An Assassin's Tale

They call me Thorn.

I once had another name, but I do not now remember what it was.

We Fanaal consider ourselves to be superior to the other races because we live longer, but that is just arrogance.  If we were so superior, our empire would not have been toppled; if we were so superior, we would not have had to concede our lands to these child races, but we have, and now we must witness the rise of two nations that strive to be our equals.

Thorn moved into the small manor like a shadow; he made no sound, yet he covered the distance to the staircase in mere moments, careful to stay out of the pools of moonlight that littered the floor from the barred high windows.  He did not notice the elegant tapestries lining the walls, nor the golden candelabra on the stained oaken end-tables, though he did appreciate the finely woven carpets set end to end on the floor; these same carpets which were laid to keep the cold of the stone floors from bare feet cushioned the specially padded soles he wore, allowing him to move with greater speed.  Thorn did not care about material things, because he was not a burglar, his role was that of assassin.

Moving silently up the stairs, he came across a landscaped portrait of the southern mountains, and nearly snorted in disgust.

The Ryland Mountains, or Rylos, is home to the dwarves—a stubborn, dirty, and persistent people who live in great citadels on and under the mountains; they are truly insufferable, insisting the outside world call them Rylins; in recent years the term dwarf has become almost a racial slur, an almost mocking imitation of our distaste for the term elf, not that I care much.  Elf, dwarf, Fanaal, Rylin, it makes no difference, whatever you call them, they all die the same.

Stepping off the stairs, Thorn paused.

Speaking of arrogant, these humans in their elaborately walled cities, protect themselves not from the horrors that prowl the night, but from each other.  Their collective kingdoms are called the Commonwealth, their land is called the Anthrinic, the latter is an ancient word that translates to spoiled children, it is a wonderful joke among the Fanaal, but it has caused us to underestimate them, and now their Commonwealth has grown into a threat, more economical than physical, only their political in-fighting had kept them in check before, but now they are dangerous.

Heavy booted footsteps moved through the hallway below, the sound echoing up the stairs, hitting thorn with an almost physical blow, though he remained perfectly still.

Brutes.  They know nothing of subtlety.

When the sound had passed, Thorn let out a breath he had not realized he was holding and started forward, slower on the wooden planked floor, listening for the tell-tale creaks of movement.  Twice he had to stop, carefully choosing another place to put his foot, before he found his way back onto the carpets.  Amazingly, no one had yet missed the small, dark haired human he had been forced to kill on his way in; it is always regrettable when a bystander loses his life for simply being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Passing a mirror, Thorn paused; his slender frame was similar to that of his Fanaal brethren, except that skin tone tended toward a darker almond, not that any flesh could be seen through his dark-suit.  He examined the fabric in the mirror, though no one else would see the blood spatter on the simple shadow-weave tunic, he knew it was there—the moist scarlet liquid chilled his flesh and its coppery smell assaulted his senses.  To him, this one simple splatter was a failure; he had not made it to his target completely undetected, and now the entire experience was tainted.  Not only this, but the killing blow had been sloppy; before he died, the dark haired human had managed a bloody gurgle that sounded in Thorn’s ears like a scream, and rolled his head, spraying blood from the open wound at his throat.

I’ve been among them for too long, it’s about time I left these human lands, perhaps I will return home for a decade and work in my father’s fields.  He moved past the mirror, and started for the room at the end of the hall.  Doubtful.

There was a child’s room to the left and the servant that attended to him on the right, but tonight, he knew, the two of them were riding toward the private manor in the hills, the floor should be empty but for her.

Stepping up to the door, Thorn expected to find a heavy lock or some magical runes aimed at stopping one such as he, but he found none, only a simple metal handle below a button which releases the clasp on the other side.  Still, there is no point in taking chances, there is an entrance through the child’s room and that door is standing ajar.

There was not a sound as he moved into the room and past the canopied bed, careful to avoid stepping on any of the wooden toy soldiers littering the floor.  Near the window there was a miniaturized battle scene, blue soldiers facing red, they were arranged to oppose one another in a frontal attack position in which the red side was sure to be decimated, but that is only a part of the story here, the red soldiers near the bed are in a perfect flanking position.  The boy, of only five years was beginning to grasp basic strategy, I may be back for you little one . . . I may be back for you.

The entry into the master bedroom was blocked by a simple bolt of dark fabric, easy enough to push aside, if one did not notice the bells sewn onto its bottom end.  It’s good to see that she is not completely foolish, though this hardly counts as a safeguard; it is more a warning of the child’s approach, and easy enough to bypass.

Drawing his dagger, Thorn easily pushed the sharp blade through the fabric near the top edge and cut straight down along its weave, withdrawing it before reaching the bottom edge.  There was not so much as a tinkle during the process, and the slack created by the slice allowed him to carefully part the fabric and quietly step through.

This room had a significantly larger breadth than any he had entered thus far, though it was rather austere, with only a canopied bed, long dresser, changing screen, and armoire filling up the space.  Aside from the main portal, which had faintly glowing runes on its backside, there were two doors exiting the room, one was presumably a closet, and the other undoubtedly led into a private bath house.  He paused.  The sound in the room was all wrong, instead of the single shallow breathing he expected from this dainty human who ruled her kingdom with far more wisdom than any would credit her with, he heard the mingled breathing of a couple who had fallen asleep in a lovers embrace.

Not quite so dainty as I was led to believe.

A breastplate and leather leggings lay against the far wall, while a series of underclothes trailed away from it to the bed.  How delicious.

Thorn moved around the bed without making a sound, avoiding the moonlight streaming in through the open shudders, and examined the armor.  A common soldier of no significant rank, he shook his head, my Lady Gilliam, are we cavorting with underlings?  The larger figure turned in his sleep, moving his arm from his face; in the moonlight Thorn saw a sight which nearly made him laugh out loud.  Duke Harvinald, does your wife know in whose bed you lie?  I quite doubt it.

For a moment, Thorn paused, deciding how best to handle the situation, after all, he had only brought enough of the jlitn for one person, knowing that its paralytic effects would give him the opportunity to see the terror in his victims eyes while he did his work.  Had I taken the extra day, I could have mixed more of the herbal paste, but then I would have likely missed this opportunity anyhow.  As he stood there, his left hand reached up to his chin, rubbing at it beneath the shadow-weave mask that hid his features, a trait he had long ago picked up from his father when he was deep in thought.

Perhaps it is best I end them both quickly.  He rubbed his chin a little more, shifting his weight from his right to his left foot.  But where is the fun in that?  Beneath his mask, Thorn smiled, it was humorless and cold.

Around his slender waist, beneath the shadow-weave tunic, he wore a belt of pouches in which he carried many small items ranging from jerky to acid to tools to poisons of a various levels of lethality, among others; inside the belt’s length were four separate coils of silk rope, he pulled two of these free and quickly tied tautline knots on each end of one, then a short noose in the other.  Slipping one of the knots onto the Duke’s right ankle, he wrapped the short length twice around the bedpost and then carefully slipped the other end around his left foot.  Moving quickly to the top of the bed, he took out the vial of jlitn and dripped its contents onto Lady Gilliam’s exposed throat.

Thorn saw her wake immediately to the sensation, but jlitn works fast, and the breath of her scream was left paralyzed in her throat.  The change in her breathing must have alerted Harvinald, as his eyes snapped open, but the assassin counted on that.  As the man sat up, attempting to roll off the bed, the silk rope bit into his ankles and Thorn slipped the noose over his head, pulling it taught as he hauled the rope, and the Duke’s weight, up to the canopy cross bar, where he quickly tied it off.

Excellent.  Stepping back to view his handiwork, he was gratified to see Harvinald struggling with the noose, his naked body stretched between bedpost and crossbar.  Though his hands were free, they struggled at the noose like an animal, not thinking to reach for the crossbar or make an attempt at the knot in the noose.  The gurgles escaping the Duke’s lips caused Thorn some alarm, but he doubted that anyone in the manor would be aware enough to hear.  Together, we will watch him die, my lady.  Leaning up against the dresser, he looked into Lady Gilliam’s face, her eyes were wide as she watched her lover struggle.  Her agony was almost palpable.

Unsheathing a dagger, Thorn began expertly flipping it from one hand to the other along various arcs, the blade catching glimpses of moonlight in its twists and turns.  Finally, the duke reached for the knot, then the crossbar, anything to relieve the pressure on his throat and allow him to pull a deep breath of air into his protesting lungs, but it was already too late, the assassin could see his strength ebbing.

Looking back to the Lady, he saw a single tear running down her face.  Moving quickly, he caught it on the blade of his dagger a moment before it hit the silken pillow.  The salty drop looked out of place on the cold steel, and as Thorn shifted the plane of the blade, it rolled along its length, leaving the barest hint of a trail.  He wanted to reach out with his tongue and taste its saltiness, but the Duke had begun his death throes and the crossbar was beginning to protest from the strain, emitting a low moan and creak, as if in anguish.  Will you miss your mistresses lover?  Will you miss their passionate embrace within your wooden frame?  The struggles slowed, and finally ceased as the Duke’s life reached its end, but Thorn’s attention remained on the crossbar, though the wood had cracked in several places, it continued to hold the dead man’s weight.  Guess not.

His eyes shifted to hers, and hers shifted to his, meeting in the same moment.  Though her face lacked expression, Thorn could see the hatred in her eyes, mixed with fear and regret.  No doubt you know that life is finite, all intelligent beings do, but it is more real now that you can measure I; that is the curse of awareness.  A cow being led to slaughter has no idea what is to occur and doesn’t realize that its dead until the moment has passed, but you know, you see your end, you even anticipate it, but never quite so soon.

Stepping over to the side of the bed, Thorn lowered himself until the lips behind his mask were right next to her ear.  “Do you know why you are going to die?”  Another tear rolled down her face, he allowed it to fall onto the pillow.  “It is not because of your policies; it is not because you had someone killed whose family wanted vengeance; it is not even because of your allegiances or enemies; you are being killed to rally your kingdom into an unprovoked war.  You are being killed to split the Commonwealth and plunge the Anthrinic into chaos.  In essence, you are being killed to disrupt trade and help return some of the glory to the Fanaal Empire.”

It is regrettable that she cannot speak, but I cannot chance that she will scream and alert her guards; they are not a threat, but with mystery surrounding her death, especially in regard to the Duke, it will be easy for rumor to become reason.  Standing, Thorn looked down into her face.  “I wonder if your last thoughts are filled with fear over what will become of your people and kingdom, or of what will become of your son.”  Her eyes widened.  “I see that the latter is your greater concern, commendable from a leader and a mother.  I am not usually in the business of allaying one’s fears, but since you are providing a great service to the Empire, I will make an exception.  I will not seek out young Aubrau; if fate smiles upon him, he will grow into a strong man, but not a strong leader, and I will never have to pay him a visit.”

I see the mix of emotions in your eyes, you fear that he will be less than you hope as you fear that he will be all that you hope.  Where is the line between mother and leader?

The crossbar creaked, and a long crack began at the knot that held the Duke’s lifeless form in place and ran towards its center.  The sound will alert the guard and the alarm will be raised before the red sun dawns.  It is time.  “I regret that our time together has come to an end, Lady Gilliam, but I must kill you now.  I will offer you one last mercy and end it quickly; you may close your eyes or look away.”

To her credit, she watched me plunged my dagger into her bare chest, between her ribs, and into her beating heart.  I left the dagger there, after all, it belonged to Dirin Balifir, the personal bodyguard and assassin for Lord Harvinald.  Behind his shadow-weave mask, Thorn smiled as he moved toward the window.  His disappearance will certainly fuel the speculations I will plant in the minds of these simple people, and is the reason a master assassin never kills with a trademark weapon.

Leaping from the open window, the shadowy form of Thorn disappeared into the night, as the crossbar finally gave way.