SEE ALSO THE LILITH GALLERY, THE ART HISTORY ARCHIVE & THE LILITH EZINE.
Rumours. Rumours spread through snow-covered Athex like a summer grass fire. They reached Pothax Doxon and the black-haired cutthroat sped off through the city in search of his brother's estate.
He was tall, swarthy and wore a black, close-fitting riding leathers. He raced across the icy rooftops with a cat-like speed and agility that would have made a Kinian cougar jealous. He was in the middle of a blizzard and yet he could see well enough to execute a somersault and land in a tree without a moment of unbalance. This is why people had nicknamed him the Owl.
The tree was in the park beside Wynic Doxon's estate. The Doxon's was not your average family; Wynic was an assassin, the Paladin Assassin. He was paid by the Kingdoms of Arthian, Kinian, Stornium and Colnic to kill anyone who would dare to try and overthrow the Kings and Queens of the Kingdoms.
Scaling the wall, Pothax noted several horses being tended to in the stables. "Company," he grunted to himself. He dropped to the snowbank below, slid to the ground, and ran across the courtyard.
Wynic's retainer Devid met him at the door and took his snow covered fur cloak. "Master Wynic and Mistress Victoria are in the lounge with Sir Dillard and Lieutenant Rades," he said, shaking the snow off Pothax's cloak. "Would you like anything to drink?" he coughed.
"Thanks Dev. I'll have some Kinian Brandy to warm me up. I suggest you have some too, that cough didn't sound good," grunted Pothax, yanking off his black leather riding boots. "Where's Bren?"
"Yes, sire," breathed Devid. "I believe Master Bren is outside playing in the storm. Shall I call him?"
"Yes, this concerns him too," Pothax said, heading for the lounge at a run. Throwing open the heavy Arthian Oak doors, he rushed into the midst of his friends. "I suppose you've all heard?" he asked gruffly.
Red-haired Wynic nodded. He was almost exactly identical to his brother except that he was ten years younger and red-haired. "Victoria came home as soon as she heard from Major general Marqe. What I want to know is whether the rumour is true."
"There are several different rumours," noted Sir Dillard, a dark haired man with unusual purple eyes. He had a broken nose and a U-shaped scar above his right eye. "Mine is that the Ice Folk attacked and massacred a caravan and that King Sear's son, Prince Roger, was killed, though why the Prince would be in a caravan I don't know." He was tall and somewhat lanky. His face was shaved on one side and not on the other which suggested when he had heard the rumour.
"That's the story I told him," added Rades. He was barely over five feet tall and sturdily built. He constantly was grinning mischievously though Pothax suspected it was an act since the man had last every friend he had ever had three months ago.
"You have the part about Prince Roger being killed right," said Victoria, "but what actually happened is that the Prince was leading a group of Knights to Fort Phal when they came upon a massacred caravan, it was then that they were ambushed by Ice Folk." Victoria was three months pregnant though it didn't show since she was so beautiful. She had lightly tanned smooth skin, a small nose, pouty lips, long brown hair and a nymph-like figure. "And Wynic," she said, "it isn't a rumour so that makes it true."
"I think we better go up to my study and look at a map of Kinian," muttered Wynic, standing up. "If King Willium decides that he needs me to help King Sear. Then we better be ready to go to Kinian. Though I don't think I could be of any help anyway since there are so many Ice Folk tribes, plus they're nomadic."
"Agreed," muttered Pothax. He gulped down the contents of his goblet and ignored the burning sensation in his throat. He turned to face Bren as the small boy trotted merrily into the lounge. "We may be going to Kinian."
The boy grinned and pointed at Pothax's goblet. "Does that mean that when in Kinian, do as the Kinians do?" Rades laughed and patted the boy on the back.
"You've raised a good boy, Pothax," he laughed in his southern Stornium accent.
"No, you may not have any wine or brandy," said Pothax, ignoring Rades. "I wish you wouldn't listen to Rades either. He tends to open his foolish mouth at exactly the wrong moment."
Rades winked at Bren. "You haven't been listening to me, have you?" Bren pretended not to hear at all.
Captain Savin and King Willium sobered instantly. The two were an odd pair. A retired pirate captain from Stornium with a shaved head and a taste for hard whiskey. The King of Arthian was a plumpish man, shrewd and careful in his ways of politics with a love of Kinian Brandy. The two were drinking buddies, and they both insisted they were getting too old for work though they were the first to jump at a fight.
"You're kidding me, right?" Willium demanded of his new retainer, Elsades. The goblet fell from between his numb fingers and landed on the Arthian Oak table with a solid thud.
Elsades had a full head of brown curls and was very strong despite his scholarly appearance. "Yes, da soldier said dat Prince Roger was killed by a band of Ice Folk. Undoubtedly, King Sear will declare war on the Ice Folk tribes."
"Which means I must call a meeting to discuss the movement of troops from here in Arthian to Kinian," muttered Willium. "I hate meetings." He glanced at Savin and grinned. "I'm too old for them."
Prince Nebonex looked up from the canvas to his teacher, Gith. The retired retainer taught the huge minotaur how to paint while his other teacher, General Gisoni, who was in charge of the Minotaur Embassy here in Athex, tought him the minotaur ideas of war. His other teacher, King Willium, taught him politics. Gith was extremely pale.
"What is it?" the huge minotaur prince demanded, setting down his paint brush.
"We've just received word from Kinian-"
"Ah, how is King Sear and his family?"
"Prince Roger was killed in a skirmish with the Ice Folk. It is unclear whether the King will declare war on the Folk," replied Gith slowly. He had a somewhat stunned expression on his face.
"Why are you so stunned?"
"Kinian and the Ice Folk have been allies for centuries. No one ever thought they could actually even consider war. It seems the problems the Ice Folk have been having are getting severe."
"Where's Willium? I need-"
"He's already called a meeting. We'll be invited, infact, ordered to come. Willium values my advise and he was very impressed with your performance during Kobalix's Quest," interrupted the old man. He sat down, absently toying with a paint brush.
Nebonex spat. His uncle Kobalix had the cutthroat, Pothax Doxon, assassinate his father, the Emperor. It had been before the two half-brothers, Wynic and Pothax, had even met. He didn't hold a grudge against Pothax, he did however wish Wynic had prolonged Kobalix's death three months ago. Kobalix had also tried to assassinate Empress Gweneleque, himself and others in his demented plan to conquer the entire world, enslave humans and even become the Emperor of the Crime world.
Word travels faster in the world of crime, a world that a man called Waytorn had the pleasure of being Emperor of. In addition to having what was possibly the best spy network on the continent, he also had the largest army. An army made up of cutthroats, murderers, mercenaries, highwaymen, thieves and pick-pockets. He was perhaps the most powerful man in the continent next to Lord Blackaxe, the owner of the Swathick Axe. Currently his spy network was in demand by both nobles and commoners.
"Blackaxe, Redhawk?" asked the King Culprit, knocking on the door to Blackaxe's warroom. "Queen Helen?" Cautiously, he opened the heavy Arthian Oak doors and peered inside.
The Queen of Stornium stood with her husband, Lord Redhawk and her friend Lord Blackaxe. There was an additional noble present that Waytorn didn't recognize. The Queen waved him forward and he crept forward slowly.
The noble stared at Waytorn with undisguised disgust. Waytorn's right side of his face was horribly burned and scarred, the other side was handsomely shaped, tanned with strong cheekbones and a flashy brown eye. His hair was pitch black and silky smooth. Waytorn was prepared to greet the noble's response to his looks, most people felt like retching when they saw his face.
"Lord Ponde, meet King Waytorn," introduced Lord Redhawk. The knight had long, shoulder length hair, and long mustaches. he was tall, large shouldered and a bit lanky. He was a good example of a Kinian Knight in Waytorn's mind, himself from Kinian.
On the other hand Lord Blackaxe was a good example of a Stornium Knight. Stockily built, bulging muscles, and extremely agile. The large difference was his smoke coloured hair and stern face.
Lord Ponde was shorter than Blackaxe, and smaller also, but he had the traditional trademarks of a Stornium Knight: blond hair and a jovial face. He reminded Waytorn of lieutenant Rades, a man he had met in Athex during Kobalix's Quest.
"Sorry if I'm a bit blunt and informal Queen Helen," said Waytorn, turning to face the person considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world. "But King Sear has probably declared war on the Ice Folk."
Helen gasped. She was normally very pale, but now she turned a deathly white. She shoved blond hair out of her eyes and took a deep breath. "So soon? We've barely just finished the war with Kobalix!"
Redhawk nodded in agreement. "I think that's why too. The Ice Folk are complaining about poachers from Kinian hunting their lands for furs. The poachers are probably people who had fought for Kobalix before Wynic assassinated him."
"I suppose I have to call a meeting now?" sighed Helen. "Damn it! I hate meetings almost as much as Willium does!"
Prince Harold Searle blinked. He looked from Queen Elexenia to Lord Jacog, her champion and Prince Consort. Is this some kind of rude joke?" he demanded of his hosts.
Queen Elexenia was known to be a child of sorts. Raised in royal atmosphere she had become spoiled to the point that even now that she was over twenty winter's old, she still acted like a child of seven or eight. her spoiled nature resulted in a face that was constantly pouting. Normally if this was a joke she wouldn't have been able to suppress her laughter. Today she was unusually silent and solemn.
Slowly, the cold blade of fear crept up Harold's back like a razor sharp dagger. Shuddering, he looked desperately at Jacog for a sign that this was all a joke. Jacog said nothing and bowed his head, confirming what Harold's fears told him.
His younger brother Roger was dead. Killed in a skirmish with the Ice Folk. Slowly, Harold took a deep breath. "I must return immediately. I-"
"You will be escorted by an army of Colnic Knights and the Royal Colnic Army," spat Jacog. "I've already given the orders. We'll leave tomorrow morning."
Lord Gisoni, the first Minotaur Knight, sat down at a crescent shaped table in King Willium's dining hall. He looked around the almost empty room and glanced briefly at the familiar mural on the wall. The retired retainer, Gith, had painted it. It went all the way around the circular room and depicted a herd of beautiful unicorns. He felt like he had just sat down in the middle of the meadow depicted on the wall.
He looked at the empty seat beside him and the huge minotaur wondered how many times Lord Redhawk had occupied that seat during Kobalix's Quest. Best friends the two had become. Now he rarely even received a letter from the knight. He longed to hear his friend's strange Kinian accent.
Sir Dillard snorted as he entered the room and looked around. "What's the point of this meeting? We all know we have to go to Kinian!" He sat down across from Gisoni.
Rades smiled. He sat down with a shrug beside the knight and stared at Lord Redhawk's seat. "Is it just me or shouldn't Redhawk be present for this meeting?"
Gisoni frowned and scratched an ivory coloured horn. "I was just thinking the same thing. It doesn't feel right without him or his wine bottle."
"Sounds like you're talking about Redhawk," commented Pothax, entering beside Wynic and Victoria. "He's the only one I know who has a wine bottle permanently attached to his left hand and a goblet attached to his right!"
"Shush Pothax," said Victoria, sitting down beside her husband, Wynic. She yanked the cutthroat into his seat and poked him in the ribs. "Willium's about to begin."
"That's correct," muttered Willium, standing up. He drew his rapier and placed it on the table, the hilt pointed away from him. "Ladies and gentlemen, we all know why we're here. The questions that I'd like to discuss is how serious is this matter in Kinian? Also, is it necessary to send the Arthian Army or should we send a delegation of politicians to help settle the matter? Marshall Pegs, I believe you mentioned earlier wanting to say something?"
The short fat man nodded and stood up. "Reports from Kinian confirm that cutthroats formerly in the employ of Kobalix," he ignored Nebonex's spat and Rades' boo, and continued, "have taken up poaching in the Ice lands. Attempts have been made to eradicate the villains but the Royal Kinian Army couldn't find a single poacher. It's been suggested that they have built an ice fortress like Fort Phal and that is the reason why they can't find them. That theory has yet to be proven.
"Negotiating is pointless. Their strategies of war are very defensive. Ice pits with sharpened icicles on the bottom, artificial avalanches, hidden trenches filled with warriors. To make matters worse, they have been trading furs for crossbows and with crossbows they now have the ability to wait in the hidden trenches until we stumble into a trap and are caught in the crossfire.
"Altogether, this means that war would be a waste of lives, since they have an ultimate defensive position. Sending politicians would be pointless since they couldn't even get near the enemy. My suggestion is that since the poachers are causing the lack of food and forcing the Ice Folk to attack caravans that we go to the root of the problem and find the poachers."
"Good speech," shouted Nebonex. He clapped his hands together, making the room echo with the sound.
"Ya!" agreed Rades. "A little too long, but to the point and none of that political mumble-jumble!" Pothax laughed and the applause increased until it sounded like a herd of stampeding buffalo. Or like a charging minotaur legion, thought Gisoni, clapping the Marshall on the back.
"Quiet!" shouted Willium. He banged the hilt of his rapier against the table until the sound lessened to a dull roar.
"Yes," added Gith. "I worked very hard on that mural and I don't want the plaster to come loose from the ceiling and ruin it."
"The ceiling isn't made of-"
"Shush," shouted Victoria. "I agree that it was a good speech, but I don't see how we can carry out Pegs' suggestion." She placed her hands akimbo and waited for a response.
"That will have to wait," said Gisoni. "Right now it is very important that we leave for Kinian. We can figure out what we're doing when we get there."
"Precisely my feelings," said Gith. "We should move to Kinian with all haste."
Pothax stared at the old man. "What do you plan to do there?" he asked.
"Advise Willium not to get himself killed. When I'm not busy doing that, I'll be painting. If you remember that painting Nebonex and I did, you'll know that I've been dying for another glimpse of the northern lights."
"I think we better go start packing canvas, paint and brushes," muttered the Minotaur Prince. "Plus, I'll have to request for help from mother back home in Evicoth."
Commodore Carlo stepped into the ante-chamber outside Lord Blackaxe's warroom. He looked around and saw he was not alone. Two men and a woman were also present.
A large man with a great red beard looked up at the commodore. He studied Carlo's dark blond hair, large Stornium nose and dark eyes. He had a wild, untamed look about him, the look of a veteran killer. "Carlo?" asked the huge man.
Carlo ran a calloused hand through his hair and recognized the man before him. "Eluth?" he said slowly, unsure. He turned to face the other man.
The short blond man smiled. He had a crooked nose which looked broken. He was missing the index finger on his left hand. "Commodore Carlo?"
Carlo nodded at the two of them. "Roreed, what are you and Eluth doing here?"
"Blackaxe's orders," replied Eluth before Roreed could say anything. "How about you?"
"Lord Redhawk's orders. What is this? Some kind of reunion or something? The people who took part in Kobalix's picnic or something like that," he said, using the term commonly used when referring to the thirty-two companions who went to the Kobalix's citadel to the north of Athex and quite literally blew the place sky high when the citadel's storage building filled with charcoal, saltpeter and sulphur caught on fire. Carlo, Eluth and Roreed had been three of the thirty-two. The fire from the exploding citadel was nicknamed the Barbecue.
The woman stirred restlessly in her seat. She had long blond hair tied back in a pony tail. Her skin was tanned and scarred from fights. She was dressed in buckskin riding leathers, steel toed leather boots and wore a simple steel saber strapped to her belt. "That's all fine and dandy, but what am I doing here?" she asked. "King Waytorn sent me here from Glist."
"Are you a cutthroat?" asked Eluth, a bit unsure.
"No, and neither am I a soldier or an assassin. I've been trained as a killer."
"Mercenary?" guessed Carlo.
She shook her head. "Mercenaries are soldiers for hire and I'm not a soldier."
"Well, give us some clues or something!" demanded Roreed.
"Killer. Just that. King Waytorn hired the best teachers from Evicoth, Avolic, Jaton and Orociudad to come and train me in martial combat," she replied.
"Orociu-what?" asked Eluth.
"It's a city on an island west of Colnic. They speak a language much like old Kinian there."
"Martial combat. Or in other words swordsmanship, horsemanship, archery-" began Roreed.
"No. Just combat. Almost like boxing or wrestling only deadlier. I can kill a man with a single punch."
"Really?" asked Eluth. "How?"
"Punch him in the neck hard enough to break it. A kick is more effective, but harder to do so I wear steel gauntlets," she explained, holding up her gauntleted hands for all to see.
"Gentlemen, Brenda, you may enter now," said Redhawk, opening one of the heavy Arthian Oak doors. He smiled. "You're probably all wondering why we called you all here?"
"Indeed," muttered Brenda.
"Well, if you just sit down, we'll explain," said Redhawk, motioning them towards padded velvet chairs. He sat down beside a small serving table and poured himself a glass of white Kinian wine. He sipped at the sweet liquid.
Blackaxe nodded and stood up. "The four of us, Queen Helen, King Waytorn, Lord Redhawk and myself have decided to train an elite force of warriors. The force had to be trustworthy and it was Redhawk who remembered Wynic Doxon say that he could trust you three men with the world without a second thought. Waytorn claims he can equally trust Mistress Brenda. So it is that you four were picked to be the first four of the elite force. To give you special status we've given you all the title of Stornium Knights until we find a suitable-"
"But how can anyone expect to think I'm a knight?" demanded Brenda. "Not that I don't want to, it's just-"
"I thought that a problem, at first," said Blackaxe, "but then Lord Redhawk explained that in Kinian they have female knights, called Dames instead of Sirs. He explained how this was the reason why the number of knights in Kinian was larger than the number of soldier in the Kinian Army. So now the question is, do you four agree to this arrangement?"
Without waiting, Brenda slowly drew her saber. She knelt before Queen Helen and offered her sword in homage. Helen just stared at her.
"I'll take that as a yes," Redhawk muttered.
Taking the proffered saber, Helen delicately tapped Brenda's temples with the sides of the blade. She reversed the blade and offered it to Brenda. "Rise Dame Brenda, Knight of the Stornium Throne."
Carlo felt like he'd been drafted. He felt lost, confused and totally unsure of what he was doing or where he was going. A sailor by heart he knew very little about the northlands, and yet here he was on a horse, not a ship, going to northern Kinian and perhaps even the Ice Lands. "Does anyone know exactly where we're going?" he asked abruptly.
"Nope," said Eluth, holding the map upside down.
Brenda snickered, but didn't say anything. She looked away and spurred her stallion expertly to a steady gallop. Carlo stared after her enviously and tried to spur his horse to a gallop. He only managed to rip a hole into his saddlebag.
Eluth looked around for landmarks, but saw nothing but trees, hills and more trees. "Uh, which way's north?"
"You could start by turning the map right side-up," Carlo suggested, trying to untangle his spurs from his saddlebags. He managed a second larger hole in the pack.
"Danke," muttered Eluth, turning the map so that Bone Sea was closest to him instead of farthest.
"You're welcome," grunted Carlo, taking his foot out of his stirrup. The gelding gave a sudden lurch and he fell out of the saddle. His left foot caught in the stirrup and he was nearly trampled beneath the horse's hind hooves. Cursing and spitting, he yanked himself back into the saddle, ignoring Eluth's stares.
"You look like someone who's never or rarely been on a horse before," the red bearded man chuckled.
Carlo grunted. "I could probably say the same about you and a ship, but I won't since I don't have a ship anymore to prove it!" He tied the reins in a reef knot around the saddlehorn and plucked a loose thread from his tunic and quickly fixed the holes in his saddlebags.
Eluth watched and chuckled softly. He eyed the knot critically. "Won't that come loose if the horse gives a sudden lurch or goes over a bump?"
"It's a reef knot, the saddle would come loose before it did," Carlo muttered. He slapped the horse's flanks with his hand and managed a gallop. He grabbed the map from Eluth as he passed the novice knight and began to organize the terrain in his memory. "This map is dated before Kobalix's Quest! Dumbkopf! We'll get completely lost since almost all the landmarks were changed when the minotaur army marched through Arthian!"
"Well, of course it's dated! Kobalix's Quest was only three months ago! It feels almost like yesterday when I think about it!"
"Doesn't it feel like yesterday when you first bumped into me?" asked Victoria. She sipped at some red Kinian wine, savouring the burning sensation on her tongue. She and her husband, Wynic, were sitting in the drunken Dragon Tavern at their regular booth, where they had first met.
"Yes, it does," muttered Wynic with a grin, rubbing his right eye. He remembered the short brawl, Victoria's fist coming at him and seeing his reflection plus a black eye in a silver goblet. A pain shot through his chest and he knew it wasn't heartburn. His hand moved to his fractured ribs.
"Are you sure you're well enough to travel? What with your ribs and all?" A vivid memory of seeing Wynic fall from Kobalix's citadel's hundred foot walls and hearing double splashes as the assassin and minotaur crashed into the Vormian Lake below flashed across the archeress' mind.
"I'm sure." Wynic watched the proprietor, a short, fat man called Billip with three chins giving his new recruit a lesson in courtesy. Nebonex was regretting bringing up table manners in the conversation, but he pretended to be paying attention to the lecture. Gith chuckled in the seat across from the prince.
Soon the conversation drifted in the direction of bowing and Nebonex was persuaded to show the young writer the proper way to genuflect. The poor waiter ended up sprawled on the floor on his first regretting hiring the clumsy waiter.
Finally when the floor show was over Billip waddled over to Victoria and Wynic's booth. He tallied up the breaking-the-fast meal and handed Victoria the bill. "I added Pothax's tab to the bill. He usually forgets to pay," he explained. "Though I truly doubt he suffers that often from amnesia! He even tried using sleep walking as an excuse one night!"
Wynic and Victoria dumped their money pouches out on the table and counted out six platinum, four gold, nine silver and seventeen copper coins for Pothax's tab and two coppers for their own meal. "Tell that new waiter to keep practicing on his bow," said Victoria. She handed Billip the pile of coins.
Billip smiled and took the coins. "I doubt I want to lose all my crockery and glassware!" He laughed and walked away to serve his other customers.
Later Nebonex and Gith walked over to join Victoria and Wynic. "I think we should leave now," suggested Nebonex. He pointed out the window. "Pothax is getting impatient."
Wynic turned in his seat to look out the window. His brother was teaching Bren swordsmanship. Obviously, Wynic's elder brother had got bored watching the horses.
Bren was doing surprisingly well, though he'd probably given earlier lessons and Pothax was using his right hand. The cutthroat's swordhand was his left hand though he was almost as good with his right. Bren probably didn't notice that his scabbard was on his right hip, but then again, he was probably too busy to notice.
A crowd was starting to gather to watch the lesson. Most people thought they were watching Wynic Doxon and not his brother. Seeing the attention he was drawing, Pothax started doing some stunts. The crowd started to cheer.
"I agree," muttered Wynic. "It might go to Pothax's head if they started throwing money."