‘Has she made any signs of recovery, lately?’ one of the men asked. They were sitting in front of the fireplace, drinking wine, staring at the crackling fire. A faint scent of burned wood was lingering in the air, filling their nostrils. The only sound beside them and the burning wood, the sound of a creaking chair in the far corner of the room, beside a window looking out onto a busy street. People were scurrying about with their everyday activities, pulling carts full of goods, from one place to another, children playing with wooden swords, dogs barking. The sound was muffled through a magic spell as to not to bother the occupants.
‘No, she hasn’t. She isn’t showing any signs of waking up soon. She just breathes, barely visible. Her pulse is very weak and has been like that ever since we arrived here. She isn’t showing any improvements nor is she showing any more reason to worry about. The strange thing is, her body isn’t decaying, even though she hasn’t eaten in a year’ the other man answered in a fast reply. ‘Do you think she will ever wake up, Herald?’
The other man stared into the blazing fire, as if searching for an answer inside of the fire. ‘I have no idea, my friend. I had hoped something would have happened within the last year, but, seeing the progress we have made within the last year, she might as well sleep for eternity’
Suddenly, the creaking of chair was silent, no more noise coming from it. A woman stood up and walked over to the two men, who were silent now. ‘Gabriel, what are we going to do?’ the woman asked. The man looked up as if not understanding the meaning of what she just asked of him.
‘What can we do, Rasiela my love? We have tried everything we could and have thought of. We have tried conventional medicine, magic, the occult. What else CAN we do?’ he almost yelled out.
‘If it had been you, my brother would have turned the whole world upside down to find a way. You know that very well!’ she yelled at the man, then went silent as if regretting her own words. A lone tear streaked her porcelain skin, the drop going down her chin and falling to the wooden floor. ‘Why did it have to be him? Why did he have to die? Why did he have to sacrifice himself so we could live? I would have rather died there with him. Finally i had found him just to lose him again so soon afterwards’
'We have to do something, we have to find a way. It's the least we can do for him after his sacrifice. Herald, you and i will ride to the to see if his body is still there' Gabriel said as he stood up and took his wife in his arms, comforting her. After she calmed down, he kissed her large belly and patted it a few times. Rasiela chuckled and shoved him away.
'When do you leave?' She asked, looking at the two men. They looked at each other and shrugged.
'Tomorrow morning. Let me check up on Barren first to see how everything is proceeding and to organize a small escort' he said and motioned for the other man to follow him. The woman walked up to Gabriel as he was about to exit their little home, kissing him on his cheek.
'I love you' she said, chuckling like a little girl. He just shook his head and left. Outside, the sunlight was blinding and the heat was unbearable. Yet there were so many people outside, doing all kinds of things. Gabriel and Herald walked from the newly constructed east wing of the alley manor towards the west wing where the original guard was spending their time. The west wing had gotten bigger, giving the 'numbers', as they were being called now, their own quarters. The rooms weren't lavish nor large, but comfortable enough. None of them had any need for a larger room as they were all single. Except Barren, who had proposed to Kayla three months ago and she had said yes, to his astonishment. They were living in the original owners chambers, but the numbers were around them most of the time. They were like a brotherhood, and they all owed their power and wealth to their former master who they wanted to avenge, leading their new armies past castle Krafne. It was all Gabriel could do to keep them in check and the thing that did was the fact that he had taken over when Kane passed away and taught them their way of fighting.
'Anyone here?' Gabriel asked as he entered the manor, looking around for no one in particular. Loud footsteps echoed off the wooden floor and became louder by the moment. Finally Kayla came around the corner, surprised to see Gabriel and Herald.
'My lord baron' she said as she walked up towards them, hurriedly, bowing low.
'What brings you here? '
'Hello, Kayla. We are searching for Barren. Do you have any idea where he might be?' Gabriel asked gently.
'I think he is out back, training with the numbers. Would you like me to check it out for you, lord Baron?' She asked.
'No need, we will find him ourselves. Milady' Gabriel said as he nodded, Herald nodded as well and followed Gabriel towards the back. Outside in the backyard, the numbers were doing their daily practice of stamina and power build up. Barren had joined the men as well and upon noticing Gabriel and Herald he stood up.
‘The baron is present, get to your feet!’ he yelled. The group got to their feet instantaneously and saluted, staying in that position for a long moment. Gabriel walked over to them and saluted back, relieving them.
’Barren, i need you for a moment’ Gabriel said and stepped away from the group, the other man following him.
‘What is it, my lord?’ Barren asked, anxious.
‘We want to visit Kane’s resting place’ Gabriel said, with a hushed voice, as if speaking about something unholy. Barren’s eyes shot up and the man twitched.
‘And i assume you want the numbers to go with you?’
‘No, only you. We will travel light on darkmare's. Only Herald, yourself and me will go. We do not want anyone else to know. There is something we must check, as the lady still hasn’t woken up. However, i did notice occasional spikes in her breathing and twitches every now and then. I didn’t dare speak about it to Rasiela nor anyone else, not wanting to give them false hope, as false hope is worse than no hope at all, my friend’
‘Very well, i will be ready at dawn’ Barren said, his fist over his heart. ‘By the way, should i make any special arrangement for the alley, my lord?’
‘None at all. I will take care of anything that needs taking care off. Please, go back to your training and tell the men that you will be away for some days. Tell them to stay vigilant and watchful until we are back, somehow i have a bad feeling. Something ominous is going to happen to the kingdom, no, the whole world’ Gabriel said with a worried tone. Barren just nodded and turned away, walking towards the numbers.
‘Let us go visit the king, Herald’ Gabriel finally said and they did. When they arrived at the palace, there was a commotion in front of the palace gate. One of the guards was hitting a woman with the back of his spear, making the woman cringe in pain, crying and screaming in agony. Gabriel ran up to the soldier and slapped him across his face.
‘You dare hit a woman? You imbecile, you will hang for this’ he said. The guards face a mask of fear and shame, he fell to his knees, kissed Gabriel’s feet and begged for his life. The woman turned around and looked up at Gabriel.
‘Hello… Gabe...’ the young woman said. Gabriel’s eyes went wide and he kneeled beside the woman, taking her in his arms.
‘What… happened here, Ruby?’ he asked, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.
‘There was… some talk about a guard… misusing his authority… and doing things to… young women’ she managed and coughed, clutching her stomach and chest with her hands. ‘I… had to find… out and get him… to be punished’ she said and fell unconscious.
Gabriel looked at Herald and gave him the girl, telling him to go ahead to the palace and help the poor woman. As soon as Herald was out of eye shot, Gabriel slammed his boots into the guard’s face. His nose broke and blood started gushing out of it, a small waterfall trickling down his nostrils, teeth and chin. Along with the nose, two of his teeth had broken off as well and the man was choking on them, rolling on the ground, grabbing at his throat. Gabriel raised his foot again and stomped on the guard’s neck, cracking his windpipe, choking the man within moments in his own blood. He turned towards the other guard who was looking at Gabriel in absolute fear, as if God himself was dealing the punishment. It was well known that Gabriel was the unborn brother of Kane and even a few songs and legends were made up by the minstrels in the taverns as well as ordinary people about him and his brave spirit. The battle at Krafne against unimaginable odds, the battle against Nemesis and the saving of his family. He himself could care less, but a little bit of fear harmed no one.
‘How do you fit in here, guard?’ Gabriel asked, menacingly. The guard was obviously at a loss for words and didn’t know how to respond. Gabriel got into his face and asked again. ‘Did you know he was behaving like this to young women and didn’t report him?’ The poor man pissed himself, his knees buckling and he fell in his own puddle of urine. Gabriel made a disgusted face, stepping back two steps. The guard started crying like a little baby.
‘Yes, i knew. I had reported it to the captain of the watch, but he had said that he would take care of it’ Gabriel raised an eyebrow.
‘You did? When was that?’ Gabriel asked, wondering.
‘It was the day before yesterday, my lord. I swear i did!’ the man cried out.
‘Soldier, you disgust me. Get yourself up and go home, wash off and return to your post. If i find out you have been lying, you will join your friend here’ Gabriel said and stormed off towards the guard house. When Gabriel arrived there, the guard captain was playing cards with some men, a hefty sum of money on the table. The amount of money that normal people wouldn’t earn in a year if they worked themselves to death.
‘How are the cards helping you, captain?’ Gabriel said, standing at the door still. The captain fell off his chair after hearing Gabriel’s voice, which bode ill for a lot of soldiers in the last year.
‘My lord baron. How are you today?’ the fat captain said as he stood up, ungracefully. Gabriel sneered at him and spit down to his feet, missing the man by inches.
‘Stand up, you sloth and answer me three questions’ Gabriel said as he narrowed his eyes on the man, hand on his decorative sword. The sword was no match for a soul forge, but it was more than enough to deal with ordinary men. The man had finally stood up and bowed lowly, awaiting his questions.
‘Two days ago, did someone report anything to you? About misusing their power, molesting women, bribes and so on?’ Gabriel added a bit to the story of the soldier. The man looked wide in shock, as did the three other men sitting at the table, still, their hands on their own swords. The captain looked towards the men and then toward Gabriel, not knowing what to answer.
‘Yes, my lord. I faintly recall something like that happening. Why do u you ask?’
‘Because i just killed the man in question, stomped his throat out with my foot. Second question. What did you do about it?’ The man was beet red by the moment Gabriel had finished his second question, breathing heavily, sweating like a pig.
‘My lord. You gotta understand, i can’t just punish people for rumors. There must be an investigation and then the report to the king's guard and’
‘Silence!’ Gabriel yelled, his voice amplified by his soul gear. ‘You have done nothing, and you would have done nothing. Last question. Who are those men and how did you get to have such a large amount of money present, for a game of cards’ As Gabriel finished, one of the men drew a pair of throwing knifes and threw them straight for Gabriel’s chest. The speed of the daggers was like slow motion for Gabriel, who was used to far greater speeds when training with Kane, or even with Barren, who was becoming formidable as well. Gabriel caught the daggers in mid air, pulling them back and placing them in the man’s eyes. Two daggers for two eyeballs. The man shrieked in agony as he fell to the ground, dying a few moments later. The other two men knew better than to try anything as they would end up as their friend, bleeding out on the wooden floor.
‘They...are merchants… my lord. I have done some trade with them and… they payed me an hour ago so we were just playing cards. No need for this violence!’’ the man almost yelled, his cool lost, or at least the little he did have before the death of his friend.
‘Captain. I hereby sentence you to death by mutilation. The sentence will be carried out immediately’ Gabriel said and summoned his soul forge. Wicked looking blades in both of his hands, identical to his dead brother’s. He had practiced for months, dawn to dusk to master the wicked looking things. Gabriel pointed towards the outside and the captain went with him, not saying a word. But as he had passed Gabriel, he started running with all he was worth, which didn’t amount to much, but he had made it a good twenty meters before Gabriel hurled his blades at the man, slicing him in three as the blades hit his neck and waist, the three parts falling next to each other on the ground. The blades evaporated into thin air as they struck solid wood a few meters further.
‘Corrupt officials. Is there anything worse?’ Gabriel muttered to himself. He turned around and went back inside of guard house. ‘Tell me who you are, and i might let you live’ he said to the two men which were shuddering in fear, snot and drool all over their faces. They stared at him wild eyed and unsure of what to do. One of them braved up and wiped his face clean with a cloth, sitting up straight.
‘My lord, the man who you just killed was my owner. He was a merchant prince, as they like to call themselves. I was his slave’ he said and stared down into the table. ‘This other man on my left is another merchant prince, his business partner. That is where all the money is from’
‘I will give you anything you want, riches, women, a palace, anything!’ the other man at his own mention started crying and begging. Gabriel looked at him, pitifully and shook his head as if declining the offer.
‘I am very sorry, prince’ Gabriel said with a mocking tone, sarcastic even, accenting the word prince heavily. ‘You will have to die now’ he said and raised his decorative sword as if to strike the burly merchant. The other man, or rather boy, understood what Gabriel was playing at and decided to play the game.
‘My lord, i beg you’ he started out. ‘Surely there must be something that we could do for you? Donate a thousand gold coins to the poor? Another thousand to the clinics and public buildings? He has over a thousand horses, donate them for the war effort?’
Gabriel smirked inside at the kid’s guile. He just put out what the merchant had and promised to donate them all instead of losing his life. Gabriel acted as if he was thinking it over and nodded once.
‘Very well. But first answer me a question. Have you ever tortured or killed anyone? Robbed them of their riches and left them to die?’ Gabriel asked. The man shook his head and started stuttering.
‘N...n...n...no my lord. I h...h...haven’t’
‘Is that true, boy?’ Gabriel asked the kid for verification.
‘Aye my lord, it is true. He got rich basically by stealing from the rich, including my master, but he never seemed to notice’
‘Alright then lads, you are lucky today. I will spare both of your lives. In fact, i will offer you something, here and now’ The two men looked at each other, sighing heavily, relief apparent in their postures.
‘We are in need of a merchant’s guild here at Kravnja. It is a concept i have been thinking of lately. The prices in the districts are far and in between. There is no real price level on goods. Fruit, vegetables, water, firewood, building materials, clothing. I will be going on a trip for some days, maybe even weeks and by the time i am back, you will have time to gather the dead man’s riches, all of them and your own and transport them towards the alley manor. There instructions will await you what you need to do. Are you alright with this proposal?’ Gabriel asked.
The two men stared at each other dumbfounded for a long moment, not believing the outcome of the mess they had fallen in. Both nodded once and went on their knees, kissing Gabriel’s feet.
‘Thank you, my lord’ they said in unison. ‘We will not give you any headache. But, there is one thing though. How are we to enforce anything we agree on after investigating the current situation?’ Gabriel smiled and replied.
‘Have you heard about the numbers?’ he asked as if talking about a secret. The two men nodded once, slowly.
‘The numbers are under my control and payroll. They rule the districts, they enforce the law’s. As long as they see that you are not trying anything stupid, and that you really do what you are hired to do, they will assist you. Now, i am off to have an audience with the king. If you will excuse me’ Gabriel said and left the confines of the small guard house, leaving the two men to weep and pray. They have feared enough for a lifetime.
Thank you for reading!