This story was originally written to flesh out two characters I had created with a friend for a roleplaying game. When I later began work on Tales of Atreval, I found I could easily swap the two characters for the two main heroes of TOA, Arstace of Fluy and Nahual the Gwant.
I think the story now serves as a good teaser for TOA, and as a brief introduction into the world of Atreval.
IT could have been any of a hundred nights, a hundred besieged fortresses, a hundred battles against overwhelming odds. They had been through so much that the names and places didn’t matter anymore. All they knew was the heady lust for battle, the clamor of sword against shield, and the knowledge that they stood beside one another in touch-and-go circumstances.
“Nahual!” cried the taller, white-haired one. “On your left!”
In response, a battle-axe swung out and a gargol crumpled to the ground.
“Thanks,” growled the smaller one through the din.
They fell to fighting back-to-back, the axe and rapier weaving a web of death around them. The axe-wielder was barely four feet tall, and was a member of the race known as the Gwanti. He looked nothing so much as a cross between a lizard and a very small human. Pointed teeth jutted both up and down from the sides of his mouth. His beady yellow eyes followed every move of his foes. He wore only a shirt of mail and a small loincloth; his tough, scaly gray skin offered more protection than any pair of breeches could.
At his back fought a tall man, lithe where his companion was broad, subtle in his attacks where Nahual was brutal. His pale skin and white hair, highlit by his blue eyes, hinted at his noble heritage. His armor was hidden beneath a black cloak that wheeled about him, obscuring his limbs and confusing his foes, though it never seemed to hinder his own movements. His rapier seemed to lick its victims, sliding instantly through an eye or a heart before flashing to another.
But still the gargols came, squeezing their squat, smooth-skinned bodies between the narrow archways. The only sound in the room was the loud clash of blades, the scuffling of feet on stone, and the grunts of the two non-gargol fighters. Both man and Gwant had fought countless gargols in the past, but their silence and lack of any discernible facial features never ceased to unsettle their stomachs.
Though the gargols seemed innumerable, neither fighter displayed the slightest concern. They had been separated from the main force of defenders an hour earlier. The fortress had apparently fallen, as the gargols seemed to be swarming from all directions. The two had been slowly making their way toward the bowels of the keep in hopes of finding an escape route.
At one point a group of gargols pressed in from the side, separating the pair.
“You all right, Ar?” called the lizard-man.
“Fine!” the man, whose full name was Arstace, cried back. “Mind your own head, you fool!”
And so it went, the gargols coming on in droves and then piling at their feet, lifeless. Nahual managed to reach the door at the other side of the room.
“Ar!” he screeched. “Let’s go!”
Dispatching another gargol, the nobleman leapt nimbly over a pile of dismembered corpses and dashed through the door. Nahual hacked a few gargols near the door, snarled at the remainder, and ducked in after his companion. He dropped the bar into place just as the gargols crashed against the other side.
“That should hold them for about two minutes,” said Arstace. “And what do we do now? I can’t see a thing.”
“Hold on,” said Nahual. He fumbled with the pouches at his waist until he found what he was looking for. There was a hiss, and a small torch began to glow in his tiny clawed hand.
“You’re useful sometimes, lizard,” said Arstace.
“On occasion,” agreed the Gwant, and as the door behind them began to splinter, he swiftly led them down the corridor.
The passage was narrow and wound gently downward. It was made entirely from stone, and a faint chill hung in the air.
There was a loud crash far behind them. Gargolish cries and the clamor of swords sounded down the passage.
“Seems like an awful lot of effort to kill two fighters,” Arstace commented.
“They’re gargols,” Nahual said. “They’re single-minded.”
“If they have any minds at all,” said Arstace.
They continued on in silence, moving as swiftly as they dared. Deeper and deeper the passage wound, until it changed into steep stairs. The chill became oppressive.
“We’re underground,” Arstace said.
Nahual snorted. “Somehow I don’t think this is the way out.”
Finally they reached the bottom of the stairs. They found themselves before a heavy, black iron door. To their surprise, a large torch guttered nearby.
“Someone’s been down here recently,” said Arstace.
Nahual glared at him. “Think so?” he hissed sarcastically.
Arstace walked up to the door and knocked loudly. No response.
The cries of the gargols grew louder. “Well, this isn’t good,” said Arstace.
Nahual looked thoughtfully at the door.
“This isn’t good,” Arstace repeated, looking up at the stair nervously.
Nahual moved to the side of the door, raised his axe over his head (its tip came just to Arstace’s chest), and struck.
There was a crash and a loud bang as the bar on the other side snapped and fell to the floor. The door flew open.
The Gwant poked his head inside. He quickly yanked it back as a rusty sword whistled past his head.
“Death to you!” cried someone from the other side of the door. As Nahual stumbled back, he glimpsed a room full of women and children. An old man stood in the doorway, brandishing the sword. Despite his age, the gaunt muscles that flexed around the handle made him something of a threat. He moved toward Nahual, who was coming to his feet.
“Wait!” Arstace cried, leaping between them. “He is with me! We are friends…”
The old man hesitated, glanced at Nahual, and raised his sword again.
Arstace’s hand snaked out and yanked the weapon out of the old man’s hands. The fellow stumbled back and was caught by the women, who began to wail in dismay.
Meanwhile, Nahual had recovered his composure and was trying to look friendly, standing with his axe over his shoulder.
“Please listen,” Arstace said quickly, putting the old man’s sword on the floor. “We are indeed friends. I am Arstace of Fluy, and this is my companion, Nahual of the Gwanti—the same Gwanti who kept the Southern Pass for so long. We were fighting for the keep, with your men. We became separated from the main force and were trying to find a way out. The gargols have overrun the keep. They are on their way down the stairs at this very moment.”
The women cried out at this. Arstace had to shout. “Is there another way out of this chamber?”
“None,” answered one woman. She bore herself with more courage than the others, and had a resigned, weary look in her aged face. “This is our most well-hidden and protected room. It was our hope that the iron door would hold back any number of gargols,” she said, with an accusatory glance at Nahual.
The Gwant shrugged. It was hard to tell, but Arstace thought the lizard-man looked a little sheepish.
“Very well,” Arstace said to the woman. “What is your name?”
“Freyf,” she said.
“Well, Freyf, my companion and I will do our best to protect you.” He stepped back into the stairwell and began to close the door. “Brace yourselves behind this, and open it for no one. Whether we live or die, we will not return here tonight.”
Freyf nodded, and Arstace closed the door.
“Well, Ar,” said Nahual, “dare I say it?”
“Please don’t,” the other muttered.
“I think I will: ‘another fine mess,’ eh?” chuckled Nahual. Arstace groaned.
The screams of the gargols were growing louder. “Sounds like there’s a lot of ‘em,” said Nahual. “What do you think, Ar? Is this it?”
“‘It’?” Arstace echoed. “How can this be it? I couldnÃ¢â¬â¢t even tell you the name of this fortress, or who we’re fighting for.”
The clamor grew ever louder. “I just have a strange feeling,” Nahual said. “Not despair, but…”
“No time left,” Arstace said, raising his rapier. “Now for death and glory!”
And then the gargols were upon them.
The women and children could hear faint sounds of conflict through the thick iron door. At least they began to die away, and subsided into a dread silence.
For half a day they waited in the chamber, wondering what had happened to the two warriors. Some wanted to open the door, but Freyf was firm: “They told us to open it for no one, and we shall not.”
At last came the familiar knock of their people, two heavy raps followed by five light ones. They had some trouble getting the door open, and soon saw why—gargol bodies were piled waist-deep in the landing and continued upward, past the bend in the stairs.
“Great gods,” said the soldier who had come for them. “What happened here? There are dead gargols nearly to the head of the stair.”
“There were two warriors,” said Freyf. “A nobleman, I believe, and a lizard-man of the Gwanti. They came upon us by accident, then shut us back in and defended the chamber. Do you know what became of them? Are their bodies amongst the slain?”
The soldier shook his head. “I do not know, but I haven’t seen any dead Gwanti. But there are more dead gargols in this part of the keep than any other. And you say that two men—er, a man and a Gwant—killed them all? You have gone mad down here, woman.”
The men of the keep never knew what became of Arstace and Nahual, though the soldier who freed the women was soon set to rights as to their existence. More than a hundred gargols had been ill-met by the pair, though rumor quickly raised the number to two hundred and then five hundred, until it was said that two mighty warriors had slain a thousand gargols.
The attack had been repelled at last by the arrival of Prince Hanrik and his men, who had marched south from the Southern Pass. The famous hero had come amongst the gargols like a storm, and his forces had swept the enemy away within a few hours.
As the dawn spread over the last few scenes of battle, two figures watched from a rocky cliff to the west of the keep.
“Look at him,” muttered Arstace, gazing down at the golden figure of Hanrik. “Such a clumsy fighting style. Sure, he kills two or three at a blow, but he does so maybe four times an hour. The rest of the time he’s trying to move about in that silly armor of his. No wonder he survives all his battles. He’s encased in metal!”
“And look there,” said Nahual, pointing to a figure on horseback near the edge of the fighting. He was dressed in a bright crimson robe, and used a staff to strike the gargols that came too near. At each blow, the gargol screamed and dropped, lifeless.
“Vilmeith came too, eh?” Arstace said. “That whole dramatic entrance was probably his idea. I’ve no doubt he’s quite pleased with his handiwork. Hanrik will be even more beloved for this.”
“Hmph. Vilmeith wouldn’t even be here if we hadn’t killed that dark wizard for him.”
“Ah well,” said the nobleman, clapping Nahual on the shoulder. “We’re alive, at least. It was touch-and-go there for a while.”
“You were worried?” Nahual asked.
“Never,” said Arstace with mock-seriousness. “Our time will come, but not in some nameless keep.” He paused. “I hope not, anyhow.”
“We’ve been in too many nameless keeps,” Nahual said. He stood, dusted himself off and fastened his axe to his belt.
“Yes, time to go,” Arstace said. “This is all in hand. Too bad Hanrik had to show up. Nothing else for us to do. And he’ll take all the credit, no doubt.”
Nahual snorted. “At least we got to bash a lot of heads.”
“Yes,” Arstace agreed as they began to trudge away from the keep. “There is that.”
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