Warm rain caressed the babargon trees that crouched on the rise overlooking the Anglorean outpost deep in the Tarthian jungle. In a land with no winter, the autumnal equinox had just passed; the new moon hung like a stagnant pool above the woolen cloud cover. As night stole the last of the light, fog settled into the shadows, muting voices, hiding movement and sinking its teeth into the imaginations of tired, wounded warriors.
An assassin gazed upon the captain’s tent with the patience of a praying mantis. He did not need light to know where it stood. Unseen and unknown to all but the few who paid him, his tall, lean body draped between the weeping trees, he waited, his mind caressing the glimmering watch-web he had cast around his post to warn him of any unwitting intrusion.
In his homeland of Ostarin far to the north, they called him a hunter. Here, they called him kav’tib, which in their fluid tongue meant warlock, in no good terms. Icaros, the wizard who had raised him after the earth took his mother away, once said, There is more to being a wizard than pretty tricks! The Keepers of the Eye know the minds of gods.
The hunter was far from that. But his tricks, such as they were, proved good enough for the Tarthian nobility. They had hired him for being lawless and without loyalties, a servant of the Old One, the primeval, feminine force of cycles, birth and death who knew all things even beyond the timeless ramparts of gods. Even so, he would not be the most skillful, highest paid assassin in Sourcesee without the things Icaros had taught him. He knew things beyond his multifaceted training as a warrior, things only wizards knew.
For seven years, he had hired out his services to the warlords of Tarth, an empire of wet, wooded lands that had as many boats as carts, a desolation of brackish marshes, towns on stilts, jungles dripping with moss and the warm, fragrant nectars of constant rain. All manner of life grew here, every kind of creature that crept, slithered, swam or flew, humans notwithstanding. These were bronze-skinned, tall, with rounded noses and deep-set eyes the color of swamps, eyes that knew the mysteries of things that flowed. Dominated by the Great Reson Fen near the borders of Anglorea, Tarth was known for its concoctions, everything from rich, heady drinks to narcotics, medicines—and of course, poisons.
He reached up and touched the orange-sized scar on his neck, a five-rayed star left by a near-fatal spider bite. A Tarthian woman had found him gasping and burning in the hazy shadow of a willow tree that leaned over a quiet brown-black river. Like images from a dream, he still remembered the way the water pulled on the long, thin leaves hanging down, the scent of jasmine, the feel of the woman’s hands on his face, chirruping birds, croaking frogs and the numbness in his arms and legs. She had dragged him away from the water and into an unpleasant hollow that smelled as if the mud itself were rotting there. He never knew what she had done to him—let alone why—but on the other side of a seemingly interminable delirium he had awaked, alone, weak and, amazingly, alive.
He had not known the face of his own death before that, though he knew death in every part of his nature, being the hand that so often dealt it. Now, the spider bite lived in his body as a presence just below the surface of thought. It sensed the nature of events around him, and intensified when anything came along to which he needed to attend.
He had never learned the name of this spider, but he had learned that the deadly creatures lived only in the swamps that fed the headwaters of the Mroc. While following the straggled path of the company below, he had captured one and brought it to this hidden outpost. With a word, he had crept as a whispering shade into the captain’s tent and respectfully loosed the spider into his blankets. The warrior was a man of little note, not the kind of top-heavy lords and commanders whom the hunter usually targeted. His orders had been specific with this one. Keep it quiet, keep it hidden.
The war had begun in the distant southwest, beyond the Red Forest River, where the borders of Tarth dried out and the stony, brushy hills of Anglorea stumbled up and ran with fresh winds as if relieved to get out of the rain. The hunter had left his gold’s worth of blood on those stones, and in the mud and pools of the forests, silently and without a thread of emotion for those whom his aristocratic employers had picked to die. He could not have said what the war was about, exactly. A hunter did not concern himself with that. He had crept like the nameless spider into the underground, into the shadows of warriors, lords, horses, whores and swords; into the moaning, oil-darkened recesses of the war machine and there he practiced his art. He cared little for where the river of life flowed or why.
He had become the river, rising and falling to the rhythm of the Hunter’s Rede, an unwritten set of codes, shades, they were called, designed to guide assassins in their work. But it was more than that. Shades of gray between the darkness and the light, the Rede whispered the wisdom of the wild. After so many years, it had rooted into his animal mind as primordial instinct.
As he waited for death’s exhale, feeling the water on the slick black trunks of the babargon trees soaking into his cloak, the hunter wondered, as he did every year at this time, why he remained in this land. Though his lords paid him well for the things he knew—things they feared to know—he had lost his lust for coin and the accomplishments that grew from the fertile soil of conflict. His rhythm had become a rut in the mud, an inexorable cycle, like the void between the sun and rain that drove living things to breed.
He stared into the dark, every sense alert for the alarm that would tell him the spider had done its work. Rain fell, frogs croaked, and bats ruled the skies. The jungle drank until intoxicated, and then drank some more. After a time, the encampment below grew still, an invisible, silent heartbeat in the writhing arms of the jungle. Trusting to his senses, the hunter dozed, his thoughts flowing like the river beneath the willow tree.
Snow blanketed the mountains, brilliant leaves of ash, birch and maple flew on the cold autumn air and winter constellations sparkled on the horizon of an indigo sky. He walked between the shadows of hemlock trees to the howling of wolves.
Icaros tossed a piece of wood into the hearth. “Go where ye will,” he said in his deep, lyrical voice, his eyes shining with sad twilight. “But your bones are in the mountains, boy.”
“I act from knowing,” the hunter replied, quoting the Shade of Instinct.
Two mighty ravens rose from the ground before the door and took to the air, flying north. Thick snow swirled from the sky and enveloped them.
Silence descended as a swan, white as ice, and landed in a pool with a velvet rustle….
The hunter opened his eyes with a start as the spider scar on his neck flared out with pain. Without moving, he looked down at the encampment. Nothing stirred; no voices, sounds of tent flaps or stomping feet disturbed the night.
Until something stepped from behind the tree at his feet.
A boy stood before him. Strange, thin and pale with dark green eyes and flaxen hair, he shimmered in a layer above the physical; there, and yet not. The hunter searched his memory for a phrase in Aenspeak, the wizards’ tongue, used to reveal the nature of a thing. The child said something that the hunter had not heard in a very long time: his name.
Lorth! the specter spoke into his mind. You must return to Ostarin. The Mistress of Eusiron has need of you!
Lorth remembered the words: “Moridrun fore sarumn.” But the messenger had power beyond his; the command fell like a handful of weeds as the boy disappeared, leaving behind only a breath, faint as the warm fog rising in the pre-dawn light. Go now!
The hunter blinked into the jungle, stunned.
Eusiron stood in the heart of Ostarin a hundred miles north of Os on the Wolf River. He had studied swordsmanship there as a young man but had known only as much about the Mistress as any blade in service to the realm. Beautiful, mysterious, she ruled with the hand of the Old One, and held herself as inaccessible as a star, a lover to the gods. Why would she summon him? No one in Eusiron knew who he was, let alone where, after two decades.
He moved his gaze to the Anglorean captain’s tent, afloat in the mist. A predator catching the scent of prey, he studied the shadows, sensing a change. He heard a voice—and then a telling shout, followed by men rallying to alarm.
The owl flies near.
The hunter grabbed his things and slipped from the shelter of the babargons. But he did not head west to deliver his report and collect his pay.
He went east, towards the port of Searf.
Given the ruthless complexity of the Tarth-Anglorean war, Lorth knew his royal employers would by no means release him from their service. Indeed, they had been eager enough to take advantage of his addiction to the jungle’s throb. But the quality of his nature that made him an attractive tool to the Tarthian lords also prompted him to answer his eldritch summons with all the conscience of a wolf trotting away from a watering hole. Like the wolf, he stood to the Old One alone, and while he might take a drink, he was still wild.
Tarthians. Too much water, and not enough shores. The Shade of Fate whispered to him as he settled his mind on the shrouded light of the rising sun: I owe nothing.
A swords-and-sorcery tale of one warrior’s transformation by the forces of war, betrayal, wizardry and love.
© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.