Author Topic: A matter of honour, by JOHN-WHITEHOUSE,  (Read 1176 times)

Offline DannicaAngel

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A matter of honour, by JOHN-WHITEHOUSE,
« on: April 23, 2010, 09:06:29 PM »
Intro: Alain is determined to avenge the slaying of his father - even if it costs him his own life

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Tarmerius heard a rapping on the door, loud and insistent. Putting down his quill, the priest rose from the table and moved across the room. In his early sixties, he was tall and slim with a bush of white hair and a small beard which came to a point, like a lance, beneath his chin. Opening the door, he saw Jakon standing there, breathless from running.
‘I was sent to fetch you,’ panted the boy, who was in his mid-teens. ‘Please, come quickly.’
Stepping out into the fading light of the evening, Tarmerius followed the youth along the dirt track leading to the village, his long white robe fluttering in the breeze. A couple of Jakons’ friends were busy rousing the rest of the inhabitants from their huts, speaking anxiously and pointing toward the beach. Telling Jakon to go on ahead, Tarmerius continued at a slower pace, other villagers hurrying past him on his way down to the sea.
His feet had taken their first crunching steps on the shingle when he froze. A ship, the wind swelling its large golden sail, was heading for the shore. The vessel was literally flying though the air, a dozen feet or so above the waves, and although still a fair distance from land, was travelling at considerable speed.
‘It’s witchcraft,’ said Jakon. ‘But who could it be? And what do they want?’
Tarmerius made no reply. He continued to gaze at the ship, his expression grim and sombre. He had little doubt who was behind this. So Darakon had discovered his whereabouts, after all these years. His stomach tightened, fear slithering inside it like a serpent. His first instinct was to flee to the hills but he knew Darakon would find him wherever he went. He thought of Alain and mouthed a silent prayer to the gods. Then he turned and walked slowly back to his house.
By now the entire population of Tharn, some two hundred men, women and children, were gathered on the beach. Their anxious mutterings increased as the ship, similar in size to a man-of-war, came ever nearer. As the vessel drew in to shore it slowed its speed and lowered itself to the water. The villagers drew back as it beached on the shingle. Rope ladders were slung over the sides and the people watched as the occupants began to clamber out.
Then the screaming began.

****

Alain had spent the day herding sheep in the hills overlooking Tharn and was returning home under a darkening sky. At eighteen, he was broad-shouldered and handsome, with fair hair and blue eyes. He wore his usual attire – a fringed buckskin jerkin, dark leggings, calf-length boots – and carried a bow. He often took the weapon with him into the fields, to practice his aim on tree trunks and on rabbits which he’d cook and eat. An arrow bag was slung over his shoulder.
He was cresting a rise when he heard shouts and screams coming from the direction of the village. Places such as Tharn, on the southern coast of Garrahar, lived in constant fear of attack from pirates and the like, and memories of the previous autumn, when the villagers had beaten off one such raid, were still fresh. On that occasion, Alain’s bow had accounted for two of the buccaneers. Was the village again under threat?
Running through a field thick with cowslips and daisies, Alain came to a hazel copse from where a path sloped down to the settlement. He froze in horror. The scene before him was something beyond his wildest nightmares. The village was being raped and plundered, not by men, but by a swarm of hideous dwarf-like creatures. Around four feet in height, their heads were hairless domes, the skin yellow, not unlike the colour of cheese. A pig-like snout sat between eyes like dark holes and a mouth filled with sharp teeth, while their hands and feet terminated in claw-like talons. They wore garments made from animal hides and their weapons varied, some of the creatures brandishing swords and spears, others axes and wooden clubs.
Alain gazed in disbelief at the carnage and mayhem. Bodies, mostly men of the village, littered the streets. Women wailed, dogs barked, children howled, the sounds mingling in a ghastly symphony. The flimsy wooden doors of the huts had been broken down and the interiors ransacked. Tharn was a poor sort of place and there wasn’t much in the way of riches, but there were plenty of other things such as smoked hams, cheeses, butter churns, yards of cloth, as well as swords and daggers. They were humble enough things in themselves but the creatures obviously considered them valuable enough to take back home with them and they were busy loading their spoils onto the ship.
And then, in the midst of it all, Alain’s gaze fell upon an imposing figure, a man dressed in black who was striding through the village. He looked to be in his early forties and was tall and slim, with dark hair and long angular features, his lean high-bridged nose giving him a hawk-like aspect. One of the creatures ran up and spoke to the man, and it was evident that he was in command of them. The two figures made their way to the small stone building which served as a shrine to Syvian, goddess of the sea, where they halted and gazed about them.
It was then that a wave of black anger swept over Alain. Laying his arrow bag on the ground, he set about stringing the bow. Taking a white-fledged arrow, he nocked it to the string and drew back the cord until it was beside his right ear. The man was partially obscured by the shrine but the creature was standing to one side, his back to Alain, presenting a clear shot. The wind rasped through the trees and Alain realised that, although the evening was cool, his mouth was dry, his forehead wet. Heart thudding, he took aim.
And then he loosed.
The arrow leaped from the string, sinking from the hill to strike its target hard and deep between the shoulders. The creature pitched forward and Alain whooped in triumph. As the man moved toward his fallen companion Alain loosed off another shaft, only to see it thud into the ground a couple of feet short. He was reaching for another arrow but the man was already running toward the beach.
Hurrying down the slope, Alain raced through the village. At the edge of the shingle he halted, eyes wide in astonishment. The occupants of the ship were all aboard and the vessel was rising into the air. The man was standing in the prow, chanting strange, mystical words and waving his hands this way and that.
The ship moved out to sea where it picked up speed. Alain watched as it flew further and further away, shrinking as it did so until it was no more than a speck on the horizon. Then he made his way back through the stinking, bloody village, along the dirt track leading to the large timber house he shared with his father.
Alains’ worst fears were confirmed as he stepped over the threshold. Tarmerius was slumped against a wall, eyes closed, face unnaturally pale. The bottom of his robe was stained red, and as Alain knelt beside him he saw blood seeping from a wound in his stomach.
Tarmerius opened his eyes. ‘Alain! You’re safe! Oh, may the gods be praised.’ His voice was ragged and hoarse. ‘Don’t worry, I haven’t told him about you. But you must flee, in case he returns.’
‘The man’s gone, Father, along with the creatures. Was that ... Darakon?’
Tarmerius nodded, then grimaced as a bolt of pain tore up from his belly. Fresh blood puddled in his lap. Alain felt tears pricking his eyes, a lump rising in his throat. He was glad his mother was no longer alive to witness this, the fever which had taken her the previous winter proving a blessing in disguise.
He noticed Tarmerius had stopped breathing. He shook him gently, but to no avail.
Rising to his feet, Alain went out of the house and made his way to the shrine. As he stepped inside he saw the wooden benches had been upended and the silver plates and candlesticks were missing from the altar. The ten foot high statue of Syvian was unharmed, however, and Alain knelt before it.
‘Oh, Syvian,’ he began. ‘Please receive my father’s soul and grant him everlasting rest in Paradise. You know that the honour of my tribe, and of my family, demands that I do my utmost to slay the one who killed my father, even at the cost of my own life. Please give me the strength and courage to do what I ... have ... to...’
Then the dam broke. Alain wept like a child and it was as if his very soul was being purged.
When he rose to his feet his knees were stiff and aching. The moon was up and it gleamed down like a watching silver eye as he went back to the house. He needed help in seeking out Darakon and expected to find it in Pelador, his father’s land of origin. He bundled together a change of clothes along with some bread and cheese, and retrieved a small bag of coins from its hiding place beneath the floor. Reaching into a cupboard, he took out his father’s sword - old and slightly rusted but still a useful weapon - which was kept in a worn leather scabbard. Then he crossed the yard to the stable and saddled the horse.
Soon afterward he rode away from Tharn, heading for the port of Gethun. The following day he sold the horse and booked a passage to Pelador.

****

Born and raised in the land of Pelador, Tarmerius had been the family priest to the House of Asparac. Although he was a friend to the old Count – a man called Joreb - he never liked the son, Darakon. It transpired there was a talent for magic in the family which had lain hidden for generations. Somehow Darakon had discovered it and was taking an interest in dark magic, which alarmed Tarmerius. Joreb died while Darakon was still a young man and, being the only son, he inherited the title.
During one of his visits to the castle, Tarmerius was invited to dine with the young Count. Not wishing to cause offence, he agreed. During the course of the evening Darakon imbibed a large amount of wine and, his tongue loosened, told Tarmerius how he was gathering together various disaffected nobles in a plot to seize the throne of Pelador.
Tarmerius, being a decent honourable man – as well as a loyal subject of King Antonius – was horrified. Seeking help, he went to a friend of his, a merchant named Toroc. The man’s wife, Elesa, was a sorceress who’d served several minor nobles and, using her magic, the three companions were able to warn Antonius of the threat to his kingdom. Gathering his forces, the King was able to crush the plot, although Darakon managed to escape, fleeing into exile.
Knowing Darakon would not rest until he’d exacted vengeance, Tarmerius fled Pelador, intending to go far away. Before his departure Elesa gave him a ring which had the power to ward off scrying, to prevent Darakon tracking him down. Tarmerius had finally settled in the land of Garrahar where he’d met and married Alain’s mother. Alain himself had been raised speaking both their tongues.
Yet his fathers’ schemes had come to naught, Alain realised sadly. Somehow Darakon had found him and exacted his revenge. Yet Alain’s soul also lusted for vengeance. That he might lose his life in the consummation of that vengeance made no difference. And he hoped Elesa, with her knowledge of magic, could help.
The voyage to Pelador took almost three months. Disembarking at the coastal port of Sydri – the last known home of Toroc and his wife – in the early afternoon, Alain called at various inns around the waterfront, asking the owners if they knew the merchant. He struck lucky at one called the Jolly Fiddler, where the innkeeper had been a friend of Toroc’s. It transpired that both Toroc and Elesa had died from the plague which had struck the previous winter, although they were survived by their daughter, Janna.
‘She’s a Countess, you know,’ the innkeeper told him. ‘Married some nobleman, only he was killed a couple of years back.’
Since the death of her parents she’d divided her time between her husband’s estate and the house in Sydri, where she was presently staying. Deciding he had nothing to lose by going to see her, Alain asked the innkeeper for directions.
He found the Street of the Willows without difficulty. Located in the most prosperous area of Sydri, it was a wide thoroughfare lined with large stone houses surrounded by high walls. The house he sought stood at the end. In keeping with other properties, a tall wooden gate was set into the wall and beside this a hand bell hung on a chain. Alain rang the bell and waited. Several moments passed. Then he heard footsteps followed by the sound of a bolt being drawn back and, with a creak, the gate opened inward.
Standing before him was a woman of striking beauty whose finely-moulded features were framed by a mane of black hair which flowed down her back. Tall and slender, she appeared to be in her late twenties and wore a long blue dress.
‘Are you the daughter of Toroc the merchant?’ Alain asked. She nodded, whereupon Alain introduced himself. ‘My father was a friend of your parents,’ he began, but Janna broke in.
‘I know. I’ve been expecting you.’
Alain gaped at her in bewilderment. ‘Expecting me! But how?’
‘Do not be alarmed,’ said Janna. ‘I will explain everything.’ She beckoned and stood aside as Alain stepped through the gate. Bolting it again, Janna led him across a courtyard to the house, where she opened a heavy wooden door and ushered him into a large kitchen. Seating herself at a table, she invited Alain to sit opposite and pushed across a bowl containing pieces of fruit. ‘Please, help yourself.’
Laying his bundle on the floor, Alain sat down and plucked an apple from the bowl. He bit into it. ‘How did you know I was coming?’ he asked.
Janna poured him a goblet of wine. ‘My mother told me.’
Alain nearly choked. ‘Your mother! But I was told both your parents were dead.’
‘Her spirit appeared to me,’ said Janna. ‘She told me about the raid on your village, how the purpose behind it was the slaying of your father.’
‘Those creatures - what are they?’
‘Scarags,’ said Janna. ‘Their race dwells mostly to the north of Irdustan. These days, the Count makes his living from piracy, aided by a band of the creatures. They are fascinated by his magic, you see, and obey him without question. He finds them more reliable than humans.’ She paused. ‘My mother also told me you wish to slay Darakon.’
Alain took a draught of wine and nodded. ‘That’s right.’
Janna’s expression was grim. ‘Alain, this is madness. Even if you were to get close enough, the Count is an expert swordsman, not to mention a master of dark magic. You would never succeed.’
‘Then I’ll die trying,’ said Alain. ‘It’s a matter of honour.’
Janna gave a tight, bitter smile. ‘Ah, honour. I see. Forgive me, it’s just that I have seen too many duels fought in the name of honour. Roald, my husband, was killed in one. What price honour afterwards? Can it keep the widows warm at night? Is it a comfort to the children left without a father?’
Alain was at a loss for words. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. ‘I’m sorry about your husband,’ he said at length. ‘But I have made a sacred vow. Nothing and no-one will detract me from it.’ He reached for some dried figs, drank more wine. ‘What puzzles me is how Darakon found out where my father was. The ring your mother gave him was supposed to prevent that happening.’
Janna nodded sadly. ‘Even though it took twenty years, the Count eventually found a way to break its power. He went to great lengths, delving into forbidden books and musty scrolls, even consorting with sorcerers from the Dark Kingdoms. He really hated your father.’
She fixed Alain with a hard, appraising stare. ‘You’re determined to go through with this, aren’t you?’
Alain nodded.
Janna gave a sigh. ‘Very well. Since I have inherited my mothers’ talents, I will use my magic to aid you. By means of a scrying spell, I have discovered where Darakon is hiding out. It is a small uninhabited island in the southern ocean.’ Rising to her feet, Janna faced the wall and muttered a spell, whereupon a cloud of dense white smoke appeared. Within the cloud an image formed and Alain saw it was the island Janna had spoken of. Steep cliffs, some rising sheer from the water, were fringed by dense jungle while, in a small cove, Darakon’s ship lay at anchor. Janna waved her hands and the image changed to that of a huge stone temple, roughly triangular in shape.
‘Whatever race built the temple vanished long ago,’ said Janna, ‘although the structure is remarkably intact. It makes an ideal base.’
‘How do we get there?’ said Alain. ‘No merchant vessels sail to that region.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Janna. ‘Using the correct spell, we can be there in a matter of moments.’
‘Fine,’ said Alain. ‘When do we leave?’
‘We’d best wait until tonight,’ Janna told him. ‘With luck, most of the Scarags will be drunk or asleep. It should make it easier for you.’
She pointed to the fruit bowl. ‘When you have finished eating I will show you to a spare bedroom. You’d better get some rest. I’ve a feeling you’re going to need it.’

****

Darkness had fallen when Janna came to Alain’s room. Bolting the door to prevent any unwanted intrusion by the servants, she began muttering a complex incantation, moving her hands through the air. A circle of light, a little taller in height than a man, appeared. Beckoning to Alain, Janna stepped in to the light whereupon she vanished, the circle seeming to swallow her. With more than a little trepidation, Alain followed.
He found himself in a corridor lit by burning torches fastened to the stonework at intervals. At the end a wide staircase rose into shadowy gloom. Janna waved her hands, causing the circle of light to wink out of existence.
She pointed to the steps. ‘Your destiny awaits.’
‘Thank you for your help,’ said Alain. Drawing his sword, he set off along the passage.
As he climbed the stair, however, doubts began to assail him. Here he was, about to throw his life away, and for what? Then, unbidden, memories of Tharn flooded into his mind. He saw again the bodies littering the ground, heard the wailing for the dead, carried on the wind like a ghostly lament. And any misgivings he may have harboured dissipated before a tide of fury, boiling up within him like white hot lava.
At the head of the stair he emerged into another dimly-lit corridor. Somewhere ahead of him he heard a low hum of voices. Warily, Alain glided along the passage, halting at the end to peer around a corner. He saw a narrow portal, beside which a Scarag sat guard. The creature was drinking from a silver goblet, an unsheathed sword across its lap. In a sudden movement Alain sprang forward, sword raised, and his whistling stroke split the creature’s skull before it could cry out.
Peering through the doorway, Alain saw a large chamber illumined by a smoky glow. A dozen or so Scarags lounged on cushions, drinking and eating from bowls containing smoked fish and pieces of fruit. Then his gaze fell upon Darakon. Wearing a cream tunic and dark pantaloons, both of fine silk, the Count was seated on a carved wooden chair, exchanging comments with a Scarag next to him.
Alain hesitated. The palms of his hands were damp with sweat while his heart was pounding a quick drum-like rhythm. Come on, he told himself, it’s now or never. Steeling himself, he charged into the room.
A hush descended, amazement holding the company frozen for a moment.
Facing them like a lion at bay, Alain cried: ‘Darakon, Count of Asparac! You are responsible for the slaying of my father, a priest named Tarmerius. I come here seeking vengeance.’
Darakon gaped at his visitor in astonishment. Then his eyes narrowed in realisation. ‘You insolent young whelp!’ he roared. ‘I’ll have you flayed alive for this. Seize him!’
Alain laughed unpleasantly. ‘Lo, the Count calls upon his minions to aid him!’ His tone was mocking. ‘Is he a coward? Is he afraid to face me alone in combat, without the use of sorcery?’
All eyes turned toward Darakon who knew he was honour bound to accept the challenge.
‘Very well,’ said the Count. ‘I shall enjoy feeding your body to the fishes. But, tell me, how did you learn of my whereabouts? Are there others with you?’
‘I came alone,’ Alain lied. ‘Although I had a little help, from a friend who knows magic.’
Darakon nodded. ‘I see. Well, then. Shall we commence?’
The Count’s sword hissed from its scabbard and, with a pantherish leap, he sprang forward, hacking down with a stroke which Alain only just managed to parry. The Scarags gave back, leaving a clear space in the centre of the room.
The two men began hacking and slashing for all their worth, the clashing clangour of steel ringing throughout the chamber. The adversaries fought without pause for breath, blades hissing and singing, flashing and grating. As Janna had said, Darakon was an expert swordsman, possessing excellent speed and balance, and even though Alain was holding his own it was evident that the Count’s superior skill would eventually triumph.
With a sudden movement, Alain flung himself backward. To the surprise of everyone watching his sword slid from his grasp, the weapon clattering to the floor, and he cried out. Clutching his temples, he sank to his knees, face contorted as if in pain.
Darakon stood over him, his expression one of gloating triumph.
What happened next took him completely unawares. In a sudden movement, Alain - now seemingly recovered - snatched up his sword and thrust upward, the blade plunging into Darakon’s chest. The Count stiffened, features frozen in uncomprehending shock. Alain released his grip on the sword and his foe slumped to the floor, blood flowering over his cream tunic.
Silence descended. The Scarags stared at Alain, dark eyes boring into him. He could feel their hostility as if it were a living thing.
Placing one foot on Darakon’s body, Alain tugged the sword free. Shaking the red drops from the blade, he backed toward the doorway, the creatures’ gaze following him. He stepped into the corridor. Then, with a swift turn, he tore along the passage as if the hosts of the Netherworld were at his heels.
He hurled himself down the steps and when he reached the bottom Janna was there to meet him. Behind him the Scarags were pouring down the stair, feet slapping on stone. Pointing to the bottom step, Janna drew her finger horizontally through the air whereupon a wall of fire sprang up. Flames leaped ten and twelve feet high, obscuring the creatures from view.
‘The fire’s an illusion,’ said Janna. ‘But it might deter them long enough for us to get out of here.’ Turning her back to the flames, she began incanting the spell which would cause the circle of light to appear.
Tense moments passed. Then one of the Scarags jumped through the wall of fire, whereupon it vanished. Evidently, the creature’s action had broken the spell. Glancing over his shoulder, Alain saw Janna vanish into the circle. With the Scarag almost upon him, Alain hurled his sword at the creature. Then he dived into the light.

****

Alain landed on soft springy grass. Behind him the circle of light vanished on Janna’s command. He gazed about. He and Janna were standing on a hill under the hard white light of a full moon. Some distance away he saw the temple, a darker silhouette against the night.
‘Well done,’ said Janna. ‘I gather you were successful in slaying the Count.’
Alain told her how his trickery had fooled Darakon.
‘How does it feel?’ she asked. ‘Now your honour has been satisfied.’
Alain was silent, unsure of what to say. There was no glorious feeling of exhilaration, only a hollow emptiness.
Noting his expression, Janna gave a wry smile. ‘Revenge not all it’s made out to be, eh? Poor Alain, you’ve much to learn.’
They stood in silence for some moments, a rising wind tugging Janna’s black mane.
‘What will you do now?’ she asked at length.
Alain shrugged. ‘I really don’t know.’
Truth to tell, he didn’t want to think about the future. His quest had succeeded, he was alive and in one piece, and Tharn had been avenged. For now, that was enough.

THE END
"Innocence" he said, while his eyes fell away and slowly slid black irises to study the mist-laden woods around him.
"Losing your innocence, is like losing a limb."
The smile that appeared on his lips was neither cold nor warm - it was colourless.
"She crippled me"
"For that, I will cripple her.