The rider dismounted and led his horse to William. 'My horse needs care,' he yelled, his deep voice carrying easily through the rain. 'Are you the stable boy?'
'I am,' said William.
The man's hood was drawn but the moon was full and William could make out a clean-shaven face with angular features. Poking out from his weather-worn cloak and held only by a metal ring, was a sword with so many nicks in it William would have thought it best to throw it in the mud. Yet the thing that disturbed William however, was the large gold ring the man wore on his left hand bearing the sigil of House Marcus: a hawk clutching a snake in its talons. If someone in town sees him wearing that ring, he'll be dead before midnight, thought William. Especially with that sword to defend himself.
William took the reins of the horse.
'Where are suitable quarters?' asked the rider.
'There are many Inns along this strip of road. Towards the end of town is an Inn with a red door called The Bottomless Well. They give food and warmth and a soft bed.' William knew the place wouldn't offer him safety, but it was much better than any other place in town.
'Where do you stay?' asked the rider.
William tilted his head across the road. 'The Red Sword.'
The man looked at the place for a moment. 'How much for a night?'
'It's not expensive.' But the cost may be much more than money. 'One silver for the night, and that includes a bowl of rabbit stew. It is all that is offered in such times.'
'My stomach groans. It probably could not tell the difference between rabbit and beef.'
'We don't have many visitors from your parts,' said William, his gaze falling to the gold ring on the man's hand again. 'Would you not move on to a different town to avoid trouble?'
The man shook his head. 'My horse is on the verge of collapse. Your place will serve.'
You are a fool then. William turned to lead the horse to the stables.
'What is your name?' asked the man.
William glanced over his shoulder, his blue eyes wide with shock. 'William,' he mumbled, unable to meet the rider's eyes.
The man cast back his hood and brought his angular features into the light. Two bright green eyes regarded William intently. But the first thing William noticed was a long scar that started from the man's left eye and reached down to the bottom of his jaw. 'I am Arbor,' he said. 'I will see you inside.' The man named Arbor turned and marched into The Red Sword.
The rain beat down on the roof of the stable as William tended to Arbor's horse. The horse was in bad shape. If Arbor had ridden it any longer the beast would have been beyond help. As William gave it water and brushed it down, the beast watched him with intelligent eyes.
After his duties were completed, William raced into The Red Sword. The hearth was alight with a warm fire when he entered. Beside the hearth sat a harp player gently plucking the strings to create a pleasant melody. There were only a handful of patrons staying at the Inn that night. Among them was the huge figure of Bic, a regular customer. He stood at the bar drinking with a skinny man, their drunken laughter almost drowning out the music from the harp.
Behind Bic at a separate table, sat two men quietly drinking. Only one of them William recognised. He had long black greasy-hair and whiskers the same shade. Two nights he'd been staying at the Inn and the only thing William knew about him was that he liked his wine sweetened with honey. His friend however, was a stranger.
Arbor sat at a far table by himself, his hands resting on the table, his ring clearly visible for everyone to see. William was just about to walk over to him and tell him his horse had been tended, but a hand grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and yanked him sideways.
'Where have you been boy,' Lark, the Inn Keeper, spat in William's face. 'We have customers in need of serving.'
William opened his mouth to explain that he'd been tending to a customer's horse but Lark's quick hand across his cheek kept his words unspoken. He turned and began performing his duties.
He poured more ale for Bic and refilled the tankard for his skinny friend. The greasy-haired man and his friend hardly acknowledged William when he refilled their tankards.
Finally, William made his way over to Arbor's table. 'Ale?' he offered.
Arbor smiled and shook his head. 'I don't fancy ale after a day on the road. Perhaps wine?'
'Our wine is from the east.'
That will do. And bring a bowl of that rabbit stew I was promised.'
William rushed to the kitchen and poured a bowlful of stew. He then grabbed a cup and filled it with wine from the barrel. He returned to Arbor and set it in front of him.
'Sit with me while I eat, William,' said Arbor, taking up his spoon. 'It has been long since I had company.'
William hesitated. 'You want me for company?'
'If you would be willing.'
A smile came to William's lips and he nodded and took a seat across from Arbor. He watched Arbor eat, his ring glinting in the firelight. William hoped this wouldn't be his last meal.
'So tell me,' said Arbor, wiping his mouth with his hand, 'how came you to be here?'
'I've always been here,' said William. 'Lark said my mother gave birth to me just upstairs then died of fever. Lark took me in and I've worked for him ever since.'
'Lark? The man who struck you? He owns this place?' His eyes were wide with astonishment.
Arbor composed his face and continued eating his stew. 'Any word about your father?'
'I've asked but Lark only answers with his hand.'
Arbor rinsed his mouth with wine. Beside them, Bic roared with laughter and slammed his fist down on the bar. Arbor's gaze went to him. 'Is the big fellow a friend of yours?'
'I don't have any friends. He is a regular customer and a friend of Lark's.'
'A cruel man?'
'No crueller than others.'
Arbor paused contemplatively.
'Your gaze should not linger on him,' warned William.
'If you draw his eye he will notice your sigil and think you his enemy.'
Arbor half smiled and didn't avert his gaze. 'And so he should.'
Bic's tankard made a hollow clunk as he slammed it down on the bar. 'Boy!' he yelled over his shoulder, 'more ale.'
William excused himself, attended Bic's drink, and then returned to Arbor's table.
Arbor then asked William many questions, none of which seemed very important to William. He asked how the town had coped during the war, and whether William had witnessed much of the war firsthand. William answered as best he could, and Arbor listened while shovelling the rest of the stew into his mouth. He then took out a pipe and looked at William ponderingly. 'William, I want you to do a favour for me.'
'Anything,' said William immediately.
'The next time Bic asks for ale, I want you to take him wine.'
William fidgeted with his sleeves. 'Men from the east hate wine, this will make him angry.'
'I know it will. This will be the only thing I will ask of you.'
William hesitated. He wanted to help Arbor; there weren't many patrons who came to The Red Sword and were nice to him. But Bic's anger was notorious. William would be at his mercy, and he didn't trust that if it came to violence, Arbor could do anything to stop Bic. He looked at Arbor's long scar that was a shade paler than the rest of his skin. He mustn't be a stranger to fighting with a scar like that.
'Everything will be alright, William,' said Arbor, his voice coated with reassurance. 'No harm will come to you, I promise.'
William clenched his fists under the table. 'Okay, I'll help you.'
Arbor smiled. 'You're a good boy, William.'
It only took a few more draughts for Bic to drain his tankard, though most of the ale sopped down into his beard. William did not wait for Bic's order; he raced behind the bar but instead of pouring ale, he put the tankard to the barrel and drew wine.
William walked up to Bic with the tankard, its dark contents shining in the firelight. But Bic did not notice; he snatched the cup without so much as a downward glance and put it to his lips. William knew he should have fled then, but fear glued his feet to the floorboards.
Bic swirled the wine in his mouth for half a second before he spat it to the floor. 'What's this piss you give me, boy? Fucking wine?' He threw the cup down to the floor. 'I'd rather drink piss!' Bic's monstrous hand came up and grabbed William by the collar, bringing William's face within an inch of his. 'I'm from the east.'
William tried to look to where Arbor sat, but Bic's hand blocked his eye line.
'Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth boy?' Bic roared. Bic's weedy friend chortled behind him.
William was so close to Bic's face he could tell which of Bic's back teeth were rotting. 'I understand the bad breath coming out of your mouth,' said William.
He regretted the words instantly, especially when Bic drew his hand back, ready to strike. William tried to wriggle free from his grasp, but he may as well have been a worm in a raven's break. William gave up all hope and closed his eyes, ready to feel that all too familiar sting. Arbor has abandoned me.
'Stop!' came a booming voice, resonating throughout the Inn. The fire in the hearth dulled and the harp player's fingers halted on the strings. Bic's hand froze in the air, but his gaze left William and went to the source of the command.
Arbor stood up from his seat, his weather-worn cloak cast back to reveal gleaming silver armour underneath. There was something different in his eyes, as if they had stolen the light from the fire. In the back of William's mind, he thought Arbor would have looked impressive, had it not been for the nicked sword dangling at his side.
'What?' growled Bic.
'Take your hands off the boy,' said Arbor, his voice deep and powerful.
William thought it impossible for anything to stop Bic's hand when it wanted to hit something, but there it stayed in the air, as if gripped by the gods themselves.
'What business is this of yours?' said Bic.
'Release him,' said Arbor. 'I would not be the reason to see a young boy beaten. It was I who ordered the wine. The boy is confused and has given it to you by mistake.' Arbor brought his hand forward and tapped his ring on the buckle of his belt.
Bic's gaze went to the ring and immediately his large hand dropped from William's collar and reached to the hilt of his sword. 'A Marcuston.' His words were not above a whisper but it provoked everyone in the Inn to action. The greasy-haired man and his friend, who had been quietly watching the confrontation, abandoned their drinks and joined Bic's side, their swords drawn. As did Bic's skinny drinking partner.
Lark withdrew to the kitchen, his back hunched and bold head bowed. William watched in horror as Arbor's enemies multiplied.
Arbor calmly observed the other patrons join Bic's side. 'Four against one,' he said. 'The odds shift quickly.'
Bic drew his sword slowly, the metal scaping long and hard against the scabbard, and pointed it at Arbor. 'That ring you wear,' he said, his tone deadly cold, 'where did you come upon it?'
With heavy feet, Bic feinted towards Arbor. Arbor reacted and countered Bic's steps, his feet lithe and graceful, until he was next to the greasy-haired man's table, which was now empty.
Bic gestured to the sword that dangled beside Arbor's leg. 'Do you plan to take us all on with that sword? I've seen less dents on a whore's bedpost.'
The three men behind Bic chortled with laughter. 'His pretty armour is useless without a good sword,' said the weedy man.
A hint of a smile traced Arbor's lips. 'No, I wouldn't kill you with that.' He unbuckled the sword from his belt and let it fall to the ground with a clang. Arbor then reached behind himself to his lower back where he clutched an unseen handle, pulled out a concealed sword, and held it in the air. Arbor's new sword had no nicks; it was made of gleaming steel, which reflected four sets of wide eyes. 'I would kill you with this.'
Arbor manoeuvred the sword with a deftly hand, raising it high in the air, the men's eyes following it. Except William's; his gaze flickered towards Arbor's free hand. It withdrew from his pocket and sprinkled a powder into the greasy-haired man's drink. The movement was done in an instant and no one else in the bar noticed.
Bic began to show his first signs of hesitation. Where Bic's sword swayed from the heavy intake of ale, Arbor's was steady as he angled his sword from side to side with a deftly hand. It didn't take a genius to see that he was well practiced with swordplay. Bic began to understand that if there were to be a fight, he might not win.
'I bear no allegiance to House Marcus,' said Arbor. 'The ring I acquired from a boy on the road. I stole it, along with his life.' Arbor took the ring off his finger and tossed it on the floor by Bic's feet, making a dull thud. Bic looked down at it, still not dropping his sword. 'Now either we deal out death tonight, or you go on drinking with your friend and your next drink is on me.' Arbor's eyes did not flinch.
Bic relaxed his guard and so did the others behind him. 'If it is as you say and you are not of House Marcus, drink to Lord Cordane's health.'
'Gladly,' said Arbor, 'but my drink is exhausted.'
Bic nodded. 'Lark,' he called.
Lark came scurrying out of the kitchen, his back still hunched and hands clenched tightly at his front. 'What is it?' he asked.
'Your customer has a thirst,' said Bic. 'I believe he was drinking wine?' Bic looked to Arbor for confirmation, who gave it.
Lark retreated behind the bar and came back shortly, a cup full of wine clutched in his hand. Arbor took the cup, swirled it and put it to his nose, Bic and his cronies watching his every move. Arbor then raised his cup high into the air. 'To Lord Cordane, long may he live and have what is rightfully his be returned to him.' Arbor put the cup to his lips and drank until the cup was finished. He then tilted the cup upside down, showing Bic there wasn't a drop left.
The tension dropped from the room immediately. Bic sheathed his sword and the rest followed his lead. William started breathing again.
'A misunderstanding,' said Bic. 'Go about your drink in peace now stranger.'
Arbor bowed his head. 'I seek nothing more.' He then tossed a coin at Bic, who caught it against his chest. 'A drink, for you and your friends.' Bic nodded and turned back to the bar with his skinny friend. The greasy-haired man and his friend went back to their table, and the harp player recommenced his tune. Order was restored to The Red Sword.
William stood up and went to rejoin Arbor at the table, but Lark's long fingers gripped his shoulder. 'Come with me boy,' said Lark. His tone was calm but William knew it was a facade.
Arbor appeared at Larks side, startling the Inn Keeper. 'If it is affordable,' said Arbor, his tone had discarded the steel it had when he was talking to Bic, 'I wish to talk to the boy a moment longer. I was telling him the specific needs for my horse.'
Lark bowed his head in submission. 'Of course, sir.'
'My thanks,' said Arbor. Lark withdrew behind the bar and began wiping a glass while glaring at William.
Arbor led William back to his table. He slung one arm over the back of his chair and regarded William with casual eyes. William watched the man with greasy hair pick up his tainted ale and drink. If the powder affected the taste of the ale, the man did not seem to notice. He continued talking to his friend as he had been before the commotion.
'His name is Quintes,' said Arbor, following William's gaze. 'I have been tracking him for three days.'
William glanced around the bar to make sure no one was within earshot. Satisfied that everyone seemed occupied with their own business, William turned back to Arbor. 'Did you poison that man?' he asked, still not daring to raise his voice above a whisper.
'Yes.' He answered as calmly as if William had just asked him if it were raining outside.
William pressed his lips together. 'Will he die soon?'
Arbor took out his pipe and nodded.
'Why did you do it?'
'The reasons are complicated but let's just say he wronged people in the war who are now in prominent positions.'
'So you're an assassin?'
'I guess that is one label I go by.'
'But I helped you,' said William. 'I have had a part in that man's death.'
'That's right, I couldn't have done it without you.'
William's gaze fell down to his hands. 'Is that the only reason you pretended to be my friend? Because you needed someone to help you poison that man.'
'No,' said Arbor, the casualness leaving his eyes. 'You made me curious, William. I wanted to know what you were capable of. Do you feel regret?'
William didn't know anything about the man named Quintes; whether he was a good man or evil. Many feelings were swirling around in his head, but regret was not one of them. 'Will he feel pain?'
'Does it matter?' countered Arbor.
'I guess not.'
'The powder raises the blood. If he were to find a woman tonight she would need assistance getting out of bed in the morning.'
'And what would he do the next morning?'
'Well only the gods themselves could raise him from his bed. He will die in his sleep, peacefully.'
William was still unconvinced.
'There are worse ways to go.' Arbor gazed over William's shoulder. 'Your master grows impatient.'
William turned and saw Lark glaring at him from behind the bar. His large ears were red, a sign he was angry. William knew the longer he delayed it, the worse his beating would become. 'I have to go.'
Arbor blew smoke but didn't say anything as William got up and trudged to the bar.
Lark waited with a wooden brush clutched in his hand. William reached for the brush, ready to start cleaning the mess, but when he reached for the brush Lark struck him across the cheek with it, cutting his lip. William fell to his knees, his lip stinging with pain.
'While you were talking to that queer man,' spat Lark, 'the wine you served Bic has soaked into the floorboards. You will scrub until your hands feel like they're going to fall off.'
William reached up and took the brush and a pail that sat by the foot of the stairs, and scrubbed the floorboards. His lip throbbed with every pulse of blood and dripped onto the back of his hand as he dragged the brush back and forth across the puddle of wine.
Arbor watched with an expressionless face. Smoke surrounded him like a veil, but through it, William could still see his green eyes; they hovered amid the smoke like two emeralds.
William couldn't help but feel resentment towards Arbor. Not because he had just poisoned a man or was an assassin, but because he had just sat and watched Lark strike him for the spilt wine. An event that wouldn't have happened had Arbor not asked him for a favour.
When William was done scrubbing, he glanced over his shoulder to find Arbor's table empty. He had gone to bed without saying goodnight. Tears threatened to escape William's eyes. He knew Arbor's care for William had expired when his use had.
William turned and fled up the stairs to bed, slamming his bedroom door behind him. Lucy poked her head up, startled at the sudden entrance. William threw the scraps that he had gathered in his pocket throughout the night. The dog leaped off the bed and crunched into them.
While her sharp teeth cracked and snapped the bones, William wedged a chair under the doorknob. It was only a precaution; Lark wouldn't try to come up to his room while Lucy was sleeping with him. Last time he'd done that, Lucy had bit his hand so hard he'd squealed like a gutted pig. He still bore the scars.
Moonlight shone through the open window and William shivered from the cold. He pulled the window shut, climbed into bed and pulled the blanket over him. Lucy jumped onto the end of the bed and rested her snout on William's feet, her warmth ceasing his trembling.
William felt like a fool. It wasn't often he let someone take advantage of him but there was something about Arbor that made him forget his vigilance. He cursed himself for being so easily manipulated.
William's hand then clutched something under his pillow. It was soft and round, and fit into the palm of his small hand. He pulled it out and held it in the air. The moonlight casted light onto a small pouch that William had never seen before and didn't know how it had come to be under his pillow. William looked to Lucy to see if she recognised it, but she had more pressing business with a flea. He put the pouch to his nostrils and inhaled. The smell stung, as if he'd just inhaled fire.
And then the pieces fell into place. It's poison. Arbor's given me poison. But why? William bit his broken lip and the pain was as instant as his realisation. He gave me the poison to kill Lark. William stuffed the pouch into his pillow and rested his head down against it but sleep was as far away as the moon was out the window. He laid there most of the night contemplating what his next move would be.
The next morning, William served Lark his oats. Lark ate greedily, shovelling large amounts into his mouth. William witnessed every spoonful. He then went about his morning business no different to any other day. He quietly noted the absence of Quintes and wondered how long it would take Lark to know that he had a dead man in his quarters.
It was well after sunrise when Arbor came down for his breakfast. He was clad in the same weather-worn cloak from last night, minus the nicked sword. William looked to the assassin's back, trying to figure out where the hidden sword was concealed. But there weren't any bumps in his garments; perhaps he wasn't wearing it today.
William went and sat down at the base of the stairs and watched Lark attend Arbor.
'What will it be this morning?' Lark asked Arbor.
Lark glanced at William who understood the silent command. He tipped oats into a bowl and took it to Arbor. While he was doing this, Lark took out his handkerchief and wiped sweat from his bald head. William also noticed the Inn Keeper was leaning heavily to his side. Arbor glanced sidewards at William and began eating his oats.
Lark tried to engage Arbor in conversation but his words came out slow and slurred.
Arbor's eyes narrowed. 'Are you well?'
Lark shook his head. 'Must not have had enough sleep.'
'Perhaps you need to go and rest.'
Lark attempted to pour Arbor a drink but most of the liquid missed the cup and spilled onto the table.
'Maybe I'll take your advice,' he said, though his words were still disjointed. He set the jug down and walked towards William. 'I'm going up to my room, mind the customers while I'm gone.' He shoved William to the side of the stairs and made his way upwards. William stared at his back and watched him disappear into his room.
Arbor then caught William's gaze and signalled for William to join him.
'I see you put my gift to good use,' said Arbor. 'How do you feel?'
William swallowed. 'I feel better than I have ever felt in my life.' And it was true. Lark had loomed over his life like a large shadow. 'The only regret is that I would have liked to look into his eyes just before he dies. So he knows it was me.'
Arbor pressed his lips together in what may have been a smile. 'That is the trade we are in, I'm afraid,' said Arbor.
William noted he had said we. 'What happens to him now?'
'Well as you saw, he is taking a nap. That will speed up the process. The dose I put under your pillow is stronger that your common poison. He will not wake.'
'Will he feel pain?'
Arbor regarded William intently. 'Do you want him to feel pain?'
William gripped the edge of the table and nodded. 'I do.'
Arbor looked at William for a moment then shook his head. 'No, he will not feel pain. It's one of my policies, I'm afraid. Another policy I have is that the killing must always be done by the assassin's hand. That's why it was you who you had to kill Lark, not me. That is also why last night, it was my hand that slipped the poison into Quintes's drink and not yours. It would have been much easier to ask you to drop the powder in his cup as you served him, but that would be immoral. The killing must always be done by the assassin.'
William nodded, thinking he understood.
'But remember this, your master has paid the ultimate price for what he has put you through. Take solace in that.'
William wasn't sure if that was enough for him. How could years of torment be repaid in one short moment? 'So what happens now?' he asked.
'Well you have a choice.'
'Choice?' The concept was unfamiliar to William.
'When they discover Lark is dead, you can either stay here and wait for another man to take Lark's place. That someone may be just as cruel or crueller than Lark, or he may be a kind and loving man. In which you could continue to live here for as long as you want in warmth and peace.'
William contemplated a moment. 'And what is the other choice.'
'You can come with me and learn the ways of an assassin as my apprentice.'
William looked Arbor in the eyes. He's serious. 'You want me?'
Arbor's gaze did not waver. 'Yes,' he said with a curt nod.
'There are many reasons. For one, I'm not a young man anymore, my joints creak like hinges in need of oil. Also it would be nice to have some company, not just for the conversation, but assassins are more conspicuous when they are by themselves. Above all, however, I want you because of your strength. Many boys in your position would have given in to despair. But you still have fight in you, William. And that is an extraordinary thing.'
William detected there was something Arbor wasn't telling him - something he might never find out.
Now which do you choose, William? Whichever it is, make it fast. I suspect I only have a few hours before discoveries are made.'
It needed no thought for William. Either stay cooped up in this small corner of hell, or go and travel the world and learn more than he ever dreamed. Yes, there would be death - much death, in fact, but he would deal with that in time.
'I will come with you,' said William.
Arbor nodded solemnly. 'Go and get your things. I will meet you in the stables in a half hour.'
William raced up to his room. He burst through the door, scanned the room and quickly realised he didn't have anything to pack.
Lucy sat on his bed, nestled in the blankets. William went up and patted the dog. Lucy was the only thing William regretted leaving behind. She had been his protector for most of his life, but now William had a new protector, one who could take him away from this place.
Lucy licked his hands. William wasn't afraid for Lucy, the dog could fend for herself, he would just miss her company. Thanks for taking care of me, girl. William kissed the dog on the head above the eyes and left the room, Lucy's gaze on his back.
With tears threatening to drip down his cheeks, William walked down the hallway and stopped at Lark's door. Just one peek, he thought. He knocked softly on the door and waited. When no answer came, he pushed the door open, the old hinges keening.
Lark lied on his stomach, his right arm dangling over the side of the bed, scraping the floorboards. From his mouth, blood dripped, pooling next to his hand.
William knelt next to Lark and assessed his face. It was dark purple and full of veins, his eyes were wide and red. The hand that had marked William's face and bruised his skin on so many occasions, now rested limply on the floor, growing colder by the second.
William leaned over and put his mouth to his old master's ear. 'It was me,' he whispered. William knew he was speaking into a deaf ear, but maybe Lark's spirit still lingered and he could take the words with him to the afterlife.
William then stood tall, gazing down at the stiff body. He then turned and marched out of the room, shutting the door behind him, leaving the room as he'd found it.
Arbor waited on his horse by the stables with another brown horse next to him. 'Packing light,' he remarked, seeing William did not have any luggage.
William nodded. 'Who's horse is that?'
'It's yours,' said Arbor, 'I just bought him.'
'What's his name?' asked William.
'He doesn't have one. You should name your horse on your first ride. It will bring you both good fortunes.'
William thought about it for a moment. 'What's the Marcuston word for free?'
'Ferar,' said Arbor.
'That's what I'll call him then,' said William. He mounted the horse and patted its mane. 'Ferar.'
The horse bowed its head, which William took as a sign that the beast was pleased with its name.
'Ready?' asked Arbor.
'Ready,' said William, taking the reins.
'Put your head down and don't look anyone in the eye. I don't want anyone recognising you on the way out of town.'
The next few moments were like a dream for William. He could not count how many times he'd visualised this moment; walking down the road to leave the town and The Red Sword behind him. But now his dreams were a reality.
He kept his gaze on the road in front of him and didn't once look over his shoulder.
©December, 2015 Frank Martinicchio
Frank Martinicchio is currently pursuing a degree in Professional Writing and Editing at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. His work has previously appeared in Tincture Journal. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.