Bonds and Consequences

A serial novel of epic fantasy

Chapter 2 – Sebasten

Posted by jpbrassard on March 23, 2009

As he struggled to withdraw his sword, buried to the hilt through the unfortunate servant-boy’s throat, Sebasten Mol tried again to ignore the feeling that had been tickling the back of his mind all night; once again, he failed. It had started off as an ill-defined tension as they cast off just after nightfall from the commercial galley Strider several leagues down the coast, and at first he had simply attributed it to the nervousness he always felt before a raid. But as the night wore on and the constant push-pull of the other soldiers at the oars spurred them ever closer to their goal, the vague worry began to blossom into something else, something he couldn’t quite define, though it felt familiar. By the time they had reached the harbor and rigged the two small boats for silent running, Sebasten’s brain was nearly consumed with trying to figure out what, exactly, it was that he was feeling.

Frustrated, he had tried to chide himself for being craven, to pry his mind away from it through the considerable force of his pride, but in truth he knew he wasn’t particularly frightened. Sebasten had been a fighting man for too long — had spent too many nights much like this, creeping under cover of darkness — to be paralyzed by fear before battle. This was not to say that he was without fear; Sebasten wouldn’t be so foolhardy as to think that. No, he understood that the tiny thrill of fear in his gut was normal, expected, and needed, if he wished to survive the violence that was his stock.

But this feeling: in some ways it felt like fear, though it lacked fear’s uncertainty. Still and all, he couldn’t place it, though by this time he’d been convinced that he had felt something like it before; and as they had approached the leeward side of the massive cliff that jutted out into the middle of the harbor — known, appropriately enough, as the Spur — and spied the Keep perched at its acme that was their goal, he’d resolved to ignore it.

At this, as in so many things in his life, Sebasten Mol failed.

But not immediately. They had found two climbing ropes and a line with an ancient and flimsy-looking wooden basket attached, just as Kaliks had promised. The basket, of course, was for Kaliks himself: he was far too old, having seen sixty-seven namedays come and gone, to attempt scaling a mostly-sheer cliff, more than two hundred arm-lengths high, over open water in the middle of the night. The soldiers, Sebasten Mol included, would not be so lucky. Though, after seeing how rickety the basket looked, Mol didn’t consider himself that unlucky. After all, hanging on a rope with your arse in the wind, you didn’t really suffer the illusion of safety that a basket, even a decrepit one, might confer.

The climb had taken the better part of three turns and had afforded Sebasten an opportunity not to think about anything except survival: for himself, his men, and Kaliks. There’d been more than one moment, as he and two of his men slowly hauled Kaliks up the side of the Spur, when a sudden jerk in the line had Mol thinking they had lost the old man, that the basket had simply disintegrated, even under Kaliks’s sparse weight, and dropped the old man to his doom in the icy waters below. But each time there’d been no corresponding ease in tension in the rope that would indicate the disappearance of its load, and after what seemed a lifetime, they’d finally hauled the basket and Kaliks into the old, abandoned lading dock carved into the very face of the Spur. Kaliks’s mole had said that the dock had once been part of the Keep itself, though it had not been used for a hundred years or more. This was to be their way inside.

By the timid light of a single, shuttered oil lamp, they had made their way through dusty, neglected corridors that were nothing more than simple tunnels cut through the rock of the Spur. Sconces had been sparsely set into the rough-hewn walls, though it was clear they had seen little recent use; other than that, there was no adornment to the naked stone. Eventually, after nearly half a turn, they had found themselves before an old, iron-banded wooden door, the metal bands rusty and corroded from the moist sea air. As Kaliks’s mole had promised, it was propped slightly ajar, and they’d soon found themselves in the Keep proper itself.

Now, after following Kaliks up from that lowest sub-basement, where mainly old furniture and the collected trappings of generations were cached in moldy storerooms, they found themselves in the kitchens of the keep, where, Kaliks had assured them, they would find nary a soul and gain unfettered access to the halls of the Keep and their ultimate goal.

Unfortunately, as soon as Sebasten, Kaliks, and the rest of their party — a little more than thirty men in all — had entered the kitchens, they had stumbled on two servant boys, in the middle of preparing some midnight snacks.

Sebasten had been nearest to the younger of the two — a gangly, horse-faced lad of no more than twelve years — and, after the initial shock of finding people where none should have been, drew his blade and neatly skewered the poor, unlucky sod through the neck. The other boy — really, almost a man grown — was on the far side of the main kitchen area from where they had entered, with a couple of islands and a huge cast-iron kettle between him and the party. When the younger servant had gone down, the older one had raised his head from his preparations and momentarily froze at the sight of Sebasten, Kaliks and the men. Sebasten had hissed a command to Uffo, his lieutenant and second for this mission, and the tall, reticent Baramundi had swiftly raised his crossbow and took aim at the boy’s wide eyes — the surest way of securing a quick, quiet kill.

It was at this most inopportune moment that the servant boy’s paralysis broke. Letting out a wordless cry, he bolted for the exit, a low archway on the far side of the room from the soldiers covered by thick, deep-blue drapes of what looked like velvet. Uffo swore softly in his native Farsen dialect, adjusted his aim with the surety of long-practiced skill, and with a quiet twang-thunk of bridle and bolt releasing, let fly.

It was an expert shot, Sebasten saw immediately, a sure killing blow, the quarrel speeding for the lad’s left ear with unerring accuracy. Mol was amazed, yet again, at his lieutenant’s proficiency with the crossbow, when the boy caught his foot on the edge of the archway and stumbled slightly. Instead of hitting the boy’s ear, the quarrel slammed into his skull, the bronze-tipped head allowing the shaft to penetrate a couple of fingerbreadths before shattering. The force of the blow made the boy stumble further, his shoulder catching the upper edge of the archway where the curvature began its inward slope. For a moment, Sebasten thought he would go down, spun completely off-balance by his altered momentum and the ash-and-bronze quarrel embedded in his brain. But the lad recovered and plunged through the drape-covered arch, croaking wordless pleas in a changed, suddenly husky voice.

A couple of soldiers let loose with their own crossbows, but the quarrels found nothing save blue velvet and air, and Sebasten waved at the rest of them to hold off. “Save them, lads,” Mol said quietly. “I’ve a feeling we’ll be needing every spare bolt before this even is out.”

He turned to Uffo and leaned in close, pitching his voiced so only the Baramundi lieutenant could hear him. “It’s unlike you to miss,” Mol said plainly. “It’s especially unlike you to miss when it’s most important that your aim is true.”

“My aim was true,” Uffo grumbled, also quietly. “I could not anticipate the fool tripping. I am good, Sten, but I am no seer.” He grimaced, his thick lips pressing into a thin, pale line. “We will not have to worry about him for long. A wound like that, he will be bleeding inside his head, drowning his mind. The boy is dead already — his body simply does not yet know it.”

“Aye,” Sebasten agreed, turning his attention away from his lieutenant toward the drapes covering the exit through which the servant-boy had just disappeared, as if he could cast his vision beyond the opaque velvet and see into the castle beyond — once, he had hoped to harness that ability, but that had been long ago.

In the here and now, that nagging feeling was back, front and center, stronger than ever, and he finally recognized it for what it was: resignation. This was the way he’d felt as a boy, on the nights when his mother would see off some particularly brutish custom, then come find him and his older brother to visit the same hurts upon their bastard flesh. He could remember hearing her step on the ladder, the ragged breath rasping in and out of lungs already infected by the consumption that would claim her life before his ninth nameday, and feeling a flash of fear, which was almost immediately swallowed up by a fatalistic acceptance of the beating that was to come. Lenard, the poor misguided sot, would always proclaim that this time he would stand up to her, this time he would protect them from harm.

Lenard had made this same promise more times than Sebasten could remember. Of course, he had never lived up to it. Sebasten had grown to expect the beatings, to know that most nights would end in pain and humiliation and that he was powerless to stop it. This was his lot in life: the bastard seed of a sickly, well-used whore. There wasn’t much to be gained by fearing the inevitable.

Sebasten dimly wondered if his brother yet lived, and if so, if he had ever amounted to anything. Then he shook his head to break out of his reverie. Turning back to Uffo, he knew suddenly that his trusted lieutenant — the closest thing to a friend he’d had in years — would not live to see the sun rise. The thought, coming with such unbidden certainty, depressed him, but not unduly. His had been a hard life, thus far, and he’d long ago become accustomed to loss.

“He may be as good as dead,” Sebasten said now, without recrimination, resignation creeping into his voice. “But our dead boy will live long enough to let others know he’s dead. This changes our plans, methinks.”

Nonsense!

Kaliks joined the two soldiers, scowling reproachfully. The old man had been a towering figure when he was younger, standing over twelve hands in height, with the broad shoulders and long arms characteristic of those from his native Ignaue, off the north coast of Altessa’s western-most provinces. But time and age had taken their toll: his spine had shriveled and contorted; his shoulders had become stooped; a hump had formed on his back over his left shoulder blade; and he now stood closer to ten hands than twelve. For all that he’d lost in physical stature, though, his mind was as keen as ever, his deep brown eyes were not cloudy with cataracts or dementia, and he could still wield his rich tenor voice like a whip.

“Nothing changes!” he went on sternly, his tone making it clear he would brook no dissent. “One servant with a bolt in his head is not cause for panic.” His eyes settled on Sebasten and went hard with disapproval. “I thought you made of sterner stuff, Mol.”

Sebasten bristled. “Why did you not help with the boy?” he asked angrily, refusing to address Kaliks’s unsubtle accusation of cowardice directly. “You could have easily dealt with him, and then this would not be an issue.”

Kaliks’s forehead wrinkled further as his eyebrows knotted in consternation. “There are wards in place here, some of them ancient, all of them powerful. None of them will ultimately be a problem, but it takes time to deal with them. You worry about raising an alarm, Mol? Had I interceded with the boy, that would have announced our presence more surely than letting the boy escape these rooms.” He paused; when he continued, his voice carried a note of puzzled disappointment. “I shouldn’t need to explain this, especially to a former Initiate.”

Unexpected, this last rebuke, and more stinging for that it sounded to Sebasten’s untrained ear like a father wearily chiding a constantly wayward son. He looked away from the chagrin in Kaliks’s expression, unable to meet it head on. “We shouldn’t tarry here,” he said gruffly. “We’ve no idea how much longer we will remain undiscovered.”

“Indeed,” Kaliks agreed. “That is the first sensible thing you have said this even.”

Sebasten ignored this last. “Right, lads,” he said, sotto voce. “We proceed as planned. No steel unless I command or you need to save yourself. Uffo has the lead.”

They moved out of the kitchens, moving quietly but quickly: first through dim, narrow service hallways, where the walls were plain mortared stone and the sconces were few and far between; then through the main passageways of the Keep itself, ornate in their splendor, even when seen in the half-light of guttering torches. Sebasten found it hard not to gawk, especially when it seemed like everything he saw, down to the simplest golden candelabra, was worth more coin than he had made in his entire life. This was his first time among the trappings of royalty, and it made him feel an awe-struck child. He had always known that there were people in this world who lived lives of exorbitant plenty, whose daily existence was far removed from the constant struggle through hardship and filth and pain experienced by common folk such as he, but it had been a remote knowledge, easily acknowledged and just as easily ignored. Now, with its evidence all around him, he could not possibly deny that these people were his betters, in every conceivable way.

Well, save for one. Sebasten was reasonably certain he was a better killer.

The passage they were traveling came to an abrupt end at a pair of high oaken doors. Their elaborate, stylized carvings depicted a scene of battle, with a lone woman, her hands splayed rigidly in front of her and what looked to Sebasten like rays of light shooting from the tips of her fingers, surveying the carnage from a high hilltop. No, he realized, that wasn’t quite right; she was not simply examining the butchery below her, she was the cause of it.

Uffo looked back at Sebasten, his expression inscrutable. “What now?” he asked simply.

Kaliks answered before Sebasten could even open his mouth. “We go on, of course,” he said, as though speaking to a child. “This is one of their smaller audience halls, but it provides us our quickest route to the apartments. We shall go through.”

The Baramundi lieutenant looked from Kaliks back to Sebasten, a silent question in his eyes. Mol nodded. “We’ll go on,” he said, the feeling of resignation coming back in a rush, so quickly that it gave him a moment of vertigo. The taste of bile grew strong on his tongue, and for an instant he thought he might vomit.

And then he knew, with the same certainty as before (a certainty that he would be unable to explain, if pressed) that to go through these doors with their carvings of slaughter was to hand all of them — himself, Kaliks, Uffo, the soldiers who looked to him as leader — over to the Pale.

He also knew that there was no other choice. There never had been.

Stifling a sigh and swallowing back his gorge, Sebasten Mol nodded again.

“Open the doors.”

 

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