Sin's body met the ground with a heavy thud, the impact muffled by the soaked leaves. Raindrops pricked his raised face and were promptly dried by a chilly string of wind that wove its way through and around the cedar trunks. The distant treetops shook in response and remnants of yesterday's rain dove towards his face, bursting open on impact like small, watery buds. Sin shook off the numbness in his knee caused by the clumsy descend and rose to his feet, grimacing.
On the leaves behind him, traces of ashes were already being washed away. Their primary source laid a good number of miles west, a part of which caked Sin's boots in a thick, wet crust. It was surprisingly easy to lose footing on when paired with dead autumn leaves and a matching film of water. He hopped on one leg for a few paces before finding a suitable tree to lean against. Sin then proceeded to take his boots off and smack them hard on the reddish trunk.
The clap was loud but not enough to echo. Small scabs of the wounded ash reserve floated downwards, but it was only after Sin scraped his gloves off and applied his dirty fingernails that any progress was made. It took him a few moments before the boot was passably clean and ready to be returned to its designated foot. Then he repeated the process with the other until his soaked socks could start warming up again.
Rubbing his hands on the wet wool of the heavy coat he wore, he eyed his surroundings and continued his trek. With the fresh, green smelling air filling up his nose, his eyes were wide open under the brim of his leather hat. The signs that guided him were not obscure.
As the day progressed, the murky sky looked like someone stirred water and sand in a shallow pot. It grew darker and darker, until Sin had to keep an arm bent in the elbow in front of him as to avoid encounters with unfriendly trees. The path of leaves beaten in the mud by heavy boots and names carved into trees by bored knives was swift to fade in such circumstances. At least for today, Sin had to admit defeat.
He was already sitting under a tree, disappointment kept carefully at bay by fidgeting with his knapsack, when the first, barely audible cry came. Sin's head snapped up and he was running.
He darkly half-wished the scarcely recognisable tone that stood out of the resonance of forest only by the long lasting of its meagre chime never morphed into what he was hearing now when he came to a tentative halt in front of the last line of trees. Eyeing the burning buildings of the trading place with calculated caution, he slowly shook his head and fell back into the gloom of the forest. Sin chose a spot between two cedars and set his knapsack down. The morning was slow to come that night.
Watching the carnage, Sin felt nothing but the cold of his clothes and the chill of imagined eyes he felt on his back. When nothing but ashes remained, eerily familiar, he remained sitting. When the armed men continued down the road, Sin followed them only with his eyes. When the barrel-like wagons pulled by heavy draft horses came, he stood up.
The ashes were ankle deep and angry grey. They lay in a feathery cover above the mud but with the soft drizzle coming from above, they were invisible through clouds of vapour. As Sin made his way through, an ominous sort of warmth seeped in his boots.
His shuffling raised a cloud of dry specks and he coughed as they burned his throat. Eyes were suddenly on him, their owners frozen mid-step, mid-reach. The charred corpses they were robbing had no complaints about the momentary neglect, since the scavengers were at them in a heartbeat. Still casting tentative looks at the newcomer, they returned to loosening pieces of foundations in search of hidden stashes and gathering scraps of metal.
"OI!" Sin called. The scavengers looked at him again above scarves wrapped over their mouths and noses but did not reply. He had to repeat his cry twice more before he was faced by a small woman carrying herself with more majesty than most men he'd met in his life. There was a ringlet in her nose and a blue cloth holding her hair away from her sullen, grinning face.
"What do you want, Dark Man?"
"That is not my name, woman."
"Give me yours and I will give you mine," was her simple reply. Sensing a kindred spirit of irony, he removed his hat and pressed it against his chest.
"Sinnevan D'Uvaille," Sin introduced himself with a bow and a grin.
"Qan Lueve Oppler," came her equally amused answer. "Lue for my scavenger friends."
"And what of those who are not scavengers?" Sin teased.
"They are not friends," she retorted. Their gazes collided and her teeth showed in a threatening smile. "Dark Man, I see you are a fellow predator. What do you gather from the dead?"
"It just so happens I prefer information to jewellery." He looked around at the remnants of the trading place and deep tracks the battalion left in the soft mud. "What do you know of these men?"
"The pillagers or the pillaged?" Her yellow eyes followed his. She sounded bored, but there was also alarm in her voice. "Only what all qans know, Dark Man. Nothing."
"You waste many words to say nothing, qan Lueve," Sin remarked.
"We are not stupid. A bird that sings too loud will be taken down from the sky."
"I have no bow," he said, spreading his arms with his palms up.
"Do I look like a minister?"
Closing her eyes like an enduring parent, she exhaled loudly through her nose. "You cannot demand trust, Dark Man. That is not how things are done," she said finally and turned around to leave.
He stood petrified for one horrible moment before hurrying after the scavenger. "Speak to me!"
"Discard deception, dear boy, and then convince me!"
Her hair flew in a halo as she was twirled around and grabbed by the throat.
"One answer, Qan Lueve, is all I will take from you." Sin knew how to bring threat into his growl. "Where is Starlight?"
"I do not know the name." Her voice was a hoarse whisper. Her spiteful eyes were narrowed in anger with a snarl lifting one side of her mouth.
"Have you asked your fellow vultures?" He loosened the grip of his fingers and she took a deeper breath. Her ring adorned fingers wrapped themselves firmly around his wrists, not quite resting but not struggling as well.
"Qan knows what all know. And no one knows Starlight anymore."
"You have discovered deception, Qan Lueve."
In one swift motion he was thrown away and looking up at the blue headed scavenger through the grey mist her skirts lifted. The sky was in turmoil above her stern mouth. "We leave at dawn. Come to the tribe you are so intent to ruin and we may speak."
"I do not have the time to wait, qan Lueve," Sin took a step back, shaking his head. Scavengers were gathering behind their leader. "I need those who made this place ash. Their route is peculiar and I cannot afford to lose them in the forest."
"Then curse you trice and be gone!" She shouted at him. "There is a stronghold of your road lords down the mud and it is the next to burn. A temple inside is where you can ask your questions if my answers do not suit you."
"I am in your eternal debt, my lady."
A pair of reins connected to a dark coated horse was tossed his way. Sin took them in his hands with great care and chanced another look at Qan Lueve. Her eyes were burning on her small brown face.
Mounting up and flicking the reins, he turned the dancing horse in the direction of the road. It wound about and was hidden from view after only a few yards, yet Sinnevan could feel the pull of the castle even though it was impossible to see. His next beacon close, he leaned into the horse's neck and narrowed his eyes. Now was the time to gallop.
A draft horse is strong. It has mass instead of agility and endurance instead of dexterity. When enticed, a draft horse could outrun a small band of walking robbers and reach their next destination before they set it ablaze. Sin was among the last few that beat the iron reinforced door to closing.
The road lord's castle, as the scavenger qan put it, was but a small fort on a crossroad. It had a small, crooked tower and a crumbling wall that, admirable height aside, was as worn out and moss covered as its defenders. Sin wandered about aimlessly before joining a small group of the castle soldiers. After a pleasant chat, he set out to find the temple keeper.
Fortunately for him, Arno Diether was pacing about the grounds in such a manner a proper introduction could not be avoided.
"My apologies, master acolyte. With your grey robes and the gloom…"
"It is quite alright… sir swordsman." The acolyte looked up with admiration and a curiosity Sin found matching to the childishly rounded face and the unruly mop of plain brown hair. "May I be of any assistance?"
"I am looking for a name."
"Ah, names. I have plenty of them in my records. May I inquire…"
Diether looked startled. "Ah… that kind of name." He licked his lips nervously as his eyes darted about. "Unfortunately, they are kept as a separate category. I seem to have misplaced those particular documents."
Sin released a breath he did not know he was holding. "A favour is what you need to replace them, I presume?"
The acolyte gave a placid smile and a helpless shrug of his shoulders. "I am afraid it is out of my hands. With the impending situation, I can only ask you to join our ranks on the walls."
Sin slowly nodded, brows furrowing. He had no intention of fighting the marauders.
"Unconventional for a corrupted member of clergy, I know," a crooked grin appeared on the moonlike face in front of him. "But you have a weapon and I value my life enough to abandon all scruples."
Sin gave a sympathetic click of his tongue, irritation seeping through his words like water through fabric. "Milk maids and itinerant traders are not very competent soldiers, am I not right?"
The clergy man only smiled wider.
"I must find the captain then."
"Olek Vasset, sir," Diether confirmed helpfully. He pointed at a low roof on the other side of the courtyard. "He is doing his rounds in the infirmary at this hour."
"Sentimental," Sin said as they started walking.
"Efficient," the holy man argued. He was right, in a way. Morale and so on. It could serve as a valid argument against Sin's prejudice concerning irrational, overly-protective commanders and their rash decisions. They stopped on the end of the gallery.
"Now I bid my farewell, master acolyte. Try to stay alive until all of this is over."
"Farewell, sir swordsman. And I assure you, this is not my first siege."
They shook hands and parted ways – Arno Diether to the tower, Sin to the small, stable-like building the former directed him to. He found the infirmary unsurprisingly lacking in overly crippling cases.
After all, the siege was only about to start.
One man was here because of a stubbed toe. One because of a wet, torturous cough that raked his entire body and left him pale and drained on his bed. The third was here because of a bad tooth. The fourth was Olek Vasset.
Sin approached the grey haired man in brisk, long strides. A trail of mud marked his passing from the door and with water dripping from the brim of his hat, he made quite a display in the inert, stale aired environment of the room. His eyes set on the distant green uniform, he called out.
"Oi! Are you Vasset?"
The man and the bedridden soldier looked up from their conversation. After a moment of hesitation, the soldier averted his gaze and fell obediently into a light sleep. The captain waited patiently for Sin to approach before asserting his firm grey gaze upon his.
"I am. And your name, sir?"
"Sinnevan D'Uvaille. Not that it is of any importance."
"I agree," the captain seemed amused for a quick moment before becoming wary. "What is your business in my fort?"
"I am looking for a name. The temple keeper said I could find it on the walls."
The captain nodded in understanding. "I must come around and thank the man. You and I included, there are now six men defending this place."
"You are not unaware of the attackers' number, I presume," Sin said carefully. They were vastly outnumbered.
"Unfortunately." The older man pursed his lips as he evaluated the newcomer. Sin evaluated him in turn and came to a few conclusions of his own. "There is an armoury in the courtyard, D'Uvaille. Go find yourself some armour and be on the wall before the evening bell."
"Fire burns ever so brighter at night, captain," Sin bowed obediently. "I'm off!"
"You won't be missed, kid," he heard a murmur from the apparently not so sleeping soldier.
Sin grinned as he walked away.
Once there, in that dark, dusty little room smelling of pine beams and moist clinging to the walls, Sin ignored the green liveries and banners and proceeded directly to the murky gleam of metal.
There he found a few dented plate chest pieces, much too large for him, and matching sets of bracers and shin-guards. There was also a sword stall to his right filled with once lethal weapons, now nothing but metal rods red with rust. On the wall to his left round shields hung in neat rows and behind the wooden heads covered with ancient, ostrich feather adorned helmets was a series of hooks, from which chain mail shirts hung like freshly washed laundry.
Sin slung his coat on a practice dummy and set his hat on a free spear. He quickly discarded the possibility of fighting efficiently under a heavy metal plate and decided to examine the chain shirts instead. Most of them were either too damaged to be of any use or they did not fit Sin's frame.
In the end, he settled with one that was in a relatively good condition and only too small enough to reach halfway to his knees. He eyed those shin guards but refrained from trying to stuff them in his boots. He found an arrow ready to have its tip broken off instead and it joined Sin's trusted arsenal of one long knife and a sword.
Thus equipped, he navigated his way back to the door through the clutter of spear points and practice dummies. He paused only to tear a long stripe of green from an old flag and tie it around both his upper arms. No need to taunt the devil, especially if he's on Sin's side of the brawl.
With that done, he prepared for the undoubtedly unpleasant walk to the wall. The chain mail is not as heavy as the plate armour, but it slowed Sin down considerably all the same. The leather layer underneath the metal had sharp edges that annoyed him to no end, and the arrowhead in his boot gave him such pain he had to move it to his glove. The nail shaped protrusion was long as his palm and rendered it useless, aside from pushing the thing up and out of the glove using his middle finger, yet he did not discard it. You can never have too much killing iron on you at times like these.
The evening chime rang from the small tower and men started bustling about in the courtyard. Sin followed a trio of green clad fellows up and looked around to find Vasset. He spotted the man on the other side, lighting the torches and chatting encouraging nonsense to the other fighter on the walls. Sin averted his gaze to the courtyard. Arno Diether was leaning on the door of the tower and waved with a thick book when he noticed Sin looking.
"Why isn't the minister up here?"
"He is useless in a fight."
"When do you think it'll start?"
"According to the fires that are starting to appear, I'd say within an hour."
Sin squinted above the blinding light of Vasset's torch. "Over there, by the forest edge? They look more like scavengers to me."
Vasset snorted. "Why would vultures appear before a fight?"
Sin cocked his head and looked at him under the brim of his hat. "Why would the attackers announce their attack? They've never done that before."
Vasset's face darkened in anger. "You know them?"
"I follow them," Sin corrected as the man glared and walked away. "They simply walk into a settlement and burn it down. No announcements. No bonfires!"
Vasset was a commander of a small fortress on an unimportant crossroad. What strategy he knew came from his seniors, who have in turn learned it from theirs. No formal tactics were introduced to him nor was he on familiar terms with any other terrain than his own, which he knew like the back of his hand. Thus Sin did not ask any questions when the man ordered the wall cleared, for what commander knew of it could not be matched by anything he, a lowly newcomer, could offer.
Sin, however, did ask questions when Vasset mounted up his horse and got ready to leave the familiar sanctuary of his keep, for it seemed there was more spite than strategy forming the decision. The chances he would go alone were slim and Sin was not going to be the one dragged down with him.
"Oi, Vasset. What are you doing?"
"Negotiating."¸The captain looked down his nose, radiating cold wrath from his elevated position. "Anything useful to say on that, D'Uvaille?"
"Those fellows don't negotiate! They want fire, not words!"
"Every man wants wealth," Vasset reasoned and rode out with one of his men. Sin covered his face with his hand and did not even flinch when there was a thud, a gurgle and another, heavier thud. The soldier the captain took stared at the dark and slowly retreated behind the door of the fortress.
"The cap'n was shot," the man breathed. His eyes widened and his voice suddenly jumped into a higher pitch. "He's dead. The cap'n was shot!"
"Arrows do that to idiots," Sin retorted. He turned his back to the now sealed gates and started walking. "Come along. Back to the wall."
"The cap'n said to steer clear of the wall," the young man rebelled.
"And look what happened to him," Sin said, already halfway up the stairs. "We'll join him before sunrise, I'm sure."
His curiosity peaking, the man ran after him. "Then why are we going to the wall, sir?"
"Corpses look better from below."
With only five men on the wall, the fight was already settled. First the flaming arrows came, writing radiant orange arches over the heads of defenders. Four strong, muffled impacts followed and the door burst from its hinges with a screech of dented metal, letting three dozens of screaming marauders into the gut of the fort. The first to be impaled by a sword was Arno Diether.
Blood and saliva mixed as they poured out of the man's mouth. Sin roared in resentment (regret) and ran his weapon through an unprotected neck. Flinging the arrowhead out of his glove, he used it, after losing the long knife in a skull, to deliver a number of brutal blows. Still, the enemy was overpowering.
To his right, the young man was thrown over the wall to join his captain. The remaining three of the soldiers formed a half-circle above the other stairwell and held the oncoming tide for a few heartbeats. They screamed as blades cut into first their shins, then their arms and necks when they fell into the shouting mass of men.
Sin felt his heart pound in his throat and heard his breath grate over his tongue. He was surrounded from all sides but the back, and back is where the wall ended. Retreating before a tide of teeth bared in malevolence, he looked over his shoulder and felt a spear enter his stomach alongside the cold spike of fear, tearing through chain, leather, cloth and flesh.
His hands clasped the wood and try to halt its advance, but it proceeded on its path, unrelenting and persistent. The ragged scream that was tearing at Sin's throat faded slowly into nothing and he coughed up pieces of himself. As he stared into the eyes of his killer, Sin felt a push against his back and his feet slipped from underneath him. He fell, for a moment, through cheering and wild shouts of the victorious.
The impact was hard and knocked all air out of his lungs. His head had struck the ground with a force that made it bounce back up, the lash hurting his neck and tossing his hat over his eyes blinded by a burst of light that followed the collision.
He was lowered down with sheer lack of power and a horrible sense of vertigo. In spite of the terror that shivered in his beaten bones and the burning veins of pain spreading through his ruined middle, he succumbed to the sensation of weightlessness. His mind lost its balance and, like a spark, Sin was snuffed out.
"Come 'ere hi! Come 'ere lo! Hello, Dark Man," the laughing voice said through the night of his mind. "Your woman is still lost, I presume? The lark a-calls you howdy ho!"
Without opening his eyes, Sinnevan D'Uvaille slowly pried his cracked lips open with a dry tongue and breathed a voiceless answer. „You know it better than me, Lue."
Something big and buzzing tried to enter his nose and he turned his head with difficulty, quickly regretting it as the heaviness turned into a blinding pain in the open wound on the back of his skull. There were more buzzing things clinging to him, and the sudden motion made them stir in alarm.
„You aren't that stupid, Dark Man." She gave her dangerous grin and placed a bare foot on his throat as he tried to raise himself on his elbows to scare them away. "Look down and see what your impatience did."
He forgot about the spear. His breathing was made a challenge by a painful knot in his throat as he saw it again and there was stinging behind his eyes – stinging of the worst kind. "Lue," both his sight and his voice seemed to fail him at that moment. "I can't, not yet. Oh, God, not yet!"
Lue lowered herself quickly to the ground and placed a rough palm on his cheek. "No need for that, dear boy, even though you lost my horse." She eyed the spear rising from his middle before taking hold of the long handle and breaking it off using her weight. Sin fought the urge to writhe as it moved slightly inside of him.
„Just pull the thing out," he wheezed through the pain. "And let me be on my way."
„Your way will last about four paces before you fall. Are four paces towards Starlight worth your life?"
A grin stained red appeared on the broken man's face. "Yes. "
Lue slapped him. "I am the one who holds your life now, not that woman! You owe me, remember? And my price is you." She eyed him carefully.
His fingers clumsily missed the scratches her nails left. He found them in the second go. "Can you fix me?"
"No." Her fingers rested on his forehead. They could both smell the foul metal in his breath. "Only if you promise to scream."
He considered it. And gave a small nod.
"Fine," he let his eyelids sink down and slowly rested his heavy head back on the ground. His fingers were entwined and unmoving around the moist, pulsating heat in his gut. "Have it your way."
"I always do," she said and placed her hands on the wood. Sin kept his promise as she pulled it out.