Dirk was trying to replay the last few seconds in his head. Then again, he thought to himself, had it even been seconds? Of course it had, he decided, nothing could have closed the distance to where he stood in any less time than that, right?658Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡc1IwshVVII
Dirk was only the man’s nickname; he had long since forgotten his real one. Now, in his middle-age, he preferred the nickname. It had taken him years to build a reputation upon it. Renowned for wielding two long, thin bladed knives, called dirks, his name was often on the lips of the bleeding and the dying.
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His name, and his reputation, were his livelihood among the marauding clans of the Grethlyn Highlands. It was for this reason, in particular, that he did not appreciate having the chipped edges of his own blades pressed against his throat.
The other two bruisers he had come downstairs with for ale writhed in pain and lay incapacitated on the uneven, coarse-cut floorboards. Other patrons of the Blue Hen Tavern had leapt from their tables and backed away from the mêlée, although, it was over before some had even managed to rise to their feet.
Boots fell heavy on the second floor. With each lumbering thump, dust coughed out from the exposed crossbeams just above Dirk’s head. The whole structure seemed to tremble under the frantic shifting of weight. Candlelight flickered from within glass-blown orbs set around the hall. The rumbling mass above them moved in the direction of the staircase, which would soon ferry Dirk’s infamous troop straight downstairs and to the fight.
In the awkward silence waiting for the others to arrive, Dirk realized two things: The first was that once the troops saw him held at knifepoint by some vagrant, with his own blades, nonetheless, his reign over the pack was sure to be challenged. The second was that the man behind him, who now pulled his hair to tilt his head back and expose his throat, breathed completely calm.
These steady breaths, which now skirted Dirk’s left ear, sounded no more labored than his own. This was unsettling when Dirk considered that the stranger had just made short work of their best brawler, as well as, a fairly decent short swordsman. Not to mention, relieving him of his choice weapons and turning them on him before he had a chance to react.
Dirk’s captor was still as measured and relaxed as could be. Yet, the edges of Dirk’s lips curled upward like small, brutal fishhooks to form an ugly grin. He was imagining the look the on the stranger’s face once he realized with whom he had just fucked.
“If you return my blades and give up willingly,” Dirk managed to choke out, peppering his dark beard with the foamy spittle of ale, “I will see to it that you are laid in a marked grave.”
The stranger said nothing, at first.
Dirk struggled feebly against the strangers grasp. As he did so, his captor had finished counting the number of clansmen that were traversing the second floor. He now anticipated only five assailants.
“Since when do clansmen only travel in a pack of eight?” the stranger asked. His voice was low and crisp, sounding genuinely surprised by the low number, and sounding as though he knew how the tribes of these lands had always operated.
The corners of Dirk’s eyes squinted in a disbelieving look.
“What would you know about us? We are mercenaries of these hill-”
“Oh, you call yourselves mercenaries now?” The voice asked with a spike of condescension, ignoring Dirk’s attempt to call the man’s bluff. “I would have found incestuous mountain goats to be more accurate.”
This enraged Dirk even further and he readjusted his grip on the strangers arm coiled tight around his neck, trying unsuccessfully to struggle free. He began to grit his teeth and grunt in protest. “Once I get my hands on you I will pull your arm off and feed it to our hounds while you watch, you son of a bitch.”
It was when the first clansmen leapt down the last few stairs and brought a spear level with his torqued shoulders, that the stranger made his move. Dirk was shoved forward and then kicked in the small of his back. This sent him tumbling ass over teakettle across the tavern Chloe until he tripped and fell to the floor. He spun back round just in time to see the stranger move with a violence of action.
With a whirl of the man’s leather coat, two shiny knives flickered in the light as they flew out and whistled over Dirk’s head. Before he could track them to their target, a thread of arterial blood splayed out over the wood tabletops. The spearman’s limp body followed close behind, crumbling lifelessly the floor.
Dirk rolled over onto his hands and knees, and then sprung forward, lunging for the dropped spear. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the faintest glint of steel within another flurry of flying leather. The only sound made in that breathless moment was the unmistakable clack of a pistol hammer locking back.
A pistol? Dirk thought, in what he well knew would be his final moments. Dirk had not even seen a pistol since he was a child. Why would this vagrant, a stray in these badlands, have a pistol?
The answer was obvious; he was neither a vagrant, nor a stray. He had come to the Highlands of the Grethlyn Mountain Range on a mission. What that mission was, Dirk had no idea. What he did know, however, was that this man’s lethality was not just a skill – it was his tradecraft.
Dirk never heard the bark of the pistol shot that killed him, the round passed through his skull before the sound reached his ears.
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Atropos let an almost imperceptible grimace drag across his dusty face as he thought about the five pistol shots he had fired the night before at the Blue Hen. That many had been entirely unnecessary, he knew that. His concern for the shot count stemmed not from a lack of ammunition, of which he had plenty, but it just felt messy. Ok, yes, the man going for the dropped spear certainly warranted a shot, and maybe the oaf trying to heave a throwing axe at him did too, but the rest of the troop he could have dispatched of without firing another shot.
To some relief, Atropos thought to himself, at least I only drew one pistol.
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Dawn had only just begun to set the jagged peak of Grethlyn ablaze with a fiery orange. The vivid light had yet to cascade down the steep slope of the mountain and wash away the darkness.
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Atropos lay on his back staring up at the single crease of his tents canopy above him. He had one hand behind his head, the other pulling rhythmically at the scruff on either side of his jaw, as though trying to collect the hairs at his chin.
Then again, he thought, maybe the firefight would do well by announcing his arrival in the valley. Maybe the stories of what he had done would reach deeper into the lawless recesses of the Grethlyn Mountains, than the reports of his pistol themselves. Those kinds of rumors were likely to carry his message further than the bodies of the clansmen, which he had thrown over the backs of their horses and fired a shot, sending them galloping for the hills from which they came.
He did not have an exact message per se, but he wanted the bandits who resided in those hills, to understand he would shoot now, and ask questions never.
Once Atropos had buttoned up his deep navy blue vest, which was not much bluer than his black boots and pants, he fished out a circular locket from the belly pocket of his vest. He thumbed a silver latch and flicked it open. Accounting for the difference in time zones, he estimated the time, clasped the watch shut, and slid it back into the vest. He was right on schedule.
He had turned up camp and loaded his saddlebags. All of which straddled either side of a skeletal network of pipes, metal, and two rubber tires, one in front of the other. Atropos shrugged his thigh-length duster onto his shoulders and mounted the machine. He yanked at a cord, once, twice, and on the third try, an engine roared to life.
Dust and grit of the trail spat out from beneath spinning tires. As Atropos rode off, dust clouds trailed behind, rising up from the road like souls of the dead rising from their graves.
Atropos would park his motorbike a half mile, or so, away from his destination and throw an interchangeable camouflage tarp over top of it. Few people in those parts had ever seen a motorbike, let alone driven one. Which was all the more reason to keep it hidden.
The porous, volcanic rock that carpeted the bleak landscape crumbled under his boots. What few trees there were looked like driftwood propped vertically in the rocky soil.
The yelping and hollering from a small crowd ahead of Atropos sounded more like a pack of hyenas, than people. On the other hand, the people of this valley and their way of life certainly did its part to blur the line of distinction between the two.
Hoofs beat furiously at the earth as two men, riding bareback and grasping at their horses mane, blasted passed the crowd. Atropos strode passed, disregarding the beady eyes that had taken notice of him and were now tracking him as he walked. He approached a man who sat in a high-backed, faded red leather chair a few dozen yards uphill from the spectacle. The frail man was slouched in the chair, draping one leg over the right armrest, kicking idly at the air.
When the man spotted Atropos, he threw his arms wide and above his head in greeting.
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“It is, Atropos!” he announced to the sky with a grandiose sarcasm, then lowered his arms abruptly, as though they suddenly failed to work.
“The man is punctual, though,” he said to the man standing next to his chair, as if speaking to a sidebar, “predictale
Atropos came to a stop a few yards distant from the man. Patience had never been his strong suit and Atropos was sure this man would test his limits.
“Crain, is it?” Atropos asked the man who still slouched in the chair with his hands laid palm down on his chest, his fingers interlocked.
Crain did not speak, he only acknowledged by parting his hands and slowly bowing his head to his chest as if in genuflection. A taught grin slithered across his face, as did the shadows from buzzards circling overhead.
Atropos did not believe in omens, but, he thought to himself, if the ugly avian presence was any sort of sign, it would certainly not be a good one.
Crain noticed Atropos regarding the birds of prey.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Crain asked as he watched Atropos with derisive curiosity. He spoke as though the birds were his own and he was comforted by their presence.
“Nope,” Atropos responded, squinting into the sun. He lowered his gaze until he was looking back at Crain, “ugly as hell.”
The two men then locked into intense eye contact. Crain rolled his tongue in his mouth and squinted, as though working on something behind his pale gray eyes.
“Right,” Crain blurted out, as if waking suddenly from a daydream. He rotated in the cracked leather seat, swung both legs around, and planted his boots on the ground. “So, you are here on behalf of the railroad, yes?”
“I am, yes.”
Crain hesitated, expecting more of an answer. He began rotating his hand at the wrist and nodding, with an encouraging look on his face.
“Ok, and? What would your railroad want of my fine town?”
“They want nothing from you, or your town, and you know why I’m here.”
Atropos said in a stern voice. He had not come to this man to play games.
Magistrate Crain Forde
Magistrate Crain Forde was the self-elected mayor of the town, Grethlyn. He was also the self-appointed sheriff, presiding judge, jury, and volunteer executioner. The town and everyone who lived there fit into his own little glass globe. One which he could roll back and forth across a tabletop, walk his spider like fingers over, and if he felt like it, smash it against a wall.
Atropos had not come to ask Crain for permission to play in his backyard, he was there to tell him that is exactly what he was going to do and to stay out of his way.
The Magistrate scoffed to himself and shook his head as he sat up in the chair and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. Atropos could tell that a long-winded, listen here, speech was coming, and that, he did not have time for.
“I trust that I have your cooperation, Magistrate,” Atropos looked back over one shoulder, and then the other, “and of your, fine town.” The crowd that had been preoccupied with the horse race now milled about behind him. Again, they were like hyenas, held at bay as a lion devoured its kill, waiting for their chance at the scraps.
Crain’s face suddenly drained of all expression and his eyes fell vacant as he watched Atropos turn his back to him and begin to walk away.
“I hear you killed your mother, young Atropos.” Crain called after him.
Atropos stopped abruptly.
“Ah, yes,” he continued, pleased with himself for clearly reopening the stranger’s old wounds, “she died giving birth to you – never even got to see the bastard boy who killed her.”
Atropos looked to his right, not quite back over his shoulder, but as though deciding whether, or not, to face Crain. Then, he thought to himself, yeah, I’ll bite, why not? He turned and came to face Crain.
“That’s how you got your name, is it not?” Crain asked. Shadows from the buzzards overhead slid over the Magistrate and up the leather back of his chair.
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Atropos said nothing.
“Atropos!” Crain declared as he hopped to his feet. Long, lanky limbs and tight black clothing made him look just as spider like as his own disposition.
“One of the three Moirai sister’s, from the children’s fairy tales,” he continued as he began to pace in front of his chair, “Clotho, she spun the thread of life, Lachesis, measured its length, and Atropos – she cut it.” Crain’s bony fingers acted as clipping scissors.
Atropos felt his jaw clench subconsciously and his forehead grow warm. Fury and shame collided within him and fought for control. The warmth from his forehead began to run through his veins. He felt it rush into his arm and down to the tips of his fingers on his right hand.
Unseen to anyone else, a dozen tiny black specks materialized at his fingers. Each one began its own elliptical orbit around his hand, like a solar system of planets held close by a stars gravity. More particles started to appear. Some traveled slowly around their tracks, some moved as just a blur they moved so fast.
“Now, what kind of a mayor would I be,” Crain pressed on, unaware of the escalating, cosmic event taking place, “if I let a man run around my town like some sort of assassin?”
Atropos tried to quell the rage that fueled the momentum of the things around his hand. Not here and not now, he told himself, if you kill Crain, you would have to kill everyone else here. I need to stop this before it gets any worse.
“A man who killed his own mother! Cut her “life-thread” even before his own umbilical cord had been cut. How am I –”
Without warning, leather flew, a pistol was drawn, and a gunshot cracked. Atropos clocked movement to his left. One sleight of hand and Atropos had drawn his other pistol, pulled the hammer, and had a man from the crowd dead to rights before he even got a grip on a throwing knife at his hip. The man immediately eased his hand off the hilt.
This all occurred before the buzzard Atropos had shot out of the sky fell to the ground a foot from Crain.
“Well, now,” Crain shouted from behind his lazily clapping hands as he walked down toward Atropos, “I’ll be a son of - wait, that’s not right – you’ll be a son of a, former bitch. Where did you get that firearm, son?”
Atropos remained silent as he began to back-step. His arms remained spread wide to keep one pistol on the man with the knife and the other on Crain. The motley crew of Crain’s hyenas parted as the man backed into their midst.
Crain continued toward Atropos, holding his arms out and his palms up. He walked with a grace that could have passed for a religious entity expecting to ascend back to the heavens.
“Atropos, darling, where are you going?” the man asked in a maniacally pleasant voice.
Atropos whipped his leather coat aside and then, slowly holstered his pistols. He kept the coat pinned back on one side to free up the pistol grip that bobbed at his hip.
Frustrated by the defiance, Crain suddenly clapped his hands together.
“Hey! You piece of shit! You are nobody in this valley, do you hear me? If I wanted you dead,” he brought his fingers beside his face and snapped, “like th –”
Another pistol blast echoed through the stifling air. This time, the lead zipped by so close to Crain’s head that he could feel his eardrum swell from the sudden change in air pressure. Crain did not heed this warning shot. In fact, he hardly blinked. This took Atropos slightly off-guard.
Instead, he kept walking forward, put his hands out in front of him, and shook them as he made a ghostly sound to mock Atropos. “Ooohhhh.”
After another moment, he slowed to a stop and just stood, watching Atropos begin to put distance between them. Before long, the stranger was little more than a dot fading into the liquid of a heat mirage.
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