Genre: Coming of Age Fantasy / Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 479
A debt is owed . . . and time is running out!
Ayrion’s tribe has until the Harvest Moon to meet the Guild’s price. If the payment isn’t made, Hurricane’s territory will be seized, and its members left to starve.
The stakes have never been higher.
Once again, Ayrion finds himself in the precarious position of taking on the role of savior. Only this time, it’s not just his life that hangs in the balance, but the lives of all the children he protects.
Desperation can lead people to attempt the impossible, but Ayrion has truly tipped the scales on this one.
VENGEANCE FILLED MY HEART, a burning sensation that threatened to overwhelm all reason. I barely noticed the night wind off the bay as it lashed at my face, doing little to dampen the rage desperately trying to claw its way out.
Spats had this coming.
Thoughts of what I would do when I reached the Temple had me running all the faster. My feet pounded the worn cobbles, their echoes announcing my coming and the swift hand of justice that would soon follow.
The city seemed eerily silent tonight, which was a reprieve from the growing clamor at the Granary. As the number of rejects continued to rise, so did the chaos. It had been a week since our battle at the Pit, and new arrivals were continuing to show up at our doors, looking for refuge. The noise from all those kids—many of whom had been members of enemy tribes not so long before—had worn a hole through my patience, almost to the point of snapping. That anger needed to be directed somewhere.
Where better than on the coward who had sold me out?
As I made my way through the old city, memories of Oswell and my time spent infiltrating Magistrate Sirias’s estates with my father flooded back. Once again, I was on a mission, but unlike my father’s contracts, this one was personal. The sooner I dealt with Spats, the safer we all would be.
I stopped at the head of the brick drive leading back to the Temple’s gates. Torchlight dotted the walls through the trees. Spats would have doubled the guard, depending, of course, on how many watchers had survived the battle. Hurricane had been one of the first tribes out of the Pit grounds, so hopefully they hadn’t taken too many casualties. Even though I was no longer a part of Hurricane, I held most of its members no ill will. It wasn’t their fault they were led by the biggest buffoon ever to command a tribe.
Before crossing the street, I took a moment to scan the surrounding buildings, checking to make sure Spats hadn’t decided to post a sentry or two outside the Temple walls. He hadn’t. I knew the gates would be closed to me, which meant I needed to find another way inside, so I headed into the trees.
The small grove surrounding the Temple was densely populated with brush and briars, leaving small cuts across my arms and face as I pushed my way through. I stopped at the edge of the tree line and studied the opening between me and the twelve-foot wall ahead. Nothing but loose roots and piled rocks. The spot I’d chosen was directly between two of the guard stations, giving me a better chance than not at making it across unseen, since the light from the watchers’ torches barely reached halfway.
I unhooked one of my swords, the one with the least amount of wear, and stashed it behind a nearby tree. Trying to climb the wall with a sword strapped to either side of my waist was a greater risk at the moment than the possibility of needing them both inside. It would be too easy to knock one against the stone wall and alert the watch. The last thing I could afford was being spotted and losing my one advantage. I was only going to get one shot at this. I had to make it count.
I tightened the wrap over my injured ribs, took one last look at the wall, and sprinted from my hiding spot. Barely five steps out, my foot caught a root, and I almost went down, just managing to right myself before hitting the dirt. Stupid! My focus had been on the guard stations and not where I was placing my feet. With my eyes on the ground, I scurried the rest of the way across.
I stopped at the base of the wall and took a moment to test my ankle. It was a little sore, but it didn’t feel like there was any real damage. Thankfully, I’d made it across without sounding any alarms. The short run was enough to set my chest on fire, a solemn reminder of what I had to look forward to over the next month or two as my ribs healed.
Careful not to let my sword clang against the stone, I started up the wall. The decorative etching in the blocks gave my fingers a better grip, and before I knew it, I was at the top. I waited to slip over until I’d made sure no one was walking by on the other side. Not that I’d expected there to be. Spats had never established a perimeter watch before, relying solely on the makeshift guard stations to warn if anyone was coming. And those were only good if there happened to be a full-scale attack. A lone assailant would be the last thing they would expect.
A quick push and I landed inside, behind a short row of evergreen shrubs that were in some serious need of pruning. Some of the branches looked like emaciated fingers reaching out to grab anyone wandering too close.
I took a moment to open Reevie’s bag. Each bottle was wrapped in wadding to keep from clanging, or in the case of the glass vials, to keep from breaking. I pulled the corks on a few before finding the right one. My eyes watered, and I quickly thumbed the cork back into place. Yep, that’s it.
Placing the bottle in my trouser pocket, I hooked the satchel back over my shoulder and headed across the yard, following the garden path toward the back of the compound. The Temple was quiet, most of the kids in bed. Still, I kept my eyes open for any stragglers who might be making a late-night privy run.
Once inside, I followed the corridors toward Spats’s chambers, stopping only long enough at the infirmary to refill Reevie’s bag with whatever supplies I could find. I’d spent most of my brief time at Hurricane right in this room. A lot of memories there. Good and bad.
But I wasn’t there to reminisce. I had a job to do.
Quickly, I walked the shelves, snatching anything I thought might come in handy. Unfortunately, it appeared the only ether left was the little I had tucked away in my pocket.
It didn’t take long before the satchel was brimming, and I was forced to leave the rest on the shelves. I even found an old cloak of Reevie’s while digging through one of the trunks. It barely reached my knees, but it had a hood I could use to hide my face, so I slipped it on.
At the door, I stopped and listened, taking a moment to grab the bottle of ether from my pocket and the rag sheathing it. I didn’t like the idea of dosing any of my former compatriots, but if it meant getting rid of Spats once and for all, it would be worth it. Besides, if I did feel guilty, all I needed to do was remind myself that there were more than a few from Hurricane who had been cheering for my defeat at the Pit.
Not hearing any footsteps in the hall, I turned the knob and opened the door.
I froze. Thankfully, my head was down, so the girl couldn’t see my face. Why was she up at this time of night? Without saying anything, I popped the cork on the bottle and doused the rag. The girl stood there watching, seemingly too confused to know what to do. I didn’t like doing this, but I was already committed.
As soon as I finished, I stoppered the bottle, placed it back in my robe, and leaped into the hall. The girl didn’t even have time to open her mouth to scream before I had the cloth over her face. She jerked for a moment, words muffled by the wrapping, but soon went still. I dragged her into Reevie’s chambers and stuffed her behind the door, leaving the cloth over her face just in case. She must have been standing just outside when I first listened, which was why I hadn’t heard her.
I took a moment to catch my breath. The unexpected leap into the hall had left my chest thrumming. I didn’t think my body could have handled an actual battle. Stealth was my greatest asset at this point.
I looked down at the girl and shook my head. She’d left me in somewhat of a bind. There was only enough ether left for a single dose, and there were always two guards watching Spats’s chambers. But with little other choice, I swung the bag over my shoulder and started for the door, racking my brain as to what I was going to do to get past them.
This time, before opening the door, I got down on my hands and knees and looked under. There was no one there. Sparing one last look around the infirmary, I slipped into the hall beyond and made my way to the end of the corridor. Two guards stood in front of Spats’s office about halfway down the next hall.
The problem wasn’t just overpowering them, which was going to be difficult enough with my injuries. The challenge was not waking half the Temple when I did.
Lifting my hood, I stepped out from the hall and started forward, carefully pouring what was left of the bottle on the rag. Its sweet scent tickled my nose. I kept my head down, not wanting my Upakan eyes to reflect the light coming from the hall torches and give me away.
I counted down the steps. How much closer? With my head down and hood lowered, I could only see a foot or two in front of my own feet. I had to be close, though. I strained to listen, hoping to hear the tap of a boot, the release of a breath, the grumble of a hungry stomach, anything that gave away where they were. Then I saw them—the guards’ boots.
I stopped. “Keep moving,” one of them said. It sounded like Forehead’s rough voice.
My hand tightened around the cloth. Forehead was the bigger of the two and would be the hardest to take down, so the ether had to be for him. I was about to make my move when it hit me. Why was I hiding my face?
I was the champion of the Pit. I’d defeated Flesh Eater, something no one had ever come close to doing. Having them see me might actually be to my advantage. With that in mind, I lowered my hood and turned to face them.
Both guards drew their blades when they saw me.
“You know who I’m here for,” I said, standing as tall as I could with broken ribs.
Forehead raised his sword, eyes full of rage. “I had friends who didn’t make it back from the Pit.” His words practically lunged out of his mouth, like asps looking to sink their teeth into my flesh.
My heart dropped. This wasn’t going to work. I needed to come at this from a different angle. “Yes,” I agreed, “but that wouldn’t have happened if Spats hadn’t run off and left them there.”
Forehead stared at me for a moment, seemingly mulling over what I’d said.
“If you want to blame someone for their loss,” I said, pointing at the door behind them, “it’s that pathetic excuse for a leader you have hiding in his bedchamber. Did you see him raise a finger to help save his tribe?” I didn’t give them a chance to answer. “No. He was too busy fleeing like a coward.”
Forehead’s grip on his sword tightened.
“Is that the sort of person you want leading this tribe?”
The tall guard didn’t respond, other than to grind his teeth.
I was growing desperate at this point, but I held my ground, staring the boy down, willing him to listen to reason.
Finally, he turned and looked at the other guard.
I held my breath.
Forehead nodded, and both stepped aside.
I released a small sigh of relief and cautiously stepped between them and put my ear to the door.
“He’s been snoring for the last hour,” the second boy said.
“Here.” Forehead pulled a dagger from his belt. “Use this.”
I stared at the weapon briefly, not sure how I felt about the guards’ desire to kill Spats in cold blood. I guess I couldn’t blame them.
With Forehead’s knife in hand, I lifted the latch and slipped inside. The door clicked shut, and the light from the hallway vanished. They weren’t kidding. Spats’s snores could have woken the dead.
I had no problem using the ambient light shining through the windows to see where I was going. The clouds parted momentarily, sending a pale glow across the lower half of Spats’s bed, which was pressed against the left wall between an upright chest of drawers and a rack of swords.
Thick quilts hid his shape, leaving only a thin lump in the middle and a tuft of red hair poking out the top. I moved across the room, not too worried about being quiet with all the noise Spats was making.
He had his blankets tucked up under his chin, his head the only thing visible, like a big red cabbage sitting on the back of a farmer’s cart, just waiting to get plucked. It would have been so easy to reach out and slide the blade across his throat, like slicing a moist plum, one that had already fallen from the tree and started to rot. That was Spats—a rotten plum. No one would have faulted me, not even his own guard, apparently. Besides, wasn’t this what I had been trained to do?
My hand lifted slowly as I recalled Spats’s high-pitched voice shouting above the crowd for Flesh Eater to finish me. But above the noise of the chants, I heard my father’s voice whispering in my ear: Just because something is easy, it doesn’t make it right.
As much as I wanted to peel this nasty plum, I knew I’d have to live with myself afterward, so I lowered the dagger, walked around to the foot of the bed, and climbed up.
Spats continued snoring as I slowly worked my way across the bed and up to his waist. As badly as I wanted to beat him senseless, scaring the snot out of him would have to suffice. I raised my hood once more and drew my sword, poking him in the stomach with it. The only reaction I got was a flinch before he was snoring again. I poked him again, this time not so nicely, and he startled awake with a snort.
He blinked, then jerked upright and screamed at the top of his lungs, scaring me half to death in the process. I dove on top of him, and the force of my weight hitting his chest stifled his shrill cry as the air was driven from his lungs. He gasped for breath as the back of his head sank into his pillow.
I couldn’t help but take a little pleasure—or perhaps a lot—in Spats’s terror. With one hand over his mouth, I pressed my sword to his neck, and the redheaded boy stiffened like a sweat-dried collar. In fact, he was so paralyzed with fear that I was able to release his mouth long enough to lower my hood without him screaming again.
One look at me and he started crying. “Please don’t kill me. Please . . .”
I sneered. “Have some dignity, won’t you?”
He continued to beg for his life, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“You tried to kill me,” I said.
Spats sobbed so hard, he choked.
“Stop your crying, or I’ll stop it for you.” I pressed the blade even harder.
His mouth snapped shut.
“Now answer my question! Why did you try to have me killed?”
“Because,” Spats said with a frightened whimper, “I placed a wager with Noph that you’d lose.” He started sobbing again. “That way, when you did, I’d be able to cover my debt with Cutter.” He cried some more. “It wasn’t personal. I was just trying to save Hurricane.”
“The Defiler you were!” I said, losing my temper as I leaned in closer, the tips of our noses practically touching. “It was flaming personal for me.”
He gulped and went back to whimpering.
“Justice needs to be served,” I said firmly. “You tried to take my life. Now it’s my turn.”
“No. Please. I’ll do anything. Anything.” He closed his eyes, snot running down his upper lip. It was a sad, pathetic sight.
“Anything?” I asked.
Spats lay as still as he could while I hefted him over my shoulder. I whimpered as the added weight sent lances of pain shooting through my chest, practically stealing my breath. Once at the door, I kicked twice with my boot and waited. A moment later, it cracked, and Forehead peeked in.
“You done?” he asked.
“I heard him screaming,” he said with a smile. “I hope you made him suffer.”
Spats squirmed, and I quickly shifted him higher on my shoulder to hide the movement. Idiot!
“Your friends have been avenged,” I said, trying to hurry the conversation along as I pretended to wipe Forehead’s dagger on my pants as though cleaning off the blood.
“You want us to dump the body?” he asked.
“No,” I said, handing him his belt knife back. “I have something special in mind. What I want you to do is continue guarding this door.”
The two guards looked at each other.
“Why?” the second guard asked. “He ain’t in it. And I want to get some sleep.”
Spats was starting to get heavy, and standing there answering questions wasn’t something I had planned on. “Because,” I said, letting them hear the frustration in my voice, “we don’t want people knowing what happened. What do you think the members of Hurricane would say, let alone the Guild, if they were to find out that a chief’s own guard had a hand in murdering the head of their tribe?”
Their eyes widened. “Didn’t think of that,” the second guard stated.
“We’ll stand watch,” Forehead said, saluting with his hand over his chest as though a member of the Elondrian Lancers.
“If you haven’t heard back from me in the next couple of days,” I added, “then go in and act surprised when you can’t find him. Tell everyone that he must have snuck off in the night.”
The guards nodded and turned back to their posts.
I quickly hobbled down the hall toward the back exit. Once outside, I lowered Spats to the ground and stretched my back. My shoulder was aching. Surprisingly, the former chief didn’t say a word. Probably one of the first times that had ever happened. “This way,” I said, taking the south path. Spats followed me around to the side wall without argument. Having witnessed his own guard willing to murder him in his sleep was enough to encourage a speedy retreat.
It took us three attempts to make it up the wall. Spats fell twice, and by the third time, I was practically carrying him on my back. It was a miracle we made it to the other side unseen. We stopped only long enough for me to collect my second sword before heading through the trees.
We left the Temple grounds the same way I’d entered, then made our way west through the Maze and out to the lower docks. Spats carried a small travel bag he’d stuffed with a few of his belongings, mostly a change of clothes, a few coins, and one knife.
“Where am I going?” he asked nervously as he followed me down the boardwalk toward the ships.
“I don’t care, just so long as it’s far away from here. You show your face in Aramoor again and I’ll come for you. And next time,” I said, slapping the hilts of my swords, “I won’t give you a choice.”
He gulped and took a step back.
I slowed when we reached one of the watchmen on rounds in front of a tall three-mast ship. “How much to stow him on board?” I asked, pointing over my shoulder at Spats, hoping the watchman could be bought off.
The stout man crossed his arms, revealing a sleeve of tattoos, one of which ran from his wrist all the way up to the base of his neck. I recognized it immediately, having seen several similar markings during my time spent on the Wind Binder. It was the geographic representation of the Shemoa River. This man had clearly been a river boatman at some point in his past. His shaved head and thick mustache reminded me of Kettle. “We got us a frigate heading for the Blue Isles at dawn,” the sailor said. “Can’t say it will be a pleasant trip below deck, but it’ll get the young master there in good order.” He took another look at Spats, then at me. “It’ll cost ya, though. Two silver, and none of that soft stuff.”
“Two silver? For him?” I was dumbfounded. “You can stuff him in a barrel of onions for all I care.”
“And if the captain finds the boy, he’ll toss him overboard, and me along with him.”
“Fine,” I said, pulling a small purse from my trousers that I’d pilfered from one of Spats’s chests, along with a fresh pair of socks and two apples. I laid the two pieces in the man’s palm.
The watchman stuck the coins in his mouth, one at a time, and bit down. “Is that the extent of your belongings, lad?” he asked Spats.
Spats nodded, or he was quivering so badly it looked like a nod.
“Then get a move on. Need to get you below before the crew wakes.” He spared a quick look at the sky. The stars were still there but faint. With a brisk grunt, the sailor turned and started for the loading ramp.
Spats lifted his bag and ran to catch up with the watchman. He didn’t look back, and I didn’t bother waving goodbye, or good riddance. As much as I had wanted to drown him myself, this seemed a far better punishment. For someone like Spats who enjoyed being at the top, with others bending to his every wish, to be sent away in shame, completely destitute, forced to survive on nothing but the handouts of others . . .
I smiled. He was getting exactly what he deserved.