The Boar’s Tusk served its mead in wooden tankards, the kind that were held together by pine tar and that made a hollow thunk when they were set down empty. Xavier was convinced that the barmen of the Boar’s Tusk could hear the thunk of an empty drinking vessel from at least a mile away.
Sighing, Xavier pointed the bottom of his tankard at the ceiling and downed the last of his mead. The final mouthful didn’t offer him any more comfort than did the first.
Almost immediately, the empty tankard was whisked away and a fresh one, brimful and foaming, was set before him.
Somewhere, at the bottom of one of these tankards, Xavier would find a map that would make clear his path through the labyrinth of life. Barring that, he might at least find a measure of peace.
The left-open-year-round windows of the Boar’s Tusk admitted an arid breeze. Outside the windows, the sun had scarcely risen over the red sands of Bleeding Basin, a tract of land perched precariously at the very edge of the king’s jurisdiction. Xavier spotted a hawk wheeling high above the valley floor, and he envied the bird’s freedom. Xavier imagined what it would be like to fly all the way to the drab red shadows on the horizon that were the craggy hills of Bleeding Basin’s far rim. He would fly over those hills and over the vast wilderness of the desert beyond, over the indomitable Black Mountains on the other side of the desert, and finally, into the Old Kingdom.
In the Old Kingdom, Xavier could start over, build himself a new life, never have to face anyone from Calldor ever again. In time, he might even be able to forget that he had once been lord of an estate with vassals under his command.
But Xavier could not fly. And the past was an unforgiving master. And no amount of mead, distance, or time would ever erase his failures or resurrect the three people who had died on his watch.
“Copper man for your thoughts?”
Xavier tore his eyes from the window. His two best friends were seated across from him. Steam from Gustave’s coffee rose to join the pipe smoke wreathing his head. Camel was tucking into a plate of eggs and vegetables like he had never before eaten in his life. One of the great mysteries of the Two Kingdoms lay in how Camel could eat so much and remain so thin.
Gustave, who had spoken, cocked an eyebrow and raised his coffee mug to his lips. While Xavier was considering how to articulate his thoughts, an unfamiliar voice broke the silence. “I hear you boys are hunting an aekpu.”
Xavier jumped and Camel nearly choked on a mouthful of egg. Standing at their table was a curious man—short, smooth-faced, and shaped remarkably like a barrel. An unstrung bow was resting on his shoulder.
Gustave took a deep breath and let it out slowly, causing the cloud of smoke around his head to undulate and shift as he asked, “Where’d you hear that?”
The smooth-faced man shrugged and said, “Bleeding Basin’s full of secrets. Full of blood too. Hard to keep either from spilling.”
Without waiting for an invitation, the newcomer sat down at the table. Xavier, Gustave, and Camel—the Wolverines, as they called themselves—had indeed come to Bleeding Basin in pursuit of a bounty, but they had only arrived in town last night, and they hadn’t spoken to anyone.
“You see,” the man said, “I’m a bounty hunter, and I happen to be chasing the same aekpu as you are. Matter of fact, the price on that wretched man’s head is so high, seems like half the bounty hunters and mercenaries in the Two Kingdoms are chasing him.”
Xavier shared a glance with Gustave and Camel. They had not known there were other mercenaries working the same job as them.
As if reading their thoughts, the bounty hunter continued, “The Silversword Group packed out of town about an hour ago with enough gear to break a siege. Now, I know this valley just about as well as anyone, and I guarantee I can track down the aekpu before the Silverswords find him. What I can’t do is bring him back all by myself.
“So,” the man continued, looking around at the three companions, “I am proposing a strategic marriage of our skillsets. I’ll help you find the aekpu, you help me get him out of Bleeding Basin, and we’ll all split the reward money.”
“No offense,” Xavier said, “but we’re not in the habit of working with strangers.”
“Me either,” the man countered, “but there’s a tall stack of coin riding on this job, and I don’t see how either of us is going to claim it without working together. Tell you what—my name’s Grimwall. Lord Grimwall, if that makes any difference to you. Now, why don’t you boys tell me your names and we won’t be strangers anymore, will we?”
“Another lord?” Camel asked. “What are the chances of that?”
Every evening, as the sun falls out of the sky above Bleeding Basin, the dying light touches the lodge homes nestled high in the hills just so, and reflects from their polished glass windows. The gleam from the windows is visible from miles away, and situated as they are among the red rocks and sand, they sparkle like jewels awash in a sea of blood.
The strange beauty of this spectacle was lost on Xavier, because down on the valley floor, he was running for his life. An arrow zipped past his head, filling his ear with the vengeful hiss of promised death. Spiny arms of cacti tore at his cloak as he sprinted for the river.
“Grimwall,” Xavier yelled, “I need cover!”
On the trail ahead, Grimwall spun, dropped a knee in the dirt, and fired off an arrow, quick as a wayward thought. Xavier ran past Grimwall as he launched a second shaft at the pursuing Silverswords.
“Camel! Cover!” Xavier barked between ragged gasps of breath.
Camel’s mess of shaggy hair swung about his head as he too whirled and began shooting. The three men beat a staggered retreat, covering one another as they ran until at long last, Xavier burst around a bend in the trail to see the river glinting before him like liquified freedom. Gustave was already thundering onto the tiny pier at the end of the trail, aekpu slung across his shoulders like a sack of wheat. Unceremoniously, Gustave dumped the aekpu into their boat and threw off the mooring line.
“Come on, come on, come on!” Gustave yelled back at his companions.
Xavier bounded down the pier and jumped aboard as Gustave held the boat steady. Camel and Grimwall follow suit, and last of all, Gustave hopped the gunwale and shoved off.
The little boat sliced through the water as though it were just as eager as the men onboard to leave the valley behind. They had rented the boat from the public wharf before leaving town. In the distant past, someone had stenciled the name Honest Man onto the prow with gold paint; the words were now faded, the letters cracked and peeling.
Gustave and Xavier took up oars. Grimwall and Camel remained half-crouched in the stern with arrows knocked to their bowstrings. For the space of a few breaths, the only sounds were the oars digging into the water and the piteous moaning of the aekpu.
Xavier spared a glance for their quarry, bound hand and foot in the bow of the vessel where Gustave had deposited him. The aekpu was a greasy man in more ways than one. There was a time when Xavier would have cared about who the aekpu was and what he had done to deserve his bounty. There was a time when Xavier would have hesitated to pursue bounty work at all, but that time was before the battle for Fallen Sky. And Fallen Sky had changed everything.
Grimwall suddenly cursed under his breath, and a second later, two bowstrings twanged as he and Camel let fly their arrows. Squinting back at the shore, Xavier saw the Silverswords darting onto the pier and launching their own craft.
Rowing with renewed focus, Xavier did a rough calculation of how long it would take them to get back to town. The Honest Man had enough of a head start that it was well out of bow range of the other boat. As long as they could stay ahead of the Silverswords until they got back to the public wharf, they would be safe.
Suddenly, an arrow thudded into the portside bow. Gustave swore loudly and the aekpu screamed. More arrows splashed into the water all around the boat. Looking around wildly, Xavier saw four archers standing on the riverbank with their bows pointed at the Honest Man. More Silverswords!
“Grimwall, we’ve got company!” Gustave yelled as he unslung a large shield from his back. “Camel, take the oars!”
The Honest Man to swayed and rocked as Gustave moved to the center of the boat and attempted to shield everyone onboard at once.
Grimwall fired at the shore, missed, fired again, missed, fired a third time, and finally hit one of the enemy archers in the stomach.
Wordlessly, Grimwall sat down behind the cover of Gustave’s shield and began unstringing his bow.
“Grimwall?” Xavier ventured.
The smooth-faced man said nothing. After getting one end of the bowstring detached, he began twisting the string around and around.
“Grim,” Camel said with a note of urgency. Shafts continued to splash down around the boat.
Grimwall tugged the bowstring back toward the limb tip.
“Grimwall!” Gustave shouted as an arrow from the bank lodged in his shield. Xavier saw the arrowhead punch through the wood just above Gustave’s arm.
“I see ‘em!” Grimwall retorted, and jumped back to his feet.
He fired two arrows in quick succession, blinked, and then fired a third.
On the shore, three fresh bodies surrendered their blood to the earth. The fourth man with the arrow in his stomach flopped around a bit, and eventually lay still as well. Onboard the Honest Man, Grimwall slowly sat down, lower jaw jutting with enough confidence to fill the sky.
“Sweetest mother,” Gustave muttered as he lowered his shield. “That was almost poetic.”
On the water behind the Honest Man, the Silversword boat began turning around, and Camel let out a ragged cheer. Xavier released his breath in one long exhalation as Grimwall made an obscene gesture at the retreating craft. Gustave caught Xavier’s eye and grinned. Xavier grinned back. It was the first he had smiled in a long time.
The left-open-year-round windows of the Boar’s Tusk were thrown wide to the night. Grimwall, Camel, Gustave, and Xavier were clustered around a table in the corner, laughing, drinking, and generally riding the exhilaration of having escaped death. After receiving his portion of the bounty, Grimwall had not left the Wolverines, and looking at him now, across the table, roaring with laugher alongside Camel, Xavier wasn’t sure he wanted him to leave.
Out of the corner of his eye, Xavier saw the tavern door open. Camel suddenly stopped laughing and put down his tankard so hard that mead sloshed over the top. Turning to the door, Xavier saw a sunbaked, dust-covered, terribly familiar woman entering the Boar’s Tusk. She glared around, her expression suggesting she might hit the first person who looked at her. Xavier instantly recognized her as one of the Silversword mercenaries who had been chasing his crew earlier that day.
“Heads down!” Gustave hissed. “As soon as she finds a seat, let’s get out of here.”
“Too late,” Camel said in a resigned voice. “She sees us.”
Gustave sighed. Camel cracked his knuckles. Grimwall rose slowly to his feet.
The Silversword woman sauntered over, casual-like. She had a crooked nose that matched her rather daunting collection of scars. Upon reaching their table, she stopped and looked at each of the four men in turn. Her posture was relaxed, but her muscles were tense. Xavier was reminded of a coiled rattle serpent.
“Easy,” the woman said at last. “If I were looking for a fight, I wouldn’t’ve picked this time or this place.”
“You were looking for a fight,” Grimwall reminded her helpfully. “And you lost.”
The woman’s eyes slid over to Grimwall, who crossed his arms over his barrel of a chest.
“Alright,” she said, “I don’t like any of you mongrels’ sons, okay? You stole my aekpu and you cost me a lot of money. But I can recognize a good outfit when I see one, and I respect a good outfit when I see one.”
“I’m not sure I’d be inclined to feel the same way,” Xavier replied, “if I just buried four members of my team.”
The woman made a noise that sounded like a dog’s bark. Xavier didn’t realize at first that she was laughing, because the sound was utterly devoid of humor.
“Those idiots you left rotting on the riverbank were not Silverswords. I hired ‘em yesterday as backup to help me control the river. Guess I should’ve paid a little more to get archers who could actually shoot.”
Grimwall cleared his throat pointedly. The woman spared him another glance and rolled her eyes.
“Anyway,” she said, offering her hand to the table at large, “Heliconia Wilder. Leader of the Silversword Group.”
After a few seconds, Gustave rose and shook her hand. “Lord Gustave Brown,” he proffered.
Heliconia raised her eyebrows. “A mercenary and a lord? You must have quite a life, Gustave Brown.”
Gustave shrugged, grunted noncommittally, and sat back down.
“Lord Grimwall Gray,” the bowman said, uncrossing his arms to offer Heliconia his hand next.
Heliconia’s brows went up even higher. She shook with Grimwall.
“Lord Camden Black,” Camel said from his seat, inclining his head so that his shaggy hair fell in ragged curtains on either side of his face.
As Heliconia turned expectantly to Xavier, her eyebrows were so high that they had completely disappeared underneath her bangs.
Former-Lord Xavier, stripped of title, lands, and subjects.
Xavier nodded curtly and simply said, “Xavier White.”
“Well,” Heliconia replied, “aren’t you the merry band of—”
“Heliconia,” Xavier cut her off. He had noticed a scrap of black fabric hanging from her belt. “What is that?”
Heliconia ran a calloused thumb over the tattered piece of cloth. “Members of the Fiendish Host tie these on their arms. It’s their mark. I take it you’ve seen someone wearing one?”
Xavier nodded; his blood was rapidly turning to ice. All the marauders who had invaded Fallen Sky had worn similar black strips tied at their left elbows.
“If you stick around these parts long enough,” Heliconia continued, “you’ll hear all about the Host, and you’ll come to learn that they’re not too popular here. I hang this band at my waist to show I’ve killed one of the bastards. Affords me status, you see.”
“Who are they?” Xavier asked.
“They’re a mercenary group that operates out of the desert. More of a private army, really, seeing as there’re so many of ‘em. They stay out of Calldor for the most part, so as not to ruffle the king’s feathers, but they’ll do anything for the right stack of coin.”
“Fiendish Host,” Xavier repeated, almost to himself, as if the name were a vessel into which he could put all of his pain.
“Yeah, those guys are real pricks. Anyway,” Heliconia said, jerking her head at the bar, “got a tankard up there with my name on it. I won’t say it’s been nice meeting you, ‘cause I don’t lie about unimportant stuff like that.”
She turned to leave, but then stopped.
“Hey, you lot never told me what you call yourselves.”
Xavier made eye contact with each of his companions—Gustave, Camel, and even Grimwall. Their collective presence burned like a beacon fire. And in their presence, just for a moment, despite…everything, Xavier found a measure of peace.
“We’re the Wolverines.”
“Huh. Never heard of you.”
Xavier felt himself smiling. He couldn’t help it.
“It’s alright,” Xavier said. “You have now.”
Previous chapter: Fallen Sky
The Wolverines will return!