A Death Before Dawn: Part 3

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 walk 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 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.”

“I want an 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 in the hall 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 guardswoman’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 she screamed in pain.

“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 and had long thick hair to her ankles.

“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.

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© ODunin 2020