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DescriptionThere is always a cost to raising the dead...
The Magician Raettonus has been agonizing over the death of his master, Sir Slade, for centuries, studying necromancy in the hopes of bringing him to life once more. Soon after Raettonus arrives at a key defensive citadel to tutor the general's sons, the trickster god Kimohr Raulinn comes to him, promising to bring Slade back to life. Raettonus is all too eager to make the deal. But where Kimohr Raulinn goes, suffering follows. The citadel falls under siege by foreign forces, and matters look increasingly grim for the small force of defenders. The god of death is rallying his army of steel-toothed warriors to come reclaim the resurrected knight, and deals made with devils are always poisonous...
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Excerpt:Skeletal fingers with strips of rotting flesh still clinging to them trembled up out of the soil all across the muddy field as the rain pounded down on the knight and the boy. The child trembled as the man urged his horse on down the path toward the bleak, abandoned castle, breathing in the stench of rotting flesh and looking with horror as the bodies pulled themselves from the ground. He was no older than four, the little, blond-haired boy—a tiny, malnourished wisp of a child with wide, green eyes flecked with brown, and gently pointed ears. He shook and sobbed and would’ve fallen under the hooves of the horse but the knight held tight to him and kept him on the saddle as, all around them, the unmarked graves stirred.
“Shush, child,” the knight said in a quiet voice as his black destrier splashed through a puddle. “They won’t hurt you. No one’s going to hurt you.” But the boy continued to cry and the rain continued to fall and the corpses continued to drag themselves out of the ground.
* * *
It was a miserable autumn day. The sky was the color of slate, and the leaves were thick upon the ground, leaving the trees sad and bare.There was a chill in the air, but it didn’t bother Raettonus as he made his way to the stables. Steorra whinnied as Raettonus entered and tossed his big black head. Raettonus patted the destrier’s nose as he reached for the brush. The stables were large and smelled of old wood; in times long before, they might have held fifty horses, maybe even more than that. Now, however, they held only Sir Slade’s old horse. Steorra was still in good condition for his age, but Slade often spoke of buying another horse. In the seven years Raettonus had been living with him, however, he never had. Perhaps that was on his mind today when he told Raettonus he was to groom and saddle Steorra for him.
“Good boy,” said Raettonus, patting the horse’s neck as he brushed out his mane. Steorra snorted into the boy’s hair, messing it up with his hot breath. With a giggle, Raettonus smoothed his hair back down with one hand and then rubbed the old destrier fondly beneath his chin. He set the brush away and began to ready the horse with the ornate black and red bridle and saddle Slade liked so much. They were Slade’s family colors, though he rarely wore them much himself, save for on a flamboyant cloak pin which was a favorite of his. Raettonus rubbed Steorra’s neck and led him out into the courtyard where Slade was waiting with the friend who had come calling on him earlier in the day.
Slade was a tall, broad-shouldered man with black hair that shone almost blue when the light struck it just so. His chin was strong, and his nose was straight and noble. Though he always smiled kindly, Raettonus had always thought his smiles were sad too; his lips smiled, but his eyes didn’t. No, his eyes were deep, blue pools of sorrow and regret. Slade had never told little Raettonus a lie, except with his expression.
As Raettonus led Steorra into the yard, Slade broke off the conversation he was having with his friend, who was mounted on his own large, gray horse. “Ah, there you are,” Slade said, taking the reins from the boy with a smile. “Thank you, Raettonus.” He turned back to his friend. “This is Raettonus—he’s my ward. Raettonus, this is Sir Rhodes the Unicorn.”
“It’s an honor to meet you, Sir,” Raettonus mumbled, bowing his head politely.
Rhodes nodded in acknowledgement, but said nothing else to Raettonus. He was a heavyset man, Sir Rhodes. Though still fairly in shape, his gut was beginning to bulge and his face was beginning to sag beneath the stubbly beard growing on his chin. He wasn’t as handsome as Slade—his nose was bulbous and crooked as if it had once been broken, his cropped brown hair was graying at the temples, and he had eyes the color of mud. Raettonus thought he looked like a drunk as well, though the man didn’t smell of liquor. Rhodes had already turned his attention back to Slade.
“I’m just saying, what’s the use of a castle with no one to staff it?” he asked Slade as his mount whickered softly beneath him. “They’re serfs, for God’s sake—it’s not as though they would have a choice in the matter.”
Slade shook his head and put his foot in the stirrup of Steorra’s saddle. “They were scared to leave their homes. They think I’m some sort of demon, Rhodes,” he said as he pulled himself up onto the horse. “I had to release them from service.”
Rhodes sighed. “You’re softhearted, Slade,” he said. “You know how dangerous that is in times like these…”
A mirthless smile appeared on Slade’s lips. “I think I’ll manage,” he said. “My heart might be soft, but my walls are made of stone.”
“Well, then,” said Rhodes. “Shall we be going?”
“Yes, let’s,” said Slade. He twisted around in the saddle and offered his hand to his ward. “You too, Raettonus. I’m going to need your help later.”
Raettonus nodded and happily took his hand, and the former knight pulled him up onto the horse to sit behind his saddle. Rhodes chuckled and shook his head. “That boy doesn’t have his own horse?” he said. “Poor Steorra. That can’t be very good on his old bones.”
Slade smiled apologetically and rubbed his steed’s neck fondly. “I know,” he said. “But Raettonus weighs hardly a thing. I’ve been meaning to get him his own horse, but… Well, you know how things go.”
“Maybe you ought to leave the kid behind?” said Rhodes, turning his ugly, mud-colored eyes on Raettonus. Raettonus glared at him and gripped Slade’s tunic. “I mean, for Steorra’s sake. Besides, it’s going to be dangerous. I should think a little boy like that—”
“He’s eleven years old, and capable of taking care of himself,” Slade said. “And Steorra’s plenty capable of carrying us both.”
The other man gave a resigned sigh. “All right then,” he said, reluctance obvious in his voice and in the way he held himself. “I just don’t want your boy getting hurt, or your horse going lame. But if you’re set on bringing him, we should start off, I guess.”
“Lead the way.”
Sir Rhodes nodded and obliged and, horses abreast, they rode out of the courtyard. As they passed beneath the murder-holes and portcullis, a skeleton passed by them, its bones clacking softly with every movement. Raettonus saw Rhodes shiver as he spied the skeleton and quickly avert his gaze. The boy couldn’t help but smirk at that. He didn’t like this man, and he was glad he was afraid.
The portcullis lowered when they were past it, and they started across the overgrown fields around Sir Slade’s castle.
“Master?” asked Raettonus softly. Slade looked back at him over his shoulder. “Where are we going?”
“We’re going to fight some bandits who have been troubling a road a few miles away,” Slade told him with a smile. Even if it wasn’t genuine, Raettonus still loved his smile. “They’ve been ambushing travelers going into and out of Sir Rhodes’ father’s lands.”
“We’re going to stop them, Master?” Raettonus asked.
Slade’s eyes grew sadder, though he smiled still. “Yes,” he said, turning back around. He placed one hand on the hilt of his longsword. “We’re going to stop them.”
“So,” Rhodes said as they drew close to the edge of the field. “The kid here—”
“Raettonus, right. Sorry,” said Sir Rhodes, nodding to the boy. “How’d he come into your protection? Is he a relation of yours?”
Slade shook his head. “No,” he said. “Just a child who needed a guiding hand. I’d rather not talk about that now. Tell me—how have you been? Is your father well?”
As they began to speak of Rhodes’ father and the times the two had shared squiring together, Raettonus wrapped his arms tight around Slade’s waist and, leaning against the man’s back, drifted off to sleep.
He dreamed of rain and rot and of a tall, blond man who spoke harshly to him. The man grabbed him by his wrist and dragged him along a dark hall, and he cried and begged to be let go but it fell on deaf ears. They were nearing the end of the hall, where a gaunt, iron-banded door stood, and as they came close, the door burst open and flames danced out of it. Raettonus dug his heels into the ground and screamed, but the man paid no mind, and Raettonus was too small to resist. The man picked Raettonus up like a sack of turnips and hurled him through the door into the fire.
Raettonus jerked suddenly awake, and Slade turned to look at him. “Something wrong?”
“No, Master,” said the boy. “I was only having a dream.”
“What did you dream?”
Raettonus blinked and tried to recall. “It’s gone now, Master,” he said apologetically. “I can’t remember.”
He glanced around and found he had been asleep for a longer time than it seemed. Dusk was upon them, and they were plodding along a dusty road between two orchards. The sky was pink, and the trees cast long shadows across their path as motes of dust lingered in the orange-tinged air. A few bats were winging their way into the sky from out of the trees in search of their night’s prey, as were big brown owls. A sharp wind rose suddenly, causing Slade’s dark blue cloak to flap against Raettonus’ face. He winced and slunk down.
“I don’t see any evidence of bandits here, Sir Rhodes,” Slade said, looking around.
“The area is farther on, I believe,” Rhodes said, urging his gray warhorse into a trot. “Maybe half a mile…”
“You said that two miles ago,” Slade said, falling in behind him. “We’re running out of light, Rhodes.”
Rhodes shrugged. “Maybe we ought to take a rest,” he said. “I could use a walk for a bit, and I’m sure your boy’s getting sore, riding bareback like that.”
“All right,” said Slade. “That sounds like a good idea.”
They traveled a little farther along the trail before turning off into the orchard and dismounting. Rhodes readjusted his sword belt as he stretched his legs. Raettonus took the reins of the horses and went to tie them to a tree. Steorra whickered softly and nipped at his hair. “Be good,” Raettonus told the horse, patting his jaw. As if in answer, the horse snorted in his face, spattering him with snot. He furrowed his brow and wiped his face on the sleeve of his tunic and then patted Steorra’s nose lovingly. “Well, I know who’s not getting any sugar cubes when we get back home.” Rhodes’ horse whinnied, and Raettonus patted his nose as well.
Slade leaned against a tree, watching Raettonus with those sad eyes of his as Rhodes walked slowly around behind him, tapping his fingers against the hilt of his sword. “I hadn’t noticed before,” Slade said. “But that’s a different horse than you used to ride. Did something happen to old Stoneblock?”
“No, Stoneblock is just fine,” Rhodes said, walking back and forth slowly. He stopped his tapping and instead tightened his fingers around the sword hilt. “This is Silvershield.”
“He’s a fine looking horse,” Slade remarked. “Where did you get him?”
Rhodes paused behind Slade and slid his sword up ever so slightly so the blade peeked out of its scabbard. “Oh, you know,” he said nonchalantly. “It was just a gift from some vassal lord of my father.”
“A gift?” said Slade, his eyes still on Raettonus and the horses. “That’s very nice. Is he broken for war yet?”
There was the sound of metal sliding against leather as Rhodes quickly drew his sword. Slade straightened hastily and pushed himself away from the tree just as the sword swished down at him. The blade tore through his cloak and tunic and bit into his arm, leaving a bloody gash in his shoulder, but Slade managed to dodge any real damage. His left hand darted down to his own sword, and he swiftly unsheathed it, dancing away as Rhodes took another swing. “Rhodes,” said Slade calmly. “I’m sure you don’t want to do this.”
The other man gave no answer, but came again with his sword. Slade parried the blade with his own and pressed forward, knocking his old friend off balance. The sound of steel on steel bounced off the trees and set Rhodes’ horse to screaming which, in turn, startled Steorra. Raettonus watched in fear as the men fought, frozen as he tried to figure out what was happening. Recovering himself, the child pulled a knife from his boot and went rushing to aid his master. “Raettonus, stay back!” Slade called to him, catching another one of Rhodes’ swipes with his blade. Raettonus froze mid-step, clenching his little knife in his trembling hand.
Rhodes pushed Slade violently back. With a yelp, Slade fell backwards as he caught his foot in the roots of one of the trees. Rhodes lifted his sword to strike. As the blade came down, Slade lifted his hand. A stream of water shot from Slade’s palm, striking the other man squarely in the face. Rhodes sputtered and gasped for air and dropped his sword. Slade took the opportunity to get back to his feet. He strode quickly forward and jabbed with his sword.
Raettonus winced as Slade’s sword entered Rhodes’ thigh and came out the other side, dripping with blood. Rhodes cried out, his already red face turning a bright crimson. “Raettonus, get his sword,” Slade said, his voice icy cold. Quickly, the boy complied and fetched Rhodes’ weapon. Slade moved closer to his one-time friend, driving his blade deeper into his meaty thigh. “You ought to die.”
Tears ran down Rhodes’ sagging cheeks, and he began to sob. “Slade, Slade!” he pleaded. A trail of snot was dripping from his nostril. “D-don’t do that! I’m—we were friends!”
“Yes. We were,” said Slade. His face was expressionless. “So I’m not going to kill you. How much did they pay, whoever it was that bought you? How much gold does it take for you to murder a friend, Rhodes?”
The man didn’t answer. Narrowing his eyes, Slade pulled his sword from Rhodes’ leg, prompting an agonized scream. He turned away and started toward the horses, and Raettonus ran ahead of him to untie them. Slade helped Raettonus up onto Silvershield and then mounted Steorra. “Slade, wait!” shrieked Rhodes, limping towards them. “Y-you’re not going to leave me here, are you? Oh, God, Slade—I’m injured! I’m bleeding… I could die!”
“If you die, that’s God’s will. I don’t really care what happens to you,” Slade said, his eyes hard. He turned Steorra around. “Raettonus, come.” They started for the path as Rhodes called after them. The sun was gone; night was imminent. Somewhere a wolf howled and dogs began to bay.
It was a miserable autumn night. The chill in the air pierced bone-deep. However, Raettonus didn’t mind.
Dirge for a NecromancerBy: Ash Stinson