“No one saw you.”
The voice whisked damply through the underbrush, taking William off guard. He stopped his horse with a gentle backward tug on the reins, looked around into the fog-like darkness, and saw nothing but the dim forms of soggy trees. The words were not a question and the voice was certain of what it said, almost approving. His escort.
“Quite correct,” he called back, hesitant, a little unnerved that he hadn't seen or heard or felt the other person's presence; normally he was quite good at that sort of thing. It had been part of the reason he'd been made Captain"an uncanny ability to guess where people would be, or if they were already there. His mount pawed the wet earth uneasily, sensing William's distress, and took a few mincing steps forward. The beast was a black warhorse, still a stallion, and William had raised it from a year old. Lanius was the name he answered to; “the butcher” in Latin. He rarely flinched at noise or grew disquieted in times of danger, making him the ideal mount.
A sound of approval came from the trees not ten feet away from William, and a slight figure, unmounted, stepped out of the forest, looking like he'd been painted into it. He was dressed in ripped clothing that camouflaged nicely in the woods, with the unavoidable side effect of making him look like a beggar. “Then we are ready to depart.” The man reached up one long-fingered hand and took the horse's reins, tugging the beast authoritatively further into the thickets; a little path, just wide enough for the horse to walk upon, was barely visible. Cunningly hidden; the sort of thing one would only find if one knew where and what to look for.
The captain said nothing"it felt like the wisest thing to say. Instead, he let this stranger dressed in tattered, earthy rags lead him through the countryside to the unknown. He could be killed before they ever arrived and no one would find his body. His troops could be attacked and he could come back to be held responsible for a massacre he'd let happen.
“Your men will be fine. You forget that you trained them. Likewise,” the strange man said, looking up to William with a gleam of bright eyes, “had we wanted to get you in trouble we wouldn't have brought you out here to do it. And no, I can't read your mind, boy.” A youthful chuckle floated out of his mouth. “It's just easy to guess what you would be thinking, something like this going on. I'm Arthur, and I get the lucky task of errands and recruiting.”
“William,” William replied curtly, “though you know that. Just where are we going?”
“A den of thieves, sire,” Arthur said, not without a hint of mockery, “and you will be tonight's man of honor. Now no more questions.” He waved away any inquiries that might have been forming in William's mind and lead on in silence.
How much time passed, William was not sure. It felt like maybe an hour, but they kept twisting through the trees; they could've turned back on themselves a hundred times. The young man's sense of time and direction had been skewed in the unfamiliar territory and anger rose up in him for having to depend on a stranger to get where he apparently needed to be. For all his skill as a military man, he was not the best woodsman"all the trees looked essentially the same, with few and small enough differences for him to see them all too much alike. He had not been as curious about nature as Claire had, he recalled with a heart-paining pang. She would've been able to find her way home in a heartbeat. Had home even been a place she wanted to go.
Mustn't go there, he chided himself, reflexively shaking his head and steering his mind to less shadowy corners.
Arthur made a gargling sort of noise that made William think both of a swiftly running brook and a man drowning. He continued to produce the unusual sound for a few moments though, quite unabashedly, and ceased walking when finally he went silent; he was hard to see when he wasn't moving and the captain almost lost sight of him in the stillness.
After several lengthy moments of quiet William opened his mouth to question Arthur's sanity but was cut off by what he thought at first was an echo. The same noise his guide had made was repeated, faintly, from the north east. Once, twice, then silence.
“Off you go,” Arthur barked jovially, stepping away from the horse so that William could dismount properly.
“Off I go where?” the captain asked, bemused, as he swung off his horse, stretching his legs as he eyed Arthur. The old man had been true enough so far and William was past the point of questioning what he was told to do, but clarification was necessary as he looked about, seeing no obvious path.
“To our hall, naturally. Come!” Though the man’s voice was clear enough, William only just caught a glimpse of his tattered coat vanishing off toward his right, down a barely-there foot trail. Afraid of losing his only way back to sanity and warmth, William made haste after him, straining his eyes in the darkness.
He needn’t have bothered. Maybe four feet into the obscured path was a heavy oak door, swung open to admit the captain and his curiosity. Whatever building it was connected to was creatively hidden by the forest itself; no wood or stone exterior was visible, at least not from his cursory glance. Looking inside, he could see a merrily cracking fire. It was hidden from sight for a moment by the dark form of the largest man William had ever seen. Easily head and shoulders taller than himself, William unwillingly took a step back outside, subconsciously making room for the mountain of a person before him.
“In.” The gruff syllable was almost not a word as it rumbled from the man’s chest and out his mouth. “You will let the heat out. Come, come.”
Willing to silently admit he was intimidated, William followed the man inside and paused in the doorway, blinking for a few moments to adjust to the light. He should have pressed his fists into his eyes for a moment while outside, should have thought ahead so he wouldn’t be caught off guard while his vision adjusted. Then again, he had a sneaking feeling he should have stayed in his tent, cozy at camp.
“Sit,” said the man, doing so himself. His chair didn’t even so much as creak in protest. Either it had been built specifically for his frame, or it had long ago learned that silence was the best policy to follow around the big man.
The word was delayed by William’s apparent inability to speak and be confused at the same time. He had been knocked off kilter so that his reactions were not what he would call normal, but he was certain that he would’ve been bemused by the sight that greeted him regardless of mental state.
Sprawled comfortably over the length of two tables were fifty-something of the most imposing characters he had ever seen. Wicked looking weapons glinted at him from every direction in the dim light and William found himself unconsciously noting their number, along with the layout of the sparsely decorated room, realizing he was counting exits and noting escape routes out of habit. Not a wasted idea among the deadly looking company. They were all men, and William found himself the center of their collective attention.
“There is only one chair available, son,” piped in one of the older men of the group, pointing to, indeed, the single unoccupied chair. William sat, briefly studying the man who had addressed him. He had a well trimmed white beard and moustache, and short grey hair. The man’s good eye studied William right back, while the socket of the other was covered with an expensive looking patch.
Lost in turning his focus from stranger to stranger, it took a moment for the captain to register that the large man he’d seen first had unfurled a few pieces of paper and was busy weighing down the corners of one so it would stay open. It was an incongruous gesture, so domestic, that a little grin turned up the corners of William’s mouth. An elegant quill lay on the table next to a small bottle of ink, which was used to hold down one corner.
“How much has your mother told you?” He was abrupt, to the point, and William couldn’t help but admire his attitude. The man knew William had an idea as to why he’d been plucked from the rainy confines of his camp and apparently didn’t see any reason to bandy words or be unnecessarily mystical.
“Conversation after my own heart,” William said with the faintest of chuckles, feeling a bit more himself with each passing second. At least the one man seemed to be someone he could appreciate, if not warm up to.
“You wrote the letter, I assume? Bleeding Hart?” William was not surprised when he received no answer; he cleared his throat and continued on. There seemed no reason in his mind to make sure these men weren’t imposters, to question them before volunteering information"he’d proof enough in the letter. They knew about Claire, about things his mother had said too many years ago.
“Yes, well then. When I was young, maybe ten…she had already been unstable for so long…but she told me I would have to join a group so we could all stay alive. But who would believe her then?” He gave a rueful chuckle and shook his head; he should have paid more attention to the Lady now, instead of dismissing her half-mad ramblings as the fanatic words of a deranged and lonely woman, looking for someone to blame.
“Said I would have to kill, that I would never be treated as my father’s first born. Her second child had been…a girl. Had I a younger brother, I would be situated quite comfortably as Lord Wandesford.” William’s face fell as he was once again reminded of the losses he had suffered, of the treatment Claire had received since birth. “I would likely have children of my own by now.” He went silent, lost for just a moment in wistful contemplation before his host gave a firm nod, sighing heavily.
“Then she told you very little. That is a waste.”
William scoffed incredulously, for the first time feeling the need to defend his mother. It was an ill-fitting desire, but he wore it for the moment. “She is insane, man. I am surprised she managed to say anything of meaning to me.”
“And while this is sad,” the man continued over him, “you seem a quick enough mind. I have here,” he gestured to the paper on the table before them, “the signed agreement of your lineage. You may read when I am done. For the moment, there is more to learn.” He unrolled the other parchment he’d been holding and laid it out atop the other.
“This is the current member list for the guild, the Bleeding Harts.” Absently, the man gestured behind him to the carved figure of a wounded running stag, hung on the stone wall above the hearth. Drops of blood had been painted red at one point though the color had faded to a sort of rusty brown over what William assumed was many generations of time.
“I am guild leader, Torbjörn. As my letter said, we feel that you are now ready to join and take up the position left by your infamous family. Gregor has been watching you for some time now, is positive in his reports.” As William listened he could pick up a faint German accent to the man’s short sentences; it wasn’t surprising, given his name.
The older man bearing his eye patch nodded in agreement with Torbjörn. This was Gregor, William assumed, and he was uncertain as to whether or not he should be appreciative of the man’s apparently positive reports. He was given no time for input, however, as Torbjörn spoke once more.
“You should not be one of us,” he said, deep brown eyes boring into William’s own blue as though trying to get the point into the captain’s mind by the sheer force of his gaze. “You are a first born, and that is not contract.” A heavy fist rapped the Wandesford agreement sprawled on the table. “But we do not take women, and it is contract that we have one of your family. It was agreement made many generations ago and I will not go back on it now, though it does mean taking a first born of your line. I am sorry it is to be you.”
William scoffed, growing defensive the more this man spoke; and to think he’d started off liking him. How could this Torbjörn possibly be sorry? He did not know William’s family personally, could have no idea what William himself had been through no matter how long someone had stalked him. Sorry. The word rankled William’s nerves. It suggested pity, and pity was something William loathed above all other things. Had ‘sorry’ not been said, he would not have been riled. As it was, he readjusted in his chair, leaning back.
“I am quite sure you are,” he spat, shaking his head. “Would you mind telling me what it is, exactly, that you are so sorry for? Your lofty speeches have gone a bit over my head, this talk of taking me, someone from my line for this…group.” The man leaned forward now, resting his elbows lightly on the table as though this were one of many negotiations with a hostile commander he had conducted. In his mind it had become similar"he should have been wary from the start, but he’d been blinded by what they knew, of the link they were to his past.
Torbjörn seemed unfazed by the shift in William’s mood. He blinked once, slowly. “I am sorry for what you will become, because of us,” he said simply. “We are not nice people, not like you and your military. We kill your fighters, doesn’t matter"you know this. Your young man, dead by my sword.” Torbjörn drew one finger across his neck and the faintest of grins split his face. He suddenly gave a harsh burst of laughter, and a few other men in the room joined him, enjoying some sort of joke that was beyond William.
It went quiet, and the captain caught himself with his mouth open, perplexed. “And this…this amuses you? Ending the life of someone barely trained?”
“We are assassins, William.” The way he said the name made the captain think it should be spelled Wilhelm. “We must laugh at something. Ah, and this…this is why I am sorry.” He gestured around the room, and traces of mirth could be seen still on a few faces.
“Because I will become like you. I see now.”
Torbjörn nodded silently. The only sound that filled the room for the next few moments was the spitting of the fire; it reminded William of the men’s laughter.
“You’ll sign your contract, and you will be one of us to pay the debt your family still owes,” Gregor said at length and as William met the old man’s gaze, he could see sadness there. He wondered how long Gregor had been watching his family, what odd attachment he might feel to the boy he had watched age into the man that was before him now.
When William finally spoke his voice was low, measured. “What does my family owe a group of assassins for? Mother never mentioned any debt.”
“It was not her debt,” Torbjörn answered. “Your father, it was his family owed the Bleeding Harts. They were not always a noble, rich family, the Wandesfords. A long time ago they bought the title. Rich, greedy people"they wanted to be important. They wanted what they did not have. No title by birth, too poor to buy land to get title, so they crawled to the underbelly of society.” He ran his fingers over the table like some sort of dozen-legged insect to illustrate his point. “They joined us, all that time ago. Became assassins, mercenaries, for the money they would get. Killed to become special. They wanted too much, and it cost them. The second Wandesford that joined, he killed the guild master"his own leader, trainer"because of money he was given to do so. Enough to buy the title of lord, to get land and build the estate you used to live in. His guild…they were not happy. They wanted to make him suffer and that meant making him less important"they took away his control. He could have his title, land, money; that meant nothing to the Bleeding Harts. What they demanded was his future. A first born would be too obvious, leave no heir for guild to keep taking revenge. But the second son would always be given to the guild, payment for being greedy. Your father, he had no second son. Not one that lived.”
William had been grossly absorbed in the tale. He had never known about his father’s side of the family, hadn’t even met them. As far as he had known, his father had been an only child of a sickly family"no relatives had ever been “healthy” enough to visit from their various homes across the country. By the time he’d grown old enough to be suspicious, his father was buried and his mother wouldn’t speak of him. But to hear that his title, his heritage had been bought! And with money earned from the death of others…it was appalling. He couldn’t help the grimace that spread across his handsome features, distorting them in displeasure. The repulsion gave way to shock, however, as Torbjörn spoke his last, short sentence.
Immediately his mind went back to what he remembered of her birth. It had been twins, a boy and girl"Claire had been the last born, but the first, the boy, he hadn’t made it. The little body had been still. And his father held a whispered conversation with the midwife; she’d looked scared, had crossed herself, and his father looked agitated and worried. It had been his second son. It made sense now. Torbjörn spoke the truth.
“So you have to pay instead. You could not be heir, cannot take his place as lord since you must take his brother’s place in the guild. One in every generation. That means the name dies with you, all his family died and worked for, because he had just one son.”
“I will have a son; it won’t end with me.” William furrowed his brow, confused as to why the name Wandesford should end when he joined his father in the ground.
A round of laughter sprung up among the other guild members and did not die for a few minutes.
“In this business, lad, you cannot take a wife. It’s too dangerous! And you will never be home to have enough fun to make that little boy.” Gregor shook his head and chuckled, too amused to be able to keep speaking.
William did not like being laughed at. “What if I simply refuse? I don’t join, marry, have two sons, send the second one to join this…cult.” He waved his hand around the room in a gesture of disgust.
Again, more laughs. It was Torbjörn who answered this time. “You cannot refuse. You joining is what keeps your family alive, what fulfills the contract. Life, title, land, money"all depend on a Wandesford in the Bleeding Harts. Your uncle, the last member, died many years ago. He is why you had money. Yours is old family, but few, and there are none to take your place even if they could.”
William digested this information. He had, at one point, an uncle, and he had been a Bleeding Hart. He had paid his debt to their family name, provided money for the older brother to keep up their purchased title, the lie that they had money all along, that they were an old and respectable family. What an unfair, lonely existence it must have been for that second son. The reality that blood money had paid for all of the grandeur he’d taken for granted as a child hit William like a physical blow and he had to fight the urge to gag.
“Then,” Torbjörn said, “there is your sister.”
William’s head snapped up. “What of her?” Menace was only just concealed in those words. He had not seen her in years, had received no letter of encouragement, hadn’t parted on friendly terms, but she was his little sister"William could no more stop the protective urge he had toward her than he could stop the sun rising.
“Well, she…she is not well. Your mother has been sending you letters but we take them, make sure you can read them"and now you can. You are right: mother is insane.” Torbjörn pulled a face. “Her letters do not make sense, but she hints your sister is ill. Does not say how, but we know. Your family, they had this ‘illness’ before. These people with this sickness running through their bodies, we call them berserkers.”
There was that word again. The whispered threat of some unknown darkness. William shivered involuntarily. “You wrote that in my letter. What does it mean?” He almost didn’t care that they’d been confiscating his mail at this point; it seemed so trivial in comparison.
Torbjörn shook his head. “Word means nothing, it is what she can do. You will want to save her, yes? Then we send you back for one last visit before you come train with us. Consider it a last gift, one final nice thing.”
“But…what am I to do? I know nothing of this affliction, haven’t read the letters that you have so kindly kept for me.”
“You will read them. What you do is up to you. It matters not to us. You are the one we want, not them.”
William said nothing. Torbjörn took the quill he’d laid out and offered it to William after dipping it in the inkpot. A few drops of black hit the table before the Captain took the instrument in hand, wordlessly watched as the giant of a man turned the guild member list toward him, pointed to an empty space at the bottom. The blankness stared back at him, challenging, void, waiting for him to choose.
He expected to feel deeply ambivalent, torn between control over his own life or ensuring that his sister and mother would live on. There was no indecision, however, as he saw his hand scrawl out his name below all the others. No sense of bitter resentment for giving up his autonomy in a gesture that would be unappreciated by his mother, and likely anger his sister"William would once again be the brave hero and she would seem the outcast, dwarfed by his greater actions. He knew it would infuriate her. A memory of her hurt, irate face floated to the front of his mind and it pained him to think he might cause it once more, but it pained him more to think no expression would cross those features ever again.
Claire was not well. Whether or not she needed him, he needed to at least try to help. He had left in hopes of being able to ensure her a better future, that his prestigious military career would get her a better marriage, one she might want. He had been her only protector and friend. That was the only thought he entertained as he signed and, finally, handed the quill back to Torbjörn. The big man nodded and rolled up the paper, sliding the other one toward William"the family contract. It looked considerably older than the member list and the edges were ragged and soft from wear.
The Captain read it, yes, his eyes went over the words and understood what they were, but there was no comprehension. He simply wasn’t interested at that moment, and Torbjörn must have sensed it, for he rolled that paper up too, handing it to William.
“You will stay here for the night. Read it, pay attention, when you want.”
Taking that as the end of the motley gathering, everyone else in the room, having been mostly quiet and tense as their leader spoke, seemed to relax. The atmosphere shifted and several flasks were removed from pockets. Gregor took a quick drink from his and held it up toward William in a sort of salute. William did not partake in the sudden levity, instead taking the contract and standing, sniffing absently.
“Where will I be sleeping?”
Torbjörn swallowed a mouthful of something strong; the Captain could smell it on his breath. “Rooms upstairs. Yours is smallest, first door on the left.”
William nodded curtly, body stiff from military habit, and walked up the stairs without further comment. He had never felt so alone.