Synopsis: In the vast, mechanized city of Aecer, a courier’s life is forever changed when he encounters an enigmatic woman pursued by malevolent forces.
Format: E-book (epub). Genre: Science fiction. Size: 58.5 KB.
A sequel, KRYOS, is forthcoming.
Synopsis: In the vast, mechanized city of Aecer, a courier’s life is forever changed when he encounters an enigmatic woman pursued by malevolent forces.
Format: E-book (epub). Genre: Science fiction. Size: 58.5 KB.
A sequel, KRYOS, is forthcoming.
The lab-lights coruscated from the dustless ceiling as Ryard Vancing held his bleeding side. Teeth clenched. Eyes narrowing upon the tawny, ferine woman who circled him, jaw set, fists clenched as Tatter watched the scene with keen concern from the diagnostic pod where she remained firmly bound.
Ryard briefly caught her gaze and forced a smile.
After a terse silence, the gray-streaked woman lunged with considerable ferocity, gouging at the man’s eyes, seeking to drive her thumbs into his sockets. He caught her about the wrists, using her momentum to thrust his knee hard into her gut. The motion tore his wound as it doubled the woman over; screams of pain caught in two throats. The woman staggered back, heaving, and pulled a silver scalpel free of Grazen’s instrument rack upon the nearby table, desperately slicing at her foe with the dreadful hissing of a serpent cornered. Ryard raised his arms, blocking the shallow cuts. Soon his arms ran red and his movements slowed. He could feel the life draining out of him and knew if he didn’t finish her swiftly, all would be lost. He dodged back behind the arc of her blade and kicked at her left knee, catching her shin, unbalancing her and dropping her face first to the ground. The woman caught herself and bounded from the floor, rushed forward with hateful gait and drove the blade of the scalpel into Ryard’s shoulder. Instead of throwing his foe free, Ryard grabbed the woman’s hands, forcing the blade yet deeper. The terrorist’s eyes bulged with confusion as she attempted to escape, finding herself bound to the bleeding CAV-keep. He thrust his crown into the middle of her face, then again and again until he felt her nose break. She slackened and fell to the floor, holding her ruined face, groaning and gurgling blood. Freeing the blade from his chest, Ryard lumbered over to the woman, falling to his knees before he reached her, the pain subsiding to numbness, the fury waning to somnolence.
“Why would you risk your life for that filthy abomination?” The woman spat with rekindled wrath, rolling to her side as she clawed toward the bloody bone fragment, which lay upon the floor between her and her foe.
Ryard said nothing and walked on hands and knees to the jagged ivory artifact and hefted it from the cold, bloodstained floor. She threw herself at him, wildly, despairingly, madly, attempting to tear out his throat with her bare hands. Ryard shoved the scalpel into her gut, yet still the insane creature did not relent. With the last failing vestiges of his strength, he drove the jagged length of bone through her left orbital socket with a wet snick. The woman howled and fell upon her back, twitching erratically, a tangle of unintelligible syllables, pouring from her frothing maw. The woman’s chaotic spasms swiftly subsided and she lay still upon the white polished floor, soaked in blood. Her chest, no longer rising and falling to vitality’s ancient hymn.
Then, only silence reigned.
Ryard observed the corpse of his foe and then rose unsteadily and freed Tatter from her shackles, collapsing thereafter against the exterior of the diagnostic pod under the encroachments of a leaden slumber.
“Help him!” Tatter exclaimed suddenly. “He’s dying.”
As his consciousness faded, he followed Tatter’s gaze and beheld the form of a woman standing in the doorway of the hidden lab. He recalled her face.
Vera Straker. Director of Kryos Corp.
She moved cautiously into the room and observed the corpse and then rushed to Ryard’s side as Tatter gathered the man in her arms, dichromatic eyes searching a blood-spattered face.
“Your plan worked, Ryard.”
“Yeah,” he whispered triumphantly.
He closed his eyes, feeling Tatter’s frigid caress give way to Straker’s commands.
Then the world fell away and all was warmth and darkness.
Eric Grazen felt the intruder’s presence before he saw him.
“Raise your arms. Slowly.”
“Are you KSRU?” Grazen inquired trepidatiously, straightening before the diagnostic pod in which the specimen lay, watching with wide, dichromatic eyes.
“Doesn’t matter who I am,” the intruder responded flatly.
Grazen felt the cold, forceful sting of metal upon his neck, followed by a faint galvanic sibilation. The old man stiffened. Hairs standing on end.
“The guards… did you… kill them?”
“Put your arms up and move away from the calyx.”
“I take it you want the specimen. You can have her. I’m not with them. I just needed a sample.”
Grazen raised his arms, slowly, palms angled toward the ceiling, and moved away from the medical pod as commanded.
“Not with who?”
“I thought as much.” The man mumbled, seemingly to himself.
Grazen looked cautiously over his shoulder.
The man opened the medical pod with his left hand, his right holding a waverender, it aimed stolidly at Grazen’s head. The creature in the pod smiled faintly. It was the first time Grazen had seen it express strong emotion besides stress. Then its eyes widened, its mouth parting with haste.
“Ryard – look out!” It shouted.
The next instant, Moreno, bruised and battered, fell upon the intruder, driving a length of ancient bone into his side. The man screamed in pain and spun with such speed that the woman was thrown to the floor.
Grazen grabbed the small container which held eight phials of the specimen’s blood from off the table to his left and moved swiftly around the diagnostic pod as the now profusely bleeding intruder pulled the bone fragment from his side with a wretched howl and faced off against Moreno. As the combatants bodies clashed, Grazen tucked the cryogenic case under his arm and slipped out the door. He fled fast as his legs would carry him down the rightward hall as the sound of crashing equipment erupted from the lab, perspiration smattering his crinkled brow beneath the hot, harsh lights which flickered spastically. When the lights resumed, a pale woman stood the hall. Her left eye was black and blue and blood dripped from her mouth.
She held a charged waverender in her battered hands and raised it toward the old man, then wordlessly, coldly, fired.
Her imperious, disgusted face was the last thing Grazen saw, as his blood boiled and his eyes steamed out of his sockets.
The sound came softly at first, a faint, fast, rhythmic pattering down the long, damp corridor, growing steadily in volume with every second that passed. Then, as before, the necropolis fell to silence. The men within the hall shifted nervously from foot to foot upon the dust-clad flooring.
“What was that?” Elliot asked his compatriot softly, hands flexing restlessly at his sides.
“Rats. Probably.” Gerard responded tersely, his harsh visage scanning the murky tunnel.
“Haven’t seen any rats down here. Sounded too big to be a rat.”
Gerard shook his head and lowered his weapon, turning to his companion with a look of reprimand.
“This about Angela?”
“You’re getting paranoid.”
The moment Gerard finished speaking, a dark, multi-legged shape dropped from the ceiling and pinned the man to the floor. A maintenance drone. His compatriot whirled, hands shaking upon his weapon. Like giant insects, more of the robots fell from the ceiling and leapt upon the men as their screams trailed down the dank and declining corridor, swiftly replaced by silence and the sound of boots on damp earth.
Ryard Vancing cautiously approached the downed duo as the insectal robots formed up around him, awaiting his command. He knelt, felt for a pulse, and found two. The man plucked both of the weapons off the ground and briefly examined them. High-capacity waverenders. Lethal and extremely expensive.
Whoever they were, they had well-heeled backers, he thought briskly as he adjusted his hand upon the matte grip of his newly acquired weapon.
He examined his affin module; Tatter’s signal gleaming ghost-blue against the surrounding darkness.
“Getting close. Roll out.”
Upon the man’s command the machines beeped and scurried down the pulverulent hall, into the heart of the grim necropolis.
Ryard glanced to his wrist-bound affin module, the screen displayed a intricately detailed map of the city; the signal for his tracker, bequeathed to Tatter, glowed bright blue against the crisp white outline of the tertiary diagram. His brows knitted with concern as the vehicle sped across the expressway, the pedestrian lanes, shimmering busy and loud below. He synched the vehicle to his module, selected the destination, leaned back and let the automated system take over.
The drive was a short one, taking him from the northern edge of the central sector to the southeast. He parked in the Aecer Memorial Cemetery shiftyard, exited Holleran’s lev-han and moved through the gate of the necropolis with astute alacrity. The burial site stretched 624 acres, distinguished from the surrounding water treatment and storage facilities by a lack of verticality and the abundance of caretaker drones, who quietly and tirelessly scurried across the lawn, watering the grass and clearing the wind-worn graves of detritus: dead leaves, food wrappers and bird droppings.
As Ryard surveyed the scene, a man came striding from behind a large monument, fit, tall and suspicious of eye, dressed in Vekt Corp uniform. The man’s hair was short and he was missing part of his left lower ear.
“Excuse me, sir.”
“I’m gonna have to ask you to leave this area.”
Ryard stiffened and tilted his head inquisitively.
“Why? This is public property.”
The man shrugged dismissively, throwing his arms briefly wide with entreaty.
“Orders, I’m afraid. From the top. You know how it is.”
Ryard looked to his module map once more. Tatter’s tracker-sigil displayed atop his present coordinates.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”
Ryard eyed the man opaquely, gripping the multiratchet from his utility belt surreptitiously as he noticed another figure in the distance, a woman, observing the scene with obvious interest.
“I’d like to talk to your superior about this.”
“They’re presently preoccupied.”
“Who is your superior? Their name? You work for Vekt Corp, right? Nothing personal, but I’m gonna file a complaint.”
The man frowned, his expression darkening.
Without another word, Ryard brought up his module and began typing in the name ‘Sara Atbee.’ After two seconds of Ryard’s manipulation’s, the Vekt-garbed man drew a stun-gun from underneath his shirt and lunged. Ryard back-stepped the assault and brought his ratchet down upon the assailant’s skull with full force, prompting a sickening thud. The sentry slackened and crumbled to the ground; as he did, the woman in the distance bolted towards Ryard. The CAV-keep snatched the stun-gun from the ground and ran behind a massive obelisk as the second sentry fired into the well-worn marble facade. A near miss. He looked to the weapon in his hands; munition consisted of four charged adhesive packets, each capable of incapacitating a grown man.
“Come out now and I won’t hurt you.”
Ryard could hear her footsteps encroaching and something else, clattering dully at his periphery. He cast his gaze swiftly over his shoulder and beheld a caretaker drone, moving toward him, likely to clean the monument behind which he hid. He grinned slyly and kicked the drone from the shadow of the obelisk, causing the machine to land upon its back, its four metal-plastic legs writhing spastically into the air as the female sentry unloaded a stun-packet into it. The moment Ryard heard the weapon discharge he ducked out of cover, took aim at the woman’s midsection and squeezed the trigger. The woman flailed wildly and collapsed upon the ground, unconscious.
Ryard exhaled, lowered his weapon and looked to the drone, which now sputtered static, its legs moving erratically, sensor stalk writhing uncontrollably. He moved past the downed machine, stripped the weapon from the immobile woman and cautiously looked about the graveyard.
Only two guards… they’re small in number. Otherwise there would be more sentries. She’s directly below me. They didn’t bury her. Obviously. A false grave? Seems improbable… There’s an underground chamber, or system of chambers… Catacombs…
He looked to the closest building. Caretaker storage.
He rushed to the storage building and scented fresh-churned earth. He paused, turning to the source of the aroma and beheld over fifty graves, freshly dug. Burrows for those who had died during the grid attack, CAV-way passengers and reactor workers. The man read several of the shiny memorial plaques and moved to the door of the storage house. There was no handle. He plucked a caretaker drone up off the ground, removed its back-console panel and returned to the door and used the drone-bound passcode to open it, then set the drone down beside the door and passed into the storage facility. Inside the small building were several inert security drones lit by low, flickering yellow lights. Spare parts rested in bins in the next room and a stair that led down to the basement.
Ryard withdrew the woman’s stun-gun, loaded a packet from the other weapon into it and cautiously peered over the railing of the stair. The concrete well was empty and descended into utter darkness. He paused and surveyed the inert maintenance automatons, each of which bore a sleek Vilar Corp logo, his fingers gently brushing against the standardized power cores arrayed about his belt.
The men and women of Aestival moved as a pack, eight in number, through the labyrinthian alleyways of the city as rain pelted all from the roiling red-gray welkin. Their muscles taunt; eyes sharp; hearts pounding; weapons primed.
Upon entering the HEZ, they paused to recover and take in their surroundings, checking the meticulously detailed map displayed on their wrist-bound receivers, then surveying the sidewalkless expanse of high-stacked thoroughfares and magnetic rail lines. A screaming mineral lattice to encase the sky.
“Are you sure we can trust Vangr’s information?” Gerard inquired suddenly, pausing as they approached the Northwing Detention Facility, shoes kicking dust that lay heavy upon the ground, composed of years of accumulated rail-shavings and cargo-spills.
“All of the information he’s provided us so far has been sound. Why would he start lying now? It gains him nothing.” Carduus replied as she peeked around the corner of a large industrial warehouse, out of which moved numerous cargo drones, bearing resined crates on insectal arms.
“For profit. Credits. Status. Same as most anyone else.”
“Vangr isn’t interested in credits or status.”
“He isn’t interested in our cause either.”
“Not the time. Nor the place. You losing your nerve?”
“Then shut your mouth.”
Gerard resentfully resigned himself to silence as the party waited for the automated cargo-carriers to pass down the street, whereupon they crept from their hiding place and swarmed across the dusty, ground-level thoroughfare, ragged cloaks flapping in the wind. Everywhere the scent of steel and chalk and drying cement.
As they reached the detention facility block they spied a cluster of aerial surveillers flitting through the misted heights. Carduus dropped to her stomach, throwing her pale gray hood up and spreading her cloak about her body.
The rest of the pack quickly emulated the woman’s motions, positioning themselves flat and still upon the cool and faint-dusted concrete. There they lay until all trace of the surveillers had passed, then they rose and jogged steadily to the back entrance of the wardenless prison. At the portal into the complex’s shiftyard, Carduus halted and turned to her inferiors, feeling the harsh concrete wall before her with one hand.
“This is a grab job. In and out. No deviation. The target is our only priority.” Carduus turned to Aune, who nervously scanned the sky for the silvery sheen of more surveillance drones, “Anyone gets in our way gets taken out; anyone who falls behind gets left behind.”
All nodded save Aune.
Carduus struck the wall lightly and withdrew her weapon.
“Form up. Lets catch ourselves a monster.”
Weber closed the door to his apartment in the central sector with a sigh and stretched.
“I’m home. Stopped by the store. Picked up some of that chocolate fudge mix you like.”
He walked to the kitchen and placed a parcel of instacake on the counter, furrowing his brows as silence returned his greeting.
The subtle sound of sobs mutedly reverberated from the adjacent chamber. Low and muted and female.
He turned, peering into the living room where his wife sat upon the couch, shoulders slumped and dejected.
Weber dashed into the room and froze as he spied a figure sitting silently on a chair in the left corner, obscured by shadow. The man was of average height and build, distinguished by stark white plate, inlaid with glistening vermeil and wore a full-helm tactical mask that completely hid his face, characteristic of Kryos’ special reconissance operators.
Weber drew his cutter and aimed the weapon at the intruder’s head and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The trigger wouldn’t budge. He tried pulling the trigger once more. The back-panel flashed the words ‘Invalid target.’ The masked man looked towards the weapon and then to Weber’s face and spoke, his voice hissing and crackling with distortion, as from a distant loudspeaker.
“Civilization is an act of trust. Where the latter is sufficiently absent, so to shall be the former. Your wife realized this. I wonder, Mr. Weber, do you?”
Weber lowered his weapon and looked to the woman, whose eyes were streaked with tears.
“Is it true?”
Weber looked over his shoulder and discovered a man in white armor standing at the threshold of the kitchen. He turned to the stair directly across the room that let up to the half-finished nursery and beheld a third man, silent and still as statuary, upon the landing.
The officer sat slowly down upon the couch beside his wife and set the cutter upon the table and looked up at the masked man before him.
“What do you want?”
“Its useless to question when you already know the answer.”
Weber was silent a long moment, his face wracked with indecision until he beheld his wife’s pleading expression.
“Grazen. Professor Eric Grazen.”
“He worked with Soriya Haldeck. I induce this is how he came to be aware of the DS project?”
“Yes. She told him everything. He’s the one who offered up the hide-out for Haldeck and Vangr. When they botched the job he put the word out to me and a few others.”
He looked to his wife’s tear-stained face. She only shook her head and looked away.
“I require the names of these ‘others.'”
The masked man fixed Weber in the onyx sheen of his lenses, as he did, the officer sagged his head and began to weep.
When Sprill realized his tenants were either sleeping, hiding, or vacant, he gave a soft grunt of irritation, produced a keyring and turned the lock. Adair followed the landlord and moved through the small, sparse room to the window and peered out into the cluttered lane below, spying only a grim, gray-clad man, conversing with two mailed sentries of the paramount, who stood before a swelling crowd, barely visible in the great thoroughfare beyond the alley. Though Adair could not make out the conversation, it was clear from their body-language that an argument was underway, in which the ashen man was rebuffed. He subsequently turned and left off from the ramshackle lane, shaking his head and muttering and vanished back from whence he’d come.
Adair turned from the window to behold Hoston starring at his pocket-watch.
“Apologies, my comitem. I’ve no idea where they’ve gotten off to.”
“No trouble at all. Perhaps I’ll stop by another time. Wherefore all the commotion?”
“Thou art surprisingly unprimed of thy classes own affairs.”
“The Lord Paramount has organized a parade in honor of Baron Avarr’s triumphal return.”
“The Torian noble?”
“Aye. I mean no offense, my comitem, but should thee not know of this? Surely thou wert invited?”
“If I was, I remember not, but thou speaketh rightly – unfortunately, I’ve been swamped of late. I am to be married and-”
“Why, that is wonderful! I had not heard.”
“Of that I am pleased. I should not wish for my life to become a staple of the gossip columns.”
“The business has been most taxing. I’ve had little time for anything else.”
“I suspect that blackguard what came after ye, has somewhat disturbed the tranquil waters of thy recreation.”
“Thou hath heard of my adventure?”
“Heard of it! I should be a queerly isolated soul were I to have not. Why near the whole of town is jawin’ of it. It were said that thee dodged the brigand’s pitch. Is it true?”
“A man may accomplish the extraordinary when by it, he is beset.”
Shortly after the words had left his mouth, he froze, eyes fixating upon a small, black thing at the periphery of his vision. He turned to the left and beheld a feather, laying upon the ground beneath a chair. He bent to a knee and plucked it from the ground, turning it in the ambered light.
It was a crow quill, familiar in constitution.
“I’d no idea they’d a bird,” declared Hoston, briefly observing the feather, “Hmph! How dare they sneak such a creature in here! I’ll have them on the street for this!”
“Its not from a living bird. Note the glue upon the shaft.”
Hoston bent to the feather and peered at the quill.
“Ay. Must have come from a costume… Well, I must be off, my comitem. I take it the path out lays fresh in thy mind?”
“It does. I thank thee for thy time.”
Sprill bowed and left whereupon Adair unfurled himself from the hardwood floor, placed the plume in his inner-jacket pocket and gave Dren’s curiously unfurnished room one last cursory glance before shutting the door and hailing a hansom.
He twirled the feather between his fingertips as the vehicle clattered down the cobblestone streets, wondering why the absent renter had stolen his coat.
Continued from §.14
Luned gasped as she spied Oeric Adair through the keyhole of her flat. The comitem walked patiently, yet eagerly, behind the corpulent, key-jangling landlord, Hoston Sprill. Both men advanced slowly, but steadily, down the corridor; scant minutes from the door.
“Damn that conniving wind-tossed scoundrel. This is all his fault.” She muttered, backing past the divan and the sofa, swiftly towards the tiny apartment’s only window. When she turned full round, she nearly screamed.
Casually lounging upon the sill was Drake Dren, shorn of his recently riven coat, smiling like a jackal.
“How goes it?”
“How many times must I tell ya not to do that, damn thee. Where in blazes have ya been?”
Luned straightened as the sound of Hoston’s fist resounded upon the door of the cramped and peeling flat. Then a pause and a voice following.
“Ms. Luned? Mr. Dren? Anyone home? Its Hoston. Hello? I’ve a gentleman whose most desirous to meet ye.”
“What say you? Shall we stay and chat with Hoston and his friend?”
“Of course not – its Adair. Thou hath said-”
“Of that later. Come.”
Without hesitation, Drake took the woman’s left arm and guided her through the open window to a ladder he’d laid against the side of the tenement to reach the sill. Where he acquired the ladder, Luned had no idea. The man threw his legs out, grabbed the sides of the ladder and slid down a little, smiling at his own successful display of agility, as Luned gasped and redoubled her grasp.
“Curb thy trepidation. Manful make thy heart.” He whispered up to the woman with a grin before sliding all the way down to the bottom of the contraption.
“Mettlesome blighter.” She huffed hotly before beginning her descent.
When the woman made it to the bottom of the ladder, Drake withdrew the device from the side of the tenement and, to Luned’s very great surprize, began folding it up as one might a newspaper, speaking in tones of feigned offense all the while.
“To reproach me for thy own proclivities is to reproach thyself. Or didst thee forget how came our divan and sofa? A simple ‘thank ye’ would be sufficient.”
When the portable ladder was folded to the size of a large suitcase, Drake stuffed it in a heavy and battered leather pack that lay in the alley adjacent their sill and surveyed the alley.
“Where on earth did ya get that?” Luned inquired, gesturing to the pack.
He shushed the woman and drew up his hood, turning away from the woman, and moving into the shadows as a grim figure ambled into view at the leftern end of the alley.
“A man best avoided,” he whispered without pausing, heading to the right exitway.
“Its him isn’t it – the assassin?”
“Aye. He knows me not in my present state and thou art wholly foreign to his experience. Quell thy tongue and shift away.”
She nodded and moved up to his side. Together they passed swiftly to the far right side of the alley, whereupon a considerable throng had gathered in the great thoroughfare beyond. The avenue, however, was obstructed by two large men who stood shoulder to shoulder, clad in heavy haurberks of the paramount.
“Excuse me, sirs, may we pass?”
“Sorry miss,” the smaller of the two guards replied courteously, “Baron Avarr has recently arrived at the outskirts, enroute to Tor. Consequently, the Lord Paramount has commanded the main thoroughfare sealed, to make way for his lauded guest’s procession. Considerable is the host, even now, and word has yet to fully spread; when it does, there will doubtless be all manner of disorder, which our dispensation shall, our lord hopes, in some measure abate.”
The sound of cheers, trumpets and drums flared in the distance.
“I’ve heard he contributed considerably to the war-effort.”
“Aye. Victoriously he returnth.”
The larger guard gesturing flippantly towards the opposite end of the lane, “We’ve answered ya query. Begone. Both of ye.”
Luned and Dren exchanged looks whereupon Dren drew forth, cleared his throat and pulled from his shoulder-slung pack Adair’s plumed cap, revealing the tag to the guards.
The guards furrowed their brows, perplexed.
“Recognize ye the crest?” the thief intoned in his best Adair impression.
The smaller guard’s eyes widened.
“The crest of House Adair! My comitem… please accept my apologies. I recognized thee not.”
“That is precisely as I had intended it – for thou art doubtless primed of the dire circumstance which previously dogged me.”
“Aye milord. And so the cloak.”
“A wise precaution. We are pleased to see thee safe.”
The guards then parted and Dren, assuming an air of amiable regality, extended his arm to Luned who took it with a grin.
Arm in arm, the designing pair passed beyond the lane to the great and crowded thoroughfare as a cacophony of ringing steel foretokened the baron’s arrival.
continued in part 16 (forthcoming)
Continued from §.08.
Aymon Degarre found Learc Demelody smoking her ever-present whale bone pipe in the ministry library, pouring through a stack of papers. Before he could get close enough to inspect the content of the pulpy pile, Learc blew a cloud of smoke towards him without removing her eyes from the items before her, as if warding against some noxious insect.
“I can not.”
“Can not or will not?”
Still she did not meet his eye, her attention fixed to the papers before her.
“The lieutenant has assigned me to the Adair case, madam.”
Finally, Learc looked at the man. He found her eyes disquieting, for they were large and glassy, like the eyes of a fish.
“Wert thou primed of the affair?” Learc inquired.
“Yes. Thoroughly. No one knows much of the matter, so there was little to impart.”
“Very well. I’m headed down to the theatre.”
“To catch the thief.”
Degarre furrowed his brow in confusion and followed the older inspector out of the building into the whirring streets of the smouldering city and in short order found himself within the garish lobby of Mazrak’s Grand Theatre, wherefrom a gathering of patrons milled, listlessly conversing betwixt swills of ambered wine.
“I’ve long held theatres to be strange aberrations,” Learc declared abruptly.
“In constantly seeking the drama of artifice they are apt to miss that which is transpiring around them everyday.”
“I fancy that is because they’re dissatisfied with mundane drama. The reason I joined the ministry was because of a play of General Godwin Galorion I saw as a child.”
The accipiter looked at the young man with a expression he could not place and then turned towards the ticket counter, wholly disinterested in the crowd and addressed the old clerk without emotion.
“Has Ms. Harrington’s hat been recovered?”
The clerk shook his head.
“I was verged to ask thee the same.”
“Thy superiors shalt, I presume, in no wise object to our presence?”
“Nay. In truth, quite the contrary,” he removed two tickets from beneath the counter and handed them to Learc, “Courtesy of Madam Ibbot.”
She took the tickets with a nod of appreciation, “Give her my thanks.”
With that Learc and Degarre traversed the flight of stairs to the second floor and moved down the main corridor to the upper stands of the auditorium. Learc paused as Degarre settled down into the small box-seats.
“What art thou doing?”
“Watching the show.”
She shook her head and counted the seats.
“They’re only eight seats available.”
Degarre looked at the ticket he had been handed, “Ah, of course, yes, these seats are reserved.”
“Which means that to steal Harrington’s hat the thief was either garbed as a valet or reserved a seat himself.”
“Could it be that the rogue is a woman?”
“I find it unlikely. Though I know not whether the one who stole Harrington’s hat and Adair’s coat was the same that posed as the latter, it strikes me as likely. If not, why pass off the merchandise?”
“That’s sound. But why a man?”
Learc moved to the white polished balcony and peered down at the stage as the curtain rose to reveal the sundry actors thereupon.
“A female valet would look glaringly out of place, as the theatre does not hire them.”
Degarre pondered the issue a moment, nodding to himself.
“So as to have a staff strong of arm should any actor or patron require assistance with their luggage.”
“Aye. Most of the valets double as gophers for the production company. Our thief is not a woman.”
Continued in §.10.
Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. This installment will be one of the last chapter excerpts released until the book is completed.
Lord Eadwulf’s castle lay an hours ride from the city of Hableale, ensconced in rolling woodlands that trammeled out and merged with the flat vastness of the moor circumferent. The outer keep was a massive thing, ringed first by moat and second by huge curtain walls, ancient and wrought of stones from a foreign land, their providence as unknown to the inhabitants of Haberale as their age. Trumpets sounded from somewhere within the hulking monolith as two figures entered on horseback, driving hard across the drawbridge, through the mighty barbican and deep into the well trammeled haven of the outer bailey. To the right, a storehouse before which was chained a massive hound of some breed beyond the rider’s collective reckoning and to the left, a length of stable-barns from which the shunted braying of great steeds emanated like mighty gusts of wind. Folk of every lower class there labored; stable-lads hefting thick clumps of hay and the refuse of the equines as maidens dressed in the elegant red robes of the Order of Marta watched from afar, reveling in the excitement of their voyeurism, giggling with mischievous delight, fantasizing about that which their fathers would prefer they not. Older men moved large sacks of grain and salted meats from the castle proper and placed them within the store house in well-ordered piles and then dusted their calloused hands and stood chatting idly as their eyes followed the crows who turned half-circles up in the thermals.
The sky roiled with the dark harbingers of sunder, a heavy, howling wind tearing off from the far mountains and soaring in and under the battlements to scatter the hay and seed and chill the bones of every present soul. The guards looked to the darkening horizon nervously and then latched the great gate behind the two riders and then lead their horses to the stables and there bound and calmed them.
Gunvald dismounted first and looked around in wonderment. The grand keep’s ambit was so verdant and so ancient that it seemed more of some other world, some higher plane than the dull and barren sprawl of the short-flung town. He moved from the outer stable-barns and started on his way towards the wide stone-slated path which wound up to the mouth of the donjon like a gigantic serpent comprised of cloud. Baldric quickly followed and together, with a retinue of two guardsmen, they entered the castle proper. Through double doors of oak and across wide floors, well-laid with lavish carpeting, and up and down steps they went until at last they entered the well-packed banquet hall to the sound of muted strumming.
A great feast was underway and much merriment could be heard rising every now and then over the raucous clatter of instrumentation. Eadwulf Charmian sat, as was his right, at the head of the polished long table upon a throne garland with cushioned silks, hands overflowing with the splendor of his kitchens; spiced wine and phasianid. He was surrounded on all sides other by the host of the house, the chamberlain, his marshal, knights and footmen aplenty; pantler and butler moving to and fro with dutiful reserve, carrying plates of cheese and meats and trays of fish and hearty loaves and great and shimmering samovars of wine.
As Gunvald and Baldric made their way to the table they paused and, respectfully, bowed to their noble host who rose with great animation, smiling broadly.
“Duteous gentlemen, we welcome thee unto our hearth. One face familiar, the other, less so.”
Baldric gestured with melodramatic flair to his compatriot and then spoke in booming undulations.
“May I present, Ye Lordship, Gunvald Wegferend of Haberale, loyal solider to The Crown and honorable hero of our thede. Twas he alone who survived the massacre at Rivenlore and paid back the damnable cur, that architect of our goodly men’s demise, two-fold!”
A light of recognition there entered into the lord’s puffy, dull and inebriated eyes.
“Not with silver and gold, I trust!”
“No, m’lord,” Gunvald replied with a faint smile, “With blood and steel.”
“Aye, a most handsome reply! Come, let me embrace thee, worthy comrade!”
With a sudden burst of energy, the lord bounded across the floor and threw his chubby, ineffectual arms about Gunvald and then kissed his bewildered guest full upon the cheek and released him, smiling widely, patting the warrior’s arms as might a beneficent uncle.
“Now come, let us wine and dine and make merry!”
With some hesitation, Gunvald nodded and joined his Lord at the resplendent banquet table. Eadwulf made no direction and so Gunvald took a seat beside a old and grizzled pikeman whose helmet sat upon his lap, o’erturned as if he might at any moment don it once more and spring fiercely to violent action.
He scoured all present heads and gave a muted sigh. His lady was not present.
Where hast my love flown?
As Lord Eadwulf bade his Marshal, a stocky man named Haiden, raise the samovars and fill the newcomers goblets. Gunvald gritted his teeth, exerting every ounce of his considerable willpower to restrain himself from inquiry. At last, it became too much to bare; he turned full about in his chair and addressed his gracious host curtly.
“I hear tell, thee’ve taken on new hands. A young woman, if thy yeomen tell it true.”
Eadwulf gave a libidinous smile and in that moment, were he any other man, Gunvald would have leapt from his seat and cleaved him in twain. But he wasn’t any other man; he was a duke and more importantly, he was of Torian blood; of a certainty, there was no greater crime than the murder of one’s own kind – Gunvald recalled that not even that most abominable deity, Dactyl, whose very name were as a curse upon both the living and the dead, ever drew the blood of another Origin.
“Aye,” responded the lord, a twinkle in the eye, “A darling girl. A commoner, but none more beautiful, I tell thee true. Leofflaed is her name. I must introduce thee once she quits her bath.”
“She’ll be joining us?”
“Indeed, this is a special night, dear countryman! Hath thy dull brain been so wrought with valorous contemplation that ye’ve forgotten the day?”
Baldric, who sat dutifully beside his cousin, leaned in, whispering, “Tis Winter’s Dance.”
Gunvald perked up instantly, raising his goblet and forcing a wan smile.
“Of course, of course, I’d nearly forgot, tis Winter’s Dance.”
“Aye, Fall holds ever diminishing sway, master of the seasons no longer – the whispering winds of The Rimn rattle the cottages of our dainty hamlet already like the breath of some great beast,” Haiden exclaimed, shuddering slightly.
This pronouncement of fell dismay seemed to rouse much discontent in the host, the lord most of all.
“What now, sir? Is my Grand Marshal – sovereign of both horse and man – afeared of a light Winter’s gale?”
A portly old man nearest the Marshal, crimson frocked and hairless, replied darkly, “Haiden speaks it true, m’lord. These winds which blow so ceaselessly, the odd fog that seems to hang omnipresent o’er the moors, what seems to follow one in the passing, and those accursed crows – everywhere, simply everywhere – tis a bad sign. An omen. Marta is warning us.”
“Hush now, Summoner Thane,” Exclaimed Eadwulf, squirming upon his garland throne with nervous agitation, “Afore thy doomsaying proves ruinous to the good mirth of the house.”
The old man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands about his chest, over the heart. Gunvald recalled that the superstitious, masked peasants he’d met upon the road had made the same gesture when he’d uttered the name of the Eyeless-all-seeing. Gunvald remembered being taught as a child that the earthly manifestations of Marta affix themselves to the heart. It was said that the heart was the source of all emotion and that, if sufficient appropriations of piety were made to the goddess, she would cleanse the ailing organ of all that troubled it. Due this attribution, some had taken to calling her, Our Lady Pure-Heart, others still, The Reaper of Woe, though Summoner’s of a more parochial variety looked down upon such name-giving – some to the point of declaring such monikers heresies – for in the purist’s eyes, it was the very summit of arrogance to denominate pet-names to an Origin of beautitude. What place, after all, did the finite have naming the infinite?
Thane opened his wrinkled maw to speak but a harsh glare from his lord caught it there in his throat and, quickly, he fell silent once more, nodding to himself rather sadly as might the father of some harumscarum lad who’d the mind to go frolicking about the moors at night. Haiden too said no more and seeing this a fresh smile broke out over Eadwulf’s rotund and rosy face. He reached forth with his beefy, bejeweled fingers and raised his glass for a slender serving wench who poured a fresh pint of wine.
“What do thee make of all their pronouncements, landsman Gunvald?”
Gunvald looked from Haiden to the holy man and then shook his head.
“I am a footsoldier, before that, farmer. Premonitions and omens are, I am afraid, well beyond my ken.”
Suddenly, a new voice intruded upon the feast, low and sonorous, mannered like some orator of yore.
“This once venerable council has fallen to superstition most deplorably. Here you sit, High Summoner and Grand Marhsal, in the keep of the most powerful lord in the north, quaking like unsuckled babes at the prospect of supernatural despotism. Our dreams can, in times of direst contest, follow us full from that queer parlor, sleep, and pass into the waking world, latched to the insides of our selfsame skulls like a gaggle of phantasmal parasites. There they spring loose upon our fertile imaginations all manner of signs and signals, every style of omen and fell proscription. But by what method do we discern whether it is some connective coil that lends itself to providence or merely our dream’s own alcahest? Answer that question and thee shall surely have seized upon the truth of it.”
All present heads turned left, to the grand stair that let out to the upper landing, to behold a young man, garland in the finest of silks, blue and white. Upon his shoulder nested a falcon, whose piercing black eyes scanned the crowd the same as its master’s own and his lapis blue and more striking still.
Eadwulf gestured to the well-spoken dandy, “Landsman Gunvald, may I introduce to you the honorable Baron, Czemis Avarr, Ironmonger and Falconer of Caer Avarr. Our barton’s Master of Game.
Gunvald nodded respectfully towards the beauteous man who bowed respectably, but with a slight smile playing up one side of his face, as if he were possessed of some knowledge about the members of that venerable gathering which, if divulged, would bring about considerable embarrassment. The falconer then advanced to the table, his footfalls so soft and feline he made almost no sound at all. When he stood before the only empty chair opposite the lord, Haiden sighed and gestured to the falcon.
“Master Avarr, surely you do not mean to bring that carrion-beast to our table?”
The falcon sqwaked as if in rebuke as Avarr smiled ever so faintly once more.
“Not at all, for see thee not, he’s no carrion-beast. My friend prefers his prey were lively. The struggle of the hunt well whets his appetite.”
The Grand Marshal furrowed his brows with deep puzzlement and some apprehension, unsure as to the significance of the young falconer’s words.
“Meaning that he will leave thy food unmolested, lest thou there hath eft or shrew a scuttling.”
Avarr smiled his ghosting, barely discernable smile and straightened, extending the arm upon which his falcon nested as he whistled a command, whereupon the majestic beast flew full up to the rafters and then back down to perch upon the lower railing of the staircase like a dutiful guardian. The avian surveyed them intently as its master took his seat opposite Eadwulf, removing a small, silver cigarette tin from some inner fold of his jacket. All the while he moved, Gunvald’s eyes followed him, transfixed to the supple elegance of the singular man as he slid a machine-packed cigarette between his blood-red lips and lit it with a golden lighter. Languid and masterful were his movements, so much so that even the mundane action of his tobacco consumption seemed to eat up the energy of the room, to refocus and refine it. After a few long, languid drags upon his opium laced cigarette he leaned back upon the unadorned and old wooden chair at table’s end as if it were a throne more resplendent than Eadwulf’s own. The gesture seemed to say that it were now permissible for the party to continue, that his entrance had garnered sufficient appraisal. It seemed, to the veteran, that any man or woman who had no foreknowledge of the rightful placing of the household would have assumed this guady, white-haired falconer the rightful master of the keep.
“Thou must be Sir Gunvald, tis an honor to make thy acquaintance, loyal kinsman.”
Avarr extended a supple, white-gloved hand to the soldier who took it with some hesitation and shook it firmly. The falconer was far stronger than he looked.
“The honor is not thine alone, Baron Avarr, thy reputation precedes thee. Six years of fighting the grey folk and yet I never once encountered thee or thy men. Yet there were stories aplenty. Not a month went by where there was not talk amongst the war camp of thy valor. I wish we could have, if but once, shared the field.”
“We never had the chance to fight, side by side, as I never fought at the front. Fering – before his passing – stationed my regiment in the north-eastern forests near the base of the World Spine; despite my protestations, he believed, correctly, as it turned out, that my prowess as a huntsman would prove useful against the remnants of the Grey Folk who had deserted their war combine and who operated from that festering wood as brigands of a most savage disposition. Their operation had severely hampered our supply-lines and without supplies thy lot in the front would have crumbled, not from the foes to the north, but from the pangs of hunger and thirst. As thee well knows, the Grey Folk were not seasoned in open warfare, they’d have been crushed like insects under the hooves for a boar had they confronted the Torian Legions, army to army, on some open plain, as is our custom, for those weapons from my forge are scarce rivaled, even in Sage. Rather, they preferred the confounding architecture of their grand forests – subterfuge and skullduggery from behind bark and vine – arrows in the dark, knives in the back in twisting avenues where grapeshot is ill advised. Thou mayest recall the furor their tactics caused, we Torians had grown complacent in our ways and were outraged, foolishly, senselessly, when a tribe decided that rules and warfare mixed as water and oil. So our gracious Lord sent me to confront them at their selfsame game and thanks to the valor of my own men and, if it is not too bold to say, my own slow-flowering plans, I was able to best them most decisively.”
“As humble as ever, Baron.” Marshal Haiden sneered. Gunvald sensed bad-blood between the two and wondered at its origins. It seemed to Gunvald that there was some mote of jealousy in Haiden’s tone, buried firmly beneath his facade of civility. A venom particular to a man once scorned and unrecognized. A strange thing indeed, for the Grand Marshal was, in the hierarchy of the court, second in importance only to Eadwulf and the Arch-Summoner himself. What, Gunvald wondered, could he possibly be jealous of? What could a countryside ironmonger of minor nobility possess that the chief of The Lord’s army could not?
At length, Avarr turned to the Marshal and poured himself a glass of wine and lit himself another cigarette before speaking.
“I’ve been called many things in my life, Grand Marshal: ‘whore-monger,’ ‘addict,’ ‘pretentious,’ ‘tree killer,’ but never, ‘humble.’ At this point, such an allegation would sting worse than all the others. What is ‘humility’ but the perpetual pretense of inferiority? Nothing else. The humble man is he who says, ‘Ignore my prowess! It is meaningless! Praise only my boundless insignificance!’ When indeed, in reality, the feigning of his impotence and insignificance is the very thing which he hopes is praised; a substitute for true virtue. To be called humble is to be called a liar.”
The members of the house gave several terse, nervous laughs, unsure if Avarr’s comments were meant as jest or lecture or some queer combination of the two and when he laughed with them their mirth turned in earnest. Haiden merely grimaced and returned to his goblet, clearly displeased but not so sufficiently as to ruin his Lord’s graceful gathering.
Eadwulf leaned over his mutton, goblet in hand, remnants of fowl clinging to his girthful and graying beard, “Is Leofflaed coming shortly? Or is she still mucking about with her perfume and spice?”
The baron leaned back in his chair, smoking idly and looking off to where his feathery comrade fluttered about the rafters as if in silent rapport. At length, he spoke without turning.
“She dresses as we speak. I expect her any-”
Suddenly a shrill, impetuous voice boomed out from the upper landing.
“So I see that all have begun without me!”
Gunvald followed the voice from whence it came and turned his gaze to the grand stair whereupon a young woman stood, pout-lipped and grim-eyed, hands at her waist. Gunvald was shocked and elated. Elated at the sight of his beloved, shocked at how much she had changed in the space of seven years. Gone was the radiant smile of youthful innocence, in it’s stead, a cold, disdainful frown. Gone were the sun-faded and form-fitting lineaments of the village, replaced now by garish vestments of the keep, silk and sapphires, silver and gold. Gone was her agile frame and the supple movements which the soldier remembered so fondly from his youth, replaced now by an ungainly girth. None would have called her fat but the burgeoning plumpness of castle-excess was unmistakable.
“Thou hath no right to look so put-out, Leofflaed, one cannot expect all the world to run along the lines of thy clock,” Avarr replied flatly from below.
She surveyed the falconer with slowly softening vexation, then the party. Gunvald was surprised the Lord did not reprimand the baron for his chastisement. At length, she sighed and descended the stair, taking a seat beside Lord Eadwulf. As one of the serving girls pulled out a seat for Leofflaed, Eadwulf smiled and gestured towards her, his mouth half-filled with meats.
“Radiant, my dear, most radiant!”
Her only reply was a half-hearted smile, as transitory as the light glinting off her eyes.
The Lord motioned for the serving girls to fill her cup and move the food down to Leofflaed’s end of the table, as the silk-robed woman looked over the faces of every present soul. She seemed wholly disinterested in the affair, hands folded about her waist, lips stuck in what seemed to be a perpetual pout. Though she had gained weight and her countenance wore grim, she was still quite beautiful, the luster of fertile youth not yet wholly faded by time. What stirred Gunvald’s passions more than all her fading beauty was the memories of those fairer days wherein she and he had twined about the steps of the old temple, bounding here and there over moss and lichen, bracken and fern; how they had played hide and seek in the forests beyond Castle Avarr just before the moorland; how they embraced in times of woe and how they had kissed underneath the white bone of the moon by the statue at the edge of town whereupon he’d stumbled across the curious, one-eyed beggar. He remembered how they’d made love the day before he’d left for war, how she’d moaned and later cried and how they had pledged themselves to one another as the sun had risen red as the blood of all the men he had ever slain, as if portending all the masterful savagery he had done and all that he was still to do. Crushing sadness and unignorable agitation swam within the body of the swordsman, moving within his bosom and up from bosom to throat and from throat to mouth, bursting free of that fleshy cage like a lantern shattered in a barn of hay.
“Ne’er did I dare to believe that I would behold that face again; not in wildest dream-wanderings.”
Leofflaed turned to the upstart instantly, one brow going up with mild shock, the other down in confusion. Eyes met there for some indeterminable sphere’s turning, brown to green, green to brown forest to earth, plateau to vine. The shock swiftly dissipated into perplexed consternation.
“And thou art?”
Gunvald’s heart stilled a moment, then a pain, eerie and ethereal, slithered throughout the totality of the soma, palling the mind with direst imaginings. The soldier parted his lips to speak but no sound there escaped; he merely looked on, stunned to speechlessness. Fists balled like stones at his side, trembling with agitation. How, he thought, could she not remember?
Avarr turned to the woman and gestured to the soldier with his half-burned cigarette.
“Lady Leofflaed, may I introduce thee to Gunvald Wegerferend. It were he that slew Grim-Claw, Chief of the Gray Hordes of the North. Impressive, no?”
Leofflaed’s eyes grew wide, her body tense and still, her breath catching in her throat until a muted gasp escaped therefrom.
“Please… excuse me. I’m not… feeling well.”
Eadwulf lowered his goblet, furrowing his disorderly brows.
“What’s this now, have ye taken too much port afore the meal?”
“No, my dearest,” she turned full away from the still-standing soldier as she addressed her liege, as if she might wither away beneath his gaze, “I… do not not know what has come over me, some allergy perhaps, a fever of the seasons.”
Her facade fooled none but a few of the serving maids who cloistered round their ward, one of them fanning the lady with an empty soup dish, all the better to dispel whatever had befallen her. None spoke and, at length, the Lord intoned softly and somberly, “Well, get ye gone then. Off to bed. Off.”
The Lady left without another word as an uneasy pall settled over the feast. After the last footfalls of the Lady and her entourage had vanished up the well-varnished steps of the keep, The Baron rose and took Gunvald by the arm.
“Join me for a smoke upon the terrace.”
“But… the feast…”
Gunvald glanced over his shoulder and found Eadwulf’s beady eyes affixed to his own, sullenly regarding them with growing suspicion from beneath craggy brows and matted locks.
“I and our kindly guest wish to ply our senses to the crisp night air, by your leave.”
The Lord looked on a moment, his suspicion melting away almost instantly into a look of sadness then bewilderment, then comprehension. He nodded, “Ah, yes, yes, of course. Give him the goodly tour of it!”
“So I shall, my lord. So I shall.”
The two men, the baron and the landsman, left off out of the great hall to the whispering of the inner court, the distance rendering the sounds unintelligable.
Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. More chapter excerpts will be released in the coming weeks.
Gunvald woke in the dark and buried the brigand upon the northern hill opposite the shepherd’s encampment and departed from the old vaquero wordlessly, before his waking, as the halcyon sphere drifted up across the high, jagged peaks of the far mountain. He made his way over the thin, reedy grass from the northern hill and from there to the stony outcropping where he’d slept as the sheep bawled and yapped like insane children and then passed down between the precarious tors into the lowlands which were spotted here and there with small tufts of shrubbery and strange boulders incised with markings from some people that had since passed from the world’s collective remembrance. The man stopped as if the stones had rooted him to shade and slowly reached out to touch the curious monolith before him, gingerly running his dry and cloth-wrapped hands across the smooth-hewn crevices of the mighty artifact. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply until his breathing became as rhythmic as a drumbeat and he felt as if his hands and those that had wrought the arcane inscriptions were one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales of forgotten times and well-lived lives and those less well lived and what their folly entailed for the ignorant persisting. It was a peculiar feeling, one that the weary traveler struggled to rationalize but felt powerfully all the same. At length, he opened his eyes and slowly withdrew his hand from the stone and retreated a pace and looked over the monolith entire, from tip to base and judged the breadth and width; some eight feet high, some seven feet wide. The weight of the thing the gods only knew.
When he’d taken in the stone in all its facets he turned full from it and made his way out through the bracken and quitch and past other stones, both larger and smaller than the first, and all similarly marked by ancient hands, the symbols there incised beyond the travelers reckoning. Here and there a recognizable representation, half-masked in abstraction: a man, a woman, a wolf, a bear, a fish, a snail, a tree. The symbol most oft represented was the wolf, over and over again it was inscribed, with near mechanical precision and a primal beauty that he’d scarcely witnessed in even the most technically proficient of paintings. He could almost hear its call.
Beyond the rune-stones the ground flattened out with astounding brevity, the bracken and quitch giving way to queer lichen and strange vines with small purple shoots and thick, raw swatches of muddy-clay, filled all with fetid water that buzzed with insects of every shape and size. The further out the man cast his gaze the larger the water-filled depressions grew until they merged unto a singularity, one vast marshen heap of rain-catch and sod and sand and silt. Bogland.
He recalled the old man’s words, “The first false step means death, to man or beast.”
Suddenly, there came a raucous calling, an intonation, nearby and strangely human. The traveler whirled, spotting, some forty yards out into the mire, a huge male ram, only his forelegs, chest, neck and horn-crowned head clear above the bog-hold. The creature struggled a moment, flailing its powerful legs against the silt and sand-water and then, quite suddenly, it vanished, sucked down at last; even the tips of its horns sinking below the grim surface of that plane of death.
Gunvald watched the unhappy affair with a mixture equal parts despair and fascination. It seemed too sudden to be real, the way the earth could so swiftly devour such a beast. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to diamond. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor seven years ago. It seemed a whole panoply of lifetimes compressed into the scattered crystalline fragments of his memories and dreams.
He recalled the long march beside his kinsmen. How high their banners flew, the colors of all the clan houses of Tor; after decades of internecine violence, united at last against a common foe, the gray-men of the Hinterlands, those they called, Rimners. How young and wild and full of lofty opinions they had been…
As Gunvald looked out across the moor his opinions flew at considerably lower altitude.
Finding no passage through the peat, Gunvald opted to travel round it by the southernmost way. The trek lasted two days and brought him past all manner of rummy shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the macabre props of a phantasmal play. Beyond the surmounted wetlands lay a quiet vale through which ran a babbling brook, girded on all sides by dry forest and vine, the ground verdant-lush and teeming with all manner of skittering things, both foul and fair. He sat by the snaking divet and withdrew a wood cup from his travel satchel and dipped it in the water and drank deeply, the liquid sweet and cool to his parched and desirous throat. Then he watched the solar plumes play across the waves as a small school of fish nudged up to the surface, their huge, lidless eyes gazing upon the sun-scorned figure as if appetent of conversation. Gunvald withdrew the last of his stock, a dry half-loaf of bread and broke it into small pieces, eating some and then throwing the rest to the fishes who gobbled at the flotsam and then nervously retreated, wary of Man’s latent, yet ever present, perfidy.
Moments later, the sound of creaking wood could be heard all throughout the vale, followed swiftly by a muted cascade of footfalls. The sound followed the wake of an old cart, rope-dragged by four men, filthy, disheveled and dressed all in furs. Their faces covered by cloth half-masks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congregation, eyes widening with horror as he beheld their vessel’s grisly cargo.
Some fifteen in number, human and decaying under the harsh auspice of the sun, male and female alike, from babe to crone, covered in all manner of hideous rashes and boils, their skin ashen-red and peeling like the hide of some overripe fruit. Whatever disease it was that had snatched from them the breath of life seemed, for the moment, to have no hold upon the cart-pullers who paused momentarily, all turning to the man by the river.
One of their number addressed Gunvald sharply, as if in reprimand for some past transgression.
“What easy fool is this?”
“No fool, sir, but a soldier.”
“Those that here make passage well warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”
“Tis a pitiable sight. Whereby didst the sorry lot meet Dactyl’s scythe?”
Upon the utterance of that most singular name the men collectively gasped, the former speaker, a short man, bow-backed, balding and scar-faced, muttered a muted prayer and then gestured towards Gunvald as if casting some devious vermin from his presence.
“Sound not that unutterable traducement!”
“I meant no offense. Superstition has surely deranged thy temperament.”
“Enough, heretic, we darest not tarry, lest thee, with thy calumnious tongue, conjure some new evil to surpass the one that now burdens our aching backs!”
The other workers nodded as if there was great wisdom in the bald man’s words and then they adjusted their masks and ropes and muttered another prayer and bent once more to their toil and moved out across the rutted and grassy way, vanishing at last beneath the cavernous canopy of the wood, swallowed whole by the shadows therein.
Gunvald watched them go and decided to follow the cart-men at a distance, for their path and his were, for the time being, one and the same.
Gunvald rose and gave chase, passing through the thick and tangled forest of oak and ash and fir and gave silent thanks for the thick moss-bed beneath that masked the clattering of his bulky, armored frame. Over moss and stone and leaves, dead and alive, he walked, keeping himself well hidden and well apart from the odd foursome and their rickety old cart. After a couple hundred feet the forest opened up, the trees and shrubbery now growing more sparsely, the grass fading from green to yellow-green to a dull orange-yellow. Dying. The cart-pullers took a sharp right and passed fully beyond the forest unto a thin, dirt road that stretched out to the gray northwestern hill-lands like the great and ossified tendril of some mighty leviathan. The road ran down a slight decline in the hummock-ridden surface of the world and then diverged, one track splitting off to a small city to the south and the other branching to a butte over which rose the pass to the low, south-eastern mountains. Gunvald waited until the men had disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth and then took the lonely path towards the town stopping by a small, wooden sign, hastily constructed, which read:
The sign was adorned with a large off-white arrow, comprised of some woodland dye, which pointed towards the clearly present outline of the town in the short-off distance, half obscured by small tussles of old trees which poked above a field of withering wheat and the ruins of some primeval fort that lay beyond, its towers brimming with black wings and hissing beaks. Before the man had fully risen from his observation of the sign, the sound of thundering hooves rose up from somewhere nearby, plumes of dust whirling from the immediate northern road. Shortly, a fearsome cavalcade stood before the weary and cautious wayfarer, five in number and all armed and armored in strict uniformity. Knights or sell-swords or something worse. Gunvald knew instantly they were not of the town, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Caer Tor, a kingdom someways off and rarely concerned with its outlying provinces. The leader of the group and the eldest, a man of middling height and some fifty years, at length addressed the armored wayfarer.
“Hail, traveler. A moment to query?”
Gunvald nodded in wordless acquiescence, though he knew that it was not a question proper.
“I am Cyneweard, second-commander of Tor. Word of brigand-raids have reached our gracious Lord, Cenhelm, and by his leave we make way to Haberale to rope the misbegotten scoundrels.”
“If that is thy venture then ye’ev headed the way awrong. Thy foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”
“Thou hast seen them?”
“Three nights past I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants, it seemed.”
“Three thou sayst?”
The knight took the measure of the soldier before him, discerning flecks of crusted blood about his boots and nodded solemnly.
“I thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to thy business, traveler?”
“My business is my own.”
“Suit thyself. One word of parting, kinsman, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we take our leave.”
Without another word the knights straightened in their leather saddles and flicked the reigns of their war-beasts and clattered off down the road toward the moor. When they had gone all was silent save for the heavy breath of the western wind that sent the traveler’s long, wavy locks aflutter. He brushed his mane from out his eyes and adjusted his scabbard-belt and wondered at the knight’s words. Haberale had always been a sleepy, little idyll, the only heed one had need to take was of how uneventful it was likely to be so as to better remedy the doldrums. He thought of the bandits and the dead men in the cart and the living ones pulling it and the strange masks on their faces, all deep, emerald green.
Times had changed indeed.
Gunvald left off down the way and crossed through the fading wheat and the hard clay ground and made camp in the ruins of some old fort as darkness closed about him in minacious plume.