The traveler paused at the crest of the final hill and shielded his eyes against the last light of day. Below him sprawled Casoria, favored city of the Elyon, home of the High King, and the stuff from which legends were made. Until now. He hadn’t known what to expect of civilization, but feeling the sharp, sudden intake of disappointment, he knew he’d expected more.
With a strategist’s eye, he noted there’d been no planning behind the spores of quick housing; some streets were nearly impassable while others were wide and barren of traffic. Nor had any thought been given to defense. The wall surrounding the city was as broken as a hedge, in some places non-existent. The stranger gave a derisive snort. In the legends, it was thirty feet tall and gleaming white.
Still, it was possible to recognize Castle Ursaulis, if only from description, a huge block of stone that reared timelessly in the sky, and also the Garden behind it. To the left was a sprawling graveyard for the recently dead.
The stranger grimaced. There was no denying the war or the part he’d played in it. Casoria, once an embryo of culture and learning, was now a hollow shell.
He began his descent, heading for an open gate.
At first, there seemed to be no sentry, but as the traveler approached, he spotted a man dressed in a soldier’s garb sleeping on a bench just within. His spear lay more than an arm’s length away; helmet and breastplate had been discarded. A depleted wineskin cradled his chest, the ruby drops falling from the spigot in accordance with his rhythmic breathing.
The traveler hesitated, viewing him with equal parts fury and restraint. Restraint vanished when the guard embarked on a series of congested snores. Without further hesitation, the traveler overturned the bench with one well-placed kick. Moments passed as the guard lay face down in the dust, stunned out of sleep.
“Bloody little whelps,” he muttered finally, struggling to his knees. “Damned bastards, you’ll think twice when I see you next.” Spying the wineskins, he reached out and gave it a shake. At the sloshing sound, the guard gave a satisfied grunt. He rose, tilting back his head, but paused when he noticed the shadow.
The shadow was connected to the largest man he’d ever seen. Muscled and lean, the man wore tight fitting leather breeches and a brown tunic. Over the tunic, was a fur vest splotched with blood. A hunting knife was sheathed at his waist. Another was in his boot.
Appearance wasn’t his only advantage, the guard decided, as the ice-blue eyes bore relentlessly into his own. There was physical strength, but also a smoldering anger that the guard, a rapscallion by the name of Arshad, didn’t understand.