Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Eight

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THE MIDDEN

After the company finished a light breakfast of salted meats and hard bread brought from Urvolsk and readied their dobbins, they bid farewells to Erdn and rode out from the bare, weather-beaten shrine and the circumambient sarsens and rejoined the road. They passed west beyond the familiar pine-topped scarp and debarked a narrow channel of striated rock that wound a half-circle to the top of the departed, coniferous bluff. From the ledge, the spiny trees extended and multiplied to a high forest that cut the sky like a green-blue phalanx. Twenty minutes of plodding brought the sight of hewn and high-stacked softwood about which moved a bevvy of ax-armed loggers who offered curt waves upon spying the travelers before returning to their task. The northern side of the wood shrunk and declined to tangles of ferns and vines and high grasses and let out to a low-lying field, spotted with short sedge and the remains of ancient stone structures half-buried in bare swatches of sodden marl. Strewn among the peeking walls and foundations was a vast array of woven baskets and pottery, cracked and fading and slow-falling to the hungry earth. Gleaming with the last vestiges of the preceding night’s precipitation, the limestone soil and calciferous remnants lent to the whole of the region the appearance of one great and glistening skeletal mass, the illusion of a monstrous being, beached, flayed and fused to the mantle. Beyond the midden, scarcely visible over patchy knolls and a gathering fog, rose the palisades of Thekjaburg, the city’s colorful boar-head banner swaying gently with the wind. Between the clearing and the center of the osseous sprawl was a somber caravan in whose midst sat an awning-covered cart bearing three cages which bore three manacled captives. The procession consisted of a man and a woman who stood before a rugged carriage hitched to two fierce black steeds, behind which four riders were arrayed, two to each side of the carted cages, armed and armored and cruel of countenance. The dire-clad troupe held their ground and conversed as their mounts clomped impatiently. All members of Valyncort’s company recognized the dusky vestments of the caravan as belonging to the slavers of Allhadr, whose like in Austr were seldom seen. The five travelers turned to each other with aspects of concern. It seemed the somber outlanders had yet to noticed them.

“Allhadrene.” Siles scratched his chin. “What do you fancy brings westerfolk to Austr?”

“Could be they were sent for by the maire of Thekjaburg.” Hulmarra considered aloud.

“Could be. Or perhaps Taalo or Tor is selling ’em Ashers.”

Kosif shook his hooded head. “Unlikely. Those caged aren’t Ashers. And Taalo and Tor have nearly no contact with the hamlets hereabout.”

“There is only one way to find out for sure.” Valyncort declared.

“What’s that, my lord?”

“Ask them.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“For once I agree with Tessel.” Hulmarra said, as Silifrey crossed her arms and pursed her lips.

“Allhadrene are not renowned for their hospitality, but they keep to the letter of the law. They’d not be able to maintain their accords with our provinces otherwise.”

Without further discourse, the five travelers trotted carefully down the wide graminaceous incline from the forest to the field and moved out across the flat and ruined ambit. The Allhadrene looked in the newcomer’s direction and did not hail them. As the company drew up to the penal convoy, a chill wind swept in from the north and the fog followed with it. Then came a dim, osteal jangling. As bells of porous wood or obdurate chalk or some like material. Valyncort looked about, but could see no accordant instruments from the Allhadrene or their steeds or carriage.

“Hail.”

“Av yew bisnis weth us?” A rearward rider inquired with a look of mild curiosity toward Valyncort and his companions.

“Nay. Our business lies in Thekjaburg.” Valyncort replied courteously. As he pulled up beside the riders the forms of the prisoners became clear through the shifting pall. The first was a woman, scrawny and wrathful of eye, with braided brown hair and long-sleeved garments that hid intricate blue tattooes; the second, a hulking man with a scarred face and a dejected demeanor whose cracked hands and sun-faded clothing marked him a laborer; the third, a man of middling height, sallow-skinned with matted hair the hue of rusted iron, who wore a many-colored coat rolled at the sleeves and covered in small bells that jangled merrily with every gust of wind and at his waist was tied an elegant sword-belt without scabbard or blade. The source of the previous sibilance. The woman and the giant kept their eyes low. The many-colored man, however, turned to the new arrivals with an unwavering tranquil smile on his long angular face, his eyes opening indolently, the left iris, a pale blue, the right, a burnt umber.

“What were their crimes?” Tessel asked in the tongue of Allhadr.

The expression of the Allhadrene who had previously spoken shifted from guarded disinterest to surprise. The woman who stood before the carriage moved out toward the inriders. She was clad in the same dusky banded plate as her fellows and wore shoulder-length hair in a taunt and intricate braid and a short beige half-cape affixed by a brass brooch over her right shoulder.

“You speak our tongue well, girl.” Unlike the previous member of the entourage, the woman’s accent was slight, her Austrene annunciation fluid. “Were did you learn it?”

“From one of my tutors. He spent some years in Allhadr. Kortis was his name.”

“A name I have not heard. Well. You travel to town, so you should know the midden is dangerous on horseback. Doubly so in this invidious shroud.” The woman pointed sternly toward the far ramparts of Thekjaburg, now wholly concealed in the murk. “A false step means a broken bone. Here the ground is solid. So we wait for the pall to clear. I recommend you do the same.”

“Could we not take the wood around this sod?” Siles asked, jerking his thumb toward the conifers, slowly disappearing in the haze. “We saw some lumberers earlier, surely they’ll know a better way.”

“You could. Though its thick with beasts. Boar especially. The loggers have a camp. Won’t travel with the weather as it is. And if you go around the midden, would take at least two days more to reach town. There are no other ways.”

“We thank you for the advice.” Valyncort broke in, dismounting. “Since our camps are here stymied and the weather wends bitter, I’d say a fire is in order. If you’ve no objections?”

The dusk-colored riders looked expectantly to the woman. She said something in her mother-tongue and gestured to a flat portion of land but a dozen feet from the carts.

“What’d she say?” Siles inquired to Tessel with worry.

“Clear the dross and make a fire.” Without hesitation, two of the Allhadrene sentries did just that. The other guards remained at their posts beside the well-shackled prisoners. The two disembarked Allhadrene produced shovel and pick and swiftly cleared a patch of refuse and began to dig a shallow pit and border it with stones. As the men worked, Valyncort’s company dismounted and collected kindling consisting of dried grasses and discarded element-addled baskets, broken casks and unriven broughham siding and heaped all of it into the pit. The Allhadrene taskmaster produced a length of flint from a satchel at her belt and sparked a flame. Moments later, the disparate travelers of Austr and Allhadr sat about a roaring bonfire on flat stones or recovered debris unfit for burning.

The Allhadr woman introduced herself as Vespa Mallo, the two men to each side of her as Jaunce and Rhame, the other two sentries as Ullul and Yarl, and the man before the carriage, who wore a cloak identical to her own, as Vander Mallo, her brother. Valyncort’s company introduced themselves in turn as Vander produced a pipe and watched the mist roil with a wary eye.

“Are your friends not joining us?” Tessel asked, looking toward the three distant members of the caravan, who busied themselves tying their horses to the wagon.

“Always we keep two eyes to each passenger.”

“What for? Way them folk are chained, they’re not going anywhere.” Siles remarked with a touch of incredulity as he fuddled with the straps of his traveling pack.

“So you would think. But we once had a man, bound same as those you see, who, in a moment of solitude, slipped his bindings and vanished into the night. We do not know how. We take more care since then.”

“Did you ever find this man?”

The woman’s expression soured. She gazed into the crackling flames and shook her head.

Siles dipped into his bag, produced a bottle of wine, took a swig and passed it around the fire. All but Kosif accepted the offering.

“You don’t drink?” Vespa asked as the dark-cloaked man passed the bottle to Valyncort.

“Spirits dull the senses. Originary limits are hurdle enough.”

“Are you a Martaen? I have heard their vows forbid such indulgence.”

“I am not. But it is right what you hear.”

“We met one. A Martean that is. A gracious man.” Tessel said with fondness. “Not far back on the road. At the shrine beyond the woods. Surely you must have passed it.”

“I know the place of which you speak. But we had no cause to dally and saw no one in our passing.”

“He gave us tea. Let us spend the night.”

Rhame nodded. “Ver gracious. Wev fond ta locals, ow to say, guarded, but hospital.”

“Likely guarded because of-” Hulmarra gestured to the cages. “Afraid of being snatched.”

“A vain fear.” Vespa declared. “Our quarry are criminals. And them exclusively. Whether from our land or another. In this way we are not dissimilar to your Watchers.”

“Didn’t know that.”

“What do you know, Ms. Ambercrown?”

“Not much other than your reputation for-” again the woman gestured to the cages.

“A reputation Austr deserves as much, if not more, than us.”

“How so?” Tessel cut in.

“Austr gaols. That is what I mean.”

“We keep prisoners, not slaves.”

“Call them this, call them that. Prisoner. Inmate. They are chattel. The difference is merely that, unlike us, you do not put your chattel to use. Instead you keep them shuttered in the dark. You think this makes you better than us, girl?”

“It makes us more tolerant.” Tessel responded with rising indignation.

“Tolerance is a virtue to those without conviction.” Kosif uttered, his eyes to the stars.

“Whose side are you on?” Tessel pouted.

He glanced briefly from the astral domain. Carnelian-violet orbs flashing full with fire. When he did not reply, Vespa continued.

“Tell me. What is your method more tolerant of? You do not tolerate your prisoners to stretch their limbs, to labor as or with their fellows, to feel the sun on their skin. This is less tolerant. That is, it permits of less. But this is not so bad. Perhaps you have decided they deserve this fate. Perhaps they do. We do not tolerate slander or theft or rape or murder. But you respond with singular punishment. If a man robs, you put him in a box. If he rapes, you put him in a box. If he kills, you put him in a box. Allhadr respond in kind. Like for like. If a man robs, he is put to work producing the wealth he stole. If he rapes, he is treated as a catamite. If he kills, he is worked to expiration in a mine or galley. This the Allhadr considers just.”

“If you consider such actions wicked, and engage in them, how are you not wicked yourself?”

“Initiative and intent. Who strikes first and why? You do not seem to think of these things. But enough of this. My patience frays.” Vespa replied with a wave of her hand, as if shooing an errant insect.

Before Tessel, who had been roused to a fretful state, could respond, Jaunce leaned toward Valyncort and queried. “What thinks The Watcher?”

Valyncort pulled his wolf-hide cloak close about his body and turned Siles’ bottle upside down, no liquid there dispersing.

“I think we need more wine.”

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Seven

Previous chapter

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 advanced 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.

Next chapter

Jarnhjalmrodall: Chapter Six

Previous chapter

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 slid 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 slid 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

Kryos: Chapter 17

Previous chapter

A storm echoed in the north beyond Consortium Hall. Luminous blue arcs scraping gloaming sky. Inside the structure, harsh ringed ceiling lights illuminated the work-worn face of an officious man seated at a wide kalsomined table. The ring-lights flickered erratically as a immaculate figure entered the room. The obsidian-garbed entrant strode methodically toward the table, regarding its occupant keenly with piercing ichorous eyes.

“Oversecretary Gild.”

Ermin Gild straightened in his chair as rain pelted the thick panes of the conference chamber. He pursed his thin lips as the lights returned and gestured to them queriously with his right hand as his left thrummed rhythmically upon the sleeved-smoothed tabletop.

“Mr. Kryos. That from the… what do you call it again? Telesoma?”

Kryos nodded nearly imperceptibly.

Gild forced a smile. “Well, I appreciate you meeting me on such short notice. And in person, or a close enough approximation. The Chancellor would have come herself were it not for the forthcoming election.”

Kryos folded his hands behind his back and looked toward the empyrean fulminations visible beyond the thick floor to ceiling window-pane.

“No is my answer.”

Ermin Gild furrowed his brow at the smooth resolved declaration, his left hand tapping more rapidly on polished polymer.

“I’ve yet to ask a question.”

Kryos said nothing and turned his back to the speaker seated at the small circular conference table, observing a carbon sculpture that stood the far right corner, which one of the aids had recently convinced Gild to have installed to “liven up the room.”

“Its quite chintz, don’t you think?”

“In execution, not in concept.”

“I didn’t realize there was a concept.”

“A blind man would say as much of a color.”

Gild frowned, left hand tapping faster. He cleared his throat before speaking again.

“Syzr needs to be brought in. We’re gonna charge him with a minor offense, keep that from the public. Wait for the heat to die down and release him, quietly. Comments need to be made to the press. The Chancellor would like your cooperation. We can set this right, but you or Straker are gonna have to make a statement. An official statement. Tell them it was horrible, you’re taking active measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, that you’re restructuring. Retraining. Say something maudlin about poverty and crime, they like that sort of thing.”

“You want me to defame one of my own to placate savages,” Kryos ran his right hand gingerly along the contours of the dark sculpture.

“That’s public relations.”

“I decline.”

“You don’t seem interested in ameliorating this situation.”

“Not in the way The Chancellor desires.”

“The media is firestorming this. They’ll be more protests. Boycotts. Riots. Rumors. Investigations. I know how keen you are to see your ship launch. Why jeopardize that?”

“Is that the root of your nervousness? Whether or not my ship launches successfully?”

“You may not believe it, but I’m looking forward to it. The first completely self-sustaining spaceship in human history. If anyone ought to be nervous, its you.”

“You tap your fingers when you’re agitated. As an overwrought woman might bite her nails.”

Gild ceased his rapping and folded his digits into a fist.

“Look. It won’t dent your revenues. You can replace Syzr for the duration of his detention, surely. This is good for all of us. Why are you taking such a hard line?”

“Revenue and reputation are paltry currency to the cosmos.”

Gild leaned back in his chair, brows compressed by perplexity. Knuckles clacking on the table.

“If there is nothing more to discuss, I will be going.”

The man’s form began to distort, quivering like the surface of a pond disturbed.

“Wait. Just a moment.”

Kryos observed the man over his shoulder placidly. His form stabilizing. Gild pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and index and sighed, closed his eyes, opened them and turned to the affin module built into the table. He pressed the touchpad below the viewing panel.

“Cynthia, bring me a seltzer when you have moment.”

A small thumbs-up icon appeared in response. He found that strange. She had never used emoticons before. Must be the influence of her kid, he thought flippantly. He drew his hand from the control panel and leaned back in his seat, stifling a heavy sigh.

“What we desire is seldom what is required for satiation,” Kryos declared resolutely, still observing the statue.

Gild opened his mouth to respond as a middle aged woman with short, dark hair entered the room, carrying a drink on a tray. She smiled pleasantly and approached the ring-shaped table, which retracted such that the server could pass to the middle of it, whereafter she set Gild’s drink down before him.

“Your seltzer, Sir.”

“Thanks.”

Gild paused, looked to the drink and back to the bland-faced woman, brows knitting faintly. He’d never seen her before.

“Where’s Cynthia?”

“Wasn’t feeling good. She asked me if I could bring it to you.”

“Oh, I see. How dreadful.”

“Her son must be wearing her out,” Kryos interjected without turning.

The server nodded, smiled, “That must be it, Sir.”

Kryos looked over his shoulder to Gild, whose dark eyes were now severe and full of concern, then to the woman.

“Cynthia doesn’t have a son,” Gild stated flatly.

As Gild opened his mouth to issue a query, the woman withdrew a cutter from beneath her overcoat and discharged the device into him. Gild tumbled over in his chair, writhing in shock and agony as the woman whirled upon Kryos, the weapon levelled at his head.

The man turned full around and fixed her in his xanthous gaze, as a entomologist might observe a newly discovered species. His posture confident and relaxed. The woman smirked and tightened her grip on the cutter, which began to hum, prelude to discharge.

“G’night Mr. Kryos.”

The next instant there came a resounding crack as the assailant fired a pulse into Kryos’ left eye. His head jerked backward, a neat, perfectly symmetrical hole through it. The woman’s smile widened. She waited for the body to fall. Her grin dissipated when it didn’t. Kryos inclined his head until his right eye was level with his foe. Left eye replaced by a charred hole which fizzed and slowly closed upon itself. The particulates comprising his vessel regrouping. Left eye reformed. Kryos took a step forward as the woman mouthed incredulity.

“What is this?”

The woman raised her cutter once more and fired two more charges into Kryos’ chest. The blasts barely slowed him down. He neither bled nor winced and continued striding evenly toward the waylayer as she gasped and spun, dashing for the exit. The woman’s egress was obstructed by an emergency shield door which descended from the ceiling over the sole doorway. She whipped round to see Ermin Gild, struggling unsteadily to his feet, a hole through his left shoulder, his right hand upon his desk-bound control module, his eyes filled with rage. The woman raised the cutter at him, prompting a wince, then pointed it towards Kryos, who continued his languid approach.

“Open the door or I fire. You hear me. Stay back.”

“Cutters can fire four times on a single charge. You’ve neither a recharger nor time to use it.”

He took another step forward, the woman’s handheld weapon nearly flush with his chest.

“Put that ridiculous thing away.”

The woman’s body trembled as she lowered the weapon. Knowing neither fight nor flight was afforded her. Kryos leaned toward the woman until his eyes were level with her own, his bloodless face serene.

“You have given me the gift of trust. For that, I am truly grateful.”

The woman tensed and drew away, bumping up against the shield door.

“My gratitude would be bolstered by names.”

“You’re wasting your breath.”

“Ever since I was a child, I delighted in dissection. Absolute understanding of mundane composition affords the possibility of absolute supersession. Of contemporaneous artificial constraints. Or, the frailties of mammalian biology.”

“I don’t know anything.”

The shield door opened, revealing a troop of red clothed Vekt Corp security men. The new arrival’s tensed and aimed their weapons at the failed assassin.

“Hands in the air! Now!”

“What shall it be, life in a cell, or the end of it here?” Kryos inquired softly.

The woman tearfully met her target’s gaze, her face twitching with desperation and despair. With considerable speed, she drew a blade from a hidden sheath strapped beneath her coat and rushed the closest guard. He fired his cutter and took off half her face. Rheum spattered the ceiling. The woman’s body dropped to the floor, lifeless, leaking red.

Gild looked upon the carnage with horror, stunned to silence.

“She didn’t leave us a choice,” the captain of the guard stated unevenly as he strode into the room, “Are you alright, Mr. Gild? Mr. Kryos?”

“I have a hole in my shoulder.”

“Does it hurt, sir?”

Gild glared and opened his mouth, a curse poised on his lips, cut off by the captain.

“I’m sorry, sir. A medic will be up shortly.”

Gild inclined his head in approval and sat down heavily in the chair adjacent his former one which had been overturned in the scuffle as the guards dragged the body out of the room. As the door closed behind the cadaver and the men who carried it, Kryos approached the table. After several seconds of leaden silence Gild, fighting back tears of pain and dread, looked to the projection.

“What’d you mean, she’d given you a gift?”

“The only people outside of my company aware of Project Telesoma are you and the members of the board. This facility requires secretary clearance, which means-“

Gild’s eyes went wide.

“It was one of the under secretaries.”

Kryos looked toward the small hole in his companion’s shoulder and then toward the storm breaking in the distance.

“See to it this matter is kept in-house.”

The injured man ground his teeth and downed his alcohol spiked seltzer, “You want them to try the same trick again?”

“To kill a wolf, bury a blade in the snow and salt it with blood.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 16

Previous chapter

Ryard Vancing adjusted his high collared coat against the chill northern wind which swept through the narrow rightward walkway of the market district, intensifying its feverish clangor, and side-eyed the woman Syzr had assigned to accompany him. He’d missed her name during their hasty introduction and attempted to surreptitiously acquire it from her gleaming monochromatic armor. His gaze alighted upon the left side of her breastplate. No name tag. He looked next to the woman’s left pauldron, observing only Kryos’ distinctive sigil, black against the metallic-polymer carapace. He grimaced and cursed internally, annoyed by the informational dearth, embarrassed by the momentary mental lapse.

“Why’d they remove the name tags from your uniforms?”

The woman’s voice crackled mechanically through her facemask as a group of vendees passed slowly by, peering at the contents of the hastily assembled market stalls, “Its Sirin, Sir. Elyse Sirin.”

“I wasn’t-“

“Names can be a health hazard.” She lowered her voice and leaned slightly toward Vancing. “See how they leer.”

Vancing looked to the vendees passing along the passage before them, their eyes narrow, brows furrowed, mouths disdainfully curled, their garb cheap but garishly worn. One of the men, a lean, mangy souther with boisterous facial tattoos, rammed his shoulder into the CAV-keep’s own, knocking Vancing off balance.

“Watch it,” the souther shouted with a half-suppressed grin, prompting laughter from his rambunctious confederates.

“You’re the one who ran into him,” Sirin declared flatly, looking to the interloper from behind her helmet’s pall.

The souther whirled upon the woman, face contorting with malice. “What’d you say?”

“You ran into him. You should apologize.”

“That so, bootlicker?”

“You should pay more attention to where you’re going.”

“You should pay more attention who you’re talking to,” the man took a firm step toward Sirin, “Bootlicker.”

“Its alright,” Vancing replied with mild trepidation, raising his hands. “No harm done.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, company man,” the souther spat without taking his eyes off Sirin, inches from her face.

“You people think you’re so special. Think you run this city.”

“Not as much as you run your mouth.”

The man spat suddenly, coating Sirin’s helm in effluvia. Ryard flinched, expecting tragedy. Sirin said nothing. Unmoved. The souther’s companions ceased their laughter and tensed.

“Nothing? That’s what I thought.” The man puffed out his chest, chin titled upward, eyes wide, jerking his upper body threateningly toward the woman. She observed the man silently as spittle slid down her helm. When Ryard moved to intervene, a member of the branded upstart’s party nudged him in warning, staring around with concern. “Les git, man.” The tattooed man grimaced, realizing his antics had aroused the displeasure of the surrounding shoppers and vendors, some of whom were armed, and, in degrees subtle to overt, made the fact plain for all.

“I’ll be back for you, bitch. I’ll be back for you.” The man made a rude gesture with his tongue and left off with his friends.

Ryard sighed, turned to the woman and handed her one of the antiseptic wipes he kept in his inner jacket pocket to clean up after machinery maintenance runs. She took the synthetic cloth and cleaned the spit off her helm methodically.

“Charming guy.”

“The facial tattoo marks him a Red Reaver.” She declared, disposing the cloth in a nearby metal waste bin which stood between an automatic food crafter seller and a hand-made jewellery stand officiated by a young girl whose hair was decorated with myriad feathers.

“Guessing that’s not a comic book fan club.”

She nodded focusing her attention to the affin module mounted into her left gauntlet, checking the images of the hooligans captured by her helm’s monitors. “Local gang. Souther upstarts, mostly. Suspected by the Security Commission of three turf dispute homicides on rival gang members in as many months.”

Ryard raised his brow and spread his hands. “Why’s nothing been done?”

“With the continual influx of migrants the security commission has been overwhelmed. Doesn’t have the manpower to investigate. If they did, its doubtful they’d find the will to sustain an investigation into a protected class, regardless of the damage being done for fear of sparking further insurrection. Its one of the reasons why district locals started stocking weapons. Legal and otherwise.”

“Perhaps you should change into something else,” Ryard gestured to the woman’s white armor as he wound through a pack of errant skytechs.

“Is that an order, Sir?”

“A suggestion.”

“I’d prefer not to sneak around like a common criminal in my own district.”

“You live here?”

“Used to. I was born here.”

“I thought all KSRU personnel were sourced from the deep colonies.”

“Used to be. Syzr changed the recruitment policy after the agency transitioned from special operations to general policing. A move intended to win trust with the local communities.”

“Doesn’t seem to have worked out.”

“Not as well as he’d hoped. That’s why you’re here, Sir.”

“Right.”

The duo walked in silence for some time through the busy souk, assailed at regular intervals by tricket hockers, used clothing salesmen, scrap merchants and children asking for donations for “the local church.” Sirin shooed them away, explaining to Vancing that there were no churches in the entire district. Shortly, the pair stopped before a stall in the end of the north-western edge of the bazaar where a mechanically magnified voice echoed from the piazza beyond. Only snippets of the speech were audible. Ryard caught “Plantation of doubt,” and, “We true sons of Aecer.” Sirin ignored the distant orator and turned to Ryard.

“May I attend to a personal errand, Sir? Won’t be more than two minutes.”

“Of course. We’ve got plenty of time.”

Sirin moved through the packed crowd to the old man behind the stall, who smiled and inclined a balding head in greeting.

“Ms. Sirin. Back so soon. And with company. What’s your name, son?”

“Ryard. Pleased to meet you, Sir.”

“Nice to meet you, son.”

“Any fresh eels, Cab?”

“Oh, my dear, we just ran out.”

“Drat.”

“Don’t fret!” The fishmonger smiled and bent, with considerable effort, underneath his wide, hand welded table, withdrawing a culinary cryo-cube, which he set upon the tabletop and patted proudly. “Still have one box of jellied eels. Colony’s finest. Saved them just for you.”

Ryard arched his brow as the woman bent with delight to the large black box before opening up her credit application and hastily swiping her wrist bound module over the old man’s processor.

Ryard folded his arms and jerked his head towards the oratory, “Whose giving the speech?”

“Kriezer Sonderon. Haven’t you heard of him?”

“Heard of him. But not much. Heard he’s running for the Chancellorship.”

The old man bobbed his head. “Moonshot. But I gotta respect his dedication. He’s been giving speeches all across the sector for months now. Always in person. Always on time. Been getting impressive crowds of late.”

“He still drawing venom from the press?” Sirin inquired as Cab took the culinary cube and placed it on a hound-sized courier drone perched upon a pallet which rattled and crawled dutifully towards the customers.

“Sure, sure,” the old man rubbed his jaw, “But he’s popular round here. Not often the big whigs speak directly to the public, specially not here. Chancellor certainly doesn’t. Vis Corp’s headlines play well with the cognoscenti. Less so with the man-in-the-street.”

“I see. Well, we’ve got to be going. Thanks for the eels, Cab. I owe you one.”

“Any time.”

The pair moved off from the market lane, the fishmonger’s transport drone following close behind, clicking over the wind-polished pavement. Ryard searched the southern edge of the throng which had assembled in the spacious plaza beyond the souk. At the center of the mass a small man, unimpressively dressed, spoke from a pedestal ringed by large men with dark body armor, stunners at the ready.

“-no longer will we hang our heads in shame, no longer will we bow before alien masses, no longer will we sit idly by while the Consortium strips us of our birthright. Our guests jeer. Clearly, they disagree. They disagree because they’ve gotten just as fat and complacent as us, the only difference is that we, brothers and sisters, have at least gotten fat and complacent from our own work. From our own blood and sacrifice. It was aecerites that built this city. Not federants. Not southers. Not these others whose origins are opaque even to themselves. Yet they demand access to the full fruit of our labor as a impetuous child would demand sweets from his mother. And like children, they throw tantrums when they do not get what they want. What, I ask you, do our demanding guests themselves build? Certainly they do not build stable societies, otherwise they’d have no reason to pour into ours.”

The southers present jeered and booed, some shouting obscenities, others shaking their fists and chanting in unison, all drowned out by the thunderous cheers of the surrounding aecerite multitude.

“That him? Sonderon?” Ryard inquired, gesturing toward the stern-faced man upon the podium at the center of the plaza. Sirin nodded, her hand moving to rest gingerly on the cutter sheathed upon her hip as a fight broke out between several dissenting southers and Sonderon’s supporters.

“Stay close, Sir.”

“I will. Hey. Its her. Fawnell. There.”

The officer followed the CAV-keep’s gesticulation and discerned, amidst the increasingly raucous crowd, a well-dressed middle aged woman in conversation with a man who wore a ragged chartreuse coat.

“What would you like to do, Sir?”

“Not an opportune time. Too much commotion. And I don’t want to roll up on her with you. Might intimidate her. No, I need to reach her alone. Let’s wait. We can try and talk to her after this circus wraps up.”

“And if she leaves before Sonderon finishes?”

“We’ll follow her.”

Ryard continued to observe Fawnell as the fight between the souther hecklers and Sonderon’s security agents intensified as members of the crowd joined in. Ryard cursed as his view of Fawnell was suddenly blocked by the swelling mass. Bodies pressed against him as the discord grew. Ryard jerked as a firm hand fell upon his shoulder. He turned, expecting Sirin, but was greeted by the man with the chartreuse coat’s smiling face. Sirin whirled, drawing her cutter, lowering it just as swiftly as Ryard held up his hand for peace. The man’s face was familiar.

“Mr. Rehdon.”

“Mr. Vancing.”

“Surprised to see you here.”

“Shouldn’t be. My work takes me to all districts. How’re you fitting in with Syzr’s crew?”

Ryard looked over Illander’s left shoulder to behold Fawnell nervously glancing back and forth between the melee and Sirin.

Illander removed his hand from the CAV-keep’s shoulder as one of the protestors was brought down by a stun-shot from Sonderon’s guards and spasmed upon the ground, screaming in pain. The crowd cleared away from the guards momentarily as they spread out in a wide circle around the orator’s makeshift podium. Fawnell gasped and Sirin tensed, primed to draw her weapon.

“This powder-keg is about to blow, Mr. Vancing. I suggest we take our leave before it does.”

Ryard nodded curtly. “Have you eaten, Mr. Rehdon?”

“Not yet.”

Vancing looked to the courier drone which carried, upon his back, Sirin’s well-stocked culinary cube and then returned his attention to the green coated man.

“Do you like eels?”

“I do. But that’d make a scant meal. I’ve a overstocked pantry and few to share it with.”

“That’s a very kind offer.”

“Is it accepted?”

Ryard looked queriously to Sirin, who stood guard at his side.

“Up to you, Sir.”

“Accepted it is.”

Rehdon clapped his hands together and rubbed them, a wide smile on his wan face. “Splendid. This way.”

Ryard and Sirin followed Rehdon and Fawnell down the pulsating streets of the market district as Consortium klaxons sounded in the distance. Fawnell flinched and drew her collar taunt about her neck, as if to gird herself from the aural onslaught. Rehdon leaned to the woman, put his hand lightly upon her lower back and whispered something in her ear, after which she nodded, smiled sadly and relaxed. The group then passed north beyond the market district where the tessellated crowd thinned and arrived before an ancient theatre surrounded by incongruous tenements, bedecked with motley desaturated recyced plastics and small bands of low-end automated street cleaners and package couriers moving water filters and bandages, errant wide-eyed children and small flocks of birds whose smoky coloration rendered them near-indistinguishable from the housing exteriors upon which they perched and clucked and cooed. Everywhere the scent of decaying batteries, avian fecal matter and fresh sediment, residue of residential tofts and construction plats.

Rehdon halted before the high, decorated glass and wood double-doorway of the antediluvian theatre and turned to his companions with a smile, “Welcome to my humble abode.”

“You live here?” Ryard inquired, craning his neck to the top of the opulent structure, dwarfed and shrouded by the surrounding tenements.

“Yep. Well, partially. Whole place was going to be demolished. Found that to be a shame, given its history. Luckily, used some contacts from The Center to get in touch with the Aecerite Historical Society. After some back and forth I persuaded them to delay the demolition long enough to scramble funds to buy it. Ever since its been a home away from home.”

“And a delight to the community,” Fawnell added as Rehdon opened the rightward door and ushered his guests inside with a dramatic bow.

Once inside the lavish confines of the old theatre, Sirin slowed, waited for Fawnell and Rehdon to pass, turned to Vancing and slowly removed her helmet, revealing a smooth oval face wreathed by pale blonde locks, clipped-down at the left of the head and the base of the skull; her eyes, blue, lips thick, and about her jaw and brow, a series of small irregular scars.

“Sir, I think its a good idea to keep watch at the entrance in the event those reavers from earlier decided to follow us.”

Ryard stared at the striking visage. Lips slightly parted, poised words stunted.

“Sir, are you feeling alright?”

“Hm, yes. Yes. Fine. That’s a good idea.”

“I’ll call you if I see anything.”

“Alright.”

The woman inclined her head curtly and removed a packet of pre-cooked eel from the courier drone and ordered it to follow Ryard, then turned and walked back to the entrance, helmet under her left arm.

“Is your friend always so standoffish?” Fawnell asked from where she stood a few paces ahead of the man.

“And easy on the eyes?” Rehdon interjected slyly.

Fawnell nudged the man in the ribs. He grinned and held up his hands as if in surrender.

“I couldn’t tell you. First time working with her. So, how did you two meet?” Ryard queried suddenly, desperate to change the subject, walking to his remaining companion’s sides, hands in his coat pockets, drone following.

“We met through Astrid Sodabrucke’s campaign.”

“I hear she stands a good chance of winning the election.”

“Mm hm. Better than Sonderon, that’s for sure.”

The woman looked to Ryard. Weighing his response to the jab. When he said nothing she continued.

“I was a staffer during last years election and early on Ms. Sodabrucke asked me to reach out to local organizations. First group I contacted was The Center For Social Progress.”

“I was just a volunteer organizer at the time,” Rehdon added.

“He’s just being modest. He really helped me along.”

A young girl was visible upon the stage of the auditorium, flowers in her hair. Her garb, a patchwork of shoddy materials. The girl smiled and waved to the entrants. Rehdon waved back as he waltzed down the traverse.

“Ah, Mallory. Be a dear and grab three of those prepacked lunches from the pantry, will you.”

The girl beamed, whirled and bounded behind the high scarlet curtain and vanished into the darkness of the stage house, footfalls receding to a muted patter, then, silence.

“Your daughter?”

“Dear Mallory is an orphan. Formerly a sifter. Worked the landfills prior to the Markov Plan. When it was put in place, she had nowhere to go, so I hired her to keep the theatre ship-shape. Make yourselves at home,” Rehdon bid, moving to stand athwart the stage as Ryard took in the strange masks, marbled busts and pieces of scrated and shanty mail arrayed about the stage as Fawnell took a seat in the front leftward row with a sigh of relief.

“I feel as if my legs are gonna fall off.”

“That’d be a shame, they’re quite shapely.”

The woman shook her head at the verdant coated man as Ryard lowered himself down beside her.

Rehdon pranced to the edge of the stage, twirling a cane he’d fetched from the bric-a-brac piled haphazardly about the dais, “A show before our meal?”

Fawnell arched a brow. “You going to dance for us?”

“Ah ha, a dance, what a splendid idea.”

Rehdon fidgeted with his carpus-wound module, whereupon an ethereal waltz played from the auditorium speaker-system. The stage-borne man swayed to the rhythm, his movements growing progressively more bizarre and exaggerated. Fawnell giggled, turning to Vancing with an embarrassed, amused expression.

“He’s such a cad.”

“He seems nice.”

“He really is. When we first met he told me I had the voice of a songbird. Said I must be a singer. I was shocked. Because I am. Not a very good one though. I had a big show coming up, I was so nervous. I was convinced I’d screw it up. My friends told me I was worrying about nothing. And they were all too busy with their day jobs to practice as much as I’d like to allay my fears. So you know what Illander did?” Ryard raised his brows expectantly. “He helped me practice. Right here, on this stage. And when we were finished he said ‘Its not your voice that is the problem, its the tune, its not a proper song for a songbird.'” She laughed and when she realized the impatience in the man’s eyes, cleared her throat, going stiff, “But I take it from the presence of your friend you didn’t come out here so we could talk about the my social circle over a light brunch.”

“No ma’am.”

“You KSRU?”

“No. I’m just a CAV-keep.”

Ryard remained quiet a moment as the triple meter orchestration swelled ominously and cut out.

“Well, I’m going to go see what’s taking Mallory so long,” Rehdon declared over his should as he spun his cane with practiced ease and vanished behind the stage house curtain.

“Alright,” Fawnell replied, raising her voice. She waited for the host to leave before returning her attention to Vancing, “I’m guessing you want me to talk to the press? Put out a statement?”

“That would be helpful.”

“I don’t mind having lunch with you, Mr. Vancing. You seem nice. You really do. But I’m not going to discuss this matter any further.”

“Most of the information blacked out after Markov is maintained by the KSRU.”

“How?”

“Kryos Industries manages the database for the ASC.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I was briefed. Saw Danzig’s priors. Next time he decides to slice someone up,” he pointed to the girl who reemerged from behind the stage curtain bearing a covered polymer tray, “It might be someone like her. More his type.”

Sadness and fear shone in the woman’s eyes.

“It’s not that simple.”

Ryard met the woman’s gaze, “Why?”

Fawnell clutched her hands together and exhaled deeply.

“Because of Sodabrucke’s campaign. She maintains me as a consultant.”

“You’re afraid they’ll do to you and her what they did to Syzr.”

“You know how sensitive issues are surrounding aecerite and souther relations. Can imagine the headline, ‘Sodabrucke connected to anti-souther fanatic.’ I won’t chance it.”

“Who profits by your silence? Danzig, or his next prospective victim?”

Mallory traversed the retractable stair of the newly refurbished stage and proffered the tray, which Fawnell took and placed in her lap. She watched Mallory retreat back up the stairs and turned to Ryard with sudden resolve.

“Fine. I’ll do it. Under one condition.”

“Name it.”

“Security. Until this blows over.”

“Done.”

She nodded and opened the tray. Sliced pomegranate.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 15

Previous chapter

A cry of animal pain echoed throughout the outer dormitory hall aboard the Progenitor as two boys, one large and muscular, one raw-boned and small, tussled, falling to the floor with grunts of exertion as a rotund youth watched with mounting trepidation from a distance. The pudgy boy cried for the combatants to stop, time and time again, growing more agitated with every subsequent protestation. Shortly, a figure emerged from the high, arched portal at the end of the corridor and quietly advanced upon the trio. The objector’s expression subsided to dumb and totalizing terror as the entrant’s voice, calm and commanding, echoed throughout the vastness of the cavity.

“It only takes one cuckoo to ruin a nest.”

The three boys froze, the larger one looking over his shoulder to behold a pale man of middling height, garbed in form-fitting vestments, obsidian and auric-trimmed, his hair short and neatly back-swept upon his pate, dark as his garb. His face, masklike and keen.

“Do you know this bird, Damin?”

The large youth’s mouth parted, lips quivering. “No, Mr. Kryos.”

The young man that had taken a pummeling rolled to his side with labored breath, grimaced and glared at his foe. Eidos looked to the youth on the ground placidly and gestured to the doughy, terror-stricken boy by the door with a tenebrous, sharkskin gloved hand.

“Help him up.”

The rotund boy’s eyes widened and, momentarily, he jostled forward and hefted the battered youth, Graf, from the ground. The beaten boy fixed his shirt and wiped blood from his lip, wobbling defiantly on unsteady legs.

Kryos looked from face to face. His own visage, statuesque in surveyance. Xanthous eyes alighting on Damin.

“Explain your flapping, little bird.”

Damin gestured to Graf, face contorted with ill-constrained rage, “He said… he insulted my family. Sir.”

“What did he say?”

“Said southers were were lower than apes.”

“Does beating him disprove the assertion?”

The boy said nothing as Kryos stepped forth, leaning toward Damin’s recoiling face.

“Why are you here?”

“Because of my father.”

“And why is he here?”

“Because… he works for you.”

“Do you?”

“No.”

“And so you earn no keep. And if you are party to another such outburst, neither shall he. Do you understand me, little bird?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“It would pain me to clip your wings before you learn to use them.”

The boy said nothing more and cast his eyes to his shoes. Kryos straightened and looked to Graf.

“Return to your quarters. And boy.”

Graf paused and turned to Kryos expectantly as blood trickled down his chin.

“Be more mindful of your manners.”

The boy nodded solemnly and shortly all three began moving off.

“Not you, Duncan. You stay.”

The pudgy youth held-up reluctantly, looking over his shoulder to the pale, pitch-gilt man behind him.

“Walk with me.”

Graf and Damin departed through the portal at the end of the high hall as Duncan moved to stand beside the speaker. Kryos began strolling slowly down the high, vaulted hall, away from the dormitory, Duncan following apprehensively. For a moment all was silence, save the duo’s rhythmic footfalls upon the stainless lacquered floor. A few service drones rolled from distant alcoves to clean up the blood. The boy looked from side to side. The high albescent walls were thick with white statuary, the artifacts shaped in the likeness of men and women of varying ages, all garbed in the standardized sy-chitin of the deep colonies, poised in grave and august variations.

After half a minute of quiet, Kryos spoke.

“Why didn’t you intervene? Break up the fight?”

Duncan shrugged, struggling to put his past emotions into words.

“A man overcharged with violent instincts is as given to vitiation as a man bereft of such impulses.”

Kryos turned to the nearest statue and strode up to it, hands behind his back, his heliodoric eyes widening.

“Do you know this man?”

The boy observed the statue before which Kryos stood for a long moment. The artwork depicted a middle-aged man decked in old-gen KSRU armor, with fine, chiseled features, short hair and a long scar across the left side of his face, gazing stolidly into the distance. The young man shook his head in response to the query, short, auburn locks falling over his left eye.

“His name was Valen Drossian. One of the first of the KSRU. And one of the finest. Nine years ago, when Aestival began their bloody bombing campaign against our topside facilities, I charged him with hunting the malcontents down. Fifteen citizens died before he tracked the leader, Moreno Carduus, to her lair, a formerly abandoned warehouse in the exclusion zone. Once he and his men were at the entrance, primed for entry, one of Carduus’ confederates hijacked their affinity modules and informed them that six citizens were currently being held at the facility and if they did not retreat immediately from the district, all of the hostages would be killed. One for every minute of inaction that passed. Video proof was then provided for the claim. So Valen had two choices: Storm the building and risk the slaughter of the hostages; or retreat, allow the insurgents to flee and hope the prisoners were treated mercifully.”

“Which did he choose?”

“The latter. At Valen’s command, they left the area and let Aestival escape. Consequently, every hostage was executed. Three men, two women and a little girl, seven years of age. Their heads were severed and placed at the base of the newly built KSRU tower, looking up at Valen’s office.”

The lad’s face crinkled as he once more grasped clumsily for words. Finding none. Kryos reached his left hand to the statue and caressed its smooth, alabaster cheek.

“Valen died three weeks later in a bombing of my company’s topside headquarters. The charge laid by a plant from Aestival. Thereafter I commissioned this monumental in his honor. That his deeds not be forgotten. A work which was to inspire the rest which you see within this hall. Every man, no matter how virtuous, has his fault. Valen’s was believing in a world which did not exist.”

“Why are you telling me all this, Sir?”

Kryos let his hand fall from the statue and turned to the boy.

“Because you are a Valen in the making.”

The duo’s exchange was interrupted by harried footfalls and labored breath, followed by a well-groomed and elderly man in sy-chitin, who jogged forth and paused some twenty feet from the pair, caught his breath and then strode quickly to Kryos’ side.

“What is it, Gabel?”

“Sir. Over Secretary Gild requests an audience. He gave no details save that the request relates to a matter of utmost importance.”

“He called himself?”

“Aye, Sir.”

“He’d not have called personally without the assent of the Chancellor. Likely concerning the Syzr affair. Tell him I shall conference within the hour, lest that proves inconvenient for him.”

“Very well, Sir.”

The clerk bowed curtly and departed down the hall, whereafter the boy, his face lined with perplexity, stared at the statue.

“What was the world he believed in?”

“One without strife.”

Kryos traced the lines of the scar about the statue’s face.

“He failed to appreciate life’s fulcrum.”

The man let his hand fall from the statue and looked to the vault above it, as if discerning a shuttered form.

“War existed long before we did.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 14

Previous chapter

Ermin Gild stepped up to the doorway of the second floor of Consortium Hall, his left hand pressed to the scanner on the wall. The lock flashed from red to orange, whereafter he slid his card into the divet beside the handle. The lock changed from orange to blue and buzzed. The door swung open. He strolled through and headed up to the elevator and from there emerged upon the top floor and stood before a set of double doors and repeated the security protocol. The doors hummed and opened, thereafter he entered a spacious chamber in which a woman stood with her back to him. Gild closed the doors behind him and waited silently.

“Do you think I’ve governed well?” Agna Richter queried, well-lotioned hands tightly clasped before her waist, fingers writhing with agitation as she gazed out the spotless window of the cluttered highrise office, beyond which shimmering Kryos Industries aircrafts drifted along the thermals above the sleek and jagged towers of Central, their comparatively thin forms casting colossal transient shadows; aphotic blades, slow-cleaving the towering brightness.

Ermin Gild paused midway to removing an errant eyelash from his left suit sleeve, right brow arching at the Chancellor’s query; pale mouth crinkling with displeasure and mild apprehension.

“I trust you’re not blaming yourself for the recent perturbations.”

“Spare me the HR obfuscations. I’m not one of your clients.”

“Very well.”

“You didn’t answer.”

“Yes, of course.”

He removed the detritus from his sleeve and straightened his collar, brows crinkling.

“I used to think so,” the woman replied with restrained exasperation, turning slowly from the window, gray-auburn hair glimmering with pane-transmuted luminance, “Now, I’m not so sure. The city has changed. Its nearly unrecognizable from when I first took office.”

“Change is the only constant.”

“You say these things often. Things that belong on postcards. It is the rate which concerns me.”

“A rate we’ve helped bolster. You were the one who signed the Markov Plan.”

“Something to be proud of. Or so I was told at the time.”

Gild gestured to one of the massive aeroplatforms drifting slowly beyond the window, “I remember the old com towers back before Kryos took over the sky. That was, what, twenty five years ago?”

“Yes.”

“My mother believed the towers were giving her cancer, now she thinks the sky-cells are spying on her.”

The Chancellor laughed dryly.

“Why?”

Gild shrugged.

“On balance, negative emotions prevail. We’d not have survived long as a species were we capable only of merriment and serendipity.”

“I suppose. But. Its not just the buildings. Or the sky-cells. Its the people. I don’t recognize them anymore. My neighbors are foreigners. Their customs are alien. There was a time when I could simply look at a passerby and know their origin. The city. Or elsewhere. I could discern their district by their accent. Their dress. Their gestures. To do as much now I have to query an affinity module. To know one’s origin is to know one’s mind. I find myself wondering: Are they no longer of Aecer, or is it I that have been passed by? Am I out of step? Isolated? Antiquated? I don’t think I am. I suppose that’s how it always goes. The advance of age brings with it golden idylls. But to believe in their verity is foolish. The past is afforded its inordinate luster by the vitality of youthful ignorance,” She wearily removed the brow-bound affin transmitter previously used to give her hastily cobbled speech to the public, and handed it to her confederate. Gild took the device wordlessly, his eyes fixed upon the woman in keen scrutiny; the lines of her face in stark relief by the scant-filtered light. She appeared to have aged ten years in the space of five. Gild returned the transmitter to the desk inlay where the Chancellor was want to keep it and put his hands in his pocket.

“People think times change rapidly once they pass middle age because they’ve half a lifetime of knowledge to refer to. That’s why most people tend to become increasingly recalcitrant in their attitudes the older they get. Having more, they realize more fully why they have it, and all that went into its production, and so understand how easily it could be taken away,” Gild responded matter-of-factly, eyeing up the food crafter on his superior’s desk, “Consequently, solutions become scarcer, as a fixation upon preservation – the fear of change – divert creative energies from reformation.”

The Chancellor smiled sadly.

“That’s a very polite way of calling me a fossil.”

Gild withdrew a piece of candy from the crafter and popped it in his mouth, closing his eyes momentarily as he savored the algorithmically calibrated chemicals.

“Not a fossil. A holy relic.”

“I didn’t say you could have those.”

Gild stopped mid-mastication, “What do you want me to do, put it back?”

“No.”

He pushed the chocolate morsel to one side of his mouth, tapping his foot.

“With all due respect, Chancellor, you need to focus.”

“I do. That answers my question.”

“What question?”

“Nevermind.”

Gild was silent a moment and finished off the candy with a muffled crunch before speaking in measured, forceful tones.

“Did you see the Kleiner interview?”

“Yes. I’d meant to ask for your advice.”

“Well, you must act. The sooner the better.”

The woman ran her hands across her forearms. Mouth creasing.

“What would you recommend?”

“Not another speech. At least not on the topic. Have something arranged to take the public’s mind off of the incident and off of you,” he moved the wrapper theatrically across the table, away from the crafter, “Placate the populace. Draw the energy out of the rabble. Shift everything to externalities. Talk about the Federation. Talk about the global economy. Foreign relations. Sporting events. Keep the messaging positive, but not too positive, otherwise it’ll read as fraudulent. Anything you like that is distant from the volatile matters of the moment. Just don’t talk about Kryos, or you’ll be dragged into talking about Syzr and the Security Commission and why they haven’t moved on him, and what you’re doing about it and how that ties into the unrest. Et cetera. Doesn’t matter how you answer. You’re the figurehead, you get scapegoated. Or rather, we.”

She nodded solemnly and twined her fingers together.

“What do you think of the Colonel?”

“I don’t know much about the man. His record prior to The Rollout is light on details. I hear he’s quite fanatical. One of those until death types. A well-trained hound.”

“A well-trained hound is unlikely to bite without the consent of its master.”

“Yes.”

“In light of this, Vis Corp’s narrative strikes me as improbable.”

“Of course it is. But its plausible, given ignorance of the subject. And plausibly presented. Far as the public is concerned, that’s all that matters.”

“When is it we stopped being ‘the public?'”

“The day you were sworn into office.”

“If we want to move Syzr we have to talk to Kryos.”

“I can speak to him.”

“Five years ago you tried to have him removed from the board.”

“Yes. I’m not entirely sure that was wise.”

“He’ll not have forgotten.”

“Of course not. He never forgets anything. But he’s not the type of man to hold a grudge. At least, I don’t think he is. Even after all these years I haven’t completely figured him out. If you want to send someone else, I’ve no objection.”

“Do you still want it?”

“What?”

“Don’t be coy. His seat. On the board.”

“I don’t know.”

He looked out the window to where smoke roiled like a great phantasmal centipede, thinking on his superior’s words and wondering as to its origin, “So many things I thought were wings five years ago now seem as shackles.”

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