The NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. All you have to do is write a 50,000+ word novel in a month.
The sixth installment of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series completes a trilogy of direct sequels that takes the main characters across two continents. In this book, they're mostly settling in back home after their travels, but first they have to get there.
Book VI of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel series.
(If you enjoy these extracts and want to read the whole thing, you can buy it.)
The ship ghosted into the harbour on the last dregs of the wind before the autumnal mist closed in and enveloped the coast in an smoky blackness. The short figure, hooded and cloaked in the prow may have had something to do with it – they were holding a short staff, the tip of which glowed faintly, then winked out as the wind died. The ship coasted to a stop just a few yards short of a quay. There was some shouting on board, and a few minutes later a rope was thrown to the barely-visible stonework with a grapnel hook at the end of it. It was retrieved and thrown again, and again, but on the fourth time, it caught on something – a raised cobble, or a piece of metalwork – and held firm. A wiry figure climbed out along the rope to the quay. It examined the place where the rope had caught, and searched the nearby area. Finding a mooring bollard, he tied the rope to that, then shouted back at the ship. Several larger figures took turns climbing to shore, then they all took hold of the rope and heaved. The ship drifted slowly closer. More heaving, then a shout, a splash, more ropes were thrown to the quay, the ship stopped, and a gangplank was run out. The wiry figure untied his rope, then headed back aboard ship. Several minutes later, he returned to the quay, burdened now with a small pack and a sword, and leading about ten people similarly equipped, including the small hooded figure from the prow. They ignored the ship’s crew, and walked up the quay into the shrouded town.
The small procession headed unerringly through the now-foggy streets. On only one occasion did anyone try to interrupt their journey. A handful of men bearing swords loomed out of the fog and got not further than the first two words of their threat before the small hooded one raised their staff, and the attackers staggered back, pawing at their eyes. The group did not pause, and neither did they hurry, but one of them broke step long enough to kick one of the attackers as they passed.
A few minutes later, the group passed through an archway into a courtyard, where one of them, a slim figure with more weapons than the others, began hammering on a door. Nothing happened for a couple of minutes, then the door creaked open a few inches. There was a subdued conversation, and the door opened fully, flooding the courtyard with a yellow light that rivalled the white provided by the just-after-full moon, showing the group to be six armed men, two armed women, and the small hooded one. They went into the house.
The shutters were heaved open from the outside, a figure tumbled in through the window, and a blade glinted in the moonlight. The two figures in bed were already getting up, jumping out of bed, preparing to leap for weapons of their own. The intruder acted fast, and leapt at them both. He bodily pushed Cullan back onto the bed, and Alys jerked back from the knife blade reaching for her unprotected neck.
“Good evening, lady an’ genn’l’man. Which one of you’s Cullan?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” growled Cullan, struggling to get a hand free.
“Not really, I don’t ge’ out much. But I’ll admit, Cullan sounds like a bloke’s name. You ’im?”
“Yes! Who are you, what d’you want?”
“My name’s Brakka. I’m Akton’s evil twin brother.”
“You’re what?” asked Alys.
The intruder’s shoulder’s slumped and he pulled back slightly. “Yeah, I’m ’is twin, okay. We were born either side of midnight, so technic’ly he’s a day older’n me. And the day I was born on happened to be Devil’s Night, and I just happened to have a bloody great jagged red birthmark on me face. So – evil twin. He don’t talk about me much. It’s safer – obvious reasons, right?”
“You’re related to Akton?”
“Let’s see your face!”
“Okay. No tricks now!” He got up off the bed and and crouched where the moon could light his face a bit. Not only did he have the birthmark, he also had a neatly trimmed beard, and a series of scars across his features.
“You don’t look anything like him!” Cullan growled, getting up.
Akton was on him instantly, knife up. “Oh yeah, ’ow long you’ve bin away? Forgo’en what ’e looks like?”
“Not relevant, we talked to him this afternoon. You look nothing like him.”
“You talked to ’im this afternoon? You got one of our lazy-arse wizards to Teleport you to Morss and back?”
“Whaddya mean, ‘what’?”
“What are you on about, Teleporting to Morss? That’s in Morat! We’ve not been there for years!”
“Me brother Akton’s bin sent there to officially recognise the new ruler. He should be back in a week or so, now that the festivities ’ave finished.”
“Wait,” Cullan peered closer at him. “Are you Styfsen’s brother?”
“That’s what I said, innit?”
“We’re talking about the gate guard called Akton!”
Brakka’s shoulders slumped again. “A gate guard? A gate guard? Do I look like a bloody gate guard?”
“Not dressed like that.”
“Oh, fer fuck’s sake! He never told you about me? Or ’is name?”
“Styfsen never mentioned a brother, and he never told us his first name.”
“Oh great! That’s just like ’im, that’s is! He never tells nobody nuffin’, and expects me to sort it all out! I’m tellin’ yer, there’s only so much I can do from the Intelligence Branch! Not that you need tellin’, what with you running an office of it for a few months.”
“Then what the fuck are you doing bursting in through upstairs windows at the dead of night?”
“I’m in the Top Secret branch, I’m not supposed to be seen in public! So when I go out and do a recce or a bust or something, any witnesses can’t give an accurate description, or confuse me for my bloody political courtier brother!”
Cullan and Alys shared a look, then both turned to glare at him. “Get your arse out in the corridor, and stop waving cutlery around!” Alys shouted. “We’ll be out in a minute, and you can talk to us properly!”
“I got to talk to Cullan. And the guard beast you’ve got downstairs won’t take kindly to me loitering without Morgan’s permission to be here, will it?”
“Fine! Be quick!” Alys slid back down under the covers.
Cullan sat down on the bed. “Put the blade away, and get on with it.”
Brakka sheathed his knife. “Sorry. Precautions. You know how it is.”
“Get on with it!”
“Right, right.” He folded his arms. “Someone wants to see you.”
Cullan glared blankly at him for a few moments. “They can make an appointment.”
Brakka shook his head. “Nah, don’t work like that. Y’see, the person who wants to see you can’t come into the city.”
“Oh yeah? Who is it?”
“What, you mean this bandit chief we’ve been hearing about? The one with the nasty temper?”
“Nasty temper’s an understatement, but yeah, that’s ’im.”
“He’s one of ours. The rumours are a cover story. And ’e’s got a mission for you.”
“What sort of mission?”
“One you’re good at. Don’ roll your eyes at me, I’m just a messenger here – a trusted messenger. Like what you’re a trusted agent of His Majesty.”
“Then what’s your message?”
“You’ve just ’ad it. You’re to leave the city at noon on the first day after you get back, on the road that follows the Vetch to the sea. Stop where the road turns west, and you’ll be met, by The Bear or ’is accomplices. He’ll fill you in on the rest of it.”
“Does Kael know about this?”
“Of course ’e does, ’e set it up!”
“Really? I thought he’s away in the south-west?”
“Before he left. He set it up then. Oh, and he said that if you didn’t believe me, to tell you he knows you arranged Gort’s death. And he also said he doesn’t care, ’cos Gort wasn’t ’is monarch.”
Cullan sighed. “Fine. We gonna get paid for this?”
“Usual rates, plus all the loot you can carry – traditional terms, he called it.”
“Circumstances have changed since he set things up – we’ve got an Armed Company to feed and pay now. Our usual rates are now twenty-one hundred a week.”
“I’m sure he’ll be accommodating.”
“Who will? Kael, or The Bear?”
Brakka shrugged. “Either.”
“Okay. Message received and understood. Now bugger off!”
“Gotcha. Bye, then!” Brakka leapt up onto the windowsill. “Don’t keep yourselves up too late, eh?” He disappeared out the window. Cullan peered out after him, and saw a rope being drawn up onto the roof.
“Cocky bastard,” he muttered.
The night passed uneventfully, and in the morning they were on their way again after sunrise. They were maybe half a day away from where the road stopped heading due north-west, and started heading due west. It was at or just after the turn that they were due to meet their contact who would take them to The Bear. Both the impending meeting and various parts of last night’s conversation were playing on the officers’ minds, and they rode in silence. The men following them were not as loud as they had been yesterday, but they still talked to each other, the corporals still tried to show they were Sergeant material.
They stopped in a village just before noon to buy provisions, then marched on without consuming them, to much complaining by the men. They stopped an hour later to eat, and so it was about two in the afternoon when they continued, and half an hour later, stopped short of the bend that made the difference between following the river and crossing it. They were now about a third of the distance from Dentrassi, the capital, to Kronauer, a major crossroads city, which was itself roughly the same distance again from the coast and Willemem, Galorndan’s only major port. There was another city a bit further up the coast, but it was built on cliffs and wasn’t a port, and the dozen or so towns that lined the coast were not big enough to rival Willemem.
Alys called a halt and ordered weapons ready. While Brasis was sent on ahead to check the safety of the road, Alys and Kenyon directed the NCOs in arranging the company in battle order. Saggitta was placed at the centre of the line, with Takksys the Dwarf on her left. There were two men on either side of the centre pair, and Boruta and Roland formed the ends of the line. Flanking them a little ahead were the javeliniers, while Hode and his three archers formed a smaller second line with arrows nocked. Morgan and Dalian brought up the rear, while Alys and Kenyon flanked Cullan in front.
Brasis waved back that it was safe so far, and waited for them to catch up at the apex of the bend. A furlong beyond the bend, a small grove of trees came up to the road on the opposite side to the river, the bank of which was thick with bushes. The Burning Rose approached carefully.
Cullan raised his hand and they all stopped. “Y’know,” he said to Alys, not taking his eyes off the undergrowth, “if The Bear wasn’t supposed to meet us, I’d think about shooting a few fire arrows into those trees and bushes.”
“I’d think the same thing,” Alys agreed. “Problem is, we’ve been told to meet The Bear round about here, but neither do we entirely trust him to not attack us, so that makes it tricky to flush out a potential ambush.” She sat and thought for a moment, then turned in the saddle. “Archers - prepare fire arrows! Shoot the greenery if we’re attacked, then close and support the infantry! Infantry – follow at a walk, and stop fifty yards from the trees until we signal or unless we’re attacked! Officers – forward!”
Hode began ripping a strip of fabric from his cloak to use as wadding for the fire arrows, and Takksys passed his tinderbox back. Then Morgan’s horse caught up with the others, and they all began trotting forward, towards where Brasis was waiting, peering into the trees from their edge. The infantry advanced.
Cullan, Alys, Kenyon and Morgan arrived where Brasis was. “There’s definitely people in there,” he told them. “I didn’t fancy going through and springing a trap all by myself.”
“Don’t blame you,” Alys said. “Wait here, if it’s a trap, we’ll spring it, so you go and join the others. Give your horse to Dalian and come in with the archers.”
They kicked their horses forward. They were ten yards along the grove when the bushes on their right erupted with archers, and spearmen came out from behind the trees on the left.
“Don’t no-one move! Drop your weapons! Hands where we can see them! The Bear’s coming!” There were enough of them to skewer both officers and horses twice over. Behind them, they heard Brasis start to gallop away.
“You lot might want to run,” Cullan told them. “There’ll be fire arrows arriving in a few seconds.”
The bandits re-arranged themselves to more directly threaten the group. “Drop your weapons! Dismount!”
“We were told to meet The Bear here.” Alys said.
“Oh, you’ll meet him.”
Despite not doing as the bandits told them, the bandits still did not actually harm them. They grabbed the horses’ bridles, and half of them began covering the approach. Then the first fire arrows arrived. The weather was dull and damp, though, so nothing caught fire, and they fizzled out harmlessly.
“Last warning! Weapons down! Dismount!”
Alys glanced around, and was just about to kick the bandit holding her bridle away, when a huge man stepped out from behind a tree. He was vast, wearing a huge bearskin, including the head which he wore as a helmet. He carried a massive axe, had a beard that hid most of his face, and was wearing bearskin boots with claws. “Stand down!” he bellowed. The bandits immediately lowered their weapons and backed off, keeping a wary eye on Burning Rose, who had just entered the grove, but were now slowing to see what would happen next.
Alys called back over her shoulder. “Company halt! Fall in! Brasis, collect the rear guard!”
A knife appeared in Cullan’s hand. “You The Bear?”
“Yes,” the huge man answered. “Put the knife away, Cullan, you won’t need to throw it at my eyes.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Weren’t you told to meet me here?”
“Yes, but I didn’t know if you’d been told who you were to meet.”
“I wasn’t. I didn’t need to be told. I knew who I’d be meeting.”
“What do you mean?”
The Bear gave a short laugh. “I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am.”
The Bear addressed his men. “Alright everyone! Stand down, and follow me! We’re just getting off the road for a bit, no need to worry.” This last was added to Alys. Then he simply turned his back on them, and sauntered off through the grove.
The others followed him slowly. It turned out that the grove hid a rather large depression in the ground just a few yards from the road. A small bit at the very bottom was a puddle, and from the movement on its’ surface you could tell it was fed somehow by the river. The place showed signs of being used as a campsite, but not long term. Access was either down the steep slope towards the road, or down a much shallower slope from the west. The Bear called back to them. “You lot wait at the top of the west slope. Me and my men will pack up here, then we’re all off to more permanent quarters.”
“What do you mean? Are you taking us prisoner?”
“Oh Gods, wake up will you? I need to give you a full briefing, and it’s better to accomplish that out of sight and under cover. And now that we’ve met you, we don’t need to hang around here waiting for your lazy arses to turn up!”
The temporary camp was cleared away and packed up with commendable speed. “I’d say these aren’t ordinary bandits,” Kenyon muttered to Alys. “They’ve had military training, at the very least. Looks like this Brakka person wasn’t lying when he said Kael set it all up.”
“I know,” she replied. “Which begs the question, if Kael’s already got a mercenary company here, what’s he need with us?”
“Something dirty that needs doing quietly, probably. Maybe this lot aren’t as trustworthy as us.”
“Or don’t have the experience we do,” Cullan suggested.
They ended up in a small store room behind the main armoury. Morgan sat on an upturned box and wrote down Cullan’s dictation with a pencil, the writing getting smaller as she neared the bottom of the page, illuminated by a small magical light. Cullan treated it like a detached intelligence report to an Intelligence Branch secretary, giving all names and locations in code, and rattling it off as quickly as possible so he could get out of the office. For the names of things for which he didn’t know a code, he first used a descriptive phrase that probably Kael and almost certainly Brisby would be able to recognise, and thereafter used a code name he had thought up to go with them. In the report, Bechdel became Actor, Fisdnar, described as ‘the owner of significant mining interests on the southern borders’ became Chiefy, and Countess Isabel (‘an ambitious lady who Counts on her great rack to see her in good stead’) became Queen of Tarts. He concluded with, ‘Burnt Roses one to five are in the flowerbed, awaiting a weather forecast, and ready to use their thorns.’ He could have used their code names from when they worked for Intel a couple of years ago, but Cullan was mindful of the fact that someone from the conspiracy had infiltrated the Intelligence Branch recently, and might know those names. The new mercenary company allowed him to use a completely new set of code names, and try out a code appropriate to their names in order to both indicate that they were ready to go and were awaiting instructions, and to confuse still further anyone unfriendly who intercepted the message. Or General Kael, if he couldn’t work it out.
“Finished?” asked Morgan.
“Yes. Roll it up and stuff it in your shirt until we find a reliable courier.”
“No-one’s going to … actually, here, someone might frisk you in the tits, but not to do any searching. It’d be a bad idea if they found it, especially by accident. Shove it in your loincloth.”
There was the sound of deliberate footsteps outside, approaching.
Cullan jammed a finger to his lips. Morgan gave him the paper and hissed, “the cellar in Morss.” She closed her eyes, put a hand to her temple and another on Cullan’s wrist, and suddenly they were both half naked, then the light went out. And just in time – the door opened.
Cullan spun, Morgan screamed and covered herself up with her arms. The piece of paper dangled from Cullan’s hand, looking like the captured loincloth of a servant girl. “It’s all right, mate! We’ve, er, we’ve just finished. Not much light in there, you know.”
The patrolling sentry lowered his weapon, but not his lantern. “Haven’t you got a room?”
Cullan hesitated. “I share,” he said.
“It’s usually easier to get the other bugger to leave for a bit, not both of you sneak around in the armoury. Come on, get out, you’re not supposed to be in here.”
“We will join you, in a minute,” Cullan told him, and closed the door. Morgan put her hands to her temples again, their clothes reappeared, and a low sussurus filled the small room. They bumped about a bit, to make it sound like they were getting dressed while holding a sotto voce argument, then Morgan took the paper, slid it under the waistband of her skirt, and ended the noise. A brief moment later, Cullan opened the door.
“I hope you had fun in there,” the sentry growled. “I’ve got to report this to the Captain, he will not be pleased.”
“I’m sure he’ll understand, though.”
“He might, but he won’t be pleased. Get moving!”
“Right away! Come on Modris, back to where we belong.”
The sentry followed them all the way back to their room and made sure they were inside before leaving and returning to his patrol.
“Thorough little bastards, aren’t they?” Cullan murmured.
“They can’t afford to let anything happen to derail their plans.”
“You got it safe?”
“Good. I’ll see what I can do about other matters tomorrow.”
“Yes.” Cullan made to move towards the bed, where Edda was alseep again. “Incidentally, those were illusions, right?”
“Illusion Disguises, yes. Relatively simple, and easier to manage than a moving Simple Illusion.”
“Was yours accurate?”
“Breathe a word and I’ll set your balls on fire.”
“You’ve an impressive figure for someone so slim. Just sayin’,” he added as Morgan narrowed her eyes at him.
The next day at mid-morning, Cullan ran into Kenyon at the training grounds. Kenyon was sparring with some of the garrison, and mopping the floor with them, and Cullan was just taking a wander round the castle. After Cullan saw Kenyon floor a sixth consecutive opponent in about a minute, he started clapping. The session stopped, and Kenyon turned to face him. “Very impressive!” Cullan called. “Got any tips?”
“Come out and try for yourself!” the big man called back, wiping the sweat from his brow.
Cullan looked around, as if gauging the attitude of the audience. “All right,” he shrugged. “Got a blunted sword for me?”
“Here!” One of the men Kenyon had recently sent flying offered his. Cullan strolled up and took it, and made a few practice swings. Then he strolled to the centre of the ring and faced Kenyon.
Kenyon wasted no time. He came in fast, chopping down from up high, using all the advantage his extra height, weight and strength gave him. Cullan sidestepped, bringing his sword up to deflect the blow as it whistled past his shoulder. Both he and Kenyon turned into the other, Kenyon following through on an upswing, Cullan trying to set up a cut to chest. They missed, and began circling. Cullan feinted a couple of times, but Kenyon wasn’t drawn out of guard, so he didn’t follow them up. Then Kenyon feinted, Cullan wasn’t expecting a feint, so followed it, and got the flat of Kenyon’s blade in his kidneys as he realised too late and tried diving out of the way. He rolled upright, wincing a little, then had to hurl his body backwards as Kenyon followed up with a lunge. Cullan circled his blade and knocked Kenyon’s aside as he recovered, then lunged himself. Kenyon back-pedalled, brought his blade down hard on Cullan’s, missed, and hacked at his arm on the upswing. Cullan whipped his arm back and sliced at Kenyon’s midriff as he ducked the inevitable shoulder-height follow-through. Kenyon grunted as the blade hit, then grunted again as Cullan launched himself forward and tackled the larger man in the stomach. Kenyon feigned surprise and let himself be hurled to the ground.
“Report for Kael, urgent,” Cullan hissed, face to face.
“Deal,” Kenyon hissed back, and rolled him over. Just before his back flattened on the ground, Cullan released his grip and bent his knees. Kenyon kept rolling, Cullan stopped. Cullan was on his feet first, because he was in position to jump onto them, while Kenyon had to roll over once more to be in the same position. They began circling each other again, weapons forgotten.
“You’re quick for a big guy,” Cullan said.
“You’re tough for a little one,” Kenyon replied. And launched himself at Cullan.
Cullan knew it was coming and braced for it, but it still knocked the wind out of him. There was a small cheer from the men Kenyon had been recently knocking about, and they both got to their feet.
“Well done,” Kenyon shook Cullan’s hand as he helped him up.
“You too,” Cullan replied, panting. “Name’s Corlen.”
“Kenyon of Morss. Where’d you learn stuff like that?”
“Here and there. You?”
“Friend in Morss. Complete loony. Thinks he runs the place.”
“Wouldn’t be that much of a change if he did,” Cullan grinned, “what with the past rulers of that place.”
“Hah, yeah! Wanna drink?”
“Don’t mind if I do, thanks.”
The two of them wandered off, accompanied by the Sergeant who’d overseen the training.
“You new as well? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“Arrived the day before yesterday, with my sister and her servant. Alva’s gone into the Bodyguard, so I’ve inherited Modris.”
“Oh yes? And what do you do?”
“I’m a courier, and I’ve been marked as a special agent.”
“Really?” Kenyon asked. “They told me I’d be a useful agent too. I suppose I need to arrive with a servant of my own if I want to be a special agent.”
“Actually, I’ve got one spare, if you want her.”
“I managed to acquire one, best not ask the details, I guarantee someone won’t like hearing them. But, yeah, I’ve currently got two servants, and only need one.”
“Oh right, thanks. I’ll find you at lunch time, have a look at her.”
“Good. Well, I’ll be hanging around, definitely.”
They reached the kitchens. Kenyon and Cullan pulled up stools at a worktop, the Sergeant unthinkingly poured them all mugs of wine.
“Morss, Capital of Morat, right?”
“Yeah. Been doin’ some work there.”
“I gathered. They just had a new King crowned, right? After a couple of civil wars, yeah?”
“Yes. First civil war was when the last ruling wizard got ripped open by a demon, or something. Then there was the invasion, then Mordlin’s protectorate, and then another civil war when he left. Prince Gregor is the new ruling Prince, and He’s got me to thank for it.”
Kenyon launched into his cover story for the benefit of the Sergeant, and that killed a neat half hour before the Sergeant reminded them they had things to be getting on with. He and Kenyon went back to whatever they were supposed to be doing, and Cullan started on another wander round the castle. He ran into Dalian in the day room in the keep.
“Who are you?”
Dalian paused in the act of jotting something down. “I could ask you the same question.”
“I asked first.”
Dalian put down his quill on the small table that was in the room. “My name is Dalian, I am an accredited auditor of the Kingdom, and I have been assigned to catalogue this castle’s library and other valuables, in accordance with a Wealth Parity Ordinance for the upcoming royal wedding. And you?”
“I’m Corlen, courier and agent. I’m new here, though, so I don’t know where any valuables might be hidden, yet.”
Cullan gestured at the window, then turned and checked outside the door. Dalian checked the window, even though there was little possibility of anyone eavesdropping from forty feet up a sheer stone wall. “Morgan’s acting as my servant, Alys is in the Bodyguard, and we need more paper, ’cos we used what you gave Morgan to write an urgent report for Kael that we need to get out ASAP,” Cullan hissed to him quickly.
“I can be done here the day after tomorrow, probably,” Dalian told him, equally quietly. “Where’s the report now?”
“Morgan’s got it. Try and find an excuse to see us.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Why do they allow so many of you pen-pushers to breed?” Cullan sneered, back at normal volume.
“Because without us, none of you agents would know who to kill next.”
Cullan raised his eyebrows and nodded in appreciation. He hadn’t thought the clerk would be able to come up with such an appropriate response off the cuff like that.
“When has a pen done anything useful, though?”
“They say it’s mightier than the sword?”
“Alright, when was the last time you saw someone’s head chopped off by a pen?”
“August, in the Eastern Empire. People over there can turn anything into a weapon.”
“Yeah, but they’re all bloody weird over there, everyone knows that. See you around, pen-pusher.”
© Brian Wakeling. GURPS® is © Steve Jackson Games.