4. Spaghetti and Sword Fights

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

The nurse was a chubby woman with stretch marks all over her arm who never spoke. She warbled.

“Can I call home?” I asked her “I’m feeling sick.”

“What feels sick?” she asked.

“My—my stomach hurts.” I put on my best whiny voice. “I’d like to go home.”

She picked up the phone. “What’s your number?” She rolled the cord around her finger.

I gave her my Mom’s number.

There were a few rings, and the nurse explained the situation. I could hear Mom’s muffled voice on the other end. The nurse passed the phone over to me. “She wants to talk to you.”

“What’s going on?” Mom asked, her voice clipped.

“I don’t feel good—”

“What’s really going on?”

“I can’t say it here.”

“Oh god—Peter! Did something come after you?”

“I just told you I can’t say it here.”

“Questing Beast? Troll? Werewolf?”

“You were closer on the second guess.”

The nurse raised an eyebrow.

“Witch? Goblin? Is it humanoid?”

“Yes.”

“Werewolf?”

“You already said that.”

“Vampire?”

“No.”

“Banshee?”

“No.”

“Undead?”

“Yes.”

“I’m on my way.”

* * *

My parents are the reason I never have anyone over. Or I never would if I actually had anyone to bring over. I mean, the whole weapons-hanging-from-the-walls thing is bound to get people chatting amongst suburbia.

I wish I was kidding. There are swords, spears and ancient paintings of knights who died somewhen around forever ago. Mom even threw a few breastplates on the walls.

This had actually prompted Dad to go through a phase where I had to wear a breastplate myself beneath my clothes every day until I was ten. After a few months of arguing, Mom came up with the enchanted laundry solution from a witch down on Second Street.

“So, honey,” Mom said, dropping her purse on the couch. “How was school?” I have to hand it to her, the words only sounded a little forced.

“I told you, Mom. Someone sent a Black Knight after me.”

“Yes, but was there anything else? Anything suspicious? Someone had to conjure him.”

“I got nothing. This is a first.”

“Let’s hope it’s the last.” Mom knelt to be at eye level with me. “Honey, give me something. Did you kill it?”

“I mean, sort of…” She fixed me with a stare that almost forced me to hang my head. “Not really,” I admitted. “It…burst into flames on its own, I guess. It was summoned back to wherever it came from.”

“I’m just glad you survived.”

“I’m glad I did too.”

Mom headed over to the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” I called after her.

“My father had this tradition,” she shouted back to me, “that he got from his father, and his mother before him. When a Mythling encounters their first enemy, it’s time for a good old fashioned, Camelot-style feast.”

“But I didn’t beat him.”

Mom raised her eyebrows. “Did I say beat him? If you survive the encounter, that’s reason enough.”

I wetted my lips. “That sounds good. I’m good with that.”

Mom made meatballs to celebrate my sort-of-victory. We had the table set by the time Dad got home. And when we all sat down to eat, I practically inhaled them.

Dad, on the other hand, picked at his meal like he was eating spinach. “How did your day go, Peter?” he asked me.

“I encountered a Black Knight,” I said with a mouthful of spaghetti. “First time ever. All in all, not a bad outing, considering it was the first attempt on my life…even if I didn’t do anything. Not that it didn’t scare me half to death.”

“Didn’t kill it,” Mom made sure to point out, “But still survived it.”

Dad turned to Mom with this weird sneer on his face like he was about make some correction beginning with, “Um, actually”. He squared his shoulders, all proud-like. You’d think he did it himself. “Isn’t that all that matters, Helena? That he survived?”

Mom finished her meatballs and pushed her plate aside. “That’s what I meant, Ross” she said, and then slid her gaze onto me. “But that does mean you have to train, Peter!”

“Mom!”

“You know the rules. Seven days a week.”

“But—”

“We’re using the flail.”

“But—”

“The flail, Peter.”

The flail is like this spikey ball-thing-on-a-chain with a handle attached to it. It provides the opponent with a ranged attack, and with a sword it’s hard to get in close to attack a foe. But that’s the only way to beat them.

It’s also wildly unwieldy, so Mom had me wear an enchanted hoodie to stay safe.

We trained out in the backyard. Mom swung the flail overhead. She had her hair up in a bun and wore an enchanted bathrobe. The only way she could’ve looked more like a stereotypical mom would be if she had that green stuff on her face with the cucumbers over her eyes.

At least our neighbors couldn’t hear all the commotion. Fighting with magical weapons tends to do that. Mom’s got a few basic runes in her possession so that she can train me without arousing the suspicion of any neighbors.

I dodged the flail and made a dash toward Mom, who sidestepped and swung again. It hit my back and I fell on my stomach. Dad watched from the doorway, laughing to himself.

I never understood how any sane man could marry Mom. Hey, I’m a Descendant of King Arthur and I constantly fight off monsters. Why don’t we get married?

“Get in close!” Mom said. “Get in close!”

Forget about that, I thought. I rushed her and tackled her. We tumbled to the ground in a tangle of limbs.

Training ended soon after that.

Dad ruffled my hair as I came into the house. He knelt down to be eye to eye with me. “Hey, I know we haven’t spent much time together—”

And by that I think he meant absolutely no time together.

“—but I’m going to change that. Tomorrow I’m taking you to the zoo!”

I bit back my annoyance. Had he stopped counting birthdays after four? Dad stared off into space like he was estimating how much that would cost him. “Or something.” He clapped me on the back and led me inside. “Come on,” he said, “Nine o’clock. Time for bed.”

I am the only Descendant of a legendary hero who can fight monsters on a daily basis, yet still have a nine o’clock curfew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. The Warbling Nurse

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

My heart was a battering ram in the sides of my neck and a jackhammer in my chest. I had only ever fought my Mom in the backyard. And while a lot could be said for my Mom’s martial prowess (think ballet dancer mixed with Spartan warrior) she never went all out lethal on me.

“A boy is foolish,” the Black Knight’s voice was metallic inside that helmet. He drew his sword, which was as black and shiny as his armor. “A boy does not want this fight.”

“A boy is sick of archaic warnings.”

He charged for me, shield at the ready; and for all that clanky armor, he was surprisingly fast.

My watch had made the successful transition into Pridwen, and I blocked the knight’s thrust-down and felt the vibration in my arm. “Is there some sort of rule against wearing anything but black? Did I miss that in Knight’s Code 101?”

I will neither confirm nor deny that this is a real thing.

We fought with the kind of intensity that makes you forget all formal training. If they use this attack, use this counter, if they counter your counter with their counter, attack with this. It was all muscle memory.

I told myself to thank Dad for reminding me to wear enchanted laundry (Tough as steel, light as cotton-polyester fabric. On sale today from your local back alley witch!).

I stabbed Excalibur toward the visor, where it got stuck. With a few tugs it came off, his visor with it.

“Woah,” I said. “You already have a flesh wound.”

The Black Knight’s face was a bruised purplish color, and his eyes seemed to pop out of his head like two veiny egg yolks. He growled, exposing yellow teeth.

He smacked me with a gauntleted fist. I felt my head hit the floor. I was dimly aware of my surroundings. Like my ears were muffled and there was a veil over my eyes.

He brought his sword down on me when I dragged my shield into his path and blocked the oncoming slice of death. I used this momentum to roll onto my back and leap to my feet.

“Thinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthink.” My mind was racing. He checked each blow I dealt him, slipping his own around the outskirts of his shield. I imitated his attack.

The zombie-knight sidestepped my thrust-down. I overreached and he rammed me in the back with his shield, dumping me on my face. My sword skittered out of my hand just near the edge of the hall.

He paused, taking a defensive stance while I reached for my sword.

Apparently Undead knights still fight with the honor of the living. I took up my sword and picked an offensive stance.

“Yield,” said the creepy Undead Thingy.

“Of course. Give me a moment and I’ll surrender to you and your superior strength and just—” I struck the Knight’s helmet with the flat of Excalibur. He stumbled back, and I struck the other side of his helmet before he got his shield up. “Whoops. My hand slipped.”

He growled the way only a creature with decaying lungs could. It was more of a wheeze. Like those bellow-things you use to pump fireplaces.

We clashed, our swords lashing out at each other. I managed a strike at his ribs, which he blocked.

He retaliated with a swipe at my neck. I only just ducked under it, and when I popped up, his blade was headed for my gut.

That would be twice I had to thank my Dad for enchanted laundry. His sword didn’t penetrate my shirt, thanks in part to the clothes and part to jumping back. (Though he did tear it a bit. I wonder if you can stitch a steel-tough shirt back together.)

He took another step, and sparks flew from his boots. “N-no—” he began.

“What are you doing?” I asked, confused and afraid.

“It is not time yet.” his voice was quivering. The sparks were traveling up his leg, through his torso, until they fizzled out of his helmet until he looked like a great hulking sparkler. “Master—my time has only begun—don’t summon me back! I can’t…it hurts.”

The sparks fizzled out, and the knight collapsed into dust. That quick pain pinched me back into school and I heard the bell ring, signaling I had to go to gym.

I met up with Dawn in the hall, who looked unnaturally pale. “What was that about?” she asked me. “How long were you peeing? You’re not the type to skip class.” She winked and gave me a too-hard nudge in the ribs.

I held a drawn out note of, “Ummmmm” before settling on: “I felt really sick, actually. I should probably actually go to the nurse. Rest up, and everything. My Dad wants to take me to the zoo on Saturday.” I pretended to stick my fingers down my throat.

“The one downtown, right?”

“That’s the one.”

“My grandpa knows the man who owns the place,” she said. “He wants me to get some work on Saturday. Maybe I’ll see you there?” she offered.

“That’d be great!”

 

 

2. The Elf in the Locker

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

Of all the things I expected to fall out of my locker, a tiny elf-demon never quite made the cut.

My locker rattled open, and I felt a kind of pain I can only describe as, “When someone yanks on your arm too hard, but all over your body.” It lasted a millisecond, but my enchanted laundry had turned to ringed mail, my jacket was a cloak, and my backpack was a bright red scabbard strapped over one shoulder.

I’d only ever seen glimpses of the Realm around school, but apparently my High School is the equivalent of a rundown mead hall like something straight out of Beowulf. When I turned to my locker, I saw the door to a broom closet swinging on its hinges and an elf dumped itself on the ground, amidst toppling brooms. It stood, and I realized that it was up to my knees and had large green eyes and shark-like teeth. It looked like it was fond of baking cookies in trees with demons.

It seized my shirt with scrawny arms like the thinnest of tree-limbs. It had too-large hands with too-large fingers and it climbed up my chain mail shirt. I stepped back, careful not to step on my cloak.

“I don’t have much time!” It shrieked.

“What are you doing!” I shrieked back. “Why did you bring me to the Realm?”

“Because the Black Knight, dearie! Stop interrupting and let me speak!”

“But I have so many questions!” Our entire conversation was shouted at each other.

“Listen,” it shrieked, tugging on my shirt so that my vision focused in on those big, green eyes, “The Black Knight is coming, but it may yet pass by without harming you. It isn’t your true enemy—you must—”

Poof! That pain roared again and I was back in school.

Mom had taken me to the Realm before, but only to meet friendly folk. If there was a Black Knight coming, this would be my first outing against a mythical creature ready to kill me.

But part of me wanted that experience. As the descendant of King Arthur–as a Mythling–the world is literally out to get me. It just wasn’t the world everyone else knows about. Still, I couldn’t stay safe forever.

So I did what only the bravest of men do: I went to Algebra.

* * *

Mrs. McFowl was trying to teach us something to do with slope and Y=Mx+B, but I could quite pay attention. Considering I just met an Elf saying something would come kill me later, slope wasn’t exactly at the top of my priority list. Was I ever really going to use that?

You can imagine my surprise Mrs. McFowl pointed to the equation on the board and ask me to answer it. You see I was too distracted by—in short, everything—to answer. The whiteboard looked like someone had thrown the alphabet into a blender. Even if I wasn’t scared to sword fight a Black Knight, I couldn’t have told her the answer. So what should have been “Yes,” actually sounded a bit more like, “Uhhhhhhh….”

“Do you need a moment, Peter?” Mrs. McFowl asked. She crossed her arms.

Everyone was looking at me. I could feel my face going red. That was it. My life was over.

That’s when I noticed the hulking Black Knight pass by my math class, I wondered just how true that sentiment was.

He didn’t even have a hall pass!

The whole class was getting impatient. Except for Dawn, who looked from the Black Knight to me and back again. Her eyes sent a silent plea–or just a question of what was going on.

Some people started snickering. I swear the room got a million degrees hotter. “Can I use the bathroom?” I asked.

“No you—”

Without waiting for an answer, I snatched up my bag and dashed for the door. “I’msorryIreallygottagobye!”

I doubt anyone saw the Black Knight.

See, when I mentioned the whole one of the last links between magic and technology thing, I was referring to the event creatively named the Split. The basic idea is that after Camelot fell technology and magic went down separate paths. That means only magical beings can mingle with magical beings, and the Regulars can’t see the creatures.

I’d mingled with a few faeries before, and Mom had trained me in case any goblins or other magical creatures came to kill me. I wasn’t exactly unprepared.

I rounded the corner after the thing, and the world became a blur of color. Lockers and floors melted together into an indiscriminate mass, and as that quick burst of pain rocked my body I slipped into that ancient mead hall overgrown with vegetation. I pulled Excalibur out of its bright red sheath.

The Black Knight turned around, armor shrieking, and said “He told me you would be in the gym.”

He? Who’s he? I thought. “That’s next period.” I tore off a bracelet I’d been carrying and tossed it on the ground. This the equivalent of throwing down a gauntlet, which basically means fight me or it’s a stain on your honor.

In other words, I just triple dog-dared a black knight to duel me to the death.

1. Peter Pendragon

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

You know, when you’re the heir to the throne of a long dead Camelot and one of the last existing links between the magical and technological world, it’s almost an insult when nothing tries to kill you before you turn fourteen.

Okay, that was a bit of a mouthful. Let’s start with something a little easier to swallow: everything went wrong after my Mom went downtown to fight a dragon.

Wait…

* * *

“Peter!” Dad had shouted, “Peter, wake up!”

“Five more minutes,” I slurred. But when I rolled over I saw the clock. 6:30. My eyes went as wide as teacup saucers. “I’m up! I’m up!” I shrieked.

I sprawled out of bed and grabbed a fistful of clothes from the pile on my floor. I snatched up my bright red backpack, some spare sheets of Algebra notes, Excalibur, and shoved them all into the bag.

(Yes, it’s the actual sword. Yes, it fits in the backpack. It used to be a sheath, but times change. They’re both magical. Try not to think about it.)

Dad was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Arms crossed and brow creased. Before he could say anything, I asked, “Where’s Mom?”

His eyebrows shot up. He seemed taken off guard. “What?”

“Mom’s the one who usually does the scolding, right?” I dashed downstairs and grabbed my shoes.

“She left at three in the morning. Something about a dragon downtown.”

“Why couldn’t she take me?”

Dad scowled at me as if he were imagining how I’d look as dragon-barbecue. “It’s a school night, Peter.”

“School morning, now.”

“You have everything?”

“Yep.”

“Excalibur in your bag?”

“Yep.”

“Enchanted laundry?”

“Yep.”

“Homework? Pencils and pens? Gym clothes?”

“Yep, yep and yep.”

Dad gestured me toward the door. “Off you go then. Have fun.”

“I’ll try,” I said, and then slammed the door behind me.

* * *

When I arrived at school, I decided that there had to be a zombie outbreak while I wasn’t looking. See, there were upperclassmen just devouring each others’ faces right in the middle of the hallway.

(Okay, they were probably attempting to kiss, but they completely overshot the mark.)

Mister Parent strode by and I threw myself flat against the wall to avoid him. I craned my neck to look up at him. See, I’d always suspected he was a very short giant that somehow escaped the Realm, but to date I’ve never been able to prove it.

Not that I had the time. It was almost first period. I was going to be late for Algebra.

I wouldn’t have complained, except grades are a thing, so I couldn’t afford to be late.

The transparent images of knights and pixies floating through the school didn’t help either. I could feel the ghost of a cloak trailing down from my jacket. And if I listened closely, I could hear my shirt rattling like chain mail and feel my forearm weighed down by the weight of my watch, where the remnants of King Arthur’s shield, Pridwen, hung from its straps.

See, there’s this placed called the Realm. The easiest description for it is that it’s a place beneath our own where the dying embers of Camelot’s magic lives. But since the Fall of Camelot, the only people who can access the place are King Arthur and his knight’s descendants. Folks like us are known as Mythlings. And all those Realm-related distractions can make things pretty difficult to pay attention.

The Regulars (that is, non-Mythlings) usually refer to this behavior as ADHD, because it’s kind of difficult to pay attention to your teacher while she’s summarizing Macbeth when, if you look hard enough, you can just see two faeries duking it out beneath the whiteboard. Don’t concentrate too hard, though, or you’ll pull yourself into the Realm and they’ll see you.

I met up with Dawn Cross before Algebra. Dawn used to go by Don until she started wearing girl clothes and asking to be called a she in the first place. For some reason this has made a lot of people angry (Okay, I know why. That doesn’t mean I understand it).

I dashed down the hallway to meet her. “Dawn! Hey Dawn!” But I didn’t slow down in time, so I stumbled and skidded to a halt objectively too close to her face.

I took a step back, all too aware of my blushing. “How many years of remembering that moment while unable to sleep at three in the morning did I just buy myself?”

Dawn squinted like she was performing the calculations in her head. “About three,” she said. “Maybe four, if you start to think about what might’ve happened if you’d skidded a little further.”

I ran my fingers through my hair and groaned at that new thought. “Why do you do this to me?” Though I felt a little better to be joking about it.

“Because it’s fun,” she laughed. “You get all squirmy. It’s adorable.”

Upon that revelation I wound up giving her a demonstration without meaning to. “There are several ways to interpret that, you know.”

“I know.” She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Have fun trying to figure out which one I meant. Come on, let’s get to Algebra!”

“I can’t,” I said, “I just stopped by to say hi since your locker’s on the way to the English hall. I’ve got to go there and grab some books from my locker over there. I’ll meet you there, though. Save me a seat.”

“Are you sure? You can share my book.”

“It’s no trouble,” I said a little too forcefully. “I’ll go grab my own.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

I wasn’t sure.

Into the Sand

Bodies of Steel and Straw

The God of Duals and Duels

The God of Law and Chaos

The God of Life and Death

The God is powerless in the middle.

—Ancient Ükardhi proverb

 

The southron from Ükardhi did not mind the white-heats across the planes. He had been molded by it in youth, as the sword is molded by the forge-fires.

He came at length upon a briny smell, and he staggered at the new weight on his cloak. More spirits hereabouts, he guessed. Instinctively, he reached out to steady himself, focused on the distant sound of waves lapping on the shoreline. His hand closed around a wooden pole. The sand gave way to a wooden floor sprawling across a small village. It was slightly soft, and overgrown with seaweed. It mushed under his feet as the Ükardhian stumbled across the threshold and then came to his feet, laughing, and set off to explore the territory.

He found first a bald woman, bare breasted with a floral-patterned dress that reached her ankles. She wore a delicate scrap of linen over her head. A spear rested beside the tavern she leaned on, like a comrade beside her. “Welcome, traveler,” she said, “to Plankytown. Have you business hereabout?”

“Not business,” huffed the man, “Just a drink. Please.”

“A drinker with a sword at his hip,” the woman said. The spear was resting beside her, and then in her hand, between blinks. It was pointed at his throat. “You’ll hurt yourself, old man.”

“Wary of strangers, I see.” He raised his hands as he approached. “Call me Orymir.” He extended it for the woman.

“Khalee,” she said, shaking his hand.

“Is there anyone else here in Plankytown?”

“They’re hiding,” said Khalee. “We don’t chance strangers around here.”

Orymir bit back a smirk. “It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve given you my name. Can’t say we’re strangers, can we? Now, about that drink…”

* * *

The beer was a froth of corn and malt and yeast and water. Orymir savored the drink, his throat working as he finished it without pausing for breath; beads of foam slicking down his gullet.

He set the wooden cup down on the small round table. Khalea was watching him from across the tavern. He inspected the walls and found barnacles clustered onto them, grouped in sizes like white turtle shells, patching the wooden frame like quiltwork.

He looked to Khalee, a question etched onto his face. But before he could noise it, Khalee spoke.

“Two years ago, a traveler angered the Restless Dead when he came to Plankytown. Drowned a man on the docks in a drunken scuffle, then tried to flee on a trading galley. The Restless Dead sank it off the coast before they returned to their Never.

Orymir wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “And?” He gestured to the ship’s hulls that now walled them in.

“And one year later a new traveler came, wearing a cloak with a single eye sewn onto the back—much like yours. She claimed to be a patron of Kafmir.”

“God of Duels and Duals,” Orymir finished. “Did he open the third eye?”

“The one on the cloak?”

“That is so.”

She did,” Khalee grinned. “She summoned the Restless Dead to scavenge the sea-floor for sunken vessels, and they built Plankytown as it is known today. I remember the sight of that murderer’s corpse being dragged into the Never the second time.” Khalee sat herself across from Orymir. She’d brought a pitcher of beer with her and refilled Orymir ’s cup. “She didn’t stay long…will you?”

Orymir smiled gently. “No,” he said. “We patrons of Kafmir are cursed. Forces of Law and Chaos duel around us.”

“Duels and Duals,” Khalee muttered.

“That is so. I’m not adventurer looking for trouble. I’m a refugee, chased by it. I cannot abide friends or shelter.”

Khalee turned the cup in her hands, and then spat into it, a long, thin line of saliva falling into the froth. She handed the cup to Orymir. “I’ll be your friend,” she said.

“Khalee—”

“I never thanked Kafmir’s last patron for building our town, or avenging the man that was killed. I would amend that.”

Orymir nodded his assent and spit into the drink. He swallowed a mouthful, handed it back to Khalee, and she drank a gulp herself.

“We are kin now, Orymir. Go as you will, and know you will have one friend with you, always. Send my regards to the god Kafmir.

#

Orymir left Plankytown that night. The wind chafed his flesh as he returned to the sand. The Ükardhian stumbled and fell to his knees. He did not get up, at first. Instead he wept. He wept for a long while, tears streaming, and the wind drying them on his cheeks.

 

 

Altogether Scoundrels

Bodies of Steel and Straw

Trust your blade.

Steel is unlike Men

It will not lie to you

—Ancient Ükardhi proverb

 

Musa Em had won a hard-fought peace—one he could not afford to lose for the sake of one man.

If it were any other man, he wouldn’t’ve taken the risk.

Musa ruled his caste as its Emperion. He had dealt with years of border skirmishes between himself and the rival Emperions before he could even begin peace-talks. Let alone the time-consuming negotiations with the rival castes to form his confederation. Even during negotiations, the rival Emperions needed to vote on who the new Emperion of their confederation would be. In the end, they had chosen Duad Ath. Duad the Dreaded, he’d be called while they warred.

Musa Em still remembered Duad’s smile when they chose him. As sharp and curved as his dagger.

This same dagger would soon be at Musa Em’s throat if he was not careful. He had seen the thing that had slinked out of Ath’s expanse late at night during their weeks of negotiations. The beast was massive, such that it had nearly torn the roof clear from the hut’s entrance.

And when he saw the thing lumbering forth, he decided he needed a killer. To his satisfaction, one had come to their newfound confederation scant days ago.

#

Musa stole a visit to the man, shrouded in a cloak that blustered in the wind as he stomped through the tall yellow grass. He ran his fingers along the weavings that sealed the killer inside as came upon the entrance. With a mighty heave, Musa pushed the large stone aside, and moonlight flowed within.

He was upon the stranger. A man from Ükardhi, far south.

 

They had confiscated his ringmail shirt along with the double-edged sword that reminded Musa of the weapons the milkglass northmen. The prisoner had opened one of Duad Ath’s soldiers from waist to throat when he was caught sneaking into the confederation mere nights ago.

Presently, he was bound hand and foot by a length of iron fetters. When he saw Musa Em, he began to struggle, chains clanking He was a taut brown body of barely-sheathed muscle. Musa watched him struggle until, breathless, he relented and looked up at his captor. The two surveyed each other. His nose was curved sideways. Broken at least thrice, Musa guessed.

They’d let him keep his crimson cloak about his shoulders. Musa shuddered to look into the evil eye stitched onto the thing. Who could say what kind of evil that eye warded off? Who could say if this evil could be turned on others?

Musa hoped this was so. Smiling, he crouched over the prisoner. “Would you like to live, outlander?” Musa asked.

The prisoner grunted, newfound interest unveiling behind his eyes.

“It will cost you.”

The prisoner simply stared.

“I want you to kill a man for me.”

“Who?”

“Duad Ath. The Emperion of our new clan—and his creature.”

If the man was surprised, he did not show it. “I’ll need my blade,” he said. “And my shirt.”

Musa nodded. “It will be done.”

“When will I be free?”

“Within the hour. Anyone who can be bribed has been. And those who couldn’t—they were otherwise dealt with.”

“I’ll want my bonds removed now,” the Ükardhian growled. “And I’ll have some food, too. Good food. Not the wretched gruel I’ve been fed these past few days.”

“It will be arranged, outlander.”

“They call me Orymir.”

“It will be arranged.”

#

The blade had belonged to Orymir ’s father. At times, it had been all that kept them alive in the white-heats upon the southron planes of Ükardhi.

Once, when Orymir was young, he had found himself on death’s door. He remembered hearing his father praying to Kafmir, Lord of Duals and Duels. The God Kafmir had saved Orymir and woven him a cloak with an eye sewn onto it, sealed shut—it had since then felt welded to him by some primal instinct. Always was he aware of the forces clambering to break its protection.

Orymir stalked through the tall grass that reaching up to his waist, feeling this selfsame force. He pushed it to the back of his mind. He had a debt to repay.

His mail shirt rattled as he crept through the night toward Duad Ath’s hut. He had been told it would be the one with intricate patterns worked into the weavings. Some strange script that the man who saved him could not identify.

Still, all other huts were plain. This one had openings that seemed impractical. Most were crescent openings, with the occasional dash or complete circle, leading into more curves.

This seemed like the correct one.

Orymir stepped inside and saw that the moon filtering through the weaves in the hut had formed some kind of bizarre moon-letter, or rune. He’d never seen it’s like before.

He adjusted his cloak about his shoulders and pulled his two-sided blade free from his belt.

He stepped inside.

A lightning bolt flashed behind his eyes and pain seared his forehead. The world around him shattered like so much glass. Then the shattered shards fell into some sort of bright-burning Never beneath him. They fell until they were so small he could not see them falling. But he heard no crash.

He thought he would fall, too, until rock knitted its way between the Never and his feet, threading itself into spires of stone with a patchwork path interrupted by occasional tufts of grass and dirt. Some of it marked the edge of the spire, and he could see it falling like an open sandbag into the Never, yet it did not empty.

 

He followed the path, and heard the vestiges of voices—a conversation.

“…Should have taken my warning! Should have left with your clan while you were still an Emperion!” The voice came behind a bend of jagged stone.

“Your beast doesn’t frighten me,” said the voice of Musa Em. “My interests remain here, Ath!”

“That murderer gives you good company! Oh, don’t look so shocked. Of course I know. There are many things here—even secrets—that make themselves known to me. I know that the peace you so strived for was won more by daggers in the night and whispered threats. And yet I was named Emperion of our new caste. It seems the others fear my beast more than your steel. It must chafe, does it not?”

“I did not need to conjure some foul beast to secure my rule. I never exploited a caste for greed and ambition. Do not shame me with such words when you gather taloned beasts and damascened steel to silence those who might dissent.”

“At least the Ükardhian isn’t ashamed to bring his murderous acts to bare!”

Orymir had heard enough of their arguing, and rounded the jagged rock to reveal himself. The two men stood at arm’s length of each other, both pointing curved daggers at the other. But when they saw him, they lowered their arms an inch.

“Then it is settled,” Orymir growled. “We three are altogether scoundrels.”

Duad Ath adjusted the collar of his tunic and swallowed saliva. “What shall become of me, then? May I yet keep my life?”

Musa’s smile was as curved as the Ükardhian’s nose. “Perhaps,” he said. “If you swear never to summon your beast, and stay away from this evil realm.” He gestured to the void of Never surrounding the three of them.

Orymir laughed. “Since when does a leader keep his promises? Come, let me cut his throat and—”

“Silence,” Musa hissed. “I may yet end this without bloodshed. He stepped forward, but only just lowered his dagger. “Do we have a deal, Ath?”

“A cornered lion has few options,” Duad Ath muttered, staring at Orymir ’s blade, then at Musa’s dagger. He smiled, which struck Orymir as unusual. Why would he smile in such a situation?

But then the outlander heard something straggling down the sheer rock spire. It was a horrid desecration somewhere between a bear and a man. Its eyes were gouged so that it was ever-sniffing. It made a grating snarl and leapt for Musa Em.

But the southron threw himself in front of the former Emperion. The beast collided with Orymir and the two tumbled and growled.

Musa watched in muted horror. “You put your life in front of mine?”

“I pay my debts,” Orymir managed to respond. His shoulders were throbbing, having taken the brunt of the collision. He could not let the beast touch him. It was a tikoloshe—a cursed gremlin called to do the bidding of malevolent men.

The beast pinned Orymir to the ground and they struggled for three heartbeats before the outlander tore himself free, cutting one of the beast’s hands off and rolling to the side as it wailed.

Orymir ’s cloak was heavy on his shoulders. He could feel the eye fluttering, trying to open. It took all of his mental faculties to seal it as he fought. There was a great thrashing of limbs as Orymir tried to sneak his steel past the tikoloshe’s defenses. But even one-handed the beast was formidable, swinging in a storm of tooth and claw.

The two were in a battle-frenzy. They caught and slashed and swung at each other. They heaved labored breaths, shoulders rising and falling like grass in the wind. Once during their battle, the gremlin nearly backed Orymir off the edge of the rock and down into the light glowing downwards forever below them.

Breathless, Orymir thrust forward, burying his blade in the beast’s belly. The gremlin’s fur was matted with blood as it sank to one knee. Orymir circled the beast and with a heavy kick, smote the gremlin into the burning Never below.

Orymir turned to address the two men, but Musa Em had long since fled, and Duad Ath was on his knees, uttering pleas for mercy.

But the southron could not hear him. He was battered and his cloak held back hungry spirits that wished to enter this vile place. For a fraction of a splinter of a moment, he opened the eye.

It was all that was needed. By the time the eye closed once more, fingers of argent were whispering through the Never, snatching up foul pieces of it and carrying them off to even fouler places. Specters of moonlight sifted through the realm, until every piece was carried away, and Orymir was within Duad Ath’s expansive hut once more.

He had not seen Ath himself carried away by the specter, but he was not with him when he returned to the hut. Nor was Musa Em, and Orymir was unaware if the men could have exited while the strange letter was still filtered in the tent by moonlight.

He did not bother to ponder whether or not the two had been snatched up by the specters. They had no protection from them. And he could not find Ath within the hut. He resolved that he had paid his debt to Musa Em—even if Em was not around to enjoy it. He tired of their petty quarrels, elsewise. There were other places and other travels for a southron wanderer.

Legends #2

How wecagedthe wild (5)

The next day was much the same, only now they marched through a rainstorm, further muddying the roads. “We’d better hope to get to Silverhill before the Orcs,” the Mouser told Casreyn. “We don’t want an uphill battle.”

A Marshal came riding through later that day, instructing anyone with a cart to abandon it so that they could hasten their travels.

And so the squealing carts were replaced with squealing pigs and goats when a few shieldmaidens freed the livestock. Casreyn wondered if she should protest. She looked to the Mountain and the Mouser for a clue.

“Why leave behind food that walks itself?” the Mountain shrugged. But the thought of looming battle overtook any thoughts of food, and much of the livestock was allowed to abandon the road with impunity. Few saw much use in wasting their energy trying to herd them onto the path.

The Mouser gave the Mountain no shortage of torment for his incorrect prediction, but his only response was, “Today’s not over.”

Casreyn hoped that his prediction was true. The prolonged march before battle only served to increase the new fears that came to her every day. What if she was just another corpse? How would her father know if she died? Would that she decided to follow them sooner, she thought bitterly. It was the unknown of battle itself that made Casreyn’s chest tighten; made it difficult to breathe.

And resting was nearly worse than marching. She rarely slept, if ever at all. The ground was as comfortable as a bed of knuckles, and in the dark she suspected every noise might belong to an Orc.

She found herself retreating into her mind and her father’s stories more often. She would compare her experience with his stories of the Great Conflict and the legends of Garth the Great.

If Orcs were coming down from the north, then the Great Enemy must have returned. Which would mean that Garth the Great had to return to, at the Nailed God’s discretion.

And the Nailed God would send him. She was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that she decided to paint the Sacred Hammer onto her shield, when they passed through a small town.

The road had forked: one path through the wild, the other through a town. A section of the army split off through the wild to take the Orcs from behind while the rest were led on a slow march head-on for Silverhill. The Mountain and the Mouser were squabbling over this, and his predictions, as a townsman helped Casreyn paint her shield. And it was while they were conducting this business when a boy wandered into the town.

The fog filtered around him, making him look half a wraith. Though as he came closer he seemed more a skeleton; he’d only a shadow of skin and a face that pocketed deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. His tunic was torn and he was caked with dirt and dust. One side of his yellow hair had been matted down and crusted with dried blood. Whether it belonged to him or someone else, you couldn’t say. He had only one leg and a makeshift wooden crutch that he used to hobble over to Casreyn, who had been eating honeyed porridge as she painted. “Food?” he asked. “Food? Food?”

She handed the boy her bowl and he grinned, tucking it under his arm and spooning its contents into his mouth with two fingers as he hopped away.

They all stared in silence for a time before the Mountain said, “I’m going to kill those Orc cunts.”

But the Mouser cursed, “Red Nails, that’s a boy with one leg. Some poor fucker must have miswung.”

That night, the town gave them a feast. There was little cheer. Swordsmen and shieldmaidens spoke of the Nailed God or the Lightning Lords or other gods in speech littered with curses. Casreyn wondered what good it did to curse masters and creators of storms and stones. And if they would be saying the same things during a thunderstorm.

The Mountain tossed her scraps of meat thick as bark. They were dribbling with pink juice and seared with patches of crisp burn. “Eat well,” he told her. “You earned it.”

“I can’t—”

“You can and you will,” he growled. “Don’t make me threaten you into eating a decent meal. You already gave up your lunch for that boy. You’ve got to get something in you if you want to keep up your strength.”

She wolfed it down and asked for more. The Mountain gave her his plate.

The town had no bedding to spare beyond what was saved for the Marshals, so the army that had passed east littered themselves in and around the town’s timbered walls. Casreyn, the Mountain and the Mouser all sat by a tree. The Mouser was using a dagger to clean his nails, which Casreyn deemed dangerous due to the fog, but his only response to her warning had been a shrug.

“When do you think Garth the Great will return?” she asked them.

“Fuck Garth,” the Mountain spat. “He was as much a malice as he Enemy he slew.”

“Does that mean Orcs called Garth the Great Enemy?” asked the Mouser.

“Most like he was,” the Mountain said.

Casreyn interjected. “Do you think then that we might’ve picked the wrong side?”

The Mountain rolled over so that his gigantic back was facing her and the Mouser. “No,” he said, and resolved to sleep.

The Mouser only spoke again after the Mountain was snoring. “My Mother was one of Garth’s personal shieldmaidens, you know.”

Casreyn had been planning on slipping her father’s service into conversation, but knowing this about the Mouser’s mother, she decided against it. Instead, she asked, “Did she have any stories?”

“No,” the Mouser said. It was a flat denial. “She preferred to tell me stories of what I would do. She always said the Nailed God would make a song of my war-glory and put my likeness in the stars. And you know what I want more than anything in the world?”

“What?”

“That song—that promised song.” He finished shaving the nail off of one finger and turned to the next. “Because I’m sure that would be the most boring song in all of Creation. But at least Mother dearest would be satisfied.” A smile bled onto his face.

“What’d be so boring about it?”

“It’ll be short,” he said. “Mercifully so. Because one day my hand is going to slip with this dagger and I’ll lose a finger. Won’t be able to hold a sword proper after that. Won’t be able to fight.”

“Why not do it now?” she asked. “Get it over and done with?”

The Mouser finally looked up, scowling. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”

 

Casreyn could not have said when she woke the next day, for the Orc-summoned fog almost blotted out the sun. The phantom of a Marshal rode up astride a giant horse. “Form rank!” she called. “Form rank!”

Casreyn scrambled to her feet, pulled her shield off her back and unsheathed her sword. Generals and officers of higher rank crowded her, pushed her forward like she was caught in a surging mob. She was disoriented, reeling. The ground sloped suddenly downward and for a moment she worried that she’d been on a path directly to the Lord of Bones. Hills went up and down for hours. At some point the Marshals dismissed the archers and sent them scurrying off the path. “Shoot any stragglers,” a Marshal said. “Orc or not.”

She continued on like this, surrounded by a wall of people. She had begun naming those directly around her: Front, Back, Left, and Right. They marched in step, uphill and downhill until she thought she spied Silverhill through the fog—or its shadow, leastways, looming over her like the skull of a dead giant.

She had lost the Mountain and the Mouser, but she’d no time to ponder this or wonder where they were or if they were safe. She was on the march to her first battle.

Her heartbeat throbbed in her neck and her forearm burned from holding her shield up so long.

Beating drums boomed from the other side of Silverhill.  Boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom. There were Orcs grunting and shrieking from atop the hill a thousand hulking silhouettes waiting for their uphill approach.

She thought of all her practice drills and all of her training in sword and shield. She recalled tales of Orcs: some said they were green skinned, others black as pitch. They either had great big tusks or small precise fangs. Great horns or slavering jaws.

She heard a thrum from atop the hill, as if a thousand birds had taken flight at once. There was a whistling from above, and she saw a thousand silhouetted arrows ready to rain down. She raised her shield and felt three heavy stabs pushing her forearm back. She heard scattered shouts muffled behind her shield from soldiers too late to raise theirs.

She hacked the shafts off as she rose, then the army surged forward, up the muddy hill. The fog whispered through the air almost taunting them.

Casreyn nearly tripped on her way up the hill, but she had neither the time nor the desire to see if it was only uneven ground she had tread upon. She was practically carried up from the sheer force of swordsmen and shieldmaidens charging. She felt as if she were moving in a box.

Then the army slammed to a halt. Ahead of her came the sound of wood on wood and steel on steel. She flexed her hand around her sword, sweat slick and worried that she might drop it.

She could hear folk pleading ahead of her; pleading for mothers; for mercy; for quarter, But they were all silenced by wet sounds—like a bucket falling into a well. The army moved forward after every line lost. Casreyn felt she was a lamb being led to the slaughter.

Then to her right she saw the shadow of an Orc skulking through the mist. Someone scalped the beast, horns and all. The Orc fell back, then leapt forward. It looked like it had regrown its skull.

Casreyn stabbed over two rows of shoulders, taking it through the neck before it could regrow its horns. The beast made a gurgling sound and then collapsed, staying dead.

Someone up front shouted, “Thanks!” as the Orc collapsed, but sinew and bone had trapped her blade in its neck and levered it from her hand.

“The sword! Grab the sword!” shouted the Thank You Man. There came a short, suckling sound as steel was pulled from flesh—like boots squelching through mud. Then the sword changed hands as the army was pushed back, and kept changing hands even as they gave ground.

Front seized her wrist in his gauntleted hand and fastened hers to the hilt of her sword. “Don’t wait to pull after you stab next time,” she shouted, as they were pushed back onto level ground.

“You’re welcome!” Casreyn said, shaking and frenzied as a sack of wet cats.

The Marshals thundered down the line, ordering a retreat. “Keep formation!” they shouted, “Stay in rank!”

Bodies were turning sharply, forcing Casreyn around and shoving her forward as they moved. “We’re bringing Orcs back to the town?” she cried.

“Have you forgotten the archers we left off the road?” said Left.

“They were told to shoot anyone!”

“Have faith that the Marshals have a plan.”

The Orcs followed them down the road, nipping at the army’s heels. Arrows whispered into the Orc flanks. There were yelps and shrieks like wounded dogs.

Upon a Marshal’s command, the army turned to face the Orcs and pushed back.

From beyond the Orc army, she heard horses whinnying and bright swords shining through the fog. There were Marshals leading the riders, sloping down, down, and toward the Orcs’ rear.

The Orc army dwindled. Horned heads were scalped, then killed again. Casreyn saw it from over a sea of shoulders and shields and helmeted heads. It was now the Orcs who snarled for mother, mercy, and quarter as the archers spat and the army closed its fist.

Casreyn took to the grim work. They had won the day, killing every last Orc, but even when they knew victory was theirs, it took hours to see to the slaughter.

The boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom of the Orc drums faded, and with it left the fog. The sun was shining, but the only dead on the field were men and women. No Orcs.

“The foul beasts hate the sunlight,” Casreyn heard Left say. “Turns them to dust right quick.” Left snapped her fingers to illustrate her point.

The only dead were swordsmen and shieldmaidens lying limp as discarded tunics, with cloven halfhelms, hornhelms, or heads.

Casreyn climbed Silverhill, thankful for the ability to stretch and brace her hands against the steep slope. Beyond the hill were little fields girdled by the threshold of a forest. Other survivors floundered up Silverhill, or walked among the fields. There were green hedges, grass, and trees. The dew sparkled in the sunlight. There were pebbled paths and briar patches. The place seemed to her altogether the wrong sort of place for a battlefield.

She looked back and saw the litter of bodies strewn about the hillside. One soldier lay dead at the foot of the hill—a shieldmaiden who looked a few years her junior. Her ruined face stared at the sky, looking like something resembling crumpled parchment. Casreyn wondered if she had died instantly, or if it were the trampling that had done her in. And if it was the latter, had she—

—She cut that thought short before she could complete it. “What happens now?” she asked aloud.

“Now, shieldmaiden?” came the voice of the Mountain. He and the Mouser were standing behind her atop Silverhill. “Red Nails,” he cursed, “We defend this fucking hill. Convince the Orcs it isn’t worth trying to retake.”

“That’s it?”

“Don’t grow overbold, shieldmaiden,” the Mountain cautioned.

The Mouser must have seen the shock on her face, because he said, “What’s wrong? Isn’t this what you had in mind when you decided to save the world?”