Galicus’s hand swept the furred hide of the dead monster carefully, almost reverently, coming to a halt at its scaled, bloodied neck.
“This is a blue mantidrake”, he explained, then nodding to himself, “yes, a very rare creature, a magically created combination of a lion and blue dragon.”
“You’ve seen one before, Magister?” Pavo asked. His eyes were still wild and wide, and he was rubbing his bald head, coming to grips with the fact how close to destruction his caravan – his family – had come.
The old Chelaxian alchemist snorted with mirth. “Master Utti, I’ve merely read about something similar. However,” he got up from his knee, “what I’ve read about them says they are usually much smaller. Horse-sized. This is six times bigger.” He regarded Belon. “Damn fine fighting, young master.”
Belon shrugged and tipped his forehead towards his brother. “Thank my brother. He struck the final blows.”
Cael was behind everyone else, an empty healing potion bottle in his hand, mutely staring at the corpse he had made. Belon wondered at the emptiness of his gaze. What was he thinking? There were times when he couldn’t read his twin at all, and it worried him.
“Gods, yes. Thank you both”, Pavo said, his hands together, fingers steepled. “You saved the caravan.” His sons were beside him and Pavo spared a worried glance at them as he continued. “I.. I cannot repay you enough.”
“Don’t worry about it”, Cael told him in his low voice without lifting his gaze.
His uncaring coldness unsettled the caravan owner and he watched the stubble-headed warrior with some disbelief.
“Thank the gods you were with us”, he finally managed to say, if only to Belon.
“It was fate, the will of Pharasma.”
Belon could hear Cael snort.
“With your permission”, Galicus carefully asked, “I would like to collect some specimens and parts of the monster for my work. A tooth, maybe a part of its wing.”
Belon shrugged again. “Do with it what you want. But I think Master Utti here is eager to continue with our journey.”
“Yes, yes”, Pavo commented absentmindedly, “but first we need to drag the corpse out of our way.”
His wife was already ahead of him, bringing Dangoyle, drivers, eight horses and thick ropes with her. Belon left the scene and gestured Cael to follow. The gloomy half-elf nodded but glanced at Therese. Belon saw the exchange of looks, pursed lips, and narrowed eyes, between his brother and the caravan master, and wondered what the nine hells was going on. Therese didn’t seem grateful one bit, rather the opposite.
Cael walked to Belon.
“What was that about?” The twin with the blue eyes asked.
“You and Therese.”
Cael clenched his jaw and made a scowl.
“She.. she thinks I’m trouble. She probably feels it is because of me that mantidrake attacked.”
Belon threw his head back and chuckled without amusement. His brother wasn’t the nicest person but heavens did he draw negativity and ill will. Then again, what else did Cael ever offer to the world?
His brother kept silent. Belon watched him – his brother with his everfrown, the creased brow, the weariness in his eyes. He searched for a spark of life, of hope, of joy. A flicker of something else among the smoldering yet cold fires of hate and suspicion.
If he didn’t find it, he still hoped it was there somewhere.
“You fought well, brother”, Belon finally said. Cael nodded, in his minimalistic way returning the compliment.
“But you were reckless in jumping to the beast’s back when it took off”, Belon added. It was a fact, and he didn’t blame Cael. Even if he wanted to.
“How so?” Cael asked and a predator’s dangerous sneer came and went. “I knew I could kill it. It was helpless. And falling isn’t an issue to me.”
That was correct. Cael wore a magical ring that had brought him down gently like a feather whereas the dead mantidrake had slammed down a hundred feet to the rocks like a gargantuan sack of potatoes.
“It was escaping”, Belon still noted. Another fact.
This time, Cael’s face was frozen with severity. “It had hurt us, brother. I had to kill it. It could’ve returned to hunt us.”
Belon had no counter-argument, but he still wondered. Cael had always been the cautious and deliberate one of the two, more calculating and uncaring of others. But still, when it came to the well-being of those close to him, he threw all caution to the wind.
When they had been slaves, Cael’s natural rebellious and hateful streaks had grown deeper. For a few years, their slavers had resorted to punishing him for his disobedience, until the day came when Cael had killed one of their guards – for a reason Belon couldn’t remember. Eximedes Horryn himself had come to see the half-elf brothers, his prized possessions of great potential, and come up with a diabolically ingenious solution.
He had his men beat Belon to near death and promised Cael that if he ever disobeyed again, they’d punish his brother instead.
Cael had bitten his lip and desisted. And the bitterness and wrath had filled him, with no way of releasing. But so it was that the strongest chain imprisoning them was their brotherhood and not the high walls of the Horryn estate or its numerous ruthless guards. Cael wouldn’t do anything that endangered his brother and knowing that he could be controlled like a puppet. It was the same with Belon, as he was no less loyal a sibling. But Cael’s dedication was several orders of magnitude fiercer, Belon had to admit.
It was a week after Belon had been beaten that the twins had decided to plan their escape for real. Escaping was extremely dangerous, given how Horryn silently killed all the escaped slaves he caught. But they had to run, together, and lead a better life free. They pledged it solemnly when Belon had regained consciousness and enough sense to think straight and stay on his feet. For over a year they had planned and waited for their chance. It had never come. Instead, Horryn had sent Belon off to that Chelaxian prince, for reasons unknown.
Ultimately Belon had returned to Canorate, but he had come too late. Cael had escaped alone, his route painted crimson with blood. The memory still weighed heavy upon the silver-haired half-elf’s heart. He had failed his brother before, then betrayed him and the vow they had made to each other.
I have to make it right. I have to be a better brother.
It was his task to make sure his brother didn’t fall – didn’t lose his step in the path of life. They were free now. He had to make him understand his days weren’t as hopeless and dark like those in a windowless underground cell. He saw the world in colors, but his brother only in shades of gray. There was life beyond the blood-spilling. Friendship. Seeing the world. Enjoying it. Love. Family. Belon had seen it during the past years. He was ready to embrace it, but was his brother?
He put his hand on Cael’s shoulder. Cael’s flinched at the touch but did not retreat.
“You are not trouble or scum.”
His scarred twin harrumphed, and looked aside, not willing to meet his brother’s eyes.
“I mean it, brother.” Past his brother he saw little Mico standing with his big brother, watching the warriors from one of the wagons, still awe-struck, babbling to Marco. “You are a good man. You’ve done things you cannot be proud of. But everything you’ve done has been for a reason. You’re not a senseless murderer and berserker.”
Cael looked to the side, to the others, still averting Belon’s gaze.
“She believed in you. Your friends in Varisia believed in you. The world is not against you.”
His brother sighed deeply.
Belon let go. Cael still needed time. But there was hope, a light in the gloom of his damaged soul, Belon could sense it. But he could only bring him half the way. Belon truly needed Aurora’s help. Without her, he’d fail him and Mother, again.
Eventually, the guards and drivers got the corpse of the mantidrake pulled off the narrow path and the convoy could continue. Pavo did not cut the day’s leg a mile, choosing to drive longer into the night, making up the time they had lost. He wanted to reach Fort Thorn on time the next day.
In the morning, the way became easier and they emerged to a roughly square-shaped valley within the mountains. The Bloodsworn Vale was circled by a number of the highest mountains of the Mindspins, and with their cloud-piercing everfrost peaks they looked like majestic, helmeted guards. The valley was almost completely covered in thick forests and two rivers streamed across it, dividing it into three equally large parts. Thankfully the Korvosans ranging the surrounding woods had cleared a path and built simple bridges for passing convoys and travelers, so they had a way to go.
Fort Thorn was built close to the banks of the westernmost stream. A wide expanse of woods had been hacked bare, but bushes of roses had been left here and there – a curiosity Belon noted aloud. Cael, of course, had no explanation, but Pavo remembered a story about a battle between Varisian barbarians and the imperial army of Cheliax that had been fought in the Vale. According to the story, the number of dead soldiers had been so high that for every grave, a beautiful red rose had sprouted from the earth. The roses, as it turned out, littered the valley. They were a beautiful menace with their blooming flowers and sharp thorns.
While it could be spotted from a mile away down the road, the fort wasn’t much, Belon decided. A gatehouse and a few stone towers, thirty or so feet tall, guarded all the approaches, while a sturdy wooden palisade, fifteen feet tall, ringed the fort. Parts of the wall looked new – the fort had been expanded recently to accommodate houses for workers and hunters. Within were a stone keep of the lord of Bloodsworn Vale, Sir Gyrad Tolgrith, a forge, stables, barracks and storehouses, a chapel dedicated to Erastil, the god of hunting and farming, an inn, a shop and a hall for caravan drivers. It was a budding tiny town deep in lethal wilderness, pushing for self-sufficiency.
When they arrived in the late afternoon, an hour to sundown, the gate to the fort opened and the convoy rumbled in. Inside, they were warmly welcomed by the guards and the locals. Pavo went to bear-hug and talk with a shopkeeper, while Therese started to banter with the stablemaster. Mico ran to some familiar children playing in the long shadow of a guard tower, while Marco remained at the lead carriage, taking care of the horses. It was a scene Belon could imagine repeated every time they arrived at Fort Thorn. There was something enviable in it all, but Belon couldn’t quite figure out what. The tradition and sense of security that comes from having routines? The friendship that welcomed them? Or simply the fact they were a family traveling together?
Cael wordlessly rode next to him and dismounted.
“I need something to wash the road off my mouth”, Belon said and got off the horse as well. One of Pavo’s drivers, Krest, the halfling, came to collect their mounts and Belon nodded him his thanks.
“Orrend’s tavern is your choice, then”, Krest chirped and pointed.
Led by guard-captain Dangoyle, most of the caravan guards were already heading to a wooden, boxy building that had small windows and a wide double-door with a big plaque above. The plaque read Boar’s Bones.
“Marvellous”, Belon smiled and started towards the inn. Cael pulled his hood over his head and followed him like a shadow.
The place was not big, and with the dozen or so guards and the brothers coming in, it became packed. The locals, hunters, surveyors and a few guards mostly offered their gruff greetings to Dangoyle and her men but eyed the brothers warily. Serving the customers were three halflings, hairy hands full of tankards of ale, and they swiftly and expertly moved around men and women twice as tall as them.
“Nice boar”, Cael noted, his voice just audible over the noise the customers made. At the center of the inn was a perfect skeleton of a boar, each bone painfully accurately placed to the right position and connected to the next with thin wires, making it look like it could animate and attack at any moment. One of the customers passed it and dropped a copper coin to a pouch that hung from its tusks.
Belon ordered two ales and the brothers retreated to a silent corner, choosing to stand by a high table without chairs. An only recently alighted candle fluttered between them, and Cael played with the fire as he waited, the bare halves of his otherwise gloved fingers dancing around the flame.
Belon caught eyes with a pretty girl, blue-eyed and full-lipped, wearing a plain, green farmer’s dress, at the opposite corner and he sent her a wide smile. The girl replied with a shy smirk, but it vanished when a man beside her set his hand on her lap and frowned at the full plated half-elf. Figures. Belon looked elsewhere.
The main doors creaked open violently and a middle-aged man stormed in, wearing a practical if new-looking black jacket over a finely crafted piece of leather armor that protected his chest, arms, and legs. He was smiling but his eyes sharply searched for something. Some of the background noise in the tavern quieted and eyes turned to him – he was clearly an important person.
“Whisky Dangoyle, you beautiful bastard!” He yelled as he found what he was looking for.
“Gyrad! ‘xcuse me, Sir Tolgrith”, the mercenary replied and after rising to her feet, bowed deeply, like an actor on a stage, ale splashing to the floor from the tankard in her hand. Belon wondered if she was already drunk.
Tolgrith paced over to her and smacked a fat kiss on her cheek before hugging her.
“I heard from Utti you had some troubles on the way”, the orange-headed and potato-nosed man asked.
“Indeed”, Dangoyle replied with her wide accent and cleared her throat. Some of her levity disappeared. “Had a run-in with watcha callit.. a mantidrake.”
“A mantidrake? The mantidrake? You ran into Rasghor?”
“Ya have others?”
“Well, no, Erastil praise us! We have enough with Rasghor as it is! It’s big as a house and has attacked two convoys and killed probably two road crews!”
“Weeell.. it ain’t killing anyone anymore.”
“You defeated it?” Tolgrith was almost screaming by now. The tall mercenary nodded towards the dark corner where the Greymarshes were waiting for their ales. Tolgrith’s eyes followed and when he saw the brothers, he understood immediately.
“Well I’ll be damned..”
As he approached them, Belon could hear his brother sigh in slight irritation. He didn’t want attention, ever. This time, Belon could’ve managed without too. He just wanted the ale and sleep under a roof tucked in a warm blanket. He glanced at the pretty girl, who happened to stare at him. Maybe with some company.
“Gentlemen, I am Sir Gyrad Tolgrith, lord of Bloodsword Vale”, the red-headed man introduced himself. “Welcome, truly!”
“Sir Tolgrith, I’m Belon Greymarsh, and this is my brother, Cael.”
Cael just grunted and nodded under his hood.
“Please, just Gyrad.” He pulled his head back as if taking a better overall look at the brothers.
“You’re not mercenaries or soldiers, I take it?”
“No, we aren’t”, Belon replied.
“Ha! I recently hired a band of adventurers to help with the situation here in the Vale.. they called themselves specialists. I had a bunch of problems. They took care of them.”
Belon smiled at that. Specialists had a nice ring to it. Even Cael might agree.
“We’re something like that”, the half-elf agreed.
“Orrend!” The lord of Bloodsworn Vale suddenly roared to the innkeeper. “This evening these two fine gentlemen, these two specialists, have their drinks on me.”
“We don’t drink that much”, Belon admitted offhand. A bottle of wine each and both of the brothers would spend the next day with a splitting headache. Alcohol was something that even their elven blood didn’t manage.
“Even better. Orrend!” The potato-nosed nobleman shouted again. “A round to Dangoyle and her boys and girls. Rasghor’s dead, that needs to be celebrated!”
Not your typical stiff and pompous nobleman, Belon considered. Rather, Sir Tolgrith came out as a man of the people.
The brothers kept to themselves, courteously refusing ale and something distilled and much more potent, and had some supper instead. A few hours later, well past sundown, the small in was full to its brim. Pavo, Therese and Marco and a few of the drivers had arrived too to enjoy the evening. One of the local guards was playing the flute, and to Belon’s untrained ear he seemed to be quite talented.
“She’s been watching you”, Cael noted to his brother and sipped some water from a wooden tankard.
“Who?” Belon replied, looking around, seeing only dancing and laughing bulks of men and women.
“The girl in the green dress, the blue-eyed.”
Cael looked at him like he was an idiot.
“She has a husband”, Belon told him, raising his palms defensively.
“He’s her father.”
“How the nine hells can you tell?”
“I heard it. And I read it from her lips, too. ‘Father this, Father that’”, Cael replied and sniffed.
Belon was baffled a second until he remembered that his brother really wasn’t an ordinary man. He could be very perceptive when he chose to be, noting tiny details in crowds and picking out distinct sounds over a roar of battle. It was something that had kept him alive for the past eight years.
The silver-haired Greymarsh just smiled.
“Our family is known for its fleeting romances. Not keen on starting another”, he told his reserved brother but they both knew he was lying through his teeth. Cael just snorted.
“I’ve been thinking about Dunbreck and Aurora”, Cael said, carefully, after a moment.
This took Belon aback. “You have?” He resisted a smirk – not a difficult task given how genuinely surprised he was.
“Yes, I have.”
“And?” Belon didn’t want to press the matter. But he hoped for the best.
“It’s the right thing. To see her. Even if she hates me now.”
“She’ll hate you if you just come back to shake her world and disappear anew”, Belon made the risky comment. He wanted his brother to try. To go back.
“I..” Cael struggled. “I can’t make promises to her. Promises I know I might not be able to keep.”
Say bad things about Cael Greymarsh but he is loyal to his loved ones.
“I can offer her nothing”, his hooded brother went on.
“Maybe now. But after Canorate, after we’ve completed our mission, then, brother, you can offer her everything.”
“If I don’t die and go to Hell”, Cael snapped, his voice hoarse.
“Come on now”, Belon tut-tutted. “Not on my watch.”
To that, Cael said nothing but sipped some more water.
“What are you planning to tell her?” Belon asked.
“The good news, I guess”, Cael shrugged. “About finding you. Ask for her forgiveness. I don’t know if she’s already married and moved away. If she still loves me.”
“If she does, you intend to ask her to marry you as well?” Belon was cracking a smile.
Cael just stared at him, unreadable, his eyes betraying nothing.
“Fine, fine. But if she still has feelings for you, you have to make a promise to her. A pledge that you’ll come back after Canorate.”
Cael’s face remained blank.
“Damn it brother, I will carry you back if you don’t”, Belon told him and poked him on the shoulder.
The darker brother let out a sigh and shook his head.
“I can’t understand why this is so important to you.”
“Because I want you to be happy for a change, for Pharasma’s sake!”
“I’ll be happy when House Horryn burns to ashes-”
“Cael, no. You won’t. It will be a sorry offering to the hate and wrath that are devouring you. It will not bring you happiness.”
“But stabbing every beautiful and expensive whore I come across with my manhood does, doesn’t it, brother?”
The comment struck a nerve. Belon loved women and had gotten into trouble for it many times. But that was not the point.
Cael clenched his jaw and the twins locked gazes. Around them, the small celebration continued without anyone paying any attention, as if they were in a bubble, alone in the world.
“So you say”, the stubble-headed half-elf finally murmured and lowered his head.
Belon rolled his eyes and turned away. Wretched, stubborn fool.
Sir Tolgrith was still enjoying the evening with Dangoyle, a few other mercenaries, and a new person, a young mustached man in practical, dull traveler’s clothing. Belon decided he had had enough of his brother’s company and paced past drunken customers to their table.
“This seat’s taken?” Belon indicated a vacant one. In reply, Dangoyle pointed at a little fellow who had passed out on the floor beside her and was peacefully drooling and snoring, another cheek against the wooden planks. Then she burped audibly.
Belon pulled the simple if sturdy stool back and sat down. It groaned in protest.
“Damn, that has to be the finest piece of armor I’ve ever seen”, Sir Tolgrith admired his face reddish and speech already a bit slurry.
Belon realized he still wore his full plate and remembered he had paced in straight from the mount. He’d need to change, go relieve himself, maybe have a chat with the blue-eyed girl. But he decided to socialize a bit first.
“Ya wanna drink?” Dangoyle asked and offered a wooden tankard to Belon. Some foam and beer slushed over its brim to the table.
The silver-haired shook his head and smiled, then regarded the lord of Bloodsworn Vale to reply. “Thank you. I try to make use of it the best I can.”
Tolgrith was in the middle of a long swig but stopped to laugh. “Says the humble man in gilded armor!” His laughter was booming and catchy and the others around the table joined in. Only the mustached young man, a recent arrival, didn’t. He was sipping his ale, seemingly worn but not tired. His eyes were on the table, but he looked to nothingness.
“Had a rough journey?” Belon asked the mustached man, trying to make some conversation. He raised his eyes, dark circles around them, and gazed at the half-elf.
“Lester here’s seen some ghosts,” Tolgrith replied in his stead, smacked his palm on his shoulder and shook it.
“You have undead in the Vale?” Belon asked as his eyebrows rose.
Tolgrith just waved the comment away. “Of course, a few. But Lester’s ghosts were in Nirmathas.”
“Tell the others!” Tolgrith urged the young man and slapped him on his back. Lester twitched but lowered his tankard from his mouth and sighed.
“I am a courier traveling around Nirmathas, and between Skelt and Korvosa. I’ve been for a while, so I’ve seen things. Weird things. Bad.. things.”
His voice was a whisper at first, but as he went, he seemed to regain some vitality. Belon nodded, presenting a suitably serious face.
“But what I saw four days ago east of Skelt, near Fangwood.. nothing compares to that.”
Lester swallowed but didn’t falter. He gently put down his tankard on the table.
“A dead village, ten or so buildings. From a distance, it looked all right. But when I got closer, I saw bodies everywhere – men, women, children. Gutted. Torn apart. Ravaged. They hadn’t been killed with swords and arrows, or magic. As if some animal had attacked. But what kind of animal slaughters dozens without eating any?”
“A dragon?” Belon offered. It didn’t sound something like a ghost would do. Lester shook his head violently.
“No. Nothing was burned, or frozen, or destroyed. It was just the people who had been killed. Those poor souls..”
The weary courier shook his head, still unbelieving it himself. “It’s been days but still I get gooseflesh when I think about what I witnessed. I see nightmares where the townsfolk, covered in their own blood, their chests and throats torn open, begging for my help.” He closed his face into his palms and his body trembled as if he had the shivers.
“Do you have any idea who or what could be behind it?” The half-elf asked. Lester didn’t answer, and the guards and Dangoyle looked away or shrugged.
Tolgrith snorted. He was well in his cups. “It’s them outcasts. The beasts of darkness Molthuni use to terrorize the Nirmathi.”
“Werebeasts. Owlbears. Bugbears. Hobgoblins. And the like.”
Belon rubbed his chin. Tolgrith mentioned men who turned to bloodlusted animals when night fell. The others were towering nocturnal predators, human-eating goblinoids and their smaller, sneaky, ruthless cousins. What a bunch. What could bring them all together?
“Good thing Pavo never travels into Fangwood!” One of Dangoyle’s mercenary guards blurted suddenly, wide-eyed, and got firm, serious aye-aye’s from the others. Uncovering his face, with shaking hands, Lester reached to his tall cup and emptied it with one swig. Belon guessed he’d down several ales in the future.
“A good thing”, Belon muttered in the affirmative. A good thing indeed.