Assassin's Shadow (Veiled Dagger Book 2)

BOOK: Assassin's Shadow (Veiled Dagger Book 2)
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Assassin's Shadow

 

by Jon Kiln

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2015.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in book reviews.

 

Chapter 1

 

Chief Bakal sat in the shade of his tent portico and surveyed the blistering terrain of the Southern desert. Waves of heat rose from the scorching sand and made the horizon dance playfully. Bakal smiled. The desert was his home, it was as dangerous and unyielding as the Chief himself, and he was at one with it.

A pair of soldiers flanked him, standing and sweating in the midday heat. Bakal feared nothing, not man nor death. He desired no protection, but rumblings in the mountains the past few nights had put the settlement on edge. The sentries were there by their own volition.

Ogres were walking free in the highlands for the first time since anyone could remember. It was not all bad for Bakal. The immigration of giants had pushed the Southland rebel armies out of the mountain pass, and some of the infidels had come back to Rama and begged Bakal for mercy. They had been promptly executed.

The free roaming ogres only did more to confirm what Bakal had already heard: Miranda was defeated, the King had made peace with the beasts, and Rothar was alive and well.

Word had reached Bakal of the slaughter at Twistle, where so many of his finest warriors had been driven off the cliffs by common townsfolk. Thinking of it, Bakal’s hands balled into fists. If only the assassin had never escaped Rama, none of it would have happened, he knew.

Bakal turned to the sentry on his right. “Check on the girl,” he said, and the soldier disappeared into the tent behind him.

The other guard stepped forward, shielding his eyes against the high sun and peering out at the mountain range to the north.

“What is that?” the soldier asked, pointing to a place near the mouth of the Valley of Mourning.

Bakal stood and squinted at the tiny spot of movement in the distance, focusing his eyes.

After a long, silent moment, the Chief chuckled very slightly. “Death,” he said.

***

Rothar sat atop Stormbringer and gazed down once again into the desert valley that was home to the southern devils. The settlement of Rama spread before him, the colored tents dotting the golden sand for acres in every direction.

He stared at the tent city with singular purpose and a desperate hope that the one he had come for was still alive and unharmed.

Taria.

Rothar wondered if she had been caught and punished for helping him escape the settlement, giving him a horse and freeing the rest of the herd. If she had been detected, he did not know what kind of fate may have befallen her. He shook the thought out of his head.

The trip through the Valley of Mourning had been a swift one, and entertaining - if ever a trip through such a place could be. All along the way, the sights and sounds of ogres, no longer in hiding, filled the mountain terrain.

The ogres loved the mountains. Rothar suspected it had something to do with solitude, and a lot to do with being surrounded by something as large and astounding as they themselves were.

Rothar himself had spoken to many of the ogres as he was leaving the King’s City. He had informed them of the Southland rebel groups hiding in the Valley, ambushing traders and travelers. The ogres had agreed to take care of the pests; and throughout the trip, Rothar had watched disarmed rebels descend into the Valley, some clamoring fearfully, some flung down purposefully.

Rothar had obliged himself to move quietly and quickly through the Valley, saving his strength and dwelling on his thoughts. Now, as he stood at the edge of perhaps the most dangerous city in the world, he felt no inclination towards stealth or trickery. He knew that sneaking into Rama would be impossible. His partial success of a week before would have brought a heightened alertness to the settlement, and even from here, Rothar could see watchmen circling the camp on foot and on horseback.

He would not wait until dark this time. Rothar would ride right into Bakal’s camp and challenge him outright. The Southlanders knew no honor, but they did have a sort of unspoken code, and the most unbendable statute of that code was that no man could back down from a challenge.

Rothar would go into Rama and, if he was not killed on approach, demand an audience with Chief Bakal.

Stormbringer huffed as Rothar prodded him forward and down the slope into the desert. The day was sweltering and both horse and rider were weary.

“It’s alright, old friend,” Rothar said to the horse. “We will rest soon. One way or another, we will rest soon.”

As he approached the settlement, two Southland guards rode out to meet him, their curved swords drawn. Rothar raised both of his hands above his head, empty. When they were near enough, he called out to them in Caltanian.

“I have no quarrel with you!” he said.

“You have a quarrel with everyone, assassin,” one of the watchmen snapped, once the horses had stopped.

It was clear that they had been expecting him. That meant that Taria had been discovered, otherwise the devils would have no reason to anticipate his return. Also, his identity had been spread among the Southlanders. Rothar thought it an odd paradox that in the King’s City, where he lived and moved amongst the people freely, his true vocation was only known by a select few. However, in this desert wasteland of born killers, he was a household name.

“That may be true, I grant you that,” Rothar answered. “But I request an audience with your Chief, and I feel you would be unwise to deny him the opportunity.”

The watchmen glanced at each other with uncertainty. Then they seemed to make up their minds and they disarmed Rothar before leading him into the city, still aboard Stormbringer.

Chapter 2

Rothar entered the tent of Bakal once again. Days ago, he had come in disguise and interrupted the Chief’s debauchery. Countess women in various stages of undress had hung about the hulking devil.

Today, the scene was very different. The tent was lined with armed mercenaries, inside and out, and only one woman sat before the profane throne of Bakal.
Taria.

She did not move when Rothar entered, though she faced him fully. She looked at him without surprise, but with something like disappointment mixed with hope. She had prayed that he would not come and die trying to rescue her, yet had hoped that he would somehow take her away from this hell.

Rothar met her gaze with one of grim confidence, though his heart swelled with relief to see that she appeared unharmed. She was shackled at the wrists and ankles, chained to the legs of the throne, but she was whole… and alive.

Bakal sat on the throne of teak, leaning back, grinning demonically. He raised a foot and kicked Taria hard in the back. She grunted painfully and rolled forward onto her hands and knees. The Chief rested one heel on her back and then the other, crossing his ankles. Bakal looked comfortable. Rothar felt his blood beginning to boil, but maintained an air of calm determination.

“Rothar,” Bakal began, still smiling. “Do you know that I have never liked you, even as a child?” Bakal webbed his fingers and put them behind his head. “You probably did not think I remembered you, but I do. You were so wily for a northerner, I almost wanted to send you into the far desert with my own pups, to see if you might come back alive.”

The air inside the tent was still and stifling. Rothar blinked sweat away from his eyes.

“I would have come back alive, and alone,” Rothar said.

Bakal laughed without humor. “You very well may have, assassin,” he said. “You are a born killer, and you have only gotten better with time, I see.”

“Better than you, even,” Rothar replied.

Bakal’s eyebrows shot up and he laughed genuinely now. “Well now, Rothar! That is quite a thing to say!”

Bakal kicked Taria away. She tried to scuttle off, forgetting that she was shackled until she reached the end of the chains with a painful jerk.

The Chief rose to his feet and ceased laughing. “I am the greatest warrior the desert has ever borne,” he spoke loudly. “I have killed more men than you can count, and I will be sending men to their gods or their darkness long after you are dead.”

The hubris was exactly what Rothar had been hoping for. Bakal’s pride would be his undoing.

“That may be so, it surely may,” replied Rothar, calm and quiet, his tone measured as his eyes drilled into the Chief. “But you can surely not claim to be the greatest anything until you have killed me, for I have dispatched so many of the men that were modeled after you.”

The insult clearly found it’s mark. Bakal gritted his teeth and took a step forward, coming down off of the platform that held the throne.

“Fools and dead men are all alike,” he hissed at Rothar.

Rothar took a step towards Bakal and every mercenary in the tent tensed and reached for their sword. The simultaneous movement made a sound, and Bakal raised a hand to hold his men at bay.

“You know why I am here, Bakal, and you know that I will not leave without her.”

“With or without her, you were never going to leave this place alive,” answered Bakal.

“Very well. I challenge you to a duel, Bakal, Chief of the Sounthlanders.”

Bakal smiled again. This was obviously more than he had hoped for.

“Weapons?” he asked, his eyes alight with bloodlust.

“None for me,” replied Rothar. “You may arm yourself if it makes you more comfortable.”

A queer sound came from one end of the tent, a soldier had stifled a laugh. Bakal’s quick eye had found him before his slight smile could disappear. In an instant, Bakal was before the soldier, grasped the man’s head in his hands and twisted. The audible crack filled the tent and the mercenary fell dead to the ground.

Bakal turned fully around and glared at the rest of the men lining the walls of the tent. “Does anyone else find our guest to be entertaining?” he bellowed.

The tent was silent.

Rothar’s plan was coming together very nicely. Bakal was mad with pride, and now he was insulted, incensed. There was no way he could choose to fight with a weapon.

He turned towards Rothar. “Very well, assassin, are you prepared to meet your god?”

Rothar looked about. “Why? Is he here?”

Bakal turned as red as the desert cliffs. “To the arena!” he screamed. “And bring the girl!”

Chapter 3

The bonfire, always kept burning, roared in the middle of the arena as the two warriors prepared to do battle. Rothar removed his cloak, chain mail and shirt, leaving only his trousers and boots. Bakal, like all desert dwellers, was already clad in the same way.

The contingent of soldiers was joined by what seemed like all of Rama in a pressing crowd around the arena. Everyone wanted to know who the northerner was that was preparing to die at the hands of their Chief. When they noticed Taria chained at the edge of the ring, most of them figured it out.

Taria’s betrayal had been made very public, and while she had not been physically broken, she had been horribly abused. Bakal had ordered for her to be chained outside in public for three days following Rothar’s escape, and every devil in the village had passed by to shame her, mock her, spit on her and kick sand in her eyes.

Now, Bakal walked over to stand by her. He took up Taria’s chains in his hands and yanked her to her feet.

“Do you want to know why I left your treacherous wench in one piece, Rothar?” he shouted across the arena. “I did it so that in your last moment, just before the life leaves your eyes, you can watch me cut her limb from limb!”

Rage welled up in Rothar, but he held it below the surface. He learned long ago that anger is the enemy of a fighting man. This is why he sought to bring it out in Bakal.

“I will spare your blade, Bakal, and let you do the dying,” he called back to the Chief.

“Enough!” Bakal roared. “Begin!”

Rothar knew that, even in his rage, Bakal would not charge wildly at him. He also knew that a Southlander never waits to be attacked, so he waited patiently for the Chief to make the first move.

Circling to his left as his opponent moved to the right, Rothar let Bakal close the distance. When he was three paces away the Southlander dove forward with arms outstretched, but stopped short and leapt back. Rothar made no move, knowing that Bakal would feign an attack to try to get Rothar to reveal his defense.

The two continued to circle, and the crowd murmured excitedly. With an impossibly quick motion, the Chief lunged forward again. Rothar sidestepped and threw out his left elbow, connecting with the side of Bakal’s head.

The devil grunted but was unfazed and steadied himself instantly. When the Chief attacked again, Rothar did not move aside. Bakal anticipated that Rothar would evade his lunge and veered slightly to one side. Rothar met him with a knee to the face.

The crowd gasped as their Chief jumped back, blood streaming from his nose. Bakal glared ahead, but Rothar was already behind him. With a tremendous downward blow, Rothar hammered his arm into the middle of the man’s back. Bakal bellowed and wheeled around, lashing out with a powerful forearm that caught Rothar squarely in the jaw.

The blow knocked Rothar off his feet and he landed on the packed sand with a thud. He instantly rolled to his back and lifted his bent legs, straightening them quickly into the air. The momentum lifted his torso off the ground and he landed on his feet, facing Bakal.

The Southlander was charging again, and Rothar kicked him in the chest. Bakal made a wheezing sound as the air was forced from his lungs, but he held fast to Rothar’s boot and twisted hard, trying to break his leg.

Rothar turned with the motion, corkscrewing in mid air and landing again on his back with the Chief bearing down on him. Rolling to escape, Rothar felt Bakal’s powerful arms wrap around his neck and a knee press down on his back.

Furious with himself for giving up his back, Rothar struggled against the iron grip of the legendary warrior. He felt around until he found the Chief’s fingers, locked together behind his head. One by one, Rothar pried Bakal’s fingers up as the light at the edges of his vision began to fade. Just when he thought he may lose consciousness, he felt Bakal’s grip begin to slip and he wrenched with all of his strength against the Chief’s hands.

He broke free and gulped air into his lungs as he slithered out from beneath the massive adversary, putting some distance between himself and Bakal. A wind had begun to rise and clouds of sand billowed across the arena.

Bakal stood ready to attack again, sand sticking to the sweat on his scarred chest. Rothar would not give him the opportunity to strike. He knew it was time to go on the offensive. He began to charge forward, just as Bakal had, with arms outstretched like a bear. The Chief prepared to meet the attack, but at the last instant, Rothar dropped to the ground and kicked out with one booted foot, connecting with Bakal’s knee with a crack that echoed out into the desert.

The Southlander made scarcely more than a grunt, but his leg was bent backwards at the knee in a grotesquely unnatural shape. Rothar was already back on his feet and circling. Grimacing, Bakal turned to face him, when Rothar abruptly changed directions, Bakal’s knee buckled and the Chief nearly fell. In that instant, Rothar closed the distance between them and struck Bakal in the face with a fierce punch, followed by another, and another.

Bakal tried to backpedal, but his broken leg gave out and he crumbled to the ground, finally emitting a pained shout. His hand shot up in the air, palm out, but Rothar knew that no Southlander would ever surrender, the word was not in their vocabulary. Rothar broke the wrist of the extended hand with a swift motion.

The excited chatter of the crowd was becoming panicked, sweating onlookers stared in disbelief as their leader, whom they once thought immortal, was broken down one piece at a time.

Rothar stepped back from the shattered devil as a great crowd of sand swept over the arena, stinging his eyes. When the squall had passed, the Chief was no longer on the ground in front of him. Rothar spun, fearing an attack from behind, but Bakal was not there.

A woman’s frightened cry rang out from across the arena. Squinting through the licking flames and black smoke of the eternally burning bonfire, Rothar could see Taria’s face, staring at him in terror.

Bakal had Taria by her chains. Her arms were pulled behind her and her feet were barely touching the ground as he suspended her dangerously close to the roaring flames. Through the distortion of the heat waves, Rothar could see the bloodied beast smiling dementedly. Taria screamed again and Rothar sprinted forward, directly at the fire.

When he reached the blistering flames, Rothar leapt. His momentum carried him through the inferno and out the other side. He caught hold of one of Taria’s chains as he landed and wrenched her away from the flames, spinning her out of Bakal’s compromised grip. As Taria was flung to safety, her sweat-slicked and malnourished wrist slipped free from the manacle. Rothar let the free end of the chain continue to swing in an arc until it began to wrap around Bakal’s neck, then he jerked it tight.

The agreement was no weapons, but Bakal had changed the rules when he brought Taria into the arena. With the Chief on the end of the chain like a dog, Rothar began to haul the hobbling warrior into the blazing fire. Some observers began to scream and shout, women cried, mothers covered the eyes of their children, but no Southlander stepped into the arena as their fearless leader was dragged, bellowing and cursing, into the fire that always burned.

BOOK: Assassin's Shadow (Veiled Dagger Book 2)
4.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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