Authors: Jeff Wilson
By Jeff Wilson
Copyright © 2015 by
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he ship altered course to investigate after lookouts spotted rising smoke in the early hours of the morning, and the source became apparent a few hours later. They were now quickly closing the distance on the still smoldering vessel, and Fleet Navarch Aelsian watched from the bow of the
, straining his eyes to make out details, as they approached the moderately sized, double masted boat. It was a narrow hulled ship, of a type commonly used by smugglers, built to run in shallow waters and sacrifice cargo space in favor of speed.
The cabin had been reduced to a pile of smoking timbers and most of the ship’s railings were similarly destroyed. The deck, though thoroughly charred, was largely in-tact. The sails and the rigging were completely gone, but the double masts, too thick to have burned through completely, still remained, a pair of lonely blackened spires guarding a small, solitary, indistinct object in the middle of the deck.
As the ships drew nearer, the object gradually resolved into a recognizable shape. It was a man, seated unmoving on the deck, covered head to toe in soot and balancing an oversized sword across his legs. On close approach, Aelsian realized that some of what he had taken for soot was instead clothing stained with blood. As they drew nearer still, he saw the man’s face. The man, who remained perfectly still as he took in slow silent breaths, was deliberately staring, calm and unperturbed, in Aelsian’s direction. The
came into position alongside the doomed ship, and the crew connected the two vessels with a boarding plank. The man rose in response, ash and soot falling from his cloak and swirling in the ocean wind around him as he stood.
Aelsian felt something catch in his throat as recognition struck him. He knew this man. This was Lord Aisen—son of Aedan Elduryn, a captain in the Sigil Corps, and the heir of House Edorin. The young nobleman shouldn’t be here; he was supposed to be in Nar Edor resisting an attempt by their king to seize his family’s land. Aisen surrendered his sword without resistance to the group of boarders, none of whom showed any hint of recognition. The navarch watched as Aisen allowed the men to escort him over to the
. First Aisen crossed, then two of the crew behind him. What Aelsian saw next, made his heart freeze in his chest. Crossing behind the men, an unseen creature, whose weight was bowing the plank sharply, silently made its way onto the
bscured by steady rains, which fell from a sullen evening sky, a cloaked figure moved along a deteriorating causeway. The tide was out, but substantial portions of the crumbling stonework remained submerged, and the figure, seen from afar, resembled an otherworldly apparition crossing over the surface of the sea on its way toward the tidal island. It hesitated upon reaching the island, taking a moment to evaluate the footing. In that brief pause, the figure seemed to morph into something altogether more solid, revealed now as nothing more than the simple, plainly dressed young man that he was.
His coarse leather boots were entirely soaked through, and with the land before him drenched by the unrelenting weather, the shallow depth of water above the bed of stone and gravel in which he now stood might well have seemed a preferable surface to the muddy earth along the shoreline. Determined to continue onward, the man resumed a steady forward progression, and as he stepped up onto the island from out of the coastal waters, he ignored the dark grey clay which began accumulating on his feet.
Broken walls and left over remnants from the foundations of ancient, ruined buildings lined the shore. Stones had been pillaged from these structures, but enough remained in places to give cover. No one lived on this edge of the island. It was too close to the dense forests which enshrouded the abandoned remains of a forgotten civilization that had flourished throughout the expansive lands to the east, of which this rediscovered island had only been a small part. The mainland on the other side of the causeway, where all attempts to revive any lasting settlements had ended badly, was a dark wilderness, avoided entirely by the current population living here now.
The man glanced nervously towards some of the crumbling walls as he travelled, concerned that someone could be watching from concealment, but he could not afford to divert much of his attention. In the growing darkness, it took considerable concentration to hold to the little used trail he was following. Occasionally, paved stones broke to the surface, but before long the path would revert back to its usual condition, which was nothing more than a narrow band of loosely packed mud. The intermittent exceptional areas, which suggested that the trail might once have been a well maintained roadway, were but tired echoes of a bygone age.
The unmaintained path continued on around the southern edge of the island, skirting its central feature, a steep uplift of rock and earth which extended to the north before it ended in a precipitous drop. A palatial stone structure, more an enormous home than a castle or fortress, crowned the peak of the mountain.
Over the course the evening the man passed by a few damaged buildings and a single isolated cottage, but he saw little else until he arrived at the top of a hill that overlooked a settlement founded on the western edge of the island. He could vaguely see the position of the setting sun, and under the veiled light that it imparted to the turbulent sky, he surveyed a continuous collection of buildings.
Built against a graduated slope on which it had grown in stages, the town extended all of the way from the western shoreline to the island’s mountainous peak. Large broad storehouses and repositories dominated the shore beside the town’s two stone piers, which projected straight out into the waters beyond the island where they serviced a crowded complement of vessels. A number of other large buildings dotted the curving paths that headed up the mountain.
Less impressive dwellings haphazardly crowded the intervening areas. Some of the smaller homes looked recently built and had been poorly constructed from scavenged stones and rough wooden timbers. Judging by the neglect evident in their condition, it was clear that the majority of these humble structures had been recently abandoned. The buildings that were inhabited could easily be differentiated from the others by the light that escaped through the cracks in their shuttered windows, which were all closed tight against the ongoing storm.
Because of the late hour and the poor weather, the streets were empty and the cloaked figure met no other travelers on his way through the town. Eventually, as he neared the shoreline, he found himself on a cobbled street in what appeared to be the town’s commercial section. It was lined with shops and other business establishments, few of which showed signs of use, and only one of what had once been several large inns and taverns remained open. The sign board, affixed beneath the overhanging second floor of the inn, displayed a carved and decorated image of a tarnished sword hilt.
Stepping onto the porch of the inn, he looked for a place to scrape his boots, but he could not find a section of the paving that was free of mud. It took some determined digging with the toe of his boot to expose the top of the stone surface that lay buried beneath the grime in the entryway. Giving up, he took a quick look inside the establishment and saw that his efforts had been pointless. The floors were already covered in layers of wet earth and old dirt throughout; there was more filth trailing out than there was being tracked in.
Upon entering, he was assaulted by a collection of odors: mold, tobacco smoke, and alcohol, all mixed in with the pungent smell of rendered animal fat. None of these would have been terrible in isolation from the others, and a couple would even have been quite welcoming, but when experienced together the combination was very unpleasant. Two drinking rooms were situated to his left, one empty and the other occupied by a group of ragged looking men immersed in a game of dice. They gambled with piles of pale white oblong shells that were used for money. He watched them for a moment, observing their game as one of the men replenished his dwindling pile of shells by pulling them, a couple at a time, from a string that was secured to his belt and threaded into a pouch at his side.
The entrance to a kitchen could be seen at the back of the inn, and the rest of the lower floor was taken up by the large hearth hall. A group of men, several of whom appeared quite old in comparison to the youngest of their friends, were conversing with each other around the fireplace. If any of them took an interest in the stranger or his late evening arrival, they gave no outward indication.
He lowered the hood on his cloak and unfastened a brass clasp before removing the woolen overcoat from where it hung upon his shoulders. He proceeded then to shake it free of the beads of water that had collected on its surface. A number of small emblems, pinned along the edge of the cloak, disappeared into the folds of the damp cloth when he arranged and neatly divided it over his arm. He stood for a moment in the doorway, dimly lit against the backdrop of the darkened rain-soaked street. The doorframe, which served as useful point of reference, measured him a man of less than average height. He was slender to a degree, but physically strong in appearance.
He took deliberate steps inside and made his way to the back of the inn, where he draped his cloak over a chair in an empty corner of the hearth hall. A couple of the silver emblems that were pinned upon the coat made muffled metallic sounds as they struck against the others, serving as an unintentional but audible claim to the table he had selected.
The stranger had intense grey eyes, which were the color of spent charcoal, and a dark sun-weathered complexion. His calm resolute expression carried echoes of a hardness that came from defeat, causing him to seem older and possessed of more experience than his otherwise youthful appearance would have suggested. Sweeping stiff fingers through his dark, damp hair, he eased himself into a chair and took silent stock of the interior surroundings. Lacking any semblance of appropriately deferential behavior, he began to study the other men in the room.
Without exception, they wore unwashed and poorly tailored clothes, but they were all dry, suggesting the men had arrived hours ago before the storm had started, and had ventured nowhere since. Two of them were clearly drunk, and the rest seemed to be working their way into that condition. One of the patrons, a thin man with sharp eyes, turned around after stirring the wood fuel in the hearth. He met the stranger’s gaze for a moment, but quickly looked away. Returning to his chair, he whispered something to his neighbor, a nervous balding man with slumping shoulders, who after a couple of short unavailing glances in the direction of the stranger, took, in acquiescence to a sense of caution that was ingrained deeply into his character, great pains to avoid doing so again.
In the kitchen, behind a greasy apron wrapped around his bulging waist, the innkeeper noticed these two customers, but from where he stood he could not see the corner of the hearth hall where their distracted attentions had been directed. Setting aside the plate he had been scraping, he exited the kitchen, a space that he kept much cleaner than the communal hearth hall, and wiped his hands on a towel that was slotted through the cords of his apron. Upon catching sight of his new guest, the innkeeper hurried over to the corner. He was years past what could be called young, but he retained a healthy vigor in spite of his age.
“I wasn’t aware someone had come in, or I would have greeted you properly,” the innkeeper said. “Welcome to the Broken Oath. I’m Greven, the owner,” he recited.
“Edryd,” the stranger returned politely.
“I won’t be able to offer much in the way of food,” Greven apologized. “Pies and bread were finished off hours ago, but I do have some stew left.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any kind of coinage that could be easily converted,” Edryd cautioned.
“No matter,” the innkeeper said, dismissing the issue, “there won’t be a charge. It would only go to waste otherwise.”
Edryd started to protest, but Greven was already on his way back to the Kitchen. He returned a short while later carrying a wooden bowl and a stone vessel. The mug was filled with ale and the bowl gave off a savory aroma.
“I can’t pay for this,” Edryd repeated, holding his hands outward in an attempt to decline the offered meal.
“You needn’t worry,” laughed one of the men, speaking out from across the room, “he’s only giving you what no one else was willing to pay for to begin with.” Several of the men nodded in agreement.
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful, and I do appreciate your generosity, but I wouldn’t want to take advantage,” Edryd continued to protest, now worried over what exactly it was he was being offered.
Greven proceeded to set the bowl and mug down on the table, refusing to accept Edryd’s attempt to decline them.
“You won’t convince me that you aren’t hungry,” Greven said, guessing that Edryd had not eaten for a while. “And I expect,” Greven continued, “that we will discover that you have arrived here in An Innis under some set of unusual circumstances, or so I would hope. Any news you may have brought with you will answer your debt for these poor scrapings.”
Edryd looked down at the bowl of food, discomforted by Greven’s disparagement of the contents as a collection of poor scrapings. It was filled with a thick broth containing bits of potatoes, leeks, and cooked pieces of some sort of animal, the identity of which he could not have given with any confidence. Feeling uncertain about the quality of the meat, Edryd hesitantly inhaled the aroma given off by the stew.
“Made daily,” Greven explained, noticing Edryd’s unease. “Would ordinarily be mutton, specially prepared and seasoned, but it hasn’t been easy to come by of late, so some reworking of the recipe was required.” Greven had given this description proudly, but Edryd continued to look tentatively at the stew. “Local game birds,” Greven finally offered, declining to be more specific.
Driven by hunger, Edryd tried a bit of the cloudy broth, avoiding the sparse chunks of meat. There was a strong mineral taste, whether from the pot it was stewed in or from the ingredients, Edryd could not be sure, but it was pleasant overall. Satisfied that it was safe, Edryd took several more bites. The meat included pieces from more than one kind of bird, one of which was definitely the source of the strong flavor. Greven looked on expectantly, as did several of the other men in the room.
“I haven’t any real news, but you might regard the circumstances that brought me here as being of some interest,” Edryd conceded, confirming the innkeeper’s earlier supposition that there was a story to be told.
“Go on,” prodded Greven, who was, with good reason, curious about this very subject. There hadn’t been any newly arrived ships in the port for at least a week, which made Edryd’s arrival an obvious point of interest.
Edryd did not wish to tell them who he was or where he had come from, but he couldn’t refuse to give an explanation. That would only make them curious. Having worked out the details in advance, and not caring whether anyone believed what he told them, Edryd signaled that he was ready to start. What would matter, in the end, would be whether or not he could forge an identity that was sufficiently dissimilar from the truth and compelling enough to satisfy them.