The dying ashes of the fire flared briefly into life, rising from drab and dusty grey into the bright and warm hues of comforting orange. Callis sat on a stone, idly stirring the coals with the point of a stick, coaxing life from a corpse with a skill born out of talents both dark and sinister. Were anyone awake to see it, they would have marvelled at this feat of pyro-necromancy, but his travelling companions did not stir and slept on, curled beneath their blankets, trying to keep out the chill of the night. Callis didn’t mind, he still wasn’t used to travelling with anyone other than himself and his foul tempered nag, he relished the brief peace of the lonely night. Alone with fire and his thoughts, just like the old days. The days before the war, the days before the rebellion. Before he was Lord of the Western Marches, before he was Viscount Callis of the Gwelle Valley. Before everyone thought he was dead, back when he was simply Mister Callis: hired killer. Things had been a lot simpler back then too. Accept money, kill man, go home. Simple. Uncomplicated. But now things where different. There were wheels within wheels, a great many schemes were in motion, a bizarre convergence of politics and intrigue made all the stranger by its rarity. And right in the middle of it all was Callis, frantically dashing hither and thither trying to keep his own skin firmly where it belonged: on him. Now he was on the wrong side of the Baliph Sea in the arse end of autumn looking for some angry, bearded, immigrants and their cows. It was, frankly, all a little too much. Awkward. Tricky. Complicated. Even alone, by the fire as he was Callis couldn’t but shake a niggling feeling of unease. It wasn’t a feeling you could put into words. It wasn’t a sense of being watched, or the thick worry before the breaking of the proverbial storm. It wasn’t even the comforting and familiar embrace of a honed sense of paranoia. It was nothing more than a niggling feeling that something just wasn’t quite right. He’d had it ever since they’d come out of the mountains and started heading through the forest in which they now slept. There was just something eerie about it. Something just a little off that put him on edge. But then again, Callis hadn’t even seen a tree till he was ten, perhaps that was the source of his unease. He hoped it was that. Tossing another log onto the fire, Callis lost himself in the flickering dance of the flames that were taking hold and beginning to grow.
The faint, greyish pseudo-light of the false dawn was filtering through the gaps in the dense pine canopy above. Callis was snapped out of the waking slumber into which he had slipped by the sound of something heavy thumping into the loam by his side. In his youth he would have already had a knife in his hand ready to give whoever had disturbed him a polite stabbing. A lot of people had been trying to kill Callis in those days, or so he had thought at the time. In actuality, very few people even knew who he was or had any reason to want him dead. It was a twitchy paranoia that had kept him sharp. These days if the commonly known fact of his death were proven to be less than accurate, it was likely that a great many more people would want him permanently inconvenienced. But Callis was quite sanguine about the whole thing. Such paranoia as he had effected in youth was tiring, wasteful and ultimately futile. Age had taught him well the virtues of patience and consideration, of thinking before acting. In this instance it was quite apparent that there was no hurry, for if someone was trying to kill him, he should already be dead. Since he was not, the logical conclusion was that the noise which had roused him was in fact not an attempt on his life, and if it were? Well then whomsoever was attempting to dole out his finally judgement was clearly not much of a threat and did not warrant a rushed response.
“You’re up early” Came a thickly accented voice from beside him. Callis turned to see Malcolm sitting in the dirt.
“Couldn’t sleep. Got a lot on my mind these days” replied Callis.
“Aye? That so?”
“Aye” Callis hawked a lump of phlegm into the fire “That, and this forest gives me… What’s that word you Shalondonians use?”
“The heebie-jeebies?” replied Malcolm
“That’s it. This place gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“I would tell you ‘do not worry’, but I feel it to. This is a troubled, restless place. It is still untamed by man. There is nothing we can do about this. We can only move on and wait with sharp sword” with that Malcolm laid his great-sword across his knees and began to run a whet stone along its length, filling the still and quiet air with the dry whispers of stone on steel.
“Malcolm?” Callis asked
“It’s been bothering me for years, Exactly why the hell do you use such a big sword?”
“I subscribe to the tactical doctrine of the bear.” Said Malcolm.
“In layman’s terms?”
“Kill them before they kill you. Bigger sword has more killing in it. It is logic” Malcolm smiled back.
“Really? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’d’ve thought a smaller sword would do the job just as well and not be quite so damn heavy.” Callis scratched at the stubble on his chin “But I’m not going to argue. I have after all seen what that ruddy thing does to a man.”
“Different tactics suit different men, friend Callis. The choices of others do not always make sense. I do not understand the way you fight. The tactical doctrine of the serpent does not sit well with my ways.”
Sighing, Callis took a limp cigarette from his pocket and lit it on the embers at the edge of the fire.
“I wish we could have just taken a boat straight to Mael.” Callis moaned
Malcolm paused in the sharpening of his sword while he spoke “Maybe. But you have your, what is word? ‘Maxims.’ Your little rules.”
Callis took a deep drag on his roll-up, looking thoughtful, silently counting down a list in his head.
“Number 10. ‘You can do a job quickly or you can do a job well. You cannot do both.’ And this? Well this needs doing well. Doesn’t mean I have to like it though.”
“Such is the price we pay to keep our skins.” Shrugged the burly Shalondonian.
“Another of your northern idioms?” laughed Callis
“Yes. Though it loses much in translation.”
“You’re entire race loses a lot in translation. Over here? On this side of the ocean? I get the impression that you’re all slightly more restrained. Diluted, watered down. Makes me dread to think what you’re all like back home.”
“Perhaps” replied Malcolm wistfully. “But there is much in way of opportunity in your land. New foes and great battles to be fought. Substantial profits to be made by a man of means.”
“Murder doesn’t pay as well as it used to Mal.”
“True. Plan on expanding interests in shipping through mouth of Baliph sea. Am not here solely at behest of you. It also business trip. People to talk to in Mael. Arrangements to be made. Much money to be gained.”
“Shipping eh? Gets dull after a while. But heaven help the Thousand Duchies if you mad bastards start in with that trading lark. Negotiations are tricky enough when one of you isn’t carrying a sword the size of a man.” Callis replied.
“Threats are better than actions.”
Callis chuckled at that. “Might just make than maxim number 11” He blew a thick cloud of blueish smoke into the still air above his head and tossed the cigarette stub into the fire.
“Suppose we should wake our baby-sitter. We need to be on our way before the sun’s up.”
“We would have made better time without her. She is slow, legs too short, no stamina” snorted Malcolm.
“No argument there.” Replied Callis “But alas, our erstwhile employers are a little worried that if they let me out of their sight they’ll never see me again.”
On the other side of the fire lay a woman with hair like straw, wrapped in a thick cloak of mustard coloured wool. Callis squatted beside her and shook her gently by the shoulder.
“Ida, time to get up.”
She replied with an unintelligible murmur and rolled over, snuggling herself into the folds of her cloak. Callis sighed and looked toward Malcolm.
“Every fucking morning” Callis complained.
Standing, Callis delivered a sharp kick to the sleeping woman’s ribs. Ida flinched and her eyes snapped open, bleary, tired and angry.
“Up. Now” snapped Callis. Ida glared back. “I tried to be nice, you didn’t wake up. Now shift it.”
Together the three travellers set off into the oppressive gloom of the forest, leaving their campsite behind. There were no paths, nor roads, nor trails in the forest, only the faint rutted game trails of hogs and a scant few patches free from undergrowth. It was a slow journey as they hacked their way through the brush, clambering through thickets or heaving themselves over old, rotten logs. Even though the sun had already risen, precious little of it filtered through the canopy, leaving them trapped in a shadowy underworld of wood and vine, punctuated by the odd thin, white spear of morning light. With no paths and no sky to guide themselves by and being forced to weave a snaking path, they all knew they could well be heading in completely the wrong direction. They could only hope that they weren’t. It was a miserable journey and they walked on in silence.
It was perhaps three hours after they had set out that Callis abruptly stopped.
“What is it?” began Ida.
Callis hissed at her, signalling for quiet.
“Didn’t you hear that?” Callis asked
“Hear what?” replied Ida. She folded her arms across her chest and scowled at Callis.
“Something…” Callis began “Coming from behind us somewhere. Sort of shrill”
“It’s just the wind you fool!” Ida snorted “I doubt there’s anything more dangerous than an angry boar in these woods.”
“You have clearly never hunted a pig” Malcolm said grimly, drawing his sword. Gripping it tightly in both hands he scanned the trees behind them, all dark and forbidding.
Callis was beginning to think Ida was right, and that he had simply imagined it, such was the weight of the silence that now hung about the trees. Any such illusions were soon shattered. A baleful scream pierced the still air. A banshee wail that cut right to the bone and replaced your marrow with ice. Were you to gather up all the evil in the world and place it in a bag. A bag filled with pot lids, knives, old bones and the fears of a thousand generations. Then if you were to take this bag and hurl it down a flight of stairs, in the dark. It would be this noise you would hear: A cry of pain, of rage and anguish over a chorus of unearthly rattles. The colour drained from Malcolm’s face, Callis had never seen the Northman show any sign of fear in all the years he had known him, this was not a good omen. Gathering his shattered wits Malcolm yelled.