Three solid knocks, and then the door creaked open. Galin was the first to peer into the dark room, stalling momentarily. “Odis?” he said quietly. “Wandra’?”
Galin took up the mace at his side and proceeded further in, followed by Thal, Lester, and Beolith. They eyed each other cautiously as they paced throughout the room. Even through the darkness, they could see no one remained at the desk.
“They leave?” Thal asked.
“Didn’t see ‘em leave,” said Galin in a hushed whisper, “did you?”
“Not through the door,” Beolith said.
“They didn’t leave.” Replied Lester with a tone of finality.
The four spread over the tiny room, Galin feeling about under the desk, Thal checking the bookshelves, Lester eyeing the window, and Beolith looking around the wall by the door.
“Oh…no.” Galin nearly cried out, catching himself.
“What is it?” asked Lester.
The room burst into motion then with the sound of a loud crack. Galin turned just in time to see the wanderer emerge from behind a false wall, but was helpless to defend as the knife descended toward his neck. He went down in a fountain of blood and Beolith and Thal ran for the door. The wanderer leapt after them, darting past Lester and kicking the door shut just as Beolith slid outside its reach and into the hall. Thal attempted to square up with Lester, but was taken by surprise at the wanderer’s swiftness. He was able to deflect the assassin’s first knife thrust, but a second followed from the wanderer’s left hand, catching Thal between his ribs. The knife in the right hand soon followed and dug a line deep into Thal’s throat, dragging ear to ear.
Lester had his sword in hand as Thal died, but let it fall to the ground as the wanderer turned his attention towards him. “No,” he said, “Don’t be needin’ to do that, ya don’t,” he said, holding his empty arms up even as the wanderer advanced. “Eh, we can wo-” the wanderer’s blade plunged into his stomach and he felt the life leave Lester. He went limp and would have fallen if not for the wanderer’s hand to guide him to the ground.
“Who hired you?” the wanderer asked once Lester lay on his back, their faces inches away, illuminated only by the lightning flashing outside the window.
“I ain’t tell you shit, whoreson!” Lester spat. The wanderer twisted his knife inside the bald man, and then he screamed.
“Blade in the belly’s a painful way to go. You’ll tell.”
“Fuck…you-arrrhhh” the wanderer twisted his knife again. “Bloody bastard!” Lester shouted. “Woulda told ya the color of the rot betwixt me legs if ya didn’t knife me.”
“Leave no enemies, only corpses. The Order should have told you that.”
“Don’t know nothin’ bout no order. Arghhhhhh – fuck, fuck, stop!”
“The Order of the Serpentine Shade. The black ones that hired you to find me.”
“Wandra,” Lester began, chest heaving, “I already know how you’re to respond, but I ain’t got the faintest fuckin’ clue ‘bout no black on-aaaaaaahhhh gods be damned!”
“You’ll die in your own shit tonight, merchant, know that. But it’s your choice when.”
“You drive yourself a hard bargain, wandra’.”
“You came to a death dealer. I bargain only with lives and yours is the only one left here.”
“And death be what awaits you, fool.”
“Indeed, but not my own.”
“Oh no wandra’, we won’t be the last to hunt you.”
“Who are you?”
“Doncha know yet?”
“I know you’re not from the Eastlands.”
“Aye, and not a merchant either! Ha.” Lester laughed, but the laughter soon turned to blood spurting coughs.
The wanderer thought for a moment. “Not from these lands. Farther north, and your tongue is common. Not of Madabar, though. Not likely anyway. That leaves either the nomad tribes or people of the snow hills.”
“Looks like you’ve earned your damn price.”
“What would the nomads want with my head?”
“Maybe we just think it looks pretty – arggggghhaaa damn! Damn it all!”
“From what tribe hail you, nomad?”
Lester grinned. “It matters not anymore. All be the same and the one be all.”
“I’ve not the patience for drabble.”
“Course ye don’t. Not like I got long to be around, eh?”
“Long enough,” the wanderer tightened the grip on the hilt of his knife, “and perhaps longer than you’d like.”
“What do you mean to do, wandra? Hmm? Kill me, then what? Kill the clan, all of ‘em?”
“I mean to live, something I’ve proved to be infinitely better at than you, given the circumstances.”
“Ha! You’ll be strung and skinned ‘fore the end of it, oh I promise ye that dark one.”
“Who sent you, nomad? Tell me and I’ll ease your pass.”
The bald man spat. In the dimness the wanderer could feel his eyes upon his own, and even though he could not see but for the occasional lightning flash, he knew that they were staring at one another.
“Tellin’ the truth, wandra, I couldn’t tell ya.”
“Your tri - ”
“Ah drop it, will ya? The old clans ain’t no more. Elk, Rabbit, Fox, Bear, gone.”
The wanderer shifted. Last he had heard, the nomads had stuck to their usual course. Rabbit traveling with Bear, Wolf and Carp warring with Elk. South after The Dying, north at The Renewal. He had not been to the north in some time, but still, it seems news of a united tribe would have reached him by some means. “What mean you, gone?”
“One clan. One family.”
“Mmm. Those are the questions aren’t they?”
“You lie,” the wanderer started his knife.
“Wandra’ I speak the truth. Led by some bastard Fox named Helgarth,” Lester spat. “And he, he takes orders from another.”
Lester groaned. “Fucked if I know. If any know. Never seen ‘im but once. Don’t even travel with the family. Got his own army too I hear.”
“He’s not a tribesman?”
“Tribesman? He’s barely a man at all! Skinny sapling of a shit, with long black oiled hair. Any one o’ us could break ‘im with our hands, but Helgarth follows him like a bitch on a leash.”
“Why follow Helgarth then?”
“Wandra’, that’s a long tale and I ain’t got the time to tell it. If ya wanted to know, ye shouldn’ta stuck me.”
“You started it.”
“Gods be damned. Ye sure are one son of a bitch, you know that? A regular whoreson ye are.”
“This Helgarth wants my head then?”
“He or the sapling shit, aye.”
“Plough me, wandra’, I’ve told ya all I know.”
“You left your home to battle the westerly storm roads to find a single man at a tavern without knowing why?”
“Didn’t ask. Been sendin’ us on trips all manner of queer lately, what with the siege of LaFetamier and all.”
The wanderer stilled himself, skin growing cold, eyes freezing. “What did you just say?”
“Wandra’ I don - ”
“Look at me,” the wanderer barked, his voice raising for the first time since he entered the tavern. He flung back the hood of his cloak, revealing a long mess of dark hair that fell stringely into his face. “Look into my eyes, nomad,” he drew himself atop the large man, cupping his face with his free hand. “Say again. LaFetamier is under siege?”
“Well, no. Not yet,” Lester replied, weariness creeping from his wound to his voice. “Why, got family there? Hah!” The bald man threw back his head and gave a laugh, one final hearty laugh before the wanderer’s dagger found his throat.
It wasn’t hard to find the remaining nomad who had managed to escape the wanderer’s room. It was dark, but the frantic man had left more than enough of a trail in the half freezing mud for the wanderer to track. He hadn’t gotten far, taking shelter under a rotted oak trunk when the wanderer happened upon him. His death came swiftly.
The night was still young and the storm brutal, but the wanderer could not afford himself time to rest, and Whorestown would not welcome back the man who had just murdered four men in cold blood, no matter how forgiving they were of the wanderer’s ilk. His transgressions were not novel or even all that drastic in comparison to the standard of the village, but he would not risk going back until after the dust settled and those of the village occupied their time with some other mishap.
The roads to the east were dangerous at night. Highwayman in the summer, floods and rock fall every other time of the year, in addition to the highwaymen. The wanderer doubted he’d come across any of the former given the condition of the roads and the freezing rain. The mountain passes into Madabar, however, were another matter altogether.
The capital LaFetamier was a three days journey on foot. The wanderer had made it before in less than two, but in his current straits, it could take as many as five.
LaFetamier under siege by nomads, the wanderer thought. Or a dying clansman talking out his ass. The nomads of the north had been many in the past, but the wanderer had high doubts that their numbers even halved that of LaFetamier alone, never mind the rest of Madabar that would rush in to their aid. LaFetamier’s population made up more than half of the entire population of Madabar, true enough, but even so a combined counter by even a portion of the remaining cities would decimate the nomads, as it had done twenty years ago. And even then, LaFetamier would have likely prevailed without aid of the Plyostien and its forces.
There had been no united tribe then, but nomads did set aside their differences momentarily in their attempt to take back their ancestral home. Wolf, Carp, Fox, Bear, Elk, Hawk, Beaver, Rabbit, they all might as well have been divisions of Madabar all their own. Elk and Carp had an ageless hatred for one another, and by association with Carp, Wolf had been thrust into their quarrels for the past century. Hawk and Beaver were small clans, with Beaver dwindling into nonexistence due to their queer cultist rituals. Bear and Rabbit supported one another, but only on their trek south at The Dying. And then there was Fox, the largest and strongest of the clans and rumored to be headed by the very descendants of Morghast The Forsaken. It was no secret that Fox had long coveted the lands of Madabar, and that its first target was LaFetamier.
Before The Age of the Cradle, Madabar had been one of the last remaining provinces in Kreol to be settled. Stihl The Conqueror had set his sites on the untamed northern forests for years, but had not the men to claim it. Morghast’s forces arose out of what would later be Naelgrad and sought to ally themselves with Stihl to claim Madabar for their own. The two of them united, and together they explored the foreign frontier.
But it wasn’t long that they began settling Madabar that queer reports began surfacing from both their men. Rumors of a primitive people, short in stature and covered in hair, began flow through their camps. It wasn’t until a patrol group was ambushed and killed by these natives that the rumors held any sway in the eyes of Morghast or Stihl.
The natives turned out to be many, far more than the combined forces of Morghast and Stihl. They were from the Old Time, however, and had not mastered the art of forgery. Their weapons were made of wood and stone and were no match to the iron blades and chain mail of Morghast and Stihl. Over the years, the natives were exterminated and Madabar settled, with Stihl negotiating terms of legitimacy with a collection of city-states that would later become the Lotreshi kingdom.
Meanwhile, Morghast and his men set to the north and west, building long houses as they went and consuming the land. They took to banditry on the developing trade routes from the west. Eventually they began to turn against one another.
Stihl and Morghast grew distant from one another, with Stihl receiving outside influence from other leaders of prominent provinces. He became convinced that he no longer needed Morghast, and further, that Morghast was becoming a problem. Aided by Lotreshi soldiers, Stihl launched an attack on Morghast and his men. The longhouses were burned down and the men scattered. Morghast himself was taken prisoner and hung publicly.
A hunt commenced for the rest of the men who had fled, but they regrouped quickly, and Stihl found that the loss of his men was not worth the risk of finding a few flagless rebels.
Stihl went on to build his cities, shaping Madabar into its current state. He died before he was ever officially crowned king, however, ambushed by remainders of Morghast’s men. His son, Kelerkis The Wise, became the first king of Madabar, firming an alliance with Lotreshia and the developing the Eastlands.
Centuries later, after the monarchy had failed in Madabar with the fall of King Ioletheis and the end of his line, the province weakened. The remnants of Morghast’s men, the nomad clans that had since grown and split apart after Morghast’s fall, banded together and had stricken Madabar where it was most powerful. With leadership in LaFetamier (and Madabar) uncertain, quarrels erupted over how they should proceed. Galeth of LaFetamier had the best claim and was arguably the most ably suited, but the people saw him as coarse and unforgiving. Many would not stay in a Madabar ruled by force and fear. In the end it was Aluciban who rose up in LaFetamier, uniting its people under his guidance, who took control and orchestrated the final assaults against the nomads.
After the nomads were slaughtered and driven away, Aluciban proposed that a counsel take the place of a ruling king to ensure that power was never again abused as it was by Ioletheis. While many, particularly in LaFetamier, supported this notion, there were those that saw it as an invitation for the collapse of Madabar. Among the dissenters, the most prominent was Galeth. He rallied his men to his side, even baring arms at times to oppose the dismissal of the monarchy. But his will was challenged, and Aluciban had the whole of the capital against Galeth’s rebelling few. Galeth was no fool, and he fled LaFetamier, fearing what would happen to the opponents of Aluciban. He took his men with him, and together they settled in the Plyostein where few would think to search for them, as even fewer were aware of its existence.
A wise choice it was for Galeth, as the young Aluciban soon took to slaughtering his opposition. His dissenters were few, but they had a tendency to multiply. Aluciban was harsh as he was swift, and the heads of the king kissers were felled as quickly as his executioners could swing their axes. The wise fled and faded into obscurity while the rash, the bold, and the stupid accepted their fate and greeted it with waiting arms and exposed throats.
Over time, Aluciban grew more docile, and the opposition to the grand counsel diminished. An elected representative from every city in Madabar was chosen, and together they would meet to decide the fate of their good province. Galeth was naturally appointed to represent the Plyostein, though both he and Aluciban knew that his interests were more in the motives of LaFetamier and Aluciban than any ruling laws that they might settle.
Still, a rivalry brewed between the two provinces, but it simmered now (partly because of Galeth’s death), whereas it had boiled beyond the lip of the pot before. Madabar was strong, and though conflicting, it was united.
An imminent nomad strike seemed unlikely indeed.
The wanderer took momentarily refuge under the ledge of a cliff basin. The cove was dry for the most part, but dark and sloping. He dared not venture further to its depth for fear of other tenants. The hooded man took respite against the stone confines of his sanctuary. Lighting flashed, though less frequently and accompanied by a duller roll of thunder than in the hours previous. The wanderer sat and smoked the remainder of his pipeweed. He would have to find some more when he got to LaFetamier. The weeds of the north had much to be desired, especially so close to The Dying, and much of what was available cost thrice as much coin as it ought to, but the wanderer cared little for the potency of his tokes. The fervor of the weed had worn off years ago, and he only continued now out of habit. Of all the things in the world, the repetition of the pipe was the only that brought the wanderer peace.
It did not take long to exhaust his stash. He packed his pipe safely away beneath his cloak, but lingered in the cove awhile longer. The marching footsteps of pelting rain died down into the reluctant pitter-patter of a roaming storm, lost and faltering in its course. The wanderer let his head lay limp against his stone cushion. How long had it been since he had lied down? How long since he had eaten? How long had it been since he escaped the grasping arms of Lotreshia? Three days? Four perhaps? Too many, that was certain.
The wanderer’s eyes closed and he felt himself lifting towards the sky. He was weightless, he was lofty. He was a summer seed flying towards the sun, the wind taking him as his guide. Sleep was near, so inviting as it was.
And then the shrieks came. Silent at first, almost as though they were some horrible whisper, the echo of a tortured soul. But they grew louder after a moment, and more numerous. The wanderer shook himself, eyes still closed, but still they came on. Cries of all sorts; cries from men, from women…and the children, the softest and most distinct amongst the sirens. There were no words, just the last cries of the lamenting.
And then came the faces. So plain, so generic, yet so unique, each one with its own curvatures and colors and hues and expression. They floated in an abyss, an engulfing blackness that swallowed them up as they phased through the wanderer’s sight. Some were fair, some were foul, others were mangled beyond discernibility.
But they all had mouths. Gaping mouths, closed mouths, shrieking mouths. Shrieking mouths. Oh how they screamed. How they begged. Some swore and roared, most cried. But they all screamed, and so too did they scream eternally. All of them wanted to know why.
The wanderer’s eyes opened. He no longer leaned against the stonewall but stood under the weeping sky. He could linger no more. He set off once more on his course.
The borderer between Naelgrad, Paelgriff, and Madabar was ambiguous. The three disputed the boundary constantly, but little blood had ever been shed over the matter. Each province assumed the greatest amount of land to be rightfully theirs, though it likely did not matter who laid claim to the mountain road. Few lived in the upper reaches of The Dalagmine Pass, and those that did paid fealty to no crest or flag.
The wanderer figured he was still in Naelgrad but would soon be making his way east into Madabar. He kept his course parallel to the pass, not wanting to risk being accosted by any highwayman. The mountains lent him a better vantage point and a road less likely to be traveled by any others.
It was a surprising thing indeed when the wanderer caught the sight of a flickering torch, making its way down the Dalagmine. At first he thought it was more of the nomads, checking in on their perspective comrades whom he had slain in Whorestown, but as they drew closer, he saw that they traveled by wagon, a burden that the plains folk had scorned for far too long.
The wanderer descended from his mountainous perch and took cover beside the roadside beneath some fallen boulders. The wagon rolled into view after some time, pulled by two oxen harnessed in a yolk with an armed guard walking adjacent to the beasts. From the inside of the flapping skins covering the wagon, the wanderer could just make out the figure of a child, or perhaps a slouching woman, illuminated by the light of a candle.
He stepped out of his hiding place as the wagon drew nearer. It stopped at first, some 30 feet away, but continued after a moment when the wanderer made no move toward it. The armed man approached the wanderer, sword arm readying.
“Queer night for a stroll, stranger,” said the man.
“What be you carrying?” replied the wanderer.
“That’s no business of your, friend.”
“Mercenary, are you?”
“The folks inside paid me good coin to see ‘em safely to Rapplebery. And I mean to do that, I do,” the man said, motion towards the sword hanging at his left hip.
“Hm.” The wanderer’s blade flashed and the man in front of him dropped to the ground, neck nearly severed. A muffled shout was heard over the bleeding rainfall and a man emerged from the wagon, a set of arms groping at him from within. He ran towards the wanderer, mud splashing upon his trousers with each step he took. He held his arms out wide, shouting. The wanderer approached and the man remained still, steadfast. A woman’s voice could be heard over the rainfall, screaming from behind the protection of the skins. The man paid the woman no mind, intent on the wanderer.
“He had a boy ya know!” the man shouted. “And three girls!”
“Then he chose a poor profession,” said the wander. “I don’t want your lives or women, just your gold.”
“Gold,” the man scoffed. “you’ll be finding none of that here.”
The wanderer swung his sword arm and slammed the pommel of his blade into the man’s temple. The man screamed and fell and more shrieks echoed from within the wagon. Those damn shrieks. The wanderer strode towards it, throwing back its flaps and revealing the woman and four children huddled beneath a fur cloak hiding within. The woman stood in between the children baring knife and having pushed a basket to the lip of the wagon.
“Take it,” she cried, voice unstable, “it’s all we’ve got.”
The wanderer took the basket in hand and opened it, revealing two loafs of bread and some cheese. He turned back to the wagon, scanning its contents. His eyes fell to the four children.
“The cloak,” he said.
The woman hesitated. She looked at her husband lying prone in the mud, then back to the wanderer. “’Tis all we have, sir. Please, spare us the fur. We’ll not survive The Dying.”
“The cloak or your lives,” the wanderer replied, readying his sword.
“It’s…it’s all we have left,” the woman pleaded, tears streaming down her face.
“I want it.”
The woman began to weep and the wanderer raised his sword. She sprung into action, gathering the fur-padded cloak from her children. The youngest, a boy not more than three, began to cry. “Mama!” he cried, “mama, no!” The woman cried too, but still she handed the cloak over with shaking hands. The wanderer took it, running his hands through the fine fur. He draped it over his shoulders and then left the pass, scaling up the more mountainous route he had previously been traversing. He turned back once to see the woman huddled over her husband, still lying in the mud. He was unsure of whether or not the blow he had delivered had felled the man. He wondered if he should go back and finish him off, the family too. Leave no enemies, only corpses, he reminded himself.
He was too far up the mountain now; to go back would be fruitless. Even if they survived the night, the road would not be kind to them on the morrow.
The wanderer stored the cheese and half a loaf of bread in the breast of his cloak, taking another half in his hand and discarding the remaining loaf and basket. The cold, molding bread didn’t last long and he would have traded it all for just a little more pipeweed. The rain ceased entirely as the sun began to rise and the wanderer ate the second half of his mealy loaf. His stomach was full as he descended the slope to the main road that would take him to the heart of Madabar, but he was still so empty.