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Once A Hero

Michael A. Stackpole

  Once A Hero

  Michael A. Stackpole


  Copyright © 1994 by Michael A. Stackpole.

  Cover art copyright © 1994 by Kevin Johnson.

  ISBN 0-553-56112-X




  Prologue: A Night's Adventure In Jammaq

  Chapter 1: An Encounter On The Way To Aurdon

  Chapter 2: An Encounter On The Way To Aurium

  Chapter 3: Received By The Lords Of Aurdon

  Chapter 4: Deceiving The Lords Of Aurium

  Chapter 5: The Reason For Coming

  Chapter 6: The Reason For Leaving

  Chapter 7: The Short Ride

  Chapter 8: The Long Ride

  Chapter 9: The Magick Of Battle

  Chapter 10: The Magick Of Love

  Chapter 11: Intrigues In The City

  Chapter 12: A City That Intrigues

  Chapter 13: A Sylvanesti Amid The Councils Of Aurdon

  Chapter 14: A Man Amid The Councils Of Cygestolia

  Chapter 15: To Mourn A Man's Passing

  Chapter 16: To Celebrate An Empire's Death

  Chapter 17: Memories Of Childhood

  Chapter 18: Anticipation of Children

  Chapter 19: The Hospitality Of A Strange House

  Chapter 20: The Hostility Of A Familiar Wood

  Chapter 21: The Cleansing Effect Of Fire

  Chapter 22: The Fiery Effect Of Truth

  Chapter 23: The Empire Of Dreams

  Chapter 24: The Emperor Of Nightmares

  Chapter 25: Finding Your Place In History

  Chapter 26: Carving A Niche In History

  Chapter 27: False Goal New Beginning

  Chapter 28: True Goal And The End Of Everything

  Chapter 29: To Come Home Again

  Chapter 30: To Die Far From Home

  Chapter 31: For The Greater Good

  Chapter 32: The Minority Does Suffer

  Chapter 33: The Puppet's Strings Justified

  Chapter 34: The Ties Even Death Cannot Sever

  Chapter 35: New Tricks For An Old Wolf

  Chapter 36: Hatred Fills A Heart Of Ice

  Chapter 37: The Hero As A Man

  Chapter 38: Bittersweet, The Hero's Reward

  Chapter 39: Once More To The City Of Gold

  Chapter 40: Old Weeds Bear Bitter Fruit

  Chapter 41: Bright Fruit, Cruel Poison

  Chapter 42: Slash And Burn

  Epilogue: Night's Adventure In Aurdon

  About the Author


  This book is dedicated to

  Jim Fitzpatrick

  As an artist, the pictures he paints are worth far more than a thousand words, and as an author, his understanding of heroes and heroism laid the foundation for much of this work.


  THIS WORK COULD not have been completed without the help or influence of the following individuals:

  Janna Silverstein, Ricia Mainhardt, Jennifer Roberson, and Liz Danforth, who, as the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, promised me disaster if I didn't get this book right. All four of them endured the telling of chunks of this tale while I worked on it, and their forbearance was greatly appreciated.

  Dennis L. McKiernan, Aiis Rasmussen, and Kate Elliot, who provided insights into fantasy and character that enabled me to pick out key points for emphasis. All three of them, in addition to Jennifer Roberson, are great storytellers, and if you've not read them, you are missing a lot.

  Ron Wolfley, Brian and Frances Gross, and Bob and Patty Vardeman, who asked questions and made me defend points that helped determine the direction and content of this book.

  Chris Harvey who went above and beyond the call of duty in locating a Maltese/English English/Maltese dictionary for me.

  Sam Lewis and Brian Fargo who were patient in allowing me to indulge myself in writing the book.

  And, as always, my parents, Jim and Janet; my brother, Patrick, and his wife Joy; my sister, Kerin, and again Liz, who supplied the support and encouragement that made it possible for me to finish the job.


  A Night's Adventure In Jammaq

  Midsummers Eve

  Five Centuries Ago

  My Twenty-second Birthday


  THE HIGH-MOUNTAIN night breezes whipped through the dark canyons of the Reithrese charnel town and greeted me with cold razor kisses on my eyes. The chill thin air whistled and moaned as it broke around corners and over the myriad gargoyles decorating Jammaq. Not for the first time I wondered why I had traveled so far to put myself in the heart of a city sacred to a people who, as a race, had sworn to kill me.

  As always, the same answer came to my question: the sword. And that answer satisfied me. Though I had seen it only once, and on that occasion had felt its steely caress a number of times, I knew the blade was meant to be mine. And if possessing it required me to chase it to the gates of the Cold Goddess's Realm or beyond, I was prepared to go that far.

  I shivered in my stolen clothes and let a steamy sigh get whipped away by the wind. Obsession breeds foolishness the way stale water breeds mosquitoes, and folks would describe our efforts as foolishness if my Elven companion and I failed in our quest. Still and all, no one else had ever done what Aarundel and I had accomplished so far in our mission, and I took some delight in that fact even if he did not.

  I winked at Aarundel. "Don't go thinking of it as grave robbing, Aarundel, think of it as . . . as mining ore for bards to refine into golden song."

  "I never thought it my destiny to be lauded before inebriates in a song titled. 'The True Death of the Dun Wolf.' " Aarundel tugged the red scarf away from his mouth and hunched his shoulders. That trimmed four inches off his height, making him shorter than I am. The loose-fitting black natari cassocks we wore added enough bulk to his slender build to let him pass for a Reithrese, though both of us were too tall to fool anyone with one eye open and enough sense to recognize Aarundel's pointed ears poking up through his black hair.

  Of course, anyone with that much sense was well away from here.

  The Elf's dark eyes glittered in the wan moonlight. "I have half a mind to leave now."

  "If you had half a mind, you'd not have come here at all."

  The Elf shook his head ruefully. "Clearly my faculties have been atrophied by five years of association with you."

  "I'm thinking it's our dying that has befuddled you."

  "Ah, yes, to be dead in the city of the dead. The concept amused, but the reality has failed to satisfy expectation." He spat at the nearest building. "This is a foul place."

  "Foul it is, and fairly we will quit it, when we are done." Looking about through the dark-shrouded streets, I thought "foul" a rather mild adjective, for death haunted the city of Jammaq. The wind kept it cold, even in high summer, though I had no complaint about that. Growing up in the Roclaws, I had been born in an unseasonable blizzard and had spent more time walking on snow and ice than in spring-green meadows.

  With ourselves being the exception, not a living creature walked the cobbled streets in the Reithrese city of the dead that night. The swirling wind brought with it the rotten scent of decaying meat, and that made taking every step toward the center of the city a battle. I pulled the natari scarf up over my nose again and let the wet-wool scent mask the death stench so I could go forward.

  I had no idea what the Reithrese envisioned when they created Jammaq, but I could see what it had become over the centuries and centuries. Streets ran haphazard through the city, like cracks in ice, without rhyme and certainly with little reason. The outlying buildings, none over a single story tall, sprouted corners as a bird would feathers. Odd block
s jutted out, studding the walls with stone thorns so thick that even a rat would be hard pressed to find shadowed space large enough in which to hide. That fact had caused my friend and I no end of anxiety, until we both discovered that all but a few of the buildings were empty, and those that were not, advertised their condition with loud music and thin slivers of light limning tight- closed shutters and doors.

  If it weren't enough that all the buildings had been blackwashed, each had been decorated in a most horrible manner. Gargoyles big and small, ancient and new-carved, perched on lintels and hung from eaves. They grew like warts from the buildings, snarling outward with fearsome fangs bared. Moving through the night, I could feel a thousand eyes watching us, but nary a one connected to a brain that could think or a mouth that could raise an alarm.

  The inhabited houses in Jammaq were not that different from their silent, dark companions. Music, likely intended to keep out the ghostly howl of the wind, pinpointed them even before we saw light. We snuck past them like spectres ourselves, but the risk of discovery remained low. There was a chance that someone might look out if we accidently made a noise, but we had taken precautions against discovery in that event as well.

  Our dark trousers and robes, colorful scarf and sash, and the beaded-leather quitawi dangling from our right wrists, marked us as members of the natari. Perhaps more feared among the Reithrese than the ghosts lost in the city's street-maze, the militant guardians of Reithrese religious tradition had a reputation for brutal, cold cruelty in the prosecution of their duties. They were inviolate, and no one was immune from their judgment, so everyone avoided them. So arrogant and confident in their roles were they that the two we waylaid to obtain our disguises had been shocked that we dared strike them.

  We came to a crossroad, and I lashed the quirt against my left palm as I looked around for directions. To the southwest I could see the tower complex for which we were bound. Towers of all heights and thicknesses stabbed into the air like a multifingered hand clawing stars from the night sky. The flickering orange glow from the center of the tower-circle pulsed out enough light to mold the towers themselves into grasping silhouettes.

  "Do you think the natari have no street signs here to confuse the ghosts, or to earn money guiding families to their lodgings here and back out again?"

  "More the latter than the former, I would imagine, but not having seen a ghost so far, I think their efforts in that direction are at least partially successful." Resting his war ax across his knees, Aarundel crouched down and reached out with a long-fingered hand to push at a couple of cobblestones. "None are loose, Neal."

  I frowned. The city of the dead had no street signs and few enough landmarks beyond the tower silhouettes. So far, operating on the idea that the gargoyles were all meant to scare ghosts from the tower back into it, we had been keeping the stone faces at our back. Here, though, the gargoyles faced us from one alley and looked away down two roads. The broader street curved off and away, while the narrower one seemed to continue dead west. Loose stones might have marked which way others had gone before, but Aarundel's report dashed that hope.

  I dropped to my haunches beside him. "Being as how the Reithrese and Elves are both Elder races, how would you mark them as balancing ceremony with practicality?"

  Aarundel's head came up, and scorn echoed through his harsh whisper. "They are a vulgar and ostentatious race, given to frivolous display."

  "And probably not very pleased with the prospect of spending much time here at their grisly doings, eh?" I glanced at the weathering of the gargoyles in both the wide and skinny roads. "We'll take this one, then, my friend. There's enough of a difference that says the wide is new and not for us."

  The Elf nodded and headed off down the narrow roadway, with me quick at his heels. Neither one of us had much scholarship in the ways of the Reithrese—though Aarundel could manage their angular tongue—but we knew just enough about their religious fetishes for me to hatch my plot and for Aarundel to imagine it might succeed. What was born as an "I wonder" teamed up with a couple of "we really shoulds," and before reason could rear her fair head and dissuade us, we rode for the mountains and invaded Jammaq in search of a sword.

  The Reithrese, being bound to the goddess of the underworld—called Reithra by those of us who had no need or desire to know her true name—have some peculiar rites when it comes to the treatment of the dead. Being like men in all ways except the length of their life, the power they command, and their hateful nature toward outsiders, the Reithrese bring their dead to Jammaq. They entomb them in the tower, with lesser folk being stored higher up—further distant from their goddess—and the great and mighty lying in the bosom of the earth herself.

  A year or so later, weather willing and bandits bribed, the relatives of the deceased return to open the tomb. They clean the bones and put them in a box to be carried back to Alatun or one of the other Reithrese cities to be kept in family shrines. Finally, as part of the funeral, the dead's possessions, which were stored with him in that first year, are auctioned off to the person who can make the best case for why he should inherit the item in question.

  "And no one can make a better case for owning my sword than I," I mumbled as we wound our way down a snake-twist road.

  Despite my words being muffled in the scarf, Aarundel's sharp ears heard my remark. "Your sword? Khiephnaft was never your sword, my friend."

  "It's a fated blade, Aarundel, you've said so yourself. It has to be mine."

  "I must have missed seeing the name Neal Roclawzi in reading the various prophecies concerning the sword."

  "It's there, unless someone like Finndali has been revising texts, and you know that for the truth." I turned left onto a broad boulevard that arced on down toward the towers. "Besides, you know Tashayul wanted me to have it. Cleaveheart is mine; he declared it so during his speech dedicating Jarudin to Reithra,"

  Aarundel's dark eyes flashed from above his scarf. "That would be a rather broad interpretation of, 'Neal is the last person in the world I want to have this sword!' would it not?"

  "It loses something in the translation." I smiled devilishly. "In the original I'd wager he was more eloquent in describing how I should get the blade."

  "This I believe sincerely."

  Tashayul had no reason to want me to have anything but his undying enmity. The Reithrese people had once possessed a vast empire that had extended from ocean to deserts and back again. Over the centuries it had begun to shrink, as nations of men split off and proclaimed their own independence. The Reithrese contented themselves with a commonwealth for a while, then let a Human empire nibble away at their borders. Five hundred years ago they even accepted Elven intervention in the affairs of what had been their empire. The days of Reithrese glory had faded for all time.

  At least it seemed that way to all but the Reithrese. Being long-lived—both because of their nature and the chaotic, elemental magicks they had mastered—they took an almost Elven view of mayfly Humanity. In addition to their perspective, they had another thing that made waiting and tolerating all possible for them. Like a dagger hidden in a boot, they had a prophecy, and this prophecy said their empire would be born anew.

  Tashayul and his brother, Takrakor, determined through the former's cunning and the latter's magicks, that they were the individuals fated to reunify the old empire under their leadership. They started a crusade in which their troops committed atrocities that almost served to eclipse the excesses of the Eldsaga in their ferocity. The brothers let it be known that they intended to slay or enslave all Men within the borders of what had once been their empire. Humanity, politically fractured and without leadership, had no way to oppose them.

  What Men needed was a hero. Having been proclaimed a hero by sayers of sooth since my birth, I came to see the Reithrese war as the crucible in which I would be tested. We Roclawzi had long prided ourselves in our warrior tradition, and the Reithrese had never beaten us before in a fight. Because I had been born on Midsummer's Ev
e—in a blizzard and beneath a triangle of full moons—great things were expected of me. The storm, the Triangle, and even one event hiding the other were all omens that could be taken for good or ill as appropriate and caused me to feel I had been born to be the sort of hero who could stop the Reithrese. In answering my call to duty, I forged a sword, mounted a horse, and headed down out of the mountains to lay claim to a legend or to lie still in an anonymous grave.

  It was a time of chaos in which the whole of the world was filled with as many horrors as Jammaq itself. To the Reithrese, men were not really much more than demi-oxen who could guide their bigger brethren at the plow. While this did place us a bit higher in the scheme of things than in the average Elven view, it didn't spare many lives. As I rode west, I heard refugee tales of villages being burned, babies being drowned like kittens in rivers, and all resistance being crushed wherever a defense was raised.

  It took no alchemist to see one thing about the Reithrese probes: they ranged far out and away from the main battle lines in Ispar. The only good thing about being pointed out as a hero born among a warrior people is that my training involved heavy doses of military strategy and tactics. To be truthful, among my people a frightening war cry counts for more than either strategy or tactics, but I enjoyed the study of both, so I was given as much as I wanted,

  It struck me that while the fight for Ispar raged on, the Reithrese were spending an inordinate amount of time in the mountains of Esquihir. Not having wanted to head into the world utterly ignorant, I had read of Reithrese history and tactics. From my reading I recalled a previous and painfully short-lived campaign by another Reithrese general that had ended in those mountains. His effort had been unremarkable—and it failed because internal Reithrese politics eroded his support—but he was supposed to have borne a magical sword said to confer immortality upon the warrior who wielded it and to guarantee that warrior the winning of an empire.

  Tashayul clearly wanted that sword.

  That meant I wanted it as well.

  Khiephnaft had been lost to common knowledge, but Tashayul's torturers turned up some clues to its location. Full of the innocent enthusiasm of youth, I killed horses in my mad dash across Barkol's grassy oceans, and killed Reithrese in Ispar's southern reaches. Fearful humans gave me shelter and supplies on my trek. When I let them know that I had come from the mountains with a sword I meant to use to kill Tashayul, tongues loosened and directions flowed freely.