“Listen to me. Don’t speak, not even once. Just listen.” His words were whispered quickly in her ear, one hand clamped firmly over her mouth to keep her from screaming. He could only assume it was a dark and terrible fear that kept her from struggling, a fear that kept that tongue of hers rooted in place. He could feel her heart hammering wildly and smell the sweat that had appeared on her brow, feel her muscles tense and the breath catch in her lungs. She hadn’t expected to be discovered, hadn’t expected to be taken by surprise while she watched and waited, biding her time until an opportunity arose to take his life. But he had, and now he stood behind her with dagger in hand. The bird had fallen into his trap.
“You’ve been following me for some time now, little bird. Watching me from the trees, from behind the rocks. Waiting, watching, learning. Have I taught you anything useful,” he asked, pausing afterwards to await an answer. His hand was still clamped over her mouth and upon realizing this, he laughed softly. “My apologies. It appears in your current state, you’re unable to answer. You will answer though, little bird. You’ll answer and depending on those answers you’ll either be alive or dead come morning.”
His hands wrapped around her and he pulled her to her feet, dagger still pressed against her delicate flesh. He pushed her in front of him, forcing her to take uneasy steps towards his camp. He’d found her at the top of a rocky hillside overlooking his camp. It had taken him some time to notice her. She was skilled at tracking, he’d give her that much, but he was better and he’d soon found that he wasn’t alone out in the wilderness.
Those being sent after him were becoming increasingly skilled, but he’d found them all the same. The first he’d sent away scared and fumbling, taking a message with him back to the man that had hired him. The second he’d been forced to cut down. Many followed after them and many he’d killed. From what he’d gathered, they’d all been sent by the same person, a man he knew well. It didn’t surprise him. After years, the Kings attempts at rooting him out had gotten desperate.
Reaching the camp, he forced her to sit before the fire. Taking a length of rope, he tied her hands behind her back, removed any visible weapons he could see and hunkered down before her, twirling one of her daggers in his hand. She stared at the blade, eyes reflecting the nearby fire. The reality that she had been caught seemed to catch up with her now and the instinctual fear from moments before was waning. “This is a fine blade. Thin. Could easily slip between a man’s ribs in a busy street, puncture his heart and leave him dead before anyone would notice. A true assassin’s weapon.”
She said nothing, her eyes still focused on the blade in his hand. He smiled and holding out the blade, he tucked it under her chin, lifting her head so her eyes were on his face. She met his gaze but her face was expressionless. “This blade is poisoned. Probably with something quite potent. It’d have to work quickly. If the hole in the heart didn’t kill a man then certainly the poison would.” He made to push the blade into her neck and she shirked back, confirming his suspicion. “So it is,” he sighed. It was going to be a long night.
He pulled the blade back and the woman relaxed, sighing softly as he did. She was younger than he had expected, not far into her twenties from the look of her. Her hair was dark and pulled back into a tail. Fine oiled leathers hugged her slight frame and her boots were made in such a way to avoid any unnecessary noises. She carried very little with her. Rooting through one small sack he discovered dried meats and fruit, a variety of medicinal herbs and several vials of poison. If she had anything else with her, it had been left on the hillside.
“Care to explain why you’re here,” he asked calmly, setting aside the simple brown sack he’d been sifting through. He took a seat in front of her, chewing on a piece of dried meat he’d taken from her pack. He highly doubted she’d poison her own food, but if she had, he’d know soon enough. When she said nothing, he continued on. “You know, it’s alright. Don’t talk. I doubt you have much of interest to tell me anyways. As for me, I have lots of interesting things I can tell you about. Do you care to know about where I grew up?”
She continued to ignore him and he laughed. The poor girl didn’t know what she was getting herself into. “Well, if you insist. I grew up in a small fishing village up north. It was an uneventful town with little to do and not much to see. However, in my eyes it was the most beautiful place in the world. The waves crashing against the rocky shores, chasing crabs across the beach with their bright red shells, flying kites when the coastal winds roared through town. Ah, yes. It was beautiful. We were happy there. My mother, father, baby sister and myself. It…”
The girl looked up suddenly, eyes narrowed. “Why are you telling me this,” she questioned. “If you’re going to end my life, do it now and save your stories.”
Her sudden speech made him laugh and she snorted her disdain, rolling her eyes and turning her head away from him. “Oh, little bird. I’m telling you this so you understand why I do the things I do. I’m telling you this so you will know why you die. It is the least I can do for you.”
“I don’t need to understand. I was hired to track, follow and kill a murderer. No need to bore me with the details,” she hissed.
“The details are all that matter,” he replied, leveling his gaze at her. The smile faded off his lips and he darted forward, catching her face between his rough hands. She glared at him, the fear long gone from her eyes. Here was the steely assassin that had been sent to kill him; here was the woman that had been hiding behind silence. She burned with a fire he could feel, could see in her eyes. It helped kindle his own rage. “You see little bird, I loved that land. That small little coastal village with the birds flapping their wings against the dreary sky. It was my heart and they took it from me and all I loved with it. Burned it to the ground, raped and slaughtered my mother, threw my baby sister to the flames and let it eat through her flesh. They tortured my father and in the midst of that horror, I fled. I didn’t make it far. Riders came for me, they scooped me up and I was taken as a slave, forced to give loyalty to a false King that had taken everything from me. ”
He saw something flash through her eyes then. Recognition. He’d seen the brand on her wrist clear as day in the firelight. He smiled, leaned forward and kissed her softly on the forehead. “Little assassin, I fear my story only reflects your own.” Pulling back his sleeve, he showed her a gruesome scar on his wrist. It matched perfectly with her own.
She stared into his eyes, forcing herself to meet his gaze through a cloud of tears. “How did you know,” was all she managed to whisper before the tears spilled over. He wiped them away gently.
“You had every opportunity to kill me along the way, but you didn’t. When I left my water skin out in the open, you blatantly ignored it. At any point you could have slit my throat while I slept or poisoned my food supplies, but you didn’t. I think you knew my story before I had told it, though I’m sure crucial details were left out by the King. No, what they told you was the half-truth, that I was but a bitter runaway that had poisoned the son of the King and needed to be brought to justice. How did you know, little bird?”
She nodded towards his scarred wrist. “I saw it the first time I tried to kill you. Seeing that mark, it startled me. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I left you alive and took to following you instead. I tried several times after that but, I failed. I hoped you’d find me, to force me to flee for my life. If you were to fail at that, I at least hoped you’d be kind enough to end my life. I wish not to return and face him, to face the wrath of the King.”
In that moment, her fear seemed to come back to life and he frowned. He could only imagine the things she’d gone through, growing up as a female slave and being honed like a fine blade to be a killer. To kill for vengeance was one thing, but to kill because a man claiming to be King demanded it was quite another.
He would send her back but not alone. He’d send her with a purpose. Sighing softly, he slipped a ring off of his finger. It was a fine thing, blue and silver intertwining elegantly to portray a fish leaping from the ocean. It had been a gift from his father and he’d kept hold of it ever since. It was the only thing he had left from home and it was a defining part of him that the King would recognize.
Reaching into the pouch he’d cast aside earlier, he found a small vial of poison. It was dark red and smelled sweetly and setting the ring on the ground, he covered it in the poison. It would lose its color as it dried, but not its potency. The girl watched him curiously.
“I’m sending you back,” he told her quickly. A look of despair crossed her features and he held up a hand. “Ah-ah. Calm now. I’m sending you back with my ring. The King knows this and will take it as a sign of my death. You will tell him I am dead. You will tell him you brought my ring as proof and deliver it into his hands yourself. You know better than to taste of this poison, to expose your eyes or your nose… but our dear King is not knowledgeable about these things.” He smiled and wrapped the ring in a swatch of leather. Cutting lose the rope that bound her, he tucked the ring into the palm of her hand. “Go safely now. Don’t turn back. Don’t shy away from the gift I have given you.”
“And what gift is that,” she questioned, fingers curling around the ring.
“Revenge, little bird,” he answered with a smile.
“My King! We’ve news from the assassin,” a messenger sputtered as he entered the Royal Chambers. He quickly fell to one knee, head bowed deeply. The guards stirred around him, turning to each other with questioning words and glances. It had been weeks since the assassin had been sent and many had thought her dead. To hear of her return was shocking.
The King was more shocked than any of them and gaping like a fish, he called for the messenger to bring her forth immediately. The messenger disappeared with a quick bow, off to do his bidding. Several moments later, a slim girl entered the room. She wore oiled leathers scratched and muddied from her trek through the woods. She was covered in dirt and scrapes and her hair was loose around her shoulders. She smiled as she bowed to the King.
“Rise assassin,” the King demanded. She did as asked. “You’ve been gone a long time. Far longer than any of us expected. No doubt you ran into troubles along the way. I must ask about your task.” He hesitated, almost as if apprehensive to learn the answer, then asked the question sitting at the tip of his tongue. “Is he dead, assassin? Have you killed him?” He leaned forward and he licked at his lips nervously. The silence seemed to be loud as thunder as he waited for her answer.
“I have, my King.” The girl smiled at him. “If I may, I have a token I think you’d appreciate. I would present it to you myself for there could be no greater honor.” The King seemed to have stopped breathing, lips quivering as he took in her words. The man whose death he had lusted after, the man who had murdered his sweet wife and their only child… he was finally gone. No more would he wake from nightmares and fear that cursed face. Victory was finally his.
“Come forth, quickly.” The assassin strode forward, removing a small piece of leather from her pocket. The guards stepped forward and unfolded the leather, checking its contents for anything suspicious. Finding none, they allowed her to pass.
Falling to one knee, the assassin held up the leather swatch, presenting the ring to the King. His eyes grew wide and taking a deep breath, he picked up the ring. It was an elegant thing, all silver and blue with a fish etched in the middle. He’d wear it as a trophy, like sticking the demons head on a spike for all to see. He had won.
He looked up at the girl before him, eyes kind. She’d done a great service for him and she’d be rewarded kindly for it. “You must be tired, my dear. Treven,” he bowed to a servant at the back of the room. “Take her to one of our finest rooms. Draw her up a bath and feed her well. She has earned it.” The servant bowed deeply and turned towards the girl. The King nodded to her respectfully and she bowed, turned on her heels and followed the servant out of the room.
The King wished for nothing more than to be alone, to take pride in his victory. “The rest of you, please take your leave. I wish to be alone for a time.” The guards bowed, marching out of the room with spears in hand.
When the door had closed to the chambers, he shook with nervous laughter. His hands clasped the ring and he pressed his folded hands against his forehead. He thought about his wife and son and how he missed them so. He thought of revenge. The ring smelled of smoke and dirt, of spices and sweetness and he kissed it tenderly before slipping it onto his finger. It tasted of victory. Heaving a great sigh, he stared up at the blue sky visible in the windows high above him and smiled.