by Paul A. Ogilvie
It was a good day to be indoors. The storms that had been glowering in the north had finally come south, sweeping up the mountain valleys in a fury of wind and sleet.
In Alenton, the sky was black with cloud, though it was only early afternoon. Icy sleet and rain churned the streets to muddy chaos. The tall, dark pines that pressed in all around the town rocked and creaked in the gale.
Not much happened in Alenton, a flyspeck logging town halfway up one of the great wooded valleys of the far north. One wit in the tavern said so little happened in the place, folks would be talking about this storm for the next forty years. But he was wrong about that.
The tavern was busy and the fire was high. Little work could be done on a day such as this, so people had come to the tavern instead—to drink, and eat, and gamble. That was the way of things in small towns in the middle of nowhere.
Regardless of the weather, Davad Kins was having a good day. His purse was heavy, his belly was full, and just two days ago he had finally gutted the damnably tenacious sheriff who had been following him since Temple Cross. What particular crime the man had wanted him for, Davad neither knew nor cared. It could have been anything. He had been a busy man in Temple Cross.
The red-haired barmaid came over to his corner table with another tray of drinks. As she leaned over the table, Davad’s thin lips twisted into a smile. Idly, he reached out one meaty hand and gripped her backside. The girl froze, but kept her eyes on the table.
“Ah, but you’re a fine looking strumpet, eh?” Davad said, squeezing her buttock through the thin cotton of her dress. Across the table from him, Tor giggled and Anders sighed, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.
“There’ll be a silver piece for you if I find you warming my bed tonight, lass. Gold, if you bring a friend.”
“I can’t do that, sir,” the girl said. She still had not looked at him.
Many nights spent in places such as this had given Davad a sensitivity to what went on in them. He felt eyes on him.
Sure enough, when he looked over the girl’s shoulder there was a big lad sitting at the bar, glowering, face red, at Davad. This lassie’s sweetheart, no doubt.
Ah well, if the lad had sense in him he’d see the dawn, otherwise Davad would slit his throat. Davad meant to have this girl.
“Can’t, is it?” Davad said, pinching her backside and twisting the flesh. The girl gasped in pain. “Well, we’ll see about you and your can’t, missy.” There was Tor giggling again, and even Anders smiled this time. Fine mates the two of them were, just smart enough to realize how much smarter Davad was.
He’d have to get rid of them sooner or later though, Davad knew. They found murder too easy, and used it as another might use harsh language. Davad wasn’t adverse to a bit of murder himself, but there was a time and a place for everything. The more or less random violence of Tor and Anders tended to attract attention.
The heavy pine door of the tavern swung open, and through it came a flurry of rain, the howl of the wind, and a man.
A boy, Davad corrected himself as the stranger pushed back the hood of his sodden cloak. A frowning boy with chalk-white skin, black hair, and dark eyes that slowly scanned the tavern. The boy’s gaze settled on Davad’s group in the corner. Davad sighed in irritation, then gave the girl’s backside one last squeeze and pushed her back toward the bar.
“Another one,” Davad muttered as the boy walked slowly across the tavern.
“Eh?” Tor said. Anders was the more clever by a small margin, and had pulled his long knife from his belt. The boy stood, perfectly still, his dark eyes calm, some five yards from the table. Not too many folk had been sitting near Davad anyway, and those that remained moved away.
“What is it, then?” Davad said, pouring some wine into his pewter cup. “Did I kill your father? Knock up your sister? Offend your god?”
“No, none of that,” the boy replied, his voice easy enough that Davad examined him more closely. A boy? Perhaps not. The pale skin was smooth enough, but the eyes, those dark eyes were not young, not young at all.
“Then what?” Davad said, leaning back and lifting his feet up onto the table. Across from him, by the wall, Tor and Anders were all but quivering with violent anticipation, waiting for the word from Davad.
“Did I steal your horse?” Davad said. “I’ve seen a man do a lot of things for the sake of a stolen horse. It must be something, anyway, because you’ve the look of a killing grudge about you. I’ve seen it before, boy. I’ve seen it lots of times. I’m still alive.”
“I have no grudge,” the boy said. “You’re worth money.” He pulled the pin from his cloak and the garment dropped onto the floor behind him. Beneath, he wore dark clothes of a simple cut. A long sword hung in a leather sheath at his hip, the ornate silver of the hilt shining in the firelight.
“Oh, marvelous,” Davad sighed. “Another bloody bounty hunter. I’ve seen a lot of those too, my boy.”
“Davad Kins,” the young man said. “Tor Bailey. Nilheim Anders. I assume the dead fat man I found with the sheriff’s body was Augustus Murphy.”
“What’s it to you?” Tor snarled, his hand gripped tightly around the hilt of his short sword.
“His head’s worth forty gold,” the bounty hunter said. “As is yours.”
Tor leapt forward from the bench, his blade flashing into his hand. Anders was half a step behind, his heavy hunting knife clutched tight.
The bounty hunter’s sword flicked out with great speed, slashing across Tor’s throat then darting back to thrust through Anders’ heart. The bounty hunter reversed his sword and slid it back into the sheath before the bodies hit the floor. The combat had taken perhaps a second and a half. He looked down and stepped back from the blood soaking through the sawdust on the floor.
“They’re only worth anything dead,” the bounty hunter said to Davad, unbuckling his sword belt. It fell to the ground with a clatter. “You’re worth more alive.”
“Well, thank the gods for that,” Davad said. He threw the pewter cup at the bounty hunter’s head. The young man swayed to one side, and Davad leapt over the table, a knife jumping into his hand from the hidden sheath on his wrist.
The bounty hunter was fast. He dropped backward as the knife flashed toward his face; the blade leaving only a thin mark on his left cheek. The bounty hunter hit the floor and rolled backward, his feet lifting up into Davad’s chest and then kicking out to throw him further in the direction he was traveling. Davad crashed into a table, spilling bottles and cups over the floor with a clatter of broken glass.
He scrambled to his feet and spun around, but the bounty hunter was already standing and closing. Davad thrust with his knife. The bounty hunter stepped back and kicked one foot up into Davad’s wrist, sending the blade flying free, and carried on the motion, spinning round and slamming the heel of his other foot into Davad’s throat. Davad stumbled back, suddenly unable to breath. A punch so fast he did not even see it slammed into his gut, then a sharp knee hit his groin and he collapsed to the floor in agony.
Davad Kins was a tough man. He rose to a crouch and reached for a broken bottle, but then a blow hit the back of his neck and he slumped forward, his eyes closing.
* * * * *
The storm had blown itself out during the night, and the next morning the wooded hills and valleys around Alenton were wet and still. To the south, the early rays of the dawning sun turned the jagged peaks of the White Cloud Mountains a fantastic pink. The sky was clear. The air was cold.
Two riders moved slowly along a muddy track that wound up one of the hills. The bounty hunter rode ahead of Davad Kins. Davad, bruised and aching, had his hands manacled together. He glared at the man ahead of him.
“You. Hey, you,” Davad called. The bounty hunter turned slowly in his saddle. The cut from Davad’s knife was a dark line on his pale cheek.
“What?” he said.
“What’s your name, boy?” Davad said.
The bounty hunter stared impassively at him for a few seconds, then shrugged.
“Inkin Navarro,” he said.
“Navarro.” Davad said. “I’ve heard of you. Didn’t think you’d be so young.”
“Most old people don’t,” Inkin said, turning to face the path ahead.
“Old? I’m barely thirty!”
“You’re thirty-eight,” Inkin said.
“Am I?” Davad said, astonished. “Hmm,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “I suppose I might be, at that.” His eyes narrowed. “How in hell’s name do you know how old I am?”
“As hard as it may be to believe, Kins,” Inkin said, “you have become quite famous in the south. You’ve been rampaging through these lands for the best part of a decade. Did you think no one would notice? The daring rogue with a heart of gold and a ready quip for all occasions. Always willing to help the poor and the needy. And ladies in peril, of course. Everyone is very clear about that part, the ladies in peril.”
“You’re taking the piss,” Davad growled.
“No, actually,” Inkin said. “We’re far enough from the capital and all the bored nobles that what you do seems romantic, seems heroic to them. Some fool even wrote a poem about you.”
“Really?” Davad said. “Was it any good?”
“I don’t know,” Inkin said. “You’d have to ask a poet. But the man did some research, anyway, and checked the parish records in Jirkin. So now all the court knows that you were born in the year 385.” Inkin looked over his shoulder and smiled a tight smile. “The year of the rat.”
“Is that where you’re taking me, then?” Davad said. “The capital? Is that why I’m still alive, to be paraded in chains in front of all those powdered poofs and tarts? A barbarian freak from the north?”
“Perhaps,” Inkin said. “I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m just to hand you over and collect my money.”
“You could at least tell me where we’re going,’’ Davad said. “And you want money? I can get you money. A big stash of gold and gems I got from a Buranti caravan three years back. Did you hear about that? Was that in your poem?”
“I think it might have been, actually,” Inkin said.
“Well, I got all this beautiful gold,” Davad said. “And emeralds, and sapphires as big as duck eggs, and buried it all on this wee island over on the west coast. Only I know where. You and me, Inkin Navarro, we’ll go get it and live like kings.”
“You have the wealth of kings but choose to stay in flea-bitten hovels at the backside of nowhere?” Inkin said. “I don’t think so, Kins.”
“Well, times have been hard,” Davad said. “I was just about to head west and stock up on cash when you found me. So, what do you say?”
Inkin ignored him.
Twenty minutes later, Davad noticed the bounty hunter swaying erratically in his saddle, and smiled with satisfaction.
“You alright there, boy?” Davad called cheerfully. Inkin swung his head round and stared at him, a sheen of sweat on his face.
“Fine,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, you just look a bit queasy, that’s all. Must be something you ate. Terrible sicknesses you can get in crappy wee places like Alenton. What they put in their food—well, best not to ask, really.” Inkin turned away. A minute later he swung clumsily down from the saddle and knelt in the wet grass by the path. He vomited.
“That’s the ticket,” Davad said. “You throw it all up. Better out than in, as my dear ma used to say. ’Course, she died of the pox herself, so what the hell did she know?”
Inkin barely heard the words. He was cold, colder than he could ever remember being. Every muscle and tendon in his body seemed to be tight and shivering. His head felt heavy and thick, and there was a slow numbness spreading across his face from his cheek. His cheek. Where Davad had cut him the night before.
Somehow he managed to lurch to his feet, and spun round to face Davad, who sat grinning atop his horse. Inkin tried to draw his sword, but got his legs tangled about the scabbard and fell to the grass once more.
“Figured it out, have you?” Davad’s voice seemed to be coming from some impossible distance. “Gidso blossom, it is, from the far lands of the east. Enough to kill a whale, or so I’m told. Ah, you’re a bright one to work it out. Shame it has to end when you’re still so young, eh?”
Inkin tried to spit out a curse, but darkness was closing in fast about him, smothering the spark of his young life.
His vision blurred and dimmed, but still he could see Davad swing down from the horse, his hands still manacled together, and walk toward him.
Davad crouched down over Inkin, and Inkin could feel his big hands searching Inkin’s pockets and pouches. Looking for the key to the manacles.
“I’ll tell you, son,” Inkin heard Davad say—heard, but barely understood. The final darkness was close now. “Sometimes you have to cheat,” Davad Kins said, and Inkin Navarro knew no more.