Many years ago I began work on a sword and sorcery novel I entitled Grave Gate. Unfortunately, other projects moved it aside and I suspect it will be years, if ever, when I return to the world I created. Allow me to share the opening segment of the first chapter with you.
by Alan Loewen
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The sudden outburst of laughter from a group of very drunk men at a far table jarred Brant’s concentration. He looked up from his game of Maladar to take a quick glance around The Green Man Pub. When one lives their life by the sword, the cost is never ending vigilance unless one enjoys the feel of cold steel between one's ribs. Satisfied that the laughing men, lost in their cups, were no threat, he returned his attention to the game table.
“Are you going to move or concede the game?”
Brant ignored his opponent, his concentration intent on the arrangement before him. Long ago, the lines and tiny squares of a Maladar board had been carved into the stained wood of the table and the colored stones that made up the playing pieces lay scattered about. On the playing field itself, the pieces lay in a very specific and precise order.
He chewed his lower lip in thought. Four copper ducats were riding on the outcome of this little entertainment and his work to construct a pattern of Four Horsemen In The Field was being stymied by his opponent's attempt to construct Dragon In Repose.
In his mind he suddenly saw the possibility of a new pattern. With a sudden grin, he placed a yellow stone on the table, the stones about it affected by its presence creating a ripple effect of colors cascading across the table top.
“Very nice,” his playing opponent said. “Forest Glade in Autumn. I have not seen that pattern in a long time. “However ...” A big, broad hand swept over the table to place a green stone in an empty hole. Again, colors flowed across the board. “Dragon In Repose, sir. I believe the wager was four ducats?”
Brant laughed and shook his head at his own defeat. “Melek, I have no idea how you did that.”
Brant's companion smiled, a rare event, and leaned back in his seat. “The way of a true warrior is to see many moves ahead and be aware of all possible moves by his opponent. I can't talk my way out of troubles like you do.”
Feigning a nonchalance that he did not feel—losing always stung his pride—Brant reached for the small leather pouch he kept in his shirt and took out four coppers.
“Better idea,” his companion said, waving Brant’s proffered hand away. “Buy the next round.”
Brant motioned for a serving girl. “You're too good a winner.”
Melek shrugged. “Only because we're playing Maladar instead of playing at swords.”
“Melek, you’ll never change.”
“Somebody has to keep us alive.”
Brant nodded at one of the serving girls and pointed to their almost empty mugs. After receiving a quick nod in response, Brant looked over at his friend who was busy keeping an eye on the crowd. “You’re also one of the grimmest devils I know.”
Melek shrugged. “I’m still alive.”
Though alert to the quiet activity around them, they were relaxed in each other’s company as only old friends can be.
The opening of the front door suddenly caught their attention and a figure—the hood pulled way down over the face—entered the pub.
“It’s a woman,” Brant said.
Melek nodded his agreement. “The movement gives her away. She’s too graceful. If she’s trying to hide her identity, she should slouch more.”
The barkeep looked up from his attempt to swab the top of the bar in order his guest. He immediately turned visibly pale.
“And she’s rather special,” Melek added, watching the barkeep’s reaction.
The barkeep listened as the figure spoke, his eyes wide with fear, then quickly pointed to where Brant and Melek sat.
“Business or trouble?” Brant asked his companion as the figure turned to look at them.
“Both,” Melek replied.
The figure made its way through the maze of tables, a few patrons looking up with curiosity and then turning back to their personal business. One man, sitting in a position that he could see under the figure’s hood as it passed, made a sign for protection from evil and quickly got up to leave.
“I’m starting to think more trouble than business,” Melek added as his hand crept toward the pommel of his short sword.
The visitor stopped in front of them. Two graceful hands appeared from the sleeves of the voluminous robe and swept the hood away from the face.
The two men stared in surprise.
The hair was long and carmine, the color of a fox’s pelt, framing a face of such absolute perfection the two men wondered if what stood before them was truly real or the craft of an expert sculptor. Overly large violet-colored eyes studied them carefully.
Respectfully, the two men stood and nodded. The pub had become as quiet as a grave. Some of the patrons closer to their table began making their way either to tables further away or even towards the door.
“My lady,” Brant said. “We are honored to have one of the Fox People grace our table. How may we serve you?”
Brant hated the fawning tone he used, but life had just taken an unpleasant turn. Rumor said you did not act rudely to one of the Foxes unless you wanted to die.
“I am Arul of the Serinthels, what you call…” she paused for a moment as if the phrase created a foul taste on her lips, “the Fox People.” With a graceful move, she pulled out a chair and seated herself, motioning for the two to join her. “I am in need of assistance.”
“Would you like food or drink?” Brant asked as he took his seat.
“Yes,” their visitor replied. “My journey has been hard.”
Brant motioned for the serving girl who turned visibly pale at the thought of approaching the strange creature, but the lure of copper coins Brant tossed in his hand overrode her reluctance.
Melek swept the Maladar stones into a leather pouch, clearing the table.
“Please bring the lady bread and whatever fresh greens you may have,” Brant ordered.
“Of course, good sirs,” the serving girl said, “and may the lady be wanting some nice, hot …”
Brant’s hand shot up for silence. “Bread. Fresh greens. Water, if you cannot find wine that isn’t already vinegar. That will be all.”
To her credit, the girl had enough intelligence to keep her mouth shut and scurried away to fill the order. Legend stated that one does not offer Serinthels meat and they take great offense at slights real or imagined. It is also said they have long, long memories.
Brant and Melek nursed their drinks waiting for their guest to speak.
“I come from Brathe,” she said after a few moments of silence, her musical voice low and sweet. “It is one of the clan-towns of the Serinthels. Two full moons ago we received word that one of our clan-towns fell to an unseen enemy. Shadows from the night sky descended on the town covering it completely. Since then, the shadows have swallowed up Northross, Celandine, and others.”
Melek raised two fingers from where they rested on the weathered table top. “Are there survivors?" he asked. "How were they attacked? Can you describe the enemy?”
The Fox woman paused for a moment, a flash of irritation sweeping over her perfect face at the interruption. “Few survived and those were the ones fortunate enough to be outside the walls when the towns were attacked. The shadow I speak of is not poetic language. It is a true shadow. When the shadow lifts, the city is littered with the dead.” The voice faltered. “The dead are without wounds. The appearance is that they died where they stood, unaware of the fate that fell on them. Large, unblinking violet eyes clouded over with memory. “Finally, we received an emissary from our enemy. In the terms of surrender, a Serenthelian delegation was ordered to appear before an ancient barrow for a parley. I stood before its entrance just three days ago.”
She waited in silence as the serving girl brought a wooden trencher covered with small hard, black bread rolls, some limp turnip greens, and a mug filled with water.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” the girl said, anxiety making her voice break, “this is all we got.” With trembling fingers, the serving girl sat the board in front of the fox woman and immediately turned and fled.
Arul picked at the greens, sniffed her contempt, and then took up a roll and broke it in half. Steam came from the center, and Brant and Melek heard their guest sigh with contentment. They helped themselves to their mugs as Arul broke her fast.
“You said you had been to this barrow?” Brant asked.
“Not alone,” Arul said between delicate bites. “My companions still remain there.”
“Waiting for you?” Melek asked.
“Yes,” Arul nodded. “That is what the dead do best.”
Brant and Melek exchanged glances.
“And you want our help…how?” Brant asked.
“Word of the Free Academy has even reached the ears of the Serinthels. I knew you were homed here in Rollas, and when I asked the barkeep for the leaders he pointed at you.”
She paused waiting for an answer.
“My lady,” Brant said, “we are not an army. The Free Academy only has four members. The work we are hired out for is more…subtle.”
“Yes,” Arul nodded in agreement. “When I and my companions approached the barrow, we did so in pomp befitting Serinthels. We paid greatly for our lack of discretion. Now, I need to return with those who understand subtlety.”
Melek rolled his shoulders from the growing tension, the popping of joints sounding like river ice snapping during a quick thaw. “Before we commit to anything, does this barrow have a name in our language?”
“In our language, we call it Ororc. In your language…” She paused to think. “Yes, I believe it is called Grave Gate.”
Brand laughed in spite of himself, making already-interested eyes and ears around the tavern even more curious as to why a Serinthel sullied itself by walking in the world of humanity. “Grave Gate? My lady, even if it is possible, you don’t have the ducats we would demand for such an undertaking.”
The fox woman reached into her tunic and pulled out a small stone the size of an egg and placed it on the table. “Would this cover the cost?”
Brant and Melek stared at the stone, a perfect ruby the likes of which no man had ever seen. Its heart seemed to beat with scarlet fire even in the dim light of the pub.
“And back to the original question,” Brant said, his own fiery heart in his throat, “what exactly would you have us do for such a bauble?”
“Simple. Walk with me into Ororc as shadows seeking a greater shadow. And when we find it, we will kill it.”
Brant stared at the ruby as it gleamed. “Come, Melek,” he whispered as if he were in a temple, “we must go talk with the others.”