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|This is the last of three parts of a completed story about an assassin. I was allowed to borrow a role-play character from a friend, Steve 'Kilth' Constien (Thanks Kilth), and staged a meeting between this character and my character Marjory from Ghoul's Breath. It is different from Ghoul's Breath in that it has more plot and a lighter note, so it is more of a traditional fantasy story, but I think I managed to sneak in a character theme or two as well.||
Fires blossomed everywhere. They started in shops and showrooms, lit by looters too high on adrenalin to contemplate the consequences of what they were doing. Alert shopkeepers and neighbors managed to put out a few of them, but many remained unattended and grew unnoticed into scalawag adolescence. Once there, they had enough power to break through windows, walls and roofs, and met with the chill wind from the mountains. That was a fateful meeting. The wind greeted the flames with conflagrating power, and the fires instantly exploded into full-blown maturity, turning street after street of Trasker into inferno.
Screams rose from the narrow alleys as families saw their entire lifetime of belongings and their future with them go up in flames. The screams turned into panic as parents searched for their children, and the children searched for their pups and dolls. The panic spread as a shockwave ahead of an avalanche, and block after block was emptied into the streets, creating effective barricades of furniture, kitchenware, toys and other belongings.
Ignas rode the crest of the wave toward the block where their hideout was. He dodged chairs, flying pottery, milling dogs and general desperation. A one point he realized he was running toward a burning zone, not away from it. By then he had penetrated an area of panicked evacuation and was fighting his way through a street with smoldering houses. The air was growing hotter by the second, and glowing embers had replaced the leaves as the wind’s favorite toys. He cursed as he stepped out of a burning heap of litter trapped in a corner, and brushed a glowing twig out of his hair. Rounding a bend he entered the street where they had stayed and stopped dead. The abandoned house where the hideout was located was engulfed in roaring flames. The dry material was perfect fuel for the fire, and it had spread to several surrounding houses. The heat was too intense to go close, and all he could do was powerlessly staring at the spectacle.
He didn’t know how long he had stood there when a tug on his sleeve made him turn. It was Terl. His face was full of soot and blood, and his clothes were partly torn, partly burned. He gestured, and without a word Ignas followed him through an alley leading away from the street with the burning houses. When they were out of the intense heat, Terl stopped and leaned against a wall, pale-faced, with an agonized expression. He was supporting his broken arm as well as he could, but he still hadn’t got anything to immobilize it with.
“I saw them,” he whispered hoarsely. “When I came back with the splints.”
Ignas stared. “What are you talking about?”
“The soldiers. Marjory was picked up by a troop a little while ago. She had to leave the house and they caught her on the street.”
“You mean she got out?” Ignas didn’t realize he was shaking the boy before he noticed Terl was close to fainting. With a curse he let him go and looked at his arm. The fracture looked still clean, but it had to hurt. “Do you still have those splints?” Terl shook his head mutely. He was fighting to keep back his tears, Ignas saw. Cursing again, he looked around for something to use, and found some broken branches. “Tell me what happened,” he commanded tersely and started working on a crude support.
Maral sneered at Marjory where she was kneeling, trying to get up. Her hands were tied behind her back and made her a little clumsy.
“What you gonna do now, bitch? Not so easy to poison people with your hands tied up, eh? Not so easy to steal away with somebody’s life!?” He hit her with the flat of his hand again, sending her sprawling back on the crates behind her.
“If it wasn’t for you, I’d have been a journeyman by now! My family could’ve afforded a better place to live and not been caught by the fire…” his voice broke. “Strengler wouldn’t sponsor me when he saw what his maid could do, he said!” He aimed a kick in Marjory’s direction, but hit only the corner of a crate, which made him curse violently. “How you duped him I don’t know. Gods, you are ugly!” He spat out the last sentence as Marjory turned the right side of her face toward him as she struggled to get up.
“Not half as ugly as your spite makes you,” Marjory said through clenched teeth, finally getting her legs under her again.
“Spite? Spite??” Maral’s voice rose. “What’s that got to do with anything?” He stepped over, grabbed her hair and yanked her to her feet. “Let me tell you something, witch. Someone as ugly as you shouldn’t be allowed to live. Someone with a hearth as black as yours should be put out of their misery as quickly as possible! Someone…” he took a breath and was about to continue when the Lieutenant stopped him with a hold on his arm.
“That’s enough, apprentice, Lord Strengler wants her alive. Leave it.”
Maral stared at him. “Alive? The wreck wants this, this, thing alive?” He laughed with a hysterical edge to his voice. “Oh, he can have her alive, all right.” He turned and saw some burning debris in a corner, went quickly over and picked up a burning branch. “She’s lived through worse before, haven’t you?” he addressed Marjory and waved maliciously with the burning branch in front of her. The stark terror on Marjory’s face was answer enough. She backed as far as she could, with Maral’s fist deep into her hair.
“I said, enough!” the Lieutenant interrupted him angrily. “We don’t have time for this. As soon as the men have cleared a way through this rubbish we’re heading for the keep.”
“There’s time enough,” Maral replied with a glance to the littered street and the burning barricade that blocked it. A bucket chain of soldiers and civilians alike was busy dousing it before it could ignite the houses on the other side of the street. “Plenty of people are burning tonight, why should she get away?”
The Lieutenant shrugged. “Listen, I’m sorry about your sister,” he said gently, “but I’m responsible for this one and I won’t let you ruin my career because of your grief.”
“To hell with that,” Maral cried and swung the burning branch in an arch so the Lieutenant had to duck, and hit Marjory squarely in the face with it. She screamed. Her terror drowned out the pain as she jerked away and left Maral standing with a fistful of hair. Her mad dash was more panicky than a real attempt at escape. The Lieutenant shouted furiously, and sprinted after her. He caught up a little down an alleyway, and toppled her so she sprawled headlong in the gravel. She gasped for breath as the fall drew all air out of her lungs. Maral was close on their heels, and suddenly they were all out of the main street and shielded from the view of the crowd.
Ignas chose that moment to step out of the shadows and enter the alley. With the help of Terl he had caught up with the patrol and witnessed the incident. The Lieutenant kept shouting at Maral, who was waving with the branch. Marjory was desperately heaving for air when she noticed Ignas. Quickly she grasped the situation, twisted sideways and kicked out, catching Maral on his shin with a heavy boot. His outcry brought a smirk to her burned and battered face, the barred teeth and sooty scorch mark made her look very much like the evil creature he accused her of being. Furiously and a little frightened, Maral drove the burning end of the branch straight into her palm, which was still tied on her back, and twisted it brutally. Marjory screamed, recoiled and tried to move away from the scorching heat, but Maral pinned her down with a boot between her shoulders. Sadistically he dragged the burning branch over her back until he pushed it against the skin at the back of her neck. A particularly ill-timed gust of wind hurtled down the alley and made the branch blaze with renewed heat. Marjory went rigid, and her scream took on the note of stomach-clenching terror. An appalling smell of singed hair and scorched meat spread. Ignas reached them right then and cut the Lieutenant’s throat from behind with a well-practiced slash, then kicked the burning branch away from Marjory’s neck.
Maral jumped and let go. Shock registered on his face and he backed cautiously away, lifting the branch in front of him and used it as a shield. Terl crept up to Marjory and started to douse the flames that had gotten a hold in the back of her tunic. Using his own hands and shirt he winced at her state, and as soon as he could he started to saw at her ropes with a knife.
Ignas advanced on Maral with hunched knees, the dagger positioned for a quick slash. The burning branch glittered in his eyes, giving him a feral look. Maral held his ground, uneasiness reflected in his features as his gaze darted from Ignas to the Lieutenant and back again. He swung the branch tentatively, but Ignas dodged it easily with a thin smile. Suddenly the situation changed. Two figures, silhouetted against the glow of the fires in the street were entering the alleyway, and Terl cried a warning.
A grating sound told of short swords being drawn. The soldiers had seen the Lieutenant and reached their conclusion. Ignas whirled, trying to keep an eye at Maral at the same time. Terl picked up a loose cobblestone and threw it, hitting Maral in the forehead with a painful sounding thud. He went down like a brick. The two soldiers took no notice of Terl and were fanning out to get at Ignas from two sides.
Ignas backed slowly to keep the soldiers within his line of sight. All of a sudden he had a long dagger in each hand, strangely confident in the face of his two opponents. “How’s Marjory?” he asked with a low voice, not taking his eyes off the approaching men.
Terl finished cutting the ropes and turned her over on her side. She was white faced and dark-eyed, a glaring black and red welt over her left chin and nose. “Bad,” he replied, fear showing in his voice. “She’s cold and shaking all over.”
“I’ll be there in a second,” Ignas replied curtly, and became too busy to say any more.
Terl looked wide-eyed as he engaged the two swordsmen with a dagger in each hand. Ignas was quick; his movements carried a predatory quality that made the soldiers seem clumsy in comparison. One moment Ignas dodged a vicious slash from the right soldier, the next, the soldier looked at the dagger planted in his chest. Ignas ducked behind him, barely avoiding the avenging thrust from his companion. He dove low, rolled nimbly on his shoulder, and slashed at the tendons at the back of the knee of the remaining soldier. An outcry told Terl that Ignas’ aim was true, and the soldier wobbled, hamstrung. The end looked gracefully effortless when Ignas rose and spun behind the wounded soldier, and with another well-rehearsed movement cut his throat like he had with the Lieutenant. It was over in no time at all.
Terl swallowed as Ignas wiped his daggers and joined them. It was hard to tell if Marjory had registered anything of what had happened. She was clammy, and didn’t respond when Ignas talked to her. Then a groan from the ground made them look up.
“Maral...” Terl said. Ignas just nodded and picked up the remains of the rope that Marjory had been tied with. Deftly he used it on Maral’s hands, cut a part of his robe and gagged him with it, and then looked at Terl.
“Can you take us back to Strengler’s place, kid? Unnoticed? We need to hurry.” The urgency in Ignas voice served better than any explanation, and Terl nodded bleakly, looking at Maral with something close to hate. Ignas gave him one of the swords from the dead soldiers and told him to walk Maral at its point in front of them. Ignas followed, carrying Marjory as gently as he could. She seemed strangely disconnected from what was going on. Terl took them through alleys and backyards, weaving his way around smoldering barricades and burning houses until they were out of the immediate fire-ridden area. Dar Strengler’s neighborhood was yet untouched, and they sidled into the shop on the ground floor without being seen. It was less than fifteen minutes since the fight in the alley.
“What are we doing here?” Terl stared at the rows of jars, pots and bags of herbs that decorated the shop area while Ignas tied up Maral so he couldn’t get away.
“We’re looking for something for Marjory, then we need something decent to splint your arm with,” Ignas replied. In an afterthought he added, “See if you can find some water for us.” Terl nodded and disappeared into the backyard, and Ignas busied himself with Marjory.
“How are you doing, girl?” he asked gruffly. When Marjory didn’t reply he lifted her chin to look at her. “You’ll be okay,” he said. “The bastard did do some damage, there’s no denying that, but I don’t think that’s the whole story, is it?” He didn’t wait for an answer but picked her up and lifted her onto the couch Dar Strengler used for patients. Terl was back with the water and Ignas gestured him to pour some.
Terl was watching with big eyes. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked, fidgeting.
“Shock,” Ignas replied curtly. “Usually it takes more severe wounds than this, but she has an issue with fires, and no wonder.”
“Is she going to die?” There was no mistaking the quiver in Terl’s voice this time, and Ignas threw him a quick glance. “Not if I can help it,” he replied evenly. Then he sent Terl off to look for food, coverings and spare clothes. From the depths of his belt pouch Ignas picked up the blue vial he had used on his own wounds earlier, and made another healing potion. Carefully removing the remains of Marjory’s tunic and shirt he washed her palm, back and neck before he wetted her face. He made her swallow the rest, and then covered her with a soft sheet Terl brought back.
Marjory had been pale and quiet the whole time, and chose this point to stir. “Where are we?” She seemed strangely disoriented. “It’s… it’s… It just puts me off. Fires, you know? It hurts.” She shivered visibly.
“Yeah, I know girl. Don’t worry; you’ll be fine. We’re somewhere safe and you need to rest.”
Marjory nodded without looking at them and closed her eyes. Ignas studied her pale countenance with a frown, not at all at ease with her condition.
Maral chose that moment to test his ropes, and Terl spun around, glaring at him. He needed something to alleviate his distress, and without warning he kicked Maral in the stomach. Maral curled up, trying to protect his abdomen with knees and thighs. It only caused Terl to start kicking at his head instead. “It’s your fault,” he yelled, kicking and crying, over and over. When Ignas interrupted, Maral was bleeding from his nose and a split lip, ineffectively trying to avoid Terl’s boots.
“That’s not a good way to kill somebody, kid.”
Terl stiffened, and turned to Ignas with eyes filled with black chaos.
Ignas met his stare wearily. “It’s too slow and too noisy. A quick slash to the throat will do the job and silence the target at the same time.” Ignas fingered his goatee, watching Terl closely. “All things considered that’s a better method, kid. Unless you use poison of course.” Maral’s eyes went wide as he heard what Ignas said. “Not so easy to poison somebody who expects it,” Ignas added, and met Maral’s eyes with an ironic twist to his eyebrows. “If the kill is supposed to look natural and you don’t have access to their food, it’s better to knock them out first. Then Widow Leaf would be my preferred choice, actually.” Maral was making frantic sounds in the throat, but Ignas ignored him. “Seeing as you don’t feel it’s necessary to make it look natural, I’d use this.” Casually he fetched a long dagger from his belt and handed it to Terl, shaft first. “It’s easier if you don’t look them in the eyes,” he added.
Terl accepted the dagger with a trembling hand. He clutched it stiffly, holding it as far away as he could. He turned to Maral on the floor, and looked from him to the dagger and back again.
“Before you kill him, kid,” Ignas said quietly, “you should ask yourself this; how important is vengeance to you?” There was a dark look to his eyes. “I’m not telling you what to do. Just what it is important to consider. Take it from somebody who knows from experience.” Ignas paused and met Terl’s eyes. “Regardless of what you decide, consider this: right now he’s the only healer with some skill in this house, and Marjory may need his attention.”
Terl swallowed hard. “Is that why you brought him here?”
Ignas nodded. “That, and he probably know where Strengler kept his good stuff. That’s not important though. I can probably find it if I do a thorough search.”
Wordlessly Terl handed him back the dagger and Ignas accepted it without comment. He went over to Maral and hunched down, setting the dagger’s point to his throat.
“You heard that little talk, healer,” he said conversationally, “so you know that the main reason that you live is that you can do something for Marjory.” Maral looked like he tried to push his head through the floor to get away from the dagger. “I’m going to untie you and remove the gag,” Ignas continued. “And just so you know it, I’m watching you very closely, and I’m long past the point where I need to look away from somebody’s eyes before I kill them. Do you understand me?” He eased the dagger away a little, and Maral nodded.
Maral was very subdued when he got up. The first thing he did was to operate some levers on the couch and elevate it so Marjory’s head rested lower than her body. Then he made a cold poultice for her wounds, liberally sprinkled with Numb Root. When he started to dress the wounds, he paused at the sight of her back, frowning in confusion. Ignas just gestured him to go on. Other than that he said only to give her time. When he had splintered Terl’s arm, Ignas tied him up again, and the rest of the night they spent in silence. Ignas and Terl took turns watching the windows for any signs of nearing fires, but they came through the night without further incident.
When the morning came, both Ignas and Terl were relieved to see Marjory returning to her old self. Terl was awed at the change to her wounds; they were little more than pale scars. From the look on Maral’s face he was just as astonished. Marjory was very quiet and didn’t object when Ignas stated that they would leave the city. When he judged it to be time, she just nodded in acquiescence. Terl tried to hide his disappointment and Marjory took him aside just before they were about to leave. Slipping him a leather pouch, which felt encouragingly heavy, she admonished him sternly.
“This is for your mother, Terl,” the firm edge to her voice didn’t brook any arguments. Then she pulled a gold coin from a pocket and handed it to him. “For you,” she added. “And thanks for your help yesterday.” Terl grinned broadly. “Will you be back?” he asked hopefully.
“I don’t think so,” Marjory replied a little unhappily. “This city doesn’t want me, that much is clear.” Terl saw Ignas busying himself with checking their packs at Marjory’s last comment, and despite his years he understood something of what had passed the previous day.
“I don’t know where we’ll go if mama gets sick again.” Terl swallowed. Marjory looked sadly at him. “I’d stay away from Maral if I were you,” she replied. “But there are other healers in town, and now you have gold to pay with. Save it for an emergency.” They exchanged a few more words, and then Ignas and Marjory left by foot toward the city gates. Terl watched them through the window as they disappeared behind a corner, and turned toward Maral, who was still hogtied and lying on the floor. He picked up the short sword Ignas had left him the day before, and stared long at it before he pointed it at Maral’s throat.
Marjory woke up with a resigned feeling. The sun was playing over the coarse floorboard, being sifted through the branches of a tree outside the window. Judging from the merry movements of light and shadow, the wind was still blowing strongly. She gave in for the luxurious feeling of staying under the blankets a little while longer while she went through the events of the past few days. So much had happened. It would take time to digest it all. Ignas had relayed the missing bits about events on their way to the roadside inn where they had stayed overnight.
Dar Strengler had used her. That feeling was no novelty. That she didn’t know why, was worse. Had he done it because she was part Mezade and he figured she would fit nicely with his plans, or had her existence inspired him to come up with his scheme? She dreaded the latter and knew she could never be certain. Having mulled over the question for some time, at last she decided she should get up. Her stomach told her she needed food.
She found Ignas in the common room, already having finished the first meal of the day. He was staring blankly at a half-empty cup of cider when she joined him at the table. He nodded curtly and emptied the cup, placing an order for another one at the same time as Marjory ordered her breakfast.
Marjory found that her appetite left her as soon as the food came on the table. She followed Ignas example and emptied the cider. He smiled briefly.
“The cider is on me, girl. I have a lot of gold to drink up and you said you’d join me.”
Marjory looked up, surprised. Then she recalled their conversation from their first meeting. It seemed like a year ago. Ignas ordered a mug and poured them both, then lifted the cup for a toast.
“Chin up, girl. You live, and that’s no small thing.”
Marjory looked at her cup, and at Ignas, and slowly raised the toast. “Yes, I live. You live. Terl live. Lord Keren is dead, and Dar Strengler is dead. Maybe now my folks can live too.” She emptied the cup again and didn’t object when Ignas filled it up. She shook her head slowly. “You’re a riddle, Ignas Shadowstep, do you know that?”
Ignas raised an eyebrow quizzically, and Marjory continued. “One week ago I had no idea who you were. In the course of a few days you’ve saved both my life and that of countless Mezade tribespeople. Yet, you live by death.” She took a deep breath, asking the question that had bothered her all day. “Why did you kill Dar Strengler back in the keep? He wasn’t responsible for your trouble.”
Ignas didn’t reply right away. He fingered his goatee while he stared into the air. Suddenly he shrugged. “Truth told, I’m not sure.” The reply was surprising and unexpectedly sincere. Marjory had half anticipated a plain dismissal. Ignas looked slightly discomfited. “Does it matter?”
“Yeah!” Marjory replied forcefully. “I’m not used to being in debt, and I don’t like it. I’m used to pay my way, but I can’t even begin to think of what could repay what you did by revealing Strengler’s scheming. I’m not good at gratitude, but it’s the only thing I have to offer.” She looked into her cup, biting her lip. “I’m going to go back to my mother’s tribe from here. They need to know what I, -you, found out.” Ignas merely nodded and poured more cider for them both.
“I don’t need anything from you,” he said at last. “I did what I did, it was my choice.” He glanced at Marjory. “I relieved a little guilt, I think,” he said after a short pause. “As you said, you had managed to build a life until I showed up.”
Marjory laughed curtly. “It turned out to be an illusion, as so many other things,” she replied. “Strengler used me all the way.”
“Yeah.” Ignas emptied the mug, and it seemed like there weren’t much more to say. Then abruptly, he picked up one of his daggers and put it on the table in front of them.
“Take on it,” he said. Marjory looked confused at him. He was getting a little drunk she saw. “Come on, do it,” he urged, and bewildered Marjory obeyed. The moment she touched the hilt she felt an overwhelming fury well up at the thought of Dar Strengler and what he had done. Hateful thoughts she never knew she harbored fought their way to the surface. With an outcry she snatched her hand away.
“What was that?” she said. She hid her fright with the question, and Ignas leered.
“The answer to one of your previous questions, girl,” his diction was overly distinct, as if he made a conscious effort. “Why I kill.” Looking at the dagger his expression changed from exhilaration to regret and back again. “In the beginning it made it easier, then it turned into an effective tool.” He ran his hands through his hair, looking momentarily bemused. “Now… it’s turned into a habit.”
Marjory looked at him in shocked silence. Suddenly she got angry. “What a load of crap!” she snapped. “I don’t see anything forcing your hand to touch it.”
Ignas looked taken aback, then a strange smile appeared on his face. “You’re right,” he replied. “What put me on the track was a hot temper and the need of retribution. Funny to think of how I have become the source of that feeling for so many people, since then.” He laughed the same mirthless laughter Marjory recognized from their first meeting. Suddenly Marjory caught a glimpse of his conflict and felt herself sober up.
“Leave it,” she said softly.
“Leave the dagger,” she repeated. “It is a cursed thing.”
Ignas grinned at her. ”Yeah, that it is girl. But leaving it won’t mean a thing. I’m way past that.” Loudly he ordered another bottle, and turning back he added, “I told you, it’s just a habit now.” His eyes were dark with emotion, but which one Marjory couldn’t tell. She didn’t know what to say.
“So, we go on then,” she added at last. “You go with or without your dagger, and I,” she paused for a second, then smirked and unconsciously mirrored his expression. “I go with and without my face.” She felt the effect of the cider returning in full, belatedly remembering that she hadn’t eaten at all.
Ignas raised his cup and waited for her to follow. “Cheers,” he said. “We live. Death and regret are for the others.” They toasted and emptied their cups again. Then, without warning Marjory circumvented Ignas’ fortress of indifference and surprised herself as well, slurring a little on the words as she spoke:
“You know, I doubt that your work as assassin will ever outweigh the numbers of Mezade lives you’ve saved.” She blinked in the stunned silence, mulling over what she just said. Then she nodded slowly to herself, poured their cups again, and added: “Cheers then. Dunno why I said that but it sounds true. Prolly makes no difference to the dead.” Ignas joined the toast with a befuddled expression, but somehow he seemed to take heart at it.
|Golden fire, healthy hope||Beyond the Aftermath|
|Love's Last Stand||