The Coward's Code
Gurst was a coward.
Though he didn’t advertise the fact, he himself felt no shame at the idea. After all, as far as he was concerned, those in his profession were always one of two things; cowards or bloody fools, soon to be dead.
Daefrenn Horndale, for example, had been a hero to most. A legend among hired blades. Daefrenn Horndale was brave. Daefrenn Horndale was powerful. Daefrenn Horndale was honorable. And Daefrenn Horndale was dead. He finally found himself up against odds he could not beat.
That was why Gurst felt no shame in being a coward. “Coward” was, as far as he was concerned, a term that meant you would do whatever it took to stay alive. And Gurst had a vested interest in staying alive. Men like Horndale cared about their reputation, about glory. Gurst didn’t have much of a reputation. No songs would ever be written about him, and that suited him quite nicely. Songs about great heroes always ended with a verse about their glorious death. Only fools like Horndale thought death could ever be glorious.
Also, you couldn’t buy ale with a reputation. You could with gold, and Grist had plenty of that. Well, he often did. Sometimes. But not, as it turns out, today.
The young lady sitting across from him didn’t look as if she had any gold, either, despite her claims.
“If it’s a matter of money, Mr. Gurst, I can pay,” she insisted. “Name your price.”
“Well, as to that,” said Gurst, tipping his chair back a bit from the table and indicating his empty glass. “I must insist upon a surcharge for this consultation. Keep that glass full while we speak and I’ll consider your request.”
This would prove both whether she carried the coin she claimed to, and give Gurst some time to consider her case. She didn’t look as if she’d seen fifteen winters. Honestly, she looked like any number of hard-luck girls he’d seen before. Some he’d helped. Some he’d been sent to retrieve.
This one kept her hood up, indicating a concern about who saw her, and she kept her eyes glued to the table before her, as if she was afraid of Gurst.
The first point was a strike against her, but the second spoke in her favor. Whomever she might be hiding from might be a thorny bush to prune, but if she was afraid of a man like himself, perhaps her adversary was a mere trifle.
The girl nodded slightly and Gurst called for the serving maid to fill his glass. He sipped in silence for a moment, waiting for the girl to speak. She didn’t seem to understand that she had the floor.
“Well?” he finally asked.
“Oh, ah…yes,” she stammered. “I’m sorry. I…I haven’t done anything like this before.”
“I understand, lass,” he said, trying to sound as if he really did. The fact is that her reluctance to speak was thrilling him all the more. This girl didn’t seem as if she was worth much to anyone. She might even be a runaway farmer’s daughter. Gurst tried to suppress a grin at the thought of such easy money.
“Well, Mr. Gurst,” she said. “I should start by telling you that I was found by a group of Merling priests three years ago. I…don’t recall much of my life before that. I was…I was in a bad way when they found me. But they took me in, gave me a name and a home. They even taught me numbers, songs, even a few letters. I thought I would be safe with them but…once I had my first blood they told me that I would receive new training.”
Now Gurst sat forward and started listening intently. He knew about the Merling priests. Oh, yes, he did.
“They taught me how to pleasure men, and…women as well,” she said. Her lip was trembling. A better man’s heart might be breaking at this, but the stirrings in Gurst weren’t coming from his heart. “They made me do terrible things and whipped me if I refused. They taught me about play-acting and pretending to be all sorts of different people, to suit different tastes. They gave me fine dresses, jewels, perfumes, but when I wasn’t performing for some lord or lady, I was kept in a small cell with three other girls. We weren’t allowed to keep the fine clothes or the jewels then. And we only ate well if we agreed to perform.
“I had enough after two years so, I ran. They sent a demon after me.”
“No!” Gurst pretended to be disgusted.
“He possessed my body and made me go back,” she said. Gurst nearly lost his composure with those words. Merling priests loved to talk about the demons at their command, but it was all talk. Gurst had been round and round this world and seen many terrible things, but nothing that made him believe in demons. They probably had a simple compulsion spell that had forced her to obey them and had called it a demon. Children and idiots could be fooled that way.
“After they had me back they chained me in a small room and whipped me. They told me that I would never see the light of day again. And for nearly two years, I didn’t.”
“Poor lass,” said Gurst, with slightly less empathy in his voice. This part he could believe. He and the Merling priests had had business before. He had delivered a few of their girls back to them himself. Would they truly need the likes of him if they had demons at their command?
“I did manage to escape again,” she said. “I had to use the training they taught me, but I managed to get one of the men I was supposed to serve to take me outside. The thrill of being seen at our business appealed to him. I…I managed to take his pistol away and I…”
Gurst put on his most sincere chagrined face. He doubted that she had actually killed a man, but then, she seemed pretty shaken up about it. She might have at least fired the weapon at him.
“It’s alright,” he said. “Sooner or later nearly everyone is required to kill someone. You at least got yours early.”
The girl sat in silence for a time after he spoke. She seemed to be quietly weeping.
“So,” he finally said. “What is it you’d have me do?”
“They sent someone else after me this time,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
“Not this time. A man. A tall man with skin like pitch.”
“Ah. You mean he’s a Na’Tūk." There were still some to whom a Na’Tūk was a strange sight, but several here in Perjís. "Is he one of the priests?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "I think so. He wears their scarlet robes. But I've never seen him at temple."
Gurst considered this. "Yes. Likely he is one of them then. He might have an arsenal of spells, or maybe even a pistol of his own, but I'd wager he's not much of a shot."
"So you'll help me? You'll kill him? I can't be chased anymore, Mr. Gurst."
The sellsword sat in silence for a moment and took in the sight of the girl before him. All in all, he was leaning toward accepting the contract.
The coward's code was simple. It involved three rules only.
First, don't get greedy. Charge lower rates than other sellswords. That way, the poor sods who came to you likely weren't as desperate as they could be, meaning their problem was less likely to get you killed. Also, more will come to you because they liked the price. This was a quantity business, not quality, something those fools who wished to be the next Horndale would never understand.
Second, always keep, on or near your person, as many projectile weapons or throwing weapons as possible. Gurst's coat, sleeves, belt and boots were filled with tiny throwing knives and he carried a long, sleek, deadly-looking Thiefkiller crossbow in the pilot's seat of his crawler. His primary weapon was his Throckston Shadechaser that he kept loaded and on his belt at all times that he was dressed and within arm's reach any time he wasn't. He'd become quite a good shot.
And finally, never take a job unless you were certain the odds of you living were greater than the odds of having your glorious death sung by all the bards from here to Grystanloc. Gurst generally preferred jobs such as caravan guard. Merchants paid handsomely for what was essentially no real work; ride by the wagons and carry a big sword that made any local vagabonds think twice before tangling with him for loot.
But he also occasionally took smaller jobs that required less travel. Jobs like retrieving a runaway child. Or a runaway concubine. Or even keeping a follower off someone's tail if said follower were a lesser fighter than he. The more this girl told him her tale of woe, the more certain he was that this job was more his speed.
"What's your name, child?" he asked.
"Leyethe," she said, her mouth barely moving. Her gaze remained locked on the table. With her hood pulled so low, he had yet to see her eyes. He wondered if they were green. A green-eyed concubine, still young and supple, and no strangers to the ways of men. Perhaps he'd be paid for this job in more than gold. But still...
"Leyethe, eh? Goddess's name, m'I right?"
"The priests named me for Leyethe the Debased. The goddess of night's reaping."
"Heaving name for such a young thing," he said.
"They told me that when they found me, I was dead," she said. She seemed to slouch even lower in her seat. "They brought me back. I must not have been dead for long."
Gurst shook his head. The horseshit those pervert priests filled this girl's head with.
"Well, Leyethe," he said. "Tell me where I can find this Na'Tūk and I'll be on my way. He won't bother you anymore. But I must caution you, the job will cost you twenty gold marks."
"That's almost all I have," she said. Name your price, she'd said. Indeed.
"I'm sorry, but that's my final price. You're getting quite a discount, though. For murder jobs I usually charge twice that." He generally charged fifteen, but this girl seemed more desperate than his average client. More desperation, more willingness to drop coin.
She sighed and dug a purse out of her road pack. "I'll pay it," she said. "I have it here..."
"Ah, don't do that here, lass," said Gurst. "This ain't the sort of place to be unloading coin. Keep it on you until the job is done. I'll bring you the Na'Tūk's head." Or, the head of the first Na'Tūk he could find, shot up badly enough she'd never know the difference.
"They call him Cutty," she said. "He was close on my trail when I arrived in Perjís. He's like to be here by now."
Gurst briefly considered changing his mind, but then decided it didn't matter. There were enough Na'Tūks in town that he could find one quickly and make short work of him. Or even see if there was one who'd drunk himself to death in the alley behind the inn. Leyethe couldn't have been trying to get a close look at him; she would have been trying to keep as much distance between he and she as possible. It would be hard for her to tell the difference, especially if he shot the blighter in the face.
"Cutty," he mused. "Odd name for a priest."
"It ain't his real name," she said. "I just heard someone call him that when he came into a bar I was hiding in."
"I see," said Gurst, trying to ignore the nagging feeling that this man was sounding less and less like a priest.
"Leyethe, my dear," he said. "We have a contract."
Within a few short minutes, he had obtained the paper and she had signed, if somewhat reluctantly. Gurst went back to his room and strapped on his big, evil-looking sword. He'd likely not even use it, but to cleave the head from some unlucky Na'Tūk drunk, but it impressed the locals to carry it.
He arranged a room for the girl to wait in, and stepped out into the evening gloom. He lit a cherogh to steady his nerves, and decided that travel by crawler might actually be called for. The bloody thing would make a lot of noise, but it also might scare a drunken Na'Tūk out of hiding.
He had almost climbed fully into the pilot's seat when a powerful arm pulled him out and thrust him hard against the crawler's hull.
"Did the girl hire you?" rumbled a deep voice.
Gurst's vision cleared and he saw his assailant was a tall man with a shaved head and dark skin. Cutty appeared to have turned him into prey before he had a chance to be hunter. It was time to start talking his way out of the Na'Tūk's clutches.
"Girl?" he asked. "What girl?"
"She hired you," said Cutty. "I can see it in your eyes. Liars have a hard time fooling me."
"Alright!" he said. "She came to me, but I turned her down! You seemed too dangerous for my liking."
"Coward," said Cutty, frowning. It did not sound accusatory, just an observation.
"Aye, that's me," agreed Gurst. "I prefer remaining alive and well, thanks."
Cutty regarded him silently a moment. "I should have known she would try this. A distraction for me and an advantage for her."
Gurst shook his head. "What in the gods' names are you talking about?"
Cutty sighed and released him. He turned and looked back at the Inn.
"She's trying to kill me," he said. "She may very well be the deadliest girl alive."
Gurst almost laughed out loud. "A big man like you? Afraid of a little girl?"
"She plays the innocent well enough," said the big Na'Tūk. "She plays almost anything very well. She even has you believing her lies right up to the moment she slits your throat."
"Ah, fuck me," said Gurst. "She even told me they trained her at play-acting."
"She'll always tell the truth where she can," said Cutty. "Did she tell you that she escaped the Merling temple?"
"Yeah," said Gurst. "She said she took one of her...erm...gentlemen outside then shot him with his own pistol to get away."
Cutty laughed at that; a short bark with no mirth in it. "She escaped by slaughtering every man and child in that cursed place. Except me. And I almost didn't.
"When we found her, she was dead. We assumed it was for only moments, so we brought her back. But she didn't come back...whole. Or perhaps something came back with her. She's never been quite right. There's always been something...unsettling about her."
There was a familiarity in the dark man's words. Something about another unsettling girl he had met once. He fumbled for his cherogh, realized he had dropped it, pulled another and lit it with trembling hands. To think how close he was to a mad killer!
"She's still in there," he said. "We can surprise her."
"No," said Cutty. "She'll have left by now. She might even be watching us."
"So...what do we do?"
"We should try to reach the Inn again. If we're around others, she'll be less likely to strike. You have a room there?"
"Then we should go there, and regroup."
Gurst agreed, but one thing was weighing on his mind. "She said you sent a demon to possess her. Is that true?"
Cutty sighed. "It's true," he said. "but we didn't summon a demon for her. We...don't really know how to do that. We tried our magics to locate her and...well, it just came. By itself. It was n'Malakutt, the Fleshbinder. We managed to bind it and compel it to go to her, and take over her body, and bring her back. Foolish."
"She escaped it?"
Cutty's laugh was the sound of perfect horror. "Escape it?" he exclaimed. "She tamed the bloody thing! She returned and...and...we really should get inside. Now."
He turned without another word and bolted for the Inn. Gurst considered hopping back in his crawler and taking off for the gods knew where. But was there a place he could go that she would not follow?
He followed Cutty back to the Inn. Once both men were safely inside, he quickly scanned the common room, looking for the small, hooded form of Leyethe. Nothing.
"Did the girl I was speaking with go to my room?" he asked Huffe, the barkeep.
"I put her in the one next to yours," he said.
"Have you seen her since then?" Huffe shook his head.
"Are there any ways out of here other than through this room?" asked Cutty.
The barkeep laughed. "You serious, mate? It's an Inn. There's five other ways out."
Cutty's face grew grim, and he headed for the stairs. Gurst followed and cautioned him back.
"Quietly," he said. He still let Cutty go first. Cowards never took the lead.
Cutty drew a long, serrated dagger and crept quietly up the stairs. He paused at the top and looked questioningly at Gurst. The sellsword indicated which room she was in; the one furthest in. Gurst's was second to last, as he always chose.
As they drew closer to the door, Gurst could feel the sense of wrong in the air. His coward's instinct told him to run, and he almost did, but Cutty's rock-like arm snatched his shoulder before he could get far.
"You are not leaving me to face her alone!" he whispered.
Well before he could think of another plan, they were at the door. Cutty knelt and looked through the keyhole. He drew a small pistol from his belt and fired the lock off. He looked again and shook his head. Apparently he didn't see her.
Slowly he stood and opened the door.
Leyethe was standing on the bed, staring straight at Gurst. His blood froze at the sight of her, as memories came rushing back. Those eyes! They were green indeed, as green as the girl he was forced to murder three years before.
Leyethe could not have seemed more different from the cringing creature she had put on in the common room. The face before him had haunted his nightmares for years; an image of pure, naked insanity. A sort of evil rapture was painted across her features. It was the face of a woman who had seen death and sent it screaming back into the abyss.
"Now he remembers," she said. Her voice was cold and fierce, so unlike the stammering of before. "Now it all makes sense."
"You..." Gurst breathed. "You were..."
"Dead?" she finished. "Oh, yes, I was. For several hours. But the Merling priests have ways of pulling one back from my namesake's cruel embrace."
"Cutty, quick! Let's kill her!" Gurst's hand went for his Shadechaser, but a vise-like hand clamped 'round his wrist. Cutty laughed, and his features began to melt. His skin grew darker yet and his ears extended to points. His eyes went dark yellow and his teeth lengthened and sharpened.
Gurst's bladder let go as he felt Cutty's claws puncture the flesh of his arm.
"You're certain it's him?" Cutty rasped.
"I'll never forget his face," said Leyethe. "It was all I dreamed about as I fought and labored those thousands of years in Hell. The face of the man who sent me there."
Gurst sank to the floor. It was all fresh in his mind now. The young girl with the cold, glassy eyes. The girl who was so tempting. The girl who wouldn't stop screaming afterward. The one that he had choked the life out of.
The demon seemed to read his mind. "Yes," it hissed. "She died, and after thousands of years in the netherworld, I ensured the Merling priests found her, and took her to meet them just hours after the moment of her death. They do our bidding, even if they do not realize it."
"Fleshbinder," said Gurst through his teeth. "n'Malakutt. Cutty." He chuckled grimly. "How clever."
"None other," said Leyethe. "The priests didn't call him. He was waiting. And when I returned, I gave the priests their thanks for all they did for me. You know what the locals call their temple now? The Red Crypt. I painted it myself." She smirked. "Well. They helped."
"Just do it then," Gurst said. "End me."
"I intend to. But first, Cutty here is going to make you feel everything you put me through." She paused, as if considering. "Perhaps a bit more." Her grin became more fierce. "Alright. Substantially more."
"Cutty!" screamed Gurst. "You're a demon! You're under no compulsion! Just kill her and go back to Hell!"
"I would," said Cutty. "But I follow where she leads. I've looked inside her soul. And she fucking scares me."
The demon ripped his claws away from Gurst's arm and began to shred his clothes, his skin. His muscles.
Through the blinding agony, Gurst began to laugh; the humorless laugh of one who knows he is damned.
The coward's code; he'd followed it all his life. Had it failed him or had he failed it?
"Only...two kinds of men in my profession..." he spoke through the pain to no one in particular. "Cowards...and bloody fools...soon to be dead...