((Looks like I'm back with a vengeance! There is something larger coming up, but for the time being this is something I had to get out of my system, if only to get myself started. This is the story of how the mercenary band named The Raven came to be. You pretty much get this information in the book, but anyway ... There might/will come more of this later - not of the prequel though, more like a sequel. Yes I tend to do sequels where none can be. Deal with it.
I own none of the characters, they belong to the marvellous James Barclay.))
As he retraced his steps into Korina, Ilkar wondered what he was feeling. There was anger, there was a degree of relief, there was frustration. At the moment, the relief was probably the strongest. He turned to glance at the docks again and shook his head. He definitely wasn't looking forward to that part of his future.
He assessed his situation. He had thought the money he had made as part of the Julatsan City Guard would surely pay him the passage, but apparently he was wrong. He was going to need a lot more coin. Either that, or someone who didn't try and cheat him like that horrible merchant. The question was, should he go back to the college and try there, or should he look for other options? What other options were there, anyway?
Deep in thought he strolled back to one of the markets. Business was still bustling in the early evening, and he was obviously going to need to find quarters for another night in the city. A notice board caught his eye and he stopped before it. Some baron was looking for mercenaries he could hire. He sighed. This was certainly nothing he wanted to do, but if it helped him go home, so be it.
A year later, he considered himself experienced. He had got used to the stench of battle, had swallowed his pride at being paid to kill, and had determined that this was paying a lot better than being a guardsman. Now he found himself wondering if he should take a frontline job. This wasn't the first time, but it seemed like the side hiring people was on the losing end at the moment. On the other hand, they were hiring more than one mercenary, and if the people who signed up were any good, they might just turn the tide. What made him approach the contractor in the end was the fact that this job would definitely pay him his passage. If he survived, that was.
Many things he had been called. 'Son' was the only one he listened to, and currently, the man who called him that was depressed. That was small wonder, too. After the fire some rioters had started, the inn would have to be rebuilt, and there was simply no spare money to do that. In three places these madmen had started burning down houses, and if the guardsmen of Korina hadn't been so fast and determined in the chase for them, there wouldn't be much left to rebuild. The fact remained that parts of a wall were threatening to come down, and that it would take some effort to get the stench of burned wood out of the place. 'It would be helpful if you were listening, at least,' Tomas said irritably beside him. He blinked at him.
'This won't do,' he said, trying to recall what he had been told. 'It's all very fine, but nothing we've come up with so far will get us the kind of silver that can save us.' He took a deep breath. 'You can do without another mouth to feed for a while, can't you?' Tomas stared at him as if he had punched him.
'You can't leave me now,' he said breathlessly. He received a weary smile.
'Not for good,' his so-called son answered. 'Only as long as it takes to finish a job down at Gyernath. That'll do to save this place.'
'What sort of job?' Tomas asked sceptically.
'As a mercenary.' Tomas gaped at him.
'I've never seen you use that horrible sword of yours,' he said. 'Do you even know how?' His adopted son gave a dry laugh.
'Never mind the time I served in the military, I know that better than how to manage an inn, I'd guess,' he said slightly bitterly. 'I'll be leaving tomorrow at first light. And I will be back. I promise.'
As Hirad stared at the ruins of his erstwhile home, he tried and failed to order his thoughts. They were tumbling one over the other, leaving him confused as well as furious. The worst part was, he understood what had brought this on. He didn't feel he was one of the people who deserved this, however. Of the various grades of wealth or lack thereof that could be found in Korina, he had been in the lower half, certainly, but it could definitely have been worse. In the course of a few hours that had changed. 'This is it, then,' he said to no-one in particular. A few passers-by glanced at him, but he didn't care. 'So much for a normal life. Face it, you never were going to have that.' He gave a bark of laughter and launched himself into the rubble.
At least the fire hadn't destroyed everything. There were a few valuables - such as he'd had - he would be able to sell, and his sword had survived as well. This, he felt, he would need now more than ever. Hiring himself out as a mercenary had always been worthwhile, he thought. At least he wouldn't have to look at this mess any more, and this was something he was sure he would be good at.
With a sour look on his face, Sirendor stared at the wall opposite to him. He kept a forced calm, willing himself to remain seated rather than jump to his feet and beat the old man into oblivion. 'This is not my fault,' he said for what felt like the hundredth time in the past two years, only this time he didn't wait until the other was done speaking, talking right over him. 'It's yours. Always has been, always will be.' The old man kept moving his mouth soundlessly for a few moments. It was pathetic. Sirendor felt a wave of savage triumph at his sudden speechlessness.
'Now I know why your mother is so sassy,' the old man managed finally. 'That's your rotten influence.' Sirendor had always known that the father of his mother's second husband - he refused to think of him as his Grandfather, which he wasn't - didn't really like him, but such direct abuse was new on either side.
'My mother,' Sirendor said calmly, 'isn't nearly sassy enough. Had she refused to listen to your so-called good counsel, everything would be different now. For one thing, we'd have a dog, which just might have stopped us from being robbed in the first place.' He smiled. 'You really believe I am going to pull your sorry arse out of the dirt, don't you?' He had no idea where the sudden calm was coming from, but he did know what he was going to do.
'What choice do you have?' the old man dared ask him with a sneer on his face. Sirendor rose slowly.
'Every choice,' he said serenely. 'I can take my things, walk straight out of this door, and return when the cancer will finally have managed to eat your bowels. My mother is perfectly capable of looking after herself. She doesn't need me, and she certainly doesn't need an old codger like you. And now she's finally standing up to you, I dare leave.'
'If you wish to break her heart,' the old man replied. Sirendor shook his head.
'She knows,' he said simply. 'I'm all settled to go. My things are waiting outside.' He laughed. 'I didn't mean to tell you, but then I thought I really would like to memorise the look on your face as I walk out. So watch me. It's the last you see of me.' He found he was still angry enough to feel only marginally guilty at his unceremonious departure.
He could, Ilkar reflected, just take a ship right from where he was when he was done. His first assumption had been right: It all depended on the people doing the fighting. And the people that had come together here were one hell of a team. The tallest man with the shaven head had the brains for tactics as well as skill. One was rather a force of nature than a human being, one quick of mind and body and good with sword and shield. The other three profited from years of experience as mercenaries in similar situations. From his vantage point, Ilkar could see what was happening perfectly. The enemy approaching the gates would never make it there. He wondered at their slow approach. Perhaps they knew already that their battle was lost. The mercenary group had learned to rely on Ilkar's shield, and rely on it they did. They completely ignored the three archers, and Ilkar thought he heard a shout of laughter. He couldn't quite keep the smile from his face. The calm with which these people faced battle was contagious, and today, he thought, they would win, and he could collect his reward and be off.
A movement ahead of the enemy caught his eye and nearly broke his concentration. He focused on it and stared. Nothing. He glanced at his side where a reserve mage was leaning against the wall and nodding. Ilkar prodded him carefully with his foot. The other man jerked awake and blinked at him. 'I need you,' he said. 'Either hold up that shield or run down and look for an assassin.'
'I take the shield,' the mage said at once, pushing himself to a kneeling position and closing his eyes. Ilkar's eyes searched the ground while the other prepared his spell. A breeze ruffled a small shrub and his blood ran cold. The constant wind coming from the sea was blocked off by the walls where the fighting took place. 'Shield up,' the other mage said, and Ilkar dropped his and raced down the small lookout tower towards the other mercenaries.
'Hirad, your right, careful!' he yelled at the top of his lungs. It was pointless, he couldn't see him. The warrior glanced at his right for a moment, but of course he returned his attention to the enemy who had all but halted their approach. Ilkar didn't waste more of his breath for shouting. The assassin would be close by now, probably too close to be stopped by a spell. Gathering more speed, Ilkar tore across the soft ground and crashed hard into the bulk of the barbarian. The large man stumbled forward and swore while Ilkar gathered himself and took much too little time to prepare a ForceCone in the direction where he assumed the assassin would be.
The violence of his spell and the haste in which it was prepared knocked him backwards onto the ground. He felt the impact from his backside crashing straight into his skull, and for a moment he was blinded by the pain. He sensed himself being dragged out of harm's way and shook off the confusion. 'Are you insane?' the tall man asked him, wearing a crooked grin. 'Get yourself to safety, you're done.' Ilkar dragged himself to his feet. Our of the corner of his eyes he saw the assassin lying on the ground. Hirad was in the process of pulling his sword clear after skewering him.
'I can still …' he began, but the other man shook his head.
'You need not kill yourself,' he said. 'You've done more than could be asked. Go, get yourself looked over. That fall looked bad.' Ilkar started to shake his head, but at that moment a jolt of pain went through his skull into his brain.
'Right,' he managed through gritted teeth. 'I'll see you then.'
The woman in the sickbay was a Lysternan healer and had cast a WarmHeal on him without asking. He had just been about to protest when his mind had drifted into the sleep that went with the spell. A hand shaking him brought him back to consciousness. He opened his eyes and saw a bloody face before him. He gasped and scrambled backwards on his mattress. 'Easy,' a calm voice said, holding him firm. 'It's all right, madman of a mage that you are.' Ilkar blinked once more and recognised the face of the barbarian Hirad Coldheart.
'Is it over?' he asked him, sitting up slowly.
'Yep, and since I'm standing here, we've won,' the warrior told him lightly. 'You saved my life back there, you know that?' Ilkar nodded and shrugged at the same time.
'Isn't that normal?' he asked. Hirad sat down next to him.
'To a degree,' he said conversationally. 'Risking your own life … Not so sure.' He laughed. 'First I thought you were fleeing. Only after that spell of yours I saw what was going on.'
'I got him with that, did I?' Ilkar asked, scratching his head.
'Him, yourself, and Sirendor behind you,' the barbarian told him. 'Mostly yourself, but he stumbled and became visible.'
'Is everyone still alive?' Ilkar continued.
'Cairan died,' Hirad answered. 'The rest of us are fine. I got a broken nose, but that's all.' He smiled. 'You came here from Korina too, didn't you?' Ilkar nodded. 'Good. The big man owns an inn or so and said he wants to discuss something. He said that a few days back, but now he said I should ask you too. We're getting free food and drinks, too.' Ilkar looked at the man before him, appearing entirely serene and rather keen on an affirmative answer. He was going to tell him no, however, that he had to go south, where his future lay, and that there was nothing for him to gain on Balaia any more. He opened his mouth to speak.
'That's great,' was what came out of it. 'When are we leaving?'
Ilkar sat on a cosy chair next to a fireplace. He wore a slight frown, wondering first at himself and then at the other five people in the room. 'I must admit, I am not sure I am ready to forgo my destiny to become a professional murderer,' he said.
'No one's asking you to,' Sirendor said calmly. 'Unless you count soldiers as murderers, too. And it's not like you haven't done this before.'
'It's a thin line,' Ilkar replied softly. 'And in the heat of battle it is easily crossed.'
'I agree with you,' the bald man said. 'And I think we should all make sure we do not cross it. We have to function, if we are to call ourselves professional. That also means, when the fighting is done, it's done. Who surrenders can be taken if need be, but will not be slaughtered. Who runs can run. Who stands their ground can die bravely.'
'And you're going to act on that, no matter what the circumstances?' Ilkar asked with a quizzical look.
'I believe so,' the other man replied with a slight smile. 'And before I forget myself, I assume you will remind me of this conversation.' Ilkar snorted and nodded. 'More questions?'
'Just the one,' Ilkar said. 'Why should I not just … go home?'
'And do what?' asked Hirad. 'No, really, tell me. Is that some sort of dream you've been working on all you life? Then go. But the way you're talking, it's what you've been told to do. Well, no one's bossing you around in Balaia. It's your choice, not theirs, whoever they are.' Ilkar blinked at Hirad, and a slow smile spread on his face.
'You know what, I've never looked at it that way,' he said. 'Gods know I'll be struggling with my conscience, but … Hirad, I don't feel I'm cut out for this.' The other man smiled back.
'Very well, then have a nice trip,' he said. Ilkar raised his hands.
'No,' he said fervently. 'For that, I mean, not this here! It's more religious than meaningful, and I just don't feel called to do it. I can't see myself guarding things for the rest of my life. Gods falling, no.' Hirad laughed softly.
'The good thing about you is,' he said slowly, 'that you're not at all complicated. We'll need someone straight forward like that. Oh, and your shield is nice, too.'
'I believe,' said Arim, one of the other two mercenaries that had fought at their side, 'we should have this in writing.' He left their secluded place for the main room of the inn, returning a few minutes later with a parchment. He started writing, then passed the paper to all of them to sign. When it came to the tall warrior with the two handed sword, he passed it on to Hirad.
'Can't write or what?' the barbarian asked with half a smile. The other man stared him down.
'I'm not putting my name on that,' he said firmly. Ilkar looked at the man and frowned.
'What is your name, anyway?' he asked. 'You never told us.'
'No, I didn't, and I'm not going to, either,' was the answer. Hirad shook his head.
'I don't think so,' he said angrily. 'We don't want any mystery man in the team, so either sign up or bugger off.' Ilkar found himself nodding, even though he would have worded his protest differently.
'Yeah, what are you, some kind of mystical unknown warrior or something?' he asked. For a moment he thought the tall man would get to his feet and leave, but then he grabbed the parchment out of Hirad's hands again, and wrote something on it before thrusting it to the barbarian. He stared at it for a moment with a blank expression, then at Ilkar. His face split into a broad grin and he shook his head.
'Right,' he said. 'One day I'll get that bloody name from you, Unknown Warrior.'