City walls of pale stone stood proudly on the horizon ahead. Around it rougher stone structures clung together in a hodge-podge of designs and materials like a cancer. Farmland covered the ground between the settlement and a lone hilltop many miles from it where a young man stood taking in the sight of the legendary city. Dense forests made a ring around it all.
It was early in the morning and the young man hoped to be within those walls come nightfall. He wiped an arm across his face to remove a trickle of sweat and grimaced at the smell that rose from his sleeve. He had been travelling by foot for over two weeks now without a single change of clothes. Washes had been few and far between and the summer’s heat had been like the innards of an oven for the entire time.
“If I intend to rejoin society today then I’d best make myself presentable. I smell worse than the old man’s attempt at cooking,” he said to himself.
Humming lightly, he made his way down the hill and veered toward a small stream that he had spotted from his vantage point. He found an area that was out of the way of the working men that dotted the surroundings and stripped off. The water was refreshingly cool but the man wasted no time with relaxing. He scrubbed himself clean then applied a flowery scented lotion from a bottle to himself until his entire body smelt faintly of roses.
He left the water then waited until the heat had dried him. The filthy clothes that he had worn were shoved into his pack and a fresh outfit of clean, well made wool was carefully donned. The clothes marked him above a peasant but they were still cheap and basic by any nobleman’s standard. He needed a shave but the slight beard and slightly too long brown hair did not detract from his handsomeness, simply adding a charming ruggedness to his already pleasant appearance. He would not be thrown out of any respectable establishment and that was all that the man needed.
Two sets of clothes, a thick notebook, a quill, a vial of ink, a deck of cards, a wooden flute and a second hand lute. That was all that the man possessed. It wasn’t much but he intended to create fame and fortune with nothing more than them and his own mind. It was all to start here. Moorenda.
It was a strange place to start a career. Venndiotti was filled with opportunities for traders, craftsmen or soldiers. The problem with these career paths though was that they all required hard work, something that the young man looked upon with a weary eye. Hard work was necessary, praiseworthy, but it was troublesome. His vocation lay in a direction that meant he could put his feet up and relax beside a fireplace.
He was a wordsmith. A bard, poet, chronicler and propagandist all rolled into one. Or would be if anyone gave a shit what he wrote. The last four years of his life had been spent among the great colleges of Den-Al Ryelkin, learning his trade and honing his skills. He had needed a job and it just so happened that big things were going down in Moorenda that the world would want to know of.
Not far ahead of him now was the grey stone walls and purple banners that marked the Venndiotti section of the city. There was a saying that you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Moorenda was the embodiment of this sentiment. It was actually four cities clustered together under the rule of three kingdoms. An interesting arrangement in itself when all was said and done. A race of invaders from beyond the sea of mists had built the grandiose inner city but they all died soon after its completion. The three powers of the land had then rushed in to claim the city as their own, fighting to a standstill and building up camps around its walls. Over time the camps grew and became more permanent, resulting in rivaling cities growing side to side with only long walls between them.
The man entered through a guarded gateway without any trouble. All were welcome in Moorenda but no one was free from suspicion. He was greeted by a strange sight of wood and stone structures of varying shapes and sizes built in uniform rows that conflicted with their haphazard designs. The Venndi loved order and organisation, impressive buildings for those with money and small square huts for the poor. The fact that this particular Venndi settlement had spawned from an army camp filled with mostly infantry was telling.
He moved through the city easily. While he had never visited before, the regimented street layouts were so akin to any of the other Vinndi settlements that he had visited that his feet took him automatically where he needed to go. He walked until the crowds of men and women began to look more grimy then picked out a plain looking tavern called The Cat’s Candle.
The tavern was not as shabby as some that he had seen but it was clearly not catering to a highbrow clientele. The place was dark and dingy yet mostly clean and sported a shield bearing the Venndiotti crest of a stag with a single central antler above the counter. The men and women who sat drinking were all manual labourers in coarse woollens. It was perfect.
He wove through the drinkers to the bar and leaned in close to the man behind it. He was short and fat with a balding head and a sour expression on his face.
“My good sir, greetings,” the young man said in a raised voice once he had the barman’s attention. “I am a travelling bard from Den-Al Ryelkin and I would like the honour of performing for your patrons.”
The fat man eyed him critically. “Name?” he asked gruffly.
“Sytheis Tia Menrha at your esteemed service.”
The innkeeper frowned. “What kind o’ name is Sytheis? Sounds like a disease o’ the bollocks.”
“Your face looks like a disease of the bollocks. Sadly we don’t live in an ideal world, do we?” Sytheis answered calmly. He waited a few seconds as the innkeeper glowered at him, then the man’s face lit and he grinned.
“I’ve got a fool booked for the evening but if you want to play til he arrives then I can sort you a drink and meal. If these miserable bastards like the sound o’ you then I might throw in a few coins too.” The frown returned. “If you’re shite though, I’ll have Brady there toss your arse to the street.” The man he indicated was a mound of muscle with dark eyes and a club at his belt.
Sytheis nodded and thanked the man before taking to the small cleared area at the back that was set aside for entertainment. He shoved his pack to the side and drew out the lute. He gave it a few practice strokes to test the sound then turned to the chattering crowd. His fingers twitched and a simple jolly tune began to cut across the buzz of drunken voices.
“I once met a girl who had eyes like a fire,
She’d work and she’d flirt and she’d tease without tire.
Her sweetheart was real big, a muscular bloke,
If he caught someone looking he’d give them a choke.
But the beautiful woman had other ideas,
She’d seek out some strangers and drown them in beers.
She wanted attention her man couldn’t give,
But if anyone kissed her they were lucky to live.
Now here folk and folkette a young bard appeared,
His charm and his wit had that lady endeared.
So he tickled and kissed her til her fellow came near,
He was effin and blinding and creating fear.
Our noble young bard weren’t the least bit impressed,
He smiled at the man and then pushed at his chest.
The man staggered backward and fell off the dock,
While the bard took his woman behind a rock.
He showed her a real man all through the night
And was back on his travels before morning’s light.”
The patrons laughed and cheered, shouting playful obscenities and knocking back great mouthfuls of cheap ale. The song had been utter shit but it was dirty and it rhymed which was really all that mattered after a certain amount of drinks had been had. Sytheis had only written it a few days before after a run in at a small village. It had gone pretty much the same as in the song, only instead of him shoving a man into a river and making passionate love to a beautiful woman, he had been punched in the face, kicked repeatedly while on the floor and carried out of the village by two men to be dumped in a bush. That sounded decidedly less heroic though.
He sang a few more songs until the fool arrived then took a seat at the counter while the flamboyant man smacked himself with an inflated pig’s bladder and held a match to his rear to ignite his own comically loud flatulence. Many drunkards were in tears of laughter at the show. It did not take much to please them, apparently.
The innkeeper slid him a mug of ale, a plate of hard bread and cheese and two copper coins. A bed for the night was five coppers but it was a start. He pocketed the coins and set upon the meal hungrily. Between bites of bread he questioned the innkeeper about what really interested Sytheis.
“Are the negotiations still ongoing or have I missed them?”
“You’re cutting it close if that’s what you came for,” the man told him. “There have been consultations between King Aivlon and the others for the past week. Tomorrow will be the last day o’ talks so far as folk know. They don’t let our kind near though so it don’t matter much.”
Sytheis finished off the meagre meal quickly. “Where abouts they gathered?” he asked as he swallowed the last mouthful.
“Not far,” the innkeeper said. “Holding the negotiations on Venndiotti land this year. Big building near the inner wall. Look for all the nasty looking guards. You won’t get close.”
The younger man stood and stretched. “Only after a look. How can folk expect you to write inspiring ballads or chronicle the times if you never get the chance to see or listen to kings and queens?”
The innkeeper gave him a sour look but Sytheis shrugged it off. He drained the last of his ale then strode from the building into the blinding light outside. The inner city loomed overhead to the north west, its pale stone and tall buildings dwarfing the Venndi city at its base. He made his way through the crowds, asking for occasional directions from passers by. Each street was committed to his memory and his eyes constantly scanned his surroundings.
It was easy to tell when he had arrived at the right place. In the distance was a small open square that led to a simple palace that would not have looked out of place in Den-Al Ryelkin. Not that Sytheis could get close enough to have a good look. A wide ring had been cleared of people and guards blocked entire streets off from the public. Even the men and women in nobles’ attire were stopped and questioned by guards before being turned away or led into the ring to where they needed to be.
He ducked into an alleyway that was only marginally less crammed with people and worked his way along it until he came to a two story building that looked to be a warehouse. The door opened slightly at his touch and he peered inside. A single man was moving crates at the far end while the rest of the visible space was unoccupied. He slipped in as quietly as he could and went straight to the stairs that led to the second story. It was deserted.
There was a single, large window that was intended as a place to hoist large objects through to the upper level which Sytheis opened up to get a good look at the street layouts beneath him. There was no way that he would be able to get past the guards to reach the palace. Not by using the streets anyway. The rooftops were a completely different matter.
More guards dotted the rooftops and there was no easy path to the palace but there were plenty of places to keep hidden and several difficult paths to his goal. With a practiced ease, he pulled himself up onto the roof above then jumped a short distance onto the next roof to take cover behind a chimney.
During his time among the colleges he had learned that those who sought out news were the ultimate source for getting where you weren’t suppose to be. He had heard lectures about spying but no spy had the same fanatic zeal and self disregard about getting the information that any teller possessed. They would do anything to fill their little news pamphlets that sold like wildfire. Sytheis had known a teller who had camped inside of an in-use chimney for five days in order to eavesdrop on the conversations within the room.
By this time it was drawing into evening. The sun was still bright but it was beginning to hang low in the sky. Sytheis swapped everything from his pack to his person barring the lute and dirty clothes then waited. He had a habit of shuffling through his deck of cards while he was inactive and toyed with them idly without looking. His eyes were focused solely on the way ahead.
The sun dipped and shadows started to pool between buildings as the sky changed from blue to bronze to grey. After a while he slipped the cards into a trouser pocket and stood. It was still light enough to see how far away the ground was but luckily heights had never bothered him. He stood at the roof’s edge, the guards’ positions and patrols firmly fixed into his memory during the hours of waiting.
Sytheis was no athlete. Sitting around all day in lectures or plying his trade as a writer, usually while indulging in cheap wine, was not a good way to build up fitness. Jumping across fearsome drops was not his ideal pastime but he did have some practice in it from college escapades. The buildings were not as tall here as in Den-Al Ryelkin and they were often cramped tightly together. His path curved around guards and uncrossable gaps but he made good time to the structure adjacent to the palace. There was a wide space between even the closest building to the palace that Sytheis had no chance of bridging. He could have set himself up somewhere nearby to see the kings and queen arrive in the morning but he wanted more. He had not travelled all the way to Moorenda just to catch a glimpse of someone’s face.
There was a window that had been left open to relieve the day’s heat on the palace’s second story. The place should be fairly empty by this time so his chances of being seen were slim. So were his chances of making that jump. This wasn’t the epic tale from a bard where the hero leaps from church tops into a lone haybale to step out completely unharmed. A fall from here would be broken bones at the luckiest. He had always considered himself pretty lucky though.
He lined himself up, did some quick mental calculations then ran to the edge and leapt off, freefalling for a second before he curled himself up into a ball and prayed to whichever god cared for troubadours that he would make it.
His knee cracked against the ledge and he sprawled painfully onto a carpeted floor. He lay there groaning for a long moment until his thoughts fell back into place. Then he sprang up and scanned the dark room like a startled deer.
Shapes loomed all around him in the darkness until his vision grew accustomed to lack of light and the shapes resolved themselves into a large bed, a wardrobe, dresser and a stand-lamp. Though it was dull, he could see that all of the furniture was exquisitely built and very expensive. There were no sounds to indicate that his less than graceful entrance had been heard. Sytheis breathed a sigh of relief.
The house was empty as far as he could tell. It must have been kept clear of any usual residents while the most powerful men and women of Eyen made use of it for the consultations. Perfect. That wasn’t to say that he took his situation for granted though. Sytheis moved to the door with careful steps, his feet barely making a sound as he crept across the room. He tried the door handle and felt a weight lift from his shoulders as it turned and the door inched open.
A quick glance told him that the space beyond was clear. He stepped out into a long corridor that had several doors along one of its sides while the other side was one long opening that looked down upon a colossal darkwood table. The corridor ran in a large square around the room below like a vast internal balcony, or perhaps more accurately, raised booths like at the theatre where guests could have the best view of what went off at the central stage beneath.
There was a thick wooden beam that ran the length of the open area above that formed part of the ceiling support. It looked to be the ideal place to hide away unseen through the night and to eavesdrop when the final meeting began the next day. It took him a few minutes but he was finally able to clamber up over the railing and onto the beam.
He settled himself down with his back to another vertical beam that descended from the roof and closed his eyes to get some sleep. Just as he teetered on the brink of sleep a loud noise startled him back into the waking world.
A door opened and then footsteps sounded in the room below. Sytheis leaned over slowly to get a better view and saw a tall man walk up to the table. He had long blond hair and a slim build and moved with a refined grace and precision. A dark cloak hung around his shoulders but it was open at the front to reveal an intricate shirt of purple and gold. He held a candle which illuminated a proud, handsome face.
Sytheis’ breath caught. He couldn’t tell for sure but the man looked very familiar to him. He had never seen the man face to face before but had seen it a hundred times on grand portraits that hung from the college’s walls and from caricatures in the news pamphlets and even in many a deck of klash cards. Unless he had missed his mark, the man was none other than Aivlon Danad Ci Tren Caladuin, king of Venndiotti.
Why would the king be here so late at night without any attendants? No official meetings would be held like this. Before Sytheis could fully think through the implications of this, the door sounded again and a second man entered. This figure was also cloaked in black but unlike King Aivlon he was a stocky man with greying hair and a stoney face.
“I had my doubts that you would join me,” said King Aivlon. His words were clear and perfectly pronounced with the heavy accents of high speech.
“It would be rude to ignore a king. I came to hear you out. Don’t expect me to agree,” the second man answered in a slow, deep voice.
Both men regarded each other in silence for a few moments until Aivlon gestured for the other man to sit. Once they were both seated, Aivlon took some papers from beneath his cloak and passed them to the older man.
“It is long past time that we discussed the real threat to our great land,” Aivlon began. “You know full well just how much territory Chalem has conquered in such a short time. Venndiotti has had half of her kingdom stolen in the space of a hundred and fifty years. Even your northern lands have suffered losses to the night blighted Chalemites. What’s more, my spies report that their whore queen plans to expand their reach again at the cost of Venndi lives.”
The older man listened without comment as he read through the papers that he had been handed. When Aivlon had finished he ran a scarred hand through his short black-grey beard.
“So you wish to remove this threat to your sovereignty?”
Aivlon slammed a fist into the table. “She should not be a threat in the first place! Our forebears made a grievous mistake in letting that bastard kingdom prosper. Their “queens” have not a drop of royal blood in their cursed veins and the peasants are all from criminal stock. Murderers, thieves and escaped slaves banded together to torment their law abiding brethren. They don’t even acknowledge nobility! That lead-crowned bitch preaches ideals of peasant and monarch standing on equal footing. It is blasphemy!”
“The queens of Chalem won their lands with blood. That is how it has always worked. These reports are worrying though.”
“Eyen is the birthright of those born to the line of Gilden Sol Terrian. You and I belong to that line and so have mandates to rule. For over a thousand years there had been two kingdoms and a balanced peace. Since Chalem rose there has been nothing but war,” Aivlon pressed.
The other man nodded slowly. “That is true. Chalem must be watched closely.”
“Not watched, Danlaar. Destroyed!” Aivlon hissed.
Sytheis’ heart raced. Danlaar. That was the name of the northern realm of Banndnor’s king. Danlaar Bon Kall. Sytheis was eavesdropping on a conspiracy between the two most powerful men in Eyen. If they caught him, he would wish for death long before he found its cold embrace.
“I do not like making shadowy plans to kill women. A man should be direct and act with honour,” Danlaar began sourly. Aivlon made to interrupt him but the older man continued over him. “I do however believe that Queen Zaphine poses a larger threat to peace than we have given credit to. These plans that your spies have uncovered are very cunning. She will cause much bloodshed if she is allowed to progress with her quest for power.”
A smile settled across King Aivlon’s face. “I am glad that you agree. After the final negotiations tomorrow, if she has not calmed our concerns, then I say we move our forces against her. She will be vulnerable during the journey back to Kroal. If we can pincer her then she can’t give us the run around like usual.”
Danlaar’s face gave nothing away. “We shall see. I will speak to you more after the morning’s council. Blood to your blade, Aivlon.” Aivlon answered in kind then waited as Danlaar left the building. After a few minutes had passed, he too left, leaving Sytheis alone.
Sytheis remained frozen until a slow curse left his mouth. This was more than he had bargained for. He should just ignore it. Leave and find something new to write about. Venndiotti was his country, Chalem his enemy. It was in everyone’s best interest to keep the secret until after the deed. Yes. Play it safe.
Only, there was no wealth or glory in being safe. Venndiotti was only a place worth living if you were rich while Chalem was a land of freedom and opportunity for all. Sytheis liked the ideas that the country stood for even if he knew it would never succeed. A land without class divide was a thing of pure poetry. What was more, how many men and women would die if he held his tongue? Three equal powers meant that little more than skirmishes occurred. If Chalem was to be conquered, how long would the war be? How many on both sides would die in fields of blood?
He cursed again. “Damn it! The coin better be worth it,” he grunted as he hopped down from the beam. He retraced his steps back to the window then climbed up to the palace’s curved roof. It would be tricky to find a way down, especially in the darkness that hung over the city, but he would manage.
“Thief!” came a rough shout from across the roof.
Sytheis turned to see a guard armed with a bow jogging toward him across the tiles. Panic flared up in him and he turned to run, scanning the surrounding roofs quickly for an escape route.
“Stop. Surrender yourself or die!” ordered the guard. There was the sound of the bow being drawn back as though to emphasise the words.
Sytheis kept running. The edge of the roof was drawing near and there looked to be an overhang on the building opposite that he could catch. A sharp crack filled the air and a hammerblow smashed into Sytheis’ side. He was knocked from his feet and tumbled painfully. An arrow stuck out from his jacket, its bladed head buried deeply into his journal.
Then the guard was upon him. Broad hands grabbed his arm, pulling him to his feet and trying to pin his limbs. The guard was calling for help and answering shouts sounded all around. Sytheis fought frantically to free himself but was no fighter. He thrashed around with feet and elbows but the guard showed no signs of weakening.
His fingers brushed against the pouch that held his ink bottle and quill case. On instinct he grabbed at the glass and smashed it into the guard’s face. The glass shattered on impact, splashing ink and glass shards into the man’s eyes. He screamed and staggered back, lost his footing and disappeared over the edge with an anguished cry. A second later there was a wet thud.
Sytheis had no chance to stare in horror before shouts of “Murderer” drove him at a dead sprint from the scene. He leapt across the wide gap to the overhang, half uncaring whether he made it or not. He landed and rolled straight onto his feet, clambering up onto the building’s top as arrows began to clatter against the wall beside him.
The shouts were multiplying. Shadowy shapes belonging to guards seemed to rise from the darkness in every direction. His feet pounded across tiles without direction. Escape consumed his thoughts like an icy fire. If he could make it out of the Venndi section of the city then maybe he could lose his pursuers.
Without warning there was a crash and Sytheis fell. A weakened roof had collapsed under his heavy footfalls. He hit a floor of rotting wood which drove all of the air from his lungs. Gasping for breath, he tried to see where he was with little success. Dust clouded the air in a great cloud that obscured what little could have been seen in the unlit space.
The room seemed to be an attic filled with boxes that had not been touched for years. Everything was stacked haphazardly. The luck of the gods must have been with him for him not to have landed in one of these piles and broken his spine. Still, it was only a matter of time until the guards got here to investigate and found him. He had nowhere to run now. Not so lucky after all.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them hang me as a thief. Or spy. Or murderer. Anything!” he growled angrily.
As he tried to stand he felt the wood beneath him creak and move. The guards were close now. There was no way out except for the hole in the roof above and a ladder that led down. Both ways would be swarmed with men any second. He grabbed onto one pile of junk that was topped with a heavy looking metal chest and pulled, toppling it down upon the weakened floor where he had landed. The cest punched through the wood and the building shook as the floor gave way and half of the room’s contents collapsed down into the floor below. Sytheis then took cover in a corner among a collection of moth eaten rags.
The voices grew clear and dark silhouettes appeared through the hole above.
“The bastard fell straight through,” one said. “Looks like he’s buried under all that rubble down there.”
“How’d yer know he fell?” asked another.
“Cos I saw him fall. He was running one second then was gone and a dirty great hole was in his place,” answered the first angrily.
“Shut it,” ordered another voice. “Fano, take your lads and cordon off the area below. Sebasa, your lot will search the ground floor. I’m going to report this back at the barracks. I want to see his ragged corpse outside my office by morning. Got it?”
The shapes disappeared and Sytheis allowed himself a momentary sigh of relief. He stood with a muted groan and began the slow climb back out onto the roof. The way was mostly clear by the time that he managed to pull himself into the night air. Guards were clustered around the building’s base while others still patrolled the rooftops. Sytheis stayed low though, keeping well away from any potential witnesses and only moving hastily when making a jump.
By the time that he was able to return to where he had left his pack, the first light of morning was already beginning to crest the city. When he was once again on the ground he sat awhile in silence, a grim sickness clinging to him as his thoughts constantly veered back to that man who had caught him, that man he had killed. Now that the adrenalin of the chase had faded he wanted to empty his stomach and drink away the memory.
But that would not change what he had done. Nor would it stop the massacre that was only hours away. Did he really care about some foreign kingdom enough to risk his neck by betraying his own king? With a sigh, he stood up on shaky legs and cursed himself bitterly.
“Money is money and that is the only reason that I’m doing it,” he growled.
News of the night’s escapades had worked its way onto the tongue of everyone who wandered the streets. Talk of an assassin breaking into the palace to kill all three rulers in one fell attack, killing guards left and right could be heard on every street corner. Had the topic not been about his own actions then Sytheis would have been amused by how quickly information mutated and changed into something far grander than truth. A single dead guard had become a scene of carnage in only a matter of hours.
He limped through the streets, being bustled and knocked by the crowd without paying it much attention. Hawkers shouted about their wares above the general chatter, punctuated by bangs and clangs of men and women working in and around the tightly packed buildings. He had been pointed in the rough direction to where the Chalem occupied and slowly made has way to the wall that cut across the city to separate the two kingdom’s land.
It was not an impressive wall. It had been built in a hurry by two separate forces who were constructing it to keep the other out. As such, it was a jumble of materials and of varying thickness and height. A single passageway led through it that was wide enough to fit two carts through side by side.
A Venndi guard in purple and black livery stood at either side of the doorway scowling at everyone who passed them by but without stopping or questioning any. There were no restrictions on movement through any part of Moorenda but nor was there any kind of goodwill between the differing areas. Sytheis passed them by without comment.
Two green clad Chalem guards glowered at him from the other side before he stepped forth into a mess of wooden buildings that had no sense of organisation that he could see. Men and women moved around in cheap woollen clothes and none of the buildings looked like the home of a noble or even a well to do merchant. Nowhere looked to be suffering under squalor though. Everyone was poor but nobody was starved or in rags.
Sytheis had never seen a Chalem settlement before and his experience with their people was limited. A few Chalem traders plied their goods in the Den-Al Ryelkin market but most Venndi had a distrust of their kind due to their reputation as thieves and scoundrels. The people around him were slightly shorter and slenderer of build than most Venndi. They were descended from thieves and crooks so being slight of frame was a good trait to possess when hiding from authorities or crawling througn narrow spaces.
Now that he was here, a problem appeared to him. How was he, a nobody poet, suppose to make contact with a queen? Even lowly advisors would not spare the time to hear him out. This was his opportunity to stop, to turn back safe in the knowledge that he had tried. Looking around at all of the people who might die made it a lot harder than before to ignore.
He had met a Chalem girl once. She was the daughter of one of the traders. She had been nice. He suddenly wondered where she might be now. Would she get caught up in any move against her people. Would any of the men and women around him be killed? Returned to the slavery that they had fought to escape?
“Bloody flames! Which god thought that giving humans a conscience was a good idea?”
He approached a group of men who sat drinking outside of a small tavern. They stopped talking as he approached them and donned guarded looks. They were all sharp featured men with muscular arms and tattooed skin.
“Morning, gentlemen,” Sytheis greeted them as cordially as he could manage. “I wanted to know if any of you could point me the right way toward where your queen resides. I have an important message for her. One of her advisors would be perfectly fine instead.”
The men stayed silent, their eyes boring through him like knives. One of them stood up and took a step toward him.
“Why would a Venndi shit like you be wanting to speak with our queen. I know you don’t have a message for her. You think that we Chalem are all thick as brick shithouses just because we aint rolling in coin? We know enough to tell that the Venndi put stock in fancy clothes and fancy words. You aint dressed like any Venndi who would be talkin’ to royalty.”
Crap. Sytheis’ mind whirred as he sought out something to placate them. All of the men were standing now. He noticed that all of them had long daggers through their belts while he had a feather quill that could at most give one of them a nasty poke. Sytheis swallowed nervously. The men were slowly forming a half circle around him.
“What’s going on here?” asked a sharp voice behind him. It belonged to a woman but Sytheis dared not turn to see who it was.
“Nothing to concern yourself with,” the lead man said in respectful but gruff voice. “Just a Venndi pig come here to mock us.”
“Mock us? Is not Chalem a free kingdom where men are entitled to speak their mind?”
The man spat. “We earned our right to that freedom with our blood. The Venndi would see us bound in chains again at the first chance they could.”
“I do not intend to mock but I must get information to your queen. It is vital,” Sytheis began desperately but the man backhanded him across the face.
“And what information would that be?” asked the woman’s voice.
Sytheis hesitated a moment but decided that the risks of being arrested as a spy were no worse than been stabbed in a backalley.
“The kings of Banndnor and Venndiotti are plotting to ambush the Chalem forces as they leave the city. They fear your queen’s ambitions.”
The man spat again and moved to grab hold of Sytheis by the throat. A women stepped into his view, positioning herself between him and the men. She was short and slender with a petite build and short black hair. She wore loose fitting trousers and a plain shirt that made her look almost boyish. A wide belt bearing several throwing knives sat around her waist.
“Leave him with me,” she told the men. They stared at her skeptically. “I know the queen. She should at least hear him out. And if he tries anything funny, well…” Her hands blurred and a knife thudded into the dirt an inch from Sytheis’ foot point first so that it quivered slightly upright.
Glumly, the men returned to their seats and resumed drinking. The woman turned to face Sytheis and signalled for him to follow her. She looked young, certainly no older than Sytheis himself, but her eyes contained a depth that spoke of far more knowledge than her years could account for.
“Tell me,” she said as they entered into the crowd. She spoke without fear but Sytheis still had to lean in to hear her over the gaggling tide of humanity. “Why would a Venndi student want to warn the queen of his people’s enemy about a plot to kill her?”
“I have my reasons,” he answered vaguely. He doubted that admitting to wanting a large reward would go down well. “Chalem is built upon a beautiful idea. It would be a shame to see it burn.”
“You are correct. It is a beautiful idea. One worth fighting and dying for. It is the only idea that can bring peace to this land.” She turned sharply, heading down a grimy alley then veering into a small dead end. “That is why that idea must be protected at all costs.”
Sytheis froze, all of his senses screaming at him to run. The woman didn’t draw a knife on him through and no one else suddenly came to block his escape. He watched her tensely.
“I will take you to relay your message to the queen on the condition that you first help me,” she told him. A fierce intensity burned in her dark eyes. “There is a man. I want him dead.”
Sytheis’ heart skipped a beat. “Whoah there. I’m no killer. I’m not!” He realised that he was trying to tell himself that as much as he was telling the woman.
She laughed. “I do not want you to kill him. I want to look into his eyes, want to make him repent his life of sin. You see, a friend of mine fell in love with this man. But he took advantage of her. She was not ready but he had his way with her regardless and now she is with child. He had left straight after the deed though. As it happens, she was not the first to be violated and abandoned and nor will she be the last if he is left to his own devices. Only, he knows to run when he sees me. I want you to bring him to me.”
“How would you want me to do that. Someone like that is not going to follow a stranger.”
“This evening he will be drinking in an inn known as The Black Crack. Go there and get into a fight with him. There is an alley beside the inn that I shall have blocked. You both go down there, then I follow and deal with him as I see fit. Once I have finished, we go straight to see the queen before she leaves in the morning. Deal?”
There seemed no good answer. He did not want to help have another man killed but this was likely the only path to the queen that he could take in such a short amount of time. No doubt she would be on her way to the final consultation as they spoke.
“Deal. Who am I looking for?”
The woman nodded happily. “Good. His name is Delden Conred. He is from Venndi stock, tall and fair with a slight scar across his chin. He works as a trader’s bodyguard so is decent enough in a fight. Nothing special.”
Nothing special? Merchant guards tended to be nasty fellows with a fondness for bashing people’s heads in with a stout club. Whereas Sytheis was a poet. Poets were not renown fighters, whatever they implied in their epic ballads.
“By the way, the name’s Sytheis Tia Menrha. What can I call you?”
“Me?” she asked innocently. “You can call me Teela. I must go. Remember, The Black Crack just after the relief bell tolls. It is down by the river.”
And then she was gone. Sytheis rushed to follow her but she was already lost to the crowd. He stood there alone for a while, not quite sure what had just happened. How did he keep getting himself into these situations?
He forced his way through the throng toward where he knew the river to be. The buildings did not look poorer here but they looked somehow shadier. There were less windows and more people wore long cloaks, hoods or scarves that covered their lower face despite the heat. It turned out that the area was called the Roots and that there were more scabby drinking holes packed in there than in all of the Venndiotti section.
The folk who inhabited the Roots did not look like the sort that you asked questions to so Sytheis walked up and down the narrow, winding paths until he finally found an ugly structure that bore a sign above its door proclaiming it as the Black Crack.
The name was fitting. The half warped wooden walls were painted in black that was flaking off and there were certainly plenty of cracks in the wood and windows. Sytheis circled the building before entering in order to get his bearings and to find the alley in question. It was right beside the tavern like Teela had said.
Inside was no better. It was a cramped space that stank of stale ale and vomit. Most of the tables were already filled with rough looking men who watched him like hawks who had just spotted a mouse. Sytheis’ clothes were no longer pristine but they were still fancier than anything that had graced this place before.
He noted that there was a lone man sat near the back shuffling through a deck of cards. Sytheis was early yet and there was no sign of this Delden Conred. He stepped over to the man.
“Care for a quick game?” he asked. The man looked up from his cards and seemed to be assessing Sytheis.
“Sure. Nobody plays me here no more. They don’t much like losing money every time. What you offering?” the man said. His muscle was on the slide to fat and his short hair was thinning but he still looked more than capable of killing Sytheis should he want to.
Sytheis fished through his pocket and grabbed the two copper coins that he had been paid the day before. He placed them in the centre of the table and sat in the chair opposite the man. The man added two of his own copper coins to the pile then began to split his cards. Sytheis took out his deck and shuffled them quickly.
Klash was a simple game that was the most popular entertainment in Eyen over the last few decades. A deck consisted of only sixteen cards, composed of a single General card, ten Troop cards, two Strategy cards and three Item cards. Anyone could play but brains and luck were needed to succeed. Or lots of money.
“You an out of luck trader then? Clothes too good to shovel shit like the rest of us but you’re in this dive playing for coppers. Trying to win back your wealth?” the man asked as they both laid out their cards onto the table.
“You could say that,” Sytheis told him as he placed down his General and five random Troop cards. The other five Troop cards and all of the Strategy and Item cards he kept in his hand.
His deck was nothing special. Lacking money, it was formed mostly from other students’ spare and unwanted cards. He made do though. His mind tended to outmatch most manual labourers and his time spent with young nobles who had nothing better to do with their spare time than drink and play gave him plenty of experience.
From his seat, Sytheis could see the door clearly and only had half of his attention on the game. Half way through the game he heard bells all across the city ring out to signal the end of the evening shift. Delden Conred would not be long now.
He refocused on the game. The man was using a clever tactic of trying to suppress him but he had no flexibility. Sytheis played him like a fool, making him believe that he planned to go one direction then smashing him from the other. Klash had been developed originally as a more portable game of chess. It had evolved greatly from that but still needed an adaptable mind.
“Bugger me,” the man grunted. He was down to his last card while Sytheis still had three.
“You get to see a lot of cards and play styles as a trader,” Sytheis said. His next turn won him the game.
“Rematch? Double or nothing?”
Sytheis was about to accept the offer when the door opened and a man entered who matched Teela’s description of Delden. Like everyone else in the Black Crack, he looked capable of killing Sytheis with a single punch. He walked straight to the bar and paid for a mug of strong ale.
“Not today I’m afraid,” he said to the man as he collected the four coins and his cards. “Got to pay yesterday’s board. Innkeeper will flay me alive if I don’t get her the money by tonight. Good game.”
As he spoke, his mind pondered how best to get Delden into the alley without getting injured in the process. There seemed to be no obvious answer. He had told that damn women that he would do it though so he would.
On his way to the door he passed close to the bar, timing it so that he knocked into Delden as he took a deep swig of his drink. Ale spilled onto his clothes and the floor and the man began to choke as it went down the wrong hole.
Delden rounded on him before he had even finished choking. His eyes blazed and his hand was around Sytheis’ throat before he could react.
“You clumsy ball-licker. You owe me a drink,” he growled. His eyes flickered to his drenched shirt for a moment. “And new clothes. Hand over the coin now or I’ll strip you out of them fancy clothes of yours and see what they fetch on the market.”
Well, it’s now or never, Sytheis thought. He lifted up both legs and kicked out at Delden, his shoes smashing into the man’s groin. Delden’s grip faltered and Sytheis staggered away as fast as he could toward the door. Delden recovered quickly and clipped Sytheis’ side with a massive fist as he threw himself out of the door.
Sytheis hit the floor while Delden towered over him. He grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it at the man’s eyes then rolled to the side as a booted foot tried to slam into his ribs. His escape was a half run half frantic crawl into the alley.
He came to a forced halt. Teela had held up her side of the bargain by blocking off the other end of the alley with an overturned cart. It didn’t seem such a good idea now that it was he who was trapped by it though. Delden stalked into the alley behind him with a sleek dagger in one hand.
“You are dead, you son of a goat sucking whore.”
“Now now. Watch your language. What would your mother think if she could hear you speak like that?” Sytheis commented. He didn’t want to say such a stupid thing but he couldn’t help it. Whenever he was overly nervous he had a horrible habit of turning to sarcasm, which only tended to make things worse.
“My dear old mum taught me every word I know. Also taught me how to fillet a man,” Delden said with a malicious smile. His dagger glinted in the evening light.
“How delightful. Are you sure that the word she used was fillet and that she didn’t actually teach you how to fellate a man? Sounds more likely.”
Delden’s smile dropped and was replaced with a thunderous snarl in a heartbeat. He roared wordlessly and charged at Sytheis with his dagger drawn back and ready to lunge. Mid step he screamed and fell face first to the ground. Sytheis jumped back on instinct but the man didn’t stand back up. A small knife stuck out from his calf and behind him at the mouth of the alley stood Teela.
“You won’t be hurting anybody today, master Conred,” Teela said in a overly pleasant voice as she began to walk toward him.
“Speak for yourself,” muttered Sytheis while he rubbed his side.
Delden stopped his thrashing around when he heard Teela’s voice then tried desperately to crawl away. She approached him unhurriedly then placed her foot upon the knife without concern for the blood that was staining his trouser leg crimson. He screamed out again.
“You have hurt a friend of mine, both physically and emotionally. You inconvenienced her, then inconvenienced me by refusing to stay put and accept your punishment like a real man. That makes me rather angry.”
“No! Gods no! Don’t hurt me! I was only having some fun!” Delden begged.
“Fun?” asked Teela in a voice so sweet that it dripped like honey. “That is alright then, isn’t it? I find it so very fun to watch blood pump directly from a man’s heart. The feel of a sharp blade splitting open flesh is just so damn enjoyable. So long as I am having fun it doesn’t matter what others feel. Is that right?”
Delden was crying now. Teela stepped off of the knife and walked around the prone man to kick him in the ribs. He rolled onto his back, bellowing in agony as the knife scraped against the floor. She grabbed his hair and pulled him into a sitting position before moving behind him and touching another knife to his throat. Tears streamed down his face and constant stuttering begs for mercy fell from his trembling lips.
Sytheis couldn’t watch this. The man was clearly a bastard but to kill him in cold blood like this wasn’t right. Just the thought of watching someone be murdered made him want to throw up.
“Leave him,” he managed to say. “He gets the point. He isn’t worth the blood that would be on your hands.”
Teela was visibly weighing up his words. After a moment she nodded.
“You are right. His crimes don’t warrant death in a piss filled alley,” she said. She moved away from Delden toward Sytheis.
“Th-thank you. Gods be praised,” gushed the man pathetically. Teela wasn’t finished speaking though.
“He simply deserves to be unable to ever commit the same crimes again.”
Delden’s eyes widened. “Wait! What?”
The knife flashed out of Teela’s hand. A sound that Sytheis couldn’t begin to describe erupted from Delden’s throat as the knife wedged itself into the dirt between the man’s legs. Blood was already pooling around his thighs. This time, Sytheis really did throw up.
Teela clapped him on the back with a cheery smile. “You fulfilled your side of our agreement. Time for me to do the same. Come, I will take you to the Maiden’s Plaza.”
Delden’s screams followed them out of the alley. Teela sent some nearby workers to bring him to a doctor then completely cast the man from her mind. She led Sytheis through the winding streets in the direction of the outer wall. The buildings did not look any better here but there was more room set aside for trees and flowers.
The Maiden’s Plaza was a collection of four wooden buildings that sat across from each other overlooking a grassy square with a water fountain at its centre. The buildings had been whitewashed and rose bushes grew along the walls, splashing the white with streaks of bright red and green. Teela directed him to the largest of them and entered without knocking. The armoured woman who stood beside the door glared at Sytheis but did not move a muscle to stop them.
It was light and airy inside with simple furniture decorating what looked to be a reception room. Four female guards armed with elegant rapiers stood with their backs to each wall while half a dozen men and women in well made but basic clothes stood in small groups speaking quietly.
“Wait here,” Teela told him. “The guards will send you through when the queen is ready to see you.” With that said, she strode through a set of double doors, leaving Sytheis alone. He smiled nervously at the closest guard who stared stonily at him.
He sat himself down on one of the chairs and waited. The room’s other occupants cast him occasional curious looks but on the whole ignored him. It felt like an age until the doors opened and a stocky woman in plated armour with a large shield and a short pike signalled for him to enter.
“Queen Zaphine will see you now.”
Sytheis followed behind the woman into a long room that contained an oval table and a wooden throne that sat atop a slightly raised platform at the far end. Guards lined both side walls. He was led past the table and left to stand face to face with the seated queen. He gaped like a village fool.
“I…You…What?” was all that he managed to articulate.
Teela sat before him in a different set of clothes. Her hair had been brushed and her trousers and shirt had been swapped for bright leggings topped by a thin skirt and a brocaded top. The outfit was not overly extravagant but somehow looked more majestic for its lack of pomp and ceremony. A thick silver crown sat upon her forehead with wide wings that descended down either side of her head to rest upon her cheeks while its centre dipped slightly at the nose like a small beak. It looked like a careful mixture of a diadem and a helmet faceguard.
She looked slightly amused at him. “Did I not mention that I was the queen?”
He swallowed hard. “No. You forgot to tell me that small detail.”
“Even the best of us can be forgetful at times. I should introduce myself fully. I am Zaphine Teelan, Maiden of Freedom and Queen of Chalem. So, what is your message, Sytheis Tia Menrha?”
“But you know. I’ve told y-”
“I need details. Where did you learn this and what words did you hear or see exactly.”
Sytheis sighed then began to relay what had happened. “I wanted a story to sell to the tellers so I snuck into the palace where the consultations were being held during the night. I intended to wait there and hear what went off during the last meeting and sell the information before it was officially released. King Aivlon and King Danlaar met up there not long after I arrived and discussed how much of a threat you are. They both agreed that you needed to be dealt with and said that if you did not sway their opinions in your meeting today then they would send both of their armies against you as you withdraw from the city.”
“I’ll assume that I did not change their minds this morning. This is interesting. An event like this could change the face of all of Eyen.” She paused. “Tell me, what is it that you do?”
Sytheis ran through a list of answers before settling on the truth. “Wordsmith fresh from the colleges of Den-Al Ryelkin. Came here as it seemed a good place to write about current events.”
“So you wish to make fame and fortune from the creation of epic poems and histories, chronicling great battles and powerful figure?” she asked him.
“That’s the plan. Yes.” He was very much on edge at the moment. There was something about this women that he didn’t quite trust.
Her smile made him want to run. “Excellent. Have you ever actually seen a battle before?” He shook his head and her smile grew even greater. “That will just not do. You will travel with us tomorrow. Consider it as work experience and a commission together as one request.”
“No need to thank me,” the queen said over the top of him. “Marei will show you to a room where you can rest before we leave. I need to discuss my plans now so you may leave.”
The same woman who had led him in now took hold of his shoulder and steered him back out again. Sytheis allowed himself to be directed like a child from the building and across the grass to its opposite structure. This building was filled with small but pleasant rooms and had many other people within. The guard, Marei, opened a door and motioned Sytheis inside. He obeyed and she shut it behind him. There was a click of a key being turned in a lock.
Sytheis stared at the white wall with glassy eyes. “What have I gotten myself into?”
When self pity didn’t make him feel any better he stood and tried the door. It was locked just as he had thought. No doubt that they wanted to keep an eye on him until the queen was safe. If there was no threat then he would likely be hung for wasting royal time, and if there was trouble then he would be in the middle of it. Being in the heat of a battle was not something that he wanted. Battles were for other men to fight and die in while he was a safe distance away with a notepad to observe.
The bed in the room was comfy but Sytheis found no rest upon it through the night. He lay awake staring at the roof until a loud knock on his door jolted him to his feet. Keys rattled and the lock clicked open. Lantern light flooded into the room as the door opened. It was Marei once again.
“Come. We are leaving now. You will travel with Queen Zaphine’s retenue.”
Sytheis groaned. He gathered up his meagre possessions and followed the women into the darkness outside. A silver moon hung in the sky and a million stars shone down to give the world a faint glowing light. Men were already gathered in the square with hatchets, hammers and pikes. Sytheis was taken past them back into the queen’s reception room. It was now empty except for Queen Zaphine and a handful of guards.
Zaphine looked ready to join any combat herself. She wore a boy’s chest plate over a full body set of chainmail and a pair of sturdy boots. Belts crossed her body filled with throwing knives and a short bladed rapier hung from her side.
“Glad that you could join us, Master Menrha,” she said with that half mocking smile of hers.
Join us? Ha! As if you gave me a choice, he thought bitterly.
“I serve and obey your commands, your majesty.”
“Don’t start with that false respect and sincerity. My titles should not impact how you speak. That path leads to division and to the ego of nobility. As a wordsmith, you should speak the truth.”
Sytheis laughed despite himself. “You clearly have never read any popular wordsmith’s work if you believe they speak only the truth. And anyway, what would you have me call you if not ‘your majesty’?”
“I introduced myself as Teela and that is the name under which we made our agreement. It will suffice for your continued use.”
“Calling a queen by a nickname seems wrong. That would get me killed anywhere else.”
“Then it is a good job that we are not a part of Venndiotti then, isn’t it?” She nodded to a woman behind her who came forward with a wrapped package in her hands. “Here. I noticed that you didn’t carry a weapon. A blade is something that is always useful to have. Take it.”
The women held out the bundle and Sytheis took it. Unwrapping the cloth revealed a long bladed dagger that was as long as his forearm. The wide blade shone from its polished surface and the silver coloured guard dipped down in hoops that formed a knuckleduster over the white hilt. Both edges of the blade were sharpened razors that met at a deadly point. Intricate etchings covered the metal everywhere.
Teela studied Sytheis as he examined the dagger. “It belonged to the son of a Venndi slaver back before Chalem was formed. He became a friend to the slaves and gave them that weapon to help aid their escape. It is called Xil’Ka, Hope in Blood. Consider it a gift for your help.”
It was a beautiful weapon. Sytheis knew little about weapons but his limited knowledge told him that it was a sturdy blade that thirsted for blood. How effective such a short blade would be in a battle he did not know but the dagger slightly unnerved him either way.
“Thank you,” he said. “I am no fighter though.”
“To be alive is to fight. you will understand that one day. But enough of that. We’ve wasted enough time. Let’s go.”
They joined the soldiers outside and began a quick march out of the city. The streets of Moorenda were never empty but all knew to stay out of the way of a large group of soldiers. There were about five hundred men by Sytheis’ guess, not nearly enough to fight off two potential armies. That explained why they were leaving at this time, but why force him to go with them if they were trying to avoid finding any foes? Sytheis had many questions but nobody spoke. He did not want to be the one to break the silence.
No problems arose in the city and they passed through the gateway to the open land beyond without trouble. Things went well for about an hour until the first warning shout was raised.
“Queen Zaphine!” came the shout of one of the forward scouts. He had clearly run back to the main army and panted heavily as he made his report. “Banndnori troops are camped up ahead. There must be a thousand fighting men there.”
Before the queen could answer there was another shout behind her. “My queen, Venndi forces are following us! Over a thousand by the looks of it. They will be on us within the hour.”
“The fools are really going through with it then. History changes here. Men, fortify that hill to the east. Ready yourselves for battle!” Teela ordered her soldiers. She was a natural commander. That fact strangely took Sytheis by surprise.
Sytheis did not do a lot during that hour of preparation beyond worrying himself. The soldiers bustled around him, felling trees to build slanted spike barriers and log traps. Men moved around the field below setting up other traps used for hunting animals while those without jobs worked on their weapons and armour. Teela oversaw it all without any signs of fear. Sytheis stood to the side trying not to sick up from nerves. A battlefield was no place for someone like him.
Light began to blot the horizon. From the crest of the hill, they could see both armies marching toward them. It was four-to-one odds and Chalemites were not renown as soldiers. They had always made their gains from guerrilla warfare, not open conflict. By the time that most honest folk would be waking, chances were that Sytheis Tia Menrha would be dead. Dead for a second time, he corrected.
Just out of bow range the two armies came to a stop. From the shining Venndi ranks rode King Aivlon atop a white stallion.
“Queen Zaphine and her proud men of Chalem, we are here to restore balance to Eyan and prevent future conflict. We are not without mercy. Surrender yourselves and sign over your lands to their rightful owners and we will let you live. Resist and you will all be cut down,” he announced in a strong, clear voice.
Teela stepped to the front of her men, her sword drawn. “You clearly underestimate Chalem if you think that such a force could beat us into submission. Come at us, my kings. We will show you how true souls fight.”
“The high ground will not be enough to defend you,” shouted King Danlaar calmly. He was pointing out logic, not making a threat. “To do anything other than to lay down your sword is to sacrifice the lives of your men needlessly.”
“We will see,” Teela grinned. “If you plan to attack then do so. We haven’t got all day.”
Danlaar shook his head sadly. “So be it.”
And just like that, hell broke loose. The cracks of bows from both sides filled the air like thunder and the pounding of running feet and cries of charging men seemed to shake the earth. Sytheis flinched at every sound. Arrows drove through armour and flesh alike. The traps below caught unwary men and drew pained screams and blood in equal measures.
Someone released the log pile and tree trunks rolled down the hill and met the soldiers climbing it with the crack of bones and the squish of innards. Then the Chalem men rushed down to engage the enemy head on. Steel clashed and clanged and blood flowed. Parched ground that had not seen rain in weeks ran red with blood. Boots churned the soil to mud that sucked at feet and drank up the crimson fluids.
Sytheis watched in horror. There was no heroism or glory. No noble duels or valorous actions. There was only death and suffering on all sides. The screams of dying men cut deep into his soul and would haunt his dreams should he ever get the chance to dream again.
Teela stood nearby shouting commands and encouragements. Sytheis joined her, his hands clutching at the dagger like a drowning man clinging to some floating wreckage. Venndi and Banndnori soldiers fully encased the hill. The queen still appeared unperturbed.
“We have to run! You can’t win them! Go now or we will die!”
Teela spared him a quick look. “Wait,” she told him.
“Wait? Maybe you are fine with dying but I’d rather not!”
“We don’t have to win. Just hold them off.”
The Chalemites were giving it their all but the enemies were simply too numerous. They were being steadily forced back up the hill. It would only be minutes until the line broke somewhere and blood frenzied men would come charging up to the crest to kill the queen and any near her.
The sun was rising at Sytheis’ back. It only made the battle more grim. He could now see the dead faces that stared into oblivion. What had been green the day before and dark grey and blue in the night was now brown and red. The wind carried the scent of death, fear and human excrement.
There was a booming battlecry then the line buckled. More Venndi soldiers led by King Aivlon himself had struck out at a weakening point in the Chalem ranks. Sytheis knew Aivlon to be a skilled swordsman. It was over. Nobody here stood a chance against him.
“Maidens! Fill the breech! Force back these bastards. Show them the spirit of freedom!” Teela roared before shoving Sytheis aside and rushing at Aivlon’s men. Her host of female bodyguards ran at her side screaming challenges.
“Bloody idiot!” Sytheis gaped. “Damned girl just signed her own death warrant.” His mind didn’t focus on her for long though. It was more concerned with keeping the signature off of his own death warrant. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide either. He was going to die here.
Something knocked into his foot. He looked down to see a severed head, shock permanently frozen in its eyes. He turned to find the headless corpse only to see a bloody faced man in the thick armour of Banndnor rushing at him with a broad axe. Sytheis kicked the head at the man and it slapped wetly into the soldier’s nose. He grit his teeth together then ran at the staggering man, slamming Xil’Ka into his face through a gauntleted hand. Both he and the other man were screaming but only the Banndnori fell to the floor.
Sytheis span at the sound of footsteps just in time for a sword to slash horizontally across his chest, ripping through his shirt and skin with a casual contempt. He raised the dagger to parry the next strike and the force of the blow sent a wave of numbness up his arm and almost made him drop the blade. Another strike was hastily cast aside but Sytheis overextended the move, leaving himself open to a counterstrike.
The man took the opportunity and thrust his sword at Sytheis’ heart but a different blade almost skewered him first. The soldier stiffened then slumped, his sword falling from unfeeling fingers. A rapier jutted from his gut, the steel coated in a sheen of gore.
Teela stood behind the dead soldier. Her dark hair was matted with blood and sweat run down her flushed face. She nodded to Sytheis once.
“Try not to die before the main event, wordsmith. Wouldn’t want you to miss the fun.” And then she dove back into battle.
Sytheis watched her rush straight back into the fray, straight into combat with King Aivlon. At first he expected her to crumble beneath his blade like every other foe left dead in his wake but she stood toe-to-toe with the taller man, her blade flashing with the speed of a striking viper. Aivlon smirked at her patronisingly and she returned the look with interest. The king’s lips twisted into a sneer.
A horn sounded somewhere nearby. Aivlon faltered slightly at the noise and Teela pressed the attack, forcing him a step back. The horn blew another deep note which caused Aivlon to curse. More horns were sounding now.
“Fall back! Iron Tortoise formation!” Teela ordered.
The command was repeated down the line. Men and women began to disengage and form up at the very centre of the hill. Sytheis wasted no time in forcing his way to the centre of the tight knit ring of Chalem soldiers. Shields were being held up, creating a shell within which the soldiers readied pikes and arrows to attack through the narrow gaps.
As the last men left the battlelines, Teela one of them, matches were struck and dropped to the ground. There the flames caught a ring of oil that had been poured around the crest before the battle. Within seconds a wall of fire blazed between the Chalem and the allied Venndiotti and Banndnor army.
“That won’t hold them,” Sytheis muttered to himself. Teela still answered him though.
“It doesn’t have to hold them, only give them pause long enough to think,” she said.
“Think about what? How easily that they’re going to butcher us?”
“No. To think about the fires that are destroying the Venndi and Banndnori sections of Moorenda and of the outlying villages that are being conquered as we speak. Like fools, the kings mustered their full local forces to destroy me. I on the other hand, split my men and sent small groups to create trouble while there was nobody to stop them. Now that they have a moment to think, Aivlon and Danlaar must decide whether to kill me and risk losing land or return to restore order and let me live. Getting through the flame and iron tortoise could cost them valuable time.”
“So you entire plan is based on the assumption that they will leave you when they are so close to removing you for good?”
“And if they don’t?”
Teela shrugged. “Then we give them a high exchange rate on Chalem blood. It shouldn’t come to that. Aivlon might be a thick-headed idiot but Danlaar does care deeply for his people. He will not risk harm to them.”
No sooner had she said that than a high tune was played on a horn. Several of the men who stood beyond the flame started to trudge back down the hill. It appeared that Danlaar and Aivlon were having a heated argument though Sytheis could not hear the words. A moment later, King Danlaar turned his back on his fellow ruler and joined his men at the base of the hill. Aivlon watched him go, fury etched into his face.
“Told you,” Teela said triumphantly.
Aivlon approached the flames, his entire body quaking with rage. “I will kill you, whore. Your little stunt has bought you time, but it has also bought you painful retribution. I will enjoy killing you. But first, I will capture and kill your troublesome men. Enjoy your freedom while it lasts.”
The remaining soldiers reluctantly left the hill and regrouped. Within minutes they were marching at full speed back the way that they had come. Cheers flooded from the surviving Chalemites. Their shields were dropped and the fires quickly extinguished. The celebrations did not last long though as the full toll of the battle became clear. It was hard to be happy when surrounded by so much death.
Sytheis sat on the floor and laughed. It started as a low snigger then grew into a mad cackling aimed up at the heavens. All of the emotion, the fear and dread, the anger and the stomach churning sickness drained away with each rib rattling laugh. Death had surrounded him, sought out his life and claimed so many others but he was alive. Gloriously alive.
He only fell silent when he felt someone sit beside him. It was Teela. She was pale and filthy, nothing like the valiant heroes of ballads. She was no giant among men. No stunning beauty. No unassailable warrior. She was just a woman, a woman who had had her fill of blood for the day and was ready for a long bath and a comfy bed.
“You were right. About everything. Still not sure why you brought me here though,” Sytheis said to her.
She did not speak straight away. Her eyes surveyed the carnage around them then settled on the blue sky above. The sun was gradually rising and a warm light bathed the land.
“Words are important,” she began finally. “A sword can kill one man at a time and that is all that it can do. The fear of that action can send ripples through many people but it is all a festering negativity. A man with a piece of paper and a quill can insight rage among a populous, create feelings of love or trick people into believing anything. It changes the way people think and can alter the very history that we believe.”
“I wanted you to see the world as it truly is. A battle has no heroes. There is no poetry to it. There is only blood, pain, death and the smell of shit. Too many poets and historians forget that. Make sure that you don’t.”
The speech soaked into Sytheis and left him feeling tingly. Teela spoke with a brutal honesty and sincerity that left him feeling completely unarmed by it.
He looked her in the eyes. They were like dark augers. “I won’t. So what now?”
“Now? Now we go our separate ways. I return to Kroan and plan how to counter Aivlon’s execution of my men who have sacrificed themselves so that I could escape while you will return to Moorenda, write about the events of today and continue with you life unaffected by your role in all of this. Write two accounts, one from each side and make yourself some extra coin.”
She gave him that slightly unnerving smile again. “You never know, I might call upon your assistance again in the future. Until then, farewell wordsmith.” She stood up to leave.
“Teela,” he called after her. She turned her head to look back at him. “The name’s Sytheis. If you insist on me calling you an informal name then I can do the same.”
“I will keep that in mind, Sytheis,” she chuckled then left.
Sytheis sat there alone now. Disregarding the corpses all around he laid back and stared up at the sky. Screams, groans and a terrible smell clung to the air still but he cast them aside and lost himself in thought.
He did not know if he had made the right decision by helping Teela and nor did he know if any of the Venndi would remember his face back in Moorenda. He didn’t know if he would ever sleep with untroubled dreams again and he didn’t know if he could even begin to capture the essence of a real battle in a few hollow words. Teela had left him confused, unsure what to think and had made him question himself.
One thing was for sure though: he had left his college days behind in the haze of the past and was moving into an eventful future. The words of a brilliant wordsmith returned to him at that moment. May you live in interesting times. Things were certainly looking interesting…