Three friends set off on a quest to find a missing heir.
An attempt to write a non-typical fantasy story (I know the plot may seem a little cliché initially, it gets more complex as the story develops) whilst maintaining many of the traditional trappings of the genre. This may be an unparalleled failure, or dive rapidly into cliché and boredom, but I shall endeavour to avoid this.
Winter of the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Yulius VI.
Calerta, a small town on the border between the Kingdom of Marti and the Grand Empire of Yulius VI.
The tavern room was dark and warm, the light from the fire smouldering in the large grate only further defining the shadows that darkened the room. The patrons were crowded round the fire place, as if absorbing as much heat as possible before heading out into the freezing blizzard that raged outside. Even the bartender had moved closer to the grate, dragging over one of the empty tables and setting up a second bar with a couple of bottles of spirits and a small keg of ale. The wind blasted the building, shaking the shuttered windows and rattling the door. All those gathered around the fire were regulars, locals from the surrounding houses and the nearby farms come for some company and a few drinks. Though the village was frequented by travellers and merchants in the spring and summer months; in the darker, colder times only the most desperate or daring ventured forth on the trading roads, and even the bandits and highwaymen moved south to warmer climes. Foreign visitors in these times were few and far between, the company was, therefore, mildly surprised when the sound of the wind rattling of the door was joined with a loud knock and a shout from outside. The bartender roused himself from his seat, where he had begun to doze, and hurried to the door, wrenching it open and exclaiming as the three figures who had been standing outside stumbled in, "Dreadfully sorry, it sticks something awful."
"By the beard o' the Goddess!" exclaimed the shortest of the three, who was, it turned out, a dwarf, "It's like swimmin' in ice oot there!" He turned to the nearest of his companions, who was taking of her hood, shaking ice and snow out of her dark-red hair and trying to warm her hands all at the same time.
"Who's idea wis this anyway?"
"Can't say I remember really," she replied, "but I do recall it was you who mentioned that our finances could do with a boost and noted that the pay for this would be more that satisfactory."
"Ah didnae ken it wid be as cauld as this though" he muttered, trying ineffectually to brush some of the snow out of his beard, "And yoos two ne'er listen tae me."
"Oh, buck up!" tutted his female companion, surveying her surroundings properly for the first time. "We made it this far without incident, and this seems a fine enough place to spend the evening. A pint of whatever ale you have would be splendid, and one of rum for my friend here." The bartender nodded, drawing the ale from the keg and pouring a tankard of rum from one of larger bottles at his table, "Will your other friend be having anything?" he asked as the ale mug filled with frothing dark brown liquid.
I do not drink.
The voice came from the shadows of the third figure's hood. It had no accent, no notation, no emotion. The words were simply spoken. To another crowd this might have seemed peculiar, but this one was hard to shake.
"Terribly sorry sir, didn't realize what you were." he stood up with the other two's drinks, "You'll be wanting one of the darker corners then?"
"Aye, that we will, the room's right warm enough that we willnae freeze." replied the dwarf, taking his drink, "And could we trouble yez for use o' yoor kitchen? We've et nout good in days."
"Most certainly!" said the bartender, "What would you like?"
"Oh, do sit down, we'll be quite alright on our own, just say how much you would like us to pay and tell us what we can't use." The red-haired woman had put down her coat and was already heading toward the kitchen by the time she had finished, the bartender put her mug on the table and sat back down; looking a little relieved, "Take anything you like, all the food back there's for guests anyway."
The dwarf, digging out a pouch of coins from within his layers of clothing began bartering for their price, and his female companion, taking their still cloaked acquaintance with her, headed to the kitchens at the back and began the process of cooking a meal, occasionally appearing to ask things like, "Do you happen to have any gisam leaf?", "I say, is there any knife tough enough to cut the bread?" or "Remind me again Dorvic, is it the green or the red basser root that you can't eat?"
Dorvic, who had, by this time, introduced himself to the bartender and paid for the drinks, the meal and obtained accommodation in the rooms above the tavern, had taken up seats at a table that was far enough from the fire to be almost completely dark, but close enough to be heated by the glowing logs. After a while, the third figure re-entered and joined him at the table, it aroused a little attention from the crowd around the fire, but only a few glances. Dorvic leaned back in his seat and took a long draw from his tankard. "Ah, nothin' like a good drink tae warm the belly. So, yeh find anything in the back Mill?"
The figure shook its head slowly,
Devoid of life, it is as dead as I knew it would be.
Dorvic took another swig, "Not e'en a rat, eh? How you doin' fer power then?"
I have sufficient amounts for a while longer, but I wish to replenish soon.
Dorvic scratched his beard aimlessly for a second, then took another drink, "Ah, dinnae fash yersel, yel find sommat soon enough. These places are crawlin' wi' life. Set up a coupla traps in yer room the night, yeh'll catch a rat or a moose soon enough."
Just at this moment, the red-haired woman returned carrying two plates each with a mixture of roasted and boiled roots, a medium sized slab of salted meat and a hunk of stale bread; she was also grasping the tail of a small, wriggling mouse between her teeth. She spat the latter to Mill, saying,
"It crawled in after the bread, just after you left."
Mill caught it expertly in its gloved hand and walked back into the kitchen again, followed by the stares of a few of the assembly.
"I do wish they would stop looking at him like that. I know they don't mean any harm, but neither does he!" she said in slightly muted tones to Dorvic as she placed the plates on the table.
"Ach well Jez, if wishes came true we wouldnae be here, would we? Anyway, " he grinned over his tankard, "theres a load o' people who'd be more 'an happy tae wish us deid."
"Oh shut up and eat, you know what I mean. And you know I don't like being called 'Jez', my name is Jezzika, please use it when we have company." Jezzika reached into the small pouch that hung from her side and produced two worn steel forks. She passed one to Dorvic and, taking a small knife from her belt, began to eat. Dorvic, after grumbling a little about the prevalence of vegetable matter in the meal, began to eat too, with considerably less dignity than his companion, but what he lacked in quality he made up for in speed. By the time Jezzika had finished her meal he was already halfway through his second tankard of rum.
"Let it no be disputed, yer a fine cook lass; but ye cannae drink fer squat." he chuckled as she put away the forks, and picked up her mug of ale, that had lain almost untouched since she had got it.
This got a few appreciative laughs from the crowd round the fire, which died again as Mill re-entered, and the patrons turned back to their own conversations. They were willing to put up with Mill's kind, but that didn't mean they felt comfortable around them.
"Is something the matter Mill?” asked Jezzika as it approached, "Something that small doesn't usually take you that long."
The hooded figure reached the table and sat down.
I did not wish to sacrifice inside. I had to find a suitable stone. This took time.
Dorvic finished his drink and stretched, "Ach, yer a fussy wee bugger, ain't yeh? Ah well, if a's well an' guid, we should be heading up tae oor rooms now." Jezzika nodded,
"I am rather looking forward to a break from camping mats and roots in my back. It seems like years since I had a proper night's sleep."
I require time to prepare the catchers.
The three packed the few items they had taken out into their pockets, got up from their table, and headed to the stairs at the back which lead to their rooms.
Mill turned to the bartender as it walked past,
Ensure that nobody enters my room.
The bartender nodded, and flashed a nervous smile
"Of course sir, I shall see to it that you are not disturbed."
The rooms were small, but comfortable; with shuttered windows, straw mattresses and wooden floors. The night passed without incident and by the morning the blizzard had passed, though grey clouds still hung thick and low in the sky. Whilst Dorvic purchased further provisions, Jezzika turned to the other guest, a farmer who had sheltered in the inn rather than return home through the snow, and quizzed him briefly on who had recently travelled through the village.
"There ain't much traffic through here in winter." he replied, "Except the mail coaches, they're still runnin' in once or twice a month - we've got the only stop for a good many leagues 'round - but everyone else stays put at this time of year. Truth be told, you folks are the first to come through since the snows came down."
Jezzika though for a moment,
"The mail coaches, are they Imperial?"
"Of course they are! No one else runs a post service 'round here!" The farmer laughed, "Especially not that bloody king, fat lot of good he is!"
"When did the last mail coach run though here then?"
The farmer grinned again,
"You’re a mighty suspicious one, what's with all these questions, eh? The last coach came around two weeks ago, and the frontrunners for the next one arrived just this morning," here he pointed to a pair of tired looking men sitting by the fire, nodding off into bowls of porridge provided by the bartender, "that means the coach'll be arriving sometime this evening, or tomorrow if the roads are unusually bad."
"Thank you." Jezzika though for a second again, "Can you purchase seats on the mail coach here?"
"Ah, so that's the reason! You can, 'long as there's still room, which there will be, seein' as no one 'round here needs to go into the heartlands at this time of year, and few enough would have the money anyhow."
"Thank you again." Jezzika produced a small silver coin from a purse on her belt and handed it to the man, "For you time."
"Thankyou,madam," replied the farmer, inspecting the coin quickly before putting it into his own money pouch, "It's always a pleasure to converse with such a delightful and generous lady like yourself."
Dorvic hurried over, with a bag of preserved meats, vegetables and fresh bread over his shoulder.
"So, they come through here?"
Jezzika looked around quickly to make sure the farmer had left and that no one else was within hearing,
"I think they most likely took him out on a mail coach, one passed through here at around the right time, and theyareImperial; they'd take an official without question, no matter what, or whom, they had with them."
"Guid point lass, they wouldnae look twice if oor lad was wi' a badge holder. And naeone stops a mail coach, the Impies would hae yer arse before yeh could blink."
Both stopped taking for a second as they experienced the odd, tingling sensation that always preceded Mill's appearance. Sure enough, when they looked round it was descending the staircase from the rooms. Both the Imperial soldiers suddenly jerked upright, fumbling for swords that they had left with their horses. The bartender, rushed over to calm them, explaining that Mill was a guest, and that its companions had vouched for it as one of the Bound, and that it was, as far as he was concerned, the most decent undead he had ever met. Mill walked over to Jezzika and Dorvic, glancing passively at the still-nervous guards.
Several rodents found my catchers. I am prepared.
"Excellent lad!" exclaimed Dorvic, clapping the lych on the back "We're just discussin' oor little treasure hunt," he said, more quietly, "Jez recons they took 'im in a mail coach."
"And I also discovered that there's another coach due to come in tonight, I think we should try and take it at least as far as Dra'tol, further if we can afford it."
"Ah'd be surprised if we could even afford that far," Dorvic replied, "Those coaches are no cheap, and we're no exactly o'er flowin' wi' cash."
"We shall see." murmured Jezzika, and walked quickly over to the bartender to enquire as to the location of the post station.
The coach arrived earlier than expected, coming into the village just a little after sunset, the horses stumbling to a halt in the thick snow, light from the swinging lanterns on their harnesses causing their shadows to jump and rear. They were impressive creatures, huge, muscled and bred to run for hours, or even days, on end. How the imperials had managed to come up with them no one was sure, most suspected magic, some suggested that dragon blood was infused in their fodder, some even claimed that they had been cross-bred with unicorns. It was Dorvic's opinion that this was all a load of bollocks, and that the Imperial horse breeders had just been very good, very lucky and possibly just a little bit too dedicated to their trade. Whatever the methods of creation, no one could argue that they were not among the finest horses in any of the kingdoms known to the empire. They were not the fastest, but they had phenomenal, unmatched stamina, and were loyal to the point where they would run themselves to death should their masters wish it. Four of them were harnessed to the front of the mail coach, which, surrounded by the glowing halo of its lamps, was an impressive sight, Imperial crests were engraved on the side and painted gold, the body of the coach was a dark imperial purple, though it was so worn by work and weather that it was indistinguishable from black. The coach had seating for six inside, and two guards rode outside, one on the riding board at the rear, one beside the driver, both were armed with light crossbows, light mail armor and short swords, and along with the driver, had wrapped up in thick layers of fur and cloth against the freezing winter. As Jezzika, Mill and Dorvic arrived the guards half climbed; half fell down from their posts and, stretching their stiff limbs, staggered sleepily to join their comrades in the tavern. A boy rushed out to the coach with fresh lamp oil, snuffing each light, filling the little drum that held the oil and relighting them with the slow precision of someone who was not entirely familiar with the task, but was very well aware of the consequences of any mistakes. The driver got down from his perch above the horses as well, but staggered into the coach house rather than towards the tavern. Coach drivers had to maintain a strictly regulated diet, which included a complete abstinence from alcohol.
The horses were being unharnessed as the trio reached them, they were looking rather haggard, but they energy were exerting was still spirited enough for the group to pull back and let the horsemaster detach them from the coach and lead them to the stables, where they would be resting up for a good few days before they were allowed to run again. When the horses were inside, the group went round to the small window by the side of the post station where a clerk sat, heavily wrapped in several layers of clothing, trying to sort through the small pile of mail that had just been delivered without removing his gloves. He looked up as the trio approached him.
“What do you want?” he snapped, “If you’re looking for mail you’ll have to wait!”
“We want to purchase seats on the coach to Dra’tol.” Explained Jezzika, with inexplicable patience, “Would you kindly direct us to the person who might be able to arrange that?”
“Ah,” the man’s face became a little more welcoming, “that would be me. Standard fare’s ten marks apiece, but we’ll have to charge another two marks and four pence because of the weather.”
“Thirty seven and two, do we have enough?” Jezzika glanced to Dorvic.
“Aye, but only just. We wilnae be getting’ any further than Dra’tol, we’re a’ but skint.”
There will be money in the city.
The clerk shuddered, noticing Mill for the first time. “You travel with that thing?”
“Na mate, Mill’s travlin’ wi’ us, if a lych disnae want tae be in a group it widnae take kindly tae people hangin’ arood it.”
The clerk gave him a look of terrified confusion.
“What my friend is trying to say,” offered Jezzika diplomatically, “is that Mill here is with us because he chooses to be with us, rather than us choosing him to be part of our group.”
“O-of course.” stuttered the now shaking clerk, his eyes never leaving the lych, “The c-coach leaves as s-soon as it r-ready. Its w-waiting o-over t-there.”
This last sentence was accompanied by a complex series of hand movements that conveyed to them that the clerk would be very much happier if they would go and wait over there as well. Dorvic tossed a small bag of coins across the counter, and the man counted them quickly before scribbling what might possibly have been a signature on the bottom of a sheet of paper and shoving it through the hatch. Jezzika picked it up, scanned it briefly, thanked the clerk and followed the other two back to the coach.
When she caught up with them the new coach driver had arrived and was already talking to Dorvic. He had a strong southern imperial accent, but he seemed right at home in the slush and ice round him.
“Dra’tol?” He was saying, “Ah, yees, bin der many times. Not great place at dis time of yeer, but who’s I to judge?”
“Aye, we’re no stayin’ long” replied Dorvic, “We’re gang tae the capital, but we canne afford it right noo. We’re lookin’ tae pick up a job in Dra’tol tae get us the rest o’ the way.”
“Ah. You be wantin’ job in ta caravans den. Dey’s good money and you getin’ a free ride. Dey damn slow but you gettin’ paid to travel.”
That would suffice.
The driver, who had begun to clamber up the side of the coach stopped and turned round, hanging by one hand and grinning from ear to ear,
“You a bleedin’ lych, aintcha? I’s carryin’ a bloody lych! Da boys neva gonna believe dis!” He pulled himself up on top of the coach, laughing to himself, “Well, we’s got no need to be worrying, da most dangerous ting from here to Dra’tol is wid us!”
Jezzika sighed quietly and stepped into the coach, giving Dorvic a frustrated look as he clambered in after her, took off his hefty backpack, into which he had carefully packed all of their provisions, and dropped it heavily onto the seat beside him. Mill entered silently and sat cross legged on the floor in between the seats. Outside they could hear the horsemaster harnessing in a fresh team of horses, and eventually heard the shout of ‘Let ‘em go’ and the crack of the driver’s whip, and the coach began to move. As the small village of Calerta slid past they gathered speed, and soon they were out in the surrounding farmland, with snow laden fields spreading for as far the eye could see on both sides. The coach lurched and jolted along the rough dirt road as Dorvic stared out at the flat, white landscape.
“Seven days o’ this?” he muttered “This’ll be dull.”