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The Song of Steel

Book One - Chapter 9

By W.R. Logan


Copyright 2004 W.R. Logan

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Ser Larkel


The small council had been less than receptive to his ideas.  King G’Leaze paid him the courtesies of court but took little from his advice.  Ser Larkel expected as much.  He was an oath breaker and a traitor to his king.  No king with that knowledge would ever take him into his confidence.  Why should they trust him?


They could not know that his reasons for betraying his king were far more complex than just race.  King Geiger did not punish him for being of tainted blood.  At first, Ser Larkel had thought the king had forgotten his mixed bloodline.  Then he realized, even through the man’s madness, the king remembered Ser Larkel had served all five generations of Geiger kings.  He had been with Torus Geiger when he had won the throne.  Even his madness could not force him to betray such loyalty.  But Ser Larkel had betrayed him.


The thought of what he was doing weigh heavy on his heart.  King Geiger had done many things wrong over the past few years.  He had killed his own brother after finding out the boy had entered into his manhood on Queen Jillian.  That is before she was queen and still a drab.  His council tried to reason with him.  They had tried to remind him of his love for his brother.  For their reward, the king had dismissed them and named the church his new advisors.


After that vile church was in the castle, it was a rabid spin into madness.  They had convinced the king that his city was raging with an unexplained disease.  Then told him it was caused by half-breeds.  They showed him the dead to prove it.


Dead were easy to come by at that time.  They laid everywhere in the streets.  It was not from disease that the people were dying but from starvation.  Most of the food was going to feed the Steel Tide as they tramped across the country fighting wars.  Wars fought for reasons unknown, unknown to the Steel Tide or the kingdom being attacked.


All these were good cause to become a turn-cloak.  Many men needed far less than that to shed their steel armor.  Thousands of the Tide had forsaken the king’s service and left for the free cities. But none of this was why Ser Larkel had left his shiny steel armor on the floor of King G’Leaze throne room.  He had done it for a woman.


His reason wasn’t even original.  Women were the cause of so many of the follies of men it was doubtful that even the poorest bard would ever sing of it.  Names of a hundred songs ran through his mind, everyone about a man betraying someone for a woman.  No, his doings would never pass between a bard’s lips.


Ser Larkel had chosen to keep his oath to a girl over his oath to a king.  He would have liked to say that it was a hard choice for him but that would be a lie.  It wouldn’t be good to be marked an oath breaker and a liar all in one lifetime. He knew the minds of men were feeble and they would soon forget his sin.  Ser Larkel had elf blood in his veins.  The world would forget what he had done long before he rested in the ground.  It seemed that one already had forgotten.


Bigsby Littlefoot rode swiftly beside Ser Larkel.  Ser Larkel had almost choked when the little one had rode out on the tiny animal.  It looked barely half the size of a normal horse.  The hair of its mane hung almost long enough to trip up the animal’s short legs and send it crashing down on its oversized head.


“Do you think that thing will keep up?”  Tomment laughed at Bigsby.


“Oh,” Bigsby answered him, “I think he will do better than that.”


Ser Larkel could see Tomment still held a grudge over Sylvia’s necklace.  If he only knew the truth, he would feel a fool.


“What kind of beast do you call that, Ser Littlefoot?”  Sylvia had seen Tomment’s reaction as well.  She would have fun with the two of them on this trip.  Ser Larkel had learned you could never show Sylvia a weakness for she had learned too well to capitalize on them.  Sometimes it was hard to tell if she knew friend from foe.


“He is a Windstrider.” Bigsby answered sounding quite proud.


“More like a Dusteater,” Tomment quipped.  “That thing will never make the trip, we should just eat it now.”


“I think it’s a beautiful beast,” Sylvia commented. 


“Well let us hope it taste as good as it looks then,” Tomment joked, “we will be in the mood for a good meal before we reach the valley.”


“Enough,” Ser Larkel said, “We have a long way to go and a short time to get there.”


Ser Larkel couldn’t believe his band had been chosen for such an important job.  To escort Bigsby to the Valley of No Night and lead the Peasant Army back to defend the castle.  He had expected to be sitting in a cell or even hanging from the castle gates as a welcome for his king.  The old knight had made plans to handle those scenarios. This one, however, was not in the plan.  More pleasurable, but still not what he had expected.


King G’Leaze had looked shocked when the hairfoot had asked for the knight and his party to be his escort.  Darious was outraged.  The skinny man had already pulled five of his troops to ride with Bigsby.  He said it was an insult to Ronan for the hairfoot to reject his men.


Bigsby thanked him for the offer but reminded him that the Ronan force was all that guarded the king and the castle. 


“Every man you have will be needed,” Ser Littlefoot told the king, “This band can not be expected to take arms against their own.  I have only the eneth to fear on my way to the valley and I don’t think they will have any reservations about killing eneth.”


“This man is an oath breaker,” Darious objected, “We can’t trust a mission of this importance to a man of those morals.”


Ser Larkel started to speak on his own behalf but got help from an unexpected source.


“His king commands the death of all half-breeds,” Brianna interjected, “in case you missed the ears, he is one.”


“He disobeys his king and betrays his country and we take him in to do the same to ours,” Darious argued.


“Seems to me, his king and his country are the ones that betray him,” Caitlin added. “He has done his king no wrong, but yet his king sentences him to death.”


“Then send my men with them as well,” Darious suggested. “At lease Bigsby will have a chance should the scum turn his cloak again.”


“Bigsby is right,” King G’Leaze admitted, “We have the entire Steel Tide on the way to take this castle.  We will need all the fighting men we have.”


Brianna gave Ser Larkel a firm look.  He wasn’t sure if she was confirming the victory or warning him that he had better be true.  Despite her brash mannerisms, Ser Larkel thought what a fine queen she would make.  Maybe when she became queen, he would ask to swear his sword to her service.  Then he looked at her father, a man that looked much younger than him, and remembered the elf blood ran stronger in the king’s veins.  Ser Larkel’s sins maybe forgotten soon enough, but he would be long cold in the ground before Brianna wore the crown.


Bigsby had armor fitted for Ser Larkel.  It was a fine armor, much better than that he was wearing.  The smiths had made it the Elfish way, making it stronger than normal steel and much lighter.  The golden oak tree replaced the blue wave on his breastplate.  The etching was done much better than his old armor but his heart still missed seeing the sigil of his home on his chest.


Ser Larkel knew he would never see the rugged coast of the Kingdom of Tides again.  The sun seemed to set in the same way on the open plains of Kings Overlook.  But it missed the smell of salt water on the breeze, the call of seagulls, and the bells ringing a welcome to fishing boats come to port.  These things he would miss.  These things would call to him in his sleep making him yearn for home.  He wondered if his mad king would even notice he was gone.


A Windstrider, it turned out, was a faster, stronger, and smarter horse than Tomment had expected.  The hooves of the horse did not touch the earth.  It seemed to glide across the air making no noise.  At the end of each ride, Bigsby showed no signs of fatigue.  After four days, the hairfoot had no saddle sores to show for the hard riding. 


While Tomment complained of chaffing in areas best left unsaid and begged regularly to stop and rest.  Sylvia found the strength to toy with the boy every now and again.  Once she asked Bigsby to ride his Windstrider and then spent the rest of the evening telling Tomment what a fine stead it was.  Another time she had Bigsby rub her shoulders only to compliment the gentleness of his hands.


Tomment’s anger boiled.  He sat each night with his huge book studying and muttering under his breath every time Bigsby passed by.  Ser Larkel began to fear the boy may try his magic against the hairfoot.  For safeties sake, he pulled Sylvia aside and asked her to stop teasing the boy.  She laughed as he knew she would and said, “Why, Ser Larkel, What ever do you mean?”


For the life of him, he did not know why Tomment loved her.  And for that matter, he could not figure out why he loved her.  It was just something that she had that entranced them both.  The only one that seemed immune to it was the hairfoot.  He had grown used to her advances and didn’t blush at them anymore.  This being half her fun, Sylvia soon lost interest in the little knight and things returned to normal.


“I really did like the horse,” Sylvia said to Ser Larkel one night when Bigsby was out of earshot, “if he dies in this war, I think I will take him.  After all, by the rights of the women of the plains, I am his betrothed.”


“His betrothed,” Ser Larkel repeated.


“He wears my Gift of the Virgin necklace.”


“You got that necklace playing disks in Bratken,” Ser Larkel reminded, “Women of the plains wear no such necklace.”


She giggled at the memory. “Yes, I was very good that night.”


“You cheated the whole night,” Ser Larkel accused.


“Ah,” Sylvia mused, “But I didn’t get caught once, therefore, I was extremely good that night.”


They shared a laugh. It made Ser Larkel remember why he loved her.  There was no laughter in his life before her.


He had promised her dying father to keep her safe.  The old man had made sure to seal the promise.  Ser Larkel was beginning to think the man would not pass on till he heard the words spoken.


“You must take my place as her father,” the old man bid, “give me your oath or I shall haunt you all your days.”


“I will keep her safe and keep her as my own daughter,” Ser Larkel promised.


“Keep her away from that foul church in Karal,” he commanded. 


Ser Larkel had done all that was asked of him, even keeping her away from the church.  Many of the small folk hated the church, so he did not think much about the dying man’s wish.  Probably, the man just didn’t want his daughter lured into the strange cult.  He learned the real reasons by accident.


The fifth day of riding brought a welcome sight.  An inn.  Not a huge city type inn with the fine ales and feather beds but an inn just the same.  It would have straw beds and a stew of mixed meats and vegetables if they were lucky.  That did not matter to any of them.  At the moment, the little inn was the finest any had ever seen.


The inside greeted each of them as they had expected.  The common room had no bard singing of heroes or busty serving wenches laying down frothy ales.  It did have a warm fire in the fireplace.  That would be more than enough for the four weary travelers.


“Can I help ye?”  A fat woman asked from a small table nearest the door.  Her many chins shook as she came to recognize Bigsby.  “Ser Littlefoot, what an honor to have you here,” she croaked.


“The honor is mine,” Bigsby said with a bow.


The fat woman blushed at such a compliment from one of the King’s Council.  “Will you be stayin then?”


“Yes,” Bigsby answered. “For the night.”


“I will give you the two best rooms in the house,” she paused as if in a dilemma.  “No, no,” she said to herself, “the eneth will just have to move.”


“Eneth?”  Bigsby looked at the woman in shock.


“We get few paying customers out here, Ser,” she explained, “even eneth gold fills the pockets.”


She laughed a grotesque throaty laugh.  The round woman had few teeth and the ones that still hung there were rotten and broken.  The cloths she wore looked to be of fine silks that had been made for a woman half her size.  Her oversized breast struggled to pop free of their bindings.  All in the party hoped that the bindings held.  It would not be a sight anyone would want to see.


The fat old woman seemed not to notice anyone’s revulsion to her body.  In fact, she bent down to speak to Bigsby in an effort to reveal even more of her sagging flesh.  She purred at him as she spoke.


“You could share my room, m’lord,” she offered.  “I would service you well.  I know all the tricks of the trade.  In my day, I worked the best brothels in all the kingdoms.  My beauty may be hidden now, but my talents are just as good.”


“I…I…I…I thank you, m’lady,” Bigsby stammered as he turned a shade of red even Sylvia never made him reach.  “You are too kind.  But we are on king’s business and must conduct ourselves accordingly.”


“Very well my little stallion, but if you change your mind,” she gave him a sly wink, “ I will leave my door ajar.”


“Very well, m’lady,” Bigsby said trying to regain his composure.


“No ladies here,” the woman objected, “You can call me Tits, all the men do.”


“As you wish,” Bigsby agreed but took care not to repeat the name.  He took the keys she offered with haste and continued up the stairs.


Tandrek met them on the stairs.  He was a small eneth not much bigger than a large human.  His body had just a light covering of straight black hair that was kept neatly groomed.  The hair on his head was cut short and parted exactly down the middle.  The green steel helm that was the symbol of the eneth was tucked beneath his left arm.  Eneth manners forbid the wearing of a helmet indoors.


The eneth were no friend to the humans of Kings Overlook.  They had decided it to be a crime against the eneth nation for King G’Leaze to give the plains to clan Broken Bone.  The king had offered the same deal to the eneth but their leader had rejected the oath.  The eneth felt themselves better than humans and would serve no race other than eneth.  Their king had countered the offer saying that Kings Overlook could swear an oath to serve the eneth and the eneth would give them protection.  The counteroffer was quickly rejected.


“You need to move to the room downstairs, eneth,” Tits told Tandrek.


The eneth stared hard at the hairfoot.  His face had small cuts around his eyes that complimented the scabs on his bruised lips.


“Did you come to finish the job,” Tandrek demanded.


“What job?”


“The one your castle guards started when they ejected me from your grounds,” Tandrek explained. “They failed to kill me and so will you.”


“We haven’t come to kill you,” Tomment chimed. “We didn’t even know you where here.”


“More human lies,” Tandrek accused. “Your guards said that the king needed me to meet him in the gardens and then attacked me.”


The eneth ran his hand over the hilt of his great sword.  The length of that sword ran from the top of his head down to the bend of his knees.  It was amazing that the eneth could wield the weapon but all in the party knew of the eneth’s skill with the sword.


“They under estimated me too,” Tandrek bragged.


“The king did not tell anyone to kill you,” Sylvia exclaimed, “he was too busy trying to keep us all from killing each other.”


Tandrek’s face twisted with thought.  Most thought the eneth to be a step in evolution above the ork but Ser Larkel wondered after meeting this one.  They had the discipline that ork were well known to lack but they also lost the free mind.  They acted out of tradition and training, making little room for change or growth..


“I came to tell King G’Leaze of the Vale men,” Tandrek said losing all the anger that burned in his eyes. “They have cut off the pass to the Valley of No Night.”


The party was shaken by the words.  There was little hope for the forces of the Peasant Army to reach Kings Overlook in time let alone win a victory over the Steel Tide.  Now the Vale Army had come to fight them as well.  Holding the pass would be an easy job.  It was made to keep people out with a small force of men but work jus as well keeping people in.  The Peasant Army would be stalemate while the Steel Tide swept the castle. 


Ser Larkel had seen this first hand many times.  It was a sound plan that had brought many battles to a quick end.  With so many wars on so many fronts, Ser Larkel had not thought the maneuver possible for the Tide.  Vale sided with King Geiger but to send a force to fight.  How could he have foreseen this?


“Where do the eneth stand in this,” Bigsby asked.


“The men of Vale killed many of ours on their path to the valley, “ Tandrek announced. “Death in the night without honor.”


Tandrek’s eyes began to tear.  The eneth believe that to die in battle was the ultimate death.  One they all hoped for.  But battle to them had a tradition about it.  Two forces would meet at dawn and fight evenly to the last man.  Eneth had been known to send hundreds of their forces away to even the battlefield.  They saw no honor in victory with overwhelming forces.


“They killed many in their sleep,” Tandrek continued, “never to feel the glory of battle. Then they rode off in the night like cowards.”


Ser Larkel knew whom the eneth would stand.  They would fight till the last drop of blood in them stained the ground.  King Geiger had just made a very powerful enemy, but then, he had also taken a very powerful ally in Vale.


“We have to head back,” Bigsby concluded.


“We won’t make it before King Geiger gets there.”


“The Windstrider would get Ser Littlefoot there much faster without us holding him back,” Sylvia suggested.


“Did you three listen to what the eneth said,” Tomment asked. “We were already too late when we were there the first time.”


“What,” the three sang out as one.


“The guards of Kings Overlook threw him out before he could deliver his message,” Tomment said as a matter of fact. “Geiger already owns the guards in the castle.”


Ser Larkel felt cold.  The boy had heard the tale more plainly than any of the others including him.  The castle was as good as King Geiger’s and King G’Leaze had no idea he had been betrayed.  With the men of Vale blocking the pass, there would be no help forth coming.


“Tandrek,” Bigsby started, “where are the eneth?”


“We ready our forces to strike at the Vale force,” answered Tandrek proudly, “My king has sent challenge for them to meet us on the field of honor.”


“Vale would never face the eneth on the plains,” Ser Larkel concluded, “Even with greater numbers, the eneth are much better horsemen.”


“More than likely, Vale will seek to draw the eneth into the pass and take them from the rocks,” Sylvia agreed.


“Cowards,” exclaimed Tandrek.


The eneth were great warriors but could not comprehend strategy.  It was their tradition to march onto the field of battle and face the enemy.  They could not believe that an enemy would deface their value of combat.


“What if they were forced out of the pass,” suggested Tomment.


Ser Larkel looked at the boy in a new light.  He had promise.


“You have a plan,” asked Ser Larkel.


“Let Tandrek and the eneth take the field but stay their attack,” Tomment began, “the Vale force will have to turn their attention to the eneth.  If we can slip by them and rally the Peasant Army and push them down into the pass…..”


“They would be caught between the advancing eneth and the Peasant Army on the high ground,” Sylvia finished.


Tomment nodded his agreement to her.


“They would have to charge the eneth or fall back into the valley, either way, our forces would have the advantage,” Bigsby said.


“Well done, Tomment,” Ser Larkel praised.


“Tandrek,” Bigsby interjected, “tell your force what we have planned.  Let the eneth know their lances will taste Vale blood.  We will meet with them at morning’s light.”


The eneth wasted no time.  A smile had begun to shine on his face.  Ser Larkel could not understand the eneth way of life.  Their only desire was to die honorably on a battlefield with a lance in their hands.  He wondered what kind of life one could live if he dreamed only of death.


He pushed the thought away and struggled up the stairs to rest.  Tits had given them the two best rooms in the house.  Ser Larkel hoped never to see the worst room.  The straw bedding smelled of mildew and dust covered most of the furnishings in the room.  The water basin had a yellow crust ring around the top that wouldn’t wash off.  A plain black cloth covered the only window in the room casting dark shadows on the far wall. It was a pitiful excuse for an inn but looked much better than the muddy ground that had been bed last night.


The morning would bring the familiar scene of war.  Ser Larkel had seen his share of war in the hundreds of years he had lived.  The sight of the dead still haunted his dreams.  No matter how just a cause, there were still victims undeserving of deaths cold hand.  He had come to know that this was the way of war and had been since long before his time.  Even so, Ser Larkel hoped never to accept it.


“Quit dreaming,” Sylvia joked.


“Leave an old man to his memories,” Ser Larkel returned.


“Then remember that I need my night terrors powder to get some sleep,” she reminded.


The powder had become a nightly routine between the two.  Almost like a father tucking his child in at night.  The powder calmed her mind and kept her night terrors away, but it also served a purpose that even Sylvia was unaware.


Ser Larkel had the new powder made after the old one had revealed her secret to him.  Sylvia was still ignorant that he knew.  Or maybe she did not know her own secret.  If that were the case, then she would be safer for it.  Ser Larkel would not be the one to tell her.


The first powder had helped her nigh terrors same as this one.  But it had done something more.  The mage had told him to keep it away from any magic items.  Ser Larkel was careful to keep the stuff far away from the Red Tide and Sylvia’s own sword, Claw.  If he had broken the enchantment of speed on her sword, she would have given him night terrors.


The night the old knight had first sprinkled her with the dust was the first nights sleep she had in weeks.  He had watched her after he had applied the powder to make sure it did the job.  The mage had charged him much for the powder.  The herbs to make it were rare and expensive, or so he said.  Ser Larkel knew nothing of magic.  The herbs could have been growing under his feet and he would not have known.  He gladly paid the price to see the girl get her rest.


As he watched he saw the ripple of magic spreading around her.  It looked like the still water of a lake when a stone had been tossed in causing little waves to spread softly out from the center, getting larger as they went.  It would have soothed them both if it were not for the sight at the center of the ripple.


The girl inside the spreading waves was not the one that Ser Larkel had saved at the tavern.  The long blond hair had disappeared and been replaced by curly red hair.  Her alabaster skin remained but was covered in small brown freckles.  He knew the face well as did everyone in the Kingdom of Tides.  This face was worth lots of gold to anyone that could find it.  And Ser Larkel had to make sure it was never found. The next morning, Ser Larkel returned to the mage and had him make a new powder, one with a more desirable effect.


“Well,” Sylvia complained, “Are you waiting for morning?”


Ser Larkel tossed a little of the powder on the girls nose making her sneeze.


“Don’t waste it,” she yelled, “You know I can’t sleep without it.”


He drizzled the powder lightly over her and watched her drift into sleep.  Then he lay in the bed next to her listening to her breathing.  After he was sure the spell had taken it’s full effect, he took out another pouch and sprinkled a dash on her and then one on him.  The old knight watched till the spell took hold.  Satisfied with the results, he quickly followed the young girl into the land of sleep.


The morning light tried to find the way into the dark damp room.  It made little progress against the dark window covering.  Small darts of light stabbed remote areas of the dusty room doing little to brighten the whole.  It didn’t seem stir any from sleep.


Tomment banged on the door outside.  It was usually the old knight flinging him from his bed role in the morning.  This day Ser Larkel would be caught sleeping and Tomment meant to return all the insults he had collected since he had been traveling with the knight.


When no one answered, Tomment took it upon him self to open the door.  It would be a treat to pull the covers from the napping man and let the cool morning air embrace him. 


Tomment’s heart leaped to his mouth at what he found.  Blood dripped from the side of the bed.  It pooled in the floor beneath the bed as if it had been leaking all night.  He could taste the bile in the back of his throat and swallowed hard to keep back the vomit.


Moving closer to the bed, he could see the small white hand hanging limp on the floor.  Its fingers touched the surface of the blood ever so lightly.  The silky blond hair that he loved so much was red with blood and matted tightly to her head around a round hole in the base of her skull.  Her tender blue eyes had lost the flare they had held in life and stared blankly at nothing.


The mage did not check on the knight.  It was his job to protect her and he had failed.  If he were not dead, Tomment swore to kill him.  He turned Sylvia to her side to view her face.  Even in death she was beautiful.


Overwhelmed, he pressed his lips to her icy cheek and wept.  He wept for the sunrise she would never see and for the ones they would never share.  But most of all, he cried for the love that still burned deep within his chest.




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