“Bring me my axe.”
When the ancient weapon was laid in his hands, Lord Ridderch of Barrenholt stood quietly for a long moment, staring at it. This blade had been his faithful companion over twenty years of conquest and slaughter. Two decades in which his strength and will had raised him from a tattered mercenary of dubious parentage to lord of a realm that stretched twenty leagues in every direction from his stronghold, the mighty keep of Barrenholt, which he himself had raised up from ruins.
The axe remained his, as did the armour he had donned just moments before. The rest, however…
He looked at the room he stood in. The lord’s bedchamber was filled with the trappings of his victories. Instead of tapestries, the walls were covered with the banners of his defeated enemies. The blazing sword of Tanric Hearthcold, the three black hounds of Godremmen the Hunter and many others. The memories of his victories and the winning of those banners stayed with him, but the banners themselves now belonged to another.
He glanced back at the bed before he left the room. The faint warmth of his own presence still lingered there, but it had lost much of its comfort since the death of his wife five years past. Taenerie. He had known her and loved her since his days as a poor mercenary. He had raised her up with himself and set her on a high throne, as she deserved, and in return she had given him the son and heir he craved. Those had been the high days of his life, full of promise, but then . . . then she had begun to fail. Not swiftly, but slowly and agonisingly. Over ten years, he had watched her sicken and fade, taking with her much of his joy. No physician, priest or magus could aid her, and when the end had come, it had been a relief, for him as much as for her. Still, her passing had left Barrenholt a chill and comfortless place for her husband and son.
His servants cringed as he strode from the room. He had become harder and colder these last few years, he knew, and his latest plans had confused and bewildered them. They were simple men and women for the most part, ill-equipped to deal with change, and now they were facing the overturning of all that they had known and come to rely upon. Even staunch Selphiant, his squire these past seven years, seemed newly wary of his lord.
“Are you sure of your course, my lord?” he inquired, keeping pace behind Ridderch as he descended the spiral stairway from his bedchamber.
Ridderch smiled a smile that Selphiant could not see, nor would have understood, had he seen it. “I have thought long and hard upon it. This is the course I have chosen, one determined for me by fate. Do not seek to sway me.”
Selphiant was silent after that. He had already argued with his lord, up to and a little beyond the bounds of propriety, but Ridderch had forgiven him. There was a pleasure to be taken in having someone who was concerned about him, even for a little while. He had alienated many others this last year, quite deliberately, and the final ties would not linger for much longer.
As he entered the great hall, the first pang of conscience pricked him. His men had gathered there and formed an honour guard. Evidently, word of his departure had spread. He appreciated the show of loyalty, misguided though it now was. Once, he had been one of them, and he knew how fickle a thing loyalty could be. That he retained it, even now, after five years of silence and distance, spoke of how well he had led and rewarded them during the days of his glory.
His hand tightened on the axe. It was this cursed and blessed weapon that had changed his life. Dargaeth, it was called, the Dark Glaive. The stories said that in the days of the First Empire, it had been wielded by another Ridderch, in whose hands its keen blade, which no armour could hinder, had brought power and glory. That first Ridderch’s tale ended with silence, and his name and deeds were now known only to a few talespinners.
On the strength of one such tale, Ridderch he had gone seeking his namesake’s weapon, and in that quest almost lost his life. Instead, he had survived and gained his prize, and his return had marked the beginning of his rise. Yet for all that he had used it in battle and seen for himself how easily its dark metal carved through the toughest mail or hide, he did not truly know what it was. Was it truly an ancient thing, once wielded by a man who might have been Ridderch himself, so closely did their tales now tally? Or had it been nothing but a lure, something to draw him into deadly peril, so that he might strike the bargain that he had?
It was not for him to judge. Other men might be scholars of subtle mind, but he was a warrior through and through, possessing only the gifts of courage, will and a force of character that drove men to follow him wherever he might lead. Thus he stood as he entered the hall and raised his axe in salute. All around him, weapons were raised in response. Not a word was spoken.
At the far end of the hall, the doors were opened for him by two guardsmen. Old they were, at the very end of their terms of service. Yet they had accepted this most menial of tasks as a form of farewell, and their eyes were fixed on him as he passed by, into the sunlight.
It was a bright summer day, as it had been twenty years before, when he had lain trapped under rocks that had shattered his leg. His view then had been of blank stone; now it was of the great courtyard of Barrenholt and the heavy walls that surrounded it. His domain stretched out beyond those walls, rich, fertile and well protected.
No, he corrected himself. Not his. Not anymore.
The voice shocked Ridderch out of his reverie, and he turned to see his son, Ravrenn, standing in the shadow of the great hall. Fifteen years old and half a man already, he was a slimmer, more refined version of the youthful Ridderch. The only memory of his mother that he evoked lay in his voice, but Ravrenn had none of Taenerie’s warmth. Ridderch was not surprised that he had waited outside the hall. He had always kept himself apart, whether from the other children he had grown up with or from his father’s servants. The burdens of lordship had left little time for fatherhood, and Ridderch had to admit that he did not truly know this quiet boy, who would now shoulder those same burdens.
“Do you still mean to go through with this?”
Ridderch nodded. “I do.”
“May I walk with you to the gate?”
Ridderch looked at his son. They had already said their farewells, and it had been less of a wrench than he had expected to know that he might never see his son again. The boy was quick-witted and ambitious, and Ridderch was sure that he would prosper. He already knew as much as Ridderch had felt able to tell of the story of the blade and the bargain, and he had raised only faint protests when Ridderch had revealed his plan. Ridderch had a father’s pride in Ravrenn’s abilities, but was there still affection between them, after years of coldness, more than either of them knew?
“You would be best not to. What takes place there will be between myself and . . . the other.”
“Do you fear him?” Ravrenn’s voice was cool and his gaze keen. Whether they concealed either concern or mockery, Ridderch could not tell.
He shook his head. “I do not fear him. But I am wary of him. One does not toy with the magi, my son, much less those who hold true power. You would be best to stay away.”
“If you do not fear him, then nor do I,” Ravrenn announced, and Ridderch knew there would be no swaying him.
He gritted his teeth and they walked on in silence. Behind them, the hall doors remained open, and Ridderch knew that those who had been his men were watching as he left in the company of their new lord. He had invested so much of himself in the building of this place, the training of his men and the winning of his domain that the pain of leaving them behind was almost physical, but what choice did he have? He had made a bargain, and through the fulfillment of his bargain, he had gained so much. He had thought long and hard about how he might escape the worst effects of it, and thus he had cast aside all that he had formerly possessed. The time had now come to see whether his little wisdom was enough.
The walk through the vast open yard of the keep and to the great gates was conducted in silence, and Ridderch began to feel a little more at peace within himself. Twenty years ago, he had been a warrior who possessed no more than his armour and a sharp sword. Now, he had reduced his possessions back to the same degree, even though the armour was stained with red dye and carefully engraved and his sword had been exchanged for an axe that never needed sharpening but cleaved cleanly through whatever it struck. All else had been passed to his son. A priest had seen to the legalities of it, and Ridderch felt confident that the boy would prove worthy of his inheritance.
Together with his son, he walked through the walled town that had gathered around the great bastion of Barrenholt. Most of the people there had little idea of what was occurring, and they watched the lord and his son pass by in some confusion. Here and there, though, Ridderch saw people who did know and who passed along the news in whispers. Let them talk, he thought. They were no longer his concern.
As they approached the gates of the town, which were near as high as those of Barrenholt itself, a curious sensation came over him: a cold, prickling feeling all along his spine, such as he had not felt in twenty years. He glanced across at Ravrenn, but if the boy felt the same, he did not show it. However, it seemed that all others did. The street through which they walked was now deserted, and those who had been trailing Ridderch had now fallen behind, fearful and uncertain.
The source of this unease stood just beyond the outer gates, a silhouette in the arch. From a distance, he seemed no more than a man, but Ridderch knew better. He had known better twenty years past, but he had allowed fear of death and failure to override his proper caution. Priests, the servants of the gods, were simply men, even those among them who could bestow blessings and miracles. Magi were something more, but they too were mortal, albeit touched by powers that set them apart from those they had once called kin. Yet there were among the magi those who had become something else entirely. Dark tales were told of these immortal beings, who had long ago transcended their flesh: Wanderer, on his cold, dark isle; Stormwalker of dire legend; and Cathbad, who had raised up and then abandoned the greatest hero of them all.
There were others, to be sure, but so distant were they from the common course of the mortal races from which they had sprung that there could be no certain truth in the tales of their doings. Their schemes were woven across centuries, and whenever they deigned to involve mortal men in them, they brought both triumph and disaster with equal ease. Such tales Ridderch had heard at his mother’s knee, of those who had bargained with powers like these and had suffered for it.
He had dismissed them with a child’s certainty, and then, twenty years past, dreams of glory, a talespinner’s story and map with a single word – “Dargaeth” – at its centre had sent him high into the Rift Peaks in search of an ancient axe. There, he had found the tumbled ruins of a stronghold that dated to long before the Day of Ashes, and the signs that he could read had told him that he was close to his goal. Had he been more cautious, would things have turned out otherwise? Would those crumbling stones have held and not fallen and pinned him down? Three days he had lain there, his hopes of rescue dwindling with his stores of food and water, and then…
They were closer now. Close enough to see the face of the figure that awaited them beyond the gates. He was entirely as Ridderch remembered him: slim, pale skinned, with a close-cut black beard that followed the line of his jaw. His eyes were the same as well; two pale pools that showed no emotion, only reflecting the uncertainty that Ridderch felt welling up within him.
“Lord Barrenholt,” he said, as Ridderch and Ravrenn paused before him. His voice was a whisper that carried against the promptings of the wind, and he did not bow his head as he spoke.
Ridderch shook his head. “No longer. I am now Ridderch Carrathon, as I was when you first met me.”
The stranger’s eyes flicked towards Ravrenn. “No matter. The time has come to close our bargain.”
“I know it,” Ridderch said. He did not like the notion of this one casting any thoughts towards his son and heir. “I have come here to pay you in full.”
“I am glad to hear it. Do you remember the words we spoke together, those twenty years past, when I rescued you and offered you my aid?”
“I do. You said that you would free me from where I was entombed, aid me in gaining the prize I sought-” his hand tightened on the haft of the axe again “-and then, when twenty years had passed, all that I possessed would become yours.”
The stranger nodded. “There was one other clause. My aid should be yours to call upon throughout the twenty years.”
“I never once called upon you,” Ridderch said. “All that I have done has been my own working.”
“Regardless, the bargain was struck and the aid was yours to draw upon. The price was the same in either case. Why did you not call for me when you had need, Ridderch?”
“Some things are best done by the hands of men, not with the aid of those who only wear the semblance of mortal flesh.”
The stranger studied Ridderch closely. “So it was fear, then. Fear of what you did not know.” He sighed. “It is of no importance. Your realm is a stub where it might have been a broad and sprawling expanse and your life chill and cold where it could have been full of warmth, all because of fear. Yet the price must still be paid.”
Ridderch heard his son’s feet scuff the ground beside him, but he kept his breath and his gaze steady. “I stand here ready to pay it.”
“Well then, Ridderch Carrathon. I call our bargain, sworn in blood, to account. All that you possess passes to me now.”
Ridderch smiled grimly. “So be it. All that I now carry encompasses my entire estate. All else has passed to my son.” He glanced down to Ravrenn, who was watching him with a calm stare. “The axe is yours by right, I think, as it was through your aid that I gained it. The armour I throw in as a thanks for the saving of my life.”
The stranger’s pale eyes showed no emotion, but it seemed to Ridderch that a cloud passed in front of the sun and a chill entered his bones. “So you think to cheat me? You disappoint me, Ridderch. Did think that I struck this bargain for the sake of an ensorcelled blade I could just as easily have taken for my own?”
In truth, Ridderch had not considered that, not on that day in the mountains, when, weakened by thirst and hunger, he had greeted the stranger’s arrival and his offer of aid with joy. True, the strange nature of the bargain had pricked at his childhood fears, but he had been young and arrogant. He had known for certain that something was awry when the stranger had brought him to the tomb in the ancient stronghold where Dargaeth lay, untouched by the corruption of the centuries, but it was then far too late to protest. In the twenty years that followed, he had thought many times on how to close the bargain with his soul intact, and this was the only scheme that had seemed to have even the slightest prospect of success.
“I abide by the terms of our bargain. What I hold is mine. All else has passed to my son. You have no cause for complaint, save perhaps against yourself.” He had a sudden premonition that death was close to him. It could not be wise to anger one of such power, and yet he knew that he had done all that was possible.
The stranger smiled a wintry smile. “You think yourself wise, Ridderch, once lord of Barrenholt. Yet you chose to contest with me, and that shows naught but the gravest pride and folly. There is one possession of yours that you have discounted.” His pale eyes swung away from Ridderch and across to Ravrenn.
Ridderch looked at his son. Ravrenn was breathing shallowly, his gaze directed at the stranger, his hands clenched at his side. Ridderch swung back to his foe, holding his axe before him, in a gesture of threat that had more to do with fear than hope. “You keep away from him! He is no part of your schemes!”
The stranger’s smile was constant, and Ridderch realised that he had made no movements of his own. Still he stood there, his arms folded before him. “By virtue of being your son, he was part of my schemes from the moment he was born. And now, he is mine.”
Ridderch took another step forward, knowing that he was inviting his death in doing so. Yet what else could he do? “He shall never be yours! I will see you dead first!”
The stranger’s laugh cut through him. “Ah, Ridderch, you could have been so much more. Through your fear, you have delivered your son to me, and he will be a much more able servant.”
The feel of cold steel entering his flesh was unfamiliar to Ridderch. Before, he had suffered his wounds in the heat of battle. This was altogether more precise, almost a benediction. He looked back to see his son gazing up at him, the hilt of a dagger protruding from the gap in his armour where his armpit was. All strength fled from his mind and body then, and he began to fall.
Ravrenn caught him before he hit the ground and laid him out. “You were a coward, father. You made a bargain for all that power, and then you feared to use it? Why could you not have called upon him to save mother before she died?” Ravrenn’s eyes were filled with a cold, calm hate, and Ridderch knew that as much as he wanted to explain, he would never be able to alter the young man’s fixed thoughts.
Instead, he looked over to the stranger, whose schemes had raised him up, then cast him down. He still had not moved, and Ridderch knew that he had never needed to move. How old he was, Ridderch could not know, but this schemer knew the hearts of men. He had known all that Ridderch might do from the moment he found him beneath the tumbled stone. Only one side of the bargain could lead to profit. He would not have made it otherwise.
He watched as his son stood and walked over to the schemer. He could not hear what they said, but it hardly mattered. His heart was pierced and his life was ebbing away swiftly. Despite his bargain, he had tried to preserve his freedom and his honour, and in so doing, he had forged his son into the very weapon that the schemer had needed.
A bleak, awful humour filled him, and his last breath emerged as a bloody chuckle, unheard by anyone. The bargain was done, the price was paid. There was nothing left, and thus he died.