The Birth of Vengeance
by Slawomir Rapala
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 appeared
in issue 234.
|Chapter 2: Gathering Shadows|
The day after the cessation of the great rains that had claimed Oyan for a fortnight, two men descended the steps of one of the many taverns that lined the city streets and entered its underground chambers. They halted in the entrance, for a brief moment waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dim light.
The pub had no windows and the darkness was only somewhat mitigated by the light of a few torches fixed to the walls and a great fire that blazed in the hearth. A lamb roasted slowly over it, tended by a heavyset kitchen-hand. He turned the rod with great skill, roasting the meat equally on all sides. It was hard work and the sweat dripping from his forehead almost equaled the amount of fat dripping from the roast and sizzling in the fire. The entire tavern was filled with the pleasant smell of roasted meat and the merry sound of fire cracking.
Other than that it was quiet, for it was still early in the day, being sometime in the afternoon. Patrons did not arrive until late evening when the beer and the wine was cooled and when the meat was roasted. At this time of the day the tavern was only occupied by the cook, his sweat-soaked helper, and a bored barkeep who leaned his large frame against the wall in a nonchalant manner. He folded his arms and slept, his head hanging low on the breast, rocking slowly back and forth.
One of the newcomers approached the bar and slammed a heavy hand against it.
“Wine!” he barked.
The barkeep stirred and raised his head to glance at the stranger. For a moment he studied the tall, armor-clad frame before him. His eyes skipped over the man’s muscular arms, as black as the color of scorched wood, and rested on the long great-sword hanging by his side. Then the barkeep lifted his eyes and locked them with the soldier’s, whose lively whites were the only features of his black face visible in the semi-darkness of the tavern.
”What’s the rush, soldier?” he asked, his voice weary. “The day’s still young and the heat’s only bound to get worse.”
The man’s chiseled features tightened. He reached over the bar and put his heavy, metal-bound arm on the barkeep’s shoulder. “Just bring the wine to the table!”
He released the barkeep and wiped his hand against his clothes with disgust, before making his way to the corner of the room where his comrade had already taken a seat. The barkeep looked after the black soldier with distaste.
“Mercenaries!” he mumbled under his breath. Having his disdain made quietly clear, he turned to fetch the wine from the cellar.
The second of the men was younger than his black companion and his skin was much fairer. He was tall and slim, and despite his young age the features of his face were already marked by the sort of grimness that comes about from witnessing and partaking in the most terrible deeds.
Cruelty had permanently engraved itself into his features and its mark was only slightly mitigated by the mask of civilization which the man had taught himself to wear. Deep-seated savagery peered from behind his hard eyes and it was obvious to anyone who looked into them that this man could never be tamed by civilization. He answered to instincts higher than those refined by culture and tact, and the raw power of his spirit could only be restrained by self-imposed discipline.
Still, it was clear that despite his youth, the man could quench his stirring passions when he wished it with the awesome power of his will. And yet the savagery that lurked behind his eyes could never be trusted. One could never be sure whether this man would shake your hand or reach for a sword. Like a beast untamed and unbroken by the whips of culture, he could never be trusted.
The two soldiers sat in silence until the barkeep brought the wine. He poured it into two cups and left the jug on the table before retreating behind the bar, where he leaned against the wall once more and soon dozed off again. Sipping on the cool wine, the two men watched his head rock back and forth for a while.
“It’s hot today,” the ebony-skinned soldier broke the silence. His name was N’Cton and he hailed from the Black Steppes of Argaron, where men roamed free and where the ways of the savage still reigned.
“As every other day,” his companion replied.
“It’s hard to do a job on a day like this.”
“The job has to be done, whatever day it is. And whatever job it is.”
“So where do you go today, Aezubah?” N’Cton inquired after they sat in silence for some time again.
“Nowhere,” the young mercenary shrugged. “The King wants me to stay put.”
“Nothing worse than a time of peace. Can’t stay idle for too long. Soldiers turn marauders, start bothering common folk.”
“All the companies are staying put. Niko and Lotec have not left the city walls since before the rains came.”
“They must be having a hard time keeping their men in line.”
“A few heads will roll.”
“Their contracts are out by the end of the summer months, though,” N’Cton waved his hand. “They’ll be free to leave.”
“Another two years,” the black man scowled.
“Who knew? When I signed up, the war was just starting.”
“You can always take your men and leave. No one would stop you.”
“No one would hire me again.”
“True,” they drank again.
“I heard Tiegher’s taking off to the border tonight, though,” N’Cton remarked.
“Estratian?” Aezubah raised his head in surprise.
“The hetman’s troops can’t handle the smugglers and slave-traders.”
Aezubah swallowed the rest of the wine and filled his cup again. He spat with rage.
“Bollocks!” he growled. “Draagho has more than two thousand men and he can’t handle border patrol?”
“Why send mercenaries then?”
“Tiegher’s pushing the hetman’s daughter, so daddy took him under his wing in case that little nymph puts up her sail,” Aezubah shrugged. “It gives Tiegher something to do, keeps him away from the city whores and it gives him a chance to score points with the King and earn his pay. A promotion maybe, too, cursed dog!”
“You reckon we’ll be dancing at their wedding?”
“Hah!” Aezubah sneered. “Royal blood and a mercenary? Never! Draagho can’t keep his daughter in line so he’s taken in to Tiegher. But forget about a wedding. He’d rather raise a bastard child than share his wealth with a thief and a cutthroat!”
“At any rate, you’d never be invited,” N’Cton laughed as he raised the cup to his lips. “It’s not like Tiegher and you rub shoulders together!”
“What about you? You think he’d keep company with a savage? Most people still think your people are man-eaters.”
“There’s a grain of truth to every story.”
“Rumors spread by the Tha-kians who keep their heavy arm on Argaron’s neck. Last thing they want is Nekryan merchants traveling to the Black Steppes to barter with my people. And the King of Argaron is too weak to fend off the brown-skinned Dynasty. Plus, he likes the gold he gets for closing his eyes when the slave-traders plunder our villages.”
“All rubbish then?” Aezubah questioned with a sly smile.
“Maybe some truth to it, but the Tha-kians are not helping matters.”
They shared a laugh. Wine had taken to their heads and despite the increasing heat they felt their spirits rising.
“So you’re staying in Oyan tonight?” N’Cton asked.
“We have a little job to do in a nearby temple,” Aezubah nodded.
“Some priest is running his mouth about impending doom.”
“Freedom of religion, brother,” the black man grinned.
“Maybe on a normal day,” Aezubah reached for the wine again. “But not when the city’s been hit by the worse deluge ever recorded.”
“The only one, I reckon.”
“And not when the high-priest of Oyan is dying of syphilis and facing charges of tax evasion. Religion, for one thing, is not a stable profession these days.”
“No such thing these days.”
“Right, not even ours,” they shared another chuckle. “Either way, as soon as the sky cleared, this priest started going on about his god bringing the rains to punish the wicked, everyone beware, you know the story. Word got around to the high caste of priests...”
“And we all know how forgiving the ramhi are,” N’Cton scoffed.
“Right, they fiercely guard their wealth and power, and pity on anyone who challenges them. The King gives them a free hand to grow fat and rich on his subjects, he gives them temples, gold, women and wine. In return they keep the people happy and in line; it’s a simple equation. But they live on the Court’s bill and the costs are adding up, aristocracy starts groaning and raising their own demands.
“Still though, so long as the people are happy, everything is fine, the King can handle the bill. It’s not like Bandikoy doesn’t make a bundle by taxing the merchants. But then the rains come and people start complaining, they look for an explanation. Why are the gods angry, they ask? We paid our dues to the ramhi, we sacrificed the goats, we paid for the blessing of the crops and the anointing of our children and hearths.
“People start speaking out against the ramhi and the King for sponsoring them. The gold, after all, could be funneled into other things. To top it all off, a renegade priest appears out of nowhere, speaks out against the gods, claims allegiance with the Underworld and forewarns about impending doom. He blames the ramhi and their spoiled ways. His god will swallow the earth because of their overindulgence and attachment to earthly matters.
“Their already shaken position is further undermined, authority questioned, so they need to silence the instigator if they are to rebuild the trust that people put in them. They run to the King to do something, he wants peace and quiet as well, so he calls for me. God forbid that he would bother his pretty army boys about a job like this. And here I am, off to silence a lunatic priest and burn down his temple.”
“Alone?” N’Cton laughed.
“I probably could, but to be on the safe side, I’m taking a few blokes with me.”
“Sounds like a dirty job.”
“They won’t be giving medals away, no.”
“Tiegher’ll get one for sure, though.”
“You should have done what he did when he came to Oyan. Upper-class girls all locked up in their towers, eager to have a good time with a bloke from across the border, a real savage. And you go get married instead.”
“I don’t regret it, brother,” Aezubah smiled openly. “If it weren’t for my wife and sons, I’d be in a very different spot today.”
“Much. I reckon I was on my way to the gallows.”
“It’s like you said: idle hands...”
They sat in silence for another long moment, each deep in thought.
“You should come by the house tomorrow,” Aezubah stirred finally. “Kaylie’s the finest cook in the Kingdom. And you can show my sons how black men use the spear.”
“I could use a home-cooked meal,” N’Cton agreed eagerly. “I can’t look at what they feed us at the barracks anymore. I reckon they must be clearing the place of rats.”
“I tell you what, then. We’ll take care of the business with the priest, I’ll let the boys loose in the temple and I’ll come by your quarters in the morning. Good?”
“Fine with me,” N’Cton replied. “You’re going now?”
“I have to meet them in the square, make sure they’re all sober,” Aezubah laughed. “They haven’t had much to do in the last few days. You got this?”
“It’s on me,” N’Cton nodded. “But Kaylie better be a damn good cook.”
“She is, brother,” the younger man rose from the table. “And a stunner, too.”
“Looks like you got it all, then.”
“Still need a medal or two.”
“You’ll get them.”
“Not for this priest!”
They laughed and shook hands hard, like men.. Aezubah then turned and made his way back to the entrance, leaving N’Cton resting by the table alone with the remaining bit of wine. The black man poured it into the cup and slammed the empty jug against the table. The kitchen-hand who continued to roast the lamb over the fire despite the growing heat, startled and looked around fearfully. But the barkeep barely stirred in his sleep, clearly accustomed to rowdy patrons.
“Barkeep!” N’Cton hollered without rising from his chair.
The man slowly raised his head and glanced reluctantly towards the corner.
“Bloody mercenaries!” the barkeep mumbled. But then he reminded himself that the soldier’s gold weighed no less than other patrons’, and he finally turned to fetch another jug from the cellar.
Copyright © 2007 by Slawomir Rapala