This is the beginning of a story set in the mid-north of the Three Rivers continent, in the rough area of where the Four Gladiators hail from. Onnate is the name the people of these parts give to Cydain. I’m still not sure how this tale fits into the Fels canon, so its inclusion here is provisional.
The Grey Man Inn was doing a roaring trade tonight and it seemed a shame to Saellalach that most if not all of the revellers would be dead before midnight. Quite a shame, as one of the barmaids had taken a shine to him and dropped several not-so-subtle hints that she was free and willing when her shift was over. On any night other than tonight, he probably would have obliged her amorous venturing, as she was uncommonly pretty. However, it was not this particular barmaid that he was interested in this evening, but another. His target was on the far side of the common room, a diminutive slip of a girl slowly moving among the patrons, sullenly oblivious or uncaring to the lecherous comments and pats on her backside she was getting.
Sael, as he preferred to be known, was intrigued by the girl and not just out of professional interest. There was something incongruously appealing about the morose way she carried herself and how the long dress she wore was at least three sizes too big for her. Her long sandy blonde hair was plaited and hanging over one shoulder, though that did not stop the occasional intoxicated patron from giving it a tug. She looked thoroughly out of place, like one who found themselves dropped into a strange land and forced to fend for themselves amongst strangers.
Which, as Sael reminded himself, was precisely what had happened with her.
The girl was a total stranger to these people even if nobody in the room other than himself knew it.
A bell in a nearby temple gonged the tenth hour past noon. At the same time Sael felt a familiar pressure in his mind and an insistent voice asked, ‘Have you got her yet? They’re an hour away at the most.’
Taking his tankard with him, Sael went to a more secluded corner of the common room and squeezed his eyes shut. ‘I need to get her alone,’ he answered telepathically. ‘The next time she goes down into the cellar, I’ll snatch her.’
‘Make it soon! Time is of the essence here.’
‘It can’t be helped. There’s nothing we can do for them, Sael. They wouldn’t believe they were in danger no matter what you told them. You humans are sometimes stupid like that.’
Sael sighed and finished his ale. ‘Still…’
‘Get the girl and meet me down here.’
‘I can imagine she’s going to make a scene too.’
‘Any more excuses?’ was the strident response, and Sael winced at the thumping headache he knew was coming. ‘An hour is all we have. Take her now.’
The mental connection was broken and Sael breathed out loudly, glad for the intrusion to be over. At that moment, his favourite barmaid sauntered by, equipped with an appealing, welcoming smile. ‘Can I fill that up for you, sweetie?’
Sael felt an instant pang of regret for the woman, knowing that she would be nothing but bones in a short while. Impulsively, he drew her toward him and she fell onto his lap with nil resistance. ‘If I asked you to head down to the wharf now and wait for me, would you do it?’
‘The wharf? Mickle would have my hide,’ she answered. ‘I need to work until the turn of the night, two hours away.’
Sael reached into his waistcoat and pulled out a handful of coins in various denominations and tender. ‘I’ll make it worth your while.’ She wore some cheap, but still fetching perfume, and her long black hair also held an alluring scent.
She drew back from him, her smile gone. ‘Sir! I’m no whore!’
‘No!’ Sael countered. ‘No, I know you are not. Forgive me for insinuating that. I’ve taken a fancy to you and…’ He shrugged, not willing to tell her the truth. ‘Let’s just say I’d like to see you again. In one piece.’ He unfolded one of her hands and placed a large gold coin in it. ‘Go now and you get two more of these. I’m not buying you, so please don’t be insulted. I just want you to do as I ask. It’s important.’
Her light brown eyes widened, and a mixture of glee and greed contorted her features. ‘Praise be to holy Etos!’ she whispered. ‘It’s a full gold sovereign!’
‘Yes,’ Sael said. ‘And I promise you’ll get two more of them if you meet me in about thirty minutes at the river wharf. Can you do that for me?’
Her smile was radiant. ‘For three sovereigns I’d marry you.’
‘Yes, well, no need for that,’ Sael said. He patted her thighs, firm through the thin fabric of her skirt. ‘Best you go now. Oh, and I’m awake to tricks too. Don’t wait for me with a gang of thugs or likely lads either. I don’t take kindly to being backstabbed or ambushed.’ He grinned and gave the dirks hidden under his waistcoat a pat.
The barmaid gaped at him, then slowly slid off his knee. ‘I wasn’t going to waylay you,’ she said, though it was plain to Sael the idea had been kindled in her mind. He wondered who her confederates might have been. Some of the burlier patrons had been giving him less than friendly eyes earlier.
‘What are we going to do at the wharf?’ she asked.
‘Swim naked in the moonlight.’
She giggled and lightly slapped one of his cheeks. ‘You bugger…I don’t even know your name, stranger.’
‘Keliga. When we meet again, you can tell me where you’re from, with that strange accent.’
‘Oh, we’ll a lot to say to one another then.’
Keliga frowned, but someone in the crowd called her name out and she moved away. Sael watched her, and in a few minutes she took her shawl from a hook behind the bar and slipped out the front door of the Grey Man Inn.
‘Buggeration,’ he said to himself. ‘Why did I do that for?’ Quixotic folly, he believed is how a sage would define it. Falling for a beautiful face.
He brought himself back to his present task. There was his quarry on the far side of the common room, enduring companionable slaps and lewd comments with dour indifference. Her placid gait about the room reminded Sael he could not wait any longer; he could sense the taint of the Darklings in the air and he knew for a certain fact they could sense her in return.
His opportunity came soon enough. She pushed through the swinging doors that led to the taproom and Sael swiftly got up and crossed the room, adroitly avoiding drunken lurching and some rather chaotic impromptu dancing. As he moved forward, he reached under his shirt and felt the talisman at his chest. ‘Bude, are you there?’
Paerbhuda’s clamorous voice screeched in his brain. ‘I am.’
‘I’m getting her now. Head down to the wharf and find us a boat.’
There was a taut silence, then Paerbhuda said, ‘All right, I’m leaving.’
‘There’s a woman down there or will be soon,’ Sael said. He described Keliga and immediately he could feel Bude’s incredulous surprise. ‘Help her and keep her safe. Don’t tell her what’s going on though. Not too much.’
‘Woman? What are you doing?’
Sael stopped near the taproom doors, gripping his temples with his fingers. The dreadful headache was on its way, he could feel it. Patrons nearby gave him wondering faces and some took cautionary steps back. Despite his discomfort, he smiled affably and pushed through the doors. ‘Just trust me, Bude. She’s on our side.’
‘You idiot! She’s some stupid tavern wench you’ve taken a fancy to, isn’t she? We’re here on duty, not on a roister to satisfy your base little human urgings.’
‘I wanted to save someone tonight,’ Sael explained. ‘It may as well be someone gorgeous and of the opposite sex.’
‘Our target is of your opposite sex!’
‘She’s a girl, Bude. There is a difference.’
The fay made a disgusted sound over the mental connection. ‘Get the girl and get out, now! No more sizing up gormless barmaids.’
‘Meet you at the wharf, Bude,’ Sael said, taking his hand off the talisman. The squeezing in his mind lifted, and he almost felt a sense of complete euphoria. As such he did not hear the querulous question that was being put to him by one of the occupants in the taproom.
He might not have heard the query but he did feel it as a strong arm wrapped about his neck. ‘Where do you think you’re going, sirrah?’ A squat, bald man with an apron stood before him, solid tattooed arms folded across his chest.
‘Sorry, I went the wrong way,’ Sael said, not wanting to get into unnecessary conflict. He patted the arm around his neck. ‘You can let go now, chum.’
‘A foreigner too,’ the man said. ‘Let him go, Hurn.’
The arm left Sael’s throat. He glanced around to see an absolute bear of a man standing behind him, at least seven feet tall. His stringy brown hair and enormous bushy beard gave credence to the idea he possibly was a bear. Sael’s head only just came up to the fellow’s shoulders. ‘Hurn, huh? I’ll be careful not to bump into you on a dark night. Well, no other dark nights after tonight, anyway.’ He smiled and stepped about him, but the giant man shot a meaty arm out.
‘He’s armed, boss,’ Hurn rumbled. ‘He’s got knives under his coat.’
‘You brought stickers into my pub?’ The bald man took a menacing step forward and wagged a fat finger under Sael’s nose. ‘Planning to rob someone, hey?’
Before Sael could react, Hurn had him pinned against the taproom wall, with a huge hand rifling down his shirt. It was like being held fast by a mountain side. With a cluck of delight, the big man found the talisman and none too gently tore it from its chain. ‘He has this bauble on him too.’
‘Gimme,’ the bald man said, holding out his hand. He took the talisman and peered at it, his eyes lighting up. ‘This would be worth six month’s take. What a find, by Etos. These bloody knives too! Look at that inlay, is that gold?’
‘It’s worth your life if you don’t give the talisman back,’ Sael warned. ‘Ah, tut tut, you might want to return my dirks back too please. Tools of my trade, you see.’
‘Payment for trespassing,’ the bald man said, a toothy grin splitting his face. ‘The law’s on my side too, boyo. Ain’t supposed to bring stickers into a public house. Master’s law and the Master has it posted on every street corner, he has, along with all the other rules.’
About now, Sael noticed the girl, who was standing at the far end of the taproom next to a large barrel, watching on bemused. The time for dissembling was over. ‘You need to get out of here,’ Sael said to her. ‘Your life is in danger.’
‘Oh phooey,’ the publican said, hefting the talisman in his hand. ‘Don’t be botherin’ the hired help. If you want to spend a penny with a piece, then find another. She belongs to the establishment, she does.’ He jabbed his chest. ‘Meaning me.’
‘The Darkling are coming for you,’ Sael said to her. ‘I know you can sense them. You feel cold, don’t you, like something is not right? An awful wrong somewhere on the fringes of your perception.’ He turned his attention to the publican. ‘Give me my bloody talisman back. You do not want to tangle with she who owns it, seriously.’
The publican was staring at Sael as if he was mad. ‘The Darkling?’ He guffawed, and Hurn burbled along in tune. ‘What next, foreigner? You going to tell me the great fish god is gonna grow feet and come storming through me pub? Don’t be frightening my lass with your bilge. Get back to work, Wiura, and we’ll deal with this mooncalf foreigner and his nonsense.’
‘Wiura,’ Sael voiced her name. So that is what she was called now. Nobody had been sure what her new identity was and Sael and Bude were told that her true name was Honvesa. ‘Wiura, trust me. Your life is in real and immediate danger.’ He turned to the publican, trying to press the point. ‘Everyone’s life, even yours. Whatever direction Wiura goes, you need to go off at right angles or what’s chasing her will surely get you.’
The publican was about to say something when his face purpled and his eyes bunched up. He moaned and clutched his forehead, staggering into a pile of boxes. Hurn put a restraining hand on the publican’s shoulder. ‘Are you OK, boss?’
‘I imagine Bude just had something to say to him,’ Sael said, tapping his temples with a finger. ‘Now can I have my things back?’
Hurn turned his big face toward Sael, not understanding. The publican sank down to the floor, holding his head, mumbling incoherently and a few seconds later he fainted. Sael nimbly knelt down and collected both talisman and dirks. ‘Help your boss, Hurn,’ he told the big man. ‘He’s probably going to need a good stiff drink. Go get him a jack of beer or something.’
In the meantime, Wiura had edged her way over to Sael and he became aware of the girl’s proximity. ‘You can sense them, can’t you?’ he asked her again
‘Something…dark.’ Her voice was husky and quiet, with an accent Sael could not place. ‘Blackness.’
Sael could only nod.
‘What’s going to happen?’ Hurn asked. The giant had gotten up from the publican’s side and was looming over Sael and Wiura.
‘Bad things,’ Sael answered. ‘Very bad things.’
‘I’ll come with you. I don’t like bad things.’
Sael threw up his hands. ‘All right then but Bude is going to have a fit. Either way, we need to skedaddle before the Darkling get here, and hopefully we can get them away from this town so they don’t kill more people than they have to.’
With Wiura and Hurn behind him, Sael left the Grey Man Inn through the front entrance. Spring rains were pelting down on the town of Umrach and the roads were mostly churned up mud now. A few brave souls scurried through the downpour, oblivious to the mortal danger that was rapidly headed their way. Sael peered into the murk, getting his bearings. It had been light and clear when he and Bude had came into Umrach earlier in the day, but not now. It only made things worse too as the Darkling were hard to see at night even at the best of times, but now that it was raining…
‘Where are we going?’ Hurn asked, breaking into Sael’s thoughts. The big man was amazingly articulate for someone Sael had thought to be an oaf. He spoke with a measured, careful voice, as if he was weighing and judging everything before it left his mouth.
‘To the wharf. My companion will meet us there.’ And my new friend, Sael drily thought. ‘The Darkling cannot track us across large stretches of water and the Cerroth is a broad enough river to stymie them.’
‘Where are we going on the river? Down to Kadar?’
‘Across to the far side, to Fyrtheim or whatever the land is called.’
Hurn came to a crashing halt. ‘Fyrtheim is the land of ghosts!’
‘I’d rather deal with ghosts than Darklings,’ Sael countered. ‘Ghosts are a cinch once you know their weaknesses. Darklings have few weaknesses as we’ll find out if we don’t get to the bloody wharf post-haste.’
Hurn took the lead, beckoning them to follow. Sael shepherded the now-distrait Wiura along after him, and all three of them bent their heads and ploughed their way through the driving torrent. The streets of Umrach were narrow and old, the original cobbles long ground into dust and moving through them, Sael began to feel a wet, grasping cold that did not have its origins in the clouds. He knew for a certainty the Darkling were at the town gates and would slay everything living that was unfortunate enough to cross their path.
Wiura felt them too, as she faltered and kept staring around her, as if the air itself was against her. ‘Keep moving,’ Sael told her quietly. ‘If we stop, it’s the end of us all.’ He grabbed a nearby metal plate and began beating on it with the hilt of one of his dirks. ‘Fire!’ he cried. ‘Fire! Run for your lives! Get out of the town now! Fire!’
‘In this weather, you’re only going to be laughed at,’ Hurn pointed out.
‘Yeah well, I had to do something,’ Sael said. ‘The Darkling aren’t discriminating when it comes to victims. If I can save people –anyone – then it’s better than nothing.’
As Hurn predicted, the few who responded to Sael’s calls stared from their doorways as if Sael was an idiot. One even threw a bucket of slops his way.
‘Can’t say I didn’t try,’ he sighed. ‘Do you know the quickest way to the docks?’ he asked Hurn.
The big man nodded and took the lead. Hurn was thankfully both surefooted and knowledgeable about the winding ways of Umrach. Sael heard the lapping and sloshing of the river before he saw it, and he breathed a thankful prayer to Onnate when the path they were on debouched into the riverside wharf district. Sael took quick stock and saw a number of wherries and punts moored along the snaking, rickety wharfs, dimly illuminated by storm lanterns hanging from poles. Several members of the town guard patrolled the vicinity but in Sael’s estimation they appeared neither competent nor enthusiastic in their duties. They were about to die if they stayed here, that much was for sure. But where was Bude? He grasped the talisman and asked.
‘Over here,’ Bude said into his mind. ‘Do you see us?’
There was a wherry moored to the far left, and Sael saw Bude stand up and wave at him. There was someone behind her, who he assumed was Keliga.
‘You assume correctly,’ Bude answered. ‘Your thoughts are exposed to me, Sael. These guards are indolent, so get over here and we’ll cast off.’
‘Cast off? Aren’t we going Inside for Master Lyontu to call us?’
‘I don’t have enough time to prepare the spell. The Darkling are nearly here so we’ll cross the river and go Inside from there. I’ve already explained some of our plan to your new friend and she seems to understand the urgency of it all.’
‘She’s taking it well,’ Sael remarked.
‘That remains to be seen. You promised her something apparently.’
Sael timed it while both wharf guards were at the other end, then the three of them padded across the marshalling area and along the wharf. Paerbhuda was in her human glamour; appearing as a tall thin middle-aged woman with an enormous ball of tightly curled red hair. Her jaw dropped and she pointed at Hurn. ‘By Onnate’s mercy, what is that?’
‘That is Hurn and he’s coming with us.’
‘He looks like he has teock blood in him.’
‘I’m not certain whether you’ve insulted me or not,’ the large man grumbled.
Keliga shuffled along the wherry deck, holding a crate lid above her head against the rain. She put out a hand. ‘First things first, you owe me money.’
Sael handed over two sovereigns without protest. ‘It’ll be a while before you can spend them, lady. Hurn, slip the painter from the bollard please, and we’ll push off. I was a cabin boy in my youth, and I’m grateful for what meagre nautical knowledge I have.’ He stared back toward the town. ‘We’re going to need it.’
While Hurn loosened the wherry from its moorings, Sael unfurled the craft’s single sail. It immediately caught the wind, jerking the boat out into the river, where it began a ragged and haphazard course roughly perpendicular to the shoreline. Sael nervously marked off the distance from the shore as the wherry sailed with the wind. They would need to be dozens of yards out before he could say they were safe from the Darklings.
Sure enough, several indistinct black shapes glided out from the urban area down to the dockside. Sael had once heard the Darkling described as black windows into the void, and it was the opinion of wizards and sages that they only partially existed in the world, sourcing their awful power from some distant and horrifying reality. That is what they seemed to Sael’s eyes now; terrifying black clouds emanating an unholy energy that corrupted and desiccated everything they touched.
With inhuman speed, they shot along the wharves, withering everything in their path. With a sinking stomach, Sael watched them destroy the two guards, both of whom went to their deaths with no idea what it was they faced. Two bleached skeletons tumbled and clattered into the river. Then the Darklings came together, a pair of infernal black pits, hovering above the wharf and Sael knew he and his companions were being observed, the distance to the retreating wherry being measured and gauged.
‘Etos!’ Keliga cried. ‘What are they?’
‘They are called the Darkling,’ Bude said, sitting down on the deck. ‘Thank every god you worship that you’re here with us, as you’d no power against them and would’ve perished tonight along with your town.’
Keliga slowly turned on Sael. ‘Is this why you…you?’
‘Why I asked you to come down to the wharf? Yes.’ Sickened, Sael could say no more to her.