Iron and Blood
The Iron Kingdom: a half-mythical land conquered by barbarians an age ago, celebrated in song and legend. Here is a land of contrasts as beauty and savagery collide. The north-men, now savages no more, struggle to leave their brutal past behind as they strive to become more civilized and find peace. Yet, it remains a land of conflict ruled over by the Iron King, a mighty ruler, who is himself something of a legend.
The king has grown old and the sun is setting on the days of his saga. Shadows grow long in the south, and Lord Garyth, a nobleman of doubtful lineage and agent of the crown is returning home. A celebrated warrior within the Iron Kingdom, Garyth is eager to get back to his home and family. However, he has discovered a shadowy plot that threatens the kingdom. Countless orcs gather under one banner in the mountains, their hungry eyes looking north, while worse creatures join them.
War looms on the horizon, as some dark will seems to watch on in ravenous anticipation. To survive, the men of iron must once again fight against a seemingly overwhelming tide of darkness. This fight is not for land or wealth, this battle will be for their very survival.
The wind whipped across the snow-covered field. Occasionally it would stutter and stop only to pick back up fiercer than before. A peaceful scene one might have thought. One end of the field was bounded by a swift flowing stream, while on either side was brush that gave way to trees within a hundred paces. At the opposite end the field swept up towards a hillock, with more marching away beyond it. Upon this hill sat a man on a horse. The two were still except for the swishing of the horse’s tail.
The wind that blew across the place tugged at the man’s faded brown cloak, making it seem a thing alive. An onlooker might have wondered what he was doing so far from anywhere. The same onlooker might also have been given pause upon closer inspection. The horse was a solid looking gray that was dappled with white. The gray had the look of a horse that has seen battle. He was an older beast but not yet old, his head still unbowed and his stance that of one who is still ready for another fight.
The rider too looked as if he had seen much. He was a tall man, although all men look tall in the saddle. He was broad-shouldered and had the brawny look of a smith or a forester. The man’s face was tanned and spoke of many days out in the weather, although looking closer; one would have seen that he was younger than his stern expression belied. Keen eyes surveyed the landscape, an icy blue that matched the surroundings. The man was dressed in dark woolen clothing and black riding boots. The glint of mail could be seen underneath his tunic, and the hilt of a sword jutted from above his right shoulder. Where the wind blew his cloak back it could be seen that a scabbard was strapped to his back. A warrior then.
There was the noise of movement through the brush to the man’s left and his eyes darted that way although he did not turn. He saw a figure rise up quickly from the bracken. The figure revealed itself as a man clothed in brown raised a bow and fired an arrow in one fluid movement. The mounted man mentally gave the other credit for his stealth even as he threw himself sideways in the saddle.
The arrow tore through his cloak, and he spoke to the horse, which leaped forward and galloped down the hill. The gray reached the bottom and the warrior took the reins in his left hand, transferring them from his right and pulled the horse left as he did so. As he did so another arrow flashed past where he had just been. Looking to his right he could see the archer knock another arrow, as several other figures leaped from the brush. The warrior rode the horse in a crossing pattern; first right then left, keeping himself low in the saddle. He quickly crossed the field, narrowly avoiding another arrow. His estimation of the archer went up again. He was coolly going for another arrow, seemingly unruffled by the charging horse coming at him.
As the warrior closed in, he could see that there were three others besides the archer. One was a tall man in furs that wielded an axe; another held a spear, and the last bore shield and sword.
The warrior guided his horse toward the left of the group who were spreading out to engage him and block his path to the archer. He drew his sword as he closed with the fur-clad axe-man. Letting loose of the reins, he took a double handed grip on the long hilt of his sword, and swung sideways and down: not at the axe-man himself, but at the others weapon. The impact jarred the axe from its wielders hand and sent it spinning into the snow.
Riding past, the warrior heard him curse and grinned. He charged his mount toward the archer who was now showing signs of panic as the warrior closed in. The archer threw down his bow, and drew a short-sword, backing up as he did so. The brush slowed the gray horse, and the archer sidestepped to his right and stabbed up at the rider. The warrior had seen the move and brought his own sword down one-handed in a vicious overhand swipe that sheared through the archer’s wrist as he stabbed up.
Screaming in pain, the archer fell to the ground holding the stump of his right arm, as the warrior urged his horse to the fight. The remaining two had charged toward him while the other man recovered his axe from the snow. The gray horse was entangled in the brush now, and the warrior leapt from the saddle putting himself between his mount and the charging men. From off to the right the screams of the archer turned to moans as the man wrapped his cloak around his ruined arm.
The warrior took a two handed grip on his sword which glittered through the crimson of the archers blood. The spearman lunged forward, attempting to skewer his foe. The warrior took a step to the right and swung his blade down at the haft of the spear hacking through it. He quickly brought up his blade to block the downswing of the swordsman who had rushed in just seconds behind his comrade.
The swordsman slammed his shield into the warrior’s right shoulder in an attempt to knock him from his feet. The warrior was knocked back a step but went on the offensive, hacking savagely at the others wooden shield.
The warrior knew he must be quick as the axe-man was running forward now as well. He jumped back from his assault on the swordsman, catching movement from the comer of his eye. He whirled, bringing his sword around in a wide arc that went from high to low and caught the spearman in the chest as he was stepping forward with a dagger in his hand. The warrior’s blade grated as it cut through the others leather armor, skin, and muscle and sliced into his rib cage.
The swordsman, seeing an opening threw down his ruined shield and swung his blade down upon the warrior whose blade was caught in the dying man’s chest. However the warrior let go of his trapped sword and sidestepped the blow. He then slammed a heavy fist into the side of the other man’s head sending him sprawling.
Turning, he wrenched his sword from the dead man’s chest and charged to meet the axe-man head on. The warrior’s blade flashed out and clanged into the haft of the heavy axe. The axe-man pushed forward and then stepped back swinging his weapon in a downward arc that would have split the skull of the warrior had it connected. The warrior dodged to the left kicking out at his overbalanced foes right knee.
There was a sharp crack as the axe-man went down. Before he could do more than groan in pain, the warrior stabbed down into his throat.
The swordsman couldn’t believe it. He rose to his feet shaking his head. Three down and their quarry hadn’t even taken a scratch! Cautiously he went on guard as the warrior moved toward him. In spite of the cold, his longsword felt slick in his sweat drenched hands.
The warrior feinted forward with deadly grace and the swordsman parried. Twice more he blocked the blows of the warrior’s long blade, but just narrowly. The other man’s blade was nearly a foot longer than his own, and the hilt was long enough for two hands, which gave the warrior an advantage in power. The swordsman took a two handed grip on his sword, although to do so he had to let go of the pommel with his other hand.
His foe switched from two handed to one handed with ease, and even between hands in a blur of intricate movements. He knew he was outmatched, but determined to die bravely he charged in and swung sideways from left to right. The warrior blocked the stroke, and then stabbed forward impaling the swordsman. He fell back into the soft snow and looked up into the sky.
The warrior wiped his blade clean on the dead man’s tunic and turned as he heard shouting. A group of riders had crested the hill and were galloping down toward him. He recognized the men as his own retainers and shook his head as he called his mount to him. The fight had lasted only moments, and he knew they must have come at a gallop from the camp when they heard the sounds of battle.
The sky was darkening as he swung up into the saddle. “Milord!” The sergeant bellowed as the men rode up. “Lord Garyth, are you alright, sir?” His tone was anxious but the man was a veteran. He knew how the fight had gone from what he saw before him and from the end of it as he came over the hilltop.
The warrior nodded “I’m fine, sergeant.” The sergeant knew the truth of it but still had a worried look on his face. He had been given charge with protecting the lord and felt that he had failed. If anything bad happened to the lord, the sergeant would have to face the king. As if reading his thoughts Garyth laughed “Don’t worry sergeant, I should’ve told you I was going to ride so far, and I commanded the guards to remain behind. It is not your fault. Besides I needed the exercise.” The sergeant bowed His head “Yes Milord”.
Garyth rode past the sergeant and toward the hill as the other man gave orders for the bodies to be searched. Inwardly he sighed. The sergeant was a good man. A king’s man. Loyal to his bones from what he’d seen. He was unfailingly respectful to Garyth, but it was always an uncertain respect, as he was unsure of Garyth’s actual station. He was no longer bitter about it, but at times it still rankled. The blood of kings ran in him, but he would always be reminded of his place in the world. He rode over the hilltop and back toward the camp as the snow began to fall.
The crescent moon rose, bathing the camp in a silvery light. There were several campfires, and the soldiers not on guard duty gathered around them, either to sleep or to talk in low tones with their fellows. Much of the talk centered on the attack on their lord earlier that day. The men that had ridden out with the sergeant had told how four brigands had set upon the lord, who had dispatched them with ease. Others from the same group said that the sergeant was furious, both with himself and with lord Garyth’ s personal guard for the lord slipping away and being in jeopardy. All agreed that the lord needed no protection against the likes of the bandits that had accosted him. His lordship was known far and wide as one of the deadliest swordsmen in the kingdom, and beyond.
Sergeant Rothan scowled as he strode past a laughing group of soldiers. He stopped and turned back toward them. The men stiffened as he walked up to them. “Keep it down, you bloody idiots! I don’t want to let the whole kingdom knowing where we are!” He shouted and then lowered his own voice but went on forcefully, “You lads have all earned double watches tonight. Better sleep while you can.” The sergeant turned away from the fire and continued on his way, aware of the black looks that were being shot at his back.
It wasn’t that he had eyes in the back of his head as many of the men swore, it was just that after twenty three years of service, he knew without seeing what was going on most of the time. In many cases he knew from experience, having come up the hard way through the ranks and attaining the rank of captain before he had run afoul of his superiors, and had his rank stripped from him.
Rothan was in an ill mood and his men knew it. The smarter ones stayed well away from the burly sergeant. Those with less wit, like those he had just punished suffered his wrath and cursed their luck.
The sergeant could not believe his own foul luck. Their company had set out two months ago to escort lord Garyth back from the border where he was arriving back from traveling abroad on business of the king. They had reached the border fort without incident, and had waited for nearly a week for the lord’s arrival.
When he had arrived it was with only a handful of the men that had been sent with him as a detachment. He had ridden hard into the fort and ordered the soldiers to prepare themselves for battle. They had been ambushed on the road by orcs and most of his men had been slain. He had cut his way out of the trap and with those men who escaped rode hard for the fort.
Lord Garyth painted a grim picture of a small army of orcs headed straight for them. The captain that commanded Rothan’s company had presented himself to lord Garyth with a sealed letter from the king and told him that he had been ordered to bring the lord back safely. It had been his intent to leave the garrison at the fort to contend with the orcs on their own, but Garyth would hear nothing of it. He’d taken over the command of the fort and the men readied themselves for battle.
There was a nearby village that lay in the path of the orcs as they swept towards the fort. Lord Garyth commanded a detachment of soldiers to follow him to warn the village. They arrived just in time to evacuate the village and escort them back to the safety of the fort. Garyth had fallen back with half his men to hold them off. He and his men harried the forward elements of the orcish army and left many of the green skinned brutes dead. They then made the fort just ahead of the orcs, and the fort prepared itself for battle.
For five days and nights the orcs lay siege to the fort. The men of the fort had the advantage defensively and were better equipped and trained. For the orcs part, they had numbers and possessed the savage desire to destroy all within the fort.
At the height of the siege, Garyth led a sally from the gates to smash the orc camp as they fell back after being repulsed from the walls again. The sergeant had been left in command of their detachment, as the young captain rode out with the lord and a group of handpicked knights. He had been charged with the safety of the lord and would not stay back and watch from the walls.
The charge clove into the orcs and threw them into disarray. They tried to close with the mounted knights but were cut down. Then four units of footmen raced from the fort to support the cavalry. The orcs morale was broken and they had fled the field.
Sadly the brave young captain had perished with the first charge. An orc spear had punched through his mail and ended his life. Many others had perished as well, though the orcs casualties had been worse. The soldiers buried their dead and burned the orc dead leaving a foul stench in the air. Sergeant Rothan, was next in the chain of command, and had his men help the fort to strengthen their defenses. Several days later lord Garyth told him that he was ready to travel back and they had left with the dawn.
Twice their unit had been attacked on the road back: once by an orc war band, and once more by a large group of bandits. In both attacks, the enemy had tried to bring down Garyth. Then this attack when the lord was out looking at the countryside. Rothan had a grim feeling about it all, and as a veteran, he’d learned to trust his instincts.
The sergeant arrived at a large tent, and brusquely ordered the two guards at the entrance to step aside. As they did he cleared his throat loudly and spoke “Milord, its Rothan. I need to speak to you sir.”
For several moments there was silence and then a tired voice told him to enter. As he stepped through the opening, he saw that the tent was sparsely adorned, and lacking in the amenities that most lords were known for traveling with. An armor stand, a standard issue footlocker, cot, and small table that sat on a fur rug were all the furnishings within the tent. A small fire burned in the center of the floor, which had an opening cut into it for this purpose. The smoke from the blaze wafted out of a similarly cut hole in the tents roof. The sergeant had noticed before that the tent itself was only slightly larger than his own.
Sitting on the floor across from the entrance was Garyth. The man was dressed in heavy furs and had been reading by the firelight when the sergeant entered the room. He nodded his greeting to the sergeant who saluted him. “Be at ease Rothan. Sit and warm yourself.” He said gesturing opposite the fire.
The sergeant sat down stiffly, obviously ill at ease. His own captain had only rarely spoken to him on an informal level and here was a noble lord, the kings own blood sitting on the cold ground with him. To be sure the sergeant had spoken much with the lord on the journey which had thus far been a little over a month, but usually in the saddle or around the campfire, where the lord would often sit with the common soldiers.
“Have you eaten?” Garyth said gesturing toward a plate of food that sat on the table. He nodded and the other pulled a jug from off of the table. “Then sergeant, have a drink with me. I can tell you have something to say to me, and perhaps we should first share a cup of good wine before you begin. Talking is a dry business.”
Rothan smiled and accepted the brass cup that was handed to trim. He drank the whole cup at once and smiled again. Garyth had told the truth, the wine was good! The young lord drained his own cup and then refilled both. “So Rothan you had something to tell me?”
The sergeant looked straight at the other man and said “Sir, I think someone is trying to kill you.”
Garyth chuckled and took another drink. “You are direct, Rothan that’s for truth. Was it the orc war band or that little scuffle today that tipped you off?”
The sergeant shook his head, ignoring the sarcasm. “I’m serious sir. In every attack, the foe came straight for you, wherever you were, almost like they knew who you were. Remember the big orc with the axe?”
Garyth chuckled again “How could I forget? He nearly took my head.”
Rothan continued, “That’s what I mean. He came straight for you, cutting a path through the men as he did. It seemed like he recognized you sir!”
The sergeant took a long drink from his cup. Garyth himself drained his cup again and set it back on the table. “Listen to me sergeant. There are things going on that you are unaware of. I can tell you no more except to say that I have made enemies in my travels. They are not only my enemies but enemies of the crown as well. I am aware that these attacks are not random, as they seem. I have much to tell the king when we return home, and our enemies are trying to make sure that I don’t make it back.”
He gestured to the parchment that he had been reading. “This is a letter from the king, warning me that my life is in danger. He has eyes and ears in many places, even beyond our borders. It is why I cut short my mission, and also why you and your men were sent to escort me back. I know that you are worried sergeant. You are a good man, and it wasn’t your fault that I left the camp earlier today. I knew we were being followed, and I grew tired of it. Better to pick the ground where you face your enemies than let him pick for you. My father told me that. I could have taken men with me, I know, but then my attackers wouldn’t have shown themselves. By the way, did you find anything of interest on them?
Rothan nodded. “They weren’t mere brigands sir, their weapons were new, and each wore armor of boiled leather beneath his garments. The armor looked new as well. They looked like soldiers sir, and I don’t mean deserters either.”
Garyth nodded “You have a good eye. They didn’t fight like brigands either. They used tactics and were patient in stalking me. They moved to get between me and the archer, when I charged him.”
Rothan shook his head “Milord, I don’t like it one bit. Perhaps we should travel more slowly, and be wary. Lay ambushes of our own…”
Garyth held up his hand forestalling more from the sergeant. “We have no time. I must return to the capital as soon as possible. We are now within our own borders, and you must have realized as I have that the attacks have grown less in power. Our enemy’s reach can only extend so far, though I dislike that it can go this deep into our own country. No. We will push on toward home. We will alert the towns and forts that we pass, but otherwise, we continue as we have. Understood?”
The sergeant nodded and said “Yes Milord.”
Garyth rose to his feet, and so did Rothan. “You’re a good man Rothan. I know a little of your past, and how you were a captain before.”
Rothan shrugged, embarrassed, but the lord continued speaking. “I will see to it that you are reinstated as a captain, you can trust to that. You’ve been a great help to me on this journey, and I can see that you command the respect of your men. When we reach the capital, I’ll buy you a flagon, and you can tell me your tale.”
Rothan was surprised when Garyth extended his hand, but shook it heartily. “Soon we’ll be home.” Garyth said, and the sergeant nodded his agreement. “Yes sir, soon indeed perhaps within the month and in time for the winter solstice eh?” Garyth laughed and walked back to his cot and sat on it. “Indeed. Perhaps we’ll make it in time. You are dismissed, Rothan.”
The sergeant replied, “Yes sir,” walking out of the tent, closing the flap behind him. On his way to his own tent, he woke two sleeping soldiers and told them to guard lord Garyth’s tent with the other guards that were already on duty there.
Rothan had learned in his years of service to the crown that the old adage was true, better safe than sorry. He entered his tent and prepared himself for bed. As he lay on his cot, staring at the fire, he thought that the young lord was a good man himself. Most lordlings thought themselves too good to be friendly with a common soldier like himself. Garyth though, seemed to be a different sort. He carried himself with dignity, and yet set people at ease despite his rank. Rothan had heard the men debating the lords’ age, and had thought that Garyth was perhaps in his thirties. Seeing him more relaxed, the sergeant decided that he was more likely in his late twenties.
Lord Garyth was somewhat of a mystery, as no one seemed to know much about his family or lineage, only that he was a special agent of the king, and was of the nobility. Of course a wise man knew better than to pry into the affairs of his superiors. So thinking, the sergeant fell asleep, and dreamed of plots and assassins in the dark.
* * *
The city of Cabrille was a bustling, noisy place. Vendors extolled the virtues of their wares in the market squares to both residents and travelers that passed by. Beggars lifted their voices to be heard telling of their plight and the unfairness of the world. There were a few people that did not know that one in ten of them were truly unfortunate cripples, and the others were thieves.
Children ran through the place, laughing as they chased each other through the throng that moved sluggishly beneath the setting sun. Overseeing all of this were hard-faced guards that watched everything.
Cabrille was a free town. It sat on the southern coast and basked year round in the warmth of the sun. It was ruled by a merchant council, and its overall dictum was that trade was everything. The town ran on coin. It was the type of place where fortunes were made and lost overnight. It was also the type of place where lives were lost in the blink of an eye, and many dangerous people called home.
There was an inn called the Drunken Serpent that served as a meeting point for many such unsavory characters. The innkeeper was an ex smuggler who looked the other way as long as the customers didn’t damage his place and they paid a little extra for their privacy. On this day, a man sat at a table in a corner and waited.
The man sat completely still, except to occasionally sip his drink. Those passing by him did not scrutinize him for long, if at all. They could not meet his gaze, which was like the cold, flat stare of a reptile or snake. The man was dressed in the loose, flowing clothing of the region. Tan colored pantaloons, and a matching tunic that left his arms bare. He wore a burnoose on his head, but left his face uncovered. Dark eyes peered out from an angular face. He was a slim man of middling height, not overly large, but his musculature was chiseled, as if he was carved from stone. He wore two short swords at his side, as well as several daggers on his belt. There were several more daggers hidden on his person, and he wore finely cured leather armor beneath his tunic.
The man’s name was Savrun. If the innkeeper or his other patrons had known who he was they would have fled the inn, for Savrun was known throughout the southern lands as a deadly killer.
Just now, the man called Savrun was annoyed, although he didn’t show it. He was to meet here with the smuggler Kashin over an hour ago. He detested waiting, but sat patiently sipping his drink. He knew that the smuggler would show, even though he had double-crossed Savrun’s master. The lure of gold would bring him though. It always did with his type.
As if summoned by his thoughts, the door opened and several men entered. They were large rough looking men armed well, and each wore a bronze breastplate. After these men entered, another followed after them. A short man in the robes of a merchant, Kashin was a burly man that tried his best to look respectable. He spotted Savrun and, with his men in tow, walked that way.
Without a word, he sat at a chair facing Savrun across the square table. His three men fanned out behind him, hands resting on their weapon hilts. “So, you have come back, eh? Interested in buying more of my wares?”
Savrun laughed inwardly. His master had paid hard coin for the purchase of two hundred scimitars and a like number of shields. Savrun had himself paid the coin to Kashin, who had a reputation as being an arms dealer who would sell to anyone. Extra coin had been paid for delivery and for the problems that it would incur. For the weapons and shields had gone to no ordinary mercenary captain, or bandit chief, but to an orc war chief that also served the assassin’s master.
Kashin had double-crossed them and had never delivered the shipment, and here this lying dog sat, acting as though everything was fine. Savrun revealed nothing of his thoughts and merely leaned forward slightly and said, “It seems that there was a problem with the delivery.” His tone was even, almost monotone. “The shipment never arrived at the designated area, perhaps something happened?” The smuggler smiled and shrugged.
“Well my friend, I sent my men with the caravan to make sure that it arrived. They assured me that it did, but that there was no one there. They waited for several days, and then hid the wares as you had instructed me.” He lowered his voice to a near whisper, “After all, who can tell with these orcs eh?”
Savrun shook his head and politely answered “Yes but I know that your men never came. I waited with the orcs myself to be sure, and they never came. You are a liar, Kashin and a dead man.”
The smuggler blinked and then threw himself back from the table. “Kill him!” He shouted to his men.
Savrun had risen to his feet and stood calmly behind the table.
The innkeeper shouted, “Kashin, you promised it would be outside!” and promptly dove behind the bar. The other patrons ran out the door, scrambling to get out of the way. Kashin’s men drew their weapons and spread out, one on each side, and one straight in.
Savrun glanced around at them, and folding his arms said, “Come in and die then.”
They charged him almost simultaneously, the two coming in from each side trying to catch him between them. They wielded scimitars, and both swung out at Savrun. He leaped over the table before they were even close, and charging from the front, kicked the man in the chest. The big fighter flew back and landed on the floor, his breath knocked from him, although he’d suffered no real damage.
Savrun pivoted smoothly, and having drawn a dagger in each hand, threw them at the tough that had charged him on his left. One bounced off the man’s breastplate, but the other caught him in his throat as he turned to change direction. He went down gurgling, with a surprised expression on his face.
Savrun drew his short swords, and nimbly ran the few steps toward the other man that had charged from His right. As he did so, he could hear Kashin shouting, “Get up you fool! Kill him!” The warrior swung sideways from right to left at Savrun, who parried with his left sword, forcing the other man’s weapon down. As he did so, he whiffed in a circle with incredible speed, bringing his right sword around in an arc that cut deeply into his opponents’ right shoulder. The man screamed and dropped his sword.
Meanwhile, the fighter behind Savrun, got to his feet, and gripping his blade in both hands, charged him from behind. Savrun spun back to his left, and with the grace of a dancer stepped to the side of his foe as the other man slashed downward with his weapon. He reversed his grip on his sword and stabbed down with his right hand piercing the fighters’ calf. The man fell forward overbalanced, and wounded badly. As he did so, Savrun turned and rammed his sword through the back of his neck.
Opposite him, the fighter with the wounded shoulder regained his weapon and pushed himself to his feet. From behind Savrun he could hear Kashin moving toward the door. He whirled, and dropped his fight hand sword, and pulled a dagger from his belt and threw it in one smooth motion. It pierced Kashin’s leg, and he dropped like a stone screaming in agony.
Savrun turned back to the remaining fighter who came in recklessly swinging his blade awkwardly in his left hand, as blood streamed down his right arm, where it hung useless at his side. Contemptuously, Savrun blocked the stroke with his left sword, and stepped in close to his foe. He chopped forward with his right hand held flat, catching the other man in the throat. The fighter gasped, and stepped back, bringing his sword up to ward Savrun off. Sidestepping the blade, Savrun effortlessly tossed his sword from his left hand to his fight. He then grabbed the others wounded arm in his now freed left hand, and cruelly wrenched it up. The fighter gave a hoarse bellow of pain, and tried to grab his tormenter, but Savrun stepped out and stabbed up into the man’s exposed armpit. As the big fighter fell, Savrun almost casually pulled yet another dagger, this one from his boot, and stabbed the man through the eye with it.
Kashin’s white robes were now stained with the red of his blood as Savrun stalked toward him. “Wait! Wait! I’ll pay you anything you want]” He frantically reached for his pouch and hurled it toward Savrun, who caught it with his left hand. “Thank you.” The grim killer said as he came on toward Kashin.
“Wait! Don’t kill me; I’ll make you wealthy beyond your dreams!”
Savrun laughed: a cold sound. “Do you know who I am? Who I really am?” Kashin shook his head as the other continued, “My name is Savrun.”
Kashin’s face drained of color, going ashen beneath his tan. “Savrun the Assassin? Then that means your master is..,” He trailed off as the killer nodded.
“Now you understand, you fool. You were paid well, and you crossed the wrong people. Now you will die for your stupidity.”
Kashin wailed, “I did not know! Please! I did not know who you were! I am wealthy! I can pay you! I have the weapons still! I will give them to you!” Savrun shook his head again, “It’s too late for that. Even now servants of my master are killing your guards and taking your villa. We will enslave your servants, and take your goods. You have nothing now, not even your life.” So saying, the assassin stabbed the smuggler in the chest. Kashin attempted to speak but couldn’t. Savrun wrenched his blade free and held in front of the dying man’s face. “My master told me to take your head, dog.” He grabbed the smuggler by the hair and with two savage strokes cut his head from his body.
The assassin put the grisly trophy in a sack, and looked around the room. It was strangely quiet after the battle, as it always was. He wasn’t even breathing hard. He was disappointed. Kashin’s men were said to be among the best in Cabrille. He gathered his weapons, wiping them clean on a dead fighters clothes. So much for Cabrille’s best.
In the distance he could hear a commotion, and figured that the innkeeper had finally roused the guards. In this part of town, it would take them a while to respond. Savrun sheathed his weapons, and walked out of the drunken serpent through the back door, pulling his burnoose around his face as he did so.
* * *
The merchant was nervous as he looked around the waiting hall. He had never been to the palace before, and in fact had only moved to the capitol of the Iron Kingdom last summer. Now he sat miserably outside the great doors to the hall of the Iron King with the other supplicants waiting to be judged.
‘How unfair‘, he thought. ‘I am not a criminal. I’ve done nothing wrong‘. And yet he sat worried that he had made a mistake moving here. He was a foreigner in this land. He had moved here because as a merchant there was money to be made here. He could buy steel from the Iron Kingdom, whose weapons and armor were beyond compare, and sell it back to his own countrymen for a small fortune. Granted, he was forced to pay a levy on everything that he bought but it was a fair price in his mind.
Now he’d had a dispute with a local that he’d purchased steel from and surprisingly the magistrate had remanded the case over to the court of the king, based on the fact that the merchant was a foreigner dealing in steel. From what he’d seen, the people of the Iron Kingdom, or simply the kingdom as they called it, were a fair lot, if stern. However, the merchant had no idea how things would go for him, and he had worried himself sick.
Within the hall of the Iron King a man pled his case. He stood accused of robbing and beating a baker. The amount stolen was ten silver coins. The baker was present as a witness, his right eye swollen almost shut and his face bruised. The accused was a young lad with a shock of red hair, and an easy smile. He spoke of his mother, who was a widow, and how he worked hard to support her. He had several friends in attendance that spoke for him, as well as his mother. The baker had already testified and pointed the man out from a crowd. The accused thief finished his testimony “An’ so ya see milord, I was nowhere near this lying baker that day. I was workin’ in the forge that day.” He stepped back smiled, smug in his certainty that he would be acquitted.
The Iron King sat on his throne scrutinizing the young man. In turn, the young man gulped and his smile slipped as he gazed at that stern figure. The Iron King was well into his sixties. When standing he was more than six and a half feet tall and still cut an imposing figure, He was dressed in flowing blue robes, but his massive frame looked more suited to armor. He leaned his chin upon his hand as he stared at the accused thief and his right forearm was the size of most men’s legs. His other arm sat in his lap, for very few people knew that it was weakened, and at times useless to the king. His hair was silver and gray, and cut short. The crown of iron sat upon his brow and his eyes were still sharp as they gazed at the accused. His face was lined, but his head still unbowed and he sat straight upon his throne. A figure of legend in his own time, and beyond his own lands, he had ruled for nearly forty years.
The king spoke, his voice powerful and deep “Bring the next witness forward.”
The young man looked around bewildered. He thought he had seen or heard of all the witnesses. His eyes widened as he saw the wizened form of the forges owner, and his employer. The old man had been sick for some time; he hadn’t been out of bed in weeks. Surely they couldn’t count his testimony.
The king spoke again as two young guards helped the old man in. “Bring a chair for the elder.” A chair was brought and once the man was seated the king said, “It has been said that you have testimony to bring before this court.”
The old man nodded and spoke in a rasping voice, “it’s true yer highness. I got to tell ye the truth. The boy there told that he worked for me the day the baker was robbed. It ain’t true. He ain’t worked for me in a week. I been sick, sire and I had to close the shop down fer a while ’til I could get to feelin’ better.
The king nodded. “Have you anything else to say, elder?”
The old man scratched his head for a moment and then nodded, “Yer highness, he’s a good lad. He ain’t never been in trouble before. He’s a good worker, and I never heard of him doing something like this.”
The king nodded again. “Your testimony has been recorded, good sir. I thank you for coming to do your duty. I will have you escorted home, and I will recompense you for your time.”
The old man was led out by the two guards and the chair was removed. The king then turned a baleful eye upon the young man. “In light of that testimony, do you have anything else to add to your defense?”
The young man gulped in spite of himself. The king was known to be a stern man, just but hard when the law had been broken. He had gained the name the Iron king, as had his grandfather, for his battles, which he had always won, and for the discipline he expected of his subjects. The accused was not necessarily aware of all these things, but he did realize that the king was no fool. “Err Milord I, uhh forgot about old Gelt’s being sick. He musta forgot that I was there is all, but I swear to you that I was there that day.”
The king leaned forward in his throne, “You swear to me? The elder forgot that you were there eh? Did the doctor forget you were there? Did his daughter forget, who by her own testimony, sat with him all day?” The young man looked around the hall with a panicked look in his eye. “You are a liar. And by your own tongue you have convinced me of your guilt. Guards!”
Two burly guards strode forward and grabbed the man by the arms. He squirmed in their grip and shouted “Mercy milord! I needed the money! The old man said it himself. I didn’t work that week.”
The king cut him off, “You have given your testimony. You have lied to your king, and you have assaulted your fellow countryman. For money!” The king practically spat. “You could have sought work elsewhere, or if you were that desperate, you could have come to the Palace. There is work to be had here for able bodied men.”
The thief was practically blubbering now. Tears streamed down his face as he begged for mercy. “Enough!” The king thundered. “You have broken the law and you will pay for your crimes. Here we follow the old ways. You are guilty, and you will suffer the punishment now in the Hall of Iron where our ancestors meted out judgment. For your crime of thievery, and attacking a fellow citizen, I decree that your right hand be taken as penalty!”
A hushed silence descended on the hall as the judgment was pronounced. Many there had expected a lighter sentence for the young man. However, the law was very strict with thieves. There was no mercy in it for those who would prey on their own people, and the Iron King hated them with a passion. He made it a practice to sit in judgment on cases like this instead of letting the local magistrate handle it. In the capitol, if you were accused of a serious crime, you would probably end up before the king himself. The young thief was openly weeping now as a side door opened and a block was brought in.
The guards dragged the young man over to the block, and tied his hand to the block, which had been constructed with leather straps for just this purpose. The king stood to his feet and walked down the steps from the dais where his throne sat. “I have pronounced this judgment upon you, and as your king I will mete it upon you.” He looked back at the dais where his squire stood. “Bring my axe.” The young squire hefted the king’s axe from where it hung on the throne and brought it down to him.
The axe was a double bladed battle-axe. It gleamed as the king took it in his good right hand. Most men would have had to hold it in both hands, but the king hefted it as though it were a light thing. He looked down where the young man knelt, held in place both by the straps around his arm, and by the guards on either side of him. “Be a man. Honor your ancestors.” The king raised the axe high, and brought it down with terrible force. It sheared cleanly through the thief’s hand, taking it off at the wrist.
The man screamed in agony as the king stepped back handing the bloodstained axe to his squire. The guards bound the thief’s stump and took him from the hall. They would take him to the infirmary, where the arm would be cauterized with fire, and then treated. The king gazed at the assembly in the hall. “We remember the old ways. I honor my ancestors and the gods. I will not allow such people to go unpunished. Baker, I have given you justice this day. Bring in the next dispute.”
Standing off to one side of the dais, among a group of nobles and officers was prince Aiden, the king’s eldest son. He watched as the judgment was rendered to the young thief and as the next case was brought in.
The prince was a powerfully built man in his early thirties. He was the tallest man in the hall, next to the king who was several inches taller than his son, and his royal garb did little to hide the build of a warrior. He had a handsome face but stem and impassive. The prince had the blue eyes of his father, and blonde hair like the king bad had in his youth. The older retainers said that he was the spitting image of his father. The prince would laugh at such claims. True he did look much like the king, but, though a large man, he lacked the stature that his father had. A stature that to his mind, was more than just physical.
The king had lost his father when in his teens, and had taken the reins to the kingdom at a young age. He had fought a war to defend his country from the encroachment of a neighboring kingdom at the tender age of twenty years old. He had won that war and next went on the offensive, and after a seven year war taken the capitol of that kingdom. The Iron Kingdom had absorbed them, and its lands were divided among the nobility.
The king had always led his men from the front. There had been smaller wars and battles since then in the king’s life as well. He had led an army to aid the Dwarven king, who was his ally. Together they had smashed the orc horde of Garmad Toothgrinder. Aiden knew his father well, and although his king praised his sons, they knew that none of them quite measured up to their father.
The next case was that of a merchant that had bought steel from a forge and claimed that they had delivered only half of the promised goods. Aiden watched as his father ferreted out the truth. The old king was wise; the prince knew, and had an uncanny way of finding the truth in a situation. If necessary the king could always call upon the druid, Calder who could use his powers to divine the truth. However the king had always told Aiden to rely on your own judgment and mind, and only rarely used Calder.
The king called in witnesses from both sides. It was obvious that many in the court were against the merchant, who was a foreigner. The man appeared nervous and ill at ease as he gave his testimony. The king however, asked pointed questions of the forge owner who gave two different amounts of money that he had received. The king then called the man’s wife from the waiting hall and asked her how much money had been received. She gave a different total altogether. He then questioned the merchant and his assistant, both of whom gave the same total and offered their personal records as proof.
The king perused the books, and then rendered his judgment. The case went to the merchant, and the forge owner was ordered to pay the remainder of the fee to the merchant, as well as a stiff fine to the crown.
The prince nodded thoughtfully as the guards escorted the judged from the hall. Originally he had thought that the foreigner was guilty from the man’s demeanor. As he thought about the king’s verdict he realized that the merchant was probably nervous about being brought before the Iron King. The king had listened to both sides, and looked at both the testimony and evidence presented to him.
Aiden thought the decision was a just one having thought about it at length and was amazed how his father had gotten to the truth of things once again. Although he was no longer a youth, and had a wife and children of his own now, the prince sometimes still felt like a child in the presence of his father. Aiden was smart enough to realize that he still had much to learn from his father if he was ever to rule the kingdom.
The great hall emptied as the guards showed the attendees out. The day had been a long one with many cases brought before the king to pass judgment upon. The talk of the day had been of the young thief who the king had judged and the case had sparked lively debate both from the common people and among the nobles.
The king rose from his throne and stretched wearily. He could let his tiredness show now and yawned. He looked around as prince Aided spoke with the captain of the royal guard. The king smiled warmly at his son as he strode up to the dais and bowed. “My son. Have you eaten?” The prince shook his head and the king walked down and clapped him on the back. “Neither have I, and I am hungry enough to eat a horse!”
The prince smiled “Even it’s a horse cooked by Naolin?”
The king grimaced and playfully struck Aiden’s shoulder. “Now boy, that’s your sister you speak of. I’m sure she could cook a fine horse.”
Aiden chortled, “Yes sire. In fact I think that’s what she made for Kara and me the other night.”
The king’s laughter boomed in the great hall. “Indeed lad, I’ve wondered at some of her concoctions. May the gods be merciful to her new husband once they’ve married!” The king looked around and then with a serious look on his face said, “Don’t tell her I said that. She’s got a temper like your mother had.”
The prince nodded and smiled “Yes sir. Shall we go and find something other than horse to eat then? Dinner isn’t for a while yet, and neither of us ate at midday.”
The king nodded “Aye. We’ll go to my study, and I’ll have something brought up from the kitchens.” The father and son walked out of the hall still chuckling from time to time.
An hour later, the king and Aiden sat watching the snow fall from the king’s massive study. A storm had kicked up and the two sat by a roaring fire in high-backed leather chairs in silence, each enjoying their own thoughts. The room, in contrast to the bitter cold outside, was warm and comfortable.
The castle had built by the dwarves over a hundred years ago, and was made both to last and for the comfort of living. No one knew how to build like dwarves, and they had cunningly designed the castle to make use not only of the fireplaces that were within almost every room, but also to use the gargantuan stoves that they had built within the depths of the castle deep belowground. The stoves were fed by coal that was mined from within the same depths.
The dwarves had chosen the site wisely, and the castle was situated on a rich mine of coal itself. There had never been a shortage of coal yet, and the Dwarven miners that inspected the mines every year said that they doubted that there would be within the next two centuries. Consequently, the castle could be kept warm throughout the bitter northern winters without the drafts that were usually characteristic of a castle, and in the summer months the stone kept the castle cool.
The prince rubbed his stomach and said, “Ah father, I must be careful not to eat like this too often, lest my belly become more than a match for me.”
The king chuckled “My son, don’t worry, you know as well as I that the lean winter months are upon us and that even the kings table must conserve. And there is always much work to be done for all of us year round.”
Aiden smiled at his father, “It’s true. I must leave soon as you’ve commanded to oversee the shipyards at Erkuvan?’
Stretching his back, the king flexed his weak arm, and tried to make his hand into a fist. Failing to do so, he leaned back in his chair, “Make sure that you explain to Baron Serle the need for speed and efficiency. I sent him the extra laborers, and he has the best shipwrights in all of the kingdom. Your mother’s brother is a good man, and I don’t doubt that he is on schedule, but sometimes he can lose sight of the larger scope of things and get lost in his own problems. In truth, I don’t know that he needs you there, but he wilt be glad to see you, as will your cousins. Indeed it will be a morale booster to the whole city to see their prince.”
Aiden smiled depreciatively at the compliment. He then voiced something that he’d been wondering about. “Father, the young man today. I don’t question your judgment, but I must ask, why such a harsh punishment?”
The king’s look became grim. “I know that it seemed harsh son. Indeed to many it may have been too harsh. I will answer you in this way, though I hate to answer a question with a question. What was it that I just explained to you about your uncle Serle?”
The prince thought for a moment and then answered, “That his weakness is that he fails to see the broader situation.” The king replied, “Not exactly what I said, but close, lad. You see I told you about your uncle, so that you would know what to look for, and so remedy it if a problem arose.”
The king leaned forward in his chair. “Someday, if you are found worthy before the gods and man, you will rule the kingdom, and you must learn all that you can. I know that you pay heed to what you’ve learned, but you must learn to read men’s hearts. Only then will you be fit to be a king.”
The prince nodded and said, “I understand father, but what about the young man today? I know that he was a thief, and I see how you proved his guilt. But why was it necessary to take his hand, making him a cripple?”
The king took a drink of wine from his goblet where it sat nearby. “It was necessary because this was not his first offense. He has twice been brought before the magistrates. Once there was not enough evidence, and the second time, he was convicted of thievery, and publicly flogged.”
Aiden nodded and the king continued. “You see now, son? A king must know everything. When I was told of this case I made the boy wait in holding and sent one of my judges to the village where he and his mother moved from to investigate. He found out that the boy had been a troublemaker and they had moved several years ago when the town discovered his thieving ways. They fled their punishment there, but it was only a matter of time before he would get into trouble again. As I told the assembly in the hall today, we follow the old ways. They are the best ways. They keep us strong and safe. Our ancestors were dependent upon each other for everything.”
The king‘s voice deepened as he spoke of that long ago time. “They did not have much coin, and so they bartered for most things. Men had to be able to rely on his neighbor to help defend their village together. They had to be able to trust each other. A man’s word was his bond, and when a man broke that trust the law was harsh.”
“You know the laws, boy I made you study under myself and other teachers. If a man steals, he forfeits a hand. If a man violates a woman, then he forfeits his manhood and is gelded like a horse. If a man kills without cause, he forfeits his life. These and other laws were laid down and they are still relevant today, Aiden, regardless of how people feel about them. Feelings are not even a part of it.”
The king sighed heavily. “I did not feel like taking that boys hand today. I did not rise from my bed with the thought that I would do such a thing, but I am the king. My duties are heavy, lad, and someday, the gods willing, you will know that load.”
The prince nodded and the king smiled. “There lad, now you’ve caused me to make a speech. Don’t look so troubled Aiden.” Father leaned forward toward son as he spoke earnestly, “Right now you are worried how you will know to judge men’s hearts. How you will know the fight decision from the wrong one.”
Aiden nodded; surprised that the king had nearly read his thoughts. “You see that is why I carried out his judgment myself. In the old days, if the chieftain did not have the heart to mete out the judgment that he himself had set, then its judgment was not righteous. If there were doubt, then a just man would not make such a judgment.”
Shrugging his shoulders almost helplessly, the king continued, “In my years as king, I have had to only rarely make such a judgment. More rarely I have had to execute men for their crimes. It is never easy, but each time I was sure beyond doubt that I was right, and I have always relied on Calder’s powers to make sure that I was not mistaken.”
The king sat back in his chair and looked at his son. “You are a man Aiden. You are also of the royal blood. There have been good kings and bad in the past. It is why the council of nobles can vote against the choice of the present king for successor, and why the king’s sons do not always succeed him. In the other lands the nobility believes that the people exist to do their bidding. We know better though. We know that our position exists to protect our people, sometimes from each other, and sometimes from without. You must always strive to be worthy of your post my son, always.”
Aiden nodded thoughtfully, and the two sat in silence for a while. The prince then stood to his feet. “I must go father. Kara wilt have dinner ready, and I must try to look duly famished.”
The king laughed and then looked at his son seriously. “Before you go Aiden, I want to speak of one more thing. Garyth will be home within the week, barring bad weather.”
Aiden smiled and said, “It will be good to see him, it has been awhile,”
The king’s face grew long as he replied, “Yes it’s been more than a year. I hated to send him, but I needed you here.”
The prince hesitated and then spoke. “Father, have you ever regretted not letting the truth be known? As you’ve said in the past, the truth must always be told.”
Looking up at his son, the king replied slowly, “Many times have I regretted my decision Aiden. Many times. You have never asked me that question before, although you have found out the truth of the matter. I did what I had to do. Your mother was a strong-willed woman, and I loved her dearly, the gods grant her peace. She would have had it no other way.”
At his father’s sad look the prince walked over to his father and put his hand on his shoulder. “I am sorry father, I didn’t mean to cause you pain.”
The king shook his head and said, “No son. You’ve not hurt me at all. I merely wish that I could change the past. In that, kings are no different than most men. The things I would have done differently. How things might have taken a different path. No my son, I am fine. Perhaps I am becoming a sentimental old man.”
Aiden nodded and squeezed his father’s shoulder. “Yes father. I must go now; Kara and the children will be expecting me. Alanna is eating with us tonight,” The king smiled thinking of his younger daughter. The prince continued, “Valun said that if he could find time, he would come as well.”
The king grinned at his son. “Your brother is becoming quite the busy young man.” Aiden grinned back, “Yes, your son thinks that he is ready to take the world by the horns.”
The two men laughed, and Aiden said, “Father, if you feel up to it, perhaps you could come too. The children would all love to see you, and the whole family would be together again.”
The king smiled and said, “Yes, I will join you soon then, although I don’t know how much I can eat.” Aiden smiled and said farewell, and then walked from the room dosing the door behind him.
After he left, the king’s smile slipped from his face and he stared into the fire. He thought to himself that the whole family would not be together. His wife had been gone for several years now, and the king still missed her greatly.
He also thought of Garyth, and how he would be absent from the table. Although he rarely came and in truth had never eaten with them much as a child, always feeling like an outsider, he had told the king. The king knew that he himself bore the blame for that, and there was nothing in the entire world that he could do about it. There were times when he cursed the fact that he was king, many times indeed.