Brodar Kayne 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.
He bit down and grunted with the effort. His large, scarred hands trembled around his gnarled 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 impose on his business. Merchants thrust their wares into his face like he was a pleasure maid at a chieftain’s war gathering. It was madness.
He’d knocked one trader unconscious earlier in the day. The merchant had tried grabbing his hand, apparently with the intent of pressing some gaudy cloth into it. Brodar Kayne had apologised when he realised the fellow had meant no harm.
Gradually he felt the pressure 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 free rein to poke around his body.
‘Ten, nine, eight, seven . . . .’ He mentally counted down the final part of his silent ritual. If there was one thing he’d learned over his many years it was the importance of routine in maintaining the aegis of the human body against time’s hoary hand. It had nothing to do with superstition. Or getting old.
‘Five . . . four . . . three . . .’ he continued, and he sighed in relief as the pain lessened and his bladder prepared to empty itself. ‘Two . . . one . . . shit.’ The sounds of a noisy pursuit interrupted him in on the cusp of release and he fumbled his cock, a few drops of discoloured piss dribbling down his leg before it seized up like a dead man’s chest.
Kayne thrust his treacherous member back inside his breaches. Then he 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 carried 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, shaking him like a butcher’s dog with a rat between his jaws.
‘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, unusually pale even by the standards of these pasty-skinned city dwellers. 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 chainmail 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 sat around a campfire spinning bullshit tales to convince some maiden to suck your cock – whatever the fuck it is you mountain folk do. You’re not welcome here. Lord Salazar holds 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 pass through, 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 on the subject 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, but he sounded uncertain all of a sudden. ‘Not without this shiteater 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, forming 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 and lunges 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 reflexively drew back 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 man’s belt with the other and let the corpse fall, ignoring the patch of bloody skin and hair left on the side of the warehouse.
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 he was covered in so many old scars 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. He bitterly regretted taking a stroll before attempting to empty his bladder. 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 gotten 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 like 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. ‘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 with an unreadable expression. He stroked his short beard, which was black and shot through with grey. The stroking became a tug, an almost frantic motion. His mouth began to twitch. Here it comes, Kayne thought.
‘Fucking unbelievable!’ the Wolf growled in a sudden outburst of fury. 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. ‘Who’s he? Nobody. Let him die. Gut the prick. 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 diffuse 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 over 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’ve seen it happen before. 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 in to 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 Libernia 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 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 that was mildly impressive. 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 away.
‘My name’s Davarus Cole,’ he said, in a voice that held a strangely tempered quality 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 up a glob of blood. For a second he looked like 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 on 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.’
The city was abuzz with activity as Davarus Cole led his new companions through a winding maze of alleys and side streets. Fortunately, they encountered no Watchmen among the bustling crowds.
Fate smiles on me once again, Cole thought in satisfaction. His chest throbbed and blazing pain shot through his skull with every laboured step, but at least he was alive.
He cast a quick glance behind him. The older Highlander was of impressive height, almost a head taller than Cole himself. He looked to be around fifty. Despite his advancing years, the man’s lean muscles were evidence that he’d lost little of his strength. His broad-nosed face was weathered and creased. An ugly scar began just beneath his left eye and ran diagonally to just below his cheek. The Highlander’s grey hair had receded slightly and thinned a little at the crown, but the mane still fell impressively to the nape of his neck. Silver stubble covered his face and gave him a rough appearance, and his deep blue eyes were undimmed by age.
All in all, Brodar Kayne looked exactly as Cole imagined the stereotypical Highlander barbarian would look – albeit one who was a score of years past his prime. Cole suspected that women would still consider him handsome, in a fatherly kind of way.
The same couldn’t be said of the silent figure stalking alongside him. Cole judged Jerek to be somewhat younger than Brodar Kayne, perhaps in his early forties. Shorter than his compatriot yet still a few inches taller than he was, he was a burley man with the kind of countenance that gave children nightmares. His dark scowling eyes stared out from a face disfigured by an accident that had left the right side horribly burned. His head was hairless save for a short beard, and his brow seemed permanently furrowed.
Jerek’s eyes met Cole’s own and bore into them. ‘Problem?’ the Highlander growled at him. His hands shifted slightly to the twin axes on his back.
Cole cleared his throat. They had arrived at the Hook. ‘Our destination is just ahead, on the other side of the plaza. You see the crumbling building over there?’
Brodar Kayne squinted as if it were an effort to make out the old belfry a hundred yards ahead of them. ‘I see it. Seems a risky place for a secret hideout.’ His expression turned grim. ‘Are those gibbets?’ He nodded at the cages hanging from the large wooden frame on a raised platform in the centre of the plaza. The wind had picked up with the onset of dusk, causing the swaying prisons to clank together in a grisly cadence.
‘Salazar keeps them well-stocked,’ Cole replied. He was taken aback at the hard look on Brodar Kayne’s face. The man’s expression had turned to stone. ‘The tower is part of an old abandoned temple to the Mother. The Shards meet there once a month. The vestibule collapsed long ago, but there’s a secret entrance at the back.’
‘The Mother,’ Jerek rasped. ‘Ha. Ain’t no goddess looking out for us now.’ He spat on the ground. ‘Nothing spills out of the Mother’s dead old hole these days except abominations. That’s all a man needs, when he’s already balls-deep in demons and with the Brethren hot on his heels.’
Cole wasn’t sure exactly what the Highlander meant, but his tone seemed unmistakably odious. He decided it would be a good idea to move the conversation along.
‘We’ll go around the outside of the Hook. I might get recognised if we try and cut through.’ He suddenly remembered the old man whose skull had been split asunder by the Watchman’s sword. He thought he could see a dark smear of blood on the Tyrant’s Road. It appeared the body had already been hauled away and likely divested of any valuables it had possessed. Such was life in Dorminia.
Cole gestured at the Highlanders and they set off around edge of the Hook. His keen ears picked up fragments of conversation from passers-by as they made their way along the perimeter of the large plaza. Talk seemed to focus on the lockdown and what it meant for the city. Cole could only vaguely recall the last lockdown, which had occurred when he was a young child. A massive abomination had besieged Dorminia’s walls and a squad of Augmentors had been dispatched to nullify the threat. Not all of them had returned.
He overheard a pair of old women chattering about the weather. They were pointing at the horizon. They quieted as Cole and his companions strolled past, and he felt their curious eyes tracking them as they made their way to the opposite side of the Hook.
Highlanders were exceptionally rare in the Trine. Their homeland bordered the very edge of the world far to the north, beyond the tortured Badlands that were once the vast steppes of the nomadic Yahan horse-tribes.
Cole glanced at the grim figures following behind him. The mere fact they had survived the epic journey this far south was telling enough. These were hard men.
Perhaps almost as hard as he was.
They were nearing the ruined tower. The first droplets of rain began to fall. Cole could see the vanguard of a dark blanket of cloud rolling in from the southwest. He paused for a moment and tilted his head back, intending to wet his face and wipe away some of the blood from his chin. Jerek barged him in the back and he almost stumbled over, hot pain shooting through his ribs.
‘Keep out my fucking way,’ the Highlander snarled. Cole’s mouth hung open. He had half-expected an apology, or at least some acknowledgement that the collision had been accidental. He wanted to call the man to task for his rudeness, but something in the Highlander’s tone unsettled him. Instead, he gave a sickly smile.
‘Jerek doesn’t like the rain,’ Brodar Kayne said, almost kindly. ‘Causes his scars to itch something rotten. Don’t take it personally.’
‘No offence taken,’ Cole replied casually, though in his mind his fists had already made a bloody mess of the bastard’s face. ‘Almost there.’
They skirted around the side of the ruined tower and the crumbling walls of the western court and vestibule. The skeleton of the building was snaked with ivy, like the emaciated corpse of a huge beast fallen prey to some verdant, ligneous horror. Cole led them around to the rear of the temple where the walls had subsided and the cracked pediment leaned out at a dangerous angle. Warehouses had sprung up near to the rear of the temple. The close proximity of the buildings created a mostly enclosed space away from prying eyes.
With a quick look around to ensure no one was watching, Davarus Cole bent down and pulled aside a large patch of ivy. Behind the vegetation was a gap just small enough to squeeze through. He pushed himself through it and gestured at the Highlanders to follow him. Brodar Kayne made it inside with surprising ease, his long limbs navigating the aperture with impressive flexibility. Jerek proved more problematic. A torrent of foul curses accompanied his grunts of exertion as he finally forced himself through the opening.
‘We’re here,’ Cole said. He stared down the stone passage to the steps leading up to the sanctuary. The Shards were doubtless even now fretting about his absence. He felt a shiver of anticipation. He had sustained wounds that would have surely incapacitated a lesser man, and yet here he was, the stoic hero breezing in, doughty new companions in tow. He could hardly wait to see the look on Sasha’s face. Those big brown eyes, full of hidden admiration, a flicker of yearning from behind that veil of scorn—
‘Something the matter?’ Brodar Kayne enquired, jolting him out his reverie. Cole shook his head in response.
‘The door ahead leads to the sanctuary. The Shards will be up there. Let me do the talking and everything will be fine.’ Cole strolled to the end of the corridor and climbed the handful of steps, then rapped out a complex sequence on the door at the top. He waited for a few moments, hearing muffled whispers from just beyond. Finally a bolt was released and the door swung open.
‘Cole!’ exclaimed Sasha. Her eyes assessed his battered face without a hint of compassion. ‘You’d better get up here.’