He had killed fifty-six. All women. All for the same ruthless cause.
Some, he had not been personally familiar with, though the outcome never changed through his association. He did know this one; the youngest of the Gilee family. All a decent and prudent sort, except for the father, who was proven to possess an awful temper when found bludgeoning a Brownie in public four years earlier. Thorin almost wished he could murder Old Man Gilee instead, but the daughter wore the moths, and she would be his only target this night.
Death had a silent step, through skill and necessity. They all died quietly – the official assassinations, at least. But he wouldn’t get sidetracked by those thoughts. Not while he needed to focus. His gaze slid up the wall, past the dull rumpling of heavy fabric banners decorating the front of the household. As his sight reached the distant glass above, he let his eyes shut, and slipped into the magic of his shadowed Talent with familiar ease.
The third-storey window unlatched and swung open without the aid of physical hands.
Resting within a canopied bed lay the woman’s slight form under soft, embroidered quilts. Silvery thread which formed decorative stitching caught the moonlight and glittered, while tiny pearl beads gave the appearance of dewdrops across waves of fabric. Her long tousled hair spread across bulky pillows in the monochrome of the night, leaving her dusky against the fair bedding. Two delicate spots of lightness shifted against the contrast of her brow. They moved with unease.
A drifting black fog twined and amassed beside the spacious bed. Billows in the mist crowded together and lifted away from the floor to form an uncertain shape, reminiscent of a monster with tentacles and claws which shifted and vanished from one moment to the next. The tangible darkness pulled inward, swirling tighter until it condensed into a solid body once more. A warrior standing in place of the mist, all shades of white and pale grey. Thorin was darkness no longer.
He eased himself closer to the woman nestled in the centre of the mattress. One hand supported his weight, while the other reached for her with a wisp of midnight fog curling from his outstretched fingertips. Just as he brushed a light caress against her warm, exposed neck, the mist straightened into the thin shape of a leaf. The rigid black lanceoloate bore a razor-sharp edge and left a dark answering line across her skin. Clean. An expert puncture. True unconsciousness in seconds from immediate loss of blood-pressure, and almost instantaneous death with her weakening heart pumping the life down her throat.
One soundless twitch. The aethereal blade dissolved. Her wound seeped a thin trail of blood.
The assassin stood back and began weaving his fingers through the air. His motion held a quality of dance and unspoken communication, as if he wrote a touching eulogy upon the space between them. When the silent expression came to a mournful yet distant end, he bowed low to the cooling corpse. The twin white spots which previously turned through her hair had flown or faded away with the end of her promising life; a scene the warrior felt regretfully familiar with. Drawing on an unsurprising resolve, he ignored the part of himself which traitorously thought, One less Arlon.
This deed accomplished, Thorin departed the way he came. His body dematerialised to the blackened wind and took its leave through the open window to whistle and drift out toward the regal city which slept on in ignorance. Tall stone buildings matched tall, ancient trees; the architecture of the Capitol sharing space with the great magic forest.
The pane pulled closed with a faint thud and accompanying click as the lock re-latched within, hiding the wretched scene behind curtain and glass, away from the full Hunter’s Moon. A sombre parade of Deurg would soon arrive to claim the deceased, with the Faeries of the Dead tolling their bells through the city in a bitter mockery of its name, Belfew.
He had killed fifty-seven. All women. All in the name of the false Priestess, Huna.
Around a stone pedestal, one of the few which sat devoid of any statues or carvings, someone had strung great strands of glittering beads. The disorganised choice of gems coupled with the drooping lines seemed like a luxurious, aged spider web ensnaring the column. Across the hallway, a sister podium carried an elegant cat bed where one of the grey house cats currently lay in a twitching ball, dreaming.
A curved ceiling of thin stained-glass windows let the moonlight inside to cast rainbows of muted colour across white tile floors. Warm scents of cakes and pastries filled with sugared fruits seeped out through the open doorway from the expansive room beyond.
A golden haired, waifish woman surveyed these empty leisure chambers from a high backed chair. Ornate carvings along its wooden frame lent a throne-like quality to the design; the precise reason why Ynnis chose the seat for herself. Certainly, there were other chairs which were far more comfortable to recline and take her late supper in, but such appearances reminded others of her status as a close friend to High Priestess Huna.
She raised an illogically fragile teacup to her plump, mulberry painted lips, and drank deeply of the mild tea. The young Turin girl, Amele, had levitated in with the liquid at the exact temperature Ynnis enjoyed. Hardly warm enough for steam to rise from the surface of the drink. A good servant like Amele could be invaluable to keep around, even with her race’s uncanny disposition for hovering an inch off the ground. The blonde lady had an appreciation for any hireling who recalled her preference without having to be reminded every time. Without needing a sharp cuff when they failed her again.
Two men positioned beside Ynnis stared in opposite directions, stony and seeing all of the nothing which transpired around them. In the lull of the night, she noticed when both her guards stood a little straighter. Their shift meant one thing; they caught sight of someone drawing nearer. She found her lips curling in a smile of satisfaction. Even after all these years, she couldn’t hear Thorin’s approach when he wanted to walk silently through the chambers, so she watched for the subtle acknowledgement of Irik and Kata to determine when her pale assassin came to stop behind her chair. She greeted him without turning.
‘How fares your evening, Thorin?’
‘Well, my lady.’
Their simple code expressed the successful completion of his latest assignment. She stared away across the dim room, feeling indulgent and assured in her life.
‘That is excellent news, indeed. Come, sit with me a while, enjoy a snack.’
‘Yes, my lady.’
Before the warrior could join her in eating plum cake, a dainty figure swayed into Ynnis’ line of sight. Her expression froze, locked into a polite smile. The evening veered away from pleasantries as the elfin woman anticipated an inconvenience; the last girl chosen by the moths was dead, so what could draw Huna out of the inner sanctum at this time?
The High Priestess wore one of her unavoidable full hooded white robes. The diaphanous fabric hid very little of her tight undergarments from sight, though the thicker bunches of fabric before her face obscured the woman’s features. Most importantly, the covering also hid Huna’s deception. Three people among all the Ba’leilon knew for certain that her holiness had lost the insect crown; the High Priestess herself, Ynnis, and Thorin as their murderous accomplice.
Standing to receive the veiled woman, Ynnis made a half-curtsey and hailed softly, ‘My beloved High Priestess, you honour us with your presence. May I send for any comforts you wish?’
‘The gods are busy this night, Lady Ynnis.’
The words drove a thread of disquiet through the blonde woman. This certainly was unusual. Anything out of the ordinary vexed her, yet she hid the concern, waiting for her leader to speak again.
‘They landed upon another,’ Huna said.
Already? Very irregular. Enough to make Ynnis uncustomarily nervous. She nodded and leaned in, close and secretive. ‘You only need to speak her name.’
The High Priestess turned and glided back to her den of contemplation. She gave no further directive, nor acknowledgement of what plans would be put into motion. The translucent fabric of her robes swayed with some hint of self-assurance. Ynnis had been dependable for too many years. Doubt was inconceivable.
But this time, Lacilegwen. Young, rebellious, the picture of dissidence. Uncontrollable, an infuriating agent of change. Wild. Passionate. Too much like her father. What were the gods playing at? They had to be desperate to choose the unseasoned girl, but why? Why Lacilegwen? Had the deities begun paying closer attention after all this time? Did they think their selection was more likely to survive the plot held between Huna and Ynnis than the others?
‘My lady?’ her assassin murmured, interrupting her speculation.
The blonde lady spoke as if in a daze, ‘My daughter has been chosen by the elder gods to rule the Ba’leilon. My daughter is the next High Priestess.’
After another long silence, he clarified, ‘Lacilegwen?’
‘Yes, of course Lacilegwen. As if I have other children. You know what this means.’
‘There are possibilities, my lady.’
‘So there are.’ Ynnis had a moment of hesitation, tapping her fingertips against her lips as she deliberated further. ‘Escort me to my chambers. I need time to think.’
Needing no directive, the two other guards fell in beside the tall woman as she strode away, their many varied weapons jangling. Thorin trailed behind, silent and swift as their group wound through the labyrinthine court. Ynnis knew she held a significant amount of leverage over Huna. But the status she could gain by being mother to the High Priestess! Did she have anything remotely useful to use against Lacilegwen, apart from magic alone? The kinds of Talents Ynnis employed would be enough to cow far stronger sorcerers than her daughter, though utilising those powers came with other complications. The girl had left Belfew a number of years earlier, so there were few personal ties to be manipulated. All a matter of planning, then.
Her narrow heeled shoes clipped over the tile floors, echoing within the vaulted passage, ominous despite the soft colours and casual finery surrounding them. Bursting through a set of looming wooden doors, they entered Ynnis’ abode. In the first room, a collection of the smaller Bachobl faekinds sat around a table playing a card game. The moment their mistress walked through their midst, their cards were disappeared into pockets and pouches and the various beings scrambled to make themselves useful. A grey-bearded Nisse cast his glowing eyes over the four tall Ba’leilon, the aged fae Ynnis’ choice of night guard for her residence for as long as anyone could remember.
Pixies with their blue skin and long wings hovered in the air, taking a cape from their lady and hanging it inside her closet. As the others bowed and offered comforts in low voices, she flapped her hands and made them return to their leisures. A couple of wary glances were shared between the smallest fae. They felt the tension brewing around their mistress and weren’t reassured by her unusual preoccupation. She ignored them and continued further into her home with Irik and Kata still pacing her. The head of her Bachobl attendants, a stout Brownie man by the name of Stellon, ushered them toward the ready refreshments in Ynnis’ sitting room before he extracted himself and closed the door between them with a muted thud.
The elfin woman turned and gave her three guards a hard, measuring look. She dropped herself into an oversized plush armchair while they stood to attention. The velvet shifted shades beneath her dragging fingernails, light and darker maroon to match the other red-based tones filling the house. Ynnis’ own colouring, pale and golden, received a stark contrast from the hues she preferred and made her into a shining jewel in the centre of her rooms.
Her movements stilled. ‘There are two options available to me.’
‘A daughter is closer than just a friend,’ Thorin said, implying the same thoughts she had given herself over to.
‘Yes, but Lacilegwen? This will be difficult from every conceivable angle.’
‘You do not have another direct female relative, my lady.’
Her dark blue eyes flashed to the guard, caustic in their beauty. ‘Do you not imagine the gods ever choosing me, Thorin?’
As always, she would have loved to see just a little flinch in reaction. Something to prove the significant power she held over the dangerous man left him fearing her displeasure. But her assassin had perfected an unaffected, stoic expression around her, and they both knew he would not respond to the lash. She fumed at his disregard for the underlying threat to her question.
‘We cannot rely on chance and possibilities any more than we have to this point.’ His voice murmured across the air, full of calm respect. ‘We have protected Huna’s mistruths only for her value to you.’
‘Can we keep my daughter in check, though?’
‘Of course, my lady.’
‘What of her little run-ins with the Council?’
‘She was but a child. Many Ba’leilon suffer great immaturity in their first hundred years, and there is little to be done about it. By stepping away from the city, she has learnt much in this world is not the way it seemed from a girl’s perspective.’
‘Have you been paying her visits, then?’ she asked, sweetness overlaying the sudden deep suspicion.
‘You have sent me to perform surveillance on the Hebbodyn in the human town to the South a number of times. I deemed it astute to look in on your daughter to ensure she had not become involved in anything, or with anyone, worse than what she already left behind,’ he explained smoothly. ‘I asked her neighbours what they observed – you know she would not care to admit to me if she finally saw some reason. This is how I know of Lacilegwen’s delayed maturation. Her ascension shows promise, should you wish to cast Huna out of the chair.’
Ynnis nodded, placated by the assurance. She could feel her objectives coming together so beautifully. A glance to her other guards showed neither Kata nor Irik displayed a reaction to any of this news, even though they had just been brought into one of the most selective of confidences.
‘Do you have anything to add?’ the woman enquired with an overt nonchalance to hide her genuine curiosity.
Both men’s posture was displaced by surprised uncertainty. As guards, they weren’t meant to have opinions, much less share whatever insights they might have. They answered with, ‘No, my lady,’ in unison, but Ynnis heeded the way Irik’s eyes stayed cautiously raised, where Kata’s sight lowered in respect.
The blonde lady smiled, returning her full attention to her assassin. He would have a variation on his mission this time.
‘Then you must go to her. Bring her back here. I will make the announcement tonight.’
The Loughvire warrior hesitated. Ynnis tilted her head to the side, watching him struggle with her directive.
‘Is there a problem, Thorin?’
‘Would it not be more pertinent to wait until she is safely within Belfew before the announcement is made?’
Ynnis smirked, the cruel thoughts which ran through her mind lighting up her eyes in a way those closest to her had learnt to dread. ‘No, this gives you an incentive to work quickly. Bring her back before the three day deadline, no matter what. If the Council demands her sacrifice because of some inability you might have to bring her home with due haste, you will suffer. Endlessly.’
The other guards twitched at her blunt promise. Such a punishment, should Lacilegwen fail to be delivered to her mother, had not been an idle threat. Ynnis could make her victims envy the dead.
Thorin bowed his head as he told her, ‘I shall attend to Lacilegwen and see her safely returned to take her rightful place as High Priestess.’
With a satisfied chuckle, the slender lady lounged back. ‘Very good. Go now.’
Available 13 November, 2013.by Author