The idea for Daughter of Vengeance came to me in a very odd way. I was attending a funeral for a friend and during her eulogy, her brother-in-law told us how she had stopped breathing for a few seconds. After she’d been resuscitated, she told them that she’d seen the other side. When they asked what she’d seen, she told them “I’m not allowed to say.” I still get goosebumps when I think about it.
I thought that was a really compelling idea; what happens on the other side? Do our friends and family watch us? How? Why? Do they cheer, cringe, cry and celebrate with us? I wanted to imagine that afterlife and somehow incorporate it into a larger story.
Since I’ve always been a fan of the fantasy genre, I thought it would be fun to tell a story of a young lady who became apprenticed to an assassin. Because the whole story is told from her point of view, there are brief flashes into the afterlife as her father and other relatives watch her go through the trials of becoming an assassin for the King. Ultimately, she’s confronted by the ghosts of her past as the man who killed her father is one of the architects behind a plot to overthrow the King.
The first chapter sets the scene for our heroine, showing us how her parents died and how she was born from violence. We get to know her father and start to understand how the afterlife functions and how he will become obsessed with watching his little girl grow up without him.
Daughter of Vengeance
The atmosphere in the room was electric. Far too much time had passed since the family had gathered in this way. Many of them had changed subtly over the years, although Alexander was hard pressed to recall how. It had been over a decade since they had welcomed him to this special feast and the memory was still vibrant in his mind.
The passing years had been kind to him since that memorable day. He found a new career that gave him the peace of mind he could only have imagined before. He worked hard, walked his dog through the great sprawling parks, and took long naps on Sunday afternoons.
Life was quite good, he thought to himself.
This brought his mind back to the reason for this banquet.
His son had taken a different path than Alex had, though in his own way, he had emulated his fathers’ life. The lad had always been something of a lone wolf, and as such, took great pride in puzzling out all of life’s mysteries on his own. That being said, there were many people who thought of him often and the help he had given them when they needed it the most.
Recently, the boy had seen his twenty-third birthday and accomplished something Alex was very proud of. He’d found a girl who completed his life, and they were now expecting their first child. Of course, in his son’s estimation, nothing was ready for the baby. His job as the Duke’s personal blacksmith wasn’t good enough, there was far too little gold in the bank; he didn’t even have enough horses or a large enough carriage for his new family.
Alex chuckled as he watched Michael fret and worry about all of the things he felt weren’t ready. Dawn, his young bride, was more than ready, she also watched his anxiety with poorly concealed humor. Though no matter how many times Alex watched her ease his son’s mind, the lad was hell bent on his self-deprecation.
While the dangers weren’t extinct, most of them were quite far away from the sleepy town his son lived in. The dragons had long been silent, content to stay in their lairs and leave the towns in peace. No wars were brewing, all of the revolts had been dealt with, and the new Duke enjoyed visiting all of his holdings and ensuring his people were in good health. Even the warlocks were content to ply their trades and leave the larger ambitions to the politicians and the court of the King.
From time to time he would drop in and share a moment with Michael. The boy was so wrapped up in his own trials and tribulations that he didn’t always know he was there. Alex didn’t mind, though. What was important was that he was there, not the level of acknowledgement he received.
At any rate, all of those concerns and stresses were behind them now, or would be soon, as more family piled into the banquet room. Alex took a moment and looked around the room, enjoying the fact that the family was back together and recalling with fondness his own banquet. His parents walked in, followed closely by Alex’s older brother. He smiled, remembering their first meeting a decade ago.
Alex’s parents had given birth to a son before he and his sister had been born, though they had lost him to a strange illness only a few days later. It had been heartbreaking for the pair of them and they had waited years before having another child because of the pain. In the time Alex had been here, though, he and his brother had become quite close and shared many confidences.
Family, cousins, and old friends entered the room, each one milling about the room catching up with each other. The tables were gathered at the far end of the room, arranged in a large open rectangle so that everyone could see and talk to one another. Each table was loaded to the breaking point with all of his sons’ favorite foods. They groaned under the weight of pots of beet soup, mashed potatoes and steaks. Platters of steamed vegetables and corn on the cob sent steaming vapors up around them, filling the room with an enticing aroma.
As more people arrived, the volume picked up in intensity. Buzzing conversations broke out all over the room as old friends who hadn’t seen one another for years greeted each other with bear hugs, each trying to out squeeze the other. A hand fell on Alex’s shoulder.
“How are things, son?” A familiar voice inquired.
“Good, I think. I see Bernard is here.” Alex replied with interest as the newest arrival caught his eye.
There was a quiet murmur that went up of those assembled as a magician of unmistakable power walked into the room with a warm smile. Centuries ago, Bernard the Mage had been the most powerful practitioner of arts the world had ever seen. He had married a lovely woman of Alex’s bloodline and since that day, magical talent popped up from time to time in Bernard’s descendants.
His son, Michael, had a great deal of power, though only the warlock’s guild could have identified it. Thankfully, they were happily tucked away in their school near the capital miles away. His magical talent had probably been one of the reasons Michael had been such a sought after master when his apprenticeship had completed a few years ago. The Duke of Millet had won out the bidding, neither his salary offer, nor the land he’d given Michael had won over the young man. No, the reason he chose Millet was quite simply carrying his child now. Dawn had caught his eye as he rode through the township with the Duke.
“Yes, well, you have to admit, the boy has Bernard’s power.” His father Max said with a wink.
“It hasn’t done the boy any good though, has it?” Alex shot back with some annoyance. “It’s the reason we’re all gathered here.”
Max turned to regard his son, giving him the searching look that had always made Alex nervous as a child. He pointedly refused to make eye contact with his father, whom he knew could read him like a book.
“You aren’t supposed to know that.” Max accused.
“Perhaps not…” Alex replied evenly. “But I accept that it is Michaels turn, even though I would rather it wasn’t.”
Max sighed, looking back towards the throng of people gathered around the famous magician. Meanwhile, Alex looked down at his hands, capable of so many things, though completely powerless at the moment.
“I don’t think any of us want this, my boy, but it is necessary.” Max said before giving Alex another reassuring squeeze of the shoulder and walked back towards his wife.
“I know.” Alex admitted quietly to himself.
“The time is almost upon us ladies and gentlemen.” A robed and hooded man called from behind them as he directed them towards their seats.
Alex adjusted his leather bracers nervously and watched as his family and friends made their way to the tables. They had been placed in an open square configuration, making it easier for family and friends to all watch the action about to unfold as well as discuss it excitedly among themselves. When his son arrived, he would sit in the middle of the smaller table in the largest chair. This arrangement was a long-standing tradition and it was done so in such a way as to allow all of the guests to see and talk to the guest of honor with a minimum of shouting.
Alex’s head spun around as the entrance was shut and sealed behind him, signaling that all who were summoned had arrived. Anyone missing at this point had either moved on or decided to take another spin on the wheel. Alex walked towards the banquet tables slowly, observing the guests gathered there. At the head table Bernard sat at the far left with his wife, next to them was Alex’s mother and father. Next to them was the chair his son would soon occupy, followed by his own to its right. Seated next to his seat was his older brother and then Alex’s in-laws.
Typically the father and mother of the guest of honor would sit to his right and left, however Michael’s mother had elected to move on. Instead, they arranged the seating by virtue of the effect on the boys’ life. Seated at the larger tables was an array of friends and family, all of whom had taken part in their own banquets and were keen to share the experience with Michael, whom they all loved.
When his son had been a much younger man, he’d literally saved a handful of people from their own hand. Being a shoulder to those who needed it the most, the strength of his family line allowed him a much deeper well to draw from in times of great need. The jovial spirit was infectious as Alex took his seat and accepted an offered goblet of wine. He couldn’t help but look forward to seeing his son again, and looking around the table he saw his own excitement echoed in the faces of his family as well.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” The robed man began in the ritual fashion. “The time is nearly upon us. It is with deep honor that I present; Michael of Millet, son of Alex and Sonia of Camber and of the Bernard line.”
With the last pronouncement, Bernard smiled smugly to everyone’s amusement. The old magician was a vain man, but nothing he did smacked of cruelty or pride. Alex wondered if he would be more vain if he possessed such power. He hadn’t been blessed with much of his own. He had, perhaps, a faint empathic ability to sense people’s emotions in a very crude fashion at best. Others around the table were far more magically able; his son Michael was the most powerful since Bernard himself. The boy had never shown the desire to fully explore that power and was quite happy as a blacksmith, which was the thing about him that made Alex the most proud. Firstly, he had none of the ambitions Alex had been plagued with, and secondly, that despite the stresses of his current situation, he was happy with his life in a way Alex hadn’t known.
The smooth wall twisted and bent until a clear image of Michael materialized on it amidst cheers from around the table. Everyone toasted the guest of honor as they raised their wine goblets and drained them. Servants, all in robes similar to the host, made themselves busy refilling the empty glasses in anticipation for another toast. Magically the sound of Michaels world surrounded the banquet guests, allowing them all to hear and see the things going on with and around their guest of honor.
It was early morning in the township of Millet, and Michael had left his horse at home today. The day was clear and warm and he felt the need to enjoy a relaxing walk to work. He entered the gates of town, inspecting out of the corner of his eye the hinges of the gate he had created. As instructed, the men-at-arms had been diligent in their lubrication and cleaning of the hinges, and they looked exactly as they had been the day they’d been cast.
It wasn’t every town that possessed a weighted gate after all, but Michael had invented the hinges in the middle of the night. He’d been unable to sleep and had been watching his wife dream when the idea came to him. After presenting the plans to Duke Samuel, he’d begun construction of the large gate and the sally port behind it. Construction was still on-going of a moat between the original reinforced brick wall and the new cut stone wall built ten feet away. The plan was to create a drawbridge that could support a dozen or so mounted cavalry over the moat. Should the Duke need to, he could have the bridge raised, creating a ten-foot wide impenetrable moat where his archers could then pick off attackers at their leisure. It also kept sappers at bay since the best they could hope for would be to gain purchase onto the stone wall, which also gave the Duke’s archers an advantage.
The advent of the gate and the drawbridge had made Michael something of a minor celebrity in the town. Though he loathed excessive attention, he was quite proud of his work. The guards nodded their greeting and the captain of the watch gave him a crooked smile and a wink as he walked past the small jailhouse and guard office at the base of the old wall.
He walked through town, silently going over the checklist the midwife had given him the night before. Midwife was a relative term, since Dawn’s aunt had volunteered to help her with the delivery of their baby. The girls estimated that the baby would arrive any day now, and he needed to ensure that he had all of the supplies they would require. His first stop before work would be the apothecary who had some sweet grass his wife could chew, alleviating the worst of the labor pains. Next, he needed to stop at the general store for silk thread and a large needle…the necessity of which he didn’t care to contemplate. Finally, he wanted to stop at Gregory’s Clothing Shoppe for all of the baby clothes, blankets and bassinet he had commissioned the old man to create for him.
Michael planned to make a quick stop at the statue of the blessed lady to make a votive offering for the health of his wife and child. It wasn’t that he believed in that superstitious non-sense, but his wife and mother-in-law had made him promise to do so. He doubted very much the Gods cared one hair for his wife and child, but he relented, as it was just much simpler to placate them than convince them of anything.
“Ah, Michael!” The apothecary greeted warmly as he entered his shop. “Good day to you. How are the wife and babe this fine morn?”
Michael smiled in spite of his worry. “They are both quite well, thank you.” He replied. “I came for the sweet grass you told me about.”
“Excellent!” The shopkeeper clapped his hands together loudly.
Quickly he shuffled towards the back of his shop, allowing Michael the chance to look around again. The young man was always impressed that the shopkeeper could find anything in this mess. Herbs hung from the ceiling at odd heights, jars of the Gods only knew what, aged on shelves poorly assembled in front of the windows, casting an eerie light into an already strange store. Still, these things were necessary to fight off infections and maladies he supposed, so he needn’t understand or be overly comfortable with their arrangement.
“Aha!” He heard the man yell from the back. “There’s that rascal.”
Michael fervently hoped the man spoke of the herbs and not some actual rodent of some sort. The apothecary walked back and placed a small leather pouch on the counter and next to it a small jar of white cream.
“The sweet grass can be chewed during the labor, and the cream is to…well…your midwife will know what it’s for.” He chuckled with a wink.
Michael shook his head with a bemused laugh as he put four gold coins down on the counter.
“No, no. This is far too much, young man.” The apothecary said in a mock serious tone, pushing two of the coins back towards Michael.
“Thank you very much.” The young man replied, pocketing the coins.
He picked up his purchases and left the shop, heading back out onto the busy morning street. After a quick stop at the general and clothing stores he carried a large bundle of merchandise up towards the keep and his forge. Many of the citizens in town nodded their greeting as he took the long winding way up towards the fortified home of the Duke.
The guards at the gate into the keep nodded their greeting and he quickly made his way to the forge where he could leave his purchases in the room normally assigned to an apprentice. The blacksmiths guild had yet to send an apprentice to him, though from time to time soldiers would come and lend a hand if he had need. Today was going to be a somewhat slow day. He had perhaps a handful of training swords needing repair and the Knight-Captain’s breastplate required a complete strip down and rebuild.
Without any distractions, other than his errant worries over the health of his wife and unborn child, he was able to complete his day’s work before the noon meal. He removed his heavy leather apron and untied the cords around his knees that kept the apron on his lap. He stood up straight and noticed in a freshly polished blade that he was again, quite filthy.
Not wanting to incur the wrath of the cook’s wife in the Keep, he dunked his head in a bucket of clean water and took a bar of harsh soap to his hands, arms and face. Judging himself just clean enough, he grabbed his sword belt and leather jacket from its hook and headed around the back of the Keep and into the servants’ entrance to the kitchen.
As usual, the kitchen was abuzz with workers preparing the evening meal already. A thick stew hung over the fire in the corner, several loaves of bread and a large block of cheese rested on a table nearby. As was his custom, Michael dipped his bowl into the stew, tore off half a loaf of bread, and cut a large chunk of cheese off the block and took a seat at the counter facing the cook’s preparation area.
The cook wasn’t present, though this wasn’t unheard of. From time to time, he was invited to dine with the Duke and his wife, though it usually tended to be during the more informal noon meal.
“It’s about time!” A harsh voice called from the door to the dining hall.
Michael spun in his seat, dropping his bread on the floor and cursing quietly. The cook stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips. A comical sight considering he could just as easily had them at his sides and they would be in the same place. To say he was a large man would have been a horrible understatement. He was a quiet man for the most part, though in his kitchen, he was a boisterous commander and everyone, no matter their rank, was his subservient penitent.
“What?” Michael said, swallowing a mouthful of hot stew.
“What do you mean what?” He said in mock outrage. “You’re supposed to take the noon meal with the Duke today.”
Michael swore under his breath.
“Indeed,” The cook shot “Get another loaf and get out there, oaf.”
Michael sheepishly gathered up his bowl and cheese, grabbed the other half of the loaf left on the table and walked through the doorway into the Duke’s dining hall. A long oak table dominated the room, far too large to have been brought in here in one piece, though looking as though it was. Scattered along the table were pewter jacks of ale, glass jugs of wine and several platters of the very faire he had walked in carrying.
The Duke sat in the middle of the long part of the table, his wife on his left and Knight-Captain Thompson, leader of the Duke’s armies, on his right. He smiled uncomfortably as he took a seat across from the Duke and mouthed a quick apology to the Duke and his wife as the Knight-Captain continued their conversation.
“…the new recruits are coming along nicely and those men we received from your cousin, Duke Phillip, are integrating well with our men.” Thompson reported.
“Excellent. Well done, Captain.” The Duke commented. “How is our young blacksmith this morning?” He said, turning his attention to Michael.
The young man was instantly glad he had taken the extra precaution of washing up before coming in to eat. The Duke wore his favorite riding leathers and his wife was in one of her older dresses, inappropriate for formal diners, but apparently still one of her favorites. He smiled guiltily at the Duke and his wife.
“My apologies, your Grace.” He stammered. “Noon meal completely slipped my mind.”
The Knight-Captain laughed out loud, placing his pewter mug of ale on the table. “No doubt due to the breast plate I asked him to fix for me, my Lord.” He said with a friendly smile cast towards the young blacksmith.
Thompson was an older man, being in his late forties, though he still carried himself well and was more than able to give a raw recruit a verbal and physical trouncing if he stepped out of line. In fact, the only man who didn’t cower when the large Knight-Captain was around was one of his corporals, an immense young man, about Michael’s age. He seemed to have nothing but contempt for everyone.
Michael couldn’t comprehend the corporals’ ill humor, though he suspected it had something to do with Dawn. Around the same time as Michael’s arrival in Millet, Wesley had been promoted from man-at-arms to corporal. Along with the promotion came a small stipend and rank in the Duke’s court. The young corporal had immediately set his sights on Dawn, though neither she, nor her father seemed inclined to accept his advances and offers of marriage.
In a province as small as Millet though, the options were lean to say the very least and until the day of Michael’s arrival, Dawn was beginning to seriously think about the offers. When Michael was hired as Duke Samuel’s personal blacksmith, he not only received stipend, land, and rank in the court, but he was elevated above the corporal in status. Since then, his abilities and inventions had earned Michael more than a little favor in the eyes of the Duke and his closest counselors, including his wife who loved Dawn as though she was her own daughter.
Their wedding had been hastily put together, though the Duke insisted on performing the ceremony himself. This also raised the ire of the young corporal. He seemed to take the news as a personal affront and had, since that day, hated Michael with every fiber of his being. However, the rest of the enlisted men had nothing but respect for the young blacksmith. Michael had not only taken on all of their armor and weapon repairs, but he had created stronger, sharper swords, more protective armor and a few siege weapons that kept them all alive.
“You can come by after the noon meal and try it on, Captain.” Michael said with a grateful smile.
While he was part of the Duke’s staff and granted many boons the common citizens lived without, he was still very uncomfortable in the presence of nobles. Michael’s father had always taught him that men are men, no matter their station; treat them with respect and honor and you’ll receive the same in return.
“I’ll do just that, Michael. Thank you.” The Captain said, lifting his mug in Michael’s direction with a smile.
The rest of the noon meal passed amicably. When at all possible, the Duke preferred an informal atmosphere. As such the four of them talked as though they were all of the same station well past the noon hour. Michael and the Captain excused themselves so they could return to the forge and examine the blacksmith’s work.
Michael had re-forged the breastplate, refusing to simply reinforce the weak spots. While he was at it, he relined the inside of the plate with a new leather vest as the old one had begun to fray and wear in places. By the time the Captain had it on he simply refused to remove it. Smiling widely, Thompson left, only after Michael would take a gratuity for his extra work.
The afternoon passed quickly with Michael occupying his time constructing a new bed frame for his child when he or she became old enough to use it. Before too long the afternoon bell rang, announcing the supper hour was near. Michael retrieved his bundle from the apprentices’ room and began the leisurely walk back to his home just outside of the town walls.
Michael backed up a step as Corporal Wesley came out of the guard’s office at the base of the old wall, one hand on the hilt of the dagger he kept at his side, and glaring at him. The young blacksmith took a step forward only to have the corporal block his path. Still light hearted from an excellent day, Michael looked up into the taller man’s eyes.
“Excuse me.” He said in even tones.
“Did you hear me?” The corporal sneered. “Bastard?”
He sighed, knowing that another confrontation with the angry giant of a man was about to unwind, again. Lowering his bundle gently onto the cobblestone pathway, he raised himself to his full height. Blacksmithing wasn’t a small man’s calling, by any stretch of the imagination, and Michael’s six feet in height was amplified by his broad shoulders and powerful arms. Still, he lacked the physical size of the corporal being that his eyes came up to the young soldier’s chin.
Corporal Wesley was also one of the few soldiers who preferred a large double bladed war ax. In his hands the weapon could just as easily cave a man’s head in as it could decapitate or maim him permanently. Michael preferred a simple long sword, one of his own design, which was well balanced and easy to both thrust and parry with, for all the good it would do against a war ax.
“Yes, I heard you. I simply chose not to heed your ignorance.” Michael replied.
Another lesson at the knee of his father had been quite simple; respect is earned, not given freely. That respect would probably have been easier to earn if he hadn’t stolen the corporal’s woman from him, in Wesley’s estimation at any rate. Michael had played this dangerous game with his larger opponent several times, and though he didn’t look forward to these confrontations, they were regular as the sunrise.
“Is that a fact?” Wesley answered through clenched teeth.
“It is. Now, move aside.” Michael answered calmly.
“Problems here?” Someone called over the corporal’s shoulder.
“None, sir.” Wesley answered, never taking his eyes off Michael. “One day.” He said quietly to the young blacksmith.
“What’s that? You’ll learn how to bathe regularly?” Michael asked innocently. “Please do.” He said, making a show of pinching his nose as he retrieved his bundle.
Michael nodded to the Sergeant who had intervened with a wry grin as he set off over the drawbridge. He could hear the dressing down the corporal was getting, but refused to turn and watch, regardless of how much he wanted to. Half a mile up the road, he came to his house, a simple bungalow of wood and stone with a thatched roof. The garden in front of the house emitted a pleasant mix of roses, raspberries and earth. A carriage was tethered to the fence, a sure sign his in-laws were visiting their daughter inside. Michael smiled, in spite of his current mood and walked into his home.
A pleasant supper with his wife and in-laws was followed by Michael and his father-in-law, Grant, in front of the fireplace, enjoying smoking their pipes as they discussed things of little consequence. The women discussed the coming pregnancy as Dawn and her mother unpacked the bundle of supplies Michael had brought back from town.
“So, have you given any thought to names?” Grant asked between puffs.
“I have to admit that I haven’t.” Michael admitted. “I didn’t want to become too attached to one over another. I suppose I’ll know once I see the child.”
Grant nodded his approval as they continued to puff away on their pipes, allowing the chattering of the women to entertain them as they stared off into the flames. The sun was beginning to set as Dawn fussed around the house, lighting candles.
“Michael!” A rumbling shout called from outside.
It was too good to last all night Michael supposed. Sighing, he rose to his feet as Grant pulled his pipe out of his mouth with a look of concern. The young man pulled his sword belt and jacket down from the coat rack beside the door. After he’d tied off his belt he walked over to his worried wife and kissed her on the cheek.
“You and your mother go to town, and fetch the Knight-Captain.” He instructed.
Terrified, but resolute, she nodded quietly and pulled her mother out through the back door. Grant finished tying off his belt and looked up at his son-in-law.
“Stay inside.” Michael said quietly.
“The hell I will.” Grant objected.
“You will.” Michael replied sharply. “If anything happens to me, take care of the child.”
His father-in-laws shoulders noticeably dropped and he nodded hesitantly. Michael patted him on the shoulder before he pulled the door open and walked out into his front yard. Wesley was intoxicated and barely able to keep himself erect as he leaned heavily against Michael’s fence.
“What do you want now?” The blacksmith asked.
“I want my damned life back you bastard!” Wesley shouted with a distinct slur.
“You’re drunk.” Michael stated bluntly. “And even when you aren’t, you’re an overbearing brute. They never would have given you permission to marry their daughter anyway.”
“Shut up!” The corporal screamed.
“Do yourself a favor, and go sleep it off, get used to the idea that she isn’t yours and move on with your life.” He continued.
“SHUT…UP!” The young soldier screamed in a crazed voice.
In a motion that was far too fast for someone that drunk, the corporal pulled his dagger from its sheath and dove towards Michael. The blacksmith sidestepped the clumsy thrust and grabbed a hold of the larger man’s collar, pulling him backwards. His legs kicked up underneath him and he landed with an audible grunt on the stones leading up to their front door.
With a shout, he leapt to his feet and pulled the ever-present war ax from his back and swung it wildly at Michael’s neck. The young blacksmith stepped back and slapped the back of the Corporal’s hand with the flat of his blade. The ax clattered across the stones and kicked up dirt as it came to rest in Dawn’s garden.
Wesley pulled his sword from its sheath with his off hand and advanced more slowly this time. He watched Michael’s body language and began judging distances as he approached. Wesley’s sword came in high; Michael parried and ducked under as Wesley stumbled past him. The larger man shouted in frustration and aimed his sword point at Michael’s chest and ran forwards recklessly. Michael batted aside the blade as he stepped forward, allowing Wesley to stumble and fall on his face.
A scream from behind him startled Michael and he turned to see what had caused the shout. Dawn’s mother had her pregnant daughter cradled against her chest as she rocked back and forth, sobbing uncontrollably. The blacksmith dropped to his knees and crawled forward towards his wife. Wesley’s sword protruded from her chest, and her breaths came in ragged gasps as she reached up and touched the side of his face.
Her hand dropped as her strength began to fade. Anger Michael had never known existed inside him burst forth like a flood breaking through a dam too weak to hold back the destruction.
In one fluid motion, he leapt to his feet and ran towards Wesley, kicking the shocked soldier in the face. The larger man fell backwards as the sound of his nose breaking echoed around them. It was hardly enough to quench the anger that overwhelmed Michael though and he stomped on the larger man’s face again, driving his nose down to a bulbous nub of cartilage and blood.
Corporal Wesley’s shock wore off after the third or fourth kick, and he scooped Michael’s legs out from underneath him. The blacksmith landed hard, driving the air out of his lungs as he collided with the stone walkway to his house. Michael blinked tears out of his eyes and was back on his feet in moments. Wesley had rolled over quickly where his hand found the hilt of his ax. He stood slowly, lifting the ax with him. The Corporal smiled as he readjusted his grip on the hilt.
He swung the ax in a high arc, aimed at Michael’s neck. The smaller man ducked under the powerful blow, slashing the large corporal’s ribs as he dodged past him. The corporal stumbled forwards a few steps, intoxication still robbing him of his dexterity. Michael followed up with a quick thrust into Wesley’s stomach as the larger man turned around.
Michael’s sword bit into the larger mans stomach, sinking inches into the solid mass. Wesley looked down at the sword sticking out of his stomach as a line of blood mixed saliva dripped out of the corner of his mouth. His ax fell from limp fingers, but with a growl of anger his left hand snapped out and grabbed a hold of Michael’s hands and pulled the sword in deeper.
A sick smile crossed the large man’s face, as he pulled his dagger out of its sheath and drove it into Michael’s chest. The point of the dagger cut into Michael’s left lung and finally punctured his heart. The searing agony was brief as the young blacksmith dropped to his knees and fell sideways. As the lights faded from his eyes, he saw his mother-in-law working furiously to free his child from the womb of his murdered wife.
“Ooooh!” Several guests shouted in sympathy.
“Now, that is an excellent death!” Bernard shouted over the din, toasting the wall with his glass of wine.
Several family and friends around the table exchanged bemused glances as others laughed outright. This was a morbid sort of humor that Alex could appreciate. His own death had been to disease and hardly the thing of heroic tales or legends. Pride was such an odd notion when one witnessed a son’s death, yet there it was. Already the wall began to fade out as Dawn’s aunt leapt from horseback and rushed forward to help deliver his grandchild into the land of the living.
They had snipped the baby’s umbilical cord and slapped the child into crying in moments. Despite the violence of her birth, all was still going according to plan. The child’s future was in the hands of her grandparents now, though Alex had supreme faith in their ability. Perhaps at twelve the young lady would show signs of magical powers that they couldn’t comprehend, then again, perhaps she would live a life of simple pleasures as her father had. Fate had yet to toss the dice on her future, though she would have one. Somewhere else in the after life there was a banquet just like this one for Dawn, but here and now Death was bringing his son back to him.
The large entrance doors parted way and a bright light shone into the room surrounding the silhouette of a young man with large shoulders. Alex stood up from his seat, as was tradition since the dawn of time, and went to invite his son into the banquet to celebrate his life amidst the wild cheers of his dead ancestors and friends.
Michelle sat on her cot, staring out at the gathering storm clouds through the barred window of the concubine’s chamber. She made another mark on the wooden frame of her bed, her way of counting the days since she’d been beaten, drugged and brought here against her will. Today marked eight months and she was more upset than her usual sullen self, though understandably so. It was her turn.
She knew that most men found her attractive, which was likely the reason for her abduction. Her startling green eyes seemed to further excite her captor as did her slight figure. Michelle still possessed a child’s face, plump in the cheeks and unmarked by the stresses and challenges of life. Her open and innocent face had also been remarked upon by more than just her jailers.
While in the concubine’s chamber, she was relatively happy, or as happy as one could be as a prisoner. Every time the guards unlocked the door and the cry of un-oiled hinges echoed off of the walls, Michelle flinched and threw herself under the covers. It was a vain attempt to deny what had happened to her and the harsh reality of what her life had become. The thought of his touch made her physically ill.
Outside of the chamber though, her life was anything but happy. His appetites were disgusting and she was forced to do things she’d rather not contemplate. When she refused to viciously, Lorein was keen to toss her to the guards for their sport as a way to break her spirit. This plan more or less worked as she continued to look out of the window. As the sun began to crest the horizon, tears gathered in her eyes. Michelle considered how she had come to be in this situation and she continued to berate herself for not being more cautious.
The day had started off innocently enough, just another day as the apprentice to a seamstress. It was a job her grandmother had arranged for her a few months ago. Actually, her grandmother had been the master seamstress’s teacher, so it was only natural to pass along the skills of her family line.
Michelle walked slowly to work in the center of the town square. She’d been awake before sunrise again and had begun her trek to the tailor’s shop early. The road into town was always full of farmers bringing their produce into the city for the markets, but she made quick progress on foot. After she was waved through the gates of the town, it was a quick journey down the cobblestone streets of Millet. The lamps all along the street were being extinguished by the day constables as she made her way.
She wasn’t in a very good mood that morning. Her apprenticeship wasn’t going as well as anyone had hoped. It wasn’t as though Michelle didn’t have talent. Since she was very young, she’d taken to knitting, sewing and mending with a fervor that had pleasantly surprised her grandmother. There were times when Michelle could knit things that her master was hard pressed to duplicate, and yet at other times she struggled with the basics.
Most of the people in her life gave her more chances than those of her age were granted. Of course, this was largely due to her rough childhood. Her grandparents loved her as though she was their own child and in many ways, she was. It was commented on more than one occasion though, that she had talent with her hands that rivaled her fathers, though with none of his patience.
A few months ago, on the day of her eleventh birthday, her grandmother and aunt took her by the hand and walked her into town. They lived on a farm just outside of Millet, a small city and namesake of the Duchy of Millet. Michelle had rarely ventured off of her family’s farm, being content to play with the chickens and dogs rather than any children of her own age. Any friends she did make would quickly stop coming around once their parents met Michelle. Strange things always seemed to happen to and around her, especially when she was nervous.
Children her own age paid no mind to her odd behavior or the odd things that seemed to always happen around her. As was often the case, children cared less about propriety and put more weight in the heart they showed. Their parents, though, were leery to the point of prejudice against her. She was special, or so her grandmother continued to tell her. She’d been born terribly early and as a young child had many illnesses that ravaged her body. By the time she was eight, she’d spent almost half her life in bed with one malady or another.
She always had trouble being outdoors. If she didn’t trip over her own feet and injure herself, then pollen in the air caused sneezing fits that practically rendered her blind. She could enjoy none of the things other children took for granted. When a school was opened in Millet, she’d tried to attend classes with the other children. Strange things continued to happen to and around her though, and her tutelage hadn’t lasted long. She fell off a swing that was barely moving and broke her arm, playing hide and seek resulted in her almost drowning when the tide came in. Eventually, her grandparents decided that she should stay near home for her own safety.
On her tenth birthday, she’d been bedridden with a terrible fever. Her aunt, a midwife and healer, had come to see her. She applied cream to Michelle’s forehead, followed by a steaming cup of broth and orders to get as much sleep as possible. For several weeks she woke late in the night, covered in sweat and became exhausted after only a few hours of being awake. A few months after her tenth birthday she woke up as the first rays of sunlight bathed her room with an orange glow. Her fever was gone, her stiff joints felt loose and light. It was as though she’d been wrapped and tied in burlap and was now finally free.
By the time her grandparents had woken up, the young girl had made a batch of her grandfathers favorite porridge, milked the one dairy cow they had and retrieved all of the eggs from the chicken coop. The most amazing thing to her was that even after those chores, she felt incredible and full of energy. After breakfast, Michelle and her grandmother walked into town to visit her aunt.
She had sensed that her grandmother was very concerned about her sudden change in health. After over an hour of her aunt poking and prodding her with her healers’ tools, her aunt announced that Michelle was in perfect health. More, all of her maladies had somehow disappeared. Michelle’s irregular heartbeat, her shortness of breath, even her aches and pains and chronic headaches seemed to have completely vanished.
Michelle excitedly began attending classes with the other village children. Yet, it always seemed that the cloud of mistrust continued to follow her around and odd occurrences became quite common. Never again did they affect her health in any way, though the other children largely kept their distance. Their parents were still leery of her strange behavior and were worried that she would infect their children with whatever had ravaged her those ten years.
Still, attending school had been a boon for the young lady. It gave her something to look forward to. She had her lessons, and many of them, she excelled at. Anything that had to do with her hands came to her easily. Crafts of all kinds were so simple for her to accomplish with next to no instruction.
Michelle often found herself defending her homework after her teacher began to question the excellent quality of her work above that of her classmates. Her teacher couldn’t help but be suspicious of a girl who had been bedridden for most of her life and showed such promise. For the most part, her abilities engendered a feeling of jealousy in her classmates, those who weren’t jealous of her pretended to be; in order fit in with everyone else.
Before too long though, her schooling was complete and she was back at home getting underfoot at every turn. It was partly out of exasperation and partly because all the other young people from Millet had already been apprenticed for a year or more that her grandmother and aunt arranged for Michelle to be apprenticed to the master seamstress.
At first her natural skills with her hands enabled her to learn quickly. However, after a few weeks her master began to worry that despite the child’s undeniable skills, the rumors that had reached her about her strange abilities might be true. Worse than that, her master had voiced on more than one occasion that the only explanation for her innate abilities was magical talent.
Should those rumors make their way to the local guild of the Magi, she would be removed from the only family she had left and spirited away to their stuffy halls. Women magic users were mostly treated with a sort of abject servitude to the men. While the whole kingdom enjoyed equality, the Magi tended to be male dominated. The few women who did exhibit exceptional power either escaped or were destroyed utterly.
The women who didn’t though, they attended the daily needs of the master warlocks. For the most part, those servile tasks included mending, cooking, and cleaning. Other times the masters chose women to be placed with a powerful mage as a way to breed more powerful magic users. This made them no more than a glorified whore in most cases. Ironically, while working at the front counter one morning that was precisely what had come to pass.
A man dressed in fine clothes had entered the shop just moments after she had unlocked the front door and flipped over the engraved wooden ‘open’ sign. At this hour in the morning, most people needed a quick mend to a seam or cuff that Michelle could do quite easily. She walked forward to greet the man, her measuring tape around her neck and a sliver of chalk clutched in her left palm.
“May I help you, sir?” She asked pleasantly.
Michelle never allowed her personal state of mind interfere with her job. Even on her worst days, the clients of the tailoring shop would never know.
The man smiled widely. He was handsome, in a dandy sort of way. His deep blue silk vest was decorated with fine embroidery with a riot of colors, making the vest look more like a work of art than clothing. The blue of his vest made his equally blue eyes all the more vivid. His over tunic and slacks were made of fine suede, dyed black and trimmed in silver ribbon. He had long dirty blonde hair that was graying at the temples, which was tied back loosely with ribbon that matched the trim of his clothing.
“I was looking for some new clothing my dear.” He replied. His voice was clear and deep, like that of a stage performer.
“Certainly, sir. You’ll find all of the current stock over here.” She explained as she smiled and pocketed the chalk.
She turned to escort him to the racks of clothing beside the counter when something very hard hit her in the back of the head and she lost consciousness. Some hours later she woke inside a carriage. The handsome dandy sat across from her, smiling at her. The way he looked at her made her skin crawl.
“Ah, good. You’re awake.” He said evenly. “My dear, I have a most exciting proposition for you.” The dandy explained. “You are to be given an excellent opportunity.”
Pieces of a puzzle began to assemble in her mind and she began to panic. She could see his thoughts and plans for her in his mind and it terrified her all the more. Michelle’s eyes began to shoot around the carriage, looking for possible avenues of escape as her alarm began to overwhelm her.
“Calm down my sweet.” The dandy said softly, as though speaking to a skittish horse. “I’d hate to damage such lovely property.”
“I am no property of yours!” She shrieked.
Her captor sighed theatrically as he pulled the stopper from his flask and spilt some of the liquid on a rag he retrieved from his vest pocket.
“Have it your way.” He remarked in an almost bored fashion.
His tone left no doubt in her mind, this man meant her harm in a way that no woman should be harmed, let alone one as young as Michelle. She tried to kick the flask out of his hand, only to discover that her legs were bound to the padded bench she sat on. She launched herself forward, but the metal of the restraints bit into her tender flesh and pulled her off balance. With nowhere else to go, she painfully fell backwards and her head cracked against the carriage wall.
Already knocked senseless, the dandy sighed as he backhanded her across her face. She fell back against the bench again as lights danced in front of her eyes. Dazed, she tried to rise, but he was too fast and leapt on top of her and smothered her with the rag. She began to cry as she lost consciousness.
Michelle vaguely remembered rough hands, definitely not the hands of the dandy, reach into the carriage and yank her out some time later. She was roughly tossed over an immense shoulder and marched into a stone building of some sort. Unable to focus, Michelle’s vision faded in and out as the large man walked through several hallways and up three flights of stairs. At some point she vomited all over his back and smiled in satisfaction as he began to swear under his breath. She was thrown onto a cot and the man stormed out of the room, still cursing as he slammed a large wood and metal door and locked it.
Her first week here, she’d been bound and gagged and half dragged to the dandy’s personal chambers. Michelle tried in vain to forget what had happened next. There were times when she woke up screaming in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. The other concubines, pleasure slaves really, would yell at her to be silent. Michelle often cried herself back to sleep, pulling her legs up to her chest and sobbing uncontrollably.
Several more visits, all similar to her first, followed in the next few weeks. The dandy, a minor Earl in a province to the south of Millet called Fraterre, enjoyed making his women cry. He also enjoyed when they cried his name, which Michelle stubbornly refused to do. Lorein, which was the dandy’s name, was the Earl of Blanc Roche and used his title to ceaselessly get his way. She was encouraged to play to the Earl’s demands, or was warned that the beatings would continue.
Lorein had favorites and tormenting her was high on his list of twisted desires for some time. He called for her daily and after the third such week of treatment, Michelle began to shut her mind off when she was with him. The last time Lorein summoned her, Michelle’s refusal to cry or whimper when he raped her angered him greatly. He beat her savagely and it took the palace midwife three days to stop the bleeding from several rather nasty wounds he’d inflicted on her.
Here she lay now though, crying silently as she ignored the other women in the room and stared out at the sun disappearing behind the black clouds. The last of her wounds were healing, the stinging ointment stank and tinted her skin brown. Michelle had to admit, the midwife was quite gifted. Probably due to the level of experience she gained working for the Earl, she supposed.
If Michelle was lucky, there was another week of bed rest in her future. If not, she’d likely be dragged back to the Earl’s rooms, kicking and screaming sooner rather than later. Michelle was done with being passive; she was done with being victimized. She would either escape or die in the attempt. The other concubines told stories of times when they’d tried to escape. One of the girls had been handed over to the regular army for a week. By the time she’d returned, she had been used so savagely by the soldiers that she was simply tossed off of the Earl’s tower. Pretty girls were easy to come by for a man related to the crown, even as distantly as Lorein was.
She couldn’t understand how the end of her days could come to pass this way. Her life had never been very easy, but things were finally starting to come together for Michelle and this wasn’t the end that one hears about when stories are told around a fire. Michelle sighed, attempting to regain her composure, and wiped the tears out of her eyes clumsily. Over the last few weeks, between waking nightmares, she sharpened the chalk she’d kept from the moment of her capture. She worked one side of the disc-like piece of chalk into a sharp point and planned on using it in some way to affect her escape.
The guards regularly searched the concubine’s chambers, constantly checking for weapons. When they came upon her chalk they simply accepted her explanation that only sharp chalk could properly mark the silk the women wore for adjustments. Michelle had quickly learned a glaringly obvious thing about men; if you act innocent enough, most of them will bend to your will…especially if you can produce some tears.
The midwife came back into the room and quietly made her way over to Michelle’s cot.
“How are you feeling today, my dear?” She asked kindly.
Michelle scoffed, making an inarticulate sound somewhere between a chuckle and a curse word. The old woman set about checking on her dressings, clicking her tongue impatiently as she admonished the girl half heartedly for removing some of the bandages.
“These will never heal properly if you keep scratching them.” The midwife scolded. “How pretty will you be covered in scars?”
“That bastard doesn’t care what I look like…so long as I cry and scream when he wants me to!” Michelle shouted, cracking her chapped lips in the process.
She whimpered in spite of herself, sucking on her bottom lip to soothe the burning, she could taste the salty bitterness of her own blood. Other concubines cast her baleful looks as the room became uncomfortably silent. The midwife looked into her eyes, concern clearly evident on her old features.
“There, there.” She said softly as she applied some ointment to Michelle’s’ cracked lips.
There was a loud slam outside the concubines’ chamber, which roused the few slaves who were sleeping and caused a pair of girls to knock over the table they were playing chess on. The room fell deathly silent, broken up only by the sound of the expensive marble and onyx chess pieces rolling around on the stone floor.
Michelle head snapped around and she shot straight in her bed, ignoring the pain of several wounds stretching past the level of comfort. Of the usual two dozen or so slave girls, only five were in the room presently. This confused her for a moment before she remembered that the Earl was hosting a rather large gathering of his disgusting friends this week. Many of her fellow concubines had been lent to his guests as gifts for their patronage.
Ridiculous stories and rumors about Lords finding their future matrons and wives among the concubines of Lorein had been circulating since before Michelle had arrived at the Earl’s palace. The vapid slave girls sounded rather like wards and foster children, speaking of some child or another of royal birth who’d arrived at their low state by mere happenstance. Michelle tried not to be overly harsh with them, but her more pragmatic view of the world often showed its ugly side at their gossiping.
Growing up as Michelle did, an outcast even among her friends, she’d long ago put aside childish desires and dreams and adopted a more cynical view of the world. It was far more likely that a visiting Lord simply killed the slave he was lent, and this fanciful story of fabled love and redemption was something the slaves selfishly clung to in fear.
Michelle was shaken from her dark thought patterns by the sound of several objects hitting the door and another loud slam. One of the chess playing slaves burst into tears of fear and the other three were quick to join her in her cot, soothing her as they spoke softly and stroked her hair. Michelle scoffed again, silently admonishing their weak behavior.
It was then that she noticed that she and the midwife were clinging to each other’s hands. So tight was their grip on one another than they both had knuckles white as the virgin snow. Michelle tried to shake her hands free, but the midwife only clung onto her tighter and pulled her into a fierce embrace. It wasn’t uncommon for strange sounds to echo around the Earl’s palace, though they tended to be more along the lines of raucous singing, screaming women or pleas of leniency.
The door to the concubine’s chamber burst open. A familiar shadow loomed behind the silk curtains that hung off of the wood and stone walls. The shadow tilted backwards slightly and then pitched forward, ripping the silk curtains down as it did so. A large dagger protruded from the burly guards back and was then covered as the silk gracefully fell onto his back. The slave girls, all still clustered together like chickens, screamed at the top of their lungs.
They were quickly silenced as small knives, barely larger than the sharp chalk Michelle thumbed nervously in her pocket, whistled across the room and struck each girl in the throat. The midwife clutched Michelle tighter, almost suffocating the girl.
Another shadow, quite a bit smaller than the first, stepped ominously into the doorway. The figure was small, not much larger than Michelle herself. It bore dark trousers, made of some light material that billowed with the air currents that entered the room through the open door. Likewise, the shirt of the killer flowed, betraying a women’s physique underneath. A deep hood obscured most of her features, though it had been gathered together at her throat and showed the unmistakable jaw line of woman. It was obvious that the killer had gone to some lengths to disguise her sex, though it hadn’t been done in such a way as to hinder her abilities.
She walked into the concubine’s chamber, being careful to step around the combined pool of blood gathering around the sobbing slave’s cot. The assassin approached the petrified midwife and her defiant charge, watching them intently. Michelle felt the killers’ eyes upon her and a tickle in the back of her skull. She’d felt it once before, though couldn’t come to recall the moment or details of that feeling either. It was as though someone carefully rubbed the back of her head with thousands of needles.
Her memories began to cloud her mind’s eye and she fought mightily to push them aside. The assassin titled her head to one side. Michelle thumbed her small blade of chalk, turning plan after plan over in her mind. Without realizing it, Michelle pushed calming thoughts into the mind of the midwife. She sent images and scents of blooming flowers, running brooks, damp grass after a spring rain.
The midwife’s iron hold on her loosened, so much so that she was quite free and ready to liberate herself from capture. Michelle pounced, pulling the chalk from her pocket and slashing wildly at the assassin. The woman calmly sidestepped Michelle’s clumsy attack, her hand shot out and grasped Michelle’s wrist in an iron grip that made the young girl scream.
The assassin used Michelle’s momentum against her, twisting her arm and flipping her over. The young girl bounced off of the next cot and slammed into the wall, tearing open several of the long shallow knife wounds Lorein had inflicted on her.
Pain followed; agonizing and tortuous pain.
“You are a fool, girl.” The assassin said as she loomed over her.
Michelle clutched her stomach and fought to remain conscious. A primal scream echoed off of the walls as the midwife found her will at last. She leapt from Michelle’s cot and shrieked as she ran headlong towards the assassin. The midwife’s shoulder struck the assassin in the stomach and drove her back into the wall. The force of the impact drove the breath from the assassin’s lungs. She cursed loudly and drove her elbow into the midwife’s back.
The old woman cried out, releasing her hold on the killer. The assassin’s knee shot up, launching the old woman onto the cot behind her. The killer drew a blade from her belt and stepped towards the dazed midwife.
“Don’t.” Michelle gasped.
The assassin stopped. She turned and regarded Michelle again.
“Why not, girl?” She asked gravely.
“Special.” The young girl choked as tears began to flow down her cheeks in spite of her best efforts.
The woman sighed and looked from the midwife to Michelle and back again before walking over towards the prone young lady. Michelle still fought for breath as the pain of her wounds threatened to overwhelm her. The assassin knelt down to one knee and looked at Michelle.
At this distance, Michelle could see her face. She was a beautiful woman of middle years; her hair was blond beneath her hood, a few locks having come loose in the struggle. She smelt of lavender and vanilla and her lips were painted dark brown. Her eyes were the most vivid green Michelle had ever seen, even more so than the emerald ring her grandfather had given to her grandmother on their anniversary. There were few wrinkles, mostly around her eyes and mouth, betraying a woman of light heartedness despite her chosen profession. Upon closer inspection, the younger woman could see very faint scars scattered around the assassin s face. Michelle’s mind became clear and she next spoke with conviction.
“I will be your slave if you let her live.” Michelle said, trying desperately to hide the fear she felt inside.
“I need no slave, girl.” The assassin said.
She regarded her with a calculating stare. Michelle became even more fearful. She put aside the terror as best as she could, sighed and closed her eyes. Michelle resigned herself to death and knowing that she would at least get to see the father and mother of her birth soon.
“But I do need an apprentice.” The woman continued.
Michelle’s eyes shot open in shock.
“Have we a bargain?” The assassin probed.
The young girl nodded her head, her eyes still wide with fear and uncertainty. The assassin stood and offered her hand, helping Michelle to her feet. The midwife’s unconscious breathing was even and relaxd, putting Michelle’s mind at ease. She leaned over and kissed the old woman’s head, causing her lips to sting slightly from the sweat gathered on the midwife’s brow.
“You will follow me and do as I say, girl.” The assassin ordered. “Do you understand?”
Michelle had the strong impression that this was a rule rather than a question and nodded resolutely in reply.
“If you don’t; I will come right back to this room, tie you to that cot and force you to watch as I draw and quarter her.” She said, not bothering to hide the threatening tone in her voice.
The young girl didn’t whimper, to her credit. She merely nodded again, growing more concerned with her decision by the moment. The assassin motioned for Michelle to take the lead, clearly not trusting her to follow without further attack.
“Where are we going?” Michelle asked as they walked out into the hallway.
“Throne room.” The assassin ordered. Michelle stopped and turned to face her new master, fearful of her next words.
“I don’t know where that is.” She honestly revealed.
“How long have you been here, girl?” The assassin asked quietly.
“Over a year.” Michelle answered with uncertainty.
The assassin’s hand shot out and grasped Michelle’s wrist in another painful grip. She turned around and began dragging Michelle back to the concubine’s chamber.
“What are you doing?” She pleaded, her voice cracking with fear.
“You’re a liar, girl.” The assassin shouted. “And I’m a woman of my word.”
Michelle realized in a moment what was about to transpire and she pulled back, trying to free herself from the assassin’s grip. Michelle felt her pulse quicken, her eyes seemed to take in every detail and nuance of the hallway she had never seen before. Her mind, which before had been a chaotic garbage pile of emotions and half-baked ideas cleared miraculously.
“Wait. Please.” She begged. “I’m not lying!”
The assassin stopped, turned and gave Michelle another searching stare that made the back of her brain itch.
“How can you have been here for months and not know where the throne room is?” She demanded.
“B…because.” Michelle stuttered. “I’ve only ever been in the slave’s chambers and his bedroom.”
Instantly, the assassins grip on her wrist softened and she looked away for a moment. When the woman looked back at Michelle, her face had visibly softened. She merely nodded, taking Michelle by the hand and walking beside her through the palace. She lost track of the lefts and rights, but before too long they were standing at the end of a hallway occupied by dozens of guards.
The assassin pulled Michelle back around the corner before any guards glanced in their direction. She pulled Michelle down into a kneeling position and gave her another searching look. Michelle forced herself to breathe deeply when she realized that she’d been holding it in. Finally, the woman pulled a dagger from her belt and flipped it and handed it to Michelle handle first.
“If anyone, save myself, comes around this corner, use this on them or yourself.” She instructed. “Either is better than the life you’ve been living, trust me on this.”
Michelle nodded dumbly, taking the dagger into her shaking hand. The woman nodded once and pulled back a contraption on her arm. It audibly clicked and whirred as she began pulling knives out of her boots, belt and sleeves and checking them for sharpness. Ones she found lacking she placed carefully on the stone floor to avoid noise. When the contraption clicked with some finality, she stood and drew a black sword from a scabbard on her back that Michelle hadn’t seen until that very moment.
The young girl carefully looked around the corner and watched as her new master ran down the hall. She made no sound whatsoever and Michelle was awestruck by this murderously silent display. The assassin leapt high into the air and lashed out with her blade. Two guards fell forward, their heads rolled away from their necks as the remaining guards drew swords and turned to engage the assassin.
The woman parried, turning aside a clumsy lunge which she redirected into another guard. She then sliced her first attacker from shoulder to waist in one swipe. The assassin dodged as the two dead guards fell into each other and then kicked them into a full suit of display armor. The armor toppled over with a loud crash and pinned a third guard underneath it. Her sword lashed out and he died before he could shout.
One of the remaining guards retreated halfway down the hall while four others surrounded the assassin. Michelle watched in mute fascination as her new master dispatched two of them with a single sweep of her blade. The other two approached her more carefully, working in concert to negate her superior swordsmanship.
Michelle crept around the corner, intent on doing her part in her bid for freedom. Her palms were sweaty and she tried her best to dry them off on her concubine’s gown. The silky folds her skirt did little to dry her hands though. The dagger felt heavy and odd in her hand, though she continued to creep forward, being very careful not to make a sound. Her master meanwhile, had killed another guard and was facing off against the remaining one. They exchanged blows, dancing around each other as each attempted to gain the upper hand.
The young lady moved closer to the coward guard who had retreated down the hall and readjusted her grip on the dagger again. The handle was slippery in her sweaty hand and she again tried to dry her hands on her gown. In the process of passing the blade from one shaky hand to the next, she dropped it. The sound of metal on stone might as well have been a gong in a temple of mutes. It echoed off of the walls and rang in her ears as she winced at her clumsiness.
While a coward, the retreating guard could obviously tell the difference between the sound of metal in front of him and behind him. He spun around, drawing his sword on one fluid motion. Michelle panicked and stooped over to pick-up the blade. The guard took two steps forward and kicked the dagger out of her reach, another step and he grabbed a handful of her hair.
Her heart jumped up into her throat as she realized who the guard was. The very same guard reputed to have killed no less than a dozen of the girls his Lord sent to him for re-education. She felt the blood rush from her face and her pulse quicken. Her heart pounded in her ears and Michelle felt as though it would simply burst out of her chest. The guard smiled sadistically and pulled her face towards his.
“I am going to love instructing you, my dear.” He licked the side of her face as he threatened her.
Michelle only whimpered in reply. He tossed her into the wall. Her head made first contact and it sent her sprawling onto the floor. She was dazed, but not so much that she couldn’t feel her already bleeding wounds tear open farther. Her blood began to trickle down from the new gash on her forehead onto her cheeks and lips.
Something inside Michelle changed in that moment.
Rather than the fear that usually sent her into hysterics, she felt a murderous calm descend upon her. She struggled and managed to push herself up, which caused the guard to laugh. He stepped forward and grabbed a handful of her long hair again. Twisting it around his fist, he lifted her off of the ground. Michelle’s hands shot up to his and she lifted herself enough to relieve the tension on her scalp.
The pain was unbearable though.
Michelle cried out, but her mind was still so blissfully clear. There was no terror, only the thought of survival gripped her heart. She let go of his hand and deftly pulled a dagger from his belt.
“What do you plan to do with that, my sweet?” He teased.
Michelle’s vision stopped swimming, as it had before with the assassin. Sights and sounds became clear around her and a certainty gripped her soul. Michelle resolutely refused to die in vain. She narrowed her eyes and she kicked the guard’s groin as hard as she could manage. She was dropped, and landed painfully on the floor. Both of his hands went protectively to his midsection as he groaned in pain and swayed backwards. Michelle looked him straight in the eye and as his eyes made contact with her, she drove the blade of the dagger into his throat.
The guard’s eyes widened in shock and he gurgled something incoherent. His hands went from his groin to his throat as he attempted to staunch the flow of blood now staining his tabard. In moments he pitched forward at her feet. Michelle looked up from the guard’s corpse to the master assassin. She was leaning against the wall a few feet away, watching her closely. The look her new master had could really only be called one thing; curiosity.
“Perhaps I was right about you after all, girl.” She commented, sheathing her sword.
The assassin motioned with her head and Michelle fell in at her side. They continued walking down the hallway towards a pair of large oak doors. She could hear the sound of wood making contact with metal behind the door and assumed they had barricaded the door in some way. Her new master chuckled as she dug a pair of vials from the folds of her belt.
The first of these she tossed at the crevice between the doors. The vial broke on a large piece of timber that was being used to bar the doors. The liquid began to hiss and pop and in seconds there was a loud bang, followed by another and the doors opened slightly. The assassin then threw the second vial inside of the throne room.
It exploded inside and sent up a cloud of smoke that quickly engulfed the room. A plume of smoke began to pour out of the opening in the doors and Michelle could hear several people coughing and cursing inside the throne room. The assassin broke into a sprint and leapt into the air. As she came down, she drew her sword and kicked the doors open. Michelle heard four loud screams before the smoke began to clear. As the last traces of smoke escaped through the partially open doors, she heard her new master call out to her.
“Come here, girl.” She ordered.
Michelle walked into the room slowly, looking around in awe. There was an immense timber on the floor, burned in two by the first vial she assumed. A small smoking puddle a few feet from the doors was all that remained of the second. Around her there were several corpses, some men of rank, dressed as such, and several women. Most of those women she recognized as slaves, such as she was less than an hour ago.
Large pools of blood marked where her master had wounded or outright killed them, followed by trails that led away from the center of the room from those who sought escape. Michelle walked gingerly around these pools, not really sure why the morbidity of the scene bothered her so when she had taken a life as well. Even so, she walked around or leapt over the trails of blood to join her master as she was instructed.
The Earl was on his knees in front of his throne, which was elevated on a stone dais to oversee the entire hall. The assassin stood before him, the tip of her sword scant millimeters from his jugular. Michelle locked eyes with him, and despite his prostrate position, she couldn’t help but feel fear as his eyes met hers.
“Please.” He sobbed. “Don’t kill me.”
“Oh, I’m afraid that’s a foregone conclusion at this point, my Lord.” Her new master replied, adding a sarcastic lilt at the end.
“You just couldn’t help yourself, you had to have her.” The assassin accused. “Now the price is your life.”
“Who?” He begged. “I’ll return her! With a stipend! I promise!” He cried.
“Really?” The assassin asked, pulling her hood back with her free hand. “And what of me?” She asked with her beautiful green eyes ablaze.
“But…” He stuttered. “I thought you were…”
“Dead?” She finished for him. “I very nearly was, you pathetic excuse for a man.”
“That was years ago though.” He argued as tears continued to streak down his face.
“Sometimes it feels like just this morning.” The assassin replied through clenched teeth.
“Luckily for you, the man who took me in convinced me to put aside that pain.”
Michelle looked from her new master to the Earl, assembling the pieces of this sinister puzzle in her mind. The assassin had once been as Michelle was; a slave to be used by this sick man for his own gratification. Then, she had been tossed aside like a used toy. She felt pity for the assassin. Pity and a sense of self-righteous retribution, perhaps it was justice…or revenge. No matter the reason, the crime was more than fitting to the punishment in Michelle’s estimation. In fact, the young girl was steeling herself up for some revenge of her own.
Michelle’s bloody grip on the dagger she’d used to kill the coward guard tensed and released as she considered the best way to make this parasite suffer. Suffer as she had suffered, suffer as the other slaves had suffered and finally, suffer as her master had suffered. She took a step forward, not really having a plan. She was full of righteous hatred and ready to deal out some pain of her own.
The assassin saw Michelle move forward.
Faster than Michelle thought natural, the assassin stepped behind the Earl and pulled his head back.
She ran her sword across his neck in one swift motion, spilling his blood all over his fancy tunic. He gasped and raised his hands to his throat. His eyes fell on Michelle as he began to lose his balance. They were light brown, like a steaming cup of cocoa her grandmother would have made for her on a cold day. As the life fled his eyes, he fell forward and slid down the four steps of his dais.
“Never…” The assassin said loudly enough to shake Michelle from her reverie. “…take revenge.” She instructed, giving her a hard look again as she cleaned her sword on the Earl’s corpse.
“What we do is strictly a business proposition. The moment you feel one way or another about a target; you lose your edge.” She said quietly. “That bastard deserved it though.” The assassin concluded.
“Get your things.” She ordered as she sheathed her sword.