Out of the Shadows #1

1. BEASTS

For a brief moment, I hesitated. Indecision is such a human trait. We all become caught on the hooks of our indecision at one time or another, some more so than others. It is a facet that sets us apart from the beasts. It was a beast that I was facing. It suffered no such indecision but acted on instinct, as I had anticipated it would. The snow tiger pounced and I danced aside, loosing the hooked net.  The tiger buried itself in the centre, its impetus thrusting it into the mesh. The trap closed about it and the great animal struggled impotently before it finally lay still, its great chest rising and falling, the snarling subsiding to a threatening rumble.  I was not taken in for one moment.  I knew, not only because I had been taught and had to repeat it over a thousand times but also because I had seen first hand what happens to a man who underestimates the power and the savagery of the beast. I did not loose the net but stood my ground.

There was a brief round of clapping and I looked back to the mounted figures. The two guardsmen lowered their crossbows. I looked up into my father’s face, his grizzled beard with its white streaks, frosted by the cold and snow. He pushed back the sable hat and laughed, clapping his heavy fur gloves together;

“Well taken. Like an old hand”

“Why does Edmund always get to make the catch? Why couldn’t I trap the tiger? I know how to do it, father, I wouldn’t flinch.”

Leopold, my half brother whined, pressing his horse forward between my father and his cousin, the steward, Hildebrand.

“You would not have flinched, I know that, Leopold. You are a Von Tacchim and we do not flinch. Not from anything. But Edmund was ready. You will be soon, but not yet. Come, bring Edmund’s tiger and we shall ride home.”

The hunting party divided and I watched as four of my fathers’ hunters prodded at the noble beast until one struck with the point. The great tiger slowly closed its eyes as the poison did its work;

“Put him on the sled. He’ll be out for hours”, I heard the rough voice of Lancingor. He was one of the men who had taught me, prepared me for this moment. A tall, lean man of few words, he was more at home in the wild or with the animals than he was with people. I stamped snow off my boots and then took my knife and standing on one leg at a time, cleaned out the gap between the grips before I remounted my own horse. I got a nod of approval from Finnmeyer and that pleased me, too. 

Swinging up onto the white mare, I took the reins and turned her head for home. My eldest half brother, Frederick rode up beside me, “Well caught Edmund. You handled that better than I did on my first solo” He smiled and reached out to slap my shoulder. I grinned back.  Frederick would be duke, one day. He would be a good duke, I told myself and I’d be happy to serve him.

The ride home was exhilarating. I galloped ahead with Finnmeyer and Frederick. Leopold tried to keep up but we took the short way, down the hill, through the woods, threading through the trees at barely less pace than in the open. He fell back, then, as did the rest of the party, which went around the wood by the main trail. The three of us flung up snow and laughed as we came crashing out of the pines and back onto the snow bound road. Falkeberg towered above us, its conical towers soaring into the grey-white winter sky. Ahead, the road wound as it rose, curling like a sleeping serpent about the three levels until it reached the fourth and there, its head became the rampart, its eyes, the two arched windows which overlooked the approach from the towers squatting on each side of the road and its jaws, the great black Eisentor, the city’s main gate. In the cold winter breeze, the pennants on the gatehouse towers seemed to flutter in panic like birds caught upon a vampire-thorn. From where we had pulled up our horses, I tried to make out the coat of arms on the fourth one that flew over the gates. That pole had been empty when we left. With the continual stinging of sleet and the darkening sky, it was hard. It had a deep crimson ground with what appeared to be a mailed fist with wings.

“So, he is here” I turned. My father had caught us up and was sitting astride his black destrier, his breath coming in short icy pants. “What you did, there was dangerous, Edmund, Frederick. Leopold might have followed you, been hurt. Life is not a series of games. You, Frederick, will be duke, one day, if you don’t knock your head off on a low hanging branch, first.”

He frowned but it was clear that it was not our exuberance that was the cause of his sudden moodiness.

“Lancingor!” He turned his horse and rode back to the sled where the main party came along, behind. “Loose the beast. Let it return to the woods.”

“My lord?”

“You heard me. Loose the beast and when it recovers drive it towards its home”

My heart sunk, a little. I had been looking forward to the admiring glances of the young maidens and Viktor’s excitement when he came dashing out to see if we had trapped a snow tiger. I looked back at my father. He must have known. He swung in his saddle;

“Now, Edmund. I know you wanted to show him off before you let him run free but you don’t know our guest. The Baron would want him as a gift for some barbaric abuse and, as his host, particularly a host instructed by the Emperor to win over this man, I could not refuse. Better the tiger goes free, here. It does not deserve to be the plaything of a Drachefauste.”

“Drachefauste? Here?”  I had heard many sounds in Finnmeyer’s voice but never this one. It was heavy with a bitter hatred. He almost spat the words as if he had too much contempt for his mouth to let it speak them. My father nodded. “And we are to make an ally of him for the Empire.” No emotion. He spoke softly and flatly, his disguised voice as we called it, when he didn’t want us to know what he thought of something. I had practiced and practiced that voice without success. One day, I promised myself, I would master it, too.

“That, an ally?” Finnmeyer swung away. The set of his shoulders spoke louder than further words. He did not speak again as we rode home. Now he wore a dark mask over his usually cheerful features. It was turning into a day of storms and showers as Nan Weiskuchen would say.

There was more to come.  Viktor did not come running through the snow to meet us as we rode in at the gates and along the tunnel beneath the great gatehouse. He stood on the palace steps looking uncomfortable in a high collared and starched formal jacket alongside the countess, Francesca De Valdeyez, my father’s official wife. She held my youngest half-sibling, Diana, by the hand. To her left, Herlenbrand stood, looking equally uncomfortable in formal wear as Keeper of the Ducal Seals. His powerful frame, balding head and scarred face looked somehow out of place in anything but armour. A veteran of several imperial wars, he, like my Uncle Raef, was here to remind Drachefauste of our military heritage.  On his right stood the handsome and dashing figure of Raef Von Tacchim, Duke of Littesburg, my father’s cousin, his light blue and grey uniform of the Littesburg Guard worked in silver and bearing medals from the various battles and wars he had fought for the Empire. Although his dark hair was touched with silvery grey as were his moustachios, he still looked every bit the hero of Augsbrendel. He was the man I would most like to have emulated, in my imagination, leading cavalry charges and fighting famous actions. His wavy hair was long, the majority bound in a plaited queue by a single band of gold down his back. He wore his soft, grey, leather gloves, one rested upon the fine duelling blade at his side, the other hanging loose. My father took them in with a glance and I knew he would be able to recall the scene at an instant with his amazing memory. He leaned towards me and whispered, “put up your hood and stay back with the hunters.”

Now my heart was as low as my boots. So, I was not to be presented. I was to be hidden away. A bastard. Son of a concubine. 

“Edmund, listen” I heard my father’s voice cut through my self pitying distraction “I don’t want Drachefauste to see you. Just a precaution.  I don’t want him to mark who you are.”

At the time, I didn’t understand that. I do, now.

Lord Goran Drachefauste emerged from the gatehouse, where, no doubt, he and his entourage had been waiting to be officially welcomed.  If ever there was a man around whom darkness hung, it was this man. He wasn’t really a big man, physically but you felt he was a big man. He was relatively tall, maybe six feet or just over and overweight so that he gave an impression at once of solidity and of power. Wrapped in the furs of wild animals over gleaming plated and chain mail, the colours he wore were all sombre, even the crimson cloak on his back. Under one arm, he carried a great helm with a fist crushing a dragonet, its tail writhing from the bottom of the hand, the crushed neck curled back, the head with eyes closed wearing an expression that conveyed agony.  It was symbolic. He had crushed the army of Emperor Varilus III and some say he had personally slain the emperor on the field of battle.  For nine more long years, Varilus’ successor, Prilemus I had tried to conquer and subjugate Raga. Then he had died, suddenly and a coup placed his cousin upon the pearl throne. Severus VI acted swiftly. The imperial forces were withdrawn. Then, came a peace offering and now an alliance. In this, Duke Vasely Von Tacchim was reputed to have acted as am ambassador.  Now, he was being entrusted with bringing this man into the fold and taming the beast for his Emperor. 

But Drachefauste’s reputation hung about him like the vile smell of offal. He had butchered his captives, maiming some and leaving them to die in the snow. When the imperial captain, Phenelos had taken the town of Borumgar, he had turned his main force back and assaulted his own town rather than leave it under a holding siege. After it fell, he had Phenelos and his lieutenants pinned to the walls, where they died, slowly, taunting them each day while the Imperial 3rd Army closed on him. Once it lay outside the gates, he drove the men of the town out to meet them, calling them traitors for surrendering to Phenelos. Having done this, he marched his men out of the far gates before besieging forces could close. When the imperial army broke through the small body of defenders that Drachefauste had left to cover the retreat, they found another atrocity awaiting them. Skewered to doors and walls of houses through the town, were the women and children of Borumgar. Then, a group of Drachfauste’s Dragon Guard, left behind in scattered hiding places about the town, set flames to the oil vats that were positioned all about and to the oil soaked gates and walls. Borumgar became an inferno. Over a thousand imperial troops died in the stampede to escape the hungry flames. The handful of Dragon Guards died with them, another example of their fanaticism and Drachefauste’s grip upon his elite force.

Shortly after that, the Imperial General, Mandicar Von Ulrich caught up with Drachefauste. He faced another unpleasant surprise. Drachefauste had trebled his forces by bringing his allies, night trolls and black goblins from the hills with wyverns and other beasts that they had trained for war.  The rumours said that Drachefauste had Mandicar dragged before him and put his eyes out with a hot poker before hanging him up in chains and carving him into joints. Rumours said that Raga’s ruling class have another dark secret that explains this unholy alliance. It was said that they were part troll, themselves and in battle, their wounds healed, their strength was untiring and inhuman and that they ate the raw brains and hearts of those that they slew.

Goran Drachefauste also kept the company of dark mages, it was said. If so, there were none such visible in his company, now.

His Dragon Guards were all huge men, scarred with tattoos upon their arms and faces. Each wore a heavy iron helm, studded about the neck and forehead, each carried a double bladed partisan axe. It was certainly believable that some of these men were troll or goblin bloods. He had no women with him. The only others in the party were a frail, wiry old man with white beard and pale eyes who was introduced as his chancellor, Uban Trossleg, a name known in financial circles, I later learned, and a broad, squat goblin with tusk canines, his ugly squashed looking greenish-black face caused by folds of fat. He used the name of Blorg Skullsmasher. Subtlety is not rated highly in goblin circles.

“Duke Vasely!” Goran’s voice was a bear like growl. He threw his arms about my father and made a great show of crushing him in an embrace, slapping him on the shoulders as if they were brothers in arms. My father smiled but it was not his real smile. He linked arms with this man and steered him to the palace steps, introducing Frederick and Leopold as he walked. I noticed Finnmeyer had disappeared from the group. Then I saw him, standing in the shadows of the stable, eyes on Drachefauste, glowering. Hatred was written upon his face. I wondered what the baron could have done to so offend the hunter whom I regarded as my friend.

“Where’s that lovely concubine of yours ?  Estella ? And your bastard. I heard he’s grown into a warlike young buck” roared Drachefauste.  From where I stood, I could see the pink flush rise in Lady Francesca’s cheeks. Others reacted, too but my father just met his eye and remained as cool as the winter day;  “He has duties and Estella is away dealing with business matters for me”

“Oho!  You trust a woman to represent you?!  The House of Von Tacchim must have grown short of steel if it has to entrust missions to women. Their job should begin and end on their backs... or on all fours, eh ? “  Drachefauste’s laugh was a barking crescendo to this statement and it echoed amongst the gargoyles and carvings that adorn the walls and high points of Falkeberg.

Father’s voice was ice tinged “House Von Tacchim uses steel when it needs. You might remember that, Baron Drachefauste.”

Drachefauste raised one eyebrow and just for one moment, the mask rippled, one eye twitched and one fist clenched but then he laughed again, hugely “Come on Duke Vasely, introduce me to the lovely countess. And tell her to wear something cut low, tonight. I would like something good to look at over dinner”. Lady Francesca flushed deeper and exchanged glances with father but he just shook his head, very slowly, from behind the bulk of Drachefauste. They went forward, together.

The formal introductions were made more quietly. Frederick and Leopold moved to flank their their mother who looked relieved as they did so. Uncle Herlenbrand managed to smile as he matched the Baron’s obviously vice like grip. The others winced, especially mother when he took her wrist to kiss her hand, a rough movement, like the bestial that he was. It was the act of a man who was sending her a message about what he would do if the chance should ever arise.  Even Raef could not hide a little pain in the handshake but his lip curled into a sneer and Drachefauste, looking up, saw that. The exchange in their eyes said enough. Raef’s hand went to his sword as the baron stepped back. I knew what he wanted to do. I think there were enough of us willing someone to strike the beast. The baron simply smiled.

“Come through the stable”  Finnmeyer’s voice was close and half turned. He rested a hand on my shoulder. I hadn’t even heard him move closer.

“Why ? I’m not afraid of the beast. I’d trap and kill him just like a rabid tiger”

Finnmeyer smiled although his eyes stayed hard. “I’m sure you would. But this is not the time to show yourself so come through the stable”

“Why did father speak as if I wasn’t here ?” I asked, still slightly hurting from being left in the cold.

“Your father is wise. The beast should not be given the scent of one he does not know where to hunt. Edmund. A time may come when you have to go amongst the enemy in disguise. Better they do not know you at all.  Better to walk in the shadows unseen and better for your father not to reveal his whole hand.”

I tried to understand this but it didn’t make complete sense to me.  I was going off to study as a bard, soon, at Lorefast. Father had promised me that I could follow a whim and study as a scholar as long as I promised to keep practicing my weapons and skills.

That evening, briefed to listen and to pretend to be a squire, I helped serve at the lord’s table and poured ale and fortified wines from great jugs. We all wore hoods and tunics in the purple and gold of the house. Once, Drachefauste yelled at me for more ale as I had only half filled his glass. He tried to cuff me but I moved aside too quickly and he sprawled across the table, spilling food and drink in all directions. By the time he had straightened I had been pulled out of sight and another similar sized squire had been sent to stand there, a nice lad called Ledric. He took a fist on the side of the head that felled him and I fought back tears. It wasn’t anything to do with him. I saw him try and rise and the baron laughing and pointing.  I’m glad to say that Lady Francesca, who had purposefully worn a dress with a high collar, rose, made her apologies and left the table, there and then. Drachefauste saw her but he just smiled his feral smile and threw a heavy bone at Ledric. I later found out the blow bruised his shoulder. Ledric stumbled aginst the wall.

“No steel in them, that’s the trouble, Von Tacchim!  You need to breed them tougher. Let me show you what I mean”

He signalled to one of his guards standing at the doors and whispered something to him. Two minutes later and a young lad was brought before the table. He looked defiant. His face was swarthy and heavy for a teenager and his build much broader than Ledric. He had a tattoo on his upper left arm but just the one, unlike the heavily marked arms of the Dragon Guards.

“You’re training to be in my guards aren’t you lad?” shouted the baron. The boy nodded “My lord” his voice had a thick and heavy sound, slightly guttural. Without hesitation, the baron struck him with his fist on the side of the head. The thwack echoed down the hall. The boy staggered slightly and then straightened to stand straight saluting his master; “If I have displeased you, my lord.”

“See... that’s what a soldier wants to be. You’re too soft, Von Tacchim. All of you Imperials. You’ve been amongst soft courtiers and soft women for too long”

He turned to the boy “You may go. You may also draw an extra fennet from the captain for taking the blow like a man”

The boy nodded and a grim smile twitched on his features, exposing teeth that seemed oddly canine for a human. Drachefauste turned, slowly to my father;

“I could teach that duchess of yours a thing or two about discipline, too” He grinned, showing rough and uneven teeth. Father gave him a long look but refused to answer. The talk died down at the table.

“What’s the matter, Duke Vasely ?” he pressed

“Be careful, Drachefauste. An invitation to an alliance only goes so far.” My father stood, slowly, twitching aside his cloak. Beneath it, I could see what Drachefauste could see, a pair of long daggers, one white handled, one black. Drachefauste grinned, hugely

“Sit down. I didn’t mean to insult your table” He rumbled, “I just wanted to see if it was true about you. So you are more than the Emperor’s messenger.”  He nodded, “good”

After that, the feast proceeded much as any other and the Dragon Guards stopped looking like they expected to have to use their axes. But I had seen them. When father rose to confront Drachefauste, they were not just ready to use them, they wanted to attack.

I stayed out of Drachefauste’s way for the remainder of his visit. My father kept the beast skillfully entertained without compromising his own principles and an alliance with Raga was concluded. Under the terms, the Baron became a Duke, granted all the rights and freedoms to rule his domain as he saw fit with a promise of Imperial support should anyone raise arms against him. The consideration of an electoral position was mentioned, too.  In return, Drachefauste finally acknowledged that he was a subject of the empire and that Raga was an imperial fief, owing a small but nevertheless substantial sum in taxes. So much for the Imperial throne standing by its land holders. No mention was made of the De Maine family who had lost the state when it rebelled. The head of that family had been reduced to a Marquess and given a political post. Such is the way of the rule of pragmatism over the rule of law.

Copyright : Alun March

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