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William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Chapter Eleven



       Aric was dozing, his legs drawn up to his chest, and his head between his knees. There was a bulwark at his back, a once high edifice beaten down by catapult or dragon tail or time. It rose only a pace above his shoulders now.

       Ten Towers was a place of ten thousand legends, most of them rehashes of a common theme. People entered and were lost. Ghosts rose out of the rubble beneath a lurid moon. Aric's mother had told him those stories, common fare to the children of Grape. The reality, a city of empty ruins, had seemed anticlimactic.

       There was a finger's tap on the top of his skull. Aric looked up. Radme, a grizzled fellow and the squad healer to boot, made a series of signs with his hands. The Guild had a hundred or so signs that all recruits were supposed to be able to recognize. Aric knew about a dozen, and understood the gist of what Radme was telling him.

      Stay quiet. Look sharp.

       Jame, the other newbie, was already up and shadowing the squad leader. Arthur could just be seen slinking away down a lancet avenue where two semi-collapsed buildings leaned into each other. The only other veteran, Gamin, was crouching nearby. He was smaller and younger looking than Aric, though his true age was indeterminate, and he was a terror with his little knives.

       There had been a month of hard training, running in armor and drills with the sword. The first two weeks had been hellish, all blisters and torn muscles and bruises everywhere he couldn't properly defend, so everywhere. The second two weeks had been worse. Comparably, this jaunt up to Ten Towers had been a treat.

       The party had accepted a contract to suss out the bandits that apparently infested the dead city. They hadn't caught any hint of them so far, but the reward was sizeable, assuming they could produce the appropriate heads. It was a small band, the reports said, less than ten. Aside from that there had been little agreement. Three different merchant houses had applied to the Hero's Guild asking their intervention, and promising reward. Arthur had decided it would be a good adventure with which to break in his new boys.

       A minute passed, and then another. Jame reappeared in the alley. He motioned for them to follow silently. Aric went with them, hunched over to make certain his head was always below the level of the half-walls and the windows knocked out of stone. The city's once even, wheel-spoke streets had been transformed into a labyrinthine jumble of dead ends and byways and mounds of impassible rubble. Aric stumbled on a pebble, and Gamin awarded him a mean smile. He shook his head, and they kept moving.

       The party reconnected inside a multistory tenement, better preserved than most of the nearby structures. It was a square building with a center open to the sky, and apartments built around it in tiers.

       Arthur had drawn a rudimentary map in the dust on the floor, and marked it as he spoke.

       "I found a camp, three people, no more. A few packs, no sign of the wealth they've been accused of appropriating. They're sheltered on two sides, here and here. Two paths in, front and rear." He frowned.

       "Is it them?" Jame whispered. He was a burly boy, a dark fuzz on his cheeks, and not much in the way of genius. 

       "Can't be certain," Arthur said. "We will lay an ambush, and see what we see. People don't just pass through Ten Towers. Whether or not these are our bandits, I doubt they will be honest men. I expect there will be an outstanding bounty, in any case. We shall see."

       It wasn't difficult to find hiding places around the camp. Ten Towers was an assassin's wonderland. Radme and the two recruits were holed up behind a mound of rubble, a building that had collapsed, oddly enough, upon an oversized sculpture of a sleeping tiger. They waited for what had seemed like hours, much of which Aric spent observing the details of the part of the sculpture that was uncovered. The tips of its paw, the side of its face. The artistry was absurd, every follicle of hair, it seemed, was rendered in the rock. It was this high work that made him wonder, truly, who had made this place. For all the stories of the ghosts that hovered about it, there was little enough that spoke of the wonders that must have come before.

       Radme was wearing his visor, an odd device of green glass that covered his right eye, held in place by an ivory clip that wrapped around his ear. It was one of the objects affixed with a minor chantment that all full hero squad members carried. Through it, one could see the radiance of magic, the lifeblood veil that encompassed the world. With it, one could measure the sparks that dwelled within all living things. Radme scanned in all directions, looking for disturbances in the flows of power.

       "What is that?" he muttered. Aric followed his gaze and saw nothing but the sky and decaying architecture. His mouth opened onto the obvious question, and a sudden motion on Radma's part caused him to keep his silence. The healer removed a small, clear gem from one of his multifarious pockets, and began to whisper into it. It was a Speaking Stone, linked to the smaller one Arthur carried in his ear.

       "I see him. Get out. Withdraw."

       There was a shout from the cover beyond the other side of the camp.

   


       Arthur drew his twin strait swords, his reflexes tuned by years of skirmish work, even as Radme's voice buzzed in his skull.

       "Withdraw. There's not a band. There's only one. He's immense..."

      Arthur could see that his opponent was, indeed, immense, though physical size was not what Radme was referring to. Rather, this one had caused a disturbance in the Mondial large enough for Radme's Oculume to pick up on even without being in line of sight. Arthur was almost glad he couldn't see it himself. It might have been too disheartening.

       He had appeared as if from nowhere. 

       Bawn leaned back to avoid a horizontal slash, and tilted his head so that the follow up thrust passed a hair's breadth to the side of his temple. His fist shot out and landed a grazing blow that cracked the rangers clavicle and sent him tumbling. Arthur rolled to his feet in time to see one of Gamin's throwing knives embedded in the hulk's upper arm, and two others whiz by in near misses. Arthur's eyes widened. Those knives were chanted to seek out blood. They should have all struck true.

       The barbarian looked at the crescent curved handle protruding from his flesh with an expression of utter surprise. Fot the space of a single heartbeat, he stood unmoving. It was as if he had never been wounded before. This was their chance.

       Arthur gritted his teeth and led with his left blade, lunging with the force of his whole body behind him. The tip shot unerringly toward his opponents heart, with no armor or even clothing to impede its entry. His mind had cleared, as it always did in battle, and he maintained his sense of detachment even as his blade was caught in a bare hand and ripped from his mailed grasp. His detachment was such that he continued the manouver, bringing his right hand weapon about in a deadly arc meant to take the barbarian in the neck.

       Bawn caught his wrist and crushed it, tossing the ranger aside with casual ease.

       In this same instant, Gamin had chosen his course, a pair of long knives in his hands curved like a predators smile. He leapt, flying over the rock and clay that separated him from his target, and his weapons flashed in an intricate pattern that was second nature to him. 

       "HAAAAA!" Bawn's shout filled the space between them like a roiling wind. Pebbles vibrated on the ground. Gamin was captured by it, and for a blink hung suspended in the grips of two conflicting momenta. Then Bawn's shout overcame the inertia of his leap, and Gamin soared backward, end over end into a lonely pillar, where he lay still.

       Bawn removed the knife from his upper arm expressionlessly.

       It was followed by a slow welter of carmine, and a sweet pungency. 

       An arrow appeared in his prodigious chest.

       Bawn growled.

       Radme was standing atop a great mound of rubble, hurriedly reloading his crossbow. The barbarian ascended the mound with a deliberate slowness, putting one foot after the other. His golden brown eyes unwavering and palpably strong.

       Radme shot him again. Then one more time.

       Bawn crested the rise and took the crossbow in one hand. Wood shattered, and the metal string twanged free.

       Radme grimaced. "Headless bastards," he swore. 

       Bawn stared at him. His arm moved like a piston, and the healers face disintegrated. He turned at the sound of a scuffed boot on stone. 

       He saw Aric and Gamin carrying the body of the ranger between them. Indeed, they had nearly gotten away.

       Bawn appeared beside Jame, who quite foolishly attempted to draw the half axe from his belt. So there was no more Jame.

       Bawn stood before Aric, who held perfectly still, as if he had been suddenly confronted by a bear. They regarded each other for the space of a breath, then Aric found that the ground was no longer beneath his feet, and there was a pressure around his neck that prevented him from breathing. His vision blurred, but he tried to maintain eye contact with the giant. It was the only defiant act of which he was capable.

       Distantly, he considered the course of his life, this foolhardy, impetuous venture into mercenary. He had wanted to be a hero and to make his fortune. Only when he was secure, with an estate of his own, would he have been able to save Kerry from whatever sham marriage her mother finally saddled her with. Only then would he have his love. After he had learned to be a hero.

       He would have been a hero.

       Distantly, he heard a woman scream. He almost thought he heard someone call his name. Was that his mother's voice? No, she wasn't dead, just ashamed of him. And far away from here. Darkness. 



       Kerrigan stumbled over one of the bodies, and released an involuntary sob. She put the image out of her mind, and tried to ignore how everything seemed to be covered in blood. Aric, her Aric, was here. An ugly bruise was already forming under his jaw. He was unconscious, but he was also alive. His breathing was shallow, but he was alive. 

       She brushed his hair out of his face. He was leaner than she remembered, but just as beautiful.

       "You almost killed him," she said.

       Bawn shrugged.

       "What's wrong with you? You don't know how to do anything but kill!"

       "They attacked me."

       Kerrigan didn't comment further. She was no longer afraid of Bawn, oddly, though he was, of course, terrifying. He had always been gentle with her, or as gentle as a man who could crack rocks in his hands like they were nuts could be. She chided him because she didn't know what else to say, and it gave her a sense of control she would otherwise have lacked.

       "Help me get him settled," she told him, and Bawn complied.

       They wrapped Aric in the bear fur that she used for bedding, and the barbarian took the other bodies away.

       One was missing.



       Four and a half feet of steely sinews was speeding low to the ground, slipping like a lizard on the run out of the ruins. Gamin's chanted throwing daggers had returned to him, and all of his multifarious weapons were put away in his belt, his boots, his sleeves. One dagger even hung behind his neck. He didn't have any thought of putting them to use. All of his heart was set on getting away. 

       Bandits! Like hell. Headless gods, they had been set up. That hulk, who had he been? Gamin didn't want to know, didn't want to ever catch a whiff of him again. Arthur had been one of the best rangers in all the Keepholds, the best swordsman as well, and he had been pulled apart. Gamin checked it off to one of the earliest lessons any recruit learned. No matter how good, there's always someone better. No matter how bad, there's always something worse. Something much worse. 

       Ten years since his signing, Gamin had seen things. Some parties were just cursed. After Quell and Rave had died on the last assignment, he should have gotten out. They should have all gotten out. Beasts of the wood, murderers and thieves, a hedge wizard or two, they had even killed a Veelax once. Heroes' Heroes they had been, and if they had taken a less honorable contract from time to time, what of it? That was their prerogrative. They should have taken a few more of those blood money jobs and bought themselves freedom with the extra cash.

       Gamin himself had a sizeable nest egg secreted in Grape. He would dig it up and get out. He wouldn't ever return to the camp. When the guild performed its inquest, they would discover Radme's death. The stones he carried would make that simple enough. They would assume the whole party had been wiped with him. If they didn't, if they hunted out the facts, the trail would end with Two Towers. If they met the giant, that wasn't his problem. 

       This was it. He meant it this time. Gamin was going to retire. 



       "Bawn?"

       The barbarian stopped cleaning the weapons he had recovered. He did not use swords, as a rule, but the pair of strait swords that the ranger had wielded so well were of too high quality to discard. Perhaps he would teach the girl to use them. That would be amusing. 

       "Bawn?"

       He looked up from his work. The girl was still fussing over the boy, but she had paused, and she was studying him worriedly.

       "Your chest..."

       Bawn glanced down and began to laugh. His laughter went on for a while, then he plucked the arrows that had studded his torso. He tossed them into the everpresent fire. There was no blood. 

       Aric moaned without waking. 

       "Tell me about that one," Bawn said. "What is he to you?"

       "We were going to be together," Kerrigan answered him, "but my father died and I had to marry someone else so the estate would be secure. Well, that's half true. They wouldn't have let me be with Aric anyway. I love him, though."

       Bawn sheathed the swords. "When he wakes, I am taking you north. It is time that I moved on."

       "North?"

       "Yes. You may keep him if you like."



© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl