He’d thought about bursting in, killing them both there and then. Staring through the keyhole, crouched in the hallway, he’d fought to keep his anger in check, his hand on his sword, feeling the familiar weight, knowing its effectiveness.
But there had been too many guards in the room. Eight at least, maybe more. He’d never make it out alive. And what then?
Stick to the plan. That was the only hope he had.
He’d walked down the hall and around the corner, hearing their voices recede, knowing he’d never get another chance. He’d never wanted to kill somebody so bad, he thought. Turning away from that was like penance, like affirmation.
He didn’t have to wait long to spill more blood though. The final guard, the final obstacle; and he was almost asleep. He started awake as Merrick approached his chair, stared blurry-eyed a moment before the blade went in. The key he was holding opened the door, and beyond…
She was sitting in the middle of the room, on the floor, cross-legged like a child. All around her stood untouched – the bed, the chair, the fine dresses and feminine things Thaylan lavished on all his girls. But she was not a girl, he had to remind himself. He wasn’t sure what she was.
Not human, a voice in the back of his head said, and it was the truth. She was too thin, her ears and eyes too large; her skin was the colour of pure sand and her hair of dappled sunlight; she was lithe, strong, but also delicate; and she smelled of good earth, grass and fallen leaves.
She was beautiful. She was evling: a thing of legend.
She was also naked, staring at a spot somewhere between her legs. But when she heard him come in she looked up, her eyes knowing – knowing him, knowing his purpose – and smiled.
And suddenly he was young again, and bold, and a girl was saying, “Promise me…”
They’d been fighting out of Karah Deep, ranging west along the shore of the Crimson Sea. The Warmaster was leading a doomed assault on the Sundered Isles while the Breakers were away, ravaging the coast. They got as far as Golmere before encountering serious resistance: the Breakers were preoccupied and cut down easily by their small band. But when hundreds out of Kavloss landed near the village and started advancing up the beach, there was nothing they could do.
They had to withdraw.
There were a score of them then. His six got separated from the rest as they ascended the heights to the east, fighting as they went. The village was aflame, thick black smoke filled the sky and the screams of the dying accompanied them as they scrambled into the foothills. It was dangerous terrain: they abandoned their horses to the coast and continued on foot until Verrus broke his leg in a fall from a rock ledge – then they were reduced to a crawl, carrying the Shadowportsman between them, exhausted, bloody, with food and water dwindling. Merrick remembered a day when they ran from sunup to sundown, sharing the burden of their wounded brother who begged them to leave him, let him die in peace. But they didn’t.
Peace was not their way.
They were drinking from muddy pools and chewing their boot leather before they came down out of the hills again. Merrick heard the sound of the waves first; then he saw the water gleaming like a mirror, tasted the salt on the air, smelt the smell of the sea. He wept to behold it.
They didn’t know how far they’d come, or even how long they’d been on the run – days and nights had long ago blurred together. They did know that their enemy was still in pursuit: they’d spied them a dozen times, and seen their fires at night. Coming back to the water’s edge was a risk, the Breakers lived at sea and would surely be scouring the coast too; but they had no choice, they were dying, Verrus’ leg was swollen, black and putrid, and they needed to find somewhere to hole up.
The house was not much to speak of, a thatched hut surrounded by a mounded-earth windbreak. There was a girl outside, tending a small garden. When she saw them approaching she ran inside, came back out with a knife – short, blunt, she held it like she might drop it at any moment, shaking. He took it from her easily. Bundled her in with the rest, crying.
He barely had the strength to hold her as he spoke, begged, pleaded – for her help, for their lives. When she saw how weak they were, how much pain Verrus suffered, she softened. She should have known better, but she didn’t. That saved them…
When the Breakers came she went out. He never heard what she said, what she promised. But they went away. He watched them go, hidden inside with the others, sword at the ready; he watched her back, her stance, resolute. And he knew, not in his entire life, never had he been so brave as she was then – just a girl, the barest wisp, homely-featured and hungry herself from hard-living, scratching in the dirt; and she had put them all to shame, stared down two-score raiders from the Sundered Isles, men who lived only to rape, pillage, kill…
It was her.
A few gave the hovel a cursory glance, but most passed without, continued to the east, dogged. It wouldn’t be long before they realised the trail was cold, or that they’d been deceived.
They carried the heads of their victims – amongst them his lost comrades – tied to their sword-belts.
When they were gone she did not come in for a long time. It was almost dark before he saw her again, and went out to meet her. The dusk light was red like the colour of blood; it bathed them both as he stepped to the cliff’s edge.
“They won’t come back,” he said, standing beside her, trying to sound like he believed it.
“How do you know?”
Her father had taken the livestock into the high pasture weeks ago. She was all alone, scared. It wasn’t hard to step into her life, to fool himself into believing that it could work. She was sixteen, he was two-and-twenty, still youthful, still dashing-enough to be considered handsome. He bedded her in secret, away from the house in a field at night. The others knew, but they were too concerned with other things to say anything.
On the third day after their arrival they amputated Verrus’ rotten leg. He survived four more days before he succumbed, and they buried him by the sea.
On the twelfth day ships landed, but not from the Sundered Isles – these were the remnants of the Warmaster’s destroyed fleet. A swordbearer came up to procure supplies, found them lying in wait. He told of the battle, the defeat, and the siege of Karah Deep that was even then going on.
They were mercenaries – what little loyalty they had was bought with coin. But they went anyway: for vengeance, for glory, for promised riches. When they were leaving she didn’t cry, for which he was relieved, and ashamed at his relief he took her aside:
“I’ll come back,” he said, looking her in the eyes.
He lied. He never saw her again. When they arrived at the Deep the enemy were gone: the Breakers, unaccustomed to and unwilling to prosecute a protracted siege, had sailed away after chasing the Warmaster back into his fortress, and were now taking the rare opportunity to wreak havoc unmolested. They were unopposed as far west as the lands of Imperia and the Dakyrosians. And with cold, horrifying certainty Merrick knew he had killed her, the girl he had promised so much to: salvation, protection, life. He’d stripped her of all of it, and not even been man enough to be honest about what he was doing. He was worse than those he sought to combat, and without honour.
When they sailed back weeks later, the house and the garden, the fields – all of it was reduced to ash. There was no point even going ashore, and he didn’t want to either: he couldn’t stomach what he’d wrought.
He carried it with him the rest of his life.
It wasn’t a shout; it wasn’t an accusation, a warning, a threat, a lament; it wasn’t menacing or malicious.
It was an invitation.
It said: Come, and die.
Merrick turned to see the hallway filling up with men. He had the evling girl by the hand, about to flee. He’d managed to convince her to dress, not in the things bought for her but in another garment, discarded in the corner of the room – her own clothes, perhaps. They were rough-spun, coarse to the touch: hardly befitting her, he thought, but they covered her arms and legs and a hood shadowed her face, obscuring her features.
Not that it mattered now. Thaylan strode to the fore, and they were trapped. “I’m amazed you made it this far,” he said, sword held idly at his side.
“With the quality of men you employ, how could I not?”
“I employed you, didn’t I?”
“Everybody makes mistakes.”
The others were pressing in, crowding around. Merrick kept his own sword low, at the ready. Thaylan smiled his cold smile. “So what now?”
Merrick smiled back. He knew the House – he knew it was old, he knew that it could get cold at night. He also knew that there was a brazier by his left foot, coals glowing red hot; and an oil lamp in an alcove by the door. The old familiar calm was with him as he took a half step, freed his hand from the evling girl’s grip. “You could let us walk away,” he said, never wavering. “We could just go.”
“No,” said Thaylan. Dogheart growled, while some of the others laughed. Merrick didn’t care, his sword was already moving. It had been moving even before the inevitable answer came. He flicked the oil lamp from its perch with the edge, grabbed at the brazier with his other hand. He felt it burning him as he flung it, pinpoints of flame tumbling through the air, colliding with the spilling oil. Heat washed his face as the hallway ignited. Thaylan and the others reeled, and Merrick turned. He threw the door closed, hurled furniture at it. The evling girl had moved back – he pushed her towards the window as a roar travelled through the room; wood splintered, cracked.
The flames would spread quickly, but not quickly enough to deter their pursuers. He opened the shutters and lowered her over the edge, speaking all the time in a low, reassuring voice. She seemed hardly disturbed, managed the short drop into the courtyard with easy grace, and waited.
He was halfway out when there was a shower of splinters and a dark form leapt at him. He jumped, landed in a puddle. The evling girl had his hand as they pushed through a door. The ceiling above them smouldered.
He knew they couldn’t go back, they’d be cut off: they had to go forward, through the main hall, out the front door. It was a short run, but before they got there screams erupted. People appeared, half-dressed, panicky. A drunken man emerged, wine spilt down his front; he roared indignantly before Merrick struck him across the face with the butt of his sword. He fell, his teeth littering the floor.
Twists and turns and they emerged into a large room, a chaotic mass of arms and legs, obstructing bodies. He barrelled through, using his size and momentum to clear a path, the girl pulled limply in his wake. People got out of their way or were knocked down.
They’ll be close, he told himself, eyes roaming for the Chosen guarding the door. One emerged out of the mess: Berhen, a face he recognised, caught unawares by the confusion. Merrick slashed wildly, felt steel bite flesh – Berhen went down, screaming, clutching his face. More screams deafened him as the crowd parted, a short dash and they’d be clear…
He felts hands grabbing at him, turning him: the evling girl. He started to protest, tried to yank her away – then he saw the sliver of light scything towards them. He threw her down and raised his sword in the same motion, the links of the chain-whip curling around the blade, trying to tear it from his grasp. He pulled back, hard.
There was a rending sound as the sword splintered like kindling – a well-forged blade, but no match for the animus-infused weapon that assailed it. Shards of steel tumbled to the floor as the chain-whip slithered away. Merrick dropped the shattered hilt, watched Azzar leap over a banister, land in a crouch, fling his long dark hair out of his eyes and grin savagely.
He was having fun.
Let’s see what we can do about that, thought Merrick as he backed away, making sure to keep himself between the evling girl and Thaylan’s Chosen. He’d seen the Helisian handle his weapon before: it was an extension of his body, its movements as fluid as those of his own limbs. It struck hard and it struck fast, like lightning. They couldn’t run, and they couldn’t fight either – not that. So…
He waited. Felt the sweat bead on his forehead, the coursing of hot blood through his veins, the bile creeping up his throat. He waited – an instant, an eternity…
Azzar stepped forward, began to draw his arm back. That was the moment – the briefest of moments between when he drew his arm back and when he flicked the whip forward. Merrick knew it. He’d seen it.
In that moment he reached for the dagger on his belt and threw it underhand. Too slow, he thought, far too slow; but then it was buried in the Helisian’s chest, and he was falling, choking, cursing.
Merrick did not wait for another opportunity. He ran – he took the evling girl by the wrist and ran. The room was almost clear now, those few who could not flee, cowering. He heard a crash, somewhere close, and angry shouts, and the room began to fill with smoke. He didn’t care, his hand was on the door, throwing it open, pushing the girl through.
Then he heard the whip-crack and felt a red line of pain open across his back. He faltered, almost fell; but the girl was there, she knew. She placed one of his arms over her shoulder and together they stumbled out into the storm.
He came back to himself as they entered the alley. People were fleeing in every direction: the night was suddenly alive with activity, and pouring out of the House of Red Leaves were men with drawn swords, axes, spears; someone was bawling commands and he could hear dogs barking, howling to be loosed.
The crossbow was where he’d left it. He took it and the quiver of bolts, hauled back on the string and loaded as his body convulsed in agony. She tried to steady him but he shrugged her off, crouched low and sighted through the rain. He feared his hands would shake, ruin his aim, but when he pulled the trigger the bolt flew straight and true and took one of the milling guards in the throat. No-one saw him fall, there was too much confusion. The second one though…
He went down with a scream, the bolt buried in his stomach up to the fletching. Men dove for cover: they were pointing in every direction.
He loosed three more times, felled two, one of them Dogheart’s man, the one with the beard. He tried to find Thaylan, but a burst of lightning blinded him and he scrambled back, out of sight.
It would be enough.
He felt warm blood mixing with the rain as he limped away down the alley, the evling girl going before him, both of them into the dark.
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