The next installment in the Marechal Chronicles is now available
in publishing at Amazon and will be live soon. (I will update here as soon as it is listed as available for purchase.)
To show my gratitude for the patience of the Chronicles’ readers, this book will be priced at a heavy discount of $.99 for just 24 hours before reverting to its normal pricing of $2.99.
You can find it now at Amazon or at Barnes & Noble
I am sending out a newsletter to all my subscribers so that they can take advantage of this special pricing if they wish.
Anyone who has enjoyed the Marechal Chronicles thus far will be in for something quite special as the story of Melisse and the Marechal of Barristide continues in this next to the last volume:
The saga continues in this 30,000 word installment of the Marechal Chronicles.
Warning: This is Volume Four in a multi-part series and begins just after the events recounted in “The Marechal Chronicles: Volumes I, II and III”. It is strongly recommended that you read the prior installments before Volume Four.
VOLUME IV, THE CHASE
Melisse and the Marechal de Barristide have survived a demonic battle only to find themselves at odds with one another.
A noble yet lonesome man, the Marechal would have her stay at his side while he searches for the evil behind hideous murders throughout the realm. Yet Melisse believes her destiny lies over the mountains, far from her past.
But that same past finds its way back to her and Melisse learns of yet another murder at House Perene. Only she is too late as she discovers the identity of her own father and that the blood running in Helene Perene’s veins is no more noble than her own.
Meanwhile, Silas has learned to play the game of intrigue and deception at the Estril court while he remains captive and consort to a high General’s wife. Jealousy threatens his very existence but nothing will stop him as he strives for his own freedom.
Behind them all lies the broken tower of the Alchemist. It is a curse to anyone who falls under its shadow. In bitter chagrin, Melisse discovers she is no exception as she makes the attempt to unravel its terrifying mysteries.
The Marechal Chronicles continues here, in Volume IV–The Chase and will end in Volume V–The Spoils (available soon).
To whet your appetites, here’s an excerpt from the book:
“How long did you say he’s been there?” said the man to the other as they marched down a squalid alleyway.
“Rubio said at least three days, maybe four,” the other responded, almost out of breath.
The pace the other man set was fast.
“And you say he’s been drinking this whole time..?” the first man said.
“Not me…Rubio,” was the breathless reply, then, “Says he ain’t moved in three days…just sits there, ordering bottle after bottle.”
“Well, I have a hard time believing that,” the first man said, “I mean I don’t care who you are, a man’s got to piss some time.”
“I know. I don’t believe it either. But Rubio says the fellow pisses only silver and his purse is a deep one. He says there might even be some yellow among the colors of his coin.”
The first man stopped suddenly, then jabbed a finger into the other’s chest. It sunk in a ways as the breathless man was more than a little fat.
“Nenouf, how in the hell did Rubio find this man in the first place? And before you answer, you know damned well I don’t want to hear that L’Anguille and his slimy partner are involved.”
His eyebrows bristled as he looked down at the shorter, portly man he had called Nenouf. Black as coal, his hair was almost blue and his regard just as dark.
“The Butcher’s Boys don’t work for that lot. Never have, never will…got it?”
Nenouf’s lower lip trembled as he looked up at the other, then his eyes shifted down to the pair of meat cleavers hanging from his companion’s belt.
They had been modified, their handles fitted with cross pieces just behind the wide blades and Nenouf had already seen on more than one occasion just how effective one was at blocking an opponent’s weapon while the other crashed into living flesh and bone.
His eyes flitted back up to the man frowning down at him.
“Butcher…now, don’t be mad Butcher, but it might be that Rubio got a message to go to that tavern, after all.”
Nenouf had no problem admitting that he was afraid of Butcher. While he had never been a real butcher, the black-haired man’s father had been. Right up until the day he had cuffed the son up the side of his head, as rumor had it. Seems that was when one of the very cleavers hanging upon his wide leather belt had found its way between the father’s eyes in what was apparently a bizarre accident. As some said, a sort of occupational hazard, really.
“Ok,” Butcher said and Nenouf could almost see steam starting to waft from his ears, “Looks like I need to have a heart to heart with Rubio. Right after we get the job done,” he said as he turned and started off again.
Nenouf hurried after him and heard him continue, “But not before we start counting all that silver and gold. Rubio is gonna have to come to terms with me first…”
Butcher whirled around and in his hand, Nenouf saw one of his long, thin knives. He knew that it had originally been used as a boning knife in his father’s shop and that the thing was sharp enough to shave with.
“…because, if not, then….” and Butcher held the knife close to his own throat, then slid it slowly to the side.
Nenouf understood what the bigger man meant and was very thankful that he had not been the one to receive the message from L’Anguille’s right hand man. For one thing, that man’s reputation as a cold blooded killer was well known, even more so than Butcher’s, and for the other, was the fact that Butcher could not stand the idea that anyone else was leading the way. Least of all being led by L’Anguille and his scary partner, Modest Klees.
The fat man caught up to the other, but not too closely, then they started off again down the dark alleyway where sewage lay piled up in building corners and where one could no longer tell the rest of the street from the gutters.
Dirty, all of it just so dirty, as was the thing they were about to do, Nenouf thought. A dirty deed, indeed.
Castang and Vinsou were waiting for them at the street corner opposite the tavern.
The two men were hulking figures, dressed as they were in great overcoats against the evening’s chill.
Nenouf knew, too, that those overcoats served to hide the heavy weapons the two brothers preferred. Sometimes nothing more than a simple logger-man’s maul, other times, veritable bludgeons fashioned to stove a man’s head in with a single blow. Something at which both of the big men excelled.
“Butcher,” one of them said. Nenouf could not be sure which. Neither of them moved their lips much when they spoke and their collars were upturned, hiding most of both their faces.
But a pair of dim blue eyes, the others, a dirty green, looked Nenouf up and down, then he heard one of them say, “Why bring little fatty?”
“Yeah,” said the other, “No reason he gets a share of the pickin’s, Butcher. Not when we’s the ones what do the hard part.”
“Shut yer traps, the both of you,” Butcher said with a growl, “Rubio sent Nenouf to let me know, that’s all. And, I’m the one who decides who gets a share.”
A pair of muddy blue eyes narrowed at those words and the silence that followed was chilling.
One of these days, those three, are going to have at it. But surely not tonight, as there’s bigger fish to fry, Nenouf thought.
“There’s bigger fish to fry, right?” he said, cracking a smile and hoping that they would not decide to butt heads right then and there.
“What’s fish got to do with it?”
Nenouf thought it might have been Vinsou who asked.
“Oh, that’s just a finger of speech,” the fat man replied matter-of-factly.
“What?” said Butcher, “No…it’s a figure of speech, Nenouf. A figure.”
“Are you sure, Butcher?” Nenouf asked, “I don’t see what math’s got to do with it. Besides I ain’t never been too good with math…all that figuring just makes my head hurt.
“Now a finger of speech makes more sense, right. Like it points the way to what the person means to say. You see?”
The two brothers appeared to nod their heads slightly at the fat man’s impeccable logic and Butcher grinned a brown-toothed smile.
“Yeah. Fine. Now let’s go see what this fellow’s about and maybe lend him a hand with his heavy purse.”
He nodded in the direction of the tavern, then continued, “Lighten the load, if you get my meaning, boys.”
“Oh, we get you, alright,” said a muffled voice.
Nenouf still was not sure which one of the brothers had spoken.
They’s like two peas in a pod, he thought, then smiled, thinking that particular phrase was a fine finger of speech, too.
Three men walked toward the tavern, their steps heavy and determined. Another man, rounder and shorter than the others, followed in their wake but not too closely, either.
Rubio shifted nervously on his stool. He had been sitting there for hours, waiting for Nenouf to get his message delivered to the rest of the Butcher’s Boys. He took a measured sip from his bowl of beer, grimacing at the bitterness he forced himself to swallow.
The tavern owner frowned every time he made a pass with his broom in front of Rubio. The place was dead that evening. Not a soul other than Rubio and the drunken fool across the room from him. A third person was in the room next to them, of that Rubio was sure. Only that room was left in the dark, used only when the tavern was full enough to warrant lighting a fire in the second hearth and the rest of the oil lanterns that smoked with a sickly sweet scent of rendered fat burning.
He had heard the creaking of a chair from the shadows there followed just after by a faint snoring.
Doubtless another drunk left to sleep it off in a back corner.
It did not matter, in any case. All that mattered to Rubio was the man across the room from him.
The drunken man hung his head over a deep pewter cup, his hair unkempt and falling down to cover his face. From time to time, he roused himself just enough to lift the cup for a swallow or two, or when he found that he had emptied the thing and forgotten that he had, he would signal for another without bothering to look up.
The tavern owner kept as close an eye on him as Rubio, though, and whenever the fellow stirred, he was sure to bustle over with a pitcher of red and fill that pewter cup to the brim.
The wine that was poured was no local brew. Whoever he was, the man had coin enough that the barman poured him only a pale red wine brought hundreds of leagues from the north. Not the sort of vintage that any local folk would ever pay for themselves.
Rubio was amazed that the barman even had any on stock. Although, he imagined it posed no problem for him to send someone to buy up all that could be found in the other local taverns.
The man’s coin gleamed bright silver from time to time and seemed to flow just as easily as the wine. That was the kind of coin that washed away problems like where to find good wine.
It was the kind of coin that men like Rubio followed, once he had been put on the scent with a message from the frightening Modest Klees.
None of the Butcher’s Boys had ever seen Klees. They knew him by reputation only. And that reputation spoke volumes about the man that not one of them would ever want to meet, despite all their bravado.
Some folk called him L’Anguille’s Poignard, the Eel’s Dagger, and from the stories told of him, even if only a small fraction of them were based upon the truth, then he was not someone they would ever want to cross.
Butcher stayed away from L’Anguille’s organization. Rubio could understand why. Their own little business got along well enough. A little blackmail here, some protection paid out there. Life and enterprise were relatively fruitful for all of them in the high mountain town of Haccia.
The community, itself, was the last outpost before the Ardoise mountains rose up in sheer spikes to form a natural barrier and frontier with the country that began upon their southern slopes.
In the region all roads, even the least cow path, ran to Haccia. In the high country, there was nowhere else to go.
Historically, people on religious pilgrimages had been part of the town’s beginnings. For over a thousand years, they retraced the footsteps of a sainted man, looking for another reason to count themselves among the faithful and all that walking meant that when, at last, they had reached the village that gradually grew into a large town perched just below where the trees gave up and sheer goat paths among craggy rocks took over, that meant hungry bellies.
The residents of Haccia discovered how little effort it required to part these pilgrims from their last bit of coin in exchange for a place beside a warm fire and a bowl of hot stew.
Later, when swarthy men from the southern slopes discovered how to preserve their hogs flesh, commerce in the northern regions’ mineral springs and the pink salt they found there anchored Haccia more firmly in place than any pilgrims ever could.
Salt and faith, it might have been the town’s motto. Only it would not be a phrase concerning the religious zeal driving people over dangerous mountain paths to chase after the ghost of a man long dead. Rather, it would be faith in that the salt would never run out and that the southerners should never find another source so near.
Rubio’s own father had been in the salt trade. The gambling and drink had done him in and the rest of the family with him. Their ancestral salt rights were lost in a game of dice, then his father lost himself headlong in a barrique of wine a few months later. They say drunks drown their sorrows. In his father’s case, it was in the literal sense when he was found with his feet in the air and the rest of him facedown inside an upturned cask.
Creditors were merciless fiends.
L’Anguille and his Dagger were the worst of these.
The irony of the situation was not lost upon Rubio. Here he was preparing to waylay a drunken rich man and it was thanks to L’Anguille and Modest Klees that it was him, and soon the rest of the Butcher’s Boys, and not some other rough folk about to make themselves rich. On the other hand, it was thanks to L’Anguille and his henchman that Rubio was seated there, a low scoundrel among scoundrels, instead of sitting before his own hearth, a comfortable home surrounding him and the family’s flourishing salt trade business to keep him there.
Worse still, Modest Klees would take at least three quarters of whatever they found remaining in the man’s purse. That was the part that ground Rubio most and would grind on Butcher even more.
Unless, they were to tell the Dagger that there was less than expected.
That was Rubio’s plan. A simple one, but one that should calm Butcher down once the blood stopped running and the rich man a’kicking. Paying out a percentage would sting, but it would surely be for far less than whatever they really found.
The tavern keeper passed by him again, sweeping with his straw broom where not a speck of dirt remained, frowning as ever down at Rubio.
He did not care. He had paid for his seat with a cracked earthenware bowl of local beer. Hard to drink, as bitter as tree roots. But it would do to keep him there in his rights until the rest of the gang came to keep him company.
Rubio was sure it would not be long until they did. Then, in short order, they would have a drink of that pale red wine for themselves and something told him the coin that had paid for it would wash at least some of the bitterness away.
The pale red color shimmered just inches from the end of his nose. He looked deeply inside his pewter cup and if he strained his eyes he could almost see her there in the bloody reflection of the wine.
He could remember how sweetly she had smiled when they had finally reached the summit and the southern passes that lay before them.
There were no trees at that altitude and even he had been out of breath, but mountain flowers ran through low grasses in every direction. The sight of them was like breathing air that no one else had ever breathed before. The purity of it invigorating.
He would have like to pick one for her, to see it tucked behind an ear, framed by her dark, flowing locks.
He would have liked to see her smile just once, if only once, for him and what he did for her.
Instead, she smiled at the valley running away from her to what she said was her future. And away from what she thought was her past.
“Melisse,” he said, “It is not too late to turn back.”
It was not the first time he had said those same words.
He had said them when she insisted they leave Licharre. Those same words lingered between them over the past two months as her desire to part grew more and more evident, until, at last, Melisse seemed unable to stand it any longer and the two of them headed south once more.
He had said the words again as they began the long trek up and up through foothills that grew ever more rude the further along they went.
And each time, her response had been the same. He did not know why he thought it might change now that they had passed over the worst of the mountains.
She turned to him and the smile upon her lips was fading away. Instead, he saw anger broiling upon her brow and in her deep brown eyes, red flame flickered.
He glanced down and saw fine wisps of smoke rising from where her feet touched the ground. Her hands were clenched into tight fists and from time to time, a tendril of fire would slip from her grasp to coil in the air, as if hungry, searching for something to burn.
“Do you see this?” she hissed at him, “I can barely control it. You and your badgering about going back north to clear my name…it angers me that someone still tries to make my choices for me, Marechal.
“And you know what happens when I get angry.”
He had given her his name and still she refused to call him by it. The scarred man stood there, forcing himself to not take a step back from her and the wild power slipping through her fingers.
“My name is Etienne,” he said, “As you well know. I would not have told you if I did not wish you to call me by name. My real name.”
His reproach appeared to penetrate the haze of defiance in her eyes.
Her brows came unfurrowed, then, slowly, she unclasped her hands and there was no flame, only the pink skin of a hale and beautiful woman.
“Yes, you did,” she replied, her mouth softening from the hard lines of determination of just a moment earlier.
She turned away from him, as if to scan the valley far below, then said, “And you know why I don’t call you that…Marechal. You try to bridge the gap between us with your own name. But I tell you once again that I won’t close that distance.”
The Marechal thought he saw her shudder, yet the wind was still.
“It isn’t safe.”
He heard some memory in those few words, something that weighed heavily upon the young woman’s mind.
“As you say,” he replied, “And as I have said, I would take that risk.”
She stood straighter then, her back rigid.
“But you’re wrong to do so. Whatever magic keeps you young and heals your wounds is no match for what burns inside me.”
Then, lower, almost in a whisper, she said, “I can feel it, as I have before. It wants to burn you to the ground…”
He sighed at the resignation in her voice.
“The truth and your freedom lie in the direction of House Perene, not there where you believe accusations of murder will not follow you,” he said.
“As it is, these strange murders of men skinned alive have followed you even here, Melisse. I do not believe that the demon we encountered in Licharre was destroyed, and, above all, whoever sent it certainly was not.
“Two months of calm have gone by, but do not be fooled. You are being hunted still and not by me. Further, these murders resemble too closely something I encountered a long time ago and there is no telling what might happen when the force behind them finally chooses to end the chase.”
He did not continue on to say what he thought next. That the young woman before him was undoubtedly the prey.
“In any case, I cannot follow you. I have a task yet before me and where you say your path lies would only take me further away from it.”
Still refusing to look at him, Melisse said, “What real good would come of my returning to the north? All the southern lands lie before me and I can lose myself in them and put myself far from whatever danger you believe looms in my shadow.”
“Ah, but there is where you are mistaken, Melisse,” he replied, “In their essential meaning, your problems are no different than any other’s in that they will follow you wherever you go.
“Allow me to explain.”
She made no sign that he should continue, nor did she that he should stop. Only her back remained just as rigid as her apparent determination to run away.
“My belief is that the encounter you had in the forest the night of young Perene’s murder has somehow gone awry. It is possible, even quite likely, that the being who seduced you never intended that you survive.
“Otherwise, why allow you to see that it took the guise of the slops boy? A person you could easily recognize and who, doubtless, has since been found murdered and skinned like all the rest.
“And that reminds me of something from long ago. A time when monsters masqueraded in the skins of men. A base, yet effective, form of espionage. But those creatures were never so clever as to devise such a plan on their own.
“I think that something, someone, guided them in their efforts. Then, abruptly, it disappeared and took its knowledge with it, putting a sudden end to the slip skinned spies in our midst.
“Disappeared, that is, until now. For whatever reason, I believe it has emerged once again to mischief and as I swore so long ago, I will stop at nothing to destroy it.”
Despite the flames that she held within her, Melisse’s voice turned cold as ice.
“So, what you’re saying is that this really isn’t about me?” she said, “All your words that you could take care of me are only a pretext for keeping me where I am of use to you, Marechal.
“You desire that I stay not out of affection for me, but for your affection of the hunt. And I would be the bait.”
“You misunderstand,” he said, “When I was sent away to root out the goblins wearing men’s skins, I had a lover I was forced to leave behind. She meant everything to me and by the time I returned from my mission, she was gone.
“In all my long years, it has ever been thus. I pass through time alone while those around me live out their lives then fall to dust. There have been women in my life, but never do they tarry at my side. Fate has always deprived me of that kind of happiness. Instead, I walk in solitude and remain faithful to the oath I swore when I learned of what happened to the last woman I ever truly loved and to whom I never had the opportunity to tell.
“I shall not rest until I find the one responsible, the one who forced me away from her side.”
The Marechal’s voice shook as he continued.
“I ask you to stay because I do care, and because I think the magic in your possession means that you could walk through time with me. That when my task is done, I would no longer see my future as a wasteland of solitude with no one to care for and no one who cares for me.”
Melisse hung her head as she heard him speak.
“Marechal. You could be right. I don’t know. Will I now live on as you do with the force that burns within me? It could be so. But you must understand, I am a bonfire only waiting for the spark to bring the blaze upon all who are near to me.
“Even,” she took a step further away from him, “Even those who could matter to me. Very much.”
He had not seen her face again as she walked resolutely forward to take up the trail that led down the far side of the mountain to foreign lands below.
And as always, it was to the back of a woman that the man said his silent farewell, before he, too, turned to return the way he had come. Only, as he walked his steps grew heavier, his back more hunched and he saw no more flowers nor anything else that might have been reason for smiling.
His side of the mountain was one of cold truths and hard rock, unforgiving, endless…and lonesome.
The wine glimmered in its pewter cup, tiny waves growing from its center that slipped to the edges to rebound and confound themselves, thus hiding the reason that there were any waves at all.
The man sighed and made no sign that he had heard anything as several men came through the tavern door to rejoin the one at the bar.
The wine shimmered and he simply wondered if its flavor would be less bitter for the salt.
Rubio heard the tavern door creak, then the dark figures of big men came looming into the tavern. The door nearly closed behind them, when a fourth man, small, rotund and as breathless as ever, slipped inside and said in a rush, “Rubio. I brought ‘em like you wanted. Just like you said.”
The barkeeper frowned and was about to open his mouth when Butcher cut him off.
“Best find a reason to go outside now. I think the back alley is probably a lot more interesting than it used to be. For the next few minutes, anyway.”
The barkeeper’s mouth hung open for a moment, then he closed it again, before mumbling something that sounded like, “Someone had better pay for the mess is all I’m sayin’.”
Then he left without looking back.
Nenouf was still grinning in Rubio’s general direction as Butcher leaned close to him, about to say something into the man’s ear.
Before he could utter a word, one of the big men…it might have been Castang…said, “My Molly’s got oxtail simmering at the hearth. I h’aint got time for any more discussin’ when my belly’s empty.”
He shrugged his coat to one side and hefted what looked like a thick axe handle in his hands. It was missing the axe head, though. Instead, what appeared to be at least twenty heavy iron nails were driven through the business end, making of it a kind of crude morning star.
It made an odd whistling sound as he walked forward to swing it hard into the air where the rich man’s head had been just an instant before. But rather than stove the drunken man’s head in, it slammed into the table.
Nenouf watched, the smile still on his face fading as the scene played out. Castang, or maybe it was Vinsou, was pulling hard on his axe handle, but the spikes driven through it had been embedded fast in the heavy table top where the rich man had been sitting.
A man who was now lying on the floor with his own foolish grin on his face. Nenouf was sure it was only drunk’s luck, but his head had lolled to one side just as the hard wood handle had slammed down, then overbalanced, the man had tumbled from his chair to the floor.
Butcher looked like he was about to shout something to Castang when Nenouf saw the drunken man roll over like a fish out of water. As he did it, Nenouf caught a flash of two things.
One was a terrible scar that ran down one side of the man’s face in jagged lines like a bolt of lightning cast from boiled over skies. The other was the shine of bright metal in the rich man’s hands.
It has only been for an instant, but it looked like he had meant to roll in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to get away, the fool had flopped forward, toward Castang instead, and brought the table down on top of himself.
The big man standing over him was still tugging on his weapon when the table started to fall, then Nenouf heard him yelp, then say, “Ow!”
It was like watching a logger man’s tree begin to tip and fall. Castang…or Vinsou, it might have been…had flailed backward to avoid tumbling over the table collapsing before him. But as he did, he had let out a sound that was at odds with his size, the hurt sound of a little boy, as if he had been stung by a hornet.
For some reason, he could not stop his backward motion, then Castang was falling over and as he did, he reached toward his ankle with an anguished look on his face.
“Owwww! Garn! He done unhinged me foot,” the big man shrieked.
His brother looked right, then left, unsure which way to turn. Butcher’s eyes were narrowed at the improbable situation, but no orders were forthcoming.
Then, Vinsou was rushing toward his sibling lying on the floor, his own coat pulled to the side and a thick iron bar in both his hands.
Nenouf watched, his eyes wide, and as the second brother rushed forward, Nenouf shrank back behind the bar. He heard a terrible crash and popped his head up from behind the bar to see the second brother lying beside the first, his hand clapped to his throat and blood streaming through his fingers.
“Vinsou…Vinsou!” the first brother howled as he rolled from one side to the other, but even Nenouf could see the man was done for.
And over both the brothers stood that scarred man, staggering as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. In one hand, he held what looked to Nenouf like a tiny, thin sword, not even a third as long as it should have been.
The drunken fool had somehow managed to put both brothers down, while he stood there close to falling over again. His free hand was at his belt, fumbling at a full sized sword still in its scabbard upon his hip.
Only his head kept tipping down and Nenouf saw that the man could barely keep his eyes open.
In a low, calm voice, Butcher said, “Rubio. Two paces to my left. We move in slow and steady.”
Rubio nodded as he got up, his own battered blade sliding free from its sheath while Butcher settled his pair of heavy cleavers in his fists.
Nenouf knew that things were about to go to hell then and there.
But before they did, the drunken fool had something to say.
His voice was slurred and uneven, but he said, “She left me. After all that I did for her. After all that I would have done. She left.”
His feet slid apart, then he narrowly caught himself from falling down again as he managed to place one foot wide before the other and turn himself to the side.
To Nenouf, it looked as if he wanted to address the wall off to the side of him and that, maybe, he had even forgotten the two men advancing upon him, slowly, yet surely.
He’s going to get himself butchered good and proper like that, Nenouf thought. He don’t even know enough to face those boys coming straight on.
Nenouf shook his head. The man might have had the coin to pay himself a pair of pretty blades, but standing sideways like that when two hard men were coming to take him down had only one likely outcome. And a drunk’s luck only runs so far.
With an awkward jerk, the man managed at last to free his sword from the scabbard, coming within a hair’s breadth of cracking himself on the jaw with its pommel as he did. Then, he tilted back before slumping forward, the sword’s point driving into the inn’s wooden floor as he leaned on it like an old man upon a cane.
“For my own good, she said,” the man mumbled, his hair falling down over his eyes.
Rubio was grinning widely as he eased himself forward. Butcher kept his eyes narrowed, flicking his gaze from the scarred man’s hands up to the face hidden largely by unkempt hair and shadow.
“Did you see that scar, Rubio?” Butcher said.
Nenouf watched as Rubio nodded, then replied, “He seen a battle or two, this one. Veteran, maybe.”
Butcher nodded then said, “That’s right. And he took out the tendon in Castang’s heel, drunk as he is.”
“So what do we do, Butch?” Rubio asked.
“We go in at the same time…exactly the same time,” was the reply.
The drunken man’s head hung lower still, then he mumbled, “She didn’t wish to hurt me. But no one can. No one.”
Rubio froze at these words, but with a scathing look from Butcher, he kept moving.
Then the two men burst forward, their weapons raised.
Nenouf shuddered, thinking he did not want to see what was about to happen, but he was frozen in place, fascination pinning him behind the bar, unable to look away.
Rubio’s sword slashed in to strike first. Or, it should have.
But without looking up, the man’s left arm raised the smaller sword up and with a slight flick of his wrist, sent Rubio’s blade skittering to the side while Rubio followed it, his own momentum carrying him forward hard.
Butcher had rushed in at the same moment, but as Rubio struck out with his long blade to have it neatly deflected to one side, Butcher dropped down into a crouch, his cleavers slicing the air in sweeping curves that would take the drunken man’s leading leg off at the knee.
The arc of those heavy blades meant for breaking bone and cleaving flesh was interrupted before they ever got there.
As Rubio’s sword was slapped aside, he could not stop his forward motion, coming in close to the man who then took a sliding half step backward as he struck Rubio hard behind the ear with the butt of his main-gauche. Rubio’s eyes were already rolling back in his head as he fell which was probably a mercy, because he fell hard just in front of Butcher and his cleavers.
The first one took Rubio in under the jaw and came crashing out from the tip of his chin in an explosion of bone and blood. The second landed dead center in the unfortunate man’s forehead, sinking in deep.
Butcher let go of the cleaver buried in his business partner’s brains while holding on to the other as he rolled to the side before springing up to his feet, a long boning knife already in his free hand.
Castang lowed like a lost cow from the floor while his brother lay still beside him, his hand having fallen away from the gash at his throat, the blood no longer flowing.
Butcher grinned his brown toothed smile and said, “Good enough. You helped narrow the split down to one man and that suits me just fine. Only I’m not like those three and you’re drunk as hell.”
The man opposite him did not seem to notice as Butcher edged further to one side, putting himself almost at the man’s back.
Then Butcher burst forward, his boning knife weaving from right to left, while he held the cleaver high and ready to lop off a hand at the wrist if he could.
Nenouf did not notice that his own mouth was held in a perfect circle of surprise. Only one of the Butcher’s Boys was still standing and it was Butcher himself.
It should not have been possible and what was worse was that they had been done in by a drunken man.
What kind of unholy terror might he be when he’s sober, thought Nenouf, knowing full well that if he knew what was good for him, he should already be well on his way out the back door of the tavern.
But what he saw next kept him right where he was.
Butcher pounded forward just as the scarred man stumbled and pivoted at the same time. The sword that served him as a cane came with him, then it punched down again, only this time the point landed directly in Castang’s thigh.
The big man lying on the floor screamed a high pitched scream and as he instinctively clapped his hands to the wound, Nenouf saw the ends of his fingers fly away at the same time the scarred man ripped the sword back up and into the air.
Blood squirted up in an arc from Castang’s leg and Nenouf knew what that meant. A half inch to one side or the other and it would have been only a flesh wound. Instead, that drunken man had somehow punched through the artery in the big man’s thigh and only red hot iron could save Castang then.
Butcher’s boning knife whistled as it cut the air, its path about to carry it to land between two of the scarred man’s ribs, probably to drive deep into his liver.
But, the man staggered back again, and Butcher’s blade only tasted fine cotton fabric as it licked cleanly through the man’s shirt.
Butcher kept going and spun round in a roundhouse circle, his cleaver cutting the air, but the scarred man had stumbled to one side as he raised his long bladed sword at last.
The cleaver struck it hard and Nenouf saw sparks flash as cold metal struck metal.
The heavy cleaver in Butcher’s hand pulled him after it as it ran along the long sword blade. Nenouf saw his eyes go wide, then the short sword flickered in the scarred man’s other hand.
Somehow he had twisted around, keeping his balance when he should have fallen. Instead, he had turned with all the fluidity of a dancer, his sidelong stance allowing him to move unhindered.
And in a shining flash, Nenouf saw the tip of that short blade pop out the far side of Butcher’s neck, then disappear again just as quickly.
The drunken man stumbled back against a chair, then sat down heavily while Butcher staggered upright from being bent over only to fall back down again, letting go at last the cleaver and the boning knife. A few seconds later there was a strange drumming sound. It was one of Butcher’s feet jittering on the floorboards then eventually it went as still as the rest of him.
Silence fell as the blood ran.
Silence remained when the blood stopped.
Then the scarred man said, “No one can….”
Nenouf shrunk down behind the bar, his arms hugging his sides tightly, barely daring to breathe. He was still trying to work out just what happened and how it had when he heard a faint sound from the darkened room next to the bar, there where no one should have been.
“Au contraire, Monsieur,” said a voice from a darkened corner of the tavern.
“Say what you will, and I am forced to agree that your skill with a blade is astonishing, but you quite obviously can be hurt. The woman of whom you speak, you say she left you for fear of causing you injury.
“But, it is evident that in doing so, she has wounded you more gravely than any sword could.”
The scarred man stood up when he heard that voice. He stood there, looking vacantly down at the floor, then swayed upon his feet before reaching out to steady himself upon a wooden beam running from the floor to the ceiling.
“She left me…after all that I did for her….”
The man who had come out of the shadows nodded, his face quite serious.
“Nevertheless, you have acquitted yourself admirably over these…” he nudged Rubio’s inert body with the tip of his leather boot, “…these vermin.
“And for that, my employer would like to speak with you. I do believe he would like to procure your services.”
Steel grey eyes lifted up from staring at the floor as the man fumbled an instant then, at last, managed to sheathe his sword in its scabbard.
“Yes, of course. You, dear sir, have talents that will interest him greatly. In the capacity of a dispatcher of problems, naturally.”
The big man looked at the other, but it was more as if he looked through him, seeing other vistas and other faces. The sorts of faces that slipped ever away from him and into the distance as he stood still. Alone.
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Modest Klees, and my employer is none other than Cuixart Bleu, sometimes referred to by the locals with the unsavory epithet, L’Anguille.
“He is the kind of man who is always in need of those who specialize and, most importantly, excel in the fine art of wielding arms. I am such a one, as are you.”
The grey eyed man made no sign, nor did he move, apparently waiting for something.
“He needs killers, sir. And what a killer you are….”
Modest Klees gestured toward the door and the two of them went out. But not before the big man stopped, turning around to throw a small handful of silver to the floor, and mumbled, “For the mess….”
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