Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Sailor, The Giant, and the Madman, Prologue by Jim Sterling

Rek the Warrior drove his steed through the treacherous slopes of the Krikton Hills, unaware his journey would bring forth an infestation of evil that would devour his homeland, Maktear. But an awareness of the perils ahead wouldn’t have swayed him from his course. Rek was a mercenary with perversions far more profound than the common sadist; he could slay a child or a feast-prepped swine with equal detachment. By no accident had he acquired such titles as Rek the Heathen, and Rek the Remorseless.
But savagery such as this would be needed in the Krikton Hills; a passageway no sane man would follow. He would save a full day’s ride eluding the winding roads below, making the inevitable confrontation with the natives worthwhile. The Kriks were a loathsome people who had propagated themselves through generations of incest. They were repulsive, savage, and imbecilic.
But Rek traveled with greater purpose these days. One of his harlots had borne him a child, a son no less. Rek had never cared for the outcome of his seed before, but the thought of rearing a barbarian in his mold brought meaning to a life, that was otherwise filled with vile carnage.
He moved on, fearlessly pushing his mount upwards through an unforgiving torrent, whose drops fell through the windless storm as if they were aimed straight at him. His steed, a beast as seemingly indifferent as he, carried on through the muddy trails with no sound to distract it, other than the expansive drops that pelted off its master’s armor. Rek’s suit was a monstrosity that struck fear in his enemies a full league away. Shoulder spikes, horns and tilted facial slits made him look more demonic than human; suiting his lust for violence quite fittingly. It would take more than inclement weather for him to part with it.
When he arrived at the peak of The Krikton Hills he encountered a cluster of grass huts and mud-packed dwellings. Smoke rose from the largest of the set; he entered, seeking a meal to tide him on his way. He kicked open the door, sword in hand, ready to announce it was he that should be feared, and not the contrary.
But his grand entrance was wasted on an empty hovel. Grass and mud walls supported a shabby, bamboo and bark roof that leaked at the edges. An assemblage of chairs and tables surrounded a fire in the middle of a dirt floor. Perched over the blaze was a boiling pot-belly cauldron, supported by an iron tri-pod; its contents likely responsible for the stench that stole Rek’s appetite. 
At the back of the dwelling was a door that lay fully open, teasing his curiosity, calling him to ask why they would vacate their food and shelter with such haste. 
Rek crept through the hut towards the doorway, his sword tip well ahead of him. As he neared the exit he began to hear screams; that of a woman. He quickened his pace and shot out the back door to see a gathering of Kriks, standing in the woods at the edge of a small pond. In the middle of them, spread upon a stone slab, was a woman amidst the anguish of labor. She was a haggardly looking girl, surrounded by company equal to her unsightliness. 
They stopped for a moment to take notice of Rek, then returned to the event at hand. Never had he drawn such apathy, especially in full armor. The woman continued to scream while her collection of brethren, any one of whom might be the father, stood by doing nothing. Even Rek was taken aback by their indifference.
Poised for battle, but rudely ignored, he readied to take leave, until he saw the child begin to emerge. He had seen the likes before with cattle and horses, but never a human. It seemed just as vulgar, in particular the after-birth. The mother’s screaming came to an end, replaced by that of the infant’s, and just like that, there was another life in the Krikton Hills where there wasn’t a moment ago. 
Rek thought he could do them, and the rest of the world a favor, by killing it. Instead he chose to leave, hoping to avoid a moment of endearment, a sight he had no stomach for. But instead of welcoming the infant, they tore it from the mother’s reach, separating it from its cord before passing it around amongst themselves. They stared and poked at it, shaking their heads, submitting their disapproval. How hideous would this child have to be to not meet the standards of these degenerates, Rek thought.
They showed it to the mother and even she turned it away. Without discussion, one of the adults took the babe and flung it towards the fire; it landed just short of its mark on the fringe of the flames. Rek tore open his visor to confirm what he had trouble believing. Indeed were these people depraved; but, if they wanted to kill one of their own, then so be it; the world was better off with one less Krik in it. What did it matter that the child would die without knowing the warmth of its mother’s touch or consideration from its own kind? A woman moved towards the child to further it into the flames when an epiphany struck Rek.
“Stop!” he commanded.
The woman held up as Rek flew past her and scooped up the child. Convinced it should die, the haggardly female rushed the warrior, only to meet her own demise with a foot of Rek’s blade. 
The others closed in on him, weaponless, but fearless just the same. Rek killed several of them before finding the back door of the hut. He grabbed a soiled rag off the ground while backing away, keeping the point of his sword between him and the Kriks, cursing them to stay away.

Time was precious and Rek had none of it to waste. This child may have no home with its own, but Rek knew of a place where a discarded life was of great value. He barreled through the front door of the hut returning to his horse, stealing a quick glance at the child prior to mounting; then pulling back when he did. It was diminutive and horrid to look upon. Its cheeks were hollow and the whites of its eyes bulged like they were ready to fall out. It looked back at Rek without a tear or a peep, even though coarse wool rubbed against its burnt skin.
He covered it back up, mounted his steed and headed back the way he came; abandoning his original quest through the hills.
He rode as hard as he could, knowing the child wouldn’t survive without food and proper care. For hours they beat down the main road on steel shod hooves, spit and snot spewing from the beast’s face. Then suddenly Rek yanked the reins, and they sharply turned south onto an unworn path that was barely visible amidst the overgrown foliage. Rek ignored the overhanging trees that swatted his helmet as he begged more and more of the tiring steed that fought to abide its rider’s charge. On they went through the poorly traveled path and its myriad of turns, until finally they reached their destination.
 Buried deep in the woods, surrounded by swamp, was a judiciously sized castle, baring two towers; one with a peak and the other an observation turret. What brick was not covered in vines was black, as if it had been charred with fire. Rek looked at the soggy ground before him and saw no foot prints or wheel tracks; no one had left or entered in quite sometime. He held ground for a brief moment, questioning the sanity of his mission; but since he’d gone to such lengths already, he decided to see it through. 
After dismounting and removing his helmet he ran to the front door: a large two piece metal gate that looked more like the entrance to a dungeon than a home. He banged on them until they slowly opened inwards, seemingly on their own. A stench of damp mold, suiting the blackness within, barged into his nostrils like an unwanted guest.
Rek stood there for a moment, unable to recall his last encounter with fear. Then the darkness within broke as a figure embracing a candle approached; stopping within a foot of the entrance and the dim sunlight that breached within. Rek could see nothing but an outline of a face; he spoke to break the unnerving silence, since the figure seemed unwilling to.
“The…The Mage please,” Rek pleaded. “I’ve come to see The Mage.” But there was no response. Rek stepped a little closer and opened the bundle. The figure leaned forward to see the child, exposing his features in the candle light for a brief moment. Rek wheezed at the sight of the pale skinned man who was remarkably stout for a person of such severe age.
He said nothing as he turned and walked inward, gesturing for Rek to do the same. When they got inside the figure raised a hand to stop Rek, while he continued on into the darkness of the hallway before them. Rek ignored his surroundings, denying his curiosity in fear of what he might see.
Moments later, the candle light reappeared down a distant hallway. Two sets of shuffling feet competed with the boom of Rek’s heart. The figure with the candle drifted off to the side to leave Rek face to face with The Mage. He was dressed in a black robe, tied with a black cord that draped his waist like a dead snake.
His age was hard to guess; his wrinkles were profound yet his hair was jet black, draping well past his ears. Candle light flickered off his facial rings; two in each ear and one in his chin that dangled a hand span below.
“Do I know you?” he asked, in a voice that was coarse as wool rope.
“I am uncertain my lord. My name is Rek. I’ve brought something I trust is of great value to you.” Rek opened the bundle and held it out for him to see.
“Of what purpose would an ugly child provide me?”
Rek’s hands trembled, sensing The Mage’s impatience.
“I’ve taken him from his family my lord; they cast him into the flames upon moment of his birth.”
 The Mage stepped forward, “And his mother, what of his mother, did she feed him, did she touch him, has he been contaminated by her suckle?”
“This child has known no love or touch of warmth from its mother, this I swear.”
“Then you have done well, Rek the Warrior; I shall keep the child and bestow upon you my favor.”
“Thank you, milord.”
The Mage took the child from him, careful not to touch its skin.
 “May I ask what this favor might be milord?”
The Mage turned back to him, annoyed with his insistence,
“You spend time in the lower valleys, do you not?”
“Aye I do, I extort food from the farmland just east of the river.”
“This spring I will reach out to the valleys, cursing their crops. For this season alone, I shall overlook yours. I trust that is just reward.”
“Of course milord, it was honor enough just to save this child for you.” Rek said as he backed his way out of the entrance.
 The Mage had taken two steps back into the castle before bringing his gait still.
“This is true,” he said, turning back to Rek. “Your endeavors, although self-serving, could one day be construed as heroic.”
“By who, milord?”
“By the child,” The Mage answered as he shuffled his feet closer to the warrior. Rek’s gaze went blank as he watched The Mage raise his free hand. Gnarled fingers, poised like they were broken were aimed at him. He stared fearful for a moment, then staggered sideways before flipping off his helmet.
“My eyes!” he yelled, dropping to his knees.
“I am sorry Rek the warrior, but if this child is to fulfill the role for which you saved him for, then he cannot know the affable sentiment of a savior. Your intent was righteous, but to complete its discharge, you must die.”
Rek’s mouth opened, as if a scream was due, but none was forthcoming. His hands wavered over his eyes and throat as if he wanted to clutch them, but they ached from a pain he knew he couldn’t relieve.
Then Rek went still, his mouth lay agape and his hands fell at his side. An image of the son he would no longer be able to raise flashed briefly through his mind as the deep red blood that had gathered in his skull, burst from his eyes. Rek collapsed in a pool of his own blood, the only puddle in the castle’s courtyard.        
The Mage eased his way back into the castle, studying the child as he did, then he turned to his servant.
“He’s near death, get him some goat milk, treat his wounds but be sure to wear gloves. This child will never know the warmth of our touch. He shall sleep in the solitude of the castle’s depths in the room next to The Book.”
“The Book of Being, my Mage?”
“The very one; its emanations will help enrich the child, he will need its strength for the path I propose for him.”
“Will you teach him the ways, my Mage?”
“He will learn the elements of dark magic, the merits of torture, and the means to prolong his life, as you and I have done. He will learn to ignore the gods that other men choose to worship. As an apostle of The Usurper he will need to be powerful. The Grand Spirit will surely bring forth a virtuous entity to oppose him.
 “What do you foresee, milord?”
“I do not know, The Grand Spirit works in mysterious ways; an enchantment, a charmed artifact, a weapon, a being worthy of contestation, it could be anything. If this child lives, I will teach him everything I know, and name him Maeldroth. He shall be a bringer of death.”
“If he dies,” The Mage took a shallow breath, “he shan’t be missed.”
Jim Sterling currently lives in Burlington, Ontario, where he has owned and operated a print business for twenty years. A lifetime of affection towards heroic characters has fuelled his drive to complete his epic dark fantasy, The Sailor, The Giant, and the Madman.

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