Prologue - A man awakes in the forest. Beaten and near death he tries to find shelter.
|Dusk unfurled her cloak and began to lay it across the land.
An unconscious figure lay face down between the sprawling roots of the decaying tree. The slight rise and fall of his chest the only indication he was alive. Discarded like a broken toy, the nearly dead body bore the signs of a terrible beating; cloak torn, tunic in tatters, blood smears over fabric and flesh, hair matted with sweat and blood, his handsome face bruised and battered.
His eyes slowly opened and instantly narrowed into a squint; disk hadn’t yet chased away the sunlight. Gasps for air shuddered past his split and swollen lips and caught at the back of his throat. He coughed and winced, his involuntary movement catching painfully in his ribs. His vision began to clear and he realised that by some miracle, he was still alive.
They’d certainly tried hard to finish him off. Every inch of him throbbed with a different pain caused by different methods of violence; his skin burned from the red hot poker his tormentors had held against his legs; his temple ached from the punches thrown; his stomach was raw from the kicks administered after he had fallen to the floor.
He had never felt pain like it.
An old root sticking out of the ground was pressing on a sore rib. He leant on an elbow and helped himself into a sitting position, his back to the trunk of the tree. He felt the benefit of no longer lying on his injuries but his body remained tight with pain and tension as he listened for the slightest sound.
They would be back for him. It wasn’t the kind of beating meant to hurt someone enough but not kill them. He should be dead. Righteous anger had driven every punch home. Maniacal laughter and hateful words filled his ears, the memories so sharp it was like living the torture all over again.
They would come back for him. It was only a matter of time.
Slices of light from a dying sun cut sharply through the thick green canopy around him. The trees were old and decaying in the ancient forest. Branches stretched out like malevolent arms, looking for wanderers who dared disturb their silent home. This hostile and oppressive atmosphere made him feel like an intruder, even in his dishevelled and wounded state. He felt like he should apologise for disturbing the forest even while it rotted away.
Evidence of a fight was all around him; blood, disturbed earth, broken twigs. This must have been the exact spot he had been beaten and left to die.
He pulled his cloak around his body; more to comfort him than keep out the cold. A deathly exhaustion seemed to take hold. Part of him wanted to give his attackers exactly what they wanted. It would be easy to just stay where he was and die quietly. Say a few words for his family and friends, a few more to guarantee a chair at the table in the afterlife, and he could slip away into the all encompassing darkness that awaited him. All he had to do was let nature take its course. He would be grateful.
Out of habit his hand moved to a hidden pocket in his cloak. It was reflex. After three years of hiding it within his robes, he was used to the feel of the small book close to his chest at all times. He never let it out of his sight or reach.
The pocket was empty.
A shiver of panic traced his spine. There was no shortage of people being taken and beaten for money or possessions. Perhaps this was nothing more than a simple robbery. Deep in the pit of his stomach, he knew there was little hope of that.
Wincing with pain, he ran his hands over his body. His movement jogged the coin in the purse that hung around his waist. It had not moved to one of his other hidden pockets, or slipped out and entangled itself in his robes. He leant forward and patted the ground around him searching out for it; the familiar edges, the frayed leather, the well worn sides, the thin string keeping it together. His fingers met nothing but broken earth. It was gone. The realisation hit him in the chest. This was a very specific robbery for a very specific item.
Suddenly, he knew who took him and why.
A strange sob of panic broke the silence of the forest. Frustrated, he slung himself back against the tree, his elbow connecting with the trunk. Pain shot along his arm but he ignored it. There were more important concerns now.
Years of careful espionage were now gone. Straight into the hands of his enemies. He thought of all those times he had had the book, in meetings, council sessions. Carrying it around like it was nothing. Three years of gathering information and only to get complacent.
They must have guessed what it was. All this beating just to get my little book?
It contained everything; names, dates, events, conversations. All were meticulously encoded but by no means impenetrable to anyone determined to decipher its secrets. All that information now in the hands of his enemies. He couldn’t stay here. They would be back to finish him off and after that, his wife, his daughter and anyone who was too close. They would suffer his fate, purely because they knew him. He had to get home, send his family away to safety and find some allies.
He would start with Quinn.
His attackers would assume he kept copies of his work at home and they wouldn’t think twice about ransacking his house over to search for it. If his wife got in the way...
He had to get home.
Breathing through clenched teeth he pushed himself to his feet. He took a few tentative steps forward, holding on to the tree for support.
He couldn’t move fast. His broken ribs and twisted ankles made it difficult to walk, let alone run. He stumbled down what looked like a rough path away from where he had been dumped. He was sure he was heading north, believing the Sun had set to his right.
They had taken his shoes. His burnt were raw with pain but he didn’t stop.
Like the sound of a twig underfoot.
His blood ran cold. Was it under his foot or were his attackers following him? Was this what they wanted? That he run so they could chase him?
Gritting his teeth, he quickened his pace, and glanced over his shoulder. He saw movement in the trees. Was that a swish of robe?
They were following. He didn’t stop to check. He broke into as much of a run as he could manage. His feet swiped at the rough ground and his body shook with the effort it took just to stay on his feet.
Another snap to his right. He turned, running around a tree and away from the noise. Another snap and he turned again. Then another. He wound through the trees, trying to ignore the feeling they were closing in on him. Bone-white moonlight made the forest seem more hostile; shadows emerged in frightening shapes.
His cloak snagged on branches but he didn’t stop. His clothes ripped and his muscles screamed with the strain. His eyes were wide and he gasped for breath but he did not slow down.
Suddenly, he saw a light up ahead, breaking through the dark. A lantern hung at the entrance to a small cabin. A haven in the centre of the grim forest. A lifeline for the battered and bloodied man.
There must be someone inside, please god let there be someone inside.
His foot scraped against the jagged side of a stone slicing through his already torn skin. His howl of agony echoed through the forest. He hobbled, the fresh wound on his foot widening with every step. Each breath hurt more than the last and he was sure his heart would give out at any moment. He was a fit man but he had been taken to the brink of what he could stand and now his body was about to give up.
I can’t stop now. Not while I’m so close.
He hobbled towards the hut. Light from the Bull’s eye lantern bathed the small clearing around the cabin in a warm glow. The shack looked tiny next to the tall trees, like it was cowering against the frightening forest. The cabin looked as if it had been built when the forest was fledgling and had aged with the forest becoming part of it; all the while offering protection for travellers from the gloomy wood. It looked like a severe storm would cause the cabin to fall over. Its wooden panels were falling away and the whole structure seemed to be leaning to one side. Light spilled out of the ill-fitting wooden slats that served as walls. The roof looked damaged in places.
Yet there was smoke coming from the chimney! Someone was in there.
With great effort, he stumbled into the small clearing surrounding the hut. A hole in his cloak snagged on a sharp branch and tugged it away from him. The cloak fell for his shoulders but he continued onwards. His lungs began to heave as he called on his final reserves of strength to carry him across the clearing toward safety and aid.
He almost threw himself against the door. He hammered on the wood and the shack seemed to creak and move as if it would fall down in protest at his insistence. The door opened and a tall but ordinary looking man stood at the threshold. The frightened man stuttered through his request to be let in and the stranger at the door stepped aside. The frightened man gave a false name of ‘Grey’ and as he helped himself to a seat by the fire, the stranger quickly swapped the bulls eye lantern for one with a slightly stained lens; turning the light from bright yellow to dark orange.
It was the signal.
Those driving ‘Grey’ towards the cabin held back. They’d done their part and now it was their master’s turn.
Barely an hour later and ‘Grey’ lay dead. The assassin stood above his corpse, a sick smile covering an ugly face. Old scars and a poorly healed broken nose made the man the stuff of children’s nightmares. The poison bottle in his hand would have troubled many an adult. He pushed the stopper firmly into the poison bottle.
The glass with the victim’s last whiskey had fallen at the moment of death and shattered by the chair in front of the fire. The poisonous mixture of alcohol and Daphne Mezereum still graced the broken shards. The poison hid in the whiskey, undetected by the victim until it was too late. It took a few minutes to take hold. Enough time for the mark to realise he was dying, enough time for the assassin to see the life go out of his victim.
The assassin resumed his usual attire: an impressive deep scarlet tunic and cloak with black embroidery denoting his rank and class, a signet ring bearing a raised circle on its face. He slipped the bottle of poison into his robes and thumbed through the black book that belonged to the dead man. He had taken it earlier when they had dumped the man by the tree.
The pages were covered with gibberish, symbols he did not recognise in patterns he sis not understand. He did what most ignorant people do when they happen upon something they don’t understand; he immediately considered it heretical, subversive and no good. It was at the very least treasonous.
The assassin felt mocked by the pages of a dead man’s scrawl and closed it with a snap. He wanted to burn it now but his mast had asked him to preserve it; there was a possibility ‘Grey’ had accomplices. No doubt it would only be a matter of time before the assassin was asked to dispatch them in a similar fashion. He placed the book in his pocket, next to the poison. It seemed fitting for the evidence of the dead man’s treachery to be next to the instrument of its master’s death.
The assassin poured the remaining whiskey on several bales of hay in the corner. It pained him to throw away such quality whiskey but it would make the cabin burn and cover his tracks. He threw the empty bottle into the grate, the fire burning brighter and higher with the alcohol left in the bottle. He took the two lanterns; the signal torch outside the cabin and the second which he’d hidden behind a stool by the door, and smashed them against the soaked bales. The dry hay caught fire as the burning oil mixed with the alcohol and the air. The flames were quick to take and grow and it wasn’t long before he could feel the heat on his face.
The residents of the shack lay back to back on the floor, tied together at the feet, hips and neck. They would perish in the fire but no one would miss them. The fire began to spread to the creaking walls and the assassin stepped out of the cabin.
Outside, the assassin’s accomplices had finished securing the body to a cart, ready for transport. Around the body they placed empty barrels in an attempt to hide the body from any prying eyes. On top of the barrels the men placed sacks of bread. The assassin sat next to the driver and the other men perched on the side of the cart, acting as another shield to keep their cargo secure and out of sight. They wouldn’t be questioned, not while a man dressed as a Summoner sat at the front of the cart, but it wouldn’t be good for anyone to see them moving a dead body.
They were behind schedule. He and his men had spent far too much time indulging their violent appetites. The assassin gestured towards the road and they started moving away from the cabin. As they left the clearing, the fire engulfed the hut and those within it.
Somewhere north of the assassin, a woman awake from a haunting dream, her skin crawling with a cold and clammy sweat. Memories flooded her mind. Memories that were not hers, so fresh that she felt she had been a part of them.
The forest. The running man. The physical and mental pain he was in The relief at finding refuge and the despair of meeting his demise at the hands if his enemies. The hurried threats of retribution if his life was to end.
Not if you die a hero. Sweet, soft words. The twisted, ugly mouth that uttered them. Confusion and hopelessness in the eyes of the victim and then nothing. Dead.
She could see what they left behind. The remains of the cabin smouldering in the dark of the forest. Something else – a bloody and torn cloak, invisible to the retreating assassins. In her mind’s eye, the fire illuminated the white cloth with blue silk lining against the darkness of the trees. The flickering light shone upon the emblem, carefully stitched into the chest with golden silk as fine as a strand of hair. She knew the meaning although she had never seen it before. She knew they man without knowing his name.
The memories began to fade like dreams do after waking. She began to calm and forced herself to picture nothing but white; clear, cleansing, calming.
An evil plot was taking place in Maracia. The death of the Senator was only the beginning.