” Blood shed Blood death
The blood rain will come”
“The blood shall rain down on your dead bodies
The Blood city will drown in it’s own blood”
Whispers in the wind
In a city far south of the Vulcano is a place called Windy desert.
The sun is almost always present, but there is little warmth given from the golden rays. This far south, touching the most southern hemisphere, there is only wind and cold savannah. In this harsh environment, only the harsh can survive.
The small villages are scattered around the country close to the sparse placed hills. The houses are built with hard packed mud or dug out from the hills. It’s a easy living, but it’s sufficient. High buildings or tents is simply not possible to raise out in the desert country, it would easily be carried away by the wind.
Despite the wind the inhabitants call some places cities. This one city to the west is called Eyeless and have a man-high mud packed wall formed like an eye around it. Inside live a few hundred households protected from the harshest wind and storms. The houses are yellowish brown, the color from the sandstone they’ve been carved out from.
On top of one of sandstone houses a young woman crouches, her long hair flowing in the wind like a stream of red fire. From the roof she can see far towards the horizon. Nothing but sand in the wind as usual. What is she really looking for day after day? But she knows.
Elthana Bloodrain was the only redhead in the city, until another red haired woman moved into the city five years ago. This woman, Ikana Heartbeat’s face, hair and body have an uncanny resemblance to Elthana’s. It didn’t take many days until she snuck onto Ikanas roof despite her Warders warnings and talk about “you are not allowed” “we forbid you”. Elthana mouthed the words irritatedly into the air.
Ikana is Elthanas blood mother, of this she is sure. As sure as in her skill in dancing in the wind.
Every evening since Elthana and her mother met for the first time, she’d practiced her forms on the roof, balancing in the wind and every day she watched over the desert. She watched for the Gatherings assassins, the White masked. It wasn’t very likely she would notice the assassins arrival, still she watched.
Elthana stood up and let the brown cloaked fabric she usually had veiled around her face and head flow behind her in the wind. The head cloak was typical for all people from her home Eyeless city. Other areas in Windy desert hade other type of fabric wrapped around their head when they went out.Skillfully she spinned her long curved daggers in the air, and put them into two scabbards fastened at each side of her belt. For a moment Elthana let her eyes close and the only feeling was the wind in her hair and her feet holding her firm on the roof. An outlander would have a hard time standing in the wind like this, for her, it was life.
Before slipping down the roof hatch she glanced over at her mother’s house and listened. Only the wind and sand. She and her mother needed to stay away from each other for a while. Questioners from the Blood city had come by two weeks ago and claimed they performed a routine visit to some of the warders. “To make sure the children are treated right” they had lied. Filthy sun shaders lying outright like that. They had questioned her alone later that night, asking about the only other redhaired woman in town. One of them had held a tight grip around Elthanas wrist the whole time, no doubt feeling her pulse for lies. After all questions were asked they’d left without another word. They knew Elthana thought that the other red haired woman was her mother, enough proof for the Gathering to order someone murdered. Elthana had waited for the assassins ever since. She had seen the Questioners lurking around in the village, but no sign of any assassins. Not this day either, maybe tomorrow her time was up.
Elthana gracefully jumped down the roof hatch that served as her door to the freedom of outdoors. When she was young she used to call it the heaven door, because when you opened the hatch and climbed up it looked like you were climbing towards the heaven. Now she closed it behind her without a second glance.
On the floor below she heard her Warders talking with their normal voices, they didn’t know she was back. Spring Sidewind and Elton Sandworm was selected as her wardes after she was taken from her blood parents a month after her birth. Ever since the Great blood war two hundred years ago no parent was allowed to keep the child they gave birth to, their blood child. Instead the Gatherings subordinates came and took the babies away, mixed them up in the Blood city with all the other gathered from that month and then shipped the bundles of small humans out to different houses and villages. If you give birth to a child you get another child. It is the law. Every child is guaranteed one or two warders as replacement for their blood parents. It is the law.
Elthana almost snorted, the law, it’s a joke that’s what it is. Her warders downstairs, her substitute parents, is kind and all but she didn’t like the fact that they forbade her to see her blood mother. Though to them Ikana Heartbeat should only be another woman in the city, but they knew, how could they not. Elthana and Ikana is more alike than any other two persons she’d ever seen.
The Warders voices reached Elthana’s ear.
“She spends too much time on the roof, practicing. I’m sure she only stares after the other one with blood hair” Spring said whilst clattering with the dishes.
“If you listen close you’d hear her move, and I’ve seen her practice her forms up there” Elton said with a softer voice. Spring snorted loudly and Elthana wanted to snort back.
“Sure she does, but for how long? You know she’s been seeing that forsworn behind the wind.” Elton hushed his heart loudly.
“Watch what you’re saying my heart, the wind carries the word even indoors.”
Elthana couldn’t take it anymore, it’s the same talk every night. What she should or shouldn’t do. What to work with. Whom to see, whom not to see. She was over it already. If she hadn’t already tried to join the sworn assassins at the Blood city and been harshly denied she wouldn’t be here anymore. Humiliated and alone she had no choice. No true occupation, no escape from the Warders. Apparently the Blood city didn’t accept any assassins with red hair. One of them had slipped out “too close to the blood line”, but only the wind know what that meant. Her hands rested on the hilt of her daggers. She should put them down and go to bed. She should, but something didn’t feel right. It was quiet outside, very quiet.
“I’m going to sleep” she shouted from where she stood beside her bed.
“No need to shout Elthana, we hear you. I hope your forms flowed right in the wind, see you for breakfast” Elton shouted almost as loudly back. Really there was no need for shouting in the small hour. Her room and storage in the loft, and two rooms at ground level.
“Don’t encourage her to continue with those silly things” Spring hissed in a low voice and Elthana closed the door maybe a little harder than needed.
One of many things Elthana prided herself with was her stealth techniques. She could almost pass by people on the open savannah or in broad daylight without them noticing if they had their cloaks up. Though it was far easier at night with shadows to hide in.
Elthana looked out of the thin vertical window. Everything seemed as usual but her stomach told her something wasn’t right. Call it the sixth sense or woman’s intuition, but it was something. An uncanny feeling of silent whispers in the wind. This was not a night to stay in and sleep quietly. She blew out the lonely candle and wrapped the head cloak around her head, her torso and tucked it in under her belt. Without getting noticed she slipped down the stairs and out into the narrow streets. She needed to move as soundless as the stars shone.
With light steps she moved in the shadows, two houses away she dared to peek out to view her own house. She’d been right. Something was definitely not as usual. On top of her roof three black cloaked and white masked figures stood crouched. One felt on something on the roof. The roof hatchet. They were going to break in. Elthana heart started to beat faster and she could feel her muscles fill with adrenalin. Her thought and breathing remained calm. “All events follow Thalassadors movements, to keep up you must flow with the wind”, Elthana recited to herself.
If they broke in and didn’t find Elthana on the top floor, they would go down to find her Warders. Spring and Elton would end up with her fate – dead as stones. Elthana felt her stomach turn, realizing that maybe this was one of the reasons her Warders forbade her to see her Blood mother. If they died, it was her fault. Now was not the time to feel guilt, only time to act.
As one with the shadows she moved closer the her house. From a small space between two houses she could see them clearly. Holding herself up with the legs in the four foot wide space she juggled a small rock in her hand and then threw it up high. Seconds passed by, one of the masked assassins opened the hatchet, and the stone made a barely audible thump on the roof on the other side. Her heart thumped harder than the stone, she hadn’t actually killed anyone before. No time to think, only time to act. The assassins all shifted their attention towards the sound from the stone and as their heads swung Elthana pushed herself up on the ledge of the roof and leaped forward over the two men long distance to her house.
In the air one knife flew towards the assassin to the right. As the knife hit home in the assassin’s throat Elthana got two pair of sharp eyes on her. Before they had time to react more Elthana landed behind the one that still stood almost turned away from her. She rounded her curved knife around the assassins throat. With the gurgled sound of blood in one’s trachea/throat she crouched to dodge the third assassins thin, arm long sword and let her other curved dagger slide in under the end of the assassins protection leather up towards the heart. The white mask made no sound but the had time to grab Elthana’s arms desperately before the body became dead weight. Elthana lowered the body down quietly with heartbeats pounding in her ears.
She had no idea how much sound she’d made. The first two bodies probably made sound as they fell, she couldn’t recall. How long had it taken since she jumped? A few seconds? Minutes? And now… Blazing sun, the bodies! Elthana stood crouched over the third assassin and looked at the bodies and then over the moonlit rooftops.
Blazing sun, what had she done? What should she do now?
Blood red hair
Silently get rid of one girl and a woman, Ethana Bloodrain and Ikana Heartbeat. Two females that’s easily spotted by their blood red hair. Kill them and take proof of death with you, without anyone noticing. That was the order from the Gathering. Sounded easy enough. The order had been sent out and executed perfectly by Theodore and his band several times before. Never had they failed. Failing meant years of humiliation and living as one of the servants in the Blood city. Though, never had they before tried to kill another assassin. At least not without knowing that the target was an assassin. There are no records of assassins in this village.
The girl sat over one of his men like a predator protecting its prey and looked around the rooftops. No… not like a predator. The body language seemed uncertain. Her head twitched from side to side and probably unaware she patted the dead body’s chest.
Was this her first time killing someone? Surely not. Her extremely silent moves and forms must come from years of professional training. The only disturbing sounds from the fight had come from the first dead man falling to the roof and the gurgling sound from the second kill. Whilst dodging his third man’s sword swing she’d managed to lower the dying body towards the ground without making any sound. It took no more than seven seconds from the moment the first knife struck to when her curved long dagger pierced the heart of the third man. He’d never seen such beautiful wind dance before. She’d moved like part of the wind, with it not against it. He wished he could see her eyes.
The blood from the bodies started to cover the roof, fortunately the roof door seemed to be a bit elevated. There would be no blood dripping into the house.
Theodore shook his head slowly.
He could not report this, no one would believe him and he would be punished harshly for failing and lying. The tolerance towards lying was even smaller that for failing.
Theodore grinded his teeth. He needed to overcome this stupid awe and confusion about this girl and think of a plan to kill her before she made a ruckus and warned her warders. Letting anyone find out there were White masks in the village was out of the question.
As Elthana started to gingerly push the dead bodies together Theodore darted around three houses to reach her house and started to climb up on almost invisible ledges on the wall behind her. Black as a shadow he moved, the close fitted fabric of a mixture between leather and grass fibers kept the night’s cold away, made no sound when moving and gave good camouflage during the night. Slowly he eased one of his swords out of the scabbard, the dull black metal gave off no shine in the moonlight.
He imitated the move she’d made on his assassins and threw a small stone high over the roof and waited for the small sound it made on the ground on the other side before he sneaked up.
With a stinging cut on his cheek a small grey knife flew by his head. Not fooled by the stone, Elthana had instead assumed that the source of the sound came from the opposite direction and thrown a knife before actually seeing an enemy. Fool. He was a fool for thinking she would fall for her own trick.
As he rolled onto the roof his right hand threw three thin throwing knives at her that scattered in the air. She ducked low with one leg spread out and her hands clasping two curved long knives. Her form was exquisite, her long leg stretching out for miles.
Coming up in a crouch he took out his other thin, short sword. For a fraction of a second they faced each other. Both down close to the roof, both with a weapon in each hand. Then they threw themselves forward, the steel on steel screaming in the silent wind that pushed at their bodies.
The two dark clothed assassins danced around in the music of clashing swords. Elthana’s light brown eyes stared coldly and followed his every move. Behind the white mask, his face was set determinedly. He would not fail this mission.
One of his swords manage to cut her over the waist, but apparently it was mainly fabric he cut loose because the air filled with brown smooth cloth. Elthana took advantage of the situation and flung up the released fabric in his face like dark water and suddenly he was airborne, his feet kicked away from underneath him. Theodore blindly swung his sword forward as he fell and must’ve at least almost hit her because nothing sharp pierced his body. Catching himself hard on the roof with one elbow and a knee he grabbed hold of the dark cape pushed himself backward, using his own body weight as leverage he pulled at the fabric as hard as he could. First he could feel pulling her body towards him, he could see her bending forward from the force. He readied his sword for another swing. Then abruptly she cut the cape off and they both stumbled back. The small amount of head cape still attached to her fell down around her neck and the wind tugged her long red hair loose, flowing in the wind like a river of blood.
Theodore gaped and could do nothing but stare. Her face, the fierce stance, the flowing hair in the wind. She looked exactly like the statue of the thousand year old blood queen standing in the hall of the history’s most dangerous assassins. Why did they look so much alike?
She looked at him with disgust.
“What, you changed your mind now that you see I am a woman? You disgust me” she snorted.
“That’s not it” Theodore started to say as he rose to standing up. “You…” Theodore and Elthana froze as they heard voices from down in the house.
“Elthana, is that you?” a male voice shouted worriedly.
Theodore pointed at the startled girl, or woman as she actually looked his age.
“You, you get down there right now. Keep this quiet and I might let your warders live out their lives” Theodore whispered between clasped teeth and was ready to push her down if necessary. First she looked like she was going to object, but after a glance at the dead bodies she pointed one of her blades towards his neck and narrowed her eyes to thin lines. Without saying a word the red haired woman made it perfectly clear that she didn’t like his threats. To his relief she jumped smoothly down the door in the roof and closed it shut after her.
Theodore bent down by the wooden planks, ready to kill if anyone popped their head out.
“I heard noises” the man said.
“I couldn’t sleep so I practised my forms on the roof” Elthana said and loudly put down her weapons on something made out of wood.
“But you never make this much sound” the man said doubtfully.
“I tried something new. I thought I’d have some dummy sword to practise against.”
“Oh, how’d it go?”
“Flawless” she said and drew out on the ‘s’. Theodore wanted to cut her throat for being so complacent. She knew he would listen in.
After the male warder finally left Theodore made sure to bar up the small door with his most insignificant small dagger. He didn’t like being out in the open but he needed to make sure no one saw the bodies and he needed to wait for Elthana to go to sleep.
Never had he expected this outcome when he came to the village two days ago. His scouts had located the target, followed her and found out where she lived. Theodore had kept it low key as usual. He was the leader of his small band of three assassins, or had been, but he liked them to do the research on the target. He himself kept an eye on his assassins and learned how to read the village if something went wrong. It never went wrong, but Theodore always made sure to have a plan if it did. The last two days had given him time to find the good hiding places, where to easily dispose of a body and where you could sneak in the shadows.
Theodore placed a hand on the chest of one of his fallen assassins. He thought that he should feel bad for them, wouldn’t a normal person feel bad with the death of another human? Though, the white masked assassins wasn’t normal humans. Trained under unthinkable conditions, tortured to keep secrets, brainwashed with the good of The Blood City. Besides, he barely knew them, they’d only worked together for one year.
For hours Theodore sat silently on the roof. The thin slice of moon gliding over the canopy of starspotted darkness. He glanced through his mask at the dead bodies for the hundredth time and then at the barricaded door.
What to do next?
With a jump Elthana startled awake from her squatting position on the bed. She grabbed tighter around the curved daggers and was ready to cut anything that moved. Nothing moved. She could hear voices out on the street, the sun was up shining through the thin slices in the wall that served as windows. What time was it? She couldn’t remember falling asleep.
Minutes passed, the familiar chatter of more and more voices outside slowly calming her down. With shaking muscles she lowered the daggers to the bed and stretched out her half asleep legs. Elthana had waited for this day, known it would come eventually, but she wasn’t ready to die yet.
A few days back Elthana had noticed that the questioners stayed behind in the village after the yearly inquisition. Rumours said that they stayed behind only when an assassination had been ordered. They were to observe and make sure the assassination was successful. She’d understood death was near.
Never had she dreamt of outsmarting and actually killing three assassins. Three white masked assassins from the Blood city. Elthana swore out loud.
“Blasted wasteland, what should I do now?” Her eyes fell on the wooden door in the roof. She was afraid of what to find up there. She was afraid someone else would find it before her. She was also afraid of the fact that killing three people hadn’t affected her as it should’ve. Didn’t normal people become shaken after killing someone? Didn’t they feel sad for the lives they cut short? During her hours awake last night waiting for the fourth to come down through the door she’d thought about the killing she’d done. The lack of guilt she blamed on the fact that she’d never seen their faces, where they even human? Some villagers said they were creatures from the shadows.
The fact that she actually felt joy over being able to kill someone… that scared her more than anything. Did all assassins enjoy killing? A barrel falling over outside her window made her jump. She cursed, since when had she become a jumper?
She couldn’t stay here for long. One of the assassins had escaped when Elton had shouted for her. Sunburn, she could’ve killed the fourth as well if her warder Elton hadn’t interrupted. That would’ve given her some more time to prepare for whatever she had to do. Now the killer could be anywhere.
Too many could and would. She needed to decide what to do now. As she stepped off the bed she yawned widely, her foggy head trying to figure out a plan. Elthana stripped out of her clothes from yesterday, they were dirty and torn. She grimaced as the cloth tore loose from her blood clotted wound at her waist. It started bleeding again, of course, she sighed. The slash was a horizontal shallow line at the edge of her ribcage. It was covered with dried blood and small threads from her clothes.
After a quick cleaning in the water barrel and some ointments on the wound, she dressed in another set of leathers. Her warder Spring had put two dresses in the clothing chest, hoping that Elthana would get tired of playing with her swords and daggers. Spring hoped that Elthana would outgrow this childish wish to be an assassin. “The village didn’t need assassins, they needed farmers, builders and good wives”. Elthana snorted as she pulled up high leather boots up to her thigh, like she’d ever be a wife to anyone. And she did help out with the family business to help the elderly in the city. A part of Elthana actually enjoyed Springs lessons in ointments and healing. She liked to help the helpless. Though only the wind knew. If her warders knew they would throw away her weapons for good and proclaim they did what was best for her. Elthana was surprised they hadn’t already.
She tied the boots up and slipped in a dagger in each. Over a thin black long shirt reaching her thies, she put on her favorite leather shirt. It was tight to the body, satisfactory making her feel every muscle as she moved. Same wonderful feeling with the dark brown leather protection she strapped on her arms. Three steel needles were stored in each arm and two small daggers in the leather shirt. She slid down her clean curved knives down into the scabbards attached on the tightly strapped belt. The black head scarf was ruined from the night before. She took her big sandy brown head scarf and wrapped it loosely around her neck and then around her body. She fastened everything with a black leather cord. Before pulling up the scarf over her head she braided her long hair tightly. She needed to be able to see everything clearly.
Climbing up the wall outside the house would raise to many eyebrows, which left only going up the roof door. Elthana was surprised when the door fell open with ease, she could’ve sworn the assassin had barricaded it with something. No sounds coming from above, she threw a pillow straight up a few feet. It fell back down without being pierced with a knife. Elthana didn’t think the man would still be there, but one could not be too careful. With a grab onto the ledge she vaulted her body up on the roof, crouching with both hands on the daggers. Empty. Not empty as in no living person present, empty as in nothing at all. No bodies, no sign of a fight except a few blood stains that easily could be explained by saying it came from her failing in practicing the forms correctly.
After a few moments of breathing and feeling the morning wind filled with sand hitting her face like small needles she drew up the cape over her nose and rose. The wind tugged at the fabric wrapped around her even though it was fastened tightly around her body with the leather cord. The fabric covered all her weapons and at the same time didn’t hinder her movements.
Wherever the fourth assassin went, Elthana was relieved he’d taken his dead comrades with him. He probably didn’t want anyone to know they were here. The Gathering did all their filthy business in the shadows, quiet from the wind.
One problem out of the way. Now she needed to find a way to warn her mother about the assassins, she would probably be a target as well. Jumping down back into her room and closing the door behind her she walked down the stairs and out onto the narrow streets. Almost everyone in the village wore sandy brown clothes and Elthana blended right in. The wind wasn’t as harsh behind the protecting walls and the sun gave more warmth than out in the open cold savannah. Out there everyone wore black to gather every ounce of warmth the sun could give through the greedy wind that carried almost all the heat away.
Even though everything looked normal in the village, Ethana felt non-existing eyes staring at her from every corner. A few people smiled as she passed, why did they smile at her? Why did some people turn away as she came closer? Without turning her head Elthana noticed one pair of eyes following her more than the others. A woman in her middle years pretending to compare fruit while her gaze picked out Elthana in the crowd spread out over the small market-place. Another woman in her middle years walked up to stand beside her.
With the cloak hanging over and partly covering her face no one should be able to recognize her, but to be sure she walked around more houses than needed to reach her mother’s house. Stopping to wait at a few hiding spots, then changing to walk fast a few houses Elthana was after a while certain that no one was following her.
Without knocking on the door she ducked down and entered Ikana Heartbeat’s small abode underneath another house.
“Who enters?” a fierce voice half shouted and half whispered from behind the only wall dividing one big room into two halves.
“It’s me” Elthana said removing the fabric from her head as Ikana peered out from behind the wall.
“Elthana, my blood child. It truly is good to see you.” Ikana walked up and embraced her daughter hard and long. Elthana held her mother close, trying to soak in the love and warmth.
“Are you alright mother?” Elthana asked after a while, pushing Ikana back to take a look at her.
“I am fine child. It is you I am worried about. Last night did not feel just right. Why are dressed with weapons?” Ikana said worriedly spelling out every word as is custom from her village of the northern green hill.
“I’m fine as well, but all is not well. Mother, they’ve sent assassins.” Elthana whispered the last words, glancing around not trusting the walls to keep her words in, the wind was everywhere. Ikana gasped and sadness covered her eyes.
“I am sorry Elthana, I truly am.”
“Sorry mother? For what? Please sit.” Elthana suddenly didn’t trust Ikanas legs to hold her up, she looked near fainting. They both sat down at two barrels serving as both chairs and storage.
“It is all my fault. If I had not come here to search for you…”
“You are my Blood mother. I wish the wind would tell no other story than this one where you are in front of me right now” Elthana said fiercely clasping her mother’s hands. Where they sat facing each other Elthana felt like looking into a mirror of her future self. Ikana had the same facial features, high cheek bones, small lips, sharp eyebrows and of course the flowing red hair. The only big difference was their eyes. Ikana often said Elthana had her father’s eyes, sharp and observant. Always watching, always analysing. To Elthana the biggest difference between them was that her mother was soft, there wasn’t an ounce of warrior in her. Ikana was a born seamstress and proud of her profession. Elthana had never been a calm person. As a child she made enemies instead of friends when she started fighting instead of talking out problems. Being an assassin was in her blood her warder Elton had said a few times until Spring forbade him to talk such nonsense.
Ikana smiled sadly.
“I would wish no other story to be told by the wind either. If I did not find you, I would regret it until my deathbed. But if my selfishness puts you in danger…” Ikanas eyes changed. “When do you think the assassins will strike? We have to get out of here.”
“Mother, they came last night. I killed three of them, but one got away.” Elthana felt a stab in her heart as Ikana flinched and put her hands to her chest.
“You killed them?”
“Oh let the sun shine down on you and give you warmth.” Ikana looked near fainting again.
“Maybe only I should leave, you must think I’m as awful as the white masks.” Elthana stood and prepared to walk away, tears burning behind the eyes.
“No!” Ikana almost shouted, making Elthana jump for the third time this day. Her mother caught her hands and held them as she stood up.
“No my Blood child, in this world we do what we must do. Your father used to say ‘Death will fall upon those who deserve it. The one to deliver it only does what must be done.’ “ Ikana now smiled a sweeter smile as she remembered her lost husband. “Your father was also trained in the profession of assassination, he protected our village from several bands of raiders in his young days.” Ikana curved her mouth in a sad smile when she saw Elthanas surprised expression.
“I did not tell you this before because I did not want to encourage you to continue down this path.” Ikana smoothed her hand over Elthanas cheek meeting her eyes that widened in surprise. “But you are too much alike him, you have chosen your path and your father would have been proud. So proud Elthana. Even though I do not approve, I am also proud.” They were both close to tears and embraced again.
“I wish I could’ve met him” Elthana said in her mother’s hair.
“So do I.”
They separated and Elthana forced her tears to retreat.
“But you are here, and both of us need to be very careful. The questioners are still here, and at least one white masked assassin. It should be a few days at least before reinforcement get here, but we need to be out of the village before they arrive.”
Theodore didn’t need to look twice to see that this specific woman wasn’t one of the crowd. The way she put every foot in front of the other, she moved like a stalking desert cat that was trying not to be spotted. She had glanced at them, though trying to hide it. He was sure she only saw people from the gathering, not him specifically but with her… who knew what she saw.
All leaders among the white masks had another identity among the gathering. The white masks never showed their faces to anyone, so another identity was welcomed when he needed to do the unpleasant task of talking to the gathering.
Elthana Bloodrain had moved like the wind itself last night, and continued to do so during the day. He wished she’d let her red hair out from her head scarf to flow in the wind as she stalked passed by them. He cursed, why would he care about her hair? The mission was killing her and her mother, no matter her haircolor, or more likely because of her and her mother’s hair color.
Theodore couldn’t exactly jump around on the rooftops to look for Elthana during daylight hours, instead he roamed the streets. There weren’t many streets, and still Elthana had lost him an hour ago. The villagers here were as in any other village, living day by day, making their lives move forward. Outwardly they seemed all but happy, but sadness tinged behind everyone’s eyes. In all underground pubs late at night you could hear murmurs of distrust and dislike towards The Gathering. Had it been anyone but him they quiet murmurs would had been quited for good, though he saw no reason to kill anyone for only disliking someone or something. But he wasn’t stupid enough to not know more than dislike weighed behind the words they spoke.
He shook is head, it wasn’t like him to let his thoughts wander like this. Then he did something he hadn’t done since he was five years old, he actually walked straight into another person coming out from a door. He grabbed a pair of thin arms that instantly flexed and muscles tensed underneath the shirts fabric as he stabilized them both.
“I apologize, my mind’s in the wind today” he said and noticed as he got some distance that the person was a female, the garments wrapped around her body showing only her face. Fierce brown eyes stared back at him, the light in them evident in the sunlight.
“I’m fine, you can let go of me now” Elthana said with a sharp voice. Theodore jerked his hands back like he’d gotten a shock. He’d forgotten about his hands when her gaze fell on him. A small strand of red hair tinged the outline of her face, he wanted to touch it. He did not want any such thing! He bowed apologetically with the right arm crossed over his chest.
She shouldn’t be able to recognize him in this outfit as a wandering merchant, but he had spoken. If they started to fight here he would probably loose, he had no weapons but two small knives and even though no weapons showed on Elthana he knew she must be covered with them under all that fabric.
They spoke no more words and he watched her walk away, more like an attacking desert cat than one silently stalking. She was angry, he would be too if someone crashed into him. Or she knew who he was, then why hadn’t she killed him. A mother and a child covered with the same fabric as Elthana walked passed him in the narrow street, he hadn’t even heard them. They walked more like around him and ringed the bell outside door Elthana had stepped out from.
“It’s Meyandra Fourleaves and Mayfair Nightlight for our morning appointment” the woman said. Theodore started walking slowly forward to not seem like a total fool for standing still doing nothing.
“Come in” he heard a muffled voice from inside. Meyandra opened the door and even though he didn’t see the woman’s face he saw the hair. Lighter than Elthanas, the striking red was tinged with orange, but unmistakingly Elthana’s blood mother Ikana Heartbeat. For a week he and his assassins had looked for Ikana without a trace. Elthana had been spotted the first night, training with swords and daggers openly on the rooftop of her house. The only reason they hadn’t attacked that first night was because they needed to know where Ikana were as well. The alarm would surely go in the village if one of them disappeared, then they might never find her mother.
Waiting a week to kill a target was a long time. The Gathering would expect them to be back soon, otherwise they’d send more assassins. That wouldn’t be good at all, he couldn’t afford a failed assassination if he wanted to raise to the top of The Gathering. He needed that power. And now he knew where one of his targets lived, Ikana was the easier target and he would take care of that this night.
The rest of the day Theodore spent trying to keep track of Elthana without being noticed, it was harder now after their close encounter and she knew his face. Not who he was, but his face and if she caught him following her he couldn’t pass by as a merchant lost in a foreign village. Theodore told himself this was the reason why it was hard to keep track of her, but for truth she was one of the best stealth rogue he’d ever seen. Better than most assassins actually. From his observations it seemed like Elthana was preparing to leave the village, that wasn’t a surprise, a normal reaction to being the victim of an assassination attempt. The question was if he had until night to complete his mission or if they’d leave before the night came.
Theodore had resumed his position behind one of the markets stands beside a middle aged woman selling their fruit to customers. The woman was from The Gathering, sent to keep track of Elthana and Ikana’s whereabouts and to report when they went missing. They had been sent without Theodore knowing but he’d spotted them the first day. He had introduced himself as Theodore Shadowstone from the gathering’s second circle of observers. Two women announced themselves as observers from the fourth circle which meant he was placed over them to his relief.
“That’ll be four fifty five” Haula Curlyhair said with a smile, some warders had no imagination when it came to naming their children to keep. Haula was in the forties and as her name implies she had very curly hair, dark brown as her eyes and her light brown skin matching the color of her loose pants and shirt. She was a little plump and looked like the friendliest being on earth, like every mother and grandmother. Theodore couldn’t help waiting for her to tell him to eat more. He himself wasn’t plump at all, some would say skinny, but it was all lean muscle, almost all assassin’s looked like this. It was the best body to do what they did in their profession. Moving silently and killing smoothly.
“I’ve seen Elthana walking through the market several times this day, unusual.” A female voice said behind them. Theodore had sensed Opaka Darkmoon for a while now, saying nothing and letting her be with her thoughts. Opaka was the other woman The Gathering had sent, clearly the analyst of the two. Her dark brown hair was pulled around in a bun on her head, hair strands sloppily sticking out to “fit in among the common folks” she had said. All part of the disguise. Her dark brown skin glittered in the sunlight.
“She seems distressed, did you do something Theodore?” Opaka asked.
“No” he lied, they didn’t need to know about the night’s failure. They hadn’t met the assassins he’d brought, they didn’t know there was only him left.
“I saw some of your friends today Theodore, they were following Elthana pretty openly. You should tell them to be more careful” Haula said like a mother would lecture her child when it got caught going out without enough sun protection.
“What?” Theodore snapped his head towards the curly haired woman.
“Maybe Elthana has noticed them, and that’s why she’s so hasty today. You think she’s running?” Haula raised an eyebrow.
“I doubt she’ll do anything too hasty. I’ll talk to my men” Theodore said icily and walked away with a buzzing head. He had no more friends, their stupid code word for assassins when they were in a village. The Gathering had already sent more assassins. This mission must be very important for them to send observers and another group of assassins. Not good at all.
The sun was slowly setting behind the village walls. Long shadows cast over the market place. Theodore needed to figure out what to do, quickly.
“Why are you telling me this?”
It had been a busy day, running errands for her warders and her own at the same time. A lot of things needed to be prepared before they ran away, she and her blood mother. Elthana couldn’t help but feel a bit of joy to finally live solely with her real mother. Sure, they would be hunted and they needed to hide, but they would be together. At first light they would sneak into carts of the merchants or bribe their way into them. This was a small village, trying to leave unnoticed without hiding during the day or in the night, from who knows how many eyes keeping watch on them, would be almost impossible.
Almost everything was packed; a small bundle lying on her bed and a note under her pillow for her warders. They had to understand. She didn’t really dislike her warders, they’d taken good care of her, but she’d felt like a bad substitute for their blood child her whole life. She wished she could give them back their real child, but he or she would be grown by now, with a life of their own. Just like she planned on having. She and her blood mother would travel from village to village, stray out of sight and somehow make a living without being noticed.
She rested her back on the wall listening to the evening bustle outside, carts creaking, horses hooves on hard packed soil, people talking. She’d miss the sounds of her home, but perhaps it was the same in any village. Elthana had wanted to go back to her birth village, but her mother had advised against it. The Gathering would send people to look there. Besides, Ikana told her, it wasn’t a village but more like five houses in a small hill. But together with around five houses in every of the twelve close by hills it made a pretty big village, but very spread out.
Elthana closed her eyes and let her mind drift as the sound calmed her mind. A black haired man appeared, he had serious dark grey eyes that glistened in the sunlight, a trimmed black beard going up and around his mouth and touching his hair by the ears that made his features even sharper. He was her height and dressed as a merchant with bleached yellow colours. With the hood down she saw his finger long hair going every direction in the wind and his sun tanned face clearly.
She snapped her eyes open angrily, this unknown man had actually crashed into her, then held onto her as if she’d fall over from that little bump. She started pacing back and forth in her small room. It wasn’t the bump itself that bothered her it was two other things; one that she hadn’t noticed him until they crashed together and second that even though she’d never seen that face before he’d seemed very familiar. The voice. She hadn’t been able to place him until she saw him in the market later with the two middle aged women with stares that had bothered her earlier. The women had to be from The Gathering, which meant so was he. She must’ve heard him speaking in the market.
When she’d seen him with the women Elthana wanted nothing else but to run to her mother and run for their lives. Her blood mother needed her protection, at the same time she didn’t dare to go back straight away. What if someone followed? What if someone already had followed her? The black haired man had seen her coming out from the house, but Elthana was sure she’d closed the door before and Ikana would not let anyone in before they announced themselves. She was safe, she had to be.
The room grew darker as the sun set and Elthana lit three candles. She waited until her warders said good night and until the darkness was complete. The front door would surely be observed, maybe even the roof but it would be easier to escape assassins from the roof, or kill them, without anyone else noticing.
She opened the hatch and waited. No sound. She put on the last piece of her disguise and took her bundle before swinging herself up. The night was quiet and not a soul to be seen, even the moon and stars were covered with unusual clouds. When she turned around to pull up the hatchet she froze, the blood in her veins boiling and freezing at the same time. There he was, lazily sitting against the chimney looking ready to murder someone. The dark haired man from The Gathering was angry, very angry, but he didn’t move a muscle, arms still crossed over his chest.
“You waste no time do you? But looting? And are you going to leave the body down there to be found?” he said, dark eyebrows drawn down.
What was she supposed to do now? Her disguise worked better than she’d hoped for, but she couldn’t answer him he would recognize her voice. Slowly she pulled up the hatchet and secured it.
“Well, speak up youngling. What team do you belong to? Where are the others?” He narrowed his grey eyes, studying everything about her and especially her white mask. She’d run around all day trying to find the right things to copy the mask of the white masked assassins. No one really knew how the masked looked like except that they were white. No one had lived long enough to examine them, but she had, and she’d copied it real good. But perhaps not good enough to stand for a close scrutinizing.
She would have to fight him.
“You…” he said and looked like he was trying to solve a problem and almost got it. Elthana released her bundle and grabbed her curved knives in one swift movement and almost launched at him. She was stopped by the sight of his outstretched, not armed, arm.
“No, wait Elthana” he said hastily. “Wait.” His gaze seemed to penetrate the mask into her eyes and she wanted to cut his eyes out for that. He lowered his voice significantly.
“I’m not here to kill you, I’m here to warn you” he said still with right arm outstretched and the other he held out into the air by his side. When he seemed sure she wouldn’t attack him he continued.
“They’ve sent more assassins, I don’t know this team but I fear they are the kind to go for the weaker kill first to unsettle the stronger one. I haven’t seen any of them around your house yet, which means you’re blood mother is in danger.” As the words blood mother came out of his mouth she leaped forward and put her daggers at a cross at his throat.
“You do not talk about my mother” she spat at him, he had no right, no right to talk about her. Instead of looking frightened by the sharp blades at his throat he gave her a small smile, that sunless pile of shit.
“The mask is really well made, almost exactly like the white masks wear. Though, you forgot to add the thin black lines at the edges and the clothes you wear are very unconventional for a white mask.”
Elthana wanted to take of the mask and push it down his throat.
“Why are you telling me this?” she demanded.
“I’m tired of people getting killed for no good reason.” He shrugged, as if that was an good enough answer. She tightened her daggers at his throat and leaned forward.
“Then why don’t you tell them to stop? Why don’t you just kill them?”
“If I told them to stop I would be the one to be killed.”
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you instead right now?” she said through gritted teeth, she had no time to chat with this man, she needed to protect her mother.
“I’ll give you two” he said, all serious again. Elthana felt something sharp piercing through fabric and leather to her skin over her heart. “If you cut with your daggers, this goes in as sure as I die. Second, I don’t think you want to kill me.”
She was almost willing to have the thin needle in her heart just to slit his throat for saying that.
“You have no idea what I want to do” she whispered.
“Truth. And you do not trust my intentions” he said matter of factly.
“Truth” she said sardonically and he smiled.
“But I do believe that you want to save your mother” he said all serious, again, and she could feel the small needle disappear from her chest.
“I don’t trust you.”
“Then stay” he said gently pushing away her daggers. He didn’t let go of her gaze, even though he couldn’t see it through the mask.
Elthana rose to her feet, but didn’t put away her daggers. After a short moment of disbelieving stares she started to walk away on the roof, her mind set to protect her mother. Before she could jump of the roof the man’s words stopped her again.
She turned her head to look at him as he stood up.
“If you encounter the white masks to fight you should take of your mask or you’d be at a disadvantage. They can see through their masks.”
“So can I” she said and lowered her brows, though not that anyone could see.
“No, they have a special material that renders the mask transparent.”
Why did he tell her this? What was his end game? Why he had changed his mind about killing her this time she did not know, and right now she didn’t care. She had to protect her mother, nothing else mattered.
Without saying anything more Elthana started to run on the roof and took a big leap to another house close by. She continued to run and jump from house to house, confident in her silent feet not to wake up the people sleeping under her.
Behind the mask
Theodore put a hand to his throat as Elthana ran away on the rooftops. It had been a gamble to put away his needle before she took away her daggers. If her mind hadn’t been so much on her blood mother she might have sliced his throat before and left him there to be found by the birds next day.
He looked at his fingers, no blood, good she hadn’t cut through the skin. The figure of Elthana’s body disappeared down on the lower houses. Theodore shivered when he thought of how angry he’d felt when he thought a white mask had killed the red haired woman. He was scared to not know if he was angry that someone had killed her before him, or that someone had actually killed her. What scared him even more was how relieved he’d felt when he understood that it was Elthana behind that very well done copy of the white mask. He had wanted to take of the mask, not sure of the reason why. Maybe to make sure she still resembled the long dead Blood Queen. The only statue in the hall of death that had colored hair. Blood red. Elthana’s hair was a little brighter than the statues.
Why was he thinking about Elthana’s hair? He should change clothes and go after her. If the other white masks were dead he would finally kill her and take a piece of her hair back as proof to The Gathering of her death.
He glanced once at the lonely bag Elthana had dropped on the roof before he jumped down the roof to get ready.
A horrifying vision of assassins invading Ikanas home played over and over in Elthana’s head as she sprinted and jumped on top of the houses. The darkness was heavy over the village with no lights on in the houses and the sky covered with clouds as far as you could see. In the back of her mind she frowned at the clouds, they were a rare sight this time of the year. Usually the night’s were lit by millions of stars and the travelling moon.
It took her less than one minute to reach her mother’s house, her feet barely audible in the silent night. It felt like an eternity and she cursed her legs for not being faster. She reached the house to the left of her mother’s and her heart stopped in time with her legs. On the way over she could just spot one white masked assassins by the door as guard and one sat on the roof opposite to her. It was two meter of open space between them, an empty alley.
She mirrored the assassins sitting stance instantly and the white mask in front of her nodded slightly. She wasn’t in view of the assassin on ground level.
Elthana snapped her head to the left pretending to hear something and this time she was mirrored by the person… thing… in front of her. A sharp thrust forward with her right arm and a snap with her wrist produced a small knife from her sleeve that flew through the air straight towards the assassin’s throat. The mask really must be see through because it had time to react to Elthanas sudden throw and moved to the side. Not fast enough though and the blade hit it’s shoulder.
Elthana had not counted on the assassins dodge and she’d already started jumping down, her left hand steadying on the edge and her feet in the air.
The assassin stumbled by the blow but managed to throw a similar small knife towards Elthana. Luckily for her the aim wasn’t towards any big part of her body, and with the fall she could dodge it by bending her right shoulder back. With her shoulder going back she felt like she flowed on the wind and lifted her left arm to repeat the sharp thrust and flick of the wrist, but with the other arm this time. Her second knife flew and hit its target right under the edge of the white mask.
Elthana did a half turn in the air focused on the ground rushing closer. She landed hard on her feet and did a somersault forward to lessen the blow, but the impact still vibrated through her body. The dead assassin had made both a thump sound and low choked gurgling noises. As expected the assassin on guard in front of the door came around into the valley with daggers drawn.
“What are you doing making so much noise for?” a female voice barked quietly.
Pure fear and rage oozed out of Elthana, her hands clenched into fist shook at her sides. The female put away her daggers into almost invisible scabbards strapped around her thighs covered under cloak fabric.
“Report” she ordered. Trying not to limp Elthana took a few careful steps closer. She pretended to look around for eavesdroppers. The assassins eyes flickered around as well, starting to be on her guard – but not towards Elthana.
When Elthana had reached striking distance she lifted her left hand as to show something, getting the attention she wanted directed to her left. Her right hand moved instinctively on it’s own to grab one of the curved daggers she kept at her waist. With no delay and a quick thrust Elthana thrusted the sharp end of the dagger up under the white mask into the head of the evil female assassins.
The assassin tried to pull at Elthana’s arm, but the arms quickly fell limp to her sides, the body became a dead weight that Elthana lowered to the ground. She looked at her blooded dagger as a female voice from inside called out. Not her mother’s voice. Elthana’s heart sank.
She pulled out her other dagger out and swirled them around once and waited for the other to come out, she waited almost one minute but no one came out. There were no time for waiting. She replaced her copied mask with the real one from the female she’d killed. Her heart ached only for one second when she saw the very human face behind the mask. Small strands of light brown hair, closed eyes and blood coming out from the corner of the mouth. She looked peaceful. Then she remembered that the female wasn’t a woman, but an assassin that probably murdered who knew how many people.
Elthana took of the assassin’s cloak and other easily removed garments that wasn’t too soaked with blood, she also helped herself with the daggers, knives and some special looking thin steel needles. When she was ready she flapped the black cloak in front of the door opening. Three needles in a vertical line flew through the fabric and silently got stuck in the wall of the opposite house. She did the same thing a short moment after and three more needles went through piercing the cloak. She did it again, and then again. But there were no more needles. She threw a shoe inside the house, but that was a mistake. To throw it inside she’d had to expose her arm and one needle scraped the skin and the other got stuck in her forearm sticking out on each side. She hissed and pulled it out, she noticed that the needle was hollow. There’s no time to wonder about the assassins weapons. She needed to trick the assassin, barging in would only result in her death.
With the cloak on she ran away with loud footsteps. Three houses down, three houses left and then three houses left two times more and she was at her mother’s house again. After waiting as long as she could stand and catching her breath she spoke out quietly but confidently.
“I got the red haired girl, but I need help to dispose of the body.” She stepped into the doorway, heart in her throat beating violently. In the left corner of the first room behind table and chairs stood a white masked assassin, ready to throw more needles.
The assassin watched Elthana with distrust as she walked into the room with fake confident.
“What team do…” Before the white mask had time to finish the sentence Elthana did a spin as she threw a knife she’d been holding. The assassin threw the needles before the knife hit home in her chest. Thanks to her spinning movement the needles didn’t hit her throat, heart or stomach. One missed, and the other two hit her left shoulder and her left thigh. Catching herself on the kitchen counter Elthana scanned the room for more assassins, but she couldn’t see or hear anything except her breaths.
The steel needles clattered to the floor when Elthana pulled them out and she swayed for a moment, putting her hand harder on the counter to stabilize herself. She looked at the almost invisible holes from the needles, they shouldn’t have done much damage. No major blood vessel or organ was hit. Fighting the fog that was forming in her head she walked into the backroom. If there were more assassins they should’ve showed up already.
“Ikana?” she said faintly, then again louder. No response. Her feet shuffled on the floor the short distance between the kitchen and the back room where she hoped her mother would sit. She prayed to the winds that she’d been fast enough, that she wasn’t too late. What was all this practicing for if not to protect those she loved?
There were no one in the room. Why would the assassins guard her mother’s house if her mother wasn’t here? Maybe to set a trap for her? Her mother must be somewhere else.
“Mother?” she whispered weakly as the stinging feeling of tears filled her eyes. Surely her mother wasn’t here or she would have responded.