by Bill Hafoc Rogers
©2008 Bill Rogers
He was a lone fox among his races enemies, the hulking, brutal Dire Wolves. He was battered and chained, and he did not expect to survive the hour.
The largest and strongest wolf gave the fox a disdainful glance: So that is the Destroyerthe one foretold in prophecymaster of an army of uncounted millions. That, cowering upon the floor, is the legendary warrior whose invincible forces will surely destroy the Empire and even the Dire Wolf worldpack.
Standing at attention to the right of the prisoner, Major Crooktail winced and tried to steady his trembling limbs. His head ached; his heart pounded; his vision blurred and the room seemed to be trying to spin around him. He must be even more frightened than hed realized. He hated it when the Emperor used that calm and reasonable tone: It usually meant at least one head was about to go bouncing down the stairs.
No one whod survived the old Emperor would have believed anybody could be more terrifying than himbut somehow, his kid managed. He was just the kind of direwolf who would choose to change his name from Justin the Sixth to Skullcrusher the Great; brutal, bullying, self-aggrandizing, and just stupid enough to be dangerous.
Really, the new Emperor declared, it is a true wonder that such a creature as this could possibly be regarded as a threat to anything more powerful than a bedridden child.
Crooktail forced himself upright and willed his voice to be steady. My Emperor, we followed instructions exactly. To the letter! If anyone matches the words of the Dreamers, it is he! Could the Dreamers have been wrong, just this once?
At these words, the Dreamer Priest straightened up and roared, showing something of the size and strength that had made him a terror to the whole Empire forty years before. Wrong!? Inconceivable! Nine of the Twelve dreamed of him, in the same night! Nine of
Emperor Skullcrusher smiled, all sweetness and reason. Now, now. Do calm yourself, Eldsbane. You may be assured I trust you just as my lamented father did, before his unfortunate accident. Surely, if nine of the Twelve dreamed of this Destroyer, they could not be wrong. That is, assuming the dream was reported correctly. Do you still carry your written instructions, Major?
With a hand that he barely managed to keep from trembling, Major Crooktail reached inside his shoulder pouch and withdrew a parchment scroll, the words upon it written in blood. He held it out to his lord and master.
Skullcrusher took the scroll and unrolled it. He squinted at it, in the smoky flicker of the torches. The light in here is so bad. Page? Page! Here. Take this. Read it for me, but silently. Compare what this Destroyer says with the writings on this scroll. Do not speak until I tell you.
The page took the scroll. He looked terrified, as well he might. He made a great show of moving to an arrow slit in the wall of the throne room and of holding the scroll in the narrow beam of sunlight that came through. Crooktail noted the page had also, less obviously, reversed the scroll which his emperor had been attempting to read while it was upside-down. Smart lad.
Emperor Skullcrusher stalked to the prisoner who knelt in chains, naked, between two hulking dires. He lifted the prisoners jaw with a carefully-sharpened clawtip. Your name, fox?
He was young, this fox, and half-starved. He looked like he might have worms. At least hed gotten over the chest cold he had when they captured him; Crooktail had hoped that would make him look like enough of a threat to justify dragging him across the length of the empire. False hope!
But while the foxs condition was that of a pitiable wretch, the anger in his eyes would have made even Justin the Fifth think twice before approaching him. Whats more, his voice was a growl of burning rage. In his heart, Crooktail thanked the fox for that.
Roald Culhane, the foxling snarled.
I believe you meant to say, Roald Culhane, my Emperor, the tyrant corrected.
No emperor of mine.
Skullcrusher barked a laugh. Perhaps not. You are obviously descended from the cowards who fled to the swamps, rather than die heroic deaths; I leave the lot of you to skulk about as you will. I have enough good land and enough fox slaves in my kennels. I have no use for the swamps, or for you.
You leave us alone except when you come to hunt us.
True, true. Even such as you are good for a bit of sport. Your home?
Anthor Culhane, son of Arthur Culhane, last Lord of Brundigsgate.
Now the wolf turned away from the scrawny fox. What say you, page?
It it it is as the scroll says, my Emperor.
My word! Then you must indeed be the Destroyer my Dreamers foretold. You a foxling who couldnt stand under the weight of full armor. So tell me, Roald Culhane of Malaria Bay: Do you hate me?
The fox looked up with such smoldering hatred that, for just a moment, even Skullcrusher the Great was taken aback. What I feel for you is beyond hate, said the vulpine. There is no word for it.
Your grandsire destroyed our nation and harried us into the swamps. It would have been kinder to kill us. Two thirds of us died of the Green Plague in the first year! Did you know that? And half of the survivors starved three years later, in the Winter of Early Snows. My grandfather lost two wives before he married my grandmother. And she had lost one husband and two children. Even now we, the descendants of those survivors, are sick half the time and half-starved always.
And then you hunt us for your pleasure, and wear our skins on your back. You wear the skin of one of my brothers or sisters even now!
Hate? I wail to the Huntress of the Skies every night I see her, that her cold hand might rip out your heart. I pray to the ghosts of the slain that I might be the instrument of their revenge! I pray to see you writhing in the agony of a lingering death, and to see the rage in your dying eyes when you know that mine are the hands at your throat. Mine, and the hand of Justice herself!
How how very, impressive. And so you planned to raise an army of untold millions, did you? To march with it through each of my castles in turn, from Brundigsgate on the banks of the Greasy River, all the way to this, my throne room itself? And, finally, you would deal me my death blow on the steps of my own throne? For if my Dreamers are to be believed, this was your plan.
The young fox sagged. No, he whispered. If I could place your head and those of your generals on the row of spikes where your enemies heads now rot, I would. And I would rejoice in it. But we are few, and sickly, and weak. Where would I find an army of tens, let alone millions? And now he snorted a bleak, humorless laugh. Oh, I marched through your castles, alright in exactly the state you see before you now.
My Emperor! Eldsbane the Dreamer Priest was aghast. This fox has seen the defenses of every one of your castles?
Fear not, Crooktail said, even though nobody had given him permission to speak. He was in each castle, yes, but blindfolded. Surrounded three deep by our best troops, in the centermost room of each barracks. He saw nothing.
Of course. Skullcrusher smiled. As for us, we see that this fox could hardly threaten a rabbit! Perhaps even the Dreamers can be wrong once in a great while. Perhaps even the great Eldsbane may be allowed what we, in our mercy, might call a mistake?
My Emperor! It cannot be! The dreams say this fox is
Look at him! Just look at him! Prophecy be damned. And indeed, the young fox seemed broken. He seemed almost to be sobbing as he knelt on the cold flagstones. Skullcrusher reached down to lift the foxs chin again. This creature, raise an army? Well, perhaps an army of fleas
The fox spat in the Emperors eyes. With a snarl, Skullcrusher backhanded the youth. He flew backwards to sprawl on the stones in a tangle of bruised limbs and rusty chains.
Ah! So you still have your hatred, Skullcrusher observed. He seemed to be trying not to laugh as he wiped the spittle from his face with the coarse fur of the back of his left hand.
Always. We will hate you until what passes for your soul is screaming in the darkest guts of the World Snake.
Well, then: Since you value it so highly, we deign to allow you your hate. Keep it and go mad, knowing you can do nothing whatsoever to me. I name you King of the pitiful few foxes not in my slave pens if my word means anything to you, or them. Guards? His Majesty wants clothing, a pouch of gold, and a fine dagger. Get him those things, and send him on his way.
My Emperor! No!
One more word, Eldsbane. One more word from you I do not know what game you have been playing, but it ends. Now. If you try anything like this, ever again, there will be twelve full spikes on my throne room wall and twelve empty chairs in the Hall of Dreamers. Do I make myself understood?
Eldsbane looked ready to attack, but he held himself in check and nodded, silently.
I see that your wisdom is as penetrating as ever, Eldsbane. As for you, Roald Culhane, you may go and do your worst. I would not have the neighboring kingdoms know I took you seriously enough even to kill you.
Culhane pulled his lips back in a snarl. You will regret this day.
Hardly. Major? You and your men look exhausted. Draw double pay for the length of this mission. You and they deserve a night in the Harbor District.
Major Crooktail had never been so happy in his life as he was when he realized he would escape the throne room alive at least this time.
However, he didnt go to the Harbor District. He was too tired, and he still had the shakes; worse than ever, if anything. So he wrapped himself in a blanket and rested, sitting close to the fire in his quarters. It was good to be indoors. He had never felt the city as cold on a summer evening as it felt tonight.
His men would be having a good time with the dancers and singers and other, less mentionable, entertainments of the Harbor District. They would drink and dance and fight with the sailors from every port of the Empire and the other Dire kingdoms beyond. They deserved their fun. The trip into the miserable swamps where the foxes lurked had been enough to suck the life out of
Crooktail choked on something and coughed. He grabbed his handkerchief, a silk that had been an expensive scarf before Crooktail had looted it, and held it to his face. The coughs wracked him. Sparks danced in front of his eyes.
When his vision cleared, he found himself on the floor. His headache was getting bad. He got up and walked across the room to collapse into bed. He was so tired surely hed feel better in the morning..?
Forgotten, Crooktails dropped handkerchief lay on the hearth near the fire. It was smeared with mucus of an unspeakable green color.
The glistening mucus was streaked with blood.