Authors: Ben Galley
A moment passed, filled with nothing, nothing but the rain and the storm. Farden stepped back, leaving the axe embedded in the tree. He pulled a grim face.
The coach would be on him any moment. Farden pushed on the tree. Nothing. Not even a creak. He tugged on the axe, but the blade had bitten deep, and refused to budge.
, he told himself. There was nothing else for it. Farden took a step back, grit his teeth, and aimed a wild kick at the handle of the axe. There was a resounding crack as his boot collided with the axe, forcing it deeper. Farden had to keep from clapping as the tree whined a slow, sad whine and slowly but surely, began to topple. It was just in time.
A team of four tired-looking brown cows emerged out of the rainy haze, a faded purple coach close behind them. The cows pulled in pairs; each wearing a thick collar with curved hames around their thick necks, to which the traces of the coach were harnessed. The patchwork beasts were soaked to the bone. Steam billowed from their grimy noses. They plodded along sullenly, paying almost no attention to the impatient coachman and skinny footman that sat behind them on the narrow box at the front of the coach. They were dressed in the bright yellow and purple livery of the Maudlow Duchy, or to be exact, the livery of Maudlow’s rather extravagant and flamboyant son. The coat of arms emblazoned on their chest was a tree wrapped in a ribbon, a large, stylised
held in its branches.
The two men on the box looked half asleep, heads and eyes drooped, hands limply hanging onto the reins. They probably would have been asleep, had it not been for the rain. They soon came awake when they spied the toppling tree in their path. Their sleepy expressions turned to ones of exasperated horror. The coachman leapt to his feet, thrashing the cows with his coach-whip, yelling for them to stop. The footman was shouting too, nervously tugging at the coachman’s tunic. For a brief moment, Farden thought the cows would refuse to stop, and plod straight into the shadow of the falling tree. Thankfully, they were only tired, not stupid. The docile animals saw the tree just in time and instantly dug their hooves into the road. They lowed fearfully as the rotten pine crashed to the ground barely a foot from their steaming noses, showering them in moss, mud, and splinters. The two men hopped down from the coach, noticeably relieved. Farden wondered blithely if the skinny footman had soiled himself. He had that look of nervous guilt about him, clinging to one of the wheels, wringing his hands. The coachman was in no such mood to dawdle. He marched across the wet cobbles to confront the tree blocking their path. In a moment of utter fury, he began to flay it with his coach-whip.
Farden quickly ducked back into the thick bracken and reached for the longbow that was strapped alongside the quiver on his shoulder. He pulled it loose and unravelled the waxed catgut bowstring from his pocket. It took him three grunting attempts, but he finally managed to string the stiff bow. He plucked at it to test its tautness, making it hum, like a one-stringed harp. Satisfied, the mage snatched two arrows from the quiver and ran his fingers through their bright green feathers to remove the beads of rain. Farden notched one on the bowstring and the other he pinched between his teeth, tasting the beeswax and the aromatic tang of the cedar arrowshaft on the tip of his tongue. He knelt to the wet earth and rested the bow sideways on his lap, ready, waiting. The mage watched, a cold smile on his cold lips, as the infuriated coachman continued to thrash the pine tree with his whip, berating it. Then, for some reason known only to himself, in a moment of pure and senseless desperation, he tossed the whip aside and began to grapple with the wet and muddy bark like a fumbling wrestler, trying to shove the pine tree out of the way. Needless to say, the old tree didn’t move an inch, and the man ended up slipping and falling to his face in the wet mud. He got to his feet and brushed the filth from his livery, his breathing a little on the heavy side. He thumped his fist against the tree. ‘Bah! By Jötun’s balls!’ he could be heard yelling. ‘Just when you thought nothing else can go wrong!’ he shouted over the pitter-patter of the rain, a pitter-patter that was growing heavier and louder by the minute.
‘I better go talk to his lordship,’ ventured the jittery footman, still a little bewildered by the spectacle of desperation he had just witnessed. He was hopping nervously from one foot to the other. Perhaps he had soiled himself.
‘That you’d better, before he has us both flogged right here on this very road! We’re already an hour late,’ hissed his comrade.
The skinny footman shuddered. He went to the door and tapped timidly on its faded paint. There was a moment before anybody answered. The footman’s knuckles hovered in the air, debating whether to knock again. Deep in the bracken at the side of the road, wet fingers curled eagerly around a bowstring.
The door cracked open, no more than an inch, and the footman bowed, narrowly missing banging his head on the door handle in the process. A shrill voice, slippery and slurred with wine could be heard now. ‘What’s the problem now? Why have we stopped?’ it demanded.
‘M’lord,’ burbled the footman, a nervous babble. ‘A tree has fallen across the road. An old rotten thing. We…’
A velvet-gloved hand shooed the man away from the door. Barely fifty yards away, an arrowhead, blackened with soot, touched its barbs to the neck of a longbow. ‘Well, fetch the axe and get cutting, servant, before I am made any later than I already am! Lady Gavitt will have my guts for her stockings if I miss her banquet!’
The door slammed, and the arrow relaxed. Farden cursed below his breath. He needed a clear shot. He couldn’t give his prey the slimmest chance of escape. The gloomy afternoon and drizzling rain was perfect for hiding and sneaking, but that also went both ways, should prey manage to bolt. Farden didn’t fancy spending the night prowling through the damp and dreary forest, looking for a Duke’s son to skin. He squinted at the door of the coach, hoping to spy a target, but the glass was fogged and speckled with rain and mud, and the lace curtain behind it obscured everything else. Farden began to edge sideways through the bracken.
The footman hopped up onto the box of the coach and rummaged through the chest that was hiding beneath their narrow seat. He quickly produced an axe and waved to the coachman, who was now sat on the tree, arms crossed and face as gloomy as the sky. The front two cows were now lying down, sneaking a moment or two of rest. He was currently engaged in a staring contest with one of them.
‘Hoy!’ called the footman as he splashed through the puddles towards his colleague.
The coachman looked up. ‘What’s that for?’
‘It’s an axe. What do you suppose it’s for?’
The coachman snatched it from the skinny man’s hands and tested its blade. He rolled his eyes. ‘Well, you make a start, and I’ll finish it off. I need to feed these lazy creatures, or we’ll never get to Gavitt’s shindig. I, for one, have a young and willing kitchen maid waiting for me at Gavitt’s mansion, and I don’t intend to let her spend the night alone, or with another coachman, for that matter. Now, get chopping,’ he said, handing the axe back to the footman. He got up, stretched, and sauntered back to the coach, muttering something dark and dangerous to himself.
Farden waited for the wet thump of a dull axe biting into wood, and then let his arrow fly on the second. He timed it near perfect; the green-fletched arrow leapt from the bowstring and buried itself in the coachman’s head just as the axe fell for the second time, masking the sharp crack of an arrow punching through skull. The man slumped to the ground like a sack of rocks, quietly enough not to alert the attention of the footman, who had barely made a dent in the tough bark of the fallen pine. Farden put him out of his misery with an arrow to the neck. The cows lowed, confused, as the footman folded limply over the tree, gargling blood. The puddles around their hooves began to turn a shade of muddy crimson.
Farden held his breath, waiting for a slam of doors or a shout or a scream, but nothing came. The mage slunk forward, sliding gently through the mud and moss until he was slightly behind the purple coach, still hidden by the bracken. There was a window on the back of it. It too was smeared with road-mud and rain. The white lace curtain behind it was still.
The mage slipped another arrow from his quiver and onto the longbow. With a sniff and a crack of his knuckles, he sidled onto the road, hoping the people inside were too busy quaffing wine and chortling amongst themselves to notice a hooded figure in the rain. There was a flash of sheet lightning, so quick it made the eyes wonder if they had blinked, and then thunder followed, making the air and the wet forest tremble. Rain drummed on the mage’s clothes and splashed in the puddles around his furtive boots. He crouched to the cobbles, just beneath the back window. He could hear a thudding from inside, and the cackles of laughter. Tobacco smoke, fragrant with cloves and thick like the prying fingers of sea-fog, leaked from the seam of the coach’s door, to be harangued and perforated by the heavy rain. Holding his bow with one hand, Farden loosened the long knife at his belt, shuffled forward, and then pounced.
Farden wrenched the coach door open with his free hand and then fired at the first thing that he clapped eyes on. The woman screamed as the arrow pinned her to the velvet cushion she lay against, making the others crammed into the hot, sweaty coach freeze, horror on their faces. Two men with long hair and wine on their lips, half-naked from the waist down and fully in the midst of groping each other, began to yell and scream. They fought each other to the other door and away from the steel-eyed attacker standing in the rain. They didn’t get far.
Farden let two more arrows fly from his bow. More blood painted the cushions. The remaining occupants, a woman and an extravagantly-dressed man with a sizeable paunch tried to hide themselves under their coats. The man pushed the woman in front of him, desperately trying to find the dagger he had hidden in his boot. A pair of strong hands seized them by their flailing limbs and dragged them out, dumping them on the muddy cobbles. The woman was screaming and sobbing uncontrollably. Farden winced at the piercing sound. He pushed her against the wheel of the coach and waved the knife in her face.
‘Quiet!’ he yelled, and her screams died into a muted whimpering. She clutched her dress around her and rocked back and forth.
‘Thank you,’ Farden grunted, turning his attention to the pot-bellied man lying wheezing on the cobbles. A trickle of blood came from a cut on his forehead. The mage pressed the heel of his boot on the man’s throat and he squeaked, turning a shade of white. ‘That goes for you as well.’
‘What do you want?’ hissed the man. There was so much venom in his voice, Farden could almost taste it.
‘What is your name?’
‘And what should you want with my name?’
‘Wouldn’t want to kill the wrong person now, would I?’
The man turned even whiter. ‘My name is Truspin. If you’re after the Maudlow’s son, Havanth, then you’ve already killed him, murderer.’ The man raised a shaky hand and pointed at one of the half-naked men. ‘He was that one, there.’
Farden rubbed his chin, looking at the dead draped about the coach’s cabin. ‘Is that so?’ he asked. The man nodded as much as the mage’s boot would allow. Farden smiled down at him and waved his knife in a circle, assessing his velvet coat and its lace trimmings, the man’s wine and meat-fuelled paunch, the soft, manicured hands that had only ever seen hard work through a spyglass or a coach window, the embroidered
on his breast. The man blinked as the rain mercilessly pelted his face. Farden turned to the shaking woman. ‘Is it true?’
She shook her head once, a little twitch to save her skin. Farden smiled again. He pressed down with his boot and Havanth Maudlow, the Duke Maudlow’s one and only son, gasped. ‘You know, I’ve killed so many of you in the last few years I can barely count them all. Some were mere land owners, some were minor lords or ladies, maybe ambitious husbands or mad wives causing trouble. Some might have been the nephew or a cousin of a lord, leverage maybe, or revenge. Some were even the daughter, the sister, the brother, or son of a duke, just like you, Havanth.’ Farden pointed the knife at the man’s neck. ‘And you know what I’ve learnt about you? You’re all the same. From the land owner to the duke-to-be, you will all lie your tongues off at the end. Not a scrap of honesty and pride. You’ll say anything to squirm your way out from under my boot. I suppose it’s what makes you so easy to manipulate, so I’m told. Certainly makes me feel better about killing you.’
Havanth glared daggers at the mage. ‘Is that what your master tells you?’
Farden slammed the blade into the man’s chest, feeling the metal bite through the ribs and into the soft organs beneath. ‘I have no master,’ he lied.
Havanth’s mouth sagged open, his narrow eyes now very wide. He died quickly, silently. Farden left the knife in his chest. He would need it again in a moment. Behind him, the woman yelped and scrambled to her feet. Shoes kicked aside, she sprinted across the cobbles with tears and rain running down her face, whimpering still.
Farden sighed and turned to watch her clamber over the fallen tree.
Leave none alive. I don’t care who they are
, said the voice in his head, the very same voice that had delivered those orders a week ago. Farden bent down, retrieved his longbow, and took an arrow from his quiver. He took aim at the fleeing woman, shut his eyes and released the string. A few seconds later there was a wet slap and a scrape as a body hit the cobbles. The mage rubbed his eyes and took a breath.
He had killed so many he could barely count them all.
So many, and yet he could still remember every twang of every bowstring, every thud of an arrow in the spine, every swish of a blade, every crack of a spell, every yelp and every scream. That was how he remembered them. No names, just deaths.
What a cold way to count them
, thought the mage. He shrugged, and strapped his bow to his back again.