I think the title probably explains it really, I started this back in November last year but never got around to writing more, hopefully having it up here will encourage me to get my backside in gear.
All material (C) Copyright James Wonnacott 2012
The man had been dead for over a week.
That was what the court physician, travelling with his lord on the hunting trip, had said as he had peered over the gold rims of his spectacles with something akin to a smug superiority in his tone. Probably bandits, he said.
Sir Leyke Greyshorn, Hustan’s ward and master of horse, had concurred with the probable cause of death, and his was a widely respected opinion.
Indeed, even the commander of the town watch, unversed though he was in actual war, had agreed that the man must have been the victim of bandits, although nobody put much stock faith in his words, possessing as they did the tones of a sycophant.
But looking at the body once more, Lord Hustan Greyshorn of Greyholm was inclined to disagree. He could not say precisely why, although when he looked closely he could find evidence enough to support his belief. The corpse, whose gate papers identified him as Colm Haerlan, a merchant of small importance within the city, had the look of a man mutilated for more than the coins in his wallet. The wound which had killed him, a massive cut across his back, was somehow cleaner and deeper than one would expect to see inflicted by a bandit’s sword, and the man’s face retained the look of fear it had worn as he died, the moment forever frozen by death. And then there was the sigil which had been carved onto his back. Someone, presumably his killers, had taken the time to engrave his back with the symbol of the serpent; although quite why they would do this was beyond Hustan’s understanding. The serpent had been the symbol of the Heiđir, the men of the traitorous northern cities of Deiris and Blackstone Mount which had refused to accept the word of the prophet Phaler, yet nobody had seen a man from either of these in over a century, and many believed that the traitors had died out in the frozen wastes. Others even went so far as to say that they had never existed, and that they were inventions of the all-powerful church of Phaleria, designed to keep the populace in check – although never within earshot of a member of the clergy.
Lord Hustan was less sure, but he was not about to suggest that the ancient ancestral foes of his house had returned once more without further evidence.
Jarl Bjorn Eriksson of the mercenary company pulled up alongside him on horseback.
“Thinking, my lord?” enquired Bjorn, smiling faintly. Hustan liked Bjorn, a rugged northerner like himself, and found himself smiling back at his friend.
“Aye, Bjorn. Thinking about the deceased.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the packhorses carrying the corpse.
Bjorn nodded thoughtfully. He was a formidable figure of a man, clad in heavy mail and bearing a long bladed sword in a scabbard on his belt. Across his back was slung a circular wooden shield with an iron rim and a heavy boss at the centre. It was adorned with the symbol of a bolt of lightning striking a boar, the emblem of his mercenary company, the Thunderborn. His face, visible despite the protective mail that covered his head, was scarred and lined with age, yet his grey eyes blazed with defiant vigour. His beard was thick and streaked with silver, but was short and showed signs of regular trimming, and on his arms were several gold arm rings and more of silver, hard-won evidence of long years of faithful service and skilled leadership. He wore the scars on his face as badges of honour; and there was a certain rough-hewn nobility to his features that spoke of a sense of honour rare amongst men of his profession. At his waist was a plain leather belt, tucked into which were numerous daggers and blades, while his boots concealed yet more blades. His years spent with the Varic clans had taught him the importance of carrying spare weapons, and Bjorn Eriksson was not a man who forgot easily.
“Odd that. Not many bandits who’ll take the trouble to make their mark upon a man,” he said eventually.
Hustan nodded in agreement.
“Fewer still who’d leave him with a full purse afterwards,” Bjorn continued.
Hustan stopped at that, surprised.
“His wallet was full?”
“Aye, sire. A hundred gold valens. Twice as many silver crowns. All defaced.”
“Defaced?” Hustan frowned. “How so?”
Bjorn held up a coin and pointed to the side stamped with the head of King Forlec of Valensca. Across the face was scored a deep cut which split the head in two, denying the coin of its value.
“May I?” asked Hustan, and Bjorn tossed him the coin. Hustan caught it and held it up into the light to examine it more closely. After a moment he passed the coin back to Bjorn.
“Are they all like that?” he asked.
“Aye, they are at that. All across the same point too. I’d say that someone would need a ****ing good knife to do that.” The two had been friends for long enough that the profanity did not offend Hustan.
“Yes, and too much time on their hands,” returned Hustan, smiling.
Bjorn laughed; the sound a mighty roar that rippled across the barren countryside.
“The question is, though,” said Hustan, “why would anyone want to do that? Forlec is hardly the most popular king Valensca’s ever known, but gold’s gold where bandits are concerned.”
“I also found this on him, lord” said Bjorn grimly, holding up a small brass tag. Hustan looked at it more closely, and realised that a series of Varic runes had been scratched roughly onto the surface with a knife.
“What does it mean?” asked Hustan.
“It’s an epitaph of sorts. The runes read ‘By his death Haerlan honours his debt to the north.’ A common enough practice amongst the smaller clans, I suppose, but for the serpent mark on the back.”
There it is again, thought Hustan. But why? The serpent banner had not marched for over a century, so why mark a man with the symbol?
“Why did the others not see this?” he asked Bjorn suspiciously.
“Because I took it when I first saw it,” the mercenary shrugged simply, “and because men see what they want to see, and that fool physician did not want to think that the death was caused by anything more than bandits.”
“And what of Sir Leyke? Surely my own kinsman was not so blind as that?”
“Sir Leyke is young, lord, and he has never seen the devastation an invasion can bring. He doubtless believed that even the Heiđir could not be so dishonourable as to murder a defenceless merchant.”
“Well, that’s something I suppose. I’d rather he was idealistic than stupid like his father.”
Bjorn chuckled at that. Sir Leyke’s father, Sir Thom Mirren, had fled the realm to live as an outlaw a decade earlier after an ill-conceived affair with Hustan’s sister Neria; and so Leyke had been raised as Hustan’s ward, even taking the Greyshorn name as his own.
“Leyke’s a good lad,” opined Bjorn after a moment. “If he can just learn that not all men are as noble as your own house, he’ll make an excellent leader, too.”
“Aye, he might at that. The post as master of horse has done the boy good.”
Bjorn nodded, but his mind was already on other matters.
“So what are you going to do, sire?” he asked.
“Do? I’m not sure that there’s a lot I can do to be honest, though I’ll do what I can of course. When we get back I’ll hold a council of war, and then I’ll ride south to Valensca request Forlec’s aid. The Valenscans have been our allies for ten generations, and if I can sway them then others may join us. If that fails, I’ll try to win some support in Phaleria. The church has no reason to love the Heiđir.” He snorted before continuing. “It’s not much of a plan, but it’ll have to do.”
“And if it does not?” pressed Bjorn.
“Then we’ll just have to call a mustering of the kingdom and hope for the best,” replied Hustan simply.
Bjorn bowed his head sombrely in acknowledgement, before murmuring his response.
“May the gods help us. Who’d have thought it could come to this.”
Hustan stood there for a moment, sharing in his friend’s moment of uncharacteristic tranquillity before turning back to face Bjorn.
“Bjorn,” he said, his voice taking on a sterner edge, and the mercenary looked into the intense, almost black eyes of his liege. “You must not speak of what you saw here today to anyone before I make the news official. If this gets out before we have prepared for it, we could have a mass panic on our hands.”
“Of course, sire.”
Hustan nodded curtly as if satisfied by the response. “I’m trusting you, Jarl. Don’t let me down,” he said seriously, before walking away from Bjorn.
Bjorn stared after his friend for a while before a tap on his shoulder interrupted his thoughts.
“Lord?” asked a voice. The voice was strong and youthful, and Bjorn turned to see Guy Tasque behind him. Tasque, the bastard son of a minor Valenscan noble, had joined the Thunderborn a year beforehand and had swiftly risen until he had reached the position of Bjorn’s second in command, a dangerous position he had held onto longer than most. Bjorn turned and scowled belligerently at the man, although he knew that it
was unfair of him to do so. Tasque, for all his youthful brashness, was a good man in a profession where good men seldom lived long.
“Sorry, lord,” apologised Tasque, wincing slightly as he saw the expression on Bjorn’s face. “I don’t s’pose you’d care to share the contents of that last conversation with us?”
Bjorn shook his head sharply.
“No?” Tasque failed to keep the surprise from his voice.
“No,” agreed Bjorn. “Never you ****ing mind what your superiors have to say. You stick to soldiering and I’ll deal with leading the warband, got that?”
Tasque considered pressing the point for a moment before thinking better of it. He knew that look in Bjorn’s eyes, and now was not the time to press him on the matter.
“If you say so, lord,” he said eventually.
“I do say so,” continued Bjorn, “all that you need to know is that Lord Greyshorn there will have more need of our services soon than ever before, and when he does it’ll be the nastiest hellhole you’ve ever seen.”
“Sounds like our kind of fight,” grinned Tasque, and Bjorn smiled grimly.
“Aye, lad, it does at that.”