SHORT STORIES: Mercenary

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Markus was tired. The sun was beginning to set and he’d earnt nothing for his day’s labours, though he’d been working since before dawn. It had been a poor day’s work all round: he had let a group of bandits get away from him at the morning’s markets, and he hadn’t managed to trap any rabbits in the woodlands by the Iron Peaks. His back was aching from carrying his weapons and supplies in a canvas bag slung over his shoulder, and the worn scars upon his face were stinging from being knocked by the bandits’ sword hilts. Though he didn’t consider himself to be entirely devout, Markus found himself praying to the Gods for some better luck as he trod through the wet leaves of the forest undergrowth, the cold evening air stinging his lungs and stifling his heavy breaths. He had just one last chance to secure himself some wages for the day, and his hopes of a hot meal rested upon his ability to intimidate a wealthy land-owner who lived upon a clifftop above the woods. Markus didn’t know too much about the man besides his name—Kalefe Horne—and he didn’t much care to, either. All he needed to know was the layout of the man’s home and his usual daily routine, both of which had been provided to him by a red-haired woman in The Hunting Bugle, scribbled on parchment over pints of ale. Markus didn’t know her name either, but that always made things easier when the Guards came knocking upon his door for information. The less he knew, the safer he was.

Markus trudged his way up to the cliff which overlooked the woodland, and crouched behind some bracken as he surveyed Kalefe’s home. The place was huge, bordered by expansive private land, and the house itself was more a castle than a home, a large towering stone building that was carefully kept, with neat red ivy crawling up its walls and facades. It was guarded well, Markus noted, with two armoured Guards at its grand front door, and several more positioned around the large walls. Most mercenaries would have given up the job as being useless without an army behind them, but Markus had the gift of patience on his side, and knew that Kalefe often took an evening stroll in his walled garden in order to exercise his hound. That was where Markus would trap him.

Quickly diving between the bracken and dried grasses that bordered the clifftop, Markus managed to sneak his way around the side of the building, until he arrived at the high walls which bordered Kalefe’s flower and kitchen gardens. He secured his bag upon his back and placed his boot heel hard against the bark of a large oak tree that would become his ladder into the gardens. He was a fair climber, practiced from scaling buildings to catch criminals and runaways, and his leather gloves helped shield his scarred hands from the rough bark as he climbed, perching himself onto a thick branch with hardly any sound at all. His forest green cloak hung from the branch, and Markus quickly grabbed its torn hem and wrapped it around his legs, to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible against the oak. He peered down at the gardens and saw they were immaculately well-kept: the kitchen gardens’ vegetables were growing in neat rows, each one labeled, and the flower gardens were clearly meant to be enjoyed and shown off, bursting with colourful roses and climbing plants that scaled grand arches and swinging benches. It was all incredibly sweet, and it made Markus sick.

He quickly scanned the gardens but saw that they were deserted, and so Markus took the opportunity to slowly reach into his cloak to feel for his weapons: two steel daggers, a length of rope and a small leather bag filled with throwing stars. He was not planning to kill anyone today, but he was always ready to intimidate, and felt vulnerable without any length of steel at his side, as short as his dagger blades were. He settled in against the oak and sighed, closing his eyes as the evening wind blew his red locks across his scarred face. He was exhausted, if he was being truthful with himself, and he was tired of his occupation. Tired of piecemeal two-bit jobs where he traded black eyes for rent, tired of spending his days following people who lurked in worlds of death and danger. Markus wanted nothing more than a job where he could be safe and happy and earn a decent wage for a decent day’s work, but the Gods had seen fit to bless him with no other skills than tracking and fighting, and growing up, his family had never had enough money to allow him to learn a trade. You’ll stop this one day, Markus thought, as he glared at a squirrel that was deciding if it should chance climbing up Markus’ arm, all this will be a faint memory of a life not worth living.

A loud bark suddenly drew his attention, and he turned his head to see a springer spaniel bounding through the flower gardens, curly ears flapping in the wind as the hound ran free upon the grass. Following close behind was the beast’s owner: Markus’ target. The man was tall—at least six foot—with striking white-silver hair that fell in soft waves down his back. His skin was a light brown, with a smattering of darker freckles across his nose and cheekbones. His eyes were unnaturally light blue, almost frost-like, which Markus had learned was a trait that ran in the boy’s blood. Kalefe was laughing at his hound as it headed straight for a pond, shaking his head and calling out that the dog was going to get incredibly muddy and that he wouldn’t be the one to clean it. He took a seat on one of the wrought iron benches, crossing his long legs and pulling his robes up so they didn’t trail upon the ground. Markus knew it was time to strike.

He checked once again that his daggers were still there–more a comforting ritual than a mercenary necessity–and then leapt from the tree. His plan was simple: land carefully at the man’s feet in a crouched position, quickly stand, draw his dagger, and brandish it at Kalefe’s neck. It was a perfect position: the flower arches secluded them from view of the house, and there were no gardeners present to meddle with the plan. The hound would be no bother either, being only a small thing that Markus could easily kick away if it grew defensive of its owner. That was the plan.

The reality of the proposed leap, however, was quite different. During Markus’ initial launch, his cloak snagged upon one of the tree branches and stuck there. As his cloak was secured about his neck with a series of impossibly tight knots (Markus never bothered to unknot them and simply added to the collection every time one became a little loose), it was not pulled off during the snagging, and simply served to strangle Markus as he hung from the tree, legs swinging beneath him as he gasped for breath. This drew the attention of Kalefe, who panicked when he saw Markus hanging there, and stood, ready to call for his Guards.

“Please, no! Wait!” was what Markus would have said were all air not being strangled out of him. He, instead, gave a gargled cry as he reached for his dagger to cut his cloak free, dropping to the ground with a painful thud. He looked up, panting, ready to throw himself at Kalefe and clasp a gloved hand over the man’s mouth to stop him from screaming for help.

Instead, Kalefe burst out laughing.

Markus just blinked and then looked to the man’s hound, which hadn’t even been fazed by his falling from the tree. The thing was sat on the grass, lazily scratching at one of its curly ears with a hind leg.

“You are the worst assassin I have ever seen!” Kalefe laughed, his voice a higher pitch than Markus would have thought for someone of his age. He was well-spoken, naturally, and looking down at Markus like he was something his hound had just left upon the grass. Markus quickly stood, brushing himself down, and grunted as he took a shaky step backwards, pain shooting through his right leg.

“You’re bleeding,” the other man said, and he was right: blood was seeping through Markus’ leggings, dampening the wool.

“I’m fine,” Markus lied, sweating, “I’m not going to kill you, but I have a message for you.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes!” Markus said, wobbling as he tried his best to look intimidating, “from the Baroness. She says you owe her.”

“Oh, how ridiculous,” Kalefe sighed, “she made you come all the way here and break your poor leg just to bother me with that again.”

“My leg’s not broken,” Markus insisted as he fell to the floor, his right leg no longer able to take the weight of his body.

“She’s not having my jewels. It’s very silly. I don’t care about any family feuds that she still continues to bore on about. And I certainly don’t care if my Great Uncle stole her Great Grandma’s jewellery. It’s in my house, so it’s all mine. You have to let things go, don’t you? The past is the past. And the jewels are mine.”

Markus just looked up, expressionless, hoping he would pass out soon from the blood loss.

“Anyway,” Kalefe sighed, “what shall we do with you?”

Just let me die here, Markus thought, but said nothing.

“How loyal are you to her?” Kalefe asked.

“I’m loyal only to coin,” Markus said, making the younger man laugh.

“Perfect!” Kalefe said, “then we must devise some wicked scheme to get her back. I don’t want to harm her, but I want to frighten her off from all of this. Does that sound agreeable to you? Something to make her stop bothering me all the time with this nonsense? You must have some fellow scoundrels we can call upon to intimidate her.”

“I know some people.”

“Lovely, Kalefe laughed, “then it’s a deal.”

He crouched down and Markus looked into those bright blue eyes. Kalefe shook his hand, and Markus felt the man’s cold silver rings pressing hard against his palm.

“I look forward to working with you,” Kalefe said, smiling a wicked smile, “now, let’s get you inside and call a doctor. We shall have to pretend you are a local injured beggar whom I took pity upon.”

Markus grunted.