Fantasy Thriller Others
The air was thick with the bittersweet tang of blood. Crows and wolves were already gathering for the feast. A sound could be heard every now and again amongst the dead and the dying; sometimes a cry for help, mostly an injunction for blessed release. Soldiers moved around the dead bodies, helping those that could be saved out of the battlefield and helping those that could not, out of their misery. Other figures moved too, helping themselves to whatever valuables could be found on men who needed them no more. Washing his hands of the blood and the grime, Balaen Stramar watched the proceedings dispassionately, having watched this macabre scene more times than he wanted to. His weary eyes spotted riders, silhouetted against the setting sun, heading towards him and raising a small cloud of dust in their wake.
“What news do you bring, captain?” Baelen queried as the group drew to a halt near him.
His captain, Eugene Harkady, shook off his helmet and smoothed down his lanky blond hair.
“We have the rebels pinned to a small fortification in the west. The commander sent me, requesting reinforcements.”
“But surely your forces outnumber those of the rebels,” Balaen said calmly.
“They refuse to surrender,” Eugene reported.
“They’re dug in quite well with weapons and provisions; Lord Grendt must have foreseen this possibility.”
“Ah, and what were the terms of surrender offered to them?” Balaen dried his hands on his tunic.
A momentary irritation flashed across Eugene’s grim, pitted face.
“The commander asked them to surrender peacefully under the King’s peace or face death.”
Balaen walked into his tent, causing the captain and his entourage to dismount. He smiled to himself; if he was going to debate, it would be on his terms.
Eugene entered the tent behind him, stooping a little on account of his tall frame. Balaen sat on a chair and offered one to Caen, who shook his head.
“So, captain,” he stared at the younger man long enough to make him uncomfortable, “You’re here to request extra men so that you can storm the keep?”
“Yes, my lord. The battle may have been won, but the war hasn’t.”
“Yes, it is as you say. Can you recognise what this is, captain?”
Eugene noted the dark brown stains on Balaen’s arm and surrounding tunic.
“Blood, my lord,” he replied.
“Yes, captain. It is blood. Do you know whose blood it is?”
“The enemy’s?” A faint note of hesitation was creeping in Eugene’s haughty demeanour.
“It is the blood of Lord Grendt’s men and that of our own. It is the blood of men who fought for their liege and for what they thought was their realm. I have been trying to wash it off all evening, captain, and it still doesn’t go away.”
A ghost of a grim smile played on Balaen’s craggy face.
“I do not wish to have any more on my hands. You’ll get the men you need, captain, but I am coming with you. Ask my guard to mount up. We leave within the hour.”
A grunt and a stiff bow told him that his captain disagreed with his perspective, but Balaen didn’t care. His charge was to crush Lord Grendt’s rebellion against the throne, one which wished to fulfil without any more shedding of blood.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
As the riders mounted and rode away from the encampment, a hooded figure nodded to itself in the shadows. It retrieved a small hourglass from its robes and tapped it a little, watching little flakes of sand drifting down. Yes, it thought, it is beginning.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The inn was overflowing with spirit and sound. The serving wenches ran hither and thither, spilling foamy ale in their wake as the townsfolk mingled and exchanged words with each other.
“More!” demanded the captain as he banged his empty tankard on the table.
“More!” echoed his yeoman happily, eager to get drunk at their lord’s expense.
Not that the innkeeper ever demanded any money from Lord Harkady’s men anyway, but tonight marked a special occasion, and the small town of Charham was experiencing the magnanimity of their tyrant. Seven oxen roasted on spits along the town centre; ale flowed freely and easily. The innkeeper reached for another cask; with the profit margin, he would be a rich man at the end of the night.
The door swung just as he pried the cask open. It was strange, he noticed, how the stranger cast no shadow. Even stranger was the way the hubbub died as he entered the inn with his black holdall and headed straight for the innkeeper. Even the usually boisterous yeomen had taken to whispers upon the new arrival; only the Lord’s Pet remained unaffected, scribbling the gods knew what on the floor.
“What can I do for you, guv’nor?” The innkeeper said evenly, gauging the new entrant. The man was dressed in a black shirt with matching breeches tucked inside black, knee-length boots; somewhat surprisingly, a pink wide-brimmed hat adorned his head. His features were hidden behind a ragged beard with streaks of grey, his age seemed indeterminate. But it was his eyes, the innkeeper noticed, that really set him apart; onyx black eyes, deeper than the deepest fathoms of the oceans, older than time itself. Despite himself, the innkeeper shivered a little.
The newcomer seemed to take stock his surroundings. Not that there was much to see; the walls needed a fresh layer of paint, the bar could do with replacing, and the inn could benefit from an extra stool or two. Faded tapestries hung on the walls, all marked with the Harkady sigil – a pair of crossed axes, gold on black.
The innkeeper cleared his throat. “Do you need something?”
The man placed his hands on the bar and smiled grimly; thick chains covered his hands till the elbow and connected to the twin holster on his back that housed antique-looking guns.
“Yes,” his voice was deep, but not coarse, “But I’m not sure you can give it to me.”
The innkeeper was perplexed. “What would that be?”
“I want news, and I’m willing to pay for it.”
“What news?” The innkeeper cleaned a mug nonchalantly. His sense of dread was growing; he cast surreptitious glances towards the group of yeomen sitting across the hall. They seemed to be content spilling ale from their tankards and slapping the serving girls on the rump.
“News concerning Lord Harkady’s estate,” the stranger continued.
“What is the celebration about?”
The innkeeper relaxed. The man was only curious, it seemed.
“It’s been ten years since he came to power.”
The innkeeper picked up another mug and started wiping it.
“He is celebrating the fulfilment of the Prophecy. Tonight he consolidates his rule.”
“Is he, really?” The stranger seemed to consider this.
“Interesting man, your Lord Harkady. Must have been, to have got to where he is today.”
“Yes, interesting indeed.”
The innkeeper glanced at the yeomen again. While the others still seemed to be engrossed amongst themselves, the captain, who seemed drunk a moment ago, was watching the pair with interest. A thin bead of sweat trickled down the innkeeper’s neck.
“If you don’t mind now, would you rather have some beer?” he asked desperately.
The stranger simply shook his head and gestured towards the Pet.
“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing towards the little boy in the dirty robe.
“One of Lord Harkady’s fancies, I believe. He brought him here when he arrived.”
The innkeeper said. “Look now, guv’nor...”
The stranger got up and walked towards the little boy.
“What’s your name, lad?” he asked, not unkindly.
The boy wiped a runny nose on his sleeve. “What’s it to you, mister?”
“It may well be everything, little one.”
The stranger ruffled his hair and took out a violin from his bag.
“You know what this is?”
“O’course I do.” came the indignant reply.
“Of course, you do,” the stranger agreed.
“Do this for me, will you? Run along to the innkeeper and order a bowl of his best stew and start eating. Go on, that’s a good lad.”
As the child gobbled the stew greedily, the stranger tuned his violin, strumming it every now and again. Slowly the individual chords became more coherent, and music started to flow like a river in flood, enveloping everyone. It was a simple tune, yet profoundly sad and wistful. A hush fell over the inn, as the soulful rendition entranced every soul, dragging one back to the happiest days of one’s life, the best memories, of things that were and never shall be again. And then, just as soon as it started, the music stopped. The violin lay smashed on the floor.
“Fancy yourself a musician, do you?”
The captain of the yeoman was breathing heavily, his face red with anger and exertion.
“Music has been banned by the lord himself.”
“Your lord, not mine,” the stranger said equably, “And I am more of a composer, I believe.”
“Hear that lads? We’ve got a real composer here. Here in Charham, our very own composer! He’ll play music for us.”
The captain gave a chuckle.
“Tell us, what will you play now?”
The yeoman abandoned their drinks and surrounded him, their swords in their hands. The man smiled again as he stood up; it was not a pleasant smile.
“Think of it as an Overture to Death,” he said darkly.
The innkeeper had heard of the Quickdraws, master gun-men adept at getting accurate shots off in rapid succession. He’d even heard rumours of a small group of legendary gunmen who could bend their bullets. What he hadn’t expected was the speed with which the chained hands drew the guns from their holsters with barely a tug, nor had he completely comprehended how the expertly guided movements cut through the yeomen leaving only the captain standing feeling slightly stupefied. All the eyes in the inn had turned on the tableau, as the stranger and the captain stood facing each other in their own private world, like a remote island far out in the blue ocean.
“Run,” said the stranger; the captain obeyed without hesitation.
The stranger waited till the captain ran out of the door, turned and fired a single shot. There was a distant grunt, and the heavy thump of a body hitting the ground.
“Can’t do that with swords, mind.”
The stranger chuckled, winking at the innkeeper.
“I’ll have a jar of your strongest ale, a loaf of black bread and a bowl of stew the lad is having.”
The innkeeper stared at the stranger, his mouth agape.
“You just...you did...but how?”
“Wrong questions, guv’nor,” the stranger said, restringing his violin.
“The question you should be asking is why, and most importantly, what now.”
The innkeeper wondered about what would happen next and shuddered. The haunting music filled the inn again, the wistful melody from the violin playing a more intense theme now. The Overture to Death, he’d called it, and Death would come soon; Lord Harkady was unlikely to leave this little incident go unpunished. But for now, there was only the music, and that was the only thing that mattered.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“He did what?” exclaimed Lord Eugene Harkady, spittle flying from his mouth.
“He played music, my lord.”
There was a nervous shuffling of feet.
“Then he killed everyone.”
“Why is he still alive then?” Eugene Harkady ground his teeth in frustration. This, the finest, most glorious hour of his rule, was slowly turning into ashes in his mouth. He took a deep draught from the pitcher he held and threw it away in disgust. The wine, which had tasted sweeter than honey not so long ago, now tasted worse than dog’s piss. The guard in front of him did not meet his stare.
“Kill him. Kill him now and bring me his head,” he grunted, his festive mood evaporating like the morning dew, “Or I’ll see yours struck from your shoulders.”
The guard hurried away, leaving Lord Harkady behind with his troubled thoughts. She’d warned him, he remembered. She’d warned him this may come to pass. Damn the hag, Eugene swore inwardly. Damn her and her obtuse prophecies.
His thoughts were interrupted by a soft noise from his doorway. He turned sharply, drawing out his dagger.
“Father?” Niall was peeking hesitantly from behind the door.
With his curly, blonde hair and bright blue eyes, ten years old Niall looked nothing like the man he called his father. Where Eugene stood tall and broad, Niall was small for his age and slight of build; his fair skin stood in stark contrast with Eugene’s darker features. The boy was trembling slightly, his gaze fixed at the weapon in Eugene’s hand.
“Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?” he asked, sheathing his weapon.
Niall shook his head in response.
“There’s too much noise, father.”
The child clutched weakly at his clothes.
“And I’m afraid.”
A deep seated loathing filled Eugene to the very core. The child was just like his mother, soft and weak and utterly useless. Not useless, he corrected himself. This slight, weak child would ensure that the name of Eugene Harkady would live on forever. Eugene smiled grimly on the irony.
“Go to your bed,” he commanded, “I will send for you shortly.”
For a moment, the boy looked like he might put up resistance. But the flash of defiance vanished as soon as it had appeared. Eugene nodded satisfactorily to himself; the gutless child would dare not defy him when the time came. If only this night could have passed without incident. It was to be the night of his crowning glory, until it all threatened to unravel with the coming of that infernal stranger. Damn the hag, he swore again. Tonight was the night he had not wished to invoke her; and yet tonight was the night now he must.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Stranger hauled himself over the wall with relative ease and took stock of his surroundings. The courtyard was bare, as was to be expected. Lord Harkady had sent most of his troops out into the town looking for him, leaving his own keep relatively undefended. A few guards still patrolled the walls, but fortune was in the Stranger’s favour. There was no moon in the sky, the clouds obscuring what little light remained. Even the torches lit at regular intervals seemed to emphasise the gloom than alleviate it. In a way, it suited the Stranger. Most of the guards were local lads who had drafted into Lord Harkady’s service for two square meals, some respect and easy coin. It wasn’t something they deserved to die for – at least not yet. He glanced around once more to ensure there was no one in sight and trotted off towards the keep looming in front of him.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Eugene felt the cold wind rising around him, whipping at his clothes even as the leaves on trees just a short distance away seemed unaffected. The dead man near his feet seemed to shudder for an instant and dissolved into nothing before turning upright at the edge of his vision. It seemed to be dancing, if it could be called that, in a disjointed manner. Eugene thought he could make out three dark shapes rushing towards the body from three different directions. He blinked, and the shapes disappeared.
"Kill you must, or die you shall... a horrible screech seemed to fill the entire night sky. Fell him you must, or face your downfall..."
“Who is he?” he rasped, the buffeting winds making speech nearly impossible.
"When the past is not the past... The dead man was still dancing to its awkward rhythm. When Death shirks from duty...he rises strong and fast...born of blood, of earth, of grass...he comes reforged...Abelor the last..."
“The last of Abelors is dead,” Eugene shouted.
“The boy is nothing.”
The response seemed to be more fervent gyrations and a rise in the wind surrounding him. Ice crackled under his feet, but the chill that he felt didn’t have anything to do with the dropping temperature.
"The past ascends on wings of death...it rises strong and sure...he comes with memories of wrongs done...he comes with a vengeance so pure..."
The dead man halted, seemingly confused; the wind died away as the unholy cacophony stopped. The gaze of its red, glowing eyes seemed accusatory.
"This one that you bring us... it is not sufficient..."
“With you, what is?” Eugene replied venomously, glad to be able to breathe freely again.
“Just one more night! Help me claim what is mine, and I will give you all that you ask for!”
There was a sharp crack, and Eugene Harkady suddenly found himself flat on the ground unable to move his limbs. The dead man sat on his chest. The red glow in its eyes had taken on a dangerous sheen.
“You will...give...usss....” it spoke with a harsh sibilant hiss, the mouth moving at odds to the words spoken, “...you...who...were granted...power...by...usss?”
There was a brief pause as it seemed to formulate the next sentence.
“Do...not...presume...to...be...our massster...Eugene Harkady...”
“You...need...me...” Eugene croaked.
The red eyes seemed to consider this.
“Yesss...but do not....think yourssself...indisssspenssable...” it tilted its head, thick white fog pouring out of its mouth, “bring usss....the...boy...and we...ssshalll...ssseee...”
The dead man disappeared just like morning dew evaporating at the first touch of light, but Eugene could hear its final message.
"We will meet again...before the night passes...as an unpaid due shall be demanded...life and death and shadow cross paths...he comes again...Abelor the last..."
Eugene Harkady got to his feet. Just one more night, he told himself, just one more night of putting up with the hag, just one more sacrifice to be made. The boy would finally play his part. And he’d be granted power over death and life, the power to make his own destiny. He walked down the path to the keep; the stranger would be dealt with without any further delay. Behind him, the thick white fog roiled on in the little clearing in the woods; twisting, turning, waiting.