Topper Red leaned against the brick wall in the alley and tried to regain his composure. He wiped his face with his sleeve leaving the stains of his tears, sweat and vomit and then he took deep shuddering breaths in order to force the panic down.
It had already been a tense day. Katilyne had suffered for most of the month with her pregnancy only to enter a very difficult birthing. Her screams and groans from Akiros’ house had begun before dawn and continued throughout the day. When Goody Niska arrived with a handful of old women in tow Akiros had been shuffled out of his house while midwives buzzed in and out. Topper had stopped paying attention to all the womanly doing and played his fiddle while watching an obviously concerned Akiros try to focus on fighting various combatants. Regik had gathered some of the guards, sheriffs and soldiers to keep Akiros occupied with duels but those who knew the Warden could tell he was overwhelmingly concerned with what he could hear coming from inside his home. The clacking of wooden swords and grunting combatants did not pause like the on-looking crowd’s hushed conversation and muted cheers of encouragement did when the screams would come from the Warden’s home. Akiros Ismort circled with his latest challenger, Prog. The soft spoken Khellid guardsman wielded his wooden training spear well and had scored more than one hit on the Warden. Both men were sweaty and dirty from their combat in the street. Blood trickled from Prog’s mouth but the guardsman didn’t seem to notice any of his bruises and bleeding. Akiros was also bruised and bloodied and equally unaware of anything other than Prog’s positioning. The two warriors didn’t speak and it was curiously noted by many that Akiros had not once tapped into his anger to vent on the guards and sheriffs who had stepped up to keep the Warden occupied.
The Warden’s friends knew better. Akiros had been concerned for Katilyne for months but today’s trial left the man floundering for some direction. Prog had been the latest to give him something to do until he too ended up in the mud bloodied and stunned from the finishing blow.
It was then that General Corbin arrived to talk quietly with Akiros.
Corbin led Prog out of the circle whispering a quiet prayer upon him making the numerous bruises and cuts vanish. He then walked over to Akiros and spoke in hushed tones before they both ditched the wooden training swords for steel and earnest battle. Corbin’s prayer to Gorum, the ensuing noise of the growing curious crowd and the intensity of the fight had distracted Topper. The battle had been fierce and even though it was obvious that lethal blows were barely pulled both men soon bled onto the courtyard. After many minutes Akiros finally lay in the bloody mud with a terrible gash and no impetus to get up. Corbin knelt beside him releasing a wave of force that carried the sensations of battle to all nearby knitting the wounds of both men and rousing the spirits of all nearby. Topper, shaking off the yearning to punch someone, noticed one of the old women leaving Ismort’s household with a basket of soiled linen. The linen basket, with its bloody bedclothes, had been what had grabbed his attention at first but it was the visage of the old women carrying it that had pulled the breath from Topper’s chest.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was the old crone who had kidnapped him but she was dead. She had to be dead; he had listened to her die. She should be torn to pieces in a rotting cabin but there she was walking down the street with a basket of sheets and towels stained with shit and blood.
Topper had followed. He didn’t know where the strength had come from but when he saw her turn into a dark alley near the piers he was suddenly very awake and nauseous. Oblivious to Perlivash’s confused questions and distractions Topper turned into the alley and began to move into the shadows. He had only gone a few steps when he had heard her soft voice nearby.
“Ahhh, there’s my pretty lover. I knew you couldn’t resist my scent. Gyronna has brought you to me again so fear not for I will collect you again soon. Your man’s sins are not answered for yet. You will be in my bed again soon enough.”
By the time the soft cold laughter had faded away and Perlivash had found him Topper was curled against the brick wall of the alley lost to fear and vomit watched by a discretely placed cat’s eye stone hidden in the brick.
Akiros Ismort knelt by the bed looking at the small still form hidden by a sheet next to Katilyne’s still form. The last time he had felt this lost had been a moment’s pause during his flight from Taldor and Erastil so many years ago. A moment to recognize what he had done and what he had lost because of his rage. He’d had blood on his hands then as well. Akiros felt weak and lifeless. The feeling in his legs had long since gone dead from kneeling beside the bed. He hadn’t heard the words of condolence from the midwives. He hadn’t noticed those in the room leaving him alone with Katilyne and their son. He hadn’t noticed the cat’s eye stone on the table next to the bed until it had glimmered and produced a faint image of a Taldan noblewoman bearing a grievous mortal wound that looked out with bitter scorn and whispered with cold hate,
“You cannot escape your sins, murderer. All that befalls you flows from your black heart and treacherous sex.”
Seeing her again left Akiros pale and broken, and he had begun to silently despair staring at the unmoving form of his dead son. It was Kat’s cold pale hand that gripped his arm with steady strength that pulled his grieving eyes from the corpse.
“It’s not Akiros. It’s not your fault. It was the Hags and we’ll avenge our son together.”
Katilyne’s reddened eyes tunneled into Akiros. Barely able to move and alive only because of the presence of Corbin drawing the might of Gorum, Katilyne’s fury replaced Akiros’. Akiros Ismort, renowned for his rage and fury, had none until many days had passed and the healings of his blood-brother Corbin and High Priest Kaveken had finally given Katilyne the strength to stand from their bed and attend the funeral of her son with Akiros.
The day following the funeral brought a rage from within Akiros Ismort that none in Narlmarch had ever seen before.