Welcome to the Kourend Chronicles, a six-part series of tales from Kourend's murky past! You can see a full list of all the stories so far on our A Kingdom Divided round-up.
“Ah, you're after that old tale, are you?” The mercenary chuckled and set down his flagon on the table. “Well, stranger, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because it’s a long one.”
He stroked his beard and settled back into his chair, its aged joints creaking.
“Let’s see now… it all started just after they lost the Accord, back in the 135th decade. The lizardmen were pummeling the border and we young recruits were sent out to face ‘em. It was a shame, really. My whole battalion were just boys, like me – and we weren’t ready for a fight. We were cornered. I got bit, and the others got caught up in the charge, left me lying there in the mud. I don’t mind telling you, I was terrified. I thought that was it.
“That’s when she appeared – a miracle. She came storming out of nowhere, cutting down lizardmen left and right until they all turned tail and ran. I’d never seen anything like it – or anything like her, for that matter. Tell the truth, I weren’t certain she wouldn’t turn on us next. Her skin was grey and craggy, like it wasn’t skin at all. Like rock, it was. And her eyes – they were a bit like yours, actually, ‘cept they were blue. Bright blue, and they shone with a strange light that didn’t seem… well, altogether natural. No offence, like.
“With the lizardmen gone I managed to get myself up out of the mud to thank her. She looked me up and down, said something about ‘maintaining the balance’. I was all groggy from the poison, so I didn’t pay it much heed. All I could do was keep telling her that I owed her my life, and that any time she needed a favour, she could come find me.
“When I finally stumbled back into camp, I slept for three days. When I woke, I chalked the whole thing up to delirium and thought no more of it. That is, until I saw her again.”
The old man tapped his leg with a resounding woody thunk.
“After I lost my leg, they chucked me out. But I was young - I could still make something of myself, I thought. So I was minded to sail east and try my luck on the mainland. Signed up with the Traders’ crew, ready for a trip to... ahhh... Port Sarim, I think they called it?
“The morning I was to sail I turned up nice and early, only to be met at the docks by this woman, looking like she hadn’t aged a day. Gave me a fright, I tell you. By the cold light of day she was even stranger than I’d remembered – and twice as vicious looking, too.
“Now, I could have walked on by. To a creature like that I imagine one human looks much like the others. But I’m a man of my word, so I give her the time of day – and by Saradomin, I’m glad I did!
“Like I suspected, she’s here to call in that favour, and it comes with a bonus. 1,000 gold, upfront – and that was a lot back then. AlI needed to do, she said, was take some old trinket or other over to the mainland and hide it there.
““There’s just one catch”, she told me. Under no circumstances was I allowed to open the chest it came in. It all sounded easy enough, and like I said, I’m a man of my word, so I gladly took the job. She handed over the gold there and then, wouldn’t take no for an answer, not that I really pushed the issue. I thought that’d make a good start for me on the mainland.
“Obviously I didn’t tell the captain about the woman, the favour, any of it. I just kept the chest – big, grey and purple thing – in my berth and told everyone it was full of ugly jumpers from my gran. Nobody so much as batted an eyelid.
“But we weren’t even one night into the voyage when the chest started talking to me. I was up on deck, watching the lights of Port Piscarilius vanish over the horizon, when I hear this… this whisper right in my ear. It says:
“Take me back.”
“I put it down to the wind, that first night. Y’see, I’d never before been on a boat, so I thought it perhaps some trick of the sea. Or maybe my crewmates was pulling a prank on the new recruit.
“But then I kept hearing it. Never during the day – only ever at night. It started out all friendly like. “I can give you power beyond your wildest dreams,” this, “Wouldn’t you like to live forever?” that. I didn’t trust it. My gran, formidable lady she was, used to patrol up near that old fishing village, in the north. She taught me that there’s things in this world you don’t ever wants to listen to – and I reckoned this was one such thing.
“The closer we got towards the mainland, the nastier it turned. It talked about how I didn’t know what I was messing with. It said that when it regained its strength, it would remember my name, and where I came from, and what I’d done. But that just made me more determined not to listen.
“The last straw came when I woke up one night to find myself standing over the chest with a chisel in my hand, readying to break it open and let out whatever evil was locked within. Knowing I could trust myself no longer, I snuck down to the cargo hold and stashed it behind a crate of bananas that very night. It made the whispers a little easier to ignore, at least.
“When we landed in Port Sarim I used my first day of shore leave to hike all over the countryside, and that thing talked to me the whole time – begging, threatening. I think it knew what I was doing.
“See, I’d always liked a puzzle, and I thought anyone looking for a thing like this would have nefarious business in mind. I figured I should send any soul who came looking on hopeless errand, hoping they’d bore of the hunt long before they ever found it. Then here’s the best part – I paid a farmer 3 gold to bury it in his pig pen, ‘cause who’s gonna scrabble around some stinky hovel like that for more than a minute?
“Far as I was concerned, I’d held up my end of the bargain. Job well done, if you ask me. I went back to the pub that evening, bought my crewmates a round of Black Skull Ale…“
The old man lifted his tankard.
“… and I’ve been drinking it ever since!”
A half-hearted cheer went up from the tavern’s other patrons. The old man grinned, took a long gulp and then wiped the froth from his beard with a satisfied sigh. The stranger looked on in silence.
“So, stranger,” the old man said, “I’ve travelled all over the world and never seen someone like you. What brings you to Kourend?”
“Just looking for an old friend.” The stranger said. His voice was cracked and dry sounding, like the inside of his throat was all dust and sand.
“Thank you for the story. It was most helpful.”
The old man nodded politely.
“Actually,” the stranger paused, and pulled out a tattered map from the folds of his cloak.
“There is one last thing you can do for me. I’ve never been to the mainland – where did you leave that amulet, again?”
The old man hesitated, then jotted down a few, swift notes on the map.
“Why, thinking you’ll take up farming?” he chuckled. The stranger smiled back at him, thinly, and then took his leave.
The old man finished his drink in silence. Perhaps he shouldn’t have misled the stranger. He was old too, judging by the creak in his bones and the croak in his voice, and he didn’t necessarily have trouble in mind.
But something the stranger said had set the gears in his head turning. After all, he had never mentioned anything about an amulet...
A Kingdom Divided - Coming June 2021