The Trojans had opened their gate enough for a small army to file out. It was a challenge. A challenge that Agamemmnon, Meneleus, Achilles and the others took up. We met the Trojans on the field.
The Trojans had opened their gate enough for a small army to file out. It was a challenge. A challenge that Agamemmnon, Meneleus, Achilles and the others took up. We met the Trojans on the field.
We had gained Troy’s beaches relatively unopposed. After a small skirmish, we had set up our camps. Come nightfall, Achilles was making music for me and the other two.
He played his lyre for the three of us. His fingers wove about the strings, making them do twirls as they sang out their notes.
He had taken the women Iphis and Deidamia from his time on Skyros. He had requested they share our tent in Troy. His reasoning had been that he didn’t wish the other Kings to discover our secret. With the arrangement Achilles had made, the Achaeans would not be like to discover the truth.
Iphis and Deidamia held each other on a bed of wood covered in animal hides. Fingers of moonlight filtered through the tent, but they were mostly hidden beneath a deerskin, and they were half-listening to Achilles music. The rest of their attention was focused on the touch and smell and taste of the other.
I laid my hands behind my head and listened to his playing. Achilles had a talent for making music breathe, talk, and tell a tale. For a time I thought that there must be a fifth member of our company.
The last echoes of his music faded, and we sat in silence. It felt as if something were missing from the world, now that Achilles had stopped playing. Even when Deidamia spoke, there seemed an emptiness that stayed with us.
“What news from the council of Kings?”
Achilles looked away. He poured himself into the simple task of wrapping his lyre in white linen and returning it to its red-brown trunk. “The raids begin tomorrow,” he said. “Menelaus wishes to see which soldiers should prove best. He wants to know who to keep close beside his own guard when he turns his sights to the city to retrieve his wife.”
“And attacking farmers is the best way to do this?” I asked.
“Demoralizing Troy is the best way to do it,” Deidamia said from her own bed.
“That is so.”
“Will I have to come with you?”
“Do you want to?”
“Then you don’t.”
Iphis glared at me from across the room. “What is a soldier who doesn’t fight?”
I looked away, all too aware of the heat on my face. I wished to answer, but words have never come easily to me, even when I know what it is I want to say.
“Don’t be too harsh with Patroclus,” Achilles said. The look he gave her was there and gone and I wondered if I imagined it when I had blinked. But I turned to Iphis and, seeing the fear on her face, realized my lover’s anger to be true.
“Don’t be so hasty to bring your wrath down upon this girl!” I clutched a fistful of his tunic and shoved him back onto our bed, and then swung my leg up and over his hips. “Save that for the farmers you’ll meet in the morning.” I spoke the words against his lips and put mine to his neck. The smell of him—the taste of him felt familiar, yet distant. He was detached from me and all else, and so these senses came back muted. “Achilles?” I said, “What’s wrong?”
“He doesn’t want to kill farmers,” Deidamia observed.
Achilles arced his neck to look at her. A cord there drew taut. “If you are to speak, Deidamia, speak plainly.”
“Iphis, too, has spoken plainly,” she observed. She kissed her. “And yet after threatening her for this you ask me to do the same?”
“What is it you would say?” Achilles asked.
“Only that your character is made of sterner stuff than farmer-killing.”
“Odysseus called it a strong tactic. A good idea for any siege,” Achilles said.
I sifted his hair through my hands. “You do not have to like it. You aren’t required to take joy in the songs of slaying.”
He sat up and our lips met, and he fell back upon the bed. “I don’t,” he said, “Yet I am to be the best of the Achaeans. I cannot do this if I refuse to take action in the simplest of siege maneuvers. It is a battle that is not a battle.”
“A massacre?” I suggested. He twisted his hips and I fell off him, and he rolled onto his side to embrace me.
“Yes,” he said, “But if I cannot prove myself best at even that, I will never achieve greatness. The other Kings will begin to doubt me.”
“They already do,” Deidamia said from across the room. She put a hand over Iphis’ mouth to put a temporary halt to their activities. “I would not put it past the other Kings to do the same. They are Kings after all, and you are merely Prince of Phthia.”
Achilles opened his mouth to reply, but I steered his head toward me. “Pay her no heed,” I said, “She seeks to irritate you. Nothing more.”
Three heartbeats passed, wordlessly. Achilles’ hold on me grew tighter. And, after a time, he asked, “Why don’t you join me in the raids? Don’t you think I’ll protect you?”
“Would that you could,” I replied, “But my fear is that you will be too swept up in battle to do anything. I shall be left to some chance arrow, and what will become of me then?”
“I would kill whoever it was who hurt you,” he said. He held me by either side of my face. My sight tunneled towards him, and the only feeling in the world was his callused hands. I felt blisters shaped like long small olives rough against my cheeks. He pulled me forward so that his nose touched mine. “I would desecrate them, that not a soul among their kin might recognize them, and your killer would look so horrid, even Charon would shrink back at his presence, so he would never enter Hades nor walk amidst the Fields of Asphodel.”
I felt the moisture of his forehead, and his hands felt like kelp. If I were to close my eyes I would have imagined his mother Thetis had taken hold of me.
“Eros has struck this one,” I heard Deidamia from across the tent, but the moonlight no longer touched it, so I could not see her.
“This is true,” Iphis added. I could feel their gaze on us. “Madness has taken hold of him.”
“He’s not mad—” I muttered. The words bobbed and floated amidst my throat, and only their semblance managed to pass my lips. “He’s not mad. Just—just passionate.” I grappled for words, and settled on “Go.”
Both drew a breath in unison.
“There are other tents, and other beds to share. Try Phoenix’s tent. Or Ajax’s.”
“And if there are no tents to be found?” Iphis’s eyebrows went taut as bowstrings.
“I am sure you can find other ways to warm each other.” She seemed to catch my wink, because she grinned like a crescent moon. The two rose and left the tent.
Achilles arms were pincers on my sides when he wrung one hand over his wrist. He traced his fingers along me and nodded to himself. “We should sleep,” he said. “We have a long day ahead of us.”
I’m not sure if he knew the turmoil I would be facing. Despite my leave of battle, he was not wrong.
I awoke to blades of sunlight piercing the tent, and then Achilles’ silhouette granted me a brief shade. The sun splayed out behind him in golden arrows so that for a moment I feared he had wrought Apollo’s wrath.
I threw myself upon him. His welcome was that of sun-warmed bronze and a smell of sweat and leather. Achilles bowed his head. “I did not mean to wake you,” he murmured. “There are a few final things I need to gather.”
He only had to look at me and I knew what he needed. I scrambled across the tent and snatched his helmet, bristling with horse hairs. As I retrieved it, he sheathed his kopis. He left his xiphos behind. He would be riding by chariot, and he needed a longer blade.
He hefted his spear as I came over and placed his helmet over his head. He leaned forward for a goodbye kiss, and when he did this he did not smell like Achilles. This hero was alien to me.
Yet when I closed my eyes and heard him whisper, “I will return,” it seemed that all his armor had melted away, and he was Achilles again.
But I had to open my eyes.
I saw him in gleaming armor before he turned, silhouetted against the sun. His purple cloak licked the air as a sudden wind came up. I decided to take it as a sign of Poseidon’s favor at the least. With the wind came the cheers.
The men loved their hero. Their Achilles, who was not mine. I did not follow him out of the tent. I could not hear him over the roar of the crowd. Soon enough, in a rattle of spokes and wheels and a rumble of hooves I knew he was gone.
I fell back onto my bed, and an instant later sleep took me.
I awoke, expecting Achilles but found that it was only mid-afternoon. Cobwebs cluttered my brain as I climbed out of bed, and I shook them free when I exited the tent.
The cook fires were still smouldering outside, though they were more smoke than heat. I collected bits of driftwood for a new fire upon Achilles return.
The tent flaps stirred in the wind–all except one, closed as tight as the gates of Troy. I started to approach, but I heard Deidamia and Iphis on the other side, and left them to each other.
But as I turned to leave, I heard Iphis call, “Patroclus!”
I dashed inside the tent. The two were dressing in the soldiers’ tunics that were much too large for them. They looked like children playing dress up. I managed to gather my thoughts enough to say, “You called?”
“You’re concerned about Achilles,” she said, “Why is that?”
“What does it matter to you?”
She shrugged. “Can I not be curious?”
“It’s been prophesied that Achilles will not die while Hector yet lives,” Deidamia added. “That should bring you at least some reprieve.”
“No.” I denied them all further response. I’d let them make of it what they would. I turned to leave the tent, but they followed.
“You can’t just leave us with that alone! Come, there are only the three of us here for the day. Join us in conversation, if nothing else!”
They followed me into Achilles’ tent, where I turned heel and addressed them, “What if Hector turns up at one of these raids, hm? What if there was a mistake in the prophecy? What if the Hector that must live to ensure his survival is not the Hector? What then? Well? What then?”
“Eros has struck you both,” Iphis’ teeth clamped down on her grin.
“No wonder you chose to stay behind,” Deidamia observed, “You think too much, such that the raid would be over the moment you hefted your spear.”
“Away with you! Both of you!” The heat in my face flared, and I forced the shout back down my throat. “You seek only to agitate me.”
“Come, Patroclus, do not take our jests to heart. We’ve been deprived of entertainment since we left Skyros. Let us have our fun.”
“You’ve had it.” So saying, I rushed forward and reached for the tent flap, that it would fall before them and bar them from me, but before I had even a chance to crowd them out of the tent, Deidamia spoke.
“Do you know why Achilles took us?”
I froze. “He’s told me it was to hide–to hide us.”
“There’s hardly a need for it. It’s the worst kept secret among you Achaeans. And I doubt folk like Odysseus and Diomedes would reproach the idea of joining you in such activities.”
“Then why would he bring you?”
“I bear his son.” The words were ice in my stomach. “He will be named Neoptolemus. He will be raised amidst war, for this one can only end when my son takes up spear and sword upon the field.”
Iphis, too, seemed shocked by this. We both shrank away from her, while she stood with such straight backed pride that if she were to speak of the gods they would doubtlessly bring their wrath toward her.
“There is no comfort in lies.” This was her only response.
“Is this true?” Iphis asked.
“Ask Achilles, should you think me false.”
As if her words were prophecy, there came an unmistakable sound of a creaking wagon and the drumbeat of horse hooves, and moments later, Achilles threw aside the tent flap and entered.
Deidamia was clutching at him, her hand coming away bloody. She bid this strange hero to tell me about his son. His cuirass was painted red and his golden hair was dark with sweat and blood. He had lost his helmet but kept his spear. A flap of something I didn’t want to think about danced on its end.
For my part, I tried to tell him of Deidamia and Iphis stirring up trouble, I begged him to return them to Skyros. But he did not seem to hear any of us. And I realized my mistake. I was caught up in my own fears and perils. I had forgotten his.
“You killed them.”
“I did.” He said nothing more, but opened his red-brown chest and took out his lyre. The white linen fell off of it like a sinking wave. I scrambled over to him. To be by his side. But he spoke not a word to me.
Instead, he played the most beautiful song I’d ever heard.
In my experience, when you smash a sacred relic over a guard’s head, he usually has the decency to fall over. But sometimes you underestimate the strength of a man’s helmet.
He turned to face me, but by the time he freed his sword from his scabbard, I’d rounded the path winding down from the tent he guarded. I counted myself lucky he was too dazed to call for help.
To be clear, I did have a sword, but my swordsmanship can be described as mediocre if you’re being generous, and I wasn’t about to engage someone whose fighting prowess I’d never even seen. Not only that, but it’s horribly dangerous to run full sprint with a sword in hand.
Thankfully, I can always count on my friends. Okay, friend. Singular. Sort of. He’s my brother. Does that count?
I heard the guard’s muffled scream as Orym clamped his hand over his mouth and cut his throat.
The guard hit the grass like a sack of flour, staining it a ghastly red. Orym looked from the corpse to me. “You’re a coward, Azoc.”
“That may be so,” I told Orym, “But look where this man’s bravery led him.” I kicked the corpse as my feet, careful not to bruise my toe on his helmet. “We tried it your way. Now it’s my turn.”
“Yours is the way of cowards,” Orym muttered.
“And yours is the way of fools,” I countered. “Come now, brother. We didn’t come to the highlands for nothing. We have a Witch to visit.”
We returned to the tent by way of mountain pass. Orym and I had been to seven of the Eight Cities if Nyn to seek a cure for his curse. To date, no one had been able to help with his condition.
As we neared the tent I chanced to see a dozen boulders carved with runes. It was either a protection spell or those were grave markers.
I winced, anticipating some horrible force would strike me down, yet nothing came. “Some enchantress,” I muttered. “Doesn’t even have a protection spell.”
“Were you hoping for one?” Orym asked.
“No, but isn’t it expected of a Witch?”
Orym held the tent flap high and I glimpsed a hag bent over a brazier. There was a rune two different runes on either side of the brazier.
“After you,” I insisted. Orym entered, shaking his head. As he drew upon the Witch he stepped aside. I could’ve sworn it was to make me look upon her garish visage.
The gray fumes of her brazier misted up, weaving in and out of the tangles of black hair that spilt over the sides of her head. Her face was both wrinkled, yet at sharp as a knife. What teeth remained poked through her gums like brown tree stumps.
I cleared my throat, but the Witch spoke first.
Without looking up, she hissed, “What do you seek?”
“Y-you’re mistaken, it’s my brother who does the seeking, not I.” Orym scowled at that. “We’ve been through all Eight Cities of Nyn. We seek—um—tell her, Orym.”
“We seek a cure for—” her next sound made even Orym pale. He snatched a fistful of my cloak, as if anticipating my next move.
The Witch sucked in a breath of air between her teeth, though it sounded more a death rattle. Her eyelids fluttered, showing two white lines. “The taint of the White Wizard lays in you.” She pointed at Orym. “A shard of Being is in you. How can this be so?”
Orym shrugged. “I killed him.”
The hag stood statue-still. The only sign she even lived was the hiss of her breath.
Orym’s hold rose to the back of my neck. “Do not run.”
“Me? Run? Never.”
“And the coward’s tale?” The hag asked.
“My tale? Ah, I see. My tale. Well, we were conscripted in Morgad to fight the White Wizard. It was a glorious battle. I made my way quickly through the ranks—” This was not, strictly speaking, a lie. What I didn’t mention was that my move through the enemy was more of a sprint than a glorious battle. “—I was the first of the Morgadians to reach the castle, and like my brother here I sought the White Wizard.” I’d wrapped my lie in a truth. While I hoped I might take him by surprise and win a bit of glory and land and all that that implies, my foremost concern was finding a place to hide until the massacre was over. “I had the misfortune of—well, kinship. There’s little else to it,” I paused, trying to find the right title to address her with. “…Madame. My brother killed the White Wizard, and his final curse rebounded. He has a shard of the Wizard inside him.”
The Witch finished for me. “And you want me to drag the shard of Being out?”
“Yes,” we said at once.
The Witch stopped breathing, and even the air seemed to still. She opened her eyes, milky ovals showing through the tangle of hair draped over her face. The tip of her tongue traveled like a worm across her lips. “The Fates are kind to me this day. A spell-struck man comes before my brazier. I will take the shard of Being out of you…for myself.” She bent forward, and her tangles of hair caught fire. “Burn!” She rasped. Flame traveled up the strands of her hair as if she’d bathed in oil. The left brazier-rune flashed as she burned, laughing while her skin blackened and her eyes melted. She crumbled to dust and the wind carried her up the down the highlands to the Eighth City of Nyn. The rune dimmed, having done its work.
“I have an idea.”
I turned in time to see a dozen dead men rise from the earth. “Huh,” I said, “So she did have a protection spell.”
Skin sloughed off their fingers as they dug their way out of their own graves. The creatures were not so much men as they were bits of gristle wrapped around charred bones. There wasn’t a man among them without a blade in hand.
“Let’s try the other way. I turned to run but Orym caught my cloak—within a three steps it snagged my neck and I fell onto my back. The rune on the right side of the brazier lit up and fire burst forth toward Orym, who danced out of the way. Then the rune dimmed as the dead men shambled forward.
I drew my sword and proceeded to hide beneath the brazier. “I told you we should’ve have asked around before visiting a local Witch. But did you listen? Of course not.”
Orym ignored me, which for some reason frustrated me more than the horde of dead men straggling into the tent. He leveled his sword at the dead men, who closed in. Brute and fool he may be, but strike me down if I can’t admire his skill. The man’s a poet a sword. Give Orym a weapon and he’ll look almost beautiful. Each cut splintered bone and lacerated flesh. But even in pieces, the dead men moved.
“Azoc!” He grunted as he gave ground to the dead men. “Azoc!”
“Careful,” I muttered. Someone’s hand hit the ground near me. It rose onto its fingers and scuttled toward me. I scrambled back, smashing my head against the bottom of the brazier in my panic. “Sound desperate enough and I might feel guilty.”
“You should,” Orym said as he parried an oncoming slice of death.
I put my shoulder to the brazier. “How many times do I have to tell you, Orym—” One hard shove, and it tipped over on top of the oncoming hand. “Bravery gets you killed.”
Orym turned as the flames sprang to life and he danced out of the way of the oncoming fire, bisecting a corpse on his way out of its path.
I saw the glow beneath the brazier too late, and fire sprang in all directions, catching me and my brother.
There was a searing white pain, and then nothing.
The pain retreated, and the two of us stood amidst blackness. I could feel a chewed up wooden floor beneath me. “Where are we?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“There’s a window over there.” I groped through the darkness towards it, and saw the Eighth City market below us. “Okay,” I said, “Wherever we are, it can’t be good.”
“If I can use the Wizard’s shard of Being—”
I seized Orym’s arm and he pivoted to face me. I fought down every instinct that told me to turn heel. “I won’t let you do that.” He glared at me, but I set my jaw and dug my heels into the ground. This was my brother. I was with him when he was a child shitting himself. He didn’t scare me. “I won’t let you do that,” I said again. The shard of Being is what we want out of you. If you use it—”
“I know what will happen!” Orym roared. “It was I who cut the head from the White Wizard’s body, not you. Or have you forgotten how you hid from the slaughter?”
I winced. I would have preferred if he struck me. “That shard will eat you, alive Orym! Have you taken too many knocks on the head to remember that? I can’t let you use the shard of Being. I won’t let you!”
And then I noticed he was grinning. This set my heart pounding, as Orym never smiled at anything good. I followed his eyes to see he was staring at my hand. I hadn’t even noticed it had gone to the hilt of my sword, much less that I’d drawn it three inches from its sheath.
I looked up to lock eyes with Orym again. He raised his eyebrows and I slammed my sword back in its sheath. “I don’t make idle threats,” I said.
“You don’t make any threats.”
“Azoc, was that courage I saw there?”
“On if you’re still plan on using the shard.”
Orym shook his head. “Not after that,” he said. For once his smile seemed warm. “You wouldn’t have done that unless you were ready to cut me down for it…so how do we survey where we are?”
A bodiless voice gave us our answer. “A shard of Being is a powerful thing,” said a voice from the darkness. Torches flared to life along two walls, licking the air and illuminating a carpeted path. The voice came again. “I must have it.”
“Now would be a good time to look for the front door,” I began, but Orym would have none of it.
“We can’t run.”
“We can. You just don’t want to. Now is not the time to play hero!”
“Do you see another path?”
He had the right of it, so we started forward.
As soon as we started walking the torch-lit path, the flames stopped their dancing and stood at attention like sentries. I chanced to see that each torch had the same rune that had cast fire at us from the brazier, only now it was etched along each wooden haft.
I turned to warn Orym, but before I could say anything there was a crackling behind me and I turned to see that there were runes on the floor. And they were vanishing fast. The floor crumbled behind us. Seeing this, Orym grabbed me by the back of my neck and threw me forward. I stumbled and lost my footing, which turned out to be a good thing because the torch-flames decided they’d very much like to burn me. The stumble was all that saved my life.
Orym saw this and followed my example, crawling after me. The fire whorled overhead; lashing the air intermittently. “Are you sure she’s a Soultaker? She seems content with simply killing us.”
“Soultakers burn, Azoc,” Orym growled. He kept his head level with the floor. “Bringing the house down on us would not give her our souls. She only wants to block our means of escape.”
I turned to look at him as we crawled forward. Fire cracked over our heads. “Do you ever stop to consider whether charging headlong is a bad idea?”
“I’d rather not—” Orym began, “—keep your head down!” He grabbed a fistful of my hair and shoved my nose onto the floor.
“You can be quite overprotective, did you know that?” I howled.
“When I tell the story of how my brother died, would you like it to be the tale of how he was too simple to keep his head low near a fire?”
“Personally, I’ve always liked the dying peacefully in your sleep kind of story. It’s boring, yes, but it’s much more fun than burning.”
“Then keep moving.”
Sparks trickled down every now and then, forcing us to roll before it took flame. I can’t say how long we crawled before we found a staircase, but I can say that it was too long.
Orym led the way. The staircase was mangled and twisted—as if it had been made from clay then crushed in a giant fist. I’m fairly certain it was mocking me, for the runes carved onto each step forced it to stay sturdy. Yet if you were to look between the gaps you would see nothing but blackness below. I had to fight the urge to drop something small to see how long it took to hit the bottom.
Yet when we were at the top, the second floor crumbled below us, torches and all. I cannot say how long it fell, for I never heard it hit the bottom. I did, however, see flashes of light as the torches whipped the air even while falling.
Orym raised an eyebrow. “Are you still interested in trying the front door?”
“Let’s go.” We reached the top to find a new hall much the same as the one before it. As we started down the way I found my legs trembling at the thought that it could give way at any moment. There were no torches, only a room at the end. Daylight streamed through it, though the sun had set not an hour ago. “Draw your sword, Azoc,” Orym whispered as the room came closer.
“That really gets in the way of my running,” I said as I drew my sword. I knew I had to do it, but telling Orym that would only bolster his pride. And there is nothing half so dangerous—or annoying—than a prideful Orym.
We came upon the room to see a cat and an armored man with a coat of arms emblazoned on his helmet. Both were asleep and slumped against a staircase. Orym tensed, and I did what I could to copy him. As he neared the cat I noticed that something had been shaved onto it’s fur. Some kind of marking…
“Orym, look out!”
The cat sprang into motion, growing bigger and bigger in mid-leap. Orym staggered back, holding it at bay with the point of his sword. It had grown to the size of a panther, and stalked Orym, tail flicking back and forth. I prepared to charge it from behind when the armored man leapt to his feet and charged me first. He tackled me into the hallway and in our confused, tangled fall I managed to drive my sword downward through his armpit, where he had little armor to protect him. Blood leaked from beneath his breastplate and stained it red.
And then he smacked me away, pulling my sword out of him and throwing it to the floor behind him in the time it took me to find my footing. That was when I noticed the red gash on his neck. “Orym killed you…” I muttered. I looked to the carving on his helmet. It was no coat of arms—I had seen that symbol on the dozen rocks that marked the dead men that had tried to kill us.
He staggered towards me, bringing his steel down in an attempt to cleave my skull—little did he know that my best skill is avoiding all forms of physical violence.
That skill wasn’t completely applicable to my current predicament, but after years of avoiding your enemies’ blades altogether, you manage to develop some quick reflexes.
He hacked at me again, and I turned sideways. His hack turned thrust midway through his form, but I fell inside his reach and caught his wrist. With my other hand, I took his fist and pulled back. The bone jutted from the wrist, yet the grip on his sword hadn’t even slackened.
He swung at me with all the grace of a human-morningstar. I stumbled and fell next to my sword. His hand was whirling as I reached for it and I brought my blade into his path as his own came down hard and face. I kicked to my feet and cut his wrist from his hand.
He ran for me, but I sidestepped and left a leg for him to trip over. He crashed to the floor I pounced. I can’t remember too much of our struggle. He fought me, but when your fist is decaying, punching your foe does more harm than good. After I time, I managed to pry his helmet off and the man returned to death.
I made sure to toss the helmet into the pit, just to be safe.
I reentered the room to find Orym. He had taken a few scratches but was otherwise unhurt. The cat-panther lay dead in a corner, blood pooling from its underbelly. “Staircase?” he asked between ragged breaths.
“Staircase,” I said.
We climbed to the fourth floor, and again the preceding one crumbled into the pit. There was a hall, same as before, but this time there was a voice in the room at the end.
“Fire, fire, it must be ready. My guests are weary, and they need fire. Flames must turn flesh to ash, yes, yes. It leaves the soul bare beneath.”
Orym shook his head and mouthed, Not a sound.
I nodded, and we approached the Witch’s chamber. Orym didn’t dare run, for fear of alerting the Witch, yet I saw him fighting the urge to, which resulted in a quick, leaden walk that was funnier than I’m willing to admit, given the circumstances.
We entered the Witch’s chambers, and she didn’t even have the common courtesy to look up before throwing black-powder at us. It burst into flame in midair and forced Orym and I onto either side of the room.
“I may not be the most sociable man in the world,” I said, “but even I know it’s polite to give a simple ‘how are you’ before getting down to business.”
The Witch cast another line of black powder across the room. Once again it burst into flame, keeping me confined alone to one side while I heard Orym dodging spells and fighting the Witch. The only thing I heard was my name. “Azoc!” Orym shouted. And every time it grew more desperate. “Azoc! Azoc, please!”
“I’m trying!” I shouted, trying to make myself heard over the fire and the cacophony of his own combat. “Please, Orym, don’t die on me. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself!”
“Azoc! Where are you?”
My hands were trembling so that I hard to sheathe my sword rather than risk dropping it. I wove through rows and rows of tables lined with odd-colored liquids filled with various eyes, both animal and not. Strange substances were brewing in pots, thick as paste and light as broth.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered to myself. “Think of something! Ninth Hell, there must be something you can do.” The line of flame on the other side of the room beckoned for me. But that was suicide! It would do little good to run through fire to my brother’s aid only to die as soon as I’d passed the wall.
“Azoc, please! Hurry!”
I looked to a cauldron bubbling over the fireplace for something I could use, then turned to a table with a bowl of thick, silver liquid. Nothing of use.
“Don’t make me use the shard of Being!”
That did little to help my trembling. I could hardly think anymore. I was looking at all the Witch’s potions and brews yet not a thought passed my mind. There may well have been something I could’ve put to good use, but in my panic I may as well have been overturning an empty room.
I tossed aside tables and potions, and all the while my gaze kept going back to the fireplace.
“Azoc. Brother, I need you…”
I tossed a table aside, I scanned more bottles and potions and cauldrons.
And this time when I looked back to the fireplace I realized why I had been drawn to look. For above the it, in the center of its stone perimeter was an etching—and one I knew from earlier that day. That selfsame rune had glowed on the left side of her brazier as she burned in the tent.
I stopped shaking. “Orym! Orym, can you hear me?” I withdrew my sword and started for the fireplace.
“Help!” His scream was raw and scratchy.
“I’ll take that as a yes!” I called back. I went to work. “Take the offensive. Push her toward the fire! Toward me!
There were thumps and thuds and in a moment I could see the Witch’s silhouette on the other side of the flame-wall. Then Orym’s shadow, tall and massive. She backed closer to the fire and Orym cleft through empty air. As she stumbled backward the wall of fire vanished, and she turned to find me ready. She looked to Orym, who prepared to make the killing stroke.
But the Witch fell back before Orym had the chance. She backed toward the fireplace. “You’re think you can stop me? I will take the shard of Being—and both your souls, as my reward.” She stepped into the fireplace laughing. A tendril of flame shot Orym square in the chest. He stumbled back and fell, the front of his shirt blackening and falling away.
“Orym!” I started towards him and knelt beside him.
I was distantly aware of the Witch cackling. She had started to gloat. “It’s mine! It’s mine!” But the laughter didn’t last long. To her credit, it did not take long for her to realize I had hacked apart the rune above her. The screams came shortly after.
Of all the things I had seen that day, I would not have guessed they would pale in comparison to a Witch’s death-screech.
As she burned, the fire that cut across the room dwindled down to nothing. I heard crashes and shrieks as the house rebuilt itself outside the chamber.
None of that mattered. The only thing in the world was my brother lying on the floor, his chest burnt. I looked at Orym—really looked at him—for the first time that night. I saw my brother cut and bruised. And to my relief, the burn was not mortal.
“You desecrated her rune,” he muttered
“I was left with few alternatives. You threatened to use the shard of Being. What was I to do?”
He seized me by my collar and pulled me close. “It’s gone.”
“The shard of Being. She burnt it from me before burning herself.”
He shoved me away. I scrambled to my feet and helped him to his. “I never kid,” he said. “It’s gone. Honestly and truly gone.” Orym winced as he sheathed his sword. The two of us stood there as we soon came to grips with the realization that our quest was over.
I cannot say how long the silence lasted. But at the last I decided to break it. I indicated to the burn on his chest. “That’s going to leave a few scars,” I said.
“Count yourself lucky I don’t give you a few to remember this occasion.”
I decided it was in my best interest not to mention the handicap his injuries would have on him during the coming months. “We were separated by fire!” I said. “What was I to do?”
Orym grinned. “Run?” He suggested.
“Oh, brother, how little you know of me.” I sat next to him. “Call me coward, call me craven, but have I not been at your side through all of this? You think I haven’t learned the price of cowardice? While I hid from the White Wizard’s slaughter, you struck him down.”
“And yet you still run if the need suits you. Why?”
“Because there are worse things than being a coward.”
“And what would those be?”
“Being brave,” I said. I glanced at the fireplace. “Being dead.” The fire cracked and spat to fill the gap in our conversation. “The shard of Being,” I said. “You didn’t—”
“I didn’t.” Orym hung his head. “But I came close. Ninth Hell, the urge was strong.”
“I’m glad you fought it,” I said, and then started out the door. Orym chased after me. “Azoc! Where are you going?”
“We should leave,” I said, “Before we discover if the Witch had anything more hidden up her sleeve in the event of her death.”
Orym followed me down each stairway. A dead cat was slumped next to a bloody, helmetless guard, and on the floor below, torches danced on either side of the wall. And instead of a window, we now faced a door.
It was only when we were back on the streets that Orym spoke again. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” I said. “Nyn is spent up, but there are other cities.” I looked to him. “Where do we go from here?”
“Well,” he said, “There are always men in need of a sellsword or two.”
We left the Witch-house behind us, but the sound of flames yet echoed in my head. Like a Witch’s cackle.
Having succeeded in his defense of Harcourt, Theor Stormcrow withdrew from the city, still in the guise of Berilac Halfelven; his lover and Warden of the East.
The Elf rode his mount through a nearby mountain pass, kicking up explosions of dust with every hoof-beat. Theor clung to his hopes that his journey might grant him some form of reprieve from the death of his lover and the battle against Lord Joiry.
Such hopes were wrung at the neck when he heard a scream from somewhere down the pass. „Ninth Hell,“ he cursed, giving the mount his heels. It started forward up a steep, rocky hill.
The scream came again. Once, twice and then thrice more.
The hills went up, the hills went down, and as he descended the final decline and the mountain pass was shrinking behind him, he came upon a wrecked castle.
The edifice was a marvel of construction–at least in part; for in many places the stone was lapsing into ruin. So broken were these places that they seemed scant more than pebbles on the roadside.
The parts of the tower that yet stood reached a height so as to cover the moon so that all in its shadow lay in darkness, save for one faint flicker of light dancing amidst the shadows in the gate that led to the courtyard.
As Theor came upon the castle, he saw with Elf vision that is greater than a Man’s, a figure upon the battlements clad in silks and samite. „Sir!“ Theor cried. „Was it you who screamed?“
„Yes,“ said he who stood upon the battlements. „Yes, please help me. I am a prisoner in my own castle.
„In there?“ Theor echoed, raising an eyebrow beneath his helmet as he inspected what parts of the castle lay in ruin.
„Indeed. I own the castle, yet it remains my prison.“
„How can this be?“
„The man on the battlements laughed. „I know my tower old and close to ruin, but it does still have locks.“
Theor couldn’t help but laugh in turn. „You are captive, and yet you shout down to me,“ he observed.
„My captors have left, for a time, but I would not make it far before their return. That aside, I have sworn I will not forfeit this place. Pray, come into the courtyard, that we may discuss this in greater detail.“
Theor did as the other man bid. As he came within he saw but a single torch dancing amidst the yard. All else lay bare. He dismounted and gazed upon the battlements.
He saw the man draw a morph cloak about his shoulders and wrap it about his body. He then sank within the magic’d cloth and sprang forth in the visage of a bat and spiraled down the meet the Elf. As this came to be, the bat’s leathery wings unfolded one last time, and spread into a cloth so dark it sapped the darkness from the night, and the man rose from beneath the cloak.
He had a shock of golden hair and a beard trimmed neatly about his chin, which he held high. Theor’s gaze parted from the stranger’s eyes, down past the morph cloak on his shoulders to where curls of hair peaked out of his unbuttoned shirt. The Elf marveled at him, so great was his form.
With a mental effort, he tore wrenched his gaze off the stranger as it reached his waistband.
The man spoke. „You truly must be a brave soul to risk such hurt for the sake of my freedom. My name is Rorin.“
In truth, bravery was only part of his reasoning. Being an immortal, Theor was Elfbound to abide by the Laws of Order. To ignore such requests would be to court Chaos. Still, looking upon Rorin, Theor had few complaints. „And mine, Theor.“
„Though it ashames me to say it, I cannot go with you. Come, help me retake my castle. My captors left a feast before they departed. It is still warm.“
Theor’s head swam with memories of Berilac. „I–I can’t.“
„I beg you,“ said Rorin, starting back to the Elf. „Come inside with me.“
His hand only grazed Theor’s gauntlet before Theor drew back, but still the Elf’s hand tingled. Rorin spoke again, „Your are of Elf-blood, are you not? Your race is bound by the Laws of Order to help those in need.“ He turned to enter the castle, and then cast a glance over his shoulder. „Or do you simply prefer playing coy?“
He turned to the entrance and the darkness wreathed him.
Theor followed Rorin into the gloom. He staggered blind behind him, each step carefully chosen. At length he caught up with the other, who had snatched a torch off the wall.
A smile flicked across Rorin’s lips. „This way, Elf,“ he said, and they ascended the stairs. The absence of light was such that Rorin himselfwas scarcely illuminated by the wisp of light above him.
Rorin stopped in front of the door. „Are you hungry, Theor?“
„Starving.“ The word was half a growl, and even he was unsure in what way he meant it.
Rorin opened the door and Theor followed him into what he perceived to be a dining hall, lit by what filters of moonlight streamed through the window. There was a faint glow from the hearth, embedded so deeply into the wall that it seemed more like a cave.
There were many tapers, unlit until Rorin unfastened his morph-cloak and wrapped it about his torch. Instead of burning, the fire seeped through and traveled toward the tapers, now alight. „Us men are not so strong as Elven-kind.“ Rorin said, and his hand traced the ringed mail over Theor’s bicep. „We needs do our own enchanting.“
It was all Theor could do to repress a shudder.
„Come,“ Rorin said, gesturing to a dining table beside a long window that overlooked the battlements Rorin had called down from. „Eat.“
The table was littered with platters of honeyed chicken and fried onions dripping with gravy. There were bread trenchers and vegetables steaming beside platters of beef. Decanters of wine sat at the head of the table.
„It’s still warm,“ Rorin said, „My captors are recently gone and do not wish me to starve. My food is yours.“
Theor relieved himself of his greathelm. „Will you not join me?“
„I’ve already ate,“ he said. And then he reached out and traced Theor’s face. He felt himself turning red. „You are fair to look upon,“ Rorin muttered. He bit his lip and looked down. „It is an honor to share my food with you.“
Theor looked away and this time could not suppress his shudder. He unfastened his gauntlets. As he started forward he became aware of the pain in his stomach. The Elf was about to take his seat, Rorin barked out a laugh.
„My friend, will you not set aside your swordbelt?“
„My apologies,“ said Theor, and he set Folly aside, leaning the blade against the table as he sat down to eat. He saw Rorin’s gaze follow it from his peripheral.
„That is a wonderful blade,“ Rorin marveled.
„It’s named Folly,“ Theor said. He snatched up a goblet of wine.
„That seems a strange name for a sword.“
Theor swallowed and set it back down. He tore off a heel of bread. Through a mouthful of it he said, „It was not I who named it.“
There was silence then, and after a span of five heartbeats, Rorin asked, „Will you stay the night? My attackers will return, come the sunrise. Would that there was someone who could protect me.“
„There is only one answer I am capable of giving,“ Theor said. He finished his meal and rose to his feet.
„Because of your Elfbind?“ Rorin asked, „or are there….other reasons?“
Theor tucked his greathelm under his arm. „Such reasons would never cross my mind.“
Rorin crossed the room toward Theor and stumbled halfway.
With preternatural reflexes the Elf leapt forward to steady him. They locked eyes. Rorin broke their gaze to look at the cavelike hearth. „The fire burns low.“ He swallowed audibly. „It will grow cold.“ He spoke against the Elf’s lips, his breath tickling his mouth. „My rooms are without.“ He gestured to a door across the room.
„I will stand guard,“ Theor said, but he felt his limbs moving of their own accord. He did not remember taking off his mail so that he wore only boiled leather, breaches and the smallclothes beneath. Nor did he remember how he came to be sitting on Rorin’s bed.
Rorin presently straddled his lap, talking against his neck and up to his lips. „I will not allow my Elf-guest to catch a chill.
His lips brushed against Theor’s, and their mouths opened under each others. The warmth of Rorin’s throat poured into his. He fell back onto the bed and the two were reaching for the other’s breeches between intermittent kisses.
Rorin was stiff as Theor took him in his hand, and then he grinned and did the same to Theor, and the two cupped each other. He thrummed his hips to the movement of Rorin’s hand and felt his heartbeat against it.
Theor was panting as though he’d run a great distance. They continued until a hoarse cry leapt up in his throat, and he whispered Berilac’s name before he could think better of it. He sank back onto the bed with two pools of warmth running down his chest.
He was not sure how much time, if any, had passed when he managed to prop himself up on his elbows, yet as he did this his head swam and he found he could not bring himself into a sitting position.
He was not sure how much time had passed, if any, when he managed to prop himself up on his elbows. Yet as he did this his head swam and he found that he could not sit any up any further. Rorin was on the other side of the room, his bare backside on display as he donned a new pair of breeches. His skin seemed to be emitting a faint glow.
“My head is pounding,” Theor cursed.
“No it’s not,” he said, “If anything you should be feeling a bit hollow.”
“Then why am I hearing some thumping sound?”
“That,” Rorin said, “Is my wife. She’s in the dining room, trying to get in here with an axe. She feasted well on the occupants of this castle before making me what I am.”
“Incubus…” Theor muttered, and then Rorin was beside him.
“Save me,” he rasped, “Kill her, so that I may go off in search of some cure.”
An axe bit through the door at the same time Theor felt his strength returning. “Rorin!” A woman screamed.
“Coming, Aliantha!” And then he whispered, “Kill her, I beg of you.”
“I find my position somewhat awkward, Rorin,” Theor said. “Having never been the guest to a succubus I’ve cuckolded, I’m not quite sure what one says on these occasions.”
Rorin threw himself on Theor. „You must slay her. You must!“ I have drank my fill of your emotions, but I have not turned you. That aside, you are still Elfbound. If you do not intervene she will surely kill me.“
Theor opened his mouth to speak, yet at the last he was cut short as the door came crashing down. The Elf sprang to his feet, reaching for a nearby chair. He seized it and hurled it toward Aliantha.
The succubus stumbled. As she regained her footing, Theor was upon her. He bowled her over and back into the dining room and then lunged to retrieve Folly, unsheathing the wolf-blade.
The first glimmers of sunlight were dancing across the window.
„I apologize for the disturbance, my Lady,“ he said, stumbling away from an axe-cut. „If I knew your husband was wedded we’d be having a very different conversation right now.“
A stinging pain sheared down his shoulder to his upper torso. He put Folly in the path of her next strike and gave ground, ready to defend from Aliantha. „I’m afraid I can’t give you my blood, he said. He winced at the warm trickle flowing down his back. „But if it helps, I will repeat the apology.“
The woman hurled herself at him. Both axe and sword were whirling in silver-gray arcs, joining in a metallic clang with every parry.
„You know not what you defend,“ Aliantha growled, striking twice with the axe and catching only Folly on both strikes.
Theor danced away from the third strike, and cut the head from her weapon. Aliantha charged, and yet before she could fall in Theor readied Folly, and its point pierced her heart and punched through her back.
„Fool!“ Her cry spat blood on the Elf’s face. „Do you know what you’ve wrought?“
Rorin emerged into the dining room, and upon sight of him Aliantha wrenched herself off of Folly and crashed to the floor. She crawled back on all fours, toward the staircase. „Keep him away!“ She shouted. Tears came, streaking her face red. She pointed to Rorin, lines of blood slithering down her hand like red worms. „Don’t let him touch me! Please!“ The words tumbled out so quickly they could be nothing, save the truth.
A spray of sunlight peaked through the window as Aliantha shuddered out a final breath.
Theor turned to Rorin. „You lied to me,“ he growled, „It was you who turned her!“
„Please,“ Rorin said, „Stay with me, and there will be no end to your pleasures.“
„I think not,“ Theor said.
„You will want for nothing!“ Rorin started forward, yet yielded as the point of Folly came between the two of them. „I–I can repay you for your deed. If you’ll allow me another drink of your emotions, you said the name of Berilac Halfelven. I could change my form to be as him–the–Warden of the East.“
„I am Warden of the East!“ Theor said, and without another word he caught a glint of sunlight upon Folly and twisted it so that the beam took Rorin through the heart. Flesh flaked to ash, and with a small but difficult magic, the incubus managed to alter his visage into that of Berilac Halfelven. „I could have been yours,“ he said, „You could have been mine.“
Theor loosed a wordless cry as he cut his head from his shoulders in an spray of dust. Then he sheathed Folly. He took Rorin’s morph-cloak and beat out the dust, and then fastened it about himself.
He exited the castle garbed in ringed mail and leathers. He left behind his breastplate, surcoat and greathelm.
„It’s time the east learned of Theor Stormcrow.“ He came out upon the courtyard, mounted his horse and rode off. Yet to where even he knew not.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.
Any reasonable man would have called the battle a disaster.
The citizens of Harcourt lay straggled about the city. The dead and the dying were buried all the same, and the severed heads that the enemy Lord Joiry of the Greatersteel had catapulted over the city walls had yet to even be touched.
Yet in Harcourt’s highest tower, called the Hawk’s Eye, King Dyvian Mesh overlooked the fortification effort with straight-backed pride. „Lord Joiry of the Greatersteel flees before us,“ he said to the other occupant in the room. „See how Vane the Conjuror’s Champion flees like a whipped dog back to his dark master.