Monday, March 31, 2008

Earthbow manuscript Chapter One

Earthbow Chapter One (work in progress)
WARNING: Due to violence, content may not be suitable for all readers.

Cenoc mused that his host was sitting on his cushions as though they were filled with nails. A week's warning that he was arriving at this outpost for the next stop of his inspection tour should have been enough time for Sevris to prepare. But the actual presence of his 'fabled' self, the only victor ever over the Pannian sorcerers, the savior of Latimus, tended to make the sternest of his keep-masters apprehensive. He found the repeated scenario both amusing and frustrating.

Obviously seeking for a topic pleasing to his lordship, Sevris commented, "Lord Cenoc, I was ... perplexed when you ordered us to capture one of their party. But now, to bring a werewright up here? To speak with one of them?"

"A thought occurred to me with his capture. I've learned to think ahead, to make every situation pay. One of the reasons I rule Latimus, while you command this derelict keep." Noting the wince, he continued, "Your man was injured in the capture. Werewright blood in the wound? My sympathies. What did you call the remedy for the injury?"

Cenoc settled back on the red velvet cushions and looked across the low, tile-inlaid table at his host. Both had changed from their hunting attire as soon as they arrived back at the keep. The customary green parti-color satins and velvets were grimed now with dust and sweat, and the bloods of both humans and the attacking werewrights. Probably best burnt.

Sevris had replaced his satin hunting tunic with even more sumptuous, floor-length robes of green, then added chains and cuffs of precious bronze. In the near-lethal heat of midsummer, Cenoc could only marvel at his host's obeisance to proper attire. He, as was his custom, had changed to the same rust-colored tunic and mail which he wore into battle, but without the surcote. The only clothing in which he truly felt comfortable.

"Our herbalist calls it werebane, my Lord Cenoc. They're taking him in now to be treated."

"And only werebane will counter the effects of werewright blood?"

"Yes, my lord." A drop of sweat dangled briefly from the bottom edge of his mustache, then trickled across Sevris' lips to join its fellows in his trimmed gray beard.

Sevris might be of the old nobility, but no one would ever have known it. Cenoc's eyes traveled from the keep-master's dissolute face, to his pale skin and slight paunch. How long had it been since Sevris had had to deal with anything of more importance than the empire crop's yield? Looking to be a good one. His shares across this province as Lord of Latimus would go far toward wages and supplies for his surviving armies.

Sevris' eyes were locked just below the level of his own gaze, as he awaited a response. Cenoc let him wait.
Peace! Peace made a man soft... Indeed, it had made this whole southern province soft: keeps in disrepair, ill watch kept, bands of werewright cut-throats, even this room - richly decorated with tapestries and ancient banners of Sevris' ancestors. He glanced down. Even the stone floor was covered with a thick fleece-like cloth... decadent, wasteful... and unmilitary.

His gaze returned to the keep-master's apprehensive face. A small-hearted man, with no skill of command, no foresight. Here was one that wouldn't threaten his hold on Latimus.

Cenoc smiled unpleasantly and noted that Sevris shivered.

"Tell me more of this werebane, Sevris."

Half-listening while the man talked, Cenoc pursued his own line of reasoning. That same lack of imagination also meant that he might be getting less out of this shire than he should be. This was rich agricultural land, with the perfect climate to support empire shrubs. The tax records didn’t reflect that. Sevris neither knew how nor where to squeeze the last drop out of an opportunity. Perhaps, he should be replaced... Cenoc tucked the possibility away for later consideration. He noted with satisfaction that Sevris seemed to guess his thoughts. So much the better. That might wring some usefulness out of him yet.

"How do you expect to make the capture of a werewright pay? They're best dead, before they can call the spirits of the Shadow to their aid. You've made a dangerous prisoner, my lord."

"He shall find that his captor is more dangerous still. But first, I'm parched." Cenoc paused in reaching for the wine bottle. "Do you fear the Shadow sorcerers, Sevris? They've been dead for thousands of years. I never thought you a superstitious man."

"Me? Oh, no... of course not. But sometimes, ignorant warriors can be superstitious..." Sevris' voice trailed off.

He was doubtless remembering too late Cenoc's own past as a common warrior in the old king's guard.
Cenoc surveyed himself through Sevris' eyes. Gray-haired now, but finally the Lord of Latimus, he still possessed the bearing of a fighting man... and the skills. Born of low degree, he had spent decades training his every expression and word. His face had long since acquired the arrogance, and his voice the quiet forcefulness, of command.

But one of his favorite weapons worked best at table or during close inspection -- a cold grimness in his gray eyes ... and, right now, more than a hint of disapproval.

With servants banned from the room, Sevris himself reached forward to refill Cenoc's goblet and, after a moment's hesitation, his own. Returning to a safer topic, he asked, "But what do you hope to gain by keeping him alive and ordering him brought up here?"

"Sometimes, one must spread one's nets wide to make a catch. ...Ah, here he is now." Cenoc turned to the bound prisoner and the guards who stood in the doorway. "Seat him here.

" He gestured to the patch of floor across the table from their cushions. " Palis! Stay just outside the door. Dismissed."

Cenoc gazed curiously at his prisoner. The creature still had its black cloak on with its hood in place. It was slightly smaller than a man, shorter at least, though the folds of the cape's dull material curved over what seemed dense muscle. All that could be seen of the werewright's features was the fanged wedge-shaped mouth, twisted into a permanent grin... like the hideous, vacant smile of a skull.

Why had no one ever exterminated these creatures? Werewrights had dwelt in these south marches and in other lands of Narenta, some said, since the Elder race first appeared in the ancient past. ...Indeed, they were said to be Elders themselves, but of hideous aspect, the product of Wenos Zex's own deep sorcery.

Wenos Zex. Shadow overlord. Cenoc snorted in contempt: Fairy tales. These southerners would have learned about the reality of true evil, if he'd ever allowed some of the Pannians to slip through.

He quietly drew his sword and leaned forward across the round table. The werewright tensed as the blade approached. _Idiot. Would I go to all this trouble, just to kill you?_ Cenoc caught the front of the black hood with his sword point and flipped it back.

Beside him, Sevris was reaching for the decanter again, this time with a trembling hand.

As hardened as he was by years of battle and secret murder, Cenoc was caught off guard by the creature's gaze, if only for a moment. Something seemed to look through the slitted dark red eyes under the protruding V-shaped brow… Nonsense! The thing was merely glaring.

The reptilian werewright hissed in amusement at his reaction, but Cenoc was back in control at once. He turned to Sevris, and away from the prisoner's gaze. "Now you will see first-hand what I spoke of earlier."

Cenoc placed the point of the sword against the prisoner's yellow-scaled throat. "What reason can you give for not being killed at once?" Cenoc's steely eyes narrowed. "How can keeping you alive be of service to me?"

The prisoner considered the question only for a moment, then answered in the repulsively-silken voice of his race, "You should keep me alive for the information with which I was entrusted. You rule all the land of the Elder in Latimus. Would you like a wider kingdom and power over other lands?"

Ah, this was more like it! Without turning from the werewright, Cenoc spoke, "You see, Sevris. Sometimes you hardly need to spread the net at all and the fish swims in. Speak on, werewright."

* * *

The drummers and dancers were skilled enough, but the pipers were close to setting his teeth on edge. Thralls were clearing away the last of the supper dishes in the great hall. Cenoc had played the honored guest long enough and, besides, they had yet to perform a little test he wanted done. He leaned forward, nodded, and pounded applause on the table during a lull in the performance. In the uncertain silence that followed, Cenoc commanded that Alarz be brought into his presence.

By now, his guards would be glad to be rid of him – he'd ordered Alarz unbound when he was taken from the east tower. Even detained in a locked room, they doubtless had worried the werewright would disappear leaving nothing but the scent of brimstone to mark the end of his visit to the land of the living.

"Now?" Sevris sat up beside him, brought back to his senses perhaps by the sudden silence from the musicians.
Cenoc's smile disappeared at the sight but, fueled by much less wine, his own wits were performing little better. He'd asked for the one ingredient for their experiment and nearly forgotten the other. Casting his mind over the day's events, he remembered the infraction of a Young One scullery thrall. Proper punishment and a handy subject. That would do nicely. He called his ever-vigilant officer, Beroc, to him with a gesture and gave him his orders.

The timing was working out well enough. Beroc and one of his men had barely left to secure the scullery thrall, when here came the werewright, fairly leading his relieved guards into the hall. Obviously, the prisoner had made no effort to escape as they accompanied him. And Sevris had thought it impossible to work with werewrights.

Guiding Alarz to a position a couple of yards from Cenoc's seat at the head table, the guards saluted with their fists and prepared to leave. Cenoc called them back. Palis and the other - what was his name? - deserved to be a part of this. Theirs had been a strange duty.

"Stay. I have a small entertainment planned."

The one guard grinned at the other as they took places to one side. Cenoc approved their anticipation. Such entertainments had helped sustain many of his following through long years of brutal war.

After a brief bow and nod, the werewright stood his ground with an air of confidence that, he suspected, few of the onlookers felt they could have matched under the same circumstances. Impudent. Well, things were not always as they appeared. Almost ready for his little test. Just one or two small matters to deal with.

"Alarz! Welcome!" Cenoc picked up Sevris' goblet and poured out its contents. "We require that one more thing of you now. I'm sorry not to have mentioned the particulars during our earlier talk."

Alarz' eyes darkened from an amused red to the grim hue of dead blood. He gave a sharp nod, then yanked on the rust-black of his tunic sleeve.

"Sevris. If you would be so good." Cenoc handed the empty cup to the thunderstruck keep-master. "This should hold a sufficient quantity. You've had enough for this evening in any case."

Sevris gaped at his lord with bleary eyes. At Cenoc's impatient shake of the vessel, he reached forward and took it, staring at it in turn as if Cenoc had just handed him some rotten entrails. Cenoc had a great deal of trouble refraining from rolling his eyes. Blast the time wasted with those pipers. Was the man already too far gone to even deal with a simple task? Or, maybe he just had no stomach for it? The faces of his closest men tended toward the second opinion – and wasn't that a fine thing for a keep-master? 'Should be replaced' became a firm 'will be replaced'.

Sevris had managed to stand. With his hand resting on his sword hilt, he walked unsteadily to the center of the room.

The only words to be heard were spoken by the werewright. "What does he intend, Cenoc? We have an agreement. Beware of breaking such an arrangement with those of the Shadow."

"Peace, Alarz! This is a small matter and will take but a moment of your time. Sevris! Get on with it."

Weaving a little and focusing on the werewright with difficulty, Sevris drew his sword. Cenoc swore. A knife would be more practical. Was the man an incompetent fighter as well? He muttered through clenched teeth, "Your dagger, Sevris. It's not a bucket."

The spectators who had seemed puzzled by all that had gone before, now broke into speech. This was something they understood. Several, seeing Sevris' condition, hastened to wager on the outcome. Cenoc started to shout new orders to the keep-master, then forbore. Too late. The man was incapable of hearing him, and he would not give observers a chance to see his orders ignored. Well, they could always trap another werewright if Sevris botched this.

Much to Sevris' evident discomfort, and the amusement of the warriors, the werewright whipped off his cloak to wind it as a shield about his forearm, then suddenly produced a dagger seemingly out of nowhere. The eyes of his ghastly face burned with a deadly challenge as he turned to face the keep-master. Many stalwart knights and men-at-arms whispered to each other at the sight of that misshapen face and those taloned, claw-like hands. Cenoc was pleased to see brief consternation replaced by arrogant disgust.

Sevris' first blow was parried by the werewright's cape. As he struggled to free the sword point, the keep-master left his side vulnerable to the dagger. The unexpected pain of a shallow cut sobered him into a cautious retreat. He glanced at the slow drip from the cut, snarled, and attacked more viciously. The creature dropped and tumbled into a roll as skilled as the movements of the dancers. Sevris' blade sliced through air feet above him.

Amidst catcalls, the voice of one of Cenoc's guards rose above the others, "Lord Sevris, you're supposed to fill the goblet with his blood, not yours."

Sevris ignored the comment and the ensuing laughter. Soon his powerful strokes began pushing Alarz back toward the high table. His sword flicked through the heavy folds of the wound cape, leaving a long gash on the werewright's shield arm. Unable to raise it to defend himself, the prisoner twisted one way then the other to at least get out of the corner into which Sevris was forcing him. At last, Sevris landed a solid blow to the broad torso below the ribs. The werewright cried out and fell to his knees, his dagger skidding across the stone floor.

After a moment, he staggered to his feet, one taloned hand clutching the wound through which greenish-black blood welled. The stench of it was in the air, but Sevris made no move to fill the goblet.

Turning to face Cenoc, Alarz grasped the table edge for support. "Beware, human, if this is the manner in which you keep your promises."

Cenoc shrugged, "Lord Sevris was a tad enthusiastic, but you shouldn't have obstructed his attempt to obey my command. We wished only a sample of your blood for a little experiment. I said it would only take a minute of your time. Do not blame me if you insisted on resisting Sevris' attempt at the operation."

The werewright smiled a ghastly smile that made even Cenoc shudder inwardly. "But I do blame you. Let Mexat be my witness."

A quiet murmur of consternation swept the length of the hall at that name, and then an uneasy silence. Cenoc noticed the evening had become chill.

Alarz pointed a taloned forefinger at Cenoc and went on, "You have broken your agreement with the Shadow. Mexat shall see that I am revenged... You will never rule beyond your present bounds, and though you search the limits of this land, the Stones of..."

As the werewright spoke, Sevris was creeping up to him from behind. Raising the sword cautiously, Sevris slashed off the werewright's head, before Cenoc could prevent it. Dark blood splattered across floor and table but Cenoc merely pulled back in distaste, and commented, "Clumsy, Sevris... and wasteful. We needed only a few drops and now you've killed him."

Sevris was weaving now from more than the wine. He stifled a moan of terror at the sight of midnight green stains on his tunic. His eyes reminded Cenoc of a day's dead fish's, as he tried to focus on Cenoc's face.
"Didn't you want him dead? He was starting to talk about..."

"Peace, Sevris! Your mouth runs as much as his did. Would you like the same cure?"

"But why did you want him alive now?"

Ignoring Sevris' question, Cenoc turned to his aide, "Bring the keep-master back to his seat... You!" He pointed a finger at the closest man-at-arms in Sevris' livery. "Fill that goblet before the blood dries. And someone get a handful of that werebane."

He turned back to his host as Sevris sank awkwardly unto the cushions by his side. "It appears that you've splashed yourself quite thoroughly, Sevris."

Sevris looked down at his spattered robes of green and wiped at them ineffectually with one hand. He looked back up, silent terror in his eyes, and asked again, "Why didn't you want me to kill him?"

Cenoc gazed at his host distastefully, "I told you earlier. He would have served as a deterrent."

Sevris smiled happily, "I remember. Keep him alive and you'll always have wereblood handy to keep rebels and renegades in line... Cenoc, I feel strange."

Cenoc studied the keep-master, and snorted. He called to the page who was just leaving for the werebane. "Wait! Have someone help you carry Lord Sevris to his apartments. Then get the werebane. Looks like he needs it. You'd better summon Mittlis to deal with his cut."

He nodded in response to the startled youth's repeated nods, then shooed the page out with one impatient hand. Where was Beroc with that scullery thrall? Time for the next step.

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