An excerpt

February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

In case people are wondering what I’m working on for the new collection, here’s a piece of one of the stories in it.

 

 

Blood trickled down her face, smearing her teeth orange. She swung the mace backwards, crushing bone and spraying blood and only knowing from the sound. In the dim red light, the world matched her smile. Feral and ochre and wavering like firelight, her hair whipped in its braid as she turned, parrying a sword point with the butt of the mace and lashing out with a shield edge.

A face collapsed into red ruin where the iron rim crashed into a hawk nose. He howled, but she’d already moved past him to take a wild overhand swing of a saber on the boss, sparks and metal shavings and the shield shivering on her arm. She lashed out a boot and drove it forward, taking him hard in the knee with her metal-shod feet. She was the best armored there, wearing the black metal mail and scales of her order.

Angry from the throbbing of her face along the long bleeding slash, she dropped her shoulder and charged hard into the lithe man, taking him off his feet and slamming him hard into the wall. Before he could get his wind back she drove the mace down on that knee she’d kicked and laughed a short bark of joy when she heard bone crunching from the impact.

Pulling away from him she turned to face the street, but no one was left standing. Two were dead, a bald man in blue and red breeches laying face down with his pate smashed open and another, the hawk-faced sailor dead with his face staved in. There had been at least two more, she knew there had been, but aside from a dropped rope there was no sign of them. Raising a hand to her face she felt the deep slash down her right cheekbone and snarled.

Breathing a little heavily, she stalked back to the slight man. He wore a ragged assortment of leather, hides and furs that looked vaguely Naeth, but he was far smaller than most Naeth she’d met. She was often confused for one herself based on her height and red hair, but this man would more easily be thought Alronian or Agath, with his dark olive complexion and narrow features.

“Talk.”

He glared up at her, cradling his crushed knee in two hands. She placed her boot on his leg and leaned slightly on it, surprised that he didn’t howl.

“Eat pig cock.”

She brought the mace down from over her shoulder and smashed it hard into the top of his skull, crushing it. The spikes along the head penetrated bone and brain alike, and she was forced to use her leg to pin his throat to the wall to yank it back up and out. She shook it several times to clean blood off of the head.

She grunted with the pain in her shoulder, overextended from the fight. She knew it had been sloppy, from the sour taste in her mouth and humming along her eyes pulsing in time with the livid slash on her face.

She found herself at Miaran’s door without really intending to go there. Her purse was fat from Benar merchants and their grunt work, and she’d intended to drink some of it, perhaps play at dice, and there were men and women you could rent for a night if you were inclined. She’d been inclined, when she’d started towards the Boar. With each step, she realized that the drinks she’d bought there had been expected to take the fight out of her entirely. She pounded on the surprisingly sturdy iron banded door with the butt of the mace, and heard noise behind it.

“Jerra.” She could see a blurry figure with skin like polished copper and hair the color of brass. “I was wondering when…” He fell silent at the sight of her, painted in others’ blood, the cut on her face still bleeding and her limbs losing strength.

“Drugged, I think. Or poisoned. Men attacked me. Three dead. Two still alive. Might be following.” He slid under her right arm and helped her inside. She was glad he was her size, so few men here were, and strong enough to bear her weight in armor while kicking the door shut behind them and bolting it with one arm. He got her to the ratted chair she knew from several nights of drinking and helped her into it, then turned to his shutters and dropped them. Miaran had several old books worth more than the building in the shelves lining the first floor, and his shutters would take a significant effort to break through, wood and iron layers locked together.

“Tell me whatever you can. I need to check your pupils.” Miaran held open her eyelids and looked into her eyes while she fought a surge of nausea and tried to remember details. His features, usually severe like a hunting bird, were still hazy in the dim light and her own wavering eyesight.

“Went to the Boar. Got paid.” She patted at her belt where her purse jingled.

“ You owe me how much money?”

“Feh. You’ll never collect anyway. If I paid you back I’d just borrow more to make up for it next time.” She grunted as he examined the edge of the cut to her face. “At Boar, had drinks. Several. Beer, not mead. Was a girl, but she was with someone, so I left. Was going to go to the Crushed Caravel, see if I could find you or Bear, or just get drunk.”

“Then?”

“Told you. Five. Ropes, weapons. Tried to jump me from behind, but I heard them.”

“This scratch on your face is poisoned. I’ve seen this kind of wound before. They wanted you alive, this is just supposed to hurt so much you stop fighting. It’s called Agath’s Pollen.” He moved to the flat table near his fire pit, where he kept several bottles of Galia only knows what. She’d learned not to bother to ask him about it. Not only did she not understand any of it, he’d take the opportunity to talk about it. She watched his back move in the dim light from the lantern on the wall as he mixed the contents of several small ampules together into a small bowl.

“You have a nice ass.”

“So you’ve told me.” He dipped a rag in the bowl then turned to approach her. “This is going to hurt a lot, but then it won’t hurt at all. Resist the urge to punch me.”

She nodded, teeth gritted in anticipation.

When the rag touched the cut she managed to strangle the scream into a grunt, but her arms convulsed, tearing the right arm off of the chair as her muscles locked up to keep from attacking him. He held it up to her face and after a few seconds she noticed, in between sweating and growling, that her vision was clearing up.

“I think they may have drugged your drink, too. The sweating should help with that. I’m sorry about the pain, Jerra.”

She panted, twisting her face into a smile.

“Sorry about your chair.”

“It was shit anyway.” His surprising hands, gentle and light, brushed across her face and he brought a finger to his nose and sniffed. “Okay, they definitely drugged you. Something poppy based, I think. You’ll stick around tonight. Don’t argue with me or I’ll get Bear to come sit on you. You can go hunting tomorrow.”

“I’ll wait a day.” She sagged back into the chair. “Wish I hadn’t killed the one I had. Could have brought him here.”

“Tell me where you left them.” Miaran was already pulling the leathers he’d kept from his old days out from beneath the workbench. “Guards may have cleaned it up, but if it was near the Boar, no one’s paying them to be nosy. We’ll see what I can find.”

 

They were still down there when he arrived. He took the rooftops, not a small feat for a man his height. He moved quiet, his leather oiled to prevent creaking – he still kept it in condition. Oiling and mending it was like a meditation some nights, done out of memory, a habit he’d never fallen out of.

He didn’t drop down immediately. Instead, he waited. He’d left the big sword at home, but the shortbow and paired dirks were more than he usually wore to go outside, even at night, even in Null. Red hairs stirred in the breeze around the cowl of the cloak he’d pulled over his shoulders before leaving.

He’d been a little nervous about leaving Jerra alone, but there hadn’t been time to find Bear – the northerner’s habit of not having a fixed address made it simply too much effort when time was important, and Miaran knew from experience how fast things could change from his days skulking over the borderlands. Sure, this was inside Null, but that just meant different animals could carry things away.

As soon as he arrived, though, he decided to wait and watch. A five man crew trying to capture a heavily armed woman – especially one who wore openly the black metal mace of a Gallian priestess – and who were prepared with drugged drinks and poisoned weapons? In Null? Not that it was out of bounds there – nothing was – but the fact that no one had tried to hire him suggested things to him.

After an hour of squatting in the darkness he saw it. Holding his breath, he drew and nocked an arrow, pulling it back with the exquisite slowness his first teacher had taught him. Even he could barely hear the laminated wood creak.

Movement. Faint, but unmistakable. The movement of a person who knew how to stay out of sight along a roof ridge. It dropped down from across the alleyway, managing not to dislodge a single shale from the roof as it did. He could just barely see the shape of it as it found every shadow between it and the bodies.

It didn’t bother to rifle through the pockets. It went straight to a pouch in the belt of each man, and withdrew something that glinted like gold. He waited for it to clear the first two bodies and to draw the pouch of the third before he let the arrow go.

The skulker was impressive, trained to a fine edge. He or she (Miaran still couldn’t tell) actually managed to respond to his shot, whirling with a buckler on the left arm. But the bow was Tarsan, layered wood and animal horn. It pulled like a mule’s kick. The buckler could only slow it so much, but it was still impressive that a lethal shot through the neck became merely a wounded forearm. Even as Miaran drew another arrow the figure vanished into the darkness and Miaran cursed the moon for having crept so far that there was barely any light to see.

He waited, listening, for another five minutes before he made his own way down to pick up what had been left behind. It was a gold chain and a carved ivory cameo, with a woman’s face. And despite a lack of scarring and a notable absence of fury, he knew it was Jerra’s face. Much younger, but unmistakable in the set of the jaw and the eyes.

He took the opportunity to look over the dead men. Their clothes revealed they’d been in Nullgate for a while, and that they’d spent that time in and out of the lower quarter – Miaran even thought he knew where they’d bought their cloaks. He doubted it would help.

There was a blood trail on the ground, but he didn’t have much hope for it. He knew what he’d do if he was bleeding from a wound and expected to be followed, and whoever she or he had been, Miaran didn’t doubt they were well trained. They’d do likewise.

He slipped the cameo into his pocket and left the way he arrived, taking the time to circle around towards the middle tier of buildings. No reason to allow himself to be easily followed. The low hanging orange moon made the tiled rooftops glisten. He kept his eyes and ears working, but saw and heard no one.

The cameo suggested more things he didn’t want to contemplate.

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