An excerpt from a piece of fiction I finished recently. Nothing too special. If you want to see the rest and have not already, I might consider it if you ask nicely.
“And every man he killed rose again, to turn upon his neighbor, a puppet to the necromancer’s will.”
His stage was little more than a stool placed near the fire. His voice, a low whisper, carried through the settled silence within the small tavern. Shadows and flame danced with his words, figures falling and rising against the burning backdrop of a city. Grand towers fell to glimmering dust with a motion of the storyteller’s hand. Shadowed faces posed in silent screams.
“A city destroyed by her hallowed defenders and her honored dead. He walked among his army of corpses, a king and his loyal demon. The necromancer, his eyes as empty as the dead men he commanded. The cries of children nothing to him, nothing as his army blocked the doors, the windows, as the buildings burned and they with them.”
The bard’s lute rested against the hearth, forgotten as he relayed his story to those gathered around him. The men watched him with wary eyes.
“We could see the flames from here,” one man spoke, voice quiet. “A hundred leagues away and we could see them.”
“Aye,” the bard nodded, “No magic could snuff those flames. They devoured stone and sand alike. The heat alone killed many a strong man. Were it not for Evander’s courage, all would have perished that day.”
His hands moved quickly, the flames within the hearth shifted, changed to show the final moments of a once grand city. The tavern’s occupants watched as the storyteller weaved his magic, as the shadows and light of the room bent to his will. A few soft words and simple illusions brought light to the tired eyes of the gathered dock workers and merchants. The man rose from his stool with a flourish, whispered words rising in pitch as he continued.
“I was in Dragon’s Circle when she burned,” he declared, his long, bright cloak writhing with his pacing form. “In all my years I have never witnessed such horrors as those brought about by Ezekiel on that day.”
“They say no one survived,” a man whispered.
“No!” he motioned towards the fire. The flames flickered violently, twisted to show several shadow-formed men as they defended the city against the writhing mass of Ezekiel’s army. “Evander survived and a handful of others. He fought unlike anything I have ever seen, hundreds of the necromancer’s pawns falling beneath the strength of your lord’s magic!”
The bard motioned towards the captivated men, “The necromancer’s roar when he realized we would escape—and oh how he shrieked!—was like no sound ever uttered among the living.” His hand closed about his instrument, the dissonant chord he played eliciting many a wince among his listeners. He stilled the trembling strings with his hand.
“A small victory,” he whispered, “for us men against Ezekiel and his otherworldly hoards. And those of us left asking why the gods would so choose to punish us. Twenty years or more we have lived within his reign of terror. How many of us have lost a son, a father, a brother, to the claws of his demon or the teeth of his minions?”
He perched upon the stool and his hands caressed the strings of his lute. The bard teased each melodic note into existence to fall heavily upon the ears of his listeners. His fiery illusions faded as his music filled the overcrowded room. The melancholic tune served as a backdrop to his lilting voice as he continued to weave his tale.
“Yet,” he lifted his clear blue eyes to sweep across his listeners, “our pain has ended. Great men, elves and humans alike, have snuffed out our darkest fear. Rest assured our loved ones now dwell in peace, their innocent deaths avenged. Ezekiel is dead.”
His smooth baritone rose in song and his rich voice swallowed the din of the outside world. No more were the men within that room plagued by the crashing of planks upon the docks, or the shouts of men as cargo was unloaded from waiting ships. Instead, the bard’s rich, mournful voice carried them inward as his story burned within the soul of each listener. The bard’s eyes closed as he sang and his fingers danced about the strings of his unadorned instrument. His magic dispelled, he was left with little more than the crackling of the fire to accompany him.
The soft glow of the flames highlighted his brightly clothed form and reflected upon his long, black hair. As his voice rose and his sorrow mounted, he became aware of a familiar set of eyes studying him from the darkness. The tortured state of this man’s soul stroked his own magic-touched senses. His ballad recounting the legend of the necromancer’s destructive reign, so lately brought to an end, was colored by this man’s pain.
His voice trembled as he went on, his mind replaying the tragedy he had witnessed in Dragon’s Circle. The heat on his sweat-slicked flesh still sickened him. He still saw the animated corpses of friends and lovers turned upon him. He felt the resistance of bone against steel as he was forced to strike them down. He still woke to their terrible screams at night. Still, his song went on, pure and bittersweet, as it honored the innocent dead.
In the shadows, that tortured soul sat concealed beneath a dark cloak. His tired footsteps brought him once again into the bard’s soothing presence. The man’s body shook beneath his masked form, shook and trembled at the power within the other’s music. He craved more. He marveled at how something so simple could so perfectly express the storyteller’s will. Night after night, Amatsu Rascien fell into the crowded streets of the human city to indulge in a pleasure never afforded him within the confines of the temple. The sweet and somber notes of the human’s instrument placated the writhing energies trapped within his twisted soul.
The music stopped. The crowd began to disperse. The bard fell into a low bow, holding out his hat to the audience clustered around him. He thanked them graciously, his animated limbs sweeping gracefully as he spoke. Before long, the instrument rested in a strap over his shoulder and he shared a meal with a few of the dock men. The bard brought news and letters from the south and in exchange the men regaled him with stories of the icy north.
His meal finished, the storyteller picked up his drink and drifted across the room.
“What sort of face does a man have to have that he hides behind his cloak,” the bard fell into the chair across from Amatsu, instrument resting in his lap, “and in such a place as this.”
When the other did not respond, he continued.
“A man must have a secret,” the black-haired bard mused. “Or a face so hideously scarred he must hide it from sight. Either way, I am sure such a man would have a story to tell.”
As he spoke, the man leaned across the table straining to see the face beneath the dark cloak.
“A story,” he added, “I would love to hear.”
Boldly, he reached out to pull down the hood covering the stranger’s face. A dark hand darted out to grasp his wrist.
“Don’t,” a low voice warned.
At the same time, the human gasped, “…dark elf.”
The grip on the bard’s wrist tightened. The human winced, “This is the third night you’ve come to watch me play.” A smile ghosted across the bard’s features, “You must grow tired of the same stories, lord elf. Perhaps you might honor me with a new one.”
Slowly, the dark elf’s grip slackened and his hand disappeared beneath the cloak.
“Ezekiel is not the monster you make of him.”
“The necromancer lives, then?” a raised brow.
The bard settled back into his chair.
“I care not. All I see of him is his boot crushing the skull of an infant as though she were little more than a beetle,” the human spat bitterly.
The cloaked man across from him fell uncomfortably silent; a silence the bard was quick to fill.
“My name is Varian Songspinner,” he introduced himself, bowing his head slowly.
A soft laugh escaped the dark elf across the table. The rich sound more precious to the bard’s ear than the sweetest of music. Varian smiled.
“What sort of name is that,” the dark elf asked.
“It suits me,” the human retorted, features brightening. “I am but a simple bard, a spinner of tales. My name, it is a reflection of this. Tell me, what price must a man pay to see your face?”
Varian’s smile remained soft, knowing, “Come upstairs with me.”
Wooden stairs groaned beneath the men’s weight as they ascended the ancient stairway into the rooms above the tavern. The boards had long ago succumbed to dock-side humidity and insect infestations, leaving them cracked and in some places missing altogether. Paint peeled on the walls. Bright orange chips separated from the wood to be crushed beneath Varian’s boots. At the top of the stairs, he whirled gracefully to face the elf.
“Most men come to see me once, and it is enough to last a lifetime,” he pressed into the room behind him as he spoke. “But you, you return each night to listen to the same tales. The same songs.”
The room, like the rest of the tavern, was scarcely furnished. Varian lit several candles to illuminate the small space and scatter the rats that lurked within the shadows. An unbalanced table occupied the center of the room with two mismatched old chairs to accompany it. One, a heavy mahogany beast, boasted a rat-eaten cushion and the other, smaller and carved from oak, was missing a back. The corner of the room held a cot, with a few blankets and the human’s personal possessions piled on top. Out of these Varian retrieved two small glasses and a bottle of wine.
“Do you live here?” the other asked, distaste coloring his heavily accented words.
“No,” he answered. “It’s just a room. One among a great series of rooms I’ve slept in.”
He poured them each a glass of the vintage. The dark elf murmuring a soft word of thanks as the bard handed him a glass. The bard’s glass found its way to rest on the table as he stepped towards the taller man. Varian reached for the hood of Amatsu’s cloak, but hesitated when the dark elf flinched. He let his hands drop to his sides and pulled away.
“Sit,” he motioned for the chairs. “I will play for you.”
The bard drew his legs up into the chair and laid his instrument across his lap. Calloused fingers plucked gently, reverently at the strings. This time, the soft notes that drifted through the air, were soft, upbeat and playful. Varian’s head inclined subtly to the side and a soft smile playing on his lips when the dark elf’s cloak finally fell away from his face.
“You have sad eyes,” Varian spoke softly over the music. No response met his ears, but he continued to play quietly for the other. It was an hour or more before the dark elf stirred and the human’s hands stilled.
Varian stretched languidly, joints in his back popping blissfully as his arms stretched over his head.
“Come again tomorrow night,” the bard murmured. “I promise I’ll make it worth your time.”
The cloak came up to cover the dark elf’s fine features. Amatsu Rascien nodded his ascent before the motion ever registered with his better judgment. He moved towards the doorway, but a hand on his arm stopped him from leaving.
“I don’t even know your name,” Varian whispered, desperate. “Please…”
“I want to forget,” the dark elf spoke slowly, more words than he had spoken all that evening. “You said your name was a reflection of you, then mine must be a reflection of me. But it is a life and a place I would forget. If it is so important, call me what you will and I will answer to it.”
“Hawke,” he smiled, unhesitating, “That’s what you are when you watch me, a hawk.”
The dark elf smiled in kind, “Hawke, then. My name is Hawke.”