Authors: Salvador Mercer
“And?” Alexi asked. “If I’m not being too nosy.”
There was a moment of silence before Gabrielle reappeared, coming through the kitchen doors and walking up to the table. She pulled up a chair and sat at the wide spot that they had left for her. Looking straight at the holy warrior, she said, “The Hunt was mine, and this lout took it from me by conspiring with my father there.”
The silence was only broken by the faint sound of ceramic landing on the wooden table. Eric’s hair was finally clean.
Night fell when the group of raiders finally came from hiding at the approach of someone who walked like a cat, making no sound at all in soft leather-soled boots.
“Where are they?” the man asked the shadowy figure who had just joined them over a small hillock from the town of Razor Rock.
“They arrived hours ago and are holed up in the only inn this town has, and there is a problem.”
“What sort of problem, me wonders?” the raider asked.
“A king’s warrior, holy by the looks of her.”
“Hmm,” the tall raider said, absentmindedly tapping the hilt of his dagger sticking out from his belt. “We were told to expect a simple mercenary and two old men. This Tynirian holy woman you mention, she is from the Astor order?”
The cloaked man nodded, though his face could not be seen. “A Fist of Astor to be sure and, as I said, in the service of the king of Tynira by her dress.”
“That was not part of the deal,” the raider said, assessing the news again. “Where exactly are they?”
“In the common room with a few locals. What were your orders?”
The raider wondered if telling the spy his mission was against his master’s orders. “Let’s just say that the mercenary was to live while the old men died.”
The man in the dark cloak and hood nodded again, understanding instinctively and having some other knowledge of current events. “Cast more suspicion on the man. Very clever.”
“How would you know?” the raider asked, narrowing his eyes. It was one thing to use local resources and another to trust a stranger. Still, his master told him whom to see and where and how the man would be dressed, and this stranger fit the bill.
“Let’s just say that I have access to information too, even in a backwater town like this.”
The raider didn’t like the man knowing more than he did. “The holy warrior will have to go.”
“You’re sanctioning her death, then?”
“Yes. Poison should do nicely since I don’t think someone the likes of you could handle one of those Astor warriors.” The raider sounded smug, spoken to make himself feel better.
“That will cost extra,” the shadowy figure said.
“Take it up with the bosses,” the raider said, looking to his side and feeling secure at the sight of his half-dozen hired killers.
The man seemed to tilt his head to the side, looking at the men too. Slowly he extended a hand out, palm up. “Extra.”
“You think I carry that kind of coin?”
“Out here the price is cheaper, especially if you have the agent of use.”
The raider fumed but thought better of crossing the man. No telling how many townsfolk would come running if he screamed for help. The thought that the man could kill him and his thugs never crossed his mind. Luckily for him, the man had other designs.
“Fine.” The raider reached into his inner tunic pocket and pulled out a vial of dark liquid. “You’ll have to use all of it, and I won’t be responsible if you screw this up.” One more reach to his belt under his own cloak, and a very small pouch with some coins in it came out and into the man’s hand on top of the vial.
The shadowy figure knew it was probably simple common coppers, but he didn’t care. He would have accepted the job for free, as it played into his own plans, but the raider had to be convinced he was sincere, and the request for payment would be totally appropriate under the circumstances.
“Go, meet them at the blood rock. I’ll see to it that they camp there tomorrow night.” The shadowy figure turned and started to walk away, back toward town.
“Hey, wait a minute,” the raider said, grasping his dagger and preparing himself to draw it, if necessary.
The cloaked man stopped and turned his head to the side but did not turn to face the raider. “What?”
The raider thought the man was rather rude, but he wanted to make sure the deed was done—he was paying money for it. Not a lot, but coin didn’t come easy out in the wilds, and he didn’t want to answer for sloppy execution of his orders. “How do we know you’ll take care of this and not just run with our payment?”
The man’s response brought a chill to the raider’s spine. “You don’t know.”
The man kept his back to the raider in an obvious sign of contempt, but the man didn’t rise to lead this rabble by being hasty. There was something different about this local spy. He didn’t show fear walking into the midst of a group of proven killers, and he didn’t seem in the least concerned about his safety around them.
When the man left, his second-in-command sighed, letting out a deep breath that he was probably holding, and then spoke. “Damn you, Argos. Don’t go getting us killed.”
Argos wasn’t the only raider who sensed the other man’s power.
“Back already?” Eric asked as Gabby and Lucius returned from their private conversation in one of the back rooms.
“I said my piece,” Gabby said, sitting at their table in the common room.
“And I listened,” Lucius said, nodding to his companions and also pushing the chair forward for his daughter before taking his own seat.
The common room had finally filled up a bit with three small parties that were traveling north and a large party heading south. It was nothing like the inns in Moartown where several crossroads were forced to convene at the base of Highstone Pass. Razor Rock was a small town on one of the smaller roads that headed more west than north.
“Bring another round,” Gabby told an old man, who shuffled by without saying a word, simply nodding to convey his compliance.
Eric looked at Gabby and set his ale down on the table. “Was that Rosterman?”
“Hard to recognize, no?” Gabby asked in return.
“He looks like he aged decades in only a few years,” Eric said, watching Rosterman shuffle behind the bar.
Gabby nodded, picking up her own mug and finishing it, wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her tunic. She was dressed somewhat simply in a utilitarian fashion. “Rumor was he saw a ghost.”
“You jest,” Alexi said, not acting surprised at all.
“I said it was a rumor, warrior woman,” Gabby said, a smirk crossing her face. “You still going to nurse that wine of yours?”
The remark was in response to the Fist still drinking her first glass of a hardy red wine, while the rest of the table was on their third round of ale. Even the small historian was working through his third.
“I prefer to keep my wits about me,” Alexi said, playing with her glass by sliding it back and forth on the table, a habit that seemed to annoy Gabby greatly.
“Well, if that isn’t something that would entertain the Nine.” Gabby smiled at the party.
“What are you talking about?” Lucius asked, not liking it when his daughter was inebriated.
“Look at the size of this woman!” Gabby stood and leaned over directly across the table at Alexi. “She should be able to down an entire barrel without feeling the touch of the Mother.”
“Blasphemy not in my presence,” Alexi said, her tone irritated, her face straining and showing the effort she was making to stay calm.
“Oh, take your Mother, your ball, and go home.” Gabby rocked on her heels and almost fell backward, but Diamedes jumped up, grabbing her arm and keeping her standing, though his chair rocked under the sudden movement and almost fell if Eric hadn’t grabbed it.
Alexi stood, towering over the other woman. “The Mother is not a subject for this establishment. Go to bed. You’re drunk, and you give us a bad name.”
“Us?” Gabby pressed her hands against her chest in mock shock. “You deign to think yourself a lady?”
“I said no such thing—”
“Oh, but you just did, warrior woman.” Gabby seemed pleased with herself, batting her eyelids, lashes and all, and smiling at her companions.
“Gabby, please sit down.” Lucius stood and took her other hand, guiding her to her chair. Both men managed to get her seated and then resumed their seats, leaving Alexi standing alone for a moment before Eric stood and offered his arm to her.
“Please, mercenary, I can seat myself.” With that, the large holy warrior sat, never taking her eyes off of Gabby.
“You must excuse my daughter,” Lucius began. “She has had . . . shall we say issues, with the Mother and has since gone over to the Nine.”
“That explains much,” Alexi said, nodding at the father. “The Kesh worship the Nine.”
“You state the obvious,” Eric said, feeling somewhat rejected that his offer was not accepted by the woman.
“Ah, there we are,” Gabby said, noticing Rosterman coming from behind her and setting a tray on the table. A new round for my guests.”
Rosterman nodded and set the tankards on the table while picking up the old ones. He was simply recycling them in the back, but he held on to a glass of wine and looked at the Fist before placing it before her and quickly scooping up her half-filled glass and retreating to the kitchen.
“I wasn’t finished with that,” Alexis said half-heartedly. If this woman and her staff wanted to waste their drink, then that was their choice.
Gabby picked up her mug and then started to sniff as if she had a runny nose. “A toast, then?”
The others nodded and held up their glasses, all except Alexi, who sat staring at Gabby. Finally, after a nod from both Diamedes and Lucius, she picked up her glass, holding it low.
“To our success?” Lucius offered.
“To Eric’s freedom,” Gabby said.
Eric smiled, readying his mug. “That was thoughtful of you, Gabby.”
Gabby nodded and, without missing a beat, finished her toast. “Eric’s death will free him from the bonds of this world.” She quickly took a long swig on her drink and set it down, repeating her ritual of mouth-wiping and grinning madly.
The others weren’t sure if it was appropriate to toast to a man’s death, but they feared Gabby more than a death toast. They also took small drinks, setting their mugs down as well. Only Alexi remained with her glass, glaring at Gabby, who looked back at her with a smile on her face.
Finally, Alexi pressed the glass to her lip and took a small sip. “What did your man give me?” she said, making a face as if she had drank something tart.
“What?” Gabby asked, not understanding why her wine would be sour.
“It’s too sweet,” Alexi said, though she brought the glass to her lips again.
The reaction from Gabby stunned them. She literally jumped on the table, landing on her knees, and reached across it, slapping the glass and the Fist’s face at the same time, so hard it made a red mark on Alexi’s cheek and shattered the glass, cutting Gabby’s hand, which started to bleed immediately.
Several guests stopped to see what the fracas was about, and the men at the table stood in shock. “What in Agon are you doing, Gabby?” Eric asked, shaking his hands to throw off some of the wine that had landed all over him.
“Yes,” Lucius asked, “have you lost your mind?”
Diamedes reached for a cloth, but stopped when Gabby spoke.
“I don’t serve sweet wine. You were poisoned.”
The man in the corner watched with interest, having sat down not long after placing the poison, along with a good amount of sweetener, in the wine that was being served to the holy warrior. He only used enough to make her sick in case they didn’t detect the ruse. The rumors would spread for weeks, if not months, so the subterfuge was necessary.
Now he had to intercept the group in private and convince them of his intent. The riskiest part would be gaining the confidence of the Fist. They could detect evil from across a room, and while the man wanted to help them, he wasn’t exactly what most of humanity would call
. He had killed in the past and would kill again in the future. The only question was if he would have to kill the holy warrior woman after all, or would she kill him?
Usually he knew the odds, and in this case, he gave himself a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the night. Quickly, while attention was on the owner and her guests, he slipped down a side corridor, through the kitchen, right behind the servants who had all gathered at the door to watch the spectacle, and then down the private hall to the owner’s chamber. If the news he heard was correct, she would go there and take the others with her. The common room was, well, it was too common for them to discuss the matter.
Now all he had to do was wait.
The group quickly retreated, walking through the kitchen with Rosterman shuffling behind them, apologizing and professing no knowledge of who would put sugar in the wine. He seemed oblivious to the real issue, and senile would have been an apt description of the man.
“Quickly,” Gabby said, motioning the group to follow her down the private hall behind the kitchen. When threatened or stressed out, she oftentimes retreated to her private quarters, which doubled for a living area as well. It was only one room, but it was a big one with a table, chairs, and a large bed, too large, in fact.
As they entered the room, Eric noted this fact. “What do you need a bed this big for?”
“Please, don’t go there,” Gabby said, holding up a hand to keep him quiet.
Lucius seemed to agree. “Enough, Eric. Let’s figure out what’s going on here.”
“Are you all right, Fist Alexi?” Diamedes knew what to say.
“Yes, Master Historian,” she replied, still taking small breaths to spit from her mouth.
“I think you’ve got all the poison out,” Gabby said, eying the woman warily and seeming to be anything but intoxicated. “You can quit spitting on my furniture.”
“Sorry,” Alexi said, using a cloth that the historian had given her to dab at her tongue and lips.
“Old man Rosterman wouldn’t do this, would he?” Eric asked, changing the subject, though he stood in the middle of the room, facing the bed against one wall, staring at it with his hands on his hips.
“Of course not. He can barely remember his name anymore,” Gabby said, picking up as if not expecting to have invited her
into her private chambers.
Everyone seemed preoccupied with their various tasks—Gabby picking up, Alexi dabbing to get at any leftover poison, Eric with the bed, and Lucius frowning at Eric—so when the historian spoke in a certain tone, it seemed odd. “I think we have a problem here.”
They turned to face the old man who was standing, though leaning back, as a muscular, strong arm was holding him across his chest and a hand holding a deadly, gleaming dagger was pressing it against the man’s throat.
Alexi drew her blade, as did Eric, and Gabby reached behind her back where a pair of throwing knives were tucked under her belt sash.
“Now let’s not be hasty,” Lucius said, taking a few steps forward toward the pair and holding up both hands to show he was unarmed.
“Remove your blade from his throat or I will kill you.” The Fist also took a step forward, and the dagger pressed against Diamedes’ throat, threatening to slice the skin and draw blood.