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A Crow of Murders

    • 89 posts
    January 14, 2021 7:36 AM PST

    Chapter One: Vigil

     

    My instinct tells me that the recent transfer of power in the Barony of Shornshal was no accident. I do not believe the story that Cwythkordi and his family were all killed by Orcs while hunting game.

    I realize that you do not wish to confront the new Baron directly in the name of the Queen, but with respect, I confess that I am disturbed by your plan. The asset you wish to use is dangerous. I fear that we could be corrupted through association.

    But I remain your servant. I shall send darkness to hunt darkness.

    — from a report to Umbric Skel, head of the Lark (Secret Police for the Queen)

     

    ❖ ❖ ❖

     

    “Everything is murder,” says Sharai, holding the candle under her face so that she is all sharp-edged shadows.

    “Everything?” asks Lethe.

    Her serving girl, Lethe, is sitting on the floor with her, and suddenly Sharai wonders if they really are the same age. She doesn’t wilt in front of Sharai’s mother, and she doesn’t know anything about being a maidservant. Lethe’s eyes have a hardness to them, pinning her like a hunting hawk examining a meal. Yet she does not fear Lethe as she fears the guards.

    “How old are you?” she asks.

    “How old do you think I am?” says Lethe. Her accent is strange, sharp yet melodic.

    “It doesn’t matter. Listen. I eat meat and wear leather shoes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Every time the soldiers patrol the mountains, they kill Orcs or bandits. My cousin once told me that’s how we protect the people of Shornshal. With murder. Then my cousin died, and his whole family, because of Orcs. Maybe the Orcs were protecting something, or just returning the favor. Murder.”

    “I see,” says Lethe. “But how does that explain all of this?” She gestures at the floor around them, which is covered with items that used to be on her make-up table and bedside table and reading chair—until Sharai threw them all on the floor and scattered them around the room.

    “I’m getting to that,” says Sharai. She hears another rumble from the sky outside, and the pounding of the rain against the glass grows louder. She nods, satisfied. This is how an afternoon should be: darkness and the sound of rain.

    “We eat murder. I walk in murderous boots. I’m the daughter of a baron now because of a whole string of murders connected one to another throughout time. What does any of this mean? What is this,” she picks up a fallen kohl saucer, and half of the black powder spills onto the floor, “even for? So I can make my eyes look like I deserved the fruits of murder?”

    “The killing bothers you?”

    Sharai blinks, then looks down at the saucer. “I don’t think so.” She dips two fingers into the powder and begins rubbing black kohl around her eyes. “I mean everybody dies, some people just die sooner. No, it’s just thinking that everything good or bad comes from a wellspring of murder, and my parents are celebrating right now. I don’t feel like dancing.”

    What is this?!” shouts Risalys, standing in the open door. “What have you done?”

    Sharai looks up at her mother from the floor. “My handmaiden is trying to talk some sense into me.”

    Risalys glares around the room. Her eyes are perfectly lined, and her gown of richly embroidered silk falls perfectly around her ankles. “You!” she says to Lethe. “Get my daughter dressed for dinner. You’ll clean this up later.”

    She slams the door as she leaves, and the one item still sitting on a shelf falls to the floor to join the others.

    Sharai leans close. “I’ll clean it up.”

    Lethe stands and helps her off the floor. “Let me try to fix your eyes so she doesn’t yell at either of us.”

    She sets Sharai in a chair, then lifts the copper mirror from the floor and sets it on the table in front of her. Now Sharai can see that her eyes are ringed with great dark circles and she looks like a lemur.

    “I like this,” she says.

    “I know, but your mother hates it.”

    “Is this stuff made from murder?”

    “No, I think it’s ground from a rock of some kind.”

    “That’s disappointing.” She holds still as Lethe wipes away some of the kohl, leaving a more modest amount behind. “I’m going to be sixteen soon, and it’s hard to see the point.”

    Lethe has found a brush on the floor and begins to run it through Sharai’s hair. “Are you tired of living already?”

    Sharai turns to look at the rain outside. “This isn’t my room.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    In a long hallway in the light of oil lamps mounted on the walls between tapestries and paintings, Sharai walks with Lethe one step behind her. She avoids looking at the guards standing at doors and by the stairwell. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the mixed chain and leather the guards wear, a heavy sword belt here, a hand on a hilt there. A guard breathes as she walks by. The shift of boots on the floor.

    She imagines them as great statues of jade towering over her, silent and unmoving. This makes it easier. 

    Grim-faced men and women glare down out of paintings, watching Sharai take one step after another. There was once a rug running along this hallway, but now there is only bare, polished wood.

    At the end of the hall, at the top of the stairs, is a bright space on the wall where a painting used to hang, but is now removed. A bright unfaded emptiness, old paint.

    The banister on the staircase is smooth, rubbed by countless hands over the years, dead hands gone. She runs her fingers down the wood as she descends.

    More guards on the second floor. When she reaches the entrance to the dining room, a guard tells her that her handmaiden should stay outside.

    “She will remain with me,” says Sharai. “I might need anything during dinner.” The guard seems to accept this, and she enters the dining hall.

    Meat pies with onions and carrots and bacon, roasted lamb with a deep wine sauce and mushrooms, braised venison with ginger and cinnamon and nuts, onion soup with spices and a thick broth, fried greens with bacon, fried thin loaves with garlic, pears poached in wine—dishes and bowls push each other right up to the edge of the table, and one tureen looks like it might throw itself onto the floor below in despair.

    Peeking up through the city of dishes are tall candlesticks of shining silver, and carafes of wine and brandy cover a sideboard.

    Her father the new baron raises his glass. “A feast for our accession!”

    A boy perhaps in his late teens plays harp in the corner as the rain fades into a gentle sprinkle. His technique is far from perfect, but simple melodies rise from the strings under his fingers. He wears fine servant clothes—a buttoned vest over a dark tunic— but his face is hidden behind a mask painted like some sort of holy figure. The face of a saint.

    “I’m not sure about Sharai’s new handmaiden,” says Risalys, sipping from a silver goblet.

    “Mmm?” Baron Helygen looks up from his dinner, then flicks his gaze over to Lethe, who stands behind his daughter’s chair halfway down the table. “What’s wrong with her?”

    “All of Sharai’s possessions were scattered across the floor, and the two of them were just talking.”

    “She was talking sense into me, I told you.”

    The baron laughs. “Did it work?”

    “I look very presentable, don’t you think?”

    “The girl has been acting strangely since we moved into the keep,” says Risalys. “You would think a girl would be delighted to have a huge room and as many servants as she wants.”

    “Everyone who used to live here is dead.”

    “Daughter,” says her father in his Chiding Voice, “we all mourn the fallen. But we have a responsibility to present a happy, confident demeanor. So that the,” he waves his hand in the air, “the peasantry and merchants and soldiers all know that everything is back to normal, that someone is in charge. The wine trade will not be interrupted.”

    “In any case,” says Risalys, “if you’re going to keep that girl, then I want to know that she will keep your restless nature under control. The last thing I need is for you to cause trouble while we’re finding our feet.”

    “I’ll be very quiet,” assures Sharai.

    There is silence for a moment, except for the soft sounds of the harp in the corner. They all glance over at a particularly dissonant chord.

    “The boy was recommended by the Cleric,” says the baron, “though I can’t say he is a master. I consulted Idris, but he tells me that true bards are scarce this far south of Thronefast.”

    “Where is the rug?” asks Risalys.

    “Being cleaned, or so I am told,” says Helygen.

    “They’re all being cleaned.” She sets down her fork. “This is ridiculous. Surely we can move rugs from our old vineyard estate, have them brought here.”

    “That is an excellent idea, my love. You,” he snaps at a servant, “make a note of that. Tell the seneschal.”

    The servant nods.

    Another discordant note from the harp draws the baron’s attention. “That’s enough, boy. Go and find something else to do.”

    The boy nods and retreats toward a door, clutching his harp. As he passes by, Sharai can see that the middle finger of his left hand is missing a segment, but healed cleanly. She takes a long slow breath. Then smiles.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    On their way out of the keep in the morning, Counselor Idris stops them and asks where they are going.

    “I’m going for a walk,” says Sharai.

    “Here, come talk to me first,” says Idris. He looks at Lethe. “You. Wait in the hallway.” Lethe bows her head and takes a position near the door.

    The door closes behind Sharai.

    “Sit here, my lady.” Idris points to a comfortable chair, and she sits down.

    Idris sits nearby and pours himself a glass of wine. He is a man of medium height, dressed in fine linen and silk of red and brown, richly embroidered near the collar. His brown hair is swept back from his forehead into a braid at his back, and his beard is well trimmed to a point. At 35 he is young for a counselor to a barony, but the old baron seemed to favor him.

    His eyes never smile, thinks Sharai. Eyes should smile sometimes.

    “How have you been feeling, my lady?” he asks, smiling with his mouth.

    “I am fine,” she says. “I’m getting used to my new room.”

    “I know this has been a great ordeal,” he says. “Your cousins and aunt and uncle have died through Orc savagery, and now you are here and everything is frightening. But I assure you, this place is well protected, and no harm shall befall you here.”

    “I am very thankful,” she says.

    He stares a moment longer, then pours a bit of wine into a glass for her. “You seem pale today,” he says smoothly. “Perhaps a bit of your family’s wine should help.”

    My family’s wine. She takes the glass. “Speaking of my family,” she says, “why did our household staff and guards remain at the estate? Why couldn’t we bring any of them here?”

    His mouth smiles again. “Who would take care of the vineyards but experienced hands? This,” he holds his glass up to the light streaming in from a window, “this is the jewel of Shornshal. The source of all our wealth.”

    Our? Sharai studies the muscles of his face. How does a man smile with just his mouth and nothing else? Are there ropes and pulleys in there, disconnected from the rest of his face?

    “Your father,” says Idris suddenly, “is concerned about your future.”

    “My future?”

    “You turn sixteen in a few days. That is an age when a young lady should be thinking of marriage.”

    His eyes do not smile, but they stare at her with an intensity she hasn’t noticed before. She takes a sip of wine and looks over at a candelabra. “I haven’t really thought about it. What with the stress and horror of what happened to my family. The murders.”

    “Oh, of course.” He sounds suddenly serious, and she imagines wheels and winches turning to adjust his voice. “But perhaps turning your mind to something else, something happier, would help ease your thoughts.”

    “I remember,” she says, “something my grandmother told me long ago. She said that mourning for family is a responsibility. That it takes time.”

    He stares at her a moment, then says, “Well I can see that you have a lot to think about. I shall take this up with your father.”

    You do that. “I thank you for the wine, Lord Idris. Will I see you at dinner?” Why did I just say that?

    Now his eyes smile. “Perhaps you will.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    “Where would you like to go?” asks Lethe.

    “I was thinking I would like to throw myself in Wickham Pond. It’s very deep, you know.”

    “I see.”

    “I wonder if drowning hurts.”

    “People say that it does.”

    She stops and looks at Lethe. “Has someone asked the dead?”

    Lethe frowns. "Not that I know."

    “Oh.” She starts walking again.

    The forest south of the keep is light with underbrush because of the thick canopy overhead. Birds shout at one another as birds do, and leaves and the branches rustle and whisper. It is a short walk before they reach the pond.

    Wickham Pond is maybe 30 yards across, ensconced in the forest. Clusters of brushgrass and cattail watch them from the shore.

    “I waded out one day,” says Sharai. “In about eight or nine steps, the bottom drops out and it just keeps going down.”

    “I don’t like water,” says Lethe.

    Sharai looks at her. “Can you swim?”

    “Yes, but I don’t like it.”

    “Mmm.”

    “Which way is your old estate?”

    Sharai turns and points to the east. “Just beyond the forest, there are some fields, and then the Shornshal vineyards begin. They ship our wine all the way to Thronefast. It’s all we have, really, that and wool.”

    “There seem to be some rich merchants in town.”

    “Chruest House is the richest.” Sharai has a sour look. “There are others, but they nod to Lucabin when he walks by.”

    When she is silent for a moment, Lethe says, “Do you miss living at the vineyard?”

    “It was peaceful there. I knew everybody, and there weren’t as many guards.”

    “Maybe all the guards at the baron’s keep are there to protect you.”

    “You don’t believe that.” She looks at Lethe again.

    Lethe says, “No I don’t.”

    Sharai nods and keeps walking around the pond. Then she sees something in the grass and runs forward.

    “Be careful,” says Lethe, but Sharai kneels and sees a large field mouse struggling to breathe. “It’s hurt,” she says. She looks up at Lethe. “What’s wrong with it?”

    Lethe kneels down and looks at the mouse. “It seems weak. What are you doing?”

    Sharai lifts the animal, which is about the size of her hands, and holds it close. “I’m going to take it back to the keep.”

    Lethe says nothing, but follows her as she heads back north toward the keep. Sharai begins to run, and it’s easy—the forest floor moves under her feet and the trees seem to rush by. She holds the mouse close, slowing down only when they leave the forest.

    As they approach the keep, she stops. “What if they don’t want me to bring it in?”

    Lethe removes her cloak and holds it out in front of Sharai, who carefully wraps the mouse in one end, making sure it can breathe. She plans on saying she gathered flowers, but the guards don’t even ask.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    In her room, Sharai gently sets the field mouse down on the bed. She sits next to it and begins to stroke it softly. The tiny eyes look up at her as it draws another difficult breath.

    “Lethe, can you,” Sharai points toward the dresser, “can you look for a little plate of crackers I had over there?”

    Lethe looks around the dresser, then says, “Are you sure you didn’t throw it on the floor with everything else?”

    “I might have,” Sharai sighs. “Maybe they’re on the floor.”

    She hears the dresser moving, then silence. She looks up and sees Lethe kneeling down to look at something behind the dresser.

    “What is it?”

    Lethe stands up and pushes the dresser back against the wall. “You shouldn’t look back there, my lady.”

    Sharai stands up and goes to the dresser. After pushing one side away from the wall, she kneels down and sees the dark stain splattered across the painted wall.

    “What is this?” she says.

    “I would guess blood,” says Lethe. “It looks like someone tried to clean it, but they’ll probably have to paint over it.”

    Sharai stands and continues to stare down at the base of the wall.

    “I think he’s feeling better,” says Lethe. Her fingers are gently running along the mouse’s back.

    Sharai climbs back on the bed and looks closely. Indeed, the mouse is breathing easily now. Sharai doesn’t question this. She pets it gently, thinking.

    “They didn’t die out there,” she says at last. “They died in here. They were murdered in this keep.”

    “Yes,” says Lethe. “They were.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    In the great hall on the first floor of the keep, people have gathered from all over the region to pay homage to the new baron. They line both sides from the door to the raised dais on which a polished oak chair has been set as a sort of throne. Here Baron Helygen sits with several retainers and his counselor, Idris.

    “Where are the adventurers?” asks Helygen. He turns to Idris. “You said there were adventurers hunting for my dear brother’s killers.”

    “They should be here shortly, my lord,” says Idris.

    “I hate adventurers.” Helygen reaches for a goblet, finds nothing on the stand next to him. “Where’s my wine?”

    A servant runs to fetch wine for the baron. Before he returns, the doors open and five people enter. They look rough like woodsmen in leathers and dark cloaks, hard but cleaned boots sounding on the tiles.

    The man who leads them approaches the baron and bows. “My lord baron. I am Iskendry Sersu of Thronefast.”

    “Are you the adventurer?”

    Iskendry blinks, then nods. “I am an adventurer, yes. These are my companions, and—“

    “Are you trained?” The baron turns to Idris. “Is there training for that sort of thing?”

    Idris is nonplussed, but Iskendry continues, “We all have skills, my lord baron, skills that are useful for survival together in the wilderness. However, being an adventurer isn’t a vocation, but a calling.”

    Idris adds, “Iskendry is the son of a duke, my lord. He has chosen a life in the wilderness.”

    “Why would someone do such a thing.” Helygen shakes his head. “Do I know the duke?”

    Iskendry frowns. “My father is dead. And my brother. I should have inherited the duchy, but I was never meant for a life of parties in fancy rooms.”

    The baron does not know what to say to this. “Well then. Tell me what you’re going to do for me.”

    Iskendry nods. “We have been scouting the areas around your barony, both the city of Shornshal and the outlying lands. We are preparing to venture up into the Orc lands deeper in the mountains.”

    The baron raises a finger, points it at the adventurers, and says in a loud voice, “I want justice brought to the Orcs who killed my brother and his family. They must pay! I inherit this position,” he brings a hand down on the arm of the little throne, “only due to the death of my cherished kin, my blood, and I must see to it that justice is done.”

    The baron glances over at Counselor Idris, who nods.

    “We will do everything in our power,” says Iskendry, “to find those responsible.”

    “Why can’t you just...” the baron waves his hand, “clean up the lands of all the orcs? Draw them out and kill them every one?”

    Iskendry glances at Idris before continuing. “My lord, you’re talking about a whole civilization, not just here but across Terminus.”

    “Civilization? What do they have?” Helygen laughs. “Huts and clubs and... wearing animal skins and furs.”

    “My lord baron,” says Idris, pulling his fur-lined cloak closer around him, “we must target the specific orcs who killed your brother’s family. It is the only way to be sure that justice is done.”

    “I don’t even think Thain the Hunter could kill all of the orcs,” says Iskendry.

    “I am convinced,” says Idris with a slight smile, “that Thain the Hunter is a myth. But we have found the finest, my lord, a team of adventurers led by one of noble blood.”

    “My lord baron,” says Iskendry, “we have a contact connected to the orcs, a man named Tarn. Someone who deals with them in trade. He will help us pinpoint our attack.”

    The baron leans back and shrugs. “Very well. I feel better knowing that at least the man leading the search is a nobleman. He is one of us.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    The servants eat in a servants’ hall on the first floor near the kitchen. Lethe walks through the dining room and into the kitchen. The head cook, Greebh, is there.

    After greeting the kitchen staff, Lethe says, “My lady Sharai would like a bit of bread and some nuts.”

    “Would she now,” says Greebh. “Brat hardly eats at regular meals, no wonder she’s hungry now.”

    Another cook says, “It can’t hurt to give her something. The lady of the house might look kindly on us.”

    “I doubt it.” Greebh looks over at someone chopping vegetables. “You. Get a snack for the baron’s girl.”

    “How bad was the fire?” asks Lethe. Everyone looks at her.

    “Bad enough,” says the second cook. She points to the north wall, where there is still a lot of fire damage. “But they quickly fixed most of the kitchen.”

    “They can’t do without their food, oh no,” says Greebh.

    Lethe thanks the servant who hands her the food.

    While walking through the halls toward Sharai’s room, Lethe slows and looks behind a tapestry, but sees nothing. She pulls away the next tapestry and spots a stain along the wall near the floor.

    “What are you doing?” asks a guard, moving toward her.

    “Nothing, sir.” She hurries on toward Sharai’s room.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Voices can be heard through the doors at the back of the hall. Then the doors swing open, and a tall man strides through them as if he himself is lord here. His armor is thick black leather with here and there patches of chain. His boots, sounding loud on the tiles of the hall, are leather reinforced with squares of hammered steel along the sides. Mottled fur is wrapped about his waist, and the four legs of some furred hunting creature hang down around his legs as he walks. His long cloak is black and crimson.

    No one speaks, and men pull away as he walks inexorably toward the throne. Black hair streaked with gray falls around his shoulders with two tight braids falling down over his temples. A band of leather with bronze plates circles his brow. Though his beard is trimmed, his face is painted black across his eyes.

    The baron sinks into his chair as the man approaches. Then Iskendry steps in front of the intruder.

    “Who are you to disturb the baron’s hall?”

    The newcomer does not flinch, but stares down the adventurer without even giving him the honor of reaching for the hilt of his sword.

    Then the man looks straight at the baron, who quails.

    “I am Thain the Hunter,” he says, and without shouting, his voice sounds throughout the hall. “I come bearing a gift for the Baron of Shornshal.”

    Counselor Idris descends one step toward the floor. “What manner of gift is worthy of such a brutish entrance?”

    Thain slides a strap off his shoulder and opens a large leather sack. Three severed heads tumble onto the floor: two Orc and one Human.

    People on both sides of the hall shout, and several turn away. The Baron is frozen, staring at the heads.

    “I bring you the heads of the Orcs who led the attack on your kin.”

    After a moment, Idris says tentatively, “Then who is...”

    “Tarn,” says Iskendry, his voice hoarse. Then he looks up at Thain, enraged. “This was a man of mine!” he says, pointing to the head. “He was my contact among the Orcs, gathering information. Do you know how much—”

    “If your man was consorting with those who killed the baron,” says Thain easily, “then you should find better friends.”

    Iskendry draws his sword, and his people reach for their weapons. Guards move to shield the baron.

    “Hold!” shouts Idris.

    Thain still has not moved, not even to reach for his sword. His hands rest easily at his sides as if nothing has happened. And his eyes stare down Iskendry without flinching.

    “Draw your sword,” says the adventurer. His voice is dangerously low.

    Thain continues to stare at him, and one corner of his mouth twitches. Iskendry’s hands tremble on the hilt of his sword, and the blade lowers slightly.

    “I said hold!” shouts Idris. He steps down to the floor, but does not approach Thain.

    Thain’s eyes finally release Iskendry and glance at the counselor. Then he reaches for something on his belt, but it is only a rolled up parchment. He draws it out and shakes it open, showing it to Idris.

    “Two hundred gold,” says Thain, “was the promised reward.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Lethe is looking around Sharai’s room when Risalys opens the door.

    “What are you doing?”

    Lethe stands straight and bows slightly. She tries to block Sharai’s view of the small basket cage where the mouse is. “Sharai was having trouble finding a brush. I assumed it rolled under or behind something when she knocked everything onto the floor.”

    Risalys narrows her eyes. “You will address her as ‘my lady Sharai’.”

    Lethe clears her throat. “Yes, my lady.”

    “Say it.”

    “I don’t... understand what you want.”

    “Where do you come from? Who hired you?”

    “I don’t know.”

    Risalys strikes Lethe, hard, and she catches herself before she falls. She turns back and looks up at the woman.

    “You will treat me with the respect due my station,” says the baroness in a fierce whisper, and then she turns and sweeps from the room in a billowing of her gown.

    Lethe stares at the empty doorway for several moments. Then she says, “One. That was one, and I will keep count, and I will remember when the time comes.”

    After the chaos in the great hall, the keep settles down. In an opulent room on the third floor, Baron Helygen falls asleep in a large soft bed. On the second floor, his wife Risalys sneaks through a hidden door into a small chamber where she meets with her husband’s counselor, Idris, who welcomes her with warm arms.

    On the third floor, Sharai tosses and turns in her own room. She dreams a dream of night forests and mist, and a thousand crows singing together in clear voices. She dreams of a long and endless hallway lined with blood-stained tapestries, and twelve-foot guards of jade who draw their swords to kill her. She runs, but there is nowhere to go, no stairwell at the end.

    Suddenly someone pulls her behind a tapestry. She turns and sees that it is Lethe, who holds a finger to her mouth, shhh. Footsteps pass by. Laughter echoes along the hall.

    Sharai awakens, breathing hard. She hears a sound, and gets up to check on the mouse.

    In a back corner of the third floor, Lethe pulls the curtains aside and opens a window. It is a dark night, and both sickle moons set soon after the sun. She pulls herself outside and sits on the window sill, staring at a tree about seven meters away. Leaves rustle in the wind.

    Slowly the vines rising up the side of the tree and along the larger branches begin to move. They creep along the trunk, twining with one another quietly until they form a bridge reaching from the tree to the wall just beneath her feet. Lethe steps down to the bridge of vines and walks over to the tree, then begins to climb down.


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at January 14, 2021 9:01 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    January 14, 2021 7:45 AM PST

    This will be a continuation of several loosely-connected stories set in Kingsreach.

    1. Orphan Druid
    2. Sword of Serengeral
    3. Song of Seret
    4. Craving the Wild

    This post was edited by Crowsinger at January 14, 2021 7:46 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    January 14, 2021 5:01 PM PST

    Chapter Two: Threnody

     

    The streets of Shornshal twist and bend in the near dark. Sometimes a wall ends just before another building, forcing him to squeeze through the gap into another alley. Once he reaches a dead end, forcing him to backtrack several turns.

    Stars shine overhead without moons, and smaller stars around him: the tiny wisp flies that wend and thread the darkness, the lights of their tails leaving ghostly trails behind them. Now and then a lantern swings on a rusty hook, the creak and scratch of metal against metal as the the shadows dance in swaying light. Lost, he lifts a hand to feel his way along a wall in a lightless alley, emerging once again in lanternlight before a locked storefront.

    Long thin shadow moving back and forth in the light—another lantern that sways with the wind—behind a tall thin man standing very still. The wind picks up. Gust, creak, the lantern leans. The shadow moves.

    “There you are.” A voice, thin like the man. The shapes of robes, long hair unfettered by braid or ribbon.

    Thain waits, silent.

    “I followed you, then I lost you. Had to find you again.” The man takes a step forward and his shadow follows, sways.

    Creak, says the lantern.

    “I wanted to talk to you.”

    Thain can make out a tameless beard and bright teeth when the man speaks.

    “You’re a quiet one,” says the man. “No matter. My name is Aest. I wandered the merchant roads nine, ten years ago. Mercenary, me and others, guarding caravans. Once we had to chase a bandit gang. Thain the Hunter led us. I have never seen his like. A hound, a tracker… a huge man, could smell a bandit’s trail, just like the stories say.”

    Creak.

    Thain rests a hand on the hilt of his sword.

    “I saw you in the Baron’s hall today. You know who I didn’t see?”

    The wind stills.

    “Thain,” says Aest as a red spark flashes in the palm of his hand.

    Thain draws and leaps just as the first streak of fire hits him in the chest. Ignoring the pain, he strikes fast three times.

    Aest yells and disappears in a flash, appears again against a nearby wall.

    A moment later Thain is there. The wizard’s eyes widen. Thain strikes another three times, and Aest is bleeding.

    The wizard whispers.

    Searing fire pushes him back, and for a moment he claws at the hauberk of leather and chain that he wears. Then he throws up his left hand, summons a shield of essence as a third bolt of fire leaps the space between them. The air between them glows red and the fire bolt, diminished and weak, reaches Thain.

    He reaches up toward the wizard’s head and twists his hand in the air. Fear moving across his eyes, the wizard groans and looks around wildly. Then he glares at Thain and takes a step toward him. Another. A purple spark in his hand, he begins to whisper.

    Then the wizard’s mouth snaps shut.

    “Silence,” grunts Thain, and his sword moves, drawing blood again and again.

    The wizard collapses back onto the wall. He reaches up, still seeing whatever horror Thain has conjured in his mind, and then his body drains onto the ground.

    Thain leans on his sword.

    The lantern moves again in the wind.

    Creak.

    ❖ ❖ ❖ 

    Thain enters his room, a seldom-used cellar room in the basement of an inn. He unbuckles his sword belt and tosses his sword onto the bed. He has a moment to wonder why there is a fire in the small hearth.

    “I am not surprised you found trouble.”

    Thain whirls and sees a man sitting in a chair in a corner near the door. Dark wavy hair falling around his head, cut just below his ears, a day or two of beard growth. Black eyes.

    “Looks like you got into a firefight.”

    “Nine.”

    “Nisto.” Nine’s voice is quiet, gravelly but resonant. “Did someone realize you aren’t Thain? Is your cover blown already?”

    Nisto releases the breath he was holding, then reaches to unstrap the hauberk, then drop it onto the floor. When he is done, he falls into a a large chair and closes his eyes.

    “I thought you were going to give us some time.”

    “Did you expect me to go home to Thronefast and wait for a report? No, I’m here to watch over you.”

    “If you’re here, why don’t you run the investigation? Go to the keep, announce yourself.”

    “I was there today. I saw your Halfling playing servant girl to the baron’s daughter. Where are the others?”

    Nisto opens his eyes. “Do you want to run this or let me do it?”

    In an instant, Nine is out of his chair, both hands gripping the arms of Nisto’s chair, his face leaning in close. “I don’t. Trust you.”

    “Then why?”

    “Because the Lark gives orders and I obey. I serve the Queen.”

    “We are both working for the Lark—“

    “No.” Nine pulls back, stands up, and walks toward the fire. “I am working for the Lark. You are a tool for a job.”

    “I don’t think this is gonna work if you question every decision I make.”

    Nine is staring into the fire. “Do you know what I question?” he whispers. “I question why a veteran of the Queen’s army is dabbling in forbidden arts.”

    “Forbidden.”

    “Don’t pretend you don’t understand what I mean.” Nine returns to his chair and sits watching him, his forehead resting on several fingers. “Surely you’ve heard the legends of the Dire Lord.”

    Something stirs in Nisto’s memory, something Hera said before she left them for good.

    “You have heard.”

    “The Paladin said something, but I figured it was some kind of Paladin nonsense.”

    Nine stares at him. “You really don’t know, do you? Where did you learn these new abilities then? If you haven’t been trained by someone already familiar with the Arts—“

    “I picked things up here and there.”

    Nine leans forward. “You don’t just ‘pick up’ skills for manipulating the essence of life’s blood, of playing with fear and phantasms in your opponent’s mind.”

    Nisto isn’t about to mention his long conversations with the Sword of Serengeral, lying sheathed on the bed nearby. My teacher is a cursed sword, he would say. That would go over well.

    Instead he sighs. “I’ve learned techniques to help me survive in this world.”

    “You’ve learned techniques to control people, their minds, their blood.”

    “Can we get back to the job you hired us to do?”

    After a moment, Nine laughs. It sounds genuine. “We didn’t… hire you, Nisto. We threatened you. Surely a man ’surviving in this world’ should know the difference.”

    “You know we had no choice but to kill Duke Aeresken. And Baron Choath before him.”

    Nine purses his lips and nods. “I do. The Lark does. But there are quite a few among the nobles of Thronefast who would very much like to see you and all your team on a gibbet in Peacemade Plaza.”

    “Would you like that?” whispers Nisto.

    “What I would like,” says Nine, “is to protect the peace of the Queen’s realm, by any means necessary.” He stands and walks toward the door. “And if it turns out that we need someone to kill the Baron of Shornshal, I know that we have a man with just the right experience on the job.”

    The door closes behind him, leaving Nisto alone in the room.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    At a warehouse in the coopers’ district, in a room of half-finished casks, they meet in the space between midnight and dawn.

    Nisto looks over his people as they settle in. Crowsinger sits on a finished cask, staring down toward the floor. The Halfling has not been the same since Duke Aeresken Sersu sent hawks to kill most of the crows that she considered friends and family. Though Aeresken is now dead, the light in her eyes has been replaced by a darker flame.

    Jalasko leans against one corner of the room. Instead of his usual outdoor leathers, he now wears a long sleeveless vest of embroidered linen over a black leather jerkin. At his waist are two curved single-edged swords, and Nisto knows that there are at least two knives hidden somewhere.

    Foal has taken a chair by a small worktable. As usual, her bushy hair hangs down over her eyes. Since arriving in Shornshal, she has worn simple peasant clothes to blend in with the workers who fill the casks for shipment to Thronefast.

    Missing is Eske’drai, who will arrive in two days. It is too dangerous to risk an elf being spotted in this very human town until it is time for him to play his role.

    “Would you like to tell us what happened?” says Foal.

    Nisto nods. “I had reservations about this disguise from the start, but arguing with Nine…” he shakes his head. “A wizard who worked with Thain years ago remembered him vividly enough to know that I wasn’t him.”

    Jalasko leans forward. “You were attacked?”

    “Yes.” He runs a hand down the front of his armor, now darkened by flame. “Killed him, wrapped his body in a cloth, and dumped it in a refuse area behind the workshops. I couldn’t risk dragging it any farther.”

    “Did you get paid at least?” asks Foal.

    “Oh, yes. Two hundred gold.”

    “Why would they pay you so easily without an investigation?” asks Jalasko.

    “Because this cleans things up nice and tidy for them. Which is why I take this as proof that the old baron and his family weren’t killed by Orcs at all, and the new baron knows it.”

    “They weren’t,” says Crowsinger. She looks up. “Bloodstains along the wall near the floor, in at least two places. Most of the rugs are gone, and I imagine they’ve been burned somewhere. Those people fought, they ran, and they were hacked down in their rooms and halls.”

    “****,” says Jalasko. “Do you know who did it?”

    “I think the people who did it are now guards for the new baron.”

    “They were either his to begin with,” says Foal, “or whoever hired them is keeping them there as a message to the new baron.”

    Nisto ponders this. “Jalasko, could you visit the estate at the vineyard? See what you can find out. Did guards move from there to the keep, or not?”

    Crowsinger says, “A lot of the servants at the keep are new. Like me.” She frowns. “I don’t like playing a young Human. I long for violence.”

    “I…” Nisto laughs silently, “I long for violence all the time.”

    Jalasko takes a breath. “Do you think it’s likely that someone will try to kill me during my investigation?”

    “No.” Nisto shakes his head. “You’re the one person they won’t kill. They think you’re an investigator from Thronefast, so they’re going to try and feed you as much false information as they can.”

    Foal says, “If there’s a place they obviously don’t want you to go, let me know. I’ll check it out.”

    “Is that everything?” The others nod, and Nisto says, “Okay I’ll see all of you tomorrow night, same time.”

     ❖ ❖ ❖

    House Chruest has buildings and warehouses here and there around the barony, but their home is a manor close to the baron’s keep. The building is three stories, but not quite as tall as the keep. On the other hand, it is far more luxurious inside. Rich rugs, finely painted walls, and chairs in which one could drown.

    Counselor Idris is shown into Lucabin’s study. Documents are viciously ordered in piles from which not one page is allowed to be misaligned with the others. The keep is visible through the window behind him.

    A usual, he takes the chair before the desk. Lucabin is studying a striking indigo stone.

    “I read your report,” says Lucabin.

    “What do you think of this… Thain?”

    “I think we keep an eye on him. Are you having him shadowed?”

    “I have a couple of people out looking, but he hasn’t made an appearance today.” Idris waits, but Lucabin doesn’t respond. “Have you heard from Thronefast?”

    “The Lark has sent someone, a man named Jalasko. I expect to see him soon, but for now I’m sure he is snooping around. Let him.”

    “And if he sees something he shouldn’t?”

    Lucabin leans forward. “Listen to me, Idris. You will not touch this agent. The only thing worse than having to entertain him here is if he vanishes, because then the Lark, if not the military, will be down on our heads from Thronefast in force.”

    Idris draws a breath. “I’m going to talk to the baron about his daughter.”

    Lucabin looks at Idris over his glasses for a long moment. “You know, you could wait until the bodies are cold before you begin your hunt.”

    “The sooner she is mine, the sooner I am a member of the baron’s family, and then—“

    “I know how this works. Patience.”

    “You promised.”

    “You are no longer twelve, Idris, do not whine.”

    Idris waves a hand in the air and tries to calm his frustration. “So what should I do?”

    “Act like you know what you’re doing. You are helping the new baron become situated in the keep to replace his unfortunate brother, you’re managing the barony to make sure wine production continues. I have things to tend to over the next couple of days, and I shall handle the Lark. In the meantime… patience. Do you understand?”

    Idris nods, defeated. “Yes, sir.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Glittering dust motes drift in the light streaming down from high windows. In the morning, the angle of light from those windows illuminates the dusty altar in the back of this room. Images of saints have been painted on the off-white walls, though the paint has begun to fade over the last generation or two.

    He has not lit the candles. He stares at them, feeling a mix of emotions that has become all too familiar. There is meaning in ritual, but of late he has trouble finding any meaning at all. The same candles that no one but him will see; the same prayers that no one but him will hear.

    Oh, sometimes he has visitors from the town. They ask him for a blessing for whatever troubles they have, for advice, for healing. But whatever advice he can give them comes only from himself. If his Goddess speaks to him, the words are so far away that he cannot hear.

    So this morning he stares down at the altar again, sees the candles and the incense and knows that he should bring fire to them both. But he does not move. In truth, he is lucky to have found the strength to rise from his bed.

    He turns at a sound, and sees a man enter this sanctuary of Korcera. He is dressed as a warrior, though a dark tunic covers much of his armor. The hilt of a sword gleams at his waist.

    “In Korcera’s name, I welcome you,” he says, and turns to light the candles and the incense. The water bowl is there from yesterday, but it will do. “What can I do for you, my friend?”

    When the silence continues, he turns around to look more closely at his visitor. If he were to guess, he would say that the man looks to be almost 45 years old. He would also guess that this man has seen battle many times.

    The man swallows. “My name is Thain,” he says, and his voice is rough. “It has been a long time.”

    “I am Oldeld, the Cleric of Shornshal. Do you need advice or benison, or would you just pray to the Lady?”

    “I do not know.” Thain kneels at the altar and takes an unlit stick of incense, lights it in the red candle on the left.

    Ah, I see, thinks Oldeld. “Are you still a soldier?”

    “No. That was long ago. In another life.”

    “Then what would you ask our lady Korcera, if you could?”

    “If I could…” Thain laughs softly, “if she would listen, I would ask for guidance. For it has been a long road, and the light is nearly gone.”

    “Do you fear the judgment of Na’dor in the end?”

    “Are they any more real in the After than they are now?”

    Alas, I wish I knew the answer, my friend. But people hate when I tell the truth. “I believe they are quite real, behind whatever veil hides them now.”

    “I’ve met many in my travels who don’t believe in any gods, living or dead. After all, They do not answer.” Thain nods. “But I believe. I always have.”

    The man lifts a hand, hesitates, and then places it on the altar.

    Brothers sisters standing fallen

    Step by step alive for you

    Rain and mud and blood awaken

    Take my hand I’ll pull you through

    lai lai lai, lai lai lai

    Oldeld joins in the chant.

    With closest kin we face the dark

    Too many lost in ash and ember

    Fallen ones we carry still

    We must be worthy to remember

    lai lai lai…

    Slowly, Thain removes his hand from the altar.

    “I don’t know if I’m worthy of those words anymore.”

    “Why is that, my friend?”

    “I’m so tired.” Thain looks up at the golden light streaming down from above. “I’ve fought battles for almost thirty years. I’ve killed many times. At first it was easier when they didn’t look human. Orcs were easy. Their blood rained from my sword. Until one day when I was scouting, looking down from a high place onto one of their villages. They danced. They were dancing. Laughing. And I returned to Thronefast to report to a noble, and he spent half a watch bitterly complaining that he couldn’t send me after street gangs and migrants instead of Orcs.

    “And we sang songs of our family, the family of our fellow soldiers. But the songs were a lie. Nobles in our own ranks would send us to die to avoid soiling their hands with combat. And I learned to hate them. The only people in the world I couldn’t kill were the only ones I hated in the end. Is that why I’ve taken this path? Is that why I want the freedom, the brilliant, reckless, ecstatic freedom to embrace the darkness, so that I can kill them and wipe the arrogant smirk from their faces? To never bow down to them again?”

    He shakes his head. “That’s not what She would want. That’s not Her way. But where is she? Where is she?!

    Thain shouts into Oldeld’s face, but the Cleric remains still, and doesn’t pull away. Thain’s eyes widen, and he blinks and turns back to the altar, his shoulders slumping.

    “It’s all just words, isn’t it? Words to keep us fighting, to keep us in line. If she isn’t there, then why not let the fire take me, the essence build, the blood flow?”

    Oldeld takes a breath. “I have never once in my life heard Her voice. And I have,” he swallows, “sometimes felt the same doubts as you. But once, not long ago, I heard a speech very similar to yours.” He lowers his voice to almost a whisper. “Not a baron or a duke, but a powerful man. A man who performed a defiant speech before me, using words not unlike yours. There are no gods, he said. Clerics find their magic in books, and there is nothing more than that to believe. No yoke, no bond.”

    Thain is staring at him now.

    “And with those words,” continues the Cleric, “he gave himself permission to do anything he wanted. It was glorious, he said, the freedom. Who could stop him? Who had the right? And so I stood there as he made to himself his own prayer, his own benediction.”

    Oldeld pauses, still holding Thain’s gaze. “The ones you hate… how alike to them would you want to be?”

    Thain looks at the tattered saints on the wall. “Maybe someone like me is necessary. Wolves flourish and haunt the farm unless a hunter culls them. Without the hunter…”

    “This is true. There is reason for the hunter. Or you could be making excuses for something you have already chosen to do.”

    “Does Korcera embrace the hunter as well?”

    “That depends, I think. I do not know how Na’dor judges in the end. But I do know that if the hunter grows to enjoy the kill too much, they might not limit their prey to wolves.”

    Thain closes his eyes. “Benison, then. Pray that I will find a path between the darkness and the light.”

    “Korcera watch and guide this son of yours, once a soldier. May he be a true hunter that culls the darkness, and not stray into evil himself.”

    By now the incense lit by Thain is almost gone. The man dips fingers into the water and touches them to his forehead.

    “Thank you, priest,” he says. And then he stands and leaves without looking back.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    A short while after Thain leaves, someone else enters the sanctuary. Oldeld turns, then feels the pain in his heart that this visitor always brings to him. He looks at the boy, who stands straight and unbowed, wearing the mask of a saint that Oldeld himself had given to him. He sighs, then nods toward his office.

    He locks a door behind him, then leads the boy into the inner office, where no one will hear, and closes the inner door.

    Ermine sits on a chair, then reaches back to unfasten the strap holding his mask on. He removes the mask, revealing a face spotted and scarred by some illness. Or so it appears.

    With a sigh, Oldeld sits before the boy… almost a man now. “I wish,” says Oldeld, “that I could heal you now. I have the power, but…”

    “It is not yet time,” says Ermine.

    Oldeld nods. “Let me ease your pain. As always, it will return by morning.”

    “I know.”

    The Cleric holds his hands above Ermine’s face, using his power to dull the pain. After a time, weary again, he leans back and takes a deep breath. “Are you still playing the harp?”

    “As well as I can,” says Ermine, “which isn’t very well at all. But I’m inside.”

    “And then?”

    “Even if I knew what to do next, I shouldn’t tell you. I have no wish for you to be in any danger on my account.”

    “I already am, but you can see that has not stopped me.”

    Ermine smiles. “I should return before they miss me. Though I’m not at all sure that they would.”

    He lifts the mask and puts it on again. After receiving a benison from the Cleric, he leaves.

    “Too many lost in ash and ember…” the Cleric sings.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Crowsinger breathes deeply the air of the forest south of the keep. All the chittering things that sing in the boughs above are a music she has not heard in far too long. She has chosen to follow Nisto’s group on their journeys, chosen to form bonds with them, and sometimes that path will lead into damp and shadowed rooms and caves. But she lives for the outside under the sun, the moons, under the gods perhaps, where life is a web of sound and scent and every sense.

    Something catches her attention, an intruder in her almost perfect world. Sounds of running, and harsh laughter. She slips behind a tree to watch.

    Running through the forest is the boy, Ermine, who plays harp sometimes in the keep. Some thirty yards behind, guards run after him, grinning at the thrill of the hunt.

    She calls on the vines to slow the pursuers, then begins to run in the same direction as Ermine’s flight through the wood. Calling on the wolf’s speed she dashes toward the pond, and trees rush by around her nearly unseen. She runs into the shallows and waits among the cattails and brushgrass. When Ermine appears, she waves at him, beckoning him to join her.

    “Hide here!” she says.

    When he joins her, she sees that his mask has fallen somewhere along the way. His face is pied and scarred—but she has no time to stare.

    “Come with me,” she says, and grabbing him with both arms, she pulls him with her off the edge of the shallows, and into the deep water.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    She wraps him in strong arms and pulls him down into the deep. He struggles frantically, disoriented as they dive headfirst into dark murky water. She squeezes as he struggles, and against his will he inhales. Water fills his lungs and he coughs, panicking. His legs flail above him.

    He screams, taking in even more water. And then he breathes.

    He breathes.

    The water is not clean, and he coughs as he would breathing smokey air. But he breathes.

    They right themselves, and she is holding onto him still. She lays a finger against his mouth, quiet.

    And now he listens, and hears the voices in the air above. He cannot see forms through the water; only the light above, and ripples from their dive, becoming smoother now.

    He starts as something brushes against his leg, but she holds on, reassuring.

    They wait a long time while the men search above, but at last they go away. The girl waits a bit longer, then takes his hand and pulls him up with her.

    As they crawl out onto the grass-thick shallows, he coughs the water out of his lungs. She helps him onto the shore. He sits there a long time, looking around at the trees, up at the sky. Birds fly overhead. Nothing seems real.

    Finally he looks at her. She is sitting in the grass at the edge of the pond with her legs crossed. In her hands she holds his mask.

    Noticing his attention, she says, “They dropped it here. Maybe they hope you died and don’t want to leave any sign that they were here.” She looks down at the tracks of large boots all around them, then adds, “Fools.”

    “Who are you?”

    “I am Sharai’s handmaiden, Lethe.”

    He shakes his head. “You’re not just a handmaiden.”

    A slight smile. “No.”

    “Then what are you?” He studies her face, and something becomes more clear. “You’re older than you look.”

    “Several years older.”

    “You’re a Halfling.”

    She laughs and hands him the mask. “Am I the first Halfling you have seen?”

    “Yes. But I’ve studied them. You.” He straps the mask back on. “How did you do that, with the water? How can we breathe down there?”

    “Something I learned along the way.” She looks away. “The scar tissue. Your face. It didn’t begin that way.”

    His hands pause tightening the strap. “No. But I need to hide. I need to be there, but I can’t be recognized.”

    She is staring at him intently now. “You were in the fire.”

    He nods.

    “You’re a son of the old baron. Why doesn’t your family recognize you?”

    He shrugs. “My father and my uncle didn’t get along. They mostly stayed in the estate at the vineyards.”

    “Do Human families not mingle? I’m still learning.”

    “I guess it depends on the family. Not mine.”

    “Did you never play with them?”

    “Maybe a few times growing up. At festivals.”

    “Then why doesn’t Sharai recognize you, at least?”

    He closes his eyes. “I don’t know. If she does, she hasn’t said anything.”

    “I’ll see if I can find out.”

    “Why? What is your part in this?”

    “What is yours?”

    “Mine?” He scoffs. “My family was butchered by our guards. Some old guards, and some brought in to kill us. Any who defended us died too, but there weren’t enough of them.” He takes a long breath. “I was caught in the kitchen fire along with a servant about my age. One dying guard dragged us both out of the smoke. But the servant boy was dead, so the guard helped me swap clothes with the servant. I don’t remember anything after that.”

    “Why were they chasing you today?”

    “For fun. I don’t know if they would have hurt me—though since I’m supposed to be a servant, they might—but I can’t let them look too closely.”

    The Halfling seems to be thinking all of this over. Then she looks up. “All right. I’ll see if I can figure out if Sharai knows it’s you.”

    “Okay. Okay.” He stands up. “Thank you for saving my life. I, uh... don’t think we should return to the keep together.”

    “Agreed.”

    He turns and walks toward the keep. She never told him what she was doing there.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Sharai is sitting on her bed petting her mouse when her mother Risalys walks in.

    “What is that?”

    “Something I found in the field. I want to keep it.”

    “You are not keeping a rat.”

    “It’s a field mouse.”

    “Get rid of it.”

    Sharai shields the mouse with her hand. “Let me have something!

    “If you won’t kill the thing, I will.”

    Risalys moves closer, then hesitates. Sharai scoots over to the edge of the bed and says, “I need this. I need something.”

    “You are a baron’s daughter!” Risalys hisses.

    “You keep saying that. I’m a baron’s daughter because everybody else was murdered.”

    Risalys opens her mouth, and then her face twists with rage. “Enough. Guard!”

    A guard is quickly at the door.

    “What are you doing,” whispers Sharai.

    Risalys points to the mouse. “Take that rat and kill it, then dispose of it.”

    Sharai screams and tries to hold the mouse closely, but the guard roughly takes it away from her. He grabs the tail, then smashes its head against the edge of the doorway. Then he nods to Risalys and walks away.

    Sharai feels tears on her face. Her mother crawls onto the bed and takes her by both shoulders.

    “You will start behaving. You will be a baron’s daughter and not embarrass me.”

    “They were killed here. They were killed in this keep! Why are we pretending this is okay?”

    A moment of fear in Risalys’ eyes, followed by resolve. Sharai can almost imagine the wheels and pulleys changing her expression, the play of muscles. Risalys narrows her eyes. “Stop spreading nonsense! Start behaving or I’ll make sure you don’t leave this room until you do.”

    Risalys stands and walks out, slamming the door behind her.

    Sharai grips the blanket under her, sobbing. “There’s no way out of here. Blood on the walls. No way out.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Nisto enters the keep and looks around. There is to be a gathering tonight, with important people from all over Shornshal, and he needs to be here, playing the role of Thain.

    A number of people have already gathered, dressed in their finest. No one who is not a guard is wearing obvious weapons, though he is certain many are carrying a small weapon in secret. He is himself.

    Instead of obvious armor, he is wearing something more appropriate to a social gathering in a baron’s keep. Nine had provided him some appropriate clothing for the event.

    Near the hearth, a boy wearing a saint mask is playing a harp. Jalasko is nearby wearing clothes suitable for an investigator from Thronefast. As his eyes search the room, he sees Crowsinger descending a staircase. She wears clean servant clothes, but her hair is wet.

    Then he sees the man who confronted him the day before. He is a tall man with the arrogance of a noble, and a face that looks somehow familiar. As he is studying the face, trying to figure out who it is, the man sees him and begins to walk over.

    About three meters away, the man stops and nods to him. Then he clears his throat. “We got off to a bad start yesterday. I would like to begin again.”

    Nisto nods noncommittally.

    The man continues, “My name is Iskendry Sersu. And you are the great Thain the Hunter.”

    Nisto is staring at him now. “Sersu. That name…”

    Iskendry takes a breath. “Yes, you might have heard the name before. My brother, the late Duke of Rischae, died almost three months ago. In fact, I was asked to return and claim the duchy.” He waves this away. “But this is a duke’s business. Let us speak of hunting, shall we?”

    Aeresken’s brother. This is Aeresken’s brother, the adventurer. Aeresken, who Nisto killed with his own sword.

    He has little time to think about it, for then everything happens fast. A servant girl leaps onto Iskendry’s chest and stabs him with a long blade. He falls, and she falls on top of him.

    Not a servant. Crowsinger.

    Iskendry is on the floor now, bleeding while Crowsinger stabs him again and again.

    Everyone is frozen, but then guards converge on the scene. They pull Crowsinger off the man and disarm her.

    Her face is filled with rage. “Not enough,” she says. “Not enough to pay for them!”

    She screams as the guards drag her away. Nisto looks at Jalasko, who is standing with his mouth open.

    By the hearth, the harp is silent.


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at January 15, 2021 5:35 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    January 17, 2021 9:01 AM PST

    Chapter Three: Canticle

     

    Nisto paces the floor of his room, trying to speak through gritted teeth. “Did you know,” he says, “that Aeresken’s brother was the adventurer hired to hunt the Orcs?”

    “Of course I knew,” says Nine. He is lounging in a chair by the hearth, watching Nisto pace.

    “And you didn’t think it was important to tell me.”

    “Perhaps I thought you might fly into an uncontrolled rage if you knew. Little did I suspect that your Halfling was the real problem.”

    Nisto stops and looks down at him. “I. Cannot. Do this job. Or prepare my group. Without information.”

    “Neither can I. So why don’t we trade? You tell me why the Halfling killed Iskendry, and I’ll tell you what happened later.”

    Nisto sits down on the bed and forces himself to be still.

    “Are you also aware,” he begins, “that Crowsinger is named for being able to talk to crows? She communicates with them. Some of them were her closest friends for a long time.”

    Nine stares at him. “No, I did not, possibly because I have never heard of someone being friends with crows.”

    “Funny that Aeresken was well aware of this, but the Lark was not.”

    Nine leans forward. “Tell me.”

    “Some of her crow friends, including her best friend, acted as scouts for our party. They were in the sky, scouting his estate at Rischae, as we approached. Aeresken saw them, knew that they were scouts, and sent hawks to hunt them. Crowsinger felt them die.”

    Nine frowns. “You personally assassinated Aeresken.”

    “Yes.”

    “But the Halfling was not satisfied. She struck out at his brother in rage and then screamed ‘not enough’. All of this in revenge for a bunch of crows.”

    “A bunch of friends.”

    Nine seems to be trying not to roll his eyes. “Fine. Tree-dwellers have their special friends, I won’t argue. Now we need to figure out how we can use this.”

    “I will not use a member of my team in this way. I will free her from wherever she is being held.”

    “You will not, if it disrupts the mission.”

    “To hell with your mission! She is one of ours.”

    His shout is loud in the small room. After a moment, Nine says, “It is touching to see a Dire Lord so protective of his people. I might weep.”

    “If it will make you feel better to weep, do so. We are going to get Crowsinger out of there. Once we find out what she has learned, I’ll be sure and tell you all about it. Now talk about Iskendry.”

    Nine laughs silently and smiles. “Very well. He abandoned his duties to his father and ran off to become an adventurer. All the arrogance of nobility with none of the responsibility.”

    “Sounds like all of them.”

    “He has of course heard by now that his father and brother have both died, leaving the duchy to him, yet still feels no need to return to Thronefast.”

    “You speak as if he is still alive.”

    “His friends took him to the town Cleric, who is even now resurrecting him.”

    Nisto curses. “Why could the Cleric not do the same for the old baron and his family?”

    “Because the bodies were never found.”

    “I doubt that. They were attacked in their home by guards who are still there. Someone buried them.”

    “They have been dead for almost fifteen days. No Cleric can help them now. Even if they died yesterday, that might be too much for one town Cleric to handle.”

    Nisto stares into the fire. “Who hired Iskendry?”

    “Discovering that is part of your job. I believe there are three suspects: the new baron, Counselor Idris—who also counseled the old baron—or Lucabin. You have been unable to insert a spy into Lucabin’s house, which is not surprising. Helygen…” Nine smiles. “He’s good at managing the family vineyards, but I don’t think he is in charge of anything else.”

    “Crowsinger found proof that they were killed in the keep. But she hasn’t mentioned Lucabin.”

    Nine nods. “Who among your people is closest to Lucabin now?”

    Nisto sighs. “Jalasko should be meeting with him in the morning. Foal is undercover as a worker in one of his warehouses, but she hasn’t seen him.”

    “Fine, then. Rescue your Halfling. And find out who hired Iskendry.”

     ❖ ❖ ❖

    She awakes in a windowless cell with stone on three sides and bars on the fourth. A lamp flickers somewhere in the hallway beyond, and there is another cell across from hers. She is lying on a bunch of old straw scattered across the stone floor. She looks around and sees two buckets in her cell.

    She tries to sit up and groans, feeling bruises all over though she can’t remember when that happened.

    “I need you,” she whispers, and her fox spirit is there. It begins to heal the bruises.

    “I really did not think this through, did I.”

    A door opens down the hall to the left, and she stands. Her fox disappears.

    A well-dressed man carrying a chair peers into the cell, then sets down the chair some distance from the bars.

    That was wise, she thinks.

    He sets a lantern on the floor between him and the bars, then sits down.

    “Good morning!” says Councilor Idris. “Would you like to come closer? We have a lot to talk about, you and I, and I thought we could at least talk face to face.”

    “Sure, open the bars.”

    He laughs. “Yes, that is not what I had in mind.” He gestures over a guard, who brings a tray with bread and cheese, and a wineskin. “Eat if you want. I’m sure you’re hungry.”

    Crowsinger takes a couple of steps and sits down on the floor before the bars, ignoring the food. Idris chuckles and reaches over, tears off a piece of bread, and eats it. Then he takes a big draught from the wineskin and sets it down again.

    Well, I am thirsty. She takes a sip—scent of wood and berries, rich flavor—and wipes her mouth on a sleeve.

    “In Shornshal, we make the best wine in all the Human lands. This town is swimming in Thronefast gold. That’s why we are working very hard to make sure the flow of wine is not interrupted.”

    With her mouth full of food, she says, “Killing the baron and his entire family in their own home doesn’t interrupt the flow of wine?”

    He stares at her for a moment, a slight smile in his eyes. “Surely the Queen would send a Human to investigate the death of a Human baron. As it turns out, you are not a Human girl at all, but a Halfling. Is Lethe even your real name?”

    She takes another swig of wine and says nothing.

    “I thought Halflings were supposed to be cheery, jovial creatures.”

    “Have I done anything to dispel that myth?”

    He laughs. “Everything. Consider the myth utterly dispelled. So who are you? A mercenary, perhaps? A free agent?”

    Let me out of here and I will show you what we really are.

    Idris sighs. “I can see you are not very talkative. I’m sure you know we had the Cleric resurrect poor Iskendry.”

    Crowsinger curses in Kiri, and he laughs again. “How disappointing you must be to whoever hired you. In a moment of rage, you completely blew your cover, and now you are,” he glances at the bars, “no longer useful.”

    “Did you have the old baron killed?”

    “Still trying to gather information? My, but you are a persistent little thing.”

    She shrugs and takes another bite of bread.

    “Let me tell you what happens next.” He leans forward again and clasps his hands together. “My benefactor has a very important project that has nothing to do with wine, and you are going to help him with it.”

    “This sounds very exciting. When do we leave?”

    Idris laughs and stands up. “Stay close,” he says to the guard, “and watch her.”

    The guard nods, and Idris disappears through a door.

    Crowsinger curses again.

     ❖ ❖ ❖

    Foal has never wanted to know this much about wine. Drinking it, certainly, but everything that comes before it is wine should be relegated to myth and legend, as far as she is concerned. But now she knows a great deal about the storage and aging of the local wine in local barrels, then moving the barrels to carts for transfer to a shipping warehouse north of town.

    She has begun to realize that everyone working in this warehouse is from outside of town. Some come from outlying towns in the lands of the Shornshal barony, while others migrated from less fortunate places looking for work. She has met people from Firasie, from Qaraluard, from Thrum.

    This morning came the news that several workers would be transferred to the shipping warehouse, and Foal’s name was on the list. She isn’t sure that moving to another worksite will help her with her mission, but she’s learning almost nothing about the town and the baron where she is now.

    I’ll go to the new site for a day or two, but if there’s nothing to learn there, I’m going to disappear and try getting into Chruest Manor again. As a lowly warehouse worker, she has never met Lucabin, or been able to discover much about him, though she has met several of his lackeys.

    Her hand itches to reach for a hidden blade when one of those lackeys is near. It is instinctual, unconscious, and she knows to trust that instinct. These lackeys are not to be trusted.

    Midday she and a group of workers load barrels onto two carts, each drawn by a pair of strong workhorses, and then walk alongside the carts as they travel to the new warehouse. She walks with other workers being transferred, and also some of the guards. They travel along a cart road through the forest much of the morning, until they reach a warehouse surrounded by a cluster of smaller buildings.

    The place is heavily guarded. In addition to a guard on each side of the open cart doors, Foal can see guards walking the perimeter of the settlement.

    Are they expecting Orcs to raid and steal the wine?

    The carts enter the warehouse, which is well lit by lanterns in two rows above. Foal looks around and sees very few barrels. There are stacks of crates here and there, and a large shed near the other end of the warehouse.

    This isn’t right. She keeps her hand near her hidden dagger.

    She looks around at the sound of the warehouse doors closing, and then guards appear from behind crates to join the guards with the cart.

    Getting worse.

    One man dressed in fine robes walks over to them, accompanied by two guards. “If you have any weapons,” he says, “I would put them on the ground now.”

    I’m sure you would, thinks Foal. But should I?

    When no one moves, the man smiles. “We’ll be checking you all for weapons, and if we find any you haven’t set on the ground, that will go worse for you.”

    Foal and two others pull out knives and daggers, then set them on the floor. They are all searched, but the guards do not find Foal’s kunai or the darts hidden in her boots. Her flute is back in her room in Shornshal.

    “Into the shed, two groups.”

    Foal is in the first group. They step into the shed, and the doors close. Suddenly the floor begins to move, descending. A man next to her curses. After a short time, the floor stops moving, and the doors open again.

    They step out into a stone passage. The tunnel leads to a large chamber about a dozen meters wide, with a flat stone floor and walls made of cut marble. Strange figures and symbols are carved into the marble. Oil lamps are spaced at intervals along the walls, set into depressions in the marble.

    I should definitely report this to the others. Foal thinks back to the lift, which didn’t seem to have any controls on this level.

    Somehow.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    The baron’s keep is at one end of the largest east-west road in the city of Shornshal. As the road begins to rise up the hill toward the keep, one can turn to the left and see Chruest Manor. Unlike the keep, the manor is built for ostentatious display: three stories of clay-red painted walls bordered by elegant scrollwork painted gold. Guards in gleaming armor patrol around the manor.

    Inside, Jalasko is escorted into a meeting room with one of Lucabin’s associates.

    “My name is Jalasko, and I am an investigator sent from Thronefast.”

    “Yes, that is the story your papers told, and they look legitimate. Please, sit down.”

    Jalasko takes a seat. “I have been sent to speak with Lucabin.”

    “Unfortunately my lord is rather busy at the moment. The aftermath of everything that has happened. You understand.”

    “Mmm.”

    “My name is Risnal, and I speak for Lucabin in all matters.”

    Jalasko leans forward. “I’m sure you are aware that this is not a business call. If I cannot meet with him, then I need a better explanation than ‘he’s busy’.”

    “Yes, and I promise you that we want nothing more than to help Her Majesty’s investigators do a thorough… investigation, but these are difficult times. Perhaps he will be free tomorrow.”

    “Perhaps he should be.”

    Risnal frowns. “Was that a threat?”

    “The Queen takes it very seriously one of her noble families is assassinated.” I should know, he thinks wryly. “Her eye is here, with me.”

    “I understand perfectly,” says Risnal. “In the meantime, could I be of some assistance? Do you have questions about the incident? Granted, we’ve had some difficulty gathering information ourselves, since they met their fate up in the mountains. But any help I can give.”

    Jalasko smiles slightly.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Iskendry is sitting in a very comfortable chair, and his every muscle seems to be twitching in agitation. Seldom has Lucabin seen an angrier young man.

    “I want her,” says Iskendry.

    “I understand that,” says Lucabin. “She killed you, after all.”

    “Have someone take me to her.”

    “Oooh. A demand.” Lucabin glances up at one of his guards. “That was a demand, I’m sure of it.”

    “I am a duke.”

    “Not at the moment, no.” He points a finger at Iskendry. “You are a dilettante noble running away from his responsibilities in Thronefast, and everyone all the way up to the Queen knows it. When you return to take the yoke of service to your Queen—assuming she doesn’t dissolve the duchy of Rischae altogether, or give it to a better bloodline—then, and only then, will you be a duke. And then I encourage you to return to Shornshal and give orders as if they mean something but right now you are in my service.”

    Iskendry stands and walks slowly over to a sideboard near the door, pours himself a drink.

    “Help yourself,” says Lucabin. “Though are you certain that you have sufficiently recovered from your resurrection to be drinking this early?”

    “I’m fine.” The young man takes a long drink.

    I doubt that. Lucabin shakes his head. The fire of arrogant youth.

    Iskendry turns. “Can you at least tell me that I will have some time to question her before she is killed?”

    “Killed? Boy, whatever makes you think I intend to kill her?”

    Iskendry is nonplussed. “What… she killed me!”

    “And I have no doubt that it hurt. But now I have a half-crazed Halfling who is quite agile and good with a knife. That is a resource, young man. I don’t throw away resources lightly.”

    The man narrows his eyes. “You arranged for the assassination of the baron, didn’t you? Wasn’t that throwing away a resource?”

    Oh, you idiot. Just throw every card on the table when you should be keeping them close. Was the rest of your family this stupid?

    Lucabin makes his voice steel. “That is a serious accusation to make, young man. An investigator from Thronefast is speaking with my associate right now, and we are making every effort to help him with his investigation.”

    “From Thronefast? I want to speak with him.”

    “You are welcome to do that.”

    Iskendry nods and leaves the room, still carrying his drink.

    “I hate adventurers,” says Lucabin.

    “Are you all right, my lord?”

    “Fine.” He stands and goes to the mirror. “Now Risnal will keep the investigator busy while I take another exit.” He dons a hat. “I have a speech to give.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖ 

    When Jalasko is finished meeting with Risnal, he is escorted through the front hall. There he sees Iskendry pacing near the door with a drink. Iskendry sees him and walks over.

    “Are you the investigator?”

    Jalasko looks around at his escort. “Does everyone know?”

    Iskendry grabs him by the arm. “I want to know what happened with the investigation into my brother’s death. Who killed him?”

    Jalasko stares at him. We did. We killed him, and I would do it again because he was a monster.

    “I was not part of that investigation. You will have to contact Thronefast.”

    “If you know something, tell me!”

    Perhaps, thinks Jalasko, Nisto will decide that we should kill you too. Symmetry.

    Jalasko holds his gaze. “Release my arm.” He does. “Excuse me.” He walks out of Lucabin’s manor, hoping that he isn’t followed.

    ❖ ❖ ❖ 

    Sharai waits in the shadows near a pantry stairwell. Lethe told her that Ermine often comes to the kitchen this time of day to beg a snack from one of the cooks.

    She sees him coming and waits. As he passes, she reaches out and pulls him by the hand into the stairwell. When he tries to pull away, she grabs him tighter. She nods toward the stairs, then pulls him along with her.

    In the basement pantry, she pulls him behind some sacks of flour, and they crouch on the floor. There is very little light down here, only a lantern hanging near the bottom of the stairs, but she tries to see his eyes through the mask.

    “Brindel,” she whispers, and his shoulders drop slightly. “I won’t tell anyone! I’m just glad you’re alive.”

    “How did you know?” he says.

    “I saw your hands. You always used to wear gloves to hide it, but you showed me once, remember? How the end of your finger was bitten off when you were little, and the Cleric couldn’t put it back but he healed what was left.” She gasps. “Does Oldeld know? He must know.”

    “Yes, he knows. He is helping me.”

    “Good. Lethe showed me the blood. I know what happened here.”

    A sound escapes him. She doesn’t know what to do.

    “I hate them,” she says. “I hate my mother and father for just moving in here like nothing happened. For being excited about it.”

    When he still doesn’t speak, Sharai is at a loss. “I don’t know what to do now. I had Lethe, but now she’s gone crazy and killed somebody, so I’m alone now.”

    “Lethe isn’t crazy,” says Brindel. “Well I don’t know if she is, but she isn’t Human. She’s a Halfling.”

    “What?” Sharai thinks back over the past few days. The look in Lethe’s eyes, the gaze of someone older, wilder, and more dangerous than any maidservant should be.

    “I felt safe with her around, and now I’m not safe at all am I?”

    “Neither of us is safe. But you are not alone, Sharai. Not as long as I am alive.”

    “You don’t,” she swallows, “blame me for what happened?”

    “You are not your parents. I have known that for a long time.”

    She nods, relieved.

    “I owe Lethe a debt,” says Brindel. “A life-debt. And if it is ever in my power, I must find a way to repay this debt.”

    Sharai looks down. “I hope you can. I don’t have any power. I couldn’t even protect a mouse that I found. My mother told a guard to kill it.”

    “I know. The guard threw it out back into the compost.”

    Sharai blinks. “Really?”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    In a cabin on the outskirts of the city, a group of adventurers prepares for battle. They sit around the room sharpening weapons or checking potions and other supplies. Asreth checks the fletching on some of her special arrows.

    Iskendry paces along one side of the main room. He does not demand that his people fix their eyes upon them when he speaks; he knows that they are listening.

    “I have seen quite a bit of the first two floors. And we have made several connections among the guards. It would help if they come over to our side, so as tempting as it is to shoot first, be sure. If a guard is surrendering, or takes our side in battle, we talk. If they shoot first, burn them to the ground.”

    Shyche closes his pack and sits back, fixing his eyes on Iskendry.

    “Most of the guards,” Iskendry continues, “wear leather shoulders, arms, and legs, sewn to chain covering their chest. Not very good chain, from the look of it. Asreth?”

    “Bodkin heads.”

    “Yes. And remember this,” Iskendry continues. “Do not kill the noble family. You’ve seen the baron. He has a wife and daughter, and I need them alive.”

    “I saw a lot of guards,” says Shyche.

    Ardon laughs. “I’ve seen more fearsome men guarding sheep.”

    “I am almost certain,” says Iskendry, “that some of these guards killed the previous noble family.”

    “Like I said, sheep.”

    Iskendry walks over and looks down upon Ardon. In a low voice he says, “Be careful how you speak of nobles, warrior. You chose to follow one.”

    “I chose to follow a leader, not because he is a noble, but because I am richer for it.”

    “And the investigator?” asks Shyche.

    “Ah, I hoped someone would ask.” Iskendry smiles. “His name is Jalasko, and there are two ways this can go. One: he dies, and we blame the baron’s guards for it. After all, they are bloodthirsty baron-killers. Senseless, brutal. The Crown will be pleased that we have taken justice for their agent’s horrible murder. We win.

    “Two: He lives, and we tell him that the guards killed the baron. Since we will have silenced the guards, they shall have no opportunity to protest. Again: we win. And I add the famous vintage of Shornshal to the Rischae domain.”

    Shyche shakes his head. “As long as you marry one of them, as you no doubt intend.”

    “Also, and this is very important, so listen carefully. Do not. Kill. The Halfling. She is mine; do you understand?”

    Ardon smiles. “Clearly. And what about Thain the Hunter?”

    Iskendry stares at a candle flame. “He and I never did finish our conversation.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Deep in the night, Sharai sneaks out the kitchen door and makes her way to the compost. She carefully uncovers one corner of the hooded lamp she carries and looks around. For a time, she digs through refuse from the preparation of dinner.

    And then she sees it. She wraps the field mouse in a bag and covers the lamp again. After entering the kitchen, she closes and bars the door—difficult to do quietly, but she manages.

    Back in her room, she uncovers the lamp again and lays the corpse gently on her bed. Then she turns the key she stole from her mother’s room and locks the door.

    Its head is crushed, and there is little left: a mass of flesh and tiny shards of bone still barely attached to the body. She weeps salt tears that fall into its fur.

    “I’m alone,” she says to the mouse. “There is nobody here I can count on. I don’t know if they will murder me too. I trusted Lethe. I don’t know why, but I trusted her, and now she’s murdered someone and she’s in a cell in the basement where I can’t go. There are things I would ask her. What she did wasn’t even worth anything, because the Cleric raised him anyway.”

    The mouse has no voice to speak, no spirit to hear, but she keeps talking because there is no one else. She strokes its fur lightly while she talks, wondering why the smallest things are so easy to kill and forget.

    Though bones are shattered, most of the muscles are still there. Wheels and pulleys. How do they move, anyway, she wonders. What magic allows my hand to move, to brush the fur, to speak?

    Wheels and pulleys and winches, and all the little motors that move in mills and waterwheels. What are muscles if not like that? But without water, without blood, how do they move?

    She sings to the mouse. Somewhere in the past several days she has moved beyond distance, beyond grieving, beyond fear and horror, into something else. A quiet place. A place in which the blood on the walls is only the water that once moved the wheels that allowed her uncle to speak and breathe and move. And what is breath but spirit?

    She sings to the mouse, her song and her breath and her tears a gift. Water and spirit.

    A paw twitches. She gasps, and her fingers stop for a moment. The paw is still. So she continues to sing and to weep, her fingers stroking its soft fur.

    The mouse looks up, not with eyes (for she cannot see them), but with its smashed little head seeking, looking for the feel of her breath, her tears.

    After a time, it stands on four feet and tries to walk.

    “Wait,” she says, and gets up to find a needle and thread, and a couple of glass beads.


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at January 17, 2021 5:15 PM PST
    • 89 posts
    January 22, 2021 10:06 AM PST

    Chapter Four: Ymosodiad

     

    I chafe at the walls of my room, waiting patiently while unrepentant assassins run a reckless investigation for me. The Halfling, our only spy within the keep, has already revealed herself and ruined her position. They are as Ossari-may-care and imprudent a race as any on Terminus. And if Nisto stands upon the border, scenting the great power that could be his if he abandons whatever remains of his humanity, this mission could be the thing that pushes him over the edge into full darkness.

    If you would but loose my leash, I would be happy to slay any who are corrupted in this wretched barony, including them.

    But I remain your servant. I shall wait.

     

    Nine leans back away from the message crystal and watches the magic fade. He paces for a long time before he can sleep.

    ❖❖❖ 

    Nisto paces the floor. “Something is wrong,” he says.

    Eske’drai has joined them at last. He is standing against the wall, turning his staff slowly in his hand.

    “I agree,” says the Elf. “It is unlike Foal to be late.”

    “What will they do if she’s been discovered?” asks Jalasko.

    Nisto shakes his head. “First Crowsinger, now Foal. We’ve lost two of our people, and we’re no closer to finishing this mission.”

    He paces a bit more, then says, “All right. To hell with the Lark. Our first priority is to find our people.”

    “I agree wholeheartedly,” says Eske’drai, “though I must point out that if we don’t finish this mission, those of us who survive will face execution in Thronefast for our actions in the past.”

    “Yes, yes, we’ll worry about that when the time comes. One thing at a time.” He looks up. “In the morning, I’ll pay another visit to the keep. Eske’drai with me. Jalasko, you follow whatever path Foal might have taken and find her.”

    “That could reveal our connection.”

    “That cannot be helped at this point. We must look after each other first.” 

    ❖❖❖

    The guards nod to Iskendry as he leads his people through the doors into the keep.

    “It is good to be important,” he says.

    Once inside, he walks up to the guard stationed between the machinery room and the stairs. The guard nods; they have spoken before. Iskendry clasps the man’s hand, then his arm—the greeting of warriors—and says, “Mosano. Do you still wish to be an adventurer?”

    Mosano’s eyes widen. “More than anything in the world, my lord.”

    “This is your chance to prove yourself to me.” Holding the man’s gaze, he says: “Portcullis.”

    Mosano’s entire expression changes: surprise, disbelief, horror. He looks into Iskendry’s eyes for a long moment, knowing exactly what he is being asked to do. At last he closes his mouth and nods. He sinks to his knees and says, “Understood, Your Grace. I serve at your command.”

    He rises and unlocks the door to the machinery room.

    “Asreth,” says Iskendry, and the archer nocks an arrow with a bodkin point head coated in poison.

    The guard stationed at the door on the right widens his eyes. “What…”

    As the portcullis begins to descend, Asreth shoots the other guard. The bodkin point pierces his chain and he falls, gasping.

    Hearing the portcullis fall, the guards outside peer into the doorway to see what is happening. Flame appears before the portcullis, preventing them from running in.

    “Bar the doors,” says Iskendry. Ardon and Mosano close the great doors inside the portcullis and draw the bar across them. Iskendry finishes off the guard who was shot.

    “Asreth, wait behind the statue and shoot anyone coming down those stairs who I don’t want alive. The rest, with me.”

    Asreth moves behind the statue, finds a potted plant, and bends the stalks down so they’re not in her way. She takes half a dozen bodkin arrows and embeds them in the dirt, then begins to watch the stairway across the entry hall. The others pass by her into a corridor.

    They quickly kill two guards along the north corridor, but other than a servant or two, see no one else. Iskendry keeps them moving fast, for he knows they need to beat any guards running around the outside from the front.

    “Zandric might join your cause, Your Grace.”

    “Excellent. He shall have to prove himself, of course.”

    When they reach the kitchen in back of the keep, there are several cooks and other servants, and one guard munching on a slice of meat. All stare when the newcomers enter the room.

    “Zandric,” says Mosano. “Join us.”

    “The rest of you,” says Iskendry, waving his sword, “out the postern if you want to live. Now!

    The servants run out the back door.

    “Zandric,” says Iskendry, “would you be so kind as to close and lock the postern door before the front guards reach us here. Now.”

    Indeed, they hear voices shouting at the servants, and the sound of running boots.

    Zandric and Mosano close the postern door and lower both bars.

    “Rebuilt and reinforced since the fire, Your Grace,” says Mosano.

    “I love a good door. Now please show me the entrance to the dungeon. Shyche, run back and see how Asreth is faring at the stairs.”

    As someone begins banging on the postern door, the wizard runs back the way they came, while Zandric leads them down a narrow passage ending in a thick closed door.

    “Lower the bar. I’ll see to the dungeon later.”

    They lower the bar across the dungeon door, preventing any guards down there from entering the first floor.

    “Now back to the stairs.” They take another passage into the great hall. As they walk, Iskendry asks, “How many guards actually live in the keep instead of the barracks?”

    “Only personal guards,” says Mosano. “One each for the baron and his wife, one for Idris.”

    “None for the daughter? Execrable parenting.”

    When they return to the entrance hall, there are several bodies lying at the bottom of the stairs pincushioned with arrows. One man’s cloak is still burning.

    Asreth says, “They’ve caught on. Guards on the stairs with crossbows, just around the corner.”

    “Time for a bit of conflagration, Shyche.”

    The wizard waves a hand over the end of his staff, weaving fire and smoke between them before tossing it toward the turn in the stairway. Flames rush upward into the stairwell, and the screaming begins. One man falls all the way down the stairs in flames, and his crossbow catches on a bannister post.

    Iskendry says thoughtfully, “Is this keep well constructed, do you think?”

    “Better than their armor,” says Ardon.

    “Asreth, Ardon.”

    Asreth runs forward with her bow while Ardon stays in front of her with his shield. When they’re close enough to peer up through the burning tapestries to the top of the stairs after the turn, she shoots two arrows.

    “Clear,” she says.

    Shyche waves an arm, and the flames disappear.

    On the second floor, the fighting really begins.

    ❖❖❖

    “The portcullis is down,” says Nisto. “That is very odd.”

    “I see no guards,” says Eske’drai.

    “Let’s get out of the road,” says Nisto, and the two of them walk over to a market building and take position along the side wall by stacks of barrels. There are people using the road this time of the morning, and several have stopped to stare at the keep.

    “Who are they defending against?” asks Eske’drai.

    Nisto laughs silently. “Once again, the killers are inside. I’m guessing Iskendry.”

    The light of an explosion appears through a narrow window, and a few flames escape into the open air.

    “And his party.”

    “They have reached the second floor.”

    Nisto leans against a wall and studies the keep. “Nothing but arrow loops on the first floor. Arrow loops and narrow windows on the second. Third floor: windows with glass. Roof: battlement, embrasure.”

    “Iskendry was trusted?” asks Eske’drai.

    “They were hired to assist, and the man has been flattering the baron. The guards would just let him in. He might even have help on the inside.”

    They see a guard running around the side of the keep toward the front.

    “Not him, evidently,” says the Elf. “What is Iskendry’s purpose?”

    “That should be obvious,” says Nine suddenly from behind them.

    “Welcome to the party, Nine,” says Nisto without turning around.

    “Nisto, I might need you to kill another duke.”

    “It would be my pleasure, I assure you, but I doubt we’ll have an easy time getting in there if he finishes taking it.”

    “There is a way.” 

    ❖❖❖

    “We have to be very careful here,” says Iskendry. “We have not seen the family or the counselor, so I assume they are behind one of those doors.”

    “I have an idea, Your Grace,” says Mosano.

    “Are you trusted?”

    “A model soldier.”

    “Excellent.” Iskendry waves him ahead.

    Mosano runs down the hall yelling, “Kaldro! They’re almost at the stairs!”

    A door opens and a man’s head appears. “Mosano?”

    An arrow pierces his eye and he screams and falls to the floor.

    Mosano kicks his sword away, then quickly peers into the room.

    “Whoa!” he shouts as a crossbow bolt barely misses his head. Then he charges into the room.

    Iskendry finishes off the guard screaming on the floor, then follows Mosano into the room. The baron and his wife huddle on a couch on one side of the room. Mosano is holding a sword to the neck of another guard, who is frozen in the act of cranking back a crossbow string.

    “Name?”

    The man swallows. Mosano says, “His name is Haich, and he is very loyal to the baron.”

    “Kill him.”

    Mosano plunges his sword into Haich’s neck.

    The baron’s wife screams. The baron, his face white, stands very still.

    “I apologize for disturbing your morning,” says Iskendry, “but I have become convinced that a firm hand is needed here. Stay in this room and you will not be harmed. Mosano?”

    Mosano pulls the door shut.

    “Ardon,” says Iskendry. “I imagine they have finally thought of bringing an axe to the postern door.”

    “On my way.”

    Iskendry turns to Mosano. “Where is the girl?”

    “Her room is around the corner,” says Mosano.

    “Your Grace,” comes a voice from the corner.

    “Is that Counselor Idris?”

    “Yes, Your Grace. Is it safe to come out?”

    “Please do, Idris.”

    The counselor steps out from around the corner with his hands in the air.

    “It is pleasant to see you in such good health, counselor.”

    “And you as well, Your Grace,” says Idris with some enthusiasm.

    Iskendry steps forward and smiles. “I bring happy news! We have brought justice to those who assassinated the old baron.”

    “That is,” Idris nods, “wonderful news, Your Grace.”

    “Mosano, check the next room. Idris, I have a question.”

    “I would be more than happy to—“

    “Where is the girl?”

    Idris blinks, then swallows. “You mean… the daughter of the baron.”

    “Yes, of course. How is she?”

    “She is, uh, doing well, and um, right behind me.”

    Iskendry holds up a hand and motions for her to be brought out. Idris looks down the other hall and gestures for her to come.

    Sharai appears with the masked young bard who was playing when Iskendry was killed. The bard stands in front of Sharai protectively. Idris pushes them forward and stands behind them.

    “Well this is adorable. Idris, where is your guard?”

    “Unfortunately, Your Grace, I sent my guard on an errand earlier.”

    “Pity. At least Sharai has a gallant protector. Idris, what can you do for me?”

    “I…” Idris swallows again. His eyes flick over to glance down the other hall.

    A man suddenly appears with a crossbow, but Asreth sends an arrow into his eye as he shoots, and the bolt goes wide. Another arrow through the chain over his chest, and he’s down.

    “A counselor should be a better liar.”

    The bard pulls Sharai down to the floor with him. Idris has just enough time to show fear before two broadhead arrows take him.

    “Nicely done, lad,” says Iskendry. “Mosano.”

    “Your Grace.”

    “You and Zandric take the baron, his wife, and the harpist down to the dungeon, kill any guards down there, and put the family in a cell. Do not harm the Halfling. Then we need to prepare to defend this keep.”

    “That will be interesting with seven of us,” says Shyche.

    “I believe we can expect a very special visitor. Sharai.” Iskendry steps forward and bows slightly. “We have not formally met. I am Iskendry Sersu, Duke of Rischae. Your parents will not be harmed. We were brought here to do a job, and we have just accomplished our quest. Please remain in your room until I send for you, and you shall not be harmed.”

    The girl nods. Iskendry turns and heads for the stairs, followed by his team.

    Sharai looks down at the body of Counselor Idris.

     

    ❖❖❖

    “Are they on the way?”

    “Yes sir,” says Risnal. “They should be at their locations soon.”

    Lucabin looks at the keep through his window. “Five of them, unless they managed to turn one of the guards. Five. What is the boy thinking?”

    “What is your plan, my lord?”

    “Send Jeavee to the roof of the market across the street. I want them rattled.” 

    ❖❖❖

     

    Iskendry’s voice is very mild. “What did you say?”

    “She is not down there, Your Grace,” says Mosano. “I know the Halfling was in a cell. If they moved her, they didn’t tell the rest of us.”

    Iskendry strikes a wall with his sword. He stands still, breathing heavily, and then says, “I might be able to negotiate with Lucabin. He’s got her somewhere.”

    “Will he talk to you?” asks Shyche.

    “Yes, he will. He brought us into this. He knows we have the keep. He’ll talk. I’m the one who will keep his precious wine moving now.”

    He looks through the narrow second-floor window. Lucabin’s manor is within shooting distance to the northeast.

    “Do we have supplies for a siege?”

    Mosano says, “We have a mere few days of food. The next shipment arrives tomorrow.”

    Timing, thinks Iskendry. Bad, bad timing. “A few days,” he repeats.

    “The baron wanted a feast to celebrate his accession. No expense spared. Nearly emptied the larder.”

    “That bastard.” He shakes his head. “Tell me about the postern.”

    “It was built fairly well,” says Mosano. “They’re not having a whole lot of luck with their axe. Zandric is watching it.”

    “I don’t suppose you have a battering ram in this town?”

    Mosano smiles. “No need, Your Grace.”

    “Well that’s something. They’ll build one eventually.”

    “Also the foresters have better axes. For wood for the wine casks. But they’re some distance away.”

    “We have time. Lucabin will meet with me.”

    A familiar high-pitched hum pierces the air, followed by shattering glass above them.

    “Long-range arcane bolt,” mutters Shyche. He looks out the window as another purple bolt arcs toward the keep from the manor. More glass shatters.

    “They’re shooting out the upstairs windows, captain.”

    Iskendry’s face twists into simmering rage. “Shyche, do the same to their windows. Asreth, to the roof.”

     

    ❖❖❖

    “What the hell?” Nisto watches in disbelief as bolts of purple magic fly between the Chruest manor and the keep. “What are they going to accomplish with that?”

    People who had gathered in the streets to see what was going on at the keep begin to scatter toward buildings.

    “I believe,” says Nine, “that Lucabin is getting a head start on declining a truce.”

    “Shooting out third story windows,” says Eske’drai thoughtfully. “I’m sure he has people who can get up the wall.”

    Nisto nods. “He’ll make them scatter their forces just to guard every side of that floor.”

    Now arcane bolts are being fired from the second floor of the keep toward the manor. More windows shatter.

    “I believe that is Lucabin’s office,” muses Nine.

    “The Cleric,” says Nisto.

    Oldeld the town Cleric is standing in the middle of the east-west street that ends at the keep.

    “He’s just standing there.”

    “Does he know you?” asks Nine.

    “Yes.”

    “Can you bring him?”

    Nisto gives him a look. “Remember our deal.”

    “You have my word.”

    Nisto crouches low and begins to move into the street. As he moves, he sees bolts of fire shooting toward the manor from the keep, and arrows shooting down from an embrasure on the roof.

    He sinks low behind a wagon abandoned in the road and calls to the Cleric. Oldeld looks around and sees him, then walks quickly his way. Nisto gestures duck low. The Cleric moves low until he joins Nisto at the wagon.

    “Thain,” says the Cleric. “I need your help. I need… I don’t know how to…”

    “Calm down.” Looking up, Nisto sees Jalasko down the street and waves him over. The firefight is still happening between the keep and the manor.

    “Jalasko. Help me get the Cleric to that building over there.”

    “Got it.”

    As they’re moving, a fire bolt sails overhead, hissing in the air.

    “****,” says Jalasko.

    They throw themselves under the awning outside the building—not that it would protect them. Then they rush around to the side of the market and behind a stack of barrels.

    “Who’s joining in?” asks Nisto.

    Nine says, “A wizard on the roof of this building. I assume Lucabin has given orders for wizards and archers in several locations. If there’s only one wizard in the keep…”

    A bolt of ice reaches the embrasure on the roof, freezing the arrow loop through which the archer was firing. A fire bolt from the east wall of the keep sets fire to a messenger on his way into the Lucabin manor.

    “He’s on the third floor now,” mutters Nisto.

    The cleric is holding his ears as the wizard above them attacks again.

    “Why were you standing out there?” asks Nine.

    The Cleric ignores him and grabs Jalasko by the front of his vest. “You are the agent from Thronefast.”

    “Actually he is.” Jalasko points to Nine.

    The Cleric, confused, releases Jalasko and moves over to Nine. “You have to understand,” he says. “The old baron’s son is alive! He’s the true heir.”

    “Who?”

    A fire bolt arcs from the third floor of the keep directly toward them, but falls short. It strikes the road, sending up a spray of dirt and hot gravel.

    “Brindel son of Cwythkordi,” says the Cleric, covering his ears again.

    “Where?”

    The Cleric points to the keep. “He’s been in there the whole time, masked, pretending to be a bard. If he’s alive…”

    Nisto and Jalasko look at one another. “The harper.”

     

    ❖❖❖

    Brindel leans against a wall next to the bars of his cell. They allowed him to keep his mask, for which he is grateful. If they believe him to be a servant, then he might have a chance to survive.

    The cell across from him is occupied by his aunt and uncle. Though the current situation seems bleak, he can’t help but feel a certain satisfaction.

    “Listen, boy,” says Helygen. “If they release you, you need to do exactly what I say. Understand?”

    “I wonder if it has occurred to you,” says Brindel, “that you are no longer baron here. And with any luck, you never will be again.”

    Helygen stares at him with his mouth open. “How dare you!”

    I’ve always hated that man. Both of them, really. Brindel takes a deep breath. The only one I liked was Sharai, and I cannot protect her now.

    “I treated you well,” continues Helygen, “I- I allowed you to claw that instrument while we ate and didn’t send you into the vineyards where you might be worth something just because that fool of a Cleric recommended you. Well I—“

    “Shut up. Just… stop talking.”

    Helygen blinks, unaccustomed to this. His wife comes to the bars and says, “Boy, did you see Idris up there?”

    “Concerned about your lover, but not your daughter. Of course.”

    Helygen looks at his wife. “What?”

     

    ❖❖❖

    Shyche leans against the wall with his eyes closed. This has gone even worse then he expected. He has followed Iskendry for months now, and they make a good team in the wilderness. But sometimes the man’s arrogance and recklessness are a potent combination.

    A fire bolt soars up from the manor and enters the room next to this one.

    “Not there anymore,” he says, chuckling.

    Then he peers out and sees his target. He builds fire at the end of his staff and prepares to send another long-range bolt toward the wizard in the manor.

    Hands lift him up from the floor and throw him down. He looks up and sees Idris reaching for him. There is blood around the man’s mouth and he is moving strangely. His eyes have a red glint.

    “What,” Shyche says. “You… what?”

    The corpse of Idris smashes his head on the floor several times, then rips his neck away. Then it turns to look at its savior.

    Sharai smiles. “That was really, really good!”

     

    ❖❖❖

    Nisto watches the keep, which has grown silent. “Do wizards get tired after doing all that?”

    “They do,” says Eske’drai, “though I’m not sure what all of that accomplished.”

    “It was a conversation,” says Nine. “Lucabin opened with ‘I am unhappy with your recent actions’, after which Iskendry replied, ‘I feel quite good about it, actually’. After that, they were pretty much just yelling insults at one another.”

    Nisto looks at him. “Was that a sense of humor?”

    “Yes.”

    “Mmm.” He looks at the keep again. “Nine, let’s cut to the bone, shall we? You are in charge of this expedition. What resolution would the Queen desire in this situation?”

    Nine looks at Oldeld. “Cleric, do you swear in the names of Vacera and Korcera that the young man playing the harp in the keep has been the heir of Shornshal all along?”

    “So I swear,” says Oldeld. “And I beg you to save him.”

    “That,” says Nine, turning to Nisto, “is what the Queen would desire.”

    Nisto lets out a long breath. “All right. Jalasko, any word on Foal?”

    “Fifteen workers, including Foal, were transferred out of their warehouse with two wagons full of wine. They went north, supposedly to a shipping center, but no one knows where.”

    “All right. You and Eske’drai… find Foal. Find her, wherever she is.”

    “You’re going in,” says the Elf.

    “I’m going in.”

    Jalasko turns to Nine. “Are you going to let him do that?”

    “Yes, I am.”

    Nisto takes Jalasko’s hand. “Stay safe.” He looks at Eske’drai. “Both of you. And find her.”

    He stands and begins to walk toward the keep with his back straight. He half expects one of the wizards gathered in the buildings around him to attack him, but none does.

    “I can help you survive this,” says the sword of Serengeral. “I can teach you more.”

    “I will need your blade,” says Nisto quietly. “That is all I need, for now.”

    “You can be stronger.”

    “Worry not. You will taste blood today.”

    Nisto reaches the stairs leading up to the front doors and begins to ascend. There are narrow windows above the doors, and arrow slits on either side. When he stands before the doors, he spreads his arms.

    “Iskendry Sersu, Duke of Rischae! Thain the Hunter would have words with you, and a tankard of ale if you would share!”

    For a time, he isn’t sure if anyone is listening. Then the portcullis begins to rise.


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at January 22, 2021 12:36 PM PST
    • 89 posts
    January 29, 2021 7:13 AM PST

    Chapter Five: Annwfyn

     

    Foal feels the weight of the earth overhead. Twisted columns line both sides of the cavern, and the floor is a mosaic of brilliant colors—but somehow the ground overhead feels like it might bear down on them at any time.

    She knows this is probably her imagination. She’s been underground before: jobs in vaults and catacombs, even a lengthy sojourn in the sewers of Thronefast, an experience she would rather not repeat. But something about this room is unsettling. She doesn’t recognize the style of any of the construction. It certainly doesn’t look like something Humans would make.

    A catwalk, recently constructed of wood brought down from above, is suspended above them. Armored guards stand along the catwalk, carelessly holding crossbows.

    At last she sees someone important. He is an older man, perhaps 60 years, with graying hair braided down his back and dark, richly embroidered clothes. A long, slate-gray cloak is clasped with a silver sigil. He removes his gloves and holds them in one hand.

    Everyone on the floor of the cavern looks up as the man sweeps his eyes over them.

    “I am Lucabin. And I own,” he waves his gloves across the cavern, “all of you.”

    So this is the man himself, thinks Foal. I wonder how many times he has enjoyed giving this very speech.

    “The cavern you are standing in is the vestibule for a special, special place. Deeper underground, you might find stones like this.”

    He holds up an oval stone perhaps two inches long. It is dark, but a light shines from within. “Inside, they look like indigo clouds. But in the darkness, the sun appears through the clouds. It is as if they contain sunlight. And there is nothing like them in all of Terminus.”

    Now he tosses it down to those below. “Catch,” he says lightly.

    Several people reach up to catch the stone. There is some wrestling over it before one man is victorious.

    Foal looks up at Lucabin again. I think I see where this is going.

    “I call them black sun opals. There are more throughout these caves. Oh, the upper levels have been mined to death.” He chuckles. “But farther down there are pristine rooms, chamber after chamber, in which these cluster along the walls. You will also find tools for cutting them out of the wall.”

    He holds up a hand, and his face evinces a look of concern. “I should warn you, there are reports that farther down, people are affected in some way. Some have even reported seeing things. Visions of fear and wonder. So keep your wits about you.”

    “When can we leave?” says a man. “It’s getting late, and I have children.”

    Here it comes.

    “Ah.” Lucabin chuckles again. “This is where I feel I must divulge some unfortunate news. You see, the worth of these stones is such that I cannot allow anyone to spread word of what we have found here. Not, of course, unless you are a partner.”

    Now there is a murmuring among those trapped beneath the catwalk.

    “So let’s make a deal.” He leans over, both hands on the railing of the catwalk. “You bring me a full bucket of these stones, and I will consider you a partner in this venture. You will have a share in our secret.”

    A man runs out onto the catwalk and whispers into Lucabin’s ear.

    “Yes, yes, send her down,” he says. Then louder: “There are two bell pulls in this room that you can use to alert someone to come see what you’ve found.”

    Foal has been keeping her eyes on the edge of the crowd around her, waiting for the inevitable. Now she sees it: Two or three people have already picked up mining tools from around them and are warily eyeing others in the crowd.

    She counts fifteen in the group. That won’t last.

    “By the way,” says Lucabin, “there are pools of clear water, and the lichens are quite tasty, or so I am led to believe.”

    Foal sees a small figure in the hallway that leads to the lift that brought them down. She looks more closely and sees a familiar face.

    “Now then. I must return to my home. Good hunting.”

    With that, Lucabin and his guards all walk away, leaving the fifteen on the ground—now sixteen—alone with the scattered lanterns. Some are shouting, trying to call someone back onto the catwalk. Others are already running for the tunnels that lead deeper into the caverns, with lanterns and mining picks in hand.

    Foal dashes over the Halfling, who looks both puzzled and angry.

    “Foal,” she says, looking up.

    “Crow. We have a lot to talk about.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Under the ground, a labyrinth of passages and tunnels, some chambers richly carved, and others bare rock hewn between the chambers. Taking a side passage could lead one to an endless fall into darkness.

    The chambers have some light, with here and there a mosaic glowing faintly by some unknown magic. Scattered throughout, one might see oddly shaped fungi who at intervals expel glowing green spores, as if they slowly breathe and exhale verdant dust. The floors are thick with these spores, but their light has faded after so long away from the source of their birth.

    The Humans brought to this place begin to roam around, bucket and mining pick in their hands, looking for signs of the black sun opal that Lucabin showed them up above. At these levels, the stones are scarce, already long since mined. When someone does see an opal, they must try to mine it while fighting off the others who converge to claim it.

    The first murder rings with the clash of picks in a half-lit room, spiked shadows contending with one another on the far wall. A scream, and footsteps quickly passing by.

    Foal leads Crowsinger deeper into the labyrinth. The Halfling holds two buckets and a pick, while Foal wields her pick as an ungainly weapon should they have an encounter with one of their competitors. As they move, Foal explains the deadly game that Lucabin described.

    “I’ve noticed something about Humans,” says Crowsinger. “They often enjoy their sadism at a distance, without getting their hands dirty. I don’t understand how that could be satisfying.”

    “The powerful play their games,” says Foal, “and we are far too often the pieces on the board.”

    “They’re all going to turn on each other.”

    “I think that is part of the game.”

    Footsteps ahead, and Foal slows. The sound is from a passage directly ahead of them, but there is a rough oval opening to the left that leads into utter darkness.

    “This way?”

    Foal nods. “Yes, let’s put some distance between us and the jackals.”

    The Druid summons a large firefly, which lights their way into the side passage. The ground is rough stone beneath their feet, but it is dry. It slopes downward for some time before leveling off. Just ahead, the firefly drifts over a narrow ledge with darkness on the left side.

    The firefly stays close as they move carefully along the ledge, until the left wall closes in again and they’re in a safer passage. A dim light gleams off the stone ahead.

    They emerge into a chamber roughly carved of eggshell blue stone. Luminous runes are carved in places. Ahead of them, a cluster of black sun opals emerge from the marble. Foal and Crowsinger walk across the chamber and look closely.

    Foal says, “I don’t understand. Gemstones should be rough crystal in the ground, but these look as if they are already rounded and polished.”

    Crowsinger spins around at a voice behind her.

    “What?” says Foal.

    “Did you hear that?”

    “Is somebody coming?”

    The Halfling shakes her head. “I heard a voice. She said, ‘Why are you here?’…”

    Foal looks around. “I didn’t hear anything. Crow, we need to plan what we’re going to do.”

    “Do you have a plan?”

    “I don’t want to be down here mining for the rest of my life if there is another way.”

    “I think the other way involves murdering people who are doing the mining, but that still means a long wait.”

    “What is that?” Foal raises her mining pick and steps in front of Crowsinger.

    “What do you see?”

    Foal shakes her head. “Nothing. Just…”

    Crowsinger drops the buckets. “I say we worry about stones later.”

    “Either there is something down here that we cannot see, or…”

    “Or?”

    “Or we have an even bigger problem.”

    They walk through corridors and chambers of another age, lit by colors they have never seen, and now and then the flicker of sunlight in indigo opals. Sometimes the opals gather in clusters on the walls; at other times one or two alone, a silent flicker.

    Crowsinger has been in caves and ancient temples, haunted by shadows and crawling things from worlds unknown; the drip of water into dark pools, sounds that echo around the broken walls until one cannot tell which direction they began; the harsh gleam of fire reflected in piles of the gold that Humans love so much.

    These chambers are silent. No life crawling through narrow burrows of stone. Yet something breathes. She can feel the scent, the color of life, diffuse and slumbering.

    And then like a charcoal smudge across the world, she is in the sky, and falling.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Brown feathers slice across her vision as claws rip into her. She feels a thin, hollow bone in one wing breaking. Chunks of flesh ripped out of her back. A harsh, triumphant cry in her ears. The wind is beautiful, her restless god—a god that now withdraws her kiss. And all that remains is the pain and the rushing earth.

    Falling again and again, the bite of ground and the wrenching pain.

    She will never forgive the sky for this betrayal.

    She screams and finds herself on the cold floor of a chamber deep underground.

    Crowsinger climbs to her feet and feels along the wall, her vision still filled with the rushing ground.

    “Foal?” She runs from one passage to the next and sees no one.

    She realizes she is breathing heavily and tries to calm down. She turns again with her eyes closed, reaching out with another sense, and now she feels a presence, as if something is there. Something not quite alert… but waking.

    She opens her eyes and sees the tree.

    It is an oak, tall and thick about the base—not a bad tree to build a home upon—with winter branches reaching down, naked wood, grasping, longing as if for a lover long missed.

    “Why are you here?” asks the tree.

    She begins to climb.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Slime-thick water clings to her as she drags herself back onto the ledge. She stays very still, just trying to catch her breath. Gosling is back there, somewhere deeper in the sewers. They should be getting out together.

    Echoes of boots on slick stone, and distant lantern light from some cross passage. She needs to run, but she cannot move. She left someone behind, and now her body keeps tensing between running as fast through these sewers as she can or running back into danger to save her companion.

    Voices, closer. Wet boots slapping against stone. A splash of water, closer.

    She runs away.

    The light ahead is not the flicker of a lantern, but the steady brilliance of sunlight. Wind whirls into her face. She can feel the echoes of Gosling’s screams deeper in the sewers, and something in her heart tries to tear away and return. But her body arcs away from the pipe and into the river outside the city walls.

    Instead of water, she feels the cold stone floor beneath her. She opens her eyes not to sunlight, but to the warm glow within indigo clouds of a black sun opal on the wall.

    Foal looks around, and she is alone.

    ❖ ❖ ❖ 

    The sweet sound of gajdy pipes and shargia strings, the call of magpies, the scent of green in the hills above Thistledown. Crowsinger breathes.

    “Why are you here?”

    She looks around but sees no one speaking. Thin clouds of pink chalk high overhead. The wind is light.

    It has been a long time. A long time in city and stone, in wood and wild, in grief and hunger, changing as the seasons and never the same. She looks down over the edge of a cliff and sees the forest below, an ocean of leaves with here and there a village in the trees.

    “Why does this feel like home… now?” says Crowsinger. “It was never home when I lived there.”

    “Why are you here?”

    Hide walls of many hues with shining amberglass windows. Roof of timber and flower-stained hide. Now she smells spiced game meat pulled off the bone, toasted flatbread, a carefully sheltered wood fire.

    Something flickers across the edges of a fur door flap, obscuring the firelight. Something dark inside the house, waiting for her to enter.

    Her heart quickens. There is a strange vibration in the wood of the platform. She walks slowly toward the doorway, listening. Something rustles.

    The flap opens to black, black sky, and she falls from the platform onto bare cold stone.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    A practice dummy like a leering scarecrow, padded and bedecked with wheat and yarrow, and the hat of some rakish noble. Foal dances around the scarecrow, dancing through her own breath’s fog, two knives flashing in the chill morning. Her body moves as if she does not need the ground, as if she need only touch it now and then to remember that she cannot fly. She seldom looks directly at her target, preferring to catch a glimpse of shape and edges. Her daggers know the borders of what is real, what is flesh, and her hands are merely their instruments.

    She stops and leans against the dummy, eyes closed, breathing hard. She looks up at the sound of slow clapping.

    Her master looks thoroughly unimpressed. He walks forward and mockingly applauds her. Then he glances toward his other disciples.

    “What did you think of our Foal?”

    “The mark is still alive,” says Kit, “unless he has been lovingly tickled to death.”

    Farrow laughs. “Foal showing off again.”

    “Was that it, Foal?” Her master looks at her again, and she waits for him to describe all of her faults in explicit detail before them all. Perhaps he will strike her again as well, beat her into the ground. “Tell us,” he gestures at himself, the others, “tell us what that was for.”

    Foal holds his gaze as her dagger moves once, a broad arc, and then she is still again.

    The entire practice dummy falls apart, spilling hay and wheat and dead flowers onto the ground.

    His face registers a momentary shock before he regains his usual sneering mask. “Yes, Foal is showing off again. She carefully kissed each strand of twine holding it together without allowing the whole to fall apart until the last strike. During that time, the practice dummy killed her nine times.”

    The students laugh again, and her master draws his own daggers. “Let us see,” he says, “if you can be so careful, so skillful with me.”

    Foal stands very still and waits.

    “Come on,” he says quietly, “surely you would not wait for your opponent to attack before you strike.”

    She leaps… not toward him, but toward his left flank. His left hand strikes down at an angle that might have killed her if she had gone low to duck under his arm. Instead she spins out of his reach, then back inside his knife arm. She blocks his right-hand strike and tries to slash across his belly, but he simply strikes her on the head with the hilt of his dagger, hard.

    Foal drops, her head spinning. She can hear the laughter of the other disciples, but all she can see is her master’s boots.

    He sends the others in to eat, then picks Foal up off the ground and holds her in front of him. The tips of her shoes barely touch the ground.

    “That was slow, even for you,” he says tightly. “You’re distracted. One farmer with a stick could take you out. Where is your head?”

    She doesn’t know what to say, just stares at the front of his tunic and tries to clear her head.

    “You’re not going soft on me, are you? You came back with the package. You did it. You survived when your comrade didn’t.”

    “I survived,” she agrees. “I did it.”

    “Any one of those losers in there,” he nods toward the kitchen where his remaining students are eating, “would have been beating their chests and calling themselves rogues and assassins and spies by now. But you…”

    She looks up at his face, which is now twisted in disappointment. With a flick of his arms, he throws her backward. Turning before the back of her head hits the ground, she lands in a crouch and glares at him. He walks over and kicks her to the ground.

    “Stay there and think about who you want to be,” he says. “If you still want to be a killer, an agent of the shadows, then come in and join us. If you aren’t up for it, get out.”

    He walks away toward the kitchen, leaving her on the ground. She stays there a long time.

    “What do you think you’re doing?” asks the dummy’s remains. “Why are you here?”

    “What?”

    She looks back toward the dummy and sees a corpse on the floor, leaning against the chamber wall. It is long dead and beginning to decay. Fingers lie still near the handle of a mining pick. Its face is contorted in fear, but she cannot see a wound. Next to the body is a bucket half full of black sun opals.

    “Why are you here?”

    “It wasn’t me,” says Foal, looking around. “I was forced here with the others. Lucabin…”

    She closes her eyes and sees him again, tall and well-dressed and perfectly confident.

    “Lucabin?”

    “Yes.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Crowsinger finds herself in a place with many rooms off a central chamber.

    She walks over to look closely at the opals. Each is about an inch or two wide and somewhere between round and oval. Inside they contain indigo smoke that doesn’t move, but a warm sun shifts within them as if peering through clouds. Here and there she sees rough pockets in the stone where opals were violently removed with a pick.

    Something rakes across her back and she falls again from the sky. The grasslands, which look so soft from above, strike her like a wall of rock.

    She lies on the floor of a cavern, rough rock walls, and the light of another chamber ahead. She wonders if she should try to get up again.

    “Why are you here?”

    Crowsinger looks up and sees a crow in the grass, watching her.

    “Do you know the way out?” she whispers.

    The crow tilts her head. “There are many ways out, but only if you can see.”

    She laughs without humor. “I see a lot of things, but I don’t know which of them are actually here.”

    “All of them are here.”

    She pulls herself up and sits against the trunk of the tree, staring at the rock wall opposite.

    “I’ve lost Foal, and nothing makes sense. Am I outside or inside?”

    “What is the difference? Inside is outside, but smaller. But inside you is bigger.”

    Crowsinger shakes her head. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”

    “Why are you here?”

    “I was brought here a prisoner. I had no choice. I just want to get out.”

    The crow stares. “Really?”

    “I don’t want any opals. I just want to get out. But I need to find Foal. I can’t do this alone.”

    “No,” says the crow. “I can see that you can’t. But maybe I can help you see.”

    She looks at the crow and feels some hope. “How?”

    “Follow.”

    The crow begins to fly, and Crowsinger lifts her wings and flies after. They weave between branches and leaves, past the chamber walls that watch and wait. They soar up into a watercolor sky that welcomes them. Not too high—the air above them is the realm of hunters who fold and dive and claw from above. Flying among the tops of trees is safer. She knows this.

    As the setting sun shines red through thickening clouds, they reach a roost of crows in tangled limbs, thousands of crows, tens of thousands all talking and singing at once.

    Crowsinger follows her guide into the center of the roost, where amidst the naked trees there stands a plinth of gray marble that supports a copper bowl. There is water in the bowl, and Crowsinger drinks for a long time. She washes her wings and then looks around for her guide—but the other crow is gone. In its place is something made of black feathers.

    She lifts it in her hands and finds herself back in the caves. In her hands she sees a bunch of black feathers sewn into… she can only compare it to some of the ritual objects she has seen, symbols of a people or a quest. As it rests in her hand, it transforms, smooths itself, until it is an opal. Like a black sun opal, but instead of clouds, feathers. Instead of sunlight, moonslight.

    It is attached to a silk string that is just long enough… she pulls it over her head so that the black moons opal rests against her tunic.

    Now she looks around and sees.

    On impulse she turns and walks down another corridor, through a garden and into a hall where she finds Foal curled up on the floor near a corpse. She crouches next to Foal and touches her shoulder.

    Foal sits up suddenly and sees her. She coughs, confused, and wipes water from her face.

    Crowsinger helps her stand. “You’re seeing things,” says the Halfling.

    “Yes. Lucabin said something about that.”

    “What do we do?” Crowsinger looks up. “And why is your face wet?”

    “I don’t know.” Foal reaches down and pulls a black feather from Crowsinger’s hair.

    They are in another chamber deep in the earth. Stone walls of eggshell blue in the faded light of runes, and on the ceiling above, chalk paintings just out of reach of comprehension.

    The bucket beside the corpse is half full.

    “Should we take that?” asks Foal.

    “No.”

    Foal looks at her. “Why not?”

    Crowsinger shakes her head. “Something bothers me when I look at them. Especially when my eyes are closed.”

    “Some Druid sense?”

    “Maybe…”

    Foal sees the pendant she is wearing.

    “What is that?”

    “I think this will help us find our way. We’ve been scattered.”

    Foal looks over to the nearby corpse. “I think a lot of people never make it out. They keep seeing things until they get lost in visions and starve.”

    “That’s not going to happen to us.”

    “Are you sure?”

    Crowsinger smiles up at her. “I’m never sure. But I think we can find our way.”

    In the next chamber they find an opening leading into a tunnel of wood, like a tree long dead when only the bark remains.

    “It’s like a silver flute,” says Foal. Crowsinger looks at her quizzically, and Foal says, “You see something different?”

    Crow takes her hand and leads her into the tree.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    The grass is the shade of green one only sees after days of rain, a deep green shimmering with drops of water under a sky of bruised clouds. The trees here are also dark, their bark a deep sodden brown still damp from the rain.

    Together they walk deeper into the trees. Here there is a light buzzing all around, but Crowsinger cannot find the source. A mist wends and twines through the trunks and branches, sometimes thick and sometimes barely seen. Crowsinger grips Foal’s hand to make sure they are not separated again. Maybe this way, what they see will not be so different that they are lost again.

    “Why are you here?”

    They both turn toward the voice. Crowsinger sees a crow almost as tall as a Halfling. Its feathers are black, but iridescent colors shift and play in the light.

    “We are both lost,” says Crowsinger.

    “She is, but why are you?”

    She shakes her head. “What do you mean?”

    “Where is your guide?”

    Crowsinger swallows, thinking of Ikaa, the crow who first spoke to her when she was very young. “She was a friend.”

    “She was also a guide, was she not?”

    Crowsinger exhales everything she is about to say. Shakes her head. “Was she?”

    Now the crow speaks in Ikaa’s voice, “Was I?”

    She looks over at Foal, who is also looking at the crow. But she somehow feels that Foal sees someone else and is having another conversation.

    “We need to find our way back.”

    “Why?”

    “There are people who need us.”

    “Why is she gone?”

    “Oh.” Crowsinger shakes her head. “I… they were scouting for me.”

    “Why?”

    “Because I told them to.”

    The crow stares at her.

    “Because I sent them to their deaths,” she says, her voice breaking, “because I was careless with them.”

    “Why?”

    Crowsinger looks down, wondering what she can say to this. The wind picks up, and so does the humming. It never went away, she realizes, but now it grows louder.

    “You can hear us.”

    “What?”

    The mist, urged by the wind, drifts through the forest. She blinks and sees the black sun opals, the flame within pulsing brighter. The lights move until they seem like a cluster of dark eyes all looking at her.

    “You.”

    “Us,” says the crow. “You have never answered our question.”

    “Because you keep asking questions.”

    “Why?”

    “I don’t know! I sent my friends into danger because I needed information I couldn’t get without them. I told them to go, and they wanted to make me happy.”

    “You used them.”

    “Yes,” she says. When the crow continues to stare at her, she says, “Can I take it back?”

    Its head tilts a bit, considering. “They are gone. You buried them.”

    She feels the grief behind her eyes again, behind her nose, pressing against her chest. “Then there is nothing I can do.”

    “Fly.”

    “What?”

    “Fly.”

    And she flies, and her brothers and sisters fly around her, sent by the One Who Sings to spy and watch and learn. They split up, and she flies toward the large building near the center of the estate. She sees Humans walking around with their weapons, and some of them are dead and haven’t realized it, and some of them look up at the sky.

    And the claws slam down on her back, rending and tearing and pushing her down toward the ground. And her last thought is of the One Who Sings.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Crowsinger stands up from the grass, from where the hawk killed her, and looks around. She is still holding Foal’s hand, but now Foal turns to look at her.

    “We need to keep moving,” says Crowsinger.

    “Where?”

    She looks around, and something calls her to the north—or whatever feels like north in this place.

    They walk through a summer world of endless steppe where cloud shadows drift across the grass. Looking up, they see that each cloud has a city on top. One looks familiar, a Human city like Thronefast with a castle, and great buildings of stone and glass with pennants of many colors. Another is a forest of large trees with platforms and vine bridges: a Halfling city. But they also see a city of graceful spires the colors of rodolite and almandine. One cloud has a wooden palisade around richly colored tents, while another is home to glistening spheres of pearl with smaller objects rotating around them. Cities of water, of fire, of lapis.

    It seems like hours they’ve been walking. Foal points up to a cloud city of aqua crystals with waterfalls, and Crowsinger notices a city of moss-covered stone with something crawling over it.

    “Where will you go?” says the crow who walks with them.

    “What is at the other end of this field?” asks Crowsinger.

    “There is no other end.”

    “Then…” Foal looks up toward the infinite clouds.

    “So many worlds,” says the crow. “Pieces of some of them have even been brought to Terminus. Others...”

    “We have to choose?”

    “Of course. Every moment.”

    Crowsinger stops. “Where are our people?”

    The crow looks at her. “Your people?”

    “Not… not the ones we have lost or left behind. The ones we have chosen now.”

    “Nisto,” says Foal. “Jalasko. Eske’drai. Those are our people.”

    The crow looks up, and they follow its gaze to another cloud. Shornshal Keep rides this cloud, and they see sparks and flashes of light around it, as if they watch some distant magic battle.

    “Is that where they are?” asks Foal.

    “The warrior who stands on the knife between light and dark is there.”

    “Then that’s where we need to go,” says Crowsinger.

    And now the cloud surrounds them. Through a fog they see people fighting and dying, the movements of sword and bow. When the fog clears at last, they are in Sharai’s room in the keep.

    Crowsinger looks around the familiar room, sees movement in a basket cage. The field mouse Sharai found is in there moving about, feeling at the bars.

    But there is no life in the mouse.

    She looks more closely, sees its head mostly replaced by a couple of pieces of fabric stitched together, with glass beads for eyes. The head seeks toward Crowsinger.

    “Sharai,” she says, “what have you done?”


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at January 30, 2021 6:30 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    January 31, 2021 5:19 PM PST

    Chapter Six: Sin Eater

     

    The portcullis slams to the ground behind him. There are no servants to light the many sconces that would have given light to the front hall, so Nisto emerges into a place considerably darker than the party two nights ago. The hall was full of light when Crowsinger stabbed Iskendry, but now the room is wreathed in shadows and the flicker of too few candles.

    There is more light in the great hall ahead. Nisto walks past the men lurking near the stairwell and into the great hall. He hears the men behind him close the great doors over the portcullis, then pull the bar across. They are sealed within the keep.

    Someone has taken care to light the large lamps and sconces on the dais at the end of the great hall. He walks down the middle of the room as he did before. Only now, there are no spectators along the sides of the hall. Instead of the Baron on the small throne, Iskendry sits leaning against the back with one leg thrown over an arm of the chair.

    Just like his brother.

    “It was more cheery when last we met,” says Iskendry, echoing Nisto’s thoughts, “yet perhaps this is more appropriate for the times in which we live.”

    “Perhaps,” says Nisto. The two men behind him are silent.

    “You made things difficult for me, the day we met.”

    “I am glad that you do not hold a grudge,” says Nisto.

    Iskendry smiles.

    “Oh I hold grudges like a panthra holds a rabbit in its teeth. And I am not happy that you killed my spy and stole my thunder in this hall.”

    “Yet you smile.”

    “I smile, Thain, because of all my unrequited grudges, you are the one who just walked into my keep.”

    Nisto allows himself to look around. “It is a fine keep, though I wonder if you have a plan for the rest of the guards, who now surround the keep under, I would assume, Lucabin’s command.”

    “Yes, I might have been a bit over-eager, and fewer guards came over to my side than I’d hoped. But I know three things that you don’t, my friend.”

    “I would be honored to learn.”

    Iskendry puts both feet on the floor and leans forward. “First, the man who ordered the massacre of the old baron’s family was Lucabin of House Chruest.”

    “For what purpose?”

    “That is a fascinating question, and I still know not the answer. Second, I know that an investigator from Thronefast is here in Shornshal to investigate the death of Cwythkordi and approve the elevation of Helygen as baron. I expect him to join us shortly.”

    “Do you expect him to approve of what you’ve done here?”

    “I do. I have discovered the insidious designs of Lucabin, and I, the sole surviving heir of my ducal family, have taken action on behalf of the Queen. The new baron and his family are safe in my custody.”

    “I see. And the third thing you wish to tell me?”

    Iskendry smiles again, holds up a finger, and points to Nisto. “This, you already know. One of my associates,” he points toward one of the men behind Nisto, “was once a soldier… like yourself.”

    “I can also tell a soldier,” says the man, “from the way he moves.”

    “If Ardon is so certain that Thain is a soldier, I thought, then that presents a conundrum. After all, haven’t we all heard the legends of Thain the Hunter, born and raised outside of Human civilization, trained to fight by panthras and roan bears. He disdains soldiers as dogs of the Crown.”

    Like all nobles, thinks Nisto, he loves the sound of his own voice, the feel of peoples’ rapt attention to his every word.

    “Yet a soldier claiming to be the legendary Thain appeared in this very hall and showed us the heads of two Orcs who we both know did not kill the baron.”

    How I yearn to cut that arrogant smirk into pieces and dance in his blood.

    “I knowww,” purrs his sword.

    “Shut up,” says Nisto.

    Iskendry blinks, surprised. “What?”

    “I’m…” Nisto takes a step closer to the man. “I am so, so tired of nobles. As if your birth were some kind of blessing from the gods and every word from your mouth should be drunk by your lessers like the finest wine.”

    Iskendry stares at him for a moment, and then one corner of his mouth quirks into a smile. He stands up from the throne and walks down the steps to the floor in front of Nisto.

    “Did that feel good?” Iskendry says softly. “Is that something you’ve wanted to say for a long time?”

    Nisto swallows. Why not the truth? “Yes.”

    “Because you sound so like Ardon, who scowls at me and slanders nobility at every opportunity, though he follows me into danger when the time comes. Tell me, soldier, is that why you left the service?”

    Why not the truth? “Yes.”

    “Because you hate us, and you hate serving us.”

    “Yes.”

    “Because, oh don’t tell me, you became weary of being pushed around and belittled, so you left your responsibilities and your oaths behind so you could be king of your own wilderness.”

    “Something like that,” Nisto whispers. “And what about your responsibilities? What about the duchy?”

    “Oh, I intend to return to my responsibilities quite soon. Do you know why? Because my birth is a blessing from the gods. And every word from my mouth should be holy to those beneath me.”

    “Like me.”

    “Like you.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Lucabin walks out of his manor accompanied by seven guards. The man is even better armored than his escort but walks with his back straight as if there is nothing to fear. In the driving rain they walk slowly toward the keep.

    Nine looks at the Cleric. “This is a dangerous moment. Can we count on you?”

    “Of course,” says the old man, nodding. “I shall help in any way I can.”

    Jalasko steps out from behind the barrels and walks into the road with the others following. They approach Lucabin’s party. When the guards move to challenge them, Lucabin holds up a hand and says, “No.” Then he turns toward Jalasko and says, “So the Crown has decided to do something?”

    ”The Crown thought it best to stay out of the way during the firefight,” says Jalasko.

    Lucabin sighs and shakes his head. “I know that I play some small part in how this unfolded. I brought the man here to hunt down the murderous Orcs. I thought that as the heir of a duchy he could be trusted to handle the situation with delicacy and intelligence.”

    “That was certainly a mistake,” says Jalasko. “In my experience, nobility does not lend itself to either delicacy or intelligence.”

    Nine gives him a look, which he ignores.

    “Yes, I erred,” Lucabin continues, nodding. “I can only hope that the baron and his people are okay within the keep.”

    “How are you proceeding?”

    Lucabin points to the north side, barely visible in the downpour. “We have people preparing to use crossbows to place grappling hooks onto the sill of a third floor window. Lightly armored guards preparing to climb. And my people tell me they have almost broken through the postern door at the kitchen.”

    “Very good. You will of course allow us to enter first.”

    “Absolutely not,” says Lucabin, turning to them with an expression of concern. “I cannot allow someone of your importance to take the risk. First we must ensure that you would be safe to enter.”

    Jalasko frowns. And that Iskendry is already dead before we can question him.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    There is some fresh blood in the third floor hallway, but they see no bodies. Crowsinger opens the door to the sitting room and looks inside.

    Sharai is singing to several people who are standing in front of her. Crowsinger enters the room and says, “Sharai. I am glad you’re safe.”

    “Lethe!” she says. The girl runs forward and takes her hand. “You got out! I thought you were in the dungeon and I was getting ready to rescue you.”

    “We’ve had a bit of a journey, but we’re…”

    Crowsinger stops as the men Sharai was singing to begin to turn to face her again. She feels undeath in each of them, and their eyes stare blankly at Sharai.

    “What have you done?” she whispers, glancing at the girl.

    Sharai beams. “I forgave them.”

    Her eyes skitter back to the undead men standing behind Sharai. One is Counselor Idris, and one is the baron’s personal guard. She also sees an older bearded man in robes, and a younger woman.

    “I see.”

    “We were getting ready to go downstairs and find you and Brindel. He’s in the dungeon. But—”

    Glass shatters over the floor as a grappling hook lands on the floor. A rope trails behind it, being pulled taut.

    “Throw that out,” Sharai says to the woman.

    The body runs toward the grappling hook and tosses it out the window before it can grasp the windowsill.

    “They will keep trying,” says Foal.

    Sharai commands two of the bodies to stay in this room and keep the intruders from entering the room.

    “Sharai, listen to me,” says Crowsinger. “We have friends here, and I do not want them to die.”

    “Show me your friends, and I will protect them.” Sharai exits the sitting room, and her minions trail behind her.

    Foal looks at Crowsinger. “Are we just going to…”

    “For now.”

    They begin to follow Sharai, keeping a bit of distance between themselves and her shambling new companions.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    “You could boil his blood,” says the sword of Serengeral in Nisto’s mind. “You could do so much more. I can teach your how.”

    Nisto ignores the sword.

    Iskendry spreads his arms. “How should we resolve this? Should we drop this pretense altogether? Why don’t you tell me your real name and purpose for being here?”

    “Perhaps I am the investigator.”

    “An official investigator sent by those close to the Queen would never speak as you just did. They are loyal tools of the Crown. You…”

    Iskendry reaches forward and takes Nisto’s cloak in his hands. “Who are you?”

    “I am the man who has come to settle this.”

    Iskendry releases him and stands back a step. “Why?”

    Nisto begins to circle until there is no one behind him, and Iskendry obliges by circling him. Both men rest hands on hilts, waiting.

    “My name,” he says, “is Nisto Krevin.”

    Iskendry laughs. “I don’t believe I have ever heard a more lowborn, unimpressive name.”

    “My name is not impressive. But I think I can impress you.”

    “Try me.”

    “A little over three months ago, I was hired by Aeresken Sersu, your brother, to investigate a matter in Thronefast that troubled him.”

    Iskendry stands very still, his eyes hard. “And did you help my brother?”

    Nisto smiles, showing his teeth. “I helped him divest himself of blood. He died on my sword with such fear in his eyes.”

    Iskendry’s sword is already a blur, and Nisto dodges, drawing his own blade to meet the second attack.

    “He is mine!” shouts Iskendry at the two men who are beginning to move. “Do nothing or I shall kill you after!”

    “My sword spoke to me after I killed him,” says Nisto. “It thanked me. A duke’s blood tastes sweeeet, it told--”

    “Silence!” Iskendry abandons all finesse and beings throwing all his strength into his attacks.

    Probably trained with sword since he was a boy, thinks Nisto, and has experience in the wilderness. But he is no soldier.

    “Embrace the communion of blood,” begins the sword.

    “No!” Nisto leads Iskendry around the great hall, allowing the younger man to tire himself. Their swords meet several times, but Nisto is able to get through Iskendry's guard even as he is wounded himself. He lunges in for three hits, leaving Iskendry bleeding.

    “Your blood could be your shield,” says the sword.

    “Shut up!” yells Nisto, and dodging another attack, he lunges forward, igniting fear in his opponent’s mind.

    Iskendry yells incoherently and tries beating away Nisto’s sword with his own, but he is growing weaker. He withdraws a few feet, breathing heavily, and says, “You don’t frighten me. You’re nothing.”

    “I am myself,” says Nisto quietly. “And you are a ne’er-do-well wastrel pretending that you are better.”

    Iskendry tries another attack, but Nisto easily avoids it.

    Nisto allows himself to laugh. “Do you really think the queen will let you keep Rischae? Your brother killed your father, and then I killed him like a dog and never faced charges for it! Where were you? A useless dungeoncomber picking through treasure while his family died.”

    Iskendry tenses for another attack, but they both turn at the sound of fire magic. Both of Iskendry’s men in doorway are burning, and one of the guards begins attacking them.

    “Are you sure you have this keep under control?” taunts Nisto.

    Foal appears behind one of the men with stolen knives, and a Verdanfire lance pierces the other. Nisto smiles and runs after Iskendry.

    “Face me, boy!” he shouts, and stirs more fear in Iskendry’s mind.

    Nisto pays no attention in the fight in the front hall, confident that his people will be fine.

    “Face me.” He says, and easily bats aside Iskendry’s sword to strike several times more.

    Iskendry is bleeding severely now, his face twisted into rage and fear.

    “What are you seeing in your head, I wonder? The body of your brother lying in his own blood where I left him?”

    “You…” Iskendry falls to his knees.

    “Now finish,” says Nisto’s sword.

    Nisto grabs Iskendry’s sword arm and holds it while plunging his own sword into the man’s chest, under a bone and into his heart.

    “Drink to your heart’s content,” he whispers to his sword, and tries not to think about the sounds of pleasure the sword makes.

    When Nisto rises and looks up, he sees several bodies on the floor. Foal and Crowsinger are standing, along with a girl of about sixteen and a man standing next to her who is…

    “What is that?” says Nisto.

    “Nisto,” says Foal, “meet the late Counselor Idris.”

    “He is much easier to deal with now,” says the girl.

    “Sharai,” says Crowsinger. “If the inspector sees the counselor with you, they will hurt you. You’ll be taken away or killed.”

    “I know,” Sharai says sadly.

    “How much time do we have?” asks Nisto.

    “Probably not much,” says Foal.

    “Stay here. I’ll be back momentarily, and then we can open the front door.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    The baron and his wife are in the left cell, and Brindel in the right.

    “Ah, the Hunter!” says Helygen.

    “Yes, it is me,” says Nisto.

    “Are we…” Helygen licks his lips, “free to go?”

    Nisto opens the door to Brindel’s cell. He hands the young man the keys, and then removes his sword belt and holds it out.

    “Iskendry and his people are dead,” says Nisto, “but the keep is not yet safe. You might need this.”

    Brindel takes it from him. “Is Sharai safe?”

    “For now.”

    Brindel relaxes, relieved. “I thank you for your actions,” he says. “They will not bring back my parents, but perhaps not everything is lost.”

    “I thought you might want a moment with your aunt and uncle.” Nisto nods, then turns and leaves the dungeon.

    Brindel steps out of his cell. He pulls the sword belt around his waist.

    “Free us, boy,” says Helygen, “and everything will be all right.”

    Now he removes his mask and drops it to the floor. “Nothing is all right, uncle,” he says, and unlocks the door.

    His aunt dies quickly. Moments later, Brindel withdraws the sword from his uncle’s chest.

    “It’s possible that I missed your heart,” says Brindel. “I shall return later and check on you.”

    As he walks away from the cell, he holds up the sword and looks at the blood of his aunt and uncle.

    “Is this what you wanted?” a voice whispers.

    Brindel draws a long breath. “Are you… the sword?”

    “I am. Is this what you wanted?”

    Brindel sniffs, inhales the copper scent, and nods. “Yes. This is what I wanted.”

    The blood fades into the runes as if drawn into a sponge.

    “I can help you,” purrs the sword. “If you want the power to protect your barony, to protect all of those you love, I can help you.”

    “What is your name?”

    “Serengeral.”

    “You will help me rule?”

    “Oooh, yes. You shall be a great baron.”

    He sheathes the sword. “Then I accept.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    The portcullis begins to rise, and the great doors are opened.

    “Ah,” says Lucabin, “my people must have gotten in.”

    They walk together into the front hall and see many bodies scattered around on the floor.

    Nisto stands beside a young man whose face is burned and scarred.

    Lucabin points to Crowsinger. “Didn’t that Halfling kill Iskendry? Why is she running free?”

    “For the same reason I am,” says Nisto, “for I have killed him again.”

    Lucabin sighs. “I suppose you had no choice,” he says. “Considering his violent actions. I hope at least the baron and his family are safe.”

    Several of Lucabin’s soldiers descend the staircase, looking for a way to step around the pile of bodies there. More soldiers appear from the hallway around the north wall toward the kitchen.

    “Careful,” says Nine quietly.

    “Father,” says a voice from the entrance to the great hall.

    Everyone turns and sees Idris slowly walking toward Lucabin, whose face registers his shock.

    In a loud voice, Nine says, “Is this your son, sir?”

    “My… What is wrong with him?”

    “He has been raised from the dead,” says the Cleric Oldeld, “and not with holy magic, but with something far darker.”

    “Is this necromancy?” says Nine.

    “Yes,” says the Cleric, “I fear it is so.”

    “Get it away from me!” says Lucabin, but his guards hesitate.

    “Father,” says Idris again, his eyes fixed on the man and his arms reaching toward him.

    Several soldiers move forward to strike Idris down.

    When the body is still once more, everyone looks at Lucabin. The soldiers look ill.

    He looks around and says, “I have no idea what—“

    “Was Idris your son, Lucabin?” says Jalasko. Behind them, Eske’drai whispers something.

    “He was… my bastard son.”

    “Did you believe,” says Crowsinger, “that you would become part of a noble house if your son married Sharai?”

    “Yes,” says Lucabin, and then his eyes widen. “No!”

    Guards and soldiers hesitate, looking at one another.

    “Necromancy!” shouts Nisto. “Lucabin has been dabbling in necromancy, and raised his own son from the dead.”

    Nine steps forward and speaks again to all the soldiers around the front hall. “We have already been in contact with Her Majesty the Queen. Lucabin of House Chruest has been declared an enemy of the Crown! Soldiers are already on the way from Thronefast to bring him in to face justice in the Forum of Ocirico. Choose now your fate! All who abandon Lucabin now will all be spared!”

    “And the blessing of Korcera,” says Oldeld, “upon all of those who choose the righteous path this day.”

    Lucabin’s guards step away from him.

    Nine looks toward the soldiers at the stairs and says, “Are they any alive above?”

    “None, sir.”

    “Then please clear the keep until we can investigate what happened here.”

    The soldiers file out, and the doors are closed behind them.

    Nine says quietly, “Tell me, Elf: How much of their acquiescence was your doing?”

    “Some, I confess.” Eske’drai lowers himself into a chair near the doors. “I am quite weary.”

    The Cleric bows before the young man next to Nisto. “Oh, my son,” he says. “Now perhaps I can heal you at last.”

    “You are the heir,” says Nine, and Brindel nods. “Then as representative of the Queen, I declare you Baron of Shornshal.”

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    “Where did you get that?” says Lucabin suddenly to Crowsinger. “That is one of the black sun opals!”

    “Can I kill him now?” says Foal.

    “No,” says Nine.

    “Please.”

    Crowsinger steps toward Lucabin. “You sent us both into the labyrinth of madness under the earth. We both escaped from your game.”

    “But the opals…”

    “They are not rocks. Not gems. They are alive, in a sense. And their thoughts contain worlds.”

    He shakes his head slowly. “What… How did you…”

    She lifts the cord holding the opal pendant around her neck and holds it in the air before him. “This is an artifact,” she says, “that protected us from the effects of the chambers. Allowed us to find a way through the illusions. To communicate with them.”

    He reaches out a hand for it. “Yes, this one is different.”

    Lucabin takes the pendant and stares into its depths. Instead of clouds obscuring a sun, he sees the light of moons glimmering through dark feathers. On an impulse, he raises the cord and places it around his neck.

    He looks down at the opal, admiring its beauty, then looks up again and gasps.

    He stands in one of the chambers home to the opals. In this chamber there are hundreds of them in the walls all around him. More than he had hoped for, each of them a small eye containing an even smaller sun.

    All of the eyes are looking at him.

    Lucabin,” they whisper.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    “Where did he go?!” shouts Nine.

    “I believe,” says Crowsinger, “that the artifact brought him to the same place he sent so many migrant workers to die.”

    “He should face the Queen’s justice, not yours!”

    The Halfling looks at him and says, “I do not serve your Queen.”

    “You are in her realm.”

    “Yes,” says Brindel suddenly, “but she is also in my realm.”

    Brindel walks toward Nine. His face no longer bears the marks of his disfigurement, and his hand rests upon the hilt of a sword. “Who brought an end to this matter, and restored me to my place?”

    “I did, in the name of—“

    “No! They did.”

    “Under my orders and guidance.”

    “Under your threats,” says Nisto.

    “Do you remember what you—“

    “Enough!” says Brindel. “As Baron of Shornshal, I hereby pardon Nisto and all his people for any crimes past and present.”

    Nine is staring at him. “You do not understand what he is.”

    “I am a tired old soldier,” says Nisto. “And I want to keep my people safe. And free.”

    “I forgive them all,” says Sharai, and everyone turns to look at her.

    “That is not for you to say,” says Nine. He looks bewildered and angry. “The Queen’s justice—“

    “Justice belongs to life and death,” says Sharai, “and what is after.”

    “I believe,” says the Cleric, “that Korcera has forgiven this man for any transgression he may have done in the past.”

    Brindel and Nine stare at one another for a long moment. “It is done,” says Brindel. “Open the doors.”

    Having lost control of the situation, Nine watches Brindel walk toward the doors are they are opened. When the portcullis is up, Brindel walks forward into the fading light of late afternoon. He is accompanied by Oldeld on one side and Sharai on the other. Nisto and his party walk behind him.

    Brindel looks out over the guards and soldiers gathered upon the hill before the keep, and the people of Shornshal who have returned to the street to watch.

    “I am Brindel, son of Cwythkordi!” he says in a loud voice. “Justice has been given to Lucabin, as well as my aunt and uncle for their treachery. I am Baron of this realm!”

    The people in the street beyond sink to their knees, and some of the guards do the same, though many hesitate.

    Brindel begins to pace before the crowd. “Some among you killed my parents, my siblings. You hacked them down in their own home for gold. And let us be clear: You did not assassinate my father on behalf of his uncle, but on behalf of the traitor Lucabin.”

    He stops walking and meets the eyes of the men and women standing on the hill below him. Some of them always worked in the keep, and some of them worked for Lucabin.

    “You wonder what will happen now. I see it in your eyes. You have the look of people who bet on a horse that is now dead.” Brindel laughs. “For you shall never see them again. Lucabin is gone, and the richness of our barony—the vineyards, the wine that brought gold to all of Shornshal—is in shambles.

    “No one,” his eyes rake across them all, “no one can protect you. No one can protect the flow of wine that brings the wealth that brings food to your tables. Lucabin cannot protect you. My uncle cannot protect you. Only me.

    “The Queen will recognize only me. The Elves, with whom we also trade,” he waves his arm toward Eske’drai, “will also recognize only me. So you have a choice. You can leave, find another to serve, find a fountain of gold for all I care.”

    Brindel draws his sword. “Or you serve me. But do not think that I will be an easy master. If the blood of my parents is on your blade,” he points his sword toward some in the crowd, “then you will not serve inside the keep. But you will have a place in Shornshal. My cousin, to whom I bear no ill will, shall run Shornshal by my side as counselor. Cleric Oldeld, who holds in his hands the forgiveness or condemnation of the gods, shall also be by my side as counselor.”

    He thrusts the sword into the ground and places both hands on the hilt. “So I tell you, kneel to me now, or get out. And if you leave, may Ocirico have mercy on your souls!”

    Some among the soldiers who did not already kneel do so now. Several shake their heads and walk away. In the street, citizens of the Barony begin to shout his name, and the remaining guards begin to do the same.

    ❖ ❖ ❖

    Within several days, things have begun to change. Nisto and Oldeld interview guards for duty inside the keep. Arrangements are made to halt the ransacking of the Chruest Manor, whose wealth now belongs to the barony—though much wealth has already disappeared.

    Workers are hired to strengthen the third floor windows with masonry so that they are less easy to enter. Blood stains on walls are painted over.

    Baron Brindel stands at a window in a second-floor room, looking out over the main east-west street of the city. The street is filled with people going about business as they always have. Outside the door is a guard who both Nisto and the Cleric recommended. The man formerly worked as a night guard at one of the local warehouses where wine is put into casks for long storage. Dull, reliable, and looking for a position of greater prestige in which he could prove himself.

    “I need you to promise me something,” Brindel says. “Your pet must remain out of sight. You know that others will not understand, and it could cause trouble for us.”

    “You will let me keep it?” asks Sharai.

    He turns and, seeing her worried expression, squeezes her shoulder and smiles. “I have no wish for you to be unhappy, cousin. And someday I might need to rely on your abilities.”

    She smiles. “Whatever you need.”

    He nods. “Now if you would, cousin, please let Nisto know I am ready to speak to him.”

    She leaves the room and closes the door behind her.

    “You seem to be doing well,” says Nine.

    Brindel’s sword is at Nine’s neck before he has finished turning. Nine does not move.

    “You may serve the Queen,” says Brindel, “and I have no doubt that you could kill me without effort, but hear this: You will never enter my room, or my keep, again without my leave. Or I shall speak with Her Majesty myself about her tools and how they behave in my realm.”

    “I shall leave Shornshal before the rising of the sun tomorrow,” says Nine. He deftly moves away from the blade of the baron’s sword. “I just wanted to speak with you about Nisto.”

    “There is nothing more to be said. You are done here. Now get out.”

    Nine nods slightly. “My lord baron.”

    There is a knock at the door, and the guard says, “The soldier Nisto to see you, my lord.”

    “Enter,” says Brindel.

    Nisto walks in and stops when he sees Nine.

    “Nine was just leaving,” says Brindel.

    Nine walks out without looking at Nisto.

    “Shekro, please escort Nine out of the keep.”

    “Understood, my lord.”

    Nisto closes the door, then bows slightly. “You wanted to see me, my lord.”

    Brindel doesn’t know where to begin. He turns and looks out the window again. “You do not like nobles.”

    “No,” says Nisto.

    “I cannot blame you for distaste, even hatred. I feel some of both. Still, I know very well that I owe my position, even my life, to you and your people. Even if you were only here under duress.”

    Brindel turns around. “I will ask you once more. Will you stay as part of my trusted guard?”

    “In another life,” says Nisto, “I would readily agree. But the life I have lived, and the choices I have made… and the deeds that we have left behind us…” he shakes his head.

    “I see.”

    “We wanted to stay and help with the transition. I looked out on that bunch of guards that day and could not imagine how you could trust any of them.”

    “For that I am very thankful.”

    “But my friends and I now have a reputation in all the kingdom. We are infamous assassins of peers of the realm, as you know. So now I think the time has come for us to leave the Queen’s realm altogether.”

    Brindel nods. “Where will you go?”

    Nisto takes a long breath. “I do not yet know. Perhaps toward Elven lands. Perhaps across the seas to another land.”

    “I…” Brindel shakes his head and smiles. “I envy you your companions. Setting out on such a journey.”

    “No home, and no way of knowing if we shall ever have one.”

    “You are welcome in Shornshal whenever you have need of sanctuary.”

    Nisto bows, then says, “We should prepare to take our leave.”

    “The sword…”

    A slight smile plays across Nisto’s lips. “Have you two become acquainted?”

    “A beginning, perhaps.”

    “Be careful. Men like Nine would have you hauled to Thronefast and put on trial if they see what you learn from that sword.”

    “It seems we have many secrets in Shornshal.” Brindel straightens. “I wish you a safe journey.”

    Nisto nods and walks away, leaving Brindel alone in the room. He descends the stairs, now free of bodies, and walks toward the portcullis. Though the great doors are open, letting light into the front hall, the portcullis has been shut for most of the days since Brindel took power.

    “I was surrounded by murder.”

    Nisto turns and sees Sharai standing near the doors to the great hall. She wears a long gown of dark colors with a hint of blue. Her hair hangs loose around her face and shoulders.

    She walks toward him and continues, “The killers were all around me, blood on the walls, and no light anywhere.”

    “Not anymore,” says Nisto.

    “No.” She glances toward the portcullis and the afternoon sunlight. “Everything is brighter now, because of you.”

    Nisto’s mouth drops open, and he looks around, swallowing. “There were several of us. I didn’t do anything alone.”

    “No one can,” she says. “But you have gathered these people to you, and you’ve earned their loyalty. They’ll follow wherever you lead now.”

    “They should know me better.”

    “Maybe you should.”

    He looks at her now.

    “The past is clinging to your shoulders like little gargoyles,” she says. “I know. I have them too. But throw off the ones that make you feel guilty.”

    “I have committed many sins.”

    She makes a sound of disgust. “Maybe that’s what other people have told you. But maybe you’ve done what you felt was the right thing to do every time.”

    “I’ve had selfish reasons.”

    “Nothing wrong with those. Nisto, what I wanted to say was… The dead cannot forgive you. But if you still feel like you need absolution… I absolve you. I forgive you. Walk lighter.”

    She smiles and turns toward the kitchen.

    Nisto turns back toward the portcullis and nods at the guard next to the machinery room. The portcullis begins to rise.

    Absolution from a necromancer. Nisto smiles. Good a priest as any, I suppose.

    Nisto walks out into the sunlight.

     

    - end -


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at February 1, 2021 5:23 AM PST
    • 97 posts
    February 8, 2021 8:28 AM PST

    I promise, I'm getting to this soon.  Just haven't sat to read it all yet!  The intro is fantastic tho.