It was a dark and stormy night.
That was fine with Durine.
Not that the goddess Killian, whose province was the weather, was asking his opinion. Nor were any of the other gods - or any mortals - for that matter.
In more than twenty years of a soldier's life, both fealty-bound and mercenary - as well as during the dimly-remembered time before he took blade and bow in hand - few of those in charge of anything had asked Durine's opinions before making their decisions.
And that was fine with him, too. The good thing about a soldier's life was that you could concentrate on the small but important decisions, like where to put the point of your sword next, and leave the big decisions to others.
Anyway, there was no point in objecting: complaining didn't make it any warmer, griping didn't stop the sleet from pelting down, bitching didn't stop the ice from clinging to his increasingly heavy sailcloth overcoat as he made his way, half-blinded, down the muddy street.
Mud seemed to go with LaMut the way salt seemed to go with fish.
But that was just fine with Durine, too. Wading through this half-frozen mud was just part of the trade, and at least here and now it was just this vile slush, not the hideous sort of mud made from soil mixing with dying men's blood and shit. Now, the sight and particularly the smell of that kind of mud could make even Durine gag, and he had seen more than enough of it in his time.
What wasn't fine with him was the cold. It was still too damn cold. His toes had ceased to feel the cold and the pain, which wasn't good.
Locals were talking about the 'thaw', something they apparently expected any day now that Midwinter was behind them. Durine glanced up at the sleet smacking him in the face, and decided that this was an odd sort of thaw. To his way of thinking, there was far too damn much of this half-frozen stuff falling from the sky for a reasonable thaw, or even an unreasonable one. Yes, before the current storm they had had three days of clear skies, but there was no change in the air; it was still too damn wet, and too damn cold.
Too cold to fight, perhaps?
Well, yes, maybe, in the view of the Bugs and the Tsurani, and that was a good thing. They had fought Tsurani and goblins and Bugs in the north, and now, it seemed, they had run out of Tsurani and goblins and Bugs to kill - at least around here - and as soon as things thawed out enough, it was time for him and the other two to be paid and to be going.
A few months of garrison duty until then was just fine. Actually, as long as they were stuck here, Durine preferred the idea of garrison duty to being paid off today and having to spend his own coin to eat and lodge. Durine's perfect situation would have been to have the Earl pay for everything except drink and women until this hypothetical thaw - and he included that limitation only because he didn't think that even Pirojil could conceive of a way to cadge ale and whores from the paymaster - then pay them their wages the day they rode south for Ylith and a ship heading somewhere warmer.
Which made this, despite the mud and the cold, pretty close to perfect.
The heavy action was supposedly at Crydee these days, which meant that the one place they could be sure the three of them were not going was Crydee. Come spring, the privateer Melanie was due in Ylith. Captain Thorn could be counted on for a swift conveyance and be relied upon not to try to murder them in their sleep. That would be bad for one's health, as Thorn's predecessor had barely realized in the instant before Pirojil had stuck a knife in his right kidney while the late captain was standing, sword in hand, over what he had thought was Durine's sleeping form. Given that Thorn owed his captaincy to Durine and his companions' suspicious natures, he should be willing to transport them for free, Durine thought.
Away where, though?
Still, that wasn't Durine's worry. Let Kethol and Pirojil worry about that. Kethol would be able to find them somebody who needed three men who knew which part of the sword you used to cut with and which part you used to butter your bread; and Pirojil would be able to negotiate a price that was at least half again what the employer thought he was ready to pay. All Durine would have to do was to kill people.
Which was fine with him.
But until the ice broke the only way they would be leaving Yabon would be by foot, horse, or cart, overland to Krondor. Their only other choice would be heading back up north for more fighting, and right now they had earned enough - when they actually got paid, of course - that their cloaks would be so heavily laden with gold coin and their purses with silver coin that more fighting wouldn't appeal to any of them.
This stint had left him with a new set to add to his already burgeoning collection of scars; a missing digit on his left hand from the time when he hadn't pulled back quite quickly enough while dispatching a Bug with his pikestaff. He now judged he would never play the lute. Not that he had ever tried, but he always had it in mind that he might like to learn, some day. That wound, and a long red weal on the inside of his thigh, reminded him with every step that he wasn't as young and nimble as he used to be.
Then again, Durine had been born old. But at least he was strong. He would just wait. Let the days drift past doing little chores, and it wouldn't be long before the thaw started and the ship was in port, and he and the others would be out of here. Somewhere warm - Salador maybe, where the women and breezes were warm and soft, and the cool beer was good and cheap and flowed freely as a running sore. About the time they ran out of gold, they could ship to the Eastern Kingdoms. Nice, friendly little wars. The locals there always appreciated good craftsmen who knew how to efficiently dispatch the neighbours, and they paid well, if not quite as well as the Earl of LaMut. And, from Durine's point of view, the best thing about fighting in the Eastern Kingdoms was there were no Bugs, which was even better than the absence of this horrible cold.
Or if they really wanted warmth, the three of them could head back down to the Vale of Dreams and make some good coin fighting Keshian Dog Soldiers and renegades for Lord Sutherland.
No, Durine decided after a moment, the Vale of Dreams wasn't really any better than frozen, muddy LaMut, no matter how it seemed on this cold and miserable night; last time they were down there he was almost as miserable with the heat as he was today with the cold.
Why couldn't someone start a war on a nice balmy beach somewhere?
Ahead, bars of light coming through the outer door to the Broken Tooth Tavern were his marker and guide, promising something approaching warmth, something resembling hot food, and something as close to friends as a mercenary soldier could possibly have.
That was good enough for Durine.
He staggered up from the muddy street to the wooden porch outside the entrance to the inn.
There were two men huddled in their cloaks under the overhang just outside the door.
'The Swordmaster wants to see you.'
One pulled his cloak back, as though in the dark Durine would be able to see the wolf's head emblazoned on his tabard, that Durine knew must be there.
They had been found out.
Looting the dead was, like most crimes, punishable by death (either outright hanging if the Earl was in a bad mood, or from exhaustion and bad food as you tried to get through your twenty years of hard labour in the mountain quarries) although Durine had never seen any harm in looting, himself. It wasn't as though the dead soldiers had had any use for the few pitiful coins in their purses, any more than they had for their cloaks. Durine and his two friends had more than a few coins of their own secreted about their persons - sewn into hidden pockets in the lining of their tunics, or the hems of their cloaks, in purses worn under their clothes, bound in shrunken rawhide, so that they wouldn't clink. A nobleman could put his wealth into a vault or strongroom, and hire armed men to watch it; a merchant could put his wealth into trade items that couldn't be easily walked off with; a wizard could leave his wealth in plain sight and trust that where sanity and self-interest wouldn't protect it from thieves, the spells on it could and would - Durine had seen a man who had tried, once, to burgle a sleeping magician's retreat.
Or, at least, what had been a man ...
But a mercenary soldier could either carry his wealth with him or spend it, and Durine didn't have a good explanation for what a detailed search would reveal in his possession right now.
A nobleman would have just brushed past the two men - for they wouldn't have dared to stand in his way - but Durine was no nobleman. Besides, the number of people Durine would willingly allow within easy stabbing range of his broad back were very few, and two grey shapes in the dark were hardly likely candidates.
One on two? That wasn't the way he had planned to die, but so be it, if that was necessary, although he had taken on two men at a time many times before, without getting killed. Yet.
It was getting to be too cold and wet and miserable a day to live, anyway.
He pretended to stagger on the rough wood while his right hand reached inside his cloak to his nearest knife. They would hardly give him time to draw his sword, after all. At the movement, each man took a step back.
'Wait-' one started.
'Easy, man,' the other said, his hands outstretched, palms out in an unmistakable sign of peace. 'The Swordmaster says he just wants to talk to you,' he said. 'It's too cold and mean a night to die, and that goes as much for me as it does for you.'
'And big as he is, it would probably take both of us to put him down, if we had to,' the first man muttered.
Durine grunted, but kept his thoughts to himself, as usual. It would probably take more than the two of them. It would also, at the very least, take the two others who had come out of the darkness behind Durine, the ones he wasn't supposed to have noticed.
But bragging was something he left to others.
'Let's go,' he said. 'It isn't getting any warmer out here.'
He straightened. But he kept a hand near a knife. Just in case.
It was a dark and stormy night, but that was, thankfully, outside.
Here, inside, it was warm and smoky beneath the overhead lanterns, so that it was both too hot and too cold at the same time.
A mercenary soldier's life, Kethol often thought, was always either too lively or too dull. Either he was bored out of his skin, trying to stay awake while waiting on watch for something to happen, or he was wading through rivers of Tsurani troops, hoping that he was cutting down the bastards quickly enough that none of them would get past him to Pirojil or Durine. Either he was parched with thirst, or he was drowning in a driving rain. He was either crowded too close to other unbathed men, smelling their stink, or he was all by himself, holding down some watch-post in the middle of the night, hoping that the quiet rustle he heard out in the forest was just another deer, and not some Tsurani sneaking up on him, and wishing for a dozen friendly swords clustered around him.
Even here, in the relative comfort of the Broken Tooth Tavern, it was all or nothing.
In any tavern, on any cold night, there was no such thing as just right - he was always either too close to the main fireplace, or too far away. Given the choice, Kethol preferred too close, his back to the hearth, for it was hard to think of himself as being too warm in winter, even though he would regret it later, when he went out into the cold night to make his way back to the barracks at the south end of the city, with the wind cutting through his sweat-dampened clothes like a knife. And there were better ways to work up a sweat.
Some of the other mercenaries were doing that at the moment - spending their hard-earned blood money in the sleeping rooms above, and the incessant creaking of the floorboards gave witness as to how they were spending their hard-earned money, but while Kethol didn't mind dropping the odd copper or two on a quick roll with one of the local whores, the cold shrivelled his passions as much as it did the relevant portions of his anatomy, and he couldn't see the point of spending good money on a soft itchy bed when there was an equally-itchy rope bedframe waiting at the barracks, for free.
Kethol watched closely as the placards fell. This game of pa-kir, or whatever they called it, wasn't something that he was familiar with, but a game was a game, and gambling was gambling, and all it would take would be enough familiarity with it to avoid the traps that drunken men would fall into, and then he could play.
Men took up the sword for any number of stupid reasons. Honour, family, country, hearth and home. Kethol did it for the money, but he didn't insist on earning all of his money with the edge of his sword, or even the point.
In the meantime, a few coppers spent on the particularly thin, sour beer of LaMut were coppers well spent. With an abundant supply of good dwarven ale nearby - Kethol was never sure if there was some magic involved, but it was consistently better than any humans brewed - it was clear that the local human brewers had only one mandate: make the beer as cheaply as possible, treating such things as good barley, unrotted hops, and washing out the vats in between batches as unnecessary fripperies. So when someone else bought, Kethol ordered dwarven ale; when he paid for it himself, he took the cheap stuff. It wasn't as if he was going to drink a lot of it, after all. He was only going to look as if he was drinking a lot of it.
It was an investment, as Pirojil would say. A small investment to make his opponent think him slightly in his cups, perhaps not as attentive to the game as he might be. A sip now and again, spilling most of the vile brew on the floor from time to time, and when he sat down to gamble, several empty ale jacks would testify to his being ready to be taken in a game. Then he could indulge in some serious gambling. Yes, it was an investment.
As much of an investment as their three swords. Blades that would chop through leather and flesh and into bone rather than chip and bend had proven their worth more than once. Saving money was a good thing, but just about the worst place Kethol could think of for economies was in the tools of the trade.
In his mind's eye, he could still see the widened eyes of the Tsurani whose blade had shattered on his shield, moments before he had slid his own sharp point under the enemy's arm, and into the soft juncture under the armpit that was protected on the sides by the pauldrons. He didn't have anything personal against the Tsurani, but then he had never had a personal grudge against any but a small percentage of the men he had killed. Besides, he had a lot in common with the Tsurani - they had invaded Midkemia for metal, so the strange story went, and a man who made his living killing with steel to earn gold and silver could understand that. If Kethol had a choice of metals, he would choose steel ten times out of ten - steel, in his experience, could get you gold more reliably than gold could get you steel. Besides, his skills were useful here.
Blending into the scenery was a skill that a man who had started life as a forester's son could use on other grounds, as well.
The trick was not to overdo it, not to try to be too local, and be spotted as a phoney, arousing suspicion. Just add a little of the thick accent, throw in an occasional use of the local flick of the fingers that meant never-mind-it's-not-important, taking care to be friendly and smiling but not trying to be too comradely, and they wouldn't even notice that they barely noticed him.
It had worked when he was fist-boxing in that small village outside of Rodez - before Pirojil had killed that annoying little sergeant, and the three of them had to take to their heels, again - and it worked when he was learning how to roll dice in Northwarden.
Just learn the game, learn how to blend in, and be sober while seeming less than sober, and they would only notice that he had beaten them after it was accomplished and he was gone. Somebody had to win, after all. Why not Kethol?
Three beefy Muts, one with a fresh set of corporal's stripes on his sleeve, leaned over the rough-hewn table, examining the placards in front of them, while four others looked on. All wore the greyish livery of regular Mut soldiers, and all talked amongst themselves in the thick LaMut accent that Kethol could imitate without thinking about it.
'Nice play, Osic,' one said, as another scooped the pile of coppers toward him. 'I was sure I had you beat.'
'It can happen,' Osic said. He turned to Kethol. 'Kehol,' he said, mispronouncing the name in a way a prouder man would have taken offence at, 'you want to get in on the next hand? Only a couple of coppers to see some placards, but it can get expensive after that, truth to tell.'
Kethol had watched long enough, he thought, to have some idea about the ranking of combinations. More to the point, the Muts had been drinking long enough that a sober man wouldn't have any difficulty working out who thought, albeit in a drunken stupor, that he had a good combination, and that should be good enough.
In the country of the drunk, a sober man was at least a landed baron, and on a good day, an earl. 'I may as well,' Kethol said, emptying a judiciously small heap of patinaed copper coins out of his pouch and onto the table. He had considerably more on him, of course, but it was best not to seem rich.
'Your money's as green as the next fellow's,' one of the Muts said, and the others chuckled along with the jest that had been ancient when the Kingdom was new.
It was probably a risky idea to get into a game with regulars, but there were times for taking a risk.
Over in a far corner, near where the smell of roasting mutton oozed out of the kitchen, a game of two-thumb was going on between two Keshian mercenaries: the mad dwarf, Mackin, and a skinny, balding, puffy-faced fellow who called himself Milo, but who Kethol was certain had a price on his head under another name, and probably a local price, at that - why else would he make himself so scarce whenever the constable appeared? - and that's where Kethol should have been playing.
If one of them took offence at Kethol's winning, the odds were small that another would want to interfere. You could win a lot in a night when most of the time you appeared to be taking a deep draught of your beer you barely swallowed.
Here there was more risk, but there was also more profit to be had. It was just another field of battle, as far as Kethol was concerned. All he had to do was obey the same set of rules: protect himself and his friends; be sure not to draw too much attention to himself; and be sure to be one of the men standing when it was all over. And just as the best time to attack was before dawn, when the enemy would all be sleeping, the best time to gamble was late at night, when the others' minds would be clouded with too much drink and too little sleep.
And if that seemed ungentle and unsporting, well then, that was just fine with Kethol. He was, after all, a mercenary, serving his betters for pay, and like the whores upstairs he tried to be as well paid for as little service as he could manage.
So he nodded, sat down, and threw a couple of coppers in the middle of the table, and received his placards from the dealer's heavy hands.
He was just about to make his first play when the fight broke out at the table behind him. You would think that men who made their living fighting would have better things to do in their time off than recreational brawling.
What was the point of it, after all? If it was practice, it was stupid practice. Neither the Tsurani nor the Bugs nor anybody else Kethol had taken up sword and pike against would have gone at it with bare fists if there was something sharp or blunt or big to hit the other with. And if it was really worth fighting over, it was worth killing over, and if that made you an outlaw, well, Midkemia was roomy enough that you could be declared an outlaw in more than a few places and still be able to earn a living, something that Kethol knew from personal experience.
Usually it was about one of three things: money, a woman, or I-just-feel-like-acting-like-an-idiot. Often it was all three.
Kethol had no idea what this fight was about, but grunts quickly turned into shouts and shouts were followed by the meaty thunk of blows landing.
He saw something out of the corner of his eye, and ducked quickly enough to avoid the flying chair, but the motion brought him into full contact with the burly regular on his right, and instinctively the Mut responded with a backhanded fist that caught Kethol high on the right cheekbone.
Lights went off in Kethol's right eye, but reflexes worked where vision couldn't; he lowered his head and lunged, catching the Mut around the waist in a tackle that brought both of them to the hard wooden floor. Kethol landed on top, hoping he had knocked the wind out of the other. He bashed his fist into the soldier's midsection, just below the ribcage, for a bit of insurance. Hope was a fine thing, but certainty was better. He had nothing personal against the man he was fighting, but he was used to killing people he had nothing against, so just roughing up one didn't count. Then he slammed his knee into the other man's groin and rolled away. This brawl was a matter of self-protection, not anger.
1. /Dark Night/Dark Night.pdf
1. /Dark Night/Dark Night.pdf
1. /Iced Earth/01-Iced Earth (1991)/01-Iced Earth.rtf
1. /1964a - A Hard Days Night/01 - A Hard Day's Night.txt
1. /Fine, Reuben - The Iideas Behind Chess Openings.djvu
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