Saturday, March 7, 2009

Love And Treason On The Verge: Day Zero

Love And Treason On The Verge
By
Al Bruno III


Prologue


Two bodies shifted together in the darkened armory. Kisses lunging and desperate, breeches yanked down, skirts pushed up. Dark hair thrown back, the woman shivers and curses in the man's ear, spurring him on. He makes promises and vows. His scarred face nuzzled the soft crook of her neck.

When the door swung open neither of them could move. They stared dumbfounded at Duke Gracht Franksiluen's silhouette. He was in his worn armor of leather and plate. The sentinels flanked him on either side, each in full battle dress of leather and polished ringmail. Their hoods concealed their faces in shadow.

Duke Garcht's hand strayed to his sidearm, to the oiled ageworn revolver. When he spoke to his wife and the Master Sentinel his voice held more exasperation than anger, "Get out of my sight- both of you."

The shifted their clothes back into place with as much dignity as they could muster. A trio of guards escorted each of them down through the Outpost's twisting hallways and stairways to their rooms.



Day Zero



The Outpost was a squat stone structure that was ringed on all sides by high thick walls that were honeycombed with stairways, arrow loops and topped with crenellations festooned with ancient barbed wire. There were dozens of Outposts scattered along the Verge, marking the point of demarcation between the nurturing safety of the Protectorate and the madness of the Barrens. Each Outpost was similar in design but always ended up being different in execution.

The vagaries of the land made improvisation a key to survival and the proximity to the Barrens meant that many of these strongholds were never completed at all. This Outpost had taken six seasons and four Dukes to complete. The blood of over a hundred sentinels had stained the ground before the walls were completed and the great metal portcullis closed.

The largest room in the Outpost was the Duke's audience chamber, it filled the entire top-most level of the Outpost. Hunting trophies, family crests and war banners decorated the walls. An elaborate iron throne rested on a raised dais on one side of the room; well-worn furs were draped across it for comfort and warmth. Of all the rooms in the Outpost only this one had visibility to the outside via squat windows protected by thick metal bars. From them Shardovan could see down into the courtyard, to the shantytown that sprawled between the Outpost and the perimeter walls. Mixed among the ramshackle homes were clothiers, blacksmiths, butchers, doctors- even a bawdyhouse. All the conveniences of modern life were to be found here but none of the shopkeepers and craftsman had come here by design. All had been exiled, conscripted or come here fleeing debt and scandal.

Only the Sentinels volunteered to come to the Verge. It was here that they might prove themselves worthy to fight alongside the Pendaroth when he emerged from the Barrens to lead them.

As a child Shardovan had often wondered over that prophecy. It had been over two thousand years and the Barrens were spreading relentlessly into the fertile lands of the Protectorate. Shardovan wondered when the Pendaroth would come and when that time came if he would be worthy.

The sound of marching footfalls stirred him, he could hear the Duke's Wife fussing and complaining as always, demanding to speak to her husband. None of the Sentinels spoke in reply. None of them dared. Shardovan straightened his posture and tried to keep his face impassive.

The room began to fill with people. Four Sentinels escorted the Duke's wife and Anluan, the Master Sentinel into the audience chamber. That was more men than would ever be needed for a normal prisoner but Anluan was a deadly fighter, as vicious as he was lucky and his victories had made him arrogant.

Ramion would have hated him. Shardovan thought.

All of the precious and hard earned symbols of his station- the armor, the sword with gold trim on the handle, the medals, the side arm- had been stripped from him.
Master Sentinel no longer! Was it worth it you simkin? Shardovan wondered as he stood at the base of the throne, at the Duke's right hand! Who's laughing now?

Anluan's gaze met Shardovan's and in that moment he understood. "Bastard!" He lunged forward, his bare hands twisted into claws. The other Sentinels grasped after him but he was devilishly strong "Treasonous cur!"

The Duke's wife was shouting, making demands. Instinctively Shardovan reached for his blade, he knew that he would be well within his rights to kill. Anluan was the traitor here.

Duke Gracht 's voice was like thunder. It froze everyone in place. "If there is any blood to be spilled in this room tonight I will be the one to spill it."

He walked slowly into the room, surveying everyone. There was a palpable expression of disgust on his face. Shardovan stood at attention and waited, wondering what punishment the Duke might have in mind. Visions of exiles and floggings flashed through his imagination.

In the Duke's wake the minstrels, scribes and ladies of the court followed. All of them were somber, their eyes downcast. The Sentinels looked crestfallen into the room. What was it he had heard them refer to him as?

Shardovan the Beardless. He had gone through the same trails and training as any other Sentinel but his reputation and boyish features had made him the butt of their jokes. Shardovan had let them have their amusements at his expense for three long years, but not anymore. They never treated him like he was one of them, so why should he keep guard their secrets?

Gracht settled into his throne, "My wife and my Master Sentinel have conspired to make me a cuckold."

"Gracht! Listen to me-" the Duchesses' voice was shrill with panic.

"If she speaks again break her arm."

A muffled chorus of gasps filled the room.

"The last few seasons have been gentle to us." Gracht spoke again, "The crops have grown well. Attacks have been few and far between. Perhaps these seasons have been too gentle. Without the threat of beasts from the Verge to occupy our minds we have busied ourselves with wanton indulgence and petty intrigues. Perhaps this is all my fault for I your Duke stood by while you all behaved like buffoons."

The Duke paused, shifting in his seat. The tension in the air made it painful to breathe. The Sentinels' hands had gone white-knuckled around the pommels of their swords, the ladies of the court were teary-eyed and fearful. "But now," Gracht spoke again, "I am forced to make an example of you both. In one week the both of you will be given swords. You will fight a duel… to the death of course. The loser will be buried in the unhallowed ground of the Verge. The winner of the duel will be branded a traitor and exiled to the Barrens in accordance with the laws of the Pendaroth."

With a sound that was not quite a sob but too soft for a scream the Duchess fell to her knees. Anluan stared with fury at Shardovan; Shardovan was too stunned to even realize. This was far more than he wanted.

The Duke Gracht asked "Do either of you have any final words?"

"My husband." The Lady Dianora sobbed "I know nothing of fighting, I know nothing of swords."

"That is why I have given you a week to learn." The Duke laughed, "Noble Shardovan will be your instructor and to make sure he does his very best to teach you I decree that he will share your fate whatever that may be."

Shardovan staggered in place, "But your highness why me? What have I done wrong?"

"You?" The Duke sent him to the floor with a well-placed kick, "You're the biggest buffoon of all!"


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