Advertise Here
Want to advertise here? Get started for as little as $5
III. Prince B*****d Grey

III. Prince B*****d Grey

A Chapter by D.S. Dirck

III. Prince B*****d Grey

Year 643 ALD  


The landscape appeared desolate in all directions, punctuated by sand dunes, razor-sharp thorn grass, and an occasional withered tree. Ironscale snakes slithered across the road at will, but what they ate, even Macknemir could only guess. Whatever they feasted on, he assumed there to be plenty of, based on their large numbers.

On the second day of his travels, he chanced upon what appeared to be a large rat with a thick armor shell and rough scales from head to tail. Despite its large size, it was fast and proved too agile to catch.  

Seven days of patrolling the roads, and he grew weary of eating snake. Though he thanked God they were plentiful and most of all, non-venomous, their ironscale proved difficult to flay, leaving his whetstone cracked from constantly sharpening his daggers. But even that paled in comparison to the dilemma of hunting them. Sluggish and easy to spot, the act of catching an ironscale snake would have been simple, if not for having to navigate the sea of thorn grass, with its sharp points and razor-like edges.

His boots and pants were filled with a thousand tiny cuts and slices, many of which reached his skin. Clasping his boiled leather bracers around his ankles provided some protection, but after a few days, even they became worn and scratched.  

Flies and other biting insects swarmed in the sweltering heat, and Macknemir’s uniform absorbed only so much sweat, leaving him wet and sticky under his clothes. Rolling his sleeves proved little help, leaving his forearms sunburned. To call the thorn grass plains of Dura Tel Mar inhospitable seemed a gross understatement.

A tumbleweed rolled across the road as he dismounted his horse. With a raised hand, he shielded his face from a twisting cyclone of sand until the abrasive blast of hot wind passed. Lowering himself to a knee, he examined the tracks in the road.

The depth of the impressions left by horse hooves revealed the size of the men who rode them, while the angle of the hoof prints suggested their speed and direction. His own courser stood off to the side of the road, searching for something to graze on amidst the inedible thorn grass.

Up the road, smoke could be seen rising over the hill. Being midday and fifty leagues from the nearest outpost, it was a strange time and place to have a fire. His heart grew heavy as he approached with caution, saying a prayer to Ura, hoping it to be merely a brushfire or the remains of a forgotten campfire.

A broken wagon wheel came into view as he topped the hill, followed by the smoldering remains of what appeared to be a burnt wagon. He stooped down, approaching the wreckage slowly, listening for sounds of footsteps or hooves. The soft crackle of smoldering oak and cedar was all his ears could detect.

Articles of clothing, smashed crates, and shards of pottery lay strewn about the ground. Three large burlap sacks were cut open, leaving their contents of rice and grain spilled next to three bodies, face down in the sand.  

Upon closer inspection, he discovered it to be a merchant caravan comprised of three individuals, two males and a female. Two of them were no older than thirty, along with an elderly man in a blood-stained brown robe.

He rolled the bodies over to find the younger ones bludgeoned and unrecognizable. One had short hair, while the other’s was long. Their ears were rounded on the tops, like men, leaving no other recognizable features, as their faces were reduced to a bloody pulp of dried blood, hair, and teeth. A brutal and unfortunate demise. It went without saying the hands which committed this atrocity held life in low regard.

I will take note of this, should we cross paths…   

The old man’s face appeared intact, but his gut was pierced from an arrow or, perhaps, a blade. Taking notice of the lack of crows, Macknemir reasoned the bandits to be no further than a day’s ride.

As the sun set over the grass plains, he pried a partially unburnt plank of cedar from the wreckage and used it to dig three shallow graves in the sand. The woman was buried first, being the lightest of the three. As he finished covering the body, he looked to the sky and sighed before reciting the Reysian funeral blessing. “May you find the peace in death you could not find in life. May the spirit of Ura’ comfort you and guide you to whatever god or afterlife awaits you.” The blessing was repeated for the young man as well.

A faint sliver of sun remained over the horizon as he prepared to bury the old man. He was dragging the body across the road, when the corpse groaned and stirred.

So it seems this one still breathes…

Resting the man’s head against a rock, a set of tired old eyes opened. “You…. You’re... Not a…”

“A man? Indeed, I am not.” Macknemir lifted the man’s robes, examining the wound again. “Be still. Your wound is deep.”  

He looked around and let out a short whistle. A moment later the familiar clopping sound of his courser was heard through the muffling sand. The horse approached cautiously, as if somehow aware of the violence which had taken place.

Taking a step forward, the horse lowered its head as Macknemir gently tugged the bridle, gazing deep into the animal’s eyes. “Go out and fetch me the blue flowers. They have white stems. Get as many as you can, and be quick.”

The courser stepped back, slowly turning around and trotting off towards a patch of weeds and brush, as Macknemir lifted a skin of water to the dying man’s lips. The old man drank as much water as he could before a coughing fit came over him.

“I see you have the gift of whispers,” the old man said in the Reysian language.

Taken by surprise, Macknemir pulled the water skin back. “You speak our tongue? How?”  

“As a boy, long ago, I traveled your lands to study before my tutelage at the college of Ionassia. I met another who could command the beasts through whispers. Where were you taught?”

“I wasn’t taught,” Macknemir replied.

I wasn’t noble enough to be ‘shown the way’, as they say.

“How can that be?”

“It was a gift I learned on my own.”

With a soft smile, the dying man spoke with a faltering voice. “It gladdens my failing heart to see it again.”

“If you studied in Ionassia, does that not make you a steward?” Macknemir asked.

“Indeed, I was journeying to Ciromar, to your country. The others, they were on their way to Serendell. A newly-wed couple… such a tragedy.”

The horse appeared from the side. From its mouth hung a bundle of blue flowers with white stems. Lowering its head, it dutifully placed them on the ground, as Macknemir caressed the animal’s head, thanking it for its service.

He quickly picked the petals off of each flower, crushing them together with a rock until they formed an oily paste, which he packed into the steward’s wound. “This should help with the pain, and stop any corruption.”

“I thank you, sir,” the man replied, “but I fear my wound is too severe. I cannot feel my legs. I fear the arrow which pierced my gut has paralyzed me.” Macknemir checked again to see the skin on the man’s stomach was blistering in red patches.

You’re bleeding inside… I cannot fix that...  

“What can you tell me of those who did this?”

Men�"four of them. Cruel men in mismatched mail, they seemed uninterested in our wares. The man begged and pleaded for his wife. One of them attempted to take her by force, when her husband fought back--which is when they were bludgeoned.” The steward paused, grunting in pain, “And there was another…” The injured man coughed hard, and a drop of blood formed on his lips.

“What of this other?”

“He wore a hood and I could not see his face, but his hands… pale. Pale like a frozen calf left out in the winter.” The steward’s eyes widened. “The boyBy the Father, where is the boy?

Macknemir looked around, thinking he missed a body. “What boy?”

The steward coughed hard, and his speech became labored. “You must find the boy… You must. Without him�"

What? What is his significance?” Macknemir asked, as the man fell unconscious and his breathing slowed. A fever soon took hold, and within the hour he succumbed to his wounds, quietly and peacefully.

Gripping the steward’s wrist, Macknemir checked for the faint signs of a heartbeat before closing the man’s eyes for the last time.

When the burial was finished, he once again said the blessing and whistled for his courser, which patiently waited off to the side.  

If these raiders are indeed men, they will make camp at night, as their vision is poor. Then they will be brought to bear for their crimes.

Night fell as a sliver of a crescent moon illuminated the way forth. A thin wisp of smoke ascended upward, far off to the west.

Smoke means fire. Fire means a camp. Camp means raiders…

He dismounted, whispering to the horse, “Stay here until I return. If anyone appears, run and hide. Listen for the call.” The horse whinnied and raised its head.

Once on foot, he navigated the sea of thorn grass towards the fire, doing his best to avoid the thicker patches. Hearing faint voices echoing from a dim light of a small cook fire, he dropped to the ground, crawling under the cover of the foliage. The blades of thorn grass cut into his forearms like tiny swords, leaving a burning sting behind. Enduring the discomfort, he slithered closer. The scent of ash and charred meat reached his nose just as the voices became distinct enough to understand.

From his knees, he raised himself just enough to get a view of his foes. Two ragged men sat alongside a young boy. One was fairly plump with short hair, rosy cheeks and a wiry thin goatee, while the other was more gaunt, with a short but bushy goatee and a head of black greasy hair. Both men sported similar black tunics under black cloaks, sun-bleached a dark grey, ragged and tattered from wear. The gaunt-looking man held a skewer out over the fire, roasting what looked like two snakes.

“You’re gonna burn the meat, Lem,” complained the fat man.

They speak the common tongue of Elytia. They must be men.

“I’m watching it,” the thin one snapped back. “Every time I let you cook, I get a mouthful of raw meat.”

“You burn all the flavor away when you char it like that.” The fat man reached over for the skewer, trying to steal it away, as the other man slapped his arm.

“Piss off! I ain’t having raw snake again.”

The plump man lifted his head, peering off into the distance surrounding the camp. “Well, be quick about it. Everyone for miles can see this fire.”  

“Ok, you know what?” The thinner man lifted the skewer from the fire, pulling one of the snakes off and throwing it with deliberate force at his partner. “You wanna’ eat raw snake so bad? Well, here, have at it.”  

The plump man clutched the half-cooked snake from the ground, wiping the dirt and sand away. “That’s not the point.”

“Ask me if I give a s**t.”

From a safe distance, Macknemir watched the brief altercation unfold.

How could these two men cause so much trouble?

“So, boy,” said the thin man. “You ain’t said a word since we found you. You gonna tell us how you got away from them bandits?”

The boy said nothing, and Macknemir realized these men were not the raiders he was looking for. Pushing himself off the ground, he carefully rose above the foliage and alerted them to his presence.

“By the gods!” exclaimed the fat man, falling back from his seat.

Dropping his skewer in the fire, the other man reeled back, drawing a rusty sword and raising it in a defensive posture. “W�"who are you?” he stammered. “What are you doing here?”

Approaching slowly, Macknemir raised his hands in a peaceful gesture. “I mean you no harm. I saw your fire and thought you were raiders. I am Macknemir. I am from the Reshlar.”

“Look, Stu. It’s an elf,” the gaunt man bellowed, lowering his sword.

Macknemir frowned.

Why do men insist on using that word?

“I’m here to investigate the attacks on the highways. I represent the Reshlar Order of the Reysian Legion.”

Both men stared back with straight faces before the gaunt man erupted in laughter. “They only sent one of you?”

“Oh, thank the Father you came,” the fat man replied more sincerely. “We were terrified the raiders would find us like they found the others.”

“He’s only one elf, Stu. If those raiders come for us, we’re still fucked.”

That word… Again…

The sound of it was like the shriek of a blood hawk, or knives over glass.

Sheathing his blade, the thinner man took a seat, gesturing for Macknemir to do the same. “Well since you ain’t come to kill us, you might as well eat with us. I’m Lem, this here’s Stuart, and the boy, well, he doesn’t talk much. We call him boy, for now.”

Stuart seemed to be in a constant state of fear. There was an essence of either innocence or abject weakness to the man.

You’re in the wrong part of the world, friend. If raiders come, you’ll be the first one to die, I’m sure.

The other man, Lem, seemed harder and more seasoned, though his prowess with a blade was yet to be seen. The fact he was quick to unsheathe it said enough.

The boy sat quietly apart from the others. He looked to be near ten years old, his hair a shaggy brown mess and his face and clothes covered in dust and dirt. He never so much as flinched when Macknemir appeared.

“We passed that bunch a couple miles back,” said Stuart as he cut into his snake, taking a small bite. A dribble of grease ran the sides of his plump cheeks, soaking into his shirt. He offered Macknemir some, which the Reysian waved away.

“A nasty business that was,” Lem added, “with their faces bashed in like that.

“How long have you been on the highways?” Macknemir asked.

Lem turned back, glancing at the wagon and two horses resting near a large rock. “We came from Dunesvale, hauling grain to sell at the market in Loder.”

“How long has the boy been with you?”

“We found him this morning, not long after we passed that busted-up wagon,” said Lem as he chewed his meat. “He was hiding in a ditch.”

“He hasn’t said much since we found him.” Stuart reached over and handed the boy some meat as he pulled it off the stick, stuffing it in his mouth. “It must’ve been his parents back there at the wagon. So tragic. I lost my mum and dad when I was his age. They got killed when the Durs burned our village in Stratmond.”

“Terrible things were done on all sides then.” Macknemir turned to the boy. “Did you see the men who attacked your family?”

The boy refused to make eye contact as he chewed on the flayed snake strips. “They weren’t me family,” the boy said in a soft, shy voice. “I barely knew them.”

Stuart put a hand on the boy’s back as Lem leaned in. “Did you see em’? The ones who did it?”

The boy looked back, fearful and apprehensive, as if mentioning them might somehow bring them back.

“It’s okay,” Stuart said in a consoling tone. “You can tell us.”

With determined eyes, the boy stared into the fire, recalling what he could. “There were five of them. Mean looking men with scary beards except the one, the one in charge. He just wore a cloak. He covered his face.” The boy was trembling, and Stuart reached out, taking the boy by the hand.

“How did you escape?” Macknemir asked.

With tears in his eyes, the boy looked up. “I was in a ditch dropping a muddy when they attacked. So I hid there. It was my fault.” The boy looked down. “Everyone was waiting for me. If I hadn’t gone, we’d all have made it.”

Nah…” Lem walked over and put his hand on the boy. “They’d have just caught you further down the road.”

Macknemir nodded. “He’s right. Did you notice anything about the one in the cloak?”

The boy shuddered as he recalled, “His face�"his eyes were green, and his voice was strange. It was deep and sweet and bitter, all at the same time. I saw his hand, it was white�"”

“�"Like snow?”

“Yea, yea kinda.”

Lem and Stuart looked at one another.

“Pale skin, eh?” remarked Lem. “Sounds like Torish men… The shorter days and cold weather lend to their paleness. Hell, even their Lord looks like a bloody sundowner.”

“We’re a long way from Tor, Lem,” Stuart replied.

“Who else could it be?” Lem snapped. “A bloody sundowner?”

Stuart looked to the boy with a hint of fear. “Did he have sharp teeth? Did he bite any of you?”

“There’s no such thing, anymore,” Lem said dismissively. “We done killed them all centuries ago.

Men… They say it with such pride.

“I would have noticed bites on the other bodies,” said Macknemir.

“Other bodies?” Stuart asked.

“I chanced across three other caravans here in Dura Tel Mar. You two are the only ones I’ve found alive so far.”

Stuart’s face ran pale with fear. “Lem! What did you get us into? You said the roads were safe. You said�"”

“I know what I said,” Lem shouted. “How was I supposed to know there were roaming bands of marauders out there, marauding?”

Macknemir looked to the boy, “Do you have a name, young one?”  

“Rudd,” the boy replied. “The old man found me begging in Sunterland and took me in. He said I could be a steward someday. He said he saw something in me.”

Macknemir looked the boy over.

A dirty, ordinary boy is all I see. He smells like urine and the quality of his dialect and vocabulary speaks to a lack of education. What could that dying steward have seen that I do not?

“The man and lady, they just got married. He said he was taking her to a place. Some city made out of trees. They touched the sky. He said it was a magical place.”   

“The skywood city of Serendell,” Macknemir remarked. “More beautiful than magical.”

Lem took the roasted hawk off the brazier and stamped the fire out. “This fire’s been going long enough as it is. If there’s anyone out there, they know we're here.”

Stuart put an arm around the boy and pulled him tight. “You shouldn’t say such things, Lem.”

“Well, it’s true,” Lem replied. “Don’t worry Stu, the elf here’ll keep you safe.”

Sitting around the dying embers of the fire, Macknemir listened to the stories Lem and Stuart told of their past adventures. Both had served in the Royal Rangers before the Great War, turning to the merchant trade afterwards. Their journeys took them as far south as Tyrie, and as far north as The Crag. They even claimed to have traveled to the western and eastern coasts, much to Macknemir’s skepticism.

It’s their tales. They can make them as tall as they want. It does make for good stories, though.  

Rudd sat quietly, nodding his head every so often.  Stuart presented a pig bladder cask of wine and passed it around. Macknemir seldom drank, but the day’s events had shaken the normally unshakeable Reysian, so he took a long drink from the skin. The wine was overly bitter, unlike the sweet Reysian varieties.

As the skin passed Rudd, the boy curiously took a sip, struggling to swallow it and contorting his face at the bitterness.

“That’s good wine boy,” Lem snarled. “Don’t you dare spit it out. It’s Sargossian Red. Five years old, too.”

Midnight approached, and Stuart, Lem and Rudd each passed out from the wine, leaving the ants to claim the empty skin on the ground. Macknemir picked himself up with wobbly legs and blurred vision, resolving to take leave.

The drinks of men are stronger than I remember.

He whistled until he heard the clop clop clop of his courser return from grazing. When the animal arrived, he pulled his cloak off the back of the horse and placed it over the boy.

May Ura be with you, little one. Be safe. And may Ura use me as his instrument to make these lands safe for all, once again.

As he left, the Reysian looked back one last time and whispered, “Stay safe my fr�",”

�"Friends… I barely knew them. But alas, they were rough, but good people. This world could use more ‘good people’.

Back on the road, the Reysian directed his courser west to the main road and then north. Several hours went by with no signs of smoke or fire. Doubt slowly crept into his heart. He pondered if perhaps he was going the wrong way.

Surely they made camp somewhere. Perhaps they didn’t make a fire and I already passed them?

Reysians were endowed with the sharpest vision of any people, but even with a moderate amount of moonlight illuminating the landscape, he saw little but rocks and grass beyond the road.

The courser slowed to a trot as he considered what to do next. Further along, he chanced upon a vulture ripping apart something which, upon closer inspection, appeared to be a dead fox.

The bird made a screech and bobbed its long neck up and down, taking a defensive stance over its prey. Macknemir slid off his horse and approached the bird as it stretched out its wings and screeched again. Amidst the dark, a tiny spec of moonlight reflected off the bird's beady eyes.

I have you now.

He could feel the bird’s defiance. “I mean you no harm, friend. I do not wish to take your prize.”

Over the years spent honing his gift, he had learned that some beasts could indeed talk back, though birds were far and away the most difficult of animals to communicate with.

“It’s mine! Mine! Mine!” the bird screeched, “You, go! Go! Go!”

And the dumbest as well…

Moving back to his courser, he reached into the pouch and removed a piece of dried venison, tossing it to the bird.

The vulture reared back in confusion but took the meat, swallowing it whole.

Just because they can hear me, doesn’t always mean they’ll listen.

“Friend,” he called out, “Fly for me. Use your eyes and find the smoke. Find the fire. Find the men.” The bird ignored him and went back to picking the bones of the fox.

Undeterred by the bird’s apathy, he moved to a safe distance and waited. The bird scattered the bones about the ground, picking every last scrap of meat, then it turned to the Reysian. “Follow,” the bird squawked, “Follow! Follow!”

The vulture took flight and flapped west as Macknemir mounted his courser, galloping off in pursuit. With outstretched wings, the bird glided along a column of warm air, riding it several hundred feet up, scanning the horizon in every direction. As it slowly glided back down, it turned northward off the highway, towards an area of sandy hills.  

“Watch your steps,” Macknemir said, as he slowed the courser to a trot. “Be careful of rocks and holes. I can’t have you breaking a leg, not out here.” After several minutes of navigating the rugged terrain, a thin wisp of smoke became visible over the horizon. The vulture circled back and settled on the ground, still keeping a safe distance from Macknemir.

“Men! Men!” the bird exclaimed.

Macknemir tossed the bird another piece of venison. “Thank you friend,” he said as the vulture took flight and vanished. “Wait here,” he whispered to the courser. “Wait for the call. If I don’t come back, go find the others. They will keep you safe.” The courser merely blinked without reply.

You never have anything to say, do you?

Soon the smell of smoke and ash filled Macknemir’s nose. He lowered himself to a near crawl, stalking his prey, as he came upon the burned out remains of a fire. Four men lay asleep on the ground, each clad in patchwork armor,  just as the steward and boy had described.

There are only four here. Did the old man and boy not tell me there were five? Did they miscount?

Inching closer to the sleeping men, he quietly unsheathed one of his freshly sharpened daggers. The curved steel blade glistened in the faint light of the dying fire, one edge freshly sharpened; the other serrated. Wrapping his fingers around the soft leather hilt, he bent his wrist back, poised to strike.

These must be the men I’ve been tracking. There will be no words of blessing for their deaths. There will be no more innocent blood shed by their hands. May Ura judge them for their crimes.

There was a time when he would have cringed at the thought of murdering defenseless men in their sleep. Even the most dishonorable men deserved to face justice with open eyes, but the years had weathered his resolve to maintain the codes of honor and chivalry.

Honor matters little out here in the wastes when it’s four against one. Did honor matter to the innocent people butchered at the hands of these cruel men? Will it matter to those who will die if I let them escape?

Macknemir held his breath as his feet navigated every rock and blade of grass, deliberating whom to strike first. These men were dirty and smelled terrible. Two of them wore filthy black beards, another sported a long grey mustache, and the fourth was a boy of maybe twenty years, at most. They all snored, and their breath smelled foul like carrion.

He planned his attack carefully, playing it over in his mind.  

Nobody kept watch. Fools. Ura, judge me not for what I am about to do, but for why I must do it.

Then a commotion came upon the camp, and without warning, a pair of cold hands grabbed him. The ground beneath him gave way and he found himself flying through the air. In slow motion he watched the camp become smaller and more distant as he crashed to the ground. His weapon clanged against the rocks, far from his reach, and he panicked.

Disoriented from the hard landing, a shadow came over him, and grabbed him again. There was no time to react, yet he managed to unsheathe his other dagger, thrusting it into the stomach of his assailant.

In a deep voice, the shadowy man laughed, pulling the blade out from his belly without effort. A black, viscous substance oozed from the wound onto the ground.

“It tickles,” the strange voice, low and sweet, remarked.

Macknemir kicked and jerked, nearly freeing himself when the figure clutched his throat. Cold hands with sharp nails dug into his skin, nearly piercing him as he choked and gasped.

By Ura, what devilry is this?

With an unnaturally strong force, the man threw Macknemir to the ground. A large cloud of sand and dust exploded into the air, and pain surged through his right side. A pop in his shoulder preceded a shooting pain when he moved his arm. It was dislocated, to his dismay.

Yet before he could ponder his next move, the four men in patchwork armor swarmed over him, pinning him down. Their furious eyes scowled at him in rage. Those furious, bloodthirsty eyes.

“This son of a b***h was gonna gut us in our sleep!” announced one of the men.

“Cut his f*****g throat and be done with it,” said another. “Tom Tom wasn’t keeping watch like he was supposed to!” The man reached over and slapped the boy hard across the face and he crashed to the ground before he could muster a reply.

“Kill me and be done with it!” exclaimed Macknemir, “The words of murderers mean little to me.”

One of the dark bearded men unsheathed his sword, approaching slowly. “I’ll be happy to oblige,” he growled.

But before the man could run his cold steel across Macknemir’s neck, the shadowed man appeared.

“No,” he said.

No?” the bearded man protested, spitting in Macknemir’s face as he talked. “He tried to kill us?”

“He’s a Reysian scout, you fool. If you kill him, more will come.”

The boy was right. His voice is low and sweet and bitter, all at the same time.

The bearded man inhaled deeply, gathering all the spit and phlegm his lungs could muster, blowing it back in Macknemir’s face before delivering a hard fist to the Reysian’s jaw. “Take that, you piece of s**t,” the man barked, kicking the Reysian as he lay on the ground.

Blood covered Macknemir’s face, running into his eyes. Yet he gathered himself together with blurred vision to gaze upon this shadowy man, concealed by a cloak in the middle of the night. It was difficult to see what appeared to be a pair of brilliant green eyes staring back at him... with hands…

White hands… As white as winter.






© 2016 D.S. Dirck


My Review

Would you like to review this Chapter?
Login | Register




Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


Stats

180 Views
Added on March 3, 2016
Last Updated on April 4, 2016
Tags: fantasy, fiction, novel


Author

D.S. Dirck
D.S. Dirck

Fort Wayne, IN



About
I am an unpublished author searching for a literary agent and eventually publication. In the mean time, I'm here to network with other like-minded (and even non-like-minded) authors. I'm by no mea.. more..

Writing