Authors: Andy Remic
This book is dedicated to my amazing little boys, Joseph and Oliver. I always wanted children, and they have shown me how great kids can be â thanks for so much laughter and joy, guys!
ake Tillamandil Mandasar
, former Sword Champion of King Yoon's Royal Guard, hero of the Second Mud-Orc War and heir to the Lordship of the House of Emeralds, Vagandrak's largest ruling family, squinted at the pig's severed head dominating the long feasting table laid out before him. Granted, the head had been cooked to perfection; skin crisp, meat succulent and steaming, the red apple lodged in its mouth both inviting and in a position for comedy banter; agreed, the head had been placed centrally on a huge, expertly etched silver platter, the edges worked with intricate care and skill by some master craftsmen at the pinnacle of his guild artifice; and yes, granted, the flowering garnish which surrounded the cooked pig's head like a generous forest of autumnal colour and culinary precision would have made all of King Yoon's eighty-five Master Chefs weep into their onion soup bowls, such was the artistry with which lettuce and onions had been skilfully carved, potatoes and aubergines arranged
, carrots and broccoli meshing together to craft a creative tapestry of wonder, begging even the most ardent of carnivores to dive naked and drooling into this feast of lightly seasoned vegetables.
Dake stared. The pig stared back.
never ordered that!” said Dake, his vision locked to the doll eyes of the dead pig. Its eyes were small and black as ink. He felt they were watching him...
. With an educated understanding.
By all the gods, they ARE watching me!
His mind reeled under the influence of this sudden realisation, aided, no-doubt, by the eight frothing flagons of Fighting Cock Ale he'd managed to consume in a shorter time than was holy.
“THAT'S BECAUSE WE ORDERED IT FOR YOU!” boomed Beetrax the Axeman, pushing through the crowd of chatting guests and slamming another frothing tankard before the former Sword Champion. “And... I didn't want to mention it before, but it looks like your sister!” He erupted into roaring raucous laughter, thumping Dake playfully on the shoulder â to a wince â as others around the huge table burst into laughter and they lifted tankards in salutation to a great moment of comedy, each gaining a frothing moustache with their humorous toast.
“My sister, Beetrax?” Dake's voice was cool. The cool that had disarmed thousands of opponents both in the gladiator rings and in the real-world insanity of battle. “Damn it! But I reckon this pig looks more like your mother,” he snapped, grabbing his tankard and taking a hearty swig, a goodly quantity spilling down his leather jerkin and fine, pink-patterned silk shirt.
“No, wait,” beamed the axeman, pausing for comedy effect, “it looks
like my hairy arse!” More laughter erupted, and Beetrax positively glowed through his bushy beard, showing a broken tooth, victim of a long-forgotten tavern brawl. “Anyway, anyway, settle down, settle downâ¦ I said SETTLE DOWN!” The laughter and cheering subsided as if launched from a cliff. Beetrax swept his gaze across the long table, where perhaps forty guests were seated, attention now focussed wholly on him. The remainder of the crowded ground floor of The Fighting Cocks lowered their voices to a murmur, as everybody turned towards Beetrax, who had climbed â somewhat shakily â onto a three legged stool. The roaring fire, in an ornate stone fireplace some seven feet high, pumped out heat and light and cast Beetrax's shadow against the far wall near the long bar, escalating his already impressive stature to that of a giant.
Beetrax puffed out his chest. “Time for a speech, it is!” he said, deep bass voice rumbling like a clash of titans entering battle.
“Gods, not another one,” cursed someone from the crowd, as a good-hearted chuckle ran through the friendly, gathered throng.
“Careful, lad, lest I knock out your teeth,” warned Beetrax sombrely, swaying a little, his tankard clamped in a shovel-like fist, the knuckles heavily scarred, the backs of his fingers and hands tattooed with military script.
“Looks like somebody already knocked out yours!” More laughter, which quickly subsided when Beetrax gave
“Anyways,” continued the bristling axeman, “I'd just like to ask all you fine people and comrades here to raise your tankards, cups, glasses and soup bowls to my best mate, Dake, and his lovely wife, Jonti Tal â there she is, that slim and beautiful one over there,” he hiccupped, “who, on this very day five years back, took the bravest plunge of them all âbraver than any front-line mud-orc charge, braver than facing any horse-beast massacre, braver than cleaning any type of street-fed cesspit â yes, men and women o' the Cocks, they decided to get wed!”
The entire tavern's populace cheered, and many patrons slapped their fellows on the back. There were a large number of hugs. Love was in the air. Love, and wine fumes. Dake grinned around like a man possessed, and Jonti Tal, slender, elegant, with long black hair tied back, her steel eyes sweeping the room, stood, and waved her hands for quiet.
“Thank you, thank you all for comingâ¦” she began.
Beetrax belched, wobbled again on his stool, then plummeted to the ground in what turned into a rather comical half-dive, half-roll which saw him practically put his head
the roaring flames. More laughter chased woodsmoke and good humour around the large tavern room, and Beetrax scrambled back from the roaring blaze on all fours, his tankard lost in the throng, face as red as his big bushy beard and shaggy head of hair. Embers sizzled in his beard, and a friend suddenly threw ale in the large axeman's face. Steam sizzled. Beetrax lifted both his clenched fists in a traditional pugilist's pose until Talon leapt forward, his slender arm half-encircling Beetrax's broad shoulders, and he managed to achieve eye contact.
“Whoa, Big Man! Go easy there. You were about to suffer a head engulfed in flame!”
“Your beard, man, it was smouldering! Your bush was about to ignite! A harsh way to achieve a shave, I'd wager, even though so many here believe you need it. This friend, here, was simply saving your dignity. And your pride and joy. So, go buy him an ale instead of pummelling his undeserving features. Right?”
“Aye, right then, Talon,” nodded Beetrax, slapping the worried-looking douser on the shoulder, “that I will, that I will.”
Jonti was well into her tale by the time Beetrax regained focus, and was saying, “â¦chose the most romantic way to propose â under The Saviour Oak in Peace Lily Square, with the scent of flowers in our nostrils, the full moon illuminating everything with highlights of silverâ¦ I was blessed, and honoured, touched, and in love. Therefore, as he stared up with those big sad eyes, I felt compelled to say
to his most honourable proposal.”
“So, nothing to do with his huge fortune, then, eh love?” shouted Beetrax from the bar. He had a man sat on his shoulders now and was attempting to dance a dance from the knees down.
“Talon,” smiled Jonti, her face becoming yet more beautiful with the clarity of her smile, “would you kindly put an arrow through the fat man's eye?”
“With pleasure, sweet Jonti.” Talon bared his teeth in what could have been a smile.
“Anyway,” Jonti continued, sipping from a crystal goblet of thick red wine more reminiscent of blood than juice of the grape, “I would first like to thank you all for attending, except maybe Beetrax, who is a loveable rogue but, on occasion, more effort than should be required. I know many of you have travelled from far cities and towns over a week's journey away, and both Dake and I are truly honoured you made such an effort. We've put ten gold behind the bar, which I believe, according to Old Dog Ben, should last well into the small hours for both food and drink; and we would both be thrilled if you could fill your bellies, drink yourselves senseless, and make this, our fifth wedding anniversary, a night to remember!”
A cheer went up, with lots of clapping and shouts of goodwill. The atmosphere was charged with lightning. The band in the corner set up a merry jig, drums pounding, lyres strumming, feet stamping, and the party patrons began swirling one another around in a mad dash dance of vigour and fun.
Dake grabbed Jonti around the waist, and pulled her screaming and not-struggling-too-much down into his lap. The giggling and slapping turned within moments to a long, deep, lingering kiss, and they stayed like that for some time, entwined, lost amidst the merry bustle of the gathering and the dance, cocooned in their own little world of softness, sweetness, love and purity. Minutes flowed into hours, and time slipped by like a water snake through lilies. Dake and Jonti drank a decanter of fine Vagandrak Red, nuzzling one another, and reminiscing on past events with small laughter and glittering eyes. They were soothed into an alcoholic, embryonic haze of gentleness. They snuggled together, half dozing as the party started to lose momentum, and slowed, and soothed itself into a calmer time. Members of the gathering drifted around Dake and Jonti, shimmering like ghosts. It was a most comfortable situation, which led to long moments of holding, and longer moments of kissing; not the urgent kissing with a lust for sex, but a rhythmical union, a togetherness, holding one another for the simple sake of it.
Finally, Jonti pulled back.
“You still have it, my lord.”
“Ha! Don't call me that.”
the Lord of the House of Emeralds.”
“No no noâ¦
to the Lordship of the House of Emeralds.”
“Still. You'll always be my lord.” Her voice was low, and husky, and incredibly sexy. He reached up and stroked her smooth skin, lost in her. Jonti leant forward and kissed him, sensuously, for long lingering moments, until they both became gradually aware of an intrusive presence and pulled away, frowning. Beetrax was stood, warming his back by the fire, staring at them.
“You going to pay for a ticket?” snapped Jonti.
“You're staring, my friend. At us. During our intimate moment.”
“Oh, that.” Beetrax waved his hand, as if swatting away a fly, dismissing an uncomfortable moment he'd created with a gesture. “Don't be ridiculous. I wasn't staring. I was just watching. There's a difference, you know.”
Jonti scowled, but Dake gave her a little squeeze.
Go easy on him,
that squeeze said.
You love him. We love him. He's a brother. And you know what he's bloody like!
“You have something on your mind?”
“I do, as it happens.” Beetrax took a deep breath, gave a wide grin, and scratched his bushy ginger beard with sudden vigour.
“You maybe require some kind of herbal infestation antidote?” suggested Jonti.
“No! I have called the others. They're on their way.”
“What others?” said Dake, struggling more upright and rubbing his face and mouth. He looked around, as if waking from a deep slumber. He yawned. “Gods, what time is it?”
“Two hours after midnight,” said Beetrax, and his eyes were shining under his broad, flat forehead. He rubbed his chin again, and took a generous swig of honeyed wine, straight from a clay jug. Golden droplets hung in his beard, and firelight from the hearth turned them into suspended jewels. “You remember that time, on the walls? We'd just held against another mud-orc attack. I had that beautiful serrated axe, and was picking bits of bone and mud-orc flesh from the steel; and I was feeling despondent, like, as if the shit would never end. And you stuck your arm around me, and saidâ¦”
“I said, âDon't worry, Axeman. This horse shit won't last past the end of the week. Keep your chin up, brother!'”
Beetrax grinned. “Aye. And you were right. We
. We were
And a month later you were married to thatâ¦
“Hardly a ghost,” smiled Jonti, relaxing back against Dake. His arm encircled her waist, his fingers reaching out, stroking her inner thigh with a practised intimacy.
“Weeks of battle, not a single scar on you,” said Beetrax. He frowned. “Woman, you fight like a demon, and you turn to spirit form when the enemy blades and claws are near.
what I was staring at. Remembering, like.” Beetrax sat down on a stool with a sudden jolt, as if surprised by his own momentum and weight, and took another hefty gulp of wine.
Dake inhaled a deep breath rich with stray tobacco and woodsmoke. “Savage days,” he said. “Thankfully over. But hey! Now, it's a time of peace. We're all wealthy, happy, privileged. Heroes! Vagandrak salutes us. Celebrates us in literature and song. I performed yet
school visit last week. The children were crowding around, asking me how many mud-orcs I killed on the walls of Desekra; the cheeky little imps. I had to send them back to their chalk slates and learning. Still. It's good for them to meet their heroes.” He spoke with no irony.
“But you're not happy, are you?” said Beetrax, leaning forward. His shift of position put his face in shadow, and his eyes became very, very dark. Dake frowned.
“Of course I'm happy. I'm married. We're celebrating. I'm
by the Seven Sisters!”
“Where's the excitement gone, brother? The adventure? Theâ¦ the bloody
Jonti made an annoyed clucking sound, as Dake opened his mouth to answer, but Beetrax's eyes shifted â to a spot beyond Dake. Jonti jumped up, and stood with hands on her hips. She was smiling as she swept the room, eyes finally coming to rest on the three newcomers to their little gathering.
The ground floor of The Fighting Cocks was almost deserted; now the jigs were done, the band drunk, the food consumed. Ben the Bear slept in the corner, still wrapped in his shaggy bearskin despite the pumping heat from the hearth. He was snoring â a soothing, gentle purring sound, despite his size and ferocity of looks. In another corner six women in silks and chainmail played around a game table, throwing carved knuckle dice, their near-silent cheers and curses a testament to the seriousness of their bets which had no doubt increased in quantity in line with the amount of honeyed wine supped. Kendalol, one of the barmen, was polishing silver tankards behind a scarred stretch of stained oak bar. He was legendary for his lack of sleep, although the gossip was that his narrow-faced wife was something of a harpy, and he was as argumentative as she, thus necessitating alternating states of existence lest one throttle the other.