The town of Danard was sung the world over, its walls old before the foundations of many a lodge were laid. Thon looked up as he left the forest that lay north of the place.
The town spilled down the two sides of the peak he could see, and those sides he couldn't. A road ran from the main gate, following the course of a small river, source of the town's water.
He nodded appreciation for the town's builders. "A hard place to overthrow," he said. Thon settled his shield on his back and began the steep road to the town. There was little shade to be had and he stopped after an hour to quench his thirst.
"You are far from home, Man of the River."
Thon whirled at the sound of the voice, his black knife ready in his hand. A scraggly tree, branches bare but for a few leaves, stood near a curve in the river. Beside it sat a woman of many years, her brown robe shapeless on her, her hair thin and gray. Her face was leathered from years of sun, her eyes bright with intelligence.
"Who are you, woman," Thon said, "that you know me?"
"I know nothing," she countered, "but that you're far from home." She nodded to the gold at Thon's right arm. "Many River Folk wear such gold and the sigil on the boss of your shield..."
Thon watched her, knife yet ready. "What of it?"
The old woman held his gaze. "To reach such an age as mine," she said, "you must be able to see." She rose to her feet, leaning on an old staff. "That sigil marks many houses of the River."
"And so, I say you're far from home."
Thon lowered his blade. He nodded. "I am far from home, as you say."
She tossed her head towards Danard. "To Danard?"
"And what," the old woman mused, "brings a Man of the River this far into the mountains?"
"We of the River journey far," Thon replied, "as you know, if you know us."
The old woman raised her hand in blessing. "Be on your way, Man of the River, to where your path leads. Remember my words." With that she turned and made her way from the tree, and from Thon.
Thon stood a while and then returned his blade to his belt. He quenched his thirst and returned to the steep road to Danard.
It was early afternoon when he passed through the town gates. The men of the watch eyed him, noting the shield, the long handled sword at his hip, the gait of a man used to long travel. Thon nodded to them and made his way into the town.
The buildings threw shadows across the main path, respite from the sun. Thon felt eyes from the shadows follow him as he strode through the sunlit streets.
Later, in a tavern, mead and meat on the board in front of him, they came. Two stood, one on each side, hands resting on sword hilts. The third sat across from Thon. Bearded, his dark hair long. He wore leathers, well scuffed from use. He carried a sword at his hip and Thon spied the handle of a throwing knife at the edge of his sleeve. Tavern patrons drifted away from the four men.
Thon wiped his blade, greasy from the meat, on a cloth, his eyes holding those of the man across from him.
"You're a stranger here," the man said.
Thon said nothing.
"These are dangerous times," the man continued. "A man must be careful, and the ruler of a town more careful yet."
Thon said nothing.
"A man like you," the man said, "used to hard travel and--" he nodded at Thon's weapons, "--with the appearance of a fighting man...such a man must be examined."
"What is your business here?"
Thon spoke. "I came," he said, "to see Danard for myself." He nodded to the other man. "Stories of it are told everywhere a man might walk."
"The stories are true," the man said. "Danard is everything they sing of." He leaned across the table. "Now, you have learned what you came to learn. You should go."
"Danard was known for the hospitality of its people," said Thon. "Perhaps Danard is not as it used to be."
The man's hand moved towards the handle of his knife. Thon upended the table and the man fell to the floor, cursing. Thon stood and smashed his forearm against the throat of the man to his right. He collapsed.
Thon spun to his left and slashed down with his knife. The man there swore as it cut into his sword hand.
Three more came, their swords drawn. Thon stood, quiet.
The man who had spoken gained his feet. "You'd have been better served by leaving, stranger. Now you must pay."
He nodded to the others. They warily drew Thon's sword and took the knife from his hand. The seven men left the tavern, the injured bringing up the rear.
The Hall of Danard's ruler was long, dimly lit by smoking torches. A board, serving as table, ran the length of the wall on the right, benches on either side of it. A fire blazed in a hearth set into the opposite wall.
The ruler of Danard sat on a carved wooden chair, apart from all others, close to the fire. A hard-faced man, muscles turning to slack flesh, he watched as they entered.
A young woman, tall with dark hair reaching below her shoulders, stood next to him. A white gown, low across her bosom, swept to the floor. Her belly hinted she was with child.
"Come," the man said, gesturing. "Let me look on this troublemaker."
Thon, the man with the throwing knife and two of the others stepped forward.
"I am Gorakh, ruler of Danard." He gestured to the man who stood at Thon's left. "I see you've met my man, Hamm. What brings you to my city, disturbing my peace?"
"I am Thon of the People of the River. They sing of Danard everywhere. I came to see for myself."
Gorakh eyed Thon. "What songs have you heard, that you needed to come so far, Thon of the River?"
Thon paused before answering. "That Danard once had a ruler," he said, "and now does not."
Gorakh leaped to his feet. "I am Danard's ruler. He who was, is gone." He indicated the woman to his left. "This is Cait, my wife, his daughter. Our blood is mingled. His line continues through my son growing in her."
"REMEMBER MY WORDS"
Thon looked around at the sound of the old woman's voice. She wasn't to be seen. No one else appeared to have heard her.
Thon looked at Gorakh, at his wife. Her hand rested on her husband's arm. Her eyes rested on the man, Hamm.
"You can spend the night with the man you sought," Gorakh said. "Take what comfort you can in that. Tomorrow brings your last dawn."
Thon was led away, down wooden steps to a dark hallway. A room opened to the right. His weapons were stored there. The hallway ended in a large rectangular space. Set into three of the walls were stout wooden doors.
A guard took a set of keys hanging from a hook and opened one of the doors.
"You complained of Danard hospitality, stranger," Hamm said. He pushed Thon into the dark cell. "Here's your bed for the night, at no charge." He laughed as the door was locked.
Thon stood in the room, the roof not reaching much above his head. In the dim light he made out the figure of a man, sitting, shackled to the wall.
The man looked at Thon. "Who are you?"
"You are Tungar, of the House of Dur, Ruler of Danard."
The man laughed, a bitter sound. "I am Tungar, and all you say, save the last."
"I am Thon, come now to this place to deliver you."
"Only death will deliver me, as it will deliver you."
Thon stripped the leather from his left wrist, extracting the steel pins hidden there. It took time, and the loss of three pins, but the shackles fell from Tungar's wrists.
"You have men?" Thon asked.
"I had," Tungar replied. "I don't know how many remain."
"That is the morning's concern," Thon said. "We should rest. You'll need your strength."
The following morning Thon burst through the door as soon as the guards opened it. Two fell, and he charged the third who stood a little way to the back. He felled him with a blow.
"Take the keys," Thon said. "Find what men you can."
He grabbed the sword of the man before him and turned to meet the challenge from those struck by the door. Only one was rising and Thon brought the hilt of the sword down on his head. He slumped to the floor.
Thon ran to the room off the hallway, crashing into a man as he crossed the threshold. The man went sprawling.
Thon retrieved his sword and his knife as Tungar arrived with five others. They helped themselves to weapons and the seven ran up the stairway to the Hall.
The men there were already on their feet. Thon cut down the first man to challenge him. He saw Tungar moving towards Gorakh, his blade already red with blood. Hamm's throwing knife flew towards Thon, but he warded it off with a leather-strapped wrist.
They came together in the center of the hall. Hamm thrust hard for Thon's breast. Thon spun to his left, parried the thrust and his knife drew blood from Hamm's exposed right side.
Hamm whirled, slashing hard with his sword. Thon deflected the blade and smashed the hilt of his sword into Hamm's face. He brought his left hand around, his knife blade seeking Hamm's chest.
Hamm leaped back, tripped and fell to the floor. Thon brought his sword up for the killing blow.
"Remember my words." The old woman's voice sounded in Thon's head. Thon turned, seeking Tungar. Gorakh lay dead on the floor. Tungar, his face covered in blood from a wound to his cheek, was advancing on his daughter.
"No," Hamm cried.
Thon looked at the fallen man. Hamm paid no attention to Thon's sword pointed at his heart. His arm was outstretched to Cait.
"I'll cut that mongrel cur from your belly," Tungar said, raising his sword.
Thon pivoted and his knife flew across the intervening distance, embedding itself in Tungar's thigh. The man fell, his blade glancing off his daughter's arm. Blood crimsoned the white of her sleeve.
She stepped forward, picked up her father's sword and held it to his throat.
"You would give me to one of your vassals while you begat a son of some serving wench to rule here."
She slit her father's throat.
The room stood still.
Cait lifted the sword, the blood of two rulers of Danard on its blade, and looked at the men in the Hall.
"Men of Danard," she said, her voice clear. "Here lie two rulers of Danard. We've shed enough blood this day. I am of the House of Dur, as is my unborn child. Swear fealty and what was done is past and forgotten."
Thon stepped back as Hamm rose to his feet and made his way to Cait, of the House of Dur. He took position beside her as, one by one, the men of Danard laid their swords at her feet.
Two days later Thon stopped to quench his thirst on the road from Danard.
"To reach such an age as mine, you must be able to see."
Thon turned at the sound of the voice. The old woman was standing under her tree, leaning on her staff.
"Did I see what I needed to see?"
"You yet live, Man of the River," she said. "You yet live."
Kevin J Mackey is native Irish but now lives in the far drier climate of
the San Francisco Bay Area. He reads widely - "whatever may be found
between book covers" - but has a particular fondness for science fiction
and poetry. He has had short stories and poetry published in 2010, 2011 and 2012.