- The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone.
- Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954). p. 12.
Borothar had finally stopped to complain, Norman could prepare for glory.
Actually Norman never needed to prepare. After considering the factual alignment of circumstances that had dictated his upbringing, the present glorified protector of the realm had accepted the existence of destiny. For none other than him could have achieved as much, not if predisposed to greatness. Still, Norman never understood if favoured and often chosen circumstances or actual inborn factual superiority had determined his brilliance. Never had he ever doubted that he would be the greatest swordsman of his time and never had he refused the possibility of glory.
Factually, Norman had actually never been defeated or outmaneuvered.
Or at least, until the Sinistos Slayer.
For some odd misfortune, Norman had been associated with the Lord of Shadow Wilhem Greyfallow by the Iron Circle itself – the Empire’s highest authority after the Emperor – as a fel-addict. Indeed, he was. The point being that Sinistros had indirectly and much willingly – Norman knew – pierced a thorn up his arse. The discomfort led to the Imperial Guard arresting him and bringing him to the Laughing Gleeman tavern under the Wit’s custody. There, he had met with Saint Rohan, the legendary trickster.
It had been weeks ago, and Dantena van Torquaz had barely left.
Norman had seen him leave, wondering… Why are you haunting us still, Richard? Out of all the monsters – men and ghouls alike – that Norman had slaughtered, he – the Kingslayer – had been the most disturbing. Too many were those who showed veneration, but he, Richard Frates – whose common birth name was forgotten, the epithets of Assassin of Kings, Regicide, Sin’Dorei being preferred by Chroniclers and Gleemen – had never showed even the slightest admiration for Norman. Quite the contrary in fact, he looked at him with his burning green eyes with a form of disdain.
Norman had always interpreted the Kingslayer’s harsh judgement of him as jealousy.
He had already forgotten of Dantena that his jailor entered.
Shaggy brown hair shining of light grease, Rohan had a naughty and nasty grey gaze, holding a maze of mischievous cunning and his thin dark lips curved in something that was nothing like a smile. Wearing a strange tunic, he wore no armour that a vagrant’s short cape and his only amulets were copper and clay bracelets on his right wrist. A simple leather stripe served him as medallion. You can scare off others Jester… I know your ways. Also, Rohan, as senior member of the Imperial Guard, the most powerful gathering of magic practitioners and fighters in the world – had failed to protect Thorgrim from Richard, which implied he had been vanquished – through combat or cunning – by the Kingslayer. So what, the Imperial Guard? Yet, he had been too… thrilled… to face the Imperial Guards upon his arrest and he had publically accepted the dragonglass shackles. Never had Norman been so humiliated! And there he was, the culprit. Rohan.
“The Kingslayer proved harder,” Rohan said in a smile.
Stunned, Norman shut. Indeed, he wore a dragonglass ring as sign of his collaboration in custody – after all he had been knighted by Wallace himself! – and therefore could be blasted away by Rohan on a whim. This taught scared him. Yes, killing him would be absolutely insane. As bannerman of King Conrad and having served in the Imperial Legion, Norman held considerable political influence. King Conrad had granted Norman lands in Temeros, in the duchy of Bretonia, adjacent to the Black Moor Abbey, as reward for his allegiance against the Dark Marquis in Kovan. Killing him would anger the Temerian king which Emperor Arius couldn’t afford to do, as even an Emperor had to reckon with a mighty monarch. However, Norman also knew of Rohan’s reputation as Lord commander of the King’s Wit, the spy masters of the Imperial Order and once a Kyai Order alongside the Prime Knights. Even if the Order of Silencers – the eleventh order – held the title of Master of Assassins, the King’s Wit had been known to offer murder as service for the Imperial Order. They could make use of Practical Magic at Night time, even if Temeros didn’t acknowledge Rohan that right. Therefore, Rohan would kill Norman if the Empire needed Norman killed.
This couldn’t be, Norman refused. If needed, he would remove the ring himself. Thus being branded Oathbreaker… And if he did so, would he be fast enough to avoid Rohan? How skilled was he with magic? Norman had wondered. After all, Richard had outmaneuvered him? But again, Norman had never confronted Richard…
“So, Daegoln,’ Rohan said, his voice carrying a supernatural mockery. “You are so dazzled that you couldn’t surpass Richard Frates? Why does it puzzles you so?
– I never had to!” Norman replied, trying to compose himself.
Rohan laughed before sitting exactly where Dantena had sat. He laid his frail hands on the wooden table, his eyes burning with folly.
“Confess, boy! How many times have you called yourself a god?”
Norman froze. How did he know?
“Never!” Norman faked outrage.
“You prefer the disgrace of lies than the pride of heresy,’ Rohan’s judgement echoed in Norman’s heart. ‘Fair enough, burning at the stake is an extremely difficult experience, even for champions of history. Many heroes and maidens have cried alike while the flames devoured their flesh, reducing it to grilled bacon. The Seafolk down in Mockinjay usually send their younger boys fetch the remnants…”
Even with the breathing of Kyai, Norman struggled to remain stoic. He did, for he was great. But he had struggled.
“Well, Daegoln, you are not threatened with the stake, but His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Arius the Golden Danser Standing Over A Thousand Vanquished Foes, titles titles, is considering stripping you of all lands and titles, for your abuse of fel-beverages before the 1474 Winter Gathering.
– This is absolutely absurd!
– Maybe, but the fact is. You have been declared guilty as any other common man would. Your personal relationship with His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Arius, the Great Unificator of the Throne Wars titles titles titles, has saved you from the Hanging Tree. But… You have cheated and you are a common man, despite being an Imperial general and a glorified jouster.
– King Conrad of Temeros himself will never hear of it. The Iron Circle and Arius… His Imperial Majesty cannot…
– It is perfectly legal to hang you by the neck until dead, ser,’ Rohan corrected with a twisted sarcasm. ‘Again, His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Arius the Great Sovereign of the Ivory Crown titles, titles, has personally intervened in your favor. In fact, he also agreed that bothering His Grace, King Conrad, wouldn’t be necessary for he has designed a penitence with the Church’s theo-magus’s benediction.
- The theo-magus what?
– The Holy See and the Imperial Mantle have both agreed that hanging you, ser, by the neck until dead or stripping you, general, of holdings and income, would be less beneficial to Our Cause than offering you this… contract.”
Norman understood. For killing him would cause outrage – and righteous havoc – they preferred to use his ability for free. Ingenious, Norman thought. And Rohan must have planned it all. He would one day pay for this! Of that, Norman Daegoln vowed. Sadly, scheming against Rohan would imply planning and strategy for if he followed through the Imperial Law, Norman would be deprived of income. The true ability of the Imperial order relied in his monopoly over the commonwealth. Temerian money had disappeared during the Throne Wars and many kingdoms have joined the imperial concordat. So if Conrad could muster the largest host, the Empire controlled the money that allowed to pay them. Or in magic practitioners’ case, Emperor Arius controlled their budget over amulets and tomes. Without knowledge to temper them or runes and potions, nobody alive could perform magic. And with the Fog, they were doomed for insanity and slums… The Imperial City’s Narrows hid hundreds of dying sorcerers, striving for mana or fel, dying in gritty explosions of red flesh. Norman would have to comply with the Empire, for now…
“What is the contract?”
Rohan had smiled.
“There is a town called Hearthstone…”
Back to his senses, Norman had gathered enough rage to perform his craft, his dance of magic and bloody carnage. Borothar looked at him with eyes he had seen before. Those were the eyes of admiration. Instinctively and used to perform, Norman smiled, handsome as ever.
The silence in the darkness was an old friend. A lie. After contemplating it while breathing in the ways of Kyai, Norman heard in the mute cave the laugher of common men. The Free Compagnies of Theodius Oursifer. Pulling vial from his magical heart – that he had gathered from his meditation – Norman recognized the voice of a highborne. Too young to be Theodius himself, but following the Oursifer own passionate rhythm. Theodius’ son, Norman reckoned. Theodran the Bold. He, at the age of thirteen, had accompanied his father at Castralstag where he had fought bravely and valiantly. However, House Oursifer had lost and Theodius was captured and forced into abdicating the Imperial Mantle. By now, he must have grown into a fine warrior, a proven man of war. However if Oursifer Theodran had been a teenager at Castralstag, Norman had fought in the winning side as a child soldier. Not everyone was meant for greatness.
“Stay here, and follow when the fire rekindles,” Norman whispered to Borothar.
And the torch died spitting dark smoke, a dead smell.
Daegoln-elda vanished. He had ordered his squire to remain behind.
And Borothar disobeyed.
His masters, across the years and failed apprenticeships, have always refused him things. And his masters had all begun loving him after he had taken these things. He believed that audacity prevailed over obedience, as evidenced by the heroes from the songs. Every single chivalric tale or epic romance showed that arrogant little cunts always prevailed if they defied authority. So naturally, Borothar imitated them. And unlike the stories, he didn’t often prevail. But it succeeded it making him a student shining among his peers.
This time was no different. What changed was his master. This time, it wasn’t Melrag, a second-class knight and ruined free rider, neither was it Wellington Vale, a wondering swordsman who forsake glory and establishments, but it was Norman Daegoln, the most celebrated hero of his time. A man widely considered the greatest individual knight of the Age of Fire, whose tactful approach to magic and warfare had helped him defeat once and for all the thousand-years old al’Krul dynasty during the Year of the Four Emperors. A magician who could blast away a chicken.
What he saw blasted him away… poetically.
Sure, Borothar had heard of wars and how they weren’t as pretty as the fables. But he actually never saw a professional combat between famed magicians. And Norman Golden Eye didn’t disappoint.
Progressing in the shadows, Norman hid as a snake close to a wall, in front of Borothar who had emerged from his rock. It was dark but he could see clearly enough, and down the corridor, a large underground lair had been installed in the cave. Sea water fell from the dark blue rocks and formed a larger pound that ran deep below. Very deep below. Wooden stairs and basements had been mounted and in the darkness he could see torches burning, revealing three silhouettes marching upwards.
He could hear them.
“What was that you say?” That voice was strong, forceful,
“It was a fucking torch, it stopped burning I tell you!” That voice was lower, compliant.
“You better not have disturbed me for nothing you two…” That voice put itself above the two. “These torch dying the dark only happen in dungeons that they make in the Winter Gatherings.”
“You been to Winter Gatherings?” The compliant had spoken, a girl trying to align with the third voice, an older man’s.
“Of course he has”, the forceful voice – a grown lady – had spoken, she didn’t disagree with the older man.
Norman had been hiding in the shadows. Borothar could see him breathing, a white vapor that he had learned to perceive while Kyai breating himself. Suddenly, his white vapor turned red, and the compliant voice echoed.
“You old heretic!” The compliant girl. “You disgusting pig, I revile your flesh.”
At that moment, Borothar saw the girl. She was pretty enough. Real pretty. Despite the mail and leather, and the iron axe, she looked vulnerable like any beauty from Peythralm. Borothar blushed, then she stabbed the older man in the arse.
He could see all three clearly, for they had ascended from the wooden stairs, and they had entered the corridor, facing Borothar who stood in the natural part of the cave, close to the arched door. Daegoln had noticed him simultaneously and his eyes carried a contained fury. Borothar shivered. The screams of the older bandit echoed in the cave. The girl proceeded in removing the axe from the old man’s arse and rose the blade, casting it in his skull. The death hadn’t been sudden. It had occurred sadly, as the old bandit collapsed and cried in what Borothar saw as misunderstanding. Falling on the ground, he didn’t die but was dying.
Aveline Flintshire looked at the wench. She had murdered her grandfather, Father Ralph, with great fury. She had suspected the drunken bishop of molesting the girl for a while during their time with the Iron Company. He had been a vile man. The wench however had never seen unhappy. Aveline remembered seeing her raised by Father Ralph as they travelled across battlefields and campaigns. Before she had become the Sinistros, Aveline Flintsire had been one of the Free Companions, a murderer and a plunderer and the greatest archer of the Age of Fire. She had known war. A member of the Kyai Order of Iron, Aveline didn’t think much of Father Ralph’s Nameless Grandaughter, a wench to her. Despite her tragic upbringing, she hadn’t a clue of warfare and therefore Aveline hadn’t taken her seriously when she claimed a torch had suddenly died. But seeing her blood-injected pupils made her realize that she had been possessed. Someone had made her fall insane, letting go of reason and lowered her mind. Someone had fogtrapped her. Now, Aveline Flintsire believed the torch had died. And she was scared. For someone capable of such feat was a black dread for bandits and outlaws. Her own mentor and brother, Logan Flintshire, had his brain imploded by a sorcerer. It had been a sinister decade after that. She would become the Sinistros Slayer.
She looked up at the cave and she saw a fine looking lad with terrified blue eyes, with brown hair in a pig tail. A squire? Who could he be? Starting to feel her heart racing, she breathed in the ways of Kyai and abandoned her animal instincts. She entered the transe of probabilities. She couldn’t conceive that he was powerful enough to cast such a spell.
Borothar was growing in the intense eyes of the fair-haired lady. Whatever she was thinking, she was thinking hardly. Despite his dread, he was muzzled by her beauty. She was a fairy tail, a beauty from the myths. However, he thought of his breathing and refocused on his master. The latter waved at the rock, ordering him to retreat. Instinctively, he disobeyed and joined him.
“You… fool,” Master Daegoln was shocked.
“It’s fine Eldarn’ei, it’s just two girls, we can take them.”
Eldarn’ei Daegoln’s eyebrows frowned.
“You have disobeyed an imperial command, Borothar-lad,” his voice was serious.
“If you fail to take out the younger one of the two, I shall punish you according to the imperial law…”
The Imperial Law? It meant death abbeys, where deserters and criminals were sent to wall and silence for the rest of their days. Or at least that what Borothar thought. The Kyai breathing announced him that outcome, as possible it was to occur, was unacceptable. He would have to cross the blade with the fair wench, the compliant voice of earlier, the girl who had murdered an old man in cold blood. If only Eldarnei had done something about it earlier, instead of hiding behind a wall, the glorious sentry of the Known World.
He sends me correct his lack of initiative. Even heroes are men…
Borothar drew his broadsword.
Great that fency tavernkeeper’s prowess!
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