The midday sun beat down relentlessly on the body strewn battlefield as soldiers from each side retrieved the bodies of their fallen comrades for burial, burning, or whatever funerary rites their respective gods demanded of them. Flies buzzed over the bloated bodies, their incessant droning filling the ears of the men. The stench from the sun baked field was tremendous, and those that were unlucky enough to pull this horrible duty wore plague masks, the long snouts stuffed with fragrant flowers. This did little to cover the smell of the dead and dying, and many men retched and gagged as they went along their task.
Upon a ridge above the field, Kieran stared blankly over the carnage, seeing nothing. He swallowed, wincing as his parched throat clenched painfully. It felt as though it were lined with sand. His tongue felt thick and heavy inside his mouth. Blood from yesterday’s battle covered his skin, tanned the color of faded leather from months in the sun. He reached for his water skin, and found it empty. Throwing it aside in disgust, he cursed himself for forgetting a task that should have been second nature to him.
Smoke from the funeral pyres of the Kenduk barbarians rose high, and with little wind to carry it away, the smell of burning bodies clung close to the camp. He wished they would bury their dead like the Corinites. Kieran had little use for any religion, preferring to trust in his blade and his arm over some unseen god, and in truth, cared even less for how the Kenduks disposed of their dead, but the burning bodies smelled strangely like roasted pork. Food was scarce right now, and he was disgusted at the way his stomach lurched hungrily every time the Kenduks performed their rites.
Sighing, he picked his water skin off the dusty ground and carried it towards the mess tent. He pulled the four copper diros needed to pay the clerk to fill his skins from his increasingly meager pouch and tossed them from hand to hand. As usual, pay to the mercenary companies was late.
The line at the water tent was longer than usual. It took several minutes before he reached the clerk, and the dust made him thirstier than before. Kieran handed four diros and two skins to the clerk. The clerk shook his head and said, “Not enough. Four diros a skin.”
Kieran glared at the clerk. “It was two diros just yesterday!’’, he exclaimed.
“Yesterday was yesterday. Today is today, and today it is four diros.”
Kieran checked his pouch. Three silver tariks and a golden cort sat beside eight more diros. Reluctantly, he pulled four more copper pieces from his pouch and handed them over to the clerk. The clerk smiled a toothless smile and said, in a tone that grated on Kieran’s nerves, “A pleasure to serve you, m’lord.”, and laughed as he filled the skins.
Kieran gathered his skins and sulked off to his tent, grumbling. He took a drink from one of the skins, and immediately spit it back out. The water tasted foul and brackish, as if it were pulled from a swamp. Sniffing his skin, it even had the fetid smell of a swamp.
“Old Carrik is pocketing those extra diros, you can count on it.” Kieran turned and saw Colm, his closest friend. They had grown up together on the dirty streets of Kinnath. Together they formed The Banshees, and built it into one of the deadliest gangs in the city. They were never as powerful as the major criminal clans in the city, but they were respected by those clans, and even used for the bloodier work the clans needed done. They also found out that being the leaders of the deadliest gang in the city made them targets for thugs who wanted a name, and together they decided that the life of a mercenary would be much safer and more lucrative than staying in the city. They joined the first mercenary company they could find. That was fifteen years ago, and now, they commanded one of their own.
Kieran shrugged. “This water tastes like he got it from a latrine. When this is over, I promise I will take every single diro he has pocketed from his smelly hide.”
“We have drank from latrines, my friend. This is much worse”, Colm laughed. “Carrik will get his, one way or another. That coin is to go to Kess Larkil. He is not one to be trifled with. Had he been born of a lower caste, he would have found a home in Kinnath as a clan leader. Carrik is like Jobias. Remember him?”
Kieran nodded grimly at the memory. Jobias was a runner for Clan Faril, one of the safest clan jobs there was for the lowers. They carried large amounts of gold at all times, but no one dared take them off. Stealing from a clan brought swift and deadly retribution. Jobias decided that he could pocket two or three coins every time he made a delivery and no one would notice. At first, no one did. Then Jobias got sloppy. He started spending his coin, buying things he could not afford. Clan Faril started watching him more carefully. When the time came, Kieran and Colm got the contract. Kirtin, the clan leader, not only wanted Jobias dead, he wanted him dead in the most gruesome fashion they could think of, and he wanted Jobias to suffer, then displayed publicly as a warning to other would be thieves. They slowly broke every bone in Jobias’ body, then nailed him to a market wall and pulled his guts across the market square.
Colm put a hand on Kieran’s shoulder. “Come, my friend, I have some of Mirt’s homemade wine. It is not much more than swill, but it tastes better than this. We will raid Carrik’s personal store later. That is, if you haven’t gotten clumsy in your old age.”
“I can still sneak up on my own shadow. You could never even sneak up on a deaf man, woodfoot’’, Kieran laughed. The wine may taste horrible, but at least it would take the edge off this hunger, he thought. Besides, he could use the distraction. This campaign had gone on longer than he had hoped. Sure, he’d been on longer ones, and for less coin. In the early days, the thrill of combat was all he and Colm needed.
Kieran sighed, and looked around at the camp. It stank of open latrines, unwashed bodies, vomit and death. Several tents were now empty, the belongings long since scavenged from the dead owners. This campaign had taken its toll on the mercenary ranks Larkil had employed. He knew it would not affect Larkil though. You don’t have to pay dead men, after all.
Larkil was really no more than a petty brush lord. His scrub land holdings produced little harvest. But during the Darnholm Wars, he engaged in raids on the supply caravans of the rebel Markon Vellik and depleted the gold stores of the formerly wealthy lord. Some say he even raided the caravans of the king, but no one ever proved as much. Now Larkil had deep pockets to fund his petty wars with other weak lords. He had very few men of his own to pick from, so he had to supplement his armies with mercenary companies and the barbarian tribes from the Iceshelf.
Kieran and his company signed on for the duration, and even though they had gotten their start in a place where honesty is seen as a weakness, they had a reputation as an extremely dependable company. Many of the men under their command they had brought with them from their old company, and the rest were old hands from either disbanded mercenary companies, or lone wolves who had made a name for themselves and could go where they pleased. Kieran’s Lancers were a top choice for many of these freelance warriors.
They settled into their command tent and began passing the jug, sharing old stories and memories. It wasn’t long before Kieran was drunk. His throat was no longer gritty, and his head had begun to swim pleasantly. The world had taken on a warm glow, and as usual, his tongue loosened.
“What will we do when we are done with this mercenary crap?” he asked Colm. Noticing the look on Colm’s face, he continued. “Come, old friend. We cannot do this forever. Have you even given it any thought?”
Colm laughed at this. “Yes, but I have only given it one thought. I thought that I would be dead long before I would ever have to give it up. I thought that from the moment I signed up. That old saying always stuck in my head. ‘There are old mercs, and there are famous mercs. But there are never any old famous mercs.’ We have become famous, just like in Kinnath. We won’t live to be old.”
“You may not, my friend, but I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. Besides, no bards sing songs about unknown heroes.”
Colm smiled. “Oh aren’t we getting high and mighty…Heroes are we? And here I thought we were just assassins and killers. We aren’t heroes. Just lucky for a long time.”
“Ever the cynic. Don’t you ever see things from a happy perspective?”
“Happy is for young children and sappy stories. You’ve been around long enough to know that everything ends in sadness, sooner or later. Look at what we do. Only the insane come out of this crap with a smile.”
Kieran looked at the fire they sat around pensively. The wine was gone, and he was thirsty again. He called for Cyril, the company’s fleet footed scout and “requisitioner”. If the company needed anything, Cyril had a way of obtaining said item. It was rumored that he had once stolen the ring of a Corinite priest’s hand as he knelt in the receiving line one moment, hurried down the line, knelt again, and replaced it moments later. All without the priest even noticing it was gone. Anytime anyone asked Cyril about this, he just smiled his shy smile and shrugged his shoulders. All this did was add veracity to the rumor. Kieran sometimes wondered if that was why Cyril never denied it.
Kieran tossed him the water skins. Cyril caught them with ease. No matter how much he observed Cyril, Kieran was always impressed with his reflexes. Cyril nodded, and left without a word. The kid always seemed to know just what was needed of him. When the Lancers were no more, he would have no problem catching on with another company.
Colm watched as Cyril left. “We got lucky with that one. If we had him in the Banshees, we would have run the second story trade as well. Do you think the story about him is true?”
Kieran looked at the tent door. “I don’t know. I tell you what I do think though. There are several priests who wonder if they were the one in the story every time they take their ring off at night.”
Colm laughed at this. In his mind’s eye he could see a priest rubbing his ring finger with a wondering look on his face. That made him laugh even harder.
It took Cyril just a few minutes to return with the water, arriving just as the last peals of laughter shook Colm’s sides. Nonplussed as always, he handed the full skins back to Kieran. Immediately, Kieran lifted one to his lips and took a tentative sip. Fresh, clear water dribbled out. He tilted his head back and drank deeply, washing the sickeningly sweet taste of the homemade wine out of his mouth. He finished with a gasp, then uttered a loud belch. He nodded in appreciation at Cyril. “How come you joined a merc company? You should be running your own clan, or at least a cat burglar crew.”
Cyril shrugged. “Not enough danger I guess. It’s no fun unless I am risking my hide.”
Kieran looked at Cyril. From behind him Colm let out another loud burst of laughter. No one had ever gotten that much out of Cyril. Kieran himself expected no more than Cyril’s customary shrug. Cyril looked at his commanders, shrugged again, and left.
Kieran stood up shakily. The wine had affected him much more than he had thought. Slowly he made his way to his cot. Before his head hit the pillow, he was engulfed in the blackness of sleep.
“Wake up. They are mustering.” Kieran groaned into his pillow. His head felt like the entire encampment was mustering inside it, and doing a poor job at that. He shook the phantom troops from it and rose. His stomach took a sickening lurch, and he barely made it to the chamber pot. Warily he eyed Colm.
Colm looked right back at him. “You never could hold your wine well. Do you know you snore when you are drunk? Loudly. It’s a wonder I got any sleep at all.” Colm looked as fresh as usual. Kieran had never seen him look anything but. Never a hair out of place even.
“I thought we were to hold off the attack until Kess returned”, Kieran said. He grabbed his water skin and poured a mouthful, swishing it inside his mouth before spitting it out.
Colm shook his head. “Uncouth, my good man. We were. But his overachieving major has decided to press the attack.” Colm grabbed Kieran’s armor and sword and held it out to him. “We are outnumbered twenty to one. We should wait for reinforcements, but that pig-faced lout has ordered it, saying he speaks for Larkil, and so, like good little mindless soldiers , we go.”
Hurrying into his armor, Kieran sensed something amiss. He could not quite put his finger on it, but it hung near him like a black cloud. “I don’t like this, Colm. It feels wrong, like the time we raided Old Lady Vera’s pie shop. The withered old crone set us up then. It feels the same way now, like a trap.”
Colm nodded. “I feel it too. We all stay close, and if the battle goes south, we leave. I don’t know what to expect today. Best to cover all sides.”
The battlefield was packed with soldiers on each side. Banners from each mercenary company fluttered in the stiff breeze. The barbarian war drums thudded an ominous beat, and the drone of pipers gave the day a somber feeling. Riding in front of the columns, attempting to rally the soldiers, was Larkil’s second in command, Major Hillstaff.
Colm pointed at the major. “Look at that pompous fool”, he scoffed. “Five diros says his regulars stay behind, charging forward when the battle is already won, claiming victory as their own. No wonder they stay in a separate camp. They come to ours, and they would leave without their hearts.”
Before Kieran could respond, a loud cry went up from the soldiers across the field. Kieran realized that he had no idea who they were fighting. He asked Colm if he knew.
“No. Some brush lord or another. They all are the same to me. Too weak for court politics, not important enough to notice. Pond scum wishing it were lake scum. It matters little. Scum is scum. Even if we weren’t being paid, I’d want to kill every last one of them.” Colm had hated the aristocracy for as long as Kieran knew him. On the outside, it looked like nothing more than the have nots hating those who have. Kieran knew it was much more than that. The loathing was personal. Colm would never tell what it was though, and Kieran never asked. It was one of the many reasons Colm trusted him.
Horns blared. Kieran pulled his sword. He was unhorsed, as usual. He had never got the hang of fighting on horseback, preferring instead to pull in close to his foe. He never relished bloodshed, but saw it simply as a means to an end. He never regretted his kills, but neither did he enjoy them.
Colm readied his sword and the long knife he carried. Almost two feet long, it was more of a short sword than a knife. Like his long sword, it was plain and without any adornments, in stark contrast to his normal peacock style. His armor was likewise plain. When it came to combat, his cocky swagger was replaced by grim determination. He looked at Kieran. His smile would have sent lesser men scattering into the hills, but it was one Kieran was accustomed too. “If I don’t meet you on the field of victory…” began Colm.
“Then seek me out in hell!” Kieran finished their ages old battle cry. They clasped arms together and prepared to meet the wave of death that would soon be rushing towards them.
The seconds seemed to stretch into hours. The major droned on in his inane speech, but Kieran barely heard him. He was focusing on the upcoming battle. Nothing around him mattered to him at that moment. He breathed slowly and measured, as if each breath counted towards a final tally that one was not allowed to exceed. It was the same before every battle. He went into a trace of sorts. Then, when the battle horns sounded the charge, he unleashed that focus into pure fury, and may the gods help whoever faced him.
Sweat dripped from his face. The sun’s rays began to heat up the armor of all involved. Both sides waited in anticipation, an eerie quiet filling the air. Then, a trumpet blast, so loud in the silence that it seemed like it would burst everyone’s ears, rang out. Both sides charged, their thundering feet shaking the very ground they ran on. Sun glinted off blades and armor. The armies met with a terrific clash, the foremost men falling on the blades of those quicker on the attack then them. Blood misted in the late morning sun as the cries of the wounded filled the air. Swords clanged off armor and blades with a ringing note, and the cacophony of battle drowned out all else.
Kieran waded into the battle, hacking his way through the human wall in front of him. He parried one attack from his left easily and thrust his blade through the man’s throat. In a single motion, he yanked his sword from the dying man’s neck, swung to his right and took the arm off of another attacker at the elbow. An axe nearly tore off his nose as it flashed in front of his face. He stumbled backwards, almost tripping over the man he had stabbed in the throat. The man with the axe saw his chance and charged forward, bloody axe raised above his head for the killing blow. He faltered a bit when he saw the feint he had fallen for. Kieran had merely feigned his stumble. Before the man knew what had happened, Kieran had opened his stomach with his sword. The wounded man fell to his knees, feebly attempting to push his guts back into his body. Kieran swung again and the man’s head fell into the gore beside him.
Turning again towards the battle, Kieran could see Colm and Cyril fighting together, each one’s attack working in tandem with the other’s. Kieran smiled. He had always fought the same way with Colm. Cyril was a natural. Glancing around he saw that few from his group had fallen, and at this he was proud. He shook these thoughts off and focused again on the battle.
Two enemy soldiers approached him carefully. Inwardly, Kieran smiled. They were fresh, he could tell by their faces. This was most likely their first battle. It was a shame they had chosen to fight him. They would not survive to see another. He lowered his sword slightly and stared them down. He hoped he could intimidate them. The one with the spear lunged forward in a clumsy attack. Kieran batted the attack aside harmlessly with the flat of his blade. “Do you really want to do this, lads?” he asked them. The one with the sword scowled at him in a pitiful attempt to be menacing. “I guess you do”, he sighed, closing in the gap.
The two men seemed to be surprised that a single man would close in on the two of them. The swordsman lashed out at Kieran. Instead of parrying, Kieran simply ducked the attack, and pressed in. The move took the man by surprise, and he never even felt the blade pierce his heart before he died.
The spearman now looked as if he had doubts about the outcome of this fight. His face showed the fear that he had been trying to hide since this morning. Kieran circled around him. The spearman made a few thrusts, more to keep Kieran at bay than do any real damage. Kieran let this display go on for a few more seconds before he pinned the spear to the ground with his foot and slammed his sword onto the shaft breaking it. He raised his sword to the trembling man’s throat. Instead of driving it home, he looked the young man in the eye and said, “Go home. Find another job. Be a farmer, or a cooper, or even a thatcher. This is no life kid.” The man nodded as fast as his neck would allow, and took off on a dead run, slipping in the blood that was now covering the field.
Kieran glanced up towards the command hill. The ten officers were still up there. Kieran knew the battle was not going well, but they had not even led their troops down to the field. The regulars were fighting alongside them, so why weren’t the officers? Kieran’s earlier feeling of unease returned to him. Before he could dwell on it though, movement to his right took his attention. An impossibly large swordsman was charging towards him. He didn’t have a chance to react before the huge man slammed his body into him, knocking him to the ground. Kieran kicked and punched at his attacker, but the blows fell as if he were a child. Kieran was yanked up like he was a small sack of apples and thrown ten feet through the air. He landed with a bone clattering thump. His pauldron flew from his shoulder, the leather straps snapping with the force. He struggled to get on his feet, but the man was on top of him before he could get his bearings. He was picked up in a bear hug, the man’s muscular arms crushing his ribs. In desperation he pistoned his knee forward. The spiked kneecap of his leg armor found the soft flesh of his assailant’s leg and drove in deep, tearing the artery in the leg. Instantly, the pressure around his chest lessened as the man slunk to the ground, bleeding to death. Kieran picked up the nearest sword and plunged it into the dying man’s chest, mercifully saving him the fear of bleeding out.
Kieran searched for his sword. He found it under the body of one of his men, a young man who signed on only months ago. He made a mental note to send the young man’s mother his pay. A loud shout grabbed his attention. He looked up and saw Colm pointing to the command hill. He could not make out what Colm was shouting. He looked towards the hill and saw the officers leaving. The bastards had betrayed them! He returned his gaze to Colm, mouth open in disbelief. His expression turned into one of horror. Colm was engaged in combat with one foe, and four others were coming up behind him. Kieran shouted out a warning, but it was too late. His oldest friend was swarmed, swords hacking at him as he went down.
Kieran’s rage erupted. With a roar of anger, he charged towards the place where his friend fell. He slashed at anyone in his way, no longer recognizing friend from foe. Whoever got in his way fell to his blade. He paid them no mind. He had a singular focus: getting to Colm. Blood flowed from his wounds, but Kieran didn’t notice. He was anger. He was hate. He was death.
When he reached Colm’s body, all the anger and hate ebbed from him in a rush. Tears flowed from his eyes, leaving streaks down his gore covered face as he knelt beside his friend’s body. Memories rushed through his mind in a blur, as he cradled his friend’s lifeless body in his arms. To himself he swore an oath to kill each and every one of those officers, making sure that the major’s death was especially slow and excruciating. He knew this was a kill he would enjoy.
He felt a hand rest softly on his shoulder, bringing him out of his murderous fantasies. Through blurry eyes, he looked up and saw Cyril and three of his archers. “We’ve been overrun. It was a massacre. We had no chance”, Cyril said softly. “We have to go. All the soldiers are being executed. This is all that’s left of us. We have to go!”
“Leave me. Go. Now.”
“You stay here and you die. Colm would not want that. Besides, you can’t get revenge when you are dead.”
Kieran looked down at his dead friend. He knew Cyril was right. He just didn’t want to leave his friend in the mud and gore. Sighing, he took his hand and closed his friend’s eyes. “I will seek you out in hell, old friend.” He gently laid Colm’s head down on the ground and stood up. He looked at the remains of the Lancers, and said “Gather as much gear as you can. Get four horses and a cart. Let’s get these bastards.”
Thirty minutes later, they all met outside their command tent. Kieran packed almost nothing except a small, locked chest, his armor and a few weapons. He placed these inside the almost empty cart. The camp had been picked clean by those that were the first to run when the battle went south. Opportunists like Carrik, who probably left with half the damned camp himself.
Kieran and Cyril each took horses, and the archers, called Lanak and Tryv, took the cart. Kieran took the lead and started westward. Dusk had begun to settle, and the first of the stars began to twinkle into the sky. The officers had the better part of a day’s head start, and Kieran was loathe to sacrifice any miles he could gain, so he pressed on. No one complained. They all had lost friends, and they all wanted revenge.
It was well into the night when they came upon a small camp. A heavily laden cart sat in front of a small, pitiful fire. Under the cart was a pile of blankets, and from those blankets came the sound of loud snoring. They all recognized Carrik’s mule and water barrel, and he had added food, and various other treasures looted from tents of the dead. Kieran dismounted and walked over to the pile. Pulling his sword, he turned the flat of the blade and swatted the pile as hard as he could.
Carrik screamed as if he were being attacked by the demons of hell, and attempted to leap to his feet. The bottom of his cart prevented this, and he slammed his head on the ironwood boards with a hollow thunk. Stunned, he tried to crawl out from under the cart, but this time his blankets slowed him down.
When he finally emerged from his cocoon, swearing and rubbing his bald, sunburned head, he was confronted by four angry mercenaries. Blinking up at them, he gave them a pitiful smile. Kieran punched him in the nose, knocking the smile off his face. Carrik tumbled backward, spitting blood.
“Take it!” Carrik screamed. “They wasn’t needin’ it. They was all dead!” He rolled to his knees and began to stand. Kieran kicked him in the ribs and knocked him down again. He kneeled and got in Carrik’s trembling face.
“The officers. Where are they?”
Carrik looked at him dumbly. “The officers…?”
Kieran slapped him across the face. Carrick cowered away and whimpered like a whipped dog. The sound made Kieran angrier and he hit him again, this time with a closed fist. “Where are they?” he yelled.
Carrik pointed a shaky finger to the west. Kieran looked and saw, in the distance, a campfire. It looked to be fairly close, but the nights in this land distorted distance. It could be as far away as twenty miles, he thought. Angrily, he shoved Carrik aside.
“Go through his cart, take enough provisions for three days and put it on our cart. Leave the bulk of the food and any valuables and coin where you find them.”
Cyril looked at Kieran. “We are just gonna leave the coin with him? Why in the hells…”
Kieran silenced him with a raised hand. “No, we aren’t. He is going to take our cart, and he will be happy he leaves with that much. I’d much rather leave him to walk this wasteland.”
Carrik knelt at Kieran’s feet and began to cover them with bloody kisses. “Thank you for your kindness, m’lord”, he blubbered. Kieran kicked him away.
“You have ten minutes. Then I want you on the horizon. South. If you are still here after eleven, you are dead.”
Carrik scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could to the other cart. With a wistful glance at the treasures that he thought would ease his life, he set the cart in motion and took off south, kicking up a spray of dust behind him.
Kieran watched him until he disappeared over the horizon, and turned back to look at the campfire. He was lost in thought, and never noticed as Cyril walked up and stood next to him.
“Do we go on tonight, or wait ‘til dawn?”, Cyril asked, startling Kieran out of his reverie. He stared out for a few more minutes before he turned to Cyril and said, “No, tell Lanak and Tryv to eat and rest. They think we are dead. No matter when we attack, they won’t expect it. Arrogant bastards. Remember, Hillstaff is mine.”
Cyril nodded and went back to the archers. They went about setting up camp. Carrik had stolen a barrel of salted beef and they feasted on that. More searching produced a cask of fine wine. Kieran drank and ate little, focusing on the fire in the distance. Cyril sat next to him.
“We will follow the cart, single file. When Carrik was following them, it was just him, no one else. It may arouse suspicion if more suddenly show up. When we gain the ground, we will strike.”
Cyril nodded. “Tryv should lay in the back. There was only one man in the cart.”
“Good thinking. Get some rest. We leave at first light.” Kieran stood and went to his bedroll. He knew he would not sleep, but he had to lie down so they could not see him trembling with anger. His prey was in sight, and it took every bit of strength to keep himself from charging.
When dawn broke, they were already set to head out. Single file, they rode towards the camp. The decoy was not necessary. The arrogant officers had not even woken, much less broken camp. Only their retainers were awake, busily preparing breakfast. The attack was a total surprise.
Kieran and his Lancers charged into the camp with a war cry that would have startled the deaf. The retainers were cut down without mercy. The officers stumbled out of their tents, sleep slowing them down. This delay cost them dearly. In just a few seconds, four were slaughtered, dying before they could fully open their eyes. Two managed to make it to a horse, but it was the same horse. In his haste to flee, one man forgot any weapons. His lapse in thinking cost him his life, as his former compatriot shoved a dagger into his throat, before leaping onto the horse, unsaddled. He only managed a few feet before an arrow from Tryv’s bow ended his escape. One managed to mount some offense, but he was no match for Cyril. Cyril was like a whirlwind of blades. He feinted high, and when the officer fell for the feint, he dipped his sword low towards the officer’s belly. Blood flowed red, staining his white tunic as he slumped to the ground.
Two of the officers fell to their knees immediately and begged for mercy. They found none. Kieran took the head off one with a swift slash. Before he could reverse his strike towards the remaining one, Lanak had driven his sword deep into the man’s chest. Swearing, he struggled to remove it before giving up and helping himself to an officer’s sword. He hefted it and smiled. “Much better than the one I had”, he said, laughing.
Kieran looked over the bloody camp. He could see no sign of Hillstaff. He walked over to the largest tent and pushed the opening flaps aside. Cowering in a corner was Hillstaff.
“Get up you coward!” snarled Kieran. “Why did you order the attack!? Answer me!”
Trembling, Hillstaff looked at him. “It wasn’t me! Larkil ordered it! He had no money to pay and he was losing!”
“And you don’t have to pay dead men,” Kieran reasoned.
“Right! The orders are over there. It wasn’t my fault! I just followed orders!”
Kieran walked to the table set up on the other side of the tent. He picked up one bearing the official seal of Larkil, a small bird clutching a snake. It was supposed to indicate that he could take on anyone and win. Looking at it, Kieran thought, prophecy is not his calling. He opened it and read. It said “Full charge, all units. Regular army as well. No survivors.”
“See! It was Larkil!” Hillstaff shouted. Kieran hadn’t noticed the man get so close to him. Anger welled up in him and he saw red. Clutching the long knife he had taken from his longtime friend’s dead body, he turned and thrust it into the abdomen of Hillstaff, driving the point upwards until it pierced his heart. Blood bubbled up from Hillstaff’s throat as he slid to the ground. He was dead before he hit the floor.
Kneeling, he wiped the blood off the blade with Hillstaff’s tunic. “You died quicker than you deserved, Major.” He stood, spit on his body and left the tent.
Outside, he gathered his men. “Get whatever you want. Burn the rest. Pack the cart.” He turned toward the major’s tent.
Cyril stopped him before he could get too far. “Where do we go next?” he asked.
Kieran looked at him and gave a grim smile. “Korthant.”
“That’s Larkil’s castle. You can’t mean…”
“Larkil is behind this. He wanted us dead because he can’t pay us. I am going to kill him.” He looked at Cyril. “You were a good soldier. You all were. Your work is done. You can go home.”
Cyril shook his head. “To the hells with that. I go. We all go. We got no homes. I go with you to death. Sir.”
Sighing, Kieran nodded his acceptance. Korthant was a six day ride from where the were. They were well provisioned, so food was no issue. If he failed in his plans, they would all die. Kieran saw no need to rush.
Tryv and Lanak had other views. They wanted Larkil’s head. Kieran had forgotten that the others had as much in this as he. They gathered everything of value, burned the camp down and headed out.
Kieran moved his horse next to Cyril’s. “That story they tell of you”, he said. “Is it true? That you stole the ring off a priest’s finger one moment, and replaced it a few seconds later?”
Cyril laughed and shook his head. “Not entirely. I ran with some lads in my hometown. It was a small town. We fancied us to be a gang like in the big cities, but we were just in it for fun. Nothing big. Pick a pocket to see if we could do it. I got to where I could pull rings off hands easy. It was more of a joke, and I always returned them. One day, a Corinite priests decided to grace our town with his presence. My pals dared me to pull my trick, with the added dare to replace it. I accepted, being full of myself as the town’s top picker.’’
The day came and I waited in line for his blessing. When he put his ring down for a kiss, off it came. The next five in line were my pals. They kept quiet, though they wanted to bust. I ran down the line and knelt again. When I tried to replace it, I got caught. I tried to explain that I wasn’t stealing it, I had already stolen it and was replacing it. That went as well as you can imagine. I was chained and thrown in the cells. That night I escaped. Three weeks later I joined with you. And here I am.”
Kieran laughed so hard he had to force himself to stop so he could breathe. Tears were rolling down his face. The laughing felt good. All the events of the last few days seemed distant, like memories dulled by time. “You have the way of the street more than you think. Never deny anything that helps your reputation. Colm and I learned that long ago”
“How did you two meet?”
Kieran smiled at him, one full of warmth. “That’s a story for another time. Stick around long enough and you will find out.”
The days passed without event. They made good time. By dusk of the fifth day, Korthant was in sight. Being this close to his prey brought the anger back into Kieran’s heart. He had ever killed without passion. It kept him from making mistakes. He had to force himself to calm down.
Cyril noticed the turmoil on Kieran’s face, and suggested they make camp. With much reluctance, Kieran agreed. He got down the chest he packed. In it was a dark blue suit, almost invisible in the night. His old assassins outfit. It had been fifteen years since he had worn this. He was the same size as then, maybe a bit more muscle. He ran his hand over it for a few more seconds then put it away.
The rest of the camp slept. They set no watch, as this was a well-guarded area and only the most foolish highwayman would be so bold as to rob a traveler this close to the castle. Kieran laid his head on his pack, and stared up at the night sky.
He awoke with the sun in his eyes. He didn’t remember falling asleep. His men were busy breaking camp. Bacon was frying in the fire. A dark tarry tea boiled in a pot. If his mission weren’t so dark, this would be a wonderful morning.
After breakfast, they set out again. It only took half the day to reach Korthant. The town around it was small, but busy with travelers. Kieran smiled inwardly. It would be too easy to disappear in this crowd. He looked back at his men. “We get some rooms at the inn. Keep a low profile. Tryv, you set a stall. We are merchants today.”
Tryv nodded. Kieran told the rest of his plan speaking in hushed tones. He went over it until everyone knew their part. Tryv got his stall and set up. Cyril and Lanak acted as his hired help. Tryv played his part as if he were born to it, barking his wares to the crowd. At night they closed up, and sought the inn. Kieran had already gotten his room. After nightfall, he donned his night blue suit and exited his room through the window.
Keeping to the shadows, Kieran made his way to the keep. He silently slipped past a snoring guard, then past another more interested in his alecup. At the wall, he waited until all was clear, then scrambled up the wall with the grace of a cat.
Entering the keep, he scouted the rooms until he found Larkil’s quarters. Finding a well hidden spot that allowed a view of the door, he pulled three pieces of small wooden tube from his suit and twisted them together into a pipe about three feet long. From a small metal box he selected a barbed dart from his pocket, placed it in his mouth and waited.
After a few hours his legs began to get numb. Just as he was about to shift, the door opened and in stepped Larkil. He shouted an order to not be disturbed until midday and drunkenly stumbled towards his bed.
Kieran snapped into action. He lifted his tube to his mouth and blew. Larkil slapped at his neck, uttered a slight moan and fell to the ground. Kieran walked over to him, and kicked him in the ribs. Larkil made no sound.
Kieran knelt down and looked Larkil in the face. Larkil’s eyes were open, and Kieran could see the fear in them. “The dart was laced with lodoran. It’s a poor poison for assassination, but it has many other useful effects for one in my profession.”
At the mention of assassination, Larkil’s eyes grew wide. Kieran gave a small laugh.
“You will notice you can’t move. It’s why torturers love this. The person is fully awake, can breathe, but the vocal chords and most of the other body parts are paralyzed. You can blink. Blink for me.”
Larkil blinked rapidly.
“Good. Now we talk. One blink yes, two blinks no. Do you understand?” One blink.“Excellent.
Do you recognize me?” Two blinks.
“Shame. I guess we mercs mean little to you.”
Larkil’s eyes widened in realization.
“Now you know, eh? Good. I would hate to kill you if you thought this was just some random act of violence.” Kieran produced a small stick with a tiny hook in the middle. “Do you know what this is?”
Larkil blinked twice.
“It’s a torturers flaying tool. See this hook? You slice a piece of skin and pull it up a bit, then attach it to this hook. Then, you spin the stick. Fast if you like, but I prefer to do it slowly. Oh yes. I forgot. Another side effect of the lodoran powder is that the affected can feel everything. And since you are not to be bothered until midday, we have all night together.” Kieran pulled out a sharp knife and began to cut off the wine soaked clothes Larkil was wearing. When he had him stripped, he used that knife to slice a piece of skin from his back. Larkil tried to scream, and found he could not. Kieran gave him a knowing wink and attached the skin to the hook. He then began to spin the stick slowly, pulling the skin in a thin strip from Larkil’s back.
Seven hours later, Kieran slit Larkil’s throat, ending his misery. A pile of fleshy strips lay in a bloody heap next to the body. Then, as quietly as he entered, he left.
Early the next day, the company set out north. “Where to next, sir?” Cyril asked.
“Kinnath” Kieran responded. “I got a spot to reclaim.”