The men woke early the next morning. Swagin had drunken himself stupider the night before, so Falkier and Jofalk had needed to haul the Dhorn into a room above the tavern. They doubted that he would notice they had paid their bill from his pocket with an additional small fee for themselves. The burly man’s face showed the wearying effects of the previous night as he and Jofalk saddled their mounts in the light of early dawn. Falkier would have offered to help out except that he had no idea how to prepare an Aoun for travel, and the tavern owner’s young son was helping Jofalk with his bay.
Watching the men get ready to leave, Falkier pondered over all that had happened in the last two days. He’d been rescued from prison by a mysterious man, became an accomplice to the deaths of six men, been saved from being captured or freezing to death in the woods twice, joined a band of mercenaries, and received a sword from his dreams. The sword was slung over his shoulder, a weight that was becoming more familiar than when he had woken with it the previous morning. He was still unsure how it had gotten there. If his dream was to be trusted, it was a sword given to him by the Ancients, but for what purpose? And why had they picked him? Though his imprisonment had been unjust, he was still an escaped prisoner and far from the most moral person in the world to deserve such an honor.
The cloth wrapped around his hand was stained with blood. The X-shaped wound had started to scab over, but he kept the cloth on it in case it opened again. He had been perturbed when he discovered that it had been ultimately unnecessary and would mean nothing if he was rejected by The Archer, but Swagin had been adamant that Falkier would be accepted since he needed to repay a debt. Jofalk had asserted that, as Archer’s protégé, he could convince their leader to accept a new member. The Archer could be very welcoming to people when he wanted to be, and Jofalk knew how to hit his soft spot. Falkier held onto that idea as he mounted Olorn with Swagin.
The Bronze Bulls mercenary guild was located in an abandoned stronghold a day’s ride northeast, so they hoped to get there by nightfall to allow The Archer to evaluate him. According to Jofalk, Archer had started the Bronze Bulls not long after Falkier had been imprisoned following a botched assassination attempt. After narrowly escaping with his life, Archer’s reputation as the perfect assassin was marred and nobody would hire him. He had been training Jofalk for years and decided to expand his horizons by bringing together a group of young non-nobles who had shown the potential to be great warriors. Swagin had been the first recruit and had been initially paired with Jofalk to help him acclimate to the mercenary life. Upon seeing how well they complemented each other, they were permanently made a team, and The Archer modeled his following choices after them. Since then, the Bulls had slowly grown to a point where it could compete with other mercenary guilds.
The Bulls competitive edge stemmed from their ability to be customized to the task at hand. Whereas most mercenaries were simply strong-arming fighters, every member of the Bulls had a skill that they specialized in, like spying or robbery. Jofalk’s specialty was assassination at range while Swagin’s skill was unarmed combat. As a unit, they could handle most combat situations, which is why they were given their escort mission. The two were also sent on missions where the employer seemed unlikely to pay, as both made more than adequate debt collectors.
Swagin had revealed, while deep into his drink the previous night, the real reason they had not escorted their employer back was that he’d failed to pay, so Swagin beat him bloody, took the gauntlets, and left him in the woods. Falkier had been taken aback by that revelation but didn’t find it unexpected considering their line of work. Their sharing of this information had actually made him more comfortable trusting them.
As they reached the crest of the hill out of the valley, Swagin turned his head to Falkier. “Prepar’ fur a hasslin’. We got sum king’s boys comin’ dis way.” Three men were riding towards them. Falkier could pick out black tunics bearing a silver crescent moon, the royal sigil of Grent Corine. Surely they were looking for the escaped prisoner. He pulled his shirt up to cover his nose and shrank down behind Swagin. Maybe they wouldn’t notice him and they wouldn’t bother stopping the mercenaries. If only he could be that lucky. The rider in front, a thin man with a groomed dark brown mustache, raised his hand to halt them.
“Good morning, men.” The man’s comrades, one with hair black as coal and the other a shaved head, fanned out to his sides, further blocking the road. Falkier could see each had a sword hanging from his hip.
“Marnin’.” Swagin nodded his head to the man. “We dun’ want any troubil. Jus’ travla’s minin’ ar businuss.”
“A man escaped from the prison west of here a few days ago. We are searching for him so that he may be captured and brought to justice.” Falkier could feel the men’s eyes staring at him. They know. They’ve got to know it’s me.
“Dun know anathin’ ‘bout anathin’. Jus’ headin’ home afta’ visitin’ a friend o’ ars in Tise Dews.”
“There is a reward for anyone who has any information about the man or his whereabouts,” the blackhaired man added. “Three bronze spades for information, six iron marks for turning him in.”
“Six iron marks?” Jofalk cocked his eyebrow. “The price an escaped prisoner is usually only a few spades. What did this man do to deserve such a reward?” Falkier was hoping that this reward wouldn’t sway the mercenaries to turn him in. His heart in his throat, he tried to shrink himself even farther, trying to avoid the rider’s attention.
“The man’s crime was sedition, but during his escape, he killed six guards,” the mustached rider answered. “This is a dangerous man we’re dealing with.”
“Pris’ner showed up yer guards? Boy, does that make m’feel like m’taxes er spent well.”
“Your taxes?” The mustached man’s voice carried restrained anger. “Neither of you sound like you’re Corinian. If I had to guess, I’d say Dhorn and Sadetian.”
“Thas right. Ah was born in th’ mowntuns o’ Dhor Isten, but me ‘n Jofalk work ‘ere in Grent Corine.” Swagin reached into a pocket in his vest. “’Ere’s m’ papers t’prove it.” He handed a folded piece of paper to the man. Jofalk did the same.
The riders paused to look at them, nodded, and handed it back. Falkier couldn’t help but think that it would have taken far longer for them to have read foreign workman’s permits. Though the five countries of the continent held an alliance, you had to get the permission of a foreign government to work outside of your native country. Falkier had crossed paths with those documents as a scribe for Lord Siphem, and he knew they were very wordy. Either the riders did not care that Jofalk and Swagin had permits, or they were unable to read.
“Now, as ah said, we know nuthin’ ‘bout nuthin. If we see yer boy, wull b’ sher t’let ya’ know.” Swagin kicked Olorn to continue on, but the riders continued to block the way. “Hold on a second. What’s the deal with your friend here?” The mustached man gestured towards Falkier. Falkier raised his head to look at them. If they hadn’t arrested him yet, they probably didn’t have a description of him. “Why have you been so quiet?”
“I figured that Swagin and Jofalk were more than capable of giving you men all the information you required. As you can likely tell from my accent, I am Corinian, and so I don’t have any work or travel papers to display.” Falkier managed to keep his voice confident and calm, despite the pounding of his heart.
The mustached rider nodded. “You are right. As a Corinian, you don’t need to show us foreign work or travel forms.” The two men at his side drew their swords in unison. “However, as of three years ago, Corinians are required to carry identification with them at all times to be presented immediately to any law official. You wouldn’t know that, though, since you’ve been in prison until yesterday.” He gestured to his men. “Seize him!”
Falkier found himself rolling off the back of Olorn as Swagin leaped from his seat, bellowing, “No king’s boys er gun’ take m’ blood brotha’ Falkeer while Ah’m livin’!” He threw himself at the shaved man, completely ignorant of the piece of iron the man brandished. Falkier got to his feet in time to watch as Swagin knocked the sword away with his forearm and slammed his other fist into the man’s face. Olorn’s heads hissed as they snapped at the black haired man with long, razor-sharp fangs. Jofalk directed his horse away from the commotion, nocking an arrow to his bow. The mustached man dismounted and drew his sword, ducking an arrow in the process. He dived away from the rampaging Dhorn and Aoun, locking his eye on his prey, Falkier.
Falkier pulled the sword from its scabbard, the weight foreign to his hand. If it really was a sword meant for him as the dream said, shouldn’t it be more comfortable to hold? The knuckle-bow on the thumb side of the hilt seemed out of place and close to unnecessary. Why make them bladed to begin with? The only time a bladed knuckle-bow would make sense is if you were hitting someone with it, and isn’t the point of a sword to keep a little more distance from your opponent?
Falkier would have other times to question how functional his Ancient-given weapon was for him, as
the mustached man swung his sword at Falkier’s feet, causing him to step back out of the way, barely blocking the follow-up swing. He swung at the man, who easily parried and struck at Falkier’s leg. Clearly, he’d been trained in swordsmanship.
Falkier winced as the blade sliced across his thigh, blood soaking the leg of his trousers. He struck back, stabbing at the man’s stomach. The mustached man moved the blade out of the way with a flick of the wrist and smacked Falkier’s wrist with the flat of his blade. Falkier’s grip faltered for a second, but he recovered enough to pull his sword back in front of him. All the while, the mustached man watched him, smirking. Was he playing with Falkier? The man blocked Falkier’s next couple swings with ease, retaliating with a few nicks on Falkier’s arms and legs. This is pointless. He could kill me without breaking a sweat. He must need to take me in alive, so he’s just letting me wear myself out.
Falkier looked at the longsword in his hands, a supposed gift from heaven he was destined to wield. He was no great warrior, how could he ever do anything with this piece of metal. He couldn’t even find a comfortable way to hold it.
Touch the black gem in the pommel and say ‘Vatinp, yqab’, a voice growled in his head. It was the voice from the woods before he blacked out.
Falkier obeyed, putting the fingers of his right hand on the pommel. Despite the freezing air around it, the gem felt slightly warm. “Vah-tinp, ee-cob?” Falkier said, the words feeling odd in his mouth. Whatever was supposed to happen, didn’t.
No! ‘Vatinp yqab!’ Say it with more confidence!
Falkier took a breath and focused. “Vatinp, yqab!”
Warmth flooded through Falkier’s body, and his wounds stopped bleeding. He watched in amazement as the sword transformed in his hand. The leather of the hilt took on a scaled appearance. The blade broadened into that of a falchion, the end becoming rounder and the top edge becoming blunted. The thumbside knuckle-bow disappeared, while a hook grew downward from the hilt over the blunt edge. The hook bore a jagged edge that gave it an appearance resembling the jaw of some sort of carnivorous beast when paired with a matching adornment that extended along the bladed edge. Falkier’s eyes and mouth felt strange, almost like they were also going through some sort of transformation.
The mustached man’s eyes widened in terror. “Are you some sort of demon?” His stance quickly became more aggressive as he began striking at Falkier.
The newly-transformed sword felt easier to handle, and Falkier was able to protect himself, catching the man’s blade across the blunt edge. After a few more swings, Falkier managed to hook the man’s blade. He twisted his wrist and wrenched the sword out of the man’s hands. The sword clattered to the ground, and Falkier rushed him, punching the knuckle-bow that still remained on the bladed side of his sword into the man’s throat. The man wheezed as he collapsed to the ground. Falkier put the point of his sword to the
“So this is how you managed to kill six men on your own,” the man croaked. “Demon magic.”
“I was not alo-“
The man spat at Falkier. “Kill me, you worthless cheat. I would rather die than listen to you try to corrupt my ears with your lies.”
Falkier drew the sword back to deliver the final blow and stopped. He’d never killed anyone before. Swagin and Jofalk had already finished the other two men off and were rummaging through their possessions. He looked into the man’s eyes, defiant and prepared for what was to come. The sword descended, opening the man’s throat. Watching the man’s body collapse in a pool of blood, Falkier ran his tongue across his teeth and was surprised to find all of them sharp and pointed. He raised his sword and looked at himself in the blade’s reflection. His eyes were the color of polished brass with slits for pupils. Smiling confirmed that his teeth had all grown to sharp points. I really do look like a demon.
Not a demon, the voice growled, a dragon. Touch the black gem again before your comrades can see.
Falkier obeyed, and the warmth rushed out of his muscles. The sword remained a falchion, but the leather hilt lost its scaliness and the hook lost its jagged edge. Falkier looked at his reflection on the blade again and was relieved to see that his eyes and teeth had returned to normal as well. What is going on? What happened? Who are you? There came no response.
“Gud wark, Falkeer.” As Swagin approached, Falkier could see that his hands were bloodied and his handwraps hung tattered from his wrists. “Strip ‘em o’ his valubuls quickly so w’can git goin’ ‘gain. Gotta be quick if’n we wan’ t’be home by night.”
Falkier sheathed the sword and kneeled down to the man, careful to avoid the blood pooling around the body. Falkier dutifully searched the man’s pockets and found a purse full of tarnished bronze coins bearing the image of a shovel. Spades were the second least valuable coin after the copper penny, so the purse wasn’t an amazing find. Falkier also stripped the man of his swordbelt and a chainmail byrnie he’d worn under his tunic. Falkier strapped on the swordbelt, replacing the man’s scabbard with his own, and put the byrnie on underneath his two layers of borrowed clothing, leaving the prison shirt underneath. He stood to see Swagin sitting on Olorn rewrapping his hands and Jofalk putting an arrow back into his quiver.
As Falkier remounted Olorn, he saw the bodies of the other two men. Falkier’s opponent lucked out getting away with just an opened throat. The man with the shaved head’s face was broken and bloodied, while the other man had his throat ripped out and a hole through the side of his head where an arrow had been ripped out. These three men had only been doing their duty, trying to seize a prisoner, and they paid with their lives.
“Why didn’t you two give me over to them?” Falkier asked his companions. “Surely, you figured out that I was the person they were looking for. You could have made some money from it.”
“We knew you were a prisoner from the moment we met you,” Jofalk replied. “It wasn’t our job to hunt you down, and you clearly needed help.”
“Yah, you was ah pitiful thin’, you was,” Swagin added. “An’ now tha’ yer one o’ us, der ain’t no price we’d take fer ya’.”
“Then all I can do is thank you.” All the worrying that Falkier’d done had been for nothing. They’d known all along that he was a wanted man, so he’d had nothing to worry about by trusting them. It would have been nice if they had given him a sign they were on to him sooner, though, but that’s the past now. He touched the cut on his hand they’d given him. “Maybe I’ll stay with the Bulls even after I manage to save your lives.”
The three men turned their backs to the bloody scene and continued riding down the road. The sun had not yet reached its peak, but they still had a way to go. Falkier couldn’t help but think to himself that his future laid ahead somewhere down that road. He looked at the Dhorn and the Sadetian he rode with. If they were any indication of what his future as a mercenary was going to be like, the future was bright as the sun in the sky above them.