Nothing ever happened round here.
That was the only conclusion Roriel Tamsillyn could reach, sat as he was clutching a mug of ale that he had to unstick from the table every time he took a swig. Nothing ever happened. Not in this part of Anahor, excluding the odd – frequent, even – scuffle between inebriated patrons. Sometimes they would escalate into brawls when one leery combatant swung and missed at his foe and hit another, unintended target. Sometimes the recipient of the wayward blow didn’t seem to mind, but what never failed to wind them up was when their own beer was spilt. That seemed to do the trick every time. Drunks, the lot of ‘em, mused Roriel. Wouldn’t catch me making such a fool of myself. No drunken lout, me. He detached his mug from the sticky table and waved it to his companion, awaiting the clink of her own drink against his; only then did he realise he hadn’t spoken aloud. Oh, maybe I am then. He manoeuvred his gaze round to look down at his companion, intrigued at how slowly his vision seemed to catch up with the direction of his eyes, and one glance at her confirmed his suspicions. Hmm. Definitely drunk.
He looked back over the fuzzy crowd, trying to recapture his train of thought. Fights? Something about fights. That was it – nothing interesting ever happened round the Wayward Knave, this stinking piss-hole of a tavern down in the Hutch, the sprawling poor district of Anahor that lay in the webbed delta of the Nol River. An amateurish little brawl by two men as like to hit themselves as anyone else? Not interesting, not in Roriel’s book. Interesting would involve choking an ogre to death barehanded, or wading his way through a sea of Gautnal with his sword. Or wading my way through a sea of scantily-clad Abjaht beauties with my other sword. Now that sounds like an adventure.
He chuckled at his own good humour, tossing back the rest of his ale and wiping his beard, waving the tankard vaguely in the air for a refill. The woman at his side – shapely, but sadly pig-ugly – rose to snatch the mug from his hand. As she headed off towards the bar he gave her rear end an instinctive grope, as his sodden mind finally caught up. Of course, she’s a serving girl, not a working girl… bet that’ll cost me a pretty penny. He couldn’t remember meeting her, let alone paying her whatever she charged for her company. ‘Spose it doesn’t matter, Da’s money anyway.
Not for the first time, thinking of his family made Roriel scowl, his wide jaw bunching. A fellow far more inebriated than he approached the table at that moment, but on seeing the look on Roriel’s face he made an about turn to find another seat. Oblivious, Roriel’s thoughts were in the verdant fields of Alm, an outlying region to the south of Nahol where his family’s estate was situate. He was the third son of a wealthy family. Very wealthy, in fact. The Tamsillyn name was synonymous with money, according to most. Alm was so named for the variety of medicinal herbs and plants native to the warm and fecund region, and the Tamsillyns were one of the principal traders of potions and salves on the entire continent. Ironic, then, that his elder brothers were both born sickly – one of body and one of mind. Daniel, the eldest, was frail, and died before his tenth nameday, when Roriel himself was four. The middle brother, Leniel, was touched with an ague of the mind; kind-hearted but simple, he could never be responsible for the family’s welfare. Roriel’s parents always told him he was blessed with the resilience both his elder brothers lacked, for he was huge and muscular and – to all intents and purposes – not mad. Thus his father had decreed that he would inherit the family trade when he came of age.
Unfortunately though, Roriel himself had never seen things the same way. He may not have been a simpleton but he clearly lacked any sort of business instinct; his attributes were of the physical kind and his father was driven constantly to distraction when Roriel’s tutors lamented young boy’s incessant wandering off in the middle of lessons, inevitably to be found hours later, fine clothes ruined, up a tree or waist-deep in a brook waving a stick around at the fish and birds. And so, true to form, one day shortly after he turned eighteen he had upped and wandered off the estate, never to return. He hadn’t seen the look on his father’s face, but he bet it had been priceless – much like the purloined contents of the hefty sack that was the only thing he carried other than the clothes on his back. In any case he had a younger sister, Yasmin, who was a far better fit to succeed their father. She was cunning, tactless and rude, which had always seemed to the young Roriel to be the key prerequisites for a good businessman. Or woman. Talking of which… He cast his eyes around the tavern in search of the bar wench, before a nudge at his elbow told him she had already returned, and lo and behold, there was his mug, full and foaming. The woman was fumbling at his belt now, grinning lewdly. After staring a moment, he unstuck his mug once more and leant back to give her room. So… a working girl after all? Maybe she just really likes me.
So he had simply picked a direction and walked, safe in the knowledge that whatever he found would surely be more interesting than what he had left behind. And he had been proven quite correct, he reflected as he took a deep draught of beer and closed his eyes, enjoying the girl’s ministrations. He heard an officious huff nearby followed by a tut, then a woman’s severe voice reached his ears.
“Do you see what he’s doing? In the middle of a crowded room—“ she was cut off by shushing noises, followed by a man’s admonishing tone.
“Hold your tongue, woman – don’t you know who that is?” Roriel’s eyes were still closed as the man continued. “He’s one of them Accidentals, see the mark on his arm?”
“Accidentals – oh,” came the woman’s hushed reply. Their voices faded as the man presumably dragged her elsewhere in the tavern. Roriel’s thoughts went to the mark in question, the ragged tattoo of an acorn scrawled into the meat of his left forearm. Most of the Accidentals carried the mark – Bergen’s Oak, they called it, or the Accidentals’ Acorn, or the Forget-me-Nut – on a scrap of cloth or on a pattern sewn into their clothing. Roriel, though, had never managed to rid himself of that nasty childhood habit of ruining his clothing with remarkable frequency, so he had it permanently marked in his flesh. That was the story he told others, anyway. Only a select few knew that the tattoo was the result of a drunken bet with that Gautnal oaf Gunvald, and that he’d carved the wound with his own belt knife before pressing in the ink himself. That had been pretty sore, although he reckoned Gunvald had come off worse, searing the mark into his chest with a red-hot poker.
Gunvald had been the one to find Roriel – or rather Roriel had stumbled across him, wandering through the forest hopelessly lost. He had neglected to pack either food or water when he had left home two days previously, and he was unsurprisingly ravenous and thirsty; hearing the bubbling of a brook he had crashed through the treeline and into a clearing, where he was confronted with a hulking Gautnal filling a waterskin from a stream. The Gautnal’s hand instinctively went to his empty sword belt before he froze, and Roriel spotted the belt and blade piled with a shield and leather hauberk on top of a nearby rock. There was a second’s pause before Roriel launched himself towards the Gautnal, swinging his heavy sack of riches wildly at his head; his foe had sprung towards him with remarkable speed and dropped into a tackle. Roriel’s sack swung over the Gautnal’s head and the other man slammed into Roriel’s gut, hammering the air from his lungs in a great whoosh and lifting him before driving him onto his back on the earth. The bag flew from Roriel’s grip and stars winked in front of his eyes, but he clubbed his fists together and brought them crashing down on the back of his attacker’s head once, twice. The grip around his waist loosened and he squirmed free, bringing his knee up hard with a sharp crack into the Gautnal’s eye as they both rose. Roriel had felt a moment of triumph – judging by the agony shooting through his kneecap, his assailant would surely be knocked unconscious – but his joy was short-lived as a thick fist smacked into his nose, smashing it flat. He could’ve sworn the back of his head connected with his shoulder blades; there was a moment where he contemplated his lack of understanding of how a single fist could hit him so hard, before those infernal stars danced in front of his eyes again and he rocked drunkenly to one side. Shaking his head to clear his vision, he saw his opponent through a haze of blood and tears; the other man was also weaving, swearing violently and shaking his bruised fist. Their eyes met and as one they charged again, Roriel aiming a low punch into his opponent’s gut and feeling his knuckles give way against the larger man’s ribs; the other man seemed to have eschewed the use of his limbs and drove his forehead into Roriel’s jaw. Both blows stunned the recipient and the two fell to the floor once more, grappling and spitting, before Roriel felt the other man’s weight hauled off him and, before he could gauge his bearings, he too was yanked to his feet and held. Just as well, as he wasn’t sure he could stand on his own.
The Gautnal was standing stiff-backed a few paces away, sagging unnaturally as though he was propped up by invisible supports. A small, balding man sat on the boulder beyond, one knee drawn up to his chest and tapping his toe on the Gautnal’s sword belt. Battered as he was, Roriel recognised the signs of magic and he tensed nervously. He couldn’t see whoever held him from behind, but the man’s grip was vice-like and he didn’t resist. The grip loosened and his legs gave way; he flopped into a weary sit. His captor moved round in front and Roriel looked into sharp blue eyes in a stern face framed by greying hair and beard. The man spoke, a wry smile on his face although his eyes were cool and appraising.
“By the Six, lad, you’re a tough one. I think I felt the ground shake when Gunvald hit you.” Roriel’s jaw was swelling and throbbed abominably; he remained silent.
The small man near the Gautnal piped up, his words fast and clipped. “Defies belief the kid’s conscious, pretty sure Gunvald could punch out a mammoth.” The man’s foot was tapping still and he was fidgeting with a small straw doll, pulling thickly bunched strands through a loop. “Fuck’s sake, ‘Vald, you even start a fight getting a drink of fucking water.” Gunvald, for his part, growled something in a foreign tongue; he seemed to be coming to his senses and his muscles were flexing, but he couldn’t move an inch. The small man chuckled. “Such language… you kiss your ma with that mouth, big’un?”
Gunvald roared something unintelligible and the small fellow chuckled again. The older man was looking thoughtfully at Roriel’s bag, which had spilled its gleaming contents over the grassy clearing. His eyes flicked back to Roriel’s, who had an uneasy suspicion that the grey-haired fellow knew exactly who he was. He spoke once more, his voice soft. “Running from someone, lad?”
Roriel held his gaze and for a long moment the glade was quiet, the man seeming to weigh his thoughts. Eventually he smiled and shrugged. “Fair enough, you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want to.” He stood and extended a hand to Roriel, helping him to his feet once more. “Got a name?”
“Roriel Tamsi--“ he blurted, before catching himself short. “Tamsin,” he finished lamely. The small man snorted loudly. Roriel mentally castigated himself. Tamsin? You moron, why not call yourself Susie and be done with it.
“Lovely beard for a girl,” the mage snickered. The grey man gave him a sharp look and he stopped, looking at his tapping foot. Turning back to Roriel, the older man grasped his wrist and spoke.
“Well met, Roriel. I go by Bergen. And I think you could use a good meal.”
He was led to a small encampment a short distance away, where his wounds were cleaned and dressed and he sat around the campfire alongside the other twenty-odd members of the group. As he ate and drank, he found his initial unease dwindling by the moment, for their laughs were hearty and their camaraderie seemed genuine, and no one asked about Roriel or where he had come from. He was simply accepted – praised, even, for when Gunvald slumped down with his own meal, several men slapped his back and congratulated him on the fine black eye he had given the Gautnal giant. One or two of the women present even gave him very promising looks.
Late in the evening as the carousing drew to a close and the group dispersed, some to take watch, some to their beds, and some to others’, Bergen himself sat beside the young Roriel. They sat in front of the crackling fire for a time, and neither man felt the need to talk. Eventually, Bergen stood and moved to the fire, adding a couple of logs, and he turned to look Roriel in the eye. After a moment he spoke.
“You know, lad, I believe every man has the right to choose his own path.” And with that, he walked past and into the dark of the camp, patting Roriel on the shoulder as he went.
The next day, as they broke camp, Roriel went with them. And so he found himself accepted as a member of the group, who called themselves Bergen’s Accidentals.
That was ten years ago – eleven, twelve? Who’s counting, Roriel thought to himself behind closed lids at his bench in the Hutch. Of course the other members of the group had figured out who he was, though he’d been very careful not to speak a word of his family for months – long enough, he’d judged, that no-one would care enough to escort him back home for a reward. And of course the nickname “Tamsin” had stuck, as had “Princess” and “Sweetheart” for a short time, though it was generally light-hearted – for the Accidentals, though a mercenary band, were decent and honourable people who had simply come together through some natural magnetism, unified under the steady leadership of Bergen and the promise of adventure and excitement that came with it. When the story of Roriel’s high birth had inevitably surfaced, the teasing about his nobility had led to a new nickname – and this one he liked.
“Baron?” Yes, Baron.
“Baron.” Who keeps saying that? He unglued his lids; it would appear he’d fallen asleep. His companion was nowhere to be seen. Nor was his coin purse. Figures. He looked up and saw who had said his name. The last person on Enai he wanted to find him in a shitty bar with his cock hanging out.
Melash was Abjaht, and she seemed to have been born as if to single-handedly live up to the pirate folk’s reputation for producing women of unrivalled sensuality. She was tall and slender but with curves in all the right places. A curtain of thick dark hair tumbled artfully around her shoulders. Her skin was pure and smooth, the colour of honey in a sunset, her lips full and inviting, and her eyes were large, liquid and dark. Like a horse’s. Wait, a horse? Fuck, Baron. She couldn’t look less like a horse. This wasn’t fair, he’d just woken up and his thoughts weren’t in order. He stuffed himself back in his trousers and averted his gaze from her sparkling eyes, and his traitorous view fell on her chest and lingered there. Melash rolled her eyes and folded her arms, which only served to enhance the area from which he was currently unable to tear his gaze. Finally wrestling control over his faculties, he stood hurriedly, which caused the world to lurch sickeningly; he stumbled and lost his balance, crashing to the ground via a hefty deflection on the corner of the table. He heard Melash’s weary voice from his new berth on the sticky floor.
“Sober then, Baron?”
He grabbed the table leg and hauled himself upright again – more slowly this time – before slumping back onto his bench, pressing a hand to his suddenly aching brow. Maybe she’s got a point. He peered up at her, limned in candlelight like a goddess. Her arms were still crossed and an eyebrow was arched as she considered him, like a cat with a great lump of a mouse between her paws.
“C’mon, Baron. You’ve got places to be.” And with that, she turned on her heel and walked away. Once again his eyes were drawn southward, and he heaved a great sigh. The sort of walk a man could just bury his face in. He rose and plodded after her and into the street.
Pushing through the tavern door, Baron was momentarily blinded by the glare of the afternoon sun reflecting off the pale stone of downtown Anahor. The city climbed from the Nol delta up the slope of Carrock’s Causeway towards the great citadel at the cliff’s edge overlooking the ocean, and the Hutch was at the lowest point of the outskirts, buried in a maze of winding streets and alleys. The buildings were all of the same stone, but they were uneven, built not to an architect’s plan but to cater for what was needed by the inhabitants at the time as the city spread across the lowlands. The stones were piled haphazardly but they were festooned with beautiful carvings and engravings in a panoply of styles, for the Hutch held a large population of artisans, fresh off the boats in search of wealth in rich Nahol only to find it overburdened with all trades, the only work on offer the decoration of their own streets. A kaleidoscopic array of awnings stretched over the entrances to inns, houses and bazaars and the noise was constant, merchants hawking all manner of wares. Street performers cavorted and gangs of urchins threaded their reckless way through the crowds, cutting purses and stealing fruit from stalls. Melash had moved ahead; Baron looked down to the right towards the docks, where ships’ hands unloaded wares and the sunlight glinted painfully off the surface where river met sea. Melash preferred to berth by the water’s edge when they found themselves back in Anahor. She said it reminded her of home, but there had to be more to it than that. If she loved her home that much she’d never have signed up with the Accidentals, Baron mused.
A whistle brought his head round to the city side, and she motioned for him to follow. He caught up with her in a few long strides, grabbing two apples from a stall while the owner’s back was turned. He’d pay later. Probably. Melash spoke as he crunched into the first juicy fruit.
“Did you know that while you were busy drinking yourself into oblivion, the Council issued you with an official pardon?”
Baron stopped mid-chew, juice dribbling down his hairy chin. He stared blankly at her. “What?”
“A pardon, you great lout. You’re off the hook.”
“How’s that work?” he asked.
“Must’ve been down to your impeccable manners,” she said, that eyebrow arched once more as he scrubbed a hand through his beard before licking the juice off his palm. She was smiling now, and he could always tell it was genuine by the fact her eyes joined in with those beautiful lips. She was positively radiant, glowing in the sun. Get a grip, man. Baron knew he wasn’t the only Accidental who was infatuated with Melash, far from it. She stole the heart of every man she passed. He imagined a round dozen passers-by had probably fallen wildly in love with her just walking past her on the street. By the Six, he’d been one of them, smitten as soon as he laid eyes on her – though she’d made it pretty clear from the get-go that he wasn’t her type. Too big, too hairy, she said. He was good-looking for a bear, she said, but she preferred them prettier.
Worst of all, she was fully aware of her powers, and she used them willingly; she had a recurring slot as an “acrobat” at a number of establishments throughout the Hutch. She said it was to make a bit of easy gold and to keep her skills sharp – her style of fighting shared a number of common techniques with Abjaht dances, and in any case it couldn’t hurt to keep limber and in shape. Bullshit, Baron had always thought. Those are some seedy dives she works. I bet the attention doesn’t hurt. It had always seemed to Baron that the ones with the largest egos were the ones who denied them most vehemently – especially women. Still, he’d never call her up on it – he’d fought alongside Melash on a number of jobs and he could safely say he was glad to call her friend and not foe. She was some sort of fancy-pants trained assassin type and she could jab a knife in his groin quicker than he could figure out he’d upset her. More than equipped to deal with any drunken fumbling louts that might get ideas above their station.
Melash led him right and started up the long slope along the High Road, which led straight as an arrow towards the citadel. Along either side of the street merchants still plied their trades, but the products on offer here were aimed at a higher class of customer; rich carpets of soft wool and drapes of silk; fine robes and magic-enhancing fetishes; beautiful ornaments of spun glass and herbs both culinary and alchemical. Baron paused for a moment to fish a gold piece out of his boot – he liked to prepare for all eventualities, including thieving wenches – and purchased a small sprig of greisleaf. The blue-grey herb grew on vines that sprouted from the ochre cliffs of the Vaivar Desert; the vines themselves were virulently toxic, though the leaves could be carefully picked and dried, whereupon the scent could be inhaled to cure nausea and headaches. Expensive stuff, but invaluable if you had a penchant for drinking yourself senseless on a regular basis. Funny what you pick up, growing up among herbalists. He breathed deeply of the musky fumes and immediately felt a loosening of the knot behind his brow. Alternating between deep draughts of greisleaf and bites of the second apple, he continued upslope, Melash at his side.
“So why the pardon?” He asked.
“Can’t say – I was late to the hearing and only picked up the final judgement,” came the response. Baron felt Melash’s sidelong glance as she continued, “I was looking for the defendant.” Baron chose to remain silent. After a moment she spoke again. “Apparently Third Councilman Ixeniot himself argued strongly in your favour.”
Baron grunted, spitting a pip to the floor and sucking thoughtfully on the core. He knew little of Ixeniot beyond that he was Hal’iri and had been a close advisor to the old king. He’d never met him in person and certainly had no idea why he’d stand in Baron’s defence. Still, what was that saying – never look a gift horse in the mouth? Baron smirked. Heh – horse. Melash must have seen his smirk, for she sounded exasperated when she spoke.
“Well I’m glad someone finds it funny. Here I thought the rest of your life was at stake.” She touched his arm and drew him to a halt, looking up with concern now in her beautiful eyes. “I’m serious, Baron. You could’ve been down the Barrows but for Ixeniot, you know that’s where the condemned go these days. But for Ixeniot you probably would’ve been hauled off already, there was a whole crowd of nobles there baying for your blood. Said it was their friends and business partners you’d… you’d killed.”
Baron scowled, pulling the core out of his mouth. He eyes caught on his palm, across which ran a thick band of white scar tissue, dead and senseless. The same scarring was present on the inside of his thumb and fingers as if he’d grabbed hold of something white hot or freezing cold. He flung the apple core away. “I didn’t kill nobody, Mel,” he growled.
“Thanks be to the Six that the Third Councilman thought the same,” she said, removing her hand from his arm and moving on. Baron stayed where he was, brow furrowed in deep thought as he rubbed his deadened palm. After a moment, he hurried to keep pace with Melash as they made their way up the High Road.