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FIFTEEN: The Stranger's Appointment

They jumped him when he left the inn. There were three of them again, and this time he wasn't ready. But they weren't professionals.

He was.

The plain-hiked sword made a soft schwang sound as it cleared his scabbard.

One of them knicked his arm, but that was it. They weren't very good. Peace had reigned for a long time in Hammerfest. He cut them up and laid them down in twenty seconds, before they could scream for help.

Then he stepped inside. "Guro."

He spoke softly, but his voice brought the woman rushing downstairs. She looked at him, and her face became a study in horror.

He tossed a coin. "Three more. In the street."

"You....You...."

"I didn't draw the first blade, Guro. I came to see a man. I'll see him. Why did they die? Must I slay every man in Hammerfest? I will. Tell them. I'm leaving now. I hope I won't have to pay for any more funerals."

He stepped over the neatly ranked bodies. Each bore a small crown-shaped brand on its forehead.

He strode uphill, his blade sheathed once more. He doubted that anyone would be bold enough to attack him now. He had already killed the best men in town.

When he pass®d the last building he looked back. Storybook town, storybook houses, filled with storybook people-till the sun went down.

Hammerfest would lose its fairy tale luster as the news spread.

Hell had visited this night.

He lifted his gaze to the crumbling little castle.

His man was there.

Was he awake? Waiting?

Certainly. He would be, in the man's position. Waiting for word of success-or of failure. Or for the intended victim to come asking questions.

A thin, cruel little smile crossed his lips.

It was a cold, chill walk. Each time he glanced back more windows showed light. Guro was busy.

Would they have the nerve to come after him? To save a man who had sent six of them to their deaths?

He came within bowshot of the curtain wall. His guerrilla's sensitivities probed for another ambush. Senses beyond the human also reached out. He detected nothing outside the keep. Inside, there were three life-sparks.

Just three? Even a tumbledown, cruddy little shed of a castle rated a bigger garrison. Especially when one of the sparks was female.

He paused, thought. There seemed to be a numerological relationship.... Three assassins in his room. Three outside the inn. Three here.

Woman or not, she was part of it.

How? Women seldom bore swords in Trolledyngja.

A witch. That had to be the answer.

Then they knew he was coming.

Though he knew where they waited, he poked around like a man carefully searching. They knew a hunter was coming, but not who.

He used the time to prepare himself for the witch.

He readied his most powerful, most reliable spells. Though these Trolledyngjan wild women had little reputation, he hadn't survived thirty years under the sword without being cautious.

He probed. Still all in one room. And nothing sorcerous waiting anywhere else.

Whatever, it would happen there.

Again, they couldn't know who he was, only that he had come from the south. They would want to know who and why before they killed him.

They were going to be surprised.

He approached their room with right hand on sword hilt and left protruding from his greatcloak. He had the position of the woman fixed clearly in mind.

Now!

His left forefinger felt as though he had jabbed it into fire.

The woman screamed.

He stepped inside. The thin, cruel smile was on his lips. He tipped back his hood.

The woman kept screaming. She was strong. She had survived.

The others stared. The fat one with the mane gone silver had to be the Thane of Hammerfest.

"Bin Yousif!" the other gasped.

"Colonel Balfour. You seem surprised." He threw back his cloak. "He was my friend."

Balfour didn't reply.

"He has other friends," said Haroun. "I'm just the first to arrive." His left forefinger jabbed again. The woman stopped screaming. Another cruel smile. "You. Do you want to see the sun rise?"

The heavy man nodded. He was too frightened, too shocked, to speak.

"Then get up-carefully-and go down to Bors' inn. They need someone to tell them what to do. And don't look back."

The man went out like a whipped dog.

"He'll find his courage," Balfour predicted.

"Possibly. Having a mob behind you helps. Now. We talk."

"You talk."

"You have one chance to get out of this alive, Balfour. It's remote. It requires the leopard to change its spots. It requires you to tell me the truth despite your training. You want to be stubborn, you won't live out the night. And I'll get what I want anyway."

"You'll starve up here before you can break me."

"Perhaps. If I restrict myself to the physical." Haroun shifted to the tongue of ancient llkazar, now used only liturgically in Hammad al Nakir and by western sorcerers. He made a lifting gesture with his left hand.

The dead woman stood.

Haroun's fingers danced.

The witch took a clumsy step.

"You see? I master the Power now. The King of Hammad al Nakir is also his people's chief shaghun."

The shaghun belonged to a quasi-religious sorcerer's brotherhood. He served with military units, aided priests, advised leaders. He seldom was powerful.

Haroun had been born a fourth son. Distant not only from the Peacock Throne but from his father's Wahligate, he had started training to become chief shaghun of his father's province.

Time and the efficiency of El Murid's assassins had made him chief claimant to the Peacock Throne. He had been smart enough, quick enough, murderous enough, to stay alive and maintain his pretense to the crown. After a two-decade interruption he had resumed his studies, and now he bent the Power to pursuit of his usurped Throne.

Balfour didn't respond.

"You see?" Haroun said again.

Balfour remained firm.

Haroun again spoke the tongue of emperors.

A dark umbra formed round the witch's head. She spoke.

She hadn't much to tell. This was a minor Nine, its only noteworthy member the man who had come north to hide.

Haroun squeezed his fingers into a fist. The woman dropped, tightened into a fetal ball.

"Colonel? Must I?"

Despite the draft in that old stone pile, Balfour was wet with sweat. But he was a hard man himself. Suddenly, he sprang.

Haroun expected it.

Below, villagers filled Hammerfest's streets, their torches painting the storybook houses with terrible, crawling shadows. They watched the castle, and shuddered each time it reverberated to one of those horrible cries.

They were being torn from a throat which couldn't respond to the will trying to control it.

Balfour was stubborn. He withstood Haroun's worst for hours. But Haroun's torments weren't physical, which a stubborn man could school himself to ignore. These were torments of the mind, of the soul. Witch-man Haroun bin Yousif conjured demons he sent into the soldier. They clawed through mind and soul and took control of his mouth, babbling both truth and lies. Haroun repeated his questions again and again. In the end he thought he had gotten everything to be had. He thought there were no more secrets....

He finally used his sword.

Then he slept, with corpses to frighten off evil dreams.

Haroun bin Yousif had lived this way for so long that it hardly disturbed him.

He wakened shortly before nightfall, finished what needed finishing, went down the hill.

The Hammerfesters remained in the streets, frightened. The fat man stood before them, shaking.

Haroun drew back his cloak. "You may return to your castle, Thane. I have no need of it now. Wait." He tossed a coin. "Bury them."

That cruel smile crossed his lips.

Nearly twenty men faced him, but eased out of his path. His unrelieved arrogance assured them that they had no choice. This dread man would pay for their funerals too if they argued.

"Thane."

"Yes?"

"Forget your game of Nines. It brings on the dire evils."

"I will, sir."

"I believe you will." Smiling, Haroun went to Bors' inn, took a room. He paid his due, as ever he did-be it in silver or evil.

He fell asleep thinking this Nine had been a puerile little conspiracy, fit for nothing but hiding men who had grown too hot elsewhere. But there were other Nines that might shake the roots of mountains.

Next morning he purchased a horse and rode southward. Traveling alone.

He knew no other way. Even in crowds this dread, deadly man traveled alone.


FOURTEEN: Lady of Mystery | All Darkness Met | SIXTEEN: Deaths and Disappearances.



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