What has been and what shall be
Footsteps ring down the hallway,
their echoing clicks as heel meets marble floor the only sound that intrudes
upon my pervasive silence. A few moments more, and the scrape of a food tray
being pushed along the ground joins the fading echoes of the footsteps. They
expect to break me, keeping me in darkness, shrouded in absolute isolation to
render me into a gibbering madman. Little do they know that I have seen worse,
and done far worse, both to others and to my own self.
The footsteps get farther away, and still I make no move toward the food they have given me, letting the plain scent fill the room. I savour this scent as if it is a fine meal, even though the only food they give me is a watery soup, with a small piece of stale bread.
The food is enough to sustain me, and with every bite and slurp of the meal, I enjoy it as if it were my last.
I have no way of knowing how long they have kept me here, but it has been months at the very least since I last heard a human voice, and even longer before they allowed me to see light.
My own voice has gone unused for even longer, I am not even aware if I still possess the facilities capable of producing speech.
My muscles would have long withered away and left me a hollow shell, but for the exercise regimen I hold myself accountable to on every day. Every morning I follow the same routine, one designed to work within the limited space I am given.
A new sound intrudes upon my silence, breaching it as if it were some sort of enemy army. My silence is one of the few things that belong wholly to me, and this intrusion into my own space violates me. It does more than violate, it renders me completely immobile with rage.
This sound is new, harsh and grating to my ears, yet my mind absorbs and sorts this new sensation. Somehow, I know the sound, yet I cannot remember where. I somehow know the sound is of a man shuffling along on a lame leg. I cannot bring myself to know how, but my ears know what my mind does not.
Another sound, one of a lock scraping against metal, and turning, invades upon my privacy. I know what this means, yet at the same time I do not. I have been here for so long, that I know of no other home, that I can imagine no other way of life. I suppose this simple fact means that they have broken me, that I am indeed quite mad, yet I feel lucid enough.
The door, long closed and rusted shut is pulled, slowly and gently at first, yet when this does not produce the desired effect, with more force and urgency.
The door does not move at first, yet with persistence, the figure on the other side of the door succeeds, and light, once a dream, also invades my space, and my eyes, though burning and blinded by the new sensation, remain open.
It takes a few moments, endless moments it seems, though in reality it would be more like a few dozen minutes.
As my eyes adjust to the new light, the figure that opened the door becomes more than just a blur. Features sharpen and become apparent to my eyes, and without knowing why, I know who he is and why he has come.
“Priest” my voice croaks. The words tear their way from my throat as a baby clawing its way from a womb. “If you have come to hear my story, then I will require water, and you will require paper.”
The man nods, having already prepared everything he needs to hear my tale, and leads me to another room.
I know what this entails. That they have sent a priest to chronicle my life means they have decided my fate. I am to be executed once my tale is written. How little they know, how little they know of me. They will learn however, that words have power, and ideas can become more than just abstract thought, and force their way into the physical world.
My steps are silent and sure as I make my way across the tiled roofs as I approached the fortress where she is located, where my mission awaits. I do not slow as I make my way from roof to roof, in defiance of the rain and the darkness. This is my element, the darkness is mine, and she will never abandon me.
I hear the shouts of guards, and the clash of weapons as the rebellion begins. My employers did not lie when they said they would provide the diversion needed to let me penetrate the bleak walls of the fortress Salah El-Din. I protested the need for any diversion, but they wanted to be absolutely certain of success, despite my assurances that I would succeed. I have a reputation for perfection that has made me the most sought after blade in the entire empire.
The rebellion taking place below me as I spring from roof to roof has been orchestrated to overthrow the current ruler of the city, and it all hinges upon my successful abduction of his daughter, Zia bint Musyaf. She is said to be the splendour of the empire, with thousands of suitors anxiously awaiting her next birthday. Her father has ruled the city for almost thirty years, and has only one living child. I am to take her unharmed to a safe location where they will then holdher and ransom her to Musyaf until he publicly abdicates, at which point they will both be killed, in a manner suitably bloody and painful. I offered to do this for them at little extra cost, but they do not want me to be seen, I assume this is because they plan to kill me once I have accomplished my goal. They will not succeed however, I have been in this situation before, employers have tried to betray me in the past, and they have all ended up as corpses. I am not a nice man; I kill without passion and without mercy. Cries of pain and succour fall upon deaf ears, I show no remorse or pleasure in what I do, it is simply a job.
I pick up my pace as I reach the end of the rooftops, my feet pounding with increasing strength. The last home lies almost forty feet from the walls, to prevent just such an event, but forty feet, while a rather significant distance to leap, is not impossible. The speed I need to maintain, however, needs to be perfect. Too slow and I fall short of the rough walls, too fast and I will be unable to grab hold.
The last roof ends only twenty feet ahead of me. As my feet pound away on the tiles, my eyes search through the gloom to find the one location I will be able to grab hold of. Ten feet, five, then one, I almost underestimate the effect the darkness will have on my eyes, almost. As my right foot hits the lip of the roof, my eyes find the crack and I push off. I have planned this moment for two weeks, practicing the speed and strength I need to be able to make it. The featureless grey wall rushes toward me and for a second, fear courses through my blood, freezing my limbs into place. I have never done anything like this before, yet my practice pays off, and my body reacts on its own. My right hand reaches up to grasp the only crack large enough to fit my fingers in as my left draws a short and thick blade from a bandolier strapped around my chest. My right hand does not hold, the tenuous grip I have on the block failing almost instantly, yet it does not matter. As my right hand gives way, my left is shoving the blade into the space that my right occupied. The blade scrapes against the sides as I force it even deeper into the crack. My arm twists painfully as my shoulder is almost ripped from my socket. A grunt forces its way past my clenched jaw as the rest of my body jerks to a halt. I quickly pull myself closer to the wall and glance down, fearful that my exclamation was heard by the guards. I didn’t need to worry: Musyaf’s Immortals are busy fighting off the horde of unarmed peasants currently trying to storm the open gate. They will not close it, not until the last Immortal guarding the gate has fallen. Musyaf’s ancestors have claimed for centuries that no hostile force has ever made their way past the open gates while their elite bodyguard was stationed there, and while the Immortals still live, they will never close the heavy iron doors.
The peasants are no match for the heavily armed veterans, but they serve the purpose. The waves of common folk are merely there to tire the Immortals and render them vulnerable to the elite cavalry. The merchants who hired me plan on the cavalry being able to sweep past the Immortals in one easy swoop once they have been exhausted, but I know better. The immortals are hand-picked veterans, ones who survived at the very least 20 years of service. These men are hardened individuals with no loyalty but to the crown. While there have not been very many wars over the past two decades, the immortals are still the greatest soldiers in the empire, and this rabble of peasants will do nothing to them.
Even as my right hand grasps another dagger, I cannot help but admire the perfect harmony in which they fight; each man protecting his neighbour over his own self, with interlocked shields and blades moving as if controlled by golems. The line is the only thing that matters; if it breaks they die, so they fight until they can fight no more.
As I climb, my arms and legs searching for the cracks I need to keep climbing, I cannot help but feel relieved that I am not on the ground fighting those men. I am skilled with a blade, among the best in the empire, but I would fall before these men as a fly does before a horse.Fighting men accustomed to brawling is one thing, but a trained soldier, especially one able to fight side by side with men that would die for them, is the greatest weapon the empire has.
Hundreds of countries and kingdoms have fallen before the armies of the empire, yet although the empire is large, we are by no means the largest one to grace the world, or even the continent. The empire spans roughly three thousand miles, yet we are but gnats before even the smallest Kingdom of the Great Alliance.
My mind snaps back to the task at hand as I reach the battlements and perch there, waiting. I will have only one chance to pass by undetected, and it must be perfect. I studied the patrols of these guards for two weeks, and it is my hope they have not suddenly decided to change it.
I count down the seconds as the cries of pain and anger swell beneath me. I can almost feel my body being lifted by the waves of emotion that are currently enveloping the city, yet I remain still. My body itches with rage, and the mentality of the mob beneath me gnaws at me, trying to force me into acting before the right time, but I will not move. The seconds stretch into minutes, and yet I wait. I force my body to remain in position and ignore the growing pain in my arms. My hands begin to grow slippery with perspiration, but I keep them clenched.
Time passes, and my body approaches its limits, and it is at that moment that the opportunity arrives. The patrol on the walls was randomized, but everything has a pattern, and it took almost two full weeks of studying to discern it. There will be fifteen minutes between this guard and the next, if everything goes according to plan, which will be just enough time to find the princess, and make our escape. Of course, that all hinges upon everything going according to my plan.
I pull myself up, my body rolling lightly over the battlements; even the blades upon my body do not make a sound. The guard does not even react as one of my blades enters his body, sliding between the armoured plates protecting his ribs and puncturing the heart. I feel his body tense up as I remove the blade, stepping lightly aside to avoid both the blood and collapsing corpse. I am not concerned about sound; the riot below is doing more than enough to cover any sounds I might make, even on my worst day. Moving quickly, I tie the rope I carried with me to the body, using the full plate armour to wedge the soldier between stones, and let the rope fall. It is just long enough to make a drop to the ground without injury, but not so long that anyone glancing up would notice it.
While planning this, I estimated it would take ten minutes to find the princess and bring her with me, leaving five minutes for anything I could not predict or plan for. I have never set forth in the fortress before, but it stood to reason that during an attack, the royal family would be relocated to the safest location, which in most castles was also the most heavily defended.
In the empire, there are two very prominent architectural styles, one that is predominantly limited to the merchant class, and the second which is restricted to nobility. Unless Musyafwas able to predict this day, he would not have changed the security procedures that were followed when the fortress was under attack. I know from what I have been able to gather from similar architecture where they will be brought. I run down the stairs as quickly as possible, keeping to the shadows, and avoiding the armed patrols as they rush by. Musyaf has always taken the safety of his family seriously, almost to the point of insanity. His soldiers are tested every month for their loyalty, oftentimes demonstrating they would die to protect either he or his daughter. Yet for all his precautions, he was not able to protect all ten of his other children. Over the years they all died in various ways, some peaceful, some gruesome. I was responsible for two of the princes, one arranged to look like an accident, the other to send a message of the forthcoming rebellion.
It does not take me long to find the strong room, only a few minutes of skulking in the shadows and avoiding patrols and I reached it without sounding an alarm. The sounds of the rebellion outside are growing louder, and the sounds of hooves against cobbles ring loudly through the stone walls. I can almost imagine the hectic scene occurring outside, but I dare not let it distract me. This is the most dangerous part of my entire mission. The one obstacle I cannot plan for. None other than the personal guard and the royal household have ever stepped foot within the room, and it is impossible to know how many guards there are protecting the family.
The doors are thick, even from my location outside the room I can tell that they are at the very least composed of solid stone half a foot thick. I inch my way closer, staying out of sight of the two heavily armed guards, my legs aching with the time it takes for me to take a single step.
I study the guards as I make my way slowly closer, debating how best to deal with them. My only advantage will be speed and surprise. There is no telling when the next patrol will come along, and no way to be certain of how skilled the soldiers are. One will most likely be a trained veteran, while the other would be a fairly new recruit; it is standard protocol in the empire to do such things.
I am quite confident of my ability to defeat any one soldier in single combat, but even a new recruit would be able to defeat me when paired with a veteran. If I strike quickly and fiercely, I will be able to kill one of them, but the other would be able to raise an alarm. Even if he died too quickly for an alarm to be raised, there remains the fact that unknown quantities lie on the other side of the doors. If I could hear them whimpering, they would be able to hear even the most brief of combats.
This poses me with quite a challenge, time is running out, and I still have to make my way outside of the fortress with the princess.
I have only two objects in my arsenal that would be capable of dealing with the two guards quickly, but not necessarily quietly: poison, a requirement in any assassination, and fire powder, a mixture of a few minerals and coals. The poisons in my possession act upon the body very quickly, but are very painful. Not only would the screams of agony raise an alarm, but it would alert those hidden safely away in the safe room. That leaves me with only one possibility, the fire powder.
Fire powder, when ignited, sends out an immense ball of flame and pressure, able to crack stone and bend metal, not to mention kill two guards. The only problem is, the force needed to kill those two guards would raise an alarm all of its own, unless I used enough of the powder to breach the doors at the same time. The only problem is, there is no way to determine how large of a fireball would be needed to crack the doors, yet leave those kept save behind them unharmed. I would have to take the risk, time was running out and the sounds of battle kept increasing in volume with every passing second. Without any means of measuring the exact amount of powder needed, I would have to estimate. When dealing with explosions, estimating is never the smart idea, but I was faced with very few viable options.
I move carefully, pouring and mixing the amount I think will be enough to break the door, but not destroy it. Once I believe the mixture to be proper, I seal the mixture in a ball of wax and ceramic. The balls were designed to break apart on impact, and send a spark into the powder. It works most of the time, but not every time. If I was lucky, the mechanism would work as planned, and the resulting explosion would deafen and blind those inside, and keep them alive.
Holding the ball gingerly in my hands, I step from the shadows toward the guards. After a few steps, and before they can properly react to my presence, I throw the explosive toward the door with as much strength as my tired and aching arms can muster. As the sphere leaves my hands, I move as quickly as I can to the side, and into the small alcove I had seen. Flattening myself against the back wall, my body barely covered, I hold my head in my hands, protecting my ears and eyes against the wave that would soon be coming. No sooner had I done so, that my brain registered a burst of light, and a loud explosion, and that was all.
I awake with a start, my head racing back and forth, eyes blinking repeatedly to clear the spots from my eyes. I struggle to push myself up from the ground, my body refusing to co-operate without intense concentration. Dust coats the air, and my vision is badly impaired. Every breath is a struggle, my ribs twinge with every movement of my chest. I manage to get my feet under me and stand, my vision blurring for a few moments. I can hear muted cries of anguish, from inside the room where great doors once stood. Instead of the stone slabs, there now lay piles of rubble. I did not measure properly, or the powder reacted with something within the stone itself, for the explosion was far greater than I could possibly have imagined.
Knowing that the fate of the princess was all but sealed, I trudge onward regardless. If there is even the slightest chance she is alive, that is all I need. My feet are unsteady, and my ears ringing as I struggle to step past the rubble that litters the ground. Dust still clouds the air, and my vision is limited, even if I was not affected by the blurring and nausea that accompanies every step. I raise a hand to one of my ears, and feel it come away hot. Moving my fingers in front of my eyes, I can see them coated in blood. With every step causing flaring pain throughout my body, I am aware that I have suffered a severe head injury, but with no time to rest, I cannot assess the damage. It is my hope that I can continue, even with these injuries, they do not seem to be life threatening, but I have no time to rest and see.
The dust clears slightly, and my eyes adjust to the darkness inside the room. I nearly miss tripping over a corpse wearing the livery of the king. His body lies in ruin, a pool of blood spread out beneath his body. I kneel down carefully, not bothering to avoid the blood. The soldier’s armour is different than the average, even more so than the guards outside the ruined portal. What I can make out of the armour is gilded silver, with gold and platinum. This soldier must have been Musyaf’s champion, which also means that the king himself is hiding here, among the rubble.
I force myself to my feet once more, my bones creaking with the effort. With every step I take deeper into the room, I find more and more bodies, all armoured, and all riddled with gaping holes. There must have been two dozen of the men in this room alone, yet even with all their armour none managed to survive. All of the bodies are arrayed in a semi-circle formation, with spears out and swords drawn, and all facing the doors. I am suddenly very relieved that I mixed too much of the powder, I would be dead at this moment if I had not.
Near the end of the lines, I find a few hopeful signs. There are two soldiers who have not yet succumbed to their wounds, but who would shortly. One was bleeding from a large hole through his abdomen, while the other was oozing a clear fluid from his eyes and ears. I am not a religious man, but seeing the death around me, and smelling the rancid odour that the bowels of the collected emitted, I mutter a small prayer, warding off the vengeful spirits of the dead.
My voice echoes in the darkness, and for a few moments, there is nothing but silence. I begin to move on once more when I hear a wheezing laugh.
“Who knew, that the fabled blade of the empire would be afraid of a little death.” The voice is halting and thick, as if the throat speaking it could not quite form the sounds needed to make the words flow freely.
I re-orient myself and head towards the voice, my head marvelling at the immensity of the room. It could house a few hundred people with plenty of room to spare. “I am not afraid, merely cautious. Just because there is no proof of vengeful spirits coming back and taking out their anger upon the living does not mean I shouldn’t be wary.” My own voice sounds foreign to me, though that I can attribute to the head wound I received and the dust remaining in the air.
The voice sounds out again, this time I can hear pain in his voice. “That is quite prudent of you. One rarely thinks of those in your profession as superstitious. Too many of your kind believe they are immortal or doing the work of the Gods and have no reason to fear. You are an intelligent man, yet I sense something different about you. You are not like the others; you have no moral justifications for what you do. You are not a man convinced of the righteousness of your cause, nor are you like the other mercenaries. What are you?”
As he speaks, I move closer and closer, his voice growing louder until I can identify the source it comes from. The man is lying on a cot, one more akin to those that belong in hospitals than in a royal palace. As I step closer, my nose is assaulted with the stench of death. As my eyes search for the source, the figure on the cot coughs, and blood is sent flying through the air. I take a step back as I come to the realization that what my eyes are seeing are not just tricks of the darkness, but black pustules that coat his entire body.
There have been rumours that the Ruler was ill, though none that were taken seriously, most being conspiracies forged by the malcontent among the populace. The small people are always spreading stories to make their own lives seem better than they really are, and they take to heart these stories. If the ruler can be ill, then they have power, even if it is the power to be healthy.
I am loathe to touch the man, not knowing what sort of contagion is affecting his body, and I am surprised he is able to speak. His body must be enduring an incredible amount of pain, yet there is a strength emanating from the man, a strange aura of endurance. Without knowing what sort of man Musyaf is, I can tell he has been battling this illness for months, perhaps even years.
“Musyaf?” My voice is halting and quiet, a whisper in the growing silence. The cries and whimpers of the wounded have all but vanished, simply another noise in the background.
The man laughs, confirming my suspicions. “Of course assassin, who else would be protected by my champion? I knew this day would come, and I thank you for it. My body is old and frail, and has been failing me for years now. I would not live very long in any case, but since you are here, I can only assume you have come to kill me. Pity, if my rivals knew what was plaguing my body, they would have saved their money and simply waited. “
I begin to circle around him as he speaks, not confirming or denying his statements. I wanted to see what sort of man he was, before I decided whether or not to free him from his misery.
“Surely you have some questions to ask before you kill me, some sort of message you have come to deliver from those who have hired you? Do not keep me in suspense, I am not long for this world and I would prefer to die quickly by the blade than slowly in agony.”
He stops speaking for a moment to cough, sending more blood through his black lips. I am astounded that this man has survived for this long, but it did answer a few questions. I wondered why there were so many guardsmen within the room, and why the response to the insurgence was not nearly as fierce as it should have been. For the past year he has been trying to broker peace instead of war, and tried to eliminate crime through example, and not punishment. The threat of imminent death does strange things to people, it causes most of us to re-examine our lives and try to change the type of person we have been up until that moment. It is very rare that a man is able to look back upon his life without regrets; Musyaf was not such a man. His reign over our people has been brutal and efficient, giving the people just enough freedom to keep them happy and alive, but not enough to allow them to raise their status in life. The nobles and merchants were subject to heavy taxation, but his military was always well funded and trained, giving him enough power to stave off any coup.
“I have no questions, I am not here for you, but I will grant your wish.” I draw a blade from a sheath strapped horizontally across my back. It is a Kukri, a curved blade from a foreign land designed to cut and decapitate with little resistance. I have used this blade many times, and it has never disappointed me.
Moving closer to the ailing man, I raise the blade carefully, ignoring the sudden cries of horror from around me. I can feel hands around my arms, trying in vain to pull them away. They belong to a radiant beauty, the princess.
Relief floods my body as my mind registers that she is still alive. I can complete my objective.
I allow her to remove one of my hands, and as I gaze upon her face to see the anger and sorrow contained within, close my hand into a fist, and connect it with the side of her head. Her face is stunned, and her eyes roll up in the back of her head as her body abandons its efforts to remain standing.
The ailing King tries to rise, but his own strength abandons him. Though he tries to move, he cannot. His eyes are flooded with tears, but with an incredible strength ruling them. He fixes my gaze with his own, knowing now that I did not come for him, and knowing that he cannot do anything to stop me. He wants to beg me to save her, and not to take her, but his pride will not allow him, and he is fully aware that I will not listen. His words would fall upon deaf ears.
He closes his eyes, tears streaming down his cheeks. The blade I hold in my hand descends rapidly, and cleanly severs his neck, without any resistance. I leave the blade buried in his neck, and wait for his heart to stop beating. Half a minute passes and I pull out the blade. His neck resists for a few moments, before the blade pulls free with a sound not unlike that of pulling a foot out of thick muck. His blood stains the blade, but whatever disease affected his outer body, it did not stop there. His blood was the consistency of tar, and black as the soul of the most hardened criminal.
I try in vain to clean the blade, before abandoning the attempt. The blood will never be cleaned from the blade, and one cannot use a weapon that cannot be easily drawn. This blade is my most treasured weapon, but I can always find another. I say a small prayer of forgiveness to the Kukri, and lay it across the king’s chest.
Time is running short, and I still need to make my escape, with the princess.
Dragging an unconscious body is one of the most difficult things a man can do by himself, a limp human is almost impossible to carry unless one is possessed by super-human strength, and while dragging is much easier, you must be more careful if you are trying to keep them alive. Since haste was of the utmost importance, I removed my cloak and used it as a make-shift litter.
I wrap her within the seal-skin garment, making sure she cannot make her way free without my noticing. With the extra rope I had, I loop it about her body, tight enough to squeeze if she struggles or tries to make her escape.
I set off slowly, making my way as silently as possible through the fortress, stopping every few moments to take the pulse of the captive princess, making sure she is still alive. I am very surprised that no guards had responded to the explosion, but I assume that just means the rebellion was taking up all of their attention. Still, at least one guard should have been sent to investigate, unless Musyaf had given strict instructions not to be disturbed, no matter the emergency. “Enough with the distractions” I mutter, “You still have a job to finish. Get it done and focus on getting out alive.”
It took six incredibly heart stopping minutes to make my way back to the wall. I did not see a single patrol, and that worried me more than if I had. Patrols are normal, armed guards are normal, needing to kill a few to make a silent escape with a hostage, this was normal. This mission was deviating more and more from the expected. It both confuses me as well as puts my every nerve on edge. No mission had ever had so much go wrong, and yet have so much go right at the same time.
The princess wakes just as we arrive to the wall. Not surprising, with the delays in my mission, the body of the dead guard has been discovered, and soldiers have already pulled up the rope, and moved the body. With the riot still raging outside, I know why soldiers were not sent to check up on the noise. It has reached a fever pitch, and peasants have created ladders, and a myriad of other tools to reach the top of the walls.
With a quick glance, I can see that the gates have been closed, and the immortals have joined the other soldiers in repelling the assault. The noise is deafening, the sounds of battle and death echoing off the stone walls on all sides.
Although she is awake, the princess cannot free herself from the bindings, and her shouts are not loud enough to draw attention, but I cannot let the screams continue. Eventually, a soldier will hear her, and they will recognize her, not many women have such striking features and physical attributes.
I clamp my hand over her mouth, grimacing as she attempts to bite through my flesh. Thankfully, the gloves I wear are durable enough to prevent exactly what she is attempting; yet she still bites hard enough to cause pain. With my other hand, I hit her in the side of the head with a clenched fist, hard enough to disorient, but not to render unconscious.
Her jaw stops chewing almost immediately, and I can see both her eyes move out of focus. I move quickly, and roughly grab her head between my hands, and bring my own closer to her ear.
As her neck is bent backward, the dress she wears slips slightly, just enough to reveal a horrid black cyst upon her chest. My mouth goes dry, and all of the sounds around me fade into nothingness. Suddenly, the affliction that beset the king fills me with a fear unlike any I have ever known.
A shudder makes its way through my body as the memories of a village burned make their way to the surface: memories of thousands dead, and only a single cure found. My eyes burn and tears make their way down my cheek. “Not again” I croak.
My vision returns, and I am aware once more of the clash of steel that rings through the air. Remembering the princess in my hands I force my memories to the background, and focus on the present.
“Princess.” I whisper harshly. “If you continue to struggle as you do now, I will be forced to kill you and deliver your dead body to those who hired me. I am not the one responsible for the atrocities deliver to your family on this day, and if you truly desire revenge upon those who have destroyed your life, you will need to co-operate with me and live. My death will serve nothing, it will only hasten your own. Whether you believe me or not, I am the only chance you have of surviving this night.”
I let go of her head, and draw a knife as she considered her options. I gently placed the blade against her neck, and waited.
Her mouth opened, the full lips parting hesitantly. I gaze into her eyes, and she bares her soul to me. The rage she feels is a tangible thing, affecting even my body with the sheer intensity of it. I know even before she speaks what her answer will be.
As her voice becomes to emerge from deep within her throat, I have already removed the blade, a thin smile spreading across my lips. Her voice when it does finally come forth from between her lips is soft and sweet, quavering with what some may misinterpret as fear. The princess is a master at controlling her own emotions, and even knowing what she has seen, I find it hard to believe that this woman could show such vulnerability, even when her body is consumed with such rage.
“We know you. All of us do. You have been our greatest fear for years now. We hold no anger toward you, and your actions toward our father on this night have convinced me that you have no love in what you do. You are a tool, a weapon. We do not blame you, we pity you. You are no more responsible for what happens tonight than a horse is for galloping over a peasant.”
Even as I look at her, I see a triumphant smile fade from her features, and slowly transform into a frown. There is ugliness in her eyes that I can see, hidden behind her courage and intelligence. A withering of the soul that has come with a lifetime of privilege and having people cater to her every whim.
“You are indeed great. For a moment I forgot why I was here. However, I tell you now, that you cannot change my entire being with just a few well aimed words. I hold no illusions to who I am, and you must accept this princess. You have two choices. Live and enact your revenge, or die by my own hand.”
Zia looks at me, her frown stretching into a snarl. “You are the most infuriating man we have met. We still pity you, but we will listen. We demand to know who is behind this latest rebellion and the murder of our father.”
“Your father’s death was not my goal, it was simply an act of mercy. “
Her mouth becomes a snarl, an expression that does not mar her beauty in the slightest, but that simple act further confirms my suspicions. She is beautiful of flesh, but ugly of spirit.
“Not you. Your act of mercy is one we thank you for. Our father was suffering, and you eased his passage. No, what we speak of is of the gift that cursed him in the first place. It was presented to him a few months ago. A silk jacket of the highest quality, but when he placed it upon his body, he felt something scratch his skin, and that was when he was infected. We want the person responsible for this to pay with their lives.”
Those godless heathens! The outrage ravages my body, rendering me immobile. Once again my mind flashes back twenty years, to the day my mother died holding me in her arms. The black fluid pouring from all of her orifices, coating me in the foul tar-like substance.
My mind snaps back, and I suddenly know why they hired me. Not because I was the most skilled, or my reputation, but because I survived this once. I was one of those lucky enough to be immune to the disease, and watch thousands upon thousands die from it, wandering through towns and cities, smelling the death, the voided bowels, and watching the tide of carrion birds rise with my every step.
They sent this death to the king, knowing it would spread, and now they want to make sure they can control the only living source and spread it where they can make the most profit.
They want a plague, and I will give them one, but not on their terms. They will not use her as a weapon; I will make sure of that.
I smiled, looking nervously toward the soldiers. We have gone unnoticed for now, but I know it will not take much longer before an alarm is raised and we are found. “If you want to know, if you truly want revenge upon these men, you must follow me, and stay quiet.”
With the knife held tightly in my hand, I slice the bonds which restrain the princess, hoping that she is indeed speaking the truth. Even as she draws to her feet, I shift my grip upon the blade, holding the tip in my fingers, ready to throw at a moment’s notice.
She sways unsteadily for a moment, clutching her head within her hands before she straightens. She is even more beautiful in the firelight, and she knows it. Even now, she plays to her strengths, flaunting her beauty like a weapon. Were I a lesser man, I would be easily swayed, and even knowing what her plan is, my body still reacts as that of a normal man. I cannot avert my eyes; her beauty draws me in an almost hypnotic spectacle. Even were I not drawn to her figure so, I would still not avert my eyes, as she could easily escape in the moment my back was turned.
She moves forward, and my hand raises slightly, ready to throw and kill with a single wrong movement.
The princess shakes her head, her hair flowing like the rolling waves of a deep ocean. “We will not run, of this we give our word.”
Her voice rings of sincerity, and although I do not trust her, I know I have no choice. I cannot lead both of us to an escape if I cannot see where to go. I turn from her, hoping I have not made a grave mistake and begin to walk.
It takes a few minutes of heart-pounding skulking before I find an appropriate area to make our escape. The wall remains relatively unguarded; the rebellion has not reached here yet, and for good reason. While it is the lowest area in the entire fortress, it is by far the most defensible. The wall stands twenty feet above the ground, and three feet out from the wall does not stand solid ground, but rather a sheer cliff, plunging down sixty feet before reaching the city below.
These cliffs have long been known as “The Red Walls”, even though they are composed of white granite. Over the years, the sheer number of people who have tried to scare these impossible barriers have all but stained the entire cliff walls a dark red. Nobles, peasants, adventurers and even entire armies have tried to scale the walls, so many had died that it was declared cursed, yet now I wanted to accomplish the very same thing that countless thousands have died trying to accomplish.
The guards are no trouble at all; I dispatch the five who remain on patrol with no struggle, despite my wearied state. My entire body is a mottle bruise, yet I push on, preferring pain to the death I would face should I stop.
I have one rope on my person, and ignoring the distressed mutterings of the princess, use it to tie her waist to mine. Should she fall, I would do my best to catch her. Death itself is nothing to be scared of, but falling from a great height while watching your imminent death approach steadily would be one of the worst any man can experience.
The next hour is not one I care to relive. Despite the treacherous footing, and the exhaustion that had set into my flesh, we managed to make our way safely to the ground. My body collapses the moment my feet touch upon solid ground, as does the princess. We had made our escape, but could no longer go any further.
I am vaguely aware of Zia pressing her body against mine, shivering with exhaustion. The last thing I remembered of that night, was drawing the cloak about our bodies, and giving myself in to the darkness.
I find myself awake at first light, the sunlight blinding my now open eyes. My entire body aches, and the first few breaths I take cause me to explode in a series of violent coughs. I try to move myself into a sitting position, but find that I cannot move my arms.
Fully awake now, my eyes dart to my hands, and find that they are wrapped in a coil of rope, the same rope I used to tie the princess to me. With an effort, I manage to sit upright, and find my feet tied in the same manner.
I glance about the rest of my body, and discover that my weapons have been stripped from me, placed in a pile thirty feet from my body.
“So you are finally awake. Brave warrior, we commend you for your service last night, but we also regret to inform you that we will no longer require your services.”
I crane my head to find the princess seated on a rock beside me, one of my blades in her hand and aimed directly at my head.
“You will not kill me.” I state plainly. Knowing it to be true even before I see the surprise on her face.
“How do you know this? How do you know we will not murder you before taking our leave?”
I smile and chuckle quietly, the mirth spreading through my body quickly making the aches and pains disappear.
“If you wanted to kill me, you would already have done it. It does not take a genius to know that a hired assassin, even when tied up, is still dangerous. Had you truly wished me dead, I would be dead now, and my soul consigned to whatever gods saw fit to claim it.”
Zia sheathes the blade and turns away. Striding quickly enough to make her dress flutter about her ankles. “Goodbye assassin. We will never see you again, nor do we wish to.”
I know I could escape and free myself, yet I choose not to. The only action I take is to smile, and call out once more. “The Iron Pillars. That is where I was to meet them. Show them what they have done princess, and let your anger fuel you.”
Before she has gone too far, she turns once more, and raising a hand waves a final goodbye. I have made my decision. In later years I will debate upon my reasons for my actions. Was it pride? Vengeance? Or a simple need to prove I could not be manipulated?
Whatever my reasons, I had my chance to stop the coming wave of death. I can only hope I live to regret my decision.