The Tale of Saverous
I was the Burnt Priest’s thrall for 17 years. A mindless creature, my will completely subjected to his. No more than a puppet who played out the darkest of his desires. He had thralls for many purposes, mine was to kill.
A thrall is not unfeeling, just unchoosing. I felt exactly what he wanted me to. If he wanted me to feel remorse, I did. If he wanted me to delight in the pain and suffering I caused, then I did. Most of the time, because he didn’t care, I felt nothing.
He was killed just over three years ago. I stood in the middle of a Bannor swordsman phalanx, a mountain of dead bodies around me. Easily three feet taller than the largest soldier, I was an unstoppable gray giant. Glowing runes covered my body, making me stronger, making my skin harder than stone, his power coursing through me.
The moment he died I had my first real thought since the day he found me: it was one of confusion. The massive obsidian cudgel I wielded, that was always in my hand, was suddenly so heavy. It was covered in gore and blood, its sharp edges glistening. The end dipped toward the earth. I wondered if I should exert more force to hold it up or grab it with both hands; that was my first real thought.
After 17 unthinking years even a simple decision is paralyzing. He had been killed, in that instant his conjured legions returned to their remote worlds. The magic that strengthened me failed and my mind was free. A cry of triumph went up from the armies of the Bannor, cheering by men granted the gift of life on a day most thought would be their last. And I stood only blankly staring at my heavy club.
I was chained, dragged from the battlefield and kept under close guard by men waiting for any excuse to kill me. But they didn’t need the chains, what was I going to do? Did they think I could jump up and run out of the camp, tear a tent pole from the ground and attack a guard with it? The choices were overwhelming. I felt my bladder growing slowly strained and then the warmth of my own urine spilling onto my legs. And I just sat and waited for the voice that commanded me to return.
For all of their purported devotion to honor, the armies of the Bannor would have killed me had it not been for a diminutive herbalist named Pontif Elim. The single dissenting voice, he claimed I was another victim of the Burnt Priest. Even a greater victim than those slaughtered at Keldorn, those the army strove to avenge. He claimed I was not dangerous.
For weeks he cared for me, feeding me, giving me water. The only way at first was for him to command me to drink it, yelling and screaming he could force me to swallow. That was the limit of his control over me. My mind sought a voice to lead it, and with all his energy he was able to get me to swallow, to keep me from dying. I wanted to follow, but my mind wanted the return of the Burnt Priest’s voice.
In time he could have controlled me. In a few weeks he didn’t have to scream as long or as loud. I could have been an automaton again without any magic at all. But then he stopped telling me what to do. He sat the food in front of me and I stared at it. I was starving and I wanted him to tell me to eat it so badly. My feelings had returned, my desires were slowly coming back, but I still couldn’t do anything.
The first few times he had to break down and tell me to eat the food. But each time he waited a little longer, each time I grew hungrier. Until finally I slowly, incredibly slowly, reached out and picked up the piece of cheese in my hand. I held it unbelieving, my head lost with the concept of getting the fist-sized piece of cheese into my mouth, my stomach screaming for it. And I did it. I raised it to my mouth and ate.
Pontif jumped and screamed. The tiny man’s white robes and beard bounced randomly as he cheered. He leapt and hugged me, it was too much for my throbbing head and I shut down again.
He struggled to maintain his composure the next time I ate. Standing as far from me as he could in the cramped barn he had converted to my home he watched in glee as I ate nearly half a cooked chicken.
Then he began moving the food around. He had always set it right in front of me, on the closest side of faded red tack box I used for a table. Then he started moving it away. Again my mind was overwhelmed by the decisions. But in time I got used to this as well.
One day he had set the food far enough away that I had to crawl to get to it. I had done it a few times before, it was a slow process but I picked it up relatively easily. But on this day after I crawled to the food I just sat and stared at it. For almost two hours I stared at the crusted bread. Pontif watched, afraid I had suffered a setback on such a minor part of the task. But after two hours I reached out and picked up a furry caterpillar that had crawled onto the bread. Setting it carefully aside I then reached and ate the bread. That was the day I truly awoke.
The dreams were horrible. Any twisted vision a man could imagine couldn’t compete with the nightmares. Other men may imagine people dying, innocent people suffering, the wails of a mother watching her children being torn apart and consumed by demons even as she is devoured. The looks of so many whose courage lead them to war, their whole lives leading up this confrontation, years of training and prayer. That moment where they were broken, when they realize that it was all for nothing, that good would not triumph. They looked up with that realization, that there was no hope. Trapped inside the prison of his body Saverous agreed with them, there was no hope.
Keldorn was the worst. The town was unprepared for the attack. The Burnt Priest showed some restraint, unwilling to travel far beyond the cracked lands of the Osul mountains. But a charismatic hero had gathered a sizable force, and led them into the mountains to kill the Priest. Who was more responsible for the deaths at Keldorn, the Priest who ordered the attack, or the hero whose own pride set the events in motion?
The hero’s group was destroyed to the man but the Burnt Priest was unable to accept neighbors who would allow an attack to occur. He ordered the attack at Keldorn, ordered that everything alive be slain, everything of value be brought back to the mountains or destroyed.
The demonic army attacked at night. The militia was overrun within minutes, the rest of the night was spent on the thousands of innocents. The cities own walls kept them from escaping. The Priest’s forces controlled the gates and Saverous walked through the town covered in blood, seeking out every piece of shadowed movement or hidden cry. No matter who was found, they were killed. So many children were killed that night.
A thunder blast shook the barn and woke Saverous up. He sat up confused, still hearing the cries echoing from his dreams. He got up and stumbled through the barn, his meaty hand feeling his way along it. It was dark and the shattered lighting sent odd shadows on the walls, silhouettes of the victims of Keldorn.
The lightning lit the barn again. An old scythe hung on the far wall, a thick staff with a curved iron blade attached to the end. Saverous’s heart was pounding. He pulled the scythe off the wall and turned its blade on himself, running it across his chest, attempting to cut through to his heart. The dull blade didn’t pierce his ribs, even with all his strength pushing it. But it was enough, the pain broke him out of the dream and the flush of warm blood streaming down his chest seemed to take his depression with it. He lay on the floor breathing heavily and slipped into a peaceful sleep.
Saverous awoke on the barn floor. He gasped as his movement aggravated the split in his chest. Slowly he rolled up and examined the dried blood and gouge from the scythe’s cut. He hadn’t wanted to die, he just didn’t wanted to live. He just wanted the pain to end. Despite his screaming chest, his deepest wounds had quieted.
He washed up and put on a clean shirt. He hung the scythe back up on the wall. Pontif brought breakfast and Saverous felt suddenly guilty as he came in. He had argued so strongly to save him on the fields of Gulmoor, he had given Saverous his life back, would he throw it away so easily? Saverous felt like he was undeserving of life, and too in debt to die. He never told Pontif what happened that night, and only shrugged when Pontif asked why he was moving so carefully that morning.
“Even a cow should have enough sense not to fall in a hole!” Kamun yelled down into the thin ravine. The cow was terrified, the fall had been hard and the group of men who had gathered to rope her and pull her out was adding to her fear.
Kamun continued to yell. The cow would avoid the ropes and fight with anyone they tried to lower down to tie them off. Saverous sat away from the men, he couldn’t help now, but they would need him when they were ready to pull her out.
Kamun’s young daughter had been staring at Saverous all morning. She was all of six years old and the sight of a man over nine feet tall, with dark gray skin covered with rust-colored tattoos was something she wasn’t used to. The tattoos weren’t anything she recognized, no pictures of anything from this world, just glyphs and symbols. But even a six year old could tell that they were evil. Saverous tried to cover the ones on his arms with his shirt.
Her father’s attention fully on the cow, she slipped over, pretending to gather some of the small flowers that were growing at the ravine’s edge. She came close enough that she could talk to Saverous without her father hearing, but stayed out of his arms’ reach. She was curious, but still scared.
“Are you a man?” she asked. The question took Saverous by surprise. He was used to being asked where the tattoos came from, or why he was so tall. This question was much more direct.
“I am a man, but I am definitely not from around here.” Saverous answered, and she rewarded him with a small smile.
“I’m from the Pilgante hills, where they call my people the Doviello, or the Tusk Hillsman. Have you ever heard of the Tusk Hillsman?” She shook her head no.
He went on to tell her about the family nature of his tribes, how they were all much larger then the Bannor and known for being good hunters. He didn’t tell her what they were even more renowned for, their skill as warriors.
The Doviello carry crude weapons into battle, a throwing rock bigger than a man’s head or a stout branch. They use these makeshift weapons because they are temporary. The first opponent killed becomes the weapon of choice. Grabbed by the ankles they would be swung like a meaty flail. Blood sprays over opponents and every swing would lose more and more of the corpse until another was needed to replace the first. At this point in the battle the “weapons” were always readily available. Occasionally an opponent would be grabbed while still alive. The effect of being beaten by a bloody body that was screaming at you while it happened is traumatizing to even the most hardened warrior. Few armies were willing to face even a few hundred Doviello.
But instead the giant man and the girl talked about the wild yak that roamed the Pilgante hills, the flowers and birds. He told her about the games the Doviello children played. She smiled, laughed and told him about the games she is going to play with her new baby sister, when she is older.
Kamun looked over and seemed to be about to warn his daughter away. The concern flashed briefly across his face but he fought it back, seeing her smiling and his face softened.
“Are you ready to put those tree-sized arms to work?”
Saverous replied that he was, told the girl he had to work and walked over to the ravine. They had tied two ropes around the trapped cow. Kamun and Saverous took the one tied just behind the cow’s front legs. Four other men would took the rope tied just before the cow’s back legs.
Kamun made sure everyone was ready and they pulled, straining to lift the cow out of the narrow ravine. The cow was heavy and being lifted scared her even more than falling into the ravine. She began kicking and trying to get loose of the ropes. She couldn’t, but her movement made it even harder to pull her out. Tephus, a boy barely 16, was at the front of the rear rope and reached into the ravine to continue pulling. Just as he got his grip the cow bucked madly, sending the back rope slack and then yanking it back. The jerk sent Tephus staggering forward and into the ravine. He smacked right into the cow, eliciting another buck and a deep howl from the frightened beast. The ravine was so narrow that he barely had room to fall by her but he slipped by and slid down to the V-shaped ravine floor.
With the cow’s bucking becoming even more aggressive and Tephus’s help gone the three men began slowly losing their grip on the back rope. The cow’s hind quarters started dropping right toward the trapped Tephus. He screamed as one of the cow’s hooves kicked the arm he held protectively in front of him.
Saverous looked around for anything that could help. Kamun’s terrified daughter standing wide eyed, witness to what was going on. There was no one else.
“Kamun, help them!” Saverous shouted, signaling for him to switch to the back rope. He let go of the front rope and Saverous strained to hold it on his own. Grabbing the back rope the tug of war stopped, the cow stopped moving either up or down although she continued to kick and flail wildly. Tephus’s yells weren’t cries of pain, he had learned to lay flat on the ravine floor to avoid the dangling cow held just inches above him, but pleas for to get him out of there, and not drop the cow.
Saverous wrapped the ropes around his arms, ready to pull but then realized the real trouble they were in. The effort in stopping the cow from dropping had drained the men on the back rope. All four of them looked back, their arms already trembling from the effort of maintaining the cow where it was. The silent message was that they wouldn’t be able to do this, they would have to drop the cow.
This is where stories talk about people summoning some great strength within themselves. They tried, Tephus’s terrified calls urging them on. They all pulled with everything they had. The cow bucked, ropes dug into their flesh, burnt through the thick leather gloves they wore and nothing changed. Saverous was covered with sweat and even his muscles were beginning to spasm uncontrollably.
Saverous turned away from the ravine, putting the rope over his shoulder and digging into the ground. He felt a slight movement, the rope had budged. He looked up to see Kamun’s daughter staring at him. She was as terrified of Saverous as she was of what was happening. He closed his eyes, he couldn’t worry about that now. And Saverous pulled against the rope. There was a burning across his back and out into his arms. It went beyond the pain of a muscle pushed past its limit, it was the fire of magic. His runes flared and Saverous heard a gasp from the cow as he heaved forward. Unnatural light danced on his skin and the four farmers on the back rope would have dropped the cow and fled if Tephus wasn’t trapped beneath it.
The cow’s front was dragged up and over the edge of the ravine as Saverous pulled forward. The back followed and Saverous collapsed exhausted in the grass and flowers. The runes flickered, paled like coal taken out of the forge and went dark.
It had happened six times since pulling the cow from the ravine. Each time Saverous was left completely drained of strength. Pontif suggested that in times of great need the runes might activate. But the times seemed random, although the duration was longer each time.
Saverous was thinking about this as he gathered mandrake roots. Through the trees a horse approached with the flapping of the harness and equipment from a steady walk. Most of the villagers didn’t ride horses, certainly not out here in the woods so Saverous scooped up the few pieces of mandrake he had been cleaning the dirt off of and began to walk back to the barn, choosing a path that would avoid the horse.
But the horse was getting louder, the pace didn’t quicken but it had turned to follow. It wasn’t visible through the trees. Saverous turned and headed deeper into the forest, taking care to be as quiet as possible for someone his size. The horse turned again and he caught a glimpse of it, a magnificent black horse walking with precise, almost perfect, steps. This was definitely no one from the village.
Realizing he wasn’t going to simply be able to lose the rider Saverous settled down to uproot another batch of mandrake that his twisted path had taken him to. The horseman seemed as plain as his horse was regal. He wore a chain shirt over his tunic, although parts of a full suit of armor were visible on the horse. A light lance and a long claymore whose hilt had been wrapped in dark leather hung from the saddle. The horseman had a long sword sheathed at his side and rested his hand easily on it while he rode closer.
“I bring a message from the hosts of Junil,” he said invoking the god of light and justice, the patron of the Bannor, “you have been found guilty of crimes against man and heaven.”
He paused as if expecting some response. Saverous only continued to watch him while absently digging at the mandrake.
“Do you understand me?”
Saverous nodded. The rider was older than you would expect for someone traveling in the woods spouting nonsense.
“I am not judge or jury, I am only here to carry out the sentence. An angel has lead me to you, brought me to be your executioner. I will return in one day. In that time you have three options, either fight and I will kill you, flee and I will hunt you down, or repent. If you repent you will be granted mercy. Junil will pardon your soul if you are honest and I will leave you. If you follow the vows of your repentance you will never see me again, otherwise I will return for you.”
“I’m sorry. If I would have realized you regarded harvesting mandrake so seriously, I would have asked first.” The rider didn’t seem to appreciate the joke.
“You have one day, Saverous Gan-Fienel, before I return. Think well on my words.” Then he turned his horse and left at the same measured pace he came.
Pontif was much more worried about the horseman than Saverous was.
“Saverous, listen to me. You don’t know anything about this man or how many people he may travel with. It’s best if you hide out until he leaves town.”
“I’m sure he’s just another hunter come to revenge some friend or relative I killed during the war.”
There had been several who had wandered into the village, following rumors that Saverous was there. The villagers lied and mislead them and most left more confused than when they arrived. Two had tracked Saverous down and attacked him, and he easily bested the persistent but tragically untalented men. He didn’t kill them, though he made it obvious he could have. Saverous explained what happened, asked their forgiveness, and they left with their noble mission ruined. Saverous wondered if he wouldn’t be doing them a greater favor by letting them kill him.
Kamun sat smoking his pipe, listening to the two of them argue. He had yet to weigh in on the discussion. “No one in the village has seen him, if he found you once without anyone’s help there’s a fair chance he will be able to do it again. And you say his horse was well trained, maybe a war horse? Sounds like the man is a knight of some merit.”
“Or,” Saverous said, “he stole the horse from a knight of some merit.” But Saverous didn’t believe that, he rode too easily. The horse obeyed him too naturally. He was a knight of some sort.
“Just play his game and repent.” Pontif argued the point again, as if they had missed the logic of it the first dozen times he mentioned it. “He will go on his way.”
After the destruction of the Burnt Priest the Light of Junil, an order of the Bannor holy warriors, was said to have charged one of the few living armies in the Burnt Priest’s legions, a tribe of twisted men. With their summoned allies gone the twisted men quickly surrendered. The Light gave them two options, repent or be killed. A few choose to die but most wisely opted for repentance. Less than a weak later, with their supplies exhausted and in unfamiliar territory the twisted men raided a Bannor border village. The Light of Junil was there, as if expecting the attack. No sooner had the raid begun than the warriors charged through them. Not a single twisted man involved in the raid survived the attack. The only twisted men who survived were those who refused to be involved in the raid, who risked starving on their long trek to their homeland.
“I’ll think about it. Let me get some sleep.” Saverous stared at the scythe still hanging on the wall after these few years. He couldn’t explain what the scythe had come to symbolize to him, but at times like these his eyes were always drawn to it.
Pontif looked concerned. His eyebrows pinched dangerously together but he knew he would do better to wait until morning to try to convince Saverous again.
Kamun put his hand on Saverous’s shoulder as he left. “You’re a good man, these hunters don’t understand that. Don’t let their ignorance affect you.”
Saverous didn’t answer, and Kamun didn’t expect an answer as he followed Pontif out of the barn. Saverous pulled the door closed and latched it behind them. As he lay down he prepared for the worst part of one of these hunter’s visits. They would always talk about some loved one they had lost, want to point out that person, to show how significant the moment was when they were killed. But Saverous could never remember. Now as he tried to sleep he began replaying all the faces in his mind. He wondered who it was that this horseman was coming to avenge. Searching for some son who shared some features with the weathered knight. Maybe a wife, or infant son or daughter. Saverous had certainly killed enough of them.
Though he never remembered the exact person, he would always imagine someone who seemed right and mentally check them off, he had asked for forgiveness for that person, only a few thousand left to go.
Saverous thought about them until he fell asleep, and then they wandered screaming and bloodied through his dreams.
Pontif woke Saverous up. It was just past dawn and he was yelling outside the barn, “Knight with the regal horse, if you didn’t leave his farm right away I’ll have you thrown into the stockades.”
Saverous chuckled at Pontif ’s subtlety, he could just picture him yelling the description of the knight toward the barn to make sure Saverous got it. No doubt he meant Saverous to sneak out some non-existent back door and race away. Like a nine foot gray giant tearing across an open field would be lost on a man with a horse.
Saverous opened the latch and swung the barn door open.
He was sitting patiently on his horse a few dozen feet from the barn entrance. He was facing Saverous and wore the plate armor he had packed on his horse the day before. Saverous recognized the armor even though he wore none of the ornamentation, it was from the Light of Junil. Saverous had certainly seen enough of it in battle, but had never seen it without ribbons, precious metal bars and other symbols of who knows what. It was, like the knight, plain and natural.
“Have you decided to repent?” He watched closely as Saverous came out of the barn and closed the door behind him. He didn’t seem concerned, even as Saverous stretched and popped his knuckles, neck and back.
“Who have you come to avenge?” Saverous asked, he had thought and dreamt about my victims all night but couldn’t find anyone who seemed right to match up with the knight.
“I come for them all. I don’t know anyone you personally killed. Do not mistake this for idle revenge. Junil has ordered your death because you have squandered the life he gave you. This is not the action of a simple man.” He paused. “Do you repent?”
Pontif nervously nodded at Saverous from behind the knight like he was slipping Saverous the secret answer to some impossible problem.
“I did not take those lives, I was controlled by the Burnt Priest. I played no part in their death other than to be a horrified witness to every murder. But yes, had I the choice I would never have killed any of them. Had I known what future was before me I would have jumped from the cliffs and died on the rocks below rather than be captured by the Burnt Priest and used as his puppet.”
The knight considered the words. For the first time he looked confused. “Your words seem true to my ears, but in my heart I still feel a wickedness in you, a murderer still alive even though the Burnt Priest lays dead. Take to your knees if you truly want the forgiveness of heaven and ask Junil to cleanse you.”
He watched closely and Saverous was overcome by a strong feeling that he truly wanted him to repent. He would kill Saverous, or die trying, but more than that the knight wanted to save him. Saverous knelt on the dirt path to the barn.
The knight got off his horse as Saverous began to pray. Kilmorph, the mother of stone was the patron goddess of Saverous’s tribe of the Tusk Hillsman, and Saverous prayed in part to her and in part to Junil. To whatever goodly god or goddess would hear him. Pontif ’s relief was palatable even from twenty paces away.
The knight came forward and placed his hands on Saverous’s shoulders. He prayed too, although in an angelic language. Saverous reached up and put a hand on the knights forearm, feeling the steel bracer, comforted by the coolness and strength of the metal.
The knight flinched as if struck, his eyes went wide and his hand went for his sword. The runes burned across Saverous’s back and his grip on his bracer turned into a powerful squeeze. For a moment Saverous saw a golden star in front of him, and could hear distant screaming. The steel bent in Saverous’s powerful hands and pushed quickly into packed muscle, straining the bones of the knight’s forearm.
The knight’s sword cut up across Saverous’s chest. Slight compared to the pain in Saverous’s back he barely felt it, yet the blow would have killed him normally. With the runes activated the sword left only a long bleeding scratch.
Recovering quickly, the knight brought his sword down on Saverous’s wrist in an attempt to remove the hand that threatened to snap his forearm. This blow caught the wrist fully and cut through the enchanted skin to the bone beneath. Saverous howled, but found himself still unable to let go. Instead he slammed his fist against the steel breastplate.
The knight’s body flailed like a rag doll with the force of the blow. He managed to keep his sword in hand. He was a competent warrior and realized that despite the pain he must forget his forearm. He got his feet under him and stepped into his opponent, trusting the point of his sword up toward Saverous’s neck. If Saverous was dead, he wouldn’t be able to break his arm.
But he took too long to recover. This time Saverous struck first and the punch caught the knight right in the side of his unadorned helmet. The blow was so strong that he was knocked free of the hold on his forearm. The knight bounced across the dirt path leading up to the barn and lay unmoving on the other side.
Saverous stood blazing with power. The runes’ magic coursing through him, making him feel invincible. In the haze of magic Saverous tried to find what was going on, he had fought the knight more on reflex than any conscious knowledge of what was happening. He hadn’t had enough time to regret what he’d done, but was relieved when he saw the knight begin to pick himself up.
The left side of his face was bloodied, his cheek bone was uneven compared to his right and his left eye swam loosely in its socket. He tried to prop himself up, but stopped after putting weight on the crushed forearm. Instead, he rolled up into a kneeling position. He was watching Saverous closely, and praying.
A pale blue light formed beside the man, it reached and touched his face and his features melted back to the original shape. For a brief second a figure stood over him, wings spread protectively. For all of the evil Saverous had witnessed, every summoned horror he had seen the Burnt Priest conjure, none of them compared to this. He knew instantly it was an angel, as beneficial and loving as every demon was dark and hateful. Saverous was suddenly very ashamed not only of the wars he had fought, but every wrong deed he had performed, every hateful word he have ever said. Saverous looked at the angel and asked for forgiveness.
The runes went out and all of the power fled Saverous’s body. The angel stayed and watched as Saverous fell to the ground, it was the last thing Saverous saw as he slipped into unconsciousness.
More arguing. This time the knight was speaking.
“I have been lead to him, I can feel the wickedness inside of him. And during the fight, what I felt, it was like standing before a demon.”
“What you are feeling is the runes, the marks left by the Burnt Priest, it is not him.” Pontif was exasperated. He had argued to have Saverous spared from death once, and he found himself doing it again.
It was just past noon. The knight’s horse was tethered by Pontif ’s small house and the knight sat in the shade of the barn talking to Pontif. His arm was bandaged and it looked to have been treated by some of Pontif ’s herbs.
The knight noticed Saverous was awake and watched him closely, still considering Pontif ’s words.
“Did you dream?”
For someone who tried to kill him a few hours before it seemed an odd question.
“I don’t know.” Saverous tried to remember. “I don’t think so. I dream a lot, but when I pass out… I don’t dream. It’s the only good sleep I ever get.”
“Do not be afraid of your dreams, it is the soul’s way of speaking to the mind, and sometimes the souls of others. What does it feel like when the runes flare up like that?”
Saverous sat up. He was tired, Pontif had bandaged his chest and wrist too but they both still stung. “Why? What are you getting at? You asked me to repent and I did, there isn’t anything I can do about the runes. I’m sorry your arm got hurt, I really am, but it was an accident. Now go on your way or ignore the words you told me earlier and try to kill me.”
“Did you see the angel?”
Pontif looked surprised by the question. He hadn’t seen her. Saverous considered the question before settling on an honest answer.
“Yes, I saw her heal you. I felt guilty for everything I have ever done wrong, but she didn’t seem to be mad at me. When she looked at me I think she felt sorrow.”
The knight considered the answer, until Pontif interrupted his thoughts.
“See, even the angel wants you to let him go. And if he saw her that must be a good thing, right? Bad people don’t go around seeing angels.”
The knight ignored him. “My devotion gives me a clear purpose. It’s been a long time since I have been confused on an issue that is this important. I honestly don’t know what to do."
Saverous wondered how much this knight’s angelic guidance controlled his behavior. Was he only another sort of thrall, just as confused now that he couldn’t hear his master’s voice?
“I do not believe you should die, but I can’t simply leave you here. Saverous I would like you to accompany me to where I can ask for guidance from those more enlightened than myself.”
Pontif went pale. “That is not possible! Saverous is in constant danger even here in out backwater village, if he would go into the heart of the empire he would be killed by some vengeful fool.”
Now it was Saverous’s turn to ignore Pontif. “And what if I don’t want to go?”
“A man who truly wanted repentance wouldn’t pass up this opportunity to find it.”
Bread, dried beef, salt, cheese, two canteens of water, a skin of ale, a collection of herbs including tea leaves and healing poultices. Tephus had supplied a length of thick rope, joking that a strong rope is sometimes the difference between life and death. Kamun gave a fire kit, two pans, a grill, and a small spicket. There were other gifts from the villagers, a bear hide jacket bound with iron rivets, a pair of comfortable boots, and a fresh pie.
Kamun’s daughter gave one of her dolls. Made from the husks of corn, the doll had turned gray with age. The gray was almost the same color as Saverous’s skin so she had taken to calling it her Saverous doll despite the fact that it had a shock of red yarn hair, and was a girl.
It was four days since Saverous had decided to join Valin, the knight, on his trip. Now the entire village turned out to see them off. During Saverous’s first year here each had been approached, one family at a time, and told about his existence. They all reacted with fear and hatred at first, but in time they had all accepted him as a part of the village.
Saverous tied a sturdy walking stick to the side of his pack mule. The stick was his concession to Pontif ’s insistence that he take a weapon.
Valin rode up, he was back in his chain shirt.
“That’s quite a turnout. You had best get back and say your goodbyes, we need to be leaving soon.”
“I’m ready to go now. I’m not saying any goodbyes.”
Valin looked back toward where the village had organized a midmorning feast in Saverous’s honor. The voices of the villagers, adults talking, children laughing, games being played on the autumn morning drifted out to them.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, let’s just get going.”
They pulled off of the dirt road as the caravan went by. They were eight days out of Ascore, Saverous’s home for over three years.
Valin was a quiet traveling companion, obviously accustomed to being alone. He was methodical about his morning and evening prayers. As far as Saverous could tell they were at exactly the same time each day. He seemed to operate on some strict internal clock.
Saverous’s last traveling companions were the legions of the Burnt Priest. Corpses kept artificially alive, demons, summoned creatures from other worlds, disfigured beastmen of all descriptions and occasional desperate or depraved men from other empires. The thralls had the most authority in the army because we were the eyes and ears of the Priest. The Priest favored a sickly twisted man, though few knew he was a thrall. The twisted man would wander the camp overhearing conversations and drawing the ire of anyone in the camp who was stronger than he was. Saverous was only used in the camp when a dispute needed to be settled, when a member of the army needed to be killed. He typically sat unmoving between marches, to see Saverous lumbering through the camp meant someone was going to die.
There was no order in the Burnt Priest’s army. They marched or stayed at his whim. Disputes were settled lethally or ignored for no reason. Valin’s devotion to order was the opposite of everything Saverous was used to.
“Will I have to hide outside of the city while you go in?”
“No.” Valin watched the caravan intently, looking for something. “Telorrial is the capital of the Bannor, and the citizens are accustomed to strange people of all races on their streets. You won’t have to deal with the prejudices of these villages.”
“What if someone knows who I was?”
“Then they should also know that you were freed. I have seen several Doviello in Telorrial, I really don’t think you will be noticed.”
“What if they sense the same thing in me that you did?”
Valin signaled him to start walking and they lead their horses back down to the road.
“At one time that would have been a very valid concern. But now the city is ruled by its codex of laws, not the guidance of heaven. Besides, the innocent have nothing to fear from the holy no matter how terrifying they seem.”
“It’s not about fear, if they all fight like you I could probably take a city’s worth of them. I just didn’t want to have to walk all the way there to do it.”
Valin scoffed at the joke.
Just as they got onto the road screams erupted from the direction of the caravan, and then the sounds of battle. Valin leapt on the back of his horse and was off in the caravan’s direction. Saverous stood dumbly watching him gallop off before he got enough presence of mind to slip the cudgel out of its bindings and run after him.
Valin ordered the caravan guards into defensive positions as he rode up. Arrows flew out of the trees and a few guards and the lead caravan horses were already laying unmoving on the road. Valin took an arrow to his leg and his horse took one to the flank as he ordered the drivers down on the opposite side of the wagon and the guards to ready their crossbows.
Unaccustomed to the requirements of leadership, Saverous took a more direct path. He ran off of the road and into the trees. He sounded like a herd of charging oxen as he came upon the first bandit. The bandit turned just as Saverous’ cudgel
caught him in the chest and flung him out into the road.
Saverous next spied the tip of a bow and arrow pointing out from behind a tree, aiming at the wagons. He grabbed both and ripped them out of the bandit’s hands. The bandit ducked under the cudgel and scurried back into the forest.
Saverous let him go and kept with his assault against the line of archers. A few had turned to face him and arrows whistled through the trees toward. But the foliage was to thick and they only caught in the branches and trunks of trees. Saverous caught two more bandits who had drawn short curved swords.
The line of bandits began to break and they starting retreating into the forest. Looking to see that the caravan was no longer under attack, Saverous took off after them. The bandits seemed familiar with the area and ran deftly through the woods. Surprisingly they didn’t scatter, but all ran through a clearing and across a fallen log as if this chase was a game.
Saverous ran after them, ignoring the log and not understanding the ploy until the ground gave out beneath him. He briefly saw the men turning, readying their bows as he fell. Saverous had been running fast enough that he slammed into the opposite wall of the pit and slid to the bottom.
At the bottom Saverous got his feet under him and leapt, trying to scramble out, but the pit was deep and the dirt walls crumbled. The bandits looked over the edge of the pit, one smiled as he aimed his bow. Before he fired, Valin’s horse burst into the clearing and leapt across the pit, slamming into the bandit. Valin’s sword caught the one who was aiming the bow in the back and knocked him into the pit. Saverous returned the smile the bandit had given him as he slid into Saverous’s hands.
A group of the caravan guards followed Valin to engage the bandits before those who could flee took off into the woods again. The guards were wise enough to let them go.
Tephus’s rope came in handy a lot sooner than expected. Valin tied it around the trunk of one of the trees close to the pit and Saverous used it to climb out. The guards gathered and bound the bandits who hadn’t fled and were still alive.
Walking back out onto the road a thin man with milk-pale skin stood before the wagons with a handful of guards around him.
“I am Elexis Pul, the wagon master for this caravan. Crossing ways while we were being attacked was certainly fortunate for us.”
His hand slipped out of the embroidered sleeve of his blue silk robe to clasp Valin’s. He wore a silver pendant of a bird surrounded by amethysts. His clothing looked to be worth more than the entirety of the caravan.
“I suspect it is the grace of Junil and not simple fortune that brought us together.”
Valin nodded and waved for Saverous to approach as well.
“My name is Valin, this is my friend Saverous. How are your men?”
“One guard and a driver are dead. I fear another guard won’t survive the night. He is being bandaged now and readied for travel.”
A bearded guard started barking orders, getting his men to cut the fallen horses from the front of the wagon and move other horses up. The captured bandits were tied in a line to run along behind the wagon.
Elexis looked Valin and Saverous over. “Are you heading to Telorrial?’
“We go where we are lead” Valin responded, “but yes, right now that is the Gleaming city.”
“Wonderful, we head there as well and would love to have such capable men along. Will you join us? I can offer fair pay, food and a wagon seat that will carry you all the way to the city.”
Valin looked at Saverous who only shrugged.
“Keep your pay, I am sure my friend will recoup the cost in your pantry. We would be glad to join you. Before we leave may I see the guard who was badly injured?”
Elexis bowed and lead Valin to the wagon that had been made into a bunk for the guard. Valin dismounted and nearly fell when he put weight on his right leg. He had pulled out the arrow and it was still bleeding freely. Elexis noticed and commanded a guard to get more bandages.
Valin carefully climbed onto the back of the wagon and pulled back the burlap that covered the back. He limped in beside where the guard laid breathing shallowly. The guard was too young to have more than a few scratches of facial hair. Saverous stayed outside the wagon but watched as Valin knelt beside the boy. It was impossible to tell if the guard was conscious enough to know Valin was there or not.
Valin prayed over the boy in that same strange language that he performed his morning and evening prayers in. After a few minutes of quiet Valin checked his bandages and then hobbled out of the wagon.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“I don’t know. The arrow pierced his lung and he’s drowning in blood. It’s going to be a hard night for him.”
The guards buried the dead and then the caravan set off. Saverous unloaded his horse and used it to replace one that had been killed in the attack. Valin left his horse free to roam where it was most content to trot a few paces ahead of the lead caravan horse. Valin and Saverous ended up walking beside it up at the front of the caravan.
That night they were just settling down to sleep in the close ring of guards beside the wagon when Elexis came over.
“The guardsman, Nathan, has died. It seems we will have another burial.”
Valin checked Nathan and gave one more prayer before he and Saverous carried him off of the road and to a small glade with soft ground. Valin and a few guards started digging while Saverous set the blanket-wrapped body down and waited for them to finish or to take a turn with the shovel.
The bandits, or someone, had used the glade to hang their catches. Cut ropes hung from a few spots in the tree and the grass directly beneath the ropes was tinged a dull brown in places. There weren’t any deer hanging here now, but this was a spot accustomed to death.
Saverous was never asked to dig, and didn’t offer to help except to place the body in the shallow hole when it was complete. After the hole was covered the men stood quiet for a second, then wandered back to the wagons to sleep, exhausted from the day. No one said anything about the boy.
Saverous sat at the edge of the glade silently. Valin said another of his prayers then turned to walk back.
“Why didn’t your prayers heal him?”
Valin wiped the sweat from his forehead as he considered the question. He seemed to be affected by the boy’s death, at least more than the guards, but he hadn’t said anything about it either. He and Saverous were the last ones in the glade, if you didn’t count the newly buried corpse.
“I don’t know why some get healed and some don’t. I don’t pretend to understand. I just know that people die, both good and evil, every day. I know there is a war being fought with casualties on both sides. I wouldn’t assume that either side is so much stronger that it overwhelms the other side in every battle and suffers no losses.”
“So there is only so much healing to go around? Your god healed the bruise I left on your face, but wouldn’t save this boy’s life. Did you pray for this boy to be healed?”
Valin looked around the glade, noticing the cut ropes and the blood marks in the grass for the first time. He began smoothing out the dirt on the grave, hoping that whoever hung deer here wouldn’t notice it.
“It’s a war, that’s all I know.” Valin said.
“My experience with war tells me that they typically suit the desires of the emperors who wage them, but not the people who fight and die.”
Valin seemed ready to quip back, but he bit his tongue and looked only at the cut ropes before responding.
“When I was a boy, maybe six or seven years old, I couldn’t hunt with my father. I was soft hearted, unable to kill a rabbit. I would cry if I saw one dead. My father was a very strict man, and he wanted to raise me well. I was punished for my weakness, lashed, hit. But I still couldn’t get used to the sight of blood.”
Valin paused, caught up in the memories in his head, before continuing.
“He had taken away my food, stating that if I was unwilling to hunt I wouldn’t share in the rewards of it. I began sneaking food, radishes, onions from the garden. When he caught me I was punished…” Valin spit out the word, “and then he locked me in the smokehouse for two days.”
“There were fresh deer bleeding out in the smokehouse, and it was a tiny wooden shack, barely larger than an outhouse. I was starving, tired, and spent those two days terrified by the blood dripping on me, and the deer faces staring down from the darkness above me.”
“It sounds horrible.” Saverous couldn’t figure out any other way to respond.
“It was…” he searched for the word, “traumatic. But after I wasn’t afraid of blood anymore.”
“Or you were more scared of your father.” Valin ignored the statement. “So are you saying Junil is like your father?” Saverous asked.
“No, I’m saying we are like children. We can hope for a perfect world, we can plead with our superiors to provide it, be they our parents, our emperors or our gods. But our world isn’t perfect, all we can do is try to strengthen the good we find and weaken the evil, and sometimes that means we will have to deal with blood. Whether to fix a meal or protect a caravan from lawless men.”
Saverous was unconvinced but he didn’t want to push Valin any further so he nodded and picked himself up. Saverous helped finish covering up the grave and then they walked back to the caravan where he fell into more of his nightmares of battle and killing, but this time Valin was with him.
before reaching Bannor territory, the caravan was attacked again, this time by a company of Lanun brigands led by a priest of the Overlords controlling undead Drown. Saverous and Valin became seperated in the melee. A year later Saverous reappeared as a giant demon-possessed Drown, once again the slave of an evil cause.