Free Fiction: “The Wounded” by James A. Moore (A SEVEN FORGES Story)
Today, we’re pleased to bring you a Seven Forges short story by James A. Moore. To give you some idea of the world, here’s the description of the book Seven Forges:
The people of Fellein have lived with legends for many centuries. To their far north, the Blasted Lands, a legacy of an ancient time of cataclysm, are vast, desolate and impassable, but that doesn’t stop the occasional expedition into their fringes in search of any trace of the ancients who once lived there… and oft-rumoured riches.
Captain Merros Dulver is the first in many lifetimes to find a path beyond the great mountains known as the Seven Forges and encounter, at last, the half-forgotten race who live there. And it would appear that they were expecting him.
As he returns home, bringing an entourage of the strangers with him, he starts to wonder whether his discovery has been such a good thing. For the gods of this lost race are the gods of war, and their memories of that far-off cataclysm have not faded.
Read on for a story set in that world…
by James A. Moore
In his dreams he was just a little stronger and his hand was sure.
Kallir Lundt was not a coward. He did not run when the Pra-Moresh charged toward him. He took a deep breath, aimed carefully and let loose the bolt of his crossbow. The missile cut across the wind and slammed into the thick meat of the brute’s neck until only the feathers of the fletching showed through the coarse dark fur, but did not even slow the charging nightmare down. He had been aiming for the monster’s murderous eye.
Kallir remained steady. He slammed the holding spike at the end of his spear into the hard packed, frozen ground and he braced his entire body as he held the heavy wooden weapon in place.
The Pra-Moresh did not care in the very least if he was brave or not. It was hungry and it wanted a meal. How long had it been since the creature had last eaten? Kallir did not know. All he knew, all that mattered, was the vast shape charging through the perpetual twilight and ice, the thing that screamed-giggled-wept as it bared impossible teeth.
Somewhere nearby Captain Merros Dulver was demanding that everyone stay the course. Kallir barely noticed. The monster was upon him.
The point of his spear rammed into the front of Death’s snow-crusted pelt and drove deep into the chest of the towering, furred predator. Kallir could feel the impact through his weapon and knew that he’d struck true. The brute was surely as good as dead.
Sometimes dying takes too long.
He felt the spear’s haft bending as the Pra-Moresh pushed closer. He heard the sound of the preadator’s voice raised in an agonized wail-howl of sorrow and rage. He was winning this. He would survive what had almost surely been his last moments alive despite his fears.
And then the great paw of the demon swept across his face, his world, and tore everything away.
“Well, he’s likely dying.” Kallir knew the voice but could not place it. “Look at the poor bastard. No one can survive that sort of wounding.”
“Is he awake? He’s moaning.” That voice he knew. That was Wollis March, the man who took him in when he was as low as a human being could go. The man he owed for giving him another chance.
Kallir tried to respond, but he could not make his mouth move. He tried to open his eyes but no matter how hard he willed it, nothing happened.
He was starting to grow worried about that when the pain came forward and made itself known. His face ached, his skull throbbed and then, when he thought that surely the pain could not get any worse, he learned that some agonies are capable of drowning a man in silence.
Distantly he heard Wollis’s voice again, “Is there anything you can do for him, milady?” He sounded so formal. There were few women in the Blasted Lands. He must have been speaking to one of the Sisters, the women who served the wizard Desh Krohan.
Her voice was cool and soothing and as beautiful as any Kallir had ever heard. “Yes. I can allow him sleep.”
He wanted to tell her that he wanted to be awake. The pain was staggering, but better than the darkness. He had always hated the dark, especially when he was alone.
Night came for him just the same and dragged him away again. Back to the silence and the dreams.
For three days they rode across the great valley of the Seven Forges and during that time Kallir Lundt slept. The Sisters made sure of it. Three women of undeniable beauty, each unique and each lovely, they were almost as legendary as the sorcerer they served, and his name could make the bravest men check the shadows to be certain they didn’t hide demons.
Wollis March checked on the man often, and was there each time that his wounds were cleaned by the women. They were careful to remove the dressings and wash the ruined flesh underneath. They used the poultices available to them and employed magics to aid in making him rest and heal, but the simple fact was that he was a ruined man. The Pra-Moresh had destroyed his face. Bones were shattered, flesh flayed away in great ribbons of shredded meat. His eyes were burst. His nose, well, it just wasn’t there any more.
Wollis did his best to hide the horror he felt, though surely the man could not see his expression or hear the words he spoke. Still he spoke to Kallir through the changing of his bandages and promised that they would do all they could for him.
It was all he could manage for Lundt, who had always been a decent man and a good soldier. It was the very least he could offer for a friend.
When he was younger Kallir Lundt had been a romantic. He had believed with all of his heart that he would grow to be a brave soldier and would gain the attention of kings, queens and possibly the Emperor himself. He would be a legendary hero, because that hope was so much better than the world he grew up in.
Trecharch was a glorious place, yes. The trees rose toward the sun and stars and they sheltered the family from the worst storms and the harshest winds. That did not mean he wanted to be there. He wanted more. He believed, he hoped, that he was meant for greater things.
When he was eight his father gave him a wooden sword. Not a toy, no, but a sword carved of hard wood, with excellent balance and a proper guard. His father understood, even if his mother did not exactly approve. When he had learned his morning exercises well enough and could hold the sword for ten minutes without his hands cramping, his father started training him. Bu the time he was twelve he could hold his own against the man. By fourteen years he could match any man in the area in combat. When he was fifteen his father gave him a true sword. It was an elegant blade, well crafted and balanced. His father had worn the blade when he served the Imperial Army. A year later, Kallir rode with his father to Freeholdt and there he was taken in by the Army and given his first assignments.
Military life suited him. Kallir was already a skilled fighter and his time in the army made him a proper warrior. He was trained with crossbow and with axe. He was taught how to use a spear and how to ride a horse. He was given armor and then he was sent with others to fight along the borderlands. He defended the Empire from their enemies and prepared to repel all invaders.
And then he realized the lie in his beliefs. He served for five years and never once ran across an enemy that was worth fighting. A great deal of his time was served in the infantry and later in the cavalry. He served another four years riding a horse and learning still more of combat, all the while wondering if there were any purpose to all of his training.
There were no armies to fight. There were no great enemies of the Empire. There were merely disgruntled neighbors and kingdoms that needed extra swords to defend against the possibilities of war.
He rode far to the south, serving with Merros Dulver and Wollis March and a hundred other men who came into his world and left it again, most simply serving their time and leaving for home, but that was not enough for Kallir. He wanted more.
He wanted to be a legend among men. He wanted to be admired and envied. It was a selfish desire, but ultimately aren’t they all? Isn’t that why they are called desires?
He might have stayed lost in his thoughts for all time, but there were other considerations.
The world jostled around him and he woke from his thoughts and his slumber at the same time. Pain embraced him, wrapped him in thorny arms and burned way his fragmented dreams. His face ached with each pulse of his heart.
“Careful you damn fools, that’s a person.” The voice belonged to Wollis. How long had he been asleep? He had no idea. What he did know was that the winds were gone. The bitter cold was gone and he felt sunlight on his skin. Sunlight. How long had it been? Surely since they entered the Blasted Lands proper. That was months back.
“Well he’s heavy, Wollis.”
“Aye, that he is, Durst. He is heavy. He is a burden. He is also the man who saved your sorry ass on the line.” He could not see Wollis’s face, but he could imagine the expression well enough. Wollis March was a northerner, with tanned skin and curly dark hair and a scowl that could intimidate a wolf. He was also a good man.
When Kallir left the army and sought to become something different, Wollis was the first to wish him well. He was also the one who offered him a chance to come along on the journey into the Blasted Lands after he found him destitute in the streets of Tyrne. His life of adventure fell apart shortly after he was robbed by brigands and beaten senseless. No money, no weapons. The thieves took even his boots. Some men might recover from that. Kallir did not. Not until Wollis came along.
He owed the man a great deal he could never hope to pay back.
Kallir heard just fine. He still could not see. He heard the sound of Wollis grunting as he crouched down next to him. He knew the man was crouching because he felt stones and dirt under his body and he was aware of the old wound in the other man’s leg that made squatting painful for him. Not that Wollis complained beyond a small noise.
“We are here, Kallir. We are in the valley of the Seven Forges.” The man’s voice was soft. “I never once imagined there was anything to be seen here, but there is. There are people here, my friend. And I have been speaking with them. The people who live here. The are called the ‘Sa’ba Taalor’ and they are a very different sort.”
There was more shuffling then and a moment later a much louder grunt. Wollis was sitting properly. He did not need eyes to understand the noises. He’d slept in the same tent more than once with his long time comrade. Military life meant forgetting any notion of privacy. The only men he had not shared quarters with on this expedition at one time or another were the captain and the slow-witted oaf pulling the wagon.
“There is a king here. He is called Paedori and he is known as the King in Iron. I have not met him, but even now the captain is speaking with him. I asked. He will see if anyone here can help you, my friend.” Wollis’s voice wavered as he spoke. “Your wounds are not gentle, I don’t know if you can even hear me, but if you can, we will do whatever it takes to try mending you.”
Kallir did not answer. He could not. No matter how much he wanted to speak his mouth refused to obey his wishes. Instead he merely exhaled his frustration and a moment later was swallowed again by sleep.
There had been a girl once. Longer ago than he wanted to remember she had been the woman he intended to wed. Had there ever been a finer beauty? Not to his eyes and certainly not to his heat.
He dreamt of her for a time and his world was peaceful.
In the dream she walked with Kallir near the Freeholdt River, their fingers entwined and the breeze playing with her reddish-blonde hair. No matter how many times he looked at her he never tired of counting the faint freckles that painted her nose and cheeks.
“You’re dying, Kallir. Did you know that?” Her face was as sweet as her remembered, but her words were troublesome.
“What do you mean?” He frowned and shook his head. “I feel fine.”
“This is a dream. It’s the only way I can speak to you.”
He squeezed her fingers and she squeezed back. How long had it been since they had seen each other? Surely it was before he left Trecharch. Ten years or more. Longer. Half a life ago. She was not the reason he’d left his home but her betrothal to another was surely one of the factors that kept him from ever going back.
If she was only a dream he was fine with dreaming.
“So speak to me,” Kallir said. “What is it that bothers you?”
“You are dying. You have wounds and they have become dirty. They are making you sick. You have lost your eyes and your jaw is broken and continues to bleed.” Her voice was soft and sweet but her words spoke of unpleasant truths. The pain he experienced was too great for him to believe she was lying. “Your flesh is hot with disease and you will die soon if you are not mended.”
“Wollis March said my captain speaks to a king for me.” Kallir shrugged, but carefully as he did not want to let go of her hand. If he lost his grip on her fingers, he might awaken and that would steal her away from him again. He had missed her for far too long.
“And so he does. Merros Dulver has asked that you be helped and Tarag Paedori, Chosen of the Forge and King in Iron has agreed to this. I am here because the King in Iron has asked it.”
“You know a king? You know of the Seven Forges?”
“I am not her. I am not the girl you loved once.” There was no regret in the words or her tone. Her voice was changing as surely as the waters in the river were steaming now instead of glistening coolly. “I look like her to make you comfortable. But comfort will not be here for long.” Still her face did not change. The world around her was growing darker and the heat in the air was stifling. Kallir felt sweat breaking on his arms, his brow, but she remained the same, unaffected by the atmosphere.
“What is happening?”
“I am here only to ask if you want to live.”
“What else would I want?”
“You have been blinded. Your face has been ruined. Your life as you have known it can never be the same. Do you want to live this way?”
That was a question he did not want to answer. He wasn’t sure if he could answer it. That was a question with vast implications.
She changed then, growing larger. No, not larger, he was still holding her hand and they stood almost eye to eye. But she was still different. Stronger, perhaps or his ability to see beyond the image was altered. Whatever the case, he looked at the girl he’d adored his entire life differently now. She scared him.
He turned away from her for only a moment, a heartbeat’s worth of time to sort his thoughts, and when he looked back she was gone and his hand was holding only air.
The heat increased again around him and the breeze took on an acrid scent he was familiar with. It was the smell of white hot metal. The river was a crawling mass of burning iron now, all water gone and the trees around him were burning, crisping into ashes.
She was gone but the voice that spoke was still there. It was heavier now, and masculine. Still he knew it was the same being that spoke again. ‘Your time is short, Kallir Lundt. Would you live? Would you die? Would you exist in a blinded, ruined state or would you be healed?”
“You could heal me?” His voice broke at the notion.
“I will restore you. I can mend you. There is a difference.”
“What do you mean?”
“You would look different. You would be different. But you would live.”
“Would I see? Would I be able to speak?”
“Yes.” There was a lengthy pause. “There would be a price.”
“Of course. I would pay it and freely.”
“Would you indeed?”
The air was black with ash and his eyes stung from the smoke that permeated the atmosphere.
“What price do you demand?”
That was all? A promise to serve and obey? “Done!”
The light came back. The waters flowed freely again and she was back, her face as perfect as ever, her smile as brilliant as the sun.
“There will be pain, Kallir. There is always pain in life. Do you accept this?”
His entire life had been moments of joy surrounded by pain. He understood all too well. “Of course.”
Her hand reached out toward his face. “Try not to scream, Kallir Lundt.”
Where her fingers touched, agony exploded across the surface of his skin.
The mask was settled across his jaw line and at the edge of his scalp. The frame of the thing kept his mouth locked tightly shut, a very necessary evil.
Four men held him down as the burning metal fell from the crucible across Kallir’s ruined face. The smell of cooking meat was potent. He could not scream, though he tried.
He thrashed and bucked and did everything he could to break their grip, but they were prepared for his actions and they were among the strongest men available. His efforts failed and that was for the best. The metal was hot and it had to set properly or he would be ruined.
Ten paces from him Tarag Paedori, Chosen of the Forge and King in Iron watched on, his eyes unwavering. He did not move away until the man had collapsed and his captors could safely release him.
And when the time came, he carefully removed the mask and studied the end results.
Kallir opened his eyes and squinted against the glare. It took him only a moment to realize that he was in an unknown environment. There might have been panic, but he’d been lying in the same spot for quite a while before he opened his eyes, drifting slowly toward real consciousness.
What finally made him take that small action was the lack of pain in his face. After a dark eternity in fevered dreams and sporadic consciousness he was able to think clearly.
The room he was in was carved from dark stone, the surfaces polished to a nearly liquid sheen. Light spilled from a window carved into marble and he walked carefully over to it, his feet uncertain under him. The air was cooler from out there, but it was not cold. And the sky was a deep shade of blue.
The view outside struck him. There was a valley below that rolled away in gentle waves of green. Farmland and orchards and rivers separating them and, in the distance, mountains, vast and towering edifices of different colors and textures. Her had no idea where he was.
“You are in the Taalor Valley. You are surrounded by the mountains you call the Seven Forges.” The voice was deep and pleasant but had an unsettling echo to it that he did not understand and he turned to face a man he had never seen before.
The stranger was very large. Kallir was not short but his visitor stood easily a head taller and had arms nearly as thick as his own legs. His skin was gray and covered in scars. His hair was dark, nearly black and salted with strands of lighter colors. His eyes were light gray. Adding to that lack of colors, his leather pants and vest were also black.
The veil hiding his face was dark red.
“I am Tarag Paedori. I am the ruler here. You are in my kingdom.”
Kallir’s heart raced. He was a military man. He understood protocols well enough, but he also knew that dealing with strangers sometimes led to unfortunate risks. With nothing but his limited experience to fall back on he bowed from the waist.
“I am grateful for your hospitality.” His voice sounded strange to his ears.
“You know you were injured? You remember that much?”
“Yes.” He nodded and reached for his face. His fingers did not touch flesh. They touched metal. He felt his fingers touching his chin and his lips and his cheek. Felt them. But his fingers still felt metal.
“You have been granted a gift by Truska-pren. He has repaired your damaged face.” The voice was calm. Tarag Paedori stepped closer, his eyes locked on Kallir. “He visited you in your dreams and told you that you would be changed if you were healed. That is the change he spoke of.”
Kallir looked around the room even as his fingers ran over the metallic surface of his nose and cheeks and brow. He could feel flesh as well, where it fused with the metal. There were gaps and seams and oh, how he wanted to scream.
“You are alive, Kallir Lundt of Fellein.” The man stepped directly in front of him and looked down. “Do not forget that.”
He considered the words and forced himself to calm down. He wanted to rage, to scream, to cry…but a king stood before him and commanded him to do otherwise.
“We will talk, you and I, of Fellein and of your people.” Tarag Paedori looked toward the window and guided him to once more stare down into the valley. The wind from outside blew gently into the room and caressed the surface of his face. He felt that breeze against metal and flesh alike.
“I-Do you have a mirror? I wish to see my face.”
The man studied him for a long moment and Kallir wondered about the lighting in the room. The king’s eyes seemed to burn with a faint silver glow.
“Soon. Not just yet. First we will eat.”
Tarag Paedori moved away from him and headed toward the open doorway at the other end of the room. “Come when you will. We have much to discuss.”
“Wait. Where are my people?”
He hesitated and looked back one last time. “They have gone home, Kallir Lundt. They have left you with me. As I said, we will talk of your people.”
And then Kallir was alone in the room and with his thoughts. He was not sure how he felt about anything. Not his people, not the stranger or the valley he looked out upon. There was only one certainty for the moment. He was no longer the man he had been before he came to the Blasted Lands.
After another minute of staring into the distance at the mountains he had never thought he would live to see, Kallir turned toward the doorway and the mysteries beyond it. Time and the king beyond the entrance would answer his questions soon enough.
Seven Forges is available now from Angry Robot, wherever fine books are sold.
Filed under: Free Fiction
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