Note: This is a sample of a story idea, the writing of which was begun several years ago. This is an epic tale, inspired in part by Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. At its core, it is about family and the lengths to which even the lowest souls will go to protect those they love. Those whose lives give theirs (ours) meaning.
The storm was a mix of hail and rain, and the side roads in the southern port city of Amador, saturated with moisture, became little more than mud traps. It was also cold. The first fingers of winter had begun to tickle the lands with chilled winds from the Eastern Ocean snaking their way through the maze of dirt and cobblestoned roads.
Not surprisingly, the man was only one of few out on this, one of the final nights before perpetual darkness fell over the city and its surroundings for several months. Tomorrow, the sun would rise, but the nights were getting longer, which meant the grip of the dark winter was nearly upon them. Also, given the dreary weather, he may not have been the only one with murder on his mind. However, the murder he considered might very well destroy the world.
Wrapped in a dark, hooded cloak that dragged through the mud as he loped along, the man steered his way to one of the shady taverns on the outskirts of the walled city. Morwenna’s was a rundown shamble of a place, little more than a lean-to against the towering wall. Most of the businesses – tinkers, tailors, cobblers, thatchers – along this stretch of road were in much the same condition. It was a forgotten part of the city, filled with the dregs of a once opulent society that now lived little more than wasted lives.
The man stepped up to the door – he could hear the raucous strains of a piano and the sprinkling of people singing along to the simple tune – but before he went inside, he checked up and down the street to see if he was being watched. Satisfied that he was not, he entered.
Lit by candles, the tavern was cast in a soft half-glow. Plenty of shadows lingered in the corners of the establishment; shadows where a man who did not necessarily want to be seen could hide and conduct his secret business.
Without missing a bit of lyric, people turned to look at him as he entered, but he kept his hood up so that his face was partially hidden in shadow. Content that he was not known to them or that he was of no interest to them, those that had looked his way when he came in returned their attention to the woman playing the piano.
He stamped his feet on the bristled mat inside the door. Out of the corner of his eye, through the smoky haze, he spied the man he had come here to see. The man, named Ragan, sat at a table on the edge of darkness. A candle at the center of the table cast his person in a flickering glow. He watched this man in black with apparent disinterest, yet repeatedly turned his drink on the table as if deep in thought.
The man in black crossed the straw-strewn floor to where Ragan sat. He offered a stiff nod to the man and then sat across from him. Reluctantly, the man in black threw back his hood to reveal the visage that had been hidden in shadow. Not doing so might cause more unwanted attention than he wished to suffer this night. He was already confident that most, if not all, in the bar either did not recognize him or were too drunk to care they had seen him.
He was a slight man with a gaunt face as white as newly fallen snow. His skin was pulled taut over his skull, which was hairless, and his eyes were sunken black orbs. His lips were no more than a thin pink gash on his face, and his nose hooked like a vulture’s beak.
The two men said nothing to one another until Ragan broke the silence. “You asked for this meeting. What is it that you want?”
“Ah, straight to the point,” the man in black said. His words were more hissed than spoken. “I like that. But not so fast, my friend. I need to know you are the man for the task.”
“What task? And I’m not your friend, Grim–”
“No names,” the man in black interrupted, casting a furtive glance around the room. “Even here, it is best if it appeared as if we were never here and had never had this conversation. It is a very grave and very important task I have for you.”
“Well,” Ragan said, not sure he liked what apparent name omission could indicate, “out with it.” He threw back the shot of whatever it was he had been drinking and eyed his companion carefully.
“In time,” the man in black said in that hissing manner. “Tell me about your family.”
“What do they have to do with this task you want to offer me?” Ragan snapped.
“Oh, most assuredly everything.” The man in black reached beneath his cloak and pulled out a tiny blue box smaller than his hand. He set it on the table, tapping his finger lightly on the lid. Slowly, he slid the box across the table to Ragan, who placed his hand over it when the man in black removed his.
“What is this?” Ragan asked, looking about the room to see if anyone had noticed the sudden transaction, but it seemed they were being all but ignored as the other tavern-goers were caught up in another tune. He made to open it, but the man in black reached out and covered Ragan’s hand with his own.
“Not yet.” The man in black smiled, revealing two rows of gray, mottled, misshapen teeth. His breath was rank like rotten eggs. “Think of it as your incentive.”
“Incentive for what? You have made no attempt to enlighten me as to what all of this secrecy is about. What is it you would have me do? I only agreed to this meeting based on your promise of its urgency. Now I am regretting I came.”
The man in black removed his hand from Ragan’s. He wanted to draw this out as long as he could as he was enjoying this little game he had begun with his counterpart. He couldn’t have said why he chose Ragan. There was nothing overt in his character which belied the particular disposition the man in black needed of the individual chosen for this endeavor. Ragan was a large man, but the man in black knew that in this case, large did not necessarily mean dimwitted. Ragan was, after all, a soldier in the King’s Royal Guard. That had not been overlooked by the man in black. If there had been a single reason Ragan had been chosen for this grave task that was, indeed, it. Moreover, the man in black had access to the necessary leverage. Ragan was vulnerable and thus pliable.
“Enough of this,” it was Ragan’s turn to hiss. “Tell me what you would have me do or I am leaving this instant.”
The man in black smiled again, but his demeanor became suddenly serious. “You will go nowhere until I have said you can leave.”
Seated across the tavern, a cloaked figure stirred and then relaxed. He gestured to a serving girl that he wished for another drink, and then returned to his discreet surveillance.
“Open the box, now.” The man in black removed his hand from Ragan’s.
Ragan was now hesitant about opening the box. He did not relish this encounter. There was something suddenly sinister about his compatriot that unnerved him, and he was now certain that he had gotten involved in something equally as sinister. He wanted to be away from here, away from this decrepit city, and back in the capital with his family. He despised these tours and wished he had never been born into the King’s Guard. He craved for a simpler life.
Finally, Ragan lifted the lid and peered inside, but it took a moment for him to fully process what he was seeing. When recognition finally dawned on him, he slid his chair back violently, prepared to throw himself across the table at the fiend before him.
Several people nearby turned at the sound of the ruckus. When Ragan reached for his sword, they started from their chairs, anticipating a fight. The figure from across the tavern half rose; however, a slight gesture from the man in black stilled him. The man in black sat motionless, not an ounce of concern showing on his face.
“If you know what is good for you, you will return to the table this instant so we may finish our conversation,” the man in black said as he began to drum his fingers on the table. Ragan was not able to see it, but the man in black had pulled a dagger from his cloak, which he now held in a bony hand beneath the table.
Ragan withdrew his hand from his sword and slowly slid his chair back to the table. Convinced there was going to be no fighting, the onlookers returned their attention to the woman and the piano. This kind of altercation happened too often for them to care beyond the fact that no blood had been spilled. And Ragan’s outburst was the very reason the man in black had opted to have this meeting in a public place, though he wished it could have been held more discreetly. The subject matter going forward was far too delicate to be hashed out in a public tavern, but the man in black made do with what he had to work with. And right now there was no doubt that he had Ragan’s full attention and cooperation.
Ragan gazed once more inside the box at the ringed finger that belonged to his wife. He recognized the unique design of the ring – it was gold band with a blue pearl setting – and nearly vomited. How could this be? What had he acquiesced to?
Tears filled his eyes and murder filled his heart. He would have this man’s head … in time. However, in this moment, he had to do whatever he could to ensure his wife’s safe return.
“The children?” Ragan whispered.
The man in black leaned over the table so his words would not carry. “We have them. They are safe for the time being.”
Ragan swallowed hard. This could not be happening. Not to him. Rage welled up within him, but had no outlet. His tears spilled down his cheeks, and he wondered what any onlookers would think was transpiring. He wanted to kill this man, but in the end, he knew that in order to see his family safe again he would have to do what was asked of him.
“What would you have me do?” Ragan murmured.
The man in black leaned closer so that they were nearly face to face. “Quite simple, my boy,” he whispered so only Ragan could hear. “I want you to kill the Queen.”
Jaran Ranth awoke in the dark to a fire in his belly and the sound of voices outside. As he sat up to investigate, his old bones creaked like the branches of a winter ash responding to a sudden whipping wind, and he grimaced as the efforts of the past day’s labor returned to take their toll. His sleep had been peaceful, and he had been dreaming of his youth, a time when his body welcomed the punishment he offered it even if those he punished did not.
A soft ray of moonlight shining through the cracks in the shuttered bedroom window told him the night was still young, and it provided enough illumination to see that his wife had also been disturbed. Serena began to sit up, but Jaran stilled her with a hand on her arm.
“Stay quiet and still,” he whispered. “I will see to it.”
Serena nodded. The glow of the moonlight lit softly her smooth face, and Jaran could read the concern in her eyes. She was thinking of their daughter, Amira.
“I will keep you both safe,” Jaran said as he lit a lamp resting on the table beside his bed. Lamp in hand, he crept down the narrow hallway to the great room, where he exchanged the lamp for his broadsword hung above the darkened hearth. The metal sang as it was lifted from its perch.
Many men had fallen to that same sword. In his time, Jaran had been a feared warrior, a hero from a time long forgotten.
Winter was in its infancy, and the night was cold. His breath steamed in the chilled air. He thought of the recent word of bandits from the northern wastelands – impossibly, from beyond the wall – continuing to make ever bolder inroads into the settled lands, and he wondered if he was about to meet some of them now. Though he was sure of his skills, he couldn’t help but pine for the sure strength and cunning of his youth.
As he stepped cautiously to the door, he heard stifled laughter coming through the shuttered windows at the side of the house followed by the sounds of another hushing the laughter. The voices were a ways removed, but Jaran could determine they were moving to the front of the dwelling. He would meet them as soon as he stepped out of the door. He preferred to have a greater degree of surprise on his side, but he also couldn’t imagine they would be expecting a naked man to come exploding through the front door with hair wild and sword raised.
As quietly as he could, Jaran slid the heavy bolt on the oaken door. He paused, taking a deep breath to quiet the pounding in his chest. It had been many winters since he had seen combat, and though those skills, once learned, were never really forgotten, they could dull with passing lack of use. Though his body was still hard and rippled with sinew and muscle, he was a farmer now; the days of his storming battle lines and grappling in hand to hand combat had passed with so many harvests and tilled fields.
He was met with a wash of cold, brisk air that stung his bare chest and arms. He gripped his sword tighter and plunged into the half-moonlit darkness, scanning the night left and right for would-be attackers. Having seen no one charging to run him through with a sword, Jaran darted to his right and made for the northwest corner of the cottage. Without slowing, favoring surprise and foregoing caution, he charged with a cry the group he knew to be gathered just around the corner.
His daughter shrieked as she saw her father, with sword raised, run at her and her two suitors.
“Father?” Amira cried.
Surprisingly, the first thing that ran through Jaran’s head, after a brief moment to catch his tired breath, was that he was grateful that his daughter was fully clothed. Amira wore a moon-colored cotton dress her mother had made for her, and to combat the cold, she was wrapped in a hand-knitted shawl as black as a starless sky. Yet this did not entirely dispel the effects of the early winter night as she could be seen to shiver on occasion.
The half-moon shone down on them, casting vague shadows.
“Yes, Amira, it is I,” Jaran responded. He still had not lowered his sword and realizing such he promptly did so. “By the grace of the gods, what are you doing out here at this ungodly hour?” He stepped closer to his daughter. In response, the two suitors took several steps backward, away from Amira.
Now noticing the trio’s wide eyes, the second thing Jaran realized was that he was not clothed at all. And it was cold. Amira unwrapped herself from her shawl and tried to offer it to her father, but being too proud and too angry Jaran refused.
“I’ll ask again, what are you doing out here and who are these boys?” Jaran spat the last word, unable to take these suitors seriously as men. Suddenly he was even more angered by the fact that the three of them were skulking around behind his back in the dead of night. There were many dangers lurking beneath the stars from the wolves that came down from the mountains to the bandits that periodically invaded from the frozen wastelands of the north. And so much more.