Rules always seem to apply to everyone else but ourselves, even when we know we are crossing the line. The voice of denial tells us that our cause is justified.
The only danger with that, is the mortal mind can justify anything.
The downpour of rain had not stopped for three days.
Businesses were now closed. Dogs and cats huddled in the doorways, beggars shivered beside them. Only the rats moved about unhindered, walking along windowsills, dashing from broken crate to under wagons, calling to one another across alleyways. Most of the peasants had retreated to their meager shelter, but the respectable citizens of Andilain avoided this part of the city anyway.
It was called Köhille, which meant for the poor—but the locals called it something else. The Narrows.
It isn’t fit for decent folk, says one.
It’s where evil hoards its lusts and spews darkness from its womb, says another.
One thing was for certain—if a dark deed needed to be done, you’d find a willing soul to do it in the Narrows.
If you have the coin.
“How will you do it?” the hooded man asked. He shifted on his seat uncomfortably. Though they all sat in the shadows of the fading fire, he’d refused to reveal his face.
A match flared from across the table, revealing the three men all at once. It lifted to a short stemmed pipe, where narrow black eyes peered from under heavy brows. Eyes which looked into the darkness like an old lover, knowing the secrets it held. The hawk nose flared as he puffed on the pipe, smoke streaming from his nostrils and down his beard. “My methods are my own,” he said cooly. He blew the match and plunged them all into shadow once more. “You choose the mark, I deliver the blow, as paid.”
The hooded man lowered his head, “It should be an honorable death.”
“HONORABLE?!” The booth vibrated with venomous laughter, “A traitors act and you seek honor? HAHAHAHA!”
The third man slammed his fist down on the table, “Dog! Silence your tongue—you know not to whom you speak!”
Leaning back into his chair, the semblance of a smile could been seen behind the red embers of the pipe. “Oh, but I do. Two nobles, seeking to overthrow the kingdom.” He chuckled softly, “Don’t act so surprised…m’lord. If you were so concerned about concealing your identities, you would have instructed your young companion to remove the house insignia from his cloak.” The smile grew broad, “And you would have remembered to remove your crescent insignia ring.”
The table heaved as the older man lunged across to grab the grinning assassin. “SCUM! If you so much as whisper our names, I’ll…”
A giant hand gripped his shoulder from behind and yanked backwards. Thrown off balance, the hand reached down across the lords chest and up, around his neck. Thick as a tree trunk and hard as steel, the arm held him firm, cutting off his air supply.
The assassin leaned forward, pointing with his pipe, “I care nothing for politics or royalty, gentlemen. As for me, I serve my clan. Nothing more.”
“Ack!” gasped the nobleman, struggling against the giant’s iron grasp.
“We will take your contract,” the assassin continued, now shifting his attention to the younger of the two. “…but it will cost you triple.”
“Triple!? That is outrageous—we will never pay such a price!”
Taking a long draw of the pipe, the red embers revealed the clear and penetrating eyes of a man who dealt in death as easily as one breathes the air about him. With a nod, the giant released his captive. “I think you will, Lord Andrews. It would be very unfortunate to have signed documents reach the castle…accusing you and Lord Cyril of conspiring to murder the steward of the kingdom.” Another draw of tobacco, “Then again…your heads might compliment the front gates of castle Andilain, when they mount them on pikes for all to admire!”
Lord Cyril gasped for air, “You’re insane!”
Even in the deep shadows they could see the smile. The red and yellow light from the fading fire reflected off the assassins eyes. His laughter was just above the whisper, but it sent chills down their spines.
“Welcome to the shadows, m’lords.”
Lydric could not remember the last time the great halls had been so full of those seeking grievances. The agrarian communities had rarely asked for assistance, yet now they flocked to the capital, seeking relief. Complaints of failed crops and growing raids on the outer regions of the kingdom had become more commonplace. The Lords were not doing their duty and protecting their own servants. Taxes had grown so high that the people were suffering while their masters got fat off the labors of the poor.
The whole of the kingdom was infected. As the Head Steward, Lydric was supposed to solve these problems while the King was in foreign lands, but he was running out of options. There was no way to help the poor directly, except within the walls of the capital. To do so could enrage what little support he had left. If aid was given, by law, it had to go through the Lords of the land, who then cared for the poor and needy within their domain.
But none of the noblemen had replied to his letters, nor attended counsel meetings at the capital.
…and now there were eerie rumors. Ghosts or wraiths, no one truly knew, terrorizing the land. Always at night. It was foolishness he knew, but some reported to have entire herds of cattle and sheep torn to pieces. Fields covered in blood and families left destitute on the eve of winter.
To make matters worse, small attacks had been reported. Night skirmishes against farms located in the further most regions of the land. Places too distant to protect by military force with any effectiveness.
“Is there nothing you can do, Lord Lydric?”
The quill pen snapped in Lydrics gloved hand. Ink flicked across the table and soaked the white cloth. “I’m sorry?”
Peasants stood before him, in rags and exhausted from their travels. They huddled uncomfortably in the center of the hall, staring across the golden desk of the Steward. Their leader, an old and hunched man, swayed in place—keeping his balance with the use of a walking stick. “We don’t have enough food to survive the winter. They burned the fields, you see. Left nothin’ at all. We have potatoes in the ground, but I’m afraid they won’t last the whole of winter.” His eyes showed the fear and desperation of his cause, “We would not bother you, my lord, but…” he looked at those behind him, “we have many children in our village.”
Lydric couldn’t look away from their gaunt faces. Good, hard working farmers of the kingdom, suffering from hunger. A woman among them clung to her infant child wrapped in a soiled blanket. The baby sobbed as its mother bounced lightly, trying to sooth it.
“And where is your village located?”
“Dehäno, m’lord,” answered the old man, “North east along Rocky Ridge.”
It was Baron Diodore’s domain. Not an unkind man, but not the most responsive to his people’s needs. A region between the capital and Antillian Keep. Lydric looked over the council minutes. Diodore had not been present at the last gathering, nor did he send excuse.
“Is your village on the east or west side of Rocky Ridge?”
“We are on the west, valley side of the mountains, my lord.”
Lydric pulled out a sheet of parchment and began writing furiously. “Captain.”
A soldier approached the table and bowed. “Yes my lord?”
Dipping the quill into the ink well, Lydric continued to write without looking up. “Choose ten seasoned men, without families, to be relocated to Dehäno. Equip them with winter supplies both for themselves and the townsfolk. Include seed from the kings storehouse. The soldiers are assigned to protect the town, its inhabitants and its crop. Tell them the villagers will assist them in building a permanent shelter in which they are to live within the community.”
The captain nodded, “Yes my lord. Anything else?”
“Yes.” Lydric signed the document, rolled it up and handed it to the soldier. He then motioned the old villager forward. “This village is under the direct protection of the King Robert III. Until this seed is repaid in full, one quarter of all crops grown will be surrendered to the soldiers and returned to the Kings storehouse. One quarter of the crops will be used to feed the soldiers assigned to the post. Any surplus they do not use will be sold on the open market and paid to the men in coin.” He smiled at the villagers, “Now escort these good people to our kitchen and get them fed.”
“May the gods bless you,” wept the old man. “Bless you. Bless you!”
Lydric watched them all leave the hall.
“Are you ready for the rest of the kingdom’s problems?” snickered a rotund man in bright red and green robes. His long black beard swayed as he moved. “Because they’re lined up all the way out into the courtyard.”
Lydric shook his head, “No. I need a short walk. I’m feeling a bit stiff.” He reached over and took hold of his cane.
“Leg giving you problems again?”
The sharp stabbing sensations made Lydric flinch as he rose from the cushioned chair. He couldn’t help biting his lip during the first few steps, but it was useless talking about it. There was nothing the doctors and healers could do for him. “I’m fine Gael,” he lied. “I just don’t know how my father did so much and still have a life with my mother and I.”
Gael patted him lightly on the back as they walked along the far wall. They talked in hushed tones and kept to the shadows of the pillars, avoiding the view of citizens, all waiting their turn to be heard. “Your Father was unlike anyone I have ever met, my boy. No one was like Modrid. But don’t sell yourself short—you’ve done great things in the name of the King.”
But Lydric didn’t believe it. The problems never ended and he couldn’t solve them all, no matter how hard he tried.
“I’m not sure I would agree with you, Gael.”
Two guards rushed past them.
“Well you listen to me young man, I…”
“But I HAVE to see him!” cried a young voice. It was riddled with fear and strain, cracking, “I ORDER YOU TO LET ME THROUGH!”
Lydric and Gael quickly strode to a side balcony, where they could get a clear view of the front steps outside the main hall. Six of the kings guard barred a young boy, garbed in riding attire. His hood was pulled back, sweat drenched oily hair caked to his head. His horse was foaming down its neck and chest, breathing hard, head hung low.
The soldiers laughed. “Order us?,” chided one, “By what authority do you presume to order the kings guard, gutter rat!”
Undaunted, the youth let go of the reigns and flipped open the pouch slung over his shoulder. Pulling a rolled scroll from the container, he held it aloft like a weapon, his stare cold, daring any and all to defy him. “By the Authority of King Robert III HIMSELF!”
In a sudden motion, the taunting soldier snatched the scroll from the boy. “Give me that!”
But before the seal could be broken, a leather boot made solid contact with the soldiers testicles. The gloved hand dropped the scroll as he fell forward, landing deftly into the hand of the rider. The guards comrades drew their swords or lowered their pikes.
“STAND DOWN!” barked Lydric.
“Well this looks interesting,” smirked Gael.
The soldiers held their ground.
“Bring the boy to me.”
Gael bowed, “Yes, my lord.”
“How bad is it?” the fat counselor asked.
“The southern boarders are being invaded by a dark army. Horde. They don’t know how many, only estimates—but likely thousands. Riders are to be sent to all the lords south of Fallcreek. The King is ordering all available soldiers and men at arms to march on Til-Thorin within two days. We ride for war and to eradicate the threat from our lands. Failure to respond with haste will be looked upon as an act of treason.”
The fat man gulped, “Gods protect us.”
Lydric rolled the scroll back up and tapped it on the edge of the table. He watched Josiah shift uncomfortably from foot to foot. “You can sit, boy. You’ve done well. Rest.”
Josiah shook his head, “Thank you sir, no. I might fall asleep—and I desire to return immediately to aid my father and the King Robert.”
“Now that’s dedication we need to breed into the kings guard!” chuckled the fat counselor. “Who’s your father, boy?”
Josiah swayed, “Joram, sir. He’s Captain of the guard at Til-Thorin.”
“Well, you’re in no condition to ride for another week, no matter how strong you may think you are.” Gael walked over and firmly set Josiah down in a cushioned chair.
“And you’ll be returning with an army,” added Lydric, still staring down at the table, “not alone.” He handed the scroll to his scribe and whispered, “Copy this and dispatch our fastest riders within the hour.”
“Yes, m’ lord,” he bowed and scurried off.
Josiah managed a smile, though it looked as weak as it felt. “Then you’ll come to King Robert’s aid?”
The Head Steward snapped his head up, glaring at the youth. “I am the King’s faithful Steward, boy…of course we will bring our Sovereign aid! We march at dawn.”