Vol.3, Ch.4, P.6
An anguished voice vaulted through Arbel’s air as we rushed to the square’s corridor. Nearing the source, we came upon confounded braves all bunched in a crowd, encircling a single, squatting Man. In his arms: a boy Nafíl, limp as sodden rope and steeped in blood besides.
“Oi! Spare ‘im some mendin’ magicks already, will ya!? ‘E’s fast fadin’, for shite’s sake!!” screamed the Man, his face full-red and flooded with tears and snot. “L-look at ‘im! A boy! Jus’ a li’l boy!! Uoooaaa—ah!! Save ‘im, damn you! Save ‘im!!”
Bandaging the boy’s bosom were crude strips of cloth. Though the bleeding beneath seemed ceased, his breaths wheezed on like a failing wind. No physician was on hand, yet all eyes knew: this young one was not long for this world.
Lise turned at once to the nearby braves. “Where’s the lǣċe!?”
“Already sent for!” answered one amongst them. “Any moment now till he’s come! Barbers withal!”
“Damn it! Damn it all!!” the Man howled on, glancing desperately about. “Quit gand’rin’ an’ get movin’, you wankers! Come on!! The boy’s one o’ you, innit!? One o’ you!!”
Pained and pitiable were his screaming pleas, yet none of the braves dared answer them. They stood perplexed—petrified, even, struck to stillness by the unsettling scene. As for myself, sheer shock had rooted me in place; I’d ill-discerned it at first, seeing him so swollen and drenched with tears, but I indeed knew this Man’s face—I knew his sword.
It was Sigmund.
A soldier of fortune… and a sword of Zaharte.
Soon enough, in the midst of his blustering screams, the press of braves made way as through them flew the lǣċe and a team of barber-surgeons. Straightway, they surrounded the Man and the boy before incanting mending magicks unto the latter and tending to his injury.
A fraught moment followed as we watched in wonder and worry. In its course, Lise approached the huddled healers. “How fares he?” she asked, soft but strained.
“The wound eludes his vitals,” revealed a barber. “He may live yet.”
Immediately, the crowd sighed a chorus of relief. Through the entire ordeal was Sigmund, keeping a fevered vigil over the boy. A look at him, and I understood at once:
This Man was no enemy of ours.
“Wot? That mutton-pated margrave? I rived ‘im right open, I did.”
Sigmund’s words, irreverent as they were revelatory.
The boy’d been treated and brought away to the beds, after which we pressed this Zaharte swordsman as to his puzzle of a predicament. There he divulged his flight from his fellow sellswords and the plight that precipitated it. It was then that we so learnt of the margrave’s fate: the lord of Ström, felled by none other than Sigmund himself.
A great rustle was roused from all within earshot. Of course we were shocked. None could’ve anticipated so untimely a death of the enemy commander-in-chief. And yet here we were.
“Rived him, and what then?” Lise further pressed the swordsman. “Did he give up the ghost? Had you time to check, even?”
A doubt well-warranted. By Sigmund’s words, he’d whisked away the boy from the manor right after unmaking the margrave. Queerly convenient upon the ears, I’ll admit. But more than aught, we were much wary at the thought of revising our strategy on account of some unconfirmed development.
“Hah!” Sigmund snorted, shaking his head. “No need. That berk o’ a lord—’e’s belly up proper, ‘e is.”
Such he insisted. Though strangely enough, I found myself rather convinced. Sigmund’s sword was as a gashing bear claw, a goring bull horn—strength I’d strived against in the flesh, and thus well-knew the measure of. And if indeed such strength girded the stroke against the margrave, then it was as Sigmund said: the lord was dead. Gruesomely so.
The proverbial head we’d so sought to hew, then, was already nipped from its neck.
“And yet… still the Fiefguard stir.”
Another doubt, now from one of our Staffelhäupter, revealing raw the rub of this situation: our commanderless foe was yet fain to fight. No demands were made, no safe surrender beseeched, though lost of lord they may be. The scouts’ reports corroborated the same: the enemies were all of them mustering at the concentration camp, with banners of battle billowing more defiantly than ever… Passing strange, indeed.
“Yea—this battle’s ‘ad the margrave’s trousers right tricklin’, see,” explained Sigmund. “So, ‘e thought to shog ‘is arse out o’ the city, an’ left Viola an’ them to lap up the dog’s dinner, ‘e did.”
“…Escape was his scheme all along,” hissed another Staffelhaupt.
If Sigmund’s account rang true, then so, too, did our reading of the margrave’s mind. The dots lined up at last: in meaning to flee did he transfer command of his men to Viola, captain of the very band of mercenaries he’d hired.
“Then it’s Viola Östberg who holds the Fiefguard’s reins now, is it? A spear-devout, and quite the commander besides, I hear—our foul luck to lock horns with her…” I said at length, all the while glaring at Sigmund, pressing him for more details. Yet he seemed as helpful as a feral hound, turning the other way with a rather bothered bend in his brows.
“Hemph,” he scoffed. “Yea, ‘er spear’s somethin’ else, all right. But ‘ow good a commander, you ask? Bugger’d if I know. Fightin’s me bread an’ butter; giz coin an’ combat, an I’m a ‘appy camper, ya get me?”
“How now!” cried a Staffelhaupt. “Awful lack-minded for a lacquey of hers, aren’t you?”
“Oi, piss off, yea? Can’t know if I can’t be arsed,” Sigmund barked back, scowling. “But even if I did, I ain’t ‘bout to be some rat, know wot I mean?”
A lone swordsman of a foe, flying into our midst, only to proclaim his taking of his client-commander’s very life—words and deeds too wild for our wits. Yet that was precisely the skein presented before us. And as we racked our brains as to how best to untangle it, Volker stepped forth and addressed a pouting Sigmund.
“A hyaena you are, then, parted from the pack,” the war-chief reckoned of the mercenary. “Yet one who refuses to ‘rat them out’, as your kin might say. You live by some code, Man?”
“‘Code’? Wot, I reeks o’ chivalry to ya, ah? Bloody ‘ell,” was Sigmund’s bitter answer, earning a reasoned murmur from one amongst our lot:
“…But suppose we squeezed a song out of this canary. What stops him from lacing his lyrics with lies?”
Had Sigmund coughed up aught and all that our ears coveted, who, then, could corroborate his words? Or soothe our suspicions for some foul ploy played by our foe? We could ill-afford to exercise compassion in place of caution—not in this situation, at least. Only, I yet believed Sigmund innocent of our scepticism.
“For shite’s sake—I’m no knight, but I ain’t a bloody knave, either, mate.”
Of course not. Sigmund had been spilling the truth all along. His screams, his tears—no knave could be moved to such haunting emotion, after all. And surely we’d given him the succour he so sought; what reason had he to deceive us in return?
“Song or silence, we keep our course,” Volker said, resolved. “Our foe bears a new head: the pair’d pates of the Östbergs. We have but to sculpt our plans as appropriate.”
“Volker’s right,” agreed Lise. “Attack the camp, free the captives, crush the enemy—our way remains unbent.”
Hearing the two’s words, I guessed that they’ve scried in Sigmund the same as I had. It was then that Lise turned full to the Man himself.
“Now—one last nail to drive in,” she said, sighing and arms akimbo.
“You best watch that mallet o’ yours, Missus. Ya hear!?” Sigmund hissed, pointing at her. “I brought the brat ‘ere to save ‘im, not surrender meself to you lot, yea?”
The swordsman’s insolence was yet undiminished. In him lingered not an iota of awe or unease, even stood as he was in the midst of an enemy camp.
“Then ‘tis the ball and chain for you, Mister,” Lise bit back, before sighing again. “That said, your situation deserves our hospitality than hostility, I admit…”
“Then be hospit’ble-like an’ giz some grub, will ya?” Sigmund demanded, before turning sharp eyes in my direction. “A full stummy brews back the blood, it does.”
That stare of his stabbed with ire, rousing irritation from some amongst us. Paying it little mind, I ventured a guess as to his seething attitude.
“You mean the blood I hewed from your cheek?”
“Hmph, me cheek—wot else, you wank-wit!?” he cried, as though insulted. “Look ‘ere, ey! Scraped me skin what’s all ya did! But if ya wants to hew me, you’d better cut a li’l more deep-like next time, yea? Down through me very bones!”
…”My very bones.”
In spite of his gruffness, this Man could air some rather inspiring words, I’ll concede. My sword had severed naught but the flesh caging the soul that was “Sigmund”. By that logic does he claim to suffer no wound at all—not till he’s cut free from his flesh. Such was his meaning, his very mind. A fascinating one, at that, well-earning from me an inward nod.
“Intriguing words, Sigmund,” I returned. “I’d ask more of you, if I could.”
“Yea? Then spit.”
“Not now. This waits till the dust’s settled.”
As it should: the battle before us demanded our full attention, all the more so now that the gameboard was shuffled anew. Learning more of this wayward Man would have to come later.
“Oh? Well then quit faffin’ an’ get fightin’, why don’t ya? An’ giz some grub while you’re at it! Five plates full, pipin’ ‘ot-like!” the soldier of fortune shouted again, ever irreverent and unrestrained.
Chapter 4 ─ End
(Language: Old English; plural: lǣċas) A physician. In Soot-Steeped Knight, the Nafílim equivalent of a surgien, not unlike what their wiċċan are to the sorcerers of Men. The ǣ vowel is pronounced with an elongated a sound, as in “last” or “sand”. The ċ consonant is pronounced ch, as in “chair” or “charge”.