A greater assembly of human refuse had never before been assembled. Mercenaries, wanted men, and self-proclaimed enchanters filled the dimly lit throne room of Silas the Screw. There were even a few less-than-feminine, rough-looking women in the room. Each one cast intimidating glares at others. None of them bore weapons, they’d been confiscated upon entry to the room. The fact put the group in an even fouler mood. But they stayed nonetheless. Silas had put out word that he was in need of their sort… and he paid well so the best fighters in the land were there. They were each vying for a place on Silas’ brute squad, tasked to hunt down and destroy his enemies.
The dank smelling room was formerly throne room of Lord James Kendrick. Its regal luster was gone. Its judgment seat no longer dispensed either mercy or justice, only pain for those who crossed its occupant. Silas had transformed it into a dingy, dank breeding ground of suffering and treachery. The massive door creaked in protest as a broad-chested, armored figure entered. Standing in the half-opened doorway, his dark eyes darted from one dirty, scarred face to another. His assessment took only a moment and he flung the door wide with a shove.
“On yer feet, ya skamelars!” his shout echoed from the walls. “Pay respect!”
In hobbled Silas the Screw.
Silas knew his appearance did not evoke the same fear as his reputation. But he’d learned long ago that his appearance served him well, as a cloak, a deceptive outer shell that obscured the villainy he was capable of — and that it always proved to be an advantage. If those gathered made the same mistake many others had in the past, that of underestimating him because of his feeble appearance, they would soon regret it.
The dragon master was in no hurry. He peered long and penetratingly into their eyes. He paused at each ruffian until their gaze looked away, and every one of them did eventually. From the start, he would assert his authority and take a place of mastery over them. There would be no question who was in charge. If ever there was, the doubter would die without mercy.
“You are here because of your usefulness, nothing more. Prove your usefulness and I will reward you. Fail me, and you will suffer.”
He paused, letting his words sink in. Within a few seconds, even the hardest of them would not mistake his meaning.
“You are to find a man… one who has been a thorn in my side for far too long. I first saw him in the dark of a cave in the Northern mountains, between here and what was once Lord Hugo’s lands. He is not a common man…to think him so would be a mistake you would likely not live to regret. How do I know this?
“You all know of my Hestia, the mighty red dragon under my control. You have also heard that she is without her left eye. How did such a thing happen to a formidable and fierce creature? He gave her the wound, the man of which I speak, and he survived the rage that ensued after she was wounded”
He waited to let the weight of his words settle on the motley crowd.
“I dare say NONE of you would even attempt to attack her, would you? You’ve seen her. You know the fear she instills in the hearts of the bravest men. But this man…” Silas paused, stifling the rage that boiled inside. “In the dark of the cave, he approached unseen, undetected even by the sharp senses of my Hestia. Creeping alongside her, he leaped from a high column of stone, sword in hand, and drove the blade deep into her blazing eye. He did so without hesitation, without fear.”
Again, he waited before continuing.
“Clinging to the sword he hung from her eye socket, enduring the rage of the wounded beast. Finally, he dropped to the ground and vanished as quickly and mysteriously as he appeared.”
He did not recount how the beast fled the cave in a fit of panic. Nor did he reveal how he rushed after her, afraid and uncertain himself. The story was his to tell and he would tell it to his advantage.
“I recount the tale to explain the kind of man you seek. You are fools if you leave here full of bluster and wind. He is not one to underestimate. You will rue the day you do.”
Again, he paused.
“But know this as well: He is no longer one man, he has multiplied. At least a handful of men, all of the same ilk have joined him.” Looking around the room Silas’ eyes sparkled with a new awareness. “There may even be women in his band.”
“You have seen these others?” asked a grim-faced man with his front teeth missing.
“I have seen no others but I know they exist. They have already done more than a solitary man could do.” The group stirred, uncertain what he meant. Silas explained. “My Hestia is not the only dragon to be reckoned with across these lands. Surely, you have heard the tales? There were once four great beasts under my thumb…” he lied to inflate his influence over them. “But two of the four beasts are now dead. In both cases, their bodies bore wounds from swords, spears, and crossbows. Reason it out for yourselves. Could one man do so much?”
Heads shook in disbelief as a murmur rose among them. Silas could tell some were losing heart. All the better. No need to waste time with those who would be of no use.
“If you still desire to seek this man and his companions, even after hearing what you face, step forward.”
A belligerent, gravelly voice called from the far wall, “You ain’t said nothing about the reward. What’s the story there?”
The crowd murmured agreement. Silas paused, peering into the shadows in a vain effort to single out the questioner.
“Yes, payment. For the one who finds them… 500 gold pieces for their heads. 800 if you bring them to me alive.”
A hum of nervous disbelief filled the room.
“And do not try to fool me!” Silas shouted over them. “I will know the man from the cave, you can be sure. And Hestia’s keen senses will confirm it.” The murmuring died away. Silas’s eyes moved about the room, staring down each of the ruffians who had stepped forward.
“The rest of you leave! Now! “Rufus!” Silas shouted.
The broad-chested man who’d announced his arrival opened the door wide and all but the volunteers left. Then Rufus bolted the door and shouted a command. Fifteen of Silas’ armed soldiers stepped from the shadows. Silas was already busy with those who remained.
“Two, seven, twelve, 24… 33. Too many.”
The Screw chuckled as he perched himself on the elevated throne once used by Lord Kendrick. He nodded at Rufus and with a motion of the commander’s hand, four of the soldiers took up positions between Silas and the 33 volunteers. The others blocked the doorways so none of them could escape what was to come.
“I only need ten.” An evil grin stretched across his face. “You want to prove yourself? This is your opportunity. The last ten alive will do.”
Silas hobbled into his personal chamber, once the bedroom of Lord Kendrick and his wife, Patrice. He looked around, remembering the feminine touches that used to grace the room. To him, the embellishments were signs of Kendrick’s weakness and he had torn all of it down the moment he entered. He was more than satisfied with the change. Splatters of blood marked his face and the front of his frock. His guards had kept him out of the fray he’d ignited in the great hall, but just barely. The scum that gathered in response to his broadcast were worthy of the name. No tactic was too foul among that bunch and Silas enjoyed witnessing it for himself.
My terrible ten will do all that I desire. Without a doubt, he said to himself. Lord Kendrick and the man from the cave will suffer.
A knock at the door interrupted his gloating.
Rufus entered with a slight but rough-looking man. Blood covered his clothing but he showed no signs of injury. Silas had noticed him during the mele. The man was particularly vicious and shrewd.
“Your name?” Silas inquired.
“Calahan,” the man replied. Silas erupted in laughter.
“Doesn’t the man mean, ‘One who loves churches?’ The irony is too sweet!”
“What of it?” Calahan replied.
“From what I saw in the hall there could not exist a greater contradiction. You are anything but a church-going man, though by the look of you, you could certainly pass as one.”
“It may have been true once, long ago. When I was a child. But my outlook has altered since then,” Calahan replied.
“Spare me the pitiful details, you were no doubt abused and neglected,” Silas mocked. “You fought with skill. I’ve seldom seen a man your size use his opponents’ weight and momentum against them as you did. But that wasn’t all. You took full advantage of the imbalance to follow up with vicious, precise blows, no wasted effort. In each encounter, you intended to end their existence and to do so efficiently. Where did you learn such tactics?”
“The far east.”
Silas waited for more details. None came.
“What more is there to say?” Calahan answered. “You know what is required to become skilled in such things — blood, sweat, anguish. There’s nothing more to it.” Silas laughed aloud. He liked the man.
“I have a particular task for a special sort of man. Are you interested, preacher-man?”
“If it pays well,” Calahan said.
“Oh, it pays well!” Silas responded. “I will pay all expenses and will provide you with 1000 gold coins if you return. And I will give you a place of power in my new kingdom.”
Calahan looked Silas in the eye, unblinking.
“It will do.” Silas smiled. “You don’t want to know the details? What I’m asking you to do?”
Calahan scoffed. “It doesn’t matter. My conscience has long been dead.”
Silas nodded. He understood perfectly.
“I spoke of the man in the cave. I am certain Lord Kendrick is with him. I want him dead.”
“The man from the cave?” Calahan asked.
“Yes, yes… in time, him as well. His mysterious band emerges to strike unforeseen and then disappears. So yes, yes, the man from the cave. But first for you is Kendrick. I wounded him years ago by abducting his daughter. It’s time to finish him off. You will find them. Become one of them and report back to me.”
He paused, deep in thought.
“If for some reason you are unable to send word, then do what is necessary to abscond with Kendrick. Bring him to me.”
Silas smiled at the thought of it. Calahan nodded his head, unblinking. His eyes were dead.
As Calahan exited the room, Silas’s mind moved ahead. Regular communication from Calahan would be impossible, so he’d use a two-pronged strategy. While Calahan worked into the enemy’s good graces, the other nine would apply pressure throughout the land. They would be his “Nasty Nine.” In time, their intimidation would uncover information. Someone too fearful to stand against the nine would give these dragon slayers up. If that didn’t work, they’d begin a campaign of systematic terror. It would force his mysterious foes out of hiding.
“Rufus!” he shouted through the closed door. A minute later, his Captain rushed through the door.
“Get the other nine cleaned up, fed, and measured for leather armor. Black, menacing in appearance, a red dragon on the chest.”
Rufus nodded, waiting for further instructions. “Now!” Silas exploded.