Authors: Ben Galley
‘It is the best way to keep them. I have watched a thousand cities over a thousand years, and they could not be more different, every single one of them. But their people? The same. As soon as they get the scent that their lives may come crumbling down, they tear themselves apart in panic. It is better for them to think they are safe,’ rumbled Heimdall.
‘Even if they are not,’ Durnus replied, more of a statement than a question. For Durnus, leadership meant spending a lot of time being a bare-faced liar. Even after a decade and a half, he was still finding the concept of Arkmage foreign and difficult. For a man who had spent most of his life in isolation, commanding nothing except a tiny outpost and a stubborn Written, it had been a back-breaking transition to Arkmage. Not to mention battling the rumours and suspicions of his origins the magick council regularly entertained, or of his great power. It had been worse for Tyrfing, of course, but somehow, together, they had managed. At least they could rely on their magickal authority. A five-runed Written and a pale king on the twin thrones. Nobody would have ever guessed it, and nobody knew the half of it, but one thing was for sure: their prowess was undisputed. It occasionally crept to the edge of terrifying.
A loud roar suddenly erupted from one of the taverns at the foot of the Arkathedral, and Durnus thought he heard Heimdall wincing. The god leant a little further back from the edge of the battlements. Durnus didn’t remark on it. Instead he enjoyed the cold breeze on his warm skin. It smelled of the sea, spices from the markets, and brick-dust.
The god soon asked a question. ‘And what of Tyrfing?’
‘Surely you can hear him?’ Durnus asked, and then cocked his head to the side so he could listen to the breeze. There it was: a faint and rhythmic thudding, coming from somewhere below them. Repetitive, angry, the sound of steel being punished.
‘I have listened to him all night. A blacksmith in his spare time. An Arkmage and a forge-stoker, how strange.’
Durnus shrugged. ‘Perhaps. But Tyrfing has been instrumental in our defence plans. He has been working day and night with the army blacksmiths to lend our soldiers and mages every edge, pardon the pun. His armour designs have been refined and put into mass production. He spends hours poring over forge-spell manuals and sketching plans with the city architects. The Arfell scholars are tired of being summoned by him. Did you know the new Arkathedral gates were his design? Of course you did. He’s even commissioned specialised armour for the Written, based on the Scalussen pieces he’s been collecting. I do not think this city has ever seen a more proactive Arkmage in all its years.’
‘He’s been collecting Scalussen armour?’
‘Drained half the coffers in the process, much to the anger of Malvus and his council cronies,’ muttered Durnus. He sighed and shook his head. ‘It’s for Farden.’
‘Tyrfing thinks that it will entice Farden back to Krauslung. The mage has always been obsessed with that armour, as you probably know. He’s searching for the Nine.’
‘Is he now?’ mused the god.
‘Foolish, I know. The last we ever heard of him, he was in Skewerboar, in the Crumbled Empire.’ Heimdall said nothing. Durnus continued. ‘He waylaid an old Skölgard general’s hunting party in the middle of the mountains. Killed half his honour guard, so we heard, incapacitated the rest, and then, without even a word, he stripped the general of his Scalussen helmet and put it on. Apparently it was not to his taste, whatever that might be. He beat the general half to death with it and then left them both in a puddle. That helmet was most likely worth the weight of a dragon in gold, and yet he left it right there, and disappeared into the mountains. That was the last we heard of him, and that was ten years ago. Every messenger we send comes back empty-handed. The mage is a ghost. I just hope not in the literal sense,’ Durnus explained. He turned his blind eyes on the god. ‘But you already knew all of this, did you not?’
Heimdall looked out across the city. He scratched at his chin, not because of an itch, but because it was something to occupy him while he thought. ‘I have watched Farden in the past.’
‘I didn’t think a god could lie.’
‘We are more than capable of it.’
‘This partnership between gods and men is supposed to be an honest and beneficial one. How is that going to work if you are already lying to us?’ demanded Durnus.
‘It is for your own good.’
‘I have heard that before.’ Durnus looked angry. ‘You know where Farden is, don’t you?’
Heimdall took a moment to answer. ‘I do.’
Durnus slapped his hands on the stone. ‘Then where? We need him.’
‘And that is exactly why he will not return.’
There was a quiet click as the balcony door shut behind them. Durnus and Heimdall fell silent. Tyrfing stood beside the door. He was still wearing his blacksmith’s apron, a smoky-white affair, made entirely from salamander wool. ‘Farden doesn’t want to be needed, he wants to be left alone. Trust me, I know the feeling. He doesn’t want to be found, any more than I wanted to be,’ he said, his voice tinged with sadness.
Heimdall nodded. Durnus sighed. The god turned to face Tyrfing. ‘Although I do not regret lying, I believe an explanation should be offered.’
‘Please, offer away,’ Tyrfing grunted. He folded his arms.
‘It is as you say. If I tell you where he is, you will go there and you will root him out. You will tell him that the fate of the world rests on him aiding us in our fight. He will be dragged back, kicking and screaming, and will not be of use to any of us.’
Tyrfing scowled. ‘Verix said that
may be hunting him.’
Heimdall nodded. ‘She probably is. And if he isn’t dead already, then we need him here with us, to draw her to the city, and then to fight against her.’
‘You want to use him as bait? Are we and a city of mages not enough?’
‘Do you think this woman that journeys with her has been truthful? Do you think she told this girl that Farden was her father? Verix believes, as I do, that she has told her that Vice was her father. She seeks revenge. We all know how powerful a vehicle that can be.’
Tyrfing threw his hands in the air. ‘Bait. My nephew is bait.’
Heimdall half-closed his eyes. ‘If you say so. He, and all of us. We are all bait to her, in the end. But Farden is a fighter too, if he is willing. And that is the crux of it. He needs to make this journey
Tyrfing opened his mouth to speak but Durnus beat him to it. ‘What then? We wait for him to change his mind? It has been fifteen years since he disappeared, Heimdall, what makes you think he will change it now?’ he asked.
‘One of us needs to go,’ added Tyrfing.
Heimdall nodded. ‘Indeed, one must, but not you, nor you, Durnus.’
‘Loki,’ replied Heimdall, simply and quickly.
Durnus pulled a face, confused. ‘Loki?’
Tyrfing looked equally bewildered. ‘Why him?’
‘Because Farden has never met him before. And despite him being a young god, and a petulant one at that, Loki has a certain,
, if you will,’ said Heimdall. ‘It is why I brought him.’ That, and the god’s insistent pleas, but he chose not to mention that.
Tyrfing remained unconvinced. While they stood in silence, deep in dark thought, a woman bustled into view behind the windows of the balcony; a woman with curly brown hair that reached all the way to her hips, a woman in a simple maid’s outfit, a woman who was busy cleaning up the empty wine glasses and tutting to herself. A woman called Elessi. As she cleaned, the door behind her opened, and in walked Modren, fresh from duty and more than a little tired, dark rings circling his eyes. He quietly closed the door behind him and walked over to the maid. She smiled at him. There was a muffled mumble as the Undermage said something incoherent to all but Heimdall, something that made her laugh. The Arkmages and Heimdall watched them through the dusty glass, a pleasant and momentary distraction from their conversation. Modren and Elessi were unaware they were being observed; inside the room, the glare from the bright candles had turned the balcony windows opaque. The three on the balcony were invisible for now.
Just as Modren turned to leave again, he leant forward and gave Elessi a long kiss on the cheek. She laughed and pushed him away, and he left. As Elessi went back to her cleaning, a wide smile on her face, Tyrfing turned back to Heimdall. He sighed. ‘And what magick words is Loki going to use to get my nephew back?’
Heimdall was still watching the maid. ‘That, I believe, is up to
Tyrfing couldn’t help but sneer. ‘Elessi?’
The god turned back to the city. ‘Elessi, and her husband-to-be, of course.’
“Father, Father, why do the stars shimmer and shake?”
“Son, Son, because everybody shakes when they know they are soon to die. Even a god.”
Excerpt from the book ‘The Righteous are the Foolish,’ author not known
day later, and half a world away, Albion could only dream of Spring. Spring may have sprung in mainland Emaneska, but in Albion, it was running late. Here winter was still playing the last few bars of its dreary tune, a little ditty of drizzling rain and cold, careless, sleet. Like a talentless skald down on his luck, it knew its time on the earth was short. A storm was gathering over the sea in the east. That night there would be a thunderous finale to winter’s song.
The man crouching on a slimy branch, halfway up the old, cracked oak tree didn’t care for the rain. Nor did he mind it. He had seen more than his fair share of dark and dreary afternoons in his time. One more wasn’t going to kill him. Besides, it made his job easier. A grey blanket of clouds had stolen away the sun. The afternoon was dark and gloomy, wrapped in premature shadow. The perfect sort of afternoon for killing.
The man reached up and flicked a bothersome drip from the lip of his black hood, and then reached down to massage his right leg. It had gone to sleep about an hour ago and was now stubbornly refusing to wake up. The man reached up to the gnarled, twisted finger of a tree branch that hung above his head and lifted himself up so he could move around without falling. With a grunt, he kicked his sleepy leg aside with the other and then settled back into a seated position on the slimy bough that was his perch. The fingers of sleep were slowly beginning to paw at him, like misty hands reaching up from the sodden bracken below him. He scrunched up his eyes and rolled his tired shoulders in a circle, hearing the wet leather of his cloak squeak.
There was a muted rumble in the distance as the storm tested its voice. The man looked up through the tangled, leafless, branches of the half-dead oak and spied the faint flicker amongst a cluster of dark, faraway clouds.
Gripping the branch above his head again, he wiggled his sleepy leg until it had thoroughly woken from its numb slumbers, and then side-stepped along the thicker branch until he could hold himself against the rough trunk of the oak. He looked down at the ground beneath him, covered and obscured as it was by the sea of dark green brackens and brighter ferns that seemed to infest this side of the forest. It was quite the fall, for an ordinary man.
Farden had never been an ordinary man.
With a scrape, his boots slid from the branch and he plummeted into the bracken below. There was a snap, a crack, and then a resounding thud as Farden collided with solid ground. With no more than a wince, he stood, grunted, and simply flicked a bracken frond out of his face with a grimy finger. He pushed his way into the undergrowth, heading for the dirt road he knew was only a stone’s throw away from the foot of the oak.
Farden crouched at the edge of it, watching the rain do battle with its broken cobbles. It was an old road, old and tired; the well-worn wheel ruts were testament to its age, as were the patches of churned mud and puddles where greedy peasants had dug free and liberated entire barrowloads of cobblestones, for use in their cottages and walls. Some of these ruts had been thoughtfully filled with sand or gravel, while the rest had been left as gaping, wheel-jarring holes. Farden assessed his section of road once again, as he had earlier that afternoon. None of the holes were severe enough to stop a coach, and even if they had been, the driver would see them in time and steer clear of them. Cow-drawn coaches were not known for their breakneck speeds.
Thunder vibrated the sky again, louder and bolder this time, and Farden stood up. In the booming echoes, he cupped his ears, hearing an unmistakable rattling coming from somewhere in the rain. Somewhere further down the road. The sound of rusty axles and loose bolts. Of iron-shod wheels kissing old cobbles, getting closer all the time.
It was time. Farden rubbed his hands.
On the far side of the road was a pine tree. Wrapped in lichen and drowned in ivy, the tree was rotten to the core. Its bark had flaked away, exposing the flaky splinters beneath, dyed green and yellow by the rot. It looked as though it would topple at any moment. And that was exactly why Farden had spent the afternoon hacking at it with his axe.
Farden quickly crossed the road, hopping over the puddles and potholes until he had been swallowed by the bracken once more. Farden cast around, rubbing the rain from his face and pushing aside the intrusive bracken. ‘Where is it now?!’ he hissed to himself, cursing. Something clanked against his foot and he reached for it. It was his axe, slimy with the wet. Farden hefted it, ignoring its blunt, notched edge, and instead turned his attention to the gaping notches he had already gouged out of the tree, one on each side. He prodded them with the toe of his boot and was rewarded with a wet squelch. The tree creaked in the wind. There was barely any wood holding the tree up at all. It was perfect.
Farden gripped the axe and held it against his shoulder, waiting. The clattering wheels were rolling ever nearer, he could hear them as clear as day. The sky shook with thunder once more, and Farden raised his axe to the sky as the lightning flashed again, and let it bite deep into the rotten wood with a wet thud.