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In The Back

By

R.  M. Hicks

Wret Aigner

            A brief autumn downpour made the rugged cobblestone streets of Cato ’Rouen slippery and cold under Wret Aigner’s bare feet.  Bastards stole his boots while he had been dazed from a blow to the head and probably would have stolen him naked had he not come around.  It was insult to injury; he was supposed to do the stealing and the killing, not the other way around.  He had been assigned to do it.  Midnight’s Order had been contracted for the job and belonging to that notorious guild of assassin’s resulted in Wret being tasked.  As such, his failure, other than being personally humiliating, meant he had more to worry about than his missing boots.  But damn those were good boots!  Made of dark soft suede and thick soles so they were very quiet and very expensive; which is why he hoped they took them, for their value, and not because they planned on cursing his feet.  People will do that you know, he’s seen it, cursed feet so rotted and stinking they literally killed the person.  Tonight however, his target must have thought him dead from the crack to the skull he received, which would explain why they even bothered to take the time to remove his boots instead of finishing him off.  They certainly did seem surprised when Wret leapt up, hurled a dagger at that gaudy dressed piece of gentry, then sprinted away.  It was a good throw and struck the target as intended.  Unfortunately, Wret clearly heard the ‘chink’ of metal as the dagger struck some armor hidden underneath the finery of garments and knew the dagger had not killed.

            “A failure and a fool all in one night,” he lamented.

            Water dripped noisily in shallow puddles of the dark alleys.  A mild drizzle tamed the rank odor of the place and cooled the throbbing injury on his forehead.  The pale ringed moon who is Muthe, the god of travelers and sojourns, cast a dim light through the clouds and into the mist allowing Wret to move confidently amongst thick shadows. The god of traveler’s was Wret’s god and when the pale moon was half waxed and distant, it was supposed to be his best portent, but damn, that god really let him down tonight.  Felt like Muthe had deceived him. The gods will do that sometimes, deceive you, for no reason at all. They are more like people than they let on.   Swiftly as caution would allow, Wret strode through the alleys to get to his safe house.  He was confident Midnight’s Order did not know of it.  He had purchased it a couple years ago, visited it rarely, briefly, and only for the purpose to ensure vagrants weren’t squatting there.  He stood motionless in the darkness and watched it, scanning for movement, for something out of place, for the building itself to warn him of eminent danger; a danger inevitably to come from the very people he served, whom he was sure would send a murderer after him the very second they learnt of his failure.

            The staircase to the apartment had decayed into nonexistence some time ago so Wret shimmied up a vine to the balcony.  Tepidly, he approached the door, and tested it....still locked.  He observed the shadows below him then picked the lock.  There was no key for this lock. Keys were inherently dangerous, they had a high betrayal value as he knew full well; lifting them had been his first job for Midnight’s Order. The guild has this enormous key room, it’s an underground hallway linking two taverns and contains a duplicate of every key for every door in Cato ‘Rouen.  Or so he’s been told.  The guild didn’t like showing anything to anybody unless they absolutely have to. Anyway, all the keys he lifted had to go somewhere and that sounded true enough for him. Supposedly, there is another cad who returns the original and tests the duplicates making sure they unlock the door they are for.  Wret never did that job though; you have to be able to read to do it.  Wret couldn’t read and never had a care to learn.  People who read are weird, always talking about things that mean nothing and make no sense.

            With the last tumbler fitted, the pry turned the bolt, and the door unsealed itself.  Wret tensed up when he pushed the door open as he half expected to be grabbed, throttled, cut down or impaled by arrows. He experienced little in the way of relief when nothing happened.  In the blackness he heard only the patter of rodents skittering into their hiding place.  “Apartments within apartments,” he muttered, “if only they paid rent.”

            The room stank of mildew and old wood, which really wasn’t so bad compared to the summer stink.  He briskly stepped inside and latched the door behind him.  After a few minutes of fumbling around, he struck up a lantern and its light blanketed the diminutive apartment in an amber glow.

            Wret peeled off the sticky cold linens from his body and passed up the old oak chest full of fresh garments for a bottle of fortified wine, whose warmth he found far more satisfying than clothing.  He sat cross-legged on a cot, gulped the wine and indulged his fears with thoughts of paranoia.  They could kill him with a ferocious beating, here, in this very room, if they were able to track him.  They could stab him in the back in the broad daylight on a crowded street.  They could poison his wine - he looked suspiciously at the bottle, shrugged and continued drinking.  Many ways there were to die; pierce him from a distance, smother him in his sleep, utterly purge him with black magic....many, many ways.  Capture and torture the worst of the worse.  He had to leave Cato ’Rouen, survival here was impossible.

            A voice from the past whispered through his head, “Ready for a whippin’ today, Boy?”  He spat on the floor spitefully.  It seemed inevitable that this stupid situation would dredge up wretched memories of his damn father.  “Bastard.”

            He had already gotten whooped today, but he wasn’t ready to die.  He had to leave and fortunately this room had been bought and prepared for exactly that purpose.  Funny thing, he never actually expected to be running from Midnight’s Order, it was in case someone else put his name on a vendetta. A chest in the corner contained what he needed.  Its key was hidden under the leg of the cot.  It was best to use a key on this lock otherwise it would sting you if you didn’t get it right.  He threw the lid open and his stomach churned violently and not from the wine.  A cloak lined the bottom, on top of it was a set of clothing, a leather pouch filled with necessities, a pair of daggers and laid neatly across them, was something he had not put there....the stalk of an antler with a spot of ink.

            “Damn it!”  He winced as if struck and popped his thumb knuckles within the grasp of clenched fingers.  He wiped away the sudden accumulation of sweat on his upper lip.  The guild knew!

            Wret’s failure was barely several hours old, yet they knew right away.  The antler was a summons.  It meant Taskmaster Tajudeen Remelio wanted to have a word with him.  He had delivered a couple of antlers himself.  It could have been worse.  It could have been a femur bone sitting in there, notification of Death by Exemplification; a public death.  He’s delivered one of those as well.  Midnight’s Order was fond of telling you they were going to kill you, it was as if they could feed off the fear it generated.  Of course, notifying you of your imminent demise was also the reason why it was so important that they succeed in every assassination. 

            Spared for now, he should have felt relief, yet the idea of summons spawned in him an absolute dread of the inevitable haranguing to come.

            Wret wasted no time getting ready. Tajudeen Remelio wasn’t the type who liked to wait, and Wret sure as hell didn’t want an escort to show up.

witch

            Cato ’Rouen was ruled by the dogmen known as Fen ‘Mwr and the city was shaped like a massive amphitheater, the stage being a magnificent palace centered on an island in Rouen Bay.  Wooded hills encircled the bay and populating the slopes were clusters of domiciles suggesting of an audience with full view of the drama on the stage below.

            On the back side of these hills are the haunted ruins of Vastren Keep and the cemetery therein.  Of course, it’s not ghosts that haunt those ruins, but murderous rogues, some of whom Wret was on a first name basis and since he was expected, he’d neither be harassed by them or even so much as see them.  There were very few official headstones in the cemetery, usually the dead were simply buried in unmarked and uneven rows of elongated mounds, or not at all, as all about lay scattered bones...lots of bones.  Small pyramids of skulls marked the trail to the Taskmaster’s armored carriage.

            The carriage no longer had wheels, it was partially sunk into the ground and was overgrown with vines and brush, and as such, nothing this side of a hurricane could even make it move.  Wret was sure it sat on top of a large basement or a warren of catacombs, but after tonight, he was unlikely to ever earn the honor of being invited down there.

            The carriage wasn’t as old as Vastren Ruins, but the gnarly old witch sleeping in a huddled bundle of blankets could have been.  Her silver and black streaked hair was matted and strewn with hay and leaves and small dead flowers.  Wret approached her quietly and cautiously, dubious about startling one of the Elder Coven.  Her blankets were made of fine silk and velvet trimming with runes of gold thread.  If they had been clean, they would of undoubtedly been beautiful, as it were, the old hag’s drabness infected them so thoroughly they may as well of been cheap homespun.   He was about five feet from her when her eyes shot open; yellowed from cataracts, but piercing and alert.  She snarled at him and he took several steps back, not from fright, but from the force of some invisible hand. “Hurry on in, fool.” She croaked.  “Your master awaits.”  The door opened casually, perhaps by that same invisible hand.  The hefty fragrance of sandalwood incense and a dim red light greeted Wret as he stepped up to the entrance.

 

            The walls were covered in ornate rugs and velvet curtains.  Censers and lanterns dangled from the low ceiling.  Wret ducked and wove between them to approach the small table at which the Taskmaster sat.  The table was draped in dark velvet, its corners weighted down by books and scrolls, a small glass orb sat centered on the table and Tajudeen Remelio’s long, ring-laden fingers gently pressed against its smooth surface.

            “Please sit,” insisted Taskmaster Remelio; a thin supple man with long black hair framing a face whose features were obscured by the dense weave of elaborate gold chains piercing his lips, nose, cheeks, brow and ears.  Wret sat on the designated stool, and though padded, it was still uncomfortable.  Tajudeen Remelio was a product of etiquette with a silky voice and calm unblinking eyes, and there was nothing in his demeanor or expression to indicate that he might be displeased with Wret.   “Well, my friend,” Remelio said with a gentle smile revealing gold capped teeth, “You seem ill at ease.”  His hands suddenly disappeared from the table as he reached for something below it.  Wret tensed expectantly, but the ringed hands returned with a pair of silver goblets and a decanter.  “A spot of brandy, yes?”

            Wret couldn’t reply as his tongue seemed stuck to the roof of his dry mouth.  And that was when he realized just how afraid he truly was.  He learned to control his face from grimacing, he could hold his bladder in check, suppress his shaking and resist the wild desire to flee.  As such, he thought of himself as fearless, yet the insidious menace of Tajudeen Remelio pervaded all bravery.  Thankfully, the pleasant heat of the brandy solidified his confidence.  He noticed something moving in the crystal ball.  Something swam around in it.  Was it a fish bowl?  No!  They were eyeballs!  Real, living eyeballs whose pupils dilated and contracted to unseen stimuli as little wiggling tendrils propelled them around the bowl.  The shock of seeing their grotesque gyrations pierced Wret with a vibrant new horror forcing him to resist a bizarre desire to weep.

            Humored by Wret’s reaction, Tajudeen spoke to him in a silky goading tone, “Midnight’s Order is always watching....watching...everything, everyone.” The gestalt of Tajudeen Remelio allowed him to easily slide between conversational pivots of poignant niceties and a subtle provocation that left Wret feeling further unbalanced.

            He swigged down the brandy and looked directly at the Taskmaster, restricting his gaze so that it wouldn’t wonder onto anything else.

            “Better, yes?  Now what happened tonight Wret Aigner?”

            “I...well...I mean didn’t you see?”

            “Seeing isn’t always knowing, so I need you tell me.  Now, why is the House of Di’Caula not a member short tonight?”

            “Oh.  Alright.  See it went like this, I hid at the warehouse in the shadow of the rafters.  Had a rope tied to a cross beam.  Had the measurement spot on, I did.  Had the rope in one hand and sickle in the other, ‘cause I was given it to kill him with, a ’reap what he sows’ thing, right.  And, I don’t know, he stumbled or ducked....he got lucky!  It’s not my fault!” Of course it was his fault.  Wret knew that.  He didn’t know why he even said that.

            “The blame of failure is yours and yours alone.  I am not your mother, I will not accept excuses.  What we are discussing is the extent of your incompetency.  I can forgive having killed him some other way than that proscribed.  I cannot forgive the fact that you are sitting here alive while your prey is also.  If you cannot kill them, it is expected you die trying so that the enemies of Midnight’s Order will be scared ‘full-of-the-doom-of-harm.’  The enemies of the guild are not to live without the constant and pervasive insistence of fear. And how can that be if they don’t believe our assassins are completely devoted?”

            Wret choked on the lump in his throat then blurted out, “The bodyguard almost killed me and was gonna!”  He gestured to the wound on his forehead.

            “No one will fear us or you unless you are suicidal.  How did your bravery fail you?  Have we not conditioned you well enough?  Do you not fear us more than death?”

            “I....”  Wret didn’t know what to say.  What was the point in lecturing him if they’re just going to kill him?

            “I’m in a forgiving mood and that’s why.....you are here now and not stiffening with rigor mortis in that miserable, dilapidated shelter of yours.  It is a rare mood I assure you, sometimes circumstance requires it.”  Tajudeen set his goblet down forcibly, “You are going to try harder than you’ve ever tried before.  You are going to make every sacrifice necessary to succeed.”

            “Yes, Master Remelio.”  Wret said setting his goblet down meekly.

            “Come dusk, be at Winterloft Tavern.  You know where it is?”  Wret nodded.  “Good.  A friend is expecting you.  Watch for the signal.  Do not be early.  Do not be late.  Do Not Fail!  Your target is especially difficult and notorious for sniffing out a trap.  Bring a straight razor, if this one gets away from you, you’ll want to kill yourself before I get a hold of you.  Understand?” 

            Wret nodded.

*    *    *    *

            For a beer hall out on the heights, Winterloft Tavern was pretty high-end.  It was one of those places where a draft of ale was so expensive that the bread and cheese came free.  On this bill-of-fare you won’t find no slop-house-stew nor mystery-meat curry, here you got full plates of slow roast venison, spiced taters and ladles of chutney.  And it didn’t cater to them Fen’Mwr so you won’t have to worry about any raw meats stinking up the place.  Wret figured the Fen’Mwr ate that nasty uncooked squid simply because the smell of it saturating a room would drive most men to vomit and run.

            Wret arrived at Winterloft promptly as told.  Upon entering, a haze of tobacco smoke filled his nose and the hearty cacophony of laughter and conversation filled his ears.  He inhaled the thick sweet fragrance of tobacco.  Damn he wanted a smoke!  It’d liven him up just right.  He got in an afternoon nap, but was still tired and foot sore; must have walked thirty miles in the last couple days and these new boots were giving him blisters.

            At a glance, nobody seemed to pay him any attention not even the burly dark skinned bouncer.  He took his time looking for “Friend.”  Further back at a small table, a dandy of a man wiped away the foamy head of ale on his upper lip with two fingers.  They called it the “notably,” one of the five finger gestures Friends of the guild made to recognize one another.  Wret glided over casually, weaving between tables, avoiding waitresses, half-drunk merchants and body guards who were obliged to have to stand about.  He bumped into no one and let no one bump into him.

            Friend wore a puff-sleeved, brown suede tunic, his curly black hair was oiled and slicked back.  He had tanned skin with a grayish tincture that reminded Wret of the bark of a live oak tree.  His narrow face was gaunt with a prominent chin, hooked nose and a missing left eye.  At least Wret hoped the left eye was missing since it was sown shut.  The Friend acted like he didn’t notice Wret approach him or care that he did so.

            Wret said, “What if I was to say to you, that Fen’Mwr like to lick butts.”

            “Then I’d probably tell you,” the man started-off as if he were offended, then finished with a devious grin, “that all dogs like their own ass best.”

            “Hello Friend,” Wret said with mirthless smile of yellow teeth.  Friend was obviously one of the gray men of Griva.  All other races, from the Fen’Mwr to Orc, considered the gray men of Griva to be humans.  Other humans....do not.  There was just something different about them.

            “Have a seat Friend, and remove your cowl so you don’t look so suspicious.” Friend smiled back, his toothy smile seemed welcoming, but his dark eye was menacing and critical.

            Wret did as he was told.  Friend took one look at the scabbed-over lump on Wret’s forehead and his smile became a sneer, “Never mind.  Keep the cowl on lest the whole tavern starts staring at ya.”

            Warmth from this embarrassment flushed Wret’s face and he was tempted to leave the cowl off just to be defiant, but with slow deliberation he complied.       Friend smoked from a tar stained meerschaum pipe whose bowl was shaped into the gruesome face of a gargoyle.  Wret pulled out his own little thin-stemmed pipe, “Can you spare a pinch.”

            Friend took a long drag, “Nope,” he said in spew of smoke and dumped the still burning ash onto a plate of half eaten food.  Red cinders were burning up good tobacco that tempted Wret to reach out and scoop the hot remains into his pipe.  Freaking Griven! Arrogant to their ever-lovin’ core, Wret thought venomously.  Men of Griva were like that you know, deny you something you want just because you want it.  Their hubris made them as difficult to deal with as any Fen’Mwr.  He noticed that Friend watched him intently so Wret deliberately looked at his missing eye and asked, “why don’cha just wear a freaking patch?”

            “That would hardly be inconspicuous would it?”

            “You’re right, a hideous sowed shut eye is hardly noticeable at all.”

            There was an uncomfortable silence between them as Friend swigged down some ale. Flatly he stated, “At the bar, near the far end, by the entrance is a thin man in long white hair and beard, no, don’t look.  That man is actually a woman named Cossa Meda, the Lady of Purloin, as  she likes to refer to herself.”

            “Hmm, a disguise?”

            “No, a curse....of course it’s a disguise.”  Friend retorted, Wret really wanted to see but doubted he had a clear view.  “Your mission comes in two parts.  Kill Cossa Meda and retrieve the Cane of Confusion.  The shaft of the cane is a blended swirl of jade and onyx and capped with a silver fist.  She is staying in room four.  It has no windows.  Ambush her in her room.  Do not hide behind the door, she will not fall for that and you will fail for sure.”

            “We’ve tried before?”

            “I am merely offering you advise on how not to behave like a novice.  Because nobody knows that the old man is Lady of Purloin, if there is a struggle they might interfere and try to stop you.  Acquiring and returning the cane to its rightful owner is paramount to us.  If you fail to kill her, it’s your reputation on the line, if you fail to get the cane, it’s all of our reps….So make sure to get the cane.  And, leave this with her body.” He handed Wret a femur bone with an ink blot.

            “I thought this was something we deliver before we kill them?”

            “Just do as I say.” Sneered Friend.

            “I’ll succeed, don’t worry.”

            “Do not, I repeat, do not touch the cane with your bare hands.  Use some of her clothing to wrap it up and bring it back to your Taskmaster.  Do you understand your mission?”  Wret nodded.  “Good, now get going and remember....” Friend pointed to his sown eye, “Your Friends are watching.”

            Wret shuddered wondering if one the eyes in Taskmaster Remelio’s orb belonged to Friend here.  Then Wret grabbed hold of the wooden stein belonging to Friend, downed its contents and wiped the back of his mouth with his forearm, “See ya.”
*    *    *    *
Cossa Meda was a famous, talented, freelance thief with a penchant for stealing from people who were protected by Midnight’s Order.  The guild utterly hated her.  This was a good opportunity for Wret.  If he killed her then nobody, not even that jack-ass Friend would ever talk down to him or fail to offer-up a smoke again. That annoyed Wret more than the jibes and insults.  That had to be one of the things that separated human and Griva, the Griva had no sense of camaraderie. 

            Wret walked around the exterior of the tavern until he found a partly open window in one of the rooms, entered then made his way to door number four.  He eyed Cossa Meda’s door carefully and didn’t see any obvious runes, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any wards on it.  He had a small pouch of Fairy Dust, of course that wasn’t its true name, its true name was something he couldn’t even pronounce. He bought the stuff from some witches of the Elder Coven like the one outside of Tajudeen’s wagon.  The witches he dealt with were younger and friendlier, but no less ugly.

            Wret tossed the Fairy Dust upon the door and watched its glittering gold flakes evaporate as they reached the floor.  He waited expectantly, but they revealed nothing.  What a waste!  That Fairy Dust was expensive stuff.  He should have just assumed she wouldn’t hex the door, after all wasn’t there was too big a chance some fool, another patron, or a drunk might accidently set it off and draw unwanted attention to her.  Damn, he should have realized that. Her warning devise would be something simple, but effective.  He searched the door carefully, and near the bottom he found it, a sliver of chicken bone wedged between the door and jamb.  He kept a small vial of Dandelion Sap for just such a thing.  Wet, it was white and sticky, but it dried up clear and would flake away leaving no sign the bone had been tampered with.  He applied the glue, picked the lock to the door, and quickly stepped into the room shutting and locking the door in one swift motion. 

            Now, to find a place for his ambuscade.

            The room was pitch black and made Wret afraid to move lest he bump into something.  A broken vase would alert her and up-end his surprise.  He was tempted to just stand in the middle and leap at her when the door opened, though doubted it would work.  He had a quick-light candle and a spark-start, but they gave off odor.  If she were to come in a few minutes after it was lit or the candle blown out the smell would give him away.  He stood there for a moment hoping his eyes would adjust, but they didn’t.  Having no other option he lit the candle and was very disappointed in what he found: a dresser, bed, night stand, sitting chair, small writing desk and  wooden crate that contained the chamber pot.  That’s how you know you’re in a fancy Inn, they leave a box for you to store your chamber pot.   Neat and clean and a low ceiling, it was a nice and tidy room, but no place with which to ambush from.  The bed was large and low to the ground, he checked under it and found an embroidered pair of woman’s shoes, black knee-high boots and a long fold of leather which probably contained a sword or two.  Even if he squeezed underneath the bed he’d have a difficult time wiggling out.  He considered crouching alongside the dresser, maybe he’d get lucky, she’d turn her back on him, or go straight to the chamber pot and he’d catch her with her pants down.  But he wasn’t lucky.  The dull ache of his forehead was a constant reminder of that fact.

            As he stared at the bed a worried perspiration spread over him.  He wondered if the guild could really see him right now.  He thought he saw a faint reddish glow out to his peripheral, but when he looked straight at it, nothing was there.  His gaze lingered back to the bed and he realized something obvious about it, the bedding was sloppy not all tidy and tucked in.  He peeled away a corner of the sheets and squeezed the mattress.  It was spongy, a quality mattress, stuffed with cotton and wool, no cheap straw stuffing for this bed.  “Bet this bed doesn’t have any lice in it either.”  He decided this was the only place for concealment.  Under the pillow he found a gold tiara, very pretty and very ornate, and a nice reward for him when this was over.  He put it in his pouch then pushed back the coverings to carve out the stuffing.  He packed the wads of cotton stuffing he pulled out into the bottom dresser drawers which were unused.  He climbed into the hollowed out space and carefully replaced the sheets and blankets over him.

            Under the covers, he breathed slowly calming himself as the excitement of the moment had made him sweaty and restless, but time drew out and boredom made him fidgety.  Patience was the hardest part of an assassination.  The killing was easy.  Nothing about it bothered him except for copious amounts of blood.  That was messy stuff and once it got into your clothes the flies would never let you be.  Some men didn’t like to kill, some wouldn’t at all.  Some would take the money from your pocket or the food from your mouth, but didn’t want to kill.  Wret figured that men didn’t like to kill other men because they had no mercy in them.  They would torture you with their thievery and then leave you to suffer in humiliation.  Now a warrior would kill for victory, or the sheer enjoyment of it.  Wret didn’t enjoy it.  He could not relish in victory because nobody could know about it. It was a job.  It was work, it took effort and patience.  For him, it had nothing to do with violence or outbursts of rage.  He had to be calm, focused, purposeful,....indifferent. 

            Initially, killing was for him a vicious reaction made out of the need of self-preservation, primarily the need to eat.  Food is expensive during the winter months, after all.  His first hired kill was a small sum paid by a wife who sought to free herself from the torment of an abusive husband.  Wret was glad to do it and figured it was something any concerned brother would have done for free anyway.  Second was euthanizing a sickly old woman.  If he was ever going to have a problem with killing, it would have been with her.  The clenched taught expression on her face faded to calmness and peacefulness when she died.  That was mercy.  That was also an epiphany for him.  That’s how he would understand it from then-on-out.  Death was better than life, for there was no misery in it; some fear, some terror, but it quickly passed.  The Guild offered to pay him well for his services, how could he refuse, after all, nothing numbs the wretched sting of existence quite like money.

            There was only one person he ever truly wanted to kill and never got the chance, his father.

            Kor Aigner was a mean son-of-a-bitch who often smacked his five children and wife for no other reason than they were within arm’s reach.  As painful a torment as that could be, it was nothing compared to those times when Kor actually had a reason to beat him.  “Gettin’a whippin’ today boy,” Kor would taunt.  Sometimes Kor had a belt or stick and sometimes it was just straight-up bare knuckles.  And he’d chant, over and over, “Gettin’ a whippin’ today, boy.” 

            He would stop only when he got winded.

            Kor was known for coming home bruised after a rough night of drinking.  On one hot mid-summer night Kor picked a fight with a pair of drunken Griven soldiers. They stomped the crap out of him.  Friends had to drag Kor home that night.  He lay in bed for two weeks.  Wret and his sisters would often stand by the bed and silently relish in Kor’s suffering, until their mother would find them and shoo them away.  Afterwards Kor would have a permanent blood clot in his eye and drool frequently dribbled down his chin.  “More Anger” was Kor Aigner’s nickname from then on and he certainly was.  A year later Kor didn’t come home at all.  He was found dead in an alley where he had passed out and choked to death on his own vomit.  Wret’s mother disappeared shortly thereafter.  Two of his sisters who had a man they could run away with did so and the younger two....well, Wret couldn’t remember what happened to them. Everybody was just..... gone.  Maybe, at the time he cared.  Maybe not.  It was years ago and he certainly didn’t care any longer.

            Wret never did get to see his father’s dead body.  It was a cheat.  Killing his pappy was the only thing he’d ever really wanted to do, but stupidity did it for him.

*   *   *   *

            The din of the tavern had largely quieted down.  A few people sauntered down the hallway but none stopped at door number four.  A burst of laughter reverberated into the room from next door and it annoyed Wret.  He hated it when people laughed and he was excluded.  He gripped tightly the pommel of the dagger its polished wood was cool and comforting in his hands.

            It became quieter and quieter until finally he heard the dull slide of the bolt and the door creaked open.  Under the covers it was perfectly dark, not enough light came through to penetrate the blankets.  He tried not to breathe.  He tried not to think.  Sometimes he feared people could feel thoughts in an emptiness.

            The door closed quietly and Cossa Meda moved into the room, but wasn’t doing anything, just standing there, and he could feel his apprehension grow.  If she tried to leave he’d have to chase her down and if she made it into the tavern....It would get nasty.

            Light from a lantern brightened up the room and suddenly she called out, “I see you!” 

            Wret didn’t know what to do. Was she actually talking to him?

            There was a hum, chant-like, and growing in tempo....was she casting a spell?  Was she getting ready to incinerate him?  Or paralyze him?  He felt panic well up inside of him then.....a flash of light and a flicker of fading sparks.  “Don’t’ see me no more do you? Missed again assholes!”  She wasn’t talking to him, but who? Then he recalled the faint red glow he noticed earlier….so it wasn’t his imagination. With one quick step she was at the bed, flung the pillow aside and screamed, “My tiara!” 

            That’s when Wret leaped at her.

            The bed may have been a great place to hide in, but it proved to be a troublesome platform to attack from; he was off balance and hampered in the midst of his attack.  The old man in front of Wret nimbly jumped away.  He floundered out of the bed feeling a bit confused, and after hearing her voice he had forgot she’d be disguised.  Cossa Meda kicked him in the gut.  It didn’t hurt too much, it knocked the wind out of him a little, but the force of the blow sent him backwards and he tripped over the corner of the bed.  He hopped to his feet quickly recovering and she at the ready in full defense mode brandishing both the cane and a long dirk.  Wret grabbed a fist full of blanket and hurdled it at her then followed up with a flurry of dagger stabs.  They all missed as Cossa Meda easily dodged them.  She snickered as she leapt gracefully backwards over the writing desk and kicked it at him.  He punched the desk aside and was instantly knocked down by a sweeping kick that caught him just above the ankles.  Wret leaped to his feet and was instantly struck by a roundhouse to the face.  He collided into the dresser.  Vases and bottles of perfume crashed to the floor; a neighbor shouted at them through the wall.  Then she struck him square on the forehead with the fist of the cane.  It smashed him on the lump already there.  Stars of pain sparkled behind his eyes.  His legs became weak and he fell to his knees.  Wret opened his eyes just in time to see the silver fist of the cane become a luminous open hand with spread fingers and it grabbed his face.

            The present sense of things collapsed into a watery blackness, but by no means had he lost consciousness.  He felt himself sliding along, voices and feelings washed over him as he flowed along with the bends and curves of a turbulent river, one without water, or maybe it was water made out of darkness itself, either way, he didn’t understand what caused the current.

            ‘Friends’ voice rose and faded, “Leave this with her body...leave this...leave….” Then the echo of Taskmaster Remelio’s voice swelled in front of him like ripples of a river stuck on a rock. “The blame of failure is yours and yours alone.....no excuses...no”  Gritting his teeth, pressing his legs together, and crossing his arms, Wret flowed away from it, from all of it.  A whirlpool of shame tugged at him as an unfamiliar voice surrounded him, “Remove his boots and we’ll cut his feet off.  I’ll send them straight to that bastard Remelio himself.  We’ll see how ....he...”  Wret suppressed the suffocating panic born of confusion and drifted speedily along.    The voices of the past echoed chaotically so that nothing was clear or distinct.  He collided with something large and ominous, it was the old woman he euthanized and his own feelings rippled against him inversely to the flow.  They were strange feelings, almost foreign as though they belonged to someone else. They were not constituted from frustration or anxiousness or the intensity of contained rage.  They were full of sympathy...pity...sorrow.  He forgot he had actually felt that way.  He forgot he had felt anything at all about that poor old woman.  But he didn’t want this, he didn’t want to stay here, so he rolled away and drifted onward.  Soon the tide dropped suddenly and lost all smoothness as it jarred him with bruising rapids made of taunts, ridicules, threats and mocking laughter.  His father’s voice splashed all around him, “Whipping today boy...whippin’ today...whippin’...” Then, unexpectedly,  he heard laughter, honest mirthful laughter and Wret grabbed for it.  He could see it; an opaque orange distortion in the blackness that was made of real laughter, full of joy and sincerity.  He recognized it, it was Jory, a boy that had been Wret’s childhood best friend.  Wret followed the laughter through a blurry white haze and suddenly and inexplicably found himself sitting in a snowy field and watching Jory tumble down a hill, laughing as if the snow tickled him.

 

            Cossa Meda stared at the man who just tried to kill her.  He twitched and kicked as if possessed by fits.  She saw her tiara sparkle on the floor mixed amongst the spilled contents of the assassin’s pouch.  People stepped out of their rooms to see what the commotion was.  Cossa Meda grabbed the gold tiara and realized her beard was hanging half off her face she pressed it back into place then walked briskly into the hallway leaving everything else behind.   The assassin stopped shaking and as she exited she heard him call out, “Jory!”

            People gathered at the door and watched a lunatic jump up and down and dance gleefully as he held onto the hands of somebody who wasn’t there.  He fell to his back and made a snow angel on the blankets strewn on the floor.  He stood up and admired his handy work.  “Not huh, mine’s better.”  He laughed.

            “Sir?  Sir you alright?”  Someone asked and touched his shoulder.

            Wret looked at Jory whose short blonde hair was wet and spiky.  Jory punched Wret in the shoulder, yelled “you’re it!” then dashed away.  Wret chased him and stumbled over a stump, careened through some bushes, then ran down the road after him.  “I’ll get you Jory, you can’t run faster than me!”

            The people watched the man break into a sudden run, trip on the desk, scramble along the walls, then push past them.  “I’ll get you Jory, you can’t run faster than me!”  He ran out into the Tavern, smashed into tables and chairs then fled from Winterloft Tavern, laughing….just laughing all the way.

*   *   *   *

            The Griva with one eye stood alongside Tajudeen Remelio and the old witch who gazed stoically at Wret, her eyes alight with perceptions of a luminous world veiled by reality.  Wret was counting out loud, his face was cupped in his hands and when he reached sixty, he bellowed out, “ready or not!” then looked around the bushes and tombstones for somebody that wasn’t there.

            “Why didn’t you send somebody competent after her?”  The one-eyed-man asked Tajudeen.

            Tajudeen stroked his thin goatee thoughtfully, “You gave the femur bone to Wret?  Well, then you should know, I never expected him to kill Lady of Purloin.  She was supposed to kill him.  She is quite lucky and amply possessed of arcane talents.  She dispelled our scrying right away.  Anticipated it would be there.  This was simply a message to her, that even in your best disguises we can find you.”

            The one-eyed-man sneered at Wret with utter disgust. “What the hell is he doing now?”

            “He’s playing hide-and-go-seek.” The witch muttered.

            “But with who?”

            “A young boy with blond hair.”

            “But why is he, a grown man, playing games with a child?”  The one-eyed-man asked and shook his head in disbelief.

            “He is a boy now.”  Replied the witch.

            “And how long will this delusion last?”  Tajudeen demanded.

            “Forever.”

            Wret pushed something invisible with his arms out wide then struggled to pick it up, “Yeah get the other side, Jory” he said.

            “What’s he doing now?”

            “Building..... a snow man.”

            “Ridiculous.”  The one-eyed-man exclaimed and drew a knife.  “Shall I put the crazy bastard out of his misery?”

            “No,” the Taskmaster replied, “leave Wret be, we’ll let the acolytes at the asylum pick him up and take care of him.  Thus he will serve as a living reminder to other members, that failure carries punishments worse than death.”  

Wret let out a burst of childlike laughter resulting in a humored snicker from Tajudeen.  Quite bizarre it was to the witch having never heard such a thing from the Taskmaster.  He had a smile she occasionally witnessed though it was something cold with more menace than friendliness, and a haughty sneer of a smile full of self-satisfaction when he was rewarded with wealth...but this tender chuckle of delight....how bizarre!

            “Besides,” Tajudeen murmured quietly to himself, “he doesn’t seem miserable at all.”

THE END