Part 12

The Vōzniacs

A gray-haired peasant in a faded red tunic appeared in the torchlight above, leaning on a twisted cane.
Ruadd dismounted and tossed his reins to Kalaena. He approached the gate and offered the grandfatherly figure a bow.
The old man squinted down at them, uncertain what to make of a knight that showed such niceties to a serf. "I see you are armed. Are you sellswords?"
"Of a sort," the Swordsister answered from atop Tresseur. "I belong to an ancient order of warriors who will only train and serve peasantry. We don't just fight--we teach the defenseless to defend themselves."
The elder looked over her red hauberk and steel helm. "Never heard of your order, nor any like it. Or of woman sellswords, for that matter." He chewed his lip, clearly distressed by the idea.
Kalaena was not surprised. If they hadn't heard of Ruadd, it was even less likely they'd heard of the Swordsisters, though they looked like prime candidates for their aid.
"Beggin' your pardon, miss swordsell," the elder said, shaking his head. "But I don't see how two mercenaries can make much a difference against the dark lord, with all his soldiers and magic."
"So he calls himself 'dark lord'?" she asked.
The ancient serf chewed his lip and nodded.
Kalaena looked at the gray silhouette of the castle and scoffed quietly. "How imaginative."
"If tyrants were creative, they wouldn't be tyrants," Ruadd opined.
"I guess so."
The old man bobbed his head back and forth, looking confused. "Are you sellswords or some kind of comedy troupe? Is this a farce?"
"She is a mercenary," Ruadd said, gesturing at Kalaena. "I am not. Or rather, I prefer not to think of myself that way. I will help you if I can for no payment at all but the satisfaction of doing the right thing."
The old man listened, but he looked more confused than before.
"Why would you help us if we don't pay you?" he asked. "What gain is there for you?"
"Tell us your village's story," said Kalaena gently. "Then we can talk of the rest."
After another few moments of lip-chewing, he began: "We came here, to this dark place, before I was born. We are called the Vōzniacs."
"I cry your pardon, grandfather, but I have never heard of your tribe."
"Nor would you, for the world has changed. But once, long ago, we were great. Our kings sat on jeweled thrones. Our warriors were feared and respected across a hundred isles." The old man stared into the night and for a moment, Kalaena was sure he saw not darkness but the glory of bygone years.
"What happened?" Ruadd prodded.
He blinked. "Bad times. Our king died and left five strong sons. Normally, one of the five would quickly kill the others and seize the throne. This time, though, the succession took years. It dragged on, bleeding our armies and draining the treasury. Our client-states rebelled and wreaked a terrible vengeance upon us. When the dust cleared, all five princes were dead--some at the sword, some from assassination, and at least one from drink. We were a people diminished.
"We were not yet cursed, though." He looked up at the eclipsing. "That came later," he said bitterly. "When we tried to regain our glories."
Even inside within his heavy bronze armor, Kalaena could see Ruadd slouch from the weight of it. This was an old story--one he'd apparently heard before. "What did your people do, grandfather?" he quietly asked.
"A conjurer promised us power again. We accepted his leadership, for our kings were all dead and the men who followed them were but wan shadows, without crown or might to back their decisions.
"The conjurer led us to this dark island. The village was already here--as was the castle and the roads and the watchtowers that guard us. Too late, we discovered that he needed us because his previous bondsmen had all perished--but rather than rise up, we turned on each other. The dark lord is clever. He knew some would serve him in return for better houses and a bigger share of the harvest."
"As with all tyrants, he draws his jailers from the prison itself--for there are always those willing to jail their fellows."
"You speak true, warrior. This place is a prison, a dungeon where the master bleeds you a little every day until you are too weak to resist." The old man sighed. "He doesn't starve us. Or over-tax us. He's quite kind, in his own way. He lets us keep all the harvest, except for those shares which go to the traitors who serve him. Aside from that, he demands no tribute at all."
"What is his price, grandfather?" Ruadd asked patiently.
"A man can survive in this...this penumbra," the old man said in a shaky voice. "It's hard, but not impossible. We grow what we can and we huddle by our fires at night. The thing is..." His voice trailed off in a sob.
"They takes our women," a man on the wall shouted. "That's what the geezer can't say!"
Ruadd looked up and the peasants recoiled from his metallic gaze. "Why?"
"That's just it--we don't know!" the elder said in a choked voice. "He never tells us why, he just takes."
"Some he gives back and they're fine," another man said. "Others, he gives back and they ain't fine..."
"And others don't come back at all."
Ruadd nodded and went back to his horse.
Kalaena leaned over in her saddle and handed him Veissan's reins. "Malnourishment always hits women harder than men," she told him in a hushed voice. "Living on the edge as they do, they can't afford to lose any of their mothers." She looked out at the fields. "They could do with less cabbage and winter wheat and more beans and pastureland. Then their women would have a fair shake. And the men, too, for that matter."
The Swordsister observed that while men could often survive when women died, the damage was still there, hidden and insidious. Healthy men were only found where the women were healthy, too.
"When the eclipse is over, they shall have it," the cavalier swore. He raised his voice for the peasants. "Have you any advice for us? Before we attack him?"
The old man hung his head and did not answer.
"He is invulnerable," one of the men on the rooftops said. "Your attack will fail--just as the others have."
"He's so confident he doesn't even shut up his castle gates," another man added. "You'll be able to trot right in."
"Gettin' out's the problem."
Ruadd inclined his head and turned Veissan towards the citadel. "You have been most helpful, my good men. Your prayers are appreciated."
Kalaena considered the men and their grim expressions. She doubted they'd give Ruadd their prayers or anything else.
She pulled Tresseur's reins and rode him hard to to reach the cavalier.
The Vōzniacs
The castle loomed, hideous with age and story.
"Ah--I can see the front gate," the Knight-Seeker announced. "It is open, as they said. This will be easier than I thought, Lady Kalaena."
"All of this happened before the old man was born," she said with a frown. "But they make it sound like it's the same master now as then. Did you notice that?"
"I did."
"That would make him...over a century at least." Kalaena bit her lip. "One might say that would make him 'unnaturally old'. Think they're confused?"
"Not a bit."
She sighed. "I was afraid you'd say that."

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.

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