Two days of travel. 122 miles. The Assassin dismounted and lead his horse to the edge of a cliff.
He honestly didn’t have to come up here, but it made for a much more dramatic view. He was staring into what the Four Kingdoms called The Frozen Hell.
That’s certainly what it looked like. A harsh landscape lay before the Assassin. It was a basin, almost perfectly rounded out, with steeply rising peaks all around. He stood on one of them, his hood snatched by wind and body battered by snowflakes that felt more like little needles of ice.
Remounting, the Assassin pulled the hood low. He held it there with one hand, leaving the other limp on the reigns. He allowed the hardy mountain pony to plod down the path she thought best. As she did so, the Assassin listened.
The voices were very calm. Even the Beast lay in the distance, ready to pounce but not with his claws pressed against the Assassin’s mind. This was one of the moments where the Assassin could tell why this curse had been created. This was where it became a gift.
The voices were swiftly, neatly reporting everything. The number of people in the valley, the size of the buildings there, what his pony was doing, what the weather was expected to turn to. He listened attentively, forcing himself to focus on this mission alone.
So it was no surprise to him when one of the voices described a person in the distance headed in the Assassin’s general direction. The person grew nearer. But he was no orderinary prisoner of this valley. He was not a prisoner at all.
“Built like you tall dressed in skins armed with seven knives and one sword bow and arrow long hair tied back several scars no physical weaknesses,” the voices chattered.
A smile stretched under the Assassin’s hood. It was cold and eager.
The man drew nearer. The Assassin gently brought the pony to a stop.
“What is your name, traveler?” the Assassin asked. He mentally preened, delighting in the moments of confusion that this man was no doubt feeling at hearing that the Assassin knew that he was no prisoner.
The smile froze. The voices did not report shock. They reported movement.
The Assassin’s arm flew up in an instant, knocking aside a knife that would have sunk deeply into his chest. Another knife flew, and this one the Assassin avoided by leaning a bit to the right. The man before him froze, third knife in hand. Now the voices were reporting shock. The Assassin held up a gloved hand.
“Let’s not waste any more of those, eh?”
“Who are you?”
The Assassin grimaced. “Oh, no tact. No games. Not even a jab? A pun on the word “waste?” This is going to be disappointing.”
The man, apparently deciding that knives were pointless, sheathed his and drew a sword instead.
“Quick reflexes. Very nice,” said the Assassin, not moving to draw a weapon of his own.
“Answer my question.”
The Assassin sighed and shifted in his saddle. “You’re boring. Hi, Boring. I’m the Assassin.”
The voices instantly reported that the man’s grip had loosened on the sword. The Assassin started to smile again. A reputation was a lovely weapon to have.
“You betrayed us.”
“You betrayed the Grandmother.” The Huntsman leveled his sword at the Assassin. It was not defensive, it was not threatening. It was a gesture, as though the sword were an extension of the man.
The Assassin paused. There were only a few people trained like that.
There were even fewer who knew the Family.
“Who are you?” the Assassin asked, repeating the man’s question.
“I am the Huntsman.”
“Glad to see the motif hasn’t changed in a few centuries,” the Assassin muttered. But his mind raced.
What did this mean? First off, it meant that the Grandmother was still in action. That was unfortunate.
But it also meant she was dabbling in the affairs of mortals again. She wouldn’t have sent one of her own here without reason. She wouldn’t have allowed one of them to be sent here without reason.
To recruit Malif? To destroy Malif? Neither seemed likely. The Grandmother rarely hired outside of her sphere of influence, and Malif—for all her dangers—would be of no interest to the Family.
It was not so much because magic was ignored as because magic was feared.
The Assassin was a prime example of why.
“Why did she send you here?” the Assassin demanded.
“I will answer that when you will.” the Huntsman asked back. He showed no intentions of telling his other intentions. That didn’t suit the Assassin much, but it didn’t surprise him either.
“Just running a little errand for a little royalty. Same old, same old.” The Assassin was having difficulty thinking. The voices had gotten much, much louder. So much for his tranquil traveling.
“The princess is needed.”
The voices exploded. The Assassin couldn’t make out anything in the wave of noise.
“Princess?” he asked. He felt like a blind man, trying to tear his way through an endless forest of fireworks. Overwhelmed, but with nothing to truly fight.
“Leave this place,” the Huntsman ordered. “The time is not here.”
The Assassin dropped from his horse. Maybe he shouldn’t attack this poor man—he wasn’t going to know what hit him—but the Assassin was just a little irritated. Why did he have to come and ruin a perfectly good trip? Why did he have to bring up princesses? Why couldn’t Adalina be here to make the Beast shut up?
A sword came screaming out of its sheath and racing towards the Huntsman’s waist. The Huntsman moved his sword to defend his stomach, but the Assassin heard the movement before he saw it from beneath his hood. His sword jumped up, twisting as he stepped to the other side of it, bringing the blade slicing through the Huntsman’s right breast.
The fur cut free immediately, but his sword jolted back into his hands. A strip of metal—maybe a knife?—was in the way.
“You couldn’t have told me about that?” the Assassin demanded of his voices.
“Why would I tell you?” the Huntsman asked, genuinely confused.
Even angrier at this, the Assassin blocked a sad attempt of a blow from the Huntsman, faking a jab at the man’s gut. When the Huntsman tried to prevent it, the Assassin locked the blades and cast the Huntsman’s aside.
The Assassin didn’t let the Huntsman snatch a knife. He slapped the Huntsman’s hand with the flat of his blade before stepping close enough to ram the butt of his sword into the man’s shoulder.
Then the Assassin had no mercy as far as taunting him. More metal slaps to the face, small nicks at any patch of free skin or soft fur. He didn’t stop until the Huntsman was standing with his back to the cliff and the Assassin had his blade at the Huntsman’s throat.
It was dramatic. But it was better to be dramatic than do what the Beast actually wanted him to do.
The Assassin lowered his sword until he could see it from beneath his hood. The tiniest flecks of blood decorated the tip. The voices told him exactly where the blade was most dull. The Beast demanded that he bloody it more. But instead, he slid it back in the sheath.
He turned and walked towards his pony. When the voices began to describe new movements from the Huntsman, the Assassin didn’t stop.
“Just… don’t,” he said.
“Tell the Grandmother I said hello. Tell your employer I said goodbye. Tell the whole damn world that no one touches any princess, no matter if it’s the right time or not.”
Hands firm on the reigns, the Assassin guided the mountain pony down the path.