The sky loomed low and steely grey as Parnassa and I beat a hard run through the open territory of the Bloodsworn Vale and across the border into Nirmathas, driven by the sense of evil looming just at our heels. The bones of my hands showed white beneath my dark skin as I gripped the reins for dear life and fought to stay awake. It had been four whole days – or was it a week? – since my last full night’s rest and the sharp lines of reality were badly blurred. But I could not stop now. Not when I was so close to Skelt and safety.
The air was clammy as it whipped my face and the land stretched out around us, a dreary brown wash specked with lackluster green. Before us a stand of scraggly trees blocked the way, their fingernails scraping at the clouds as though they would tear them open and unleash the rain; the cold, cutting, miserable rain of this country so far from my home. I did not want to be out here when it really let loose. I was tired of being cold; tired of being wet; tired of not knowing why I was being chased… simply tired.
Parnassa pulled up a good fifty feet from the edge of the forest, skittering and dancing in place when I tried to spur her on. For a moment I stopped, studying the dark wall of forest before me as the wind moaned through the rocks and trees with the keening voices of the unquiet dead. Had I a choice, I would have gone around these trees, but this was easily the shortest route to Skelt – and help.
“Come, my girl,” I murmured, though where I found the strength to speak after so long in the saddle without food, water or sleep was a mystery, “We are nearly there… Just a little bit farther.”
Parnassa chuffed and nickered, likely even more tired than I was, but she was a well-trained animal who had fought many battles by my side, and in the end she obeyed.
We entered the shadows of the forest slowly, my girl picking her way through the tangle of roots, stones, moss and half-rotted fallen trees. Dark figures danced in the corners of my sight, rushing at me on the shrieking wind then vanishing the moment I looked their way. Perhaps it was merely paranoia spurred by lack of sleep, but the dim light and utter, eerie silence of this place were putting me on edge. This copse was nothing like the jungles and forests of my youth; had nothing in common with that buzzing, chirping world draped in curtains of greenery. A world I would likely never see again.
A bolt of homesickness speared me, so violent I actually doubled over.
Lucky for me.
As I pressed my forehead to Parnassa’s slick, solid neck an arrow whistled over my head, the fletching tickling my spine as it passed.
“Freeze or you’re dead.” A deep voice warned.
I sat up, looking hard at the arrow wedged in the tree next to me. It seemed real enough, but who had fired it?
I lifted my empty hands over my head as I scanned the trees, searching for any sign of my attacker, fully prepared to find a ghostly apparition. Though, just to be safe, I tipped my right heel back, ensuring that my loaded crossbow was still where it should be.
“I am but a poor traveller,” I called out to the forest at large, gaze still searching the shadows, “I have nothing of value.”
Rough male laughter circled my position. Was that one man? Ten? Or was it the laughter of the ghosts whose moans had chased me through the valleys and forests and across the rocky plains, carried on the wind?
“It isn’t your money we’re after, my dark friend,” the voice replied from all around me, “but the pleasure of taking your life.”
Five men coalesced out of the shadows, encircling us. A burly man with shaggy dirt-brown hair and malicious black eyes took the position in front of us, a spent crossbow casually resting on one shoulder.
I breathed a sigh of relief; I was in no state to deal with ghosts today. At least real men could be killed – like that thug who’d broken into my room in Korvosa four days ago – or was it a week? Why couldn’t I remember?
The man smiled wide, displaying several holes where teeth should have been, “Now get off that horse nice ‘n slow… No sense in making this difficult.”
I frowned, slowly lowering my hands, “And if I refuse?”
The man shrugged, indicating the two identical blond men on either side of me, “Then Sammy and Tate’ll have to drag you off. Our client told us not to damage the animal.”
A cold that had nothing to do with the miserable weather sank into my gut. Their client could only be one man; the same man who had poisoned my food, ruined my sleep, chased me across the plains and forests. How did he always know where to find me? Even here, in this unlikely wood? Desperation choked me; I was so sure I’d outrun him this time…. But that did not matter now. I would not lied down and die here.
The warrior inside me stretched and stirred as I returned the bandit’s grin with a thin smile of my own, “In that case, come and get me.”
The lead thug nodded and his two friends advanced.
My hand dropped to my crossbow. I twisted it in the special holder I’d had made and squeezed the trigger. The man on my right gurgled and dropped, the feathers of my bolt sticking out of the base of his throat.
I lashed out with my left boot, catching the other man solidly in the temple. He stumbled and collapsed, blood leaking down his cheek.
The two men behind us cried out and charged.
Pushing up in my stirrups, I muttered the command word which would unleash Parnassa’s inner war horse and leapt over her head.
I landed on my feet, the arching blade of my snake-cutter just kissing the lead bandit’s throat as all hell broke loose behind me. I smiled at him as Parnassa bolt-kicked the other two men in the head.
Damp earth and spongy dead leaves squelched in the silence as two more bodies hit the ground.
“Now, what were you saying about taking my life?” I inquired sweetly.
The bandit blanched and began shaking, “He warned me… said you’d be hard to kill…. I thought surely five’d be enough…”
I pressed the tip of my blade into his skin until I saw a drop of blood, “Who is your client?”
The man shook his head, “No… I can’t tell you… He’s an animal… Killed my wife and daughter right before my eyes just to get me to drop the price for your hide… If I tell you he’ll kill me!”
I pushed a little harder with my sword, “If you don’t tell me, I’ll kill you.”
The man swallowed, “I… I don’t rightly know who he was… He wore a cape with the cowl pulled up tight an’ gloves on his twisted hands. He didn’t give a name, but his voice was deep as the pits of hell and his soul twice as black.”
It was an evocative description, but not very helpful. It could be Ibawe, but there was no real way to be sure. I studied the bandit for a long moment, but it was obvious he was telling the truth. I knew his type; brave with a half dozen men behind him, but an utter coward on his own.
I re-sheathed my blade, pointing back the way I’d come, “The border is twenty minutes’ walk that way. I suggest you run. The next time I see you or any of your friends I won’t be so lenient.”
I didn’t have to repeat myself.
Skelt had all the makings of a bustling metropolis. The series of elegant, sweeping ramps which comprised the only access to the town had all their many drawbridges down in welcome and the way up was packed with people, dwarfs, carts and horses all milling about cheerfully in spite of the cold drizzle which had started up as I left the forest.
I hunched lower in the saddle in a vain attempt to stay dry. I hated the weather here. There was no warm, soft, life-giving rain like back home; only the merciless tattoo of chilly water more likely to take life than give it.
I urged Parnassa forward, eager to find Lenosk’s house and a chair next to a roaring fire with a cup of dwarven ale.
All things considered, scaling the ramps turned out to be much easier than I’d anticipated. Of course my unusual appearance likely helped on that front; I imagine a seven foot tall man with skin dark as coal, long, tightly curling hair and bits of bone passed through his ears and lips was not a very common sight this far north.
In fact, every soul who saw my approach froze and backed out of my way, faces slack with open fear. Ignorant yokels.
I held my chin high, accepting and dismissing their stares all at once. After all, I was a Bekyar noble – a broke one, true, but noble nonetheless and that sort of breeding doesn’t fade no matter where you go. That I had learned from my father.
The wind stirred, whipping my hair into my eyes as it howled through the open gates before me. It shifted direction and I was sure I could hear my father’s dying scream all around me. I shivered – and not from the cold – but my head was high. I knew I was safe now.