Just three days from leaving Afferton, Armin saw the tower built by old King James puncturing the horizon like a hundred-foot needle. Its long shadow cast the final leg of his day’s journey into darkness. One hundred soldiers call it home, guarding the kingdom of Peccothia from the foul beings that haunt the waste. Armin had heard the stories of scorpions with claws that could cut a man in two, and worms that could swallow a horse whole, he supposed they were little more than stories.
As they approached, a guard hailed them from atop the battlements, liveried in red emblazoned with the golden eagle of House Thorebourne.
‘Halt! What business do you have this close to the waste?’
‘Hello there! I am Armin of Jakai, and these are my men, Asad and Kadeer, we’re on a mission of exploration.’
‘You must be mad!’
‘Many have said the same, but I still breathe! I bring with me some of Averleon’s finest vintage. I’m sure your comrades would appreciate a drop?’
‘Well, when you put it like that!’ His head disappeared below the parapet.
They heard shouts from behind the wall, before a great groaning of iron hinges as the gates swung open to reveal a small courtyard. They entered through the barbican into the darkening ward and the guard introduced himself.
‘Watch Sergeant Jon Berrington at your service. It’s been quite some time since we’ve had guests here.’
‘The men of the border towers do us a great service, for which I am extremely grateful. It only seems fitting to share a little drop of something with you whilst I’m in the area.’
‘Most kind sir, follow me and I’ll take you to the sergeants mess.’
Jon led them inside the tower and up the circular stone staircase. Men in the same red and gold uniforms rushed this way and that, sergeants strutted around like peacocks, barking orders. Armin looked at the chaos in the tower, surely the military was supposed to be organised. A young soldier of no more than twenty years approached them and addressed Jon, looking worried.
‘Sir, a report has arrived from Seawatch, they’ve had numerous attacks on their patrols today. They request assistance from us at first light.’
‘Very well. Tell tomorrow’s Patrol Sergeant he can have half of my watchmen. If they ride at first light they should get on top of the situation.’ Jon seemed unflappable, a rock of calm in the tempestuous ocean of the tower.
‘Very good sir.’ The young guard sped off, dodging between other men on his way downwards through the tower.
Jon shook his head at the group and proceeded to an unremarkable door in the corridor. He opened it and stepped back to allow them to enter. The room was large with a fireplace at each end, to one side stood the beds of the sergeants, each with its own nightstand and chest. The other end was the sergeants mess, a large round table in the middle dominated the space, a few armour stands and dressers stood against the walls. On one dresser there were full bottles and empty glasses, Armin doubted the sergeants were ever short of a drink.
‘Please sit, take the weight off your feet.’ Jon said, pulling chairs out from under the table.
Armin sat between Kadeer and Asad, the two guards he’d hired in Elvia. Kadeer was tall and lean, muscles rippled under his shirt, Asad short and stocky, but deceptively quick. He’d been assured they were the very best. His intention was to prevent them drinking too much, there could be fighting tomorrow when they crossed into the waste. Jon poured them each a glass of red wine he retrieved from a dresser.
‘I believe I can uncork this since we have guests.’
Armin sipped the wine, it was excellent, if a little dry for his taste. ‘That is fantastic, where did you find that little gem?’
‘Some of the men returning from the crusades brought it back. Say what you like about the Teyans, but they produce a fine vintage!’ Jon smacked his lips and filled his glass again.
‘How goes the crusades? I’ve been away in Jakai and news doesn’t travel so far these days.’
‘Ah Jakai, wonderful city I hear. If only I could visit one day, I would dearly love to see the coliseum.’ Jon began with a rueful smile. ‘I’m afraid the crusades don’t go as well as they ought to. Rumour has it that the Teyans are looking east for aid, Gelgarand and Elon-Gar have sent troops.’
‘What does that mean for the northern armies?’
‘I couldn’t claim to know the mind of Lord Wedderburn and King Tristan but I expect his highness to want to meet force with force. He needs to calm down if he’s to be remembered as fondly as his father.’
Armin noticed Jon’s glass was again empty. ‘Asad, fetch the cask of Averleon red, our host needs a refill.’
Asad poured another drink for Jon, making sure his glass was full. Much to Armin’s delight, Jon approved of the wine.
‘What is it about Averleon that means they can create such a fine drink?’ Jon mused, slurring his words ever so slightly.
‘It must be the warmer climate in the south, the grapes grow bigger and juicier. I’ve seen their great glass houses where they grow all manner of queer fruits. There’s one that’ll grow as big as a man’s head, bright yellow they are! They call them melons; can you imagine such a thing?’
‘Ha! I’d love to try one, what are they like?’
‘Juicy and light. Refreshing on a warm summers day!’ Armin was keen to get some more wine down the man and gain more information of the world. ‘A top up for our gracious host!’ He called, ignoring that his wine glass was still half full.
Asad poured another full glass for Jon, careful not to spill a drop. It was bad manners to spill in your host's hall.
‘How fares King Tristan? He’s not been on the throne more than a few moons now, surely?’
‘Three or four now, I think. He’s bright enough and wants to do the right thing, but he needs better people around him. Between you and me, I’ve never liked that Khoran fellow who leads the army. Slimy and manipulative that one. Hell of a swordsman though, some reckon he’d even best Luthar Shoresmith. Shame we’ll never see that, it’d be a battle to end all battles.’
‘What’s wrong with his advisors?’
‘You hear there was a dragon sighting over Myllyria last year? Well, Lord Hanford travelled personally to Threftall to report it, and asked for money to build scorpions and other defences. Anyways, Lord Andron, steward of the realm, told the king that dragons have been gone for hundreds of years and Lord Hanford couldn’t trust his eyes. This is all third hand by the way, but I hear there was nearly swords in the court! Khoran had to step in.’
‘That doesn’t bode well for King Tristan! If he has lords nearly fighting in the court, then it’s going to make his reign a troublesome one.’
‘Aye, and we don’t need any of that! Well, it’s nearly dark outside and I’m full of wine, so bed it must be! I’ll show you to our guest quarters.’
‘Just one thing before bed, sergeant. I was wondering if we might join a patrol tomorrow. I’ve always wanted to see the waste and would feel much safer with the men of Peccothia at my back.’ Armin hoped he’d plied the sergeant with enough wine to wash away his inhibitions.
‘Of course! More the merrier. We often have the warrior’s guild sending their men and squires. Be ready at first light and I’ll get you on patrol.’ Jon’s face had turned a bright red and his speech was ever more slurred. Armin doubted he would be doing much in the way of patrols tomorrow.
As he stood up, Jon swayed and grabbed the table to steady himself. Armin could see Kadeer stifling a laugh out of the corner of his eye.
‘We’ll see ourselves to the guest chambers, you need some rest sergeant. If you could direct us, please?’
‘Of course, up one flight and it’s the only door there. Here, take this key to let yourselves in.’ He fumbled in his pockets for a moment, all fingers and thumbs. Eventually he retrieved a key and held it out to them, Asad took it from him and put it in his own pocket.
‘Good night sergeant, see you tomorrow for a day’s adventuring!’ Armin called cheerily before retreating out of the room in search of bed.
The guest quarters were sparse, but comfortable enough. Straw mattresses lay upon wooden beds, a trunk at the end of each. A rectangular table big enough for six men occupied the other end of the room, along with washing bowls and one great copper bathtub. A fire had been lit in a hearth on one wall, keeping off the autumn chill that attacked the room, Armin laid on the bed closest to it, straw stabbing at his back. This could be worse he mused. Before long, his eyes became heavy and began to close.
The next morning was bright, but cool. Armin, Asad and Kadeer met with Patrol Sergeant Tomos Bevyn near the gate, but there was no sign of Jon. Tomos was a tall, lean man, stern of face with a thunderous voice, but he shared the good humour of Jon. Armin noticed that Tomos occasionally fiddled with a string around his neck, adorned with what looked to be teeth.
‘Does Jon not join us this morning?’ Asked Armin.
‘He’s a watchman, so not assigned to a patrol. Plus I think he’s unwell, wouldn’t know anything about that would you?’ He smiled as he asked Armin, presumably this had happened before.
‘That’s an interesting necklace you have there.’ He said to Tomos, changing the subject.
‘Aye, made it myself. Most of the lads here have them too. You see these?’ He held two particularly large, curved teeth in his fingers. ‘From the rock worms, big nasty bastards. Wouldn’t take one on with less than ten men. Might see some today if you’re lucky.’
‘I think Lady Luck would keep us as far away from them as she could!’ Armin had no intention of doing battle with a rock worm.
‘Sergeant, the men are saddled and ready’ A middle aged soldier had approached from behind Armin and spoke to the sergeant with a confidence that oozed experience.
‘Thank you corporal.’ He nodded at the newcomer who swiftly departed back to his own horse. ‘Gentlemen, if you’d like to ride with me?’
Armin fell into formation next to the sergeant, Asad and Kadeer followed on behind. The sergeant had a fine horse, at least fourteen hands tall and muscular; she was a beauty. Tomos seemed to have a real affinity with her, treating her with respect as an equal, he caught Armin looking sideways at her.
‘She’s a fine animal, what’s her name?’ Armin asked.
‘Breeze. King Harold bought a load of horses from the Alarston plains not long before he passed. A few made their way over to us out here, I was lucky enough to be on duty at the right time.’ He patted Breeze’s neck as he spoke, clearly seeing her as a friend.
They walked along the border between Peccothia and the waste, setting a decent pace. The men of the towers clearly looked after their horses well, not one seemed to be flagging. To their right Armin could see the great cliffs jutting out from the scorched, dry earth. Not even a bird circled over that cursed place. They’d rode a couple of miles before a scout riding on their right flank caught their attention.
‘Tunneler ahead!’ He pointed with his sword to a small mound of earth about a hundred yards in front of them.
‘Men, dismount!’ Roared Tomos as he leapt from his own horse. He turned to Armin, Kadeer and Asad. Stay back with the horses, don’t come too close unless you’re ready to fight.’
Armin dismounted as smoothly as he could, adrenalin coursed through his veins, half excitement and half fear. He retrieved his whip and sling from his saddlebags. ‘We don’t mind a bit of rough and tumble, do we boys?’
Asad and Kadeer were already on foot, scimitars and bucklers in hand. They didn’t look the part compared to the well armoured Peccothian soldiers, but Armin knew their looks were deceiving. Both former coliseum champions in Jakai they were more than a match for anything the waste could throw at them.
‘Very good.’ Tomos commented before approaching his men, already in a square. ‘Shields!’ He roared.
The soldiers each lifted their large, rectangular shields to cover the sides of their formation. The men in the middle lifted theirs and held them above their heads, making a shell around them. Armin had never seen such organisation from soldiers.
‘Water!’ Tomos now commanded.
A slight movement in the middle of their shell was the only sign of activity, a couple of shields moved briefly to allow someone more room. Armin couldn’t work out what was going on, until a puddle of water began to emerge from the gathered soldiers. It spread out in all directions, faster and faster, before coming to an abrupt stop about twenty yards away from them.
Armin looked from Asad, to Kadeer, none of them knew what to say or do. They each gripped their weapons, ready for whatever might come next. The earth began to rumble beneath them.
Before Armin could open his mouth to ask the question, the earth erupted before the soldiers, showering them with mud. Stones, roots, and sickly plants bombarded their formation, bouncing from their shields onto the ground.
Behind the shower of mud followed a worm as big as a carriage. It was a sickly pale brown, mud clung to its long thick body and a great yawning chasm of a mouth opened at the head. Rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth glistened in the sunlight, curved inwards to trap its prey. It flopped to the ground in front of the men, slithering across the wet earth towards them.
‘Spears!’ Was the next call from Tomos, watching eagle eyed from the back of the formation.
Spears slid through the gaps in the shields, thrusted firmly towards the worm. One pierced its skin above its mouth. The worm screamed an awful, high-pitched cry, making the bile rise in Armin’s stomach.
A handful of men withdrew from the rear of the soldiers, bows in hand and arrows nocked.
The arrows whistled above the men and planted themselves in the body of the screaming worm, it writhed in agony, showering yet more dirt over the soldiers.
The men advanced to the worm, spears now driving at the animal and piercing flesh several times. Blood so dark it was almost black spilled out of a hundred cuts or more, stark against the pale, dry ground.
The formation broke, men with spears still jabbed the worm as it desperately fought to escape. More men circled it, armed with short steel swords in one hand, rectangular shields in the other. They unleashed a ferocious barrage of strikes upon the worm, not ceasing until it moved no more.
Armin, Kadeer and Asad all approached the soldiers, many of them breathing heavily from the exertion. Inspecting the bloody mess that had been a rock worm a few minutes ago, Armin could sense an unseen evil about its body.
The corporal that had spoken earlier prised apart it’s jaws with another man, revealing those fearsome teeth again. A third, armed with a short knife stuck his arm inside the mouth, seemingly cutting away at something. After a few short moments he held aloft a great tooth, dripping blood on his hand and down his arm.
‘My first!’ He called, to a few cheers from the other men.
The corporal handed him a string he retrieved from his pocket. ‘You’re one of us now son.’ He clapped him on the back before retreating to the worm to take his own trophy.
Each man took their turn as a dentist, removing more and more of the beast’s teeth for their own necklaces.
Finally, Tomos retrieved teeth for his own string, he shouted ‘Number twenty.’ Before approaching Armin.
‘That’s what we do to keep you safe. A nasty business to be sure, but a necessary one.’ He explained as he slid the tooth on to his necklace.
‘Is that really the twentieth of them things that you’ve killed?’ Armin could scarcely believe a man would continue doing this for so long.
‘It is. The more, the better. Keeps them away from the outlying farms and villages. The gods forbid that any should reach Lorez or Afferton. Hundreds could be killed if they did.’
The smell of the dead worm began to sting Armin’s nostrils. The foul beast decomposed quickly in direct sunlight, even if it had passed high summer. The men all mounted up once again, ready to move on with their patrol.
‘Sergeant, where is the easiest place to pass into the waste?’
‘About three miles south from here, there’s a gap in the rocks.’ Suddenly suspicious he frowned at Armin. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘It’s where our adventure leads us next my good man. Lead on!’
Tomos looked at Armin, confusion rising in his face. He clearly though Armin was mad. Shaking his head, he stuck his heels into Breeze and proceeded on their southward journey. As he followed, Armin looked westward over the waste, dry, scorched earth gave way only to rocky outcrops and the occasional shell of a long dead tree. The former kingdom of Isiliar seemed to have killed the very earth it stood on.