|Posted on April 20, 2012 at 11:50 PM|
Sole closed his eyes, and listened to the crackle of flames… and felt their heat upon his skin… and smelt the burning of rotten oak… and the salt of the sea breeze.
When he opened them again, the Merion fleet had disappeared over the horizon, and a wave of relief washed over him. Whatever else had been lost this day, they were safe; safe from the madness that had infected these lands. It was night-time now, and the full moon had risen, cold and white and full of sorrow. Leafport lay smouldering in the sea nearby, blackening the tide with ash and slabs of charred wood. An eerie red mist hung over the Bay of Herrings. Much blood had been spilt these past days. Everywhere there had been noise and fury, and the clash of iron; now… only silence.
Sole exhaled a cloud of white frost, and realised how tired he was. His shoulders ached terribly, and his stomach groaned with hunger. He and the Merion’s had ridden for days on end, with little food and less sleep. But watching those white sails unfurl in a gust of wind had made it all worthwhile. They are safe.
“Sail west as far as Hurrik’s breathe allows,” he had told Harmon, the village chieftain. “Go as far as the Black Reefs if you have the strength. Find a patch of soil hidden from the sun, and then vanish from this world… for as long as she lives, they will never stop hunting you.” Harmon had thanked Sole, and promised to raise a bronze statue in his honour. “Food and shelter are the only things that need concern you,” Sole had replied angrily. “They are all relying on you. You mustn’t fail them.” Harmon had nodded sternly, and commanded the anchors be drawn up. It felt like a lifetime had passed between then and now, but in truth, it had only been a few hours. And now they were gone; a speck of white on a canvas of stars.
Sole felt the cool, black tide lapping at his feet, and imagined himself the last man left on earth. It was a foolish thought. The fighting had stopped, yes, now that everyone was dead, but the King’s legions would be upon him soon enough. They had torn the valley apart in search of the Merion’s, and the smoke would draw them to the beach within hours. But the Merion’s were a day’s voyage away, and even if the King knew which direction to chase them, he had no dock to set sail from. Sole had seen to that, when he set Leafport and all of its vessels to the torch. His wrath would be terrible, but Sole had no intention of being taken alive. He would make his stand here and now. He would rid them of their taste for blood.
Sole fed the last of his grain to his horse, Aisha. He unbuckled the destrier’s reins and sent it off along the shoreline. He then fished a skin of water from out of his satchel, and drained it of its last two gulps. Next he drew a whetstone, and set to sharpening his sword. By the time he’d finished, a column of trees could be seen parting along the mouth of the valley. They were less than a mile away, and moving west towards Leafport. Sole sheathed his blade, and began to armour up. He left his shield and helmet in the sand, but made sure to strap on the thick, golden gauntlets that his half-brother had given to him on his last birthday. Finally, he slid a thin, bronze dagger into the sleeve of his gloves… just in case.
The still, silence of the Thornewood was quickly consumed by the beating of hooves and the cries of men. The banners of King Herrin twisted out of the forest like the fingers of a dying man. A great war-horn sung out across the bay, as two dozen riders erupted from the trees. They were heavily armoured, and rode huge, black stallions, smeared with blue and purple paint. They converged on Sole, spears raised. Nine or ten more men emerged from the woods, swords in hand, and finally a single rider, garbed all in silver, straddling a snow white destrier. He trotted across the sand to where Sole stood, surrounded by soldiers. The emblem of King Herrin fluttered high above – an eagle, ringed by flame. The image once filled him with immense pride and courage. He had marched those banners into the very heart of the Drift Mountains, and planted them in the ice as a symbol of the glory of Carhaw. It once gave him comfort to gaze up at that blue eagle during cold nights, a thousand leagues from home… yet now it filled him with disgust.
“Solomon,” the silver-clad man called. “So good of you to build us a fire. You haven’t seen the Merion tribe wandering around, have you? They seem to have slithered through our fingers again.”
“‘Brother’,” Sole spat. “You are no kin to me, bastard.”
“Now, now,” the silver rider replied, a twinge of anger on his breath. “You know how I feel about that word.” He slid off his horse, and drew back his helmet, revealing a mop of pale brown curls, held up by a wreath of lemon-leaves. He handed the helm to one of the other riders, and strode forward. “Fall back!” he commanded, and the other men retreated several feet, so that it was only himself and Sole. “If you cannot abide ‘brother’, then ‘Ramus’ will suite fine.”
“You dishonour the name,” Sole replied bitterly.
“Your father thought it fitting, though Kings often lack the sense of lesser men.” Ramus took a step forward, and Sole’s hand reached for the hilt of his sword. “Tell me brother, where are the Merion’s?”
“Far from here… bastard.” Ramus’ expression hardened at that.
“Have you done something incredibly foolish brother? I promised our father that I would only return to the capital with the Merion’s in chains… or your head on a spike. I would hate to disappoint him, given how little time he has left.”
“You have twisted his mind into something wretched,” Sole breathed. “You and that whore that whelped you.”
“Whatever claim you had to the throne of Carhaw is now utterly destroyed. You have betrayed your king, and you will die a traitor’s death. But not before you tell me where those mud devils have fled. Tell me here, or whisper it through broken teeth and bleeding lips, five years from now – the choice is yours.”
Sole knew the depths of Ramus’ cruelty; years of torment and misery in a castle dungeon were no fit way to end a lifetime of service. But to die in combat, on the shores of the Thornewood, having done this one noble deed… well, he could live with that, so to speak.
Sole let a smile creep across his bruised face. “Your master will not be pleased, Ramus. The Merion’s were the real prize, and you’ve let them slip through your fingers like so many dry leaves. I don’t imagine you will see daylight for some time to come.” Ramus grimaced. His finger crept down his chest, to the white hilt poking out of his mail. “No matter what you tell yourself at night, no matter how much blood you spill, you’ll always be a bastard Ramus, born of lust and treachery and too much wine. ‘The Bastard King’ they’ll whisper in the corners of the court; the usuper, the necromancer’s slave.”
“I am no slave,” he whispered darkly.
“Tell me bastard,” Sole taunted. “How many other men had your mother taken to bed, on the night she seduced my father? How many drunken wretches sired you, I wonder?” His smile widened, as Ramus’ hand closed around his sword. Sole spat at his half-brothers feet, and cast his eyes to the ruins of Ironport, showing Ramus his back. “Run home to your witch of a mother, slave, for I will not defile my blade with the blood of baseborn slime.”
Whatever mirth Ramus had arrived with had vanished, and only a stoic malice remained. The sound of iron rising from its sheath cut through the night-air; a slow SHUNG that made a thousand promises of pain to come. But Sole did not turn, nor reach for his sword. Instead, he watched the shadow of the bastard raise its blade to Sole’s neck.
“How… dare you…” Ramus whispered darkly, and then again, much louder, “HOW DARE YOU!” Now! Sole thought. He ripped his sword out of its scabbard, swung around, and smashed it hard against Ramus’ blade. The bastard stumbled back, his face white with rage. He charged at Sole, hacking wildly. Sole caught Ramus’ sword in mid-swing, pivoted, and then slashed down across his fore-arms, giving the bastard a nasty slice across his elbow. Ramus choked with pain, and stumbled towards the tide. His surrounding spearmen quickly advanced on Sole. Sole closed his eyes, and waited for the end.
“No!” Ramus barked. “Fall back, I said.” The riders glanced at one another, unsure, but obeyed all the same. Ramus staggered forward, blood dripping down his gauntlet. I will not have them say you bested me, traitor.”
He approached Sole again, but slower this time, with his shield puffed out. This time, Sole truck first, slashing at his torso, and then planting a hard downward thrust into his shield. The bastard felt the blow, but he stood his ground, side-stepping right, and delivered a sharp stab at Sole’s shoulder. Sole caught the blow, and threw it back, as if a child had made it. In truth though, Ramus had become strong with age. Sole moved left now, towards the lapping tide. He knew Ramus was a skilled fighter, but he had been trained by royal guards. Soft terrain would upset him.
Sole taunted Ramus again with a smile. “Perhaps your master did leave you a little something between your legs. I’ll need to remedy that.”
Ramus’ face was carved with loathing. “I am going to drag you to the capital limbless and faceless,” he spat. “But I will leave you your tongue traitor, for it will be your only key to the next life.”
“Come then, bastard. Show us what a witch’s slave can muster.” Ramus charged again, raising his sword for another downward thrust. Sole raised his own sword to catch it, only to watch his opponent switch to a diagonal slice in mid-swing. He caught the blow an inch from his face, but as he stepped back, he felt icy water clasp his foot. You fool, Sole, he thought. Ramus seized his change, and smashed the hilt of his sword into his opponent’s nose. Sole tasted blood and copper, and stumbled back even further into the tide. Ramus advanced with a flurry of attacks. Sole tried desperately to meet his steel each time, but a terrible dizziness had come over him, and he could feel the black water creeping past his knees. You stupid, old fool, he cursed himself again.
He felt something hard pierce his foot, and then he was falling. The salt water engulfed him. It was in his eyes and in his mouth, and then the bastard was on top of him, hammering his face with iron gloves. The ice water washed over him again. Everything was black. He thrashed violently, but somehow he couldn’t reach the surface. He could feel an iron claw around his throat, and realised the bastard was holding him under; drowning him. What does it matter? he thought. It’s what you wanted isn’t it? To die in a flash of glory? But there nothing poetic about what he felt now, and letting the bastard end it like this left a sour taste in his mouth. He struggled harder, but everything seemed to be slowing down. He could feel death closing in around him. “No…” he moaned, as the water poured down his throat. No… And then his fingers, as if guided by Hurrik himself, slid the dagger from his gauntlet, and drove the blade swift and sudden into the bastard’s soft thigh.
Ramus jerked back in pain, wrenching Sole to the surface. The night air hit him like a slab of ice. His face burned, and he could taste blood pouring from his nose. He coughed and spluttered, and heaved up a lungful of salt water. The tide was at his waste now, and he sloshed this way and that, not knowing which direction he was facing. He looked down at his right hand, and saw that he was still clutching his sword.
“SOLOMON!” He heard Ramus roar. He turned his head to see the bastard limping towards him, dagger still planted in his leg. Sole rushed right, desperate to get to shore before they clashed again. As he finally stumbled onto dry land again, he noticed the spearmen edging closer. They fanned out around him like wraiths, but as Ramus came closer, they fell back again.
“Face me… coward…” Ramus was yelling. His eyes shone like wild fire. Sole lurched towards him, and thrust his blade out clumsily. Ramus smacked it away, and returned with a rough slash across the chest. Sole felt the tip of the blade scrape across his breast plate.
The two warriors moved much slower, battered and bruised and soaking wet. They held their weapons with both hands now, and exchanges were lumbering and brutish. And yet their hatred was growing hotter with each clash of steel. Ramus’ silver armour glowed in the light of the moon, and Sole could feel his strength failing. It wouldn’t be long before he could not a block an attack.
“Prince Ramus,” one of the spearmen called out. “My prince, this is folly. We must have the traitor alive, else the Merion’s are lost to us. And your lady mother will have us flayed alive if we do not return you to her unharmed.”
“I… will flay you… if you interrupt… this fight…” Ramus panted, ducking a swift up-swipe. He’s right, Sole scolded himself. This is folly. What are you trying to prove here, old man? Finish it. Finish it once and for all. Ramus swung wildly at his face again, and rather than blocking it, Sole stepped back, making the bastard lurch forward. He pivoted right, so that he was side-face, and then drove the tip of his blade hard into his breastplate. Ramus jolted back, and swung down at Sole’s chest. Sole dodged it again, pivoted, and delivered another dent in his breastplate. Ramus, learning nothing, swung down again, hard across Sole’s neck, but this time, Sole did not dodge it, nor block it. He threw his armoured glove up, and caught the blade in mid-flight. The cold steel bit deep and red into Sole’s palm, and a spasm of pain shuddered down his wrist. He smashed the sole of his boot into Ramus’ bloody thigh, forcing him to his knees. And there it was… Sole reached back with his sword, and slashed hard across his enemies face. Blood exploded from the bastard’s mouth. His eyes seemed to slosh out of his head in an ooze of grey and pink. He fell into the sand screaming, and clutching his face.
Sole reached back again for the killing blow, but then the wraiths were all around him. Their black spears were in him; in his throat… in his ribs… in his guts… Everything seemed to slow down, as if he were underwater again. He choked up blood, and fell into the sand by his brother. There was no more pain, and the darkness closed in and folded over him like a blanket. And then there was nothing… save the whispered name, “Saria.”