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Authors: Peter S. Beagle; Maurizio Manzieri

Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Women

Return

BOOK: Return
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An Innkeeper’s World Story

Peter S. Beagle

Return
Copyright © 2010

by Avicenna Development Corporation.

All rights reserved.

Dust jacket and interior illustrations Copyright © 2010

by Maurizio Manzieri.

All rights reserved.

Interior design Copyright © 2010

by Desert Isle Design, LLC.

All rights reserved.

Electronic Edition

ISBN

9781596064492

Subterranean Press

PO Box 190106

Burton, MI 48519

www.subterraneanpress.com

The good thing—almost comforting, in a singular way—about not ever being able to shake the Hunters for very long is that you needn’t bother trying to outthink them; you can concentrate instead on pure survival. Reaching a sizable clearing, with good sight-lines on all sides, I tethered my mare and sat down on a stump with one leg tucked under me, then unslung the big old bow I really ought to replace and began making a public production of changing the string and studying the exact fletching of my arrows. I hummed as I worked—I think it was Sirit Byar’s ballad, “The Juggler,” because I always liked that song, but perhaps not. Hard to remember now.

I was deliberately exposing myself, gambling that the Hunters would thereupon credit me with some demonically complex ambush scheme of my own. Any other class of assassin would have responded to this gambit with an arrow—most probably poisoned—slicing out of a thicket to make an end of all my plans and memories together. But I knew the Hunters. They would not attack from hiding: it was not ever in them to have their skills go unrecognized or unacknowledged by their quarry. The only real question, then, was how many seconds I might have in which to react to their reactions. Not for the first time I regretted my inability to learn to throw a tiny dagger like the one my friend Lal always carries in her left boot. I practice, but it doesn’t help at all.

The first Hunter simply came stalking across the clearing, hands empty and open, as they most often approach. This was not as I would have had it. I prefer them armed, since anything that clutters and slows those hands in the slightest is my friend.

He smiled warmly at me and purred with what I am sure was genuine affection. “Soukyan, all alone, all unarmed. I can help?” His hands continued to hang at his sides, to all appearances limp, but in fact lethal and pitiless. I paid them no attention, nor did I ever look quite directly into his stone-colored eyes. I was watching his feet.

“I am tired,” I said, as simply and flatly as I could make it come out. “There’s no beast will not turn at bay at the last, as well you know. Consider me bayed, then.”

He laughed outright, a charmingly light and boyish sound. “While you live, danger, danger. Soukyan the betrayer—I know you of old and old.” Yet for all his confident air, he was puzzled by my behavior; I could see it in the way his feet kept shifting in small movements that kept them from a firm, constant stance. He asked again, plainly expecting no response, “Cunning Soukyan, what has he in mind?”

I spoke slowly, almost hesitantly, as though the thought were just now forming with the words. “I was just thinking, sitting here—why should the lamb always wait on the wolf’s decision? Where have the gods decreed that the hunted may never strike first?”

And with that last word I was
up
, pushing off the leg apparently immobilized by my body’s weight, then snapping my half-unstrung bow like a whip. The bit of palmed lead I had squeezed around the endknot worked perfectly, causing the waxed string to curl tightly around the Hunter’s neck and catch. I pulled and set him stumbling toward me, desperately off-balance, clawing at his throat, with no hand free to strike out at me. To do him all justice, he almost had the bowstring loose before I broke his neck. I was lowering him gently to the ground when my mare’s frightened whinny set me spinning to face the charge of the other one.

And here…here was an unusual thing. The second Hunter was not upon me: he was forty feet away, at the clearing’s edge, struggling with the third.

Ah. You do not comprehend. In that moment, no more did I. In truth I would have been less startled by a black sunrise.

I was very young the first time that I faced a pair of Hunters, so soon after taking my leave of
that place
. They were rumors made all too dangerous flesh, and as soon as they were both dead—a Goro slew the first, and I killed the second only by the luck of his arrogance—I blithely assumed that I was free of them and could go my way without forever looking behind me by day, or waking on my feet in the night. What I did not know then was that there is always a third: the leader, moving ever apart from the other two, and more dangerous than both of them together. The exact moment of my education in this regard was personally memorable, but unimportant. I survived it, a fortune well beyond my deserving: the still-tender spot on the back of my head reminds me yet that the gods must have a certain fond indulgence for ignorant children. And over time I continued to survive, the passages of my life measured by a kind of Hunter clockwork. For while they were not perfect killers, those chuckling little people, they never left your trail until all three were dead; and then, as I discovered, after some time there would be three more following in their tracks, and three more after that, on and on.

But the third stands ever apart, and the second is always more cautious than the first. Through years, nearly decades, it had always been so. Until now. Here in this forest clearing I saw something I could not have imagined, for the third Hunter was clearly
restraining the second
.

It was only for a moment, but unmistakable. Then the second broke free from his fellow’s grasp—I saw blood fly from his forearm—and he came for me.

No gentle, smiling assassin, this one, but an animal mad and blind with rage. He came flying and hissing at me, swift as a striking falcon, those deadly hands seemingly gutting the air. I met him with an arrow in each of my own hands, and he was dead before he hit the ground. It had all taken four seconds, at most. From the time I’d first come to my feet, fifteen.

I looked into the eyes of the third Hunter then, seeing nothing at all and having no idea what might possibly come next. He held my gaze for a long moment, then backed three steps into the trees, turned, and was gone.

And I went after him, which was more foolish, and by a far longer chalk, than anything I had done since I was old and experienced enough to know better. Hunters are
hunters,
not fugitives: they find you when it suits their purpose, never yours. You do not plunge off blindly into the woods in pursuit of one—especially not a
third
one, for all sakes’ sake. But I had killed two within a quarter of a minute, and I admit I was as drunk with it as a much younger fool would have been.

I will
say in my defense that I was aware of, and alarmed by, the ease with which I followed the trail of the third Hunter. I am not the best of trackers—Lal is far better, and the fox is as much her superior as she is mine—but at least I know this, and never imagine otherwise. Yet I was having no least difficulty in my pursuit: there were footprints, torn vines, broken twigs and branches—everything but signposts every few feet to point the way. Again to do myself justice, I went slowly, fully expecting a strike from every possible direction, including the trees. But for hours there was no sign of the Hunter himself, only of his strange, stumbling passage, until I pushed through a tangle of underbrush and came abruptly upon what looked like his sprawled corpse, face down in the dirt and leaves. I watched for half a dozen breaths and he did not stir, but even so I held my dagger at the ready as I moved towards him.

He was lying on his face, but as I knelt he turned and smiled up at me: not in the sweetly pitiless way that is the last mortal sight so many have ever seen, but with something resembling actual warmth. All Hunters have the same light, eerily cheerful voices, as identical as though they had all been issued them in training, but this voice was heavy with death, which is a sound I know as well as any. He said, “Fitting…fitting it is…wicked Soukyan—turncoat, betrayer. Fitting…”

He coughed, but I saw no blood, nor any wound on him, except for the gash on his forearm, suffered in the fight to restrain the second Hunter from a suicidal attack on me. I replied, “I am no betrayer. I have wished only to live free of
that place,
and have never been allowed that single mercy. So I do what I must, without joy. What plagues you now? I killed your fellows, but I have not touched you.” Which was true enough, yet he was certainly dying—it was plain in his smile, as well as his voice. I said, awkwardly, “If you have a message for friends, family, I will see to it,” but he laughed then, and I did not go on. As far as I had ever known Hunters had no friends, only each other. He was entirely right to laugh.

But that took the last of his strength, whatever had drained it away so completely. He managed only to mumble, “
The Tree fails
…”
I tried to coax more out of him, but what he whispered next I could not hear, and then he was gone. I stayed kneeling beside him for a while.

It took a long time to carry him back to the clearing, and longer still to bury all three of them, even with the soil still soft from recent rains. There are those who wouldn’t bother, but life on the run has taught me to clean up after myself; found remains mean more trouble than they are worth, almost always. I said, “Sunlight on your road” to them when I was done. Then I walked back to where my mare was peacefully cropping such yellow summer grass as she could reach, but I did not mount. I had thinking to do, and none of it at all the sort that I favor.

As a general rule, I have never been overly comfortable with unpredictability. Lal’s own practice is to expect it in most circumstances; and the fox positively revels in it, since he is always likely to be the least predictable factor in any situation. It may seem odd, given all the patterns of the life I have lived since leaving the strange monastery where I was raised, but like a cat I prefer to know the ground before I put foot to it, to find people where and how I left them, and for them to behave as I am accustomed to have them behaving. Absurd, beyond a doubt—no one needs to tell me that, though those two constantly do—but such is my nature. The notion that a Hunter might go mad and struggle wildly with his superior over a chance to get at me, let alone that that same superior should die at my feet, rather than at my hand, slain by something unknown and muttering mysteriously all the while…none of it
connected
, none of it made any sort of sense. And I need things to make simple bloody sense, which makes me a fool. I know that.

BOOK: Return
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