Copyright © 2016 Edward K. Ryan
Cover design © 2016 Slate Run Publishing, LLC.
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Published by Slate Run Publishing LLC.
All rights reserved. Nothing herein may be reproduced in any way without written permission from the author. All events and characters in this work are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual people and events is coincidental and unintentional.
Tyris Menion saw the glint of steel in the firelight before the rest of them.
It was fortune more than vigilance, his position a bit back from the table as he stretched his long legs giving him a slightly better view of the room. He was as drunk as the others, the whole of the day consumed by dice, women, food and enough beer to swim in. Grim and hardened men, each and every one, that was what the mercenaries of Black River were, but drink had rendered them relaxed and foolish.
Crowded about the table, their heads bent over cards and wooden cups, their arms wrapped around their piles of coin or the nearest wench, none of them paid the slightest attention to the hooded woman who slipped through the mass of revelers in the tavern and headed straight for their table. Not a single pair of eyes lifted as the hood brushed back to reveal the youthful face, twisted with rage, eyes burning with dread purpose. Had Tyris not pushed back his chair to relieve his cramping calves, no one would have seen a damn thing.
Until that knife was buried in the back of Pike’s neck.
He shouted a warning as he threw himself up out of his seat, knocking the chair back and jarring the table so that cups and coins nearly spilled. To his right, his brother Stilthius was slightly faster. Or perhaps, he would decide later, just a bit less drunk. One huge, black hand seized Pike’s shoulder and shoved him roughly aside. The chair beneath the mercenary tipped to one side and dumped him, his cards and his ale in a heap on the floor.
The descending knife narrowly missed Stilthius’s outstretched arm and thumped into the table, sinking an inch into the soft wood. Stilthius seized the woman’s wrist before she could recover the weapon and jerked her forward. Lifted from her feet by the force, the woman was dragged atop the table, flailing wildly, desperate to escape.
With a roar, Pike was back on his feet, his shirt soaked with ale, one side of his face red where it struck the wooden floor. Everyone in the cramped place had turned to see what was happening, forming a loose circle.
“Backstabbing bitch!” Pike spat, ale flying from his thin lips. A small, slight man, he held his drink less well than most, wobbling and slurring, barely able to right himself enough to take two steps back to the table.
His first blow caught the struggling woman in the shoulder, glancing off. The second and third found her face. The fourth stopped her thrashing and the half dozen others that rained down accomplished little more than splattering blood all over. Stilthius reached his arms over to block Pike’s fists after that, but the other man was so crazed he didn’t stop.
Afton Leer, one of the older men among the mercenaries, finally caught Pike about the waist and dragged him back. “That’s enough, now,” he told the enraged man. “Never find out what it’s all about if you kill her.”
“All about?” Pike raged. “Tried to fucking kill me, that’s what it’s all about!”
Tyris bent over the unconscious girl while Leer struggled to contain the other man. “Just a damn girl,” he muttered to his brother.
Stilthius took her bloody chin in his hand and turned her face toward him. “Not even old enough to be married off by the look of her.”
One of the other mercenaries, a toothless old fool called Valrin bent around Tyris to look at her. “Old enough. Let’s not let such a sweet young thing go to waste now.”
Tyris shoved him back. “Fuck off.”
Valrin stumbled into his chair and then righted himself. “Who says you get to claim her, outlander?”
Tyris turned to him, rising up to his full seven feet like some massive bear. “I’m not claiming her. I’m telling you that you aren’t.” He knotted his huge hands into fists the size of hammers. “Any one of you little fucks that wants to show how much hair you have on your balls by arguing the point just needs to step forward and we can have words.”
No one took that step.
“Better get her out of here,” Afton Leer called to the brothers as he held Pike back with two fistfuls of his clothes. “Take her to Shaddix and see what he wants done with her.”
Stilthius threw the girl’s limp body over one massive shoulder and rose from his seat, kicking it away. With Tyris a step behind, they started though the crowd toward the front door. The revelers parted before them without challenge, quick to give way to the massive men. The brothers were Tulin’s, black-skinned outlanders from across the sea. Huge and layered with corded muscle, they dwarfed every man in the tavern by a wide margin. A single glance told even the most ale-clouded mind that these were not men to be challenged.
Black River had taken temporary residence in an old barracks that had once served a compliment of the Duke’s soldiers in the town. But Acacia had no garrison now, not since enemy soldiers from the Free Lord’s Alliance, the Duke’s chief rivals for the lands along the southern edge of the Censharn Valley, had come just before the first snows to raid the town, killing them all and sacking the place. Black River had arrived just after the first thaw to retake the place, but the Alliance soldiers were warned in advance of their coming and fled a week before. Three weeks now the company had waited for further orders, three weeks of warm beds, cold ale and enough whores to go around. No one was complaining.
No one except Shaddix, that was.
Shaddix was Black River’s captain, second only to Peridor Finn, the man who had formed the outfit. He was as fond of drink and women as the rest, but his chief concern was money. Money was what drove the company, after all. No money meant no wages and that meant deserters. The longer they sat on their asses in Acacia without another paying assignment from the Duke, the sooner the money would run out.
The brothers reached the long, squat stone building that served as the barracks just as a young man in a long brown cloak was leaving through the front door. He paid the men no mind as he hurried to his waiting horse, swung into the saddle and kicked it forward with a yell, riding hard out of the town to the north. Tyris pulled the door open and they stepped inside.
A fire spit and crackled in the hearth directly behind the long, narrow table Shaddix was seated at in the center of the room they entered. A few of the mercenaries from Black River he trusted with important matters were gathered about, a collection of papers and the old, beaten ledger Shaddix was always nosing through between them. The assembled men looked up as the outlanders approached.
Stilthius paused to deposit the unconscious girl on a bench that rested against the nearby wall.
“What the hell is this?” Shaddix demanded, looking from the girl to the brothers.
“Tried to put a knife in Pike,” Stilthius answered.
“And she’s still alive?” one of the others asked. Tyris recognized Keel, one of the company’s scouts, as he thrust his long, thin face forward. “Doesn’t sound like Pike.”
“He’d have beaten her head in if Leer hadn’t stopped him,” Tyris answered. “Wanted your decision on what to do with her.”
Shaddix folded his arms over his barrel chest and shrugged. “Should have let Pike finish it. Don’t take kindly to people knifing my men.”
Stilthius shook his head. “Just a girl.”
“So?” the other asked.
Stilthius stiffened the way he always did when he was trying not to punch someone in the face. “I don’t fucking kill children.”
The captain cocked an eyebrow at him. “You kill who I tell you to and that includes anyone taking a stab at one of my men.”
Tyris took a step forward. “We kill her we don’t find out who sent her. The Alliance? Another company? That dies with her.”
“If it’s either of those, we’ll kill her anyway,” Shaddix pointed out.
“We didn’t kill Afton Leer.”
“He offered to join us.”
“After he fought for the Red Hand,” Stilthius reminded him.
“Leer had a name. She’s just a girl.”
“Let her live and you might hear a name worth hearing from her.”
Shaddix sat back a bit and rubbed his great, red beard. “You two bastards are lucky I like you.”
They saved his life was more like it, but Tyris kept his mouth shut. At least Shaddix was considering it. Killing the little bitch might be the only end to this, but the brothers were going to be damn sure it was necessary before they saw a child put to the sword. War was what they knew – all they knew – but if they had learned anything since coming to Kronos, it was that these people had no sense of honor. Fighting and killing for the sake of it was enough for some of these men. The challenge of a worthy opponent was something they actually feared. Weak, these Kronans. The Tulin way was strength, testing a man against his equal. That, and no other, was the way to glory.
“Hunnaris shows no favor to those who prey on the weak,” Stilthius told their captain.
The assembled men, Shaddix included, rolled their eyes and shook their heads. Most of the time, Tyris was forced to agree. His brother was better than any of them in a fight or out, but his insistence that his god was what drove everything and anything he did, that there was some destiny to Stilthius Menion, was getting tiresome. Tyris grew up with the same teaching, the same lore. He believed some of it, but saw little difference in believing or not. After all, until Hunnaris picked up a sword and stood at his shoulder, what good was he in a fight? It didn’t take faith in some god that never showed himself to know killing a girl was the way of a coward.
Shaddix heaved a sigh and waved them away. “All right, then. Lock her up in the storeroom. When she comes around, we’ll see what she’s about and I’ll decide what to do with her.”
“She’s a girl,” Stilthius told him, eyes locking with the other man.
“I can see that.”
“A girl. Some of the men already have plans for her.”
Shaddix threw up his hands. “Damn you’re a right pain in my ass you black bastard. Fine. The men will be told to keep their hands and their pricks to themselves. Now get her the hell out of my sight before I change my mind and cave her head in myself.”
Stilthius nodded once and bent to lift the girl over his shoulder again. He paused to take a candle from the table in front of Keel and left without another word. With Tyris leading they passed through the hall to the next room and then through the door that led to the stairs leading to the basement. It was cold and cramped, little more than a hole in the ground. Wooden pallets on the floor were stacked high with barrels and boxes, mostly pickled meats and ale and an assortment of other provisions. The single door with a barred window in the room led to a small alcove that the old garrison turned into something of a cell where prisoners could be housed. Of late, the single cot and bucket were most often used by whoever got drunk enough to start a fight and needed a night to sleep it off. After one day of shivering themselves sober, most didn’t make a return visit for a while.
Stilthius took the girl inside and lowered her to the cot. Balling a handful of his cloak, he wiped most of the blood from her face. Her eyes were already beginning to swell beneath the tangle of her chestnut chair and dark splotches were forming on her cheeks. Her nose was all crooked now and one of her front teeth was chipped, but Tyris was amazed to find her face intact. Had Pike been sober enough to hit straight, he probably would have broken everything from her eyes to her jaw. Stilthius finished cleaning her up as best he could, then rose, and joined Tyris just outside the door. They pushed it shut and barred it with the wooden plank that rested against the nearby wall.
Tyris turned to ascend the stairs, but Stilthius was dragging one of the barrels off the nearest pallet and shoving it back against the wall.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he asked.
Stilthius sat on the barrel and put his back to the wall. “Waiting.”
Tyris shook his head at his older brother. “Listen. I don’t like this either, but she tried to kill Pike. You kept her alive for now, gave her a chance to speak for herself. That’s it. That’s all you can do.”
“I’ll stay until she’s awake,” he said. “To make sure Valrin and the rest do as Shaddix says.”
Leaving his brother to freeze his balls off in the cellar was not the least appealing idea to run through his mind of late, but Tyris muttered under his breath, seated himself on the edge of one of the pallets, and leaned back against a crate.
“Damn fool,” he said.
The girl was awake a few hours later. Exactly how much time had passed was lost on Tyris Menion. He’d had enough ale that he had trouble remembering what day it was much less the time. He slept in small bits over the course of their wait, getting up a few times to piss in the corner. Stilthius was awake every time he opened his eyes, looking bored and tired, but never looing away from the stairs that led back up to the barracks. Tyris knew what he was waiting for, knew it was inevitable and was still wondering how they were going to deal with it when the girl’s coughing brought both of them to their feet.
She was sitting on the edge of the cot when Stilthius pulled open the door, a few drops of blood dripping from her ruined nose as she hung her head. Her left eye was completely shut when she looked up at them through her tangled hair and the right was bloodshot and watering. Her cheek was an ugly purple and one corner of her mouth was swollen. Her hands shook and she winced with her one good eye when Stilthius stepped in with the meager remnants of the candle he’d brought throwing its pathetic attempt at light on her.
“I am Stilthius Menion,” he told her. “My brother is Tyris. We will not harm you.”
“You are with him, the one they call Pike,” she mumbled, her hand reaching for her jaw as she spoke.
“We’re with Black River,” Stilthius answered. “So is Pike. I don’t suppose you want to tell me what trying to knife him was all about?”
She stared back at them with her blood-shot eye. “Will it make a difference?”
The outlander shrugged. “Don’t know until I hear it.”
She did not respond for a long time, watching them, judging them, Tyris supposed. Whether she decided to trust them just figured she had no choice in the matter he never knew, but she started taking just the same.
“Do you know who he is?” she asked finally. “What he is?”
“No,” Stilthius answered. “Most in Black River don’t ask about a man’s past. Fewer tell their tales.”
“The man you call Pike is Corith Yar, the youngest son of Bruel, once baron of Moordener.”
She paused, as if waiting for them to react, but none of those names meant anything to Tyris. Judging from his brother’s lack of reaction, they meant nothing to him either.
“Bruel Yar was once a favored ally of the Alliance,” she continued after a moment. “He made aggressive war on his neighbors in their name and expanded their lands through conquest. Every town and village in his path was offered the choice between servitude and annihilation. After a few refused him and were burned to the ground, the rest surrendered at the sight of his men. Surrender meant worse than death for most. Every man able to hold a sword was forced to join their thugs and every woman – or girl – they fancied served as women serve such men. My mother, my sisters and my cousins all felt the rough hands of Yar’s men. My brothers and father were forced to fight for them. My village was stripped of everything of value and left to rot. I was left to be raised by strangers, an old man and his wife who had no use for a child when they could barely scratch out survival for themselves. I was sold to a wealthy merchant in need of a servant to tend to his sick wife and children as soon as they were able to make their way to Ulis.
When the Duke of Turgin finally had enough of Bruel Yar and his sons, he sent Black River against them. My father and brothers were killed in battle, as were the Yars – all except the youngest. He escaped with a handful of his men and most of their plunder, their women included. Corith Yar had so few men left that he feared he could not keep all of his whores and feed his men. He feared they would be betrayed and Black River or another looking to collect the bounty on their heads would have them. So, one night he roused his men and went into the tents where he kept his women and cut their throats while they slept. My mother, my sisters and my cousins joined my father and brothers.
Not long after, Corith Yar and his men went their separate ways to make themselves harder to track down. Some of them went north to join the Alliance armies. Others joined different mercenary companies or just vanished. But Corith Yar is the man you call Pike – I’m sure of it.”
Stilthius glanced back at Tyris when the tale was done, but he only shrugged. Vengeance was the girl’s right by the law of their people, but this was not their land and these people certainly not theirs.
“I will speak to our captain,” Stilthius told her. “You tried to kill one of his men, but if I tell him your tale, he may show mercy.”
“Mercy?” she leaned her distorted face toward him. “Mercy? I ask no mercy. Death is enough. I intended to die. I just wanted to take him with me.”
“I can still try to help you,” he insisted.
She reached toward him as he started away. He was too far from her to touch, but he paused at the gesture. “You can help me,” she told him. “Kill me before I suffer at the hands of your men as my family did his.”
Stilthius stared down at her, his dark face impassive. “Do you have a name?”
“Does it matter?”
He drew a deep breath. “I do not kill the defenseless.”
“But you let them suffer?”
Tyris stepped out of his brother’s way as Stilthius turned away and left the room, closing the door and barring it behind him. “I will speak to my captain.”
She stumbled to the door, gripping the iron bars of the window in her small hands, her bruised and swollen face peering out at him. “You are weak.”
Stilthius walked through the room and up the stairs without looking back at her.
Tyris watched after him a moment before following.
“You know I’m right, don’t you?” she called.
He paused and glanced over his shoulder. “You’re just a damn child.”
He started after his brother. “If you think right and wrong mean a fucking thing, you are.”
Pike and a handful of Black River boys were just entering the hall of the barracks through the front door when Tyris and Stilthius emerged from the cellar. Shaddix was eating at the same table he’d been at a few hours before, Keel and the others sharing the meal with him. There was trouble in Pike’s ale clouded eyes; Tyris could see it from the moment the other man stepped in from the street. Shaddix must have seen it too because he lowered his mug and stood at the head of the table. The rest of his men turned to watch.
“Where is she?” Pike demanded as he headed for Tyris and Stilthius. “I’ll have her head! Try to put a fucking knife in me? I’ll skin her alive!”
Afton Leer broke from the knot of men behind the advancing Pike and caught him before he could reach the outlanders. “You’re drunk, you damn fool. Sort through this when you can think for yourself.”
The other man jerked his arm from Leer’s grasp with a snarl. “Mind you own fucking affairs, you fat old prick.” A few of the men seated with Shaddix snickered, but none of them moved.
“Where is she?” Pike demanded again.
“Locked up in the store room,” Stilthius told him. He stood before the door at the rear of the room, Tyris at his side, the huge outlanders blocking any access.
“Should be dead! What dumb bastard decided to put her there?”
Shaddix stepped out from around the table. “This dumb bastard. Go get some sleep you drunk shit.”
“Drunk or no, that witch tried to kill me,” Pike shot back.
“That’s not but truth!” Valrin called from behind, his voice rising from the group that had come in with Pike. “Witnessed it myself.”
“And you assholes decided to drink over it a few more hours before doing something about it?” Stilthius asked. “Needed a bit more courage before you killed a little girl?”
Pike took an unsteady step toward him, his finger stabbing. “Watch what you say to me, you dog! I’ve killed men for less!”
Tyris Menion cocked his head at the little man. “We were told Corith Yar prefers to kill women.”
A murmur swept through the assembled mercenaries and even Shaddix’s eyes grew wide at the comment. Pike stood his ground and shrugged.
“Shit if he does. Don’t mean nothing. Even if I was Corith Yar and I ain’t saying I am – we’re all clean when we join Black River. That’s the law, ain’t it Shaddix.”
The captain’s eyes shifted to the outlanders and he nodded. “We all know our laws.”
“And do the rules say we kill children?” Stilthius asked, meeting Shaddix’s gaze. “If I remember, the laws say we don’t.”
Pike held up a hand before Shaddix could answer. “Laws say we fight to defend each other against anyone, no matter what. They also say anyone takes up arms against us dies.” He stared directly at Stilthius. “Anyone. Ain’t it so, Shaddix?”
“If there was a witness, I’d have to-.”
“Saw it myself!” Valrin called again. “Saw it, Shaddix. Half-dozen others too. Hell, even the outlanders saw it. Was them who saved Pike.”
“I’d have to called them an enemy,” Shaddix finished. He looked to Stilthius and Tyris again. “That’s our code, lads. You know that.”
Pike let out a triumphant laugh and started for the door, trying to push past Stilthius. The outlander put a hand in the center of his chest and shoved him back. “Fuck that. This piece of shit isn’t going to use a child for sport and take her a piece at time.”
Shaddix’s face flushed the color of his beard. “I command here! You sons of bitches make your own way enough around here, but you don’t get to defy me to my face.”
“If this is your command, you decide how she dies then,” Stilthius snapped back. He point to pike. “Not him.”
“Was me she tried to kill,” the other insisted. “I have a witness. Her life is mine by right.”
“Witnessed it, I did!” Valrin shouted again.
“Shut the fuck up!” Afton Leer called back to him. “We all heard just fine.”
Shaddix looked down at the floor a moment and then to Pike and back to the outlanders. “Pike’s claim is right. She tried to kill him. That makes her life forfeit to him. Those are our laws. Peridor Finn’s laws and this is his company. I’m sorry, lads. Some things I can’t change.”
“The law it is, then?” Stilthius asked.
Shaddix nodded slowly. “It is.”
“Fine,” the outlander said. “I claim a life then.”
Pike snorted and grinned like a fool. “Do you? And whose life would that be? You have no claim to this girl.”
“Not the girl.” He pointed at the drunkard. “You. I saved your life, didn’t I?”
The stupid smile disappeared. “Don’t you fuck with me….”
“Seems you had a witness to that.” He lifted his chin to the men behind. “Isn’t that right, Valrin?”
There was a moment of silence. “Well now, can’t be too sure on that account.”
“But dead sure on the other?” Stilthius pressed. He cast a sideways glance at Shaddix. “He either saw it or he didn’t.”
“Don’t mean shit if he did,” Pike growled. “Saving my life gives you no claim to it. We cover each other’s asses every day – in every fight. That’s the code too.” He looked to their captain. “Ain’t it so Shaddix?”
His face as red as his beard, the captain slammed his meaty fist down on the table, sending his plate flying. “Shut your filthy holes, the lot of you. Sons of bitches! Now we vote? No man serves here by force. Any one of you sorry shits can walk out of here whenever you please. If you stay, you do as I say. As I say! Shit-eating pricks! Turn this into a damn debate!”
He looked to each of them in turn, his cheek puffing, his shoulders heaving. “To your rooms, all of you.” He turned to the rest of them. “All of you, I said! No one in that cellar or I’ll cut his cock off. No one out either. You sleep off the ale and I’ll make my decision.”
Pike lurched up against Stilthius as he pushed past, his breath stinking of ale, his clothes of piss. “You’ll regret this, asshole.”
Tyris shoved the smaller man away from his brother. “Keep walking or you won’t live to see it.”
Pike stumbled down the hall, pausing to leer at the cellar door. He glanced back at the brothers with a laugh and then Valrin was dragging him toward his room, his shrieking echoing off the stone walls.
“I take it you were expecting that to go better,” Tyris muttered as he and Stilthius turned down the intersecting corridor toward their shared room.”
“I bought her time and Shaddix is thinking about it,” he answered.
“For what? Shit, she wants to die. Might as well let her.”
Stilthius nodded in response. “That might be no matter what we say or do, but some deaths are better than others.”
Tyris shook his head and said nothing. He was done arguing. Stilthius wouldn’t listen anyway. He was too convinced of honor and the favor of the gods. For him, there was such a thing as dying well.
To Tyris dead was dead. Fuck how and why.
He was up before Stilthius the next morning. He’d pissed out the last of the ale and was thirsty and more than a bit hungry. The tavern and some of their hot oats and cider were what he wanted, but they were ordered to stay put and defying Shaddix was only going to make matters worse. There would be food in the larder. Not much worth eating, he figured, but stale bread and some moldy old cheese weren’t the worst he’d ever eaten. There might be beer too, but after the previous night, he imagined Shaddix had seen to it being locked up.
He reached the end of the hall to find Afton Leer standing at the door to the cellar. The older mercenary dipped his balding head slightly as Tyris approached.
“Has you standing guard does he?” the outlander asked.
“Guess he figures I’m thinking right in this,” Leer answered.
“And how is that?”
Afton Leer shook his head and leaned back against the wall. “I ain’t like you and your brother, you know that. Hell, Menion, none of us are. We’re fucking criminals, every one. You want Shaddix to keep Pike away from this girl? Shit, you know how many girls I’ve had my hands on? How many I’ve cut down? Old men, young women, small children…nothing in this world I haven’t run my spear through. If I was a young man and could change, would I try to think like you and your brother? I’d like to think so, but I ain’t changin’ now. Neither is Pike or Shaddix for that matter. This isn’t about glory for these men, outlander. It’s money for most and malice for the rest. You know that by now and your brother must too.”
He sighed heavily. “Shaddix ain’t letting that girl go.”
The outlander nodded. “I know that. Stilthius does too. He just wants it a certain way. Not slow and pained. Not after Pike and the rest wear their cocks out on her. That’s all he wants, to spare her that.”
Leer locked eyes with him. “Why? Why the fuck does he even care?”
Tyris opened his mouth to answer and then shut it. The real answer wasn’t his to give – wasn’t his business to share. “Maybe she reminds him of another place, another time. Maybe that.”
“That won’t be enough for Shaddix. Sure as hell not enough for Pike. What happens when Shaddix gives her over to him?”
Leer pushed off from the wall and laid a hand on the outlander’s arm. “You talk sense into your brother. You two don’t want to go against Shaddix – not for some little bitch looking to stab a man in the back. Don’t cross them. Don’t take that risk.”
Tyris brushed the hand away. “Fucking weaklings, you Kronans. We are Tulins and we fear no man.”
Afton Leer straightened. “Not about fear, you mad bastard. Just sense is all. No point dying for something stupid.”
The huge outlander stared down at him. “Don’t be so sure who’ll be doing the dying, old man.”
The balding pate went a bit whiter at that and he looked away, his eyes widening as he looked past the big man. Tyris turned to see Stilthius approaching from down the hall. He had his huge steel hammer in one hand, the wicked top-spike glinting in the light of the oil lamps. In his other hand, he carried Tyris’s double bladed axe.
“Made your decision, then?” Tyris asked as he took the weapon from his brother.
“No. Just want to be ready for his.”
“Then here’s your chance,” Leer muttered.
Three sets of eyes turned to Shaddix as he approached from the intersecting corridor, Pike at his side and a half dozen others trailing. They all fixed their gazes on the weapons the outlanders held as they approached.
“I ordered everyone away from the cellar last night,” the captain barked as he stopped before them, the others following suit.
“Just talking,” Leer told him. “They weren’t trying to get in.”
Whether he believed it or not, Shaddix nodded to the old man before looking to Stilthius. His eyes strayed to the hammer he held with undisguised concern before meeting his iron gaze. “Made my decision.”
Stilthius inclined his head toward Pike. “Free and clear I see.”
Shaddix shrugged his thick shoulders. “My decision. Make it as I please.”
“So let’s have it,” Tyris demanded. It wasn’t going to be one he liked, but he was tired of waiting and talking.
Shaddix gestured. “Let’s sit and talk like men.”
The outlanders and the rest of the mercenaries save Afton Leer followed him as they returned to the table in the front hall where they had met the previous night. Pike and the others pulled up chairs and Shaddix stood at the head of the table. Tyris and Stilthius stayed a short distance away, watching, waiting.
“So what’s it to be?” Stilthius asked. “Are we soldiers or scum?”
The captain held up a hand to stop him. “You keep quiet and listen now, outlander. I was hoping sleeping off the ale you all drowned in last night would help your moods. I know your feeling on this. I spoke with Pike this morning and I know his.”
“And?” Tyris asked.
“Pike’s right. He claims her life by our laws. No doubt in that.” He stared hard at Stilthius. “Wait now. I’m not done.” At the other end of the Pike went from a celebratory grin to a look of concern. “You did save Pike’s life too.”
Pike was on his feet in an instant. “Not but shit that! I fell out of my chair! Valrin-.”
“Would eat your shit if you told him to,” Shaddix finished for him. “Everyone knows that. I talked to Leer last night after I sent you all away. Unlike the rest of you, he was at least sober. He told me the whole of it. Seems to me, I have a good claim on the girl from Pike and something of an odd claim on him from the outlander.”
“Meaning what?” Pike demanded.
“Meaning it’s your right to take her life for her trying to take yours,” Shaddix answered. “But I’m going to grant the outlander his due for keeping you breathing. You can choose her execution, but she’s to be left alone until then. The outlander would have her die like a soldier.” He cocked his head at Stilthius. “That right?”
“But she ain’t no soldier!” Pike exploded. “A fucking back-stabbing cunt is all. Tried to kill me!”
“And she’ll pay for it!” Shaddix shouted back, silencing him. “But not like a dog. That’s the outlander’s favor for saving your sorry ass. Now shut the fuck up or I’ll change my mind in favor of whichever one of you doesn’t piss me off.”
Pike set his jaw and lowered himself into his seat. “Burning it is then. No oil. Just burned.”
So she suffers, Tyris thought. Filthy piece of shit. He would make it as bad for her as he could. He saw Stilthius’s jaw tighten, his knuckles grip the haft of his hammer until they were white. There was nothing to say though. He had achieved all he could here. A burning it was.
“Sundown,” Shaddix announced.
“I would see her before then,” Stilthius told the captain.
“You’re not to try anything to stop this, you understand.”
“Horseshit all this,” Pike muttered as he pushed himself up from the table. Valrin and a pair of others joined him. Pike started for the front door and then stopped, wheeling about to stalk back to Stilthius. He met the outlander’s eyes without fear, craning his neck to stare at the huge man.
“Careful, boy,” Tyris warned.
Pike never looked away. “What the fuck, you black bastard? Why do you even care? You think you’re better than the rest, always have. Well you ain’t. You kill and loot like the rest. You fight for coin. Stop pretending it’s some fucking god or honor or some other pointless shit.”
Stilthius cocked his head slightly. “Seems to me I’m not the one pretending to be something I’m not, little man.”
A wolfish smile creased Pike’s lean face. “Best watch yourself, Menion. Enough of us to make you regret foolish words.”
Tyris snorted, drawing their attention. “You’d best keep to threatening little girls, Pike.”
“Enough!” Shaddix called. “Pike, you and your lot leave until tempers ease.” He paused a moment waiting. “Now.”
Pike and the others shot the Menion brothers dark looks and then proceeded out the front door and slammed it behind them. Shaddix crossed the room to where the brothers stood when they were gone.
“You two pushed me about as hard as I’m willing to let my men,” he told them. “I expect that you know better than-.”
“How long have you known who he is?” Stilthius asked.
Shaddix stared. “What?”
“How long have you known he is Corith Yar?”
The captain set his jaw and drew a deep breath. “Since the start.”
“What do you owe him?”
“More than you might believe. More than I owe you two even. Don’t put me in a spot where it’s you or him. Not if you know what’s best for you. Just let it be.”
Stilthius shook his head at the smaller man and turned away. “I’ll tell the girl she’s seen her last sunrise.”
Tyris started after him, but Shaddix caught his arm. “Listen, outlander. You and your brother are worth any five of Pike and his little band of ass-kissers. But you have to believe me when I say it ain’t so simple as taking your side over his. Keep watch over your brother. Make sure he doesn’t do anything he regrets.”
Tyris took Shaddix’s wrist in his free hand and squeezed until the other released him. “If it comes to taking sides, make sure you don’t pick the one that regrets this, Shaddix. He’s my brother. There is nothing else for me.”
The captain rubbed his wrist when Tyris released him and nodded. Whether that meant he understood or he just wanted to get the outlander away from him, Tyris didn’t know. He didn’t care either.
He followed Stilthius, passing by Afton Leer at the top of the stairs and descending into the cellar. Stilthius was just opening the cell door when he arrived. The girl was lying on the cot, but pushed herself up to a sitting position as the door groaned outward.
“Shaddix, our captain, made his decision,” Stilthius told her.
She glanced up at the ceiling. “I can hear everything that happens. I know.”
She shook her head. “What for? All I wanted was to die well. Burning will do. Better that than to be treated like a whore, passed among those filthy bastards like a jug of ale and tossed away when they’re done only to be burned anyway.”
She brushed her hair back, staring at him with her one good eye. “But why? Your brother told the fat old man at the top of the stairs that this is about another place – another time. What did he mean?”
Stilthius glanced back at Tyris and then lowered himself to the floor, putting his back to the open door. “Does it matter?”
“I’ll be dead in a few hours, can it hurt to tell me your secrets? Call it the last wish of the damned. I assume it was a girl.”
Tyris settled against the nearest barrel as his brother began to speak, his voice low enough that it wouldn’t travel beyond the three of them. He knew the story. He’d lived it with Stilthius. But it was not his story and it never quite affected him as it had his older brother. It was something they rarely spoke of. There was enough of an understanding between them that they never needed to. The past was over, after all. Reaching back to pull up old memories and old pain didn’t accomplish much.
“The girl,” he told their prisoner, “was the daughter of a man who fell defending me. I owed her my life for that. I swore to her care and protection. I failed when she was murdered with my blood family – all but my brother.” He nodded to Tyris. “But those years we had? For a man who never fathered a child, I certainly had a daughter.”
She leaned forward when he paused, expectant.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else you’d rather talk about with the time you have left?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “I’ve suffered though my own life long enough. I could spend my last day hearing about a different one. Tell me about hers.”
Tyris closed his eyes and listened. It was a sad tale perhaps, beginning and end. But the middle reminded him of better times and better places.
At sundown, Pike had his burning.
The girl was taken to barren patch of earth where a barn had burned to ash the previous fall and a simple stake had been set in the ground. Pike and his men had their pyre built around it and torches lit and ready when Afton Leer and Shaddix brought her in, one at each arm. The men of Black River were mostly absent aside from those and the Menion brothers. Cutthroats, thieves and vagabonds, the majority were nonetheless slightly better than the kind that took pleasure in watching children burn, no matter their offense. Pike’s half dozen or so and a smattering of others were all that bothered to attend.
Stilthius stepped in front of Leer to stop him.
“Captain!” Pike called.
“Piss off,” Tyris called back before looking to Shaddix. “A moment, nothing more.”
The captain nodded, but kept a firm hold on her arm.
“One last word?” the girl asked Stilthius Menion, meeting his eyes with no hint of fear for what was to come.
She shook her head. “No. If you can’t put a name on me, you can always wonder about me. You can make me whoever you want me to be.”
The outlander stared at her for a long time without speaking. Behind them, Tyris could hear Pike and his men shifting impatiently. Finally, Stilthius nodded. “All right, then.”
“Can I ask one last thing of you?” she asked.
“Yes,” was his simple reply.
She managed a small smile. “Remember me as you remembered your family.”
Stilthius nodded once more, a flicker of something Tyris thought might have been understand in his eyes, and then stepped aside. Shaddix and Afton Leer resumed the march to the pyre and bound her hands to the stake with leather cords. Pike and his men called to her with mocking laughter and shouted insults. The girl did not even look at them. She locked eyes with Stilthius and made no sound at all.
“We don’t have to watch this,” Tyris whispered to his brother. “We can just go.”
Stilthius did not even look at him. “No. I will stay.”
Pike and the rest rushed forward with their torches as Leer and the captain stepped away. They lit the dry wood that surrounded the girl, shouting more insults and laughing like fools. Pike smirked at the Menion brothers as they stepped back and the flames roared high.
Their laughter died away and the smiles turned to disappointed frowns as they watched. Her eyes riveted on Stilthius, the girl made no sound, uttered no cry. Even as her clothes caught and burned, she refused to give them the satisfaction of screaming for their amusement. When she finally succumbed to the thick smoke, she simply sagged against her bonds and burned.
Stilthius turned away then. Tyris followed without a word.
The next day a rider came to Acacia with orders from the Duke for Shaddix to take his command north to a town called Tessis. All forty-seven men gathered their gear and belongings in a matter of hours, saddled horses and loaded mules and had left the little town behind. No one spoke of the burning or the strife among the men after they left. What was done was to be forgotten and the next town was their concern.
Tessis, Shaddix told them all before they set out, was under siege from Alliance soldiers and likely to fall without relief. Black River was that relief, of course. It was paying work and that was enough for most. Shaddix was noticeably better tempered with the promise of coins in the coffers and most of the men, grown complacent with easy days in Acacia, were in better spirits now that they had a sense of purpose.
Three days after they left Acacia, the mercenaries of Black River fell on the sieging Alliance soldiers, attacking their supply train and carving up their rear guard. Taken by surprise, the soldiers offered little resistance and the professionals of Black River cut them down with brutal efficiency. Wagons were set alight, provisions and equipment destroyed. The mercenaries, overwhelming in their superior skill and savage abandon, annihilated a charge of spearmen sent to save the supplies.
The gates of Tessis opened in response and the town militia sallied forth to attack the disorganized siege army. Scattered and off-balance from the wild assault, the Alliance soldiers stood for a time but finally broke and fled.
As the town militia celebrated the end of the siege, the men of Black River took to looting what was left of the supply train and the dead.
In the rush for coins and weapons and bits of jewelry, Pike found himself isolated from his men as he searched the body of a dead Alliance soldier. Or a soldier he thought dead.
Stilthius Menion was a moment too late to keep the wounded man from plunging a knife into Pike’s throat.
There was more than a touch of doubt about the account he and Tyris gave of what happened, but Afton Leer, the only other man nearby, confirmed their story.
A witness, after all, was all Shaddix required when it came to such matters.
Tyris wondered from time to time afterward if Leer might someday tell a different version of that day. But then, he figured the man had made it to old age by not being as stupid as most.
Stilthius mentioned nothing of his intentions even to Tyris in the three days between Acacia and Tessis, but then, he needn’t have. Tyris knew it was coming because he’d heard the girl ask for it.
To remember her as he had his family was her last request. Tyris and Stilthius’s family were all dead.
And so were the cowards who murdered them.
The Menion brothers were Tulins. And their code was one of honor that these weaklings could never understand.
Other Titles by Edward K Ryan
Thinner Than Blood (The Mark of the Dead – Book 1)
Slate Run Annual – Vol 1. (Contributor)
Ghosts of Kiranon
Ed Ryan can be contacted at .
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