Title: Dark Dreams, Dark Days (Tentative)
Feedback Expected: Anything is welcome, I might submit the full chapter as a contest submission.
There was a knock at the door. Zidra stirred and looked out the window. The moon itself was nearing the height of a lonesome trek across a sky brimming with stars. Who the hell could that be?
The captain whirled around, his socks scarcely making a sound on the thick boards beneath them. His eyes searched in vain for a bolt-hole his size, eventually affixing themselves on the narrow gap between the bed and nightstand. A nibbling thought in a dark corner of his mind asked after his sword.
The knob turned quickly, the jarring motion ringing like an alarm bell in Zidra’s crowded, pounding head. Too late, duck. The nobleman dove for the floor and scrambled into the crevice until he was safely obscured from at least an untrained eye. How untrained though?
No light came from the dark hallway as the stranger stepped into the room, and indeed he was a stranger to Zidra. His shoulders were narrow, and his legs seemed unnaturally long in proportion to dramatically shorter arms. The light of the moon passed over the man’s long face, and a small crescent-shaped scar – or was it a tattoo? – sprung forth from his otherwise nondescript features.
“I know you’re down there, Captain.” A surprisingly deep voice boomed from the doorway. Zidra resisted the urge to shrink back even further, though he knew he’d been spotted. His mind darted this way and that, to any object he could use to defend himself. Oddly enough, the stranger wore no weapon, at least that he could see from this angle. The captain gritted his teeth and steeled his will. If I die, I die a man. He stood.
The man’s head swivelled, a cruel smile darting across a face thinner than Zidra’s bravado. The motion bore an unnerving resemblance to a ferret rounding on an egg, as it slinked towards the kill. Hairs stood on end all along the nobleman’s back as the man’s shoulders turned to catch up with his head. Zidra’s eyes darted to the man’s waist, and he saw that the man wore thick woolen breeches, hands shoved wrist-deep in the pockets.
“Don’t worry, I’m unarmed.” The man said, taking one of his hands out of its nest and waving playfully, his thin fingers dancing in the moonlight. “Trust me, I wouldn’t have knocked if I meant to knife you.”
Zidra swallowed, glad the noise was muffled in his throat, though he supposed that the man made a good point, unsettling as he appeared.
“Please, take a seat.” He said stiffly, motioning towards the chair at the wall’s base. The ferret man batted away the invitation good-naturedly, replacing his hand, though he did take a step forward. Zidra slowly backed away until he felt the back of his thighs touch the bedside. He was distantly aware of the sweat rolling down his legs and back as he sat down on the thick quilts.
“I won’t take much of your time, Master Haiduk.” The man began, stepping to the window in two massive strides. Like a whip-crack, he pulled a pipe from his jacket and began stuffing the chamber. Another hand dug within an unseen pocket as the man spoke again.
“My name is of little consequence, though I lend it to you freely as an act of trust, you see.” He said, each word tumbling over the preceding, as if this were his first performance on a grand stage set for a midnight homicide. “I am Kabus Falreak, and my business is simple. I’ve received word that you aim to create a mercenary corps as a form of occupation. Is this true?”
Zidra’s mind hummed and raced with thoughts as he searched the man’s answer. How does he know my name? Why did he give me his? Who told him?
“Yes.” The nobleman murmured, looking up at Kabus. To his horror, he met the man’s hawkish gaze as a baleful scowl crept over his mouth. Kabus shoved the pipe into his mouth and turned to face Zidra fully, affixing him with a glare that could both melt ice and freeze magma. The man twirled a matchstick in the air near his head and struck it across his the bald half of his skull. Kabus brought the flame to his tobac and lit the dried leaves slowly, never once taking his eyes from the captain before him. Malice gleamed in those eyes, a fire all their own burning in the night.
“Don’t soft-talk, Captain,” The man said, waving the match out and turning back to face the winter window. “If there are two things I can’t stand in this world, it’s a dog who doesn’t know his place and a soft-talker. Odd, don’t you think? One too eager, one too meager.”
Kabus’ cackle caught Zidra off guard and curdled his frozen blood. Smoke swirled around his half-shaven head as he howled in a humour that had to be faked. The longer Zidra stared, though, the more he became convinced the man was simply mad.
“Oh my, that was good, but enough of fun for the present time.” Kabus said, wiping a gleeful tear from his pale blue eye. “We’ve business, old man- thirty, right?- so listen carefully.”
Zidra realized that he was meant to reply, so he nodded his head vigorously and said yes at a significantly louder volume.
“You will travel to Vernichen, and once there you will proceed to the consulting firm of Halradi and Sons.”
“Yes.” Zidra confirmed, leaning forward on the bed.
“Ask after a man named Trench and follow where the boy leads. Once there, you will deliver this note to the man named Trench and demand a company.”
Kabus procured a thin envelope, sealed with black wax, though the seal eluded his eyes as Zidra accepted it.
“Need I give him your name?” He asked, placing the message on the bed beside him.
“No, absolutely not.” Kabus replied, spinning away as if in a mystical dance. “Names are not used in our business. I offered mine to you to lend credence to our now mutual cause, you see. Now, you will travel alone, save for the company of your indentured soldier, – Gendra, was his name? – the others are of no consequence to you.”
Kabus blew a large puff of smoke into the cramped room and smiled at the girth of his fat cloud.
“I… I will do my best, sir.” Zidra said, looking upon the man and wondering in his mind what in the world he was getting himself into.
“Now, now, no “sirs” and “comrades” in this room, Master Haiduk, no, no. We are great friends now, don’t you see, our partnership consummated by the blood of our brothers, fallen and fresh alike. Well, I must depart, I’m afraid, though I assure you it has been the greatest of pleasures meeting you. I’m sure we’ll see each other ‘ere the dark winds bring forth the storm.”
Zidra could only nod absently as Kabus drew his cloak tight around him, took one last pull on his pipe, and strode out of the room, the clunking of his oversized boots and unnatural gait haunting the poor noble long after he left. When at last the sound dispersed, and the moon hung low in the light of early morning, Zidra stood and walked to the basin.
He rubbed his red-rimmed eyes and looked in the mirror before him, and the deep blue eyes of Kabus smiled back. His screams woke Gendra.