Chapter One: "At the Wayfarer's Comfort"

By James Berardinelli

    Since he had been a babe in his crib, Sorial relished sunrises - the firm earth beneath his feet and the brightening of the firmament above. It was a spiritual experience, a new beginning to anticipate each morn no matter how bleak or monotonous all else had become. As light streamed over the horizon driving back the darkness, the birth of the new day offered a special promise. Men might break faith and the gods might be fickle, but the dawn was consistent, even when its approach was shrouded by clouds. No matter what he was doing or where he was, Sorial sought to be outside on those days when the sky was clear enough to display the arrival of the day's sun.

    Unfortunately, today was not one of those days. Clouds blanketed the canopy above from horizon to horizon, promising a cold rain. Sorial rubbed his hands together, trying to generate warmth. It wasn't cold enough to snow, but this was as bad as the weather could get before the season of Harvest was complete. What happened in the fields was a matter of indifference to Sorial, since he worked in a stable, but he knew the farmers would be grumbling today. Not only would the weather make their work harder, but the clouds curtailed the hours of light, which gave them less time in the fields. At this point of the year, with Winter's bite just around the corner, farmers liked sunlit days and moonlit nights. A few hours' rest was all they needed; sleep could wait until the crops had been harvested and the fields lay barren.

    Sorial used a rust-encrusted rake to move around the straw. He had already mucked out the stalls - the least pleasant part of the job - so now it was time to make the stable look like the cleanest and most appealing locale of its type in the whole of Vantok city. Sorial was aware that workers in other stables hid much of the manure under the straw, but that wouldn’t do for his domain. It wasn't that he was inherently fastidious about cleanliness, but he spent his nights here and he didn't like the thought of lying down in a bed of shit. There were enough other unsavory things to cope with. Rats and mice had an affinity for him. He often awoke with a family of them curled up next to him for warmth.

    Although having seen only thirteen Summers, Sorial was hardened beyond his years. He had lived and worked in the stable of The Wayfarer's Comfort for as long as he could remember. Seven years ago, his father had sold him to the innkeeper for ten years' wages. Under the law, Sorial was beholden until he turned fifteen, the age of majority. At that time, opportunity would allow him to choose his own way. He could leave The Wayfarer's Comfort or he could remain, possibly with a promotion, but earning wages rather than being indentured.

    Warburm, the innkeeper, wasn’t a bad man to work for, considering the circumstances. It was his right to drive Sorial to exhaustion and to thrash him for perceived laxity, but that wasn’t Warburm's way. He was fair, which was more than could be said for many masters. He demanded hard work but provided good vittles and allowed Sorial to sleep in the loft. Although the taproom was off limits when it was open, Sorial was allowed inside after hours for a free mug of warm, watered-down ale. On Restday, the last day of the week, Sorial was given the entire afternoon to do as he pleased. He could wander the city streets, venture into the countryside, or visit his parents on their little farm. His mother at least was always glad to see him. He rarely met his father and, when he did, their greetings were chilly. Sorial did not forgive or forget easily, and his father had robbed him of ten years' independence in exchange for a pittance.

    Like most boys whose livelihood depended on hard work, Sorial was a strapping lad. He was lean and well-muscled, although his ill-fitting clothes might lead some to assume he was less well chiseled. His skin was darkened by sun exposure, although not as bronzed as those who worked the fields all day. His features, as might be expected from one of his young years, were not yet fully developed but his brown eyes sparkled with intelligence and curiosity. His nose was flattened and misshapen, the result of having been broken more than once, and there was a scar splitting his left eyebrow, the lasting reminder of a knife fight. Surprisingly for one who had been in as many scraps as Sorial, his teeth were intact. His head was shaven as a guard against lice, but his stubble hinted at black hair. That, combined with his short stature, reflected a Syrene heritage. He had been told his mother was from that distant northern territory. Syrenes were often spoken of with a mixture of awe and mistrust, but Sorial was ignorant as to why. Education was not a prerequisite for working in a place like this.

    Presently, there were five horses and two donkeys berthed in the stable, all of which had been there overnight. There were stalls for three times that number, but Sorial couldn’t remember caring for more than a dozen animals at any one time. He didn't mind if there were that many. He liked horses. It was peaceful to smooth down their coats. They didn't purr like cats but their strong, assured presences brought a sense of comfort. He liked to watch them eat. Their lives seemed so uncomplicated. More than once, he wished he had been born as one. He was no less a beast of burden than they were, yet they were cared for while he did the caring. There were times when thinking was more of a curse than a blessing.

    When he was done with the straw, Sorial began brushing the animals. His life was governed by routine; he rarely had to consider what was next. His hours were regimented, with one chore following another in a litany that allowed Sorial's mind to wander while his muscle memory took his body from task to task. Most peasants lived this way. It was the way of the world, the way the gods had created things.

    It was then that he heard a noise behind him. Before he could turn, a voice hoarse from shouting to be heard over a persistent din asked, "How be things, lad? Anything going on out 'ere I should know about?"

    Sorial, who had tensed upon hearing movement, relaxed and turned to face Warburm. The innkeeper of The Wayfarer's Comfort was an aging portly man with greasy chestnut hair and a red, bulbous nose. His clothing, which had once been white, was stained brown from fat, meat juices, and other less savory substances. His broad apron was relatively clean, but that would be remedied before the lunch crowd was done.

    Sorial was surprised to see his master here. Visits to the stable were rare; it was accepted that Warburm detested the odor of horse dung. When he had a message to convey to his stableboys, he sent one of his small army of serving wenches.

    "Nothing unusual, Master Warburm. The rain makes it damp and the straw smells…" He wrinkled his nose.

    "I ain't talking about the weather, lad!" Warburm's characteristic impatience emerged in his sharp tone. "I done been hearing some unsettling rumors. I won't scare you with them and most be the ramblings of travelers who done drunk too much ale, but if there be any truth to them, we needs to be vigilant."

    "Vigi…?" Although Sorial couldn’t read or write letters, he possessed a strong vocabulary – a fruit borne of listening carefully to the wide variety of Warburm’s clientele. Nevertheless, this was a new word.

    "Watchful. Keep your damn eyes open and if you see anything unusual, go to the kitchen and tell Mistress Ponari. She'll contact me and I'll decide if anything needs doing. Vantok done been a peaceful city – that be why I bought my inn here – but we may be entering dangerous times."

    With that, as quickly as he had come, Warburm returned to his inn. Sorial was left alone with the whickering of the horses and the gentle rat-a-tat-tat of the rain outside.

    The conversation, short as it had been, unsettled Sorial. Priests were always auguring grim messages, but it was in Warburm's nature to laugh off such things. For the innkeeper to preach watchfulness meant more was afoot than the usual dire ramblings of unwashed zealots. Sorial wandered to the stable doors and peered out. Everything looked the same as always: the mud-spattered courtyard, the hustle and bustle of Tower Street beyond, the delivery boys unloading supplies to be stored in the inn's cellar. Sorial had seen these sights countless times before. This morning, everyone was moving a little faster, but that was because of the rain. Yet Warburm's words lit these commonplace instances with an ominous tint. What could he possibly have meant? What rumors? Dangerous times? Not for the first time, Sorial wished he was gifted with knowledge of what lay beyond his tiny fiefdom and that he was master of more than animals and shit.

    Sorial was alone with his thoughts for several hours before someone entered the stalls: a merchant who, having slaked his thirst and sated his appetites for food and other simple comforts, was coming to get his horse. He didn't speak a word to the stableboy, but negligently tossed him a few bronze studs when he was done. Sorial thanked the man as he pocketed them. His deal with Warburm was that he could keep one quarter of all tips received. The rest went to the inn. Sorial often cheated but he always made certain to give enough to Warburm so the man didn't become suspicious. Sorial's treasure spot was well hidden but if Warburm executed a search of the stable he would find it. Sorial didn't want to give him a reason to try.

    By noon, both donkeys and three of the five horses were gone, leaving Sorial with only two animals to care for. It was then that the first newcomer of the day arrived.

    He entered the stable leading a heavily laden pack mule. By his garb, Sorial identified him as a priest; he wore the heavy, dark robes typical of one who served the gods and his head was tonsured. The small finger on his left hand had been removed at the first knuckle – a practice common among some devout branches of religious service. Unusual for a priest, however, was the man's unshaven chin. Even more unusual were the dark bags under his eyes.

    Sorial was an observant lad. He could tell by the priest's bearing that something was wrong and when the man greeted him with a simple, "My son," it re-enforced Sorial's concern. He had never met a priest who didn’t offer the traditional blessing: "May the gods smile upon you and yours."

    As Sorial took charge of the mule, the priest paused and regarded him with a mixture of curiosity and sadness. "Are you a believer, my son?"

    Sorial shrugged. He didn't have much time for the gods and he suspected they didn't have much time for him. His life consisted of the stable, the animals, and the innkeeper. Warburm was the closest thing to a god he had encountered. "Don't rightly know," he said. "My parents never taught me one way or t'other and I ain't given it much thought."

    "You may be wiser than us all. I have devoted my entire life to the gods, and this is how they repay me…" He let the sentence hang.

    It occurred to Sorial to wonder why the man was confiding in him. He was, after all, just a stableboy. People typically ignored him except to toss him a few coins or berate him if they felt their animal had been mistreated.

    "They have abandoned us." The priest's voice was thick with a cross between anger and grief. "How we have displeased them, I cannot say, but they have turned from us. Devout or infidel, it does not matter. There are no miracles. Prayers are not answered. It has been thus for many years… more than a decade, perhaps as many as two… but it can no longer be ignored. Woe be unto us all. Evildoers will prosper and those who have devoted their lives to the path of rightness will dine on ashes. The gods no longer favor their people."

    To Sorial, this wasn't shocking news. As far as he was concerned, the gods had never favored him in the first place. That's why he was slaving away in a stable for no wage more than one quarter of the pitiful tips. It was about time others got a taste of how he was living.

    "I see this has little meaning for you, my son."

    Sorial struggled to phrase his thoughts in a way that wouldn't offend the priest. "It's just that I can't see how things will be different for me without the gods."

    The priest smiled, but it was not a happy expression. "I can understand how one so young and isolated might feel that way. But without the gods, who nurture this world and all its creatures, balance will erode. Even one in your position will eventually feel the sting of life in a gods-less existence."

    Sorial considered. Was this what Warburm had heard - the rumors that prompted him to make a rare visit to the stable? The boy looked to the priest as if seeking confirmation.

    "I have no answers, my son. I am traveling the whole of the land, seeking solace - seeking evidence that there might be some small group among us that still has favor among the gods. At every stop I have made, there is nothing to encourage. What grievous sin have we committed that has caused the gods to look away?" He literally wrung his hands in frustration.

    There wasn't much Sorial could offer in the way of a response. In any theological discussion, he was out of his depth.

    "Is the innkeeper about at this time of the day?"

    "He's in the taproom. The fat man in the dirty clothes. You can't miss him."

    "It is considered a sin for one of my order to enter an establishment of vice such as this one. There was a time when I could never have imagined doing this. But we are beyond the normality of those golden years. In this new age of desperation, those such as I may have to do many things previously forbidden."

    He left the mule with Sorial and went in search of Warburm.

    For his part, the boy was nonplused. Although he didn't care much about the gods, he had always looked upon priests with reverence and respect. To see one so despairing was disconcerting. His previous encounters with priests had been like interacting with icons. This one was all-too-human.

    By mid-afternoon, the chilly rain had lessened, but it had done its damage, turning the hard-packed dirt roads and byways of Vantok into quagmires. From the stable doors, Sorial could see three stuck carriages. It was at this time the priest emerged from the inn, approaching the stable on unsteady legs. As he passed close by, the boy could smell the reek of strong spirits. Sorial raised an eyebrow; requirements of the priesthood included vows of chastity and sobriety.

    After Sorial handed the reins to the priest, the man provided an unusual benediction on his way out: "Take care of yourself, my son. None other will." Then he was gone, trudging through the mud on the way to his next destination, wherever that might be.

    With the approach of dusk, Sorial was relieved by The Wayfarer's Comfort's other regular stableboy. Just past his Maturity, Visnisk was two years older than Sorial, and he was here by choice, not because of indentureship. He lived elsewhere and came to the inn only when it was his turn to work: one hour past dusk until one hour before dawn, six days per week. Sorial and the other boy were on cordial terms but they weren't friends. Visnisk was a hard worker – when he felt like working – but he wasn't much of a conversationalist. Upon his arrival, Sorial took the ladder up to the stall where he made his bed and, exhausted, fell almost immediately to sleep.

    He was awakened during the night by noises from below. He crawled to the edge and, keeping to the shadows, peered over. The scene that greeted his eyes was nothing new - it had been played out numerous times in the past. There was tall, gangly Visnisk, with his tousled red hair and bone-white skin, lying on his back on the damp straw-covered floor. His clothes were carelessly discarded. Some girl - Sorial had seen her a few times before - straddled his naked torso with her backside to the loft. Her long skirts hid their joining, but Sorial knew enough about what went on between men and women to paint an adequate mental picture. Fucking, it was called. Visnisk's face was twisted in an almost comical expression; his green eyes were screwed shut. He began grunting like a pig at a trough then, with an explosive exhalation of breath, he pushed the girl off and reached for his breeches. A coin - Sorial couldn't tell the denomination from his perch - changed hands. The girl adjusted her knickers under her skirts and vanished into the darkness outside. Sorial never saw her face.

    As Visnisk went back to caring for the animals, Sorial rolled onto his back. This was a regular activity for the older boy; Sorial was sure Visnisk spent at least half his wages on this one particular woman. The watching made Sorial curious, and there was a tightness in his breeches. Often, Visnisk didn't seem to be enjoying himself and the woman was always bored, but he kept paying money for the activity. When Sorial asked about this seeming contradiction, he was told he'd understand in a year or two. It was that kind of patronizing attitude that kept the two stableboys from becoming friends.

    "Get yourself one," called Visnisk as he filled a bucket with oats. "Or use Excela – she'll do anyone for the coin. That way you won't always be watching me. If you don't like the look of her, I can find you another cheap one. Really, though, it don't matter what they look like as long as they know what they're doing." That was all the advice he had to offer. When Sorial didn't reply, he continued his work as if he hadn't spoken.

    Sorial soon dozed off, as he often did after watching Visnisk's nighttime assignations. This time, however, his dreams placed him on the straw of the stable floor with the woman straddling him, doing something with her hips that caused an unexpected reaction to build in his loins.

    Many hours later, with even the first rays of the new day's sun not yet touching the eastern horizon, Sorial was startled awake when a clod of partially hardened dung struck him on the right cheek.

    "Hey boy, wake up! It's your turn!" yelled Visnisk on his way out. By the time Sorial gained his bearings, the other stableboy was beyond the range of a return missile. Sorial used a wad of straw to wipe clean his cheek then climbed down to piss in a corner and begin the day's work. The stable was almost empty this morning - a rarity. With only a single horse and a donkey to care for, Sorial could move slowly and conserve energy. He checked outside several times to make sure the sky was clear. He didn't want to miss the sunrise.

    While he was awaiting the highlight of his day, a couple members of the Watch wandered by. Sorial knew them both: Brindig and Darrin. They had been partners for as long as he could remember, but it was hard to think of two more dissimilar men.

    Brindig was thin and humorless. His gaunt face made him look at least a decade older than his actual age. His salt-and-pepper hair, only a few strands of which escaped from beneath his watchman's steel helmet, was cropped short. He never wore a full beard but rarely was he clean shaven. His nose was thin and curved, calling to mind a bird's beak. His mouth seemed frozen in a perpetual frown. Sorial couldn't remember having seen Brindig smile, much less having heard him laugh.

    Darrin, on the other hand, laughed easily and loudly. He was a big man in every sense with appetites to match. Unlike Brindig, he wore no helm (which was against regulations, but no one cared). His unruly mane of sawdust-colored hair stuck out in every direction. His face was as plump as the rest of him, but not unpleasant to gaze upon. He had a neatly-trimmed goatee with no mustache. His eyes matched Brindig's blue, but seemed more lively. Darrin was probably only a few years his partner's junior, but his appearance was that of someone young enough to be the other's son. He may have been the most liked man in the whole of Vantok's Watch.

    "Good morn, Sorial," said Darrin in his pleasant baritone. Brindig nodded somberly, looking like he wanted to be somewhere - anywhere - else.

    "Morn, sirs," replied Sorial, who called most adults "sir" whether they deserved the honorific or not. It was easier than remembering names, anyway.

    "Should be a nicer day than yesterday," said Darrin, who was a lover of small talk. Actually, he was a lover of any talk. Few things engaged the jovial guardsman more than hearing the words tumble from his own lips.

    "At least there'll be a sunrise." Sorial's words caused them all to glance eastward where the horizon was fast brightening.

    "Any problems lately?" asked Darrin. It was an innocuous question but in the wake of Warburm's words yesterday and the visit of the priest, it took on an added meaning that may not have been intended.

    Sorial decided to probe. "Is something going on?"

    Darrin appeared surprised by the question. "Not that I'm aware of."

    Brindig spoke for the first time. "Is there something you want to tell us?"

    Sorial considered. Aside from Rexall, a stableboy at The Delicious Dancer, these two were the closest things to friends he had, and he felt he needed to tell someone about what the priest had said. He recapped the visit as concisely as he could.

    When he was done, Darrin appeared discomfited. Brindig's expression hadn't altered.

    "I wouldn't go spreading that kind of rumor," said Darrin at last. "I'll admit I've heard similar things, but you never know about the source. Being a priest is a hard life and, if he was drinking, he's lost his faith. It's more likely that people are spreading falsehoods than that the gods have turned away from us. The more men repeat things like this, the more easily they're believed." Rarely had Sorial seen Darrin so serious.

    "Keep your eyes and ears open, Sorial, and be careful," said Brindig. Then, echoing Warburm, he added, "We may be entering dangerous times."

    With that, the three of them turned to watch the sun rise.

    As the day wore on and Sorial cared for the animals in the stable, he found himself more disconcerted than yesterday. Normally, conversations with Darrin and Brindig (to the extent that Brindig participated) raised his spirits. Brindig's warning had chilled him in a way that neither Warburm's pronouncement nor the priest's words had done. Suddenly, he was uneasy. The world, which always seemed so commonplace and familiar, had taken on ominous shadings. During the course of the morning, Sorial frequently stole outside to peer around the corners of the stable to see if someone - or something - was lurking there. The dimly remembered scary stories told by his mother when he was a toddler loitered in the recesses of his mind.

    What would it mean for him if the gods had abandoned men?

    It was early afternoon when a smartly dressed man entered the stable and headed for one of the stalls. At first, Sorial thought nothing of it then he looked more carefully at the man's clothing. The cloak and shirt were cut from a more expensive cloth than that normally worn by patrons of The Wayfarer's Comfort. His breeches, however, were old, dirty, and fraying near the ankles. His boots were mud-caked, scuffed, and ill-fitting. Someone wearing such finery would have pants and boots to match.

    "Excuse me, sir," said Sorial, "Can I help you with something?"

    The man turned to face the stableboy, smiling falsely. His long wheaten hair was drawn back in a ponytail. An untrimmed mustache and bushy beard hid his lower face. His gray eyes were cold; the smile didn't touch them. They radiated indifference and perhaps cruelty.

    "Just getting my horse."

    Sorial knew that to be a lie. The animal he was approaching had become skittish and the boy knew it to be the property of Wickharm, a merchant who visited the inn once or twice per season.

    "Sir, I think you may be mistaken. I know whose horse that is."

    "Yes, yes. I was sent by him to fetch it. He's in a hurry."

    Another lie.

    "Perhaps if you asked him to come out and confirm…"

    "I told you, he's in a hurry." The man's voice showed traces of irritation and impatience. He was trying to place the saddle on the horse's back, but the animal was being uncooperative. Sorial had never seen anything like this before. It was his duty to saddle the animals for their owners. No one ever readied their own beasts.

    "Could you tell me whose horse this is?" asked Sorial. He suspected the man to be a thief. If he could not name Wickharm, it would be proven.

    The man threw down the saddle in disgust and exited the stall. He turned to Sorial and, when the boy saw his eyes, he knew he was in trouble.

    The man lunged at Sorial and, as he charged, the boy saw the glint of something metallic in his hand. Although Sorial was no stranger to fighting, this wasn't just some street brawler intent on delivering a beating. Sorial was knocked to the ground as a sharp pain split his right cheek, just a short distance from his eye. He felt warm liquid spilling across his face and knew he had been cut.

    The man stood above him, gazing down with contempt. He cleaned his dagger on his breeches before re-sheathing it at his belt. Then, from under the cloak he withdrew a pistol. It was a simple gun, the kind Sorial had seen a few times before. He felt a rush of fear, knowing what one of those could do. Slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, the man went through the process of priming it for shooting. He poured black powder into the muzzle then dropped in a small ball. "Stupid boy," he muttered under his breath.

    Sorial, who was dizzy and slipping toward unconsciousness, was unsure what happened next. There was the report of a gunshot but it didn't come from the man's weapon. The thief was in the process of using a small rod to pack in the projectile and the powder; his pistol wasn't yet ready to fire. The intruder staggered and fell, landing half across Sorial, nearly crushing him with his unsupported weight. The smell of spent gunpowder was strong in the stable. The last thing Sorial remembered before losing consciousness was hearing Warburm's voice commanding someone, "Get the Watch and summon a healer!"