Saturday, March 7, 2009
Al Bruno III
The clomp-clomp-clomp of heavy bootsteps grew closer as Shardovan stirred. They were lying together on the cold stone floor, Dianora using his outstretched arm for a pillow. She mumbled in protest when he shifted it free. It took a man thirty-six footsteps to walk from the base of the stairwell to their door; Shardovan had counted each time to be sure. Experience had taught him that sometimes trivia like that might mean the difference between life and death.
But how many steps had passed? Shardovan wondered as he pulled on his boots with one hand tingling and numb. I slept too deeply.
It was odd, and this woman shared nothing with him but seven days of uneasy friendship and a death sentence. Somehow though, his rest by her side had been as peaceful as any he'd had when Ramion was alive.
All the more reason to save her then. Prove what Thaddeus said about you… "You're no Sentinel Shardovan, you're the stuff of heroes."
"Wake up." He said.
She squinted up at him and mumbled again.
"They're coming for us. Wake up!"
Shardovan grabbed for one of the wooden practice swords and held it as casually as he could.
The tread grew louder, drowning out the sounds of the continuing siege. Dianora was on her feet now, she leaned against him
How many men has he sent down here? More than the usual four guards, more than the five he sent for us yesterday. Is he mad?
The door crashed open and a pair of Sentinels' burst into the room, their blades drawn. Shardovan stepped in front of Dianora, "What is this? Where is the Duke?"
More Sentinels swarmed into the room, seven in all. They looked exhausted and edgy some were wounded. Shardovan considered the odds as Gracht stepped into the room, "The Duke is here. Don't worry your pretty little head about that Shardovan. I would not dare to rob my wife of her chance to die a warrior's death."
"All these guards to escort us my liege? Who is manning the battlements?"
"They are not to escort you. They are here to observe, to watch and learn the price of hubris and betrayal." The Duke stalked around the room but made eye contact with no one. Three more Sentinels led Anluan into the room. He was dressed like Shardovan, a white shirt, worn breeches and soft boots. "The duel will be fought here. The ladies in waiting are… otherwise occupied, as are most of the other members of the court. It is just as well really, the view from my audience chamber would only distract you from the matters at hand. I prefer this really. So much more intimate."
"My liege." Shardovan said, "Again I beg you to show mercy to the-"
The two Sentinels on either side of Shardovan grabbed for him forward. Shardovan bashed one in the face with the back of his hand. The other caught the rounded end of the practice sword in the center of his throat. He stumbled backwards gasping and choking. His blade clattered to the ground.
Shardovan dove for it only to have the stone floor explode into fragments and dust. The loud report set everyone's ears ringing. The Duke adjusted his aim so his oiled and ageworn revolver was pointed directly at Shardovan "They say that the pellets will not break the skin of a truly noble man. Are you prepared to test your nobility against my marksmanship?"
Shardovan drew his hand back from the weapon. Another pair of Sentinels stepped forward and shoved him roughly against the wall. They held him there at the ends of their blades, one at his throat, the other at his gut and they were not gentle.
The barrel of the revolver was still smoldering, the Duke slipped it back into the holster and closed the door to the room. A Sentinel stood dutifully at either side of him. The rest of them spread out along the walls, waiting.
"Both of you to the center of the room." The Duke said. His wife and his Master Sentinel slowly approached each other.
One of the Sentinels stepped forward to stand between them. He held the long box containing the dueling weapons in an unsteady grip. It's Varsh Shardovan realized but something had happened to him during the siege that had left him with hands that quavered like those of an old man.
"There's no point to this now." Shardovan said as he watched Anluan and Dianora take their weapons. Both swords were filthy and with blunt, roughened edges. Closing the long box with a snap Varsh retreated to a corner of the room and adopted the posture of someone waiting for something terrible to happen. "We need to worry about the siege not revenge."
Sighing with exasperation the Duke turned on his heel "Don't you understand? The Outpost is under attack because of all your intrigues. Your disloyalties and bickerings made us weak and the Pendaroth sent them out of the Barrens to punish us."
The Duke's wife and the Master Sentinel stared at each other, their weapons at their sides. "This is the Pendaroth's will now?" Shardovan spat "Your rationale changes by the day."
"Keep talking if that helps you choke back your fear."
Please! Shardovan made pleading eye contact with Anluan, Do something to stop this.
"Now…" the Duke said, "…begin."
There was a long pause marked only by Anluan's resigned sigh. Shardovan felt the arms and blades pressing him back against the wall tense. Anluan launched himself at Dianora, his sword moving in a wide arc for her throat. Dianora blocked the blow inelegantly and tumbled back three steps.
The Master Sentinel gave her no time to find her breath and balance again. He swung low, the jagged edge of his blade catching her across the leg, splitting cloth and skin. Instead of backing away she drove forward, slashing at him with short, uneven blows. Anluan countered the first two attacks easily but the third brushed past his defenses and caught him on the side of the face.
He almost dropped to one knee, his sword wavered.
It wasn't until that moment that Shardovan realized he was holding his breath. He gasped a little, praying that she wouldn't get overconfident. The Duke took his eyes off the duel long enough to give Shardovan a surprised glance.
Dianora retreated a few steps, and adopted a defensive posture. Anluan steadied himself, his right cheek was weeping a trail of blood down over his white shirt. He approached her more cautiously this time, his blade flicked against hers, metal rasping on metal.
Don't watch the sword! Watch his eyes.
He darted forward. She backed away. He feinted to the left. She matched him, blocking his attack. Anluan raised his sword up high and brought it down hard. Dianora blocked the blow, but staggered back a few steps from the sheer force of the attack. Anluan stuck again, and again and again, forcing her back against the wall of the chamber.
The other Sentinels cleared out of the way, watching with what Shardovan could only imagine was a dread fascination.
Anluan rained blows down on her but she blocked every one. The clang of the swords made the cramped room sound like a blacksmiths. There was no time for her to counterattack or even parry. Finally her grip weakened and her blade slipped. Anluan's edge bit deep into the meat of her shoulder.
Her sob of pain filled the room. She tried to scramble for safety, only to have another sword blow catch her in the side.
Shardovan kicked downwards catching one of his captors in the ankle and grabbed at the hilt of the blade at his throat. He pushed the weapon away only to have blows rain down on him, driving him to his knees.
Dianora stumbled back, trying desperately to keep her guard up and clutch her wounds.
"Please..." She said, "…have mercy…"
Anluan said "You know I can't."
"I thought you would at least show mercy to our child…"
"Child?" Anluan staggered as though he had been struck. A collective gasp went up from the Duke and his unwilling audience. "You are with child?"
When she spoke blood dripped from her lips, "No. Not Really." She dove forward burying her blade in his stomach.
Anluan issued a ragged gasp and pitched forward. The impact of his fall drove the sword through his back.
"Satisfied?" Dianora glared at her husband, blood pooling at her feet, "Is this what you wanted to see? Let Shardovan go you coward. We've earned the right to walk out of here."
The rain of blows stopped, Shardovan tied to stand but his vision swam in and out of focus.
The Duke drew his revolver and fired. The blast caught her in the center of her chest pitching her backwards. The other Sentinels recoiled. Shardovan howled crawling to her.
Blood pooled around the wound in the center of Dianora's chest, when she spoke her voice was a gurgling hiss. "D-don't let them…" She said, "Don’t let them bury me in unhallowed ground."
The Duke spoke from across the room "Tell me Shardovan, is this what you wanted to see?"
"All I see now..." Shardovan didn’t look of from Dianora's eyes, he knew she didn't have long now. "Is that you are a madman."
"Of course not, none of us wanted this, least of all me. But honor demanded it."
"Honor? None of us have any honor in this."
"Then perhaps honor can be regained from this, like a field reclaimed from the Barrens."
The Lady Dianora paused in mid-breath and her life left her in a single shiver. Shardovan's eyes burned.
Keeping his revolver trained on the young Sentinel Gracht approached his wife's body. "You have proven yourself Shardovan. Not only do I revoke your sentence. More than that I will make you my new Master Sentinel."
"If you can teach a woman to fight think what you could do with an army!"
The ringing in his ears receded and the faint sounds of battle returned. Shardovan looked up at the ring of Sentinels in the room. "You think I would want to lead them? You think I could ever trust you when you couldn't even keep your word to her?"
"I spared her the Barrens. She should have been grateful."
Shardovan dove for him, dragging the older man down onto the blood soaked floor. The Duke fired reflexively hitting nothing. Gracht tried to raise his sidearm and fire. Shardovan struck the weapon from the Duke's hand. Shardovan's hands moved with a mind of their own, locking around The Duke's neck. The Duke gasped for air, scrabbling at the hands around his throat, prying the fingers loose. His lips moved but none of his pleas could be heard over the sound of his windpipe cracking.
A few moments later Shardovan realized he was alone in the room. The Duke's witnesses and bodyguards had fled. Somewhere up above him the walls were giving way to the Chimera, giving way to screams and chaos. A twinge of guilt tugged at Shardovan as he scavenged the Duke's sidearm, ammunition and blade. These were weapons of high rank after all, weapons that were earned after a lifetime of honor and duty to the order of the Sentinels.
But I'm not a Sentinel anymore am I? He thought, Perhaps I never was.
Stepping around the Duke's body and over Anluan's, Shardovan approached Dianora and lifted her limp form in his arms. For a moment he imagined that she was only sleeping, that any moment she would awaken.
Hallowed ground. He thought as he carried her up the stairs, That's the least I can do.
The light from the chamber's torches slowly dwindled like the cacophony of the siege. Shadows seethed from the corners of the room, spreading until the bodies of the Duke and his Master Sentinel were entombed in darkness.
Al Bruno III
One day to go and they both looked a little sleepless a little haggard. The parries and defenses had been ingrained into Dianorra's body but Shardovan could tell her mind was elsewhere. Truth be told so was his. Last night's confrontation with the Duke haunted him. Shardovan made a half-hearted lunge for her abdomen, she blocked it and dodged to the left, trying to guard against another attack. He swung the blade in a wide horizontal arc, catching her practice sword near the base sending her sprawling to the floor.
Dazed, she swung her faux weapon at him until Shardovan pinned it beneath the toe of his boot.
"Enough." He said, "Rest now."
Dianora struggled into a sitting position and dabbed the sweat from her face with the edge of her sleeve "They should be coming to get us soon shouldn't they?"
"Yes." Shardovan said, "I've been thinking about tomorrow."
"So have I."
"The Duke has doubled the guard on us but if you're willing to take the chance we might be able to fight our way out."
"You don't think I can win do you?"
"It's not that. I don't think you should have to go through this and I don't trust your husband to let us go even if you do win."
"All this." She sighed, "All this over a boyish prank."
"Anluan tried to humiliate me." Shardovan said evenly, "He tried to make me into a laughing stock."
"And that's why you told the Duke about us?"
"I couldn't stand it anymore. I wanted to hurt them all."
"You tried so hard and they never accepted you."
"I don't need their acceptance!
"Then why did you care what they thought of you?"
"And they say I'm too clever for my own good." Shardovan said with a half smile.
"Clever enough. Now tell me your plan."
They spent the next hour plotting an escape, Shardovan made plans for Dianorra's newly honed skills with a sword to be brought to use. He knew they could use the dark cramped hallways of the lower levels to their advantage. The other Sentinels had to be exhausted, their numbers were depleted and without their beloved Anluan their morale would be sinking fast. That also would work in their favor.
And the Duke is scared, that will very much be in our favor.
One hour became two, two slowly crawled to three and as it did Shardovan began to grow uncomfortable. He glanced to Dianora and she said what he had been thinking, "Where are they?"
"I don't know." He said quietly but his mind kept returning again and again to his visit from the Duke. What was going to keep him from walling them up here and saying they had escaped or died?
He said he would make a public example of us.
Even before the roar set the cellar trembling Shardovan felt the hair on the back of his neck begin to stand. He closed his eyes and listened carefully.
Dianora said, "The Chimera is back."
"Two Chimeras." Shardovan spoke with a kind of resignation "When a Chimera retreats it always returns with more of its kind. Why didn't he send riders out to finish the beast?"
"Who does he have left?"
"I don't know."
The din of battle was just faint enough to be vague but too noisy to be ignored. They sat together against the opposite wall, his arm around Dianora as she clung to him. The wooden dueling swords were by his side within easy reach.
Somehow in spite of the danger, in spite of the roaring battle going on above them he began to nod off his awareness slipping away bit by bit. Snatches of a dream flashed before him, a dream of a great beast roaring at him from a ball of orange flame. In the dream he felt old and beaten down with regret and mistakes. The part of Shardovan's mind that was still conscious puzzled at the scene. There was significance to be found here, if only he could see it.
The dream dissipated like smoke the moment Dianora kissed him. Shardovan jolted awake,
"What… what are you doing?"
"Hush." She slithered into his lap, pressing herself against him, "Don’t say a word."
"I can't." He gasped between kisses, "I can't."
Her touch was soft but her fingers moved like lightning, slipping under his shirt and caressing him. She kissed the underside of his chin, "You don't have to do anything, just love me."
"Please." There was a tremble in his voice, "Don’t do this."
"I don't want to hurt your feelings, especially not now-"
"Then tell me what's wrong? What haven’t we told each other by this point?"
"When the Chimera attacked I lost more than an ally, I lost more than a friend. Ramion and I were… we were… he was..." He frowned, searching for the words, "… I swore I would love no one else."
Dianora nodded with understanding, "Just hold me then."
Al Bruno III
The Outpost was quiet; it was that troubled silence that always followed a Chimera attack. It wasn't unusual for an eruption of suicides to accompany the battle, not every man could look into a horror like that and remain whole.
Exhausted and weary Shardovan climbed the last flight of stairs to his room and wondered if the Chimera was dead or if it had retreated into the Verge to summon more of its kind. Chimera never truly broke off an attack and never turned away from the lure of unsullied flesh.
When he reached his room he found Duke Gracht Franksiluen waiting for him. Doubtless he had just returned from inspecting the battlements, he was in full battle dress. For the first time Shardovan noticed how that the Duke, with his rigid posture and featureless facade had come to resemble the Outpost he controlled.
"I received your message." He said evenly, "A note addressed to me dropped in the stairwell near the servant's quarters. Very clever indeed."
Shardovan dropped to one knee and bowed his head respectfully.
The Duke shooed the guards away and closed the door. "My liege I want to beg for the Lady Dianora's life. This was my fault. Let me face Anluan in her stead."
"They warned me you were clever, too clever to be a Sentinel and maybe a bit too ambitious as well."
"This was never about my ambitions."
"The stuff of heroes they said. Can you imagine them saying that about a boy with his mother's milk still in his mouth? On your feet."
"What your doing isn't going to get you any more respect here. Making your wife fight this duel isn't going to teach her or me a lesson." Shardovan stood to find the Duke going through his personal effects; the clothes, books and trinkets he'd gathered in his travels with Brother Thaddeus.
"I fought in the Succession Wars you know. It was before your time of course."
"I know of the Succession Wars."
"Then you know of course what brought the war on, families feuding over who would be the new Imperator. Both sides were as evenly matched in war as they were in statecraft. Sentinels were recalled for the war to fight on either side. The Outposts were left with skeleton crews. We lost so much to the Barrens."
"Respectfully my lord, what does this story have to do with what is happening now?"
"The same thing is happening here now you stupid boy. You think I don't hear what's going on? How the others think Anluan is strong and I'm weak. Too weak to keep my wife in line, too weak to father a child."
"I never heard such things."
"That's because no one likes you Shardovan, or hadn't you noticed? People secretly hate heroes for all they might say otherwise."
"Then why all this? Why the spectacle? Just send Anluan away, there are other Outposts..."
"I need him here. There is no warrior, no leader his equal. We would have fallen years ago without him."
"Then again, why are you doing this?"
"The best way to break a man is to make him destroy something he prizes above all else. I had long ago planned something similar but never had the nerve. You my beardless boy made everything fall into place. To save his own hide Anluan will kill her with the dullest swordblade I can muster. Overcome with remorse I will rescind his exile and allow him to kill you."
"Then life will return to its natural patterns. I will get a more fertile wife and the Outpost will get a Sentinel that isn't so delicate-natured."
"What if she wins?"
The Duke laughed, "She won't-"
"What if she wins?"
"If she wins I'll have the pair of you burned alive for witchcraft."
"So you came here, alone to my room to tell me that no matter what I do you'll have me killed in two days time?"
"Yes." The Duke opened the walnut box and removed an object wrapped carefully in cloth. He pulled the cloth aside to reveal a smoothed piece of volcanic glass no larger than a medal or a timepiece. It had come from the desert surrounding the blackened ruins of Olathoe, a gift from Ramion on the night before they set out to try and save the city of Minos.
"That-" Shardovan said, "that is of no value to you."
The Duke hefted it and then with a wry smile flung it against the wall, it shattered noiselessly.
Shardovan took a single step forward only to catch himself a heartbeat later. I never heard the door latch in place. He realized, And his hand has been hovering near his revolver the whole time.
"You're-" The door opened behind Shardovan as he spoke, he kept his posture unthreatening, he didn't even turn around "You're afraid."
"I'm not the one facing death."
"You're afraid of losing face. You're afraid of what I'll do. You've painted yourself into a corner as much as I have."
"Sir?" Even the guard sounded uncertain.
"See where your cleverness gets you…" grumbled the Duke as he brushed past Shardovan and out into the hallway. The door slammed to close. Shardovan crouched over the ruin of splintered and powdered glass and listened to the Duke ordering the guard detail assigned to him doubled.
There was little doubt in Shardovan's mind that he could have killed the man, revolver or no revolver. He might have even been able to kill the Sentinels out in the hallway but where would that leave Dianora? Could he really rescue her and fight his way to freedom?
Now who's been listening to too many romantic ballads? He thought as he carefully began to pick up the largest pieces of glass. Each of them seemed to represent someone here. This piece was the Duke, frightened and prideful. Another shard was Anluan, equal parts champion and bully. And here was the Lady Dianora with a half dozen ladies in waiting and not a soul she could talk to. The oddest part, the sharpest fragment was himself more at home in battle than in simple conversation, trying to live Ramion's dream out of obligation and guilt.
What was it Thaddeus said? "Fighting monsters is the easy part. At least with a monster you know where you stand."
Al Bruno III
The Lady Dianora charged at him, slashing downwards with the blade. Shardovan backed up a half step and parried. He jabbed at her and let her bat the attack away. She kept the sword close to her torso and made no wide or ambitious movements, just like she'd been taught.
Their exertions made the room all the more stifling. Shardovan was wearing just his tunic, boots and breeches; his hood and gorget had been tossed aside. She wore her lightest kirtle, softest shoes and kept her hair pinned back.
He attacked again and she backpedaled. Her shoulders brushed against the rear wall of the room. Nearly cornered she darted forward in a wild in a stabbing motion.
Shardovan brushed the blade aside and hit her hard in the stomach, knocking the wind from her.
"No!" he said, "You keep doing that."
"I saw an opening." She croaked.
"No. You saw exactly what I wanted you to see." Shardovan said, "The only way you're going to survive this is for you to let him make a mistake." The practice sword slipped from her hands,
"My arms ache."
Shardovan stepped up behind her and began rubbing her shoulders and forearms, she practically cooed at his touch, "You can’t try to fight on his level. If you do that he'll kill you."
"I don't know if I can."
"You're doing fine. We have two more days. That's more than enough."
"I don't know if I can kill him."
"Why did you do this to us?"
"You know why." Shardovan felt a twinge of guilt when she pulled away from him, "That's not a very good excuse I know."
"Cruelty begets cruelty doesn’t it?"
"One of the first lessons of the Pendaroth."
"I'm not one for religion but I do have to say this whole situation seems like divine punishment."
"This is like something out of a bad play."
"Except we can't walk out."
"Dianora, just Dianora."
"Did you… do you love Anluan?"
"I thought I did but now I wonder if I was just enjoying playing at being in love with him. At least he took an interest in me."
"What about Gracht?"
"I never knew him, I still don't know him really. I was the youngest of seven daughters and very impudent. My father couldn't wait to get rid of me, he married me off to Gracht so he could link his fortunes to the Franksiluen Clan." As she spoke her smile become more and more bittersweet, "It was all done by courier and I never met him until our wedding day. I knew all about him of course - a living legend just like you."
"I'm no- I'm not-"
"No one expected him to make this place work but somehow he did but I think, I think the experience did something to his heart. He can't bear to feel another person's flesh touching his, do you know that?"
"Then how did you...?"
"A lot of wine and a lot of patience. Regardless of how we came together we both wanted children but it was all for nothing."
"I heard about that." Shardovan said, "It was the Pendaroth's will."
"That didn't make it hurt any less." Tears began to trickle from the corners of Dianorra's eyes,
"You know, you know out here on the Verge they think that stillborns can become Chimeras. They wanted to burn the child to ashes like a witch."
"Gracht wouldn't let them. He made them bury our son on hallowed ground." She dabbed at her face with the edge of her sleeve. "It was the last courtesy he ever afforded me."
"Maybe we should get back to practicing. Don't think about two days from now, just think about this moment. Worrying over won't help either of us."
The next few hours passed quickly. Shardovan kept at it until he couldn't keep his arms up anymore and by then Dianora's knees were wobbling and her eyes were glazed with exhaustion. She was learning, there was no doubt about that, the basics of swordplay were being etched into her mind and her muscles.
It won't be enough. Shardovan thought bleakly as the guards lead him back to his room. Anluan will cut her to pieces.
Al Bruno III
The siege continued all through the night; Shardovan couldn't sleep, he never could at times like this. He sat in his room and listened to the Chimera fling itself again and again at the wall and thought of Ramion. The other Sentinels did not stand idly by while this happened. Shardovan's blood quickened with the familiar sounds of battle- the clang on swords, the whispering snap of bowstrings being released, the hiss and splash of boiling oil.
The Chimera was still roaring and flailing at the walls in the morning when a single Sentinel came to fetch him. It was Varsh, he was tall, vaguely cross-eyed and rarely spoke to anyone.
Shardovan was a tad more cautious on the stairs; his knee still ached from yesterday. He asked, "Where's Richard?"
Varsh shook his head glumly and then said, "Come on. I'm needed back at the battlements. The beast is as tall as it is wide."
Again he found the Duke's wife waiting for him. She stood beside the table, running her hand over the pommel of one of the wooden dueling blade. Her complexion had paled, even her lips looked bloodless. When they were alone she asked, "I know we only have four days left, but in that time could you teach me enough to defend myself?"
"I don't understand."
"I could teach you some things." Shardovan said.
"Would it be enough to protect me from Anluan?"
"I thought he was going to rescue you?"
"Last night when they brought me back to my chambers I passed Anluan. He was being led down the stairway from the audience chamber. I called his name." She crossed her arms over her chest, "The way he looked at me, so coldly... "
I never meant this. Shardovan thought, I never meant for any of this.
"He's going to kill me. He's not going to rescue me."
"I can teach you enough, enough so you could protect yourself."
"And then what? Even if I win I face exile. How can a lady survive out in the Barrens?"
"Many people survive out in the Barrens. I've been there, there are small villages hidden in with the dust and ruins."
"Heretics and anarchists."
"Some of them are good people. I can take you to them."
"Why would you do that?" she dabbed at the tears with the edge of her sleeve.
"Do I have a choice? If you die by Anluan's hand then I die too. You're not just fighting for your life, you're fighting for mine as well."
"You mean you're stuck with me."
"It would appear so." Shardovan managed a small laugh. He picked up one of the practice swords and held it with both hands. "Now the first thing we need to go over are the basic moves. Watch me first, then follow along as best you can."
The hours until their midday meal passed quickly. She was a good student, much to Shardovan's surprise and agile as well. She mirrored his lessons as well as any first year novice. The problem was she wasn't going to be facing a novice. You didn't become the Master Sentinel unless you were a clever and brutally efficient warrior.
"When do we spar?"
"What?" Shardovan looked up from his meal. It was all leftovers, stale bread and beef that was nearly all gristle and fat.
"I said when do we spar?" The Lady Dianora asked again, her hair was pinned back and her skin was sheened with sweat.
Odd isn’t it? How lovely she can be when she isn’t made up and trying to act haughty.
"Tomorrow I think. I just want to be certain you have the basic movements down first. I'm afraid I'm not a very good teacher."
"Were you listening for the Chimera?"
"Yes." Shardovan turned his attention back to his food, afraid his eyes might betray him.
"They say you killed one single-handedly."
"It was a small one and I was lucky."
"Tell me what happened."
"Not much to tell."
"It was during the siege of Minos wasn't it?"
"It wasn't really a siege, sieges are organized. What happened at Minos was just wave after wave of attackers for the better part of a month. Sometimes the attacks were just hours apart, sometimes it was almost a day between attacks but they never stopped."
"Was it all Chimera?"
"No. It was mostly Shamblers and all the howling parasites that follow along with them."
The Duchess grimaced at her own memories of the Shamblers, she set her meal aside, her appetite gone. The Shamblers were human beings long dead but consigned by the Barrens to eternal walking by the bite of the Red Monkeys. They traveled in hordes joined by a single collective purpose, a single unyielding hunger. The red monkeys, traveled with them. Blind and hairless, howling and screeching they hopped from body to body eating of the Shamblers' flesh and nesting in their hollowed out chest cavities. "We lost one of my sisters…"
"It was years ago." she said, "Please go on."
"We were starving on our feet, the water was running low. It was decided that we would send riders to the nearest Outpost and plead for help. Since Minos was an independent city, the Sentinels weren't obligated to do anything at all."
"It is madness to exist outside the Protectorate."
"They made their own way well enough until then." Shardovan said with a shrug. "All the able bodied men were needed to defend the city so they sent out three boys on horseback, Ramion, Nason and myself. I had only known Ramion a few weeks but we were already close. I barely knew Nason, he was a cobbler's apprentice and always busy. The plan was for us to ride together for as long as we could and then when the time came we would each separate and strike out in the direction of a known Outpost."
The Lady Dianora asked "How old were you then?"
"Sixteen. We were dressed in the leathers of soldiers that had already fallen, we were carrying hand me down weapons. We felt like boys playing at war."
"How far did you get?"
Shardovan smiled a little, "How much of this have you heard already?"
"Most of what I heard was either cruel or exaggerated."
"Perhaps not. We were less than five hours riding out of Minos when we came upon a merchant caravan. The wagons had been torn apart, but there were no bodies. There wasn't even a horse left. We knew what this meant but it was too late, we'd gotten too close."
"Did you try to run?"
"There was no time. It reared up from behind one of the toppled wagons. The Chimera was made up of all the people and livestock on the caravan, it had taken all of their flesh into itself and it boiled. That's the only way I can describe it Duchess. It boiled."
"Call me Dianora."
"We just stared at it. None of us could move for fear. Then our horses hadn't reared up in panic. That woke us up, for all the good it did. Ramion drew his sword. Nason tried to run. All I managed to do was fall right off the back of my horse."
"The Chimera had at least a dozen arms. They were all twisting and squirming like snakes. When they lashed out they moved like arrows burrowing into the flesh of our mounts. Somehow I managed to roll away, Ramion wasn't so lucky. One of the ropy arms caught him in the throat. Just like that their flesh began to flow from their bones, it ran up the length of the Chimera's arm like blood through an artery."
"What about the other boy? Nason?"
"He ran and hid. He didn't know what else to do. It started dragging Ramion and the horses closer, drawing them in as it ate them. My weapons were on my pack, which was on my horse. All I had was a dagger. I knew better but I still tried to save Ramion. I ran at it howling like a madman. When the Chimera take someone all that's left is a puddle of marrow. Did you know that?"
"That was all that was left of Ramion and his steed by the time. I knew that the mind of the Chimera is at the center of it's mass. It's like a snail that makes a shell from living breathing flesh. When it… when it boils you can sometimes see that part of it. The vulnerable part. Especially if the creature is still small."
"It doesn't sound small."
"It was small enough. I could see where I had to strike. When it grabbed for me I let it catch me around the waist. The armor protected me. I was lucky, maybe it was sated, maybe it was lazy but I was very lucky. I stabbed. The Chimera's true body was like the skin on a pudding, it broke easily. It squirmed and lashed at me. I could feel its ropy arms sinking into my flesh. I still have the scars."
"Maybe they didn't exaggerate about you after all."
"I did enough damage to it. The Chimera split apart like a rotten fruit and I ran as far as I could from there. I didn't stop running until I was back at Minos." Shardovan stood up, "Ready to start practicing again? She nodded "But what happened then?"
"I told them that we had been attacked. I kept the details spare, I didn't want to think about what had happened to Ramion much less talk about it. Everyone, except Brother Thaddeus, suspected me of treachery and cowardice. I might have gotten in serious trouble if there hadn't been another wave of Shamblers coming."
"If that's what happened then how did you get your reputation?"
"Nason." he explained, "Nason made it to one of the Outposts after all. When he led the army of Sentinels back they found the body of the Chimera, and my dagger. Needless to say they were impressed."
The Duchess hefted the wooden blade, conscious of her every movement "Everyone was impressed."
"And that's how legends get started." Shardovan said. He leaned on his blade, "Now lets see if you've been paying attention. Show me the katas as I taught them to you, but in reverse order."
Al Bruno III
Habit and experience made him wake in the moments before dawn. Shardovan sat there in the twilight trying to convince himself his memories were simply nightmares, a bad dream born of rich food and cheap ale.
Still though, when the familiar Sentinels came for him he was dressed and ready. The guards ushered him back down the to the lower levels. Shardovan asked, "I don't suppose there is any chance that the Duke would speak to me?"
"No." Richard said simply.
"Perhaps a message to my patron then?"
Again Richard's voice held a pitying tone, "No message would reach him in time."
They ushered him into the empty room and locked the door behind him. The table and the two practice swords had been knocked to the floor. The Duchess sat with her back to the wall glaring at him.
Habit and a dollop of gleeful malevolence drove Shardovan to bow slightly and say, "Good morning my lady."
"Anluan is going to cut your miserable throat from ear to ear."
"I thought he was going to gut me."
The Duchess was silent after that. Ironically they had switched places from the day before, she was sitting and sulking, he was pacing and thinking.
Richard had been correct, his patron was of no use to him here.
Besides, Shardovan thought, Brother Thaddeus travels so much I'm not even sure where he is these days.
This wasn't the first time he'd felt a twinge of regret at leaving the enigmatic monk's side to join the ranks of the Sentinels. But wasn't joining the Sentinels the dream of just about every boy growing up in the Protectorate? He remembered that sometimes it seemed like all Ramion ever talked about.
What was it Thaddeus had said? "My boy, less than half the novices ever complete their training. A good number of those failed Sentinels leave their instructors scarred in mind or body. Before you go, ask yourself who you're doing this for and be sure my boy. Be very sure."
That was the closest the monk had ever come to asking him to stay but Shardovan hadn't really been listening. The siege of Minos had left him shaken and eager for a change, so he said goodbye to Brother Thaddeus, to his misadventures and mysteries and joined a caravan heading for the city of Thalos.
A faint sound stirred Shardovan from his remembrances. The dull thud of his pulse quickened. Every Sentinel knew that sound, that deep dreadful piping.
The Lady Dianora cocked her head, "Is that?"
"The Clarion of Gjallar." He breathed.
Shardovan silenced her with a gesture, he could almost make out the nature of the alarm but they were too far underground, the sound was too faint. The Clarion of Gjallar was a heavy, unwieldy instrument and every Sentinel was required to be proficient in its use. There were over a hundred different musical alarms that could be played, they warned from things as simple as a fire or a flood to an all out assault by beasts from the very heart of the Barrens.
The Lady Dianora's voice was a furious whisper "What's happening?"
"I don't know." Shardovan said. "All I know is I should be out there."
"This is too much." she shoved past him and began pounding on the door, demanding it be opened.
"They didn't answer the door yesterday why should they do so now?"
"This is different, we may be under siege. I need my personal guard. I am of royal blood. I am supposed to be protected."
Shardovan laughed "Your royal blood didn't matter to you very much when you were spreading your legs for a commoner."
The Duchess attacked him with an indignant shriek. What her blows lacked in strength and sophistication they made up for in speed and rage. Shardovan tried to grab for her hands and restrain her. A lucky blow caught him on the nose. Tears momentarily blinded him. He blindly struck out, cuffing her on the side of the face. She fell.
His vision cleared to see her stooped and dabbing at a bloodied lip. Her dark locks hung loosely around her face. Shardovan snarled, "On your knees again Duchess?"
He didn't see the hairpin until it was too late. A sharp lance of pain erupted just above his right knee. He caught her arm before she could stab again. He couldn't help but notice that this time her aim was higher and more central.
Shardovan pushed her down onto the cold floor. With his other hand he latched onto her throat "Drop that damn needle."
She twisted and railed beneath him. With her free hand she clawed at his face, raking three dark weals down his cheek. "Go on then." She choked, "Finish me. Rob the Duke of his sport and he will flay you alive."
"I- You-" Shardovan froze. A drop of his blood from his cheek like a teardrop, splashing onto her chin. He pushed himself off of her but kept clear of the hand holding the hairpin "I could never kill a woman."
She wiped his blood from her face, "You couldn't fuck one either could you? Anluan told me."
Shardovan felt his face reddening, his jaw clenched.
"They all chipped in for you at the bawdyhouse. They got you the prettiest girl there. Anluan said that for all her tugging on your manhood she might as well been tugging on a piece of string." Her laughter was cold and piercing. "And the great hero of Minos fled the room like a reluctant bride."
Shardovan said, "Perhaps instead you should wonder why your beloved was spending time in a bawdyhouse when-" The sound that interrupted them was as muffled as the Clarion of Gjallar but somehow louder. It sounded like a gurgling chorus of animal voices raised up in a collective bellow.
The Lady's Dianora's voice was reduced to a childlike whisper "Is that a Chimera?"
"Yes." Shardovan said with a shiver. Chimera were the most terrible of the beasts spawned by the Barrens. They amalgamated their prey into their own bodies, increasing their mass and cunning with every feeding. Some legends said that to be taken by one is to have your soul obliterated. Others said that you lived still, trapped in a kind of living hell inside the monster's flesh.
Regardless of what they were, Shardovan would have given anything to be out there facing that creature alongside his nominal comrades instead of in here.
Al Bruno III
A sleepless night spent running the events of the previous day through his head left Shardovan feeling skittish and foul tempered. He had already prepared a dozen excuses a dozen ploys to get back into the Duke's good graces. He hadn't survived the siege of Minos to die like this.
When the Sentinels came to fetch him he had already been dressed and waiting for half an hour. Immediately Shardovan demanded to be taken to speak with the Duke. His pleas were answered with contemptuous glares. The Sentinels roughly searched him for hidden weapons then escorted him from his room. They led him down the cramped staircase to the lower levels.
Every Outpost had a handful of levels underground. These dark, cramped rooms were used for storage and in the event of a siege they were used as a place to conceal the women, children and wounded. Moss grew thick on the walls and vermin skittered in the corners. Shardovan knew that sometimes prisoners from the Barrens were kept here, walled up at the end of dark cul-de-sacs.
Shardovan's pace slowed a little at the thought. Had yesterday's speech been nothing more than a ruse? Was this what the Duke had planned all along? To wall them up inside the walls to live in the dark for the rest of their days?
There was a precedent for such things.
But why me? What did I do wrong?
One of the Sentinels, a sour faced thug of a man named Richard clouted him in the back of the head, "Keep moving imbecile."
"You have to get a message to the Duke for me." Shardovan pleaded.
"You made your bed boy, now lie in it."
Shardovan turned on them, his eyes pleading, "Why are you angry with me? Your beloved Anluan made a fool of the Duke."
Richard shook his head.
The room they brought him to was lit by sputtering candles and empty save for a table holding two wooden practice blades. The Duchess was there already, sitting on the floor with her knees pulled tight to her chest. Her skirts pooled around her, making her seem smaller to Shardovan.
Richard pushed the young soldier into the room. "At sundown you will be brought back to your rooms. Train her well."
Shardovan looked disbelievingly at the other man, "Where are her ladies in waiting? Where are her personal guards?"
"All she has now is you. Mores the pity."
The door slammed to a close, the lock snapped into place. Shardovan said, "This is madness!"
"It is a madness you began."
He refused to turn and face her, he just stared at the wooden grain of the door as though the answers to his dilemma might be found there "I was not the one committing adultery. I merely informed the Duke what I had discovered."
Her laugh was pretty, it reminded him of bells. How could a woman so lovely be so faithless? " If you were older you would understand."
"Older? I'm not a boy." Blushing furiously he turned to glare at her.
"You're an idiot. Everyone knew about us, you understand that? Even the Duke knew."
She stood and walked to the table, she traced a pale finger along the length of the practice blades. "The Duke and I don't share a heart and we certainly don't share a bed."
"I don't believe you. The Duke is a noble man!"
"No, just a nobleman." She hefted one of the wooden swords, "Once again if you were older you would have understood."
"I am not a boy!" Shardovan shouted, his arm drawn back for a slap.
The Lady Dianora swung the practice blade like a club. It caught him on the side of the head and sent him reeling back. She advanced on him with a self-satisfied smile, prodding him with the rounded tip of the wooden blade to punctuate her sentences, "You are nothing. You are a joke. And you've sentenced us to death."
"The Duke is just trying to scare us. He would never- OW!"
"Wouldn't he? This situation has made him look weak and foolish, an Outpost lives and dies by the strength of its Duke. You have to know that."
"An Outpost lives and dies by the strength of its Sentinels!" He swatted the wooden sword away and grabbed at her wrist. He twisted it until she fell to her knees with a yelp.
"The Sentinels are only as strong as their confidence in the man leading them, especially out here on the Verge. Right now all their confidence is in Anluan and the Duke knows it." She rubbed her wrist.
"The Duke forged this Outpost with his blood."
"And he's gotten soft, he's afraid."
"Of what? Of Anluan? Of you?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"I-" Shardovan began to speak then something clicked into place in his mind.
The grim realization that this was no misunderstanding, no prank. He felt his mouth turned back to the door. He began pounding on it with all his might, shouting for the guards.
"What are you doing?"
"I must speak to the Duke."
"We'll see him in seven days, that's soon enough."
"You can't be serious." That only made Shardovan pound on the door harder, "He can't be serious."
"He was serious I can tell." struggling to her feet, the Duke's wife spoke with an air of resignation. "He always takes that tone of voice when he's sentencing someone to death or exile."
Shardovan offered her his arm to steady herself, she ignored it, "How can you be so glib?"
"Because Anluan will not stand for this. He loves me and he will rescue me. The other Sentinels will stand with him when the moment comes."
"I guess you won't be needed that swordplay lesson after all then." he
"And he'll gut you for what you've done." She spat.
With that she retreated to the other side of the room, where she paced and brooded for the remainder of the morning. When the guards came to deliver the midday meal both demanded an audience with the Duke. Both were ignored.
Shardovan ate sullenly with his back resting against the door. This wasn't what he was supposed to be doing, he should be out there on the battlements standing watch. He wondered what
Ramion would have done to avoid this situation.
Ramion wouldn't have gotten into this situation. They would have loved Ramion, welcomed him with open arms.
"This stew is barely broth." Dianora grumbled, "And there's no bread."
Shardovan rolled his eyes but kept quiet. It was going to be a long afternoon.
Al Bruno III
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.
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!"
Friday, March 6, 2009
Last night I had a dream that I was wandering the streets of downtown Albany, much like I did back in my early twenties. Most the the landmarks of that era of my life are gone now - QE2, Fantaco, Quintessence, Midnight Comics.
Of course dreams make up their own geographies so there I was again, wandering around late at night with my friends Wayne and Adam. It was a pleasant dream and a nostalgic one.
Then the sound began, a hollow piping that seemed to bleed out of nowhere. At first we ignored it, we were too busy making snarky comments and plans for a three AM breakfast at Dennys.
But the sound pursed us, it grew stronger drowning out the sounds of the street and the pulsing music of QE2. I tried to make a wisecrack about the daemon fluting that lulls Azathoth into sleep but the high pitched sound swallowed my voice.
And I ran, leaving my friends behind and bolting across Central Avenue, heading for the park. Lost in the logic of the dream world I sought to lose myself in the dark and shadows there but how can you hide from a sound, a sound that pursues you relentlessly. A sound that seems to bear down upon you like a physical thing?
I awoke with a kind of relief, just like the old cliche it had all been a dream.
But the sound was still there and my heart started racing again. Was this one of those dreaded double wake ups?
No. I was awake and the sound was there with me.
In me. In my skull.
It was a whistling booger.
Funny I know but at least this was a nightmare I could squelch easily, all I needed was one finger.
2.) There's No Business Like Snow Business
I am still trying to make sure all installments of In The Shadow Of His Nemesis are ready to go before I start work on anything else but this week made it hard to get anything done at all.
It was the snow, snow that caused two days of school cancellations and a two hour delay the next. It left my wife and I scrambling to alter our work schedules to accommodate this sudden need for child care. We did pretty well overall I think but it left my writing schedule in a shambles.
But any time I get to spend a few extra hours with my daughter is great so I have no complaints, we talked, made some drawings and played some Wii Golf.
And I beat her at it IN YOUR FACE KIDDO!!!!!
Sorry but I just wanted to let you all know out there that I haven't abandoned my tales of my shady past and of Star Wars fans fighting zombies.
3.) Happy Birthday
This week saw my daughter Rebecca and my brother Josh have their birthdays this week. So I decided to let the whole damn Internet know how much I love them and how great it is they have their whole lives ahead of them.
And don't forget that I might need one of your kidneys soon OK?
4.) The Sweet Sting Of Bromance
Speaking of making unwanted announcements to cyberspace (Do they still call the Internet that?) I thought I would mention that my pal Love Boat (Not his real name.) moved back to New York recently and you know what?
He was my best friend and I never realized. He has been part of my life for 15 years and I never told him that. Then again us men folk rarely mention such things anyway.
Well I am saying it now. Godspeed Love Boat, I will see you online but you will be missed.
5.) Let The Right One In
I just finished reading John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let The Right One In. Now I have raved and raved about the film but let me now tell you the novel is a different animal in many ways but it is just as awesome. This book is a keeper folks, it won't wind up at the used bookstore until well after my death. Read it if you get a chance.
I think that is just about everything for now as my old man likes to say catch ya later.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
But regardless of that, I now have cause for joy because the latest Cinematic Titanic is coming out March!
This time that have chosen to shine their comic brilliance upon the horror film Blood of the Vampires.
Here is the teaser trailer for it. I laughed till I cried. (I cried because I can't afford to order the damn thing until next week!)
If you aren't enjoying these DVDs yet do yourself a favor and order them- better these guys get your hard earned cash than Michael Bay.
Now if you want to give your cash to me...