Murders of ravens danced between pillars of moonlight. Black waves pressed against the ship’s hull, bobbing as a cork against the pier. Baldor inhaled the stench of salt and ale marrying in the air. He turned from the dock and walked towards the port town. With each step, his bones creaked as rusted armour, curdled copper from the rain.
Baldor counted his gold before he entered Oldvale. The joints in his elbows nagged to warn him of a coming tempest. He covered his head with his hood.
A proud banner waved as a sky fish in the slight breeze. It bore the image of a golden six-winged phoenix upon an orange and white saltire field with a crown mounted on its head. It was a decrepit flag that once represented the Nameless King. Over the years, the emblem was forgotten and replaced with the banner of a crimson rose on an alabaster field.
He scoffed. The rose banner was a symbol for pansies.
The versed sailor grumbled. Baldor rolled a piece of gold over his fingers. The steel tip of a blade pressed against his spine.
“Give me your crownes, old bastard! I want all you got!” The thief demanded. Baldor slid the golden coins into the sack. He faced the crook with his hands raised. “Hand them over! Or else I’ll gut you!”
“No.” Baldor unsheathed his rapier. The burglar stabbed at the sailor. Baldor parried, keeping his blows restricted. His opponent extended his weapon from his body. His sword hit the side of the curved falchion, and wrapped around the thief’s blade.
From the vertical position of his sword, Baldor pointed the tip down and slid the rapier along the outside of the opposing blade. He jerked it towards him. The sword flew from the lowborn’s grasp.
“Get out of here. Now. And next time you wish to steal from an old vagabond like me, bring a weapon you know how to use,” Baldor grumbled. The mugger disappeared into a side street. Baldor shook his head and muttered curses.
He marched to the town. Green toned twilight hung over the city. Night gave no end to the endless transactions of patrons and dwarven shopkeepers within the hamlet. Oldvale festered with lowborn men and tradesmen. Merchants, sailors and smugglers gathered from the four cardinal points of the world, to sup with ale and make love to the penniless. Ballads cascaded from the taverns and shopkeeps barked from their stalls.
“Get your slaves here! Want a hard worker? We have the best in the realm!” A slave master called. A batch of captured mages sat against the wall, chained together, and dressed in old rags. They bore pearl-coloured hair and pale skin. Their feet were shackled together, which branded them as men and women ostracised from the kingdoms for their arcane abilities.
Baldor marched through the market. A jester performed a puppet play nearby his cart for a throng of peasants and children. The sailor stopped to gawk at the performance. The jester held a tattered marionette with an underdeveloped jaw, a sloping forehead, and a head of flaxen hair. The puppet wore a gold crown.
“The beggar prince sat in the streets, starving and alone, without a mother or a father to love him. In his darkest moments, the goddess, Fortuna, came to the child of the lion and the dragon.”
From behind the puppet curtain came a female marionette with copper hair. She danced towards the king. The children laughed and pointed at the figurines. The maiden gave the nobleman doll a fake golden coin.
“She gifted him with one crowne, giving the nameless boy a second chance at life. She told him, ‘this miracle should not be wasted’, and wasted it was not. The beggar prince decided he would become king. With the aid of his tutor, Castor Crane, and his closest friend Mahakala Dorian, he conquered the kingdoms, uniting the lowborn with the highborn under the banner of the phoenix,” the jester proclaimed.
He hid the puppets behind the curtain. The king marionette returned with a royal banner in hand and had wings strapped to his back. The audience awed at the display. Baldor rolled his eyes.
“His reign was the Rose Renaissance, a time of infinite peace that still continues to this day. You see, the Nameless King is immortal, gifted eternal life by the dragon queen. But darkness dwells in the hearts of men wishing to destroy our peaceful realm. Be wary my children, for as Fortuna gave the beggar prince a chance, she can take it away without a thought. Reality is fortune’s proudest game. She reclines at a table and sets her side of the board with white knights adorned in order and natural law. Fortune wagers with her lover, dream, who brings his hand-carved pawns stained in chaos and the ambition of desperate men. Death is their slave, chained to the leg of the table, as a hound that consumes that which fortune and dream have discarded.”
Baldor sighed. He waddled down the street and found a stall selling tea leaves imported from the kingdom to the west of Eaton. The owner of the stall spun golden thread on her spinning wheel. Two boys sat at her feet, playing with sticks. The woman’s face was drained of colour. Her skin was turning grey and sickly. He went to her shop. The merchant wiped clean her frock and stood.
“How may I help you?” She asked.
“I would like five bags of redroot tea leaves and two bags of nirella tea,” Baldor replied. The merchant gave him seven sacks.
“That is a lot of tea for one man.”
“I am going far from here. I may never return actually. So I need to stock up as best I can. Tea and books are the best remedies for old age.” The sailor dumped his purse of gold coins on the wooden table. “Keep those hidden, spend them on your sons. If anyone finds what I have given you, they will not hesitate to kill you.”
“Thank you so much. I don’t know how I’ll repay you. May the goddess shine down upon you, kind sir.” The merchant counted the gold.
“No need to repay me. Think of it as a blessing of good fortune.” Baldor departed from the stall and shuffled through the mobs of drunken men. The old man wandered the crowded streets with his bags in hand. He passed through the centre of Oldvale. In the middle of the cobblestone courtyard was the statue of a selkie standing upon the rocks, preparing to leap into the waters. Passers-by ignored the silent beauty of the woman.
Baldor continued to the ports where the waves called him home. He ambled to the harbour. The shore welcomed him with a sweet aroma carrying the putrid smell of decay. Blood streams flowed from the end of the pier, staining the wooden planks crimson.
The sailor covered his mouth. Vomit slipped between his fingers as Baldor bent over and puked his supper. He lumbered to the head of the dock. With each step, the wood underneath his boots yawned. The rusted smell of iron burned his nostrils. Something moist crunched beneath his foot. He stopped and his gaze dragged downwards. A ropy intestine pulsated under his shoe. Baldor retreated. A bloodied net sat at the edge of the wharf.
He crept closer. Flies buzzed in his ears.
Baldor knelt beside the net. A white-haired maiden was tangled in a rope. Her disembowelled body was stone-chilled and stiff.
Baldor turned away from the corpse. He stepped in quick paces towards his ship. The sailor heard a shrill from the belly of the woman. He stopped, twisted around, and studied the net closer.
He withdrew from the dead maiden. A living form curled upon a pile of still steaming intestines. Baldor held in his stomach as the surviving child wailed. He opened the woman’s lower abdomen and examined the newborn. The umbilical rope wrapped around him as a serpent, connecting parent to infant. Baldor reached into the womb.
He touched the cold skin of the child and his vision went white. When he looked down again, the baby and the mother vanished. They were replaced with a rotting skinless corpse, curled in a ball. The dead man’s skin was marbled in putrid vomit-green and plum-purple patches. Its tongue protruded from a hole in its face.
His mouth dropped. He retreated from the sight, catching a faint light. Baldor peered down the dock to see a white-haired king wearing an ice crown.
The sailor closed his eyes.
The weeping of a baby stirred him from the vision. Baldor caught a flicker of yearning in the child’s gaze. He unsheathed a small dagger and cut the umbilical cord. He held the sobbing boy in his arms. Baldor knew no rest would bequeath the boy torn from the grip of fate.