THINGS OF SHREDS AND PATCHES



THINGS OF SHREDS AND PATCHES, by Norman Doege

 

Muffled voices and broken songs seeped like slow passion around a carved birch door. Scori, courier to the Lord-Apparent of Bremland, had ridden through the northlands to find himself in the cold dark staring at a brass knocker nestled between a pair of wooden breasts. Over the course, Scori’s discovery of a hereto unknown land of brothels, each more debauched than the last, challenged his sense of propriety. The quest would lead where a quest would lead. Now, it ended. He would deliver the missive and return home with honor.

Reaching into his pouch, Scori fingered the twice sealed decree for the umpteenth time and reviewed, gestures and all, his opening protocol. Announce. Flourish. Wait. The Lord-Apparent’s instructions were precise. Deliver the message with speed to a nobleman of importance who was hiding his true nature. Unfortunately, the Lord-Apparent’s descriptions of said nobleman reflected a different reality. Rambling. Confused. A clever child with green eyes. A soldier of unusual skill. A loyal friend. Scars. A name. His Lord’s distracted memories formed an indistinct figure in Scori’s mind.  A shadow of a dream.

“The state’s health depends upon your success,” the Lord-Apparent said as he fell back limply onto his couch. Scori shuddered at the memory.

The Lord-Apparent’s hearsay lead Scori out of the Bremish ducal territory through the middle reaches of the Greater Kingdom to where the pines and firs gave way to oak, Kingstown on the Darkling Sea. The bustling cold water port served as a gateway between the southern trade routes and the dark treasures of the north. Historically, those of the Greater Kingdom looked on the Bremish as supercilious fools, little separated from the hill tribes of the shadowed woods. Scori had prepared to refute this view, but he now was barely suitable. Road-borne turmoil soiled his quilted wool doublet and fine riding leathers. Mud had ruined the lace topping his boots, and the pervasive dampness turned his hat’s vivid plume into molt.

Loosening his elegant arming sword, Scori averted his eyes, gingerly grabbed the phallic knocker, and delivered three smart raps. The door pulled open on silenced hinges. An indistinct ballad and a dim, yellow light flooded outwards. A rheumy old man’s eye appraised him through the crack. The filmy, green orb looked mostly satisfied. The door opened a few more inches.

“Ya got yer silvers? Lady Slice don’t offer charity.” the old man cackled, his wrinkled face coming into view. A patched hat of red velveteen flopped on his head. Scori nodded.

“Talk to the girls. Tell ‘em what ya want. They’ll tell ya how much it costs.” The old man paused, summoning his considerable wisdom. “Cause trouble… it’ll be the last thing ya do. The sweeper gots the rules.” He smacked his liver-spotted lips.

“Do you want to get fucked or not?”

Sympathetically, Scori’s head bobbed up and down. The face disappeared behind the door as it swung open into a large common room. A long breath eased from him. Lanterns and guttering candles illuminated a main space dominated by long tables, flat benches, and a single high-backed arm chair. A motley-clad gleeman perched near a central fire pit and strummed a lute. Blushing, Scori recognized the tune. “The Lady and the Randy Knights” had many vile phrases in it.

A group of small nobles and up-jumped merchants mingled among the women, but conspicuously avoided eye contact with each other. Nothing was seen. Nothing was to be seen.

“Perkon’s farts! Get in here, boy” the old man swore, closing the door and forcing Scori fully inside. A slight odor of fire pit hickory permeated the room. “Mazzie’s free right now,” he cackled. “That limp o’ hers don’t slow her down none.” Mazzie’s limp flashed uncomfortably into Scori’s mind. He knew of a girl who shattered her hip falling from a mule. Lame after the accident, she died during childbirth. Scori clutched his message pouch.

An angry shout from a dark hallway disrupted Scori’s reminiscence. The gleeman, on cue, increased his volume and slowed his tempo. Scori could see discomfort shiver the crowd. Shifting eyes darted towards the exit, ignoring the faces in between.

The muffled thud of a body hitting a wall echoed into the common room, followed by a shirtless man crashing like a sack of flour into a table. The gleeman, cradling his lute to his chest, abandoned his perch for the safety of a darker corner. The patrons, some more gracefully than others, bolted for the door and out into the night. The old man held the door open with a subdued dignity. Panicking, Scori attempted to identify every man who fled past him. Eye color…scars. Nothing. It was pointless.

A rangy figure emerged from the dark hallway, his measured stride predatory. Chestnut colored hair spilled over his hidden face. Scori recognized a woodsman’s build, one typical of the northern clans. The Lord-Apparent’s savior was a confirmed northerner. He stepped forward to check for scars, eye color; they could be distinguishing. A bony hand on his elbow jerked him backwards.

“I’d stay put, boy” the old man said. “He’s sweepin’ and don’t like to be snuck up on.”

The shirtless man attempted to pull himself upright using the table’s edge, pained breaths filling the room. Unhurried, the putative sweeper stalked up to the rising figure. With a booted kick to the chest, he dropped his prey back to the ground and half under the table. Wordlessly, the sweeper reached under the table and dragged forth a struggling arm. He slammed it to the table top and straddled the body underneath. Leaning heavily on wrist, the wolfish attacker splayed the fingers and elicited a cry of pain from underneath.

“The rules are simple,” the sweeper said evenly. “You lay a finger; you lose a finger.” He drew a knife from his belt. “You broke the rules,” the sweeper said, speaking to the tabletop. “Fenna isn’t one of those girls. You can’t throw coin at her afterwards and make it right.” The knife entered the tabletop with a “thock.” It rested between the fourth and pinkie finger. “I know who you are, son of Antonious,” he said contemptuously. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

The sweeper took the knife and stabbed it between still fingers into the wood. “Now, I’ve got some choices. I can take one finger and call it a day.” He leaned hard on the wrist, and the hand opened like a spring flower “People, though, would start calling you Ninefingers. That’s a good nickname.” He paused, “can’t have that.”

Thock…thockthock…thock. The knife stopped between the middle and fourth fingers. “You were roughing Fenna up pretty good. A two-finger offense in my eyes.” The table gave a panicky cry as the hillman leaned the knife’s edge into the fourth finger as if he were about to chop vegetables. “But, they’d call you Halfhand. That one’s probably taken by a man who earned it. Be a disrespect. So…”

Thock. The knife came down outside the pinkie, the razor-sharp blade kissing the skin, grazing the joint, but leaving the finger attached. The sweeper released the arm and peered under the table. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said, throwing his leg over his prey and surveying the empty room.

With frantic stumbles, the son of Antonious scrambled out from the opposite side of the table and, grasping his hand, bolted towards the exit. He tripped and splayed himself before Scori and the wizened doorman. Throwing himself to his feet, he managed a trembling oath.

“Bastard!” the man screamed, “You’ll get cut. I promise.” Vows of vengeance flowed. Pulling up a glob of phlegm, he spat on the floor before disappearing into the cold.

No, Scori thought. The fear widened eyes were brown.

The sweeper sat impassively on the table’s edge, his bare arms crossed. He fixed his green eyes on the door and smoothed the beard adorning his chin. A scurrying from the back indicated the ladies were attending to Fenna and the remaining customers were donning their boots to flee. Business might be bad for a few hours.

Scori examined the sweeper, who, arms still crossed, continued to sit impassively. He wore leather breeches and a sleeveless tunic of purple worsted. His left arm, the one crossed on top, was a network of white scars. The thickest one, about a pinkie’s width, ran from wrist to elbow in a wickedly straight line.

As the gleeman returned to his songs and his perch, the silent sweeper left his table seat and found his way to the high-backed chair. He sat and surveyed the room. All was ordered to his liking. Reaching down to a pewter mug at the chair’s feet he lifted a drink to his lips.

This is he, Scori thought. He understood why his nervous master needed this lord’s qualities desperately. The wolfish man in the chair was not passion’s slave. The signs had aligned. Scori approached the message’s rightful recipient. He cleared his throat as if he were at court.

“Lord Kervan,” Scori said, “at the request of the Lord Apparent, the royal Alset of Bremland, you are sent for!” Sweeping his hat off his head, Scori bowed deeply, flourishing. He reached ceremoniously into his leather bag and produced a document wrapped within sheepskin, thrusting it towards his country’s now confirmed savior.

Kervan the Goat offered a thin, sardonic smile. He had not been the victim of such condescending horse shit since he was a child. Still, he remembered the one who sent him the summons. Despite their differences, Alset, had once called Kervan brother. The Goat took the message with a calloused hand and broke the first seal, a double eagle pressed into purple wax, to reveal an oilskin pouch within. Another eagle sealed the pouch. It looked authentic, but Kervan hadn’t been inside the borders of Bremland since his youth. With strange pomp, the Bremish carried him hostage from his forest clan into the arms of civilization. Scori stood attentively, awaiting the nicety to release him from his state of attention. Kervan glanced at the festooned fool before him, memories of royal etiquette and endless receptions returning to him, and broke the final seal. The wax shattered like glass.

Kervan unfolded the crackling parchment, a fine vellum. The hand, even from memory, was Alset’s. The letters flowed with a poet’s grace, thin but strong for the most. A few shaky, indecisive patches betrayed the author’s weakening grasp. Kervan heard a child’s voice in his head and remembered the weight of a quill in hand, heavier than any axe he had swung in anger.

“You have to make your letters tall and proud, Kervan,” young Alset said to his untutored guest. “Don’t blot. A prince must show strength and decisiveness.”

Strength and decisiveness meant different things to the rugged hill boy sitting across from the polished noble child, but he mastered to some measure the lessons of the perfumed tutors. Kervan tried in vain over the years to forget reading and writing; among his people it meant nothing, but as he wandered in exile among the kingdoms he admitted its usefulness. Kervan’s scarred left hand held the letter while the right pointed at words. He slowly read, his lips working silently.

“Brother Kervan, I have need of you and call upon our ancient bonds of friendship in a time of desperate need. I fear that forces threaten not only my life but Bremland’s stability. My father’s death has thrown the county into disarray. My uncle! Witchcraft! Enemies surround me! The country stews in corruption! The dead walk among the living!

“I have few loyal retainers, this courier, Scori, being one. None seem to remember me or my father. I can trust none. NO ONE! I call on you through the brotherhood we shared as children! You are far from the corruption that has engulfed my land and must be true!!!

“I do not issue this as an order but as a plea to remember the promises of a more innocent time.

“As I am to myself so as to you.”

The signature flowed gracefully off the page in either inattention or lethargy.

Kervan lowered the letter and frowned. Did Alset need a bodyguard? A general? Kervan knew the trouble of restoring a pretender to a throne. He had been with a king once when treacherous swords flew from their scabbards. The surviving rebels died begging. Did Alset’s own people want him to wear the crown, a gold diadem encrusted with jade, rubies, and a pearl the size of a small onion? If Alset wasn’t Grand Duke, then Clausus was? Witchcraft was a fact, but it was hardly the high sorcery needed to depose a royal. Half the letter made no sense. Half did.

Scori cleared his throat.

“Sit down, dammit,” Kervan ordered.

Giving a relieved flourish, Scori slumped to a bench.

“You are too generous,” Scori said. “The Lord-Apparent’s approbation of your manners was infallible. Lord Kervan, you are indeed a person of soft society.”

Kervan dropped the parchment next to his chair and resumed the mug. To him, soft society meant using forks and remembering honorifics. Food was plentiful and beds were dry, but hidden agendas as pointed as wolves’ teeth could tear at any moment. Soft society meant being stabbed with words and whispers instead of good iron. Kervan realized years ago that his people were primitives compared to the Kingdoms. The hill way was to settle things with blood.

“My lord is gracious.”

Kervan snorted. Grace was not a part of his life because he took what he could. Wintering in Kingstown at the Lady’s was a part of that philosophy. A man with no clan needed a place. So, for a warm bed in a cold world, Kervan kept order in the house. The night’s incident, however, would stir complaints. Kervan knew Antonius. The son of a bitch was well connected and would not take kindly to the outrage inflicted on his son. The cut, while shallow, was deep enough to sever the sinew. Without clever healing, the finger would curl under and weaken the grip. The boy would never be a swordsman even though he was intact.

Staring into his cup, Kervan decided he had grown tired of tasting weak beer. The smell of old sex and wood smoke turned his stomach. He glanced at Scori whose sad hat with its limp feather rested uncomfortably on his head. The courier sat half at attention awaiting a command from his lord.

“We’ll leave in the morning, after I settle accounts with Lady Slice,” Kervan said. “I’ll set you up with a room tonight. On the house.”

Blanching, Scori looked down the darkened hallways. Some of the women were quite attractive, but honor told him to refuse. A gentleman needed no such comfort. Kervan the Goat shrugged. He was not gentle and would sleep where he pleased.

****

Lady Slice, the house’s grand old Dame, waited for Kervan at her breakfast board. The war-paint of white lead coating her creviced face never cracked, even as she frowned during her interview with the Goat. She rose from a velvet divan, circling slowly, and placed a wrinkled hand on Kervan’s shoulder. The Lady’s rouged cheeks and reddened lips stood out unnaturally against the chalky complexion. Merkanlos was involved now, she breathed, the youth in her voice belying the age in her body. Complications regarding last night would follow, she murmured. Kervan listened impassively. Merkanlos summons you, she said allowing the invitation to hang in silent air.

Kervan eased his way from her chill grip and poured himself a cup of mulled wine off the board. As usual, too much cinnamon in the draught. Merkanlos was a complication. The powerful merchant considered the Lady’s house an investment, albeit off the books. Antonius must have sold himself dearly for the favor, doing himself more harm than could be imagined. Merkanlos measured his favors exactly. Kervan shrugged and put down the cup.

“I’d do it again.”

Lady Slice, her hand quavering, patted Kervan’s cheek with a cold touch. Did he not understand? Merkanlos requested his presence. Only one request would ever be given. Kervan smirked. A real noble had already sent for him, and, by acclamation, he was apparently a lord. Kervan gently took the old lady’s hand in his right.

“I’m leaving,” Kervan said. “Tell Merkanlos I’ll return and spit in his eye.” He paused. “Here’s the vouch.” Kervan thrust forward his scarred left forearm. Forming a crude lattice, thin white x-marks decorated the hillman’s flesh, each a promise made and fulfilled. Red contracts all with blood as the bond. Only the thick central scar dominating the arm remained uncrossed, uncancelled. Lady Slice sighed and feathered a dry kiss across Kervan’s lips. She would miss him in so many ways.

***

Scori waited patiently at the stables, enacting his duties as Lord Kervan’s man. The Bremish emissary prepared the horses for travel, his own and Kervan’s piebald draft horse. Kervan hid his surprise when he arrived. Hat sweeping from his head, Scori flourished and looked with expectant hazel eyes at Kervan. Dressed for the road. Kervan’s leathers were worn supple but still serviceable. A wolf skin cloak wrapped his shoulders and torso, muffling the metallic slither of a chainmail shirt underneath. Kervan had pulled his hair into a bun that settled on his neck, giving balance to a goat-horned helmet settled on his skull. A wicked axe, intricate scroll work on its head fluid with loops and runes, hung parallel to the ground under his belt in the back.

“My lord is satisfied?” Scori said.

Checking the saddle, Kervan grunted and secured his bow and an oilskin quiver with a dozen arrows to his mount. He could find no fault in Scori’s work. The horse, chewing some oats, looked at Kervan disinterestedly.

“Good enough,” Kervan said, a distant memory of the noble life cresting in his mind. A lord never overpraised his servants. Scori’s hat snapped back to his head, and the man beamed underneath it, content with his place.

“I see my lord has an infallible arm, a mighty weapon,” Scori said, attempting to hide his appraisal of Kervan’s common gear. “May I ask its name?” A disdainful sneer crossed Kervan’s face.

“It’s an axe,” Kervan responded.

“My lord is too modest. Every noble weapon has a history! For instance, the Blade of Bremland, borne by the Bremish dukes since its forging by the first duke himself, Casimir the Founder, who used it to lay waste to the ice barbarians and carve Bremland from the northern cold, is an example of such a story. He used the weapon to sunder the very anvil upon which it was forged!”

Scori paused, waiting for Kervan to share. The hillman remembered the blade, a hand-and-a-halfer, dangling from old Duke Alset’s waist. Polished iron with an enormous chunk of amber inset in the pommel, the sword impressed the young Kervan. As a man, Kervan had seen such storied blades in the field and their edges held no better than any other’s. They made for fine bounty, though. Only fools named their weapons. If his axe had a story, Kervan knew it was lost on him. He never cared. His one-eyed grandfather claimed elves forged the head with a spirit of fire. The haft was a root from the world tree itself, the old man claimed. The runes adorning the steel probably told the tale, but no one Kervan knew could read them.

“It’s an axe,” Kervan said. “It splits wood and kills people.”

With that, Kervan threw his leg over his waiting horse and began a slow walk out of town. Disappointed, Scori followed suit.

***

On the return north, Kervan kept silent, such as thoughts of the past occupied his mind. The northern woods were his ancestral home, but his name preceded him in the sloping hollows that sheltered what remained of the hill tribes amid darkened tangles. The folk no longer welcomed him. His scarred arm proclaimed him outcast. The journey towards Bremland was a weary time, torn between memory and Scori’s incessant chatter about nobility and the Lord Alset’s infallible nature. Kervan had selected a route off the major roads, in case Merkanlos sent men, so little existed to distract them from the cold dampness rising from the soil. Scori, for his part, was grateful of taking a lesser path. True, his boots were now completely ruined, but his fear of more sleepless nights in whorehouses allayed. Honor would remain intact. On the fourth day, Kervan could stand no more.

“Shut up, damn your eyes,” Kervan growled. Scori looked hurt.

“My lord is offended? I only meant to help pass the time with tales of great importance. Of course, my apologies, you know intimately the history of Castle Elsimere, Bremland’s noble place as the bulwark of the north, the mighty line from which Lord Alset declines,” Scori said, his dissertation gaining speed. “I mean no disrespect in my respect.”

Kervan did know the stories, having sat for interminable hours alongside Alset, enduring lectures and scorn from the duke’s Lord-Chamberlain, Hemarc. Decades later, the hillman could half remember the recitations and feel their metronomic cadences delivered on his back with a stick. They were a part of Alset’s education, and so they became a part of his. The Bremish stories of myth and daring made no more sense to him than his own grandfather’s tales of spirits in the trees. The world gave many small magical wonders, but a sword cleaving an anvil in two was not among them. Kervan shifted in the saddle.

“How is it you know so many of these worthless stories?” he said. Scori’s hurt deepened.

“My lord, it is expected of me. Being to the manor born, I have heard these histories since I was a child.”

Kervan cocked his head slightly, the horns on his helmet accentuating his puzzlement. With fresh perspective, he looked over Scori again. Scori’s relative youth indicated he was born after Kervan had left Elsimere. For the first time, however, the Goat noticed his young companion’s weak, subservient chin. Scori’s general behavior wasn’t affectation. It was birthright.

“Who’s your father?” Kervan demanded. Scori brightened and straightened in his saddle.

“Only the greatest performer of the north,” Scori said, “Osmet, the duke’s jester, now deceased.”

Kervan turned away in silence and considered the forest’s light-mottled darkness. Alset’s remaining ally was the son of a fool. Kervan mouthed a curse that revealed itself in a cloud of frosted breath.

“My lord is troubled?”

“Only for my life,” Kervan said, nudging his mount forward into the chill.

***

Elsimere’s great hall perched as a grey gargoyle over a black lake whose surface refused to ripple in the wind. The fishermen who plied its waters sang no songs as they pulled eel and pike from its chill, inky depths. Their paddles did not disturb the birds on shore. Child Kervan had never seen a structure of such stone as it brooded on the depths. Wonder grew as he approached. His life in the forest was one of skins and long houses made of hewn logs. As a young man, his servitude done by terms of treaty, Kervan rode into the forest without a backwards glance. He had vowed never to return, but Kervan looked up at the castle once again and wondered what it would take to bring the stones down.

“Three hundred years ago, Etan the Great, the first of the line, whose surname would become the glory of the state, placed the first stone for what would become the mighty fortress of Elsimere,” Scori said. The courtier spoke mainly for himself. Kervan’s sullenness could not stop him.

“We must make ourselves ready,” Scori said. “Look, the pennants are out on the battlements. We have returned during the open congress. Duke Clausus will hold forth in the great hall. Lord Alset, who should be there, will want an entrance. He will greet us with proper acclaim. If, of course, we are presentable.”

“Us?”

“My pardons, dread Lord. You.”

All was in place as Kervan remembered, passing under the great arch in the wall. The gate houses, sally ports, thatch-roofed out buildings remained in place as they were years ago. The guards, however, differed. The royal watchmen of the mind’s eye stood nowhere to be seen. Casually glancing about, Kervan saw none of the scrolled breastplates, low-grade steel more for show than war, and conspicuously plumed bascinets with bevors worn up to display mighty sable beards shot through with grey. Hard men stood in their places, southerners by Kervan’s reckoning. The thick cloaks did nothing to hide the iron-like leathern scales of their breastplates, molded greaves on their shins, and long, killing swords at their sides. Kervan knew the type well; their knuckles were battered like his. Calmly, the hillman threw his own cloak over his shoulder, allowing the axe on his saddle to rock freely and gently with each of his horse’s steps. Kervan allowed Scori, who basked in the welcoming clamor of his kinsman, to lead him to quarters.

***

Kervan peered into the royal hall. Its arches, passionless statues of previous dukes, and grey marble floor filled him with a sickness of the nerves. He had prepared himself the best he could at Scori’s meager home. Aside from a small bed, the room was mainly a dandy’s closet. Sponging himself off, Scori quickly selected court clothes, brightly colored cotton and soft leather topped with lace. Kervan, armed with a stiff brush, cleaned his boots and combed his hair straight. Scori insisted that the goat-horned helmet stay behind. Not presentable, he said. Now, unlike Kervan, Scori stood at the doorway and eyed his native environment with anticipation. Smoothing his doublet, he turned to Kervan.

“It is expected I announce you, my Lord,” he said. “I must admit, however ashamed I am, that I do not know how. Your titles, for instance. My pardons for not learning these earlier.”

Bastard. Son of a bitch. Betrayer. Kervan’s mind could turn to no other words. From the room, a sour hautboy blew a note of welcome.

“I must pronounce, my Lord,” Scori said, ” It is time. Don’t worry. I will improvise in a suitable fashion. As you know, follow behind.” The Bremlander bowed slightly to a statue-like Kervan and entered the hall, his boots clicking in a slow, deliberate rhythm.

“Greetings to his Royal Highness, Duke Clausus of Bremland and his glorious Lady the magnificent Duchess of the same!” Scori said, his mild tenor echoing upwards.

Kervan trailed behind, his palm on his axe. Mercenaries on the right and left, he noticed. Some spears. Swords. People dressed like Scori thronging. The stout figure of the new Duke lounging on his throne next to his radiant sister-wife. No Alset. Scori continued his slow procession.

“To the royal luminaries of the court, I present to you salutations!” Scori exclaimed. With wide, graceful sweeps of his hands, he bowed low. Rising, he continued his pronouncement, commanding a breathless room filled with hangers-on.

“At the request of Alset, the Lord Apparent, I have travelled far and wide seeking help for his condition,” Scori said. A small murmur ran through the collected nobles. Clausus and the Duchess did not hide a small, pained looked shared between them. They clasped hands, and Clausus nodded to continue, his eyes wrinkled at the edges. The crowd fell silent as Scori approached the dais.

“I present to you, Lord Kervan, knight of the northwoods, defender of women, and friend to the realm!” The echoes died as Scori moved away to leave Kervan standing alone before the throne.

Kervan felt his throat tighten. He was eight again, new to the court, unable to speak the language fluently, ignorant of manners and custom, filthy and flea-ridden. He forced himself to remember the protocols. Kervan could feel a damp break on his brow as he mentally stumbled through the forms, waiting for his speech to gain fluency. His hand showed white on the axe. The sound of a dry, languid clapping projected forth from behind the dais.

“Always true to roots, eh, Goat?” a melodious voice proclaimed, parting the Duke and Duchess. Bowing obsequiously, an elderly man, slightly stooped, broke the clasp between the royals, his jeweled walking stick leading the way. A maroon cloak of office trimmed in ermine covered his shoulders. An iron circlet kept grey hair shot with yellowing reminders of youth from falling into his face.

Hemarc, the Duke’s Lord-Chamberlain, sneered.

“Well, ‘Lord’ Kervan…so good to have you back after all the years,” he said. “The wild boy returns to civilization. Do you remember your letters so long after the lessons?” Hemarc tapped his stick slowly on the marble tile, the echo falling like lead. A small anger kindled in Kervan’s belly.

“My Lord,” Hemarc said, turning to face Clausus, “This barbarian has no rank or right within this citadel. Your noble son is ill, so much so that his judgment cannot be considered. Why else would he request that a fool bring an idiot to court?” Scori’s shoulders sagged.

“Noble Alset is in his most right mind,” Scori said, a tinge of fear corrupting his intonation. “His request is most righteous and…”

“Silence, jester,” Hemarc hissed. “His father the Duke demanded his son’s rest. Old Alset’s death crows on his spirit. Who are you to determine otherwise?” Scori’s eyes fell to the floor. “And for this ‘lord.’ A known anathema to even his own people. When was the last time your sad tribes took to the field, blame taker?” Hemarc locked eyes with the hillman. Kervan felt an unexpected, phantom pain in his left arm. The thick scar ran deep into the nerves.

“Expel him immediately,” Hemarc said to the Duke. “Or execute the hill trash here and now.” A sound of steel drawn from leather hissed through the chamber. A small, feral smile crossed the Duke’s lips.

Kervan stepped forward.

“In years past, noble Alset proclaimed me his brother,” Kervan started, stumbling with the cadence, his voice harsh. Too fast. Unpitched. Anger and apprehension were goading him into mistakes. The pretentious Bremlanders would place stock in a proclamation, especially after Hemarc’s assault.  It must be deliberate.  Kervan could feel the words leaking out along with the sweat soaking his shirt. The old seneschal was a master-swordsman in his own way, and Kervan knew the routine. He could not remain off-balance and hope to win. From the dark of memory, an obscure, sententious line rose inside him. Kervan gathered form and began again by the card.

“Although by blood, cousin I could never be.

“But what is the shape and form of deep grief?

“And is it not by sharing to be eased?

“Alset’s pain is mine to claim as sure as

“The friendship that binds us stronger than blood.

“A brother’s wager in sorrow I pay.”

Clumsily, Kervan flourished, his breath controlled but his eyes wary upon Hemarc and the guards.

A thin, weak voice projected from the entrance to the great hall.

“It likes us well,” the voice said, “and we welcome in our name, Alset, our greatest friend, confidant, and brother, if not by blood through decree, Kervan.”

An awed murmur ran through the noble crowd as it turned to the thin, black-clad figure slowly advancing up the aisle, absorbing the attention. Alset stopped in the middle of the room and turned to both sides in an open armed benediction. The Lord-Apparent had not been seen in weeks. Brushing back limp blond hair from filmy blue eyes, Alset continued as if intoxicated.

“As ‘lord-apparent’ it is my right to retinue with whomever I see fit, dear Uncle. Thus, it has been; thus, it will be. Even as you choose Hemarc.” Clausus nodded, assent implied but not truly given.

Clausus and his wife rose from their seats and surveyed the crowd. The two were much as Kervan remembered them, perplexingly so. Nearly 20 years had passed since Kervan gained his freedom from Elsimere. The knots and scars on his own body told him time went, but the tell-tale marks, even for those of royal life, were mostly missing in the couple before him. Clausus stood straight, light on his feet. The great sword of Bremland hung at his hip and a regal breastplate of real steel encased his chest. His dark eyes shone brightly, framed between brown beard and hair turned charmingly grey. The Duchess’ honeyed hair pulled backwards from a high, smooth forehead. Her breasts, which young Kervan had admired greatly, remained high on her frame. Clausus raised a gloved hand.

“It is true,” Clausus proclaimed, “And on my son’s appearance and rally into new health, we welcome Kervan of the North to Elsimere and remember him as a member of the household.” Seizing the Duchess’ hand, he turned and exited the chamber, fading into a back passage. Hemarc eyed Kervan as a thin, humorless smile creased his wrinkled face.

“As the Duke proclaims, be as your patron is in Bremland,” Hemarc said. “Begone!” he commanded, gesturing the assembly before turning on his own heel to follow his lord into the darkness.

***

“And so you see,” Alset said, resting on a purple couch, “how I have fallen into my sorrow that some call madness.”

Kervan nodded, staring at his hands, considering Alset and the nearly invisible Scori who lurked in the room’s corners. After the Duke’s welcome, Alset demanded that Kervan and Scori attend to him in proper fashion. Following a royal bath with hot water and scented soap, high quality huntsman’s clothing awaited Kervan, but the hillman declined Alset’s generous offer of a breastplate bearing the royal ensign to don his tried mail again. He and Scori ascended granite stairs to Alset’s private chambers.

The enjoyment of being clean was starting to depart. In the gloom of chambers, his old acquaintance had spun a tale of common intent. Grand Duke Alset died. The robust figure Kervan remembered passed overnight. Old people go suddenly, Kervan mused. Nothing strange there. The funeral, quick and without ceremony, was. Instead, the duke’s brother took both the crown and the wife. Mercenaries arrived. It was an old story, Kervan concluded. Brother killed brother.

Ending his reflection, the hillman surveyed the floor to ceiling bookshelves lining Alset’s private quarters. He had read some of the simple ones as a part of his own forced studies, but the heavier, darker tomes were never his to have. A silence weighed the room, disturbing no dust.

“Things unseen prey upon me,” Alset said. He gestured at the books surrounding him. “Nothing here. Just a few charms that don’t keep them all out.” He gestured at his head. “My dreams…my dreams…I have bad dreams.”

Kervan nodded. Alset rose from the couch and walked around the room, pointing out the sigils he had hacked into the thick walnut doors. He drifted about the room from bookcase to bookcase, his hands fliting with a bird-like grace over book spines. A gush of excitement escaped him as he seized a large book from a hereto hidden compartment. Flipping through the pages as if his fingers read for him, something in the leather-bound tome prompted a chuckle, more to himself than Kervan or Scori. The pages looked to take flight as the turning became more frantic, the ornate illustrations flaking with his reckless attention.

“My Lord,” Scori asked from his corner, “what is it you read with such enthusiasm?”

“Words, words, words,” Alset responded, absorbed in the text. He turned to Kervan with a start, his eyes wild. “Words! Wild, whirling words can kill him!” The book dropped with a thud from Alset’s twitching hands as a tremor sent him to the ground. Kervan and Scori seized the grimacing Alset, his breath harshly filling the room, and dragged him to the couch. After a few moments, his shaking subsided.

Alset looked to speak, but his attention snapped to a doorway. His eyes widened in terror.

“Look you both!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms before him. “Don’t look at me, noble father!” Kervan saw nothing but a doorway and man desperately trying to push himself away from a thing only he saw. “His stare freezes stone,” Alset said, his voice cracking. “Look, he goes through the wall like a vapor, like a pestilence! Have you no eyes!” Alset clutched himself. “Tonight, friend Kervan, tonight,” Alset said weakly. “You must watch here…dreams come to nibble my soul.” Alset gestured at the book sprawled open on the floor. “Read…wait,” he said, “it will.”

Kervan looked at the sweat-soaked man before him. This was neither witchcraft nor black sorcery. It was lunacy.

***

“The Lord-Apparent says for us to read and wait. It is our duty,” Scori proclaimed, adjusting the sword on his hip. “Never have I been held in such confidence. Never has the need been greater.” He glowed with responsibility.

Alset slept fitfully, and Kervan fidgeted in a comfortless wooden chair as he balanced the black book on his knees. The words were in a crabbed script that challenged his unpracticed eyes. The hand must be so. Syllables in cadence measured must be. Gibberish. Alset’s carved sigils, though, featured prominently on several edge-broken pages. Kervan considered that the tome might be unusual but dismissed the thought. Magical books radiated power. The thing in his lap was just a collection of words he did not quite understand, a gathering of leather, thin board, egg yolk.

The illustrations, however, proved informative. A nightmarish landscape of beasts and ghosts colored with gaudily pigmented tempera rewarded his eyes with horrors equal to what he had seen in battle. If Alset were in a sadness regarding his father’s death, books of this sort would only deepen it, Kervan concluded. Nothing could be done, and all the childhood niceties would not improve Alset’s lot.

“Here, read this,” Kervan said to Scori. Stretching, he walked the book over to Scori. “I assume you can read?” Scori bowed deferentially.

“But of course, my lord,” he responded, moved by Kervan’s gesture. He took the book with an unexpected reverence. “I have read all the great comedies that set a table upon a roar. To read in service of the Lord-Apparent is my duty, not my pleasure.”

A muffled bell began ringing off eleven chimes somewhere in the castle.

“I’m tired,” Kervan said, eyeing a dark corner of the room. “Don’t bother me.” Kervan wanted a good night’s sleep because he would leave in the morning.

***

A soft sliding sound awoke Kervan to a still wakefulness. Through slit eyes, he surveyed the room. The start of the surviving candles, their flickers no longer steady, indicated movement. Scori sprawled asleep, black book in his lap, in his own corner, a pool of dying candlelight creasing his face with darkened lines.  Kervan’s hand imperceptibly slipped down to his side and touched his axe’s iron wood haft. His mail rested on the back of a nearby chair. A jumping shadow lurched through Kervan’s vision as its top raced along the bookshelves’ upper reaches. Inclining his head slightly, Kervan glanced towards Alset as the darkness resolved itself into the shape of a woman.

The gauzy shimmer of a nightgown did little to hide the Duchess’ nakedness. Kervan’s eyes widened slightly. He had never seen Alset’s mother unclothed. Quickly, the Duchess threw herself across Alset’s hips, straddling him and fumbling with his breeches. A low sigh escaped her as she sat upwards, exposing herself to Kervan. This would drive a man to madness with guilt, the hillman thought. Such a thing was not unheard of in the Greater Kingdom, but the scandal would be devastating amongst the Bremish. An incestuous man could never sit upon the throne.

As she gently rocked, the Duchess sang a low, sing-song melody. Loosening Alset’s doublet, she stroked her son’s chest with a pale and slender hand, a mother’s caress slowly moving in a circle over her child’s heart. Alset did not stir. She pulled away her hand, rubbing thumb and wet forefinger together. Giving a low groan, the Duchess dipped her lips to Alset’s chest. A sound like a cat drinking cream reached Kervan’s straining ears.

“Good, my lord. What is this!” said Scori, his outburst shattering the trance-like moment.

Startling with a hiss, the Duchess reared off her son’s chest. A blood-smeared chin and glistening lips framed a mouth of needle-sharp teeth set into a raging hunger. Unmounting Alset, she turned to face a stunned Scori.

“My Lady?” he stammered.

Bellowing, Kervan launched himself towards the Duchess. The thing before him was now only partially human. Reverse-jointed legs ending in insect feet pivoted. Kervan’s two-handed swing missed as the creature ducked under the blow. Instinctively twisting as it passed by him, Kervan felt a slight burning across his sternum. He spun to face the creature, the Duchess’ hereto beautiful face snarling at him in a demonic fury. The creature carelessly launched itself at Kervan as it were cornered.  Seizing the moment, Kervan smashed the butt of his axe into the thing’s face, stepped back, and delivered a quick, killing overhead stroke between the neck and shoulder.  It choked spasmodically as a blackish ichor oozed from the gap. Somewhere in the castle, a rooster crowed, heralding the dawn.

“Light some new candles,” Kervan said, checking his chest. A clawed hand had left a shallow cut. Lower and deeper would have spilled his guts. It hurt, but the injury was not vital. He moved to Alset who stirred on his divan. Assured the Lord-Apparent was alive, Kervan surveyed the room. A gap between bookcases revealed a small passage.

“It knew the morning was afoot,” Scori breathed as he brought light back into the room. “A thing from the hells disguised as my beauteous Duchess…”

“No…my mother,” Alset quietly said. He propped on his elbows. As he viewed the thing on his floor, a horror of memories eclipsed this face. “I am a beast.”

“So,” Kervan demanded. The word “mother” hung silently for an instant on Alset’s lips before he responded. Nervously, he sat up.

“Check the base of spine,” he ordered. “See it. See it? Those sigils? See them? The mark of the lillatu. They come and…” Alset trailed off. Lillatu was not a part of Kervan’s vocabulary, but his tribe’s seers warned of night drinkers who came with warm flesh to steal a person’s vitality and mind. “That was not my mother,” Alset said. “That was just a vessel for something worse.” Alset passed a wearied hand over his face.

Scori began attending Alset while the Kervan ripped a silk coverlet into shreds and bound his wound. Dressing himself completely, the hillman dropped his mail over his shoulders. The desire to stay at Elsimere had not increased but the danger had. Leaving would no longer be a simple matter of riding out a gate.

“Who?” Kervan demanded.

“He whored my mother to darkness, threatened my life, made me John-a-dreams,” Alset responded, musing to himself as if a spell were lifting. “I should have been ready. After all these years.”

“How could Clausus do this?” Kervan asked. The Grand Duke’s younger brother was seldom at Elsimere during Kervan’s stay, contenting himself with running campaigns against the hill people. The duchy’s younger brother seemingly had no ambitions beyond warfare. Alset frowned at the suggestion.

“Uncle is a fool who reached beyond his place,” Alset said. The Lord-Apparent’s voice was gaining clarity. “Hemarc. Only Hemarc would need my blood, my spirit to rule Bremland.” Alset pulled himself up. “Pacts ancient doth protect so that treason peeps no measure. Mine uncle killed my father,” Alset said, shaking his head. ” But fratricide left him open to… events, his soul forfeit,” he continued. “It is not him that stood before us yesterday. Some spirit enthralled, walking in his flesh to please the eye.” Alset dropped an inadvertent look towards the lillatu’s corpse.

Kervan nodded, feeling a burning rock settle into his stomach. Weaving a charm into the royal blood would make assassinations extremely dangerous for both family and retainer alike. He was now both, thanks to Alset’s proclamation, even though he was neither. Kervan wondered what divinity protected him as he cleaned his axe on the couch.

***

Kervan sensed that the passage in the bookcase went downwards. The sputtering candle light did little to reassure him. He had never seen this secret during his stay. Prior to descending, Alset clad himself in an adorned breastplate and armed himself with a long sword. The hillman hoped his childhood playmate had developed some swordsmanship over the decades.

Conferring with Scori over the black tome, Alset had forced the retainer to pronounce and flourish in an exceedingly awkward way. “Mark,” Alset said, “again.” Kervan watched, amused at the spectacle.

Satisfied, Alset then proclaimed, “This will take us to the throne room. From there, we will enter quarters. The time is now” and plunged them into the dark through the bookcase. The group made its way through the castle’s intricacies; Alset, muttering while his hands darkly waved, lead the way more by memory than by sight.

“So day follow the night of dark demise

“So proof of light give out the truth eterne

“So anchor the soul against threats inferne

“So truth prevails against a great surmise.”

Trailing behind Alset, Kervan could feel a static raising the short hairs on his neck and arms each time the words broke the darkness.

The cramped, hewn stone path ended in small empty space before a panel secured with a lever and counterweight. Alset moved with shadowy grotesqueness and pushed the lever. A hiss of chain rewarded him as the panel slid to the side. The trio exited the passage into the light of the throne room.  Kervan held his axe at the ready. Metal sliding through leather let Kervan know he and his companions were not alone.

A trio of mercenaries, armed with long swords and disc-shaped shields, closed within striking distance before Alset and Scori could even draw their weapons. Kervan silently praised fate because none of the soldiers had spears. They would have pinned him to the wall or cut his legs out before he could have acted. Screaming, Kervan whirled his axe in an arc, the space clearing in front of him.

“Treachery!” Alset yelled, fumbling at his belt.

The mercenary on Kervan’s left held his shield too high, exposing his hip. The hillman swung with brutal accuracy, sinking his weapon into the man’s flesh. The mercenary, shrieking in agony, dropped to the ground as Kervan pivoted to face the two remaining.

“Hah!” Kervan said, his eyes wild.

Thanks to Alset and Scori’s stunned immobility, the mercenaries did not flank Kervan, and he deflected their sword thrusts with his axe’s head, the clash ringing in the chamber. Keeping the quarters close, Kervan maneuvered towards a marble statue.

“Shit!” Kervan yelled, “Fight damn it!”

Lunging forward with a freed blade, Scori struck with an overly practiced, mechanical thrust, one designed to score beautifully in a Bremish honor duel. However, the blade rose off target to pierce the mercenary’s throat. The stricken soldier dropped with a gurgle, a hot arterial spray painting the cool marble floor. The remaining mercenary feinted and ran towards the throne dais. There Hemarc lounged insolently on the throne, the armor clad Clausus at his side, a smirk adding another crease to his weathered face. His hands barely moving, the old seneschal gave a lazy flourish.

“What is man but beast inarticulate

“When reason fails his faculties infinite?”

Kervan could feel the hairs rise on his neck.

“I will know you for what you are!” Alset said, the words stumbling from his mouth out of rhythm and time.

“When have I been anything but,” Hemarc responded. “I have never seemed.”

Alset gave an inarticulate cry and ran forward, his sword ready to strike. The Blade of Bremland leapt from its scabbard, and Clausus met him before the dais. Kervan noticed that Alset had practiced his sword work over the years; the nobleman was much better than he expected. However, it was not good enough to overwhelm a seasoned warrior. The big blade moved with a supernatural lightness, and it entered Alset’s chest as if the nobleman were naked.

With a sickening twist of metal on metal, Clausus yanked the Blade of Bremland from Alset’s breeched chest plate. The stricken nobleman fell heavily to the ground, a bright blood bubble escaped his lips along with a heavy groan. Clausus fixed coal black eyes on Kervan and grasped the blade in two hands. The hillman stood, his axe loose, ready to weather the assault.

“Come on, you son of a bitch,” Kervan growled.

“Never one for his lessons, eh, Goat,” Hemarc said.

Kervan warily circled into the chamber. Clausus advanced, his blade at guard. The remaining mercenary uncertainly hovered near Hemarc. Of Scori, Kervan had lost sight. A sudden flurry pushed Kervan backwards as he fended off the flashing blade. Kervan breathed heavily. Clausus was fast, unnaturally so. Sensing a statue behind him, Kervan sought to pivot, but the wet marble floor betrayed his footing. He slipped awkwardly to one knee as a heavy blow arced across his head. The Blade of Bremland cut through the granite statue with ease.

Swinging downward with two-handed force, Clausus struck at Kervan’s head. The hillman reflexively threw his axe before him and hoped the haft would slow the blade enough for him to survive. The blow’s shock echoed through Kervan’s elbows and shoulders, but the blade bounced back from the haft as its broken tip flew with a clang into the chamber’s recesses. Kervan struck at the Duke’s knee, his axe biting deeply. Clausus fell as Kervan rose and delivered a series of vicious blows, puncturing armor and severing bones. With a snarl, the hillman turned to the dais. Serenely, Hemarc rose from the throne, his body arranged in a dancer’s stance, his hands and voice ready to pronounce.

A babble of voices rose over Kervan’s shoulder near the great hall’s entrance. The morning’s supplicants, laced and perfumed, were arriving. The movement from behind caused Kervan to whirl and see a determined Scori advance with clear voice up the chamber.

“Look you pale and tremble at the mute thought

“Of action lost without sound to govern

“Reason most delicate and most sublime.

“The rest is silence.”

Scori flourished cap-a-pie.

A panic crossed Hemarc’s face as a dry, wordless choke passed his lips. His voice constricting, Hemarc turned to flee. Kervan rushed forward, intercepting the old man before he could leave the dais. With one hand near his axe’s head and the other near the butt, the hillman slammed Hemarc onto the throne. Slipping the axe haft on Hemarc’s throat, Kervan pushed downward, the counselor’s feeble resistance only prolonging the inevitable. As he starred in Hemarc’s wild eyes, Kervan could feel the cartilage and bone pop.

“Dead,” Kervan intoned. His harsh, triumphant breathing filled a breathless hall. He turned to face the crowd, scanning for exits. The audience remained strangely calm even as mercenary guards entered.

Scori bent over the fallen Alset who had dragged himself to the room’s center. The new Duke was dying. Clausus’ sword thrust had been through the bowels and likely a lung. A quick death would be mercy, Kervan thought, realizing to do so would be at his peril. As he approached, Kervan saw Alset clutching with bloody hands his ancestors’ crown. Between groans, Alset spoke to the throng.

“I die,” he said, reaching out to the hillman. “My brother…blameless. Forgive. My decree as that fell…” A spasm of agony stopped Alset’s pronouncement. A shaking hand proffered the crown before it slipped with a clang to the floor.

“The Duke is dead,” Scori announced.

“Who then gives us pay?” a mercenary asked. “We would know him.”

Kervan eyed the crown with its marvelous pearl set high at the peak. He eyed the crowd in its finery. Just another whorehouse, the Goat thought. He felt the axe in his hand. Seizing the diadem, Kervan felt its weight and turned to the crowd. He looked at the mercenary.

“You talk to him,” Kervan said, handing the crown to Scori. “Scori, first of his line, guardian of the Broken Blade. Him and his heirs’ allegiance you will pay. He will prove most royal having been put on. Long live the Duke!”

Kervan decided he would spend the rest of winter at Elsimere. Standing behind the stunned Scori, Kervan solemnly raised his bloody axe like a fist, flourishing the way he knew best. Some lessons were never forgotten.

_________________________________

Norman heroically teaches literature and composition at a large pubic high school in Arkansas, fighting the hordes of STEM in an unending battle.  In his spare time, he tinkers with lost worlds, plays bass, and rides his motorcycle in all types of weather.  Follow him on twitter at @norman_doege


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