Anla sat with hands steepled in front of her lips.
“Why do I feel like I teach you something, and then you be teach me nothing?” Sakilei said.
“Shh. I’m trying to think of a way to explain this. It’s not easy like the encapsulation.”
He shifted in an annoyed way, but held his tongue.
“Try imagining that you’re sucking all the air out of an area, but instead of air, it’s the sound.”
He closed his eyes, more in concentration than to block out the almost-gone light, and muttered to himself in Elvish. Anla quickly looked over at the fire and saw that Casquio was picking his teeth by the fire, spitting into it occasionally and causing it to sizzle at the moisture.
The young man, Akmillan, sat down next to his boss and she took the opportunity to listen in on their conversation. “Perimeter is clear, boss,” he said.
“Good. No sign of those men she was with?”
“No, and I haven’t seen them since the town.”
“Excellent. I was a little worried about the wizard wanting to keep someone like her under his thumb, but maybe it was too much trouble for him.”
“I haven’t seen him at all, with or without the other two men.”
“Sakilei,” she said, turning back to the half-elf.
“What? I am concentrating and am working on this ‘sucking out of sound’ you babbled about. If you could be quiet and let me…” There was a hollow pop as the sounds around them were muted. He blinked a few times and she saw him mouth the word, “Oh.”
A few moments later and the silence was lifted. “That was it?”
“Um, no,” she said. “That’s the opposite of what you want, at least for that spell. You want the silence to be outside of your area, so that people can’t hear you instead of you not hearing them.”
He sighed and closed his eyes again. “Wait,” she said. “I have one question.”
“How did the bounty hunters find me?”
Sakilei opened his eyes. “It was lucky timing for them. The gentleman checked in at a post office in Kikiyan and there was a brand new bounty placed on you. You made a lot of noise up in that city in Eerie, Whitney? You upset the Blacksmiths of Yorqui and they were more than happy to tip the Nui-Breckin Alliance of what you had done.”
“Blacksmiths of Yorqui? Nui-Breckin Alliance?”
“The men with the jackets and the buttons. They work for the Skethik priesthood and they find things missing that have spells on them. The Alliance is a group of bounty hunters paid to seek out and capture half-breeds to make sure the Ghenians don’t piss their pants in fear of our kind.”
“Ah,” she said. It had been rather bold of her to use her influence on members of a group she didn’t know much about. “What did the bounty say? Do you know?”
“That you were traveling with a wizard who stole an item, possibly a group, and that you were seen heading south from Whitney. The Man With the Coin gambled that you would be headed towards Kikiyan and he moved us north up the Route of the Woods until we saw you in that town. From there you made it easy for us to get you, very quiet.”
“They said nothing about anyone else in my group?”
“Two other men. That was all. Now, I’d like to work on this spell, so be quiet.”
The Blacksmith that Raulin had scared must have actually been so frightened that he hadn’t told his order about him. And no one had seen that she was traveling with a trirec. The bounty hunters were severely underestimating the quartet, especially putting an unseasoned scout as their only defense.
“I need you to explain this again,” Sakilei said after he tried a few more times.
She went over it once more. “It will take some time. It took me weeks to get this spell correct. Practice and it will come.”
* * *
On Ervaskin, Raulin had needed to spy on one of the king’s council members. He casually mentioned it to Telbarisk, who had volunteered to assist him. Raulin had thought it a fair trade, since he was doing it pro bono to make sure the council member wasn’t plotting Tel’s murder.
As most of the city of Nourabrikot was actually outdoors, the meeting Raulin had learned about was going to be in a rather open section of woods with little to cover him. Tel assured him that this wouldn’t be a problem. And it hadn’t been. The two of them were practically invisible in the brush. Holding his hand out in front of him, Raulin had found it difficult to find. He’d been almost too fascinated by it to pay attention to what was said at the meeting.
Here, again, he was amazed at how well he blended in to the surroundings. His hand appeared to become the leaves and branches, though he was still a man of flesh and blood crouched inside a bush. Tel was behind a nearby tree, and if he hadn’t known where he was, he wouldn’t have been able to see him. His magic would have been a great asset in the hedge maze theft…
Raulin’s mask helped, too, but the fire from the camp threw off his seeing-in-the-dark ability. He was also relying more on Tel’s ability to sense people than he was at finding them himself. He crept over to his friend and whispered, “Locations?”
“Three by the fire. Two not far in that direction,” he said, pointing west. “Another one just over there, a little farther from the fire.”
Raulin’s stomach clenched for a moment. He didn’t want to ask, but he had to know. “What are the two over there doing?”
“Sitting across from each other. Talking, I would assume.”
He felt the tension leave his jaw and throat. “Any of them have a coin?”
Telbarisk paused in thought. “They all have coins on them in pouches by their sides. Not the two over there, but the other four.”
“All right. I’m going to assume that those two are Anla and the half-elf I saw in the tavern. His role in what might happen is a gamble; I don’t know if he will help her or hurt her, so I need you to come up with a way to nullify him if he tries to hurt her.”
“I don’t think I can stop him using his magic, if it’s the same as Anladet’s.”
“No, and I don’t expect you to. Just keep him busy or incapacitated. Now, if I were leading a group, I’d probably stick with them, to make sure everyone was behaving. That leaves those three by the fire; the older guy, the young one, and the well-dressed one. I’d lean towards the latter; leaders get the most money and that one obviously has the money to dress well. We’ll need to wait until they’re asleep, anyway, before I can take their coins.”
“We’re robbing them?”
“I’m assuming that the coin Anla said I should steal is in one of the pouches. It’s unfortunately going to take me an awful long time to figure out which one of those is the right one. I’ll return the rest to them, minus whatever they stole from Anla. And, of course, a slight fee for inconvenience. That’s all.”
“So, we’re robbing them.”
“No…we’re just…yes, we’re robbing them. Let’s circle around and have a little chat with our lone man over there. And by ‘little chat’ I mean interrogation at knife point.”
They took their time, moving from tree to bush to boulder, until they were feet away from the fourth man. He leaned against a tree, a crossbow resting on his lap, listening for highwaymen and predatory animals far less dangerous than a very angry and very skilled trirec.
At least, skilled in combat. Skulking he was pretty proficient in, but since most of his skulking was done in the city, he wasn’t an expert in woodland craft. This was evidenced by slipping on some fallen leaves and landing noisily on the ground.
A bright, white flash went across Raulin’s vision and he jerked to the side instinctively, a bolt kissing the air next to his head. He froze for only a second before taking Axiom Fifty-Six (“an archer reloading cannot be an archer brandishing another weapon”) into account and rushing the man. The archer did abandon winding the contraption sooner than Raulin had expected, but he wasn’t very good at knife fighting. A few slashes and the man dropped his knife.
The archer was taking a breath to yell when Raulin slipped in behind him, pulled his knife against his throat, and said, “Hi. Speak and you’ll be the newest addition to the blood choir. Fight and I’ll make sure you’ll go in the soprano section.”
The man swallowed and nodded his head in understanding, slowly and carefully.
“Good. Did you get a good look as to what I am?” There was a small shake of the head. “I am a trirec.” He took a risky moment to tap his mask with the knife at the man’s throat, making a slight metallic ting. “Can you guess why I’m here in your camp, with a knife to your throat?” Another shake of the head. “I am guarding a few people. The other two aren’t your concern, but the fourth is. Do you know who that is?”
“The girl?” he asked quietly and hoarsely.
“The girl, yes. I’m glad you’re a smart man. Smart men understand the stakes better than stupid men. Or brave men. You aren’t one of those, I hope.” The former archer shook his head. “Smart and self-preserving. Excellent. Now, there are three men sitting by the fire. Which one of them is the Man With the Coin?”
The man’s shoulders dropped a little. “Casquio. He’s the older one with the hat.”
“There were two men with hats.”
“One is young and wears a bowler. The other is older with a mustache and has a wide-brimmed hat.”
“And where is his coin?”
“Around his neck.”
“That’s the one he uses to control the baerds?” A nod of the head this time. “Good. Here’s how this is going to work out. I don’t care about your life; you peddle in flesh and that makes you less than human to me. However, you have given me information and I think that deserves to be rewarded. I am going to tie you up and gag you. Your money is forfeit, but I will let you keep your clothes, your boots, and your effects.” He picked up his knife and bow and tossed them aside. “I will return your knife to you, so that you may cut yourself loose, after I am finished. Tel?”
The man didn’t need much supervision as vines slowly curled around the tree, around him, and around his mouth, holding a handkerchief in place. “I hope he’s been in good health lately,” Raulin said to Tel.
The man’s eyes flickered over to Telbarisk and widened as he flinched. “I never know if they’re more afraid of me or you.”
“If they’re smart, it would be me,” Raulin responded. “All right. Older man in the hat with a mustache. Wait. One, two, thr…. Oooone, twooo… Tel, where’s the third man? The one that was dressed well?”
Tel closed his eyes. “There’s now one person sitting where there were two and two people have moved to the west, walking.”
“Nice of him to make ‘divide and conquer’ easier for us. Let’s go.”
The farther from the fire they went, the harder it was to see them and the easier it was for Raulin to spot movement in the now dark forest. He put out a stiff arm and stopped Telbarisk from moving forward when he saw two figures in between the trees, one about his height and the other slighter and shorter by about eight inches. They stood facing each other, the taller one almost lumbering towards the shorter one, who was stepping backwards. Though her posture was confident for most, Raulin could sense that Anla was uncomfortable by the way her head turned back and forth and by the way her fists clenched at her side.
When she finally ran out of room and bumped into a tree trunk, the man in the bowler hat closed the distance between them and yanked her jaw up to kiss her. There could have been a small army with lances and bows between them and Raulin would have forgotten everything but those two. He spanned the thirty or so feet in seconds, flipped the man’s hat off, and yanked his head back by his hair hard before pressing his knife to his throat.
The man’s hands dropped from Anla’s jaw and chest and he stepped back with Raulin, making a muffled “gah” sort of noise as blood trickled down his neck from the pressure of the knife. “Hi, Anla,” Raulin said.
“Hi, Raulin.” Her voice sounded steady, but there was a slight hitch and waver he picked up on.
“Did I interrupt anything?”
“For him, I’m sure you did.” She adjusted her shirt. “He thought I was going to tumble with him in the hopes that he’d…what was it? Buy me? No, it’s was kill the rest of the crew and take possession of the coin.”
“You agreed,” Ripole said.
“No, I bought time.”
“On your knees,” Raulin said and Ripole slowly sank to the ground. “Anla? What would you like to do with him? Your call.”
“He has a substantial amount of money on him. I know; I stole his purse.”
“Bitch,” he said. In return, she spat on his face.
“That’s not for me,” she said. “That’s for all the other girls you promised to help and then abandoned. Apologize.”
He turned to the side, his jaw tight and his right eye closed from the saliva. “She’s given you the choice, fancy boy. You apologize or you die.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Tie him up,” she said. “Take his things.”
“Yes, mezzem,” he said and she was surprised to find how calming the sobriquet was to her.
She turned and saw Telbarisk walk towards them, ran to him, then hugged him. “Thank you for coming,” she said.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes. We need to finish this.”
Ripole was forced against the tree and Telbarisk used kil to curl the tree around his wrists and ankles. He had started screaming when the first lick of bark tasted his flesh, but Anla had wisely used her silence spell around them. She took delight at opening his coin purse, dumping the spoils into her own knapsack, then shoving it into his mouth before letting Tel gag him with a vine.
“Mezzem, who do we take out next?”
“Sakilei…” she said. “Raulin, don’t hurt him. We just need to incapacitate him for a little while.”
“This the guy who kidnapped you?”
“Yes, but…it’s complicated.”
“All right.” He looked back to the fire, then swore. “We’re missing one of the…”
“Raulin?” Tel asked. Both the trirec and Anla turned to see the scout, Akmillan, with his knife to the grivven’s back.
Raulin started to move towards him when he heard the click of a crossbow being cocked. He turned and saw the Man With the Coin slipping a bolt into the bow and lifting it to aim. “You’ve lost,” he said “Down on your knees.”
Anla took three quick steps and stood in front of Raulin. “I’d rather die than have you take me to New Wextif.”
“I’m sure you would, but you still have to obey me. Move away from him.”
Anla made a frustrated growl in her throat as she moved to the side. Raulin took the opportunity to run behind the scout and press his own knife to his back.
“That was stupid,” Casquio said. “I can still shoot your tall friend here.”
“Yes, but that bolt will travel through him and into your kid, here. Both will die.”
“She’s worth a lot of money. I can retire on the amount she’ll bring me. And, if not, I can always get another scout.”
Raulin felt the blond man stiffen when he heard those words. “Greed always trumps loyalty,” Raulin said in the young man’s ear.
“He won’t shoot me,” Akmillan said.
“Are you so sure about that? I’d imagine a thousand gold sale would only be sweeter split fewer ways.”
“Tel, amarink dialek ta sian avrio lidrik lo balanta re?”
“Good. Do it and then I’ll count.”
“What are you two jabbering on about?” Casquio asked.
The wind picked up, the trees beginning to sway in a fierce and sudden breeze. “Three,” Raulin said, “two, one…”
It happened in less than a fraction of a moment. Tel stepped forward, away from Akmillan, just as Raulin stepped to the side. Casquio shot his crossbow, stunned for a moment when it missed Telbarisk completely, who had moved to the side, and sank in the throat of Akmillan. The scout tried to stagger forward, but his feet were planted to the ground, his ankles wrapped with vegetation.
“Tel! Tel, are you okay?” Raulin asked.
“Yes,” he replied, a little shaken, but unharmed save for a graze from the bolt on his arm.
“Good,” Raulin said as he crossed the distance to the Man With the Coin. He spurred to action, trying to reload the crossbow, but couldn’t get his hands coordinated in time to cock the weapon. Raulin tackled him, sending him sprawling backwards towards the fire.
“I want the coin,” he said, both knives at the man’s throat as he straddled him. “I’ll take it from your corpse if I have to.”
Casquio took a moment, then cautiously raised his hands to his neck and undid the clasp, handing him the necklace. Raulin tucked it into his belt and moved off the bounty hunter, still holding his knives close to the man’s chest. “What are you going to do?” Casquio asked.
“I came here to get Anla back. I am freeing your captives and taking your valuables, so that you’ll find it difficult to come after us. This is mercy. You are no better than a slaver, and I should kill you for what you’ve done.”
“The law…” he began. “We are sanctioned by the king to do this…”
“I’m a trirec. Please guess as to how much I care about laws and regal decrees. Tel, let’s make it uncomfortable for this man. I’m thinking the rocks.”
Casquio collapsed back, fully supine and defeated. Tel moved a large rock to the man’s right wrist, shaping the stone into a cuff that laid too heavy for him to lift his arm.
“How will I get out of this?” he asked. “You said ‘mercy’.”
“I’m giving your archer his knife back. He should be able to free your fancy boy next. The two of them might be able to crawl to a stead or a town and find someone with a sledgehammer who’ll be willing to break your chains for you. I’d hope for your sake they’re very precise or else you’ll walk away with some broken bones.”
Raulin thought he heard a pained breath escape from the bounty hunter, until he looked up and saw the noise had come from the half-elf from that night in the tavern. “Do you have the coin?” he asked Raulin.
“It’s in my belt…” he started to say before Sakilei ran to Casquio’s side and yanked the knives from Raulin’s hands.
“Sakilei,” Anla said. “Revenge is permanent. Think about what you’re doing before you’re doing it.”
“I have,” he said, giving no hesitation before plunging one of the knives into Casquio’s belly. Raulin jumped away as the man gave an odd yell somewhere between laughter and anguish.
Tel put the rock down and helped Raulin stand as Sakilei wreaked carnage on the hunk of flesh that quickly turned from body to corpse. “If you ever see your brother-in-law again,” Raulin said to Anla, “I’ll tell him ‘cattle’ or whatever makes the best mincemeat.”
Sakilei stopped, catching his breath in heaves. He wiped the blades on the bottom of Casquio’s pants, really the only accessible cloth remaining that wasn’t soaked in blood, and silently handed Raulin his knives back. He wiped the splattering of blood off his face and said, “I serve.”
“Is that part of the ‘serving’?” Raulin asked, nodding his head towards the mangled corpse.
“I was with him for over a decade. He made me do some despicable things that I couldn’t even say ‘no’ to. So long as you don’t make me do the same, I won’t touch you.”
“That’s…good to know. I’d hate to free you then have you attack me for it.”
“Free?” he asked.
“Yes. You and Anla come over to the fire.”
The four of them sat down, Sakilei still looking gruesome with speckles and smears of dark blood across his face. Raulin took the coin from his belt and held it up. The echoes of what Al said of what kind of power they had, and what kind of power he now had over their magic, crossed his mind. He knew what he would do with it. Just one night, he thought, which turned his stomach immediately. The temptation burned, but he wanted her, not some thrall of her. All or nothing.
“What do I do?” he asked Sakilei. “I don’t want to miss anything.”
“I think you have to say who you are and that you are now the new Man With the Coin. Then, dismiss all bindings we have. Tell us we can use all of our magic again, tell us we no longer have to obey the Man With the Coin, tell us…tell us we are free.”
“What do I do with this?” he asked, holding up the coin. “If someone finds it in the fire or buried, they could seek you out and enslave you again.”
“It’s just a symbol and has no magic of its own. Tell us it means nothing and it will.”
“All right. My name is Raulin Kemor and I am the new Man With the Coin…”
After five minutes of intense instructions that he consulted Telbarisk on, he threw the chain and coin into the fire. “You’re free now. There is no longer a Man With the Coin.”
“Thank you,” Anla said. “And thank you for coming for me, us.”
Sakilei let a breath out, ragged and full of an emotion no one there would ever understand. He buried his head into his knees for a few moments, then lifted his head. “What do I do now?”
“Well, we need to finish a few loose ends here,” Raulin said, standing. “Then, we’re going back to our camp to rest. It’s been…a tiring night. Anla?”
“You are welcome to join us.”
He nodded and stood, immediately going to Casquio’s tent and removing everything inside.
Raulin returned to the archer, picking up the knife. He looked at the knife, his eyes widening before speaking. “Ah yuh fugu afha! Yuh kid deh!”
“Hey, I’m just giving you the knife like I promised. And though you have to reason to believe me, your leader shot the kid and then the half-elf took care of him. Thought I should warn you; it’s a pretty grizzly scene.
“The fancy boy is tied up not far from here. It’s up to you if you want to free him or not. As a bit of advice, I’d think twice about reporting us to the authorities. I’m letting you live today, but I may reconsider that in the future.”
He put the knife in the archer’s lap and headed back to the group. “Where’s Al?” Anla asked. “I’m surprised he wasn’t here.”
Raulin sighed, too exhausted to explain. “You can ask him yourself. I’ve had my fill of that situation and I’d rather just go back to the camp.”