A THirst for Vengeance
My mother was a woman as wise as she was beautiful. She was not a whore, despite stories to the contrary.
She was the eldest of five sisters born of a lord. She renounced her claim to her father’s land and title when she was just sixteen. When a travelling troupe came through town, her heart was stolen by a young man with jet black hair and a singing voice that could make maidens weep.
He was my father.
My mother was a woman as wise as she was beautiful. That is why, when I was two, she tried to drive a blade of pure ivory into my heart.
But let’s back up for a moment to offer some perspective on this tale.
I was born on Harvest-Bane’s Eve, an ill omen if there ever was one. I was my mother’s third: her third child, her third boy. As you’ll see soon enough, the number three plays a pivotal role in my brief and miserable life.
My oldest brother, whose name need not be spoken, collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage at age twelve. I do not know much about him, having never met him. All I know is that the blood that came from his ear made such a stain on the wood floorboards of our home that it was still there when I made my return sixteen years later.
My middle brother, named Harry after our father, received an ill-aimed crossbow bolt through the gut when he strayed too close to a caravan fight. That was one year later. He was six. I was one.
So, perhaps it was grief that drove my mother to throw me on the table and reach for her knives. They were the only things she carried with her when she ran from home on the back of my father’s horse. The hilts were gilded gold. A third of each could feed one family for three years.
But, the true value lay in the blades.
Narwhal ivory, and centuries old, inlaid with magic to prevent them from ever snapping or growing dull. They were a relic from an older time, when magic had not yet been forgotten.
It always astounded me that she would waste one on a boy such as me.
When my mother raised the blade over her head and uttered the words of the profane ritual that would steer her hand straight and true, a brilliant gust of wind flung the door open. Maybe it was fate that saved me that day.
But even I like to think that fate would not be so cruel.
She gasped, and took her eyes off me just long enough to misplace the thrust. The knife lodged into my collarbone and shattered. I carry the scar to this day.
The shock of her knife breaking reduced my mother to tears. It was confirmation of her most dreaded fear about me. My father--
“Come on!” the old man’s voice rang out like the sound of tearing leather. “You expect us to believe you mother had three Narwhal ivory knives. Hoy! Who do you take us for?”
“I did not say she had three,” the hooded man told him calmly.
“What then? Six?” The old man started to laugh. He cut off with a choking sound, then swept in to show his remaining teeth in a sickening grin. “You spin a tall tale, boy. Hoy! Barkeep! More ale, eh? Keep it flowing all night, that’s what I say.” Without warning, the old man drew into himself. He shuddered. “Ale’s the only thing keeping a man’s bones warm these days.”
The barkeeper was an elderly woman not unpleasant to the eye. She loaded her arms with two pitchers and carried them to the table where three men sat.
Earl, the oldest—and the drunkest—made a misguided attempt to pinch the woman’s ass. It earned him a slap that sent his teeth rattling.
“So then, go on,” Patch, the youngest of the group, urged. In truth, he was little more than a boy. In pleasanter times, he should have been outside chasing game or learning to ride ponies on his Da’s farm. But, war has a peculiar effect that even time does not: It can turn a boy into a grown man overnight. “What did your father do?”
The hooded man tilted his head back and tasted the air. His nostrils flared the way a dog’s do on the eve of a storm. “There’s going to be trouble,” he said, his voice flat and hollow. “You’d best get home, Patch. We’ll have time enough for stories later.”
Patch slouched in his seat. “It’s not my fault Earl’s an ass!” he sulked. “I didn’t interrupt your story. Besides,” his voice took on a hopeful tone, “you’ve been promising to tell us for weeks.”
“Lad’s got a point,” Earl offered, reaching across the table to ruffle his hair. Patch ducked away with a scowl.
The man in the hood put both hands on the table and leaned close. “You fools aren’t frightened yet, are you?” he breathed.
“Frightened?” Earl repeated. “Frightened of what?” He hawked up a ball of phlegm and spit it over his shoulder. “I’ve been on this land for nearly seventy years. I’ve seen war and famine. Plague and illness--the sort that come with the wind from the south. Nay, I ain’t frightened of another bloody succession war. It don’t concern me. Stick to your land, that’s what I say. I’ve got no business in the realm of kings and nobility.” He gave a low grunt that showed his opinion of them.
“I stay on my farm,” he continued, “and ain’t nobody that will bother me. The land might be a harsh mistress, but she’s always given me enough to survive. Treat her well, and she won’t get angry—and that’s the best you can hope for from any woman, eh?” Earl chuckled and flashed his teeth at Patch. “There’s some sound advice for ya. Never rouse a woman’s anger. Keep that in mind, and you’ll survive longer than the best sell-sword.” Earl picked up his mug and took a generous swig. “Now, what do you say, Dagan?”
“I say you’re a bloody fool for not being frightened.” Dagan opened his eyes and turned them on Earl. The old man was no coward, but even he could not stop the unnatural chill that those eyes evoked in whoever saw them. “This is not just a succession war. When Zander moved to lift the seals of Regor, he released things much worse than demons into this world. Older things.”
“Like the Nehym?” Patch asked, excited. “You mean they’re real?”
Earl reached over and clubbed Patch on the side of the head. The boy looked at him bashfully. “What was that for?”
“For believing stories your Na told you when you were suckling at her teat,” Earl countered, with a lot more conviction than he felt. “Everyone knows the Nehym don’t exist. Zander opened the seals half a decade ago, and I ain’t seen a glimmer of difference one way or the other.” He glared at the hooded man. “And you ain’t either. You can go fill the boy’s head with stories of riches or make-believe, but don’t start pretending you know something the rest of us don’t.”
The hooded man’s lips curled up in a rare smile. “Why, Earl,” he said. “You might be a smarter man than I’ve given you credit for.”
Earl eyed Dagan with suspicion. “Don’t be mocking, now,” he warned.
“I was sincere.” Dagan looked at Patch. “You want a story, do you?”
“Yes, sir,” Patch answered, his voice full of admiration. Remembering his manners, he added, “Please?”
“Very well,” Dagan nodded. “It’s not often I get a captive audience. Most people who learn my name prefer to run rather than listen.” He glanced at Patch. “That should concern you.”
“Nope.” The boy swung his head and edged closer.
“My tale serves only one purpose,” Dagan said. “And that is to teach you the folly of being a hero. My father…”
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