Ranger, Wizard, Fighter, Thief

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2014
The four of them embark on an epic quest to defeat a mighty evil, as anyone can tell by looking at them. They are brave and true, as you’d assume. What might surprise you is how bloody annoying they are.

First

There were four of them, which is not at all unusual with this sort of gang. As is the custom, they were as diverse in appearance as any four people could be. An elf, a wizard, a knight and a barbarian. Daggers, staff, sword, hammer. The corners of the world. How these little groups meet and end up as friends quite so often is a mystery, but they do and these had.

The travellers ducked into a quaint old hay barn, following the wave of the kindly farmer who had lent them shelter. They saw dry, cracked muck, scrap wood and rusted equipment. Moonlight on a butcher table, maybe. Hardly a heroes’ welcome, but they felt it was better than another night outdoors with a little more gold in their pack.

The barbarian dumped their supplies and his weapon immediately and asked for more beer the moment he was seated. He wore the uniform of his people: long, fair hair, straps and buckles, furry pauldrons and greasy skin.

The pale elf with the blades and leather all over him leaned in, slightly as he could, and muttered, “There are two kinds of hospitality on the road, my friend: those where we get drunk and make allies, and those where something else happens. I fear this is one of the latter.”

Respectfully, “Aye, Swicewise.”

Swicewise, his name.

There was a wide slap on the back and a knowing look between them. The other two weren’t finished looking about for traps, a task that seemed only to half-occupy them. The knight’s fingers were wrapped around her shield’s rim and the wizard had stuck his gaze to a wall, either deep in thought or sleepy.

There is always one in these groups who the others elect leader and the farmer seemed to try for a moment to guess who it might be here. He immediately turned away from the big one. It’s never the big one. There’s something oddly self-deprecating about that lot, for all their swagger. They are very happy wearing leashes. The knight’s gender excluded her, although normally in parties like this the best dressed is a safe bet. This left two.

The barbarian gave his empty mug to the farmer’s daughter and let a winsome smile hang after her, which clearly interrupted this line of thought. The chap shooed the girl out in double time and, after telling them what they were and were not welcome to and wishing them good night, left the adventurers to it.

They eyed the place up a bit more freely when the door was closed. All of them were tired. It had been a long trip from their meeting place. From a shadow, Swicewise the elf looked for a second at the holey ceiling.

“Don’t fancy the place?” the knight asked, a bit alarmed. Swicewise just shrugged. “Tenrunes?” she said, breaking the silence, and the wizard looked up.

Tenrunes. Sounded appropriately magical.

“It’s true, we seem due for some bad luck,” he put in, running a few fingers through his bristles as the aged and bearded are so often wont to do. “And the Orc Lords seem to be on holidays, unless of course they’re massing to Castle Desper’s cause.” There might have been some more shop-talk. The wizard’s weary voice, paying close attention to how each word left his lips, made it clear he was from the Spellmoors.

“Let’s hope,” said the big brute, “they are not massing in Lastower!” Deep voice, funny accent.. He glanced around, offering his mindless cheer to his friends.

“It is safe,” Swicewise put in, almost a whisper.

The knight followed this through immediately, as though she had been waiting for that off-hand it is safe. “Safe like the Blacken Halls?”

“I am sorry, young one.”

Not especially young, to look at her. Not especially anything. Just another beige and brown nobody, but with shiny steel plates on her and some sort of crest. Not a special crest at that: just something blue and red with something between a bird and a lion on it. She fingered a little glassy patch on her cheek, where a lump was caving in and the pink of her first scar was darkening in the middle. “You should have come with me,” she said.

“Too risky. The fell-clan had eyes everywhere. If any of them had seen an assassin following, you would have been cut down before I could even reach you.”

To Tenrunes, “Well then you should have come with me.”

The old man stiffened, his eyes focused, but he was obviously staying out of it.

“A clan so cursed, even an underground one, will always have spells of its own,” came the deliberated answer from the ever-authoritative figure in leather. “A shadow walk may be magical but it is not infallible. Heed: invisibility works best when no-one is looking.”

“Swicewise is right,” the wizard admitted. “I could not have guaranteed your safety.”

A light grunt from the smooth chin. An almost imperceptible nod from the pointy one across the way. A little chuckle from the ale-wetted bristles.

Swicewise ended the discussion by volunteering to take watch. When Tenrunes objected, he softly stayed him with a raised hand. “I should like the time to think.” Six eyes watched him stand and stalk over to the barn doors before his elbow snakily closed them for the night.

After a few strides the elf stood in place. For a long time.

He gave the impression of the seasoned traveller, the creature of silent contentment. One with half the world under his belt and nothing between him and the other half but time and good fortune. And, obviously, he was the one. The leader. This was his quest, whatever it was about, and the group followed him like lost animals. The knight respected him, the barbarian obeyed, the wizard said nothing but that he was right, which he clearly already knew. The way Swicewise regarded the barn door when their heads were turned to their pillows said a lot about what he felt for the three in return.

His appearance gave away his race from any distance: a stone elf, those who were known as ‘wood elves’ before they cut their forest down and found white gold underneath. Their new environment suits them better. Whether it is achieved with their newfound reputation, easy wealth or their growing confidence, each stone elf has the innate ability to stand in front of any backdrop and look like a lost Prince on the eve of battle. They dip a hand into a puddle and pull out streaming silver, roast a hog and somehow fill the air with jasmine, make a ditch look like a lost valley. This one was doing a good job of romanticising the leaky barn doors and scrag-ends of timber stuck in the grass.

He had a hell of a name, too. Sounded the part. It sounded like something you might hear breathed in reverence in the open courtyard of a new elf castle, or any castle for that matter. Was he lucky enough to be born with that name, that fresh-gravel voice, or was it all affected? He said he was an assassin. It was hard to imagine him blending in anywhere looking like that, but he sounded serious.

Stood there wearing into the flat grass outside, he looked up. I mean he really looked, in the sort of way that makes you think you’ve been doing it wrong, with the edge of the roof in the corner of one white eye and the sky filling the other. The tips of his cobweb hairs danced a little but he appeared not to notice.

The stars, as the night passed, moved more than the elf. He seemed to watch over every one of them.

A good while later, without having moved, perhaps even without having blunk, he clasped his hands. The leather bands across his wrists and palms were silent in the cold air. Likewise the knives covering him like a reflective skin only glinted, and even then only when he breathed out.

He began, as the experienced viewer might dread at this point, to sing. It was a song of his people, but translated with such care that it still rhymed and fit a regular tune in the common tongue of men.

The deepest bark, the pith so pale
shall never last their final hour.

Each finger reaching for Your power-
falls slack at last, each shall fail.

No portrait holds a gaze for long
nor a blade its blood, an eye its light.

Never has shone a soul so bright-

we have never sung a timeless song.

His foreign lilts made him sound like a small chorus singing as one. There was a moment when Swicewise let his head dip, but only for a second.

Each step that points toward an end
falls short of You, but not your gaze.
The weeks will warm us with the days-

Beginnings last and roads may bend.

Our every thrust, the steel we built

stretches on and on, for all we know.
The points we shine, the weave we sew-
our arms will never leave the hilts.

For another eleven verses, the elf kept at the hymn. For a while the point of the song seemed simple enough, but eventually it became impossible to follow and the lyrics just blended together into a solid, bland, mystifying whole. The point, perhaps, was to fill time and look clever, and yet once this had been achieved seventeenfold at the very least, he did not stop. He seemed to sing each word more slowly than the last, but that could simply have been a trick of his voice. Finally, after his narrative had told the tales of more obscure elven heroes than the oldest and most banal of village elders could possibly remember or care about, and then sung some quiet riddle about each one with a little contemplative pause after every silly little pun which he seemed to think far cleverer than they really were – once the song had repeated its one, simple, childlike, four-line rhythm for as long as it could possibly be stretched – at last he took a deep, almost audible breath and let it end:

Each finger pointing through the pale
through deepest dark, to gravest hour

Here he leaned forward a touch.

shall never pierce Our speck of power.

None can last.

Each shall fail.


His hands unclasped, very slowly, as though it were an effort. His eyes, his shoulders, his toes which must have been frozen in those sandals of his, throughout all of this had not moved.
Soon the moon began to sink into the horizon and now, only now, the traveller called Swicewise bowed his head. He laid down both of his knees and rested his hands on them.

Though his mouth was not visible I heard him begin a prayer. He breathed, clasped his hands again.
“Lord and Lady, hear the voice of Your children. We four stand alone before the Beastmaker’s might, but we know that –”

Now.

I rolled across the wood slats and off the roof, not quietly but fast. I landed awkwardly on my front, seeing the elf turning his head to me, scrabbling his arms to propel the rest of him back to standing position. I was halfway up onto my own knees before I just lurched onto him, crashing down on his back and pushing the mud down under him. The rest happened without my even having to think about it: arm tucked under his neck, slowing his air, ready to shove bone into the back of his windpipe if he moved. My weight on his spine, his on his forearms. He was smart enough not to try anything, and I figured if I kept it to a whisper then I could get away with speaking without his companions hearing. I really wanted to speak.
“You fuck!”
Some mumbling. My automatic response was to shove a knee into a kidney and tighten my grip on the throat, but since it happened so quickly it did nothing to soothe my anger.
“Shut the fuck
up, you stupid, ridiculous, naval-gazing, boring, preening, pompous, stands-out-like-a-sore-pointy-fucking-thumb,” a pause for breath, “arsehole!”
The mark struggled a bit less.
“I have been waiting for a piss since fucking sundown, you pasty little shit! Sundown! Sat still, not moving, waiting for you to shut up and look away from my position! Never mind my ankle hurts, never mind I might be hungry or I might have had other things to do tonight, fuck all that! I needed a piss when I climbed up there, at sundown! But I thought I’d skip it and wait it out since I couldn’t possibly be here for very long, since you all were so fucking close and the fucking knight was already complaining of fatigue and you insisted on taking first fucking watch, fucking didn’t you?”
Some mumbling.

“Yes! But apparently if you’re in a singing mood you’ll stay for the second and third as well! Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for a piss?”

Some mumbling that, it occurred, might have been “Since sundown?” Another knee to the kidneys, just in case.

“Fucking… sundown, chum. Sundown. Sorry. I just,” I swallowed, felt my breathing. “The roof was creaky, you know? I had to keep position. My knee was pressing against my,” a gulp, “never mind.”

That next gurgling might even have been an apology. Fine. Good.

I stretched over and met the mark’s eyes for a second. That furtive, plaintive look, as usual. You always see that when they’re not expecting you, no matter who they are. Trying to work out who you are and who sent you. This time the answer was obvious. I don’t know the man’s name but he was almost certainly working for this great enemy he mentioned, wasn’t he? Yeah, stop looking at me like that, mate. This ought to be very straightforward.

“You’re bloody lucky!” I hissed at him, and it was true too. “I ought to literally torture the balls off you for what you’ve put me through.”

The knife in my boot was too far to reach, so I grabbed one of the many, many shiny, silver-lined daggers hidden in the elf’s writhing mass of leather belts and cut his throat with that instead. It was sharp enough, and curiously light for how wide and ostentatious it was.

And there, with surprising promptness, he died. Fucking good. I dragged the body around the back of the building, just to give myself a little extra time to get ahead of the party if they decided to give chase immediately instead of burying their man. You never can predict that. I was planning to look for a horse in the farmland but knew I also had the option of vanishing in the forest by the roadside, whatever it was called. Wood… deep, dark, fog… Fogwood? Deepwood Dark? Something about darkness and wood. The usual. I left Swicewise in some long grass, had a very long piss in a bush and threw my old knife away. The mark had plenty to spare.

‘Assassin’, yeah.

For a moment I felt a useless apology in my throat for the farmer, who I knew would be rewarded for his kindness shortly with the sight of a bloody throat on his property and then an angry interrogation from one of the three remaining adventurers, probably the really big one. Sorry, fella.

But these things really can’t be helped. I try not to think about it too hard. A couple of hours later, when I guessed Swicewise’s companions would be waking up and wondering why they felt so well-rested, I was well on the way and thinking of better things. Food, my fee, the job well done, how nice it was not to be perched on the roof anymore. The mark and whatever it was he was talking to himself about.

I hoped the gods he was praying to weren’t the vengeful type. But if they’re anything like me then I don’t imagine they were still paying attention to him after the first few verses of the bloody song.

Second

Lastower struck me as a dour, beaten-up, homely sort of town, the sort that gets you nostalgic for the times when bricks and mortar were new and exciting developments. It takes its name from the square spire at its centre, now a grand Mayoral mansion but long ago used for beheadings. The top level is shaped to let the heads roll down and into the cheering crowd, to be caught like wedding bouquets. I picked this up from my innkeeper. Seems like the time to mention it. It was ages back, when the Western Wildmen ruled. I understand their executioners were given free room and board and a nice black hood. Better days.

Upon arrival I traded Swicewise’s diamond tooth cap for a nice room at a fancy inn. I had a servant wake me after a few hours and he was even polite about it. The room sat on a second floor just by the gate – I suppose they make their money from tired travellers and tips – and I had an ideal view up the road.

Of course I’m not a monster and as such I cannot pry a tooth cap from a corpse without wincing. But one must not forget that these sorts of gangs go around taking money off of corpses all the time. The adventurers probably earned the diamond by selling ancient weapons pried from the knuckles of cursed skeletons, or the frozen hearts of zombie Kings or something. Tomb raiding is just grave robbing plus time.

I suppose the zombie Kings are already dead when you find them, to be fair. Touché, as people like to say when they haven’t really been wounded.

The poached milkfish was delicious and the tea came in a big pot. It was a good morning. By mid-afternoon I saw the three figures I had been waiting for come over the hills, talking and trudging, and I shot downstairs immediately, secreting myself outside the gate in a quiet spot. It was simple enough to follow along and look busy while catching snatches of their conversation. Most of it was, as you would imagine, about what a wonderful fellow Swicewise was and how they had not expected to ever lose him, let alone before the final leg of their quest.

This, of course, is why I did him first. When you’re dealing with one of these mixed groups, you want to kill the really good one with your first blow. Don’t let him catch you in some sort of duel near the end of the job. Get him sorted right away and then start your work proper, since after that they’ll be expecting the next strike and start readying themselves. So the first blow, the easiest one, should hit the leader. The legend in waiting. He who speaks with the most authority and gazes into the moonlight for the longest bloody time. But the second in line is always a bit trickier to choose.

Watching their entrance to the town, I struggled with the decision. They seemed to be having the same trouble themselves. The barbarian was clearly their best fighter, as his long strides reminded everybody, but the knight was notably walking in point, as if to imply to her friends that he had inherited the position. This is, of course, how folks who can afford armour walk ordinarily, but she was making a good case for herself regardless. The mage tramped at the back, humble and thinly-clad as before, but there was something about him. Never trust a man with pointy shoes.

Wasting no time, the trio asked the gate guard about suspicious characters coming into town earlier today. No luck. I had come in over a crumbled bit of the wall.

The barbarian had his hands on his hammer during all of this, as though I was about to jump them at any moment in the middle of the street. It must have weighed him down, I thought. I wondered if he was getting some sort of masochistic thrill from the extra weight, punishing himself for letting his friend go. They’re a funny bunch, the big men.

As the three passed me I made show of eating a bit of apple and looking deep in thought. Everyone gave them the old, ‘Oh look, a knight, a wizard and a barbarian just walked into town, ho ho, sounds like the beginning of a joke doesn’t it?’ sort of look, so I joined in with that.

The woman in steel kept glancing back at us all. “If the bastard is one of the Beastmaker’s men,” I heard her say in a voice that was far too posh to convincingly swear, “he will be here ahead of us.”

Well, yes. Obviously. Although to be fair I was not exactly one of ‘his men’. Chance would have been a fine thing, I thought. I wondered if his men got regular pay. I was hired on by Big Bill at the Drakkhen Arms with a cryptic message and a pouch of silvers.

“He is certainly here,” Tenrunes answered, much quieter, “and he will reveal himself when he thinks the time is best.”

“And then he will die!” A wit, this one. The barbarian gave her a pat on the shoulder plate.

While I dropped behind a little, they found a decent inn further into town; not as swanky as mine, but low-key and defensible enough not to get them into any trouble. From the end of a corridor I watched them hire a big room and congregate inside. As I said – the second kill is always the tricky bit. Various ideas went back and forth through my head while I listened to them distributing supplies and planning their next steps. They had been planned out perfectly before, of course, by Swicewise. Now they needed to rethink it all and it was clear nobody wanted to start the conversation. The only thing they agreed on was ordering dinner.

They were solemn now that their first day as a threesome was facing its end. They’d had time to adjust to the shock of his death and of course that time wasn’t nearly enough. The atmosphere in the inn, in the town, was heavy, as though they were walking through wet mud with nothing special at the other end. The knight’s armour looked somehow less silly when when it was being dragged through a tight corner or scraped against a ceiling beam without care. Old Tenrunes’ papery blue eyes staring ahead looked, you know, wise when his lids began to weigh on them. The barbarian hadn’t grinned all day, and I almost forgot it was him. Their innkeeper looked miserable just dealing with them. Even I began to feel the loss of their leader.

The old man took off his hat and propped his gilded wooden staff against the crumbling plaster. The barbarian let down his hammer at long last. The knight drank noisily from their water canteen as though it were her mother’s milk, then dropped her arm back, spilling a few drops and glancing through the window at what light was still out.

I had visions of buying a crossbow. Standing out on the sill, shooting her in the head and diving into the night. The dream didn’t last. I find with my job that if you’re having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Arrows don’t kill, poison just makes them sick. Traps are loud and obvious. You have to run up and stab.

But not yet. Right now their hands were never a foot from their scabbards, and they had taken to greeting everyone who got within a few yards with a suspicious frown, absolutely ready, almost aching for someone to leap out from the shadows with a knife. Let them be paranoid. Well, not technically paranoid under the circumstances. Perhaps over-cautious. Let them be that. I would strike when they expected it slightly less.

I waited with a half glass of mead downstairs with the other diners and worked through it in sips so small that my body barely recognised it as liquid, let alone alcohol. I had shoved into a group of working men who looked about my age and class, and awkwardly joined in their conversation as though I maybe possibly knew one of them. That’s a beginner’s tip, there: don’t ever be the man who sits in the corner of the inn by himself and glares at the adventurers with dark eyes until they have to ask who he is and what his problem is. Those men, foreboding as they may appear in their shady nooks, usually end up dead before closing time.

Luckily for the poor blokes I was invading with my forced laughter and knowing nods, my targets slumped downstairs soon after. The assembled locals gave the three a glance, but it passed and we got back to our drinks. I kept an eye and an ear out.

The barbarian and knight had been talking, quietly enough for it to stay private. Seeing their fellow in the corner of his eye the woman raised her voice without meaning to. “He will be avenged.” A few of the eyes at the near tables looked back in their direction, which did not please.

“Yes, he will.” Not exactly a voice like thunder. Like a jolly stiff breeze through bulrushes.

She visibly stumbled for a response, found none. The barbarian lamely offered, “He would be proud of us, Meriel,” which was mostly ignored.

Meriel. I took note.

They carried their drinks to a table and placed a food order as my thoughts drifted to my work. The knight had removed her plates but still had on a chainlink vest. I looked for places to stab through. Sizing up the big one, I winced: could I even cut through that neck? It was like a bloody tree trunk. None of this gave me any joy, by the way. I don’t actually enjoy cutting people open. No-one does. That’s why the job was available. That’s why it pays.

I wanted to be a carpenter.

“I did not expect stealth from the Beastmaker,” Meriel said to the table. “I assumed he would ready an army to wait for us at his bridge, perhaps send his creatures to surround us in the East. But not this.”

Tenrunes seemed momentarily heartened. “No,” he started, began to raise his glass to his mouth, stopped. “But we have seen so little of him up until now. It makes a certain sort of sense.”

“Exactly.”

Something had changed in the knight. “Whoever he has sent to pick us off,” she said, clear and steady, “has learned our schedule. It hardly matters how at this point.” The chainmail sighed as she unfolded. “So we need to mess with it.” Yes, well done. “Change our route, change the timing, leave less evidence of our passing through the towns.” Three good ideas in one breath, there. She was absolutely going to be next. Decision made, thank you. “And two of us will keep watch while the other rests, even in the inn. Suppose we move the bed away from the window, find two vantage points.”

The big man’s hand squeezed rings into her shoulder. “You sound like him.”

“He told me a lot of his tricks.” She began cradling one side of her head now, pushing the hair away from itself with a nail. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. “Wish I’d listened, harder,” she muttered. “I, uh, I never thought it would come in handy. I never thought of a future without him around.”

I wondered for a moment if she and the elf were in love, but thankfully I immediately stopped caring. Don’t get bogged down in the quest.

“He lives in your blood.” The barbarian. For a horrible moment I feared some sort of tribal wisdom was forthcoming: there is a story amongst my people, etcetera. But if there was one at his lips then evidently he wasn’t up to telling it, as he only finished the thought with, “He will fight with us.”

I could almost believe it. It would be just like that prattling ponce to make me kill him twice.

Tenrunes mumbled, “We may need him,” through his cheek, then when they gave him their attention he only reached for his wine. Not an optimist, then. Not willing to become Meriel’s new mentor. I notice these things. Sometimes they’re important. Often, not. I used to find it all quite exciting, but you get used to it.

“We do not know what forces the enemy will muster,” the big lad agreed, “and that ignorance is dangerous even in itself. Do not forget the stories I heard: the uncanny creatures that were sighted in the murkland. The monster we saw. He may have an army of half-breed berserkers for all we know.”

Bloody hell.

“Swicewise was our best hope.”

I got lost in thought here, I’m afraid. Swept up. Whoever this enemy of theirs was, he suddenly seemed rather serious. Legitimate dark-sorcerer-in-a-magic-tower serious. Possibly even he aspired to magical-stone-and-resurrected-demons levels of seriousness. We’ve all heard the stories. Whole towns get decimated when these people rise up, even when the band of disparate heroes do stop them.

I checked myself. The world hadn’t ever ended yet.

The barbarian raised his voice a touch. “His hopes were placed in you.”

The reply came in, “I’m not my father!” I think I might have rolled my eyes. Of course she was somebody’s daughter. Of course she was.

“You will succeed where he failed.”

“Or I’ll meet his fate.”

I wondered if her father was the enemy. That one never gets old.

Tenrunes interrupted them again. His eyes opened wide and I caught myself staring. “Perhaps you will,” he conceded flatly. “But if you honour his friend then you will fight like him first.”

The fear dropped from the knight’s face. “Yes I will.”

The barbarian chipped in, “Remember what he taught you. Use what Alain gave you.”

Tenrunes looked at her with a strange intensity, told her, “You will survive long enough to get your chance. We shall move at dawn,” and left it at that.

I’ve tracked people who were somebody’s son or daughter before. They can turn out to be very dangerous in the end. She might be heir to some sort of power, some relic. Destined for something. She was absolutely, definitely going next. As soon as possible.

The brute made a toast to bolster their spirits but I wasn’t listening. A cook was plating up their food and kicking open the kitchen door. I stood.

On my way to the bar, I wondered what an army of half-breed berserkers might look like. As I caught the barman’s eye I tried to guess what the other half of them consisted of and imagined the worst. I dropped a few coins to settle my bill and thought, what in the hell is a Beastmaker?

The blast of fresh air cleared my head as much as I had hoped. I slowed into it, let the little breeze close my eyes for a second and empty my lungs. I had my job. I was even free until dawn and then I’d follow their new route, whatever they decided it would be.

With the streets empty – the locals would be settling in at home by now, putting children to bed and tiring themselves out at a mangle or a beer barrel – I couldn’t help but feel exposed. The cover of darkness is over-rated, I find. It niggled me, just strolling along all exposed at the end of the street. Felt a bit wrong.

I realised a moment later that this was very sensible and I should have acted on it.

I heard the closing-in swish of a sword being flung at me and jumped back, spine first, curling away on instinct. My arms flailed and my gawky, open-mouthed face must have looked daft as I hit the window frame. My head, at least, was working hard. I saw the blade falling away – bronze with precious stones, shimmering unnaturally – dwarven make. Lucky. The dwarf folk of Nilhamar are truly master smiths, unparalleled and uniquely gifted, unless you want them to make you something particularly tall. Thank buggery for dwarfs. Any other make of sword and my chest would have been emptied.

I saw the blue eyes pushing folds of skin out of their way, suddenly more fierce than I had ever seen them.

Tenrunes.

Right.

My legs ached with the force I made them use. Fleeing, out of breath, with my back to him had to be better than staying here and letting him summon the others.

But he had followed me out alone. Must have been right behind me at the door. He saw me watching? Tracked the diamond tooth cap somehow? I limply ran through a few scenarios, stopped with nothing. I had no time then to work out how or when he had clocked me, and more than that, I really wasn’t that interested. People turn out to be cleverer than me fairly often. There’s no novelty in it at this stage of my life. When I was new to this job, I might have given him a respectful look or congratulated him with a sly grin or something, but not now. What did his opinion of me matter – one of us was going to be dead in a minute. As much as I’d have liked to think of him being taken aback by my manners and elegance as he wandered back to his friends with my head under his arm, I’d rather have avoided him having any sort of lasting impression at all.

At the first corner I heard him bellowing something dramatic about shadows that I didn’t follow, and fell back around with my new dagger ready.

Gone.

I went further into the streets, turned as many more corners as I could, aiming vaguely into whatever shadows I could find. Lastower’s ramshackle layout gave me a chance to jump over a railing and onto the roofs of a row of houses built on a lower plane, and seeing the chance to escape I all but hurled myself to the street, landing painfully on my right knee. I gave it half a second to heal and then pretended this had accomplished something when I yanked myself up on its weight.

Something heavy landed in front of me immediately and threw dust in every direction. I looked dead at it but saw nothing in particular. Something, but something vague, something half-there, as if in the corner of my eye. I had to keep blinking, tried to keep my eyes still, trying to see this thing that–

And then a clear thought: Oh cocks, it’s the invisibility thing.

The shortsword came at me again, the glint of the half-clan’s gems helping me focus on it despite the spell. I tumbled backwards. A sound emerged from somewhere in the murk blocking my path, in the wizard’s voice but not at all in his tone. Not a Spellmoorer’s voice, not even quite human: the pitch was much too fast, the source too far back in the throat. I responded by tripping over myself backwards. The sword came again and again. I lurched away, but every thrust bit an inch or two from the gap between us, and we both saw that.

In the next instant I noticed with surprise and silent joy that I’d instinctively gotten up and gotten running. Toward the market square, the middle of the maze. A good place to lose him.

I changed my mind about this immediately when the scream and the dwarf-sword reappeared from musty air, on my left side, and he slashed a long red line, almost a fingernail deep into my chest. Gracelessly I spun around and dived into a smithy’s stall, thinking myself ingenious as I tried to kick one of the wooden supports over and nearly broke my foot. I leaped involuntarily and reappeared on the other side of the stall, trying to make it look like a particularly tricky lunge.

Gone. Again. And I was dizzy. The silence around me and the stillness of my body were too sudden. My eyes flicked about like a lunatic’s, looking for his spell, some movement, some odd feeling.

It was his breath that gave Tenrunes away this time though. He was holding it in, as though he were holding back fire. I dove back from his reach once again, slashing wildly and hoping to get an arm. I didn’t see it connect but I felt the resistance of a sleeve and then sinewy flesh, and I certainly heard him. Another strange scream as he switched arms and fell at me. The bright edges of the sword came far too close, their glow cutting through his magic and showing me a bit of a silhouette. I ran again.

Behind the backs of stalls, doubling around to lose him, ducking behind counters, behind a long, red drape meant to cover a butcher’s stock from the flies.

When the tightness in my chest finally came to my attention, I stopped. I’d been cut. I just stopped. It was all I could do stand up straight. I just stood there, behind the drape, sucking my teeth and trying to learn something from the experience.

Never underestimate the quiet ones. New rule.

Do him second, right after the leader, before he does you. Then you can fanny about with the rest.

Look for the one who’s the most pissed off.

In fact, just do the wizard second from now on.

And don’t try and hide behind a fucking drape.
Wooden slats ached dully on my shoulderblades and prodded the back of my head while I smelled my blood. I assumed it was a matter of time before he found me. I felt a pointless, ungainly smile growing on me as I prepared for death and forgave myself for fucking this up so badly. I was new. How was I supposed to know the wizard had clocked me?

Something bumped into my leg and when I looked down I saw swirling dust but no foot. My eyes strained at it.

Okay.

Here goes nothing.

I jabbed the knife through the cloth. And it stuck. Deep.

The weight of the old man’s falling body sucked the dagger from my hand and dislodged the drape, knocking me onto the street with it. Now we saw each other.
“Oh…” Tenrunes said, in a tone of voice that made me think the rest of the sentence would have been, “…for fuck’s sake.” Evidently he wasn’t satisfied with that selection of Last Words, and who can blame him, so he looked me square in one eye, one corner of his mouth twitching, and warbled, “I do not fear death.”

He made it sound like a curse, a threat, but something told me he wasn’t ever going to make good on it. It was just defiance.

I lent him a long glance, let him shuffle off as serenely as he could manage. When he likely couldn’t hear any more I mumbled, “That’s probably why you lost, mate,” and went through his pockets.

Third

Before fleeing town I had splashed a bit of well water over my new wound and nicked some new clothes from a washing line. I hadn’t time to shop around but I ended up with a softened wool tunic that felt just a little too big. I strolled away and onto the lazily-tended greenery outside the walls feeling inconspicuous, loose and clean. Fresh.

I was surprised, however, when I saw the remaining fifty percent of my target do just the same less than an hour later. Obviously I had not expected the knight and barbarian to wait until dawn without noticing their missing wizard, but neither was I expecting them to emerge before midnight, full of purpose in their stride and holding themselves so free. Their conversation told me that they had found Tenrunes’ body quickly and while one had scoured the town for his killer, the other had arranged a burial. It would be a disservice to say they were happy, but they were no longer grieving. Their canvas pack, weighed down as it was by the magic staff, dwarven sword and whatever of the elf’s little arsenal had made it in there, was all that hinted at their grief. Meriel had her pompous stiffness returning to her, the shine back in her steel, and when he spoke the barbarian sometimes even had the beginnings of his little schoolboy smirk again.

They wondered aloud if I was following them as I hid behind a bush and made faces. The knight unfolded their map.

“We need a way forward,” the barbarian said simply. “There are two in the paths of my tribe – by the coast, where we might lose the one who tracks us, or–”

He never finished the thought. “The Maltraeth Hold,” Meriel answered.

“The swamp?”

“The Maltraeth Hold.”

“I am sorry. But the ground is treacherous.” The smile was gone for now. Mine was too. I had never been through the swamp, for good reason. Every report I’d ever heard described it as a mile of mud and flies with a sheen of stagnant water and troll piss sitting on it. No bugger goes near.

“There is a bridge,” she said, “which is the most direct route to the enemy’s lands. It was my father’s property. Swicewise had talked about us taking that path to save time. I was afraid.”

“And now he and his oldest companion are gone,” the giant put in, “and we are but two. Only now you are not afraid.”

She let her shield down for a moment and inched closer to him. “Leifhelm,” she said, almost whispering, “my son is not yet seven.”

Oh good, I thought: Leifhelm. That was all of their names, at last. I had grown used to calling him the barbarian. Somehow, even now I think of him that way.

“When I left him with our cousins, I told him not to cry and then swore I would return to him only when the Beastmaker was dead. At the end of our journey, we two are going to storm Desper Yllom and do battle with its master. When that work is over, when I return to my homestead, then I will be afraid of trolls again.”

Slinking about behind them would be twice as difficult if I had to avoid trolls at the same time.

I made a note. In future, get the youth-on-the-eve-of destiny before they have time to make the speech.

Leifhelm grunted, “What of the killer who felled our leader and the great wizard?”

Her lip curled downward. It was a new side to her. “They were stabbed in the back. But that will not happen to us, do you hear? We are what is left, which means we carry the burden of this quest, so we are the remaining hope for the land. We will not be stabbed in the back.”

He had that look on him, the one that barbarians get when somebody gives them a stiff talking to and asserts themselves as their new chief. Sheer pleasure. Funny gits. The noble, similarly, had a glint that seemed to have been waiting years to get out of her eye. After a lifetime of politely following her betters, now at last it was her turn to properly boss somebody around. Both of them were almost shivering. This might have been the moment of their lives. She grabbed his arm.

“We two will walk across the Hold with our backs together, wilder. When we reach its limits, we will walk across the desert and over the Beastmaker’s drawbridge. Our backs will not be a target. Our fronts will be a blade and a hammer, and by our strength any trolls, murderers, creatures or armies that so much as glance at our perimeter will shatter like shards of crystal before out feet!”

I waited to see if she was done.

“We will walk over the broken slate of our enemy’s throne until we leave footprints of his black blood.” Oh. “Then let his hired killer follow, and before our backs see sunlight then by heavens we will walk though him too!”

I went for a job as a town crier once. Langley from the Green Quarter got it.

The giant only nodded, held her gaze and said ‘aye’ before Meriel looked back at her map to get their bearings. In a second, they were off. I stood a while, feeling the anticlimax. The moment deserved a cheer, if not the mad, passionate roadside sex I had half-expected.

When they were far enough along the road, I checked my own map and followed. The marshes were not so far away, but I knew they had not slept. I planned to kill them once they made camp. Half a mile later I thought of a rebuttal: if they slept back to back, then the knife would go through their necks. Ha.

This, however, never came to be as their adrenaline alone seemed to carry them all the way along the dusty road to the swamp. Twice along the way I found warm animal carcasses: a wolf with its head smashed and its belly cut the first time, and then a bear with the injuries the other way around. Roadside distractions for the bored adventurer.

The smell of the swamp hit me first, thrown up by the week’s hot sun and carried downwind by a morning breeze. As we approached further, the emptiness came as the second indication. There was a long stretch of land with no trees or shrubbery, and then a longer one still where only weeds grew. These then gave way to cracked mud the consistency of fresh cake just before the long, wide, sloping bridge seemed to crawl out of it and into the sky. The only feature of the landscape, this bridge was striking if not impressive. Its stonework looked a good century old and yet it was longer and higher than any bridge I had seen. To be fair, I haven’t seen much. I had rather hoped that the hired-killer business would let me see the world. This was a start.

Beneath this, Maltraeth itself looked exactly the way it had always been described. My two marks had stopped to gather themselves after their walk and were looking about for the resident monsters. The ground lay as flat and desolate as the roof of the sea. The little cabin at the foot of the bridge was obviously empty. If there were trolls, and my marks seemed sure there were, then they were hidden up in the bridge supports. With nowhere in particular left for me to hide, I just kept my distance.

I saw her mouth going again and thanked the sky above that Meriel’s voice had not carried. After what I assume to be a rousing speech, she drew her sword. As expected, it was marvellous. The etched, gilded hilt lovingly gripped just a bit too high on a blade that seemed to flash gold when it caught the light. Some sort of alloy, I wondered. Some sort of spell. She didn’t seem to see it though, just held it, let her arm take its weight and follow its point. With a mutual grab of the wrist – oh just kiss him already – the warriors began their ascent up the stone slope.

I heard the echo of a bellow the moment they were out of sight. “Foul creatures! This land is my birthright, granted by my father when he fell battling Garland of the Four Caves!” Now the trolls showed themselves, climbing up like monkeys from the supports and long-weathered latticework. Slowly they assembled at the other end of the bridge and then stood staring at her, scratching themselves. I wondered if she knew they couldn’t speak. “You have shown yourselves, beasts! Now meet me in battle!”

I counted: three trolls. One of them pretty big.

“I am Meriel of the House Maltraeth, and today I must pass!” she cried out as I made my way to a hiding place underneath the slope. “Today you pay your debt!” Yes, yes, let’s not be here all day.

The two of them gave a battle cry and, from the sounds of it, charged. I saw the trolls, just as bewildered as me, go to meet them half way. After a pregnant pause I heard howls, grunts and clashes of metal on flesh and stone.

I imagined a battle raging, purely to entertain myself as I rested my feet after the long walk. In my mind the trolls reared up and pounced, slashing through the straps of their armour with snapping jaws, slamming their jagged wooden clubs down onto them and ripping at their faces with their curled talons. I dreamed of Meriel, pinned down by the big one until Leifhelm smashed the side of its angular head with such force that it flew from the bridge and fell to its death.

This did not happen. Instead it was Leifhelm who, after only a few minutes, was thrown over the edge. I saw his fur-hemmed boots and long skirt piece fly into view and then drop bit by bit as one of the trolls attacked his grip.

Eventually his face too sank into view. I saw him slipping, then grabbing hold of the stonework beneath, pausing a long moment, then –

Turning his head to see me watching.

His chin jerked up as he barked something up to the bridge. For my own part, I just wondered what to do. A few scenarios raced through my head before I rejected them as being far too daring for me to ever get away with.

I stared back at Leifhelm, trying to heft his great frame up and back over the edge, and hoped for the best. Maybe he would fall off, and she would be mauled to death and my whole job would be finished in a few minutes. I crossed my fingers.

The fighting continued. The barbarian’s arm held strong.

The first of the trolls fell. I saw its head fly up off its neck, into my view, and tumble back down again, mouth agape and its little black horns looking a lot less menacing than usual.

I couldn’t help but feel for the poor bastard. It didn’t know it was breaking a local property law by being there; it just knew some nutter had run up to it waving a sword about. Aside from their clubs and those little pelt-cloaks, trolls are barely more than animals. They just like living somewhere with a roof on.

Another howl followed soon after, which told me they were losing their three-on-one battle. Swamp landlady or not, that wasn’t bad. More pressingly, it meant my only option was to get up there myself and try to finish off whoever was left before Leifhelm had a chance to rejoin the fight.

I ran all the way up the long ramp, wishing I carried a sword along with my dagger. When I finally reached the flat level I saw Meriel’s sword, or rather the magical fire emanating from it, as it swung about madly and scared the big troll into biding its time. Her armour was dented, crushed-in by great fingers on one shoulder and hanging a bit loose everywhere else. Her legs were a little shaky. But my money was on her to win.

The troll made its move and pounced. Meriel turned to the side, hiding behind her shield and letting the reach of her swing do the work for her. It cut into the troll, pretty deep, then lurched out of the flesh again. As she heaved it back up I wondered why I saw no blood. When it all happened a second time and the troll took another dry wound I realised: the flaming sword was cauterising the injuries as it cut. Brilliant. Some enchanter really saw her coming.

Now she finally, inevitably saw me standing there waiting my turn, and I found myself gripping my dagger too hard.

With a surge forward and a gritting of teeth, she impaled the last of her foes and kicked it off her blade as though she had been humouring it until now. The magic flames flickered as the fire gasped for air, then returned in earnest.

She stepped forward slowly, her voice hoarse but clear. Depleted, but still talking. “I knew you would follow,” she said, a toffee-nosed smugness coming into her accent now. I don’t know if that was affected for my sake or just too hard for her to repress any longer, but I remember liking her a lot less. “I had not expected you to challenge me here. Don’t you normally wait until we’re asleep?”

The only answer I could give would be ‘yes’ and then an explanation of Leifhelm having seen me and my therefore having been in a hurry. I said nothing. She appeared to have forgotten all about her partner but I still had his grasping hand in the corner of my eye. His progress was slow but he was climbing back up.

Meriel took small steps. Her plates looked heavy. “It gives me some satisfaction to know your death will be at my hands,” she told me, then emphasised, “murderer, although by rights your life should not be worthy of notice. Through dishonour you have managed to prove yourself our greatest foe and thus warrant a vile kind of respect that fits you as ill as your beating heart. I am glad that you choose to confront me face-to-face, as now you will finally see who it is you have set yourself against.” Here she nodded slyly, as though I had conceded some sort of point. I’m not sure she had even made one. “You will be the first of your master’s pawns to fall at my feet but in my father’s name you will not be the last! May the Beastmaker’s forces grow in strength as I, the chosen champion, grow to meet them. This battle has been a long time coming. Prepare yourself and be ready to taste honour for the first time as I puncture your weak stomach with red steel!”

During the seminar I had taken the time to look around at the land she laid claim to and pull in a deep breath. This was not, to me, a confrontation between nemeses. It was not fun, not even stirring. It was work. Bloody hard work, granted, but just that. I needed groceries. I tried to communicate this with a look and a bit of a shrug, as politely as I could.

The barbarian’s whole right arm was on the stone now, pressing into the dust and dragging an inch of him forward. His eyes were on mine.

Meriel lifted her sword and held it up between her eyes, looking past the edge. “You have trespassed on what is mine,” she concluded with welcome brevity.

I shouted, “Now!” which confused her long enough for me to get a good run up and put all my strength into shoving at her shield. Her legs buckled, she fell back and steadied an arm against a loose brick, holding herself up. She made to run me through.

In the same moment I threw myself forward again and, as she arched back and dropped the weapon, I managed to shove her off the bridge head-first. Her journey ended with a muffled yelp and what sounded like her slamming too fast through the surface of the baked mud below. The carpet of flies leaped up, disturbed for a moment, then settled.

Leifhelm’s eyes had not moved. His hammer swung up, hit the floor straight and he gripped it like a walking stick. His other arm followed, and then his heaving, bare chest. For the briefest of moments I considered picking up the golden sword and fighting him, but a glance at his muscles convinced me that my duelling career was over before it had begun. As his legs heaved over the edge, I saw him glance down after his fallen comrade.

In a flash I realised I had made that son of hers an orphan. He would have a great excuse to canonise her now. She died in the heart of our ancestral land, he’ll say to all and sundry, battling evil and fighting to reclaim what was rightfully ours and whathaveyou. She fell in the mud when some bloke said ‘now’ and pushed her. Hero for the ages etcetera.
It should help control the troll population too, come to think of it, when he’s old enough for his own quest. Long may the cycle continue.

The barbarian pushed onto his hammer, set his knees down and began to rise.

I was already running.

Last

I can only assume that my thin top and his powerful legs cancelled each other out, since we kept an equal distance between us for the duration. There was no thought in it for either of us. I just ran, and he just ran after.

To the south, the swamp slowly dried and mixed with grasses the same as it had by the road in. It took care not to lose a shoe or fall on my face, and since the barbarian’s long stride seemed to stand him in best stead, I banked to the more solid ground as soon as I was able. My thoughtless escape path took us downhill and vaguely toward the coast, down through worn old yellow-green hillsides and a dale of cold air, where the rocks of ancient cliffs fell in natural ruin. I realised they offered hiding places if not a true escape, and remembered my success against Tenrunes in the market.

But Leifhelm was as determined not to be lost as I was to lose him. I knew I would run out of puff long before he did, and a swelling pain my hips quickly became near-agony, so I just tried to get out of his line of sight for a few seconds. Every time I looked back I saw the hammer swinging on his back. If he had let it go, he could have caught me easily. But his heart was set on using it.

My chance came when at last Leifhelm tripped on a rabbit hole. The great crash behind me gave it away.

I crept down, kept on running and just focused on getting into the rock formations that lined the steep hill to our right, choosing an opening to dive into on sheer instinct.

A bit of a cave. The sort where you find either bats or Searidge cannibals. When nothing happened, I finally let a few fast breaths out and assumed it was bats. Walking sideways with one eye on the entrance and one on what I was heading into, I shuffled into the dark. After about six feet, I found the dead end.

Once again I pointlessly chastised myself and angrily enforced some rules for future jobs. I won’t list them.

In time the heavy footsteps came to my cave door and I pressed back into the stone, dagger drawn of course. My head throbbed so much I feared he would hear it. My legs ached to be let down and relieved of duty for an hour. The pain I had felt around my hips continued. I recognised it now. My bladder.

Of course. Perfect timing.

At least, I told myself, I wouldn’t have to wait long. One way or the other, this ordeal was about to end.

Leifhelm arrived, slowly, either genuinely unsure or just taking his time. He stood by the entrance, peering in and looking past me. I took a moment’s solace in knowing that whilst I was trapped, the trap at least had shadows. Fuck me I needed a piss.

With a careful, deliberative hum, the giant stepped back a little and stretched. He slipped out of his leather shoulder staps with an old effort and let the weapon fall off his back and into the soil. It landed straight on its head and did not fall, so he stepped aside and groaned.

I wondered what he was waiting for.

His wide, lean fingers, more like steaks than sausages, went to his mouth. He grumbled a little and scraped old dirt off his bottom row of teeth. Then, when this was done to his satisfaction, he picked his nose. This was a thorough job, with time and effort compensating for his too-large tools. Each time I thought he had finished, his nose twitched as though some new piece of detritus had gone unnoticed and now the whole process needed to start all over again.

I stood still.

After sucking and blowing air through his nostrils enough times to ensure a standard of cleanliness that would shame a Palatial trophykeeper, he scratched the tip and let his nose go. After a long breath he ran a hand through his flowing hair and began, to my absolute despair – as if reaching into the ultimate low point of my soul and stepping on it – to sing.

Through mountain valleys deep and tall

the tribesmen come to hear the call!

Our sacred keeper holds the peace
between the captive ears of all.

Tonight’s old tale tells long and fair

of Arnjorn, he of blood red hair,

his proving hours and deepest days

with Eagle Wyn his steadfast mare.

I remember every word of this fucking thing.

Arnjorn strode long upon the land

with his Eagle Wyn, hair below hand.

Her flat-cut hoofs, sleek granite groined

struck a thousand blows, turned dust to sand.

To her he spoke of days long past,

in his trodden time, run too fast.

She listened slow and whinnied light,

strode deeper ’til the lore was cast

Through mountain valleys deep and tall

the tribesmen come to hear the call!

Our loving ship holds our embrace
between the long-shod feet of all.

Said Eagle Wyn, the sky will see,

Shut up, shut up, fucking shut the fuck fucking up, fucking just shut up What was this horse song even about?

the night will hear, for you and me.

Our charge is but to stand the ground,

no man or beast will heed our plea.

Arnjorn’s red hand rode through her mane,

to her haunch and hair, each the same.

His nails were short, his beard held knot,

he knew wisdom true, cool and tame.

I began to forget myself, lapse into fantasies of charging him and shoving his hammer down his throat.

Their hopes were wide, their hearts alone.

Their eyes run wild when they are shown.

Their tireless story runs the land

and their horse-shoes stick when they are thrown.

What the hell did that mean?

Through mountain valleys deep and tall

the tribesmen come to hear the call!

Our brothers true hold every tale
between the morn and death of all.

I dreamed of stamping on his neck in time with the tune. Once more for good measure he sang:

Through mountain valleys deep and tall

the tribesmen come to hear the call!

Our brothers true hold every tale
between the morn and death of all.

One more verse, I almost said aloud. One more verse and I charge.

Silence. For five seconds, ten seconds. Nothing. Thirty seconds. He shifted his weight and bit his lip. I didn’t dare relax for fear of wetting myself.

Leifhelm rubbed at the bristles of his chin, picked at an ear, then stopped. His eyes glanced directly into mine, then to his boots, then back to mine.

In a moment that lasted forever, I began to understand that he could see me perfectly well. My mouth might have dropped.

His teeth revealed themselves first. Big, square, scraped. I recalled that grin of his from the first day I started tailing his group. He had the look of an old friend telling a daft tavern joke, no matter what he was saying or to whom. His simple, sky blue eyes seemed to say nothing at all, and he tilted his head as he held my gaze, chuckling a bit in his way. There was no anger to it.

And then he spoke.

“A stone elf, a magister, a knight and a barbarian – ranger, wizard, fighter and brute – on a quest to the dread Castle Desper Yllom in the far East, there to do battle with the mighty Beastmaker. Follow them to Lastower and then stay close. Kill them before the quest is done, preferably before they do too much travelling. When you’re finished, the contact will reveal himself and deliver the rest of your fee.” It was word for word.

He reached under his hide skirt, pulled out a good-sized pouch of coins, said, “Here you are.” It landed a foot or two away from me but I stayed put. I had that funny numbness that sets in when something has taken you by surprise and you don’t want to let on.

“You did a good job,” he said. “Really. Thank you.”

“Well,” I said quietly when I was finally ready to speak. “I haven’t done the barbarian yet.”

A big, hearty laugh, as though I were ribbing him. I don’t even know if I was. “What a professional! You are relieved of that part of the job. The barbarian is on me. Knock off early!”

I was stiff all over, pushing myself into the recesses behind me like a mummified King. As cagey as I could, I asked, “Why did you do this?”

“What do you mean? Pay you, or chase you here, or–”

“Have your friends killed.”

He nodded, pretended to look sad, as if for my sake, and said, “Well, you know.”

I told him I didn’t.

“I mean,” he tried not to shrug, “you know, they were annoying. You saw that.”

I swallowed. With a nod at his bulging provisions back, I asked, “Is that it, there? Was it coin? To sell their gear?”

“Does this really matter?”

It really, really did.

“They kid you about how much you make on adventures, you know! All you’re usually left with is a bag of scrap iron and some kind of magic stone, minus the costs for inns, food, horses, lost equipment. But look at this lot, eh? I ought to get some real gold out of that staff and all the fancy daggers, you know. Shame about the suit of armour but I don’t blame you for that. You did all right.”

I told him, “You don’t look like the kind of man who loves treasure.” He didn’t.

He gave that silly grin of his and asked, “But do I look like the kind who’s indifferent to it?”

I thought about it.

“I don’t know either,” he said after a moment. “Nobody knows what those people look like.”

At the time I didn’t get it. I wasn’t ready for this.

“I always wanted a farm,” he muttered, and I could have sworn the voice was not his. I pursed my lips a speck and the moment was over. “Anyway, I needed to off them without raising suspiscions, so I set us up with one last mighty quest and hired the cheapest contract killer in town to follow us and do the deed.”

It was a slow conversation. There were long pauses while I stood there trying to piece things together. He impressed me with his patience. Finally I asked, “What if I had killed you first?”

An understanding face. “You wouldn’t have, my friend. That’s not a boast, mind. I’m just a man. But I flagged up the other three for you, didn’t I? Got Swicewise to take watch, sent Tenrunes to discover you, left poor Meriel alone on the bridge. And besides, I knew I was safe for a while. No killer would aim for the muscle when the brains and the heart are exposed.”

I didn’t even hear. “Cheapest?”

“By far and away.”

“Fuck.”

“Ha ha! Yeah.”

A long, long time passed.

“So why did you make me wait here and listen to you sing?”

Another big laugh. I wanted to strangle him. “Sorry!” he forced out. He clearly was not. “I couldn’t resist! Consider that a favour to put Swicewise’s ghost to rest!”

“You watched me kill him.”

“And I watched you tell him off. I had to get you all pissed off one more time, I really did! The look on your face when I did the last verse twice!”

It really, really bothered me how impossibly easy he made it all sound. I wanted more than anything to get into his head and see if he was laughing in there too.

The money was lying there on the ground. It was the only thing I fully understood. I stepped out, bent over, picked it up and felt the weight. He was as good as his word.

Leifhelm was rummaging in his pack again. I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing but shut up when I saw the crossbow come out. It got tangled on a loose drawstring thread, which seemed to amuse him.

He checked it, aimed, squinted down the sights and fiddled, then put a bolt through my chest.

“Aha!” he cried out, somewhat pathetically. “I have always wanted to use one of these!” I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know what he meant. “Sorry again, assassin.” Something about that comment would have made me furious if I had the energy.

As the shock took hold of my muscles, numbing me much more quickly than I thought was fair, my heart beat in a frenzy. I found myself just frowning at him, as if a trifle upset.

I knew I couldn’t move. I could breathe. Maybe I could talk. I breathed.

I hadn’t noticed my bladder in a long time. Still can’t feel it.

Then a little surge of energy at the back of my head. Something I needed to say. I spoke as if clearing my throat. “Who the fuck is the Beastmaker?”

A cheeky wink. “The Beastmaker is friends with the flying unicorn and the Watchers of Whiteafter.”

That took me a moment. I croaked-out, “You made him up?”

He nodded. “I sewed antlers onto a beaver carcass and showed it to my party. Beastmaker, see.”

“Y–”

“Yes, now you see why I wanted rid of them. Bloody idiots.”

With a groan he lifted his old warhammer up off the floor and held the weight of it over me. In a slow second I went numb. Off-balance. Frightened for the tiniest of moments, but then just numb. I didn’t feel myself drop, or the pain of my knees hitting the rock, or the hammer meeting my body and fastening it, now and forever, to the floor. I felt the cold air on my back afterwards. And when he pulled the coinpurse off my palm, I certainly felt that.

My eyes closed then. I lost track of things. And I’m finished.

It’s cold, then, for what that’s worth. There’s a bit of a breeze. A bit of a sunrise, if you want to read something into that. The cave has a musty smell as you’d expect.

Leifhelm gives me a look that I couldn’t read if I wanted to, then packs up his things.

They say your life flashes before your eyes. For me, just the last job. Something about that fact makes me angrier than I have words for.

I wish I had time to resent it.

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