Pride (Arden #4)

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

Arden awoke to a searing pain in his back and a healthy dose of humility. Even the slightest movement brought a fresh wave of agony and a reminder of his failure. Arden wasn’t sure which hurt more.

He tried to rise to his knees, but the pain brought him crashing down again, face-first in the mud of the riverbank. His brother’s sword had cut him deep; his back was afire from shoulder to hip. I never should have let my guard down. The pain was made worse by the knowledge that it was his own fault.

Moving his head slightly, so as to avoid agitating is back, he looked around. Night had fallen, so the Mask’s camp was illuminated by flickering torches. He was in a makeshift prison, surrounded by inward pointing stakes and tied to a boulder set deep into the mud.

Rough hands grabbed him gently. Then another smaller set of hands began to smear something on his wound. It was cool and soothing, but the pressure on his cut still brought him pain. He squirmed under the care, letting a groan out from between clenched teeth.

“Try not to move, Arden.”

“Jaron?” Arden had thought the old fisherman to be dead.

“Yes, and Taro.”

“Where’s Hus?” Arden asked, not wanting to know the answer.

“Dead.  The Mask’s men shot him as we were climbing out of the river.” That was Taro’s voice, obviously younger. There was anger in it, and Arden couldn’t blame him.

“I’m sorry,” Arden said, “and not just about Hus. I never should have put us in this situation. I was a fool to think that we could hunt down the Mask without the garrison from Kingston.”

“What’s done is done,” Jaron said. “Now we must hope that they can find us.”
Taro stayed silent, likely because he didn’t agree with his father’s forgiveness.

“We shouldn’t try to escape,” Jaron continued. “Jon has no doubt told the militiamen where we went. Assuming the Mask doesn’t move camp in the morning, they should be able to find us easily.”

“Why did you think this was all a good idea?” Taro hissed, no longer trying to disguise his rage. “You told us that you knew the Mask. You said that you could anticipate him. Except you got led by your nose into a trap, and Hus is dead!”  His voice rose as he spoke, the last word said with such vehemence that one of the Mask’s men came over to see what the problem was.

“Our friend is rather badly wounded,” Jaron told the pirate, and it seemed to work, as the guard returned to fire, where the Mask’s crew was eating.

“Why?” Taro repeated, hissing the word.

“The Mask is my brother,” Arden said. And I never stopped to think that maybe he knows me as well as I know him.  He hadn’t thought of that, and he had paid the price. “I thought I knew what he would do.”

“Well, he baited you. It seems he isn’t as proud you thought he was,” Taro said.

“His pride is the only reason we’re alive right now,” Arden said. “If we die out here, we don’t bolster his reputation. And if there is one thing my brother cares about, it’s his reputation.”

“So the reason we’re alive is so that he can kill us later, in public?”

Arden nodded, moving his head as much as his wound would allow. “Which is why we must hope that the militia finds us soon.”
***

Arden woke to the bustle of the Mask’s men breaking camp.  The makeshift prison had been removed, and all of the pirate’s tents were down.  Jaron and Taro were still tied to the boulder with him, but were wide awake when he rose.

“Feeling better, Princess?” Jaron asked.

He was.  Jaron had taken Arden’s shirt and ripped it into makeshift bandages, which Arden now wore.  The pain was still there, but it was no longer debilitating, and Arden was able to stand.

“Much better,” he said.  “I see that we’re moving.”

Taro nodded, his mouth set in a grim line.  “I’ve tried to leave behind as much of a trail as I can,” he said, “but I can’t guarantee that the militia will be able to find us.”

“They may not have to,” Arden said.  “If I know my brother, we’ll be going to them.  He doesn’t know that we sent for the garrison.  He likely thinks that Crickhall is ripe for the taking.”

“The entire town?” Jaron was incredulous, “with only these men?”

“Crickhall may have a larger population but few of them can truly fight.  Besides, my family isn’t known for our small egos.”

The three prisoners were forced to march in the middle of all the pirates, dragging the boulder with them.  They walked a short ways through the forest until they came to the spot on the river where the Mask kept his boats.

“You can sail with me, Arden,” he said, cutting Arden free from the boulder and tossing him into the bottom of his boat.  “It will be so lovely to catch up.”

There was nothing Arden would have liked less.

“Where are we going, Tymon?” Arden asked from the bottom of the boat.

The Mask stiffened.  “Don’t call me that.  I am the River’s Mask.”  He certainly looked the part, standing at the prow of the boat, in black leather and his hideous iron mask carved in a demon’s visage.

“Your name is Tymon,” Arden said.  “Stop with this ridiculous persona.”

“Tymon died years ago.  I am what is left.  I am the king of this river.”

“And do you mean to take Crickhall as your keep?”

Tymon drew his sword and thrust it quivering into the timbers of the boat.  “When I take Crickhall, I will truly rule this river,” he said.  “We were born to be kings, Arden.  How can you forget where we come from?”

Arden shook his head.  “We were never meant to rule, Tymon.  We were the fourth and fifth sons.”

“And we survived,” Tymon said, ripping the mask from his face as he turned to face Arden. “When our lands were burned and our brothers were killed, we survived.”  Arden could see a crazed light in his eyes.  “We were born to be kings, and I will carve out a kingdom along this river.”

Arden saw motion in the trees to either side of the river, and his heart soared.  “Do you truly believe that you can just take this land, and no one will stop you?”  he asked.

“No one can stop me.  Through my veins runs the blood of–”

He was cut off as the militiamen of Kingston stepped from the trees and unleashed a storm of arrows.  One carved a bloody furrow along his cheek, and another struck his shoulder, tossing him into the river.  The current bore him swiftly downstream and out of sight.

Arden was left clutching the demonshead mask as the men of Kingston, swept the pirates into the river.  He tried not to think about his past, about his lost birthright, but his brother had thought of nothing else.  Tymon had always thought himself a king, but kings drowned the same as all other men.

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

The River’s Mask (Arden #3)

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

Arden looked up from his cups as the fishermen entered the Hobbled Harpist; three of them, their clothes soaked and torn. One was a haggard looking old man, muscled from years of plying his trade along the river. The other two were young enough to be his sons; one skinny but healthy looking, the other tall and heavy, with bloody scrapes on his arms and knees and a half-drowned look about him.

Jon set aside his dishrag and crossed to them. It was just past midday, so the common room was empty, most of the town being hard at work. “What happened, Jaron?” Jon asked, helping the bloody fisherman into a chair.

Jaron, the old fisherman, took a seat before taking a deep breath and beginning. “We were out on the river, good day for it too, our nets were full. We were getting ready to bring our catch in early when they came.”

“River pirates,” the thin man spat.

“They boarded quickly,” Jaron continued. ” We didn’t have any choice but to jump overboard. Bracken’s crew wasn’t as lucky.”

They were indeed lucky. Arden had seen the rafts and small fishing boats that plied the river. He often thought they were lucky not to capsize. None of the fishermen stood a chance against an armed boarding party.

“We set up our nets where the river was at its narrowest, upstream from here. They came from the river and shore at once. We let the river carry us back to Crickhall, but Hus here was hurt when the current threw him against the rocks of the river bed. Taro and I had to carry him here.”

Arden looked at Taro’s slight build and imagined Jaron must have done most of the lifting.

Jon fetched bandages from behind his bar. “We’ve had pirates here before,” he said, applying them to Hus’s wounds. “I’ll send Gorden up to Kingston tomorrow morning, have him fetch some militiamen. Pirates will usually lay low for a while after an attack.”

“These weren’t any regular pirates,” Jaron said. “They were led by a man in an iron mask, forged in a demon’s appearance.”

Arden had been watching Jon apply bandages to Hus, but now whipped around to stare at Jaron.  Are you sure?” he asked.

“Sure as the sun rises.”

A series of images–memories–flashed before Arden’s eyes. The sign outside the Hobbled Harpist shorn in half; flame licking at the splintered wood.  A man stepped into view, masked in a demon’s visage. The flickering flames danced over his dark iron mask and the broad head of his wicked, curved axe.

“Don’t send Gorden in the morning,” Arden said. “Send him tonight.”

“Is it that serious, Arden?” Jon asked. “He caught us by surprise last time, he won’t be able to do damage like that again.”

“It’s more serious than you know.”

“Who is this pirate,” asked Taro, “and why do you fear him so?”

Arden emptied his mug with a long drink. “He calls himself the River’s Mask. He’s vicious, greedy, and utterly without mercy. And he’s proud.”

“What does his pride have to do with anything?” Taro asked. “It’s his blade we have to worry about.”

“His pride matters because it’s what drives him. He wears the mask because it helps him build a reputation. When I defeated him, I took a shit on that reputation.”

“Why do you know so much about a river pirate, Arden?” Jaron asked, suspicious.

“I make it my business to know my enemies. That way I know what they mean to do. The Mask didn’t show much interest in your fish, did he?”

“No,” Hus put in. “Cut them away like they were worthless.”

“A waste,” Jaron interjected.

“How did you know?” Hus continued.

“The Mask doesn’t care about loot this time around. His fight is personal, revenge for his loss. It means he’ll be more rash that otherwise.”

“And you plan to exploit this,” Jon said. It was not a question.

“Send Gorden to Kingston,” Arden said.  “If he rides hard and the militiamen listen they should return by tomorrow night or the morning after. In either case, I intend to greet them with the Mask’s head.”

*

Arden stood at the front of the raft as Jaron and Hus poled it along. They were far upstream from Crickhall, where the river narrowed and trees grew densely on either bank, giving shade to the water’s edges. “Is this where you were attacked?” he asked, without turning around.

“We’re nearing the spot,” Jaron called, ” but I don’t see why they’d stay here. Most pirates go to ground after an attack.”

No sooner than he spoke, small boat with a reinforced prow came rushing around a curve in the river.

“These aren’t most pirates.”

The steel prow of the other boat opened a massive hole in the raft, and water immediately washed over the deck. Arden was thrown into the river.
The water was a shocking cold, and forced the breath from his lungs. Arden surfaced quickly, gasping down sweet air, and kicked out for the shore. Grabbing a protruding root, he pulled himself from the river and onto the muddy bank. He saw the fishermen doing the same, Hus with some help from the other two.

The pirates’ boat slid onto the bank beside him, and the Mask leapt to the ground. He was taller than Arden remembered, but his axe was as wickedly sharp as ever. The other pirates moved to surround Arden, but the Mask waved them back.

Arden smiled; that’s what he had been counting on.

“Come back to lose again, have you?” Arden taunted as he rose to his feet, drawing his sword.

The Mask answered with a swing of his broad-bladed axe.

Arden’s confidence swelled as the fight began. The Mask was an even worse fighter than he remembered. His strikes were clumsy and rage-filled, easy for Arden to avoid.  He danced past one blow and thrust downward, his blade cutting through the Mask’s calf and sinking into the mud.

The Mask screamed in pain, and that’s when Arden knew he had failed. He knew the Mask’s voice, he had been hearing it in his head since learning of his presence, and the scream he was now hearing was not the same voice.

“You never were one to be cautious.” That was the right voice, but it was behind him. He felt a flash of searing pain as a blade opened his back from shoulder to hip.

He hit the ground and rolled over, allowing the cold mud to soothe the terrible cut.
His brother stepped over him, without his mask, his face scarred and burnt.

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

 

Songs From The Hobbled Harpist (Arden #2)

Snorts snorted as the cart rolled into Crickhall under the bright afternoon sun.  He snorted again as Arden brought the cart to a stop in front of a tavern along the main street, and once more when Arden hopped down from the cart and ran a hand along the old horse’s flank.

“Well done, old boy.”  Given Snort’s advanced age and slight limp, it was impressive that they had made it all the way to Crickhall from their home in the forest.

Arden turned and entered the tavern, which a newly painted sign identified as The Hobbled Harpist.  The taproom was small, with a bar along the far wall and the room cluttered with round wooden tables.  An old man in a worn leather apron stood behind the bar cleaning glasses.  His hair was shot through with grey, and his shirt, rolled up to his elbows, revealed wiry forearms crossed with scars.

“Arden!” he exclaimed, looking up from the counter as the door opened.  “To what to I owe the pleasure?”

“I decided it was time to come sell some furs,” Arden said.  “It’s been a while since I’ve been into town, Jon.”

Jon nodded.  “One hundred and four days,” he said.  “Would’ve been better if you had made it one hundred and three, though.  You won’t be able to get a stall in the market this late in the day.”

“I ran into trouble on the road.”

Jon looked up as if to ask about it, then seemed to think better of it.  He slid Arden a glass of water.  “I’ll see if I can scrounge up some food for you.  You look like you could use some.”

“How much will that cost me?” Arden asked, reaching for his coin-purse.

“Nothing at all,” Jon called as he disappeared back into the kitchen.  “Not after what you did for me last time you were here.”

Arden returned his purse to his belt and turned to observe the room.  It seemed that the Harpist was doing well.  A new stage for performers had been erected in the corner, and iron-and-glass lamps hung from the walls, whereas they hadn’t during his last visit.  What had Jon said, one hundred and four days?  It must have been; Jon never forgot a date.

“You won’t have to pay for a single thing while you’re here,” Jon said, entering with a bowl of hot soup.  “You have done me service worth a lifetime of meals and rooms.  Those bandits almost robbed me blind, but you and that gimpy old horse ran them off.  What was his name?”

Arden cracked a smile. “Snorts.”

“Yes, that was it!  Should’ve remembered that, there’s nothing you could say that that horse wouldn’t have answered with a snort.  Whatever happened to that old nag?”

“He’s still with me,” Arden said, gesturing towards the street with his spoon.  “I’ll need a place for him and the cart.”

“I’ll get my boy Gorden to bring them both around back.  I was able to get a small stable built.”

“It would seem that life has been treating you well in the past one hundred and four days.”

“It has indeed.  I’ve had to break up a few fights, those accounted for some of these scars here, but that’s to be expected.  Fights are good for business.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes as Arden finished his soup and Jon continued his cleaning.

“I’m going to have to pay you somehow,” Arden said. “It might take me a while to get these furs sold, and I don’t want you to lose too much money.”

“Nonsense.  I’m doing well enough as to afford it.  You don’t have to pay a thing.”

“All the same, I’d like to.  Do you still have that old lute?”

“Of course I do,” Jon said.

“I’ll play for my keep, then.  An hour or two every night.”

Jon face lit up in a wide smile.  “That’ll do nicely,” he said.  “You know, I used to play a bit myself.  I was rather good until I broke some of my fingers in a fight.  I reckon I could have made a profession out of it.”  He sighed.  “Go up to your room whenever you’re ready.  Last one at the end of the hall.  Gorden will bring up your things.”

 

***

Arden woke up well past dark, the moonlight streaming through his open window and casting odd shadows on the floor.  His white chest sat in the corner by the door; presumably Jon’s boy had brought it up.  The rest of the room was simply furnished, all worn wood and rustic colors.

Arden rose and walked to the door.  He could hear the muffled sounds of a crowded taproom, the shouting and laughing that usually accompanied drinking.  He stepped into the hall and locked the door behind him, then made his way down the stairs.

The taproom was full to bursting, all of the tables taken, and the rest of the patrons crowded around the bar.  Arden was able to locate Jon through the crowd, and the tavern owner waved him over.

“You can start to play in a few minutes,” he said.  “The lute’s back behind the bar.”

Arden fetched the old instrument, and then made his way to the small stage in the corner.  As he was tuning it, he noticed an old man seated near him, bent over his cup.

“Any requests?” he asked.

The old man looked up from his drink.  “Start with something slow, son.  Something sad and sweet.”

Arden nodded once. “Maybe I’ll end with that,” he said.

He scanned the room before he began to play. The tavern was full, and he could pick up some snippets of conversation.

“Did you and the rest of your boys finally catch up with Jode?” one man asked.

His friend, whose clothes marked him as part of the local militia, shook his head.  “We just found him and one of his ruffians dead on the road this morning.  Jode got his throat cut.”

“That’s what he deserved, preying on honest merchants like me.  I didn’t spend my whole life learning about trade to be bankrupted by some brigands.”

A few tables down, one of Jon’s serving girls talked incessantly to another man, who was too deep in his cups to be paying attention.  “It’s an outrage,” she said.  “Our militias say that they can’t protect us from these bandits, and then two of them just turn up dead.  And their leader no less!  The mayor needs to invest in better guards instead of spending his coin on a new dock.”

The man she was talking to just nodded slowly, his eyelids drooping.

Arden finished tuning the lute, and plucked the strings experimentally.  Their noise was pleasant, if slightly off tune.  He struck up a tune, one that was greeted with a roar of approval from the crowd.  It was a common tavern song, one with a simple melody and memorable chorus.  It was the kind of song that accompanied good food and drink, and the patrons immediately picked up the rhythm, stomping out the beat with their boots.

He then began “The Dog and his Daughter”, a song about a young girl that had been raised by dogs and was trying to find a human mate.  The chorus was nothing more than barking along with the lute and the crowd joined in enthusiastically.

He played well into the night.  By the time he was finished, the old man next to him had fallen asleep at the table, his request forgotten.  Most of the crowd had left, returning to their homes or their rooms upstairs.  At one point during the night, a young man with fiery red hair had come inside, his nose broken and his leg bandaged.  He had tried to eat his meal unobtrusively, but Arden had noticed.  The young man was one of the last to leave, and he left the largest tip in the small jar on the stage.

Jon approached him after the last song, a smile on his face.  “That was great,” he said.  “You’re almost as good as I was back in the day.  Five years and sixteen days, and my fingers have never had the same speed.”

“I’m sure you could still draw a crowd.”

“Probably, but not like you did.”  Jon emptied out the tip jar and handed Arden the coins.  “That’s the largest crowd I’ve had in a long while.  I almost had to ask Rona to serve drinks instead of letting her complain to everyone.”

“I’m glad I could find a way to pay for my room,” Arden said.

“Will you be playing tomorrow night?”

“If you’re in the mood for a melody, then yes.”

 

Read more about Arden here.

Cobblestones of the Road (Arden #1)

The small cart trundled along, Arden’s teeth chattering as the wheels bounced over the uneven cobblestones.  The cart was piled high with furs, the spoils of a long hunting trip that he was bringing to the market.  It was pulled along by an old half-lame horse named Snorts.  Spend more than ten minutes in his company, Arden often said, and it will become abundantly clear why.

Arden couldn’t see further than fifty yards in the pre-dawn darkness, but he knew that the town of Crickhall was a few miles down the road.  It was the only place that could even pass for a town within a week’s journey, so every road led there.  There he could sell his wares and get a hot meal in his belly before he started the journey home.

As Arden’s cart rattled along, the night began to fade.  The darkness gave way to a pale grey light and birds began to sing softly in the trees to Arden’s right.  To his left, a small river ran.  It was usually thick with fishing boats, but this early in the morning the water was empty.

It was the absence of a sound, rather than the presence of one, that made Arden pause.  He shook his head to fight off his sleepiness and listened carefully.  The river still burbled, and the axles of his cart still groaned in protest of the bumpy road.  There was still the sharp sound of Snorts’s hooves on stone, along with frequent snorting.  The birds, however, had stopped singing.

Arden let out a low whistle, and Snorts slowed to a saunter, then to a stop.  He tossed his head and, of course, snorted.  Arden drew a long hunting knife from his belt and stood up.  “Who’s there?” he called.

He was answered by a rustling in the trees off to his right, and by the emergence of three men.  The leader was a bald man of medium height; he was heavily muscled and had a long sword held low in front of him.  His hands and face were crossed with scars, and his dark beard was peppered with grey.  Behind him stood a young man, flame-haired and baby-faced, and a giant of a man, a veritable boulder of thick muscle.  All three wore a motley assortment of worn and mismatched armor, as if they had scavenged an ancient battlefield.

“You won’t be needing that knife,” said the first man.  He stepped towards the cart, sword pointed at Arden, as the other two circled around to rifle through the furs.  “Toss it away.”

Arden did as he was bid, and the knife clattered to the cobblestones.

“Hand over your purse,” the scarred man said, “and get down from your cart.”

Arden hopped down to the road and withdrew a small coin purse from his belt.  “I don’t think I can just let you take this,” he said.  “This is all I have.”

The man snorted.  “Maybe you should have used it to hire some protection.”

“Jode,” called the young man, “I’ve found something.  There’s something under these furs.”

The third bandit gathered a bundle of furs in his massive arms and tossed them to the street, revealing a chest of white wood banded with dark metal.  The young man leaned down to inspect it.  “It doesn’t have any hinges,” he said.

Jode rounded on Arden and leveled his sword at his throat.  “What is this?” he asked.

“I have the key in my boot,” Arden said.  “I’ll toss it over if you get this damned sword out of my face.”

Jode lowered his sword and allowed Arden to reach down to his boot.  “Toss it over then,” he said, extending a scarred hand.  “And don’t try anythi-”

Arden moved with blinding speed.  He straightened up, drawing something from his boot and sending it flying.  A small knife flashed across the intervening space and buried itself in Jode’s throat.  Jode grasped at his neck as he fell, trying to stem the flow, but there was nothing to be done.

Normally a stunned silence would follow something like that, but Arden never stopped moving.  He leaped over Jode’s falling body and lashed out with both of his feet, shattering the young man’s nose and kneecap.  The fire-haired youth fell to the ground with a piercing scream, but Arden was already attacking the third bandit.  He plunged another knife, this one seemingly pulled from nowhere, into the massive man’s chest, then spun away as the giant’s sword sliced through the air.  The bandit stumbled forward, trying to take another swing, and then collapsed to the cobblestones with a crash.

“Who are you?”

Arden turned towards the shaky voice to see the young man trying to stand, leaning heavily on Arden’s wagon as blood streamed down his face.  “This was supposed to be easy,” he said.  “Three of us against one merchant.  Jode said it would be easy.”

“You never should have listened to Jode, my friend.”  Now, as he sobbed, and blood and snot mixed with his tears, Arden could see just how young the man was.  He couldn’t have been more than eight and ten.

“Didn’t have much of a choice, did I.  I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“There’s always a choice,” Arden said.  “Always.”  He retrieved his knives and wiped them clean on Jode’s pants.  “Was Jode at least smart enough to bring horses?”

The young man nodded.  “We left them tethered a ways back.”

Arden moved past him to gather up the fallen furs.  He piled them back onto his cart, taking care to cover his hinge less chest.  “You’d better start moving then.  That’s a long walk with a broken leg, and an even longer ride to the nearest town.”

“You’re just going to leave me here?”  The young man’s voice was high with indignation.

Arden climbed back onto his cart and whistled to Snorts.  His cart began to trundle down the road again.  “You did just try to rob me,” he called back over his shoulder.  “Be happy that I’m leaving you alive.”

With any luck, the young man would reconsider his life on his walk.  If not, Arden thought, he wouldn’t last much longer as a brigand with only one good leg.

As the little cart rolled down the road, the heat of the day began to burn away the early morning fog.  The birds began to sing.  Arden whistled in return.  Snorts snorted.  The cart’s heavy wheels bounced and rattled over the cobblestones of the road.

Read more about Arden here.