“On your feet, coward.”
Termaris looked up, squinting at the torch light which shone through the window of his cell. The gaoler sneered at him, hawked and spat through the window.
Termaris ignored him and cradled his head in his hands. He let out a muffled sigh at the dull throb behind his eyes. Events of last night began to return to him, but the anger had gone.
“I said, on your feet,” repeated the gaoler. “You have a visitor.”
The gaoler watched as Termaris rubbed his eyes. “I heard your locks were already cut when they arrested you,” he said, laughing at Termaris’ short blonde hair. “So which is it then? Were you convicted before? Or are you some misunderstood wretch telling the world you’re dishonoured? Scum, either way.”
Termaris remained silent. Realising he could not bait his prisoner, the gaoler walked away. His footsteps retreated along the corridor and gloom descended upon the cell once more. Sounds carried from the distance. Other miserable souls locked up down here. The gaoler’s whiny prattle. Another voice, which he recognised.
He drew off his gauntlets and examined his hands in the scant light. His skin was pale and cracked, so rarely did it see the sunlight. Intricate red tattoos covered every inch of his hands and fingers, a personal torment which he was forced to hide.
Why can’t you disappear? You mean nothing any more.
He reached for a small pail of drinking water which had been left in the cell, and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the surface. A grim vision. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and still accused him. His once handsome face was lined with fatigue, made worse by the scars he had accumulated in his thirty seven years, full of battle and bloodshed.
He splashed water on his face, letting the cold seep into his skin and awaken him. He pulled his gauntlets back on as memories returned, nightmares from the early hours, as he lay here against cold stone and rotten straw in a drunken stupor.
A crack of lightning across the black sky, rain falling like spikes against bare skin.
The door swung open and light flooded the cell. A shadow stood over him.
“Give me a moment with him,” said the visitor, his voice a low rumble.
Termaris heard coins clattering together. The gaoler grunted and walked back along the corridor, leaving his torch in a bracket outside. The visitor sat upon a stool inside the cell, facing Termaris. Grey braids hung like ropes to his shoulders. His plump face was cast in shadow, and he wrapped his purple cloak around himself to ward away the chill. He frowned.
“So, this is the end for you, is it?”
Broken lances spearing the earth. Banners spattered with blood, torn by the bitter wind.
“You were about to draw your sword on the queen’s soldiers, for calling you a coward,” said the man. “They taunted you for not having the guts to fight the invaders.”
Insects crawling over shattered armour, seeking their next meal with tiny feelers. Slithering through cracks, to the corpses inside.
“I said, are you listening?”
Termaris looked up, trying to push away his black nightmares. He focused on the man before him, finally awake. “They made it personal, Kellan.”
“What stopped you?” asked Kellan. “You could have killed them all, even drunk.”
“They did not deserve to die.”
“Ah,” replied Kellan. “You display a startling self-awareness. Why should you care what they think? You are after all, a mercenary. It is rather late to develop morals. Why didn’t you sign up? The crown is offering a good rate.”
“I no longer care for wars,” said Termaris.
“You no longer care for any work from what I have seen,” replied Kellan. “You had the best reputation. Now you piss your pitiful earnings up the wall and get arrested for stupidity.”
“So why are you here?” asked Termaris, turning away.
“Someone has asked for you again, only the gods know why.”
“Tell them I am busy.”
“Doing what?” snorted Kellan. “Rotting in this place? You test my patience. A simple mission for a small band. Two weeks work, forty five silver keltas.”
Termaris looked around again. “Sounds like too much money for a simple mission.”
“What other options do you have?” asked Kellan. “A donation will convince the Magistratus that your actions were just drunken foolery. If I don’t pay for your release, none of your men are minded to, you let them down too many times. Now my reputation as a swordbroker is at stake. You will not drag me down with you. If I cannot convince a mercenary to take an easy job with excellent pay, my name is ruined. Fifty silver keltas, my final offer. You can die in a ditch after this for all I care, but you owe me this one.”
Termaris smiled. “To think, we were friends once.”
Kellan scowled. “Then a word of advice to an old friend. Stay off the bottle, do this job for me, then find another way of life. If you have lost the stomach for this work, get out before you get your men killed. I hear they are already looking to go their own way.”
“Heard from whom?”
“From your right hand man, Guildain himself,” replied Kellan. “This money would get them all back on your side.”
Termaris was silent for a moment. “This last time, I accept. What do you want us to do?”
“Go to the Velderwood, to the village of Torlenmere. Bring two old friends of the client here to Ormrburg as soon as possible.”
Termaris nodded. “Who are these people?”
“One is an old man. A magician called Jerechai,” replied Kellan. “The other is a girl called Ethné, his niece. You know the forest is lawless territory now. The magician has trouble with raiders.”
“Maybe the client should go himself?” said Termaris.
“He is tied up with important things,” replied Kellan. “More important than his friends, it seems.”
“Name of the client?” asked Termaris.
“None of your business.”
“It sounds suspiciously easy, but the pay is good,” said Termaris. “Better than fighting the Tiragardans. We will need a retainer.”
“The hell you will!” said Kellan. “Your retainer is being spent on getting the charge against you dropped. You get your pay when you bring Jerechai and Ethné back alive. Now, I have something for you.”
He opened a leather bag hidden beneath his cloak and handed Termaris a scroll case polished like silver.
“This is for Jerechai,” he said. “A message from the client. I believe there is some spell upon it. Magicians’ business, not for the likes of you and I.”
“I will make sure he gets it,” said Termaris.
“Good. Meet me at The Hunter’s Hawk inn when you return.” Kellan stood and turned to go, but hesitated at the doorway. “This is your last chance Termaris. Use it well, for your sake.”
Termaris bowed his head, his thoughts once more on the nightmares that had returned to his life. Which even drink could no longer suffocate. When he looked up again, Kellan had gone. He sighed and shuffled to his feet, wincing at the throb in his head which got worse as he moved.
It would be so simple to stay here.
He closed his eyes and took a few moments to gather himself, then walked out into the light. In the corridor the gaoler waited, torch in hand, his ratty face cast in a seemingly permanent sneer. Behind him stood a man almost as wide as the corridor, with small cruel eyes and a jaw like an anvil.
“I want my swords and dagger,” said Termaris.
The large brute threw them to him, not caring if he caught them. Even hung-over, the mercenary was quick enough to bend and catch them just before they fell to the floor, but as he stood again, he fixed the brute with a look of contempt. In response the man raised his huge club in his other hand, daring Termaris to try his luck.
Termaris belted the two longer blades around his waist, one on each hip, and the dagger he slid inside a sheath in one boot. He checked the hilts and scabbards for any sign that the swords had been mistreated, and found none. He ran his hand over the twisting black leather grips and the rounded pommels, feeling whole again now they were with him. They were plainly decorated as swords went but were special, forged for him by the now-dead master smith Girthrund, perfectly balanced and ideal for his two-sword style of fighting.
Termaris grunted and stepped forward, as though he would walk through the pair before him, but the gaoler was not done yet, and they stood their ground.
“Remember to keep the queen’s peace,” he whined. “Next time you could lose a hand, or maybe they’ll hang you. I might like to see you up on one of those gibbets, but I don’t think you’ll enjoy it much.”
They stepped aside, allowing Termaris to go. He walked past a dozen scarred and grimy doors to the end of the corridor where worn steps ascended to the office of the Magistratus, who usually sentenced common criminals when Lord Fenmor was on more important business.
Usually. Termaris had no recollection of seeing that room, just being dragged down these stairs to a cell, with a few punches and kicks thrown in for good measure after he had given his weapons up. He was sore in a few places and no doubt would find bruises once he stripped off his mail shirt and clothes.
At an imposing doorway at the top of the steps two scruffy guards in leather armour pointed him away down another corridor, lit with natural light from small windows high above. One guard led the way to a stout door thick with metal bands and studs. He produced a large iron key and turned the lock, then pulled it open to let the early morning light spill in from the street.
Termaris stepped outside, feeling the chill in the air. He winced as the door slammed behind him, and allowed himself another moment of silence to clear his head. Decaying buildings rose on all sides, plaster crumbling between timbers that were once boldly painted, but which had seen their best days many years ago. Above them the sky was clear, warming as the sun rose in a halo of beautiful amber and vibrant blue, but the sun’s rays did not reach down to the street where he stood.
He ignored the scowl a passing old man bestowed on him from the shadows on the other side of the street, and rubbed his closely cropped scalp. Somehow he could never let it grow, even though he had turned his back on every other part of his old life. He would forever be a penitent. Let them laugh, or scowl. He knew, if he was watching.
Termaris walked along the street, down from the royal hill toward the market square of Ormrburg, watching the city wake as he went. Merchants opened the shutters of their shops, and the aroma of fresh baked bread made Termaris’ mouth water, but mixed with it came the stench of the lower city, of too many humans pressed together within walls where few breezes blew.
As he approached the market, traders were setting up their stalls in a wide sea of wooden frames and canvas canopies, surrounded by a varied assortment of buildings from ancient shops of high repute to more modest establishments, guild houses, inns and taverns. Some merchants, newly arrived to the city yelled curses at mules as they tried in vain to position their wagons. One or two nodded to Termaris as he passed, merchants he had guarded as they travelled through Arkavia and beyond.
They brought leather and wool from the heartland of Arkavia, amber from the Forest March and the Far Coast, silver from the west vales and rich fabrics from the north of the empire. Yet there were fewer exotic goods to be had than he often saw. It was still early in the year; the Arcane Sea would be almost impossible to navigate, and the mountains almost as hard for a merchant with goods to carry past the snow, ice and the fearsome ulegrym.
Beyond the market, one lane wound steeply down toward the Dyers’ Quarter, and before long Termaris found himself passing through a gate in the city wall which was clogged with carts of leather and fabrics going each way, and overlooked by soldiers in cloaks of green.
Once through, he saw the mighty River Lavainn sweeping across the plain below, an irresistible current carrying the force of a dozen lesser rivers. Ormrburg’s less desirable districts hugged its banks and as he walked an even worse stench reached him. Dyers, tanners and slaughter yards were all to be found along the river, below the city proper where their smells would not offend the other folk and the river could wash away the unsavoury by-products of their work.
The streets here were tangled, barely streets at all, a confusing assortment of paths of churned mud. Buildings had risen according to no grand plan save one of a madman. There were shops of less grand appearance, stalls where one could eat cheaply but whose stews contained meat of uncertain provenance, down-market whorehouses, and gambling dens where life was cheaper than the ale. Those were simply the places Termaris could see. Here you could find all manner of things, if you only knew who to ask.
Half way down the hill, Termaris stopped outside an inn whose walls seemed on the verge of parting ways. Dingy windows and a battle scarred doorway promised little, but from the painted sign of a criminal dangling from the gallows, Termaris knew this was the place; The Hanged Man. He smiled at the irony.
He pushed open the door and stepped through into the taproom, where a group of men sat eating a miserable looking fare of stale bread and a watery stew with a skin of fat floating on the surface. A few of them looked up as Termaris entered.
“Well look who it is,” said a burly young man with bright blue eyes and thick blonde hair braided down his back. He dropped his bread, giving up on trying to chew it.
“We weren’t sure we’d see you again,” said another, a lean, older man with dark braids and scars across his face. He glanced at the blonde warrior briefly. “What Stefan meant to say was ‘won’t you join us for breakfast’? Excuse the poor fare, it’s the only place we could afford after you told Lord Fenmor’s men we wouldn’t be taking the queen’s coin.”
“To be honest, Dir,” said Stefan, “We might be better off going back to Fenmor and telling him we changed our mind. Guildain could lead us, couldn’t you Guildain?”
Stefan looked at a wiry man with tangled blonde braids who sat on the other side of the table. He wore leather armour and had a brace of throwing knives across his chest.
“If that’s what everyone wants, I won’t say no,” he said. “But seems to me we should at least hear what Termaris has to say. He leads until he tells us we are working for free, we owe him that much.”
He looked over at Termaris. “Kellan went looking for you, is there some news?”
“There’s news,” said Termaris. “Silver, too. Fifty keltas for you sorry bastards to bring an old man and a girl back from the Velderwood. It should take two weeks, then you can drown your whining in as much ale as you can stomach.”
Dir let out a quiet whistle, as the others sat in silence.
A man with dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard looked up, having ignored most of what the others said so far to concentrate on his breakfast. “That’s good money,” he said warily. “You sure he offered that much?”
“Sure as you have a tiny manhood, Thanvir,” replied Termaris. A few of the others laughed. “So, are you all in?”
The men looked at each other hesitantly. Eight of them there were, all his. He knew them well, like the real brothers he no longer had. They fought together, travelled the lands as one. Even cursed and scrapped with each other on occasion. He tried to convince himself last night that he didn’t care a jot about any of them. But they were still his brothers.
“Aye,” said Guildain, summing up the mood of the group. “We’re in.”
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