Baird stood in the musty stable strapping Frenzy’s saddle in place. The door opened and a furious, icy wind swept through, disturbing hay and toppling buckets. Rain and sleet splattered across the wooden floorboards, soaking the straw as several horses grunted disapprovingly.
“Duke’s hairy arse,” someone grumbled as they slammed the door shut, muffling the hideous weather outside. It continued to howl and roar around the building. “Ne’er gets any better, does it?”
Baird smiled as he secured the final strap of the saddle. “Give it a couple of days.”
The man, Erlon the stable master, laughed as he shook out his cloak. Enough water poured from it to make a puddle around his feet that Frenzy took to lapping at.
“Aye, about that,” Erlon began. “I thought it best to collect your stable fees before you left, if you know what I mean.”
“I know precisely what you mean,” Baird said, fishing around in the coin pouch at his belt. “You’re afraid that I shall be so mobbed by adoring fans upon my return you’ll never get near me.”
“Sure,” Erlon said. “Let’s go with that.”
Baird flicked a coin to him and returned to tending his horse. Erlon had to juggle a few times before he got a proper grasp. When he did, he scowled.
“Aye, and the rest of it,” he said, brandishing the coin. “This is a half.”
“Erlon,” Baird began, turning to the man with an easy smile. “Come now. Just think how much business you’ll get when people find out the saviour of the Glen stabled their horse here.”
Erlon held his hand out with a glare. Baird kept his earnest grin firmly affixed but Erlon did not budge an inch. After a moment Baird finally accepted his loss, pouting.
“Oh fine, take it,” he huffed, digging out another coin and flicking it to Erlon with a touch of venom.
“What’s wrong with you, boy?” the stable master snarled as he retrieved the coin from the dirty floor. “Not like you to be so tight fisted.”
Baird focused intently on Frenzy as he ran a brush needlessly over the beast’s coat. “I just… I wanted to give that to my mother.” He then shot a sharp look at Erlon. “Just to tide her over until my return.”
A half sovereign would tide the woman over for weeks, never mind his short trip. Erlon looked down at the coins in his hand and then up at the well-stocked horse. Well stocked with weaponry and armour. A glance didn’t reveal much food or camping gear. “This is all you’ve got left?”
“It’s the off season,” Baird said with a noncommittal shrug. “Won’t be until the festivals that all the bandits show their heads again.”
Erlon sucked his teeth. It was true enough and Baird had been buying unusual and expensive equipment for his go at the quest, attempted by many over hundreds of years and completed by none.
“You’ve waited this long. Why not leave it one more half year?”
“I’m done waiting,” Baird replied. “I’m finally ready.”
Erlon sighed and shook his head. “Here,” he said, thrusting his hand out to Baird. The adventurer lifted his head and the stable master dropped both coins into his palm. “For your mother. She’s gonna have enough to worry about.”
Baird quickly looked away, tucking the coins into his purse. “On my return you’ll be repaid tenfold.” He gave Erlon a furtive glance and returned to the finishing touches with his horse. “Thank you.”
The stable master nodded. It was the closest to humility he’d ever get out of the little shit. “Be careful. And don’t be stupid. A lot of folks have actually managed to come back in recent years.”
“Think of yer ma,” he persisted. “No one’ll judge you for coming back.”
Baird turned and looked at Erlon levelly. “I will be back, long before those coins run out. I’ve slain more than anyone in this Glen, mundane and magical alike. I will kill that sorcerer, Erlon. Not even the gods can stop me.”
He went to his mother’s house direct from the stables. She was delighted to see him, despite berating him for dripping all over the floor. He gave her the coins, which she repeatedly tried to give back, and did a quick inspection of the house to ‘ensure there weren’t any leaks.’ There was enough in the house she could sell to keep herself fed, if anything happened. Not that it would, obviously, but it was reassuring to know.
Then there was nothing else for him to do but set out on the road. He’d waited for this his entire life, dreamed of the moment his blade severed the sorcerer’s head and the storms that had plagued the Glen for centuries fell silent. He’d tried to imagine it as a child, shoving his head under pillows or hiding in cellars but the constant roar of the wind and the rain could not be suppressed. Baird’s hands shook with excitement, hardly able to believe it was finally his turn. He would be the one to bring justice for the weather goddess.
The journey was wrought with gale force winds that caused Frenzy to stumble; with rain half ice that mercilessly pelted Baird’s body, penetrating his thick travelling gear; with such poor visibility that he may as well have shut his eyes. So like a trip to the baker’s, just longer. There was no shelter on the road and while trying to sleep Frenzy made an exceptionally poor and cantankerous windbreak. Rumours told him that long ago, before the winds, trees were a common thing – that there had been whole forests of the things. Now only the most gargantuan of them remained upright and even fewer alive thanks to the constant storms.
Despite everything—his growing hunger, exhaustion and cold—he soldiered on. The route, at least, was in his favour. So travelled the path to the tower was that what had once been a beaten track was now practically a road. It was more frequented than most trade routes. His lack of needing to pack up camping gear and Frenzy’s slow yet unfaltering gait meant they made very good time. Most horses tired quickly in the weather but Frenzy was bred to be a cart horse, not some idiot mercenary’s steed. After three days of journeying a tall, thin shadow began to stretch up past the horizon, a grey omen barely visible against the rain and clouds.
Baird grinned, water dripping down his face from his somewhat ineffectual hood. “Good job, Frenzy,” he said, giving the horse a slap on the side of the neck. “This is it. My destiny. I just know it.”
If Frenzy could have rolled his eyes, he would have.
Over the next hour, the tower grew up high into the sky until the base was just visible through the weather. From then, it took even longer for the tower to start feeling as though it was drawing near. Eventually, it loomed over them both.
Baird looked up at it with a wide smile, his face pelted with rain and his hood filling like a water skin. After a moment it slipped from his head, depositing the water onto a disgruntled Frenzy’s back. Baird leapt to the ground, stumbling. The wind here was the worst he’d ever experienced, to the point where he was astounded that any manmade structure could have survived all this time. He drew his sword and stalked forward as best he could braced against the gale, ready for assailants to jump out at any moment. Frenzy, thoroughly unimpressed, plodded after him.
Baird approached the doors, easily three times his height, with caution. He’d fought magical types before and didn’t believe a single sorcerer could not have met their match after all these years. The number of challengers compared with the number who actually came back was not promising. Sword raised and ready, his foot touched the steps. The doors swept slowly backwards into the tower of their own accord. Baird hesitated, then shook his head.
“Come on, boy,” he said. “Let’s see if there’s another way in.”
They circled the tower, finding excesses of uneven scrub and solid masonry. There were also skeletons. Lots and lots of discarded skeletons. It didn’t take long for them both to be staring into the gaping maw of the same doorway again, inviting them in from the fearsome storm. There was a flash across the sky, accompanied by the rumble of thunder. Frenzy nudged Baird’s shoulder with his nose.
He approached the doorway. Everything inside was still. He crossed the threshold, stepping out of the rain. The tower’s base was a single room, gloomy and derelict. The floor was dim and dusty, fallen victim to time and neglect. There were marks in the dust and not just Baird’s, easily identifiable due to the water droplets all around them. A wide, spiralling staircase led up. The dust on the steps had been brushed by something as well. With quick, graceful steps, he checked behind each door and scouted the room, finding nothing malicious. Satisfied that he was alone on this floor, Baird brought Frenzy inside and the doors swung shut by themselves. Baird exhaled and took to strapping on a few additional pieces of armour.
He pulled a belt from one of the packs on Frenzy’s back, covered in thick glass bulbs with powders and liquids. He might have been a cocky bastard but he always made sure he was prepared. Especially where magic was involved. All of his trinkets, talismans and potions had, after he’d given his last sovereign to his mother, left him penniless. He took some ancient wristbands and tied them on, the warm, pink stones clacking quietly together. It took time to strap every piece of protective gear he had to various parts of his body. His years of delay had been filled with research. He might act arrogant and fearless but he valued his life. His self-assurance came from a lot of hard work.
Hands trembling with anticipation, he placed the chain of the final protective sigil—a shielded silver stick figure—over his head, to let it sit upon his breastplate. He was ready. His whole life had been building to this moment and he was finally ready. He patted Frenzy with a wide smile.
“When we return, my friend, it shall be as kings.” Baird turned and made for the stairs.
Frenzy would have liked to point out that they lived in a duchy. Alas, what with being a horse, he could not.
Baird had mostly stopped dripping by the time he began his ascent of the stairs. The first floor looked much like the ground floor and there was disturbance apparent here as well. There was something in this tower and it wasn’t a rat. As his foot touched the first step of the next flight of stairs up, a piercing whinny came from below.