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A Matter of Honor

A Matter of Honor
by John Whitehouse


Tarmerius heard a rapping on the door, loud and insistent. The priest paused in the act of dipping his quill and looked up from some half-finished writing. The sound continued. With an irritated sigh, Tarmerius laid down his pen, rose from the table and moved across the room. In his early sixties, he was tall and slim with a bush of white hair. A small beard framed his mouth and came to a point, like a lance, beneath his chin.

He opened the door to find Jakon standing there. The boy, now in his thirteenth spring, was panting for breath. Anxiety pinched his features. “I was sent to fetch you,” he said. “Please, come quickly.”

Tarmerius opened his mouth to speak, but Jakon was already racing back to the village. The priest frowned, wondering what could be the matter. Was Karrin about to give birth? Had Alvaric succumbed to the fever? Tarmerius gave a shrug and stepped out into the fading light of the evening. His long white robe fluttered in the wind as he made his way along the dirt track.
As he came to the village he saw people hurrying to the beach, urged on by a couple of Jakons’ friends who were speaking anxiously and pointing out to sea. Other villagers were rousing their neighbors from their homes.

A sudden chill came over Tarmerius. Tharn was similar to other small settlements scattered along the southern coast of Garrahar, a huddle of thatched huts clustered about a small stone building which served as a shrine to Syvian, goddess of the sea. Such places lived in constant fear of attack from pirates and the like, and memories of the previous autumn, when the villagers had beaten off one such raid, were still fresh. Tarmerius recalled how he and Alain had personally accounted for a handful of buccaneers. Was the village again under threat?

The priest saw Jakon beckoning to him and followed the boy down to the shingle. Tarmerius had taken his first crunching steps upon it when he froze. A ship, similar in size to a man-of-war, was heading toward land, the wind swelling its golden sails. The vessel was literally flying though the air, a dozen feet or so above the waves, and was travelling at considerable speed.

“It’s witchcraft,” said Jakon. “But who could it be? And what do they want?”

Tarmerius made no reply. He continued to gaze at the ship as it grew larger, eyes widening as he noted the large crest emblazoned on the foremost sail: a scarlet hawk on a black field.

His bowels turned to ice. So Darakon had discovered his whereabouts, after all these years. Fear slithered like a serpent inside Tarmerius’ stomach. His first instinct was to flee to the hills but he knew Darakon would find him wherever he went. He thought of Alain and mouthed a silent prayer to the gods. Then he turned and walked back to his house, his expression grim and somber. Jakon called after him but the priest seemed not to hear.

By now the entire population of Tharn - some two hundred men, women and children - were gathered on the beach. Their anxious mutterings increased as the ship came ever nearer. As the vessel drew in to shore it slowed its speed and lowered itself to the water. The villagers drew back as it beached on the shingle. Rope ladders were slung over the sides and the people watched as the occupants began to clamber out.

Then the screaming began.

* * *

Alain had spent the day herding sheep in the hills overlooking Tharn and was returning home under a darkening sky. In his eighteenth year, he was broad-shouldered and handsome, with fair hair and blue eyes. He wore a fringed buckskin jerkin, dark leggings and calf-length boots, and carried a bow. He often took the weapon with him into the fields where he’d practice his aim on tree trunks, and on rabbits which he’d cook and eat. An arrow bag was slung over his shoulder.

He was cresting a rise when he heard shouts and screams coming from the direction of the village. Alain ran down the hill, through a field thick with cowslips and daisies, and came to a hazel copse from where a path sloped down to the settlement. He froze in horror. The scene before him was something beyond his wildest nightmares. The village was being raped and plundered, not by men, but by a swarm of hideous dwarf-like creatures. Around four feet in height, their heads were hairless domes, the skin yellow, not unlike the color of cheese. A pig-like snout sat between eyes like dark holes and a mouth lined with sharp teeth, while their hands and feet terminated in claw-like talons. They wore garments made from animal hides and their weapons varied, some of the creatures brandishing swords and spears, others axes and wooden clubs.

Alain gazed in disbelief at the carnage and mayhem. Bodies, mostly men of the village, littered the streets. Women wailed; dogs barked; children howled, the sounds mingling in a ghastly symphony. The flimsy wooden doors of the huts had been broken down and the interiors ransacked. Tharn was a poor sort of place and there wasn’t much in the way of riches, but there were plenty of other things, such as smoked hams, cheeses, butter churns, yards of cloth, as well as swords and daggers. They were humble enough in themselves, but the creatures obviously considered them valuable enough to take back home, and they were busy loading their spoils onto the ship.

And then, in the midst of it all, Alain’s gaze fell upon an imposing figure, a man dressed in black who was striding through the village. Aged around forty, he was tall and lean with dark hair and narrow features, a thin high-bridged nose giving him a hawk-like aspect. One of the creatures ran up and spoke to the man, and it was evident he was in command of them. The two figures made their way to the shrine, where they halted and gazed about.

It was then that a wave of black anger swept over Alain. Laying his arrow bag on the ground, he set about stringing the bow. The wind rasped through the trees and Alain realized that, although the evening was cool, his mouth was dry, his forehead wet. Taking a white-fledged arrow, he nocked it to the bow and drew back the cord until it was beside his right ear. The man was partially obscured by the shrine but the creature was standing to one side, his back to Alain, presenting a clear shot. Heart thudding, Alain took aim.

And then he loosed.

The arrow leaped from the string, sinking from the hill to strike its target hard and deep between the shoulders. The creature pitched forward and Alain whooped in triumph. As the man moved toward his fallen companion Alain loosed off another shaft, only to see it thud into the ground a couple of feet short. He was reaching for another arrow but the man was already running toward the beach.

Alain ran down the slope and raced through the village. At the edge of the shingle he halted, eyes wide in astonishment. The occupants of the ship were all aboard and the vessel was rising into the air. The man was standing in the prow, chanting strange, mystical words and waving his hands this way and that.

The ship moved out to sea where it picked up speed. Alain watched as it flew further and further away, shrinking until it was no more than a speck on the horizon. Then he made his way back through the stinking, bloody village. His pace quickened as he came to the dirt track and he ran along it to the large timber house he shared with his father.

Alain’s worst fears were confirmed as he stepped over the threshold. Tarmerius was slumped against a wall, eyes closed, face unnaturally pale. His sword lay close at hand. The bottom of his robe was stained red, and as Alain knelt beside him he saw blood seeping from a wound in his stomach.

Tarmerius opened his eyes. “Alain! You’re safe! Oh, may the gods be praised.” His voice was ragged and hoarse. “Don’t worry, I haven’t told him about you. But you must flee, in case he returns.”

“The man’s gone, Father, along with the creatures. Was that ... Darakon?”

Tarmerius nodded, then grimaced as a bolt of pain tore up from his belly. Fresh blood puddled in his lap. Alain felt tears pricking his eyes, a lump rising in his throat. He was glad his mother was no longer alive to witness this, the fever which had taken her the previous winter proving a blessing in disguise.

He noticed his father had stopped breathing. He shook him gently, but to no avail.

Rising to his feet, Alain went out of the house and made his way to the shrine. As he stepped inside he saw the place was in disarray. The wooden benches had been upended and the silver plates and candlesticks were missing from the altar. The statue of Syvian – a stone figure ten feet high - was unharmed, however. Alain knelt before it. “Oh, Syvian,” he began. “Please receive my father’s soul and grant him everlasting rest in Paradise. You know that the honor of my tribe, and of my family, demands that I do my utmost to slay the one who killed him, even at the cost of my own life. Please give me the strength and courage to do what I ... have ... to...”

Then the dam broke. Alain wept like a child and it was as if his very soul was being purged.

When he rose to his feet his knees were stiff and aching. The moon was up, stars pricking out, as he went back to the house. He needed help in seeking out Darakon and expected to find it in Pelador, his father’s land of origin. He bundled together a change of clothes, along with some bread and cheese, and removed a small bag of coins from its hiding place beneath the floor. Reaching into a cupboard, he took out his sword which he kept in a worn leather scabbard. Then he crossed the yard to the stable and saddled the horse.

Soon afterward Alain rode away from Tharn, heading for the port of Gethun. The following day he sold the horse and booked a passage to Pelador.

* * *

Born and raised in the land of Pelador, Tarmerius had been the family priest to the House of Asparac. Although he was a friend to the old Count – a man called Joreb - he never liked the son, Darakon. It transpired there was a talent for magic in the family which had lain hidden for generations. Somehow Darakon had discovered it and was taking an interest in dark magic, which alarmed Tarmerius. Joreb died while Darakon was still a young man and, being the only son, he inherited the title.

During one of his visits to the castle, Tarmerius was invited to dine with the young Count. Not wishing to cause offence, he agreed. During the course of the evening Darakon imbibed a large amount of wine and, his tongue loosened, told Tarmerius how he was gathering various disaffected nobles in a plot to seize the throne.

Tarmerius, being a decent, honorable man – as well as a loyal subject of King Antonius – was horrified. Seeking help, he went to a friend of his, a merchant named Toroc. The man’s wife -Elesa - was a sorceress who’d served several minor nobles. With the help of her magic, the three companions were able to warn Antonius of the threat to his kingdom. Gathering his forces, the King was able to crush the plot, although Darakon managed to escape, fleeing into exile.

Knowing Darakon would not rest until he’d exacted vengeance, Tarmerius fled Pelador, intending to go far away. Before his departure, Elesa gave him a ring which had the power to ward off scrying, to prevent Darakon tracking him down. Tarmerius had finally settled in the land of Garrahar where he’d met and married Alain’s mother. Alain himself had been raised speaking both their tongues.

Yet his fathers’ schemes had come to naught, Alain reflected sadly. Somehow Darakon had found him and exacted his revenge. Yet Alain’s soul also lusted for vengeance. That he might lose his life in the consummation of that vengeance made no difference. And he hoped Elesa, with her knowledge of magic, could help in his quest.

The voyage to Pelador took almost three months, and it was mid-afternoon when the ship docked at the coastal port of Sydri, the last known home of Toroc and his wife. A number of inns were scattered around the waterfront and Alain began calling at them, asking the owners if they knew the merchant. He struck lucky at one called the Jolly Fiddler, where the innkeeper had been a friend of Toroc’s. It transpired that both Toroc and Elesa had died from the blood plague which had struck the previous winter, although they were survived by their daughter, Janna.

“She’s a Baroness, you know,” the innkeeper told him. “Married some nobleman, only he was killed a couple of years back.” Since the death of her parents she’d divided her time between her husband’s estate and the house in Sydri, where she was presently staying. Deciding he had nothing to lose by going to see her, Alain asked the innkeeper for directions.

He found the Street of the Willows without difficulty. Located in the most prosperous area of Sydri, it was a wide thoroughfare lined with large stone houses surrounded by high walls. The house he sought stood at the end. A tall wooden gate was set into the wall and beside this a hand bell hung on a chain. Alain rang the bell and waited. Several moments passed. Then he heard footsteps, followed by the sound of a bolt being drawn back. With a creak, the gate opened inward.

Standing before him, wearing a long blue dress, was a woman of striking beauty.

“Are you the daughter of Toroc the merchant?” Alain asked. The woman nodded. She was tall and slender and looked to be in her late twenties. A flowing mane of black hair framed her finely-chiseled features. Alain introduced himself. “My father was a friend of your parents,” he began, but Janna broke in.

“I know. I’ve been expecting you”

Alain gaped at her in bewilderment. “Expecting me! But how?”

“Do not be alarmed,” said Janna. “I will explain everything.” She beckoned and stood aside as Alain stepped through the gate. Bolting it again, she led him across a courtyard to the house, where she opened a heavy wooden door and ushered him into a large kitchen. Seating herself at a table, she invited Alain to sit opposite and pushed across a bowl containing pieces of fruit. “Please, help yourself.”

Alain laid his bundle on the floor and sat down. He plucked an apple from the bowl and bit into it. “How did you know I was coming?” he asked.

Janna poured him a goblet of wine. “My mother told me.”

Alain nearly choked. “Your mother! But I was told both your parents were dead.”

“Her spirit appeared to me,” said Janna. “She told me about the raid on your village, how the purpose behind it was the slaying of your father.”

“Those creatures - what are they?”

“Scarags,” said Janna. “Their race dwells mostly to the north of Irdustan. These days the Count makes his living from piracy, aided by a band of the creatures. They are fascinated by his magic and obey him without question. He finds them more reliable than humans.” She paused. “My mother also told me you wish to slay him.”

Alain took a draught of wine and nodded.

Janna’s expression was grim. “Alain, this is madness. Even if you were to get close enough, the Count is an expert swordsman, not to mention a master of dark magic. You would never succeed.”

“Then I’ll die trying,” said Alain. “It’s a matter of honor.”

Janna gave a tight, bitter smile. “Ah, honor. I see. Forgive me, it’s just that I have seen too many duels fought in the name of honor. Roald, my husband, was killed in one. What price honor afterwards? Can it keep the widows warm at night? Is it a comfort to the children left without a father?”

Alain was at a loss for words. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m sorry about your husband,” he said at length. “But I have made a sacred vow. Nothing and no-one will detract me from it.”

He reached for some dried figs, drank more wine. “What puzzles me is how Darakon found out where my father was. The ring your mother gave him was supposed to prevent that happening.”

Janna nodded sadly. “Even though it took twenty years, the Count eventually found a way to break its power. He went to great lengths, delving into forbidden books and musty scrolls, even consorting with sorcerers from the Dark Kingdoms. He really hated your father.”

She fixed Alain with a hard, appraising stare. “You’re determined to go through with this, aren’t you?” Alain nodded. Janna gave a sigh. “Very well. Since I have inherited my mother’s talents, I will use my magic to aid you. By means of a scrying spell, I have discovered where Darakon is hiding out. It is a small island in the southern ocean, previously uninhabited.”

Rising to her feet, Janna faced the wall and muttered a spell. A cloud of dense white smoke appeared, and within the cloud an image formed. Alain saw it was the island Janna had spoken of. Steep cliffs fringed by dense jungle rose sheer from the water, flanking a small cove where Darakon’s ship lay at anchor. Janna waved her hands, muttering more words under her breath, and the image changed to that of a huge stone temple, roughly triangular in shape.

“Whatever race built the temple vanished long ago,” said Janna, “although the structure is remarkably intact. It makes an ideal base.”

Alain frowned. “But how do we get there? No merchant vessels sail to that region.”

“Don’t worry,” said Janna. “Using the correct spell, we can be there in moments.”

“Fine. When do we leave?”

“We’d best wait until tonight. With luck, most of the Scarags will be drunk or asleep. It should make it easier for you.” Janna pointed to the fruit bowl. “When you have finished eating, I will show you to a spare bedroom. You’d better get some rest. I’ve a feeling you’re going to need it.”

* * *

Darkness had fallen when Janna came to Alain’s room. She bolted the door to prevent any unwanted intrusion by the servants and gave Alain a gentle shake to rouse him from his slumber. As he buckled on his sword, she began muttering a complex incantation, moving her hands through the air. A glowing ring of light appeared. It was around seven feet in diameter, and within it the air shimmered as if distorted by waves of heat. Janna beckoned to Alain. Then she stepped into the ring and vanished.

Alain stood before the glowing circle, hesitating. His stomach tightened. With more than a little trepidation, he stepped into the ring also. A moment later he blinked in amazement. He and Janna were standing in a corridor lit by burning torches fastened to the stonework at intervals. At the end a wide staircase rose into shadowy gloom. Janna waved her hands, causing the circle of light to wink out of existence. She pointed to the steps. “Your destiny waits.”

“Thank you for your help,” said Alain. He drew his sword and set off along the passage. As he climbed the stair, however, doubts began to assail him. Here he was, about to throw his life away, and for what? Then, unbidden, memories of Tharn flooded his mind. He saw again the bodies littering the ground, heard the wailing for the dead, carried on the wind like a ghostly lament. And his misgivings dissipated before a tide of fury which boiled up within him like white hot lava.

At the head of the stair he emerged into another dimly-lit corridor. Somewhere ahead of him he heard a low hum of voices. Alain crept along the passage, halting before a narrow portal. Peering through, he saw a large chamber where the Count, along with a dozen or so Scarags, were gathered. They were drinking from jeweled goblets and eating from silver plates piled high with smoked fish and pieces of fruit. The Scarags lounged on silk cushions while the Count was seated on a carved wooden chair. He wore a cream tunic and dark pantaloons, both of the finest silk, and was exchanging comments with a Scarag next to him.

Alain hesitated. His heart pounded. Steeling himself, he charged into the room.

A hush descended, amazement holding the company frozen for a moment. Facing them like a lion at bay, Alain cried: “Darakon, Count of Asparac! You are responsible for the slaying of my father, a priest named Tarmerius. I come seeking vengeance.”

Darakon gaped at his visitor in astonishment. Then realization dawned. “You insolent young whelp!” he roared. “I’ll have you flayed alive for this. Seize him!”

Alain laughed unpleasantly. “Lo, the Count calls upon his minions to aid him!” His tone was mocking. “Is he a coward? Is he afraid to face me alone in combat, without the use of sorcery?”

All eyes turned toward Darakon, who knew he was honor bound to accept the challenge.

“Very well,” said the Count. “I shall enjoy feeding your body to the fishes. But, tell me, how did you learn of my whereabouts? Are there others with you?”

“I came alone,” Alain lied. “Although I had a little help, from a friend who knows magic.”

Darakon nodded. “I see. Well, then, shall we commence?”

The Count’s sword hissed from its scabbard and, with a pantherish leap, he sprang forward, hacking down with a stroke which Alain only just managed to parry. The Scarags gave back, leaving a clear space in the centre of the room.

The two men began hacking and slashing for all their worth, the clashing clangor of steel ringing throughout the chamber. The adversaries fought without pause for breath. Blades hissed and sang; caught and held; pulled apart; clashed and grated, the men weaving hot sparks around them like fireworks. As Janna had said, Darakon was an expert swordsman, possessing excellent speed and balance, and even though Alain was holding his own it was evident the Count’s superior skill would eventually triumph.

With a sudden movement, Alain flung himself backward. His sword slid from his grasp and clattered to the floor. Clutching his temples, he cried out and sank to his knees, face contorted as if in pain. Darakon stood over him, his expression one of gloating triumph.

What happened next took him completely unawares. In a sudden movement, Alain - now seemingly recovered - snatched up his sword and thrust upward, the blade plunging into Darakon’s chest. The Count stiffened, features frozen in uncomprehending shock. He gave a rasping gurgle, blood gushing from his thin lips. Alain released his grip on the sword and his foe slumped to the floor, a red stain flowering over his cream tunic.

Silence descended. The Scarags stared in shock at the body of the Count. Then their gaze shifted to Alain, dark eyes boring into him. He could feel the creatures’ hostility as if it were a living thing.

Alain placed one foot on Darakon’s body and tugged the sword free. Shaking the red drops from the blade, he backed toward the doorway, the creatures’ gaze following him. He stepped into the corridor. Then, with a swift turn, he tore along the passage as if the hosts of the Netherworld were at his heels.

He hurled himself down the steps and when he reached the bottom Janna was there to meet him. Behind him the Scarags were pouring down the stair, feet slapping on stone. Janna pointed to the bottom step and, murmuring some mystical words, she drew her finger horizontally through the air. A wall of fire sprang up, flames leaping ten and twelve feet high, obscuring the Scarags from view. A flurry of angry yells and curses erupted from the creatures.

“The fire’s an illusion,” said Janna. “But it might deter them long enough for us to get out of here.” Turning her back to the flames, she began incanting the spell which would cause the circle of light to appear.

Tense moments passed. Then one of the Scarags jumped through the wall of fire. Straight away, the flames vanished. Evidently, the creature’s action had broken the spell. Alain glanced over his shoulder and saw Janna vanish into the circle. As the Scarags swarmed toward him he hurled his sword at the nearest one, who was mere feet away. Then he jumped through the glowing ring of light.

* * *

Alain landed on soft springy grass. Behind him the circle of light vanished on Janna’s command. He gazed about. He and Janna were standing in the garden of Janna’s house, under the hard white light of a full moon. Somewhere a fountain tinkled and the air was heavy with the sweet, heady scents of exotic plants.

“Well done,” said Janna. “I gather you were successful in slaying the Count.”

Alain told her how his trickery had fooled Darakon.

“How does it feel?” she asked. “Now your honor has been satisfied.”

Alain frowned, unsure of what to say. There was no glorious feeling of exhilaration, no sense of triumph, or satisfaction. Instead there was only a hollow emptiness. Janna noted his expression and gave a wry smile. “Revenge not all it’s made out to be, eh? Poor Alain, you’ve much to learn.” She walked over to a stone bench and sat down. A rising wind tugged her black mane. “What will you do now?” she asked.

Alain shrugged. “I really don’t know.” Truth to tell, he didn’t want to think about the future. His quest had succeeded, he was alive and in one piece, and Tharn had been avenged. For now, that was enough.

* * *

John Whitehouse enjoys writing in various genres, including mystery and fantasy. To date several of his stories have appeared in small press and national publications, both in the UK and US, and on the internet.

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