Snow was falling on the settlement. Winter had come in fast on the heels of the Night of Fire, and many feared it would be a long, tough season.
The settlement didn’t even have a name. It barely had any buildings, but it had hundreds of people flocking to it. The snow was already 3 feet deep by the time the young man arrived. His name meant “golden roof” in the language of his homeland, and it was quite appropriate. Right now his hood was pulled up over his blond hair, but his long, green traveling cloak barely kept out the cold. His hands were gloved and his boots were soaked from trudging through the snow. His horse had long since been traded for more important things.
He stood at the head of a line of people seeking entry into what passed for a town. His pockets and backpack were filled with trading items – pieces of iron and other metal. He was alone, and was looking forward to some company and a warm meal.
“Are you alone?” the guard asked him.
“Everyone I know is dead,” replied the young man, his voice filled with a sort of sadness. “I buried the last of them in the snow about a half mile away.”
The guard just nodded, and let the man in. There had been too many refugees like this. The settlement was full of lost souls who just wanted a place to rest – somewhere they could feel like they weren’t alone.
More figures were lined up behind the young man, including a much older man. He did his best to support his weary frame on a staff. The guard stared suspiciously at the staff and the man holding it.
“Now then,” he said, “we’re not really comfortable with mages in the settlement you know?”
A few people stopped to watch. The young man turned to view the scene with wary interest.
“I am not a mage!” snapped the old man. His hand tightened around the staff with a white-knuckled grip.
“Give up the staff, then,” suggested the guard, eyeing the carved oak.
“Would you ask an old man to give up his only means of support in his infirmity?” asked the old man in amazement.
Several people in the crowd exchanged uncertain glances.
The guard looked a bit uncertain for a moment, then seemed to recall his duty.
“Yes. Give it up, or get the hell out.”
He pushed the old man aside to make room for a group of women and children who scurried past the gate into the settlement.
The young man shook his head and made his way deeper into the settlement. He laughed as some children ran past.
“The next generation!” he said to their mother, giving her a warm smile. “Keep them safe!”
He took her hand in his own, which was gloved to keep out the cold. When she withdrew her hand, she held a bent iron spoon. She might be able to trade it for a warm meal.
“Thank you…” she sniffled, and hugged him in gratitude.
“Go on, now,” he said. “Keep an eye on them.”
The man smiled to himself and looked around for what passed for an inn in this place. He saw a clumsily painted sign over the door of a barn with the words “The Broken Quill” written upon it.
He pushed his way inside and was surprised to see a crowd of people. Such life here, he thought, even in such a shattered world. He looked around and found a pretty face behind the plank of wood that served as a bar. He walked over and pulled back his hood.
The barmaid noticed him immediately and ignored several other patrons as she walked over to him.
“Hello, stranger, and welcome to the Quill,” she said, taking in his tall, lean form. She sat a broken cup in front of him, which held a bitter smelling liquid.
“The first one is on me. The second one will cost you a story.”
He grabbed the drink and sniffed it carefully. He frowned, knocked it back and shuddered.
“The second one may cost me more than that, I fear,” he said, wincing.
The girl grinned. “Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard my story before. I’m a long way from home, and all my companions are long dead. I left them out there in the snow. And here I am, alone in a bar with a pretty girl who is serving me what may once have been used to clean drains.”
She poured him another.
“The third one will cost you a kiss from that pretty, eloquent mouth,” she said, and she meant it.
He shook his head, refusing the drink.
“One more of these,” he said, “and my mouth will be neither. What passes for entertainment around here?”
She looked disappointed, but tilted her head toward the center of the room.
“Stories,” she said. “The owner of the Quill used to be a historian in the capital for one of the big universities. He’s writing the stories down. Can you believe it? He says he’s doing it for the future generations. As if there’s going to be any.”
The young man smiled to himself, remembering the woman and her children outside. The girl looked askance at him.
“Did I say something interesting?”
He looked around at her and smiled.
“You’ll have lots of big fat babies, don’t you worry. Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have some stories to listen to.”
He walked over to the large circle of tables and chairs where the majority of the inn’s patrons were seated, and found a place to sit.
A burly man in his late fifties sat in a large chair. He had a huge book open on the table in front of him. A quill scratched back and forth upon the paper, and dipped from time to time into a pot of ink as he wrote, very quickly, recording what the current storyteller said.
This storyteller was standing on a table in the middle of the circle of patrons. In a loud, slightly drunken voice, he was telling a story about Necromancy.
The blond man raised his eyebrows, fascinated.
“This should be interesting!” he commented to the man beside him, before sitting back to listen intently.
I knew a woman who once lived in Kar’Danan. She told me many tales of that fetid place, where the Circle of Dust pulls the strings of their puppet kings. There, the many corrupt baronies vie for power. Over the years, the kings and queens of Kar’Danan have had the eternal screams of one of their own to remind them of their place. He was a king who thought to rise up and remove the long, bony fingers of the Circle from around the royal’s throats. The name of that king, they say, is lost to history. But in truth, he screams it in agony from his perch upon the gates of the Burning Palace. It was all they left him able to say. Now his name means “betrayer” in the tongue of Kar’Danan.
The woman I knew told me the Burning Palace was swallowed by a lake during the Night of Fire, but the king screams still from beneath that lake, for a punishment by the Nine is forever.
The Nine… aye, there’s a word that fills any Kar’Daner with fear. Few have ever seen them all, and none but King Oliver Ashland knows all their names. The most powerful of the Circle was called Kalen. He was ancient, with white hair and a crackling voice. Some say Kalen was the one who put the curse on the Betrayer himself. They say Kalen was the only one of the Nine to survive the Night of Fire because of his twisted abilities. He had branded hundreds of people with his Mark. The Mark of the Grinning Brigade.
A small voice coughed, interrupting the storyteller. He glanced over to a little girl who was sitting beside the young blond man.
“What is it, little one?” he asked impatiently, eager to continue with his tale.
“Why were they grinning? Were they happy?”
“No, child. They were undead. Skeletons. Their dead faces always look like they are grinning.”
The child let out a whimper. The young man beside her placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Ssshhh. You’re safe here. No skeletons will harm you, I promise!”
She looked up gratefully at the stranger, and beamed her own grin at him. He smiled back, and a few people chuckled at this exchange.
The storyteller, slightly annoyed at the interruption, got back to his work.
Kalen had long hated the Empire. He created the Grinning Brigade as an insult, a parody of the Grand Army.
His toy army was a thousand strong. He had crafted it carefully. Each skeletal soldier was perfect, without flaw. He hand picked every single bone to make sure it was of the best quality, and pieced together his brigade one by one. It required powerful Necromantic magicks, but he perfected a way of sharing any painful magical feedback with others. Though even mages within the Empire practiced this “marking” with willing participants in trade for small works here and there, Kalen forced it upon peasants. His dark version of the brand made it possible to even kill and consume those so marked. It was said that those killed in such a way would come back as powerful undead that only Kalen could control.
However, Kalen never marked women or children, nor did he allow harm to come to them. I wonder perhaps if he had once been in love, or once had children of his own. In any case, neither woman nor child ever had cause to fear Kalen or his undead army, though the rest of the Nine had no such weakness.
The woman I spoke of once met Kalen. She had survived the destruction of her village at the hands of his Grinning Brigade, and had been spared. She had not seen Kalen’s face, but had just seen his smile from beneath his hood and heard his voice.
“He told me to run, and to not look back,” she said to me, and her voice had been filled with terror. She had run, you see. But she had looked back. She later clawed her own eyes out, unable to live with the visions that overwhelmed her every night.
Kalen feared no one. They say that his decrepit ancient form was only kept whole through the use of Necromantic rituals. The Circle of Dust relied upon his magical knowledge and the Grinning Brigade to protect them from upstart barons who would think to come to the Burning Palace and take their power.
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