She made her way down the dark tunnel, simultaneously trying to ignore and name the irritating weight in her gut. Nervousness? Anxiety? Perhaps even apprehension, but not fear. She would never call it fear.
‘Fear is weakness.’
Fear and weakness were two things the General did not tolerate. Besides there was nothing to fear. After all she’d slipped into and out of the palace dozens of times. However, the dozens of successful times did not seem to outweigh the disaster that took place just a few weeks ago.
It’s not like she’d never killed before. Shooting at the guards had always been necessary when raiding the king’s supply caravans. Still, there was something distant and disconnected with sending an arrow flying. Just a flick of her fingers and it hit or it didn’t. It had always seemed to her that fate had just as much control over it as she did. But cutting her way through the king’s guards had been another matter entirely. The feel of the blade as it sunk into flesh. The vibration in her arm as the blade grated against bone. The sounds of the dying men still dominated her dreams—nightmares really.
She’d trained her whole life to be ready for such a fight; the General had seen to that. However, no amount of training could prepare her for the weight of someone else’s blood on her hands.
‘This is war girl, people die.’ The General’s words echoed in her ears. A constant voice in her head insuring she stayed on point. Stayed focused. Committed to the cause.
She pushed the thought of blood from her mind, along with the past she couldn’t change and forced herself to focus on the mission at hand. Absentmindedly, her fingers went to the moonstone that hung around her neck. Light and dark rotated around her as she rolled it between her fingers. The soft glow of the moonstone was her only source of light down here and the only thing that kept her from disappearing into the darkness. Not that there was anyone down here to see her. The maze of tunnels that cut and wound through Mt. Nasiri had always been a closely guarded secret. Carved out centuries ago, the passages were meant as an escape route for the royal family. If it hadn’t been for the General, the secret of the passages would have been lost in the invasion eleven years ago, alongside the royal family that they were designed to protect.
There had been a full year, where as part of her daily lessons, the General had drilled her on the tunnels, until she could draw a complete map from memory. A map that she was then forced to immediately burn. So she knew, almost without thinking, that the next tunnel on the right would take her to a storage room in the back of the royal kitchens and the one after that led to the west tower. Tonight’s mission, like most, would require her to take the next passage on the left.
Faint sounds from the palace began to float through the darkness as the tunnel sloped up and delivered her to a broom closet on the third floor of the main wing. It was two floors below where she needed to be but it was as close as the passages would get her. As she emerged into the musty forgotten closet the light from her moonstone went out, leaving her only the light that seeped under the door from the hallway.
She pressed against the old oak door, listening and noting the different footsteps that passed by. The heavy rhythmic sound of hard soled boots marked a set of guards. Then not five minutes later another set. Followed shortly by a whisper of footsteps that could only belong to a servant, hastened along by the sound of yet more guards. They’ve doubled the guards. I guess that’s my own fault. The thought stabbed her in the gut but she told herself it was annoyance not guilt.
After monitoring a few more rotations, she pulled up her hood and slipped from the closet. Her soft leather boots carried her silently down the marble hallway to the stairwell and up to her destination. She made quick work of the lock and stepped into the now familiar study. She lit the oil lamp on the desk and set about finding what she came for. She knew all of Duke Tyson’s usual hiding places, so she didn’t bother with the desk drawers anymore. The duke considered himself a creative man. Although his bland decorating suggested otherwise. First she made her way to the mirror which hung behind the desk, knowing the duke liked to stash things behind its thick wooden frame. As her fingers searched, her eyes flicked up to her shadowy reflection. Every detail of her was concealed under her hood and cloak, making her nothing more than a faceless black ghost. Unsuccessful she moved on to check under the loose floorboard in the corner but that yielded nothing. Finally she found it tucked behind the books in the bookcase. “You’re not nearly as clever as you think you are,” she whispered. Now for the hard part… or is it the easy part? she thought as she tucked her prize in her pocket and headed for the door.
Once back in the hallway she turned away from the stairwell and made her way down the torch lit hall. She came upon a lovely purple and white glass vase, clearly from the previous king and queen’s reign. It sat atop a neglected table along with about a decade of dust. As she passed she let her gloved fingers drag across it, leaving wavy streaks in the dust. A bitter sadness filled her as she imagined it clean and full of fragrant roses, as she was sure it would’ve been if not for him—Algerron. Clenching her dusty fingers into a fist she forced herself to keep moving.
‘Focus on the mission.’
A little farther down the hall she came across another dusty table and a sickening crunch stopped her in her tracks. She shifted and cautiously peeked under the table. A dingy white matted ball of fur hissed a brief warning at her before forgetting her existence and going back to its rodent meal. Another crunch made her wrinkle her nose and continued on her way.
Rounding the corner she found herself standing right in front of two guards. They all froze. Her stomach flipped and her heart charged to a gallop. You have got to be kidding me, she thought as the two massive Northmen gawked at her blankly.
“Hey. Uh… you. Stop.”
Stop? You idiot, I haven’t moved. Yet, she thought with a smirk. As much as she wanted to avoid another bloodbath, there was no denying this was the fun part—the chase. Making grown men look like fools was the best part of her job. Admittedly tormenting and undermining the cruel king who invaded her homeland and killed her family was a perk too.
She was back around the corner before they’d even drawn their swords. Their heavy boots pounded hard behind her and their angry shouts chased her down the hall. When she made it back to the duke’s study she darted in, slamming the door behind her. From the sound of things a few more guards were on their way to join the fun. Beside the desk, with her back to the window, she waited. Her heart was pounding in her chest though more from excitement than the short run. Three guards burst through the door, swords in hand but they paused just over the threshold. Whether it was to let their eyes adjust to the dimly lit room or just to assess the situation, she wasn’t sure.
“Throw down your weapons and surrender,” one of the guards demanded.
Wasted, in the shadows of her hood, she smiled at them. Innocently she showed them her empty hands but with her hands raised, they could clearly see she had blades strapped to her belt. Slowly, in unison, they moved towards her.
Come on. Just a little closer, she coaxed silently.
Quickly, yet careful to turn her face from the light, she scooped up the oil lamp and tossed it to the floor. Glass and oil exploded at their feet and instantly there was a line of flames between them. As the guards flinched back she moved to the window, pushing it open and climbing up in one smooth movement. Perched on the ledge she paused, turning back to insure that the fire spread. The flames leapt to the desk and she smiled. Fire was simple, it was always eager—always hungry.
After landing hard on the rooftop a story below she stopped only long enough to check her hood, before taking off running. The guards from the duke’s study had no way to pursue her but there would be more on the wall and in the yard surrounding the palace. A sharp winter moon lit her way and a cold wind stung her face. Fighting the wind she held her hood in place with one hand as she ran along the rooftops.
When she reached the palace wall she melted into the shadow of a chimney. Guards always patrolled the wall that separated the palace from the rest of the city, but more often than not she could jump down to the wall and off the other side without being noticed. Unfortunately, tonight that was not going to be possible. Clearly the guards on the wall had been doubled as well. Where does he find all these damned Northmen? She groaned to herself but she knew exactly where and was willing to bet there was no shortage of men willing to trade their barren winter homeland for a more temperate climate, steady work and a guaranteed meal.
She waited until the guard was right below her before she pounced. In one easy motion she knocked him down and took his crossbow, knocking him out with the butt of it. The commotion drew the attention of another guard. Ready for it, she sent the loaded bolt flying at him. Not waiting to see if or where it hit, she dropped over the side of the wall and into the city.
It was a short leap from the wall to the third story balcony across the alley. Her fingers caught on the railing and wrapped tight around the cold metal but her feet found nothing but air. Her arms snapped straight, stopping her fall but her momentum slammed her body into the balcony. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she silently thanked the stars the wrought iron held her weight and swung herself up. From the balcony it was just a short climb up the drainpipe to the roof. This close to the palace the blocks were made up of tall attached townhouses. Which made it very easy for her to run along the rooftops. Unfortunately, the lack of variation also made her an easy target. It wasn’t long before bolts were whizzing past her.
“Ugh, I hate crossbows,” she grumbled to herself. Thankfully an obliging crosswind off the sea was sending their shots wide.
Just before she leapt to the next row of townhouses, she caught sight of a bolt sticking out from between two shingles. From the looks of it, it had been there awhile. A grin swept across her face and she shook her head as she flew across the gap, wondering what these rich folks thought about having their houses shot at. And whether or not it made them leak when it rained. Running down the next block of townhouses she decided she didn’t feel sorry for them. Figuring that if they had the money to live in such a fine house, even under the oppressive rule of the north, then surely they could afford to get their roof patched now and then.
She was forced to climb down when the row of townhouses ended. However, she hadn’t made it halfway down the next block before the rattling of the palace gate being pulled open echoed through the city. In a few seconds a storm of mounted guards would pour into the streets; their horses’ hooves thundering on the cobblestones. The whole city would be awake soon. She had time. She just needed to reach the city wall before the guards.
There weren’t likely to be any guards in this part of the city yet. So she didn’t bother to hide in the shadows as she bolted down streets and alleys weaving her way through the city. From experience she knew a few guards would ride straight to the gates, some to the River Gate and some to the Ocean Gate. The rest of the guards would fan out and systematically scour the streets. The city itself was a sort of lopsided square. Two sides were bordered by the unyielding crag of Mt. Nasiri with the palace nestled in the corner, cut right into the cliff itself. A thick gray-blue stone wall enclosed the rest of the city, making up the other two sides of the square. She needed to aim herself for a spot on the river side that was far enough from the gate that she would not be seen but close enough that she could make it there before the other guards found her.
Hooves echoing through the streets sent her for higher ground. She felt safer on the rooftops. It might make her more visible, if they bothered to look up, but she felt it offered her more choice of directions. If a guard were to spot her, she could simply run to the other side of the roof, while the guard had to ride to the end of the block and back around.
Once she’d pulled herself up, she paused to assess the situation. In this section of the city the homes were not as tall, still she could see the upper stories of the palace, which included the duke’s study. Red-orange flames danced in the window, making it stand out in the darkness like a lighthouse. Scanning the rest of the city she noticed flickering lights in most of the windows between her and the palace. The guards were not far behind.
Off again she raced from rooftop to rooftop until she came to a gap she couldn’t jump. Climb down and back up or go back and around? She checked the route that led back and around and everything still looked dark so she turned to head back. Her cloak was still twisting around her, when a voice cried out, “Look! Over there!”
She sprinted back down the block thankful that she hadn’t climb down. That would have put her right in the path of a mounted guard. She easily put a few blocks between herself and the guards but she was going the wrong way. No sooner had she looped around and was finally headed in the right direction, more guards appeared on the nearby streets. Big hulking Northmen on bulky war horses, their hooves pounding louder than her heart.
“Blazing hell,” she cursed under her breath and pushed herself to run faster. Giving up any hope of stealth, she tore across the city’s rooftops, sprinting for the wall. Any part of the wall.
Somehow the route worked out in her favor and for the moment, at least, the guards seemed to be falling behind. If she’d had a breath to spare she would have sighed with relief when she caught sight of the wall. Scanning the rooftops she plotted the last few moves that would take her over the wall. However, the smile on her lips faltered as something gave way under her foot. She tried desperately to recover her balance but it was too late. She was falling.
‘Stupid girl, sacrificing precision for speed will trip you up every time.’
The stars and the street traded places, then traded places again. For all she tried to fight it, a soft shriek escaped her lips as she tumbled. Somehow she managed to get her arms out but it did little to break her fall and she saw an entirely different set of stars when she slammed into the worn cobblestones.
Unable to breathe, she laid there gasping and coughing as air had suddenly become something she could choke on. Her lungs burned, both with need and protest, as she struggled to fill them with air. Somehow over the pounding in her head she heard the sound of rushed footsteps behind her. She tried looking over her shoulder to see who was coming but the movement set the world spinning.
Get up, she demanded of herself. Move. Hide.
As she struggled to push herself up, hands wrapped around her arms and hauled her to her feet. Despite the dizziness, she found the hilt of her dagger. However, before she drew it a voice whispered, “Come on, we have to get out of sight.” Not waiting for a reply he pulled her from the street.
She stumbled over the threshold but with his hand still clamped around her upper arm he easily kept her on her feet. Her vision was clearing up somewhat but she only got a glimpse of woodpiles and sharp tools hanging on the wall before he closed the door. The click of the latch and the sudden darkness snapped her out of her daze. Her head still wasn’t exactly clear but she knew being locked in a dark woodshed with a strange man was not where she wanted to be. She needed to get out of the city. Needed to get to the wall. Needed to get out of here.
“What are you doing? Let me out,” she demanded while trying to feel her way back to the door. Her steps were still unsteady but at least in the darkness she couldn’t see if the room was spinning. But instead of finding the door, her hands found solid muscle. She could tell right away he was thick and strong but not all that tall. Still she knew immediately she was in trouble. Her strength was her speed and agility and right now she was struggling to stay on her feet. “I need to…” she started but the stranger’s hand clamped over her mouth. Before her foggy brain could tell her limbs to retaliate he spun her around and pushed her up against the wall or maybe, with any luck, the door. However, him whipping her around had made even the darkness spin and for a moment she thought vomiting might be the only retaliation she could manage.
His hot breath slid across her cheek and down her neck as he hissed, “Shh. You’ll get us both killed. Do you have some kind of death wish?”
This is my chance. Maybe my only chance. To steady herself she sucked in a deep breath through her nose and drew her dagger. The moonstone around her neck flared so suddenly she had to squint her eyes but it didn’t matter. His voice had given him away, she knew exactly where his throat was. Startled by the light his hand fell from her mouth.
“Do you have a death wish?” she asked as she pressed her dagger to his throat. He stepped back but he looked more confused than afraid. She was a bit confused herself, though she would never allow it to show on her face as he just had. She’d expected some burly man not a shaggy haired boy.
“How are you doing that?” he asked with the reflection of her moonstone in his wide dark eyes. “Are you a witch?”
“Don’t be stupid. It’s a moonstone. It glows sometimes,” she snapped. Though not usually in front of strangers, she thought and covered the stone with her hand only allowing some of the light to slip through her fingers so they wouldn’t be in total darkness. He had stepped back, so her dagger was no longer at his throat but she still kept it between them. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“Name’s Jay and I was trying to help,” he replied. His eyes never left the stone in her hand but the corner of his mouth twitched up like he knew something she didn’t.
His eyes finally lifted to hers. “What do you mean, why?” he asked scratching at his chest lazily. “You fell off the roof.”
Her mouth fell open even as she glared at him; his words somehow catching her between furious and dumbfounded. “I know I fell off the roof.”
“Well then you should know you needed help,” he said crossing his thick arms over his chest in satisfaction.
“They will kill you for helping me,” she said, finally putting her dagger away. “You know who I am, don’t you?”
“Well… not many people dress in all black and run across rooftops in the middle of the night, with the entire king’s guard after them. But…” He looked her up and down. “You’re just a girl.”
Luckily for him, her desire to hit him was interrupted by the sound of hooves hammering down the street. With her dagger back out she backed away from the door and closed her hand tight around the moonstone. Side by side they held their breath in the darkness, as voices and horses echoed in the street.
I shouldn’t be here. What was he thinking? They will kill him if they find out he helped me. She racked her brain for a way out of this mess but there wasn’t one. We’re stuck here till the guards leave. I’ll have to find a way out of the city tomorrow.
Once the guards had moved down the street, she let go of the moonstone and sheathed her dagger again. Suddenly exhausted she turned to the boy—Jay. “You should go. Thank you for your assistance,” she said trying to sound grateful but it came out overly formal.
Despite her fatigue, every muscle in her body snapped tight when he reached for her face. She stood frozen but she didn’t flinch as he pushed back a lock of hair that had come loose from her braid. She bit back a hiss of pain as he pulled her hair from the drying blood.
“You really hit your head.” His eyes flicked from the side of her forehead to her eyes and back.
“I’m fine. Really. You should go.” She stepped away from him, turned and found a spot on the floor where she could sit against the wall. Truthfully every inch of her hurt but she’d had worse. Stretching her legs out, she leaned back against the wall and let her eyes fall closed. Still, she could feel him watching her.
“I told you to leave,” she said when he dropped down next to her. He sat close. Not so close they were touching but close enough she could feel the warmth coming off him.
“Um… I think I’ll stay,” he replied, his eyes still pressing down on her. “I can’t just leave you alone in here. This is my master’s shed and you’re a known thief.”
She jerked forward, insulted until she saw the smirk on his face. When she glared at him the smirk widened into a smile. “Yeah I came here tonight to steal some wood,” she said dryly. She leaned back, closing her eyes again but the corner of her mouth twitched up when he laughed.
“So what did you steal tonight?” he asked.
“Who said I did?”
“All those guards chasing you kind of gave it away.”
“That? Oh that’s just a little game we like to play,” she said casually flipping her hand in the direction of the street.
“Did you steal something from King Algerron?” he pressed.
“It’s safer if you don’t know,” she replied, because it was the truth.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone. Your secret is safe with me,” he said dropping his voice to a fake whisper.
Safer for you, she thought her heart sinking. Her voice was hardly a whisper when she said, “One way or another people who know my secrets always end up dead.” Her stomach tightened as the silence fell hard between them and her confession left an ugly shadow over them.
She waited and waited for him to say something—anything. But he didn’t. I wish he would just leave, she thought, suddenly angry with herself. Why is he really here anyway? There is nothing here worth stealing. And who in their right mind would spend the night in a woodshed with a known thief and murderer?
Grasping for any excuse to change the subject in both her head and the conversation, she asked, “So what does your master do? Besides chop a lot of wood?” She almost startled when he laughed again. It wasn’t as warm as it had been before, still the sound relieved some of the pressure in her chest.
“He’s not the one who chops all this wood.” Her moonstone had dimmed to just the faintest glow but she could hear the grin in his voice. “He’s a blacksmith. The wood is for the forge and he makes us, the students, chop it.”
“Ah, so you’re a smith apprentice.” That explains the iron grip and strong arms, she mused.
“I’m a senior apprentice,” he added proudly.
“And what does that entail?” she asked, not really caring, but she suspected it would keep him talking and the conversation off her for awhile. And it did. He rambled on and on about being an apprentice—the things he’d made and the things he was looking forward to learning.
He’d been talking for awhile, when his voice suddenly dropped off mid-sentence. She jerked alert. “What? Did you hear something?” she whispered, her hand on her dagger.
“No. I um, I thought you fell asleep,” he said sheepishly. “My apologies, I didn’t mean to prattle on like that.”
In the dim light she saw him rub at his chest. She vaguely remembered him doing that earlier. Had she hurt him? She tried to think back, to remember if she had lashed out at him. She didn’t think so but her head had been so fuzzy she couldn’t be sure. Dismissing it and his apology she said, “Oh no it’s quite all right.” And settled back against the wall. “I mean, it wasn’t exactly riveting but I’ve always been interested in how blades and things are made. You know I got a batch of arrowheads one time and they were totally worthless. The balance was all wrong,” she finished and she could have kicked herself. Blades and arrowheads? Really? Because surely that’s all a killer would be interested in.
“Yes, arrowheads can be tricky,” he said and she almost cringed at the hesitation in his voice.
“You should get some sleep,” she said abruptly. “I’ll keep watch.”
“What about you? Aren’t you tired?”
“Exhausted.” It was the truth but she wasn’t sure why she’d admitted it. “But I’ll be fine. I’m used to being up all night, remember? Besides tomorrow while you’re sweating next to the forge, too tired to swing your little hammer, I’ll be curled up in bed,” she said tipping her head to give him a teasing smile.
It took a bit more convincing but as soon as he gave in he was asleep. In the quiet, she planned her escape route. The gates would open at dawn and there would be a stream of people coming and going. City folk going out to work in the fields or leaving on horseback for a day of hunting in the forest. Valley folk would be headed in with goods to sell or trade in the market. She just needed to blend in and slip out with the crowd. It shouldn’t be too hard, over the years she’d always been careful to hide her face when she was working so there was little chance anyone would recognize her.
‘Conceal your identity at all costs. They see your face, they die.’
Guilt pulled her eyes to Jay. The General will be furious about this. About him seeing my face. And knowing who I am. But she couldn’t kill him. He had helped her and risked his life to do so. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure she could outright lie to the General and get away with it. I’ll figure it out. I’ll have to. The General can never know about him.
Shortly before dawn she struggled to her feet, her muscles screaming in protest. She rolled her shoulders and stretched her stiff back before removing the daggers from her hips and shoving them into her boots. Over the years her gear had been carefully designed and altered for her missions; from her soft leather boots that helped her move silently, to her metal embedded corset that doubled as armor. She unpinned her cloak from her shoulders, folded the hood inside, and repinned it around her waist, transforming it into a skirt. Even though Jay was still asleep, she crossed the shed putting a pile of wood between them before she was willing to unhook the front of her corset. As quickly as her sore arms would allow she pulled off her black undershirt and clipped the corset back on. She shivered when the cold moonstone fell on her chest and the chilly morning air prickled her bare arms. To help hide the bruise on her face she pulled her black hair loose from her braid and combed through it with her fingers as best she could. Normally this was enough of a change but she was still in all black not to mention covered in cuts and bruises and after last night she was concerned it would be enough to make the guards suspicious.
Dawn had arrived and the city was just starting to stir when she kicked Jay’s foot to wake him. He stretched and yawned leisurely not seeming at all phased by the fact that he had just spent the night on the floor of a woodshed with the most wanted criminal in the land.
“Good morn…” He stopped mid-greeting and his head tipped to the side as he took her in.
“Take off your shirt,” she said with a wicked grin.
“What?” he asked getting to his feet.
“I need your shirt,” she said with her hand out and her foot tapping impatiently.
“Why do you want my shirt?” he asked though he was already untucking it from his trousers.
“I just need to borrow it. I’ll give it back.”
“Are you sure? You are a thief ya’ know?” he teased from inside his shirt as he pulled it over his head.
“Shut up,” she snapped as she snatched the shirt from him. She pulled his worn cotton shirt over her head; it was still warm and smelled like smoke and wood. He just stood there in his sleeveless undershirt grinning, with his shaggy blonde hair sticking out every which way as she tucked his shirt into her skirt.
“You look ridiculous, it is way too big for you,” Jay laughed. He truly seemed to enjoy irritating her. But she just glared at him and continued tucking the extra fabric into her skirt.
“So what’s the plan?” he asked much more seriously.
She eyed him suspiciously. “I’m leaving. You are doing whatever it is you do.” She waved a hand in the air. “Go do your… apprenticing.” She headed for the shed door but stopped just inches from it. Refusing to look at him, she kept her eyes on the door as if she were talking to it. “Thank you, for your help last night. I’ll bring your shirt back as soon as I can. I promise.”
“Wait.” he said taking a hesitant step towards her. “At least tell me your name.”
“That’s not your name. That’s just what they call you.”
“It’s the only name I can give you,” she said and slipped out the door.