© Gary Riddell
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Bodies breathed softly in the sooty black. At the cave’s entrance the Sun dripped on the travellers backs but just a few dozen metres in, a unanimous dark took hold and Squad heard Erskine lift her hand softly at his side; a shaving of fat yellow light appeared inside her palm and gradually spilled over the walls and ceiling, splitting into several parts and these light globes moved ahead doing the same job as their precursor.
Light illuminated the three travellers in order: firstly Erskine, whose appearance was that of a woman in her mid-twenties with russet hair and whose eyes were vast, dark and flecked with light like a starry night. She was the beating heart of their expedition.
The other two were black skinned men of immense size: Squad Fearless was lithe and athletic, and even those who had not heard of the great swordmaster could detect a power bound and pulsing in the muscles of his arms, legs and body; he was forty three years old and carried twin Lanthian swords on his back which were known worldwide as The Brothers.
Maquin Rafael was an inch taller than his friend and rival and had a heavier build of almost four hundred pounds of pure muscle, with arms the size of an average man’s body. On his back he carried a colossal great sword which, in his prime, he wielded at an astounding speed; that very year, at forty two, he had reached the final of the Swordfighting World Championship for the first time in eight years, where after the renewal of their old rivalry and Squad’s tenth victory they had both retired.
From a pocket in Erskine’s coat, Gaia looked out solemnly in the shape of a tiny squirrel and the mage felt the beat of their emotions perfectly in sync. The Kelpie had been with the sorceress for many years and both were a lot older than they looked, particularly with the shapeshifter in her current form.
Squad’s gaze rolled wildly about and latched to a wall, where the light’s ghostly handwriting traced images upon ancient stone. But was it stone? Details chiselled out by the light showed a metallic sheen but the place’s antique nature ensured light was more likely to settle on dust than true material and long, voiceless shadows stretched from the corners, groping at places where light crept in.
“We’re in the right place then?” said Squad, eyeing some very faint but detailed runes on one of the walls.
Erskine walked right over to this spot, held up her hand and drew it across the patterns with unrestrained hunger, as if each line was a meal that could be whipped away at any minute.
“This place has been touched by the drakh,” she said, her voice suffused with admiration. “After all these thousands of years I can feel them vibrating, waiting.”
“I feel nothing,” said Maquin, who when the light appeared had regarded Erskine with a smile of surprise, as if seeing her for the first time.
Squad felt something like a wild, hot leaping flame in his bones, moving from one place to another but didn’t want to explain this to a man he respected as much as Maquin, so changed the subject to the reason for their visit.
“So where do you think we’ll find Anya Fitzwallis?” he asked Erskine, who slowly broke away from the runes.
“She’ll have catalogued everything and moved deeper into the complex. There’ll be a few mages from Strathbrook with her.”
One of Maquin’s eyebrows arched instinctively. “I didn’t know a non-mage could rise to a senior position at Strathbrook.”
“It’s a university of magic and science, Maq,” Erskine smiled.
“Indulge my ignorance.”
“Believe me, I do.”
“Squad doesn’t know anything about magic either!”
“Yes, and I have the good sense to keep quiet about it.” Squad grunted softly.
The passage through which the travellers moved morphed into a series of sinuous corridors and Erskine, who took lead, stopped abruptly.
“That’s a good sign,” Squad quipped. He still felt a pull towards the runes and something massaging and supporting his mind, as if he could let go and allow his body to act independently.
“This place has changed,” Erskine commented in a voice so low it was almost imperceptible.
“You’ve never been here before,” Maquin cautioned. “How can you know this?”
“I can detect the movement. It must have looked totally different to Anya Fitzwallis and her colleagues, and if we walked out and re-entered it would change again.”
“What does that mean?” Squad asked.
“What does it mean beyond the immediate future?” Maquin smiled. “What does it tell us about this place?”
“Perhaps it guides each person according to their…path,” Erskine pondered. “We know very little about the drakh, other than they were very old, very advanced and disappeared half a millennium ago. By all accounts their magic was incredibly potent. I’ll need to–”
“I’ll go this way, you go that way,” Squad blurted.
“Erm…no. That was definitely not what I was going to say.”
“Think about it.”
“I did, that’s the problem.” Squad made to speak again but Erskine lifted a hand. “Listen, I am six hundred years old and do you know what comes with age? Wisdom. Precious, precious wisdom.”
“I forgot about that.” Erskine smiled. “But seriously, let’s think of a plan.”
“What did you once tell me magic was about?”
“Blowing stuff up while flying invisibly?” ventured Maquin.
Ignoring the interruption, Squad pressed on.
“You said it was about instinct.”
“I was drunk!” Erskine spluttered. “You know I never drink and when I do it goes straight to my head. I could have said magic was about sodomy and living in igloos, and I wouldn’t have known the difference – more importantly, you wouldn’t have known the difference.”
“My instincts are crying out to me, I can just feel that it will show me something.”
“Stop feelings things,” Maquin suggested. “It makes people uncomfortable.”
Squad pressed on regardless.
“I can’t tell you what it will show me but if I don’t see it I will probably never know if I was meant to see it, and if I do see it and I wasn’t meant to see it I can just pretend that I never saw it, but I need to see it first so I can know what I’m meant to see. You know how magic works.”
“…I really don’t think I do anymore,” Erskine retorted but her expression showed warmth and a strange, mild pride. “Go your own way and wait for me to rescue you,” she added and strangely, Gaia leapt from the mage’s pocket in the form of a small bird and settled on Squad’s shoulder.
“Good to have you with me, girl,” Fearless beamed and the sorceress looked surprised, her lips wreathed in a smile.
“Traitor!” she hissed lovingly at the kelpie, which shook warmly and turned into a tiny monkey with lambent eyes then clambered onto the back of the warrior’s armour.
The great champion took a few steps down the passageway and his steps slowly withdrew from his companions hearing as they walked the opposite way until, at the point they had almost disappeared Maquin turned, spotted his old rival’s distant back and shouted out.
Was it a trick of the dark or did Squad see Maquin’s eyes shimmering with emotion as he turned?
“If you’re getting killed don’t shout our names. It will give us away.”
There were few landmarks as Squad progressed and he was increasingly aware of a mad, panting silence that took on a life of its own, making him think that he could see or hear things that he knew couldn’t be there. Firstly it manifested itself as the voice of his hero, the Taburnian fighter Rothair Monfils, who though approaching his eightieth birthday, had spoken to Squad a couple of months before on the subject of retirement.
Rothair was one of the most talented fighters of the last century and one of the greatest never to have won a World Championship, though he fought professionally until his early sixties when it was clear to everyone else that his time had passed, but he could still draw crowds with his name. He pulled Squad aside and sighed like an old soldier telling a comrade that he was to make one last, impossible run.
“In life’s prime everything is bright and brief, flowing naturally like a sword movement, and you can’t imagine the deeper, darker thoughts that follow, nor envisage the concentration required to sustain them.”
These words parroted around the empty darkness and then there was silence. Squad moved quickly along the passageway and one of his hands hovered near the blades on his back, the hilts of which occasionally caught a reflection from Erskine’s illumination spell casting a sudden flicker of light as he moved. This stopped as abruptly as one of its flashes when Erskine’s spell failed, throwing the whole tunnel into an absolute, stunning blackness.
He had a feeling that shadows were stirring around him as he walked and sounds he couldn’t place (iron being beaten, martial shouts, an army’s rattling ranks) filled the echoing dark, moving closer with every step. It was as if he were out there, moving blindly between the continents and he could feel the great oceans below him; the water hummed and a rush of wind set it dancing.
His support was whipped away and, though he was still on his feet, he fell forward into the blackness or perhaps more accurately the darkness pushed forward and gave the feeling of rushing on until, at its depths, Squad felt himself falling from a great height into the sea, a sea of endless eyes. A visible thought made his heart stop beating.
As he hit the surface lights broke through the black and dazzlingly clear letters appeared on the cave wall, a language filled with shapes and numbers and colours, some bare and chill lines that were barely perceptible and other brassy characters filled with warmth. There were no visions now, no noise at all from the swallowed world only these imperceptible characters and behind Squad as he turned, huge figure more than seven feet tall and far wider than a man advanced slowly into the light of the letters.
For most people the drakh were just a word, a manifestation of mystery and fear but Squad had once heard Erskine describe one, not from her own experience but from a story told to her by Indulkar, the great elf leader. Indulkar said they were good in their time but were certainly dangerous, and master mind-breakers – possessing the ability to control people’s thoughts and even possess them directly.
The best human and elven mind-breakers could possess one person fully at close range or disperse their ability to alter the minds of several at once, making them unable to detect the mind-breaker and his allies, or causing them to forget important details or to reveal anything during an interrogation. But the drakh were the most potent mind-breakers in known history and the extent of their powers was as unknown as their true appearance.
During their dealings with other races the drakh always wore an encounter suit and Squad’s eyes roared with anxiety as the details burned true: a seven feet tall metallic sarcophagus was floating gently a foot above the ground, with no arms but discordantly broad shoulders and an echoing face dominated by a protuberance that could have been a breathing apparatus or a beak, jutting out below thin scrawls serving as eyes.
There were no holes or details through which the creature could see, just the faint drawings and their ruthless beauty shining out pale blue against the dull grey-silver of the main body, whose metal was like nothing Squad had ever seen, seeming to shift slightly in the periphery of vision but holding impossibly true when stared at.
The drakh stopped at a distance of twenty feet and Squad’s voice was scooped and magnified by the astounding darkness.
“Who are you?”
“It has known the pathos of life,” an ethereal voice hissed or perhaps roared softly.
“Mortal things touch its heart,” a similar voice answered.
Though the drakh’s eyes were only intricate drawings, Squad felt the warm gust of its gaze and knew that it understood. In the same way that he knew the drakh had appraised him, Squad felt its death-mask stare move beyond him and somehow felt it was safe to turn around, to look what was behind him in the passage. The drakh would not attack.
The swordmaster turned to the stark black and saw something that made his blood beat faster, a vivid child dressed in blue and no older than eight or nine. The girl stared at Squad, her eyes laden with horror and he saw that she was muttering something without blinking, water running down her forehead and the same ghostly expression on her face as she spoke.
Squad raised a hand to calm her and as she broke and ran he quickly followed, knifing through the darkness, searching for the girl’s blue dress and always finding it just a little ahead. Squad knew they were deep inside the cave system but he’d only been running for a few minutes when he burst out into naked sunlight; the River Don swept pointedly against rocks in the exact place the travellers had entered the cave, though the exit was an entirely new one.
One that had since disappeared because when Squad turned he was greeted by solid rock, and a man’s barking rasp snatched his attention.
“Be quick about it!”
“Look lively, come on!”
A thug’s specious squawk joined the first voice and Squad heard other voices and scuffling, more men searching for something. He dropped to his knees amid monstrous, thick grass thirty feet from the river and approached softly, hands on blades.
Five corpses were lined up on the river’s edge and though the bodies were face down in muck that covered their black hair and buried their faces, it looked like an Orc mother and her four children, the youngest looking about two and the oldest eleven or twelve. Drowned refugees from Jona, thought Squad, as he observed the pieces of broken boat around their bodies.
The thugs were scavengers and opportunistic Humans, though they were led by a warrior in full battle armour and that made them dangerous. The warrior marched across the shoreline and his eyes trailed across the forest where Squad hid.
“Hurry! There could be more.”
“There’s nothing,” A thug hissed, his coarse fingers rifling through pockets. “Piss poor…like us.”
“Shut up!” The warrior thundered.
There were four thugs plus the warrior, who was a foot taller than his minions and almost twice as wide, an impression amplified by the contrast between his silver heavy armour and their rusty, black rags.
“Least we can cook them,” one of the thugs muttered.
“I don’t eat greenskin,” scoffed the warrior, whose gaze snapped to one of the children. “That one’s still alive. I can see his back moving.”
A last order barely rustled from his lips, as in an instant Squad closed the distance between them and, with a vertical swipe of his right hand, cleaved open the warrior’s helmet and cut from brain to balls with a power that was explosive and yet controlled and graceful; as his right arm descended his left rose up and punctured the throat of the nearest thug with pinpoint accuracy, moving not a millimetre beyond the limits of balance. This first thug muttered mutely and blood dribbled down his chin then cascaded warmly out of his throat.
Jumping between warrior and thug with both swords raised, Squad drew his right blade across the next bandit’s stomach while he shouted his fellows and his voice cracked in half, the heat of his body steaming up from the wound, eyes rolling lifelessly as twenty pounds of guts hit the muck. The other two had time to reach their swords but the first’s hand barely reached the hilt when his battle shriek was separated from his shoulders. The second hadn’t time to attack but raised his blade to deflect, only to have it swept aside in an instant and, defenceless, he backed away without turning but Squad caught him, placing his left sword on his shoulder to slow his retreat then slitting his throat with the right.
All of this occurred at devastating speed but as he sheathed his blades Squad took a moment and prepared himself for the child; he was a father to four children, two of whom were at the estate with their mother and the other two, the eldest seventeen year old twins, were already in training and on the swordfighting circuit, considered (along with the Taburnian talent Vincent Martial) to be the greatest young fighters in the sport.
Squad quickly pulled the family’s faces from the sludge and when he reached the fourth body, a young boy, his heart leapt with shock. The child looked to be seven or eight years old and was breathing lightly, but seemed close to death.
“You’re all right, boy.”
He was unconscious and Squad took him in his arms as he walked inland, wondering how to help and hoping for Erskine and her healing spells to arrive. He placed the boy on the ground and pressed down repeatedly on his chest, as he’d seen done on the beach near his estate in Westfax.
“Come on, boy, come on.”
From the side of a rocky outcrop Erskine and Maquin ran to join their friend, flanked by a small finely-attired blonde woman who saw the dying boy and gasped softly.
“Help him,” Squad told Erskine, who nodded and knelt by the boy.
She splayed both hands a few inches in front of the child’s chest, a look of utmost concentration of her face and a warm golden glow emanated from her open palms, which she slowly moved in mid-air across the boy’s torso. A soft silence was broken only by the whispering water, then Maquin spoke.
With a splutter the boy choked into life and produced regular, rattling breaths that drew a smile from Erskine, laughter from Squad and Maquin, and a nervous cheer from the blonde woman. A while later, after the boy had given a soft, contented sigh and rolled over into a deep fatigued sleep and the Sun was falling from a glowing, distressed sky, Squad turned to this new woman, who had said nothing since her arrival and watched the others set up camp without comment.
“Anya Fitzwallis, I presume?”
The small woman curtsied and sat by Erskine’s newly conjured fire, evidently feeling invited by these words.
“Yes, and I know who you are. My brother spoke of you whenever you fought in the capital.”
“He’s been to some of my fights?”
Anya’s face was set in embarrassment.
“No…he almost never leaves his tower and when he does it’s only to the city – the Strathbrook campus I mean, which is like a city, not the wider city. He couldn’t function amid the sounds and all those people, not for long.”
“Anya’s brother is Indigo Fitzwallis – a genius,” Erskine explained. The young blonde woman blushed at these words and Squad felt her discomfort at talking about her brother, even when he was being complimented. “I had the chance to meet him last year; There are so many great minds in the Empire but he’s one of a very few with the brilliance to unlock true mysteries. A fantastic mage as well, I hear, but he very rarely uses sustained magic in front of others. I never saw him use any kind of magic at all, in fact, other than analysis spells and enchantments.”
“What’s his job?” Maquin asked.
“Well technically he’s the head of the Enchantment department, and I sought him out because I’d found some weapons with interesting enchantments on them. He was the youngest Strathbrook professor for several centuries – twenty one years old I believe?” Erskine looked at Anya as she said this and the young woman nodded. “He’s thirty four now and he does a lot of work in theoretical magic, experimental magic that can’t be defined by spells or incantations or even direct thoughts.”
“He spends more time with the scientists at Strathbrook than the mages,” Anya laughed and then, growing deeper and more serious without realising it, continued speaking. “He’s a complicated man and they deal with complicated, difficult problems. Maybe that’s why I work with runes,” she chuckled. “You have to put work into understanding them.”
“Speaking of which,” said Squad, turning to Erskine. “Are you going to tell us why we need a world leading expert on runes? Or where we’re going now?”
“Yes, but first we need to dispose of the bodies.”
They all went down to the family, even Miss Fitzwallis, who trod delicately and disgustedly over the chaos and detritus, and it wasn’t long before the bodies were serried in a little row. Squad spoke softly to the mother’s unhearing ears.
“You wanted a better life for your children. I will do what I can to honour that wish.” He dropped to his knees and uttered some words of power and remembrance in his native tongue, a language well acquainted with death, and as they listened the others were lost in their own thoughts and mortality.
Anya thought about the two things in her life which in which she’d felt any investment, her brother and that feeling she’s had on first discovering runes, when her passion had stirred and she longed to explain her enthusiasm to anyone else, looking at people in the street and trying to uncover their secrets, their feelings, the things that moved them the way she felt moved.
Maquin thought about the way the world of politics tried to squeak in his ear when he was fighting, but now screamed loudly everywhere he looked. He was unmarried and had no children, but wanted to think of himself as happy, able to risk his life without a second thought in the way his own father (who was a soldier) kept him awake as a child by doing.
Erskine’s unsought immortality was her obsession but the kindness within her had been nurtured by contact with others over the centuries and, though she’d witnessed the passing of generations and the death of those she’d been born to love, she became involved in the struggle for a better world.
Having been around so much death, Squad took her seriously when she had told him, “Freedom never busts its guts, but it’s worth fighting for anyway.”
Approaching, the Orc boy’s eyes were as sharp and alert as a frightened animal’s. He saw the Humans treating his family with respect but was afraid of what was about to happen, was afraid of uncertainty and of being alone.
Maquin’s eyes, abruptly tender, turned to the lad and he put a hand on his shoulder, causing at first a shiver and then relaxation.
“Would you like to say something?” the big warrior asked but the boy just stood there, his eyes weighted with personal history. Then Gaia fluttered over to his shoulder as a bird and settled into his hand in the form of a small squirrel. Warm tears welled in the boy’s eyes but he showed no shame beside this new companion, who vibrated with his own emotion and shared everything with him in a way that was so good and so pure that even Erskine’s magic couldn’t match it.
“What’s your name?” Anya smiled softly at the boy.
“Thom. I’m Thom.”
Everything descended on Thom then like a thunderbolt, the history of his family, the way they played and laughed and suffered together, and the way it would never be the same again but with Gaia’s help he knew it naturally in the way one knows the Sun reaches us from above, not in the grinding, mechanical way that Humans deal with grief but in a loving way, where everything shone straight from memory like a grief long past and accepted, but with all emotions present.
He was ready.
With a flick of her hand Erskine immolated the bodies and in an instant they were gone, consumed by powerful spell fire.
There was a clearing a short distance away and the travellers walked there in relative silence, each aware of the connection between Gaia and the boy and not wanting to disrupt it. It was a large clearing and Kelpie sprang out of the boy’s hands, changing dramatically and growing larger until she spanned the distance of the largest dragons and in width exceeded them.
This true form was more than a hundred metres long and twenty across, and the best way to describe a Kelpie (beyond the innocence and goodwill that were their defining traits) was to imagine a wingless, metallic dragon in the protracted shape of a snake but beautiful in their own way, sparse and cold, their eyes shining electric blue. Thom gazed up at Gaia and his eyes were almost as wide and shining as hers.
“The Kelpies were first discovered in the Drakhlands a little over six hundred years ago, when the Samarian Empire marched their armies in under Magnus the Great,” Erskine told Thom. “A Kelpie like Gaia can move at over a hundred miles an hour and when they do so, turn a translucent blue, rendering themselves (and anything attached to them) practically weightless, meaning carriages of goods and people can be pulled across great distances.”
“Will I feel it?” the boy asked. They were seated inside the Kelpie, his hands clenching and unclenching nervously though he could feel the shapeshifter would never harm him.
“It’s already happened,” the sorceress laughed. “Look.”
Windows appeared along the hull and the boy jumped in shock, causing the others milling around to smile softly. Anya was locked into her seat and listening to the conversation beside Erskine who continued speaking.
“Their biology is remarkable, a mixture of organic and metal held together by magic, but their shape changes completely based on the desire of the Kelpie and the needs of those it serves, which it does without selfishness. Also,” she lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I can’t speak too loudly because Gaia’s listening and I don’t want to stroke her ego too much, but they serve with complete loyalty. They do not murder or experience greed or hate, and they are true shapeshifters, meaning they can change their entire body or tiny particles of the ‘body’ (forming seats, tables or other items) at will.”
The sorceress waved a hand as the boy watched the horizon pass with staggering speed. They all knew, or could reasonably guess, that he was a traveller from Jona, the “ruined” north and was not assimilated into the international culture of the modern age.
“As you can see, they don’t have organs or blood like less magical beings–”
“Gaia and I have evolved beyond such petty needs,” Squad joked.
“– but are often (in the service of the Samarian Empire) filled with seats, rooms and cargo holds created by the Kelpie itself. None of this would be built by hands other than a Kelpie because you don’t touch a Kelpie in that way, not with violence or physical force because they are creations of pure innocence and are protected under Imperial law. I’ve never seen Kelpies use violence and for all we know they are completely helpless, though their privacy is respected by Imperial agreement and there haven’t been extensive studies in these areas.
“Their relationship to the drakh before imperial intervention is unknown but their service to the Empire over the last six hundred years, along with other technological and magical progress precipitated the Empire’s rise as a global force, allowing it to surpass its southern neighbour, Taburnia which, after all, is only two hundred miles away across the Continental Sea. The Samarian Empire is a global trading force and a lot of that is due to the Kelpies, and the mages who developed magical engines that allow ships to travel at over eighty miles an hour. You know, the unsung heroes, the ones without bulging muscles.”
Maquin and Squad laughed.
“Anyway,” Erskine continued, her mouth wreathed in a smile, “You’re staying with us and you’ll soon see why the Empire is a global trading force. We’re heading to its capital, Blitz, the most populous city in the known world with over ten million permanent inhabitants and millions more visitors, diplomats and temporary residents.”
Blitz is where instruments of government perch like spiders at the centre of a web, charting the slightest stirrings of wealth and opportunity across the world. The city never sleeps, always abuzz with progress, wealth and desperation, the people’s lives busy, their thoughts distilled in steam. Men of energy and pride, women of strength and intellect, creatures of every attribute and appearance inhabited Blitz’s many districts, which were as many and varied as its people.
“In here,” Erskine gestured to the warriors, indicating a pub cut into a hillside and which gave the impression of being carved into the city’s hot guts; it bore a sign made of extremely weathered wood that seemed to have been left over from the Golden Age of the Elves.
Anya snatched a glance at this sign (which read The Horse and Barge) as she followed Maquin.
“This place looks rough,” she whispered, turning to Erskine. “Are you sure your friend is here?”
“It’s exactly the kind of place he would be,” the mage replied, with a knowing smile.
“I hope he’s trustworthy, this great warrior,” Maquin whispered to Squad then added, more widely and with a disapproving glance at the establishment, “I’ll take Thom for a walk and we’ll meet you later.”
It was a rowdy pub filled with dockers who were known for their wild parties in this trade city, a crowd of revellers blocking the travellers’ path just inside the door.
“That’s him at the bar.”
Squad easily saw over every head in the crowd.
“Beside the ginger dwarf?”
“He is the ginger dwarf.”
“Let me see,” Anya tried to peer through the crowd. “Oh my…is that a Mohawk?”
“…Dwarves,” Squad muttered, shaking his head.
With a nervous laugh, Erskine gestured towards the crowded bar. “I think Squad should go over first and us girls can find some seats.”
“Wait a minute! I thought you were his friend,” Squad interjected as Anya chuckled.
“Yes, but…friends have disagreements,” Erskine reassured him. “Besides, he’s a big fan. He always talks about you. Or at least I think he does…the accent…you’ll understand when you get over there. Bye.”
And with that the other two were gone.
Squad heard snippets of song as he edged towards the bar, slides of sound broken by loud bursts of laughter then continuing from where they’d left. As luck would have it, there was an empty stool on the dwarf’s right; although perhaps luck had little to do with it as the ginger dwarf was in frantic discussion with the dwarven barman and his booming, stentorian voice was starting to disturb even the dockers, who distracted themselves by redoubling their own noise and playing a game of whip cock.
“Listen I don’t care how much glory you’ve brought Volgar, in this pub you pay for your own drinks.”
“That’s really fuckin’ uncharitable, Ragnar. Where’s yer dwarven spirit?”
“Doon the drain, along with the 28 pints ye’ve had so far this –”
“I’m a good dwarf, Ragnar; I fight given the opportunity, help a friend given the chance and always get ma money’s worth.”
“Ye haven’t paid…”
“Well your money’s worth then.”
“I own the pub, ya fucki…good evening, sir,” added the barman as Squad took a seat.
“Evening,” replied Squad, his eyes flashing over to the ginger dwarf, whose appearance made quite an impression up close and far too personal. Slabs of shaved skull flanked a spiked ginger Mohawk and a beard, shorter than that normally favoured by dwarves but still long, hung below a battle scarred mouth; when he spoke to Squad his mouth was a crimson scar.
“Right?” Squad enquired.
The dwarf cackled.
“Are ye all right?” he asked, his granite-like face shifting in a most ungranite-like way. “Ah know your face.”
Behind them a couple of small boys sparred back and forth with wooden swords, playing with a level of silence and concentration given to little else in their lives as if the presence of grownups and the slight attention paid to them made this an audition for their future.
“Can we talk about Erskine for a moment?” Squad enquired.
“Hold on – he means wait a minute,” the barman slowly and deliberately translated then, looking at Squad more closely himself, dropped his mouth to the floor. “You’re Squad–”
“Thank you,” Squad held up his hand and the barman helpfully lowered his eyes.
“You cost me twenty quid,” the ginger dwarf carried on.
“When?” asked Squad.
“That was twenty six years ago! I was seventeen and making my debut.”
“Aye, an’ I bet against ye in the quarters, ya bastard.”
The dwarf stopped talking abruptly, listened for a few moments and returned to his own thoughts, but while he’d been talking earlier (seemingly a little inebriated) Squad noticed he was directing quick pulses of attention behind him every so often.
“Those men behind us mean me harm,” the dwarf advised. “Three tables back, four of them grouped together, carrying weapons under their cloaks. I appreciate you not looking,” he added after a few moments. “Or is it because you couldn’t care less?” he chuckled.
“It’s not that. Well, not entirely.”
“Here they come.”
Sure enough two of the men approached the bar, laughing and seemingly in frivolous conversation while their companions circled around, approaching from either side.
The dwarf slipped off his seat and fell to the floor, his heavy armour causing a considerably clatter. “I’m pished,” he shouted at the ceiling, kicking his feet in the air like a trapped toddler while all around people laughed, the mysterious men stopping for a few moments, exchanging significant glances and, their eyes ignited with greed, increased their pace towards the dwarf.
“What are you doing?” Squad whispered harshly. “People are staring. Dockers are staring.”
“I CANNY MOVE MA LEGS!” The dwarf laughed, kicking frantically as if running at the ceiling. “I THINK I’VE SHAT MASELF AND IT’S THE BEST FEELING EVER!”
The man circling around the bar on Squad’s side reached them first, drew a sword from under his cloak and rushed into one of the sparring boys, knocking him over; before the boy had hit stone, Squad stooped and saved the boy’s head in his left hand while his right disarmed the other boy, whipped round and clotheslined his attacker with the child’s wooden sword.
The two central attackers were about to set upon the prone dwarf and the swordmaster stepped forward, drawing the closest assailant towards him instead. The man sliced diagonally with a hidden dagger and Squad lithely dodged a first then a second diagonal attack from the opposite side, prompting the attacker to lunge forward and have his wrist seized, making him drop the weapon.
Squad broke his leg with the wooden sword and spun quickly towards the dwarf who, to his surprise, had gained his feet and was now fighting not the attacker from the centre (who was already trying to hold what remained of his leg onto his torso) but the attacker who’d circled round the bar on the dwarf’s side, a crushing blow from the dwarf’s axe entering his shoulder and going on until it reached his naval.
Extracting his axe alongside a fountain of blood, the dwarf turned to Squad.
“I’m Sig, by the way. Sig Hammerhead.”
“Aye and ye’re cleanin’ up after yourself,” added the barman.
“Give us a minute, Ragnar, fer fuck’s sake. The introductions aren’t done yet.”
The barman relented and went to fetch a towel, muttering quietly to himself, “I’m sorry, did I ruin your evening?” while wringing blood from his beard.
The dockers took this as a sign to resume their revelry; who were they to argue with a man serving alcohol?
“That was awful charitable of you,” Sig indicated the two injured men. “You could have killed them but you didn’t. I can respect that.”
“If I can spare someone’s life I will do so. Especially if I don’t know why we’re fighting.”
“Yeah…it’s kind of inspiring,” Sig added, burying his axe into the head of a dying man, “takes a great man to show mercy.” He snapped a helpless enemy’s neck. “Guess I’m just a good man.” He took the head off the last unconscious foe. “…Well not so good I suppose, but I won’t ferget the favour ye did me today.”
He looked up and saw Erskine bustling across the room.
“Aww naw. Before ye say anythin’, the answer’s no – being a do-gooder is more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve got a contract with the Brothers of Novaria, it pays exceptionally well and I intend to buy a year’s worth of expensive wine and cheap women with it, then spend it all in a day so piss off.”
Squad made to speak but Erskine silenced him with a shard-like stare.
“You’ll be sailing to Novaria then?” Erskine enquired with a deferential grin which surprised Squad and unnerved Sig. She wouldn’t let him go so easily Squad thought.
“Aye, that’s what I said. I’ll be going now, in fact.”
“It takes a lot of commitment to land on Novaria,” Erskine added as Sig hastily sheathed his axe.
“You’ll have to brave the sea of K’Naar.”
“But of course,” Sig retorted, his chest puffing with pride. Everything was planned out perfectly and nothing this woman could say would change that.
“You’ll have to stay there for six months until conditions are right to sail again.”
Sig simply held up four fingers and lowered each in turn. “A year’s worth of money. Wine. Women. Spent in a day.”
“You’ll have to battle unknown numbers of beasts and foreign monsters.”
“Aye,” spat Sig, who (though he was intending to leave) found himself intoxicated by the ease with which he was batting away Erskine’s arguments. It wasn’t every day you got the chance to best a mage who’d lived for over six hundred years, and such a beautiful one at that.
“You’ll have to navigate the internecine struggles and politics of the Brothers of Novaria, who disavow all earthly sin but are rather keen on sticking the knife in. Literally.”
“Ma subtlety is legendary,” Sig purred with a grin wider than the stars.
“You’ll have to swear a magically-binding oath of celibacy.”
“Pack your things. We’re going to meet a very powerful elf.”