“It will be by your blades that we dispense judgment on this treachery! The Provinces will NOT go unpunished! They thought us weak? They thought us cowards cringing behind our mountains? Let them bear true witness to our strength when their people fall weeping in the streets for families that shall never return. Let none pass the southern ranges, my Hands. Slaughter them and cast their bodies to the crows!”
High Priest of the Iron Will
Trystan Süll peered down into the mountain path, his breath steaming through the burgundy cloth wrapped around the lower half of his pale face. Everything was laid out before him from his perch in the cliffs some fifty feet above, grey eyes taking in the snowy trail. With practiced efficiency he registered every detail, memorizing every shadow, every dip and bump of stone beneath the winter white. Once satisfied, Trystan crouched low, reaching back to free the heavy pine bow slung over his shoulder. The paired sabers sheathed at his right hip rattled when he strung the weapon with rapid ease, drawing a thin black arrow from the leather quiver by his knee. Nocking it, he stilled.
The wait was on.
Somber clouds rolled thick over the heavens, suspending the mountains in semi-darkness despite the fact that it was only just past midday. It wasn't snowing now, but a sharp wind whistled through the valley, ruffling Trystan's thin white hair to whisper of swiftly coming storms. Somewhere in the bluffs high above a king-falcon screeched in its dive earthward, the lethal call reverberating through the rocky cliffs.
Trystan ignored it all. Closing his eyes, he focused on drowning out the rest of the world. When all had died to a dull thrum, like a distant river, he whispered a word.
Trystan convulsed as his senses leapt from his core, flooding out of his body into the air, over the cliff, and down into the path below. The spell drew part of his mind away, pulling it northward in a rapid blur of distorted images over the snow-covered earth like a silent wraith. The natural stone walls on either side of him whipped by, the rocky ground rising and falling before dipping suddenly to wind back and forth down the mountain. Only practice and discipline kept Trystan's physical body from off-balancing, the images playing before his eyes like a ghost world imposed over the scenery around him. He felt ill as the spell moved faster and faster, the details of his vision little more than streaks of shades and color…
And then, abruptly, it stopped.
It took a moment for Trystan to get his bearings, head reeling from the sudden shift. When he did, though, he smiled beneath his cloth wraps.
At last, at long last... he'd found them.
Six men, unshaven and haggard beneath their grimy steel plate and worn leather armor, slumped wearily atop a half-dozen warhorses that looked even worse for wear. They moved carefully, climbing the treacherous mountain path at a plodding pace for the sake of the large hide-top wagon in the center of their little group, pulled by a pair of shaggy brown and tan oxen. Two women sat at the front of the cart, one grasping the reins while the other stared off at nothing as the small boy held tight in her arms shivered and coughed weakly from within the swaddles of the dirty blankets he was wrapped in. Trystan couldn't see them, but he knew another three women and two girls were hidden away inside the wagon.
Unless their numbers had dwindled since they'd fled the Black City, making a break south for the Free Provinces…
In any case it would only make his job easier.
Trystan released the spell with another word and the scene faded away before him like smoke carried off by the wind. The group was still a fair distance off, almost a league away, but it mattered little. To a Hand of the Iron Will the cold was little more than a mild annoyance.
For nearly an hour he waited, motionless except for the snap of his gaze as he searched the path below. He would hear them coming first, he knew that, but Trystan had lived through too much already in his twenty-six years to let his guard down in an unfamiliar place. It paid well to be wary of the world and hurt little to be overly cautious. The wind picked up briefly, catching flurries off the cliffs above so that it fell in thin curtains twirling through the air, and the whining breeze nearly masked the first dull trots of hooves against frozen ground. Trystan's dark eyes snapped to the north end of the path. His body shifted slowly, inch by inch until his bow was aimed squarely at the corner of the trail. Carefully drawing the weapon to its full extent, he rested the taught bowstring against his cheek, sighting down the arrow as the noises of the approaching group grew more distinct.
A minute later, the first of the careworn knights pulled his horse into view.
Trystan didn't release. Instead he waited, following the man below with the head of his readied arrow, watching the rider gently urged his animal forward. Behind him, one by one, the rest of the group took the path bend at a snail's pace, the oxen huffing and snorting as they strained to pull the timber wagon over the uneven ground. It was a slow process, but Trystan forced himself to be patient, counting quickly. Then he double and triple-checked his numbers.
When he was satisfied that everything was right, he trailed his drawn bow over the group, eyeing the leading riders, then the two women and boy at the front of the cart.
Finally he settled on the last of the knights, bent over the neck of his horse and hugging the thin furs as tightly as he could over his dirty armor. Taking a breath, Trystan held it for the briefest fraction of a moment, praying to the Matron for a silent victory.
Gently he exhaled, and released.
The arrow cut downward through the cold air, catching the man squarely in the narrow space between his neck and shoulder. It tore through lungs and windpipe before the tip found its resting place in the thick arteries just above the heart. The knight died without a sound, as intended, and didn't even immediately fall from his horse. Instead the animal continued for another half-dozen plodding steps, unaware of the corpse now straddling its back until the body finally toppled out of the saddle and collapsed to the ground with a crash.
There was a shout. One of the other men had realized that something was wrong, but no panic set in amongst the group even as they halted, their attention diverted. All were unaware that anything had happened to their companion other than falling exhausted from his horse. Setting his bow aside quickly, Trystan allowed himself a small smile as he put a hand on his sabers to steady them. He watched, letting the men wheel their mounts around and trot back to their fallen companion.
Then, speaking another word, he stepped over the edge of the cliff.
The spell carried him silently to the snowy ground some fifty feet below. His dark form went unnoticed, slipping through the shadows of the cliffs and stones, the entire party's focus drawn to the dead man. Even the women and child who'd been driving the cart were turned in their seats to peer back around the leather canopy walls. Drawing a slender black blade from his boot, Trystan darted forward silently.
All three died in a shared moment, throats slit in quick ceremonial succession.
The Matron would be satisfied with that.
Abruptly a yell shattered the mountain calm. The arrow had been found. The murder discovered.
The game was up.
Stowing his dagger, Trystan unsheathed both sabers and dropped off the cart into plain view. More shouts picked up. All five of the remaining men were gathered around the body, three on the ground and two hovering over the scene still seated atop their horses. Most of them whirled about at their discovery, perhaps intent on warning the others in the cart.
Those who had turned, though, froze.
Trystan, bedecked in the black and burgundy clothes of the Hand, strode confidently towards them with both weapons drawn at his sides. To a one the blood drained from each of the knights' faces, leaving them pale even as they reached to tug the longswords free from their hips.
And then the back flaps of the wagon shifted, and a thin young woman with her dirty brown hair stuck her head out.
"Roen?" she demanded, addressing one of the knights. "What's going on? Is everything…?"
The words caught in her throat as she, too, saw Trystan.
"Kathyln, NO!" one of the men shouted, likely the one she'd been speaking to. "GET BACK! GET…!"
His words were cut short as the woman's head hit the ground, cleanly sheered from her shoulders by the razor edge of Trystan's saber.
A sudden flurry of movement accompanied Roen's heart-wrenching scream. The two men on horseback brought their mounts around to charge forward, yelling curses as they swung their blades at Trystan's head. Throwing himself into a forward roll, Trystan fell well below the arc of their blows. Landing on his feet he struck, left-right, in rapid succession. The saber blades sliced through the muscle and tendon of both steeds' rear legs like paper. As the lamed animals crashed the ground behind him, writhing and screaming, Trystan sprang forward to meet the rush of the other three men head on.
It was a short fight.
Catching a horizontal blow from either side with each blade, Trystan twisted, redirecting the knights' swords into the ground. In an instant one of the men lost both hands and the lower half of his left leg. He’d just fallen to the ground when his companion found himself on his knees, gurgling and choking as he clutched at his throat. Black blood ran free from between his gloved fingers, pouring from the vicious slash Trystan's blade had cleaved across his neck.
The third man did no better. His overhead swing was cut short when one of the saber's pommels caught him in the gut, doubling him over. A quick succession of blows dropped him on all fours, severing the tendons in his ankles. Even as the man screamed in pain Trystan's final strike plunged a saber-point through the back of the knight’s skull and out through his mouth. The pinned body twitched in the blood-stained snow.
Pulling his blade free of the man's head with a sharp tug, Trystan didn't stop moving. One of the riders whose animal he'd hamstringed was dead, partially crushed under the weight of the fallen horse. The other seemed, though, to have managed to make it out relatively unscathed. He stood on weak legs, sword shaking in both hands, and he stumbled back a step. Trystan moved silently towards him, so fluid he barely left so much as a boot print in the snow.
"M-mercy, sir!" the man pleaded, tripping and nearly falling as he continued his backwards retreat. "Mercy, I-I beg you! I BEG YOU!"
Trystan didn't reply, continuing his cool approach. When he was ten feet away the nerveless knight dropped his sword and fled. He bolted past the cart and scrambled over the uneven earth in his desperate attempt at escape. Trystan paused, studying the defeated form for a moment.
Then, sheathing one of the sabers in a flash, he drew his boot-blade out again and threw it with a careful snap of his wrist.
The dagger caught the fleeing man squarely in the back of the head, burying itself to the hilt in his skull. Impressively the knight managed another couple faltering steps before collapsing to the ground, his limbs convulsing weakly for a few lingering moments. At last, though, he stilled, and this time didn't rise again.
Satisfied, Trystan turned his attention to the last of his charges. Silently he made for the wagon, listening to the panicked breaths inside, paired with and remnants of barely muffled sobs. As he came to stand at the back of the cart he caught a whispered 'shhh,' and he paused yet again.
It always paid to be wary.
Standing slightly to the side, Trystan reached out with his saber and caught the leather flap with the tip of the blade, just above where the limp form of the woman he'd beheaded hung over the back of the cart. He had only just begun to pull it open when there was a heavy clunk, and in that fraction of an instant all that saved him from a lifetime's worth of agony was the brutal instinct instilled in him by the Iron Will. Ducking to the side, Trystan barely made the escape. Something ripped through the thin hide, tearing a wide hole exactly where his outstretched hand had been only a moment before.
Had he not been paranoid, the bolt would likely have taken him through the chest.
Not bothering to give himself time to be relieved, Trystan leapt up and vaulted into the dark wagon, throwing aside the tattered entrance flap. Sure enough, two women were huddled in the back of the cart as he landed on his feet. One had her arms wrapped around the small forms of two young girls, but this group Trystan ignored. Instead he darted forward, baring down on the second woman.
The heavy crossbow in her skinny arms fell to the wagon floor just as he reached her.
Trystan's saber caught the woman across the face, slicing her from ear to chin. She dropped to her knees and screamed, clutching at her mangled features. The blade came around again, running her through and shutting her up in a sharp gasp. With a powerful kick Trystan retracted his weapon from her body and shoved her into the leather wall of the cart. The worn hides tore under the sudden strain, the woman's corpse tumbling backwards through them to thump against the hard ground outside. Grey light illuminated the inside of the cart suddenly through the wide hole, and the remaining woman shrieked and clutched at the girls held close to her chest as he whirled on them, saber flashing.
In barely enough time to draw breath, three more lay slain.
Breathing lightly, Trystan straightened up. Nothing moved amongst the dead. It was quiet again, silent save for the drip of dark blood creeping through the wooden slats of the cart floor. Lifeless eyes stared at or past him, motionless and empty, and it took no effort to meet their gaze.
Kneeling down, Trystan carefully wiped the blades of his sabers clean on the thin wool dress of one of the still girls. This done, he stood and sheathed the weapons back in their scabbards, turning away from the corpses to step through the hole in the wall of the cart. Landing on his feet by the mangled form of the first woman, he walked away, tugging the red cloth free from his face. The wind had picked up again, throwing snow once more off the overhanging cliffs on either side of him. He welcomed the chill, welcomed the icy breeze. He breathed deep, offering up a silent prayer of thanks to his dark deity.
When he was a fair distance from the carnage, Trystan finally stopped. Reaching back he drew a tiny roll of blank parchment from his belt, carefully untying the worn leather string that held it closed. When it was unrolled in his palm he extended his hand towards the stormy sky, whispering a final word. There was a flash of black, and the thin paper caught fire, burning painlessly between his fingers. The flames ate away at the sliver of parchment and the ashes were carried away, lifted into the air on the winter wind. When the spell ran its course, and the final bits of the message were whisked from his grasp, Trystan let his hand fall to watch the last wisps of smoke disappear into the heavens.
It was done, and the Black City would know within the hour.