Merrick stood and watched the storm gather in the west: it reminded him of the past, of raging battles. He’d fought at the Honurian Fields, and beneath the walls of Karah Deep, and even in the ruins of Calador, surrounded by broken splendour and dust. Still, nature’s fury was the fiercest he’d ever known. It had a way of reducing men to nothing, and even the strongest could be undone by sudden frights – he was counting on it.
While the late-evening sky darkened beneath spreading clouds he readied himself. Below him, Seagrave resounded to the peal of rolling thunder, while lightning flashes illuminated the nightmare landscape of the harbour, the gaudy manors of Old Seatown, the Blight. He was very near the top of the city, the whole bloody mess clinging to the shore like a diseased wound, weeping corruption and blood into the waters of Black Bay. At his back, the makeshift hovels of the Blight-dwellers butted against the remains of the city walls, spreading out and over them to disappear somewhere over the rise of the hill. His lodging-house was one of the last in this part of the city.
The rain had just begun to fall as he donned his armour, a leather jerkin studded with iron. He listened to it beat against the ramshackle roof and drip down through the building. Pools of water began to spread on the floor as he belted a sword at his waist, and slung another over his shoulder. At his hip he kept a dagger, another in his boot; the short-hafted axe he hung from a leather throng beneath one arm. The quiver of bolts and the crossbow he left to last, until after he’d slipped into his cloak, a heavy dark thing that seemed to bleed what little light there was from the room. Then he was done.
The roar of the deluge accompanied his footsteps down the creaking stairs. He left a silver piece at the landlord’s door: it was more than what he owed, but what was money to him now?
Outside there was no wind. The fetid stink of Seagrave, so potent in the heat, was temporarily absent. He breathed deep as he walked, his cloak pulled tight around his hunched shoulders, the better to hide his arsenal, and followed the water downhill, seeing few who would brave the storm. He heard horses whinny as thunder cracked, and dogs howl; the shuttered windows of soupdens and alehouses glowed at the edges, illuminated from within by candle and flame. He remembered nights spent just so, packed in tight with others, unwashed and grizzled, or merry, downing cups of swill-wine, black beer and broth amidst the chorus of competing voices, waiting for the storm to pass. But sometimes it wouldn’t pass…
He recalled what Larrus had said right before the fight in Galgrieve: “If you go in expecting to die, it makes living with what you’re about to do a whole lot easier. If you go in expecting to live, what’s your excuse?”
That was well and good, and there had been a time when Merrick had suffered not at all living with what he’d done. Twenty-eight years a soldier, most of them a mercenary; he didn’t know how many wars, battles, or lives taken in combat; and not a single one haunted him.
No, what haunted him was something else entirely: a promise, broken. And a face, not quite human…
The House of Red Leaves was a notorious brothel, but then there were few that weren’t in Seagrave.
This one was special though; for one, it was owned by Thaylan; and two, it had once been one of Seatown’s most luxurious manors. It was a sprawling building, full of twists and turns and secrets; where once it had stood shoulder to shoulder with equals, now it was alone – the creeping tide of decay had reduced its neighbours, and even it was not untouched, though it retained enough of its former magnificence to fool most. Merrick liked to imagine it as it had once been… But that was a dream, and nothing could now remove the cracks in the walls, the stains of time and men, or the lantern that hung so ponderously above the door. A door he’d been through many times, though never as a customer: he had too little coin for that.
Inside, he knew its hallways and its courtyards, the ones the patrons saw and the ones they didn’t; and the grand, central colonnade where the great arbour grew, its arms stretching towards the bare sky, as old as the house itself, older even than the city maybe, and its leaves as red as the hearts of men.
This time he approached from the east, weaving through a cluttered alleyway. Taking shelter in the lee of a doorway he saw it emerge from a billowing curtain of rain: the door was closed but the lantern was lit – there’d be plenty who’d take shelter there, looking to while the hours away with wine and bedroom play. It would be crowded, hot, chaotic: perfect – he allowed himself a grim smile, one hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword. It was a good sword of Forgetown steel. Perhaps if it had been an animus-infused blade he wouldn’t have needed the other weapons, but it wasn’t. No spirits lived in it, only the cold, sharp edge.
He had no illusions. He knew enough of violence – more than most – to know that he’d probably die before he ever reached his goal, but that was a price he was willing to pay. He’d paid its kind before, he’d pay it again…
“They tell me you fought at the Honurian Fields with Gaelar’s Men.” Thaylan smiled a wicked, thin smile – the smile of a snake perhaps, or some other cold-blooded thing.
Sitting across from him, Merrick felt nothing but revulsion for his host, for himself. He swallowed it, he had to: there weren’t a lot of places left, not for the likes of him.
“Is that what they say?”
“It is, as a matter of fact…” The smile was still there, lingering. “…which I find interesting, since none of Gaelar’s host were supposed to have walked away from that fight.”
Merrick smiled back as best he was able, which truth be told wasn’t much – most of his jaw had been shattered that day, on the plain beneath the walls of Landsgard, as well as half his ribs and one knee; he’d lost two fingers from his left hand and a piece of his skull to a Skitari axe. The blood from his wounds had been enough to convince the victorious Gardsmen – and the scavengers who came after – that he was dead. He’d woken stripped bare and half-buried in a funerary pyre, a few short moments shy of being burnt to ashes. He could still taste it: the taste of death.
“I didn’t so much walk, I crawled.”
Thaylan liked that, his smile widened. “I know you’re a strong man – all I have to do is look at you to know that.” He gave Merrick an appraising glance. “But what I really need to know is, are you dangerous?”
Merrick said nothing, just sat motionless, at ease. All around him he could sense the swirling mass of distraction: the perfumed air, the obscene art – stolen, no doubt – that decorated the manor walls, the half-clad serving girls, the armed guards with baleful eyes and ready hands; all of it, and nothing touched him. He sat apart, observing: this was the way it had always been.
The silence stretched. Thaylan spoke first:
“Are you dangerous?”
Thaylan – gang-leader of Seagrave, warlord and pirate, a man of no small reputation for violence, sadism and vice; a man who provoked dread, inspired fear in the hearts of others at the mere mention of his name; a man whip-thin and dead-eyed – looked abashed.
“I don’t make a habit of seeing all those I take into my employ, certainly not for what you’ll be doing…but I had to know. Merrick Sternsword himself, one of my guards? How far the mighty fall…”
If it were meant to be a provocation, Merrick didn’t feel it. “Every man needs to eat.”
Thaylan’s smile became a sneer. “See that your appetites don’t run away from you, and you’ll find me generous enough. Try to take more than your fair share, and you’ll need more than a fearsome reputation as your shield – you’ll need steel, and plenty of it.”
Merrick planted the crossbow outside a shopfront, beneath an upturned barrel partially shielded by a rudimentary awning; the quiver too. When he was sure they would remain dry and undiscovered – at least for a little while – he pulled the hood of his cloak up and entered the street. The rain beat at him, but it also obscured him.
The front door would be protected by three men at least, probably of Thaylan’s Chosen, his personal bodyguards. He knew most of them, liked few of them, didn’t want to tangle with any of them if he could help it. So he went around the back…
A high wall enclosed the manor on three sides, but Merrick knew where to find the door, hidden amongst the debris and dereliction. It was an old door, hardly used at all anymore, and few were aware of it. Merrick was one of them: he had discovered it by accident while patrolling the grounds one night. The wood was old and beginning to rot, and the iron corroded – it still held though. He took to it with the axe: two blows destroyed it, each timed to coincide with a crack of thunder. He pushed through the remnants, emerging in the overgrown garden. The wind made the tops of the trees sway violently, dropping deadwood all around him as he threaded his way forward.
There was one guard on the back door, as he’d expected: Reez. The man was lazy and cruel, a bad fighter and a worse watchman – Merrick had spoken against him, but nobody listened. Fortunate, now that he thought about it. It was easy to sneak up on him…
He buried the axe in the back of the other man’s head when he stepped down to take a piss. He never saw it coming, didn’t hear it, didn’t smell it, didn’t sense it at all. Just died. Merrick forgot him in an instant after taking the keys from his belt.
He unsheathed the sword from his back as he tried the lock. The killing had begun: now it would get messy.
The skin at his throat was broken, bleeding. The blade of the knife lay across it, the blood welling at its touch, creeping down the edge.
“I warned you,” said Thaylan, cold as ever. “I warned you and I told you, stay away.”
Despite the weapon at his throat – or maybe because of it – Merrick continued to struggle. His muscles bunched, the cords in his arms and back strained. He fought against the relentless strength of his captors, the Chosen who held him down, arms twisted, knees bent. He spat at them, and at Thaylan:
“Dreck your warnings!”
They were in the street, a crowd surged around them: no-one made a move against Thaylan.
The gang-leader waved his hand, the blade disappeared. He squatted down in front of Merrick; somehow, in the full light of day he looked even more sinister. Maybe it was the fact he didn’t have to hide.
“I told you to stay away from my property, but you wouldn’t listen. Why would you? The great and terrible Merrick, survivor of a hundred battles…” His face twisted in scorn. “You know I took a risk on you, don’t you? You have a reputation, yes, but for being on the wrong side – no-one likes to invite bad luck.” He tried to take Merrick’s chin in hand, until Merrick tried to bite him. “How many friends have you lost, how many comrades? How many have trusted you and died for it?”
If he’d been able to kill with his eyes alone, he would have: Merrick had never wished to be a Wielder before, never wanted that terrible gift-curse…until now. He wished he could drive a bolt of lightning directly through Thaylan’s head, as the Tide Lords of Nautica were said to be able to. Or summon the spirits of his victims to reap a bloody revenge upon him. But he couldn’t. He could only grit his teeth and glare. And Thaylan knew it: he laughed.
“You’re too pathetic to kill, Sternsword. How the Aerelian Guard must regret ever naming you so – you’re nothing but a broken-down swordbearer, too old to do anything but bore others with stories of half-remembered glories and get in everybody’s way. If I’d had any good sense I’d have turned you away from my door when I had the chance – none of the others would touch you, you reek of defeat.” He stood up, towering. “You’re the product of a dead world, and too moral for this place – the only reason you’ve survived as long as you have is because I allowed it. No-one would bother you, not the young hotheads eager for a chance to prove themselves, or those looking to add to their personal legends… I did that. But not now. I consign you to the gutter where you belong, for it to kill you in whichever way it deems fit. But if I ever see you again, I swear I’ll finish the job myself.” And with that, he lashed out: the kick caught Merrick square in the face, rocked his head back on his shoulders, blood spurting from his nose. He went down, limp.
The next one turned the world black.
Thinking back on it, the worst thing wasn’t that Thaylan had struck him with impunity – it was that he’d looked bored as he did it.
A wave of heat struck him as he slipped inside, drawing wisps of steam from his wet skin, his soaked-through cloak. He threw it down: there would be little call for disguise now, he must be quick.
Quick like he used to be, when he was young.
He caught sight of his reflection in a polished-bronze mirror by the door: the face of an old man stared at him with defiant eyes, blue and grey. His hair was going, his skin deep-lined and leathery; thinking about it, his bones ached and his bad knee screamed almost all of the time, begging him to sit, to rest.
Thaylan had been right, he was broken-down…
But broken things could still hurt you.
Sword in hand he started down the hallway, past the servants’ quarters and the storerooms. The building around him was quiet as a tomb, but beyond the immediate stillness he detected the sounds of revelry – laughter, shouts, music – coming from the main hall. Most anyone would be there: the whores and their customers, the serving girls, the boy-slaves…
He made sure to give the kitchen a wide berth: it was too busy to slip through unseen and he had no conflict with over-worked cooks. He managed to avoid a barrel-bellied server with a cauldron of soup by stepping into an open doorway, stepping out once the man was gone.
He continued in this way until he came to the stairs. At the top he knew there would be another guard, and there’d be no sneaking up on this one – every footstep would elicit a creak as he went, the wood old and tired. There was only one way to do it that he knew of:
Slow at first, until he was halfway to the top; then he ran, the pain in his knee reaching a new crescendo as he vaulted the last few steps. The guard – Haron, a skinny youth too dumb for all but the simplest tasks – leapt to his feet as Merrick appeared. His mouth was agape, his eyes wide – he died quickly, the edge of the sword catching him beneath the jaw, cutting through skin, gristle and flesh with equal ease. A gout of blood splashed against the wall as Merrick caught the younger man with his free hand, lowered his twitching body gently to the floor. Blood continued to pour from the red ruin of his throat as Merrick went forward, stepping gingerly over the rapidly expanding pool.
Two down, he thought, surveying the hallway, listening. He knew there would be at least six more guards posted throughout the manor, in addition to the Chosen at the front door. And now with Haron dead, it was only a matter of time before someone stumbled onto his body. Minutes, maybe.
He knew where to look. The trick was getting there without raising the alarm. Once he had what he’d come for nothing would be certain. Hell would break loose as surely as the sun rose over the Crimson Sea, and First Lords help he who was not prepared…
He stalked on, listening at each door he passed, stepping lightly if he could.
Most of the way to the first corner and he heard a voice he knew, a voice he loathed:
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