Authors: Chris A. Jackson
This one is for Anne
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About the Author
Novels by Chris A. Jackson
he stirred in the impenetrable darkness. Heavy links of chain clattered with her every movement, awakening her to the misery of the iron collar that chafed her neck, the sodden rag of a dress she wore and the fetid odor of old blood. Torchlight flickered through the cracks beneath the massive door to her cell, the faint rattle of iron keys snapping her attention from the bundle she clutched so tightly.
Was someone coming?
They visited twice a day with food and water, but she’d been fed only hours before. Perhaps they came with fresh clothes, or simply to clean her filthy cell. She longed for clean skirts, or even a blanket.
The clatter of a key in the lock stiffened her like the crack of a whip. Yes, someone was coming!
Hinges squealed in protest and torchlight blinded her, but the figure silhouetted in the open portal bore no food, no clothes and no water. It bore nothing save an iron-shod staff of crooked and gnarled wood. The shape of that staff struck a chord through the numbness of her suffering. She remembered it clearly. She remembered the one who bore it. And, worst of all, she remembered that day weeks ago when he stole her away from home, husband and family.
She opened her mouth to scream, to deny, to plead, but even that small act was stolen from her with a mumble of guttural syllables and a wave of his hand. She sat paralyzed, unable to move, speak or even blink as he strode forward and stole from her the only thing she had left. Prying her numb fingers away from the bundle of bloodied skirts she clutched to her breast, he lifted the protesting babe in one careful but unyielding hand. Another flow of words stilled the babe’s cries and the man, if man he was, smiled down at his prize.
“Perfect!” was the only word he uttered that she understood.
He turned and walked away, having taken the only thing she had that was of any value to him. As the door closed, and the light faded, never to return, the magic that held her waned, and her piteous wail rent the dank air of her cell. She lay sobbing and empty, forgotten by the creature that had stolen her baby boy.
n the forever midnight of a deep cavern the pat-pat of unshod feet echoed as a wiry boy of six sprinted unerringly along. His eyes glowed faintly in the darkness, the magic within him drawing in the surrounding heat that emanated from the very womb of the earth; it allowed him to see, after a fashion, even when those born to utter darkness were blind. He ran tirelessly through the darkness, unfeeling and uncaring, absorbed with the task of navigating the underground and seeking the goal he had been assigned.
A chasm opened before him, heat billowing from its depths, brightening his vision. Without slowing his pace, he gauged the gap and chose which points of stone he would use to launch himself across. Without pause, for fear was unknown to his mind, he leapt to the sheer wall, bounding off a tiny crag of stone in a spinning flip that brought him to the other side. He landed in a roll that brought him to his feet at a run. The cavern continued on, twisting and turning as if wrought by the passing of a great worm. And though miles had passed under his feet, his pace did not slow.
Finally the place he had been told to seek loomed out of the darkness. The cavern ended in a steep shaft, the thick, acrid scents of sweat, rotting food and excrement wafting up to assail his sensitive nostrils. Ears that could hear the heartbeat of a mouse picked out the clink of chains, the grinding of bone between teeth, and the restless click-clack of iron-shod feet pacing on stone.
Briefly, the boy gauged the steep incline of the shaft. It was too wide for his arms to stretch across in any attempt to slow his descent, but a solution clicked into his mind, even as he dived into the blackness. His bounding roll alternated in skidding contact with ceiling and floor, slowing his plummeting descent minutely with each impact. As a result, when he tumbled into the room at the shaft’s end, he had only scrapes and bruises.
Battered and disoriented from the tumultuous descent, he still rolled to his feet, squinting at the glaring torchlight and taking in his new surroundings at a glance. The room was hewn out of living rock, a perfect half-sphere, the walls set at intervals with iron rings and manacles. Only two of the sets of restraints were occupied, and the two slavering orcs glared at the intrusion into their captivity. Their disgruntlement was only brief, however, for with the boy’s arrival their manacles clicked open, and fell from their chafed wrists.
The boy stood poised, his breath coming in deep, readying gasps, for he knew his task was not at an end. He knew this type of foe, for he had faced them before. He knew they would attack, and he knew he must kill them. That was his purpose. That was the Master’s wish, and the only reason for his existence.
True to expectations, the two orcs scooped up their long, curved knives, formerly out of reach, and snarled in preparation. Their curved tusks clacked and gnashed in challenge. They grunted to one another words in their own crude language, words the boy did not know, yet could interpret readily enough by the obviously aggressive movements of his foes. They were fighting over him, over which would get to kill him. shurikin
He waited, analyzing their movements and attention, until they were paying much more interest to one another than to him. Then he moved.
The smaller one raised its knife in reflex, as he knew it would. His hands clamped around the thing’s meaty wrist, fingers digging into the nerves near the long bones, as he drove a kick into its throat. The knife dropped away, so he released his grip and let the choking creature fall, lunging for the weapon. But the second orc was already there, its huge hobnailed boot clamping down on the knife before the boy could scoop it up. He rolled out of its reach and regained his feet, then stopped to reassess the situation.
Everything had changed.
The two orcs were now talking in tones that suggested cooperation instead of competition. When the larger one finally handed back the other’s lost weapon, the boy knew he was in for the fight of his short life. He had never faced two before, let alone two who fought cooperatively. He readied himself, and lunged.
The small one was still his target; but until he could get a weapon, the boy would be woefully outmatched. The thing snatched its knife out of reach, but that was predictable enough, so when his tiny foot smashed into its knee with enough force to snap the joint, the boy gained the element of surprise. Its howl of pain shook the air, but ended in a strangled grasp as the boy’s claw-like fingers dug into its neck, collapsing the fragile bones around the trachea. As soon as the damage was dealt, he released the orc’s throat and tumbled away, evading his dying victim’s thrashing limbs.
Unfortunately, in his attempt to escape the creature’s grasp, he had also left its weapon behind. The other orc scooped it up even before its former ally’s dying throes had fully stilled. As the strangled gasps faded to silence, the boy faced the larger of his two opponents. The orc brandished its two curved knives with a snarl of confidence, stretching its features into a tusky grin of glee.
The boy stood and waited.
The attack would come, he knew.
Sometimes it is better to react than to act
. The words echoed in his mind, a memory of the countless hours he had spent under the Master’s care. Now he heeded those words, and waited.
Even before the creature attacked, he knew it would be a feint.
He dropped under the false attack, swept a foot to trip the creature, then twisted over the other knife which was meant to disembowel him. His hands clenched the huge wrist, thumbs digging in while he pulled it to close enough to bite. His teeth clamped onto the prominent tendons, snapping them like over-taut bowstrings. The dagger fell away and, even before he rolled to his feet, he was lunging for it. He did not see the backstroke of the other dagger as its pommel met firmly with his temple, darkening his vision and knocking him into a sprawling roll.
As he rolled to his feet, the boy realized he was in trouble. There was no pain; the magic prevented it. But he could not see clearly, and his balance was askew. His hearing and other senses were as acute as ever, and he reverted to them as if by a command of his absent Master’s voice:
If your senses flee, or choose to deceive you, do not trust them. Seek that which is true.
The scrape of an iron-shod boot on stone rang in his ears, and he dodged away from the lunge that he knew it accompanied. Air whisked past his cheek, and he reached out to grasp the arm that bore the knife that would have taken his life. Fingers pressed into the pressure points, and he heard the howl of pain, then the dagger hitting the floor. He let the weapon go, knowing he could not find it with his vision so awry.
The large artery in the pit of the arm will bleed freely if severed, weakening your opponent quickly.
He heeded the words in his mind, plunging his teeth into the noisome armpit and clamping them around the pulsing artery and the nerves surrounding it. Claws raked his back, and the beast thrashed to pull its assailant free. Warm saltiness gushed over his face as he was torn free by his own momentum. Once again he rolled to his feet, but this time he knew he had won.
His vision cleared to reveal his lone opponent, one hand clamped onto the wound in a vain attempt to staunch the pulsing flow of blood that gushed from the pit of its arm. The orc was bleeding to death, unable to stop the red spray that painted its side and the floor at its feet. He had won, all he had to do was wait for the thing to die.
It collapsed to the floor in its own puddle of gore after trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood. The boy watched patiently, unfeeling, as that crimson pool spread to eventually wet his toes, and the creature finally stopped twitching. His eyes left his victim as the hidden door finally opened.
“Your first attack was clumsy,” the Master said without preamble, waving the other servants forward to take away the dead orcs. “The first blow should have been a killing stroke, but was ill-timed and weak. Focus is the key when surprise is your ally.
“Yes, Master,” he said, as he committed the phrase to memory.
“You did not assess your second opponent’s reaction to the failed attack, and gave away the weapon you attempted to attain. Predicting your opponent’s reaction is essential to survival.
“You spend too much effort in trying to attain your opponents’ weapons. This is dangerous, and can prove distracting from your goal. What is your goal?”
“My goal is to kill my opponent, before he can kill me, Master.”
“Yes! So, do not endanger yourself in attempts to get your hands on a weapon. You
“Good.” The Master fished something out of one of the pockets of his robes and handed it to the boy. “Here. Eat.”
The boy snatched the piece of dried jerky and devoured it instantly, the saltiness of the meat mingling with the pungent tang of the orc blood that smeared his lips.
“Now, follow me.” The Master’s words were more than a simple command, they wound themselves around the very core of the boy’s will, and forced him to comply. The magic impelled him to obey. Serving the Master was his only purpose; that and to kill when the Master bade him. He followed the Master through the keep’s winding passages until he finally recognized his surroundings. A few moments later he knew their destination, and relaxed. They were going to the needle room.
“Clean yourself, then lie upon the table and hold still,” the Master commanded, turning to his pots and bowls as the boy complied. After a quick sponge bath from the bucket of cold water, the boy removed the filthy cloth that girded his skinny loins and climbed onto the thick stone table. He lay utterly still as the dyes were mixed, heated, ground, and infused with the magic that would, in turn, infuse him. Then the Master drew out the needles, dipped the first into the glowing dye and began the tattooing, a process the boy had endured every day of his short life. The magic prevented any pain; all he felt was the press of the needle as the ink seeped into his skin and vanished, and the tingle of magic as it flowed into the core of his being.
It was the magic that made him strong, the magic that made him fast and it was the magic that made him follow the Master’s orders. The Master had never told him all the things the magic did, or why. It was not in the boy to question, but he did wonder what purpose his magic and his life would serve.
Hours later, when the Master had finished and was near exhaustion, he sent the boy to his room, a tiny nook that adjoined the Master’s laboratory. The boy sat on the narrow straw pallet and listened to the only man he had ever known as the dyes were put away, the mortars and pestles cleaned and stored. He wondered what the Master wanted of him, what his next command would be. He did not sleep, because he had not been ordered to, but sat and listened to all the sounds of his environment, all the clicks and groans of Krakengul Keep that he had listened to every day of his life. He sat and wondered what or whom he would kill next when the morning came.
ingers scrabbled for purchase upon the rain-slicked stone, finding none. The boy shifted his stance, moving his feet upon the tiny ledge that supported him a thousand feet above the rocky shore of the Bitter Sea. Rain lashed at his back as the wind tried to peel him away from the cliff face. He clung tightly and stretched his twelve-year-old frame, feeling for his next handhold. His fingers met a narrow crack; he jammed them in and twisted, testing the hold before committing his weight to it. It held, so he lifted his weight easily with the three-fingered purchase and held himself up until his other hand found a similar grip further up the crack.
Thus he ascended the cliff another thousand feet before he reached the plateau. He heaved himself up, quickly assessing the damage to his hands and feet. One finger was bent unnaturally, so he straightened it with a crunch. The other scrapes, cuts and bruises were already healed. Clearing the rain from his eyes, he could see Krakengul Keep only a mile or so to his left. The Bitter Sea lay behind him, whipped into waves by the storm and stretching beyond the limits of his sight. Before him, the plateau sloped down and, miles into the distance, through the slackening rain, he could see the edge of the forest. Beyond that, faint lights flickered among the trees. He wondered briefly what those lights were -- fires perhaps? Orcs? Or elves or men, maybe? A distant horn call touched his ears, and he dashed off immediately for the keep, banishing his curiosity.
Entering the outer courtyard, the boy was greeted by an unusual sight. Five horses stood there, heads bowed against the rain, their reins looped loosely over the hitching post. All bore harnesses and saddles, and one was garbed in light chain barding with ornate tooling in the leather. They towered above him as he walked past, their plate-sized hooves clack-clacking nervously on the flagstones. A servant exited the keep and approached the horses, glancing at the boy in passing. He took the reins of two of the mounts and led them to the stables. Apparently, whoever owned these horses would be staying for a while. The boy ascended the steps eagerly, curiosity once again tickling at the back of his mind.
He did not have long to wonder who these visitors were. As he entered the great hall he beheld the Master and five tall figures standing around the long table nearest the cavernous fireplace. All the newcomers bore weapons -- bows, swords, knives, and many other types he had never seen before. They stood like warriors, too, for as they all turned to watch him approach he could see the balance and strength in their movements. The Master bade him come closer, and he felt the scrutiny of the five.
“This is Master Xhang,” the Master informed him, gesturing toward one of the five. “He and his assistants will be teaching you the use of weapons, and the proper defenses against them. You will not kill them.”
“Yes, Master,” he responded, noting the light chuckle from one of the tall figures. The sound was unfamiliar, strumming cords of curiosity in his mind and tensing his muscles.
The one called Master Xhang also noted the chuckle, and snapped a curt order to the man in a language that the boy did not understand. He understood well enough, however, when the one who had laughed unclasped his heavy cloak, stood his longbow against a chair and drew a long, curved sword. The boy’s mind clicked with a possible correlation: Perhaps laughter was a prelude to combat.
“This is Cho Thang. He is skilled in the use of the Katana, which you will learn presently. Now, defend yourself.”
The boy moved away from the group immediately, sidestepping into the open area between the long tables, while keeping his eyes on the tall warrior’s sword. He noted the man’s movements, finding no flaw or obvious weakness. He stopped and waited, assessing his situation. The man was much taller than he, and the sword gave him even longer reach. He also bore another short sword at his hip, curved like the one he wielded, and a small dagger. These the boy could use, if he could get his hands on them, which was not likely, and he had the distinct disadvantage of being told not to kill the man. Well, there was not much he could do but wait for the attack, so the boy prepared himself and settled into the focused relaxation that readied him for any opportunity.
The series of attacks came in a flurry so quick and precise that the boy barely evaded the killing strokes, and received two shallow cuts on his shoulder and stomach. He had not been able to penetrate the man’s guard in the slightest, his grasping fingers and lashing feet meeting only air. The two paused for a moment, assessing one another anew. The man’s features showed slight surprise at the boy’s quickness, and his narrow eyes widened as the shallow cuts he’d inflicted closed and vanished without a trace. The boy showed nothing, but his mind was working full speed. This was no orc or bandit that he could easily outwit and outfight; this was a trained warrior, and all he could hope for was to stay alive, and exploit any openings that presented themselves.
The next flurry of attacks was longer and even more furious. The boy’s hands and feet slapped aside killing strokes more than a dozen times before one cut finally passed his guard, slicing deeply into the muscle of his chest.
Both combatants froze at the Master’s command, the boy because it was ingrained in his soul to do so and the warrior because he was simply trained to obey. Both stood poised as the Master and the other warriors approached; the steady pat-pat of blood dripping from the boy’s heaving chest was loud to his ears. The wound was closing, but he had lost a good amount of blood and felt its loss in the slight weakness in his limbs.
“Master Xhang, your assessment.”
“The boy is quick, and trained well for his age, but lacks focus and knowledge of combat. He missed several opportunities to grasp Cho Thang’s sword and exploit the opportunities that this would have presented.” His eyes raked the boy from head to foot, a thin smile tugging at the corners of his long moustache. “I believe he was holding back, constrained by the order not to kill, and your additional order to defend himself. His tactics were primarily those of survival, not aggression. We must break him of this flaw.”
“I give you one year to do so, minus one hour per day during which I require his presence in my laboratory. At the end of that year, you will receive your payment.”
“Very well,” Master Xhang agreed with a bow, then a sidelong glance at his apprentice Cho Thang. “But may I suggest that you rescind your order for the boy not to use lethal force. He will learn nothing by holding back.”
“Your men will be at risk, Master Xhang. I will not be responsible for their welfare if I rescind that order.”
“I will not hold you responsible for their welfare. We are warriors after all. Risk is our life, and I would not have my men become soft with a year of sitting on their backsides risking nothing worse than a bruise or two.” He snapped a short phrase to Cho Thang, who cleaned his sword on a cloth from his belt and sheathed it, bowing low to his master and then to the boy.
“Rescind the order,” Xhang said with a nod and another thin smile.
“Very well,” said the Master, facing the boy. “You will be training with Master Xhang and his men for one year, beginning today. You will fight each of them many times. You will fight as you are taught to fight, and will kill if the opportunity presents itself, but only when the order to fight has been given by Master Xhang or myself.”
“Good.” The Master turned to Xhang and said, “He is yours for one year. At the end of that year I will assess his training. If any of you survive, you will receive the agreed upon sum.”
“Very well.” He spoke to his men at length, received nods of obedience from each, then bowed to the Master. “It is agreed.” His narrow eyes snapped to the boy. “Go and clean yourself, eat your fill and return here in one hour.”
The boy simply looked at the Master questioningly; having never received an order from anyone else, he did not know if he should obey.
“You will follow Master Xhang’s orders. Go.”
He sprinted out of the room, heading for the baths. He had never had a whole hour to eat and bathe before and intended to make the most of it!
One year later, six figures stood in the great hall of Krakengul Keep; four warriors stood at rigid attention, the boy stood also at attention, a stance he had learned from his trainer. The Master stood at ease, a thin smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Cho Thang was missing the last joint of the two smallest fingers of his left hand, and bore a wide scar from his left ear to the nape of his neck. The other warriors also bore marks and scars; even Master Xhang had felt steel part his flesh under the boy’s hand. One of the warriors was dead. The Master looked upon the boy with a scrutinous eye. He’d spent an hour every day reinforcing the magic that had forged the boy into a weapon, but until now he had not noticed the added height, broader frame and surer stance. His pupil had learned the use of every weapon the warriors bore, and how to defend against each, both with weapons and without, just as Xhang had promised.
“You have performed admirably, Master Xhang, and your payment awaits you.” He nodded to two servants who entered the room bearing a heavy coffer.
“You have kept your end of the bargain, and my men have also learned a great deal in this last year.” Xhang bowed deeply to the Master, and then again to the boy. “Your pupil is skilled. He will serve you well.”
With that the four surviving warriors turned and left, taking their well-earned pay with them. The Master simply watched them go, a faint smile on his lips. The boy stood stock still before him, awaiting his next order, firm and confident in his newly acquired skills. When the outer door boomed closed, and the sound of hoof beats dwindled to silence, the Master finally turned to his pupil.
“Your next instructor will train you in the skills of stealth and intrusion. You will not kill him, for his expertise is in evasion and the art of silence, not combat.” He nodded once, a gesture that the boy found strange, until the light tap on his shoulder from behind.
The boy leapt like a cat standing on hot coals, clearing the Master’s head by a foot and landing in a dodging roll. He had heard nothing, smelled nothing and felt nothing until the finger tapped his shoulder! It could have easily been a knife, and could have severed his spine! The last year had taught him skills with weapons, and to be confident in his abilities. The last two seconds had taught him that all his skills were useless if he were not aware of an enemy.
The diminutive man who had been standing behind him was chuckling with amusement, twirling a dagger in his left hand and smoothing his immaculate goatee with the other. He wore dark leathers, supple with use; many pockets and pouches dangled from his belt. A number of tools rode in specialized sheaths sewn into the thighs of his trousers. When the man’s mirth subsided, the Master continued.
“This is Master Votris. You will learn from him all that he can teach you of stealth and intrusion. Follow his instructions.”
“Yes, Master.” The boy regained his composure and approached his new instructor.
“He’s as clumsy as a three-legged ox,” the man said flatly, shaking his head. “But he’s quick, and agile enough. We will see what he can learn.”
“You have one year. He will report to my laboratory for one hour every day at sunset. The rest of his time belongs to you.” The Master turned his back and walked away.
“Humph,” Votris scoffed, eying the boy critically. “Well, the first thing, I suppose, is to teach you how to stand without fidgeting like a stallion with a mare in his sights.”
He moved to the boy’s side, and it was like watching a ghost. He walked with such grace and fluidity that the boy thought his mind was playing tricks on him. Not a scuff of leather on stone, no squeak of buckle, nor brush of cloth could be heard, even by the boy’s enhanced ears. He realized that he had much to learn in the next year.
he boy’s feet padded through the patch of loose shale without disturbing a single stone. Rain pelted him, slicking every surface, but each time his foot landed, his step was sure and silent. When the shale gave way to sandy soil he ran on, just as he had for the last ten miles, as he had for every morning of the last year. Each day he ran a new course, and nowhere on the plateau was there a single footprint to mark his passage. His trainers had taught him well.
His age was now somewhere in the middle of his sixteenth year, though he would not have known it if asked. He was still slim, but muscle rippled under his well-tanned skin, and his height was that of most men, though he would not have been called tall by anyone but a dwarf. The last two years had added discipline and focus to the previous training. One instructor had been a defrocked monk of some distant and obscure order, and had taught him the value of focusing his body’s energy. His last instructor had taught mental discipline, and the importance of a still and ordered mind. But all of his trainers, however varied in their abilities and strengths, taught him to apply their teachings for only one purpose: To kill.
He had learned his lessons well.
The boy now knew more techniques of killing than he knew names to describe them. Yet every day, for one hour after sunset, he lay on the Master’s table in the needle room and the ink vanished into his skin. The magic was part of him now; it would never fade, would never diminish. He was one with it. He could not always feel the power within him, but power there was, he knew, for he saw in the eyes of his trainers their astonishment at the feats he could accomplish.
But today was different.
Yesterday, his last trainer had departed, so today he was expecting a new one. He was not particularly surprised when he entered the courtyard of the keep to find a stout, two-wheeled cart attached to a pair of sturdy horses. What puzzled him was that the servants were putting baggage into the cart, not taking it out. Bedrolls, food and equipment were being piled in carefully and lashed down. He had never been in the stables, so he did not know that this cart belonged to the Master.
He stilled his curiosity as he’d been taught and entered the keep, prepared for anything, or so he thought.
“There you are!” The Master snatched him aside as soon as he entered the great hall, now in much disarray with scurrying servants. “Here,” he snapped, handing the boy an armful of soft clothing. “Clean yourself, then put these on. Return as quickly as you are able. Go.”
“Yes Master,” he said, scurrying off to the baths, unsure of the command, yet forced to comply by the magic that coursed through his veins. He placed the strange cloth on a chair in the bathing room and quickly stripped out of his loincloth. Soap and water was applied judiciously, though he was again unsure why he would need to bathe after only a ten-mile run in the rain. But bathe he did, and thoroughly; he could
The real dilemma was the Master’s order to put on the clothing he’d been given. He’d seen others wearing such things, and these were not any different than what the servants wore, but he’d never worn pants or a tunic, and he’d never watched anyone dress. It took him a while. He put the pants on back-to-front once and struggled briefly with the tunic, unsure of the lacings, which he eventually decided to leave hanging loose. The cloth belt he wrapped double around his waist and cinched tightly in a knot he knew would not slip. The last he did as he sprinted back to the great hall, which was now slightly less chaotic, thought still strange.
Every servant he had ever seen in the keep stood in a straight row, all facing the hall’s entrance, and all fidgeting nervously. Something was definitely amiss!
The boy stilled his mind and took his place, exactly where the Master bade him return to, for he could do naught else. He stood and waited, enduring the itching clothing, calming his hammering heart and stilling his tumultuous thoughts.
“Good!” The Master’s bellow echoed through the hall, surprising everyone except the boy. Now the Master approached him and his face changed. It stretched into a smile, something the boy had never seen. His eyes raked the boy from toe to brow, and his staff rapped the floor smartly. “Very good! We are ready to leave.”
“Leave, Master?” The boy did not understand; leaving was something other people did. The trainers, the people who brought food and other things, they left. How could the Master leave? How could
leave? He had been here in the keep, on the plateau, his entire life. Where else was there? His agile mind briefly flashed with memories of lights in the distant forest. Maybe they would go there.
“Yes, boy, it is time to leave. Your training is complete, as are the spells I have woven into your flesh. It is time to fulfill your destiny.”
“Yes. Now, go stand by the cart and wait for me.”
“Yes, Master.” The boy sprinted out of the great hall and stood by the sturdy two-wheeled cart, questions whirling around his mind like leaves on the wind. What was a
? He’d heard the word before, of course, but never really understood its meaning. If they had to leave for him to fulfill his, perhaps it meant something people did when they left. If the Master was leaving with him, would they find the Master’s destiny as well? He forced the questions down, knowing that he would not get answers to them until the answers presented themselves. Two cleansing breaths brought calm, and shifted his mind into the enforced quiescence of a light meditation.
He took in his surroundings -- the keep, the courtyard, the sights, sounds and smells that he had known throughout his short life. The thought that he would not ever see any of it again came to him, and he mulled it over, finding the concept difficult to grasp. He could find no remorse in leaving his lifelong home, though he may not have been capable of such an emotion. He had no desire to leave, and he had no desire to stay. His desires had never been a significant issue in his creation, so he did not consider them. All he considered was what lay beyond the plateau, what they might encounter and what his destiny would hold. For curiosity was an emotion inseparable from every human psyche. The Master had deemed it necessary for survival, and it had not been suppressed by the magic like many of his other emotions. The magic had not taken everything human away from him; not quite.
The groan of bronze hinges stirred the boy from his calming meditation; the Master stood at the great doors of the keep, drawing them closed with a dull boom of finality. Then his hands moved in graceful arcs, and words that the boy could not understand pulsed through the air with power. When the words ended, a subsonic tremor shook the castle to its very foundations, and a fine spiderweb of white light traced every seam in wood, metal, glass and stone. The Master turned and descended the steps to the courtyard, dusting his spotless hands upon his robes.
“There we are, safe and sound.”
This did not make sense to the boy, but his comprehension was not required, only his obedience. The Master climbed into the seat of the wagon and released the creaky brake, and then turned to his silent minion.
“We are going on a journey. At the end of that journey your destiny awaits. You will walk beside the wagon and remain wary, for the world beyond the plateau is dangerous. If there is trouble upon our path, you will use all the skills you have been taught to combat it. Is that clear?”
“Yes Master,” the boy said, tensing and relaxing muscles in the rhythmic patterns that brought him to a state of calm preparedness.
The whip cracked over the backs of the two stout horses, and the wagon lurched forward. The boy followed without a word, too many unanswered questions whirling in his mind as he walked away from the only home he had ever known.
In the city of Twailin a tower rose in the midst of a grand estate. It loomed above the tile roofs and ornate balconies of the homes of the richest nobles and merchants that populated Barleycorn Heights. But the master of that estate, while more wealthy than the vast majority of his neighbors, was not a highborn noble or a merchant, as many thought; at least not in any commodity that anyone wanted for their own.
The master of the estate stood upon his tower this evening, looking down on his wealthy neighbors, disdainfully. His name was Saliez, though none of his associates used that name. They called him only “Grandfather,” though he had sired no children, nor taken any under his care. He was the Grandfather of Assassins, the headmaster of their guild, a merchant in death. Terror and killing were the only commodities in which he dealt.
Business was good.
Business was so good, in fact, that not a facet of commerce, government or graft within the city of Twailin was beyond his grasp. He wielded more power than that sniveling Duke Mir, sitting so smugly in his walled keep, high on the bluff that overlooked the city, and surely garnered more respect from his guild members. Why, not even the city constabulary, half of whom were on the Grandfather’s payroll, respected that doddering old fool. Only the Royal Guard remained steadfastly loyal to Duke Mir, but he had spies aplenty among them. They were no threat.
The Grandfather’s minions, the entire Guild of Assassins, respected him utterly. They had learned to respect him. They had learned that disrespect resulted in death, or worse. And there
worse. They had all witnessed worse first hand. They had witnessed it from the Grandfather’s own hand, for he was not only their guildmaster, he was their foremost practitioner.
But this night, despite the distain he expressed toward his highborn neighbors, the Grandfather of Assassins was elated. He had come to this, the highest point in all the city save for the spires of the Duke’s Palace, not to gaze down at those who were nothing but contracts or clients to him, but to take delivery of a message that his eyrie-master had just received. He held that message now in his triumphantly clenched fist, for his life was soon to become much easier, and his business tenfold as lucrative. The message he clenched so tightly bore only two lines, lines that only his eye would ever read and understand. He flattened the crumpled parchment once again, though he had read it many times already.
Your weapon is ready.
I will arrive with it in seven days.
~ Corillian ~
“Arrogant bastard,” he muttered under his breath, crumpling the parchment again. “Sixteen years, and he makes me wait another week! Ha!”
He turned and stalked back into the tower, casting the crumpled note into one of the glowing braziers that lit and warmed the eyrie. He could wait one more week. After all, he’d been waiting almost two decades for this. What was seven more days?
By the beginning of their third day on the road, the boy was beginning to think that the only true danger in the world beyond the plateau was boredom. They’d been plodding along at a pace that could be challenged by any tortoise in good health, and the most dangerous thing they’d encountered had been a nasty patch of poison sumac. Every night they ate their stew and he watched while the Master slept; then in the morning they would eat their porridge and the boy would pack their gear. The Master allowed the boy the few hours of sleep he required in the back of the wagon during the early part of their daily travels. He would wake him around mid-morning and order him to once again resume his plodding pace beside the wagon. The boy’s keen senses attended to their surroundings as the Master studied his books and scrolls, lounging in the driver’s seat.
The trip would have been endurable, even pleasant, if not for the boy’s nagging curiosity. So many questions rattled around inside his head that he began to be distracted by them.
Where were they going? How long would it take to get there? What was a Destiny, and was his different than anyone else’s?
He had even tried to ask the Master for some answers to these questions, but had just been told to be quiet and vigilant.
After three days, he was bored with being vigilant. Oh, he was still watching and listening as best he could; the spells of obedience required him to do exactly as he was told. Yet, while his eyes and ears were tuned finely to their surroundings, his mind wound through complex trails of thought, surmising this and imagining that, all concerning his destiny. It was undoubtedly the distraction of his own tumultuous thoughts that allowed him to be so caught unaware.
The snort of a horse snapped his attention back to his razor-sharp senses in a heartbeat, and he immediately knew that there were at least six people on horseback hidden in the brush on either side of the road. They were still a stone’s throw away, three on each side of the muddy track. The boy could hear their breath, their mounts shifting, the creak of leather on harness and belt, and the click of an arrow being nocked onto a bowstring. This did not bode well.
“Master,” he said in his usual calm tone.
“Yes, boy. What is it?”
“Men with horses and weapons are hidden on either side of the road fifty paces ahead.” He heard the rustle of paper and the thump of one of the Master’s books landing in the bed of the wagon.
“Well, now.” The Master’s voice held a waiver of interest, perhaps anticipation. “Well, well, then. Keep walking boy, but be ready. They mean to rob us, and we will have to kill them.”
“Yes Master.” Some of the Master’s words were unfamiliar, but the last were clear enough. The boy relaxed, slipping into the pre-fight meditation that prepared his body and mind. He catalogued his opponents, their number (which was seven, not six as he’d previously thought), their weapons and their positions. From this, he estimated the order in which they would attack and whom his first target would be.
As he predicted, the bandits crashed from the woods when they were about ten paces away, startling the carthorses, and bringing their bows to bear.
“Ho there, old man!” the burliest of them said, leveling a heavily-built crossbow at the Master and bringing his fidgety black mount abreast of the two cart horses. “This here’s a toll road, and you’re only allowed to pass if you pay up.”
“Toll road?” the Master said, a quirk of amusement in his voice. “I wasn’t aware of that. This is open land, sir, unless I miss my guess. And you are nothing but a thief. I’ll not pay, and you’ll let us pass.”
The boy could hear the falseness in the Master’s voice and quickly reassessed their foes; six men and one woman sat astride well-kept mounts. They all had bows: three crossbows, three hunting bows and the woman bore a short hornbow. Her eyes flickered between the boy and his Master, nervously. The crossbows were cocked and loaded, which meant they could be fired readily. Those would be his first targets. The others would have to draw and take aim first, which would take at least two seconds; plenty of time. He shifted his feet upon the rocky road, readying himself.