Tools and Weapons

monk22
This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Someone flicked Zion’s forehead and he stifled a yelp, opening his eyes. He had dozed off, soothed by the stillness and the fragrant lavender that hung drying from the ceiling. Solas stood with his arms crossed, a smug smile playing across his lips. Zion noticed his damp hair and the scent of the olive oil soap the Order bought from the bedouins. He wondered if Solas had bathed merely to rinse after the trial or if he was trying to rid himself of the smell of Redheart.
         “Did the Council change their minds?” Zion asked. “Or is it already time for me to be disciplined ?”
         “Get up,” Solas said, ignoring his question.
         Zion held up his ruined shirt. “Will I need clothes?”
         “Garth? Get the boy something to wear.”
         Zion’s fingers moved quickly, telling Garth to forget it. The healer looked between the two, half rising from his chair. Solas’ smile had vanished but Zion stood, pulling on his ripped shirt, and held out his arms to say he was ready as he was. Solas’ fingers twitched once, calling him a name that would bring any other two men to blows. Zion raised his chin slightly, lessening the gap in their heights, and smiled at his mentor. To his surprise, Solas snorted and turned, preceding him out of the room, without saying a word. Solas did not speak as they made their way through the wide halls, giving Zion plenty of time to remember those first brutal years as he struggled against the Brothers, the other novices, and the sinking fear of failure that threatened to engulf him before the trials.

         As they passed various doors, sounds wafted out–mandolin music, singing, voices raised in monotonous repetition. They learned more than killing–more than Zion thought his brain could hold at first. A true assassin must be able to take up any role, any place in society necessary to gain him access to his mark. He winced as he remembered his failed attempts at every musical instrument the Brothers tried. Brother Calver had not been surprised, saying his hands were more fit for casting nets than playing the harp. For once, Zion was only too happy to agree.
         “Well, Brother Solas?” Zion finally broke the silence, knowing it was calculated to make him speak first. “Are you going to take me out in the forest and leave me for a day and a night? I passed that test on my first year. No?” He quickened his pace and turned to walk backwards in front of Solas. “Perhaps three days in the pit? Or was it four? I did not think I would ever be able to straighten again.” He searched Solas’s face for any hint of expression, but the assassin was impassive. Zion let his expression slip into one of barely controlled panic and did a slight jig. “Not dancing lessons, for the love of Avior, don’t say more dancing lessons.”
         Solas’s left hand shot out and gripped the front of Zion’s shirt, pulling him to a clumsy halt. His other fingers pressed against Zion’s windpipe making him gag before he relaxed against the grip, feeling for a moment like the kitten Rael had killed so many years before.
         “Watch your mouth, boy. Do you think the Council is not searching for reasons to cast you out? Do you know how long a lone assassin lasts before the Council decide he is too much of a risk–that he may too easily become a weapon, ready-honed for someone else’s hands?”
         Zion felt a cold tendril wind down his back and instinctively clamped his mind against the tingle of fear. They were told that they could leave at any time in their training, that they would be trusted to keep the secrets of the order, knowing full well the consequences if their lips loosened. But no one left by choice. Solas’s threat was not an empty one. The Order created tools and a tool was only useful so long as it obeyed the hand that wielded it.

         “How long does it take?” Zion asked.
         Solas’s heavy brows lowered and Zion swallowed hard feeling the pressure of Solas’s fingers as his Adam’s apple moved.
         “How long does what take?” Solas growled.
         “How long does it take to forget you are a man with a will of your own?” Zion knew if he looked away, he would never have the courage to question his mentor again, so he stared into Solas’s dark eyes.
         “For some, the first month. For others,” the assassin’s hand tightened briefly around Zion’s throat before releasing him. “Never.”
         Zion waited until Solas had turned away before massaging his throat, aware of how easily the older man could have ended his life.
         “Come on. We don’t have all day,” Solas said over his shoulder.
         Zion padded quietly after his mentor, wondering how long he had before he pushed Solas too far.

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Assassins’ Academy II

Aconitum_napellus-6

This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Before the week was out, the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palatable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls.

         Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”

         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long, but Zion had seen the tremor that ran through his hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. Brother Calver was afraid of him.

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photo

Assassins’ Academy II

         When the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palpable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls. Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”
         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other, minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long. Zion knew he was lying, had seen the tremor that ran through Calver’s hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. He knew Calver lied and he knew why.
         Brother Calver was afraid of him.

Assassins’ Academy

This is part of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning so you won’t be confused.

         Zion sat on one of the narrow cots that ran the length of the infirmary, gritting his teeth as he carefully stitched up the thin slices on his arms and legs. One of the first lessons he learned was stitching his own wounds. Brother Garth handed him a bowl filled with a thick brown paste and he smeared the healing ointment over the gashes before stitching them. Brother Garth treated the Brotherhood for serious wounds and illnesses when they arose, though most brothers could equal his skill in healing more minor complaints. Zion wondered if Garth knew of Brother Solas’s penchant for Redheart. It was unlikely. If he knew, he’d be forced to bring it before Mendic and the other Elder Brothers. Garth was silent as he worked with his herbs and salves; the knife that took his tongue left him with no other speech than the sign language of the Brotherhood. Zion finished his stitching and sat for a moment, enjoying the cool quiet of the Infirmary.
        The noises of sparring outside were muffled and the smell of fresh herbs and ungents was soothing.  Zion had imagined once that the building where assassins trained would be dark and dank, but the sandstone floors were always swept clean and the walls freshly whitewashed each spring. The different training arenas–most of which ran underground–were more suited to his imaginings. He shut his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall and letting his mind empty. It was the first lesson the Brothers taught them–to seek the quietest corner of their own mind and enfold themselves in it. Calm and control were the marks of a focused mind and only with that focus could they perform their duties for the Order. It was difficult to believe five years had passed. Sometimes it felt like only moments, other days he could hardly remember his life before Solas and the Order. The nights when he woke bathed in a cold sweat after dreaming that Rael had found him and planned to gut him like the fish he used to steal from nets at the docks came rarely. Zion couldn’t decide which was worse–the nightmares about Rael or the nights he dreamed about his mother and sisters, dreams that left a strange ache beneath his ribs that no amount of food or distraction could erase. He tried to regain the void, but his mind was filled with his most recent past time–imagining Rael’s face when he killed him. He focused instead on the gentle rustling as Garth sorted herbs and folded bandages.

         When he first met Garth, he did not understand how Garth maintained his cheerful silence. Now, he sometimes wondered if he would forget to speak.  So many of the interactions between the brothers in the Order were silent–not merely the hand-talk they used almost without thinking, but the body language and facial expressions. They studied these as well. Knowing someone’s thoughts was as easy as reading their face, the way they walked, what they did with their hands. Change your face, your walk, your gestures, and you could become anyone. Zion had learned that lesson more quickly than the other boys in his year–not only because it built on the skills he learned with Rael, but because he soon found that the circumstances in which he came to the Order were unusual and brought a level of notice from the other boys he could have happily gone without.  Most boys came to the Order well before their thirteenth years. Zion had been old for a novice. Brother Calver insisted he be placed with the seven and eight year olds and fought against moving him up to train with the older boys for months, despite his quick advancement. Solas finally stepped in one afternoon during Zion’s third month with the order. He was sparring with the younger boys and barely containing his anger. It had been a long day and fighting with boys half his size and age was wearing on him.
         “You could have killed them all,” Solas had said after calling a halt to the hand-to-hand fighting.
         The younger boys were sprawled, panting, around the training yard. Many were nursing bruises and aching heads and one boy was still cross-eyed from the minutes he spent unconscious.
         The next day, he was moved into the room where the fourteen-year-olds lived. Brother Calver’s expression at breakfast when he sat with his new year almost made the three months of humiliation worth it. Training was more challenging but he also endured months of taunts, of finding his clothing stolen or soaked with water or urine, of having his food snatched away from him. He knew fighting them would only make the tormenting increase, and it was no worse than what he had experienced from Rael and the sewer rats in the catacombs. Eventually the pranks ceased as the training drove all else from their minds and they fell into bed too exhausted to even mock one another. In addition to the individual trials, which took place every few months, they began group trials. These pitted all the boys in one age group against each other and were meant to weed out the unfit before the individual trials. In the first few years of training, boys often died in the trials. As they grew older, those who failed but survived were ejected from the Order. When the time came for his first group trial with the older boys, there were only ten including Zion, left in the fourteens.  The group trials were less likely to end in death or serious injury, but, as the Brothers always reminded them, the trials were still meant to test them to the breaking point.

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Chosen

This is a continuation of short serial story that is told here, here, and here. Without the first parts, this will make little sense.

         Shadowmen. Zion didn’t realize he’d spoken the word aloud until Solas grinned.
         “I knew you were quick, boy,” the assassin said, leaning back in his chair. The coin on the table had ceased its frantic spinning and lay flat, looking innocuous once again. Zion felt like he’d swallowed a mouthful of sand and licked his lips several times before he could answer.
         “What do you want with me?” he asked, proud that his voice did not shake.
         Solas hesitated, looking down at his hands. Zion could see the tracery of scars—lighter lines and scores against his weathered skin. There was a lifetime of stories in those scars. A tally of kills. He shuddered at the thought.
         “Once our numbers were many—a Brotherhood that attracted those who sought justice and the return of balance, the punishment of the wicked and the redemption of the innocent. But the years and wars and the diminishing of the faithful have taken their toll. Our order dwindles and few men take the journey to the Broken Tower to take part in the trials.” Solas steepled his long-fingered hands under his chin. “Few remember we exist at all and those that do,” he smiled mirthlessly, “are in no hurry to join our ranks.”
         Solas refilled Zion’s wine goblet and slid it across the table towards him. Zion’s head already felt furred from his first glass but he took a sip, not wanting to refuse the assassin. Solas did not seem quick to anger, but Zion could sense in him something akin to the darkness that burned in Rael. Such men could keep irritation slowly simmering but when it boiled without warning it scalded anything in its way.
         “Some men are born into it—my father and his before him and on through the ages until the beginning—they were all members of the Brotherhood. Others are chosen.”
         Zion took another sip of the wine and set the glass back down unsteadily. He didn’t understand the beggars that stank of the stuff, it made his head feel foggy and Solas’ face swam before his eyes. The assassin was watching him shrewdly, the candlelight playing across his high cheekbones and high, thin forehead. The room tilted suddenly and Zion barely saw Solas move, only felt the strong hands catch him before he tumbled to the floor. Hoisting him like he weighed no more than a child, the assassin laid him gently on the low couch in the corner.
         “I am sorry, child,” Solas said, his voice seeming to come from miles away, echoing like dripping water in the catacombs. “It may be of some comfort to you one day to know that you were meant for this. Il Avior ak’shur. God wills it.”
         Zion tried to struggle against the heavy sleep that tugged at him, tried to speak, to ask what Solas meant, what he had done. But the assassin seemed to read the question in his eyes.
         “Valerian in the wine—one day you’ll learn to recognize the scent. You will learn many other things.”
         Before the drugged sleep pulled him under, he thought he saw regret on Solas’ face, but it was not enough. Zion fixed a burning hate in his heart, searing the assassin’s face in his mind as darkness consumed him.

 

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Shadows

This is a continuation of an on-going (as yet untitled serial story) the first two posts are here and here.

         “Sit down.” Solas gestured to the empty chair in front of the cold hearth. There was a small table with a tray of food waiting and Zion tried not to stare, perching on the edge of the seat.
        “Eat. I know what it is to have a boy’s hunger. Eat,” Solas urged.
        Zion reached for a piece of bread that still steamed, marveling at the soft, fragrant center. He could not remember the last time he ate fresh bread. Once he finished the half-loaf, he wolfed down the soft, white cheese, salty olives, and sticky-sweet dates. There was wine in the goblet and he drank it sparingly, unused to the taste.
        “That wine is from my home. Do you like it?” Solas asked when Zion relaxed into his chair, he had remained silent while Zion ate, dark eyes watchful.
        Zion swallowed the last mouthful of cheese and wine and nodded.
        “You do not ask where I am from,” Solas said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and Zion noticed his clothing for the first time. He was no longer dressed in the boiled leather and drab rough spun cloak of a guard. His trousers were dusky blue and the tunic he wore over his shirt was embroidered with bright red at the neck.
        “You spoke the tongue of my people today in the Market. There are not many who know it,” Zion answered, feeling the sheathe knife in his sleeve press reassuringly against his forearm.
        “True enough.” Solas looked pleased. “How long have you been here, Zion.”
        Zion shrugged and tried not to look longingly at the empty plate, wishing he had savored the olives more slowly. “I came with my mother and sisters before they closed the gates to refugees.”
        “That was over four years ago,” Solas said, almost to himself. “How old are you?”
        “Ten-and-four, I think,” Zion said. “I lost track of the days after the fire.”

        Solas nodded and Zion found himself telling his strange benefactor about his mother and three older sisters. Tall Sacha, clever Anak, and Maial, the one everyone called the little beauty. They had escaped the flames that ravaged the ramshackle wooden shacks near the docks where they were living at the time, but he lost hold of Sacha’s hand and fell into the water during their flight. She tried to turn back to find him, but the panicked mob swept on. They did not stop to worry about what they trampled beneath their feet. He did not remember who fished him out of the briny water where he bobbed alongside fish heads and other floating detritus. Rael caught Zion trying ot pick his pockets a week later and, instead of calling the guards of taking a finger and a thumb for the crime, he took Zion down to the catacombs. Once there, Rael fed him, clothed him, and began to teach him the craft of thievery. Solas’s eyes narrowed at Rael’s name but he did not speak until Zion had concluded his two years spent working for the Thief Master. Zion looked up at Solas at the end of his tale.
        “I stole from you master today. I cannot return what I took.”
        To his surprise, Solas laughed. “That man is but one of many masters I have served. I am certain he will not miss what you took.”
        “You are not his servant, then?” Zion asked.
        “Do you still have the coin I gave you?”
        Zion withdrew it from his tunic and placed it on the table. Solas did not pick it up but touched the face that stared towards Zion with one flat eye.
        “Do you know what this is?”
        Zion shook his head.
        “The man on this coin was once a great ruler—like our beloved Emperor.” Solas’s lips twisted bitterly. “He thought so highly of himself that he demanded his face be placed on both sides of the coin, rather than just one. This angered the priests—for the opposite side of the coin was always used to honor the gods, thus preventing their disfavor. The emperor then demanded that the faces of the gods and honored warriors in the murals and mosaics and etchings be destroyed, along with any statues that were not created in his likeness. He said that none would be honored in stone or clay but him. So the stone masons and painters and sculptors—weeping over their brushes and mallets—destroyed their masterpieces. Before this edict, the great ruler’s city was known as the most beautiful in the land. Soon, it was rumored that the king would order the temples themselves torn down, that their stones and gold be used to create the grandest temple the world had ever seen. What god would be celebrated in this edifice? the people wondered.”
        “The great king,” Zion interrupted in spite of himself.
        Solas nodded and continued, “Once the priests and the people realized what he intended, they were outraged. A mob formed at the gates of his palace and his guards began to prepare for a bloody battle. However, that night, the king fell terribly ill and was dead by morning. The gods had shown their vengeance, the priests said, and raised up another king in his place—a wise, gentle man who respected the gods.”
        Zion curled his lip at the conclusion to the tale. “There are no gods.”
        “You believe in nothing?” Solas asked, picking up the copper coin and turning it so the lamplight burned along its edges.
        “A true god, a powerful god, would not sit silently in a temple made by the hands of slaves to serve the needs of the rich.” Zion met Solas’s gaze squarely. “I believe in taking what you can and in life and in death.”

        A smile spread across Solas’s face and he held the coin up between his thumb and forefinger. “The priests sought to destroy these coins after the death of the arrogant king—the coins were blasphemous, they said. But there were those who liked the idea of being ruled by the priests little better than they liked the first king. These same men were the ones who banded together to carry out judgment on that arrogant king—to send his immortal soul to the darkness while he slept.”
        Solas put the coin’s edge on the table and spun it like a top.
        “Men like me.”
        Zion’s heart was threatening to crawl into his throat. Solas was an assassin–that much did not surprise him. He had to be more than a simple mercenary, Zion had decided before he came to the Broken Staff. But this man was not just an assassin. The legends and whispers he’d heard fell into place—men who killed and left strange coins on the eyes of their victims. Coins no one had seen or used for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Shadowmen.

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The True North Strong And Free*

The final installment in the adventures of Evie and Owen. Read the whole story here.

This is Colorado and not Nevada...but it's my blog and I do what I want. Photo © Vers Les Etoiles

This is Colorado and not Nevada…but it’s my blog and I do what I want. Photo © Vers Les Etoiles

         “It’s been over a week.”
         “No sign? Nothing at all?” Jessamy’s voice cracked on the last word.
         Evie stirred, trying to get the cottony taste out of her mouth as she struggled to open her eyes. Jessamy was talking to the surgeon.
         “None. His heart rate and temperature haven’t been steady—but that’s to be expected. He could still get any sort of normal infection in that arm; we were working with the roughest possible instruments. But I think,” he sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as Jessamy, “I think he’ll be okay. He won’t turn into a stumbler, anyway.”
         Evie could feel the wrinkles of the blanket imprinted in her cheek as she lifted her head. One of her hands was numb and she looked down to see Owen’s long fingers curled tightly around hers. His hand was limp last night when she held it. She tried not to breathe. The steady beeping of the monitor reassured her and Evie’s eyes moved up from his fingers to the stump lying on his chest, then to his face.
         “Hi,” he mouthed, no sound escaping his lips.
         Evie tried to say something, but her throat caught and she put her head back down on the rough blankets. She felt his fingers press hers every so lightly—she could tell it took all his strength and she raised her head.
         “Tears, Evie, love?” he asked weakly. “Tears for me?”
         Evie shook her head, biting her lip and willing the tears to stop.
         “You’re nothing but trouble,” she said unsteadily. “Knew it the first time I saw you.”
         Owen’s other arm stirred and he winced, glancing quickly away from the stump. He swore.
         Evie released his hand and half-rose from her chair, “Does it hurt? Let me—”
         Owen grabbed her wrist with his good hand, mindless of the ropes of IVs that ran out of it. He pulled her towards him, his hand running up her arm to cup her cheek as he drew her face down. She tasted the salt of her tears on his lips.

——–

         Owen’s legs were steady as he suffered Evie to buckle his pack across his chest. She shoved him gently as she felt his lips against her ear and hid a grin at his hurt expression. She rolled an eye towards the crowd standing behind them and he returned the expression.
         “Never thought I’d see that again,” Owen brushed a finger across her cheek.
         “What?” Evie asked, trying not to blush.
         “That smile,” Owen winked at her and she ducked away from him.
         “Worse with one hand than you were with two,” she hissed, sidestepping the swat he aimed at her.
         “Owen,” Gregg stepped forward and clapped Owen lightly on the shoulder. “Sure you won’t stay?”
         “No, Gregg. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll all head out, too. If I learned anything from Vegas, the tweakers are adapting to the cold. Staying here won’t keep you safe for long.”
         “I ’ppreciate the thought, friend. We got a good setup here—weapons, food, the goods. I think we can wait it out a while longer,” Gregg looked as confident as he sounded.
         “Stay safe,” Owen shook Gregg’s hand.
         “Evie,” Gregg awkwardly offered her a hand.
         “Thank you, for everything,” Evie shook his hand, holding his gaze.
         He looked away, “It was nothing. A favor for a friend.”
         Evie nodded, sharing a grin with Owen at Gregg’s embarrassment.
         “He don’t want anyone to think he’s got a soul, that one,” Owen whispered as they went to thank the surgeon and his aides.

——-

         The old Jeep was loaded with supplies, weapons, and ammo; all the goodbyes said except one.
         “I can still come with you,” Jessamy said, checking the straps on the bundles tied to the roof. “I can pack in a few minutes.”
         Evie smiled and shook her head, “No, you should stay here—if it’s what you want.”
         She watched as he glanced over his shoulder at one of the young women in the compound walking along the perimeter of the makeshift bunker, rifle resting easily on her shoulder. Jessamy flushed and then grinned at her. His face turned purple when she pulled him into a hug and he fought to regain his composure as he shook Owen’s hand.
         “You’re a good shot, Jessamy. I owe my life to you just as much as any of these doctors,” Owen said quietly.
         “Take care of each other, yeah?” Jessamy said, looking back and forth. “Try to remember the tweakers are the ones you want to kill, not each other.”
         Owen put a hand to his machete, “I’ll be good if she is.”
         Evie put her hands on her hips, “I hear there’s still some courts up north. I can still get that divorce, you—”
         Owen cut off further threats—encouraged by the whoops and catcalls of the men and women in the yard—until Evie ducked out of his embrace, trying to ignore the burning in her cheeks. They got in the Jeep and Evie put it in drive as the compound gates swung slowly open. She glanced once in the rearview mirror and stuck a hand out the window to return Jessamy’s wave. She looked over and caught Owen’s gray eyes on her, a smile spreading across his thin face.
         “Where to?” he asked.
         “Where you wanna go?” she replied, watching him fumble to open the map with one hand and hold it steady with his other wrist. She stopped the car and took a deep breath against the emotions that tightened her chest.
         “I’ve never been to Canada,” she looked at the snow-cloaked landscape.
         “Canada,” Owen shifted the map, swearing as part of it tore.
         “Don’t slow me down,” Evie said, struggling to maintain a serious expression.
         “Girl,” Owen looked over at her, tipping her chin up with two fingers. “I’ve been chasing you for years. Now that I finally caught up, ain’t no way I’ll let you go.”

* Title thanks to my favourite Dilettante and the Canadian National Anthem.
Writing soundtrack for this post: Last Train Home by Ryan Star