Chapter 6: The Rune Man
by Julian Lawler
“The Raindogs come!” The voice bounced down the ally towards the Sun Cathedral. “They travel here to steal our city and fill our hearts with dread. Beware. Not even the Light will save us. The dark’s steely tendrils come to snake around our tender throats!”
Palance heard the voice long before the man appeared as he stroked the dark mane of his brown horse. The large animal snuggled against his hand, enjoying the attention. Palance waited for the arrival of Father Rayul and Ian. They were to bring the men they had chosen for the journey to Geamehn. They had picked two men, at their own discretion, to accompany Palance’s letter carrier. He needed to send his letter off, and soon. He looked up to gage the sun. It was almost noon break.
He took in the stables with a worried frown. The stable yard was a large open court with a cobble stone floor. Large oak wood poles towered over Palance, holding a tin roof in place. There were partitions to separate each horse. Bundles of hay lined the far wall and tools of every kind hung on pegs left unused for who knew how long. The heavy smell of sod and manure hung in the air like dew on a winter morning. Three exits led people out of this area; the gates, which stood open to the city of Nomen, and two side archways made of stone that led to walkways leading out to the gardens.
Besides, Eliath and himself, they were alone.
“Look at me or be damned!” The voice drew closer.
Palance looked out through the open gates that led out into a small dirt street. The street wound it’s way between hulking buildings where it veered sharply and merged with another street. People filled the narrow street with wares and tiny venues, selling blankets and trinkets. From the direction of the voice Palance knew the yeller would come into sight soon enough.
The man wore layers of unkempt and tattered, brown clothing. A pungent smell filled Palance’s lungs and it was obvious the man hadn’t bathed in weeks. Deep circles surrounded his eyes and it was evident the man had not greeted sleep in days. The man limped on one leg but did not hinder his speed. His eyes were wild with the look of madness and people visibly flinched when his gaze passed over them. People gave him a wide berth. He parted the crowds in the street like a boat might water. The man was taller than everyone else on the street. His loud voice boomed over the din of the traversing crowd.
“Run where you will! When the night comes you will cower. The nightmares, and you know we all have them, will come to life. Your children will become pets to dremions, and you will die or join their legions!”
The man curled his long fingers into a clawed fist. He used his hands to accentuate his words. Palance noticed the man carried a book. It was difficult seeing what kind of book it was because of the large hands that engulfed it.
The prince looked over to his commander. Eliath Camil, wearing a black shirt and brown breeches, came to stand next to him. The commander had relieved Soulcryst and had accompanied Palance down to the stables. It was a rare occasion when the commander wasn’t with his men. Palance relished the time with his old friend.
Both men moved away from the horses and came to stand at the edge of the holy grounds, where the gates lay wide open. They stared at the man with the wild look in his eyes as he drew closer. Eliath stood placidly, his hands clasped before him. The smooth composure couldn’t hide his wolf like gaze. His dark eyes never wavered from the gaunt form.
As the man made his way closer, Palance could see the man’s hair was matted against his head with sweat and grime. His skin was pale and the dark vines of nerves showed through. His nails were chewed and more than one finger ended in a black knot where blood had caked dry.
“Hey,” cried a woman from somewhere to the left. “Why don’t you be quiet? All you’re doing is scaring all of these people, you fool!”
The man’s head jerked up and he ceased his yelling. He stopped where his feet landed last and his gaze flickered over the direction the yell had come from. Palance turned just in time to see an old lady step into a doorway of an old battered building. She did not appear again. The man stood rooted to the ground, obviously looking for the culprit who had interrupted his ranting and let his gaze roam over the dissipating crowd. The gangly man stood directly in front of Palance and Eliath, his back turned slightly to them. In his search for the woman, he was unaware that he was being watched.
“Watch him,” he said under his breath. Eliath nodded, not turning to meet his eye. Some of the people had begun to move hastily down the street, kicking up dust with their heels. Women rushed children into doorways and men scowled for having their business interrupted. Shops began to close immediately.
“Fool woman,” growled the man underneath his breath. “The day comes when we shall perish. Nothing will save us, but we can hold back the tide of terror. There is a way. I am only informing you. Stupid people!”
Palance stared warily. Here was a crazy man. Palance felt uneasy around the man. The people feared him, as well. It was evident in the way everyone out in the street coward from his stare.
Palance could hear the words coming out of angry men as they sat around a game of cards telling stories about the man with the raging tongue. He could see their scowls as they discussed what to do about the gangly man with the bloody fingertips.
“You fools!” screamed the gangly man with rage. He shook an angry fist up at the sky. The prince sensed people watching from behind closed curtains. He was being watched.
“Come out, you cowards! A city with no courage to face one man! How do you wish to fare against that which comes with the dark? They come, I tell you! They come! One man and you run!”
He laughed a hoarse cackle. “Ha! Cowards. The sun is up and it still shines, yet you hide. Fools. I wonder what you would do if the moon spilled its light upon my shoulders?”
Summarily angered by how this man goaded the fears in others, Palance urged to confront the man, to have him arrested or taken away, at the least. This was not a nomel drac. This was an ordinary man with flesh and blood. How could he stand by and let this fool plant fear into his people? Life was already bad enough.
Palance felt himself shake. He could not imagine Andina cowering in her doorway because of a man like this. He could not imagine her hiding in her home while precious daylight hours slipped away, because of the ranting from a senseless man.
Palance pushed his cloak back to free his sword should the need to draw it arise. He was about to take a step when Eliath placed a hand across his chest and stayed him. The commander of the Iinnin Lodar didn’t say a word, and only indicated to something on the man’s persona with a nod of his head. It had to be important for Eliath to notice it.
Scrutinizing, Palance retracted his step. He searched for what Eliath had pointed at. He took in the gaunt man and examined him again. Besides his appearance, there was nothing evident on him to cause the prince any alarm. His tattered, layered clothing was nothing unusual for a man who was obviously mad and without a home.
Until Palance’s eyes rested on the book the man held tightly against his chest.
It was a black leather bound book. It was thick with many pages, their edges colored gold to protect the corners. Even in the man’s large hands, the book bulged with stuffed leaves and loose papers. But this wasn’t what caught Palance’s eye.
It was the runes that ran across the books cover that suddenly gave him pause.
The runes were deeply carved into the leather. They were painted different colors, blue, gray, purple, and blood. The red runes were too dark to be anything else. They crossed and swirled in many patterns against the black book. They glowed faintly. Even with the slight dust that lingered in the air, the book looked polished and clean.
“He’s a rune man,” stated Eliath calmly, his arm still out stretched in front of Palance’s chest.
The prince winced at the loudness of his companion’s voice. It would not do them well to catch the attention of the rune man. He was surprised when the man didn’t turn to look at them. The prince reminded himself that he could not be heard out in the street, even if he yelled as loudly as he could. The Sun Cathedral kept all sound and noise to itself.
“So, what do we do?” he asked in a silent whisper, despite the cathedral’s ward.
“We watch him,” Eliath replied. “Rune magic is too powerful to confront him head on like this. Look at his fingers. They are caked with dry blood. He has used his magic often. I only wonder on who or what he has used it.”
“True,” grunted Palance. He still had the urge to walk up to the man and put an end to the madman’s senseless babble. “Do you think we could reach him quickly enough?”
“Before he bites a nail off and draws blood?” Eliath shook his head negatively. “I doubt it. I’m sure he knows we’re watching him. He’s just waiting to see what we do, like we’re with him.”
“He can’t be that fast.” Palance still talked in a low hush. “He might be able to draw blood quickly, but we would be on him before he got a chance to draw in the air.”
“No,” Eliath said sternly. “These people know him. They would not be afraid of a man who was harmless. Besides, didn’t you notice his limp? He might limp when he walks, but he is not a slow man. I’m sure he can draw in the air as quickly as you can draw your sword. This is a rune man who knows the price of power and has paid that price with blood and soul.”
The rune man still stood gazing up into the sky. He was looking for signs of danger. It was obvious he was looking for any sign of danger. The madman still didn’t show any signs that he knew he was being watched. The man was facing almost directly away from them.
Palance could see the man had put a finger to his mouth. Eliath tensed and pushed the prince back. Palance gave way reluctantly, sensing the steely urgency of his friend. Then he realized what was going on.
The rune man was about to cast first blood.
As they took a step back, the gangly man sensing the retreat, whirled around to face them. He clutched his book to his chest and his knuckles turned white with the strain. He flashed a wicked grin, revealing missing teeth, as he raised his hand. There, where his fingernail had been, a piece of flesh was missing. Blood dripped down his hand in a small rivulet between his fingers.
For the first time, Palance felt the gaze of the man fall upon him and his knees buckled. The eyes were glazed over by a thin sheet of madness. But this isn’t what shocked Palance the most. It was the trace of sanity lined in those eyes. It was a wicked thing to behold. This madman could be the sanest person in Nomen, if he chose it. But such a precarious balance hung and leaned towards the darker side of powers no normal man would want. The eyes held the switch between senseless babble and a man with great knowledge and power. Those eyes were an open window into a world Palance was sure could consume him.
In those eyes, he saw the living proof of nightmares. He had a fleeting image of hands: dark gray hands with twisted knuckles and black dirty nails. He unconsciously reached for his throat trying to protect himself from a threat he knew he could never defeat.
Suddenly he saw dark, burnt forms travel across the man’s eyes. The rune man’s pupils narrowed and in their slits Palance saw a battle that had raged for all time between the damned and those that damned. He saw red eyes and blue eyes starring back at him.
He tried to yell out, but it caught in his throat like a piece of bone threatening to choke him. The only thing that kept him from stumbling to the floor was the steady hand of his commander upon his chest.
The rune man came forward relentlessly, his bloody hand leaving a crimson trail of droplets behind him. The drops stayed on the surface of the street as they gathered dust. Even the ground seemed loath to soak up the moisture of this man’s blood. He pointed at Palance and Eliath as he came upon the gates of the Sun Cathedral. Although they were open, the man stopped right at the point where the gates would have touched had they been closed.
“You are all doomed. You are a mere man. How can one man save us from the dark? When the time comes, only one will stand to rule, and the age of dark times shall begin. Beware the dreams and the visions.
“She will come from beneath the lake, and her waters will swallow our domains. The Nations shall perish because of pride and foolhardiness. How can one woman hate so much? But she does, and she will come for you. She will mark you and use you. The betrayal that will come will haunt you for the rest of your life.
“The time will come when she will perish and you will watch her die. Yet, you will marry her anyway. And this you must, even if you become puppets to your dreams. Hopes will fade, bonds will break, and the wills of many will perish.
“You have seen the eyes of cold steel and hot iron, yet you dare to live and hope. Burned souls and charred bodies reawaken and in their minds they have only one master. Her hands will reach out from the grave and destroy the only man with the key to lock her again in the hearts of man.”
Palance realized the rune man was talking directly to him. It gave him a chill that ran the length of his spine. Somehow he had just been placed in the middle of a giant puzzle and he had to piece it together from the inside out.
“Wait,” he yelled, though he knew the man wouldn’t hear him. “I need to know who is going to die. Andina? Tell me it’s not her!” He tried to push his way through Eliath to get to the man. He would have had better luck trying to move boulders.
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler