From the author: A soldier's attempt to atone for his life of war. The setting an homage to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales.
Daryan the Bold lurched into the tavern. He hadn't thought he could sink lower than the last waterfront dive but The Three Eels appeared to be a large step down in his spiraling night of debauchery. Well, at least, he likely wouldn't be thrown out of this one. He sat with his back to a wall next to the firepit, hood pulled over his forehead. He sought to ease the chill of the Baktur sea mists that had the ability to whisper cold deep into unprotected flesh. There would be freezing rain this night or the veteran soldier's senses deceived him.
Warmed as much by the boisterous clientele as the fire, Daryan smiled to himself. Many were the times he and his comrades had celebrated return from battle in such a place. The specific smells of the cooking spices and strange meats slow-roasting above the hearth might differ from land to land and port to trading post, but the laughter of haughty strumpets and miserly customers, the songs of home, the occasional clash of steel and the intrigues of both sexes were the same the world over. Or at least as much of the world that Daryan had experienced.
"Wench, drink," he yelled his order to the long-haired back of a woman. "Probably another old sea hag", he muttered. He rubbed a hand against his cheek where the last barmaid had scratched her claws in response to his cupping a saggy breast while she served him. Daryan laughed at his boldness.
"Wine, good sir?" The serving girl was young and spoke with an inland accent.
"Don't be shy with the portion, girl. The harbor's cold nips my bones." He held a handful of coins out for her.
The girl filled a clay mug from her shoulder skin. "Two coppers." She quickly grabbed the coins from his hand before he could close on her wrist. She took a casual step back.
He said, "You're not a native of Baktur, are you girl? Your voice sounds more like the mountain tribes fringing the Feghpek Plateau."
She gave him an appraising eye. "You're not as drunk as you look or you're very observant."
Daryan swallowed a mouthful of the bitter wine. "A lifetime of strange lands and stranger peoples have keened my ear. You are young to have journeyed here by choice."
The girl hesitated before speaking. Cries for her attention rang across the tavern. "I came in a caravan, destined for southern lands."
Daryan nodded with understanding. "Slavers." He spat the word. "You escaped?"
The girl lifted her thin skirt to reveal a deformed ankle. "I was kicked by a camel during the passage across the desert. Few harem-brokers value a crippled dancing girl. Not worth the food and clothing to present at auction."
"The slavers sold you to the innkeeper?"
She lowered her head. "They abandoned me in the wasteland. I limped for three days. And when I couldn't walk any longer, I crawled for two more." She pointed to the short, almost round figure of a man slicing a cut of meat from the spit. "Assani found me at his door, splinted my leg and gave me work."
A silver coin appeared on the table in front of Daryan. "For you then. And another for Assani before I leave." He inhaled the delicious odor from the fire. "A cut of that beast and dark bread."
"Thank you, sir." She swooped the coin into her pocket and reached for his hand.
Daryan closed his fist on his remaining coins and drew back. He winked. "You don't know what these hands have touched." He held the wine close to his nose, inhaling the pungent, faintly oily aroma. "What do I call you? 'Girl' is ill-mannered when you have a name."
She leaned low to whisper, "Elbeth." A shout from Assani drew her back. "I have other customers."
He watched her limp away. Why did women get themselves into such trouble? He felt his sword. A man needed but a strong arm and a weapon to make his own destiny. "You fool yourself," he whispered.
Daryan stretched his legs in front of him. He warmed himself in the gaiety of the scene. A clutch of blond hillmen played a dice game on the floor, quaffing the black ale they preferred over wine. They might have been countrymen of the girl. Two swarthy Hanappans watched the hillmen with more than casual interest. Their oiled black beards and hair glistened in the torchlight. Their dark eyes missed nothing. Daryan watched the pair exchange coins with each throw of the hillmen's dice in a private bet. He knew their type. When the hillmen had drank and gambled their way into senselessness, the lightning quick hands of the Hanappans would lift the winner's purse and vanish into the night mists.
"Would you mind company, soldier? Fhel take me, it's a cold eve. My innards crave the heat from this fire."
Daryan snapped out of his reverie. An aged ascetic was feeling for the bench with a bony hand. The opal ring on the traditional mage finger swirled in the flame's light.
Daryan smiled to himself, the night's liquor leaving him with a clearer vision of revenge. Providence had delivered him a wizard. Not the one he swore against, but in the short time he had available, a substitute could fulfill the soldier's vow. He nudged the stranger's hand with his flagon to the wood. "Sit youself."
"Thank you. I am weak of vision."
Daryan studied the eyes of the aged man. One was milky like the beggars of Sitai he had seen many campaigns ago, the other a blackened socket. "I have food coming, perhaps you would share some meat and bread? And something to wet your throat?" Daryan watched the blood pulse under the weathered skin. A swift thrust with his knife and the world would have one less mage to torment honest fighting men. And Daryan could assuage his own guilt.
The stranger smiled without turning his head. "I did not sit down to beg a meal but your offer is accepted. The bitter wind has brought you here as well?"
A bitter life, not easily healed by the blaze. "How did you know I was a soldier?"
The man drew a figure in the air. "I can see dim shadows. Your posture, even seated, bespoke of a military man. You have seen many battles?"
"Enough for two or three lifetimes. And you, you are a wizard." Daryan's voice held an edge as keen as his sword.
The old one shook his head. "Once. Or so I believed and desired others to believe. It provided food, shelter and the freedom to pursue knowledge."
Elbeth returned with Daryan's food. Daryan said, "Wine or ale for my…companion."
"Wine would be acceptable," he said.
"I've not seen you before, wizard," she said.
"Not a wizard, young lady. A mere seeker of truth."
She lowered her face to stare at his eyes. She stared with neither pity nor disgust, as Daryan watched her, but curiosity. "You find your way in the world well for a blind man."
Daryan pushed the plate in front of the old man. "Eat hearty, unwizard. I think you need it more than I."
The old man leaned forward, feeling for the knife and bread. "I think you are right. What is your name, soldier of misfortune?"
"Daryan. And yours?"
"Mythias." He tore a strip of bread and chewed while he sawed the meat.
A clatter of dishes and cups striking the plank floor and guffaws of laughter interrupted the two. Daryan was on his feet and moving in an instant. His training and muscles overrode his wine-induced impairment. A water-fat Tessian had tripped Elbeth and was readying his foot on her backside as she struggled to her knees. He pushed her down amidst his own laughter and that of his companions.
Daryan stopped himself and had a sudden recollection of his own actions many years ago and two children gushing life under the keen edge of his blade. Battlelust reigning over reason and conscience. Many deeds he could not rescind. Inaction now would add to his chain of guilt. A chance to atone. Daryan inserted himself between Elbeth and her tormentor. He squeezed the man's shoulder and said, "You don't deserve to share the same floor as that girl."
The brigand's laughter changed to anger. "Drop your hand, stranger, before I gut you. We're just having a bit of sport. I might take pity on the girl and let her share my bed. She's comely if you ignore the leg. I'm thinking two coppers, right lads?"
Daryan maintained his grip. "Your lads think you a coward as well, they won't back you against me. I think you should find another inn."
Daryan released him but stood close, sobered by long-suppressed guilt. His adversary stumbled back a step, reaching for his sword but his hand wouldn't close on the hilt. Daryan drew his own knife in a flash and held it under the man's nose. "Since you are so generous to cripples, perhaps a split nose would attract the kind of ladies you desire."
The bully's bluster evaporated as he drew full measure of Daryan. "Fhel curse you. When I have full use of my arm there will come a reckoning. That wizard you consort with has cast a spell on my muscles."
Daryan switched the knife to his left hand. "Now we're matched fair."
The man glanced to his companions, still seated and apparently entertained more than threatened. "Not worth it. Come lads, we'll find an inn with comelier maids and stronger drink."
Daryan watched them leave and strode back to his table. Mythias was nibbling the last of the meat. "You'll have your hands full, Daryan, if you take arms against every braggart in the inn. Already the vanquished one's place is taken by the loud drunk."
Daryan turned to see a weaving figure, a flagon in each fist, singing a bawdy seachant.
Daryan sat. "He's no harm."
Mythias nodded. "Perhaps you're right. Something odd about his rhythm. Does he have the look of a limbine?"
"Spending his final night on this earth before sailing the mist?"
"Aye. One cursed to be neither here nor there. Not that I believe in curses. But I recognize the power in faith. I used to believe in those other planes of existence as a source of wizardly puissance."
"Those are the planes we all seek after death, are they not? A place to atone for the misdeeds committed in our lives. Atone or redress." Daryan held his knife in front, letting the flames reflect from its cold blade. A wizard had once told him a drawn blade must be whetted. Just another rationale for the cruel actions of fighters.
"Mayhaps. I've spent the last decade of my existence proving the tricks of wizards have their basis in this world, not in others. I am a new breed of seer, an earth-bound seeker of knowledge. A naturalist in pursuit of repeatable phenomena. I observe and make notes in logical progression. Or I used to, until one of my experiments went awry." He scratched a finger across his missing eye. "It's all here," he pointed to his head. "Knowledge is transferable, you don't have to spend years sacrificing virgins and burning animal blood in dark, arcane sanctums. Anyone can master the arts I study."
Daryan tapped the old man's hand. "You bear the ring of a wizard."
"It keeps me from being mistaken for a beggar. Is there more bread?" He found a crust. "I work to convince other wise ones of my methods. A new world looms, my friend. Your ways of war will pass on."
Daryan brushed the hilt of his sword. "Magic or not, noble men are still men. Born to struggle."
"The struggle for knowledge is nobler."
"You believe this, don't you Mythias?"
The old one turned his unseeing eyes to Daryan. "I do. I could teach you the art of natural magic."
Daryan shook his head, more for his own benefit than his unseeing companion. "My path is chosen for me, wise one. You will have to find another."
Mythias wiped his plate and licked his fingers. "I shall teach, an apprentice shall be my eyes. We could earn enough to live." He picked at his teeth, sucking the last remnants of the meal. "What do you believe, fighting man?"
Daryan sipped his wine, allowing the competing tastes to stimulate his palate. "I have experienced mighty feats of wizardry, real or magic, first-hand. Frightening enough to scar one's soul. Comrades consumed by flame as they stood. Enemies unyielding in the face of certain death. Mighty stones falling from the sky. Siege engines impervious to fire and spear."
Mythias waved his wine cup, spilling red drops on the table and floor. "Explainable all. Fluids from the deep earth, combusting in the air. Strong hallucinogenic fungi consumed before battle. Mechanical slings. Wood soaked in fire-resistant solvents and bolstered with metal reinforcements."
Daryan continued, "I've watched plagues loosed on entire armies. Men who fought and died valiantly in losing causes, driven by a devil in human guise. Men whose worst deed was not dying in battle. Soldiers taking from the vanquished all semblance of humanity." Daryan refrained from further explanation. His fate sealed by those he fought with and against. Fortunes determined by command and greed.
"In the meantime, more wine for us. And you shall tell me of your observations of real magic. I have seen many unexplained things in my wanderings and believe there is little that can't be accomplished with magic."
"Bah, there is little that cannot be achieved through study, knowledge and application." Mythias drank deep.
Elbeth refilled Mythias' cup from her goatskin.
Daryan said, "Sit for a moment, lass. I would question you." He slid the knife towards his sheath, hesitated a moment and then drew the point across the back of his hand. A brief line of red congealed and he wiped the blade clean.
She glanced toward Assani. "One minute. No longer or he'll have my hide."
Daryan fondled the weight of his purse out of sight under the table. "I'm paying for you time, if that is the problem." He slid another silver coin in front of her. "What would it take for you to return to your home?"
"Home? Return to the family that sold me? It would take a dozen camels and even then I would give them trouble." She laughed and scanned the low-ceilinged hostel. "Home and family? I'm better off here by leagues."
Mythias dragged a sleeve across his dripping chin. "Ahh. That's pleasing wine, girl. Now, I sense you walk uneven."
"An accident." She shuffled away from him. "I don't need a wizard spelling me."
Mythias said, "I won't take your soul, girl. I have some knowledge of bone and muscle. An even swap, a bed tonight in the inn and I will examine your leg in the morning. A month of board and I will heal what I can."
She stood. "You'll be dead drunk by morning and I'm not letting your hands touch me where your eyes cannot. Assani decides who gets free board, not I."
She hustled away.
Mythias said, "Skepticism is the death of me."
"Enjoy your wine. I will return."
Daryan walked to the main part of the room where Assani tended customers. "A moment of your time, innkeeper."
Assani wiped his hands. "What are you buying? You chased away one table of patrons already."
"They would have cost you more in damages and lost customers over the evening. I did you a favor." Daryan dropped his purse on the counter. "Your finest brandy." The clank from within attracted more than just Assani's interest but a sharp look from the fighting man caused those with sudden intrigue to retreat to their own affairs. He sought Elbeth's attention and beckoned her to join the two men.
This story originally appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #14.