Excerpt from Chapter One
I rode west on the Empire Road, and when it thawed to a thousand miles of mud, I stopped in Bindle township. I fell into habits. After the first week, everybody in town knew where to find me at any time. That’s why those four frilly dead men trailed me home so easily one evening, looking for murder and thievery.
Those fellows did not believe themselves to be dead, of course. They were young, so I doubt they could comprehend a world that might exist without them. They had plenty of life left, trailing along fifty paces behind me, hands on their expensive swords, speaking rash words and giggling like girls. When I paused to peer back at them, they stopped too and tried to look as innocent as fence posts. They were a jovial crew. One of them had even offered to buy me a drink in the tavern yesterday, but unless they started walking some other direction, they would deader than hell soon.
That made me happy, since my purpose here in Bindle was to kill foul sons-of-bitches, the kind that would try to murder an old man for gold. I lured men like that by showing the gold around, a lump the size of a toddler’s fist, thunking it down on my table in the tavern. I’d scrape off enough to pay the bar girl, Bea, for my stew and small beer. Then I would let the gold lay there on the scarred table while I ate and ignored every avaricious eye in the room. That much gold would set somebody up for a comfortable life, or a debauchery-soaked death, as his nature allowed.
I didn’t look like much, and I never had. I was skinny and middling height. After my hair went mostly from red to gray, I could appear so feeble that a child might knock me over with a fart. Since everybody knew where to find me and when, foul sons-of-bitches followed me home, or to the privy, or to the stables, and that’s where I murdered them.
After the first week the tavern’s regulars started warning travelers against me, so some of the less foul sons-of-bitches must have survived. Plenty of men still thought it worth the chance, so this game kept me occupied, and it kept the God of Death no more pissed off at me than usual.
I glanced back at the four blond men, stalking along like panthers wearing soft, leather boots. Their cloaks were cut for style, not warmth. They didn’t even need the damn gold.
I had let a bald man live yesterday, and I wished I hadn’t. When I sidestepped his cut, he left his throat so exposed he might have done it to be obliging. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t killed him, but I hadn’t. I felt bad about it later, especially since he gave me a neat slice on the forearm just before he ran like hot grease. I hadn’t seen him since, and I hoped my moment of unreasoning mercy in combat was a freak occurrence, like a falling pinecone that lands balanced on its tip, an event never to be witnessed again.
The four rich, young morons followed me onward, and my doubts floated away. I wished that I could make them hurry up, make them run right up here and get killed. I imagined their deaths as if they were something I could hold on my tongue and savor.
It was still light when I arrived home—a sad, old swayback cottage with mossy shingles and walls out of plumb. Three coats of white paint slathered the front wall, as if the house were the oldest whore in town. I had repainted and rehung the blue front door nearly two weeks ago. Now I shoved it, and it held like a barred castle gate. I heaved again, and it squeaked but didn’t shift.
I kicked the door, not too hard. “Damn you to eat hot coals in hell!” I kicked it again, and the door creaked but didn’t move. “Shit.” I sighed and leaned against the door. After a few seconds, it swung open with a shush quieter than the breeze in the yard.
Glancing down the road, I saw the dead men still coming.
Once inside the cottage, I hung my cloak on the peg and closed the door behind me. When I reached the stone fireplace I looked back. The door stood open. I had latched it for damn sure.
I frowned at the front door. “Do we have to play this song every day?”
Behind me the door to the small bedroom slammed shut.
Carpenter’s tools, lumber, paint brushes, and two lanterns lay clumped where I had left them around the main room. I kicked a short board out of my way towards the corner, where it bounced against the rest of the lumber. I figured I had just enough time to build up the fire.
Two minutes coaxing the banked coals set the tinder and some sticks ablaze. I had worked for a whole week rebuilding that gray, stone fireplace, made a god damn mess of it, and finally hired a mason from the next town over. He tore down my damage and finished the job in a day.
I tossed on a couple more sticks and looked around. The lumber pile was stacked straight as glass. The tools and paintbrushes lay lining two walls, running by size from the smallest nail at one corner to the big mallet across the way.
The urge to burn down the house slapped me, but I pushed it away. “You did the same damn thing last week!” I walked towards the front door. “If you’ve got to be a pain in my ass, you could at least show a little creativity.”
I strolled back outside into the first bits of twilight. The four would-be thieves stood in my yard, whispering. They jerked and gaped as if their ma had caught them stealing pies.
Hell, I couldn’t just walk over and kill them for making a bad decision. I yearned to, but they looked too stupid and pitiful. One was clean-shaven and looked like a baby. I swallowed hard and waved my hand at them. “I just sanded my floor last week, and I don’t intend to let you boys bleed to death on it. You go on back to the tavern and get drunk. It’s healthy. Healthier than this.”
I think they would have walked away if it hadn’t been for the short one, who poked his tall, homely friend on the shoulder. The tall man forced a smile. “Toss down the gold, grandpa. I could break you the way I’d do a stick.”
I took a breath and held back from gutting the hulking turd. “I don’t have the gold anymore. Lost it between here and the waterfalls. You’re welcome to search for it.”
The tall one sneered. “You horrible, old liar. It’s right there in your pouch, bulging. Isn’t it?”
I touched the faded green pouch on my belt and nodded. “Let nobody say you’re too stupid to piss downward.”
The man snorted, but his eyes were wide, and he shifted his feet as if he might run.
I shoved my sword hand behind my back and grabbed my belt. “Boys, my only treasure is wisdom, earned with bruises and broken hearts. Go home, marry rich wives, make a bunch of fat babies, and spoil the shit out of them.” I nodded toward a couple of shabby houses across the lane. “Forget all this. You can tell people how you faced down death in the wild lands.” Bindle was no wilder than a billy-goat but compared to a wealthy imperial borough it was a battlefield.
The shortest one had edged forward and glanced at his friend. “If you’ve gone all shy about cutting his head off, Conor, let me have him.”
Conor waved the pushy bastard back.
We had collected spectators right away. Three men wearing yellow sashes had appeared from around one of the dirty, plastered houses across the lane, as if they’d been waiting there. On the other side of the house, a big man and two boys trotted up from the direction I’d come, one pushing a wheelbarrow. I knew them all, and I found none of them troubling.
Conor shouted, “Stop chunking about, old man! Give it over, or I’ll carve you right now!” He took his hand away from his sheathed sword, wiped his palm against his trousers-leg, and didn’t touch the sword again. He didn’t want to kill me any more than he wanted to eat glass. His pissant friends were pushing him into it.
I bellowed, “Boo!”
Conor jumped and staggered back, and his friends flinched. I opened my mouth to yell some abuse at them and tell them to go home, but Conor’s short friend drew his sword. “Give us that gold, you old fart!” Then he stood there like he was waiting for inspiration. He didn’t even point the weapon at me.
I have grown to be a mature gentleman in part because I don’t allow people to point weapons at me more than once. I assume that if they threaten my life now, they will be pleased to do it again sometime.
I charged the short one, and my blade was in his heart before the others had armed themselves. I withdrew, and he fell straight onto his face. The fellow to his left, who had bright red cheeks, was drawing his own weapon. He was the happy young man who had tried to buy me a drink. I had heard him joking and laughing in the tavern. I opened his throat, and he staggered sideways, blood spurting.
Conor and his baby-faced friend had drawn their swords by then. They both ran at me, like they were an avalanche that could plow me under. I cut Conor deep across the thigh, and he flopped down while I dodged his friend’s blade. Then I cut the friend so viciously on the shoulder that his arm dropped limp and his sword fell. He staggered back until he hit the plum tree.
That beardless man looked like a scared, bloody boy leaning against the tree trunk. He stared at my face, maybe intent on whatever I was about to say. He looked shocked when I stabbed him in the heart without saying anything. Maybe he thought I was going to invite him inside so we could reminisce about the time I almost killed him.
Conor was staggering away when I turned to him. He glanced back. “No! You don’t have to! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m—” He tripped over a root sticking up by an oak stump, but he rolled face-up. “No! No!” He started screaming like a child, and he was still at it when I stabbed him through the right eye. He shuddered and went slack.
I looked around at the bodies and beyond. Blood had sprayed on me, the daylight was draining away, and I would have murdered a dozen virgins for a drink. Well, I would have called them names until they cried. I scanned the lane, past the spectators, in case these four sad thieves had any friends, and I hoped to hell I’d get to kill them too. However, they seemed to have been friendless.
It was un-neighborly to leave dead men lying about in front of one’s house, but I didn’t need to worry about that. I sat down on the front step with my sleeve dripping blood onto the sprouting green grass. My hands started shaking so hard I dropped my sword, and I let it lie there. The post-murder satisfaction had lasted almost no time.