When you're alone in Lockford Wood, you start to change. You think of things you've never thought of before, remember events that haven't happened in years. You see things that aren't there, and hear noises that haven't been made. The light can fade until it feels like dusk at midday, and a thousand eyes watch you.
For Fawcett, it felt like he was the last man alive.
It had been four days since he'd had company, and he was starting to regret the offer made to him by the smith in Lockford. The thought of the small town he had last rested in caused Fawcett's mind to drift. He had stayed at the inn, where the fat tavern owner had served him surprisingly good wine while he watched the other patrons.
There had been two soldiers sat at a table, drinking mead silently. A pretty girl sang a song everyone but an obvious suitor was ignoring. A group of young farmhands were drunk and rowdy, pulling passing girls on to their knees and slopping ale down their shirts. A couple of them had eyed Fawcett up when he entered, though they returned to their drunken haze when they noticed his weapons. This disappointed Fawcett as he would have welcomed a brawl, the road had been free of bandits since Carsover. Food had been placed in front of him, a thick rabbit stew and crusty brown bread.
After he finished eating, Fawcett pierced an apple from the bowl in front of him and began to carve off chunks with his knife. It was then he noticed someone else, a man that had escaped his gaze on his entry to the inn. He was sat in the corner farthest away from everyone else, reading a book. Fawcett wondered how he was able to concentrate on the words with so much noise around him, or even see the pages with just the low flicker of a single candle on his table. The man's face was in shadow, and although Fawcett felt like he was staring at him, he hadn't moved a muscle. Fawcett decided to engage the stranger, and he was just about to do so when a farmhand dropped onto the stool next to him.
'Don't remember seein' you round 'ere before', the drunk groaned, swaying on his stool. His face was red and his eyes drooped from all the ale he had sent down his throat.
'You can hardly be held accountable for that, I've not been here before. A terrible shame, clearly a day not spent in the company of you welcoming folk is a day wasted. Not to mention the breathtaking scenery'. Fawcett smiled, gesturing at the opposite wall where a pig was sleeping. The drunk stared at him.
'Why you....er......why you got all these blades with you? There's no war 'ere in Lockford'. The man chuckled to himself.
'One can never be too careful my friend, even in charming hamlets like this one, danger does seem to lurk in the places nobody ever looks. I find it best to prepare yourself for such unfortunate possibilities. May I buy you a drink? I see you have emptied yours on to your....shoes?'. Fawcett stared down at the man's now dripping feet, one of which was clad in half a leather sandal, and the other nothing at all. But the drunk hadn't heard his offer.
'So what's your business in Lockford with all your blades and.....you're not a switcher are ya?'. The drunk eyed Fawcett suspiciously, who just smiled.
'No, nothing like that. My business is my own, and I'd like to keep it that way. Why won't you let me buy you that drink?', Fawcett replied, still smiling. The drunk snorted.
'Me and ma friends, we're the switch round here. An' if we want to know who you are and what you're doing 'ere, you'll tell us if you've half a brain'. He hiccoughed.
'You see this knife, that I'm using to eat this apple?', Fawcett asked the man, waving it in front of his face. 'This was forged for me on the Manderley Coast, where they make the finest weapons in the world. It can pierce iron plate with the force of an infant girl, and I'll slide it into your eye socket if you don't fuck off back to your friends'. Without looking, Fawcett pierced another apple, causing the drunk to jump. Fawcett continued smiling jovially, and the man left the stool, taking his empty ale mug with him.
It had been a good night's sleep, the down bed in the inn had seemed more comfortable than it was and Fawcett's muscles ached. He fell into a dreamless sleep quickly.
When he awoke, the inn was completely silent. He dressed quickly, pulled on his boots and headed downstairs into the tavern. Sure enough, the room was empty, only overturned chairs and abandoned goblets gave evidence of the previous evening's revelry. A girl with long blonde hair was knelt down, picking ale cups up from the stone floor. Fawcett recognised her as the singer from last night whom nobody was paying attention to.
'Good morning. I see you die down significantly at daytime'. The girl had started at Fawcett's voice. 'I apologise, I didn't mean to startle you'.
'No apology needed'. The girl stood up and took the cups she was carrying to the bar. 'Everyone tends the farm during the day, they nurse their heads and go about their business, but they'll all be back in tonight. Every day is very similar to the last in a place like this'.
'And what brings you to it? Surely not to make your fortune as a musician'. Fawcett stepped over the floor's debris to join the girl at the bar.
'I was born here, my father owns the inn. I'm Luann, by the way, and you are?'
'Just travelling through', Fawcett answered, smiling.
'My father always told me people who say that have something to hide', said Luann, wiping the bar with a rag. 'He told me I shouldn't ask questions or give them my trust. They could be dangerous.'
'Your father sounds like a wise man. Though I'm no danger to anyone here. Like I said, just passing through.' Fawcett sat down at the same stool he occupied the night before.
'You can't be going far, I see no horse outside. And you carry too many weapons to not expect some form of trouble. Unless they're needed for your job...'.
'Are all tavern girls as sharp as this in the Parsons?', Fawcett asked. Luann smiled.
'Only the ones that don't want to remain here. I don't know if you've noticed, but there's not much for me to do around here other than have children, and I don't relish the thought of subjecting an infant to a life in this place'. Luann dropped her rag on the bar and stared at Fawcett. 'Where have you travelled from?'
'I thought you weren't supposed to ask me questions?', Fawcett answered.
'I'm not, though what harm will come of it? You don't seem dangerous to me'. Luann bit her lip and continued to gaze into Fawcett's eyes. Fawcett realised he was gazing back, the girl had leaned closer so he could smell her perfume. He relented.
'I've travelled from Serill. My name is Fawcett'. As soon as his name had escaped his lips he saw Luann's face change. Fawcett noticed in just enough time to leap backwards off his stool as Luann lunged a knife at him. As soon as the thrust missed its mark, she leapt up on the bar and dived at him, slicing the air with her knife. Fawcett grabbed at her wrists and whirled her around and away from him. She clattered to the floor knocking over a small table, Fawcett heard the sound of breaking pottery. He drew his sword.
Within a second she was back on her feet and lunged at Fawcett, jabbing at him viciously with her knife. Fawcett was concentrating on deflecting her blows while trying to find decent footing amongst the hubris on the ground. He parried an attempted slash at his face and kicked Luann away, hard. She hit the bar and toppled over it, sending ale cups flying. Fawcett leaned over the bar to put his sword to Luann's throat but jerked back quickly as a crossbow bolt shot past him, thudding into the wooden beams of the ceiling. Fawcett ducked as the empty crossbow was thrown at him and readied his weapon, but Luann was already on her feet. Before she could ready another strike with her knife, Fawcett quickly grabbed her by the back of her head and slammed her face into the bar. The knife tumbled from her fingers. Fawcett pulled her over and held her down by the throat, her eyes were closed and she was grimacing from pain but she wasn't unconscious yet.
'Who sent you?', he asked calmly. No answer came, so Fawcett reached to his belt and drew a dagger, then slammed it perfectly in the centre of Luann's hand, pinning it to the bar. She screamed in agony, opening her eyes wide.
'The Orderman', she gasped, staring at her impaled hand. 'He...he didn't say why. Just that you couldn't......leave Lockford. Please take it out!'. Fawcett grabbed the hilt of the dagger and twisted it. Luann screamed again, tears forming in her eyes.
'Is there anyone else?'
'I don't know! He didn't tell me! Please take it out!', Luann sobbed. Fawcett pulled the dagger out of her hand and she slumped to the floor on the other side of the bar. Just as Fawcett was deciding what to do with her, she was back to her feet, a spare crossbow bolt raised over her head. The girl threw it as hard as she could, but Fawcett tilted his head to the side out of its path.
Luann ran around the bar and straight for Fawcett, shrieking and unarmed. With both hands, Fawcett pushed his sword into her open mouth and stepped forward. The sound of scraping teeth and bone mixed with a wet crunch as the blade went through her head, her long hair parting behind her as the blade pushed through. Luann's eyes rolled up in her head and she slumped to the floor, this time for good.
Fawcett placed his boot on Luann's head and pulled out his sword. He reached for the rag that was still on the bar and wiped the blade clean before returning it to it's sheath.
As Fawcett left the inn, the fat innkeeper who had served him the night before passed by, a donkey loaded with sloshing barrels of ale at his side.
'Good morning milord!', he bellowed heartily. 'A good night's sleep I trust?'
'The morning left much to be desired. Tell me, my friend, how many children do you have?', Fawcett asked. The man frowned.
'Why, none milord'.
'Good. That will make this conversation somewhat easier to have'.
Fawcett sat on a low wall in the village as farmers, merchants, soldiers and thieves went about their daily business. He had managed to persuade the innkeeper to keep the switch out of the inn, that the girl was a mere assassin, and a poor one, that should be burned in a pyre that night. He nearly offered to stay and do it himself, but he was already behind schedule and was eager to escape the village. He very much doubted that girl was alone.
It had cost him a small fortune to pay for the pyre and the innkeeper's silence, not to mention the damages he insisted were down to Fawcett's fight with the girl. Fawcett was leaving Lockford later than he hoped and with a lighter purse, two reasons to put him in a sullen mood.
The girl had said the Orderman sent her. Obviously a lie, but a lie so transparent it confused Fawcett. Perhaps she hadn't prepared for the possibility of capture by creating a more believable story. Some people will say anything when they're heavily bleeding.
Fawcett sighed as he prepared a smoking root. He needed a boost if he was going to make it to his destination by nightfall, and the blackwood root he bought in Carsover should do the job nicely. He put the root to his lips and was just about to strike a match to light it when a filthy man in a long apron approached him.
'You 'eading through the woods t'day milord?', the simpleton said, wiping his nose with the back of his glove.
'What's it to you?', Fawcett replied. He was getting sick of the questions and intrusions in this tiny hamlet, and didn't now have the time to entertain them.
'Beggin' your pardon milord, but I noticed you've no beast with you. It'll be a long trek through those woods with only your boots to carry you, and I'd hate to think of you stuck in those trees at night'. The man wiped the contents of his nose on his apron, something Fawcett noticed he clearly did often.
'Am I right in assuming you work as a blacksmith?', Fawcett asked, finally lighting his root and drawing out some smoke.
'You are milord. If you need blades or bows I can provide. Best arrows in the Parsons, if I say so myself', said the smith.
'I hate arrows, what if I were to miss? Calmly ask my enemy to wait patiently while I nock another? I prefer weapons that aren't disposable. But thank you, nonetheless'. Fawcett reached into his satchel and pulled out the knife Luann had tried to kill him with. 'Tell me, is this one of yours?', Fawcett asked, passing the knife to the smith. He turned it over in his hand, eyeing it carefully.
'It is milord, got me mark on the hilt. Sold one of these not three days ago to the girl who sings at the inn'. Fawcett paused, it wasn't the answer he was expecting.
'I see. Did she...does she buy many weapons from you?'
'No milord, first time customer that one. I figured she wanted something to wave in the face of some of the farmers once they've had an ale or two over, if you catch my meaning. They have keen hands, that lot', the smith explained.
'Well you may as well return it to sale, she has no more need of it and it's never been used'. Fawcett began to walk away.
'Yes milord. One more thing milord, if you'll forgive me. I have an oxcart, and my boy is always in need of work. He'll take you through the woods with it for a very reasonable fee if it please you...like I said, I'd hate you to be alone in those woods when it gets dark. Can be an awfully unnervin' place'.
Had this morning's episode not occurred, Fawcett very well may have taken him up on his offer. He was days behind as it was and the prospect of entering the woods on foot and alone was not one he was anticipating. Yet his carelessness with Luann had taught him a lesson, and he wasn't about to trust a stranger with knowledge of his plans.
'A tempting offer my friend, but I must decline. While I'm sure both your cart and your boy are as reliable as any in the Parsons, I fear I must continue alone'. Fawcett began to walk away again. 'If he's looking for work, instruct your boy to enquire at the inn. I believe they have a vacancy', he said over his shoulder.
There had been a sprinkling of dusty snow on the ground in Lockford, and Fawcett had ignored it along with the locals. It was thick and deep in the woods, claiming the full length of Fawcett's boots with every step. His gloves were soaking wet from pushing aside the frosty branches and his belly gurgled. He had been cursing aloud the girl at the inn, he completely forgot to eat some breakfast before leaving the village thanks to her intervention. Another mistake in a day full of them.
Fawcett pushed on, squinting through the branches for an end to the trees. The woods seemed to grow quieter as the light faded, the only sounds he heard other than his own were the occasional bird fluttering away from a tree he disturbed. He tried to lift his low spirits by thinking about the journey and how far he had come. He was close to the castle by now, if his directions were to be believed. He could expect rest and provisions before setting back out, this time with a goal. A purpose. The very thing he came all this way for.
It had been twelve days since Carsover, the derelict capital of the Parsons. He had received his orders there, some coin to cover his expenses and a crude map. The dead drop was exactly where he was told it would be, though he still checked again after retrieving it. The map looked like it had been drawn by a child, if it hadn't been stamped with the seal of his employer he may have discarded it and chalked the whole thing up as a prank.
He hated Carsover. A few decades ago the city had been hit with a winter storm so powerful it had destroyed several tall buildings and swept in enough snow to bury smaller ones. The prosperous people who owned homes and businesses fled, leaving behind only the poor and those that prey on them. Families squatted in abandoned buildings and shacks, the Keeper of the city was a drunk who never left his chambers, and the switch hadn't set foot in the city in years. The place was a populated waste.
Fawcett had been surprised when he was directed to Carsover. The Parsons was the only country whose King didn't live in the capital. Old Blythe, as his subjects called him, resided forty miles away in the town of Westlake. After the storm, Blythe had tried to have the name changed to New Carsover, but he had little support. He dropped the idea after the switch told him Carsover was a lost cause, the thieves and the crows were in charge now.
The heavy wooden gates crunched and squealed as they parted slowly. Fawcett blew out a plume of white air, hunching his shoulders and shivering against the rain. Rubbing his hands together, he twisted sideways and shuffled through the narrow gap into the hall. Fawcett strode directly to the fire, pulling off his gloves and holding his arms outstretched towards the flames.
As life begun to return to his fingertips, he glanced around the room to take in his surroundings. The fire was the only source of light in the hall and it wasn't strong enough for it's light to reach the walls. Fawcett pulled down his hood and was about to call when a male voice spoke.
'What happened to your horse?', it said calmly. Fawcett could hear slow footsteps but nobody yet stepped into the meagre glow the light afforded.
'Died. Two days west of the Branch'.
'That would explain your lateness', the voice responded.
'My apologies. Do I assume correctly I am speaking with Danos Flint?'.
'You do'. The frequency of footsteps increased until a man entered the light of the fire. Dirty white hair hung to his shoulders and he stared straight through Fawcett with tired eyes. 'Are you alone?'
'Yes', Fawcett answered quickly. Then immediately wished he hadn't. He tried to act relaxed. 'I expected a warmer welcome than just a dull fire in the hearth. Meat and ale at least before the reasons of my summons are explained to me.'
'Then it seems it is my turn to apologise. Hospitality is not the business I'm in'.
'Then what business are you in?' Fawcett replied. There was a pause, during which the sound of crackling on the roof echoed around them. Danos smiled.
'Well I'm like you, Fawcett. Somebody pays me to do a job, usually something they'd rather not do themselves, and I make sure it gets done. There are differences, of course, between what you and what I do, the most important of which are the people who pay me'. Fawcett realised that one of his hands had moved to his sword. The old man had noticed, and he smiled.
'This is a strange world. Power is everything to everyone'. The old man was still staring at Fawcett's sword.
'I believe more in gold, so let's get to why-'
'And what does gold buy you? Food to keep you alive, clothes to keep you warm? Yes, but you have those things. You want a horse to carry you, a squire to shoulder your weapons. Maybe even a whore to fuck you when you haven't the patience for a real woman'. Flint's voice had grown soft, his eyes stared at nothing.
'Then you want fancier clothes, richer food. A larger house, perhaps even a castle. Servants, bodyguards, tailors, cooks. Then you wake up one morning and realise, the gold means nothing anymore. It was all just a token, and power has become your whole life.' Flint seemed to snap out of his trance and looked back into Fawcett's eyes.
'And power corrupts! Always. Which is why I live here, where nobody can try to take what I have, because I have nothing. No gold, no jewels, not even clothing other than what you see. Who would want to take my power?'. He laughed, and stepped back into the darkness of the hall.
'Then what do you want from me?, said Fawcett. As the words still rang in the hall, Fawcett felt a sudden intense heat in his belly. Danos Flint was stood behind him, his chin on Fawcett's shoulder. A soft, wet sound could just be heard over the crackling of the fire.
'I just want a story', his murderer whispered to him.
Fawcett saw the tip of the knife protruding from his belly, felt a hollow pain as it was swiftly withdrawn, smelled the copper scent of his own blood as the knife was placed over his throat. And then, nothing.