Saga - Prologue I: Gone Away

SAGA

The Empire Falling Chronicles

 

Prologue I: Gone Away

 

            The strong arms of her guardian held her tight to his chest, his breathing swift but rhythmic as he kept pace through the streets of Aster’s Port.  The street looked very different by night; the windows barely providing light to the streets and those few braziers that lit the road were being avoided lest they be spotted by their pursuers.

            Old Wesley, as that was what she knew him as, though remained unsure as to his actual age, did not fumble a footstep, each foot fall was placed with sure, military confidence.  But she could see by the scant light that draped across his face from time to time as they passed alley openings or by low windows that Old Wesley was silently crying; no words of childish bravery nor consolation was necessary, but for her to see this older man, older than her father, weep in to the night air as he slipped through the alley ways with considerable ease, was definitely a learning experience; no other member of her father’s guard had been as loyal for nearly as long as Wesley.  He had been her bodyguard when her dad had been informed that some men wanted to kill him and he had been there when one of the kitchen boys had thrown something at her.  She remembered the way that Old Wesley had been in the courtyard when the men had arrived and the way that he had spoken to them; without an ounce of fear nor an ill word to say of any of them.  Old Wesley was a soldier and a good man, but most importantly, he was someone that she felt safe with.

            He was also the last person that she felt safe with; as the young girl clung to her guardian, she watched the flickering orange glow expand over the rooftops of the keep above them.  That had been her home all of her life.  That had been where her mother and father had once lived and where Old Wesley and all of her friends had been situated during the fighting three years previously.  All of those nights in front of a much smaller fire, while her parents and their friends ate and drank and exchanged stories of the days during the Imperial Civil War as it had managed to reach this small island.  She recalled the way that her father and Old Wesley had exchanged words over the old table in the dining room whilst it was covered in maps and the odd goblet, considering strategies in which they could defend the keep as marauding conscripts from the mainland tried to take the shores and then laid siege to the keep.  Her oldest brother had fought and died with both of them during that conflict.

Old Wesley had managed to save their second son only a day later with some considerable aplomb, according to a couple of the men at arms who had witnessed him in action, and now it appeared that he was fulfilling that role once more, for in one foul night men managed to over run and kill so many of the keep that now only two remained, save for the young lad that Wesley had sent ahead of him, silently saying a prayer that both the tide was in and that a boat would be ready for them.

Somewhere around them they could hear continued fighting, as though some of the militia from the keep that lived in the town around it had taken up their swords and axes in response to what appeared to be an invasion.  As soon as he heard the sounds of battle, Old Wesley placed her back to the floor and scanned around the alley way.

“Keep moving, young ‘un.  Keep movin’ to th’ dock.  Do you remember Justin Bayman?”

She nodded quickly and awaited his further instruction.

“Well, Justin’ll be our Captain t’night.  Soon as you see him, you go to him.  Do you understand?”

She nodded again but a clatter from above diverted her attention and gave Wesley the warning he required.  Two figures fell from above toward them from the rooftops around the alley and the sudden commotion made her fall backwards to the floor, scrabbling for the corners of the alleyway.  She watched as the two silhouettes blocked out the light from behind, plunging the alley in to further darkness and then merged with the form of Wesley.  In the scattered rays of light that burst through as the black forms moved abruptly and raggedly, for a moment she saw an assassins arm rise, brandishing a cruel, serrated blade that shone briefly and then fell sharply.

She did not dare cry out lest the assassins saw her in the shadow and she glanced about to see if the path was clear to the harbour, but as she turned back to see if she could safely start running, she watched as the fight came to a sudden and brutal finale.  With uncanny swiftness for a man of his apparent age and build, Old Wesley had seized the blade from the assailants hand with a twist and sharp blow to the elbow, then dropped to one knee and brought the blade back round in to the second attackers abdomen.  Without pausing, he then pulled himself up again and plunged the blade deep in to its original owner.  With a final cut, Wesley granted the second man a warriors’ death.

As the two bodies hit the floor, Wesley turned and looked directly at her.

“The next time you hear a noise, run faster girl.  Run and I will catch up.”

Again, she nodded and got to her feet.  They turned back to the alleyway and ran for the harbour.

 

*****

 

Ackar, the first mate, glanced around to Justin and said quietly enough so that none of the other men heard,

“Who’d have thought that stone that old would burn so well?”

“For those that are in that dead within, it should burn with a purity that only the Gods could truly appreciate.” Justin replied.

Quickly surveying the others around them, Ackar then ventured,

“I needn’t tell you that the men are getting more wary.”

“Then don’t.  There is man coming that owes me a debt and I want to ensure that he pays me back.”

“That must be some debt.”

Justin merely nodded as he watched the docks, scanning them carefully.  From the right, toward the Mouldy Flagon, there were the cries of battle and another fire started in the rooms above.  Many a good night had been spent in that establishment, and the odd bad one, but generally Aster’s Port was a good place to get a little peace and quiet from the torments of the main land.

To the left there was an eerie stillness that made even the massive frame of Ackar shudder.  Some of the crew had headed in that direction when they had been given shore leave or to collect supplies, but out of those few, only a couple had returned with no tell of what had happened to their fellows.  Dusk had fallen over them and it was to their left that the sky was at its darkest hue, the smoke from other blazes that had been set further in to the alleyways crept out of the darkness like a steady sea fog but blacker and more oppressive.

“Lest this man come quick, that debt will be meaningless.” Ackar’s impatience and nerves were getting the best of him.

Justin looked at his first mate,

“I understand your fears, but we can be gone quickly enough – the tide is in our favour and there’s a wind on the rise.  We’ll be out to sea before the sun fully sets.”

“Aye, captain.” Justin’s words gave just enough reassurance.

“Ackar?” the captains’ voice was now quite audible, “We’re not waiting long.”

“Aye captain.”

            The first mate made his way back to the rudder and was quickly replaced by one of the oarsmen; a new lad that he had picked up only a couple of weeks ago as a favour to a friend.  The young man who had not yet needed to shave said, with a shake to his voice that he obviously did not intend to show,

            “Captain, the other passenger…”

            “What of him?” Justin retorted.

            “He’s clambered up in to the crow’s nest with that bow of his.  Told Dunnig not to go back up there till we were back out to sea.”

            Justin glanced up to the crow’s nest and watched the hooded man take a stance and notch his first arrow.  He could not see the man’s face but he knew what hid within the man’s eyes.  He had heard of his reputation long before he had ever had the chance to meet him and his reputation left many a sturdy man nervous.  He had approached the captain himself and paid handsomely in advance.  He had also imparted that they left in something of a hurry.  For Justin and the crew of The Sea Hag, this was not the first town that they had needed to leave in a hurry; the archer had been accurately informed that the town was going to be set upon in a very similar fashion to that of Aster’s Port.  The connection was obvious; both towns were members of the House of the Eternal Sun.  The Dukes of Aster had long served the Eternal Sun and the current Duke was no different in his allegiance but had become particularly popular with the Council at King’s Walk so it made a certain sense that he would make an obvious target.  What frightened Justin was that the same force had moved so quickly to take more ground and had still managed to keep their identity secret.  An unknown army was removing one of the most powerful Houses that the Old Imperium had to offer with a deftness that was not unlike a coup de grace.

            “Leave him up there.” Justin turned his eyes back to the oarsman, “A man like that’s more use to us doing what he does best.”

            “And what does a man like that do best?” asked the lad.

            “Amongst other things, he is a man born and bred to the bringing of death.  If your father or mother ever gave you advice to watch out for a person to avoid, Mikata, then that man is the definition of such a person.”

            Mikata looked back up at the archer and then replied,

            “It doesn’t take that much to avoid a man like that.”

            Justin stared at the boy for a moment and then smiled,

            “No.  No I suppose he doesn’t, does he…  Get back to your post, lad, we’re getting out of here now.  Let Masark judge who is fit to survive the night.”

            The boy turned away and made his way to the starboard flank, gathering rope along the way.  Justin watched as his crew prepared The Sea Hag for a swift departure and then turned his gaze back out to the docks.

 

*****

 

            Wesley covered her eyes as they crossed the street.

            The elderly man at arms and Quartermaster to Duke Aster had served on several battlefields before entering in to the service of his noble employer and then he had managed to fight again on different circumstances.  His work oft more difficult now than it ever had been as a soldier since, at the end of the day, as a soldier he only needed to take lives as opposed to protect them.  It had only been a few hours ago that Duke Aster had summoned Wesley to his private chambers where both he and his wife sat quietly, the Duke already suited in armour.  It was the look in his eyes and the complexion of his wife that told Wesley everything that he needed to know; the night was going to bring blood.  Before the Duke, lying on the stone floor, was a crumpled paper that had brought the word of what was to befall the keep and all within it.  Friends of the House of the Eternal Sun had managed to impart a message to the Duke concerning the impending attack but with so little time, the invading force would already be within the walls.

            “Treachery, m’ lord?” Wesley had asked.

            “Not within Eternal Sun.  I have received word that there is a quiet mercenary force that has been hired from the provinces south west of the Silent Trees.  They have been acquired by a rival of the House.”

            Wesley watched in quiet anger as the Duke rose and made his way over to his weapon rack.  He looked each of the weapons over and chose his father’s crested long sword, his own broad sword that he had forged himself on the day prior to his wedding and the knife that he had been given by his oldest son.  He sheathed each of them in a careful manner while his wife silently cried, knowing the night would likely be a short one.

            “Your orders, m’ lord?” Wesley asked.

            “Old friend, you have been loyal to me from the first day that you entered my service and you have done me a great many services that, despite whatever wealth and power I may have had, will never see you fully receive my true appreciation.  You have managed to gallantly secure my family, our home and this House from foes that would see harm done unto us above and beyond the call of duty.

            “Tonight we will be breached and the keep of Aster’s Port will fall, of this I have been assured by powers above even myself.  Armies have marched upon other keeps and castles and slowly Eternal Sun will vanish once and for all.  I see no reason why you should fall with this House.”

            Wesley did not attempt to contain his anger.  Instead he released it in the only way that he could given the situation,

            “M’ lord, Duke.  If you’ll beg m’ pardon, but unless that note’d be tellin’ you that the King’s Ghost ‘imself was t’ be whiskin’ me off out of arrows reach, then I kindly be stayin’ right where I am with a clutch o’ servants so they’d be moppin’ up after me as I carve me way through the fools that’d be walkin’ through your halls…  M’ lord.”

            Wesley managed to finish his dedication with a grin that revealed the teeth that he had lost during a couple of his nastier excursions and it did him good to see Lady Aster chuckle as he politely informed the Duke of his intentions.

            “And I would be beside you,” the Duke returned, “were it not that my last order to you is something of a different nature.  My dearest Isabella and I have lost two children, one to this dirty business, and would ask that we did not lose our last.”

            Old Wesley dropped to his knees and bowed his head low, despite promptings from Aster to rise,

            “You’re a cunning man, m’ lord.  Had you commanded me any other reason to leave you this night I have to sadly say that I would for the first time have disobeyed you.  As you have commanded, I shall take Tanya to a safe place, far from here.”

            Seeing that Wesley was not about to stand, Aster took hold of Wesley’s shoulder and whispered to him,

            “Now please stand and face me as you would face another man.  I am hardly your equal in any right and you would be doing me a great honour to appreciate your smile one last time.”

            Lady Aster had stood and gone behind the curtains and retrieved Tanya while the Duke and Wesley spoke their last.  Wesley had also summoned one of the serfs and informed them to run a message down to The Sea Hag for Captain Justin.  The attack came earlier than was anticipated, but Wesley had made these preparations years in advance in case he was ever to escort a cadre of people out of the building.  To get himself and one other out of the keep was by far easier.

 

*****

 

But that had been a while ago and the events had swiftly become more and more ugly as the evening progressed.  He had lifted the young girl once again and was shielding her senses from the horrors that lay in the gutters of the street and placed her back down as they managed to get back in to the alleys.  They quickly traversed the darkness and finally reached the wharf.  The Mouldy Flagon was in flames and men were fighting at the edge of the docks.

            It was Tanya that spotted the boat first and pulled on Wesley’s hand.  He grinned and jogged along side her hurried pace when from the alley way opposite the boat darted more of the assailants.  Tanya didn’t need to be told: her first reaction was to speed up and rushed down the harbour to the gang-plank.  Wesley quickly hefted a lobster cage from the side and lobbed it amongst them.  It did very little good apart from force one of them to knock it aside.  The old guard watched in dismay as one of the fighters pulled back on a short bow, aiming quickly for anything on Wesley, only to be sent careering in to one of his accomplices as an arrow slammed directly in to his chest, sending his arrow wildly out in to the water.  Another arrow from on high quickly followed and felled the last of them with a clean shaft through the neck.

            Wesley didn’t pause for a second glance – he assumed that there was an archer in the crow’s nest and he would be thanking him with plenty of drinks a little later.  He too arrived at the gang-plank only to glance back up the dock and see many more men heading toward the boat, attracted by the cries of the second man that had not yet been injured.

            “Agart’s Teeth!” Cursed Justin, “They’re on to us!  Men; arm yourselves!”

            “Nay!” Wesley bellowed, pulling a purse from his belt and, with an over-arm throw, passed it to Justin, “That’s passage for the girl and myself, plus a little extra.  Now give me a weapon and I’ll pay off my debt too!”

            To confirm to Justin what he was doing, he kicked the gang-plank off the side and in to the water.  There was not a word spoken by Justin as he drew a scimitar and a short blade and passed them over the side of the boat to the veteran.  One of the enemy closed in on Wesley as he picked up the weapons only to be stopped in his tracks by an arrow that struck with such force it propelled them in to the salty water.  Wesley looked up this time to salute the cloaked figure.  The figure nodded back to him and notched another arrow and sent it with deadly accuracy without seeming to aim.

            “Justin!  See to it that the girl is safe.  If anything happens to her, I’ll come back to drag the perpetrator to the Halls of Agart personally!”

            With that, Old Wesley turned and walked slowly up the dock to meet the first of the darkly garbed fighters.  When he closed to his last ten or so paces, Wesley gave out a roar and raised both weapons, watching as some of the assailants were throwing grappling irons over the edge of the ship, and surged in to them, allowing his weight and prowess to cleave in to their over-whelming number.

            Ackar hacked at the roped irons with a hand axe and freed them up before they had even gone taut.  Justin, Ackar, Tanya, the archer and the crew of The Sea Hag watched as Old Wesley disappeared in to the throng.  Mikata spoke a brief prayer for the man he had never had a chance to meet but was to learn about from Tanya over their voyage back to the mainland, across the Sleeping Sea.  She didn’t get to speak to the archer, although she really wished she could have had the chance to thank him for what he had done, Justin had advised against it, along with Mikata telling her stories.

            The Sea Hag was a good place for Tanya but, despite befriending Mikata, and Justin keeping a constant vigil on her, she now no longer felt safe with anyone.