Sunday, 13 November 2016

Steel and Silver - Part I

Here begins the first part of the latest short(ish) story, which will reunite the reader with a much teased (and not very subtly-hidden) and very familiar character. It's a little later than anticipated, but I'm glad I was instead able to give this one the care and attention it deserved instead of rushing to try and have it done as soon as possible. 

Part two will be released on the 20th November. Until then, any who have not read it may find a  glance over Watcher of the West useful at this point - though it's not necessary in order to enjoy this new story to its fullest capacity! Happy reading!

When the cart stopped, he had panicked. There had been no time for finesse or thought, for he felt only fear. I’m going to be caught, he had thought as he heard a muffled voice and a pair of heavy boots on the ground just by him. I’m going to be caught, and I’m going to be killed.
            He had leapt from the cart and run into the night, a deep voice yelling after him, calling him a thief, a stowaway, a criminal and threatening recompense from the guards. He clutched the few meagre possessions he had as he ran away, covered in blood and tears and whimpering like a kicked dog. He had no idea where he was, or in which direction he was running – all he knew was that he had to get away. Fear drove his legs like never before, and he sprinted full-pelt across the dark landscape. He passed trees, their summertime branches knotty and heavy with deep green leaves. He splashed through moonlight-silver streams, startling sleeping deer and soaking his bloody clothing as he went.
            He ran and ran until the sun broke the eastern horizon, and bathed the rough, grassy landscape in reddish-gold light, at which point he admitted to himself he was so hopelessly lost and that he had no idea what to do. Choking on sobs of grief, he slumped down against an old, wizened oak and slipped into a haunted sleep – one in which he endlessly drowned in a terrible red tide. Faces swam in the sea of blood; people he had known and lost.
            When he awoke, the sun was high in the sky. Overcast, the day glared down around him as he staggered to his feet. I don’t know where I am, he thought to himself, wiping new tears from his cheeks. I don’t know what to do. Thoughtlessly, he stumbled forwards, travelling the same way he had been the previous night. Again, he crossed silver streams and walked under the boughs of trees laden with heavy green leaves. At one point, he came across an apple tree and sat under it a while, his meagre possessions by his side.
            A sword and a scabbard on a belt – both too large for him. As he ate, he found his eyes constantly drawn to the sword. A little of its long blade was poking out of the sheath, and it was still sticky with blood. He felt sick and dropped the apple he was chewing on before vomiting yellow-grey slurry all over the tree beside him. Slumped in his own sick, blood dried onto the clothes he wore, he could only think of one thing: more death.
            It made sense, surely? How else to end this nightmare, he thought as he dragged himself southwards, but with one last death? Soullessly, he stumbled onwards in search of demise. The bloody sword was heavy in his hands and it dragged along the summer-green grasses at his feet. When midday came, the clouds above began to clear and the rolling green landscape around him was lit with golden light, yet his world only got darker and darker.
            He was unsure what end he was searching for. Wolves would be enough, he thought as he stumbled, tripping over his own weary feet. Painful, but an ending. Would bandits kill a boy? Maybe. They’d be more likely to enslave me or sell me as an illegal slave to someone – but is that really worse than this? He looked at the sword, heavy in his hands; the blood-sticky blade still peeped out over the stop of the heavy leather scabbard. Not that, he thought. That isn’t mine.
            As the days passed in a haze of hunger and loneliness, he came across places. The first was a tiny hamlet: two cottages of wattle and daub with thatched roofs and a farmhouse nearby. The hands in the fields looked up and eyed him as he made his way by, pointing and speaking to one-another, though none stopped him. I should stop and ask for help, he thought, but no-one will believe me. If they feed me, I’ll live longer. I don’t want to live. So he kept walking, one foot in front of the other, westwards, southwards, eastwards – anywhere but north.
            The second was a village; a dozen homes, a tavern and a smithy, surrounded by lush fields that gleamed green and gold in the waning light of summer – though he had lost count of how lmany days had passed since he fled. He drifted wordlessly through the middle of the place, washerwomen with armloads of fabrics eyeing the blood-spattered and filth-stained boy with the sword that was too big for him in his hands. A few called their men from the fields to look, but no-one made any effort to help him.
            ‘Is it a wraith?’ he heard someone say as he passed a low, humble home.
            ‘No, it looks more like a ghoul.’
            ‘Is it alive?’
            ‘I couldn’t say. Should we help it?’
            And so he wandered on in his quest for death. He slept when he collapsed from exhaustion, awoke to sunlight in the sky and darkness in the soul, and he ate only when he came upon bushes full of berries or trees heavy with fruit. It’s chance, he thought. Someone wants me to keep going. Someone doesn’t want me to die just yet – there’s a death waiting for me further on. He drank from silver streams and waded through rivers, wondering if he would be swept from his feet and drowned – the weight of the sword in his hands dragging him down. The sword; the bloody sword.
            Still it peeped over the top of the scabbard, the bottom of the blade now brownish with dried gore. By now it had gone dry and crusty, scab-like on the otherwise pristine blade. It looked at him, a crusting eye of silver and reddish-brown peeking over the dark leather of the scabbard. Stop looking, he thought. I’m not using you, I can’t. You aren’t mine.
            Finally, after many days of wandering, he had journeyed as far south as he possibly could. He was awoken in the morning by a screaming howl of wind, having collapsed the previous night face-down in a grassy patch between two high rocks. He opened his eyes and looked forwards, finding the land before him had come to an end. The South Seas, he thought as he slowly got to his feet. This is where I end; this is where I am meant to die.
It was if the weather had changed for him: the South Seas were swathed in dark cloud, sent whirling across the sky by the howling winds. The warm sun could not break the oppressive grey above, and the dark of the clouds became one with the grey of the sea on the far horizon. An endless abyss: the end of all things for me. The boy dragged himself over the thinning grass until he stood upon the precipice of cliff. Hundreds of metres below him, the grey-black churn of the South Seas roared, obliterating itself into a froth of white-cold fury upon the dark cliffs.
‘This is it,’ he said to the wind as more tears left his eyes. ‘This is where I end.’ He looked down from the edge of the cliff at the dizzying drop. Will the impact with the water kill me? he asked himself, Or will I be dashed on the jagged rocks before I even get that far?
There was no fear in the sea below, nor in the cliffs. He swayed, caught by the wind, the world below whirling. The cold, hard embrace that awaited his body below was preferable to the terrible, nauseating ache he felt inside him. The memories, the blood, and the fear would vanish with the fall, blown away by the wind that would whip past him as he fell. Then, his body would break and his soul would be free – unburdened from the woes and shackles of life. Death was freedom from the guilt, the shame, the blood. Oh, by the Empress, the blood…
He took a step forward, his toes over the edge of the cliff. Below him, the sea swirled like a dark vortex; it promised to chew him to pieces and swallow him up – a few moments of pain for an eternity of bliss and release. No more guilt, no more pain, no more heartache. But as he looked down at the rocks, the dark, jagged teeth of the ocean, and the swirling waves around them, he felt a pang of uncertainty. Is this really best? he thought as the wind screamed over him, battering his back and pushing him forwards. Is this really what I should do?
The sense of purpose that struck him drove him away from the demise hundreds of feet beneath. Like a weight in his heart, heavy and glorious, it shone a light on the shadowy horizon of his mind: there were things that needed to be done, and those things could not be achieved when dead. Ashamed, he stepped backwards. ‘No,’ he told the wind, still battering him, trying to push him forwards. ‘No, this is not right. There is much to do – this is not what is best.’
Slowly, he turned away from the edge and walked back the way he had come, the sword heavy in his hands. The landscape before him was glittering gold, swathed in sunlight and dancing in summer. The heavy heart in his chest lifted a little at the land before him: he had left those which had caused such pain. He knew no-one where he was now, and no-one knew him. I can start again, he thought. I can live on, there is still hope!
He walked out from the shadow of the dark clouds and into the gold of the Southern Imperial Heartlands. He had passed villages and towns on his way south, and he knew of a port to the east. He had no plan, only the reassuring sense in his chest that he was now on the right path. I cannot die this day, he thought. There is much left to do, folk to be avenged, wrongs to be righted – but I cannot do them yet.
Taking a deep breath of fresh, crisp summer air, he made his way back into the Imperial Heartlands. The hills were not so far from those he had been raised on, and the new territories held such life and promise. As he walked, a confidence began to grow from the fear that soiled him. It was a thorny, prickly flower with an ugly bloom, but it was there, nonetheless. With every step he took, it shed a thorn and its petals brightened.
I can do this, he thought, his hands shaking as he went, his fist clasped around the leather belt to which the scabbard was attached. With every minute that passed, with every hour further into the day that he dragged himself, he felt his sorrow slolwy lifting. As the hills rose and the sun soared its way across the sky, so did his spirits, and although grief dragged on his every movement, he had made up his mind. I can make the best of this. I can make them all proud of me. I can-…
Something was snarling at him. The boy stopped and looked around, a cold chill of fear crossing him. He had not gone far from the cliffs, perhaps a mile or two back into the green hills which he had staggered from the previous day. To his right was a narrow, fast-running brook over which a few morose willow trees were hanging, lethargically stroking the water with their silver-grey leaves. On either side of him, hills gently rose and fell, but standing between them was a large dog.
He thought it was a wolf at first, but as the thing slowly loped towards him, he saw its dark fur was discoloured with dirt and shaggy with mange. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot and its face was crawling with ticks, though its dry and cracked lips were drawn away from rabid fangs. Long tendrils of yellowed froth fell from between its sharp, glittering teeth. Its eyes were fixed on him.
No, he thought, taking a step backwards as the dog got closer. No, not anymore. I don’t want to die anymore! He grabbed the sword and tried to pull it from the scabbard, but it was heavy and his lack of sustenance and sleep left him weak. Eventually, after a fight, the sword came free, crusty with dried blood. It was too heavy for his hands and he was unable to lift the blade like he had been taught to, for it was much larger than a normal sword.
Clutching the hilt in both his fists, he locked eyes with the rabid, mange-bitten beast slowly walking towards him, snarling and slavering through its teeth. ‘Get away,’ he said in a trembling voice, hoisting the blade as high as he could. ‘Go on, get away!’
But it was no good, the animal crept closer and closer, its cracked black claws protruding from its scabby toes. Still it growled, its eyes fixed on the young boy. Readying himself for a fight, he gripped the sword as hard as he could in both of his hands to try and stop them from shaking. Oh, they’d be ashamed if they could see me, he thought to himself as he swallowed.
And then it was upon him. With a snarling snap the dog leapt through the air towards him. The boy let out a cry and threw himself aside, well aware he would never be able to lift the blade high enough in time to skewer the mangy animal. He swung the sword in a wild arc once he was clear, narrowly missing the dog as it veered around to make a second jump. Teeth snapped at the boy and as he took a step away, he found himself falling, the grassy floor no-longer beneath his feet.
Ice-cold water washed over him as he stumbled into the shallow brook. He tried to find his footing, but the rocks were slippery and soon he was falling again, slipping and sliding this way and that. The dog was still after him, and as he staggered around in the shadows, he felt the thing leap for him again. This time, it landed on his back, snapping at the side of his head. With a desperate cry, he lashed out with a wild fist and cracked the dog across the nose. It yelped and slipped from his back, falling into the waters of the brook.
Seizing his opportunity and the sword he had almost dropped, the boy spun about and drove the weapon into his canine foe. The dog let out a terrible, squealing yelp as the heavy, ungainly sword was thrust through its abdomen. It writhed and wriggled as the blade pinned it to the stone, howling and yelping as the wound widened and guts and blood spilled into the brook.
The boy let out a cry and staggered away, pulling the blade free as he went. As he stepped back, he slipped and fell, landing in the rapidly bloodying water as his foe slowly bled to death. Gore-tainted water washed over him, soaking him red. He scrambled onto the bank and ran whilst the rabid dog died in the waters behind him.
Even though he knew the beast was dead, he fled as if a pack of wolves were on his heels. His dry throat burned as he gasped for air, and the sword in his hands weighed him down terribly- though he dare not put it away. Fresh fear gripped him as he crossed new hills and ran through small woods, convinced he was seconds away from another attack. I did it, though, he told himself to try and bolster his nerve. It couldn’t stop me, I’m meant to do this. I can do this.
As dusk was setting in, the boy stopped atop a low hill and gazed towards the eastward horizon. Utterly exhausted, half-starved and in danger of collapsing from thirst, he cast his eyes across the darkening world about him. The sea was visible to the south, as were the cliffs that had almost taken his life earlier that day. He tried not to look at them, and instead tried to find somewhere to stop, somewhere to pass the night in moderate comfort. And there, before him, at the bottom of the hill he was atop, was just what he needed.
Lit by torches and a communal bonfire, he could see the shadows and shapes of a village. Glowing orange with the flames of dusk and the light of fires, it was everything he needed and more. It shone like a hearth in the shadows of the night, ringed with long stretches of fields. He could hear laughter, too – the people were celebrating. I won’t stay long, he said as he made his way down the hill. Just the night, if there is a spare hayloft for me to curl up in. Maybe they’ll even be kind enough to give me some food.
As he approached the village, the sound of revelry grew louder. He could hear voices, singing, music and laughter. Shadows danced around the central fire, upon which a large phoenix effigy was being burned. A near-heathen practice, the boy had heard that some of the villages in the Empire still practiced it: an effigy of a phoenix, to symbolise the Divine Empress, was burned following a good harvest. The ashes were then scattered upon the winds the following day in the hope that, like a phoenix, the fields would spring to new life the following year. It derives from an ancient practice, where the image of an Old God was burned instead, he thought as he approached.
Suddenly nervous, the boy slunk through the houses. He stuck to the shadows, avoiding the few imperial soldiers that were posted to guard the small village. There were a few farms on the peripheries that he had spotted as he made his way down the dark hills, some of them with substantial numbers of livestock. There were several dozen houses too, so the village was much larger than average, yet he was still afraid. He could see the clothes he wore, ragged and filthy, soaked in blood and brook-water and only half-dried. He placed a hand on his cheek as he walked next to a low home; his face was thin and gaunt, and his flesh felt very cold.
He came to the edge of the village square, where the ceremonial bonfire had been built a few metres away from the well. He could see some fifty, maybe even sixty, people clustered around it, toasting one-another, sharing bread and ale. Women wore flower crowns as they skipped around the bonfire, and several of the men played simple instruments: a battered lyre, a bone flute, a slightly out-of-tune harp.
The boy skulked in the shadows all the while, unsure and afraid. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all, he thought, swallowing. They’re busy celebrating, I’d just ruin it if I-…
‘What do we have here?’ a voice barked. The boy found himself grabbed and dragged from the shadows. Caught by surprise, he let out a shrill cry and fell, slipping free from the hands that held him. He looked up into the stern face of a single imperial soldier, dressed in black armour and holding a pike in his hand. ‘What are you doing? A thief, no-doubt, looking to take advantage of the revelry!’
‘No!’ the boy cried as he was grabbed again and dragged from the shadows and into the middle of the cobbled road that led into the square. ‘I was doing no such thing! I-…’
‘Silence boy!’ the soldier yelled, yanking the large sword from his hand. ‘And what’s this? It can’t possibly be yours! It’s far too big for you!’
‘It was a gift!’ the boy yelled. ‘Give it back, I didn’t steal it, it was a gift!’
‘Hah!’ the soldier snorted. ‘A likely story.’
There were some footsteps, followed by a second voice. ‘What’s going on here?’ a deep, low rumble said, cutting through the revelry and silencing the soldier, who now had hold of the boy by his wrist. ‘Who is this boy?’
‘A thief, I think!’ the solder said.
The boy turned his gaze to the new figure. He was a big man, tall and broad with a projecting belly and strong arms. He had a heavy, bushy beard and long hair tied in a knot of ponytail behind his head. ‘Oh?’ the large man said, looking over his wide nose at the boy. ‘He doesn’t look much like a thief – in fact, he looks like the victim of something foul, so covered in blood!’
‘What’s going on over here?’ another voice said. A woman appeared, then two more accompanied by a pair of men. Then, suddenly, the music stopped and the boy found the entire village looking at him and the imperial soldier. A sea of faces, murmuring in the crackling glow of the bonfire, all staring straight at him.
‘I’m not a thief!’ the boy cried, his voice cracking and trembling.
‘Yeah,’ one of the villagers cried, ‘he’s no thief! Look at him! Poor lad is lost and hungry – big sword though, where’d he get that?’
‘Said it was a gift!’ the soldier said. ‘A likely story!’
The big bearded man waved a hand. ‘That’s enough,’ he said in a cold, stern voice. He fixed his dark eyes on the young boy and leaned towards him. ‘He hasn’t the look of a thief, and let us not spoil our festivities with such talk! Everyone, back to the fire! Where has the music gone? Play on!’
The laughter began again immediately as the villagers leapt back into their revelry. Frocks and pinafores flew in the night, and booted feet tapped and danced. Songs and smiles resumed as if they had never been interrupted, and within moments, the boy was left alone with the big man and the soldier, the three of them standing in the shadows of dusk and summer.
‘You trust this lad, Olfden?’ the soldier said, folding his arms across his chest and pulling a face.
The big man, identified as Olfden, looked down at the boy. ‘Let us see,’ he said slowly. ‘Are you an honourable sort, boy?’
The boy stood straight. ‘Of course I am, Sir!’ he cried, his chest swelling with pride. ‘I am as noble as the finest knight in the emperor’s army!’
Olfden looked at the soldier and quirked a brow before looking back at the boy. ‘And if I were to invite you to sup with us this summer’s eve?’ he said. ‘In the village of Kirkby-by-Hill we pay our way. The revelry tonight can only take place because every man and woman has done their bit: planted the fields, harvested the crop, fattened the pigs, or milked the cows. If you sup with us this eve, you must help me with some chores on the morrow to make up for it. What say you?’
The boy puffed out his weary chest as best as he could. ‘On my name!’ he cried valiantly.
Olfden turned and looked at the soldier. For a moment, neither man said anything. Finally, the soldier shook his head and turned away, walking back to his post. ‘Fine, Olf,’ he called over his shoulder, ‘but he’s your responsibility.’
The big man looked at the boy through his dark eyes. ‘You’ll be no bother, will you?’ he said slowly.
The boy shook his head. ‘Never, Sir,’ he said quickly. ‘No, never! As I said, on my name!’
Olfden placed his big, scarred hands on his knees and leaned forwards, peering hard into the boy’s pale, gaunt face. ‘And what would that name be, lad?’
It had haunted him his whole life. A bastard’s name for a bastard boy, he thought, swallowing. His eyes dropped to the stone at his feet, but as he hesitated, the boy realised it was just what he needed. I could be anyone, he thought to himself. There are a thousand-thousand bastards with my name, and a thousand-thousand before all of them. His name clogged gutters and ran through filthy streets; it wore a loose cap and no shoes, passing discreet notes from one party to the other, or shovelling soil in a field. I will never be found, not with this name. With his name, he could be any boy from any broken peasant family. His father could be any soldier, and his mother any pretty tavern lass. He could sink into a new life and never be found, not by anyone.
He raised his eyes and looked the big man straight in his face. He took a deep breath and stood as proud as he could. ‘Hugh,’ he said without so much as a wobble of shame in his voice. ‘My name is Hugh.’
Olfden looked him up and down once more. ‘Alright, Hugh,’ he said quietly. ‘Welcome to Kirkby-by-Hill. Oh, and I suppose you’ll be needing this.’ He took a lump of something wrapped in a rag from behind his back and pushed it into the young boy’s hands. It was large and light, the size of a large rock.
A loaf of bread!
Olfden laughed as the boy tossed the rag aside and sank his teeth into the crisp, firm loaf. ‘But remember our deal,’ he said slowly. ‘Tomorrow, you help me!’
Hugh nodded quickly and continued to eat. ‘Of course, Sir,’ he said though mouthfuls, ‘though I am a little thirsty. Could you-…?’
Olfden laughed again. ‘Come this way, my lad,’ he said, leading Hugh by the shoulder out from the shadows and into the light of the summer bonfire. ‘I think it best we get you cleaned up and that you meet everyone, and I’m sure we can find you some water long the way!’
Sir Hugh Fortescue, son of the betrayed and murdered Earl Jacob Fortescue and Lady Isabella Beshing, was led from the dark and into the warm glow of the fire. For a few moments, Sir Hugh forgot all about his traitorous uncle, Lord Aesinger, and what he had done to him and his family; the shadowy visions of his headless parents, slumped together beside the murdered Captain Aethlar, faded in the luminous radiance of the bonfire. He won’t find me here, Hugh thought. Uncle Aesinger would never find me here.
He had thought he would never be happy again, but as he was passed a small cup of bitter wine and embraced by every one of the villagers he was put before, Hugh felt his heart soar. ‘Remember, though!’ Olfden said as Hugh was handed a second cup of wine, ‘You’re working all this off tomorrow! Then you’re free to do as you wish!’
Hugh smiled up at the big man, exhausted, bloody, bruised, and radiant. ‘Thank-you,’ he said.

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