The purse clanked as it hit another stained wooden counter top. He took it with little joy and even littler gratitude. Another town, another job, another round of the voice telling him to keep moving forward. With every passing day, he grew more and more frustrated. He killed time after time for meager sums and had already earned himself a shitty moniker the village criers heralded him as. The Wanderer they called him.
The only good aspect of his newfound reputation was that he was left entirely alone except by those who braved the ridiculous rumors that now circled around him to offer him money to kill whomever they needed for whatever reason. He did so without question, hopeful that maybe one of them would be able to point him in whatever direction the all-knowing voice wanted him to be going.
Yet the days passed by, the trail of blood flowing behind him like a stream growing evermore into an ocean that would soon threaten to drown him. With its rising tides, his rising impatience followed. Every job he took ended in little satisfaction and even smaller amounts of coin. He kept himself moving; he hadn’t even realized he had breached the borders of Moon’s Rise when a welcome surprise came for him.
A heavy knock rasped upon the already flimsy wood that acted in place of a door to his room. It was the first time in a long while that he had been offered a room in exchange for a job, and he took it with gratitude. The bed felt remarkably comfortable considering his feet hung off its end.
The knock came again, threatening to break the thin door down with its intensity. This time it was followed by a muffled yell that was incomprehensible to Zen’s ears as his head was buried in the single pillow.
The third knock finally lugged Zen out of bed. With only a pair of trousers on, he opened the door to see four fully armored guards arguing with the owner who had given him the room so long as he took care of a bandit that had stolen from him not long ago, and take care of it he did.
The four guards and the owner abruptly ended their conversation as the door squealed open to reveal the half nude man glowering at them from beneath heavy eyelids.
Zen took notice of their armor immediately. The pure white that graced every inch of their covered bodies, the patterns of stars that adorned every curled corner of their breastplates, and the obnoxious half-moon that proudly presented itself on every item they wore told him they were the city guards of Moon’s Rise.
“Are you the mercenary they refer to as The Wanderer?” the man nearest to him asked.
Zen looked from person to person through half closed eyes.
“Tell me what you want or fuck off and let me pretend to sleep,” he replied sharply.
The nearest soldier seemed taken aback at his outburst. He turned to the man in the back. A blond haired, blue eyed soldier that certainly didn’t look the part of leader spoke in his stead. It was the voice that told Zen he was in charge of this group.
“Put your god damn clothes on and follow us outside,” he commanded. The blond turned away and dropped a few coins into the owner’s hands as he exited. The owner, seeing Zen was still watching him, pocketed the coin and walked away like he had better things to be doing.
The soldiers before him were at a standstill in his doorway. Zen slammed the flimsy door on the lot of them and turned to his room. He looked to the bed longingly. He hadn’t slept a wink anyway, but it was a comfortable enough piece of furniture for him to be willing to act like he could sleep for a while longer. He lackadaisically found the clothes he shed not long ago and strapped the maroon red sword across his back. Over top of it all he tossed the heavy black cloak that now seemed a wise purchase as he crossed into more mountainous regions.
He pushed open the door to his room and strode past the waiting soldiers with little regard for their thoughts on his demeanor. The soldiers followed him out and said hushed goodbyes to the inn owner. The blond headed leader of their group was already mounted and had been for some time by the looks of it. Zen took his time checking the mare’s tack and ensuring she was in good health.
The blond grew impatient with him quickly, “You can either get on your fucking horse and follow us, or I can tie you to the back of mine and drag you there,” he snapped.
Zen’s only response was a sleep-filled look over his shoulder. He gave the horse a quick pat before pulling himself atop the saddle. A biting wind shot past them, chilling the air in a single swoop. Though the chill stung his nose, Zen took it as a good sign he was going on the right path, not that he had any choice in the matter supposedly.
“It’ll be about a full day’s ride,” the blond said to no one in particular.
He clicked his heels against his horse and set off at a trot before Zen could respond. The other three fell in behind Zen, though not as intimidatingly as the many times this had happened before. It was still an annoyance to him to know he couldn’t seem to escape being in the middle of it all no matter how hard he tried.
The group followed a main road from sunrise to sunset. The Yuan Mountains to their left guided them further and further north. Soon, the mountains had snowcapped peaks and pierced the low hanging cloud layer above it like a knife. As they approached what Zen assumed to be their destination, he noticed a strange scent in the air. The breeze picked up and assaulted them with the smell of fish and seawater.
Zen sighed quietly as they rode. They were taking him to the capital of Moon’s Rise and, by the looks of it, he’d be sent directly to the king. A small gate made of worn hard wood was the only entry point into the city. He could hear waves crashing against shores of stone in the distance: a familiar sound but strange to hear after so long in the land locked heart of the continent. The stench of fish and salt only grew as they trotted into the city.
Citizens greeted the guards’ men as they rode past, yet there was an air of sadness in each of their voices, as if they’d all recently been mourning. The dirt trodden road turned to a soft pebbled stone underfoot as they passed underneath another wood gate and began to climb upwards at a slight incline. The streets to Zen’s right grew smaller and smaller, and the ships in their harbor soon looked like toys. They came upon a large wooden structure that at one time would’ve been considered elegant, but years of seawater and ice had taken its toll on the wood.
Above a curved door carved into the wood lay the crest of Moon’s Rise: a simple half-moon. Behind it, deep scratches marred the otherwise pristinely kept wood. Zen noticed remnants of white marble next to the stairs leading to what he assumed was now the king’s residence.
The blond dismounted and tossed his reins to a nearby soldier who nodded as he walked past. Zen and the others followed suit. As he dismounted, he noticed how many sets of eyes were watching him. Guards posted above and below observed his every move with a practiced scrutiny. Zen counted the number of soldiers he found and was surprised when he came up significantly shorter than he remembered them having. They hadn’t passed by a single guard in the town either. He kept the observation to himself, unsure of the questions it would raise about him if he noticed their lessened numbers.
The blond snuck a look at the wanderer over his shoulder. Keen eyes took note of how nonchalant the stranger appeared; yet there was something about him that warned the acting general to stay vigilant at all times.
The group turned from the many curious eyes and climbed up the steps. The settlement butted directly against the mountain; Zen wondered if the smaller size of their supposed castle was just a farce. It likely extended into the mountains to some extent, and maybe even had a cave system that offered hidden travel.
Zen was ushered through double doors into a long gathering hall. A welcoming plume of warm air greeted them as the doors shut behind them, blocking out the harsh winds of the waterfront. Along the walls sat rows of tables end to end, with simple benches as seats for the patrons to gather and eat. On the far wall, where they headed toward was a fireplace laid in with a light grey stone against the hard wood backdrop. Two doors sat opposite the fireplace, and opposite those, two hallways. The door behind them was the only visible exit except for the small windows along the walls, but Zen wouldn’t want to take the risk of jumping out the wrong one and tumbling down the mountain side.
Two individuals sat before the fireplace in much grander chairs than the benches that surrounded them. A woman, older, but with raven black hair sat adjacent to the more intricate of the chairs. Her shoulders were stooped beneath a silver fox fur lined coat and her fingers were interlaced as her gaze drifted past the lot of them. She stared toward the door as if expecting someone else to be walking through it at any moment. Sadness drew the wrinkles around her eyes downwards and gave the appearance that she hadn’t slept in days.
The man, standing with his hand resting above the fireplace was the exact opposite. Zen might have mistaken him for a bear if he’d seen him in the woods near there. He was a burly, rough looking man who wore the fur of a wolf swathed over his broad shoulders. A bushy brown beard was peppered with bits of white, the only thing showing his age. He turned to his soldiers as they approached. A flash of anger crossed his gaze as he beheld the blond returning before him.
The blond bowed briefly, and not that deeply, before his king. Zen couldn’t help but notice the tension in the room between the soldiers and the king before them.
“We have brought the mercenary as requested, your highness.”
The king nodded slowly, as if pondering the very words that had come from his soldiers’ mouth. He turned scrutinizing eyes toward Zen.
“Thank you Kalem. You may leave us now.”
Kalem nodded and turned away. His gaze fell upon Zen briefly to send him a warning glare that said all it needed to. Zen could feel the heat from his stare piercing the back of his skull until the door opened and slammed shut, leaving him with the rumored mad King Lupus.
The king eyed Zen up and down, trying his best to read him. The queen, Zen assumed, maintained her empty stare toward the door. The crackle of the fire was the only thing that broke the stillness in the room. Finally, the King spoke.
“Do you have a name, Wanderer?”
The king raised a brown and grey brow as he leaned both hands onto the back of his wooden throne.
“No last name? Not even where you hail from?”
“ Just Zen,” he responded plainly.
The king smirked at his response. “Well, Zen, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve dragged you up here so early in the day. So, let’s get right to it shall we? I’m sure you value your time as much as I do mine.”
He sat down into his throne with a thud. The legs of the seat groaned underneath him.
“We know you’ve earned yourself a reputation as a mercenary for the locals, and a good one at that. So, to state it plainly, I’d like to hire you for your services.”
Zen was surprised and appalled all at the same time. It took him some effort to restrain himself from sprinting toward the door. He remained still and waited for the king to continue.
“If it wasn’t blaringly obvious on your way in, we are currently short staffed in the realm of soldiers. There were some unforeseen…” he searched for the word, “circumstances that led half of my soldiers out into the world to assist in a search. That is where I would like your assistance.”
“What can I do that half of your army can not, your majesty?” he asked half-heartedly.
“I need someone who can move faster than a garrison and isn’t afraid to get their hands a little dirty without asking questions.” He pushed himself from his seat and walked powerfully toward Zen. “And from what I hear, you do both of those pretty well.”
“What would you have me do?”
He smiled ferociously. “My daughter fled this place nigh on a week ago with a priceless artifact. I want it brought back by any means necessary.”
“And the girl?”
The king drew close to him. “Do with her as you please. There’s already a price on her head and, the way I see it she deserves a fate much worse than death,” he hissed through yellow stained teeth.
Zen noticed a slight flinch from the queen as Lupus spoke. He could see the white on her knuckles from clenching her hands so tight. Her eyes finally drifted toward him. Bright, emerald green irises poured over him. Desperation shouted at him from her as she stared into him. She swallowed tightly and averted her gaze before the king noticed them.
“So? What do you say Wanderer? The money should be enough to last you a lifetime if you return it to me. “
He met the eyes of the king. It was not madness that stared back at Zen, but cruelty. A man devoid of love for his wife and daughter and stripped of any responsibility for his kingdom.
Did I look like this to Kira? Zen wondered.
He glanced past the King for just a moment to see Ivalah trying to prevent herself from shaking. Her throat bobbed as the tears attempted to choke her.
Deciding he could use the money and had little else to do, Zen accepted the offer. “I’ll do it. Any ideas where I can start?”
Lupus smiled broadly. “There’s a tavern she had a tendency to frequent in Hakan.”
Hakan was back south, the last place he wanted to go, but it was apparent he didn’t have a choice.
“You’ll find a wench there by the name of Byrn. A wild and ferocious thing, but I’m sure you can get what you want from her. A word of caution, though. I sent my first platoon there as well to try and discern something, so she’s likely to be on edge, and from what I’ve heard, she stabs first and takes a long time to ask her questions after.”
“It won’t be a problem.”
The king laid a hand on Zen’s shoulder and patted him roughly. “No, I don’t think it will.”
He opened his palm out toward the queen who was still gazing downwards. When she didn’t move as quick as Lupus wanted, he snapped at her. “IVALAH.”
The woman jumped from her seat. Her eyes cleared immediately as she reached down and picked up a black pouch that jingled as she walked in short steps toward them. The king snatched the pouch from her hands and turned away from her without a second glance. The queen’s eyes turned to the floor once more as she backed away a step.
Lupus dropped the coin pouch into Zen’s hand. He rolled his fingers over the heavy bag.
“This should be enough to get you started. The rest will be waiting for you here when you return with the item.”
He turned and stalked back to his wooden throne. “Oh, and if you see any of my soldiers along your journey to find my item, please politely tell them to hurry the fuck up.”
Zen nodded and stalked back toward the door. He looked back just before the threshold to see the queen peering up from the floor at him. Her face was unreadable, but Zen was sure she would have words with him before he would escape the place.
The doors shut heavily behind him as he walked onto the landing. The wind whipped his black hair to the opposite direction it usually sat. Kalem, the blond Zen presumed was the general of the small number of soldiers left, waited for him against the railing.
“What did he ask you to do?” he demanded.
“No introductions first?” Zen asked as he continued past him.
Kalem jumped in front of him before he could step onto the stairs. His fury with The Wanderer could not be contained. He shoved the man back.
“What the fuck did he tell you to do?!” Kalem yelled.
The Wanderer took a single step back from Kalem’s push. A darkness fell over the man’s face that sent the hairs at the back of Kalem’s neck standing on end. He resisted the urge to step away from the man and asked again.
“What. Did. He. Ask,” he spat.
“Your king paid me a handsome fee to find something for him, that’s all,” Zen responded calmly. “Apparently, your comrades are taking to long for him.”
Kalem’s shoulders sagged and he allowed the man to brush past him uninhibited. Zen continued down the steps until he reached the pebbled-lain streets. Kalem followed him and stopped half way down.
“What did he tell you about her?” he inquired.
“The daughter?” Zen asked as he offered a hand to his mare.
“Yes. After you find the item, what does he want you to do with her?”
Zen stroked the broad side of the mare’s neck, taking note of the dirt that flaked off from the once immaculate fur. He responded without looking to the man on the stairs.
“He told me to do as I pleased with her.”
Kalem flew from the stairs and came face to face with the stranger. Zen could feel the heat on his breath, the fury that raged just underneath his skin. Zen didn’t engage in his posturing. He simply continued to brush down his horse.
“You can’t go through with this. There’s much more going on here than you understand. You’ll be harming a lot more people if you kill her than you realize.”
“There’s always something more. Every person has a life and other people they cared about, and so on and so forth. There will always be things I don’t understand and reasons I don’t need to know, which is why I don’t ask questions when people come to me with money in their hands and a name on their lips.” He swatted a fly that thought to land on his horse’s rump. “Besides, I’m not about to get on the bad side of a king.”
Kalem paused. He examined the mercenary before him with a scrutinizing glare.
“This isn’t your first time dealing with royalty, is it?”
Zen finally turned his gaze to the man. “No, it’s not, and in my time, I’ve learned its best to do as they ask before they decide to make an example out of you and serve your head on a silver platter.” A half-truth, hopefully one that would squander any further curiosities. He swung himself onto his horse.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more!