

“By paltry force you buckle. For by paltry force were you made. How can a minnow harm a pike?”

“Some augural conjuration. Eldritch he is.” The former owner of the billhook exclaimed despairingly.

The staff wielder shook his head, his gaze shifting from the quarrel at his feet to the man who had extracted it. “Its not possible.”

Kosif began striding toward the downed man and removed a rope hanging from his saddle bag as he passed. The highwayman scuttled backwards like a malformed crab. Kicking dust and soiling his fraying jacket.

“Stay back!”

“Foolish is the man who’d trade blood for mint. As its the surest way to loose both.”

“Clemency! I beg you!”

“Be still.”

The man sobbed, closed his eyes and prepared for the end. Kosif shook his head and tossed the coil of rope to Silifrey.

“Tie him, girl.”

The woman stood shock-still, staring at the man with her mouth agape.

“Sometime today.”

Broken from her spell, the woman rushed behind the man as Hulmarra trained her bow upon him.

“Don’t even think of running. You’d not make it to the treeline.”

In short order Valyncort’s company subdued the injured imitators and bound them to the young trees beside their camp and tended to Siles’ injuries. As Tessel wrapped the safecracker’s shoulder with her shawl, the watcher turned to Kosif with an expression of amused curiosity.

“Gave quite a show.”

“As did you.”

“How did you deflect that bolt?”

Kosif smiled lightly, ensured his back was to the imposters, and pulled his collar down, revealing coriaceous chitin armor. “Nearly hard as Torian steel, yet considerably more flexile.”

“Fortunate he didn’t aim any higher. And speaking of aim.” Siles turned to Hulmarra who sat a stump at the smouldering spit, hewing the brigand’s roasted pork. “That was a damn fine shot. Disarming him like ya did.”

Hulmarra shook her head.

“Its wasn’t.”

“Oh?”

“I was aiming for his head.”

Next chapter

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Five

Previous chapter

THE DEVICER

Wind and darkness pressed as a heavy hand against the garrison hospital. Timber creaking with the tenebrous strain. Valyncort opened an eye, blinked, feeling the warmth of the worn wool covers. He looked to the right, spying the cloth of his feather-stuffed pillow and the ruffled base of his bed, above it the chamber window, which framed the residential district, and the gleaming souk beyond, still shimmering with lantern-light despite the late hour, and, behind it, the steepled spires of Consulate Hall, which towered over the surrounding masonry, beyond that, barely visible by the ice-blue light of the moon, the palisades which enclosed the inner district. He looked to his left, spying his ailette and aketon, brigandine, and black and white surcoat that hung from a wall-mounted, lacquered lay rack, his hand-and-a-half resting in scabbard against the corner; the boltless chamber door, closed. Valyncort adjusted his head on the pillow, closed his eyes and began to drift back to the liquid land of sleep. Seconds later, the creaking of a floorboard and a looming man-shaped shadow jolted him from soporific haze. He grabbed the baselard beneath his pillow and tore toward the intrusive shade. Abaishen, he lunged at the figure, instinctively pressing his white-knuckled blade against what he presumed to be a cloth-covered larynx.

“Wag your tongue while yet able.”

“Calm yourself, captain. Its me.”

As the fog of fear and sleep expired, Valyncort discerned the fretful form of Giles Rathdam at the edge of the bed, leaning his upper-body nervously away from the moon-lit brand.

“Curse it all,” Valyncort grumbled, releasing the safecracker and setting the blade upon the bed. “You gave me a damnable fright. Your title unchosen, but well deserved.”

“I did not mean to startle you, sir. But merely to thank you for returning my ceorlage.” The locksmith held up a neatly folded piece of wax-sealed parchment. “Came for you. By night courier.”

Valyncort rubbed grit from his eyes and sat up on the edge of the mattress. “Read it.”

Siles cleared his throat, held up the billet and read aloud. “To: Esser Meyrin Valyncort. I would like to discuss a urgent matter. Come to Vatn’sla. Today. Signed: Kosif Reyn.”

“Scant on details. What would the master of the river forge want with me?”

“I dunno sir. You know this ‘Kosif’?”

“I have heard of him, but never met him. Wherefore all these ‘lord’ and ‘sirs?'”

“Criminal, not cad, I be, my lord.”

“I am not a lord and I trust you are no longer a larcenist.”

“No, no. New leaf and all that. But. You must admit, it has a ring to it. Lord Valyncort. Does it not?”

“Perhaps for you. I’ve no interest in over-leaping my station.”

“If you speak truly, that is a rare sentiment. But you misunderstand me. I was not suggesting you had. I was but trying, perhaps clumsily, to show deference, for the boon you have granted me.”

“Cease your obsequiousness.”

“I’m trying to thank you, dash it. And what do I get for the trouble? A knife to my gullet and fie thereafter.”

“Enough prattle. To breakfast. Then you may shake your feathers, hen.”

The two men adjourned their conversation and retired downstairs and were shortly joined by Hulmarra and Silifrey for a light breakfast of meat pudding, diced fruit and chilled sweet-roast. Valyncort remarked upon the letter and its content and declared his intent to met the enigmatic sender, whereupon his three companions voiced their assent. Thus decided, the quartet departed in the early, still-stirring hours for the Balkr river, which curved about the southern outskirts of Urvolsk, and reached its jagged, grassless banks in just under an hour. There the clattering foundry of Vatn’sla rose up from the foggy, azure depths upon wrought iron struts; an enormous waterwheel affixed to the side of the ersatz mount threshed the water and black smoke billowed from a raised mass of slender vents that scraped the darkening sky. At the northern edge of the river a folding bridge had been suspended by chains from the upper reaches of the forge and in the water some fifty feet below the road a hefty barge ferried ores and slag. The quaternion halted briefly to absorb the imposing scenery, then hitched their horses to a well-kept communal stable set well back from the river, to the left of the bridge, and made for the ominous span, crossing thereafter to the artificial islet.

When the travelers reached the other side of the bridge, Tessel propped herself against the western end column of the pier abutment, shivering, much with fright as the morning cold. “It is marvelous, but I would not wish to ford that chasm with any frequency. I’m dreadfully dizzy.”

“Shouldn’t look down, miss. Still, you did well. Better’n I thought.”

“Did you think me so delicate as to faint, Mr. Rathdam?”

Siles chuckled. “Not at all, lass.”

“I did,” Hulmarra interjected flatly.

“Well, now I know who to avoid should I require a bolster of confidence.”

“Confidence is a matter of constitution, yours is lacking.”

“Pathfinder,” Valyncort snapped. “It was not for such consultation I commissioned you. I would appreciate it if you dispense with errant physic and focus on your job.”

“Whatever you say, boss.” Ambercrown walked on ahead.

When the archer had moved beyond earshot Tessel bent to the soldier. “Why must you bring that horrid woman along?”

“Because she’s useful.”

“And I’m not?”

“I didn’t say that.” Before the man could respond further the woman stormed off, prompting Siles to strike up a tune.

“Of Lord Valyncort, it has been said, he’d a silver tongue, so to be wed, he fretted not with dowries, nor fathers of the bonny; preferring instead the bordel, where with honied words, plied stunning curves of the pale and the tawny.”

A sudden smack to the back of the locksmith’s head cut short the jangling ballad, whereupon the singer gave a yelp of exaggerated distress.

“Oy. It was you what said I was a hen. Tis only right I cluck.”

“Remember what happens to a fowl when it ceases to produce eggs.”

With that the two men joined the women at the hulking iron gate to the facility. From the second-story a harsh male voice called down.

“Your business?”

The band looked up and perceived a soot covered man in padded vestments, fraying at the sleeves, with a thick beard, fiery eyes and massive stained hands. The porter leaned over one of the many low, decorative barbican embrasures and eyed the visitors suspiciously.

“I am Esser Valyncort, Captain of the Watch.” The soldier held up the missive from the night courier toward the scruffy sentry. “I was invited by your master.”

The gatekeeper looked from the letter to the man’s wolf-hide cloak and straightened. “Right. Just a moment.”

Several seconds passed, after which there came the clattering of gears and chains and the great iron gate ascended. The foursome passed beneath it and emerged into a wide courtyard where men and women and a few children busily sorted minerals into large wheeled crates that were moved down through a pass to the left, to the right a ornate metal door of copper or brass was visible. The familiar voice of the porter resounded from above.

“Follow me, please. And mind your steps.”

From a wall walk that curved down from the inner barbican wall to the left, the barrel-chested form of the porter descended and guided the troupe through the industrious enclosure to the brass-colored door, upon which was carved a ensign familiar to the captain: a fearsome pike with bladed wings. The Crest of Reyn. The porter pulled a lever to the left of the door, whereafter the portal slide away, revealing a heavy metal lift which ascended into the tower proper and let out to a smouldering circular cavity, thick with the scent of oil and char. Everywhere clockwork clattered, sparks flew and chains shook. Lifts, similar to the one the group had taken bore heavy loads of raw materials and tools, up and down, and from somewhere below came the sibilation of steam. The escalator in the center of the forge-spire halted and slowly ascended. Up from that clangorous pit it emerged, bearing a wan man, with back-swept hair and placid eyes, peculiar of hue, garbed in chitinous cimmerian plate, forged from the painted shells of giant inland crustaceans. Over his plate, he wore thick, form-fitting robes, each forearm hidden in the adjacent sleeve. He stepped gracefully from the platform onto the circular walkway that ringed the interior of the vast hold and surveyed his guests with an expression of keen anticipation as the porter departed.

“You have deigned to expend some life on me. Being well apprized of how little most have to spend, I shall ensure a worthy purchase.”

“Well, I am pleased to hear it. You must be Kosif Reyn.”

“I am. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain Valyncort.”

Siles crossed his arms, glancing about as he took several steps forward. “This is quite an impressive establishment you’ve got here. I’d have killed for something like this back when I had my practice.”

“I doubt that. From what I gather, murder was not your preferred form of criminality.”

A look of surprise crested the locksmith’s face.

“You know of Mr. Rathdam?” Tessel inquired politely.

“I have knowledge of all of you, Ms. Silifrey,” Kosif replied. “Save for the dour one.”

Siles turned to Hulmarra with a grin, incurring a subtle scowl.

“But you are doubtless wondering why I summoned you.”

“Yes, your letter was light on details.”

“I apologize for that, Mr. Valyncort, but as Vilmin told you, this is a delicate matter.”

Valyncort hesitated, ensure what to disclose.

“By ‘this’ I mean the expedition to Mazr’s keep, that is what I wished to speak to you about. First, however, some clarification is in order.”

“I should say so. Has the Proconsul commissioned you as well?”

“No, but his interests, and therefore your interests, and mine, align.”

“Then how did you-“

“I have not spied upon you. I have friends in many places, some at the consulate, friends sometimes divulge more than they should. You can understand if I do not give you their names. I am deeply interested in Hlfglarean artifice, but, given the dearth of Hlfglarean ruins, my curiosity, my research, has been impeded. Vilmin’s acquisition of the Mazrian Codex provides a rare avenue to satiate that curiosity.”

“He did not leave the tome with me.”

“I would have been surprised and dismayed if he had. Its too precious to risk the elemental exposures of a cross-country journey. He gave you a copy. Which, I induce, you gave to,” he turned to Silifrey, “Her.”

“Yes. Well tell us then. What are you proposing?”

“A simple trade, Mr. Valyncort. Let me read the duplicate codex and I shall avail myself to you, and your associates, in any way I can.”

Valyncort cupped his chin, momentarily lost in thought, then looked toward the dark robed man before him.

“You wish to accompany us?”

“Yes.”

“The journey may be arduous.”

“Nothing worth doing is not.”

“May I have a moment to confer with my associates?”

“Of course.” Kosif strode to the right until the voices of his guests were drowned by the rhythmic clanging of the surrounding machinery.

“Well,” Valyncort began, “What do you think?”

“You already have one to read the codex, one to guide you to Braen, and one to deal with opening the vault. Why do you need him?”

At this point the locksmith slide in. “The dour one makes a good point. He’s well resourced, seems keen, but that doesn’t mean he’s cut out for a trip to Braen. Could be more of a hindrance than a help.”

“Well, I disagree,” Silifrey interjected hesitantly. “Having someone else to go through the script with would be quite helpful. To ensure I’m translating it right. Besides, I think he’s nice.”

“Hm. I hadn’t considered that,” Siles confessed sheepishly. “But now that I am considering it, I, yes, yes I’ve changed my mind. See, if something – Marta forbid – were to happen to our linguist here, we’d still have someone to read it. Also, he’s clearly keen with machines. Might be that he’s able to help me open the vault. Ey?”

“Alright then,” Valyncort looked to the linguist and the locksmith. “Three for his inclusion,” he looked to Hulmarra whose disapproving gaze slowly drifted to met his own. “And one against. The matter is settled then?”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

“You say ‘boss,’ but I suspect you wish to say something altogether different.”

Hulmarra gave a humorless smirk which Valyncort ignored. He turned to the foundry master and waved him back over.

“We’re nearing a conclusion. Just tell me one thing to help me decide.”

“Alright.”

Before the soldier could ask his question the locksmith cut in. “It just occurred to me, you didn’t request our weapons.”

“Any who bring weapons to my forge will find them a greater danger to themselves than I.”

“What do you mean?”

For the first time since they had met him, Kosif smiled, a faint, elusive gesture. “I do not think you would understand if I explained it. It would be better to show you.” He shifted to Silifrey, observing the small, ornate seax strapped to her hip.

“Your blade is very beautiful. May I see it?”

“Oh, of course.” As Silifrey reached for the artifact Kosif withdrew his hands, which were covered by two gauntlets of like material to his breastplate, from his sleeves and cast his right arm toward the woman, palm open, fingers flared. Before Silifrey could secure her grip about the handle of the seax she felt a strange force tug at her waist, like a thousand insivible threads. The next instant, the cutter shook rapidly and flew free of its sheath and arced toward Kosif’s right hand. The flat of the blade connected with his palm, and, gingerly, he closed his fingers about it as Hulmarra, trembling, uttered a single word.

“Sorcerer.”

Next chapter

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Four

Previous chapter

THE NIGHT SKATE

Jovial murmuration enveloped Valyncort, Silifrey and Hulmarra, who sat about a circular, handsomely carved timber table which occupied the pavement before the well-trafficked facade of the Gold Brew luncheonette in the labyrinthian Urvolsk souk. A small, blue-jerkined man moved toward them from the interior of the bright-gabled restaurant, bearing three steaming drinks and six sugar cubes on a battered copper platter, sunlight shining off his dark and well-groomed pate.

“Why are we here?” Hulmarra demanded, crossing her hide-bound arms, her lips in downward curl. “You said this matter was urgent, wolf slayer. Shouldn’t we be preparing to leave?”

“That’s what we are doing. Besides-“

“We’re famished. We’ve been rushing around all day,” Silifrey finished, easing back into her red-cushioned chair with a weary sigh, brightening as the approaching server paused before the trio, smiled and set the platter down on the table. “Ah, many thanks, Jahko. Smells wonderful.”

“Of course, madam.” Jahko replied, beaming with pride. “Fresh ingredients. Fresh faces,” the server directed his cordial smile to Hulmarra, who raised a brow. “Your food will be out momentarily.” The server bowed and left off to attend other patrons. After a few moments, Hulmarra dipped to the steaming vessel before her, as if beholding an eldritch abomination.

“What in the pits of Tarkhoum is that?”

“Their specialty. You’ll love it, I’m sure. Jahko’s a true artisan.”

“It smells of potpourri and looks like moonlit blood.”

“Sweetroast, they call it. A new beverage, imported from Karcon,” Tessel chirped, dropping her sugar cube into the cup, nestling it in small bejeweled hands. “Made from water filtered over dark-roasted beans, blended with chicory, cinnamon and turmeric, and a dash of sweat cream.”

The archer grimaced and, with one hand, slowly slide the copper cup away from her across the surface of the sleeve-scuffed tabletop. Valyncort shook his head, sipped his brew and fished a fresh baked butter roll from the cloth-draped basket in the center of the table.

“So.” Hulmarra piped up after an uneasy silence, snatching a butter roll from the table and examining it cautiously. “When are we leaving?”

“Shortly after we acquire our troupe’s forth member,” Valyncort replied between mouthfuls of soft bread.

“This person is meeting us?”

Valyncort shook his head, making a circular motion with his free hand. “Other way around.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s in gaol.”

The archer arched a brow. “You are Captain of the Watch. Surely even the most cantankerous of your men would prove more reliable for such a voyage than a brigand?”

“Doubtless they would. But all they know is soldiering. They lack the skills we need.”

Valyncort motioned to Silifrey who bent forward over the table toward the baffled archer.

“The ruins we seek are sealed by rather complicated locking mechanisms. Or at least, they were. It could be that they have deteriorated or were removed in the lengthy interim since their construction, but of that there is no guarantee, and if we should find the wily architect’s securities intact, we would have to carefully blast or chisel them down, which could alone take weeks or months. The precise dimensions of the tower are not mentioned in the codex, and I’ve yet to finish reading all of it, but from what I could glean, it is quite large.”

At this, Valyncort cut back in, “A delay we cannot afford. A locksmith is indispensable and none of my men are apprized of the art, and even if they were, they’re needed here.”

Hulmarra glanced to the wolf’s head pauldron, then the man’s face and gave a nod.

After the trio finished their meal, they headed to the nearby penitentiary which bordered the southern end of the souk, following the winding white-paved road which ran before the Gold Brew cafe, where two young women, a redhead and a brunette, came twirling up through the bustling crowd.

“See. See,” one of the woman exclaimed, clasping her hands together. “I told you it was him.”

“It really is. The wolf slayer of Barrikar.”

Valyncort paused, smiled broadly and spread his hands. “I am he. How may I serve you?”

“Oh, sir, we would be delighted if you’d take a instant painter with us.”

“Don’t pressure him, Cecelia.”

“Oh, hush. I’m doing no such thing.”

“Its fine, ladies, I should be delighted.”

The itinerant female pair tittered excitedly and called a watchful, plain-garbed man of middling age with a well-groomed beard and a strange machine slung over his shoulder, who waited several paces distant beneath the cool harbourage of a vendor’s veranda. The bearded man advanced, conversing briefly with the woman called Cecelia before casting a curious glance to Silifrey, Hulmarra and Valyncort. The man then unslung the machine, raised it with ginger, practiced acuity toward Cecelia and her friend, posed one to each side of the wolf-caped soldier. “Excellent, excellent, yes, a splendid pose. A little to the left my dear. There. Hold. Just like that. Perfect.” The entrant’s device emanated a hum and a series of swift clicks, followed succinctly thereafter by a bright flash of light. The man removed a small stiff piece of paper from the back of the device, shook it, bobbed with satisfaction then strode forth and held up the device-ejected article for Valyncort and his two admirers to observe.

“Its perfect, Lazlo.”

The woman’s words were accurate, for upon Lazlo’s retracted sheet was a perfect monochrome recreation of the captain and his two admirers. Upon the upper left corner of the paper was a watermark of a fearsome, stylized pike with wings made of layered curved blades, above it, in thin block font, were the letters ‘K R.’ Lazlo passed the image to Cecelia who pressed a coin into his palm. The two women thanked Valyncort, stealing pecks upon his cheeks before blending into the crowd, whereafter the trio regathered and moved further to the south. Several minutes later the group stood before the bare and weather-stained facade of a gaol where two armed guards of the consulate army watched the mottled traffic with disinterest from the shade of a high calcimine loggia. The sentinels tensed as Valyncort approached and greeted them.

“Captain. Weren’t expecting to see you,” The guard to the left said as he returned the conventional Urvolsk greeting.

“Aye. This concern the Night Skate?” The other watchman enjoined, leaning forward on his spear.

“Yes. I’ve come to see him.”

“The burglar?” Hulmarra queried to Silifrey surreptitiously. The linguist nodded.

“If its security you’re worried about, I can assure you, he’s not going anywhere.”

“I’ve no doubt of that.”

The sentries swiftly stepped free of the portal and gestured for the trio to enter. Inside the gaol, the trio followed a short, dingy hall which let out directly to a dim, sparsely furnished room where a man sat drinking a flagon of mead, thumbing slowly through a small book titled ‘Passion at Rivenlore.’ As the footsteps of the trinity encroached, the man looked up with surprise and stuffed the book in a drawer and adjusted his jerkin.

“Captain Valyncort. This is most unexpected.”

“Warden Lesing. I trust you and the wife are doing well.”

“Very. Had our second child recently.”

“Ah, congratulations.”

“Yes. Yes. She’s a darling. Until she isn’t. So. What brings you and,” the warden looked to the two women inquisitively, “These lovely creatures to my humble domain?”

“I wanted an audience with the Night Skate, if it were possible.”

“Certainly, if it would please you.” The warden pointed to an adjacent room behind him, “Uh, the women aren’t coming with you, are they?”

“I should like them to.”

“This is hardly the place to entertain ladies.”

Hulmarra rolled her eyes as Silifrey nervously rubbed her hands together.

The warden looked apprehensively to Valyncort whose composure disclosed considerable dissent.

“I must insist upon this point, Lesing.”

“I don’t understand. Are you not here to question him concerning his crimes?”

“I’m here on Vilmin’s orders. Consulate business. I’m afraid I can’t say more.”

“Then I shan’t ask more.” Lesing cleared his throat and rose from his chair. “He’s in the back holding cell. Just a friendly warning, he’s escaped twice before. Not from here, mind you. Had him manacled nice and tight. Even still, keep a sharp eye.”

“We shall,” Valyncort replied assuringly, his hand resting gingerly upon the pomel of his brand, as if to prove his vigilance.

The warden worked his jaw, took a sip of mead, produced a key ring from his left coat pocket and unlocked the heavy bolt which secured the adjacent door which let out to a stone stairwell that descended into darkness. The scent of straw, iron and dank leather wafted thickly from the chamber beyond. The warden lit a torch and showed the party down to the holding cells, passing the flame to Valyncort upon reaching the lower landing. “Just knock when you’re done. And like I said, a sharp eye.” Lesing retreated and the sound of a lock turning reverberated from the top of the stair. The trio cast their gaze about as they pressed forward, discovering themselves to be traversing a wide stone thoroughfare, bordered on either side by a series of bare iron cells. Most of the cells were accompanied by vagrants, petty thieves, drunken brawlers and other disturbers of the peace. Those who recognized Valyncort’s armor lowered their gaze in fear, or glared with resentment. All watched the procession move past with wordless wonderment.

On a plain and ratty cot in the furthest leftward pen sat a unassuming man, some fifty years of age, garbed in dyeless sackcloth and roughened wool, with a smooth pate scantily adorned with graying black hair, dark green eyes, a broad, uneven nose and a small, thin-lipped mouth, which twisted to a subtle mocking smile as he surveyed his guests. He held in his hands a figure in the shape of a man made of intricately woven blades of grass. The prisoner finished folding the blades into a facsimile of a head as Valyncort stepped forth, passing the torch to Hulmarra.

“Salutations, Siles Rathdam. Or do you prefer the name your skullduggery has incurred, the Night Skate?”

“Wasn’t a title I chose. Siles will do fine.”

“Very well. Do you know who I am?”

The prisoner’s eyes darted to the wolf-head pauldron, then to the man’s weathered face. “I do. Though I know not these others.” He raised the grass doll and shook it. “Come to watch me dance?”

“No.”

“Fortunate for you. Hangman’s jig isn’t what it used to be. Our executioner’s new method ensures as much, accounting as he does for the weight and height of the intended victim. See,” Siles shifted forward on the cot, his face but a foot from the bars, lifted the small vegetal puppet and imitated a gallows procession. “If the drop is too short, it doesn’t kill the intended victim. Well, not immediately,” he wagged the fingerless arms of the figurine to make it look as if it were grasping at its throat, struggling vainly for freedom. “But if the drop is too long,” he pressed his thumb against the neck of the ersatz man and popped off its head. The sylvan oval tumbling to the rightward corner of the room. The prisoner’s smile widened as he discerned horror come over Silifrey’s rapt and guileless visage. “Hence our garroter’s new stylings. Not that I mind. I’d much prefer to swing for seven seconds than twenty minutes. Just as I’m sure the crowd would prefer an intact corpse to a headless one. So. Everyone wins, broadly speaking.”

“Better were it that you keep your head, I’ve need of it.”

Valyncort gestured to Silifrey, who looked briefly to him, produced the replica tome, turned it to a two-page spread she had marked with a strip of colored parchment that featured a detailed schematic of a large machine built into a wall and stepped reluctantly forward, holding the book up to the drab iron bars.

“Do you recognize this, Mr. Rathdam?”

“Oh, ‘Mr.’ is it? Well la-tee-dah. Let me see.” Siles scratched his chin and leaned toward the text, shackles clattering. “Hold it still, girl.”

“I’m sorry. I’m trying. Its rather heavy.”

The man continued scrutinizing the mechanical diagram for half a minute before replying. “Yes. I recognize this.”

“What is it?”

“What will you give me for telling you?”

“He doesn’t know. We’re wasting time,” Hulmarra cut in brusquely, hands on her hips.

“Its a Hlfglarean tile lock.”

The threesome paused where they stood a few paces away and slowly returned to the prisoner. Siles grinned triumphantly.

“Tell me what you know of these locks, thief.”

Siles met the soldier’s eye a moment and released the bars, leaning his head upon his forearms.

“Get me out of this rat-infested pit and I’ll tell you anything you like.”

Next chapter

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Three

Previous chapter

THE PATHFINDER

The cawing of birds filled the wood as the dour-faced woman aimed at the red target ring affixed to dead tree before an aged but well-kept hamlet at the outskirts of Urvolsk. She inhaled, muscles taunt, closing a hazel eye. As bow and target aligned she let the bolt fly, feeling the vibrations of string on skin. With a muted thud, the arrow struck an inch to the center of the ring. She frowned, whereafter a strong male voice intruded upon the scenic quietude of the verdant cloister.

“Not bad.”

The archer turned to behold two figures studying her from where she had previously stood, one, the former speaker, a tall, powerfully built man with sunkissed skin and wavy brown hair, the other, a short, slender, gold-haired woman whose elegant raiment marked her a scholar of Skyn.

“Not perfect either.” The archer replied as she turned her back on her guests and moved down the makeshift field of fire, pulled the shaft from the target ring and surveyed the travelers with a wary glare. “What do you want?”

“You are Hulmarra Ambercrown?”

“I am.”

“I am Esser Valyncort, Captain of The-“

“I know who you are, wolf slayer. You didn’t answer my question.”

“… and this is Tessel Silifrey, the leading lexicologist of Skyn Academy.”

“What do you want?” The bowwoman pressed more emphatically, anger entering her husky tones.

“We’ve heard,” Silifrey cut in with excitement, “That you’re apprized of all the land from here to Braen.”

“Most of it. Yes.”

“I am organizing an expedition into the Braen mountains, and am in want of a pathfinder.”

“Pity that. Best of luck finding one.”

“No interest?”

“That range is perilous. And I have better things to do.”

“I am prepared to pay twice your standard rate.”

“I’m in no want of coin. No need to buy what I can hunt. No need to trade when I can craft. No. I have everything I need right here.”

“Except your brother.”

Hulmarra’s expression grew forbidding, dark brows knitting.

“What do you know of my brother, wolf slayer?”

“That he was arrested for smuggling and now languishes at the dungeon of the consulate, awaiting execution. I saw him there, during my last sojourn.”

Silifrey looked with surprise to her companion, lips pursing, seafoam eyes growing wide, flitting to the grim-faced archer, whose fists had balled at her sides.

“And?”

“I could put in a word.”

Silifrey, inducing the soldier’s plans, nodded emphatically.

“He has Proconsul Vilmin’s ear. If he should press for clemency, the consuls will listen.”

The archer stalked toward the duo until she stood but two feet distant, leaning to the lexicologist and causing her to wince, then next to Valyncort who crossed his arms and held her gaze.

“I have your word that if I come with you, you’ll talk to the consulate on my brother’s behalf?”

“You do. A Watcher’s word is his honor, and his honor, his life.”

The archer brushed past Valyncort with vexation.

“A simple yes would have sufficed.”

Next chapter

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Two

Previous chapter

THE LEXICOLOGIST

Valyncort advanced through the high, overstuffed bookshelves of the Skyn Academy archives, emerging there from to the scholar-crowded reading area, spying at its center, a bored, golden-haired woman, sitting alone, humming a silly tune and pouring over a richly illustrated history of Urvolsk. The soldier walked to the blonde’s side and slide the codex replica onto the table. She turned her attention to the fur-cloaked man’s book and slowly looked over her shoulder and smiled, batting her long painted lashes.

“A present for me, Valy?”

“Not quite.”

The woman froze as she took in the scrawl on the first page of the codex.

“Where in the crow of Coribahn’s name did you find this?”

The captain cast his gaze left and right to the library patrons; several looked up from their books, some with visages of mild annoyance, others, idle curiosity.

“Keep your voice down.”

The woman’s oval face contorted with perplexity.

“Sorry,” she replied, dropping her naturally high voice to a melodramatic whisper. “Where did you find it?”

The captain hesitated, for the patrons had yet to returned their noses to their tomes.

“Tellll meeeee,” she squeed.

Valyncort rolled his eyes, sighed and leaned over the table beside the woman, mere inches from her face.

“I got it from Proconsul Vilmin. Its a copy of the Codex of Mazr.”

The woman peaked up.

“Why would Vilmin give a luge like you something so-“

“Voice. Down.”

“How did he come by it?” The woman inquired intently, re-assuming her theatrical hush.

“Don’t know. Didn’t ask. Isn’t important. Can you read it?”

She carefully examined the first page of the manuscript and nodded. “Hlfglarean is my specialty. But I don’t understand why you need me to translate an already translated work.”

“The Proconsul has tasked me with finding Mazr’s stronghold.”

“The tower of Jarnhjalmrodall?”

“Yes.” He tapped the adjacent corner of the duplicate codex. “The location of which lies in this book. If I’m to find Jarnhjalmrodall, I’ll need someone who can decipher the map which leads to it.”

The woman closed the book and smiled like a child before a candied apple.

“Say no more. I’m all yours.”

Next chapter

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter One

THE TASK

The Consulate Hall rose triumphantly above the variegated rooftops of the surrounding city of Urvolsk, that lay as an alabaster maze atop the roiling hills of Austr. Within the colossal structure, a tall man, habilimented in a slashed-sleeve doublet, rugged breeches, riding boots, and wolf-hide cloak, moved with purpose to the ornate double doors at the end of the main corridor. Halfway down the pass, two guards bearing a manic man of middling age emerged from a rightward doorway. “Quit your bellyaching, dog, or we’ll give you reason proper to bleat.” The speaker straightened a little as he spied the lone man. “Evening captain.” The captain nodded respectfully, saying nothing as the prisoner was dragged into a leftern passage, protesting all the while. When the party had gone the solitary strider passed through the double doors at the end of the corridor, which let out to a garish, cluttered study in which a old man sat before a wide desk, puffing on a pipe and reading from the pages of a large, weathered book. The elder sat up upon hearing the footfalls of his pelt-shrouded guest.

“Ah, Valyncort. Welcome. I’ve grown so accustomed to our insouciant bureaucrats, I half expected delay.”

“Timeliness is next to godliness, your excellency.”

“Wise words, captain. Sit. Sit.” The aged regent gestured to a plush armchair before his paper-strewn desk. Valyncort did as he was bid, casting a curious glance to the blocky scrawl on thick pages visible between the regent’s veiny, pampered hands. Whatever language the book contained, it was not Urvolskian. Beside the large book was a bottle of ink, a quill and a sheet of vellum which appeared to depict some kind of map, elaborate and intricately detailed.

“Congratulations are in order.” The old man declared, gesturing to the wolf’s head pauldron from which the soldier’s long fur cloak descended. “Slayer of the Dread Hound of Barrikar.”

“Was simply doing my duty, Proconsul.”

“Long has the consulate lauded your skill, but this recent triumph surpasses all expectations. The foul beast was not only possessed of monstrous strength, but wits to match. And so we come to the matter at hand.” The Proconsul closed the antediluvian tome and ran a hand across the cover. “Do you know what this is?”

“No.”

“Have you heard of Dur Mazr?”

Valyncort chuckled. “Who hasn’t?”

“Tell me what you know.”

The soldier was taken aback by the Proconsul’s seriousness at what he assumed was the set up to a jest. After five seconds without a punchline, he replied with haste.

“He was a Hlfglarean, purportedly a sorcerer of terrible potency, who subjugated the whole of Urvolsk and the surrounding provinces some eight hundred years ago. I had read that ‘Dur’ was Hlfglarean for ‘Lord,’ and so was not a proper name, but a title. Such trifles are the extent of my familiarity. Why do you ask?”

“Before I explain, you must swear to exercise discretion upon the matter.”

“Of course, Proconsul. As beeswax on parchment, my lips are sealed.”

For a long moment the regent silently and severely regarded the younger man, reading the permutations of his angular and weathered face. When he had satisfied himself as to his subordinate’s sincerity, he raised the ancient tome from the desk.

“This is Mazr’s codex.”

“Truly? It was thought to have burned in the cataclysm. It’s hardly aged.”

“Mazr was said to be able to restrain the gears of time and command the elements. If the tales are to be believed, the preservation of a single paltry tome would have proven of little challenge.”

“This is all quite fascinating, but I’m no scribe. I’ve as little knowing of ancient languages as tales of gealdory. I fail to see how I can contribute to your apprehension of the book’s contents.”

“The contents I have already deciphered. It is not for linguistic prowess, but daring, that I summoned you. I know you’ve grown restless and thought the task I am to put to you might whet your appetite. You see, Mazr’s stronghold, Jarnhjalmrodall, though scribed in the records, was never found, and no records of its precise location were known, until now.”

“The book details the location of Mazr’s fortress?”

“Cryptically. Yes. And much more besides. I have prepared a document consisting of my exegesis of the codex. You can understand my reticence in sending along the original.”

“Sending along?”

“I want you to stage an expedition.”

Valyncort leaned back in his chair. “This is most extraordinary. May I ask why?”

“We’re in substantial debt.”

The soldier spread his hands with confusion.

“I was told all debts had been repaid.”

“We’ve kept the extent of our borrowing from the public. Rest assured, I was opposed to the idea, it was reckless, but I was overruled. Our fields have grown fallow, and so in like fashion have our means of evading arrears. Should our debtors in Karcon and Vanislayde call us to pay, we will be unable. And if we are unable,” the regent trailed off, giving the soldier a grim look.

Valyncort leaned forward apprehensively. “You fear war?”

“They have pillaged their debtors before. In our present state, we stand a paltry chance of repulsing their combined might. But with an artefact of Mazr, our chances would increase substantially.”

“If what is written in the codex is true.”

“Yes, but there is only one way to verify. It is a gamble, to be sure. But what other option do we have? You must confess, it is the elaborate charlatan who would pen a tome of such length as a joke. Besides, if you should reach Mazr’s tower and find nothing within, we will not be any worse off than we were before.”

Valyncort nodded. “I understand and see the wisdom of it. I shall do as you ask.”

“And with haste, I trust. Again, captain, not a whisper of this to anyone beyond those necessary for the venture’s success. As should be obvious, official furnishings are out of the question, too much paperwork, too many scribes. Too many rumors. Should word of the true nature of this expedition reach the public, there is no telling what could happen.”

Valyncort rose to his full and considerable height and inclined his head in respect.

Next chapter

A Dappled Hollow

Two fields split the valley wide, each spit divided by a barren brook. One dark and loamy of soil, to the east, filled over with thick tangles of shrubbery, moss and lichen. The other region to the west, of light sand, sparsely covered by xanthous grass, which swayed rhythmically in the mountain-bound winds. Endemic to both tracts were two parties of mice, the remnants of an ancient tribe that long since passed from the misty vale to the mysterious regions that lay beyond, regions whose dimensions and contents were but scarcely whispered by the crayfish and mantids that, on rare occasion, made ingress to the flume on hunt or vision quest, vanishing swiftly as they’d come and leaving nothing but their tales behind.

A particularly inquisitive member of the mice of the flaxen field known as Short Tail for a old injury sustained from the maw of a lizard, had, one day, occasion to contemplate aloud, “Have you ever noticed, our coats are as our clime?”

“Fie,” The Matron of their brood exclaimed.

“Why fie?” He licked his fur some and then held his left limb to the ground, flat and even; it was much the same color as the soil.

“An errant lie,” one of the young mice enjoined hotly.

Short Tail rose in perplexity. “This I have been told, but look.”

“Some things cannot be found by looking.”

“If one never looked, one would never know. Have your wits evaporated with the morning dew?”

“All are of the field. And what is of the field is of like substance to it,” the other mice replied in unison.

“Liars you be,” declared a dusky mouse from the far and loamy field that had been listening to the conversation from the harbourage of the barren brook. “Have your eyes dried up along with your wits?” Behind the speaker a number of his brethren massed, defensive of posture and wary of eye.

“It is you that cannot see,” The Matron replied with rising agitation.

“I see sharply as cuts the Cloud King’s talons. Why do you attempt to deceive us when the truth is so plain?”

“They mean to lull and plunder us!” one of the dusky mouse’s brethren cried.

“That must be it! First, our trust, then our seeds!” Another tittered.

“What madness!” The Matron shot back, bristling at the accusation.

Short Tail rose up, “We gain nothing by this row. If its scrapping we chose, its scrap we shall be.” But his words were heeded not, and swiftly, argument gave way to blows at the border of the the eastern and western tracts. Tufts of fur, pale and umber alike fell there upon variegated soil and shrill cries filled the air. Short Tail tried once more to plead for peace but recieved only a bite upon his side for his troubles. Dispirited, he fled the field, following a long, unbroken patch of green-yellow grass into the center of the lowlands were his burrow lay. There he nursed his wounds and fell to a deep and dreamless slumber.

A day passed without sign of Short Tail’s brood, or their newfound rivals. The mouse began to wonder, then worry, and, as the bright orb rose to its apex in the cloud-thin sky, made way to the border between the two great tracts. When he returned to the scene of the upheaval, he found only smatterings of blood and the feathers of a hawk.

Kryos: Chapter 32

Previous chapter

From the heights of the Fabrdyn aviform apparatus, Illander Rehdon gazed down upon the smouldering ruin amidst the shuttle yard and the tiny pale dots signifying cargo and clearance vehicles moving around it in steady, contrasting flows. Behind him, in the aircraft’s palatial lounge, Astrid Sodabrucke paced nervously, her secretary reclining on a divan, both watching the news projected from the floor-to-ceiling wall-screen with obsessive, fearful focus as the vessel tilted amidst buffets from the rarified air. The motion-board depicted a prim female anchor of indistinct extraction who spoke in a measured monotone. “The culprits of yesterday’s tragic KASC bombing, which claimed the lives of a East Federation delegation and the Consortium Board, with the exception of Eidos Kryos, who had recently resigned, have yet to be identified. The grim event occurred during a diplomatic ceremony intended to improve relations with the East Federation, prompting some to suspect a political motivation.”

Sodabrucke shook her head. “Its so surreal, I feel as if I could wake up at any moment.”

“I know quite what you mean.” Rehdon replied.

“Suspect a political motivation? How could it be anything but?” the secretary, Mercedes Slate muttered to no one in particular.

“Just because a raptor dives underwater doesn’t mean it wants to swim,” enjoined a garish voice from the doorway. The trio turned to behold a crimson-haired man, with bright green eyes, dressed in form-fitting athletic attire of amethyst, draped with gold and baring manifold branching blue-purple and yellow extensions which trailed behind him like the prey-thick tendrils of a phosphorescent anemone.

“Mr. Amberleece,” Sodabrucke blurted with delight. “I didn’t get a chance to properly thank you-“

The man held up a hand in supplication.

“No need for thanks, and please, call me Devik.”

The redhead took the woman’s left hand and pressed it warmly, a wide smile gracing his wide, angular face. Thereafter, he looked behind the woman to the elegant green-coated man standing at the window.

“How have you found my ship, Mr. Rehdon?”

Illander Rehdon turned from the window, hands in his pockets.

“Most wonderful. I’ve heard it described as The Progenitor’s equal. I’m not disappointed. And like my dear lady, I should wish to extend my thanks for your hasty hospitality.”

“I couldn’t very well leave you down there in that chaos.”

Rehdon tilted his head, noticing a subtle sadness manifest upon the Fabrdyn executive’s visage.

“Vays was a friend of yours was he not?”

Devik was silent a moment and moved to the window, as if unable to weather Rehdon’s gentle, understanding gaze.

“Yes. I’m going to miss our conversations. He was a marvelous raconteur. The stories the man could spin…” a mournful smile flashed across Devik’s face, dissolving to a despondent anfractuous line as he pressed his hand to the translucent palladium pane that separated his soma from the unimpeded expanse of cloud-thin sky. “He once gave some food to a scraper during a routine inspection before he joined the board, and that the man was so thankful for the vittles, he taught him how to play the knulute. Problem was, when Vays got a handle on the instrument, he was overheard by the owner of a local nightclub who thought Vays was a professional musician. Got invited to play that night, and, for some reason that he couldn’t quite articulate, he accepted. Ha. Well, he wasn’t a hit, but he played good enough that no one complained and that’s all the nightclub owner was looking for. Vays was so pleased, he made a habit of patronizing that club and hired the down-and-out who’d taught him as his valet. That was the kind of man he was.”

“I’m sorry,” Rehdon said softly.

“Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.”

Before anyone could say another word, a coterie of men and women equal in number, extravagantly garbed, filed into the chamber. Members of the mayoral convention that had survived the warehouse explosion.

“Late late, but no matter. Take a seat, ladies and gentlemen. Much to discuss,” Devik declared, gesturing to the numerous divans, couches and armchairs arrayed about the room, his melancholy giving way in totality to a inviting jubilance. The entrants did as they were bid and shortly were attended by a bevy of mechanical stewards rushing in and out with drinks and food.

“We are thankful of your harborage, Mr. Devik,” the eldest female among the newcomers replied. “We will need it. For we have a heavy charge.”

Sodabrucke leaned toward the conventioners. “Reconstitution of the government.”

Kryos: Chapter 31

Previous chapter

Screams of men and metal streaked the variegated horizon above the burning subterminal warehouse. Blending discordantly with the pungent odor of seared solvents and fulminant fire alarms. The vast mechanical construct creaked hideously as dark particulates streamed skyward from every billowing aperture. The high central spire buckled and collapsed as dozens of men and women ran from the lobby to the vehicle-crammed shift-yard that partitioned the intensifying raze from the space-shuttle launch-field, alight, flailing, swift-succumbing to their injuries, falling thereafter to beetle-black heaps as thick plumes of dust hung as a throttling mist, like strange cancerous growths upon an invasive alien world. Melted faces frozen mid-scream looked out upon a massing crowd, residue of vain pleas to a deaf or disdainful god.

Ryard Vancing stared at the roiling ruins of what had once been Kryos’ astral shipyard depot from his perch in the Vilar Corp lev-han, idling before the former repository’s vehicular storage zone, leather-gloved hands tight upon the console. No words availed themselves to his tight-drawn lips, nor thoughts to the desultory corridors of his mind. Sirin, who sat to Ryard’s right, looked askance and gently placed a plated palm on the tense man’s shoulder.

“Sir.”

He jostled in his seat, as one woken from a disturbing dream.

“Hm?”

“Orders?”

He shook his head, senses returning, and exited the vehicle, Sirin following, “Take my lev-han. Go straight to the Arch Terminal. Tell the staff to seal the exists. All of them. Whoever did this might still be here.”

“We don’t know it wasn’t an accident.”

“Nor do we know it was. Every member of The Board was there.” He lowered his voice. “This was no accident.”

“Sir, with respect, given the Chancellor’s acquisition of this property, you don’t have authority to dictate to Consortium staff.”

“Richter wouldn’t have been able to clear out all of Kryos’ men and keep the facilities running. I’m confident they’ll listen.”

“But Sir-“

He looked grimly to the adjacent inferno.

“Go now.”

The woman flinched, taken aback by the uncharacteristic brusqueness of the order. Momentarily, she inclined her head, put on her helm and entered the CAV-keep’s resting lev-han, whereafter it whirred to life and sped down the causeway to the neighboring spire which served as the administration hub for the whole of the sprawling aerospace complex. Ryard ran toward the blaze, heart pounding, scanning the assembled lev-hans and mag-rays of the multi-tiered shift-yard as he went, looking for any sign of Salis’ craft amongst the suspended machines. “There’s still a possibility he got out of there in time,” he muttered erratically to himself as the lobby came into view. There the CAV-keep was met by a convoy of Consortium peacekeepers in the midst of establishing a perimeter about the burning facility, led by a middle aged, soot-smeared SecCom official wearing a breathing apparatus. The masked leader of the party extended his hand as if casting a spell, calling, “Hold.” When Ryard did not stop, two peacekeepers sallied forth and blocked his path.

“I came to help.”

“Appreciated, but, not your job. Its dangerous beyond this point. Stand back,” the masked man shouted over the din; behind him a woman wailed, “Cai, oh gods below, Cai!”

“What happened?”

“All we know is there was an explosion and the building is unstable. Now stand back, or you will be detained for obstruction.”

“I’m KSRU.” Ryard proffered his affin module much as he was able due the officer’s constriction and flashed his ID.

“Mr. Vancing.” The man removed the face-plate breathing apparatus, features smeared with grim from the billowing wreckage. “Didn’t recognize you through this damned thing.” The man paused and whirled suddenly as the wailing woman fell to her knees, obstructing the medical drones ferrying the injured, “Hoppler, get that woman out of here.” The man named Hoppler, some yards hence, snapped to attention and jogged to the hysterical woman, taking her gently by the shoulder and leading her from the path of the oncoming rescue drones, their words lost to the consumptive, mad chatter of the bystanders and the ferocious rumble of the blaze.

“Its Vogel, right?”

“That’s right. I’m the lead division officer here.” Vogel gestured to his men, who quickly released the CAV-keep and returned to fill the gaps in the security cordon, before which a number of shocked onlookers, comprised of local laborers, errant journalists and minor, well-groomed dignitaries, late to the ceremony, congregated in increasing numbers. Between the flux of bodies, Ryard noticed the silvery gleam of Salis’ automated cabriolet from the corner of his eye and pivoted to the machine, passing through the murmuring mammalian river and placing his hand upon the hood, then turning, frantically scrying the crowd for any sign of its owner. Vogel barked orders to his men to clear the new wave of pedestrians and pushed his way through the throng to where Ryard stood.

“The board members?” The CAV-keep inquired dejectedly.

Vogel froze up, the man’s prematurely crevassed face drooping to despair as a charred corpse ferried by a large multi-legged medical automaton passed by.

“They were inside when it happened.”

Ryard slumped against the cabriolet, color draining from his face as Consortium drones crawled forth, frothing fire retardant foam over the putrescent, igneous tomb.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 30

Previous chapter

The variegated multitude that packed the subterminal warehouse of the formerly Kryos-owned Aerospace Complex waxed shrill beneath a dusky star, its light spilling red as wine through wide retractable windows of the pipe-whorled ceiling, the mechanically circulated air immunized against the frass of a vast complex of fingerlike clouds spilling down from the east, as if to gouge the noisy tissue of the molted steel swathed span. A plain dais, hastily erected where once a considerable pile of scrap metal had stood, on it, the members of the Consortium, elegantly attired, falsely countenanced, were arrayed about a long, elaborately furnished table. In the center sat The Chancellor, her silver mane uncharacteristically unkempt, bags under her eyes, sorrow within them. Her hand moved about her temple and her mouth jerked irregularly.

“Are you alright?” Galton Raka inquired, leaning to the woman with a tenderness which belied his formidable appearance.

“Fine. I’m fine.”

“Where is Gild?” Vays asked between sips from a glass of water, which he savored as if it were expensive wine.

“Aboard The Progenitor.”

“Waste of time.” Ponos Akantha shot in balefully as she aerated herself with an elegant fan of bone.

Garlan Hayl nodded gravely, “Maybe so, but it would look bad, if we didn’t reach out.”

Julian Salis, who occupied the rightmost side of the table glared resentfully at his peers, saying nothing.

Moments later, East Federation’s interim envoy Cai strode through the crowd and greeted the Consortium with the elaborate bow customary to his people.

“Madam, gentlemen, it is an honor to be recieved at this august event. The Bureau sends their warmest regards for seeking a mutually beneficial path.”

“I see you federants remain on the cutting edge of vague pleasantries,” Salis cut in with thinly veiled disdain.

“Julian, that’s quite enough,” The Chancellor snapped.

The envoy turned slowly to the man, forcing a smile, “You seem troubled, Commissioner Salis. Is something the matter?”

“Nothing complaint will change.”

Cai nodded. “Ah, why complain on such a happy day? Iyad Zhu, a man falsely imprisoned, is free, and our two governments engage here in a renewal of positive relations through a program of economic advancement.” The man gestured to the yawning ceiling. “Truly a magnificent structure. We have nothing like it in the heartland.”

“And we have no men as charming as you in Aecer, Mr. Cai,” Akantha cooed.

“Ah, madam, you are too kind.”

Salis scanned the crowd for signs of Ryard Vancing. Finding none, he replied sardonically. “A happy day indeed.”

Momentarily, Cai took his seat and The Chancellor fixed her hair and rose primly, addressing the lively crowd before the dais.

“Times have been challenging of late. As have relations. Between the government and its people. Between Aecer and the Federation and the Southern Republics. But today, we renew our bonds of friendship with the sons and daughters of The Bureau. I am proud to announce that this facility, from this day on, shall be property of our two peoples.” The Chancellor looked to Cai who swelled with pride, then back to the crowd. “Together, with the fleet here developed, we shall no longer fall to squabbling, rather, we shall rise together in a new era of prosperity and peace.”

The crowd erupted into cheers. For a brief moment Agna Richter’s taunt face relaxed into an expression of joy. Seconds later there came a rumbling from deep beneath the facility. The ground shook and all screamed as the complex was enveloped in blinding white light.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 29

Previous chapter

Ceiling-bound algae cast a dim blue light within the calcareous quarter, the faint, rhythmic sonancy of water mingling with the steady steps of Eidos Kryos. The svelte, pitch-garbed man strode the onyx floor of The Progenitor to a wide, shallow pool, girded by thin tangles of vegetation which hung from the ceiling, draping to flat black squares. Large spindly shapes skittered beneath the faint-roiling liquid. The water lapped at the man’s waist as he reached beneath the surface and ran his hands along one of the irregular forms, his fingers tracing bony, rust-colored contours. Suddenly, an attendant’s voice intruded from the far doorway.

“Mr. Kryos, Oversecretary Gild has arrived.”

“Fastidious as usual. Show him in.”

The attendant bowed low and moved to the automated interlocking polymer portal. Two sets of steps resounded, one entering, the other departing. Momentarily, Ermin Gild stood less than a meter before the broad pool in which Kryos waded, quivering voice ricocheting about the high calcite rafters of the colossal seacraft.

“I did not know.”

“I take it The Chancellor sent you.”

“Yes, yes, she wanted me to persuade you to come to the ceremony, people would begin to wonder should you not… But I speak now in a personal capacity. I didn’t know they’d go so far. I wasn’t consulted. She’s been meeting more and more with Sodabrucke’s advisor-“

“Illander Rehdon?”

“Yes. I fear she may be losing confidence in me.”

“I have not.”

“That’s… kind of you to say, Sir.”

“As for The Chancellor, she lost confidence in herself five years ago when she was unable to deter the partisans during the insurgency. So many lives expended for so little gain. She was blameless in that broil, on present matters, however, her culpability is clear.”

“You go too far.”

“I haven’t gone far enough, neither has your dear Chancellor. Aecer is a knot to be cut. Her hand wavers on the pommel.”

“This year has been hard on her.”

“Cares the raider at the gate for the archer’s inner turmoil?”

Gild fell silent and turned grimly to observe the flowering oddments suspended above his head, and the curious black stacks into which their filaments descended. After half a minute, Kryos broke the silence.

“Are you apprised of Inachidae?”

“Of what?”

Kryos bent to a dark oval shape below the surface of the pool, seized it with a practiced motion and pulled it clear of the water. In Kryos’ hands writhed a massive mottled cream-colored crustacean. So enormous was the arthropod that its legs extended into the pool, even as the man brought it to eyelevel, its spiny, intricately textured carapace wide as its handler’s chest.

Gild drew back from the strange animal with disgust and fright.

“What… is that thing?”

“Shinin-gani. Dead man’s crab. A deepsea forager. They can achieve a weight of over 20 kilograms, a length of 3.7 meters, claw to claw, and a life-span of over a century.”

“May I ask why you’re raising them?”

“For study. Of their regenerative properties. Don’t fret, Mr. Gild, despite their fearsome name and appearance, they’re quite harmless.” He tilted the enormous, quailing creature to better observe its carapace, as if appraising a stonecutter’s burnishment. “Molting takes some time. Around 1 to 18 hours from start to finish. Mobility ceases whilst the abdomen, then gastric area, then appendages, are withdrawn. It is during this time the specimen is most vulnerable. Helpless to predation. On occasion, from their own species.”

Gild grimaced. “Fascinating, but I should prefer to return to the previous topic, much as I should prefer that thorny beast returned to its domicile.”

Kryos, still gripping the great crustacean, turned to the bureaucrat with a unwavering, xanthous gaze.

“I do not prevaricate. The milieu molts. Slip the shell, or be consumed by your kin.”

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