CROWN OF SORROWS



CROWN OF SORROWS, by Seamus Bayne:

The mistress Paracevia is the only one who knows my real name at the brothel where they find me. Those who’ve come for me think they’re clever — they wait deep into the night when they think I’ll be sotted with drink and worn from the ministrations of the mistress’s women.

They’re mistaken, for I care not for the touch of slaves. I’ve come only to learn of the caravan schedules from the girls who service the masters of the camels.

I awake alone, sober and naked upon the horsehair mattress to voices beyond the door. I continue to snore as I pick up my sword. They argue what’s the best way to take me. I help them make up their minds by shoving my long sword through the door’s shuttering. A sense of pressure and a grunt are my reward.

There is a scream as the victim is pulled from my sword and the door bursts inward with guards dressed in black. I drop the first, slamming my dagger into his face until I feel the pommel break his jaw. I leave it and grab the cudgel from his flailing hand as I dodge a swing at my head.

Behind these first few I can hear men scrambling to get in, “Come forward you dogs,” I shout, distracting another as I hit him hard enough with the cudgel to see brains scatter across the wall, “your two friends will be lonely in hell without you!”

Blows rain down on my back and shoulder as I twist and try to free my sword from the broken door while I kick another attacker to the ground and stomp his face.

The sword will not pull free so I retreat to the back of the room away from the swinging arms. My hands shake with pain from the beating I’ve taken.

“Who is next to die?” I ask the room as my vision narrows and grows dark. They pause to find their courage and charge. Blows fall all about me as I kick and punch. I spit a finger from my mouth as the world grows black and distant. Somewhere far away I can hear a man screaming and drums beating.

* * *

In the highest room in the tower it stinks of herbs and shadows; it stinks of the ruler, the summoner-king Theisius. He, who has stolen lives beyond number to extend his meager flame, now seeks another taker-of-lives to further extend his frail reach. To him I’m brought, an iron collar around my neck with legs and hands bound in chains. I’m not surprised. I’m a mercenary and I’ve been caught.

“Your name is Ordwin. Yes?” asks the corpselike king, from under layers of silken robes. I’m surprised he knows my name, but I say nothing.

“Don’t be thus, mercenary. I know of you. Do you know why I’ve spared you the gallows?” Theisius asks, lips greasy with hunger over long, grey teeth.

“To gloat,” I say through swollen lips, not wishing to give this decrepit old spider his pleasure.

The troupe of followers around me laughs, and I imagine each face in the darkness split with an axe or sword. They who must balance their desire to place a dagger into their lord’s back against the fear of one of their pack-mates plunging one into their own.

The old king coughs out humors, saying, “No, no mercenary. I’ve saved you from an uncomfortable death for a purpose: games. Perhaps you have heard of my love of games? Wagers?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of your arena. But I won’t fight — better you cut off my thumbs and balls now and gut me.”

“Bless us, this fellow has some spirit. You’ve chosen well, Kadir,” Theisius says, nodding to his captain of the guard. “No, Ordwin of Silrafe. I need you not for gladiatorial games. You would be a terrible waste there, though entertaining. Megerae, show him.”

A bald man with a face disfigured with pox scars limps forward and unwraps a parchment to reveal a human hand. It’s small and delicate, with nails that have never been broken and skin that has never been callused from using a tool.

“The hand of one of my many daughters, Lothil, if memory serves. Kidnapped by your lord — ”

“I’ve no lord you dried-up old pile of goat vomit.”

Theisius gestures and a guard kicks me to the floor, filling my vision with motes of light.

“Watch your mouth, sell-sword, or I’ll have Kadir shave your head and hang you by that precious Silrafian braid of yours. As I was saying, you’ve been in the employ of Archese — your lord — for whom you’ve raided my caravans. One of the things you have taken is a crown. The crown is a thing of power. Part of the game Archese and I play. I want it back.”

“So take it back,” I say, wondering what game this strange old creature is playing with me. “You’ve got soldiers, and creatures from beyond who serve you.”

“Rules, mercenary. Rules to be followed. Games must have rules. A challenge must be overcome, and only by one of Archese’s own followers.”

“You want my help?”

“Yes, yes. I was beginning to think my men had beaten you senseless. Yes, mercenary. We must play a game together. Me a king, you a pawn.”

“And if I say no?”

The captain of the guard laughs behind me. “Then I throw you off this tower tonight and into the river Reeth below. There’s a chance you survive the fall, but the crocodiles prefer meat with a little fight left in it.”

I frown and shift in my chains. I’m sure I could grab the king and make it out the window before the guards stop me. To see the horror in his eyes on the way down is tempting, but then again, perhaps I could survive this game and come out free to see Theisius’ kingdom in flames. “Tell me more about this game.”

The old king’s face splits into a horrible smile. “You’re young, Ordwin. Someone your age cannot understand the boredom of so long a life as mine. This game with Archese has been ongoing since he was a boy, when I sent him an envoy offering him the control of the Amarani littoral if he could beat me in game.”

The old king pauses and gestures to a servant who brings a cup and sips it before passing it into the king’s thin hands. Theisius watches the servant for a moment before drinking himself.

“Archese and I are playing a game for control over seven items of power. Each year at the autumnal equinox whoever holds the items gets a point for each. If ever one has twice as many points as the other, they win.”

“Did you know King Archese is dying of the wasting disease?” I ask. “He will be lucky to live out the year.”

Theisius chuckles in pleasure. “I know. I know. I sent the courtesan who gave it to him. I’ve arranged for Archese to have enough points this year to claim victory; he thinks he can spend his last breath gloating, then pass off the Amarani to his fat son Askelion. He also thinks the crown is safe with the beast people, who are his allies. Can you imagine the look on his face as he lies dying and finds out he has lost after a lifetime of trying to best me? That will be something. I’ve a spy in his court to observe the moment just so I can have a painting done to commemorate it for my trophy room.”

“You seem sure of yourself. You’re also mad.”

“Yes, perhaps, but I’m also a king and you’re a man with few choices.”

“What would you have me do?”

“The crown is with my daughter. I ransomed her to Archese for the right to challenge for control of the crown. She’s held by a monster, the king of the beast people, in a labyrinth to the west. There are challenges three, mercenary . . .”

* * *

I follow the cobbled streets of Sethiphera down the Reeth escarpment to the docks on the river of the same name, where a dozen nations mix into one shifting mass of trade. Everything is for sale; I’m offered wine, poison, women, girls, boys, weapons — anything for the right price. What I get is an escort by Kadir himself with a dozen of the Dragon guard in their blackened armor and horned helms.

Waiting for us at a dock conspicuously empty of porters, sailors, and traders is a galley, its oars shipped but ready to pull away and up current as fast as its taskmaster can wring the effort from the shoulders of his slaves.

“Where’s this challenge to take place and when are you going to remove these chains and return my things, Kadir?”

“Patience mercenary. I’ll remove the chains after we’re on board the galley. Until then I can say nothing of our destination.”

Our destination?”

“Yes. My guard and I are to accompany you, to guarantee you keep your bargain.”

“I keep my word, Sethipherian.”

“As do I, and mine is to my king, who has been known to peel the flesh from those who fail him. Now quiet until we are aboard.”

* * *

The warm cinnamon and grass smell of the plains keeps the reek of the galley slaves away from the forecastle where Kadir and I stand, our faces into the wind. The slow and steady heartbeat of the oars give the ship a feeling of life; through my bare feet on the deck I can feel the beat as the galley crawls through the muddy river water.

“We’re on board, now remove my bonds,” I tell Kadir.

“Yes, but first you must drink this.” He hands me a clear vial filled with light blue liquid.

“What is it?”

“Courage of the boar, power of the tiger, vision of the cat and ears of the fox.”

“What else?”

“A magical compulsion to do as you’ve promised.”

“Why should I drink it? I could jump over the side and take my chance with the crocodiles.”

“Because if the sun sets on the shackle about your neck it will begin to shrink until it cuts off your head.”

“Horse shit — you play me for a fool.”

“I do not. You know it’s well within my king’s power and you would do well not to question the depths of his cruelty. Even now I can see it start to grow more taut around your neck. Can you not feel it, mercenary?”

Curse his eyes to the six hells, but I could feel the tightness of the collar. I undo the wax sealed stopper and toss back the cool liquid in a swallow. It tastes of windblown snow, the sweat of a woman’s thighs and the burn of twice-spelled brandy from the steppes.

“Damn you and damn your sorcerous king, Kadir. I’ve drunk the potion, now remove the collar and these chains!”

“As you wish. You’ve a fortnight to finish this task or the potion will give you the features of the beasts whose abilities you’ve stolen.”

“How long will it take us to get there?”

“Not more than half a fortnight.”

“Bastard. How will I make it back in time to avoid turning into a beast? You’ve doomed me.”

Kadir laughs. “Your doom follows you like whores follow sailors, Ordwin. However, if you are successful there’s a cure in a chest on this ship, which I’ll have waiting on your return.”

“What’s to stop me,” I ask, but Kadir cuts me off.

“From killing everyone and taking it now? You’re too predictable by half. The chest the potion is stored in will only open in the presence of the crown. Bring back the crown and the potion is yours.”

“What of Lothil, Theisius’ daughter?”

“What of her?”

“Does he want her back too?”

“No. What good is a one-handed princess?”

* * *

The galley snakes upriver, leaving in its wake a trail of dying and dead slaves tossed over the side when they’re unable to row any longer. Up the Reeth, we cling to the spine of Sethis, a rib of earth thrown up from the plains in ages past by one of the great wars. My grandfather’s words speak to me of the ancient battles and our people’s shame in failing the gods: “Thrice cursed are the men of the Silrafe,” I think as I watch them throw another meekly protesting galley slave from the deck to a chorus of reptilian glee below.

The potion has wound its way into me like a barb and true to the king’s promise my body has changed, as has my mind. I pace the deck filled with boundless energy, seeking only to begin my quest. I’m hungry for it now, like a man hungering for a woman’s smell on his hands. I ache to be off this filthy slave-barge and on my way. Behind me Kadir lumbers up the deck like a pregnant cow.

“What do you want?” I ask him, without turning. In my mind’s eye I can see him, hear him, and feel his presence like a blowfly on my skin.

“We will crest the great redoubt tonight. Are you familiar with the pass of the North?”

“Of course. I’ve ridden through it twice.

“There is a narrow canyon off the pass.”

“There are many narrow canyons off the pass. Hundreds. It’s also called the pass of the noose or the pass of thieves. What of it?”

“Patience mercenary. In one of those canyons is a cave. This cave is the entrance to the lair of the monster you must slay to capture the crown and save yourself from existence as a freak.”

“How will I know the way?”

“That is easy enough — my men and I shall show you. But even alone you would find it. For someone of our . . . special senses, it has a certain smell you can’t miss,” Kadir says as he removes a small vial from his belt. Upon opening it a stench hits my nostrils like a mace.

“Gods of mountain fire and shit, stopper that back up and throw yourself in the river with it.”

Kadir laughs softly. “Yes, it’s quite strong isn’t it?”

I look at him in the darkness and see his eyes have the same yellow glow as those of a predator, the same as mine.

“So you too share the senses of the beasts?” I ask.

“Yes, though perhaps not as strongly as you. The greater the gift, the greater the consequences. I pity what you’ll become if you fail.”

“Pity me not, Kadir. I plan to live to the end of this and see your king hung like a marionette by his own bowels.” I growl.

“Easy words to say, but no one has succeeded at that task in three hundred years. Get some rest, Ordwin; you’ll need your hate later.”

* * *

Late spring storms swell the Reeth like the belly of a new wife. The waters turn to an angry dark froth and suck at the galley. I stand on the foredeck keeping my vigil watching the purple mountains climb the horizon to the west. I count the days.

In a carmine dusk on the ninth day out of Sethiphera, we raise the river port of Feric, sitting at the cross of the old imperial road and the bridge over the Reeth. The rains have caught them unprepared so their docks and low lying areas are a morass of flooded buildings, barges and rafts trying to rescue what they can of their goods. The captain chooses to put in at a ford a few miles upriver where he knows the currents and bank better, and away from prying eyes.

We are forced to remove our cargo from the galley standing in raging, hip-deep water in near dark. Kadir, six of the dragon guard, our horses, supplies and myself all make it onto land, safe but exhausted. We pack our gear onto the horses and strap on the unmarked armor we’ve been provided.

The imperial road runs past the ford which is a half day ride south-east of lake Fer, for which Feric takes its name. From here we’re more than a day’s ride from the cave, but we’re wet and tired, so we make camp for the night in a copse of soldier’s-thorn, perhaps a league up the road from the ford. We take time only to rub down the horses before dropping into fitful sleep.

The morning of the tenth day brings fog and the incessant chirp of frogs in the near dawn pallor. We waken sodden and eat salty cured meat with watered down wine before we saddle the horses and ride for the pass of thieves. I’m anxious to be there, for my imagination has begun to feed a paranoid awareness of my body. I feel my hair and wonder if it’s getting coarser, or run my tongue over my canines; are they longer? Sharper?

I’m lost in this reverie like a foolish boy when the arrows begin to fall amongst us. The sharp crack of them striking the armor of one of the guards brings me to my senses and I goad my chestnut gelding forward in the direction I think best to meet our assailants. Through the thick fog I can hear others shouting out battle cries and following me while the gray-white air fills with projectiles.

I’m close enough to hear the whine of a breaking bowstring as I crest a small rise and see a group of four archers. I charge them, thrashing the side of my gelding to drive him screaming into the group of them so that I can dive off with a short axe in hand.

My leap carries me from the saddle and into a roll before a soldier trying to draw his blade. I use my momentum to spring forward and split him from shoulder to hip in a single swing. The shock on his face almost matches my own. I’ve no time to stare at the spectacle as I dodge the thrust of a short sword. One of the dragon guard stabs my assailant in the side while I take off his arm at the shoulder. Beside us the first archer attempts to maintain balance while his body hangs awkwardly to one side revealing layers of red meat, pink bone and yellow-white fat as blood sprays into the misty air. It smells sweet.

I hear a third coming before I see him and I lead into a turn with my axe in time to meet his incoming sword. A glancing blow grazes my shoulder and ear, but neither are more than annoyances. I square up to face him as he swings wildly, waiting my chance, but before I can act a sword bursts from his chest and he tries to howl through a mouthful of blood and bile. The blade slips out of his chest and he sinks onto the ground revealing a smiling Kadir.

“Where is the fourth?” I ask.

“He ran, but my men will chase him down. You should thank me, Ordwin. That was a poisoned blade — had he got a good poke at you, you might be frothing out your last words alongside him right now. Pity to see you die before your time.”

Before I answer him I pull out my wineskin and wash the wounds on my ear and shoulder. “He caught me by surprise, though it would seem the poison is of poor quality. Either way I’d have dealt with him. But if you wish to hear the words, then you’ve earned my thanks.”

One of the dragon guards hands something to Kadir and speaks into his ear.

Kadir holds out a patch. “Does this look familiar?”

The patch is from the mercenary company serving King Archese, of which I was a member. “My own gods damned company,” I say and bark a laugh, “so was this one of the challenges?”

Kadir shakes his head. “No, those are formal and will be in the cave. I know that much about these things. This was more of an opportunistic attempt to put the odds in that dog Archese’s favor.”

“I thought there were rules.”

“Wizards follow rules for shit, Ordwin. If you haven’t figured that out by now, you can thank me for that bit of wisdom too.”

“How well do they keep their word?” I ask.

“Better, but not much. That’s the best I can offer you.”

“So now what?”

“Now we ride hard and fast to get to the cave. I know you think I’m a bastard, and I am, but you’ll not say I robbed you of a fair chance to win or lose.”

Kadir smears black salve on my shoulder and ear which burn like demon piss while his guards get the horses together. Of the four that left with us, only two return with our mounts.

“Where are the other two?”

“Dead. We go forward, we four, now mount up,” Kadir says pulling himself onto his saddle and urging his roan down the road at a reckless pace.

* * *

It’s sunset of the eleventh day when Kadir and I reach the reeking entrance to the cave. What should have been a day’s journey has stretched to two as we were ambushed three times more along the way. Behind us we left the guards and all the horses but Kadir’s roan for dead. That and a trail of mercenary corpses. Once we find the path up the ravine it makes its way to an actual road not more than a league up the path. The twists and turns are carved into the cliff face, its smooth wall covered in hieroglyphics used by the lost empire.

“I can read some of this you know,” I tell Kadir, who leans into his horse due to a deep cut in his thigh.

“Yeah? What does it say?”

“That this road leads to an imperial tomb; other glyphs describe the curses that will be put upon us if we desecrate the tomb.”

“Do you believe in being cursed by the gods of the old empire?” Kadir asks.

“I do, but I’m a Silrafian. I’m thrice cursed already. What else can they do?”

“Best not to tempt the fates to show you,” Kadir says.

An hour later, with the canyon already in evening shadows, Kadir points to the end of the path. “Look, there’s the entrance ahead of us. We’ve made it.”

“How will I make it back in time? Even if I take only a day it’s unlikely I’ll make it back to the ship in time with the crown.”

“Perhaps the change will come slow like the abilities and take days? I cannot say. I’ve never seen it happen. If you make it back to the ship, beast or not you go back to Theisius — he can see you’re made whole.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, captain of the guard.”

“So go get the crown and hurry back. I’ll wait four days for you and no more. Then I shall leave you for the crows. Go.”

“The devil take you, Kadir,” I say with a nod and walk into the fetid tomb. The entrance is a simple arch carved into stone a dozen hands high. Once inside a vast gallery lined with pillars stretches into the darkness as far as my catlike eyes can see.

I’m soon so far down the gallery that the only light comes from the glow of ever-light rushes in sconces placed every fifth pillar. I pull one of the dusty bundles of reeds loose and swing it against the pillar, knocking loose ages of dust and cobwebs until the weak spell on it brightens to several candles worth of bluish light. It’s enough to see, but offers no warmth or cheer.

The gallery continues unchanging and with a slight grade down into the living rock. I soon lose all sense of time and I begin to think this passage is somehow a magical challenge itself, until it comes to a wall with a door and before it an altar with a single chalice. Beside the chalice are two pitchers and a piece of parchment.

I silently thank my uncle’s insistence that I learn how to read Old Imperial as a boy. I use my dagger to turn the parchment so that I can read it.

Luck:

What is a hero but one who has been luckier than the rest? So by luck or guile you must choose to go forward. Before you are two pitchers: one water, and one poison. You must choose and live, or choose and die.

“Damn, I hate wizard games.”

I wish for a moment Kadir had come with me — it would’ve been amusing to make him drink first. I lean forward and look into the pitchers, both beaten copper. The contents are clear. I break a reed off the ever-light and stir the surface inside one of them; under its dim glow I can see a slight film. I sniff it, but it smells only of water, unlike everything else in this cave which smells of ancient death.

I examine the second pitcher and find it identical to the first, so I look into the copper chalice. I pick it up and look at my reflection in it. I don’t like the distorted look of my face, so I put it down. I notice a sticky feeling on one thumb so I take my reed and draw it across the inside of the chalice and see the faintest trail left on its surface.

The bastards poisoned the damn chalice, I think, but also know there is only one way to know for sure. I take the pitcher on the right and turn it up, drinking it. It tastes like tepid water.

“Well,” I ask aloud while waiting, but nothing happens so I step through the door into the passage beyond and hear the slap of bare feet on stone running ahead of me, and hyena-like laughter.

I consider making chase, but haste in an unknown environment is always a good way to end up in a pit full of spikes, so I grind my teeth and count the names of those who will pay for what has been done to me, one by one.

I can reach out and touch each wall, and there are no more ever-lights, only the one I carry with me. I walk for perhaps two hours, always forward and down, but I cannot say for sure because time has become obscured in these tombs. It must be nearing morning of my twelfth day out of Sethiphera when I decide I must rest. I lay my dagger and axe out next to me on the floor and wrap myself in a wool horse blanket before leaning against the wall and allowing myself to sleep.

I awake to the sound of rain and for a time I think I’m somewhere else, among my people still and my betrothed, the beautiful Vesgothe. I reach for her, but my hand only finds cold stone. I open my eyes to the dark passage. I can smell water.

Famished, I eat the rest of my provisions and leave behind everything I don’t need for a fight wrapped in my blanket as a gift for the next fool who crosses a wizard. I resume my exploration into the depths and soon I step into ankle-deep ice-cold water. There is no way to go but forward, so I walk and the water rises with each step. Soon only my head is above the water and then I can go no further.

It’s clear my path is forward, and I know I must choose soon for my body is on fire with pain from the freezing cold. I take a deep breath and plunge my head under water and open my eyes. The cold makes my eyes ache, but I can see down the passage in the dim, shimmering glow of my ever-light. Just ahead the passage opens into a chamber.

I raise my head up and take three deep breaths then push myself back under and swim forward into the room. It’s circular, with a flat floor. In the center is a stone pillar. I swim up and find a curved roof and eventually reach air. Water pours in from above and I realize this chamber has begun filling recently. If I don’t find a way to get past it soon there will only be failure.

I take several deep breaths and explore the room. There is no exit, only the pillar, so I examine it more closely. Words are written on it. I go back up once more into the shrinking air space to get a breath before I read it. My eyes fight me as I try to focus and I realize that I’m starting to go numb. I’m running out of time. I read what is written on the column.

Might:

What is a hero but one who is mightier than the rest? So by might alone you must move this pillar from your path to go forward. But be quick, for the cold robs you of your strength and wits, like old age. You must triumph and live or fail and die.

I surface once more, but now I can only get air if I face the ceiling. I gasp air until my chest feels like it will burst and I push off the roof with my feet and wrap my arms around the pillar. The water makes it hard to get a good grip and use leverage but I lock my body to it and lift with everything I have.

Pain erupts across my body as hot blood floods stiff, cold muscle and sinews stretch to the breaking point. I shift all of my strength into lifting the pillar and we are married in exertion.

Nothing.

Nothing, and my head is filled with the roar of the charge from the battle on the Ionien plain from when I was but a boy.

Nothing, and everything has become red and my all is screaming. The horses race down on our position, we hold the line with sharpened wooden stakes set in the earth and leather strips in our teeth so we do not crack them grimacing in fear.

Nothing, and my body is a thing of flame, burning upon burning. I’m a mote of effort; my young hands hold the stake as a black stallion plunges onto it throwing his rider, its blood bursting forth over me like a second birth.

Nothing, and I’m dying, my light fades and the plains are empty but for the screaming horse and myself. I will die.

Darkness, I’ll die the victim of a wizard’s grand game.

No. No!

My world becomes agony. I lift one last desperate time. It’s unbearable, but the pillar rises. It rises and I can feel the sucking water below me escaping. I scream out my last breath and wrench the pillar free as the world goes black.

And the charge broke on the Ionien plain and we lived that day, and the water recedes and I lay on the floor of the chamber retching and coughing up water. My body shakes from the cold and I bellow like a wounded bear. I’ll live this day.

I lay on the floor listening to the water rain down from the ceiling, wracked with cramps and my body burning from the cold, until I can get to my feet. I stand and everything is painful, but nothing seems permanent, so I stand in the room and look down the hole I’ve opened. Where the base of the pillar sat is a narrow spiral stair going down. For the second time I wish Kadir was with me now, but not because I crave human company. I wish for someone to share the view down into the wet, black depths, but I go forward alone.

I count five hundred steps, though I don’t know why I’m counting when I stumble attempting to take a step and find an expanse of flat ground. In the flood my ever-light was lost so I’m near blind in the darkness. Only a slight glow in the walls shows the way. I feel about on my hands and knees to make sure it’s not a landing, but indeed the end of the stairs. I bump into a wall with my hand and the room bursts into light.

I curse and cover my eyes, which sting in pain from the brightness. I get to my feet and look about, dazed by the pure white glow.

“Welcome, mercenary,” says a voice.

“Who speaks?”

“I speak, but I’ve no name.”

My eyes adjust and I can see a being wearing grey robes.

“Are you my next challenge?”

“No, mercenary. I’m only the arbiter of the challenge you seek. In this room is the final challenge before you reach the beast king. He has that which you seek, but first you must pass my test.”

“What is your test?”

“Are you ready?”

“No, no. A moment,” I say while I search myself for my weapons and then sit where I can see the stranger. When I feel somewhat rested I rise and stare at the figure in grey.

“Do you live here?”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, I’m ready.” I realize it won’t answer my questions.

“Then know this, warrior. You’ve proven your luck and you’re surely mighty, but a true hero must know sacrifice. To pass this room you must give of yourself into this golden dish before me, twelve-grain weight of your body. Not a grain more or a grain less will I take.” From its robes it extends a gloved hand holding a golden dish.

“Will you answer my questions?” I ask.

“Not a grain more or a grain less will I take.”

I stare long at the dish and sit once more on the steps in thought, then say aloud, “If I’m to survive to the next challenge how can I leave twelve grain of my body?”

“Not a grain more or a grain less will I take,” it responds.

I sigh and run my hand over my face when I get an idea. The men of the Silrafe grow and braid their hair from the test of manhood until death. We never willingly cut it, for it’s a source of our pride and a mark of our people. I consider the alternative and then begin to unplait my braid.

When my hair has been pulled from its braid I bunch it up and use my dagger cut off half an ell and pile it into the golden dish.

“Not a grain less will I take,” it says, so I grab another handful and cut it free and lay it on the dish.

“Not a grain more will I take.”

“Damn you,” I curse and lift a small amount off the dish.

“A warrior who has learned sacrifice knows the measure of all things,” it says and before I can step back bursts into flames, singeing what hair I have left.

The acrid smell of burnt hair fills the cavern and on its far side a rock wall rolls back to reveal a passage and the sound of laughter and cheering echo down it.

I pull my now shoulder length hair into a braid and tie it off with a leather thong while I listen to the tumult. I feel something sharp cut my wrist and when I pull back my hand I find my fingers have grown wicked talons.

“I’m running out of time,” I speak aloud once more, but my voice feels foreign in my mouth and my tongue fits poorly around my enlarged canines.

“Damn.”

I draw my weapons and walk into the den of the beast standing upright like a man, while I still can.

* * *

The court of the beast is a cavern stretching into darkness, carved into an amphitheater. It’s lit with crystal and golden magical lanterns set upon stalagmites carved to look like fornicating men and animals. As for the cavern’s living inhabitants, the court is filled with every sort of combination of man and animal you could imagine. The grotesque, beautiful, crippled and graceful all dance and caper in the audience, talking and shouting. They cheer me on as I walk down the aisle, and they jeer and throw feces and pieces of food at which I try not to look too closely. Some thrust themselves lewdly at me in sexual poses, beckoning me to join them. All of the power, the glory, and the carnal lust of the feral kingdom are before me and I walk past it to my appointed time with its master.

At the center of the amphitheater is a central dais and upon it are two simple stone seats. Upon one is Lothil — this must be her, for I can see she is missing a hand — her head bowed. She is light haired and light skinned, but she is broad of shoulder and has the features of a lioness. Beside her is the beast; I cannot say what manner of thing he is or was, only that no animal of his kingdom was neglected in his making.

As I step onto the dais he rises from his seat on mismatched legs and stands upright, throwing his humped back up and raising his arms above his head, letting a golden cape fall to the floor behind him.

“Greetings warrior,” he says through a many-toothed muzzle, his mismatched eyes meeting my own. “Have you come to test yourself against the beast?”

“I’ve come for the crown and nothing more. I’ve no contest with you, beast king. I only wish to avoid your fate. If you wish it I’ll take the woman with me as well.” For the first time Lothil looks up. She has cat’s eyes. She is beautiful — the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

The court bursts into wild laughter and bleating.

“You’d take my new wife, oh generous warrior? You’d take my crown, my rightful crown given to me by king Archese? Shall you cut off my manhood and keep it for a trophy while you’re at it? What would you leave me? My shame? My misshapen court? No, warrior. You can’t have her, nor my crown. If you want them, you must come take them,” he said with a grunting laugh.

I see the truth of it and waste no further words; I draw my axe and dagger and charge him screaming my own bestial cry.

He meets my axe with a club and catches my wrist with a hoof-like hand. He is fast, perhaps the fastest opponent I’ve ever seen.

His muzzle splits into a grin as we are locked together and he begins to twist my wrist holding the dagger. My shoulder grinds bone on sinew and lights into pain as I try to fight his awesome strength. It’s a losing effort, his strength goes beyond even my own, so instead I kick him in his manhood twice in quick succession.

“Kill you!” he screams and shifts forward in pain, allowing me to break free from his hold. I shift back but his speed is better and swipes me with his steel-spiked club. A trail of cuts cross my chest and bleed freely down my torso.

“First blood to me,” he calls, raising his club high.

I charge in and bury my dagger up to the hilt in his thigh before his elbow comes down like a fallen tree and knocks me to the ground.

I scramble to get up but a scaled hoof catches me in the face, tumbling me over onto my back. For a second I lay dazed while the court cheers madly and begins to chant for a kill. I roll to one side in time to dodge a swing from the club, which strikes the ground so hard I can feel it.

I get to my feet in time to block a second swing with my axe, but the blade sinks deep into the club and we are locked once more together.

We spin around each other, locked arm and arm on our weapons, kicking and punching at the other. My dagger leaves his left side a glistening lacework of ribbons and his fist forces me to spit out a dozen shattered teeth.

Finally his injured leg succumbs to one of my attempts to trip him and we go down to the ground, I on my back, and he over me. Blood and sweat run down his face onto mine as he breathes heavily and tries to force the spike of my axe into my face. My arms buckle under his weight and the spike touches my eye when a hot exhalation of breath and blood covers me. The beast rolls away clutching at his throat. I crawl to my feet to see blood spurting from the beast’s neck. Over him stands Lothil, triumphant, a long dagger in her one, good hand.

I stagger to my knees. “Thank you,” I offer, then pick up my axe and dispatch the gasping king of the beasts with three chops to the neck until his horned head rolls free.

I raise the head to the roaring cheer of the court and throw it into their midst. Lothil comes to my side.

“Am I a monster?” she asks me.

I stare into the slits of her pupils and see the start of whiskers growing from her cheeks. “I think you’re fierce, and beautiful.”

“But am I a monster?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

“Can’t your father cure you, like Kadir said he could cure me?”

“Cure? No, everyone who serves my father and takes the gifts of the beast will look like us sooner or later. There is no going back. Where do you think all of these creatures came from?” she asks, gesturing to the crowd. “We are all the discarded slaves of my father’s sorcery.”

My legs grow weak for a moment. “No going back.”

“Never. So answer my question: am I a monster?”

I stare at my bestial hands and then her beautiful face. “I’ve killed the beast — what was his is mine, yes? His kingdom is my own?”

She nods.

I shout to a pig-faced man by the throne, “Bring me the crown.” It does as I say, bringing the prize to me with down-turned eyes.

I place the crown on my head, take Lothil’s good hand in mine and smile though it hurts. “No, you’re not a monster. You’re a queen, my queen. I’m the monster. I’ll be the monster and we shall make your father pay for what he has done to us.” And the court, my court, erupts in a hate-filled, joyous roar to offend the heavens.
___________________________________________________________________________________________

Seamus Bayne is a graduate of Viable Paradise, class of 2010. He got his start in writing during the 90s working in the roleplaying game industry. After contributing to numerous publications, his career and family lured him away. In 2009 a visit from a long-time friend, David Wolverton, shocked him out of his creative ennui and back to the keyboard. Returning energetically, Seamus scrawled out his first novel in a few months and earned an invitation to attend the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop in 2010. Writers like Roger Zelazny, Julian May, Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein and Phillip K. Dick inspire Seamus to write stories that challenge expectations, and push the limits of his abilities. Seamus is the co-founder and host of the Paradise Lost writing retreat held annually in Texas.

To learn more about Seamus or the Paradise Lost writing retreat, please visit the following sites:

www.seamusbayne.net
www.paradisewriters.com


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