The traveler paused at the crest of the final hill and shielded his eyes against the last light of day. Below him sprawled Casoria, favored city of the Elyon, home of the High King, and until this moment, the stuff from which legends were made. He hadn’t quite known what to expect of civilization, but feeling the sharp, sudden intake of disappointment, he knew he’d expected more.
With a strategist’s eye, he noted there’d been no planning behind these spores of sudden opportunity; some streets were nearly impassable while others were wide and barren of traffic. Nor had any thought been given to defense. The wall surrounding the city was as broken as a hedge, in some places non-existent. The stranger gave a derisive snort. In the legends, it was thirty feet tall and gleaming white.
Still, it was possible to recognize Castle Ursaulis, if only from description, a huge block of stone that reared timelessly in the sky, and also the Garden behind it, but to the left was an area that the stranger knew to be a recent addition. Spread out on what otherwise would have been an area for housing or commerce was a graveyard for the innumerable dead.
The stranger grimaced. There was no denying the war nor the part he’d played in it. Casoria, once the embryo for culture and learning, was now a rotten fruit.
He began his descent, heading for an open gate.
At first, there seemed to be no sentry, but as the traveler approached, he spotted a man dressed in a solider’s garb sleeping on a bench just within. His spear lay more than an arm’s length away; helmet and breastplate had been discarded. A depleted wineskin cradled his head, the ruby drops falling form the spigot in accordance with his rhythmic breathing.
The traveler hesitated, viewing him with equal parts fury and restraint. Restraint vanished when the guard embarked on a series of self-satisfied snores. Without further hesitation, the traveler overturned the bench with one well-placed kick. Moments passed as the guard lay face down in the dust, stunned out of sleep.
“Damned curs,” he muttered finally, struggling to his knees. “Bloody little whelps, they’ll think twice when I–” Spying the wineskin, the guard reached out and gave it a shake. At the sloshing sound, he gave a satisfied grunt. He rose to his feet, swearing as he tilted his head, but paused when he noticed the shadow.
He lowered the wineskin slowly, squinting an eye.
The shadow was connected to the largest man he’d ever seen. Muscled and lean, the man wore tight fitting leather breeches and a brown tunic and over it a tawny fur vest splotched with dried blood. A hunting knife was sheathed at his waist. Appearance wasn’t his only advantage, the guard decided, as the piercing blue eyes bore relentlessly into his own. There was strength, steel, and a smoldering anger that the guard, a rapscallion by the name of Arnod, didn’t understand.
Along his brow, Arnod felt the break of sweat.
“Command me,” the man said, slowly, distinctly.
Arnod hesitated. This man was not his captain and wore no insignia; even so he recognized the voice of authority. It would be dangerous not to comply.
“Very well,” Arnod began. “I command you to . . . to do what?” Arnod broke off, afraid but genuinely puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Are you not a guard?” The stranger jerked a thumb toward the discarded gear.
“Aye,” replied Arnod, uncomfortably.
“Then demand my name, my origin, my plans!”
Arnod stared blankly, then broke into a grin. He’d been clutching the neck of his wineskin; now, he tucked it into his belt.
“There’s no need for formalities. This is Open Court.” He cast a quick glance at the sun. “Or what’s left of it. Strangers pass in and out freely on these occasions.”
“But what if I’m a Pentacaucus?”
“Whitehair.” The clarification was plain.
A flicker of recognition leapt in Ernest’s eyes.
“A Whitehair on his way to stand in the presence of your King at Open Court.”
Arnod watched as the man undid the band at his neck. Shoulder- length hair fell forward, dead white. Sweating profusely now, Arnod ran a tongue over his wine puckered lips.
“The war is over.” He sounded like a coward, even to himself.
“Memory dies a hard death.”
The guard shrugged. “For some more than others.”
“Auggh!!!” The man gave him a shove, then pulled him back again, tearing his shirt.
“There are no men in this city,” said the stranger through clenched teeth.
Arnod felt another shove, this time falling backwards in the dust. The wineskin flew from his belt and landed with a plop, his last swallow pooling into a dark stain under the stranger’s foot.
As the traveler disappeared down the street, Arnod struggled to his feet. His head throbbed, his throat was dry, and his lungs were still struggling for wind. Easy enough to shove a common one like me, thought sourly, but how will you fare against Blatico’s sharp tongue?
Even so, he was not one to hold a grudge. “Hey, there’s a shortcut through Tanner’s Alley, ” he called after the broad back, his voice rasping. “Turn left at the tavern called the Fish and Eagle and keep going straight until you hit an side road, hardly more than a path. It’s all uphill but it will take you to Castle Ursaulis before dark.”
If the stranger heard him there was no indication. Indeed, he disappeared down the street at a surprisingly fast clip for one so large. Arnold rose to his feet and kicked at the wineskin. He scratched his rump. His clothes were smelly and dirty; thoughtfully, he examined the new tear in his shirt. The serving wench, Polly, had a sympathetic ear. He touched his jaw tentatively, ruminating on the struggle. It had been a close fight, he decided, but no more than expected. Matters could have been settled amicably, but he was not a man to run from a brawl. “Ready at Battle” was his motto, and though his bones ached from it, it was too late to change his philosophy now.
His mind buzzing with more embellishments, Arnod sauntered off for the Fish and Eagle. The evening guard would be here soon enough. If the captain questioned him about leaving early, why, the rip in his shirt would be evidence that a terrible fight had ensued.