Sunday, 4 December 2016

Steel and Silver - Part IV

With his world falling to pieces before his eyes for the second time, our story rejoins our protagonist for its final chapter as he desperately chases the final thread of his unraveling existence: Sara. Having watched the cold hand of history repeat itself upon his new life, our hero find himself the pawn of fate - but this time, he is determined for it not to get the better of him once again.

It's been a pleasure to share Steel and Silver with you all. For those who have not read it and are still interested, Watcher of the West is available to fill in some of the events that preceded this story.

By midday the next day, Hugh was spent. He had run into the chill night for as long as he could, following the hoof prints due north-east. When he could no-longer run, he walked with all the speed his aching limbs would allow. When that failed and he fell into the snow, he allowed himself only a few moments rest before hurrying on again.
            He was exhausted and sticky with drying blood. He looked as if someone had emptied a bucket of gore over him, for his clothes were soaked with drying ichor, as was his hair and face. He left bloody footprints in the thick snow with every step he took, yet every step brought him closer to his goal. Hungry and thirsty, his only sustenance was the snow around him. The trees and bushes that he passed as he made his way over frozen brooks and past skeletal copses had all long lost their fruits and blossoms, and their snow-laden branches held no nectar for Hugh to forage. The landscape was little more than a wizened and frost-emaciated memory of what it had been in high summer.
            As Hugh went, stumbling across snow-covered fields and over rolling white hills, his mind raced. I must find Sara, he thought. What if they’ve taken her somewhere ill? What if those monsters have hurt her? And what of the silver? Surely, it must have come from my uncle! Who else would have such an abundance of west-minted silver other than the earl of the Western Heartlands?
            But the evidence seemed too thin and circumstantial. Who had the shadowy figure in the cloak been, and had he even played a role in the massacre of Kirkby-by-Hill? Was he Dead-Knuckles Asser, the only name the dying bandit had given before breathing his last? And who was the short man who had appeared atop the hill, waving a burning torch from side to side? Was he even anyone?
            Hugh stopped for a moment and took a long breath, clutching his sword tightly. In the near distance he could see a thick, wide river before him, frozen solid some time during the night, for no snow had fallen atop it. An arm of the Koppar which flows north-south to the east of here, he thought as he looked towards it. Decked in leafless willow trees and bare oaks, the river was terrible and ghostly, yet the hoof prints he followed led him right to its snowy banks.
            Quite suddenly, as he neared the banks of the river, the hoof print trail he had been following for so long vanished. No! Hugh thought, pacing up and down the riverbank. No, it cannot simply disappear! Where has it gone? He looked around desperately – there was only one explanation: the horses had been ridden onto the frozen river and across to the other side.
This is madness, Hugh thought as he stood on the bank of the frozen river. Who is to say they crossed here and did not in fact veer back? As he peered at the glassy surface of the river, Hugh became more convinced that a horse could not have crossed it, let alone with a rider on its back. Rocks jutted through the surface of the frozen river, the cold grey teeth of a wide mouth that laughed at Hugh as he walked up and down the southern bank of the river, trying to figure out just where the riders he was pursuing had crossed.
            It did him no good, though. Their hoof prints disappeared along the bank on the river’s edge and, to Hugh’s eyes, did not emerge on the other side. They must have known someone was following them, he thought, cursing under his breath as cold reality dawned. They’ve used the river to cover their tracks – damn it all! I’ll have to try and cross…
            Hugh looked at the frozen river before him. It was at least thirty paces wide and uneven in places, sharp rocks and stones protruded from the glassy top layer. He had no way of telling how deep the river beneath him was, yet Hugh was certain if he fell in he would die – trapped under ice or slowly succumbing to hypothermia on the snow covered banks. On the other side, the skeletal trees beckoned with frost-forged fingers, taunting him. Gingerly, he stepped out onto the ice-covered river. As he slowly transferred his weight from his back foot to the one planted on the ice, he heard the glass-like layer of frozen water atop the river let out a long, low creak.
Gingerly, he continued, placing his second foot before his first and treading as lightly as he could until he was a few steps out onto the surface of the river. Taking long, slow breaths to try and calm his frantic nerves, he placed foot in front of foot, each slowly and as lightly as he possibly could, until he was just over half way across the surface of the frozen river.
Jagged fang-like rocks loomed from the glassy ice covering the water and seemed to point themselves at Hugh as he tried to make his way across the ice, whilst below him the depths of the river swirled. He could see the water beneath his feet still running, and as he peered down, a long crack began to zig-zag across the face of the ice.
Heart hammering, Hugh quickly redistributed his weight and took another step. As he did, a long, low, rumbling crack thundered from beneath his feet. Drenched in cold sweat, Hugh stood paralysed with fear for a few moments. It’s going to give way, he thought, taking a deep breath and holding it in his lungs. I’m going to fall in and drown, I’m going to-…
His thoughts were immediately cut off by a commotion on the opposite bank. Looking up, Hugh gasped as a stag leapt from the frost-etched trees and bushes beyond, letting out a long, low moan as it did so. Flanks and hide wet with blood, the creature stumbled and fell onto the river’s bank, antlers tinged with the gleam of ice, its ragged breath forming clouds upon the cold air.
Still once more, Hugh clutched his sword in his hands. The stag lay helplessly, flanks and hide torn in long bloody ribbons, its dark eyes staring at Hugh from the opposite side of the river. I do not like this, he thought, standing stock still in the middle of the frozen river. I do not like this one bit.
            Then there was a second raucous clatter from the far side of the bank. Hugh watched as two large, shaggy-grey wolves burst from the bushes. Their muzzles were slick with blood and their yellow eyes fixed on their already fallen prey. They set about the creature, grabbing hold of its throat and worrying until, with one last gurgling moan, the stag fell still. Its blood ran from its throat and out onto the ice, steaming and mixing there with the frost into strange sanguine spirals.
            Hugh stood frozen in fear, his eyes locked upon the two wolves. Empress preserve me, he thought as the two wild animals set about their kill with bloody fangs. Please, do not see me out here, Hugh thought as he watched the two wolves devour their kill. I can’t fight them here on the ice. The ice will definitely break and I’ll surely die. Soon their muzzles and faces were slathered with the blood of the stag, their grey fur slowly turning a dark, reddish brown.
            It was a few moments before the wolves noticed Hugh. When one lifted its head and fixed its yellow eyes on him, it let out a long, low snarl, barring its bloody teeth, demanding he back away. Its growled threat drew the attention of the other, and slowly they rose to their feet, eyes fixed on Hugh. Hunkered low on their paws, their hackles raised high, the two wolves silently slunk onto the frozen water, their paws making no sound as they glided across the ice towards where Hugh stood.
            ‘Vidoria, preserve me,’ Hugh whispered as the two beasts slid closer and closer to him, bloody grey fog upon the ice. Hugh gripped his sword tightly in his hands and took another long, slow breath. Gradually, as the cold wind began to rise about him, the two wolves split, one approaching Hugh on his left flank, the other on the right. Hugh took a careful step backwards, and as he did a long, low creak and a horrid, bone-snapping crack rose up from the ice behind him.
            It was at that moment the first wolf, the one approaching Hugh from the left, leapt at him. With a cry, Hugh found himself jumping backwards in panic, swinging his sword in an arc. It did him no good, though, and the wolf barrelled into him, its jaws aiming for his neck. Hugh dropped his sword as he fell down towards the ice, grabbing hold of the wolf’s head.
            With a terrible crash, Hugh and the wolf landed on the ice. There was another creaking snap as the ice beneath him weakened, but there was nothing Hugh could do. The other wolf was upon him now, its jaws locked around his arm, trying to pull Hugh off the other wolf. He cried out as teeth punctured his flesh and jolted, trying to hurl the wolf off him.
            As he did, he felt the ice under him shift. It’s breaking! he thought as a loud, shearing crunch rocked the frozen sheet beneath him. Hugh grabbed the throat of the first wolf with his fingers, digging them in with all the force he could whilst the second beast worried his arm. Damn it, damn you all! I’ll drag both you wild beasts into the icy waters of this river with me! he thought as he let out a cry of pain.
            Then, the ice gave way. With a sudden crash the ice beneath the wolf attacking Hugh’s arm gave way, a long, wide crack spreading across the river right beneath the floundering man. The wolf let out a screaming yelp as it fell into the freezing-cold waters, letting go of Hugh’s arm and splashing his battered body with deathly cold spray. Though agony was shooting through the limb, Hugh made a fist and drove a punch into the first wolf’s face with all his might. The beast let out a yelp and flew off Hugh, landing clumsily a few paces away.
            Hugh leapt to his feet and grabbed his sword. Whilst the other wolf was floundering in the freezing river water, desperately trying to drag itself out of the hole in the ice it had fallen through, Hugh span and attacked the other. His leading arm was weakened by the wolf’s bite, but the sword still struck true, for when the other beast lunged at him again, he thrust the blade through its mouth and out of the back of its head. It shuddered on the steel before falling still and sliding off the blade.
            Finally, exhausted and in pain, Hugh turned back to the other wolf. He slashed wildly down at the struggling beast, cutting its head and shoulders with his blade, until it fell still and slipped back into the reddening water. Hugh watched as the corpse of the second wolf was carried away by the current beneath the ice, becoming a blurred shape beneath the river’s frozen surface.
            Throwing caution to the wind, Hugh ran to the other side of the frozen river as fast as he could. Beneath him, the ice snapped and popped, cracking and lancing this way and that as it strained under his weight. How did horses ever cross this? he thought as he charged to the far side, slipping and sliding as he went. They couldn’t have – I’ve made a mistake, I’ve gone the wrong way. I must have!
            He hurled himself onto the snow-covered bank, slipping over and falling as he did, landing painfully beside the carcass of the stag. Hugh lay there for a few moments, clutching his arm. Blood seeped from between his fingers, for the wolf’s bite had been deep and savage. Damn the odds, Hugh thought, cursing under his breath. Ripping the filthy, blood-sodden sleeve from his ragged shirt, he wrapped it as firmly as he could around his forearm, pulling it tight with his teeth. Pain flared through his arm as he did, making him wince and grimace with every tug, but soon it was done. His crude bandage was already blood-soaked before he affixed it to his arm, but new blood began to soak it the moment he took his hand away. It’ll have to do, he thought.
            Hugh looked up and down the bank he was now on but could again see no signs of horse tracks. They’ve vanished! he though despondently as he looked up and down the bank from where he was slumped. He was about to clamber to his feet and set on with his hopeless search when the wind brought to his ears the sound of far-off voices. Hugh stood still for a few moments, holding his breath and straining his ears. No, they’re definitely coming, he thought. Could they be survivors? By the Empress, could it be Sara?
            But moments later, Hugh’s hopes were dashed. There were only two voices, both of them were deep and gruff, simple and harsh-toned. Hugh turned and dived into the bone-like, frost-fingered bushes from which the bloody stag and two wolves had burst. He crouched amongst them, peering out, waiting for the sources of the voices to appear.
            Then, on his side of the river, two men in leathers wearing ragged cloaks appeared. They walked along the very edge of the ice, where there was no snow to leave tracks and where the river was not deep enough to pose a threat should the ice break. They trod slowly and carefully, holding shortbows in their hands and with shortswords on their waists. ‘See ‘ere!’ the shorter of the two said. ‘I told you!’
            ‘You’re right,’ the second, taller man said. ‘Is that a stag? Dead-Knuckles was right to send us out this way after all. To think, he thought some chump from that pathetic little village might have followed us, hah! They’re all dead!’
            ‘Hah!’ the second laughed with the first. ‘Looks like the wolves ate their fill and left it – there’s still some good meat on that. We could take it back to the others, maybe get a bit more of that nice silver for it as a reward.’
            The two men crept closer and closer up the bank, their eyes fixed on the bloody stag carcass. They’re bandits, Hugh thought, gritting his teeth. I should kill them where they stand or toss them into the river to drown, trapped beneath the ice. But Hugh knew he was being rash. As the two men moved closer and closer to the stag, Hugh decided it would be best to follow them back to their destination.
            ‘Don’t be silly,’ the shorter man said. ‘Dead-Knuckles already gave out most of the coin. The rest he’ll keep for his-self, just you see.’
            ‘Hold on,’ the second, taller man said, placing his hand on the chest of the first, his eyes fixed on the river. ‘What’s happened to that wolf?’
            The two men stopped a few paces short of the stag and peered at the bloody wolf corpse on the icy river for a moment. ‘I don’t know,’ the first said, ‘gored on an antler?’
            ‘That’s its head!’ the second bandit said, pointing. ‘No antler did that – that was a blade! And look, the ice is all scuffed there, someone’s killed the wolf!’
            Hugh’s eyes widened. Skulking in the bushes behind the two men, he held his breath, suddenly painfully aware of every tiny sound and movement he made. As the two bandits looked around, nocking arrows to their shortbows, they began to advance towards where he was hiding. By the Empress, he thought, clutching his sword, I’ve come so far, don’t let me be caught now.
            ‘Wait,’ the first, shorter bandit said, putting his hand on his comrade’s arms. He looked around, eyes suddenly wide and voice lowered. ‘What if there’s lots of them and they’re still around?’
            The taller bandit frowned, then nodded. ‘Could be a Legion scout,’ he said quietly. ‘We’d best leave before we get seen – there could be a detachment out looking for us. We’ll warn Asser and the others when we get back to the cave.’
            The cave? Hugh thought as he watched the two men very carefully turn around and creep away own the edge of the bank, leaving no traces upon the ice at the edge of the river. Hugh waited a few moments before quietly rising to his feet and creeping after them, bent low behind the frost-scourged bushes. The icy branches above him scratched at his arms and face as he crept through, leaving only footprints as he continued along the bank behind the two bandits.
            The men moved slowly and carefully along the very edge of the river. Of course, there the ice will be thickest, Hugh thought to himself as he walked as quietly as he could behind the bandits. And with the lack of snowfall over the past few hours, they leave no traces upon the surface – that must have been what the horses and their riders did! Why did I not think of that before?
            A tense quarter-hour passed as Hugh slunk through the snow-laden bushes, leaving only footprints and the odd speck of blood behind him. His body ached with cold, hunger and fatigue, and his arm ached awfully. Yet when the low cave entrance rose into view through the trees, he found his mind was focused and set upon his task. I shall do one good thing, he told himself as he slid through the snow, and that shall be to rescue who I can from the claws of these monsters and kill as many of them as possible!
            Set into the river-facing side of a low, tree-covered hill, the cave entrance was a lazy, half-open maw ringed with frosty stones and capped with snow. Partially obscured by bushes, Hugh only noticed the entrance when the two bandits he was following suddenly ducked into the trees directly ahead of him and began to crash through the bushes. At first, he thought he had been spotted and they were coming for him, but then he realised they were in fact heading through the mouth of the cave.
            Hugh waited for a few moments until the sound of the men’s footsteps had faded away, then leapt from the bushes and back onto the riverbank. The cave was now painfully plain to see, and Hugh wondered why he had not considered such a hideout earlier.
As he looked at the snow before the entrance, there were clear hoof tracks leading down into the cavern. This is where they went, he thought, looking across the river. They must have walked the horses along the very edge of the river to this point where the water is shallower, so it would not matter so much if the ice cracked under the pressure of the horses’ hooves.
            Hugh turned away from the frozen stretch of water and pushed through the bushes partially obscuring the cave’s entrance. He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip around the hilt of his sword, stepping onto the damp, dark cave. Shadows pursued his every step, and no matter how lightly he trod his footsteps echoed around the cave. The passageway spiralled downwards, and the further Hugh got from the mouth of the hollow the more the darkness crept upon him. Soon, he was alone with nothing more than the sound of his rattling breath, his slow footsteps, and the utter darkness around him.
            The rock beneath his feet was slippery with water, and twice he struck his head of a low stalactite as he made his way down and down, deeper into the darkness. Then, just as Hugh was about to give up and turn back, he saw a flicker of light ahead, reflected in the moisture covering the stone floor. Voices followed, and Hugh stopped to listen.
            ‘But ye left the stag?’ a low, hard voice said.
            ‘Aye, Dead,’ a somewhat familiar voice said. One of the bandits from earlier, Hugh thought.
            ‘Well, we’ll ‘ave to go back an’ see if we can get some o’ it,’ the hard voice said. ‘Perhaps we’ll wait fer the eve, then we’ll send a few lads out to get it, provided none o’ those wolves ‘ave come back.’
            ‘But the dead wolf, Knuck,’ another familiar voice said. The second bandit. ‘A blade had killed that wolf, gone straight through its head!’
            ‘Well,’ the gruff voice said again, ‘if ye were followed by the Imperial Legion, ye’ll no ‘ave to worry ‘bout ‘em killin’ ya, I’ll do it meself.’
Hugh edged closer towards the light until the passage he crept down widened and he came to a wide cavern, lit a ghostly yellow-orange by a number of torches and small campfires around which a few men were clustered. The cavern’s roof was held up by great natural pillars of rough rock, dripping with moisture and covered in greyish moulds.
‘Dead, what if the Legion finds us?’ another of the bandits called out.
From where Hugh crouched in the shadowy tunnel that had led down from the cave entrance, he could see a short, stocky figure walk into the firelight. ‘Then ye’ll all die down ‘ere alone,’ the figure said, gesturing wide with huge arms and a big beard – a Dwarf. ‘I’ll take yer cuts and be outta ‘ere before any o’ ye can say squat. Ye’ll ave Tod an’ Gerr to blame if the Legion show up anyway, so take yer anger out on ‘em, not me.’
As the Dwarf moved behind one of the natural stone pillars, Hugh lost sight of him. Like most of the men, he became flickering shadows, giant upon the cavern’s shadowy walls. Cursing under his breath, Hugh glanced round the tall, wide chamber. I can’t see enough from here, Hugh thought where he squatted into the shadows. I can’t even tell if there are any prisoners from the village being kept here!
            As quickly and quietly as he could, Hugh slipped from the dark passageway and into the tall, dark, bandit-filled chamber. Crouching low and shuffling through the shadows that pressed into the edges and cracks of the chamber, he slunk between the stalagmites and natural pillars of rock. As he went, he tried to count the number of bandits in the room, but the dancing light and choking shadows continually deceived him. Ten? Fifteen? Twenty? I’ve no idea. Just how big was this Dead-Knuckles Asser’s band of scum before the attack on Kirkby-by-Hill?
            ‘Besides,’ the Dwarf said, ‘we’ve gotta hang ‘ere a little longer yet. The Duskguard ‘as yet to deliver the final payment.’
            ‘When will that be, Dead?’ one of the shadow-clad bandits said. ‘Sitting in this cave is giving me the aches.’
            ‘Soon, ‘ave no fear,’ the Dwarf said. ‘If he don’t come, I’ll find ‘im an’ show ‘im why I’m called Dead Knuckles Asser.’
            Asser is the Dwarf? Hugh thought as he ducked behind a fat stalagmite. How dare he leave his mountains and come here to wreak havoc? He has no right to come here and no right to do such a thing! Anger rising inside him, Hugh kneaded the leather grip of his sword with his palms, trying to cool his already tattered nerves. How dare he come to my home and do this? How dare he? How dare-…
            Quite suddenly, the rattle of hooves filled the air. Hugh watched from his new hiding place in the shadows behind a cluster of stalagmites as a dozen armoured men on horses rode through the very stone tunnel Hugh had entered through just moments before. Dead Knuckles Asser got to his feet, as did most of the bandits in the room, and stood to greet their guests.
            ‘Was wonderin’ when ye’d show, Duskguard,’ the Dwarf said, swaggering towards the lead horseman. ‘I suppose we still ain’t on a first-name basis wit’ ye though, are we?’
As Hugh looked on, he saw the horseman was, of course, the shadowy stranger from Kirkby-by-Hill’s tavern. His face was still covered, and all Hugh could make out was a bearded jaw and pale, gaunt cheeks beneath the dark hood. Now Hugh could see him bodily, he was surprisingly thin. Too thin to be lithe, yet not so skinny as to look ill, the Duskguard’s narrow body was offset by his pale, greyish face. He looks almost ill, Hugh thought as the firelight danced over the shadowy figure’s features.
            ‘Some of us have pseudonyms because we need them,’ the Duskguard said coldly in a surprisingly weak tone, ‘whereas others give themselves nicknames because they have inflated self-esteems. Guess which each of us are.’
            Hugh saw the Dwarf’s face for the first time in the firelight: mottled, scarred, lined and bald-headed. A huge grey beard hung from his wonky jaw, and the light flashed on sharpened iron knuckledusters wrapped around his hands. Dead Knuckles Asser’s bulbous nose was glistening with sweat, whilst his deep-set eyes were fixed on the thin-looking Duskguard. ‘Ye’re a fine one,’ he said, spitting into the nearest campfire. ‘We did yer dirty work for ya.’
            ‘Do you have proof that they’re all dead?’ the Duskguard said coldly.
            ‘Proof?’ Asser snapped. ‘Ye never wanted proof! Wha’ would’ve sufficed? The ‘eads of every sod in that bedamned village? Nae – they’re all dead, aside from a couple o’ guards-…’
            ‘A couple of guards?’ the Duskguard hissed, waving a leather-gauntleted hand at Asser. He raised the same hand and the dozen cloaked men at his back slid from their horses and arrayed themselves behind him. ‘You let a couple of people get away?
            ‘Wha’s the deal?’ Asser snarled. ‘Ye asked fer all the peasants to be killed, so we killed all the peasants!’
            ‘I wanted everybody killed!’ the hooded and cloaked Duskguard yelled, his voice echoing around the cavern.
            Hugh watched as Asser stepped forwards, running his fingers over the spiked iron knuckledusters around his hands. ‘We killed everyone who ran,’ he said in a low growl, ‘aside from a few we kept at the back as prisoners for yerself – ye know, should ye be wantin’ them.’
            The Duskguard rubbed his shadow-hidden eyes with a thumb and forefinger. ‘Typical of bandits, I suppose,’ he said quietly. ‘You really don’t seem to understand what it means when I say “everyone”. But, go on, amuse me. Show me these prisoners of yours.’
            Hugh mirrored the steps that the Duskguard and Asser made as the Dwarf led the hooded and cloaked men across the room. He skirted through the shadows, keeping as quiet as he could all the while. Taking slow, shallow breaths, Hugh’s whole figure trembled as he turned around a dark corner in the cave he had not previously seen. As he did so, he came face to face with four figures he recognised.
            They were all young women, forced to their knees with their hands, legs, and mouths bound. Three of them were lasses he knew married, but the fourth was Sara, her face tear-streaked and wracked with fear. He felt his figure beginning to tremble as he saw her, his heart leaping with hope and terror.
Still she was beautiful, covered in blood and dirt and her features fraught with distress, and as Hugh looked at her he was reminded of just how much he loved her. Oh, Empress, what do I do? he thought as he watched Asser gesture to the four women with a sweep of his arms. How do I save her? How do I get her out of here?
            ‘What do you expect me to do with these?’ the Duskguard said, his dozen armed, armoured and cloaked men still behind him. ‘I’m not a savage, not like you and your idiotic band of hooligans. I come from better origins than you scum.’
            Asser gritted his teeth. ‘Very well,’ he said, visibly angry. ‘Ye promised me more coin anyway, so jus’ cough up an’ be gone. Where is it?’
            ‘You must’ve misheard me,’ the Duskguard said, turning his back on the Dwarf and pushing his hands under the heavy, dark cloak he wore. ‘I promised you more silvery metal.’
            The Dwarf let out an angry growl. ‘Wha’s the difference?’ he yelled. ‘Pay me an’ get out me cave!’
            Wordlessly, the Duskguard span on the balls of his feet and whipped from under his cloak a long, steely knife. It flashed in the firelight as he turned, slashing wide Dead Knuckles Asser’s throat. The Dwarf had no chance to cry out, only to gurgle and slump, clawing at his neck with his fingers as blood bubbled from the wound. The Duskguard himself issued no orders, but his men behind him all drew their swords and advanced upon the bandits in the cavern, but Hugh saw none of them. There was something in the way the Duskguard moved that seemed familiar, though he could not place it. Who are you? he thought as he stared from the shadows.
            As Asser slumped to the floor and coughed up his last breath, the Duskguard knelt over his body. ‘No loose ends, I’m afraid,’ he said before getting to his feet and sheathing the weapon. ‘Kill them all!’ he yelled as he made for his horse, marching through the battle now raging in the middle of the cavern. ‘Then kill those prisoners they kept. As I said – there can be no loose ends. Earl Aesinger wants every last one of his coins that you find back, too!’
            Frantically, Hugh looked from the Duskguard to his soldiers, who were setting about the bandits with the trained precision of imperial soldiers, and then to the four prisoners, hands and mouths bound. For the moment, there was nothing he could do. He knew that if he ran to the prisoners now, he would end up caught in the battle, mistaken for a bandit. Instead, though his heart cried out for him to rush to Sara, he stayed put, hiding in the shadows.
            He watched as the bandits that had slaughtered the folk of Kirkby-by-Hill were themselves massacred, cut down by men with four times the skill and ten times the advantage. Flashes of steel and cries of agony filled the cavern as one by one the bandits were themselves killed, adding their own blood to that of their already dead Dwarven leader.
            It was over in moments. The battle-weary and travel-fatigued vagabonds were cut to pieces by the steel of the cloaked warriors. As soon as the last bandit fell, one of the cloaked men pointed to two of the others. ‘You and you, kill the prisoners. We’ll meet you at the usual rally point. Be quick.’
            ‘Aye, Sir,’ the two men said in unison.
            Heart in his mouth, Hugh watched as ten of the cloaked warriors re-mounted their horses and sped away from the cavern, their fine steeds trotting quickly back up the passageway and into the gloom. The two men they left behind nodded to one-another, their faces hidden by their hooded cloaks, and advanced on the four village girls.
            Hugh watched as they rocked in terror, trying to wriggle free of their bonds and get away from the two advancing men. There was nothing he could yet do, though, for the last few cloaked warriors were still at the bottom of the cavern, not yet departed. If I go now, they’ll simply overpower me and I’ll be killed, along with Sara! Oh Empress, hurry them along! With each passing second, Hugh watched the two men tasked with killing the girls slid closer and closer bloody swords already in their hands.
            Then, with one final clatter, the last horseman departed the cavern and vanished into the shadows. Hugh span around where he crouched in the darkness at the edge of the large cavern and found he had been left alone with only two of the cloaked killers standing between him and Sara. This is my moment!  ‘Sara!’ he cried, unable to stop himself for another moment. He leapt from the shadows, sword still in his hands.
            She looked up, her teary eyes wide, full of hope and fear. She saw him and began to thrash frantically, waving her head from side to side and rocking on the spot. But as Hugh closed towards her, one of the soldiers spun around, striking a blow for Hugh’s head which he only narrowly dodged. He slipped on the damp stone floor and fell, jarring his injured arm as he went down and letting out a screech of pain.
            As the man who had attacked him raised his sword to strike a second time, the first guard cut the throat of the first peasant girl. Hugh could hear the muffled screams from the remaining three as he tried to lift his sword to block the incoming blow. It struck hard, sending pain reverberating through his wounded arm and causing him to cry out again. Over and over his foe struck down, and every time Hugh only just managed to position his sword to block the blow.
            Desperately, Hugh kicked out wildly with his right foot. He caught the attacking man on the inside of his knee and caused him to stagger, and whilst he was recovering Hugh leapt to his feet. His sword spun, but this time it was the warrior’s turn to block. Hugh’s sword scraped across the man’s chest armour, cutting the tie of the attacker’s cloak as it did. The garment fell onto the shadowy floor, revealing the man’s torso in full.
            Black-coated steel glittered in the firelight that bounced around the dark cavern. Emblazoned upon the breastplate and painted yellow-gold was the crest of a phoenix – wings spread wide and its head uplifted as if crying to the cave’s dark ceiling. ‘Imperial armour?’ Hugh said, though he was hardly surprised.
            ‘Earl Aesinger wants all you peasants dead,’ the soldier said, gritting his teeth. He was a young man, a few years older than Hugh, with light hair and a scruff of beard upon his face. ‘He also wants to make sure no-one knows he had his fingers in the Southern Heartlands, so we’re gonna kill all you bandits now. Even sent that boy along with him to help us with the task!’
            ‘Boy?’ Hugh’s eyes widened in shock. He couldn’t possibly mean that worm Darry, could he? he thought, glaring into the eyes of his foe. ‘Aesinger’s own son is here?’ he breathed.
            He got no response. Instead, the soldier made a slash at his neck which Hugh blocked with his sword. A metallic clang reverberated around the cavern as the two men began their duel once more. Though Hugh had been well-trained as a boy, he was perilously rusty, and for what skill he had the other man matched in strength and precision. They stepped around each other, whirling away from the prisoners and the other soldiers as they fought – away from Sara.
            Then, just as Hugh’s arm was numbing with pain, he caught a break. His foe slipped on the moisture-greased floor and lost his footing for a moment. It was all Hugh needed to drive his sword through the man’s unarmoured armpit and into his body. The soldier let out a squawk of pain and fell to the floor, dead moments later as blood gushed from the ruptured artery in a shadowy red torrent.
            Hugh turned his eyes back to the prisoners and the other soldier. As he looked on, a dozen paces away from where three of the four women lay dead, he watched hopelessly as the final soldier held Sara’s rosy-red face in his left hand and his bloody sword in his right. ‘No!’ Hugh cried out, starting at a run towards her, his sword clenched in his fist and tears on his cheeks. His feet slipped and slid over the moisture-slicked stone of the cavern floor, made all the more treacherous by the flickering darkness sent reeling across it by the firelight.
            He rushed up behind the man holding Sara and drove his sword through his back with all his might. He felt flesh tear and bone crack as he struck, the weapon sliding in through a weak spot in the armour the man wore. He fell heavily backwards onto Hugh, knocking them both to the floor in a clatter of steel and stone, the blood-soaked sword he held falling from his fingers.
            Hugh left his blade sticking through the torso of the dying man and scrambled towards where Sara had been slumped. ‘Sara, my sweet, I’m here,’ he said, struggling to pull himself forwards. ‘I’m here, you’re safe, it is all going to be alright…’
            But as he lifted his gaze to her face, he saw her rosy cheeks held their pretty blush no longer. Her warm lips were parted, pale and quickly turning cold, and there was blood on her slightly bucked front teeth. ‘No,’ Hugh said as he hauled himself over to her. ‘No, it cannot be!’ he cried, choked with sobs and more tears as he placed his bloody hand on her pale cheek.
            She made no response, and her apple-green eyes stared straight through Hugh and off into the darkness. As Hugh gathered her up in his arms and let out a long, heartbroken moan, he slid his hand into her mahogany-red hair and found it sticky with blood – blood that had leaked from the wide slash-wound that had torn wide her throat.
            ‘I’ve failed you all again,’ Hugh cried to the apathetic shadows in the cave, his own haunting voice bouncing back at him with the mocking echo. ‘I don’t deserve to love, for everyone my love touches is torn from me! Sara, my sweet, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!’ The final word echoed around the cavern, a ghostly hiss upon the still, damp air. It taunted Hugh as he slumped to the floor of the stone, clutching Sara’s corpse to himself and weeping, lost to grief.


It all comes down to coin, Hugh thought as he drove the flame-scarred shovel into the cold, hard ground. Silver flows through the Empire like blood. With an exhausted sigh, he pulled himself out of the shallow grave he had dug and sat on the edge of it for a moment, looking into the pit at his feet. ‘This will have to do, I’m afraid,’ he said to no-one. ‘I can’t dig any deeper, I’m too exhausted after burying everyone else.’
            He had run from the cave as soon as he had found the strength, tears streaking his face and his heart heavy with grief. ‘Darry!’ he had roared at the frozen world around him when he found it bereft of life, ‘Darry, come back here and face me, you coward!’ But no-one had come. Had Darry even been there? Hugh thought as he leaned heavily on the shovel for a moment as he caught his breath. Could Darry have been the Duskguard? He had been so sickly and ill when growing up, and the Duskguard looked more-or-less  fit and healthy.
            As he leaned on the shovel, Hugh shook his head and sighed. He had more questions than answers spinning in his mind, and no way of dealing with any of them quickly. Knowing Earl Aesinger was involved felt like some form of closure, though not enough to lift the weight of guilt and regret from Hugh’s shoulders. He was left to assume that Aesinger had sent the Duskguard – be he Darry or otherwise – to the Southern Heartlands to find Hugh, perhaps on a hunch, perhaps on evidence; it did not matter, for Hugh had no way of finding out.
He had worked out what had happened though – or he had a theory, at the very least. The Duskguard had found Hugh in Kirkby-by-Hill and paid off a local group of bandits to slaughter everyone before having the bandits killed to cover his own tracks. Devious, Hugh thought, standing straight and taking his hand from the shovel. Any earl or lord found acting in territory beyond his own is fit for trial before the senate. With blood on the bandits’ hands and them all dead in a cave, it looks as if they attacked the village and then fell out over the spoils. Such deceit. It reeks of my uncle’s doing.
            He turned to the final body, wrapped in what had once been his threadbare cloak. Sara’s figure was hidden beneath it; her wounds, her fear, her pain, all had left her beneath the cloak. When Hugh had closed her eyes, she had looked almost peaceful, as if she had simply slipped into an unending slumber.
            Hugh slid his arms under the cloak-covered form and picked Sara up. For a few moments he held her in his arms, tears on his cheeks. ‘I wish we could have spent more time together,’ he said as the cold winter wind began to blow about him. ‘I wish I could have seen you smile one last time, watched your pretty face light up in the sun of another summer evening. I wish I could have told you just how much you mean to me, and just how much I love you. But instead I give you to the cold, hard ground as I have everyone else.’
For a moment, words failed him and he descended into a torrent of tears. ‘I’m sorry, my sweet Sara,’ he managed to say a few moments later as he carefully stepped down into the grave he had dug for her, alongside that of her father. ‘This is all my fault. I should have told you all the truth from the start, I should never have been ashamed of who I was or tried to hide it.’ He took a long, slow steadying breath as he lay Sara’s broken body down on the cold hard soil. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said again as he stood, ‘and I swear I’ll never forget you or any of the others. I’ll try and do better by you, to make this world a better place. There is so much evil and hatred here, perhaps I can try and take some of it out.’
With one final kiss upon her cloak-covered forehead, Hugh turned and pulled himself up out of the shallow grave he had dug for his lost love. Picking up the shovel once more, he began to fill in the grave with the firm dirt he had excavated, watching as Sara’s body disappeared under the dirt. May you awake in the embrace of the Divine Empress, free of all the woes of this worldly life.  
It had taken him days, but he had buried everyone in the village that he had the strength to: Sara, her father, Olfden, Lynna, Felyr, and many others. It had taken him hours on end – in fact, he was no-longer sure what day it was. Had it been dark when I started digging? he asked himself as he tossed the last of the dirt back into Sara’s grave. I have no idea how long I’ve been here for…
The last few hours – or days; however long he had been digging, wrapping bodies in what material he could find and burying them – had passed in a haze of grief. Every corpse had felt like a monument to his weakness, a mark of his failure and cowardice. ‘I shall never hide again,’ he said to Sara’s grave as he stood over it. ‘I am Sir Hugh Fortescue, son of Earl Jacob Fortescue and Lady Isabella Beshing. I should have told you a long time ago, but now I shall never hide it from anyone.’
As he tossed the last load of soil onto Sara’s grave, Hugh turned to the dark, brooding dawn sky above and glared up into the clouds as the first few flakes of new snow began to fall. ‘If you want me, uncle, you can come and find me! I am Sir Hugh, and one day I shall take vengeance upon you for all the wrongs you have done me and those I love!’
He drove the shovel into the ground and picked up his sword. It was Captain Aethlar’s, he thought as he belted it around his body, but now it is mine. It has saved my life many times, just as he did that fateful night in Westwarden Castle’s great hall. The weight of the weapon on Hugh’s back felt good: it was comforting, like a friendly hand assuring that all would be well and that there was someone at his back.
Hugh cast one last gaze over the crude graveyard he had dug just a few hundred paces to the north of the ruined village of Kirkby-by-Hill. Behind him, the burned-out buildings he had called home for a decade still smouldered in the cold of the new, crisp dawn. The sun had only just risen, and the dark sky hid its light from the white world below, where Hugh looked over his handiwork. Dozens of individual graves were marked with either sticks or stones at their heads. He had saved the largest rock he could find – the very stone that had hidden his sword by the well for so many years – for Sara, and had found a sprig of mistletoe to lay upon the top of her grave.
With a long, slow breath, Hugh turned his back on the graves.  Now, I begin anew, he told himself. His hand went to his chest, which was covered by a battered leather hauberk he had pillaged from a dead bandit. From within it he took a scrap of paper he had found amidst the wreckage of Kirkby-by-Hill. He held it in his hands for a few moments, eyeing the text. It was written in a quick, spidery hand. ‘Help wanted – poachers plague Sundale Farmstead, stealing livestock,’ Hugh read aloud to the cold morning wind. ‘West of Bandale. Rewarded in silver.’
With one last glance back over his shoulder at the ruins of his life, Earl Hugh said a silent farewell to those he had lost before turning his head back towards where he needed to go. Rewarded in silver, he thought to himself as he set off north-west towards Bandale. He had been there before several years ago and knew the way, it was simple enough.
By no means did the contract offer him any answers or vengeance against his uncle, nor did it directly bring him any closer to discovering if Darry was the Duskguard, but it did offer him coin. I cannot retake that which Earl Aesinger has stripped me of without help; It all comes down to money, Hugh thought as he kicked his way through the ankle-deep snow at his feet and looked up at the dark sky above him. Silver flows through the Empire like blood.

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