Gathering his courage like the dark clouds of a storm, Amar walked back to camp. He opened his palm and looked at his crystal orb. The inner light rippled suddenly as if Onja encouraged him from afar.
Urlen squinted and got up from the log he was sitting on and approached Amar. “What is that?” Urlen asked.
“A gift from Onja,” Amar answered and extended his hand so Urlen could see it.
The Nurati’s eyes bulged out of his thin head. He was deeply impressed. “An enchanted charm?” he breathed.
Amar nodded and then glanced sideways at Kym, Vame, and Cybar, who were looking as well.
“What does it do?” Kym asked.
“It keeps me connected to Onja,” Amar said. He closed his hand around the orb and went to his pack that was lying on the ground. He pulled out scraps of leather and cord and sat down to craft a small pouch for his new treasure.
The Kez warriors exchanged concerned looks. Cybar asked where Onja was.
Amar explained that the rys was returning to her homeland. He spoke as if her absence did not bother him.
Cybar frowned, quietly unhappy about her departure.
Kym was annoyed. He stood over Amar and complained, “You said she was going to help you get Wayndo. We’ve been wasting time wandering around and now she’s gone. What are you going to do?”
Amar finished tying a knot to secure the crude pouch around his crystal. Without looking up, he replied, “I will go to Wayndo today. You don’t have to kill me, Kym.”
“What will you do?” Kym demanded.
Amar placed the pouch around his neck. He stood up and met Kym’s eyes. “I am going now,” Amar said.
“We will go with you,” Kym decided.
“It is best that I go alone,” Amar contradicted. “I will not run away. I will perform my mission and prove myself to Lax Ar Fu.”
Kym gave Amar a long searching look, but as usual he was confounded in his judgment of the man. Finally he grumbled that they would hunt him down and skin him if he did not return.
“If I do not return, I am dead,” Amar said.
Amar put on his armor and strapped on his swords. He adjusted his leather bracers so they would be more comfortable and then he asked Kym for his haircutting blade.
Understanding that Amar wished to get rid of his Kez style haircut, Kym offered to do the cutting. “Your commitment did not last long,” Kym commented as the remaining long hairs were trimmed away.
“It will grow back,” Amar said. He then put his helmet on over his freshly shorn locks. Privately he contemplated that his mission might be impossible but he was excited by the challenge. He expected to gain much notoriety if he succeeded.
Going over to Urlen, Amar said, “If I don’t come back, you can have my horse.”
Despite the scabs around the Nurati scholar’s lips, he still managed a surprised smile. He was pleased that Amar had thought of his needs at all.
Urlen said, “Thank you, Amar. May I never have cause to collect. And, if I may inquire, what do you mean to do? Just walk in there?”
“Yes. It will be easy enough,” Amar answered. He looked at Kym and added that it was only a town where people came and went all the time.
“You’ll get killed,” Vame announced, a little anxiously.
“That is what Lax Ar Fu has in mind,” Amar agreed. “But, I will do my best to avoid that.”
Urlen’s expression was a mixture of confusion and dismay. He feared for Amar even if he suspected that the young man was mad.
“Don’t worry,” Amar told the disgraced scribe and left the camp.
Amar did not look back. He was motivated anew by Onja’s need for a strong friend, and the strange enchantment hanging around his neck gave him a supernatural sense of confidence.
He emerged from the wild lands onto the dirt road that wound through the countryside. At summer’s end the ruts were dried and worn smooth. Amar walked along the edge where the drying weeds and grass hung over the compacted dirt. He passed a small two-wheel cart filled with split firewood pulled by a donkey. The donkey’s head was bent low as it labored with its load when Amar went by. The village man walking alongside the cart looked at Amar with cautious curiosity that soon shifted to fear.
Amar did not bother making eye contact with anyone else on the road. More people passed him in both directions as he neared the fortress, but the heavier the traffic, the less people paid attention to him. He assumed he must look like any young mercenary trekking into the stronghold of Wayndo.
Amar’s thighs burned as he climbed the path cut into the side of the butte. His workout that morning had been intense, but he liked pushing himself harder every day. He was still thin but his lack of body fat only accentuated the muscles bulging from his young frame.
I need to be stronger, he reminded himself. The typical body of a twenty-one-year old man would no longer suffice.
Retracing the path that Onja had already shown him through her mind felt strange. At the gate there were two Temulanka guards. They watched the regular traffic with disinterest until Amar neared the open gate. Their bronze helmets had round metal brims that shaded their brown eyes from the morning sun. One of them tapped Amar on the chest with a spear and segregated him to the side of the road like a shepherd moving a sheep.
Amar sized up the guards as they pressed close on both sides of him. They were easily ten years older than him. Hardened veterans instead of green warriors. It seemed that Wayndo did not risk his gate to untested youths.
The guards came at him with questions in quick succession. Who was he? Where did he come from? What was his business? Who was his lord?
“I am Amar. I seek to be a mercenary. I have no lord. I have heard that Lord Wayndo is wise and strong and good to serve,” Amar answered.
The guards scrutinized him. Amar stared back at them calmly.
Finally, one of the guards said, “We have no need of mercenaries. There is no war.”
“Then what should I do? Be a bandit?” Amar said.
“I suppose you do look hungry enough to steal,” the other guard said. Then he laughed and added, “There is always need for a young strong fighter. There will be war soon enough. There always is. Go to the guard house. It’s the blue building next to the stone tower. Ask for Captain Ephener. Maybe he’ll take you in.”
Amar eased the spear away from his face. “Thank you,” he said.
As Amar passed through the gate, the first guard who spoke to him called out, “Don’t expect to get paid any time soon.”
Both of the guards chuckled.
Amar noted the location of the small postern gate beside the gate house when he entered the walled town. He then strolled around and perused the market stalls while examining the main stone tower. He spotted the window that he had stepped through when he traveled with Onja’s mind. He wished he actually had the power to float up there with spectral ease.
He also noted the blue building where he had been told to seek the guard captain. After buying a bread roll from a vendor, he went to the communal cistern and took a cup of water. Eating leisurely he watched the men-at-arms in Wayndo’s service come and go from the blue building. Some entered the tower and some came out of the tower. They all wore the helmets like the guards at the gate. They also wore the same black shirts and pants. Their other gear varied somewhat for it seemed each man had his own weapons and armor of various styles.
Amar walked by the blue building casually and studied its slate roof, especially where it connected with the tower. He then whiled away the day in the town. After buying a rope in the market, he rented a place in the loft of a tavern to nap. When he woke up, he lay on the straw mattress and stared at the wooden rafters while wondering what it would be like to assassinate someone. Amar recalled killing Patharki during his hopeless battle at the death of his tribe. But that had been in the heat of an attack when he was trying to survive. Hunting a strong target and killing him by surprise would be a different matter.
When Amar left the tavern, the setting sun glowed red upon Wayndo’s tower and the street vendors were packing up their stalls. Amar went to another tavern adjacent to the blue guard house, and it had the predictable red curtains in the small upper windows.
No one questioned his presence when he entered the brothel. Downstairs men were drinking and women were dancing or sitting on laps. The music was merry but without talent. Lanterns hung on the supporting posts throughout the main room and their smoke left streaks of black up the posts and produced a dingy haze along the ceiling. The place smelled of strong drink and sweat.
As a fresh young face, Amar quickly attracted the female workers. A voluptuous woman with a bold gap-toothed grin sidled up next to him and put her arm around him. “Oh, you’d make me feel like a farm maid again,” she said.
Amar said nothing. Her bad breath was far from appealing and her touch triggered no response from his body.
He gestured to another woman who had approached only because she must. Her eyes were sad and she was homely, probably the last to get chosen most nights.
Shrugging off the first whore, he took the hand of the shy sad woman. “I have coin and have been long on the road,” he said.
She nodded and escorted him upstairs. The floorboards creaked on the second level that was dark except for a few oil lamps. The upstairs was divided into stalls instead of actual rooms. Old straw littered the hall that dissected the stalls along each side of the pitched roof.
From the shadows, Amar could hear the expected breathing, moaning, and grunting. With little interest in the carnal relations, he squinted in the gloom as he followed his hired mistress, and he saw what he had hoped to find. Draped over the partition of one of the cells was the black clothing of a guard. Without hesitation he snatched the garments down and the busy man behind the partition did not notice.
Amar’s whore stopped at the end of the hall and meant to take him into a cell to the left, but Amar entered the cell to the right instead. She followed him across the hall and timidly said that he was not in her assigned place. Then she stared at the clothing he had stolen.
Amar ignored her and opened the shutter of the narrow window tucked beneath the eaves of the roof. He looked out into the night and examined the nearby roof of the guard house. Only a very narrow alley separated the brothel from the guard house and he judged that he could cross it.
He set aside his weapons and started quickly undressing.
“I shouldn’t be in this one,” the woman muttered but she untied her wrap-around shirt anyway. Reclining onto the dirty straw-stuffed mattress, she hiked up her skirt. She wore no underclothes.
Amar glanced at her, but he had no desire to entertain himself with her worn body. He quickly pulled on the black pants and shirt and put his armor and gear back on.
He dug into his coin pouch and took out twice what a sad whore like her was worth. He flicked the silver at her and it landed in the folds of her lifted skirt.
“If you can be paid to spread your legs, you can be paid to keep your mouth shut,” he said.
Amar folded his clothing into a small bundle and stuffed it into his backpack. As the whore stared at him with disbelieving surprise, he ducked through the window and grabbed the eave of the roof. Holding on, he pulled his legs out and dangled over the narrow alley. For an awful second, Amar panicked as his legs flailed over nothingness, but he found his daring and pulled one foot onto the window sill. Then he was just tall enough to stretch his second leg until his foot was braced against the rough wooden planks of the guard house wall. He let go of the brothel roof and lunged for the edge of the guard house roof. Grabbing the slate tiles that stuck out over the wall, Amar took his foot from the window sill and swung it over to the guard house wall. He hung there for a moment to catch his breath. He was quite amazed with himself.
Pulling with all of his strength, he lifted himself up onto the roof. First he got his chin over the slate tiles and then an elbow and then he reached out for a new handhold. His fingers clung desperately to the tiles, and he pulled. Once he got his torso over the edge he flung a leg up. With his next pull he got his other leg onto the roof just as a slate tile snapped apart in his hands. His hand flopped desperately for a new hold and after securing himself anew, he lay still, panting from his exertion and stress.
There was no time to waste though and he quickly got onto all fours. Amar looked over his shoulder and saw the woman’s dark eyes shining in the window. Her expression was inscrutable. Amar raised a finger to his lips and then turned away from her. He scrambled along the peak of the roof toward the tower.
The woman in the brothel window decided to earn her money in this most unexpected way. She had so little opportunity to rest that she went to her assigned cell and cast herself down on her miserable overworked bed and fell asleep. She did not care what deeds the handsome young stranger was about to commit.
Amar reached the tower that abutted the guard house. He ran his hands over the well-fitted blocks of stone. The window by which he had planned to enter was higher than he had judged and he could not reach it. Amar quickly scanned the yard to see if anyone had noticed him. A few torches and lanterns were lit near the cistern in the courtyard and near the entrances of buildings, but their light did not reach over the roof and he was well concealed in the darkness.
Having no choice but to climb, he sought handholds and pulled himself up. His grip between the stone blocks was frighteningly tenuous and his booted feet pressed insistently into crevices. His fingers were cramped painfully when he grabbed the stone window sill. He hauled himself into the window and was pleased that no one was in the dark room.
His luck only lasted until he got his first foot inside. Then the door opposite the window opened and two men walked in with a lantern. The light showed that they wore the garb of Wayndo’s men-at-arms. Amar lurched inside and thudded heavily onto the floor when his second foot caught on the window sill.
One soldier shouted and the other lunged at Amar. Amar rolled onto his side and yanked out a sword. He thrust the blade at his attacker’s neck, and hot blood spilled onto Amar’s hand.
The second man with the lantern rushed forward. The light swayed up the wall and across the ceiling. Amar sprang across the room. He swiped with his sword but missed, and, when he charged again, he ran into the corner of a sturdy wooden table. The table bashed his hip and spun him aside, which actually saved Amar from the slashing blade of the soldier. Ignoring the brutal flare of pain in his hip, Amar threw himself at the soldier. They scuffled furiously before Amar cut his throat.
He shoved the dying man away from him and reeled against the wall. Panting, he listened for more men in the hall, but it was hard to hear because of the deep banging of his heart.
Amar peeked into the hall. The light from the dropped lantern inside his room spread across the floor in a golden triangle. He saw no one and moved out. He wanted to run, but it was important that he act normal. Grateful for the knowledge of the tower’s layout that Onja had given him, Amar headed for the servants’ stairs that rose from the kitchen at the bottom up through the tower.
When men entered the stairwell one level above him, Amar clenched with fear but he had no place so hide. Forcing himself to relax, he continued up the steps and only glanced at the three servants carrying down dirty dishes. As Amar had hoped, the servants brushed by him on the steps because he appeared to be only a typical man-at-arms.
After going up two more levels, Amar paused and tried to remember the details of the tower. The memories had a foreign feel because he had not learned them through direct experience. He left the cramped servants’ stairwell and slipped into a hall. Tapers burned in wall sconces along the plastered walls. In the flickering light, the texture of the plaster was rough with shadows and the designs painted upon the walls were fractured.
Amar went to the door that led to Wayndo’s private chambers. He suddenly heard voices just beyond the door and then the click of the door latch being raised. Scrambling with quiet speed, Amar darted back into the stairwell. He heard men coming his way. They were deep in conversation and oblivious to the intruder. When the three men went by the shadowy stairwell, Amar saw their backs and spotted the black and gray braid of his target. A jeweled clasp held the hair that stood out sharply against the white fabric of his shirt.
Wayndo continued with his two associates to the main stairs. He spoke loudly and with authority, probably rattling off opinions and orders but Amar was not sure what he said. His nerves were preventing his ears from unraveling the Temulanka dialect at that moment.
It did not matter. He had not come to speak with anyone.
Very carefully, Amar peeked out of the stairwell and saw a guard now at the door to Wayndo’s apartment. He must have been inside with his lord until the men had come out. Amar considered killing him, but a missing guard would alert Wayndo to trouble.
Mindful of making noise, Amar padded up the stone steps to the next level. That morning he had seen that this level between the tower roof and Wayndo’s living quarters was for storage and a library. Scrolls were stacked along sagging wooden shelves and dusty cobwebs draped the stacks. In the gloom that was only relieved by two oil lamps on separate tables, Amar saw tables littered with jars, bags, furs, and bundles of vegetation. Staying close to the wall to avoid the light, Amar ran his hand along the edges of some scrolls. The rolled parchment felt stiff and dry. He supposed that Urlen might very much like to see the scrolls. At random, Amar plucked out two scrolls, but his selection unbalanced the contents of the whole shelf and all the scrolls rolled forth. Amar flapped his arms comically trying to stop the flow of rolled skins. Dozens of them pattered on the floor.
Kicking the clutter aside and shoving scrolls back onto the leaning shelf, Amar cursed at himself silently. He still shoved the two scrolls, whatever they were, into his pack since he had already gone to such stupid trouble. He hoped that Urlen enjoyed them.
I hope that Urlen has a chance to enjoy them, Amar amended.
Then he heard a light thump on the spiral stairs that led up from the center of the room to the roof. Lantern light spilled down the stairs and the silhouette of a cat was cast upon the wall. The cat scooted down the steps and out of the light.
“What was that noise? Watch out, Zoodeba. Must be big mice,” commented an elderly male who spoke to his pet in a tender tone.
The man came down from the roof slowly, gripping the wooden rail that wound around the stairs. Amar rushed around the edge of the room and navigated tables and shelves until he was underneath the spiral stair. The cat hissed at him.
“What’s that?” the man said. He swung the lantern around various points in the room but obviously had no idea where Amar was.
Amar froze inside the shadows and tried to decide if he should kill the old scholar.
The old man was drawn to the disturbed bookshelf and bent down slowly to start setting the scrolls back in place. The cat jumped onto the top shelf and supervised his progress while he commented to the cat about how he was surprised that pile had stayed in place so long.
Amar began to think that he might be able to go about his business undetected. His presence seemed so painfully obvious though. He was surprised that the old man did not smell him. Or perhaps his body odor just seemed so strong because of the unfamiliar sweat of a stranger that permeated his stolen clothes.
While the man was on all fours collecting scrolls and the lantern was on the floor, Amar dashed up to the roof.
The wind hit him when he emerged onto the platform. It was stronger at this height and Amar had a sudden chill as his sweat cooled his skin. He was sweating more than he had realized. Thrilling fear coursed through his veins. His reckless and improvised plan to infiltrate Wayndo’s inner chambers made his existence so achingly real. At this moment, Amar could savor life. In danger he could find joy.
He removed the rope from his pack and shook out its coils. He looked for a place to tie it. A sturdy timber flag pole presented itself. Wayndo’s senshal banner snapped above Amar as he secured his rope.
His hands moved urgently. Between gusts of wind he could hear the old man chatting to his cat. Amar warned himself to go kill the old man, but his heart yet had some mercy in it, and Amar would gamble that the man would not discover the rope. He had already missed Amar practically walking by him.
Taking up the rope, Amar mounted the parapet above the window that he had entered mentally with Onja. A waning moon had just broken the horizon and dappled the scattered clouds with light. Stars glittered in the heavens, and the hills jutting above the dark fields were silvery and silent.
As Amar wrapped the rope about his torso and gripped it fiercely, he paused to take in the splendor of the night. It was good to see beauty and have it touch him. He needed this moment of blessing before he committed cold murder.
Amar went backwards over the edge. His arms shook as he held himself steady and his feet walked down the fitted stones. He looked down. The rope dangled unnoticed along the tower. He was not sure how close it was to the yard below. Close enough he hoped.
He continued down like a spider in search of fresh hunting grounds. Soon he came upon the window and congratulated himself on his judgment. The knowledge of the building that Onja had given him was flawless.
Inside he saw three candles burning on a mantle. He swung into the room and gathered the rope inside and coiled it neatly. Ready to hunt, he drew his iron blade that should have been an heirloom of his family. Now it was only the enchanted trinket of a killer.
A splendid and huge senshal skin covered the floor in front of the cold fireplace. In the low candle light, the empty eye sockets of the beast’s head came alive again and its bared fangs gleamed with threatening hunger.
Amar crouched next to the skin and ran his hand over the fur. Even with his glove on, he could appreciate the lustrous thickness of the orange speckled fur. He looked around trying to decide where he would wait and what he would do when Wayndo returned. He would need the element of surprise, especially if Wayndo returned with the other men.
A gasp yanked Amar from his deep speculations.
A woman was gaping at him from the next room. Amar rushed her and seized her. She had just begun to scream when he clamped a hard hand over her mouth. She struggled hard. He could not recall ever feeling the strength of a woman.
As she fought frantically, Amar tried to think of what to do. He could not let her go. If she got out one good scream the guard in the hall would surely react. The ugly decision came to Amar. He pinned her against a wall and snapped her neck.
Her body went limp and he lowered her to the floor. Her body heat from her brief struggle was a gruesome affront to her swift death. Amar dragged her into the bedchamber of her lord and put her in bed. The covers were disturbed. She must have risen upon hearing him come in the window. Amar replaced the coverlet upon her and then straightened her head on the pillow to correct the bad angle of her shattered neck.
Amar was shocked by the emptiness he felt. The thrill of his own danger had suddenly ended. Killing the woman had numbed him.
I can do anything now. No one can defy me, he thought.
Strangely he was comforted by the realization of this notorious destiny. He remembered the face of his wife, or rather Gendahl’s wife. In the dim moonlight, it was easy to imagine her face resting on the pillow. Amar leaned forward and kissed her lightly. Her lips were soft.
He left her side and hoped that death had come as swiftly for the fair wife of Gendahl.
Amar returned to the main room and blew out the candles. He took out his crystal orb. The milky blue light was cold. He looked into the orb. He could not wait until he was closer to the source of that power again.
He placed the orb on the window sill where his rope came in. Then he moved the senshal skin toward a corner and hid beneath it.
Beneath the timber boards of the floor he could dimly hear muffled voices and indistinct laughter. Some music started and then there was singing. Amar imagined the amusements set before the lord of the tower. He hoped that the lure of a young female in his bed drew Wayndo back soon.
As Amar waited to kill Wayndo, he thought mostly about the doddering scholar above him. He was counting on the old man going to bed instead of going back to the roof and discovering the rope. It was not too much to ask.
The grinding tedium of waiting was finally shattered by footsteps in the hall. It was just one man. Thinking of his pledge to Lax Ar Fu, Amar did not act out of honor or out of fear. He acted because he wanted to become a man that is feared. Then he would become a man that is powerful.
Amar heard the useless guard acknowledge his lord and then the door opened. Amar had positioned his head inside the senshal head and he peered through the jagged fangs. Light came in from the hall and then went black again as the door closed.
The man who entered called out a woman’s name and asked why she had not left a candle burning for him. Then he stopped in the middle of the room.
“What is that?” the man whispered. He walked right by Amar toward the window where the orb glowed against the night. Just like a moth to the flame, the man went to the orb and picked it up. He stared at it with total fascination just as anyone would have done.
Too slowly he noticed the rope in the window. The enchanted light reflected on his bulging eyes. Amar struck. His sword hit his neck, and the man slumped into the window in a spray of blood. The warding crystal hit the floor but it did not shatter.
Amar pulled him back inside. The body, slick with blood, with its lolling head thunked onto the floor. Amar crouched and grabbed the crystal orb and looked quickly to the door. Still no sounds from the guard outside.
Amar held the crystal over the face of his victim and confirmed that Wayndo lay dead in front of him. In his mind he thanked Onja for his success and the living light inside the crystal orb brightened briefly. He was warmed by this sign of connection with the rys female, and the awful deaths that he had just inflicted were meaningless to him. Reverently, he returned the warding crystal to its pouch.
Moving quickly now, he finished severing the head with his sword. Striking the death blow had been far easier than this butchery, which Amar found distasteful. He recalled the command of Lax Ar Fu to bring the head and the cock of Wayndo, but Amar decided that the head would suffice. He pulled the bloody shirt off of Wayndo and used it to tightly wrap the head. He tied the sleeves into a handle for the bloody soggy bundle and tossed the rope out the window.
Descending the side of the tower was an agony of anxiety. Despite the dark he could still be noticed from the ground, and the alarm might be raised inside the tower at any moment.
The rope was not quite long enough and Amar had to jump the last distance to the ground. On his landing, his left ankle flared with pain but he did not hesitate. Limping as fast as he could, he stuck to the shadows along the other buildings and headed toward the gates.
A big lantern hung from a post outside the gate house. Amar did not see anyone outside, but presumably men were on duty. He paused to give his ankle a rest because he would have to fight and run soon. He judged that the ankle was not broken but it certainly hurt.
Carrying his grim bloody bundle as casually as possible, Amar walked up to the postern gate with confidence. He grabbed the thick wooden bar that locked it.
“What are you doing?”
Amar glanced at the gate house and saw a man-at-arms emerging from the doorway. He didn’t have his helmet on nor was he holding a spear. A short sword was sheathed at his side. His demeanor was curious instead of alarmed thanks to Amar’s disguise.
“Off to meet a sweet and lonely farmer’s wife,” Amar said and pushed on the door.
“Your speech is odd. Who are you?” the guard said, suspicious now.
The thick door scraped open stiffly. It was not often used but it served.
“Hey! You can’t open that!” the guard protested. Another man came out the door now and this one had his spear ready.
Amar held onto the wooden bar that he had lifted from the door and slipped through the partially opened door. The guards protested loudly and tried to seize him. Amar jumped behind the door and pushed it shut in the guards’ faces and then braced the wooden bar against the ground to hold the door shut.
Through the thick stone walls Amar heard the guards curse at him. Then a bell started ringing. He ran. The excitement of getting this far alive eased his pain and he picked up speed on the steep road down the butte. It was hazardous in the night, and he tripped three times, bashing his knees and elbows.
When he reached the level ground, he heard riders above him.
Amar left the road and ran blindly into the fields and then through the woods. In the dark he stumbled into a small creek and splashed in up to his waist. He climbed out on the next bank and continued. He planned to get his bearings in the morning and find his way back to his comrades.
He had done as Lax Ar Fu had bid him and he could truly join the Kez now. Amar had a place in the world. A place to serve…and then perhaps to rule.