Ager, still not forty, crippled by war and itinerant by nature, was sitting down for a quiet drink in the visitors' room of the Lost Sailor Tavern. He fidgeted in his seat, trying to ease the pain in his crookback but without avail; the axe blow that had cut tendons and bone all those years ago had been too deep to ever fully repair. He took a sip of his drink, a strange, sweet and warm brew that tickled all the way down his gullet, and took in his surroundings.
The room was busy, but not crowded. Aproned staff wandered between tables, taking orders and delivering drinks. The guests were a mixed lot of merchants, sailors, off-duty soldiers, local dock workers and a handful of whores. A couple of the women had thrown him glances when he had first entered the room, but on seeing his misshapen back and his one eye had quickly turned away. He did not care. He had not slept with a woman for fifteen years, and sex was more a memory than a desire these days.
Suddenly the seat opposite his was taken. He looked up and saw a youth dressed in farming gear of woollen pants and shirt and a dirt-stained coat; his face was arse-smooth, his eyes brown, his gaze intent. The youth nodded a welcome and Ager returned the favour, noting there were plenty of vacant tables around.
'You were a soldier,' the youth said bluntly. 'I can tell. I have seen wounds like those before.'
'There's nothing special about losing an eye,' Ager replied calmly, 'and many are born with a crookback.'
'The injuries are rarely seen together. An arrow in the eye perhaps? And a halberd or spear in the back?'
'Right about the eye, wrong about the back.'
'Judging from your age, sir, I would guess these happened during the Slaver War.'
Ager found himself increasingly curious about this strange young man. 'And what would you know about the Slaver War?'
'I'm interested in everything about it,' the youth replied with surprising earnestness.
'In what battle did you receive your wounds? Or were they inflicted in different battles?'
'The battle at Deep River,' Ager told him.
The young man's reaction surprised him. His eyes seem to light up like lanterns, and he said in a subdued voice: 'I have searched for you for many years.'
The youth shook his head. 'No, no. I mean someone who was at Deep River.'
Ager leaned forward across the wooden table, moving aside his cup, and said: 'What did you say your name was?'
'I didn't,' the youth replied levelly. 'It's Pirem.'
Ager nodded, trying to recall whether he knew the name. A distant memory sparked. 'I knew a Pirem once,' he said quietly. 'A long time ago.'
'There are many Pirems in Theare,' the youth said reasonably.
'This one was a soldier. He was in my company during the Slaver War.'
'He fought with you in the Battle of Deep River?'
Ager shook his head then looked away. His single eye, as grey as a winter sky, looked as if it was searching for a memory in the drifting blue smoke wafting through the visitors' room from the kitchen.
'No, he died before then. Caught a sniffle that travelled to his lungs. He died in a delirium, thinking he was back with his wife and children.'
He returned his gaze to the youth. 'Most of our losses during the war were to disease and not battle. Did you know that?'
Pirem blinked. 'I remember reading something about it.'
'You read?' Ager asked loudly, clearly impressed. The skill of reading was rare enough to hint there was more to this boy than suggested by his farmer's clothes. He tried to study the youth's hands, but there was not enough light to catch that much detail.
'No more difficult a skill than ploughing,' Pirem said, keeping his voice low. The veteran's exclamation had drawn attention to their table. 'And talking of names, I don't know yours yet.'
'Ah now, names are not things you should pass on so easily.' He smiled. 'Pirem.'
'I trust you.'
The statement was made with such direct simplicity Ager was flattered. 'Ager, and don't worry about my last name. Why are you so interested in the Slaver War?'
'My father fought in the war.'
'Many fathers fought in the war.' Ager's eye blinked. 'And sons and brothers.' He rested back in his chair and a brief spasm of pain flickered across his face. Pirem looked concerned, but Ager waved a hand in dismissal.
'My father died while I was still in shit rags,' Pirem added.
'He fought at Deep River?'
'Yes. He fought in almost every battle of the war.'
Ager heard something like anger in Pirem's voice. 'He didn't survive?' Pirem shook his head. 'What was his name?' Pirem hesitated. 'If you trust me with your name, you can trust me with that of your dead father's. Maybe I knew him.'
Pirem opened his mouth to speak but closed it quickly. Ager waited, emptying his cup and catching the attention of one of the tavern's bustling staff to indicate he wanted a refill.
'His name was Pirem, too.'
'God, the world is truly filled with your namesakes, isn't it?'
Before Pirem could reply, a thin boy wearing a white apron streaked with dirty hand-prints was by their table and filling Ager's cup with a warm, clove-smelling brew, different to his first drink. He tried an experimental sip and decided he liked it even more. 'An' who's payin' for it?' the boy demanded, holding out his hand. Pirem handed over a coin before Ager could dig out any coppers from his purse.
'Bugger me!' the boy cried. 'That's a whole penny! I can't change that, sir. I've only got three eighths on me ...'
'Keep his cup filled during the night,' Pirem ordered, clearly concerned at the attention the table was getting once again.
The boy disappeared with a smile as wide as the city walls; there was no way the cripple would ever drink through a whole penny in one night, and he would pocket the remainder.
'You don't have to ply me with drink to talk,' Ager said gruffly. 'I'm no pisspot babbler. If you really want to know about the war I'll talk until winter.' His face darkened. 'No one wants to remember it any more.'
'I want to know about Deep River,' Pirem said. 'None of the books I've read can tell me much about it, and there weren't that many ... many ...'
'Survivors?' Ager laughed harshly. 'No, there weren't many of us. But there were none left of the other side. None at all.'
'Was it an ambush? The histories say different things, as if no one can make up their minds about it.'
'That's because no one will ever know, now that Elynd Chisal is dead.' Ager's voice caught, and he gulped quickly from his cup. 'Only General Chisal knew what was really happening during that bloody war. He was the best soldier Kendra ever produced.'
Pirem leaned forward eagerly. 'Please. Tell me everything you can.'
Ager settled back and closed his good eye; the empty socket, a shallow bowl of skin furrowed with scars, stared vacantly at Pirem.
'The General had learned of a Slaver camp on the other side of Deep River. He decided to go after it before they got news of us. He was always like that, taking the battle to them. It was hot, dry as a priest's mouth. My section was in the vanguard. We scrambled down the ravine and waited for the rest of the division to catch up. General Chisal himself was with the second regiment, his own Red Shields, followed by a squadron of dismounted Hume cavalry, pissed off at having to leave their mounts behind; but they were horse archers and it never hurts to have a few bows around to sweep the enemy's ranks before you hit with sword and spear. Last in the line was a militia regiment, all huff and bluff, but green as baby shit. When we were all down we started up the other side. We hadn't gone more than a hundred steps when it started.'
'The Slavers attacked?'
Ager nodded. 'Oh yes. First arrows and then boulders. Their shooting wasn't that accurate, and the boulders were easy enough to dodge, but with so many of us stuck on the slope some had to be unlucky.'
'So the General was caught by surprise? It was an ambush?'
Ager shook his head. 'No, I don't think so. He knew the enemy scouts would have to be asleep to miss us scrambling down the ravine and would have plenty of time to organise some kind of defence. I think he counted on them not being able to shift their whole force to the river in time to stop us getting up the other side.' He smiled grimly. 'And he was right.'
'What happened then?' Pirem urged.
'The General ordered the archers to keep down the Slavers while the rest of us scrambled up the ravine as quickly as we could. We had almost reached level ground, but then two companies of Slaver mercenaries charged down slope. That shook us, I can tell you. We were exhausted, and the archers had to stop shooting because we were hand-to-hand. It was hard fighting them back up the slope, but we outnumbered them.' Ager grinned then. 'And my company beat the Red Shields to the top.'
'But that wasn't the end of it, was it?'
Ager's grin melted away. He shook his head. 'No. That's when the real battle started.' He drank another mouthful and opened his mouth to resume when a shadow fell across the table. He glanced up to see who it was and all thought froze in his brain.
Pirem turned then as well and let out a low groan. 'Oh God, not again,' he muttered.
A giant of a man glared down at the pair. His flat blond hair, starting to grey, was cut close to his scalp, a short bushy salt-and-pepper beard covered most of his face, and his eyes were narrowed to slits. He wore a long cloak, but there was no disguising the shape of the long sword that hung from his waist.
'Fuck me,' Ager said, but softly and without anger.
The stranger placed his large hands on Pirem's shoulders. 'You'd better come back with me.'
'But Kumul, I've finally found someone who fought at Deep River!'
The one called Kumul briefly lifted his gaze to Ager. 'You're being fed chicken shit by someone desperate for company and a night's drinking. Only a handful survived that battle, and you'll find none of them in this place.'
Pirem turned back to Ager, his eyes pleading for him to refute the words, but the look was lost on the crookback. He was staring in amazement at the giant man. 'It is you, isn't it?'
Kumul frowned. 'Now that's an asinine question.'
'Captain Alarn,' Ager said. 'Captain Kumul Alarn, of the Red Shields.'
Kumul flinched, and Pirem took one of his huge hands. 'You see? This man knows you. He must have fought during the war!'
'Many men know me,' Kumul said levelly, 'and how do you know which side he fought on?' He stared accusingly at Ager, but the crookback could say nothing for the moment - his skin had gone the colour of limestone. Kumul grabbed the youth's coat in both hands and lifted him to his feet. 'Let's not waste any more time here,' he said.
Ager stirred suddenly. 'No! Wait!' But Kumul ignored him, half dragging and half carrying Pirem along with him. Bundling the youth past one of the servants, he exchanged a nod with her. Pirem caught the signal.
'One of your informers, Kumul?' Pirem demanded. 'Or one of your whores?'
Kumul grunted, gave another tug that almost had the youth in the air. They had reached the exit when Ager, struggling hard, caught up with them.
'Captain Alarn! Wait!'
Again Kumul ignored him. He used a shoulder to barge open the heavy wooden door and pulled Pirem after him. Ager was not put off and followed them onto the crowded street. He bumped into a passer-by, mumbled an apology, lurched forward and managed to catch the tail of Kumul's cloak.
'Oh for God's sake!' Kumul cried, and spun around, one hand still on Pirem and the other sweeping aside that part of his cloak free of Ager's grasp, showing the design on his jerkin and exposing his sword. 'Do you recognise the livery, man? I am no longer Captain Alarn of the Red Shields. They are gone and forgotten! I am Kumul Alarn, Constable of the Royal Guard. Now leave us alone or I'll arrest you!'
'And I am no longer Captain Ager Parmer of the Kendra Spears,' Ager shouted back defiantly. 'I am now Ager Crookback or Ager One-Eye, or just plain Ager the Cripple. Look at me, Kumul! Look at my face!'
Kumul stopped short, pulling Pirem back with him, and put his face close to Ager's. 'Ager Parmer?'
Ager let go of Kumul's cloak, the effect of rushing finally catching up with him. He slouched, his left shoulder lifting to be level with his neck. He nodded wearily.
'I thought you were dead,' Kumul said quietly.
'No, not dead, but as good as. It took two years for the wound in my back to stop weeping.'
'But that was fifteen years ago. Why didn't you look for me?'
'The war was over, my friend. I wanted peace and quiet.' Ager swallowed. 'But I could never find it. No one at home wanted me around. I've been wandering ever since, picking up work where I could find it.'
'What kind of work?' Pirem asked, then blushed. 'I didn't mean ...'
'I'm not offended,' Ager said quickly. 'I have some learning. I can read and write, and know my numbers. Officers in Kendra's army must know these things. I work as a clerk, usually for merchants, who care little one way or the other about my deformities. I earn some spending money and my passage from port to port. As with you, Pirem, there is more to me than shows.'
Kumul looked at the youth, raising his eyebrows. 'Pirem?' The youth shrugged.
'Your name isn't Pirem?'
'No,' Kumul answered before the youth could open his mouth. 'Pirem is the name of his servant.'
'Servant? Then what is your name?'
Kumul laughed. 'Since I could not recognise you, I should not be surprised that you cannot recognise this one.'
Ager peered closer at the youth's face. After a moment he pulled back as if something had stung him on the nose. 'He couldn't be,' he said to Kumul.
'He is,' Kumul replied smugly.
Before the conversation could continue there was a scuffle among the crowd of passers-by and someone cried out. All three turned to see what the commotion was about. A tall, thin woman was bent over picking up fruit that had spilled from her basket and was at the same time cursing the clumsy dolt who had tripped over her long legs. The offender, still scrabbling to his feet, his face red with anger, ignored her. As he stood there was a glint of steel in his hand. He looked up to see he was being observed by the giant man and his two companions, one a cripple, the other ...
He cursed and charged towards them, now holding his long knife out in front of him.
Kumul pushed the youth behind him with his left hand and with his right drew out his sword. He smiled tightly, silently thankful their assailant's clumsiness had given him away. What he did not see was a second man behind him, stepping quickly and silently towards the youth, a knife raised above his head for a single killing blow. The crowd seeing this fell into frightened silence.
Something in the sudden stillness made Ager turn. Seeing the new threat he moved without thinking to sandwich the youth between himself and Kumul. The second attacker shook his head - the cripple would slow him down but never stop him. He waited until he was three steps from the crookback before playing the trick that in so many vicious street fights had given him victory. He threw the knife from his right hand to his left and lunged. He was so sure of his advantage that the sudden rasp of metal against scabbard barely registered in his mind, nor the flash of a bright short sword swinging up to impale itself in his body.
Out of the corner of his eye Kumul had seen Ager shift position and knew what it must mean, but he only had time to hope that Ager's injuries had not ruined his skill with a sword before his own attacker was upon him, slashing wildly with his weapon. Kumul easily deflected it downwards with his blade, then flickered the tip up and into his attacker's throat, the man's own impetus driving the point a finger's length through muscle and artery and into his spine.
The assailant spasmed once, then dropped, dead, to the ground. Kumul tugged his sword free and spun around, using his left arm to keep his charge behind him. Relief flooded through him when he saw the second assailant on the ground, Ager on top of him, blade sunk deep into his heart and lungs.
'Well done, old friend,' Kumul said, then noticed how still the crookback was. He moved forward and placed a hand on Ager's twisted shoulder. 'Are you alright?'
Ager coughed, turned his head so he could see Kumul with his good eye. 'The bastard shifted the knife to his left hand,' he said weakly. 'Too late for me to change my grip.' His head slumped and his eye closed as he lost consciousness.
Kumul bent down and saw that a knife had been driven into Ager's right side to a third of its length. Blood was flowing freely. The youth knelt down next to Kumul.
'That is a serious wound,' he said. 'We must get him to the palace.'
Kumul nodded. 'I'll carry him. You take his sword.' Leaving the blade in for fear of doing more damage, Kumul gently lifted Ager as if he weighed no more than a child.
The youth jerked the short sword out of the dead man. 'I'll run ahead to wake Doctor Trion.'
'God!' shouted Kumul. 'Behind you, boy!'
The young man spun on his heel and saw a third attacker almost upon him. Obviously undeterred by the fate of his two companions, he had seen his chance to strike when the giant had taken up his burden.
'My friend,' the youth said quietly, 'that was a mistake.'
The assassin saw his target move forward to meet him. Surprised, he had no time to slow his charge. Instinctively he raised the knife's point to deflect as best as possible any swing towards his neck or head. It was the last mistake he would ever make. He saw the youth take a step sideways and crouch. Before he could react a sword sliced upwards into his belly and then ripped out as he stumbled forward. He gasped in pain, felt the earth rise to smash against his head, and lost consciousness before the blade fell against his neck, almost severing his head.
The youth stood, washed in blood, his eyes alight for a moment and then suddenly as dull as coal. His sword hand dropped limply to his side. The crowd started talking excitedly as if the fight had been put on for their benefit.
'Quickly, Lynan! We have to go. There may be others!'
Roused by the use of his real name, Lynan looked up at Kumul. 'It's ... it's not what I thought it would be like.'
'Later! We have to go. Now!'
The two hurried off, walking as swiftly as they could. Ager, still unconscious, moaned in pain.
'I fear we will be too late,' Kumul said grimly.
'He will live,' Lynan replied fiercely.
'If God is calling him, no one can hold back his ghost.'
'He will live,' Lynan insisted. He looked up at Kumul, tears welling in the his eyes. 'He knew my father.'