The Age of Heroes was ending. Metal screamed across a twisted landscape. Spirits fluttered in their lantern cages as Edward sped along the highway. Overgrown fields passed him by. Scorched battlefields, Collapsed buildings and places fouler still were background to his quest. Born of steel, his steed spat fire as its wheels devoured the ancient road. Edward patted the arcane beast’s flank, looking ahead to the past. Skeletal spires split the mauve sky. Englitch had forged their cities from black steel, though never so black as their hearts. The beams of ancient searchlights roved the skyline. They had for a thousand years, as they would for a thousand more. Their infernal contractors bound in perpetuity. This was more than some demon haunted ruin. This was home. No wonder Edward wasn’t happy about it.
No one went thirsty in Pascolo. A throat going dry had only to open its mouth. Not that this fact was appreciated. Travellers crowded under the overhangs outside the city wall, edging each other out for the dry spots. Labourers rubbed shoulders with traders, heroes with vagabonds, though few could tell the difference. There was a begrudging acceptance among the crowd, everyone hated the weather. Beggars were the only ones that dared the rain, going from group to group in search of a stray crust or a pitying noble too much coin. A pair of them walked along the edges, rain running through the holes in their caps, bare feet slapping off wet stone.
“Scuse me. Can you spare a bite?”
The old man looked up from a bowl of rice, leaving down his fork. He sniffed loudly.
“Why don’t ye get a job and earn it.”
The city was the desert. Yllen understood that now. She sat in ruins of a bazaar, its walls collapsed by time. The midday sun burned in the sky and forced all travel to a standstill. Except for the hiss of sand, there was no sound. This fact refused to make sense. People were noisy. Especially her people. She should have heard Krud’s bellows or Gundrea’s girlish scream. She should have heard boots striking the earth. Hell, she would have given anything for the bandits to attack again. Anything for a reminder of human contact.
She swallowed, tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth and let her eyes close stretching the edges of awareness. There beneath the sand’s hiss, she heard a chirrup. Her eyes opened slightly and she crawled toward the sound. She caught a glimpse of a dark body almost three inches long, its legs rubbed together, producing another chirrup. Yllen exhaled slowly. She pounced on the cicada. The insect slipped from her sweaty palms, flitting toward the shade. Yllen chased after it, catching it on the second stride. This time she ripped the wings off, hanging onto it as her stomach girded itself. It didn’t taste that bad.
It was at the end of the age of heroes on a brisk autumn morning that Edward descended upon the settlement of Ketchiwan. His invasion force consisted of an old man and a teenage girl. In his defence the girl was pretty handy with a broom.
Ketchiwan was a dirty little town. Herds of cattle thronged the streets, yelled at by poky men with heavy rods. The smell was overwhelming, what could you expect from nervous cows. It was enough to make Yllen’s eyes water. Today was market day and the topic of conversation was money. Everyone they passed argued over money. The herders complained about the price of a head. Fur clad hunters swore at steak-necked merchants. It seemed to her that the very town was at war, all for a couple of coppers. She travelled in Edward’s wake. The thin, pale warrior rarely had trouble with traffic and those dumb enough to stumble into his way were treated to a whack of his stick, be they man or beast. Gundrea was somewhere, sometimes to her left, sometimes behind. His cheerful chatter merged with the cacophony.
They reached one of Ketchiwan’s squares, more of a circle, occupied by a dead tree laden with trophies. Here the hunters boasted of their kills and displayed the tongues of basilisks or fangs of smilodons. Among these men were legends of their own and Yllen was drawn to listen. However her attention was commanded by Edward, his eyes black pools beneath his helmet.
“Do you feel it?” he growled.
Yllen tested the ground with her feet “No.”
“She calls from beneath the earth, an ancient turning in her sleep.”
Yllen listened. Perhaps there was.
Gundrea’s hand landed on her shoulder “Did you hear that? Oxtails three a piece! We could eat meat tonight for that money.”
Edward sighed and Yllen shared in his distaste. She turned to regard Gundrea, his expression fixed in a vague amiability.
“Can’t you hear it?”
Edward planted his stick into the dirt “We have arrived, old man.”
Gundrea nodded “I guess this is goodbye.”
“You’re a fool and I hope someone throws you off a cliff.”
Gundrea chuckled “I’ll miss you too, lad. It’s been quite a time.”
Edward faced them, coldly inspecting Gundrea. He spoke to Yllen.
“That you follow him speaks to your patience, to say nothing of your other qualities.”
Yllen felt her cheeks redden but there was something going on she wasn’t being told about. “Are you going?”
“This was our agreement, your master and I. As far as Ketchiwan.”
“We could go further.”
Awkwardly Edward patted her head “Stay safe.”
She glared at Gundrea “Why is he going? We could go on with him further.”
“Could, but I ain’t keen on being mildly eviscerated.”
Edward patted his stick “My travels from here will be far too dangerous for a child.”
“What about a warrior?” Yllen brandished her broom in what she hoped was a threatening manner.
“I will hear no more of it,” and that was that. It was hard to argue with Edward. His face screwed up until he looked about to cry.
Yllen looked sullen a moment but brightened as she thought of a last request “Before you go, could I at least have my own demon?”
Gundrea navigated away from the square, avoiding the animal masses. Yllen lagged behind, stroking the small furry body in her hands.
“Are you really going to keep that?”
“Edward said it could be my demon familiar. He knows the world’s secrets.”
Gundrea counted the ramshackle huts “It’s a rat.”
“It’s better than a broom.”
“Hmm, can it make us money?”
Yllen held up the rat, staring deep into its rodent eyes “Can you?”
Gundrea grabbed her arm, pulling her toward a building not so much built as grown from a collection of lean-tos. He pushed in the door and entered an inn, or to the locals a beerhole. The floor was a mixture of boards and vomit. Two workmen slaked their thirst with watery ale. The seats were tree stumps and the counter barrels with a board across them.
Gundrea made his way on over “Top of the morning to ye, lass!”
Only Gundrea could have gotten away with referring to the woman behind the counter as a lass. Anyone else would have been furniture by now. Indeed she reached for a chipped axe, left casually beside a barrel.
“I’m here to see your bossman, Vagolo the Knave of Knaveton.”
Her hand grasped the axe “Dad’s been a dead five years.”
Gundrea boggled “Whaat, Old Vaggy? Did he at least go out armwrestling a bear?”
“Diarrhoea,” she said, flatly.
Gundrea’s mouth twitched “What a sod. Did he happen to mention any buried treasure ‘afore he died?”
“Forget I mentioned it. But I remember you now, missie. Vagolo always went on about his daughter.”
The woman’s brow peaked and Gundrea hid a grin.
Yllen ended up fetching sawdust, helping to lay it on the floor and cleaning the back rooms, what few there were. By the time she and Gundrea were done it was late afternoon and the inn had gone from a hideous pit to at least a presentable one. Gundrea had regaled the tender with tales of her father in the idle moments and by the end she insisted on not only putting them up but even paying them ‘for her old dad’s sake, now about this buried treasure’. So it was in that late afternoon with the bar slowly filling up Yllen found herself with nothing to do. And Gundrea, apparently so good with people, made his first mistake of the day.
The road bounded the woods. Or perhaps the woods bounded the road. No one stopped to check. Two carts rattled along, laden with tin and tents. There was no room to ride, so the people walked instead. Children danced between wary parents, tearing at each other’s patchwork clothes. The adults talked little, eyes fixed on the horizon. These were people with little and little left to fear. Limping amongst them, one had not even that.
“I think it’s going to rain,” declared Gundrea.
“It is raining master,” said Yllen.
“I mean I think it’s going to rain more,” He sidestepped, elbowing a woman. “What do you think?”
She ignored him.
Gundrea shrugged and tried the man on his other side “How about you?”
Edward glanced up at the sky, his face wreathed in shadow. The rain went in his eye.
A door creaked. Begrudgingly, the abandoned inn admitted a torrent of rain. A figure tumbled in, dropping his broom to kiss the floor.
“Sweet mercy, dry land!”
He was followed by a girl. A woman. She was at that precocious age where she looked like neither and acted like both. The last of the trio stepped inside, only to be sprayed as the girl shook water from her overcoat. A tall, reedy presence, he sighed, allowing the wet to cascade from his expensive cloak. His tired gaze swept over the common room, settling on an unlit hearth.
Yllen hopped after him, still trying to get the rain off.
“Sorry-” she began, only to be interrupted by a chair.
“Bring that with you. It’ll make good kindling."
Pausing only to rub her shin, she dragged the chair over. Gundrea picked himself up off the floor and for lack of anything else to do, began sweeping.
“Here, this place was packed last year. What happened?”
“They retired to live long happy lives no doubt,” said the thin man. His cloak drew back, revealing armour referred to in the ancient tongue as a speedo. Yllen set the chair down. They called him Titanslayer but he’d told her to call him Edward. He tore apart the chair, tossing the pieces on the hearth.
Yllen abandoned her soaking overcoat and tried to coax some warmth into her hands.
“Here lass, you’re shivering something awful.” Gundrea put his arm around her. He smelled of dust.
“I’m alright.” She appreciated the warmth though and dallied before standing away. Gundrea just gave her the same wrinkled, knowing grin he always did. He looked ancient but wasn’t really, probably.
Edward focused on the hearth. He arranged the broken chair pieces like someone building a watch. Only when satisfied did he intone “Spirit of fire, by the compact of my people I call you to account and request payment of your debt.”
A tiny spark settled on the wood. It sat there until it died. Gundrea produced a tinder box. Edward took it grumbling. “That normally works.”