It was well after sunset when a shadowy form crept silently through the inner gates of Goldshore Castle. The moon was out and full for all to see, its cold beauty mesmerizing. It seemed to have borrowed enough light from the sun to cast its own shadows this evening, as the dark figure weaved in and out of them undetected by the royal guard. When it reached the inner courtyard, the shadow emitted a low raspy laughing sound and stepped into the moonlight.
Cotul Croth was an ugly man, his face pocked with scars from boils and fights alike. He was cloaked in his usual attire, dark everything. His stringy black hair dangled in his face a bit from under his hood, framing his pasty white face and black eyes. Croth’s eyes did not match his repulsive face. They seemed alive, pale blue orbs full of evil and energy. While his face remained expressionless his eyes spoke his true emotions. Even now they danced as he stood silent with his lips pursed, promising mayhem and pleasure before the nights end. He pulled an onyx pendant from underneath his vest and kissed it reverently, asking it to help him keep silent once again.
Croth slipped silently into the castles southern tower, ever alert. He was told that there would be no guards at this point in the castle, but he was cautious nonetheless. He continued on carefully, following the directions given him. This was his first visit to Goldshore Castle, he noted. I’m not likely to be invited by this King anytime soon, either, Croth thought wickedly.
He paused as he approached the door he had been sent to. Two royal guards stood on either side of it, nearly oblivious to the world around them. With such a heavy siege laid upon the town these two should at least pretend to be alert, he thought, grinning to himself. Maybe they are only here to ward off would-be suitors for the lil’ princess, not assassins.
“Well you better hope the Dynans and Corbetts show up quickly, otherwise things are likely to get real bad for us very soon,” the guard on the left was saying. He was a younger man, short and a bit plump for a soldier. Croth highly doubted he could use the long halberd he held in his left hand.
“Unless Erest Corbett rises from the grave and leads his countrymen himself, I don’t think that’s going to happen. We are trapped here,” the other guard stated matter-of-factly. This footman was older, with a tinge of grey at his ears. He sounded confident, and held his spear with a bit more authority. That one gets to go first, Croth thought, gliding in silently from the shadows of the corridor.
The plump guard was mid-sentence when he saw a small pointy object seem to erupt from his partner’s neck. The older man grasped at his neck, his face twisted somewhere between surprise and terror, then made a choking sound and fell to his knees. The plump, younger one knelt to help him and never saw Croth move behind him.
“It’s poisoned,” he whispered to the fat one, “Your friend is gone.” The portly guard froze in horror as he felt cold steel press against his neck. He died still holding up his poisoned friend, who was now silently convulsing against him. Stillthistle root, works every time, thought Croth. The veteran dies with his throat swollen shut and the rookie freezes with fear. Despite being the terrible and amoral killer that he was, Croth was still almost a perfect judge of others. His ability to read others had served him well on many endeavors.
The wretched man that was Cotul Croth stepped casually over the dead and dying bodies of the guardsmen and into his destination room. He opened the door silently, an astonishing feat for an old heavy wooden door. The room smelled of lilacs and honey, and was furnished wall to wall in silk and lace. Tapestries of knights, kings, and queens plastered the walls, leaving only bits of naked stone. In the far corner Croth spied his victim.
The princess was sleeping on her silken bed, her golden curls sprawling prettily over her oversized down pillows. Her face seemed sad yet beautiful as she slept, as if she dreamt of ill tidings. Her eyebrows furrowed and her eyelashes twitched as she tossed in her sleep, her silk slip shifting to and fro. Croth smelled something other than the lilacs and honey with his heightened senses. It was fear. She doesn’t even know I’m here yet, and already she’s frightened, Croth thought, almost pouting to himself. If she’s already scared, I’ll have to make sure she’s terrified. A wicked smile crept onto his thin pale lips as he approached her bed, ever silent.
He woke the royal wench with a cool, clammy hand clamped to her mouth. Croth leaned in next to her, positioning himself just behind her as she sat up in a fright. He quickly put his free arm around her to hold her still, and leaned in to whisper in her ear.
“What’s the matter princess, scared of what’s to come of you after the siege?” His hot foul breath washed over her shoulder, causing her to involuntarily shudder. “I can fix that for you, you know. You won’t have to live long enough to find out.”
To his surprise, she elbowed him hard in his midsection and wrenched free with surprising strength. Momentarily taken aback, Croth paused as she bolted for the door, screaming for her guards.
“That just won’t do, my sweet. You see, they can’t hear you.” He grinned as she yelped, stumbling over their dead bodies as she rushed out her door. Croth moved quickly to intercept her in the hall, tackling her hard. He was no longer worried with silence. His game was afoot and the guards were dead, leaving no one near enough in the huge stone fortress to hear no matter how loud the wench screamed.
The princess struggled hard underneath him. This one’s got a bit of fight,he noted happily. He toyed with her for a moment, then savagely butted his head against hers, stunning her. She relaxed momentarily, and Croth looked into her pretty blue eyes.
“So tell me what scares you now, my royal target,” he sneered, doing his best to imitate an honest face through his cruel mirth.
“Andur Cu’adna,”she hissed through her teeth. “ay Vikth Ci!”
Cotul Croth began to laugh at her anger, but he felt a cold dread set over him after she uttered those words. Was that old Ysmanian? What did that bitch just say? Suddenly he was tired of his game, short lived as it was. He was here to do a job, and if he was not going to enjoy it he might as well get it over with quickly.
Croth saw her bright blue eyes go wide as he drew his blackened dagger from inside his vest. He watched the light in those same eyes go out only moments later, the life force drained from her. All the satisfaction he usually felt after a kill was tainted by the coldness he felt about him. It felt as if someone was watching him now, as if some unseen eyes had opened.
The assassin faded into the darkness of the poorly lit castle, leaving the three broken bodies behind him, a grotesque and obvious murder scene. Within moments he navigated through the fortress the way he had come, moving from shadow to shadow. He slipped by the gate guards as easily as he had the first time, and made his way to the wall. He chose a rather undefended section of the wall to climb, one that was away from the main siege and nigh unapproachable with any offensive weaponry. This way he was less likely to be seen by either side. Croth cleared the huge city wall nimbly, leaping from inadvertent footholds swiftly, avoiding the archers positioned atop it.
Once over the wall, Croth retrieved a red cloak and a polished silver helmet he had tucked away in a crevice. Donning them quickly, he made his way into the waiting army’s siege encampment. He stepped lightly amongst the tents until he arrived at the one he was looking for. The posted guards paid him no mind, no doubt taking note of the sigil stitched across his cloak.
“How did it go?” A voice spoke softly from the darkness of the tent as Croth ducked inside.
“She’s dead. They will find her soon, murdered in her own quarters.” Croth shook his head slowly as he reported.
“Good.” The man who was speaking with Croth was lying on a cot, his hands folded behind his head in a very relaxed state. Croth could not make out his expression in the darkness, but he knew the man was smiling. Death always pleased his employer, as much as it usually did him.
“I do notice that you aren’t your usual jovial self after a good clean kill, Cotul. Did you err in any way?” His employer’s voice was calm and casual, but there was a threatening undertone to his words.
“She said something to me before I stuck her. Ander Kwadna, or something. Gave me a chill.” Croth was loathe to admit that, but better to speak of what bothered him than have his employer think he screwed up the job somehow.
“Ah,Andur Cu’adna.” He laughed at this. “The little wench put a curse on you, Cotul.”
“A curse?” Croth asked incredulously.
“Yes, a curse. It means you are marked, watched. Hunted, if you will. It means someone close to her will know you and kill you if at all possible.” He paused at this and looked sidelong at Croth. “But don’t worry, that is a dead magic. It died with Yser in Sarys.”
Croth nodded and turned to go, not feeling any better about the situation. He stopped at the tent flaps and spoke. “She also said ‘a victh see’. Any idea what that means?”
The man laughed once again, this time a little harder.
“It involves you and a goat doing unspeakable things,” he cackled. “Now be gone from my tent, I have to catch up on my beauty sleep.” With that, Cotul Croth disappeared from the tent and the encampment altogether, heading on his not-so-merry way into the darkness of the night.
* * * * * * * * *
That night Aylan slept horribly, tossing and turning. When sleep would find him he would dream horrible dreams. He saw a pale man with a scarred face, a black dagger, and Princess Kiana bleeding on the stone floor just outside of her quarters. The man wore all black and smiled cruelly as he caressed an onyx pendant hanging from his neck. He saw these images in flashes, over and over again. Each time he would wake up in a cold sweat, cursing vehemently and sitting up with his head in his hands until he dared sleep again.
He laid back to rest once more, having lost track of time praying he would not dream again before morning. He was not so lucky. As he closed his eyes Kiana came back to him, cold and lifeless. She was as beautiful in death as she was in life, but this was a cold glamour, ghostlike and frightening. Her face had paled, and her fine features remained, frozen in a look of terror. Her lips began to move, and she whispered through her torn and bleeding throat. Hunt him, she mouthed. Find him, kill him.
Aylan sat up once again. I will, he thought. But I’ll be damned if I sleep again tonight.