Authors: David Dalglish
Ghost looped his swords around for an attack from both sides. That left the only opening straight ahead, toward his chest. He wanted this Stern character to try it, to hold his own instead of bouncing about. Maddeningly, he didn’t take it. Stern dropped to one knee, blocking the lower slash from his left and letting the right sail over his head. Immediately after blocking he rolled to the side. Ghost chased, but each slash smashed only floor. Time was no longer on his side. The others would be up soon, groggy and heads full of fog, perhaps, but still up.
How much concentration did it take to turn someone into a toad, Ghost wondered.
Stern at last had nowhere to run. His back was to the wall. To his left were the stairs, and the right, the main door. His eyes flicked from both, deciding. Ghost gave him no time, rushing in while keeping his swords close. He would block a retreat with his own body, and let his blades do the work. Stern had no chance matching strength, and without retreat, dying would be his only option left.
It seemed Stern knew this as well. His eyes widened, and he appeared pressed to the very edge of his control by adrenaline and fear. The look of a cornered animal. Ghost knew Stern would not roll onto his back and hope for mercy. He’d lunge, mad, vicious. And that’s just what he did. Ghost feared those first few seconds as the maces came crashing in, slamming into his swords with shocking impact. He felt kicks strike his body, at one point an elbow, and still the maces looped and struck. But they were fighting Ghost’s fight now, close up and animalistic. He blocked a swipe from the side, then savagely struck its length with his other blade, knocking it from Stern’s hand. Stern’s other weapon came around, straight for his head. Instead of ducking, he stepped closer, chest to chest. The side of Stern’s arm hit his face, but that was far better than the sharp edges of the mace.
One sword slashed his arm, making him drop his weapon. The other thrust into his belly and twisted.
“Shit,” Stern grunted, clutching Ghost’s wrist with both hands. His whole body shook, and his face rapidly paled. Ghost pulled his weapon free, breaking Stern’s grip as if it were that of a child. The man slid along the wall, blood pouring across his hands and down his legs. He held the wound with his palms, slowing the bleeding.
“Should have surrendered,” Ghost said. “Though I respect your defense of your friends, this was all unnecessary.”
He left him there, stepped over Brug, and climbed the stairs. The short fighter was moaning still, conscious but only just. He was no threat. Ghost found the wizard first, glad to see him still out. Unwrapping the rope he’d looped about his waist, he cut a length of it and bound Tarlak’s hands. Thinking for a moment, he cut a smaller length, wedged a piece of the wizard’s own robe into his mouth, and then tied it into a gag. Hefting him onto his shoulder, he carried him back down the stairs and deposited him in a chair. Stern watched him with glazed eyes from where he lay.
Last was the girl. She opened her eyes when he stepped inside, but she showed no recognition, nor any signs of fear. Concussion, he figured. She probably didn’t know the difference between him and the King of Ker.
“To your feet,” he said. “I’d hate to strike you again.”
He grabbed her wrists and held them tight as he escorted her down the stairs. Once she was tied to another chair, he kicked Brug to see how he was faring.
“Damn it,” Brug muttered, his eyes suddenly focusing. “What was that for?”
He saw Ghost standing over him, and then he tried to reach for his weapons. Instead, Ghost slammed his heel onto his throat and pushed him back.
“I’d recommend you behave,” he said, the tip of his sword dangling before an eye. “Otherwise I might just let go.”
Brug ground his teeth, glanced about, then nodded. Ghost bound his hands and feet and then dumped him on the floor beside the others.
“Well, that was disappointingly easy,” Ghost said, sheathing his swords. “I hope the Watcher proves more challenging than you four.”
Stern said something, but his voice was too weak to hear. Ghost stepped closer and leaned down.
“You’ll find out when he kills you,” Stern said, then made a sound like the cross of a cough and a laugh. Ghost slapped the side of his face, the gesture almost playful.
“At least you put up a fight,” he said. “So I’ll forgive your frightened boasting. Stay still, and try not to let your grip slip. You might know something useful to me, and I’d hate to lose it because you can’t keep your guts from squeezing through your fingers.”
The priestess seemed to be getting her bearings, but Tarlak was still clearly out. Ghost reached into a pocket and pulled out some smelling salts. Shoving them under the wizard’s nose, he held his head by his hair and waited. After a few sniffs his eyelids began to flutter, and then he jolted as if splashed by a bucket of water.
“Whmmph,” he said.
“Welcome back,” Ghost said, smacking his shoulder. “Forgive the gag. I know how dangerous your kind is with a few silly words. I may take it out, but only for a moment, and only when my swords are at your throat. Understand?”
A soft gasp came from his right. It seemed like the priestess had finally come to her senses.
“Senke!” she gasped.
He followed her gaze to the wounded man against the wall. A pet name, perhaps? Or maybe Bill had been wrong about the name?
“He put up a better fight than the rest of you,” Ghost said.
“Don’t say nothing, Delysia,” Brug muttered. “Just bite your tongue and say nothing.”
“I don’t think I’d listen to him,” Ghost said, placing the name to her face. He’d found with many people he interrogated, it made them that much more compliant when he called them by their name.
“Please, I can help him!” She squirmed against her bonds. “He’s dying!”
“If he’s dying, he’s doing a poor job of it.” He watched her struggle to see if his ropes would hold. Satisfied, he took her chin in a giant hand and forced her gaze to his. “But if you want untied, you’ll have to talk. That’s all, little girl, just talk. No sin in that, right?”
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Don’t!” Brug shouted. Ghost turned on him, and this time his kick was lower, and harder. Brug howled like an animal, and his face turned a beet red.
“Enough out of you,” he said. “You’re beaten, and at my mercy. Lies and silence get you pain, only pain. Not honor. Not sacrifice. No nobility. Just pain.”
Tarlak mumbled something into his gag. Ghost debated, but then left him alone. He’d go to the wizard only if the others proved uncooperative. So far, this Delysia appeared the most compliant. He knelt before her, all teeth and smiles.
“Senke’s bleeding over there,” he said, dropping his voice lower. She went to look, but his eyes held her. He knew he could do that, had so many times before. He felt like a snake charmer, controlling them by the sheer ferocity of his personality. “You can feel it, his pain washing over you like a heat. You’re a priestess, so you could help him, tend his wounds. How badly you must wish to go to him. Such sweet compassion.”
He shifted behind her, pressing a painted cheek against hers as they both looked to where Senke lay.
“But is it just compassion? I don’t think it is. I think it’s fear. I smell the stink on you. It’s rising in your chest, crawling upward like a beast. You don’t want to watch him die, yet that’s what you are doing. Life is draining away before you, and all you can do is sit here. Struggling against your ropes won’t seal the hole in his gut, Delysia. Only one thing will, and that is talking to me. Tell me the truth, and only the truth. Can you do that, pretty girl? Can you do that for Senke?”
She bit her lower lip. Tears ran down her face.
“Yes,” she said at last. Brug sighed. By the wall, Senke chuckled. Tarlak let out another mrmph into his gag.
“Good lass. It’s a simple question, really. I have a contract to find the Watcher, and your group knows of him. Tell me, where can I find him?”
“I don’t know,” she said. She stared into his eyes, and he realized she wanted him to know she didn’t lie. “He’s only stayed here twice. Where he goes when he leaves…please, I don’t know. None of us do.”
“Tell me his name, then. He must have a name.”
Tears ran down her face. She looked to Senke, but Ghost grabbed her jaw and forced her back to him.
“Haern,” she said. “He calls himself Haern.”
“Last name? First?”
Possibilities ran through Ghost’s head, and he didn’t like any of them. A single, plain name would be marginal help at best in tracking him down. Still, it was better than nothing, which is what he’d been going on before. But mostly, he didn’t want a name. He wanted the man in person.
“Will he be coming back here?”
She hesitated, just a second, but Ghost saw it and smiled.
“No lies,” he said. “That just gives pain, remember?”
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “But I think he will. Please, can I help him now? He’s almost gone.”
“Of course my dear.”
He untied her wrists and then gestured for her to go. She ran to Senke’s side and knelt. He whispered something to her, and he heard her begin to cry. Ideas raced through Ghost’s head as he watched out of the corner of his eye. If this Haern were coming back, then he had to keep them all here until he did, otherwise they might find a way to warn him. Of course, it could be days until he showed, or worse, this Haern might spot the ambush through a window, or sense it through a lack of common activity. Troubling. He’d have to dump them in one of the rooms, preferably without a window. Once done, then he might…
And that was when the door opened, and in stepped the Watcher.
aern’s elbow still ached like the Abyss, but at least it’d stopped bleeding. He felt naked without his swords, so he kept his head down and shambled along as if he were drunk. Given the horror of the previous night, he knew he was far from the only one that staggered along the road. Many had buried their grief in alcohol. His nerves rose as he hurried down the Crimson, but he reminded himself it was safer in the day than at night. Sure, some of the young cutpurses might try to swipe his coin, but he had nothing to steal.
When he reached the Eschaton’s building he put his hand on the door and closed his eyes. Returning here meant many things, and he wasn’t sure if he was prepared for the implications. Could this place become a home to him? Could he accept the companionship of Senke, even knowing his presence was danger? Deep in his heart, he knew he desired nothing else. It was his head that kept getting in the way. But sometimes you needed to think like that to protect others. To Haern, the self had never mattered more than those he cared for. He’d learned that lesson from watching his teacher, Robert, sacrifice his life to protect him.
He opened the door with his good arm. So lost in his thoughts, so focused on what he might say to them, and they say back, that he was unprepared for the sight before him. Tarlak sat bound and gagged in a chair. Brug lay on the floor, also bound. Senke slumped against the wall, blood covering his clothes. Delysia knelt before him, her hands also covered with blood. And there amid them all was a giant stranger, skin like obsidian, face painted white as a skull. It seemed the stranger was as surprised as he was, and they both froze for a split-second. Haern looked into this man’s eyes and saw death.
“Watcher,” said the painted man. Not a question, just a statement. His deep voice chilled Haern to the bone, telling him it was time to act. This was no game. Their lives hung in the balance.
“Run!” Delysia screamed.
But he couldn’t leave them like this. Damn it, what he’d give to have his swords!
The stranger lunged, drawing two swords as he did. Haern dove further into the house, tumbling to avoid his attack. His eyes searched for a weapon, any weapon. There, on the wall, he saw the shortswords Senke had used when pretending to be Thren. Scrambling to his feet, he ran for them, not even slowing when he slammed into the wall. His good arm snatched one free, and then he rolled aside, the stranger’s sword cutting several inches into the thin wall.
“Who are you?” Haern asked as he held the blade before him and crouched into position.
“I am Ghost,” said the man. His brown eyes shone beneath the paint. Sweat dripped down his neck and arms, every inch seemingly nothing but muscle. His swords lifted and dipped into a stance, perfectly smooth, perfectly calm. Haern felt terror at the sight. For all his reputation, all his killings, this man faced the Watcher unafraid. He even smiled.
Every instinct told Haern to retreat, but he wouldn’t. He thought he’d lost Senke in a fire, and he’d never come back to look. He’d been dragged off by his father while Delysia bled. This time, he’d stay until the end, whatever that might be. Death or victory, he thought. His father would be proud.
“Come then,” Haern said. “Kill me if you can.”
He kicked aside the table, and in the limited space, began spinning in place. His multitude of cloaks dipped and rose, hiding his presence. Ghost watched it, the concentration in his eyes frightening. When he moved to attack, out lashed Haern’s shortsword, nearly slicing off his nose. Again Ghost watched, waited. Haern knew his cloakdance could defeat lesser foes, and give him advantage against several attackers at once, but against someone so skilled, it was a stalling diversion, nothing more.
“Stop dancing and kick his ass!” Brug shouted, unable to do anything but watch from his spot on the floor.
A sword swung in. Haern dipped below it, his spine nearly parallel to the floor. Out went his blade, cutting into Ghost’s knee. It’d be painful, but not debilitating beyond a bad limp. He hadn’t been able to get enough force due to his awkward position. Worse was that the blade caught on the bone instead of slicing free. Ghost stepped in, unafraid of the cloaks and defiant of the weapon lodged in his flesh. He swung downward with both swords. Haern’s momentum had him rising to a stand, so he kicked out his own feet to fall instead. The swords missed, but only barely. Haern landed flat on his back, the impact knocking the breath from his lungs. His wounded elbow hit hard as well, and the pain of it filled his vision with black dots. Ghost twirled a sword in his right hand, pointing the blade downward, eager for a killing thrust.
But then Delysia was there, her hands raised, palms facing the Ghost. Bright light flared, blinding even to Haern. Ghost roared, and he took a step back as if struck by a blow. Haern swung his legs wide, taking advantage of the distraction. His heel struck the wounded knee, hard enough to dislodge the sword stuck in the joint. Down Ghost went, the knee crumpling. Again Delysia let out a cry, shouting out the name of her deity. Her hand moved in a downward arc. A golden sword materialized in the air before her, mimicking the motion. It sliced into Ghost’s chest. Blood sprayed across her, but she didn’t appear to notice. Another prayer was already on her lips, demanding the strength of Ashhur.
“Be gone!” she cried. Haern saw a faint outline, almost like an enormous hand, shimmer and vanish in the blink of an eye. Ghost flew back several feet, as if hit by a battering ram. When his body met the wall, it was the wall that gave, the cheap plaster breaking. Haern took to his feet, his wounded elbow held against his chest. It had started bleeding again, staining the gray of his clothes red. Ghost took a woozy step forward, then collapsed when he tried to stand on the other leg. Haern reached down and grabbed his sword while the giant man crawled toward the exit.
“Don’t,” Delysia said, grabbing his shirt. Her voice had authority now, and something in him was unwilling to challenge it. “Please, don’t kill him.”
“Are you mad?” Brug asked, still squirming against his ropes. Haern felt inclined to agree.
“He’s beaten, and leaving,” she insisted. “Don’t. He let me save Senke. He deserves as much.”
“He’s also the one who did it in the first place,” Senke said with a sleepy voice. “Just thought I’d point that out.”
“Phggrrmpf,” Tarlak chimed in.
Ghost looked at them as if they were all mad. He used a chair to brace himself as he stood, then limped toward the door, his teeth clenched against the pain.
“You were beaten,” he said as he took a lumbering step outside.
“Sure thing,” Haern said, Delysia still clutching his shirt. The moment the door closed, he slumped backward, sitting atop the edge of the overturned table. Delysia checked his elbow.
“Senke needs my help more than you,” she said. “It can wait. Untie Tarlak and Brug.”
“As you wish.”
Delysia returned to Senke and knelt before him. Haern heard her prayers, and white light shone around her hands. No wonder the wound on his chest had healed so quickly those few days ago.
“Friend of yours?” Tarlak asked once the gag was removed.
“You aren’t funny,” Haern said.
He cut the ropes around his hands and feet, and while the wizard stretched, he did the same for Brug.
“Son of a whore ambushed me coming up the stairs,” Brug said, grabbing his punch daggers. “Otherwise I’d have torn him a new hole.”
“You mean like this one?” Senke asked.
Brug flushed and looked away. Haern tossed his shortsword to the floor. He felt sick, and he still hadn’t recovered from the blow to his head earlier in the day. His elbow throbbed, feeling even worse than when he’d first received the cut. He saw Brug and Tarlak glaring at him, and he felt like he deserved their ire. He tried to stumble for the door, but Tarlak blocked the way, holding it shut with his arm.
“Not yet,” he said. “And not anytime soon. It’s time we talked, Watcher.”
atthew’s relief upon seeing Felwood Castle lasted only as long as it took him to see one of Hadfield’s men standing watch far from the other guards. It was as he’d feared. Less than ten minutes ago he’d had to drag them off the road, and when the horsemen rode on by, his gut told him who it was they served.
“What do we do?” Tristan asked. Matthew had abruptly turned them both around and back north on the road, hoping the soldier hadn’t seen their approach. Given the distance, it seemed probable.
“I don’t know,” he said. He could imagine what would happen if they tried to pass by. The soldier would cut them down before letting them reach lord Gandrem. Whatever explanations or punishment the soldier received would still be preferable so long as no one identified the one-armed boy as the son of Lady Gemcroft. Given his disfigurement, the dirt on his face and the plain clothes he now wore, it seemed doubtful.
“Will we continue on to Veldaren?” Tristan asked.
“Quiet boy, I don’t know!”
He waited until his temper calmed, then resumed.
“And I’m not sure we can. Don’t have the food, and water might end up scarce, too. I need inside to resupply, but that might mean leaving you behind for a while. They won’t know me from shit, but you’re the one they want. That, and I don’t know who Gandrem’s sided with in all this.”
“John was always nice to me,” Tristan said, referring to the lord. “I wish I’d stayed with him. What if…what if I get us inside? Will he keep us safe?”
Matthew shot him a look.
“How could you get us inside?”
“I don’t know. I could run real fast. I’m a fast runner, even Arthur said it!”
Matthew bit his lip. It was just one man, a professional soldier perhaps, but still just one. He touched the old sword at his hip. If he could last for a little while, just a little…
His eyes fell upon the near empty sack that had carried their food.
“I have an idea,” he said. “But you better run like the wind, you hear me? Like it, and faster. My life is depending on those legs of yours.”
ngram mumbled curses as he shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying to generate some heat to counter the cold. After another minute, he pulled a blanket from a saddlebag and wrapped it around his shoulders. Beside him, his horse clomped the ground.
“Blanket ain’t big enough for two of us,” he said. “We’ll get you somewhere warm once we find that brat, though, I promise.”
He and his horse waited a hundred yards beyond the castle’s entrance, near the fork where the main road turned toward him. The woods had been thinned out toward the front, though they were still close enough to make him worry. Nathaniel and the farmer might try to sneak along the walls, using the woods as cover. Doing that was a good way to earn an arrow in your back by a guard, though. They’d come traveling down the road, he felt certain of it. According to his bitch of a wife, he’d left immediately after killing Gert and Ben. Dimwit farmer couldn’t know how many were actually looking, or that they might have beaten him here. Ingram expected him to come riding full gallop, the boy behind him on his horse, thinking he’d finally reached safety. Already Ingram had practiced his excuses for when the castle guards came running.
“Guy looked mad as a dog,” he’d say. “Started hollering for me to hand over my money, then sent the boy to do his dirty work.”
No one would question him for killing two hungry thieves too stupid to know better. Even if they did, what would it matter? Gandrem wouldn’t challenge Arthur, not on something so petty as a dead farmer and his boy.
While he held the rough blanket and looked about, he saw a man approaching. He walked on foot, leading his horse. A large sack lay slung across the saddle. Ingram raised an eyebrow at the sight. No boy, but what could someone be bringing to trade this late in winter?
“Slow down there,” Ingram said, tossing his blanket back toward his horse and putting a hand on his hilt. “Strange time for travel, don’t you think?”
“Pig’s die when they die,” said the man. “Come to see if his lordship would like a fine meal tonight.”
The cogs and wheels in Ingram’s brain were never the most tightly fit, but still they turned the words over, again and again, unable to get rid of a deep feeling of someone pulling something over him.