The killing was imminent and once it started, it would be over in less than twenty heartbeats. The assassin knew this, knew it with the same certainty that he knew himself, his abilities, his limits. His entirety, his reality, was one of death and the coming fight was but an extension of that reality.
He knew, too, as he crouched in the shadows of the rafters, that killing the three men who had just entered the old dilapidated barn beneath him would bring him no closure.
It did not matter; he was going to kill them anyway.
“Ye’re sure ’e said this is where ’e ’id it?” the first man said to his companions, as he unknowingly paused beneath the assassin’s hiding place. The man was tall, broad in chest and round in gut. His stringy black hair and beard were heavily streaked with grey. His clothing, wool tunic belted over leather trousers, had once been colorful and expensive but was now worn and uniformly brown and yellow. Worse yet, he stank; the assassin could smell him from ten feet overhead, the conglomerate stench of piss, sweat and other foul odors wafting up in a near tangible cloud.
The other two men stepped up next to their companion. They were equally well dressed and equally odiferous.
The man holding the group’s torch nodded in reply to his companion’s question, waving the torch around in a futile attempt to better illuminate the dark interior of the barn. “Yeah,” he growled. “This ’un’s the only barn ’round for miles.” The third man merely grunted in reply.
“Well, I’m guessin’ it is, so let’s be gettin’ it over with and findin’ them sacks o’ gold.” The original speaker said, casting glances around the invasive gloom.
“Can’t imagine why ’e’d want us to come here otherwise,” said the third man, proving at last that he could master basic speech.
The assassin smiled darkly. Oh, you will soon know why you are here.
The assassin had arranged the summons from their cohort three days ago. Of course, that same companion had been dead for a week before that. Knowing his quarry, the assassin knew greed would flush them out of hiding.
Knowing one’s prey, every intimate detail that could be bought, spied, or otherwise revealed, was the most important tool, the most effective weapon one could apply when seeking the death of others. The actual killing, in comparison, was easy.
The three men below were the last living members of a band of highwaymen that had once numbered ten. The assassin had been hunting them for nearly half a year.
Six months ago the band of ruffians had attacked a gypsy caravan, outbound from the Outlands Province of Drachenriech. It wasn’t the first such raid the band had initiated, nor was it the last; but it would, in darkly subtle ways, be the deadliest. At least for the brigands.
That particular raid on the caravan had left none of the gypsies alive. Among the dead was the father of a teenage girl. The girl had opted to stay within the city to organize the materials and merchandise for the next caravan, upon her father’s return six months later. Of course, her father never returned, and it was within the city’s walls the girl met the assassin, and the assassin’s life changed forever.
What did he feel for her, and why? The ‘what’ was complicated, ambiguous. She was attractive, but he was not attracted to her. He had killed the part of his soul that could have cared for her in that manner long ago, when the woman to whom the gypsy girl was remarkably similar had died. It was the gypsy girl’s ghost like reminder of his past that enthralled the assassin and provided the ‘why’.
The ghost from his past he could neither love nor abandon. Nor apparently escape.
The three brigands began to separate and move off around the barn, in search of the promised “bags o’ gold”. Now was the time for the assassin to go to work.
He quickly removed the cloth strip he wore over his right eye, to preserve his night vision, and, keeping his eye closed, dropped from his perch in the rafters.
Falling precisely behind the torch bearer, he deftly slid the strip of cloth, now grasped in both hands, around the brigand’s neck and used the man’s weight to slow his own momentum.
The brigand’s startled cry turned instantly to a strangled gurgle as he was pulled backward off his feet. The torch slipped from his fingers as he fell. The brigand fell flat on his back, the assassin landing nimbly by the top of the man’s head. Before the man’s companions could turn their attention to the sounds of struggle, the assassin grasped the brigand’s shoulders and rolled him forcibly atop the torch, extinguishing it with a wet hiss.
The assassin produced a dagger from his right boot top and, gripping it blade down, slammed it into the back of the stunned man’s neck, just below the base of the skull.
“Jorg?” cried the nearest of the remaining brigands. “What the ’ell ’appened to the damned light?”
The assassin sprang up and forward, both eyes open now, pulling a short sword from a sheath over his right kidney.
The two remaining foemen stood roughly ten feet apart, both fumbling around blindly in the sudden darkness.
The assassin rushed the brigand on the right, reaching out with his left hand to grab the brigand’s right wrist, preventing even an accidental wounding, as the man had been waving his long sword around in panic.
“What the fuck! Who the fu--” the startled man’s scream was cut short as the assassin’s blade slid into the left side of the man’s neck, thrusting in and down, behind the clavicle and into the brigand’s chest.
Losing his nerve at hearing the sounds of combat, yet unable to see clearly, the third man let out a wordless shriek, flung his sword away and bolted in the general direction of the barn’s door.
The assassin, ripping his sword free, and still grasping the dying man’s wrist, levered the mortally wounded man around and sent him tumbling directly into the path of his fleeing companion.
The fleeing brigand’s legs became inextricably tangled in his companion’s body, tripping him and sending him sprawling to the ground.
“What the--? Oh gods!” The man babbled as he rolled over and backpedalled on all fours. The assassin stepped up quickly and launched a savage kick into the scrambling man’s chin.
The brigand’s teeth smashed together loudly, the tip of his tongue bounced off his chin, having been bitten cleanly off. Blood sprayed, and continued to bubble from the stunned man’s mouth as he collapsed back to the ground. Without pause the assassin knelt over him and slit his throat.
It had taken nearly six months to track down and kill all of the brigand’s that had attacked the caravan, but at last tonight, the last of them lay dead or dying on the floor of a forgotten barn.
The gypsy girl didn’t know; the assassin hadn’t told her what he had been doing. Would she thank him? Would she look at him in disgust, thinking him no better than the men who had killed her father? The assassin knew the answer to none of these questions. The question he contemplated as he walked out of the barn was would he care one way or the other?
The dense woods surrounding the decrepit barn stood dark and silent. Cold mist crept silently down the mountain swirling over the muddy ground. Its ghostly fingers slithered up the rough bark of the trees, twisting among the branches, almost concealing the hooded figure sitting astride a large black gelding.
The creak of leather broke the silence as the rider twisted in the saddle. Instinct told her that she was not alone. She had felt a presence for several miles now. She expected an attack at any moment. As yet, it had not come.
She tapped the horse’s side with one wet, mud covered boot. The beast lurched forward, its great hooves alternately splashing muddy water and throwing great globs of mud in every direction.
It had been several months since Rheyanna Faolin had left Aviton. She had taken a circuitous route through the mountains, stopping in the many small towns and villages, though she never stayed long. Partly because she held a general disdain for humanity, partly because she never found what she was looking for. She had not encountered any real problems outside the drunken fool who thought himself a highwayman that attempted to rob her. It was his final mistake.
For several years, she had traveled with Gunnar, the man who had found her unconscious and bleeding in the woods outside Espalina, his brother, Gustav and their companion, Eirick.
For a while, the three men thought she was a boy and treated her likewise. Inevitably, they came to the realization that she was, in fact, a girl. Gustav wanted to take her to the nearest town and dump her off with anyone willing to take her. Eirick would have none of it; he had quickly become fond of Rheyanna and promised to take responsibility for her.
Gunnar did not like staying in one place for too long. Rheyanna could never determine if this was because he was a restless spirit or because he was a thief and an incurable womanizer. Doubtless, he had stolen from too many of the wrong men and, to add insult to injury, he had most likely bedded their wives… or daughters… or both.
Gustav, slightly younger than Gunnar, was less enchanted by women. He spent the majority of his time drinking and fighting. He seldom lost a fight. If he did, he was normally too drunk to feel the pain.
Eirick, the youngest of the men, was the son of a Lord, or some such thing. Eirick hated his father passionately and rarely spoke of him.
He spent most of his time in the woods with his swords, alone.
A twig snapped somewhere in the fog, bringing the woman back to the present. Her unseen companion was still there, maintaining his distance. She placed a hand on her short sword as her thoughts drifted back into the past.
Eirick, only slightly older than Rheyanna, was an attractive young man. His long black hair and intense gray eyes always captivated the ladies, much to his dismay. He was not comfortable around women. His sole female companion was the fiery haired young lady that was never far from his side; even when he took his swords and went out into the woods in the middle of the night.
He always waited until he thought she was asleep. She feigned sleep for several minutes after he left, and then she would run after him. She loved to watch as he fought invisible enemies. His movements were fluid and mesmerizing.
Eventually, Eirick had caught her following him. Instead of being angry with her, as she thought he would be, he gave her a dagger and a short sword and began teaching her how to handle them. He did not go easy on her. He often chastised her for failing to pay attention to her surroundings and because she had a tendency to get angry and lose her focus. She had often felt the sting as he had swatted her with the flat of his sword, laughing at her frustration.
Rheyanna would practice as much as possible while Gunnar and Gustav were away from camp. Neither of the men thought it was wise to put a weapon in the hands of a woman.
With time, the bond between Eirick and Rheyanna grew. The pair was inseparable. They eventually decided that they would leave Gunnar and Gustav to their own devices and strike out on their own.
They wandered from town to town, looking for any information that would lead them to the men who killed Rheyanna’s father. Eirick thought that it was an exercise in futility; too much time had elapsed since his death and her memory of the event was nothing more than a fragmented nightmare and ghostly voices. Knowing Rheyanna wouldn’t give up; he stayed with her, though he constantly reminded her that he was just trying to make sure that she didn’t get herself killed. They both knew there was more to it than that.
Eventually, the pair drifted into Aviton, where Eirick became friends with a very wealthy, and corrupt, man who called himself “Lord” Barrington.
Though he was strikingly handsome and had little problem attracting the attention of the local women, Rheyanna disliked him intensely. She doubted that he was actually any type of real nobility and she never attempted to hide her antipathy for him.
It seemed to bother him that Rheyanna did not give him the lovesick stares he was accustomed to. She barely acknowledged his presence, no matter what ploy he used to attract her attention.
It was not long before Eirick started working for “Lord” Barrington, removing obstacles to the man’s endeavors. He was paid well for his services. Barrington gave him money, weaponry, anything he asked for. His attitude toward Rheyanna changed drastically. The closeness they had shared was no longer there.
He had overcome his dislike for female attention and he now became angry with her when she chased the throngs of adoring females away. He began treating her as he would one of the whores he had begun picking up in the local tavern.
Rheyanna tried to persuade Eirick to leave town with her, to no avail. He liked his new circle of “friends” and his new found wealth. He decided that he was going to stay in Aviton.
Knowing it was useless to argue with him, Rheyanna collected her few possessions, paid the stable fee for her horse, Wraith, and left town as a cold rain began to fall. She didn’t say goodbye to Eirick. She didn’t look back as she rode out of town, her tears mingling with the rain.
Wraith tossed his head, his wet mane slapped at Rheyanna’s face. Her unseen companion was still there, watching from a distance. She had lost the ability to care what his intentions were. She was cold, wet, and in an astonishingly bad mood. She silently hoped he was stupid enough to try to blindside her.
Rheyanna kicked her impatient steed into a gallop as the narrow road leveled out and became smoother. Miles flashed by quickly. As she crested a small hill, she could see a decent sized town in the valley.
Surprisingly, she could still feel the presence behind her. She glanced over her left shoulder to see her unwanted companion, now in the open and moving quickly.
The shadowy form stayed with her even as she barreled through the gates of the town. The woman rode through the town at a breakneck pace until she found the livery. She pulled her mount up short and rolled out of the saddle as she flew through the open doors.
The startled stable boy ran for the tack room as the woman landed in a crouch, short sword and dagger at the ready and a murderous look in her eye.
Come on asshole. I’m ready for you. She moved quickly toward the door. Hoofbeats echoed erratically down the street as her follower pulled his horse up and suddenly changed course. Then there was only the sound of the increasing wind and rain.
Rheyanna stood for a several minutes, listening, waiting for the attack. It did not come. The stable boy stared at her, wide eyed, from the door of the tack room. She shrugged slightly, pulled the hood of her cloak up and tossed the boy a couple coins as she stepped out into the rain.
She could see the warm glow through the windows of a small building at the end of the narrow street. As she moved closer she saw a large carved wood sign over the door. Desert Rat Tavern. The woman thought to herself as she pushed the door open. Sounds like a shit hole. Nothing new, they are all shit holes… Full of drunk idiots who don’t know how to mind their own business. Doubt this one will be any different. No one will know anything and I will move on in the morning…