Lonefell Keep, beyond the Cressy Plains
She was dead, gone from him forever. And all for the life of a puny girl child.
"Show me," said the baron of Lonefell Keep.
Shaking with terror, the midwife placed a small warm bundle in his arms. Reflexively, he tightened his grip and the babe squirmed, mewling. The baron stared down at the skin of her cheek, palest ivory and roses, and examined the slender fingers and long bones. Then he looked for an endless time at the body of the tiny, olive-skinned woman lying twisted among the bloodied sheets. She had been his cousin, and there was a strong resemblance between them.
Finally, he lifted his gaze to the window. Outside, in the barrack square, his sergeant of the guard drilled Lonefell's soldiers. The man had journeyed an unimaginable distance from the far north to join the baron's service. A light breeze fondled his long braids, so fair as to be almost white. Sunlight caressed broad shoulders and long, straight limbs.
A film of ice formed over the baron's heart, for he had been foolish enough to love his pretty young wife.
He thrust the child at the trembling midwife and ripped open the door. His captain stood outside, awaiting his lord's pleasure. With a jerk of his chin, the baron drew the man to him. "Kill the northern barbarian!"
When the man's face went slack with shock, he snarled, "Now!"
He strode away without a backward look, dismissing the child from his mind and his life.
After a week, the midwife, nonplussed, named the babe Mehcredi, for that had been her sister's name. Then she handed the infant over to a passing maidservant and departed. The squalling bundle passed from one exasperated maid to another until one more ruthless than the others set the child aside in a distant storeroom. She considered it a politic move, for after all, hadn't the baron made his disinterest clear? In any case, the life of a single girl child was a cheap and easy thing.
Mehcredi would have died, save for the merest chance. A few days later, the keep's laundress was brought to the bed of a stillborn son. That in itself was not such an unusual occurrence, but the loss affected the woman strangely. She fell into a deep melancholy, complicated by milk fever. By the time her best friend bethought herself of the abandoned babe, the child was almost too weak to suck.
But suck she did, with an avid desperation, and the washerwoman recovered. But the melancholy lingered like an evil spell. Mehcredi had reached the toddling stage when the woman drowned herself in one of the deep stone tubs in the laundry, her hair floating like weeds among the baron's sheets.
The child grew wild and dirty, scavenging like a little animal, her fingers always clawed, ready to snatch, her strange, light eyes stretched wide. As the seasons passed, she shot up like a sturdy sapling, pale as a snow birch seeking the sun. No one spoke to her, save in passing. No one touched her, save for an absentminded buffet if she were underfoot.
Only fat old cook noticed the girl, for he loved to see a body eat and Mehcredi inhaled anything he gave her, in any amount, at any time. She haunted the cavernous kitchen, for there it was warm and she could fill the emptiness inside her. But all she did was grow-and grow and grow-her long limbs straight and true, her shoulders square and well set.
The laughter of the castle children excited her almost unbearably, but they interacted according to unwritten rules she had no hope of understanding. On the rare occasions she was permitted to join in, something always went wrong, though she was never able to pin down what it was. Baffled, angry and hurt, she'd stand like a lump while the little ones pointed and complained and the older children jeered.
Chewing her thumb, she lurked in the shadows, a tall, pale wraith, staring, always staring. More than once, she pushed or kicked a smaller child, so she could watch with greedy eyes when it ran to its mother and was comforted. She had to blink back the tears every time, though she could never work out where they came from or why-or even prevent them in the first place. With a defiant sniff, she'd stamp off to the kitchens and swipe a pastry.
By the time she had breasts and a woman's hips, Mehcredi was already taller than most men, monosyllabic and sullen. A few years later, when she stood at Cook's graveside, she was six feet in height, her strange silver eyes shielded by thick, light brown lashes. A tangle of ice-pale hair straggled down her broad back, almost as far as the swell of her buttocks.
Before dawn the following morning, she crept into the baron's study, levered open the lock on his treasure box and took what she thought she was owed simply for surviving . Without a word, she hauled herself onto one of the castle's grain wagons, heading for market in Caracole of the Leaves. By first light, she was long gone.
Mehcredi discovered, rather to her surprise, that she liked Caracole, that city of sea canals and shining white towers and smiling vice, a far cry from the silence and cold unyielding stone of Lonefell Keep. When she sat idle, watching the summer breeze play chase and kiss with the blue wavelets in the canals, strange thoughts drifted into her head, tantalizing fragments of meaning hovering just beyond her grasp, eluding her by the smallest of margins. Skiffs and barges floated by, the people on board talking, laughing, arguing, or sitting in comfortable silence with their arms around each other.
She'd hoped it might be different here, away from the keep, but it wasn't. She didn't know how to do any of the things other folk did so naturally. When she tried, they looked at her sidelong-or worse, they laughed outright and turned away.
As if life were a cruel game and they had all the pieces, while she'd been robbed of hers before birth.
After a week of increasing frustration, grief and fury, Mehcredi betook herself and the baron's gold to the House of the Assassins. The Lonefell soldiers made the sign of the Sibling Moons every time the place was mentioned, half in awed admiration, half in horror. If they were impressed, so was she. She thought no more deeply than that, like a child who only comprehends enough of the world to want what it wants.
Those who had the power of life and death controlled the pieces and the board, and therefore the game itself. Or so she reasoned.
Caracole, Queendom of the Isles
Death padded in pursuit, slipping through the double shadows without a sound. Like the worst nightmare Mehcredi could imagine, except this was all too horribly real. How much longer she could elude him, the man with the hunter's face? Panting, she glanced over her shoulder at the dark figure pacing behind. As he drifted from one patch of shadow to the next, something pale gleamed where the light of the Sibling Moons tangled in his black hair. Feathers worked into a long braid, and . . . bones?
Were they finger bones?
The shock thrilled down her nerves, making her head swim and her vision blur, but her long legs carried her away at a swift, stumbling run, lurching down a narrow alley, deeper into the reeking slum the people of Caracole called the Melting Pot. Turning to fight never entered her head. Gods, she'd barely scraped through the First Circle tests as it was, and her first real commission for the Guild of Assassins had been an unqualified disaster. No, she wouldn't have a chance.
She couldn't hear his footfall, couldn't detect any movement, but his presence behind her was a tangible force. Every cell in her body sensed him with the animal instinct of the hunted-his predatory focus, the grim relish with which he anticipated her death. From her left came the frantic click of claws on the cobbles, a soft whining noise. That damn dog! She might as well wave a flaming torch above her head and be done with it.
"Get lost," she hissed, glancing around for something to throw. "Scat!" But the little animal only skittered aside, continuing to flank her.
Mehcredi twisted and doubled back. One hand pressed to the stitch in her side, she reeled around a corner and inevitably, there he stood, waiting-pitiless. He wasn't a great deal taller than she was, but much broader. Lithe and strong and graceful, where she was long-boned and clumsy and doomed.
She opened her mouth to shriek, to plead, but long-fingered hands fastened around her throat. As he slowly increased the pressure, digging painfully into the soft flesh under her jaw, the man smiled, lips pulling back from white teeth. The expression gave him an eerie, chilling beauty. He could have been an avenging angel or a handsome demon. Either way, those elegant brutal hands were the sure instruments of her death.
Her fists flailed, punching. When that failed, she raked at his forearms with her nails, but he didn't even flinch. Mehcredi knew she was strong, stronger than any woman she'd ever met, but it made no difference. Black spots formed in her vision, her lungs labored and cramped.
"No," she tried to rasp. "No, please."
From far off, as if down a long tunnel, came the sound of hysterical barking.
The man thrust his face into hers. "Now you pay," he snarled as he sent her down into the dark. "Assassin."
By the bones of Those Before, she was a strange one, this Mehcredi. Walker had never seen a woman like her. Certainly, never one so pale, nor so big. He stared down at her unconscious form, stretched full length in the bottom of the skiff he was poling under the Bridge of Empty Pockets. He flexed his shoulders, still a little surprised by her bulk. But he'd managed well enough in the end, heaving her over his shoulder in the alley and manhandling her into the skiff without tipping it over. Drowning the assassin wasn't part of his plan. Every time she looked like regaining consciousness, he shoved hard fingers into the nerve cluster behind her ear and she slipped away again.
Arriving at his House of Swords, he moored the skiff, hauled her out and dumped her at the foot of the stairs. Then he woke Pounder, whose room was on the ground floor. It took the combined heft of two fit, powerful men to haul her long limp body up the steep flights to the top floor. Once they had her laid out in the narrow bed, Walker unfastened her cloak, discovering it was thickly padded. So was her jerkin and vest. An interesting disguise, part of an assassin's stock in trade. No wonder she'd looked so bulky.
He had the woman down to shirt and trews before heavy breath on the back of his neck recalled him to the presence of his companion.
"Brother's balls," rumbled Pounder, chewing his moustache, battered brows arched in surprise. "She's not bad. Don't look like a murderin' bitch, not really. Who'd a thought it?"
The woman moaned and rolled her head on the pillow. Her lashes fluttered, revealing a glimpse of strange silver irises. Unnerved, Pounder fell back with a curse, making the sign of the Sibling Moons. Her white blond hair whispering across his knuckles, Walker used the nerve-pinch to send her under again. The agitation smoothed away, leaving her face unlined and innocent as a sleeping child's, marred only by the ugly necklace of bruises around her white throat. Her body was . . . well, lush was the word that came to mind, broad-shouldered and deep-bosomed. Long, strong bones. No wonder they'd found her dead weight so awkward to maneuver.
A murderer for hire.
Walker sent Pounder away before he unlaced her shirt and folded it back to expose one magnificent breast. The left. He had to be able to access her heart.
His fingers itched to slap her awake, to take his blade and carve Dai's full name into the soft swell of flesh. The Ancestors had blessed him; he was light handed, deft. He could make the agony last for hours.
He closed his eyes, seeing Dai convulsing on the tavern floor until his spine cracked, the hideous clotted sounds he'd made as the prettydeath clawed his gullet to ribbons. Gods, poor Dai-merry and wicked, gifted with the charm of a junior angel and the morals of an alley cat. Yet the man was never casual about his blade work. He could have been a swordmaster in his own right, with his own establishment, but he'd chosen to stay at Walker's House of Swords, the gods knew why.
He owed Dai for his loyalty. The assassin owed the man for his pain.
Walker prayed to Those Before for the discipline not to kill her. Then he reached out and spread the fingers of his left hand over Mehcredi's breast and cleavage. He touched only what he needed to touch, even when her nipple stiffened, ruching into a velvety pout as tender and pink as a new rose.
Kneeling by the bed, he concentrated so hard everything faded away save the beating heart beneath his palm and the Magick he drew from deep in the loamy earth, welling up from the ch'qui of the planet. One tendril at a time, he willed green spectral shoots out of the rich moist soil and wound them gently around her heart, a cage of Magick to keep her with him, interwoven with guards to prevent her doing further harm to Dai. What he crafted was beautiful, because to do less with what the Ancestors had given him would have been blasphemy. In the end, he let instinct guide him and when he opened his eyes, the thing was done, the delicate fronds of the pattern as pleasing to his aesthetic sense as the graceful, unbreakable strength of the Magick.
Walker laced up her shirt, his fingers a little unsteady. Something deep in his guts ached. He hadn't done a Magick as powerful as that for a long time. Why bother? The Shar were gone, his people no more than ash blown by the hot desert winds. He was alone, always and ever.
The dreams were terrible. Or was this death? A succession of horrors to be endured over and over, endlessly?
A cloak of formless evil gathered in the night sky and swooped-smothering her mouth and eyes and nostrils in a blanket of filth, plucking at her nerves with strong, cruel fingers. Mehcredi tried to scream her agony, but no sound emerged. Instead, the Necromancer's thin, sexless voice echoed in her skull. You failed me, assassin, it said. Failure is not acceptable in my service.
Her soul shrank with horror. Gods, not again, she'd rather die. Every dream visit from the Necromancer had been a leisurely violation, undertaken with casual, lip-smacking glee.
The hunter appeared suddenly, all of a piece, as dream figures do. Immediately, the Necromancer's hideous form shrank, coalescing until it was no more than a greasy spot that oozed away, trickling down a gutter. Mehcredi turned to her nemesis with something very like a sigh of relief, her throat bared and vulnerable. Merciless he might be, but his presence was clean, sharp as a blade, with none of the taint of evil about it. There was the strangest comfort in that. Strong fingers squeezed, choking, hurting.
Writhing, she struggled for air. A painful gasp brought her awake, her eyes snapping open. Above was a low, whitewashed ceiling with a pronounced slope. Wonderingly, she patted her throat with her fingertips. Gods, she was alive! But how-?
She turned her head.
A man sat opposite on a wooden chair placed squarely against the door, his empty hands in plain sight, folded across a flat stomach. His eyes closed, he was so still in the warm light of the lamp he could have been a statue cast in bronze. Mehcredi's gaze darted over high slashing cheekbones, an imperious nose and uncompromising mouth. His body was all lean length, whipcord and muscle, clad conventionally enough in a working man's shirt and trews, soft boots.
Beyond him, on the other side of the door, lay freedom.
Soundlessly, Mehcredi eased herself up on her elbows, her head pounding like a funeral drum. She was lying on a narrow bed, no more than a pallet, in a room not much bigger than a cupboard. Remarkably, there were no ropes, no restraints, nothing to impede her-save the man.
His long legs were stretched before him, ankles crossed. Mehcredi stared longingly at the scabbard hanging from his belt. She ran her tongue over dry lips. If she could grab the weapon before he woke . . .
She lifted her gaze to his face and swallowed a scream.
The man was watching her, his dark gaze unreadable. But then, she'd never been able to fathom what people were thinking, feeling. His eyes were black-as dark as his hair. The lamplight struck bluish gleams from the sable thickness of it, falling soft and straight as rain over his shoulders, two thin braids on either side of his face.
And she knew him.
"The bones." Her voice came out raspy, even huskier than usual. "Where are the bones?"
The hunter regarded her in silence. Unnerved, Mehcredi scrambled as far away as possible, until her shoulder blades were pressed right up against the wall behind the bed. She tucked her legs beneath her.
After an interminable wait, during which her heart banged against her ribs like a trapped bird, he said, "You are Mehcredi the assassin." It wasn't a question.
She raised her chin. "I-" Her voice cracked so badly she had to stop and swallow. The hunter crossed his arms over his chest and the gleam in his eye became more pronounced. "I am a member of the Guild, yes."
"Count yourself fortunate Dai's not dead. Thanks to Erik's quick wits."
She hadn't known the man's name, only that watching him writhe on the tavern floor, his merry handsome face contorted into a mask of excruciating pain, had made her guts heave. At the memory, bile rose in her throat, sour and burning. "H-he's not?" She swallowed again. "Water, I need water."
The hunter went on as if she hadn't spoken. "Though I don't doubt he wishes he was." A pause. "You used prettydeath, assassin."
This time, Mehcredi had no problem recognizing the expression that flashed across his grim features. She'd seen it every day of her life. Revulsion. Disgust.
"What's that?" she whispered. "I swear, I-"
"You didn't know it's absolute agony? That it can take a whole day to die?"
Abruptly, the hunter rose, lethal grace in every line of him. Stalking to the foot of the bed, he raised one arm and pressed his palm against the low ceiling. He leaned in, dominating, his eyes flat and black. "Someone wanted him to suffer. Don't lie to me, assassin."
"No." Mehcredi shook her head, panic slowing her wits. "No, I'm not lying. Anyway, it was a mistake. He wasn't supposed-" She broke off on a gasp.
"I know. It was Erik Thorensen you were meant to murder. The singer."
"N-not murder. I had a . . . had a commission."
His lips compressed. "Don't dress it up. Murder, pure and simple."
"The Guild Master calls them commissions."
A dark brow winged up.
Desperately, Mehcredi stumbled on, wishing he would look away, give her even a split second of relief. "He said he'd help me, seeing it was my first, so he gave me . . . gave me- May I have some water? Please?"
"No. Gave you what?"
"The . . . the poison. P-prettydeath."
"And you didn't know what it was? Is that the story?"
She shook her head. "He didn't say. Only that it never failed."
The hunter's hand dropped to the hilt of the long dagger in his belt. He straightened, his lip curling. "Then you must have crawled from beneath a rock. Prettydeath is notorious here, and among all the known worlds."
"I'm not from Caracole, or anywhere near it."
He grunted. "Where, then?"
"Beyond the Cressy Plains. In the high hills."
His hard stare shifted to the tangle of her pale hair. "To the north?"
Another grunt. The hunter returned to his seat. "You kidnapped Prue McGuire, didn't you?"
Mehcredi's nerve cracked. "Who are you? What do you want?"
Another of those dreadful silences. At last, he said, "My name is Walker and this is my House of Swords. As for what I want?" His lips pulled back from his teeth. "I will see you pay for your crimes, assassin."
"But what did I do to you?" she cried, almost sobbing.
"To me? Why, nothing." Again that feral expression, like a tygre crouched for the kill. "But on the floor below is a man who can't make a sound louder than a kitten, though he needs to scream. Your poison stripped the flesh from his throat."
When she opened her mouth, he overrode her. "You kidnapped a woman from The Garden of Nocturnal Delights, an innocent you delivered into the filthy hands of unimaginable evil. Even now-"
When he broke off frowning, his hair shifted on his shoulders like a shawl of midnight silk. "She might be dead. And Erik's likely to get himself killed finding her."
"I don't understand." Unimaginable evil. Mehcredi's skin crawled. She searched the hunter's face, but regardless of what he might be feeling, it told her nothing. Faces rarely did.
"Why do you care? What are they to you?"
"Why do I-? It's none of your concern, assassin, but Dai works for me. As for Prue McGuire, she audits my accounts."
Prue. Oh yes, she remembered Prue. Unconsciously, Mehcredi rubbed the bruise on her thigh, wincing. Who'd have thought someone so small would be so fierce? Sister in the sky, the woman had very nearly got away. If it hadn't been for the special cloth saturated with the stupefying drug . . . She owed that to the Guild Master too.
Walker's gaze was fixed on her flexing fingers. The corners of his mouth turned up, very slightly. Did that mean he was amused? Was it safe to relax? "She hurt you, didn't she?" he said. "Good."
Mehcredi blinked. "Why is that good?"
A vertical crease formed between his brows. "Don't be stupid," he said, biting off each word.
"I'm not." Mehcredi chewed her lip, feeling the heat rising in her cheeks.
Half-wit, they used to call her at Lonefell. A casual clout across the ear from the housekeeper. Get out o' the way, ye great daft lump! Followed by the muttered aside to a visitor. She's not all there, ye know.
But she was, she was all there. She just didn't like staring eyes and hard, cruel hands-or things she didn't understand, like the human race in general.
Mehcredi forced herself to concentrate. From what she'd seen at the keep, people cared only about those they loved or feared, but it didn't sound as though Prue and Dai were Walker's lovers, or that they scared him. At least, she didn't think so. Which left . . . "These two, they're your, uh, friends?"
Every vestige of expression disappeared from his face and she was back where she'd begun. Clueless.
"Who employed you?" he demanded.
The tremors became so bad, she had to wrap her arms around her torso to stop the shaking. "I'm sure you know," she whispered, staring fixedly at his boots.
"Possibly." A shift in the air told her he was leaning forward again, intent. "Give me a description."
"Too scared?" Contempt again, the expression familiar.
Mehcredi shook her head, beads of cold sweat springing up around her hairline. The only power in the world she found more discomfiting than the Necromancer stood right in front of her. "A b-black cloud, he came as a black cloud, a shadow. There was nothing to see."
He moved without warning, more swiftly than the eye could follow. Before she could blink, Walker was crouched at her side, the point of a long silvery blade pressed into the pit of her throat. Cold, so very cold. "You lie." His eyes blazed into hers.
"No, no!" She didn't dare even to swallow.
"Tell me, then. Everything you remember, every detail, no matter how small, every impression."
"A s-servant made the arrangements, told me to c-come to the Pavilion of Clouds and Rain at The Garden of Nocturnal Delights."
The tip of the knife drifted over her skin in a calculated, icy caress. "I know the place. Go on."
"He was there, waiting."
"I thought he was wearing a cloak at first." The force of Walker's stare dragged the words out of her. "But he was the cloak. When I looked, there was n-nothing inside. Only black. No eyes, nothing."
"The voice. Did he have an accent?"
Mehcredi wet her lips with the point of her tongue. "I'm not very good with voices."
"Don't tempt me, assassin. I'd enjoy carving it out of you." Walker's teeth gleamed white against the bronze of his face. "His accent?"
Oh, gods. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, trying to think, to recall. "Like everyone here in the city." She shot him a glance. "Except you."
A muscle in his jaw tightened. "I'm not from Caracole. So, a local accent. What else?"
Mehcredi frowned, her brain spinning with effort. "We keep saying 'he,' but I don't know . . . It was thin and light. Maybe female." A thought struck her and she grabbed his forearm. "Oh!"
The muscles beneath the linen of his shirt went rigid. How could the heat of him burn her palm when the blade he held at her throat was colder than the dark waters of Lonefell tarn?
"The servant! Why don't you torture him instead of me?"
Walker eased back. "I intend to." Smoothly, he rose and turned to the rickety nightstand tucked under the lowest part of the roof. Sheathing the blade at his waist, he busied himself with a chipped earthenware jug and a rough cup.
Turning, he thrust the cup at her. "Here."
Greedily, Mehcredi gulped the cool water. Nothing had ever felt so good.
"Slowly." Strong, warm hands closed over hers and she gasped with shock. A touch that was not a blow. "Don't choke yourself. I have plans for you, Mehcredi."
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Plans?" Her stomach lurched unpleasantly. "What plans?"
Walker gave her another of those impenetrable stares. "All in good time. Tell me again, from the very beginning."
"You already know!"
A shrug. "Again," he said inexorably.
Mehcredi gritted her teeth. "But why?"
"There may be something we missed. I'll know if you lie, assassin."
She sprang to her feet, fists clenched. "But I don't know how to lie!"
"Sit down." He didn't raise his voice, but it cracked like a whip.
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© 2010 Denise Rossetti
Rose graphic courtesy of Corbis