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- Fame sometimes hath created something of nothing.
The afternoon was drawing to a close that Rick the tavernier estimated the necessity of destroying the creature calling itself Gunner.
He had left Sybille in charge of The Crimson Hand, pretending to shiver at ser Steiner Fitz’s impatience and genuinely felt offended by Emilio calling him a ginger – it was so unoriginal that Rick felt humiliated more so than by a sophisticated insult – and now rode his mule, Old Bastard, upon the Roseroad, a sword in a white scabbard tied on his back.
Ancient among the civilized roads, the Roseroad tied together the Princedom of Rubaron and the Marches of Gisgo, a large southern kingdom that spread on a large portion of the Greater Continent. Headed by House Stormfyldd, the Gisgians, notorious warring barons, had arrived to attend Avalan Den’s execution and therefore knights, squires and attendants infested the road. On the green hills that began smoking for the Fog would soon rise campfires had been installed, Gisgians being particularly superstitious, as where their Temerian rivals. A man of knowledge and a tavernier, Rick recognized a great number of sigils, from the Stormyfyldd griffin to the Edalav aspic. The Great Southern Houses had arrived to attend the Kingslayer’s martyrdom.
Directing his mule, Rick had risen his green hood of leather, believing that exposing his fiery hair would draw unwanted attention.
In his life, Rick had greatly feared ignorance as the old Illyrian would. Old philosophers such as Ulthane viChimeria and Lucius nar’Amonaga agreed that ignorance had roots in greater evils than greed or ambition. More men and women had been murdered out of blunt ignorance than slaughtered on a dark lord’s demand. If a Dark Lord ever truly were, he had unleashed ignorance upon mankind.
The air carried the smoke of the many fires, as well as the grilled boars and improvised dishes crafted by the men of the road. It reminded Rick of the older days of adventure, where he, Norman and Godfrey had talks of kingdoms and freedom. He laughed, remembering squiring for the great lord Deregen the Magnificent and his days wearing the iron mask of the Greyfox. These were the days…
Heading towards Hearthstone, Rick waned, for he disliked his new lifestyle, sourly. It had been too long since he had entered the underworld and the fugitive’s ways were inconvenient and Rick deeply missed his precious comfort.
Only later, did he actually hear the Song of Accursed Kings, sang extremely poorly by an incompetent minstrel that obviously fascinated the Gisgian campfire, from which the gold-and-crowned-griffin-on-black-field banner of House Oursifer shone, tied to a spear piercing the earth. Laying on it, shields circled it, as if they guarded the banner. These shields proudly showed the stag of Orkentfer – cousins to the fallen Emperor Theodius, the wolf of Orsith, the tarasque of Wallace and the aspic of Edalav, all sworn bannermen to Gisgo. Around that fire, a minstrel stripped of his clothes danced for the knights sitting around singing the tale of Manfred and the accursed dynasty of Fulgam, whom King Conrad, Rick’s childhood friend, commanded.
A fair lady with brown hair and blue eyes in green silk was also sitting among them, standing straight with a mean smile on her face, well-mannered despite the outrage.
A larger man, dressed in red leather and mail, laughed hysterically as he held the whip that made the minstrel dance. He wore the tarasque sigil on his chest, and was richly armoured. His beard was clean and neat, his shield was of dragonglass and his blade carried the mark of the best Thyrian smiths. He had the confidence of those of whose fathers won the wars which made them important.
A little girl was running around them. She was a highborne, Rick judged, for her dress could buy a house in Silverhook or Hearthstone. Considering how many men stood vigil around her, Rick believed she was of an important lineage. Recognizing her golden hair, he believed he knew.
Sitting close to the fair lady, a young man was petting a massive black hound, holding an exotic Keshian blade. The sun seemed to have blackened his blonde hair so that they seemed brownish, but he was handsome, sadly enough. His eyes seemed sharp and proud and he had lips that maidens would crave. His hair had been arranged neatly in the Thyrian fashion, falling slightly more on his right eye, and his skin had the Gisgian tan. His arms were exposed, vigorous. He had a brown plastron and his leather pants suggested a desired mobility, as if could use that blade of his at any time. He wore no special sigil but he sat at the main seat around the fire, dominating others, the lady craving his attention with exquisite body language. Ignoring her in disdain, he provoked the jealousy of his underlings who fainted admiration, though Rick recognized fear in their eyes. He was young, not even twenty. He couldn’t be a confirmed knight just yet, a bachelor if talented, a squire if mediocre.
Rick didn’t like him. Any of them. But again, Rick the tavernier didn’t like anyone.
And his eyes met the ones of that young lad, the squire who frightened scions of the Southern Great Houses.
Common sense required of him that he bent and looked away. But Rick had his pride, he had always struggled to recognize kings’ authority. That tendency of his had led him into desperate struggles, one in particular had opposed him to Emperor Thorgrim and the Imperial Guard.
Aware that the lad had noticed him, Rick continued to ride Old Bastard forward, staring at the youth, forcing him to look away…
The lad interrupted the red knight and grabbed his whip. The naked minstrel begged as he was slapped on the face by the iron lashes, marked for life. All other knights had stopped laughing as the lad continued. The fair lady politely looked away. As for the little girl she had come closer, fascinated, while an older soldier forced her to look away. The lad whipped, again, and again, and again.
When the minstrel had stopped moving, the squire had stood, now surrounded by his men whose gauntlets had met their fancy and well-sculpted pommels. He walked down the green hill, escorted by a dozen knights and bachelors, all bearing sigils of greatlords – most likely their fathers of the South. His brown eyes stirred with aggression, challenging what they must see as a ginger innkeeper riding an old and grey mule.
And Richard Frates kept staring.
I hate highbornes…
“Hail for Prince Destrega of House Stormfyldd, son of King Destrega the Greater, Defender of the Southern Holdings and Lord of Amyr” one of his men said.
Richard recognized all these names. He had seen Destrega scheme his way to the throne of Amyr, and rising as the monarch of the iron fortress hadn’t made the Lord of Gisgo any kinder. During the crusade in Kesh, the Stormfyldds had behaved extremely violent, backed up by the might of the Iron Order and of the Redcloaks themselves. This prince and squire’s family could muster the forces of a hundred thousand men and of two Greater Kyai Orders and all the spellcasters that came with them. Gisgo, also called the “Ironlands”, had once been occupied by the Keshian hundreds of years ago, and still bore their hatred. Extremely zealous and enthusiast of the White Inquisition, House Stormfyldd was appreciated by the Holy See. In fact, the Gisgians were only second to Temeros in terms of might, but as all the other realms they were heavily depended on the Imperial Mantle of Peythralm. Nonetheless, if this lesser Destrega saw fit to bully Richard Frates, it would be a troublesome odyssey for the dreaded regicide himself.
One he could die from…
“Milord,” Rick the humble tavernier said, having a quest to fulfill before antagonizing the might of Gisgo. He had to kill a creature calling itself Gunner, so he fainted the ignorance he reviled, purposely mistaking the title of the noble and gallant prince who had just whipped a common man to death.
The little girl pressed behind him, and Rick therefore dismissed the idea of a violent encounter, for children were one of his self-imposed boundaries. Dantena van Torquaz kept harassing him with principles, back in the Black Moor Abbey days.
“I am your prince, not your lord,” Destrega spat, saying words Richard had heard countless times before, from better and lesser men than this young bastard.
“My prince, sorry if I have offended…”
“How dare you look into his eyes,” the red knight with the black beard said. “He is the second son to the mighty Destrega, the King of Knights himself!
– Oh, if a king’s second son felt offended, well”, Rick struggle to contain Richard Frates, for he had the pride of the kingslayer, “I don’t know what to say, maybe I can offer you a free bottle of my finest ale at my tavern, the Crimson Hand. Wait you see Sybille, you’ll forget your fine ladies at your royal courts!”
Destrega blushed. A boy still, Richard discovered.
“You insult my sister!” the red knight said, waving at the fair lady who had remained by the fire, cowardly blinding herself from her promised’s murder of a common man. He turned to his prince. “Your Highness, allow me to put to the sword this ginger fool!
– My hair aren’t ginger, they are fiery like the Ashpit!” Rick screamed, tired of being called a ginger by lesser men he could slaughter on a whim.
The red knight was astonished. As for the little blonde, she laughed, evidently amused at that cocky sire’s distress. This wasn’t unnoticed by the prince, whose expression changed. He was visibly a man who comforted himself with appreciating defiance rather than blind servitude. All princes had their fantasies…
“Please dismount your fine… ride,’ he said, eloquent despite the blood that had spattered his face. “Join us by the fire, and tell us of that white sword you carry, ser…”
Rick grinned. He had to think quickly. Indeed, only knights were allowed the carrying of the swords in most civilized realms, Gisgo and Thyrian princedoms included. He had expected the question to be asked, but Rick hadn’t planned to defy the son of one of the most powerful kings in the Age of Fire.
Faking obedience to alter his defiance, Rick decided to slay the thing called Gunner a bit later, trusting Sybille’s ability to protect the tavern. Therefore, he dismounted and tried to seem as ungraceful as possible, but even the fair lady at the campfire had noticed him. All men were surprised, for not a single noise echoed from his landing. After tying Old Bastard the mule on a oaktree struck by lightning, Richard dismissed the Way and became the humble tavernier, Kyai breathing his senses back to his adjusted reality.
Two hedge knights flanked him left and right, as if they intimidated him. Even there, Richard was too prideful to fake fear, and instead preferred foolishness and simply giggled at his escorts’ courtesy. He thanked them as he climbed the green hill and dared to seat in the primary pile of wood, the throne of fortune built for Prince Destrega. This didn’t go unoticed, but Destrega laughed and instead experienced majesty by allowing this common fool into this spot, right in front of the gleeman’s corpse. In practice, Richard stood between a prince of royal blood and his bride to be, kinswoman of lord Wallace himself, the Butcher of Shimeh and Lord Marshal of the Legion, the common army at the Emperor’s service. Richard Frates had always enjoyed a good defiance towards authority, it kept the juices flowing.
Staring at him, the red knight of House Wallace didn’t hide his rage. But his prince had spoken and as the good dog he was he obeyed. Richard knew how to make men shiver on a whim, so he did, and the knight trembled, asking for a leave for he suddenly needed to piss. A hedge knight bearing the sigil of House Ourkentfer laughed and the sword shield to the girl blocked the red knight’s path, before the prince said:
“It’s fine, Nicolai, let him be. The tarasque of Wallace has fallen low enough, I’m couldn’t care less than his absence.”
His promised felt humiliated, and the brother couldn’t contain himself and pissed himself. All laughed. But the man the prince had called Nicolai. He, instead, frowned. Richard knew the murderer could spot another, so did the spellcaster. Nicolai and Richard were both.
A tall man with a grin, his ears had the mark of the fel-addict. His skin was a pale as the one of a sorcerer, and he bore a red dress whose collar rose above his small and mean head. His eyes were yellow, and despite using a staff to lean on, he carried the weight of the battle mage’s armour. Tomes of magic were chained on his attire, and his black helmet that reminded Richard of the old Illyrian style signified he belonged to a Kyai. For this black iron was the one of the brotherhood of Iron, Richard felt like measuring this man for what he was. He could be troublesome if he discovered his ability.
He suspects I have influenced our friend from House Wallace into pissing… But he refuses to accept it, he refuses the probability of my power for it would diminish the prestige of Kyai.
Richard knew how pitiful he looked with his green tunic and his average built, with hair so messy and ginger they irritated the commonfolk and the lordlings alike. He knew how insolent he looked, his master, Bromingald Bromsson, had never stopped to remind him, so did Joffre his household’s master-at-arms. Norman had always felt threatened by Richard’s joyousness for it meant rigour could be outclassed by passion, and the world had learned to fear his recklessness. And Richard Frates, Assassin of Kings, couldn’t care less of weaklings. He only stood with the mighty.
So, what are you, Nicolai? Could I acknowledge you?
However, Rick the tavern-keeper carried a longsword that interested Destrega van Stormfyldd. Therefore, he carefully removed it, placing it on his knees, straight, not without hurting the prince’s leg.
“Apologies, milord. Euh… Prince, second in line to the throne…”
This might have been too much.
He had lost points in the prince’s sympathy. Indeed, second sons in great houses often felt bitter, and history had plenty of murderous brothers. After all, what was a royal family but an incestuous clan with a murderous bloodline. How many great kings have laid waste, rape and famine to conquer their evil enemies? History had always been hideous to Richard, for it seemed that it never contained a horror too many. But he had always loved history. So entertaining these murderous cunts… This prince was no exception. However, he liked them in history books and killed them in real life.
Richard Frates had always been the hero the smallfolk deserved but nobody gave him credit as the one they needed. And always, Richard had been sad.
“So, what is your trade?” the prince demanded, not asked.
“Inn-keep, sire,’ Rick answered. ‘Was on my way to Twilight Town, I’m waiting for some Hearthstonian ale.”
“And what of this fancy sword of yours, inn-keeper?”
Richard glanced at Malice than replied with a merry smile:
“My baby, I got it from a tinker named Gunner! Was terrible in poker you see, when I’m really good!”
If unconvinced, Destrega saw no need to bother.
“Well, if you give it to me, I can promise you to deliver you plenty of ale from Gisgo. I will sponsor you inn! Lucky day for you!”
In turn, Rick laughed.
“Does it amuse you?”
“It is sire,’ Rick said, passing a hand in his neck. “That you seem mean in unlucky days…”
He pointed at the dead gleeman.
“And I don’t know really. Imrik is a pretty good liege, I’m happy with his consent…!
– A spicer!” Nicolai intervened. “He insults your presence, Your Highness…
– I like his impudence,” Destrega decided. “He reminds me of myself… In time of bargaining…
– No need to see a mirror in me, sire. The world is much more complex than a reflection of yourself… And it is not for sale, with all due respect, your Highness. Wish you luck in the wars to come.”
This time, the prince was insulted.
He stood, but too late…
Smoke rose from the ground, and the echo of the imperial bells resounded in the Thyrian Mounts. Night had come… Avalan Den would soon die for crimes the Assassin of Kings had committed, remorselessly.
Nicolai himself had grabbed the prince’s arm and by the time he looked back at the ginger-innkeeper, the Fog had already risen and the fiery-haired kingslayer was gone.
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