This is a story of swords without sorcery. For better or for worse, you will find description without explanation as several main characters embark on personal journeys to discover purpose. At least, that's what they think they're searching for. It begins with a soldier who begins wondering if he is actually a murderer. From there, we see constant movement from one place to another. There aren't many stops, but if you're up for some guess work, you may enjoy the ride. Setting is parallel to the Medieval/Renaissance period, and it begins with Dane. Brace yourself for strange and bloody fiction.
Chapter 1 Out of a Crimson Country
At one time, my life was free for the taking. I didn’t care how it was used, so long as I was never forced to suffer. I knew I would be forced to live a long life under the dominion of another. At any point in time, I could have freed myself. But free from what? If not an instrument, I was a servant to alienation.
My memories imply feelings that I no longer recognize. In the present, nothing I do can return the forgotten feelings. But they are forgotten, so how would I know them if they returned?
It’s nice outside. I remember it - the way the sun brightens my skin, the feeble pitch of partridges brushing my ears with minute bliss. Everywhere am I environed by emerald blurs I can touch and tell: the grass, the leaves, and sprightly stalks. I look down, see flowers, and I decide to pick one from its roots. Their yellow petals stand distinct, reminiscent of the sun. Except, I can look at these. I cannot look up. They grow in abundance by the sparkling stream. Creeping closer, I stare into the water. It is a mystery what I see. Everything about me appears different. Why do my hair, my eyes… my face appear as snow? Ought it be this way? No one else is. I gently caress my cheek, moving my head closer. Then something glitters in mine eye. Perhaps I can reach it. There it is in my hand! But why does it sting so? Pulling it out, I realize ‘tis a sharp thing; a small arrowhead. I’m excited, but my excitement is nearly overshadowed by the pain in my hand.
I run now, back to the place I barely remember, clutching metal in one hand and a flower in the other.
“Dane, there you are!” I hear her voice upon reaching the stone steps! A tall woman in elegant silks, flashes of white and green velvet. Then nothing but flashes of long brown hair and a smile. She grabs hold of my arm and kneels down to hug me. “Were you playing in the sun again?” she questions. I hand her the flower. She sighs. “Dane… Goodness! You’re bleeding!” As I lift my shame, the sunlight fades and my vision blurs.
I remember something else. A night where it rained, she lay close at a man’s bedside, weeping. This was a man close to us, a downtrodden figure invisible in the sheets while few strangers stood over and around his motionless body. Every one of them stood stoic and gaunt, sorrowful in the dim light of candles. I couldn’t understand it, them, what had happened. One man, in particular, arrived at the doorway and stalled before me. Something about his air… disquieted me.
“I’m sorry, young lad,” he lied. “Thy father hath found his path to Eternity.”
The wails grew louder. “Mother?” I call.
“Come, let us outside.” He walks me away and into the darker corridor. Looking down at me, he speaks, “As of the late duke’s death, I shall inherit the title of this castle and the entire duchy. This, perforce, entails my charge for thine upbringing, boy. One last task left by the departed.”
I don’t know what to make of his words. And with effort, I try gazing once more into the room, but he drags me further away. “For the sake of peace and unity, this shall be our new beginning.” Looking up at him, I find a twisting and contorting grin serrating me. “You are no longer the son of a duke, no longer whimsical to the sin. No. In time, you shall be numb to the fear that plagues ordinary men, then become that fear for the enemies that await.”
Fading. It all fades.
My breath, I can hear it now! “It was a dream…”
There’s a knock on the door. Yet whoever stands on the other side does not deign to wait, for I hear it creak open. Steering my gaze, I see a shadow standing just outside. “Lord Valeroșu requests your presence,” uttered a man's voice. I sit upright, catching the muffled sound outside the stone walls. I leave the bed of my gray chambers, then walk towards the gray walls directly outside, continuing after the guard down a stone corridor. Like the others, I can’t remember this man’s name or describe his face; but he wears the usual steel plate beneath the crimson garb visible in every corner, and the broad-brimmed helmet like the ones I see patrolling the grounds nearly every sun and moon. As we approach a bright light at the end of the corridor, I hear noise – the murmurs of a crowd. It grows louder as the outside light burns my visage.
I lower my head and leave my hat to shield me. I check my shoulders, fasten my pauldrons: layer after shrinking layer of steel plate running down to my elbows, followed by the steel vambraces my forearms, and my riveted gloves. Then I evaluate the rest of my armor - the metal greaves clenching my shins and knees; my encumbering black gambeson of wool and cotton; finally, the girdle always tied around my waist, holding that scabbard which in turn holds the sword restless for my grip. Dressing for such occasions has become so automatic and mechanical to my life that I no longer notice. My body has become numb to battle-readiness. Up my sleeves and along my belt, all instruments rest where I habitually keep them.
We stand amidst torrential voices within the square keep of solid stone. One step out of the hollow exit, and from atop the battlements I witness the commotion: Villagers rioting, the anger seemingly leveled against the steel-clad figure in crimson, Lord Valeroșu. Behind him stands a wooden palisade barring the red doors of a towering stone keep. Before him stand the gathered rabble of concerned commoners. And he… He stands between them and the gallows, facing the wooden gate segregating inner fortress from town. Those gallows are as a stage, the surrounding guards like plate-armored stage hands tilting their halberds at the crowd. And Valeroșu, lord of the castle, stands among the criminals. Though he stands among men, he may as well be their deity, for the ropes that fondle their necks remain by his design. They shall tighten once the floorboards give way.
I hear the anger and sadness bellowed by the masses. Who are those few to be executed? I wonder.
“Presented before you are the unworthy vermin of Red Valley,” the lord of the castle commences his address. “Standing accused of burglary, thievery, and murder, the fate of the sullied few rests in our hands. Hitherto, my leniency hath fostered treacherous depravity. For as thou knoweth, forsaken law left unrequited shall breed a brigand and enemy to Voracia!”
I could hear the criminals. Specifically, the one who pleaded in a final effort for salvation. But one does not plead before the deaf, I would say.
“I only killed the cutthroat after he stole into my home. My daughter hardly speaks for his contemptible act!”
I see a little thing running past the guards. “Papa!” she screams as she makes for what I presume to be her father’s arms. That is a helpless act.
“Marian!” he cries.
“Take her!” milord commands before turning, presumably, to the despairing father in the gallows. Before those forlorn men, he stands as a husk of metal and crimson, eyes both lifeless and deriding. “A child as unruly as her father, one foreseeable problem on top of another.”
I could see a woman approach milord, kneeling before him, pleading, “Please! I beg you to spare my husband. It was our hunger spurring his fool actions, milord. Almost all of our water is gone, and we are without food!” I can assume she alludes to a different soul in the gallows. Another criminal whose execution lay inevitable.
“Then thou art the madness behind his crime!” milord decries, turning her words like a reflex.
‘NO! Desperate is all we are! Mercy our only plea!”
“Please!” Now another man has boldly stepped forward. A terribly severe boldness. “My brother, there, he has his family! Take my own life and spare his!”
What is this willingness to die? Why would he sacrifice himself for another? Is he a madman? Milord appears settled in his contemplation. Unusual of him. Such pauses are but feigned consideration for the meek, as I have come to learn.
“I have a thought!” milord declares. “Dane…”
‘Tis as if he senses my approach. “Yes?” I answer, suspecting his needs.
“Deal with these!”
‘Twas a simple command. Therefore, I stepped before the prostrating man and woman, and they flinched at my approach--the woman utterly frightened and uncertain, the man lightly stepping back with tight fist and eyes aghast. It is because of their fear and hesitation that I can catch them in their flight. Their backs turned, spines exposed, I strike bare-handed and deliberately.
As they are no longer conscious, I drag their beaten bodies before the gallows, underneath milord’s imperious gaze. “There is no protest in the breath of men that may sway milord.”
“Hour of reckoning!”
Tears, I see them stream down faces as his words mar the ears of mob and accused.
“Let the worms who deem themselves above the law take heed this day! To the parasites, brigands, heathens, and apostates who desecrate this Dukedom and beyond! Thieves! Vagrants! Share this fate, for an affront against my house is an affront unto country; an affront unto the land is an affront against us. ”
Lord Valeroșu stepped closer, bent his head, and whispered his quiet admonitions. Not to me, to the commoners at my feet. It was then I felt something. I felt that their doom resulted from a desire stronger than instinct. My senses are numb to this. My mind nearly strains itself attempting to fathom. Despite instinct, many in this world act short of self-preservation. I bear Valeroșu’s whims. I survey the crowd. I suspect we would all be executed for acting on our desires.
“Why?” The man below me, now conscious, spoke.
“Why?” A curious question.
“Why is this happening? Why must we suffer? Why do you serve this man?” Then the echoing. I hear a deafening noise from the crowd - horror and amusement. It's disharmonious. I turn and see the stiff bodies hanging by the ropes, rocking below the wooden steps back and forth, back and forth. Rocking.
They’re dead… All of the soul’s on the lord’s list, dead in front of me. Of all the moments fate would deem action, there is naught to be done. Yet I feel emptiness on the precipice of a peculiar sensation. I can sense the despair in the air, the sorrow of selfless folk starving, and how senseless these deaths have been… When ‘tis senseless, is it not murder? A howling wind dampens the noise around me, but can neither confirm nor deny my question. There are tremors in my veins pulsing into my trembling hands. The sensation takes me back to a cold day when the sky was grey, and mist shrouded myself and many men along a rough, death-ridden pocket of mud.
Ditches. There were ditches that harbored servants like me. And above the dirt, within a few paces, lay the camp apart bustling with men-at-arms. Torches relayed the position of our Duke’s men, their lights - signals penetrating the mist.
As I sit in my hollow space, I see but one armored comrade across from me. He looks back through his visor, and for a moment I swear I see a semblance of a grin.
After hearing a shout, we witness a ball of fire tearing the sky, until it smashes in the center of our encampment. And so our men rally from around the camp, knowing the enemy to be close. Very close indeed.
I can tell by the wail that at least one man has suffered. Sprinting for the point of impact, I reach the white tents below pale crimson banners. I see him wailing in pain, his arm torn and spilling. Yet I cannot fixate on his dismemberment, for the inevitable horn has sounded, thus rallying every warrior as few tend to the suffering conscript. My lot lies with those marching. But I catch the sound of hooves. Contrary to our formation of a line, several of the lord’s vassals strap their horses and rush into the mist at breakneck speed, whence the fireball came.
Men-at-arms line up along the camp outskirts in a standard battle formation. Hundreds… maybe a thousand. I couldn’t hope to count. Once the infantry is set, accompanying horsemen cover our flanks, and outside the ranks I see Lord Valeroșu galloping on his dark armored stallion. Always, he prostrates before his army in a full suit of armor, ever-prudent and bold before the onset of battle. Helmet fastened, he draws and lifts his longsword, whirling it overhead and chanting his rallying cry. Then sauntering down the line, he arrives with eyes temporarily set on me. And looking down, he grants me a confirmation-seeking gaze. He expects me to lead them, leave them in a mist so thick that no outcome other than chaos could ensue. I nod.
Suddenly, a horn blows from across the masking fields. They’re coming to us. We brace ourselves: shields in front, spears aligned, and a steady march forward in a mist that pitted us against the unknown.
“There’s no need for fear. It shall only hinder you.” I hear this man beside me. Turning, I see it is he from the ditch, a comrade seeking to gauge my readiness for battle. I respond in kind, “One must be capable of fear.” I say this despite having forgotten fear. Why did I say it?
We turn our attention forward. Now, we can hear the marching sound of another body. It grows nearer. Nearer. The stomping of their troop treads nearly in unison with our own. Each passing second without visibility feeds the fervor of our line. Unlike my comrades, however, I can sense their proximity. I know the position of the enemy troops and I pick up the pace, quickly exceeding the speed of my company. In time, they match my march after me. They halt when I do, resume as I do, taking after the intensity of my gait and, as necessary, follow. I never intended for this, yet sensed that it would. My lord must have known as well.
I’m running now, running with an army at my back. We see the enemy—only a swift second before colliding. They march beneath banners emblazoned by a sun. The distinct eight-sided star. But there is no sun, only warriors and peasants charging en masse across a mist-laden field. Volatile war shouts erupt at the onset of battle. “FOR VORACIA!”
I hear him call my name once again, and I respond, “Yes, milord?”
“Dispose of the agitators.”
I hesitate. My mind skips the action and resorts to the question – Why must I kill them? They are but helpless peasants at my mercy. Peasants who are no threat, who suffer from fate, yet I am no instrument of fate but a faithless man. Before I move, I stop and look at my hands, for I wish to see for myself. And though I cannot see, they are obviously stained.
“I don’t wish to end their lives, milord.”
After I speak, I hear this his steps come to an abrupt halt. “Speak again for clarity, Dane,” my lord requited. “I think I misheard you.” I can almost feel the heat from his voice.
“By thy mercy, I wish to be spared from this task, milord.”
He turns around. “Oh…”—strokes his chin—“Nay. Proceed with my command.” This time he dallies, watching and waiting for resolution. I am unmoving as my eyes rise and fall on him. My lord is a man tall, bound in gold-gilded steel, the plates spread passed every joint of his body. His blood-brown mane distinguishes him from a distance, and his seething grin can incur a common man’s blenching. This day he does not grin, however, his sharp brown eyes and cheeks resting resentfully on me. “You sword is not even drawn, endeared devil of this domain. Since when do you delay for the most trivial task?” The guards note our exchange by this point, letting it distract them from their quelling of the crowd. When I fail to heed my lord’s command, his eyes harangue over me, lifeless eyes scowling after my volition. I subtly note his hand slithering for his sword. “What detail of this simple task must I impart, my wicked lieutenant?”
“I do not wish to end their lives, milord.”
“And since when doth thou decide?” He raises his arm, a signal. The guards heed his command and approach the gallows, leaving no more room for indecision. This action diminishes the earlier uproar, as the crowd is now attentive to our exchange of words.
“I suppose, hitherto, decisions of mine were nothing less than a whim of thine own make. But senseless blood on my hands. No more…”
Valeroșu draws his sword. “Then thou doth protest, treachery punishable by whatever method I see fit. Thou knoweth.”
I take a deep breath. “I understand this fact rather intimately.”
I sprint towards him with fleet of foot, faster than he can react. I reach him, grip his sword hand, and whisper in his ear, “Find another, milord.” And so he falls from the force of my head-butt, his suit of steel clanking against the ground.
All the people were stunned—undeniably less stunned than he, however.
As expected, the guards level their spears, yet slowly and unsurely--as if they were too bewildered by my defiance. I did not wait for them to collect. Unthinking, I dragged the incapacitated peasants away from Lord Valeroșu and beseeched the crowd, “Help these ones!” before beginning my jaunt through and across the collective.
“Seize him!” the lord shrieked. I parted my way through the anxious mob as speedily as I was able, straight past those wooden gates. I knew I had to mask my movements. Thus, I ran past the sheltered village, letting my knowledge of the patrols inform my turning of corners. Castle Kraghaven has always been, first and foremost, a garrison; remembering this, I run faster lest the entire garrison catches wind of my deed.
Through one more alley do I find the smithies hammering away at their metal, oblivious to me. I can see the outer gate entrance, and so check both directions before making my way thither. “Close the gate!” they shout at my back. “Close it!” Two gate guards are stationed there to oppose my escape, poised to seal my exit altogether. My next gambit seems unavoidable.
Anticipating bloodshed once more, I reach for my extensions. I hold in my hands two daggers. However, to my surprise, the impending guards make no move against me. As I approach, they see me and act oblivious to their orders, allowing my sprint directly past that fortified gatehouse. Curious. ‘Tis a fleeting second, but a redeemable one, as I glimpse their faces in passing: defiance, conviction, and character I see. I remember them both.
As predicted, the clash between armies left droves of fallen spilling their blood on the dampness of the earth. I could maintain but the slightest account of my comrades in such carnage, running the path of bloodshed and seeking no other route. One after another, enemy assailants fell by my intervention, the green tabards of their armor succumbing to red stains. Such was the uniform fate that befell any fighter in my path. None survived, and I slew them faster than my kinsmen could fall. Bare bones of battle: slay before being slain. Eventually, I came across one Voracian betwixt two opposing men-at-arms. I could not hesitate after witnessing his plight. In the midst of hacked flesh and war shouts, I grabbed one by the chin and slit his throat.
Two more enemies sought after me. A peasant soldier in his loose helmet and gambeson, fatally an amateur, charges with his sword overhead. After my high deflection, his blade runs along the length of mine—to the side and away. When his sword steers off its intended path, he leaves himself open; hence, I thrust and strike the joint in his shoulder. It is following my stab that I understand his martial imprudence. He is a conscript, and conscripts seldom understand that strength matters; form more so. I consider this as I release my blade from his throat.
Knights are immune to the same mistakes. One charges me, striking from the side. I parry. He jerks back, switches his forward foot, and then lunges. I evade. Intervention. I take my longsword with both hands and jolt forward, piercing him below his visor, a discernible region between helmet and hauberk assimilated into my practice years ago. So he falls, armor clanking, to mark my second knight dispatched. A brief respite lets me lift my kinsman from the dirt. And rising to his feet, he stares excitedly, catching his breath and nodding in relief.
Following the rescue, I hear quick, thunderous hooves - Enemy chevaliers approaching from the flank.
“Withdraw!” I cry.
As the hooves draw near, I can tell they are few in number - stragglers. Unfortunately, a clearing mist leaves them a clear line of sight to harass our motley grouping. In anticipation, I call for reformation—a call to which sundry warriors respond. Many Voracians withdraw to the rear while the enemy cavalry makes all haste. Spearmen begin lining up to cover the fleeing vanguard. Yet I still see allied stragglers, one, in particular, crawling and near to being trampled. With all the vigor in my feet, I run after him - To this day, I don’t necessarily understand why.
I reach the man and drag him in a moment paralyzed by uncertainty. This glade in which we shed blood, it is thin and narrow, but the bodies can mask our presence if we sink utterly. The horsemen, they are blind to our station on the ground, and we barely escape the stomp of riders too eager to relieve their forces.
Once the cavalry charge half-wittingly crashes into the spear formation, another bloody impact leaves men falling from their horses. They are then bludgeoned, if not skewered, against the mud. As I hear the fighting, I imagine a mud painted thicker in red. Meanwhile, the man I rescued cocks his gaze at me. Apparently, the shock has left him speechless. Or it may be that my strange visage has informed his reaction. Nonetheless, I assist him to his feet.
“I can walk on my own,” he allays.
“As you say.”
Per our duty, we saunter back to the sound of fighting. Alas, the cries suffocate as we draw near the lines. The enemy has already begun their retreat, their beleaguered army forfeiting to the laden hooves of our reinforcing cavalrymen. Just as the enemy sought to seize the advantage brought by the rising sun and its scattering of the mist, so too did our cavalry wings return hither and charge their main line. Thus, the sound of fighting surrendered to a solemn wind, dispersed only by cries of pain.
A curious sun tumults above the white mist; its first peek reveals the summit of dead this day, yet not before the fatigue readily consumes me. Chilled sweat, I feel it dripping, mixing with my adversaries’ blood, concocting this unholy sensation swollen by the cold. This abominable sensation worsens when I look down unto the tarnished soil and notice the face of that man, the man who sat across from me in the ditch.
Today’s fight left a hole I must writhingly bear in my breast. No gain, no victory, no peace. I am without restitution and my body quivers at what is permanently lost for the sake of nothing. Until my kinsman deigns to share words with me.
“Comrade…" I heard. "Dane... I owe you my life”
“I owe thee thanks… a thousand thanks for seeing me through,” he clarifies. “You are not the bloodthirsty devil of hearsay, and I shall remember that hereafter.” His expression, it is propelled by relief; I have witnessed it before on men whom I’ve rescued. Yet ‘thanks’ was never their returning word. For this, my despair diminishes, and I decide not to forsake myself just yet.
Blessed with more time for my thoughts, I realize that, perhaps, there is one worthwhile triumph on the battlefield. No matter how obscure or how embroiled – it is steering a man’s soul from twilight. The men I saved, now they save me, replacing my abnormal despair with a sustaining sense of redemption.
In my return to the present - my flight from Castle Kraghaven and Lord Valeroșu, I find a stable without a warden. My next course lies apparent. One horse is already saddled. But who left it? I can afford no mind. So I mount, flick the reins, and the chestnut beast dashes forward. Out the citadel, down the last pathway of thatch, I ride past the portcullis before I may be sealed behind the gate. Alas, out of Kraghaven Keep
It is a dim sky that falls above me, gray clouds that hinder the sun and let no more than a speck of white light decorate the green valley. While the wind smothered my senses, I pondered if this, by some design, was freedom’s beckoning.
Knowing the guards trail my blind side, I do not bother to look back. Instead, I keep riding hard north-east on a great plain of grass until I behold what can only be a settlement in the distance. I enter the lane betwixt humble homes; that’s when I decide to lose myself, steering the horse then quickly jumping from the saddle into a haystack. And adjusting to the encumbering hay, I realize how fortunate I am, for no soul is stirring to witness my flight and the riderless horse galloping beyond community reach.
As I have afforded no minor offense this day, my salvation relies on patience. My lord’s men are bound to seek me in the hours preceding dawn.
Evening eventually comes, a blessing in the form of darkness. ‘Tis much simpler moving in the dark. I creep out of my obscurity between barrel and hay before quietly treading the nightly paths. But I must first pause and wonder, What is to become of me now? My lot is unknown, my direction oblivion. For the greater part of my life, I’ve never known a haven of my own. I have only lived to serve.
Looking up, I catch the stars materializing, the moon glistening amid clouds. Its light gleams off something on the dirt path, something approaching. But that is the glimmer of a lantern on armor, the armor of a Voracian man-at-arms. Thus, I hastily conceal myself behind the nearest wagon, keeping my gaze on the stranger’s approach. He is propped, and I hear the hooves. A rider. He suddenly stops beside one of the hovels.
“Is this where they reside?”
“Then per usual, we do this without knife work. You know the lord fancies his displays.”
“As do the other counties, sergeant.”
A second voice. I failed to observe the second man standing idly, thus far counting two Valerosan’s. Before I can discern another word, however, I hear the sound of more footsteps. Two more men from the same direction, apparently tailing after the horseman. Custom hauberks, varied gear, and no colors. Mercenaries. Even after they touch the ground, the other guard remains seated on his horse. He must be an officer. “Okay, round ‘em up!” he starts.
“What of their goods? We wouldn’ be doin’ dis job without good ol' incentive.”
“Yes, yes, the deal remains as always. But should you witness ashen hair, keep your wits about you.”
Great alacrity my lord bears in his designs. Word of my departure must have been spread amongst his loyal followers, sanctioning their search and seizure of his subjects solely for my apprehension. Moreover, he scapegoats the layman for my defiance and suspects their hand in my escape. And yet, I have not escaped.
The mercenaries and the guard do exactly as ordered and proceed into the hut, where my vision cannot follow. Even so, I can hear the commotion from within. It is brief and waylaid by tumultuous winds. When the mercenaries exit, they do so one by one, the last dragging two random locals. Bound in chains, they were, unsurprisingly, vexed, perhaps oblivious in the matter of their detainment.
“Both subjects are charged with conspiracy to incite rebellion,” the officer decried. “By order of Duke Lucan de Valerosu, ‘tis the dungeons for thee pending thine execution.”
The two village folk stood as they were, heads slumping, humble and misfortunate in totality, a sight further belittled by the rags they wore. The woman, she began to sob. As still as her body was, her lament turned rather intensive. That grief... I’ve forgotten what it means to grieve.
For better or for worse, I cannot say, a curious fixation carries me to the solemn path of the guards and their prisoners. Past the huts, into the darkness, I sneak in serpent’s silence. Breaking the distance proved rather effortless. The escort travels nearly invisible in the dark, but I see the officer’s lantern; he advances at the front, the man and woman tugged down the road by rope.
The element of surprise is my unrivaled weapon in a test of numbers. Under normal circumstances, these men would hear the light tap of my feet and the grind of my joints. Normally. In this case, they are mistaking the tap of my feet for their own. Then, when I sense the time to be right, I grapple the hind mercenary. He quietly struggles in my arms, desperate in his mid-air flailing. Nevertheless, he suffocates into oblivion, without letting a breath of warning for the others.
But a moment after my dispatching the first, I can tell the second mercenary senses something awry. Hitherto, he was facing forward. The moment he turns and witnesses me I lock my hand over his mouth, spring one foot forward, and drop him on his back. I uphold him lest he hit the ground, then press as his arms flail around in hopes of relieving his asphyxiation. His eyes roll upward as his strength wanes beneath my grip. His attempts to squeal are for naught, and I firmly squeeze until he finally lies unconscious.While their backs are turned, I strike the third footman from behind, delivering a bare-handed blow to immediately incapacitate him. Three men thus lie on the dirt path before the riding officer finally heeds his solitary lot as an escort. He turns under the full moon, lifting his lantern so that he may finally witness me.
Nothing less than bewilderment befell his gaze as he flinched and jerked his horse. Too late, however, as I push him off...
Cursing everything, the officer falls. Staring at me from the soil, dumbstruck, he helplessly awaits my next whim. Furthermore, he keeps his fingers wrapped around his sword, as I do mine. However, I have no intention of unsheathing.
Initially paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, his relaxing shoulders deliver a sign, the realization that I don't intend to kill him. Therefore, he musters the courage to speak, “Why did you do it?” A curious question, but I know exactly to what he refers. Thus, I kneel and look him in the eyes. The urge to draw his sword is strong, his hesitancy more so. So unto him, I say, “If Valeroșu ordained I slaughter thy family, would you accept my return to the fold?” Then, I see it in the shade of his eyes - fraught uncertainty. “Now run, sergeant. Run without a whisper of what you saw. I am leaving. And should you take it upon yourself to inform thy lord, know that such a report shall not spare thee from his wrath.”
Letting go his weapon, the fearful sergeant departed on foot with all haste, leaving the unconscious others, as well as his own horse.
The man and woman in shackles stare at me with faces I imagine to be flushed. From where I stand, I can observe the man’s dark beard and mid-life complexion, and the woman’s knots of brown hair waving around her eyes; hers is a terminally tired countenance. “You must leave this place,” I tell them. The woman, however, trembles in lingering.
“But-” she mutters.
“Take what you must and leave…”I even motion for the officer's now idle horse.
“Thank you,” the man replies. This man is prudent, for he takes the key from the downed guard's girdle and begins by undoing the woman's lock. Once finished with both, he grabs her to make their escape, yet she resists. I find this puzzling. Slowly, she turns and looks me in the eyes.
“Why did you help us?” she questions.
I meet her tired expression and answer, “I cannot say. My life is drowned in acts I could never understand, yet plagued by more distraught moments of inaction. Such thoughts of inaction now burden me more than my life which, hitherto, has served one great cruelty to the world.”
The stare she returned was one of simple yet utter perplexity, and she stared until the man could finally move her and convince her to mount the horse.
After one last glance back, the forlorn woman rode off with the man at the reins. Rode off into obscurity. But that last expression she made, I struggle to understand its meaning.
Surveying the rest of my surroundings, I realize the time for my departure has come. Everything shall be behind - this life, this land, this crimson country. Per chance, the broader world might beget another life, one that is not waylaid by blood at my feet.
Chapter 2 Wanderer
To be alive in the guise of eternal night, where nothing is certain and life is the risk. Where we can fear the unknown or embrace it. That is far more preferable than the natural bindings brought about by blood. Ever have I been dubious of notions of fixed destiny— for it seems the great insult to free will. Despite ample luxuries and privileges, their weight, despite their given indulgences, may be no less backbreaking, at times taking away freedoms that many of the common folk seem to take for granted. Yet, there are moments when they are to be envied, for it is they who may relish in carefree lives of elasticity.
A soft evening in a slumbering town. One hooded figure halts his stride just outside the noisy pub. He is a man solidly built: not overly brawn, hardly slender. Wrapped in a black cloak, he wears a collared cotton shirt of dark blue. A lift of his cloak or his shirt and he might reveal the riveted steel ringlets covering his neck to the knee. But he was more distinct in his arms, shoulders fully encompassed by plate until his elbow joints, the length of his forearms bound in leather. And he wore a leather girdle with protruding quillons on each side, the guards particularly crafted to mime a man's knuckles.
Tarrying outside, the hooded stranger paused and peered into the pub, noting its inner illumination and how distinct it stood from the rest of the dark town. The lights and loud camaraderie resounding from within made it seem inviting, nonetheless.
“Golden Ale Pub, where wanderers and travelers from every corner of the continent tentatively find themselves. One way or another, they come: the good, the bad, the worse… the worst of the worst… and the foolish, you can say.” He takes a gander over his right shoulder, then in the leftward direction. “Who are you talking to, Neleve?” He starts forward cautiously, beginning entry. But before he may successfully do so there comes a wicked thump, making him strafe left to avoid the tormented man being thrown from the entrance, a hairy individual apparently too dazed or too inebriated--or both--to lift himself.
“And don’t y’ bother askin' fer another pint ‘fore you have the coin!” growled a dark man by the entrance, presumably a bouncer or the owner.
Neleve quickly and curiously attended to the discarded individual. “Hey, good fellow, you alright?”
Too weak to stand, the man turned his rugged face from the dirt. “I owe y’ money?” he coughed.
“Nay,” answered Neleve. “Don’t think we’ve met. Face full o’ dirt, I’d remember!”
“Good, cuz there’s not a copper to my name. Now if you’ll excuse me, lad, it’s bedtime.”
“What?” But the sullied man would grant no reply as he fell asleep on the dirt road. Neleve stepped closer and inspected the poor man snoring blissfully loud. A stroke of his chin and a thought later, Neleve reached into his pouch, out of which came a silver coin he then placed inside the man’s ragged tunic. From there, he cautiously proceeded into the pub.
There’s residue all over the floor, the cracked ceiling appears as if it may collapse onto the already shriveled furniture. He side-steps towards the vacant table and runs his finger along the wooden edge. After scrutinizing his finger, he shakes his hand with a shudder. Yet everyone seems content with the state of things, drinking at their tables and recounting their tales, guzzling their ale. There’s rugged fellows laughing together at one table, few gambling at another, and thirsty patrons entertained by the wenches on their laps. Then we have... He caught sight of a man in a brown robe, no hair on his top scalp, beaming him down. As soon as their eyes met, the robed man approached. At their point of meeting, their difference in height became strikingly apparent, the brown-robed man standing significantly smaller in stature.
“Good evening, chap,” said the small man, “you must be new to this establishment, for ne’er have I seen one like yourself in all the days I been here.
“Like myself?” Neleve replied, voice tender and calm.
“Your gait as you walked in mimed a man of status - neither clumsy, nor brutish, nor common-like.”
“You pay such attention to things that don’t matter?”
“It matters, but take it not disparagingly, good chap. A change of characters exercises the mind of the perceiver.”
“What’s that?” inquired Neleve, pointing at the random assortment of colorful sigils secured in glass behind the counter.
“That doesn’t matter,” allayed the small man.
As if he had completely forgotten the case, Neleve switched his focus to a dancing wench by one of the tables. It was a dance uncanny but predictable, as there was no artistic flare, just a tapping of the legs and a swooning of the hips. His eyes shifted to the dust rising from the woodwork, then to the half-filled mugs on the table, then the strange assortment of egging men playing incorrigibly.
“By the way, stranger, y’ have a name? Mine’s Thomas. I'm a Friar.”
“Sir Neleve? Baron Neleve? Councilor Neleve?”
“Simply Neleve, Thomas.”
“As you wish, ‘simply Neleve.’" But the Friar focused on Neleve's eyes, their restlessness and how they failed to rest on him or anything else. "Now that formalities are out of the way, we may be the best of friends. Would you happen to have any coin for the Ecclesia this evening?” And the Friar jovially extended his hand. But Neleve had to ponder for a second.
“Ecclesia, Ecclesia, Ecclesia. I can’t remember what that is.”
“By my faith! Are y’ an absolute foreigner? ‘Tis the Faith, the one true faith. This land’s Faith. Someday, the world. A holy house even resides nearby.”
“Be it that church where the road forks, housing that golden statue of what I presume to be a saint?”
“Eh, well, riches are fleeting and the estate can always use the coin, to be sure.”
He hasn’t mentioned what the church needs coin for, and ‘coin for the Ecclesia’ seems to be a general lyric coercing money out of folk, at least if one is a part of that estate. “Hmmm.” Neleve stared down at the little man for a moment, then reached into the coin purse hanging beneath his belt. “Well, now that you mention it, Friar Thomas.” He pulled out a pristine gold coin and held it up in the room light—“I have something,” then lay it in the friar’s palm.
“Ihirum thanks you.” The eager friar then examined the given currency. It bore a man's head wearing a crown of laurels. “From what county is this?” He bit the coin, finding no discrepancy.
“Farther west,” Neleve said casually. “Now in what activities can one common man partake, aside from drunken revelry?”
“There’s always players at the tables…”
Neleve peered at the round table indicated by Thomas. “Gambling…”
“Such precarious pursuits suits some, not others. Oft, it hinges on one’s society.”
“Not at all.” Neleve then let his hood down. At last, Thomas could clearly see his sharp facial features: his head of wavy brown hair bearing a thin forefront braid, a freshly kempt complexion of gleaming lightness, and sapphire eyes illuminated by the warm light of the hearth.
At the behest of Friar Thomas, Neleve became acquainted with the shabby patrons dabbling in card play. All the while, the dancing wenches took notice, losing a few steps over their hanging gazes. Neleve would humbly introduce himself, and the card players would receive him with some scrutiny after a quick, up and down inspection of this new player. Grinning, he flashed a few fresh silver coins between his fingers, after which they enthusiastically lent him a seat, caring less for his name than his gait and garb.
Frequently looking from the cards to Neleve, the other players apparently found an issue in defining his expression. He would not stop shifting his gaze.
“Psst… Neleve, it’s thy call,” said Thomas, intently tiptoeing to peek over his shoulder.
Neleve, ear to the friar, spoke energetically, “Okay friends, I call. Sport your hands!”
The first man, distinguished by his round hat and brown, unkempt beard, laid low his cards. “Two witches, two wights.” he says.
“Damn!” shouted a second man sporting a linen bandage over his left eye. “Three enchantresses! Ha!”
“You feigning dog!”
“Bastard!” retorted a third player, frustratingly rubbing his hairless head and discarding his hand to the clattering of his teeth. “I’m retired.”
“It’s your hand, pretty boy,” said the one-eyed player.
And Neleve stared at his hand, motionless, while Friar Thomas waited quietly--filled with such repressed excitement his toes nearly buckled. Neleve lifted his card hand in the air, and with a swift slam threw them down on the table. “Three princes!” he exclaimed. His fellow players thus stared seethingly. Therefore, Neleve subtly inched back in his seat and whispered to Thomas, “My hand, is it good?”
“Good for you,” Thomas whispered back.
“Gah!” belched the last loser.
“Everyone has a bad day, men!” Neleve grinned, funneling the coins into a brown sack pouch. As he did so, he of the bald head grabbed his wrist.
“You conniving little runt,” he spouted.
“I know what you did and what you are.”
Neleve’s eyes dilated for the possibilities.
“You used that brace to palm the cards. You’re a cheat!”
Neleve nearly sighed a sigh of relief before realizing the rest of the men were staring at him with murderous intent. “Heh. I know not of what you speak, good sirs. Why don’t we simply agree, the game makes no sense. Princes are overrated and cannot slay witches and wights and enchantresses. But ‘tis a rectification best sought with the creator, no?”
A heated silence passed them by.
Suddenly, with a great heave and ending crash, the three men lifted the table out of the way and revealed their dull weapons.
Okay, Neleve, the whole room is staring at you now…me. What to do… These ruffians seem intent on brawling. A woeful goodbye to you, Reason.
“You mean to tell me this man’s a magister?” said a man one table away from them.
“Likely!” exclaimed the bald one.
“Magic? Really?” ejaculated Neleve. “Oh come now, good sirs, surely we can be civil about this. I won, you lost. If we all lost our wits when we lost, there’d be no more card games, yes? No? Yes? Yay?”
“Don’t mock us, snake. Silver tongues and trickery will not cheat us out of our coin.”
“I say we gut him!” shouted an young man brandishing a serrated knife at the rear of the establishment.
Okay. What to do… Let’s see here. One, two, three, four, four…, now six. Now they’re all mad. Out of the many desperate situations I have escaped, six seems novel and laborious
“I will enjoy dismantling that smug-lookin' face a yers!” exclaimed the one-eyed man.
“Gut ‘im! gut ‘im! gut ‘im!” recited the bald man.
“Yes,” assented Neleve. “There is awful satisfaction belying mutilation—not speaking from experience. But, can't we avoid being ravenous?”
“At least not in my pub!” interjected the barkeep behind the counter. “You louts take this outside!”
“All too late!” the bald player persisted. “As you said, everyone has a bad day. Now, as it were, enjoy everyone else's lot.”
“Is that the one sentence you heard?” questioned Neleve. To the left of him stood the tense, middle-aged barkeep at his counter. Directly in front, the three mad gamblers; and behind them, even more men slowly inching forward with whatever weapons they had on hand - mostly swords, except for the one-eyed fellow who brandished a battleaxe. Something so unwieldy was problematic, yet manageable. And via the downward swing of that battleaxe, the brawl began.
A crash on the floor.
“There’s no way he missed,” said the bald and befuddled ruffian.
Yet Neleve was standing perfectly still while the axe lay lodged in the floor panel to his right. The next instant, he jaunted forward and uppercut the axe wielder's chin. Before the man even fell, the entire room gasped for Neleve’s speed as he consolidated and landed a kick on the next man’s mug.
“There’s a quick lad!” exclaimed the bouncer by the entrance.
“Get him, now!” cried the bald fellow. From around the pub, the voracious men started toward Neleve. But he dexterously slid between the lot, and they found themselves converging and witlessly crashing into one another.
Dumbstruck, four of the men turned around, found Neleve standing idle, and redrew their frustration. “Y’ can’t dodge for long!” cried he of the bad beard.
Neleve took that moment to inhale the tension of their sweat… For all my conditioning, my footing is awkward in this place. Must be swift, must be clever, must be…“What ever happened to your eye?” he blurted, beaming at the one-eyed man who was in the middle of rising to his feet. Unfortunately, the one-eyed man ignored him and renewed the assault. Neleve’s feet carried him infallibly out of reach, however. He was a surge preceding every one of their movements until he felt a presence behind him; one eager brawler reached and locked his arms around him. He was caught.
The men charged, but Neleve kicked the front assailant's chest, knocking him into the others. This would not stop them, however. Picking up a random sword from the ground, the one-eyed man shouted, “Hold him still!” Carefully, he approached and leveled the sharp tip of the blade when Neleve shoved his whole body backward, slamming his man against the wall with a heavy thud. But the captor held on, forcing Neleve to reach around his buckle; whatever he retrieved, it led to his assailant's yelp. And freed from the man's grip, Neleve glanced back to witness him pressuring a bloody wound on his right knee.
“I hate being serious!” Neleve roared. “As I am an unbearably bad brawler, so must I concede this fight to thee. Let bygones be bygones,” all the while, he maintained a silly grin, "unless you really don't want that."
Throughout their altercation, the unreasonable group of brawlers had failed to notice Neleve’s blades. But he held them now, two weapons with cuffs for guards; whether they were short swords or long daggers the room could not tell. Yet, undaunted and abrasive, the outnumbering brawlers belligerently pressed on. And he was forced to turn and shuffle in order to evade, utilizing every recess and table of the room.
“Come on! GET HIM!”
Too determined to see him undone, the pub challenged the limits of Neleve's relentless speed and footwork. Many patrons had departed by this point, the remaining drinkers and onlookers stubbornly set against him. He had made a calculated decision by drawing his pair of steel blades, brandishing their knuckle grips as he did. For this, they would take him more seriously. Yet after dodging another strike, he reserved a moment for bravado. “We have a problem!” he exclaimed. “There aren’t enough of you.”
“Better to save yer words for final pleas, boy,” replied his one-eyed nemesis; he stood at the behest of three cutthroats while another four barred his rear. These were the last of the rabble barring his salvation, leaving any approach, likely, a struggle to the death.
Then the pub’s door slammed open. The Night’s breeze entered an ominous howl. And taking the time to glance at the entrance, several of the men beheld a stranger. He wore a broad-brimmed leather hat, ashen hair fluttering in the wind, and a dark cloak concealing his face from the nose down. This stranger’s intense eyes of snow surveyed the room, skipping past the rabble of men and resting on Neleve.
“Either my timing is impeccable,” he started nonchalantly, “or I have just earned the wanderer’s greeting.”
“Go on about your business,” sneered the bald man. “Have a drink, sit down, or leave unless you wish to join us.”
“You there!” the stranger pointed at Neleve. “Are you at the center of this fixation?”
“What are you, traveler? If you're seeking this cheat's word, best sod off!”
“I arrived with no such intent, but I see one reasonable course. Perchance, I can convince thee to let this matter, whatever it may be, resolve peacefully? Ideally over a drink, as I need one.”
“You need not involve yourself in this, good sir!” exclaimed Neleve. “I’m in this, alone. Besides, gods know I’ve tried using reason. So don't waste your time with it.”
“Too late!” The one-eyed fighter and his close attachment of three men rushed Neleve.
Neleve jumped back and evaded the first blade, then reprised with a high kick that knocked his opponent to the floor. Of the three that followed, the bad-bearded attacker thrust his own knife; but moving quickly and efficiently, Neleve dodged, causing his loss of balance that concluded with his fumbling over the table. Neleve then parried the second man’s fist with his left arm, consolidating with a strike that shoved his opponent into the man behind. One the other side of him, the rest began their convergence. Thus, in his moment of respite, he balanced the nearest chair on his foot and launched it against the group. When it struck, they fumbled and lost momentum.
By the time his opponents regained their footing, Neleve had set himself in between two tables. And in their blind fury, they stampeded into more tumbling. Even those few who did not fall found themselves thoroughly beaten back. For his swift kicks, punches, and their awkward footing they were ultimately unable to stand toe to toe against one man. Failing in three versus one, fooling themselves in one versus one, the limited pub space inevitably worked to Neleve’s advantage; the restriction coupled with his agility, it ultimately left the brawlers to self-imposed collapse.
“Die already!” cried he of the bad beard, suddenly lunging from Neleve’s blind spot. Neleve turned to see the sword’s edge on his periphery. But as it came down, another hand caught the arm in a vice. It belonged to the ashen-haired stranger. And despite wielding his sword with ten fingers, the bearded man could not break free of the stranger’s single-handed grasp. Thus, seizing his opportunity, Neleve struck the bearded man’s throat and caused his gurgling fall for breath.
With the brawl painstakingly concluded, the floor was littered with bruised bodies. Aside from Neleve, only the ashen-haired stranger stood on his two feet.
“That was quite courageous of thee, sir whose name I have not learned.”
“Nay. Just a reactionary gambit,” replied Neleve.
Meanwhile, the bartender casually stood behind his counter, occupying himself via arrangement of the steins. It was a mundane room, without angry beatings environing them, but he had remained calm before and after the fact. And once the last two men assumed their stools side-by-side, he turned around. He would stare silently at their impassivity until Neleve requested a drink. “Any wine accompanying your stock?”
“I can forgive y’ for wreckin’ my pub,” he replied, “but not for that request!”
“Spirit for me, if you will,” enjoined the ashen-haired stranger
And the barkeep was content to turn around, pour drinks, and then return with two steins of the same refreshment.
“My name is Neleve,” he said, staring within the rim of his stein before taking a refined sip.
“Dane is my name,” the stranger responded, still as a statue. Therefore, Neleve was first to extend his arm, slowly turning and inhaling Dane’s ambiguous countenance. Dane turned his eyes and reacted in kind. They shook hands.
The next few moments of leisure were spent in alcohol. Only a few moans from the grounded brawlers broke the pub’s silence.
“I best be leaving now,” said Dane, rising from his stool.
“Where to?” asked Neleve, expressly curious.
“Cannot say, for my stride is whimsical as of late.”
“For the moment, I have no definitive destination. East, perhaps?”
“There’s something we carry in common.”
“I’m setting forth as well. You may accompany me since you seem like you can hold your own”—Glancing the floor littered with sorry and beleaguered men—“as far as the simple ones are concerned. You may prove the beneficiary to my… let’s call it hiatus!”
“You are saying I may benefit thee?” Dane considered. “A change of pace. I suppose if I am not the cooperative sort, I am blind to any other purpose.” Thus, he took another drink as Neleve tried reading his mind.
He is uncanny from the average encounter. “Whenever you’re ready, friend.”
“My name is Dane,” he clarified.
“Yes, you said that... Have you never been called ‘friend?’”
“I'm not sure what that means.”
“May time merit an explanation. But, as of right now, I am ready.” He rose from his stool. Anticipating their departure, however, the barkeep delayed Neleve, gesturing at their surroundings and lending a hint with a beckoning hand. “Right.” Neleve willingly dropped his pouch of coins on the counter for the owner to confiscate.
“So substantial?” questioned Dane.
“‘Tis only money.”
Standing from their stools, Dane and Neleve started toward the exit. But Neleve abruptly stopped and began a personal investigation of their surroundings. Eventually, he indicated the barrel by the doorway, its peculiar inner rumbling. After lightly kicking the base, he found Friar Thomas cautiously availing himself from underneath the lid.
“A good feeling had I when I laid eyes on thee!” schmoozed the small man. “Right, wasn’t I?” Neleve simply held out his hand and the friar sighed. Reluctantly, he returned Neleve's winnings from their lamentable card game, dropping the entire sack in his hands.
Thus, the pair left the pub and everyone as they lay. Dane would step outside with Neleve close behind, into the cold outdoors to breathe the night’s breeze.