My name was synonymous with carrion and death.
Men called me the Vulture. Before me lay a scroll on which were written ten names. Ten heroes to complete ten tasks.
Alexia, Princess of Real-Dorn, self-proclaimed God-Queen of northern Neriador had summoned me, and who was I to refuse her? After all I owed her so much. She knew why I was the man I was. And she had decided to call in her debt.
There were men on the list strong enough to fight great monsters, but who was best suited to defeat a Giant? Were not elephants afraid of mice, according to legend? Well perhaps this giant would be afraid of someone very small? My finger hovered over the name of Felderen, a diminutive but deadly man known as the Flea of Lufur.
“The Vulture, the Giant and the Flea” is the second volume in the Ten Tasks for the Vulture series of fantasy short stories.
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I unfurled the scroll the Princess had given me and read the first name again: “The Giant of Golgathon”. Below this line of scrawled writing I could just make out other lines of text, but whether it was my aging eyes, the dim light of dusk, or some magic ward, I could not make them out. They danced before my eyes like bugs and faded into the vellum of the scroll.
So the Giant would be my first challenge, there was no getting around it.
I furled the scroll closed and put it back into the bag at my side and took out the other scrap of vellum. This was folded neatly and written in a different hand. All the words stayed on the page and could be read. I thanked the goddess Vestus under my breath for that sweet blessing. I had read through that list of names a dozen times, but still I looked at them in wonder.
Ten names. Ten heroes to complete ten tasks.
The Princess had told me that each task involved the capture of a monster or return of a powerful artefact, but apart from handing me the scroll would reveal nothing else.
I shook my head. Who did she think I was? Galafas the Good? I was an old soldier.
No, that’s not right. I didn’t deserve the title “soldier.” I was a mercenary, a freebooter, a reaver; a sword-for-hire, one of the deadliest that all the lands of Neriador had ever known. I had hundreds of deaths to my name, and not just warriors. Innocents had died at my hands. Villages, farms and whole towns had burnt at my order and under my hand.
My name was synonymous with carrion and death.
Men called me the Vulture.
Alexia, Princess of Real-Dorn, self-proclaimed God-Queen of the whole of northern Neriador had summoned me, and who was I to refuse her? After all I owed her so much. She knew why I was the man I was. And she had decided to call in her debt.
I tried to relax as I stared at the ten names, but my knuckles were white as they gripped the edges of the page. My fingernails had made holes in the vellum.
Was I doomed to pay this debt for the rest of my life? Well, if that was the case, then I should get on with it and choose. One hero for each task and the choice was mine. I scanned down the list of names and focused at last on what I had to do.
There were men on the list strong enough to fight great monsters, but who was best suited to defeating a Giant?
It would have been an easier task, perhaps, just to kill the thing, but the Princess wanted each creature brought back alive. Each one had a role to play in winning back her Empire, she claimed, and that was all she would tell me.
Were not elephants afraid of mice, according to legend? Well perhaps this giant would be afraid of someone very small? My finger hovered over the name of Felderen, a diminutive but deadly man known as the Flea of Lufur.
For someone very small, Felderen the Flea was not hard to find. Much easier than the proverbial stone in a bowl of peas, but just as nasty when you found it.
I had been travelling for three days on the road from the Princess’s fortress towards the capital of Real-Dorn, a journey that would, in good times, take perhaps two days; but progress was slow due to the state of war between the Princess and those she termed “the usurpers” who held power over Real-Dorn and the surrounding lands.
Patrols and armies marched up and down the highway, and the main pass through the Ukeshdi Mountains was blocked completely by the presence of two armed camps brooding at each other over the rocky outcrops that braced the steep road. One camp was loyal to the usurpers, the other said it was loyal to the Princess, although to my eyes it seemed full to the brim with the type of scum that I had known so well before I had ended my campaigning days.
I did not make good time through these obstacles, but I learnt much.
I should tell you at this point that the Princess had taken the precaution of granting me a means of disguise. It was in the form of a golden disc that I could hang around my neck and wear inside my clothes to hide it. But whenever I put on this disc, my appearance, so well-known to the soldiery of northern Neriador, was altered completely. My height, build and age were the same, but when I looked in the mirror at Princess’s palace, I saw that my features were transformed. Gone were the scars on my cheeks and across my forehead; in their place, my skin sagged with the pleasures of a doting middle-age. I looked like a merchant with a few coins to spend. I had the happy look of a man who had done rather well for himself and had lead a happy life, not a man who had been driven to murder and destruction of hundreds if not thousands of his fellows.
So it was with ease that I could mingle and gossip with other travellers on the road, many of whom were soldiers and mercenaries on their way to fight. They knew me not, although I found some of their faces familiar. I kept away from any of the older men, still fearful that something in my voice or mannerism might give me away. Yet soon enough I had the news that I wanted: the location of the Flea.
It was as if fate had, for once in my life, conspired to aid me. The Flea, I learnt, was on a quest in these very mountains. Several of the soldiers had gawped at him as he travelled past, and some had even dared ribald jokes at the expense of his diminutive height until he gave them a stare back. I knew about that look—and even more about his deeds—and I knew that to be looked upon with anger by Felderen the Flea would make one’s blood curdle.
I thanked my informants with a crooked smile and the Princess’s gold and rode from the pass onto narrower and higher paths that wriggled up the mountain side to the western ridges of the mountain range. I was now travelling directly away from the road and the army. Out of one danger and into another.