Guardsman Mikel Jameson shifted in his saddle as he felt a sudden, uncomfortable itch on his breastbone. He looked around to see if his twitch had been noticed but, as all eyes were seemingly riveted on the throngs of people crowding their route into the city, his lapse went unremarked. The young man held his breath, hoping that it had been the prickling of heat under his armor that had startled him but, no… The amulet that had been given to him by Haran, Blood Singer for King Barak, began to warm and then pulse against his skin, and his gauntleted hand flexed on the reins as he resisted the temptation to dig under his armor and remove the irritant.
Bloody bad timing! It was a portent that dried the guardsman’s mouth even as he rode through the towering entrance into the great city of Corman. There was only one reason for the amulet to awaken; the Blood Singer was sending him a message, something he had been told would only be done under the direst of circumstances. Chosen by General Valga to accompany the princess to meet her intended, Mikel Jameson nevertheless owed his first allegiance to the Singer. Nay, his first allegiance was to his king but his task had been dictated by none other than Haran - to guard the Princess Analise with his life. The Singer had not been able to elaborate on a threat – if any! – but his concerns had been enough to warrant giving the young man a circle of smooth crystal on a chain of purest gold, and a warning: none of his fellow guards were to know of the amulet, nor was he allowed to tell anyone of his charge. So he gritted his teeth and bore the growing discomfort.
His loyalty to King Barak was absolute, as was his devotion to Analise. Only two years separated them in age, and as children they had played together in the palace. His father had been Captain of the Palace Guard, and Mikel had grown up within its walls. King Barak had, as a favor to his father, named Mikel a page for a year – it had been a great honor for one not of noble birth. It had also been a miserable year for the boy, forced to wear a sillycostume, subjected to the taunts of his friends, running and fetching for the ladies of the court… His only respite had been the companionship of the little princess, who had been as full of mischief and adventure as any boy of his acquaintance. Even after his year of torture had ended, they had remained friends. It was only as they grew older that the circumstances of their respective births necessitated a certain distance. It had been something that Mikel had understood far better than his royal friend…
Beside him, Princess Analise was borne in an open litter, having foregone her fiery Doucette, a few leagues from the city, for the more regal conveyance. From the corner of his eye, the guardsman watched as she suddenly sat up and looked around, obviously startled. She ran her hands up and down her arms as if chilled. Mikel frowned. The day was warm.
It was a city built for defense. They approached the arched entrance and Analise glanced up through the sheer gauze topping the litter. She could see the great iron bars of the gate, held in place by chains whose individual links probably weighed as much as she did! Standing beside each of the massive pulleys holding the chains, were two men with sledgehammers, ready to strike the release latches and drop the heavy gate on anyone trying to get in – or out. I would rather take my chances with an enemy, she thought, distinctly uncomfortable at the idea of being trapped behind the portcullis gate. Suddenly, the black iron resembled teeth in a gaping maw…
Once inside the walls, the streets remained narrow as they wound through the
city. Along the streets, strategically situated between the houses and shops, were fortified baileys, each pockmarked with arrow slits and crowned with crenellated roofs, where one could imagine great kettles containing boiling oil, prepared to dump their contents on invaders. Granted, Corman sat squarely in the middle of the richest gold mines in the known world, and the royal mint was contained within the city proper, but Analise could not help but feel that its Lord was preparing for something more than an assault by H’rhan raiders to steal Corallain’s treasury.
Finally, the winding streets opened onto a broad boulevard that led to the castle. Built of the white marble native to the Fire Mountains, the rich gold of the mines was evident in the veins and tracings of the marble, and caused the castle to glow in the setting sun – a breathtaking effect, she grudgingly admitted to herself. The column slowed and then stopped, and Analise pushed aside the sheer curtain with a slender hand. A red carpet, trimmed along the edges with scrollwork of gold and – her eyebrow lifted slightly – royalpurple, extended from her litter up the marble stairs. She followed its expanse with her eyes until they stopped on shining black boots. Her stomach dropped and, reluctantly, she lifted her face and saw her betrothed waiting there. She tried to look at him dispassionately; Tomas Kasvinn wasn’t unattractive. Black hair worn neatly cropped, eyes an unusual shade of topaz – tiger-eyes, her old nanny would have said. Not overly tall, but very trim. His broad shoulders were most certainly enhanced by the uniform he wore. Hand on the hilt of his sword, he smiled and stepped forward and, instantly, the guards lining the red carpet snapped from parade rest to attention. Analise had seen ceremony all of her life but it was all she could do not to laugh out loud as Lord Kasvinn strode swiftly to meet her.
He handed her from the litter with great ceremony. “Greetings to you, my Lady Analise,” said the Lord of Corman as he bowed extravagantly before her. “I offer my city to you, and all its comforts are yours to command during your stay.”
“Thank you, Lord Tomas.” Analise forced a warm smile, even though the greeting rankled.Your Highness was the proper mode of address but she supposed their coming nuptials gave the man the idea he could speak to her less formally. I’m just being petty, she chided herself. Redoubling her efforts, she inclined her head a shade more than required by courtesy. “Corman is a lovely city.”
“I am sure you will come to love it as much as I.” He held out a white-gloved hand to her. “My servants will see to your entourage. May I show you to your rooms, my lady?”
She placed her hand delicately into Tomas’ hand. “Why thank you, lord Tomas, I would be honored.”
Together they entered the castle.
For all the opulence of the city, it was obvious that Kasvinn didn’t spend his money on the servants’ quarters. The room Mikel was shown to barely qualified as such. More like a cell, with only a narrow cot and a small table and one chair. He entered the room, his gear slung over one shoulder, and surveyed his surroundings with a wry smile. Dropping the heavy equipment to the floor, he unbuckled the armored breastplate and lifted it over his head, rubbing the inevitable raw spots on his shoulders. For the moment, he had forgotten about the amulet but just then it throbbed as if it, too, was grateful to be free of restraint.
He sat gingerly on the rickety chair and lit the candle on the table, then took the crystal amulet from his neck and dangled it above the dancing flame as he had been instructed to do. For a long moment, the flame of the candle licked the bottom of the disk. The amulet quickly began to glow white and ominous words of flame appeared.
General Cerwin Valga has betrayed King Barak. Karesh has fallen to him and the King has been taken prisoner – perhaps dead. I have Sung the Blood and learned that Kasvinn is a co-conspirator. The escort for Analise was hand picked by Cerwin and are loyal to him. Get the princess away from them and keep her away from Corman at all costs. Meet me at the Inn of the Four Seasons in Leviner. Haran
As he read the last words, Mikel’s hand fell to the table. The amulet dropped into his open palm. It was amazingly cool.
Toran stifled a yawn as he ran a brush along a black stallion’s flank. The stallion turned his head so that its black eye could focus on Toran as if questioning what was wrong. Toran just smiled back, the scar on his right cheek turning in to more of a smirk, and patted the animal’s neck reassuringly. Satisfied with Toran’s response, the stallion went back to munching the oats in its feedbag contentedly.
Toran chuckled as he continued to brush out the horse’s flank. Not long into the task Toran’s emerald eyes grew distant, as his mind was lost in thought. He didn’t mind the working with horses - he had served in the Corallain Cavalry during the Raider War and had become quite fond of horses while tending to the ones he had been assigned - and he didn’t regret leaving a thief’s life behind to live the more mundane life of a stableman. What he did mind was cleaning up after his equine charges. Horses were big animals, and consequently they left big messes. Messes he had to clean up almost nightly.
Idly, Toran stroked the stallion’s mane as he thought. The life of a thief – and that of a soldier – was infinitely more exciting, but also infinitely more dangerous. Toran didn’t mind danger; in fact he often enjoyed it. As a child growing up listening to the tales of heroes, he had wished for adventure and the danger that followed as he worked the Lord Toven’s fields outside of Leviner. In the last five years of his life he had had more adventure then he could stomach. The one thing the stories had never imparted to its listener - something that he had to learn the hard way - was that real people were hurt or killed because of one’s adventures. No, he didn’t miss adventure at all.
“Toran!” A voice called from one of the stalls in front of Toran out interrupting his thoughts. “Tell the new guy how you got that scar on your face.”
“Maybe some other time, Cory.” He called back, remembering being stuck under a dead horse, his leg throbbing with pain, then the flash of a curved blade from a mounted H’rhan raider. Toran began to brush the horse more vigorously and the stallion looked back at him, sensing his agitation, but went quickly went back to his oats when Toran didn’t seemed to notice.
“Oh, come on!” Cory cried back.
“If I do, will you shut up?” Toran asked in frustration. Hearing Cory’s affirmative. “I was in charge of taking care of a noble’s horse in Voru - it was from H’rhan, a beautiful animal. Anyways, under my care the horse threw a shoe and broke its leg while he was riding it. The animal had to be put down, so he blamed me and not the blacksmith who had made the damned shoe. He came at me with a knife and tagged me pretty good. I then proceeded to beat him to within an inch of his life. Happy now?”
“You see, Gregory!” Cory cried triumphantly. “That is why you don’t want to tend nobles’ horses, they are unreasonable and quick to anger. It would be safer to play with fire.”
Touching the scar on his face, he remembered the flash of a curved blade once again. As his hand fell back to the neck of the stallion, he remembered the scream of a young woman who had found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He swallowed hard. No, he didn’t miss adventure at all.
It had been a long day and Analise was exhausted. Lord Tomas had requested her presence for a private dinner. Being his guest she couldn’t refuse, even though every fiber of her being cried for her to do so. Through the whole dinner her stomach had churned. The most that could be said about the dinner was that the food was good, not a good as what she would receive from the kitchens in Karesh, but good nonetheless. It wasn’t the food that was he problem, it was the company. Lord Tomas was a swine of a man, whose suggestive remarks made her want to vomit every time he opened his pig mouth. The man had little in the way of decency, and what little he had he seemed to be quickly shedding.
After dinner Lord Tomas had invited her back to his apartments, and Analise could hardly restrain herself from delivering the slap he so richly deserved. She had stormed back to her apartments and sat down next the window, glaring into the darkening city through stormy eyes, but the anger quickly faded to emptiness. Father cannot allow me to marry this pig. He can’t!
Her personal maids knew their mistress’ mood and went about their business in silence, unpacking and putting away her clothes and personal things. She sat on the upholstered window seat, staring out over the city but seeing nothing. Her bath was drawn and a muted word from her chief tiring woman summoned her from her gloomy thoughts. The merry chatter that would ordinarily have lilted from the spacious bath was absent while Analise soaked away the lingering grime of the road and tensions of the day. She emerged from the deep tub, refreshed in body but not in spirit. Something was very wrong. Her eyes burned with unshed tears and she blinked them back, refusing to give the servants anything to gossip about. But when she was finally alone, in the darkened chamber, she was free to weep into her pillow.
Suddenly, the door opened. The light from the adjoining room stabbed her eyes and she sat up in the bed, squinting against the glare even as she reached for the jeweled knife resting on the table beside the bed. The door closed again; in the darkness, all she could see was the shadow of a stocky form, bent under a heavy weight. With a thud, the figure dropped his burden and stopped, facing the bed.
“Analise? Your Highness, don’t be afraid.”
“Mikel?” Analise fumbled for a flint and lit the candle sitting on the nightstand. It was Mikel Jameson. She scrambled out of the bed and used the single taper to light the candelabra. When she looked closer, she gasped.
First, it was startling enough to see the dark-haired young guardsman in the uniform of one of Kasvinn’s men. That he had deposited an obviously dead man in the middle of her floor stretched to the limit her ability to comprehend the situation. She stood, gaping, until Mikel’s good-natured face creased in rare annoyance. He stepped over the corpse and reached inside the red doublet he was wearing, and then tossed a bundle to Analise.
“We have to leave. Now. Put those on,” he said, not seeming to notice her state of dress. “I have secured a way out through the kitchens, but you’ll have to be dressed as a servant to get there unnoticed.”
“I don’t understand. What is wrong, Mikel?” Analise asked. For a bizarre moment, she was transported back to a time when they had played out some grand adventure where he was the noble prince and she, the damsel in distress. But his next words dispelled the illusion. “I have received a message from Haran, my lady,” he said. “Cerwin has taken Karesh in a coup against your father, and Lord Tomas is allied to Cerwin. Your father has been taken prisoner, and Lord Tomas is to keep you here.” His frown clearly said the explanation was wasting precious time. “Be quick, we must be away”
“What?” She gasped, but Mikel didn’t reply. He darted from the room again to take the place of the guard he had killed.
Her fingers fumbling with fright, Analise struggled into the servant’s livery.
Toran walked in front of the King’s Way Inn, trying to get away from the stables for a moment’s peace. In his right hand he still held the shovel he had been using to muck out the stalls. The day had long given away to night and the people were quickly heading indoors lest they break curfew. Shaking his head, Toran silently wished he could be heading home to his own bed, perhaps with a warm body next to him. The new serving girl with the nice bosom seemed to have an eye on him maybe she would be willing. He smiled at the thought of the two of them naked together and began to stretch his tired muscles when he finally noticed the shovel in his hand. Disgusted, he threw it to the ground.
“Stealing **** is a lot easier then shoveling it.” He grumbled, stretching, his back arched backwards and his arms held high. Straightening, he yawned for a moment and rolled his head around his shoulders, making the bones in his neck pop.
The ringing sound of steel on steel brought him out of his reverie. It was a sound he knew all too well from the time he served in the Fire Mountains during the Raider War. Grabbing the discarded shovel, he looked down the road where the sounds of the battle continued. Toran grinned in spite of himself. It sounded like a good fight, and it would be far more entertaining than shoveling ****. Hefting his shovel, he hurried toward the ruckus, then stopped dead in his tracks.
There was something very strange going on. Three helmeted men dressed in the colors of the Corman guard were attacking another man, bareheaded but dressed in the same colors. The dark-haired man seemed to be holding his own… for the moment. The man was fairly skilled with the sword but Toran knew a hopeless fight when he saw one and he began to think better of joining this fight. One would think I would know better then to seek adventure by now. he grumbled.
Behind the dark-haired man was a young woman with hair as black as night and dressed in servant’s livery. What got Toran’s attention was the jeweled knife that was clutched in her fist. From the way she was standing, she at least had some familiarity with the weapon even though it was completely inadequate for the fight she was in. She stumbled back as the combatants edged closer, and the golden blade gleamed in the lamplight. Even with his days as a thief behind him, it still didn’t stop him from estimating the blade’s value.
Perhaps it was his approach that drew her attention - would he be friend or foe? - but her eyes locked onto his for a moment, and something clicked in his mind. The man protecting her howled with pain as one of his assailants scored a blow, a deep gash down his sword arm. Suddenly, her eyes seemed to scream for help, and with those eyes drawing him forward, he lifted his shovel, readying for the attack as he began to run to her aide.
Her defender was wounded, but not down, his sword still moved with the same skill, but it was noticeably slowed. With a flash of the blade he managed to slash the throat of one of the three guards attacking him. The dying man dropped his sword, turning from the fight on rubbery legs, both of his hands holding his throat as he tried to keep his life’s blood from seeping away. His eyes went wide for a moment when he saw Toran dashing towards them, and he gurgled a warning that fell on deaf ears. Slowly, he dropped to his knees and passed out, never to awaken.
The dark-haired man didn’t last long after the kill for his own injury spelled his doom. The other two attackers took advantage of it and swarmed over him, overwhelming his slowing sword. The man farthest away from Toran ran the girl’s protector through the chest with his sword just as Toran reached the bloody scene. She screamed and Toran saw the other guard grab her arm, painfully twisting it to subdue her. Her other arm was still free and she managed to score one hit with the inadequate blade across the man’s face, opening up his cheek. Almost by reflex the man brought the hilt of his sword down on her wrist and the knife fell to the cobblestones as she grunted in pain. Her captor then gathered her bucking body to his beefy frame and laughed at her struggles.
Running into them full steam, Toran used his momentum to hit the guard in the back of the head with the head of his shovel. Even with the protection of the helmet, the impact of the shovel, plus the armful of struggling spitfire he had to deal with, caused him to fly forward into the woman. The two fell to the street hard and the guard’s face landed flush against the woman’s chest before he rolled away, limp. Toran had only a moment to see the look of horror on the young woman’s face before he turned to the remaining guard. Bringing his shovel up in defense he wielded the shovel like a staff as the guard freed the sword spitting the chest of the woman’s companion and, smiling evilly, charged at Toran, sword upraised.
Toran was ready, and his attacker was not. The guard had thought that Toran was just a stable hand that knew nothing of defending himself, and he was very wrong. Countering the man’s overhand thrust, he landed the head of his shovel flat against the man’s face. There was a crunch as his nose broke against the steel of the shovel and broken teeth skittered across the street. The guard was knocked clean off his feet and his shoulder hit the ground with a thud. For a moment silence reigned.
Then… “Help Mikel, he’s dying!” the woman cried, her eyes beseeching him. Toran looked down at Mikel and shook his head, he knew a dead man when he saw one, but that didn’t stop her from asking again. “Please.”
“It is too late, my Lady.” Mikel whispered from the spot where he lay on the ground, blood pooling beneath him. He gasped for breath through blood-covered lips as he looked up at her. With a cry of sorrow, she knelt beside the dying man, clasping his hand in both of hers.
He struggled to smile but it was a painful grimace. “Take the amulet from my neck, it will allow you.. fire reveals the message.” He then coughed up blood and then gasped for a breath. “Go to the Inn of the Four Seasons in Leviner…. will be waiting for you there.” The air whistled ominously through the gaping hole in his chest. He gasped again and looked straight at Toran. “Keep her safe… Protect her.”
The man then closed his eyes and the air left his lungs in a sigh. Toran stared. My Lady? The woman was dressed in servants’ livery. What have you gotten yourself into this time, will you ever learn? he asked himself even as she draped herself across the dead man’s chest, uncaring of the blood, and began to sob. In the distance, Toran could hear the hue and cry; from experience, he knew they did not need that kind of company. Reaching down, he took her arm. “We have to get out of here. My Lady. There will be more.”
She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes, but nodded. Freeing her arm from Toran’s grip, she then gingerly lifted the dead man’s head from the cobblestone street, cradling it in her arm as she removed a gold chain from his neck. Toran saw a crystal disk, sparkling in the lamplight as it twisted and spun on the delicate chain. She placed it around her neck, tucking it under her blouse. She smoothed her friend’s brow with trembling fingers, trailed them along the doublet. Taking his hand in hers again, she brought it to her lips and kissed it tenderly.
“You were the playmate of my childhood,” she whispered. “That you should die in my service is a debt I can never repay. The Mother welcome you home, Mikel Jameson, and peace be on your soul.”
Toran dropped his shovel on the ground, grabbed the bejeweled dagger the woman had dropped and quickly slipped it into his boot. Then he took up the sword from Jameson’s dead hand. He turned the hilt and saw the emblem of the Royal House of d’Eskrigge, and his eyes narrowed. He peered closely at the woman. “I know a way out of Corman. It is on the other side of the city, but it will allow us to avoid the guards at the city gates.”
“How would you know such a thing?” She asked suspiciously, backing away from him.
“Lets just say I haven’t spent my whole life mucking out stables.” He answered dryly. “We can sit here and debate how I came to such knowledge. Of course, we will get captured for our pains. But if that’s what you want. Frankly, I prefer that you trust me so that we can leave.”
“Very well, I’ll trust you.” She paused for a moment, looking at him. “What is your name?”
“Toran Hand,” he replied. “Yours?”
“Lisa Ravenhair,” she responded too quickly.
“So you say,” he whispered disbelievingly and turned to lead the way.