Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
By the time Malcolm and Gwyn had been checked for weapons and found unarmed, the sun had fully sunk behind the mountains. The sky was clear and so the fingernail moon reflected what light it could to offer. The guard’s torch which he had been holding at the gate was the more effective of the two lights, There were lanterns being lit throughout the lower city both inside and out, creating what would be a warm glow, were it not for the fact that the streets were nearly abandoned, and a chill of silence hung in the air save the clop of the guard’s metal boots on the cobblestones.
Here and there were empty lots covered in snow, especially near the palisade. In some spots, the rubble had not been cleared away, and the remains of burnt buildings snagged together in clumps of blackened beams and piles of broken brick and dirt. There were also bits of the cobblestone road that had been chipped and scorched.
Miles leaned in towards Devlin. “Cozy, isn’t it.”
Devlin scoffed. “It’s the middle of winter in a war-conquered city. What else would you expect?”
Miles pulled back. “Alright, I get it, you’re stressed. Just trying to lighten the mood a little.”
“We can do that when we figure out where Eridan’s henchmen are hiding.”
“You think they’re hiding? This is Atheron, after all. This could be their home for all we know. They probably blend right in, hiding in plain sight if anything.”
Devlin surveyed the buildings as they looped left on a slightly tilted street. Many windows remained darkened, and those that had a light emitting from inside were blocked by curtains or blankets.
They could be watching us right now. We wouldn’t have a clue.
“How far is it to the magistrate?” Devlin asked.
“Up the hill,” the guard answered without turning. “He’s done work for the day. Sure he’ll be happy to have his home intruded upon.”
“Well, he’ll be grateful once we speak.”
The guard let out a short bark of laughter. “Maybe. He’s not an extremely grateful man.
“Merl!” the second guard hissed.
“What? Can’t hear me out here.”
“Still,” the guard muttered, then fell silent.
Devlin raised an eyebrow. “Not a friendly man?” The guards said nothing.
“Can’t say that I blame him.” Devlin gestured around them. “Look at this place. It’s solemn to say the least.”
“Huh. Like Hoden’s Pass is better,” the guard shot back. He grunted as the hooked a right up a steeper road lined with two-story buildings where for the first time, talking and music could be heard. Devlin spotted the signs hanging from the doorposts.
“Didn’t have a street full of fun like this,” Devlin conceded. “I suppose this would be a good place to get a roasted chicken.”
“Hey, maybe that’s where them fellars be!” the second guard interjected.
Merl growled. “Obviously, you buffoon.”
“Do the soldiers frequent this place?” Miles inquired.
“Nah. This is the city’s main gathering place when the market’s shut down. They don’t like soldiers coming around.”
“But the magistrate lives on this street?”
“Aye. He finds the Jurtel Courtyard to be superior to the Red Keep.”
“His home. Used to be some rich sea merchant’s residence. Magistrate Xerdex prefers wooden floors and heated baths to stone walls and shared latrines.”
“And the city folk don’t bother him?”
“Nah. Most of them are scared of what would happen. He gets the occasional rock thrown at a window, but he’s a strict one. People call him the Dedimi.”
“Dedimi? Like from Gormica?”
“Aye. He’s got a bit of a temper. Doesn’t waste time with intolerance or impotence. Doesn’t involve himself too heavily though, so as to keep the folks ‘lulled’, as he puts it.”
“Is he scared of a riot? Or a revolt?”
Merl pointed to the end of the street where a large, two-story house rose, surrounded by a twelve-foot high gated wall. An Astorian banner matching the crest on the guards’ armor fluttered in the breeze atop the center spire of the house.
“Ask him yourself. Here we are.”
Merl banged on the sturdy wooden gate, and a small eyehole slid open. “Passcode?”
Merl scratched his head. “Ore the sea the gull flies, and thinks, I’ll have a snack.”
The eyehole slid shut and there was the sound of metal latches. The gate yawned open with a groan, and a man stepped out from behind it, armed with a spear and shield. “Merl.” He nodded. “What are you doing here? It’s past working hours. The magistrate is near finishing up dinner.”
Merl jammed a thumb Devlin’s way. “Got a man here, says he’s a private from Hoden’s Pass. Say’s he needs to speak to the magistrate urgently.”
The guard at the gate shook his head. “He can speak to him in the morning. The Magistrate’s not in the mood. Besides, Hoden’s Pass is secure. We had a rider come through last week saying all is well.”
Devlin stepped past Merl. “Hoden’s Pass has been overrun, and the man responsible is either already in this city, or he’s headed this way now.”
Merl pulled Devlin back by the collar. “Lay off will ya,” he snapped. He turned to the guard. “This fool won’t quit jabbering about a looming threat. If he doesn’t see the magistrate now, he’ll be jabbering here first thing in the morning. Let’s just get this over with and let the magistrate deal with it.”
The guard shifted on his feet but relented. “Fine. But you owe me a drink if he loses his head.”
Merl waved his hand. “Let this man pay for you,” he said as he jabbed a thumb back at Devlin.
They went through the gate into a courtyard at least a hundred feet by a hundred feet. There was a large elm in the middle surrounded by flower beds currently empty of color but filled with dormant bushes. A stone path split weaved around both sides of the beds before reconnecting on the opposite side of the tree. This led to the front doors, a set of two tall, narrow oaken doors with red trim. In fact, every window and door had red trim, while the rest of the wooden structure had been whitewashed. Two lanterns crackled in their holders at shoulder height beside the door.
The guard opened the doors and returned to his post at the courtyard gate. Merl shut the door behind the group as a butler slight in stature greeted them. He looked startled, his eyes wider than natural, and his voice shaky.
“I-i’m sorry, I’m not aware of any guests arriving at this time? Do you have an appointment?”
“We’re here on urgent military business. Best see us to your boss.” Merl said and proceeded to walk past the butler toward a room adjacent to the right where Devlin could hear the tinkle of silverware and the crackle of a fireplace.
The butler stuck his hands out and shuffled in the path of Merl. He straightened his leather jerkin and slicked his hair.
“I’m sorry sir, but I need your name and the subject of your visit.”
“Merl. Death threats.”
“Death threats?” The butler’s voice squeaked. “Oh my. I’ll see if he can take your call. He’s currently at supper and doesn’t like to be disturbed.”
“Pretty sure he doesn’t like to have people keep death threats on him away from his ears either.” Merl rocked on his feet and looked down at the butler with a crooked smile.
“Of course, you’re right. He must be told!”
The butler slipped into the room, closing the door behind him. There was a mumbled conversation heard, and then a flurry of footsteps. The butler opened the door.
“You may enter, but only two of you.”
Merl grunted and was hauling Devlin through the doorway before he had a chance to react. A long table in a strangely narrow room met him. The table was empty up until the far end, where a man sat in a high-backed chair, surrounded by food and drink vessels. A fireplace glowed at his back. In the dimly lit room, it was hard to see more than his silhouette. He made no attempt to stand as they entered.
“Shut the door.” The voice was low and gravelly but filled the room.
Merl did so with an unceremonious clang. Devlin winced and gave a glare to Merl who didn’t seem to notice, or care, that he had just assaulted all ears in the room.
“State your business. My butler muttered something about death threats?”
Merl crossed his arms. “Not too bright that one. What I said was a possible military problem. Can’t trust those Sadorians, can you?” He shook his head.
Devlin rolled his eyes but said nothing. The lie had gotten them in quickly.
The magistrate, Xerdex as he had been referred to, spoke in a low voice, coarse like a handful of sand being rubbed together.
“Military problem? Of what kind? And who is this,” he paused, “guest with you? I don’t like city-folk in my house. Escort him away at once. And tell that butler to exit the rest of the group outside as well.”
“Actually sir, he’s why I’m here. He’s got a situation he thinks requires your attention. I know it’s late, and I wouldn’t have brought it up to you, only he seemed so sure of it. Didn’t think it safe to leave it until morning.”
Xerdex set his elbows in the chair and leaned forward. “Go on them.”
Merl nudged Devlin in the side, much harder than necessary, and nodded Xerdex’s way. Devlin looked at the fifteen feet of space between him and the magistrate and took a step in his direction. It seemed awkward to talk from so far away.
“Stop right there. I didn’t stay alive this long letting people get close to me. I’m not hard of hearing, son. Speak your mind and be quick about it!” he hissed.
Devlin stalled, caught off guard. This was not quite what he had expected. “I uh-”
“We’ve no time for ‘uh’s’, son, so if you’ve got something to say you better say it.”
Devlin cleared his throat and licked his lips. Suddenly his palms were much sweatier than before.
“I’m a private in the 7th mountain regiment. We were stationed at Hoden’s Pass, but it was overrun this week by Sadorian barbarians. They were led by a man called Eridan, who I believe is masquerading as the Black Bull. He passed the river, and I believe he’s headed for Atheron, if not already within its walls. We believe his compatriots entered prior to our arrival.”
The magistrate remained silent. Devlin looked to Merl, but the guard was staring off into who-knows-what, as he scratched his face.
Devlin cleared his throat again.
Stop doing that!
“We believe that he is going to try to recruit more people to his cause. He may very well try to usurp your city from you, my lord.”
“Not a lord, I’m a magistrate. Lord’s run farms and forests. This is my city.”
“Your magistrate?” Devlin offered with a confused frown.
“That’s it. So, what can I do for you?”
Devlin hesitated. “My lo-” He caught himself. “Magistrate?”
“You came here saying there was a military problem. It sounds to me like a fun story you made up. So, what do you really want?”
“This isn’t a story. I watched my regiment get decimated, and a town burnt to the ground.” Devlin’s voice faltered and he felt his emotions unsettle. He took a deep breath. “This is a real threat, and it’s coming to your city if not already here.”
The magistrate leaned back in his chair and took a sip from his wineglass. “Tell me, who is this Eridan? How did he get through Hoden’s Pass? I thought it was impossible to do that in the winter. And why would he come to a fortified Astorian city?” The magistrate chuckled. “Seems like a fool to me.”
Devlin rubbed his hands together. “He has a secret weapon.”
The magistrate placed his cup back on the table. “Just what type of secret weapon?”
The magistrate leaned forward, still hidden in the shadows, although the fire’s glow revealed a tuft of hair poking out wildly. “You said magical?”
Devlin grit his teeth. “Yes.”
The magistrate burst into laughter, at first a low chuckle, then a guffaw, and a finally a belly laugh that led to a coughing fit. “Get out of here and stop wasting my time,” he wheezed between laughs. “There’s no such thing as magic you child.”
Merl shrugged. “That’s what I said.” He grabbed Devlin by the shoulder. “This way,”
He turned to make for the door.
Devlin shoved his hand again and in one quick motion took a stride toward the magistrate.
“I don’t have time to convince you,” he said, covering the distance in three strides.
The magistrate jumped to his feet, sending his chair screeching back to a teetering stop. He drew a dagger from his belt and held it at arm’s length. Devlin stopped on a dime, throwing his hands out wide in a defenseless gesture.
“Stop right there!” The magistrate shouted, his face red and eyes glowing in the flickering firelight. “Guard, arrest this man!”
Merl drew his sword and approached Devlin.
“There’s a threat coming to your city. I can prove it to you. You can send a rider to Hoden’s Pass and Potter’s Creek. You can see for yourself what’s happened to them.”
Devlin reached into his pocket and produced the black bull carving.
“There is a legendary warrior in Sadorian myth named the Black Bull. He’s a savior of the country. He comes in the darkest of times and raises Sadoria back to their prominence.”
The magistrate’s eyes were still wide, but now there was a fluttering confusion to them. He eyed the carving with uncertainty of just what it was.
Devlin pressed on. “He wields with him a magic sword. He came through Hoden’s Pass. I saw him myself. I saw his magic. I didn’t believe it either at first, but it’s true. And now he and his two companions are headed for Atheron. I heard it from their lips.”
The magistrate looked past Devlin to Merl. “You ever heard of this?”
Merl shrugged. “Not before tonight. But the man outside seemed to know a whole lot about it. Claimed it was some sort of child’s story.”
The magistrate’s lips curled upward. “A child’s story?”
Devlin glared at Merl. “I can assure you that it is anything but that.” He turned back to the magistrate. “He’s coming to your city, either to recruit, or to hide, I don’t know which, but I can tell you for a fact that his two compatriots are already in the city.”
“But he isn’t?”
“It doesn’t appear that way. His entire mythos is based off his armor and weapon. It’s an act. A stage play. At least, the legendary part of it is. The magic is very, very real. I think he may try to sneak into your city.”
“Sneak?” The magistrate laughed. “He won’t get past the guards. We have men at every gate, sally port, and water entrance. No one is armed, and there are surely no civilians walking about in armor.”
“I know. but he’s got some connection Atheron. He was probably raised here. And his friends didn’t sneak into the city for a roasted chicken.”
The magistrate looked at him with quizzical eyes.
Devlin waved a hand. “Never mind that. The point is that you need to find them and figure out what’s going on.”
“And how do you suggest we do that? Atheron is a large city. I can’t waste soldiers scouring my city for two men. We’ll simply wait, and if this bull fellow appears, we’ll kill him. My men are more than equipped to handle a few Sadorian ruffians. It’s why they’re here after all.”
Devlin shook his head. “You don’t understand. It won’t go the way you think. You need to get your ears to the ground and stop this thing, whatever it is before it starts. Have your men search the taverns and bars, the marketplace, the stables.”
“The city knows my men. They won’t let them know of anything going on, and I can’t start an invasive search. It will turn violent. These people are captors, make no mistake about it, and at the first sign of hope, they will fight back.”
“Then let me and my group do it for you. The locals don’t know us. My friend is a minstrel. We can do it for you.”
“I suppose that might work.”
Devlin did his best to hold in a smile.
Finally making progress.
“Good. We can start first thing tomorrow. My group needs a rest for the night. We’ll need lodging and such, but it has to look natural like we’re travelers stopping in the local taverns.”
Devlin grinned now. “We’ll need to some coin if you don’t mind.”