The Captain carried the men inside, one by one. They were beaten, and hacked, and cut to pieces. First came a blond, matted with blood; second, came a thin man; third, came a stocky one, head nearly removed from his shoulders. The last man was drug in by the Captain, his own personal kill, torn to pieces. Blood covered the Captain’s silver armor, and ran in streaks down his lined face. He looked older, and walked younger, than Sarah had ever seen him.
“Here,” he said, dumping the last body at her and Ian’s feet. “This is the last one.”
Ian and Sarah looked at one another, and then at Harry.
“What the **** is this?” Ian said.
“They killed a bunch of people over at the Greased Pig,” the Captain said, standing as still as a shadow.
“Why?” Sarah said.
“I don’t know.”
The Captain was still carrying his sword. It made Sarah nervous. She wanted to ask Harry to put it away, so that she didn’t have to stare at the copious amounts of dry and still-wet blood, but there was nobody home in Harry’s head, and she wasn’t sure that she could deal with the Captain.
“Would you like us to check you out? Ian said, gently. The Captain shook his head.
“I have other business to attend to,” the Captain said, and turned, and left. They listened to his boots as they crossed the wooden floor, and listened as they hit the porch outside, and as they hit the hard dirt. It was only after they could no longer hear his footsteps did they both realize they had stopped breathing.
“Have you ever seen these men before?” Ian asked. Sarah shook her head.
“Never,” she said.
“Put them next to the other one, and then start the large furnace.”
Sarah looked over at Ian, whose face was set in stone.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea–” she began.
“It’s possible that these men killing all of those people over at the Pig was coincidental with the explosion over at Bannar’s shop, or that both of occurrences are coincidental with Bannar warning us about giving up Alex to strange men. I do not think it likely,” Ian said. He finally looked at her. This was not an Ian she had met before.
“I will move these bodies, and get the furnace ready,” she said.
“Thank you, Sarah,” he said.
Sarah grabbed the blond by his legs, and pulled him out of the room. He left a trail of blood, like a gigantic snail; Sarah found the imagery strangely, savagely funny, and she had to bite back giggles. She put him on the slab with the thief, and did the same for the stocky one, and the spider-like man, and the one Harry had drug in the door. She drug him, too, and hit his nearly destroyed skull against the door frame. She almost felt bad for humiliating the man, one last time.
The furnace had given heat to the previous owner, a wealthy jeweler, who had to abandon it when he sold fake diamonds to a warrior clan. Ian had converted to burn the bodies of the unidentified; people didn’t like it, they found it disrespectful in the eyes of the gods, but Ian had saved someone from every family in his time in Toha, and nobody had made a fuss in years. It took coal, and logs, and when it burned hot, she drug the stocky man to the edge, and pushed him in with an old piece of wood. She did the same for the blond and the skinny man, and the Captain’s personal kill. The smell was mostly contained by the metal of the furnace, and she had long since grown used to the sight and smell of cooked man, but this much blood in one night set her teeth on edge.
She found Ian mopping up the blood, working backwards from the dead slabs to the front parlor. She found a second mop, and cleaned too; they had people for this, had servants that Ian payed to clean up, but the message of the old, tired Healer was: nobody can know. And nobody would; not from them, at least.
They mopped for hours, using rough rags when the mops did not scour. They used soap, and Ian used magic, and after those hours, the house became a home again. But it was a strange place for Sarah to be; she could still feel the heat from the furnace, could still hear it burning from a few rooms over. Ian left, occasionally, to check on Alex, but always came back, as silent as before.
The Captain returned, this time with Bannar in tow.
“Is he okay?” Bannar said to Sarah and Ian.
“Yes,” Ian said. Bannar breathed a sigh of relief.
“Did you burn those bodies?” the Captain said.
“Yes, Captain,” Sarah said. The Captain nodded.
“Good. I hoped you would,” he said.
“He’s asked for you,” Sarah said to Bannar, unable to stop herself.
“Alex asked for me? Gods, why does nobody tell me anything!” Bannar said, and raced past Ian and Sarah, leaving them with the Captain.
“They killed a merchant,” the Captain said, toeing a spot of blood that Ian had missed.
“Second one this week,” Ian said.
Sarah began mopping again. She kept quiet, almost held her breath.
“I got the impression from that rat **** looking one, right before I killed him, that they were looking for a specific merchant.”
“Have you told this to Bannar?”
“He’s more concerned with Alex,” the Captain said, and the mention of Alex’s name softened something in Harry’s gaze.
“He’ll live, though he will need time to recover,” Ian said.
“I suspect that he won’t have much time to do so.”
The two men stared at one another for a moment, communicating without words. Sarah desperately wanted to interject, to break the silence, but she held steady. Eventually, Harry nodded.
“I saw seven men come in the town earlier tonight, before the Pig,” Harry said, hand unconsciously touching the sword handle.
“This quickly?” Ian said.
“If they’re after Alex, they’ll find him soon. There is bound to be loose lips somewhere in Toha who knows what happened tonight.”
“Who knows about the Pig?”
“Grita, Oso, Marcus, and four other men, plus the people in this room and Bannar. The rest of Toha is still asleep,” Harry said.
“They’ll come for them both once they figure out their mercenaries failed,” Ian said.
“Mercenaries?” Sarah said, her curiosity overwhelming her common sense. They turned to her, and she felt very small.
“As I told you, this all feels connected, and learning that two merchants have been killed in search of another only serves to further my suspicion,” Ian said. “I suspect that the group in the Pig was sent to find and kill Bannar.”
“But what about Alex? What do they want with him?” Sarah said.
“It could have to do with removing the bodyguard, or it could have to do with that stone that Bannar took from us earlier tonight.”
Bannar came out of the back room. He looked tired, and looked every bit of years.
“He’s still asleep. I could not rouse him,” he said.
“He’s going to need time,” Ian said.
“He doesn’t have it. Can he travel?”
“No. The wounds are too fresh, and his stitches may not hold under constant stress.”
“Then we need a place to put him while he recovers,” Harry said.
“Toha is no longer safe. He needs to be outside the city walls,” Bannar said.
“We could take him to the Grenwood,” Ian said.
“A lot of danger in that forest,” Harry said.
“And a place you would never take a wounded man. That’s exactly where he should go,” Bannar said.
“Give me one more day with us, and then he’ll be ready,” Ian said. Sarah looked at him, but he did not look at her.
“One day,” Bannar said. He turned to Harry. “What are you going to do with those men who came in tonight?”
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Harry said.
“Maybe you should take them out now.”
“They haven’t done anything,” Sarah said. The three men did not look at her.
“We don’t know if they’re apart of that same group as the Pig,” Harry said.
“It’s not a risk we can take,” Bannar said.
“I’m going to need advance warning before you do so. We don’t have the space to keep burning bodies,” Ian said.
“You cannot just murder people,” Sarah said, and they ignored her.
“If those men are half as skilled as they present themselves, it will be a hell of a fight taking them down,” Harry said.
“Find out what inn they’re staying in and poison their food,” Bannar said.
“You cannot just kill–” Sarah began, and Bannar turned to her, finally. She felt afraid, under the intensity of his stare. She did not dare speak again, and eventually, Bannar turned back to the other two men.
“I cannot make you kill them, Harry,” Bannar said, “but if they are who I think they are, they will kill all of us to get to him.”
“Who are they, Lucas? You haven’t told us the whole truth,” Ian said.
“No, I haven’t. I have to go. Please find me if Alex wakes up, or if you are approached, “ Bannar said, and left.
“I can’t post a guard outside, but I will send a man over to sit in the parlor,” Harry said.
“Thank you,” Ian said, and Harry nodded, and left. Ian sighed.
“We can’t just kill those men, Ian,” Sarah said.
“If they’re coming after us, then we must,” he said.
“We don’t know that they are.”
“There’s a good chance.”
“Maybe. But they could just be seven mercenaries travelling together.”
“If we kill them now, that’s seven people dead. If we don’t, and they’re whoever Bannar thinks they are, then that’s hundreds of us dead, Sarah,” Ian said.
Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but Ian put up his hand.
“Go check on the patient, and then turn in for the night. You’re going to need the rest.”
Ian walked away. He went to his bedroom door, and opened it, and went inside. Sarah knew that he would be back out, to check on the patient himself long after she had gone to bed. He was obsessive when they had someone in their care; obsessive about checking the stitches, about keeping them clean, about making sure they stayed with full bellies of water and food. There would be no sleep for him tonight.
Sarah went to her room, the spare that Ian kept for her, and laid on her bed. She kept her work clothes on, and her shoes, too. Ian would need something; would need food, or hot water for a bath. There wouldn’t be much sleep for her tonight, either, as much as Ian may wished otherwise.
Harry sat in a bath of hot, burning water. Only his head was dry, and his eyes were closed, and he breathed as if he were asleep. It was a way to calm himself; something he had discovered in the First Blades, when he was captured by the Korodan. They would put people in boiling water, slowly lowering them in by their feet, until the pain was so great that they would give up whatever information they possessed. Harry had broken dozens of times before he figured out to use the heat to his advantage.
It served him even better after a bloodlust. He had cut down hundreds of men, and each time he found himself in the scalding, crushing heat. It was punishment for his misdeeds; it was the cleansing of his soul. He preferred to think of it this way, as he once did, as the bards and the poets would; otherwise, he would have to admit himself that now, he just liked to take naps in really warm rooms, and that this stuff didn’t bother him as much as it used to.
Harry opened his eyes. His wife, Helena, stood there in the doorway, recently awoken, and still sleepy.
“Hello, love,” Harry said.
“Are you alright?” she said.
“Fine. Just cleaning up before I got back out.”
“That’s a lie. You never take a bath during your patrol.”
Harry looked at her. Helena looked at him.
“There was an attack at the Pig, and it got bloody. Everything is fine, now, but I had to draw my sword,” he said. She came over to him, and knelt by the tub.
“Are you hurt?” she said.
“No. They didn’t lay a finger on me.”
A brilliant smile, as bright as Harry’s, and with twice the warmth, spread over Helena’s face.
“That’s my boy,” she said, and pinched his cheek. He rolled his eyes as she stood up.
“Were you actually worried about me?” he said.
“Of course I was. But you’re the best fighter in town, love. I wasn’t that worried,” She said.
“Second-best, to you.”
“You always know exactly what to say.”
Helena pulled her night gown off, and climbed into the bath with him. She sat between his legs, and he wrapped his arms around her. She laid her head in her chest. His hands rested on her stomach, and along the thick diagonal scar, from hip midsection, that she’d had for as long as Harry had know her.
“Does this still hurt?” Harry said, pressing on the scar. She shook her head.
“No. Not for a long time,” she said.
“Do you ever think about it?”
“Not really. Do you think about yours?”
He thought about the knife that a barmaid drove into his back, during the Battle of Boros. He thought about the way he wrapped a chain around her neck, and hung her from the rafters, just millimeters above the ground, and how he’d left her there to suffocate.
“Not really,” he said.
Helena touched a scar on her neck, a small one that was barely noticeable.
“An arrow grazed me here, when I was very young. The first time I was ever shot. It made me very angry,” she said.
“Why did someone shoot an arrow at you?”
“They were a former suitor of my mother, jealous that my father was a better man. They were afraid of him, but not little girls, so he tried to kill me to hurt them. He missed, but I still remember the whistle of the wind, and the pain from the arrow tip. I think about that sometimes.”
She smiled to herself, shook her head.
“What?” Harry said.
“They found him a few months later, nailed to a tree in the woods. He had starved to death.”
Harry looked at her, and then burst out laughing. She smiled, and snuggled up against them.
“Not to bismirch the dead,” Harry said, “but that makes me less upset that I never met your parents.”
“They would’ve loved you,” Sarah said.
“Perhaps. Or perhaps your mother would’ve strung me up by my cock, and hung me over a great pit of scorpions, or sharks, or bears. I have been known, on occasion, to make a poor impression.”
“Perhaps, love. Perhaps.”
They closed their eyes, and enjoyed the heat.
They let Alex sit up at that next morning, let him walk around. The stitches were tight on his skin, and he could not pull on his breeches, and the Healer and his assistant Sarah had to do it for him.
“Just a little further, Alex,” Sarah said, walking him down the hallway, the healer on one side, Sarah on the other. They made it to the end of the hall, and then turned, and started back. Alex’s legs moved in a shuffle, and his breathing was labored. Halfway back down the hall, his left leg came out from under him, and he nearly took Ian and Sarah down with him.
They took him back to the bedroom, and the healer him on the bed. The healer laid his hands on Alex’s leg, and muttered, while Sarah wiped the sweat off his face and chest. Alex’s breathing had slowed, and he no longer had to stop himself from shaking. Green light dripped from the healer’s fingers, and a warmness, like the coziness of bread baking in the oven, spread over him.
“What is that?” Alex said.
“A spell,” the healer said.
“It mends cuts, and heals bruises, and many other things.”
“It feels wonderful.”
The healer looked at him strangely, and then he and Sarah shared a gaze.
“It does?” the healer said.
“Is that bad?” Alex said. The healer shook his head.
“No. Not at all. It’s just strange to be using this spell on someone who is awake.”
The healer finished, and stepped away from Alex. The warmth faded, but the leg felt different; it felt like the only true part of him now. The healer wiped his forehead, and put his arm on Sarah’s shoulder for support.
“I need to rest for a moment, ser. Sarah will tend to you shortly.”
Sarah escorted the healer out of the room, and shut the door behind them. Alex sat up in bed. That small bit of movement did him no good, and he nearly fell back on the bed. But he stood anyway. He put pressure on his leg, and it held. The other one was not so sturdy, and when he pressed down on that one, his knee gave way, and he went firmly to the ground.
The door opened, and Sarah came back in. She rushed over to him, and helped him up.
“Please don’t do that,” she said.
“I thought I was better,” he said.
“One leg is mostly healed. The rest of you is still badly damaged, and you’re going to have to move quickly tonight. So, don’t hurt yourself, please.”
Sarah put his arm around her shoulder, and led him to the door. They went back out into the hallway, and began walking again.
“Has Merchant Bannar been by?” Alex said.
“He came by last night,” Sarah said. Alex’s stomach dropped.
“Did he come see me?”
“He did. You were asleep. A little faster, please.”
They began walking faster. Alex cursed himself. Bannar had been by; he had missed his chance. It had been so clear to him last night; so easy to find the words. But this morning, this fresh morning, he had long since forgotten the speech, and lost the courage he’d built alongside it. He would have to do it on the fly.
“Can you bring him here? I need to talk to him,” Alex said.
“After we finish walking up and down this hallway, I will fetch Merchant Bannar for you. Now please concentrate.”
Alex did as he was told. He relied on her too much to walk, still, even with his leg repaired. It wasn’t the pain so much as it was the instability; one leg worked, and the other simply didn’t. It was frustrating.
“Where is the thief?” Alex said.
“Dead,” Sarah said.
“Has he been buried?”
“Do we know anything about him?”
“No. More pressure on the leg, please.”
Alex did as he was told. He flexed his left hand, and then his right; those, at least weren’t damaged beyond repair.
“The healer can use magic,” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
“I don’t know how.”
“Couldn’t he teach you?”
“Why not?” he said.
“Because he can’t. Stop, put pressure on the leg. Turn. Start walking,” she said.
“You said you were going to get Bannar if we made it down the hallway.”
“One more time.”
They started back down the hallway. A third of way down, his toes caught, and his knee would not raise, and they went down to the floor. Sarah got back up, and stuck her hand out, and pulled him up.
“You’re doing good,” she said.
“I’m doing shit,” he said.
“A building fell on you. You’re doing great. Walk back to the bed with me, and I’ll fetch Bannar.”
Alex did, putting one foot in front of another. Even in the cell, even when he was being beaten by the guards, and even when they’d burned the mark of a Palace Guard off his shoulder, Alex had never felt helpless like this.
But they made it back to the bed. She wiped the sweat off of him, and sat him on the bed. She left the room, and brought back a jug of water, and set it by his bedside. She poured some into a cup, and handed it to him.
“Drink,” she said, and he drank. He drank three cups before she was satisfied.
“Chamber pot?” she said, and he nodded. She brought one to him, and set it by the bed.
“I’m going to let you handle this while I get Bannar,” she said, “but if you find that you can’t, find Ian, or wait for me to return. If you get shit and piss in your wounds, it will make it worse.”
She went to the door.
“Who is Ian?” Alex said.
“The healer,” Sarah said, and left the room.
Alex took another drink of water, and then looked at the chamber pot. He tried to pull down his breeches, and winced at the pain. He tried to get up to find Healer Ian, and winced at the pain. He sighed, and laid back down on the bed.
“I better wait,” he said.
They watched the old man leave his house. His armor was clean this morning, though beaten and battered from the night before. They watched from down the street, dirt caked on their faces and their clothes ripped; they watched him leave his home, and followed him down the street.
Joseph walked with Ethan and Tenzo; they followed the closest, acted the drunkest, acted the poorest. The other four, Alto, Hiseni, Burnek, and Itho dressed in fine silks, and walked in a group in front, whispering to one another. The old man paid them no notice, and they did not follow when he went into a bar.
Their armors were back at the inn; stuffed under the bed, while their weapons were hidden inside the straw mattress. They were not hard to find, and not hard to retrieve; all seven knew they were being watched, and all seven did not care. They were disguised now, as good as anyone could be; only someone familiar with the First Blades, someone who had worked as spy themselves, would even begin to suspect.
When the old man went into the bar, the men in the silks went on. Joseph lead Ethan and Tenzo to a muddy patch of dirt, and they sat down in it. Tenzo put his cap on the ground, revealing dark auburn hair.
“They have not reported back to us,” Ethan said, softly, to Joseph. “I wish we had not hired them.”
“They did their job well enough,” Joseph said.
“I have heard rumors of bloodshed in a local bar. Rumors of two merchants being killed in two days.”
“We did not hire mercenaries for their quiet nature.”
“Perhaps we should have,” Ethan said.
“Perhaps we should have,” Joseph said.
They watched people pass by. They were mostly ignored, even in this cool, bright early morning. A few kind men and women laid coin in the hat, and Tenzo gave them a grateful smile every time.
“It will be hard to protect them, Tenzo, should we have to take the town,” Ethan said.
“Do not tease him, Ethan,” Joseph said.
“I am being serious.”
Tenzo looked up at Ethan, and then at Joseph, who nodded. Tenzo looked back to the hat, just as a young child toddled over, and put in paper money. Tenzo smiled at him, and the child smiled back, and went back to his mother, who smiled at them all.
“Both of them, Tenzo?” Ethan scoffed. “The father? The whole family? If you really think about it, they’re probably connected to everyone in the entire town. We should just spare everyone.”
Tenzo looked only at Joseph this time.
“Last warning, Ethan,” Joseph said.
“I am tired of his game,” Ethan said.
“It is not a game,” Tenzo said.
“You protect those who give some coin, like some benevolent god. It is absurd.”
“It is not absurd.”
Tenzo looked back down at the hat. Ethan shook his head.
“Whatever,” he said.. Tenzo looked at Joseph, and Joseph shook his head. Tenzo went back to the hat, and all three settled in to wait for the old guard to leave the bar.