PROLOGUE: THE DILEMMA OF HAEL'S EEL
Somebody whose name history has forgotten once inquired of noted intergalactic mega-genius, Alvin Hael: "Is that an eel in your pocket?"
To which he replied: "Only if an inter-space-multi-dimensional wormhole leading to such fabric chamber opened in the vicinity of the aforementioned terrestrial fish and remained accessible long enough for him, or her, to crawl through. And according to the Fourth Law of Probability, even taking into account the Third Law of Transmutation, that is quite unlikely, if not approaching impossible. . . As far as impossible exists, that is."
Not being an intergalactic mega-genius, the woman who had originally asked the question had absolutely no idea whatsoever what Alvin Hael was talking about. She was, of course, referring to the actual eel in Hael's pocket, which subsequently bit him and disappeared promptly through a hole in the lining of his inner leg.
The question became one that would prove to haunt him for a remarkably long time indeed. . . .
A novel by Duncan n. Grant
There were three brothers in merry Scotland,
In merry Scotland there were three
And they did cast lots of which of them
Should go, should go, should go
And turn robber all on the salt sea
(Traditional Scottish folk song)
He appears ancient, the mariner who is grizzled like a forest oak standing tall, proud and gnarled. Lazy, thick grey smoke drifts up from his the old tobacco stenched pipe he had been bestowed upon him by his father. Clouds, as thick as the sky above, burst regularly and violently from his lungs as his chest spasms. He should have ceased smoking years ago, God knows why he hadn't. Raindrops fall onto the oiled cloak that hangs from his broad shoulders down to his ankles, before running down the leather and drip, drip, dripping onto the water laden ground.
He breathes in through his grimace with difficulty and struggles to walk across the empty dock to what his aged eyes make out through the evening dimness to be a tavern. 'BARK!' comes a cough that seems more from a dog than a man. A sea dog perhaps; it is often that some use the term to mean sailor.
He has both his natural legs, no wooden, clattering on deck prosthesis, no curved hook for hands, only the sword at his side outlines his vocation. The man's dull coloured eyes are covered not by a black eye-patch, instead a pair of bushy and slightly red eyebrows. There is a lot of grey and white in the brows and not much blue left in the eyes, the colour largely replaced with a subtle grey. There could have been kindness in there once. No longer. Instead, tiredness tinged with a fire that most find unsettling. Nobody ever locks eyes with this man for more than a few seconds at best.
He staggers onward across the thick wooden planking. It is moving, though unlike the way the sea moves, the wood of the dock is far too still compared with the heaving ocean going decks the man is used to. The big water rolls like a serpent's drunken eye, so does the captain rolls like a drunkard to compensate, yet his sea legs are more or less ineffectual on a flat earth that moves only during a rare quake.
Oh, everybody knows that it is round, that the world is a ball, and the captain knows somewhat of parties and pleasure. On the high sea his ships are always decked with barrels of rum. Only the finest brew for the captain, mind you, for he has certainly the money. On land he partakes of whatever drink he can pour down his throat. One or two whores as well to take his mind off his life and the guilted existence he can never trade back for another.
The Great Race
A cool summer breeze fluttered the resplendent blue and gold pennants that stood watching high up above the parapets and walls of Castle Berriac. The flags crackled sharply in the brisk wind.
Below the sky and down the main street, came a loud buzz of excitement like a cloud of angry wasps protecting their hive, emanating from the square in the centre of the city. People of every race and colour had gathered here for the Great Race, as much for winning the prestigious event as for the hundred gold prize. It was the single largest gathering of nationalities in the known world and the only thing that kept the tiny kingdom of Elbaron on the map.
Immediately noticeable were the black skinned men from the deserts of N'gora to the far north-west, well known for their fearlessness and animal-like brutality in war and sometimes peace. A friendly people, despite their reputation, nothing was quite as infectious as an ivory smile from an N'goran.
Coppery coloured folk from the city of Tambor on the north-eastern shores of the world and its surrounding villages, faces hard and wrinkled from exposure to fierce sea winds. An amiable people though quick to turn against you. Better to cross an adder, it is said, than a Tamboran.
It is also said, "Better to cross a Tamboran than a Khemeran." With narrow, sloping eyes and a pale countenance, these people with their shadowy history and complex systems of honour and retribution were feared in the world as dangerous fighters and almost supernatural assassins. If a Khemeran wanted you dead, it was said that you may as well mark out the site of your grave and carve the headstone.
Respecting neither race nor their inherent dangers were the Cayalians. Pompous and arrogant, the delegation from the Cayalian realm believed that one amongst themselves would be the winner today, despite the fact that the N'gorans were always overwhelming favourites to take home the spoils of victory.
A short distance away from the hive of activity and the abundance of faces filling the usually quiet square with babbling brooks of conversation sat Castle Berriac. Inside the walls all was still.
The servants had been given the day off in traditional celebration of the race, as had most of the guards. A bare minimum had been kept on watch and these stood at the gate, more for show than for actual defence. The King and most of the royal family sat at the start line, watching and waiting for the race to begin. Most.
The sound of light footfalls on stone echoed down one of the many corridors of Castle Berriac. A voice.
"Paulo, wait up! You'll tire yourself for the race at this pace."
Paulo Olmaes was one of two young men racing their winding way through the castle. He was short, with a bit of a belly, and wore his reddish blond hair in a ponytail. His nose was blunt and his eyes, blue. Not the best looking of lads, he charmed the ladies with his winsome personality.
"We'll miss the start, Robe, if we don't hurry," Paulo replied. "I told you we should have woken up earlier."
"It's not my fault the servants are on holiday," Robeirt retorted. The King's son was used to servants doing everything for him, including getting him out of bed in the morning.
"Can't you do anything for yourself?" Paulo puffed the words in between breaths.
"Don't think that I don't know the servants wake you too," Robeirt laughed. Robeirt Al'Tmara, crown prince of Berriac, a head and a half taller than his best friend Paulo, and just a whit less fleet of foot, though today his flagging behind was more to do with not wishing to tire himself out before the Great Race even began.
"Hold up, Paulo," he puffed. "We've not even started and I'm feeling like I've reached halfway."
"Hold up and we'll be late," Paulo replied.
"I can handle that. It's worth slowing down some."
"You like being late for everything. You'd be late for your own wedding," Paulo joked, 'if you could be."
"With my father's choice of bride, I most definitely would be." The two friends laughed. Organised weddings were a constant source of banter between the pair, the threat as yet distant enough not to be a worry.
The pair rounded a corner and raced down a long corridor bordered on one side by arrow slit windows and on the other by a series of richly embroidered silk tapestries depicting various scenes from the kingdom and its history. Coming to a stairway they slowed down momentarily.
"Hey!" Robeirt said. "You know what father says about running down stairs."
"Yeah: Be careful you don't fall over and break something important!" Paulo quoted.
"Like your skull," Robeirt finished. "So why are we still running?"
"'Cause we're not going to fall over."
"I don't think it works like that," Robeirt said.
"Sure it does, just be careful."
Down they went, two steps at a time to the next floor and left through the hall, footfalls thudding on a roll of red carpet, skidding around another corner and ducking into an alcove which housed a stairway.
The staircase spiralled down two levels onto a stone walkway with large, arched windows - as tall as a man and a half standing on a man's head - looking out to a garden. The young men knew it well for they had spent many a midsummer's eve in the garden that was the centre of the keep, giving countless maidens a kiss on the stone benches behind the rows of conifers. What else were secluded chairs for if not osculation? The fountain in the centre of the garden gurgled noisily as Robeirt and Paulo ran past the windows.
A turn right and the next left and they arrived the main gate. The guards, seeing who they were, waved them through and the pair found themselves in the city.
The Prince-heir and his friend dashed down a street which would lead them eventually to the main square of the city. Here they joined the other competitors - those who had not slept in - gathered awaiting the start. Robeirt nearly lost Paulo in the crush of people.
"Watch out," a woman snapped angrily. Cayalian presumably, thought Robeirt. Would she treat him any differently if she knew he was the son of a King? Probably not. Not unless she wanted something from him. Cayalian civility always went hand in hand with vested interest.
Paulo and Robeirt pushed their way through the crowd, an N'goran flashed the Prince-heir a fierce grin as he brushed by him. Robeirt couldn't determine whether it was dangerous or amicable.
The vast horde of competitors shifted nervously like an ocean before a tempest. Paulo grabbed Robeirt's elbow and dragged him toward the registration tent at the edge of the square. There was a short line of people leading into it, the last few entrants were waiting to sign in. Robeirt and Paulo took their place at the end of the queue.
"I can't believe it," Paulo said, his voice full of unconfined excitement. "We're going to be running in the Great Race."
"Do you think we'll win?" Robeirt replied dryly.
Paulo flashed his friend a scowl. "Of course not, an N'goran's got the race sewn up. They always win."
"Not always," Robeirt said.
The line moved quickly, though not nearly fast enough for the impatient pair. Time seemed to drag and it felt like they were moving only inches. However, it was not long before Robeirt and Paulo were in the tent itself. From there it was only a few short moments before they found themselves in front of the registration table.
"Name?" the woman behind the desk demanded gruffly. She looked in her fifties and her greying brown hair was tied up in a bun. Before her were numerous sheets of paper upon which the names of all the entrants had been scribed. In her left hand dotted with ink she held a quill. "Last then first."
"Al'Tmara, Robeirt," the Prince-heir said.
"The King's son or just named after him?"
"The King is my father," Robeirt replied.
"If you say so." The woman raised an eyebrow as she scanned the papers before her. "Al'Tmara, here you are. Take your number. Move on."
Robeirt received the garment and stepped aside. Paulo took his place and the procedure was repeated. Their numbers were printed on two pieces of cloth - one for the chest, the other, the back - joined by a pair of shoulder straps with ties at the bottom to fasten them in place.
The young men shrugged on their numbers and tied them tightly to their bodies, now ready to join the other competitors. The pair squeezed their way through the crowd towards the front, where they waited patiently for the start. The sound of a loud horn rang out through the morning air.
Something whizzed past Robeirt's right cheek, he could feel it brushing his face. He swatted the air thinking it was a fly. Next to him a woman fell to the ground, lightly spattering those beside her with blood. Though Robeirt escaped the slight shower he was close enough to realise the woman was dead. He also knew it could so easily have been him.
'Paulo!' Robeirt shouted in shock. It was almost a scream.
'Run!" Paulo said in the same manner.
There was no need for the directive, the flow of competitors was a tide against which there could be no fighting. Only a few noticed that there was a dead woman amongst them and their scattering panic was useless under the crush of those beginning the race. Robeirt and Paulo were pushed beneath the waving flags that marked the starting line and were almost separated. Robeirt grabbed tightly the sleeve of his friend's shirt.
"Do you think he was shooting at me?" Robeirt asked, fearing the answer.
"Why would somebody want to kill you?" Paulo replied.
"I don't know," Robeirt said. In his mind there was no reason for anybody to be shooting at him. Elbaron was not a kingdom where assassinations occurred. "Maybe the bolt was random?" Paulo suggested between breaths.
"Perhaps," Robeirt said, unconvinced to say the least. The crowd was large, a shot narrowly - nay, barely - missing him did not indicate randomness. Although why only one? So it would go unnoticed, Robeirt told himself.
The runners reached the end of the square and were funnelled into a wide road that would eventually lead them out of the city.
"What do we do?" Robeirt asked, once they were on the road.
"Keep racing I guess. The shooter was on the rooftops, in the city. The race has got to be as safe a place as any. Ten gold says he's gone anyway. We can circle back 'round through the woods to the castle and talk to your Da."
The road ushered them on a twisting journey through the city to its outskirts. By that time the crowd had thinned and Robeirt and Paulo found themselves in a smaller cluster of people.
Robeirt looked around quickly, fearing another marksman on a roof. There were fewer people around to shield him should there be another shooter. Without knowing why, Robeirt was sure the shot had been aimed at him, though he just could not puzzle it out further. He had no enemies, his father had no enemies - at least not that Robeirt knew of. Elbaron was the smallest nation in the world, politically insignificant in the scheme of things.
A tall black skinned man, bare chested aside from his number, approached Robeirt's left side and drew level. His face cracked into an ivory smile as he grinned a "Hello" and Robeirt was quick to return the greeting.
He suddenly noticed something as the N'goran passed him. There was a dark birthmark on the man's left shoulderblade peeking around the cloth of his number. It was all in all, the same as the one that graced Robeirt's back. The realisation nearly stopped him in his tracks.
"Paulo, do you see that?" he asked his friend.
"See what?" Paulo replied, the worry that it was another marksman evident in his voice.
"On that man, he has the exact birthmark I do."
Robeirt pointed to the N'goran, who was already moving away at a quick pace. "Him. . . See?"
"Too far away," Paulo said. "Are you sure? About the birthmark I mean."
"It must your imagination," Robeirt's best friend from birth replied. "It couldn't be the exact same one. You're probably still in shock from the bolt shot."
"No," Robeirt said. "I'm sure it was the same. . . At least, I think so."
The two friends kept running and looking every which way for some sign of another attacker. None was forthcoming. Gradually the city petered away to be replaced by outlying farms. The main road was dirt and well packed, running on it was easy and Robeirt and Paulo made good time. At regular intervals an official sat by the side of the road with a notebook, studying the racers, making certain there were no cheats.
The road threaded its way around some small farms before it led into the forest. Robeirt and Paulo remained in the group of runners they had found themselves in until they were some distance into the wood. There was, hopefully, safety in numbers.
"Do you think it's safe to make our way back home yet?" Robeirt asked.
"I think so," Paulo replied, looking over his shoulder. "Make sure there are no officials though, it wouldn't be good for the King's son to be branded a cheat, whatever the reason. It will be bad enough that we don't finish."
"Still," Robeirt said, "I think it's for the best that we quit here and now. You never know who's waiting for us back in the city near the finish. There'll be no crowd to hide in then. Nobody else to take an arrow."
They fell to the back of the group and, from there, stepped off the track into the forest. They kept running, keeping a course as parallel to the city as they could determine.
The forest changed little this close to Berriac. Oaks rose tall, proud and thick, a mighty monument to time and nature. Here and there stood a stand of poplars or a solitary wild apple tree, its burden of late summer fruit riddled by holes from the beaks of hungry birds.
Up slight rises ran Paulo and Robeirt, and down across wide depressions. Occasionally they passed an abandoned cottage, its thatched roof either full of holes or completely collapsed, depending on the age of the structure. The friends wound their way toward the rear of the city where they could sneak through to the castle and hope that the King had returned.
It was in a large clearing that Paulo stopped. So did Robeirt, once he realised that his friend had done so.
"What's up?" Robeirt asked.
"Someone's following us."
"How do you know? I've heard nothing."
"Nor have I..." Paulo said. "But it's just a feeling I have. A very strong one."
"Who's imagining things now?" Robeirt laughed. The sound rang hollow in the quiet of the wood.
Paulo whirled around. "Did you just see something?" he asked.
"No. Did you?"
"Yes. . . No. . . I mean, not exactly."
"What are you talking about?" At that moment Robeirt saw it. Or rather, didn't. It was something that danced past the corner of his vision. When Robeirt turned to look, it was somewhere else, still in the corner of his eye.
"This is starting to spook me out, Robeirt," Paulo said shakily.
"Me too," Robeirt replied, still trying to view whatever it was that was eluding him. Now there were two, one in each eye.
"Robeirt?" Paulo said, unable to hide the fear in his voice.
Robeirt tackled his friend. The pair hit the ground hard as a dagger came flying through the air, tracing a path right where the two young men had been standing and hitting a tree at the edge of the clearing. As the blade punctured the trunk, the wood turned dead and burst into flame.
"What in hell was that?" Paulo asked.
"Sorcery," Robeirt replied, shivering. "It has to be!" Both had been taught from birth that using magic of any kind for whatever reason was the work of the Devil. Anyone convicted of practising it in Elbaron was instantly put to death. Sometimes even someone suspected of employing magic was executed. Or so the stories said. No such executions had been seen for hundreds upon hundreds of years.
Paulo and Robeirt looked to the burning tree and to the opposite side of the clearing, from where the thrown dagger had appeared. Some flickers in Robeirt's peripheral vision heralded the appearance of a man - or what looked like one.
He, it, was thin and willowy and its facial features were blurred to say the least. It was, however, more clearly visible as it drew nearer. The second thing Robeirt noticed was that the creature made no sound when it walked no matter how many twigs it stepped on. It was dressed in noiseless black and another dagger danced amongst its fingertips.
"Are you ready to die, Childslayer?" it whispered through sneering lips, a gleam of scorn in its eye. The dagger came back ready to be flung. Robeirt tried to put himself in front of his friend, to shield him from attack.
Robeirt's head jerked up at the command. It was strange, he could not tell if he heard it or if were imagined, for Robeirt could not see the speaker.
"RUN I tell you. There are more than this one."
There it was again, the mysterious voice. Robeirt looked around in terror and saw a massive wolf bounding out from the forest near the burning tree. The beast leapt over the two young men, clearing their bodies easily.
"What are you waiting for? I said FLEE!"
Robeirt needed no further encouragement. He picked himself off the ground in time to see the shadowy creature shriek at the wolf and hurl another of its daggers. The wolf dodged with a speed and agility surprising for something of its size. As the knife missed its mark and sunk into a patch of earth at the edge of the clearing the soft green grass instantly browned erupted into flame. Another wolf leapt over the flames and headed for the first beast.
Robeirt offered a hand to Paulo and hauled him up. As they left the clearing there was time for one more look over their shoulders. Wolves were swarming into the glade to attack the thin creature just as it had been joined by another two of its kind. Robeirt hoped there was enough wolves to deal with the strangers in black. Another pair of knives hastily aimed missed Robeirt and Paulo by a good foot and two more trees caught fire.
"Don't stop," came a final directive from the wolf that had saved their lives.
Robeirt had no intention of stopping, not until he was back home with locked doors and well armed guards. He did not pause to think whether they would be able to stop whatever had attacked him and Paulo in the clearing, possibly because the answer might be a "No".
First the crossbow shot and then - whatever those things were. And the wolves, who sent them and how did one talk to me?
The shrieks of the thin man-like creatures and the howls of the wolves grew mercifully fainter as Robeirt and Paulo fled. This time they aimed directly for the city, no time wasting, no round-about route. The sooner they were out of these woods the better.
Occasionally something would catch the corner of his eye. When he turned in fear to look, he identified the sight as a wolf and breathed a sigh of relief.
Never thought I'd be glad to see wolves trailing me, he thought.
Paulo was silent. Robeirt too. Both were concentrating on running as fast as they could and talking would get in the way of that, would fatigue them. It was more likely that neither had anything to say. Shock kept as good a grip on a man's tongue as much as anything could.
Soon the forest thinned and began to be replaced with farms. It wasn't long before Robeirt could see houses and townhouses. The ground underneath turned from dirt to cobblestone, unlit streetlamps began to appear and the houses grew closer together. The boys had arrived in the city in one piece. Just.
Gone now was the wolf escort, for such creatures did not venture into cities, not willingly. Robeirt saw no sign of the first wolf, the one who had spoken to him. He found himself hoping that the great shaggy beast had come to no harm, for it had surely saved his life and Paulo's. Curious as to how it had been able to communicate with him, Robeirt put the memory aside. He had more than enough things to concern him at the present.
The two friends, inspired to pick up the pace now that they were in more familiar surroundings, raced through the city as if with wings. Paulo even managed to crack a smile.
"Back to the castle, eh? Then we're home and safe."
Robeirt did not agree with his friend, not a whit. Though he did not admit as much. It had taken a pack of wolves to deal with only three of those, those. . . whatever they were. What if there were more of them . . . a lot more? What then?
"Yes," Robeirt lied. "Home and safe. Father will be there, killing a few hours until the forerunners of the race get into town. He'll see us right."
They ran further, faster and faster, until they were sprinting.
"What were those things?" Paulo puffed. "And why did they call you "Childslayer"?"
"I have no idea," Robeirt replied, this time speaking the truth. He had slain no children, nor ever conceivably would. The thing must have been mistaken, it must have been.
"And that big wolf. . . Did he-"
"Talk to me? Yes. You heard it too then?"
Robeirt breathed a sigh of relief at his friend's answer. Somehow having someone to share the experience with made it less confusing, less confronting.
"How do you suppose the wolf talked to us?" Paulo raised the question that was on both their minds. Neither wanted to speak aloud the answer that both were considering. The whole business reeked of magic, filthy magic.
Buildings flashed by and the pair had hardly slowed. It was a pace that neither could sustain for long and eventually they began to flag. Silence had returned, until the fluttering flags atop Castle Berriac poked up above the roof tops.
"Nearly there," Robeirt said to no reply.
The road turned this way and that, and carried on straight for a while. Through a side street to the left, Robeirt could see the main square where the race had started. It was a place he did not wish to return to in a hurry, even after the blood stains had been scrubbed free.
The castle gates loomed large and welcoming as the pair rounded another corner. They sprinted the last yards and dashed through the open entry.
"Close the portcullis," Robeirt ordered the guardsman with a rare urgency. "Don't open it 'till my father tells you so."
"Yes, Your Highness," said the guard. "Are you being pursued?"
"No," Robeirt replied. "At least I hope not. Just shut it, please."
The clanging sound of the heavy iron portcullis being lowered threatened to drown out Paulo's voice though the relieved grin that split his face in two said it all.
"We made it. . . We made it."