From my vantage point in a tree on the highway from Dargon to Kenna I watched as the wagon crawled through the muck and mire. A brief thaw had made slush of the king’s highways and even though spring was nigh, it was still blisteringly cold. I forced myself to stop clenching my jaws; the chill and tension from the forthcoming violence had set my teeth on edge. The air around me had that brooding, heavy quality of approaching twilight and I hated the forest at nighttime.
We had picked a bend in the highway where the forest pushed up directly against the road and the trees were dense, providing excellent coverage from which to stage a raid. Yet I had to keep reminding myself that we had plenty of time to complete our business before nightfall.
“Ol’s piss!” the wagoner cursed as the wheels of the wagon dipped into yet another deep rut.
Mentally, I echoed the curse. I was feeling strangely anxious even though holding up caravans on this road was something my band had done countless times before. My cohorts and I had endured an extra-hard winter and this was the first wagon we had seen in over two months. The booty we could get from this robbery would pay for food and some much-needed leatherskins.
The two tired-looking horses pulled out of the dip, causing the entire cart to shake. I wondered what had made the wagoner agree to drive his passengers from Dargon at this time of year, especially since the recently melted snow had made every road close to impassable. Very few people were foolhardy enough to travel this early in the year, mainly because of the weather, and honestly, I was a little surprised to find this caravan on the road. Money, I supposed — something even a sane wagoner couldn’t turn down.
Suddenly the wagon came to a complete stop, mired in the mud. It was close enough to me that I could make out the color of the dirty scarf the wagoner wore. I watched him lean over the side of the wagon to stare at the wheels and frown. A gust of wind whipped through his hair and he shivered.
Up in the dense leaves of the hemlock tree I shivered too. It was close to the seventh bell of the day, and the cold sank through my skin easily. I looked up and saw but a few white clouds marring the darkening sky. I whistled a loud call and was quietly pleased to see that the prearranged signal went unheeded by the driver; it never ceased to amaze me how incredibly easy it was to fool travellers.
I continued to watch the tableau unfolding before me. A head peeked out of the cloth-covered wagon. It was a boy, and when he spoke, I could hear the words faintly over the brisk Vibril wind.
“What happened, Tobias? Why have we stopped?” The boy was older than I had thought at first: a young man with long hair that swung around his thin face like that of a girl. He sniffed, and I guessed that his eyes and nose were watering in the cold wind.
“We’re stuck,” the wagoner, Tobias, explained. “In the mud,” he added helpfully.
“Oh,” said the young man, blinking rapidly. Abruptly he pulled his head back inside.
The distant sound of approaching hooves alerted me to expect my companions. The occupants of the wagon heard as well. I didn’t wait any longer and slid down the tree trunk just as my three companions burst onto the scene. All of the men dismounted easily; one of them, Nuru, vaulted onto the front of the carriage near the wagon driver. “Don’t move!” Nuru snapped at Tobias. “Hold the horses, man!”
“What do you want?” Tobias growled, trying to calm the restive horses.
Meanwhile, I circled around from behind so that I could ensure no one from the wagon ran off with any of the valuables.
“Jelani!” It must be the wagoner shouting, I guessed, at the young man.
With the tip of my sword I flipped open the fabric that covered the rear of the wagon and said sharply, “Out!”
The young man jumped out of the wagon with a huge sword in his hand. “Bandits! I will kill you!” He brandished the weapon rather ineffectually. I wasn’t an expert swordsman of any level, unlike the chief of our little band, Kamin, who was quite the fencer. Still, it was the work of a moment to disarm the younger man. I caught at his blade with my own, rotating my wrist deftly. The other’s grip loosened almost at once and within moments his sword fell into the slush. I ran my blade into the younger man and then realized I had an audience. An old man and a young woman had been watching my little disagreement with the pretty young man, and when the girl saw Jelani die, she screamed in short, shrill outbursts. My teeth ground together and momentarily, I regretted the fact that I had killed the young man in front of her.
“Hush, daughter,” the old man tried to calm her. “Gaia, be calm.” She was young, maybe thirteen or fourteen, her figure showing the promise of curves to come, with hair the color of wheat and eyes that were tremendously blue. She’d make a fine woman in her time.
I would have been more circumspect if I had realized that a girl had been watching. But since it couldn’t be helped now, I told myself it didn’t really matter. The chances of this girl remaining alive were slim. At least she wouldn’t have to live with the nightmares. Nightmares were something that I had intimate acquaintance with, thanks to my late master, Mon-Haddar the mage. I felt a tingle along the flesh of my back and had to resist the urge to reach over my shoulder and rub the itch. The mage’s lessons had been burned into my brain and onto my back during my youth, as a result of which there were many things that I was not likely to forget. Really, she was better off dead, I consoled myself, and then shrugged the regret away. “Out! Move it, now!”
Father and daughter stepped out of the wagon obediently. The old man’s face was blue with cold, and he stumbled. I gave him a mighty shove, and he moved forward and fell face-down into the snow on the side of the wagon near the front of the carriage. The girl knelt by him rubbing his chest, trying to ease his breathing.
Kamin came up behind me. “Well, old man, where’s your money, hmm? Tell me.” Kamin was the younger son of a noble, although no one knew which one, and perhaps because of this, his manners and language were exquisite. I had often wondered about Kamin’s past and what opprobrium had caused him to throw in his lot with the robber brotherhood. Sometimes I had even found myself imitating his gentlemanly manners. He had an air of authority, and somehow without even realizing it, everyone obeyed him. While his orders were always given as requests, no one made the mistake of treating them as such. He could and would kill as easily as he breathed and sometimes his kills had not been as quick as I could have wished for the unfortunate victim.
I remembered an incident about a year prior, when we had stopped two men travelling on horseback. One of them had offered to fight with Kamin on condition that if he won, he and his companion would be allowed to go free. Perhaps he thought he recognized a gentleman in Kamin, I don’t know. Of course, Kamin, being the fencer he is, won. He took a sennight to kill them — probably the longest sennight in their lives, the bleeding snuppers.
Now Kamin brought out a tiny dagger and waved it at the old man. I felt my stomach heave as I recognized the dagger: it was the one he used to persuade others to his way of thinking. The persuasion usually involved the dagger and the blood and pain of the poor sod.
“Kamin,” I said, allowing a hint of disapproval to lace my voice. I realized that this was why I’d felt anxious at the beginning of the raid. We had been cooped up for a long time without any activity and I knew that Kamin would feel the need for a little needless … diversion. The robbery of these people would go without a hitch, but I dreaded Kamin’s later activities.
He glanced at me. “Ah, our little Yellow is a little yellow.” He laughed softly at his own bad joke. “Now, now, my dear, the old man is going to die anyway, so why can’t I have a little … eh … practice, hmm?” He drew the knife in a downwards motion along the old man’s cheek and then abruptly pushed it into his shoulder. The old man screamed. Kamin left his knife in the wound and smiled gently at me.
I glared at him. Kamin knew I hated my name, one that had been given me during my time with Mon-Haddar, because of the bright yellow of my hair. The unfortunate connotations of the name had dared me to do things in the past which, on my own, I would rather have not; even now it never failed to sway me into actions which were against my nature. The first time I had killed had been because of a taunt. But no taunt had yet been enough to make me torture another person, and I frequently prayed that nothing ever would.
“Old man, tell me where your gold is,” I said sternly. I brought out my own knife and held it against the old man’s neck. “Talk!” I could feel Kamin’s approving glance as I threatened the old merchant. To my mind, there was really no point in all of this drama, but Kamin needed it, and I — well, I hoped to save the poor old man from Kamin’s attentions. Surely a clean death by my hand was better than a lengthy one at Kamin’s hands.
The girl screamed, “No, Father, don’t give these thieves anything!”
“Fine. Kill them, Yellow,” said Nuru, who was standing in the cart with a knife at Tobias’ throat.
Kamin walked around to me and gestured me towards the wagon. “Go and check inside. Find the money.”
I slid my knife back into its sheath and hurried over to the wagon, sparing a glance behind me. Kamin had a smile on his face, one that, more often than not, gave me nightmares. I recognized that smile; it reminded me of Mon-Haddar. The two of them shared a quality that I hated, which made them enjoy the helplessness of others — more, the pain and terror of others.
I quickened my steps and jumped into the wagon, throwing the cushions to one side, searching for the strong box I knew I would find. Within moments I rushed back out. “I found it in the back,” I said breathlessly. “It’s there.”
“The goods are in the back, gentlemen. I’m getting them out. Nuru, please deal with this lot. Kill them.” Kamin turned and went to the back of the wagon.
“Please, no. Take whatever you want, don’t kill us. Please,” Gaia begged. “My father’s old. Please don’t kill us.”
Draage, standing next to Gaia, gave her a push and she fell backwards with a cry.
“What did you do that for?” I snapped at him.
“She was in the way.” He pulled a long rag from his belt and slipped it around the old man’s neck.
“No, no!” The old merchant began to struggle.
“Here, leave him alone,” Gaia yelled. She sat up and screamed, “Tobias, help him.” She stood up and rushed toward Draage, but I moved forward and held her immobile. I tried to twist her body to one side so that she would not have to see her father die, but she fought me. I watched Tobias stare unblinkingly at the girl, who watched her father die strangled by Draage. Poor girl, I thought again. She would be better off dead.
“No!” Tobias tugged at the reins and the horses moved. Nuru lost his balance and fell heavily. I threw my knife at Tobias, but in the deepening gloom I was unsure if it had hit its mark. As I moved toward the wagon, Gaia screamed.
“No, no. Leave me alone. No!” There was the sound of clothing being torn. Gaia sobbed. “No!”
I turned abruptly from the wagon and hurried toward the girl.
“Quiet!” It was the gruff voice of Draage. “Be quiet, girl.”
I had always found something abhorrent about rape, perhaps because of my own close shaves with it; my time with my master had left more than just physical scars. One of the guards the wizard had employed had delighted in tormenting me and I’d also been the subject of the mage’s … experiments.
Now I said harshly, “Draage, why don’t you leave her alone? We got the loot. Let’s just kill her and go.”
“Yellow by name and yellow by measure,” growled the other man. “I’m not leaving until I’ve had my pleasure.” The grin that covered his face made my stomach turn and I felt my head begin to throb.
Gaia was weeping softly now, with little outcries. Suddenly she screamed again.
I couldn’t bear it any longer. “That’s it. Enough!” I reached for my knife, and found it gone. But Kamin’s knife was still in the dead old man’s shoulder. I bent, grabbed it, stepped forward and, in one quick motion, slit the girl’s throat. Gaia gave one last sob and then there was silence. My vision blurred and as she fell to the ground, I saw her face meld into another’s. For one sharp yet fleeting moment, she appeared to be a much older woman, with startlingly black hair and big eyes of bottomless brown. In the next instant, I saw that I had been mistaken; it must have been the deepening gloom. Absently I rubbed the knife against my tunic and slid it into the sheath that lay against my side. At least this girl wouldn’t be in my nightmares, which didn’t need any more new faces.
“What did you do that for?” Draage shouted.
“I don’t hold with rape,” I said shortly. She would be at peace now. Really, I had done her a favor in killing her, I thought.
“That’s it, Yellow, I’ve had it with you. Who do you think you are, son of a bleeding guttersn–” Draage rushed me and succeeded in shoving me to the ground.
I rolled away from him in the direction of the woods on the far side and came up fast, throwing a punch where I expected Draage to be. It connected to his abdomen with a satisfying thud. Both of us were equally fit, although I was the taller of the two. We were evenly matched and had frequently sparred together in practice bouts, something which Kamin had instituted among our little band, much to the annoyance of two of our group; Kamin had killed one for failing to practice and the other, Piet, had run away.
I knew I had to be careful, for Draage gave no quarter. He threw one punch after another, gaining the advantage. We moved backwards, and I heard a loud roaring sound. I spared a corner of my mind to wonder what it was, but my attention was on Draage. I knew that I was fighting for my life. Kamin was probably still counting the money, and even if he had realized that Draage and I were fighting, he would never interfere. I knew that he would cheer the winner and go off with him. I was on my own.
Suddenly Draage tripped on a stone that lay behind him and fell backwards, but he rolled to the side almost immediately and I, though I’d intended to jump upon him, found myself sitting on the ground instead. Both of us jumped up agilely, and began to circle around.
At that moment, I recognize the sound: it was the river, Thyerin’s Run, named for the god of the elements. I hadn’t realized we were so close to it. An idea sprung into my mind. If only I could lure Draage to the water …
My break in concentration cost me. Draage’s punch connected; my nose began to bleed copiously. I only hoped it wasn’t broken. I now found myself on the defensive. Draage was throwing punches that I managed to block almost at random. Another one of his punches connected, this time to the abdomen, and I doubled up momentarily. Taking advantage of my bent position, I moved forward, hit him in the stomach with my head, and jumped backwards immediately after hitting him. I knew that although he was holding his belly, Draage sometimes feigned injury. True to form, his right leg kicked out in a circular motion that failed to hit its target. He regained his balance quickly and began to punch me, pressing me backward towards the river.
I allowed myself to be pushed in the direction of the river, letting a corner of my mind plan out what I wanted to do. I would let Draage think he had me, and that I was weakening. Draage was very good, but he could only think one move ahead. In that respect, without vanity, I knew I was better than him. I weaved artistically, aware that I really needed to judge the distance behind me. I took a deep breath and let another one of Draage’s abdomen punches connect. My breath left me in a whoosh and I shoved him to the ground with my shoulder. Quickly I turned and saw that I was barely a stride from the river’s edge. But I had underestimated Draage. By the time I turned back, he was at me with a knife.
I danced backwards and to the side, but it was not enough. He struck and I felt the knife slide into me. It rent the skin on my side with ease, like freshly churned butter. The pain grew inside me like a living thing, growing, consuming, devouring me. I took the pain and fed it to my rage and fear, rage that Draage, woman-raper that he was, might best me, and fear that this time, I might die. Fury enveloped me and I reached for my knife. The knife was my weapon. It was something that I had wielded to good effect in the past, even when I had apprenticed with Mon-Haddar. The mage had taught me where to strike to kill instantly, and Kamin had taught me where to strike so that the victim lived. I chose to give Draage no chance at life. I thrust my knife at Draage forward and up. He fell backwards, blood pooling at his lips, a wry expression in his eyes. I sighed and stepped backwards away from the corpse.
“Oh. Aaaah!” I had not paid attention to where I was. My last step had been on the slippery banks and the furious waters had grabbed me for their own. It was so cold that my teeth were chattering. Chunks of frozen water floated past me, with me — I felt as if I was becoming one of them. I couldn’t feel the wound in my side because the icy Run had numbed it. I couldn’t even feel my arms or legs.
I tried to paddle, but not only was the river flowing too fast, I was losing my senses. My best option would be to let the river do what it would. I felt keenly the irony that Draage had bested me even in death. I embraced the rage and fury in my mind and tried to use it to fight Thyerin’s Run. My efforts were too flimsy to win against something that could swallow a dozen of me. My head bobbed up and down on the surface of the river, and I tried not to swallow the water. It was a wasted attempt, for I could control nothing. Thyerin’s might was absolute. It was then that I remembered the falls that crossed the river. The cold was affecting my head so that I was no longer certain which way was up or which way was down, but I knew what the roaring sound was. A single thought, straight and clean as an arrow, shot through me: I was going to die.