DargonZine 6, Issue 4

Vengeance is Mine…

Yule 10, 1014 - Yule 23, 1014


This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Vengeance

Having seen as much as he had of Sharks’ Cove burned, pillaged, and deserted, Rien was surprised to see the Abyssment standing intact. He was even more amazed to see a trickle of people going in and out of the bar, citizens of Sharks’ Cove and Beinison troops alike. He watched the flow of traffic for a while, then calmly walked down the street and into the tavern.

 

Inside, nothing had changed since his last visit. It was noisy, smoky and very crowded. “Move along!” a rough voice barked and Rien hurried past the bouncer at the door, in a hurry to get out of the doorway.

 

“Ale,” he declared at the bar and slapped some coins on the counter. The bartender silently scooped up the money and and placed the filled mug on the bar.

 

Rien picked it up and, although not liking the bitter flavor of alcohol, drank, observing the room. So far he had seen no trace of the Sharks’ Cove militia, but there were quite a few of them here, mixed with the Beinison soldiers and sailors, drinking together, laughing. It was no surprise the town guard sold out. They were always little more than a mercenary troop for hire.

 

Off in the far corner Rien noticed a familiar face and a man he did not know sitting with her. Sitting down on a stool, Rien looked away, hoping the woman had not seen him. He wanted to talk to her alone, preferably in a place more private than this, but the table she sat at would do just as well. Rien glanced over his shoulder at the man at the table. He was well dressed, clearly not a laborer. Perhaps a merchant or an aristocrat or a minor noble. Not likely to be Baranurian at all.

 

“Another ale,” Rien told the bartender. He was growing impatient from the need to find out what happened to Adrea and the urgency in his voice clearly betrayed his emotional state. He did not know what to think about her absence. She could have escaped or perhaps been killed, but she could also be a prisoner somewhere or hurt and in trouble. It was those last two possibilities Rien worried about most. Those were the ones that she would need help to escape and so long as he did not know what had happened to her, he was helpless to do anything.

 

He secretly held the hope that she had escaped, although the more likely possibility was that Adrea had been killed. He did not want to believe in that second alternative. He knew she was too good to get into trouble like that. He hopped that she had gotten out of the city in time.

 

Without noticing it, Rien finished the second mug of ale and when he looked back to the corner table, the man was no longer there.

 

“Give me two glasses of red wine,” Rien told the bartender. “The good wine, not what you water down. And in real glass.”

 

“Two Rounds,” the man said.

 

A bit on the stiff side, probably due to the low supply and war time inflation. Rien dug out the two silver coins and put them on the counter before himself. The bartender came back empty handed, probably not expecting Rien to pay, but at the sight of the coins, scooped them up and left.

 

Having finally received the two glasses, Rien made his way to the corner table and sat down without being asked.

 

“So what does a good doctor go for in Sharks’ Cove these days?”

 

The woman looked at him. “Life’s cheap. What about a mercenary?”

 

Rien put one of the glasses in front of her. “Life’s cheap on both sides of the war.”

 

She smiled, a touch of irony in her expression. “So which side of the war are you on, Rien the Mercenary?”

 

“Does it matter?” He was still trying to find out if she was trustworthy.

 

“You’d be surprised. Revolutionaries, vigilantes, terrorists. You wouldn’t want to get caught in the wrong part of town…”

 

Rien took a sip of wine, watching the people pass through the room.

 

“Which one are you?”

 

“I’m sorry. Which am I?”

 

“Vigilante? Revolutionary?”

 

“Tourist.”

 

“In a place like this?”

 

Rien let a smile slip. “Sharks’ Cove has everything. Slums, high society, exotic goods, Quirin, a swamp, mountains…even the Beinison army. Where else in Baranur can you get all that?”

 

“There’s struggle and death here,” Jenye said. “That’s all there is in Sharks’ Cove. That’s all there ever was.”

 

Rien leaned back in his chair. “I’m looking for a friend. I need your help.”

 

Jenye folded her arms, studying him. “What makes you think I’ll help you?”

 

“Old times.”

 

“We’ve had no old times! And Isom is still looking for you.”

 

“Does he know who I am?”

 

“He knows you’re a tall blond man who cost him thousands of Marks and that’s enough to keep looking.”

 

“You didn’t sell me out?” Rien was somewhat surprised.

 

“Rien the Mercenary? There must be thousands of you out there right now!”

 

“Of me?”

 

“Not by name, but the battlefields are littered with men like you.”

 

Rien took another sip of wine. Was she serious or facetious? “And if I tell you my full name and where I’m from?”

 

“I may think you want me to visit.” She motioned a serving girl over and whispered something to her. Something about a room.

 

“But will you think I want Lord Isom to visit?” Rien asked when Jenye turned back.

 

She shook her head. “I have nothing to gain by selling you to him. I wouldn’t've told you how to find him in the first place, if I liked the man.”

 

“What’s your problem with him?” Rien asked.

 

“I don’t…” Jenye looked around, casting a particularly long glance at the Beinison soldiers two tables away. Her voice was quieter whens she started speaking again. “I don’t like the idea of people being sold as cattle.”

 

Rien nodded. “I approve.”

 

“I know,” Jenye looked away. “That’s why I helped you last time.”

 

The serving girl returned before Jenye could answer and handed her a key. “Eli said you can have it as long as you need.” “Thank you.”

 

Rien watched the girl go, wanting to ask what that was all about and waiting for the answer to the question he had already asked.

 

“Come with me,” Jenye stood up.

 

Rien also got up, picking up both wine glasses. He handed one to Jenye. “I brought this so I could get you drunk and more cooperative.”

 

She smiled. “Good try, but I don’t drink.”

 

“You don’t? You did when I met you last Nober. It certainly looked like wine.”

 

Jenye laughed. “Eli gives me water and I add coralline to make it red. I hate alcohol.”

 

“Sorry,” Rien sighed and put his own glass back on the table.

 

“Oh, don’t leave it,” Jenye said. “Maybe I can get you drunk and cooperative. Come along.”

 

Rien picked up the glass and followed Jenye up the stairs to a room at the end of the corridor where she unlocked the door and let him go in first.

 

“This used to be the best room at the inn, possibly the best room for rent in town. The furniture, the view, the status. There isn’t much left now. Not much other than the furniture.”

 

Rien walked over to the window and looked out. A burned street lay before him, opening into a destroyed market square. “I see what you mean…”

 

“That house over there, with the burned top floor, used to belong to the Captain of the Town Guard. The fighting was most severe here. The Guard tried to protect his residence, but the Benosian troops kept coming, wave after wave. I was here watching as they stormed the house, dragged him up to the roof, chained him there and set the whole place on fire.” She shivered at her own words. “And just like that the whole city became theirs…”

 

“Why did they let the Abyssment stand?”

 

“Gaius isn’t a man without influence. He made deals. I wouldn’t be surprised if he bought the regiments controlling the city…” Jenye sat down on the edge of the bed. “…what’s left of the city, anyway.”

 

“What about Quirin?” Rien asked, looking at the silver spire raising above the river, beyond the burned portion of the city. “Did Gerald and Morgan make it out?”

 

“Probably,” Jenye said. “God only knows. Certainly no one here does.”

 

Rien let a smile slip. “Are you Stevene?” he asked, recognizing the monotheistic reference.

 

“Yeah. What about you?”

 

“I’m a heretic,” he said, trying to hide the smile.

 

“Benosian? Olean?”

 

“No, just a heretic.”

 

“You don’t believe at all?”

 

Rien tested her with his eyes. “I believe in Mother Earth and Father Sky, in the dark night and the brilliant day. My deities are the plants and the rocks and the animals. My gods are the elements that create my environment.”

 

“You do know what my religion says will happen to you?” Jenye asked.

 

Rien nodded. “It’s a risk I’ll have to take.”

 

“Sit down,” Jenye indicated to the bed. “We can talk without intrusions here.”

 

“Not about religion, I hope.”

 

“About why you came here.”

 

Rien put the wine glass on the window sill and sat down by Jenye. “Should I start over?”

 

“Please.”

 

“I’m here looking for a friend and I was hoping you could point me to someone who could provide some facts.”

 

“It must be a good friend to bring you into the middle of a war,” Jenye commented.

 

“She is. And I hope she’s all right.”

 

“She? Your wife? Lover?”

 

“A student…a friend. She stayed longer than she should have.”

 

“Where was she staying?” Jenye asked.

 

“The Tipsy Dragon, by the river,” Rien said. “She tended bar.”

 

“The Tipsy Dragon was destroyed yesterday,” Jenye said, wondering about the coincidence.

 

“I know. I did that.” It was not the complete truth, but he was not going to say that now.

 

“You? You don’t look like a mage any more than you do a mercenary.”

 

“I’m not. There were other factors involved.”

 

“Describe her for me,” Jenye asked. “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

“She’s a little shorter than you, blond hair, shoulder length in Mertz, brown eyes. Athletic, very outgoing. She has a little girl, a year and a half old, but they’ve been separated since early spring.”

 

“Is the girl with her father?” Jenye pressed Rien for personal information.

 

“She’s with a friend. We were never told who the father is.”

 

“Is she safe?” there was genuine concern in Jenye’s voice.

 

“I hope so. It’s hard to tell where the war front is these days.”

 

“What’s your friend’s name.”

 

“Adrea Rainer.”

 

“All right. You give me a day and I’ll see what I can do.”

 

“Thank you.” He stood up, ready to leave. “Jenye, if you need money or help, let me know.”

 

“Nothing yet. Just come back tomorrow evening. If I’m not in the tavern, ask at the bar.”

 

“Thank you,” Rien repeated himself and left. He still was not sure how much Jenye could be trusted, although it appeared that she was well on the Baranurian side of the conflict. Either way, going to her was better than not going to anyone at all. There had been no leads at The Tipsy Dragon at all. Deven had made sure that it and the men in it were destroyed for good. Rien did not like the idea of coming to Sharks’ Cove to attack the Beinison army from the inside, but he could understand Deven’s bitterness towards these people and their country and did nothing to stop him. It was always a good idea not to come between a mage and his vengeance.

 

His biggest concern now was Adrea. It had been more than a month since the invasion and there was no trace of her. What could have happened? It had been far too long to tell anything by the condition of the tavern. For all he knew, Adrea left days before the attack or maybe several months later.

 

Rien walked around the Abyssment to look at the charred remains of the market square and the destroyed home of the Guard Captain. Burned alive. What a horrible death. As hard as he tried, he could not understand what could drive someone to do things like this, to draw blood with no provocation, to kill and loot and be willing to die. He did not understand what drew people into these conflicts and at the same time, when drawn into one himself, he was no better than those he condemned.

 

ReVell Dower was another sore spot, leading an army against the Beinison forces, outnumbered five to one. What good could he do? For whom? The gleeful heroic charge into battle made no sense. There was no point with odds this great, no matter what the intent.

 

Rien walked between the burned booths, the street full of litter. There were no dead bodies here as the city was still inhabitable and such decay would be a way of spreading sickness and disease. But what was left of the market square was also empty. He stood alone among ruins, the blackened support frames and remainders of walls. It was a whole different world, nothing like what Sharks’ Cove used to be like.

 

“Hey, you!” someone yelled in the Benosian tongue and Rien turned to look.

 

A Beinison soldier stood, arms folded, at the edge of the street, facing Rien.

 

“Come here.” It was said in Benosian and Rien pretended not to understand. He knew that if he spoke, he would never pass for a Benosian citizen anyway. Perhaps ignorance would be better.

 

The soldier drew his sword and approached Rien. “Are you stupid, or what?”

 

`Probably stupid,’ Rien thought. It was suicide to go into the streets with or without a sword, but it may have been better if he had his now.

 

“You must be stupid, son,” the soldier approached, swinging the sword for balance. “You’re stupid,” he repeated in Baranurian, trying to provoke a fight.

 

Rien took a few steps back, to the remainder of a wall of a building.

 

“Oh, you’re making it so easy…” the Benosian words sounded again. The sword started into its strike and Rien, with his back to the wall, dropped to his knees and bent forward. The blade impacted the wall with a crack, splintering the already damaged wood. The soldier’s legs were just before Rien and with a quick swing, he sent the man tumbling to the ground. The sword remained stuck in the wall.

 

Rien got up as the soldier drew a dagger and stepped on his right forearm. “Drop it,” he said in Benosian, his speech heavily accented.

 

The man tried to throw Rien with his struggling and was rewarded with a heavy boot crashing down on his wrist. The dagger flew out of his hand as he yelled out in pain. Rien knelt down over him.

 

“A few years ago I would have broken your arm to make sure you never fight again, but I’ve learned that people like you will learn to use their off arm just so they may cause more pain.” He drew his own dagger.

 

“It’ll be an honor to die at the hands of an enemy,” the soldier spat, “to die fighting for my country.”

 

“We’re fighting for my country,” Rien answered, running the knife across the soldier’s throat. Warm blood squirted up and stained the ground, the rushing air from the lungs causing it to foam as it ran out.

 

Rien tossed the dagger aside and leaned against the wall, looking away from the body. He could still hear the shallow gurgling gasps and the sound made him sick. He was disgusted with what he did, the soldier’s dying words repeating themselves in his mind. The man was already on the ground, helpless and Rien killed him anyway.

 

“Damn you!”

 

***

 

Rien held his breath as clanking footsteps fell on the wooden bridge above him. The quickly flowing water from the recent rainstorm threatened to tear him away from the supports he clung to, and he hung on as the clanking of boots above him refused to subside. He looked up, not being able to see more than shadows passing over the cracks. There must have been over a thousand men in this unit. It was as big as the one he had encountered up river just a few days before.

 

As a single man he would probably be overlooked by the Beinison force as relatively harmless, if noticed at all, but his cautious nature forced him to hide from the soldiers, hoping that avoiding them entirely would also avoid any possible unexpected conflicts. As the footsteps on the bridge ceased, Rien released his grip on the support and maneuvered closer to shore. It was wet and muddy, but the bushes were green and strong. Grabbing a thick branch above the water, Rien pulled himself out on shore. Off on the other side of the river he could see the Beinison troops marching in dead precision.

 

It was a hot mid-summer day and Rien did not worry about staying wet for long, but nonetheless, he took the time to shake the water off his clothes and out of his hair. Rien was sure that as soon as he was on his way the sun would take care of the rest and he would be dry, if not clean. He lingered on the shore a bit longer, looking into the rapidly flowing waters of one of Laraka’s many tributaries. The mud he managed to stir was quickly being washed down stream and the water was once again becoming clear.

 

“Hey, you, peasant!”

 

Rien set his jaw.

 

“I’m talking to you! Bring me water, peasant!”

 

Rien pulled the peace binding on his scabbard loose and stood up from among the bushes, facing the man who called him, a middle aged Benosian in grimy armor sitting atop a tired horse.

 

The soldier studied Rien, surprised to see someone so young and armed. He assumed it was some old fisherman in the brush.

 

Rien stepped forward, onto the road, looking the soldier up and down. The man was clearly a Benosian knight, a blue star hanging on a chain draped over his shoulders. This was probably not going to turn out well.

 

“Well?” the Beinison knight asked. “Where’s my water?”

 

Rien pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “Must be in the river.”

 

The soldier pulled his feet out of the stirups and slid off his horse. “I hope you use that sword half as well as you use your mouth.”

 

“I’d rather not have to show my skill to others,” Rien tried backing off, but it was too late, the man had yanked his own sword from the saddle scabbard and was approaching, ready for a fight.

 

Rien took a step back, mentally readying himself. The Benosian’s approach was sloppy, almost arrogant. The sword was loosely held, the wrist limp, the other arm was just hanging at his side. Was he really a knight who could not fight or simply not what he appeared to be? Could he be trying to play a trick, hoping to catch his opponent off guard?

 

Rien planted his feet solidly on the ground. A single good move could solve the problem no matter what the other man’s intentions and proficiencies were. He was glad to have unbound his sword.

 

The Beinison knight closed in to striking range, a clearly solid grasp on the hilt of his sword. He thrust in a feint, changing the attack to a swing at Rien’s weapon arm. It caught Rien off guard, but he managed to get away with a minor cut, drawing his sword on the move. He stepped closer, inside the reach of his opponent’s sword, and thrust his own into the man’s gut. The sharp tip easily tore through the chain armor and sank into the flesh underneath. The Beinison gasped in surprise, wrapping his free arm around Rien for support. The sword fell from his grasp.

 

“Water…” was the last thing he muttered before sinking to the ground.

 

***

 

“It’s my human half, Deven,” Rien explained. “That’s the blood that makes me do these things.”

 

The mage stirred the fire with a stick, releasing sparks from the ambers into the air. “I don’t think Eelail are any different from humans. You have the same drives, want the same things… You get angry for the same reasons.”

 

“That wasn’t just anger. For that one moment if I could have reached into his chest and torn his heart out with my bare hands, I would have.”

 

“No. Look where you are. Look at the death and destruction around you. You’re angry and you haven’t stopped being angry since the moment you got here. What do you have to be angry about?”

 

Rien looked away. Deven was right. He did not want to be angry, but he was. “I don’t know,” he sighed, although deep inside he knew well enough. Between the war and Adrea’s disappearance, as well as Deven’s own rebellion against the orders to stay out of the war he had too many things to worry about and it all added to his anger at what he saw. He picked at his food, no longer interested in eating. “I did it without thinking and all I can see now is that cut I made.”

 

“You’ve killed before.”

 

“Not like this. Not after my opponent was down. Never a helpless man.”

 

“They killed my parents when they were helpless,” Deven said. “Do you know how the Empire kills its enemies?”

 

Rien shook his head.

 

“They cut their eyes, so they can’t see and hamstring arms and legs, so all they can do is scream. Then the lucky ones are burned or drowned. Others are just left for the carrion birds or other scavengers, alive and unable to defend themselves. My parents were burned. At night I can still hear their screams…”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s been forty years,” Deven said. “It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.”

 

“But you still kill for it.”

 

“Revenge is a deep cup to drink from and of all people, I admit it.”

 

Rien pushed his plate away. “What if we find that Adrea is dead? What then? Revenge on the Beinison army? Go after Vasquez? Talens? Untar?”

 

Deven shrugged. “We’ll see.”

 

“We’ll see what? If we can fight with one thousand to one odds? Or do you mean the entire Beinison army?”

 

“I mean we’ll see. I hope she’s safe, but if not, I don’t intend to forgive.”

 

“Neither do I,” Rien admitted bitterly, “and that’s the problem. That’s the human reaction. My people could never justify killing others at random after what had happened to them. Perhaps if I knew who, where…but then…”

 

“Will you need me tomorrow?” Deven asked.

 

“I don’t think so,” Rien answered. “I’ll be meeting Jenye again, see what she found out. Day after tomorrow, if she had any news.”

 

“Then I’d like to use the day to look at the Beinison fleet. They seem to be just waiting in the bay. I’d like to see what they are waiting for.”

 

Rien nodded. “Be careful.”

 

***

 

The annoying fizzling sound of the spell subsided, leaving behind traces of what used to be a heavy lock. Deven gave the door a push and it opened with ease, the remnants of the lock slipping out of the frame and shattering on the ground. Silence ruled inside the dark old house, making Deven wonder who the previous inhabitants were and what had happened to them now.

 

He lit a candle with his finger, choosing to conserve the energy that would be required to light the room. The table on which the candle stood was littered with empty wine bottles and the remains of a meal. He picked up a bottle and smelled it. Baranurian wine.

 

Something creaked and Deven returned the bottle to the table. He was here for a single purpose, a single person. He walked across the room to the stairs leading up and as quietly as he could, made his way to the second floor. The darkness here was very deep, the light of the candle on the table downstairs unable to penetrate this far. He muttered a curse and an incantation, creating a glowing sphere the size of a chicken egg. He needed the light.

 

The top of the landing fanned out in three directions, a door in each of the alcoves and another one behind him. Which room? Were all occupied? He should have asked more questions of the urchin before coming here, but all he thought to find out was if there were any guards.

 

Something creaked again, behind the door to his right, and Deven carefully approached it, the glowing sphere trailing after him. He carefully reached for the door and pushed it open. The light of the sphere behind him projected his shadow into the room, casting a deep blue glow around his outline. Someone gasped.

 

Deven moved forward, the light sphere trailing him, better illuminating the room. On the bed sat a woman, holding a blanket to her chest. Her widely opened eyes expressed fear and concern.

 

“I am looking for Lord Asart Geldavery,” Deven said in his native Benosian.

 

“Next room,” the woman whispered, pointing.

 

“Thank you,” he turned and left, the sphere bobbing up and down behind him. He hoped she would not yell in view of the fact that he had not only presented himself as a mage, but a Benosian as well. Deven pulled the door closed after himself, satisfied with his prediction. First thing first. Asart and who ever else, if there was trouble.

 

He walked to the central alcove and pushed the door open. There was instant scrambling in the room as his glowing shadow announced his presence. “Lord Asart Geldavery?” Deven asked of the man in bed. A woman unsuccessfully hid behind the man.

 

“I am.”

 

“Grandson of Count Jaril Geldavery?”

 

“Yes?” His voice sounded less sure, somewhat puzzled.

 

“Your grandfather wishes to see you.” A ball of light fell to the bed from Deven’s outstretched hand, quickly enveloping it and half the room in fire. “Tell him Baron Yasarin still has followers.”

 

The last of the words were drowned out by agonizing screams.

 

***

 

It was shortly before sunset that Rien started for the Abyssment. He spent the morning looking over the city, trying to look less conspicuous than the day before and avoiding soldiers and the remainder of the almost invisible town guard as much as he could. It almost worked.

 

At one of the alley ways he noticed a small group of youths. They loitered, talked, one muttered a hello as Rien walked by, then, when he was half way down the block, he heard yells and sounds of commotion. When he turned, he saw four Benosian soldiers being pelted with rocks by the youngsters. He did not give the situation much thought, but when the soldiers drew their swords and charged into the alley after the boys, Rien ran back, hoping to prevent a massacre.

 

He made it to the corner in time to see a large log tumble off a wall of crates, crashing into the soldiers and causing boxes to rain down on them. The running boys returned, gathering around the pile of shattered boxes, obviously scared, but wanting to take their task to its obvious conclusion. One bent down to take a sword from an unmoving soldier when, to everyones surprise, the unmoving man’s hand locked around his wrist and the soldier planted a dagger into the youngster’s side.

 

The rest of the boys ran as the soldiers got up with war cries and charged after them.

 

Rien cut around the boxes, blindsiding the last of the soldiers and getting his sword. The man sprawled out on the ground confused and disoriented. The other three stopped their charge and turned. A sinking feeling hit Rien. He did not want to fight and kill after what had happened the day before, but at this point there was no backing out.

 

He waited. Attacking first was asking to lose advantage with this many opponents. Waiting could mean the same thing. As they started spreading out to surround him, he moved back, to the alley wall, to keep all of them in his field of vision.

 

With a yell one of the soldiers jumped forward and swung. Rien parried and continued moving back. There were only a few more steps to the wall when the soldiers rushed him. He sidestepped one, elbowed another. Surprisingly, the third fell on his own. The last man, without a sword, did nothing. Rien did not wait for his good fortune to change. He parried another swing, feinted a strike, and his sword connected with the arm of his confused opponent. With a scream of pain, the man backed off. The attack came easer than Rien expected. It came from his reflexes, without thought.

 

Three to go. Two. The man who had fallen was not getting up. His sword was picked up by the unarmed man.

 

Rien parried two more strikes and made one of his own, when one of the men stiffened up and fell forward. Both Rien and his remaining opponent stopped fighting to look at him.

 

“Mage!” the man with the injured arm yelled and ran.

 

What he did not see at a distance was a black arrow sticking out of the soldier’s back. “You’re probably next,” Rien told his remaining opponent.

 

The man answered with a vicious swing that Rien barely dodged. His back was now against the wall, a dead body at his feet and a Beinison soldier viciously swinging his sword to keep him off balance. There was no strategy in the foreigner’s attack.

 

Rien swung his sword to break the soldier’s pattern, parried a hit and feinted a head shot. As his opponent’s sword came up to block the shot, Rien brought his swing down, sinking the blade into the man’s side.

 

The soldier looked at Rien in surprise, staggered and fell with the sword still lodged in his body. The methods of killing did not change in one day, nor did they feel differently. The look in the eyes of the dying was the same fear as always.

 

Rien stepped away from the wall and scanned the roof tops of surrounding buildings. Nothing. No archer, not even a trace that anyone had ever been up there. He bent down to examine the arrow. It had a black shaft, dyed by its looks, black fletchings and, when he pulled it out, a black flint tip. The construction appeared to be flawless, as did the aim. The arrow penetrated the soldier’s mail between the shoulder blades, just to the left of the spine. He was probably dead before he hit the ground. Examining the other man, Rien discovered that an arrow penetrated his chest and broke when he fell on it. These shots were obviously aimed to kill, not injure or disable.

 

Scanning the rooftops one more time, Rien hurried from the alley before the sun set and submerged it into complete darkness. There was no need to sit here in the dark and wait for the escaped man to bring reinforcements. And the boys who started this fight were long since gone.

 

To his surprise, Rien found the last soldier lying face down just short of the exit into the street. A black shaft protruded from the base of his skull. No longer being able to resist the mystery, Rien pulled out the arrow and hid it under his tunic, now hurrying to meet Jenye.

 

It was completely dark when he made it to the Abyssment. The tavern was crowded with people, not a single table or chair available to use, not even at the bar. Rien could not remember ever seeing this pace so busy. Jenye was no where in the crowd. After a moment he walked over to the bartender and asked for an ale. “Is Jenye around?” he asked when the drink was served.

 

“Who’s asking?”

 

“Rien.”

 

“Room five, up the stairs.”

 

Leaving the ale at a table surrounded by drunks, Rien proceeded upstairs. This was not the same room as the previous morning, positioned on the opposite wall, facing north, away from the river. He knocked.

 

Jenye opened the door. She was dressed in travelling clothes, a change from the flashy styles she usually wore. “Come in.”

 

He did. “Did you learn anything?” he asked as she closed the door.

 

“Maybe. Eli found out that The Tipsy Dragon had been occupied by Beinison forces since the day of the invasion. Whatever happened to your friend must’ve happened on the same day.”

 

“Then we need to find the people who were present that same day,” Rien said.

 

“I’m ahead of you,” Jenye smiled. “I was going to ask you to do that with me tonight.”

 

“Let’s go.”

 

“If the first place won’t work out, we can go to another, but it may require bribes.”

 

“I’ll take care of them.”

 

“All right, then,” Jenye agreed. “We’ll start with a street vendor I know.”

 

They left the crowded tavern and headed west, towards the docks, Jenye leading the way.

 

“I have a question for you,” Rien said. “I witnessed something today that strikes me as bizarre, even for Sharks’ Cove.”

 

“What?”

 

He took the black arrow from under his tunic and showed it to Jenye.

 

“Oh, God!” she exclaimed. She grabbed it from his hands, tore off the fletchings, broke off the tip and threw the parts in different directions. “Come on,” she broke into a run.

 

Rien followed her. “What’s wrong?”

 

She did not answer until they ran a few blocks. “The penalty for carrying that is death,” she gasped when she stopped.

 

“Death?”

 

“Where did you get it?”

 

“In a dead body that I was fighting. What is it?”

 

“I told you yesterday we have vigilantes and revolutionaries here. The most wanted of them is Ga’en the Blind, an archer who uses black arrows.”

 

“The Blind?”

 

“They say that he’s completely blind because he wears a helmet with no eye slits.” She turned away and looked back the way they came. “Many think that he was a soldier in the Legion of Death, caught by the Beinisons and tortured. His eyes were burned out and he was released into the wilderness, where he somehow became what he is.”

 

“The Legion of Death?” Rien asked. The Legion were two regiments in the Combined Host of Baranur, the Red Death and the Grey Death. Two of the perhaps best trained heavy infantry archer regiments on all of Cherisk. Their mention alone has been known to shatter enemy morale and send armies off the field of combat.

 

“He’s been called `The Black Death’,” Jenye explained, “because of the arrows he uses. The reward for him now is ten Marks, but no one knows who he is.”

 

“That may be,” Rien said, “but I doubt he’s blind. I saw those shots and I doubt I could duplicate them…and I consider myself skilled with the bow.”

 

“He could be aided by magic,” Jenye suggested.

 

Rien shrugged. “I’ve learned that a lot of myths and legends tend to be placed on common things that seem to defy explanation.”

 

“I think this town needs all the heroes of myths and legends it can get,” Jenye said. “He goes around attacking thieves and the Beinison army and that rallys people to his cause. What did happen with you, anyway?”

 

“Some kids were attacked by Beinison soldiers and I tried to help them get away. The next thing I knew, there were black arrows sticking out of the patrol.”

 

“Well, that’s the reason there’s such a high reward for his head,” Jenye said. “The Beinison army lost quite a few men to him.”

 

As they talked, they reached their destination and Jenye knocked on the door of a small wooden house, little more than a two room shack constructed of old rotting planks and a torn ship sail, to keep the wind and the rain out. A woman of Jenye’s age, although appearing ten years her senior, cracked open the door.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Walda, good evening to you. Is your husband home?”

 

“Come in, please,” she opened the door completely.

 

Rien followed Jenye into the house.

 

“Moldan, Doctor Calyd is here to see you.”

 

A balding, tired looking man appeared at the door to the back room. “What can I do for you, Doctor?”

 

“Please, sit down,” Walda indicated to a low bench along the wall. “Can I bring you something to eat?”

 

“No, thank you, Walda. I’m fine.”

 

Rien refused as well. This family did not seem to have enough to feed themselves, much less strangers.

 

“Moldan,” Jenye started, “I’m looking for a woman who was in town at the start of the invasion. She tended bar at The Tipsy Dragon. I need to find out what happened to her.”

 

“A pretty young thing, yes, I remember,” he muttered. “Last I saw her was a few days before the Beinisonian ships came.”

 

“We need to find her, Moldan,” Jenye cast a glance at Rien. “Could you find out? Ask around? If you can find the people who were at The Tipsy Dragon that…”

 

“If they’re alive and in town,” Moldan agreed.

 

There was a scream from the back room and everyone jumped up. Walda rushed out through the doorway.

 

“My son, Barar,” Moldan explained. “I fear he’s seen too many horrors of the war.”

 

“Let me take a look,” Jenye offered.

 

“I have nothing to pay you with, Doctor,” Moldan protested.

 

“Then you won’t have to,” she said and disappeared through the curtained doorway.

 

Moldan followed her, shaking his head. Rien stepped up to the curtain, to look in the other room. Walda and Jenye knelt by a skinny boy, perhaps eight or ten years old, dirty and crying. Moldan absently stood not far away, looking on. As Jenye talked to the boy, Rien scooped some coins from his purse and tossed them into the empty soup pot leaning against the wall by the fireplace. Perhaps that would give them a chance to fill it with real soup tomorrow.

 

Jenye soon finished with the boy and they left after Moldan and Walda thanked them profusely and promised to do all that they could to help.

 

“Sad, isn’t it,” Jenye asked as they walked down the street. “The boy, I mean.”

 

Rien nodded. “You have to wonder why life has to be so unfair for those so young.”

 

She looked at him. “But then it wouldn’t be interesting to people like you if it were fair, would it?”

 

Rien paused, looking at Jenye. Was that a comment on his choice of occupation? If it were, it was hardly fair. In his line of work he could speak only for himself. Others were responsible for their own actions. He was no one’s keeper and never intended to take on a job such as that. As for it being interesting over fair, that was another thing to argue. He always loved the mystery and intrigue of `interesting’, but would take fair over that any day.

 

“No, it wouldn’t,” he said, “but it’d be simple and easy.”

 

“And you want a simple life?” Jenye asked, equally surprised.

 

“I don’t think I’d mind one.”

 

“I can’t see you living on a farm, digging in the dirt,” Jenye laughed.

 

“You can’t see me fighting with a sword, either,” Rien reminded her.

 

“I’ve never seen you with a sword,” she shook her hear. “You’re a hard man to pin down.”

 

“And you? Working for the worst criminal this city’s ever known, while selling out his business associates behind his back? And then turning around and helping a sick child for no reason at all?”

 

“It was a way to pay Moldan for what he said he will do. And it’s painful to watch the boy suffer like that. He didn’t do anything to deserve that pain, but now he’ll have to live out his life with the horrors of this war hanging over him… But then I’m not the only one to offer kindness to him, am I?”

 

“I’m sure that goes for his parents without saying,” Rien agreed.

 

“It’s not his parents I’m talking about,” Jenye stopped. “The boy’s bed is exactly opposite the fireplace in the big room. I saw what you did and I doubt those were stones you threw in there.”

 

“Just a few coins,” Rien shrugged it off. “They need them more than I do and they struck me as too proud to simply accept money from a stranger.”

 

“You’re a strange man, Rien… What is your family name?”

 

“Keegan,” he answered without hesitation.

 

“And where are you from, Rien Keegan?”

 

“I travel a lot.”

 

“I can see why you would want a simple life, then,” Jenye said. “But if you want it so much, why haven’t you made yourself one?”

 

Rien had to think about that. Why indeed? “I don’t think I’ve found the right place yet.”

 

“You must be a hard man to please.”

 

“Sometimes,” a hint of a smile escaped his lips.

 

They soon returned to the Abyssment, crowded as it had been at their departure.

 

“Where else did you want to go?” Rien asked. “You said there was someone else.”

 

“I think Moldan will come through,” Jenye said. “I was afraid he wouldn’t know who you were looking for, but he obviously met her. If there’s anything to find out, I’m sure he’s the one to do it.”

 

“Then I guess I’d best say goodnight here,” Rien stopped at the foot of the stairs.

 

“Here?” Jenye turned. She was a few steps ahead of him. “I was hoping you’d come up.”

 

Rien glanced around the room, at the Beinison soldiers still sitting and drinking. “All right.”

 

They went up to Jenye’s room.

 

“Rien, what if we don’t find her?”

 

“I’ll look until I do.”

 

“What if she’s a prisoner somewhere?”

 

“I’ll have to get her out.”

 

“And if she’s dead?”

 

He turned to the window, looking at the blind alley it faced. What if she is dead? Would he leave? Attempt revenge? “She’s alive.” There was no proof otherwise. There was no reason for her not to have left in time.

 

“In the last two months,” Jenye said, “I’ve seen more death than I had all my life and you tend to see quite a bit living in a place such as this.”

 

“She has to be alive,” Rien said, “for her daughter. She has no one else.”

 

“I hope you’re right, but I have to be realistic. I never thought I’d live to see a war, much less live in one, but here it is. And people do die. It’s not some romantic dream the bards tell us about. It’s very, very real.”

 

“I know,” Rien nodded. “But all I have right now is hope, so that’s what I do.”

 

“Tell me a little about Rien Keegan,” Jenye asked. “Who is he?”

 

“I am he,” Rien turned back to his companion. “It’s all that simple.”

 

“No. You said you travel. Where? What do you do there?”

 

“Asbridge, Dargon, Arvalia, Narragan, Quinnat…”

 

“Well, that pretty much covers this part of the country. Your horse must be very tired.”

 

“I never asked.”

 

“Where are you from originally?”

 

“Arvalia.”

 

“It must be nice there this time of year.”

 

“It has it’s good points,” Rien smiled thoughtfully. “It being home, I think it’s always nice there. You’re from Magnus, aren’t you?” he changed the topic.

 

“The accent a little thick?” Jenye smiled.

 

“Just a little, but there’s nothing quite as distinct as a Royal Duchy dialect. Are you from Magnus proper?”

 

“The Royal City itself. Born there, studied medicine at the University, then came here to heal the sick.”

 

“How long have you been here?”

 

“A while. Ten years. Since 1002. Twelve.”

 

“Do you like it here?”

 

“Somewhat. I’ve found that it was easier to come down river then to go back upstream. What about you? How did you become a mercenary?”

 

“That’ll take longer than I have to be told,” Rien avoided answering.

 

“Longer than you have? I wanted to ask you to spend the night.”

 

Rien’s smile faded.

 

“I hope you don’t think me forward,” Jenye said. “I don’t make a habit of asking men to sleep with me. I’ve only done it twice before.”

 

Rien took a deep breath, not sure what to say. “What happened those times?”

 

“They both accepted. With time I learned that one was a thief and the other a liar.”

 

“How do you know I’m not both?”

 

“Intuition. Experience.”

 

Rien sighed. “You really don’t want to get involved with me.”

 

“Why not? You’re not married.”

 

“I travel,” he forced a smile, but it faded quickly. “I was home last month. Saw someone I hadn’t seen in years and found I still had feelings for her…” He let his words trail off, a bit bitter.

 

“Is she no longer interested in you? Is she married?”

 

“No…but I think she’s grown tired of waiting for me. I’m afraid I’ve hurt her when I left. I didn’t realize that for the longest time.”

 

“So what will you do?”

 

“I’ll wait and hope she forgives me.”

 

“You’re turning me down?”

 

“I’m afraid so, but I don’t want you to think it’s because of you. You’re the only good thing I’ve found in this nest of wasps. I just don’t want to hurt you like I’ve hurt everyone else I’ve touched.”

 

Jenye smiled a sad smile. “I appreciate you being honest. There was someone who wasn’t. He had a wife…and a convenience — me.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

She shook her head and kissed him on the cheek. “So am I, but I’m glad I wasn’t wrong about you.”

 

Rien stood up, somewhat taken aback by the situation. “Is there anyone else we need to see?” he asked again.

 

“No. I think Moldan will come through. I’ll go see him tomorrow. Come back and see me the day after, in the morning.”

 

“You sure you don’t want me to come with you?”

 

Jenye shook her head. “I’ll bring some herbs for the boy, to help him sleep. This sort of doctoring may take a while.”

 

“All right,” Rien agreed, “but be careful out there.”

 

She laughed. “I’m the only physician in Caligula’s service, one of the few in this whole city. I’m a desperately needed commodity. No one would dare try anything.”

 

Rien nodded. “Thank you for your help, then…and for…”

 

Jenye put a finger to his lips. “Don’t thank me until you learn the price.”

 

***

 

It was only three men. One obviously wounded and another drunk. They wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Certainly, the screaming girl had already attracted all the attention she could get. The sad thing was, the people of Sharks’ Cove were so terrified of the invaders, all the screaming did was force them to double check their doors and windows to be sure that everything was tightly locked.

 

When Rien happened across this scene, he was just in time to see a Benosian soldier spear a man with a pike and the woman begin to scream. He had no idea how the two were related, or if they knew one another at all, but the very next moment the soldiers surrounded the woman and dragged her into an alley. Her terrified screams made Rien’s decision for him and he started to run well before his brain gave the order to his legs.

 

Leaping over the dying man, Rien put the force of his charge into the back of the soldier nearest him. The man went sprawling forward with a yell, his metal armor shaving sparks from the cobblestone street. Before the other two could react, Rien had the previously wounded man in his grip, forcing his long dagger through the man’s armor and between his ribs. The man screamed and struggled, but was no match for Rien’s strength. He released the grip on his sword to Rien as Rien’s hand wrapped around the hilt, and sank to the ground, gasping for air.

 

“Yield,” Rien warned the other man, who still held on to the woman.

 

The soldier put his sword to the woman’s throat. “One step!”

 

“If you kill her, it’s just you and me.”

 

“But you don’t want to see her die.”

 

“Try me.”

 

The sword slowly slid along the woman’s neck, drawing a trickle of blood. Rien could not tear his eyes away from the woman’s.

 

“Let her go!”

 

“Not on your life!” The Benosian looked about, at his injured companion, slowly bleeding to death behind Rien and then at the other, the drunk, sputtering about on the ground like a fish out of water. Neither one was of much use to him in this situation. For that matter, neither was the woman. The sword flashed across the woman’s neck, squirting blood in all directions and with his leg, he kicked her towards Rien and ran.

 

Rien caught the woman with both hands, letting his sword fall to the ground. His eyes were still locked with hers and deep inside he could somehow feel the terror that spread through her. Her tunic was bloody and blood foamed from her mouth. He knew there was nothing he could do, except hunt down the man that did this, but he held on to her, mesmerized by what he saw. She grappled his arms with her own, begging for help with her eyes, as she drowned in her own blood. Long moments passed with their eyes locked before she passed out from lack of air and even more time before Rien lowered her to the ground and let her from his grasp. He felt pure rage, with no target to vent it on, until spotting the drunken man getting up.

 

“Pick up your weapon!” the hiss filled the street, but the drunk soldier already had that very thing on his mind. He took a wobbling step towards Rien, sword held high, then swung at his unarmed opponent, still on his knees over the dead woman.

 

Rien pushed back, snapping up the sword by him and came back up to his feet, just outside of the soldier’s reach. A single parry sent the soldier’s sword, as well as a good portion of his arm across the alley and a second sank deep into his chest, lifting him off the ground and throwing him back, the thrusting point of the sword having passed completely though the man.

 

But justice was not yet done.

 

***

 

“…forty three ships, nothing smaller than a bireme. Quite a few cogs and carracks. Five galleons,” Deven listed out the inventory. “I was thinking I’d sink one, to give the sharks a taste of the tough meat, but if you’ve wondered where the mages have been during the war…”

 

“Yeah,” Rien muttered absentmindedly.

 

“Rien,” Deven shifted to a sitting position. “The Benosian mages! I’ve found them!”

 

“How many?” Rien asked. It was late and dark the two men lay on the floor of their hide out, sharing their impressions of the day’s events.

 

“I figure there were twenty, at least,” Deven guessed. “Perhaps an even two dozen. Some scrying, others mixing things. I did notice one very powerful clairvoyant. I hope he didn’t notice me…”

 

“Clairvoyant? Natural?”

 

“By all means. I hope he doesn’t pick up on my trace energies. He’s the best I’ve seen in years.”

 

“What good is he to them when he’s so far from the front?” Rien asked.

 

“I’m sure they have good messengers,” Deven said, “and in case of need, they can probably send a message by magical means, just like we do.”

 

“I wonder what his range is,” Rien asked.

 

“Judging by the fact that the fleet made no attempt to move past the delta,” Deven guessed, “I suspect he can see into Magnus from here.”

 

“Eight hundred leagues?”

 

“Explains why they’re winning, doesn’t it?”

 

“It certainly cuts down on their need for scouts.”

 

“Listen, Rien,” Deven shifted noisily, “I have an idea.”

 

Rien opened his eyes and looked over to the opposite wall, where the mage sat.

 

“Look at us, two old geezers,” Deven laughed. “All that living and all that experience and we’re now in our primes and we’ve got that chance of a lifetime right here! If there’s one man we get out of the war by force, let’s make it that mage.”

 

Rien sat up as well. “We were ordered to stay out of it.”

 

“Or what? We’re volunteers as it is and besides, we already broke all the rules coming here to look for Adrea! What would it hurt?”

 

“I don’t think one mage will make a difference in this war,” Rien said. “If anyone, Untar’s the one to go after.”

 

“Next to Haralan, I suspect Untar is the best guarded man in all of Baranur right now,” Deven said. “Besides, I know I can’t take on someone like Mon-Taerleor, but there are other good fish in the bay…”

 

“So you’re willing to swim out to a ship full of mages who all together are ten times as powerful as Mon-Taerleor?”

 

“Dying to!”

 

“And just think, a year ago nothing would’ve gotten you out of your laboratory for even a moment!” Rien laughed.

 

“A year ago I wasn’t on the losing team!”

 

Rien silently evaluated the proposal. He did not believe that the clairvoyant mage was the hinge of the war effort, but he agreed with Deven that a mage so powerful could indeed be a valuable asset to the enemy and a disaster for Baranur. He had no moral problems with trying to stop him. That would more than likely save hundreds of lives in Baranur. He himself had seen more death here than in most other places he had been and could agree with the statement Jenye made earlier in the day.

 

“What do you plan on doing?”

 

Deven did not answer.

 

“Deven?”

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d agree… I was working on my argument.”

 

The corner of Rien’s mouth curled up, but he refused to let the smile appear. “I didn’t tell you this, but a day after I got here, before we met at the Dragon, I saw a woman killed in cold blood and…she died in my arms. I don’t know her name, nor where she’s from. I don’t even know if she’s Baranurian… I held her in my arms as she died and there was nothing I could do to save her. And she knew there was nothing I could do…” He took a deep breath. “I’m never going to forget her face, nor the face of the man who killed her. I looked for him all night, but couldn’t find him… I’m willing to take one life if it will save others from a death such as this.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Deven said. “I didn’t mean to…” He stopped. “No. I’m not sorry. I want you to know what my countrymen are capable off! I want you to feel the rage that I feel when you think of them!”

 

“Deven, it’s not just them. We’re all animals inside. When I killed that man in the market, all I could see were the wounds on that woman and all I could feel was the need for revenge…and when I slit his throat and looked in his eyes, all I could see was that woman’s expression…for that one instant I was as human as you.”

 

“And you don’t like being human, do you?” Deven said in a caustic tone. “Well, I’ve got bad news for you. You’re just like the rest of us. You’re no better and no worse. You have to live the life you were given and you have to live it with the rest of us, imperfect as we are. Or you can go and hide in the forest, hoping no one will see that face of yours in the light of day. But those are your ONLY choices!”

 

Rien bit his tongue, holding his words.

 

“Look, I’m sorry,” Deven went on, “but I’m tired of you using your father as an excuse for what you do! Life is a boat and we’re all in it together and it matters little where we came from and where we are going.”

 

Rien nodded. “I should be apologizing. We have no choice who we are born to or where. Our families and heredity are determined by events beyond our control. If we’re lucky, we’re born to good parents in a prosperous area and grow up in a good environment. All that we have a choice in is our path in life. Beyond our births we make ourselves into who we are.”

 

Deven took a deep breath and slowly let it out. He knew from experience that Rien just backed out of a fight for sake of an old friendship. He always had a deep conflict with who he was and did not feel at home with either of the two races he belonged to. On any other day Deven would say that not enough time had been invested by Rien into understanding the world he is a part of, but today he had to wonder if that world was changing too rapidly to give those in it a chance to adjust.

 

“I’m the one to speak,” Deven sighed. “I’m pulling you in after me, to avenge my parents, your country…Adrea…”

 

“And with no plan,” Rien warned.

 

“No plan. It just hit me out of the blue that it might be a good idea to sink that ship…”

 

“Into the blue,” Rien corrected. “It also `just hit’ you to destroy the Dragon.”

 

“The Dragon’s different,” Deven said. “Even if this were all over today, I wouldn’t be able to go back and live there. We wrote it off when we abandoned it. I just made sure it was a casualty of war.”

 

“The mage?” Rien reinforced the topic.

 

Deven shifted, leaning back against the wall. “The best way to kill someone, that I know of, still happens to be by bashing their skull in.”

 

“All right,” Rien agreed. “Assuming that’s what we’re doing, how do we get to him?”

 

“We don’t. I certainly don’t. The closer I am to him physically, the more aware of me he’ll be. And if he were actively looking for me, I doubt I’d be safe anywhere on this side of the continent.”

 

“So you want me to swim out into the middle of the bay and do him in? Has Brice been telling you stories about my swimming again?”

 

Deven laughed. “You can’t confront him either. You’d be in as much danger as I. Although you don’t practice magic, your potential to do so is a beacon in itself.”

 

“Then if we can’t do it…” Rien began.

 

“…That’s what makes it a challenging problem,” Deven interrupted.

 

Rien shook his head. “Deven, I don’t want to be taking any more risks than we already are by being here. Adrea should be our primary concern.”

 

“She is, but you know I can’t go into the street talking to people. My accent will give me away in a blink of an eye. I’m inobvious only so long as I keep my mouth shut.”

 

“I’ll find her,” Rien said. “You just help me get her out.”

 

“That was the deal all along,” Deven agreed.

 

“And the mage?”

 

Deven rubbed his chin. “Well, if we can’t go to him, he has little choice, but to come to us.”

 

“Oh, good,” Rien said sarcastically. “I was hoping you’d save me the swim.”

 

“You may yet need to swim,” Deven said thoughtfully. “I need to think this over.”

 

“Should I wait or go to sleep?” Rien asked.

 

“Go to sleep.”

 

“Right.”

 

Deven chuckled. “You wouldn’t be this way if you understood how desperately the rest of us need this sleep.”

 

“I could’ve been in a comfortable bed right now, with a beautiful woman, having the highlight of my visit to Sharks’ Cove and you’re laughing?”

 

“She asked you to sleep with her?” Deven asked, surprised. “The doctor?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

“Rien, I’m flattered,” Deven laughed, “but you really should’ve picked her over me.”

 

“My love life has plenty of problems without any complications from Jenye,” Rien sighed.

 

“Kera?”

 

“Kera. Eile.”

 

“Eile? You saw her?”

 

“You know I was in Arvalia.”

 

“You’ve been going there at least once every two years since I’ve known you and this is the first time you’ve made an effort to see her,” Deven said.

 

“I didn’t make an effort,” Rien said. “We ran into each other.”

 

“And?”

 

“And…” Rien sighed. “I still love her.”

 

“And she?”

 

“I don’t think her feelings about me ever changed.”

 

“And Kera?”

 

Rien did not answer, remembering the harsh exclamation Eile made at the council of tribes. “If looks could kill…”

 

“Looks like you have a big choice to make,” Deven said.

 

“I had it to make long before that. There is no way Kera and I can continue.” He said that very bitterly, with much finality, although he never really felt any hostility towards her.

 

Deven did not answer, giving his friend a chance to vent his frustrations.

 

“Did I tell you she got me to make her my squire?”

 

“No.”

 

“She did. I think this is a good first step to end our physical relationship.”

 

“Just like that?” Deven asked.

 

Rien nodded, not quite sure if Deven could see that in the murky light of the dying ambers. “We’re of two different worlds. Where will we be in ten years?”

 

“So you’ll never sleep with another human female again?” Deven asked.

 

“That’s the general idea.”

 

“And you’ll get yourself a rich Eelail girl, have five kids and a big tree house…”

 

“Cut it out,” Rien warned.

 

“That’s what I thought,” Deven said. “You can’t run away.”

 

“I can’t stay, either.”

 

“Does Kera know it’s over?”

 

“I don’t know if she understands,” Rien said. “She loves me, I don’t doubt that, but I just don’t think she sees the problem.”

 

“So in your infinite wisdom, as a man who has three women chasing after him, which one will you pick?”

 

Rien did not answer for the longest time, then finally got up. Deven had this way of getting into the problem, making himself a part of it. Forcing Rien to think.

 

“The one I’ve hurt the most,” Rien sighed. “Who else could I pick?”

 

He walked over to the door of the shack and slammed it closed after stepping out. Deven remained sitting by the wall, knowing full well that Rien would need the time alone to think about what he just said. The mage chuckled and stretched out on the wooden floor. At least one of them needed sleep and for a welcomed change, Deven figured he would be the one to get a restful night.

 

***

 

“Sergeant! Are we free to turn in?”

 

“I guess that’ll be it for tonight. Go ahead. Tell everyone to be ready to sweep further north tomorrow.”

 

“Yes, Sir!”

 

Heavy footsteps echoed down the street as a group of men hurried down the dark street to a two story wood building.

 

“Sir, what about you?”

 

The sergeant turned and looked. “I’ll be there in a minute. I just want a moment out here alone.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Fresh air, Lasin! Just smell it!”

 

The other man paused, tilting his head up, as if to get a better sample of the cool night air. “It’s better than the stench of burned wood and blood, Sir,” the man agreed.

 

“Yes, yes. I find it’s the evenings I live for now, Lasin, when we put our swords away and rest from the day’s labours.”

 

“And enjoy the mead and the women, Sir?”

 

The sergeant laughed. “Let’s go in. The mead is better than fresh air when it comes to making me light headed, to forget what I’ve done during the day.”

 

The two soldiers hurried from the mouth of the alley after their companions and disappeared through a doorway under a kite shield. Silence took the street for a time, before shadows again moved against the walls of the buildings.

 

“You’re right. They’re staying at the Dragon.”

 

“We need to go in.”

 

Silence. Two men crawled along the wall, watching for any other activity in the street. Two windows lit up with flickering flames above them and laughter floated into the alley.

 

“Any last words?” Rien asked.

 

“No.”

 

“Deven!”

 

The mage paused, looking back.

 

“Don’t stir trouble!”

 

“My god, Rien! We’re going in there with a dozen soldiers and you’re saying don’t stir trouble? There are going to be a lot of deaths in there tonight. It’s either us or them.”

 

“Don’t look for trouble,” Rien warned.

 

“I don’t think you know how much I love life,” the mage whispered. “I’ll do as much as I can to avoid risking it and everything that I can to save it!”

 

“You do that.”

 

They moved up to the rear door of The Tipsy Dragon and paused one more time.

 

“Is it open?” Deven asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“It never stops to amaze me how often people lock the front door to stop intruders, only to leave the back door wide open.”

 

“Shhh!”

 

A scream echoed down the alley.

 

“That came from above,” Deven looked up. “Perhaps I should go with you?”

 

“You look downstairs,” Rien answered sharply. “The upstairs is my problem.”

 

“You’ll run into trouble,” the mage protested.

 

“Then I’ll call for help. Stick to the original plan for now!”

 

Rien pushed open the back door, allowing a partial view of the rear corridor and the kitchen doorway. Everything was dark, with only a dim glow of a flickering candle visible in the kitchen.

 

“It’s clear. Go.”

 

Deven slid past Rien and through the open door, pressing himself against the wall once inside. A moment later Rien followed, taking the other wall. Both men looked up and down the corridor, then advanced forward, pausing at the doorway to the kitchen. Rien nodded and Deven slid into the kitchen, heading for the stairs leading to the basement. Rien himself crept further down the corridor to the rear stairs leading up, then, as quietly as he could, ascended into darkness.

 

***

 

It was still very early when Rien arrived at the Abyssment. The tavern was almost empty due to the early hour and ordering a non-alcoholic drink, Rien took a seat at the corner table from which he could see both the stairs and the front door.

 

Some time passed with him watching people coming and going, thinking about the events of the last few days. He was becoming worried about Adrea, more worried than he was on his way to Sharks’ Cove. He had been here for six days and in this time made no progress. He was no closer to knowing Adrea’s whereabouts and as each moment passed, the chances of her being found became more and more remote. He was angry with himself for letting Adrea talk him into letting her stay in Sharks’ Cove. There was no need for her to do that and no reason for him to agree, other than her talking faster than he could reason. The Tipsy Dragon was just another facility that happened to make money. There was no reason to maintain it. The funds it provided served little use, usually being used to keep the tavern going and building maintained, not that other funds were unavailable for these tasks.

 

Rien mentally kicked himself. Everything was fine. It was just a matter of time before Adrea would be found. Safe. He shifted impatiently. Jenye was now late. Had something happen to her? Should he wait or ask at the bar? He waited longer, now worrying about two people, instead of one. Finally giving up, Rien made his way to the bar and asked the man on the other side of the counter for Jenye.

 

“You’re that Ryan fellow?” the bartender asked.

 

“Yea,” Rien winced at the pronunciation. `Something like that.’

 

“Eran,” the man called a serving girl over. “Take this man to the warehouse and stay there. Don’t go back alone.”

 

“Sure, Eli.”

 

Rien followed her out of the Abyssment, as soon as she left her apron behind the counter. The girl was young, maybe fifteen or sixteen. She did not say anything.

 

“Why aren’t you supposed to come back alone?” Rien finally had to ask.

 

“Because the soldiers are in the streets,” the girl answered, almost surprised the question was asked.

 

“Well, of course, they’re always there! We’re at war!”

 

She looked at him, obviously surprised. “You didn’t hear, did you?”

 

“Hear what?”

 

“About the attempt on Admiral Talens’ life?”

 

“No.” Now Rien was genuinely surprised himself. “When?”

 

“Sometime yesterday. An archer just missed him and he ordered everyone west of Quirin to be put to the sword.”

 

“West of Quirin?” That included all of the docks, most of the old quarter and all of the merchant quarter. “That’s more than half the city!”

 

The girl did not answer and Rien decided against saying anything more. He was thankful that they were out in the east part of Sharks’ Cove, upstream from Quirin, and concerned about what was happening on the other side of town. Just few months ago Sharks’ Cove was a bustling city of ten thousand, among the largest in Baranur. By the time he arrived a few days ago, it was said that the four Benosian regiments patrolling the city consisted of more people than what was left of the local population. What would the slaughter of another half of the people leave? Rien wished he could do something, but he knew he was as helpless to stop the enemy as the rest of the populace.

 

Within a few minutes Eran brought Rien to a building with a huge front door and knocked. A sliding bar could be heard and the door cracked open.

 

“What is it?” a man, barely visible behind it, asked. All that could be seen of him was where a narrow streak of light fell across his face.

 

Rien nervously looked up and down the street. They were probably a half league from the part of town where the people were being killed and he could feel a chill in the air.

 

“Is Doctor Calyd here?” Eran asked.

 

“Who’s he?” the man asked cautiously.

 

“He’s looking for her. Eli told me to bring him here.”

 

The door opened into a dark room and Rien followed the girl inside. The room went much further back than it seemed at first, the back part separated from the entrance by a black curtain.

 

“She’s in the back,” the man said. Rien could now see that he was dressed in chain armor, complete with a sword and a long dagger on his belt and a shield and a helmet lying on a chair.

 

Before Eran could indicate for Rien to follow her, the guard closed the door, sliding the heavy deadbolt back into place. The room submerged into murky darkness, illuminated by a single candle. Eran stumbled towards the curtain and brushed it aside. Rien followed her, better oriented to the darkness on this side of the curtain. They walked through the room and down a short corridor to another, larger room, where many people rushed about and about three dozen lay on the floor. There was more blood there than all those bodies could account for.

 

Rien looked at the bodies in desperation, half expecting to see Adrea among them, but while there were quite a few women there, he saw no trace of her.

 

“Come this way,” Eran called to him and he followed her to the other side of the room where Jenye tended to an injured man.

 

Rien knelt by her, taking a bloody gauze she was trying to manipulate and holding it in place. As he took it from Jenye’s hands, he realized that her hand was glowing, radiating a warmth which forced the wound to close up. His own arm became pleasantly warm from the closeness of the magical source.

 

“All right,” Jenye took the bandage from Rien. “He’ll make it.”

 

“I didn’t realize you were a mage,” Rien muttered.

 

“Neither did I, until I saw my father die,” she picked up the lose strips of cloth on the ground and moved to the next patient.

 

“I’m sorry,” Rien followed her.

 

“So am I. He might’ve lived if I had found out sooner.” She unwrapped and examined the deep cut on the woman’s forearm as blood freely flowed to the floor.

 

“Can you move your fingers?”

 

“No,” the woman shook her head, obviously in pain.

 

“Hold her arm still,” Jenye instructed Rien.

 

He did, not understanding the reason, as the woman lay perfectly still. Jenye took a glass marble from her pouch and forced it into the wound. The woman screamed in agony and Rien had to struggle to keep her steady. A glow again emanated from Jenye’s hands, making the torn skin grow together. The bleeding stopped and the injured woman quietly sobbed.

 

“Lie still,” Jenye told her. “You’ll be all right…”

 

Rien looked into the injured woman’s eyes, realizing for the first time that she could be no older than Eran. Just a girl, caught in a war. “What happened here?” he asked Jenye.

 

“Come on,” the doctor answered, hurrying to the next patient, a man dressed in chain and some plate. A second man, dressed in the same manner, sat by him, unsuccessfully trying to stop the bleeding from an open wound in his side.

 

“How long was he here?” Jenye asked.

 

“I don’t know…”

 

The wound was so wide and deep, there was no need to remove the chain shirt to access it. “You should’ve gotten me sooner,” she scolded. “He lost a lot of blood.”

 

Clanking sounds alerted Rien to look up. Two men carrying a third entered the room. “Doctor!”

 

“Wait your turn!”

 

“He’s going to die!” they put the body on the floor.

 

“So will this one!” she thrust all of the bandages to Rien and saying, “stop the bleeding,” hurried to take a look at the newcomer.

 

Rien moved closer to the body, pulled the soldier’s armored shirt up, adjusted the torn and stained tunic and placed a cloth strip over the wound. The cut was deep, probably made by a pike or an axe, slicing deep into the right side, under the ribs. Rien had no doubt that the man’s intestines were cut. He threw another layer of cloth over the wound as the first soaked up the blood. In a battlefield an injury such as this would be considered unsalvageable and he would be permitted to die. A third strip of cloth followed the second and although unconscious, the man groaned from the pain.

 

“What happened?” Rien asked the man sitting by him, while continuing his attempts to slow the flow of blood.

 

“He’s my brother…”

 

That was not the answer Rien desired. The bleeding did not stop and he continued layering the cloth. The wound was simply too deep, too wide. “Jenye!”

 

He was not sure where she came from, but her hands checked the wound, then rapidly checked the man’s throat. They hovered there for a moment, then she pushed herself away from the body. “He’s dead. They’re both dead.”

 

Rien removed his bloody hands from the wound. The man died while he was trying to save him and the blood flow was so strong, there was no indication that he had died, even now. The man’s brother sat unmoving, looking at the body. He was probably in shock.

 

“Jenye, what happened?”

 

“Ga’en missed. The one shot that mattered the most, he missed…”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

There were tears in her eyes. “I don’t know any more…”

 

“Doctor!” a man called.

 

“Come on,” she got up, wiping her eyes and smearing blood on her face.

 

Rien followed her to the next casualty of war.

 

“Get me more bandages,” Jenye told the man who called her and he rushed off.

 

As Rien helped tend to the wounded, he eventually lost count of the number of people that passed by him and the types of wounds that they had. It all blended together into one long nightmarish string of bodies and screams and blood from people whose only fault was living on the wrong side of town. Children and elderly, men and women, rich and poor all alike had become targets of the Benosian force. At first, the calm frozen faces of the dead stayed with Rien, but by mid-afternoon even they began to blend together due to their numbers. Every type of wound imaginable had passed by him during the day. Everything from cuts and bruises to burns and mutilation on young and old alike. His clothes became stained with the blood which had covered all of the floor of the large room and the trails of which seemed to crawl though the doorways, as if trying to reach other parts of the building. Each time he closed his eyes, he could see the worst of the wounds and hear the screams of the dying and worst of all, the smell of death followed him at every step, even after it got dark and there were no more people being brought in to be helped.

 

The day passed as if in a dream and Rien found himself and Jenye sitting in a darkened back room, recovering from their ordeal. Her arms were around him, face buried in his hair, spilled over his shoulder, and he was only remotely aware of his own arms around her waist.

 

“I’ve never seen anything so inhumane in my life,” he heard himself say, not sure why he was saying it. There was no question that half the people were tortured and left to die.

 

“You’re a soldier,” he felt Jenye’s warm breath on his neck.

 

“I never killed for sport… I always fought for survival.”

 

“This is a different war. I’m sorry I made you come here.”

 

“I came of my own free will.”

 

Rien could feel Jenye’s lips on his jaw and then on his own, but refused to fight her. He had no more fight left in him tonight and did not think she had any, either.

 

***

 

Darkness slowly dissolved into the comforting flicker of candles lighting the second floor corridor. Rien held as close to the stairs as he could, raising his head just enough to see over the top step into the lit corridor. Everything was quiet, most of the dozen doors on the floor closed, some with flickering shadows of flame seen from beneath them.

 

Rien hurried up, knowing he had little time to check all rooms before meeting Deven again on the other side. Their goal was only to make sure that Adrea was not there. He did not want to be forced into a confrontation with the soldiers at the inn, even though Deven stressed it was inevitable.

 

He checked the first room, with an open door, satisfying his curiosity that it was empty. How many soldiers were there? At least a dozen. Probably twenty, plus their sergeant. A standard squad of men. There were a dozen individual rooms on the second floor. Six more in the basement. That would average one to a room. Most were probably still in the tavern portion of the inn, getting drunk.

 

He checked the second open room. Empty. The third had a closed door. Rien paused and listened. Nothing. Sounds could be heard coming from other rooms, but not from here. He pushed it open. Empty.

 

The next door hid a lit candle in the very least and he debated opening it now. Would it be worth the risk? He pushed it open a crack. Nothing. He pushed it open some more and stepped inside. Empty. A travel pack on the floor, leather gloves, hauberk and camail on the unmade bed. The owner no where in site.

 

Carefully closing the door after himself, Rien returned to the corridor. The next door was also open, the dark room empty. `Almost half,’ Rien paused at a closed door. From the next room down he heard a moan. Pleasure? Agony? It was hard to tell. Either way, he would soon have to look in. He paused at the current door, listening, when running footsteps sounded at the far end of the corridor, where the other set of stairs was and not giving things a second thought, Rien pushed the door open and entered.

 

Dark. Outline of a bed near the shuttered window. A form on the bed. Sleeping?

 

“Forance? You so drunk you can’t find your room again?”

 

Rien grunted.

 

“Look, I told you it’s a bad idea to switch rooms after all this time.”

 

Rien did not move.

 

“Look, you dumb kid, get out, or I’ll throw you out!”

 

The door behind Rien opened and a large framed man stepped in.

 

“Forance?” the man on the bed asked.

 

“Gegurtuny?” the man in the doorway asked and put his hand on Rien’s shoulder.

 

“Who in the name of Sanar is with you?”

 

Rien’s elbow impacted with the gut of the man standing next to him, forcing him to double over, then Rien, grabbing his arm, flung him across the room into the bed.

 

Forance more slid than flew into the wall, but in the end wound up sprawled over Gegurtuny, grunting in pain. Rien stepped outside and pulled the door shut after himself. With any luck that would be all to his encounter, although deep inside he suspected there had to be more to it.

 

He had time to quickly verify another empty room before coming to the one he heard originate the moan not long ago. Five more rooms. He pushed the door open.

 

Inside, on the bed, lay a naked woman and in the middle of the room stood a naked man.

 

“Sorry,” Rien closed the door, hoping his accented Benosian would not be noticed. He did not recognize either of the pair.

 

The next room was also lit, but there was little time to hesitate. Rien pushed the door open, coming face to face with an armed and armored man.

 

“What?” the man turned in surprise.

 

“Just my luck,” Rien answered in the Baranurian tongue. He grabbed the man’s arms as the soldier drew his sword and smashed him against the wall. The man reversed the grab, pushing Rien against the other wall, both tripping over the bed and falling on it.

 

Rien punched. His opponent kicked. The bed tilted on it’s side, sending both of them to the floor. Rien kicked. The bed turned over completely, falling on the two men.

 

“Intru…” Rien’s fist connected with the man’s jaw, ending his warning with a yell of pain. They struggled to their feet, the Benosian soldier getting up in the doorway and Rien in the middle of the room.

 

Not wanting to waste time recovering, Rien put his shoulder into the soldier’s chest, as he charged out of the room, carrying the man across the narrow hallway and crashing against the door on the other side. The lock gave way and the door fell in, Rien and his opponent tumbling in after it.

 

“Keep it down!” A roar sounded from the corridor, followed by a female shriek. The man Rien tackled made no sound.

 

“Empty room,” Rien muttered and got up, stepping outside.

 

Three to go. He picked up the sword the soldier he fought dropped and hurried over to the next door. Sounds of drinking and talking could be heard from the overhang to the common room, not far away. The moment of truth was near. Pushing the door open, Rien paused in the doorway, looking at a partially dressed man leaning over a naked woman.

 

“Help!” the woman shrieked.

 

Rien brought up the sword as the man moved back.

 

At that moment the door half way down the corridor burst open to reveal the large man Rien had assaulted moments earlier. He looked mad and spotting Rien, headed right for him.

 

“Hang on,” Rien closed the door. He did not want to deal with more than one opponent at a time. To his surprise, he saw the large man draw a sword from over his shoulder, not stopping as he did so. Rien took a step back as heavy foot steps could be heard on the stairs. An armed and armored man appeared at the top of the landing, obviously expecting to run into trouble.

 

“What is going on out…?” the half naked man from the room Rien just looked in appeared in the corridor.

 

“It’s a party,” Rien smiled, grabbing his arm and flinging him into the man at the top of the stairs. Both tumbled down to the main room of the tavern in a tangle of arms and legs. Rien’s sword bounced down after them.

 

“Intruder!” Forance yelled and swung his sword.

 

***

 

“Let’er go!” A scream filled the air and Rien shifted, not sure if it was inside the building or in the street. Jenye, still asleep, turned, draping an arm around his neck and wrapping herself around him. He moved her arm and lifted his head, trying to listen. There were sounds of rushing feet in the corridor outside the room and more commotion further away.

 

“Come on,” he shook Jenye. “We’ve got to go!”

 

“Wha…?” she turned away from him, trying to stretch out on the floor.

 

“Jenye!” he whispered, grabbing hold of her arms and shaking her, “we have to leave now!”

 

“What is it?” she looked at him, still half asleep.

 

“The soldiers are here. Get dressed.”

 

That made her move much faster. They dressed as sounds of commotion picked up, but this time outside the room. Distinct sounds of swords and distant yells could be heard.

 

“What’s going on out there?”

 

Rien cracked the door open and looked out. The hallway was empty, but only for the moment. More footsteps sounded and Rien closed the door before anyone appeared in site.

 

“What is it?” Jenye asked impatiently.

 

“Probably soldiers. If they come in here, don’t resist. Do what I do and when I tell you to go, run like you’ve never run before.”

 

Another scream sounded. More rushing feet, the sound of someone falling.

 

“You’re not armed,” Jenye suddenly said.

 

“Shhh!”

 

The door slammed open to reveal two Benosian soldiers with swords drawn.

 

“Two more in here!” one of the men yelled in his tongue. By the looks of her, Rien did not think Jenye understood.

 

A sergeant walked in, sword arm bloody up to the elbow, clearly not with his own blood. “She’ll be good for the men, if she’s healthy,” he looked at Jenye. “Kill the man.”

 

Rien was glad that Jenye did not speak the language. He was not sure if he was glad that he did.

 

One of the soldiers turned to Rien, while the other waited in the doorway. It was time to think fast.

 

“It’s bad luck to stand in the doorway,” Rien said in their tongue. The man approaching him stopped. The sergeant folded his arms.

 

“So, you do understand… Kill him anyway.”

 

Dodging the swing of the sword, Rien slammed himself into the door, causing it to crash into the sergeant. The door hit him square in the chest, pushing him back, but catching his shoulder and bloody arm in the door frame and Rien could hear the satisfying sound of cracking bone.

 

The two remaining men closed in on him. “If you don’t move, this’ll be quick…”

 

Rien planted his back against the wall and pushed the door to let the unconscious sergeant fall. He would have to retreat to the corridor to get the sword. That was no good.

 

Jenye started inching up, trying to sneak up on the soldiers, their backs now turned to her.

 

“Don’t move,” Rien warned her in Baranurian and one of the soldiers, who apparently understood, spun around.

 

Perfect.

 

Before he knew it, the man was tumbling down, shielding Rien from his companion’s sword. It was a quick thrust, unexpected by all in the room, and the man Rien knocked off balance went limp. The last soldier shouted for reinforcements.

 

“I was hoping you wouldn’t do that,” Rien said, still supporting the dead Benosian soldier.

 

The soldier backed away from Rien, trying to maneuver closer to the door.

 

“Here,” Rien gave the body he was holding on to a shove at his opponent and rushed him as they collided. The door slammed the other way, catching the soldier against the wall and stunning him. He slid down to the floor, leaving behind a trail of blood.

 

“Damn unlucky place to stand,” Rien pushed the unconscious sergeant out of the doorway. “Come on,” he turned to Jenye. “While they’re out.”

 

She hurried to him, but paused a few steps short of the door, looking him in the eyes. “You’re…”

 

Rien grabbed her and pulled her out of the room. “Let’s…” In the corridor lay two bodies of people who helped them take care of the injured the day before. Rien had little opportunity to become familiar with them, but after the emotional drain of the previous day, he had to pause to gather his thoughts.

 

“Oh, no,” Jenye bent down by one, a deep cut across his chest and part way down his abdomen. The other man was clearly dead, his throat slashed.

 

Commotion could be heard deeper in the building as Jenye’s hands started to glow green once again and she reached for the injured man.

 

“We don’t have the time!” Rien grabbed her hands and pulled her up. He could feel the magic affecting him.

 

“He’ll die!”

 

“So will we, if we don’t get out of here!” He almost carried her to get her away from the body. “We don’t have the time to do this!”

 

“He’s my friend!”

 

They made it to a side door and Rien forced Jenye into the alley. “Then he’ll understand! You’re no good to anyone dead!”

 

“And neither is he!”

 

“Jenye, that wound is simply too extensive to spend time on,” Rien stopped, forcing her to look at him. “And even if you healed it, he wouldn’t have the strength to leave and neither would you! You can’t risk yourself this way.”

 

“Isn’t that what friends are all about?” she asked, pulling against his grasp. “I’m going back.”

 

“No!” Rien said, but Jenye pulled free, rushing towards the edge of the alley. “Jenye!”

 

She stopped just short of the mouth of the alley, at the sight of two Benosian soldiers.

 

“Jenye!”

 

The soldiers drew their swords.

 

“Run!”

 

She turned, the soldiers on her heels.

 

Not having a sword available, Rien picked up a sturdy plank and prepared for an unbalanced fight. Jenye charged past him, closely followed by the two men. Rien met the first soldier with his plank, connecting with the man as the sword of the other dug into the wood, uncomfortably close to Rien’s fingers. He twisted the plank, yanking the weapon out of the soldier’s hands, making both weapons unusable.

 

With a yell, the soldier pulled a broadsword from over his shoulder, swinging down on the draw, the blade skipping across Rien’s upper arm, splattering blood in various directions. “For Untar!” The sword impacted Rien’s side making him fall over, “and for Beinison!” The weapon hovered in the air and began its downward plunge. “And for…”

 

The soldier toppled forward, the sword digging into the ground near Rien’s head, the edge cutting into his shoulder before coming to a rest.

 

“Rien!”

 

He could not move, the sword dangerously balanced between his neck and the soldier on top of him. The Benosian warrior did not move.

 

“Rien!”

 

Through his pain, his eyes focused on the man above him, a trickle of blood forming at the edge of the soldier’s open mouth. The head dropped down with a final breath and the shifting weight forced the sword down. Rien pushed at the ground with his heels, desperately trying to get away from the blade, or at least to get his head out of the way.

 

The body fell on him, but the sword froze in the air, stuck in the ground at an improbable angle.

 

“Rien?”

 

He cautiously opened his eyes, his vision obscured by blood.

 

“Rien?”

 

Jenye held on to the sword with one hand and pushed the dead soldier off Rien with the other. Before he could say anything, her glowing hands reached for his wounds. “I’m sorry…”

 

Rien did not answer, lying still as the pain in his side began to dissipate. He deserved that cut. Both, actually. All three. He let the soldier get the better of him. He deserved worse than he got. It was just his luck to fight a walking arsenal with no weapons of his own.

 

“Go!” Rien caught himself. “Before more come.” His voice was a mere whisper.

 

“You’ll bleed to death if I leave you!”

 

Rien did not believe that to be the case, but was fully aware of the severity of his wounds and that without healing, he would be in no condition to go far alone. “Leave me,” he repeated.

 

“Friends don’t do things like that,” she said again.

 

“Don’t be foolish,” Rien gasped. “How long have you known me? What do you know of me?”

 

“I know you’re kind, gentle and you care.”

 

Rien tried to sit up, doing so with a tremendous effort and a groan. He could feel the wound in his side tearing and grabbed Jenye’s arm for support.

 

“You’re only making it worse,” she warned, pushing him back down.

 

“No,” Rien resisted. “Not in the middle of an alley.”

 

Jenye looked up and down the street. It was probably the only one in Sharks’ Cove that happened to be completely free of trash and debris. Well, almost completely free. There was one overturned crate lying by the wall some twenty yards away. She again reached for the wound in Rien’s side, forcing it to seal. For the time being, she was not going to bother with the one in his arm, or the shoulder. Neither was life threatening and he was right, she was tired and the effort was already costing her a lot.

 

“Get out of here,” Rien’s left hand locked tightly around her wrist, “before more come.”

 

“No!” she yanked her hand away from his and continued to work, ignoring his protests. Finally, Rien seemingly gave up, resting on the ground as Jenye closed the major wound. She had to force herself to finish the job, in spite of fatigue. She would not have done this for many people, but in the last few days Rien impressed her as few others would have and even surprised her a number of times.

 

When she finished, Jenye sat down, picking up one of the swords the Beinison soldier dropped. Although she had no intention, or skill, to use the weapon, perhaps if she just held it in her lap, it would make her seem a more formidable opponent in this city.

 

Rien appeared to be asleep, the wound in his side healed. The other two wounds, on his arm and shoulder, still needed attention, as blood trickled down to the ground from them, and tearing the dead soldier’s tunic, Jenye proceeded to bandage them. She paused as she tore the man’s clothes, noticing for the second time the black arrow that cost him his life. She wanted to hate Ga’en for the horrors he brought on the city and at the same time was grateful for what he had done in this alley. She did not think she could handle losing Rien after the previous day and painfully realized that his current condition was her fault.

 

Finishing with the wounds, Jenye pulled Rien down the alley to the large crate that could give them cover for a little while. She also moved the two dead bodies and sat them up in a doorway where they seemed about as inconspicuous as they had in the middle of the street, not that anyone would give them a second thought in this town.

 

Coming back to Rien, she sat down, her back against the box and let out a deep sigh. Now everything was a matter of time. Both he and she needed to recover strength and with any luck, they would move on before more soldiers show up. She could, in all truth, leave now to look for help or better shelter, but she could not force herself to abandon Rien, not after what he had done for her. Lost in her thoughts, Jenye reached to check Rien’s wounds again. The one in his side was repaired to the point of not bleeding, but it still needed attention that she could not provide without her tools. The other wounds, although less severe, were merely bound and still bleeding.

 

“Help me up,” Rien’s voice startled Jenye as she moved to adjust the bandages.

 

“I thought you were asleep…” she muttered. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

 

“A pained sleep is a waste of time. Help me up.”

 

“You’re too weak,” she protested.

 

“Too weak to fight if the situation calls for it. I can travel…now.”

 

“The hell you can.”

 

“Jenye, that sleep did me a lot of good. Help me.”

 

She hesitated, but finally offered him a hand, surprised at how quickly he accepted it and sat up.

 

“The flesh is healed, but the pain will last as it normally would. Some things must heal at their own pace.”

 

“I’ll be fine, thank you,” Rien answered.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jenye said. She did not want it to seem to be an after thought.

 

“I’ll be fine,” he repeated. “Let’s go. We need to find a safe place.”

 

“The Abyssment,” Jenye suggested. “It’s pretty far east and I’m sure Gaius won’t let anything happen to it… Can you make it? It’s almost a full league.”

 

Rien stood up, exerting more of an effort than he expected he would need, but less than what Jenye predicted. At first a little unsteady, he regained his feet. “I’ll make it. Let’s go.”

 

“Why didn’t you leave me?” Jenye asked, offering Rien help. He accepted it without argument.

 

“Same reason you didn’t leave me when I asked, I imagine.” Concentrating on both walking and the pain was a chore.

 

“That’s not fair,” she protested.

 

“But is it true?”

 

“Yes. I meant what I said about friends. I make them for life.”

 

“I hope I was an exceptionally fast case, then,” Rien said.

 

“You were.”

 

“It wasn’t because of last night, was it?”

 

“I was going to ask you about that.”

 

Rien did not answer, watching the deserted streets pass by. It was hard to tell if the fighting in the last day had come this far or if the scars on the buildings were from previous conflicts. He wondered what to say, not having a good answer to give. He did not want to insult Jenye, but neither did he want to give her any false hope.

 

“I think that at times our desperation becomes so great that we are willing to seek comfort in places we know better than to look.”

 

“It was just a convenience for you,” Jenye said. He could hear the hurt in her voice.

 

“It was a needed escape for both of us, from the horrors we had witnessed,” he answered, hoping she was more convinced than he.

 

“Did it make you feel anything?”

 

Rien stopped, taking a deep breath. He needed a rest. The walk was taking a lot out of him. “Jenye, you’re the only good thing I’ve seen in this city since I arrived here. I’ll never forget that…or you, but there are things about me you don’t know.”

 

She wrapped her arm around him, for a better grip, and brushed his hair back with the other, revealing a pointed ear. “Like this?”

 

“Please,” he pushed her arm away, almost backing out of her grip. “These are demons you don’t want to unleash…”

 

“Do you really think that being different makes you so horrible?”

 

“Jenye…”

 

“I slept with you, knowing you were different. I saw your eyes change color in the fight this morning. I can’t explain some things about you, but I didn’t run because of them. You need to trust me a little more.”

 

“I do, but you have to trust me when I tell you that it would be all wrong.” He sank down a little. “Arvalia is more different that you think. We can enjoy the moment, but never a lifetime.”

 

She pulled him back up, her hands glowing.

 

“Jenye, don’t. You’re too tired. One of us in this condition is more than enough…”

 

Surprisingly, she listened.

 

Rien attempted to maintain his breathing at a normal rate, avoiding gasps and spasms that made it that much more difficult to stand up. “All right,” he straightened himself out.

 

They returned to the Abyssment, still sparsely populated, even at this hour, without any further interruptions. It would appear that all the excitement had been limited to the bay and the western portion of the city, and the most obvious thing about the tavern was that for the first time in a long time, it was empty of Benosian soldiers.

 

“My God, Jenye,” the bartender, Eli, hurried to her as they walked in. “Almost no one got out of the warehouse!”

 

“I know,” she embraced him. “We barely got out ourselves. I don’t know how…”

 

Eli looked at Rien. “You know the policy on having the injured here.”

 

“He’s a special case. I’ll take responsibility. We just need a room.”

 

Eli shook his head, but got a key and handed it to her. “I don’t want to see him down here with all that blood.”

 

“You won’t.”

 

She took Rien up to a room looking out at the remains of the market square and barred the door after them. “Lie down,” she instructed Rien.

 

He did. “Don’t waste your strength on me. I’ll be fine by morning. Just shake me awake.”

 

“You need to eat something,” Jenye protested.

 

“I’ll eat when I wake up.”

 

“Just rest. I’ll bring something and get some water to clean your wounds.” She hurried to get everything she needed, but when she returned, Rien was asleep and she decided against waking him up. The rest would at least restore his strength and the time could be used to clean and rebandage the other wounds. Jenye still did not feel strong enough to use magic without overexerting herself and passing out. She carefully washed and bandaged his arm and shoulder and took the opportunity to examine him one more time. Except for the ears, he looked like any other normal human male. Yet, he was obviously not just like other men, but she still refused to believe in the old stories and mythology. There had to be a sensible explanation.

 

Having eaten a little of what she brought, Jenye went downstairs to talk to Eli about what had happened, find out what he heard and tell of the horrors she had witnessed.

 

The news was not good.

 

The pay back for the assault on Talens was rapid and vicious. There was little news about the current condition of the western portion of the city and enough people attempted to flee that the massacre had spilled over into the eastern half. Hardly anyone who fell in sight of Benosian soldiers survived.

 

The day before, Gaius Caligula, upon hearing of the order to the Beinison troops, sent a number of his people to one of his river warehouses to aid those in his employ who were caught in the wrong portion of the city. At first they aided just their own injured, but as the day went on, others started to seek asylum in this little haven and a decision was made not to turn anyone away. Although a criminal, Gaius knew which side to take in this battle and supported the citizens of Sharks’ Cove.

 

Trying not to think of all the faces, the people she personally knew, who died in her care in the last day, Jenye returned to the room where Rien slept and re-examined his wounds. They still oozed blood, but appeared much better. Controlled not to be life threatening, but still not well enough to permit him to travel.

 

“Who are you, Rien Keegan?” she wondered.

 

Considering her actions, Jenye undressed for bed, unwrapped the bandages on Rien’s arm and shoulder and once again attempted to heal them and the serious wound in his side. Somewhere along the way she passed out from fatigue.

 

***

 

Rien barely managed to move back against the banister as the sword cut through the air, catching his arm and tearing through cloth and flesh alike.

 

Acutely aware that without a sword he was helpless against this man, Rien glanced down into the common room where a half dozen men stood looking up, and exerted the strength to hurdle over the railing before the second swing of the sword could catch him.

 

Managing to keep his balance below him, Rien landed on the edge of a table, causing the far end to swing up, impacting with the chin of the man sitting at that end, splattering blood and teeth across the room. Others scrambled to their feet, those with weapons available drawing steel in preparation for combat.

 

“Hold it!” a large man by the fireplace stood up. “Who are you?”

 

Weapons came to a rest as Rien recovered his feet and the man at the other end of the table slowly slid out of his chair and to the floor, unconscious.

 

The sergeant put down his mug and approached Rien, leaving his sword to dangle at his side. “You are?”

 

Rien took a step back. He beat Deven to the common room. And he missed two rooms.

 

“I’m looking for a friend, but I think I got the wrong tavern…”

 

One of the soldiers pulled the unconscious man from under the table and the two that tumbled down the stairs untangled themselves and got up. At least three people stood on the balcony upstairs, looking down.

 

“I think you got the wrong tavern, too,” the sergeant said and returned to his seat. “Kill him. But not here. I don’t want a dirty floor.”

 

Two men with drawn swords approached Rien.

 

“I wouldn’t,” Rien warned. He had no idea what he was going to do, but stalling for time could not hurt. If anything, it would give Deven time to finish his rounds and come up stairs, assuming Deven was lucky enough not to run into any trouble. Rien was not sure if he wanted Deven to have found Adrea. This would be tough enough to get out of. If she were hurt, it might make the situation impossible.

 

One of the soldiers silently warned Rien with his sword and Rien backed up some more. He detected a faint trace of smoke in the air, too faint for the others to pick up.

 

“Get going!” the soldier made a grab for Rien. He missed a seemingly unavoidable target and crashed down to the floor, as much to his companions’ surprise, as to Rien’s.

 

“What the…” the other soldier brought up his sword to strike Rien, but dropped it as it turned red hot.

 

“Mage!” someone yelled, filling the room with panic. Simple prestidigitators and conjurors were quite common on Makdiar, but serious wizards, of skill such as that presently displayed, were quite rare and very dangerous in the field of battle. The Benosian soldiers shifted about the room, none wanting to be Rien’s next target. Even the man who dropped his sword hurried to what he felt to be a safe range. The sergeant once again got up.

 

“Yes, a mage,” a deep Benosian voice sounded from the rear of the tavern, making all the men with their backs to it jump and hurry to place themselves against the safety of the nearest wall. Deven stepped out from behind the bar.

 

“And who are you?” the sergeant stepped forward, showing the initiative the half dozen men with him failed to exhibit. Rien’s eyes targeted the backs of the two men nearest him.

 

Deven calmly walked into the room, reached into his tunic and produced a medallion which he let dangle on its chain. “I am Lord Skalen Deven Yasarin, rightful heir to the Barony of Marolleris, son of Lord Kuvinmel and Lady Ashasan Yasarin. And who are you?”

 

The sergeant broke into a light chuckle, followed by his men, the uneasy laughter turning to full bursts of gut splitting contempt. “Kill ‘em both.”

 

The soldier nearest to Deven drew his sword and swung, still chocking with glee, as the blade impacted the soft cloak. The seemingly soft cloth refused to give to the blade’s passage and the weapon tumbled from the surprised soldier’s grasp. The mocking laughter subsided to somber groans as the soldier backed away. His own hand reached down to his side and came back up stained with blood, from a wound level with how he struck the mage. Deven only shook his head.

 

Not wasting the precious time, Rien attacked the man nearest him, planting his boot into the man’s back, sending him sprawling forward across tables and chairs, taking down another man in his path.

 

The man who dropped his sword when trying to attack Rien, grabbed a bottle and turned at the sound of the racket, fast enough to see Rien close, but not fast enough to react. He slammed into a wall and sunk down to the ground.

 

None of the other men moved, still watching Deven and the man sinking to the floor before him.

 

“Sergeant…” a tongue of flame licked at the air through the open doorway behind Deven, making the soldiers take another step back. “Sergeant, surely you’ve heard the story of the Yasarin family. All dead? Not dead? Two publicly executed, but what happened to the children?”

 

The large soldier on the stairs, Forance, let out a yell and leapt the few feet separating him from the mage, his sword held before him, aimed at a stationary target. It sank through the cloak, making Rien flinch as he expected Deven to collapse, but the mage remained on his feet and only moved his arms to lower the stunned soldier to the ground. Forance slipped from his grasp and fell backwards on the floor, a deep wound in his chest.

 

“Sir Keegan,” Deven turned to Rien, “leave. These men are mine.”

 

Rien took an unsure step forward, towards the door. He knew what his friend intended to do, but was not sure if he should let him. His hesitancy did not seem unusual to the Benosian soldiers around him, who only backed up even more. He knew the risks of challenging Deven’s authority now. In spite of what he felt to be right, he had to let Deven finish this on his own terms. There was simply no other way.

 

Rien walked past the sergeant, taking care to be ready if the man attacked him, but the old soldier made no move even as Rien opened and closed the door. He paused in the street, casting a glance back at the tavern, looking at the kite shield over the door, displaying a fat green dragon lying on its back, a filled bubbling glass in its clumsy claw and a goofy glazed look in his eyes. Something in him shattered as he realized that this symbol of some of his closest friends had been lost to the horrors of war. He would forever remember it as a place where Adrea disappeared, where he and Deven made a stand against enemy troops.

 

Crossing the street to the river, Rien hopped off the wood supported embankment onto the soft white sand and walked to the rushing waters, looking off into the distance where flickers of light on the distant southern shore could be seen. Behind him, in the shuttered windows of The Tipsy Dragon, orange flames lapped at the walls of the building.

 

***

 

Rien opened his eyes, a sensation of extreme hunger foremost on his mind. He shifted, realizing how sore he was and noticed the lack of bandages that were on him before. Instead, there was an arm draped across his chest.

 

“Jenye…” he did not know what had happened and the idea was not much to his liking. “Jenye?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“How long have I been out?”

 

She lifted her head and looked towards the window, where the sun had already risen in the east. “Over night. You and I both…”

 

“You…”

 

She kissed him. “You don’t have to thank me.”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“How do you feel?” she sat up.

 

“Sore.”

 

“Just sore?”

 

He moved his arm. “Just sore. Very sore.”

 

“I’m sorry this happened,” Jenye apologized again.

 

Rien brushed his hand across her stomach. “Another place, another time…”

 

“What?”

 

He shook his head. “Thank you for taking care of me.”

 

Jenye put her arms around him. “I’ll be sorry to see you go.”

 

“I still need to find Adrea,” he reminded her.

 

“You…” Jenye sighed. “I guess there isn’t such a thing as a good time to tell you. Your friend was killed the first day of the invasion.”

 

“What?”

 

“Moldan found a witness. The invasion was so sudden, few had a chance to flee. She died at the tavern.”

 

“No!”

 

As he spoke, Jenye saw the pupils of his eyes turn steel grey.

 

“I must speak with the witness!”

 

“Rien, don’t. Please.”

 

“I must.”

 

His look and the tone of his voice frightened her, but she felt the obligation to resist. “You don’t know what you’re asking…”

 

“Yes, I do. Tell me who the witness is!” his voice rose.

 

Jenye turned away from Rien. There were things she needed to talk to him about now for over a day and this seemed to be the right time. She had his attention and the time.

 

“You left two coins in Moldan’s house. He gave them back to me to return to you.”

 

“You’re changing the topic,” Rien warned.

 

“Gold Marks?”

 

“Jenye!”

 

“Do you know what can happen to a commoner with two Gold Marks in a town like this?”

 

Rien grabbed her shoulder and twisted her to face him. “Jenye!”

 

“What are you going to do? Find out who killed her? Go kill them? Why don’t you go after Talens? He’s hiding in Quirin while his men loot and pillage the city!”

 

“Jenye, Adrea was always my responsibility. I trained her. I worked with her. I was there when her daughter was born. I’m not going to abandon her now, dead or alive!”

 

“You won’t let her rest until you see blood at the end of your sword!”

 

“If that’s what it takes, but I will look in the eyes of the man who killed her and see what’s in his soul.”

 

“The witness is Barar, Moldan’s son,” Jenye turned away again. “It’s part of the reason for his nightmares. When I went back, he described things to me that he doesn’t know the words for. He was there that day. He saw it happen…and he’ll never forget it.”

 

“What happened?”

 

“A half dozen men chased a girl in to the tavern, a commoner, and killed her. Your friend tried to stop them, killed a soldier, injured some others… Then they caught her, raped her, gutted her and left her to die.”

 

Rien threw his legs over the edge of the bed and got up. “No…”

 

“It’ll comfort you to know that they were the ones staying at the tavern. You killed them already.”

 

Rien did not answer.

 

“Do you feel better now that you know the truth? Does it please you that they died by your hand? You’re just like them! Just like any other man who ever picked up a sword! It’s people like you that make this world such a miserable place to live!”

 

Fighting the pain and the soreness with his anger, Rien picked up his blood stained tunic and put it on. “I am sorry I disappointed you with who I am, but I warned you that it would happen. Goodbye.”

 

She did not move as he walked out. Perhaps what she said was enough or too much, but it all stemmed from frustration of the last few days and the knowledge that he was going to leave anyway, no matter what she would have told him. She was only sorry that the news she had to deliver him was bad. She really had no bad will towards him or his mission. It just came out sounding that way, her anger was at what was happening in Sharks’ Cove. Rien was still among the kindest, most sensitive people she ever met and seeing him go still hurt, in spite of her displeasure with his profession. Perhaps she did do wrong, after all.

 

***

 

Rien managed to control himself enough not to slam the door to the room behind himself. He was angry at the news and at how he was treated, but he could not disagree with what Jenye had said. He himself had said the very same thing a countless number of times. He just did not expect to hear it from her so harshly. Compounded with the news of Adrea’s death, he found himself at a complete loss. Worse than that, there was nothing he could do, no one to take his frustrations out on.

 

He paused at the end of the corridor, before going down the stairs, and forced himself to calm down. He was not going to do anyone any good by staying mad, himself most of all. After a brief rest, he proceeded down the stairs and towards the door across the room.

“Rien!” he heard Jenye’s voice when he was half way across the common room. In spite of himself, Rien stopped and turned. Jenye stood at the top of the stairs, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. “We need to talk.”

 

For what seemed like forever, he did not move, the eyes of everyone in the room either on him or her. He really could not say that he hated her or never wanted to see her again. In a way he could understand her angry outburst, but at the same time he could see the mistake he made with Kera and did not want to repeat it a second time. It would hurt now, but it would be easier to get over than in the future. She would probably hate him, perhaps as much as he would hate himself, but it had to be done.

 

As all confused patrons focused on him, he once again turned around and left the Abyssment, this time for good.

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