Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Notebook: The Swordmaster

Behold: the first glimmerings of my fantasy magnum opus! I've been working on my own heroic cycle for a long time now -- a lot of that time was spent developing a world that both echoed the familiar themes of the genre while pushing for its own unique identity -- and the culmination of that work is what I am tentatively calling the Maric di Ascalon short stories, set in the universe of Sphaeren.

I'm drawing from many, many sources of inspiration: George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher, the Warhammer Fantasy universe, Robert E. Howard's Conan, and various historical and mythical pieces. Hopefully, by combining elements from these great exemplars of fantasy, and both treading familiar ground and cutting new paths, I can tell a story that is both enjoyable and provoking. Tell me what you think!

Also, here's a link to the audio file, with me reading!
In Tolkien's The Children of Hurin, Turin wields the black sword, Gurthang. (Picture by Ted Nasmith)

The Swordmaster

By Blake Tan

The songs of the old oracles name the easterly wind Aes, the eldest daughter of Wodan Sky-Father. They say she flies upon a raven-winged horse, cursed to ride against the fury of the sun god, Aurahel Aelar, whom the elves call Ancestor, for her part in the treachery of Malaketh, who sought to usurp Wodan’s throne. When Aes must ride, the bright fire of Aurahel’s undimmed glory scorches her silver hair and gray ashes rain down upon the world. The oracles tell that it is these ashes that bring ruin and misery to mortal men. 

Maric di Ascalon, carried by gloomy Aes back to the town of Brennoc, stepped off the wagon. He stumbled around the caravan with the other weary refugees, wincing when he banged his right elbow against the wheel. He readjusted the sling, cursing his half-healed shoulder. The Valting spearman, terrified by the bloody artistry of Maric’s sword-play, tripping over his slain comrades by the banks of the Aegard, had lunged blindly, but fickle Fortune had favored the man and his spear-point had found Maric’s shoulder. The Valting had quickly followed the others who had ever raised a weapon against him into the Keeper’s Hall. Still, the accursed man twisted his small victory in Maric’s wound, tormenting him even though it had been taken weeks ago.

Brennoc had not changed much since he had left six years ago, war-hungry and vengeful, to join the banners flocking to the armies of the North. The same, ugly, squat palisade, not formidable enough to truly be called walls, surrounded the thatched huts within. The same, ugly watchtowers, bristling with sharpened stakes, overlooked the same, ugly masses of humanity waiting to be admitted into the wretched place.

A new banner flew over those towers, bearing a coiled, brown serpent on a field of white. The old lord must have been replaced, Maric thought, but this new lord might as well have been the same man. Such was his experience; it didn’t matter who was leading the caravan if the caravan was doomed to begin with anyway.

“Funny, eh? Don’t that sigil look like a piece of dog-shit to you?” his fellow traveler, a former soldier still wearing his sweat-stained surcoat and clutching a rusted half-helm beneath his arm, remarked.

“Must be how they tell people what it’s like inside,” Maric said, joining the line of people forming outside the gate. “What doesn’t make sense is that there’s still dozens of folk trying to get in.”

The old soldier grinned, his rotten, gap-toothed smile belying his years of campaigning. They were good friends at this point, as much as any two men can be friends after fighting on opposite sides of a war. Their long journey from the cold marches of Visangoth back to dusty Eaddanwold, however, had sealed any gaps of former animosity. Still, Maric could never remember the man’s name – Andrjoz, maybe, or Erik. It was a Vinya name, he was sure of that.

“What’ll you do when you get in?” Andrjoz asked.

Maric shrugged. “The same as you, perhaps.”

“Ha! Me? Lemme tell you what I’m gonna do soon as I get in them walls,” the old soldier said. “I’m gonna find myself an inn, any inn with a lass willin’ to spread her legs for a bit o’ coin, and spend the rest of my purse on every drop of wine and sikspit this pisspot town’s got!”

“Drink and women,” Maric said, nodding, “me too. And I’ve got some old debts to settle.”

Andrjoz scratched behind the ragged bit of what was left of his left ear. “That’s right, eh? You’re actually from this pisspot town.”

“Not exactly, but I did live here. For a time,” he replied.

“Can’t have been much work for a sellsword around here before the wars,” Andrjoz said, taking in the sight of the mud roads and cobbled shacks that had sprung around the town palisades.

“You’d be surprised,” Maric said, “but I wasn’t a sellsword then. Liriel talked me into a quieter line of business when we lived here.”

“Liriel? You never mentioned a woman before!” Andrjoz said, chortling. “I never figured you for a marryin’ man.”

But Maric’s expression had soured, his lip curling, his left hand unconsciously brushing the wire-wrapped hilt of the sword at his side. Andrjoz had seen that look before – Maric had worn it before he’d killed a drunken Visanger outside a tavern in Kalles when the fool had boasted of all the elven women he’d raped during the Conquest. Quick, cold, and merciless. A half-dozen of the fool’s drinking companions joined him on the Lonely Road before the rest fled before Maric’s black sword – and that was when his shoulder wound had been nearly fresh.

Andrjoz had no intention of endangering his own life, not when he was so close to freedom. He’d rather die drowning in sikspit and whores, not at the end of Maric di Ascalon’s blade. They stood in silence, Maric brooding, until they reached the gate. An ax-faced watchman looked them over, took three coppers each, and admitted them into Brennoc.

“Was it just me or did that bloke recognize you?” Andrjoz asked, glancing back at the gate guards.

“He might’ve, but it doesn’t matter,” Maric said, not looking back. His eyes sought only the final steps of his road ahead. He had come too far, survived too much, killed too many, to falter now.

He turned to his traveling companion, extending an open hand. “Gods look out for you, Andrjoz. You made a hard road a bit more bearable.”

The old soldier beamed at him. “Hey, you remembered my name! Well, I owe you one too, eh? You plucked my hairy bum out of a few fights along the way. Gods be with you, Maric, gods be good.”

They parted ways, Andrjoz following the dozens of other travelers into the closest taverns. Maric took another path, treading familiar stones towards Brennoc’s southern edge, until he stopped before a wide patch of overgrown grass. The townspeople had dragged away every good bit of lumber, leaving only the burnt timbers, a skeleton of a house. His house. Their home. Liriel had planted a goldenbark oak in front of the house, but only the blackened stump remained – a memorial of the sacking of Brennoc by Edward the Crippler.

His feet brought him around the ruin, recalling the grief-stricken steps he’d taken six years ago. A lifetime ago, it seemed. Maric climbed down the steps he had hewn for her, past the weeds that had claimed her garden, until he came to the headstone he had raised for her.

“Well,” Maric said, his voice a trembling whisper, “I’m back.”

The elvish legends told that they were the children of Aurahel the Bright, the Eldest Flame, born from the embers sparked when he stole a kiss from the earth goddess Cybele. Like their Ancestor, they were spirits of fire. When an elf died, she was not interred into the ground, but given back to the flame. Maric had built the pyre himself and stood the three-day vigil. After, he raised the headstone: “Liriel Senhir Asai’aev. Beloved wife. She gave up her immortal family for the love of a mortal man. May her spirit give light to the sphere.”

Maric had learned the last bit, an old elvish benediction, during his time in the Elf-King’s court, before he met Liriel. He had been a trespasser, an outsider, a prisoner of the People then. They would say the prayer over their deceased, believing that all the souls of the elvish dead rejoined Aurahel in the sky, returning their fire to his.

A rustling in the long grass behind him interrupted his reverie. He rose slowly, hoping almost for a poetic end – maybe it was an old enemy, finally caught up to him, ready to plunge a dagger in his back – if not for the remaining task still at hand. His left hand rested on the hilt of his sword.

“Denys didn’t lie. It really is you.”

Maric turned, recognizing the voice, a distant memory buried in the past. He faced a young man, just past the cusp of adulthood, wearing the rough brigandine and white sash from his belt that marked him as one of the city watch. The guardsman’s face, even beneath the wispy beard sprouting from his chin, was familiar.

“Donnel,” he said, removing his hand from his weapon.

“Maric.” The young guardsman inclined his head. “Master.”

In the silence of the wild garden, Maric’s memories, the ones unburdened by grief, flowed like sweet nectar to a starving man. Donnel had not been much more than a boy, one of the youngest of Maric’s students, but he had been the most enthusiastic and the most determined to learn. To find him alive, six years later, in the uniform of a city watchman brought a bit of pride welling up in Maric’s throat. Once, long ago, he had been a watchman too.

“We thought you gone forever,” Donnel said. “Benfred tried to keep the school going, teaching us everything he learned from you, but the pox took him not even a month after you’d gone. Some of us went to study with Cormac, but it was nothing like learning from you.”

“I –,” Maric begun to say, but the words caught in his throat.

“Some of Cormac’s students came here once, tried to deface Lady Liriel’s marker. Olliver and I bloodied them good though, and I come here every now and then to remember her,” Donnel said.

Maric’s instinct was to take hold of his emotions, to restrain them – in battle, emotions got people killed. But this wasn’t a battle, Donnel wasn’t an enemy; he was a friend. Exhaling, Maric let the warmth fill him, bringing life back to a body long gone cold. A tear trailed down his cheek.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “You don’t know how much that means to me.”

“You taught me everything I know,” Donnel replied, then nodding to Liriel’s memorial. “And milady made sure I was fed. I was such a skinny, little bastard back then.”

A laugh, unbidden, surprising even himself, escaped Maric’s lips. “You never let it stop you in the yard though. You were always fierce as a lion even when you had to spar me.”

He came forward, embracing the lad. “Where’s Olliver? The others?”

Donnel looked away. “I’m all that’s left. Norick joined up with a free company last year and Olliver got himself killed by Lorgar.”

As sudden as it had come, Maric’s joy slipped away. The cold slipped back in, dousing all warmth, and a dark look passed over his face. “Lorgar brogh Gurzad? He’s still here?”

“Aye,” Donnel nodded, “the Gurzad Galad pushed out all the other guilds after the sack. They’ve got their beards in almost every part of the city now. Even Lord Osric has to give Lorgar a piece of his pie.”

“What did Olliver do?”

Donnel looked sheepish, not meeting his old master’s gaze. “He needed a loan. He wasn’t making enough as a guard to pay for his sikspit.”

Maric strode past his former student, gripping his sword-hilt tightly. “Lorgar still frequents the Bow-Legged Whore?”

“Yes.” The young guardsman could barely keep pace with his master. “It’s called the Golden Tankard now. The Gurzad Galad bought the place.”

Donnel grabbed Maric’s arm, jerking him back. “Maric! What do you mean to do?”

“I mean to kill the dwarf.”

“You can’t do that,” Donnel urged. “Lorgar has more than a half-dozen sellswords around him always, and he has the city guard in his pocket.”

Maric yanked away from his friend, ignoring the throbbing in his shoulder. “Does he have you in his pocket?”


“Then, get out of my way and don’t try to stop me,” Maric said.

“You can’t go in there alone! Not in your condition,” Donnel protested. “If you mean to go, at least let me come with you.”

“You have no place in this, Donnel. Go home.”

“No place?” Donnel asked. “Maric, you’re my friend, almost a father to me. I won’t let you go after the Gurzad Galad alone.”

“Not the Gurzad Galad,” Maric replied, shaking his head. “Just Lorgar and anybody else fool enough to get between me and him.”

With every step towards the Golden Tankard, the fury grew inside him, as if all the war gods were breathing an ember into a flame. Maric bridled it, as he had been taught in his youth. The Janusian monks in Ascalon, where he’d been given up by his mother to the temple to be raised as a servant of the god of truth and death, had given him this gift, beaten it into his psyche when they had tattooed Janus’ candle onto his face. Even after he had escaped servitude to Salianburg, even after Tyrohir, the grim, hateful elf who had been his first teacher, had taught him the finer points of sword-play in the vales of Valtengrad, he still remembered the monks’ lessons. Hot fury and bloodlust had no place in a warrior’s heart; he had to be cool, instinctual, and merciless.

The Golden Tankard, a squat, thatch-roofed inn belching wood-smoke from its chimney, arose from behind a two-story smithy in Brennoc’s Forge Quarter. A pair of dwarves, their beards tucked beneath belts bearing the triple hammer symbol of the Gurzad Galad, rose from their seats in front of the inn. Smoke wafted from their pipes as they eyed the two men fast approaching them.

“What’s this about?” one of them said, patting the wicked ax hanging from his belt. “I don’t know ye, so ye not allowed in.”

“I’ve come for Lorgar,” Maric announced, meeting the dwarves’ beady eyes.

“Eh? The boss don’t come out for just anybody, ye know. Ye need to set up an appointment if ye want to meet him,” the dwarf answered. “Now, get on outta here ‘fore I sink me ax in yer bloody skull.”

A crowd begun gathering around the inn. Both the locals and the travelers sensed the beginnings of a brawl. Some of the older folk grumbled that it’d be a short brawl if some fool thought to challenge the Gurzad Galad.

“Tell him,” Maric said slowly, “tell him Maric di Ascalon is here for his head.”

The dwarf guffawed, grabbing the haft of his ax and pulling it free of the belt-loop. “Eh? Right then, if some fool human wants his skull caved in, I’m happy to oblige him.”

His partner lifted a crossbow to his chest, grinning beneath his thick, black beard. “One last chance, stupid,” the other dwarf said. “One last chance to leave or I’ll put a bolt in yer eye.”

Maric’s response was so fluid that he hardly seemed to move at all. A dagger sprang from his hand, white blade glinting for a second before it sunk to the hilt in the archer’s eye. The dwarf still had the grin on his face before he toppled over, dead as a dwarf can be, smashing the bench he had been sitting on.

“By Grogan’s beard! Lads!” the remaining dwarf howled, pounding his fist on the door to the inn. “Lads! Get out ‘ere! We got some choppin’ to do!”

The door burst open and motley gang of dwarves and men rushed out, weapons in hand. Maric counted nine of them, all wearing the badge of the Gurzad Galad. Donnel unsheathed his sword, dropping into a ready stance.

“I’m with you, Maric,” he said, “to the end.”

Maric’s blade remained in its scabbard, his eyes scanning the crowd of foes. “Where is Lorgar brogh Gurzad?”

The Gurzad Galad muscle muttered among themselves, some recognizing the dark-haired Ascalonian standing before them, despite his unassuming appearance. In his unmarked mail and brigandine, and his shabby, travel-stained gray cloak, Maric looked like one of hundreds of poor sellswords. But the blade at his side was famous, particularly among the dwarves. They recognized dragonforged black iron, could almost smell it. That sword was especially rare; dwarf-made, but for a human wielder. Angrethod, it was named, but in the common Norvic spoken on the surface, it was called Anguish.

“Who’s askin’ for me?” a deep, baritone voice answered from beyond the inn’s doorway. A bald-pated dwarf emerged, a head shorter than Maric, but twice as broad, his thick arms bristling with corded muscle. He wore a boiled leather cuirass that left those scarred arms bare and a gold chain with the symbol of his office as the Gurzad Galad’s chief officer in Brennoc hung from his neck.

He blinked when he saw Maric, as if surprised by the appearance of a ghost. “Maric di Ascalon, by all the gods, ye’re still alive.”

“I’ve come for you, Lorgar,” Maric said flatly, “and I’m going to kill you.”

“Bah! But why’d ye want to do that?” Lorgar asked, patting his belly. “I’ve done ye no wrong. In fact, I’ve been told about ye and I think we could be partners. The guild can always use a man of yer talents.”

“I’ll never take your gold.”

“And why not? Yer a sellsword, ain’t ye? Gold is gold,” the dwarf boss said, shrugging. “Don’t matter who it comes from, especially for an honorless dog like yerself.”

“Six years ago, when the Ostians besieged this city, we could have held out long enough for Tancred’s army to arrive,” Maric replied. “Edward couldn’t hope to breach the walls, not even Brennoc’s shit defenses, not without siege weapons.”

He shrugged off his sling, freeing his sword-arm. “But somebody betrayed us. Somebody opened the gates to the Ostians in the middle of the night. Someone let Edward the Crippler sack this city.”

Anguish emerged, blade black as night, scratching the oiled edge against the scabbard.

“Bah! Ye’ve got no proof!” the dwarf said, shaking his hairy head.

“I don’t need proof, dwarf. I’m not a judge,” Maric answered. “I only needed to know the truth, I don’t have to prove it in a court of law, because I’m going to kill you myself.”

“Ye sure have a lot of confidence for a man outnumbered five-to-one,” Lorgar spat.

“I’ve faced worse odds.”

“Then, let me make it even more interestin’.” He bellowed at the gathered crowd. “A hundred gold pieces for whoever brings me Maric di Ascalon’s head!”

A murmur spread through the crowd surrounding Maric and Donnel. There were many desperate souls in Brennoc, some desperate enough to try themselves against Maric’s black blade. Swords came screeching out of their sheaths.

Maric leaned towards Donnel. “Take the half-dozen behind us. I’ll take the rest.”

There passed a moment of quiet, a breath before the plunge, both sides sizing up their enemies. Whatever fearsome reputation Maric had, he was just a man – one man against many. He couldn’t win.

“Liriel!” howled Donnel, leaping into the fray. His sword cleaved through the closest mercenary’s head, splattering blood and brain. Those who meant to fight let out their battle-cries, while those who wanted no part scrambled out of the way.

Maric’s movements were practiced, memorized like a dancer’s steps, evading blows, parrying strikes, and replying with deadly cuts and stabs of his own. When a dwarf tried to hack his leg, chopping low, he jumped while simultaneously striking Anguish’s point into the dwarf’s skull, retracting viper-like as the dwarf collapsed. Others tried to overwhelm him with numbers, but he maneuvered around, accustomed to mass battles, keeping them all in sight, cutting them down when he saw openings.

The value of Maric’s lessons showed their true worth that day. Donnel, though not as smooth or fluid, echoed his master’s movements. He easily deflected or avoided the clumsy strikes meant for him and retorted with killing blows of his own.

“Liriel! Liriel!” he roared, catching the haft of a spear with his free hand, and yanking its wielder onto the point of his sword. “Liriel! Lir–“

Donnel gasped, his battle-cry interrupted. He glanced down, seeing a red flower blossom in the center of his chest. A sword slid out from his back and he fell to his knees. Maric spun, seeing his friend fall. The culprit, sweat-stained surcoat and half-helm atop his head, turned to face Maric, who recognized that craggy, scarred face.

“Sorry, lad,” Andrjoz said, shrugging, his blood-stained sword in hand. “But a hundred gold pieces is too rich a prize to give up. I could give up killin’ for the rest of my days.”

Maric flung his second dagger, white elvish steel seeking the treacherous sellsword’s heart. But Andrjoz was quick, despite his age, and his instincts were good. He deflected the dagger, grimacing as he came at Maric. The Visanger was a swordsman of skill; he knew his job well, but Maric was an artist, a master. He knew what Andrjoz would do before he did it – the shifting of weight between his feet, the angle and slant of his shoulder, all signs announcing his intentions for those who could read them.

One move. It was all it took. Andrjoz feinted left, and then came high, sword held overhead in a mighty, skull-cracking swing. Maric didn’t even bother with his ploy, knowing it for what it was, Anguish at guard. When Andrjoz’s lifted his sword over his head, Maric lunged, black sword-point striking true, piercing his throat. Blood gushed down the blade and down Andrjoz’s chin. The mercenary dropped, choking on his own blood.

Only two of Lorgar’s guards remained and when Maric turned, hot blood dripping down Anguish’s edge, his face grimed with the gore of battle, a reaper sent by Janus, they threw down their weapons and ran. Lorgar cursed them, taking up a battle-ax himself and charging Maric. His swing was parried easily, Anguish lopping off the head of the ax as if the shaft was made of parchment. Maric bashed the hilt into Lorgar’s nose, breaking it, and the dwarf fell onto his back. He pinned Lorgar to the earth with his boot, the dwarf cursing, struggling even as his blood matted his beard.

“Why? Why do ye care what I did six years ago? Yer not Eaddic. Yer not from this city,” Lorgar wailed. “Why do ye even give a damn?”

Maric reached down, grabbing a thick handful of the dwarf’s beard, twisting it. “I care, Lorgar, because you got my wife killed. Those Ostians sacked this city, looting and raping. Those Ostians tore us from our bed and held me down while they raped her. Those Ostians made me watch as they slit her throat. They forced me to watch her die.”

“All of this, because of you.”

Anguish descended, shearing Lorgar’s beard from his face. The dwarf moaned, spitting pink foam, helpless. “It wasn’t me that did these terrible deeds! It was the Ostians, it was Edward the Crippler! Exact your vengeance on them, not me! I’m just a guild boss.”

“I already did, but there was more of it to go around,” Maric said. “And you, you ugly bastard, the world will be a better place without you.”

Lorgar begged, promising Maric gold, protection, anything to change his mind. But it didn’t matter. Death came to all, even the powerful and the wealthy. Anguish’s black blade hovered over the dwarf’s breast, and then sank slowly, agonizingly. Lorgar died, wriggling and begging, a soft gasp escaping his lips when the sword plunged into his heart.

Maric freed his sword, flicking the blood off and sheathing it. He went to where Donnel had fallen, kneeling beside his friend. But the lad was already dead, his eyes half-closed. No last words. No final good-bye. He recalled a prayer that the Janusian monks had taught all the Keeper’s dedicates: the Hymn of Transition. Stumbling over the words at first, then, surprising even himself with his memory, he began to hum it.

“We are born: naked and screaming. 
We die: clothed and silent. 
In life: we are besieged by troubles. 
In death: we are at eternal peace. 
So shall you walk the Thousand Steps 
of the Lonely Road, until you reach 
the Keeper’s Palace. 
Then, and only then, shall you begin 
to understand the Mysteries.” 

Afterwards, Maric carried Donnel’s body back to the house, burying the boy in the garden beside Liriel. He marked the grave with Donnel’s sword and watchman’s sash. Then, with the last bit of coin in Donnel’s purse, he bought a horse and rode out of the city, following the western wind as it wound past the dusty plain.

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