9-1

“They were sisters!” Al said. “Can you believe it?”

“Hmm?” Anla said. She shifted her focus from the puddle of water on the bar back to Al. “Oh, wow. That’s…quite a situation.”

“I know!” he said, dinging his mug with his fingertips. He stopped to consider this for a moment, then continued. “Aggie figured it out, though. He made sure to date one girl in Brace Square and the other ‘cross town in Quiet Park. It worked, ’til the sisters got t’gether and talked and stuff one night and…well…”

She leaned her cheek on her fist, her gaze again drifting. Anla had counted the bottles under the bar several times now, her mind fixated on one with a peeling label. It had a faded orange print that she had been trying to read for a good hour and a half. She thought it said “Small Patch Bye”, but that made no sense. It must be rye, but what was the middle word?

“…fights that were ever seen in Whitney. I didn’t know women had so much…stuff that went under their clothin’. They ripped each other down to petticoats and corsets, ripped out the others curls. People just stopped to watch in the square…But. Oh!” Al put his hand on Anla’s arm and she looked back at him. “Not me. Not me! I looked away! It was embarrassin’. And my wife wouldn’t like it, but she wasn’t there. She woulda known, though, and I woulda been in trouble.”

Wife? Anla thought, her eyebrows raised.  That deserved a long conversation, but she said nothing. It was not the right time.  It wasn’t really the right time for anything, not with that much wine and beer on an empty stomach. Hoping not to hear any more about Aggie, she changed the subject. “I hope everything’s all right. They’ve been out there a long time.”

Al patted her arm. “They’re fine. ‘Member that Raulin is a super thief and he can…he can steal anythin’.” He snorted. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I hired him to steal somethin’ that wasn’t possible? Raulin, I want you to steal the sun!” He started laughing at his joke. “I want a cloud souffle baked next to the sun and sprinkled with some hail. Steal me that!”

“You have the money to hire him?”

“Nooooo, but…I was just bein’ funny. Wouldn’t it be funny if he looked at his stupid book and he read his next job and was all ‘Damn it! I can’t steal this! This is crazy!’.”

“Sure, Al,” she said.

The bartender put a shot of whiskey down in front of her. “I didn’t order this,” Anla said.

“I know. It’s on the house. I thought it might help.”

She mouthed a thanks and downed it.

“Another time Aggie was datin’ this woman named Astinia. Beautiful, but she was a little off her chump. She came down to Milxner’s one day, ready to give…”

Anla’s attention shifted immediately when she heard the heavy footsteps of someone coming down the stairs to the bar. When she saw the person ducking, she jumped off the stool and grabbed her backpack.

“Uhh?” Al said, turning around. “Oh, Tel! Hiiii!”

“We are ready to go,” he said. “Unless you want to stay a little…?”

“No,” Anla said quickly, running to staircase.

Al managed to remember to settle the tab. Before he left, Anla heard the bartender say, “Usually there’s dining along with the wining. Try that next time.”

“It’s almost night out!” she exclaimed when she popped out onto the street.

She was about to ask Tel what took them so long when she saw Raulin leaning against a building across the way. He unfolded his arms, stood, and sauntered over in that cavalier way of walking she remembered he’d had prior to Iascond. She looked up at Telbarisk. With a slight smile, a tiny shrug, and a quick quirk of his eyebrows, he told her what she had been hoping to see.

“How?” she whispered.

“Some other time. He just needed to take off his mask and use it to reflect upon things.”

What happened during this contract? she wondered. as she walked over to follow him. Thoughts and possibilities raced through her mind. Did he have to kill someone else? Did he see something barbaric? What if the owners of what he had to steal were destitute and pleaded with him not to steal it, but he still had to?

“How was your evening, mezzem?” Raulin asked, stepping in next to her.

“It was great,” Al said, catching up to the rest of the group. “I was talkin’ about my friend Aggie and all the bizarre tales of his life. Y’know, come to think of it, he reminds me a lot of Telbarisk.”

“Aggie reminds you of Tel?” Anla asked. “How?

“Well, they’re both big guys. They’re both great friends.”

“But, Aggie sounds like…an ass! He sleeps with a lot of women, even though he’s married, and hurts a lot of people. You, too, Al. He kept dragging you into his messes and expected you to fix them. That doesn’t sound like Tel at all.”

Al stopped walking and thought about this, looking like a wharf with too many fishing boats. “I don’t think I can explain it.”

“How many drinks did he have?” Raulin asked quietly.

Anla blew air out of her mouth, rustling the hair that was in her face. “Five, I think. It may have been six.”

“And you?”

“I’m fine,” she said.  Three glasses of wine and a shot of whiskey had almost done her in.

It may have been more waspish than she intended, since Raulin’s tone softened. “I’m just asking because you and he seem a little…cup-shotten. And I think it’s going to be a bad idea to stay here tonight. My questions were to figure out how far we can go and what would be the best direction.”

“A little less than normal for me. Al…I think a few miles. Perhaps two people standing on either side would help.”

“All right,” he said, laughing lightly, before leading the group north past the castle. “We’ll find a place not far from here. We’re going to need extra security tonight: two watching, two sleeping. I’d rather we wait until we set up camp to discuss the finer points.”

And now her curiosity burned. “Shouldn’t we double-back, to throw off anyone who see us leave?” she asked.

“There would be no point if they use the hounds.”

Hounds? She had to physically bite her tongue to keep herself quiet.

They had the calendar on their side, it being only a little over a week since the solstice. They traveled the road easterly until they couldn’t see the lines of their hands in front of their faces, which was close to nine o’clock. Tel pointed out a flat, secluded spot on the side of hill that had better defenses than most sites would.

Anla volunteered to stay up for the first half of the night. She took the opportunity to do laundry, noting that Raulin’s shirt needed it badly. With a fire shielded behind some pines roaring, the clothes hanging from a line, and a warm supper in her belly, Anla sat next to Raulin and stared into the flames.

Al hadn’t even bothered with his tent; he had passed out on his bedroll as soon as it was unfurled. Telbarisk was sitting cross-legged on top of his some distance away, breathing deeply. It almost seemed as if he were asleep.

Raulin snapped out of his trance and turned towards her. “They hired me and several other trirecs to hunt, you see. Like deer or boars. We escaped and turned the tables on them, capturing the marquess and tying up several of his men. They are trained marksmen; they shot Thenik when he was sprinting to the woods. So, I expect that if they do want to enact revenge on me, they’ll be coming for us tonight. They’ll bring hounds and as many men as the marquess can gather. Either that or he’ll leave me alone. I get the feeling that, with his level of detail and precision, the marquess isn’t a man to do things halfway. He’s either a force or a farce at this point.”

“They hunted you?” Anla asked quietly.

“Yes.”

“Like…like an animal?”

“Yes,” he said, hanging his head for a moment.

Anla tucked her feet underneath her so she that she was kneeling and hugged him. “I am so sorry,” she said. It took him a moment, but he returned the hug, wrapping his arms around her perfectly and comfortably. She discovered that she liked hugging him.

“Thank you,” he said when she moved away, “but I’m the one who should be saying he’s sorry. I do apologize. I shouldn’t have read your letter. I shouldn’t have confronted you about its contents and I should definitely not have forced you to say what you did. I know as much as anyone else what survival means and the tough choices people have to make. I didn’t judge you on your past trials then and I don’t know. Still, what I did was vile and rotten. Please forgive me.”

Anladet sat for a moment, staring at the flames. She hadn’t thought she would ever get a direct apology from Raulin. If things had ever returned to some semblance of normal, she assumed it would be gradual and far from this day. When it came to that part of her life, she had grown a callus to people’s thoughts on the matter. She liked Raulin. Having someone she actually liked shame her over it had ripped away some of her defenses. It had been more painful than she would have thought.

So, she hadn’t been prepared for this moment. She knew she would forgive him and not even because it was best in light of the chalice spell’s rules. But, how exactly would she forgive him? She had an idea and gave him a devilish smile.

“I think I’m going to take a page from your book. It hurt, what you did and said, but it is something I’m prepared to forgive you over. However, in good faith, I would like two things from you. One, I want to know what brought you to the decision to do that.  I assume it’s whatever happened in Iascond.  And two, I want to hear something equally as shameful about the same subject. I know you claim to be quite the paramour, but I’m sure there must be something you’d rather not admit.”

“Hmm,” he said. “I’d rather wait on the first, if you don’t mind.”

“I didn’t say you had to do it right now.”

“Thank you. The second…sure, I suppose we could both use a good laugh.

“As I said before, Arvarikor prefers to use their students’ negatives and turn them into positives. One of those are the needs young teenagers feel and that drive them later on in life. Unlike other organizations, they don’t restrict tumbling with people. In fact, they encourage that as a way to obtain information when spying.

“They began giving us the bitter tea I’ve grown used to drinking long before they started telling us thirteen-year-olds about seduction. Not the actual techniques and whatnot; you don’t teach eggs how to fly. They would just…hint at things to come. Then they established rules. Then they nonchalantly gave everyone a lesson in the basics, tucked in between the proper uses of a shisham knife and the correct way to navigate a parapet, and dismissed us early. In fact, they gave us extra leisure time for a full week to pursue our new interests.

“I am not attractive by Merakian standards. What drives those women crazy is whipcord muscles, a rich, even, bronze and copper tan, and a rippling power to a walk like a bottled thunderstorm. And there I was, gangly, awkward, pale Raulin. I held out some measure of cautious optimism that some girl would find me interesting enough for a tumble, but no one approached me by the end of the first day. Nor the second, nor the third. The fourth day, however, I was enjoying the nice spring weather when one of the older girls sized me up and dragged me to a bush. I forgot any of the lessons or tips I had heard some of the other guys trade and was pathetically quick. I stammered an apology, hoping she’d give me another shot the next day or later on, but she rolled her eyes. ‘I didn’t pick you because I like you. I plan on transferring to Noh Amair and thought it would be smart to try one out, to see what they’re like.’ She stood up, brushed off her clothes, and said, ‘Not really worth the tea.’”

“Aw,” she said, laughing a little. “That’s a little funny, but poor little Raulin.”

“Poor little Raulin accepts your pity. I’m sure he would have loved it.”

“So that’s what ‘not worth the tea’ means, huh?”

“I’ve grown into quite the suave gentleman. I can’t accept invitations from all the ladies who clamor for my attention.”

“Suave and humble. Such a dashing combination.”

“I am honored you noticed. If you’d like, we can speak more about my wonderful qualities.”

Anla laughed, then put her hand on his arm. “I’m glad you’re back. I missed these little talks.”

“You mean laughing at me?”

“No, you know that.  I miss talking to you about anything.”

Subjects were changed several times over the next few hours.  When Telbarisk and Al came to switch shifts, she was actually sad that the night was half over.

8-11

Now that the job was complete, it was time for Raulin to return to normal.  As he traveled down the road to Miachin from the marquess’s estate, he waited for the congratulatory glow he’d get from jobs like that one, ones where no one was killed and he had won.  The marquess’s nose was broken, metaphorically, his team almost pissing themselves to save him, and his two compatriots were taken care of.  On top of all that, he’d made two hundred extra gold, though he’d have to surrender half of that to Arvarikor.

But, there was no spring in his step and no smile on his face.  In fact, an icy chill had crept up his spine, seeping onto his skin and forming a cold, numb sheath.  He felt his neck, his fingertips feeling sweat and a racing pulse.

Kobit had died.  He regretted that.  If Raulin hadn’t slipped, he’d still be alive. He’d lost people before and had never felt the tremors that were shaking his hands, nor the difficulty in breathing.

The marquess was still alive.  He might regret that.  Hopefully the man lacked the pride that demanded retribution and was smart enough to be more covert and less daring in the future.  He might not be, though.  He might be mounting a hunting party this instant that would scour the woods for the three trirecs that dared best him.  It would explain the eerie pressure he had between his shoulder blades, the one that kept shifting depending on where he thought the arrow was going to lodge into his back.

He thought that perhaps that was justified.  He kept seeing men in the woods. Men high on branches, men behind trees, men jumping up from the brush. Every few moments his peripheral vision promised an attack that didn’t come and at almost a mile down the road, he was starting to grow tired.

Why am I like this? Did they drug me somehow? he wondered. He knew of some poisons that would explain his issues, like one that made your heart race until exploded or another that caused rapid chills that persisted until you died of hypothermia, even in the hot sun.  When, though, could they have poisoned him?  He hadn’t touched the sword.  His gloves and mask had been on for most of the time.  He hadn’t been shot.

His breathing grew shallower.  His head felt oddly heavy and woozy.  He began to stumble.  I should feel fine! I did everything I set out to do! 

The mask was constricting.  He couldn’t get enough air.  He ripped off his gloves.  He fingered the top of his arong-miil, trying to loosen it.

He was going to collapse.  He moved to a patch in the woods, running, running through the bushes and brush, over fallen logs and stones until he couldn’t breath anymore. He ripped off his mask, sat on the ground, and curled into a ball.  He shook.  He hugged himself.  He would give anything in that moment if his mother were next to him.

Time passed. It wasn’t quite dark out, but it was dark for him. Doubts plagued his mind, all the normal ones that he usually could address and push away when he was done thinking about them. His heart still raced and his breathing still shallow and fast. There were times he suspected he passed out, but he had no dreams and no safe way of telling.

And then there was someone near him, next to him, sitting and leaning against the tree. He was split as to whether he wanted to run screaming or stay a mess there.  The person didn’t say anything.  The person didn’t do anything.  He waited, and so did Raulin.

He had moved heavy footed through the forest, but had been quiet as well.  Unless elk learned to walk on two legs, the man beside him was Telbarisk. He didn’t know what to do or say. There was too much, too much to apologize for or tell him. He should tell him to go away. He should be pushing him away.

“If you need to speak to someone, I’ll be available,” Tel said.

Raulin wanted to say something, but it was so hard.  He opened his eyes and brought his hand in front of him, still shaking.  He mopped the sweat from his face and wiped it on his outfit.

Say you’re sorry.  Say you’ll do better.  Say there are men coming.  Say something.

But, he couldn’t say anything.  He was still the guard, the man who couldn’t be friends with the miartha he had to protect.  Afren was right.  If he kept his distance for the rest of their year together, he’d be able to break away from them painlessly.

And he had believed that was the right choice, until the moment he realized he needed them.  He couldn’t be the silent guard.  It didn’t fit him.  It was selfish.  He’d have to hurt them, over and over again, to make them keep their distance.  Sure, the wizard had been easy and  Anla likely hated him, too.  But, Telbarisk wouldn’t give up.  His presence there, in that moment, was a testament to that fact.  He wasn’t going to shake them and he didn’t want to.

It was still at least several minutes before Raulin spoke. “I feel like I’m falling apart,” he heard himself say.

“This is a different feeling for you?” Tel asked in his baritone voice, something rich and deep and comfortable and familiar.

“Yes.” It hurt to talk, but it felt good at the same time.

Tel said nothing. He waited, maybe a minute, maybe ten before Raulin said, “I was hunted today. Like an animal. He paid us to run around his hedge maze and steal a sword. And when we touched it, they fired arrows on us. One of my brothers died in my arms. Another was shot through the leg. We managed to win, but I can’t help but feel like they’re still coming after me.”

“They aren’t,” he said. “There is no one around here for some distance. A few deer, some sleeping raccoons, but no men.  I’m sure of it.”

For a brief moment the tension released.  It came back, but the momentary relief had been beautiful. “Why can’t I let this go?”

“I think, perhaps, it’s because you’ve had too many of these to let go. In the last two months you have been the sole survivor of a shipwreck, were arrested and imprisoned, escaped from that, were told you were bound to three people for a year, were hunted, and had to kill…your mentor?…and two other men. That is so much more than one man should have to deal with in a lifetime.  Then, this today, a disgusting display of the dark way people can treat each other.  Pick one of those and a man has a tale to tell his grandchildren, with a life full of time to deal with it.  Pick all and you have the makings of an internal crisis.”

“It’s what I do, though,” he said, but he sounded doubtful. “We are trained to deal with this.  I move on from bringing death and chaos.”

“I’ve been considering that for some time. I know that we’ve never discussed your differences, even though you looked very different from the other trirecs, but I think we should. You are human. You are not Merakian, despite your training and years living there. And yet, you live your life as if you were. You expect things from yourself that perhaps a human cannot take.

“You aren’t anything like them. You told me that yourself. You prided yourself in the fact that the other trirecs were always strictly business. They didn’t make friends. They didn’t enjoy life. You did and it filled you with a sense of purpose. I think I can safely say it made you Raulin. And now you are trying to be like them and I see it’s not working. You seem miserable. I don’t know why you’ve chosen to shut us out, but we want to be there for you. We want to help.”

“He said it was the best way. If I shut you out now, if I shut her out now, it wouldn’t be so painful when the year ends.”

“Who is ‘he’? Was this your mentor?”

He raised his head, but didn’t turn to see him. “How did you know what happened with him?”

“The three of us pieced it together, though we were unsure if we were correct.”

“I killed him, Tel. I took his sacrificial knife and slit his throat, the same man who was like a father to me. Who does that? What monster kills the people he loves?”

“This is what your order does to you. They put you in a position where you must kill or be killed. You’re absolved from your guilt because you are ‘just the tool of balance’ or whatever phrase you’ve said to me that I know you don’t fully believe. And you return, for more. More stealing, more killing, more guilt. More opportunity for your circumstances to erode who you are and make you more like them.”

“I have no choice, Tel. I have to fulfill my contracts.”

“I’m not saying it’s a ‘do or don’t do’ choice. If you feel you have to fulfill them, then do so. I will still be here by your side. But, don’t do them their way; do them your way. Don’t assume that they, even your mentor, know the best way for you to live as a trirec. You are not like them. Listen to what works for you and do that.”

He held his hand out and felt Tel’s large, warm hand envelop his and squeeze. He let out a breath, sat up, and put on his mask again, noticing that it wasn’t as dark as he had thought it would be. “I still have to play by some rules, but perhaps you’re right. It meant something to me to save Thenik and Jakith, and even Kobit, though he was killed. All three would have left me to fend for myself, because that’s what we’re taught. Isken is right; if we learned to work together, things wouldn’t be so complicated and cold.

“I won’t be able to do what I truly want, Tel, but I can do something in the middle. First, let me apologize.”

“There is no need,” Tel said.

“Let me do it anyway,” Raulin said, turning towards him. “I said some things that were harsh and particularly cruel. I know you miss your family and Kelouyan and it was cutting to bring them up the way I did. I’m sorry for every word.”

“You are forgiven. Would you like to stay here for the night?  I can set up camp and watch over you.”

Raulin stood, brushing the grass and dirt off his clothes. After the maze, it was a hopeless cause, but he still wanted to try.  His skin still felt glass cold, but his pulse was lower and he could take deep breaths without gasping for the next. “I would like to stay here. Arvarikor would say I needed to return to my employers hours ago. My middle ground will be to fetch Al and Anla and set up camp south of here, so we can make our way back to the Birchik Highway.”

Tel stood and smiled. “Lead the way.”

8-10

As they had been taught, they made their path irregular. They zigged and zagged, they made wide curves in their paths. Anything to upset the assumptions an archer needed to predict a simple path. Animals bolted in a straight line and, as Raulin wished the hunters knew, they weren’t animals.

Lightning flashed across his vision, the same as in the wine merchant’s house in Iascond, and he instinctively dropped to a roll. An arrow whizzed by, right where his torso would have been a moment earlier. He stalled only for a moment to collect his bearings and launched forward once again, lungs, legs, and anger burning.

Skill and luck, however, tipped the balance in favor of the hunters. Thenik was in front of Raulin’s right. He zigged and was still shot clean through his calf. He hopped, slowing himself down so he didn’t trip.

Raulin saw Thenik was only feet from the edge of the forest. He moved behind him, tackled him, and the two rolled  into the woods. As soon as he recovered, he yanked the trirec by his collar and dragged him behind a tree.

The three looked at each other, shoulders heaving, nerves frazzled, eyes wide. “I’ve never been great at medicine. What do…what do we do for Thenik?

He saw the unspoken answer cross Jakith’s eyes: leave him, he’s a liability to us and Arvarikor now. But, instead, he said, “We need to snap the arrow, pull it through, and care for heavy bleeding. This will take time we do not have right now. Why are they still hunting us?”

Raulin had been questioning the same thing. “I didn’t know the rules. I think someone needed to complete the contract and we left the sword. I’m sorry.”

Jakith sucked in a growling breath and paced, his hands clenching hard at his sides. He stopped suddenly. “No use crying over piss in the milk bucket.”

“Thank you, but we still need to act. Those cries they yelled mean they will still hunt us.” He turned the corner and no longer saw the party of men on the roof. “We don’t have many choices. We can’t run with a crippled man.” Raulin couldn’t run all over the woods anyway, possibly reaching the end of the invisible leash with Telbarisk.

“We give up,” Thenik said, dismayed.

Raulin snapped his head to the trirec. “We will not give up. I’d rather die. We can return to the maze and complete it, now that most of the men are gone. We can hide. Or, we can make our last stand.”

“Take the fight to them? Hunt them instead?” Jakith asked, hopeful.

“Don’t sound so eager,” he said, though he was smiling. “All right. Let’s turn this estate into a chicken coop.”

* * *

Sweat dripped down Raulin’s neck, down his back, soaking his clothes. He fiddled with his knife, Jakith’s rope laying next to him.

Course!” he heard some five hundred feet down the road. A bloodhound gave tongue, baying at the scent of an injured man. Another joined in, making Raulin wonder how one would train a bloodhound to hunt people. And why. Both thoughts caused him to shudder.

“Look, fellows. They abandoned him. See how he crawls in the thicket, desperate and afraid, like a screaming rabbit in a trap.”

The group came into view. Two men held the leashed hounds. There were six archers all together, quivers and bows slung on their backs. It was more than he had anticipated, but it wasn’t going to be an issue. All they needed was the marquess.

One-by-one he aimed his knife until a man with graying hair and a slight build caused his hand to cramp before he could throw. He had promised Jakith and Thenik that he could ferret out their target so long as they didn’t ask questions.

He waited. Sixty feet, fifty, forty, thirty…he could have done it at twenty, but decided that, since he had missed that record, he better stick with ten. He stood, stepped out, and threw.

The lasso was true and slipped over the marquess’s body. He yanked, tightening the rope, then pulled when the man went down, snapping his bow. “What…?” he yelled.

By the time the men realized their leader was gone, Raulin had him standing with a knife to his throat. “Hello there on the roof. Why are you shooting at us?”

The marquess struggled and Raulin’s wrist was killing him, but he had no intention of really harming the man. Three of the archers had knocked arrows and were pointing them in Raulin’s direction. Jakith ran out to shield Thenik, both knives drawn.

No one said anything for a few tense moments. “We’re at a stand-off, then,” Raulin said, breaking the silence. “You want to kill me for holding your marquess hostage and I want to kill your marquess for hosting this disgusting hunt for men.”

“He’s not the marquess,” one man said. “He’s just a hunter. I’m the marquess. Let him go and I promise to take his place.”

“Mmm,” Raulin said. “I think I have the right man. But, if you want to play these games, then I suppose you won’t mind if I slit his throat.”

“No,” another man said. He wore a spring green jerkin and brown breeches of superior cloth “He’s…he’s lying. Just don’t kill him.”

“Now we’re at an even playing field. I have what you want and you can give us what we want in exchange. Let’s open negotiations.”

“What do you want?” the man in green and brown said.

“You’re asking a thief what he wants? What do you think we want?”

“Money? We have none on us.”

“That would be odd if you did. I would have already stolen it, anyway. Here’s what we want. A horse, six hundred gold, a doctor, and additional assurances.”

“What assurances?”

“The game is finished, children. Done. Say it.” They looked at each other and mumbled. “Say it!

“It’s done!” the man said again.

“You, too,” Raulin said, gritting his teeth as he pressed the knife into the marquess’s throat.

“I officially close the games,” he said between deep breaths.

“You will not hunt any trirec ever again, or you will feel the full wrath of one hundred men invading your lands in secret. We will come at night, in the shadows, from the forests, and we will pick off your families one-by-one. Your heirs, your wives, your daughters first. Then, when you cretins re-marry, your new wives and your swaddling infants. We will kill your mistresses, your dalliances, your favorite whores, and all the illegitimate children you’ve had by them. We will kill your nephews, your nieces, your siblings, your aunts and uncles, your parents, your cousins. We will not care who they are and how much they can bribe us. Then, when you are finally alone, when no one will go near you, when your seed rots in your groin and your line is barren, then we will come for you. Every. Man. Here.”

He was pleased to see a few of them had drawn pale at the consideration. “You have our word,” their spokesman said.

“Your word means nothing. Vile animals such as yourself never keep their word. Know that Arvarikor is watching you and you already owe them the lives of the men you killed today.”

“We forfeit,” he said, tossing his quiver and bow to the ground.

“You forfeit your right to revenge on this matter.”

“Yes, we swear!” he said, looking distraught.

“Because your word is pig tripe in a shoe trencher, I will be bringing your marquess back to his manor. You remaining five will be hogtied here. As soon as we get our horse and our gold and leave the estate, then will you have your rescue.”

“How long is that?” on man asked.

“I’d pray we’re not men that dawdle.” Raulin jerked his head to the right. “All weapons in a pile. Swords, bows, arrows, that little knife the man in white and gray has tucked into his boot.”

Raulin told Jakith to frisk each man after they turned in their weapons. “Now, I want each of you to pick a tree out of eyesight from each other and stand in front of it.”

“What are they doing?” Jakith asked.

“Tie them up,” he said, loosening the rope around the marquess and tossing it to them. “We should have just enough. Get creative; they don’t have to all be saddled to a tree.”

“I’ve heard of a knot where you tie a man to a branch by his arms, so that he’s just on his toes. If he relaxes, it tightens the rope to his wrists. The hands fall off, you see, unless he dances.”

“I’ll leave the orchestrations to you. Check to make sure Thenik is okay, then meet me back here.”

Raulin was half-convinced that there would be some trick, some daring rescue attempt while he walked the two houndsmen, the marquess, and Jakith back to the chateau. He realized it was the fear that spoke to that potential. The marquess was so assured of his lot in life that he had never considered he was playing with dangerous prey when he set up this hunt. He had never considered this happening, just like all nobles failed to see themselves as paupers or unfavored at court.

They were paid six hundred gold by a very flustered steward. His second groom was called, since his head was actually one of the marksmen tied in the forest, and a suitable mare was brought along as they marched back to the forest. And a timid man, whose hand shook as he corrected his spectacles, was sent with the group

“You said I’d be freed!” the marquess protested as he stumbled back down the road.

“I never said when. Did you think we were going to leave you in your chateau with all those servants at your beck and call? My back itches just thinking about it.”

The forest was as they had left it. The men were calling out to each other, having some sort of conversation over the turn of events. Thenik had moved a little to make himself more comfortable, but at least there hadn’t been any escapes.

Raulin shoved the marquess lightly and let him go. “Go tend to your men. Your staff will be by shortly with knives to cut them down. You and your men, and me and my men, are through. I am showing you great leniency by not killing you. Show me you have some honor, some integrity, by letting us leave.”

The doctor went to Thenik, who didn’t even scream when he pushed the arrow through. After it was cleansed and bound, Jakith carried Thenik to the horse. “I will pay you twenty gold to bring him to town and see that he cared for.”

Jakith titled his head for a moment. “And I will pay you twenty gold to negotiate our release and safety with the miartha.”

“Deal,” he said. “Be safe.”

Jakith jumped on the horse and helped Thenik up in front of him. He waved once before they trotted down the road out of sight.

And it was done. He disappeared into the woods, following along the road until he was clear of the estate. The farther he walked, the deeper he thought of the events. And the farther he walked, the more afraid he grew.

8-9

“Our objective is to survive to the edge of the maze,” Raulin said, mimicking how the trivren instructors laid out trainings back in Arvarikor.  “We must move swiftly and as a unit in order to fool the miartha up on the roof.  If we are moving down corridors that run west to east, we will belly crawl and keep close to the hedges, going underneath them if we can without delaying the group.  For walls that run south to north we will crouch over and run quietly and fast.  Always stay low.  We will cross this opening at the same time.”

Both Kobet and Jakith had watched him.  Neither challenged him.  Instead, they snapped their arms to their sides and stood to crouching.  Good, Raulin thought.  That was the hardest part.  The rest is easy.

He counted down and the three sprinted across the five foot opening at the same time. They caught there breaths on the other side and were relieved there were no arrows. “Step two done. Step three: make it to the southern entrance and into the corridor. We have a bit of a shadow that might help. Again, stay low and close to the shadows.”

Arvarikor had drilled dozens of ways of creeping and crawling into every trirec well before they began their noviceship. On his first day at the compound, Raulin had seen four-year-old children racing across a field and up a hill, waddling on their bellies as they crawled through the mud. The last child to touch the pole at the top had been forced to do it three more times, his forearms and thighs bloodied while his classmates rested. The instructor had yelled, over and over again, about how proper technique would, not could, one day be the difference between life and death.

He was right. It didn’t matter how undignified belly crawling looked or how dirty it got your clothes, it was the best way to stay low and still move. And the longer they kept out of sight, the better their chances. Raulin crouched down. “Modified belly,” he said, and dove down.

The bushes scratched along his head and back as he raced to the corner. He wished he knew where the precise point of where the tops of the hedges exposed the line, so he didn’t have to kill himself with a full powered sprint, but as is he was alive and mostly well.

He, si, kron, good,” he said once Kobet made it safely around the corner. They dusted themselves off as they walked along the wall. He paused when they reached the first turn and passed it.

“What about that way?” Jakith asked.

“No. We take the next right.”

“How do you know it’s the next one?” Kobit asked, curious instead of combative.

“I memorized my way in. And marked it, just in case I forgot. See?” Raulin said, pointing to a copper he picked up from underneath the corner of the hedge.

“They didn’t teach us that,” Jakith said, indignantly.

“Why would they? You have to learn better ways on your own.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“I’ve had to walk through plenty of complicated houses. I usually use chalk, since it’s cheaper, but I didn’t have any on me today.” The wizard had demanded his piece back days ago. “Okay, this is a switchback, so duck way down and get out of the corner.”

They went through five sets of those before arriving at the first node. As he had remembered, there was a spear, a helmet, and a shield the statue wore. The spear was propped awkwardly in the crook of the ap’s arm and the shield hung from its strap over the statue’s shoulder.

“This is going to be tricky. We need to…siyekla!” he shouted, wincing that he had given away their position.

Another trirec appeared from the southern entrance to the node and froze. “Who are you?’ he asked.

“Three other trirecs contracted to do the same as you. It’s a trap; we are all being hunted for sport. Take off your mask, stay low, and stay put until we can get to you.”

“I’m coming to you,” he said, after taking off his mask.

“You might get shot!” Raulin hissed.

The trirec didn’t listen and began running to the group.

“Get the shield!” Raulin said. Confused, the trirec looked to where Raulin was pointing, yanked the shield down, and brought it to the group.

“You’re lucky,” he said as the new trirec joined them. “Look up there.  Men are hunting us for sport.  We don’t know what puts someone in play and if we’re in already. We’re not taking any chances.”

The trirec stared at Raulin. “You’re Raulin Kemor!”

“I know.”

“You’re one of the top trirecs in the world! You still hold the record for the most consecutive lassos on a point at ten, thirty, forty, and sixty feet. You broke into Dachrin Castle and stole the tiara of the queen of Okil.”

“And here I thought Arvarikor didn’t like me.”

“Oh, they don’t. They do respect you, though.”

“Hmm. Well, at least my reputation is getting better with each new person I meet. Your name?”

“Thenik Mikelt,” he said. He would be eager to please. A donkey, a scaredy cat, and a puppy, Raulin thought. Quite the menagerie.

View holloa!” they heard moments before a scream came from the center of the maze.

Raulin hung his head for a moment. “We need to get out of here. I’m going to walk with you three to the south exit of this junction. Stay there and out of the way.”

He brought Thenik back first, using the shield to protect the two of them from the oncoming arrows. The marksmen cried out and shot twice, hitting both arrows off the side of the shield. His heart was pounding in his throat as he went back for Jakith, then Kobit. A dozen arrows littered the ground by the time he rounded the corner and put the hedges between him and them.

It was achingly slow. Raulin held the shield up to protect the other trirecs at each clearing, ferrying the men across nodes and corridors. His arm began to shake from the strain, but he kept going on, eager to leave the maze.

“This is the last node,” Raulin said, snatching up his copper from the ground. “After that, we only have a few more lines and we’re free.”

The arrows continued to ping off the shield as Raulin brought Kobit across. Had he not been walking backwards, he wouldn’t have slipped on a rut in the ground. It was all it took for an opening to present itself. Raulin snapped the shield back up as he heard his brother take in a gurgled breath.

“Kobit, no,” he said. He wrapped his free arm around him and helped drag him backwards to the safe point, oblivious to the arrows hitting the ground. Kobit gasped for air, blood running down the sides of his mouth onto his shirt. Raulin sat him against the hedge and panicked for a moment, figuring out if there was any hope for the man. Kobit continued to cough clots of blood and reached to pull the arrow out.

“Don’t!” he said, and the wide-eyed trirec let his hand drop.

Raulin ran across to the other two. “Kobit was hit, in the lungs, I think. What do I do?”

“Let me look,” Jakith said and walked with him. By the time they reach the safe point, Kobit was dead.

“Damn it,” Raulin said, letting out a pained breath. “He shouldn’t have died like that.”  He pushed Kobit’s eyelids down and found he needed to sit.

“What does it matter to you?” Jakith asked. “He’s just another competitor.”

Despite his grief, Raulin was careful. It wouldn’t be wise to let someone know he actually had a heart. “It’s just us versus them right now. Every man who makes it out of the maze is one man they didn’t get to kill.”

“I take his beads, mask, and bag, then,” Jakith said, pulling out his knife to snap the cords on the back of Kobit’s head.

If it wasn’t for Afren, Raulin would think Merakians were incapable of empathy.

While Jakith took his spoils, Raulin went back for Thenik and brought him over.  Jakith had already removed everything from Kobit’s pack.  “He has good rations.  Would you like some?”

Thenik stared wide-eyed at the corpse and said nothing.  “I’ve lost my appetite,” Raulin said.  “We need to move on.”

They crouched, but Raulin noticed their line was short.  He went back and snapped his fingers in Thenik’s face.  “Hey.  You’ve killed before, yes?”

He blinked a few times and turned to face Raulin.  “It’s different.  Why?”

“Because the tables are turned.  Because we’ve lost the power in this situation.  We’re going to get it back, Thenik, but we need to move.  Come.”

They traveled on and finally turned the last corridor, a perfectly free escape. Raulin could see the road as they ran down the lane, still hunched and still skirting the hedges. The three congregated into the corner, catching their breaths, Thenik resting his hands on his knees.

“This is it. We fan and make it for the tree line, then regroup. Remember to run smart; don’t give any indications. Masks on. Ready?”

“Ready,” they responded, snapping their arms to their sides.

On three they burst across the line. Raulin felt a weight lift off his shoulders, a challenge answered and won. He even grinned despite the previous hours of hardship.

Then, from the chateau he heard, “View holloa! Leash!

The dread in his stomach and the thumping of his pulse in his neck returned. He ran for his life.

8-8

The trirec looked at him, then down at the corpse, then back at Raulin. “You killed him. He was poaching your quarry and so you killed him to take the sword.”

Though he didn’t sound upset, Raulin still didn’t like being accused of things that weren’t true. “Does that make sense? I would have taken the sword, then, and I would be long gone. Besides, he was killed with a bow and arrow. Do you see that on me?”

“How did you steal my contract?” the trirec asked forcefully.

“I didn’t. I bet you and I have identical contracts. And so did he,” Raulin said, gesturing to the dead man. “I bet there may be others in this maze, making their way to this spot, only to be killed.”

“I’m going to take it and I will kill you if you get in my way.”

The trirec moved towards the body. “Wait!” Raulin said, and he stopped. “Listen for one moment. What’s your name?”

“Jakith Onlin,” he said. It translated to “fights with others”. Joy, Raulin thought.

“Okay, Jakith, I’m Raulin Kemor. I want…”

Jakith tensed. “You’re that miartha trirec I’ve heard about, the one who breaks the rules.”

“Careful,” Raulin said. “I’m Merakian like you are, according to Arvarikor. Both my classmates and I were caned for saying otherwise.”

“So, you stole a contract and…”

“Stop. Jakith, listen to me. Stop for one moment and think. Several trirecs were contracted to do the same thing. Why do you think that is?”

“Because they definitely wanted it done.”

“Besides that.”

“Because…”

“Yes?”

“Because they wanted several trirecs in the same place at the same time.”

“Good. And why would they want that?”

This proved to be too much for Jakith. “I’m taking the sword. Don’t stop me, Kemor, or I will kill you.”

“Wait!” Raulin said, just before Jakith touched the object. Surprisingly, he looked up. “Since I can’t stop you, do one thing for me. One you have the sword, I want you to run for cover against attacks from the west. You can come to me, or behind the pedestal or to the sides there. Just don’t stand there.”

“Is it so I will run into a trap?” he asked.

“No. I have no traps, no one else here. Just, please. I don’t want to have to turn in another mask.”

Jakith stared at Raulin, snatched the sword, and ran behind the base of the pedestal. “View halloa!” they heard before an arrow hit the dirt six inches behind where Jakith had run from.

“What…?” he heard from the trirec.

“We’re being hunted,” he hissed. “There are marksmen on the roof taking aim at us.”

“Why? What sort of twisted miartha game is this?”

“It’s not a blasted ‘miartha game’! This is the work of sick men who think we aren’t…we aren’t people.” He sighed deeply. “They think we’re animals.”

Why?”

“Jakith, I don’t know. Maybe they want to get rid of trirecs. Or maybe they’re bored with foxes and wolves and they want to hunt something more challenging. Either way, they will shoot us if we give them the chance and they are damn good shots.”

“Tell them not to hunt us! Speak Miarthan; I don’t speak it.”

It wasn’t a bad idea. It might make them think of the trirecs in terms of equals instead of lesser beings. In the least it would warn any other trirecs in the maze. Raulin shed his Merakian accents for a Ghenian one. “Hello there on the roof! Hello! Why are you shooting at us?”

In response, an arrow skimmed off the very center of the pedestal.

“I don’t think they want to talk,” Raulin said.

“Then what do we do?”

“I’m going to…”

Raulin was interrupted by a third trirec, who stumbled in from the east. He froze, looking at Jakith, then Raulin, then to the corpse, then back again at Raulin.

“Run,” Raulin said, gesturing to him. Surprisingly, the trirec didn’t hesitate; he skirted around the corpse and dove into the spot next to Raulin, greeting him with three fingers.

The new trirec caught his breath. “What passes?”

“Ask the miartha. He has it all figured out. Or,” he said, holding out the syllable, “he’s in on it.”

“Miartha?” the trirec asked, turning his head to look at Raulin. “Oh. I’ve heard of you.”

“Raulin Kemor,” he said, shaking the man’s hand. “And for what it’s worth, Arvarikor doesn’t acknowledge that I’m a miartha. I won’t say anything, but maybe we should stop calling me ‘miartha’.”

“Kobet Riand.” Placid in battle. Great, Raulin thought. A scaredy-cat and a mule.

“That’s Jakith behind the pedestal. He has the sword I assume you were tasked with stealing. I bet we were all given identical contracts to lure us here at the same time so that we can be hunted. The men are on the roof of the mansion west of here, aimed at us. Only Jakith is actively being hunted, as far as I can tell. I don’t know when or if you and I will be hunted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did whenever they felt like.”

“Okay,” Kobet said.

“’Okay’?” Jakith spat. “We’re being hunted by vile miartha and you’re fine with it?”

“Axiom fifty-six: The sooner you can accept your situation, the sooner you can assess your situation.”

“He speaks with the wisdom we studied poorly,” Raulin said to Jakith, then turned to Kobet. “What have you assessed?”

“That the contract obligations have been canceled, because one of us has died trying. Therefore, we should abandon normal rules and engage as if we were in a battle; one side versus another.”

“Can we do that?” Raulin asked. “I remember clearly from our lessons that we’re not allowed to band together or help one another in any way.”

“That’s if we are engaged in a contract. We are allowed to help one another if we are not actively pursuing the points of a contract.”

Raulin clicked his tongue while he thought. “This would be ‘escape’.”

If we are still actively pursuing the task. If we all choose to abandon the task, which we are allowed, maybe even obligated to do now that one of us has perished on duty, we are considered non-active participants. Just like trivrens and agents, we will be allowed to support each other without penalty.”

“What about Jakith? He still wants to complete the contract.”

“We can support his escape, like that childhood game with the flags. However, I still think that the contracts are void and there is no reason to finish the task. The contractee broke the rules and his fee is forfeited, so we will be paid our percentage. “

“And what if I’m not paid?” Jakith asked.

“You can always petition the trivren at a tribunal,” Kobet said. “I think they would be justified in paying you, since this is an error of the dorong-hi-leus.”

Raulin sucked in his breath quietly. Yes, Isken was going to get in a lot of trouble for this and there was nothing he could do to soften the eventual blow. “Jakith, I took the trirec’s mask and beads to return them to Arvarikor. My contract was for 120 gold, if I remember correctly. The mask reward plus the beads should compensate any loss you would have over this if you don’t get paid. I’ll give it to you if you abandon the contract. ”

There was a clang as metal hit marble. “All right. So, we’re free. The sword is back on the pedestal. Now what do we do?”

“Kobet? What do you think?”

The trirec turned back to look above him, then murmured to himself for a few moments. “If we wait another five hours, the sun should be too low for them to see. We should wait it out.”

Raulin pinched his lips for a moment. “Well, that’s a thought. It’s also assuming that the men on the roof are alone, will stay there that long, and don’t have a plan should this last into the night. Jakith?”

“We should chop down the maze, escape, and storm the house where we will kill the miartha devils for doing this.”

“We don’t kill outside of contracts!” Kobet hissed.

“He’s right; as much as I’d like to find the archer that shot our brother, jam a bee’s nest up his arse, and wait until he pisses honey, we don’t kill unless we absolutely have to. Which means we’re stuck escaping, and soon, before they change their tactics.

“Our assets: our knives, our training. Anyone have anything else?”

“I have rope,” Jakith said.

“I’m not sure. I have several items that might help, but nothing particular comes to mind when solving our major problem.”

Raulin took a quick look inside Kobet’s pack and almost laughed. He and the wizard would get along splendidly. “I don’t suppose you have a shield in there or…oh.”

“Oh? What are you thinking, Raulin?” Jakith asked.

“The statues. Where did you two enter the maze and where did you enter this area?”

“East-north,” Jakith said.

“I entered from the south and wound up coming in from the east,” Kobet said.

“Did you see the statues? Did they have armor on them?”

“They were white and…no,” Jakith said.

“That answers that, then. I entered from the south, spent most of my time in the southwest quadrant, and entered here from the south. I saw several statues that had things we could use: helmets, breastplates…the last one had a shield, I’m certain.

“Here’s the plan. We’re going to use our one advantage for protection: angles. Even though they have the advantage of the high ground, they aren’t high enough to see us if we are below a certain point on north-south running hedges We can crawl to the first node, take the shield, and use it to block any attacks after that point, making the journey faster.

“First step: everyone needs to start here,” Raulin said, pointing in front of him, “so Jakith needs to make his way to us. Kobet, how do we feel about the mask rule?”

He took a deep breath, thinking. “Our masks protect us from identification. We are punished only if the connection is made between our faces and our profession. It will be risky, but I see the benefit in taking that risk. The archers might be using the glare from the metal as focal points and without them, they might have a hard time targeting us.”

“That’s what I thought,” Raulin said. He hated to concede a point to the wizard, but he remembered the conversation they’d had about his mask’s vulnerability in both Carvek and Ammet Bronsto. “Three o’clock is a dandy time for the sun to be out of their eyes, but still enough to give them a reflective target. You two take off your masks and put them away. I’m going to use mine to distract the archers while you run to us, Jakith. Got it?”

The three wiggled their masks off their faces. Kobet had the same pronounced features as any other Merakian, the large eyes, the high cheekbones, the thick lips, but there was a gauntness that made his cheekbones stick out more than most. He reminded him of a darker colored Telbarisk, for some odd reason. “Ready, Jakith?”

“Ready. You count.”

Raulin’s stomach burned with the fear and anticipation of what he was about to do. There was a strong possibility that he was about to get an arrow right through his forearm. He stood, took a few calming breaths, and counted down. On one, he stuck his mask out as far as he could.

Ting!

As soon as Jakith, had dove into the hedge, he pulled the mask back and let go of his breath. “Did you arrive safely, Jakith?”

The trirec dusted himself off, his wide face looking up at Raulin. “Well, I’m not imitating an ambitious sapling, so we’re doing well.”

“All right, good,” he said, jamming his mask into his knapsack. “Step one complete. Are we ready to escape?”

“Yes, sir,” they both said in unison.

“Excellent. Let’s begin.”