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Monday, May 11, 2009

The Raven

The RavenThe hole stank worse than a troll’s armpit. Dead meat, rotting straw, human waste. Perhaps it was a blessing that there was barely enough room to sit, let alone lie down. If I had given myself up to lying full length in that filth, perhaps I would have given up the will to live as well. Thankfully, I stood; my wasted, skinny body leaning against the dripping stones. I looked up at the small circle of light above, and I planned. Planned escape, of course, and revenge. Bloody revenge.

Think you that the Raven has sent his last dispatch? Think you that my days of spying, plotting, scheming and politicking are behind me? Think again. For though I languish now—stuck like a rat in a pipe at the behest of a fat, greasy dwarf whose beard was not worthy enough to wipe clean this pit—I would again fly free like my namesake. And like my namesake, my flight would mean ill omen to my enemies and oppressors. Where I had watched, now I would strike. Before, I had sold my services to the highest bidder, now I would play the mighty like pawns on a chess board. Where before they had heard the name Raven and been afeared, now they would forever cower in their beds, never more knowing the comfort of their stone bastions.

“Curse all dwarfs and their damned beards!” I shouted at the mocking light. After a pause it was blocked out by a knobbly silhouette. It was my troll jailor again; checking to see that I was still there, no doubt.

“Shut your ‘ole, noisy man-thing!” it shouted back. The head retracted.

Damn. One comment, one aspersion cast on the thickness of Mac Dhonnchaidh’s beard, and months of hard work—and hard drinking—blown away like the leaves of autumn at the onset of winter. Victory at the Stirling had done little to ease his temper, or his quickness to take offense. And then, my damnable pride … there had been time to grovel to the stumpy king, but the drinking, the heat of the hall, the weeks of dwelling among the belligerent Dwarven folk … a further observation on the baldness of his body, and I was lucky to escape with my head—though cast it was into his stinking dungeon.

Well, the Raven may not yet have the power of flight, but he could climb as well as any man in the known world. I stretched my battered arms and legs out to full length, found whatever slimy cracks in the stones I could, and began the long, slow, painful crawl upward. An hour later, I peeked over the lip of the well. The troll, clutching a huge rusty meat cleaver, was standing directly in front of me looking surprised and confused.

“Perhaps you’d be kind enough to give me a hand, good troll?” I quickly asked. Thankfully, trolls are as stupid as they are large. A strong pull while he was leaning out, unbalanced, and he was over my head and plummeting downwards—strangely, without a sound. Until he hit the bottom.

No doubt the world has forgotten the Raven, I thought as I finally crawled out of the oubliette. Time to remind them.

This was a revenge I could not fully execute on my own; I needed allies, however temporary. Two nights later, clad in the livery of one of his sentries, I entered the camp of Edward, self-proclaimed hero of the land and scourge of Dwarven-kind.

Hero perhaps, but still a bastard, I thought. It was well known that Edward was borne by a lord’s scullery maid swiftly dispatched to an abbey. Of course, Edward’s father begat no male heir, and his bastard was swiftly returned to the castle upon his death. Twenty-five years of growing up among men of God had not made Edward a pious man. On the contrary, it was said he spent his youth searching through ancient tomes in the abbey’s library, and had managed to give himself an education that God would most likely have frowned upon. Instead of taking the path of a warrior, like most bastards eager to usurp their fathers, he had become skilled in the ways of wizardry.

Or so the peasants gossiped over their ploughs; it mattered not. Whether masters were warriors, wizards, clerics or rogues, it was all of a muchness to those who rummaged in the mud for a living.

As his father coughed his last, our bastard hero Edward established himself as lord and rightful heir and began raising an army of conquest. Some said the army was invincible, and that Edward had used his powers to enlist demon beasts to fight on his side. All the better, I thought.

It was a simple matter to walk through the main part of the army camp. The men were drunk with victory and cheap wine, and I passed many boisterous games of chance, fist-fights and shaking tents. I stepped over soldiers passed out in pools of vomit, and once a group of men threw their arms around my shoulders and forced me to join them in a few verses of ‘Where Have All the Young Girls Gone?’. Eventually however I reached the other end of the camp, where the ground became higher and was crowned by scores of rocky spires, and where large, ornate tents denoted the presence of the king and his retinue.

Now for the tricky part, I thought.

Even in torchlight, Edward looked far older than his twenty-seven years. His lanky hair and beard were already flecked with grey, and crows’ feet crowded around the edges of his deep set, red-rimmed eyes. He sat hunched in a high-backed oak chair behind a table covered in leather bound books and loosely-rolled scrolls, and looked up at me with the angry air of a man interrupted from a far more important task.

“I would have you killed on the spot for entering the inner compound unannounced, but you say you know something of the Dwarven defences,” he said. He squinted at my features as though studying his books. But I was not so easily read.

“The damn dwarves have it comin’ to ‘em” I said, putting on a peasant’s drawl, “an’ as a loyal member of yer lordship’s army, I ‘ad to come and tell ye meself about the best and quickest way to see ‘em all on spits by tomorrow’s end.”

“I’m listening”, the Lord replied, leaning back.

“It so happens m’Lord, that I worked in the castle brewery before the stumpies took over the place and cast out us hard workin’ human folk, and I knows its ways well—in particular a certain way into the dungeons that’ll get you in faster than a tuppeny pint goes down a soldier’s throat”, I said.

“Really?” said Edward, “and tell me—Raven—whose army lines your pockets this time? The Dwarves? My father’s old men? Some other petty lord eager for glory?” His voice rose. “Think you that I have not ways of seeing through any disguise? Think you that I need the help of pitiful mercenary spies—I, who command dragons?” Beckoning to the guards, he strode for the tent opening. “Bring the arrogant fool. Let me show you, black bird of ill omen, how a wizard goes about making war.”

Dragons? Dragons?! Spend but one month in a castle dungeon and how the world changes, I thought, as the soldiers began dragging me after him. Behind the tent we crossed through a natural wall of boulders and into a natural amphitheatre that truncated the top of the hill. A great spike of iron, twice the height of a man, had been driven into the centre of the rocky bowl, and from it stretched chains thick as my arm. The chains were attached to iron collars, which in turn were fixed around the throats of three enormous beasts. And what beasts! If I had not already been on my knees I would have fallen to them. I have traveled far and wide and across the sea, and never have I seen the like. Monstrous serpents they were, great scaly creatures whose tread shook the earth as they circled the spike, heads pulling and lunging at the air, wings beating in anger, glowing eyes brim-full of malice and power.

“Well Raven, what think you? Do I require your help to defeat the Dwarves?” said Edward without turning to face me.

I did not bother to reply. Ah well, a Raven can also wait until the battle is over before taking his meal. A dead dwarf is dead, and revenge is taken, whether by means obvious or subtle. Perhaps, in this case, the time for subtlety had passed.