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The Song of Steel

Book One - Chapter 24

By W.R. Logan

 

Copyright 2004 W.R. Logan

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Hemlock


THE LIGHT IN THE TAVERN was too bright for his taste.
He made his way to the back, where the shadows
were untouched by the daylight. The raw spot on his
neck burned every time his cloak rubbed across it.
Hemlock still could not believe he had been that
stupid.
The girl escaped him again. What’s more, her
knight almost killed him. He should have seen
through the magical disguise. He was the Hemlock,
and disguise his specialty. This magic wasn’t even
very good. Too bad he didn’t notice before the old
knight grabbed him by his cloak. But then, he did
pay a large sum of gold for information on this
party. His informant said nothing about this knight,
Ser Larkel, having any type of magical abilities. The
assassin would have to share this blame with his
spy.
The killer rubbed a finger across his empty
leather scabbard. One of his daggers was gone. Ser
Larkel knocked it from his hand back in the inn, and
he didn’t have the time to retrieve it. The item
would not be easy to replace. The only one like it in
the kingdoms hung on his belt. Sal, his merchant
contact, was already working on the problem.
“Would you like an ale?” a busty young woman
asked him.
Hemlock nodded his approval and the woman
ran off to fetch his drink. The assassin visited this
tavern many times. This same maid served him ale
more than half of those. Of course, she would have
no memory of ever seeing him. Hemlock never wore
the same fašade on his tarries.
His cloak allowed him to take on the form of
anyone. It would match his appearance, as well as
his voice, to his target. The item only had two limitations
and one requirement. First, it could not mimic
facial hair. Since the full-blooded elves who made it
didn’t have facial hair, they failed to include it in the
magic. This meant most of the killer’s disguises were
young boys or women. And second, he had to kill
the person he wanted to mimic. This proved to be no
obstacle for the murderer. As for the requirement,
the assassin had to know the name of his mark and
whisper it to his victim as they died. Hemlock believed
this was placed on the garment as a deterrent
from using it. But for him, the requirement just
made the kill more intimate. He enjoyed the fact that
his victims died realizing he knew their names.
Even without the facial hair, Hemlock liked his
new mask. This was the only Elvin guise on his list,
and it was nice to wear a muscular body for once.
Being a woman most of the time subjected him to so
many different hardships. His wardrobe consisted of
as many dresses as it did men’s wear. More men
than he would like to mention had groped him.
Most of those he killed, but there seemed to be an
endless supply to take their place.
“Your ale, sir,” the busty maid said. “Would you
require anything more from me?”
The girl bent low as she asked him the seductive
question. Hemlock knew the girls here made extra
“tips” working in the backrooms. The Ale Master
refused to pay the brothel tax charged by the current
War Lord. Instead, he ran his business as a tavern
with secret perks in hopes some other warmonger
would soon take over.
“Later,” Hemlock promised, and he meant it. It
felt good to be acknowledged as a man for once.
For now, he was content to sip his ale while
watching the patrons of the tavern. If one happened
to catch his eye, he may want to add them to his list.
But not before he learned about them. Hemlock improved
on the elves’ requirement. He not only knew
the names of everyone he killed, but everything else
about them. Sometimes the man would spend weeks
scrutinizing his intended victims. If he followed his
own rules with Ser Larkel’s group, the inanity
would never have happened.
A boy staggered over to Hemlock’s table. The
fledgling stood as tall as the assassin’s new mask,
yet looked much younger. The boy seemed to be
very drunk. He stumbled twice before reaching the
killer’s table, and then had to use its edge to keep his
balance. The stench of cheap ale filled Hemlock’s
nose.
“You better not be messin’ with my girl,” he
warned.
The killer assessed the boy. His hair flowed
around his face in loose blond curls. It was a handsome
face, untouched by age. Only a few hairs on
his chin gave any indication of his manhood. Their
absence would not be missed, and Hemlock loved
blond hair.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, my friend,” Hemlock
told him in his most inviting voice.
“You better not ‘cause…” the boy fumbled for
the short sword on his hip. It fell to the floor. He
bent down to pick it up, bumped his head on the table
and dropped it again. After several tries, he
managed to hold on to the weapon and slam the
sword down on the table. “I’ll cut you to pieces.”
“Well, we couldn’t have that,” the assassin said
in a jovial voice. “Come sit, and I will buy you an
ale.”
Free ale seemed to distill the boy’s ire. He
plopped down on the chair in front of Hemlock.
Then he rolled off into the floor. The stripling got
back up, smiling at his situation.
Nice teeth, too, Hemlock noticed.
“An ale for my new friend,” the killer called to
his server. “What did you say your name was?”
“Donnel,” the boy answered, his anger all but
forgotten.
“Ah, Donnel. I like the sound of that.”
“And what’s your name?” Donnel asked.
“Larkel, Ser Larkel,” Hemlock replied.
Donnel’s eyes widened. He swallowed hard as
the intoxication appeared to clear from his head. The
assassin could tell his mask’s reputation preceded it.
The boy slid the short sword off the table and hid it
in his lap, as if hoping Hemlock would forget the
threat. A bead of sweat ran down the boy’s face.
“I didn’t mean nothing by…” Donnel stammered.
“Oh, forget it.”
“You see, Maggie is my wife,” Donnel continued.
“Must be hard on you,” the killer said with fake
sympathy.
“It is.” The boy’s crystal blue eyes filled with
water. “She owes a debt to the ale master that we
can’t pay.”
“So she has to work it off,” Hemlock concluded.
“Ha,” Donnel spat. “What she makes here
barely covers the interest on the debt. That’s why
she has to work for extra ‘tips.’”
“I wish I could help,” Hemlock said.
“You can,” the boy snapped, showing his anger
again. “Just keep your thing in your pants and out of
Maggie. I got me a job as a smith’s apprentice in
Castula. In a few months, I will have money to pay
her debt. Then she will move there with me.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Hemlock confirmed.
He is perfect. I will get a new mask and a young wife to
visit at my discretion.
A familiar face tore his attention away from
Donnel. The man walked to the back of the room
and scanned the faces there.
Very good, Hemlock thought, watching him. You
knew I would seek the shadows.
The man watched each of the patrons as if
searching for something he recognized. When his
eyes fell on Hemlock, they did only a brief search
before they moved on. He seemed to single out two
women and Donnel. Upon closer inspection of Donnel,
he turned his attention to the women. After a
little indecision, the man appeared to have found his
quarry.
“Those don’t even look real,” the man said as he
grabbed the breast of one of the girls.
The girl squealed. She swung the large mug in
her hand and struck the man in the side of his head.
He fell over backwards, hitting two tables and a
chair before coming to rest on the floor.
Well, Hemlock thought. At least he has confidence.
“If you will excuse me for a moment,” the assassin
told Donnel. The boy nodded an acknowledgement
to the statement, but didn’t look up from his glass.
“Sal,” Hemlock called to the man on the floor.
“Go get us a table and I will get the ale.”
“Guess I’m paying again,” Sal said, rubbing the
side of his head.
The assassin didn’t waste the time to answer the
man. Sal always lost at their game, and always
bought the ale. Hemlock thought the man might do
better, if he just randomly picked someone. The
merchant seemed to have no deduction abilities.
“Excuse me,” Hemlock said to the Ale Master.
The old man turned to face him. The man’s eyes
were small and shifty. Even without knowing him,
Hemlock could tell he was not to be trusted. But
then, most men weren’t.
“What can I get you?”
“I need two ales,” he ordered. “And I would like
to buy some time with that server.”
“Maggie, no problem,” the ale master agreed.
“But not for me,” Hemlock added. “I want you
to send her to sit with the young man there.” He
pointed at Donnel.
“How long?” The ale master didn’t even seem to
think the request strange.
“Just an hour or so.”
“No, I can’t spare her that long,” the ale master
objected. “Who will wait her tables?”
“Who cares?” Hemlock asked as he put ten gold
pieces on the counter.
“Let them get their own drinks,” the old man
laughed, putting his gold away.
Hemlock would learn much watching Donnel
with his ladylove for an hour. Not enough to take
the boy yet, but a good start.
Donnel, the cutthroat thought, what a strong
name.
He took the ale and strode over to Sal. Sal took
the mug from his hand and took a deep draw. Then
he moved the cold cup up to the swollen lump on
the side of his head, moaning as it cooled the spot.
“Do you have the girl?” Sal asked.
“No. As you can see, I had some trouble with
the knight.”
“You killed him?” Sal must have just realized
who the new mask had been. “I thought you were
going to snatch the girl and run.”
“Let’s just say, they had a few more tricks than I
knew about.”
“Queen Jillian has canceled the contract.”
More bad news. If Jillian canceled the contract,
then she most likely joined forces with the church.
The situation worked better for him if the two were
at war. Now, he needed to beat both of them to the
girl.
“And it looks like she gave all her information
on Molly, I mean Sylvia, to the church,” continued
Sal.
Hemlock wished he killed the “Queen of
Whores” long ago. If she just followed through with
their arrangement back at Tully’s, he wouldn’t be
hunting this girl. He would already be master of the
Crystal Staff. But she double-crossed him and disappeared
with his gold. The time would come when
he whispered her name. He looked forward to it.
“Has the Steel Tide taken the druid circle yet?”
Hemlock asked.
“There has been no word of it,” Sal informed
him. “Why did you send them on the druids anyway?”
“I just don’t like druids,” Hemlock answered.
When the church asked one of his masks, Darfoy, to
translate a book for them, he thought it would
merely be some quick gold. He never dreamed so
much power would be laid in his lap.
Darfoy was one of his favorite facades. When
she lived, the old woman scammed her way through
life. The crone barely spoke one language, let alone
the hundreds she claimed. After Hemlock took her,
that all changed. The assassin built a grand reputation
using his knowledge of history and language. It
was no wonder the church would trust such a delicate
task to her. Of course, when he realized the potential
of the text, he embellished the translation a
little.
“Did you get my glove and dagger?” Hemlock
asked.
“Here is the glove,” Sal said, tossing a black
leather glove on the table. “I had a new one made.”
The assassin began to pull the glove onto his
hand. The leather looked much too small for his new
mask, but as he slipped the garment on, it reconfigured
to a perfect fit. He flexed his hand to adjust the
new glove before he set his gaze back on Sal.
“My dagger?”
“It wasn’t there.” Sal’s voice sounded full of
fear. “I got you this for a temporary replacement.”
The merchant set a blade on the table between
them. The edge shimmered light blue in the shadows.
It was a fine blade. But it was not what Hemlock
wanted.
“Sal, Sal, Sal,” the assassin chanted.
“I would really feel better if you didn’t say my
name so much,” Sal joked.
Hemlock laughed, yet it didn’t break the tension.
He knew Sal was not this man’s real name. The
man proved smart enough to use a false name with
the killer. The show of wit was the reason Hemlock
took him as a contact. However, the cutthroat did
know the merchant’s real name. Just in case the need
ever arose.
“It’s nightshade, the poison enchantment, I
mean,” Sal sputtered.
“I know what it is, and it is not hemlock,” the
killer said. “I only use hemlock.”
“I just thought you might…”
“You were wrong. Now put it away and find me a
hemlock dagger.” Hemlock drained the last of his
ale and got up from the table.
“What are you going to do first?” Sal dared to
ask.
“First I am going to take one of those servers in
a backroom and make sure everything works on this
mask,” the assassin answered. “Then I am going to
have another ale and watch a young boy named
Donnel woo his ladylove.”
The church would already have their agents
looking for Sylvia. There would be little time before
they found the girl without her knight to hide her.
But he felt safe in the knowledge; he was the only
one who knew what to do with the girl.
 

Continued
 



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