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Embers of Black - Chapter Two

Patrick Braddock
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"I dun care iff'n yer mother was a priestess o'Tymora! Y'can't win tha' many hands inna row, Ix!" The one-eyed man across the table snarled, scraping his chair back and getting unsteadily to his feet as he slapped his cards down onto the table.

The one he had addressed stood also, not showing the slightest tremor despite drinking as much as the other man. Cold silver eyes stared out from a pale face framed in white hair, watching One Eye warily. He shifted slightly, his combat leathers creaking as he rested his right hand on the pommel of the sheathed longsword at his left hip.

Silver eyes narrowed. "My friend, you would call me a cheater, yes?" the one named Ix said quietly, his accent odd and strong in his soft voice. One Eye staggered around the table, leaning in to push the one named Ix roughly, knocking him back a pace.

"A cheater an' a coward!" the drunk crooned.

The harsh planes of the Ix's face hardening to steel. "A coward, am I?" His hand slipping around the hilt of the sword at his waist.

One Eye swayed a bit but his answer was loud and coherent enough to draw the attention of everyone else in the makeshift tavern. "Aye! A coward an' a cheat! An' y'know wha' we do t'cheats!" The man's hand slipped to the dagger at his belt, but was met halfway by something cold and hard. Blinking, the man looked down, befuddled by the length of metal protruding from his gut. His eyes followed the steel to a hand, up an arm, and then to a pair of silver eyes. Gasping silently, One Eye tumbled backwards, the blade pulling from his stomach as he fell, still not fully comprehending what had happened. Then he died.

Silver eyes roamed the crowd of onlookers, every gaze flinching away. No one could meet the eyes of the pale-skinned man with metal for eyes and snow for hair. He seemed even more foreign and alien in the midnight black leathers he wore, odd runes the color of blood eteched across his cuirass.

Without a word, the man named Ix bent down, cleaning his blade on the dead man's shirt before sheathing it. With one last, lingering look at the others crowded in the tent-turned-tavern, he turned on his heel and strode out into the harsh daylight.

A spike of cold air, a blessing compared to the gale of the day before, stabbed at him as he stood on the street, blinking his silver eyes, trying to clear away the gloom from the makeshift tavern. After his vision had grown accustomed to the light, Ix swept his gaze left and right, taking in the area around him.

The tent town that had sprung up around the trading outpost of Develor was filled for the most part with mercenaries, rowdies, and camp followers. The clang of a smiths hammer on anvil came from behind a nearby wagon. A ways down the trodden path, a group of women, probably soldiers' wives, washed laundry in a frigid stream. Drunken singing from the other way drew a look, three swaying mercenaries bawling a marching tune at the top of their lungs.

Ix's eyes took in all of these sights and focused to the north, towards the gate of the city of Develor itself. Today wasn't the first time he had to kill someone since he had arrived; it probably wouldn't be his last. Turning, he stroke purposefully to the city, moving like a stalking panther.

He was tired of sleeping on the ground like all of these�people. Tonight, he would sleep in a real bed, in one of the inns in the city. Though the rooms were sure to be full, he was certain he could find some way to free up a bed.

The tavern was bright, late morning sunlight streaming in through the open windows, bringing with it a chill that was only partially beaten back by the fire roaring in the hearth. Silver eyes studied the others in the taproom as Ix leaned back in his chair, boots propped up on the table as he sipped now and again from his mug of warm ale.

This wasn't a high-class drinking pit, more a place for working men and day laborers. Men who could ill-afford to lose coin in a game of chance or skill. Still, the ale was good and the fire warm enough for him, so Ix stayed, lounging in the bright sunlight, shining eyes staring hard at any who tried to share his table.

Tomorrow was the day when the expedition would be moving out. Lord Ithad's couriers and clerks had been busy filling out the lists of those would were joining the expedition. The old man is a fool, Ix thought. Every man or woman who had signed up was paid one-half month's wage on the spot. He expected that many of those who signed up would simply skip out, taking their front pay and disappearing before the expedition left. The thought hadn't occurred to Ix himself, as he had never broken a contract once taken.

His mind slipped from the present, going back over the campaigns in which he had fought, the many battles, the foes slain in combat. He drifted over battlefields where men had killed men for money, for gods, for land, and for glory. Though he knew he wasn't one of the best, Ix knew he was one of the most dependable. Once bought, his sword swung only one way and couldn't be turned by money or anything else.

As it always did whenever he lost himself in thought, his mind drifted back to that night, the night his clan had been butchered by a band of superstitious elves. Elves, he thought with venom.

Stifled giggling drew him back to the present, his eyes flicking over a table where a group of stoneworkers had been sitting earlier. Now, there were two women, looking at him. One, pale as an ivory carving with hair as dark as night, leaned to the other, a woman with chestnut hair and dark, nearly black eyes, and whispered something. Another fit of giggles took them as they watched Ix.

Not women; girls, he thought to himself. He scowled at them, which only made them giggle harder. The black-haired one turned her face to her companion to say something to her, revealing a pointed ear sticking through her hair. Elves! His scowl deepened, his eyes flashing murderously.

Slowly, Ix dropped his feet to the floor, his hand clenching the mug. The creak of tormented wood came to his ears as the mug threatened to break in his grip. Slamming the mug onto the table, ale sloshing over the side, he got to his feet, heading for the doorway after flashing a knife-sharp glower at the two girls.

As he passed their table, the dark-eyed girl caught his hand in her. "Please, sir, don't take offense at my friend and I." She smiled up at him, her eyes full of good humor.

Slitted silver eyes returned her look. Ix's lips twisted into a scowl again. Then, suddenly, his face went blank. "As you wish," he said, his voice barely carrying to the two. He went back to his seat, thought for a moment, then dragged it to the table where the two girls sat. Despite all the blood on his hands, he had never killed a woman, but tormenting these two would at least bring some small amount of satisfaction.

The dark-eyed girl blinked at him as he sat across from them while the one with raven hair simply smiled at him. She extended a pale, slim hand to him.

"I am Illandra," she said, her voice musical. When he didn't take her proferred hand, she gestured at her companion with it. "And this lump is Corenne. Called Corenne the Dark by some." The one named Corenne snorted softly at the last, then turned a radiant smile to him. His gaze taking in both of them, Ix leaned forward slightly. "I am Ixdaeliovadi of clan Insudramata, last blood of a dead people, slayer of elves, and mercenary." Both the girls' eyes widened at the 'slayer of elves' part. He had thrown that in for good measure to keep them off balance. "Now," he continued, "perhaps you would care to tell me of that which you were speaking, yes?"

The pale one, Illandra, recovered the quickest. "We were merely wondering where someone of such a color as you were from, good Ix. We meant no disrespect."

A white eyebrow arched. "That is humorous?"

"No, I suppose it isn't." Illandra swallowed then took a deep breath to calm herself. "Please, we meant no disrespect."

Ix thought a moment. "You two, you have a room here in the city, yes?"

Corenne spoke then. "No, good sir. We had planned to camp in the outskirts. We have little coin left to us." Illandra frowned slightly at her before turning to smile slightly at him.

Drawing the long knife from his belt, Ix toyed idly with it, the girls' eyes following it. "You will come with me, then, tonight." He grinned evilly at them. "In recompense for your actions." Illandra opened her mouth, about to protest. The knife slammed into the table, burying itself deep into the seasoned wood. "It would not do for this incident to get�messy, yes?"

Illandra gulped and nodded. Corenne merely stared at him, her eyes filling with fire.

Bracing his boots against the floor, Ix stood, using his upward momentum to pull the knife loose from the table. "Then come. The room, I will take you there now. See that you are�settled." The girls' unease was palpable, bringing a twisted smile to his lips.

The room was walled in oak panneling and was furnished sparingly, with only a bed pushed against one wall and a small writing table against the other. A brick fireplace rested in the back, which was a mere five paces from the door. A tiny window let in a stream of sunlight, throwing a rectangle of radiance on the bare wood floor.

Checking to make sure the room was empty, Ix gestured to the foot of the bed. "Set your things there." The girls entered behind him, setting their saddlebags and packs on the floor.

Ix motioned for them to move to the center of the room without speaking. Quickly, he patted them down, looking for weapons. He tucked Corenne's belt knife into his own satchel, as well as Illandra's. Discovering a hidden throwing dagger strapped to her forearm, he pushed up her sleeve and removed the sheath, tossing that into his satchel, as well.

Moving over to the bed, Ix stripped the bedding from it, piling the girls' things in the middle. They watched him curiously.

Turning back to them, he smiled wickedly. "Now," he murmured, his voice soft and deadly. "I want you to remove everything you are wearing and put it there." He gestured to the pile of belongings.

Corenne gasped and looked ready to faint. Illandra's eyes widened. For the first time, Ix noticed their coloring, deep blue like the ocean.

Silently, her face flushed crimson, Corenne began stripping, first pulling off her boots and tossing them onto the pile, then, after a quick glance at him, pulled off the pale yellow tunic she had been wearing. Ix let his eyes linger on bare torso, causing her to blush even more furiously as she removed her black leggings, setting them down and moving back, wrapping her arms around herself in an attempt at modesty.

Illanda, on the other hand, was a model of regal coolness as she removed her shoes and slipped out of her simple white gown. Her only reaction was a slight shiver at the feel of the cold air on her exposed skin. She stepped back, joining Corenne and making no attempt to cover herself, her arms hanging at her sides.

Letting his eyes roam over the two for several long moments, Ix smiled slightly, then nodded. He bent down, tying the bedding in a knot and slinging the bundle over his shoulder. He opened the door, which caused Corenne to squeal as she tried to hide behind the table, in case anyone had been in the hall. It was empty.

With one last glance over his shoulder, he left the room, locking the door behind him with the key, which he slipping into his belt pouch.

In the common room, he left the bundle with the innkeeper, a smiling, bald man who resembled a scarecrow. "Take this to my room in the morning," Ix said, patting the bundle. He slipped the man an extra gold coin, which caused the innkeeper's eyes to widen. "And make sure it is your wife that takes it, yes? I will be back tomorrow to see that you carried out my instructions." With a smile and a look that chilled the innkeeper's blood, the silver-eyed man stalked out of the inn, curious stares following him out.

Even more stares followed him as he strode back in a moment later to have a quick word with the confused innkeeper.

"I can't believe he did this to us!" Corenne fumed, pacing back and forth in the room, rubbing her hands over her body to try to stay warm. Sunset had brought a rising chill that the small fire was having little luck driving away.

Illandra, sitting on the bed which had been stripped to its simple mattress, replied, "It could have been worse." Her eyes caught her friend's, who nodded.

"Yes, but still�!" She didn't finish that statement. With a sigh, she sat beside her friend, wrapping her arm around the other girl's shoulders and leaning against her for warmth. "He could have at least left a blanket," she muttered.

A knock at the door sounded, causing both of them to jump. "Wh-who is it?" Illandra hesitantly called. The only reply was the click of the lock on the door. Both girls watched as the doorknob slowly turned. With agonizing slowness, the door crept open halfway, then stopped.

There was a sharp thump as a booted foot struck the door, knocking it open, bouncing it off the wall. A familiar white-haired figure stumbled through, the blanket-wrapped bundle of their belongings in his arms.

Dropping the bundle to the floor, Ix turned and closed the door, locking it again. He faced the girls, studying them, which caused them both to blush this time. "I hope you learned your lesson," he whispered quietly, his voice rustling like silk on steel.

Corenne nodded, wide-eyed. A disdainful sniff was Illandra's answer, which prompted an elbow in the ribs from her companion. Ix nodded, satisfied. Bending down, he untied the blanket, revealing more than just the things the two had placed in there earlier.

"Your clothes, you did not seem to have more than just one change each, yes? I took the liberty of purchasing more clothes for each of you. He handed two small bundles to Corenne and a larger one to Illandra.

Untying hers, Corenne drew out two pairs of leggings, one tan and one white, of a similar cut as her others, though of fine linen instead of wool. The other bundle held a purple silk tunic and a long-sleeved white silk blouse.

Illandra, meanwhile, had drawn forth a hooded cloak of crimson velvet, the lining trimmed in soft white rabbit fur. Also, a black wool dress with divided skirts for riding lay in her bundle, of a very fine cut and with elegant silver embroidery along the hems and around the neckline. She looked up, her eyes meeting Ix's. "Thank you," she said softly.

Smiling, his eyes softening a bit, Ix explained, "I thought I was a bit harsh on you, yes? These are no full apology, but a recompense, in part, for my mistreatment of you." He knelt down beside the pile of items still on the blanket and dug around a moment. "I saw that each of your carried a spellbook, but there was no many spells, so I took the liberty of purchasing these." He dug out two books, one bound with crimson leather, which he handed to Corenne, and the other bound with black-lacquered wood, which he handed to Illandra. Flipping through the books, the two friends exchanged a wide-eyed look. Each of them held a small fortune in her hands. Shaking her head, Illandra turned to face the silver-eyed man again. "No matter what you did, we most certainly do not deserve this."

Ix replied with a smile as he pulled an object from the bottom of the pile, narrow and roughly four feet long, wrapping in cloth. He handed this to Corenne. "I saw your hands and noticed they beat the calluses of a swordsman, yet I did not see you had a sword, yes? I figured that would serve you well."

Gingerly unwrapping the object, Corenne's jaw dropped at the sight of the item. A fine wooden scabbard, lacquered crimson to match the spellbook that lay in her palms. She ran her fingers over the hilt of the blade, steel wrapped in soft, supple leather. Drawing it a hand's length, she gazed at the silvery steel, running her thumb lightly over the razored edge. Wincing slightly, shed sucked on her thumb, using the cloth to wipe away a droplet of blood from the blade. "I do not deserve such a weapon." Her eyes met Ix's.

The smile not leaving his features, Ix bent and retrieved one last item from the pile, a small, unadorned box. He opened it, revealing a brass ring seated there. This, he offered to Illandra. "This is a ring that will enable you to draw deeper on your magic reserves, yes? To let you call forth more magic than which you would normally be able."

The elf maiden took the ring, slipping it onto her finger. A jolt ran from her stomach upwards, though from emotion or the ring, she couldn't tell. The man had spent a fortune on her and her companion, of that she had no doubt.

Deep blue eyes locked with bright silver eyes. "Please, sir�" She trailed off, at a loss for words.

Reaching out, Ix stroked her cheek gently with his fingertips, a smile playing over his lips. "You must be cold." He stood, his fingers trailing over her cheek, brushing lightly against her lips as he moved to the fireplace, tossed a small log onto the crackling flames. For a long moment, he stood, staring into the dancing flames. "Get some rest," he finally murmured. "Tomorrow, you both ride with me."


Embers of Black - Chapter 2 © Patrick Braddock

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