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a novel by J.D. Mitchell
Chapter I--The Greatest of Powers
Khul, the High City, sat astride the azure waters of broad Tuskbay. Its soaring granite mansions and tenements were pale towers of light beneath a waxing gibbous moon. Khul’s shadowy streets, alive with the business of a hundred kingdoms during the day, were silent; but not everyone slept. Below the towering mansions of aristocrats stood the stately abodes of merchants and artisans, rising like foothills of opulence above the sprawling squalor of the common masses.
Haskell, drunk, angry, and seventeen, lurked in the cobbled yard of a middling merchant: a jumped-up trader who rose to prominence on the throats of better men and women. He knew the house and its inhabitants. They would be asleep.
Haskell was rugged and uncommonly tall, but well-formed, with a handsomely impish face, and thick, unkempt hair that attracted women’s fingers, like filings to a lodestone. And he was not the sort to stop them. In fact, his devilish swagger, which belied his youth, only encouraged it. As well as trouble.
Haskell massaged his sore jaw. He was familiar with the hard, polished wood of his master’s cane: A strike on the back to quicken; a blow to the wrist to correct; but this time--the last time--the cane’s silver pommel had lashed Haskell’s cheek and drove him to the ground. Never again.
He explored a molar with his tongue. Was it loose? It had been worth it regardless. Haskell had finally paid back the old tyrant in kind. Sweet justice, but the Guard would be after him soon. He had to keep moving.
Haskell crept to a shed abutting the back wall and gazed at a dark second storey window. It was high, but he was uncommonly tall. He clambered onto the shed, its mossy, slanted roof creaking under his weight. Reaching up, he blindly worked his stiletto between the windowsill and catch. He twisted the slim blade up and down, left and right, the window groaning as cold steel splintered old wood. A sharp crack echoed in the yard as blade and latch broke.
The jolt caused his right heel to splinter the weather-softened roof, and he tipped backward. Flailing for balance, Haskell caught the frame with his fingertips, digging his nails into the carved stone to stay upright. He looked at his fractured dagger and swore. It was the latest fashion: an expensive gift from his sister. He tossed it aside. The hilt clattered against the pavers below. Haskell scowled. He should not have drunk so much.
Haskell hauled himself up, held his taut body in place with one forearm and pushed the window open with the other. He reached into the room and tumbled inside; his heel rattled the frame, and his arm knocked a side table, causing a heavy wood carving to bang across the floor. Haskell grimaced but remained still.
Nothing stirred in the house.
He pulled himself up by the edge of a large mahogany desk. Ledgers were neatly stacked on the desktop, one slim volume open for morning review. Two wing-backed chairs faced the wide desk at a fastidious angle. In the half light, he could make out walls lined with glass-fronted bookshelves. He rifled the desk drawers.
As he worked, Haskell thought about the study: sober and deliberate, like its owner. Meticulously arranged to convey wealth and authority. Only Haskell could not find the bloody wealth.
“Where is it?” he hissed while rattling the last locked drawer. It had to be inside. He growled and swept the stack of ledgers to the floor.
Haskell stalked to the wall, from which he took a long sword in a battered scabbard. He drew the weapon, pausing to admire its sharp, oiled blade in the pale moonlight. He worked its tip into the locked drawer.
“I don’t think grandfather would take kindly to you abusing his sword, Haskell; though he would approve your motive,” his older sister chided from the doorway.
Haskell glanced up and frowned. Hilda’s dark braid trailed down the front of her fine silk nightgown. Her face was hard, but her eyes sparkled with amusement, as if she were silently laughing at a private joke; they only undercut, very slightly, the cold precision she inherited from their father. It did not help that she gripped a long dagger in her right hand and looked more than ready to use it.
“Where’s the bastard keep his coin?” Haskell demanded.
“Our father keeps his coin in that very drawer; but I will not have you ruin such fine furniture.”
Hilda padded across the carpet and took Haskell’s chin in her left hand, turning his face to examine his bruised jaw. At six feet, Hilda was taller than most men; but her younger brother had surpassed her. She shook her head and pushed Haskell’s chin aside. “Four years of apprenticeship to a worthy shipwright, yet you persist in your disobedience. Or was this another backroom brawl?”
“Worthy? He’s a cheat and a liar. He teaches more about brutality than ships.”
Hilda sighed. “You waste every opportunity afforded you, Haskell. The world is harder than your master’s cane.”
“I know that.”
“You know nothing,” Hilda muttered. “Father--”
“Father’s a coward.”
Hilda shook her head and shuffled to the side of the room. “Father is hard, but sensible. You, however, bludgeon your way through life. The world will never match your naïve view of it.” She opened a bookcase’s glass door and ran a finger along the spines, removing a volume on noble houses. Hilda retrieved a small silver key hidden between its pages and tossed it to Haskell. “This is a mistake, and the last time I help you.”
Haskell caught the key and scowled. “It’s different for you: you’re the favourite. You play his games. I--” He kicked a piece of chalk on the floor, which skittered past the carving he had toppled with his graceless entry.
Fangs filled the oaken dragon's gaping jaws, its tongue curling up to lick its nose. Intricately carved knotted lines formed its scales, paint clinging to the recesses. Its raised surfaces were hard worn by the wind and waves of the briny sea.
Haskell had adored the sizable sculpture as a child, had run his little fingers over its details. He would imagine the prow it had adorned, and the fierce raiders crowding the deck of its longship. He would steal into his father’s office to take down his grandfather’s heavy sword and dream of life outside the city, winning renown fighting orcs and trolls.
He had begged to be told tales of how his grandfather had ceased raiding to fight invading orcs, of his grandfather’s many battles and adventures, his highs and lows; but Haskell’s father would not spoil his boy with worthless words and wasted affection. His family wanted to bury their past. They were merchants now, not brigands.
Haskell heard those very words in his father’s disdainful baritone.
He picked up the carving in both hands and set it on the open ledger, its weight crinkling the expensive paper. He stooped and inserted the silver key into the locked drawer. It turned with a heavy, well-oiled click.
“You cannot stay in the city after this,” Hilda said. “What life will you make for yourself?”
Haskell lifted a sturdy leather pouch from the drawer. It was heavy with gold and silver, which softly clinked as it shifted inside. “I’ll go south with one of the caravans, then to the borderlands. I’ll sign on with the Questors Guild and fight the creatures of the Darkwood.”
“As a mercenary?” Hilda scoffed. “There is no glory or money left in the borderlands. The old wars are over. The Questors Guild is a relic for drunks and failures.”
Haskell rammed his grandfather’s sword into its scabbard. “Then I should fit right in. I’ll make my fortune honestly, fighting like grandfather did.”
“You did not know him,” Hilda said.
Haskell buckled on the sword and pouch. “Father wouldn’t tell me the stories.”
“He feared you would become his father.”
Haskell put one leg through the open window and sat heavily on the sill.
“What will you do when you run out of coin?” Hilda asked.
Haskell slapped his thighs and flashed her a cheerful smile. “I’ll just keep the coin flowing.”
Hilda laughed despite herself. “You are a fool, Haskell.”
“Don’t let father miss me too much,” he replied with an impish grin, then slipped away.
“He will only miss his coin,” she replied.
Haskell padded through deserted moonlit streets. He had to get through the gates before word of his theft and assault spread. With one hand on his pouch and the other steadying his sword, he was sure of only two things: the road would be long, and there was no going back.
Chapter II--Bodies in Motion
Haskell yawned and stretched his body, the April sun on his face and a cool breeze at his back. He strolled over weathered cobbles laid by the slaves of a long dead empire; though the civilization’s ghost lived on, its legend perpetuated by the bones of its design.
For three days, he and a caravan of people, wagons, and carriages had journeyed south along the wide Salmon River, its banks swollen by winter melt and spring rain. They had passed many towns and villages, whose produce fed the prosperous Kingdom of Fornbrad, though each day brought more woodland than civilization.
The wind tossed Haskell’s short hair and billowed the cotton of his soft oxblood tunic, its laces open to expose his broad, muscular chest. He caught the fleeting look of a pretty washerwoman sitting on the back of a cart ahead and gave her a wink. She blushed and looked away. Haskell smiled.
He was free and all his troubles were far behind.
Haskell took in the long train of travelers around him. Bent by their lot as much as their heavy packs, these men and women would toil ceaselessly, their labours ending in a short life and lingering death. Haskell would not end that way.
A warrior clad in a suit of steel plate rode up the line. Captain Nedir, leader of the expedition, was regal. His armour glowed in the afternoon light and a crimson cloak billowed from his shoulders. Haskell imagined himself in Nedir’s place; not minding a caravan but leading a company of fighting men and women against the creatures that threatened their borders. Soon.
A youth slightly younger than Haskell cantered by astride a tall bay mare. He was dressed in a fine velvet tunic dyed a vibrant, and expensive, sapphire blue; his fitted, well-oiled boots shone in the morning sun and the fine gold chain about his shoulders clinked with every bounce of his steed. The mare was huge--at least five feet from hoof to withers--but Haskell still rose to the boy’s shoulder, which offered him a glimpse of the youth’s smirk as he passed.
The fellow slowed to a trot beside a fat merchant bedecked in an embarrassment of gold, the metal jouncing and jostling conspicuously as he rode a black stallion. The gaudy pair, who shared a resemblance, jangled past an old tinker bent over his worn handcart, its dangling wares rattling as it bumped over the rough road. Haskell chuckled, uncertain who was louder.
Haskell stepped off the highway and onto a rough and rutted eastern road. He meandered along the verge while chirping sparrows darted from tree to tree over the twitching ears of draft animals and flitted between the carts and wagons ahead. He glanced over his shoulder at the longer train of travellers and traders carrying on down the paved highway, destined for the kingdoms of Siward and Sheffield.
Haskell and the others were bound for Bordertown, Lanesford, where the traders would sell spices and luxuries from across the sea and goods manufactured in Khul. The farmers and shepherds would settle in Lanesford’s black earth plains and sweet grasslands, colloquially known as the Lane. Lands swept clear of plains barbarians and monsters from the forbidding Darkwood, both driven back during the last great war.
An errant grey draft mule, intent on a late morning snack of tender grass, veered toward Haskell. The animal dragged its wagon out of the rutted track, the vehicle angling over precipitously as several pieces of its unsecured steel clanged to one side. The travellers beside the wagon cried out, some pointing, some drawing away, others lunging forward in a bravely misguided attempt to hold it upright. The desperate driver clung to his seat while lashing the recalcitrant mule.
“Ho, there!” Haskell cried. He stepped forward and slapped the mule across its thick, hairy lips, its protruding front teeth scraping his hand. The animal let out an annoyed bray but gave up on its snack. The teamster sighed with relief as his wagon juddered back into the furrowed road.
A scattered cheer rose from those nearby, who showered Haskell with vigorous claps on the back. Disaster and a long delay averted, the caravan continued down the eastern road. Haskell, buoyant from the attention, perambulated along the roadside.
The ragged train of travellers passed into the Lakewood, the air sharp with the scent of fallen pine needles and the earthy rot of overwintered leaves. The dry twigs of sleeping shrubs scraped the sides of carts and pawed the arms and shins of those on foot for many miles. When they finally entered a clearing, a pair of high-spirited southern mercenaries, bored and seeking release, skipped up and down the line in their plaid trousers. They sang a jaunty tune in a throaty, impenetrable tongue, with spears over their shoulders and round wooden shields bumping their backs. Most laughed and egged them on with cheers and claps.
Haskell gave one of the southerners a playful shove as he skipped past, the fellow twirling away with a grin and singing even louder as he carried up the line.
“Buffoons,” the fat merchant sneered once the skipping mercenaries had passed. “They should have stayed in their filthy hovels.”
“Then who would guard your corpulent hide?” Haskell countered from behind. The weary porters nearby laughed.
The merchant spluttered, his reddening jowls jiggling with rage. “Do you know who I am?”
“Another flabby ass whinnying just to be heard. I think you need a smack like that mule yonder,” Haskell replied with a raised palm and broad smile.
“You insolent . . . I never. Such . . . the impertinence!” The apoplectic merchant spurred his horse further up the line. Several porters made exaggerated brays and whinnies while those ahead turned to gawk at the frothing man.
The merchant’s son, restraining laughter, cantered after his father.
Chapter III--Fine Friends
The caravan wound its way deeper into the woods. Tired, sore, and hungry, Haskell shuffled around a bend preceded by his lengthening shadow. He stopped, as had those ahead, where the road ran through a mess of soupy ruts, a shallow stream, and up a rocky hill, its top awash in the red light of the westering sun.
None contested the halt.
Haskell shouldered off his pack and chose a dry patch under an elm near the stream. The rest of the weary company unpacked their bedrolls, blankets, and provisions, each setting up camp where they thought best. With the woods pressing upon them, the company formed larger, more animated groups around fewer fires. All but the merchant, who screened himself with porters and his thin cook, who was tossing vegetables into a large pot.
“Get that blasted canvas up, you toads--up, up!” the merchant shouted at his two liveried footmen, who struggled with ropes and a heavy wooden post. “Captain Nedir! Come eat in my tent tonight,” the merchant called.
Nedir held up his hands and shook his head as he moved down the road.
Haskell shook his head and tore at a tough piece of dried beef.
“Yer a funny lad,” a plump man said, extending his hand down to Haskell. “M’name’s Flint, a cook by trade.”
“Haskell,” he replied, giving Flint’s fleshy hand a firm shake.
Flint was average height and above-average girth; but while some are overwhelmed by weight, Flint wore his like a well-fitted jacket. A brown tunic was stretched comfortably around his prodigious belly, and around his shoulders were a grey wool cloak and forest green hood, the latter lowered to expose his balding head.
“A pleasure, Haskell, a pleasure. My companions went on to Fisherville and I’m lookin’ to take up with some others. I was considerin’ that merchant--the man clearly has an appetite--but he’s already got a cook. Besides, I suspect ye’ll make fer more pleasant company.”
“Gladly: sit, sit! I’d be happy for some company, especially if you can turn my provisions into something a bit more enticing.” Haskell smiled and waved his salted beef.
“Challenge accepted, young sir!” Flint said with a wink. He dropped a bulging sack with a clatter.
They built a fire with pine and elm from thickets below the hill and were soon taking their ease around a growing fire. Three other travellers joined them. Bror and Toigh, the mercenaries who had gambolled their way up and down the line, were rough characters clad in worn, iron-studded leather armour. There was Corben, the teamster whose wagon Haskell had rescued at the junction, and his taciturn mule Donner, happily cropping grass nearby.
Flint, true to his promise, was cooking a thick pottage of cured beef and root vegetables from their pooled provisions, plus some of his own “secret ingredients”. The rich stew bubbled invitingly in a burnt orange ceramic pot, the aroma drawing envious glances from other groups in the darkening afternoon.
Several yards away, the merchant castigated his cook over the quality of his meal, startling several birds into flight.
The five strangers sat in silence with the pot simmering between them. Haskell decided to break the awkwardness. He took in the gloomy undergrowth and chuckled. “My nursemaid used to frighten me with stories as a child: ‘Them woodland goblins’ll come and ’et ye ’less ye mind yer manners!’” he parroted, snatching up and brandishing a switch.
The others chuckled and relaxed.
“Nah, no goblins up this way for a long time now,” Corben said and spat into the brush. Corben was an older man, creased and hard; every mile he had travelled was worn into his face, and his back and shoulders were stooped by work and the dust of every kingdom.
“So o’tlandr, beye settlin’n Borderto’n, then?” Bror, the shorter of the two mercenaries, rattled at Haskell. Bror’s skin was like leather: oiled, scarred, and weather-beaten from hard fighting and harder living, which only honed his sense of humour, manifesting as a permanent smirk and a mirthful shimmer in his eyes, reminding Haskell of his sister.
“. . . Yes,” Haskell nodded uncertainly.
“Webe doin’th’same, Toigh’an’me. Th’coin flow like water down thataway, theysay.” Bror jerked a thumb at Haskell and turned to his companion: “This’un be a’right giant’o’a’man, eh’Toigh?”
Toigh was six feet, silent, and imposing. He looked younger than Bror and had a touch of worldly sadness behind his neutral expression and watchful gaze, yet he smiled readily, evident from the deep creases at the corners of his mouth and eyes.
Haskell nodded again and turned to the teamster: “How far would you say it is to Bordertown, Corben?”
Toigh deadpanned something in his thick language, throwing Bror into a fit of laughter.
Flint looked up while stirring the pot but said nothing.
“Eighty, ninety miles,” Corben grunted.
“The Lakewood is a wild haven for brigands and such. Good thing we have a couple ruffians of our own,” Haskell said, proffering his wineskin to Bror. “I could use stout companions like yourselves when I sign on with the Questors Guild.”
Flint snatched the skin and took a long pull. After a contemplative pause, he poured a dram of red wine into the stew.
“You could cook for us: It’d be nice to have some hot food in the wilderness,” Haskell said.
Flint frowned. “I think I’ll try m’luck at somethin’ a bit more usual, if ye take my meaning.” He passed the skin to the teamster beside him.
“I’ll kick about town once I drop my steel, like as not,” Corben said after drinking. He passed the wineskin to Bror. “These clowns are from Siward--that’s clear; from where do you hail, lad? We don’t grow ’em as big as you up north.”
“My family are seafarers from far away. They settled in Khul after the war.”
Corben squinted at Haskell and took a swig from a metal flask. “And who’d they fight for?”
Haskell cleared his throat. Northerners, as a rule, had a dim view of raiders. “My grandfather was a privateer for Fornbrad. He defended the coast and the rivers all the way to Siward. But what of your folk?”
“My kin are from Northbridge, which bore the brunt o’ the orc advance through the Steppes. Nursed by my mother’s sister throughout that long siege, I was. That’s a long way back now,” Corben said.
“Sixth generation cook,” Flint volunteered around a mouthful of hard bread. “My family’s served in the finest noble houses throughout the realm.”
Toigh muttered something unintelligible, making Bror snigger.
“What did your kin do during the war?” Haskell asked them.
Bror cocked an eyebrow: “Who says tha’war bedone?”
Toigh handed Haskell a much lighter wineskin and nodded his thanks.
Haskell raised the skin: “Well, here’s to a safe journey and fine new friends!” He swallowed a mouthful of sour wine then poured a stream onto the leafy ground.
To placate the fickle gods.