The Seventh Execution—Chapter One: The Watcher Watched
The Seventh Executionby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter One: The Watcher WatchedHer or me. It was her or me. ... After the execution, after too many sleepless nights, afraid to face the waiting nightmares, I had to put the matter behind me. ... It was her or me, I declared, then made myself believe it. If I stopped, though, if I ceased whispering my mantra under my breath when I was alone, if I left off repeating it in my mind until I nodded off at night, the horror of the day returned. It seeped...
The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter One: The Watcher Watched
Her or me. It was her or me.
After the execution, after too many sleepless nights, afraid to face the waiting nightmares, I had to put the matter behind me.
"It was her or me," I declared, then made myself believe it. If I stopped, though, if I ceased whispering my mantra under my breath when I was alone, if I left off repeating it in my mind until I nodded off at night, the horror of the day returned. It seeped into my thoughts in sudden and startling ways. Firelight glinting on a kitchen knife recalled Razor Jenni's blade. Wagon wheels rumbling on the cobblestone street brought back the murmuring crowd. Raw meat on the cutting block, waiting for dinner—
Her or me.
I had worked hard all day. Now that night had come I found that sleep would not visit. I lay motionless on my cot, eyes fixed on the ceiling, listening to the house settle around me. This used to be my favorite time of day, when I could rest my body and free my mind, letting my fancies take me to lands free from toil and fear. Now my fancies took me to very different places. I distracted myself by running through the list of chores for the next day: stop the wood-cart when it came around and purchase two bundles on account, put a roast in at noon so that it would be ready for dinner, take the curtains down in the library and wash and press them, clean the windows while the curtains hung on the line. I hated windows more than any other chore. While a stepstool and creative leveraging allowed me to do human-sized tasks in every other area of the master's house, windows required a ladder and endless climbing up and down.
I'd lifted a pot full of soup earlier that day and aggravated an old strain in my back. My head pounded like the drums before an execution. I sat up. The moonlight coming through the gabled window illuminated the old boxes and trunks piled in the room. Most halfling servants have to be content with half-rooms under stairs, attached sheds half the height of the rest of the house, or even cupboards. To sleep in an attic, even one with a close and slanted ceiling and mice that ran over me in the middle of the night, was luxury.
I rose from my cot and stretched, trying to ease my aches. The floorboards felt cool under the curls of hair covering my feet. I padded to the window and leaned on the sill.
The quiet streets of Edme stretched away, disappearing into a maze of stone walls and peaked roofs. I often stood here, looking for furtive movements or cloaked figures, any signs that Cheliax worked to invade our free nation with their bound devils and sorcery. My father had served my master's father and remembered the start of the Red Revolution and the oppression that came before it. When others were in earshot, he would tell me stories of Chelish dominance and the nobles' excesses, a time when halflings were downtrodden "slips" and not respected servants. When we were alone, he cautioned me that those without use to the nation were the first fingered as traitors.
"As long as you keep finding spies and turncoats for the master, you'll never find yourself in Razor Jenni's arms."
"In Galt, it's best to never be noticed at all. Fortunately, halflings are good at that."
There are always traitors in Galt. I had become an expert at spotting them by the darkness in their eyes and the rhythm of their gait. My master traveled to Isarn once a month to serve on the Revolutionary Council, and he used my eyes to improve his standing there. Together we had sent six traitors and Chelish sympathizers to their final rest. Six that I am certain were guilty.
And one that I am not.
My mind threatened to sprint down those familiar paths once more. I focused instead on the dark street below, watching for unusual activity. The moon was out, just past half full and waxing. My eyes quickly adjusted to the little light. Edme's resources grew leaner with each passing season, and more than one citizen crept out at night to rifle through abandoned houses. My perch allowed me to watch for such activity, and my experience helped me separate desperate looters from dedicated traitors.
I stayed at the window until I started shivering. I stretched, and was ready to return to my cot when movement in the street below caught my eye.
I stopped in mid-stretch, holding myself still. A human figure crouched in the alley across the street, wrapped in a dark cloak and hood. I couldn't see the figure's face, but his height and manner of dress suggested it was a man. I watched, waiting to see what business the fellow had so late. He pressed against the wall of the alley, motionless save for small movements of his head as he surveyed the street. The man's focus was not on the street itself, but only the building opposite him. The building in whose attic I stood, watching him in return.
He was spying on my master's house.
He must have seen me, I thought, before recalling how difficult it is to see inside an upper-story window from the ground, especially when the person at the window stands only head and shoulders above the sill.
The watcher looked up just as I stepped back. I hesitated, wondering whether he had seen me after all, fighting the temptation to step forward again and make sure I had gone unnoticed. No, no time for that. I grabbed my cloak from its peg near the door and hurried down the stairs.
My sleeping clothes are almost identical to my working ones: a thin shirt and brown linen trousers. My cloak, though, is dark blue-gray, purposefully dyed to help me blend into the night. I threw the cloak over my shoulders and pulled it tight in front. I don't wear shoes. I let myself out the back door not more than two minutes after I had first spotted the watcher.
Halfling senses are sharper than human ones. We can't see any better in the dark, but we're attuned to details. Especially here in Galt, where we live so close to death, halflings must remain alert.
I crept along the side of the manor until the mouth of the alley opposite me came into view. It stood empty. I could hear footsteps, though, muffled and growing fainter. I dashed across the street, my feet almost noiseless against the cobblestones.
I had to work to catch up. Even at top speed I moved slower than humans did. My biggest advantage was that the watcher didn't seem to know the city well, while I could navigate the streets with my eyes closed. The moon vanished behind clouds twice, and the tall buildings around me cut off much of the light. Several times I had to slow down lest I trip in the dark or splash through a puddle. My heart beat a little faster every time I had to slow. The watcher's footsteps grew fainter. If I didn't make up the distance quickly, I was going to lose him.
The watcher's footsteps doubled back. The remains of an old lecture hall loomed before me. It had burned down at the start of the revolution. Sooty timbers leaned drunkenly toward each other. Puddles of rainwater glimmered between piles of broken glass and charred rubble. I held my breath and listened. The scent of old fire stung my nose. The watcher was south of me, circling around the building. I tucked the hem of my cloak into my waistband and climbed into the ruins.
I scrambled up one of the leaning timbers. The wood, soaked with countless rains, was rotten and soft as a carpet. The timber collided with one of its fellows at a crazy angle. I leaped from one to the other. My feet slid on the sodden wood, and I windmilled my arms to keep balance. When I'd righted myself I paused, listening. The watcher was still moving.
The timber shifted a little as I ran down its length. A mess of fallen boards crossed the center of the room. I clung to the timber and slid over the edge. Carefully I dropped down onto the boards. Mud and broken glass lay thick around them. I hastened across, my breathing coming quick and ragged as I picked each careful step.
One of the boards slid out from under me. I hopped to another, hoping it would hold. The planks clattered. I froze and listened.
The watcher stopped. I bent my knees and huddled as close as I could to the ground, envisioning the fastest way out of the building and back home.
Then the watcher started up again. I gave him as much lead as I dared before continuing across the ruin. I reached the other side just as he approached. I breathed a little more easily. Now I could keep up with him for certain. I concealed myself behind a pile of rubbish and waited for him to pass.
At the same time, I heard more footsteps from the other end of the street. Quiet boots, low voices, a sharp laugh. Looters. Most criminals in Edme were driven by desperation, but lately more sordid individuals had come to the city. They were violent men who followed rumors of abandoned treasure-vaults. I hesitated in the shadows. Before I could decide what to do next, the watcher darted straight for my hiding place.
As I had guessed, he was a human man. The moonlight robbed his form of color, but it seemed his skin was a light brown shade similar to my own, and his hair and eyes were both dark. He pressed against the wall and slid down to conceal himself behind the refuse pile I was using. I held my breath and, for a wild moment, thought he might not notice me.
Then the watcher looked down and saw me crouched next to him. His eyes widened.
The sounds of the looters grew louder. I put my finger to my lips and shook my head.
The watcher nodded and kept silent. The looters came abreast of us, three of them dressed in dark clothes with weapons held openly in hand. They carried empty packs strapped to their backs, waiting no doubt to be filled with artifacts of pre-Revolution Galt. The watcher held still next to me, so tense I could almost hear his muscles hum. After a dreadful minute, the looters passed by into the darkness.
The watcher let out his breath in a sigh and straightened. He was short for a human, less than twice my height. "I appreciate your silence," he whispered.
"I've no wish to run afoul of that type," I replied. "You take a risk being out so late."
"As do you." He looked me over. "You've been following me, haven't you?"
I clenched my hands. The man had good ears to have heard me, and I had lost any element of surprise. I readied myself to run, but risked a direct question first. "You were watching the Mirford estate. I want to know why."
The watcher smiled. He crouched down to put himself at eye level with me.
"I was looking for you."
Coming Next Week: Moral quandaries and dark magic in Chapter Two of "The Seventh Execution."
The Seventh Execution—Chapter Two: The Faithful False
The Seventh Executionby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter Two: The Faithful FalseWe retreated into a network of side streets where we could escape if necessary and where we'd easily hear anyone approaching. The night was cool enough to frost our breath. The smell of refuse lingered beneath the familiar city smells of dirt, sweat, horse dung, and boiled potatoes. ... When I thought us safe, I turned and held up a hand. “Speak quickly.” ... “First let's make certain I have the right person. You are...
The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter Two: The Faithful False
We retreated into a network of side streets where we could escape if necessary and where we'd easily hear anyone approaching. The night was cool enough to frost our breath. The smell of refuse lingered beneath the familiar city smells of dirt, sweat, horse dung, and boiled potatoes.
When I thought us safe, I turned and held up a hand. “Speak quickly.”
“First let's make certain I have the right person. You are Tibeth, servant at Mirford Manor?”
I nodded, never taking my eyes from the man's face. A muscle in my calf twitched, as if reminding me that flight was still an option.
“My name is Bradach,” he said. “I have traveled many miles and followed convoluted divinations to find Mirford Manor, and you.” He lowered his voice further. “I am on a mission, a dangerous one, involving the house at which you work. I had hoped—”
I held up my hand again. “Before you speak further, you should know that whatever this mission is and however far you've come, you have the wrong person if you think I would do anything to betray my master. He is a good and patriotic man. I would sooner go straight to him with all you've said and risk punishment than be involved in a plot against him.”
Bradach raised an eyebrow. “Your devotion is admirable, and unexpected. Are you not a slave?”
My shoulders lifted and brow furrowed as I took a deep breath. “Servant, if you please. My family has willingly served the Mirford family for three generations. My master appreciates the qualities we bring to his household. In my youth, I was educated and trained in many skills beyond a simple kitchen slave's abilities. So you see, I have no wish to betray the man who has been so kind to me.”
“I do see.” Bradach rubbed his chin. “Yet I must ask, do you know what role your master serves in the city?”
“He is a member of the Revolutionary Council,” I said. “Everyone knows as much. He assists the city in protecting itself and works to uncover those who would harm us.”
“Those who would harm you.” There was no question or malice in Bradach's voice, but I took offense nonetheless.
“Traitors. Sympathizers. Rats that gnaw at the foundation of Galt. My master finds them and has them executed.”
“And every executed person is guilty?”
“Y-yes. Of course, yes.”
"Bradach would undermine the very heart of the Revolution."
“Not a convincing reply.” Bradach's voice was smooth and even, almost gentle. “You're certain only the guilty lie with Razor Jenni?”
“What do you want with me?” I spoke too loudly and cupped my hand over my mouth, hushing myself.
Bradach glanced over his shoulder to ensure we were still alone. “I come from the River Kingdoms. I had expected to find a slave, ill-treated, who would sympathize with my cause. My case may now be harder to make.”
“What,” I repeated, “do you want with me?”
“The River Kingdoms are free, and I wish to spread their message across the land.” Bradach spoke as if he hadn't heard me. “I have my own reasons for wanting to start here. I have researched a spell—it's untested, but I believe it will help release many innocent souls.”
“What is this spell?”
“If you're not willing to help, I'm not sure I should tell you.”
“If you won't tell me, I don't know if I'm willing to help.”
Bradach studied me. I flushed. My quick retort had shown my hand. I was entertaining the idea of helping him, or at least not hindering him. If only he hadn't asked are you certain...
It was her or me!
“The spell,” he finally said, “should release the spirits trapped in Razor Jenni. Though those executed will remain dead, their souls will be freed to travel on to whatever reward or punishment they merit.”
I drew in a sharp breath. The great terror of a final blade is not that it is an instrument of death. As the condemned marches up the wooden steps to where the weighty frame holds its razor edge aloft, his fear comes from the knowledge that there is nothing for him after death. His soul will remain trapped in that bloody blade. It is this fear, my master says, that deters so many from considering or attempting treason.
Then why do so many die? I wanted to ask. If it deters them, then why do so many die? But I dared not ask. Those who ask make that grim march themselves.
“Free their souls...” I whispered.
“Yes.” Bradach's voice grew eager, almost desperate. “To remain trapped forever in that horrible device—I cannot even find words to describe it. Some of those spirits may be guilty, yes, but they were people, people with families, friends... lovers...” He struggled to maintain his composure. “I am here to test the spell. If it works, I will use it to free all such imprisoned. Will you help?”
“What do you need me to do?” I asked.
∗ ∗ ∗
He needed me to betray my master.
Chores always filled my days, and I worked as hard as I could to distract myself from Bradach's proposal. That afternoon I stood in the manor's kitchen, trying to find comfort in the crackling fire. I had not committed myself to Bradach's mission yet, but had asked for time to think about it. Now I wished I had given him either a firm yes or no; the internal debate that kept surfacing in my mind wore me out more quickly than washing windows.
It seemed simple to say no, easy to say no, right to say no. The moment I fixed it in my mind that I would say no, though, Bradach's question resurfaced: Are you certain they were all guilty?
Then I would think of her, and my thoughts would fly apart again.
More than two seasons had passed with no arrests or investigations led by my master. Panic had grown within me. “Those without use to the nation are the first fingered as traitors,” my father always said, and my master had many enemies.
She had arrived in the city the previous week, a human woman traveling alone. I found no relatives of hers in Edme. I followed her. She visited unsavory elements in town, asking questions about noble families executed during the start of the Revolution. One night I observed her prowling around the ruins of an old manor house. She uncovered a book, one of the family ledgers in which the nobles recorded births, weddings, and deaths.
Eager to present my master with someone, I turned her in without further investigation. She was obviously looking for a tie to her family, seeking to prove her noble lineage. The decadent nobility had condemned Galt to years of oppression under imperial rule. To willingly seek out a connection to them was indefensible.
She tried to defend herself. She claimed to be the child not of the noble family, but of the servants who had worked in the manor and had helped overthrow their masters. Her parents, she claimed, were commoners lost in the Revolution, and she was searching for relatives who might have survived. Others had tried such stories before, but she spoke so clearly, so simply, that I believed her.
Or did I? I gasped as I sliced the kitchen knife slid off the carrots and over my finger. Blood pooled on the chopping block. I had no proof of her innocence, but her calmness and certainty in the face of her accusers had caught in my memory.
When she mounted the steps for her final meeting with Razor Jenni, I told myself it was her or me.
“Are you all right?”
I squeaked and spun around. The master stood there, looking at me with concern. He had changed out of his work clothes and into a simple navy robe and slippers. A wooden medallion displaying the flag of Galt hung from his neck. Though I remained young even after my many years of service, he showed signs of age. His face displayed new lines every year, and gray streaked his hair.
“It's nothing, sir,” I said. I wrapped my finger in a handkerchief. “A bit of carelessness on my part.”
“Be careful with yourself. I can't afford to lose my best servant.” He smiled down on me and I nodded. “I'll be leaving in the morning for Isarn. Can you have my things packed and brought down before I retire?”
“Yes, sir.” I swallowed. “That's earlier than usual. Is anything wrong?”
He raised an eyebrow. “A simple schedule accommodation. Should I be concerned about something?”
My mouth was dry. I had to swallow again. “The execution last month... I hope my evidence was sound enough. Those who seek your position might try to discredit you by casting doubt on my findings.”
We had never talked so openly about my work before. Always I reported my investigations to him, clearly and concisely, but said nothing about my motivations, or his. The master crouched down and put a hand on my shoulder. It covered my arm halfway to my elbow.
“Tibeth, there is nothing for you to worry about. Your findings were sound, and had they not been, I would have found ways to compensate.” He squeezed my shoulder lightly. “You continue to find suitable targets and I will ensure there's suitable evidence. I rely on you, you know. You keep both my position and Galt safe.”
My head spun. I thought for a moment I might faint. I forced myself to relax and smoothed the expression from my face. “Yes, sir. I understand.”
He left me standing next to the bloody carrots. I slumped against the counter until the dizziness passed.
For his spell, Bradach needed a bit of heartwood from the tree that died to make Razor Jenni's frame. My master wore a bit of that wood around his neck. I never saw him without it.
I went upstairs to my attic room and laid a handkerchief over the sill as if to dry it, a sign Bradach and I had arranged last night. The wizard would see it and know to meet me in the university quadrangle at midnight. There I would give him the medallion and help set the souls in Razor Jenni free.
∗ ∗ ∗
I stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to my master's room, summoning the courage to take the first step.
In my service to my master, and to Galt, I had followed traitors and seditionists through dark and abandoned streets. I had unlocked windows and searched people's houses for evidence. Once, I had even been forced to fight for my life when I encountered a looter in the building I'd come to search. Still, I had never felt the nervous dread I felt now as I looked up that shadowed staircase.
When I could bear the tension no longer I took the first tentative step. It was easy to make my way silently up the stairs; I knew the creaky boards by heart.
I reached my master's door and stopped. My pulse thrummed in my ears. The door latch stood at shoulder height to me, and I could peer easily through the keyhole. I saw only darkness and heard the even breaths of my master as he slept. When I lifted my hands to the lock, the muscles in my fingers twitched as if rebelling against the act.
I knew of a trap on the door, a simple spring-loaded needle coated in a toxic substance. My master left the trap unset during the day, when I might need to enter his room, and set it every night before sleep. I lit a candle and worked carefully by its meager light. I had seen traps like this before and cautiously traced my way down to the triggering wire. I snipped the wire in half with a tiny blade. I carried the rest of my tools as well as a small dagger, though I could never attack my master. The tumblers in the lock gave me more trouble than the trap did, and it was several minutes before I finally turned the last one over. I blew out the candle and eased the door open.
The familiar objects of the room seemed sinister in the moonlight. The bed, with my master slumbering quietly beneath the quilts, sat in one corner of the room. Four wooden posts, each one twice as tall as I, held up the bedframe. I saw the medallion hanging from its leather strap on the post flush in the corner.
I padded to the side of the bed. My master did not stir. Chill sweat covered my body and made me shiver. I rested my hands on the quilt and, with precise movements, pressed down until I had the leverage to pull myself onto the bed.
My weight was so little that I barely made a dent in the mattress. Still, I waited until I was certain that my master slept soundly before I rose. My shoeless feet found it easy to keep purchase on the lumpy surface. I took slow and shallow breaths between each step, straining to hear any whisper or rustle to signal my master's wakening. I stopped next to the pillows. My master's head rested inches away. He lay on his back, looking untroubled in sleep. Guilt stabbed through me.
Before I could change my mind, I placed one hand on the wall to steady myself and reached with the other. I stretched to my limit until I could grab the medallion with one swift clutch.
It seemed as though a thousand bees stung my palm at once. I howled and fell backward onto the bed. The amulet flew from my grasp. My master woke instantly, bellowing and thrashing in the bedclothes. I rolled off the bed and hit the floor with a gasp, the wind knocked out of me.
I felt a peculiar pang of betrayal. My master had not told me he kept his medallion warded.
A foot crashed down next to my head. I rolled away, sucking in breath as my lungs began to work again. I scrabbled madly on the floor for the medallion. There wasn't much light but I remembered the sound of the medallion landing and followed my instincts.
“Tibeth!” my master shouted. “Tibeth!” It wasn't until afterward that I realized he was probably shouting for me to come, not yet recognizing the thief on the ground before him. I heard him draw a blade from a scabbard. My hand closed over the smooth wood of the medallion.
There was no shock this time. I scrambled to my feet. A sword blade came slicing down. I threw myself to the side. The sword bit into the wooden floor and spat splinters at me. I spun around, disoriented, trying to find the door.
My master raised the sword again and paused, holding the blade aloft. “Tibeth?”
I ran out the door and down the stairs, into the night, holding the medallion before me like a shield.
Coming Next Week: Final blades and first steps in the final chapter of "The Seventh Execution."
The Seventh Execution—Chapter Three: The Fettered Freed
The Seventh Executionby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter Three: The Fettered FreedThe moon was a yellow bruise in the sky as I hurried through the streets of Edme. Sweat poured off me as if I raced through a furnace. I ran without seeing, navigating the streets by long practice. I felt I had left part of myself back at home, as if I had lost a limb. ... I stopped, panting, when the cobbled road spilled into a flagstone-plated quadrangle. Prickly weeds, trampled flat by the mobs that congregated...
The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter Three: The Fettered Freed
The moon was a yellow bruise in the sky as I hurried through the streets of Edme. Sweat poured off me as if I raced through a furnace. I ran without seeing, navigating the streets by long practice. I felt I had left part of myself back at home, as if I had lost a limb.
I stopped, panting, when the cobbled road spilled into a flagstone-plated quadrangle. Prickly weeds, trampled flat by the mobs that congregated there, sprouted from cracks in the stones. The gray walls of Torvin Academy bounded the opposite size of the plaza. A few lights burned in upper windows, but the plaza was full of moonshadows.
Razor Jenni stood in the center of the quadrangle, atop a wooden platform braced with heavy timbers. I shuddered when I saw the final blade, her thirsty edge held aloft atop a scaffold. A set of stocks at the base of the scaffold snapped around the prisoner's neck. A groove cut through the yoke allowed Razor Jenni's blade to slip through and take the prisoner's head with her.
I spied movement at the base of the platform. Bradach stood concealed in the shadow of the scaffold. When he saw me, he took a step forward and beckoned. I scanned the quadrangle a final time to ensure no one watched, then hurried to meet him.
“It's good to see you,” Bradach said. He wore a heavy, dark cloak and stood with his hands deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the chill. “Did you succeed?”
“I spoke to my... I spoke to Mirford.”
Bradach looked alarmed. “You told him our plan?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I asked about the executions. I wanted to prove to you that the guilty, the traitors, are the ones who are executed.”
Bradach sighed and crouched to face me. “And what did you find?”
When you are a halfling, you get used to living in a world unsized for you. Yet it always seemed to me that I was the proper height, and everything else overlarge and exaggerated. In that moment, though, I felt small. “He implied that the evidence used—” My voice broke. I cleared my throat. “The evidence might not be as ironclad as I would prefer.”
“It's hard to admit that the things we fought for weren't worth our dedication,” Bradach said. “It's taken me a long time to reach the place I am now, and I took many wrong turns along the way. But what we do here can make up for many sins of the past. You see that, don't you?”
“Then do you have the medallion? Hand it to me and we can set about freeing these poor souls.” He stretched a hand out.
I have said before that halflings must remain alert to survive. We have learned to carefully read the humans who run the cities in which we live, attuning ourselves to their whims and desires to remain useful, and thus safe. Bradach's words sounded well enough, but the way he thrust his hand toward me was a shade too quick, too eager. It unnerved me for reasons I couldn't articulate.
“Tell me more,” I said. “What led you to undertake such a selfless mission?”
“We are exposed here. I'd be happy to answer your questions afterward, but we can't delay. You did get the medallion, didn't you?”
“Even the most desperate looter would hardly stride up to the doors of Torvin Academy. We have a few minutes.” I met Bradach's gaze. “I spent most of my life allowing myself to work for a man whose intentions were not wholly admirable. Forgive me if I make more certain this time. What spurred you on your mission?”
He looked away as if weighing my question. When he spoke, his voice was low and sad. “Someone I care about is trapped in there. Do you need to know more than that?”
But I had seen a flash of annoyance in his eyes before he looked away. My sense of unease deepened.
“How did she come to this?”
He gave me a lopsided smile. “It is that obvious that she's a woman? We worked together in Mivon. She hated injustice as much as I did, and we undertook several missions together. Six months ago she traveled to Edme in an attempt to free a prisoner awaiting the blade. She failed, and was executed herself.”
"Razor Jenni claims both heads and souls."
It was a good story. Yet if Bradach had known what function I truly performed for Mirford, he would have used a different cover. My life revolved around executions, and I knew well enough that there was only one woman to die in Razor Jenni's arms in the last few months. I took a step back, anger replacing the nausea in my gut.
“You had nothing to do with her,” I said, harshly, foolishly.
Bradach straightened. “I choose to keep my motivations private. I may be guilty of misleading you in that sense, but I wanted to make sure you understood how important this is. It's all that matters. Now we can argue about this all night or you can tell me whether you got the medallion.”
I took another step back. “I couldn't get the opportunity. You'll have to give me more time.”
We stared at each other. Branach looked me over from tip to toe, tapping his chin. After a long silence, he spoke.
“I think you're lying.”
“That makes two of us.”
He gave me an ugly smile. “Then I won't waste any more words. Give me the medallion or I'll take it off your corpse.”
He reached for me and I stumbled back, flailing my arm to keep him off. My little knife leaped into my hand.
“Get away from me!”
He put a finger to his lips as he advanced. “Voice down, slip. Do you want to bring the whole city down on us?”
My heart thudded. The fiery anger inside me turned in an instant to icy rage.
“Chelaxian!” I dropped my voice to a shaking whisper. “I've sent more than one of your kind to their deaths.”
“And now you'll help one of my kind release those souls.” He darted forward and grabbed for me again. I ducked under his arm and skipped out of his reach. “They'll be invaluable in my rituals. Perhaps I'll even find a use for your corpse.”
I darted to the left. Bradach rushed forward and caught hold of my wrist. A soundless explosion of cold shot up my arm and numbed me all the way to my shoulder. I bit my tongue to keep from crying out. I flailed, kicking and scratching, and threw myself back. Bradach lost his grip. I tucked into a roll as I fell. My numbed arm threw me off. The roll broke apart and I sprawled on my stomach.
For an instant I felt a terrible weakness grip my limbs, but I shook off the lassitude and scrambled to my feet. I kept as quiet as I could. If I cried out, someone was bound to hear. The guards at the Academy would simply arrest us both, and I had just stolen from my master. Looters would cut us down.
Bradach loomed over me. My knife lay on the ground to my right. I dropped to my knees when Bradach swung at me. His arms whooshed overhead. I snatched up the knife and stabbed him in the thigh.
Bradach stumbled back with a muffled cry. His heavy cloak blunted some of the impact, but the edge of my knife came away wet with blood.
I leaped to my feet again as Bradach took another run at me. He had his own knife out now. I dove forward and to one side of him. His knife scored my back as I rolled past. The cut stung, but not badly. I kicked up to my feet a dozen paces past him.
“I get worse than that chopping carrots.”
He threw his knife at my head. I ducked down and raised my hands for cover. Too late I realized that Bradach's throw was careless, meant only to distract me. I tried to back up but he had already charged. As I scrambled back, Bradach caught me in the chest with a sharp kick.
I flew back and slammed into the cobblestones. Bradach twisted his hands together. Blue light built between them.
I had hoped our forced silence might keep him from casting, but no words accompanied his intricate gestures. Light shot from his hands and streamed toward me like ethereal arrows. I rolled away. The missiles followed my movements. I bit my fist to keep from screaming as the bolts slammed into my side.
My body shrieked with pain, but my heart bled with regret. To conspire with a Chelaxian, even unwittingly—I could think of no greater ignominy. I had paid for my betrayal, and paid dearly.
Bradach twisted his hands together again. I bounced to my feet and sprinted for cover. I whipped around the edge of Razor Jenni's platform and crouched behind one of the timbers. I heard Bradach's quiet curse.
I panted, trying to regain my breath. I blinked in surprise to see I still held my knife. Instinct must have kept it in my hand. I could hear Bradach circle around Razor Jenni's frame. I waited until he had almost rounded to my side, then ran the other way.
Bradach reversed direction. I'd expected that. I raced up the stairs onto the execution platform and cut across it. Bradach heard me coming and tried to back away. I threw myself off the platform and crashed into him, burying my knife in his shoulder.
His howl of pain eased the ache in my heart. We fell together. I tried to pull the blade free but Bradach rolled to the side and threw me off. I had always supposed wizards to be weak and frail, but Bradach was no pale scholar. His strength and size far outstripped mine.
My knife stayed buried in Bradach's shoulder. I scrabbled for a weapon but came up with nothing but a chunk of broken flagstone. Bradach rose to his feet, panting. I clutched the flagstone to my chest and crawled under Razor Jenni's platform.
She was a presence, that blade. I could feel her weight above me, pressing down, waiting hungrily for her next victim. I shuddered and forced myself to remain in the shadows, half-hidden behind a timber pile.
“Come out of there you rotten little slip,” Bradach whispered. I could hear the faint rasp of his boots as he circled the platform, trying to spot me. “Or throw me the medallion and I'll let you go.”
Halflings survive by reading human intentions. I knew Bradach was lying.
Bradach finally got on his hands and knees to peer under the platform. I summoned all my strength and flung the flagstone chunk. The rock struck Bradach above his eyes. He whimpered and collapsed.
I waited for a minute to catch my breath. My heart beat crazily and would not calm down. I crawled out from under the platform and rolled the wizard over. He was unconscious, but still lived. I went through his clothes and removed a case of scrolls and a pouch half-filled with gold and silver coins.
Then I dragged Bradach up the stairs to the platform. My side ached. Blood dripped from the cut on my back, but not much. I used all my strength to pull the wizard's warm, heavy body along. My sense that Razor Jenni was alive—was watching me—grew stronger as I dragged Bradach across the platform and onto the chopping block.
Six traitors I had sent to their final rest. Six that I was certain of.
That night I made it seven.
Her or me, I'd said. I had saved myself by condemning her. In truth, though, I had condemned both of us. When she made the march to Razor Jenni, I'd walked beside her, though I hadn't known it then. A part of my soul stays trapped in that blade, too. I believe it always will.
Galt is no longer home to me. I am armed, though, and I have money in my purse and new courage in my heart. I'm told the River Kingdoms hold freedom for all, even servants. The road there is a dangerous one, but halflings have learned to survive. I travel when the roads are empty and sleep in ditches when I can. My sleep is untroubled. The nightmares have gone.
Coming Next Week: Varisian scoundrels in the streets of Magnimar in Bill Ward's "The Box."