I brushed the soft end of the quill against my lips while contemplating my journal. I had spent the better part of the afternoon gazing up at the cobwebs clinging to the rafters just over my head, trying to think of something witty to say. But to no avail. Inspiration had to be a woman because—just like her human sisters—she was snubbing me.
Breathing in the familiar scents of old paper and ink inside an even older and musty keep, I sighed. This was serious business. A world-famous knight-scholar-explorer should at least have a record of his exploits. You can’t trust the minstrels to get it right. They always embellish too much. And Creator forbid the historians! They would bore you to tears. So I had no choice but to take this one on myself. I had saved my meager earnings—and they were truly meager—and bought my first blank scroll. It had to be a scroll, of course. They just looked so official. I had carefully laid the parchment out on the workroom’s only table, easily the most refined piece of furniture inside of Revenhille Keep, where it sat ready to receive my first words.
But how to start?
I glanced at an abandoned scrap of paper lying on the floor and frowned. I had attempted to sketch my profile, thinking an illustration might be the way to start. However, the ink lines did absolutely nothing to capture my true likeness: brown eyes, a masculine chin, and chestnut brown hair—reluctantly kept short because my master threatened to kick me out if I didn’t. My not quite twenty-year-old face was rather square, and while not one to turn heads, it was at least a solid representation of maleness. My mother had described me as pleasantly plain in my letter of introduction to my master. Whatever that meant.
I took a deep breath and focused on the parchment in front of me. Well, I guess there was no better place to start than the beginning. Keep it simple. Something the reader could easily latch on to. I dipped the quill into my bottle of ink, and being careful my hand didn’t shake, I boldly wrote the first words in my journal: Thus begins the recorded deeds of Coren Hart.
I smiled in satisfaction at my creation. It was direct, to the point, and hinted at the adventures to come. I liked it.
But then I glanced at my family name. Hart. I wasn’t especially fond of it. I had often wondered why I couldn’t have been born to something more dramatic, like Everhart, or Bravehart, or even Bloodhart. But just Hart was so plain. The teasing I’d endured when I was younger certainly didn’t help. The boys called me Hart the… well, you get the idea.
I nodded. It might be a plain name, but one day, everyone would know it. Sometimes you just had to work with what you were given.
Making sure the ink was dry, I rolled up the scroll and pulled out a special red ribbon to tie it up with (red was just so official). Now I, Coren Hart, was ready to record the knight-scholar-explorer adventures as they happened to me—or when they happened to me.
I was sure they would start soon. At least, I was pretty sure. I was only a scribe apprentice now. But that was just the beginning. One had to take the long view. I glanced at the wide leather band laced around my left wrist and thought of what lay hidden beneath. I frowned. Finding a way to alleviate my problem depended on it. I tried not to think about it too much, but my life had definitely taken a turn for the worse since it had appeared. It tended to make my luck run toward the bad kind.
The very bad kind.
My free hand crept to the lump under my shirt, and I drew reassurance from its gentle warmth. I was grateful to my master for giving me the amulet. Before receiving it, my life had been pretty much intolerable. But now the amulet counteracted the worst of my terrible curse.
Most of the time.
A thunderous pounding rattled the old keep’s door. My heart leaped into my throat, and my almost tied ribbon went floating Creator knew where. The journal scroll flew from my fingers and sailed across the work table. It bounced once and fell to the floor on the opposite side, no doubt unwinding itself across the room. My scrolls tended to do that. It was an unfortunate side effect of my problem.
The pounding came again more demanding than before. “In the name of Lord Wort, open this door!” The voice was deep, gruff, and accustomed to command. “The master requires a reading!”
In my panic to get the door, I jumped up and promptly stumbled over my stool. I crashed against the worktable, not only knocking off the pile of scrolls on the other end, but turning over my inkwell and pen too. The feathered quill floated lazily away in the sudden updraft. I cursed and chased the inkwell unsuccessfully as it rolled across the table, leaving a trail of black ink, as it too escaped to the edge and fell to the rough wooden floor on the other side. My heart skipped a beat. For some reason, it looked like a trail of splattered blood, and I shuddered at the thought. Creator! An omen. I made a warding sign.
I grabbed a conveniently located rag (spills were a common occurrence for me) and tried to blot the wayward blood. Ink! I meant ink! Master would scold me severely if I got anything on those ancient scrolls. I shuddered to think what my punishment would be; last time it was holding a metal rod on the top of the tower during a thunderstorm!
Another loud banging came from the door. “Open up, I say! Immediately!“
I turned toward my elderly master, hoping for some assistance. Unfortunately, Master Spraggel was sprawled in his favorite chair, sound asleep—and snoring. Loudly. His feet were propped up on a stool, in front of a gently glowing hearth. A thin line of drool darkened the man’s white beard. His gray robe was wrinkled and splotched with oil and ink stains. How could he sleep through all that banging! I firmly believed that my master was as old as creation itself, if not even older. In fact, I could easily envision Spraggel at the beginning of time telling the Creator he was doing it all wrong!
Seeing as how no help was coming from my master, I threw down my rag and ran for the door. But in my haste, I forgot about the stool and tripped over it again, falling flat on my face just in front of the door. This turned out to be a good thing. Because before I could rise, the door, constructed of heavy oak boards and iron bands fastened with steel spikes, suddenly split diagonally from top to bottom. With a loud clap, a line of daylight suddenly appeared in the door, and in its newly halved state, toppled into the room, one piece at a time, barely missing my nose. I sneezed as a cloud of dust kicked into my face.
I crawled away from the opening, gaping in amazement. What had happened?
A large man stood silhouetted in the doorway. My eyes went up and up. He was several hands taller than myself, Spraggel, or anyone else I’d seen for that matter. The dark-haired man was broad-shouldered and had arms the size of small trees. A pearl white snarl gleamed from inside his carefully trimmed black beard. The man wore a well-made white shirt, dark pants, and brown leather boots. He was awesome—in an evil lord sort of way.
But what really made an impression on me was his sword. It was beautiful—fully as long as the man’s well-muscled arm—and seeming to gleam unnaturally, like it was radiating with a light all its own.
The large man had to duck under the door frame in order to enter. Three scroungy but well-muscled men entered behind him, their expressions grim.
“Where is the reader?” the man demanded. He spoke with an accent I couldn’t place—definitely not from one of the surrounding lands. “Tell him Wort is here for a reading, and he had better hurry unless he wants this deteriorating hovel leveled!” He lowered a deadly gaze toward me, and I could swear his eyes seemed to be on fire.
I nodded in near panic. I quickly got to my feet and, stepping in a pool of spilled ink while I was at it, ran to my sleeping master.
“Spraggel,” I shook him. “Master Spraggel, wake up. We have a customer wanting a reading.”
The elder slowly raised his head and smacked his lips. “Now where was I, oh yes, Kornealius still owes me for that last script…”
“No master,” I interrupted and pointed to the big man. “New customers.”
Spraggel blinked and stared at me in puzzlement before looking to where Wort stood. “Oh! We have customers. Why didn’t you tell me? Now we mustn’t be rude to them. Offer them a seat and bring some…”
Wort roared and swung his sword at the scroll table, cleanly slicing through the top and one of its legs. The damaged table collapsed, raising yet another cloud of dust.
I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. Surely that was no ordinary sword. It went through the table like it was made of air.
“You waste my time, old man,” yelled Wort. “I want a reading. Can you do it?”
“Why of course I can, but there was no cause to split my table in two. I’ll have to charge you for that. I don’t tolerate such behavior—”
Wort pulled the sword’s scabbard from his belt and held it out to Spraggel. “READ IT!”
Spraggel gave him an exasperated frown. “There’s no need to be rude. If you aren’t a little more polite, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
I shook my head nervously and whispered. “Master, I don’t think that’s a good idea. He looks dangerous.”
Spraggel cocked his jaw and squinted at Wort. “I think we could take him.”
Putting on my most polite smile, I turned to our guest and took the offered scabbard in my upturned palms and presented it to Spraggel.
Spraggel shot Wort one last look of warning before examining the piece. His expression quickly changed to one of surprise. He took it gently and ran a light finger over the raised runes. Spraggel studied them intently. “Why, I haven’t seen such as these in a long time. These runes are ancient Tomarrian, which means this is truly ancient. That language died off at least five hundred years ago.” He held it up to the light. “Beautiful workmanship. No doubt the Tomarrian’s indeed made this.” He looked up at me. “Coren, bring me my volume on ancient weapons, the Armeda ne Emour. Second shelf, fifth to the right. Moonhagen is the author.”
I jumped to comply. It never ceased to amaze me how Spraggel could remember the exact placement of every book and scroll in his workroom, when most times he could barely remember what he had for breakfast.
The volume was indeed exactly where he said. I had not seen master refer to it before, but judging from the shelf it was on, I knew it was a very valuable book. I carefully took it down; the old leather was dry and dusty. Since our only table had just been destroyed, I gently opened it for Spraggel and held it out balanced on my open hands. The parchment bound in the book smelled not merely old, but absolutely ancient.
Spraggel flipped through the pages and began to hum obnoxiously. I turned and grinned apologetically at Wort. “He does that when he’s reading. He can’t help it really.”
In reply, Wort just glared at me.
Two of the men behind him slowly spread out, covering both sides of the room yet within easy reach of the windows, effectively blocking all the exits. This was not looking good.
Spraggel stopped at the page he wanted and nodded. His finger traced down the page. “Yes, just what I thought. This is the scabbard for Havoc’s Sword. A powerful weapon. Apparently, it was forged to combat the Dark Avenyts, but it’s unclear if it was successful.” He looked back to the scabbard. “Let’s see. Roughly translated the runes say, ‘Woe to the one who welds Havoc’s Sword for it is cursed to cause only destruction.” Spraggel flipped the scabbard over. “And on this side, ‘This sword must never touch Ruin’s Shield for the Earth’s end will soon follow.”
Wort nodded. “As I was told, there is a shield to go with my sword.”
Spraggel looked back to his book and ran a finger down the page. “It says here that the sword was hidden away with only the king’s lineage knowing where?” He glanced up at Wort. “No offense, but you don’t look to be from that family.”
Wort smirked, the tension in the room rising. “It was a gift from someone needing a favor.”
The old man glared at Wort suspiciously. “It must have been quite a favor.”
Wort only gave a wide, toothy smile in reply. It sent a shiver down my spine as I grew increasingly uncomfortable.
Spraggel looked back to his book. “It’s not clear if the shield was paired with the sword or was to be used separately. It says here that the sword and shield were considered too powerful, and both were hidden after the war. They were only to be used again should the Dark Avenyts return.”
Wort leaned forward and took the scabbard from Spraggel. “Where is this Ruin’s Shield now?”
Spraggel shook his head and closed the book. He took it from me and clutched it to his chest, while I shook out the cramps in my arms. That book was heavy!
“It doesn’t say,” Spraggel continued. “But there is a footnote saying the information came from the Scroll of Nobem.” Spraggel stroked his long gray beard. “Last I heard, the warrior-priests of Daili had the scroll in their temple. They have a habit of adopting such objects.”
Wort nodded. “Good. You have done well.” With a smile, he put Havoc’s Sword back into its scabbard. He pointed to the volume that Spraggel held. “That book you hold. It is a book of weapons, is it not? Does it tell of others? Of all kinds of weapons?”
Spraggel shook his head. “Not all of them. Just the ones known to the Ulegious Empire and even then only the most famous ones.” He leaned forward. “Do you know the author didn’t include the Sheldities weapons because he thought them barbarians?”
Wort stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Are there other books like it?”
Spraggel frowned and clutched the volume to his chest. “There was only one copy made of the Armeda ne Emour. There isn’t another like it.”
Wort grinned. “Sounds interesting.” He reached forward and plucked the book from Spraggel’s hands. Without looking, he handed it to the one man standing just behind him. The man had a poorly healed scar pulling one corner of his mouth slightly higher than the other, giving him a permanent sneer.
He took the book and tucked it protectively under his left arm. He smiled and laid his right hand on the hilt of his sword. I think he was actually hoping I would try to take it from him.
I stepped up to Wort. “Hey, give that back. It’s an important book with information that cannot be replaced. Besides, I didn’t think you could read.”
Wort shrugged. “You’re right. I can’t read. But I’m sure those priests you mentioned would love to have it. Perhaps even trade the location of the shield for it.”
“But wait!” Spraggel stepped forward. “I hope you’re not planning on seeking Ruin’s Shield. You already have the sword, and they should not be near each other. The warning was very clear—the Earth itself would be destroyed.”
Wort ignored this and turned to his men. “Phelan, you’re with me. Dai. Rid. Kill them. There must be no witnesses. And be quick about it. I leave immediately for this temple.”
Kill us! I glanced at each of the windows and door, but there was nowhere to run. They had us cut off. I frantically looked around for a weapon. My sword was under my bed in the loft above, so that wouldn’t do me any good. Then I spied the table leg that had been lopped off, right beside the wayward ink bottle. That chunk of wood was big and thick, it definitely had club potential.
Wort strode out of the room with Sneer Man following behind and Spraggel’s book under his arm. Neither of them so much as glanced our way.
The remaining two men surged to take their place. Each was well-muscled and broad of chest. The man furthest from me had a scar across one eye and wielded a wicked-looking mace. The other wore a leather helmet with a single horn protruding from it and held a very dangerous looking sword.
I felt a flash of warmth underneath my shirt as my amulet suddenly heated. It meant my bad luck had tried to do something horrible, but the amulet had countered it. I briefly considered jerking off the charm and letting my luck have its way, but just as quickly decided against it—much too dangerous. My curse would make things even more unpredictable.
I dropped to one knee close to the table leg and clasped my hands before me. “Please, I beg of you. We’re but simple scribes. Please don’t kill us!”
Helmet-man smirked and raised his sword. “Sorry, bloke. It’s just business. Noth’n person’l.”
I quickly reached for the fallen table leg, but instead my hand closed on the wayward ink bottle. Oh no.
As the sword started its descent toward my head, I instinctively threw the ink bottle at his face and leaped to the side. The bottle hit him squarely in the nose and splashed ink into his eyes. The sword, now without power, landed where I had just been, barely missing me.
“Agh! That stings!” helmet-man yelled and wiped his eyes, trying to get the ink out. He only succeeded in smearing it across his face. It would have been comical, had he not had such a deadly expression. “When I catch you, I’m going to cut out your liver and eat it!”
I yelled over my shoulder, “Master! Run!”
Behind me, Spraggel huffed. “Nonsense. Why would I run when I have them right where I want them? I guess I’ll have to teach these youngsters a thing or two.” He began to rummage through his pockets. “Now where did I put my sword?”
I finally reached the table leg and swung it up just in time to block helmet-man’s chopping stroke. The impact stung my hands, with the sharp blade biting deep into the wood. We each tried to pull our weapons back but found the sword stuck. He gave a hard jerk, and I simply released the leg. He stumbled backward at the sudden weight and tripped over my fallen stool to land squarely on his backside. I guess I wasn’t the only clumsy guy in the place.
“Master!” I looked back over my shoulder. “If you’re not going to run, how about a little help here!”
But Spraggel continued busily digging in his robe pockets and tossing the contents on the floor: a small scroll, a chunk of bread, a vial of some blue liquid. Where was he getting that stuff? I’d seen strange things come out of his pockets before and surmised he had some kind of enchanted robe.
After pulling out a sock, he reached deep into the pocket—up to his elbow. His eyes went wide. “Aha! This will do nicely.”
The remaining henchman with the scarred eye, managed to work his way around the various broken bits in the room and now was in striking range of Spraggel. He reared back his mace to clobber my preoccupied master. I leaped in his direction, but knew I would arrive too late.
Spraggel pulled out his hand—and it was filled with a fistful of gold coins. Not copper, not silver, but royal gold coins. The kind where each coin was easily worth a smallholding. And there had to be a dozen of them. Where was master getting those from? I’d never seen him with that much money before.
Spraggel frowned and shook his head. “No, that wasn’t it. I wanted my sword.” And he tossed them on the floor! Royal gold coins! Just tossed them on the floor! My brain couldn’t wrap around it. He was throwing away a fortune!
The round coins rolled in all directions. Both henchmen froze, their eyes bulging with greed. Fearing they might not get their share, they both quickly dropped to their knees and began searching for the coins. Lots of fighting and name-calling broke out between them. I managed to snag one on my way over to Spraggel.
I grabbed him and pushed him toward the ladder to the loft. The door was still blocked by the warriors on their knees.
Spraggel nodded toward the men. “But what about them? I need to beat them soundly to get my book back and prevent Wort from getting the shield. I’ve got to have my sword.”
I shoved him up the ladder. “Mine’s under my bed. You can use that one.”
Spraggel made it up two rungs then turned to me. “That old thing is more rust than good metal. I need something with a little edge to it.”
“And I’d prefer the edge not be coming at me. Now, UP!”
Master finally took me seriously and started climbing. Behind me, the men continued arguing. Seems that one of them felt a little cheated. This was a good thing because it gave me time to start up after Spraggel stepped off.
“Look!” one-eye yelled. “They’re get’n away. Wort’ll kill us if we don’t finish.” They then agreed to have their discussion a little later.
Well damn. I raced the rest of the way up the ladder, making it to the top just as helmet-man started up. I rushed to my bed, grabbed my trusty sword, and ran back to the ladder. I grinned down at him. “You know you won’t make it. All I’ve got to do is push the ladder. Nothing personal, you know!” I swung my sword at the cord holding the ladder in place—and it bounced off. It didn’t even dent it. I tried sawing, but that didn’t work either. In frustration, I reared back and brought the sword down with all my strength and—
Broke my damn blade!
It snapped at the hilt, sailing across the room to stick point first into the wooden floor a fingerbreadth from one-eye’s boot. He glared up at me and made his way to the ladder.
Spraggel muttered behind me. “I told you it was too rusty.”
Disgusted, I threw the remaining piece at the man below me, but it just bounced harmlessly off his helmet. He turned his ink-stained eyes up at me and growled.
Looking around, I grabbed the chamber pot (unfortunately empty) and threw it down on top of our attacker. He deflected it to one side, continuing on up.
“Coren!” called Spraggel. “This way. Quick!”
I turned to see Spraggel looking at me from outside the loft’s small window. He waved at me and smiled. “Hurry!”
I ran to the window and stuck my head out. The timber rafters stuck through the sides of the building, giving just enough room to stand on, and if you took big steps, you could make your way along the side. I quickly climbed out and carefully stepped on the rafters behind Spraggel, trying not to look down. Even though we were only on the building’s second floor, we were still a good way up. This old keep was built into the side of a steep hill. Below us was nothing but some very sharp looking rocks. If we jumped, we would definitely break something, most likely our necks.
We made our way along the rafters toward the back of the building. Unfortunately, Spraggel stopped at the corner. “Well, Coren,” he said, rubbing his chin. “I think we’ve come to the end of our path. There are no rafters on the back.”
I looked behind me and saw helmet-man poke his head out; his ink-covered face had a definite snarl. Scar-eye’s head quickly followed, also looking none too happy.
“Master Spraggel,” I said. “Looks like this is it. I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
Spraggel chuckled. “My lad, you’re forgetting your condition. It’s not going to let you die just yet. It might be unpleasant, and probably will hurt a lot, but you won’t die from it.”
“But master, I don’t see how…”
Suddenly, a thunderous shout came from the front of the building. “Who in the Creator’s hell stole my gold!” That had to be Wort. “I had thirteen gold royals in my purse. Now they’re gone! I want to know who stole them. And when I find you, I’ll tear your heart out with my bare hands! But if you give them back right now, I’ll go easy on you. And I do mean now!“
Helmet-man froze with one foot on the rafters and one inside the window. He looked terrified. His partner covered his mouth in fear.
I turned to Spraggel. “You didn’t take those coins from Wort’s purse, did you?”
Spraggel shrugged. “Not on purpose. It’s supposed to link up with my storage chest, but sometimes it has a mind of its own. It’s not my fault the pocket chose Wort’s purse instead.” He leaned away from the wall and waved to the now pale helmet-man. “Good sir. I think we have you at a disadvantage. Unless you leave us, I’m going to have my apprentice yell at the top of his lungs that you’ve got your lord’s gold, which I actually believe you do. However, if you withdraw and tell Wort we’re dead, then we’ll keep our silence.”
Helmet-man nearly spat. “An’ wha’ say I jus’ kill you both now?”
Spraggel nodded toward me, and I raised a hand to my mouth.
Helmet-man waved us off. “No, no, stop… you win.” His eyes narrowed. “But you bett’r nev’r cross paths wit’ us again.”
He then promptly withdrew.
I slumped against the wall. That had been close.
We waited until we heard the men outside depart and then waited a little longer to make sure they were gone.
Spraggel leaned toward me and whispered. “Wort was right about one thing. I’m sure the warrior-priests of Daili will gladly exchange the shield’s location for my book.” He looked off into the distance. “You realize that we can’t let them get Ruin’s Shield.”
“But, Master,” I protested. “How are we supposed to stop them? They outnumber us six to one! And that sword. You saw what it did to our door and the table.”
Spraggel grew solemn. “You’re right. Havoc’s Sword is a myst weapon. One that can cut through things as easily as a knife slices through the air. And unfortunately, so is Ruin’s Shield, with myst that will repel anything put against it. Both are very powerful weapons. Too powerful, in fact. That’s why they were hidden.”
I paused a moment as the information sank in. Myst. The ethereal substance behind what some would call magic or sorcery. The myst I knew provided light in the deep of night or let people travel great distances in the blink of an eye.
My hand unconsciously rose to the lump under my shirt. Myst also powered amulets to keep one safe.
I shook my head. “But why hide them? Seems they would be wonderful weapons to have.”
Spraggel nodded. “One would think. But myst weapons don’t always work like you think they should. If the sword were to strike the shield, you could get an unpleasant reaction. Something called a myst deadlock. Each of the mystic items will draw in power to best the other. And they won’t stop until they can’t draw in anymore.”
My eyebrows rose. “And since myst is needed by all living things…”
He nodded. “We all die.”
We were silent for a moment. “That would be bad,” I said.
Spraggel snorted. “Slightly.” He leaned over and touched me on the arm. “I think it’s time to go in. But be on guard. It could be a trap.”
I carefully stepped across the rafters and poked my head in the window. Empty. I waved to Spraggel, and we both climbed inside.
I carefully descended the ladder, and after making one final check for intruders, stood for a moment to survey the mess. Shortly Spraggel joined me and returned to his chair by the fire. All I could do was sigh as I began to pick up the pieces of the work table and door. Replacing everything was going to be expensive.
Spraggel stroked his long beard, returning to our earlier conversation. “Wort must not get that shield. He must be stopped at any cost. And let’s not forget he also stole my book. That alone could be big trouble if it got into the wrong hands.”
Determining it couldn’t be fixed, I dropped the table and stepped back, catching the ink bottle under my foot and nearly falling. I picked it up and threw it out the window as far as I could.
Spraggel stroked his beard. “I would normally go see Lord Pringottin and see if he would send some men after the thieves. But he’s away and not expected back for several months. He’s left Javillia, his master at arms in charge, but that old soldier won’t send anyone anywhere without Pringottin’s permission.” Spraggel sighed dramatically and buried his face in his hands. “What are we going to do?”
I stroked the leather band around my left wrist, thinking of what lay hidden just beneath it. I couldn’t hide my growing grin. This could be the start of my adventures. And the beginning of my cure! “Why don’t we go after him ourselves?”
Spraggel looked up at me in surprise. He got up from his chair and walked over to me. “But we’re only scribes. We don’t have the funds or the arms to launch such a quest.”
I dug into my pouch and pulled out the remaining gold royal. “What if we use this? It could surely pay for us to get there.”
He stroked his beard. “But what about help? We’ll need a few good fighters and weapons.”
I nodded excitedly. “We could find some good men to go with us. We could use this to pay them.”
Spraggel smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “Excellent idea, my young apprentice. Truly brilliant and so charitable of you to offer up that gold piece. I’m so glad you thought of it.”
I suddenly realized that I had just been suckered. Spraggel was going all along. He just wanted me to offer up the gold.
But I couldn’t help but grin. Maybe this would be the start of my adventures. Maybe even a solution to my problem.
One my father had passed to me eight years before.
A curse of very bad luck.