Well, now. It’s been a while.
Not expecting much to come of this resurgence, however brief or long it may be. Head down teaching means not enough me time for writing. Eh, always with the excuses. But I had time today, and a suggestion from my friend and writer Matthew X. Gomez gave me a short swift kick in the ass, and I turned out 800+ words as a continuation to a story he started. (It’s a round-robin writing challenge thing. I’m actually part 3, as someone else wrote a part 2.) You can read part 1 and part 2. Actually, I’ll just copy-paste the whole thing so far. Story below the fold.
The Hand That Wields
By Matthew X. Gomez
“Wake up Otto! Visitor here to see you.”
Otto rolled over on his pallet, cracking one reddened eye open. “Why would anyone come see me?” he mumbled, his tongue heavy from sleep. Sitting up, he opened his other eye and scratched at his tangled beard.
The guard shrugged. “They don’t tell me these things. All I know is the magistrate said to let them see you. So I’m letting them.”
Otto grinned through the iron bars of his cell, revealing teeth filed to points. “Some days I’m surprised to find anyone even remembers I’m down here.”
“Yes, well.” The guard shifted from one foot to the other, his hand dropping to the cudgel slipped through his belt. Someone that Otto couldn’t see cleared their throat. “Ah, right. This is the prisoner you wanted to see.”
Otto didn’t recognize the people once they came into the torch light, but from their fine, rich clothes and the way they held bits of cloth up to their nose to block out the stench, he figured they must be important somehow.
“This is the prisoner, then?” The speaker was older, and Otto could tell he used to be large and muscular, but too many soft years had turned muscle to flab. His eyes though were cold and blue as an iceberg. His companion was younger, his daughter maybe, and her hair was red-gold in the torchlight. Otto felt a familiar stir under his ratty pants. It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman.
Otto looked around dramatically. “Who me? No, I’m the King of Rats. Welcome to my kingdom!” He chuckled. “Yes, I’m the prisoner. Excuse me if I don’t rise to my feet.”
“Do you know who I am?” the man asked.
Otto shook his head. “Someone important. More important than the magistrate at any rate.” He cocked his head to one side. “You want something done, but you can’t be seen doing it, isn’t that right?” He scratched at his head, and finding a louse, squeezed it between his finger and thumb. “I’m not sure how much I can help you down here.” Otto sprang up, and grasped the bars in his hands, straining against them until the veins in arms popped, his eyes wide. “As you can see, they’ve made sure I’m not going anywhere.” As he sat down, he made sure to rattle the chain attached to his ankle.
“What if I told you that I could have you released?”
“You’d have to be the Jarl himself to make that happen.” Otto sighed and lay back down on his pallet, rolling so his back was to his visitors. “Now if there isn’t anything else, you’re interrupting my morning nap.”
“Not the Jarl.”
Otto cracked his eyes back open. The girl had spoken, her voice soft as velvet. “Who then?”
Otto grunted. “There’d be trouble for her if the Jarl found out she was the one that let me go.”
The girl sniffed. “If my father cared, I wouldn’t have to be down here in the first place.”
“Carolina, this man is no more than a beast, we should-”
“Who do you want killed?” Otto sat up, hands on his knees. His eyes were bright and alert, and a predatory grin split his mouth like a cut from an axe.
The chaperone stepped forward. “That is none of your concern-”
“My betrothed,” Carolina replied. “No, that’s not right. The man who was to be my husband. He broke off the betrothal, shaming me and my family. Only his family is too important, and has too many allies, so my father refuses to go to war on my behalf. And if my father was to be found to have anything to do with his death…”
“You’d be stomped back into the mud,” Otto finished for her. “So you came all the way down here to look for me? I’m flattered. What’s to say though that I don’t disappear as soon as I’m out of this cell? Are you sure you can trust me?” Otto’s grin grew wider.
“No,” Carolina replied. “You’d disappear into the woodwork like the rat you are. That’s why he has accompanied me.”
Otto narrowed his eyes and looked closer at Carolina’s chaperone. Despite his finery, he looked harder than most of the nobility Otto had dealt with. Deep creases lined his face, and Otto would bet good coin there were the callouses of a fighter on his hands. “He’s to accompany me?”
Carolina nodded once, a short sharp gesture that reminded Otto of a bird. “That’s right. Bjorn will make sure you don’t stray from your path.”
Otto leaned back, the grin vanishing all together. “Assuming I agree, there are a few things I’ll be needing.”
“We already have your belongings gathered,” Bjorn said. “A well-worn axe, a suit of mended mail, three daggers, a silver chain, and a satchel filled with various herbs. Do you require anything else?”
Otto shook his head, his eyes bright. “So what’s the name of the soon to be deceased?”
His name was Rattenberg, Egil Rattenberg. Otto had been in that hole for a long time now but even he knew who that was. Or at least, whose family he was connected to. The Rattenbergs were the oldest, most powerful family in the Kingdom; more powerful that the Jarl himself. It was no wonder the Great Baron did not wish to ruffle their feathers. If suitably provoked, the Rattenbergs could squash the ruling family and its patriarch like bugs. Otto looked at the girl, a reluctant sense of respect gnawing at him. Damn! Pretty ballsy of such a willow of a girl, he thought, to go after the two most powerful families in the land.
“When do we leave?” he asked, eyeing his belongings through the prison bars with longing.
“Right now!” the girl said, her voice incongruously authoritarian for such a young one. “Will you accept the mission?”
Otto threw his head back in laughter. “No, I prefer to lay here with the rats. Of course, I will take it.”
The odd pair took Otto to a hovel on the edge of town where they obviously expected him to set up shop. “Hell, no palace for me then?” he quipped, dropping his few belonging on the dirt floor by the door.
“This will be your home until such time you have completed your task,” Carolina explained, holding her kerchief to her nose in distaste. “Bjorn will stay with you through the whole thing. Don’t stray and do not betray us or he will make sure you sorely regret it.” Otto did not doubt for a moment that she meant it. There was something almost sinister about that girl. Coming from someone like him this was high praise indeed.
Left alone with Bjorn, who immediately started cleaning up a corner for his own use, Otto opened his satchel and scanned its contents. His yellowish bark-like face lit up at the discovery of an old friend; he rolled the herb in his fingers, stuffed it into the mouth of an old wooden pipe and lit it up with a great puff. His body slid down the wall until his legs were stretched out in front of him as the effects of the hallucinogenic herb took control of his body in waves of pleasure. It’s been too long.
Sometime during his drug-induced stupor, Otto watched Bjorn as he transformed from an obviously rich nobleman to a nondescript street bum; no-one would give him the benefit of a second-look now. Brilliant, Otto thought before drifting off again.
By the time, the drug effects had made their way through and out of his body and mind, his chaperone was waiting, non too-patiently, a mean looking dagger in his hand and a scowl on his face. “Are you done?” he asked, not really expecting or wanting an answer.
“It’s dark outside. We have to go.”
Otto shook himself like a wet dog, slipped the mail suit over his head, and examined his battle-axe. The last one was a mere precaution; not exactly what he liked to use in his victims. He was a more hands-on type of criminal, literally. Weapons were all nice and dandy but there was nothing like a kill brought on by your own hands, tasted in your tongue… Otto shivered in anticipation. Killing made him feel alive. As he walked through the filthy town streets heading toward the Rattenberg’s house, no attempt at conversation was made from him or his partner-in-crime.
The Rattenberg’s family house was a fortified manor, strategically built hovering over the highest hill in town like a giant crow hovering over the carcass of a dead animal. Otto had the nagging suspicion that his usual way of gaining access to people’s houses was not going to work here. Even from a distance he could guess several armed guards keeping watch from different spots behind the battlements. They would be soon spotted if they didn’t take some kind of evasive moves. Surveying the ground around him, Otto found a ditch of some kind that ran almost all the way up the hill. Closely followed by Bjorn, he sprinted to the edge to examine it closer. It was about five feet deep even though there was no way of knowing for sure. The bottom was covered in a murky foul-smelling mud that may or may not be camouflaging a much deeper dip.
Not stopping to analyze the situation to deeply, Otto jumped in. The murk came up to his shins, adding another foot to his original estimate, an unexpected boon to better hide their approach. After waving the other man in, he started making his way up the hill. The ditch meandered up and down the hill, which was frustrating but they made their way up steadily and unobserved. The path ended just a few yards away from one of the side walls. Climbing out of it, they both stooped and ran silently until they could count on the solid protection of the wall. There, there rested for a few minutes, winded and thirsty.
“How are we getting in?” Bjorn finally whispered, curiosity winning over the fear of detection earning a look of disapproval from his partner.
Otto nodded his head toward the right where a small gate broke the monotony of the dark stone wall. It was most certainly the kitchen door and at this time of night, there shouldn’t be too many creatures stirring in there. They moved, their bodies hugging the wall, until they were right by the wooden entry. Surprising the harden criminal, Bjorn fiddled with the lock and was able to open it without as much as a squeak. As Otto had predicted no one was moving in the kitchen. A few sleeping figures punctuated the hay-covered floor here and there but they were able to enter the manor unchallenged. It didn’t take long to make their silent way to the upper floor and Egil’s private quarters.
“You stay here and guard the door while I take care of our man,” Otto muttered. In reality, he had quite an intricate plan in mind as to how to take care of him. Much like an artist, Otto took great pleasure in a job well-done and took great care with details, liking his killings to be slow and painful. Bjorn would probably not approve of his methods so it was best if he didn’t get to watch.
The other man picked the lock with amazing ease, again and Otto slipped inside being careful to close the door behind him. The only light in the room emanated from the great fire in the hearth. Otto felt his pointy teeth with his tongue in anticipation of the kill and scanned the room for the nobleman. The bed was empty and it took him another scan to realize that someone was sitting in front of the fire.
“So you found me,” he heard a male voice say from the chair. “Sit yourself down. You may want to hear what I have to tell you.”
By Cameron Mount
Otto stepped forward and raised his notched battleaxe for a killing blow, but his swing was checked by a hand from behind. Bjorn stepped into the firelight and nodded at the man in the chair.
“Sit, Otto. And listen.”
“You were the chaperone of Carolina. It was you who brought me here.” Otto shook the dirt-caked hair out of his eyes and glared at his erstwhile companion, but saw no movement or attempt to explain, so he moved deeper into the room and took a seat opposite the nobleman. The easy chair he was in was a match for the one where Rattenberg lounged, a half-empty goblet in his hand.
“I am here to kill you.”
“I am aware of that, Otto. And despite your slip of the tongue earlier, I also knew beforehand that it was the daughter of our great Jarl who sent you here.” Rattenberg coughed a deep, phlegmy cough, leaned his head down, and spit into the fire, where it crackled against the dying light. “I am already dead.” He gestured to his abdomen.
The assassin now noticed a dark, spreading stain on the noble’s tunic.
“You see, then, that your services are not needed, my dear murderer. I have already been murdered, and not by that slip of a woman or her hired goons. No,” Rattenberg paused and hacked again. “I have been put to my death by the Jarl himself.”
This was a twist that Otto had not suspected, but a glance at Bjorn showed him that the bodyguard had been fully aware of this development. “Damn that weed,” Otto said. “And damn that woman. And damn you, too.” The last was directed at Bjorn, who merely smiled as though he’d expected no less.
“And what then is my role to be now?” Otto knotted his brows as he tried to puzzle it out himself. He was supremely unsuited to this kind of intrigue, and, not for the first time in his life, he wondered how he’d managed to find himself so deep in the shit.
Rattenberg took a long, slow draught from his goblet before addressing the murderer. “It is merely this, Otto the Axe. The Jarl must die. No,” he raised his hand to ward off Otto’s objections. “Do not try to rationalize this. There has been blood, and when my body is found tomorrow, there will be a war. That much is unavoidable. And that much is as it should be.”
“Carolina wished for there to be no connection.” Otto spat at the mention of his benefactor.
“So naive, that girl,” explained Rattenberg. “So much the child still. And yet, for the Jarl’s daughter to rise, she must do so alone, and at the cost of much bloodshed.”
Otto’s eyes crossed. Rattenberg laughed at the obvious confusion before choking again. It took the man a few minutes to recover, during which time Otto wondered if the full story would be forthcoming before Rattenberg expired.
He turned to Bjorn, the questions plain on his face, but the chaperone shook his head. Evidently he did not have all the information either.
When Rattenberg had recovered his breathing and was able to speak again, it was much softer, raspier, and with a much quicker, if mildly slurred, pace.
“The Jarl and I had a pact. I was to marry Carolina in exchange for my army. This would have weakened my power to rebel, but given me a measure of political control, and my heir with Carolina would have held the Barony. Ah, it was like any court intrigue, but I heard tell of the Jarl’s desire to cross me and have me killed before the marriage could be consummated. So I broke off the betrothal and prepared for war.”
Otto was just barely following the thread, except the bits about betrayal and war, things he was extraordinarily skilled at. But he kept his eyes on the noble’s face, trying to glean what he could from the man’s last words, and hoping merely to find an escape clause hidden in the story. It so far did not seem to exist.
Rattenberg continued his brief tale. “I underestimated the speed at which the Jarl could respond to this effrontery, instead laying word through my hired man,” he nodded at Bjorn, “to the lady Carolina that my actions needed surreptitious response. It was Bjorn who suggested you might be a valuable ally in this.”
The murderer turned to study the firelight playing over the features of his companion. There was something there, some bit of familiarity, but he could not place it. Then Bjorn smiled, and the light glinted off a false tooth, his canine.
“You bastard!” Otto made to leap from the chair, but another coughing fit took both he and Rattenberg by surprise.
The noble breathed his last word. “Letter.” He pointed at a desk against the wall, and slumped back into his chair, his goblet falling to the floor and spilling the blood-red wine across an ornately woven rug.