This is the start of Emergence, part one of the Braxx of Dawnside series. More information can be found under the Works in Progress tab.
What’s written isn’t final, words on paper or on a screen can easily be rearranged, replaced, added to, taken from, or deleted. Feel free to leave any views or comments.
The blade crunched between fragile vertebrae, sliding through the guard’s neck, its point appearing in a gout of blood under his chin. Braxx wrenched the sword free, severing sinew and skin as it sliced through half of his victim’s neck. The guard’s head toppled sideways, balancing on his shoulder, held on by the unsevered muscle on that side. Braxx unhooked the heavy bunch of keys from the dead guard’s leather belt, turned, and unlocked the wooden door before the corpse could crumple to the floor. The door, made from thick, aged oak, hinged and studded with black iron, swung open without a sound. Braxx stepped through the opening and into the keep, dragging his fresh kill behind him.
Inside, loose straw lay scattered on the stone flags of the floor. A stone stairway to his left spiralled upwards. In the centre of the room, a wooden table, strewn with the remains of somebody’s dinner. Greasy bones lay in a pile, a half eaten loaf next to the plate, a pat of butter and a chunk of mouldy cheese on a board in the centre. To his right a log fire crackled in a large stone hearth, an iron pot filled with simmering spiced ale hanging above the flames. Opposite him, a doorway, through which a large cauldron hung by rusty chains over its own fire. A blackened oven lay beyond, topped with steaming pans. He could hear the cook singing to himself as he rattled pots out of view.
Braxx wiped his sword on his pants leg and sheathed it, drawing his dagger in its stead. He pushed the body to one side and closed the door, locking it with two thick bolts. Better safe than sorry. Swiftly he made his way across the room to the table, where he sliced the bread and cheese for a sandwich. He took a large bite, chewing noisily as he headed once more towards the kitchen.
As he entered through the door the delicious aroma of a herb and garlic lamb stew assaulted his senses, his empty stomach growling in response. He looked at the mouldy cheese sandwich in his hand, and tossed it over his shoulder. No doubt the stew would be more to his liking. To his right Braxx spied the cook, facing away from him as he scrubbed pots in an enormous stone sink. He hefted his dagger and cleared his throat.
“Good afternoon, Cookie.”
The cook spun around at the sound of the deep, unfamiliar voice. He just had time to register surprise on his heat reddened face before Braxx’s dagger thudded into his chest, impaling his heart and stopping it in an instant. Braxx darted across the kitchen and took hold of the knife’s handle, pulling it free as the dead cook dropped to the floor. He wiped the blade on his pants once more, adding yet another stain to the multitude, before sheathing it again.
“Help yourself to me fine stew, says you?” He looked at the cook as he spoke, his voice rough from long years smoking cheap cheroots. “Thankee kindly, don’t mind if I does, says I!”
He fished a wooden bowl out of the scum covered water in the sink and grabbed a ladle from a rack on the wall. Stomach rumbling, he set about the stew with a passion.
* * * *
“Grandpa, why is Braxx always hungry?”
The old man paused his reading, and looked at the small boy in the bed, white sheets pulled up to his chin to ward off the chill in the air. Spring was well on its way, but the old castle still felt icy once the sun had left the sky.
“He’s a big man Danny. Lots of muscles, if not so many brains. Big men like that use up a lot of energy and so need to eat a lot of food.”
“Oh, I see now. Like mummy is always telling me to eat my greens if I want to grow big and strong?” Danny wrinkled his nose. “Even though I really don’t like vegetables.”
The old man smiled and ruffled the boy’s fair hair. “Yes Danny, exactly like that.”
“That Braxx, he needs to learn some manners though Grandpa. He should have washed his sword and his dagger. And his hands. He didn’t and now he’s eating. That’s dirty.” The small boy pulled a face and looked at his grandfather with wide eyes.
The old man sighed. “Yes Danny my lad, it is dirty, and Braxx certainly has no manners. He doesn’t worry about niceties such as that. Now, may I continue?”
“Yes Grandpa, please do. What happens next?”
The old man picked up his parchment, tilted it towards the pale lamplight, and continued to read the story to his grandson.
* * * *
Some time later…
…Braxx discarded the ladle and threw the wooden bowl towards the sink. It bounced off the rim and clattered to the floor. He belched, long and loud, and patted his stomach. Shiny grease covered his chin and he wiped it off with one hand, the other scratching his balls vigorously. That damn whore had given him something, he was sure of it. He’d have to visit a healer when he got back to the city – after he’d revisited the brothel and shown them the error of their ways. But first to finish the job in hand. As he left the kitchen he cast an eye over the half empty cauldron. Come back for that later, says I, if there’s time. His ever hungry stomach rumbled in eager anticipation.
He mounted the first of the stone steps and peered up into the gloom. The steps curved away to his right overhead, with visibility limited past the first flaming torch in its wall sconce. The big man drew both dagger and sword, and sidled up the rising steps, eyes ever watchful. He eased past the wall torch, its flame hissing and spitting in the gloom, and continued, spiralling ever further up through the tower. A sixth torch had been passed before the head of the stairs came into view. A short corridor led away from the top step, ending in another thick oak and iron door. Banners hung on both sides of the door, darkest blue emblazoned with a silver boar – the mark of the Earl of Cavender. Braxx’s smile was grim as he realised his informant had been correct. It was crude, but a red hot poker applied to the correct orifice always resulted in true words being spoken.
A single guard sat on a wooden stool, halfway between the head of the stairs and the doorway. The window opposite shone with the last of the late afternoon sunshine, its rays illuminating the guard in a bright halo. Amateur, Braxx thought. Yon bright light will blind him, he’ll see naught in the shadows. He grinned. The Earl’s penny pinching habit of employing cheap labour was making his job so much easier. Silently he sheathed his sword, switched the dagger to his right hand, and rushed the rest of the way up the stairs. The guard, half asleep in the warm sunlight, and indeed half blinded by the bright sun, caught a brief blur of movement coming from the stairs. A meaty hand slammed his head against the wall, followed by a bright flash as the dagger sliced through the rays of sunlight before it sliced open his throat.
“Arnghhh!” was what he didn’t say, his windpipe and vocal cords having been cut in two. He heard a hoarse chuckle in his ear as his sunlit bright day faded to everlasting black. Braxx opened the window and tossed the body out, slipping in the blood that had pooled across the floor.
* * * *
The old man stopped talking and placed the sheets of parchment onto the bedside cabinet. Danny looked up at him with sleepy eyes, his head nestled snugly in his feather pillow.
“Why’d you stop, Grandpa?”
“Because, Danny my boy, you are on the verge of sleep, about to slip into that great abyss for yet another night.” He stood up, joints stiff in the cold air, and stooped to kiss Danny’s smooth forehead. “And besides, that is all I have written.”
Danny yawned, his mouth stretching, looking far too big for his small face. “It’s been a good story so far Grandpa, one of the best yet.” He giggled. “Ooo The Earl is going to get it now! Braxx is going to smash him, just like the King ordered him to. Find him and smash him!” He yawned once more, his eyelids drooping as sleep fought to claim him.
“Will you write more of the story tomorrow Grandpa? I do so like listening to the adventures you think up for Braxx.”
The old man tucked in the bedsheets and stepped back from the bed, picking up the sheaf of parchment as he did. “We will see, Danny, we will see. For now, sleep well, Daniel of Dawnside, son of Marcus and Martha, grandson of Edward. May the Gods keep you safe this night.” He snuffed out the candle in the lantern, and crept out of the room, easing the door closed behind him. Danny had already tumbled into the warm abyss of sleep.
Edward entered the great hall, pausing to pour himself a glass of wine from the cabinet by the door. Martha looked over at him from her seat in front of the large log fire.
“You haven’t been reading him your stories again have you Father?”
Edward nodded as he made his way over to join her. “I have, and now he’s sleeping peacefully.”
Martha’s voice became sharper. “I do wish you wouldn’t read them to him, he’s far too young to hear stories such as those!”
“The boy is eleven years old Martha.” Edward lowered himself into the large armchair next to his daughter’s. “If he’s old enough to begin sword training, then he’s old enough to hear tales of those that wield swords.” He smiled, recalling Danny’s first few lessons in armed combat. The wooden training sword large and ungainly in his small hand, the blade almost as wide and as long as the young boy’s arm. Nevertheless, it had taken Danny very little time to come to terms with it, and he had progressed at an astonishing rate.
“It’s all nonsense! He’s still a child, he shouldn’t even be thinking about swords, let alone learning how to use one!” Martha glared at her father. Edward held his tongue and sipped his wine. He knew his daughter disliked weapons and the violence they stood for, and he had learned from experience not to argue the case.
“The boy is born to it, he’s a natural.” They both turned at the sound of the deep voice, and watched as Marcus poured his own glass of wine before joining them at the fire. He stood by the hearth, leaning on the mantelpiece, as if posing for a portrait. A large man, broad of shoulder, and muscular, his round face mostly hidden behind a bushy black beard. He wore his long dark hair swept back in a ponytail fastened with a silver band. His bright blue eyes regarded his wife with a mixture of love and amusement.
Martha tutted. “Foolish notions born of foolish men! Violence only begets more violence, it solves nothing!”
“We’ve been through this time and again my love. In these dark times, with the King troubled by his illness, and bands of Raiders roaming the lands, a man needs to be able to defend himself.” Marcus glanced at Edward, his eyes asking for support. Edward sipped his wine and looked back, his features non-committal.
“He is not yet a man! He is only a child still!” Edward flinched at the volume of his daughter’s voice. She was on the verge of losing her famous temper.
“A child who is old enough to wield a sword. And as the son of an Earl, not only is it his right, but also his duty to learn all there is to know about combat.” Marcus kept his voice low, reasonable. Edward admired his courage.
Martha sat back in her chair and sighed. “You are correct, my Lord, as ever. You must do what you think is best.” Edward smiled to himself. He knew his daughter was far from defeated, and that whenever she referred to her husband as ‘my Lord’, Marcus was in for a very hard time.
Marcus knew this too, and tried to change the subject. “So, Edward, how goes your scribblings? Has your hero – Braxx, is he called? – managed to save the Land from rogues and sorcerers yet?” Marcus’ laugh was too loud, and Edward suspected the glass of wine in his hand wasn’t his first of the evening.
“They are just a childish series of stories to keep your son amused.” Edward’s tone was a little too sharp. “Although I am heartened that it also amuses you, my Lord. ” He stood, stretching his aching back. He approved of his daughter’s choice of husband, but now and then the urge to slap that jovial face was strong. “I believe I will take my wine to my chamber and meditate a while before I sleep.” He took his daughter’s hand and kissed it good night, nodded curtly at Marcus, and shuffled towards the door, his age making itself known in the chill evening air.
Behind him, Martha spoke. “Now then, my Lord, let us discuss sword training once more.” He smiled. For Marcus, it was going to be a long night.
Back in his chambers, Edward emptied his wine glass into the commode. The wine produced by the Dawnside estate was famed for its exceptional quality, but of late things had changed. To his refined palette the taste was brackish, burned, as if the grapes themselves had been smoked before being pressed. Something was amiss in the Land, of that he was sure. The King suffering from an as yet unknown malady was just one symptom. The lack of a strong figurehead had led to rising discord in the population of the Land, and the emergence of the Raiders. These bands of marauding thieves and thugs were a new menace, roaming across the province, taking what they wanted from good, law abiding citizens, raping and pillaging as they went.
But there was something more, something other that Edward couldn’t define. He disliked using the word ‘evil’, but he was coming to the conclusion that Evil was exactly what it was. Raiders aside, there had been an increase in petty crimes, and even reports of senseless murders over the past year or so. Crops failed, livestock were birthing larger numbers of misshapen and deformed young. Only last week he’d witnessed the birth of a calf that bore two heads. One head was that of a normal new born calf. The second carried two curled horns where its eyes should have been, and row upon row of needle sharp teeth lined its mouth. This head had snapped blindly, hungrily at anyone who ventured near, its mucus filled nostrils snuffling at their scent. The farmer took matters into his own hands and hacked off first one head and then the other with an axe, cursing the whole time. A fire was lit in his yard, and the remains burnt until they were ash. The flames burned smokeless and with a peculiar green flame.
Edward considered taking a measure of Seer’s Draught, a concoction derived from many different wild herbs, most of which only grew in far away lands. The secrets of the draught had been taught to him by his own grandmother, a lady renowned for her abilities in mixing potions and lotions. She had been admired for her healing prowess, and for her ability to look into the future – aided by her secret brew. Edward learned much of her skills, as much as she cared to teach him, but preferred to keep that knowledge to himself.
He retrieved the glass flask from its hidden cupboard, and swirled the liquid around inside it. Dark, almost midnight blue in colour, flecked with specks of gold and emerald green. Beautiful as it looked, it tasted just as vile. Each time he took a mouthful, Edward needed to force himself to swallow it, and resist the urge to vomit as it burned its way through his body. The effect was immediate, and more or less random. Leaving his physical self, his ka ascended through the ether, higher and higher, only to plummet back to the Land at a dizzying, exhilarating speed. At times he would arrive only a few hours in the future, sometimes it could be many years hence. He was able to view the ongoing events of that time until the potency of the draught faded. When it did his ka would arrive back in his body with a force that left him breathless.
Edward shivered, whether due to the cold in his chambers or the memory of his visions, he was unsure. He replaced the flask back in its secretive compartment. Not tonight, he told himself, I’m too tired. Too old and too tired. He undressed with care, and put on his nightshirt, his joints aching with every move. A new batch of the special salve that eased those pains needed to be brewed, but that could wait. Tomorrow would be soon enough, he decided. He splashed water onto his face from a basin, and climbed into his bed. Within minutes he was fast asleep, snoring quietly.
Danny woke early, before the sun had peeked over the distant horizon. Pale light crept through his window as he opened the wooden shutters at the head of his bed, peering out onto a new day. The sky overhead was inky dark, lightening to pale blue far out to the east. Wispy clouds in the distant sky were stained pale pink by the rapidly approaching dawn. On the plains below Dawnside vineyard, scattered smallholdings lay, some with lights already shining through windows, others still dark as their occupants slumbered on. Over to his left, Dawnside village lay in darkness, its merchants and businessmen not noted for their early rising. Cutting across the plain lay the Silverline, a slow moving river of crystal clear water. An almost iridescent layer of early morning mist highlighted the river’s meandering path, broken only by the stone span of the trade route bridge. In the courtyard below, a cock crowed, welcoming the dawn, while in a far off tree a crow replied, its muted caw echoing in the still air.
The young boy yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. His slumber had been fitful, marred by the strange dreams that had begun to plague him of late. He clambered out of his bed, and poured water from a large jug into a basin to wash his face. The cold liquid chased the last of the sleep from his mind and he smiled as he dried himself on a rough towel. It was too early for breakfast – Cook didn’t mind him sneaking down to the kitchen early, but at this hour she would still be lighting the huge ovens and stoves in preparation for another day feeding the castles inhabitants. What to do? His gaze fell on his desk, the thick pile of parchment, his quill and bottle of ink, all just waiting to be used.
Danny quickly pulled on green woollen pants and a plain white linen shirt, then sat at his desk. He lay a blank sheet of parchment before him, and dipped his quill in the ink. It was time to try and write a story. He wasn’t as good as his grandfather, wasn’t even close, he knew that, but he stubbornly refused to give up. Practise makes perfect, as his mother always told him. Anyway, it was fun making up stories for his imaginary characters to enjoy.
* * * *
Some time later…
…Braxx pulled himself away from the window, a sheepish grin on his weather worn face. He’d been daydreaming again. A bad habit that was apt to get him killed one day. He stepped over the pool of blood on the floor, now congealed to a tacky consistency, and made his way to the door. His back crackled as he bent down to peer through the keyhole, but could see only darkness beyond. Maybe the Earl likes to nap in the afternoons, like a small child? He stood up and giggled. Put a hand over his mouth, a surprised look on his face. Giggled? He never giggles. He’s not a girl.
The big man took a few steps back, lowered his shoulder and charged at the door. The door stood firm, but a large crack had appeared down the centre. He backed up again. Charged again. The door splintered into tiny pieces, and Braxx stumbled into the room beyond. A large bed lay against the far wall, and on the bed sat a huge pie tin, and in the pie tin sat a huge rabbit, almost as tall as Braxx himself. The rabbit looked at Braxx, twitching its nose. Braxx looked back, confusion in his eyes. A rabbit? A giant rabbit? Where was the Earl? And why had he broken through the door when he had the key? And by the Gods this wasn’t going right at all…
* * * *
Danny grinned. He’d never be able to write about Braxx as well as his grandfather. He almost always forgot important details. Like the keys Braxx had taken from the guard, and the fact that it was a solid oak door, unlikely to splinter into pieces after just two shoulder charges, even with him being so large. And the rabbit? Danny didn’t know where the idea for that came from, but it had felt right as he had written it in his sprawling, childish handwriting. He also found it a challenge to concentrate on a serious subject. Weird and strange things always cropped up in his written stories, which his mother put down to his vivid and uncontrolled imagination. Still, it amused him. He wondered what Braxx would do if he ever actually came across a giant rabbit like that. He put down his quill and snatched up the parchment. He’d show it to Grandpa later. The young boy scampered from his room and made his way through the maze of corridors, heading for the kitchens. It might still be too early, but he was ravenous.
In the kitchen, Cook had lit the ovens and stoves, and was busy yelling at her aides. A short woman, almost as wide as she was tall, she could be intimidating when she raised her voice. Years of learning to be heard over the clatter and banging of pots and pans had given her a frightening and booming voice when she put her mind to it. Danny hung back, just inside the doorway, watching the commotion. Cook glanced over at him and winked, before berating a young cook’s aide.
“Mind how you slice that ham, damn you! Haven’t I already told you a thousand times how to do it correctly? Me Lady likes her ham sliced thin like, so thin you can almost see through it. Can you see through those slices? No! Do it again, and the right way, or I’ll slice you thinly!” She paused for breath, the young girl flinching away from her, expecting another tirade. Instead, Cook sailed through clouds of steam as she made her way over to where Danny stood, grinning at the hustle and bustle.
“Danny boy!” She ruffled his hair as she spoke, a broad smile on her face. “A very good morning to you young man. Now, what can I get for you? Ham and eggs? Yes, I think so, ham and eggs – a double helping! You’re a growing lad, and still scrawny at that, you need feeding up!” She sailed away again through the steam, strangely nimble for one of her stature. Danny grinned after her. He had always been her favourite, and she loved to mother him whenever she got the chance. He moved to a small table in a quiet corner, and waited for his breakfast.
Before long a steaming plate of sliced ham – the thick cut slices, he noted – crispy rashers of bacon and four fried eggs appeared before him. He grabbed his knife and fork and dug in, nodding his thanks as another cook’s aide deposited a freshly baked loaf onto his table, along with butter and a large glass of creamy milk. So involved was he with the tastes and textures of his first meal of the day that he failed to notice his grandfather enter the kitchen and stand beside him. As Danny shovelled the last of the bacon into his mouth, Edward pulled up a stool and sat down. Danny looked up with a start, egg yolk dripping down his chin.
“You eat like Braxx, Daniel. If you carry on you’ll look like him too.” Danny rapidly chewed the last of his mouthful, swallowed, and grinned at his grandfather.
“If I grow up to be like Braxx then I too shall go around smashing people’s heads for the King!” Carried away with his fantasy, Danny brought his hand down hard on the last of the crusty loaf. Crumbs flew in all directions as it disintegrated, showering Edward and a passing cook’s aide. The aide scowled, Edward laughed.
“Now now, Danny boy, let’s not get too carried away! Cook will throw us out for dirtying her kitchens!” He looked around quickly, mock fear on his face as he spied Cook on the far side of the room.
“Cook likes me Grandpa. She would throw you out, but me she would pat on the head and feed again.” Danny reached into his shirt and pulled out a folded piece of parchment. He handed it to his grandfather. “I wrote this when I awoke, do you like it?”
Edward unfolded the page and began reading. His lips twitched, and then he let out a brief laugh, looking at Danny with amused yet troubled eyes.
“A giant rabbit? In a pie tin of all things. Poor old Braxx must be wondering what in the name of the Gods is going on! You have a wonderful imagination my boy, wonderful, which is somewhat unfortunate for our hero.” He folded the parchment and handed it back to Danny, his amused countenance turning more serious. “But tell me, Danny, where did you get the idea for a giant rabbit in a pie tin?”
Danny shrugged as he tore off a hunk of bread from the remains of the loaf. “I know not, Grandpa, it… it just felt like I had to write it that way.” Using the bread he mopped up the last of the egg yolk and bacon grease from his plate with enthusiasm. “Are you going to write more about Braxx today Grandpa?” He wolfed down the bread and chased it with a mouthful of milk.
Edward’s face was grave as he looked at his small grandson, noting the brown smudges under his eyes. “I’m afraid not Danny. Today I have other matters I must attend to.” He had recently been thinking about writing an amusing children’s story for Danny’s younger sister Elizabeth, a story that revolved around a hapless farmer trying to capture a giant rabbit, and then cook it. in a giant pie tin. It appeared as though Danny had plucked the idea right out of his head, and this troubled him a great deal.
Danny pulled a face. “Aww, but Grandpa, you said…”
Edward help up his hand to silence the boy. “This is an urgent matter Daniel. I can tell you haven’t been sleeping well. Is it the dreams again?” Danny nodded mutely in response. “Yes, I thought so. I think I may know what they mean, but I must consult my books, and perhaps even consult with Gilda, the lady Oracle of the village.”
Danny nodded and sank lower into his chair. He’d been having the dreams on and off for the past year, and although he was now used to them, they still left him feeling drained and confused, and so he disliked discussing them. They weren’t scary dreams, not what he would consider to be scary, anyway. Nevertheless, on one occasion he had been scared by a particular dream, for what he had dreamt the previous night had come true the following afternoon. In his dream he had seen his best friend Cuthbert Allgood clambering up the big, ancient oak tree that stood atop Robber’s Hill. Although both he and Cuthbert had climbed the tree countless times without incident, in his dream he had watched, helpless, as Cuthbert missed a handhold and tumbled to the ground.
That very afternoon, after Danny had finished his studies, he raced to the village in search of his friend. There was no sign of him at the cottage he dwelt in with his family, and Danny’s heart sank as old man Allgood informed him that Cuthbert had left, not ten minutes since, heading for Robber’s Hill. Danny set off as fast as his young legs would carry him, but he was too slow, and he knew that he must surely be too late. Halfway up the steep incline, legs burning and chest heaving, he looked up and had seen Cuthbert, bright red shirt standing out against the dark green foliage, fall from almost two thirds of the way up the oak. A faint cry reached Danny’s ears, followed by a sickening crunch as his friend’s frail body hit the unforgiving ground. Last summer, that had been. Cuthbert had badly broken his right leg, and he still walked with a terrible limp even now.
His grandfather visiting with Gilda perked him up, however. “Can I go with you Grandpa? Can I, can I? I won’t get in the way, I promise!” Danny had never seen the lady Oracle, had only heard rumours and tall tales bandied about by his young friends. He knew that she lived in a deep cave a mile or so past the village, but that was the only true fact he knew about her. The thought of a possible meeting, face to face, had him wriggling in his seat, the excitement almost too much for him. “Please please please?”
The old man shook his head. “I’m afraid not Danny, not this time.” He held up his hand again, once more silencing the boy before he could protest. “In the unlikely event that Gilda will deign to speak with me, I must be unaccompanied as she will only receive one visitor at a time. You have your morning and afternoon studies with your mother, that is your priority for today.”
Danny stared gloomily down at his empty plate, disappointment evident in his face. “Yes Grandpa, if that is your wish.”
“It is my wish Danny. But…” Edward disliked disappointing Danny. The young boy reminded him of himself at that age – everything was fresh and new, everything was a big adventure. Danny watched him with expectation. “This evening, after we have dined, and if your mother says you have studied well, I will show you something I am sure will be of great interest to you. I was your age when my grandmother introduced me to her magics, so I believe that now you are also old enough.”
“Magics Grandpa?” Danny was wide eyed with wonder. “Real, honest to goodness magics? Like spells and potions and stuff?” The young boy was bouncing on his chair. “You really know magics? Real magics?”
Edward grinned, the enthusiasm infectious. “Yes my boy, I do, and tonight I will introduce you to some of it. Only…” He looked solemn for a moment. “Don’t, for the life of you, breath a word of this to your mother!”
Grandson and grandfather laughed aloud together, bringing themselves to Cook’s attention. She sailed over to them to see what could be so amusing in her kitchen, but the old man and young boy had disappeared through the doorway, clutching each other, their laughter echoing back along the passageway.
Alen B Curtiss 2013
Moscow Mule Media 2013