The earth shook. Again. It had been restless for a month now. The end of the world was nigh. People said so anyway. And the wise ones said so as well, so it must be true. Or at least mostly true - most of the time they got things mostly right.
And the end of the world was still the end of the world whether it arrived entirely or just mostly. According to Bronek anyway. Seeing that people, in their combined belief, which is usually mostly wrong but sometimes painfully right, believed the end was coming, and that the wise ones agreed with the people (and they did that very rarely; usually when they knew that in doing so they were safe from the commoners' stones, or to get what they wanted, or to get another virgin priestess, or an altar boy, or a sheep... nobody asked. Why they were usually of a different opinion than everyone else was surprising, since agreeing meant safety and someone to share a bed with - or a stall - depending on preferences) it could only (or at least mostly) mean that the end of the world was indeed nigh.
Thinking these very grim, often complicated and full of subordinate clauses thoughts, Bronek deserted the army. And he did so cheerfully – end of the world it might be, but no better and more forgivable reason to leave the stinking mob. And stinking actually meant pungent. How is it that when you put a large group of (mostly) men together and don't specifically order them to wash (or indeed show them how to) the odour seems to precede them everywhere? The other army always seems to know when to halt and prepare for battle well in advance, and that's without the scouts' information. Funny that... Maybe for a man of the world, and Bronek liked to think that he was just that (he did go outside the king's domain twice after all), it was a bit unusual to wash. Even once a month was considered hazardous to your health – everyone knew that pores should stay closed to all the outside influences and protect the body from all the evils of the world. Even knowing all that, Bronek had to, simply had to wash every day. Well sometimes every second day; well every week at least. Being smelly was akin to having soiled trousers – you just didn’t do that. Not in the civilised societies anyway. Well, not in most of them. Bronek was suddenly reminded of a tavern just outside the barracks... Not in most parts of most civilised societies then. He wasn’t even good at being a soldier. He was a bard, an artist, and artists shouldn’t be ordered to fight wars they didn’t even understand.
The trees finally stopped shaking, and the leaves were only moving in the slight breeze from the sea. He took a deep breath, revelling in every scent and taste of the land. To finally be able to stay at home for longer instead of being dragged around the country, fighting battles for power-hungry lordlings or having to leave for work. And to die there one day - well, it would be sooner now rather than later.
But if he managed to get home before the world collapsed on all the sinners, taking all the rest of the world who are, let's face it, mostly decent people, at least he'd die in the arms of his woman. And that had to mean something. In the end you'd still die, but this kind of death seemed somehow more appealing. Not that any death was appealing and if he could, he'd definitely choose to live a bit - like a lifetime – longer, but out of the many, many ways of dying invented by people or supplied by mother nature, that one would be the one he'd prefer. His thoughts wandered easily to her. Understandable – the sea, the waves, the breeze, the impending doom. Maya wasn't stunning, but good-looking enough for him to feel his sense of aesthetics satisfied whenever his eyes rested on her. Apart from mornings obviously. Nobody's looks should ever be judged by mornings alone. Or late evenings for that matter. She had flaming red hair and was covered in freckles, even on the backs of her hands. He loved every single one of them and could probably draw the map that they made on her body. She knew he was coming home. Right now she was most possibly reading (and re-reading) one of his many letters and hoping he'd be back today. Her hair would be all loose and crazy in the wind that sometimes railed against their house - in moments like that they would always wonder why on earth they ever decided to build a house on a cliff. ‘The wind must be even stronger there today’, thought Bronek. Just as the mist from the waves a hundred meters below must be settling on the window panes of their home.
The sea still seemed angry where he was, and the breeze carried a salty after-taste for miles. The sky was as beautiful as could be, which might indicate that it was the gods of the underworld who were angered. Who cared though? Especially when all the other gods obviously stood by to watch the show. Bloody supernaturals. Good-for-nothing, fickle bunch of perverts.
The wind changed and blew back towards the sea, bringing with it all the sweet and disgusting smells of human settlements. Some bird called a very human-like cry nearby, and someone was obviously cooking not far from where Bronek was. The track widened and turned. Autumn was still away which meant that the ground was beaten and hard. His steps took themselves, springy and impatient, and the smell of cooking meat was getting stronger with every pace. Lamb, as far as he could tell. He could be wrong, though. He often was. But the smell made his stomach rumble and flatten against his spine. It was time for something to eat and whatever was cooking did smell nice. Sweet-like. Maybe he could persuade whoever was cooking to share it with him. People tended to feed anyone who could sing and play. Bronek turned the bend in the road and took in the scene before him quite quickly. Amongst the trees, on a slope leaving the track, was perched a Dragon. It didn't seem like much, smallish and quite scared-looking. Its eyes were fixed on a knight lying in the road before it – slightly smouldering around the leather straps and apparently cooking slowly in his red-hot armour. There were no screams coming from the inside which could only mean that the he was dead already and juuuuuust right. A sword and a lance lay by his side and there was no sign of a horse, which had probably run at the first sight of trouble. No point giving its life for an idiot hunting Dragons (endangered species too). Bronek's insides turned and if there had been anything left in his stomach he might have retched. But then maybe he wouldn't have. He'd seen quite a few things in the army, and the knight obviously deserved his fate. This Dragon was small, but some said that the first ones were huge, some even as big as mountains. They had many heads on separate necks, with jaws full of multiple rows of teeth and sometimes even two pairs of wings. But that was before the creation of people. Other creatures ruled this world then. And now what was left of them was a few, sad remnants of a once great race. People still didn't like Dragons but Bronek felt for them. They were exceptionally beautiful, kept to themselves and didn't really hurt anyone unless attacked. This couldn’t be said for mankind, who often killed simply for the fun of it. And look what happened, there were only a few Dragons left in the world and they didn't look that well either... The one on the slope noticed the newcomer and its eyes widened in terror. It did something which could only be likened to a vomiting motion of its long neck and cheeks, and a stream of fire left its jaw in Bronek's general direction. He ducked as, in a split second, a nearby bush was turned to ashes and the heat singed his bottom quite painfully. He rolled again, just in case, but the Dragon wasn't there anymore. It was running up the slope, in snake-like motions, tail between its hind legs, wailing...
Bronek got up, brushed himself off and shook his head. Sad world where Dragons were so frightened they threw up at the mere sight of men and ran away crying.
He walked up to the unfortunate but, obviously, not the smartest of knights and touched him lightly with his toe. The armour burned Bronek’s foot even through his sturdy boots. Very hot then… definitely dead. Better for the poor idiot.
It was only now that Bronek’s brain registered voices nearby. He looked around and noticed a couple of warriors not too far from where the bush used to be. They’d obviously been there for a while, one leaning against a tree, the tip of his massive, man-sized bow supporting his chin and the other, a woman, sitting with her legs crossed and looking bored. They were in the middle of a conversation.
‘…the harm is, really,’ said the man in a low drawl, ‘he’s dead already, innit? The world’s going to end soon anyways an’ we sure aren’t going to hang around when it does.’
The girl nodded her head with an expression saying that she knew that very well and was fine with it. But apparently she wasn’t fine with whatever he’d said before because her lovely, big-eyed face went back to the slightly disgusted look it had on before and said: ‘Still, it don’t seem right, Mathias.’
The warrior looked down on his partner, his earring jingling, and furrowed his brow. Even his brow was muscular so it didn’t really furrow so much as ripple.
‘I’m not sayin’ I wanna eat him all, am I? Just a bit. Always wondered if it was true ‘bout us tastin’ like chicken. And he’s already cooked,’ Mathias reasoned. The girl wrinkled her perfect nose yet again and got up.
‘I ain’t touchin’ that. An’ anyways, with him all stuck to his armour how would you get to him – with yer tin opener? You know how thick that stuff is.’
It was Mathias’s turn to nod his acknowledgement. He did know, indeed. Probably from experience of penetrating it more often that not.
Bronek felt he should say something. They obviously knew he was there; after all, he was standing right next to the dead knight they were discussing. However, ignoring was something warriors, those independent, un-guilded ones especially, did very well. But rumbles of the empty stomach made Bronek take his chances.
‘Hello there,’ he called with a polite smile. The pair exchanged a surprised look and then turned their heads towards the brave lad. What he saw on their faces looked like embarrassment. Funny that.
‘Hello. Sorry,’ they said quietly in unison, and Mathias shuffled his feet while his companion stared at the ground.
More shocked now than anything else Bronek walked up to them not believing in what he was seeing: most probably killers, nearly eaters of human flesh embarrassed because they didn’t say ‘hello.’
‘Been here long?’ he asked in conversational tones of someone unfazed by a still slowly cooking person behind him. From close up the girl was even prettier – she stood up and shook her hair. It was brown and curly, and held back with a leather band. Actually her whole outfit consisted of bits of leather here and there allowing freedom of movement, where being ‘proper’ was not really an issue. She had two sabres crossed on her back, the handle of a knife sticking out of her knee-length boot and studded leather straps on both her wrists. It was obvious they were only the weapons she wanted you to see… She was no wispy female – more muscled than was normal for a woman and definitely looking like, if she wanted to, she could break a man in half. Her height and frame however made her musculature much less obvious.
Mathias was nearly two heads taller than the girl and a head taller than Bronek. He was huge, and his bow meant that he was also incredibly strong – not many men were able to draw a bow that size. A quiver of long arrows sat on his back, and a short axe hung from his belt. He had a clean-shaven head and apart from his dangly earring wore no other jewellery. The pair wore nothing that could be a disadvantage in a fight or battle and were similar in so many ways that it was certain they were related. Same green, almond shaped eyes, same nose and same lips – of course hers were much fuller and more inviting. But maybe that was only Bronek’s preference.
‘Been here long enough to see yer arse get singed,’ Mathias said with a grin.
‘But wasn’t it a good dive and roll, though?’
‘Nothing spectacular,’ the girl shrugged with a smile.
‘Huh. I was pretty proud of myself there. More so now that I’ve seen him on the road,’ Bronek gestured towards the knight, ‘A bit more singed than just the arse I’d say.’
‘Well spotted. Is that a professional opinion?’
‘Not at all. I only cook as a hobby.’
The warriors burst with laughter and held out their arms.
‘I’m Mathias and this is my sister Mateya.’
‘Bronek. It’s a pleasure to see someone finally smile on this road.’
‘In this country,’ corrected Mateya, ‘Everybody’s pretty gloomy right now.’
‘End of the world, eh?’ her brother said cheerfully.
‘Which way are you faring then? I would enjoy some cheerful company for a while.’
The brother and sister looked at each other doubtfully.
‘Well, to tell the truth, we were just decidin’ that very thing,’ Mateya frowned a pretty frown. ‘Behind ye there’s war, which is where we usually make money. But we doubt any amount of money could buy us out when the world ends. It’s jus’…’
‘We don’t really know when exactly we’re goin’ there, and we don’t want to starve and die afore we really have to,’ finished Mathias.
‘That’s some gloomy attitude,’ Bronek smiled. ‘If it’s any consolation – the war is nearly over. Not for the lack of trying on the part of our beloved ruler…’
The warriors spat in unison. Bronek raised an eyebrow and continued: ‘but somehow the vision of impending doom takes away the soldiers’ willingness to die for stupid reasons.’
‘And ye’d be one of them soldiers?’ asked Mathias with a wide grin.
‘I would. I prefer to die at home with my wife rather than on a battlefield somewhere and leave her all the End of the World fun to herself.’
‘Not if they catch ye first.’
‘And who would that be? Barely any soldiers left.’
The brother and sister exchanged a look and seemed to have made a decision.
‘We’re going home then,’ said Mathias looking uncomfortable. Mateya shuffled her feet and agreed with a muffled ‘Mhm.’
Bronek lifted an eyebrow at their lack of enthusiasm, but thought better not to ask. Not until he was sure that they wouldn’t kill and eat him if he did.
‘Shall we?’ he asked, offering the girl his arm in an exaggerated fashion. She burst out laughing again. Her laughter wasn’t as pretty as she was: a bit squeaky, and she snorted unattractively when catching her breath. Well, nobody’s perfect.
They walked onto the road, where the knight was cooling slowly, with the metal of his armour going ‘ping’ every now and then. Giving the corpse one last longing look, Mathias joined the other two and asked: ‘Where’s home fer ye then?’
‘It’s not far away. Two days’ walk? It’s no port though,’ Mateya said.
‘It’s right by the sea.’
‘That don’t make it a port. How many ships sailed there in yer lifetime? And not hat-sized fishing boats. Actual ships?’
‘I haven’t really lived in the village for a while, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty - none.’
‘If you can jus’ say ‘none’ why don’t you? Saves spit.’
‘That’s a good point. I never really thought about it like that.’
The forest was slowly coming back to life after its’ shocked silence and seemed desperate to sound cheerful. The birds picked up their love songs where they’d left off, and rustling could be heard from branches and dry leaves on the ground. So many living creatures. Would they die with everybody else, or would they be spared? Does innocence matter when everything collapses in on itself? Will the gods know their own? End of the World, eh?
Hunting was fruitful, and a pheasant stew was happily bubbling away, while three more birds were being plucked to be roasted. The few vegetables Bronek had were his contribution towards dinner and made him feel less guilty about the fact that Mathias and Mateya came back with four birds only fifteen minutes after having left him to make a fire.
He filled three bowls with the stew and took the pot off the heat to make room for their remaining birds. They ate in silence only broken by slurping and lip smacking. Hunger never seemed to like chatter.
Evening was slowly falling on the three travellers, with the sun going to sleep and all the day animals following its example while making room in the forest for the creatures of the night, which were just beginning to stir in their lairs, nests and holes. The three pheasants were now turning over on the fire, and Bronek sprinkled them with some herbs and spices he always carried in his pack – soldier rations tended to be inedible and salt-less, unless it was meat (a rare event) in which case it was smothered in the damn thing to prevent rotting before it was eaten. It didn’t always work.
After satisfying the first hunger, Bronek felt it was time for conversation to break the heavy feeling of the night. ‘So where’s home for you?’
‘Blumenstye,’ they said in unison.
‘That explains how you knew my village. It’s only a days’ walk from yours. I’m surprised we haven’t met before.’
‘We don’t live there,’ said Mateya. ‘We just visit from time to time.’
‘Nah. They died when we were naught but babes. Our gran brought us up.’
‘Do you visit her often?’
‘As rarely as we can,’ Mateya look wretched.
‘Scary lady, is she?’
‘How did you know?’
‘Lucky guess. Not difficult with you two looking all frightened.’
‘We’re not!’ Mathias protested.
‘Two warriors like you,’ Bronek shook his head emphatically, ‘Shameful.’
‘You can’t say that!’ Mateya moaned, ‘You don’t know.’ She glanced at her brother, who looked slightly nauseated, and cracked her knuckles. ‘She brought us up proper, manners bein’ what I mean. Mostly that is. Proper talk and learnin’. And do ye know how hard it is to earn respect as a warrior when ye have good manners? Near impossible. Every time we leave her… ‘er’ Mateya corrected herself ‘it takes us months to rid ourselves of the cursed habits. Every time we know we’re goin’ that way or somebody mentions family, it all comes back like bad diarrhoea and near incapacitates us. See? How many warriors that use or understand the word ‘incapacitate’ do you know? When we saw you on the road we were talkin’ about… ‘bout going home, we ignored you… ye, damn it!’ After taking a long breath and closing her eyes for a moment, Mateya started again: ‘we ignored ye like we should and then what? We felt ashamed that we did. It’s mad, I’m tellin’ ye.’
Mathias, nodding to his sister’s monologue, kept staring into the fire gloomily and, from time to time, poked it angrily with a stick. Bronek listened and watched in amazement. He found it all very, very funny. He was sure many other people did too. However, Mateya and Mathias obviously didn’t, so those many other people were most likely made to see how ‘unfunny’ the situation actually was, and made to see it in very unpleasant ways (maybe even in ways which prevented them from ever seeing things in the world of the living ever again). After all, the brother and sister needed to earn their respect somehow, and even though they weren’t famous, the quality of their clothes, weapons and other gear clearly pointed that they could make their money easily - meaning good skills; meaning violence; meaning respect. Warriors, no matter how pretty or scared of their grandmother they looked, earned their living by killing people and spent their pastimes in brawls. It’s not smart to poke fun at their weaknesses. The result would be having the smile taken off you by crows in a ditch somewhere. Hence, Bronek decided that his comment should consist only of ‘huh,’ which he promptly used with as much sympathy as he could muster in the simple syllable.
‘Exactly,’ he heard in reply.
Silence fell over their camp. The siblings were deep in thought, and Bronek was afraid of saying something stupid. Owls were already well into their hooting, and bats were frantically flying around, feasting on insects tempted by the camp fire light. A night chill spread through the forest just in case anyone had any doubts that it was approaching, and the three travellers rummaged through their bags in search of blankets. Bronek was surprised Mateya hadn’t taken one out earlier, considering how little clothing she had on. Warriors, eh?
Yawning, she scrubbed her tin bowl with some grass and leaves, and the others followed her example.
‘Long day?’ asked Bronek.
‘Aye, long,’ the girl said ‘but I’m not going to sleep yet, so if ye were hoping to eat my bird ye can forget ‘bout it.’
‘I never would have dreamed about depriving you of anything. I value my throat too much.’
‘Great principle,’ Mathias agreed with a smile.
‘Principle?’ Mateya rolled her eyes, and her brother looked up defiantly.
‘I’m tired, all right? You slipped many more times than I have.’
‘That’s ‘cause you’ve barely said anythin’ in two hours. And I know why: ‘cause you were afraid you’d slip. And, oh, here you have. Already. You’re useless.’
‘Don’t you ‘useless’ me Miss Incapacitate!’
‘Oh, oh, are you really going to go there? Are you sure you want to? Because I can remind you of a few incidents myself, especially the one last month, remember?’
‘I remember…’ he muttered and slumped in his blankets.
‘How many men did we have to leave unconscious or dead because you slipped, Mr Antediluvian? They thought we were bloody spies!’
‘Spies for who? They weren’t working for anyone important,’ Mathias butted in moodily.
‘Logic and intelligence aren’t always warrior attributes now, are they? You should know that better than most,’ Mateya sneered.
‘Oh, yeah? Who lost us a job because of your solipsism monologue?’
‘That was five years ago!’
‘So? You still cost us a job.’
The girl took a breath to reply, and Mathias straightened up ready for a proper fight when two pheasants were handed to them. They smelled absolutely heavenly.
‘What was in those spices of yours, Bronek?’ they asked with delight spread all over their faces, their bickering quickly forgotten.
‘Oh, this and that,’ he replied humbly.
‘This is really good,’ Mateya said with respect ‘a little piquant as well.’
‘Piquant?’ Mathias tried to mock, but his mouth was full of pheasant. He also remembered what his gran used to do to him and his sister for talking with their mouths full, so he gave up and decided to enjoy the food and wait to bring up ‘piquant’ in another fight with Mateya, which was bound to happen sooner rather than later.
The night was chilly and short, but all three travellers were too preoccupied with other matters to sleep through it anyway. Mathias and Mateya were scared but excited about seeing their grandmother, as she did love them, after all. However, trying to rid themselves of all the warriors’ habits might prove difficult, as usual. And a bit disappointing; it did take them ages to learn to spit properly, belch loudly and fart in public. And all those months, years even, of training would die with them when the end of the world arrived at their gran’s house. It might get scared away though. You never know. She was a scary lady, even rabid dogs and violent youngsters were afraid of her. End of the World can’t be much worse than a rabid youngster, can it?
Brone k, on the other hand, was not at all worried. He was so happy about being close to home that he could swear his wife was next to him, so close he could smell her. That scent made him even more excited. He hadn’t seen Maya in months – not since their time spent at the king’s court by invitation, and not being able to touch her since was excruciating. Bronek married her because he never wanted to be apart again. And then he left. His king told him to. The same king, who had promised Bronek once that if he ever wanted or needed anything he would only need to ask. Well, he did ask and was ignored. Bloody kings: self-involved, greedy inbreeds, all of them.
Sometimes, with the flames flickering just right, Maya’s shadow would appear - a lovely but painful illusion of light. He’d seen her image all the time during these few months, and it made his time away from home more difficult with each passing day. Sometimes when he could feel, hear or smell her, he would look around, and for a split second, expected to see her, and then he would realise the truth: she was hundreds of miles away, back in their home, missing him like he was missing her.
Another flicker from the fire sent her shadow dancing around the camp. Bronek sighed, tired of the tricks of light, closed his eyes and, as if Maya’s hand was slowly caressing his cheek, he finally fell asleep.
‘Can I ask you something?’ Bronek said tentatively. He’d been staring at his feet with a furrowed brow and hadn’t said much since the first morning light when the three travellers got back on the road.
Despite the chilliness of the previous night, the day was looking to be rather warm. A short tremor scared the forest animals at first, but now the birds were happily singing away and little murmurs were heard among the fallen leaves and in the bushes. Mathias, chewing the remains of last night’s pheasant, lifted an eyebrow while Mateya, since her mouth was full as well, gestured with her bird for Bronek to ask away.
‘I’ve been wondering about that knight on the road...’ he hesitated but the pheasant urged him to continue. ‘Well, I guessed that you’d been there before me… Was that early enough to see him die?’
‘Aye,’ answered Mathias.
‘Early enough to, say, warn him? Or maybe even help him?’
‘We warned him, ye can be sure of that. And he didn’t want any help from us – ‘silly simpletons’ – ye can be sure of that too.’
‘He said that, did he? Was that before or after being cooked?’ Bronek asked sceptically.
‘Afore, of course. He’d find it hard to call for help afterwards, what with him bein’ dead and all. And don’t ye raise your eyebrow at me man, I do nae lie.’
‘Mathias tells the truth, ye know,’ Mateya said licking her fingers and throwing a bone over her shoulder. ‘That… that ‘knight,’ she said with a sneer ‘was a worthless piece of excrement and deserved his fate, but that don’ change the fact that we did warn him many a time, and he told us not to get involved, only to watch an’ learn. So we did. Don’ know if we learned anything, though. Did we, Mathias?’
‘Dunno, not to wear full armour when planning to face a Dragon?’
‘We knew that already. An’ not from learnin.’
‘He had a lotta learnin’ and not an ounce of common sense. Surprised he lived that long,’ Mathias said derisively and sucked what he could off the pheasant’s bones before following his sister’s example and throwing them in the general direction of a nearby tree. He licked his fingers, realised what he did, started washing them with some water from his canteen, realised what he was doing again and licked them all once more. Bronek and Mateya watched him wordlessly and went back to finishing their birds.
‘You knew him well?’
‘Only met ‘im yesterday. He came to the village we were staying at, and we heard him talkin’ about ‘imself from five hundred yards away. He did seem to like ‘imself, didn’t he, Mateya?’
She nodded and swallowed ‘He did. If he could’ve had ‘is own children he would’ve. But making love to ‘imself at night was probably the next best thing. I don’ know how he managed a good-morning kiss everyday, but he prob’ly had that figured.’
‘I get the idea,’ Bronek said. ’He wasn’t what you would call a people person.’
‘Oh, but he was. S’long as by ‘people’ you mean aristocratic or at least full of admiration, fascination, wonder and…’
‘Too many, Mateya,’ her brother butted in with a bored voice.
‘Thanks,’ she said distractedly ‘so not really a people person, no.’
Mathias only shook his head while his sister licked her fingers determinedly. The remains of the last bird followed its companions and scared a sparrow looking for something in the dirt among the trees.
‘If he was such a piece of…’
‘Excrement,’ Mateya said helpfully.
‘…excrement, why were you with him?’
‘There were rumours about a Dragon around the village, and once he heard about it he wanted to show off. We were the only warriors in the area, and I suppose he wanted to show off to us. He told us he wanted us to see how it was done.’
‘I wasn’t interested, but then Mathias pointed out it would probably be a lot of fun. And it was.’
‘You knew he wouldn’t succeed?’
‘Well, it doesn’t take a genius to know,’ Mathias explained in the patient tones of an adult talking to a child, ‘that anyone planning on facing a Dragon in full-body armour, with a hundred-pound shield and a fifty-pound lance is not going to be very quick. To attack or otherwise.’
‘And you told him that, did you?’
‘If once,’ the girl rolled her pretty eyes. ‘He said we knew nothing of honourable combat. So we told ‘im the Dragon knew naught about that either. He just snorted and said that Dragons were magical creatures that recognised a worthy opponent and would act appropriately.’
‘We laughed so hard he nearly lost it, but then his squire asked him about that. If the Dragon was going to act appropriately, he asked, would it then let the knight kill it, what with the Dragon being an abomination and deserving to die? Sir Honberg, that was his name by the way, just pursed his lips and ignored us all until we reached the road. Bloody knights.’
There was screeching in the trees ahead, and a group of pheasant shot up into the sky in panic. Mathias took hold of his axe and turning it in his right hand to find the proper grip, with his left he reached into his boot and retrieved a long knife with a serrated edge. Mateya, her sabres already in her hands, was whirling them around and flexing her wrists. She never paused with her story: ‘His squire, though,’ she said cracking her neck this way and that ‘he was a piece of work, wasn’t he, Mathias?’
Mathias laughed and swirled his axe around like a windmill. ‘He was. And he pretended to be a fool so well…’
After a moment’s hesitation, Bronek followed suit and took out his sword. He could now hear the leaves rustling between the bushes ahead. Whoever was hiding in there was not very good at hiding. At that moment a group of men walked out from among the trees. Obviously realizing they were discovered, they didn’t bother with running out, shouting and all that surprise mess. There were ten of them and while most looked determined, the rest looked resigned. They all had swords and knives, which could easily point out army deserters, but one could never really know. The group spread out to surround the three travellers but never managed to do it.
Mathias ran at them, swirling his axe and, with his voice even, still talking. ‘…we thought he was one of them not so smart children, you know the ones – hittin’ their own heads with a bat to hear the ringin’. But he was a smart bastard.’ Mathias cut the first man’s head clean off and diving under a sword of another stabbed him in the eye. He turned to face two others, who now looked even more resigned.
Mateya, her sabres a blur, already had two men dead on the ground behind her.
Bronek looked in awe. There was no sound of steel on steel; it was not an even fight. The two men facing Bronek seemed reluctant to go near him, but once they noticed the hesitation in his eyes they attacked. Bronek had never been a master of the sword; he liked to say (to some reactions of eye-rolling) that musical instruments were his weapon of choice, but he wasn’t terrible either.
He dived, Mateya’s clear and even voice somewhere to his left, talking about the squire where her brother had left off: ‘…knew he wouldn’t stay in the job for long if he ever said what he thought. Apparently, he managed to save quite a bit of money; he was hopin’ to marry soon. Especially with the end of the world coming. He was a big romantic, he was.’
Bronek felt the steel passing just over his head and struck blindly forward. His sword met something on its way and, as swords do, went through it. There was a scream and he rolled on the ground, away from another sword swiping widely at him. He realised: these men were really rubbish swordfighters. Bronek wasn’t brilliant, but they were amazingly bad. He got up, parried, and kicked an opponent - a young boy stinking of sweat and fear – right where it would hurt the most. The boy slid down, his legs giving way, and threw up. Bronek looked around, to the boy’s moaning and crying, and saw Mateya and Mathias watching him. They were calmly cleaning their weapons surrounded by eight men lying on the ground, most likely all dead, some in more than one piece.
‘You do roll on the ground a lot, don’t you?’ Mathias commented more than asked.
Bronek shrugged. ‘It seems to work.’
‘With animals it does. And with shite swordsmen it does, but it wouldn’t with a decent opponent.’
‘Well, then I’m glad they were shite.’ The smelly boy moaned a bit more quietly, and Mateya gave him a disgusted look. He was lying in his own vomit, clutching his privates, with tears streaming down his cheeks. Mathias attached the axe to his belt, put away the knife, and came closer and crouched next to the boy. Bronek made a move, but Mateya, who was by his side in a split second, held his arm and shook her head.
The boy couldn’t have been more than seventeen.
‘Why aren’t you with yer family, boy? Yer mother? Shouldn’t she have the chance of having you by her side when the world ends? Eh?’ There was another moan but nothing more. Mathias reached down and pressed on the boy’ hands. There was a cry, and Mathias calmly asked: ‘Did you hear me, boy? Don’t you think you should be with yer mother right now, rather than rob poor, defenceless travellers like ourselves?’ He kept pressing and the boy kept crying; trying to squirm away, but Mathias’s hold was strong. ‘What would you do with the money anyway? Bribe the gods? Go home… did you hear me?’
‘Yes, gods, yes!!!’ screamed the boy.
‘Good,’ he got up while the boy rolled into a ball and wept quietly.
Bronek got off the road and wiped his sword with grass and leaves, while the brother and sister methodically went through the pockets of their attackers. The boy on the ground moaned silently in between some curses and defiant mutterings. One of those caught Bronek’s attention. He dropped the bloody leaves, sheathed his sword and came up to the rolled up body. ‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing,’ the boy moaned.
‘Yes, yes, you did. Just now. What did you say just now?’
‘I didn’t say nothing.’
‘Let the boy swear at us, Bronek. It’s the most he can do to us. Give him the satisfaction.’
‘No, no. That’s not it. Well, it is, but after several invectives he said something about his mother, and us idiots not realising the truth about it.’
‘Incest is not uncommon, you know,’ Mathias said in a bored voice, ‘it would certainly explain the existence of this lot here.’
‘And most of the royal families,’ Mateya added.
‘No,’ Bronek interrupted impatiently.
‘What do you mean; no? It’s a well known fact that royal families want to keep their blood pure, which is why…’
‘No, not that. I know all about royal families, believe me. The boy meant something about the end of the world being bogus.’
‘What does he know?’ Mateya pouted her lips derisively. ‘He’s obviously an idiot, who barely knows one end of the sword from another.’
‘I’m not an idiot!’ the boy burst and fell silent, scared, obviously determined not to say anything else.
‘Really? Does a smart person attack what is obviously a pair of warriors?’
‘A pair?’ Bronek protested.
‘Get serious,’ Mathias looked at him with a pitying expression on his face.
‘There were ten of us,’ the messy clump on the ground quietly protested.
‘Even so, you must’ve known you were all as proficient with a sword as a two year old with a stick? Being privy-trained?’
‘There were ten of us.’
Mateya dropped her hands to her sides, resigned. ‘See? Can’t even hold a normal conversation. Village idiot.’
‘Oh really?’ The boy burst again, hook, line and sinker. ‘Would a village idiot know about kectonic plates?’
‘He wouldn’t,’ agreed Mathias ‘but if he did, he would know that they were called tectonic not kectonic. What’s yer name, boy?’
‘Veritius,’ he said with a wince, and if he was standing his head would be hanging sadly, but since he was lying, it hit the ground with a soft thud. He was waiting for the mocking. It didn’t come. He opened one eye.
‘I understand,’ Mathias said sadly, while Mateya and Bronek shook their heads. ‘Named after the great mage and king’s advisor Veritius the Honest, weren’t ye? And who in this dump would ever know ‘bout Veritius? Ye had the living shit kicked out of ye when you were a child, didn’t ye?’
The boy nodded miserably. He was still holding his testicles, but was not rolled into a ball anymore.
‘Never had a chance of growin’ up to be a decent human bein’, did he?’
Bronek just nodded. He was getting a headache from the pair’s growing difficulty with their speech. ‘You’ and ‘ye’, ‘-ing’ and ‘-in’. It wasn’t much, but spread out it was difficult to get used to.
‘How do you know about the tectonic plates then?’ Mathias asked.
‘Komar – the one with his head cut off there – told us. He said he was once studying to be a priest but the things they taught him in the academy took his faith away. He said the kectonic plates…’
‘Tectonic,’ corrected Mateya.
‘Never mind,’ Bronek interrupted holding his temples, and motioned for the boy to continue ‘the plates.’
‘Yes, the… the plates, Komar said they always moved, created mountains and such, even if we don’t feel it. And he said that now they’re moving a bit more, and I know he was right because my parents’ house used to be right at the edge of the sea, and now it’s further and higher than it was. Father has to drag his boat for ten minutes before he can get to the sea.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Mateya snorted.
‘And believing in gods and their little vengeance is more believable, is it?’ Mathias retorted.
‘But we both know the plates move maybe 30 inches a year. They don’t move that fast.’
‘It would explain the earthquakes, though.’
Veritius looked uncomfortable, and Bronek was the only one to notice while Mateya and Mathias had another discussion of their own concerning tectonic activity of the world and what, if anything, could speed it up.
‘What?’ Bronek asked the boy who, hissing and turning slightly green, sat up and hesitated.
‘I believe Komar. He’s… he was a smart man. But then, a few nights ago, when we arrived here, I noticed this light coming from the forest, and then the earth started shaking again.’
‘Coincidence,’ Meteya commented. Obviously the siblings were done with their discussion.
‘I thought so too,’ Veritius agreed, sat up straight and swallowed whatever it was the new sitting position brought to his mouth. ‘But the light kind of pulsated for a long time and as long as it did, the earth kept shaking. It went out after a while, and the shaking stopped. The same thing happened every night.’
‘What about during the day? The earth shakes during the day as well.’
‘I don’t know. It’s too bright to see any lights in the distance.’
‘And you never went to check what it was?’
‘There were other things to do during the day. And at night? Pulsating lights in the middle of a dark forest? Do you think I have a death wish?’
‘What ye do for a living ain’t exactly a long life recipe.’
Veritius nodded in agreement but didn’t comment. Instead he lay back down on the road, looking exhausted.
And then the road, as well as everything else, started shivering and then shook violently. They all, except for the one on the ground, caught their balance and waited the tremors through. After a few moments, everything calmed down and appeared as if nothing had happened.
‘What do you think?’ Mateya asked. She seemed excited and her cheeks were suddenly blushed.
‘I think going into a dark forest at night, looking for some lights is ridiculous. But as long as it makes our journey back home more interesting, I’m up for an adventure.’
‘How about you, Bronek? Coming with us?’
‘Which way was the light?’ he asked.
Veritius opened his eyes and looked around. ‘That way, seemed like a few miles away.’
‘You know it’s on the way home for you,’ Mathias tempted. ‘It would even make yer journey shorter.’
‘I know. I just don’t want to die hours from home.’
‘You won’t die,’ chided Mateya.
‘How can you be so sure?’
She pointed to the nine dead bodies on the road, already attracting flies and small forest animals.
‘Fair point,’ he nodded. ‘Well, it is on the way home…’
‘Good, the more the merrier. Ye won’t regret this, ye’ll see.’ Mathias was already between the trees. His sister ran to catch up, followed closely by Bronek. When he was entering the forest he heard Veritius’s faint voice: ‘What is wrong with your accents?’
People didn’t usually venture deep into dark forests because they had what you’d call a ‘reputation’. There were stories surrounding their inhabitants – obviously murderous creatures, which only waited for some idiot to wander deep into the heart of said forests. Why they never seemed to leave the forest to search for their human prey was a mystery. Theories existed, mostly about the Ancients, one more unbelievable than the next, but people liked believing scary stories. The end of the world, for example. But whether that was only a story would be soon discovered (hopefully) by the three travellers, who were now getting close to whatever was connected to the earthquakes. They hoped anyway.
The air seemed denser somehow and vibrating, like in the summer when it gets too hot.
‘Magic,’ they all said in unison.
‘Bloody magic, eh?’ Mathias added. ‘No surprise a Dragon showed up. Everyone knows powerful magical fields attract Ancient creatures. I wouldn’t be surprised if we bumped into a Unicorn.’
‘Or our gran…’
Bronek laughed, but Mathias went quiet. For a while now, both him and his sister, seemed to be set in one way of speaking. Whether it was excitement or magic, Bronek couldn’t tell, but he liked it nonetheless and hoped it would last.
The amount of magic in the area must’ve been incredible – they wouldn’t have felt it so easily otherwise. The moss on the ground seemed softer, the trees taller and straighter, with their leaves still a spring-green. Everything had obviously been feeding off this magical field for a while, and with some results.
There was a soft breeze, and one by one conkers and cones started falling, without making a sound, onto the soft mossy ground. More and more of them fell, bouncing off the bark and branches, some hitting the travellers and eliciting yelps of pain. Mateya ran forward to hide near a cluster of birches, which she presumed safe, but the hard bullets kept falling from those as well. She grabbed her sabres and whirled them over her head, Mathias did the same with his axe, and Bronek tried it with his sword but failed completely. Apparently swords hadn’t been created for swirling. The rain of seeds became a tempest, but it was soon clear that Bronek was no longer affected; it was as if an invisible shield had been placed above his head. The siblings were still struggling, however until slowly, everything calmed down, and the very last cones bounced off Mathias’s head with a loud ‘thump’.
‘What was that?’ he asked massaging the sore spots with a wince.
‘It seems someone is trying to make us go back,’ his sister replied rubbing her bruised arm. ‘Imagine if we were some simple folk from the nearby villages. We would’ve run and told everyone that some terrible, magical creatures attacked us, thus perpetuating the beliefs concerning this forest.’
‘You’re right,’ agreed her brother, ‘I am getting really curious about what we’re not supposed to see here. But I’m even more curious how you,’ he turned to Bronek, who was quietly playing his role of the third wheel, ‘stopped those damned cones hitting you.’
‘I didn’t…. I don’t know.’
Mathias raised an eyebrow and Mateya asked: ‘Have you ever done anything like this before?’
‘Anything like what?’
He laughed. ‘I’ve never done magic. I don’t know how.’
‘Some people don’t need to learn; it’s a gift. So, have you ever done anything like this before?’
Bronek felt uncomfortable. Not because of their sudden interest and a change of mood, but because things had happened before. Not big things and definitely not when he was a child, so it wasn’t as if it had followed him all his life, but… Things happened. He tended to forget, ignore, or get distracted but now, maybe thanks to all the magic in the air, his memory seemed improved. ‘I don’t know magic, and I was not a magically gifted child. Apart from meeting a wizard a few times I have never, until now, been in any close contact with anything magic. I’m a musician, for gods’ sake. I know nothing about anything else.’
Mateya and Mathias stood up straight and turned their heads around. Their attention shifted to something else. They got back onto the faint trail they’d followed before the forest hail incident, and Bronek joined them quickly.
‘So you’re a musician?’ Mateya asked distractedly, turning her head here and there.
‘I am. I also make instruments, but music is my real passion.’
‘Mhm. Are you any good?’
‘I suppose I’m not bad.’
‘That probably means you’re very good, doesn’t it? We’ve never heard of you but maybe we’ve heard something of yours? Any famous songs? Ballads? Anything?’
‘I’m… not sure.’
‘Play us something,’ she asked, ‘but something we’ll all know. We should have a little sing-along don’t you think Mathias?’
Mathias looked as if he was coming from a trance and cheerfully seconded the motion.
‘But…’ Bronek protested.
‘We know you have a lute in your pack. It’s an obvious shape. Go on. Play something.’
The forest was becoming denser and darker. The sun was still happily shining in the skies above, but the shadows between the trees were larger and darker than the time of day would indicate. It could’ve been because the trees were bigger and much closer to one another the deeper the travellers got into the forest. Bronek sighed, opened his bag and gently took out the lute. It was beautiful and delicate, made of dark wood, so dark in fact, it was nearly black. Mateya looked and sighed.
‘It’s wonderful,’ she praised, ‘did you make it yourself?’
‘But it’s too beautiful to take to war. What if something happened to it?’
‘It’s the least expensive and the most battered of my lutes. I wouldn’t mourn it too much if anything happened to it.’
Mathias and Mateya both stopped and looked at each other in disbelief.
‘The least expensive?’ they asked in unison.
‘I am good at making instruments and people buy them.’
‘But…’ they both started and suddenly stopped. There was silence in the forest. Silence wasn’t normal for forests. They all looked around, and suddenly the siblings were behind Bronek urging him to sing and pushing him forward at the same time. They were walking through some very dense shadows now, and it grew even darker. Even more reason to sing – and repel the monsters of the mind hiding in the shadows. The bard tuned his lute and struck a few notes. The shadows seemed to move towards him, but he only had a mind for music now. The lute appeared to start playing on its own. It was a well-known children’s ballad that all mothers used to sing to their children, but was later remade into a rude and vulgar song heard more often than not in gutters of any town at night. The original version was not very well known anymore but here it was – in a dark forest, sang first by one, low and clear voice and then by three. The shadows parted in Bronek’s way and closed right behind him, but he didn’t notice. The siblings did, and to avoid the shadows, from where some snarls and grunts were clearly heard, got so close to the bard they were practically glued to his back. He didn’t notice that either. He was singing. And he was singing Maya’s favourite song. Nothing else existed. The snarls and grunts faded away and the shadows disappeared. There was a shape between the trees becoming clearer with every moment. It was obvious, that whatever it was, the thing was made of stone. White stone. And it was tall.
Bronek, Mateya and Mathias arrived at a clearing and stopped. The last notes of the ballad faded, and the small group stood there, motionless, gaping at the tower in front of them. It was tall, gracious, obviously old and white. Very white. Considering its age, it shouldn’t have been so white. It shouldn’t have been so white even if it was brand new. A faint glow was coming from the top, through its few windows. And there was a door thirty feet from them; white as well. After a few more silent moments, Mathias shuffled his feet, obviously bored and eager to go.
‘Shall we?’ he asked.
The others just nodded and stepped forward. The moment their feet touched the bright green grass of the clearing several ‘whizz’ sounds were heard, and at least ten arrows shot to meet the newcomers. Death was quite certain, unless it was possible for anyone to live a long and healthy life with arrows sticking from one’s body. As the first arrows flew past, Mateya and Mathias jumped behind Bronek, who apart from looking shocked by the latest developments still managed to show his distaste for the warriors’ behaviour. But then shock came right back and stayed on his face as five arrows, pointing right at his chest and head stopped abruptly inches before him and fell to the ground. He opened and closed his mouth several times before giving up and wordlessly turning to the pair behind him.
‘Thanks,’ Mathias said and patted Bronek on the shoulder.
‘Thanks?’ he repeated incredulously.
‘That’s right; thanks. Now, if you don’t mind, could you try opening that door?’
The bard looked at the door not quite believing what he was hearing, and after a gentle nudge and a wink from Mateya he stumbled forward. The siblings were still behind him, which must’ve been difficult for Mathias considering his size but he managed it with grace.
The door was inviting and practically shone ‘Welcome’. Bronek, still in shock, lifted a hand and touched the warm, white wood. There were some sparks, some hissing, and little lightning-like tongues shot out of the door and, quite predictably now, slid away from the bard leaving him unscathed.
‘What’s going on?’ he finally managed. ‘What, in all the gods’ names is going on?’ He turned to his companions and seeing their amused faces turned back around.
‘Never had any powers, you say?’ Mateya teased.
‘What now?’ he asked miserably.
‘I don’t know about you but I really want to see what’s inside,’ Mathias, believing he was being gentle and friendly, clapped Bronek on the back collapsing, Bronek was sure, one of his lungs. ‘Never again make friends with a bloody warrior,’ he thought, ‘or a giant for that matter.’
He pulled the oval handle and took a step backwards. Someone’s foot was in the way but that hardly mattered anymore. There was a familiar smell coming from the tower - the one-of-a-kind smell of a windblown cliff, salt water and jasmine. He walked through the dark doorway and found himself at the foot of a spiralling staircase. He didn’t look backwards. There was nobody there with him anymore, just the scent. He ran up the stairs, unaware of the double footsteps following him closely and of the sound of weapons being unsheathed. There was a window through which, if he looked, he would see the coastline of the land he grew up in. If he looked very carefully, maybe he would even see his house against the deep blue of the sea. He ran. The stairs seemed endless, but he only knew one thing: that smell of the wind, the salt and jasmine.
He stopped abruptly. There was an ‘ouch’ followed by a vulgar curse behind him. He heard nothing. There was a room on the top of the tower; a circular room with wooden floors, beams and windows all around. It had a hearth, a few items of furniture and, scattered around, a lot of equipment, the use and meaning of which he would never understand. There were symbols drawn on the walls and floor, and an old man in a pointy hat and flowing, white robes standing in the middle of the room. He looked lost and amused at the same time. But Bronek didn’t see the room, the furniture, the symbols, or the old man because right next to the old man stood a woman. She had a green dress with very wide sleeves covering freckled hands and her hair was loose. It was red.
An earthquake came and went unnoticed.