With When the Heavens Fall set for release in May, author Marc Turner sets the stage for his epic fantasy debut in “There’s a Devil Watching Over You,” a short story set in the turbulent world of the novel.
Safiya and her fellow bandits thought they had found an easy mark, but they quickly learned that they picked the worst possible victim. Now Luker Essendar, one of the warrior Guardians of Erin Elal, is after them, and his relentless pursuit is driving the bandits toward an abandoned fort—one that appears strewn with evidence of a terrible battle. But nothing is exactly as it seems…
“You see him?” Vilar asked.
Safiya peered from behind a tree and scanned the forest. From her vantage point atop an incline she could make out the route she’d taken to get here: the brook she’d stumbled over, the brambles she’d floundered through, the track she’d staggered up like a drunkard in a gale. There was no sign of the man whose breath had tickled the back of her neck the whole way, but she didn’t need to see him to know he was there. When you’d been hunted for as long as Safiya had you got a feeling for these things. And it wasn’t the sort of feeling you ignored unless you wanted an arrow through your right leg to go with the one Vilar had just pulled out of Safiya’s left.
Her gaze lingered on the track. The last rainfall had turned the mud to slop. Hard to believe she’d made it up here with an arrow in her calf, even with Vilar’s grudging help. Adrenaline alone had carried her this far, but now it set her down with a bump, and she sagged against a tree, bone-weary. Her leg throbbed with pain. Tick had told her she’d been lucky the arrowhead had gone straight through. If it was such an auspicious sign, though, maybe she should put an arrow in him, see how he liked it. But at least it had allowed Vilar to snap off the point and tug the shaft back out the way it had come.
In response to Vilar’s question, Tick shook his head. “Can’t see nothing,” he said between breaths, still puffing from the ascent. “Maybe he’s keeping to cover. Maybe he thinks we got more bows than we do.”
Safiya glared at them. “Why don’t you ask him?” she said. “The way you two songbirds are cheeping he’ll have followed us up here soon enough.”
Lady’s blessing, how had it come to this? How had she ended up with these two of all her band when it could have been Arran or Griff instead? Arran, though, had been the first to fall to the stranger’s blades, and Griff had surely sealed his own fate when he tried to rally the group to him. But at times like this wasn’t it always the good-for-nothings who emerged unscathed? The good-for-nothings, after all, were always the first to bolt. As Safiya herself had proved.
Tick rounded on her, his second chin wobbling. “What in Shroud’s name happened down there? You were supposed to be our cover!”
“Bastard was too quick,” Safiya said. “By the time I’d got a draw on him, he was onto you.”
It was only half the truth. The stranger had been quick, yes, but he’d also surprised Safiya by going on the attack. Most people backed off when they smelled trouble coming, or flapped their gums in the hope of reasoning with their robbers. This one, though, had fought back.
The cheek of it.
“If he was onto us,” Tick said, “then he would have put his back to you. Perfect time to take him out.”
“But if he’d zigged instead of zagged, you might have ended up wearing my arrow instead of him. Couldn’t live with that on my conscience.”
Tick bared his teeth.
Vilar stepped between them. “You see what happened to Scuttle?” he asked Safiya.
“The mark must have gotten him and taken his bow. At least I bloody well hope so, since it was one of Scuttle’s arrows you pulled out of my leg.”
“You tell me, you were with him last.” Griff and Vilar had been round the back in case the stranger tried to run.
Vilar was all shifty-eyed suddenly. “We got separated.”
“Explains the him-not-being-here bit. What happened?”
A new voice spoke from Safiya’s right. “He ran, is what happened.”
Startled, she half turned toward the sound, thinking the mark had found them. Her weight came down on her injured leg, and a stab of fire went through it like she’d been shot anew. She gasped and leaned against the tree. But it was only Griff. He’d picked up a limp of his own in the shambles at the campsite, and his cheeks were covered in scratches like he’d been dragged through a nettleclaw bush. Stupid old man, creeping up on them like that. Safiya shot him a grin, but he only had eyes for Vilar.
“We all ran,” Vilar said, his gaze twitching to Safiya and Tick for support. “That’s why we’re still alive.”
“But you ran first, and you weren’t the one under the mark’s swords.”
“I’d seen all I needed to by then.” Vilar hawked and spat. “You haven’t known Arran as long as I have. I watched him square off once against this Belliskan knight outside Kerin. Arran carved slices off him like he was the Mournday roast.” He looked at each of the band in turn. “And our mark today took Arran down in heartbeats.”
“That’s because he’s a Guardian,” Griff said.
A heavy silence followed his words. The only sound was the whistle of the wind tangling in the branches. To Safiya it felt like a hole had opened up inside her. A Guardian. She’d known straight off there was something different about the man. There’d been a coldness to him. An unsettling assurance in the face of odds of six to one against. Even the brave ones she’d robbed before – the ones who talked tough – still had an edge to their look or a catch to their voice that told you they were churning beneath. But this guy had just sat by his fire like he’d been expecting them. Safiya should have trusted her instincts and put an arrow in him while he had his back to her, but somehow that had seemed . . . wrong.
She snorted. What was ‘wrong’ to a bandit? An empty purse, that’s what. Or an empty stomach. Idiot! She was still playing by the rules of her old life when the game had long since changed.
Tick wasn’t buying this talk of Guardians. “Bullshit,” he said to Griff. “Guardians are all Fenilar caste. This man had honey-colored skin.”
“You didn’t see what I did,” Griff said. “After he’d finished on Arran he went after Scuttle. Scuttle got a shot off at him when he was no farther away than I am from you. The arrow just bounced off.”
Tick’s brows drew in. “What’s a Guardian doing out here in the asscrack of nowhere?”
Safiya looked east, but there was still no sign of their pursuer. “Hunting us, last thing I saw.” Or hunting her to be precise, but she wasn’t about to share that with the others.
“I meant, before we found him! Ain’t none of us got a high enough bounty on our heads to draw a big fish like that.”
“Then maybe it’s just bad luck we tripped over him,” Safiya lied. “Maybe now he’s seen us off he’ll go back to doing whatever it was brought him out here in the first place.”
Griff grunted. “I’m not hanging round to find out. While you lot were jawing I was scouting the track ahead. There’s a fort a stone’s throw to the west, empty from what I saw. I reckon we hunker down—”
“Hell with that,” Tick cut in. “I ain’t making a prison for myself.”
“I don’t like it either, but we’ve got no choice. Safiya can’t walk—”
“So we leave her behind,” Tick interrupted again. “Maybe the mark will stop to have some fun with her, give us a chance to slip away.”
A tingle ran down Safiya’s back. She didn’t like the turn the conversation had taken, but she couldn’t deny it made sense for the others to abandon her. She’d only hooked up with them a few weeks back, and when you considered the qualities needed to be a bandit, ‘loyalty’ didn’t feature high on the list. Besides, if the roles were reversed, would she martyr herself in Tick’s cause? “Don’t mind me,” she said, her voice tight. “Just talk as if I’m not here.”
Griff’s gaze was still on Tick. “You soft in the head, boy? Do you think we’re so blessed with numbers we can afford to cut loose one of our own? And the best of us with a bow, besides?” He made a chopping gesture as if the matter were decided. “We stick together, but we can’t stay here. East takes us back into the Guardian’s lap, and west past the fort is tribal land. North and south would mean leaving the track, and it’ll be dark in a bell. How far do you think we’ll get wading through this muck at night?”
Safiya nodded agreement. She wouldn’t be going anywhere with her leg as it was, and waiting beneath a roof beat waiting under these rain-soaked trees where every gust of wind caught the wet on the leaves and flung down a stinging spray in her face. “If we try the fort, at least we can plan a welcome for our guest.”
Tick made a sour face. “What, ribbons and Shroud-cursed streamers, you mean? If he is a Guardian, ain’t no amount of planning’s gonna help us.”
“So what’s your idea, genius? Call him up here and ask him to put us out of our misery? Maybe look round for a chopping block, save him the trouble?”
Tick opened his mouth to respond, but Griff got in first. “Enough talk. We need to get to the fort before the Guardian catches up to us, or sneaks round to cut us off.” And with that he started picking his way through the mud toward Safiya, the sludge sucking at his boots with each step.
Behind him Tick and Vilar exchanged a look. Would they accept Griff’s lead? To Safiya’s mind, Griff was Arran’s natural successor, but the others would only follow him so long as his instructions corresponded to their best interests. Their faces were unreadable, yet Safiya wouldn’t put it past one or both of them to strike out alone before they got to the fort.
She shrugged away the thought. They’d come or they wouldn’t, there was nothing she could do to sway them.
As Griff reached her he looked down at her trouser leg. It was soaked red round the calf, the cloth sticking to her skin. Safiya needed to clean the wound, but all her gear was back at the band’s camp, and she couldn’t risk returning while the Guardian was after them.
“Looks bad,” Griff said.
“Thanks. I was trying to look on the light side, but I can always count on you to cast a shadow before you.”
“What can I say, I like the sun on my back.”
“Certainly feels like our sunny days are all behind us.”
Griff’s lips quirked. “Need an arm?” he said, offering her one to lean on.
“A leg would be better, but I’ll take it.”
Safiya unstrung her bow so she could use it as a crutch. Then she took a final look back the way she’d come. The light was leaching from the sky, and there was nothing to see between the trees save the gathering gloom. She paused.
Griff tugged on his earlobe. He had those ears that stuck out like he’d been pulled around by them as a child. “Something wrong?” he asked.
Safiya couldn’t decide. No sign of the Guardian should have been good news, but that feeling of being watched was still with her. And if the man was close enough to see her why hadn’t he come up to introduce himself? But maybe Safiya was wrong. Maybe the Guardian wasn’t here for her, and he just wanted to find out which way her band was going before he set off himself.
She shivered. Her leg burned, and the fire of it seemed to drain the heat from the rest of her body. Taking Griff’s arm, she hobbled in the direction of the fort, trying not to think about how she was using Griff to save her worthless hide as much as she was using the others.
The walls of the fort were made from blocks of stone a darker shade of dismal. With its towers and its guardhouse and its crenellated battlements, the place had clearly been built to withstand punishment, but those defenses hadn’t helped its previous occupants, judging by the state of its gates. The doors stood ajar, the left one hanging by a single hinge, the wood scarred and splintered like it had taken a pounding from a battering ram. Tresson tribesmen, probably. The raid had been recent, too, if the blood outside the guardhouse was anything to go by. But that was a good thing, right? If the clansmen had just cleared the place out, it meant there was no reason for them to return this way soon.
Past the gates was a bailey of cracked flagstones, all speckled white like it had rained birdshit instead of water. To Safiya’s left were some rotting lean-tos for stables – no horses, alas – while to her right was a grindstone and a tanning rack, together with a pile of chopped wood and a blacksmith’s forge, its coals cooling to grey. The air was thick with the smell of death, and there were more signs of fighting here: scattered weapons; a torn shirtsleeve; a breastplate sheared in half – Safiya was glad she wouldn’t be meeting the warrior who’d dealt that blow.
But no bodies. Strange, that. Tribesmen making off with the living, she could understand, but the dead?
They stopped inside the gates to listen for signs of life. Nothing except the squeak and bang of a shutter flapping in the breeze. Across the yard, the fort was cut from the same slice of cheer as the curtain wall. The lower windows were boarded, the upper ones dark and empty. From a flagpole fluttered a rag with the emblem of a stag’s skull on it.
Griff roused himself. “Alright,” he said, “here’s what we’re going to do. Tick, you go and take a look at the other walls, make sure there aren’t more gates there. No point in us blocking this one if the Guardian can just get round.”
Tick nodded and moved off.
“Safiya, check inside, find us somewhere to fall back to if we need it. Somewhere with more than just one way in and out.”
“What about me?” Vilar asked.
“You’re going to help me fix the gates,” Griff said.
“Fix them, right. Just let me get out my mallet and my chisel and my Shroud-cursed set-square.”
Griff’s face twisted. “This is a fort, isn’t it? They’ve got to have tools somewhere. And if we can’t fix the gates, we can at least find something to brace them with . . .”
Safiya left them to it.
It took her an age to cross the bailey, leaning on her bow all the way, and gritting her teeth at each jolt from her leg. A numbness was spreading through the limb, rounding the edge off the pain, but somehow Safiya doubted that was cause for elation.
The fort didn’t look any more welcoming up close than it had from a distance. The stones were mottled with dray moss and gave off a chill that set Safiya’s teeth chattering. There were no doors in the building’s frontage, just three arches leading into gloom. Through the middle one Safiya could see a courtyard with a tree in the center. A spider jay warbled in its branches. The sound put her in mind of the birds that used to nest in the eaves of her father’s cottage in Sylva, and suddenly the memories of her past life came pressing in upon her, sharper than she’d remembered them for months: Rakel grumbling at the jenny; Maritha hitching up her skirts as she waded across Whisker’s Brook; Clem serenading Safiya with his violin at the harvest fête. Funny things memories, no matter how deep you pushed them under they always came bobbing back to the surface like apples in a water barrel.
The tree in the courtyard had a girth to match Tick’s, and the darkness about it was so deep it made the trunk, the branches, even the leaves look black. Safiya’s steps faltered. The trunk seemed to be moving. At first she thought it was a trick of the light, but no, the bark was actually rippling and stretching like something was trapped inside. Even in the murk the tree cast a strong shadow. When a breath of wind stirred its branches, that shadow moved across Safiya’s face, and she felt a touch on her cheeks, soft as cobwebs.
She looked round. On each wall of the yard was an arch like the one she’d passed through. To her right was a channel cut into the flagstones, leading from one of the fort’s walls to the tree. The rain had washed the furrow clear of whatever had once run in it, but the stone was still stained an unsettling red, and Safiya decided she was in no hurry to discover—
“Weird, ain’t it?” a man’s voice said.
Safiya flinched, then looked up so quickly she wrenched her neck. Across the tree from her was a figure she hadn’t noticed before, featureless in the gloom. Even without seeing the man’s face, though, she recognized his voice and the broadness of his silhouette.
She blew out a breath. Where the hell had he come from? He must have used the opposite arch to get here, but a man lugging his weight should never have been able to creep up on her. Was he trying to scare her? If so, she wasn’t going to give him the reaction he craved.
“If you say so,” she said.
Tick flashed his teeth before walking round the yard toward her. He stopped a few paces away, looked her up and down like he was seeing her for the first time. His eyes narrowed, thoughts flitting behind them. Safiya was abruptly conscious they were alone in the yard, with her in no state to escape. But Griff was only a call away.
“You’re her, ain’t you?” he said.
Safiya’s mouth went dry. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you do. It came to me when I saw you walking on Griff’s arm back there like you was some Shroud-cursed lady.” He stepped closer. “We heard about you in Dram. They had posters up, ’n all. Some huntsman’s daughter who thought she was so special. Took a tumble with a worthy, ended up pushing out his brat. ’Cept the rich boy decides you ain’t mommy material and cuts you loose.” Tick showed his teeth again. “So you kills the kid.”
The words were out of Safiya before she could catch them. “Not my kid,” she snapped, “his other one.”
Which made it okay, obviously – that the child she’d killed had been Pieter’s by another woman, not by Safiya. Oh, she hadn’t meant to kill Domi. All she’d wanted was to get him away from his father and give Pieter a taste of how it felt to be parted from his son, like he had parted Safiya from hers. But then Domi’s bodyguard had got in the way, and Domi himself had fought to escape her, which wasn’t the sharpest thing to do when you were on a horse galloping at breakneck pace. It was the boy’s own fault he’d fallen, she told herself.
When you were only six years old, though, nothing was ever really your fault, was it?
Tick took another step forward. “A kid-killer, eh? Wouldn’t never have thought you had it in you.”
Like slaughtering babes was something everyone should aspire to.
“Seems to me,” Tick went on, “we got our answer to why a Guardian is out here chasing us. Seems to me the best thing to do would be for me to shop you in and collect your bounty meself.”
“Right,” Safiya said. “A bandit turning in another bandit, smart thinking that. Maybe you should turn yourself in at the same time, claim your own bounty while you’re at it.”
Tick’s expression darkened. “That’s some mouth you got on you. If I was you I’d be showing more respect.”
“If you were me you’d be a hundredweight lighter.”
For a heartbeat Tick just looked at her as if he couldn’t get his head round what he’d heard. Then he drew his great ham of a fist back and took a swing at Safiya. She’d been expecting the move, though, and even with her bad leg it was a simple matter to sway out of the way so he caught nothing but air, almost heaved himself off his feet in the process. With her unstrung bow she jabbed him in the stomach, folded him in half with a great Ooof!. Then she swept the weapon up and cracked it into Tick’s nose. He collapsed to the floor, boneless.
He lay on the flagstones, unconscious, his empty eyes staring back at her, blood streaming from his busted nose. Safiya stood over him, her chest heaving, her bow raised in both hands. It would be easy to stab the end into the hollow of his throat. If he died here the secret he’d uncovered would die with him. What more reason to do the deed did Safiya need? Shroud knew, she’d killed enough people for less. If it made her feel better she could turn out his pockets afterward, help herself to his coin. That was what bandits did, wasn’t it?
She looked into the bailey. The gates had been closed, but there was no sign of Griff or Vilar, meaning there’d be no witnesses if Safiya sent Tick on his way through Shroud’s Gate. She could tell the others he’d tried to jump her, which wasn’t so far from the truth. What reason would they have to disbelieve her? It wasn’t like she’d have picked a fight with Tick with her leg as it was. And while Vilar might be suspicious, Griff was bound to accept her word.
She swung her gaze back to Tick, unsure why she was hesitating.
That was when the first scream came. Not a nice noise at the best of times, a scream, but this one went on and on like the victim was being dragged through each of the Nine Hells in turn.
Safiya went cold. The Guardian had found them.
Fighting down panic, she peered into the bailey again. Still empty, but the scream was coming from off to the right where her view was obstructed by the fort. Hard to tell if it was Griff’s or Vilar’s – terror sounded the same on every tongue. If she’d known for certain it was Griff’s she might have gone to help, but she wasn’t risking her life for Vilar. Then again, even if it was Griff in trouble, would Safiya be able to reach him before he fell? The speed she moved, the Guardian would have time to dispatch her friend and stop for a brew before she shuffled up.
The scream ended, and Safiya heard a wet crack like an egg smashing, the clatter of a weapon falling on stone.
A second scream started up.
That made her decision a lot easier.
What next? Clearly running was out of the question, the same for fighting and trying to talk her way out of this. That left finding somewhere to hide. How hard could that be, though? Big fort like this, there must be hundreds of places inside where she could lose herself. She lurched to the nearest door and yanked on the handle.
The next door was just a few armspans along the wall. When Safiya tried it, she found it barred as well. She thought to hit it with her shoulder, but the wood had an ominously solid feel to it, and she reckoned she stood to do more damage to herself than the door. Taking a breath, she forced herself to calm. Nice and easy, think things through. The Guardian would be hunting her, but he couldn’t know she was here precisely. The worst thing she could do now was blunder about and give him a fix on her position. Relax. There had to be a way out of this if she just kept her head . . .
From the direction of the bailey came approaching footfalls, a scraping sound like a blade dragged across stone.
To hell with calm, Safiya was out of here. The closest exit was an arch on the northern wall, and she made her way toward it at a teetering limp. She passed under the arch and into the next courtyard. No tree in this one, just a tall metal spike sticking out of a circle of mud and bones. To Safiya’s right was a door studded with iron bolts. She tested its handle, whispering a silent prayer to Katar. As if the god might have been looking out for her.
Safiya struggled to marshal her thoughts. She was beginning to suspect all the doors would be barred, which had to mean there were people inside. The owners of the fort, probably. Maybe they’d barricaded themselves indoors when the Tresson tribesmen attacked. For an instant Safiya was tempted to call to them for help, but what reason would they have to save her from the Guardian? None that didn’t involve that metal spike and the blood-stained channel in the next courtyard, she reckoned.
A noise came from that way now. Safiya listened. At first all she could make out was the sigh of the wind, a swish of leaves, the blood pounding in her ears so loudly it seemed the whole world must hear it. Then she caught a scuffling sound, a rustle of cloth. It must be the Guardian, checking Tick over and making sure he didn’t wake from the sleep Safiya had put him in. She frowned. First Griff and Vilar, now Tick as well, and Tick hadn’t even had a chance to fight back. It almost made Safiya feel guilty, the way she’d laid him out like that.
Shrinking back into shadow, she pondered her next move. If she re-strung her bow and nocked an arrow to it she could try to surprise the Guardian when he came this way. But then she recalled what had happened to Scuttle at the campsite, and she decided there wasn’t much future in trying to shoot a man that arrows just bounced off. She muttered an oath. For once Tick had been right: Safiya had made a prison for herself by coming here. She needed to get back to the forest where there were no walls to constrain her, and trees by the score she could use for cover. That would mean crossing the bailey again, but was that such a terrible prospect? The Guardian had just come from there, it would be the last place he thought to look now. If Safiya moved quickly she might be able to reach the gates while her pursuer was still chasing shadows in the courtyards.
The dark was falling swiftly now, with no moon to soften it. Safiya’s wounded leg had tensed up, and when she next put her weight on it she had to grit her teeth to stop herself groaning. She tottered round the wall to the next arch, looked through it into the bailey. With the gloom so deep all she could see were patches of grey, together with the smoky glow of the blacksmith’s forge, dead ahead. Beside it was the pile of chopped firewood, near as tall as Safiya herself. That would be her first target.
She gathered her resolve. When the time comes to act you just get on with it, no looking back.
There wasn’t much in her life she cared to look back on, anyhow.
She set off toward the woodpile with as much speed as she could muster, her bow-crutch tapping a muted rhythm on the flagstones, the foot of her bad leg dragging and scuffing the stone. Another time she might have worried about the Guardian hearing the noise, but that loose shutter – the one she’d heard earlier – had started banging once more, and with luck that would cover her sounds.
The wound to her calf was bleeding again. It wasn’t just her trouser leg that was soaked through now but her sock too, making her foot squelch in her boot. It occurred to her that with her soles caked in muck she would be leaving muddy footprints behind, but when she looked back she saw the bailey was already criss-crossed by any number of tracks.
The curtain wall loomed above her. Safiya’s senses strained for any noise that might indicate the Guardian had seen her. But if he still had Scuttle’s bow, likely the first sign she’d have that she’d been spotted was an arrow between her shoulder blades. She passed the forge on her left, saw the charred skull of some unfortunate, half-buried in the coals. Hell of a way to go that would be. As she drew level with the woodpile, she glimpsed an axe on the ground just in time to step over it instead of kick it.
She moved behind the logs, her breath tight in her chest.
The woodpile was so tall she only had to stoop to stay concealed. As hiding places went, she could have done a lot worse, but this was no time to sit on her eggs. Just a heartbeat to take the weight off her bad leg, then she’d press on. The most dangerous part of her plan was behind her, she assured herself. True, there was no cover between here and the gates, but she’d have the curtain wall as a backdrop, and the shadows beneath it were as thick as pooled water. The gates were still closed, and Safiya had no idea how Griff and Vilar had secured them, but she’d worry about that when she got there.
A final glance across the bailey at the arch through which she’d come.
Movement in the blackness.
Someone was approaching.
Safiya silently swore, cursed the name of every god and goddess she could think of. How the hell was the Guardian tracking her, by her Shroud-cursed smell? It wasn’t that long since she’d had a bath, surely. She held herself still. Patience. The game wasn’t up yet. Maybe he was just checking the yard for movement. Maybe he’d go a different way when he saw it was empty.
The shadows in the arch deepened.
And came together to form a shape so large it had to bend to enter the bailey.
Safiya did a double take. It felt as if someone had reached inside her and grabbed hold of her guts.
“Big bastard, isn’t he?” said a voice in her ear.
Safiya gathered the frayed ends of her nerves. She didn’t need to look round to know who was behind her, but she did so anyway.
He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, looking not at Safiya but at the fort. He seemed to mass as large as a plains bear, but then it was dark, so he could have been a good deal bigger. A scar ran from the corner of his right eye to his jaw. Maybe Safiya should have been spooked to find him there, but instead she just felt pissed. What was it with people sneaking up on her today? First Griff, then Tick, now this man. Deep down she knew she shouldn’t be surprised to discover he hadn’t been the one trailing her through the fort. There’d been plenty of clues to what was coming if she’d had the wit to read them: that breastplate sheared in two; those wretched screams of Griff and Vilar; the scuttling and scraping she’d heard in the courtyard.
She looked back at the . . . thing . . . in the archway. “What is it?” she whispered to the Guardian.
“Demon. From the fourth hell, hopefully.”
“Because this will be the first of its kind I’ve seen. Just the second and seventh hells to go, then I’ll have the complete set.”
Safiya stared at him. Was he trying to be funny? It was hard to make out his expression in the murk, but he certainly wasn’t smiling. Nor, reassuringly, was he showing any more concern at the demon’s coming than he had at the arrival of Safiya and her band at his campsite earlier. “But you can kill it, right?”
He scratched his scar. “Maybe. If I had help.”
Safiya scowled. “Great. You go and find some of your Guardian friends, I’ll keep it entertained with my rendition of ‘The Whore and the Hare.’”
The man looked at her.
A troubling thought came to Safiya. “Hang on, you don’t mean help from me, do you?” He did, she realized. Her scowl stretched. “Oh sure, absolutely! What do you want me to do, bleed my leg at it?” The Guardian’s expression didn’t change. Perhaps he only had the one. “If you wanted help, maybe you shouldn’t have shot me.”
“You’re lucky I only aimed for your leg.”
“Yeah, remind me to repay the favor some time.” Then the import of his words sank in. “What, you were aiming for my leg? Why?”
“I needed to slow you down. And I’ve found that an arrow in the neck tends to stop rather than slow.”
Understanding dawned. “You weren’t trying to kill me,” Safiya said. “You just wanted to keep me from running so I had to take shelter in the fort. That’s why you didn’t catch up to me on the trail when I was limping.” But that would mean . . . “You knew the demon was here!”
Across the yard the beast was snuffling the ground like a bloodhound on a scent. Safiya couldn’t make out any details at this distance, but she suspected she’d be seeing the thing a lot closer soon.
“I’d heard rumors,” the Guardian said. “Came this way a couple of days back to scout the place from outside. Caught a whiff of the creature, but it was lying low.”
“So you needed someone to lure it into the open.” Safiya shook her head in disgust. “So you camped a short distance away and waited for some bandits to wander by.” This was bandit country, after all.
“You took your time showing, too. Nights can get cold in these parts, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Safiya groped for a snappy comeback that would put him in his place. “Bastard,” she settled on.
The Guardian shrugged. “You didn’t want to play, all you had to do was not try to rob me.”
There was that.
The demon moved toward them. Its claws gleamed in the darkness, long as sickle-saws. All this talk of whether Safiya should help the Guardian was rapidly becoming academic. The creature would be onto them in moments, and she didn’t fancy her chances of explaining to it how she’d chosen to sit this one out. As for running, the demon had her scent, not the Guardian’s. And she doubted she’d have been able to outdistance it even with a good leg.
Still, things could have been worse. The Guardian had the feel of a useful man to have on your side in a scrap. He could do the fighting while Safiya put a few arrows in the demon from a safe distance. And if at the end of the battle one of her arrows found its way into the Guardian’s leg, well, that was just too bad. Accidents happened.
The Guardian moved up to flank her.
“You got a name?” Safiya asked. If they survived this, she’d need it when she went to the Wise Woman to put a curse on him.
He considered. “Luker,” he said finally.
“Well, Luker, what do you want from me?”
Then he pushed her hard in the chest. Actually pushed her.
Safiya staggered back. Her weight came down on her bad leg, sending a shock of pain through the limb. It buckled. Safiya gasped, windmilled her arms. Then she was falling. The yard pitched. She landed on her elbows, tensed her neck to stop her head striking the ground, but still caught it a dizzying tap.
She lay there for a moment with her thoughts scrambled. Lay there in full view of the demon.
It advanced, a growl sounding deep in its throat.
Luker had vanished.
Safiya struggled up to a sitting position. Her vision swayed. She’d thought her day couldn’t get any worse, but if life had taught her anything it was that the next low was always just round the corner. So the Guardian would be a useful ally, would he? Safiya had read him about as well as she’d read all the men in her life.
The demon was twenty paces away. It came on slowly as if it wanted Safiya to make a chase of it. If only. There was a hitch in its stride like it was carrying a wound of its own, and amid the shadows of its body Safiya saw dark stripes that might have been gashes. Inflicted by Griff and Vilar? It seemed unlikely. Then Safiya remembered a story she’d heard about the night of the Betrayal. Of Arkarbour’s mages summoning demons to defend them when the Guardians attacked the Black Tower. Most of the beasts had died with their masters, but a few had escaped and were now being hunted. That must be why Luker was here.
And to think Safiya had thought he’d come for her.
She could make out the demon’s eyes now, two black circles in the darkness, fixed on her. A coldness gripped her. She held her bow out in front like a spear. No time to string the thing, and she wouldn’t have been able to shoot it anyway, sitting on her ass. Where the hell was Luker? A glance to her right revealed no sign of him. “Now!” she shouted, like he might have been waiting on her signal.
Nothing happened – unsurprisingly. But then the Guardian was probably in Carros by now. Most likely he’d changed his mind about going up against the demon and was using her death to make tracks. It was what she’d have done in his place.
Closer and closer the creature came until it seemed to fill Safiya’s vision entire. Its claws clicked and scratched on the flagstones. Safiya willed herself to get up, but her limbs felt like mud—
Luker charged. He had circled behind the woodpile and now attacked from the demon’s rear, a shortsword in each hand. Some instinct must have warned the beast of his coming for it half turned, its claws moving up in an effort to block a swing of the Guardian’s right blade. Too late. Safiya didn’t see where the weapon bit, but blood whipped off it as it continued its arc.
The demon roared, the sound rattling around Safiya’s head.
Then it retaliated. A sweep of its talons had Luker leaping back off balance, but the Guardian still managed to parry the creature’s next attack with one of his swords. The impact should have thrown him halfway across the yard. Instead he retreated a mere single step before grunting and coming on again. He slashed at his foe, his blade scraping along the length of one of the beast’s claws before cutting into its hand. Ouch. The demon’s counter flashed for Luker’s neck, only to strike an invisible barrier.
Safiya blinked. So the man was using sorcery?
She rose to her knees. Any other time she might have been happy to leave these two freaks to chop chunks out of each other, but there was no escaping the fact her fate was tied to the Guardian’s. She drew a throwing-knife from its sheath at her waist. It was difficult to tell where the demon’s body ended and the shadows began, but with something that size she could hardly miss.
Pulling back her arm, she sent her dagger spinning end over end toward the beast. It sank into flesh to the hilt.
The demon appeared not to notice.
Luker was now fighting with his back to the woodpile. Next to Safiya he’d seemed as big as a cliff, but alongside the demon he looked comically small. The creature’s claws deflected off one of his swords, setting the steel ringing. The beast was inhumanly quick, but Luker must have been sent the steps to this dance beforehand, for every time the demon’s talons swept down, one of the Guardian’s blades was there to block. He feinted high, then swung low, drew more blood and another shriek from the creature.
The demon had had enough of trading blows. Evidently intent on crushing its tormentor underfoot, it surged forward.
Safiya held her breath, expecting the end.
For all Luker’s bulk he showed the agility of a flintcat as he dived and rolled aside. The demon’s momentum carried it into the woodpile. Its claws scrabbled for purchase on the lower logs, only for the wood to shift beneath its weight. The demon tottered forward, sprawled full on the mound. If only Safiya had had a flint and steel to hand, she could started one hell of a bonfire. The woodpile crumpled, sending logs rolling in every direction. One came to rest near Safiya. She grabbed it and hurled it at the demon’s head.
The creature appeared not to notice.
Luker re-entered the fray, his swords cutting the night to ribbons as he hacked at his foe. The demon rose and turned all at once, lashed out with it claws, but the Guardian ducked beneath the attack and stepped back. He’d lost one of his blades, Safiya noticed. No, not lost it – left it buried in the demon’s gut. The creature must have realized it at the same moment, for it gave a questioning growl and looked down, tried to pluck the weapon free. But its claws couldn’t grasp the hilt. Those claws were slick with blood, Safiya saw, and there was more blood on the ground beneath the demon, steaming like it was dissolving the flagstones.
Still the beast lurched forward. A log was skewered on one of its talons, and the wood came up with its foot as it took a wobbling step. Luker back-peddled, seemingly content to wait for his impaling sword to do its work. And it couldn’t be long now, surely. The demon was finding it harder to walk than even Safiya had. Two swaying steps was all it managed before it collapsed. It tried to rise again, but its strength was leaking out with its blood, and it rolled onto its side, whimpering like a whipped dog.
Then it breathed its last and lay still.
“And stay down,” Luker muttered.
Feeling sore all over, Safiya levered herself to her feet. She almost bent her bow in two as she leaned on it. It would probably never shoot straight again after this. A gust of wind ruffled her hair. In the courtyard the spider jay had found its voice again and was tweeting happily, almost as if it wasn’t troubled by her concerns at all.
She rubbed her hands up and down her arms. So cold. The chill she’d felt at the demon’s approach was getting worse, but it was always like this after a scrap. The shock of the fight. And of still being alive at the end. Gods, she needed a drink. Tick would have a flask on him. Maybe she should go and hunt out his corpse. Assuming the demon had left anything of it for her to find, that is.
She shifted her gaze to the creature. Its body was already stinking like it had been dead a week.A part of Safiya kept expecting it to rear up and continue the fight, but that smell, and the ever-growing pool of blood beneath it, suggested otherwise. So this was victory? Strange, she didn’t feel much like celebrating. Maybe survival was the ultimate prize, but she’d set her goals higher when she woke up sweating in the dark hours this morning. Her leg still hurt. Griff was dead. Her throat constricted at the thought. And yet, hadn’t she always planned to use him as a shield? Hadn’t she known she was putting him in Shroud’s way? It seemed hypocritical to weep over him now.
Luker had retrieved his sword from the demon. He’d also retrieved Safiya’s throwing-knife and was on his way to return it. He didn’t look out of breath. He didn’t look much of anything considering he’d just beaten a creature out of nightmare. Just another routine day for him, most likely. He stopped a few paces away.
The silence dragged out.
“You cut it close there,” Safiya said at last. “I thought you were just going to let the demon carve me up.”
“Maybe I should have done,” Luker replied. “Would have spared me the trouble of having to do the job myself now.”
Safiya thought she must have misheard. “Eh?”
“Surprised? You’re a Shroud-cursed bandit, aren’t you? Did you think you’d just get to walk away when this was over?”
Safiya swallowed. The man was trying to be funny again. And failing. But when she searched his eyes she saw no more humor in them than there had been in the demon’s. “Now hold up a moment,” she said. “I may be a bandit, but that isn’t the whole story.”
“I heard the whole story. From your friend in the courtyard – yes, I was listening. Real sad tale, it was.” Luker’s gaze held hers. “And me without my violin.”
Sweat trickled down Safiya’s back. “You can’t kill me. You’re a Guardian. You have rules about these things.” She had no idea if that was true, but these hero types always had a code.
The Guardian said nothing.
“I helped you against the demon!” If you could call it help. “I could have run” – or hobbled – “while you were fighting it, but I didn’t.” She was sounding increasingly desperate. “And I’m unarmed! You wouldn’t kill an unarmed woman.”
Luker raised an eyebrow, glanced at her bow.
“It’s not strung!” she snapped. “What do you think I’m going to do, throw the arrows at you?”
“It worked well enough as a weapon against your friend Tick.”
Then Safiya saw it: a curl to one side of his mouth. He was trying to stop it spreading across his face, but to no avail. He smiled. Even gave a chuckle, he was that pleased with himself. For a while Safiya could only stare at him. So she’d been right at the start? This was his idea of a joke? She didn’t know whether to feel angry or relieved, but the anger won out. It wasn’t enough that he’d put an arrow in her leg, now he had to pull the damned thing too?
Her jaw clenched. She wanted to slap the smile off his face, but before she could do so he’d tossed her knife on the ground, and turned, and begun walking toward the gates.
“Bastard,” Safiya said.
He waved a goodbye over his shoulder. “Aye. See you around.”
“You’re just going to leave me here? With my leg like this?”
“You want to come with me, I won’t stop you.”
“But you won’t slow down for me either, right?”
“You know how it is, things to do.” He sheathed his swords. “Watch yourself out there. Travelling alone in these parts, I hear bandits can be a real problem.”
“Bastard!” she called after him.
Luker chuckled again.
He had reached the gates. A push against the left one set it sagging on its single hinge.
Then he stepped through and was gone.