Aron of Darien, raised in exile after his homeland is conquered by a treacherous warlord, makes his way in the world on the strength of his wits and skill with a sword. Both are sorely tested when he is impressed into the service of the Earl of Nandor to rescue his heir from captivity in the fortress of Sarazan. The rescue goes awry. Aron and his companions are betrayed and must flee for their lives. Pursued by steel and magic, they find new friends and old enemies on the road that leads, after many turns, to the city of the High King. There Aron must face his father’s murderer before risking everything in a fight to the death with the deadliest swordsman in the kingdom.
“Run and fetch the guard, right now.” The tavernkeeper pushed the potboy out of the backdoor of the Black Lamb. He reached for the blackthorn cudgel that hung on the back of the kitchen door and returned to the common room where he carefully took down his treasured mirror from behind the counter. There were three people left in the common room and two of them were trouble. The tables were littered with mugs, some still half-full, that his customers had abandoned in their hurry to be out of harm’s way.
At a table in the middle of the room sat Marek, the Earl’s Blademaster, and Davo. Marek drained his mug and thumped a massive fist on the table. “More ale,” he roared, throwing the mug across the room. The tavernkeeper filled a mug from the barrel and cautiously brought it to the table. The last time he had seen Marek in this mood it had taken six guardsmen to subdue him and the common room had been wrecked. He glanced at the third person in the room, the young stranger who had walked in an hour ago, and thought about warning him of the danger; but the tavernkeeper had no doubt if he did so he would become the object of Marek’s attention instead. He collected the empty mugs and retreated behind the relative safety of the counter, counting the minutes until the guard could arrive.
The young stranger looked no more than twenty. His mud-splashed legs showed he had arrived on foot rather than horseback, though his clothes were of good quality, and a sword hung at his left side in an old black leather scabbard. He had spread his travel-stained cloak across a chair beside the fire to dry and then sat alone at a small table in a corner with a bowl of mutton stew and a mug of ale. Sitting back in his chair, eyes half-closed, he appeared to be nodding off to sleep.
Davo was staring at him too. The tavernkeeper thought Davo was almost more dangerous for all that he was two heads shorter than Marek. Davo had quick hands and a quicker tongue, and liked to play tricks on people. Davo started fights, and Marek finished them.
Davo scooped a lump of mud from his boot and tossed it at the stranger’s cloak. It landed squarely in the centre. The young man did not stir. A second blob landed beside the first. Still he did not move. Annoyed by the lack of response, Davo looked around for something more offensive to toss at the still figure. His eyes lighted upon a large beetle crawling across the floor. Smiling mischievously he picked up the insect and gently lobbed it towards the bowl of stew. The somnolent figure flicked out his right hand and caught the beetle just above the bowl then looked over at the grinning Davo and Marek.
“What’re you looking at, sonny?” Davo sneered.
“A man who eats insects.” His voice was light with a slightly foreign accent.
He flicked his wrist and the beetle flew across the room again to land in Davo’s half-full beer mug. Davo swore and, leaping to his feet, threw the mug at the youngster, who tumbled off his chair avoiding it and rolled in the rushes and sawdust on the floor. Davo stepped forward reaching beneath his jacket to the knife at his belt. The young man put his right hand on the hilt of his sword, and stared up at him.
Davo stopped and looked back at Marek with a grin. “The lad’s got a blade, Marek.”
“So he has, Davo. Looks a bit large for him, don’t it. Reckon we ought to take it off him before he hurts hisself.”
The young man rose to his feet, giving Marek and Davo the opportunity to size him up. He was two hand-widths shorter than Marek and lacked the big man’s bulk in the shoulder, though he moved with an easy grace. He wore a loose flowing long-sleeved shirt of dark blue and black trousers cut snugly. He was clean-shaven and his dark hair was long enough to be caught by a thong in a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. Hand on his sword hilt; he looked calmly at the two grinning soldiers.
Marek stared back for a long moment then stood up, pushing aside the tables; he stretched himself to demonstrate his considerable size, and drew his own blade, tossing aside the scabbard. The young man flicked his blade clear of the gated scabbard and waited for the big man to make his move, the weapon resting lightly in his hand. Something about his stance and calm made the tavernkeeper think this fellow knows what he’s at. A gated scabbard too, a crown to a penny he’s no mug.
Marek eyed the sword scornfully and raised his own heavy blade. He was big and strong and that was the way he fought; it had been enough to keep him cock of the walk in the Earl’s guard for years, and he was well used to being the best swordsman for leagues around. He stepped forward swinging his sword right-handed at the young man’s neck. The young man ducked lithely under the blow, and his blade flicked out to stab Marek’s right foot. Marek yelped with pain and drew back a moment cursing before swinging a chest-high slash. The young man danced backwards and Marek struck air. Marek stepped back half a pace and rebalanced.
Marek’s favourite move was a heavy single-handed swing to the neck followed by a left hook to his opponent’s stomach. The tavern keeper could see him trying to work into position for it; circling to his left, feinting a thrust and then stepping in with the right-handed swing. To his surprise the young man lunged forward and then, using the strength Marek put into the blow, flicked Marek’s blade with his own over his head as he ducked. The momentum of the stroke threw Marek off balance and he stumbled with his back half-turned to his opponent. Marek caught himself, turned and took the young man’s blade full in the throat.
Marek would have screamed if he still had a larynx. Instead he gurgled as the blood sprayed from the severed arteries. He clutched at his neck in a vain attempt to hold his life in, stumbled over a stool and fell on his face in a widening pool of blood.
The stranger watched calmly and then turned to look at Davo. Davo, eyes wide with terror, looked first at him, then down at the dying Marek, and ran for the door. The tavernkeeper still stood behind his counter clutching his blackthorn, staring in disbelief at his blood-splashed common room. The young man reached down and wiped his blade on Marek’s jerkin before sheathing it.
The door crashed open.
“No-one move,” a harsh voice commanded. Half a dozen guardsmen in scruffy red livery over chainmail rushed in, swords drawn, and surrounded the stranger. The young man stared disdainfully at the soldiers, his right hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword until he saw the crossbowman who had followed them, then his hand fell away. The guard captain, a stocky middle-aged man with greying hair and a bristling moustache, strode into the room.
“You! I’ll take your sword. Now!” he barked, pointing at the stranger. The young man stared back at him for a long moment, as if weighing the odds, then slowly unbuckled the belt that held his blade and let it fall to the ground. The captain gestured to one of the remaining guardsmen who stepped up and searched him for weapons. The guard’s eyes widened slightly as he retrieved slim throwing knives from both sleeves and a dagger from one boot. He stepped back and showed the captain what he had found.
“Right, you will come with me,” the captain commanded the stranger. “You too,” his eyes turned to the tavernkeeper. The guardsmen herded the stranger towards the door. Outside another four guardsmen stood with Davo. Beyond them a crowd of townsfolk was gathering to gawp at the scene
“You and you.” The captain gestured to two of the guards. “Get a cart and bring the body.”
The tavernkeeper locked up his tavern under the captain’s gaze, and then they set off for the castle accompanied by Davo. Behind them, the soldiers formed up around the young man and marched him away with two spears at his back. The crowd of townsfolk followed them shouting insults; a couple of urchins threw clods of earth at the young man until the guardsmen chased them off. The troop made their way up the wide strip of mud between the buildings of Nandor town; most were, like the tavern, wooden with overhanging shingled roofs, but as they came closer to town centre there were a few stone buildings.
A squall of rain blew up the valley sending the townsfolk scuttling for cover, lashing at the soldiers and their prisoner whose heavy travel cloak had been left spread across a chair in the tavern. The tavernkeeper looked back at the young man; muck from the soldiers’ boots had splashed him up to his waist, the rain had soaked through his shirt and plastered his dark hair to his scalp. By the time they reached the castle at the far end of the town, the prisoner looked thoroughly bedraggled and disreputable.
Welcome to Nandor, thought the tavernkeeper.
Copyright Martin Owton