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Authors: David Dalglish

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A Dance of Blades (6 page)

BOOK: A Dance of Blades
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“Stay with me,” he said. “I bled for you. Least you could do is survive.”

The earlier bandage he’d applied had soaked through, so he removed it, cut another strip, and retied it. Part of him thought he should just cut the whole arm off, but he’d let someone wiser in healing arts decide that. So long as it didn’t turn green and rot off, the boy had a chance of regaining its use.

“What’s your name?” he asked him as he tore the shirt off the dead soldier beside them. When the boy didn’t answer, Haern snapped his fingers in front of his eyes a few times. Still nothing. Sighing, he cut up the shirt and used it to form a sling.

“Come on, what’s your name? We’re friends now, the best of pals. You’re not cold, are you?”

After a few seconds, the boy shook his head. Good. At least he was somewhat alert. He tore free the cloak of another dead soldier, wrapped it around the boy, and then lifted him into his arms. His wounded arm shrieked in protest, so he shifted a bit of the weight onto his shoulder.

“Name,” he said. “I’d really love a name.”

But the boy slumped and passed out. Haern sighed again. He returned to the road and surveyed the carnage, laying the boy beside the fire while he searched. It didn’t make any sense. The men were well armed and equipped, and they bore the symbol of a lord. When he looked into the wagons, he saw the crates, and they bore the exact same symbol. The oxen’s harnesses had the same as well, a sickle raised before a mountain.

If he’d had time, he might have scattered the gold about, or hidden it. But he didn’t. Furious at his confusion and helplessness, he used his sword to draw an eye into the dirt beside the fire, where no snow lay. Beneath it he scrawled his mark, ‘The Watcher’. At least he might accomplish something out of all this. Let the thieves know that even outside Veldaren they were not safe from him.

“Well, boy,” he said, returning to the fire. “I’m sure it’s nice and warm, but we have to move. I can’t remember the last farm I passed, but it’s our only chance. Can you walk?”

No response. Haern bandaged his own arm, tore open one of the crates, and grabbed a handful of coins. They bore a symbol he easily recognized, that of the Gemcroft family.

“What do you have to do with the Serpents?” he wondered aloud. No matter. He pocketed them, hauled the boy into his arms, and started walking south.

There was another reason he needed space. The two who’d fled would certainly return, and he had a feeling it’d be with far more than eight men. Step after step, he cursed the snow, the wind, the cold, and his clumsy mistake that had cost him a cut. All the while, the boy slept in his arms.

B
y nightfall, Haern felt ready to collapse. He walked off the road, kicked aside the snow before a tree, and set the boy down. He wrapped him tighter in his cloaks and did his best to keep hope. The boy’s lips were blue, his skin a deathly white. He’d lost so much blood, right when he needed its warmth the most.

Still standing, Haern pulled an emblem hanging by a silver chain from beneath his shirt. It was of a golden mountain, and as he held it, he prayed over the boy.

“Just keep him warm and alive, Ashhur. And don’t forget me, too. I could use the damn help.”

He put away the emblem, sat down beside his nameless boy, and pulled him close so they could share their warmth.

“It’ll get better,” he said, not sure if the boy could hear him or not. He was so thoroughly wrapped Haern couldn’t see his eyes. “Don’t worry about any pain. As my father once said, pain is a tool that should always be under our control. It teaches us when we err. It distracts and weakens our opponents. And for you, it’ll help you for the rest of your life. Who cares about a silly scratch from a sword when you’ve been struck to the bone, yeah?”

He felt like a moron yammering on, but he did so anyway. At last he heard the boy snore, and he leaned his head back against the bark. His eyes looked to the clouded heavens.

“Couldn’t you at least stop the snow?” he asked Ashhur.

Ashhur didn’t bother to respond.

H
aern slept through the night, waking only once at the sound of hoofbeats. He curled his body tighter against the tree and kept perfectly still. From the corner of his eye he saw the light of torches. Unable to see his tracks veer off the road because of the fresh snow, the horsemen rode right on by.

“Never mind,” Haern whispered once they were gone. “Go ahead and let it snow.”

He closed his eyes, leaned his head against the boy’s, and slept until morning.

*

H
aern had little food and water, certainly not enough for two. He ate the food, deciding he needed the strength for carrying the boy. He did his best to get the child to drink, though. Other than a few quick sips, he was unsuccessful. His back ached, and his arm throbbed, but he forced the pain far away, as he’d been trained to do by his many mentors. He carried the boy, stopping every hour to rest and catch his breath. Any time he let him go, the boy collapsed to the ground.

So much for making the brat walk,
Haern thought.

He shook his head and immediately felt guilty. Of course the boy couldn’t walk. He was sitting at the reaper’s door. That he had his eyes open was a miracle.

They walked along the road, encountering no other travelers. Evidently no one else was dumb enough to make their way north in such weather. The snow had stopped in the morning, and as he followed the road, he observed the chaos of hoofprints. None crossed over or appeared to be heading back. Either they would continue on to Veldaren, or at some point turn around and meet them. Haern stayed alert just in case. He was in no shape to fight a group of horsemen.

Keep walking, he told himself. Keep walking. Keep going. The son of Thren Felhorn would not die unknown in the wilderness. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

Near the end of the third day, he finally found a farm. He crossed the fields, every bone in his body aching. The boy hadn’t had a drink the entire day, and his skin was hot with fever. Part of him wondered if the cold was the only thing keeping him from burning alive. At the door to the home, he stopped, hid his swords with his cloak, and knocked.

“I come in time of need,” he shouted, surprised by how hoarse his voice sounded. “Please, I have a wounded child with me.”

The door crept open. In the yellow light of lamps he saw the glint of an old shortsword. A man looked through the crack, saw him holding the boy.

“Winter’s nearing its end,” said the man. “We have little to spare.”

“I’ll pay,” Haern said. “Please, I’ve walked without rest for days.”

The man glanced inside, whispered something, and then nodded.

“Come on in,” said the farmer. “And by Ashhur’s grace, I pray you mean no trouble.”

Haern found what appeared to be the entire family gathered in the front room, under blankets and around a stove whose heat felt glorious on Haern’s skin. He saw two girls huddled beside each other, their hair a pretty brown. The farmer had two boys, one of them of age, and they held knives as if to help their father should it come to bloodshed. His wife sat beside the fire, tending it.

“He has a fever,” Haern said, setting the boy down beside the stove. “And he hasn’t had food or drink for days.”

“I’ll get some water,” the wife said as she stood. She cast a worried glance at her husband, then vanished into the next room.

“My name is Matthew Pensfield,” said the farmer, extending his hand. Haern accepted it, and was shocked at how much his own hand shook. He hadn’t eaten much, he knew, but had it really affected him so greatly?

“Haern,” he said as he pulled his cloaks tight about him and surveyed the house. It seemed cozy enough, and not a hint of draft. The man had done well in building it.

“I know some of the Haerns,” said Matthew as his wife returned. He had a hard look, his square jaw covered with stubble, but he spoke plain and seemed more at ease now that Haern showed no inclination to violence. “Good men, own several fields west of here. What’s your full name? I might have heard them speak of you.”

“Just Haern,” he replied, nodding to the boy. “And I have no name for him. I found him wounded; why does not concern you. That room beyond there, is that your kitchen? Might we speak in private?”

Some of the farmer’s worry returned, but he nodded anyway.

“I reckon we can.”

Once in the other room, Haern dropped his voice to a whisper.

“I have a difficult request for you,” he said. “I need you to take care of that boy until he’s regained his health. I cannot stay.”

“We don’t have enough food to…”

He stopped as Haern drew out a handful of coins and dropped them upon the table. His eyes stretched wide. The gold shone in the dim light.

“People will be hunting for him,” Haern said. “No matter what, you treat him like your own child. When he regains his health, he’ll tell you his name and where his family might be, assuming they’re still alive. Until then, give him up to no one.

“What if they threaten violence?” Matthew asked, his eyes lingering on the gold.

“Would you give up one of your daughters?”

The farmer shook his head. “No. I wouldn’t.”

Haern let his cloak fall away from his left side, exposing one of his swords.

“I hope you understand,” he said. “I’ll return, and if I find him abused, or dead, I will repay you tenfold in blood.”

“He’s sick and wounded. What if he dies of fever?”

Haern smiled, and he let the coldness he felt in his bones creep into his eyes.

“How well do you trust your children, your wife, to tell the truth? I will know one way or the other what happened to him. Do not give me cause to wonder.”

Matthew swallowed. “I understand. This land is harsh, and we’ve taken in children before. Once he heals up, and the weather breaks, I’ll take him where he needs to go. If he doesn’t know, well, there’s always a need for more hands on a farm.”

Haern slapped him on the shoulder, nearly laughed at his terrified jump.

“Good man,” he said. “Now how about a warm meal?”

He ate some soup while he watched the wife tend to the boy. She put a wet cloth across his forehead, dressed his wounds far better than he had, and then used a spoon to slowly get him to drink. Haern was impressed. Seemed these Pensfields knew how to take care of themselves. Whoever the boy was, he could do far worse for a temporary home.

The soup did wonders for his mood. Its warmth seeped deep into his chest and then spread to the rest of his limbs. Combined with the heat of the wood stove, he felt warmed within and without. He could feel his muscles tightening from lack of motion after so much exertion, and he did his best to stretch in the cramped quarters.

“You can spend the night here if you wish,” Matthew said as the day neared its end. “I’d be a sad man to banish a guest just as the sun sets.”

“Thank you,” Haern said. He shifted further away from the fire so the children could take a turn. He wrapped his blankets around his body and closed his eyes. For the first time in his entire life, he found himself in a true home, with a real family. The children bickered, but there was a harmless familiarity to it. He thought of his own childhood, never spent with someone his own age, only the parade of tutors and mentors, training him to read, to write, to move, to kill. Had he ever curled up on the floor beside a fire, surrounded by a family that would never wish him harm? Had he ever been inside a house that felt at peace? Had he ever…

He slept, and his dreams were dull, calm, and he did not remember them when he woke.

1

I
t was Veliana’s third attempt at killing Deathmask, and the first she was personally involved in. She lay atop the roof to their headquarters, a crossbow in hand.

“What if you miss?” asked Garrick, who stood behind her so he couldn’t be seen from the street.

“Then Rick will take him down,” Veliana said. She pointed to the building on the opposite side of the street. A man in gray lay atop it, a crossbow beside him.

“I can’t believe he’s not dead yet,” said Garrick as he took a chunk of Crimleaf from his pocket and began chewing. “Are our men truly so incompetent?”

Veliana rolled her eyes. The first attempt to kill Deathmask had been a simple stabbing in the night. She’d selected one of their lower ranking thugs for the deed. They’d found the thug’s body rotting beside Deathmask’s bed in the morning. How he’d died, no one knew. Deathmask hadn’t shown the slightest irritation at the attempt, either. Veliana held in a chuckle. Shit, the guy had tossed her a wink on the way to breakfast.

Their second attempt was actually three separate instances of poisoning his food. He hadn’t eaten any of it. During the third, Veliana caught him casting a spell over his meal, no doubt detecting the poison. That same day, both their cooks died vomiting blood. Garrick ranted and assumed they had mishandled the poison. Veliana knew differently.

“We’ve given him a simple task,” Veliana said, sighting the crossbow for their door. “He’s to collect protection money from a handful of vendors a few blocks over. When he exits the door, he should see Rick preparing to fire. In fact, I’m counting on it. He’s too damn clever not to notice. Maybe he’ll run, or cast a spell, or pretend he doesn’t see. It won’t matter. That’s when I put an arrow through his back.”

“So confident,” Garrick said. “Remember, if this fails, I make the next plan. This was your last shot to get things done safe and clean.”

“I figured you’d like things safe,” she muttered.

“What?” he asked.

“I said we should reconsider. He’s clearly skilled. What if he isn’t here on someone else’s payroll? What if he really wants a position in our guild?”

Garrick chuckled. “If he’s that good, why choose ours? We’re far from the most powerful. Others would have made more sense. Or why not become a mercenary? The pay would be better, and then he could kill our kind all he wants. I’m sure the Trifect would love to have him on their…”

“Quiet,” Veliana hissed.

The door opened, and out stepped Deathmask. He wore his red robes and the dark gray cloak of their guild. As always when he went out in public, he’d tied a gray cloth around his face, hiding all but his eyes and hair. His back was to her. She glanced at Rick, who shot her a thumbs up. When she looked back down, Deathmask was staring up at her. Slowly he shook his head, as if berating a child.

“Fuck,” Veliana whispered. She pulled back from the ledge as Garrick asked her what was going on. “He’s spotted me.”

“Then Rick should…”

He stopped as they both watched Rick tumble over the edge of the building, blood gushing from his mouth and ears. When his body hit the ground, Veliana let out an involuntary gasp. Rick hadn’t even fired, his crossbow lying useless atop the flat roof. Deathmask laughed, and he called out from the quiet street.

“I’m disappointed, Vel! Only the one?”

He walked west, and both remained silent as they watched him. Veliana hadn’t seen what he’d done to Rick, but she knew now that he was far beyond any normal thief or trickster. Only a spell could have done what she’d just seen, a dark and powerful one. She was playing a game against an opponent she knew nothing about. Such was a sure path toward losing.

“That son of a bitch,” Garrick said. “He’s toying with us. He knows we want him dead, and he doesn’t care! If we don’t do something soon, I’ll be a mockery to the rest of the guild.”

“Of course you will,” Veliana said as she stood. “You’re trying to kill someone you accepted into our guild, all without any proof or reason.
That
is what will upset them, not that you can’t kill him.”

She thought Garrick would explode, but instead he gave her an amused grin.

“You failed, Vel, so now I choose the attempt. Enough of poison and cowardly arrows. It’s time you bloodied your hands.”

“So long as you don’t have to bloody yours,” she said, offering him a mock bow. Her sarcasm hid her fear. She couldn’t back down, not when Garrick was starting to develop a spine, but did she really want to mess with Deathmask?

She hung from the edge of the roof, dropped down to a windowsill, and then used it to fall to the street. A closer look confirmed what she’d already realized: Deathmask was equal to her in skill, if not superior. She found a thin razor embedded deep in Rick’s neck. No doubt Deathmask’s spell had required some sort of physical contact, and he’d thrown the razor as a way of carrying that spell. A simple but foolproof ambush, but it was her man that lay dead.

Laughter floated down. She flipped Garrick the finger, knowing he stood at the roof’s edge watching her. So be it. No matter what Garrick thought, the Ash Guild was hers, and she would remind him of that fact. No doubt he viewed her coming attempt as a win-win, for either she or Deathmask would die. There had to be another way. More importantly, she had to think of a replacement for him, and soon.

“Bury him somewhere,” she said to her guards at the door as she marched inside to think.

*

A
ny deviation from Deathmask’s normal routine would immediately alert him, so Veliana played it patient. Two days after the third failed attempt she had one of her lower ranked members tell him he was to stay up late working as a guard. She hoped the tedium might dull his senses for when she struck. Despite him spotting her before, she took to the rooftop and waited. Four hours before dawn, when her own eyes started to droop, she decided it was time. She drank a mixture she’d prepared earlier in the day, a combination of strong tea and herbs. A few minutes later, she felt the mixture kick in. Her head ached, but her drowsiness was gone.

She drew her daggers and crept to the rooftop’s edge. No arrows or crossbows this time. If he really was a skilled spellcaster, her only chance was at close range, where she could disrupt the intricate movements needed to cast. She looked down, saw him standing several feet away from the building.

Damn it,
she thought.
Won’t be a straight drop. He can’t possibly know I’m coming, can he?

But of course he could. He might be able to read her mind for all she knew. Now was the time. He was mortal. He was fallible. She was the better. She had to prove that not just to Garrick, but to herself.

She leapt from the roof, silent as a ghost, her daggers aimed for his neck, her knees bent and ready to absorb the impact of their collision. She felt exhilaration soar through her, the wind blowing her hair as she fell. In that half-second, she saw him turn, saw him step aside. She twisted, suddenly panicking. He’d known. Somehow he’d known.

Rolling with the landing helped reduce the pain, but not by much. Her legs throbbed, though most of her weight slammed against her shoulder. She heard a pop and felt her right hand go numb. It no longer held her dagger. She tumbled along, then forced herself out of the roll. Turning around, she expected her death, some sort of spell to sap her breath, or explode her blood out her nostrils. Instead Deathmask stood there, shaking his head.

“Not good enough,” he said. “I need you stronger, faster. Otherwise you are useless to me.”

She clutched her numb hand to her chest and glared.

“No matter what it is, I won’t help you,” she said. “I’ve worked too hard to let you destroy everything.”

“Destroy?” Deathmask said as he looped his arms in a circle. “I’ve come to perfect, not destroy.”

She lunged at him as shadows pooled around his feet, bursting upward to form a wall that her dagger could not penetrate. She stabbed again, then spun about looking for an opening. There was none. Unsure, she closed her eyes and focused. She’d be vulnerable, but so long as the shadow wall remained, she might have the time. Purple fire surrounded the blade of her dagger, and with a cry she thrust it forward. It broke through the wall, which shattered and vanished as if it were made of fine glass. She had the briefest moment to enjoy the look of panic on Deathmask’s face before her dagger cut flesh.

It wasn’t fatal, and she cursed her foul luck. She’d guessed wrong where he stood, and her dagger only slashed his side and cut his robe. Warm blood spilled across her hand. They were so close, it seemed time froze as they eyed one another, preparing the next move for their dance. He drew a blade as he shifted away from her. Her kick sent it flying, and she stabbed again, wishing she had her other dagger. Deathmask fell back, his palms open. A light flashed from them, except it was black instead of white. It dazed her all the same, and her next two swings cut only air.

“What is wrong?” she asked as she took two steps and jumped. Her heel smashed into his stomach, and he gasped as he crumpled to the ground. “Where is the brutal killer that bested all my plans?”

Veliana dropped to one knee and thrust for his throat, not caring for his answer. He caught her wrist just as the tip entered his flesh. A single drop of blood ran down his neck as they struggled. By the gods he was strong!

“Still here,” he said, all trace of amusement gone. His voice was cold, merciless. She felt a shiver run up her spine. She jerked her arm back, but still he held her. His brown eyes met hers. If only she could tear off that damn mask of his. If only she could see his face, remind herself he was human, for his strength was unreal.

She swept her left leg around, taking out his feet. He never let go even as he fell. Together they hit the ground. The collision bumped her injured hand, and her fingers throbbed in agony. They had to be dislocated, if not broken. Still her dagger hovered inches from his flesh, unable to either attack or pull away. He landed on his back, and instead of rolling over, he reached up and held her good arm with both hands.

“I could burn your flesh until I clung to bone,” he said. His tone told her he spoke truth. “Are you ready to listen, or must I find another?”

“No others,” she said as she prepared. “You won’t have the chance.”

She dropped the dagger. Her powerful legs kicked, and she somersaulted on her palm. Her knees landed on his chest, blasting the air from his lungs. He still clutched her, but she rammed an elbow into his throat, sapping his next few words. She pressed her body against his, keeping the elbow tight. Their foreheads touched. Still he held her other hand.

“What do you want? What is your game? Who are you?”

She released the pressure on his throat just enough for him to speak. Her nerves remained on edge. The second he flinched, or said a syllable that sounded remotely like a spell, she’d crush his larynx and leave him to gag on the street.

“I told you before, I have no name.” He stared at her, eyes unflinching.

“Bullshit. Everyone has a name.”

“And mine was taken from me!”

The anger seemed to warm his very body. Her arm, where he held it, flared with white-hot pain.

“By who?” she asked, her voice low. She wanted him calm. She wanted answers before she ended his life.

“The Council of Mages. They banished me, and declared that I had no name, for I was death. And so that is what I am.”

“Banished for what?”

She heard him chuckle.

“Everyone has their secrets, and I must have mine. What will you do, Veliana? Will you kill me? Or will you listen? I am your last hope. Your guild is crumbling, and you’ve lost control of Garrick, haven’t you?”

Her hesitation was answer enough, so she didn’t bother to lie.

“How do you know that?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“I will answer nothing with an elbow on my throat. Let me up. I promise no harm will come to you tonight.”

Her mind whirled as she thought. He was clever, and dangerous. She could kill him, but what would that gain? Garrick would get what he wanted, his paranoia fed. Clearly this Deathmask had a plan, but whose? Could it be the Council’s? Did he lie about the banishment? No, his anger was too sincere. Despite the mask, she felt he spoke truth. Then what? What should she do?

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