Fable: Jack of BladesPeter David
By Peter David
Fable: The Balverine Order
Fable: Blood Ties
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
The Incredible Hulk
The Camelot Papers
Tigerheart: A Tale of the Anyplace
One Knight Only
Fall of Knight
The Hidden Earth Chronicles
Book 1: Darkness of the Light
Book 2: Heights of the Depths
Sir Apropos of Nothing
Book 1: Sir Apropos of Nothing
Book 2: The Woad to Wuin
Book 3: Tong Lashing
Blind Man’s Bluff (Star Trek: The New Frontier)
Year of the Black Rainbow (with Claudio Sanchez)
The Fallen Angel
Gypsies, Vamps and Thieves Book 4: Pyramid Schemes (forthcoming)
Fable: Jack of Blades is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A Del Rey eBook Original
Copyright © 2012 by Microsoft Corporation.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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Cover illustration: Courtesy Lionhead Studios/copyright © Microsoft Corporation
Other Books by This Author
He is supposed to be dead.
How is he here? Why is he here?
Why has he chosen this place?
What do we have that he could possibly want?
What have we done to deserve this? In what way have we offended the great god Avo, that we have been abandoned to the evils represented by …
… by him?
Why isn’t he dead? Why have he and his minions been inflicted upon us? And where is someone who can save us? Where is our Hero?
These questions and more besides are hurled to the heavens, and no answers are forthcoming.
We are alone.
We are all alone with none to help us. All of us alone, here in Oddwood.
Oddwood is a small town, a humble town. It had the potential to be something greater than that if it had been given the time. The farming land around it is rich and fertile. Consequently, the Oddwood marketplace is developing a reputation for being an ideal place to shop for excellent farm foods and handmade crafts.
The townsfolk are a rather unassuming lot. Simplistic. Superstitious. But on the whole, they have good hearts and care for one another, or so they like to believe. It is a decent place to raise a family, to hone a trade, to establish a business.
Or at least it was.
That was then.
This is now.
Now is an early period in the history of Albion. A time when ancient evils were recent threats, and the direction of Albion is still being fought over. A time when Heroes freely roamed the land and magic crackled in the air.
A time of Fable.
* * *
The first thing that struck Xiro was how unkempt the road was.
Oddwood was supposed to be a thriving town, and people in thriving towns tended to clean up after themselves. They made sure that the road or roads that led into it were meticulously kept in easily navigable condition. There were, after all, a sizable number of vagabonds throughout Albion. Individuals who simply enjoyed traveling the land, seeing where the roads would take them. If the goal was to get as many people passing through Oddwood as possible, then it behooved them to make the roads attractive. They were, after all, the calling card and first impression of any town. Who would have the slightest interest in visiting a place they couldn’t even reach?
Xiro stepped over easily-tended-to things like branches, leaves, and fallen rocks that had been knocked into the path, not because of anything malicious but because of the simple wear and tear foul weather tended to inflict upon the outdoors. The rain had been pounding particularly hard the last week or so, and the area was as much mud as anything else. Mud adorned with scattered tree branches and debris. Leaves gathered inside gaping holes, obscuring such hazards, and at one point Xiro nearly twisted his ankle stepping into a pile.
It is not unusual for gangly young men to have serious problems with something as simple as walking when they transition from youth to adult. Their arms and legs seem to grow with ridiculous speed, racing each other to see which could be longer. Consequently teen boys can oftentimes be all arms and legs, waiting for their disproportionately growing bodies to get themselves sorted out.
Xiro, however, was not a teen. Instead, he would have seemed to an observer to be in his early twenties, at the very least. He had an angular, careworn face and a general air of befuddlement about him. The world was a place of endless fascination, and with his wide-eyed, credulous attitude, it was clear he wasn’t going to miss a minute of it.
“This is untidy,” he said. But he made no effort to clean up the debris that lay scattered around. Instead, he simply stepped over or through it as carefully as he could, lest the mud make his feet slip out from under him.
Then he saw something in the mud. He crouched, studying it closely. Not something. Some things. They were tracks, made with something larger than human feet and with what appeared to be claws sticking out the ends of the toes. Definitely not human, then. Animal?
“Yes,” said Xiro thoughtfully. “Yes, it would have to be, wouldn’t it.”
He stood then, satisfied. He had a short sword that slapped gently against his left thigh; otherwise he was unarmed. The purse dangling from his belt seemed rather slender, indicating a paucity of coins. It seemed his unruly brown hair literally had a life of its own, and he had a habit of brushing hanks of it out of his eyes, never to any lasting effect.
He continued on his path, then encountered a series of signs that were, to say the least, off-putting:
Unsafe roads ahead.
Turn back if you value your life.
Sign after sign in his path, and Xiro considered them all before finally saying aloud, “This is overkill. Someone is trying much too hard.”
He continued along, stepping over thick branches and a hastily dug trench until he finally reached Oddwood itself. Streets that should have been bustling with citizenry were relatively deserted. The only people he saw out and about were urchins, their grubby hands clutching spasmodically on nonexistent coins as they approached him, their eyes wide, their faces eager. First one, then, as if communicating as ants do, half a dozen more came from all directions, converging upon him as if he were a crumb dropped by the anthill. “Money, sir?” said one and others took up the chant, asking for whatever he could spare.
“Money for you?” he said to them. “For your family?”
“No, sir,” said the tallest of the children, a sa
llow-skinned boy with an unpleasant sore on his lip.
“Him.” The eldest boy glanced right and left as if the mere use of a pronoun could bring utter destruction down upon his head. “The one who came here with his men and took over and changed things. The one who …” His voice dropped to scarcely above a whisper. “… the one who’s dead but isn’t.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” said Xiro slowly. “I mean, I’ve heard of monsters like that. Rather nasty creatures by all accounts. Hollow men, they’re called. But they generally—”
“No, not that type of dead but isn’t.”
“Well, then I don’t—”
“We don’t say his name aloud,” said another of the children, “because one of his men, or worse, him, might hear it and pop up and just … just kill us for daring to say it!”
“That’s rather circular,” he said. “But tell you what”—and he leaned down toward the child who had just spoken—“whisper it in my ear, softly as you can. That way none of them can possibly hear. There’s a coin in it for you if you do.”
Just as the older child had, he looked around to make sure that no one was eavesdropping, then he spoke so softly that Xiro almost didn’t hear him.
“Jack of Blades.”
The children trembled upon hearing the dreaded name.
Xiro stared blankly. “I’m sorry? Who?”
They gasped, stunned that any human being could be so completely ignorant. “How could you not know?” asked the eldest boy, the apparent de facto leader of the group.
“Should I know?”
“He’s legendary!” said the eldest boy. “They say he’s lived for thousands of years! They say he’s a creature of incredible power! They say he can do whatever he wants! They say he’s both dead and alive! They say he’s evil incarnate!”
“It seems ‘they’ say quite a lot.”
“Are you a Hero?” the smallest of the children said. The others looked at him hopefully. “Are you here to free our town of him?”
“What, me? A Hero? Oh, heavens no,” said Xiro. “No, that’s not me at all.”
The child looked disappointed. “Then what are you?”
“By trade? I’m a teacher.”
“Oh.” The kids looked at each other doubtfully. “Do you teach farming?”
“No. I teach about the world.”
“Well, then you won’t find much business here. We don’t have much call for teachers in Oddwood.”
“Really?” Xiro’s eyebrows arched and he looked taken aback. “No call for someone to teach about science? Language? Philosophy? That’s my real passion, truth to tell. Teaching is my vocation, but at heart, I’m a philosopher,” he said proudly.
The children exchanged confused looks. “Is that like a magician?” asked the eldest.
“Hardly,” Xiro said with a chuckle. “It means I contemplate the mysteries of the world and try to draw conclusions about them. Or ask questions that would seem to have no answer.”
“Like how to destroy Jack of Blades?” the youngest said. “You have a sword.”
“This thing?” Xiro tapped the short sword on his hip. “It’s more for show than anything else. Even a peaceful philosopher cannot wander the roads without at least a show of protection. But … let me understand this. This ‘Jack’ person. You’re saying he’s here?”
The children nodded in unison. The eldest of them said, “He came here six months ago, with a small army of bravos.”
“A small army?”
“Of cutthroats and sell-swords, yes.” The eldest was warming to his story. “At least ten of them. They came into town in the dead of night, and it was like Jack had stepped right out of the stories. Everyone thought he was dead, but he wasn’t. He was huge, with that terrible mask like a living skull, and swords on his back that even the strongest of men couldn’t possibly lift.” He described the swords in detail, and one of them sounded like the Sword of Aeons that Xiro had heard so many legends about. The lad continued, “And he had his men with him, his army …”
“An army of ten men?” Xiro sounded doubtful. “That’s not much of an army, really, when you get down to it.”
“He didn’t need more than that. It was just for show, mostly. Jack of Blades himself is a one-man army.”
“Ah. Well, that would explain it.”
“He told the village elders that he was believed dead by many and desired it to remain so. That if anyone in the village betrayed his presence or left to tell others, they would die. That if any came to Oddwood, they had to remain or else they would die if they tried to leave.”
“And that was enough for them to stay?”
“Well, of course,” said the eldest, and the others nodded. “It’s Jack of Blades. Who would be foolish enough to tempt fate?”
Xiro appeared to consider that, then promptly turned on his heel and started to head back the way he’d come.
Immediately the children ran after him, shouting after him, begging him not to do this terrible, foolish, and extremely ill-advised thing. Xiro ignored them as if he had some sort of death wish. They pursued him all the way to the edge of town; and then, just as they got there, Xiro suddenly came to a halt. He looked up. And up.
A large man was standing there, blocking his path. Barrel-chested and massive, he was wearing leather armor and tapping a sword gently against his open palm.
“You weren’t there when I got here,” said Xiro mildly.
“Yeah, I was. You just didn’t see me.”
“I suppose I didn’t look hard enough. My mistake. Would you mind stepping aside?”
“Actually, yes. I would mind.” He sounded sympathetic in the way that someone who wasn’t really sympathetic could sound. “I hope that isn’t a problem for you. We’d really prefer that people who come to visit stay for a while. A good long while.”
Xiro considered that, then said, very simply, “Ah. Well … thank you for the opportunity. It’d be foolish of me not to take you up on it.”
“It truly would,” said the behemoth.
Turning back to the children, Xiro—seemingly not the least bit put out over being forced to stay in Oddwood—rubbed his hands together briskly and said, “Well then … where can a fellow find something to eat around here?”
“The market!” said the children in unison.
The children seemed eager to be of use, which didn’t surprise him. They had not much else to do with their time, so Xiro’s arrival provided them with a much-needed diversion.
There seemed to be only one major road through the town, and even that was simply cratered dirt. Several times Xiro almost tripped in random holes in the road. Small houses were scattered along the way, some in desperate need of repair, as if they were held together through the sheer willpower of the townspeople. He caught occasional glimpses of people peering out at him from within the unassuming dwellings. Invariably they had looks of puzzlement—wondering where he’d come from—or sympathy for this poor devil who’d wandered into the middle of the ongoing nightmare that was their daily lives.
Occasionally he passed various townsfolk going about their business with the same looks of surprise and/or sympathy as the people in the houses. No one asked his name or what he was doing there. Either they felt it wasn’t their business, or they simply didn’t care. Whichever way was fine with Xiro, who wasn’t feeling especially talkative.
He was trapped. Trapped in the town of Jack of Blades.
* * *
The marketplace was thriving. Farmers had their wares out for purchase, most of which was done in a straightforward barter system. Xiro wandered through it, taking it all in, fascinated by the seeming normality of an environment that was supposedly controlled by the notorious Jack of Blades. He wondered if he was imagining the apparent edge in even the most casual of conversations. The lightness in their voices, the familiarity of their social intercourse, seemed tinged wi
th tension, and sidelong glances implied they were worried who might be listening or when disaster might be visited upon them.
The children who had escorted Xiro to the marketplace spread out in a variety of directions, seeking new people to beg money from or perhaps to light-finger a purse or two.
The vendors in the market were surprised to see Xiro there but covered up quickly. That made sense to Xiro. They weren’t sure how much he knew about their status quo, or how much they should let others know of it. So they would make small talk with him to interest him in their wares but otherwise were remarkably reticent, considering that their job was to sell things.
Xiro stopped at one booth that caught his eye. It belonged to a candlemaker, who had crafted some wonderfully stylish tapers in addition to more mundane, everyday candles. He was an older man who, surprisingly for a salesman, was too modest to talk about how he crafted his materials. But his daughter was more than happy to speak on his behalf. She was an attractive young thing even though her brown hair was unkempt, and she clearly had no knowledge of makeup or other niceties of femininity. But she was suffused with that first blossom of womanhood and the promise of that shone through. Xiro studied the woman at close range, as she—Beatrice was her name—went on and on about what a remarkable artist her father was. As her endless barrage of words washed over him, Xiro nodded because he felt it was the appropriate thing to do.
Suddenly she stopped talking and her eyes widened. She seemed to shrink into herself, and her father likewise went from a ruddy complexion to an unhealthy paleness. Xiro didn’t understand why at first. But a moment later he heard loud, boisterous noises from behind.
Two men approached. They were similar in dress and deportment to the bully who had kept Xiro from leaving Oddwood. They were about the same height, but one was wider than the other and had a bristling red beard, whereas the other was clean-shaven. The bearded one swaggered toward the candlemaker or, more accurately, his daughter. “Now, you’re a charming little bit of business. Haven’t noticed you here before.”
She didn’t meet his gaze, doubtless because she knew what disgusting thoughts were crawling through his mind and she had no desire to see them reflected in his eyes.