Fiction Friday: A Candle In The Dark

A Candle In The Dark

by Bryan Fazekas

 

The elderly couple sat quietly in the corner of the tavern, their grandchildren chatting nearby about something interesting to a pair of teenagers. A group of older youths crowded in the front door, clustered about the eldest. One pointed to where Hal was snoring the afternoon away, head down on a table. The one-armed ex-adventurer told stories for ale, and was generally unconscious by mid-afternoon. He had a good morning, so he had been out cold since before lunch time. Other than his snoring, it made for a quieter tavern.

“That one’s a drunk, he doesn’t know nothing.” Pointing at Trajan he continued, “That’s the one we want. His stories are real.” The crowd surge toward the couple.

Jake and David stood up and imposed themselves between the youths and their grandparents. Although shorter by a head and outnumbered, they were brawnier and had an air of confident violence about them. The youths stopped abruptly and piled together, trampling each other.

The leader recovered first, pushing the others off him, and tried to salvage his fragile dignity. “We want to talk to him,” pointing at the old man.

“Jake, David, let them by.”

“Sit,” the old man said gently. Although quite elderly the man projected strength and the youths obeyed the suggestion as if it was a command. “What can I do for you?”

As they settled into scattered chairs several started to speak at once, but the leader blustered through them. “We heard you fought draugar!” he blurted. Gesturing towards Hal’s unconscious form, he continued, “He’s told stories, but they’re different every time, all crap. Anyone knows that.”

Keeping his face genial, Trajan laughed inside. Given the number of people that bought ale in exchange for Hal’s stories, everyone did NOT know that.

“Everyone says that you know things. What you say is real.”

The man sipped at a mug of wine. He surveyed their faces over the rim. All young, strong, eager. Not a lick of sense in the bunch. “Hubris,” he thought. “The destroyer of fools.

“Why do you want to know about draugar?”

“Ronja. We heard there is a draugar there, guarding treasure.”

Demeter preserve fools,” Trajan thought. “Guarding treasure?” he said aloud, with a tone of polite interest, and an undertone as if talking to a stupid child. It was lost on these.

All five hunched forward in excitement, their bodies taut. “YES. We mean to destroy the draugar and take the treasure!” They looked around at each other, eyes bright with excitement, and with imagined glory and wealth.

“Ahhhhh,” the old man said slowly and dryly. “So you want to know how to kill a draugar?”

“Yes! We heard you killed two draugar! Tell us how to do it!”

“I–”

“No,” the old woman cut off the reply.

The youths thought she meant no story and started to protest.

“No. Trajan killed three.” She frowned. “And nearly died doing it.” The old woman glared at the old man, cutting off his reply. Looking back at the youths she continued, “I will tell this story. Trajan has never told the real story, but I will.” Looking back at her husband she softly stated, “Etjar told me what you really did. At the time I wasn’t ready to hear it, but now is the time to tell it.”

The leader of the youths started to object, but her withering glare shut him up. From the corner of her eye she saw Jake and David sitting attentively. They’d heard Trajan’s stories their entire lives, but they’d not heard her tell any.

“The gnomish scholar Petteri, who still teaches at The College, hired us to escort him to Ronja. The city had been sacked by bandits nearly eighteen years before. He wanted to visit the ruins and see if books supposedly in one of the minor temples had survived the elements. It was Trajan, me, our best friend Etjar, and a pair of dwarven brothers who had traveled with us before. Plus Petteri, one of his colleagues, and two senior students.”

* * *

Etjar groaned. Sixteen miles of walking from the gates of Kerr along the North-East Road to the ruins of the City of Ronja, formerly home of nearly 10,000 people. The dwarves were good traveling companions. They were strong, fit, and did their best to fulfill their duties. Petteri had hired the group before, and for a person with such short legs he managed to do pretty good at keeping up. The gnome’s companions? Yah, they were scholars, as soft of body as they were quick of mind, but they did their best to keep up. Besides, they were paying by the day so an extra day or two of pay for just walking was fine.

Marissa and Trajan? “Being jailed for killing them both doesn’t seem so bad right now,” he silently considered.

From literally the first moment they met the pair rubbed each other the wrong way. Like every good wizard Etjar had met, she was very intelligent, quick of wit, had a strong attention to detail with regard to anything that interested her, and a disregard of things that didn’t. Bronze skin, wide nose, fleshy lips, she wasn’t the Kerrean idea of beauty, but wasn’t unpleasant to look at.

Trajan was quite bright, but had nowhere near the brain power she did. At 6′ 4″ he was more than a foot taller than the woman, muscular enough to make other men envious, the bronze of his skin was from the sun and not nature, and he was a master of the hand-and-a-half bastard sword he favored. His continuous fights with the wizard were typically brain versus brawn, although for diversity they’d sometimes snipe at each other’s appearance, clothing, personal hygiene, or something else equally pointless. The human scholars found it amusing, but they’d not listened to it for five years. Petteri and the dwarves found Trajan’s words scandalous, as both races coddled their women, but after listening to the woman for five minutes they hadn’t thought Marissa’s treatment of Trajan any better.

“How about you shut up?” he addressed them impartially. Both glared at him. “We haven’t been here in two years, there’s no telling what might have moved in.” He scanned the area pointedly; nothing moved except a few birds whose chirping broke the silence.

Before either could respond he addressed the scholars, “We are near what used to be the southern gate of the city. The temple you want is in the north-west corner of the city. We are going to do this just like we discussed. Trajan and I go first. Marissa follows forty feet behind us. YOU follow forty feet behind her.” Gesturing to the dwarves he said, “And they are forty feet behind you, watching the rear.” He said the last to obliquely remind the dwarves of their duty. They were generally good companions but their attention wavered too easily.

The dwarves were fraternal twins, like all dwarven twins, but he still couldn’t tell them apart. Addressing the academics again he said, “Watch both sides and avoid going near any tangle of bushes or anything that might hide a bandit.” It was best to not mention the real hazards, the scholars would get scared instead of feeling they were on an outing. Most likely they’d not encounter anything. He and Trajan were big, well-armed, and well armored. The dwarves looked plenty tough, like the majority of dwarves he’d met. Most common interlopers would avoid them, looking for easier pickings instead of a fight.

The original wall surrounding the city was mostly standing, but the wooden gates had been knocked down in the sack and rotted in the twenty years since then. The main thoroughfare to the center of town was cobblestoned, wide enough for two generous wagons plus foot traffic on either side. The wooden buildings had mostly collapsed inward, with trees growing up through the shards. Sometime in the recent past something had cleared or trampled a foot path through the places where debris straggled into the lane.

The best news was that both Trajan and Marissa concentrated on their duties and gave up sniping at each other. Trajan was a great left hand partner. Etjar would never worry about that side while his friend still lived. Honestly? Having Marissa backing them up had saved all their lives more than once. When she and Trajan weren’t cutting at each other she was a good companion, friendly, not exactly charming but interesting. Etjar laughed softly at how that pair protected each other fiercely when danger loomed, and immediately went feel back to their normal relationship afterwards. “Maybe they don’t know how to change,” he quietly wondered.

The half mile to the center of town was easy. The road was straight and relatively unimpeded, nothing visible but a few birds, whose chirping echoed between the few stone buildings whose walls still stood. The tiny remainder of the journey would not be so easy. The temple sector had no straight lanes, the roads meandered, and while the ones by the major temples were cobblestone, the others were packed dirt.

He looked at Trajan, who had memorized a map of the town. He knew where the temple was, and gestured towards a choked path to their left. “Of course our path is dirt,” Etjar thought rancidly. “No luck in having a nice easy walk all the way,” he said aloud.

Trajan loosened a short sword in its sheath and drew his bastard sword. His favored sword took room to swing and the conditions on this path might preclude that. The big man had long since mastered dropping his big sword to swiftly yank the little one, striking as he drew. Many had been surprised at how quickly he reacted.

The big blade shed light in a goodly radius when he drew it, light visible even in the pre-noon sunlight. A mage had enchanted the blade, making it super sharp and resilient against breakage; the light was a side effect.

The short sword was not enchanted, but it was high quality steel, quite sharp enough to cut most foes. And it took little room to swing. Or stab as the case may be.

Etjar drew his long sword, two-and-a-half feet of gently curving steel, it’s edge and point magically sharpened to a razor edge that didn’t dull. It also shed light, which was handy in dark places, but less so when they needed to hide. Hopefully they’d not need to hide, nor bloody their blades at all. Shorter and lighter than Trajan’s sword, it didn’t cleave things quite as well, but it was quite deadly and far more useful in tight quarters. He also ensured that his short sword, the twin of Trajan’s, was loose in its sheath. Having a backup weapon handy was, well, handy.

Trajan took the lead, his back twenty feet ahead of his right side partner. In this narrower lane with more obstructions, they formed up closer. This had the drawback that it was easier to get the group in an area attack, but provided for quicker reaction time in protecting each other. It was a trade-off, like everything else.

As they approached a choke point where bushes grew into the lane, Trajan sheathed his big sword, drawing the little one. Just past the choke point, after Etjar came through, he swapped again. This drill was old hat to the pair who had trained together for nearly twenty years. Etjar habitually scanned the area; the silence was broken only by a few chirps although the birds themselves were hidden.

They passed another narrow point in the path, one between two stone temples where brush choked the path on both sides. These were all minor temples, there were dozens. Often a “temple” was little more than a twelve foot square building, the better with stone walls, the lesser of wood. None had quality in construction, as the major temples enjoyed, so the wood was all rotted and collapsed, the walls crumbling. Some might find it picturesque, but the soldier found it depressing. And it provided a lot of cover for ambushes, so made for nervous walking.

After that tight spot the path seemed more constricted, more claustrophobic. The trees growing in the ruins behind them were fairly tall for a twenty year growth, but these seemed shorter and bushier. Although it was but mid-morning, the light seemed dimmer than it had been, yet when he looked up the sky was clear and blue. But muted feeling.

Trajan stopped and held up his left hand, fist closed. Etjar automatically repeated the signal, knowing that Marissa did the same. Muttering from the scholars broke the silence, and stopped at the woman’s soft but sharp rebuke.

Ahh,” thought the big soldier. “Silence where there shouldn’t be.” Trajan had picked up on the lack of song birds that had previously pierced the silence of the ruin. Something was wrong, and it probably wasn’t anything natural. Scanning the bushes and wrack, Trajan briefly looked back and locked gazes meaningfully with his right hand partner, then his gaze moved on to what had to be the wizard. The warning was clear. He heard her move quietly back to the scholars, warning them of a yet unknown danger, to be silent and to watch. Hopefully the dwarves understood. When they weren’t mistreating each other Marissa and Trajan worked together exceedingly well.

They reached another narrow spot in the path, a damaged statue on one side and brambles on the other. Trajan swapped weapons again and waited until his partner caught up before going past, scanning both sides alternately as he slowly moved through. As Etjar took his turn he realized it was darker than before, but glancing up at the sky it was bright blue, the sun high in the sky. “We should turn back,” he wanted to say. Instead he moved to Trajan’s right and scanned rapidly for anything out of place, anything moving. The wizard moved up so she was between them, just behind them, so they moved forward a bit more to give her a better line of fire. Marissa wasn’t a full wizard, but her fire spells could kill an ogre and put a hurtin’ on even a giant.

Once all were past the statue Trajan moved along the path, and Etjar maintained their twenty foot distance. He knew Marissa did the same. A hiss behind him caused him to glance back; the scholars weren’t holding their separation, they were crowded up on her. They might be clueless but the atmosphere was getting to them as well. She warned them back, and the dwarves as well. “Damned dwarves!” he grouched mentally. Hopefully the only ones they’d get killed with their inattention would be themselves.

The path curved gently to the left, hiding anything beyond a hundred feet. Then it curved back to the right and opened up into a clearing in which stood a stone walled temple that was odd because it was whole, not crumbled. Trees had grown up all around it, more than previously noted, changing from scraggly hardwoods to ominous pine trees. Something about the tall, narrow shapes, crowded together in a mishmash of needles. Something was not right.

The human academics gabbled happily and crowded forward, pushing around Marissa, Etjar, and Trajan. “Stop, you idiots!” Trajan half screamed, wanting to stop them but unwilling to yell in this place, and more unwilling to charge forward blindly.

The taller of the students took the lead, his gangling form moving faster than the other two. He was laughing at the other two when a horror stepped from the gaping doorway, grasped his forearms with ugly claws, and raggedly bit a chunk from his right breast.

The human screamed silently, his body shocked by the mangling. As the thing masticated the mouthful of live flesh and choked it down, Etjar realized the only reason the student was not bleeding his life out was that he was too tall, the thing stood less than five feet and could not reach his throat — yet. But it would. It pulled him down to its level for the next bite, the one that would release a fatal spurt of life’s blood.

The second student shocked the soldier on several counts. He didn’t freeze, didn’t panic. Instead he yanked a dagger no one realized he had from a boot and stepping to the side of the thing, drove the point into its neck. The thing rocked from the force of the blow.

Etjar got a good view of the thing as it turned and looked at the second student for a few pregnant seconds. The thing looked like nothing he had ever seen, in waking hours nor especially in his nightmares. No one would mistake it for a living man, although maybe a human corpse, it’s greyish, sallow skin taught and shrunken over its bones. The long, stringy hair had fallen out in patches, leaving grey muck visible, and the teeth were tusks protruding from sunken lips and gums. The little remaining clothing cost a small fortune when new, but that was long in the distant past. Ripped, shredded, and stained, the fine shirt was as grey as the creature.

Petteri screamed, “Draugar!” as the thing shoved the first student from it, flinging him bonelessly down the steps. It leapt and bowled over its attacker. Shocked that his dagger’s perfect strike did no damage, the student died in a spray of arterial blood through his torn out throat. He might have screamed, if he had anything left to scream with. Instead he gurgled in agony.

Trajan moved like a cat, light on his feet, quick as lightning. He grabbed the professor who stood mutely in horror, spun him around and shoved him towards Etjar. He assessed the mangled student, the wound was horrific but would not prove immediately fatal. Still in shock, he lay where he had fallen. Maybe he had hit his head, maybe not. The soldier grabbed a wrist, knelt, pulled upon the arm, got his shoulder under an armpit, and flung the dead weight over his shoulder. The young man weighed short of two hundred pounds, but Trajan stood up as if he was a small child. He didn’t even glance at the second student, who was dead even if he hadn’t quite finished dying.

They ran.

The dwarves led the way, swords and shields ready. Marissa shepherded the human scholar who was still in shock. Petteri ran of his own volition but moved woodenly, dazed as his associate. After a hundred yards Trajan stopped, and Etjar with him, as the others continued. “He’s bleeding too badly, got to stop it.” Etjar could see probably a pint of blood had run down his friend’s shoulder and backpack. It looked like five gallons, but blood was like that. Experience told him it was much less, but it still wasn’t good.

Yanking a folded cloth from a pouch he glanced around. No obvious danger, the draugar was probably feeding on the other. He wadded up the cloth and covered the wound, pressing hard. Trajan pulled twine from a pouch and together they manhandled the youth to tie a tight X covering the compress. “He’ll live or he won’t until we get out of here,” Trajan said in a matter of fact tone. Etjar knew his friend wasn’t as heartless as that sounded; in battle successful soldiers shut down useless emotions until the job was done.

“Carry him a while, I’ll guard your back.” Trajan had sprinted more than a hundred yards with a dead weight of nearly two hundred pounds on his back. He’d go farther if he needed to, but he didn’t while his right hand partner was there.

Etjar shouldered the weight and moved off. He shifted the man several times to get best balance, knowing his left hand partner was behind him.

“Damnation!” Trajan cursed. Spinning to look, Etjar saw the draugar charging, bright red blood dribbled down its chin and spewed across its throat and chest, sharply contrasting the grey. “GO!” he commanded as he turned to meet the charge.

Moving like a dancer he interposed himself between the thing and his partner carrying his gory burden. The draugar stopped short of the blade, then darted forward with supernatural speed as the sword swept past. Five ugly claws raked his breast, snapping links of his chain mail shirt and slashing through the underlying leather shirt. Backing up, Etjar saw his partner stiffen. Stories told around campfires said the touch of the living dead froze the blood of the living. Etjar froze in horror as well, his mind denying that his best friend since childhood, his buddy through childish misadventures, his left hand partner of six years with the militia and seven years of adventuring was going to die.

Somehow the soldier shrugged off the lethal chill, spinning to deflect the next claw with his shoulder, shifting back to slash at it. They traded blows, the draugar evading the magically sharp sword, Trajan slapping aside or dodging clawed swipes that would open his flesh to the bone. While this happened Etjar slowly backed up, knowing he needed to save the young man he carried, but unwilling to leave Trajan. The mortal suffered from the touch of the undead thing, tiring as the unequal battle wound down, it would end only one way.

Marissa was there, skirting the scrub trees to find an angle of attack. She should have been shepherding the scholars away from the danger. Demeter knows the dwarves couldn’t do it on their own, they were far too knuckleheaded.

Etjar heard her shout the words of magic, heard them and immediately forgot them no matter how hard he tried to remember. Four bolts of green energy materialized from her right index finger in rapid fire succession, flashing across the distance to burn holes in the draugar’s side. Badly hurt by the magical force it spun away from her, then tried to turn back. Trajan sliced upward, amputating an upraised hand, and rising up on his toes twisted the blade in a loop that impacted the collarbone with all his weight and strength.

The student’s dagger had not pierced the thing’s undead flesh, lacking the magically sharp edge necessary to harm it, although the impact rocked it. In contrast Trajan’s magically sharp sword slashed through skin, desiccated flesh, and bone — hacking the damned thing diagonally in half.

Trajan staggered in reaction and fell in a distorted heap. The halves of the draugar twitched spasmodically, but there was no volition. Etjar softly stated, “It’s dead. Or destroyed. Or whatever.” He swallowed sickly and continued, “We had better burn it to be sure.”

Marissa screamed, a soul wrenching sound that cut to the bone. In horror Etjar realized two more draugar had materialized from the scrub, their wicked claws biting into her flesh. Her second scream cut off midway as the icy touch froze her voluntary muscles and she stiffened. Etjar thought that one was going to bite her but they both looked at Trajan scrambling wearily to his feet, and at the pieces of their comrade, still twitching. In concert they turned and loped back towards the temple carrying her stiff body between them.

Etjar dropped his burden to the path and ran to Trajan. “No!” his friend moaned.

“Damn!” Etjar swore. “We’ll not beat two of them, not with you half dead already.”

“NO!” Trajan yelled, breaking free of his friend and the staggering up the path after the woman.

“Trajan! No! She’s dead! There’s nothing we can do about it!” Etjar looked back at the student lying on the path, groaning softly. “Kid, you’re on your own for a while. Hopefully I’ll be back to carry you.” With that he ran after his friend.

* * *

“Trajan caught up with the draugar in sight of the old temple. The only thing that saved him was that one was intent on carrying its dinner while the other turned to fight.” She sipped from her husband’s mug, wine clearing her dry throat. “Trajan was clawed twice more, bleeding and weakened by the icy touch before he killed the first. The second should have killed him easily, but he was too damned stubborn to die. Then Etjar caught up.”

The youths were amazed, trying to reconcile the old man sitting in front of them with the much younger man who had fought and slain three undead horrors, any one of which should have killed him first.

“Wow,” said the leader amidst the babbling of the others. “If you could do it on your own, the five of us should be able to kill one if we work together.”

Marissa blinked in amazement. “Children,” she thought. “Stupid children.

“Draugar are not hurt by mundane weapons. All you can do is make them mad. If you don’t have enspelled weapons, you will die.” Nothing like being blunt.

She realized immediately it was the wrong thing to say. All five hunched their shoulders as if taking a blow, and leader dragged a broadsword from a sheath that had seen better days. “We have this!” he snarled as he brandished a glowing blade.

“David, check it.” The leader was stunned to immobility as the shorter grandchild snatched the sword from his fingers. He made to grab it back but the second grandchild, brawnier than his sibling, interposed himself. He smiled with his mouth, not his eyes, and said, “David will give it back in a minute.”

David laid the sword on the table, made some intricate hand movements over it and whispered something no one could quite hear. His eyes narrowed as he inspected the sword, which did nothing obvious.

After fifteen or twenty seconds he staggered a bit and caught himself on the table. Whatever magic he used had drained him. Drawing a deep breath he said, “It’s got a Glow spell and No-Rust on it. But not Ever-Sharp nor Never-Breaking. It won’t cut a draugar.” Supporting himself on the table he looked the older youth in the eyes and said, “Fight a draugar with this and you’re breakfast.” He had inherited Marissa’s bluntness.

As David steadied himself Jake picked the sword up by the blade and handed it, hilt first, to the leader. The youth snatched it with ill grace and nearly gutted himself, slamming it back in sheath on the second try.

“Gods Damn You!” he profaned at the top of his lungs. “You’re a bunch of cowards, but I’m not! My grandfather’s sword is a powerful one, and you’ll see me come back with a wagon of treasure!” Turning he burst through his friends, who belatedly stumbled out in his wake.

“Crap,” Marissa said tiredly. “Let’s go to the temple tonight and light a candle for each of them.” She looked at her husband and thought of the aftermath of that fateful battle.

* * *

Marissa lay in a bed in the healers building of the temple of Demeter. She didn’t remember the journey back to Kerr, but Etjar had told her about it. They carried her, Trajan, and the student outside of the ruins. The dwarves ran the sixteen miles back to Kerr to get a wagon.

Say what anyone will about dwarves, but their stamina is amazing and they always take care of their own. They made it back to Kerr and returned in a wagon shortly after midnight, then drove through the night carrying the injured.

“Is Trajan awake?” she asked. He was in the men’s section.

“He’s been in and out all day. He was clawed six times. The healers don’t understand how he survived that and still kept fighting. Few can claim to have killed one draugar in a day, much less three.”

“Will he recover?” She spoke without emphasis, but he could see real concern in her eyes.

Etjar smiled. “The healers say yes. It’s critical to destroy the draugar who harm you before the next dawn, else the damage they inflict is permanent. He did that, and he survived the first night and that was a good sign. Nay a great one! It will take six or eight weeks, maybe more, but he’ll recover.” He smiled at her. “So will you, although your injuries are lesser.”

“How did he survive and win, I wonder?”

“For the same reason you left the scholars and came back.”

“To save the hide of a pair of dumbasses?” she snarked weakly.

Etjar’s tone hardened. “You know why.” He surveyed her critically. “That fool asked me to not tell you what he did, to tell you that I helped.” He laughed, a harshly cynical tone. “You should bed Trajan, it will do you both a lot of good.”

Marissa turned bright red. “BED HIM!” she shrieked, then coughed weakly, as if the indignation was too much for her weakened condition.

“Demeter knows you and Trajan are too damned stupid to see what is in front of you. I’ll not live long enough to see you get past that.”

* * *

The old couple walked to the temple to light candles for the young fools, ones doomed to die because of their arrogance and pride. “Etjar told me that he’d not live to see us get past our stupidity.” Her voice caught and tears streamed down her cheeks. “Sad that he was right. I wished he could have lived and seen us.”

The old man stopped walking and pulled her head to his chest, catching her tears in his shirt, crying his own tears for the best friend anyone had ever lost.

 


 

Author’s Note: Some years back my sons decided to flesh out the back story of their primary AD&D characters, Jake and David. In the course of the discussion it was decided that Jake was raised by his grandparents and David was an orphan living at the Temple of Demeter in Kerr, who spent most of his free time with Jake. David was being prepared to become a cleric (which was not a fit), and both took lessons from Bisonbit, a junior cleric five years their senior. The grandfather taught the boys swordsmanship and prepared them for time in the militia, and the grandmother taught David wizardry. So we had a pair of unnamed grandparents. (Bisonbit was a non-player character I created to teach my sons at the ages of 7 and 8 how to play AD&D.)

The following day I started a short story about the grandparents, intending to make them more real to my young sons. The resulting story set the stage, creating the characters Trajan, Etjar, and Marissa whose exploits were told in the form of flashbacks to the much younger Jake, David, and Bisonbit.

The trio’s first story became The Ecology of the Gree-Kin (published in & Magazine issue 6), which details how the trio met. Their last adventure as a trio was my second short story, The Ecology of the Bereaver (published in & Magazine issue 5). The events that happened between those two events are still unfolding in the form of more stories.

A Candle In The Dark was written as an entry into the Baen Books 2014 Fiction Contest … which I didn’t win. While winning would have been cool, I enjoyed the fact that it prompted me to write a Marissa and Trajan story without another purpose in mind.

Copyright 2014-2015 Bryan Fazekas.

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