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Voltang's Kingmaker
"What You Hold"

She was a little girl once, lying in the road, dirt and pebbles pressing into her face as the gallop of hooves grew louder. She tried not to be afraid, but her little stomach, as tight and empty as an old leather coin purse baked in the sun, heaved and knotted. Her heart beat in her ears, in time with the coming horses and then faster and faster until she couldn't stop herself from crying. Her father's voice hissed at her from the bushes, "Don't move--you're supposed to be hurt."  She steeled herself, willing her tears to stop but her heart was beyond her control. It screamed in her ear, run, run, run, before the horse grinds your head into the road, you're going to die, you're going to wet yourself like a little baby and die--

But the dust cloud of the charging horse slowed, and then it settled. The wagon was stopping. Her breath caught. This was it. She just had to lie still a few seconds more.

An Ulfen man climbed down from the wagon, his northern accent as rich and thick as his beard. "My god!  Little girl?  Little girl, are you all right?  Can you hear me?"  At first, she wanted to giggle.  It was just a game, after all, just pretend.  Her parents would shout "boo!" and they would all have a good laugh. But the Ulfen man sounded so scared that it gave her pause. He was scared for her, scared that she was hurt, that he'd almost run her down. 

She felt a warm, heavy hand on her back. "Little girl, please...please...no blood.  No blood, she might be all right.  Can you hear me?"

From the bushes, her mother's voice sounded, "Make a move and you're dead!"

The five-year-old opened her eyes and looked up at the man, smiling at him. She was okay, he didn't have to worry. It was all just a game. The Ulfen man wasn't looking at her anymore. He was standing up, reaching for his sword. She didn't understand until she saw her parents and the crossbows pointed at him.

He didn't say a word to them as he ripped the sword free of its sheath, jerking as the first arrow pierced his neck. The blood fell like crimson rain drops before her eyes. He was standing over her, guarding her, protecting a child he didn't know with his very life. He didn't know it was a game. She shouted something then, but it was lost in her father's roar as the second arrow, set loose like a troll's spear in a fairy story, cut down the Ulfen man. 

He collapsed beside her, eyes open just long enough to see her mother haul her to her feet. To see his failure to protect the wounded girl from those that wounded her, or so he must have believed. 

"Stop crying," her mother barked, moving to inspect the wagon. Her father followed, sparing the Ulfen man little more than a glance. "We don't cry for stupid people. We told him not to move."

"But he didn't understand the game!"

Her father tore loose the canvas sheet covering the wagon, grinning at his prize. "No, sweetness," he said without looking at her, "He understood the rules better'n you. Now come away from there before the animals come. They smell the blood. A little girl like you's just what they like for a nice dessert."

Kressle reached down and touched the dead man's face. His beard tickled her hand. It was so much softer than it looked. 

"Hang on a minute now," her father said, looking down at her.  "I see something shiny.  What is that there?"

It was a glint of metal under the Ulfen man's shirt. She pulled the shirt open, half-hoping he would move suddenly, that his chest would rise and fall and he wouldn't be what she already knew he was.

"That's right," her father said. "Now what is that there?"

She cut her finger on the edge of it, winced, then felt along the flat of the metal, which felt strange under her fingers, like it was carved with intricate symbols and designs. Below the metal, there was a leather slip holding it to his body, and a wooden haft. She pulled the weapon free and examined the exquisite curve of the small axe, the artistic flourishes engraved into the flat of the blade. 

Kressle looked down at the Ulfen man's peaceful face, his closed eyes, and then held up the handaxe for her father to see. 

"It's mine," she said.  

She whispered it again, a soft reassurance, gripping the handle as she approached the gate to her first real home, her sanctuary.  Kressle slowed her horse and called out to the northern tower, careful not to stray into the Dead Fields that surrounded the Stag Lord's fortress.  Her voice rose to the palisade, all the way to the watchtower.  "Open up!"

A shadow in the watchtower shouted down to her.  "Who goes there?"

"The sixth River Freedom!" she shouted back.

Akiros Ismort surveyed the woman at the gate from his vantage in the northern guard post. "Open it up!" He turned away from the woman's smile as she rode inside with the Thorn River Camp's spoils. Akiros never smiled back, and he tired of the pretense that they were somehow friends. 

It was Jex the Snitch on watch, and he had no trouble grinning down at Kressle.  "Oh, I'd like to take that young filly for a ride, eh, Akiros? Bet she'd gallop, all right, gallop like a prize."

A steely grey eye caught Jex's breath and the bandit closed his mouth. The Stag Lord's second-in-command was notorious for his lack of humor, especially where women were concerned. When Akiros was satisfied that the Snitch's mouth would move no longer while he was in earshot of its degenerate mumblings, Akiros turned around, descending the stairs to the armory.

He caught snatches of conversation, Fat Norrey and Sneeg whispering about the toll collector.  Akiros paused a moment.  He'd not been there when the Stag Lord lost his temper and ended the poor soul on that bridge, but Akiros was there when the Stag Lord first heard of Nettles.  He remembered the light in his lord's eyes, how they sparkled with possibility when Norrey first reported the resistance of this foreign man and his toll bridge, how Davik Nettles had fought Norrey and three other men to a stand still and promised them their lives if they never returned.  The Stag Lord had actually gasped, so excited was he to hear of someone worthy of his attention.  Akiros had shared that excitement when the Stag Lord rode out to meet the man, to invite him into his service as he had Kressle when the girl first braved the Narlmarches to confront her would-be rapists, a pair of scum that lived but one minute under the Stag Lord's gaze before he sent their bodies hurling over the palisade and into the embrace of the dead. 

"They say he comes up from the water like a drowned soul," Norrey whispered.  "He calls out for the Stag Lord's blood..."

"You think that's why he drinks?" Sneeg asked.  "I heard it's dreams.  Nettles ain't just a zombie.  He gets in your head, makes you see all sorts of nastiness."  Sneeg noticed Akiros on the stairs and tipped his head.  "Nothing doin', Sir Ismort.  Just a little ghost story's all."

"I'm no knight," Akiros said, stalking past them.  "Those days are done."

A deep but childlike voice called down from the cracked platform of the central tower.  "Hey Kyrie!  Look what I gots!"

Akiros stopped, doing his best to conceal annoyance and force a smile.  "What have you got there, Auchs?"

The hulking brute held up a small rodent by the tail, its legs scrambling fruitlessly in mid-air. "I found me a mousey!" Auchs shouted, unable to contain his pride. 

"That's a rat," Akiros said. 

Auchs dangled the animal back and forth.  "I'm gonna call him Mister Mousey.  He's gonna be my pet."

"Right. Play nice."Akiros continued down, shaking his head. In only an hour or two, Auchs would pet or squeeze the animal until it squealed it's last and if Auchs was very lucky, it wouldn't bite him with its last ounce of life, transmitting some disease. He belonged in a sanitarium, under the care of priests, not alone and unsupervised in a dank fort, used for his brawn and encouraged in his cruelty.

The source of that encouragement was leaning against the door to the armory, watching Akiros with feline predator's grace and a sickeningly disingenuous smile.  Dovan from Nisroch. Akiros did his best to avoid the man as he passed, but Dovan took great pleasure in outstretching his leg just a little more, so they rubbed against each other, a predator marking his territory.

"Keep your limbs to yourself or you might just lose them," Akiros mumbled. 

Dovan replied in his silky voice. "My my, wouldn't want you to lose your temper, paladin. Erastil knows what might happen then..."

Without warning, Akiros had his arm against Dovan's throat. The speed with which he lashed out surprised even Dovan. "You get just one warning," Akiros whispered.  "Speak of my god again and not even Erastil himself will keep me from reaching down your throat and removing that shriveled lump you call a heart."

"Wouldn't that be something to see," Dovan said gleefully. The point of his rapier was on Akiros' carotid artery. "One of these days, Ismort, that temper of yours is going to get the best of you..."

"I'll make sure you're there to see it." He released Dovan's throat and the rapier was withdrawn from his own. They stepped away from each other in time to greet Kressle.

In the yard, a young boy led Kressle's horse away, his eyes staring hatefully at the slim, slight man in black leather. Dovan noticed the glare, seemed to feed on the hatred in it.

"What's with Valkeri?" Kressle asked, nodding at the boy.  "He's not talking today."

Dovan smiled knowingly. "Cat got his tongue."

Kressle seemed inclined to ask what he meant by that, glancing from Dovan to Akiros, but the faintest shake of Akiros' head dissuaded her. "Anything on the spit?"

Akiros nodded and she slipped past them into the armory, since the only door to the roasting room was through there. Once she was gone, he said quietly, "I never did get an explanation why Valkeri came back from that border raid without a tongue."

Dovan wet his lips.  "Just a minor correction.  Bad boys need to be disciplined."

Akiros spat, willing himself to turn his head first and avoid another altercation with Dovan. "Pederast filth."

"Oh how high and mighty the paladin stands. We can't all be eunuchs like you. Anyway, the boy had a fresh mouth. Didn't respect the chain of command."

"Because he rejected your advances?" Akiros demanded, his blood beginning to boil. 

Dovan smiled. "Goodness, no. I'm a very persuasive lover. But there was a minor disagreement concerning the taking of prisoners. I felt captives would weight us down, he felt he had the right to speak otherwise."

"We don't take captives," Akiros said. "That's a standing order."

"Naturally. Which is why I couldn't understand the fuss when I started cutting their throats...but the little brat wouldn't shut up about it. He learned his lesson."

The boiling rage within the former paladin chilled as his blood became ice. He'd become accustomed to the suffering of others, those he might have once deemed innocent before his world proved itself a hollow shell, even growing to respect the power of his rage and the simplicity of this brutal existence.  People died, sometimes his men, sometimes those they preyed on, but he'd never condoned or practiced the casual slaughter Dovan spoke of now with that sadistic gleam in his eye. 

Akiros put his hand on the hilt of his sword, so focused on Dovan that he did not hear the boot steps behind him.  So many pointless deaths. So many lives cut short by this monster's blade and so casually. So many days in this place, devoted to an ideal that was nothing short of nihilism.  Community, yes, and a countenance as ugly as the rot beneath, but a community ruled by fear that welcomed and forgave the unforgivable.

One stroke. Just one stroke of his sword to change the course of his life as a sudden flash of anger had changed it years ago.  He'd ended two innocents in anger and learned to live with it.  That this abomination of a man continued to draw breath was a stain on what little honor he had left. 

A heavy gloved hand gripped Akiros' shoulder. "You know how I feel about dissension in the ranks."

Without another thought, his hand slipped off the blade's hilt and he turned to face his employer. "Apologies, my lord. I was just taking issue with the manner in which Dovan disciplined one of the men."

The Stag Lord cut an imposing figure, all but his mouth and dark eyes hidden by a mask of bone and antler, his bare chest carved with muscle, darkened by sun and curls of hair.  If someone had told Akiros this was not a man but a beast, half-bear and half-stag, he would have believed them. "The boy..."

"Yes, lord. Your men range far and wide, paying tribute out of loyalty. Loyalty can't be bought by cutting out tongues."

The Stag Lord nodded thoughtfully.  "And what have you to add, my old friend from Nisroch?"

Dovan smiled.  "The boy is weak. This is no place for weak boys.  What I did to him will concentrate his hate. There's strength in pain and hate."

"So very true," the Stag Lord said.  His arm was in motion before Dovan's smile could be struck from his face.  The blow was quick and brutal, drawing blood from the bandit lieutenant's mouth and knocking him to the floor. "Perhaps you should save some lessons for yourself. Akiros, strike me."


Within the helm, the Stag Lord's gravelly voice intoned, loud enough for the others to hear, "The lord who strikes his servant is a coward!  Only the lord who shares his servant's punishment begins to understand!  Draw your sword, Akiros.  Now!"

Kressle stood in the door to the armory, watching quietly. 

Akiros drew his sword, still hesitating.  The Stag Lord spread his arms, leaving his bare chest fully exposed.  Saying a silent prayer to Erastil, Akiros swung the blade, slicing cleanly through the Stag Lord's flesh.  The man, if he really was a man, did not wince.  He showed no outward sign of pain or injury, save the deep crimson gash. 

Dovan lay on the floor, eyes wide, touching his cut lip.  The Stag Lord pointed at him.  "Do not take from another man in my kingdom unless you're prepared to bleed as he bleeds.  Forget that again and it will be your tongue."  He walked away, leaving Dovan on the floor.

Akiros flashed on something his father taught him as he watched the thin, dark-haired man pull himself up: never leave an animal wounded. 

"You're right, of course," Dovan said sweetly, dogging the Stag Lord's steps. He removed a leather flask from his belt, offering it with a smile. "I overstepped my authority of course, lesson learned. Now, why don't we tend to that wound of yours."  He gave the flask a shake.  "Nothing takes the edge off a nice cut quite like this. Believe me, I know almost as much of liquor as wounds and how to cause them."

Akiros watched with disgust as the Stag Lord reached for the flask, hand trembling with anticipation. He turned away before the drink was to his scarred lips.  Poison a man in plain sight by playing to his vices.  Corruption feeding corruption.  Akiros caught Kressle's eye and knew instantly what she wanted, what she always wanted when she saw the Stag Lord, and he felt just loathsome enough to let her take it. 

As they kissed, he slammed shut the door to the armory, her hands already undoing his armor.  Kressle was ravenous and he wanted to be devoured. It was not love that they made, rolling in the dirt. He knew better and so did she.  He was a proxy, as all her lovers were, for the one she could not take by lust or force.  Even deep in his cups, the Stag Lord would not open his bed to her.   

They lay naked a while, enjoying each other's warmth. He turned to her.  "If you could start again, would you?"

"I didn't think you had that kind of stamina," she said, smirking.

"I mean your life. Would you leave all this behind and try again...if you could?"

Kressle propped herself up by her elbows. "And do what?  Run away with you?  I mean, this is fun and everything..."

"This isn't about me," Akiros said.

She rolled her eyes and started to dress. "You've always got to ruin a good thing. It's never just sex for you.  You've always got to get philosophical. Look, this is it. This is all there is. You're either one of these people wandering from place to place with your life in a wagon or you're us."

"The people robbing that wagon," he muttered. 

Kressle turned to him, furious. "He made us strong. We're better because of him. You're either strong, or you get stepped on."

He thought of Dovan.  "Maybe some of us are worse."

"Don't go soft on me," she said, standing and tugging on her shirt. "This used to be home, remember?  Late nights on the banks of the Tuskwater and days spent boxing in caravans on the South Rostland Road.  You were this angry force of nature, like him."  Kressle smiled and touched his bare chest with her toe.  "Only better.  I could have you."

"He's not what he was."

Kressle shrugged. "I think he's better. I think you bring it out of him. Just like he reached into us and made us better."

"Why did he murder the toll collector?" Akiros asked.

"I wasn't there."

"He used to be a champion among thieves.  Now he drinks until he's neither.  It's like he's given up on whatever it was that made him great."

"Are you kidding?" Kressle was incredulous.  "We're going to rule the Greenbelt. The Narlmarches are already ours. I'm going to keep pushing north until Rostland can feel us biting into the meat of their overfed bottoms. We're going to be what Pitax should have been."

"Another bandit kingdom," he said quietly. 

"A real kingdom, without the nobility and pretty dresses and people starving in the street. A place where you stand up and take what's yours and the people cheer you on."

Akiros wanted to say that these were the dreams of the young, that he'd heard it all before in the mouths of men who preached strength but wallowed in weakness, and that a kingdom worth ruling wasn't one where the streets were devoid of poor because the strong had crushed them all underfoot. He wanted to, but didn't. Kressle was young. At times it seemed she was impossibly young.

"Go on," he told her.  "Auchs will want to see you before you head out."

She nodded. "He's got a brain like a potato, but god, he makes me laugh.  You coming?"

He laced his pants and started collecting his armor. "In a minute."

Kressle opened the armory door but he closed it again.  She looked at him expectantly. 

"I want you to promise me something."

She laughed.  "Come on, you don't really think a little tumble now and then and one really good summer means you get to order me around, do you?  You couldn't keep me back when you had me."

"Not an order," Akiros said. "A promise.  Promise me if something better comes along, something real...I want you to promise I will never see you at this place again.  You'll follow it wherever it leads and never look back."

Kressle looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "What are you talking about?  It?  What's it?"

"You'll know it when you see it."

She shrugged. "Fine, if this magical better than whatever comes along, I'll see where it goes. I'll promise, but you've got to make this stupid promise, too."

Akiros touched the hilt of his sword and thought of the day Dovan's smile would be forever cut from his rat face. "I already have."
Late that night, while Akiros slept and Kressle began her ride back to Thorn River, a deeply inebriated man with a helm of polished bone stumbled out of the fortress and walked, bottle in hand, deep into the night.  The Stag Lord drank until a single swallow of liquor remained and then abstained.  By the time the sun rose, his head was clearer than it had been when he left the fort.  By the setting of the sun, he was halfway to his destination.  He endured a stabbing ache in his skull and legs, but he did not slow until the river was in sight.  

The waters of the Shrike shone yellow and orange in the dawn light.  The nameless man who others called Stag Lord stood at the edge of Nettles' Crossing, looking down at the water with the bottle in his fist, an offering to an unquiet spirit.

The river bubbled and churned, as if his very presence boiled its heart and the wretched corpse he'd sent there.  "Come, Davik Nettles," he whispered, so tired he could no longer be sure whether this was dream or reality.  "One monster to another, let us share a drink..."  He hurled the bottle into the roaring water and was answered by a single bony arm rising up to catch it.

The Stag Lord removed his helm, feeling a small flutter. The decayed and water-battered body of Davik Nettles rose to the surface, standing on the river Shrike with the Stag Lord's bottle in hand.  The creature's water-choked voice carried on the wind as if borne by demons of air and vengeance.  "You will not placate me with gifts." The bottle shattered.  "How like you my dreams, Stag Lord?" Its smile was grisly and grotesque.  "I will kill her a thousand more times before I grow bored waiting for your tears."

"My head is filled with ten thousand nightmares," he replied, swaying a little, "all of them more real than the fantasies you cast. She is real. The nightmares you send are not."

"Then I will have your soul.  It will rot below the water with mine forever."

A dark smile tugged at the scarred and twisted lips of the Stag Lord. "You would have what was beaten out of me long ago. I have no soul... And neither do you."

"Yes..." the corpse hissed. "You burned it away when you murdered me. All that remains of Davik Nettles is hate. Come, let the boy I see in your dreams swim in blood his elder self has spilled. Come to me.  Walk into the water and never be at peace again..."

The Stag Lord leaned toward the water, momentarily hypnotized by the gurgling, chill voice of his once-victim.  "No," he said, stepping back from the edge of the ruined bridge. 

"No?  You will do as I say or I will rend this wretched land..." The ghastly creature stalked closer, its feet splashing the river's surface as a man crossing a puddle.  "I will drive my fingers into its heart and claw your wretched kingdom apart!"

The Stag Lord gave a single, rusty laugh.  "You were nothing in life.  In death, you are twice nothing.  Your threats are as hollow as your fish-eaten chest."

The revenant howled with rage, sending flights of birds from the trees with the pitch and volume of his fury.

"What do you think I owe you, eh?"  The Stag Lord cocked his head, teetering a bit from drink and exhaustion.  "Your life?  You were a pitiful excuse for a man.  No courage.  No conviction.  No pride.  You have what you hold."

Nettles was nearly to the river bank now.  "To the Nine Hells with your river freedoms!  You pay the toll or you swim!  Charity doesn't build bridges and excuses don't raise the dead!"

The Stag Lord spread his arms, welcoming the impending attack.  "Here you pay with strength or you pay with blood."

Propelled by rage, by hatred so thick it could step upon it like stairs, Nettles climbed to the cliff top and stared into him with the charred pits of his eyes.  "I gave you the bridge, but that did not sate you.  Now it will be you who sates a burning fire..."

"Worthless to me. I wanted courage!  Fire!  The man who fought back.  Someone who could stand with me!"  He sneered at what remained of David Nettles.  "Instead I find a sniveling coward who'd burn his bridge to save his own life.  You didn't fight my men.  You bought them."

A jet of water flew into Nettles' hand, forming a ranseur.  It raised the weapon to strike.  "The great Stag Lord, petty bandit who would burn a man alive for principles and a box of coppers."

The Stag Lord reached into a pouch and removed a fistful of copper coins.  "I would not spend your coins if they were all that could save me from starvation." He cast the coins into the Shrike without taking his eyes off Nettles.  The corpse watched the copper pieces scatter, jaw agape, shock giving way to a fury that boiled the water out of him, shrouding the undead in mist.  "Live for coin," the Stag Lord said, "die for nothing."

Nettles screamed and drove the ranseur into the Stag Lord's seemingly exposed chest.  The weapon liquified on contact, splashing against him and reforming when Nettles jerked the haft back.

"As much a coward in death," the Stag Lord said, tucking his helm under his arm.  "Even your vengeance would rather live a half-life than die fulfilled.  Pathetic." He turned his back on the undead toll collector and began to walk.

Behind him, Nettles screamed, "I will find the woman you dream of and I will hold her beneath the water until her body goes still!  I will see you suffer!  Everything you care about, Stag Lord, will die before you!"

The Stag Lord returned the helm to his head and walked on, the dead man's howls rising in pitch until they were the whistle of boiling water.  "We all have to live for something," he whispered.

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Epic × 2!