“The men are ready.” Sabina advised, as she climbed back into the gatehouse. “At least, as ready as they can be.” Adesh nodded, watching as the two men ran towards the fort. “Let’s hope that this is as far as it goes. We have three archers?” “Two, Julian and Alina. Oleg is the third.” “Make sure they’re ready on the wall, one each side of the gate house, I don’t want them too close to each other.” Sabina turned and dropped down the steps from the gatehouse, leaving Adesh on his own. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and mentally urged Stefan and Oleg on. He had no idea who was chasing them or how many, and having only a limited number of warriors, he couldn’t just rush out to them. They were on their own until they got to the gate. They were almost home safe now. Adesh peeled his eyes, searching behind the two men for any sign of the enemy. And then he saw them. A small group, they looked to be well armed, just standing at swirling edges of the fog bank, no more than half a mile distant. They were just standing now, watching. Adesh kept his eyes on them as Stefan and Oleg, reached the gate. A quick gesture from Adesh, and Sabina ordered the gates to be opened enough to let the two men inside. The group of warriors, turned around as they saw the gates opening and marched away, the fog swallowing them in minutes. Adesh breathed a sigh of relief and climbed down out of the gate house. The two men were leaning against the closed gate when Adesh arrived. One of the warriors ran past Adesh and handed Stefan a water skin. He pulled the stopper out of it and drank deeply before handing it to Oleg who accepted it gratefully. “They’re well-armed for bandits.” Stefan reported to the young captain. “Very well armed.” “Did you find where they’re raiding from?” “Oleg found them.” Stefan reported. “I’d never have gotten close, but the man has Equola’s own eyes. He found sign where I couldn’t see a thing. They’re on an island, a mile or two up-river from the village, in the swamp.” “Elanglas.” Oleg interrupted. “They’re on Elanglas island.” Sabina frowned. “Nobody goes there, at least nobody with half a mind.” “Why not?” Adesh asked. “I think there’s a colony of Aoshee there.” Sabina answered. “I’ve never seen any, but I’ve never been to the island. Supposedly, they get downright hostile if anyone tries to spend any time there.” “Aoshee?” Stefan asked. “Surely they’re too small to bother anyone. I hear they’re more pest than threat.” Sabina shrugged. “I’ve never seen one, but the older villagers say they’re dangerous and easy to underestimate.” “Those little pests aside.” Adesh cut in. “The island sounds perfect for them. It’s hard to get to and no one stays there.” “Now they know that we know where they are, they surely won’t stay there.” Sabina added. “Probably not.” Adesh allowed. “But it’ll probably take them a little time to move. Did either of you get an idea of their numbers?” “To be honest, I was too busy with getting out of there.” Stefan admitted, uncomfortably. “Maybe twelve or so.” Oleg spoke up, confidently. “Two or three less now, I suppose.” “Well, we have them in numbers.” Adesh said thoughtfully. “If only just.” “They have better equipment.” Stefan reminded his younger friend. “No real archers though.” Oleg countered. “Me an’ Julian, an’ Alina could take care of them, no problem.” “Except for them being on an island that’s heavy with bushes and trees.” Stefan reminded Oleg. “What ever we decide.” Adesh interrupted. “We’ll have to do it fast, before they move. Oleg, go grab yourself some food. Sabina, get the men to stand down. Back to normal duties and then come find me, I might have something figured out by then.” Stefan eyed the longhouse. “Any chance of food for me?” “Grab something and meet me in my quarters. I want a proper report of what you found.” * Stefan settled into the chair, a plate of meat and gravy in front of him, and slid a plate of cheese and bread across the table to Adesh. “Figured you wouldn’t be wanting anything heavy yet.” The older man commented. “Thanks.” Adesh replied, taking the plate. “So, tell me everything that happened after leaving here.” “Well, we went through the village at a fair clip. Oleg really moves when he wants to. We crossed the bridge and kept on going ‘till we found what was left of the wagons.” “Was there anything left?” Adesh asked, taking a bite of cheese. “Nothing. They cleared out what they could and burnt everything they couldn’t carry. The horses were gone, the wagons broken and burnt, the weapons were all gone, as was all the armour and food.” “Fuck!” The young captain sighed. “Go on.” “Oleg found tracks from the bandits. They weren’t hard to find, even I could have followed them, at least for a short ways. They started to fade away, but Oleg said he could still follow them. He said they were heading for the swamp. Beats me why, you can’t move fast in there, but Oleg was certain.” “So, you followed them to this island, Elanglas, Oleg called it.” “Not right away, no. The trail led through the swamp, a couple of miles upriver, beyond the island. I didn’t even know there was an island there then, we weren’t close enough to the river to see it.” “How did you find them on the island?” “Thanks to Oleg, that’s how. We fetched up at the river bank, a few miles up river of the island, like I said. Oleg saw marks on the bank and said that they’d got on a boat there. I was ready to give up then. How were we going to track a boat on water? But Oleg, you wouldn’t think it, but he’s a canny bastard. He says that the river upstream of us shallows out for a fair bit and they’d never get a boat up there. Then he mentions the island. So we leave the horses there and start making our way back down the river.” “Seeing as you were on foot when you came back, I suppose the horses are still there?” Stefan shook his head. “Sorry Adesh, they’re dead. There’s at least one or two good archers with those bandits.” “Something else to add to the tally.” Adesh lamented. “We can’t afford those kind of losses.” “Sorry Adesh. Nothing we could have done.” Adesh waved away the apology. “Can’t change what’s already done. Keep going, when were you spotted?” “Well we found the island, right where Oleg said it’d be, but there wasn’t much to see. There’s a lot of trees growing there, very old trees by the look. Oleg says that he thinks there might be a clearing on the other side of the island. He saw the far side of the island once when he was a boy. So we crossed the river, and worked our way down along the bank, carefully, and sure enough, there was a small clearing and a few boats.” “Let me guess.” Adesh interrupted. “At least one of those boats had a mast that could be taken down when needed.” “Just one.” Stefan confirmed. “Not bandits then.” Adesh said with certainty. “Smugglers.” Stefan shrugged. “Oleg didn’t say anything about smugglers. We lit out of there once we found them, but someone must have spotted us. We were chased all the way back to our horses, but someone had got there ahead of us. If Oleg hadn’t pulled me out of the saddle I’d be dead. We spent the night in that fucking swamp, staying quiet and hiding while they searched for us. Managed to get past them sometime before dawn and spent the next few hours trying to stay ahead of them.” “Stay there.” Adesh ordered Stefan and walked to the door. He stuck his head out and whistled at a passing warrior. “Tell Oleg I want to see him.” He told the warrior. The man nodded and ran off. Stefan looked at him askance when he sat back down. “Just wait.” Adesh said, as he popped another piece of cheese into his mouth. Oleg knocked on the door a few minutes later and entered. “Captain?” He asked. “Is there anything grown around here that would interest smugglers?” “I don’t know as to that, Captain. I’m no farmer.” “You’re from the village, though.” “Uh, yes Captain. I don’t see what that has to do with anything, though.” Adesh leant forward on his desk and stared at the tracker. “Try again Oleg. Is there something grown here, that would interest smugglers?” Oleg slowly wilted under Adesh’s glare. “Mushrooms, Captain.” “Mushrooms? What kind of mushrooms?” “Blue Caps.” “Why on Saraphi’s earthly realm, would smugglers be interested in mushrooms?” Oleg shrugged. “Don’t know. Can’t eat them, they’re poisonous.” Stefan slapped his hand down on the desk. “Pas!” “Hmm?” Adesh asked, puzzled by Stefan’s outburst. “Pas, Adesh! Fucking Pas! Someone once told me that Pas is made from Blue Caps. I didn’t know Blue Caps were mushrooms.” “So, the smugglers take the mushrooms and ship them out from the island, probably to a larger ship offshore. No wonder they hide on an island no one wants to go near, in the middle of a swamp that no one bothers with. They’re probably making a small fortune.” “Which explains why they attacked the caravan. They can’t have the fort here, fully manned again, we’d spot the boat going down river and have the numbers to take it.” Stefan remarked thoughtfully. “And men enough to track them and hunt them down.” Adesh added. A sudden knock on the door interrupted Adesh. The door opened, and Sabina entered the room in a rush. “There looks to be a fire in the village.” She reported. “I’m sure the villagers have it in hand.” Adesh replied calmly. “By the time we get there, it’ll be out.” “It looks like it’s the entire village!” Sabina exclaimed. “The fog is starting to fade, but you can see the cloud of smoke easily. It’s huge.” Stefan looked at Adesh. “The smugglers?” Adesh returned Stefan’s look. “Who else? Sabina, I want half the warriors as armed and armoured as we can get them. The best of what we have. I don’t care what you have to do, just get it done.” Sabina left the room in a rush to get the men ready. “Stefan, you’ll stay here with the rest of the men. Lock the gates and keep a constant watch until we’re back. I don’t like how this smells.” “Where will you be?” Stefan asked, already knowing the answer. “I’ll be at the village. If I see any of the smugglers, I mean to engage them. Hopefully they’ll break and run, but if not, I’m going to try and draw them back here.” “Risky move.” “Short of trying to attack them on an island with no easy way to cross, I’ve little choice.” “Alright, we’ll be ready.” The two men stood and clasped wrists. “Stay safe.” Stefan urged Adesh. “Your father will never forgive me if anything happens to you.” Adesh laughed. “It’s my mother you should be wary of. She’s the one with connections.” The two men looked at each other, suddenly serious. “Any last words of advice?” Adesh asked with a smile. “You’ll do fine. Keep your head clear, and don’t let them goad you. Just like I taught you.” * Adesh sat on his horse, just outside the village. Sabina had been right. Most of the village was aflame. Villagers were drawing water from a well and had formed a bucket line, but he could see that it was a futile gesture. The fires had spread too far. Sabina, on foot, trotted up beside him. Her mouth dropped open at the level of destruction. “We have to help them!” She urged her captain. “We can’t.” Adesh replied tersely. “The smugglers are out there somewhere, waiting. I know it.” “But the villagers!” “They can wait. What help will they have if we’re all killed?” “My parents could be in there!” Sabina protested. “I know Sabina, but you’re a warrior. Act like it!” Sabina’s back straightened sharply, and she glared at the young Captain. “What do you want me to do?” “Send Oleg around north of the village and Alina south. I want them to find those bastards. As soon as they do, they’re to report back. If they get to the far side of the village without finding anything they’re to come back. Understood?” Sabina nodded and turned back down the track to where the warriors were waiting. Adesh sighed and returned to his vigil, watching the village slowly consumed by fire. He hated waiting for action. The slow tightening of nerves, the sweating, the trembling, the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, watching for anything that signalled an end to the waiting. He hawked up some phlegm and spat on the ground. Already he could feel a headache starting as the tension built tighter and tighter. Not that he felt much better after a fight. At least during the action he could forget everything but what was going on at that very moment. He longed to go back and wait with his warriors just down the road, but the villagers deserved to be helped. He couldn’t give them what they needed, so instead he punished himself by watching. It was the least they deserved. He was so wrapped up in his vigil that he almost didn’t notice Sabina returning some time later. The fires were burning even more furiously now. “How can you stand to watch?” Sabina asked coldly. “Are the lives of the Clanless worth so little?” “I’m watching because it’s all I can do.” Adesh replied. “I’ll remember this for as long as I live and hate myself because there was nothing to be done but watch.” “Easy to say.” Sabina commented under her breath not quite silently enough. “Yes. Easy to say Sabina.” Adesh replied coolly. “I could have stayed at the fort, as would have been my right as Captain, I could have sent Stefan in my place. I chose to be here, knowing that there would be no help we could offer the villagers. I chose to sit here and watch the village burn, but you can rest assured that as soon as we located the smugglers I will destroy them for what they’ve done.” Sabina shrugged. “We’ll see.” The young Captain eyed the woman, with no small amount of irritation. “Sabina?” “Captain?” “Go back to the men!” “I’m staying to watch Captain. These are my people. If one of the high and mighty Clansmen says that all we can do for now is watch, then that’s what I’ll do.” Adesh rolled his neck, trying to ease some of the tension before replying. “Fine. If that’s what you need to do. Just shut your fucking mouth.” * Adesh lost track of time as he watched, waiting for his scouts to report back. Thirst brought him back to himself and he grabbed his small canteen. He swallowed a quick mouthful of the warm, brackish water, and then a second, trying to clear the taste of the smoke from his mouth. Sabina suddenly threw herself at Adesh and pulled him out of the saddle. An arrow flashed through the space just vacated by the young Captain as he crashed to the ground. Adesh jumped to his feet, dropping his canteen as he drew his sword. “Looks like they got tired of waiting for us.” He commented, wryly. “Seems like.” Sabina replied, as she turned to look back the trail. She whistled and the few warriors, less the two scouts, drew their well-worn swords. The warriors stayed low, and spread out, trying to avoid the attention of the enemy archers. Both Sabina and Adesh made their way back to the warriors, staying low. This was the most defensive part of the trail, on either side lay the swamp. If they moved forward the trail widened too much. “They’re coming.” One of the men said, pointing with his sword. Adesh turned to look and saw twelve warriors bearing down on them at a run. Adesh examined them coolly. They were all men save one, a slender, one armed woman, carrying a long-bladed sword with a fancy guard. They carried a variety of swords, some two handers, some single hand, their equipment looked expensive but there was no uniformity. Tightening his grip on his shield, he turned to his men. “Lock shields! I have the centre!” He shouted and turned back to face the oncoming smugglers. Sabina stood to his left, overlapping her shield with his, with two more warriors to her left, while the three remaining warriors took their places to Adesh’s right. “Hold those shields!” Adesh shouted. “Keep your heads down and watch your damn legs!” The warriors beat their shields in response, shouting wordlessly as the smugglers closed with them. Adesh’s heart pounded, fear and pride fighting within. These were his warriors. Their equipment might have been old and battered, and certainly they had been left to rot with their former captain, but they were ready and able. “Aratu, lord of the host, and warrior supreme, guide my sword.” Adesh prayed silently. And then the smugglers crashed into them. All around him, men grunted and swore, swords hammered off shields and somewhere, off to one side, someone was dying noisily. Adesh raised his shield slightly and intercepted a sword that would have decapitated the man to his right. Moments later the man returned the favour. A quick glance showed the smugglers trying to get around his right flank. “Ware right!” He shouted. “Ware right!” A smuggler with a two hander swung his long blade at Adesh. Sabina this time blocked the blow with her shield. The one-handed swordswoman was beside the man with the two-hander and saw her chance. Sweeping forward she thrust her sword into Sabina. The man to Sabina’s left tried to protect her with his shield, but wasn’t fast enough, only managing to divert the blade enough to cause Sabina a serious wound, rather than a mortal one. Adesh saw the woman curse as and pull back her blood wet blade and saw Sabina stagger. The woman ran forward and jumped, driving her feet into the warrior beside Sabina’s shield, forcing the man to take a step back. As she landed she stabbed the next warrior down in the side and then pulled back. Adesh cursed hotly. Sabina was still on her feet, but reeling, covered by the warrior to her left, the other warrior was dead. His left flank was wide open. The smugglers were taking casualties too though, four of them were either wounded or dead. That still left them with eight to his six. “Hold!” Adesh shouted. “Aratu watches us!” Adesh’s warriors shouted wordlessly as they continued to hold back the smugglers. The young captain blocked another blade aimed at Sabina, who growled, and stabbed the smuggler before he could recover from Adesh’s block. The smuggler fell and tripped the man behind him. Adesh kicked the fallen man in the jaw, feeling teeth crunch as his boot made contact. Adesh grinned as he blocked and swung. Now it was a fair fight. They had a chance. The smugglers were beginning to look behind them, as the fight began to turn against them. The swordswoman shouted in anger and attacked the last man on Adesh’s right flank, smashing the man’s shield aside and gutting him with vicious slash, before turning on the next warrior, stabbing him in the side, as he defended against another smuggler. He, too, fell, opening the next warrior to attack. It was to Sabina’s credit, wounded as she was, that she saw what had happened. She grabbed the warrior to her left and pulled him close, as Adesh pulled the warrior to his right out of the swordswoman’s line of attack. The smugglers, who had been on the verge of running away moments earlier, cheered and rushed the four remaining warriors. This was it. Adesh realised. A last stand that his father, and even his mother, could be proud of. Certainly, they were only smugglers and not enemy warriors, but a fight was a fight and he stayed with his men. “Back to back!” Adesh shouted, knowing that it was a futile gesture and would only serve to delay the end. Six smugglers against his four warriors, and one of them wounded badly. Long odds. His shield set, he braced himself and set about making sure that the smugglers paid dearly. He worked his sword and shield with all the skill he could muster, thankful for the years he spent learning the ways of the blade and the shield from his father and Stefan. He killed another smuggler but felt the warrior behind him fall, almost tripping him. He danced away from the fallen man, but only managed to separate himself from Sabina and the last standing warrior and found himself facing the swordswoman. She almost killed him a second later as her sword lanced over the top of his shield. Her blade skidded off the shoulder plates atop his breastplate. Without a moment’s pause, Adesh angled his shield and thrust forward, driving the steel rimmed edge into the woman’s chest. She skidded back and grimaced. Adesh pushed forward again, refusing to give the swordswoman a chance to recover. Even still, she managed to parry his cuts and thrusts and Adesh knew that without his shield, he’d be dead. She was incredible, even lacking an arm, her balance was perfect, and her cuts and thrusts were controlled and economical. The young captain had never fought anyone using her style before, but he adapted as best he could. They traded cuts and thrusts, back and forth for several minutes, inflicting small cuts on each other, evidence of their ability to, almost but not quite, land a killing blow. Adesh shouted as he kept the pressure on the woman, keeping his blood up, but his arms were tiring, his legs felt heavy. It wouldn’t be long now. The woman shouted back at him and swept his blade attack aside. Suddenly, her eyes widened and she stumbled. A feathered arrow jutted from her offside shoulder. Adesh drove himself forward and attempted to slam his shield into her face, sweeping his blade low to gut her. The woman threw her self backwards, falling to the ground. Without a moment’s pause, she rolled to the side as the young captain kicked out at her. The woman used her momentum to regain her feet and again knocked Adesh’s blade aside. Her face had turned pale, as the act of rolling aside from Adesh’s kick had snapped the shaft of the arrow in her shoulder. Another arrow slammed into the dirt of the track beside the woman’s feet. “Drop your sword.” Adesh ordered harshly. “It’s over.” The woman spat at the young Captain and turned and ran. Another arrow shot split the air beside Adesh, aimed at the fleeing woman but somehow, she managed to dodge at the right moment. Adesh’s horse had wandered off the trail a little and the woman had seen it. She leapt into the saddle and drove her heels into the horse’s sides as another arrow whistled past her. And then she was gone, hugging the horse’s neck as more arrows sliced through the air around her. Adesh turned to look for Sabina and his last warrior, and found them only a few paces away, the warrior standing over Sabina, two dead smugglers at his feet and another kneeling on the ground, sword thrown to his feet. He looked around and spotted Oleg wading through the swamp from a small hillock little wider than the archer himself. A quick check on Sabina showed that while the wound was serious enough, if the Gods were kind, it wouldn’t kill her. She’d taken the flat of a blade to the head, leaving a long shallow cut. The final warrior had himself taken several wounds, but nothing too deep or serious. A few minutes later, Oleg pulled himself back onto the trail and lay on his back on the ground, panting. “Are you alright?” Adesh asked concerned. “Fucking tip top, captain. Lost my damned boots in there somewhere.” “Where’s Alina?” “Dead.” Oleg said, with regret. “She tumbled onto two of their archers. I saw it happen. They did for her, but I did for them. Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.” “Don’t worry about it. What’s done is done and can’t be changed.” Oleg grunted. “Fair point.” “Come on.” Adesh sighed. “We need to get something from the village to make a litter. Sabina needs help before she bleeds out.” Oleg grunted again. “Looks like the villagers are turning out to help. What’s left of ‘em.” Adesh turned to look back at the village, and sure enough, several of the locals, blackened from fire and smoke, were heading towards them. It took him two tries to sheath his sword, and he sighed as he sat down beside the archer. * Adesh walked along the battlements of the fort. It was several days since the burning of Wayr and the fight with the smugglers. He could still feel the stiffness in his muscles and the soreness from every one of his cuts and bruises but it felt good to be alive. He’d lost all but three of his warriors in the engagement, they’d not made it easy and the smugglers had paid in blood. The village had been all but burnt to the ground, the only building left standing being the shrine to Saraphi. A miracle some were calling it. Adesh had snorted when he’d heard that. It was more likely that the building survived intact because it was separated from the rest of the village. He turned to look over the wall, out over the cliffs to the ocean beyond. “Enjoying the view?” Stefan asked as he walked along the battlements and stood beside his young Captain. “It’s better than looking the other way.” “I heard the villagers are asking if they can rebuild around the fort.” “I agreed to their request. No reason not to. We’ll mark out a boundary line and dig a ditch around the fort. What did you find on the island?” “Not much. Oleg covered me from the bank while I swam over and snagged a boat. The place was cleared out pretty well. Nothing left but a bunch of very pissed off Aoshee.” Adesh glanced at Stefan and smiled. “I hope they didn’t hurt you too much.” Stefan rolled his eyes. “I’ve got scratches and bite marks in places no self-respecting warrior should have, ‘cept if there was a woman involved.” “You’ll get over it.” Stefan grinned. “Anyone asks, I’ll just say I tumbled a village girl. Who’s to know different?” Adesh pulled a sealed letter from a pocket and handed it to the older man. Stefan turned it over in his hands. “What’s this?” “A letter. I want you to take it to Galis, to my father. We need more warriors here, to make up for what we lost, and then some.” Stefan nodded slowly and slid the letter under his breast plate. “Do you want me to pass any message onto your mother?” Adesh shrugged. “The usual. She’ll know anyway.” “But she’ll want to hear it.” Stefan added. “How’s Sabina?” “Healing. She was hobbling around this morning shouting at Julian for something. I had to order her to go back to bed and rest.” “Remarkable woman.” Stefan commented. “She is that.” Adesh agreed. “Why don’t you go make sure she’s still resting, as she’s supposed to be?”
He may have been in a deep sleep, but Stefan was an old campaigner, ready to wake at a moment’s notice, and his training didn’t fail him now. He rolled out of his bed as a knife struck downwards to where his chest would have been. He lashed out with a leg and struck his attacker in the thigh. No damage done but it pushed the enemy off balance for a moment, giving him the time to grab his own sword. Adesh had been forced to back up towards the wall, his sword held point towards his enemy. The man lunged forward, slapping Adesh’s blade aside and driving his knife forward, straight at Adesh’s chest. It was a good move, a sign that the man knew what he was doing, but so did Adesh and he was wise to the move. He grabbed the knifeman’s wrist and rather than block it he pushed it to one side, forcing the man to turn, and slammed his forehead down on the man’s nose. The crunch of cartilage was audible, and the man grunted in pain. Using the attacker’s distraction, Adesh dropped his sword from his right hand and grabbed it out of the air with his left. He whipped his sword up, pommel first, into the man’s jaw, driving the attacker back and then thrust his sword into the knifeman’s chest. Stefan had his arm around his attacker’s neck and was slowly suffocating him. The man had already stopped fighting, but Stefan liked to be sure that someone was actually incapacitated rather than faking it. A minute or so later he let go and his attacker dropped bonelessly to the floor. Already, they could hear other people in the inn shouting. The two men dressed as quickly as they could. “What do you think that was about?” Adesh asked, as he pulled his tunic over his head. “Damned if I know. The only person we pissed off was Prasad and he’s not this stupid.” “Are you sure?” “No.” Stefan replied grimly as he belted on his sword. “We should go find out.” * The innkeeper was less than pleased with the damage to the room, but some extra coins from Adesh calmed him down. Some more coins and the innkeeper promised to take care of the dead man. What ever that meant. Meanwhile, Stefan had dragged the unconscious assassin down the stairs, with a distinct lack of care, and tied him to a chair in the tap room despite the innkeeper’s protests. A solid slap to the face roused the man, and a bucket of filthy water poured over him brought the assassin back to his senses. More or less. He looked around him and assessed the situation. “Fuck.” The assassin spat. Stefan dragged a chair over and sat directly in front of the man. “That sums things up nicely.” He confirmed. Adesh stood beside Stefan and glared at the assassin. “Why did you try to kill us?” The assassin shrugged as best he could. “It was just a job. Nothing personal, like.” “Who hired you? Why?” Adesh demanded, balling up his fists. Stefan sat back in his chair and watched the assassin carefully. The assassin glanced at Adesh and dismissed him, instead focusing on Stefan. “How much?” He asked flatly. Adesh took a step forward and glared at the assassin. “I asked you a question!” “And I ignored it.” The man replied before looking back to Stefan. “How much do you want?” Adesh stepped forward again, moving closer to the assassin, his eyes full of anger. Stefan held out his arm, stopping Adesh from moving closer. “How much for what?” Stefan asked carefully. “How much to let me go and forget all about this?” The man answered confidently. Stefan nodded thoughtfully before lunging forward and driving his fist into the assassin’s chin. The chair rocked back on its legs and fell backwards on the floor, the man still tied securely but now unconscious again. “Why’d you do that?” Adesh asked curiously. Stefan reached down to the assassin and pulled him, and the chair, back upright. “I missed something.” He replied. “Something?” “He was baiting you, he wanted you closer.” “Baiting me?” Stefan shrugged. “Easy enough to spot when you’re not the one being baited I guess.” Stefan felt up and down the arms of the assassin for the second time in under twenty minutes and checked the man’s legs. Everywhere he could think of but couldn’t find anything. Adesh was watching carefully out of Stefan’s way. He’d never had to do this before, so it was a valuable experience as far as he was concerned. “I can’t find anything on him.” Stefan announced, puzzled. “But he definitely had a plan.” Adesh looked at the assassin, eyeing him up from head to toe before spotting something odd. “You didn’t happen to hit him in the throat did you?” “What?” Stefan asked. “His throat? No. Why?” “Looks a little swollen on the side.” The young captain observed. Stefan held the assassin’s head to one side and examined his neck, making a thoughtful sound. He turned the assassin’s head again and held open the man’s mouth, taking a quick look inside. “Bring a candle over here will you?” He asked. Adesh grabbed a candle and held it where Stefan indicated. “Found something?” “Maybe.” Stefan allowed. “Actually yeah. I found his little trick. He’s got a venom sac in his throat. He can spit poison at you, if you’re close enough.” “How in Fritan’s cold hell, do you get that?” Stefan shrugged. “No idea. Only heard of it once before. I thought it was just another taproom tale.” “So what now?” Stefan pulled out a small dagger and let the tip slice softly into the swelling on the man’s neck as he replied coldly. “Now we start again.” * Another bucket of water roused the assassin again, this one cleaner than the last. The man spat water and glared sullenly at Stefan. “Let’s start again.” Stefan suggested coolly, taking a seat again in front of the assassin. “Let’s not.” The assassin muttered. “That hurt. Any more of that and I might take it personal.” “Take it what ever way you want.” Stefan advised, leaning forward. “But know that you won’t be poisoning anyone anymore.” The assassin’s eyes widened and his arms jerked as he tried to free them from the chair. Stefan sat back and smiled, satisfied. “That’s more like it. You just needed to know how things stood.” “Fuck you!” The assassin spat. “You can walk out of here, or you can die on the chair. All I want is answers. Who hired you?” “Fuck off.” “Suit yourself.” Stefan shrugged, showing the assassin the long knife in his hand. “You think your threats mean anything to me?” The assassin laughed. “Either cut my throat or fuck off.” Stefan smiled. “I have all day to work on you. I’m going to break your fingers first, then your toes. One at a time. Maybe you’ll talk then.” “Do your worst. I can wait.” The assassin spat defiantly. Stefan held out a hand and Adesh handed him a large wooden mallet, just like they’d rehearsed. He examined the mallet, making sure the assassin got a good look at it. “Not what I’d prefer to use, but the innkeeper didn’t have anything better.” The older man commented, watching their prisoner closely. “Just get on with – “ The assassin began. Stefan, without warning, slammed the mallet down on the assassin’s nearest finger, where it rested on the arm of the chair. The assassin’s eyes bulged as he bit back a scream. Behind him, Adesh swore and turned away, his face turning green. “Listen, you little bastard.” Stefan hissed as he raised the mallet again. “You tried to kill me. That’s more than personal enough for me, so I’m quite happy to do as I promised. One finger at a time, one toe at a time. If you’re not talking after that, then I’ll move to wrists and ankles, then knees and elbows. If you still refuse to talk, I’ll take my knife and cut your stones off. So answer my fucking question and save us all some time. Who hired you?” The assassin took a deep breath and smiled. A fleck of bloody foam appeared at the corner of his mouth, followed by more, and more. “Fuck off.” The man choked out before he slumped forward in the chair. “Shit.” Stefan swore as he dropped the mallet and stood up. “What happened?” Adesh asked as he wiped his mouth. The old warrior shrugged. “Looks like he had one last trick left.” * “So what now?” Adesh asked Stefan, as the stableman dragged the dead assassin out of the inn. “That’s up to you, isn’t it?” The young captain grimaced. “I’m a little out of my depth with this. Running a camp, I can do, commanding a unit in a fight, I can do. But assassins? No one taught me anything about them.” Stefan clapped Adesh on the shoulder. “That’s the burden of command. Look, the way I see it, you don’t have to worry about assassins, they’re just another weapon, and with any weapon, it’s the person using it you need to concern yourself with.” “That’s all well and good, but we don’t know who sent them. Or why.” Stefan scratched his head. “Fair point. It’s certainly a problem. I’m glad I’m not the one in command.” “You’re no bloody help. Get the horses saddled and I’ll deal with the innkeeper. We’re going to be around for a while, so we might as well keep him happy.” “Back to the fort then, I take it.” Stefan grinned. “Seeing as Prasad is the only person we’ve pissed off since we arrived, we’ll start with him.” * “Well shit.” Stefan swore loudly as he stood in Prasad’s quarters. “Yeah.” Adesh agreed. Prasad’s quarters were gloomy and dark, the shutters didn’t look like they’d been opened in years and were most likely swollen shut. The coppery smell in the air was new though, as was the blood soaking the bed that Prasad and his woman occupied. Both had clearly been dead for several hours, their throats cut cleanly. “Well there’s fuck all to be done now but clear it all out.” “This does tell us one important thing.” Adesh observed thoughtfully. “What’s that?” “It can’t be a coincidence that we were attacked on the same night. Whatever this is all about, it came about because we’re here.” Stefan stroked his chin, thinking it through before replying. “It could be a coincidence, but probably not; even odds says you’re right.” “Keep your eyes open. We don’t know any of these men, or if the only people here involved were the assassins who tried to kill us. I have a job to do here and I’m going to do it.” “Done. I’ll get someone to clear these quarters out and have them aired as I’m at it.” “And find out who was acting as Prasad’s second, send him to me. Maybe he knows something. I’ll wait in the longhouse.” * A short, stocky woman showed up less than a half hour later as Adesh was chewing on a dry piece of bread, a mug of water in front of him. “You the new captain?” The woman asked. “I am.” Adesh confirmed as he dropped the bread on to his plate and dusted off his hands. “Who’re you?” “Sabina Jindrova. I ran things for Prasad. You kill him?” Adesh sat up straighter in his chair and looked over the woman again, liking what he saw. Though her tunic and trousers were worn, they were neat and more or less clean. “You’re direct. That works for me. No, I didn’t, I was back in the village with Stefan, getting drunk.” Sabina snorted. “This place will do that to you. Stefan. He the big lummox outside? All arm no brain?” Adesh laughed. “He’s smarter than he looks.” “He’d have to be.” The woman observed. “You were Prasad’s second. Where were you yesterday? “Home. My father is sick and I was helping my brothers out a bit. I’d still be there but I heard there was something going on here. Look captain, what’s going on? I get back here and Prasad’s dead and you’re digging around.” Adesh shrugged. “I was sent here to clean this place up and replace Prasad, not kill him. I need to know where to start.” Sabina snorted. “Clean up? The only thing you can do here is burn it all down and start again somewhere else.” “That bad?” “Worse. There’s bandits, smugglers, and pirates all along the coast, and sometimes we get raided by one of the fucking herder tribes.” “How did Prasad deal with it?” Sabina hesitated. “It’s not right to speak ill of the dead captain.” “Maybe not. I need to start working this mess out though. It might be easier to burn it all down, but the High Lord wouldn’t be very happy about it, not to mention the villagers. What would they do without us here to keep them safe?” “Safe?” Sabina scoffed bitterly. “Prasad made sure that smugglers could come and go as they pleased. We only turned out for bandits and herder raids, and late at that.” “Are you saying that Prasad took money from the smugglers?” “Money, drugs, women, whatever they offered.” Sabina spat. “Why do you think everyone here is so miserable? We’re all from around here and Prasad punished anyone who tried to stop the smugglers.” Adesh drank off the rest of his water. “That’s going to change. You’ll stay in charge of the men. They know you, but you’ll report to Stefan and he’ll report to me.” “So I won’t remain as second?” “It’s nothing personal Sabina. Stefan will be the fort’s second, but I’ll make sure that you keep your pay.” “Thank you, Captain.” “What can you tell me about the men? Any obvious trouble makers? Anyone who should get booted out now that Prasad is gone?” “The men are rough around the edges, I know Captain, but they’re solid. They’re just frustrated that they can’t do what they’re supposed to. What we need is better equipment. We haven’t had anything like proper armour in years, we need new spears, shields, swords...” Adesh waved away Sabina’s concerns. “I already thought of that before I left Galis. I requested a blacksmith to join the fort, and an engineer. They’ll be here within the week, with supplies.” Sabina looked like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders as she heard the news. “Honest word?” “All of it. I want you to spread word to the men.” Adesh continued, noting the woman’s relief. “We’re only at half strength so any young men or women who want to join us are welcome. They’ll get basic pay, food, quarters here in the fort, training and equipment.” “I don’t know if we’ll get any recruits.” Sabina admitted sourly. “We’re not very popular with the rest of the villagers. Most of us don’t go home very often. It makes trouble for our families.” “Just let it be known that we’re recruiting. In time, I’m sure everything will work out.” Adesh told her confidently. * Adesh woke to someone banging on his bedroom door. He rolled naked out of bed and grabbed his sword. He bared the blade as his door burst open and stood ready. Stefan stomped into the room and glanced at the younger man. “Good, you’re awake. Come on, we have a problem.” Stefan announced. Adesh blinked; and lowered his blade uncertainly. “What?” “Weren’t you listening? We have a problem. Get dressed. Quickly.” Adesh frowned but tossed his sword onto his bed and started pulling on his clothes. “What’s happened?” Adesh asked, as he pulled on a pair of warm, woollen trousers. “Someone attacked the supply caravan.” Stefan replied, gravely. “One of the men managed to get away. It’s a wonder he got this far, Fritan herself must have decided that it wasn’t his time.” “Did he give any details? Where? Who?” Adesh asked, as he grabbed his boots. “A few hours out of the village. Bandits, he said.” Adesh grunted and stood up. He grabbed his sword and sheathed it. “Get Sabina, tell her I want to see her immediately in the longhouse.” Stefan nodded and ran out of the room. The younger man sighed and secured his sword belt before kicking the leg of his bed in annoyance. Nothing was going as it was supposed to. When he’d first been told he was being sent to Wayr, he had imagined a well-run, if aging, bastion against raiders and smugglers. He had expected that he would be greeted cordially by the commander in place. He had expected to find a well-trained, well equipped garrison. Why shouldn’t he expect these things? Wayr might be remote, but it was a frontier garrison. Instead he had found a fort beset by rot and decay, manned by warriors who had turned to drink to manage their frustrations. He had expected that the garrison would need modernising, that the soldiers would need fresh equipment and horses. He couldn’t have known just how badly these things were needed. Was this how it was going to be out here? Disappointment stacked upon more disappointment? He kicked the leg of the bed again. “Not if I have anything to say about it!” He muttered under his breath as he left his room, banging the door closed behind him. * Sabina was waiting for him in the longhouse, supping from a bowl of soup in her hands. A large kettle of soup bubbled merrily over the fire nearest her and filled the longhouse with a rich, meaty smell. Adesh grabbed a clean bowl from a nearby table and dipped a ladle into the soup, filling his bowl. He glanced at her as he poured. “Tell me about the bandits.” He ordered curtly. “We don’t know where they base themselves.” She reported. “They’ve been around for the last ten years or so, but they don’t raid regularly, and never from the same quarter. They attacked the village a few years ago, and that’s the last we heard of them, ‘till now.” Adesh pulled a chunk of bread from a nearby loaf and dipped it in his soup. “Why has nothing ever been done about them?” “Captain Hannano’s decision. We all wanted to go after them, especially after they attacked the village, but he said no. A few of the men went looking for them anyway, but none of them ever returned.” “Does anyone have any idea where they might be hiding?” Sabina shook her head. “No one knows.” “Alright. Do we have any trackers among the men? Any hunters?” “Oleg.” “Is he sober?” Sabina shrugged. “Sober enough, I guess.” “Get him geared up and get him a horse. I’ll send Stefan out with him. I want him to go to where the caravan was raided and track those bastards down.” Sabina finished off her soup and nodded. “I’ll see it done.” * As much as Adesh would have liked to sit around and wait for Stefan to return with Oleg, there was plenty of work that needed to be done around the fort, as well as Adesh’s daily duties. For the rest of the day, and the next, he worked the men hard, keeping everyone busy. The walls of the fort were slowly being repaired, as much as they could be. He was no engineer and the men were not skilled at dressing stone properly. The walls were at least looking cleaner. He’d had the men off duty cleaning off the weeds and grass as they went. A few of parts of the battlements had to be cordoned off until such a time as they could be made safe. Sabina had organised one of the villagers to come and oversee the thatch being replaced on the longhouse. Winter was only a few months away and Adesh really wanted most of the work to be done by then. Come spring he hoped to have a solid plan to return wooden shingles to the buildings, as they were originally designed to have. The young captain climbed the new steps up to the gatehouse for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. He couldn’t see that far, a fog had risen during the morning and as was normal here, wouldn’t burn off until around midday. A day and a half had now passed since Stefan and Oleg had ridden out. He was worried but trying to hide it. Sabina had stopped trying to reassure him after the last time he had snapped at her. He’d apologised, but she’d been staying out of his way since. Carrying out her duties as though nothing was wrong. A shout from one of the guard towers brought him out of his reverie. He leaned forward, resting his hands on the edges of the battlements, and stared up the track. Two men on foot were hurrying out of the fog towards the fort. As he watched, the figure bringing up the rear stopped and turned around, loosing an arrow at something Adesh couldn’t see. He shouted down to the nearest of the fort’s warriors to fetch Sabina and to pass the word, every man was to get into what ever armour they had. Sabina appeared moments later, already wearing her much-mended gambeson and carrying her captain’s gambeson and breastplate. “What’s happening?” She asked, as she climbed up into the gatehouse. “Thanks.” He said gratefully as he took his armour from her. He pointed back up the track towards the approaching men. “Close the gates and have everyone ready for an attack.” Sabina nodded and dropped back down the steps, shouting at every warrior she could see, to get ready.
Adesh slapped his neck and glanced at his hand. He wiped the offending insect remains on his trouser leg and flicked the reins. His horse snorted softly, acknowledging the command to move faster and totally ignoring it. Adesh tried to ignore the sweat that seemed to be streaming down his neck from beneath his black hair but gave that up as a lost cause. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and sighed. “We’ll be out of it soon enough. No need to hurry.” Stefan cautioned. “It’s this damned heat. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat this much. You’d think this close to the sea there’d be a breeze at least.” Stefan nodded in agreement. “I know you’re more used to Galis, but it’s no cause to risk the horse breaking a leg though.” “True enough.” Adesh sighed. “The track is a disgrace.” “It seems to be the way of things here.” The older man observed, as he ran a hand through his greying hair. “That’s going to change.” Adesh grumbled. “Maybe win them over before you start making them suffer? The Clanless this far from Galis have even less use for a Clanner than those around Galis.” The young warrior laughed. “Surely you jest!” Stefan smirked. “Not even slightly. Places like this only respect hard work. They’ve no time for anything else. If you want their respect, you must work for it, same as everyone else” “And I thought the hardest part was going to be trying to run a fort in Hannano territory.” “It could be worse, at least it’s not Terada.” Stefan pointed out. Adesh shuddered. “Small mercies. I can’t stand how they always seem to be looking down their noses at everyone else.” “There.” Stefan pointed. “See it? The road is pulling out of the swamp.” “Finally!” “Once we’re atop the hill, we’ll be about a half mile from the fort.” * Walking his horse through the gate, Adesh decided that he should have expected the fort to be in the state it was in. Built on just back from the cliffs with a good view of the sea and the river to the east, the stone walls and parapets were badly weathered, almost crumbling away in places. Inside the walls, the wooden buildings were solid enough, but the original roofs were long gone, replaced by thatch that was in dire need of being replaced. The gate appeared as though it hadn’t been closed in a decade or more and looked as though it’d fall apart if someone tried. He pinched his nose and closed his eyes for a moment. This was going to be a lot more work than he’d expected. It was obvious in hindsight, though. After what had happened, he was never going to get a comfortable fort. With how matters lay at home, he was lucky to get this one. His father would advise him to make the best of it. His mother would just shrug and tell him that an easy life, is a dull life. His sister? Well, the less he thought about her, the better. It was her fault anyway. He turned as he saw a warrior in a tatty tunic and trousers, walk unsteadily towards them. He could hear Stefan behind him grinding his teeth. Passing his companion his reins, Adesh intercepted the man. “Not s’posed to be here. Piss off.” The warrior slurred. Adesh stepped back from the guard. His breath was truly awful. “Where’s your captain?” The warrior belched. “Who?” Adesh glared at the obviously drunk, guard. “Your captain!” The warrior swayed on his feet for a moment. “Longhouse s’pose.” “Take me to him. Now.” “Can’t.” “Why not?” Adesh demanded, his temper starting to flare. “Got a woman in there. Said not to bother him.” “Oh, for fuck sake. Go back to what ever you were doing.” The warrior thought about that for a moment, before he shambled off towards the wall. “Find a hitching post, or something, and follow me in.” Adesh ordered, shortly. Stefan grunted and looked around for anything that would be sturdy enough to qualify as a hitching post. Adesh stomped towards the door into the longhouse and shouldered it open, letting it bang against the wall. Inside it was dark and stuffy, several empty fire pits were dotted around the room, and a long table with benches dominated the end of the room. A fat, balding man with a greasy beard was sitting on a chair at the middle of the table. A tall woman with honey blonde hair was sitting on his lap, her blouse undone. The door banging open appeared to have interrupted what ever was going on and the fat man glared angrily at Adesh. “Who the fuck are you?” The fat man roared. “Lomo Adesh.” The young warrior answered coolly. “Are you Hannano Prasad?” “What if I am, you little shit?” The man hissed. Adesh crossed the room to the man and handed him a roll of paper. “What the fuck is this supposed to be?” The man demanded, pushing the woman off his lap and grabbing the roll of paper. The woman hurriedly crawled behind the chair, holding on to it nervously. Adesh replied shortly. “You’re being recalled to Galis and I’m taking over here.” Prasad sat back in his chair and took a breath. “On whose orders?” “The High Lord.” Prasad pushed himself to his feet and leaned forward on the table, staring at Adesh. “I’ve found over the years that one Urito is much like the other, always eager to show how much better they are. Maybe this High Lord Urito will last longer than the last, hmm?” “How dare you?! Adesh growled. “High Lord Urito Kwan was a great warrior.” “Of course he was. That’s why he never managed to take back the Northern Plains from Toren.” Prasad scoffed. “Didn’t your family lose all their lands when they supported the Uritos? Everything north of the Drethan Valley gone. Just like that.” “We were loyal to the High Lord!” The young warrior shouted at the older captain. “And we were rewarded for it.” Prasad laughed. “Rewarded! You lost your lands and now live on charity from the Urito Clan. Fine reward that. It’s why the rest of the clans say that under every Urito tunic is a Lomo sucking on the teat.” Adesh ground his teeth as he stepped forward to lean on his side of the table. “Take that back!” Prasad slapped a hand on the table. “You’re a long way from home. Best you leave, boy. I’ve no plans to go anywhere.” Adesh could feel a bead of sweat slide down his forehead as he stared at Prasad. “I’ve orders to relieve you, Prasad. I’m staying.” “Well.” Prasad smiled darkly. “It’s a rough journey from here to Galis. Anything could happen an unwary traveller.” Adesh backed away from the table and put his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Now, now.” Prasad cautioned Adesh as he calmly walked around the table towards him. “Don’t be like that. There’s no need for swords. Just turn around and walk away.” Adesh was sweating heavily, his breathing heavy. This was not at all going to plan. “Well, fuck me sideways!” Stefan exclaimed from the doorway where he stood. “Prasad, as I live and breathe!” Prasad stopped dead in his tracks, a few feet short of Adesh. “How are you still alive Prasad?” Stefan continued, walking across the room to his young companion. “I thought someone would have stuck a sword in you by now.” “What are you doing here, Stefan?” Prasad spat. “I’m with Captain Lomo here. Did you get your orders?” Prasad stared at Stefan and then at Adesh, his shoulders slumping. “Clear out your quarters Prasad.” Adesh ordered, confidence renewed. “I want you gone by the morning.” The fat man cursed Adesh and stomped back around the table. He grabbed the woman by the arm and hauled her up off the ground and dragged her out of the longhouse with him. The two men waited in silence until Prasad and his woman had left. “I didn’t need the help.” Adesh said hoarsely. “I know.” Stefan replied. “I was just following you in here, like you asked.” “You know Prasad? “Long time ago. We came up in the same unit.” “Fair enough. Go round up the men and I’ll address them.” Adesh ordered. “I wouldn’t expect much.” “I’m not, but I have to start somewhere.” “True. Okay. I’ll go do that.” Adesh walked around the table and flopped down in the large chair, his hands shaking. He took a deep breath and let it go, then another, and another, until the shaking stopped. * Adesh blinked as he walked out into the bright sun from the dim interior of the long house. Just over a dozen men were milling around, waiting and complaining. Loudly. He leant against the door frame, waiting for the rest of the men to appear. A few minutes later, three more men appeared from one of the other buildings, ahead of Stefan, two of them supporting the one in the middle who was bleeding from what looked like a freshly broken nose. The old warrior caught Adesh rolling his eyes and smiled back at him. Somethings never changed. Stefan had always taken the physical approach to bolshy warriors. He stepped away from the door and stood before the men, who eyed him warily as Stefan took his place just behind Adesh. “Is this all of them?” Adesh asked over his shoulder. “Looks to be.” “There’s supposed to be thirty men manning the fort and we have only half that number here? Where are the rest?” Stefan shrugged. “One thing at a time I suppose. Get their attention, will you?” “Be happy to.” Stefan sniggered. The old Warrior coughed to clear his throat then focused his attention on the men. “Listen up assholes. You might be used to lying around all day and getting drunk, but that ends now.” “Says who?” A voice called from the back of the group of warriors. “He does!” Stefan shouted back, pointing at Adesh. “Captain Hannano has been called back to Galis and Captain Lomo here’s been sent to take over.” One of the men at the front stepped forward and spat on the ground. “I’m not taking no orders from a short, little man, who looks barely old enough to shave.” Stefan started forward, but Adesh put up his hand and stopped him. “What’s your name?” Adesh demanded. The man spat on the ground again. “Oleg.” “How drunk are you right now Oleg?” The young captain asked. “Some.” Oleg admitted. “How about the rest of you? Are any of you sober?” The gathered men looked around but no one spoke up. “Starting from tomorrow, that changes.” Adesh announced. “I didn’t want to be here, I still don’t. This place is a fucking misery. But if I have to be here then so do you, and I refuse to sleep in a fucking pig sty. Enjoy your last drinks lads, because as Aratu is my witness, tomorrow you’ll either be sober or dead.” Adesh turned on the spot and walked back towards the horses. Stefan hurried to catch up. “What’s the plan?” He asked. “Plan?” “What are we doing tonight?” “We’re going back to the village and you’re going to watch me get drunk. I wasn’t joking when I said I wasn’t going to sleep in this shithole. I want a comfortable bed before the work starts tomorrow. If I’m going to be stuck out here, I might as well accomplish something.” * The village was just as quiet as when they’d first rode through. The people who could be seen, were hurrying through their tasks, constantly checking over their shoulders. None of the villagers would meet Adesh’s eyes as he rode in ahead of Stefan. There was only a single village inn, and it was the best maintained building in sight, which didn’t say much. As they approached the inn, a boy ran across the road in front of them, intent on what ever task he was about. “You! Boy!” Adesh called. “Where are the inn’s stables?” The boy, little more than nine or ten, looked scared as he pointed to a narrow alley beside the inn and ran off, disappearing around the end of one of the houses. Adesh shrugged and beckoned for Stefan to follow him. The narrow lane led around the back of the inn, to a scruffy looking stable that was in dire need of cleaning. A man, sitting with his back to the wall, looked up when he heard them coming and looked like he was about to run off. “What is wrong with these people?” Adesh muttered to himself. He swung down off his horse and walked towards the man at a slow pace, making no sudden moves. “How much to stable our horses for the night?” Adesh enquired. The man just stared, his eyes fearful. “Can you speak, man?” Adesh asked, annoyed. “How much?” “A - a bronze. For one night, sir.” Adesh pulled out the coin, and then several more, small coppers. “Clean out two stalls and get some fresh water and feed.” He ordered, handing over the small bundle of coins. The man nodded and scurried off to the stable. “He seems to be a bit rabbity.” Stefan observed. “The whole village seems that way. This must be the quietest village I’ve ever passed through.” “In fairness Adesh, you haven’t been this far from Galis before. The villages near the city are not like the more distant ones. People away from the capital are very suspicious of strangers.” The two men walked their horses to a hitching post outside the stable and began pulling off their packs and saddle. The man stuck his head out of the stable and then disappeared inside again. “Rabbity.” Stefan repeated. * The gloomy lighting of the inn’s taproom and shadowed corners gave it a somewhat unintentional air of danger, Adesh thought, as Stefan closed the door behind them. He walked to the rough counter behind which the innkeeper stood. He shrank back a little as the two men approached. There were several men huddled in a corner quietly drinking. They stopped talking as the two warriors entered and watched them closely. “A room and two tankards of what ever passes for beer hereabouts.” Adesh instructed the man. The innkeeper nodded warily, eyeing the door, and pulled two wooden tankards out from beneath the counter. He turned to a tapped keg mounted on a table behind him and began pouring. “Any food?” Stefan asked. “Cold beef, cheese, might be some bread left.” The innkeeper informed him curtly as he placed the full tankards on the counter. “Sounds lovely.” Stefan grumbled disappointedly. “Make up two plates if there’s enough.” Adesh instructed wearily. “That’ll be three bronze for the night and eight coppers for the food and drink.” The innkeeper informed Adesh as he folded his arms. Stefan glared at the innkeeper as he dug around in his purse. “How do you sleep at night?” A smirk replaced the nervous look on the innkeeper’s face as Stefan put a small pile of coins on the counter top. He swept them off in a practiced gesture and made them disappear into a pocket somewhere. Adesh picked up both tankards and crossed the dirty, rush littered floor to a table in the corner, opposite the only other occupied table. The men there had resumed their quiet conversation and drinking. He sat down and put Stefan’s tankard on the table while he took a hesitant taste from his own. He paused to savour the drink and made an appreciative sound. “Good?” Stefan asked as he took his seat. “Not too bad.” Adesh replied and took a deep drink. Stefan took a long swallow from his own tankard and made an agreeable sound. “Better than I expected.” He allowed. “Maybe it won’t be a total misery here after all.” “Maybe next time you won’t be caught with your pants down in someone else’s bed.” Adesh grinned. “She didn’t have a problem with it.” “No, but her husband did. I hope she was worth it.” Adesh’s grin faded and he sighed. “No, she wasn’t.” “Didn’t think so. Have you realised how much work you’ll have to do here? The fort is falling apart, the men are … “ The young captain interrupted his friend. “Drunk, to say the least.” “As well as under trained and under equipped.” Stefan added. Adesh took another long drink from his tankard and belched as he put the, now empty, tankard back on the table. “A problem for tomorrow.” He signalled the innkeeper for more drinks. * The room was still dark when Adesh woke, his head aching and his mouth dry. Stefan was clearly in a deep sleep, judging by the deeply aggressive snoring emanating from the other bed. He groaned inwardly and was about to turn over and go back to sleep when he heard the floor board creak. Quietly, he reached down to where he remembered dropping his sword and grabbed the sheathed blade. Another creak, this time closer. Adesh rolled out of the bed, landing in a crouch, and drew his sword, shouting as he did so.
I woke sometime later, spluttering and naked. Correction, a filthy blanket was covering me, but other than that I was naked. Mairin was curled up on my chest and for the first time since I’d rescued her all those years ago; she looked dirty, dishevelled and exhausted. She started suddenly and woke, lifting her head to look worriedly at me. “Marek ok?” She asked, exhaustion evident in her tone. I felt like shit and everything ached, but I wasn’t dead so I nodded. “Eat.” She ordered with as much authority as she could muster and pointed to a basket close by my head. My stomach growled and I was suddenly ravenous. I reached out and pulled the basket closer, tipping it over in the process. A bottle of wine rolled out. Not quite what I was looking for. I reached in and pulled out a side of ham. It was cold and fatty, but it would do for now. I found a knife in the basket and chopped off a chunk of meat the size of my fist. The next few minutes are a little hazy, but when my brain took over again the ham was gone, the wine bottle was empty, and I was licking the fat from my fingers. Time to make some assessments. I lifted the blanket gently to avoid disturbing Mairin too much and prodded my wounds. They were wrapped with mostly clean bandages. Interesting. The wounds were tender, but almost completely healed. I looked around me, trying to figure out where I was. Clearly I was in a cellar somewhere. Judging by the pools of water on the floor the building above was abandoned. There were some scorch marks on the ceiling, or what I suppose would be the floorboards of the above building, so obviously there’d been a fire and the place hadn’t been rebuild yet. That established, I concluded that I was safe for the time being. Next question. How did I get here? I prodded my brain, but I had no memory of getting here. My last memory was escaping Eldon’s house. For that matter, where did the food come from? Who undressed me? And who wrapped my wounds? I glanced again at my little companion. She was far too small to do any of these things. I needed answers. I also needed clothes. I gently lifted the blanket again and slid out from under it, leaving Mairin to sleep. I found my leggings thrown in a corner. They were wet, but lacking any alternatives, I pulled them on. My tunic was a sodden, sleeveless mess, but as with the leggings, I didn’t have another option so I pulled it on as well. I was now cold, wet, tired and achy, but at least I wasn’t naked. I ticked off a list in my head of things I needed to do. Fresh clothes. More food. Grab my belongings from the inn, if they hadn’t been sold or tossed out. Kill Eldon. I thought about it and decided yeah, that was a good list. I nudged Mairin gently and she murmured in protest. “I’m going out for a bit.” I told her as I stroked her matted hair. “Stay here and get some rest.” She protested weakly and grabbed one of my fingers in her tiny hands. I gently freed myself as she slumped back down. “I won’t be long.” I climbed out of the cellar into a darkening evening, from a ruined building right across from the harbour fort. I’d passed the building several times in the last few days and not paid it much attention. It seemed few people did. I knew now that I was only a few streets away from the inn, but Eldon had said he’d known I was coming, so no doubt he’d also found out where I’d been staying. I’d have to wait until full dark before doing anything. My stomach growled letting me know that even though I’d finished a side of ham, I needed more food. Healing wounds that bad took a lot out of me. I couldn’t go into a tavern looking like I did, but there was bound to be a few stalls still open in the market square. I affected a rolling gait of a deep-sea sailor and strolled towards the stalls, passing a few people on the way. Using my one remaining knife, a small bladed thing meant more for a last resort than for anything else, I managed to slice a coin purse and liberate a few coppers for myself. Sure enough, there were two or three stalls still open when I arrived at the square. Some minutes later I was working my way through a bowl of plain but nourishing chowder. The stall owner, a middle-aged woman with a well-made dark shawl, tried to make conversation, but gave up when she only received single word answers to her questions. I finished the bowl in short order and felt much better for it. I handed her back the bowl as she began packing away her wares and nodded to her in thanks before wandering off. I needed to waste at least another hour, before going anywhere near the inn. Darkness was falling, but not fast enough for my liking. I just wanted to get everything in order and get away from this town. I gazed out over the sea and thought hard about everything that had led me to this point. Up until now I would have sworn that I could not be ambushed. I’d spent years cultivating contacts in and around Proteshi, and each of them knew me by a different face, a different name. This contract came from one of my oldest contacts. I was going to have to have words with him, something I didn’t look forward to. I’d eaten dinner with the man’s family numerous times, and we’d formed something of a friendship. I cursed and punched the wall in front of me. I was angry now, angry enough to put aside my usual caution. I was done with waiting around, it was dark enough. Working my way back over the roof tops towards the inn was easy. Making sure I wasn’t seen was a little more difficult. Right now I didn’t want to think about anything but the task at hand. I made my way to within a few buildings of the inn and stopped to catch my breath. A brief scan of the nearby buildings confirmed my suspicions. Two bowmen were hiding in on rooftops keeping an eye on the street below them. Perfect for watching the inn. And if there were two men on the roofs then there were men hiding somewhere on the street nearby. I was close to where I could jump across to the row of houses that the inn was on, where I’d cross to the window I’d left from. How long had it been exactly? A day? What if it was more? I shook my head. Time for that later. Focus on the task at hand. I moved past the crossing point and slipped towards the nearest archer. She never saw me coming. I slid up behind her and broke her neck without a thought. I picked up her bow from where it had fallen and tested its draw. It was lighter than anything I would normally use, but up to the task. I drew one of her arrows and knocked it. I waited for a few minutes for the other archer to pop up, adjusted for the wind and loosed the arrow. It flew straight and true and took the archer in the throat. I tutted in annoyance. I’d been aiming for his heart. It was done now anyway, I blamed it on the unfamiliar bow. I grabbed the small quiver of arrows and slung them over my shoulder with the bow. They were the only weapons I had right now. A sudden shout distracted me and I looked in its direction and rolled my eyes. The archer was hanging over the edge of the building, and as I watched, he slid off the roof and crashed to the ground. “Really?” I swore as I cast my eyes to the heavens. I had very little time, so I leapt to my feet and ran back to where I could cross over to get to the inn. A long jump and another short run later I was at the window, which was closed and locked. Because of course it was. A quick focusing of my thoughts and my finger nails extended, becoming thick claws. I wedged my claws under the edge of the window and ripped it open. Noisy but I didn’t have time to be subtle. The room was empty thankfully. I’d paid for a week, but innkeepers could be an avaricious bunch. I reached under the bed and pulled out my travel pack. I opened it and checked the contents. Everything was there. I pulled out a spare coin purse and placed a few coins on the bedside table to pay for the window. My conscience satisfied, I bolted back out the window and across the rooftops. The night was half gone by the time I returned to the cellar. I closed the trapdoor softly and dropped down to the earthen floor. Mairin was lying where I had left her, looking like she hadn’t moved an inch. I dropped my bag to the ground and placed a freshly caught and skinned rabbit on a scrap piece of wood. I could see her nose twitching as she smelt the blood on me and her eyes opened. They were full black and dangerous, but the little Aoshee was too weak to do much more than bare her wickedly sharp teeth. “Mairin, it’s me. I brought you something.” I whispered as I picked her up. She hissed and growled, but allowed me to carry her to the fresh meat. Her nose flared again as I put her beside her meal. What happened next is best forgotten about. When it was over, the rabbit was reduced to a pile of small broken bones with not a scrap of flesh to be seen. I had changed my clothes while the… feeding … was taking place and as soon as she was finished I sat down and lifted her onto my lap. I could see her coming back to herself bit by bit but it would take some time. Whatever she had been doing while I’d been unconscious had almost totally exhausted her. I still needed those questions answered, but that could wait for the morning. My run around town had tired me more than it should have so sleep seemed a good idea. Water dripping on my face woke me a few short hours later. It seemed to be raining again. I sat up against the wall from where I’d slumped in my sleep and looked around. Mairin was kneeling by a puddle with her back to me, using the water to clean herself as best she could. I pretended not to notice and closed my eyes, not wanting to embarrass her. I must have dozed off again because when I opened my eyes again she was lying on my lap staring at me. She seemed, worried. “Marek okay?” I nodded. “I’m fine. Thanks to you I guess.” I had thought me telling her that I was fine would easy her worry, but if anything she looked more worried. “Do not.” She said firmly as she shook her head. How?” I started to ask, but she shook her head and managed to add misery to her worried look. “Do not.” She repeated, pleading as she stood up. I looked at her puzzled. “It’s ok.” I assured her. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to know how I got here. Did someone help you?” “Someone?” She paused and her eyes lit up for a moment. “Friend.” “You know someone here? Why didn’t you say.” “Friend.” She repeated. “Can I meet your friend? I’d like to thank them.” Mairin shook her head. “Gone away.” If I hadn’t known it already, I’d have found out there and then. Mairin was an awful liar. I don’t know if it was just her, or her entire race, but it was blatantly obvious that she was lying. I sighed. “Mairin…” I began. “Do not.” She interrupted. “Please?” That was new. I didn’t even think Mairin knew what please meant. I suppose it didn’t matter how I got here in the end. She was safe, as was I. That was all that mattered. “Ok. No questions.” I assured her as I held out my arms. She launched herself into my hug. I felt a slight dampness where she had buried her face in my neck and I stroked her back between her wings gently. She squeezed her arms once and pushed out of the hug. She fluttered to the ground and turned her back on me for a moment. I pretended not to notice her wiping her eyes. She pretended not to notice me pretending not to notice. “We go?” She asked a moment later. “Not yet. I need to pay Eldon a visit.” “Hunt!” She hissed viciously. I smiled darkly. “Yes.” “Want ear!” I grinned. She was back to her usual humor. “Right or left?” Once again, I sheltered beneath the tree just outside Eldon’s walls. Already I could see that there were more guards. Getting in was going to be a little more difficult this time, but as I wasn’t interested in leaving without a trace I didn’t need to be as subtle as before. Mairin swooped down from the darkness and landed beside me. “Is he asleep?” I asked. “Books.” She answered. That was obvious enough. Eldon was in his library. “Alone?” “Female hunter.” “Is there a guard on the balcony door?” Mairin nodded. “Yes.” “Are there guards inside?” Mairin nodded again. Eldon was trying to make this as difficult as possible it seemed. Maybe he was worried. I doubt he expected me to escape as I did. I thought for a moment then reached into a little bag secured to my belt. I pulled out what looked like a tiny belt with little loops in it and beckoned Mairin closer. “I have something for you.” She looked excited and stood close as I knelt. I took the little belt and tied it around her tiny waist. She tugged on it curiously. “What is?” “Wait.” I told her as I reached into the bag again. I pulled out several pins, similar to those I had in my wrist band, but much shorter. They were too short for me to use safely, but just perfect for someone as small as Mairin. Each pin had a small amount of cork covering the tip, a safety measure for both her and me. “You know what these are?” I asked as I showed her the pins. She nodded. She held still as I slid the pins into the loops on her little belt. When I was done she stepped back so I could admire my work. “Is it comfortable?” She adjusted the belt slightly and extended her wings, giving a little experimental flap or two. “Yes Marek.” “Good. You’re going to be my little wasp for the evening.” I got over the outer wall the same way I had the first time. Timing and shadows. I took refuge under the same bushes and noted that there was another guard walking around the house, no doubt looking for anyone trying to scale the wall again. Lucky for me, I could climb the distance far faster than a normal person could. I waited until the guard was out of sight and leapt up the wall. Mairin was waiting for me at the top, the guard already dead on the ground. She held up her little pin and flashed a vicious grin. I took a small bottle out of my hip bag and carefully uncorked it. I held out my other hand and she carefully placed the used pin on it. Gingerly I took the pin and dipped it into the bottle. I had only been able to give her four pins, so I was going to have to refresh them for her when I could. She held out the piece of cork and I pushed it on to the sharp and deadly end of the pin before handing it back to her. I secured the bottle again and I opened the door silently, motioning her through. I paused thoughtfully and picked up the guard’s sword, leaving the stolen bow and quiver beside him. Indoors the bow wasn’t going to do me much good. I really missed my knives, but they were somewhere on the hill below the house, lost in the mud and the grass. Back through the servants’ quarters, silently like a ghost to the stairs. Mairin dropped down to the first-floor landing, and I followed. We passed the landing and moved down to the kitchen door. I examined the lock and found it stiff but willing. My spare set of picks made short work of it and once I was done it was jammed up nicely. I was confident that nobody would be coming up from the kitchen to interrupt us. Back up the stairs to the first-floor landing. Unlike the last time, the door was now locked. My picks went to work again and in moments the lock snicked softly. I wiped the stolen sword on my trousers and re-grew my claws. A deep breath to centre myself and I was ready. Mairin fairly buzzed with anticipation as I eased open the door. The guard standing in front of the door never knew what happened as the point of the sword entered the back of his head, just above his neck. The guard at the other end of the hall noticed though. He shouted a quick warning and ran towards me, drawing his sword. My sword had jammed in the now dead guard as he had dropped to the floor, and rather than waste time trying to pull it out I left it there, hurdling the cooling body and running towards the charging guard. Mairin swooped down behind him like a bird of prey and one of her pins found its way into the guard’s neck. He never knew what happened. I slid to a stop by his body and grabbed his sword from where it had fallen. I could hear other people moving in the house. “Here we go again.” I muttered. The door to the library burst open and Eldon’s Blademaster, rushed into the hall, flanked by two other guards. “You!” She growled. I bowed in her direction. “How’s your side?” I asked with a smile. “Miss me?” She drew her sword, not as smoothly as the first time I noted, and pointed the blade at me. “Kill that bastard assassin!” She ordered her two men. The two men took a step forward and fell on their faces, frothing at the mouth. I frowned. The frothing was new. Maybe the poison was going bad? I’d have to check when I got home. In fairness to her, she didn’t hesitate. Anyone else would have tried to work out what had happened before reacting. The Blademaster just accepted that they were dead and acted. A knife she’d concealed behind her back flashed through the air. I plucked it out of the air and spun it in my hand, recognising the weight and shape of it without having to look at it. “That’s my fucking knife!” I protested, the master of witty banter that I am. I didn’t have time for anything else as she’d charged forward, sword first, counting on the knife distracting me. I pivoted in place, allowing the blade to slide past me. I swung my own sword, right at her neck, but she dropped to the ground and rolled past me. I kicked out as she did and managed to clip her wounded side. She grunted in pain but still managed to roll smoothly to her feet. She launched a furious attack of cuts and thrusts and it was all I could do to fend them off. She was slower than our first meeting, slow enough that I actually had a chance of beating her. Or so I thought. I tried a cut of my own and found my sword sailing through the air, lucky not to have lost a finger. I parried her return cut with my knife and backed away from her. She smirked and made as if to launch another attack, one that with only my knife I’d have small chance of fending off. With shocking speed though, she spun around, snapped out her free hand and snatched Mairin out of the air. The little Aoshee squealed in pain as the blademaster closed her hand around her diminutive body. I charged forward to help but the Blademaster’s sword flashed out, stopping me in my tracks, the tip a bare nail’s thickness from my neck. “I knew you had someone helping you.” The woman gloated. “But I never thought it’d be one of these pathetic little creatures.” She squeezed her fist around Mairin a little more and my tiny companion screamed again. “They’re so light and fragile. So delicate. I bet I could kill it just by squeezing a little tighter.” “Let her go you fucking bitch.” I shouted desperately. The woman just laughed. “Are you down to throwing insults now assassin? Not so formidable when you can be seen are you? You beat me last time with stupidity, this time I have you. Drop your weapons and get down on your knees.” “Fuck you.” “I’ll kill this vermin if you don’t.” The woman threatened. “And if I do?” I countered. “This isn’t a fucking negotiation. Get on your fucking knees or the little skelf dies.” I dropped my knife. What choice did I have, Mairin had gone quiet. She may have only been an Aoshee, but she was far better company than most people, and I wasn’t embarrassed to admit that I felt more than a little affection for the little bother. So, I dropped to my knees and accepted that this was how it was going to end. The woman laughed. “I expected more from an assassin of your calibre. Maybe you’ve been nothing but lucky all these years.” I looked up at the woman with nothing but hate in my eyes. “You don’t know a thing about me.” “I know this.” She smirked. “You’ll die. Helpless and alone, with no one to mourn your passing, and I’m going to kill your little pet anyway.” I jerked forward, my hands reaching out, my claws growing in length and sharpness, and felt the tip of the woman’s sword pierce my skin. “Interesting.” She observed, looking at my claws. “I’m going to mount your hands I think. They’ll make for an interesting story.” She twisted her blade slowly, the point digging into my skin further, but I refused react to the pain. I would deny her the pleasure of seeing me beg. Her eyes narrowed in anger and I watched as her shoulder tensed for the thrust. I heard a muffled shout from Mairin and then. “For fuck sake Marek!” Mairin began to glow softly and suddenly grew in size, easily forcing open the blademaster’s hand. The woman stumbled away from the now glowing Mairin, towards me and I obliged her by grabbing her sword, ripping it out of my skin, and pulling her even closer to me. I’d already had one of my pins ready and I jabbed it viciously into her forearm. She stared at me in horror and then at the two dead guardsmen who’d been killed by Mairin, before collapsing to the ground. Huh. No froth this time. Odd! Not the strangest thing tonight though. That was standing in front of me. Mairin. Four and a half feet tall, very human looking in a savage sort of way, if you ignored her wings, and very, very naked. I mean she was always naked, but it wasn’t something you paid attention to when the being was barely a foot tall. “Uh.” I said. “What have you done with Mairin?” Mairin was blushing from head to toe. Not that I was looking or anything. She was also shaking and her eyes were full of unshed tears. “Eldon’s getting away Marek.” “Yeah. Sure. Ok. But.” I gestured towards her. “What?” She shook her head and looked towards the big hall window behind her. “Eldon.” She reminded me. “Right.” I replied and thought about it. “Yeah, back in a moment.” I picked up the Blademaster’s sword and turned around to see Eldon running for the servant’s stairs. I ran after him and watched as he tripped over the dead guard and fall through the open door. There were a few more thumps after that… then silence. I ran out, on to the landing and saw him crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. A quick check confirmed it. Dead. “For fuck sake.” I swore in frustration. “I hate this stupid town.” I stabbed him in the back just for spite and left it sticking out of him before trudging back upstairs. Some questions I’d had earlier were now answered. It had been Mairin who had carried me to the cellar and cleaned me up, but the answers had just created new questions. Obviously when I got back to the hall there was no sign of Mairin. I had, in the back of my mind, sort of expected it. To make myself feel better I found a small hidden lockbox in Eldon’s library and burgled it. I was getting paid for this job no matter what. On my way out, I shot a few of the guards with another liberated bow. This one felt much better than the earlier one, so I decided to keep it for the time being. After that the rest of the guards found something better to do. Judging from the sounds it involved stripping the house of as much wealth as possible. That’s mercenaries for you. No loyalty once you died. I stopped by the cellar on my way out of town, in case Mairin was waiting there, but I saw no trace of her. I felt hurt at her abandoning me, but that’s Aoshee for you. Maybe what people said was right. They were fickle. They’d stick around for a while but sooner or later they’d vanish. Granted I’d never heard anything about them changing size, but I suppose it’d be something new to add to the stories. Where ever she was though, where ever she’d fled to, I hoped she was okay. I walked out of Febros and didn’t look back once. I missed home.
I had been watching the guards and where they were now was the best time to clear the wall. I ran hard towards the ten-foot stone barrier and as I did I concentrated slightly. My toes lengthened and hardened, growing points, so that I now had five sharp claws, increasing my grip. At the last moment I hurled myself up the face of the wall and grabbed the top easily. Without slowing I used my claws to boost myself up higher, and rolled over the other side, dropping down onto a well-manicured lawn. A nearby flower bed provided some convenient cover and I dove under a large bush before the patrolling guards could spot me. I took a moment to make sure I hadn’t been spotted and then stuck my head out of the bush to examine the house. Mairin tapped me on the shoulder and pointed upwards. “Door.” I glanced up towards the roof and could just make out a small balcony. Given its location it would have an excellent view of the harbour. “Anyone up there?” I whispered. “Man. Sleeping.” Good and bad news, but it was to be expected. I like a challenge and the Gods were doing what they could to make sure I would have one. I silently thanked them for the courtesy of a cloudy night and made my way to the wall of the house. A quick thought and my finger nails thickened and lengthened enough to help me with the climb. It didn’t take me too long to scale the wall and soon I was just below the balcony. I pulled myself up enough to peer over the wall to check the guard and sure enough, just as Mairin had said, he was sleeping. I pulled myself up further and slipped on to the balcony. The little Aoshee fluttered down and landed on the sleeping guard’s legs. “See?” She announced, pointing back at the snoring man. “Sleeping!” She looked at me in puzzlement as I leapt back over the wall, ready to drop to the ground the moment the guard moved. “Mairin!” I hissed. Mairin looked at me confused. “Where go?” I took a calming breath. Aoshee! Frustrating to deal with! “Mairin!” I hissed. “Get off the man and don’t wake him!” “Oh!” She paused. “It ok. He not wake. Sleeping.” “I can see that he’s sleeping. Please get off before you wake him.” Mairin shrugged her little shoulders and flitted up to the sleeping man’s neck. She reached behind him and pulled out a pin. “Sleeping.” She informed me gravely as she held up the pin like a miniature sword. I stared at the pin and then quickly glanced at my left wrist, where I keep a series of identical pins in a thick leather strap. One was missing. I cursed silently and pulled myself back on to the balcony. I beckoned Mairin over and held out my hand, and she delicately placed the used pin on my hand. “Let’s hope he wasn’t due to be relieved anytime soon.” I muttered through clenched teeth as I slid the pin back into the strap. At least she hadn’t stabbed herself with it. The little Aoshee suddenly looked concerned. “I did a wrong thing?” “No, it’s fine. Next time ask before you take something.” She nodded solemnly. She’d probably forget within the hour, but one could always hope. The door was unlocked and opened easily when I tried it. The hinges were well oiled and silent. Several steps led down to a corridor that seemed to run the length of the house. I let my feet and hands ripple back to their normal form so I wouldn’t scratch the wooden walls and floor, and crept into the house, closing the door behind me. * Mairin glided ahead of me to the stairs at one end of the corridor and pointed downwards. I nodded and she drifted slowly down the stairs, watching for any guards. I followed her down slowly and found her waiting for me on a small landing with a single door. The stairs carried on downwards towards what my nose informed me was most likely the kitchen. I checked the door and it was unlocked, just like the door to the balcony. I opened the door enough for Mairin to pass through and waited for her to check for guards. A moment later she motioned for me to follow her. All clear then. I took a moment to stretch and breathe deeply before stepping out into the wide, carpeted hall. Midway along the hall a wide, similarly carpeted set of stairs with fancy, flowing banisters rose up from the ground floor. At the far end a large window looked out over the property, towards the Lord of Febros’ manse. Several candles burned in sconces casting pools of light. Most people would leave a house in darkness to save candles and for safety. Not the rich though. Eldon would no doubt have a servant that would occasionally check them throughout the night. I walked lightly towards the door that Mairin was pointing at. Eldon’s bedchamber. I looked at the door and then to the two doors that flanked it. I looked at Mairin. “What’s in those rooms?” I whispered. Mairin pointed at one, then the other. “Books. Table, chairs.” A private library and a private dining room. They’d have connecting doors to his bedroom, most likely. I moved down to the library door, closest to the stairs I’d come down, and checked it. It was locked. As was the dining room door. Okay, not a problem. Another challenge. I pulled out my lock picks and went to work on the library door while Mairin cocked her head to the side in puzzlement. “Eldon not there Marek.” She told me firmly. “Bedroom. There.” “I know.” I muttered as I caressed the lock. “Why this door?” “Because I prefer to attack from the sides. You know that. Never take the obvious path.” Mairin straightened and looked a little chagrined. She understood what I meant and was annoyed that she hadn’t thought of it. You can’t ambush prey from an obvious location. Always attack from the sides. With a well-oiled soft snick, the look opened to me and I put away my picks. Another breath and then I motioned Mairin behind me. I carefully opened the door and found myself in Eldon’s private library. It was a small room, with shelves lining two walls. The floor was, like the hall, carpeted. I had guessed correctly about the connecting door and mentally patted myself on the back. Without rushing, I padded over to the door and put my ear against it. There was nothing but silence from the other side. I tested the door handle and it moved easily, even better, the door was unlocked. I started to turn the door knob until Mairin hissed softly. I frowned at her, but she held a finger to her lips. She’d heard something. I slowly released the door knob and stepped away from the door. “Voices.” She warned, pointing at the door. Well that was that. I’d have to come back tomorrow night and kill Eldon then. At least I’d gotten a look at the inside his house tonight, so it hadn’t been a total waste of time. I gestured for Mairin to follow me and I quietly let ourselves out of the library. I locked the door again; thankfully a much faster process now that I’d already finagled it. A cautiously quiet walk got me back to the door to the servant’s stairs without mishap. I moved to grasp the door knob but just as I did, the door opened and one of Eldon’s guards stepped out from the small landing. The guard drew his sword, but before he could open his mouth I rammed my fist into his throat and kicked him back through the door as he fell. The guard dropped his sword as he hit the ground hard, trying to draw a breath through his ruined throat. I winced as the sword hit the stairs and hoped that no one had noticed. It wasn’t to be. I heard the kitchen door open and someone running up the stairs. Above my head in the servants’ quarters, I heard more doors opening. I couldn’t go down and I couldn’t go up. That left only one thing to do. I looked at Mairin. “Get out anyway you can. Find me after.” She dropped down to hover beside me. “I help!” “No. Stay safe and get out.” The little Aoshee wrung her hands in distress and then pulled herself together. She nodded and disappeared into the shadows. As she disappeared, I picked up the offending sword and ran from the stairs. I could hear the entire house starting to wake up. A guard appeared behind me, from the stairs to the kitchen. “Assassin!” He shouted as he ran after me. The door to Eldon’s bedroom opened just as I passed it and an armoured figure hurled itself across the hall, barrelling into me. I hit the wall hard with my shoulder and lost my balance. The door to Eldon’s dining room opened and three guards with swords drawn ran out. The armoured guard that had hit me grabbed me by the shoulder and hauled on my arm. I rolled with it and managed to pull the guard to the ground, using the stolen energy to roll to my feet. A quick kick with my heel to the guard’s chin and he was out. The three other guards moved towards me, their swords in guard positions, while the guard from the stairs hung back to give them room. I had to act. They were backing me towards the wall and from there they’d have me surrounded. A flick of my wrists released my hidden knives and allowed them to drop down into my hands. I charged forwards towards the guard on the right before suddenly changing direction and tackling the leftmost guard. I slipped under his guard and slid one of my blades into his armpit. I pulled the blade out as he crumpled to the ground in shock and pain and swiveled, throwing him into the path of the second guard who pulled his cut so as not to hit his fellow guard. I used the opening to throw my second knife and the pommel hit the off-balance guard between the eyes, stunning him. The rightmost guard rushed forward to defend his comrade and found the pommel of my other knife striking him in his right eye. He shouted in pain and fell to his knees as I rushed forward, swept up my first knife and sliced the nearest guard’s neck. Hearing the guard from the stairs rushing in, I rolled to the side and barely avoided being decapitated. I sliced the man’s wrist, cutting tendons and the man howled in pain, his sword falling from useless, blood-soaked hands. I grabbed the sword before it hit the ground and threw it like a throwing knife at the remaining guard. He was down and bleeding heavily before he knew what was happening. I pushed myself to my feet, breathing heavily, and was about to make good my escape when a slow clapping brought me up short. I looked around and saw Eldon leaning on his door frame with a slender, well dressed, woman standing beside him, a sword sheathed at her side. “Impressive don’t you think my dear?” He said to her coolly. “Very. He’s even better than we were told he’d be.” I rolled my shoulders and glared at Eldon. “Care to fill me in on what’s going on?” Eldon laughed coldly. “I would have thought it obvious. I knew you were coming.” “Horse shit!” I swore. As I started thinking furiously. I made sure that nobody knew who I was when I took a contract and I picked and chose what contracts I took. “Oh please!” The woman replied as she rolled her eyes. “A well-guarded, prominent merchant, whose death has to look like an accident. You couldn’t resist a challenge like that.” I cursed inwardly, and Eldon saw it on my face and smiled. “Kill him for me my dear.” The woman drew her sword, a long bladed, single handed affair with some sort of fancy hand guard. She slid towards me with surprising speed and I was forced to throw myself away from her to avoid being skewered. She crossed the distance I’d opened up between us in seconds and again I had to throw myself away from her blade. She was whip fast and very controlled. Someone had had very expensive training and unless I missed my guess, she was a Blademaster. One of those rare individuals who had a natural affinity for swords. When combined with training and experience, Blademasters made lethal opponents. I hadn’t a chance against her. So, I cheated. I pretended to stumble as she stepped in towards me and, as I expected, she executed a beautiful thrust. I accepted the blade, as it sliced into my side and walled the pain away. I’d deal with it later. I thrust my knife deep into her side and watched her fall. I’d have liked to have made a more terminal thrust, but I had almost half her sword passing through me. I was just happy she let go of her sword. With a shout and a burst of adrenaline I pulled the sword out of me and ran towards the big hall window. I threw the sword at the window, and as the glass shattered I jumped out into the night. The ground rushed up towards me and I rolled as I hit the ground. It hurt. A lot. But I didn’t have time to feel it. I was bleeding heavily and still surrounded by people who wanted to kill me. Granted the wound to my side was already starting to heal, the flow of blood slowing, but that brought its own problems. I could heal or I could escape. I didn’t have the energy to do both right now. I slid into some shadows and ripped the sleeves from my tunic. Wadding them up, packed them in against the wounds and tightened my belt. That would keep them in place for a short while. I slipped out of the shadows and ran towards the wall where it was nearest to the house. All around the property I could hear guardsmen shouting as they searched for me. I didn’t have long. I took a running jump at the wall and hauled myself over it before dropping off the other side. I landed badly and for a moment it was all I could do to stop myself from screaming in pain. I had to get away. I swayed drunkenly as I stood up and stumbled my way blindly down the hill back towards the town. Somewhere along the way I stepped in a hole and fell for what seemed like an eternity. Then I was floating. I tried to look around, but I couldn’t move. I tried to speak, but my tongue seemed to have swollen and I could only groan. “Shh.” A warm voice calmed me. “I have you. Rest now. I have you.” Seemed like good advice. The darkness swallowed me.
Febros. I hated Febros. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. I only hated Febros in the Winter, when the cold Northerly winds blow storms laden with freezing rain and salty spume against the cliffs below the town. It’s a misery I can do without, which is why I generally avoided taking contracts in southern Cheute in winter. This was Midsummer, and it should have been comfortably warm, with gentle sea breezes taking away the worst of the heat, but it wasn’t. An unseasonal north wind was blowing and every wet, salt laden gust of wind tasted like Winter. “Hunt today?” Mairin asked from her perch on my shoulder. “It’s supposed to be warm and sunny!” I grumbled. “Only weather.” She advised gravely. “Hunt warms blood.” “I suppose it does.” I sighed. “Hungry.” “No nibbling Mai. It’s supposed to look like an accident. If you’re hungry find a mouse or something.” My little companion stamped a tiny foot on my shoulder, her dark red, feathered wings buzzing to maintain her balance. “Not desperate, Marek, want something nice.” “Something from the kitchen?” “Bloody.” I rolled my eyes and nodded. Arguing with an Aoshee was an exercise in futility, especially if they were hungry. Less than a foot tall, the carnivorous creatures had an intimidating appetite for fresh meat. They were intelligent and loyal, but with a very short-term view of life. Unless they were engaged in something to do with mating or hunting, they were as likely as not to wander off and forget what they were doing and why. “I’ll make sure it’s bloody.” I assured her. “And then I’ll go out. You’ll be ok here?” “Yes. Watch rain.” She brushed her cheek against mine affectionately then dropped off my shoulder, flitted to the window sill and sat down. Drawing her knees up to her chest, the little Aoshee arranged her wings and long hair around herself, before glancing at me impatiently and tapping her sharp nails on the window. “Hungry Marek!” * I stepped out of the inn and into the narrow muddy street, pulling up the hood of my cheap woollen cloak against the rain. A contract had brought me to Febros. A contract called Eldon. Eldon was a merchant who imported small luxuries, expensive trinkets, and charms of questionable effectiveness. He then sold them to what passed for the wealthy in this provincial town. I didn’t know what exactly the man had done to warrant the contract, and I didn’t care. I had been in town for several days now. Some careful investigation and a few coins in the right hands had revealed much. His store was a front. He did enough business to turn a profit, but the contacts he had grown from his store had led him to far more fruitful ventures. He supplied drugs for the most part, Pas, and Thal, both highly illegal, highly profitable, and an almost central part of certain high society events. If word was to be believed, he also trafficked in illegal slavery. I cursed as I stepped out on to Febros’ main street as a passing cart lurched through a rut and splashed cold muddy water over my boots. Wonderful, I’d only bought them recently. I sighed and began walking towards Eldon’s shop. His store was on one side of the main town square, where the local Lord made his announcements and public punishments were carried out. Opposite the shop, on the other side of the square, were the gates to the harbour fortifications. I normally don’t visit with my contracts prior to killing them, but the contract stipulated that Eldon’s death look accidental, so I wanted to get a look at his shop before committing to a line of attack. The shop was easy to access and easy to get away from. If Eldon could have his accident here it would make the job much easier. A cunningly wrought bell rang softly as I pushed in the door, and a short, balding man in expensive clothes looked up from behind a counter. A chair somewhere in the back of the shop out of sight scraped slightly. “Can I help you?” The man behind the counter asked dismissively. “I’m looking for Eldon.” I answered, shifting my tone to appear less threatening. “And you are?” Eldon asked sourly. I knew that he had been sizing me up from the moment I opened the door and I had altered my appearance enough to look like a low-level factor. He’d believe I was someone who travelled a lot running errands for a Master. My sandy hair was rough cut to chin level, my beard in need of a trim. My clothes were worn but not too cheap, but my boots, even mud splattered, were what revealed me to be more than a simple traveller. They were expensive, comfortable, and made for long travel. I watched Eldon’s expression and saw the acceptance in his eyes. The next part came easy. “My name is Betlic.” I announced brightly. “I’ve been tasked by my employer to purchase a certain type of trinket for her.” “I don’t sell trinkets.” “Then you are Eldon?” “Yes, yes. Look either tell me what you want or be gone. I have business to tend to.” “Well, yes, of course. It’s just that the matter is one of a very sensitive nature and my employer bade me to seek you out and speak only to you.” I explained, sounding a little deflated. “And who would that be?” “I really couldn’t say. A sensitive matter as I said.” “Well, get on with it then, what are you looking for?” I was starting to enjoy myself. Eldon obviously felt dealing with agents and factors to be beneath him, being used to dealing with Lords and Ladies, but he couldn’t afford to be too rude on the off chance that I was employed by someone powerful. “My employer, a lady of means, is married to a man of some importance, but she is less than satisfied with, well, I hate to be blunt, but, his performance.” “Ah.” Eldon snickered. “A delicate matter indeed.” “Would you have, by some chance, a charm or some potion that could alleviate the, ah, problem?” “It just so happens that I do.” Eldon said with a predatory smile. “But I warn you it isn’t cheap.” Of course it wasn’t going to be cheap, I was pretty sure that somewhere along the way I’d offended a God or two, and so now, nothing I ever did was easy. Or cheap. “I’m certain she won’t mind the expense.” I smiled. “As long as it works.” Eldon assumed the mandatory hurt expression. “You wound me! I would never sell an item for such a purpose if it didn’t work. My reputation would be ruined.” I didn’t bother protesting that Eldon had nothing to fear. A lady buying charms to revive her husband’s flagging manhood could never dare publicly denounce him. The repercussions would be too dire and we both knew it. I nodded and smiled in agreement. “Of course. What would this charm cost my employer?” * I closed the store door behind me and raised my hood against the rain. The shop wouldn’t do. Even if I could somehow arrange to have his shelving fall on him, they didn’t have enough weight to do him any lasting injury, let alone kill him. He might break an arm, maybe, but not his neck. And then there was the matter of who ever had been hidden in the back of the shop. A bodyguard I presumed. They’d hardly let me kill their Master without interfering. The shop was a bust then. I looked at the small pendant in my hand and rolled my eyes. I’d paid far too much for the excuse to check out the shop and get up close with Eldon. Still, it was a nicely designed pendant. I decided I liked it and hung it around my neck, tucking it under my tunic. Maybe I’d sell it on later if I found someone gullible enough. I walked away from the Main Square and passed through the market place, a smaller muddier version of the Main square, on the other side of the harbour fort. Even in the rain the traders were out in force and there were plenty of customers around to keep them there. A little way past the market square I turned up the narrow, paved road that ran up Merchants’ Hill where the Lord of Febros had his house. I call it a house, but it was more like a small castle, nestled in the ruins of the much older fort that had once stood guard over the town. In Febros, the closer you lived to the Lord the more important you were. It was a measure of Eldon’s success that his own house was a mere stone’s throw from the Lord’s house. The man was not short of ego. There were several other houses on the hill, but none so close to the Lord’s house as Eldon’s. I trod up and down that road several times, but short of riding over the merchant with a horse, there was nothing that I could use to engineer an accident. I’d have to kill him in his house. The house that was surrounded by a ten-foot-high wall and protected by hired guards. I was starting to realise that this town was nothing but bad luck for me. Well, the Gods knew I loved a challenge, and they rarely failed to deliver. * Mairin was curled up on my pillow sleeping when I returned. The cut of raw meat that I had left her was gone. Even the blood had been lapped up from the plate. She stirred as I walked past the bed and stretched. “The meat was ok?” “Not fresh.” She groused. “It’s a town Mairin.” I reminded her. “You know nothing is ever fresh. We can hunt a deer when we go home.” “I love deer!” The little Aoshee squealed in excitement. She really did. Usually she’d scout out and select the target and then let me know where it was. She had an unusually keen eye for good meat. After any hunt she knew she would be getting a choice cut, but it had been a while since we’d gone hunting together, even longer since we hunted deer. I hadn’t been thinking when I made the offer and hadn’t considered what her reaction would be. A look of undisguised, elemental lust crossed her face as she rose to her hands and knees, her wings spread wide. I swore, and turned away as fast as I could, cursing my tongue, and sat on the end of the bed to pull off my boots. Aoshee attitudes towards food tended to overlap with mating and while they had no qualms about displaying for others of their kind, they were intensely self-conscious about being seen by anyone else. If I didn’t handle this right, she might fly off and leave me out of sheer mortification. I pulled off my boots and waited till she calmed herself. A moment later I felt her land on my shoulder and she nuzzled my ear. “What now?” She asked softly. Okay, so we were going to pretend that I hadn’t just seen her having an intensely private moment. I was perfectly fine with that. “Now I sleep for a while. It’ll be a long night. Do you need anything?” Mairin shook her head and hovered in the air a moment as I lay back in the bed before landing on my chest and curling up. A moment later she was snoring softly. I smiled and closed my eyes. Tonight was going to be interesting. * I awoke in the half light of late evening to Mairin hissing and slashing at my chest. I yelped and swatted at her. She dodged, easily as I knew she would, and launched herself at my chest again. “Mairin!” I shouted, as I fended her off. “What the fuck are you doing?” She hovered in the air, spitting and snarling, and pointed at my chest. “Bad!” “Bad?! What’s bad?” She swooped in towards my chest, dodged my hand, and slashed at my chest. Again. “Fuck! Mairin! Stop! What’s gotten into you?!” Once again, she hovered out of reach and pointed at my chest. “Bad!” I brushed my hand over my shredded tunic and felt the pendant beneath. I pulled it out and showed it to her. “This?” “Bad!” She hissed, like a tiny boiling kettle. “It’s just a harmless trinket.” I protested. “Not harmless.” She insisted. “Burn!” “Are you sure…?” “Burn!” She shrieked. I grabbed my spark charm, covered the small ward with a finger-tip, and held it to the bedside candle. The wick smoked for a moment then flared to life. With the candle lit I held the pendant to the small flame and for a moment, nothing happened. Then with shocking suddenness, it was consumed in a green ball of flame. I grimaced and dropped the pendant as the fire licked my hand. And then it was gone leaving only a scattering of ash on the floor. I stood there in shock, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Mairin swooped in and nuzzled against my chest, patting my skin where she’d clawed me. “Sorry Marek. Sorry.” I sat down heavily, and she landed on my lap, still patting my chest. I coughed to clear my suddenly dry throat. “Mairin, what was that?” I croaked. “Bad.” She said worriedly. “Okay. But what was it?” She looked up at me and cocked her head to one side as she considered my question, then shrugged. “Bad.” I sighed. I wasn’t going to get any more out of her. As I said, Aoshee are intelligent but their connection with the present can sometimes be a bit tenuous. If Mairin said it was bad, then I believed her. I just wish I knew what sort of bad it had been. * Being an assassin means learning the art of invisibility. I don’t mean that literally, although thinking about it now, there may be a few assassins knocking about with that ability. I mean the art of blending in. When you looked like you belonged somewhere you were effectively invisible, while being in plain sight. If you dressed the part and acted the part, and didn’t stand out, then people tended to ignore you, if they saw you at all. In popular stories told over campfires and warm tap rooms, assassins always look like assassins. Wearing all black and hiding in shadowed corners, faces covered and leaving dramatic messages on cooling bodies. I’ve told a few of those stories myself. Believe it or not, it helps me do my job. I stroll through towns and cities in the light of day. I’ve killed people at midday in the middle of a busy street. No one has ever seen me coming and no one knows what I look like. So rather than dress up in some sort of stereotypical black leather outfit and face mask, I pulled on my loose tunic and rough trousers. In a town like this I could pass for a sailor on shore leave, a dock worker, a general labourer or a farmer. I slid a knife up each sleeve, into the sheaths secured to my forearms. Two more, smaller, knives I secured to my waist, beneath my tunic and in easy reach. I tied a leather strap to my wrist and checked that the short needles it held were secure. I really did not want to get stuck by one of them. Mairin sat on the window ledge. She was still upset about hurting me, but that couldn’t be helped. She’d forget about it as soon as the scratches on my chest healed, that was her nature, but for now, she was upset. I stepped over to the window and gently scratched her back between her wings with a finger. She shivered in pleasure and glanced up at me. “We go?” I nodded, and she flitted up into the air and sat on my shoulder. I rolled my eyes and smiled. “Now you’re just being lazy.” She didn’t reply but just bumped the side of my head with a shoulder. I pushed open the window and stepped out on to the roof of the inn. The rain had stopped while we slept, but it had been replaced by a biting wind. The wooden shingles were wet and slippery as I crossed the row of buildings, but my bare feet gave me all the purchase I needed. The streets below us were quiet, with even the watch staying close to their fires. It was too miserable a night for any sane person to be out. We dropped down into a dark, muddy alley and crossed the street to the bottom of Merchants’ Hill without incident. Ignoring the paved road, I scrambled up the rough, grassy slope, passing behind all of the other properties on the hill, until we came close to the wall surrounding Eldon’s house. I crouched in the lee of an old tree and, for almost a half hour, we watched those walls. A guard walked the wall periodically, looking miserable, in a sodden cloak. I was sure there would be more guards, but from where we were, I couldn’t see them. There was nothing for it but to just go for it and rely on the darkness to keep us hidden. There was a very good reason for Mairin coming with me. She always did on night jobs like this. I could make an educated guess at where Eldon had his bedroom in the house, but I couldn’t be certain. Mairin on the other hand could actually go and find out. Being able to slip in and out of places was second nature to her. Anyone who didn’t know much about the Aoshee would assume that as distracted as they could be, something like this would be beyond their abilities, but they’d be making a fatal mistake. Mairin would treat this as a hunt, which meant that her entire attention would be focused on finding Eldon. She wouldn’t rest until she’d tracked him down. She also wouldn’t allow herself to be seen. Another half hour or so slid by while I waited for Mairin to return and I used that time to circle around outside Eldon’s walls. There were more guards than I had thought there’d be, but Eldon struck me as the paranoid type so I wasn’t totally surprised. They wouldn’t hinder me anyway; I’d be gone before they knew something was wrong. I wasn’t long back under the tree when Mairin landed on my shoulder with no warning. I almost bit my tongue holding in the gasp of surprise. It was a game for her, we were both ambush predators of a sort, but she enjoyed showing that she was clearly superior to me. For me it was an exercise in controlling sudden, unannounced terror. “Found him.” She informed me in a smug tone. “Upstairs at the back of the house?” Mairin nodded sharply. We’d gone over it earlier, but I needed to be sure. In houses like this, servants tended to sleep on the top floor, with the owner’s and guest rooms on the floor below, with maybe a private dining room and an office as well. The ground floor was usually given over to entertaining and the like. I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly before rising to my feet. “Okay, let’s go. Stay close and watch my back.” Mairin made a very human gesture of boredom and launched herself into the air.
Hi everyone! Just a few things to get you all started and orientated! I want to take this opportunity to thank you for visiting my site and for coming to have a look at my short stories. Currently there is no facility for automatic email on this section of the website, an oversight on the part of Wix no doubt. To get around this problem, I plan to send a mail to you all when I upload each short, but please note that it may not arrive at the time you are used to receiving the blog alerts. Comments, and the ability to "love" a post, are enabled for the short stories, at least for now. In order to comment or "love" a post though you'll need to sign up. I realise this is annoying, having to sign up twice, once for the site and once for the short stories. Needless to say I'm less than happy about this, but there's little I can do about things for the time being. Hopefully this will all be streamlined in the near future. The login / Signup menu can be found in the upper right corner. To make things a little easier, I've allowed you to sign up using your Facebook accounts. This seems to be the simplest way to do things for now. Again, I apologise for the inconvenience. Once again, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for taking the time to visit. Is mise, T.P.