Young Lad spat when he saw the village. Even from up on the hill and through the rain it was a sorry sight. Mud. Overgrowth. Well-built homes gone to rack and ruin. And worst of all, the old Beacon was cold and dark. No Heartsfire burned here.
Mutt let out a low growl. Lad looked down at his companion and put a reassuring hand on his wet fur.
“I know, boy,” Lad said. The big beast – part timber wolf and part mountain hound – let out a brusque woof!
“Me neither,” Lad said. “But it’s cold out here and we could both use a fire and a hot meal.”
“That settles it, then.” Lad walked down the hill, out of the wilds and into civilization. He thought it strange how empty the town looked. Rainstorm or no rainstorm, there should have been a little more bustle this time of day. Back home…
No. Better put home out of mind for now.
They passed shuttered windows and smokeless chimneys until they came to what had to be an inn.
“Wait here, boy.” Mutt walked in a grumpy circle and settled down on the porch out of the rain. His eyes searched the town for threats. Lad stepped inside.
The inn was warm, but dark and lonely like the rest of the town. A pitiful fire struggled in the hearth and a serving maid looked up with a start from a table she was scrubbing. A fat innkeeper shuffled out of what Lad hoped was a kitchen. It gave him no small comfort to see that innkeepers were still fat this far from home. The big man looked at Lad – black-haired with fierce blue eyes, armed, armored, and wild – and went pale.
“Good day,” Lad said. “Could I trouble you for some ale and warm food?” He stepped further into the light of the fire. The innkeeper and serving maid settled when they caught the measure of his youth. The boy couldn’t have seen more than seventeen summers.
“You gave me a start, young fellow,” said the innkeeper through his furry jowls. “What with that sword on your back.”
“Ah yes.” Lad slung the giant blade off his back. It was nearly as long as he was tall and almost as wide as his waist. Such a large weapon did not suit his rangy build, which was hard and lean and kissed by the sun. He leaned the massive blade against the bar with a thud. He did not remove his bracer, his buckler, nor the short, curved blade on his belt or the old horn that hung by his hip.
“Where you from, traveler?”
“Beyond the Old Stones.”
“My word,” huffed the innkeeper. “It’s not often we get folk from so far abroad come through here. You’re a long way from home.”
“What was it you said you wanted again?” the innkeeper fidgeted. He’d heard tales of the men from beyond the Old Stones. They were nomads; clannish and martial.
“Ale and something hot to eat.” Lad perked up. “Stew if you have some, and some meat for my dog.”
“D-Dog?” the innkeeper stammered.
“Yes sir. I left him outside. I didn’t want to be rude.”
“Does he bite?” asked the serving maid. She was older than Lad but with scared, childish eyes.
“No ma’am. He’s a good boy.”
The serving maid looked pleadingly at the innkeeper. The fat man sighed.
“You can let the dog in, stranger. I’ll go see about that grub.”
“Thank you, sir!” Lad said cheerfully.
And in no time Lad and Mutt were stuffing themselves by the fire. Lad slurping hot rabbit stew from a bowl and Mutt sloughing warm mutton off the bone. Lad gulped down ale and laughed as Mutt tried to shove his big snout into the mug.
“Here, you big dope.” Lad offered the mug and Mutt shoved his face in and lapped away. “Hey, not too much!” Lad pulled it away and Mutt barked playfully, tail wagging. The serving maid walked over, looking doe-eyed at Mutt.
“You can pet him if you want,” Lad said. The girl lit up so much that Lad thought she might cry. She marveled at the large beast. He was bigger than any dog she’d ever seen. Big enough to ride, with soft fur the color of red clay and beautiful green eyes like the Spring wood. He had the short ears and thick fur of a wolf but with a thick muzzle and broad frame of a shepherd. Lad did not share that his four-legged companion was in fact a wold – a hybrid beast bred for hunting and fighting; companions for the braves of the Shima Clan.
“Where is everyone?” Lad asked.
“What do you mean?” the serving maid looked uncertain. The simple joy from petting a dog slid off her face like the meat from Mutt’s bone.
“I’ve seen a lot of towns and a lot of inns but I’ve never seen one as quiet as this.”
“Well,” the girl searched. “It’s raining.”
“Only a little.”
“Folks are at home.”
“With no fires lit?”
“What do you mean?” her voice rose.
“All these chimneys and yours is the only one with smoke coming out.”
Mutt looked at Lad and groaned.
“I was thinking the same thing.” Lad walked over to the innkeeper at the bar. “What do I owe you for the meal?”
“Eh, four bits, young sir.” Lad slapped the coins down on the counter. The innkeeper got an eyeful of the bracer that adorned his right forearm and fist. He recalled in the old stories the men of the South were pugilists as well as hunters and swordsmen.
“How much for a room?”
“A room, sir?” the fat man stammered.
“You have rooms, don’t you?”
“We’re all full up, I’m afraid.”
Lad looked around the empty inn. The fat man pretended to clean a spot on the bar.
“I guess I’ll be on my way, then.”
“My thanks.” Lad walked back to the hearth, hefted the big sword, and slung it onto his back.
“Why is the Fire out?” Lad asked. The innkeeper squinted over at him.
“It’s just a little low is all.”
“Not that. The Beacon here has gone cold. Why is the Heartsfire out?”
Lad heard the click of the crossbow behind him. Mutt growled, flashing his fangs.
“I think you best be on your way, young sir. Before something bad happens.” Lad turned and saw the fear in the fat man’s eyes. His chubby hands trembled with the weight of the crossbow.
“Like what happened to the others?” Lad inquired.
“Please,” implored the innkeeper. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I know you don’t,” Lad said in earnest. “I know something awful has happened here and you’re scared it will happen to you. Let me help you.”
“Tell me what’s happened and by the Flame, I’ll put a stop to it.”
“You can’t, son!” He had tears in his eyes. “You can’t stop her.” He put a hand over his mouth as if he had issued an irrevocable curse.
The door to the inn burst open. Three men rushed in. Red-rimmed eyes and sickly gray skin. The leader sneered and pointed at Lad with an ugly, crooked blade.
“The Mayor wants this one,” he croaked.
“Mutt,” Lad grinned. “Get ‘em.”
The leader’s sneer withered as the big hound stalked out from behind Lad. Mutt charged and the leader screamed as the big beast leaped and tackled him to the floor. While the other two were distracted Lad threw his smaller blade into one man’s chest with incredible speed. He charged the third man, who swung at him with a cleaver. Lad ducked under the blow and swept the man’s legs out from under him, dropping him to the floor. Before the man could cry out in shock or pain Lad was on top of him. He brought down the edge of his buckler onto the man’s throat, crushing his windpipe.
He coughed, thrashed, settled – and was no more.
The leader’s scream had now become a gurgle. Lad saw the wicked man’s blood pool on the wooden floor. The fat innkeeper’s finger twitched and the bolt flew. Lad brought up his left arm and caught the bolt on his buckler. He broke it off with his other arm and charged. Even with the weight of the giant sword on his back, the boy was as fleet as a fox. He leaped over the bar and grabbed a fistful of the fat man’s shirt.
“Tell me what has happened here!” he growled. The time for mirth and manners had passed.
“The Mayor!” the fat man shouted. “She’s worked some evil on the village. Some men rose up and tried to stop her, but she burned the leaders alive and put the rest in chains.”
Lad pointed to the dead gray men.
“Are these creatures your fellows under some spell?”
“No!” the fat man cried. “They came in the night when the Heartsfire died. They do her bidding.”
“And the women?” Lad asked. “The children?”
“I swear I don’t know!” he cried. “Those who obey she leaves to their business. I don’t know what she’s done to the rest. The children. The poor little children…”
“Where do I find her?”
“In the manor up on the hill.”
Lad let go of the man. He cracked his knuckles and hopped back over the bar. The innkeeper pulled himself up off the floor.
“What are you going to do?” he asked the young stranger. Lad pulled his curved fighting blade from the dead man’s chest as Mutt licked blood from his chops. The boy touched the horn at his side.
“I’m going to start a fire.”
Lad stood before the ancient Beacon. It was built in the Old Days by the Order of the Flame. Lad rubbed a hand across the moss-covered stone. Even now they were warm. He knelt in the rain and said the prayer his father taught him. He grabbed the horn at his side. It was a ram horn, worked with copper and leather and the runes of the Faith. He opened the horn and breathed a little life into the golden coals of the Heartsfire that glowed within. The Blood of the Earth. The Breath of God.
A spark. A flash. A whisper on the air. And once more the Heartsfire burned in this village that had forgotten itself. Lad stood tall in the heat’s embrace, the Fire rising higher than he stood, and he drew courage from Its light.
Then he heard a scream, distant and muffled. He followed the sound and saw the manor. It loomed over the town like a storm, and hateful light glowed in its windows.
Lad ran toward the danger and smiled.
The manor stunk of corruption. That sickly sweet smell like dead flowers in putrid water. The once beautiful home had fallen into decay and disrepair. High ceilings a sea of spider’s webs. Curtains half eaten by mice and moths. The rough sound of snorting and clanging echoed from deeper in the manor and Lad stalked toward it. Mutt padded silently behind.
The kitchens were cluttered with detritus. Two hulking figures stoked the ovens and stirred filthy pots brimming with some heinous gruel. Lad and Mutt sneaked past the gluttonous pig-men as they barked at each other in their underbitten dialect.
In the shadowy halls they made short work of a stooped and red-eyed gaoler and took his keys. It wasn’t long before Lad found the heavy iron door that they unlocked. He opened it and descended into shadow. In the dark corridors under the manor he heard the beating of hammers and the rattle of chains. The smothering black shadow soon gave way to a dismal red light. The path widened into a cavern and Lad found the men of the village.
Chained, beaten and emaciated, they hammered away in these brutal mines while gray devils pressed them with lash, boot, and threat of blade.
Lad felt burning in his guts. He looked at Mutt.
“Do your worst.”
Mutt showed his teeth and the boy and his beast charged into the mine. Lad ran to the nearest foe and kicked the wretch off a ledge. The villain howled as he fell into the endless dark of the mine. The furious sight of Mutt bounding over crags, crunching bones and rending flesh, scattered the slavers and sent them screaming. Lad was waiting for them all.
The boy struck hard and fast and true. His buckler stopped knives and trapped lashes. His covered knuckles knocked teeth, wind, and senses from his loathsome foes. And his short fighting blade slid past leather doublet and iron plate, found the flesh it sought and opened it like a gift.
The men of the village hollered. The ones with any strength left broke their chains in the chaos. The others took heart and followed. And when they were free of their chains they took their hammers and picks to the red-eyed cowards who had lorded over them. They cried out in furious triumph and Lad and Mutt joined them with their own hoots and barks. But just as the men’s hearts began to swell with courage again, a shadow fell over them. Heavy footfalls made them quake.
The slave master stomped out of the shadows and into the torch light. He was gargantuan. The brute held a cudgel in one massive fist and a black whip in the other. His ugly face contorted with cruel pleasure at the promise of pain. He was fearsome, indeed.
But young Lad was of the Shima Clan of the South. He kept the Old Ways and carried the Heartsfire. He feared not the cudgel, nor the whip, nor the dark hearts of the wicked. He stepped between the village men and the tyrant of the mines.
“You know the way out,” Lad said. “You best use it.”
The giant slaver laughed.
“When I’m done with you, boy, I’ll use your bones for broth.”
“Mark my words, you ugly bastard,” Lad grinned. “Your kind will never be done with me.”
He ran forward as the giant roared and reared back. The slave master brought down his cudgel, but Lad rolled out of the way, through the brute’s legs. He came up and slashed the giant behind the knee. The big leg shuddered but did not give way. The slaver turned and swung the heavy cudgel again. Lad ducked and the massive weapon scattered stone and dust as it crashed into the cave wall. The slaver raised his whip arm but Lad stood on the end of the lash, grinding it into the dirt. He struck the brute in the back of the elbow with his buckler and the big arm went slack with the sound of crunching bone.
Mutt bounded over and crashed full force into the giant’s chest. He toppled over with a roar. As his mass boomed into the cave floor the village men surrounded him. With their hammers, picks, and reserves of strength they broke the giant apart like the rocks of the mine.
When the work was done the men turned to Lad.
Cheers. Handclasps. Embraces. One man looked at Lad’s horn and the glow that emanated from within it.
“Have you brought back the Heartsfire?”
“Then you carry hope, dear boy.”
Lad looked at their number. They were many, but their time in chains had stolen their vigor.
“Where are the women and children?” he asked them.
The men wilted.
“We do not know,” said the man. “Our surrender was bought with the promise of their safety.”
“What do you know of the evil that has taken hold here?” Lad asked. “Is the Mayor the cause of it or another slave?”
“I do not know whether she has been bewitched or is a witch herself. But she is the architect of all this dread.”
“Then I am here for her.”
They followed Lad out of the mine and dealt with the pig-men in the kitchens. The men looked at the cooking food and yearned. Mutt sniffed the foodstuffs and backed away with a bark.
“Don’t touch it,” Lad said. “Black fare for black hearts.”
They went out the front doors and the men staggered into the gloomy daylight. They gasped at the mercy of the rain on their sweltering flesh. And when they saw the mighty Heartsfire in the Beacon they exulted.
“I thought it gone forever from this place,” said the man from before. Tears of joy welled in his eyes. “What’s your name, pilgrim?”
“My name is Lad of the Shima Clan, and this is my wolfbrother, Mutt.”
The man laughed. It was a welcome sound.
“I am Eryk,” the man said.
“And will you help me, Eryk?”
Eryk stood tall with newfound strength, his hammer over his shoulder.
“I am your man, Lad.” His courage spread through the others.
And I! Me too! We’re with you, Lad!
Lad pointed to some of the more able men.
“Get the wounded and frail to the inn. Do not go to your homes. Stay together and recover your strength. The rest of you, with me.”
Back in the manor they made their way up the sweeping staircase to the top floor. As they crossed the landing they came to a long corridor and found their path choked with the Mayor’s red-eyed ghouls. They snarled and ran spotted tongues over rotten teeth and blistered lips.
“Give them Hell,” Lad said. He charged. He met the wicked men with a flurry of punches and stabs. Their weak jaws shattered. Their teeth caught in their throats. Lad turned their hooks and blades against them, spilling their foul guts.
Mutt sent a panic through them, tearing hamstrings and breaking the necks of those who fell. Eryk and the men came behind them, their tools doing mighty work in the Mayor’s halls.
Lad kicked open the doors at the end of the hall and found a chilling and loathsome sight.
All along the walls of the large chamber were the village women, encased on display behind some crystalline prison. Lad felt a shiver go through the men.
“Moira!” one yelled.
“Ellie!” cried another.
The men ran to their women. Wives, mothers, sisters, and sweethearts. All of the warmth of their love and virtue supplanted and mocked by cold crystal. And in their frozen, silent torment, they wept.
One man raised his hammer.
“No!” Lad cried. But the heartbroken man struck the glacial wall that held his love. There was a sound like branches breaking under wet leaves. Blood erupted from the man’s mouth, eyes, and nose, and he fell dead where he stood.
Some of the men cried out. They fell to their knees. Eryk gazed upon the horrible sight.
“What evil have we brought on ourselves that would turn our hearts against us?”
Each man searched his own soul and a shadow of guilt fell upon them all.
“You men should stay with your women,” Lad said. “I’ll deal with the Mayor on my own.”
Eryk shook his head.
“We cannot help them here. Our only hope lies with you.” The other men stirred. Some in agreement. Some in doubt.
“I don’t know what power the Mayor holds,” Lad warned them. “Or the depths of her treachery. Your own children might be used against you. I would not force such sorrow on you.”
“We brought this sorrow on ourselves,” said Eryk. “We took the Mayor’s coin to mine the hills. We comforted ourselves with pretty lies as she tightened her noose around the village and the Heartsfire burned lower and lower. And when it finally snuffed out we called it a child’s tale.”
Eryk pointed to one of the women. She was comely, with long chestnut hair, and freckles that peppered her face.
“That’s my Roslyn,” he said. “She sings our boys to sleep every night. In the Spring I bring her flowers and she makes them into garlands that she wears. And sometimes we sit by the fire and I brush her hair while she reads to me.” His voice broke. He looked around at the other men and at Lad.
“It was our sin that put them here. It’s our duty to free them.”
The men stood ready. Lad nodded and together they left the gallery and walked into the Mayor’s bedchamber. It was empty. Mutt growled and edged forward into the room.
“What is it, boy?”
Mutt padded over to a large wardrobe. His fangs were bared. Lad threw open the wooden doors and parted the gowns and found a stone staircase spiraling down. A fetid draft wafted out of the darkness. Lad mussed his wolfbrother’s fur.
“Lead the way, boy.”
Mutt licked his chops and trotted forward. Lad and the men followed.
Amid the shadow and stench, they could hear children’s cries in the dark. Lad grabbed a torch off the wall at the bottom of the stairs. The path opened up. What they found was not another mine but the halls of a dungeon.
Three paths. To the left and right were corridors of cells. Small hands clutched at the iron bars. Each corridor was guarded by a hulking gaoler. They held cleavers and snarled through sharp teeth.
“To the children!” Eryk shouted. The men formed two groups and charged. The sight of their sons and daughters gave them the might of heroes.
Lad took the middle path. Above the din of the fight in the dungeon, or perhaps beneath it, he heard a woman’s voice.
Come to me, traveler, she beckoned. Her voice was as sweet as honey. Lad walked deeper into the darkness until all other sounds disappeared. There was only her voice.
He held the torch aloft and something flickered in the dark.
Eyes. Beautiful, amber eyes.
Brave boy, she whispered. Tell me your name.
“Lad,” he said softly. Her voice was lulling him like a woolen blanket. She broke the edge of the darkness. She was beautiful. Her face was framed by long, black hair that fell around her full, naked breasts. Her smile was a warm knife.
A fitting name for such a strong, handsome boy. Her voice pulled at him along with her eyes. The shadows closed in. The world fell away and there was only the two of them. Alone in the dark with a beautiful woman. She seemed to rise above him.
Those cruel men have imprisoned me here, along with all the children. I prayed for someone to save us. And here you are.
The torch grew heavy in his hand. He felt fuzzy and weak like when he had too much ale.
A proper hero deserves a kiss, she said with ruby lips. Would you like a kiss, Lad?
He could not answer. She rose above him. Her voice was not her voice.
I’ll give you a kiss you’ll never forget.
Pain lit up Lad’s leg. The shadow fell away and Lad saw Mutt’s jaws pulling at him. He looked back and saw the Mayor – rising above him with the body of a giant serpent. She screamed and struck at him with fangs the size of whaler’s hooks, her perfect face now a monstrous horror. Lad threw up his arm just in time, his buckler halting the venomous fangs.
With his free hand he pulled his blade and stabbed her in her amber eye. She let loose his arm with a nightmarish scream. She thrashed at him with her large, serpentine tail. He tried to roll away but it caught him in the back, throwing him through the air. Mutt darted in and caught the end of her tail in his jaws. He bit it so hard it burst in an explosion of black ichor.
She tore the appendage loose and lashed Mutt with it, stunning him. She slithered – quick and unpredictable – and grabbed Lad by the throat. Her sensuous beauty turned to hate and hunger.
Lad grabbed his horn. He opened the end, casting valiant light and blinding the creature that was the Mayor. She let go of his throat and reared back in pain.
Lad brought the horn to his lips and stoked the Heartsfire. The sacred Flames moved like a living thing. The tendrils lashed the scales of the demon Mayor and filled her maw and lungs as she drew in air to scream. From within and without the Heartsfire burned every black corner of her vile being until there was nothing left but smoldering bones and ash.
Lad covered the horn and Mutt nearly knocked him over, licking his face.
“Thank you, boy,” Lad said, hugging and petting the magnificent beast. “You saved me, you big, beautiful mongrel.”
Eryk ran in with some of the other men.
“Are you all right, Lad? What has happened?”
“It’s done. Are the children all right?”
The haggard men beamed.
“They are. Thank the Fire.”
The children were saved. When the Mayor was destroyed her spell over the women was broken and they were freed from their crystalline cage. Families were reunited at last. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. Friends and lovers. The last of the wicked men were rounded up and killed. And the survivors buried those villagers who were not so fortunate. It was sweetness and sorrow. A time of tears. And when the rain broke and the sun returned Lad and Mutt set out to leave.
“Where will you go?” Eryk asked. He walked them to the edge of town.
“Wherever the Fire has gone out.” Lad and Mutt were well rested and well fed. The villagers had thrown a grand ball with Lad as the guest of honor. Food, drink, and songs. Lad told them stories of his travels. He danced with all the young girls while the children played with Mutt. It was the happiest he’d been in a long time.
“I meant to ask you about that big sword of yours,” Eryk said.
Lad felt the weight of the mighty weapon. It was always there.
“It was my father’s sword,” Lad told him.
“A mighty weapon for mighty foes.” Eryk surmised. “One blow from that could have ended the Mayor and any one of her giants. Why didn’t you use it?”
Lad looked at the man and gave him a simple, helpless smile.
“I’m not strong enough to swing it.”
Eryk was stunned. The strange boy began to laugh and Eryk could not help but join him.
“Then why do you carry it?” Eryk asked.
Lad looked out over the village. The men were back to work on their farms and at their trades. The women chased the children and teased the men. Smoke rose from every chimney. And the Heartsfire burned so bright and strong it could be seen for miles.
“For the day when I am.”