Mar, forgive me.
The image of his hands wrapped around his brother’s neck overwhelmed his mind. He knew that such thoughts would not serve him well to control his temper. Nonetheless, the fantasy, the daydream, persisted.
He is worse than that.
He is reckless.
At least stupid can be forgiven.
Dawkin’s foot sank. He paused. Looking down at his boot, he noticed a track in the mud carved out by a wagon. In that same depression, a horse had shat.
“Honestly? For the love of . . .”
Dawkin bit his lip. The two Voiceless knights behind him stepped back, neither one wanting to be in close proximity when their king unleashed his wrath.
No wrath came. Though his nostrils flared, Dawkin resisted the urge to allow his fury to get the better of him.
Not now, not now. Later.
Dawkin lifted his soiled boot from the muck. He shook his leg vigorously. A few clumps of excrement fell loose. Dawkin took a few steps to his left, where the ground was drier and dug the sole of his boot into dirt.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered as he wiped his boot.
Upon finishing, Dawkin looked around. The fecal matter he had encountered reflected the better qualities of the town. Dank and grimy, every building – from the homes to the tavern to the church – bore shades of black or brownish-green, no doubt from the mold and moss that sprouted in every nook and crevice. Unlike Arcporte, the roads sported not a single brick nor cobblestone as all were but dirt or mud paths. The townspeople that traversed them looked no better, with every face sullen and bitter, as though the souls within had endured a lifetime of debt and depression.
Dawkin wondered why his brother, even in his most unstable states, would seek out such a pit. But after glancing at the two Voiceless in tow - who donned simple wool shirts, trousers, and coats of indistinct colors to blend in – he recalled his regal duty, and instead asked himself:
How can such a place exist in my kingdom?
He resisted the urge to inquire with the citizens and investigate their plight further. He refocused his efforts on the task at hand, which involved finding his fool of a brother.
He noted the sign at the end of the curved street, which had no letters. Instead, crudely engraved in its wooden panel Dawkin saw what he could only assume to be a stein crowned by foam.
“Of course he’d be there,” Dawkin said to himself. Ely would brave a tempest on the high seas for a drop of ale.
Dawkin marched toward the tavern, the interior of which rang with the raucous sounds of the morally corrupt. From every open window and cracked shutter crept moans, shouts - nay, threats - and more cries.
He came to the door, just about to extend his hand, when it burst open. The King jumped aside as two brawny men spilled into the mud of the street with a half dozen spectators chasing after them.
“Kill the bastard!” one screamed.
“The ribs! The ribs!” yelled a second.
On it went, with the spectators forming a ring around the brawlers. Uninterested in the outcome, Dawkin wedged past the onlookers who crowded the doorway to enter the establishment.
Inside, the haze of cheap tobacco hung steady, as did the pitch of every conversation. Dozens of voices clamored over themselves, much like those who uttered them. Dawkin could scarcely stride a foot without having to shove through a small gathering to make more headway. By the time he reached the bar at the far end of the tavern, he felt like he had trudged through a bog.
“Pardon!” He had to yell at the barmaid to garner her attention. She glanced his way yet made no move to approach him. Knowing the game he had to play, Dawkin retrieved a bronze coin from the satchel within his vest. He flashed it at the woman. She stared at the coin for a moment. Still, she didn’t move.
Bloody, bloody thieves. Dawkin reached into his satchel again, this time drawing a larger coin, one of silver. This time, the barmaid came before him.
“Look at you in your fancy duds,” spat the craggily-toothed woman. She may have been in her thirties even though she could pass for twenty years her senior. “What brings a lordling like you to a squalor like this?”
Dawkin frowned. His garb was as simple as they came, with both his trousers and coat a dark gray while his white shirt was one of simple, unembroidered cloth. All his clothes, however, stood out as clean and spotless in a sea of stains and spills, which probably gave him away.
“I need to find another lord,” Dawkin said, dropping the pretense of trying to fit in. “My brother.”
“Ain’t been another that looks like you,” replied the wench.272Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡIldv4TKiyb
Disguises, Dawkin thought. Of course. But which one? “He’s my half-brother,” he lied. “I haven’t seen him since my youth. He would be my height, though. And with coin, I might add.”
“You not seeking to rob the poor chap, are you?”
Before Dawkin could answer, the barmaid leaned in, lowering her voice. “Because if that be the case, I’ll allow it. My portion for such an act being half of whatever you take, of course.”
Dawkin pulled back, mostly due to the stank of her breath, but also to take in the room. Most of the patrons ignored the disguised King save for a few unscrupulous-looking characters. Dawkin had spotted them when he entered, men who tried a little too hard to remain inconspicuous. As he had approached the bar, however, the potential thieves – five, in total, within his sight – abandoned their positions and now casually snaked through the crowd toward him.
The barmaid, perhaps sensing Dawkin’s suspicion, glanced to her left and right. She returned her gaze to Dawkin, who held hers.
He reached inside his vest.
She stretched her hand beneath the bar.
A tall, stocky bald man from among the five moved in first. He rushed in on Dawkin, coming within three paces of him. The two Voiceless who had accompanied Dawkin inside closed in on the brute, one from each side. But before they had the chance to lay a hand on him, Dawkin drew a tiny vial of violet liquid from his vest to throw it in the man’s face. The glass container shattered against the bridge of his nose, dousing his eyes, cheeks, and mouth with the fluid. Steam from the melting of his flesh joined the haze of the tavern.
“Ahhh!” the man shrieked. The others in the tavern hushed as they watched him collapse to the floor, gripping his broiled face. “Mar! Oh, Mar!”
The barmaid behind the counter stood with a long, rusty kitchen knife drawn. She turned to Dawkin, her mouth agape. “You . . .” She thrust her blade at him. “Get him! Go on, you fools, slit his bloody throat!”
Initially, no one moved. Suddenly, the remaining four Dawkin spotted earlier – plus another three he had not – charged.
The Voiceless fell in to protect their king, with one on each side, arming swords and daggers drawn. For his part, Dawkin had but time to retrieve only one more vial. He reached for the longest one he carried: a slender flask filled with dark green liquid speckled with flakes. He uncorked it and, in a single motion, unleashed its contents in a wide arc.
The curve of potion that sprayed the floor erupted in emerald flames so bright they blinded the lot. The attackers stumbled back, afraid to catch fire, while everyone else stampeded towards the exits.
Though he instinctively shielded his eyes, Dawkin remained calm. He lowered his arm and neared the fire, fearless. He crossed through the green brightness with ease, much like a child does when stepping over a puddle. The Voiceless, also undeterred, did the same.
The assailant nearest to him laid on the floor, eyes wide in shock. He wriggled backward on his elbows as Dawkin and his Voiceless knights advanced.
“You, you devil!” he shouted and pointed. “Witchcraft, I say. Witchcraft!”
“No, you idiot. It’s just some purified alcohol with crystals of Dywar’s Tears mixed in.” Dawkin tossed the empty vial to the floor, where it shattered into a thousand bits. That scared him and the other attackers further. With their fear peaked, Dawkin nodded to his Voiceless, signaling the real start to the hostilities.
The knights were a vision of flailing cloth and leather jerkins, of calloused hands and gleaming steel. In such close quarters, arming swords would have proven a liability, not an advantage, so the Voiceless donned daggers. Each of the two Voiceless wielded one straight blade and one curved, to stab or pierce and hack or cut, respectively. Their strikes were so precise, especially given the ensuing chaos provoked by the flames, that the Voiceless had nary to defend themselves. The tips found their mark every time, whether a crease on a face, a loose flap over a shoulder, or a length of wool clothing over a thigh. No matter the target, flesh and blood soon came to the dim light of the tavern.
Though the Voiceless would have preferred their liege abstain from the conflict, Dawkin was not one to remain idle. He took to the one he considered the mightiest target: an intimidating fellow with sinewed muscle throughout his body and dark gray hair that hung to his shoulders.
Seeing him approach, the man drew a rusty dirk. Dawkin paused, pulling from his waistband a short mace with brass studs.
“What’s that?” the muscular thief said, a grin growing on his lips. “You going to grind some flour for me morning bread, are you?”
Dawkin furrowed his brow. He glanced at his weapon, noting it didn’t look particularly intimidating in the dim light.
Oh well. So long as it worked.
He charged toward the thief. The foe, in return, stabbed at Dawkin’s face. Dawkin quickly swooped aside and landed the head of his mace against the man’s wrist. He heard a crack of tiny bones fracturing. Then a thud as the man fingers let loosed the dirk, which fell to the floor.
“Ergggg . . .”
The man had nary a moment to grip his wounded hand when Dawkin landed another blow, this one to his nether regions. The foe cupped his crouch and scowled before the king struck his left temple.
The muscular thief crashed to the floorboards, unconscious. Dawkin, still in the fighting spirit, swung around, ready for the next challenge. Only there wasn’t any. The Voiceless had managed to disarm and defeat every other crook who threatened them, with the conquered writhing on the ground or leaning against the walls. Dawkin nodded once to them before he and the Voiceless turned back to the bar.
The rusty knife tumbled from the barmaid’s fingers. In shock, she had remained as she was for the entirety of the bout, which was mere seconds. Now, confronted by Dawkin and his guards, she peddled back until she hit the wall behind her. She raised her hand to her bosom as Dawkin hopped over the bar to approach and place his short mace before her face.
“My brother . . . Which room is he in?”
“Room?” she squeaked.
“Yes! Upstairs or downstairs? I know you’ve seen him.”
“I have. At least, I think I did. But he’s in no room. He took two of my girls out back.”
“In the barn. There’s a small one in the rear.”
Dawkin needn’t any more confirmation of his brother’s whereabouts than that. He tucked his short mace into his waistband and hopped back over the bar to exit.
The barn was little more than a thatched roof and a wooden frame. Stenches from all corners of the village flowed freely through the dwelling, doing nothing to deter the three on the straw heap from frolicking in their delights.
“Uhh-hmm,” Dawkin uttered, clearing his throat.
From under stalks of straw, Ely peeked his head up. The women on each side of him rolled off, covering their breasts as they moved. Ely dusted himself clean as he attempted to straighten.
“Brother!” Ely exclaimed with a broad smile. “You’re here.”
“Your powers of observation serve you well,” Dawkin said, his arms still crossed. He and the Voiceless had stood nearly half a minute before the pile of straw without Ely nor the two girls noticing.
“Well, I am a king. Aren’t I, girls?” He tickled one, then the other, with both blushing as they fought to suppress their giggles.
“Leave us!” Dawkin boomed. The two women jumped from their spots to hurry out of the barn.
“Well, that hardly seemed necessary.” Ely buttoned his shirt as his face soured with the girls’ departure.
What were you thinking? How could you? Do you want to be robbed and murdered? Those questions and others raced through Dawkin’s thoughts as he glared down at his brother. He gave breath to none of them, though. For after all, what was the point?
Instead, he looked over his shoulder to the Voiceless at his right. “Gather his horse. It should be nearby.”
“Actually,” Ely said. “I lost it in a wager.”
King Fool! “Then take mine. I’ll buy another in this forsaken town.”
“Embarrassed to be seen riding the same mount with your brother?”
“We can’t be seen together, you idiot. Sir Everitt and half of Har-Kin Furde is looking for you, seeing as you left your Right Captain with no word of your destination. I only guessed at it when Everitt alerted Saliswater Manor of his search.”
“A little excessive, wasn’t he? I mean, this isn’t the first time I have ascended and skipped out –”
“But never as king. ‘Tis his duty to watch over you.”
“I know that, brother.”
“Well, brother, you should also know that our Right Captain has been stricken with worry over his father. Baron Ralf has fallen ill with fever and coughing. Your stunt took him away from Furde Manor at a time when he should be with his family.” Dawkin glared at Ely, his face conveying he had no room within his heart for his excuses nor quips. “Grow up for once in your life and act like a king!”
“Fine.” Ely rose, now thoroughly perturbed. “Far be it for me to have a little fun.”
Ely brushed past Dawkin, bumping his shoulder as he did.
Dawkin and his two guards escorted Ely to the grove outside of town, where another Voiceless waited with their horses. Ely took one, while the two Voiceless to accompany them shared a mount. Dawkin watched the three ride off until they disappeared behind the bend of the road.
Annoyed but also content that his task was complete, Dawkin mounted his destrier as the other remaining Voiceless took to his. He and the knight began to ride when Dawkin slowed his horse to look over his shoulder.
Behind them, the woods – darkened and empty – met his gaze. He peered at them in search of something he swore was there, looking back.
A breeze ruffled the leaves of the trees, which otherwise stood solemnly, always on guard. Moonlight shone on the heights of the canopy, while beneath the void hung, desolate. Within the black, not a creature nor soul moved. Still, Dawkin swore he felt something – or someone – looking at him. Nay, studying him . . .
He shook the thought from his mind. Tis nothing.
Nothing.272Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡKlfzMycfSV