Not one of the women moved in that field after Katriyana confirmed her guild affiliation. Except for flies buzzing about the corpses on the ground and wagon, silence. That was, until a nearby cow mooed loudly from the pen next to their field. Trotting back and forth, it seemed put off by the quartet’s tension.
Perhaps the cow’s distress stemmed from other sources, like a guildmate nearby ready to correct Kat for her misdeed? That was just paranoia on her part, but somehow she wouldn’t put it past her guild to soon know today’s events. Seeing the creature shy away from the fields, Kat deduced that it was the stench of death from so many that repelled and upset it so.
Ignoring the beast, Kat snapped her attention back. Cela, obviously unperturbed by Midnight Slicers, went back to removing corpses from the wagon. Straddling the seat and the wagon bed in the afternoon sun, the tall Yiftan gleamed with sweat as she hoisted a corpse over her head to toss from cart to field.
Beside the Yiftan, Kinjara sat helping here and there. After the confirmation, the bard shifted on the wagon bench. Imperceptibly to all but a trained eye, it was just enough to offset any attack and ensure that the Yiftan was the first line of defense.
Kat hid a smile. So many assumed the worst of Midnight Slicers, believing them to be mindless killers. The truth was, Slicers killed for two reasons: self-defense and a well-paid contract. Neither reason applied here, hence nothing to fear. She turned to Tristien.
“I have only one question for you, Kat,” the scarred woman’s voice was unusually low and grave. She squinted dramatically by the wagon, ready to receive a corpse from Cela above.
Raising one eyebrow, Kat nodded.
“Tell me,” the scarred woman paused for effect then continued, “Do you Midnight Slicers have to do all your killings exactly at twelve chimes?” She followed in a normal but bubblier voice, “Because if you do, it’ll make defending against you easier when you come to kill me.” Tristien grinned at her friends.
Kat chuckled but the looks on the other two women’s faces only grew sterner.
Shifting on the wagon bench so that she faced Kat instead of the corpses, Cela grabbed for her sword. “Don’ go jokin’ about Slicers, you heahr? They ain’ ones to bother.” Pointing her sword at Kat more as a gesture than a threat, the blonde warrior said, “Listen, Tris. You never know. Nalthia ain’ done with you yet an’ she migh’ be usin’ this here Slicer.”
Nalthia. Why was that name familiar? Kat wondered.
Tristien flinched at the mention of the name. She leaned against the wagon as if needing it for support.
Leaning out from behind Cela, Kinjara continued the Yiftan’s argument. “Perhaps ineptitude birthed a procurement for a more efficient and competent means?” The red-head nodded at Kat.
A bitter laugh blasted out from Tristien’s lips. “Nonsense! Nalthia might not be done with me, but for her to hire a Midnight Slicer?” Staring with intent, the grey eyes asked Kat not to betray the trust given. “That’ll be asking a gorilla to use utensils. Too subtle for her and honestly, too expensive.”
The other two laughed along, relaxing them. Climbing down from the wagon, Cela indicated with her sword that Kat should climb up after Kinjara got down. At the Slicer’s quirked eyebrow, Cela answered, “You’re to take over.” She pointed at the corpses and then at the chewed up ground. “Movin’ them.”
Kat’s only response was to hold up her still-bound hands.
Grinning, Cela shrugged. She joined the other two in walking off a ways to converse privately, leaving the Slicer to deal with the remaining five bodies.
By the wagon, a stack of corpses had already piled up, started by Cela. Were she as tall and strong as the Yiftan, Kat could’ve repeated the hoisting of bodies and throwing them off. Being much smaller and lighter, she had to improvise. Especially with bound hands.
Kat climbed into the bed with the corpses. She dragged a corpse to the side where the pile was and tipped the legs over the side. Balancing the hips on the wagon’s wall, she heaved the corpse’s shoulders up and tumbled them onto the stack from the side of the wagon.
Between the corpses, she studied the land around her. The field she was on was the northeast corner of the farm. To the west of them were the central path, another field and path, then the Darsprian Forest. South of the fields were four pens, two on either side of the central pathway. South of the pens were the two farmhouses with the central path continuing between the houses. Then came the vegetable garden, the dirt yard and pen and lastly the barn where Flick was.
The farm’s cropfields were in various stages of developments: one contained saplings which were now trampled, and the other, trees. Kat, being singularly urban in nature, had no idea what sort of plants they could be, noting only that the saplings looked purple, and the trees attracted birds.
Over in the southwest corner of the field, the other three women huddled to talk. The earlier breeze had intensified into small gusts and so most of the time, the wind helped obscure the conversation behind Kat. On occasion though, it plucked phrases and flung them down to the Slicer’s ears. “… dangerous but seemingly er…”, “… gone through enou…”, “…not end go…”
The subject was undoubtedly Kat, yet she didn’t seem the focus. Rather, Tristien’s past presented more of a concern than Kat or her guild. This was good news, wasn’t it?
Still, it was troubling that she was even being discussed. She had prided herself on rarely being an object of a debate. With these three women though, it seemed to be dagger and sheathe; the three discussed everything which included Kat.
As Kat dragged the last body to the side, she was still irked. What business was it of theirs if she surrendered to Tristien? Yet, the longer she thought, the more she realized that if whoever etched Tristien’s skin was still around, the protectiveness was justified, if not warranted.
The moment the last body tumbled over the side of the wagon, Cela called out to Kat. “Hel’ gather up firewoo’. We nee’ enough to burn through over a dozen bodies. Drive the cahrt over there” The tall blonde pointed at the Darsprian Forest beyond the other field.
Again, Kat’s only response was to hold up her still-bound hands.
Before Cela replied, a male baritone voice called out from beyond the other field. “Ahre you so easily captured? Whadda waste of coin!”
Stepping around the other field where small trees grew, a man in scuffed-up armor limped into view. Recognition took a few moments; Barmon’s armor dulled in formerly shiny places and his face reflected five times the bruises on Kat’s. Heading towards them purposefully, he dragged his two-handed sword behind him, the point marking a trail in the dirt from where he’d been. It looked too heavy for his bedraggled state.
To the Slicer’s amazement, the other three women fanned out from where they stood in a defensive maneuver. Cela, with her longer legs moved furthest north. Tristien took up the middle ground with Kinjara barely moving. All three had weapons drawn.
Pausing to spit and remove his leg armor, Barmon yelled at the three waiting women. “Begone! I’m not talkin’ to you. It’s to her, the double crossin’ prec’! I paid good money for you to help ME!” Blood-flecked spittle sprang from his mouth as he took his chest armor off in an obvious attempt to lessen his burden. Heavy the armor may be, but useless in battle. A Slicer, especially a Celeb could easily find fissures between the bands to slip a blade into vital parts. Now able to lift his sword, Barmon shook it at Kat. “You’re not worth half the price I paid for you!”
As he neared the path between the fields, Kat walked closer. Still behind the three women’s defensive front, she nonetheless got a better look at the mess that was Barmon’s face. Once the blonde man could have captured hearts even in Izthic where beautiful people showed off the latest fashions by Izthician artisans. Now, his eyes had both swelled to mere slits. Obviously broken, his nose added to the overall puffiness. Caked blood formed paths down his face from ruptured spots. No one could call him handsome now.
Crossing the path, the Yiftan male stopped at the bloodied field’s edge. Sniffing the air, he declared, “Tha’ rancid smell. Only one thin’ makes tha’ – lots of rottin’ mea’.” He spotted the mound of bodies by the cart. “The corpses! I migh’ still be able to make some money ye’.”
The three women pulled together the closer Barmon got. He jabbed with his sword at the pile of corpses. He said to the three of them, “Swa’ you. You take tha’ no-goo’ double-crosser. I’ll have me the cahrt and bodies.”
The three women’s laughs sounded hearty and incredulous.
“Grant a pardon sir. A pertinent but overlooked detail might prove relevant,” said Kinjara helpfully. “The three bargaining chips, the traitor, the chariot and the carcasses, all lay beyond your grasp. Pray tell, from what position of advantage might you be perched?”
While the others laughed at the bard’s query, Katriyana wondered why corpses equated money in Barmon’s eyes. Then she remembered the deals he made in Ruquine with wealthy families: a financial arrangement to bring their relatives back for burial should misfortune befall them. She recalled thinking at the time that such a deal provided an incentive for Barmon to be careless.
Another thought entered her mind. Furious that such a possibility could exist, Kat pushed past the three women. Seeing that she rejected their defense, the three found an unblemished spot on the field from which to watch. Tristien and Kinjara made themselves an area to sit while Cela stood behind them, her hands hovering close to her weapon on the offchance Kat made a poor showing.
Barmon slowed his approach, then backed up the closer Kat got. He stammered, “Wha’? I though’ you’d like tha’ deal. You go off with them three, an’ you won’ nee’ to smell these rottin’ thin’s no more”
The words hissed out of Kat’s clenched mouth. “Why hire me?”
At first startled, Barmon’s eyes flitted around as if searching for any excuse. “Why no’? They sai’ you’re goo’. Jus’ a little rusty fightin’ in big empty spaces. Yeah, tha’s righ’.” Nodding frantically he added, as if the compliment would salve any misgivings, “They says you’ll have no probs killin’ lots.”
Almost yelling, Kat asked, “Did my guild know you hired me to kill my comrades?”
Within three breaths she was in the Quietude. It was once again a hallway. She set her eyes on the Triliska and forced her breathing to even out.
In those three same breaths, she flexed her arms around to draw out one of her knives. She jammed it into the ground. With a sweep of her arms, she sliced open the bindings around her thumbs and wrists. Standing, Kat jerked the dagger out of the ground with her right hand. Her left removed the other knife from her belt sheath, her eyes never leaving Barmon’s eyes.
The Yiftan man backed away, holding his hands up as if to ward her off, “Only as a las’ resor’!”
Flicking the daggers between an overhand to an underhand grip over and again, Kat started a slow circle around the backing man. “Let’s see.” Backing him across the path toward the field with the trees, she continued her theory. “You hire me. Mostly youngsters from wealthy families sign up with you. Parents pay you, dead or alive, right? Or twice – once to go and once to get their corpses back?”
Barmon’s sweat poured out, soaking everything he wore. His frantic denials doubled at her last suggestion. Her anger blocked out his words.
“You’ve nowhere to bring them, have you? Nice scam. Get them killed on fruitless raids and bring their bodies home. And if they don’t die, I kill them. Right?” The cold fury building inside Kat was a first. Each realization poured ice into her veins yet her anger kept growing.
Without realizing it, Kat had walked halfway down the hallway. Each drenching of her blood in ice made her focus on the Triliska tighten.
She took quicker steps across the path. Barmon backed into the other field. Just when she quickened, he stopped. His back was to the trunk of a tree. Dropping into a feral defensive crouch, he snarled, “Tha’s wha’ you Slicers do! You kills!”
“YOU!” With one move, she flicked a dagger at Barmon. He fumbled to lift his sword.
“SULLY!” The flying dagger pierced through his throat. It lodged him to the tree behind. She closed the gap in her next breath. His eyes widened. He lifted his sword.
“MY!” She parried his feeble defense. Blood gurgled out of the wound in his neck. She switched hands and grip.
A picture of a heart appeared over the Triliska.
“GUILD!” Driving the dagger into his side, she found Barmon’s heart and with the blade piercing, stopped it.
The beating heart over the Triliska slowed and stopped. There was no use in staying in the hallway anymore. She left the Quietude.
Leaping off to the side, she let the Yiftan mountain man drop to the ground. Even if she had tried, carrying him would’ve been an impossibility. Barmon outweighed her by almost a hundred pounds.
With a laugh, Cela pushed Kat aside. The Slicer stared at the Yiftan; her fury must’ve blocked out the approach. The blonde warrior threw her fellow countryman on her shoulder and carried him over to the rest of the corpses. Heaving, she threw it on top of the others and headed back to the three women. When she reached them, she nodded at her two companions. “Tol’ you she was a Slicer. A goo’ one too, by the looks of it.”
Surprised to hear the pride in the Yiftan’s voice, Kat glanced over at the grinning woman. Unsure, Kat smiled back but turned away in confusion. Why did she want Cela’s respect? Simply because that respect was a rare commodity?
The look she got from Kinjara was more familiar, yet it too contained no revulsion. Despite a fairly gruesome kill which seemed unprovoked and unjustified, all that appeared on Kinjara’s face was distrust and questions. Kat’s smile at the bard was an apologetic one. The questions would remain questions. Curiosity and Midnight Slicers had an uneasy truce.
Expecting a neutral or better reaction from Tristien, Kat finally turned to her. She was met instead with hands clamped over an open mouth. Shocked and accusatory eyes stared above the clamped mouth.
Bewildered, Kat fought for control over her face. What changed?
Tristien then released the gates over her mouth. She unleashed the words, “That’s what you use the Quietude for?!?”
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