Broken Crossroads (Knights of the Shadows Book 1)

BOOK: Broken Crossroads (Knights of the Shadows Book 1)
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Broken Crossroads

 

 

Patrick LeClerc

Ink and Bourbon Publishing

Copyright 2015.

The right of Patrick LeClerc to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act of 1988.

Cover design copyright FerineFire.com.

Cover sketch concept Katerina Poliakova

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or commerce, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN-13
:
978-1519650122

ISBN-10
:
1519650124

Table of Contents:

The City of Laimrig

A Chance Meeting

The Slumbering Crystal

The Gathering Storm

THE CITY OF LAIMRIG, once a mighty hub of trade and discovery has slipped into decay. No invading army has ever put its people to the sword; no fire or flood has scoured it from the earth; no plague has decimated its denizens.

But it has been conquered.

The attention of the kingdom has been drawn elsewhere, as have its best thinkers, soldiers and artisans. That most terrible of adversaries, Time, has gnawed at the foundations of the once mighty metropolis, as the roads to and from the city become rutted and overgrown, the harbor shallow with silt from the river.

Like a beautiful courtesan shriveled with age or a mighty warrior whose arthritic hands can no longer wield his sword, the city wallows in corruption, trading on its fading power and reputation while remembering the days of its glory, filled with monuments and architecture that crumbles ever more each year, which it no longer has the skill or vision to replace.

Alone among the ancient edifices, the Sollych, the great spire at the center of the citadel, remains unchanged. Built in the depths of time, by a people the current occupants have forgotten, its dark, smooth, glittering stones cunningly joined and impervious to the ravages of time and neglect that afflicted the rest of the city, philosophers and priests debated its purpose.

But whether intended as a beacon or watchtower or altar to forgotten gods, it towers over the rest of the city, looming above even the loftiest mansions of the most powerful.

Our tale, however, begins not at the glittering spire or even the halls of the nobles, jealously striving in its shadow, but in the lowest quarter of the city, in a dimly lit, smoky tavern where cheap drink and desperate companionship serve to dull yearnings far more modest.

 

A Chance Meeting

 

TRILISEAN SAT AT A CORNER TABLE in the dim, smoky, low-ceilinged tavern and sipped at what could charitably be called an adequate white wine. She had chosen this pub because the patrons were used to minding their own business, and she had no desire to be social this night. Contract jobs were scarce, freelance work was dangerous and less lucrative. The one really juicy offer she'd heard would require an accomplice, and at the moment, she didn't trust anyone with the necessary skills.

To pass the time, she watched the two soldiers who sat at a table near the fire. They could not be anything else by the look of them. Their large, callused hands and corded muscles spoke of long hours at drill. Both wore their hair cut short, the easier to keep clean in the field. Their gear was simple, sturdy and well worn. Their speech and manner lacked the caution of commoners or tradesmen, the refinement of aristocrats, the furtive calculation of criminals or the cynicism and suspicion of Watchmen. They spoke with the blunt, almost careless honesty of men who reserve all their worry for the battlefield.

If all that failed to identify their trade to the casual observer, the short, heavy infantry sword which hung from the left hip and the long dirk from the right of each man was clue enough.

Even their choice of pub spoke of confidence. The Cask and Flagon was in a dangerous neighborhood. The city Watch patrolled only in daylight and in numbers. The casualty wagons from the hospital knew the area well, as they were often summoned for those who succumbed to drink, drugs or the loving application of brute force.

The first man, tall and red haired, with a serious expression, spoke over the rim of his mug.

“I think you're making a mistake, Conn.”

His companion smiled back, but it was a bitter smile. “It'd be a bigger one to stay. I've no future in the Company.”

“Not since you called the captain a ‘doom fook’, you don't.”

“My only error in that statement was pronunciation. My charming accent gets thicker when I'm emotional.”

“Still wasn't the polite thing to say.”

“Don't get me started, Darmid. He's ruined the Company. He's stopped promoting from the ranks. He's got noblemen's brats who never saw blood drawn leading veteran soldiers to slaughter. I'm done. For Nuad's sake, we don't even pretend we're going back to liberate Aeran from the Jarvings any more. We just dance with their armies on the mainland, trying to impress the King so he can give our beloved Captain a damned barony. I'm not spilling my precious blood for that bastard's glory.”

“What'll you do?”

“Damned if I know,” his companion said. “But it's got to be better than this. Maybe I'll sneak back home and lead a band of rebels. Be a good honest horrible death, anyway, instead of a pointless horrible death.”

“No rebels left. Anyone with balls who hated the Jarvings died in battle or went into exile in the mercenary bands like us. Swore they'd come back, but it gets less likely every day.”

“So you can see I'm right! The captain will never lead us back.” Conn slammed his mug down. “Come with me. At least it'll be entertaining.”

“Sorry, lad. That’s the path of a short-lived hero and a long-remembered martyr. Soldiering’s all I know. What else do you know, now we think on it?”

“Bugger all.” Conn emptied his mug and caught the eye of the barmaid again. “Fighting. Marching. Living in the back of beyond.”

“So, you thinking of joining the Watch? I hear you can make five silver marks a week. Six if you count your pay.”

“No bloody chance. I'll not work for this city with its dead road, its dying port and its stomping great phallic symbol hanging over it, making honest men insecure about their abilities.”

Darmid laughed. “Well, then, what were you before you were a soldier? Didn't your da' have a farm?”

“I was a wee lad before I was a soldier. Bloody Jarvings never gave me time to learn farming. I was a soldier at thirteen. Well, I was a rebel. I was maybe a soldier by sixteen. All's I know about farming is to do what my da' told me, and that with bad grace.”

“You didn't pick up anything in thirteen years? You're even dumber than the average Aeransman.”

“When da' said move the sheep to the south pasture, I moved ‘em. I know
how.
I don't bloody know
why
. I didn't much care, and he didn't explain. All I wanted to do was play in the woods, fish, swim and waste my time. Hadn't even learned to chase girls before I was fighting.”

“So what are you going to do?”

Conn stared into his ale for a moment. “Drink. For tonight anyway. Then maybe make a decision. I've got a sharp sword, a thick skull, and my pay from the last campaign. Ought to be alright.”

“Take care, lad.” Darmid stood and clapped his companion on the shoulder.

“And you.” Conn grasped his hand. “I'm telling you, there's no future in that company.”

“I've got my path laid out. I'll walk it.” The tall man turned away. After a few steps, he turned back, “Don't worry, lad. I don't know where you went, or when I last saw you if anyone asks.”

“It never crossed my mind to worry that.”

“Luck be with you.”

“And with you. Cheers.” Conn sank his pint and once again smiled at the barmaid.

The server walked back to the bar for a fresh pint. Trilisean made a decision. This Conn was a simple fellow with a heavy purse and a good deal of ale on board. And she'd had no work in some time. This might be just the thing.

As a server passed her table, she caught the woman's attention.

“More wine, miss?”

“No, thank you.” Trilisean flashed a nervous smile. “I was wondering if you'd let me bring that man his ale?”

“Who? The handsome soldier with the fat purse? Oh, sure. Why would I want to serve him?” she started to turn away.

“Wait!” Trilisean dropped her eyes, playing her part to the hilt. “I'll pay you sixpence.”

The server stopped short. Trilisean could see the calculation behind her eyes. A pint was a penny. If the server smiled very wide and bent low enough to show some cleavage, maybe brushed the customer, the best tip she could hope for was two farthings. Three if he were very drunk. Sixpence was a lot of money.

“Fine, lass.” She handed Trilisean the mug with a leer. “Mind you, he's had quite a bit. I hope ye can get sixpence worth of use out of him.”

Trilisean knew she was not dressed for the part. She wore a simple shirt with a modest neckline under a jerkin of dark wool, and close fitting trousers instead of a slit skirt. Even the white skin of her throat was covered by a dark colored scarf, but she had confidence in her acting ability and charms. And she had a mug of the pub's best amber. Strange indeed would be the Aeransman who'd look past a pint to study a barmaid.

Trilisean glided up behind the soldier. She reached over his shoulder to set down the ale, brushing her breasts across his back. The crowded tavern made this move plausible. Nature made it distracting.

“Your pardon, sir,” she said sweetly.

“Not at all, darlin’.” He handed her the penny for the ale and two farthings as a tip.

Trilisean smiled and congratulated herself on her earlier calculations. As he pulled the coins from his pouch, she leaned against him in a practiced manner which kept the purse from closing fully. She took the proffered money with her right hand while the fingers of her left lightly inspected the purse’s contents. She stalled for few seconds.

“Thank you, sir,” she said. “You're too generous.” He was, but he didn't know it, she thought, as her experienced touch identified a gold royal in amongst the silver.

“A small price for a good ale and a pretty smile,” he replied. She almost regretted robbing him. Almost.

A hand suddenly closed around her wrist. She tried to pull away but the grip was like iron. He didn't squeeze or twist her arm, but it was clear she wasn't going anywhere.

“Now, what would your hand be doing in there?” the soldier asked, his voice low. “You've a light touch, but I've not had so much to drink that I can't see you're not showing enough skin to be a barmaid, you're too pretty for a whore, and I've not had the kind of luck in my life that attractive women should be sliding up against me without having a plan.”

After an initial wave of panic, Trilisean's mind went cold. She calculated her best chance of escape. “What are you going to do with me?” she asked.

“I'm not going to do anything
to
you, lass, if that’s what you mean, so long as you unhand what's mine.”

She dropped the royal. “You won't call the Watch?”

He shrugged. “Too much like work. I'd have to answer questions. And I am a foreigner in a strange tavern. I like as little to do with the Watch as possible.”

“You swear?”

“You have my word.”

She looked at him for a long moment, searching for deception in his twisted smile, but finding only wry amusement.

“Very well.”

He released her hand.

“As we trust each other now, I'll assume you want this back.” She reached over his right shoulder, handing over a dirk, hilt first.

“Hey  —  ” he looked at the knife, then down at the empty sheath at his hip and back at the weapon.

“How the blazes did you manage that?”

“When I realized I'd chosen the wrong mark, I had to make sure I could get away.” She shrugged. “If I had to, I'd have put it in your back.”

“It seems we underestimated one another,” he said, retrieving his dagger and returning it to its sheath. “Why don't you have a seat and help me finish this plate and we'll make our acquaintance in a more civilized manner?”

Her eyes narrowed. “This is how you
prefer
to meet women?”

“The fact that you managed to lift my dagger makes you interesting,” he said. “And you didn’t shove it in me, so we’re already off to a good start.”

She sat across from him. He waved to the barmaid again and ordered a platter of bread, cheese and sliced meat.

“My name is Trilisean Ui Cuillean.”

“Connhail Ui Domnhal,” he replied. “But that's too much for everyday use. Call me Conn.” He took up a chunk of bread. “Why so adamant about me not calling the Watch? Got a long record of bloody and heinous crimes? Gallows waiting for you?” he asked with a grin.

“The Watch tend to want to settle things without the bother of a trial,” she said. “I'm not going to be
‘searched and interrogated'
by them. Not while I have my strength.”

“Fair enough.”

“What brings you to this pub?” she ventured. “It's not really a soldiers' bar.”

“Beer's good. Food's adequate. People keep themselves to themselves. Except for the ones who poke about in a man's purse.” He smiled to take the sting out of the comment. “I don't want a lot of people knowing I was here.”

“You're deserting?”

“That's an ugly word, sure and it is. Implies cowardice. I'm leaving because I don't believe in the company any more, and I won't kill or die for something I don't believe in.”

“I'm sorry,” she said quickly. “I didn't — ”

“Not your fault. I'm feeling a bit thin skinned tonight. I've spent more than half my life fighting. I'm not afraid of dying, just don't want to do it for the glory of a man I despise.”

“How did you used to feel about it?” she asked. It surprised her, but she was genuinely interested.

He studied the depths of his ale for a moment before speaking. “I was thirteen years old when the Jarvings landed on my island. Fought my first battle then. Armed with a homemade spear. Just a staff with a broken piece of a plowshare lashed to the end. Killed one of the bastards with it. He didn't take me serious as a threat and hacked at the man standing to my right. When he did, I jammed that spear in under his sword arm, right through the gap between breastplate and backplate. He looked at me before he died. Not in pain, but all surprised-like. Getting killed by a wee lad like me was like seeing water flow uphill to that poor bugger.

“Well, they kicked our arses anyway. They were real warriors and we were just a rabble. We hid in the woods and fought back for a few years, but they hunted us down like rabbits. Or maybe like wolves, because we did bite a few. Couldn't stop them or throw them out, though. They settled on the best farms, took the livestock, enslaved the young, married the women who didn't fight too hard. Bloody island is more Jarving than Aeran today.

“Those of us that survived joined a mercenary company. Figured we’d learn real soldiering then come back and push the Jarvings out. But it’s become clear that’s not going to happen. So, how I figure it, if all's I'm fighting for is my own fortune, I'll pick my own battles, not risk my skin where some Grian noble tells me to.”

“I understand,” she said. “I think you're making the right decision. I won't let anyone make my choices for me.” She smiled. “Even if those choices lead my fingers into the wrong purse now and then.”

“No shame, lass. I must've looked like an easy mark. Alone, with a loud mouth, a heavy purse and a taste for the pints.”

“At least it didn't get me a spear in the side.” She found herself warming to this man. He was decent enough, he hadn't threatened to turn her over to the Watch or tried to bully her into anything. He seemed just another spirit like her who finally rejected the control of others over his life. She respected that. And he was handsome and witty, in a rough sort of way.

BOOK: Broken Crossroads (Knights of the Shadows Book 1)
2.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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