Hrothgar's Hall

A place where songs are sung

Freedom

The balled up fist came smashing into Elwin’s jaw once again and his vision flickered between utter darkness and the stone cell that had been his home for three days now. Elwin let himself go slack and felt the hot pain flaring across his jaw and up into his skull. Even though his right eye was closing over he could still see the trickle of blood dripping from his cracked lip onto his lap. A few flecks of white punctuated it at odd intervals, the remains of some of his teeth no doubt. He was in a sorry state.

"The sooner you tell us the truth Elwin the better" said a voice that swam into the flickering blackness that invaded Elwin’s mind. "We found you with blood on your hands and everyone know the disdain you felt for the master. I guess it was only a matter of time before you snapped like a twig".

Elwin was tired of retorting now. He had professed his innocence at first but the jailor was having none of it now. Elwin genuinely thought that his captor knew he was innocent but enjoyed the brutality of ruining his once beautiful face. A strange thought entered Elwin’s head at the that moment as he remembered those lovely ladies of the night who would probably never look at him again in the same way. Whatever effort Elwin had left he used to grimace.

"Smiling are we?" the voice said again from somewhere else in the room now. "I think we better wipe that smile off your face; or what’s left of it."

Elwin didn’t even bother looking up. He closed his left eye and waited for the punch to land once again. He didn’t hear anymore voices after that.

***

A few hours later Elwin awoke in the same cold stone room and immediately wanted to close his eyes again. The pain was unbearable and it was coursing through every fibre of his being. He could feel the bruises all along his stomach and chest, the brutes had clearly kicked him around after he’d blacked out. Elwin had given up on innocence now and instead was wondering how long it was going to take for him to die.

It was a shame that the jailors were so good at their jobs. He had heard of other places in the Empire where prisoners ended up dead within the first few days but here in the tower it was another thing entirely. Even if your body was beaten within an inch of death there was always some way to preserve it for more punishment. Elwin could taste one such way on his lips, likely another elixir from the alchemists.

Watching the shadowy room and the huge metal door at the other end Elwin lifted his manacled hands into view and looked at the glowing runes constraining his power. In the beginning they had flickered and roared as Elwin struggled but now they were dim, sensing he had given up. Elwin moved his wrists around inside them and felt the red raw scrape of the metal on his blistered skin. It was agonising. Elwin wondered if he could even have summoned up the power to fight his way out of here even if his manacles were off.

Reaching out he pulled a bowl of food towards him, or whatever registered as food down here in the towers dungeons. He dipped his fingers into it and sucked at them absentmindedly. It tasted terrible but it was better than nothing. Elwin was sure he was most likely going to throw it all up in a few minutes anyway but least for now it was sitting reasonably well on his battered stomach.

"You really are in quite a state aren’t you" said a light-hearted voice from the shadows. "Such a shame that the great Elwin has been reduced to this."

Elwin shut his one good eye and tried to ignore the voices. He was clearly going mad and even though his body was broken he was keen to hold onto his mind if nothing else.

"Fair enough. Maybe I’ll take this keystone elsewhere and let out another more worthwhile prisoner."

Elwin opened his eye a little and watched as the shadows unfolded and the shape of a woman emerged from it and knelt in front of him on the stones. Her boots were made of rough leather and she was garbed like a vagrant save for her stunning face. Her hair was tied back into a series of plaits and knots and was black with hints of red and blue mixed throughout. She had pale skin and fine features, a thin nose that was freckled across the ridge. Her eyes were emerald green and regarded him with such pity that Elwin had to fight the urge to not cry. No, that wouldn’t do. Even if this was a figment of his imagination he was going to go along with it. Sod it, let his mind break.

Elwin reached out with his wrists and the mysterious woman smiled. Her lips, tinged with a purple dust split and he saw brilliant white teeth within. She reached into a pocket at her side and pulled out a blood covered keystone. Whomsoever it had belonged to no longer had need of it. She fitted the rune stone into the gap on Elwin’s manacles and the runes flickered and died, coming loose around his wrists. Elwin froze in surprise.

"Now the sooner you get out of here the better" the woman said, standing up and brushing herself down. "I will find you later my dear".

She retreated back towards the door, pulled it open and Elwin heard her boots wandering off down the long hallway outside. She had left the door open.

Elwin forced himself to sit up and he felt freedom within touching distance. Holding his hands up the magical energy that had been repressed began to surge to the surface once more. The same feeling he had had in his study chambers came over him and almost without thought Elwin felt his bruised and battered body knitting itself back together. A moment later he was standing, his skin was pale and pure once more and the red run of his wrists had vanished.

Stepping out of his cell, his legs still shaking from the renewed feeling of free movement, he looked up and down the dimly lit hallway. A guard lay dead not four feet from him, his neck twisted in an unnatural way. The vambrace they all wore with the runic keystones on them had been torn off his arm and a hand lay, still twitching, on the cold floor. Elwin wasn’t entirely sure he liked freedom if it meant having to say thank you to someone who could do that. Right now however, he had little choice.

Footsteps sounded behind him and Elwin span round. A guard turned a corner and looked up at him his eyes alight with panic. In the moment that Elwin had frozen the guard reached down and picked up a whistle from around his neck bringing it to his lips. Elwin swore and reached out his hand, twisting it into a fist. The whistle flew from the guards hand and bought him along with it, the guard falling face first into the flagstones knocked out.

Elwin ran over and held his hand over the guards prostate form. His fingers crackled with spells newly remembered and he thought about burning the man to a cinder. Maybe he had been one of those who had beaten him hour after hour and he deserved it. But Elwin was no killer. He might have been reduced to nothing by his captors but he wasn’t about to sink to their level. Elwin was many things but he was not a murderer.

Bending down Elwin tore off the guards leather boots and uniform. The fit was overly roomy but it was convincing enough. As quickly as he could Elwin grabbed the limp body of the guard into his open cell and propped him against the wall. He did the same with the corpse too but decided against touching any of his apparel. He had enough of people finding blood on his hands.

Quickly and with a brief search of his subconscious Elwin remembered his glamours and pressed his palms against the unconscious guards cheeks. Elwin hated doing this at the best of times as it was entirely unpleasant but right now it was the only way he was getting out of here. A moment later he was looking at himself and as he looked down his own hands had been replaced with that of the guard. It wouldn’t last long, but hopefully long enough.

Gathering up the guards club and belt of keys Elwin stood up and winced inside the roomy leather boots. It was time to get out of here.

***

Tiphon rubbed his temples and brushed his hair behind his ears. He had had enough of mages. Kneeling down he slapped the unconscious prisoner across the face and watched the image ripple strangely. A simple glamour.

"I think your man has escaped sir." Tiphon stood up and watched as the unconscious guard started to come up, the image of Elwin fading from his own features and returning to normal. "I would suggest sending out a search party right away. He cannot have got far."

The other man in the room rubbed a grizzled chin and paced the stones occasionally throwing a dirty look at the other guard whose neck had been snapped. Tiphon had little regard for Jailor Lin but he thought it best to maintain a certain degree of formality.

"When I find that mage I’ll hang him from the top of the bloody towers!" Lin said, spittle flying everywhere in his rage. "He has another murder on his hands!"

"This other guard was killed by another hand sir" Tiphon interjected "Why kill one and leave the other alive to tell of his escape or how he might look? A galmour works despite the life energy of that which you copy. I believe if anything your Elwin had an accomplice, possibly unwittingly so".

Lin stopped his pacing and furrowed his brow. Tiphon had clearly aggravated him.

"I don’t care for your theories Commander Tiphon. I want you to get your men and find that damn mage!" Lin roared loudly and the shout echoed out of the door and down the hallway. The jailor soon followed it bellowing orders and he raced away from the cell.

Tiphon sniffed unimpressed and walked out of the cell. Outside his second in command, Janir, stood with his sword out, spinning the tip on the stone beneath their feet making a grinding sound.

"Lin seems in even more of a mood than normal. I think he was enjoying brutalising that mage." Janir smiled and lifted his sword, sheathing it and removing his helmet.

Janir was from the West and it was unmistakable. Unlike Tiphon and the others in the Tower Guard who were all born in the North to hardy winds and plentiful snow Janir was from the deserts of the West. His skin was almost as black as obsidian and two jewel like eyes looked out from beneath white eyebrows and a shock of white hair atop his head. He was fearsome looking despite his jovial smile and he had been Tiphon’s right hand on more than one occasion.

"Quite" Tiphon smiled in return and started off down the hallway with Janir beside him. "Still, his wish is ours to follow and we will have to begin gathering scouts to hunt this Elwin down. The glamour has already faded and a thin stick of a man like him shouldn’t be hard to find. I bet he’s hardly got halfway down the mountain."

Janir laughed “It’s quite like the old days sir. Guards hunting down errant mages.”

Tiphon went to answer but thought better of it. Those days had been dark and Janir had thankfully never seen them. Tiphon on the other hand had witnessed them first hand and the brutality that both sides had wrought on each other. It was a blessing that they had managed to find some peace in recent years despite the Emperor and his constant warmongering.

"Get my steed ready and meet me at the eerie" Tiphon said instead. "The sooner we find this mage the sooner I can go home."

Uneasy Alliance

Quinn had lost the horse an hour ago. His boots were filled with water and he had the sinking feeling he was indeed lost. The map was utterly useless and everywhere in this stinking wood looked the same. He’d made good headway back along the forest road but he’d ran into a barbarian patrol on the way acting as the rearguard and they’d pursued him further into the wilds forcing him off the track. An arrow had caught his horse in the neck and it had pitched over. Quinn had narrowly avoided breaking his neck on a particularly cruel looking root as he’d toppled forward.

Despite his fall Quinn had got up, killed two of the barbarians and knocked the third out cold. Even with a broken sword his uncles lessons in the blade had taught him well. He also didn’t underestimate the usefulness of a bit of foul play too. It would have been frowned upon in any gentlemanly duel but in the heat of battle anything was permitted.

Pulling his boot out of the sucking ooze for a fifth time Quinn pressed on using what little knowledge he had of the wood to try and find some higher ground. Once he could see his surroundings a bit better and get his head above the close knit pine trees he would be fine. At least that’s what he hoped.

***

Daro coughed and felt the smell of dirt in his nostrils. He could also taste it on his tongue and that was not a pleasant feeling at all. Rolling over he let the rain splatter against his tanned skin. The damn runt had got the drop on him and smacked the pommel of a broken blade into the bridge of his nose. He’d seen stars for a few moments then blacked out as the same pommel had collided with his temple.

Reaching up Daro felt blood on his face and his head ached like there was a thunderstorm going on inside it. He sat up and dragged the waterskin from his belt, tipping the contents onto his face to wash away the blood. The water stung the cut for a second but Daro soon felt his senses returning to him. Tal and Culo were dead. Tal had taken a sword blow to the head and Culo had been stuck right through the belly by the deserter. Pushing himself to his feet Daro checked them anyway. Properly dead.

In any normal circumstance Daro would have let this go and headed on his way back to the trail to follow the army but the bastard pale skin had made a show of leaving him alive and killing his friends. He had to pay for that. Bending down he scooped up his axe and took Culo’s bow from his gloved hands. A few minutes later he’d unbuckled the quiver from his back too and strapped it to his own. It was time to hunt.

The pale skin hadn’t made it that hard for him which strangely disappointed Daro. He was fed up of remembering him as the ‘deserter’ but he hadn’t bothered to know the mans name; he assumed he would have been dead within the week. Still the pale skin had trampled and fought his way through every single bush in the wood it seemed and left clear boot prints in the mud that were rapidly filling with water as the rain continued to pound down from the heavens.

Daro sped up the chase using the huge extending roots of the trees to hop over the sodden ground. At this rate he would be on the pale skins trail in a matter of minutes.

***

Quinn stopped to let himself breath. Wading through mud was tiring. Moaning under his breath he unfastened the cloak and hood from his shoulders and let it drop like a stone onto the forest floor. The thing was soaked through and more of a hindrance than a help. He was wet to the bone anyway so the hood wasn’t really helping.

The snap of a twig sounded in the woods and despite the hammering rain was like a warning bell in Quinn’s head. He snapped around just in time to see the arrow flying towards him. Ducking out of the way he heard the dull thud as it slammed into a tree trunk where his head had been a moment earlier. Panicking he drew his sword and ducked behind the same tree for cover.

***

Daro swore and dropped the bow. Damn clumsy feet had betrayed him. He draw his axe from his belt and bellowed out a cry as he jumped from the roots towards the tree where the pale skin was hiding. He stopped a few feet from it and waited, his knuckles going white as he gripped the haft of his axe.

The pale skin spun from behind the tree and threw a clump of dirt towards his face. Daro batted it aside with his axe and lunged forward bringing his axe down for a head cleaving blow. The spindly fighter bought his broken sword up just in time and caught the haft of Daro’s axe on its cross guard. Daro strained and pushed back with all his strength forcing the axe down towards the pale ones face. His enemy pulled away at the last moment but Daro compensated and stopped himself from toppling forward instead freeing one of his hands and balling it up, smashed it into the pale skins jaw.

***

Quinn howled in pain as the blow connected and he felt a few teeth come loose in his jaw. It was like being hit by a sledgehammer. He reeled back and raised his sword but his head was swimming. He’d been running and his stamina was shot. The barbarian swatted out with his axe and easily knocked his blade free from his hands into the mud. Quinn held his other hand up to plead but the brute smacked it aside as well then grabbed his throat and pinned him against a tree.

"Sto.." he tried to say but he felt thick fingers crushing his windpipe "Stop!"

To his surprise the barbarian loosened his grip.

"You killed my men" Daro said trying his best to mimic the speech of the lowlanders. "Why should I stop?"

Quinn tried to wrap his fingers around Daro’s fingers to give him some breathing space but they weren’t going anywhere.

"Es…Esme" He squeezed out "Home". Quinn felt Daro’s fingers loosen and he was dropped unceremoniously into the mud.

"Esme?" Daro muttered.

"Yes" Quinn breathed out in a husky drawl. He had to think quickly, the brute was clearly easily swayed. "Woman. Home. My love."

Daro had had enough. Every soldier had a woman and a home to go to, well most of them anyway, and he still didn’t forgive the pale skin for killing his men. Better to just end him and leave his corpse for the birds. He raised his axe but a blaring horn blast ripped through the forest sending birds scattering into the sky.

Daro turned and saw at least a dozen of those damnable plate armoured knights charging towards them. The damnable pricks must have been left alive after the rout and were looking for the rest of the army. They didn’t look like they were in the mood for talking.

"Get sword" Daro said, turning and snarling at the pale skin. "You fight too. No friend here".

Quinn looked up and saw the barbarian was right. At least three of the knights were charging towards him. He clearly looked just as barbaric and dirty as his assailant. He scrabbled for his sword in the mud and fought his way to his feet as he saw his new ‘friend’ leap down from the roots and put his axe right through the head of one of the knights. The other two who had been charging him gave him some space after that.

The three on him however weren’t bowed by the bloody display and clambered up the roots towards Quinn. He swung out with a boot and caught one of them in the head sending him toppling backwards and then shoved his sword through the open guard of another catching him in the neck. The third one clambered to the top and lunged for him.

Daro span his axe out in a wild arch and sent a spray of blood splattering into his next quarries face. Blinded momentarily Daro snatched the brilliantly clean longsword from the knights hand and lashed out with it carving a bloody rend in the mans thigh sending him crashing to the ground. Two more lunged forward but Daro kept the blade whirling around him and sent another to his muddy grave with a yelp. His blood burned in his muscles and he wasn’t cold anymore. This was his element.

Quinn felt the knight pushing down on top of him and the weight of the plate and muscle was making his arms ache. Yelling back at his foes face Quinn stabbed out wildly with his sword catching the knight in the side. One of the stabs connected and he felt the body go limp on top of him. Straining with effort he heaved the man off and tossed him aside. The one he’d kicked in the face was still down but as Quinn watched he saw the barbarian break another knights arm with a smash of his axe. The notching and winding of mechanism however sent a shiver through his spine.

Across the now bloody clearing he could see more of the knights winding back crossbows and pulling them up to aim. Four of them were all pointed at the barbarian and the rest at him. Lunging forward for the cover of a tree he yelled out a warning to the barbarian and he didn’t know why. Self preservation maybe? Without this wild man he would most likely be taking up a grave of his won in a few minutes.

The yell drew Daro’s attention at the right moment. He span round and behind one of the knights as four crossbow bolts flew towards him. Three stuck into their kins armour and sent him to the ground. The fourth hit Daro in the shoulder and he grimaced at the wound. Kicking out he broke the nose of another knight who was regaining his senses and cradling his broken arm then charged at the line of reloading shooters.

Quinn watched as the barbarian took another one in the leg but carried on going. His axe made short work of the four that had shot at him and the rest of the knights were suddenly beating a hasty retreat. Their commanding officer sounding a different horn this time and soon they were running back through the mud as quickly as their feet could carry them. The barbarian looked like he was going to pursue them but his leg wound sent him to his knee with a grunt of pain.

Quinn stepped out from his cover and climbed down the roots making sure to stab his broken blade into the throat of the knocked out knight in the mud to make sure he was dead. Panting for breath and his bones returning to their familiar dull ache he walked over to the barbarian.

Daro sat back against the tree and yanked the crossbow bolt out of his shoulder, tossing it off into the undergrowth. The one in his thigh was painful and he know it must have hit the bone.

"Want a hand?" Quinn said hoping the barbarian would understand him.

Daro frowned and pulled the bolt out, throwing it towards the pale skin who flinched. Still, if the runt hadn’t warned him of those shooters he would probably have been a lot worse off.

"My thanks" Daro said, rubbing his wounded leg. "My name, Daro".

Quinn was taken aback. He also had the overwhelming urge to stab the wounded barbarian and make a break for it.

"You can go" Daro said, pushing himself to his feet and using his axe to balance on his wounded leg.

Quinn thought for a moment. He could just go on his way but he was utterly lost out here in the wilderness. An idea popped into his head.

"I fix your leg, you show me mountain path? Yes?" He pointed to Daro’s leg and then added "My name is Quinn".

Daro grunted and looked down at his leg. The wound was a lot worse now he’d yanked the bolt out and he wouldn’t be walking anywhere soon unless he sorted it out. He’d pulled spears out of himself before but then he was a lot older now and wounds took their toll.

"Deal" Daro said and slumped back down into the roots of the tree.

Quinn bent down and pulled a small leather satchel from his belt. It didn’t have much in it anymore but the dry strips of fabric and the small vial of rapidly dwindling alcohol would be of use. Quickly Quinn poured the liquid onto the wound and heard Daro growl in annoyance. He rubbed it into the wound then tied the fabric around the thigh wound binding it tightly. It wasn’t much but it would at least stop the wound bleeding too much more until they could make a fire.

***

An hour or so later, as the sun began to vanish beneath the pines Quinn and Daro sat in a decidedly wet but less sodden cave. It had been a chance find, hidden in the side of a small hillock and probably once the home of a bear or other creature of the woods. Quinn for one hoped it had been left vacant for some time but Daro had assured him it was.

Daro now sat against a rock rubbing his shoulder and looking at the shining longsword he had ‘liberated’ from the knights during the fight. He seemed to admire the design but he kept muttering about how his axe was more reliable, then pointed to Quinn’s own broken blade. In the end he tossed it to Quinn and shrugged.

Quinn had got the fire going now and it was almost a treat to feel the heat warming him inside his sodden armour. He wasn’t sure if Daro would keep to his deal but he seemed content enough right now. Maybe he would take him where he needed to go. Pulling out his broken blade he looked at the hilt and sighed. His fathers runic inscription was still there…

"To Protect"

…written in ancient Timerian. Now it was going to serve as nothing more than a glorified hot poker.

"Fire will stop the bleeding" Daro said as he watched Quinn heat it in the flames.

Quinn nodded and let the blade heat up. “This is going to hurt”.

Going Home…

Quinn had thought that traveling into the depths of the wilderness would have been a freeing experience. The day he had left Hlfran had been the most liberating of his life. Not only had he thrown off the shackles of his family but he was doing this all on his own. The freshly forged sword had hung by his side in an exquisite scabbard. His armour was polished and reflected the morning sun and his cloak had flown behind him on the breeze.

Now his sword was broken. His armour was dented and worn and one of the buckles had come loose at the shoulder. His cloak was tattered and ripped and covered in mud. Not quite the heroic adventure he had planned for himself. All because of a woman.

When Quinn had lived in Hlfran he had been part of a noble family, the Telian house. They ruled over half of the merchant guilds in the city and his father was head of the small council that ran the day to day goings on when the Baron couldn’t be bothered to get off his growing arse. He had had it easy and thought everything would fall into his lap. That was until he’d meant Esme.

Esme had been the daughter of a local merchant and she was stunningly beautiful although not in the sense that many would have thought for the folk of Hlfran. Most of the women from the North were of a stockier build than normal and were as good at fighting as the men, even more so sometimes. Esme was from the South. She was slight and blonde, locks of hair that looked like shimming gold falling over pale shoulders. Her eyes were like glistening sapphires and she had wonderful dimples when she smiled that too was divine. Quinn had been besotted with her since he’d first seen her.

Despite his adoration he just couldn’t work up the courage to talk to her. Every time they met he would make up an excuse and find something else to do, or leave it to others to talk to her while he nodded politely and busied himself with his drink. Now Quinn thought about it, drenched to the bone and covered in mud, he had been very stupid.

His hesitation had meant that Esme had found another suitor. She had married a local lord named Sten. Despite that Quinn’s feelings never drifted far from his mind and that was why he’d had to find an escape.

Planning it out had taken four months but he had got everything ready. His equipment was of the best make and his aim was sure. He would cross the mountains to the west and find himself adventure with the tribes of the valleys there. He had heard that the war was in almost constant ebb and flow there and the Emperor and barbarian tribes were both hungry for mercenaries. Quinn reckoned that if he could fight in battle he could surely come home with the confidence to talk to his beloved. He might even have a few stories to tell too.

The journey had been good to begin with. He had joined up with a band of sellswords known as the Rose Company and followed them into the mountains with the intent of joining the fight against the barbarians tribes. The fighting had been fierce but Quinn remembered his training and found himself a capable fighter, if a little raw. The others had no qualms about reminding him of that. It had all gone wrong through when they’d fought at the town of Rhok.

Rhok had been a town held by the barbarians since the war had begun almost. It had been raided in the night and taken within a few hours, some said it was the fuel that sparked the war proper. The Rose Company had been ordered by the Emperors knights to storm the gates and get inside the gate house, raising the gate so that the rest of the army could get inside. It had seemed simple and indeed the plan worked well at first. Quinn and his kin gained entry and opened the gate so the knights could charge through on their massive steeds. What they had not considered however was the cunning of their foe.

The tribesmen had planned for the eventuality and had set up a way of herding the charging cavalry into spikes they’d set up in the streets. The knights were surrounded and killed. The Rose Company was cut down until it was just Quinn and a man he’d never even bothered to know the name of. He’d died a day or two later. The warrior that had cut his head off gave Quinn a choice. Join them, or die.

That was where Quinn found himself now. Alone, battered, bruised, dirty, bloody and with little hope of every going home. The barbarians were relentless and pursued their enemies at a break neck speed even after a battle. Quinn had given up looking at the crude maps now. He just knew he was far away from home and the mountains he had crossed months before were but a shadow on the horizon.

As Quinn rocked back and forward in the saddle of a burly nag he had swiped from a farm they’d raided the night before he thought back to Esme and her pearl white skin. He thought about her golden locks and what she might look like now months had passed. Had it been a year yet? Would she even know who he was now?

Quinn had only ever done one thing on a whim and that was leave his family behind to pursue this fools errand. It hadn’t worked out well for him but right now the impulse was biting at him once more. Quinn pushed the brown soggy hair out of his eyes and looked around. The rest of the warband were busy riding ahead looking for somewhere to camp, no one was looking. Stopping his horse Quinn waited for them to charge off ahead and sat there listening to the rain pounding down around him.

Now was his chance. Turn. Turn the horse around and ride home. Keep going until the nag was dead, get a new one and keep riding. Quinn had had enough of scars and blood, of aching muscles and creaking bones. He wanted Esme. Sod it, he thought.

Turning his horse around Quinn gave it a kick and stormed back up the road they’d been riding down. He was invigorated once again as he felt the sting of rain on his face and chill biting at his bones. It was a long way home but he was going to make it.

Dragging up The Past…

Cliss hugged the shadows of the alleyway and stood deathly still. The guard coughed and the sound echoed across the stone walls. After a sound like a grunting mule the guard spat out a gobbet of spit onto the cobbles. Clearing his throat the guard pulled out his pipe and carried on his way. Cliss breathed a sigh of relief and scampered past the spot where he had been standing into the safety of a shop front.

The old building was made of sagging wooden planks but the faint smell of bread and other good wafted up from beneath a crack in the window. It was a glorious smell and Cliss would have to remember to come back in the morning to try the bakers goods. Right now however she had other things on her mind.

Making sure the guard had moved off down the alley Cliss stepped from the shadows and jumped up onto a low wall. Spinning on her toes she twisted and pushed herself off the wall. With outstretched and leather gloved hands she clasped onto the side of a balcony and hauled herself up. It wasn’t quite as flowing a movement as she’d hoped and with a gasp she toppled over the railing and landed with a dull thud on the other side.

Catching her breath Cliss rubbed her back and cursed under her breath. She’d been out of practise for a while and it showed. Sitting up she dusted herself off and tightened the buckles on her leather boots. Her entire outfit had been made to order, the old one didn’t fit anymore, not since she’d had children. Thankfully Glarin had done a good job and he’d taken great delight in measuring her up, the cretin.

Standing up Cliss caught her reflection in the window nearby. Most of her features were masked and shrouded by the dark leather she wore but she caught a glimpse of her flashing blue eyes and a shock of blonde hair that hung across her face. Quickly she pushed the hair back behind her ear and pulled the mask up over her nose more securely. Didn’t do to be seen when you were out and about for a night of festivities.

A few minutes later Cliss had scaled the bakers house and stood on the roof looking out across the sprawling metropolis she grudgingly called home. She had been much happier out in the countryside with her husband, children and their stupid mutt. Sadly her husbands work had meant she had been dragged back into the cramped cobblestone streets of Trestivo and with that back into her old life.

It hadn’t taken long for Glarin and his friends to find her again. A late night call to the house while the children were asleep had been Cliss’ first reintroduction to their dark world and she thanked the Gods the young ones had been upstairs. Glarin wasn’t the most pleasant of folks at the best of times and the ugly scar on his neck and the way his voice croaked made everyone uneasy. Flanked by his surly bodyguards known only as Blink and Flick he wasn’t someone you wanted to bump into on a dark night.

The message had been simple. If she wanted to keep her past a secret she’d have to do as she was told. Take up the old name, go and do their jobs and if they approved they wouldn’t tell her husband anything. Cliss had obliged them of course but she had plans of her own. Glarin, Blink and Flick would be dealt with in due course. She was no one’s stooge and she had certainly hoped Glarin would have realised that by now. To his folly he had not. Still, one last job and she’d be set to enact her plan.

Running along the rooftop Cliss jumped from beam to beam weaving her way around the chimney pots that were still sending small columns of smoke into the air even at this late hour. Running across the rooftops was decidedly easier than trying to weave her way through the streets and in no time at all she had arrived at her destination.

Cliss hunkered down behind a crumbling chimney stack and watched the gang of sailors below loading up a huge tall ship. The sails were wrapped up inside their protective lining but a banner fluttered on the stern. A rampant lion clawed at a half moon. She’d seen the crest before but where she knew it from she did not know. All she cared about was getting aboard and stealing the book Glarin had wanted from the captains cabin.

Seeing a nearby flagpole Cliss jumped for it and slid down it silent landing in the shadows of a memorial down by the dockside. A valiant knight stood over the form of a dead dragon, his sword stuck through its skull, a cup overflowing with liquid held in his other hand. Cliss had heard the tales of Vargin the Valiant and she had lapped them up as a child but now she was older, and indeed wiser she’d learned the true. While many saw him as a hero and founder of the fair city of Trestivo he had been more than a little romanticised in the years that followed his conquest. There was a reason the other peoples called him Vargin the Vicious.

Putting her history lessons aside Cliss dashed across the open dockside and jumped down onto the shadowy pier below the lip of the harbour wall. Skittering across it like a spider Cliss jumped from pontoon to pontoon before making her way to the back of the ship and hauling herself up the anchor chain that swayed and vanished into the deep.

Cliss’ arms burned as she hauled herself up but she didn’t give up until she’d reached the ledge that belonged to the captains cabin. Steadying herself with her thighs Cliss leaned out and tried the latch on the window. The Gods, or indeed an absent minded captain, must have been at work as the window was thankfully open.

The noise of snoring drifted out from the now open window and Cliss pulled herself up and into the room as quietly as she could. Her foot caught something as she unfolded herself in the room and she span around to catch a small glass that had been filled with wine only a few hours before it seemed. She caught it in her left hand and breathing a sigh of relief put it back where she’d found it.

The cabin, now she looked properly, was a lavish affair. The walls were totally overdone in heraldry and patterns that made her eyes hurt. Bookcases were everywhere filled with leather bound volumes and the desk at one end of he room was dominated by a winged armchair that hunkered behind it like a strange gargoyle. The snoring came from a cot that sat as far away from the door as it could be. Someone was paranoid that was sure. In it the sleeping captain, or at least Cliss assumed it was he, snored away folded up inside luxurious silk sheets.

Cliss had never really considered the morality of her craft but when she saw the opulence some people lived in she was glad she had spent much of her youth stealing from them. No-one needed all of this. Stalking over to the desk Cliss leafed through some of the books and papers on its surface and found what she was looking for. All she needed was the ledger and thankfully the captain hadn’t bothered to squirrel it away anywhere.

Tucking the book into a satchel beneath her cloak Cliss made for the window. As she climbed onto the shelf beneath it she eyed the half empty bottle of wine the captain had clearly been drinking. Testing her luck Cliss picked it up and took a swig from it, lowering her mask. It was good stuff. Searching around Cliss found a discarded cork and she shoved it into the top. Might as well treat herself she thought.

Clambering back out of the window Cliss lowered herself back towards the water and made her way towards the dockside. No-one seemed to have noticed her, a perfect job.

***

Cliss walked through the streets a few hours later in a decidedly seedier side of town. The cobbled street was replaced by mud and despite the tailoring of her clothing the cold and the dank clawed at her through her armour. It was an unpleasant feeling but that was probably why Glarin chose this place to make his home. ‘Unsettle your foes and seize the advantage’ was his motto.

Making her way towards the drop Cliss was thankful for her hooded cowl and cloak. Miscreants of the worst sort stumbled around the alleyways and the women of the night played up to these dregs of society. Thankfully looking shadowy and angry meant no one even looked in her direction and caused her any trouble.

Cliss found the tavern ‘The Dead Crow’ and pushed her way through the few drunks that still clung to their drinks on the steps outside. Inside the place stank of sweat and stale ale mixed with vomit but there was hardly anyone sitting down. It appeared as if this was Heron’s kicking out time.

The man Heron stood behind the bar ahead of her polishing a chipped glass tankard with a dirty rag. He was away in his own world, as usual, but when Cliss walked up and lowered her mask he snapped back into the real word.

"I have it" Cliss said, lifting her satchel onto the bar and showing Heron the books spine within.

Heron didn’t say anything but bent down behind the bar and pulled out a false draw with a compartment inside. Taking the book from Cliss he placed the book inside it and bent down again to fit it back into the rest of the bar.

"Not exactly the safest place to store goods is it?" Cliss muttered to Heron.

"These drunks don’t know when they’re coming or going" Heron grumbled "Safe as houses".

Cliss shrugged, it was Heron’s problem now. Securing her satchel and pulling her mask back over her nose Cliss turned and walked out of the grotty little tavern. The first part of her plan had gone without a hitch.

Soon she’d be free of Glarin and his motley crew.

Misfortune…

It was like nothing he’d felt before. His hands tingled at the mere thought and when he truly wove his fingers through it a sense of pure ecstasy overwhelmed him. It clung to his skin as he closed his eyes and drew on the extraordinary power around him. I must remember, he thought, be cautious.

Elwin opened his eyes and tried to relax even though his heart was hammering within his chest. With a slight movement of the hand Elwin drew his fingers out of the magical vortex that whirled around him and freed himself from the unparalleled sensations he had felt a moment before. Self control. He had it.

Mastering his thoughts Elwin looked around at the elemental forces had marshaled before him. Fire, Ice, Earth, Shadow, Light, everything moved as one before him and ached for his touch. Some part of his mind drifted to the perfumed rooms he frequented on occasion and the flash of blue eyes in the shadow. No, he was losing his control.

The energetic vortex surged up in front of him and rose about his shoulders. Soon he was engulfed within the ball of magic and he could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Elwin shoved his hands into the wall of power and clenched his fists.

At first it felt like burning. Then it felt like his bones might shatter. Then it was gone. Elwin opened his eyes. He didn’t even remember closing them. The stone room he used for his experiments was dark, Elwin couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. Struggling to his feet his legs felt like lead but as he stood shakily he clicked his fingers and the torches around the sides of the room sprang into life.

Something was decidedly different however. Elwin looked down at his hands and looked at the ever changing tattoos on his flesh. They hadn’t been there before. Now swirling arcane drawings, some he knew well, others he didn’t, pulsed with light. Elwin felt his legs shake again and he teetered towards a nearby wooden table, propping himself against it to steady his nerves. The familiar smell of perfume entered his mind once more and he damned it.

Taking a moment to sure himself up Elwin waved a hand across the stone wall and conjured a flickering mirror in the stone. He looked into it hardly believing it was his own reflection for a second but sure enough Elwin looked back.

He had changed. Where before his skin had been almost white it was now crisscrossed with burn marks woven into arcane patterns like those on his hands. As he watched he saw the multicoloured lights make their way up the marks on his neck and invade the blackness caused by the burns. When the light reached his eyes he felt his head ache immediately and Elwin screwed his eyes shut at the pain. A moment later it was gone and as he opened his eyes slowly he noticed the tattoos had gone.

Hardly able to believe it Elwin looked down at his hands. Nothing. Had he been hallucinating? He hadn’t slept for a long time, maybe that was it. Feeling surer on his feet Elwin checked his reflection again to make sure it wasn’t a trick. His pale skin was as white as ever. Two green orbs flashed from between curtains of blond hair. He looked normal enough.

A knock at the door caused Elwin to start and he jumped. Scowling he clicked his fingers and the illusionary mirror vanished. Turning round he stalked to the heavy wooden door to his room and wrenched it open. A young boy, no older than twelve stood there with a letter in trembling hands. Elwin snatched it and backed away, slamming the door in the little ones face.

Elwin immediately regretted it but as he went to open the door again and apologies he could hear the child running back up the flagstone passageway. He would have to find out who he was and send a message instead. He wouldn’t normally have snapped like that but something about the past few minutes had unhinged him. Whatever it was still lingered at the back of Elwin’s mind. He would think on it more later.

Unfolding the letter he had snatched with slim fingers Elwin perused the note written in long flowing handwriting. Master Flinn had impeccable handwriting and he made sure everyone knew it. As Elwin read it skipped over the boring bits about the next council meeting and what attire to wear and lingered on the bottom few lines. They weren’t as impeccable as the rest and Elwin frowned. This wasn’t Flinn’s hand at all.

As he read the interlopers words Elwin’s stern expression sagged away and he felt his blood run cold. Immediately he wished he had not read the script but there was no going back now. He words were imprinted on his mind much like the magical tattoos he had seen on his skin a few minutes earlier.

Gathering his things together Elwin stuffed the letter and his spellbook into a leather satchel and slung it over his shoulder. He ran for the door and wrenched it open, spinning to close it as he got to the other side before running up the passageway as quick as he could.

Elwin took the steps two, three, then four at a time using his light step to his advantage. He regretted it as he hit the fourth floor and found himself aching for breath but there was no time. Elwin surged down the passageway lined with wooden doors, some open, some closed. He could hear the talk of others around him and occasionally he saw faces as he raced past; some calling his name, others asking him to slow down.

Elwin reached the end of the passageway and skidded round a corner before heading out of an open door onto the walkways that crisscrossed his tower. The wind caught him immediately and Elwin felt a surge of sickness as he looked out over the side to the ground below. He had never liked heights and the colleges love of high towers and walkways had been a constant bane. Still, he couldn’t worry about that now.

Running across the walkway he barged past two heavily armoured guards yelling sorry as he did and reached the tower he needed. Storming up the stairs, one at a time now, he reached the top floor and panted trying to catch his breath. Less time in the tavern, more time in the wild he thought. Standing up straight Elwin slammed his fist into the wooden door and knocked quickly. No answer.

Something was wrong, terribly wrong. Standing back Elwin held out his hand and muttered a few choice words. The door lock buckled under some invisible pressure and sprang free of the wood. With a shift kick Elwin knocked the door aside and his blood ran cold for the second time that day.

The room was a mess. Bookcases and cabinets had been overturned and ransacked. Ink dripped from a well on a desk and stained the green carpet black. In the middle of it all lay Finn. The master was sprawled across the floor, his robes cut to pieces and blood pooled all around him, seeping into the carpet beneath him and mixing with the ink. Elwin rushed over and put too fingers to Finn’s neck. The hot blood from a ragged wound stained his hands and he realised he was being stupid. He was dead. Recently, but dead. Why he was checking for life was beyond him. A vain hope perhaps?

Quickly Elwin wiped his hand on his robe and ran to the open window behind Finn’s desk. He looked out and saw a rope hanging from the sill. He looked down after it beyond the clouds that hung to the tower but it was no use. Nothing. The assailant was long gone.

Turning round Elwin tore the letter from his satchel and read it again. Why had there been a warning? Maybe he had just been too late? As he read it the letters flickered with a strange ember glow and a second later the page caught fire. Elwin dropped it, cursing, and saw it reduced to ash. What was going on.

It was a moment later he heard the clanking of armoured feet on the stone outside and he looked up as the two guards he had passed on the way up stood framed in the shattered doorway, their faces ashen with grief at the scene.

Elwin went to say something but one of the guards growled and charged at him, slamming him to the ground and turning him over, binding his hands. He tried to protest but the guard was having none of it.

Despite all his protestation Elwin was hauled to his feet moments later and dragged from the office of his master. The other guard had summoned more, and many of Finn’s student stood outside in the passageway looking at Elwin with disgust.

***

A few hours later Elwin sat in a dark cell, his hands bound with runic manacles. His face was swollen, his once pale skin battered blue and yellow by the rough hands on the guards and one outraged student. His clothes were tattered and torn, the blood of Finn still smeared across his cloak. Despite everything he’d tried to tell the guards they were unconvinced.

He had been set up.

Not This Day…

Daro sat on the damp log and let the rain plaster his hair to his face. It had been raining for near on three days now and there was no sign of it stopping. Even the shelter of the trees was not enough to stop it, the branches sagging low laden with water. At least it kept him cool as the breeze wove its way between the tree trunks.

The cold created an eerie visage to anyone who looked at Daro. His skin, where it was showing between the strips of studded leather armour, looked as if it was on fire. Steam rose and drifted off into nothingness and his breath leaked out in great clouds from between clenched teeth too. It had been hard work.

Looking down Daro rested his elbows on his knees and stared at his hands. His palms were crisscrossed with the straps of his leather gauntlets and his skin was rubbed red raw from holding his axe for so long. He moved his gaze over the white scars that patterned his tanned skin and remembered everyone of them. Well, he remembered them from the stories he had told in the tavern. He doubted if there was a shred of truth in any of those tales now.

Daro rubbed his fingers together and fought some blood back into his veins. His nails were dirty, one finger was entirely missing one and he hadn’t even realised until now. The pain of realisation struck him but he shook his hand and tried to forget about it. He had suffered worse.

His mind wandered back to the time he’d been ambushed on the slopes of Hijorn mountain. His warband had been heading back from a battle against a rival tribe when they’d been waylaid by the Emperors finest. They would have been the Emperors finest on flat ground but in the trees on the slope of Hijorn they’d not stood a chance. Horses didn’t like climbing. Still, it hadn’t stopped one of the bastards sticking him with a spear right through his right thigh. The healer had said he was lucky. An inch or two more to the left and he would have bled out all over the mountain side. It hadn’t felt very lucky when they’d yanked it out of him.

The seeping cold bought Daro out of his memories and he looked down to see his fur lined leather boots seemed to have sprung a leak. The puddling water began to drain into them and he cursed, dragging it out of the sodden ground and propping his foot on a rock nearby.

The rippling puddle beneath him distorted Daro’s features and he watched as the puddle took a few moments to become as still as glass again. His own reflection stared back at him, an aged and worn man who had suffered life’s indignities well before his time. Daro was only thirty two winters old, or was it thirty four? He’d stopped counting properly after his eighteenth. Despite that he looked like the old shamans that holed themselves up in the caves like bears.

Daro’s hair was stark black and hung down over his shoulders in rivulets of ebony save for the streaks of grey that ran from the hair at his temples. He’d heard one of the Emperors lapdogs call it stress. Daro was sure it was just old age. Daro’s face was much like his hands, tanned but not without its fair share of scars. He had many over his cheeks and brow and one big ugly streak that cut down over the bridge of his nose. He remembered that one well enough and with enough truth to it too.

Daro’s ground his teeth together as he remembered the brute who’d done that to him. He’d paid him back of course ten fold but it had left quite the mark. Daro’s jaw moved back and forth, a sturdy stocky thing that looked like it’d been carved from granite. It was flecked with patches of unkempt beard that was also streaked with grey in places. More ‘stress’.

Daro stopped looking into the puddle and pushed his dry foot through it distorting the image once again. As he did so trickles of blood wormed their way into the clear water staining it crimson. Daro looked up and saw the carnage he’d been trying to ignore for a few peaceful moments.

The entire clearing was covered in bodies. Most of them were the Emperors men, fully armoured in shining plate and with amazingly well looked after tunics underneath. It hadn’t kept them alive for long despite all the polishing. One of the fools lay at Daro’s feet, his skull split open. Daro’s axe was still lodged in the gap he’d made in the mans mind and the look of shock was still etched on the fools face. He’d been a good enough looking man when he was alive but now he was pale white and the expression of fear lingered for eternity now.

Without much care or attention Daro wrenched the axe free putting a foot on the mans shoulder for leverage. It came lose with a sucking sound, the blood dripping off the iron axe head and filling the puddle with more crimson. ‘Jarn’ was his favourite weapon. He’d named it after his ancestor who’d died in the drake wars. Jarn had never seen a drake itself but it had kept him out of enough scrapes and the blade had never dulled.

Daro looked up again past Jarn and surveyed the rest of the clearing. Despite the mass of shining plate that lay around a fair few of his men kin had died too. He saw friends he’d shared the fire with not a few hours before lying dead, spears and arrow shafts sticking from their lifeless bodies. At least they’d died well. He wondered if he’d ever get to die well himself.

As hard as Daro tried to give up a life of destruction and mayhem it was virtually impossible for his people. He had no second sight and had no craft to his name save that of a warrior. Others had joined the covens and become shamans. Some had found their place in the cities to the south as blacksmiths. Daro was born a warrior and that would be the way it stayed for the rest of his life. He’d had his fair share of near death moments. The spear to the leg. The arrow to his skull. The sword that nearly cut off his arm. The bear that had flung him off a cliff when he was just a boy. Despite all that he was still alive.

What Daro wanted more than anything however was to make sure he never became a burden. While his kin revered the old he knew that in their hearts the warrior caste yearned for the battlefield and to be trapped inside a dying husk was almost too much for many of them to bear. Old ‘Crows Eye’ had been like that. The hulking giant from tavern tales had been a deadly warrior on the battlefield and he had fought many wars, he’d even won a few of them too. Still even old age can humble the mightiest of warriors and he now spent his days in his hut telling the young ones of his past glories with a misty look in his pale blue eyes. Daro would die before then. He would make sure of it.

A horn blew in the chill air and a flock of birds burst from the trees taking to the sodden skies. Another call to war. More of the Emperors dogs. Daro stood up, his boots sinking back into the blood soaked ground.

Maybe today would be the day.