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The Red Kings - The Mercenary

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For the mayor of a minor village far from any of Rheulgard’s major population centres or trading routes, the home of Tyrus Yurdvik was not what Jeri had expected. Instead of the usual straw-covered or dirt floor she had expected, his home had polished wooden floorboards covered with thick Khinasi carpets of such beauty they made her ache for her homeland. The walls were wood-carved panels, patterned with scenes of hunts and tourneys that would not have been out-of-place on the walls of an Anuirean nobleman's castle and on the walls hung paintings, tapestries, and trophies from across Cerilia. Some were faded with age or had been damaged, but all looked valuable.

“I like to be comfortable,” was all the mayor had said when he had seen the two women looking at the room in amazement.

After they had removed their boots and left them at the entrance, Tyrus guided them to sit at a massive wooden table carved from a single slab of wood. The wood was a timber that Jeri wasn't familiar with and was polished to a bright red sheen. An elderly woman — his mother Jeri was to learn later — bought out a hearty meal of roast lamb, baked vegetables, and fresh-baked bread, as well as foaming mugs of ale and a bottle of red wine. Jeri gladly took a mug of ale and was pleased to find it quenched her thirst and was not bitter like many village brews. Mursa accepted a single glass of wine and ate only the vegetables and bread, while their host picked at his meal and nursed the single mug through the entire meal. It was the Brecht custom that no one spoke during meals, but Jeri could tell that the mayor had something on his mind he wished to speak of.

“Do we need to worry about any more goblins?” Mursa asked, as soon as the meal was over. She still held her glass of wine, having consumed less than half of it.

Tyrus waved his knife towards the south, although as there were no windows on that side of the building they couldn't see what he was pointing towards. “I've sent one of my men up the hill overlooking the river,” he said, “and another is watching from just south of the village. They will be able to spot anyone who approaches along the southern road or through the forest and can let us know if any more goblins are heading our way.”

“And if they come in force?” Jeri asked. “I still don't think they will, but it is possible.”

“Then we retreat to the docks,” the mayor replied, pointing out the window towards the nearby lake. “There are enough fishing boats here to carry everyone in the village to safety. They can even sail across the water to the capital if things get too bad. We'd lose the village, which would be a shame as everyone has put a lot of work into this place, but no one need die.”

Mursa nodded. “That makes sense.”

“You don't plan to be with them?” Jeri asked, noting that the mayor had said 'they' not 'we' when he had talked about the evacuation plan.

“I was hoping you would allow me to come with you,” Tyrus said.

“To what end? If I am right and the goblin horde is heading west towards Poden then we are almost certainly heading towards danger. Most people would want to avoid a horde of goblins, not head towards them.”

“Yet you are going,” the mayor pointed out.

“We have good reasons,” Jeri said. “My captain and the other survivors from my company are riding that way, along with Mursa's brother and Baron Oerwinde and I have to know they are still alive. Besides, the Baron paid good coin to hire my company so I am duty bound to his service until our contract ends, but there is no need for you to risk your life to help us.”

“If I want to get anywhere in life I'm going to need to take risks sometimes and as it happens I do have a personal interest in seeing these goblins stopped as soon as possible. I own a number of businesses along the southern shore of the Bannalach and in Poden and they are all at risk if your estimates of the goblin numbers are correct.”

“I won't be able to help you save your businesses,” Jeri warned him. “My duty is to my company and the Baron until they release me from their service.”

“I understand that, but if my aid helps you stop this invasion then my holdings may be saved and that makes the risk worth it to me. Besides, I think you will find my help invaluable. I have many contacts and friends in the villages and towns along the Bannalach, as well as holdings in the city of Poden itself. I am also well known by Richard Kaysun, the Meister of Poden and if you are unable to find your captain or Baron Oerwinde then I can get you in to see him and use my voice in support of yours.”

“It sounds like I would be foolish to refuse your help then.”

“I was hoping you would see it that way, and I think you will find I am handy in a fight should it come to that. I'm quite the marksman with a crossbow.”

“Hopefully it won't come to that,” Jeri said.

A knock at the door interrupted their conversation and as their host excused himself to answer it, Jeri shuffled her chair a little closer to Mursa. “How are you feeling,” she asked the wizard.

Mursa took another sip of her wine and gave Jeri a wan smile. “I'm fine. Just a little worried about my brother. This is the longest we have ever been separated.”

“Well, we are nearly there now and if all goes well we should be able to reunite you with your brother soon. I know how you feel, I miss Cole and the rest of my friends as well.”

“It's Gretchen with your armour,” Tyrus called from the entrance. He left the door open and headed towards the stairs leading up to the second floor of the building.

Jeri rose and headed over to the door to meet with the muscular blacksmith. Kneeling next to the hand cart the blacksmith had used to carry her armour from the forge, Jeri began to sort through the pieces of armour. She noticed that each piece was brushed clean of dirt and rust and the metal had been polished, at least as polished as her well-used armour could be.

“I fixed it up the best I could,” the blacksmith said. “I managed to fix the holes in the pauldron, but that armguard will need replacing, I don't know what did that to it, it looks like something burned straight through the metal.”

“Magic,” Jeri replied, picking up the armguard in question. While it was still damaged, the blacksmith had done a good job smoothing out the jagged tear in the metal and it would offer some protection in combat, at least until she could find the time to visit a proper armoursmith. “This is good work. It should keep me safe until I get to Poden.”

“It's the least I could do,” the blacksmith said. “You and that young wizard friend of yours saved us for certain. I only wish we could do more to repay you.” The blacksmith helped Jeri unload the rest of her armour from the handcart and then after shaking the warrior's hand, she headed back to her forge.

“Do you need a hand?” Mursa asked.

Jeri almost jumped with the wizard spoke. “You're very quiet,” she said.

“I've had a lot of practice sneaking into the library in our tower at night so I could read books when I was supposed to be sleeping.” She picked up one of the pauldrons. “Here, let me help you with this.”

“You're getting good at that,” Jeri commented as the wizard's nimble fingers buckled the armour to her upper arm and shoulder.

“Well, I do seem to be getting a lot of practice since I met you,” Mursa said. The wizard finished helping Jeri into her armour and then pulled on her boots and headed outside. After locating her own boots, Jeri followed her and found the wizard standing near the edge of the lake staring off across the water. As Jeri arrived, she pointed towards something in the distance. “That could be Mayor Yurdvik's ship.”

Jeri followed the line of Mursa's arm and soon spotted a distant dot halfway across the lake. “It could be,” she said. “It is too far away for me to see it properly though.”

She didn't have long to wait, however, the vessel soon came into view. It was a single-masted keelboat of slightly more than fifty feet in length sailing directly towards them across the calm waters of the lake. It had a large, bright-yellow sail unfurled, although there was little wind, and as it drew closer Jeri could see the vessel sat low on the water, its decks heavy with cargo and supplies for the village. The vessel was small compared to the great sea-going vessels she had seen in the ports of Müden, but those ship had to survived the rough waters of the Great Bay, while this one could ply the shallow waterways of the inland lakes and rivers and would likely never lose sight of land. She had heard that small ships like this could sail south from Rhuelgard and then travel east along the Asarwe River until they reached Ghoudaïa in Sendoure, the easternmost of the Khinasi city-states, although Jeri had never made such a trip herself.

A noise behind her made to glance over her shoulder, and she saw Tyrus leave his home and walk towards her and Mursa. The mayor wore the same clothes as before, but he now had a bag slung over one shoulder and his crossbow over the other. He also had a slim rapier hanging from his belt, as well as a dagger and several pouches.

“Your vessel?” Jeri asked as he joined them, inclining her head towards the approaching ship.

“That's her,” the mayor confirmed. “They are a little later than I expected, but we should still be able to make the other shore before sundown.”

“Even to the capital?” Jeri asked, thinking back to the map she had seen in Baron Oerwinde's office. From her recollection, the city of Poden was some distance away still, closer to the other end of the Bannalach in the province of Podenstahl.

“Not that far,” Tyrus said. “I was thinking that Steffenberg would be a better destination. I don't usually send my ship as far west as Poden.”

“You don’t travel to Poden?”

“Steffenberg is closer when I’m transporting goods south or east, and of course there are certain… taxes and duties that I avoid this way. Besides, as you said your company will be coming west from the forest, Steffenberg is the largest town in the province and the best place to meet them.”

“They may already have passed the town.”

“Possibly,” the mayor admitted. “But, Captain Geroldt is returning from Steffenberg, he should know a lot more about what is happening along the southern shore. We should speak to him first before making any final decision about a destination.”

Jeri nodded, realising the mayor was correct. If Cole and the other survivors from the forest ambush hadn't passed the town yet then the town on the southern shore of the lake would be the best place to meet them, but if they had passed the town, or they if arrived while she was sailing there, then the ship could always continue to Poden without losing much time. “That sounds like the best plan,” she said.

The ship was much closer now, and Jeri could see four crewmen on the deck were now using large oars to manoeuvrer the vessel towards the docks. “How long before we will be ready to set sail?” she asked the mayor.

“It will take some time to unload all of my cargo,” Tyrus said. “But we should be ready to sail again within the hour.”

“Then I had better fetch my horse,” Jeri said, although she glanced towards the nearby temple instead of the stables.

“I might take some time to study my spellbook,” Mursa said. “There is a spell I can use to contact my brother once we are closer.”

“And I need to bid farewell to my mother,” Tyrus said, “and give my men some instructions on what to do while I'm away. We will meet back here in an hour's time, are we agreed?”

The two women nodded and headed off to complete their tasks. Tyrus waited until they were both out of sight and then he walked over to the waggon he had used earlier in the forest, which had been parked next to his home. One of his employees was nearby, working in the garden behind the house, so Tyrus called him over. He pointed towards the back of the waggon where a large irregular-shaped object was covered with a thick canvas sheet. “It's too risky to transport this now,” he said. “Get Otto to help you break it down and then pack it in a crate and bury it in the usual spot.”

“Right away, boss,” the man said.

As the man headed off towards the centre of the village, Tyrus left the waggon and headed back inside his home.

 


 

Leading her warhorse, Jeri trudged along the muddy path from the stables back to the village proper. The temple was north of the village and coming from the stables she could see a small graveyard with some scattered wooden headstones on her side of the building, and empty fields on the other. It was only a short trek from the stables to the temple and Jeri soon stood outside the single wooden door leading into the building. She tied Desert Wind's reins to a ring set in the wall of the temple and reached up and banged several times on the door with her armoured fist. When there was no response she tried again and when there was still no response she pushed the door open. It wasn’t locked so she walked cautiously into the interior.

“Shut the door behind you,” a voice called out as she entered. “And make sure you wipe your feet.”

Inside, the temple was a shabby affair. Four rows of rough wooden pews faced a simple stone altar at the far end, and behind the altar was a simple tapestry depicting the crescent moon symbol of Ruornil, the god of night and magic. The old priest was kneeling on a thick rug in front of the altar, one hand on a heavy, leather-bound tome which rested on the floor beside him, while his other hand lightly touched the edge of the altar. Small windows high up on the wall let a little light in, but most of the light in the dark room came from four thick candles, one at each corner of the altar. Jeri closed the wooden door behind her and slowly walked across the room towards the priest.

“What do you want girl?” the priest said and Jeri approached. He slowly climbed back to his feet and picked up the heavy tome and placed it on the altar.

“I want to ask you about what you said earlier,” Jeri said. “You told me my blood was tainted, what did you mean by that?”

“What I said,” the priest replied.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” the warrior said, scowling at him.

The priest sighed and said, “Sit down.” He walked across to a cabinet at the back of the room and open it, pulling out a bottle filled with a dark amber liquid and a single metal cup. After pouring himself a generous helping of the liquid, he walked back to Jeri and sat down on the edge of the altar and sipped his drink before asking, “Your family are blooded are they not?”

Jeri blinked at him in surprise and didn’t answer immediately. She knew the history of Cerilia as well as anyone and knew of the great battle fifteen centuries earlier when the ancient gods had sacrificed themselves to defeat their dark brother, the god of evil Azrai. When the gods died, their divine essence had washed across the battlefield and infused their surviving followers with a part of their power. The most powerful of their followers had become the eight new gods, while the rest had become known as the blooded, men and woman of power who carried within them a tiny spark of divinity that placed them above the common folk of Cerilia. Her family had no ancestor who had been present at this ancient battle and as a result, like most people alive today, she was considered a commoner, or unblooded. Baron Oerwinde, the ruler of Eastern Rheulgard, who had employed the mercenary company she served, was blooded, as were the rulers of every other kingdom in Cerilia, as well as the most powerful wizards, priests, and merchant-princes.

“Well?” the priest pressed when she didn’t respond.

The warrior shook her head. “No,” she said. “My family were simple merchants, nothing more. We have no links to any of the ancient bloodlines.”

The priest frowned and leaned forward to study her closely. “Interesting,” he said. “You most certainly carry a taint of power within you.”

“No I don’t,” Jeri said firmly. “I would know if I did.”

“I can sense it, girl,” the priest said. “My family traces its descent from a Brecht warrior who fought on the slopes of Mouth Deismaar and from him I have received a bloodline descended from the goddess Brenna and this gives me certain abilities. I can sense poisons within objects and people, which is how I knew the goblin’s weapons were not poisoned. I also have the much rarer ability to detect the bloodlines of others and I can sense the divine blood within you. It carries the unmistakable taint of the shadow.”

“You must be wrong.”

The priest shook his head. “I am not, within you is a tiny spark of power that once belonged to Azrai, the ancient god of evil.”

Jeri shook her head and looked shocked at the news. “How is this possible?”

“Normally a bloodline is passed down from generation to generation, rising or falling in power as the family’s influence and power grows, much as the gods themselves rise and fall in power depending on the success of their worshippers. But, if your family have only ever been commoners then you must have received this power by some other method.” The priest scratched his chin as he sipped his drink and thought. Finally, he asked, “Have you killed anyone recently?”

“Just some goblins,” Jeri replied.

“Did any of them seem… unusual?” the priest asked. “More powerful that your average goblin warrior perhaps?”

Jeri hesitated. “Yes,” she admitted. “There was one I killed near the river in Deuchlach.”

“What was different about him?”

“He was immune to magic, at least it appeared he was. Mursa cast a spell at him and he disrupted it… or reflected it… I don’t know enough about magic to be sure, but he was able to survive the spell unharmed.”

“A powerful ability indeed,” the priest said, sipping his drink again. “And, it is also one often said to belong to scions of the blood of Azrai, if the holy texts are to be believed.” He patted Jeri on the shoulder in sympathy. “Well there you go, that mystery is solved. When you killed the goblin, his bloodline must have passed to you. It’s pretty rare, but occasionally killing someone can transfer their bloodline on to you.”

“Can it be reversed?” Jeri asked. “I don’t want this.”

The priest downed the rest of his drink and went back to the cabinet to pour another. “Not by me,” he said as he sipped from his refilled cup. “I have never personally conducted such a ritual and it would certainly be beyond my power now as I have stepped down as Patriarch. You would need to approach the new Patriarch at the cathedral in Poden and he may be able to perform a ritual to transfer of your bloodline to another person, if you were able to find someone who would willingly accept the tainted essence of Azrai. Even then, it would require the direct intervention of Ruornil, as the divine power of one of the gods would be needed to achieve such a feat and I doubt the god's assistance will come cheaply.”

“So what happens to me now then,” Jeri asked.

“You leave and I get back to my prayers. I’ll say an extra one for you if you like.”

“I mean to me. Will I… will I become a monster? My father used to tell me the stories of the Awnsheghlien, those corrupted by the blood of Azrai to become beings of evil.”

The priest shook his head. “You carry within you the taint of the god Azrai, but it’s too weak to corrupt you. Provide you don’t use any powers it grants you it will cause you no harm.”

“It didn’t grant me any powers,” Jeri said. “I feel no different.”

“Then you are safe, just don’t make a habit out of killing blooded scions, even if they are goblins, and you will be fine.”

“So that's it? There is nothing you can do for me?”

The old priest sighed. “Well, if it gets you out of hair, I can write you a letter of introduction to Patriarch Tunraus, who leads of our temple from the cathedral in Poden. He may not be able to help you, but my letter will at least get you in to see him. I make no promises beyond that though, you will need to speak to him for anything more.”

Jeri nodded, and sat down on one of the pews as the priest went to find a quill, ink, and paper. She removed her gauntlets and began to check her fingers and hands for signs of the corruption she knew now lurked inside her. Her skin was the same light-brown shade it has always been, except where a several scars traced white lines across the back of her hands. She rubbed the palm of her right hand, trying to feel something beneath the skin, but she couldn't sense anything different. Whatever the goblin's tainted bloodline had done to her it wasn't easy to detect and maybe the priest was right after all and she didn't have anything to worry about, but for some reason she didn't feel that way and knew she would do everything in her power to cleanse this from her body.

 


 

Half an hour later, Jeri found herself leading her horse back towards the docks, the priest's letter now safely stowed in her saddlebags. She shivered as a cool breeze blew across the lake, bringing with it a return of the dark clouds of the previous evening. The boat she had watched sailing towards them earlier was now tied up at the docks and its crew were busy offloading the last of the cargo. Tyrus and Mursa stood near the docks, talking to an older man whose long white hair was tied back in a ponytail. She walked over to join them.

“Ah and here is our last passenger,” Tyrus said as she drew closer to the small gathering. “This is the warrior Jeri, a member of Harien's Swords, a mercenary company in the service of Baron Oerwinde of Edlenna.”

“Captain Geroldt,” the man said, introducing himself with a brief nod of his head.

“Any news from the south?” Jeri asked. “Do you have any news of my company or Baron Oerwinde?”

“As I was just saying to Tyrus, according to dock workers in Steffenberg, two riders passed through the town early this morning bound for Poden. They were warning everyone about a goblin army coming from the east. I heard Baron Oerwinde's name mentioned several times, but nothing about your company.”

“So you don't know where the Baron might be?”

“I'm afraid not,” the captain said. “I assume he is still riding towards the capital. The rumours I heard said that the riders had pushed their mounts pretty hard to reach the town and that they had to get fresh remounts from the local stables before they continued on to Poden.”

“Then I think we should head to Steffenberg,” Jeri said. “If Cole and Baron Oerwinde haven't reached there yet then we need to find out why. How long will it take to sail there?”

“Not long,” the captain said. “We have the wind behind us sailing south so can make the journey in half the time it took us to come back to Haldendorf.”

“Then let's get aboard and underway,” Tyrus said. “The sooner we get started the better. Is all the cargo offloaded, Geroldt?”

“Aye, just about,” the captain confirmed.

“And you'll have no trouble with Jeri's horse?”

“As long as the beast can keep calm on the deck we should be all right.”

“Desert Wind has made sea voyages before, Captain,” Jeri said.

“Well, then get aboard before the wind changes,” Captain Geroldt said. “The crew did have plans to spend the evening drinking down some of that fine ale we picked up today, but they'll have to make with the cheap swill in a Steffenberg tavern instead. A pity, but I doubt they'll notice the difference.”

“We will be safe from the weather,” Jeri asked, looking out across the lake to where dark clouds where continuing to gather.

“Aye, for a while yet,” the Captain said. “You'll be safely tucked up in an inn in Steffenberg before that storm hits us.”

There was some grumbling from the crew when the captain announced that the ship would be turning around and heading straight back to Steffenberg, but after Tyrus promised to shout the crew several rounds of drinks in a tavern, they eagerly swung back into action, clearing the last of the cargo off the deck and helping Jeri guide her horse up the gangplank. After everyone was safely aboard and the horse was secured, long oars pushed the ship away from the dock and turned it back out into the lake.

The wind picked up, filling the boat’s sails and carrying them south across the Bannalach towards the town of Steffenberg. Jeri moved to the back of the ship and watched as the village retreated into the distance, smoke still rising from the buildings the goblins had fired during their attack earlier that day. Although the sun still shone, she felt cold and shivered again as a chill breeze blew from the west.

“Are you all right?” Mursa asked, the half-elf joining her at the rear of the vessel.

“I'm fine,” Jeri replied. She had decided not to speak to anyone about what the priest had told her. If what he said was correct and she had nothing to worry about then it was no use her worrying others needlessly and if he was wrong then she would have other reasons not to tell them. She shivered again and wonder if it was cold or fear that chilled her.