“The coating on your sixth dagger...” Marvynne placed a finger on each temple, closed his eyes and teetered in his saddle. “I’m sensing something. My eyes are burning, my tongue is... itching. I can feel my throat... closing. My ears!” He clapped his hands over his ears. “My ears are bleeding!” He opened his eyes and pointed a finger at me. “Jeroboam oil!”
I nodded. “Right again.”
“Yes!” The young magus-in-training threw his hands into the air in victorious salute to the sodden skies and nearly fell off his small mount. He grabbed onto the horse’s mane and steadied himself. “My second sight has never been so accurate. Wait till I tell the Grand Magus.”
“Very impressive,” I said. In fact, it was his sixth wrong guess in a row, but I considered that a poor reason for ruining his good mood.
“However,” said Marvynne, “you are sometimes called Grin of the Seven Blades — where is this seventh dagger? Is it charmed so as to be hidden from sorcerous scrying?”
“Not at all. The seventh is in my boot.” I leaned closer and whispered, “It is no coincidence they also call me Grin the Sneak.”
The magician clapped his hands, delighted by this revelation. “It must be coated with something truly hideous.”
“Hog-nosed bear jism.”
“The jism of the male hog-nosed bear.”
Marvynne wiped a hand across his rain-soaked face and flicked the water off his fingers. “And how does one go about procuring such a substance?”
“You build a fire in the entrance to the cave where the bears are mating, and burn a few stalks of dando weed. The fumes send them into a deep sleep.”
“Dando weed has that effect? I had no idea.”
“Oh, it’s a very versatile plant. You can also use it to roof a house or even weave it into clothing — hey, Allard, where’s the dando weed hat I made you?”
“Hats,” said Allard. “What’s the point?”
I pulled on the earflaps of my fur cap to get more of my head out of the rain. “Keep you warm and dry?”
Allard spat out a mouthful of water. “Unnecessary.”
“Of course,” I continued to Marvynne, “then you have to go and collect the spent jism from inside the snoozing female. Not as much fun as it sounds.”
“And what is the effect once applied to a blade?”
“Ah,” I said. “You must allow me some secrets. Suffice to say the seventh blade is a weapon of last resort.”
“This rain is alive,” muttered Allard. “It lands in one place, then crawls into another. I wish these bandits would hurry up and attack us.” He passed a hand over his shaved pate, and a sluice of water disappeared down the back of his neck. He wriggled in his saddle. He had no one to blame but himself — it was he who had insisted on ripping the sleeves and collar off his thick quilted jerkin so any passing hill goat might more easily admire his highly-muscled physique.
“This is but a drizzle,” Marvynne informed us. He tilted his head back and let large drops of water bounce off his plump, round face. “You should visit us during the rainy season.”
“Halt!” went up a cry. We stopped, and everyone slowly began sinking into the sucking mud. To our left, forested slopes inclined steeply into mountains. On our right, terraced hills. All in all, the ideal place for an ambush.
“Looks like the scouts have returned,” said Allard, standing in his stirrups. “Or one of them.”
Sir Julius, leader of our expedition, broke away from the group at the front and cantered down the line towards us on his towering midnight-black stallion.
Past the six knights on six white chargers — magnificent beasts, all twelve of them.
Past the wagon full of archers sat on either side of a large, chained and padlocked trunk.
Past a dozen pikemen standing two-abreast, wearing brass cuirasses and helmets.
Such a large company to guard a single strongbox not even half-full might seem excessive, but the last five tax collections had disappeared without trace, and Duke Krunski was taking no chances. The previous convoy had had an escort of six men. Search parties found nothing. No money, no bodies, not even signs of battle.
“One of the scouts is missing,” called out Sir Julius as he approached. He was a small, pointy-nosed man in gleaming armour with not even a nick, and a wide-brimmed hat so large, it not only kept his head dry, but also his shoulders. “Can you offer us any insight, Magus Marvynne?”
Marvynne placed his fingers to his temples and closed his eyes, mumbling to himself.
“Gentlemen.” Sir Julius looked from me to Allard and back again. “I know Duke Krunski has placed his faith in you, but what exactly do you hope to achieve riding all the way in the back?”
“Well,” I said, “as soon as we’re attacked, I plan to ride back to the castle as fast as my horse can carry me. Being in the rear means I’m that much closer to my destination.”
Sir Julius curled his lip into a sneer. “Exactly what I would expect from Grin the Cheat. Tell me,” he leaned across the pommel of his saddle, “what good will you be to the Duke once my men have defeated these brigands?”
“The Duke only tasked me with finding out who’s behind these attacks. Whether you defeat them or they defeat you, is no concern of mine. I get paid either way.”
“And what about you?” he said to Allard. “You intend turning tail also?”
Allard took a moment as though thinking it over and then said, “That’s a really big hat. You must have very strong neck muscles.”
“Ho!” shouted Marvynne. His eyes were milky white and his body shook so hard, his voice turned into a shuddering wail. “They come. The invisible men. Beware! Fie! To arms! We are attacked!”
“Battle formation!” roared Sir Julius, wheeling his horse around and charging back up the line.
The pikemen rushed to form a circle around the wagon, pikes braced against the ground and pointing outwards. The archers stood, their arrows nocked, searching for targets. The horsemen spread out to take up positions on all sides.
“Wouldn’t you feel safer inside the circle?” I asked Marvynne, who had stopped proclaiming our imminent doom and was now looking flushed with excitement.
“Oh no, the omens indicated the safest place is between you two fine lads.” He giggled like a girl.
“Any other omens you’d like to share?” asked Allard. “Any chance of some sunshine this afternoon, perhaps?”
“The killing will start shortly. Many will die.”
“These invisible men don’t sound very friendly,” I said.
“No. Not friendly at all. They mean to do us great harm. But they aren’t expecting us to be so well prepared.”
“Are we well prepared?” I asked.
“Certainly.” He put out his hand, and a blue flame appeared on his rain-splattered palm. The flame danced, spinning and skipping between raindrops.
My horse flinched, wanting to shy away. I felt much the same. “You’re a fire mage, also?”
“I dabble. I’m not fully licensed yet, but I couldn’t let an opportunity like this go by. You never know how good you are until you’re tested in battle.”
If there’s one thing worse than a fire mage, it’s an amateur fire mage.
“Tell me something, wizard...” said Allard.
“No, no, not wizard.” Marvynne wagged a forefinger at Allard. “Magus, of the Royal Order of Magnificent Magi.”
“Yes, sorry, magus.” Allard paused to spit another mouthful of water out. “Tell me, magus, do you posses the power to cut a woman in half? I saw such a feat once, a most amazing sight.”
Marvynne shook his head and sighed. “Sad to say, my large friend, what you saw was but a trick.”
“I think not,” said Allard, sounding very sure of himself. “There was blood gushing everywhere, and terrible screams. And then, when he put her back together, a scar ran around her middle. He really had cut her in twain.”
Marvynne wrinkled his nose. “I assure you, the whole thing was faked. Ask yourself, what woman in her right mind would allow herself to be split into two?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Allard. “There’s a Second City brothel where the girls don’t mind letting you have a go.” He burst into large guffaws, ridiculously pleased with himself.
There was a yell, one of the horses reared up and its rider fell off. He landed on the ground and remained there, unmoving. Three more men fell from their saddles.
“Stand your ground! Archers, prepare!” called out Sir Julius, his horse stamping and pawing at the ground.
There was an ominous creaking sound followed by a sharp snap. The wagon collapsed, sending the archers sprawling and panicking the cart horses which bolted, trampling the men in front of them.
“Quick, get to higher ground,” I said to Marvynne. “We’ll protect you.”
Marvynne nodded and urged his little horse up the side of the hill.
“I thought we were going to make a run for it,” said Allard.
“We’ll need a distraction. Plus, always best to keep fire mages at a distance.”
“There,” cried out one of the pikemen. He was pointing at nothing, or so it seemed. Then a slight movement drew my attention to a man lying on the grass. The colour of his clothing matched his surroundings so completely, he was impossible to see except when he moved.
Sir Julius bore down on him, waving his sword. The man placed a thin pipe to his lips and blew.
A dart hit Sir Julius in the face and he fell backwards. His horse didn’t appear to like being dismounted that way and kicked out both hind legs, sending Julius soaring through the air to be impaled on a firmly planted pike.
The men crowded around what was left of the wagon, unsure of what they were looking for. The archers fired arrows at random. More green men rose from the ground, like the hill had given birth to them, and fired darts at the corralled soldiers.
“You know, they are kind of invisible,” said Allard. “Maybe Marvynne really does have the second sight.”
Marvynne, standing on an outcrop overlooking the battle, raised his arms and cried out, “Behold!”
There was a pause in the fighting as everyone watched a stream of fire shoot from one of Marvynne’s hands to the other, forming a flaming arch over his head. He released a babble of nonsense words and pushed his hands forward, sending the flames towards the men, and set fire to Sir Julius’s horse.
The horse screamed and bucked wildly, taking out a couple more pikemen with blows to the head.
Marvynne’s voluminous sleeves were aflame. He spun around trying to put them out but only managed to spread them further. Then he exploded.
The problem with fire mages is that they have a nasty habit of setting themselves on fire, which isn’t wise when you have a large bladder of oil hidden about your person.
“Time to leave.” I turned my horse around and set off at a gallop with Allard close behind, but we only got as far as the next bend where we found our way blocked by a man covered in mud.
Behind him there was an indentation in the ground. If he had been hiding there, we must have ridden right over him.
I slid off my horse and hit the ground running. Allard did likewise, both his swords drawn.
The man raised a blowpipe to his lips and fired two darts in quick succession. The first flew over my head, aimed at Allard. I stuck up a hand and felt the tip puncture my glove. The second dart wasn’t hard to intercept since it was aimed at my face. It stung me in the neck, just under my chin.
Our assailant’s eyes, the only part of him visible through a slit in his muddy mask, widened in surprise. I guess he wasn’t used to seeing someone deliberately take a hit.
As I neared him, I still hadn’t drawn a weapon; my only role was to act as a shield. I ducked at the whine of Allard’s twin swords approaching from behind.
The man raised his left arm, allowing the first blade to strike his forearm with a prang. His other forearm blocked Allard’s second blade high on the right.
At the same time, he kicked me in the chest with enough force to send me flying backwards. I clattered into Allard and then fell to the ground. Normally, I’d be up instantly, daggers drawn. Not this time.
My right hand hung limp at my side, and the muscles in my neck were contracting so hard, I could barely breathe.
As someone who uses poisons extensively, I have taken the time to make myself immune to their effects. It would be embarrassing to suddenly drop dead in the middle of a tavern because one of my daggers had slipped out of its casing — I don’t particularly want ‘Grin the Careless Prick’ to be carved on my tombstone.
Years of deliberately exposing myself to small amounts has given me a tolerance to all but the rarest toxins. Since I was still alive, whatever was now in my blood wasn’t one of those. In fact, I recognised the sensations as the effects of cheem tree sap, to which I should have been invulnerable.
Cheem tree sap acts in seconds, causing the victim’s heart to explode. The rigidity working its way down my throat towards my chest was only creeping, but once it reached my heart I had no doubt of the result.
Allard continued to rain down blows, but the man parried each slash with his arms. He moved with great speed and deflected Allard’s every strike. He was either made of metal or wore metallic bracers under the mud coat.
I had a number of powders in my belt I could fling, perhaps blinding the man — although I was just as likely to incapacitate my comrade as my foe.
Not that I was in any state to help anyone. I was on my knees, head bowed and darkness closing in around me. Allard would have to fend for himself. I drew my seventh dagger from my boot and pricked myself in the neck with the needle-thin stiletto blade. My seventh was not meant to kill or maim, its purpose was to counteract the effects of poison I could in no other way defend against.
The seed of the hog-nosed bear rendered any toxins inert, but had a rather unfortunate side-effect. For the next few hours I would be unconscious.
The sounds of thrust and parry rang above me. With the last of my energy, I lunged forward and grabbed onto a leg, hoping it was the right one.
There was a piercing shriek.
The last I saw was Allard standing over me, and then the ground rushed to smother me in blackness.
* * *
I woke to the sound of crackling flames and the stink of burning skin. I patted myself down to make sure I wasn’t the one on fire and discovered all my weapons missing, including my belt with its many pouches of useful things.
The jolts of pain accompanying my every movement reminded me why hog-nosed bear semen should only be shared by bears who love each other very much. My vision was blurred and my head pulsated like someone was bouncing a bag of rocks off my face. But I was alive.
The walls came into focus. I sat up, with discomfort, and turned around. Allard had removed his jerkin and his britches and was crouched next to a small fire in loincloth and boots.
I crawled nearer the fire. “What’s that horrible smell?”
Allard poked the fire with a stick and turned over my fur hat. “You were right, hats do keep you warm.”
I huddled as close to the blaze as I could without sitting on top of it — don’t think I didn’t consider it — peering around to try and ascertain the situation. We were in a cave with a roof high enough that the light from the fire didn’t reveal it. “What happened?”
“Well,” said Allard, “you decided to take a nap in the middle of the fight, so after I killed the man whose leg you had fallen asleep on — he was a little surprised by that, I think he assumed you already dead — a dozen more men appeared out of thin air. So, I immediately sprang into action and surrendered.”
It was hard to tell the dimensions of the cave, but judging by the sandy soil we weren’t too far underground. I slipped handfuls of dirt into my pockets. When your weapons get taken, find new weapons. I examined the rocks and stones lying around.
“Any other survivors?”
Allard shook his head.
“They killed everyone except us. Why?”
I checked my gloves, the heels of my boots, the lining of my jacket — all the places I kept various emergency items hidden. I found nothing. “These guys are pretty thorough.”
“Skilled fighters, too. I doubt I’d have been able to hit the muddy one if you hadn’t grabbed hold of him.”
“Chances of escape?”
“There’s only one way out, over there.” Allard pointed over my shoulder. “A couple of guards.”
I followed his finger to an opening in the far wall, a large crack lit by a pale orange glow from the other side.
“Think we could take them?”
“Not if they’re anything like the mud man. Not really the problem though.”
“These aren’t a bunch of hill bandits, they’re a proper military outfit. There’s a cavern full of soldiers out there.”
Allard stopped rearranging the fire and stared at the opening like he could see through it. “Couple of hundred at least.”
There was little chance of immediate freedom; all we could do was wait for someone to come for us, assuming they’d kept us alive for a reason. We didn’t have to wait long.
A man carrying a reed torch ducked through the entrance. His hair was shorn down to stubble, and his face carried the scars of a seasoned fighter. He wore loose garments; a simple sleeved tunic and baggy britches that shimmered in the flickering light. He dropped the torch on our fire, producing a welcome increase in warmth and light.
“Which one of you is the killer of my brother?” He had an odd accent I couldn’t place.
“Your brother?” I said.
“I be Brangan. My brother be Frangan. Killed him sneaky, didn’t you?”
Allard stood up. He was the taller of the two, but the aggrieved man gave no sign of being intimidated. Allard put his fists on his hips, more an excuse to flex his muscles than anything. “If you mean the man in the mud, I killed him.”
“And where do you get off calling us sneaky,” I chimed in. “Your lot were hiding in the bushes!”
“No matter,” he said. “I’ll fight the both of you.”
“We don’t have any weapons,” I pointed out.
“Neither do I. We be under orders to keep the both of you alive.”
He took up an odd stance, feet shoulder-width apart, one foot slightly ahead of the other, and waved his hands about in slow, sweeping movements.
Allard stepped forward and waved his hands in similar fashion. “What are we doing?”
The man grabbed Allard’s wrist, turned it over, and sent him tumbling to the ground. Allard lay there, either too dazed or too embarrassed to get up. Maybe both.
“Get up,” said Brangan.
“No, I think I’ll stay here.” Allard raised a hand in my direction. “Fight him first and get back to me.”
I stood up and Brangan moved towards me, sliding his feet across the floor.
He stopped but kept his hands weaving around him, his head bobbing from side to side.
“You can’t kill us, right?”
“Those be the orders.”
“But we can kill you?”
“You can try.” He smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile.
“Okay. First I think we should make this a little more interesting.” I walked over to the fire, bent down and picked up a couple of fist-sized rocks. I held them up so he could see them. “Here, take this.”
I tossed one to him underarm. He plucked it out of the air.
“What be—” He screamed and dropped the rock, clutching at his steaming red hand.
I had placed the stones in the fire earlier. I could feel the heat from the one still in my hand starting to reach through the leather of my glove.
Brangan’s attention was taken up with his blistered palm. I stepped forward and drove the other rock into his face, flattening his nose.
Allard had gotten to his feet behind Brangan. He grabbed the man by the ears and yanked backwards. Allard’s rising knee connected with the back of Brangan’s head. There was a sharp crack and Brangan, brother of Frangan, fell to the ground.
“What’s going on here?”
I turned to find a man standing where he hadn’t been a moment ago, both hands behind his back like they were tied there and a haughty look on his face. This one was younger and less battleworn. His accent was less pronounced, but there was still something out of place about him. He wore the same loose garments, but with silver edging on the shoulders. He had no hair on his head, but a thin moustache he’d either cultivated very carefully or painted on.
“Brangan, get up, man,” the new arrival said in a way that suggested he expected his instructions to be followed immediately. Brangan remained on the ground.
I pointed at Allard. “He started it.”
“Me?” said Allard, shocked. “How did I start it?”
“You killed his brother!”
“How do you know? You slept through the whole thing.”
As we bickered, we shifted positions so we were on either side of the man, ready to make our move.
“Enough!” he said, and two men, armed with large cleavers, appeared from behind him, followed by a third and fourth appearing from behind each of them. The whole appearing-out-of-nowhere thing was obviously something they practised a lot.
The man with the thin moustache looked at the bloody rock in my hand. In one lightning-quick move he grabbed me by the wrist, pulled off my glove so it encased the still searing hot rock and threw it at Brangan. It bounced off his head with a clunk.
“I said UP!”
Brangan got to his feet, grumbling and somewhat unsteady.
“Get your injuries seen to. MOVE!”
Brangan trotted off, his head lolling to the side. He ran straight into the cave wall, bounced off, then passed through the opening. I wasn’t sure if I had witnessed an example of incredibly deep-grained military discipline, or some kind of necromancy.
“I am Changran.” He looked down his long, thin nose at us, not much liking what he saw, I’d guess. “The General wishes to see you. Come.” He turned and walked off.
The four guards formed a square around us and marched us out of the cave.
We passed through the opening into a massive cavern full of men and movement. Dozens of fires across the cavern floor provided light and warmth. Each fire had a large cut of dark meat roasting over it; the tangy stench of horseflesh was unmistakable. Marvynne’s tubby pony stood in a corner looking decidedly nervous.
“When you meet the General,” Changran said without turning to face us, “you will address him as Sire. You will not speak unless spoken to. You will answer questions directly and succinctly. Any rudeness, aggression, violence or disrespect will result in your deaths. Refusal to cooperate will result in your deaths. Attempts to be overly familiar will result in your deaths. Behave with honour and decorum, and you will be treated the same. Behaving otherwise will result in your deaths.”
He carried on listing dos and don’ts as we weaved our way through groups of men in various states of undress, most sporting only a truss while their dripping wet garments hung drying off familiar-looking pikes. They didn’t talk or laugh or sing in the usual manner of soldiers. Nor did they grumble or argue or fight. They wordlessly went about their business. The only sounds were the sharpening of blades, the chewing of meat and the angry flaring of flames as globs of grease fell into them.
The men had close-cropped hair, numerous scars about their bodies, and all looked in excellent physical condition; not one fat bastard among them. In a one on one fight, without my usual advantages, I doubted there was a single one of them I could beat.
Allard, however, was in his element. He started walking a little straighter, his shoulders back and his arms in constant motion. He scratched the back of his neck, stretched his arms over his head and found a host of other ways to extenuate his own impressive physique.
“He’s got bigger muscles than you,” I said, indicating a particularly large man.
Allard stopped in his tracks, causing the soldier behind to walk into him and drop his cleaver. Allard stooped to pick it up, alarming the other men, but his only focus was the man I’d pointed out.
“He’s got bulk, I’ll grant you,” said Allard, “but he lacks definition.” He passed the soldier’s blade back to him, only then noticing our guards had their weapons poised to strike. “What?”
There were two large tunnels on opposite sides of the cavern. A platform had been built over each opening, piled high with boulders and rocks. From what I could tell, the simple pull of a rope would bring down the construction blocking off each opening.
Between the two tunnels stood a large pavilion tent decked out in military regalia. Banners depicting animals I’d never seen; winged and horned and extra-legged. Our escort vanished, literally, as we were ushered into the tent by Changran.
“Remember, your lives will be forfeit if you don’t show the proper respect.” The flaps closed behind us.
Inside the tent, there was a large fire pit and a table made from a tree trunk split lengthways. On the tabletop, mud, twigs and stones formed a map of the Dukedom; quite an accurate one showing hills, valleys and the River Krunski.
There were little wooden models of towns, villages and even isolated farmsteads, all beautifully whittled and with the right number of buildings all in their correct locations. The Duke’s castle sat in the middle, carved in tiny, exquisite detail, down to the famous jagged walls said to be built from dragon’s teeth (or cockatrice claws or bale-witch thorns or somesuch).
Five men surrounded the table, gravely contemplating the landscape like gods on high. Scant attention was paid to us as we waited with Changran at our side.
Had we wished to attempt an escape, now was probably our best opportunity — hit Changran as hard as possible and make a serpentine dash for one of the large tunnel entrances. To be honest, though, I was curious to find out who they were and what they were up to.
Four of the five had moustaches that put Changran’s to shame; hairy fringes hanging over their top lips, the tips coiffured and waxed and teased into bizarre curls. Other than that, they were what I expected to see. Long-jawed, tough-looking old coots, stern of face, furrowed of brow. Veterans who had earned the right to send others to their deaths. Not that I held that against them — given the choice, I’d much rather be giving the orders than taking them.
The fifth man was something different. He was tall — taller than Allard — but far older. He had no facial hair, but he was the only one to have hair on his head. It was grey and cut very short at the sides but sticking up on top like bristles on a broom. His face was lined and scarred, both by age and blade, and his right eye was hidden behind a large welt that had sealed over. The remaining eye looked out past his beaky nose with the steady, purposeful gaze of one who doesn’t just believe he’s right, he knows it.
Finally, the man in the middle looked up. “I am General Petrangan,” he said in a gruff but level voice. “And you are the men who killed Frangan.”
“Greetings, General. I am Grin, known as Grin the Useful, or Grin the Reliable. My comrade is Allard. Say hello, Allard.”
“Hallo!” boomed Allard in friendly fashion.
“Sorry about the dead man,” I continued, ignoring Changran’s look of utter disbelief, “but accidents happen. Apologise to the General, Allard.”
“I’m most terribly sorry. He died valiantly, if that’s any consolation. Three cheers for Frangan — hip hip!”
Silence filled the tent.
“My apologies, Sire,” said Changran with a dip of his head. “I will have these men executed immediately.”
The General raised a hand, and Changran stopped talking, his head still bowed. I have no idea how he saw the signal from that position. His head was slightly tilted towards the tent wall, but there wasn’t a mirror there.
I stepped forward and looked down at the map. “I’m no geographical expert, but I think Krunski Castle is on a much larger hill.” I picked up the stone carving of the castle and squeezed the mound of earth under it to a higher peak. “And there’s a ridge here.” I scraped a ring near the top and balanced the castle back on the, oh, let’s call it the helmet. “There, that’s better.”
The General watched impassively. The men around him glared and made guttural noises in their throats. There was a definite tension in the air, but I figured if they had wanted us dead, we already would be.