Chapter One: "It's One Of Those Things That Always Happens"
The floor was strewn with black-clad bodies, blood merging into the ancient and evil patterns that had been painstakingly etched in crimson on the meticulously cut stones. At one end of the long room, deep in the heart of the mountain, there stood a black marble altar, into which was set a large scarlet gem. The jewel pulsed with an uncomfortable light, casting fearsome shadows across the pillars that adorned the room. I grinned at the sight, and, telling my companion to remain still and not touch anything, I set out to explore the room. It was large, and I was hoping that fortune would favour me with a hidden treasure cache, or at least a chest of gold.
The faint sound of footsteps was my only warning, and I whirled to see my companion pulling the stone out of the altar.
"NO!" I screamed, but too late. The big lump was already holding it. Moving like a scorched cat, I shot out, grabbed one enormous hand, and dragged the six-foot muscle-bound man away by sheer momentum. Not a moment too soon, since an instant later the altar was smashed by a ton of falling rock. Then we were running, fleeing for our lives as the hidden temple began to collapse around us. Now my companion was dragging me, a fair enough arrangement to my mind, since he was both stronger and faster than I. We raced back the way we had come, following the trail of corpses through winding stone passageways that crumbled as we passed. We narrowly avoided being crushed by the tumbling boulders, and leaped out of the great stone doors an instant before they collapsed in a heavy puff of grey dust. We retreated to a safe distance, then watched as the mountain finished subsiding in on itself, an impressive sight… no matter how many times you've seen it. When it was done, I turned to my companion, the only remaining landmark in a slate-coloured wasteland.
"WHAT WAS THAT?" I yelled. He looked at me, bafflement on his noble face. I elaborated. "How many times do I have to tell you, huh? You DON'T pick up the item from the throne or altar or whatever UNTIL I SAY SO!"
Berek the Mighty, conqueror of giants, sorcerers and empires, frowned. "Why?" he rumbled, in a puzzled tone.
"Because it collapses the temple, or the palace, or whatever building we happen to be in at the time," I explained for the thousandth time. The frown grew deeper.
"Might not do," Berek pointed out. I sighed.
"It does, Berek. It always does. It's one of those things that always happens, like the bridge. You remember what I told you about the bridge?"
Berek shook his head. "No."
I gave up, and started fitting the gem into my pack. It was useless trying to explain these things to Berek. He always forgot them.
"C'mon," I grinned. "Let's get going." I shouldered my pack and set off across the stony wasteland that surrounded the mountain.
Berek the Mighty. You've probably heard of him. After all, he is one of the great heroes of our age, a living legend, the man who defeated Gz'roc, liberated the people of Orlfair, toppled the towers of An'gul, blah, blah, blah. The image of him striding across the landscape, long hair flowing in the wind, muscles gleaming, mighty sword strapped to his back, is probably etched indelibly into your imagination. You'll know all the stories, of course, about how he did his great deeds, always accompanied by his faithful but lily-livered henchman.
Yup. That's me.
Only that's not the full story. See, when you think of a sidekick, what comes to mind? Go on, try it. No doubt you are now thinking of some little weasel with all the moral fibre of a decomposing jellyfish. Well, think again. Your average henchman is very, very smart.
Becoming a hero is a brilliant career. You get fame, fortune, not to mention groupies. The only difficulty is that the entrance requirements are high. Firstly, there are the physical requirements; a hero has to be tall and muscular, with a chin suitable for cracking rocks. A heroine, of course, must be big-bosomed and possessed of noble beauty. Whatever their gender, a hero is required to have had some form of tragic or dramatic past which has left them strong and ridiculously just. Naturally, not many people manage to live up to this, which means that when a hero does appear they're bound to be disgustingly rich and famous within a very short period of time.
Now think: how does a short, plain person with a dull past get those sorts of riches and fame? Answer: help a hero. And so the first sidekicks were born, genuine helpers one and all, although much maligned by legend.
But now consider this: what if there are too few heroes, or not enough of them require helpers? And so the henchmen band together, swap stories, and start to seek out the people who, with the right encouragement, could become heroes who will, of course, want sidekicks. An organisation begins to grow; a secret Guild takes its first tentative steps. All the members are rich, so the organisation is richer still. Things get a little better for all involved. The Guild gains power and influence, and in secret some of the leaders start to think "What if all heroes needed one of our people?"
Of course, I didn't know this when I set out to seek adventure. All I knew was that I didn't have much chance of becoming a hero. I'm short, I'm plain, and I have dull brown hair. That really doesn't add up to much. And since the most traumatic thing that ever happened in my small rural community was the untimely death of a pig, I didn't have the background either. In fact, we weren't even ruled by a sadistic and vicious sorcerer. No, we had a King, who was possibly the nicest and most generous person in the world. I didn't have the magic to become a mage, and I swiftly realised that your average mercenary was more likely to be killed by a hero than become one. However, the one thing I could do was shoot a bow, and since I was reasonably sure that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a one-donkey town, I made my way along the great plains road to the vast trading city of Moerban, a journey of several weeks not including the time I spent hitch-hiking on farm carts.
Within three hours of my arrival, I was hustled into a darkened room and asked if I wanted to join the Guild of Henchmen.
The benefits, I was told, were excellent. I would get a fifty percent cut of all loot, rewards and bounties. I'd get to see the world, have adventures, possibly even become a legend in my own right. All I had to do was agree to look after whatever hero the Guild assigned me to.
I wondered aloud what would happen if I refused their offer and went to find my own hero. I was informed quite emphatically that there were no heroes who avoided the Guild, not if they knew what was good for them, and the same went for sidekicks too. Something in the tone of voice was very good at convincing me I didn't actually want to learn what happened to those who tried to avoid the Guild.
So I agreed to their terms, and that was when I started to learn how things really worked. If you believe heroes just pick up a sword and go off to attack the forces of darkness, think again. They might try, but before they get three steps a Guild representative will have already stopped them in their tracks and handed them an intelligence test. Only heroes with an IQ lower than that of a concussed mosquito are allowed to continue on their chosen path, naturally with a Guild representative right next to them, making sure they don't die of incompetence before earning the Guild a very large stack of money.
I asked what happened to the smarter ones, and was told that they were "dealt with".
At any rate, the Guild at least trained me in the basics of hero-management, before setting me up with my first charge. Berek, at that time, was completely unheard of, but had all of the right ingredients and had decided to go and make his way as a hero three days earlier. Upon coming to the decision, he had broken the neck of his master, torn his manacles open using his bare hands, and run away with the other slaves cheering him on.
Of course, this story isn't really about Berek, but if it wasn't for him then I'd never have met my second hero.
It was two weeks after the mountain temple, and Berek and I were having a drink in a wayside tavern. I was waiting for something to happen. Long ago, I had made Berek promise that we would never enter a tavern, an inn, or a wayhouse between jobs unless we were looking for work. This was because every time we did something would happen and we'd end up on another quest. Don't ask me why, it just happens. In fact, it happens so frequently it's part of Guild training to recognise the fact.
So, I was sitting quietly in a shadow, and Berek was attempting to quaff ale and hold his own in a bar fight at the same time. He was doing well, but I was dreading having to pay the damages. That's another thing that never makes it into the tales. Henchmen always pay the damages after bar fights, and we always pay double the right amount, because we know full well that if we don't then heroes are going to stop being welcome at inns. I finished swigging my drink, and took the empty tankard over to the bar.
"I count it at a hundred gold pieces so far, not including the fireplace," the landlord said from his position beneath the bar. I scanned the room, my hand shielding my eyes from splinters as chairs were smashed for use as weapons in burly hands.
"Yeah, sounds about right," I sighed. "I'm sorry about this."
"No need to apologise, Jake. I get good business for months after you two stop by."
I grinned, and joined the landlord behind the bar. Slipping him some coins, I got us both a drink, and raised mine in a toast.
"To Berek, then," I laughed. We drank. A chair whistled overhead and hit a row of bottles. Broken glass rained down.
"The wife won't be too pleased," the innkeeper observed glumly. "That was her sister's chair."
"I'll add fifty to the total then?" I asked. The man shook his head.
"No, it was a hideous chair anyway."
We sat there drinking, whilst above us chaos reigned. Then, eventually, there was silence. The landlord and I poked our heads up over the bar. Berek was standing in the middle of a room full of firewood, grinning happily. He waved an empty tankard at us.
"Need more ale," he explained, then he gracefully toppled over. Backwards. I tipped some coins out into the landlord's hand and went over to my charge. With much effort, I managed to drag him out of the door and into the inn's courtyard, where I shoved his head under the water pump. The freezing water had little effect beyond making the mighty hero grunt, so I gave up and slumped down next to him.
"Well, there's a pretty sight!" laughed a voice. I looked up to see a familiar face coming through the gate.
"Karl!" I grinned, holding my hand out to my fellow sidekick. Karl and I had been recruited at the same time, but his thin and lanky frame was too distinctive for traditional henchman work, so he was a go-between, bringing messages from the Guild to field agents like me and back again. We shook hands vigorously, then I glanced over his shoulder at the man lurking prominently behind him. The man was clearly a hero, tall and muscular with long blonde hair and a square chin. His scant clothing and enormous battle-axe were also clues.
"Who's this?" I asked, not recognising him. Except in the purely generic sense, of course.
"Tharan the Berserker," Karl told me. "Or he will be, once he's been trained up."
I nodded. "New boy?"
"Your boy," came the reply. There was a pause.
"What?" I said slowly.
"You've done a great job with Berek, so the Guild want you to take over with Tharan. I'm going to accompany Berek to Idran, hook him up with a more experienced henchman for some more difficult heroing." Karl smiled at my stunned expression. "Relax, it'll be fine. I know it's your first changeover, but all these jobs are pretty much the same."
"But…" I began. Karl cut me off.
"Tharan, here's Jake. He's going to be your new helper," the little man said. "Jake, I've got a job lined up for you in Geltor, so if you can get Tharan to the Darksider Inn then you'll be on your way."
"Don't I even get to say goodbye!" I wailed. Okay, so I'd grown fond of the big lummox. Decapitate me.
"No time. Your mission's urgent. Go on!" Karl urged, shoving me towards the gate. I grabbed Tharan's meaty hand on the way past and gave it a tug.
"Want drink," protested Tharan.
"No drink, we're off!" I snapped, dragging him along. It was time to go, before I got cold feet. There were a couple of horses outside, one battle charger and one speedy pony. I jumped up onto the pony, waited for Tharan to get onto his horse, and set a brisk pace eastwards along the dusty road.
We travelled in silence for an hour or so, our horses trotting along the winding track that took us past windswept hills and green, fertile farmland. This area of the world was hot and dry for the most part, but there was enough rainfall to grow some things. Lots of olives, as far as I could tell… I come from somewhere far damper, and I'm used to fields full of mud and mushrooms, not strange twisty trees. My throat was a bit clogged up, too, from the dust and the sun. My nose was starting to burn, which was not pleasant, and the regular thump of the pony's hooves on the dirt track was not comfortable either.
Altogether, then, I was not a happy henchman as we reached the crest of a stony hill, to get a view of a large, fast-flowing river and the surrounding far-too-dry countryside. It was, however, at that point Tharan spoke for the first time since leaving the inn.
"You're a girl," he said. His voice was lighter, less thuggish, than it had been before. I looked across at him, startled by the comment but thinking nothing of it. He was probably just exhibiting extreme symptoms of terminal stupidity.
"Yeah, right, I'm a girl," I laughed sarcastically. There was another pause, then he spoke again.
"Your voice is disproportionate to the dimensions of your shoulders and chest, suggesting it is counterfeit. You have no Adam's apple, no stubble, and no bulge in your trousers. You are slim, short and delicately built, which may not be a guarantee of gender but which is enough to appear suspicious. Besides this, your hips are considerably wider than your waist, a fact that your loose shirt does not fully conceal. You are a girl, disguised as a boy in order to become an adventurer, since you lack the qualities traditionally required in a heroine and the Guild would naturally never accept a female henchman."
My heart leapt into my mouth. I was discovered! I would be sent home in disgrace, if the Guild didn't just kill me out of hand, and… a sudden thought occurred to me.
"You're smart!" I exclaimed. Tharan gave me a bright smile.
"Yes. I had been concealing this fact, but once I surmised that you also had a secret I decided it would be less stressful if I were to reveal my true nature."
I gaped. "You are one hell of an actor to get that brain past the Guild!"
"Thank you," replied Tharan. "I believe I can return the compliment, however, since your disguise really is most convincing."
"Didn't fool you," I pointed out glumly. Tharan shrugged, and reigned in his horse. He did it like an expert, certainly far more gracefully than I managed a moment later. I looked up into the hero-to-be's eyes, and was startled by the deep and intense gaze that held me pinned to the spot.
"To the rest of the world, we must both pretend to be other than what we are," Tharan said sincerely. "You must not only pretend to be a coward and of no consequence to the world at large, but you must also maintain the illusion of being male before the Guild. I must demonstrate to the world at large that I am a bold and worthy hero, whilst convincing the guild that I am a brainless thug. I think that perhaps we can assist each other?"
I could recognise a plea for help when I heard it, but I wasn't convinced.
"Apart from keeping up appearances, what do you need me for?" I asked sceptically. "I mean, I'm not exactly cut out to be the brains of this outfit any more, am I?"
Tharan smiled. "Perhaps. But the truth is that you have far more experience than I do, and if I am to survive I will require your assistance. Also, I feel that the bow you carry will be of great use during combat, since I cannot fight hand to hand in melee and cover myself at the same time!"
I regarded the man warily. "We'll both be in trouble if the Guild find out," I muttered grouchily, already half-convinced.
"Then it is for the best that we assist each other in this endeavour," Tharan replied coolly. He leaned over, holding out one meaty hand. "Shall we shake on it?"
After a mere moment's hesitation, I took his hand and jerked it firmly up and down.
After all, I pointed out to myself, it's not as if I have much choice.
"So, what is your real name?" Tharan asked, after a moment. "I assume Jake is a pseudonym."
I nodded. "Yes, it is." Then I took a deep breath, and said the one thing I had been careful to hide for almost three years."My real name is Jeka."