Six

“…and he says to Matthias, he says to him, ‘Tell your father he’s a right maggot and not to show his face round here again.’ Well, didn’t have much to do with me, I s’pose, but I just didn’t think that was anyway to talk to a customer. So I decided I wouldn’t be showin’ my face round there no more, neither. So when you’re headed out east, don’t go to Groz’s. Groz’s Oasis it’s called–did I mention the name?”

He had. At least three other times. Akura’a had lost count. Garridan tapped out well before that. He busied himself with polishing his small dagger and daydreaming about plunging it into William’s throat, changing the drivel coming out of his mouth into bloody, gurgling spatter.

“Groz is a right bastard, that’s for sure. People much friendlier back here. Well, to folks like me, at least. Real cutthroat world out east.” He noticed that Akura’a’s tankard was empty and she was staring into it, almost hypnotized. He grabbed it away from her and smiled broadly. “Next round’s on me.”

“How much do you charge?” she whispered to Garridan as William approached the barkeep.

“On the house,” the assassin replied. “But I thought you’d seen enough death?”

She sighed. “Maybe you could just do me instead?”

Garridan laughed and stashed his blade back in his boot. “Listen, what I was gonna tell you before Will here…there is a caravan should be moving through soon you’d be safe with.”

She grunted, urging him to continue.

“Dwarven caravan. Wasn’t surprised. Dwarves don’t know a stranger. Need to ask around about a guy named Haveraul Got-the-Goods. Works a route between here and the Far-flungs. We hook you up with him, you should be good to go.”

She nodded. “Still not sure why you’re helping me.”

He shrugged. “Me neither.”

“I owe you a debt I’ll never be able to repay.”

He waved her off. “I only worry about debts owed in gold.”

“Here ya, go.” William slammed down two ales, splashing some onto the table and beamed at Akura’a and Garridan. “Got time for one more story?”

“I don’t know…”

“Ah, c’mon. Make an ol’ drunk’s day. Don’t often get a new audience round here.”

Garridan rose and cracked his back. “Think we might take a look around. Errands to run.”

But William insisted. “Least till you finish yer ales.”

Akura’a shook her head and politely pushed the tankard away. “Thanks, but we need to–”

“Now don’t be rude,” William said. His tone was suddenly as slick as his oleaginous flesh.

Garridan was instantly alert. His reflexes were like a wolf’s, and the slightest change in the air could make him bristle and bare fang. He zeroed in on the spilled ale, which was now sending faint, delicate wisps of smoke into the air.

Akura’a rolled her eyes and slumped back, resigned to suffering another of William’s epics. She picked up her tankard but Garridan quickly knocked it from her hand, sending it splashing to the floor. The boards crackled and smoked as the tainted ale sizzled into their grain.

“Son of a bitch. Didn’t want to have to get messy,” William hissed. He pulled a dagger from his tunic and lunged at Akura’a, but Garridan was faster. He grabbed William’s arm and twisted with merciless strength. His movement was crisp and surgical, and the bone responded instantly by cracking just as clean. William howled in agony and the dagger slipped from his hand and thudded against the table.

“Bastard!” he spat and fell to the floor.

Nicholas, Richard, and Walter all stood and prepared to take Garridan together, but they hesitated as he unsheathed his sword and beckoned them over. “Don’t be shy,” he snarled.

Still heaving in pain, William threw his good hand blindly onto the tabletop, feeling around for his weapon. Akura’a watched as his limp limb flopped about. She could have easily moved the dagger out of his reach, but she was frozen. All at once, the day of the massacre erupted inside her brain–all of the blood, all of the noise, all of the confusion. All of the violence detonated and her body rattled as the painful ejecta of it scraped at her insides. William finally landed on the weapon, but before he could even lift it from the table, Garridan’s blade plunged keenly down.

William’s severed hand slumped over the dagger like a corpse. His encroaching posse now retreated, their eyes wide,their mouths shut, their hands up in surrender.

“Sword down!”

Garridan looked toward the bar where the shout had come from and saw a face from his past.

It was a past more remote than the time that separated him from it might suggest. It was hazy not through the fog of years, but because it was a past he had seen with different eyes, as a different person.

Akura’a’s senses were finally returning to her and she saw the strange look of recognition in Garridan’s eyes. She followed his gaze and saw a knight in finely polished armor–too fine to have been a local. Hovering behind the knight was the bard she had seen in the town square, the one with a voice like a salve and lyrics like a wound.

“Drop your sword, Garridan, and come with me,” the knight commanded.

The bard stepped cautiously forward and grabbed the knight’s shoulder. “Gerard, the man on the ground pulled his weapon first. I saw it. He was trying to murder the orc.”

Gerard stepped closer and looked at the spilled tankard, the floorboards still sizzling. “Laced with simmerspores.” He turned to Garridan. “Like something you’d do.”

The assassin had no reaction.

“Why attack the orc?” Gerard asked William.

Why? They’re all sc-sc–” He coughed and wheezed and was on the verge of losing consciousness but fought to answer. “Scum. My brother. One of these bastards–one of these. Killed him. They should all–all–all rot.” His last word was thick with poison, and coughing it out drained whatever was left in him. He slumped over unconscious, bleeding out.

Gerard nudged the knobby lump of a man with his foot. “Find him some medical help. Fast. We’ll deal with him if he lives. And you.” He looked at Garridan. “Are you going to come quietly?”

“But Gerard.”

The knight held his hand up to silence the bard. “Trust me, Isaac. This man needs to be taken in. So?”

Garridan’s face moved not a muscle, but he silently placed his sword on the table and fished his dagger from his boot and forfeited it, too.

“Wise decision.”

Akura’a still couldn’t bring her legs to move, but she reached out. “Garridan…he was only trying to protect me.”

“What about the orc?” one of the drunks demanded.

“What about the orc?” Gerard roared. He pushed Garridan toward the door. “Seems she was minding her own business. I suggest the rest of you do the same.”

Garridan turned, his face still stony, his eyes still flint, and nodded at Akura’a. “Haveraul Got-the-Goods. Find him. ‘Fore one of these bastards tries to finish what he started.”

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