Guardian of the Dawn, p.1William King
GUARDIAN OF THE DAWN
Copyright © William King 2005
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BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE KORMAK SERIES
Stealer of Flesh
The Terrarch Chronicles
The Serpent Tower
The Queen’s Assassin
The Inquiry Agent
GUARDIAN OF THE DAWN
“OPEN THE DOOR,” Kormak yelled. Blood seeped through his shirt, the wound in his side hurt, and he was dizzy from all the witchroot he had chewed for the pain. He needed to get inside soon. It was almost twilight and this, of all nights, was no time to be abroad.
He glanced back towards the darkening woods. At least there was no sign of his pursuers on the road. They were most likely safe indoors, hiding behind Elder signs, praying to the Sun to keep them safe from the terrors of the dark.
“Go away!” The voice from within was deep and rough, the accent that of a peasant farmer.
“You would turn away a fellow man on the night of the full moon?” Kormak said. “The Holy Sun will turn his face from your crops. Your cattle will be barren.”
“How do I know you are a man? It is twilight and we have had trouble with the Children of the Moon.” That would certainly explain the suspicion in the man's voice, Kormak thought. This land was close to the marches of the world where the Old Ones still disputed the borders with men.
“If I were a moondog would I be able to stand on the Elder Sign worked on your doorstone?” Kormak asked. It was just as well they could not see his blood dripping onto the crude five-pointed star. It was the worst of omens.
“He does not sound like one of them, father,” said another voice, lighter and less gruff than the first. There was a sound of cuffing and a cry of pain.
“What would you know about such things, boy? They can sound like anything they want.”
“Are you going to open this door or must I kick it in?” Kormak felt ashamed at making the threat but he needed to get inside to have a look at his wound. He needed to get his horse into a protected stable too. It must be rested, if tomorrow he was to outdistance the men who wanted to hang him for the murder of the Mayor of Sturmgarde.
“Recite the Sun’s Prayer!” shouted the man. It was an old superstition that the Moon’s children could not recite those words. Kormak had reason to know it was not true but now did not seem the time to share that knowledge. He spoke the words he had learned as a small child over thirty years ago.
The door swung open.
“Get in quickly,” said a voice. Kormak debated a moment whether he should draw his sword. The people inside might be armed and inclined to mischief. On the other hand, he saw no need to frighten them any more than he was going to. No lowlander was ever thrilled to see a dark-haired highlander come through his door, especially at twilight. Memories of the old wars were long.
He stepped into the gloomy fire-lit interior. Straw covered the floor. He ducked his head to avoid low beams. The place smelled of the pigs and dogs and humans who huddled there.
Kormak saw a man of medium height, middle aged, burly and yellow bearded. Behind the farmer was a woman, plump, face weather-lined. There was a boy, not past his thirteenth year, presumably the one who had spoken, and a girl, maybe five years younger, most likely his sister. Beside the window was another man, in his twenties, the eldest son or perhaps the wife’s younger brother. He held a pitchfork in his hand and he looked nervous enough to use it. The man who had opened the door had a heavy club. Kormak moved to give himself a clear space in case of trouble.
“Easy,” he said. “I mean you no harm. The Holy Sun smile upon you.” He ducked his head and made the Solar sign, keeping his eye on the men the whole time, not wanting to take a blow as he bowed.
The men relaxed a little. They had feared a monster. They had found a big man, garbed like every other landless mercenary, a sword on his back, blood seeping through a dirty linen shirt and dripping from the thick leather jerkin. “See to my horse and I will pay you copper.” He pulled a coin from his flat purse, letting them see how empty it was. No sense in giving them reason to murder him in the night.
The oldest of the men nodded to the boy. “Do it. We will keep an eye on the stranger.”
The boy headed through the door, torn by curiosity about what would happen next, a desire to stay and help his father in case of trouble, and fear of going out into the gathering gloom.
“Do it!” the father said. The boy jumped to obey.
“You are bleeding,” said girl. She sounded concerned.
“Bandits on the road,” Kormak lied, too smoothly for his own liking. He had become too well practiced at lying. “I took a wound but managed to cut my way free. My horse all but foundered carrying me here.”
“You look more like a bandit than their victim,” said the eldest son, half-defiant, half-afraid, from his place of safety by the window.
“I am a soldier,” said Kormak, hiding the greater lie in the lesser truth. In one sense he was a soldier. He just fought in a different war from the one these people would think of.
“A lot of you on the road these days,” said the farmer. “Now that the wars in the East have ended. Sometimes I wonder if it had not been better if the orcs had over-run us. They could not commit more robberies or killings than our own so-called defenders.”
It was always the same, Kormak thought. When the threat was there, people cheered and threw roses and called you a hero. When the threat was gone, they forgot and called you a bandit. “You know nothing of orcs if you can say that,” said Kormak.
“And you do?” said the younger man. There was the sneer again, but there something else there as well. Fear, most likely. Or perhaps envy. Many a boy had left his farm to go fight in the wars, but many had stayed behind and doubted their courage ever since.
“I do. If the greenskins were here, they would not leave your house standing, they would burn it…”
“Men would do the same, and they would do worse to our women…”
“Aye, cruel men might. But they would not take you for their herds.”
“Dead is dead,” said the eldest man. “Does not matter how it happens.”
You’ve never seen an orc herd, Kormak was about to say, but the will to argue spilled out of him. Why should he inflict tales of such horrors on these people? They had troubles enough of their own. They lived with fear all their lives, saw the barons take more than their share of crops in taxes, and were unable to raise their voice in protest. They had lived in terror of bandits, and of the Children of the Moon coming by night. Why add to the burden of their fears?
“You’re right,” Kormak said. “And I would be a fool to argue.”
That took them off guard. He suspected they were not used to politeness from the likes of him. “May I take a seat by your fire, I must see to my wound.”
The old man nodded. Kormak went to the fire and opened his shirt. He propped his scabbard against the hearth, making sure the blade was in easy reach and everybody knew it. The poultice he had bandaged in place earlier, before the pursuit had become obvious, formed a b
He took the needle and the catgut from his pouch and began heating the point in the fire. When it was red hot he let it cool. If he had wine he would have set the needle in it but he did not. The family watched him silently, fascinated by the action.
He pinched torn flesh together with thumb and forefinger and set to work. The needle goes in, he told himself, gritting his teeth. The needle comes out. It took him some time to finish but was easier than he had thought. The bitter witchroot he had chewed earlier was still in his system.
At least he had done something right today, he thought, and slumped wearily in the chair, stretching out his long legs. Things had gone very wrong back in Sturmgarde.
“That hurt like a bishop’s stomach after a banquet,” Kormak said.
The woman took the hint. She ladled out some broth into a wooden bowl from the cauldron on the fire and brought it over. He watched her warily, in case she suddenly cast its scalding contents into his face. He had seen men die from making simpler mistakes than letting their guard down with people like these. He did not intend that it should happen to him.
She made no sudden moves and presented the bowl to him with a small curtsey. He accepted it with thanks, and his shame grew when she returned with a small loaf. He had forced his way into these people’s home, and made them fear him, and they were treating him with more courtesy than he had any right to expect.
How had it come to this, he wondered? These were the people he was supposed to protect.
Then again, when he had taken his vows he had never expected to be hunted for murder either. Life had seemed so much simpler when he was a lad. He had thought he was going to be a hero. He had been a fool then, just like he had been a fool today when he had almost been killed performing what should have been a routine execution.
That thought brought the guilt back. Killing the man had been only right. The Mayor of Sturmgarde had sold his soul to the Shadow, and unleashed monsters by night to slay his enemies and secure his wealth. The townsfolk had not known it, of course, for he had been clever and hid his evil well. The man was powerful, and had rich friends in very high places and the Order's position in the King's favor was precarious enough these days so the judgment had to be passed in secret.
It should have been a simple, clean kill but he had made the mistake of taking his eyes of the Mayor when the eight year old had wandered into the room to show her father her new doll and found him standing with a stranger’s blade at her father’s throat. The look on her face, the sheer horror of it, had frozen Kormak for a second.
The mayor’s knife buried itself in Kormak’s side then. If it had gone in a quarter of an inch higher the rib would not have deflected it, and he would have died instead of the mayor. It was not a mistake he would have made ten years ago. He was getting soft.
The city watch had come bursting through the door in answer to the man’s terrified screams, but by then Kormak had spoken the sentence and done his job despite the little girls howled protests from the cupboard in which he had locked her.
He had thrown the mayor’s severed head at the guard and cut through them while they were distracted. A dive through the window and into the cobbled streets and he was racing through the town gates while the alarm bell was still being rung. He had thought he had made a clean getaway till he heard the pounding of hooves on the road behind him later that day and known that he must flee.
The youngest boy returned and moved over to a place by the fire, kneeling, warming his hands though it was not cold outside. His sister hunkered down beside him, hands on his shoulder, looking up at Kormak with big wide eyes. They were both blonde like their parents, their hair rough cut. Their eyes were blue and innocent.
“My father says you are a soldier,” said the boy. “You must have seen many wars.”
Only one, Kormak wanted to say, and all the other wars you have ever heard of are merely part of it. Instead he said; “Yes. I have seen wars.”
“Have you killed anybody?” asked the girl.
“I have killed too many.” He was going to say too many to count but somehow the words would not come out properly. The witchroot must be getting to him.
“Have you ever killed an orc?” asked the boy.
“He would tell you he had killed anything you ask,” said the eldest son. The sneer was there still, the fear too.
“I have killed a full grown Tyrant,” Kormak said. “I slew it at the field of Aeanar while men around me fled in terror, and crows feasted on the eyes of the fallen.”
The witchroot must have been stronger than he thought or he was more tired and slipped into a waking dream. For a moment he was back on the trampled field, dancing over the corpses, the dwarf-forged blade singing in his hand. The great orc, half again his height and many times his weight loomed over him, the scimitar of black iron, large enough to hew through a tree, poised to strike down on the neck of the fallen king.
Perhaps that day, he had been the man the boy he had once been had thought he was going to be. Perhaps, but by then he no longer believed in honor or wanted to be a hero. He had seen too much corruption and too much treachery and too much death.
He shook his head and concentrated on drinking the soup right from the bowl. It was hot, and full of potatoes and carrots, with some meat and some fat to add taste.
“Good,” he said to the wife of the house, hoping she would offer him more. She did not, so he began wiping the bowl with a chunk of bread.
“Could you kill a troll,” said the girl. There was an odd note of hope in her voice.
“Gerda,” said the woman. “It is best not to speak of such things lest the Children of the Moon hear you.”
“I was only asking, mother, and if this man could save me…”
Kormak’s heart sank. He had been half expecting this ever since he had heard the father’s words at the door. He did not want to go out into the night and face the monsters once more, but he had sworn an oath long ago, when he was still a boy and had wanted to be a hero. They had put a bright sword in his hand that day, and told him that he was one, and for a brief shining instant he had believed it was true. There were times when he thought he had lived his whole life in the long shadow cast by that one incandescent moment.
“Save you from what?” he asked.
“Something out there in the dark,” said the mother. “It took some of our cattle and we can hear it prowling in the night. Sometimes it calls to us. Telling us to send Gerda out. It says if we send her it will leave and let the rest of us live.”
Kormak stared into the fire, thinking of the other eight year old he had seen today. She had seen a monster. He kept his mouth firmly shut.
“How old are you, soldier?” The farmer asked.
“Thirty five. I will retire in seven years.”
“Nothing.” Kormak regretted his words immediately. Less than one in ten of his order lived through the long years of their term, and most of those were the crippled veterans who taught the next generation. The odds against his own survival were long and grew longer every year. Most likely he would never see the cloisters of Mount Aethelas again. So many of his oath year were already gone. Maera with her golden hair and lovely smile. Grim Solian. Snub nosed Rurik who had wanted so hard to be brave and had been right till the end…
And those were just the ones he knew about, for he had been sent to reclaim their swords, to take up their burdens, to kill the things that had killed them.
“You must be good with that blade.”
“I am.” And why should he not be? He had paid with his whole life to be good with it.
“Could you defeat a troll?” Kormak considered the matter. Trolls were among the toughest of the Moon’s Children. Some were tall as a house and could kill a bull with a single blow of their fist. Their skin was as hard as stone.
“Most men would simply say no.”
“I am not most men.” The farmer looked thoughtful.
“I heard a tale once- of an order of knights sworn to oppose the Shadow. It was the mark of their order that they carried a dwarf-forged blade- on their backs to symbolise the burden of their oaths. They were supposed to have the Dragon tattooed over their hearts as well.”
So he had seen the tattoo when he was looking at the wound. Kormak cursed the fact he had adjusted his sword belt so that the scabbard hung from his shoulder, but then, after all these years he never felt comfortably carrying it in any other way. An unspoken question hung in the air but did not hang for long.
“Do you carry a dwarf-forged blade, warrior?”
Kormak knew he could simply say no. The moment would pass. These people would most likely be safe anyway behind the Elder Signs on their walls. They would never give up their daughter to make the thing in the darkness go away, would they?
And he was tired, weary from the wound. More than that. If truth be told he was tired of fighting, of killing. Mortally tired. If he said nothing, he could stay here by the fire for the night, and quietly slip away in the morning. Nobody would be any the wiser except himself. For a moment that he wanted to do that more than anything in the world but the oath held him, the words of a boy stronger than the fear and weariness of a man. “I do.”
“Then I ask of you this boon- protect us from the terrors of the night. Watch over while we sleep. Guard us, the children of the Sun, from the children of the Moon.”
All their eyes were locked on him. Fear and hope shone in them. The words were spoken according to the rite. He could not refuse. He gave the ritual reply.
“I will guard you,” he said. “This trust I will keep or this burden die carrying. Should I fail my brothers will take it up. On this I give my word.”
He finished bandaging his wound and, weary though he was, picked up his sword once more. "I cannot stay to ward you so I will rid you of the monster this night."
Guardian of the Dawn by William King / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes