by Michael J. Jasper
the short, lopsided battle, as the younger
warriors hauled the dead bandits out of the old castle, the man
known only as Seeker carried a bottle of dark wine over to where
the outrider known only as Fist sat, alone.
Though the Code forbade him to ask the history of another
outrider, Seeker needed to know the man’s story. Now that the
fighting was over, his goal was to loosen the tongue of the big,
scarred man. Night had fallen, yet the moon shone brightly
through holes in the ruined roof of the tower. Seeker’s eyes had
been trained, in his first life, to see perfectly in pitch-black
night, but when he stepped up next to where Fist rested, he
doubted what his eyes saw.
big man was cradling in his hands a perfect red rose.
Seeker turned to leave, chiding himself for even approaching the
other man. He would drink his bottle of wine by himself and try
to forget the way Fist cradled the rose in his hands like an
Seeker was moving away when a voice stopped him: "Wine?"
looked down at Fist again. The rose had disappeared.
"From the black grapes of Southland." Seeker handed the bottle
to Fist. "Enjoy."
stared at Seeker so long with his mismatched eyes, one brown and
one blue, that Seeker nearly let the bottle slip from his
"Will you join me?" Fist said.
Seeker exhaled. "Of course."
took the bottle and removed the cork. After a long drink, he
grunted with appreciation.
"So," the big man said. "You want to know about me."
Seeker cast his gaze around the darkened tower, hoping none of
the others had overheard. Something shifted high above him, at
the top of the ruined tower.
course not," he said, trying to smile. "That’s not our way. ‘One
man’s history is nothing to an outrider,’ of course."
"Would you try to stop me if I attempted to tell you anyway?"
Fist’s mismatched eyes glittered in the moonlight.
Seeker felt a chill fall over him. Out of the corner of his eye
he caught movement above them, inside the castle proper.
But when he turned to look closer, the movement was gone.
course not," he said, motioning for the bottle.
"Good," Fist said. "I have need to tell my story. Tonight."
of the other outriders had pulled out their sleeping rolls and
settled in for the night in the newly-cleaned tower, though
three others, like Fist and Seeker, remained sleepless.
Seeker pulled a flask from an inner pocket. Fist had already
finished most of the rich Southland cabernet. After a quick
mouthful of the sturdy moonshine, he nodded. "So. Tell me."
know this castle well," Fist began. "I was once the lord of this
keep, years ago. Until, only moments after I was given a new
life, I killed my beloved."
Seeker knew he had control enough over the muscles in his face
and body to keep from flinching at the man’s words, but it had
been a struggle. He nodded slowly at Fist.
was named . . . Teresa. In my youth I rode with her father. We
were two young men from neighboring fiefdoms, dreaming of the
day when we would rule our own land, the adventures we would
have before then. We even talked of becoming outriders, leaving
responsibility behind and swearing by the Code."
Seeker smiled with sadness. He vaguely remembered what it was
like to be a boy.
I knew we were deluding ourselves. My father and my uncle had
both relied on me to carry on the leadership of this valley."
Fist waved an arm about him. "As you can see from one glance at
this desolate town, I have disappointed the legacy and the
memory of both men. I would never leave this valley, I thought
as a young buck, wishing for a life of adventure and danger."
he waited, Seeker watched something flicker off to his left, a
snatch of white that could have been a reflection of a distant
fire or moonlight. He touched his daggers and kept his eyes on
both Fist and the broken walls of the keep around them.
summer before my seventeenth year, before my life of
responsibility was scheduled to begin, I was exploring the caves
west of this valley with Teresa’s father, Timoth. We left our
horses hobbled in a grassy field and climbed to the caves with
the enthusiasm of our youth, and soon we were deep inside the
darkness, searching for the fabled drawings left by the Early
People. We found one — a two-headed beast devouring a fawn —
when we heard the horses nicker, followed by the sound of
"Timoth, as was his nature, bolted from the caves, sword in
hand. There had been word of horse thieves in the area, and
Timoth would never be shames by losing his horse to them.
entered the clearing ten steps behind him, just in time to see
both of our horses disappear. Timoth gave chase, and he caught
up to them, easily. He leapt into the midst of the three
thieves, knocking the first rider from his own horse and
breaking the man’s neck when they both landed on the rocks
below. I often wonder how Timoth’s and my lives would have
turned out if there had only been the three thieves that day.
But of course, there were more thieves — there are always
more thieves — and Timoth’s shouting brought them upon us. Half
a dozen more rushed up from the other side of the pass to help
killed two of them myself before they ran off, but Timoth was
badly wounded by the thieves’ daggers. The thieves rode off,
leaving our horses, and Timoth survived, but barely."
Seeker saw the flash of white again, this time off to his right,
at the top of a ruined stairwell. He nearly got up, but Fist’s
hand flashed out and grabbed him by the shoulder.
"Calm yourself," Fist rumbled. "I see it too."
Fighting a surge of anger, Seeker sat down again.
"When he was well, Timoth offered me half of his family’s land
as reward. He claimed I had saved his life, and I couldn’t
refuse: it was a Life Vow. While you may not have heard of such
a thing, in my time a Life Vow was not something to be taken
lightly. On top of that, the land was also in the midst of what
would turn out to be the first season of the Dry Spell."
Seeker looked up sharply at the other man. The Dry Spell had
taken place long before Seeker was born.
refused to take such a gift, for doing so would have ruined
them. Yet, as a result of my refusal, Timoth changed, from that
day on. He grew distant and watched me with a burning look in
his eye. In the meantime, the Dry Spell continued, and people
began leaving our land and the neighboring lands. Almost two
decades it would last, no rain for nineteen growing seasons.
night, a year after my refusal, Timoth challenged me to a night
of gambling with his brothers. I thought nothing of it at the
time, and left my sword at home, taking only a handful of coins
and three bottles of wine. You can probably guess what happened
next. We played cards — mad sixes, five-hand draw, witch’s cat,
queens, and dead jacks, all the old, forgotten games — for most
of the night and into the next morning. The entire time I could
not stop winning Timoth’s money.
"When I realized what he was doing, I folded up my hand, drank
the last of my wine, and gathered up only the coins I had
brought with me from the piles of gold in front of me.
"‘Good night,’ I called to Timoth, right before he dove onto me,
screaming that I would not insult him again by not accepting his
Life Vow. We scrambled through the castle, into the kitchens,
where the morning cooking had already begun. It was there that
Timoth drew his sword on me, outside the hot furnaces of the
drew his sword on me. Even now I can barely believe it.
crazed swinging backed me further into the kitchen, my eyes
never leaving his sword. I didn’t see the pot of hot cooking oil
until I lost my balance and fell backwards, my head striking the
hard metal. The pot overturned onto me.
oil burned off most of my face, but I thank the gods that I only
lost one eye. I was healed as best as their herbs-and-alchemy
man could heal me, and the seeping wound that was my face was
covered in skin taken from a newly-dead man. Despite their
valiant efforts, the pain has never fully left me.
"Timoth was devastated by what happened. He rode off to the
clearing outside the caves where he was
convinced I saved his life, and fell on his sword. This
need not have been so. Timoth had always been one to live by his
emotions, to explode into action before stopping to think. He
was a good man — don’t even begin to think otherwise — but he
was also consumed by helplessness as his own land died and not
even his wife and newborn child could divert his thoughts. In
his last days, I am sure that when he saw my face, he was
reminded of his failures.
"This need not have been so, for I healed quickly, though the
scars, as you can plainly see, will remain until my death."
Seeker could feel the numbness from the wine and his moonshine
filling his extremities. As Fist spoke, Seeker had three more
times caught glimpses of white inside the castle, and he was
convinced it was a person. He saw the figure only in the corner
of his eye before it melted back into the darkness.
that is your story," he whispered, exhaling, careful not to
speak too loudly. His gaze kept returning to the uneven, grayish
flesh on Fist’s face, the flesh of a newly-dead man. Willing his
hand not to shake, he raised his flask. "I toast your strength
in healing and enduring, and I thank you for your tale."
only stared at Seeker. Shuddering, Seeker looked away and saw a
flash of white, like a drape or curtain in the wind. He squinted
into the darkness inside the castle. At the foot of a broken
staircase, a pale face came into view.
Moving his head slowly, he was able to see that the person
appeared to be watching the two men and listening, despite the
distance between them. He blinked, and the face was gone again.
there is more," Fist said. "I haven’t even told you of Timoth’s
daughter. I haven’t told you of my sweet Teresa."
There is no sense in reliving it."
don’t understand, little man." Fist held the rose in his hand
again, though Seeker hadn’t seen the man pull it from the folds
of his cloak. "I must tell you this. For I have need of your
aid, before I can find my final rest. You must listen."
Seeker settled back onto the hard tower floor, forcing his pulse
to slow. For once, he wanted the person he was interrogating to
stop talking, but that was no longer an option.
"Continue," he said, his voice a croak. He knew if attempted to
leave now, the other man would kill him. "Please."
glanced at the broken stairway and his eyes closed for a moment.
He opened them slowly as he spoke in his gravelly voice.
"After Timoth’s self-inflicted death, I threw myself into saving
both my land and Timoth’s, by whatever means necessary. At the
same time, my uncle was killed by bandits, and my father grew
sickly and frail — hardship seems to always follow hot on the
heels of hardship. I knew the responsibility of keeping the
crops alive and the people happy would soon fall upon my
shoulders. I wanted to have a land worth inheriting, not the
dust-filled fields and empty buildings I saw on my rides through
searched for new wells to bring more water to the land, tried to
find new methods of irrigation, and even attempted to reroute a
river with blasting powder and the help of two-dozen
strong-backed criminals from our jails, armed with shovels. None
of it brought the water we so needed. Without rain the land
baked and burned, and each year my head hung lower, until my
back became hunched from attempting to hide my shame and my
disfigurement, despite the efforts
of the herbalists and alchemists of Timoth’s land and my
own, was my only companion during much of the years of the Dry
Spell. When Father passed on, I felt myself grow as dead as the
land around me. Years passed.
redemption came in the form of Teresa. Twice a month I would
visit her and Katherin, Timoth’s wife. Even when Teresa was a
baby, Katherin would let me hold the child. My face never scared
Teresa. She would reach up a tiny hand to touch my ragged cheek
or uneven chin, and she would smile, and . . ."
stopped for a long moment and turned his head toward the castle.
Seeker listened to Fist’s labored breathing and waited. He
didn’t dare look.
that was then, and neither mother nor daughter knew of the Death
Vow Timoth had made with his adviser. More binding and permanent
than any other vow, this was Timoth’s third and final attempt to
repay me for saving his life all those years ago. He knew I
wouldn’t dare deny this vow, as it was made just before he left
this world . . .
was given his daughter, Teresa.
the start of her fifteenth year, she became my property. The
young girl with the curly brown hair, the smiling child with her
father’s eyes and temper, the always-growing Teresa I’d visited
during the long years of the Dry Spell, was now to become my
wife. No one could refuse a man’s Death Vow. On her fifteenth
birthday, Teresa arrived at this castle, before it fell into its
current state of disregard.
"Growing up without a father made Teresa stronger than most
would have guessed upon first sight of her. She was a small
girl, somewhat pale-skinned, but her eyes were sharp and
piercing. She had a short temper, like her father, and was quick
to act and speak her mind. Never once did she complain. She
simply took the news with a cool smile and began packing her
belongings. Her only regrets, she would tell me later, were
having to leave her mother behind, not getting the opportunity
to select a wedding dress, and not having a proper wedding
gave her the entire southern wing as her own. I would not allow
her into my bedroom as my bride. I put off organizing the
wedding ceremony. I could not let such a beautiful, intelligent
girl wither away with me in a forced marriage. We would carry
out her father’s binding Death Vow in spirit, if not in detail.
In my own way I loved her, but not in the manner her father
events during the next year changed those feelings. The first
was a visit from a traveling circus to my fiefdom. Those who
remained in my land in spite of the Dry Spell were somehow able
to find the means to pay the small charge to watch the
magicians, the painted-faced men and women, and the horse riders
in their battered tents leaning in the town square. Any
distraction from the heat and the dryness was worth the expense,
and this circus did not disappoint. They even had a thin, bony
elephant that would bow for a handful of peanuts. Teresa went
without me, and she came back with her cheeks flushed red, straw
in her hair, and a book of alchemy.
should not have been surprised to see her with the book of
alchemy. Teresa was always one
for knowledge. She could read even the densest book of science,
or the arcane journals of my advisers, or the printed version of
the ballads of her favorite tales of dragons and warriors, and
the words would remain with her forever. During the circus’s
brief stay, she most enjoyed the tent of the so-called Sorcerer.
She watched him make iron coins disappear and reappear as gold,
observed how he pulled eggs of bronze from the mouths of
audience members, and stared in amazement as he turned corn silk
into ropes of silver. It was he who convinced her to buy the
book of alchemy.
I had known the evil that book was to bring into my land, I
would have burned it and killed the Sorcerer myself."
Again the man across from Seeker stopped himself and looked
away. His big shoulders shook again, but no sound came from the
man’s mouth. Seeker looked away.
is the face of regret, Seeker thought to himself. He had seen
such regret in the broken men in the many windowless,
underground rooms scattered throughout the land, moments after
he had wrung a confession from them. He’d seen it briefly in the
pale face of a young man, right before the boy’s eyes clouded
over with madness. I know much of regret, Seeker thought.
I did none of those things," Fist continued. "Instead, I let
Teresa keep the book, and a week later I picked it up, hoping to
find something of use for the land, which was still dead after
all the years of the Dry Spell.
"What I found, to my shock, was a chapter that dealt with
enchantments, written in the Ancient Language. In those few
pages written in the nearly-forgotten script, the only chapter
in the book that used the Ancient Language, I learned I could
give objects power over certain aspects of our lives.
enchanted coin could suck the bad luck from a cursed piece of
land. A stick filled with enchantment could hold the ability to
crack the earth. A perfect rose could remove... But I am getting
ahead of myself.
sent riders after the Sorcerer, but he eluded them all and was
never found. Knowing that Teresa was unable to read the language
— Timoth and I were the last of our generation to have to learn
the Ancient Language, and it had been an arduous process for us
both — I began to learn all I could about enchantments. At
first, all I wanted from the book was to learn how to pull rain
from the sky.
"Surely it would have ended there, and I would never have become
an outrider, if the first rains hadn’t come to my land in almost
"This rainfall was the second element in our shared downfall.
The first rain hadn’t been much, only enough to wet the dust and
keep the dead crops from blowing away. But for the entire next
week, the rains came. The Ancient enchantments had worked. The
parched earth drank deeply, and those remaining in my land began
to have hope once again. Plants began to grow again, including
the roses in my courtyard.
"Free from my worry over the land for the first time in two
decades, I realized there was something I wanted to do with the
knowledge I found in the book. I told myself I wanted to do this
for Teresa, but I was only deluding myself. I realize now I did
it for selfish purposes.
"According the chapter in the book, it would be quite easy. All
I needed were the proper words, the proper hand gestures, the
proper time of day, and the proper receptacle. One of the roses
blooming in my garden would work perfectly for this, I knew.
kept myself distant from Teresa during this time, and practiced
the words until they were etched into my memory. She was
constantly at my door, but I kept the locks thrown and would not
see her. Her curiosity was surely getting the best of her, and
her words were harsh and suspicious.
do this for you, my Teresa, I would think, ignoring the pounding
of her fist at my door.
midnight during the new moon, I performed the alchemy, the
reddest rose from my gardens in my hand, its thorns biting into
my palm and fingers. As I spoke the words, the rose turned black
as the scales of the scar tissue melted from my face. Blurry
vision filled my dead eye, slowly clearing, and within five
heartbeats I could see from it again. Just as the book
predicted, the perfect rose absorbed my misshapen form.
did not dare look into a mirror until the sun came up the next
day. When I did, I couldn’t contain my joy, and my laughter
echoed through my chambers. I was whole again. Even my hunched
back straightened with the pride in my appearance. I felt, at
last, that I could ask Teresa to be my bride.
before I could ask her, she came
looking for me after hearing my rare laughter. She stopped at my
desk, as if afraid to come closer after she saw my face.
love,’ she said. She plucked the blackened rose from my desk and
gripped it in her hands. ‘You read my book, didn’t you?’
couldn’t answer her. All I could see was the delicate, withered
flower in her hands. I was whole only as long as the enchanted
rose remained whole, and I couldn’t let the rose come to any
further harm. At the same time, I couldn’t stop running my hands
over my smooth face.
"‘Father taught Mother the Ancient Language,’ she said.
"‘Teresa,’ I said, my voice barely a whisper. I didn’t even
think to ask her about the words of the book, and how she knew
them. ‘Give me the rose.’
"‘And Mother taught it to me as a way to remember Father.’
Teresa shook her head. ‘Don’t you know, my Samuel, that I love
you?’ She held up the rose and looked at my new face with
a grimace. ‘That face is not yours. That is not the face I grew
up with as a child, the face of the man I love.’
thought I understood our relationship, but when I saw her eyes,
I saw Timoth’s instead. And they were looking at me with a grim
satisfaction as she began crushing the rose in her hand.
want the true Samuel,’ she said. ‘Not the creature I see
in front of me now.’
didn’t even have time to scream. The burning pain of the hot oil
from years earlier entered my face and boiled away my eye all
over again. My flesh bubbled and shriveled up into its old
shape. I’d been whole for all of seven hours.
"When I looked into the mirror, feeling the dead skin on my face
again, I felt my back hunch over with rage. I saw as last how
Timoth had punished me for saving his life, cursing me three
times over with his death, my disfigurement, and now with his
daughter. His strong-willed, headstrong daughter, holding the
crumpled, rose that was blood red once again, free of the
ugliness I had forced into it. And Teresa dared to smile at me
in my grotesquerie, repeating what her father did to me years
the first time in my life, I let my rage overtake me. I struck
Seeker could sense the sun beginning to rise even before the
night sky had begun to lighten. During and after his five years’
entrenchment as the Royal Interrogator, when he’d learned how to
earn the trust of the guilty and get them to confess their
crimes to him, he’d never heard such a story.
was to marry her," the big man continued. "I would have been a
lord with his lady, and we would have ruled our two rejuvenated
lands together. But my rage gave me inhuman strength. Teresa
was buried in her mother’s wedding dress, a garment she never
wore while alive. Wearing that dress, her ghost watches us from
the castle tower, in the wing where she can no longer leave. It
was not luck, nor was it your tracking skills, nor the whispered
gossip of the townspeople, that brought us here today. It was
Seeker lifted a heavy hand to rub the back of his neck, where
his flesh had turned cold and prickly. Movement flickered in the
corner of his eye. It may have been a woman in a white dress,
slipping behind a column in the southern wing of the castle.
Perhaps she was clad a wedding dress that had never been worn
while the wearer was alive.
"Teresa," Seeker said, swallowing hard. "She’s still here?"
nodded. "She waits for me."
big man stood, and Seeker lifted himself painfully to his own
feet, his legs cramped from sitting for so long. Fist reached
out and dropped the red rose into Seeker’s hand. Through the
stem had been slightly bent, the petals were still soft and
almost moist. Fist motioned for Seeker to follow.
two men walked in silence through the outriders assembled in the
tower. Those who slept moved in sudden pain as Fist passed, and
those who could not rest felt the traces of a nightmare fill
their minds. The moment passed, and they stood inside the
southern wing of the dead castle. They were not alone.
"Teresa," Fist said. He held his gaze down, focused on his big,
clenched hands. "Forgive me."
Seeker felt his knees waver as soft footsteps approached in the
darkness. Despite his night vision, he was unable to see with
any sort of clarity who was approaching. All he saw was a woman
dressed all in white, wavering in his peripheral vision. He felt
her sadness, mixed with a hint of rage and, strangely, relief.
Samuel," the woman said in a rough, whispering voice. "You came
back for me, at last."
Fist’s eyes were locked onto something just behind Seeker. The
big man held a dagger to his own neck. The hand holding the
dagger never shook.
soon as this is done," the big man said, his emotionless voice
raising on Seeker’s arms. "I want you to burn my body and this
accursed rose. Neither of us will be free until this rose is
destroyed and its enchantment is removed."
looked away from Seeker at the shimmering young woman in white a
few feet away. "I also ask that you remember my story. Remember
Seeker nodded, and Fist’s dagger moved. No matter how man times
Seeker heard it, his ears could never grow accustomed to the
sound of metal upon flesh.
perfect red rose in his hand began to wither and darken, and the
small, pale girl in the white wedding dress made a sighing
sound. And then she faded away, taking a chill breeze with her
as she passed. The ruined castle was again heavy with silence.
dawn broke, the man known only as Seeker — who in a previous
life had been a King’s operative until the day he interrogated a
suspected criminal too long and made the boy lose his mind — began retelling the story of Fist and his beauty to himself.
sat whispering to himself in the darkness, eyes closed, until
flames began to turn his eyelids orange. He opened his eyes and
looked off into the distance. Somewhere in the kingdom a young
man was locked in a jacket with his arms tied tightly to his
side, and Seeker owed that boy, the last suspect he ever
interrogated, this story. There had to be a middle ground
between hard truth and a happy ending, he thought. For the
disfigured man lying on the pyre in front to him, for a
headstrong young girl and her father, and even for an outrider
like Seeker, seeking justice on the winding roads of the King’s
color of the rose had faded to a dark red that was almost black.
The story fresh in his mind, Seeker threw the rose onto the
fire, and yellow-orange flame swallowed it.
will keep this vow, he thought. This Death Vow.
Seeker told the story over and over to himself as his fellow
outriders rose and prepared their horses for their next
campaign. This version of the story, the one he would tell
others, would end with the hero’s return to the arms of his
beloved, followed by a reunion with a wayward friend. They would
walk together in their shared lands and rejoice in the green
grass and healthy croplands. As far as stories went, it would
not be far from either truth or happiness. Or so Seeker hoped.