Northern Heart, Home

Chapter I

The King’s Mead was a Guard pub, as much as any pub would declare itself open to one genre of patron. It was filled by palace guardsmen and Guards stationed in the capital and frequented mostly by officers. Guard discipline didn’t forbid the mingling of officers and regulars off-duty, but the majority found it easier to relax without issues of rank. The pub was a mile from the palace proper, well within Rylar’s double fortifications, between a brewery and a tailor for Guard uniforms.

The main room was dominated by a polished oak bar, dark from wax and spills, that blocked the entrance to the kitchen. The other half of the room was tables and benches and a fireplace that consumed a stack of logs. The spring night was cool and the fire was welcome.

When Allen arrived, he recognized several of the patrons but none of them were his goal. He circulated through the tables and checked the booths in the corners, but Kilin was not there.

He could have joined the tables of Guards and caught up on gossip and the Guards’ travels. The Guard was full of tales of patrols and distant lands. But he settled on an empty table near the bar and signaled the bartender. He would stake out the table here and wait for Kilin and the three lieutenants to arrive. The pub would fill and he preferred to have a table to themselves. Plus Kilin might bring more people.

He adjusted his falchion to hang comfortably by his side as he sat down. Outside of the palace, the Guard was expected to be at hand to aid the city watch, but it was rare that it was necessary. Rylar was fairly quiet as large cities went. Some of the cities along the Aela river would have benefited if they’d been even half as peaceful as the capital.

The barmaid arrived a minute later. She had long, curly brown hair and blue eyes. “Evening, lieutenant,” she said, without even a flick of her eyes towards the insignia at his collar. “What’ll it be tonight?”

Other than professional friendliness she had always been a bit distant, which was typical of the relation between the Guard and everyone else. It was part of being called, “The King’s Right Hand.” The Guard officers had the authority to investigate crime and to carry out the will of the King as they saw fit, without need for outside courts. Their training included the King’s Law and how to carry it out. Only the nobles were exempt from the Guard’s authority. They answered to the King himself.

The Guard’s authority was balanced by execution as the main punishment for a Guard officer who rebelled against his King or who abused his position.

It was a part of the charm of the pub that the staff knew the Guard ranks, which was a far sight better than most of the inns in town. Half the time the innkeeps called every officer they saw “Captain,” and it wasn’t worth the effort it took to explain the difference to them.

He ordered the mead and Mara stepped off to finish her rounds before she came back with a full cup of the apple and honey brew. He’d acquired a taste for mead since he’d arrived in the capital. The other Guards praised the qualities of beer, but to him it tasted as if it had been brewed through a pair of old socks. The available drinks in the North were usually ale, small beer, cider, and mead. Wine was available, but it was a southern drink and so he avoided it. Only nobles drank it in the north. It carried the stigma of being a product of Rylar’s traditional enemy. He’d tried it a few times on the Dhara and he could say that, unlike beer, wine was at least drinkable.

“Harilon has a pretty good batch this month. He mixed it up with raspberries.” Mara set the wooden mug on the table in front of him. He waved away the change she held out to him, and she gave him a quick smile before she was off to another table.

Before long, Jeuri arrived with Yeren and Tereil in tow. He caught her eye and waved the three of them over. Like Allen, they’d all changed into clean uniforms and were wearing their blades.

“Kilin should be here soon,” he said. “I’m not sure what he’s been doing today. Captain Ferril is over there by the way, on the left.” Allen nodded toward the bar where the Tactics instructor was sitting. He was sitting around the curve of the bar, and Allen had only noticed him after he’d sat down and looked around the room again. Ferril wasn’t visible from the door.

“Oh, great.” Jeuri glanced over her shoulder and grinned. “Time to hide.” That got a round of quiet laughter. When Mara came back, the three lieutenants ordered the beer and Allen winced. Maybe you had to be born here to have a taste for the stuff.

“If Ferril comes over here, we should hide under the table,” Yeren suggested. The third lieutenant was short and muscular, with close-cropped blond hair. He was the quietest of the group, but he sometimes burst out with exclamations that belied his usual behavior.

Beyond their small group, the atmosphere in the bar was fairly quiet. It was Alyssa, the first day of the week and also the first day of spring. The room was half-full of Guards in clusters. Most of them were young and probably in their first assignment to Rylar or recently returned from their first patrol, like Allen, but here and there an older face stood out.

Despite the relative peace of the bar compared to the training that afternoon, Allen began to feel an edge to the air as they waited. His skin was prickling, and he was aware of his blood rushing in his temples. He shook his head to get rid of the sensation, but it wouldn’t go away. It was difficult to focus on the conversation around him.

He was a bit tired, but he didn’t have a headache. He tried to focus on the conversation of the three lieutenants, who were still joking about classes and instructors. It was as if he were out of step with the people around him and he had the sensation of being made from bits of paper that swirled in an unseen wind.

He kept up with the conversation as best he could and the other three didn’t seem to notice anything different.

They finished off the first round and ordered another as Mara came around again, and moved on to talking about their hopes for their first patrols. But as time passed and he tried to ignore the sensation, Kilin still had not arrived, and it wasn’t like the lieutenant to be late. Not to a celebration. Especially not to one in his honor. It might not have been the kind of celebration the lieutenant could expect from his family, but Kilin insisted he didn’t like the trappings of his station. His father was Baron Vreis, a nobleman known for his extensive holdings.

Kilin might have been delayed, but the strange quality to the air in the room lent emphasis to Allen’s doubt.

His muscles began to twitch as he sat in the chair, and he gripped the edge of the table with an iron hand to still them. There was no sign of disturbance in the room; everyone was talking, drinking, and seemed to be in a good mood, even the three lieutenants at the table with him. Whatever was in the air, it looked like he was the only one who noticed it.

It wouldn’t have been the first time something strange had happened that only he could see or feel. It was ghosts and shadows mostly. Shades of places and things that didn’t exist, whispers at the edge of his hearing, flickers in the corner of his eye. He’d long before learned to associate it with the mark above his left eye. Whatever god had marked him, it didn’t seem content to leave him in peace.

Once, he thought it had saved his life. A pirate had sneaked aboard the Dhara in the night while he was standing guard. He had felt jumpy and ill-at-ease on watch. Then he’d felt the ivy above his eye curl and move under his skin. It had tugged at his gaze, and he had turned to see what was there. He had caught a glimpse of the pirate behind him, his clothes and features darkened to blend into the night and quietly raising his blade, and he had dodged just in time and shouted a warning.

This was different. The ivy mark seemed quiet. Just the air curled around him in stroking tendrils, alternately slow and quick, its substance parting as if blades sliced through it and brushed him with the breeze of their passage.

He was too jumpy to sit here and wait. He would go and see if Kilin was at their room, waiting for him, and look for him on the way to the palace. It was a direct shot up the street and if Kilin were out there he would find him.

The other lieutenants fell silent in their conversation as he stood up.

“Is something wrong?” Jeuri tilted her head at him, calm and smiling slightly. “We aren’t that boring are we?”

“Something doesn’t feel right,” he replied. “I’m going to look for Kilin. He should have been here by now. You three wait here, and if he gets here before I do, just wait for me. I’ll be back if I can’t find him.”

He headed out the door, and reflexively touched the hilt of the blade to assure himself it was still there. Who would willingly attack a Guard on the streets of Rylar? Even an unarmed one should have been too threatening for all but the most desperate of thieves. The King did not appreciate his Guards being attacked, and the penalties were harsh. Not to mention that even an unarmed Guard should have been capable of defending himself from common criminals.

Kilin was terrible with a blade and not much better at unarmed combat, but that still meant he was a far sight better than anyone without the Guard’s exhaustive training.

Allen moved rapidly up the well-lit Crown Street. Most of the shops were closed and shuttered for the night. Only the pubs and buildings offering other entertainments were open. The scattered light of the green lanterns that marked the doorways to those places of drinking and eating blended in with the yellow-white that hung from posts every ten paces.

Crown Street was large enough for three wagons to drive abreast, but reserved for foot traffic. At this hour it was barely half-full and patrons from the businesses along the street mixed and mingled in the crowd, men dressed in flowing shirts, tapered breeches, and boots of the north and women in long, narrow-waisted dresses with full bodices and long sleeves. Here and there he could see women dressed similar to the men. The women on the Dhara had worn vests and breeches. The clothing along the street was distinguished by a flood of various cuts, colors, embroidery, fine silks, and a mix of scarves and jewelry. Weapons rested on the hips of a few of the men.

Only the Guard, city watch, and the aristocrats were entitled to bear any weapon other than a belt dagger within Rylar, as in most cities of the North. Even the thieves knew better than to be caught with a sword and preferred to carry heavy truncheons and stilettos. The King was merciless in keeping peace, and if a thief were caught with a sword he would be flogged and set to hard labor.

As Allen searched the street, the evening flowed around him. He batted away a stray hand that brushed along his belt. Pickpockets were common in the city and the thieves were rarely caught. He’d learned long before while working for Raeli and visiting cities along the Aela to keep his belongings secure.

Kilin was nowhere to be seen in the crowd, and he arrived back at his room in the barracks with his left hand flexing and uncurling spasmodically around his sword hilt. There was something wrong. He knew it. He just didn’t know what it was or if it had anything to do with Kilin. But the missing lieutenant and the edge in the air was too coincidental for his liking.

He questioned the few people he found in the barracks, but none of them had seen the lieutenant since the promotion ceremony that morning.

On the way back along Crown Street, his boots rapped a fierce tattoo on the even cobblestones, echoing his building anger and frustration.

A faint noise from a darker alley came faintly to his ears as he passed one of the shuttered chandleries along the street. The sliding grate of wood on stone.

He ducked into the alley and shook his head at the lack of light in it. There should have been lanterns in it. He waited with his back to the street for his eyes to adjust.

Neat stacks of barrels and crates along the sides of the alley and a brick wall blocking the end of it shortly became visible. He hadn’t heard the noise again.

Then it was there, a grating sound accompanied by a human groan. It was coming from a stack of crates to his right.

Allen shoved empty crates out of the way, ignoring them as they smashed against the cobblestones. Beneath them was an arm.

He hurried as he threw more crates to the side, uncovering the body that had been concealed underneath. This was no drunk sleeping off the haze in the alley. Someone had stacked these crates here on top of the body.

He caught a glimpse of pale skin and dark hair and threw more crates out of the way until he uncovered the body, and discovered not one, but two people lying there beneath them, covered in blood that mixed with the darkness to conceal their features and stain their clothes.

Ignoring the additional injuries it might cause, he grabbed the first body and dragged it out of the stack of crates into the better light of the street.

He stood in consternation for a split second as he saw the face revealed in the light. Pale skin, long dark hair, features marred by purple and black bruises, and a Guard uniform in black and grey…. It was the girl he’d met at lunch. What had been her name? He thought for a moment and it came to him…Jaella. He shook his head. Who would have harmed her?

The next body he dragged out of the alley was one he recognized immediately. Red hair surrounded a bruised face, a little thin and angular, that was usually lit up with a mischievousness that belied its age. Kilin. His friend.

What had the two of them been doing together, and what had happened to them that they were left lying unconscious in an alley buried under a stack of crates?

He knelt beside them, ignoring the questions he wanted to ask, and held his ear to their chests to hear the beat of their hearts and the movement of their lungs, held the back of his hand near their faces to see if they were breathing. They were, in long, slow breaths.

Their bodies were covered in bruises, mottling their bodies, arms, legs, head. Blood was splattered over their clothing, but there were no open wounds. Whatever damage had been done to them, most of it had been blunt impact.

They would live, he thought, as long as they woke up. He couldn’t tell how badly they were injured, but he hoped there was nothing more serious.

He had to get them back to the barracks, and under the care of the physicians. They would do what they could.

A crowd had gathered around him as he examined them. The sight of a Guard dragging two other unconscious Guards out of an alley had been bound to draw attention. He sent two of the crowd for the city watch, and two others as runners to the palace.

Be Sociable, Share!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008 at 3:31 pm and is filed under A Northern Heart. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Chapter I”

  1. annoying Says:

    YAY! A new post!

    “Kilin’s should be here soon”; should Kilin have the apostrophe s after it? And I’m glad he’s alive.

  2. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Thanks for the catch. Fixed it.

    Excitement for this poor story? That’s what I like to see. 😉

  3. Ryan Says:

    Fun chapter. Attention to Allen’s thoughts and reactions, and more background and history really fills it out.

  4. Brent Says:

    This is a very enjoyable story. One small typo: “small beer” instead of “small bear”.

  5. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Haha. Fixed. That’s one of the more ridiculous typos I’ve had….

    Glad you like it. I’m getting better at this, I think.

  6. nabi al-raml Says:

    Yay! Seeing that there was an update has helped me overcome my jetlag. Nice chapter. I like that Allen has a ‘spidey sense’

  7. Chad-Writtenfire Says:

    Haha. I was thinking of the similarity to Spiderman when I wrote that, but Spiderman wasn’t where I got the idea. General precognition was. I was hoping it wouldn’t seem too similar. It’s not a perfect clairvoyance/precognition, like Peter Parker’s is. Whoever/whatever gave him the mark just sticks a hand in occasionally, and nothing too explicit.

  8. Robert Gould Says:

    Good chapter! I wonder what’s happening here… someone going round beating up women? Need the next chapter now 🙂

  9. nabi al-raml Says:

    No, it’s not too similar. Just probably the first referent most of us have. I often go to Dune, but Muad’dib’s prescience was a bit more clear. It’s nice to have things a little vague.

  10. anon y mouse Says:

    🙂 I’ll have a small bear, please. 🙂

Leave a Reply