CHAPTER ONE: NOTHING PERSONAL
A little less than three leagues from Mudroot, eastward along the Pinchpurse Path, three weary horsemen came to a sudden curve and dip in the trail, slowing their mounts.
“This’ll do,” Derfel gently brought his horse to a stop, “Good enough.”
“Right you are.” Replied the big man. He groaned as he ungracefully clambered down from his exhausted horse. “Let’s get on with it, then.”
He opened his saddlebag and from it produced a coiled length of slick-rope. The others watched closely as he lashed one end around a suitably sturdy tree trunk.
“Stay with the horses, Flick,” said Derfel, lithely sliding to the ground, “they’ll be here before long, so keep yourself out of sight.”
“You sure, Derf?” The third, younger one asked, taking his companions reins in hand.
“Sure, Flick,” the boy lead the horses off into the treeline, and Derfel lost sight of them almost immediately in the thick foliage, softly calling after the boy, “but stay in earshot, and keep quiet, lad.”
The big man, known to his friends simply as Brinkle the Big, had now lumbered over to the other side of the trail, letting the slick-rope play out behind him. It was a simple trap, tried and tested. Finished, he slumped to the ground with his back against a tree.
“I can’t believe it’s come to this.” He mumbled, softly stroking the hilt of his knife in the dark. An owl hooted, far off in the distance.
“Believe it.” Derfel pulled a small, half filled bottle from the leather pouch at his waist and held it up to bright, beautiful Mother Moon. The clear liquid within began to shimmer in the light, flickering specks of luminescence darting within like tiny, playful fireflies.
“Not much left, but here you go.” Said Derfel, handing over the bottle. The big man’s eyes widened. He uncorked it with a pop and inhaled vigorously as a grin spread from ear to ear. Derfel sighed. “Go easy now, only a taste.”
As Brinkle drank, Derfel listened closely for the riders who would be following along the twisting trail. Nothing yet. The whisper of the wind. A second, distant hoot. The soft sipping from the man at his side. A minute passed, then another. He strained to hear, willing them to come, and then finally there it was; an unmistakable rumble from over the crest of the hill.
“Here we go, then.” The big man sighed, handed back the bottle and lurched to his feet as Derfel followed the rope back across the trail, pulling up the hood of his cloak and concealing himself in the underbrush.
“They’re coming Flick!” He called out softly into the shadows, sliding his blade from its scabbard.
Brinkle wrapped the end of the slickrope around his arm and braced himself. The sound of hoofbeats was close now. Glancing over at Derfel he smirked and gave a wink, as the three horses rounded the bend. Rising to his full height with a bellowing roar, he hauled back on the rope with all his might, raising the deadly barrier at the very last moment. The first horse galloped straight on, oblivious, its legs immediately snatched out from under it and sending its rider catapulting over his mount’s head. The shock of the impact yanked Brinkle off balance, rattling him to his bones, and it took everything he had to keep his grip from slipping. The muscles in his back and shoulders tensed like an ox as he immediately pulled the rope taut once more, and the second rider, too late to act, also fell victim to one of the very oldest tricks in the book. He was somersaulting head over heels through the air with a yelp even before the first rider had hit the ground, which he did, crumpling into a lifeless heap in the dust. The crippled horses bucked and thrashed beside their owners; Front legs snapped like kindling against the iron-strong slickrope, their eyes rolled back in their sockets as spittle flew from their mouths.
The third and final horseman had been at the back of the pack, and took in the scene in an instant. He saw the giant crash from the treeline and watched as his companions were struck down by some unseen force. He tugged on his reins firmly, controlling his mount, jinking to the side and aiming to go around the huge figure. Sticking to the edge of the road he passed safely out of reach of the beast and felt relief surge through his veins. His poor, ruptured veins; Something had struck him in the flank. The blood was already wet and sticky to his fingertips as he clutched at his side.
He turned his head as the horse slowed, to see the slim figure of Derfel Cadarn slinking from the shadows, a long, thin dirk held at his side. He hadn’t stood a chance in hell of seeing the blade as he had flown past. He had barely even felt its sting, as it slid up under his ribcage.
Derfel and Brinkle watched as the horse continued along the trail a short way, slowing to a walk, then finally coming to a halt. The rider was sat up straight as an arrow, the dark red heart-blood flowing heavily already, trickling its way down to drip from his saddle. The other two horses were crippled beyond saving. Brinkle’s eyes clouded as he knelt at their side and slit their throats, one after the other, calmly and carefully, with a certain reverence. Derfel could have sworn he saw a luminescent shimmer there for the briefest of moments, deep within the man’s deep, black pupils as he watched the animals bleed out their final moments.
The first rider had been killed outright from the fall; his unprotected head cracked like an egg, its red-jelly yolk spilled and mingling with the dirt. The second had fared little better, though was at least still breathing, with a definitely broken arm and a possibly shattered spine.
“Flick! It’s done!” Derfel yelled out. He approached the still-mounted third rider, taking the horses reins and looked up at the mortally wounded man. He was gurgling, a raspy, ragged effort at breathing. The blood flowed freely and gave a metallic tang to the crisp night air.
“Sorry friend. You’re done.” Derfel seemed genuinely sympathetic. The gurgling grew in intensity as the rider opened his eyes. He wheezed and coughed, his shoulders shook.
“Are you laughing? Well, that’s good. I’ll tell you something you’ll really laugh about though.” Derfel smiled and began to walk the horse back to the others. “We weren’t supposed to kill any of you, really. But you know how it is. Things happen out here and it’s just easier this way, you know? Nothing personal.”
Derfel grabbed at the man’s sword belt and brought him down to the ground unceremoniously, before delivering a well placed kick to the hideous puncture wound, causing him to jerk and yelp like a struck puppy. He disarmed him and tossed the sword and scabbard aside.
Flick had already pillaged the unconscious rider, and now leaned over the dead man, rifling through coin purse and pockets, making things vanish into his own at a speed that would impress even the famed spider harvesters of Sweetshadow. Brinkle left the lifeless horses, reclaimed his rope and now stood coiling it around his arm as he watched in anticipation.
Derfel placed a boot square on his victim’s chest, pinning him in place. Reaching into his pouch, he removed a small wooden box, deftly flicking off the lid and quickly shaking out the sandy powder contained within into the poor wretch’s face. The man’s eyes immediately widened to an alarming degree as he attempted to kick and wriggle free, realising the horror about to be visited upon him.
“I know, I know, fuck me. Just relax, it’ll be over in a moment.” He pressed down as the writhing intensified. “Shush now.”
Derfel kept him in place only for the few moments between the effects kicking in and the spasms stopping. Potent stuff. He removed his boot from the man’s torso and squatted over him, face mere inches from his. The laboured breathing had finally stopped.
“I know you’re still in there, and I know it hurts like fucking hellfire my friend,” Derfel whispered, staring into the straining eyes of the stricken man. “but I don’t think you would have given it up willingly, would you have?”
There it was. The smallest flicker of life behind the pupils.
“It’s the eyes, you know. That’s how you get in. “Windows to the soul” they used to call the eyes.” he reached down and dipped his finger in the blood pooling beneath the two of them before bringing it back up to the man’s forehead and making a small red mark there, a swirl of colour against the pale flesh. “And this is the key.”
As he pulled his finger away from the man’s head, he watched as his pupils began to dilate, and constrict, then dilate, and so on back and forth steadily, in rhythm. Derfel stared intently, focusing on the crack in the window, and willing himself in. He followed the pace of the dilations with his every breath. In and out, in and out, he closed his senses off against the world, shutting out the night and allowing himself the familiar tumble into the dark, unending blankness of those black pinpricks. It came easily to him now; the ancient, sacred techniques long practised and perfected. He dove in deep and smooth, shattering the broken husk of a man’s mind far more violently than his blade ever had his body. He probed and groped, pulling aside knowledge and dashing it carelessly against the floor of the man’s sanity.
His victim screamed, an unending , heart-crushing scream of agonised torture as his memories were torn from him, one by one. Pulverised into nothing, his feelings were extinguished and wisdom erased by the careless upending of all that he had ever been or would be. He screamed but made no sound. He screamed with a fury known only by one who has experiened his very existence melting before him. Derfel moved quicker through the dark passages of the man’s being now, discarding all such irrelevant trivialities, willing the man to accept this, do not resist, feeling his way towards more secretive things inside this place, esoteric thoughts and mind-worms. There were some good ideas in here, some bad, and most nonsense. There was hatred, and lust, and love. He trampled dreams and sent worries scattering, obliterated hopes and snuffed out precious relationships until at last, tucked away safely behind an existential crisis, he finally found his prize.
He snatched it up unto himself, absorbing it in an instant, and quickly retreated from this sacred place. He watched the tiny flicker of life give up at last as the husk of what was once a man was already beginning to turn to dust beneath him.
Brinkle and Flick were mounted and waiting, the young boy with the newly acquired horse roped behind him.
“And that’s why you need bloody decent chainmail, lad,” Brink was lecturing the boy again. He patted his substantial chest, “mine cost a damned fortune, or cost someone, anyway.”
The youngster rolled his eyes and noticed Derfel approaching.
“Ready then?” he enquired. “Got it, Derf?”
“Got it, Flick. What about that one?” Derfel pointed at the unconscious, probably paralytic second trap victim. “May as well finish the job.”
“Come on, Cadarn, stop fucking about and let’s go. We got what we came for, now let’s fuck off.” Brinkle glared at him.
“Alright, alright.” Derfel swung himself up into his saddle and laughed. “Easier than expected. Let’s be off then before Father Sun shows his ugly face.”
It took the best part of the rest of the night to reach Mudroot, and Father Sun was indeed peeking above the horizon, casting a warm amber glow over the floodplains as the three stopped before the causeway in to town. They dismounted and began the half-fathom trek on foot, discussing what was to follow.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go alone?” Flick was asking.
“It’s better this way, besides they already know what’s going on. They aren’t stupid.” Brinkle peered at the walls surrounding the smog-topped town, imagining the guards’ reaction to their return. He scratched at his gingery beard. “Three men leave, three follow, three return. Doesn’t take a fucking general to work out.”
“The idea is to act like we don’t give a damn. Brash it out, lad. We won’t be long, because we don’t belong, which means as soon as he knows what happened he’ll want to beat a hasty retreat.” Derfel reassured him.
“I still think you could wait for us out here.” Replied the boy.
“We could, but we won’t, and so we all go to see him together.” Brinkle scratched at his beard and yawned, letting out a sound more beast than man. “I’m fucked. This is going to be a hard day if you’re right, Derf’. Where do you reckon we’ll be away to then?”
“Not sure, it depends on what this thing is, I suppose. It feels complicated somehow, a weird one to be sure, never felt nothing quite like it. How much coin did they have anyway, Flick?” Derfel was fishing in his saddlebag, searching for something.
“A few severins, couple of coppers.”
“Keep it. And take this, too.” He handed Flick the short sword he had taken from the sigil-keeper whose mind he had pillaged mere hours before, a plain but sturdy blade. “If we’re going to swagger in there then let’s bloody well swagger, right?”
The youngster laughed as he fastened his new weapon to his side and seemed to grow two feet taller as he strode along with pride, the dirty-blonde mop of hair bouncing atop his head. The rest of the way the three joked and laughed and talked and teased and shared a little of Brinkle’s secret stash of flame-water straight from the bottle. It refreshed their tired, aching bones and merried their minds. The gates of Mudroot would have been open since sun up, so they kept their heads down as they finally passed between the palisades and through the imposing gatehouse, keeping to themselves, both ignoring and ignored. None of the guards gave them cause for concern; perhaps the night watch hadn’t passed on the news of last night’s activities to the morning lads. Whatever the case, the three companions were the only ones crossing the wall in this direction so early, though inside the bustle of trade and travel was already winding up for the day. They passed by a handful of locals who paid them no heed as they busied themselves with packing carts and horses, eager to be on their way, no doubt laden with goods for the richer towns and cities. There wasn’t much to offer from this long-forgotten piss-hole, but the fish they caught were easily dried in the oppressive heat of the early afternoons, and some folk further inland thought them tasty at least. The three friends made their way through the marketplace, dodging traders and merchants as they went about the daily rituals of setting up stall.
As they pressed further into town the streets narrowed and took on strange angles, the wooden homes rising two floors tall here, sometimes three. The air was thick with dust and smoke from morning fires, the wooden chimneys belching forth their poison plumes.
“Fucking miracle this place hasn’t burned to the ground yet,” Brinkle grumbled, “it would be bloody beautiful.” he grinned as he removed his boot, hopping on one leg as he attempted to shake a stone from within the stinking cavern. The others watched, smiling at the sight. The brute was over seven feet of solid oak-hard flesh, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered. Wobbling dangerously he stumbled, nearly falling into the path of an oncoming labourer, causing the man to swerve and drop the bundle of tools he was carrying and sending an assortment of what appeared to be rakes and hoes clattering to the ground.
“Watch it, you bell-end!” The labourer cried out.
“Fuck off, shit dick.” Brinkle scowled, roughly pulling his boot back over his foot. The man hurriedly scooped up the scattered tools and scampered off, realising his mistake and eager to be away from this giant of a man. Derfel and Flick laughed at their friend, glad of his company as they continued, leading their horses through the dingy streets until, at long last, they arrived at the small, unremarkable house which their illustrious captain had chosen to call his home.
Two of the Baron’s men lounged on the front step, engrossed in a game of knuckles. Another leant on his spear and watched as they took turns to flick the little rocks from between their fingers at the target; a squawking, plucky chicken. It was launching ineffective counter-attacks periodically, coming at them as if headless. The spearman looked up, noticing the newcomers arrival and throwing a salute, tapping the back of his fist to his forehead.
“Well, well, look what the cat dragged in.” He gestured towards them with his weapon. “And where did you lads disappear to last night then?”
“Morning, Korbax.” Derfel strode past the chicken and squeezed between the two players. “We went for a little ride along Pinchpurse, it was a beautiful night.”
He opened the door a sliver and slid through.
“And you two?” Korbax looked inquisitively to Brinkle and Flick. “Care to share? You’re his merry men after all.”
“We’ll not be so merry if you don’t leave that fucking chicken alone.” Replied Brinkle, wrinkling his reddish nose in the air.
“Oh I don’t know, I’m quite merry, Brink.” Flick took a hefty swig of flame-water, “It’s a good day so far.”
“Give that back you little bugger!” Brinkle snatched the bottle from the boy, holding back his laughter.