The air was heavy.
It pressed down on him, making it hard to breathe, hard to move; he
felt like he was smothered with the atmosphere of dark, dank rot that
roiled over the barren landscape like a corpse’s musk.
He tripped over the very evil in the air, and his fall was slow,
exaggerated, cushioned against the ground by the air that smothered him.
His ears rang with pounding rain, hateful rain; the air moving
through his lungs had a sharp odor about it, like burnt steel.
He rolled over as quickly as possible in the stifling pressure, and
all he saw was a towering wall of steel.
It was a sword: the height of fifty men, its jagged, serrated edges
glinting in the ambient light. It
could not have been made in this world, even had it been of more modest
proportions. Not even a human
mind could devise something that looked so foreboding, so cruel.
saw then what held it aloft. Two
wings were anchored to the wickedly curved hand guard, gigantic, leathery
wings that flapped slowly in the pressing atmosphere.
They held it aloft, hovering above him, threatening at any moment
to give out and send the point crashing down upon his prone form.
noise grew in his ears, until it began to morph and mutate into the sound
of a mob, a thousand angry men screaming and yelling in anger and spite…
∙ ∙ ∙
The sound drew Ærnich from his uneasy slumber. A large group of people was moving through the woods, through the rain that poured down about his make-shift lean-to. He raised a hand to his face, and wiped away the sweat that clung to it like the air in his dream.
They’re coming this way, he thought, as the commotion grew louder. He started to worry, realizing that he was trespassing on this land, and wondering if perhaps the commotion was tied to him.
He started to move, peeking out from the branches he had arranged about him to ward off the night and rain, when he spotted a dark shape moving toward him, blotting out the clouds backlit by pre-dawn light that lined the sky. With his first breath, it drew near. On his second, the shape tripped in the night, and came barreling toward him.
Ærnich’s lean-to caved in with a crash, and the man fell on top of him. Realizing that this was the quarry of the mob that began to be visible through the fallen branches, Ærnich wrapped his arms around the man through the downed foliage. He felt one of the cut branches from his lean-to stab into his side, wincing internally as it pierced his flesh.
The unknown man began to struggle, and hissed out, “Let go of me!” Ærnich clamped one hand on his mouth, and was rewarded by biting teeth. His second arm pressed across the chest of the body atop him, then quickly moved lower, as he realized with a twinge of embarrassment that it was not a man at all that had fallen on him, but a woman.
“If you stop struggling, they will not find you,” he hissed. Realizing the truth in his voice, the woman atop him ceased her fight and lay still, as a few dozen men came into the clearing in front of the destroyed shelter.
Unable to spot their quarry, the mob slowed to a halt, and their clamor died down slightly. The rain was falling steadily, making it even more difficult to spot anything in the downpour, and soaking the hiding pair. The men milled about a bit, arguing with each other, until their volume rose again to its earlier levels.
Finally, a consensus seemed to be reached between the men, and they turned around to return the way they came. Ærnich only caught one word from the mob.
Hounds, he thought. The rain is slowing…soon they will be able to track us with hounds.
As soon as the last man left the clearing, the woman struggled again to break free. “Lie still,” he whispered hoarsely. “They may double back.”
“They will return with dogs to track me.”
“And we will move quickly from this place. They cannot return until the rain has stopped.”
“What do you care?” she snapped at him, but she stopped fighting again.
“I swear upon the blood that runs through me that I will protect you with all my power while you are in this forest,” he replied, and once again she heard the truth in his voice and stopped her struggles altogether.
∙ ∙ ∙
They moved quickly and quietly through the pre-dawn light. She led him away from the castle that they both knew was at the center of the wood. The rain, slowly petering out to a mere drizzle, would be enough to hide their scent, and as the dawn came, they approached a small river.
As the light grew, Ærnich was able to see his new companion more clearly. It did little good; she had a cloak drawn tight about her, and her face was covered by a dark cowl.
She turned to face him, as if looking at him for the first time. “You’re hurt,” she said, factually, and the wound in his side began to sting, as the shock began to wear off. He fell to one knee on the bank of the river, and she rushed over to support him.
“Remove your shirt,” she commanded, as she stripped of her cowl and cloak. He complied, watching her back as she took her cloak to the stream, ripping a few strips of fabric from it to wet. She wore hunting garb, loose trousers and a shirt. He grimaced as another bolt of pain shot up his side, and he crumpled over, groaning as he fell to his hands.
He felt a handful of wet cloth pressing against his wound, and looked up. He saw her face, seeming almost elfish, and smiled his gratitude. His vision started to dim, and he struggled to keep conscious as he noticed an odd thing about the front of her shirt.
It was covered in blood.
She noticed his fight with unconsciousness, and spoke. “My name is Serla. I thank you for saving my life.”
He stopped biting his tongue long enough to reply, with a hoarse, “Ærnich.”
She helped him to a sitting position and sat behind him. She began to tenderly clean his wound, giving him another strip of wet cloth. He wrung it out above his mouth and wet his dry throat with the water.
Serla was surprised at the being to which she was tending. His face appeared young, like a teenager’s, but his shoulders, arms, and back were well defined, almost chiseled into perfection. Then she saw them: two small scars that ran parallel down the middle of his upper back, a hand’s length long and four fingers apart. She placed his accent, then. “You soften your ch sound, young Ærnich, and you have the marks of the winging ceremony across your back. Are you a Malen-Seraph?”
He winced, and she could not tell if it was from her words or the wound, as he wrapped the now nearly-dry cloth about his bruised hand. “No. I am Lamen,” he replied, bitterness tingeing his voice.
“I thought all Lamen were pale as the moon, and had eyes of pink and the frailty of an elf.” Her arms crossed his stomach to bind his side.
“They do.” His curt tone warned her against further inquiry.
She ignored his warning. “If you are Lamen, why do you have the Malen-markings on your back? I thought only the Seraph could grow wings.”
He turned his head to affix an eye upon hers. “And all Lamen are white-skinned and frail,” he replied, sternly, and this time she remained quiet as she finished with his wound.
Her words had sent his mind spinning again. Malen. The word was appropriate to the situation; it meant “fallen” in his native tongue. Lamen, the superlative…one that had fallen as far as one can fall. He rose, admired the efficiency of her bandages, and turned to thank her.
He saw her eyes dart to a spot behind him, and he spun just as her arm rose. A glint of metal flew from Serla’s hand and crossed the small stream, landing home in the eye of a man who stood twenty paces from them at the tree line. A horn that was raised to his lips dropped from his hand, and the scout fell over, lifeless.
Ærnich whirled back to face her, his teenage eyes open wide. The blood on her shirt matched with the deadly throw, and conclusion jumped from his lips before he could control it. “You’re an assassin!” he nearly shouted, accusing.
Serla dropped down a crouch and spoke. “I am, Lamen. What of it?”
He kept his body relaxed and crossed his arms. Honestly, he wouldn’t know how to defend himself well if she did attack him; his combat training was limited, and this woman had already shown herself to be a deadly opponent. “I have sworn to you that I will protect you, and I never retract my word.”
Her stance softened as he did not present himself as a threat. “I can defend myself, Ærnich of the Lamen. I do not need your escort.”
He laughed then, a rich, hearty laugh that was stifled by the necessity of quiet. “I believe you, assassin. But a Seraph’s word is bond, and so I will follow you.”
“You are not a Seraph.” The steam was gone from her voice, and she began to stand.
“I do not know what I am,” Ærnich replied, and turned, picking up his shirt and pack. He crossed the river as he put on his shirt, and knelt next to the fallen body, unclipping the short sword at its belt. He looked up to see Serla over him, the rest of her cloak drawn about her, as he fastened the weapon to his own belt.
“I’ll hide the body,” Serla said, and she crouched to remove her knife from the corpse, cleaning it before replacing it in her sleeve. She started to lift it when a man shouted from a distance away.
Serla jumped, letting the body fall, and whirled to face the sound. They spotted him at the same time, a hundred paces up the stream, and simultaneously turned to sprint into the woods.
∙ ∙ ∙
They lost their pursuers, doubling back to move down the stream, erasing any smell they might leave. Ærnich spotted a berry bush, and they grabbed a few handfuls for a quick breakfast.
As they ate, Serla looked into the sky, judging the position of the sun. “It’s almost half-past rising,” she said aloud, causing Ærnich to look up.
“What happens at half-past rising?” Serla looked down at him, but said nothing. She turned and began to walk away.
“Hey,” he shouted. “You’re heading back toward the keep.”
“I have business near here,” she said, and continued out of range of his protests. Ærnich followed her, cursing under his breath at the vow he made.
She began to run again, and he followed her, barely able to keep her in sight. She moved faster than when they ran together, and it was all he could do to keep up with her. A few times he pondered stopping, and turning around, but he continued following her, his honor-filled pride too great to allow him to break his promise.
Finally, Serla burst out into a small clearing, and slowed to a walk. He slowed as well, and was about to shout to her through his panting breaths when he realized she was not alone in the glade.
She did not seem alarmed at the man’s presence, so he crouched before entering the clearing, and kept out of sight. The man in the glade smiled in Serla’s direction. Ærnich judged him to be a noble based on his clothing.
“The job is done,” Serla said. “You are now the Count of this land, and no blame has been placed upon you.”
“I hardly expected you to move in front of everyone,” he replied. “My father was a much loved man. You had to know the consequence would be the mob it was.”
“Conspiracies can be imagined by fearful people when a body is found dead in the night,” she quipped at him, speaking as if she quoting from a manual. “The job is done,” she repeated. “I want my pay.”
“Oh, you shall have your pay,” he replied, and her hand dropped to a hidden weapon at the venom in his voice.
Ærnich spotted the two men with their crossbows almost immediately after the conversation started. He knew their target was Serla, and as sick as the meeting made him feel, the burning weight of his oath compelled him to silently move toward them. When he saw them raising their crossbows to take the final bead on her, he lunged toward them and pushed one into the other, causing the bolts to fly errant. He used the surprise to his advantage, and followed his shove with a fist to each face, slamming the men back against trees with his powerful arms. They slumped to the ground, limp.
Serla was about to throw her dagger when the crossbow bolts whizzed by her head. One punched a ragged hole in the cowl beside her cheek; the second landed in the new Count’s chest. He shouted in shock, the air quickly escaping from his collapsing lung as he fell to the ground from the force of the impact. She whirled to deal with the threat behind her, and blinked in surprise when she saw Ærnich knock out the two would-be assassin-killers.
He looked up at her, and the conflict between his conscience and honor was plain to see. For a moment, she felt a stab of pity for this young thing, trapped between what he knew was right and what he felt he had to do. She immediately squashed the gratitude she felt as she had a hundred other times, and the pity dissipated.
“Do you have any other meetings I should know about?” His voice was accusing and bitter.
She searched for a witty response, and found none.
She turned back to the Count’s body, and frisked it, pulling out a small purse with coin in it. It was less than her promised fee, but it would have to do.
A cry arose nearby, alerted by the young noble’s dying shout, and the two ran back the way they came.
∙ ∙ ∙
This time, they couldn’t lose them. There was no stream to cover their scent, and the hounds tracked them as they ran through the woods.
“The stream!” Ærnich shouted over the braying of the dogs, and they veered right. They pushed branches and foliage out of the way, and Ærnich saw the thinning of the trees that indicated the brook. “This way!” he shouted, and burst out into the sunlight that enveloped the stream.
Three swords were there to meet him.
He stopped, looked at the men with their weapons raised, and turned, ready to double back. Three more men stood there. One held a dog, braying and barking, and another had his sword drawn. The third held a crossbow.
Serla was nowhere to be seen.
“You have no place to run, boy,” the one with the crossbow said. “Give us the girl. I do not know what business you have with her, but she is a murderer, and must be dealt with.”
“What girl?” Ærnich said, feigning ignorance.
The Captain of the men laughed. “Do not pretend you have no business here, boy. It is not an assassin’s way to overpower two men. She leaves a hole where an eye was.”
“I have sworn to protect her, before I knew what she was. I do not break my promises.”
“No, I don’t imagine you would,” the captain said. “Did she tell you she spent four weeks getting close to our Count before she put a knife into his heart?”
Ærnich took a step back as if struck. Still, he remained silent, and threw back his shoulders.
“Very well,” the Captain said, and raised his crossbow to take aim at Ærnich.
A sliver of metal flew past Ærnich’s head. It severed the string of the crossbow and continued on to land in one of the swordsmen’s arms. Ærnich drew the sword at his side and tumbled backward, spinning as he fell. He came up facing behind him, where two of the three swordsmen still stood.
He could hear Serla behind him now (or rather, heard the other men fighting her), and the two men leapt at him to attack, their shock overcome. He ducked one sword, and clumsily parried another, fervently praying that he lived through this battle. He was able to spin around the two and caught a glimpse of Serla fighting the Captain. She danced about his attacks, his blade catching nothing but pieces of her torn and ragged cloak, while she tried to move close enough for her short knife to be of any use. Her movements, feline and feral, distracted Ærnich, and he caught a hilt in his jaw. Everything faded from sight, and his body slumped to the ground.
∙ ∙ ∙
He came to on a rather lavish bed. He sat up, groaned, and clutched his wounded side, as he looked about at his surroundings. Two armed men stood at the door, watching him. One nodded to the other, and then slipped out of the room.
Ærnich watched the remaining guard, who kept both eyes locked on the wounded man. After a few minutes, the Captain he had faced off against earlier entered the room.
“Well, lad, it seems you’re finally awake.”
“Am I in the keep?” Ærnich asked.
“You are. The assassin told us what happened, how you were protecting her merely because you made an oath before you realized its implications. Since you killed none of the Count’s men, no crime can be brought to bear against you.”
“And the girl?”
“She will be sentenced in due time. You are no longer able to protect her, lad, and your promise has been kept. It is best to let the proper authorities here deal with her, now.”
Ærnich looked the Captain straight in his eyes, and saw the irritation in them.
“You are free to leave, young one. Indeed, we ask that you do so with great haste, and never return to these lands.”
Ærnich shrugged. Banishment made little difference to him; he was quite used to it by now. He stood and moved to his clothing, pulling his shirt from the chair on which it perched.
“I suggest you take the main road; it will be easier to travel than if you move through the woods.”
Ærnich snapped about to face the Captain, frowning his disapproval at the mockery in his voice. “Any other advice?” he asked.
“Learn from this, lad. Know that only because we have no Count do we want to trouble ourselves by bringing charges against you. And remember two things, lad: never let honor or the beauty of a woman cloud your judgment before you know the full extent of the situation.”
“And the second?” Ærnich asked, throwing his pack over his arm. He moved toward the door, and pushed past the Captain, who turned with him to keep his attention focused on Ærnich.
“Never make promises that you can’t keep, boy,” the Captain said, and walked away.