Any road, any landscape in any company, becomes dull after a full day. It had now been three since we’d left the monastery, and my nerves were growing more and more raw with every passing mile. The boredom was potentially lethal; instincts dulled, reactions slowed, the mind would become as lethargic as the body. I had never been a prisoner in the literal sense, and journeys like this always reminded me how poor a captive I would make.
Baen and I didn’t have much to say by the end of the first day. The things we could talk about in Halleston’s presence had run out quickly, and my mind was still lingering on too many memories for lies to come easily. For his part, the scholar didn’t seem affected as we were, asking questions to the point of annoyance. Baen and I would answer as reservedly as possible while remaining careful not to appear too secretive. “Nothing attracts attention quite like evasive behaviour,” Elsif had often said. Another lesson the old norn had passed along to us, and one that Baen and I had learned well. It wasn’t difficult, but it was becoming less tolerable the longer it went on and so it was almost with relief that suddenly, barely an hour from what would pass for midday, that the boredom of the road was interrupted.
We saw the wagon, twice the size of our cart, long before we realised anything was amiss. It loomed ahead, a hazy, indistinct shape on the road ahead in what had become a constant, irritating drizzle that washed the world in a dull grey. Figures hurried through the murk, but it wasn’t till we drew closer that we collectively realised what had happened.
The pack-bull that had pulled the covered wagon lay dead on its side, clearly fresh blood pooling around it from some unseen wound, and miscellaneous objects lay scattered on the road around it. Pottery, clothing and tools were strewn haphazardly on the rain-soaked ground, and as we approached I counted five men busily sorting through the junk.
They were so engrossed in their task that it wasn’t until we were perhaps fifty metres away that one of them noticed us. He elbowed his fellows, and with a few barked shouts they all hurriedly stepped forward to block the road, hands resting on the hilts of swords in well-worn sheaths.
“Stop the cart,” I ordered, and Halleston nodded nervously, drawing on the reins and bringing us to a halt. “Baen?”
“May as well.” She whistled softly, ruffling the back of Grapple’s head as I pulled my hood away from my head, feeling a brief shiver run through me as the chill rain hit my face. “Ready girl?” The beast gave a quiet growl, jumped off the back of the cart and quickly disappeared into the haze.
“Stay here, scholar,” I said, hopping down from the side of the cart, Baen right behind me. We started making our way towards the men at a slow, calm pace, and as we did more and more details became apparent.
A man and a woman lay beside the wagon. both with livid, fresh wounds. The man had been stabbed in the gut, leaving an ugly wound running with rainwater and blood. The woman’s throat was slit, blood pooling around her shocked face. Baen’s gaze lingered on them for a moment, and I thought I could detect a slight narrowing of her eyes. I shared her distaste, though I tried to hide the tightening of my jaw as we drew close enough to the bandits to allow me to see through their eyes too.
The five men were roughly what I had expected. Grizzled, dirty, wearing mismatched clothing and sporting hard looks that more than hinted at a capacity for brutality, as if their work here wasn’t evidence enough. One of them stepped forward when we were about ten paces away, raising his hand. He was bigger than the rest, slightly cleaner and had clear green eyes that seemed entirely too sharp a contrast with the rest of his appearance.“That’ll be close enough,” he said. Baen and I stopped abruptly.
“Your handiwork?” I asked, keeping my voice casual, almost flippant.
“We didn’t want to hurt ’em,” he said, scratching at his dirty beard. “Would have let ‘im be if he’d just handed his goods over. ‘Stead he puts up a fight, makes us kill ‘im and his woman. Bloody waste.”
“Got what he asked for.” One of his companions sneered, spitting into the dirt.
“Is that right?” I asked, and the leader grunted.
“What’s in the cart?” he asked, nodding towards Halleston.
“It’s empty, actually,” I answered.
“I think we’ll be the judge of that.”
“Then we’re going to have an issue.”
The man blinked, surprised, and opened his mouth to reply when Grapple appeared.
The fernhound came from behind, an indistinct blur as she leapt at one of the men – the spitter – and bore him to the ground with a snarl. He gave a high-pitched shriek as canine jaws sank into the back of his neck, and as the other men instinctively whirled to look Baen and I moved.
My rapier whispered from its sheathe and I lunged, arm extending and sword stabbing deep into the side of the leader’s neck as he turned. He gave a gurgling roar, already choking on his own blood, and grabbed at the wound as I pulled my blade free. Blood frothed, and he fell to writhe in the mud.
Another man fell, Baen’s hatchet buried in his skull, and I saw her bodily tackle another man to the ground, saving Grapple the vicious kick he had been about to deliver as the hound savaged his companion.
That left just one, who roared as he slashed at my neck with a heavy sword. I ducked under it, revelling in the sudden rush of adrenaline that surged through me, and swept up diagonally with my rapier. He had overbalanced, spinning nearly a full circle with his own momentum, and cried out as I felt the tip of my sword slash up his back. Not a deep wound, but a painful one. Good. After Tianne, the weather, the boredom of the road and the barbarism we’d stumbled across it felt good to hurt this man.
I stepped back, letting him steady himself and felt a fierce, angry joy flow through me. My opponent turned, more careful now, affording me a measure of wariness. He clearly knew how to use his sword, as I could see it floating steadily in his vision, not held shakily as an amateur might. As it always did in battle, however, it was his eyes that betrayed him.
A moment before he struck, he glanced at my right side, and I wove easily aside to avoid the oncoming thrust. I saw an opening, ignored it, and let the next strike sail harmlessly past my weaving head. He bellowed at me, and I painted a fake expression of shock on my face as I let the return stroke descend.
I remembered trying to explain to Cymea once, long ago, before she betrayed me with Lucan, exactly what it was like for me as a mesmer to create and control duplicates of myself. She had not understood, not really, nor had anyone who wasn’t a mesmer. I had tried to explain that it wasn’t a thought, but a simple action as normal to me as moving a quill across paper to write was for her. All it took was a brief thought, an understanding of the right motions to make, and it just happened.
To write, she needed to know the correct patterns, the correct motions to make and then her mind did the rest to steer her hand. The same was true of my clones. I understood what I looked like, better than most, given my eyes, and so I understood the motions. I willed it in the same way anyone else willed their hand to move, and it happened.
The surprised look stayed on the clone’s face as the bandit’s sword cut deep into its throat. Illusionary blood erupted from the wound, and I allowed it to scream before ending its brief existence. My opponent’s roar of triumph faded, and I could only imagine his look of horror as the clone dissolved into violet shards, falling like broken glass, and I loomed into view behind it. He tried to move, instinctively bringing his free hand up to shield his face, but he was far too slow for his desperation to amount to anything.
My arm snapped out, rapier stabbing through my crumbling illusion, through the bandit’s hand, into his mouth and through till the point emerged from the back of his neck. The blade scraped against bone, and his breath became a wet gurgle. I twisted the sword as he stared at my rain-drenched face, felt him jerk, then his vision went dark. Mine faded with it, and I withdrew my weapon as he toppled like a felled tree.
I turned my attention to the last two bandits just as Baen slammed her opponent into the dirt, took his head in her hands and snapped his neck with a wet popping noise. She rose as the last bandit finally threw Grapple off and staggered to his feet. Dazed, he stared at each of the bodies of his dead fellows and my bloody rapier.
“You want him?” Baen asked, planting her boot on the face of her first kill to help her wrench her axe free of his skull.
“He doesn’t look like he can fight,” I said. “Too craven by half.”
“So is that a no?” she asked, tearing a strip of cloth from a corpse’s tunic and wiping her axe blade clean with it. “I’m in no mood for your vagueness.”
The survivor, clutching at his bloody neck, tried to choke out something that might have been words, but whatever it was ended in a gasp as I flicked my rapier across his throat. He clutched at his wound, trying to stem the sudden flow of blood, but his vision was already darkening as Baen tossed me another scrap of cloth. He collapsed to his knees and fell flat on his face as I wiped my blade free of gore. I held it up, and Baen dutifully looked it up and down so that I could scan for further blood before sheathing it.
“We should do something about the bodies.”
“Why bother? Let the ravens have them.” I scoffed, pulling my hood back over my head to shield my face from the rain.
“Not them.” Baen shook her head. “Them.” She nodded towards the bandits’ victims.
I considered trying to argue with her. The travellers were dead, their deaths were avenged. Was there really any sense in taking the time to build a pyre, dig a grave or cart them to Nebo Terrace with us? I recognised her tone of voice all too well, however, and knew she’d not take another step down the road till this was addressed.
So, biting back my protests, we loaded the bodies into the shaken Halleston’s cart and cleared enough of the road for us to pass. Baen took a few moments to look through the wagon, procuring a few small supplies their former owners would no longer need, pragmatic even as she insisted on delaying us.
“Thing are getting worse,” Halleston said when the carnage behind us was out of sight, his first attempt at stringing more than two words together in the past hour. “More and more people turning to banditry.” Baen grunted. “Something’s got to be done. Centaurs are just one of the problems. Between the unrest about Ebonhawke, the charr, and let’s not forget about the dragons…” I let the scholar ramble on, instead noting that Baen’s eyes kept flicking back to the corpses lying with us in the back of the cart.