The book is NOT SUITABLE for Young Readers
Pin Wei set his bag beside the stool then unwrapped his lute and began carefully retuning it. He glanced surreptitiously aside at Reaper Hawk who was sitting on a bench by the fire, his long legs stretched out into its welcome warmth while he leaned back against the table. When the barmaid came with a fresh mug of beer for Hawk, Pin Wei requested some wine, never having acquired the barbarian’s taste for ale.
The day was dark, the sky heavy with unshed rain, and the inn’s tavern was occupied only by Reaper’s folk. It was still too early in the day for the local farmers to come in, and too late for even the laziest merchants to be lingering over their breakfasts.
“You gonna play something new for us tonight, Pin?” called one of Hawk’s men.
Pin Wei nodded his thanks to the barmaid, ignoring the man’s question while he flipped her a coin. The wine was pleasant enough, if a little too dry. It was at least drinkable, and therefore a good sight better than anything he’d had in weeks. He strummed at his lute, extracting a nice chord, then began picking out an intricate tune while he kept the beat by tapping his foot. Soon all the barbarians were clapping along, keeping his beat for him, and having played through the chorus once, he launched into the first verse.
“Barbarian Reaper, Hawk of Death,
Trod the desolate desert road,
A dust and smoke laden wind
Blew through his raven hair.
From the ruins of Damnation
He made his way
Fleeing fire and destruction
And a foetid stench that cleaved the air.
Before him, in the desert, twas a shimmering light.
His armour grew heavy
His sight grew dim
He had to stop for the night.
A comely woman there was in the doorway
Beneath the tree-painted sign,
Shapely she was, and sweet tongued
A delight for the eye
The woman, she welcomed him in,
Bid him stay for the night,
Offered him wine and a meal
And pleasured delight
A sharp gesture from Reaper stopped the song short. “Gi’e it a rest, Pin.”
All the barbarians fell still, though Pin Wei continued to play softly while he looked at Reaper.
“What were that shite?”
Pin Wei picked out another refrain, making his lute cry before answering. “The Lay of the Desert Inn.”
Reaper passed a hand over his face, digging his fingers into his eye sockets as he shook his head. “Look, laddie, I dinna ken where ye get yer stories from, but this uns total bollocks.”
“Really?” Pin Wei hid a smile while his fingers played an arpeggio.
Reaper nodded. “Ye canna start a story that way.”
“But this is where the story starts.”
“Nay, it don’t. Why were I on that road? Why were Damnation burnin’? Why were there an inn out in th’ middle o’ th’ desert?”
“That all comes clear later.”
Reaper shook his head. “Nah, laddie. Th’ basis o’ every good story is tha’ ye start at th’ beginnin’ an’ goes on till th’ end. Ye dinna start in th’ middle and go back to th’ beginnin’ then on ta th’ end. How’re people ta make any sense o’ somethin’ like that?”
“So where does the story start, Hawk?”
Reaper sighed. “A gods-be-damned long time ago, laddie. Centuries gone.”
“Sounds like quite a tale.”
Hawk settled back on his bench and took a pull on his beer. “Me part in’t began when I befriended an exiled Karvekian by th’ name o’ Galentin Goldenhair. He were a rogue.” Reaper smiled. “But he were useful in a fight and fun ta share a drink with. We met, oh, about a year or two after th’ sacking o’ Y’lantra an’ ended up fighting fer a man by th’ name o’ Baldur who had claims on th’ throne of Sehm. Galentin an’ I, we made those claims stick, then we settled in ta reap th’ benefits o’ our rewards.” Reaper grinned at the hearty cheer that got him from the mercenaries. He took a long drink, then, slowly, put his mug down and glared suspiciously at Pin Wei. “Ye sang tha’ horrible thing a purpose didn’t ye? Just so’s I’d tell ye th’ real story.”
Pin Wei set down his lute with a smile. “Why, Hawk, I blush at your accusation.”
Reaper Hawk snorted. There wasn’t a hint of a blush anywhere on Pin Wei’s face. “A’right.” He gestured to the barmaid for a refill. “Ye jus’ make sure ye get all this down ‘cause I’m nay likely ta be repeatin’ it any time soon.” He drained off the last of his beer as the barmaid approached with a fresh mug. “An’ next time I hear ye sing tha’ bloody Lay, ye’d better have’t right.” He glared at the minstrel who gave him back a cocky grin.
“Of course, Hawk. When have I ever let you down?” Pin Wei took out his writing tools and set them carefully on the table ready to hand.
Reaper took another drink, then glanced at Pin Wei before launching into the tale.
Galentin Goldenhair and I were accorded the honour of sharing a suite in the palace. The seneschal made it clear to us that it was an honour that was being afforded us, and made equally clear that he doubted if we deserved it. Personally, I think Baldur put us up in the palace in order to avoid the headache of having to clean up the dead and maimed that Galentin tended to leave in his wake. He had a lot of pride, had Galentin, and very little discretion. He also had a hankering for sex the like of which I’ve rarely seen. It was as though Varshena had touched his soul. We made frequent visits to Astarte’s temple so he could sheath his sword in willing, and trouble-free, flesh.
It was the morning after just such a visit that a summons came from Baldur, via a sanctimonious messenger with grandiose delusions of his own importance. We had been drinking heavily, and Galentin had worn out half a dozen eager young ladies, before we made it back to our rooms well past sunrise. Neither of us was particularly happy to be woken by the messenger’s less than timid imprecations for our attention. I was in no mood to talk to the fool, my head was aching and I might have taken his if he’d said the wrong thing, or used the wrong tone. Something he was sure to do.
Eventually, after the fifth knock, Galentin staggered past me, cursing under his breath, and threw the door open. “This better be good, fool, or I’ll have your guts out.”
The messenger paled and pulled in his offending paunch then let it drop and thrust his chin in the air, trying to pretend he hadn’t sucked it in. He drew a deep breath, inflating his narrow chest the better to expose the royal messengers’ insignia embroidered upon it.
“If you use parade voice in here, the Plainsman will feed you your ears.” Galentin was always solicitous of my moods, at least once I taught him to be.
“I come on official business, Sir Galentin.” The messenger’s voice was almost too quiet to hear.
I smiled. Sometimes a reputation as vile as mine had its uses.
Galentin waited several heartbeats then said, “Well? Get on with it! It’s too early to linger overlong in the doorway.”
“Early, sir? It’s past midday.”
“The Plainsman and I were up til past dawn ploughing the virgin fields in Astarte’s temple.” I heard the rasp of his stubble as Galentin wiped a hand over his face. “Just get on with it.”
The messenger, being of rather unimpressive height, tried to draw himself up even higher. He thrust his chin towards the sky, exposing his throat in a way, I’m sure he would have been embarrassed to discover, was a sign of submission in almost every species except human. “His most exalted majesty, King Baldur, fifth of that name, commands your presence at an audience to be held at the first bell past noon.”
“He does, does he? Well we better not keep his hirsute majesty waiting, eh?”
The messenger didn’t seem to know how to respond to that and deflated somewhat. “Ah… He asked for both of you.”
“Let the barbarian sleep. The servants get nervous whenever he shows his face about the palace.” Galentin stretched. “Let me throw on some clothes.” I could hear the smile in his voice. “We wouldn’t want all the maids to faint away at sight of me now, would we?” He laughed and walked back into his room. He came back out a moment later wearing only his sword.
By this time I was trying to drown the drummers beating on the inside of my skull by submerging my head in a bucket of water. I came up for air just as Galentin got to the door.
“Sir?” The messenger sounded horrified. “Wouldn’t some trousers be more suitable attire for an audience with the king?”
Galentin looked down. “Really? You don’t think trousers a little much? I wouldn’t want to be overdressed and set a bad example.”
“Definitely not, sir.”
“Well, if you say so. I guess you’d know best about these things, being civilised and all.” Galentin went back into his room. By the time he came back out wearing a pair of garishly coloured britches that made my eyes water, I was dressed and out the door. Galentin stepped out, closed the door, then, ignoring me, gestured for the messenger to lead the way.
The halls the messenger led us down were unusually empty, and that woke me even better than the bucket of water had. I was scanning for trouble when the messenger showed us into a smallish room, thickly carpeted, richly panelled, and totally devoid of courtiers.
I stopped the messenger before he could leave. “Why aren’t we in th’ throne room?”
“The throne room is being refurbished, Sir Hawk. Some new statuary, I’m told.” He smiled obsequiously at me.
“And where be all th’ people? Th’ ‘alls’re usually overflowin’ with ‘em.”
“Like maggots from a corpse,” said Galentin, adding his bit of colour to the conversation.
“Everyone was ordered to stay out of the halls so that the workmen would have clear access to the throne room, sir.”
Galentin was helping himself to the food laid out on a table by the wall. “When’s your lord and master going to show himself?” He snagged a bottle of a harsh brew the locals called shilut and took a long pull at it.
“The King should be with you momentarily, Sir Galentin. He had another guest.” The messenger looked a little irked that he had to explain the king’s absence and scurried away before we could ask any more questions. Probably everyone else just waited about til Baldur was good and ready to see them.
Baldur came in not long after the ringing of the bell that marked the start of the afternoon watch. He had stone dust on his shoes and robes and a bruise on one cheek. He looked fit to chew on a bog-troll’s leg. The signs probably weren’t obvious to anyone who didn’t know him well, but I’d fought beside the man and knew most every one of his moods. He was followed into the room by an old man who walked with a staff. Something didn’t seem right, so I melted back into the shadows by the window and waited. Baldur closed the door then came over and dropped into one of the wing-backed chairs.
“Can ye believe these folk have a room dedicated ta sittin’?” said Galentin, playing the fool. “Makes yer head spin.”
Baldur shot him a dark look, then smiled. “Where’s the Plainsman?”
“Recovering from a long night teaching civilised folk how to make a woman curve her back and scream wi’ pleasure.”
“You’re both sticking to unmarried lasses, I hope. I can’t afford to lose more citizens.”
Galentin caught the stress. “More citizens?”
“Two dozen have gone missing in the last week. No bodies. A servant finally saw fit to tell me why half my court had vanished. Apparently there’s a temple hereabouts that shows up once a generation and absconds with the cream of the youth.”
“A temple absconds?”
“So they tell me.”
“How in the nine hells does a temple abscond?”
“It vanishes. Disappears. Makes itself scarce.” Baldur clenched his fists, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Dark magic they say. It’s out of fear of this temple that all the prettiest girls of noble blood offer themselves up as servants in Astarte’s temple.”
“This fugitive temple only takes virgins?”
Baldur gave him a sardonic grin. “Innocents are easier to corrupt.”
“The ones in Astarte’s temple certainly are,” Galentin said with a laugh.
“Sit down,” said Baldur, waving to one of the chairs.
Galentin dropped into the chair opposite Baldur’s, and it groaned beneath his sudden weight. The old man was by the door, hugging the shadows same as me, and made no move to sit.
“I need you to do something about this temple.”
“I am. Reaper and I spent most of yesterday there deflowering a long queue of willing women.”
“Not that temple,” said Baldur. “The other one.”
Galentin looked surprised. “But how do you expect me to get in? I’m a lot of things, but virgin isn’t one of them.”
Baldur gestured and the old man shuffled forward. His back suddenly so curved it looked like a bent bow. “This is Varglaive.”
“Var o’ th’ Glaive,” said the old man studying Galentin with hard eyes. When he showed no recognition of the name, Var snorted. “I was th’ champion o’ Sargoth and slew th’ King o’ Karvek at his gate.”
“Sargoth?” Galentin looked to Baldur.
“King of Shiloam, thirteen or fourteen generations back,” said Baldur. “I had the court secretary look it up.”
“Gods!” Galentin looked back at Var. “And you still live? Are you human?”
“I’m as human as you, Karvekian. I yet live on account o’ havin’ spent th’ last three hundred years in th’ Temple o’ Demonic Delights.”
Var snorted again. “Yer king ‘ere thinks ye might be able ta match me with yer blade.” He didn’t look as though he believed that possible. “Ifn ye’re as good as ‘e thinks ye be, th’ Lady o’ th’ Temple will be right well int’rested in ye.”
“The Temple takes the best warriors too,” said Baldur.
“But only th’ civilised ones,” said Var. “She’s right careful about lettin’ barbarians past her doors.”
“That lets me out then,” said Galentin with a smile. “I’m about as uncivilised as you can get.”
“Ye don’t look nor but a little rough round th’ edges, lad. Ifn ye c’n wield yer sword as well as ye claim ta twiddle yer spear, she’ll like as not take ye.”
“How’s she to know I can do either? Do I need to slay a man on the temple steps, or make a virgin scream with delight?” Galentin smiled. “I’ve no compunctions about making a virgin scream if that’s what it’ll take.”
Var shook his head. “I ain’t no virgin, lad, an’ I doubt that ye’ll have me screamin’ any time soon.”
“I’m to fight you?” Galentin smiled. “No offence, Var, but the years ain’t exactly been kind ta ya.”
Var’s smile had a lot of teeth in it.
Galentin sighed and pushed himself to his feet. “A’right then. Where’s this courtship ta take place?”
“On temple’s steps, where else?”
Baldur stood and put a hand on Galentin’s arm, holding him back while Var left, and whispered something to him that I didn’t hear. I took the opportunity to slip out the window and jump down into the forecourt so I could be waiting by the gate when Galentin came out. When he saw me he called out a greeting, making like I hadn’t just witnessed everything above.
“Oi! How’s the head this morning?”
“Sore from all th’ pounding I did with it last night. Where are ye off to at this ungodly hour?”
“I’ve an appointment out in the city with the old man.” He jerked a thumb at Var. “‘E claims ta be the champion of a long dead king and wants ta test my mettle.”
I fell in beside him as he swung through the gate. “This got anythin’ ta do wi’ Balder’s summons?”
“Aye. Something about a cursed temple. The old man says he’s been a prisoner there for three hundred years.”
Var glanced up at me. “Be ye needin’ a shield-mate to hold yer staff for ye, lad? I’d ne’er a thought it from yer king’s descriptions o’ ye.”
“Oh, he’s man enough ta hold up his own staff, old man,” I said. “He’s nay any need o’ my help there.”
“Well, then ye’ve no need to come, ha’ ye?”
“Need? No.” I gave him my happy-innocent face. “But I’ve an overwhelmin’ desire ta see a king’s champion fight, so I think I’ll be comin’ along, just th’ same.”
Var grunted an acknowledgement then turned and strode out of the gate, staff tap, tap, tapping beside him as he walked.
“Ye notice his movements?” I said quietly as we followed him out. “Age’s grip ain’t half as tight as he pretends.”
“I saw. Baldur has a plan.”
“Does ‘e now? Does it involve you dyin’?”
Galentin laughed, his raucous bray causing Var to glance back at us. “You’ve a macabre sense of humour, my friend,” he said loudly, then, in a much softer voice, “I’m to lead Baldur’s people to the temple and keep the old man fighting while they burn it to the ground.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, voice just as quiet as Galentin’s.
“‘Cause if that be th’ plan, I’da thought he’d have people followin’ us.”
Galentin glanced over his shoulder and scanned the street and roof-tops. There were people aplenty on the street, but they were all townsfolk, merchants, whores, noble’s spawn. None of them had the look of the sort of person who Baldur should have had following us.
We turned down a street that led to one of the seedier quarters and though the press of people didn’t lessen, the character of the crowd changed. The clothes they wore showed signs of harder use and greater thrift, their faces were thinner, harder, and their eyes were never still.
I stepped over a pile of shit, casting a hard glance at the boy who was rushing to collect it. “Ye have nah done ought ta irritate th’ man, have ye?”
“Not since Elgin’s Wood.” Galentin frowned. “You think he’s kept a grudge?”
I shrugged. “What use are we ta him now ‘e’s got his throne?”
Galentin had no answer and we followed Var through increasingly narrow streets lined with increasingly dirty buildings and flocked with increasingly pinched and hungry-looking people. We drew looks, mostly furtive, but people stayed out of our way. It might have been a different story if it had been night and we’d been drunk, but sober and in the hazy twilight that passed for daylight between the overhanging buildings, they figured we were too great a threat to risk robbing.
Var turned into what looked to be a small courtyard and it was a moment before either of us realised that it was actually the forecourt of a prosperous-looking inn that had no right to be sitting in amongst the hovels that surrounded it. Galentin barely glanced at the sign before stepping into the court.
I made to step after him but bounced off an invisible wall that blocked the gateway. I could see everything that passed within, but couldn’t broach the wall, no matter how I tried.
Var, once he was back on his home ground, became young again, the years falling from him like water from a duck’s back. He and Galentin exchanged pleasantries, then insults. I could see Galentin’s anger building, and saw that Var marked it too. They fought then, and Var was good. Not as good as Galentin, but then I’d been training with him for a couple of years and he’d picked up a thing or two in that time. I saw the way Galentin neatly slipped past Var’s attack, saw his strike go home, a lovely sweeping blow that cut upwards from waist to collarbone. Var staggered backward, and I saw Galentin smile.
Then the bleeding started, and the pain, and the smile disappeared. Galentin took two steps back, dropping his sword, then he fell back through the gate and into my arms. “Bloody coward… had a… magic… blade,” he said, then died.
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