science fiction and fantasy writer

The Tax Collector of Rhuin

Sarheic looked around the room, kitchen for both shop and family, while the baker counted out his taxes at the table. The baker’s wife and two children, sitting together by the hearth, returned his scrutiny. The children’s eyes were wide, the wife’s expression cool. Sarheic was accustomed to both reactions, here and elsewhere.

He was less accustomed to the spark of resentment he saw in the woman’s face, or the momentary, snarling curl of her lip when her eyes flickered to the piles of coins and promissory notes on the table.

Less accustomed, but becoming more so. And disturbed by it, in the expressions of good Rhuinish folk.

The faces of the woman and her offspring were pinched, their limbs gaunt beneath threadbare clothes. Sarheic remembered them being plump, the youngest child as a fat baby rolling on the floor only a year ago. The baker had the bruised eyes and creased brow of one who slept too little and worried too much. That, too, disturbed Sarheic.

He cleared his throat. “I used to like the little cakes you would make. I am disappointed that you stopped.”

The baker froze.

Silence, for a moment, then the wife answered, spitting words, “Can’t afford the quality of flour to make them with anymore.”

Sarheic turned his gaze back to her and watched the rest of it die, unspoken, on her tongue. Snake, she had been about to call him, used as an insult, and perhaps another epithet or two to go with it.

Her husband hissed at her. He bobbed his head to Sarheic. “Beg pardon.”

Sarheic raised a hand briefly to dismiss the apology. He could forgive the woman her ignorance. The snake remained somnolent, curled in the pit of his belly.

He probed again, more directly. “Your children’s clothes have holes.”

Once again, it was the wife who answered, “Only so many times you can darn worn-out cloth.” Her tone was less sharp this time, wariness taking the place of venom.

“Hard to afford new,” said the baker, apologetically.

“Business is poor?”

The man licked his lips. He threw a look at his wife and flinched from her scowl. He swallowed. “Business is as good as ever, truth be told.”

“But…” He knew the answer already but had a need, that he could not adequately explain to himself, to hear someone else say it.

Again, the man glanced at his wife and again he flinched. “Taxes are higher than they were.”

“Too high,” snapped the wife. “When they don’t leave a man enough to feed and clothe his own.”

Too high, Sarheic added silently, when so much of it goes now into Ornomagnen coffers and too little remains for the strength and wealth of Rhuin. He was aware of his fists clenching, his heart beating a little faster while he re-examined the notion that had planted itself in the fore of his thoughts over the past few days. The baker and his family all seemed to hold their breaths. Sarheic inhaled through his nose, taking in the smells of warm bread and woodsmoke and the baker’s anxious sweating.

The snake was alert now, deep down, but he didn’t need it for this.

He exhaled slowly and unclenched his fists. “Perhaps,” he said, “you have miscounted.”

“I…” the baker began.

Sarheic leaned over the table, resting his weight on his hands and staring at the baker until the man met his gaze and held it.

“You would have fought in the war,” he said. There was only one war that needed no name, the victorious war, when the Rhuinish host had ravaged their way across Ornomagne a generation before, sacking cities and crushing every army sent against them.

The baker blinked. He shook his head. “I didn’t. Got one leg shorter than the other. Army wouldn’t take me.”

Sarheic straightened, hiding his disappointment. “You should check your books. I will return tomorrow.”

The baker stammered incoherently for a moment, before managing a strangled, “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

With a nod to the dumbfounded wife, Sarheic took his leave.

A right decision, he thought, pausing outside. It felt good, but where did it leave him? A tax collector who encouraged good folk to cheat their taxes? To cheat an Ornomagnen overlord, though, and keep Rhuinish wealth in Rhuin.

Someone bumped into his back, hard.

“Watch where you’re standing, fool.”

Rough fingers caught his arm. Sarheic allowed himself to be turned, even as the snake rose up inside.

His assailant took a step back before striking what he evidently imagined was an aggressive posture. Sarheic looked him up and down, aware of the snake looking out through his eyes. The boy was Rhuinish, but wearing a wide Ornomagnen cavalier’s hat and roll-topped boots. The rest of his attire was similarly Ornomagnen frippery and he wore a narrow duellist’s sword at his hip, but no pistol.

 “Got something to say to me, Snake?” the boy said, resting his hand on the pommel of his sword.

A bluff, rather than a genuine threat, Sarheic thought. His rodent face will be matched by a mouse’s heart, added the snake.

“Apologise,” the boy demanded.

Unlikely, you mannerless turd, from the snake. Sarheic could feel its anticipation, its eagerness for him to turn it loose.

The boy’s friends jeered. Sons of minor nobles or well-to-do merchants, Sarheic surmised, with fathers in possession of both Ornomagnen connections and clever accountants. Soft-handed, soft-headed tadpoles.

Sarheic considered. There were four of them, and he was presently unarmed. Easily rectified, the snake pointed out. But to kill or seriously wound them – even under provocation – would certainly cost him his job. He hadn’t yet decided for certain that he no longer wanted it, having kept it his whole adult life, save for the interlude of the war.

He decided to forgive their ignorance. The snake subsided, disappointed. Like the baker and his wife, they knew him only as Sarheic the tax collector. His nickname had stayed with him but they did not remember how he came to have it.

Remind them, hissed the snake, hopefully.

Hush, he told it.

He remained silent, with his hands by his sides.

He saw the boy’s Adam’s apple bob, his confidence faltering in the face of Sarheic’s impassiveness. An Ornomagnen youth would have drawn his weapon, taking it for further insult, but these children were only play-acting.

“Bah!” said one of the others. “Leave him. He’s not worth the trouble. Old fool’s not even carrying a sword.”

The first boy sneered. “Go crawl back under your rock, Snake.”

He hawked and spat at Sarheic’s feet.

“Coward,” added one of his friends.

Crowing triumphantly, they swaggered on their way. Sarheic looked down at the gob of phlegm on his boot, briefly reconsidering his forbearing attitude.

Yes! cried the snake. The thrice inbred little smears of infected snot!

It took some effort to subdue it, this time.

Ornomagnen poison, he thought, continuing on to his next appointment. Sooner or later one of those boys would draw steel and would kill or be killed over something equally as petty as a bump in the street. His eyes followed a trio of genuine Ornomagnen cavaliers as they went striding past, swords at their hips and pistols across their chests, watched honest Rhuinish folk scurry out of their way. They were the sort who would kill over a wrong look – had done, no doubt. Who would slaughter those Rhuinish boys for trying to emulate them.

Barely two years had passed since the Whelp who sat on the throne at Neic-ap-Nagh had sold away the land and pride of his people to the son of the very king his father had humiliated only a generation before. Sold, for the price of a minor Ornomagnen princess and to give his heirs a secondary claim to a foreign throne. Sold, all that every Lord of Rhuin before him and every able Rhuinishman had fought to preserve with blood and iron and every ounce of will they had. Sarheic found his fists clenching again.

The snake lurked in the depths, wide-awake still.

He watched a pair of young women totter along the street, faces pale from lack of air, barely able to breathe in their ridiculous corsets, necks corded with the strain of holding upright their enormous, piled wigs. A copper golem followed a mercer in the opposite direction, its arms loaded with bolts of cloth. Sarheic’s gaze alighted on a beggar squatting at the side of the street. What dignity was there left for simple working folk when merchants could purchase alchemical slaves – powered by Ornomagnen magic – instead?

Barely two years, and all the absurdities of Ornomagnen dress and manners and their golems and their imbecilic honour code were seeping into the blood of Rhuin like poison. What honour was there in threatening an unarmed man? What absurdity was it that compelled men to duel to the death over the most trivial and imaginary slights?

But what was there to do about it? I know, volunteered the snake. What, when the lords of Rhuin had quickly realised the Whelp’s treachery could enrich them, as well?

Although, Sarheic thought, not all the lords were happy, if rumour were to be believed. His eyes turned to the dark-walled keep that cast its afternoon shadow across the city streets. If rumour were to be believed, then Lord Tibuir was most displeased that Rhuin was now a mere fief of Ornomagne.

If.

Sarheic wondered. Old Tibuir was nothing if not a politician – a thief among thieves. It could well be that Lord Tibuir was himself the origin of the rumour, while at the same time he happily pocketed his share of proceeds from Ornomagne’s ever more blatant robbery of his countrymen.

The robbery in which, Sarheic noted sourly, he was himself complicit.

#

“I cannot pay,” wailed the man, middle-aged and soft without being plump. “The taxes are too high and we are too poor.”

Tears streamed down his cheeks. Sarheic looked past him through the door of the apartment. It was high enough, at the top of a four-storey block, for its windows to catch the afternoon sun. A very old woman dozed in an armchair positioned to catch the best of it. She coughed, but did not appear to wake.

“My mother is very sick,” the man said, following his gaze. “I can barely work because I have to take care of her. There is barely enough money for food. The taxes are too high.”

Sarheic felt a knowing calm descend over him, knowing now what to say in response. Six more times that day, he had repeated the offer he had made to the baker. Six more times, it had been greeted with the same wondrous disbelief as the baker and his wife had shown. Only twice had he withheld the offer, once for a fat moneylender and the other for an Ornomagnen alchemist.

He looked at the soft man until he stopped speaking, “Perhaps you have miscalculated.”

The man slapped his hands to the sides of his face. “No, no, no,” he moaned. “It is all correct, the taxes are just too high. There will be too little left for food, too little for my mother’s medicine.”

Sarheic blinked at the unexpected response. Was the man an imbecile? He leaned forward, bringing his face closer to the distressed fellow’s and waiting until the man met his gaze and held it. “Perhaps you have miscalculated.”

Faintly, the other shook his head. “No.” His lip trembled. “The taxes are just too high.”

Sarheic bit down on an exasperated retort. The snake was with him immediately. Have you brains or a smashed ham stuffed into your skull, you miserable oaf?

Sarheic drew back, perplexed, holding the snake in check, and considered while the fellow stood quivering with emotion. He could hardly tell the man outright to cheat on his taxes, but what was he to do if the fellow was too dense to bridge the gap himself? At a loss, he said, “I will return tomorrow. Think on what I have said, and tomorrow we shall see what is to be done.”

“Tomorrow will make no difference…”

Tomorrow,” Sarheic said, and the snake had more than half control of his voice.

The fellow flinched as if struck. Then he nodded, his head bowed, seeming to deflate as he did so.

Sarheic descended the stairs slowly, deep in thought.

He had to collect something from this quivering blancmange with his sick mother. But could he, in good conscience? But then what if he did not? If not him, then some other collector, some collaborator or – worse – some Ornomagnen, would come instead and demand the full amount. Perhaps a night’s sleep would allow the fellow to think more clearly.

“Snake,” he heard a woman’s voice mutter as he stepped out into the flow of pedestrian traffic on the street. He turned to see as he started walking, but could not identify the speaker. Several people returned his gaze with the same resentment he had seen in the baker’s wife.

Sarheic met their stares mildly, allowing the snake to see with him, and forgave them their ignorance.

He could have come home hailed a hero. Sarheic the Snake, who had bested every champion the Ornomagnen had sent against him – all bar one. But how many men could say that they had duelled the Ebony Man and lived? And he did defeat the Sycamore Man. Who else alive could say that they had beaten one of the Solitary Men?

But he hadn’t the temperament to be a hero, and so Sarheic the Snake had become Sarheic the tax collector once more.

He smirked to himself. Sarheic the Snake, hero of Rhuin.

#

That evening, as the last of the sunset lingered on the horizon and the tea houses along the street were filled with conversation, Sarheic climbed up from the balcony of his modest apartment and sat on the roof of the building to watch the stars.

A good day’s work, he thought. A just day’s work. Tomorrow held a pleasant anticipation. But his thoughts kept returning, disturbed, to the soft man with the sick mother, a fly in the ointment of his good mood.

Shouts disrupted the hum of voices below. Sarheic peered over the edge of the tiles. Soldiers pushed between the chairs of the teahouses. Rhuinish soldiers, in the uniforms of Lord Tibuir. Their faces were turned upwards as they jostled the teahouse patrons. One briefly aimed his musket, provoking cries of consternation from the people around him. Sarheic followed the gun’s aim to the rooftop opposite.

A man-shape danced along the peak of the roof and sprang lightly across the gap to the next building. Man-shaped, but barely the size of a cat. The snake observed with a predator’s hungry interest as the figure slid across the steeper tiles of the next roof, passing through the spill of light from a garret window. It was a porcelain doll, Sarheic saw, raffishly dressed.

He watched it scamper away into the night, the noise of its pursuers receding after it.

A golem, he thought. Ornomagnen, said the snake.

He turned to look in the direction from which the doll and its pursuers had come. The black silhouette of Lord Tibuir’s keep, dotted with lamp-lit windows, loomed against the night sky.

#

There was a new rumour about on the streets the next morning. An Ornomagnen spy, a golem disguised as a child’s toy, had been discovered in the private suites of Lord Tibuir’s family but had escaped. Tibuir’s Hound had left the city in pursuit during the night.

Sarheic listened with half an ear while he walked along, biting into the little cake the baker’s wife had given him. Perhaps the earlier rumours were true, he thought, and Lord Tibuir had indeed been plotting rebellion. What would happen now, he wondered?

He slowed when he neared the address of the soft man and his sick mother. A crowd was gathered in front of the tenement building, city watchmen with quarterstaffs holding them back. With a sinking feeling in his gut, Sarheic pushed his way through to the front.

The bodies still lay where they had landed, on their sides, the son embracing his mother. Sarheic looked up at the balcony four storeys above. His vision went red. The snake took over the beat of his heart, filled the space behind his eyes, filled his muscles, his ears.

“Damn you,” it hissed with his mouth. “Damn you, you pox-addled cretin. You dunce. You grub, you… you centipede.”

Why didn’t you listen? Sarheic wailed, inside.

A sergeant of the watch had noticed him and sauntered over. “You have an interest here, tax collector?”

The snake stared at him.

“Man left a letter,” the sergeant continued, jaw jutting with resentment. “Said he couldn’t pay his taxes and still care for his mother.”

Sarheic wrested enough control back from the snake to say, “I was here yesterday. I…” He stopped, suddenly uncertain of what he had been about to say. That he had offered the dead man the chance to cheat his taxes? To keep enough back for food and his mother’s medicine?

Something struck him in the back. The snake whirled him about in time to slap aside another thrown horse turd.

“Snake!”

“Ornomagnen stooge!”

A man stepped out from the crowd, burly and half a head taller than Sarheic, dressed in the sleeveless tabard of a porter that showed-off his tattooed biceps. He thrust out a meaty hand to push Sarheic in the chest. It was too much.

He let the snake have its way.

The snake caught the porter’s fingers and twisted, then brought the heel of his other hand up under the big man’s elbow. The joint snapped with an audible pop. The porter screamed. The snake hissed.

Stooge, am I?” it bellowed. “Stooges, all of you! Curs! Lap dogs! Sitting open-mouthed beneath Ornomangen arseholes to lick up their shit and swallow it as it falls.” Spittle sprayed from Sarheic’s lips, but the snake had him and he didn’t care. “Rhuinishmen lived here, once. Not curs. Not sheep. Not rabbits, to be kicked and fleeced and skinned and butchered for meat!”

The crowd fell back as the snake stepped forward, propelling its jibbering captive by his broken arm. A watchman barred his path with his quarterstaff. The snake took it from him, one handed. Sarheic remembered just in time that the man before him was Rhuinish, and an honest servant of the city to boot, and the snake only dented the idiot’s pot helm rather than braining him.

The faces around Sarheic were suddenly wide-eyed with fear. Only now did it occur to them why he was the only tax collector in the city who went about his business alone and unarmed.

The sergeant said something but the snake wasn’t hearing words and so Sarheic could not either. The crowd parted, jostling each other aside for him to make his way through.

“Spit on you, I say!” And the snake did, catching a woman on the front of her blouse. “Spit on you. And should you dislike it, then look behind your sheep’s fleeces and your rabbits’ tails and your dogs’ lapping tongues and find your Rhuinish hearts.”

It kicked its prisoner in the back of the knee and let him fall.

There was a breathless quiet as Sarheic strode away, broken by the whimpering of the porter over his broken arm.

Two heartbeats.

Three.

Four.

Then a shout, as the mob discovered easier targets within its own number. Young fools dressed up as Ornomagnen, perhaps. A roar followed, punctuated by screams, then a pistol shot. Sarheic didn’t look back, could barely see ahead past the haze of red that clouded his vision.

#

He went first to the baker’s, threw the purse with startled man’s taxes onto the shop counter and told him to hide it. Then he went home and climbed onto the roof of his building and let the snake boil and rage through him while the rioting raged below.

#

The Ornomagnen quarter burned that night.

By morning, both the riot and the flames had guttered. Sarheic was just Sarheic again. The snake had run its fury out and was coiled once more in the shadows of his belly. A pensive stillness settled over the city. Lord Tibuir’s troops were out in force, patrolling alongside the city watch, but no word came from the keep.

Sarheic climbed down to his apartment, ate and drank and used the chamber pot, then he went back up onto the roof again, and brooded.

Life filtered back onto the streets over the next few days, but not normality. Sarheic came down to the teahouses and listened to the few voices at the tables around him, and the new rumours their words carried. Lord Tibuir was going to stand and fight, and all the lords of Rhuin alongside him. The other Rhuinish lords were against him, and Tibuir had already fled. Tibuir was dead. Tibuir was alive. Tibuir’s Hound had pursued the golem spy into Ornomagne.

This last caught Sarheic’s attention and he followed that thread. The golem had help, the rumours said. An Ornomagnen magician. A Rhuinish traitor. The golem was really the Ebony Man in disguise – that one Sarheic dismissed as fantasy, for how could such a detail possibly be known to rumourmongers?

Discontented, he got up to walk. The rumours swirled around him as he went. The golem had slipped the grasp of Tibuir’s Hound. Ornomagnen reprisal was inevitable, Tibuir’s city would be sacked. Sarheic’s wandering brought him across lines of people with children and belongings loaded onto carts and barrows and bullocks and their own backs, waiting to pass through the city gate. Others were boarding up windows and doors. Sarheic saw men standing guard with old blunderbusses and halberds and even hunting bows. Near the Ornomagnen quarter, he walked over the broken shards of smashed clay golems, stepped around the twisted wrecks of their copper brethren. The snake took it in with silent satisfaction.

He found his own name following him among the rumours, as men who’d fought in the war dredged up memories they thought they’d forgotten. Sarheic the Snake had started the riots, the rumourmongers said, and driven the Ornomagnen from the city. Sarheic the Snake, who beat the Sycamore Man, who had slaughtered half the sons of the Ornomagnen nobility in the war, until they sent out the Ebony Man as their champion.

At the city wall, he found press-ganged workers under guard of Lord Tibuir’s troops, building scaffolds and cranes to mount cannon on the battlements. The walls, dating from an era before artillery, would not last long under bombardment of Ornomagnen guns. The soldiers looked Sarheic over but left him unmolested.

More rumours drifted into the city. Tibuir’s Hound had failed in her pursuit of the spy, and fallen. Ornomagne had despatched an army to put down Lord Tibuir.

The other Rhuinish lords intended to stand aside.

The city gates were closed. Sarheic retreated to the teahouses and sat among the few old men still there, then to his balcony when the pressgangs started hunting for men to stand the walls. Others came from Lord Tibuir’s court, dressed in courtiers’ finery and escorted by horseguards. Sarheic ignored their hammering on his door and climbed up onto his rooftop.

Later, he listened to some soldiers talking while they loitered among the empty tables below, their voices overloud in the stillness. A golem – an Alabaster Man – had been caught at Neic-ap-Nagh and destroyed. An Ornomagnen assassin, sent to kill the Whelp who sat on the throne of the Lords of Rhuin.

Sarheic climbed up to his rooftop to think. An Alabaster Man. All the Solitary Men he had ever heard of, the one-of-a-kind golems who could outfight and outrun and outthink a man, were made of wood. He ran through them in his mind. The Sycamore Man, who he had himself defeated and destroyed. The Ebony Man, most famous of them all–

We would win, the next time, grumbled the snake.

Sarheic ignored it and continued his train of thought. The exploits of the Hickory Man were also well renowned. He recalled hearing of an Aspen Man getting dismembered and burned during the war. Ironwood, Oak, Cedar, Willow… He thought that the Ornomagnen had made new Sycamore and Aspen Men…

Alabaster?

Sarheic looked towards the keep where Lord Tibuir was ensconced, and wondered.

#

The Ornomagnen army arrived by river.

Sarheic stood up on the peak of his roof and watched them disembark in the distance across the fields. Sailing ships and steam barges lined the waterway. The troops flowed ashore like a multicoloured tide. There were a lot of troops. He caught flashes of sunlight on domed metal that could only be the brass carapaces of war golems. Cavalry raced out in both directions to encircle the city.

The Lord of Rhuin would be coming to their aid, Sarheic heard among those others who had climbed up to see. The Whelp, incensed by the attempt on his life, would march from Neic-ap-Nagh and the other Rhuinish lords would flock to his banner.

Wishful thinking, Sarheic thought. Even if it were true, they would surely come too late.

The snake bestirred itself, Unless…

A slow smile spread across Sarheic’s face. What did it matter if help came in time, or late, or not at all?

He knew this game.

He pulled off his shirt and dropped it on the tiles. The breeze raised gooseflesh on his bare skin.

He looked around and spied a man with a glass to his eye nearby.

“May I have the use of your telescope?”

The fellow looked at him, lips apart and tongue touching the roof of his mouth to say “no”. His eyes widened as he took in the serpentine tattoos coiled around Sarheic’s upper arms and across his chest. He thrust the glass into Sarheic’s hand.

Sarheic raised it to his eye and scanned the assembling army. Sure enough, there were the officers with their plumes and capes and embroidered jackets – astride their horses at the front, as honour dictated. He handed back the glass.

“Thank you.”

He went down to his rooms and rummaged under the bed until his fingers found the hard shapes of his pistol case and his sword. He dropped the sword, wrapped in a tattered yellow duellist’s flag, onto the bed while he primed and loaded the pistol. Then he thrust the pistol into the back of his belt and picked up the sword. He shook it free of the flag, then held the scabbarded weapon out at arm’s length, letting his right hand remember the weight and feel of it. He let the snake uncoil inside, controlled, filling his belly and his chest, heating his muscles with the anger that he had nursed at a simmer over the days since the suicide of the soft man and his sick mother. He felt the heat rise up his face.

Sarheic the Snake drew the sword.

#

“Open the gates!” he bellowed. “I have business on the other side.”

The officer in charge, a boy with more pimples than whiskers, swallowed nervously. He tore his eyes from the bared blade and duellist’s flag, but they fixed instead on Sarheic’s tattoos and he stammered as he said, “The gates are closed. All citizens are to remain in the homes unless required to…”

His eyes finally found Sarheic’s and he trailed off.

“I have business outside,” said the snake.

The boy started to protest again, but with a screech the gates began to open. He whirled, shrieking at his men up in the gatehouse. Sarheic strode past and out through the widening gap.

The boy’s impotent shouts trailed after him as he marched down the road towards the Ornomagnen army. Where the road veered aside, he struck out directly across the crop fields and garden plots that bordered the city. His boots sank into the tilled soil.

Rhuinish soil, the snake reminded him, stoking his rage. An enemy army stands on Rhuinish soil.

The Ornomagnen had advanced to the range of their artillery, which had been wheeled to the fore of the assembled regiments. The army’s generals would be at the rear. Drawing closer, he saw a company of flanking cavalry point him out and held up his duellist’s flag for them to see. Their officer raised a hand to stay his men. Sarheic turned his attention back to the artillery in front of him. After a moment, a rider broke from the cavalry company and disappeared around the side of the assembled infantry.

The snake drew Sarheic’s mouth into a smile. The rigid discipline of the Ornomagnen was their greatest weakness. It was a rare officer who would show initiative if it took him beyond the scope of his orders.

Sarheic spied an artillery officer riding along behind the line of guns. He adjusted his course to intercept the horseman. A short distance in front of the guns, he paused to thrust his sword point down into the earth, and continued on with only the flag in his hand. The artillery crews watched him warily, throwing uncertain glances at their officer.

He let the snake have his voice.

“You there!” it cried, in Ornomagnen. “You maggot-infested afterbirth! I see from your seat that you have never ridden so much as a pig before today, and I see from your face that your mother was ridden by a pig as other women are ridden by their husbands.”

With that, Sarheic turned his back, exacerbating the ridicule of the snake’s words tenfold, and marched back to his sword. He tossed the yellow flag on the ground at his feet. The artillery officer hadn’t moved. His face was grey, his expression aghast. His men had all stopped their work to stare at him. Slowly, he turned his head to look back at the mounted infantry officers arrayed in front of their troops. To a man, they sat in stony silence. The artillery officer faced Sarheic again, then very slowly dismounted.

He handed his cape and hat to one of his men, fumbling for a few moments at the cape’s toggles. Very slowly, he walked out to where Sarheic waited. The man’s fingers shook as he rested his hand on the pommel of his sword.

“Apologise,” he said, then as an afterthought, “You Rhuinish dog.”

The snake smiled and lifted Sarheic’s sword. “Squeal for me, piglet.”

With a cry of outrage, the Ornomagnen drew his sword and took up his guard. His stance was abominable, feet too wide apart and his balance off. Sarheic could have pushed him over with a poke in the chest.

He waited for the Ornomagnen to attack.

The man didn’t move. The snake lowered his sword, still smiling. Sweat sprang out on the Ornomagnen’s brow. The snake let Sarheic’s smile grow wider. “Are you a man, or a hamster?”

At last, the Ornomagnen could stand it no more. With a yell, he lunged.

The snake deflected the attack and danced backwards. The Ornomagnen pursued, hacking in wild terror. The snake continued to retreat, making it appear as though Sarheic was only barely defending himself. The Ornomagnen pressed desperately.

The snake drew the fight out, always retreating, never attacking, until exhaustion began to make Sarheic’s opponent too obviously clumsy. Then, trying to make it look more happy accident than skill, it batted the other man’s sword up out of the way and ran him through the guts.

The Ornomagnen’s eyes bulged, his face purpling. He let out a mewl as Sarheic withdrew his blade, and collapsed in a ball around his wound.

Sarheic walked away a few paces, to plant his sword in the dirt once again and scoop up his flag, an invitation to the artillerymen to come and collect their vanquished leader. After a short pause, a group of them scurried out and pick up the groaning officer.

The snake strode after them, back towards their lines. The unarmed Ornomagnen gunners seemed transfixed as it marched between the cannons. It stopped, posing Sarheic with hands on hips, and surveyed the Ornomagnen army.

A large group of officers on horseback trotted into view around the flank of the army, their ranks signified by elaborateness of their brocades and the enormity of their feathered hats. One wore the patterned cloaks of an Ornomagnen magician.

Ah, the generals, the snake whispered to Sarheic. Too late, alas.

It pointed suddenly to an infantry officer nearer at hand, in front of a squad of ape-like brass war golems. The fellow jumped in his saddle.

“My son!” the snake cried. “You must be my son, for you have my noble Rhuinish features. I think I remember your mother, and her drooling slug of a husband.” It spread Sarheic’s arms wide. “How pleased I am to have given her an even finer gift than one night of joy with a real man between her buttocks. Although quite how you were born, I am uncertain, since up her arse is the only way I took her.”

Once again, Sarheic strode away.

With his superiors watching, this one rode after Sarheic, cursing and spewing threats. The snake kept his back to the fellow until Sarheic reached his sword. It turned him, letting the man hear it laugh as it dropped the flag. There was no easier way to provoke an Ornomagnen than to insult his womenfolk.

The infantry officer leapt from his horse and half-ran to confront him. He had his sword drawn and pointed before he cried, “Apologise!”

The snake bared Sarheic’s teeth and replied in Rhuinish, “Not on your life, you syphilitic goat molester.”

The man knew enough of the language to know that he was being insulted again. With a wordless bellow, he attacked.

This one was a better swordsman, but not good enough. The snake toyed with him, slicing him over and again until in futile rage the Ornomagnen overextended himself. The snake drove him to his knees, stepped back and lopped off the fellow’s head. There was silence from the Ornomagnen lines.

Breathing heavier this time, Sarheic planted his sword in the ground.

Turning, he saw that the game was up. An infantry squad had been brought forward of the cannons. The senior Ornomagnen general had ridden with them, his magician alongside.

“Will you shoot me down, then, like the Rhuinish cur I am?” the snake demanded, waving the duellist’s flag. “Or will your spook melt my bones where I stand?”

“I remember you, Snake,” said the general. “You were at Pierrendeaux.”

Or perhaps not quite up yet, the snake purred.

“We sacked Pierrendeaux,” it replied.

“My wife and daughters died there,” the Ornomagnen replied.

No indeed, the snake hissed, not quite yet. It chuckled, and Sarheic laughed with it. “Ah, yes,” it said. “I could not tell your daughters from your dogs, so I had them all before I killed them.”

The general’s hand went to his sword, but he stayed himself.

“Will you have your lackeys shoot me then, old man?” said the snake, although the general was plainly little older than himself. “Have you flea-hearted, nasty little flecks of lint no champion among you who dares to face me?”

Surprisingly, the general laughed. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “we do.”

He glanced at the magician, who smiled nastily and turned to beckon behind him. A figure came forward, man-shaped and man-sized and dressed in bright Ornomagnen livery, but sculpted in wood. Sarheic felt a little thrill from the snake that he thought might’ve been fear. The golem moved as smoothly as a man and carried a sword in its left hand. The Solitary Men, the hardwood golems, were all left-handed. Its eyes were faceted blue jewels.

“I know you, Sarheic the Snake,” it said.

Sarheic tossed down the duellist’s flag and took up his own blade. “I would know your name, golem, before we fight.”

The golem replied in Rhuinish, its wooden lips barely moving with the words, “I am the Oak Man.”

They circled, swords held on guard. The golem’s feet sank more deeply into the earth than his own, Sarheic saw. It’s heavy, he thought. That’ll make it slow, replied the snake.

We brought a hammer with us, for the Sycamore Man, Sarheic reminded it.

“I ended the Sycamore Man,” the snake said. “I fought the Ebony Man and lived to tell the tale.”

“The Ebony Man defeated you,” said the golem.

“Yet here I am,” said the snake. “Are you as good as he? Or are you a clumsy oaf like the Sycamore Man?”

The golem attacked. Its swordplay was a blur of feints and strikes but, as the snake had predicted, it was ponderous on the heavy ground. The snake retreated easily.

Sarheic had given a great deal of thought, during the war, to how he might best defeat one of the Solitary Men. There was little point striking its torso or limbs, except perhaps at the smaller joints. To do so would only blunt his sword. The pistol in the back of his belt was useless against it and there was no question of him wearing it down.

The head was the only part of it that was not solid timber, housing as it did the golem’s animating spells. When he had fought the Sycamore Man, had had battered its head apart with a long-handled mallet, while he duelled it with his sword in his other hand. He had tried the same approach to the Ebony Man. It hadn’t worked because the Ebony Man was simply too good.

Should have kept the hammer, Sarheic thought. Should have thought of it today.

Then we must be daring, the snake replied.

The golem attacked again, and this time the snake stood its ground and fenced for a few blows before again retreating.

“You are better than the Sycamore Man,” said the snake. “But not the best of your kind.” Not as good as us. It was the timber that made the difference. The magic stuck better to some woods than others and there could only ever be one of each at a time.

The Oak Man didn’t reply, but feinted a couple of times, driving Sarheic back. Its gemstone eyes and lack of visible muscles made anticipating its attacks difficult, but this was compensated for by its slowness on the heavy ground.

The head, said the snake. A sword will do the task as well as a hammer.

It was right, but the golem knew that as well as Sarheic, and this time he didn’t have a second weapon to counter the its attacks. Daring, the snake reminded him. It is only almost as good a swordsman as us.

It attacked, circling, forcing the golem to turn awkwardly to defend itself. The snake found an opening and hacked at its head, leaving a deep groove above its jawline, at the cost of a slash across Sarheic’s shoulder.

He retreated but, when the golem pursued, the snake attacked again.

Once again it created an opening in the Oak Man’s guard, catching its head a glancing blow just above the scar of the first. Again Sarheic came away with an injury of his own, this time a shallow cut to his ribs beneath his sword arm.

Twice more, they came together with similar results. Hairline cracks radiated from the gouge that the snake was chopping in the side of the golem’s head. But Sarheic was bleeding heavily. He would begin to weaken sooner rather than later.

The Oak Man attacked with a flurry of overhand blows. The snake defended, making it turn again. It switched its point of attack and the snake closed in, leaping sideways to avoid its sudden lunge. It didn’t quite. The golem’s swordpoint pierced Sarheic’s flank instead of skewering him through the guts. Sarheic felt the point come out of his back. The snake caught the golem’s wrist, trapping its blade, and hacked furiously at its damaged head. The golem staggered and grabbed for Sarheic’s sword with its right hand, fingers jerking spastically.

It twisted its sword and wrenched it out sideways. Sarheic cried out in pain and staggered away. He pressed his left hand to his side, trying to hold the wound closed. His guard wavered, then dropped, and he had to lean on his sword to stay upright.

The whole left side of the Oak Man’s head was smashed in, crazed with dents and cracks. Its left eye was out. It swayed, and for a moment Sarheic thought it might actually fall. But then it raised its sword again.

Painfully, Sarheic straightened as well as he could and lifted his guard. He steeled himself as the Oak Man advanced.

It struck. The snake rode the attack, then transferred Sarheic’s sword to his left hand and whirled, exposing his back but banking on the golem being slow to adapt when surprised.

It was.

The snake’s blow landed. The Oak Man’s head came apart. The brassbound scroll that animated it tumbled out, bouncing off its shoulder and landing on the grass.

The golem teetered, off balance, then toppled like a felled tree.

Gasping, Sarheic managed somehow to stay on his feet. He stabbed his sword into the ground and leaned on it as the fury of the snake drained out of him. He turned to face the Ornomagnen host.

He was surprised to find they were no longer watching.

The general had his sword out, waving it about while he bellowed orders. Around him, the artillery crews heaved frantically to drag their guns around. The infantry regiments were turning their formations, some of them already charging along the riverbank. Sarheic heard a distant popping, then a rising shriek – cannon fire! Gouts of earth and bits of men exploded among the Ornomagnen troops.

Warships sailed down the river towards the Ornomagnen transport fleet, smoke and flashes of fire spitting from their bow guns. Further upstream, troops poured ashore from steam barges.

So, Sarheic thought, the Whelp had come in time after all. The battle on the river was lost in clouds of smoke as the warships came alongside each other, the pop-pop-pop of their broadsides blending into a continuous crackle. Sarheic watched the Ornomagnen cavalry race to intercept the Rhuinish landing force.

No-one in the Ornomagnen army was paying any attention to the lone man at their backs.

Now, the snake urged. He began to move towards the Ornomagnen lines in a crippled sideways shuffle, holding his injured side. The general had held his post among the artillery while his command staff raced hither and thither. Sarheic pulled the pistol from his belt and cocked it, holding it close to his side. Still no-one paid attention to him.

He was a few paces from the general when the man turned. He started to spit an oath, wheeling his mount to put the horse between himself and the raised pistol. Sarheic fired.

The ball hit the general low in the chest. He grunted and slumped around the wound, coughing blood.

Sarheic ran.

Yelling in pain, clutching his side, he sprinted as fast as he could. Muskets cracked behind him. One shot struck him high on the shoulder blade, another in the back of the thigh, making him stumble. He recovered, snatched up his sword on the way past, and kept running.

A dark mass between him and the city resolved itself into a line of charging horsemen. Lord Tibuir’s horseguards were at the centre, in their polished helms and breastplates. To either side, it seemed to Sarheic, Tibuir had got every man in the city ahorse who could sit a saddle. Sarheic saw men in infantry uniforms and the tabards of the city watch, others in plain clothes waving axes and cleavers instead of swords and spears.

He stopped. Seeing nowhere to go, he planted his sword. An officer of the horseguards signalled and the line split. Sarheic saw foam on the muzzles of the horses, the grimaces of their riders. The horses thundered past on either side, close enough to whip his hair.

There were infantry racing after the horsemen, a distance away yet. Painfully, Sarheic began to limp aside from their line of charge. He watched the cavalry crash into the Ornomagnen artillery, sweeping aside the gun crews and the few infantry who had rushed to protect them.

Slowly, leaning on the hilt of his sword to stop himself from falling, he sat down.

#

The battle was still raging when Lord Tibuir found him at the improvised open-air surgery set up just outside the city gates. At the river, the remains of the Ornomagnen force was fighting a ferocious rearguard action while they evacuated to their surviving ships.

“Sarheic the Snake,” Tibuir said, looking down at him with dark, hooded eyes. His words were slightly slurred and he carried his right arm tucked close against his side. The right side of his face was slack and smooth. “I remember you.”

“And I you.” Sarheic didn’t attempt to rise from his cot. He saw the outrage on the faces of the lord’s flunkeys, and decided to forgive them their ignorance. The snake, well sated, did not even register its disappointment.

“I heard that an Alabaster Man was destroyed,” Sarheic went on, “attempting to assassinate the Whelp.”

Tibuir’s lips twitched at the use of the young Lord of Rhuin’s nickname. “I heard the same.”

“I have only ever heard of the Solitary Men being wooden,” said Sarheic.

“I assume it must have been a new kind,” said Tibuir. His expression and tone gave away nothing. His entourage were less successful in disguising their hostility and dismay.

Sarheic nodded. “I suppose it must have been.”

“You beat another one today.”

“Yes, an Oak Man. He was better than the Sycamore Man, but not as good as the Ebony Man.”

Lord Tibuir chuckled. “You will never be a hero if you deprecate yourself so, my friend.”

Sarheic allowed himself a smile. Sarheic the Snake, hero of Rhuin. “No,” he agreed, “I will never be a hero.”

“We have a need for heroes,” said Tibuir, serious again.

Sarheic gestured at his bandages. “I think I am done with fighting, for now.”

Tibuir’s brows quirked. “Then what do you wish for instead?”

Sarheic had been thinking that over. “If your taxes are fair and just, and go to the strength of Rhuin, then I will collect them for you.”

Lord Tibuir laughed aloud. He waved his good hand to encompass Sarheic’s various injuries. “Then why this?” he asked. “Vanity?”

Sarheic shrugged, unsure himself. For Rhuin? Not entirely. For his own affronted sensibilities? Perhaps vanity was closer to the mark. “For a soft man,” he said, eventually, “who would not listen, and his sick mother.”

Tibuir regarded him for a moment, then snorted. “So be it, Sarheic the tax collector.”

<END>

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