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The Grim Company
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The Grim Company

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Author: Luke Scull
Publisher: Roc, 2013
Head of Zeus, 2013
Series: The Grim Company: Book 1

1. The Grim Company
2. Sword of the North
3. Dead Man's Steel

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Heroic Fantasy
Sword and Sorcery
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Synopsis

First in an epic, gritty trilogy from the hottest new voice in British fantasy.

It is a time of darkness. The last magic of the dead gods is on the wane. Demons and half-formed monsters plague the land as the final barriers between the realms begin to fail. The jealous Magelords of three great cities sit in their towers of stone and brood over the scant power that remains...

It is not a time of heroes. Their songs are long forgotten, their deeds go unwritten.

But, even now, some few still nurse a spark of hope, an unlikely fellowship, united against the tyranny of their immortal overlords - THE GRIM COMPANY.


Excerpt

A Tyrant's Wager

The wind whipped the flag of the warship swaying at anchor, the stylized 'M' wrought in silver thread on a black background proudly proclaiming her the head of Shadowport's triumphant fleet.

The conflict that had bloodied the waters of the Trine for the last six months was over. Two hundred miles to the north, across the Broken Sea, Dorminia was counting the cost of pitting its navy against the superior firepower of the ships from the City of Shades.

Tarn watched the crew of the Liberty swagger on to the docks to be engulfed in an adoring crowd. Joyous laughter and breathless chatter rolled across the wharf; tears flowed as family and friends welcomed their returning heroes. Tarn stared for a moment longer, then turned and spat into the deep blue water of the harbour. He watched the phlegm bob for a moment before the choppy water disintegrated it. A passing woman gave him a hard look as she moved to mingle with the disembarking soldiers.

He would have been among the first on the ships when the hostilities with Dorminia had escalated, but his lame leg had made that impossible. On the Broken Sea, as everywhere else, he would be useless: an anchor weighing down those who depended on him.

Out of habit he glanced down at his hands. Crusted scabs and old bruises stared back, and he winced. Shame surged up like a geyser. He needed to see Sara. He needed to say sorry.

Head bowed, Tarn began the slow limp home.

To mark the city's victory in the war for the Celestial Isles in the Endless Ocean far to the west, Lord Marius had issued an edict for three days' suspension of labour. Revellers flitted in and out of the shadows cast by the dying sun, which this late in the day was a crimson half-orb slowly sinking beneath the waves of the Broken Sea.

Tarn felt his anger mounting as he made his way through the jumble of buildings beyond the harbour. Marius's decadence was extreme, his appetite for both food and flesh legendary. Like the Tyrant of Dorminia, and the mysterious White Lady who ruled Thelassa to the east, Marius was a Magelord: an immortal wizard of vast power who had brought about the Age of Ruin.

A damned Godkiller.

The crowd drifting towards the harbour had grown larger. Many of those heading down to the docks were whores, scantily clad and trailing cheap perfume, desperate to empty the purses of the disembarking soldiers.

Sensing early custom, one stepped in front of Tarn. She pushed her chest out and gave him a smile. Her teeth were crooked, but her eyes were a lively blue and her dirty brown hair framed a face that might be called attractive.

'Thirsty, darling? I got a cup that'll wet your tongue and no mistake,' she said, brushing her hands quickly down her thighs. Somehow she managed to raise the hem of her short dress as she did so. Her legs were pale and slightly bruised, like the white cheeses Shadowport exported up the coast of the Broken Sea to Thelassa and beyond. The sight triggered unpleasant memories.

Tarn cleared his throat. 'Ain't interested. Got a wife waiting for me at home.' He pointed to the plain band on his finger, trying to ignore the slight dent in the cheap silver.

The whore tutted softly in disappointment, an ingratiating gesture designed to flatter, but the deceit was plain as her eyes swept over his ruddy face, his thinning hair, his expanding paunch.

'Might be I can do you a special price, what with the celebrations and all. What your wife don't know won't harm her none, ain't that so?' The woman's voice held a note of disinterest now, as if she'd decided she'd already worked hard enough for whatever meagre rewards she might glean. The assumption angered Tarn, not least because it was correct.

'You know what it feels like to be loved? To have someone there for you no matter what, whatever stupid damn thing you to do to drive 'em away? A woman like that deserves a man who stays faithful.'

'Whatever you say, mister. Plenty more like you will pass this way tonight. Most with better spirits and deeper pockets, I'd wager.' And the woman shoved past him.

Tarn snorted in annoyance. His left knee was beginning to ache as it always did, ever since the accident.

He resumed his slow journey home.

The light was beginning to fade. Dark clouds had sprung up in the half-bell it had taken Tarn to reach the industrial sector known locally as East Tar, adding yet another layer of grey to the smog-filled skyline. The forges lay cold and dormant in the midst of the city's celebrations, but little evidence of the festivities had permeated this part of Shadowport. East Tar was a dreary, moribund place; for Tarn, it was home.

He cursed his bad leg as it sent a fierce stab of pain down into his knee. The sudden jolt caused him to stumble forwards into a suspicious damp patch on the ground.

A boy's laughter reached his ears. 'See that, Tomaz? Fat bastard nearly flopped face down into your piss!'

'He's probably drunk again.' Tarn's fists balled, the anger surging within him. There were six of them, local lads. An ugly bunch. One of the youths swaggered right up to him and sniffed.

'He's not drunk.'

'For once. Guess his wife is safe tonight. You saw those bruises he gave her?'

'Yeah. Her face was all yellow and brown, like a dog turd.' The speaker, now safely back among his fellows, gave Tarn a sly look. 'Still, put a bag over her head and it'd make no difference, know what I mean?' The youth thrust his hips forwards and made grunting noises, much to the delight of the rest of the gang.

Tarn began to shake. He stepped towards them, his face bulging in rage. In an instant the youths' casual amusement switched to deadly seriousness, their feral eyes locked on him, hands straying to their belts. Tarn knew the odds weren't in his favour. He didn't care. He just wanted to hurt them.

At that moment the first patter of rain began to fall. With it came something intangible and unseen, a convergence of vast energies that all present sensed but could not articulate.

'Huh,' said one of the gang, and looked around at his fellows.

'Best get back,' Tomaz said. 'I have to let Tyro in. He don't like the rain.'

The others nodded, murderous thoughts replaced by concern for their friend's dog. They melted away into the gathering rain, shooting Tarn baleful glares but saying nothing.

Tarn bowed his head against the acidic rain as he made his unsteady way through the slippery streets. He needed to get home: Sara would be waiting for him. The wind had picked up, gusting cold water into his face. He blinked it away. Night had settled over the city like a blanket.

He hated what he'd become, but what could he do? The drink had broken him – broken him as completely as the falling cargo had shattered his leg. All the coin he had put aside for the last ten years, a full ten gold spires, gone on a physician who had saved the limb but left him crippled and broke. Sara deserved better.

He was almost home. What if she'd left before he had the chance to apologize? She was younger than him, a woman in her prime. She hadn't been able to provide him with any children, but there were apothecaries in the city that might have helped with that. Shadowport's recent advances in the sciences had been the talk of the Trine before the war.

There was no chance of hiring an apothecary now, not with his pockets near empty.

He approached the door to his modest home. There was no light from within. All was silent apart from the steady patter of rain rolling off the slate roof and down the red-brick walls to splash on the cobbles below. Tarn felt a moment of panic.

A light suddenly flickered on and the door opened. Sara stood there before him, the candle in her hand illuminating the fading bruises on her face. Without a word, she turned and moved into the kitchen. He followed her.

The small dining table was set with two bowls. He took his seat as Sara placed the candle down and walked over to the iron stove. She returned with the battered old stew pot and ladled a generous portion of the warm casserole into his dish and a smaller portion into her own, and placed two wooden spoons on the table. Then she sat down opposite him.

A half-bell passed. Sara barely glanced at him. She hardly touched her food. The dull ache in his skull was returning. He sat back and searched for the words he'd been waiting to say.

'Sara... I never meant to touch you. You know that. I'm a bloody fool. A useless, crippled fool. I'm so--'

The bowl flew past his head, missing it by scarcely an inch. Sara's face was a cold mask, yet her hands shook.

'You bastard,' she said. She pushed herself to her feet. 'How could you do this to me?'

'I couldn't help myself, Sara. I told you. You deserve better.'

'You're damn right I deserve better!' She looked around in sudden fury, grabbed the pan off the stove and moved towards him threateningly. Tarn slid out of his chair, cursing as he jarred his knee. She swung the pan and it struck him hard, right on the side of the head.

'Ow!' he bellowed, blinding light exploding in his vision. He felt blood running down his cheek, dribbling over his chin. It hurt like hell. Sara raised the pan again. He caught her arm and squeezed tight. The pan fell from her weakening grip. The anger that had been bubbling within him all day suddenly surged upwards, unstoppable, a mindless fury. He squeezed tighter and she gasped. He raised the scabbed knuckles of his other hand, clenched them tight. Her eyes met his. His fist wavered.

And then they both heard it. A crashing like a thousand waves striking a cliff. The patter of rain on the roof became a fierce drumming. The ceiling shook. Leaks began to appear, streams of water showering down and soaking the table, the floor, the furniture. Screams echoed from the street, barely audible above the roaring and splashing.

Tarn released his wife's arm. Together they rushed outside. The waters of Dusk Bay raged and boiled a hundred feet above the city, blanketing the skyline from horizon to horizon. A billion tons of water hung in the sky, suspended by some unimaginable power, streaming droplets that splattered on to the city below. Some men and women huddled on the street, frozen by fear; others locked themselves inside their houses. A few elders closed their eyes and prayed to gods they knew couldn't hear them. The gods had been dead for five centuries, murdered during the Godswar, their corpses cast down from the heavens by the Magelords who now ruled over the shattered continent.

Tarn stared at the impossible spectacle above him. He felt no fear. No sorrow. His mind was numb, unable to comprehend the scale of what was happening. A dog barked wildly nearby, running back and forth in terror. A young man cried a name – Tyro? – and threw his arms around the animal to soothe it.

Tarn felt a hand in his, soft skin against his grazed knuckles. Gently, he pulled Sara close to him.

'I'm sorry,' he whispered, and kissed her forehead. Sara buried her head in his chest. He stood there stroking her wet hair, blinking up at the raging maelstrom. Without warning it ceased to move, hanging still for a heartbeat. He could make out a ship, the prow and half the deck protruding from the water almost directly above his head. The Liberty.

The sky fell.

Angel of Death

Earlier that day...

The water seemed to crush him with a giant's grip, forcing the air from his lungs. He thrashed wildly and shook his head, willing his body to resist just a moment longer. His chest burned. He could do this. Three minutes. That was all. A few more seconds and--

It was no good. With a mighty exhalation, Davarus Cole's head burst from the water. He beat the sides of the iron washtub furiously with his fists, cursing the Magelord whose death was his life's goal. The tyrant who ruled this city with an iron fist.

Salazar. We'll have our reckoning one day.

He placed a hand on each side of the tub and pushed himself up. He stood there for a moment, blinking water from his eyes. His gaze went to the small mirror in the corner of the room. It was a rare item in Dorminia, where only the nobles could normally afford such extravagance. His mentor and foster father, Garrett, had procured it for him at some cost. As far as Cole was concerned it was a luxury he fully deserved.

After all, he thought, a hero has to look the part.

His lean, sinewy body looked back at him from the mirror, neck-length black hair and short goatee contrasted sharply with pale and glistening skin. The chill water in the tub had sapped what faint colour he possessed, and he looked almost ghostlike.

An angel of death.

Cole narrowed his grey eyes and marvelled at his forbidding appearance. He imagined the look on Salazar's wrinkled old face when Magebane slid home, the soft sigh of recognition as the tyrant's blood spilled from his mouth and his body sagged. Remember my father, you old bastard? What you did to him? I'm Davarus Cole, and I've come to take what's mine.

He frowned. What was his? Vengeance, certainly, but there had to be more than that. It wouldn't do to tarnish his moment of triumph with doubt as to the true meaning of his grand utterance. Then again, perhaps it summed up Davarus Cole perfectly. A man of mystery. He liked the sound of that.

On an impulse Cole tensed and leaped backwards out of the tub, somersaulting in the air and landing in a crouch several feet away. He rose slowly and turned back to the mirror for one last admiring glance. His mind drifted again to the moment of his inevitable glory. Not now. Not today. But someday soon.

Lost in thought, his usually sharp ears failed to detect the approaching footsteps until they were almost at the door of his apartment. With a sudden feeling of dread, Cole realized he'd forgotten to turn the key. He froze. The door thudded open and Sasha bustled in.

They stared at each other. Sasha was a couple of years his senior, tall and slender, with dark brown hair that reached her shoulders and captivating eyes. He watched in rising panic as they made their way down his naked body.

A ghost of a smile danced on Sasha's lips as she said, 'Well, that's a less than impressive sight. I thought you possessed a weapon that could absorb magic and skewer Magelords like a hog. I have trouble believing an instrument like that could slay a farm girl.'

Cole looked down at his shrunken manhood. He quickly covered it with his left hand and gestured towards the washtub with the other. 'It's the water,' he mumbled. 'It's extremely cold.'

Sasha watched him for a moment, her oddly dilated eyes glittering with amusement. 'You might want to lock the door next time.' Her smile faded. 'Garrett wants us all at the Hook a bell from now. Make sure you're there on time – I think this is serious. No messing around, Cole.'

'Right,' he said meekly as she turned back to the door. She paused.

Without looking back, she said, 'Don't worry. As far as I'm concerned, you're still a prize cock.' And with a small laugh, Sasha swept out of his apartment.

To most in the Trine, Dorminia was known as the Grey City. The title was apt in more than one way: almost all Dorminia's buildings were constructed from granite quarried in the Demonfire Hills, which rose up just beyond the city's north wall. Centuries before now the hills had been home to tribes of wild hill-folk, but the random magical abominations and other terrors that had blighted the land since the Godswar had driven those tribes north into the Badlands. A few ancient records mentioned a catastrophe in ages past that had given the Demonfire Hills their name, but the exact details were vague; much of the world's history had been lost in the cataclysmic aftermath of the deicide.

The wind grew fierce as Davarus Cole exited his small apartment and made his way up the Tyrant's Road. The wide thoroughfare sloped gently down towards the harbour in the south; to the north, it passed through the large circular plaza known as the Hook and up into the Noble Quarter, where a pampered and privileged few governed Dorminia in the name of the Magelord Salazar.

Cole could just about see the pinnacle of the Obelisk piercing the skyline. A monolith of magically reinforced granite in the centre of the Noble Quarter, the Obelisk had become the symbol of Salazar's tyranny.

The city's despotic Magelord had founded Dorminia almost five hundred years ago, shortly after the cataclysmic Godswar altered the region beyond recognition. The death of Malantis and his plunge from the heavens into the Azure Sea flooded the Kingdom of Andarr and eventually formed the inhospitable Drowned Coast, which now ran for hundreds of miles south and west of the Trine. Despite the fact they had murdered the gods, Salazar and his fellow Magelords were the only protection the survivors of the devastated kingdom had to cling to while chaotic magic ravaged the land. They fled north and east to Thelassa, which survived the flooding, and helped build the cities of Shadowport and Dorminia. Even life under a deicidal wizard was preferable to a certain death.

In the centuries since the Godswar, the Trine had grown into one of the largest pockets of civilization north of the Sun Lands. True, the Confederation dwarfed the Trine, but that alliance of nations, which had reclaimed their independence after the Gharzian Empire fragmented, was a month's ride to the east, beyond the abomination-plagued Unclaimed Lands.

Cole had never set foot past the hinterland settlements that supplied Dorminia's demand for food and other resources. He remembered escorting Garrett on a business trip to Malbrec three years ago, and feeling terribly bored. The provinces were the homes of farmers and miners and other common sorts, not men like him – men destined for greatness.

The gurgling waters of the Redbelly River accompanied Cole as he walked up the Tyrant's Road. The Redbelly ran almost parallel, a hundred or so yards to his left, winding down from the Demonfire Hills into the harbour. Few vessels plied the waters of the river this time of year; winter's bitter touch was still heavy in the spring air, and the cold would last a while longer. There was also the matter of the war with Shadowport. What had begun late last autumn as a dispute over the newly discovered Celestial Isles in the Endless Ocean hundreds of miles to the west had ended in Dorminia's humiliating defeat.

As far as Cole was concerned, any blow against Salazar was a victory for the people of Dorminia, even if they didn't yet realize it. The failure of the city's navy proved that the Tyrant of Dorminia was not infallible. It was this kind of setback – together with the efforts of men like Davarus Cole – that would ultimately loosen Salazar's grip enough for the good people of Dorminia to rise up and overthrow their eternal overlord. If Cole didn't kill him first.

The thought made him smile. One day the entire north would know him for the hero he was.

A screech rent the air and Cole looked up in alarm. A mindhawk wheeled in broad circles overhead. Its silver head vibrated slowly and its sapphire eyes scanned the city below. Those men and women unfortunate enough to find themselves in the area immediately began to hurry away.

Cole almost scurried off as well. Then he remembered the pill he had swallowed before leaving his apartment and breathed more easily. The drug was a soporific of sorts, numbing the parts of the brain that could inadvertently transmit treasonous thoughts to the magical mutations in the sky above. He would have a headache the next morning, but it was a small price to pay to avoid the Black Lottery. The Crimson Watch randomly selected those guilty of perfidious thinking and subjected them to brutality, imprisonment and, in some cases, outright murder.

A disturbance ahead brought his attention back to the street. Two Watchmen were approaching, herding a frail old man. One of the red-cloaked soldiers gave him a vicious shove from behind and he stumbled, falling on his face. When he regained his feet, Cole saw that he now bore an ugly graze from scalp to cheek. The old man turned to his tormenters and began to protest, but a fist from the other Watchman dropped him to the ground again.

Cole went perfectly still. Incidents like this were not uncommon. Ostensibly the Crimson Watch served Dorminia and its territories as both standing army and city guard. In reality, they were little more than a network of thugs and bullies who terrorized the populace on the orders of the city magistrates and their ruthless master in the Obelisk.

The sensible course of action would be to slink away and avoid drawing attention to himself. Hadn't Garrett urged caution? 'The collective outweighs the individual,' his foster father always said. 'We can't right every wrong. Acting rashly places us all in danger. Choose your battles wisely and remember that Shards cut deepest from the shadows.'

Cole frowned. Garrett probably hadn't been referring to him. After all, it was fairly obvious that his abilities and quick wits outstripped those of his peers by no small distance – and besides, hadn't Garrett always said he would one day be a great hero, like his real father? A man such as he met injustice head on, enchanted blade in hand and epic destiny propelling him forwards with a righteous fury no petty villain could withstand.

His mind set, Cole strolled towards the Watchmen as assuredly as he could. He couldn't help but notice the smattering of a crowd had melted away entirely. Its disappearance left him entirely exposed. His throat suddenly felt very dry.

The soldier kneeling over the old man looked up as Cole approached. He gave his colleague a questioning glance, removed his sword from his victim's neck and straightened.

'What the fuck do you want?' he demanded coldly.

The other Watchman moved closer to Cole and dropped a hand to his scabbard. His voice was full of malice. 'You'd better have good reason for interrupting official Crimson Watch business, boy, or I'm gonna drag your arse to the cells.'

'That's enough!' commanded Cole, in a voice he fervently hoped rang with authority. He reached under his cloak and placed a hand around the hilt of Magebane. For some reason his hands had started trembling. That wasn't supposed to happen.

He pushed ahead with his ruse. 'Since you two sons of whores are too stupid to work it out, you're speaking to an Augmentor. This man is wanted at the Obelisk. Hand him over.' Sweat had begun to bead on his forehead. He tried to will it away, without success.

'That so?' The soldier to the left of Cole sounded unimpressed. He was a cruel-looking man of middling years, with small, squinty eyes and a pockmarked face. 'Then you'll take no offence if we ask you to prove your credentials.' He waited expectantly. Cole swallowed hard and drew Magebane in one smooth motion, holding the long dagger in such a way that his shaking hand was mostly concealed. He nodded at the weapon. 'This is enchanted. See the glow? No one except an Augmentor may possess such a weapon. I trust that satisfies your curiosity.'

Please, just nod and leave in peace, he silently prayed. What he said was, 'Now get the fuck out of my sight before I shove this dagger so far up your dick eye it tickles the back of your throat with your balls!'

The Watchmen glanced at one another. An understanding seemed to pass between them. Pock-face shrugged and spat at the battered fellow on the ground.

'Right you are. He's yours. We'll bid you good day.' The two men moved slowly past Cole and continued south down the road.

He watched the fluttering red cloaks retreating. Elation flooded him and he couldn't help but grin at his impromptu wit. He might be better educated than the rest of the Shards – the rebels he called comrades – but he could still cuss like the roughest of them when the occasion called for it. He was an everyman, he supposed, whose natural charm and adaptability allowed him to empathize effortlessly with both the noblest and the most inconsequential of men.

He looked down at the groaning old fellow at his feet. His left eye socket was heavily bruised and blood caked his cheek and neck. 'Are you OK?' Cole asked.

'Uh...' the man replied. He tried to rise but failed. Cole felt a sudden flash of impatience.

'Did you even see what just happened? I saved your life. They would have killed you.' He softened his voice and placed a comforting hand on the man's shoulder as he struggled to his knees. 'It may not seem like it now, but fate had a purpose in your being here. You were supposed to witness this. One day you'll look back and laugh and wonder if this wasn't the birth of the legend-- What? What is it?'

The man's uninjured eye had gone wide, as if he had seen something terrible approaching behind Cole. The young Shard turned.

Pock-face was standing there, an evil sneer on his face. The other Watchman had his sword raised. As if in slow motion, Cole's eyes swivelled to the right to stare up at the pommel that was descending on his head. He managed to jerk back quickly enough to take the brunt of the blow on his nose.

Crack. An explosion of pain. Ridiculous pain. He tried to scream, but his voice broke and it came out as a piggish squeal. White light blinded him. When his vision returned he found that he was lying on top of the old fool. How did that happen?

Slimy liquid in his mouth, tasting of salt. Blood. He shook his head and struggled desperately to orientate himself.

Pock-face was standing over him. Sunlight glinted off his raised longsword, reflecting on to his chain mail. Cole tried to focus. He saw the Obelisk against a red sunset on the Watchman's white tabard. Red bloodstains too. My blood?

The soldier brought his longsword whistling down. Cole managed to roll out of the way just in time. It cut the air where he had lain but a moment before and cleaved the head of the old man in two. Bone fragments and brain matter defaced the cobbles.

Gritting his teeth against the pain in his skull, Cole raised Magebane and stabbed at the leg of the Watchman. The glowing dagger scored a shallow wound and the soldier cursed, readying his gore-covered longsword for another strike. His companion advanced, his own blade raised.

Cole scrabbled madly backwards as Pock-face launched a savage overhead swing. The sword descended and suddenly Magebane was there, turning aside the larger weapon as if it weighed nothing. Pock-face aimed a kick at Cole's chest. It connected with a sickening thud and sent him sprawling. The Watchman snarled and sprang forwards, intending to end the fight. He slipped on a pool of gore and his wounded leg buckled. He struck the ground hard, uttering a string of vile curses.

Get up! Get up! Cole forced himself to his feet. His nose and chin dribbled blood, but at least his arms and legs still functioned. The other Watchman was closing fast, his sword raised.

Cole took a deep breath to steady his nerves. This is what it came down to. He couldn't overcome the soldier in hand-to-hand combat – not with his injuries and the Watchman's superior armour. His own leather would offer scant protection. He raised his left hand and lined up Magebane, as he had so often practised. He couldn't miss. Fate wouldn't allow it. It was in moments like these that heroes performed deeds for historians to marvel upon.

He threw the dagger, watching as Magebane pivoted unerringly end over end through the air towards the soldier's head. It was a magnificent throw, as he knew it would be. Practice makes perfect, particularly for a natural marksman with an instinct for--

The blunt hilt of the dagger struck the Watchman's right eye. He bellowed in anger and reached for his face as Magebane clattered to the ground. His comrade had regained his feet and was now limping towards Cole, his mouth a twisted snarl of fury. 'Kill the fucker!' he screamed, spittle spraying over his chin.

Cole whimpered and ran as if his life depended on it. Which it did.

He'd been running for several minutes. His chest felt as if it was on fire. Every breath was agony.

He coughed and spat out blood. He could hear them pursuing through the winding alleyways that led south-east of the Hook. He shouldered past everyone he met – in these slums, the poor and the destitute – knocking one old woman into a pile of refuse and wincing as her cries drew the attention of the soldiers chasing him.

His breathing became more laboured. Something was wrong with his lungs. He slowed to a walk, and then to a complete halt. By a warehouse stinking of rotten fish, he sank to his knees and listened as death approached. A single tear rolled down his cheek. A sorry end, he thought bitterly.

Back on the Run

He pushed with all the strength he could muster. It was like trying to force a pebble through the eye of a needle. Or an arm through one of the Shaman's wicker cages.

The High Fangs were a world away, but there were some memories you couldn't leave behind. No matter how far you ran. Brodar Kayne bit down and grunted with the effort. His large, scarred hands trembled around his manhood. The pain was excruciating. Spirits be damned, the pain was unholy. He'd taken arrows and blades in the gut that hurt less than this. At least, he thought they had. That was the problem with age. It played tricks on the mind.

Concentration. That was the key. Shut out the maddening noise of the street and focus on the job in hand. It was easier back up in the Fangs, where the wind was a constant whisper broken only by the howls of wolves or other beasts and a man respected another's privacy enough to let him take a piss in peace. Here in the big city it seemed everyone wanted to interfere in his business. Merchants thrust their wares into his face as if he was a pleasure maid at a chieftain's war gathering. It was madness.

He'd knocked one trader near-unconscious earlier in the day. The merchant had grabbed his hand, apparently intending to press some cloth into it. Brodar Kayne had apologized when he realized the fellow had meant no harm.

Gradually he felt the pressure in his bladder begin to relent. Obstructions of the purifying mechanisms by which the body is cleansed, the physician had told him. He'd wanted to make a small incision, and had only just escaped without his metal tools wedged somewhere unpleasant. Kayne hadn't survived this long by allowing men with sharp implements to poke around his body.

Ten, nine, eight, seven... He mentally counted down in a silent ritual. If there was one thing he'd learned over his many years it was the importance of routine in defending the human body against the depredations of time. It had nothing to do with superstition. Or getting old.

Five... four... three... and he sighed in relief as the pain eased and his bladder prepared to empty itself. Two... one... 'Shit.' The sounds of a noisy pursuit interrupted him as he was on the cusp of release, a few drops of discoloured piss dribbling down his leg before his cock seized up like a dead man's chest.

Kayne thrust his treacherous member back inside his breeches and strode out of the side alley determined to find out what all the fuss was about.

Someone was going to pay.

A lad slumped against the side of an old warehouse a little further up the street. His head rested on his chest and his breathing was ragged, as if he had an internal injury that made every inhalation a struggle. Faces peered out from behind doors and then melted away as Brodar Kayne approached the miserable figure. He grabbed a handful of sweat-matted hair and pulled the boy's head back. A mouthful of bloody spittle missed his eye by a finger's width. A hand groped up, desperately seeking a weapon but succeeding only in prodding him painfully in the groin.

As swift as a snake, he grabbed the youngster's arm and twisted it, eliciting a yelp. His other hand cuffed the insolent bastard in the head hard enough to bounce it right off the wall behind. He reached down and hauled the fool upright.

'You picked a bad day to start something with me,' he snarled down into the blood-smeared face. He was a lad of around twenty winters, Kayne saw, fair-skinned like most of these city folk. His steel-coloured eyes were unfocused and slightly watery, as if he'd been crying. Kayne shook his head in disgust.

'You know you've lived too long when a smack upside a fellow's head is enough to set him to tears. At your age I'd killed more men than I could rightly remember. Took some wounds that could kill a man too, and came through 'em none the worse for it. You got yourself a broken rib, I reckon, and that nose won't ever be as straight as it was. Still, you'll live – assuming I let you.'

He heard the rustle of chain mail behind him and turned, releasing his grip on the wounded lad. The young Lowlander promptly flopped to the ground.

'Out of the way! This is Crimson Watch business.' The speaker was an ugly little man with a plague-ravaged face. He dragged his right leg as he approached. A trail of blood glistened behind him.

The other fellow was younger and somewhat broader but still half a head shorter than Kayne, who saw that he sported a fresh bruise beneath his left eye. The red-cloaked soldier scowled up at him.

'You're a Highlander. What are you doing so far south? A man of your years ought to be tending goats or sitting around a campfire spinning bullshit tales to convince some maiden to suck your cock – or whatever the fuck it is you mountain folk do. You're not welcome here. Lord Salazar has no love for the Magelord of the High Fangs.'

Kayne shrugged. 'Can't say I blame him,' he replied. 'The Shaman and me, we got our differences as well. Enough to make the frozen north an unsafe place for an old barbarian.' The youth at his feet had begun to moan. 'I was down this way. Thought I'd see the sights of the city. Tell me, what's the boy done?'

'What business is that of yours?' said the pock-faced fellow. 'He's guilty of interfering with the application of the law. The fucker stabbed me in the leg with this dagger. It won't stop bleeding.' He gestured at the weapon at his belt and then to his leg. There was a hint of panic in his voice.

Kayne's eyes swept over the weapon and noted the telltale glow. 'Magic, if I ain't mistaken,' he said. 'I'm no expert but I reckon that wound won't be closing by itself any time soon. Best find yourself a decent physician.' He folded his arms and fixed the two soldiers with his best implacable stare.

The younger soldier's hand went to his sword. 'Not without this shit-eater we're not. Come on, move aside.'

Kayne flexed his neck. It clicked slightly. He sighed in satisfaction. 'No,' he said.

'Then you'll die with him. Merrik, you take his left side.' The Watchmen advanced on him slowly, their scarlet cloaks fluttering in the breeze.

Come at me, he thought, reaching behind him to the hilt of the greatsword slung on his back. He felt its familiar grip beneath his fingers. He stepped away from the prone lad, sparing the twitching figure an annoyed glance. This wouldn't make things any easier. His opponents circled around him.

The soldier to his right feinted low and then brought his sword around in a vicious backhand chop. Kayne thrust his hips backwards and drew his chest in. The sword whistled past, barely an inch away.

He caught movement out of the corner of his left eye and spun, dropping into a crouch. As he felt the steel pass harmlessly over his head, his right elbow rose and crunched into the cheek of his assailant, who flopped to the ground. He pulled his greatsword loose of its scabbard with his other hand as he completed the rotation, raised it just in time to parry the other soldier's follow-up attack.

His opponent stepped back and blinked. 'Fuck,' he said.

'Aye,' nodded Brodar Kayne. 'Let's get this over with. I need to piss.'

Greatsword and longsword came together. Kayne hardly moved as he casually responded to the wild thrusts of the Watchman. In desperation, his opponent launched a desperate overhead slash intended to cleave his skull, but Kayne neatly sidestepped it and brought his own blade sweeping around at waist height.

The Watchman stared at the entrails spilling from the bloody mess where his midriff had been. He dropped his sword and moved to gather the glistening, snaking things in his hands, but then dropped them in disgust. Always bad when that happens, Kayne thought sympathetically. He raised his greatsword and cut the man's head from his shoulders.

Wiping the blade clean on the corpse's tabard, he sheathed it behind him and then walked over to the other Watchman, who was struggling groggily to his feet. He grabbed the solder's head and smashed it four, five, six times into the side of the warehouse. Holding the body upright with one hand, he took the dagger from the dead man's belt with the other and let him fall.

He turned the dagger around in his hands. It was a fine enough weapon. The hilt and guard were plain, but the pommel was inset with a large ruby and the slightly curved blade radiated the soft blue glow that signified an enchantment of some kind. He sheathed it at his belt and was just starting back to the tavern when a cough got his attention.

'Almost forgot about you,' he muttered to the moaning lad. 'Suppose I should thank you for this. Might be tough finding a merchant who'll take it off my hands here in Dorminia, but it'll fetch a tidy sum elsewhere.' He hesitated for a moment, then raised a boot and placed it over the boy's neck. 'Sorry about this,' he said. 'More of those rotten bastards will show up soon. If they find you here, you'll be wishing you was dead a hundred times over before the day is out. I'm doing you a favour.'

The lad's face turned blue as Kayne's boot pressed down on his windpipe. His hands flapped weakly. A pathetic gurgle escaped his lips. Grey eyes met his, wide with the terror of death.

They were begging him. Pleading with him.

Kayne looked away. He remembered that same look, eyes of a similar hue on a face much the same age. Recalled the mad agony as Mhaira's wild screams hammered at his skull and the sickening stench of burning flesh filled his nostrils while he scraped his arms bloody on a cage that refused to yield.

He looked down at his forearms. The marks were still visible, though it hardly mattered a damn. There were other, worse scars to carry. The kind that changed a man forever.

Sighing heavily, the old barbarian removed his boot from the lad's throat and hauled him upright, tossing him over his shoulder with an ease that belied his years. With a final grunt, he turned and loped away as fast as his creaking legs would carry him.

The Wolf was well into his cups by the time Brodar Kayne stumbled into the grimy tavern near the slums. The patrons of the smoky dive cast curious glances at him as he dropped his groaning burden to the ale-spattered floor. His back ached like a bastard.

He'd grown soft, that was the problem. They could be on their way east to one of the Free Cities by now. He doubted any of them could compare to this sprawling, stinking place – but they were well within the Unclaimed Lands, where no Magelord held sway and magic wasn't contraband as it was in the Trine. The dagger at his belt would fetch a chieftain's ransom from the right people.

But no. Instead he'd been unmanned by the bloody fool who was now writhing around at his feet.

Jerek had spotted him. He was sitting in the dingiest corner of the tavern, hunched over his beer, casting dark scowls at anyone foolish enough to meet his gaze. His bald head reflected the torchlight, giving him an angry red glow. His eyes narrowed further as Kayne stalked over.

'Time to go, Wolf. I had a run in with the local authorities. They'll be all over this place like a rash within the hour.' He waited expectantly as his friend slowly drained his cup and refilled it from the pitcher in the centre of the table.

Jerek looked up at him briefly. Then he raised his cup and drained it again. 'Who the fuck's that?' he asked in his gruff, rasping voice, slamming the cup down and nodding at the youth across the tavern. His tone was almost conversational. An ominous sign.

Kayne sighed. Might as well get this over with. 'The lad? He was about to be murdered by a couple of those bastards with the red cloaks. They told me to step aside. I weren't that way inclined.' He waited patiently for the outburst he knew was coming.

Jerek stood up suddenly. He wasn't a tall man by Highlander standards, though he was plenty broad. Fire danced in his dark eyes as he stared at the boy. He stroked his short beard, which was black and shot through with grey. The stroking became a tug. His mouth began to twitch. Here it comes, Kayne thought.

'Fucking unbelievable!' the Wolf growled. He slammed his fists down on the table, upsetting the pitcher, which tumbled off the edge and spilled its contents on the floor. He reached behind him and drew his twin hand axes.

The Wolf gestured at the boy with a shake of his left axe. 'That cunt? Who's he? Nobody. Let him die. Makes no difference to us. You had to go and get involved, didn't you? Thought we'd done well. Made it here alive. Looked forward to a night of drinking. Well deserved. Can't say it ain't, all the shit we've been through. Planned to get myself some pussy tonight, did you know that? Don't look that way now, does it? Always the hero, that's you. I've had it with this shit. I'm fucking tired.'

Kayne waited patiently for Jerek to finish his rant. The Wolf might be the angriest person he'd ever met in a world full of angry men, and he might be quick to draw blood when a calm word was all that was needed to defuse a situation, and he might have a tendency to alienate just about anyone who spent more than five minutes in his company, but at the end of the day he was the closest friend he had ever had. You take the rough with the smooth, as his father always used to say.

Jerek had stopped to draw breath for a moment. The old Highlander seized his chance. 'Calm, Wolf. We'll steal ourselves a couple of horses and ride east to the Unclaimed Lands. We'll be there inside a couple of days. See this?' He drew the glowing dagger from his belt and held it up. 'Magic. Belonged to our friend over there. I reckon it will fetch us thirty gold spires. Maybe more.' A thought occurred to him. 'Didn't you say you were desperate for female company? You've been drinking for the past three hours. Plenty of whores over in the corner there.' He pointed to the opposite end of the tavern where a small group of scantily dressed women were attempting to solicit business.

Jerek scowled. 'Fancied a drink first. Can't a man wet his whistle? I'd empty this tavern's cellar and still do 'em all raw and you fucking know it, Kayne. Impugning my manhood. The front on you.' The Wolf's grip on his axes tightened and his knuckles turned white.

'Nothing meant,' said Brodar Kayne hurriedly. 'Just an observation. Let me have a quick word with the owner of this joint and get the boy sorted and then we'll be out of here.'

He moved over to the bar, where a man with a monstrous boil on the side of his nose watched him suspiciously. Kayne rummaged around inside the pouch at his belt and withdrew two silver sceptres. He placed the coins down on the bar. 'See that lad twitching around on the floor over there? I want a roof over his head for as long as he needs to get himself up and on his feet again. He's got a few cracked ribs and his head will hurt like a bitch for the next day or two, but he'll live. If the Watch happens to stop by here, you never set eyes on him. We understand each other?'

The bartender's eyes went to the coins and then to the struggling youth. He shook his head and pushed the silver away. 'My life's worth more than your sceptres can buy, Highlander. If the Watch discovers me sheltering an outlaw they'll burn this place down. I have a wife and a daughter--'

He was interrupted as the door of the tavern swung open and a rotund man wearing a blacksmith's apron burst into the common room, sweat trickling down his soot-plastered face. He spoke in a high-pitched voice completely at odds with his appearance.

'Important news, fellas! The city's under lockdown! No one is allowed in or out of Dorminia until further notice. The order's come straight from Lord Salazar himself.' Brodar Kayne glanced across at Jerek. The Wolf was tugging at his beard again.

'Since when?' he asked the blacksmith. He had a sinking feeling. 'Since just now,' the man replied in his girlish voice.

'Something big's happened. Something to do with Shadowport and the war over those bloody islands.' He rubbed at the bristling whiskers on the sides of his face. 'There's a group of Watchmen just south of here. They're searching for someone. Apparently a pair of the bastards got murdered nearby.'

Shit, Kayne thought. How did they react so fast? He turned to Jerek.

'We'll make for the harbour and find somewhere we can lay low.' He felt a tugging at his trousers. The lad was struggling to pull himself up. Kayne reached down and hauled him to his feet.

The boy immediately bent over, his hands curled around his chest, drawing in ragged gasps of air. Then, remarkably, he straightened up. Pain was writ large across his blood-caked face, but there was a determined look in those steel-coloured eyes. So. You've got some fruits after all.

Jerek had stalked over and was now staring balefully at the youth. To his credit, the lad met the Wolf's gaze and didn't flinch.

'My name's Davarus Cole,' he said, in a voice that held a curious strength in spite of his obvious pain. It was almost as if he was reciting some kind of speech. 'I know a place north and west of here where we can seek shelter from the Crimson Watch. We'll be among friends.' He coughed and spat out a glob of blood. For a second he looked as if he would faint. Then he seemed to notice the two Highlanders watching him, and he shot the bloody spittle a hard glare.

Kayne scratched his head. This lad was a strange one all right. 'I'm Brodar Kayne. This is Jerek. Can't say I have a better plan, so we'll take you at your word. What is it?' He noticed the boy staring at the belt on his waist. 'Ah. That. I'll be keeping hold of this dagger for a while, on account of me saving your life.'

The Lowlander looked as though he was about protest, but Jerek shot him a look that screamed brutal murder and he promptly closed his mouth.

Kayne reached over and gave young Davarus Cole a reassuring pat on the back. 'Right then. Lead on.'

Copyright © 2013 by Luke Scull


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