Winter in Hien: Part 3
I woke. If I’d had the presence of mind to wonder at that, I would have been surprised, shocked even. Tytus was an assassin, and he hadn’t bothered to make sure I was actually dead. Very unprofessional. Instead I was near mindless from hunger, my body shouting out for more energy to heal the damage inflicted on me. I had to eat, something, anything. I needed sustenance. I heard a squeak close by and saw an injured rat, half pinned beneath a fallen crate. I dragged myself towards it and grabbed it. I snapped its neck, killing it, and ripped it apart, eating it raw. If I’d had the energy, I might have thrown it back up. It was disgusting, but it was life.
Somewhere nearby I could smell oranges and maddened with hunger I found them a few minutes later, a damaged crate had spilled a few to the floor. I ate them, peel and all. I don’t know how many I ate, but it was probably more than was good for me. By the time I was done, I was able to string coherent thoughts together. I looked down and saw the arrow in my chest, another in my thigh and a mostly closed wound in my guts. I’d seen better days. Deciding that it wouldn’t help if I healed with the arrow still in my chest, I grabbed it and ripped it out.
I woke sometime later. I had no idea how much time had passed, but it was still dark. I was starving again, as though I hadn’t eaten in a month or two. There wasn’t much choice, so more oranges. A quick examination showed that the arrow wound was healing slowly, and the gut wound was no worse than earlier. There was still the matter of the arrow in my thigh. I figured that this one would be a little easier. I really didn’t feel like losing consciousness again. I sucked in a deep breath and pushed the arrow a little more through my leg, until I could get a good grip on the point. I snapped off the fletching and pulled the rest of the shaft through. I hissed in pain and my sight swam for a moment. I forced myself to remain conscious, wrapped the wound in some rags and decided that it was time to leave.
I was about to stumble out of the warehouse when I had a thought. Rosa! I turned around and shambled to the damaged wall that I’d used as a means of slipping between the two warehouses. I ducked through the small opening and stifled a groan. I crossed the shadowed ground between the two buildings and made it into the one where Rosa was hiding. When I’d been here earlier, I’d had to go out of my way to make noise, to let her know someone wasn’t trying to creep up on her. Now I couldn’t have been silent even if my life depended on it. I shuffled painfully through the stacks of crates and found where she’d been hiding. She wasn’t there.
I leaned on a crate and cursed. Behind me, I heard a sudden intake of breath. I tried to turn around but ended up in a heap on the ground. Rosa knelt beside me, pale faced and shocked.
“Gods!” She swore. “What happened?”
“Amoud’s pet assassin jumped me.” I offered, weakly.
“Is – is there anything I can do?” Rosa asked.
“Food.” I groaned. “I need food.”
“Food?” The girl asked, confused. “What good will food do you? I’m fairly sure you’re dying!”
I shook my head, and instantly regretted it.
“Not.” I whispered. “Just need. Food.”
Rosa, still confused, left for a minute, then returned with a satchel.
“There’s not much there.” She said as I dug into the bag. “A little meat, some bread, cheese.”
I stuffed the lump of cheese into my mouth and washed it down with some water. The meat lasted even less time. The bread I tore into chunks and washed down with even more water, all while Rosa watched, shocked.
“We need to leave.” I said, when I’d finished the little food Rosa had had.
“And go where?”
“Back to Isidor. I need to rest, recover.”
“Recover.” The girl repeated, exasperated. “A few minutes ago, you looked like you were ready to stand before Almat to be judged.”
“Fallan.” I corrected her.
“Not in Kurlac.” She countered. “It doesn’t matter. You look like someone close to death.”
I blew out a breath. “I was, now I’m healing. Look, help me to the boat, and I’ll explain while you get us back to Isidor.”
“Can you stand?”
“I’ll have to, won’t I?”
Rosa helped me stand, a difficult, and frankly embarrassing ordeal and we made our way back to the dock. I tried to look like a drunk sailor being helped back to his boat for anyone who might be watching. I certainly stumbled enough to make it convincing. We got to the boat after the longest walk of my life, and I clambered down into it.
“Lay still and stay out of my way.” Rosa ordered.
I had no issue following that particular command.
I must have fallen asleep because I woke with Rosa violently shaking me.
“Don’t be dead!” She was whispering, over and over. “Don’t be dead!”
I groaned. “Gods damn it Rosa, I’m not dead.”
She kicked my shin as she returned to her seat by the tiller.
“I thought you’d stopped breathing.”
My stomach was protesting again. Damn it, but I was hungry. The price of so much healing.
“We’re nearly there.” She added.
I sat up against the side of the boat and looked around. The sun had risen, and we were deep in the delta again.
“I don’t suppose there’s any food on the boat?” I asked.
Rosa shook her head. “Everything I had with me you ate.”
“Damn it.” I muttered. “I’m starving.”
“Well, that makes two of us.”
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me why you’re not dead?”
“I’m a Mage.”
“Doesn’t seem to have helped you much.” She noted, unimpressed.
“There is that, I suppose.”
We lapsed into silence, and I drifted off into an exhausted doze.
“How?” Rosa asked, rousing me.
“If you’re a Mage, how was Amoud’s assassin able to beat you?”
“He’s a Wizard.”
“Yes, as in a master of the elements.”
Rosa tutted. “I know what a Wizard is, but how was he able to beat you?”
“Arrows, fire, and a sword, mostly.” I replied shortly. “It didn’t take him long.”
“Fire?” Rosa asked, frowning. “I didn’t see any fires. He mustn’t have used much.”
I frowned, trying to think. “No, he did. Quite a bit actually.”
I kept trying to force my thoughts to move in a coherent direction. I remember thinking, while Tytus had been attacking and taunting, that something had felt wrong. I could feel an inkling of a thought slither away from my grasp. I didn’t have the energy for this. Food and rest would restore me, and then I could work my way through it.
By the time we reached the small dock, it was well into the morning. Rosa helped my out of the boat, after she’d secured it, and helped support me on the walk to Isidor’s cabin. After what seemed like an age, we came in sight of the smuggler’s home. Idina was sitting on a log, to one side of the cabin, whet stone in hand, sharpening her sword. Close by, Kaja stood, bow drawn and arrow ready to release at a waiting practice target.
Idina glanced up as we shuffled into the clearing and jumped to her feet, her face a mix of shock and concern.
“What happened?” She asked as she draped my other arm over her shoulders, to help Rosa support me.
Kaja had dropped the bow and was running towards the door to open it for us.
“Assassin, called Tytus.” I replied. “Got the jump on me.”
“You need food.” Idina replied. “And rest. You can tell us the rest after.”
Isidor clumped into the room, from deeper in the cabin.
“What’s this?” He asked, gruffly.
“What’s it look like?” Idina snapped. “He’s badly wounded. He needs food and rest.”
“Is it done?” Isidor demanded.
“No.” I replied. “His pet assassin caught up to me.”
“I thought you were supposed to be a master assassin?”
“Shut up Isidor.” Idina replied, sharply. “If you want to help, maybe try to find out who the assassin is. Marek called him Tytus.”
Isidor sucked in a breath. “Tytus. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” I growled. “It’s what he said his name was.”
“I’ve ‘eard of ‘im.” Isidor admitted. “If Roland ‘adn’t sent you, I’d ‘ave tried to contact ‘im for this job.”
I groaned as Idina and Rosa lowered me down on to a long, low, seat. More like a pillow with a rigid structure, it felt glorious to be off my feet.
Idina looked at my filthy, borrowed clothes and made a face.
“We need to get these off you, they’re covered in blood.”
“It’s all mine.” I grumbled.
Idina rolled her eyes. “I assumed as much.”
“What do you know of him?” I asked, as the Warlock pulled a knife and started cutting my clothes off.
“’e’s messy.” Isidor said slowly. “Like you, ‘e gets the job done, but you’re tidy about it, ‘e leaves bodies.”
“Not now.” Idina interrupted, throwing my shredded tunic on the ground. “Food and rest first.”
Kaja gasped at the sight of my wounds, but Rosa took her by the arm and led her from the room.
“You don’t need to see this.” Rosa informed my young charge.
Isidor rolled his eyes. “Don’t die on my couch, and don’t bleed all over it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I murmured as I closed my eyes.
“Not yet, you don’t.” Idina admonished, holding out a clean pair of pants, and brandishing her knife.
I dozed for a time, it was probably less than an hour, but when Idina roused me to give me a bowl of soup, with some cheese and bread, my stomach assured me that it was more likely to have been a year or more. I gulped down the piping hot soup, between mouthfuls of the bread and cheese, then closed my eyes again. A few hours later, hunger again forced me to wakefulness. This time Idina, bless her heart, had a bowl of stew waiting for me. I devoured the stew, with another helping of bread and cheese, and once done, fell asleep again.
I awoke in darkness, feeling as though someone had just flicked my ear. I felt much better than earlier, stronger even. I looked around the room but found it empty. A large cushion on the floor was positioned close enough to where I lay for someone to keep an eye on me while I slept. Judging by the indentation, someone had indeed been there recently, also evidenced by the mug on the floor beside it.
I breathed deep and found my chest to be almost back to normal, a shrug of my shoulders found the wound there to be almost healed as well. My gut wound was still tender, but well on its way to being mended and my thigh was almost as good as new. I stretched and felt good about life again. I was about to settle down again, when the quietness of the house struck me as wrong. I eased to my feet, slowly and quietly and looked around the room. The front door was slightly ajar, as though someone had gone out recently.
Not being one to ignore my instincts, I checked for my weapons, and found them missing. I shrugged, it was probably nothing, but it wasn’t as though I really needed weapons anyway. I peered out the door and threw myself backwards as an arrow slammed into the door frame.
“Still alive Urban!” Tytus called. “I’m shocked!”
The Gods must have taken a dislike to me.
“Come on out, let me finish you once and for all.” The assassin continued.
“Gods damn it.” I swore quietly.
I cast around the room, but there were no weapons on view. How on earth was I going to take on a Wizard without any weapons? I was no where near my best, and in terrain that I was unfamiliar with. My best chance was to get out of here and try to catch Tytus somewhere I’d already scouted. I paused. Where was everyone? Isidor could go to the Void for all I cared, but where were Idina and Kaja? I considered for a moment and added Rosa to the list.
It was possible that Idina had told the two girls to hide, but where was she? Could a Wizard kill a Warlock? I didn’t think so.
“Don’t make me come in there.” Tytus called from outside. “Just come on out and I’ll make it quick.”
I hurried out of the room, deeper into the cabin and found a door leading to the rear. I pulled the door open, staying behind it as I did, using the door as a shield on the off chance that there was a bow man out there.
Nothing. Maybe Tytus was alone.
I slipped out of the cabin and into the wilderness behind. I could use this to maybe slip around him and get to the little dock. I paused. Then what? I didn’t know how to manoeuvre a boat, much less sail one. I’d need to find Idina and the girls, or one of Isidor’s men. I slipped through the trees and undergrowth, working my way around the cabin.
“I didn’t think you were a coward Urban.” Tytus called out in the darkness, baiting me.
I ignored him and slid through the underbrush, ignoring the multitude of thorns, until it started to become too dense. I climbed up into the nearest tree, and started moving through the branches, tree to tree. I was thankful that whatever species the trees here were, they didn’t shed their leaves for the winter. Still, I was more exposed than I wished. I was now close to the trail that led to the dock, behind Tytus. As long as he was focused on the cabin, I was safe.
“Oh, come now Urban.” Tytus shouted, sounding angry. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.”
The assassin paused, then turned around, looking straight at me.
How in the Void had he managed to find me again? I could feel something unfamiliar building inside me. Panic. This Wizard had found me several times already and beaten me soundly. If he’d been a Sorcerer, I’d understand how he could have found me, but Sorcerer’s don’t deal with the elements and Tytus had cast a lot of fire at me.
“Coward.” Tytus shouted, pointing at me.
He cast a giant ball of flame in my direction and I leapt from the tree, feeling every one of my injuries as I rolled on the ground and sprinted away.
An arrow slammed into the trunk of a tree beside me, followed by a ball of flame that I just managed to dodge. I felt its searing heat and shied even further from it. Damn that hurt.
It was dark, but I could see the trail as clear as day. I slowed when after a few minutes there was no sign of pursuit. This was foolish. I cursed and ducked back into the undergrowth. I was letting fear rule my thoughts.
I had no idea what I was going to do. Tytus had shown more than once now that he was just better than me. He’d found me numerous times when he shouldn’t have been able to. I’d never be able to get away from him without wondering if he’d simply find me again. I was scared. It wasn’t a new emotion to me, I’d felt fear before, more so as a child, less so as a man, but it wasn’t a stranger to me. This was simply a new situation, a new challenge. Certainly, it might kill me, in the end, but I’d be damned if I was going to die running.
I felt a new resolve begin to grow inside me, displacing the fear and panic. I then considered Tytus again. He had been surprised to find me alive. He didn’t know that I was a Mage, albeit a poor one. Maybe he’d realised what I was by now, maybe he hadn’t. The fact that I was alive suggested that he hadn’t fought someone like me before, if he had, he’d have ensured I was dead, cut my head off, or stabbed me in the heart. Maybe he too was feeling fear. To him, it seemed that I couldn’t die. That gave me a little hope. I needed to take the fight to him.
I crept back up the trail, listening hard for sounds of his approach. Nothing. Maybe he wasn’t following me after all. I found myself back at the Isidor’s cabin. The front door was wide open. I took a breath and slipped inside. I could hear Tytus cursing loudly and hacking at something wooden deeper inside the cabin. I smiled. With all that noise he wouldn’t hear me coming. I found a small knife on a low table and tested its edge. It needed sharpening, but it’d do just fine. I slid down a narrow, wood walled corridor until I found an open door.
“I know you’re in there.” Tytus growled from the room. “Amoud said I could take my time with you, no one will care when you turn up dead.”
I heard Isidor shout back from somewhere, I couldn’t see where, but his voice was muffled.
“Yeah, yeah. Amoud said you’d try to buy me. Don’t worry, I’ll have you out of there in a moment.”
More sounds of hacking. Tytus probably had a small axe. It seemed that Isidor had a bolt hole, but one that didn’t lead anywhere. Careless. I tested the weight of the knife in my hands and decided that even if it didn’t hit him, it’d provide a lovely distraction.
I peered into the room and let fly with the knife. Tytus was indeed swinging a small axe, having put his bow on the ground beside him. In front of him was a section of wall, not much different from any other, but the assassin was going at it with a will. As I threw the knife, Tytus started and spun around, ducking the knife.
I sprung into the room, as he dodged, and kicked. I’d meant to kick him in the face, but instead my foot found his shoulder. He grunted in surprise and lunged forward, head still down and tackled me.
I braced myself and slid backwards a few feet before slamming my knee into his face. He reared back, dropping the axe, and I punched him square in the nose. It wouldn’t kill him, but the pain of a broken nose is very distracting. I followed up with a solid uppercut to the chin and he fell back, spitting teeth. I pushed my advantage and struck again, but this time he was ready. He grabbed me and managed a throw, turning my energy against me. I crashed through the window and landed on my back outside.
I leapt back to my feet to meet Tytus as he followed me out of the window. He saw me regaining my feet and before I could act, threw a ball of fire at me.
Gods damned fire! I hurled myself aside, again feeling the heat of the blaze as it roared past me. I recovered from my leap and faced off against Tytus. His face was bloodied, and he was missing a few teeth. I felt really good about that. I surged forward to attack again, but with a slight motion, a wall of fire suddenly appeared between myself and the assassin. I slid to a stop, just short of the blaze.
“You’ll pay for this.” Tytus snarled, fingers touching his mouth. “I’m going to make you suffer.”
I smiled, feeling much more confident. “You wouldn’t be the first to say that.”
“But I will be the last!” He retorted, as the wall of fire suddenly roared towards me.
I had a second or two to start putting things together. First, Tytus had thrown a whole lot of fire around, and I hadn’t seen anything ablaze afterwards. Second, I ran into a wall, in the warehouse. A wall! In the years since I’d manifested my abilities as a Mage, I’d never become so disorientated that I completely lost track of where I was. Third, Tytus had found me, against all odds, when no one should have been able to.
The wall of fire rushed towards me and I stepped into it, embracing the inferno.
I stepped through the other side, to see Tytus looking at me, his mouth open in shock.
“Not a Wizard.” I mused aloud. “A Sorcerer.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He hissed, furious, as he drew his sword. “I’ll kill you all the same.”
I smiled as my fear was replaced by a surge of confidence. “You tried.”
A quick thought and Tytus watched in shock as my fingers became long talons. I took a step towards him.
“Didn’t you wonder why I didn’t die?” I asked, taking another step.
Tytus’s blade didn’t waver. He held it before him, ready.
“You must have wondered.” I continued.
He lunged, thrusting his sword towards my chest. I hardened my skin, just as the point hit and it slid along my ribs.
I reached out and grabbed him by the neck, my talons slowly tightening, cutting off his air. He squirmed and punched. I was too close to him now for him to use his blade effectively. I shrugged off the blows, as I continued to slowly choke him. I smiled grimly, as I watched him struggle. I should have just killed him. I’d pointed out his mistake earlier about him not making sure he killed me, but I was angry. He’d hurt me in a way that hadn’t been done in a long time. This was my revenge, or it was supposed to be.
My world exploded, as one of Tytus’s feet kicked up hard between my legs. I should have expected it. He managed to slip out of my grasp and drop to the ground. I sucked in a breath, fighting to not puke, and so didn’t see him pull a knife. The knife stabbed savagely into my thigh, the one he’d wounded earlier. I shouted in pain and lashed out with my left hand. My claws ripped down and across Tytus’s chest, ripping tunic and skin. It was his turn to shout in pain. He leapt back from me, leaving my talons bloody, and suddenly I couldn’t see again. Everything was dark.
I knew now what was happening. Tytus was using his powers again. I figured that he was using illusion. That would explain the fire, and how I’d been able to feel it, even though it wasn’t real. He was deceiving my mind, but he’d made a mistake. Tytus didn’t know, couldn’t know, that my other senses were as sharp as my eyes. I could hear almost as well as a bat, if I made the right changes. I could smell as well as any dog. But I didn’t need to do much, I could smell his blood, I could hear his ragged breathing, I just couldn’t see anything. I didn’t need to. I ignored what my eyes were telling me, and I jumped forward and to the side, lashing out again with my claws. I heard Tytus gasp in surprise, and felt my claws rip along one of his shoulders. The veil over my eyes wavered and dropped, as I heard him run. I was done with this. We weren’t far from the window I’d been thrown through, and so I crossed to it, leaned into the room, grabbed Tytus’s bow and a few arrows and gave chase.
I stopped my run just out of sight of the cabin. I wasn’t falling for his tricks again. His contract was to kill Isidor, and everything I’d learned about Tytus suggested that he wasn’t one to leave a job unfinished. I turned around and crept back towards the cabin, staying to the undergrowth. Sure enough, I spotted him stagger around the side of the cabin. He was in rough shape, bleeding, one arm hanging limp. He had a knife in his good hand though and he was mobile. Still a threat. I nocked an arrow and drew it back to my ear as I stepped out of the undergrowth. I judged the distance and the slight breeze and loosed. Tytus must have heard something because he turned to see me. The arrow slammed into his chest, through his heart and into the wooden wall behind him, pinning him there. The knife fell from his hands and he died. Silently. For once he wasn’t talking. I put the bow over my shoulder and walked to where he stood. He wasn’t breathing. The man was dead. I sighed in relief.
I turned around and saw Idina trudging wearily towards the cabin from the path to the little pier. I walked to her and wondered why she looked angry.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Why’d you put me to sleep?” She asked, menacingly. “I woke up a few minutes ago, under a bush.”
“Sleep?” I asked, confused.
“I heard a noise, warned Isidor, and went to investigate. I don’t remember anything after that.”
She held out a needle, careful to avoid the tip. It looked like one of mine, but shorter. I felt a little trill of wonderment.
“It wasn’t me.” I told her. “I woke up and you were gone. Where are the girls?”
“They’re with Isidor. It turns out he has a bolthole.”
“I saw that.” I confirmed.
“So, if you didn’t put me to sleep, who did, and why?”
I shrugged. “Tytus?”
“Doesn’t seem the type.” She pointed to where the assassin hung. “He dead?”
I nodded. “I checked.”
“We better let Isidor know he’s safe and get the girls.”
“And figure out who knocked me out.”
The smuggler was quite happy when I told him that he was safe, and both girls were happy to leave the bolthole. It was not particularly roomy inside, less bolthole, more hidden cupboard. Isidor demanded to see the body of the dead assassin, so I led him outside to where he hung. Both Idina and I stopped in shock. Tytus was gone.
“That’s not possible.” I breathed. “You saw Idina, he was pinned to the wall, dead. I checked him he was dead.”
“I saw.” Idina confirmed. “But he’s not there now.”
I examined the arrow and pulled it from the wall.
“There’s no blood on it.” I exclaimed. “He was never there. It was another damned trick.”
I turned to Idina.
“Surely he couldn’t have fooled Aavan?”
Idina shrugged. “Aavan is dependent on my senses when I’m in control. He can only hear and see what I do.”
I punched the wall where the arrow had stuck.
“Gods damn it! Then he’s still out there. He must have guessed that he wouldn’t be able to out-run me, so he needed a distraction. I didn’t think he’d leave a job unfinished.”
“Seems like ‘e guessed you’d think that.” Isidor pointed out.
I shook my head. “I should have tracked his signs, not just chased after him blindly. Stupid.”
I sent everyone back into the cabin and told Idina to keep an eye out, while I tracked Tytus. I didn’t think he’d be back, he was badly wounded, but I’d been wrong about him too many times now. I took him for a loudmouth, a braggart. Isidor had said he was messy, not very subtle, which seemed to agree with my opinion of him. I’d underestimated him. Messy he might be, but he wasn’t stupid, which suggested that he liked to kill, more than he should. I should have guessed that he wasn’t a Wizard. Powerful as they were, Wizards had no mental powers, so a Wizard couldn’t keep finding me like he had. I figured that he was talented enough to find me in Hien but had to admit that I was stumped by how he had found me on the island. The only thing that made sense was that he’d made Petre talk before killing him. I couldn’t explain why he’d waited to go after Isidor, why he’d come after me instead. Maybe I’d never know.
I found his trail, just beyond the clearing in which the cabin sat. He’d lain in the undergrowth for some time, before leaving. I tracked his passage down the path to the small dock, where Rosa had tied up the boat. It was missing. I nodded to myself. Another time then.
I sat on the pier for a while, staring at the water. It’d be nice to sleep for a few days.
I lay back on the pier and closed my eyes for a while, luxuriating in the ability to just rest a little. I breathed slow, listening to the hum and buzz the of nocturnal insects and the tiny furtive noises of small animals.
“I know you’re there.” I said, softly, into the starry darkness. “I figure it was you who stole some of my supplies. I assume you stuck Idina to keep her safe from Tytus. You must have known she’d be vulnerable.”
I heard a slight buzz of wings and a gentle weight settled on my right shoulder. I raised a hand and felt a pair of tiny hands grip my index finger and hold it to a damp cheek.
“I’ve missed you.” I whispered.