Authors: David Gemmell
Tags: #Adventure, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Young Adult, #Epic
Drenai 5 - Waylander II:In The Realm of the Wolf
The man called Angel sat quietly in the corner of the tavern, his huge gnarled hands cupped around a goblet of mulled wine, his scarred features hidden by a black hood. Despite the four open windows, the air in the sixty-foot room was stale, and Angel could smell the smoke from the oil-filled lanterns, merging with the combined odours of sweating men, cooked food and sour ale.
Lifting his goblet Angel touched his lips to the rim, taking just a sip of the wine and rolling it around his mouth. The Spiked Owl was full tonight, the drinking area crowded, the dining-hall packed. But no one approached Angel as he nursed his drink. The hooded man did not like company, and such privacy as a man could enjoy in a tavern was accorded to the scarred gladiator.
Just before midnight an argument began between a group of labourers. Angel’s flint-coloured eyes focused on the group, scanning their faces. There were five men, and they were arguing over a spilled drink. Angel could see the rush of blood to their faces, and knew that despite the raised voices, none of them was in the mood to fight. When a battle is close the blood runs from the face, leaving it white and ghostly. Then his gaze flickered to a young man at the edge of the group. This one was dangerous! The man’s face was pale, his mouth set in a thin line, and his right hand was hidden within the folds of his tunic.
Angel looked back towards Balka, the tavern-owner. The burly former wrestler stood behind the serving shelf, watching the men. Angel relaxed. Balka had seen the danger and was ready.
The row began to die down - but the pale young man said something to one of the others and fists suddenly flew. A knife flashed in the lantern light, and a man shouted in pain.
Balka, a short wooden club in his right hand, vaulted the serving shelf and leapt at the white-faced knife-wielder, cracking the club first against the man’s wrist, forcing him to drop the blade, then hammering a blow to the temple. He dropped to the sawdust-covered floor as if poleaxed.
That’s it, my lads!’ roared Balka. The night is done.’
‘Oh, one more drink, Balka?’ pleaded a regular.
Tomorrow,’ snapped the tavern-keeper. ‘Come on, lads. Let’s clear away the mess.’
The drinkers downed the last of their ale and wine, and several took hold of the unconscious knifeman, dragging him into the street. The man’s victim had been stabbed in the shoulder; the wound was deep, his arm numb. Balka gave him a large tot of brandy before sending him on his way to find a surgeon.
At last the tavern-owner shut the door, dropping the lock-bar into place. His barmen and serving girls began gathering tankards, goblets and plates, and righting tables and chairs knocked over in the brief fight. Balka slipped his club into the wide pocket of his leather apron and strolled to where Angel sat.
‘Another quiet evening,’ he muttered, pulling up a chair opposite the gladiator. Manic!’ he called. ‘Bring me a jug.’
The young cellar boy emptied a bottle of the finest Lentrian red into a clay jug, sought out a clean pewter goblet, and carried both to the table. Balka looked up at the boy and winked. ‘Good lad, Janic,’ he said. Janic smiled, cast a nervous glance at Angel and backed away. Balka sighed and leaned back in his chair.
‘Why don’t you just pour it from the bottle?’ asked Angel, his grey eyes staring unblinking at the tavern-keeper.
Balka chuckled. ‘It tastes better from clay.’
‘Horse dung!’ Angel reached across the table, lifting the jug and holding it below his misshapen nose. ‘It’s Lentrian red … at least fifteen years old.’
Twenty,’ said Balka, grinning.
‘You don’t like people knowing you’re rich enough to drink it,’ observed Angel. ‘It would tarnish the image. Man of the people.’
‘Rich? I’m just a poor tavern-keeper.’
‘And I’m a Ventrian veil-dancer.’
Balka nodded and filled his goblet. ‘To you, my friend,’ he said, draining the drink in a single swallow, wine overflowing to his forked grey beard. Angel smiled and pushed back his hood, running his hand across his thinning red hair. ‘May the gods shower you with luck,’ said Balka, pouring a second drink and downing it as swiftly as the first.
‘I could do with some.’
‘No hunting parties?’
‘A few - but no one wants to spend money these days.’
‘Times are hard,’ agreed Balka. ‘The Vagrian Wars bled the treasury dry and now that Karnak’s upset the Gothir and the Ventrians I think we can expect fresh battles. A pox on the man!’
‘He was right to throw out their ambassadors,’ said Angel, eyes narrowing. ‘We’re not a vassal people. We’re the Drenai and we shouldn’t bend the knee to lesser races.’
‘Lesser races?’ Balka raised an eyebrow. This may surprise you, Angel, but I understand that non-Drenai people also boast two arms, two legs and a head. Curious, I know.’
‘You know what I mean,’ snapped Angel.
‘I know - I just don’t happen to agree with you. Here, enjoy a little quality wine.’
Angel shook his head. ‘One drink is all I need.’
‘And you never finish that. Why do you come here? You hate people. You don’t talk to them and you don’t like crowds.’
‘I like to listen.’
‘What can you hear in a tavern, save drunkards and loud-mouths? There is little philosophy spoken here that I’ve ever heard.’
Angel shrugged. ‘Life. Rumours. I don’t know.’
Balka leaned forward, resting his massive forearms on the table. ‘You miss it, don’t you? The fights, the glory, the cheers.’
‘Not a bit,’ responded the other.
‘Come on, this is Balka you’re talking to. I saw you the
day you beat Barsellis. He cut you bad - but you won. I saw your face as you raised your sword to Karnak. You were exultant.’
‘That was then. I don’t miss it. I don’t long for it,’ Angel sighed, ‘but I remember the day, right enough. Good fighter was Barsellis, tall, proud, fast. But they dragged his body across the arena. You remember that? Face-down he was, and his chin made a long, bloody groove in the sand. Could have been me.’
Balka nodded solemnly. ‘But it wasn’t. You retired undefeated - and you never went back. That’s unusual. They all come back. Did you see Caplyn last week? What an embarrassment. He used to be so deadly. He looked like an old man.’
‘A dead old man,’ grunted Angel. ‘A dead old fool.’
‘You could still take them all, Angel. And earn a fortune.’
Angel swore and his face darkened. ‘I’d bet that’s what they told Caplyn.’ He sighed. ‘It was better when we fought hand to hand, no weapons. Now the crowd just want to see blood and death. Let’s talk about something else.’
‘What - politics? Religion?’
‘Anything. Just make it interesting.’
‘Karnak’s son was sentenced this morning: one year in exile in Lentria. A man is murdered, his wife falls to her death, and the killer is exiled for a year to a palace by the coast. There’s justice for you.’
‘At least Karnak put the boy on trial,’ said Angel. ‘The sentence could have been worse. And don’t forget, the murdered man’s father pleaded for leniency. Quite a moving speech, I understand - all about high spirits and accidents and forgiveness.’
‘Fancy that,’ observed Balka drily.
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
‘Oh, come on, Angel! Six men - all nobles - all drunk, snatch a young married woman and try to rape her. When her husband attempts to rescue her he is cut down. The woman runs and falls over a cliff-edge. High spirits? And as for the murdered man’s father, I understand Karnak was so
moved by his pleas that he sent a personal gift of two thousand Raq to the man’s village, and a huge supply of grain for the winter.’
‘Well, there you are,’ said Angel. ‘He’s a good man.’
‘I don’t believe you sometimes, my friend. Don’t you think it odd that the father should suddenly make that plea? Gods, man, he was coerced into it. People who criticise Karnak tend to have accidents.’1
‘I don’t believe those stories. Karnak’s a hero. He and Egel saved this land.’
‘Yes, and look what happened to Egel.’
‘I think I’ve had enough of politics,’ snapped Angel, ‘and I don’t want to talk about religion. What else is happening?’
Balka sat silently for a moment, then he grinned. ‘Oh, yes, there’s a rumour that a huge sum has been offered for the Guild to hunt down Waylander.’
‘For what purpose?’ asked Angel, clearly astonished.
Balka shrugged. ‘I don’t know. But I heard it from Symius, and his brother is the clerk at the Guild. Five thousand Raq for the Guild itself, and a further ten thousand to the man who kills him.’
‘Who ordered the hunt?’
‘No one knows, but they’ve offered large rewards for any information on Waylander.’
Angel laughed and shook his head. ‘It won’t be easy. No one has seen Waylander in … what … ten years? He could be dead already.’
‘Someone obviously doesn’t think so.’
‘It’s madness - and a waste of money and life.’
‘The Guild are calling in their best men,’ offered Balka. They’ll find him.’
‘They’ll wish they hadn’t,’ said Angel softly.
Miriel had been running for slightly more than an hour. In that time she had covered around nine miles from the cabin in the high pasture, down to the stream path, through the valley and the pine woods, up across the crest of Axe Ridge, and back along the old deer trail.
She was tiring now, heartbeat rising, lungs battling to supply oxygen to her weary muscles. But still she pushed on, determined to reach the cabin before the sun climbed to noon high.
The slope was slippery from last night’s rain and she stumbled twice, the leather knife-scabbard at her waist digging into her bare thigh. A touch of anger spurred her on. Without the long hunting knife and the throwing-blade strapped to her left wrist she could have made better time. But Father’s word was law, and Miriel did not leave the cabin until her weapons were in place.
‘There is no one here but us,’ she had argued, not for the first time.
‘Expect the best - prepare for the worst,’ was all he said.
And so she ran with the heavy scabbard slapping against her thigh, the hilt of the throwing-blade chafing the skin of her forearm.
Coming to a bend in the trail she leapt the fallen log, landing lightly and cutting left towards the last rise, her long legs increasing their pace, her bare feet digging into the soft earth. Her slim calves were burning, her lungs hot. But she was exultant, for the sun was at least twenty minutes from noon high and she was but three from the cabin.
A shadow moved to her left - talons and teeth flashing towards her. Instantly Miriel threw herself forward, hitting the ground on her right side and rolling to her feet. The lioness, confused at having missing her victim with the first
leap, crouched down, ears flat to her skull, tawny eyes focusing on the tall young woman.
Miriel’s mind was racing. Action and reaction. Take control!
Her hunting knife slid into her hand and she shouted at the top of her voice. The lioness, shocked by the sound, backed away. Miriel’s throat was dry, her heart hammering, but her hand was steady on the blade. She shouted once more and jumped towards the beast. Unnerved by the suddenness of the move the creature slunk back several more paces. Miriel licked her lips. It should have run by now. Fear rose, but she swallowed it down.
Fear is like fire in your belly. Controlled, it warms you and keeps you alive. Unleashed, it burns and destroys you.
Her hazel eyes remained locked to the tawny gaze of the lioness and she noted the beast’s ragged condition, the deep angry scar to its right foreleg. No longer fast it could not catch the swift deer, and it was starving. It would not -could not - back away from this fight.
Miriel thought of everything Father had told her about lions: Ignore the head - the bone is too thick for an arrow to penetrate. Send your shaft in behind the front leg, up and into the lung. But he had said nothing about fighting such a beast when armed with but a knife.
The sun slid from behind an autumn cloud and light shone from the knife-blade. Instantly Miriel angled the blade, directing the gleam into the eyes of the lioness. The great head twisted, the eyes blinking against the harsh glare. Miriel shouted again.
But instead of fleeing the lioness suddenly charged, leaping high towards the girl.
For an instant only Miriel froze. Then the knife swept up. A black crossbow bolt punched into the creature’s neck, just behind the ear, a second slicing into its side. The weight of the lioness struck Miriel, hurling her back, but the hunting knife plunged into the beast’s belly.
Miriel lay very still, the lioness upon her, its breath foul upon her face. But the talons did not rake her, nor the fangs close upon her. With a coughing grunt the lioness died.
Miriel closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and eased herself from beneath the body. Her legs felt weak and she sat upon the trail, her hands trembling.
A tall man, carrying a small double crossbow of black metal, emerged from the undergrowth and crouched down beside her. ‘You did well,’ he said, his voice deep.
She looked up into his dark eyes and forced a smile. ‘It would have killed me.’
‘Perhaps,’ he agreed. ‘But your blade reached its heart.’
Exhaustion flowed over her like a warm blanket and she lay back, breathing slowly and deeply. Once she would have sensed the lioness long before any danger threatened, but that Talent was lost to her now, as her mother and her sister were lost to her. Danyal killed in an accident five years ago, and Krylla wed and moved away last summer. Pushing such thoughts from her mind she sat up. ‘You know,’ she whispered, ‘I was really tired when I came to the last rise. I was breathing hard, and my limbs felt as if they were made of lead. But when the lioness leapt, all my weariness vanished.’ She gazed up at her father.
He smiled and nodded. ‘I have experienced that many times. Strength can always be found in the heart of a fighter - and such a heart will rarely let you down.’
She glanced at the dead lioness. ‘Never shoot for the head -that’s what you told me,’ she said, tapping the first bolt jutting from the creature’s neck.