To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.
But before we get to this month’s story, I have two links to share. For starters, Smashwords is currently having its annual summer sale, where you can get plenty of e-books at reduced prices or for free, including several of mine.
Secondly, I am on the 2022 Hugo Short Story panel at the Hugos There podcast, discussing the 2022 Hugo finalists for Best Short Story with a bunch of awesome people. You can watch the video version here or just listen here.
And now onward to this month’s story. This one is called The Hidden Castle and I originally wrote in in response to a writing prompt in a creative writing class at university, i.e. this story goes quite a way back. It was initially supposed to be the first in a series and there is a sequel that’s about three quarters finished. I should probably revisit it eventually.
But for now, follow the mercenary known only as The Traveller as he seeks…
The Hidden Castle
After thirteen long days and thirteen endless nights, the battle of Yarra was finally over. The forces of Gurgan Betarius, the latest nobleman to attempt to capture the throne of Aronna, had been beaten. And now that the relentless clatter of steel on steel, the steady hail of arrows, the thunder of the cannons and the battlecries of the soldiers had faded, the wails of the dying and the croaks of the carrion birds come to feast on their remains was all that was left.
Among the dead and the dying strode a man, a nameless traveller, all dressed in black. He’d had a name once, and a family, but that was in the distant past. Now, he was but a soldier, a warrior who had survived this battle to fight another day. And so he strutted briskly, his grey eyes full of purpose, seemingly unaware of the dead and the soon to be dead lying all around him.
The Traveller was only too eager to turn his back on the battlefield, find a horse and ride away. For once the battle was over, a mercenary’s work was done. And a mercenary was just what the Traveller was. And like all men of his profession he never stayed around for the aftermath of a battle. The dead, the dying, the wounded, the scorched earth, all that was just too sobering for his taste. It made a man think too much, and that was something the Traveller could not afford.
From the mass of dead bodies, piled up to be buried or burned, lest their corpses attract scavengers or breed disease, a hand reached out to the Traveller and tightened around his blood encrusted boots.
The Traveller was not sure what made him stop. Many of the wounded and the dying were crying for help, desperate for the attention of those still living. The Traveller ignored all of them and he did not know what was different about this one, did not know why this particular man was able to arouse pity within his soul when so many others could not. Perhaps he was just more desperate and more insistent than most.
At any rate, the Traveller bent down to the dying man, both to pry his fingers off his boots and to make him comfortable for the last moments of his life or at least put him out of his misery.
But the dying man was nothing if not persistent. As soon as the Traveller bent down, the man’s fingers clamped down on his wrist with a strength he would not have expected to find in one who would soon be with whatever gods he worshipped.
“Look at me, lad,” the man commanded and his eyes, already glazed over with approaching death, squinted to examine the Traveller. “You’re not one of Aran Gator’s, are you?”
The Traveller shook his head. “Loathe the bastard. And if it’s any comfort to you, I shall kill him one day. Thrust my sword straight into that black heart of his and kill him.”
The dying man smiled — or at least he tried to smile, for his mouth would not quite obey him. “Good, lad. Very good. Just the man I need.”
The Traveller nodded, because he did not know what else to do. This man was not long for this world, that much was clear. Quite possible he was already seeing things, phantoms from the world beyond, like dying men were sometimes wont to do. He was not a common soldier, that much was obvious. His clothes were fine, his armour pricey, and he wore the garb of a nobleman. Not Gurgan Betarius, though, for the Traveller had met him once and this man did not resemble him in the slightest. Besides, Aran Gator’s men were currently busy flaying Gurgan Betarius alive for his treachery. His screams could be heard all over the battlefield, even drowning out the moans of the dying at times.
“Deliver the message,” the dying man said, “You must deliver the message, lad, or the realm is doomed.” He lay back, breathing labouredly, and the Traveller knew that it was over, knew that the man would join his gods with his next few heartbeats.
Yet he still fought. His free hand reached for a pouch at his belt. He pulled something out of the pouch and pressed it into the Traveller’s hand. “Take it, lad.”
The Traveller looked at his hand and saw that the man had given him a necklace with a silver pendant.
It was a gift the Traveller did not want. And so he tried to refuse and pull away, but the dying man’s grip on his hand was firm.
“Take it, son. Take it and deliver the message,” the man whispered with his last breaths, “Give me your word on it.”
This story was available for free on this blog for one month only, but you can still read it in The Hidden Castle. And if you click on the First Monday Free Fiction tag, you can read this month’s free story.