Jak & Haddo: The Weave. By Joseph Nelson.
Standing alone, Haddo took a deep, cleansing breath of morning air, and raised his sword. He could tell it was a grand weapon, even though he had little experience with such things. The intricate Elven scrollwork on the curved blade of the scimitar, the keen edge of which was sharp enough to slice through wood core with relative ease, all of it spoke to him, reminding him that this was no toy or practice sword. This was an instrument of violence. And in trained hands, it could wreak unimaginable havoc. In Haddo's grasp, however, it was clumsy and more dangerous to himself than to any opponent.
The sun was rising through a thin layer of mist, giving everything a warm glow. The woods were alive with the bright chirping of birds and the frantic rustles of small creatures waking up to face another beautiful summer day. Haddo had already been awake for some time now, in the quiet grey hour before dawn, preparing the morning meal. Jak had caught a pair of rabbits the previous night, so today they would feast upon a rabbit-meat stew with bitter ts'ammon roots and wild sour berries. It would be another fairly simple meal, and though his stomach growled for something more sustaining, Haddo wouldn't complain, realizing how lucky both he and Jak were to be alive.
They had survived so much recently, from corrupt soldiers intending to kill Jak to an encounter with a ghoulish necromancer. Just thinking of that last brush with death made Haddo shiver. He could still feel the terrible pull of the skeletal children's knife-like fingers in his flesh, ripping and tearing with horrible abandon. Thanks to his herbal medicine, his body had nearly healed, but his mind was still wounded deeply, and he wondered if the nightmares would ever stop.
Pushing the memories of that evil night aside, Haddo braced himself and swung at the tree before him, trying to put all of his strength behind the blow. The scimitar struck the tree with a resounding crack and Haddo found the blade to be stuck fast.
"Oh bugger," he muttered, putting one foot against the tree and trying to pull the sword free.
"You know," came a voice from behind, "you're only going to dull the blade doing that."
Haddo turned, feeling a flush of embarrassment rise in his cheeks. "A little help?" he asked as Jak strode over to him.
"Here, let me." Jak reached around Haddo to grip the sword and wrench it from the trunk of the tree. It took no outward sign of strain on the stoic Human's features to do this, and Haddo couldn't help but feel inadequate with his weaker Elven strength.
Jak hefted the sword for a moment before handing it back to Haddo. "Didn't I promise to teach you a thing or two about how to use one of these?"
"Ah, yes, I think so. But you've been rather busy and I didn't want to be a bother."
"Busy?" Jak raised his eyebrows. "Why, I've only been on the run from assassins determined to slay me and claim my Kingdom for their own, gotten stabbed, had a rather bloody encounter with a death-crazed necromancer, and am racing to the border before those betrayers in my own court catch up to me. Goodness Haddo, I might as well be on vacation!"
"Really, Jak? Humor? This early in the morning?" Haddo wryly shook his head.
"Seriously, Had, why don't we take some time before breakfast for me to show you how to at least hold that sword properly?"
"Alright," Haddo said. "Anything so I won't chop my own hand off, I suppose."
"First off, you need to change your grip." Jak reached over and moved Haddo's right hand. "Your hand should be higher, about here. You were practically gripping it by the pommel and that won't do at all."
"It's hard," Haddo admitted. "I keep thinking that I could kill someone with this, and I really don't want to."
"Haddo," Jak said grimly, "if you think like that, then you might as well give up now. Think of the sword not as a tool for death but as a tool for protection. These people after us...they want to kill us, and running is only a covering tactic. If we get into a fight, they will try to end it as quickly as possible, and if you want to live, you have to do the same." Jak put a hand on Haddo's shoulder. "Had, I understand that you value other's lives greatly, but what of your own?"
Haddo looked down and nodded slowly. "I...I suppose you're right. I don't want to die, Jak."
Jak gave Haddo a brief smile. "Then let me teach you how to stay alive."
Jak spent a full hour giving Haddo basic instruction on how to use the Elven scimitar, teaching him the bare essentials and laying the groundwork for more advanced lessons later. Haddo still handled the sword gingerly, like it was a live snake, but Jak only made silent note of this and resolved not to be forceful in his teachings. He knew Haddo would have to grow used to the sword, and it could only be done with time. No amount of berating could instill the proper respect and understanding to him. Jak felt confident that with the proper tutelage he could help Haddo gain enough skill to protect himself.
Jak didn't like to admit it, but Haddo was partially right. A sword may have been the best option to protect oneself, but it would be trading one life for another. He hoped when the time came, as it surely must in their dire future, that Haddo would be able to take a life to save his own.
Malath knew it was a dream at once, but the knowledge did nothing to stave off the cold fear that gripped him. In the dream it was dark and he stood in a vast, murky bog, steam rising around him in terrible clouds to blot out any sight of trees or sky. He was in a void.
The water was warm and sloshed about his ankles as he tried to move. His foot lifted from the mud but was unable to fully escape. He tugged and pulled with all his might, yet still he remained mired in the swamp, unable to move. This terrified Malath, because he knew something bad was coming. Something bad always did.
He told himself to wake up, that it was only a dream, that he could banish it by opening his eyes to the bright morning; these words meant nothing here and fled from his mind as soon as he thought them. He was a young boy again, scarcely into his teenage years, and fear was ingrained in his heart. Fear of being alone. Fear of the Humans and Elves, neither of which wanted him. And of course the overriding fear of the unknown.
The air in the swamp grew hotter and stickier, becoming intensely oppressive, as though with each breath he was inhaling that fear as a literal cloud. He sobbed and coughed, his lungs aching from a sudden bitterness that washed over the swamp. It was a stench of evil and always marked the final horrifying moments of the dream.
Again, Malath tried to tell himself that it was only a dream, harmless and docile if he so chose, but the inner child in him refused to listen, provided arguments as to why the rational adult in him was wrong. Dreams didn't have a sense of smell, did they? You couldn't feel--really feel--in a dream, could you?
Trembling, the dream Malath felt a ragged breathing on his shoulder and he closed his eyes tightly, biting his lip to keep from crying out. Then, with the characteristic surrealism of dreams, a force beyond his sight reached out and snatched him away, pulling him up, into the fetid air of the swamp, and forcing a shrill scream from his lips.
Malath's eyes snapped open, his heart hammering in his chest. He blinked away the residue of sleep and found himself staring up at a stone ceiling. For a moment he had an odd sense of dislocation, unsure of where he was, then his mind began working at its normal pace and he sighed in relief. He was in his room at the castle, of course, and judging from the sunlight pouring in through the curtained windows it was well into the morning hours.
Slipping out from under the light bedsheets, Malath placed his bare feet on the cold floor and stretched with a massive yawn. He sat there a moment after, staring at the curtains with an odd expression. He hadn't had that dream in years now. He wondered what it meant.
Pushing himself to his feet and walking over to the curtains, Malath threw them aside, savoring the warm sun with his eyes closed. He was younger than he appeared, being only forty-three summers of age, though his short-cropped grey hair and sharply lined face would suggest someone much older. He was living proof that great power could be attained at the cost of one's soul.
Once, he had been a reasonably good-looking half-Elf, now he was trapped in this old shell with barely any resemblance to the young man he had once been. He touched the grey hair at his temple, remembering when it had been a sandy brown.
"Prices we must all pay," he muttered, wincing at the sound of his voice, a cold hiss, as of steam escaping from the depths of an icy pond. Once he had enjoyed a strong voice that had called eagerly from the tops of the tallest trees, unleashing brilliant hawk cries at the world to prove his adventurous spirit. A youth so different from the man he would eventually become.
On most days it did not bother him, but this morning Malath's senses were raw, his nerves stretched thin by the resurgence of the old nightmare. There had been a time, many years ago, when he had experienced the same horrible dream night after night, unable to flee the terrors of his mind. And always in that dank swamp!
Turning, Malath gazed out the window towards the west, remembering the real swamps that had inspired those terrible dreams.
It was his mother. She was calling him. But young Malath didn't want to leave the stream he sat beside, watching the frogs jump in and out of the reeds at the water's edge. He was only ten summers old and wanted to spend as much time as he could out of doors before his mother made him come in for the night.
The boy looked up, seeing the streaks of orange across the clouds that signified the end of another day spent exploring his little slice of the world. Again, he heard his mother call for him and he sighed. He could only pretend to have not heard her for so long before he would be punished. And so, climbing to his feet, Malath waved a brief goodbye to the frogs in the stream and began the short trek back to the house.
Like many in the dismal swamplands, Malath's home was a small square shack made of thick wood and supported by four large poles, keeping it from the soft ground and the many animals that roamed at night. As he approached the stilt-house, Malath tried to put on his most innocent smile for his mother, who waited at the bottom of the wide steps leading up to the small porch.
"Did you call, mother?"
Malath's mother, Sandrine Trinside, shook her head in exasperation. She had been a pretty woman, but her looks were fading as she battled to keep up with her son and provide for the two of them. She wore a plain brown dress and had her hair tied up in a small bun. Once she'd had curled tresses and fancy gowns, but that had been a long time ago now, a time Malath would only learn of when he was much older and she was gone.
"Yes, darling, I did. It's time for dinner, so let's wash up." She spared a smile for her son and took his hand as they climbed the steps.
Inside the one-room shack, the smell of food was dominating, and even though it seemed to Malath that it would be potato and bean stew once more, he found himself salivating at the thought of it. He hadn't eaten anything save some berries he'd scavenged during his day's adventure. His meager breakfast had consisted of hardbread and milk. Even the thought of the bland stew was appealing.
The shack was sparsely furnished, with a rickety three-legged table in the middle, two sagging cots with straw mattresses, and a dented cookstove against one wall. The walls themselves had small cracks between the boards, revealing the outside through tiny slits. The largest of these had been stuffed with bits of old rag to help keep the chill out when winter arrived.
Mother and child washed their hands from a bucket of clean water that Sandrine refreshed daily from the town's shared well. They then sat down at the small table, the chairs they used the only sign of new furniture in the house. They were sturdy but rough-hewn, and had been made by Sl'vanin Took, the town constable. The entire community of Fennel had taken an interest in Sandrine and Malath, doing what best they could to help them settle into life here. Like many towns in the swamps, Fennel was poor, with farming nearly impossible and no real trade to profit from, but the people in the town stayed together.
In this harsh land, helping one another may have been the only way to stay alive.
Filling two bowls with the thin stew, Sandrine set one in front of Malath, who waited, a wooden spoon in hand, and placed the other across from him. She sat and they began eating. The stew was nearly flavorless but neither voiced complaint. Both were used to meals such as this by now.
There came a brief rapping at the door and Sandrine put her spoon aside and rose to greet the unexpected arrival. "Come in," she said, turning to the door.
Sl'vanin Took entered, bowing low as he did so, his dark colored cape flying about with an easy flourish. "Ah, my dear, you look as lovely as ever. And goodness! Young Malath, each day I see you it appears as if you've grown ever more. You're turning into a fine young man already." Took paused, taking his furred blue hat from his head. "Oh, do pardon me, I didn't mean to interrupt your dinner."
"It's alright, Master Took. Won't you join us?"
"Oh, well I shouldn't like to impose..." Sl'vanin Took was a squat man with a small black mustache that made Malath think of a fuzzy worm sleeping on the man's upper lip. He wore gaudy clothes that, while not expensive, were still well-made and better quality than most in the little town. Today he wore a violet vest and garish yellow trousers that ballooned at the ankles. And of course he would go nowhere without his billowing mauve cape and furry broad-brimmed blue cap. Malath had no idea what sort of creature would produce blue fur--he was too young to understand anything of dyes--but it never ceased to fascinate him. He hoped to meet the beast that had provided the fur for Took's hat some day; it would be quite the adventure!
"No imposition at all," Sandrine said, though there seemed to be very faint strain marks at her eyes.
"Perhaps one bowl then," Took said brightly. "It smells delicious."
Dragging over a block of firewood to sit on, Took set his cape and hat aside. He turned to Malath as Sandrine retrieved another bowl for their guest. "And what have you been doing today, Malath?"
Malath shrugged. "Exploring the stream. Ian said there was an old pirate from the Coral Islands who passed here a hundred years ago, all bleeding and hurt. His ship had been sunk, I guess, and he worried that his treasure would be stolen by other pirates."
"Oh?" Took was a master at feigning genuine interest in the boy's tales. It seemed the imaginative Malath had a new one to share every day, either of his own creation or from the words of older boys who thought it fun to tease and taunt him. "And what happened to this pirate's treasure?"
Again, Malath shrugged. "Dunno. Ian said he might've buried it by the stream for later, but died before he could dig it back up. I was looking for it."
Took graciously accepted the bowl of stew from Sandrine and continued his conversation with Malath. "Do you think Ian might have told you a make-believe story? For fun, I mean."
"Probably," Malath said, taking another bite of stew. "But I liked to look; it was like an adventure, something Jerome Farstrider would have done. And who knows? If it had been real I might have found it and then..." Malath trailed off.
"And then what, Malath?" Took prodded, taking a spoonful of strew. Though the boy had a penchant for wild stories, he was still surprisingly clever for someone so young. He was at times incredibly imaginative, having his own fantastical adventures in the swamp around his home, and other times there was a seriousness buried in him that occasionally rose to the surface, often surprising anyone who only knew his cheerful side.
"Nothing," Malath said, not looking up from his soup.
Took accepted that as his cue to end the conversation and turned to Sandrine. "This stew is delicious, Sandrine. I daresay, you're quite the chef."
Sandrine looked down, her smile gone though she kept her voice light. "Oh, don't be foolish, Master Took. This is nothing."
"It's better than anything I could make for myself," Took said firmly. "And really, how often must I say it? It would please me greatly if you and Malath called me Sl'vanin."
"Would you care for some tea, Master Took?" Sandrine rose and turned away, relighting the cookstove and placing a pot of cold water on top of it.
Took's smile remained firmly in place and nothing in his voice changed, but there was the slightest hardening of his soft brown eyes. "Why yes, some tea would be most wonderful," he said. "Oh!" he turned to Malath. "I almost forgot to mention, old Farnham needs some help tomorrow gathering his goats; seems some fool left the gate open late this noon and he thinks they headed for the foothills. I was wondering if Malath would be willing to go out with him and herd them back. It would only be for the afternoon."
"I don't think-" Sandrine began, turning from the stove with a frown.
"It would be like an adventure!" Took said, cutting her off and speaking to Malath. "You've never been into the foothills, have you?" Malath shook his head. "I think it'd be a good experience, don't you agree, Sandrine? And I promise it would be good work and nothing dangerous." Sandrine still hesitated. "It's not far, but it would be good for him to get out of the town and all those other boys and their teasing." His remarks now became somewhat pointed.
Sandrine sighed. "Alright. If Malath wants to go he can."
Took smiled broadly. "What do you say, Malath?"
Malath nodded. It did sound exciting. He loved to explore, and going someplace new was a temptation he could scarcely resist. He knew the foothills were a ways out of town and he was certain they had to be more interesting than the same old swamps he spent his days exploring.
He had no idea that this trip would forever change the course of his life in ways more terrible than he could begin to comprehend.
The door to Malath's room opened and he grunted without turning from the window. "Is there any chance we can teach you how to knock, Thost?"
"I should think my manners will be the least of your worries soon," Thost said, a nasty edge to his voice as he entered Malath's room. The hardened soldier walked in his usual saunter, one of the infernal Rorclaren apples he loved in hand. Glancing briefly at him, Malath made a mental note to cancel any further supplies of the fruit, if only to ease Thost's annoying habit of eating them wherever he went, no matter what news he brought.
And what news did he bring this morning? Malath asked as much.
"What news?" Thost chuckled coldly. "News that comes as little surprise to me. Your impatience in having Cymonius killed may have already come back to haunt you."
Malath held back a sigh and turned to confront Thost. "What in the Abyss are you talking about?"
"We have a visitor...and he's asking to see Jak or Cymonius." Thost smiled benignly and took a bite of his apple. "Neither of whom we can produce."
Malath cursed and stormed over to the large chest of drawers across from his bed. He threw them open and began removing clothes rapidly. He talked as he shed his short night robes, his voice a low hiss of tightly controlled anger.
"So who is it that complicates my life further? That oaf Cymonius--may a thousand Demons tear the flesh from his bones--already settled the situation for anyone wishing to see Jak. He's gone into hiding, out of fear for his life. We dare not reveal his location so that we may protect him from betrayers who wish to slay him." This was a fallacy of course, one that Cymonius, against Malath's desires, used to placate the populace. In reality, Malath would have paid dearly to know where the young King was at this very moment, and he would have gladly taken his life with his own hands!
Even the simplest of conspiracies could go afoul so easily.... If all had gone according to plan, Jak would have died many nights ago. Now, he was alive, somewhere, and could still destroy everything Malath had worked so hard to create.
"King Thomas Mangrieve of Treavior," Thost said, leaning against the windowsill and casually watching the little birds flit to and from the ledge. "He demands to see Jak, and if not him then Cymonius. For a cheerful old man, he can be quite insistent."
"Don't be fooled," Malath said coldly, pulling on a blue robe with gold designs running up and down the arms. "King Thomas is one of the most crafty men I've ever met. On the outside he seems pleasant and unsuspecting, but inside is the most calculating bastard to ever have existed. Around him, letting your guard down can be dangerous, especially in the mess we've become stuck in."
"We?" Thost outright laughed. "We've done nothing. All of this has been your scheme, I'm just the unwitting lackey you tricked into aiding you."
Malath spun around, his strange gold-flecked eyes shimmering with suppressed rage. "Excuse me, Captain Thost?
Thost turned back to Malath, a cold smile stretching across the leathery plain of his face. "I've kept myself rather safe," he said calmly. "The only people who can attest to my direct involvement in your mad plot for power are dead or nearly so. Cymonius is likely being feasted upon by fish and Jak is on the run. With a little bit of luck he'll be caught at the border and then all of my problems will just go away."
"You're forgetting the men you claim to control," Malath snapped back, a large vein in his neck pulsing. "What of them, Thost?"
Thost shrugged, taking another bite of his apple. "Mercenaries and traitors the lot of them. Very reliable sources of the truth, wouldn't you say?" he sneered sardonically. "Beside which, perhaps you had me under one of those dark spells you wizards are known for. You could have me in some sort of terrible trance, making me do things no sane, loyal servant of the Kingdom would do."
Malath bared his teeth unconsciously, snarling like some mad animal from the steaming jungles. "You bastard! You know that's impossible."
"I know it...but the rest of Asintha still turns a wary eye toward magic. You should know that better than anyone." There was a moment of hostile silence, with Malath glaring hatred at Thost and the Human soldier grinning vilely, enjoying a last bite of apple. "Of course," Thost said in a tone laced with honey, "this is all foolish on our parts. The game is not finished yet and we're both safe...for now. I would just watch your step around Mangrieve and make certain he leaves with a minimum of suspicion."
"Be on your way, Captain Thost," Malath said icily. "And leave King Thomas to me."
"Of course," Thost gave a mock bow. "Whatever you say. The intrigues of the royal court are far beyond my meager experience." And he left Malath's chambers, laughing loudly the entire way.
Malath shook silently in rage, his hands clenched around a fold of his robes so tightly that they lost all color. He stared at the door Thost had closed for several minutes, hatred filling his gaze with venom. He would admit privately that his decision to have Thost kill their co-conspirator, Cymonius, had been a rash judgment, but for Thost to be so openly disrespectful? That was infuriating.
Quelling the boiling in his guts, Malath began to wonder if he had made the right choice in which of the pair to have executed. Thost was overstepping his bounds more and more. He may have been a necessity to lead the corrupt soldiers in their search for Jak, but when would he cross the line between usefulness and liability? Malath trusted no one, and he had no qualms about having Thost killed when the time arose. However, he would be more cautious this time; giving in to sudden anger and having Cymonius slain was a mistake he wasn't prepared to repeat.
Sighing, Malath walked over to his nightstand and searched for a comb. It was too late for regrets. Now, he had to clean up the mess he had made.