Vengeance, Chapter One
Lord Talyn Brightflower, Exalted Defender of the West and Liberator of Sunndi, sat on a makeshift throne listening to the hoarse screams of the tortured woman.
Skinner had been at his work for hours now, and under the silent man’s ministrations the peasant woman had been reduced to something barely recognizable as human. Blood slickened the floor underfoot from a thousand tiny wounds, and the sickening smell of scorched flesh filled the air.
Talyn suppressed a yawn. For three days now his men had quartered in the tiny hamlet, burning, looting, raping, and killing. What buildings that were left standing had been seized by the soldiers. Those who had not been slain when Talyn’s troops marched into the town were kept for slaves, or tortured for his amusement.
There had been no resistance, of course. There never was, not in these spineless Almorians. A few old men and young boys who had met the soldiers at the end of town, throwing down what makeshift weapons they had and begging for mercy, declaring their allegiance and support for Herzog Grenell. Their bodies were now impaled on wooden spikes that ran along the main road.
The woman had ceased her screams, and now was only able to make great gasping noises. Her remaining eye rolled wildly in her head, bloodshot and unfocused. Talyn had watched Skinner work before, many times, and knew the tell-tale signs. The torturer was skilled at keeping his victims alive, but this one was near to death.
Talyn was a son of House Brightflower, and like most of that family had been gifted with beauty. Silken honey-blond hair flowed down past his shoulders, framing a clean-shaven face that was so pretty he looked more a prince out of bard’s tales than a battlelord for Grenell. His eyes were a startlingly deep blue, piercing and intelligent.
“My liege,” rumbled Lt. Brundar in his raspy half-voice. “This peasant girl has defied you, I think. She will take the secret of the Almorian resistance to the grave with her.” He uttered a low chuckle. “And we shall be deprived forever of knowing where it went.”
Talyn gave a thin smile. “Then Skinner will have to put another to the question.” Of course the girl had not talked; her tongue had been torn out. It was not as though she could give answer to any question. Though earlier, when Skinner had first begun his work, she had screamed out answers a plenty. The girl was terrified and plainly knew nothing, yet she had tried her best to give answer. Even when her tongue had been removed, Brundar had continued his low questions: ‘Where are the remnants of the Almorian military? How many men? How many horse? What armaments? What weaponry?’ Over and over he asked them, over and over and over again, though the girl plainly could do nothing more than scream. Brundar took pleasure in odd things, but the whole scene amused Talyn.
Still, the question was serious. It had been weeks since Talyn and his men had met any sort of resistance more threatening than ragged farmers with pitchforks. Had the Almorians been broken so completely?
It was likely enough that they had. After Osson’s Raid had been crushed during the ending of the Greyhawk wars, the Prelacy had put up a stiff resistance, but the hordes of the Great Kingdom had ultimately overwhelmed it, and Almor had been put to the torch, sacked and looted.
Yet it was not the ghostly threat of a resurrected Almor that put Talyn ill at ease, but the very real threat of Duke Szeffrin and his armies. Szeffrin had been granted a lordship over a few parts of the vanquished Almorian nation by the Mad King, but since the Great Kingdom had shattered, Szeffrin had declared himself a king and set about making Almor his.
Which was why Talyn was here, on behalf of his liege lord. Grenell had seized the Northern Territory, most powerful of the remnants of the Great Kingdom, and had a mind to reforge the Empire that had been broken, with himself as emperor. And that included Almor. Szeffrin would be made to bow, or else his head would adorn a spike above Eastfair’s walls.
Talyn’s host was large and well-trained, seasoned veterans who hungered for blood and death, and from his intelligence reports he knew that Szeffrin’s forces would be overmatched in a straight fight. Yet Szeffrin was a cunning foe, a former general of the Mad King (one of the few who had escaped Ivid’s dungeons and made his own way when the Overking’s power collapsed). Talyn had not expected Szeffrin to meet him on the field, where he was so clearly overmatched, but surely an ambush or two should have befallen his troops by now.
And yet there was nothing. No resistance. No ambushes. No skirmishes. Only towns filled with frightened and starving peasants, fields lying fallow, and quiet. It was unnerving. Almost Talyn wished that it was Osson’s Raid he was facing. At least then he would have had a fight.
But Osson’s brave little army had been betrayed by the Scarlet Brotherhood and crushed by the armies of the Great Kingdom, utterly routed when they had tried to cross the Flanmi river. As for Osson himself, the battle tales varied as to his final fate. Either he was languishing in a dungeon in Rauxes, suffering the unending death, or he had been slain in battle and his moldering corpse drawn and quartered, the pieces sent to the four corners of the Great Kingdom. Or he had been taken by the Scarlet Brotherhood, for foul and unholy purposes. Or he had been brought in chains to Iuz the Evil as a slave...
Whatever the tale, though, on one point they all agreed. Osson was vanquished, utterly and completely. He had not escaped; he would never return.
And so Talyn made his way through the ragged remnants of what had once been Almor, taking hamlet after hamlet, searching for the battle he was certain he would find. Searching for Szeffrin. And looting, pillaging, and destroying along the way.
Skinner muttered a curse under his breath and turned away from the girl, who hung limply from her bonds. The girl had breathed her last, and was finally, mercifully, beyond the dusky man’s tortures. Talyn had been distracted in thought; he was uncertain exactly when she had went. It mattered little to him in any case.
Brundar was grinning broadly. “Lasted nearly three hours,” he said appreciatively. “She was a strong one.”
Skinner grunted something sour. He took pride in his work, and was never happy when a victim passed beyond his reach.
With a creak the double doors to the greathall swung wide. Bradhill, one of Talyn’s lieutenants, strode through, followed by four men-at-arms surrounding a dirty and tattered old man. “My lord,” Bradhill said, nodding his head forward slightly in a half-bow.
Talyn quirked an eyebrow. “What’s this? Is it Szeffrin at last, come to do us battle? I had thought all the village men had been taken and executed. Was this one hidden?”
“A madman, lord,” said Bradhill, shaking his head. “Walked into the village, bold as you please, demanding to see you. Says he has a holy mission.” The lieutenant snorted to show what he thought of it. “Thought I’d bring him in. Maybe Skinner can have some fun.”
The old man stood erect and proud, as if he were a king instead of a prisoner. He was bare-chested, wearing only a ragged kilt, and despite the ravages of the war he appeared well-muscled. His hair and beard were long and white, and his eyes were blue. He stared balefully at Talyn, and even though Talyn sat atop a throne, it almost seemed as if the old man was peering down his nose at him. It irritated Talyn for some reason.
“Put him on his knees,” he commanded. “I like not the arrogant look in his eye.”
Bradhill jerked a nod towards one of his men. “Teach the dog some manners.”
The soldier to the right reached out to roughly grasp the old man’s shoulder. His hand never connected.
A red spark shot between the old man and the soldier, and the younger man screamed, reeling backwards, and crumpled to the floor.
“Touch me not!” cried the old man in a voice like thunder.
“Sorcery!” cried Brundar. “Protect Lord Talyn!”
Instantly the two soldiers flanking Talyn’s makeshift throne sprang forward, their crossbows raising and firing in one motion. The remaining soldiers backed a step away from the old man, their swords coming out.
The crossbows barked as they fired, the bolts flashing towards the old man’s face. The aim was true, but a scant handspan’s length before striking, both bolts burst into flame and disintigrated into harmless ashes.
“Hold!” cried Talyn, on his feet now. “Hold, I say! I need no army to face off against a shriveled old man, sorceror or no.” He had drawn his blade, Firetongue, and held it in a defensive posture. “I have faced hedge wizards before. Who are you, old fool, and why have you come?”
“My name is Abin Dai,” the old man answered, “though that is of little importance. I am no wizard.”
One of the soldiers struck out at him from behind. The man’s blade rang as if had hit an invisible barrier and shattered into a thousand pieces. The soldier himself shrieked in pain, clutching his sword hand, which smoked as if it had been burned.
The old man spared the soldier a withering glance. “Call off your men, Talyn, or watch them die. I have not yet delivered my message. You shall not be permitted to harm me before I have done so.”
Talyn took a step forward, his sword still raised. “What message? Who sent you? Those crimson-robed mummers from the Scarlet Brotherhood? I fear them not, with their dusty voices and their fake sorceries. For all their posturing, when naked steel meets flesh, they die as other men do.”
“I am sent by no mortal agent,” said the old man, “but by a power far greater.”
“What power? Iuz, who claims to be a god? His threats are hollow here.”
“No threat this,” said the
old man, “and no missive from a pretender either. I am called upon to utter prophecy.”
Talyn sneered. “Gods come and go, old man. I pay less heed to their mumblings than to the whistling of the wind.”
“You will listen, Talyn of House Brightflower, or you will be desroyed!” The old man’s voice literally shook the earth, and his eyes blazed like flames. Talyn’s men muttered in surprise and fear, taking a wary step back, and flinching away from him, for suddenly it seemed that the old man was bathed in purest white light, which shone down on him like a pillar, so bright that even Talyn himself took a step back and shielded his eyes, cursing.
The old man stabbed the air with one gnarled finger, pointing straight towards the young lord’s heart. “Your ambitions are known. Attend my words, for they bear upon your fate. Give heed to my warning and you will carve an empire. Ignore it and you will be destroyed as if you had never existed.”
The room was silent for a moment. A mixture of fear, frustration, anger, and greed played across Talyn’s face. “Speak,” he said at last.
* * *
Kieran hated the scarred man.
It was strange what a man could endure. For three weeks now, the line of prisoners had been force-marched across the freezing tundra towards the execution that awaited them in Pym. Through the winter they had been held in the dungeons of Ragor, chained and bound in lightless cells, huddled together for warmth, forced to eat rats and roaches to stay alive, and hoping against hope for some chance of release. The common soldiers had been executed immediately; those born of noble houses were deemed more valuable. The chance, however remote, existed that they would be ransomed or exchanged for other prisoners.
Then had come the awful news that Almor had fallen, that the provinces had been razed, the noble families put to the sword, their holdings burned to the ground.
And with that news, all hope had gone. Their lives were worthless.
The ruler of the South Province, Graf Reydrich, immediately ordered the execution of all men held in his dungeons. Feeding them would be an unnecessary drain of resources.
Immediately the hangings
had begun, prisoners chosen at random and marched from their cells in groups of ten to be strung up at every crossroads. Those who were not chosen for death in those first days were only marginally better off. Reydrich had decreed that no prisoner should be fed, and the men, already on the ragged edge of starvation, died nearly as quickly in the cells as on the gibbets. Hunger bred desperation; the men ate anything they could find. Roaches were prized; rats could not be found. Some men went mad and began eating dirt and rocks until they vomited blood and died. And then others would eat their bodies. Kieran had seen one man eat his own fingers, one by one. Some men cried in the night, praying for release. Others prayed for death.
Conditions had been hellish physically, but the knowledge that their homes were burned and their families dead was even worse. Some of the men had just given up hope. Others refused to believe it. They had dwelled here for months, living like animals. The outside world was a difficult place to imagine; most of them remembered it as they had left it.
Kieran tried not to think of what might have happened to his own family. He was the oldest of seven children; the younger ones were nearly young enough to have been his own. Tallen was the youngest, a lively ten year old who was quick with a smile or a pout or a laugh, and who - like most boys his age - was endlessly involved in one mischievious prank or another. With light brown hair and blue eyes, he was also the most handsome of the boys, and Kieran had treated him like a favorite, wrestling with him, taking him hunting, staying up late to tease him with ghost stories or talk of girls... All of the faces of his family haunted him, but Tallen’s most of all. Before the terrible news had come, thoughts of home and family had been his sole comfort. Now he could not bear to think of them, and when he did, late at night, he cried. Almost he joined the ranks of those who wished for death.
But as abruptly as the order to execute the prisoners had come down, a second order countermanding the first was issued by Reydrich less than two weeks later. No reason was given, but the men whispered rumors that the Scarlet Brotherhood had ‘requested’ something from Reydrich. Something that required Reydrich to search through the ranks of the prisoners.
It was not implausible; it was an open secret that Reydrich took his orders from the red-cowled men. And if they were searching for someone among the prisoners, Kieran had an idea who it was. Osson.
But Osson was dead, slain on the field of battle. And even if by some miracle he had survived and was a prisoner under an assumed name, why would the Brotherhood want him?
Kieran wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter, not really. The order for wholesale slaughter had been remanded, and those held in Reydrich’s dungeons were being marched to Prymp for ‘questioning’ by a Brotherhood inquisitor. Kieran had little doubt what his ultimate fate would be. He would be put to the question under torture, and when the inquisitors found he knew nothing Reydrich’s men would execute what little was left of him.
And so they marched across the freezing and broken ground barefoot and clothed in rags and chains, leaving a trail of blood-smears behind them where their torn feet met the sharp earth.
But Kieran had a plan. He would escape.
In Reydrich’s dungeons, under the worst conditions imaginable, Kieran had come face to face with despair. And he had decided he would live.
It was difficult to know who to trust. The prisoners would turn each other in for an extra piece of bread. Two days past the entire company had been forced to watch as a prisoner that had planned an escape and been betrayed by a comrade was tortured to death. The company commander, a short little man with a bitter scowl they called Captain Dis, had lectured them for two hours, yelling to be heard over the man’s screams.
Despite the risk, the time for escape had never been better. The guards had grown lax. The prisoners were wasted shells of their former selves, hardly human anymore. Most of them were too beaten to think of escape, and too weak to make it very far even if they did. And out in the still-frozen tundra of the south province, a hundred miles from civilization of any kind, an escaped man was more likely to find death than freedom.
But Kieran had decided he would try. Fourteen months of hell had not broken him; it had turned his will to iron. If he died in the attempt... well, death was a certain kind of freedom as well.
He knew from the start he would have to have help. The men were chained together in strings of six, and it was impossible to make an escape attempt without those who were bound to him knowing. At the beginning of the journey any escape attempt would have been impossible.
But they were five days into their march now, and the strain of the journey and exposure to the frigid early spring weather was beginning to take its toll.
The old man with the missing ear had taken fever and chills two days into the journey. He had been unable to rise the third morning, and the scarred man had cursed him and lopped off his arm, then left him moaning on the frozen ground. That had cut the number of men on the chain to five. Yesterday the dark-haired boy had died. Just collapsed mid-stride and never risen again. That had been a surprise; of all of them, the boy was in the best shape.
Of the rest, two were men Kieran knew he could trust. The bald man was mute and couldn’t speak against him even if he wanted to; the torturers in Reydrich’s dungeons had removed it from him. Why he had been put to the question was not known, but he had nearly died from it. Kieran had nursed him back to health when he was too weak to feed himself, and the man was fiercely loyal to him.
He had also had the amazingly good fortune to be chained with Justinius, a man he had known all his life. They had grown up together, though not as friends, and had ridden in the same light cavalry division under Osson. It was strange what deprivation and shared hardships could do to old rivalries. Two years ago Justinius had been an enemy; a spoiled boyhood bully who had thrown rocks at him and who had grown up to be a mean-tempered and arrogant young knight, haughty with pride and station. Justinius was the elder of the two and higher born. When Kieran had gone to Academy, Justinius had already been there a year, and had distinguished himself as a leader, tactician, and warrior. Consequently, he and his circle of friends had made Kieran’s first year there... difficult. But Kieran had become an outstanding student in his own right, and the two had quickly become rivals. The feuding between them had not stopped after Academy. When Kieran was granted his commission for knighthood and detailed to the seventh cavalry division, he had discovered to his dismay that Justinius was attached to the same division. The rivalry had not died; indeed, after a fistfight erupted one night around the campfire, the company commander had been forced to order them to keep clear of each other.
But then Ivid the Mad had risen from his drugged stupors and decided to marshal the forces of the Great Kingdom to conquer the rest of the world. Almor stood between the Great Kingdom and the rest of the world, and Osson had called all knights to him for his desperate, brave, and ultimately futile ride.
And Justinius and Kieran had ended up in the same dungeon, on the same chain. Two years ago they were pride-filled boys, each of noble blood, each vying to be the strongest wolf in the pack. Now they were fellow prisoners who had shared the miseries of hell together. It had made them closer than brothers. Justinius would never sell him out now, never. And Kieran would die before he betrayed him.
That left only the outlander. And the outlander was an uncertainty.
Kieran had never seen a man of his race before, neither Suel nor Oeridian, Flannae nor Baklunish. He had almond eyes the deep emerald of the Oljatt Sea, his skin was a deep tan that was nearly yellow, and his hair was so black it seemed blue, straight and long. He was a victim of Reydrich’s original decree; a prisoner in the dungeons who had been lumped in with the Almorians and marched out for execution. No-one knew where he had come from or why he was languishing in chains beneath Rel Deven. But he had strange ways, and spoke with a strange accent. And Kieran had once seen him kill a man with his bare hands, fighting in a strange style the young knight had never seen before.
He was an uncertainty, yes, but Kieran had known there would be risk in any attempt at escape. He had considered doing something which would get the man killed - reporting an imaginary injury; the scarred man would surely kill him then - but had decided against it. Had he fallen so far that he would have an innocent man murdered? Besides which, any such attempt would only draw unnecessary attention.
So, with reservations, he had decided to include the outlander in their plan.
The prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, not even in whispers; that was one of the company commander’s laws, and the scarred man was only too eager to carry it out. Any prisoner caught or suspected of speaking aloud had his tongue torn out on the spot. It had happened enough times that the men marched in dead silence, the only sound the constant rasping of the chains and the occasional cursing of the guards.
But when four men lived day-in and day-out chained less than a foot from each other, it wasn’t necessary to communicate using one’s voice. More could be said with the glance of an eye, the furrow of a brow, the twitch
of a lower lip.
While languishing in the dungeons below Rel Deven, Kieran had managed to acquire the broken tip of an old file. He had taken it from another prisoner’s corpse; the gods only knew where the dead man had gotten it. In the dungeons he hadn’t been able to use it; the prisoners were too well watched and too well chained. But here on the march there was only one chain, threaded through the sets of manacles each man wore. Their feet had been left unshackled to speed the march. If the chain could be parted anywhere along its length then all four men would be freed.
The file was jagged and rusty, and shorter in length than his little finger, but every night Kieran thanked the gods for it. He had chosen a section of the chain near him which seemed like it might be a weak point. Each night he lay atop it, his manacled hands bound behind him, and slowly worked the file back and forth, back and forth. Laying atop it gave him bruises and sores, and the work itself always left his fingers bloody, but if a passing guard should hear it would mean his life. The others all knew of course, even the outlander, but none had revealed him yet. Indeed, during the cold nights Justinius often kept a watch for passing guards. A hacking cough was the warning signal.
And the link weakened, night by night, until at last Kieran was ready to part it. One more night’s work, that’s all it would take, and they would be free men.
But then the scarred man had taken notice of the outlander.
From the beginning, Kieran had feared him.
He was a short man, with greasy hair and a bad complexion. He had a black and misshapen mark above his left cheek. No-one knew what exactly it was, whether it was a scar, or a burn, or even simply a birthmark, but Kieran thought of him as the scarred man. Physically he wasn’t much. Short and heavy, with the beginnings of a respectable gut and a small double chin, he wouldn’t be much in a real fight. More probably he was a coward who would flee from battle. But to the prisoners he was death. Of all the guards, none was more terrible, more merciless. The scarred man liked cruelty, liked the sound of screaming men. He liked power.
He was always the first to punish a man for any infraction of the rules. And he was always the most brutal. He had tortured men to death for daring to meet his eyes, or for turning their eyes away; for speaking out of turn, or for not giving answer.
And he was never satisfied. He spent the march walking up and down the line, looking for any sign of ‘resistance’ from the prisoners. He called it ‘culling the herd’. He didn’t need any excuse to kill a man, not really, but he liked to play at being just. He would select a man at random, someone whose face he didn’t like, and then he would badger him, beat him, and watch him until the man made some mistake, real or imagined, and then the scarred man would kill him. It didn’t matter who the man was; if the scarred man picked him to watch, his fate was sealed.
And yesterday the scarred man had picked the outlander. All day he had walked beside their group, occasionally yelling insults and obscenities at them. “You’re too slow, brown man, pick up those strange feet!” “Don’t rush, little savage, you’ll pull down those behind!”
He would slap the outlander in hopes of eliciting a response. A look, a glance, a grimace, a grunt; any response at all would give him the excuse he needed. But the outlander bore it all stoically, keeping his eyes downcast. All day it had continued, with a few obscenities and blows for the other men on the chain as well, just for good measure, and when night had finally come, the scarred man had settled down beside them, still taunting the outlander. Twice during the night he had ‘wakened’ them with kicks, again hoping for a response. (Of course none of them had been asleep; no man could sleep with the threat of the scarred man looming over him.)
Kieran wanted to scream out of sheer frustration. Less than one night’s work left to do, and the scarred man made it impossible. Almost he found himself wishing that the outlander would make some slip and the scarred man would kill him. It would solve two problems at once; the scarred man would be satiated (for the moment) and would leave them alone, and the outlander would be in no position to betray them.
Except that he already was in a position to betray them. If there was one thing that might save the outlander from the scarred man it would be the revelation that the others in his group had planned an escape attempt. All day and all night Kieran had felt his stomach churn in anxiety, watching and waiting for the outlander to give them up.
But they had passed the night through, and the outlander had said nothing. At the beginning Kieran had had an unreasoning hatred for the man; he held all of their lives in his hands. Worse, he owed no loyalty to any of them; the man was not even an Almorian. But as the man kept his silence, hour after hour, the hatred was replaced by respect.
The second day was not as difficult as the first. The scarred man was tired from beating them the night before, and after a few hours of insults and blows he wandered off down the line. He didn’t reappear before nightfall, and for once it looked as though a prisoner had escaped his wrath.
But as they settled in for the night and Kieran began his filing, the scarred man suddenly reappeared, cursing and stumbling towards the place where they lay.
All four men froze. The scarred man was drunk, it was obvious from his walk, his breath, his voice. He stumbled and pitched forward, nearly falling on his face. He caught himself at the last instant, only going down on all fours, and belched, then laughed uproariously.
He muttered an obscenity as he looked over the small group. When his gaze passed over the outlander, his grin widened.
“My sweet brown boy,” he said, and lurched forward in a halting crawl. “Give us a kiss, sweetling.”
The outlander said nothing, only held himself motionless. But Kieran could see the whites of his eyes shining in the darkness.
Not this, he thought. Oh please, gods above, not this.
The scarred man let his head drop for a moment, and moaned. The chained men watched him. The outlander was still, but tension was written in every line of his body.
The moan turned into a low laugh. “Give me a kiss, I said,” said the scarred man, and in one quick move he pounced forward, throwing himself on top of the outlander.
Kieran didn’t remember moving, but suddenly he was on top of the scarred man, his section of the chain around the man’s throat, squeezing, squeezing, harder and harder.
If he had had time to think, he never would have done it. Who was the outlander to him? If the scarred man wanted to rape him, what business was it of his? And the risk he had taken in defending the outlander was grave. If even one of the other guards heard, even just one, it would mean all their lives. The commander would make certain they died slowly, as an example to the others.
Realizing this, in one instant his blinding rage was transformed into desperate fury. Justinius and the mute were suddenly there as well, and the outlander had clapped his palm over the scarred man’s mouth from underneath, pinning his arms to his sides. The scarred man must die quickly, and he must die quietly.
Kieran tightened his grip on the man’s throat, tighter, and tighter still, until the muscles in his hands were quivering and spasming painfully.
The scarred man was struggling against them, fighting with the desperate strength of the doomed, but together the four of them managed to keep him still.
With four of them working together, even in their weakened state, it was relatively easy to hold him. But holding him so still that he wasn’t able even to make a sound was something else again. Each time someone was forced to readjust their hold and a bit of clothing rasped against the ground it sounded like the crackle of dry leaves. Each time a bit of the chain clinked it sounded like the tolling of a bell.
Desperately Kieran maintained his grip, and tightened it even further. The scarred man had gone limp, his struggles ceased, and still they held him. It might be a ploy, and they could not risk letting go.
Minutes passed, eternities where each distant cough was transformed into the terrible sound of a guard’s approached. Time passed, far longer than any mortal man could hope to survive, and still Kieran did not let go his grip.
At last, Kieran realized his hands were wet and warm and sticky. Blood. At last he released his hold - though the muscles in his hands were so clenched that for a moment they refused to obey him.
They lowered the scarred man’s corpse - there was no doubt no but that the man was dead - gently to the ground, and each of the four shot a quick, desperate look at the others. Each realized the seriousness of the situation. They had killed the scarred man, and that had changed everything. They would have to escape tonight, or they were doomed.
Kieran removed the file from where he kept it hidden during the day, but his aching fingers dropped it. He retrieved it and set to work on the chain, not bothering to lay on it as he had on previous nights. The tiny rasping sound was louder, but the work was quicker. And they had run out of time.