This the fifth installment in our Heroes series, written by our own Robert Rhodes. The art is courtesy of Ida Mary Walker Larsen.

fantasy and science fiction book reviews

He is free.

He simply stands as the wide gates of the mining barracks thud shut and a wave of cold air hits his nape. He lingers under the gatehouse arch, his boots uneasy on the icy muck, and lifts his eyes. Before the jagged white mountains, under the leaden sky, it remains.

The Spire.

He wishes, for a time beyond counting, he had never seen it. A fool’s wish, of course, but he has another — not foolish but chained like a wolf and goaded with spears, fed at nightfall with bloody morsels. Primed for slaughter.

The Spire is dull now, nothing more than a massive metal spike atop the Lord’s Citadel, for the sun can hide for weeks in the accursed North. It is, nonetheless, his guide. He dons the dirty hood of the cloak the guards have given him as one of his freedom gifts. He gathers the thin wool around himself and walks.

As every morning, his body aches as if it were more than twice its thirty years. The narrow streets of Goldspire, paved only with ice and stone-hard mud, seem to quiver beneath him. The numbing air should reek of smoke and dung, but it’s been months since he could breathe through his nose or taste the barracks’s black bread and salted meat. Weeks since his right ear lacked lancing pain. His eyes water from a shriek of wind, and the world blurs to a faded tapestry of ash-white, brown, black and — in an alley mouth — a crimson stain. He bows his head and walks on.

He finds an inn behind the Butchers’ Market. Before opening the door, he turns to see, closer now, the towers of the Citadel and the wide, sloping roof of the Arena. He coughs and spits at each, then goes inside.

The innkeeper is a woman, the sixth he has seen in the past ten years. He asks for a room, a bucket of hot water and wash rag, and a kettle of stonerot tea. He no longer shakes his head at the northern necessity of boiling lichen and moss. He pinches two coins from a pouch of five, the other of the guards’ gifts, and drops them on the innkeeper’s calloused palm.

Upstairs, he latches the crooked door of his room. It’s windowless, dark but for the orange glow of a small lamp, burning the fat of animals from Icebar Bay. An old copper plate hangs on the wall beside a rickety chair, intended as a mirror. He closes his eyes and lifts the plate from the wall, drops it facedown on the floor.

By now, his stomach is aching. He drinks the tea as quickly as he can, then waits. Minutes pass before he slides the chamber pot, a blackened wooden bowl, away from the narrow bed. An hour later, he sits beside it on the floor, staring at the small nuggets of raw gold he swallowed last night. He stares at his hands — calloused and scarred, split knuckles crusted with blood, the ragged nails filthy — the hands of a creature clawing open a grave. He rakes them through his hair and weeps.

He spends the remainder of the day in preparation. He tosses the soiled cloak into the inn’s gaping firepit. Finds a one-eyed merchant who trades the nuggets for useable coins, more than he’d hoped. Spends them on a barber, a bearskin cloak, a hot meal. And at the last, a sword.

A common broadsword, passably sharp and balanced — nothing resembling the first blades he wore in Goldspire, eleven years past. Of course, he notes darkly, even less does he resemble the man he was.

*   *   *

Eleven years ago, he arrived with a summer caravan, riding toward the city on a day of infinite light, and let the Spire dissolve his breath. He came, ignoring the understated advice of Master val Rassina, because he was — by Rassina’s own wine-hastened admission — the master’s finest pupil in twenty-odd years. Invincible, fearless, armed with a rapier and dagger of Sistaré’s matchless watermarked steel. How could he resist the challenge of the world’s most distant and deadly arena? The most gifted young swordsman in the City of Dancing Blades, he could fail only by failing to go.

He never failed. He fought guardsmen and shield-bashing soldiers, brawlers with spiked gauntlets and clubs, axemen. He fought a mute woman, tattooed and dreadlocked, green eyes smoldering behind her scimitars. He fought a giant whose hammer chipped the stones on which he’d stood. He fought all challengers, dozens to first blood or surrender, five to the death.

He worked the crowds to the cusp of riots. They called him Brightsteel and the Southern Star, the Cat of Sistaré, the Ghost Fox, the Prince of Death. The giant called him Snowflake, those who wagered against him ‘eunuch’ and ‘boy-whore’. He gained a coffer of ever-increasing coins, a private suite in the Lord’s Citadel, and the skilled attentions of a merchant’s flame-haired widow. The savage city, the primary source of the kingdom’s wealth, became a chalice in his hand.

How then could Rohn Uthorin, the city’s newly appointed lord, a patron and apparent friend, instruct him, before his long-negotiated duel against the champion of House Medorio, to lose? And, despite the roaring crowd, how could a pupil of Cosmo val Rassina be so foolish as to salute the lord with a bloodied rapier and defiant grin?

Within a fortnight, he stood accused of treason, slander, and theft. The statements of various guardsmen, elder merchants and his flame-haired lover were, Uthorin regretfully concluded, persuasive and damning, particularly in concert with the items recovered from his suite. The penalty for such crimes was beheading, but Uthorin, in a great show of mercy for his champion, instead ordered a decade of service in the mines.

“You’ll wish I’d simply killed you,” the lord whispered as Andreas was dragged from the hall in chains.

*   *   *

“So will you,” he whispers now, as snow and darkness fall upon the roofs of Goldspire. In an alley, he cinches the swordbelt around his waist and covers it with his cloak. Breath steaming, he begins a circuit of the Citadel’s walls.

Beyond the city, in the forest below the mountains, the first wolf howls.

Author’s note: The image above is reminiscent of Andreas shortly after his arrival in Goldspire. He is not so handsome now.

Andreas val Dhari © Robert Rhodes, 2010. All rights reserved.
art used with permission: “Snowfall” by Ida Mary Walker Larsen


  • Rob Rhodes

    ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.