In a large capital city Royal city, there was no let up from the crowds of pedestrians, shoppers and other people and animals going about their business. From early morning, traffic starts building up. Barrows, hand carts and animal pulled carts trundled along, with no time to wait for anyone carless enough to stray into their route to deliver or pick up.
Along the cobbled streets where shop fronts spilled out onto the path outside with every available space used to show their wares. Brightly coloured textiles, rugs for those that could afford them, jewellers bent over their next sparkling creation all adding to the vivid mix.
Between the buildings were stalls also with owners desperate to relive a potential customer of their hard earned coin. Toys, cooking utensils, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and sweet sticky treats from all over the known world assaulted your senses to the point of shutting down. Jugglers, acrobats and fortune teller’s squashed in anywhere they could also eager to earn enough coin to feed their families that night.
In the hustle and bustle, the delicious aroma of exotic delicacies floating in the air mixed in with the smell of stale sweat and sour ale of a drinking house, tempting passers-by to stop for some refreshment.
In the afternoon, the crowds grow bigger as those lucky enough to find work in the palace join the throngs of people.
For most now this is time to go home.
The deep red sunset reflecting off what seemed to be solid gold domed palace, the white marble of the noble homes and the white painted houses of the poorer inhabitants seem to set the city on fire, to me, feeling disconnected from the rich jungle environment that I grew up with surrounding and nourishing me throughout my life slowly flowing away like a newly dammed river just strengthening my feelings that I do not belong here, just proves this place is hell on earth.
But Korra is determined to seek and audience with King John V
Strike, who turned to any crime to survive when his Uncle banished him for Axehome looked decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of voluntary entering a place full of uniformed men desperately wanting to speak with someone matching his description hung at the back, with the intention of peeling away from us if and when we entered the palace.
Walking through the gates of Royal City it is not entirely difficult to see the palace. A huge, multi-spired building that rises fifteen floors up a grand place, almost something from a tale of a far off land, foreboding but at the same time a welcoming sight to make the people that lived there feel safe in the knowledge that their king was watching over them and protecting them. The very tops of the tallest towers obscured by the clouds the building reflecting on the wealth and status of the king. As the sun sets the whole building catches the sun, shining as if it were made of gold. The hue of the setting sun giving it a strange red tinge, almost the colour of fresh blood.
“The Sapphire palace of the Emperor on the Sapphire Islands although resplendent is nowhere near as grand as this place.” Korra informs us.
The crowds gradually disappear as evening approaches and darkness begins to creep in but they grow steadily again as the night market starts operating. No one really sleeps here.
Crowds swarm around for night snacks at the various food stalls and restaurants near the theatre or to pick up some good bargains.
Over affectionate Ladies with a kind smile, for the right price of course loiter in the shadows along with the others of not so legal trade, the cut throats and pickpockets also needing to put bread on the table.
The way the city seems to be built, from what we have seen so far is that the palace is in the centre and all main streets radiate out of it like raise of sunlight. Around five or six main thoroughfares leading to and from the palace, all roads lead to the golden palace a common saying in Royal City.
Looking down one of the main streets, we were still on the outskirts of the city where the one or two floor buildings, drunkenly leaning against each other lined the filth encrusted road on both sides, a bit more humble looking than the buildings nearer to the palace. The divide between rich and poor did not change were ever we travelled.
Taverns, houses of moderately ill repute, and ale houses were dotted between the dwellings, instantly recognisable from the pealing painted signs and crowds of people. If we wanted to gain an audience with King John V then we needed to clean up.
Tramping round a jungle with me, a creature whose surroundings influence our appearance from birth. For me it was my braided hair resembling jungle vines, that and all our clothes made to blend in with the vegetation it looked like I brought a good portion of it with us.
With several boat voyages and various living, dead and undead creatures trying to kill us only the most polite high born individuality would only manage to describe our group as very well-travelled and that would only because they hadn’t actually seen us caked in mud, blood; some ours, some other peoples and our holey garments. Combined with an unmistakable natural fragrance that would fill up your whole world if we hadn’t already gotten used to it we were anything but presentable to a King.
“We need to scrub up somewhere. Let’s find a brothel that’s of reasonable repute and steal some clothes.” Korra suggested. Strike must be rubbing off on her.
“What’s a reasonable repute brothel?” Strike had to ask.
“Or buy some and borrow the baths.” She added, realising what she had just said.
“Generally get ourselves sorted, we don’t have any major friends here. It would be the ideal place to get tarted up on the cheap.” I have no idea what Korra just said. I understood all the words they just made no sense to me in that particular order.
“Ahh well, I would quite like to think I have the complete opposite of friends within this city.” Strike said with an easy smile. I must have looked confused as he continued. “I have a lot of enemies within this city.” Oh, okay Human humour.
Korra, being a bard was always able to find hospitality from somewhere began looking around the swinging painted signs, wandering down yet another side street she finally spotted a white stone building with wooden slat work and supporting beams. The faded peeling paintwork showing a picture of a large full flowering red rose. Curled around the stem is a serpentine dragon. The sound of bawdy patrons and people shouting and laughing pour out from the inside. It had become quite dark now and the flickering golden glow of lit lanterns through the window give a little brightness in the gloom.
Pushing the door open the wall of sound flows out and envelops us. Luckily enough Royal City is quite a cosmopolitan city, the large port bringing in merchant’s and cargo ships from all over the known world making extra coin by loading any extra space with travellers so the three of us dressed and smelling the way we do barely raise an eyebrow. As we walk in a couple of people give me and Strike second glances but as we have shown no hostility they don’t seem too bothered or are filing us under not our business and turn back to their drinks.
“Have we got any actual coin?” The thought suddenly striking Korra.
“I have nothing.” I admitted.
We both looked to the Northlander.
“I may have…a…small supply…of…assorted coin.” He admits eventually, visibly squirming.
“C…could I suggest we get some food…drink…lodgings…?” Korra stammered, not wanting to offend a Northlander thief by asking for him to be parted with his wealth.
“She wants you to spend your gold.” I whisper laughing.
“Mostly for the purposes of being able to gain an audience with the king, we need to clean up.” Korra explained.
“Now there’s the problem. I don’t want an audience with the King.”
“Well that’s why we came here.”
“No. We came here because you wanted to come here and gain an audience with the King.”
“I think what he’s trying to say, love.” Proud of myself for slipping a Human word in there. “Is that you’re on your own.”
“I will quite happily give you coin to get you cleaned up etc., etc., etc. To get you to be however presentable you want to feel but…
“I don’t need you to go with us, if you don’t feel safe doing it.” Korra interrupted.
“Let me see...” Strike cut in.
“I do understand that you don’t want to be here at all.” Korra tried again.
“…I’m currently in the city of, well that can only be described as a lifelong enemy of ALL…”
Before Strike could finish a huge shovel sized hand slapped down on his shoulder and a voice, much too worse for drink managed to slur “Why don’t you Northlanders fuck off back to where you fucking belong?” The stench of sour beer filling the space between us as the owner of the hand leaned into our group over Strike’s shoulder, bleary eyed and swaying.
“Why don’t you go away?” Strike said not even looking over his shoulder.
“Go away? This is our city! It’s not for your sort. Fuck off back to the North!”
“I don’t wanna hurt you.” Strike warned, I was not too sure if he was lying.
He drained his clay mug, the taxing conversation must be leaving him thirsty before slamming it down on the sticky, beer stained wooden counter top.
“Oh it’s like that is it?” He slurred again before rolling his grubby sleeves up over his shoulders, swaying as he does so
Strike sighed, his shoulders slightly sagging at the unfair combat. Before I could blink he dropped and scythed the drunks’ legs from underneath him.
The man never stood a chance. He fell to the floor like a sack full of stones. As his head struck the sawdust he lay very still.
Has he killed him? I looked to Korra who is thinking exactly the same thing. Is there some Northlander fighting style that kills their enemies with one well aimed kick?
Then from the floor came a low, rolling snore of the terminally inebriated and I remembered to breathe again.
Now a few people have noticed us. Interested faces peer around and the sound of chairs being slowly scraped back warily.
“He’s drunk!” Strike shouted to the room.
Seeing the recumbent figure on the floor, obviously he had a reputation for trouble and seeing he decided to pick on a Northlander all interested parties shrug shoulders and went back to their drinks.
A bald, fat jowly gentleman dressed in an apron almost as dirty as the floor, no, that would indicate the floor was almost sanitary, no, it was almost as dirty as the bar top, made of roughhewn cloth walks over, cleaning a tankard in the traditional way of spitting into it and wiping it with a corner of his apron.
“What’ll it be then sir, ladies?” in the jovial tone of all bar keeps.
“The two ladies would like a room. Please. To bathe and freshen” Strikes voice as smooth as oil.
“Right you are. Right you are. Err, well we got plenty o’ rooms, it all depends on, err, what type of rooms, if you understand me.” He said rubbing his finger and thumb together.
“A nice one.” Strike said.
“A clean room.” Korra added.
“Ah well, that’ll cost you a little bit more sir. How nice are we talking sir? I can see you’re a man of discerning taste.” He said lying through his teeth. “By the way, don’t worry about old Reg down there, he’s always getting in trouble with someone.”
“I’m not.” Strike confessed.
“There were some sailors from the Sapphire Islands here a few nights back, he’s got a beef with everybody. To be honest if it hadn’t been for you he normally gets his arse kicked three times a week by the regulars. I wouldn’t worry about it. But as you say I can see you’re not. But, um, yeah, it depends on how nicer room you want really.” The bar keeper continued without us really asking.
“A room as nice as ten gold pieces.” Strike suggested.
“Oh, ten gold pieces? I’m sorry, I didn’t realise I was catering to the nobility sir.” His voice becoming jollier at the prospect.
“Oh, well, erm, I erm.” The bar tender seemed to lose the power of speech for a heartbeat.
“We would also like some clean dresses.” Korra requested.
The Bar Keeper looked a little out of his depth.
“Oh, dresses? I’m, I’m…”
“Or at least advice on where to get them” Korra took pity on him.
“…Well you’d need to head in the city a bit, Miss. Here in the outer quarters we don’t have much call for such finery, it’s a bit out of my league I’m afraid Miss.”
“While they bathe and freshen up, I shall find them clothes.” Strike offered.
“To be honest, you all look nice enough people. Tell you what, don’t let it be said that old Samson ever tried to rip a costumer off. I’ll be honest with you, ten gold pieces? I’d give you at least a week’s stay for that, how long are you looking to stay for?”
“Possibly a week, I don’t know. They haven’t been to see who they need to see yet.” Strike answered.
“Tell you what, how about you give us five coins now that will get you a few days. If you decide to stay for the rest of the week, you gimme the other five coins then.”
Strike dropped half the pile into Samson’s hand which quickly disappeared into a large pocket on the front of his apron disguised with food remnants and assorted stains.
“Would you care for, oh of course key! Sorry.” He reached behind him to a rough wooden board behind him, hooks had been screwed into the wood some empty, some still holding old, slightly rusted keys showing available rooms.
“Who? Miss” Sampson asked gesturing for someone to take the key. Without thinking I held out my hand, I had only dealt with wood, flint and other jungle sourceable materials before, I had never really come into contact with metal before.
“Thank you.” I said as my fingers closed around the metal.
“What have you got in the lines of really strong ale?” Strike asked looking behind Sampson towards the barrels lying on their side with a tap hammered into the lid. There did not seem to be names of any sort but different animals drawn onto the cover above the tap.
As the cold iron touched my flesh I felt a sudden freeze surge up my arm. My body stiffened the only time I had felt such a bitter chill was when I was in Silanthus’ chamber inside the ziggurat watching the horrors unfold before me in my vision.
In self-preservation my hand pulled away, and before the key clattered to the floor Strike caught it with snake like speed.
“Is your friend alright Sir?” Sampson asked with a concerned nod towards me.
“Sorry but I’ve not seen owt like that before, no offence meant Ma’am.”
“No, none at all.” I replied looking at my hand for any damage, how could so much pain come with no injury at all?
“She’s just odd.” Strike brushed off.
“It bit me!” I said in my defence against Strike’s comment.
They all looked at me as if I had gone crazy.
“I tell you what Sir, I do feel a bit bad about your friend and whatever’s just happened.” He said reaching into his front pocket and producing five gold coins. “Here’s your coin back and we’ll say no more about it. To be honest business is slow at the moment, so err…”
“Then surely it’s in your best interest…”
“Alright, as you wish Sir, just trying to be friendly, you know.”
“I understand you have to live.”
“Much appreciated Sir, much appreciated. The rooms up the stairs, first on your left, you can’t miss It.”
“Now about that strong ale?” Strike sounded happier.
“Oh, yeah. We’ve got plenty of ale Sir, what would you like?” He asked gesturing at the barrels.
“Something dark” He replied. Well there was no change there then. He pointed to a board with a boar painted on.
“Oh a bit of the old Stiffbristle? Good choice Sir, good choice. How much did ya want, bearing in mind? No I’m sure you know your beers Sir, but it is a potent brew Sir, we only usually serve it in glasses no bigger than that Sir…” He said showing Strike a small tumbler. “…But it’s up to you. I’d personally choose half a pint, but well you can see I’m getting on a bit.”
“Then I will try a half.”
The thick black soup like brew was passed over.
“Wassat?” I ask watching the glass with interest.
“Beer.” Strike replies before taking a mouthful. “If I remember correctly…”
“Is it the same stuff we drank on that ship?”
“No that was wine.” He said wiping the foam off his lip with the back of his sleeve.
“So what’s the difference?”
“Sorry, if you don’t mind me asking? Where abouts are you from Miss, where you don’t know the difference between wine and ale?” Sampson started to laugh but stopped when he saw I was serious.
“She’s from the forest.” Strike answered, keeping his explanation to a minimum.
“Woowh, what the Jungle?”
“Yeah.” Strike tried to answer with a mouth full of ale.
“Whew, we’ve been hearing some strange things about the jungle recently.” Sampson said shaking his head.
“Yeah, we’ve seen them!” I confirmed
“Well, that’s why we’re here.” Korra tried to tell her story but was ignored.
He leaned over the bar towards me.
“Did you want the same Miss?”
“No, she’ll just have water.” Strikes voice seemed to exit out of my mouth.
Sampson looked at him as if he had just insulted his mother.
“I’m sorry Sir, we don’t keep stocks of water.” He almost shuddered at the word.
“I believe we will each have a glass of the rabbit.” Korra cut in quickly.
“Yeah? Really Miss? Oh, well we have plenty in, there’s not much call for the old Hopfoot round here, but good choice Miss. Pint? Or half?”
The bar keeper poured out two pints of pale ale. It looked like someone’s water infection.
Strike must have seen my wary look.
“It’s made with fermented hops, wheat, barley…”
“Wine is made from grapes, this is grains.” Korra tried a little more successfully.
“That’s the difference.” Strike concurred.
“You mean fermented as in gone off?” I was very confused, why would you consume something rotting?
“Yeah.” Strike seemed happy with this.
“You mean rotting?” I had to check.
“But in a very special way.” Korra chipped in. Oh well then that was perfectly acceptable then.
“Okay.” I didn’t say what I wanted to, I did not want offend my friends.
Korra could see I wasn’t convinced and tried a different way.
“It’s like cooking but with time.” Now I was totally confused.
“Okay.” I felt that was the only safe word at this point.
“Conceder it this way, you drink it. You make a face but feel slightly better for drinking it so you drink a bit more. And a bit more, and a bit more. You don’t have to drink it.” Strike added, nearly at the bottom of his own glass.
“No, no. I’ll be fine.” I said taking very small sips.
While we were enjoying our drinks Sampson leant into our group over the bar, whatever he said next he didn’t want people to overhear.
“Oh yeah, I heard tell off some travellers who came in the other day. Nice little family, you know, traveling on a cart. I heard tell that to the west of the jungle, a few settlements there have been overrun by…” He leant in a bit closer, the smell of stale sweat and beer getting a little stronger, his voice dropping a little lower in a conspiratorial whisper. “…Been overrun by these err, spider things they say.” He said with a nod and a wink.
“We saw no spiders while we were there.” Korra admitted.
“Spiders, spiders?” I spoke quietly to myself.
“You should think yourself lucky then Miss,
“There are many things to fear in the jungle…” Korra tried to interrupt him
“The way I hear it, spiders Miss, spiders as big as a horse, can you imagine that? Biggest spider I’ve ever seen was only about that.” Sampson finished with his finger and thumb a few spaces apart. He was determined not to let this bit of gossip be stopped by mere fact.
I was not listening to his stories, I was to remember the last time anyone had seen one of the creatures. Yes the story was true there were spider creatures bigger than horses but they only lived in the very depths of the jungle and were very quiet, territorial animals. The only reason the Elves had seen them and other race’s hadn’t was that they had never travelled deep enough for them to be found. It was very unusual for them to be outside their territories, let alone attacking human settlements.
“Where did you say the settlement was Sampson?” I kept my thoughts to myself for the time being.
“Pfft, err, just a few days to the south, on the south edge of the jungle Miss.”
“They shouldn’t do that.” I said sounding as baffled as I was.
“And people shouldn’t come back from the dead.” Strike argued.
“Yes, yes I know that I mean...” I argued back.
“What do you mean come back from the dead?!” Sampson’s interest suddenly renewed.
“I’ve seen people come back from the dead in the Jungles…” Strike began to explain until Korra interrupted.
“Gather round my friends, I shall tell you a tale.” Korra reached for her lute.
“Listen to the bard.” Strike instructed.
Everyone in the house listened enraptured to Korra who spent the rest of the evening reciting the tales, mainly Elven she had collected along her travels. Her hypnotic tones transporting me back once again to my people I found myself feel a pang of sorrow as I relived the departure of my kind. At the end of the evening Sampson pressed five coins into her hand. Korra went to give them back and he shook his head.
“No, no. I insist. To be honest it’s the quietest, trouble free night I’ve had in a long time. If you ever think of leaving whatever you’re doing behind and want more steady work… don’t get me wrong, I won’t be able to pay you the world but, but…”
“Thank you but I wouldn’t be able to keep making songs if I didn’t keep having adventures.” Korra said tactfully.
“Well I can see your point.”
“And hopefully the subject of my next song will tell the tale of how we persuaded the king to protect this city.”
To Sampson this was incredibly funny. He threw his head back and had to hold his rotund belly to stop it shaking from the depth of his laugh.
“Persuade the king, very funny Miss, very funny.” Again he stopped when he realised Korra was sincere.
“Oh, you’re being serious?”
“The songs aren’t made up. There truly are monsters and things rising from the dead, they are headed this way!” Korra said upset.
“Oh, I don’t make any judgments against you Miss. If you’re hoping your next song is about you persuading the King, then I expect it’s going to be a very short limerick Miss.”
“Well I heard that the Kings been in absolute outrage since he discovered all those statue things under the mountain when some people snuck in and filched some of them.”
“I believe they were coming back.” Strike tried to correct him.
“Well, that’s the other part of it Sir. Since there was this weird storm over the city and there was this weird voice, everyone heard it. It came booming down from the sky, I even heard it myself Sir, saying the wall is threatened. And the next thing we knows all these statues come marching out of the mountains so I heard it from the stone smiths working up around there. All comes marching out towards the Old Wall, you know at the bottom of the Great Peaks all just lined up facing outwards against this wall. I heard a couple of guards tried to get in the way the just got shoved aside. I mean, none of them really got injured, whatever these things are didn’t seem interested but obviously the Kings seen it as a major security threat so, well you may have noticed there was hardly anyone out on the street when you came into the City? It’s because of the curfew Sir. To be honest you should consider yourself lucky you haven’t come across any guards yourself.”
“Oh I consider myself very lucky.” Strike admitted.
“That’s why I was so surprised to see you walk in here to be honest. Basically the people we’ve got me here are in for the night. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good for business, what with me renting out rooms and suchlike. Obviously with people with nowhere to go, they drink a bit more, get a bit rowdy, have no homes to go to, yeah that’s fine but the amount I’m taking in damages well that’s why I was so glad when your friend here started singing, it’s the quietest it’s been in a long time. Anyway I’m sure you want to get some sleep, I’ll let you get to it, and I’ve got slops to mop out anyway.” Sampson explained as he grabbed a mop and bucket whose water was nearly the same colour as the ale Strike had been drinking.
After our lengthy but enlightening chat with Sampson it was clear that we had to find someone else to find an audience with first.
From the general coconscious of the bar, who had warmed to Korra to the point where a few had dragged the recumbent Reg out of the way into an empty booth so his snores would not disturbed the story telling? A name that kept cropping up was that of the Kings seneschal Uzriel Godric. Strike found this a little strange as Godric was a Northlander name, not one usually heard in service to the King, what with the unrest between the two lands. Another was the head of the City Guard a woman by the name of Salandra Drummond, a woman, according to Sampson could give the statues a few lessons in stoniness.
“This Godric, is he an Orc?” Strikes curiosity getting the better of him.
“Well Sir it has been said, not that I’m one to gossip.” The bar tender should have been struck down at such a blatant lie “But there has always been rumours that his family originally came from the North. Now, obviously being in the high positon he is he doesn’t tend to take to kindly to, I know he was born in the Kingdome but there has always been rumours that there is a bit of Northlander in his blood, officially his last names Goodric. He gets a bit touchy if anyone pronounces it wrong but he’s one of the high ups in the City I don’t have any dealings with them sorts, I keeps me head down, runs me business, you know, best way, best way.”
“And how would one go about getting an audience with the seneschal would you think?”
“Beats me Miss, beats me, I don’t have dealings with thems in there.”
“You’d probably do better having a chat with the Head of the City Guard. The City Guard has patrols out everywhere, what with the current security threat but I’m sure you could convince one of them, what with your voice and that. I’m sure you could convince one of them to take you to a meeting with the Captain but the seneschal, he’s a bit more difficult, he holds the purse strings of the Kingdom. They’d never let a commoner like me go and see him.”
Hearing this Korra turned to Strike.
“I assume you don’t want to be with us for this?”
“Oh now do I want to go and find the Head of the City Guard?” Strike asked sarcastically.
“I also understand if you don’t. Although it would be much more of a winning argument if you were there.” She said pointing at me, ignoring Strike.
“I’m judging that you want to do this in the morning, unless you want to break this curfew?” Strike asked.
“Yeah, obviously we’ll wait ‘till curfews over.” Korra agreed.
“Of course it’s a faster way of meeting the City Guard if we break the curfew.” Strike continued his one man conversation.
“Hmm, yeah. I’d rather not turn up on the wrong side.” Korra maintained.
Strike just shrugged.
“We may need them to be friendly.” Korra reasoned.
The bar was almost deserted so we took our cue and went to our room leaving Sampson to tidy up.
We found our room quite easily at the top of the stairs. It was a basic room with three beds around the inner walls and a shuttered window on the outer wall but it was clean and ours for as long as we wanted.
Looking out the window before the shutters closed was an education. The flat roofed buildings squeezed together down the main roads that reminded me of spokes I had recently seen on the wheels of carts with the Palace in the centre with even more buildings wedged in between. The houses showing the status of their owners, the rich near to the Palace, then the middle class and finally the poor towards the outskirts of the City where we were.
Korra and Strike stood with me at the window and we decided the best plan was to go as near to the richer quarters as possible before we got stopped and asked our business.
Closing the shutters Korra showed me the purposes of bath, sponge and soap.
Down in the now lifeless bar Sampson must have been shaking his head as he heard my shocked voice shout suck questions as “You do WHAT with THAT?!” and “What’s that foamy thing?” Once the great ceremony of bathing, washing and changing into clean clothes had been completed we each clamed a bed.
These straw stuffed bags of cloth were a lot different to what I was used to in the jungle. They itched more for one, the expanse of moss which I used never felt as if things, big things were crawling around. The padding at one end of the bed was harder than a log. I wrestled with it for a while before flinging it to the floor and using my bag and arm instead.
I was enduring a restless sleep, being disconnected from the lands didn’t help, neither did the closed in felling from sleeping in an enclosed box but the unfamiliar bed made it almost impossible to rest. It felt as if I had only just closed my eyes when I heard shuffling from one side of the room.
Moonlight poured in from the now open shutters to reveal Strike’s outline, rapier in hand, cautiously peering out of the window before his half his shape disappeared out of the opening.
“What ye doin?” I whisper from my bed.
“Going to see who that figure is at the end of the street.” I heard Strike hiss, he sounded further away than I expected.
“Come to the window!” He shouted as loud as he dared.
I padded over to the window and looked down. There was a piece of torn cloth, possibly a shawl pinned to the windowsill with a rusted dagger. He looked up before shifting his weight, the dagger moved slightly.
Look down main thoroughfare it was totally deserted except for a hunched figure, arms hanging lifelessly at the silhouettes side. I looked back to Strike who was now dangling half way down the building
“I’m gona go find out, it’s important.”
“Do you want some help?” Wanting him to say no.
“No. You stay here.” I was relieved to hear but something in his voice told me it was going to be dangerous so I stayed to watch from the window, uncertain as to what aid I would be able to give.
Strike, recognising his sister’s shawl immediately when he saw it lowered himself down with barely a sound. The figure stayed motionless roughly one hundred and fifty paces from the Inn, using the shadows Strike edged his way closer the muscle memory from his trade as a thief letting his mind assess the situation. There was, to his mind no one in the shadows waiting to ambush him but that meant nothing. Always expect the unexpected.
The figure made no movement and as he got closer he could see a face in the moonlight that last time he saw it he was gently lowering the bloodless corpse into the river.
There was a glimmer at Tibbs feet where the water had collected, the moonlight dancing on the expanding puddle. Closer still, Strike could now make out the other half of the torn shawl in one hand.
Tibbs stared blankly at Strike, almost through him. Close as he dared now Strike could see that the hasty river burial had taken its toll, pock marks and holes were the inhabitants of the water gnawed away at his flesh, a large portion of his cheek was missing revelling sinew, teeth and bone.
Looking out of the window and using the available light and keen Elven sight gifted to my people I could now see that the figure who had caused Strike so much concern was Tibbs, the merchant we met at the beginning of our journey.
The long ragged slash, once a clean cut but now jagged from where the water life had torn at the wound stretched in a curve almost from ear to ear.
Now I understood what Strike had meant when he had explained Tibbs absence with the words left him at the river to tend to his business.
Padding over to Korra’s bed I shook her gently.
“What’s going on?” She asked when she realised it was still the middle of the night.
“Go and look outside. But try not to be seen” I whispered.
“Where’d ya get that from?” He enquired, standing now in plain sight in front of the corpse.
Tibbs opened his mouth but the voice that came out was not Tibbs. Strike instantly recognised the deep rasping tones of Ragnar the Bloody, Chief of Strikes tribe. The man who had raped his sister and who he took revenge by poison and subsequent banishment from his tribe almost a life time ago.
“Meet me on the south ice plain of Axehome and fight me like a man, like you should have done all those years ago. Or she will join my army.” Tibbs arm jolted forward, he reminded me of some dolls I had seen in the city, made to dance via strings. The remains of the shawl hitting Strike in the chest with a wet thump.
Memories of Sacrissa snap-shoted across Strikes mind, her homely looks obscured by her kindness and gentle manner. He smiled at the thought of how fiery she could become if provoked enough.
Strike looked at the puppet with its arm still outstretched and the embers of hatred that had been dormant for so long began to glow.
Korra and I stood back from the window a little, using the shadows to hide our presence. Although we could see what was happening we could not hear it. Tibbs, still dripping water from every orifice had opened his mouth, it had opened like the puppets on strings but I could only hear a hissing exchange of words. I could make out that it wasn’t Tibbs who spoke but I wasn’t really listening anyway, I still couldn’t believe that Strike had seen the need to kill Tibbs. No, actually I could believe that, it was the unashamed lie he had told us after I wasn’t keen on.
“That’s not Tibbs. Well it is, but it’s not.” I hissed to Korra, just in case she hadn’t heard.
“Drop your puppet Ragnar.” Strike commanded.
The marionettes invisible strings were cut and the bloated, waterlogged corpse fell to the ground at Strikes feet creating an expanding pool where he lay.
Satisfied that the show was indeed over Strike silently crossed the cobbled street back to the Inn and up the shawl into our room.
Without speaking he hurriedly began gathering his belongings into his bag.
Korra had just pulled the shutters together when there was a voice outside.
“You there! Don’t you know there’s a curfew? We’ll have less of your lying in the streets, come on, get up.”
Footsteps echoed along the empty road, it sounded like three or four people were getting closer.
“I don’t think he’s moving Sarge.”
There was a pause.
“Eugh! Look at him! He’s all bloated up, like he’s been in water and that Sarge. You don’t think he’s come up out of the sewers do you?” Said another.
“Nah, you don’t get any people down there.”
“Don’t be stupid!” Said a voice used to giving commands and a sound of someone being slapped at the back of their head.
“Sorry about that Sarge, I don’t like it is all. First all them rumours of all them things coming out of the Jungle, then these statues.”
“Listen, we don’t have time of all the rumours of the Jungle. We’ve got a city to protect, there’s a threat on our very doorstep! Let’s worry about that first shall we son? I know you’re a bit new to the game but keep it together will ya?”
“Oh yeah, yes, sorry Sarge, sorry.”
“Right. Let’s get this body off the street, we don’t want to cause a panic. We’ll take it to the commander, she can decided what to do with it.”
“Right you are Sarge.”
“Get Jones to help you lift it, it looks heavy.”
“Aww Sarge! It’s disgustin’! It’s got water comin’ out of it n everythin’! Look one of its eyeballs is hangin’ out!” That must have been Jones.
“I don’t care! Get it off the street. Get it moved!”
There was a certain amount of inaudible grumbling and a soft dragging sound from the guard getting quieter and quieter as they made their way back to the commander.
“What did it say?” Korra asked when it was clear.
“Got to go and fight him, so I’m going to go and fight him.” Strike muttered still stuffing his bag.
Korra took the hint and began packing up her travel bag while I stood there, still processing what had just happened.
“No, no you go sort your Kingly business out.” He said, seeing what she was doing.
“…Wait, you can’t go there alone.” She tried to reason with him.
“Yeess I can. I came to this Isle alone.” Still gathering his belongings.
Korra ignored Strike and carried on packing her bag.
“You’ve still got my flute. You aint going anywhere alone.” She finally answered.
Overhearing that the rumours of the disturbance in the forests had reached Royal City I was worried. With all that we had seen and all that continued to be heard even this far away, something was wrong, very wrong.
“Well I’d better go kill him then.” I heard Strike say to Korra.
“Do you really think that this creature is affecting the forest as well?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Strike said.
“If the undead are taking over the edges of the forests then it may well explain the spiders…” Korra began.
“He’s an angry spirit, their all dead and a tree has a bloody hand nailed to it. I’m gona say that it’s all related.” Strike interrupted.
“Then I’m comin’ n’all.” I decided also grabbing my bag.
Strike shook his head.
“I have to rebalance the forest, I have to do it.”
“If he’s not the source then he’s connected to it.” Korra chipped in.
“Let’s go solve one problem then.” Strike said admitting defeat and slinging his bag over his shoulder.
“Well we will have to wait until curfew ends.” Korra stated.
“Nooo we don’t.” Strike argued back.
“We really should.”
“Why all the roofs are flat.”
“You may be able to, but I for one cant.” I added.
“You can fly can’t you?” Strike said with his easy smile.
There was a very long pause, as I could not find the right answer. It was either going to be yes with an if or no with a but.
“Yes.” I settled for very aware of how little time we had.
“Then it would appear we are going across the roof tops.” Korra declared.
On rout we decided that the quickest way to reach our destination was not to go through the wall, the panic caused by the added stone defences may have slowed our progress.
It took a few days of travel to get back to the hidden beach and as we left the city I felt the damn of the city weaken and the flow of nature slow returned.
On the first night we made camp, taking it in shifts to watch over the others while they slept. Strike had wrapped the shawl around his waist, a constant fan to the embers of hatred, preparing himself for the battle ahead.
I felt a lot more relaxed being attuned to nature once more, watching the flames dance and frolic over the kindling I could fight the call of sleep no longer and closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes, well I think I did. There was total blackness all around. There was no fire, no friends, no jungle life or foliage just a void.
I could not work out what was up or down, left or right.
Get a grip. I thought. Whatever way your feet are up then the other way is down. And you know which is your left and right side so for now go with that.
Feeling slightly better I began to look about. Still nothing presented itself as a reference point.
“Help…Help…Help…” Came a faraway voice drifting across the black abyss, too faint to tell if it was male or female.
“Help!…Help!…Help!…” This time the voice spoke in Elvish.
Swallowing my fear I began searching around me, possibly walking in circles but I had to try.
All of a sudden I see a tall figure, two Elven ear tips peeking through long flowing hair. The skin was not dark, like the Dark Elves but pale like mine. The figure was dressed in the woodland clothes typically warn my kind standing with its back facing me.
I took a deep mental breath.
“I am here, can I help?”
The figure turned to the sound of my voice and the Elf stood alone in the darkness was Zephandius, the young Elf who had taken on the roll as leader after the Elders decided to leave us to our fate.
He reached out to me, trying to take my hand but as he did so something pulled him bodily backwards.
“Help!” He shouted again and I could do nothing but watch him grew smaller and smaller until the darkness enveloped over him like oil, shrouding him from me.
“HOW?” I shouted, waking with a start. His pleas still echoing in my ears.
I see Strike, still on watch jolt from his seat before pulling himself together and Korra stir in her sleep, mumble but did not wake.
“We walked?” He answered my question.
“What?” Was the only coherent word from Korra.
“We walked?” Strike repeated.
“NO! Zephandius was in the dark, it was like I was in a void, I don’t know. There was no up, down, side, left, right, nothing. I heard a voice shout for help but it was too faint to tell where it was. Then it spoke in Elvish. Then out of the darkness was a figure…”
“Now who’s being a coward?” Strike said to himself. Not sure who he was referring to I continued.
“…It was Zephandius, but he was sucked away before I could do anything.”
“That does not bode well” He replied flatly.
“You think?” I had seen Humans, mainly Strike try sarcasm many times before, now seemed the right place for it.
“Yeah.” Maybe I didn’t have it quite right yet.
Korra had stirred from her slumber and, still lying down was watching our argument.
“Just get some rest.” Strike said gently.
Korra had already taken his advice and had fallen back to sleep.
I hate to admit it but he was right, there was nothing I could do for Zephandius, I did not know where he was or who held him captive and we still had at least a day’s travel to get to the boat. Reluctantly I lay down.
The rest of the night was relatively untroubled and at sun rise we continued our journey.
Sure enough with the sun at its highest we crossed the peak of a hill and below us was the coast, our boat still where we left it securely in the cove.
Old habits died hard with Strike and he approached his vessel with caution. With no imminent danger we climbed aboard, checked that everything was in order, which everything did indeed appeared to be fine.
Thankfully Korra and Strike had the forethought to gather together sixteen days’ worth of rations while we were still in the city and these were stowed away before Strike released the line tethering the Longboat to the rocks and set sail.
It took little over thirteen days to reach the ocean that surrounded the Northlands, being used to sea travel now I was able to enjoy my new Surroundings.
Watching small chunks of ice drifting past the boat told us we were no longer in the warmer waters of the Mainlands. Beyond them was a vast plain of ice, a towering shimmering bridge across the ocean that in the depths of winter connected the Northlands to the rest of the known world. It would take at least four or five days’ worth of travel to cross on foot. The ice flow looked bitterly cold, there was no ground underneath to even give it a little heat.
I wrapped my furs tighter around me as I watched my breath rise up from my mouth in a little cloud of fog. Being to Axehome had helped, the cold, biting air was not as much as a shock to my system but it was still very different to the warm, humid, bug filled air of the jungle.
Strike however was right at home, carefully navigating his way around larger hunks of ice, it even looked like his own bulk of furs had shrunken slightly.
The ice bridge grew slowly as we approached, and with only one more day of travel ahead of us Strike had slowed the ship to almost a crawl. The smaller lumps of ice bobbing around had, over the last few days seemed to be lonely and were joining together for company.
Drawing closer still to the ice bridge there was a dark line across the walkway. Gliding nearer still the dark line formed into the shapes of people, all holding a burning torch in their hands, creating a line of fire against the ice.
“So this is home. It’s a wonderful place, just beware of the great white bears.” Strike joked.
“Hmm, yeah. We’ll just stick with you.” Korra said suspiciously, unable to tear her gaze away from the welcoming party who did look no way inviting.
There was a sound of tearing silk and a thud as a flaming arrow embedded itself in the deck. Completely unfazed by this event Strike calmly pulled an arrow from his quiver, light it and return fire.
“Is this some form of signal?” Korra asked, watching the arrow sail into the air.
We watched it hit the ice. A few heartbeats later another answered the first, missing our boat and landing with a plop and a hiss into the water to the left of our ship.
Strike calmly pulled the still burning arrow from where it had landed in the first volley, notch it and returned it.
A gap appeared in the line of torches as the arrow hit one of the onlookers. As we waited, the sky darkened and flying through the air a vast hail of arrows climbed as high as the string that loosed them would allow.
With the imminent rain of death Strike stayed by the wheel on the bridge of the ship and Korra at the prow, crouching behind what little cover it could give I was trapped somewhere in the middle.
As the arrows streamed down around us I covered my head with my arms but with every step I took at least three arrows crunch into the wood around me. My instincts overrode my minds and I shape shifted into the smallest thing I could think of, a river rat and scurried into the nearby shelter of the last of the provisions.
Eventually the deluge of flaming arrows became too much for the tar treated wood of the Longboat and the flames began to lick along the deck. It did not take long for the flames to spread throughout the vessel. Strike unfurled the sails and with the chunks of ice no longer an issue, melting in heat of the floating bonfire aimed the Longboat directly at the ice flow.
From the view of the ice flow the blazing longboat, a symbol of death and an ushering into the afterlife in Strike’s tribe gliding over the calm clear water must have been a foreboding vision.
As the Longboat slid alongside the ice flow now fully ablaze, the flames from the sails licking high into the air Strike stepped off wisps of smoke and embers trailing behind with all the calm and composure of someone on a gentle stroll.
The effect was spoilt somewhat by the now free running ship crunching into the wall of ice and slowly falling over on its side.
Using this as a distraction I shifted back to my Elven form. Korra and I leapt onto the ice flow before the ice had chance to melt beneath the boat allowing it to sink beneath the waves.
“Where is that testicle Ragnar?” Strike spat the question.
There was really no need to ask, the man was enormous. He was at least a head and a half taller than me and about four times as wide, the epitome of Barbarian and just as frightening as when I faced him in my vision.
He was stood dead centre of the line, mostly Northlanders, a mixture of Orcs and Humans, all with the deathly pallor of the recently and in some cases long dead about them. There are a few other tribes but no Elves. Given that Ragnar and his undead horde had rampaged thought the jungle it was very strange that none of my race was among them. Farmers, smiths, fighters yes but no Elves whatsoever.
His army stood with the torches held high, Ragnar stepped forward, what I saw in my vision as silhouetted horns coming out form his head was actually a Northlander horned helmet. His huge bulk was covered in tattered furs and the axe that was swung at me in my vision was as foreboding, the head of the axe the size of a Human torso. I looked down at the stich’s I had repaired my forest green tunic with, hiding underneath the silver line scarred across my chest.
“I see Death worked wonders.” Strike said, loud enough for the biggest barbarian I had ever seen to hear.
“Death has served me well. In truth, I should thank you. If it were not for your use of a woman’s weapon against me then I would merely be a chief of a small tribe. But thanks to you I now control the very forces of death.” His voice hollow and crewel, waving his arm behind him, gesturing to his undead army. Nothing but words came from his mouth, unlike our group, whose breath crystalized as soon as it hit the icy air.
“I look forward to depriving you of that as well.” Strike promised.
Ragnar let out a guttural laugh that shook the ice flow and hefted his mighty axe, one handed high into the air.
“Where is your weapon? Your poisons will not avail you now.” He mocked.
“I’ve got my rapier.”
Ragnar looked at the sword that if in his hand would look more like a needle than a blade.
“That is a mere child’s weapon” He scoffed.
“Then I shall take you a piece at a time.”
Taking his axe Ragnar swept the blade low to the ground, cutting a line into the ice before stepping back.
“I’m sorry, I thought we were fighting not ice carving.”
“Then step forward and fight. Prove that you are a man.”
“First, where is she?”
“Do you not trust me to keep my word?”
There was a long pause while Strike thought.
Ragnor snapped his fingers and from behind the line two shambling zombies brought forward a young woman, by Northlander values around twelve summers old struggling like a hell cat against her captors and gagged with a strip of cloth.
Satisfied that his sister was, at first glance unharmed Strike nodded.
“Then let’s end it here.”
As soon as the words left his mouth Ragnor, from standing start charged Strike.
There was no warning or easing himself into the run his huge axe gliding along the ground behind him. Shards of ice spewed up into the air where the blade bit into the frozen bridge and as he neared he pulled up his weapon in a great arch, swinging it towards Strike who dodged backwards, the blade scything through the air where he was just standing.
Pulling the rapier from his side Strike went to drag the blade down Ragnar’s leg as he passed him. Ragnar seemed to sense this however and brought his leg upwards, smashing Strike full in the chest. It must have felt like he had been hit with a tree, the crack from his ribs could be heard from where Korra and I stood and the blow sent Strike sprawling across the ice.
Korra watched the undead hoard carefully, they did not seem to be getting involved just yet more waiting for their master’s next command. She began to inch her way towards Strike’s sister and her two guards, intending to free her at the earliest opportunity.
I stood waiting, watching the line of undead. I had known Strike now for long enough to know that this was something he had to do himself, any outsider interference would have not been well received. However, if the hoard tried to aid their master at any time, well then that was different.
The wind was driven from Strikes body as he hit the ground but he had no time to dwell on this. He rolled to one side and the axe blade bit into the ice where Strikes head had been moments before. Fighting for breath Strike stumbled to his feet and tried to dive behind Ragnar, as he moved to get into position Ragnar’s ham sized hand whipped out and grabbed Strike by the throat and lifted him up off his feet. Strike struggled for breath as Ragnar began squeezing the life out of him. Ragnar dragged the gasping Strike towards him, taking this opportunity Strike sunk his dagger into the man mountains shoulder. This did not have the desired effect and so Strike pulled his head back and snapped it forward his forehead connecting with his attacker’s nose.
Although the force with which he struck the blow did not affect Ragnar in the same way that it would have any other man it did shatter the cartilage with a sickening crunch and he released his grip, staggering backwards still with axe in hand.
Planting his feet firmly in Ragnar’s chest Strike pushed off and summersaulted backwards. Recovering quickly Ragnar charged at full speed bringing his axe round from behind in a sweeping curve using the full force of his momentum to carry the blade.
Strike kicked off to jump over the oncoming blade but realised at the last moment that he would not make it. Dropping to his knees Strike used his own force and slid under the blade, giving him the closest shave he had ever had, grazing his face.
As he slid between Ragnor’s legs Strike thrust his blade upwards sinking it into his groin.
Ragnor fell heavily down onto one knee using his axe to steady himself he swung his free fist down aiming to drive it into the side of his skull.
Twisting to the side the punch hit Strikes shoulder, but not hard enough to make him let go of the hilt of the embedded sword. Still sliding Strike twisted the blade and pulled it free. Ragnor unable to right himself dropped his other knee and the wounded shoulder drooped.
Strike rolled again and pulled himself up by the pelt on Ragnor’s back while bring his sword up for the final blow. As soon as he stood his arm came down driving the sword into the back of the chief’s neck. Ragnor turned to his attacker.
“What’d you know? You can fight like a man after all.” He said with a glimmer of an impressed smile on his lips before toppling forward with a smack on to the ice sheet.
I thought there was an echo as the sound ricocheted around but my eyes were drawn to the horde who all began hitting the ground as Tibbs did in the deserted street, with their master gone the spell was broken.
Korra was the first to reach Strike’s sister who had also collapsed, through what we assumed was sheer exhaustion.
I ran over to where Korra was bent over her, hand in her bag, reaching for her musical instrument. Why had she not begun playing? Looking over Korra’s shoulder it was obvious that Strike’s beloved sister had been dead for some time, the gag had been tied round her mouth, not to quieten her cries but to hide her rotting jaw.
Strike had not seen her, he was preoccupied packing some of his deeper wounds with snow.
He looked up and saw Korra carry the slim figure, the look of relief turned to pain as he realised that Ragnar had managed to fool him one last time. I could almost hear his derisory laughter.
“Ragnar was always a liar.” Korra tried comforting him.
His mouth now set in a grim line Strike strode over to where the body of the chief lay and with grief driving the blade he cleaved through the man’s neck, severing his head.
Kneeling down he drew his dagger from where it protruded from Ragnor’s shoulder and began cutting the skin by the spine, exposing the bone with meticulousness care. He reached into the flayed muscle and with a nauseating crack broke the ribs and with great satisfaction levered them out resembling blood-stained wings. Finally pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim's back, as he had done so to many of those who refused to follow him after the raid in Axehome.
“He can’t feel it you know.” I said kindly to Strike who was now bloody up to his elbows.
“Makes me feel better.” He said before relieving Korra of his sister who was carrying the body towards the still burning boat. I was amazed, the ice flow must be deceptively thick to still carry the fiery vessel.
Korra spotted a scrap of rolled up parchment secured with a black ribbon peeking out from inside Ragnar’s furs as she walked over to me, giving Strike some time alone to grieve.
She undid the cord and opened the scroll. There was writing on one side that looked almost Elvish but slightly more angular.
Reading it Korra managed to make sense of what looked like a tally sheet of prisoners who had been handed over. In the list she read almost thirty Elven names, one of which was Zephandius. Showing me the list I read that these named had been handed over to, someone or something referred to as The Child.
“Oh yes, I remember this.” Korra spoke.
“Oooh!” I said as the memory flashed before my eyes.
“Do tell.” Strike said with mock sweetness.
“There was a story of my people that there was a child born, this child was special as it had been centuries since any child had been conceived, the village that the child lived in was burnt to the ground, about to undergo some rite of passage.”
“We all assumed that the child perished in the fire.”
“But there were some that held onto the belief that he had somehow been saved and raised by others who had come across the ruins of the village and brought him up as their own. The ruins of the settlement we found at the beginning of our journeys was those ruins.” Korra and I cut in over each other, reminding Strike of the tale.
“From hearing the tales in the Ziggurat I came to the conclusion that Orcs found him and thus begun the Dark Elves.” Korra ended.
Strike stood listening to us while still holding the body of his sister.
Ignoring us he placed her reverently onto the deck and pushed the boat into the water where the waves claimed the ship and took her on her journey to Valhalla.
Dragging Ragnar’s corpse to the edge of the ice he hacked a chunk from the flow and with no ceremony kicked the headless body into the wastelands. Grabbing the head by its hair he spun on the ball of his foot and launched it into the water.
“Right. We need another boat.”