The Forever King
A whimper. A garbled moan of a half-prayer to an absent god. That was the sum total of the last words the woman was allowed before the noose slid tight against her pallid neck.
‘The price of dallying with magick and disobeying the emperor’s decree is death,’ intoned the mage who stood alone upon that wretched stage with the condemned. His words lacked grandeur or ceremony. They wore the blunt edge of rehearsal. Bored, the mage sounded, and in that sense, callous, as were the shrieks of the rusted lever, the cruel clatter of the trapdoor, and the gap of silence before the woman met the scant limits of the noose with a jerk. The crowd cheered the snap of rope, applauding the limp convulsing of another heretic. Another traitor for Hel’s clutches. The eyes of their children were not shielded; they were teased open so they could witness justice served before them. The price of magick. The parents sneered proudly as if the woman were a prize trout on a line. It did not seem to matter that her crime was as inconsequential as owning a faintly charmed heirloom.
The noose was knotted mercifully. The condemned did not suffer, as others had on those squat gallows. Rent the Hoary dangled choking for three hours straight before they had to pull on his legs.
With a last twitching gulp, the woman began her lonely walk to the goddess of death and her golden scales. Cheated of a grotesque performance, the crowd complained with handfuls of rocks and rotten vegetables thrown through the damp morning air. Their aim was poor: a curse of hangovers and those who had cursed the cockerel’s crow. Only one struck the hanged, cutting the woman’s grey cheek. The rest of the jilted missiles collided with the gallows or tumbled across the ground. With empty hands and the body hanging still in the breeze, the ennui set in rapidly.
Like autumn leaves, the people drifted and scattered back to their homes and empty tankards. A single figure was left standing before the dead. His hands were thrust in pockets, his hood draped low. Lips taut and shoulders drooped, he tore his gaze away from the corpse and trudged in the direction of distraction.
The gnarled coin slid across the marble with a banshee’s screech. Heads turned. Eyes glowered. The quiet tavern went back to its murmuring conversation and idle slurping of ale.
‘By the empire, you got a nerve, stranger,’ said the barkeep, who rubbed furiously at an imaginary scratch on the white stone. ‘You should have a care. Don’t you know where this marble came from?’
‘A quarry?’ the hooded stranger took a guess.
‘Yes. Well.’ The barkeep harrumphed. ‘At one point, I s’pose.’ He spread his fingers across the marble as if he were the very craftsman who had hewn it from the earth. ‘This marble,’ he breathed, wafting a delightful mix of pipe smoke and garlic in his patron’s face. ‘This marble came from the shattered Arkathedral itself, from the broken floor of the Marble Copse when it was ruined by the Outlaw King’s traitorous attack on Krauslung. This here stone is sacred ground, I tell you.’
As half-hearted booing came from the nearby drinkers, the barkeep thumped his fist into his palm in agreement. ‘I bought it from a fat Manesmark stonemason and had it carried here on the backs of minotaur slaves.’
‘That’s some distance.’
The barkeep swelled proudly. His ruddy face creased to make way for a smile. ‘That it is. It took two months and we left a share of marauders’ corpses behind us, but here it lies in the Patchwork Cat: a testament to the everlasting power of the Blazing Throne. Perhaps even trodden upon by the emperor himself!’
‘To Arka’s glory!’ cried a man lost in the crowd of drinkers. Appreciative echoes washed through the tavern. The drunker fellows clanged their tankards.
The stranger showed off his teeth. ‘Incredible,’ he replied, speaking loudly for all to hear. ‘And here it lies, destined to have stew and ale slopped across it for decades to come. How fitting.’
Before rising from his stool, he watched the barkeep’s proud smile fade like snow in a spring sun. A brooding silence fell. Ignoring the stares, the man sought out a table by a fireplace instead, eager to burn off the cloying cold of the road, to lose himself in the peaceful crackle of flames.
The stranger sighed wearily as he propped an ice-rimmed boot up on a stool. By the whispers turning to angry mutters, he could feel his comment gestating into an insult in the minds around him. He cared little. He simply waited and enjoyed what peace and quiet he was allowed.
It lasted exactly three sips of his murky kelp ale.
Tankards clanked on tabletops. Chair legs squeaked. Boots clomped upon the boards until three burly townsmen stood between the man and his fire.
‘What was it you said?’ one asked.
The man studied them over the rim of his tankard. Two looked to be brothers, one of whom had clearly received a larger serving of handsome and height than his sibling. Both had cauliflower ears and bushy blonde beards. The third, their self-appointed spokesman, was a weathered and wiry fellow. A bowl of black, greasy hair draped over his ears and cheeks. All of them typical Hâlorn brutes: too young in the head, never mind how many years stride past them, and with little else to do but brawling.
It was plain this had nothing to do with speaking ill of the empire. That was merely a convenient banner to fly. An excuse to scratch the itch of violence. The man could see it in the ripcords in their neck; the way they tensed beneath their leather and hide tunics. A fight had been predetermined no matter his response. He smiled politely.
‘I don’t recall saying anything to you.’
The wiry chap already had his words nocked and loaded. ‘What did you say just then,’ bout Leerol’s marble? You said somethin’ and we wants to know what it was.’
The man took his time. Another sip of ale, another sigh. ‘I said, “And here it lies, destined to have stew and ale slopped across it for decades to come. How fitting.” Now, what I meant by that was—’
One of the brutes kicked the stool from under the man’s boot, causing ale to slop onto his sleeve.
‘We know what you meant, old man.’
‘Old? That stings.’ The man slid back his sleeve to wipe the ale away, showing off scarlet and gold armour around his wrists. ‘Then aside from exercising your general dislike of stools and spilling my drink, what is it that you want?’
‘You insulted the emperor,’ replied the wiry fellow, omitting more than one syllable. ‘You don’t just get to speak treachery and get away with it.’
Though conversation had but one outcome, the man had a casual interest in seeing how deep their rabbit-hole of stupidity went. ‘Did I, though?’ he retorted. ‘If anything, I merely told… Leerol, was it? I told barkeep Leerol there that perhaps his reverence of the empire was misplaced in utilising such a fine piece of marble to serve such a functional – and let’s be honest – messy purpose.’
The brothers looked between them as though the man had just spoken in Paraian. The one with the black hair fumed. His right eye twitched. ‘You sound Krauslung but you don’t look it. Don’t act it. You act all foreign.’
Irritable growls of agreement sounded. More tankards clanked. The whole tavern watched on. All of them wore the same indignant yet leering scowl. The morning had cheated the townspeople of blood. They could taste it now in the tavern air.
The man swirled his hands. ‘And therefore I am your enemy without question. I see.’ He paused to drain his tankard, knowing it might be a while until his next. ‘If I could offer one small piece of advice. One day, sometime soon, you should try thinking for yourselves instead of regurgitating the same old shit your beloved empire feeds you.’
The disloyalty was so barefaced it took a moment for it to make sense in the patrons’ addled minds. The tavern erupted, incensed. Wild-eyed, the wiry thug let out an almost gleeful cry as he seized the man by his cloak’s collar. His stupidity sealed his fate.
The stranger drove the empty pewter tankard into the thug’s cheek. The weak metal crumpled under the force of the blow, driving sharp edges into vital places. Blood spurted. The fool howled but, to his credit, he did not let up his grip. A brisk kick to the groin from an armoured shin dislodged him for good and he fell writhing.
The brothers tried their best, throwing a few haymaking punches that were all too easy to avoid. As they tottered with momentum, the man broke a stool against the scrawnier brother’s back. He was barged into the fireplace, striking his skull on the lintel with a fateful crunch before collapsing onto the flaming logs. He moved not a muscle.
In the panic, the larger brother managed to land a meaty blow to the man’s stomach, but all that could be heard was wrist and knuckle bones snapping against steel. His roar of pain was strangled short as the man seized him by the throat and pinned him to a tabletop. To the horror of everybody present, blue lightning erupted from the stranger’s armoured hand. The brute quivered like a pennant in a gale while smoke and sparks fired from his gawping mouth. The foul smell of pork seeped.
In the stunned silence that followed, as the stranger adjusted his collar and hood he wondered if the townsfolk had the smarts to stay put, or if they were the truly brainless kind and would challenge him further. His work was done, no more bloodshed was required. Judging by the fearful looks of the remainder of the tavern, they were in utter agreement.
Flashing the polish of red-gold armour, he pulled his cloak around him. Before departing, he slid another coin across the marble bar. The screech was protracted and piercing, but Leerol made no move except for wincing.
‘For the damage those fools caused. The man drew the sword from between his shoulders and placed the blade gently on the veined stone. ‘And this? This doesn’t belong to the emperor, and it does not belong to you, let alone in some filthy tavern.’
Without moving, a violent crack of thunder split the uneasy air of the tavern. Bodies hit the stained floorboards like late apples, quivering to the ring of a sword blade.
When they finally peeled themselves from the floor, the stranger was striding out into the cold evening, cloak billowing in the wind. Patting themselves, everybody was proven whole and uninjured, if not a fraction deafer. Nothing was broken. That was until the door slammed.
Accompanied by a cloud of dust and a shrill scream from Leerol, the marble bar split in two directly down its centre and collapsed.
The barkeep blushed a shade of furious beetroot while he sucked in enough breath to bellow. ‘F—fuckin’ fetch the reever! And get that drunken twat out of the fireplace!’