Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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Sparrow Killer

by Lee Blevins




“The Doom of Finnan spread senseless and absolute.”

- The Fall of the House of Garthur


The carriage sped a beaten trail through the forest. Andral sat across from Elendra with a hand atop the hilt of his sword. Elendra stared out the round window in the door at the passing trees. She thought only of her dear aunt in Glandonshore, and the terrible comfort she must bring.

The horses whinnied before the carriage slowed down to a trot.

Andral asked, loud enough to be audible to the men outside, “Trouble?”

The archer, who stood on a slat at the back of the carriage, answered, “A tree fallen. Or perhaps felled.”

"It is probably nothing," the knight said to the princess. "These woods are not so dark these days."

The driver brought the carriage to a halt. Elendra peered out the window but could not see the tree that blocked their way.

She heard the driver, muffled, say, “We won't be able to go around that."

There was a twang and a thump and then more twangs. Andral dropped the wooden hatch closed across the window. The carriage shifted but the horses did not break away. The archer yelled and something slammed into the back of the carriage and then there was silence.

“Hold steady,” said Andral. He had his sword half out its scabbard, as far as he could pull it in such a confined space.

Elendra sank back as far as possible into the seat. Her right hand freed a dagger from her pack.

They heard a dragging sound beneath them.

Then footfalls, light and careful, from the woods around that stopped well short of the carriage.

“Two of your men are dead,” said a man outside, “the third cowers beneath. Give yourself up and no harm shall befall you."

Andral turned to face the hatch over the window and replied. “I am a knight sworn. Three parties so guarded have been sent through the forest towards Glandonshore. Our companions are surely close behind."

A moment passed and then the man said, “We shall kill your horses and burn you out."

Andral looked towards the princess. The expression on his face was both fearful and fierce.

“Do you have the pouch the Erlyn gave you?"

Elendra reached into her blouse and pulled out a small black pouch that was tightly fitted around a round object within.

Andral nodded.

"I loved your sister very much," he said.

Then he kicked open the carriage door and charged, roaring, outside. Elendra watched his cloak whisk and heard him yell and waited for sounds of clashing metal. None came.

Dagger in one hand and pouch in the other, she dared leaned forward and peek out the carriage door. Andral was stuck in mid-air, his sword caught in a downward slash. She couldn’t see the manner of man who had magicked him in place.

From the left, and with casual movement, a man in green walked up to the frozen knight and slid a sword through the plates of his side armor.

"Andral!”

The man in green turned his head. He wasn’t smiling but his eyes were. “We have a lady,” he said.

Then he pulled out his sword and walked backwards beyond the view of the carriage doorway.

The knight fell to the dirt. Behind him, an old man in a robe held a staff with a clear bauble atop it. He turned his milky white eyes towards her.

Elendra made herself move. She sprang out the carriage and threw, with practiced aim, the pouch she had been gifted. Its black body slammed into the chest of the mage. She landed hard and heard the pouch explode and saw the old man fly back into the brush.

“Ulden!” cried someone from the right. Elendra turned, dagger slashing the air, to see an elven archer aiming an arrow at her.

“Hold!” came a voice behind. “I would take her alive!”

The elf's string hand shook but he did not let loose.

Elendra spun around to the voice that had stayed the arrow. It was the man in green, sword tip lowered towards the dirt.

“You will not take me, villain,” she said.

He laughed. “Do you see your charge, archer? She may yet stick that dagger in me while you lay prone in the dirt.” He turned his head towards the carriage. “Whisken, can you drive?"

"I can hobble, sir," said a man on the other side. "And maybe mount."

Elendra heard someone walking heavy, as if with a limp, and then heard a thud as something fell into the dirt.

The man in green turned towards her again. “Is the mage dead?”

Elendra looked from the man in green to where the mage had fallen, boots sticking up above the bank, and then at the elf. “He is with the Darkling now.”

The voice of the limping man came again. "Why I do believe this is my bastard brother. Mother always favored him."

Elendra turned back towards the man in green to see the swordsman, Svlaren, fall from the carriage seat. He had an arrow in his eye.

The reins snapped and the horses started forward. Elendra spun around to watch the carriage roll out and reveal, beneath it, the archer Yimm, on his back, turning over, and a dwarf with an ax rushing forward. Yimm hadn’t even begun to sit up before the dwarf drove the ax into his skull.

Elendra turned quick again. The man in green had not advanced towards her but he had raised his sword. She heard a sickly sound from behind.

"You," said the man in green, "I do not wish to kill."

Elendra’s hand shook but her voice was steady. “I am the the second daughter of the High King. I will not be taken by bandits or ransomed for gold. You will have to bleed me.”

The elf behind her spoke. “If she speaks true, then we are damned men.”

The dwarf spat and said, “Hondrek himself will hunt us.”

The limping man, who now stood in the carriage seat in her peripheral vision, said, “I always wanted to be made an example of.”

The man in green sighed. “This is an ill day indeed,” he said.

Elendra saw his glance over her shoulder and then she spun around. She felt a pinch in her chest and then her legs folded and she fell back onto the dirt. There was a patch of blue sky through the canopy. She wondered who would tell her aunt that her only son was slain.

The man in green crouched over her. “It is a shame,” he said. “We could've been rich and you could've been pretty.”

Then he ran his fingers through her hair and his blade across her neck.

*****


The black ball had burned a hole in Ulden’s chest. Finnan couldn’t make out his heart from his lungs because it was all bone and bloody bits. The old man’s false blind eyes had closed at the impact.

Finnan bent down and loosened the mage’s wrinkled fingers from around the staff. Then he carried it back towards the carriage.

Whisken sat beside the corpse of the princess and Dammel knelt by him wrapping his wounded leg. (The king’s archer had gotten one shot off, at least, before Sturt had smashed his skull in.)

The dwarf had already tossed the carriage driver’s dagger and the swordsman’s sword into the beginnings of a pile in the dirt.

“Ulden is gone,” Finnan said. And he dropped the staff atop the sword and the dagger.

Dammel finished patching Whisken’s leg and stood. “We should move swift. The knight may have told the truth.”

“I doubt it,” said Sturt. He tossed the knight’s sword atop the others and then started to loosen his shoulder plates. “Sounded like the ploy of a trapped man.”

“Either way,” said Finnan, “we began a foot race against fate the moment we laid that tree over.”

“The cripple is doomed, then,” said Whisken.

Dammel walked over to the princess and stared down at her vacant expression. “She cursed us with her title.”

Then he bent down and pulled her head up by her flowing hair and yanked the necklace off her neck.

Finnan looked down the road at the way the carriage had come and then back at the heap of loot.

“We load their corpses in the carriage. Ulden, too. Whisken will drive it down to the old witch’s road. There we burn it. Then we sell what we can sell.”

“And after?” asked Sturt.

“She is no lordling’s brat,” said Dammel. “They’ll hunt us across this land and we shall find home in no other.”

“The Darkling would take us,” said Whisken, as he stood, with a wince. “He is the welcoming whore of murderers and thieves.”

“Gods,” muttered Sturt.

“I may be outcast,” said Dammel, “but even I could not betray my people so.”

“Coin first,” said Finnan. “Then souls.”

Whisken smiled. “That maxim has lead us thus far.”

They loaded the corpses into the carriage. Sturt and Finnan carried Ulden to his funeral pyre while Dammel lead their mounts out of hiding. The jester helped the elf pack their reward atop their horses.

“Not the necklace,” said Finnan.

“It is worth more than all the rest,” said Sturt.

“And the gnome may recognize it.”

“He is a greedy bastard,” said Sturt.

Finnan bent down and picked up the necklace. He stared down at the sparrow carved therein. “But not suicidal,” he said.

He dropped it atop the dead ones.

Sturt, Finnan and Dammel took turns chopping in half the tree they had felled. Then they heaved the lighter end out of the road.

Whisken climbed into the carriage driver’s seat and nimbly grabbed the reins.

“Shall someone lead me?” he asked. “Or am I an orphaned urchin?”

“Sturt,” said Finnan.

The dwarf swung up on his pony and walked her in front of the carriage. The fool followed the dwarf down the road.

Finnan and Dammel mounted their horses, as well, but the man motioned the elf to hold back.

“How is his leg?” he asked.

“Worse than he suspects,” said Dammel. “There was poison in that point. He needs a healer.”

Finnan glanced at the carriage. It was several dozen yards down the road and about to turn a corner.

“The gnome could fetch him one,” he said.

“For a price.”

Finnan nudged his horse forward. “Come,” he said, “let us catch them.”

*****


The dwarf led the carriage down one forest road and then another until they turned onto a glorified trail that had become overgrown with brush and seedling. The weight of the carriage pressed the upstart greenery down. Sturt stopped his pony at a bend beyond which the trees were barren and dead.

Then he turned to face the carriage.

Whisken eased his horses to a halt. He heard Finnan and Dammel dismount behind him and then he heard them walking up either side of the carriage. Whisken watched the elf go past him to the pony and saw him whisper something to the dwarf.

Sturt met the jester’s gaze and nodded.

“What secrets these?” asked Whisken.

Something slammed into his side. He felt blood swell into his mouth. Looked down and saw the sword someone had stuck in him. He tilted his head and followed the bloody blade to the hilt and up the hand and the arm that held it.

Whisken tried to speak but Finnan jerked the sword upwards. The jester heard something crack.

*****


Grimler Hanbrem lived in a cave in the forest an hour and a half’s ride from the carriage they left burning. The road grew grew narrower and narrower until it was barely a path. Finnan lead them through a thick knot of trees towards a clearing before a cave.

Bregga, the supposed barbarian, came bent out of the darkness. He straightened his back and strode, head high, towards them. He held a giant hammer between both hands.

“We have goods for the gnome,” Finnan said.

Bregga grunted.

“Finnan and friends, then.”

The gnome strode out of the cave. He used his short staff as a cane. He wore his finest dirty finery and the ring of a high priest sat bewitching between thick fingers. He nodded up at the treetops and then he smiled.

“Where is the hedge mage and the half-wit?” he asked.

“Dead,” said Finnan.

“Shame.” Grimler turned his head to the look at the loot strapped across the back of Finnan’s horse. “What have you brought me?”

The bandits unloaded their wares on a smooth rock to the west of the mouth of the cave. Finnan forced himself not to scan the canopy above them so as not to make the gnome nervous. But Dammel couldn’t help himself.

Grimler went over each piece with many mumbles while Bregga loomed beside him blank faced.

The gnome looked up at last. “I have not asked where or who because that is my policy. My policy is why you come to me, and others like you. But I would remind you three this: if you bring doom to my doorstep, I will find you in the dark.”

“That is well known,” said Finnan. “And of no concern.”

Grimler paid them well (well enough, anyway) and sent them on their way. Finnan rode in the rear as they left the clearing. He looked back to see three little gnomes swing down from the trees to gather what had been bought. He knew there were still more up them.

*****


The three bandits rode richer south and camped for the night along the River Rahl. Sturt made a fire and Dammel caught a hare and Finnan stared out at the water.

He waited until they were all gathered around the fire before he spoke of their future. “We find no home now. No kingdom to keep us. No refuge except to the east.”

“I cannot go there,” said Dammel. “I shall strike for the sea and mayhaps catch a ship to the Distant Land.”

“They will catch you well before,” said Sturt.

The elf spit softly into the fire. “I would not be damned for eternity,” he said.

“And you, Sturt?” asked Finnan. “Do you try the sea or head for your homeland? Or would you come with me?”

Sturt tossed a bone into the fire. “I hate the sea. And while it is true that my liege has no love for High King Garthur, he would not violate the treaty for a murderer and a thief, and of a young woman no less.” The dwarf met the man’s gaze. “I will go east, as well, my friend. I see no other road to take.”

“We can be dead,” said Finnan, “or we can be damned. I would rather live.”

At dawn, the elf rode west and the dwarf and the man in green rode east. Finnan and Sturt had spent many years beside Dammel but their farewell was curt and they spoke little of him after.

*****


The man and the dwarf went east along the Old Wall Road, passing peasant villages and makeshift markets and always from a distance. They made better time upon the road than off it but they only dared stay on it a day or two before word of their deed inevitably spread.

Sturt tried to convince Finnan that they could afford to spend their second night on the road at an inn.

“It may be our last chance,” he said. “For a good bed and a brew.”

Finnan refused.

“You can sleep in the woods, then. I am willing to risk it.”

And with that Sturt turned his pony towards a tiny village of sheepherders two miles to the south. Finnan considered leaving him there but he camped out on the hill above the road instead.

The next morning he waited from the woodline until he saw the dwarf ride north again. He trotted out to meet him.

“That was foolish,” said Finnan.

“True,” said the dwarf, “but I slept well, and even pinched a bottom.”

There was little more but wishful talk of beds, brews, or pinched bottoms after that. Finnan would soon regret his decision to stay in those woods.

*****


Grimler Hanbrem returned from Glatch three days after the bandits sold him a healthy supply of swords and armor (and the late mage’s staff, too). He rode beside Bregga in the front of the wagon. Two of his orphans hunkered low in the back.

They took the secret trail to the cave. It was hidden to any but Grimler’s people and it was wider and more spacious than the path that Finnan and company had traversed. The wagon was fast approaching the clearing when the gnome spotted a man with a sword around the bend in the trail.

He pulled the reins out of Bregga’s hands but too late. The knight had seen them. He turned towards the cave and raised his blade. Grimler started to jerk the wagon left but then he heard hoofbeats around the bend.

He turned towards the barbarian. “Will you hold them?” he asked.

Bregga nodded his scarred head. “With my hammer. And my heart.”

The gnome grabbed his gold and his staff and hopped down onto the path. He ran into the deeper woods as fast as his fat feet could carry him. He heard the impact of arrows and a cry of sharp sudden pain.

Then a horse was crashing into the the brush behind him. He turned in time to see a knight with a shining sword upraised. He dived forward into darkness.

When he opened his eyes again, he was bound, hand to feet, in the clearing before the cave. Four of his orphans were so bound beside him. Three more lay dead at the cave mouth. They had taken a soldier with them.

Two knights stood before him. The shorter one nudged the taller one who turned towards the gnome. He had glorious blond hair and a broken nose and a sparrow emblazoned his chest plate.

“Who did they kill, the ones you seek?” asked Grimler.

The tall knight looked to the short knight. The short knight shrugged. The tall knight turned back towards Grimler and spoke. “The High King’s daughter.”

Grimler looked down at the ground, muddy with hoofprints, and realized that Bregga was dead, then, and that they would hang him either way. He raised his head to stare into the knight’s visor.

“I would tell what I know if you would spare these younglings’ lives.”

The knight glanced at the orphans and then he looked back at the gnome. “I could lie to you and kill them anyway.”

“Nay,” said Grimler, “for you are Hondrek the Brave, son of the High King, and Knight of the Realm.” The gnome jerked his chin towards the shorter knight. “And he is Onaldo the Cheerful, your friend and companion.”

Hondrek turned towards Onaldo. Onaldo nodded. Then Hondrek bent on one knee and put a gauntleted hand above his heart.

“You have our word, Grimler Hanbrem. Now tell me of the men who slew my sister.”

*****


Finnan and Sturt were ex-soldiers both turned mercenaries turned thieves and they knew the back ways of the world. They rode hard but smart across the plains and through remote forest paths and hollows in the foothills. They stayed far from true civilization and the few fellow travelers they met were as desperate as they were.

What supplies they needed they stole. They could not trust even fellow thieves, then. They robbed a friar in the forest and a fisherman on a river bank and an old woman in her sod house.

One night they caught a man in rags creeping around their fireless camp. He was but a beggar, he said, and unarmed. They left his corpse beneath a jutting rock for the wolves to find.

*****


Dammel cut his hair and shaved his goatee beside a creek in the swamplands outside Fleartown. He pulled his hood over his head before he passed through the open city gate. Their faces were on a broadsheet tacked to the posting place. Finnan had the biggest reward, of course.

The elf had last been to the seaport three years before and he had made little impression then, or so he hoped.

There were many brothels in Fleartown. Dammel caught a sailor leaving one of them and dragged him into an alley and stabbed him through his right eye. He lowered the man down onto the chipped cobblestone and carefully removed the blade. He took the sailor’s coat and sailing card and then he rode to the docks.

Dammel scanned the ships, both great and small, afloat on the edge of the gray blue. He chose a fishing vessel from distant Valense and went up its walkway. Several sailors were rolling barrels of fish across the deck. The third mate oversaw them.

“Have you need for other hands?” asked Dammel.

“We sail for Iceberth,” the mate said, not bothering to look at the elf.

“The question stands.”

That got the mate’s attention. “Will you sail with slaves and pressed men?”

“I have no qualms.”

The third mate looked over Dammel’s card.

“When did last you see the waves?”

“Two years. But I spent three with the captain Morvin.”

“Before or after the war?”

“During,” said Dammel.

The mate glanced back towards the cabin. Then he turned again.

“We sail in an hour. I give you leave to ready for the journey.”

Dammel nodded and turned and walked off the ship. He scanned the dock for naval agents but the only one about was busy arguing with a whaler.

Dammel sold his horse to a nervous stable master and went to an inn to have a drink. He sat in the back, in the dark, alone. He returned to the fishing ship well before his hour was finished.

He was halfway up the walkway when he saw the blue patch of the naval office on the coat of a man on the deck. He turned around to see six guardsmen on the dock below him. Three of them were archers.

He whirled about again. The naval officer was now flanked by fellow guardsmen. Dammel saw that the third mate was hanging back, far back, against the cabin of the ship with his fellow mates and an old man who could only be the captain.

“You are wanted for murder,” the naval officer said.

“You have the wrong elf,” said Dammel.

“The eye of the Erlyn does not lie.”

Dammel turned and leapt and dived into the warm, still waters. Something stung him in the back. He tried to swim but numbness washed over him. He knew then where he had been hit and marveled at his ill luck.

He could have out swam them, he knew. But he drowned instead.

*****


The eastern lands were plains, rocky near desert, unbroken but for the occasional barren hill. The settlements there were less populated and more spread out and Finnan and Sturt were running low on food and water.

They had climbed a small rise and now they laid on their stomachs looking out over a stone farmhouse in the distance.

“We have to risk it,” said Finnan.

“Aye,” said Sturt.

They climbed down the hill and mounted their steeds and rode towards the farmhouse. Little of note was visible outside either in the field behind or by the well beside. A single horse was tied to a post.

No one came out at the approach of their hoofbeats. They pulled up in front of the abode and looked at each other. It was a farmhouse on the border and the occupants might be rightly paranoid.

Finnan dismounted. Sturt followed suite. The man handed his reins to the dwarf and then he walked slowly towards the farmhouse door. It was made of thick, heavy wood from the far northwest. He placed a hand on the hilt of his shortsword.

“Is there anyone inside?” he asked.

“Who goes there?” came a gruff voice.

“A pair of wanderers, starving and dehydrated. We have coin to pay if you have food and water to spare.”

“You come from the west?”

Finnan looked back at Sturt who shrugged. Then he turned forward and said, “We’re prospectors for a mining operation in Drenkin. There’s ore in the hills.”

The door creaked and then swung open. A tanned, sun-wrinkled man had opened it. “Dangerous ore,” he said. “Dangerous hills.”

“We learned that the hard way,” said Finnan. “Our guide was captured by orcs and our companion fell to his death. If we make it back west, we shall tell our masters not to come here. ‘Tis not worth the cost.”

The man nodded. “As my wife tells me. But we make do. There is a fort an hour from here where we can trade. You can’t grow the grimcrop anywhere else than along the border and it fetches enough price to keep us going.”

Finnan smiled. “You have to make your way somehow.”

The farmer looked over the pair of them. “You can water yourselves and your horses and come inside. We’ll get you something to eat.”

Then he shut the door again.

The dwarf spat into the dust and said, quiet, “We’ll see.”

They drank at the well. It was cold but bitter and much appreciated. Sturt watered the beasts one mouth at a time while Finnan stood staring at the heavy door of the house.

“Do you think there are hidden windows?” he asked.

Sturt sat the bucket back on the edge of the well. “Peepholes, maybe.”

Then they led the horse and the pony to the post and tied them next to the farmer’s beast. It looked tired but strong, accustomed to riding across the rock.

Finnan and Sturt went back to the door. Finnan knocked. The farmer swung the door open. He had hung a blade at his side.

“Welcome,” he said, and stepped back.

Finnan and Sturt went in. The farmhouse was wide and short and the air inside was dry but cool enough. A table was laid out with clay plates and bowls. Behind the table, the farmer’s wife stood watch at a stew that boiled in a pot over a fire.

She nodded at the two strangers. Then she turned her attention towards the meal.

Finnan and Sturt glanced over the room and moved to stand where they could see both the farmer and his wife at once.

The farmer closed the door and raised a heavy timber and barred it. Then he turned around and scratched under his chin.

“Where were you prospecting? North or south of here?”

“Do you want her?” asked Finnan.

“Yes,” said Sturt.

The farmer dropped his hand to the blade at his side but Finnan was quicker and the farmer was dead before he could unsheathe his sword.

The woman screamed. Sturt rushed. Finnan turned to see the woman grab the blazing hot sides of the pot with her bare hands. She heaved the boiling water up and sent it cascading over the dwarf’s side. Skin sizzled. Sturt screamed, as did the woman.

Finnan pulled the sword out of the farmer and stepped forward but he was too late to stop Sturt from swinging his ax into the farmwoman’s neck. Blood spurted. She gurgled. The dwarf pushed the woman against the wall.

“You wench,” he said. Then he yanked the axe out.

She slid to the farmhouse floor, kicked a bit, and died.

The dwarf stumbled over to a chair at the head of the table and sat down. He tentatively touched his left side.

“The bitch burned me,” he said.

Finnan shook his head. “We could've had her, you fool.”

The dwarf hocked up some spit and rained it down on her. “Let's see how forgiving you are when I dump the rest of this damn water on your head.”

Finnan looked down at the farmer. His face looked even more dull dead than it had animated.

“How did a man like that drag a woman like her this far east?” he asked.

“Strip his pants and see,” said Sturt.

Finnan went over to the pot that had burned the dwarf. The woman had dropped it on the ground. There was still some stew in it.

“We could eat. Unless you refuse to consume your enemy.”

Finnan looked down at the dwarf. He had taken off his side armor and had yellow blisters over his red skin. “I am too hungry for principles,” Sturt said. “And horny enough to have my way with her corpse.”

“Drag her outside then,” said Finnan. “I have an appetite to think of.”

*****


After they ate and looted the place for whatever they needed that they could carry, Finnan and Sturt spent the night in the dead couple’s bed. Finnan almost ordered the dwarf out for how he moaned every time he turned over but he decided not to risk it turning to violence.

At dawn, Finnan nudged the dwarf.

“We should go,” he said.

“Let us sleep,” said Sturt, “who should seek us on the edge of the world?”

Finnan let the dwarf lay but he got up and went outside. The yellow dawn stretched out across the hard country.

He pissed beside the corpses and went to the well. Eased the bucket in and pulled it up again. He was lowering the bucket from his lips when he saw riders approaching from the south.

He dropped the bucket and ran into the farmhouse and kicked the dwarf awake.

“Riders,” he yelled, “six on horseback.”

Sturt sat upright and reached for his axe. “Men or orc?”

“Does it matter?” asked Finnan. He scooped his saddlebag over his shoulder. “Either one would kill us now.”

The man rushed back outside as the dwarf jumped out of bed. The riders were coming rough towards the farmhouse, their beasts kicking up blankets of dust.

He swung his saddlebag on and untied his horse. Jumped up on her and turned her around to face them.

“I'll meet you in the east!” he yelled inside. And then he spurred his horse away.

He kicked his horse into a gallop past the field beside the farmhouse and on into the empty eastlands. He turned back to see, some three hundred yards behind, Sturt climbing onto his pony. Two riders broke away from the six and started after Finnan.

Finnan turned again and beat his horse onwards. He grinned with savage fright. “To hell with you,” he said. “To hell.”

He didn't look back and he didn't let off, even though his horse screamed for rest and its mighty legs shuddered, until he crossed the dead river into the land of the Darkling.

He dared check behind him then. Only one of the two riders still followed, and far behind. The rider stopped short of the riverbed. Finnan knew he would dare not cross it alone. But, unsure of how far behind the rest of the riders were, he dared not slow his speed.

Finnan beat his horse on and on across the dusty dark rocks of the east towards the set of twin plateaus that rose in the distance. He knew that he would never see Sturt again.

The dirt was ashy gray between the plateaus. The sides of the plateaus were painted with the siguls of the Darkling.

Finnan swallowed a fistful of dust.

And then his horse toppled forward.

He landed hard and banged his head against the rocks. His horse whimpered and kicked him and then lay still. Finnan started dragging himself forward. He crawled for some time before he realized he wasn't crippled and turned over onto his back.

A dozen orcs approached from the west. They were caked with dust and body paint. The ones that didn’t hold spears held clubs.

The biggest orc spoke a language that Finnan could not speak back.

He sat up with a wince and glanced around to see even more orcs approaching from behind. He turned towards the chieftain and raised both his hands above his shoulders.

“I seek the Darkling,” he said. “I seek sanctuary.”

The chieftain laughed and took three steps forward and bashed Finnan hard over the head.

*****


Hondrek the Brave stepped back outside the farmhouse. Onaldo and their guardsmen stood on the right while the Riders of the Edge stood on the left. There had been little small talk between them.

“Where did you bury them, they who lived here?” Wrandall, the head ranger, pointed with his gloved hand. “Their field.”

“And the dwarf?”

“The dwarf,” said the ranger, “we burned.”

Hondrek nodded. He turned and faced the way the man who had murdered his sister had fled.

“He went east,” he said.

“To the Darkling,” said Onaldo.

The junior ranger spoke then. “I should have followed.”

“Only a fool speaks of should have,” said Hondrek.

Onaldo broke away from the guardsmen and stepped closer to Hondrek. He spoke low. “The man is beyond us now, isn’t he?”

Hondrek lowered his armored head and looked through the oval opening down at the coat of arms emblazoned on his chest. Then he met his fellow knight’s eye.

“I would follow,” he said.

“That would be suicide,” said Wrandall. “And the Riders of the Edge cannot aid thee.”

The head guardsman spoke. “The High King expressly forbid us to pass beyond the extent of the realm.”

“I know,” said Hondrek. “I ask no man to come with me into hell. But I am bound to avenge my sister and catch the dog that slew her. I thank you for your service. And you, Onaldo, I give my love.”

“Save that,” said Onaldo, “for I will ride at your side, my friend.”

“Even there?”

“Even so. For in my own way, I loved Elendra, as well.”

The knights embraced with a clink of armor. Then pulled apart.

“We will ride as retinue to the dead river,” said the head guardsman.

“The rangers, as well,” said Wrandall. “That far, at least.”

The retinue journeyed in dusty splendor. No trumpet spoke but in the hearts of the men. They stopped at the dead river and looked out across it towards the twin plateaus that rose like gates to the fiend land.

“Farewell,” said Hondrek. “Watch the realm.”

Then the knights rode towards the Darkling.

*****


They would have lost the murderer’s trail at the twin plateaus, where Finnan’s horse lay stripped of its flesh and dozens of orcish footprints muddied the scene, had the Darkling not sent them an envoy. The orc was small and bony and one-eyed. He crouched near the dead steed with bloodstained fingers.

The knights, still mounted, drew their swords.

The orc smiled broken teeth. He spoke Common surprisingly well. “The one you seek is in Retvaren. You will meet no resistance here. My lord wishes to palaver over his fate.”

Hondrek looked to Onaldo and then at the envoy.

“What is there to discuss?” he said. “I seek blood vengeance. Should anyone hinder my quest, they shall meet the doomed man’s fate.”

“The masked one is eager to meet you,” said the orc. He stood straight as he could and drew a blade from his side and cut his own throat. Blood flowed down his dirty neck, washing it in cleansing. He fell atop the corpse of the horse.

“This does not bode well,” said Onaldo.

*****


The dead lands were blasted and burnt and empty, a nigh endless stretch of dark dirt and stumped tree. They passed far to the north of the walled city of W’lagh. They spied no orc watchmen atop the walls and the great gates remained closed.

That night they camped in alert darkness and watched the distant fires of Retvaren light the sky in flickers of red and orange.

They heard the voice of the High King through some magic the Erlyn had weaved. “Return at once,” the king said, “cease this foolish trek.”

“I cannot, father,” said Hondrek. “Our ancestors demand it of me.”

The king spoke no more. Hondrek took first watch and let Onaldo have a fitful, uneasy sleep.

*****


They rode southeast past the Forest of Shadz. They heard soft, beckoning whispers from the trees and saw dozens of giant spiders hanging from the treetops. But nothing came out to eat them.

And past the crater the dying star had made when it fell to the earth and past the lake of molten water where three dragons had drowned and on towards the great castle of the Darkling.

Retvaren rose three hundred feet tall and its walls were covered in bones and eldritch symbols. Behind it, the great dark of the void rose from the edge of the ill earth to blot out of the sky. Slithering things swam within the unbroken darkness.

“Gods,” said Onaldo.

“No knight has set foot here for sixty years,” said Hondrek.

The gate of Retvaren swung open in beckoning.

“He has let us ride to his doorstep,” said Onaldo. “And we know not what truly for.”

“A test,” said Hondrek. “Or a bargain.”

“You would pay it?” asked the other knight. But Hondrek was already riding towards the gate. Onaldo cursed and followed after.

The knights rode into the empty courtyard of the Darkling. The three pillars of the wryms stood unadorned. The black castle door was still shut.

Hondrek dismounted. Onaldo joined him before the castle steps.

“There could be thousands unseen,” he said.

Hondrek started upwards. “Let us discover.”

The door opened and revealed a long corridor illuminated by torches of yellowed flame. Beyond the hall a gateway lead into the throne room. The Darkling sat, a red figure, in the distance.

“Tread carefully,” said Onaldo but it was a hollow warning there.

The knights walked in single file down the corridor and into the throne room. Twelve wraiths of shadow and moonlight stood shimmering along the walls. The Darkling, masked, watched them from its throne.

Before it huddled a man in chains.

Hondrek led Onaldo to within twenty yards of the demon and then he halted.

“I have come for Finnan, son of Flewen, the man who murdered Elendra, daughter of the High King.”

The Darkling spoke through its blank red mask. Its voice was soft and silver and terrible. “He is chained before you.”

“I would take him back to hang.”

The Darkling raised one skeletal hand. “That I cannot allow, but, if it pleases you, I would permit execution.”

Hondrek looked from the red one to the back of the chained man. Finnan knelt bent forward and shivering.

The knight felt his friend’s hand upon his shoulder. “Wait,” said Onaldo, “we should -”

Hondrek broke away and tread towards the throne. He tried to see any shape beneath the smooth folds of the Darkling’s mask.

“Why offer him so?” he asked it.

“I have no need for bandits,” said the Darkling. “And once you have slain him, I shall take you.”

“We shall see,” said Hondrek. He pulled his sword from his sheath and took one final step alongside the chained man and turned and raised the blade.

The bandit faced his executioner. His eyes were busted craters of ruined ocular matter. Blood drained down his cheeks like ever flowing tears.

“It has no face,” Finnan whispered.

Hondrek swung hard and swift. His blade went clear through the bandit's neck and slammed into the ancient stone floor. The body fell one way and the head rolled another. Hondrek raised his sword again and turned to face the Darkling.

“Let us finish,” he said.

He heard Onaldo unsheathe his blade behind him and was again glad that he was not alone.

The Darkling stood with a burst of cold. “Very well,” it said. Then it raised its arms and took them.

THE END


2017 Lee Blevins

Bio: Lee Blevins lives in Lexington, KY. You can follow him on Twitter @BleeSevens or visit his sad, bare-bones website byleeblevins.com.

E-mail: Lee Blevins

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