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Two - The Demon
The next morning, Tristain rode alongside Leon, high in his saddle, bright-eyed and bright smile on his face. The knight Leon led his fifty spearmen, taking the dusty road that took them past the latrine pits, past the catapults, past the outer palisades, their spikes decorated with the grisly heads of deserters. Out they went, past the last lookout tower, and towards the forest to the south. The forest was named thus on a map, if a few stark trees on their lonesome could be called that. A hot, dry breeze blew over them, making the journey clammy and uncomfortable. Still, nothing could ruin Tristain’s good mood. His horse flicked its tail back and forth, shooing flies. Running his hand along the beast’s braided mane and down along its side, he felt the smooth leather of the saddle at his thighs, the strong back of the animal girding his spine as they rode.
“What are you so chuffed about?” the corporal Caen said, speeding his feet to walk alongside the horse. Tristain counted the corporal among his friends in this place, though he was still lowborn. From the flat farmlands of the Spear, Caen was lean and strong, with the callused hands of a farmer who worked a plough from childhood. His skin was sun-wrinkled, and though he was eighteen, the same as Tristain, he looked much older.
Tristain chuckled. “Nothing, Corporal. Can’t a man be merry?”
“In this place? In this heat?”
“And what’s the plan with that?” Caen said, glancing at the pole with the white eagle banner. “Gonna’ find it’s home in someone’s gut?”
Tristain narrowed his brows. “Has there ever been a single moment when you’ve been serious?”
“Nope, and I ain’t gonna start today.”
When the sun drew to its zenith, they stopped by a stream, far from the siege camp now. Tristain, naked apart from his breeches, dipped himself in the shallows with the rest of the men. His gear was in a pile on the bank. He dunked his face, washing like the others. The lieutenant Gida stood guard at the shore, her eyes narrowed over the hazy horizon.
A mirage of the South Hills shimmered in the distance over the Footfalls. Tristain knew it was false because it looked only a few miles away, when it was really over fifty. Fifty miles to the Hills, to the Leviathan Pass. Fifty miles from home. Four day’s march from his homeland of Osbergia, the largest province of the empire. Taking his horse and running would be a stupid idea; he’d be caught within hours. Even if he got away, the keep at the Pass was the Empire’s, and they would ask questions, delaying him long enough that any pursuers would likely catch him. That didn’t stop the thought from occurring to him. To see Mama and Selene again…
Tristain sat by a nettle bush. He sighed, wiping greasy hair out of his face. Leon tapped his leg as he sat down next to him.
“Squire,” he said, alternating sips of ale with bites of bread. Strung around his neck, over his polished but scratched breastplate, was a small wooden chalice, a token of Ginevra, the Goddess of Mercy and Motherhood. Tristain let it hang. He would’ve asked anyone else about it, but even after two years, the knight still hadn’t opened to him. The most he’d gotten out of him about his son even, was an angry tirade about Vredevoort the Grim, the one who’d led to Erken’s death. He remembered asking Caen about it.
“That one earned his name for a reason,” the corporal had said. “Vorland fought to have Erken reassigned, but Vredevoort told him ain’t no way. In the Footfalls, Grim sent his men to secure the hilltop, throwing wave after wave at the Badonnians. Hundreds died, Erken with them. I think he blames himself.”
“Why would he blame himself for that?” Tristain had asked.
“Why would any father?”
Leon sent two spearmen on perimeter guard, eyes peeled for any enemy approaching on the road or over the dusty plains. Though they didn’t expect any Badonnians out here, their army having secured the corridor between the Pass and the siege camp, it didn’t hurt to be careful, especially in enemy lands.
Caen whistled, drawing his attention. “I saw you’ve finally finished that letter.”
Tristain laughed, incredulous. “You rifled through my things? Have you no sense of privacy or respect?”
“Privacy? You never stopped talking about it. I had to see it for myself. What happened?”
“I spoke to the Count of Verania. He offered me a position in his household guard. That’s what I was writing about.”
Leon chimed in with a tone of approval. “Household guard? Respectable. You ought to do well.”
“Wait, Pagehald?” Caen interrupted. “The Count of Verania?”
Caen looked like he was trying his hardest not to crack up with laughter. “You’ve been ‘ad, squire.”
Tristain frowned. “Corporal?”
“Verania has more debt than a brothel has whores, and he spends plenty on them, rest assured. You’ll be fightin’ off debtors and cutthroats for the rest of your life, short as that’ll be.”
“Bastard,” Tristain said without meaning to.
“I know nothing of this,” Leon said gingerly from his cup. “But then we don’t run in the same circles.” Leon slapped his leg. “Ah, Tristain, I’m sorry. But I’m sure he won’t be the last lord with an offer. If I were a lord gilded…”
From the perimeter, a private came running, running like the wind, his boots ringing hard on the sunbaked ground. “Sir… Badonnians!” he yelled between breaths.
They rose to their feet, spears clattering and swords rasping. Bread and ale spilled on the ground, and the men arranged themselves into a formation. The private reached them, his knees buckling and his breath sharp and loud. Tristain looked around. Nothing but a sultry breeze came charging at them, and the only sound was rustling trees, not the whistle of arrows.
“Speak, Sasha,” Leon said firmly. “Where are they?”
“I saw hoofprints, sir. Hoofprints by the gully, where the mud still lies. Got to be six or seven at least, stopped to give their horses some water.” The men relaxed, breaking formation, some of them moaning about a cowardly private and their ruined lunch. The private Sasha, a skinny lad of sixteen, turned beet red.
“Six or seven? They’re probably traders or village folk. Have you lost your nerve, lad? We march on.”
Evening found them trudging along the east road back to the camp when they came across an alehouse. Tristain’s belly rumbled. The air was still, and the alehouse quiet, but he could smell roasting meat and fresh bread. We should keep moving, get back to camp… but his mouth watered. He imagined ale that didn’t taste like piss and bread that wasn’t made of turnips.
“Awh, I can smell the chicken roasting from here,” Caen said. Murmurs of agreement rippled through the men.
“We should march on,” the lieutenant replied. “Find a well-hidden spot to camp.”
“Ah, come on, Lieutenant. One ale won’t hurt.”
“We could meet you later, Lieutenant,” Tristain helpfully added. “It would be less conspicuous travelling in smaller groups if the enemy is indeed out there.” The men crooned in agreement. And I could use a bath, too, if they have one. His eyes lit up at the prospect. I haven’t had a proper bath in months. The baths at the camp were always too cold, or filthy, or more often both.
The lieutenant turned to the knight. “Sir, I really think—“
“Ah, Gida, it’s fine. Take half the men, and return to the camp. Besides, I don’t think all of us’ll fit inside. We’ll be there before you know it.”
The lieutenant sighed, thinking it best to just drop the matter, and took half the men, who grumbled as they left. The ones continuing on spat as they left, grumbling that they should enjoy a drink, too. Twenty-five unlucky souls trudged down the road and over the twilit horizon.
Tristain tapped his fingers on the reins as he hitched the stallion. Gida had a point. Perhaps it would be best to keep moving. Or maybe the Badonnians would find them, and Tristain could prove himself in battle. A sure-fire way to be knighted.
After a loud tussle for the first baths and settling himself in the warm tub, Tristain thought of Pagehald’s deception. The lavender scented water rippled around his chin, wisps of steam curling up from the surface, soothing his muscles. His mind was hard at work. Had the count really deceived me?
Maybe Caen’s lying… maybe he doesn’t know the truth, and they’re just idle rumors. Lowborns do love a good tale. But if I say no to the count… the seed has been planted. I’ll have to save face somehow, let Pagehald down without causing offence. And I’d be no better off than yesterday.
He pulled himself out of the bath, hungry and thirsty.
Flicking wet hair out of his face, Tristain took a seat with Caen, Leon, and a big, fat-faced ox-looking private named Herrad, and called for an ale. He needed one.
The innkeeper had, smartly, not turned the men away. Twenty-five blades with the potential to become pointed at his throat was a forceful argument. He wasn’t happy about it, though; slamming their tankards and food onto the table. The scowl on his pockmarked face seemed a permanent fixture.
Someone carried a set of dice on them, so they enjoyed a few games and a few ales. Loud chatter filled the room. You’d almost forget there was a war.
“The corporal here was just telling me about the Spear,” the knight said.
“Yeah. Guard Captain Hostein. He was celebrating, ’cause he’d just captured a mighty outlaw, a savage who raided near on ten villages, raped women, killed babies. You know, real scum. So, the captain was a celebrated man. He was a good-looking one, too. Everyone was thrilled to see him. The alehouse kept the booze flowing. The count came down, shook his hand. The baron, the sheriff, they all came down to shake his hand. In fact, Hostein was so popular that towards the end of the night, a few of the village wenches took him upstairs. These girls weren’t known for their… timid nature, if you know what I mean. But it was deathly silent downstairs. An hour later, they came back down, untouched as their mothers would have ’em. ‘What’s happened?’ the barkeep asked. They laughed and said, ‘He’s a looker, but he’s about as much use as milk shoes.’ And from then on, they knew him as Hostein Milk Dick.”
They burst out laughing.
Caspar, Herrad’s brother, the man’s equal in hairiness and ox-ness turned to face them from the table over. “What’s this? Herr, you told them the story about the wench from Taneria?”
“Yeah, right,” Caen cut in. “It’s what they all say, right? A bit a’ wine and Tanerian women are less fickle than an aging whore.”
“Don’t they also say that men from Triburg have worms for cocks?” Maria said from the next table over, sending laughter through the room.
“Herrad might, but I ain’t,” Caspar replied.
“You’ve spent some time comparin’?” Andrea added.
“I don’t need to take this from some wench.” Caspar pushed himself free of the table, sending ale and chicken carcasses scattering. Both Andrea and Maria drew their weapons, rising to their feet. Lombas the Small laughed, his horselaugh shaking the room. The chubby tavern wench on his enormous lap laughed as well.
“Knock it off, lackwits,” the knight bellowed, silencing the room. “Enough fuckin’ chatter. It’s time to get serious. Who here says they can take me? Squire!”
Tristain laughed, waving his arms.
Caen jabbed him with his elbow. “Come on!”
“Alright, alright… you might regret it, Sir,” Tristain replied, to cheers among the men.
They threw back ales. One strongale, two, three. Caen patted him on the back. Tristain felt bile rise in his throat. He wasn’t sure if he should be grateful for the support. Four, five, six. Feeling the liquid slide back up, he snapped his mouth closed. He thought it might come out his nose and his ears. The room spun wildly. Leon was unfazed, putting away his seventh.
It was no use. The liquid came flowing out of his nose. Choking, he opened his mouth, coating the floor in foamy beer and stomach acid. The men cheered, slapping him on the back.
“That’s no fair,” Tristain cried, throat strained. “You haven’t got a bottom in that belly!”
The men laughed.
“Alright, alright,” Caen yelled. “Who’s next?”
Herrad challenged Caen, and the big lad from Triburg won handily, then Maria launched into a story.
“So, back home, right,” she said, laughing. “The boys used to throw rocks at us, me an’ Andrea. It was their way of getting attention, I think. Why are you boys so hopeless at just talking to women…? Anyway, one day, one of the real big boys, you know, two feet taller than anyone else and cock as big a horse’s… you know the ones.”
They laughed, looking pointedly at Lombas, the giant lad taller than most by a foot, and he shrugged his boulders for shoulders.
“So, Andrea and I took him out to the forest for a bit of payback. The poor lad probably thought we were gonna’ let him prod us. Well, we might’ve but… anyway, we went for a swim in the creek, tellin’ him to take off his clothes, then we would join him. So, he leaped into the water, prick flailing about like a godsdamn eel. Andrea got in with him, all naked-like, while I hid his clothes in the tallest tree I could find. I’m a fair hand at climbing, you see. I came back, told him we were leaving, and Andrea got out and ran. We didn’t look back. We ran so hard that we nearly collapsed.” She became breathless, laughing until tears ran down her face.
“Then what? Tell us,” Caen said, grinning.
“We…” She couldn’t stop laughing. Tristain smiled as he took another sip of his ale. “We hid behind the alehouse, n’… he came runnin’, right to the center of town, naked as the day he was born, covered in red, angry blisters, from his neck down to his toes. Leeches got to him! Even his prick had a few on ’em! He was furious! But he never threw rocks at us again.”
They all laughed.
The innkeeper said something in whispered Badonnian to the chubby woman, and she hopped off Lombas’ knee.
“We’re closing, sorry,” the man said in a heavy accent, face pinched.
“What kind of alehouse closes?” Caen said.
“It’s fine, Corporal. We’ve overstayed our welcome,” Leon replied. “These kind folks fed our bellies and warmed our bodies. We should be on the road.”
As someone opened the door, a strong, wet wind blew over Tristain. The weather had turned.
“Argh, it’s raining,” Maria said. “First rain in a fuckin’ month and it’s when we’re on the march.”
“All the more reason to get to camp, wench,” Herrad replied. Maria slapped him playfully with the back of her gloved hand.
Tristain unhitched his horse, truly feeling the effects of the strong ale now. He nearly lost his footing as the beast buffeted him. Rain dripped down his padded jacket. It fell hard now. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The sky darkened.
A man screamed. Tristain turned, drawing his sword. He hadn’t realized until that moment just how dark it was and he blinked, trying to resolve the shapes in front of him. Lightning lit up the sky, and it was as bright as day for a moment. The light dazzled him, but through the intense dark blue and white, two figures lay on the ground, dead. Eight grey-plate forms stood abreast above them. Red-gold cloaks on their backs. Steel drawn.
Tristain flinched as the sky went dark again. They were the party from the road. Not a hunting party, or traders, or footsoldiers, but heavily armed Badonnian knights.
One of them bellowed, “Allae!”
Heavy crashing footsteps sounded over the rain. Bellowing curses and war cries, they were lit up by the sky again. Swinging their weapons in wide arcs, men fell around them, crashing against the ground in wet heaps of mail. Tristain swallowed, throwing himself forward into the blackness. Someone beat aside his sword like it was a mere toothpick, and a plated fist smashed into his jaw. Pain wracked his ear and face as he fell.
A bright fork of light rippled around the knight’s raised longsword. Tristain could only watch as it came down like a headman’s axe. Then someone crashed into the knight. The Badonnian clattered to the ground. Tristain’s wits found him. He scrambled, his fingernails clawing up muck and blood.
A heap of mail crashed next to Tristain. It was Caen, his face twisted in pain. His temple ran with a gash of blood. Around them, the brawl became closer and tighter. A plated boot stomped on Tristain’s ankle. He felt something snap. He groaned, feeling his jaw stiffen from the punch he’d taken. Pushing past the pain, he crawled out, dragging Caen with him, sword in the other hand. He strained, elbowing his way across the unforgiving mud.
At last, they were free, and Tristain set the corporal aside. He tested his jaw, feeling the stiff muscles and sore teeth. Felt like he might’ve even lost a few.
Tristain pulled himself to his feet, feeling a sharp tingle through his ankle. He breathed, trying to calm himself. It worked, and his eyes were adjusting to the blackness, making him feel slightly better about the screams and death around him. Maybe there’s a chance… if I can fight back. He looked down at Caen. You won’t die here.
He remembered Leon’s lessons. The stances. He moved into a back guard, sword edge aligning with his stronger rear leg, his weak leg forward. A red-gold-cloak charged at Tristain. Lightning rippled behind his foe. He scanned for weak points. Leon’s words echoed in his mind. Armpit, eyes, groin, back of the knee.
The air ruptured as Tristain slashed. The blow was deflected, as he expected. Tristain evaded the counter, trading blows. He feinted an attack from above, turning his blade in the air. The knight blocked high, then found Tristain’s blade in his armpit. The man howled, dropping to the ground. Tristain had hit his target, the axillary nerve. Bits of food leaked from his opponent’s faceplate—he’d thrown up from the pain. He wasn’t getting up soon.
More of Tristain’s squad fell around him. The Badonnians caught them by surprise, and they were drunk. Much longer and we’ll be finished. He watched as Leon wrenched a knight’s helmet off, snapping the buckle. He roared, burying his dagger into the base of his foe’s skull.
It made Tristain sick. Death and horror unfolded in front of him. Half of his fellows were dead, glass-eyed on the ground. Straining, his lungs yearned for fresh air. Despite the rain, the air felt cloying and sticky. No longer able to stomach what was happening around him, he dry-heaved.
A horseman came charging out of the darkness and knocked Tristain straight on his ass. The rider whooped as he wheeled the horse around, waving his sword wildly. The man yelled in Badonnian, grinning at Tristain as he got to his feet. Shit. Three knights were drawn over. They laughed as they closed in.
“Where do you run,” one yelled as he stepped forward and began a flurry of blows. Tristain deflected them all. On the last blow, Tristain feinted a cut low. The man blocked low. Tristain flicked up. The point went straight through his neck, sending him limp. Tristain moved back into guard, pushing his fear and nausea aside.
Two more pounced, forcing him backwards. He countered, disarming one. As he recovered, the other’s sword bit into his arm. Tristain howled, retreating. His back sidled up against a tree. The two closed in, and there was no escape. One moved in with a spear, batting aside Tristain’s weakened sword arm. He plunged the point in, pinning his shoulder to the tree. Tristain cried in pain, dropping his blade.
An officer stepped forward. The captain, from what Tristain could judge by the deference offered by his comrades, if they had such a thing as deference in Badonnia. He grinned as he approached.
“You,” he said, speaking with a heavy accent, “a lord’s son from your skill, I gather.”
Tristain spat at him.
He chuckled. “But you die like the rest.”
“Sigur fucking curse you,” he swore back. “You won’t get away with this.”
“Your army will perish. All you wester pudans will die for nothing, and nobody. You will lie in the dirt. Forgotten by all but wolves. Not even your mothers and wives will miss you, because we will take them for ourselves.”
“I’ll kill you, bastard. You watch.”
Laughter broke out.
“How can you kill me… if I kill you first?” He stabbed Tristain in the gut. Ice gripped his stomach and pain shot up through his body, doubling him over. Only the spear kept him upright. He grasped weakly at the blade, thinking somehow that removing it would stop the pain.
The captain looked at him incredulously. “Why don’t you die?”
Tristain groaned as the captain pulled the sword out. Blood bloomed under his jacket. Fear bubbled in his stomach. His breath became sharper. Two others moved in to do the dirty work. Stabbing, cutting, hacking. His vision became hazy, narrowed.
He looked down, seeing himself from above, from the top of the tree. At the men taking turns to butcher his body. Thumping into his flesh, the sound of wet metal rang out, but it meant nothing to him now. He felt an overwhelming calm.
Then something took hold, wrenching him back into his body. Searing heat swelled through his feet, up and up through his legs, then his chest, and out through his head, as if he was standing on a pyre. Shooting pain went up his spine. Time slowed, drawing out the excruciating agony. His vision went white with pain.
His teeth were the first to change. They tore through his gums, growing and growing, until they were finger-long and distended his mouth. His jaw went slack, then broke, the pain causing him to drool. Between his eyes, nose and jaw shifted outwards, forming a broad snout. Through the pain, he saw his killers stare, stepping back in horror. Inside, he tried to think, tried to pray. Gods! Please end this!
No mercy would come. He was captive for every single excruciating moment. Thick black fur sprouted from every pore, like thousands of porcupine needles. His padded shirt ripped at its seams and his mail twisted as his chest ballooned. The speartip was pushed out as the skin wove itself back together. His head pounded as he looked up. It was like having his skull torn open. Claws as sharp as a wildcat’s forced themselves from his fingernail beds.
His eyes adjusted, the pain subsiding at last. He could see in the darkness as if it were daytime. The smell of the captain’s breakfast of ale and beef sausage drifted into his nose. The change took five seconds, yet it seemed like an eternity. He roared. The very air seemed to shudder.
“Garou!“ The Badonnians scrambled away, yelling and shrieking in fear. Instinct took over. He saw his prey and grew hungry. A scream filled the air as he leaped for the captain.