V. The Pretender

V. The Pretender

A Chapter by D.S. Dirck

V. The Pretender

Year: 643ALD

Falling back into the chair as the washerwoman scrubbed the wine stains from the rug, exhaustion took hold. He fidgeted as the clip on his armor dug into his shoulder, making him arch his back slightly in hopes of finding a comfortable position.

“Would m’lord like me to get him another cup of wine?” asked the maid.

How about a whole bottle? And why not? Everyone thinks I am a drunk. Maybe it’s time to play the part?

“No. That’ll be all,” he replied.

Looking towards the window, the sunlight crawled in from between the curtains. He searched his memory to remember the exact moment when every task became such a burden.

Things weren’t as difficult when Jules was here. The sound of her voice, the way she laughed. The boys were never the same afterwards.

“I sense things did not go as expected,” Alyster remarked, closing the door behind him.

Peter rapped his fingers over the top of the desk. “Oh, I would say things went about as expected.” Just not as I hoped. “That boy has the best and the worst of me. He’ll do what I say, just not without a fight.”

“My lord, might I ask how you are feeling today? Are the voices...”

Peter hesitated. “Whatever you gave me seems to be helping.”

Alyester smiled. “I’m glad to hear, my lord.”

“At least somebody is happy,” he spat. “Everyone is talking about how I’m a drunken, mad despot.” He rose from the behind the desk and pulled back the curtains. The room exploded in light as the sun invaded through the windows.

“Don’t be absurd,” Alyester dismissed. “We’ve had mad emperors before. I can assure you, you are not mad.”

I’m also not an emperor.

“Well I can’t be far behind. I sleep in my solar, I wear plate mail at all hours, and I drank every bottle of Sargossian red we had. All we have left is that Reysian red, which tastes like piss and stale flowers. I’m tired Alyester. Seventeen? Eighteen years it’s been?

“Eighteen this year.”

“Too damned many.”

“If the murmurs of the keep staff trouble you, you can always have their tongues cut out.” Alyester’s mouth curled in a crooked smile.

“True.” Peter rubbed his chin. “I’m guilty of every other abuse. Might as well add ‘cruel tyrant’ to the list.”

“When the time comes, Chrystopher will be ready.”

“That time may come sooner than we’d like. He’s young, naive and not ready to lead a kingdom, let alone hold one together,” admitted Peter. “But my mind is deteriorating, Alyester. Time is running out. Our enemies cannot be allowed to learn of my condition; not before Chrystopher succeeds me. If only I could wave a hand and go back in time.”

If only.

“The regency has no doubt taken its toll on you,” remarked Alyester. “While the nobility wined and dined, schemed and plotted, you were the one toiling away with your backroom diplomacy. All those late nights locked in smoke-filled rooms negotiating taxes and trade deals have taken a toll on you, as they would on any man as dedicated and committed.”

“By the Father, Alyester, I tried to hold it together. I really did. We were always one mistake away from another rebellion, and from there….” He turned his steely gaze back to the bearded steward. “Secession has already happened once on my watch. It will not happen again.”

Alyester replied with a terse nod. “When would you feel it best to make the announcement?”

“Sometime close to Landings Day. Representatives from every hold will be on hand for the ceremony. What better way to hand off the Empire ?”

Alyster frowned. “It could be difficult to gauge the reactions of the overlords. The nobility may see it as a slight offense that they were not notified sooner.”

I should have made her bring more wine.

“Very well. We’ll do it after Landings Day.” He gripped the empty wine cup when he heard a faint whisper carrying on the wind as it blew in through the open window.

“He will take everything you have. He takes you for a fool…”

Peter’s eyes gazed at Alyster, yet the steward was diligently scribbling on a parchment.

“They all do…” the voice said again.

He clenched his fist under the table. “How has Berrin’s son been? It’s been a few months now, and we’ve heard little from Banesbridge.”

“You were nearly his age when you were called to replace your own father.” Alyster stopped writing for a moment and glanced out the window. “The High Lords were fiercely loyal to Berrin. I would be surprised if that loyalty did not pass to his son, despite his disfigurement.”

“I imagine winter is in full swing there.”

“Tor knows but two seasons: winter and not winter.”

Peter chuckled. “I suppose as long as their grain holds are well stocked, we should expect little and less news as they burrow under their pelts and huddle around their hearths.”

“Northern laziness, in simpler terms,” Alyester japed. “They would be less trouble if they simply hibernated.”

“As long as they give Rex Brandor safe passage, they can do as they please.”

Alyester nodded. “Let’s hope Kevyn’s presence will be enough to tame any ill-conceived plans on their part.”

“I pray the White Bear has at least as much sense as his father,” Peter sighed.

“More-so if we’re lucky. Berrin Tosch had little to begin with.”

“Perhaps, but he was loyal to a fault.”

“He’ll cut your throat in your sleep. They all will…” The voice whispered again.

A swift knock on the door preceded Constable Meribrand Conley as he entered the solar.

“What is it, Meri? Peter asked.

“My lord, the High Court is awaiting your judgement.”

An old man, clean shaven, with a square jaw and big blue eyes, Constable Conley sported the white and gold armor of the city watch. He proudly bore the bronze badge stamped with the emblem of a war hammer, the sign of justice.

A small crowd gathered in the Great Hall of Springhaven, awaiting Peter’s arrival.

Constable Conley entered ahead of Peter, announcing his arrival. “All rise for His Excellency, Lord Peter Hathaway, Overlord of the Ashlands, High Steward and Regent, Protector of the Empire and all her peoples, and Bringer of Justice.”

Climbing the steps, Peter seated himself in the simple wooden chair facing the crowd. Behind him hung the dual banners displaying the eagle of Hathaway next to the sword-covered sun of the Pelenoires.

To his left stood Alyster Croyle, while to his right stood the High Priest, Father Serrian Woodgrave, a man of advanced age. By the right of tradition, every sentence passed in the name of the Emperor or his regent required the blessing of the High Priest, and in seventy-six years, the man never failed to do his civic duty. Wearing a heavy red and white robe adorned with a thin glass circlet, Father Woodgrave was a pious man of ninety-two years.

A host of city watch approached the steps, escorting two convicted men brought forth for sentencing. The crowd grew silent as the men feared to bare their faces.

From the steps, the Constable faced the accused, opening his dossier documenting the criminal cases brought before the court. “I call before this court, the man named Lucas Dorthy.”

Peter sat straight as a pair of royal guards dragged a man to the steps, dirty, trembling and mumbling incoherently. The left side of his face appeared bruised, with his left eye swollen shut.

“What is this man’s crime?” Peter asked.

“The lesser court has found this man guilty of raping a stable girl one week ago. He has been brought before you for sentencing,” replied the Constable. “His guilt has already been determined. What shall be done with him by your authority, my lord?”

“Rape is a serious crime.” Peter leaned forward, examining the man. “Constable, what evidence was presented at trial?”

The Constable studied the dossier in his hands, moving his lips as he read. “It would seem the girl was found beaten and bloody. She identified Mr. Dorthy to the watch. He served as assistant farrier to her father in the stables of Bridgebear. When the city watch picked him up they found blood on the inside of his trousers. He denied any wrongdoing, but after a short interrogation, he confessed.”

“I see.” Peter looked at the convicted man again. “Was the confession forced? Look at his face.”

The Constable turned to look upon the man, taking notice of his bruises. “I was not there for the interrogation, my lord.”

“What have you to say for yourself?” Peter asked of the convicted man.

The man mumbled incoherently, showing a mouthful of broken teeth.

Peter leaned back and shook his head. “I cannot in good faith condemn a man to die under any state of coercion. If the guards who initially reported this did so under oath, geld and jail him for two weeks.” He then turned to the Constable. “Constable, I would expect better care to be taken of those in the custody of the city watch. I will not have the watch beating confessions out of people. Would you be so kind as to remind the captains that guilt is to be determined by the court, and the court alone?”

“Yes, my lord. My apologies,” the Constable replied.

With a sigh, Peter turned to the high priest. “Father. Do you have any words on this matter?”

The elderly priest turned to face the accused. In a frail voice he spoke, “There is no greater dishonor a young woman can endure than the taking of her maidenhood by force.” Several voices from the audience clamored in agreement. “Though his guilt is near certain, our Lord Father who reigns from the heavens is not without mercy, and does not smile upon the mistreatment of anyone before their guilt is determined. The sentence is just.”

Constable Conley motioned for the next man to be brought forward. The man stood in soiled rags and had not shaved for several days, but was unharmed. “Here we have a vagabond captured on the road to Fellmark. It says the court has found him guilty of the murder and robbery of a passing merchant.”

Alyester and Father Woodgrave both looked at Peter for a moment. He could feel their stares. “Very well. Murder and robbery are capital offenses.” He glared at the convicted man, who looked back with cold, unrepentant eyes. “Do you have anything to say before sentencing?”

The man turned, eyeing the crowd on both sides of the aisle, then glanced back to Peter and spit on the floor. “Not a damn thing.”

“Very well. Have him hanged in the tower at once,” Peter declared to the crowd’s displeasure.

“My lord, a public execution may be more fitting,” Alyester argued.

Peter moaned, recalling the botched hanging last month where the condemned struggled and choked in loud agony, to the disgust of the crowd. It seemed no amount of blood could satiate the mob, and the more blood they were given, the more they wanted. “Do they want justice, or entertainment?”

“My lord, your concerns are founded in reason, but the mob needs distractions from their everyday hardships and turmoil,” reasoned Alyster. “Why not give them what they want at the expense of this criminal?”

“We need to set an example,” the Constable chimed in. “The mob needs to see what becomes of those who break the peace.” The crowd became unruly as Peter gauged Father Woodgrave's expression, searching for advice.

“The Father finds no honor in death dealing, no matter the cause,” said the High Priest.

Constable Conley stammered, rebutting the priest’s position. “This is about justice, not honor.”  

Arguing broke out all over the court, and time seemed to slow. Peter could see the High Priest, the Constable, and Alyster squabbling, while the crowd bickered amongst themselves.

“They want to take everything from you. They’ll cut your throat in your sleep.” The voice whispered louder.

Vertigo set in, and the room shifted into a slow spin. Shaking his head, he maintained composure. Looking out into the crowd, he saw her standing alone. A young woman with golden-green eyes, wearing a cloak and holding a baby wrapped in a dark brown cloth. Then she spoke to him in a whisper, and while he couldn’t hear the words, he read her lips perfectly. She repeated it over and over again.

“Pretender… Pretender… Pretender...”

“What do you want from me?” he cried out.

Alyester grabbed Peter’s arm. “My lord! Are you alright?” He turned away, and when he looked back, the woman was gone.

Gritting his teeth, he leapt from his chair, visibly agitated. “In the name of the royal justice, I decree that, from this day forward, there shall be no more public executions.” The crowd erupted in more disdain, as he pointed at random faces. “You all want blood so badly? Where were you when Banesbridge burned? Was it you who found the charred remains of mothers cradling their infant sons? Was it your daughters who were brutally raped before their throats were cut? Or were you there when they pulled down the crosses along the highways?” Peter scowled at the mob. “No? Then where were you, dare I ask? Hiding behind my walls. That’s where you were. Begging me to save you.” He moved back to his seat, gaining his composure, as a cool expression washed over his face. There was much more he wanted to say, yet he held his tongue.

A strange awkwardness fell over the room. The Constable exhaled, closing his dossier. “Will there be any other petitions to the court?”

No one made a sound.

This is what happens when I don’t get a glass of wine before court.

The crowd dispersed, leaving Peter and the High Priest alone. Peter seated himself, picking at the weathered armrest. “What would the old man do in my place?”

The priest smiled “No better, I can assure you.”

“I’m too old to start doubting myself now, I suppose. The mob will have to suffer their bloodless executions.”

“What is on your mind, Peter? You seem troubled by things outside of merely disappointing the mob.”

“I saw a woman earlier.”

Father Woodgrave gave a subdued laugh. “It’s been more than fourteen years since Jules passed. It’s quite alright to take an interest in women again.”

“Not in that way,” Peter replied. “I saw a young woman here, in the crowd. She was holding a baby, and she spoke to me?”

“What did she say?”

“She kept saying pretender over and over. Then she disappeared.” He pointed to where she was standing.

“What did the woman look like?”

“Like a peasant girl, with brown hair and plain clothes. Her eyes, they were green like�"”

“�"Derrius?”

“Yes,” Peter agreed, “like Derrius…”

The elderly priest shuffled to a nearby chair, using his scepter for balance. “Perhaps the Father himself is trying to tell you something?”

Peter looked back at the priest's tired eyes. They looked as tired as his own. “What do you think that would be?”

“You spent a decade combing every city and village for anyone with those same green eyes. We all watched you obsess over it, more than you should have.”

“We were in the middle of a civil war. How many thousands of years of history died with Derrius and that damned horse? And it all happened during my stewardship.” Peter laughed at his awful luck. “Had I found an heir, a true heir, the world we live in today could have been a very different place.”

“We still endured, Peter.”

“At great cost…”  

Growing weary of lamenting the past, Peter escorted the priest to Council Chambers adjacent to the Great Hall, as the others patiently waited.

“What is the first order of business today?” Peter asked, taking notice of everyone sitting around the table.

Alyester coughed. “As most of you know, we are reorganizing the High Council. Every hold has been invited to send a representative. Gabriel, I believe you have already accepted our offer to represent Sargossia?”

“My brother will want the final say, but should he permit it, I will gladly accept.” Gabriel replied. The younger brother to the Lord of Sargossia, Gabriel was the antithesis of his eldest brother, Troy, in every way. Where Troy was blonde, broad and muscular, Gabriel was misshapen and pudgy with curly, light brown hair. Troy was known for his cunning and cruelty, whereas Gabriel was well-liked for his friendly nature. How a mother could give birth to two boys with such striking differences was beyond Peter’s understanding.

One of them must be adopted.

“Regardless, if he would choose to take your place, we would still like to retain you as treasurer.” Peter held a fondness for Gabriel despite the enmity between their families. Gabriel excelled at the role of Treasurer, and the city coffers were well stocked, even during the years of reconstruction after the Great War. Men with his talents were a rare find. Yet despite his fondness, Peter often wondered how far the older brother’s shadow extended.

Does Gabriel feel that cold piercing gaze all the way from Sargossia?

It would be an understatement to say that, if Gabriel would have been first born, the world would be a very different place.

“Attican Goodnorth himself will represent Alloria, as his son Felix transitions to Overlord,” Alyester announced. “We are still waiting on responses from the other holds.”

“Don’t hold your breath on a reply from Sunterland,” the Constable scoffed. “You could wonder if the Dawkins even consider themselves part of the Empire.”

“Hugo Dawkins bends the knee and pays his homage,” Peter replied, “and in return, he gets our support from the Rangers.”

Pondarius leaned over the table to speak, “They only weaken their own standing by not representing themselves.”

“It’s their right, and we will leave it at that.” Peter turned back to Alyester. “Did we hear word from Banesbridge?”

“Oh! Yes, actually, I nearly forgot.” Alyester pulled a note from his pocket and read it out loud:


‘Due to the untimely death of our beloved Lord Berrin, we must humbly decline your offer, as we have no one to send at this time.’


“The White Bear seems busy enough with matters in Tor.” Peter folded his hands over the table. “Perhaps his younger brother could represent the north when he comes of age.”

Well, four out of six invitations isn’t so bad. I was expecting much worse.

Constable Conley motioned for the council’s attention. “I have put forward a motion requesting additional funds for security in regards to the upcoming summit, as well as the Landing’s Day festival.” The man visibly squirmed, as it pained him to ask for money. “God knows there’ll be lots of drinking, and I’m fearful to keep the peace with the crew I’ve got currently.”

“How many men would you plan to hire, Constable?” Alyester asked.

“I could make due with a thousand, but two would be better.”

Peter turned to Gabriel. “Can you secure the funds for the Constable?”

Gabriel shifted some papers around, doing some rough math. “I believe I can lower the costs of treasury notes to spur the merchants and banks to buy more bonds from the crown. Other than that, I could increase the tax on imports or brothels.”

“A w***e tax would be better than raising tariffs. Best to not raise the ire of the Merchant’s Guild,” Alyester replied.

Pondarius raised his hand. “A falcon arrived this morning from Fort Pennyrose relaying reports of raiders in the grass plains of Dura Tel Mar. The Ranger Captain, Alexander Black, is requesting permission to enter Freelands and put an end to the raids.”

Alyester was the first to voice his unease. “A military incursion into the thorn grass plains could be viewed as a provocative action on our part, especially with the assembly so soon.”

“Is the Merchant Guild not supplying their own security anymore?” Peter asked.

Everyone in the room exchanged looks of uncertainty when Dennys Forstray, the Chief Councilor of the Eldermore, raised a withered hand.

“Councilor Forstray,” Peter smiled. “How kind of you to join us?”

The council laughed, as Dennys was infamous for napping through meetings.

“Yes, yes,” Denny’s humbly raised his hands in jest as he motioned to Mayor Vickon Torgray seated next to him. “The Mayor and I have regular meetings with the guild, and our sources tell us that there is some turmoil within the ranks.”

“What kind of turmoil?” asked Peter.

“Their security contract expired and wasn’t renewed,” Mayor Torgray spoke up. “The caravans in the Freelands are ripe pickings for bandits and other outlaws.”

“It’s unfortunate to have to deal with this now.” Peter turned away in thought. “Pondarius. Send a falcon back to Fort Pennyrose. Tell Captain Black he may send a small group, no more than ten. In the meantime I’ll inform the Reysian ambassador myself.” He looked around the room before rising. “Do we have anything else to discuss today?” Everyone at the table remained silent. “Well, gentlemen, sirs, stewards, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll adjourn this council until tomorrow.”

Taking his leave, two city watch accompanied him to the southern district of Asterphin. A thirty minute jaunt led them to the house of the Reysian Ambassador, Luthor Nimirion. The Reysian’s two-story granite brick house was guarded by five Reysian legionnaires. Their armor was coated in a glass enamel, which reflected sunlight like ripples over water. Peter approached the entrance and waved to the guards. “I would like to have a word with your master.”

A dark skinned Reysian stepped forward. “Master Nimirion is indisposed at the moment.” Shouting could be heard coming from within the house. A male and female voice were raided in heated conversation.

“Tell Master Nimirion that Lord Peter Hathaway has urgent business with the ambassador.”

“We know who you are,” the guard replied, motioning for the Reysian next to him to open the gates. Yet before the soldier could answer, a young girl came dashing out the front door.

“Open the gates! Open them now! I command you!” the girl screamed in tears.

He wagered to guess this girl before him was none other than the very same one Kevyn was sneaking into the castle keep. Never having seen her before, he now understood why Kevyn risked his wrath.

I guess I too would have suffered my own father’s anger for a girl of such beauty when I was his age.

As the girl fled, the ambassador came running out in a half-hearted pursuit. “Kira!” the Reysian shouted. “Kira! Come back here! I command you!” Yet without looking back, she disappeared into the crowd. “Peter, is that you?”

“Hello, Luthor,” he replied with an awkward grin. “Is this a bad time?”

“With teenage daughters, it’s always a bad time,” the ambassador replied. “Please, come in.”

He turned back to the pair of city watch as the Reysian guards sized them up. It seemed unwise to leave two Elytians loitering around amidst Reysian Legionnaires, outnumbered as they were. “You both can leave.”

“Sir? Are you sure that’s wise?” they asked.

“I can find my own way back, do not fear,” Peter replied.

The two men glanced at one another, appearing unsure of their orders, and they eventually shrugged and headed off.

Where most Reysians were long-haired, thin, elegant creatures, Luthor was heavyset and balding. A thick unibrow separated his forehead from the rest of his face. His every emotion was betrayed by the contortions of his singular brow. “Would you like a cup of tea?” he offered. “Please, have a seat.”

Seating himself on the leather couch, the fabric muffled the clangs of Peter’s armor. “It seems our children have taken a liking to one another.”

Luthor exhaled, “I have to apologize for my daughter. Kira has been most difficult to manage.”

“You obviously haven’t met my son, then,” he replied with a somber chuckle. “No need to apologize. In our kingdom the responsibility falls to the man to choose and protect his love interest.”

“And in our lands, the female is the one who chooses her mate.” Luthor rested the tea on the nearby end table. “My eldest daughter has chosen your son, Peter. This is most troublesome.”

“I know the agreements between our people, and so does Kevyn.”

Luthor let loose a scoffing cackle. “Ha! If only my daughter cared for such laws. Truth be told, it was foolish of me to raise my girls amongst your people and not expect something like this to happen. What would it matter to me if my daughter chose a man to love? Of course she would never bear children, and she would carry the pain of losing him long after his death. Our lifespans are much longer than yours.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Peter replied. “Kevyn has enlisted with our eastern militia. That should solve this problem.”

“Kira is threatening to run away to the Sunterlands to be closer to him.”

“What?” Peter gasped, nearly spitting out his tea.

“She’s nearly of age. Be thankful you don’t have daughters. You would risk looking like me.” Luthor ran his chubby fingers over the sheen of his balding head, plucking at his few remaining grey hairs.”

“I’ll have a word with my son on the matter,” Peter replied, changing the subject. “I actually didn’t come here to talk about our children.”

The ambassador’s curiosity peaked. “Tell me then. Why did you come?”

Peter took a sip of the tea, finding it to be dragonleaf, much to his displeasure. “Raiders are attacking merchant caravans in the thorn grass plains. I’ve sent a small contingent of soldiers to enter Dura Tel Mar to track, and if possible, kill them. I do not know if they are men, Reysian, or Durian. And I certainly don’t want Thane Greenstar to view this as provocative on my part.”

Luthor rubbed his forehead as he exhaled a hard breath. “The thane is preoccupied with other matters from what I’m told, though the nature is confidential, even to me. But Galadripol seems aware of the troubles in the grass plains and has sent someone to investigate, or so I was told.”

“Someone? As in one person?” Peter suppressed the urge to laugh.

How diplomatic of them. I wonder, if they find the bandits, will there be a trial? Or will the Reysian simply ask them nicely to leave?

As he mocked the news, a servant girl appeared with a flagon of wine. Three hours had passed since his last drink, and he was feeling a bit jittery. The ambassador split the flagon between two glasses, and the conversation moved to less important matters involving the upcoming Landing’s Day celebration.

Slightly drunk, Peter left as the sun dipped behind the horizon of buildings. The shadow of the western wall cast a crawling darkness over the ambassador’s home, and he knew it was time to leave.

“Could I have one of my guards see you back to the keep?” the ambassador offered.

“I think not,” Peter declined.

I’ll be damned before I’m seen escorted through my own city by the Reysian Legion.

The brick streets felt slippery from an earlier rain, and despite his best efforts, he failed to avoid the puddles. His vision blurred and his head spun slightly. He tried recalling the amount he drank earlier, unsure if it was four glasses or five.  

Is Reysian wine really so strong?

Torch sconces illuminated the sandstone walls, as people were still out and about. Concealing his face with his cowl, he feared to be seen alone and drunk. A few commoners in passing gave him looks, but no one said a word. He traveled a few blocks north, turning into an unlit alley. His vision blurred a bit worse, and a slight fear stirred within.

No one can see me like this. There must be a guard post near. If only I can find it.

After traversing the alleys, he was ashamed to admit he was lost in his own city. Nothing looked familiar. North, south, east and west all blurred together into an endless maze of brick walls and tent awnings. The keep couldn’t be far; it was, after all, the epicenter of the entire city. Yet the height of the surrounding buildings obscured his view out of the alleyways.

The districts were separated by a series of wide thoroughfares, all leading to the keep. Yet a tangled rat’s nest of smaller boulevards intertwined to comprise the heart of the districts. Peter drunkenly cursed the long-dead architects of the city and their piss-poor planning.  

The echoes of shouting mixed with the sound of carriage wheels rolling over stone. The smell of piss was heavy in the air and he became overwhelmed with nausea. A path jutted off from the alleyway into a narrow, even darker byway where two large buildings converged. He ran towards it and retched in the shadows. His stomach heaved until nothing was left and relief returned to him.

Opening his eyes, he found himself in complete darkness, touching the slimy cold walls in hopes of feeling his way out. The muffled noises of the city became more distant as he followed the wall, desperately hoping to see a light�"any light--which might lead him back to the main street. The sounds, the smells, and the very feel of the wall were foreign and unfamiliar.

Oh no, he thought. This isn’t happening…  

The ground gave way from underneath him and he fell. His armor clanged like pots and pans banged together when he crashed onto a set of steps, tumbling further and falling deeper into the blackness. The stone ground was cold and wet where he landed, and a pain throbbed in his ankle when he moved.

Tell me I didn’t break something.

Struggling to get back on his knees, he crawled along the wall, feeling the bricks when his hands chanced upon the smooth, pockmarked wooden surface of a door.

He knocked two times, yet no one answered.

A flickering light bled through the cracks in the door, and it slowly creaked open. The leathery face of an elderly woman appeared behind a lantern. Bright green eyes under a ragged mane of silver hair glared at him.  

You,” the woman seethed as spit flew from her shriveled lips.

“Where am I?” he asked. “Who are you?”

Pretender,” she said with scowl.

He fell back, frantically unsheathing his dagger and pointing it at the woman. “Stay back!” His hand was shaking. “Back, I said!”

The woman took a step forward. “You let them take him. Why? Why did you do it?” In the light of the lantern, black tears seeped from the corners of her eyes.

Pressing himself against the wall, he slashed at the woman. “I said stay back, witch! I know not what you speak of!” To his right, he saw the steps in the lantern light and he crawled to them in hopes of escape.

Spotted, gnarled hands, like wrinkly spiders, reached out for him. “You know where they took him!”

He again swung the dagger, and the blade passed through her hands.

A shade? An illusion... More madness?

He gritted his teeth, sliding over the steps and never taking his eyes off the old woman. “You are not real. You are a shade.”

She stopped and gave him a confused look. “Why did you let them take him?”

His trembling hand lost grip of the dagger and it slipped through his fingers, clinking to the ground. “Do what you will, but stop wasting my time with this nonsense.”

“Tell me where they took the boy…”

“I don’t know,” the fear bled from his voice.

“Liar!” she screamed in a piercing voice.

He raised an arm to shield his face as she vanished. The words liar…liar…liar… echoed from far beyond the alley.

Visibly shaken, he again heaved as a torrent of bile rushed from his gut. He spit out the last of the putrid filth, resolving to climb the steps to freedom.

The upwards crawl became daunting, as each step was a successive struggle. His armor scraped against the cold, wet stone, tearing his cloak to rags. Without the moon or stars to light his way, he had counted nearly twenty steps when his left hand slipped, sending him tumbling over the edge and back to the bottom of the stairwell. He sighed, as the salty iron taste of blood filled his mouth, replacing the awful bile.

“You win this battle, stairs!” He shouted in a drunken rage before falling conscious. Tomorrow is not going to be a good day… Tomorrow…





© 2016 D.S. Dirck


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Added on March 16, 2016
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D.S. Dirck
D.S. Dirck

Fort Wayne, IN



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