Chasers of the Wind (Excerpt)

Check out Chasers of the Wind, the first book in a new series from Alexey Pehov, translated by Elinor Huntington and available June 17th from Tor Books!

Centuries after the disastrous War of the Necromancers, the Nabatorians, aligned with the evil necromancers of Sdis, mount an invasion of the Empire. Luk, a soldier, and Ga-Nor, a Northern barbarian, are thrown together as they attempt to escape the Nabatorian hordes and find their way back to their comrades.

Gray and Layan are a married couple, master thieves who are hiding out and trying to escape their former gang. They hope to evade the bounty hunters that hound them and retire to a faraway land in peace. Unfortunately, for Gray and Layan, they unwittingly hold the key to a powerful magical weapon that could bring The Damned back to power.

Hounded by the killers on their trail and by the fearsome creatures sent by The Damned, Gray and Layan are aided by Luk and Ga-Nor—and Harold, the hero of The Chronicles of Siala. Realizing what’s at stake they decide that, against all odds, they must stop The Damned.

 

 

1

The day had started out warm, and now the cows, lazily chewing their cud, were sheltering from the midday heat in the shadow of a large oak. A yearling calf, tormented by gadflies, dragged himself to the river and slipped in, thereby ridding himself of the feisty insects. His dappled mother was trying to warn her son away from the water with a plaintive moo, but he was far too occupied with the water and ignored her summons.

Pork sighed disappointedly and set aside his homemade reed pipe. What kind of music could he make when there was such a racket? The damned cow just wouldn’t quiet down. He should drag the calf out of the river, but he was feeling lazy. There was no point. He’d just wander back in again.

The day seemed infinitely long. His jug of milk was half empty, but his bread remained untouched. He had no desire to eat. Or work, for that matter. While the village boys fished for trout and played at being knights, why did he have to keep an eye on the cattle? But the children had no desire to include the overgrown village idiot in their games. Pork didn’t know why, and as a result he was horribly offended, not understanding the reason everyone always laughed at him and twirled their fingers around their foreheads.

Yawning, he was about to nap for another hour, since the shade of the bushes he was stretched out under wouldn’t go away for a while yet, when he noticed four riders appear on the road in the distance. They crossed the river unhurriedly, making their way along the sturdy wooden bridge constructed by the villagers, and, passing by the standing stone (standing stones are set at all crossroads. According to legend, they keep evil from finding its way into people’s homes), headed off toward the village.

Pushing out his lower lip so that saliva dripped down onto his shirt, Pork watched the strangers avidly.

People wishing to visit Dog Green were always few and far between. The village was located in the foothills of the Boxwood Mountains in the middle of the densely thicketed Forest Region. People rarely came here.

The riders did not resemble the Viceroy’s tax collectors in the slightest. The tax collectors wore gorgeous black-and-white uniforms, which Pork really wished he could try on, but these men were wearing simple leather jackets and linen shirts.

“And there’s no herald with a trumpet,” muttered the half-wit under his breath. “Nope, nope, nope—the Viceroy’s soldiers dress far better.” True, these men had swords as well. Sharp ones. Much sharper than his father’s knife, which Pork had cut himself on. Oh, that had hurt so much! And one of them even had a crossbow. Probably a real one, too. That would leave quite a hole. If Pork had such a crossbow, no one would laugh at him. Nope. The girls would love him. Yes, they would. And the horses these fellows had were much better than the villagers’. Horses like that could trample you right down, and not even a smudge would be left behind. They were knights’ horses. When Pork left the village, he too would become a knight. He’d rescue virgins. But these fellows weren’t knights. Where were the multicolored coats of arms, the plumes and the chain mail? Every knight should have them, but they didn’t. If they were knights, they were doing it wrong. Yes, they were. But maybe they were bandits? No, they didn’t look like that either. Even the dimmest five-year-old whose parents wouldn’t let him go off into the forest hunting for mushrooms knew that bandits didn’t travel the road so boldly—otherwise the soldiers of the Viceroy would hang them from the nearest aspen tree. And of course, bandits wouldn’t have such splendid horses. Plus, all bandits were wicked, cowardly, filthy men with rusty knives in their teeth. These fellows were not like that. Anyway, what would bandits have to do with the village? The locals around here grew nothing valuable. Except perhaps old Roza’s turnips, which the daring little people, as his father called them, try to steal.

Pork imagined how a horde of unwashed little men with overgrown beards, hatchets gripped in their teeth, grunting, would scale the wicker fence and, looking around fearfully, dig up the turnips from the vegetable patch of that wicked old grandmother. And she would stand on the porch, shaking her walking stick and giving them the tonguelashing of their lives, calling down curses on their ugly heads. And then she would throw her stick at them, the old viper. She threw it at Pork once, when he broke her fence. What a bump on the head that was. His father simply told him that it was time for him to wise up. But that didn’t happen. Just as before, everyone laughed at him, called him a halfwit, and didn’t let him play with them. Well, what of it—he didn’t really want to, truthfully.

One of the riders noticed the cowherd and said something to his companions. They left the road and made their way toward him over the field.

At first Pork was terrified. He wanted to take to his heels, but running away—that meant leaving the cows unattended. And of course, they’d scatter. He’d have to search for them again. And Choir would wander into the ravine again, and he’d get stuck there unable to get her out. He’d catch hell from his father. There was nothing for it; he’d get either the nettles or the whip. He wouldn’t be able to sit on his fanny for a week. So there was no sense in running. And anyway, it’s a long way to the forest. And those armed bulls were on horseback. They could catch him and give him a good drubbing. And besides, he still didn’t know why they were coming. But his father wouldn’t pat him on the head if he lost the cows. And so, making the choice between the clear threat and shadowy danger, Pork decided to stay put and see what would happen.

The riders came up to him, drawing in their reins.

“Are you from the village, friend?” asked the oldest of the four. Lean and tall with a pointed face and deep-set, clever eyes, the man regarded Pork without malice. Cordially and just a bit mockingly.

No one had ever called Pork “friend” before. The cowherd liked the way it sounded.

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re from Dog Green?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it far?”

“No. Not very, sir. It’s just beyond that hill. As soon as you get to the top, you’ll see it.”

“We’ve finally made it,” said another of the men, sighing with obvious relief. His face was pitted by smallpox. “It’s well hidden, eh, Whip?”

“Did you doubt the words of Mols, Bamut?” chuckled the one who had called Pork a friend.

A third rider, the youngest one, answered that question with a grunt. Pork disliked him right away. He was sullen and wicked. A man like that would have no problem boxing you on the ears. And then he’d laugh.

“Is there an inn in the village?”

“In the middle of nowhere? What kind of inn would they have not ten leagues from the mountains?” snapped the youth, who had blue eyes.

“We have an inn,” replied the cowherd, offended. “It’s right by the road after you go through the village. It’s quite large. With a red chimney. They have tasty meat pies. And shaf. My father gave me some to try once. But why have you come here? And are your swords real? Will you let me hold one? And your horses, they are Rudessian stock, right? Are they yours? They are like knights’ horses. I’ll soon be a knight, too. They’re fast, aren’t they? You aren’t knights, by any chance, are you?”

“Hold on, hold on!” laughed the lean rider cheerfully. “Not all at once. You’re in quite a hurry there, friend. Let’s start at the beginning, I beg you. Are those cows yours?”

“No. I look after them. Yeah.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

The cowherd pouted and looked at the man, offended.

He was mocking him. But he had called him his friend. He thought they were friends.

The man laughed once more. The other three riders remained silent and didn’t even smile. They seemed completely uninterested in the conversation.

“And how many households are there in the village?”

“A lot.” Pork showed all the fingers on his hands. “Six times as many.”

“And you’re literate. You can count,” the man said respectfully.

“No,” sniveled the half-wit. “My father showed me. I can’t count on my own.”

“Tell me, friend, do you have any new people in the village?”

“Are you talking about the Viceroy’s people?”

“Well, maybe. Tell me about them.”

“They came here at the beginning of spring. They were handsome. Important. And they had horses. Now we’re just waiting until the end of fall. There haven’t been any others. It’s just us. Only the loggers come.”

“The loggers?” asked the man with the pockmarked face.

“Yeah,” sad Pork, nodding hastily, pleased that he could carry on such an important conversation. “They chop down our trees and then float them down the river to Al’sgara. They say they make really great boats from our trees. Oh, yeah! The best of all boats. They float. Yes.”

“And what about these loggers?”

“I don’t really know, sir. They come here in the summer. They live in mud huts beyond Strawberry Stream. They’re mean. Once they beat me up and ruined my new shirt. Then I caught it again from my father, because of the shirt. Yeah. But they leave in the fall. They don’t want to stay here for the winter. They say that the roads get blocked with snow. You can’t get out until the end of spring.”

“I told you, it’s a swamp,” spat the young one.

“No. The mountains aren’t far from here. And they say that there are the Gates of Six Towers, though I’ve never seen them. And to get to the swamp, you have to go through the forest for several days. There’s a bog there, you know. You go there, you’ll fall right in.”

“It’s unlikely our friend would be found in the company of loggers,” said the short man who looked like a ferret and had kept silent so far.

“I’d have to agree with you. But tell me, friend, do you know everyone in the village?”

Pork screwed up his eyes in suspicion. These men were strange. They’d asked him about the mean loggers, and then again about the village. And about the Viceroy’s soldiers.

“Don’t be afraid.” The lean man tried to appease him with a smile. “We’re just looking for our friend. He’s about this old.” He pointed to the man afflicted with pox. “He has light hair, gray eyes; he rarely smiles and can shoot better than anyone from the saddle. Do you know such a man?”

“Gnut shoots better than anyone from the saddle, but he has black hair and one of his eyes isn’t even there at all.”

“He has a woman with him, too. She’s tall and beautiful. She has long blond hair and dark blue eyes. So, what do you think? Are there any people like that in your village?”

“There might be,” said the cowherd reluctantly. “I don’t really have the time to remember. I’ve got to herd the cows. Or Father will cuss me.”

“I hope this will jog your memory.” The rider threw Pork a coin.

Pork caught it and his jaw dropped. The silly bear had thrown him a whole sol! Now he could buy himself sweets and eat them where no one could see. Pork wouldn’t share them with anyone. That’d show them, calling him an idiot! The cowherd bit into the coin and, quickly, so they wouldn’t be able to take it away, hid it in his bag.

“You described them really well. That’s Pars and his wife, Ann. I recognized them right away.”

The men exchanged looks.

“Where can we find them?”

“Oh, that’s really easy. He lives just outside the village, not far from the blacksmith’s shop. You’ll see his house right away. It has little ponies with wings etched on the gates. They’re pretty. I want some. If you go through the whole village, you’ll see it.”

“Has he been living here for a long time?”

“I can’t remember.” The half-wit scrunched up his brow, strenuously trying to recall. “A long time.”

“Take it easy, friend,” said the lean rider.

The strangers turned their horses. When they got to the road Pork’s shout carried to them.

“Hey, misters! It’s just that Pars can’t shoot from the saddle. He’s a carpenter!”

 

“Did you need to coddle him so, Whip?” petulantly asked the rider that Pork had dubbed young. “Why did you need to have that conversation with a half-wit? We could have asked anyone we met in the village.”

“It’s so kind of you to try to teach me. Anyone else we met wouldn’t be an idiot. You couldn’t have bribed them for a sol. You don’t know villagers. They won’t budge if they’ve decided they don’t like your face, and then there’s nothing you can do.”

“We could tickle them with our knives.”

“Well, then you would be the idiot, Shen,” sneered Whip. “Four against how many? This is not the outlying towns of Al’sgara with our timid peasants. The locals here wouldn’t jump at the sight of your blade and fawn over you. These places are savage. Every man can stand for himself. There’s enough axes and clubs around here that you won’t know what hit you. No little knife would save you.”

“Well, then we could just check every home ourselves. We’d find him somewhere.”

“Oh yes, very simple. Sixty households. How much time do you think we’d need to get that done?”

“An hour? Maybe two?”

“Exactly. And if we encounter some kind soul who runs off and warns him about our arrival? And he decides he has nothing to say to us? What then? Do you want to go to Mols and offer excuses?”

This last argument completely drained the young man of his desire to quarrel. He petulantly pursed his lips and fell silent.

In the meantime the riders had crested the hill and caught sight of Dog Green. The village was situated along both banks of a narrow river. The idiot had led them astray—there were far more than sixty houses. To the right of the road was a small graveyard, and just a bit farther on, a clear-cut area. On the farther shore there was a field, upon which encroached the gloomy wall of impenetrable forest. The village, lost on the edge of the province, had been carved out in a circle from the forests, low hills, and numerous ravines.

Whip’s team had taken a long time to get here from Al’sgara. These last few days they had been forced to sleep beneath the open sky. For leagues around there was not a single inn. They had completely left behind tolerable food, wine, and women. All they had for company were mosquitoes and gadflies. Thank Melot that they hadn’t encountered any forest spirits or goves (a species of lower demon) in the wilderness. They had kept to the road. True, even though no evil creatures had crawled out of the depths of the forest, wild animals had.

“Damn, but that blessed idiot didn’t say which shore we should search for our carpenter,” said Bamut, the one who was ravaged by smallpox.

“We’ll find him. The task’s almost done. We’ve reached the end.” Whip urged his horse forward.

His companions followed him without hesitation. They rode past the graveyard, which didn’t even have a fence around it. They passed by a well, where two peasant women were cursing at each other, arguing over who would draw water first. And then they were in the western part of the village.

They were being eyed warily. Rarely were outsiders seen here, especially ones on horseback. But no one questioned them.

The riders found the inn quickly. The building stood out from the rest. It was large with a red chimney and ornamental doors. The innkeeper, having caught sight of potential lodgers, practically choked on his shaf. His eyes went so wide that Whip began to fear that he had suffered a stroke.

Whip had no doubt there would be spare rooms.

“We rarely have visitors here,” hurriedly muttered the innkeeper as he pocketed the soren (a large gold coin) he’d received from the shortest of his guests. “Come in, please. Usually people just ride straight through to El’nichi Ford. We’re out of the way here. Do you wish to eat something? We can get everything ready quickly, in no time at all.”

“How do you even make a living? If you have so few guests, I mean?”

“There hasn’t been anyone since midspring. We only survive thanks to the loggers. They come to drink shaf and wine. But only in the evenings. Right now there’s no one here. There will be nothing to bother you. Come in, come in. Thank Melot, who sent you to my modest hearth!”

“Is there a blacksmith in your village? My horse has a limp,” said Whip casually.

“Of course. Old Morgen. Go down the road, good sir. Then take a right, ride through the square until you get to the edge of the village. Right by the woods. You can’t miss it.”

Shen and Bamut exchanged significant glances and once again climbed into their saddles. Whip and the short one, who answered to the name of Midge, followed their example.

“Prepare rooms and supper for us,” the eldest of the four said over his shoulder. “We’ll be back soon.”

The innkeeper hastened to assure the benevolent gentleman that everything would be done to the best of his ability, and then he ran off to execute the order. It didn’t even enter his head to wonder why all four were going to the blacksmith when only one of their horses was lame.

 

“According to the half-wit, he’s not far from the blacksmith.”

“If he wasn’t having us on,” remarked Shen.

Whip chuckled. The kid was hoping that the fool had led them astray. That would indeed be an excellent confirmation that his commander had made a mistake.

In his dreams.

Whip didn’t really understand why Mols had found it necessary to break up their tried and true threesome with a fourth. Shen was far too green to even be able to think. He acted first, and only afterward did he perceive the consequences. He was foolish. It wouldn’t be long before he died as a result.

“If he was having us on, I’ll go back and toss him in the river,” replied Whip, trying not to show his annoyance. “Everywhere you go, you’ll find an idiot who’s willing to sell out the people closest to him.”

They slowly rode along the street, attentively looking around. From under a fence a dirty, shaggy hound shot out with a high-pitched yipping. It didn’t dare run after the horses, but it hurled invective at the riders until they had disappeared from its sight.

“Looks like we found it.” Midge nodded toward the gates. “There are the ponies.”

In point of fact, thin-legged horses with swan’s wings were carved on the wooden doors. It was the house they were searching for. It was large, bright, and built out of pine logs.

“Well, you see there, Shen,” said Whip with a smile. “Seems you should trust people sometimes. Including idiots.”

The young man just twisted up his lips in response.

“Bamut, stay here. Keep an eye on the horses,” ordered the leader of the team.

“Damn, but what if he slips out through the back?”

“You have such a bad opinion of our friend.”

“Time changes people. Hey! Damn! Leave the crossbow!”

This last was directed at Shen, who was reaching for the weapon that was hanging off his saddle.

“Why should I?” he asked uncomprehendingly.

“Do as you’re told,” said Whip, in support of his comrade. “We came here to have a chat. Just a little chat. That thing could ruin everything.”

“You’re not afraid, are you, boys?”

“It’s none of your business what we’re afraid of and what we’re not.” Midge edged into the conversation. “It’s your job to keep your mouth shut.”

Shen had been getting on the shorter man’s nerves for a while now. It was highly probable that sooner or later they would have a serious dustup and after the fight one of them would never get up again. Whip would put his money on Midge. He was experienced, cruel, and cunning, and he knew his business well. Only Mols knew how many souls that diminutive assassin had sent to Melot’s bosom.

“Both of you shut up!” yelled Whip, seeing that the young man was not holding the crossbow as casually as before. “You can sort out this stupid quarrel when we get back to the city, if you still wish. But right now we have a common cause. There’s no time for getting into a knife fight. I’m telling you right now, if you grapple with each other, you’ll be booted out of the guild faster than Mols can think of your names. Do I make myself clear, you blockheads?”

“Yes,” said Midge, taking his hand from his knife. “I got carried away.”

“I understand,” agreed Shen easily, handing over the crossbow to Bamut.

“Then let’s do what we came here for. I’ll be the one to talk. No sudden moves. Shen, that means you.”

“Yeah, I get it! I get it. Why are you talking to me like I’m a child?”

“Because chopping cabbage with a sword is one thing, but talking shop with a gardener is something completely different.”

Having said this, Whip opened the gate and walked into the yard, immediately catching sight of the man he was looking for.

Naked to the waist, the man was chopping firewood. Shen had heard about him from his associates, but he turned out to be completely different than he’d imagined. He’d thought he would be sturdy and strong, with large pectorals and massive fists. The man who was known as Gray in Al’sgara did not correspond to the image created in Shen’s imagination at all. The man was not burly. And he didn’t seem to be a hulking giant capable of decapitating a five-year-old bull with one swipe. There was nothing threatening about him. He was lank and wiry. He didn’t have a single bit of excess fat, nor of bulging muscle, on him.

Shen had known people like this before. They didn’t use force so much as the energy stored in the bands of sinew in their arms. A tough fellow. And probably as durable as a hundred Blazogs (a race of swamp dwellers). The heavy axe was practically flying through the air.

Just then the man stopped chopping and saw his guests. He narrowed his gray eyes and with a casual motion changed his grip on the axe. This gesture did not go unnoticed by the riders. Shen stiffened and slowed his pace. Midge quickly glanced to the side. Only Whip remained calm. He smiled; only his alert eyes spoke to the fact that the leader was drawn as tight as a loaded crossbow. He continued until he was five yards from the master of the house and then Mols’s messenger stopped.

“Hello, Gray.”

The man stayed defiantly silent for a moment, and then he replied, “Hello, Whip.”

“How are things going?”

The carpenter grimaced angrily.

“Not bad. Until today.”

Whip preferred not to notice the grimace on their host’s lips.

“You’ve settled down really well. The wilderness, the forest, the river, no city noise. And your house is excellent.”

“I can’t complain,” came the dry answer. “What brings you here?”

“Business, of course. Can we talk?”

“That’s strange. I thought that was exactly what we were doing.”

“You won’t invite us in?”

“It’s messy in there,” he replied sullenly.

Whip chuckled. “Six years have gone by, and you haven’t changed a bit. You still hate having company.”

“Seven, to be exact. Hey there, Midge.”

“Hi, Ness. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. You disappeared quite cunningly.”

Their host shrugged his shoulders.

“Seeing as you found me, not quite as cunningly as I’d hoped. I suppose that Bamut is waiting outside the gates?”

“You know him. The man has no love for house calls. Mols sends his regards.”

“Good old Mols,” drawled the carpenter. “It’s hard to escape from him.”

The master of the house took a step to the right and forward, going around the split wood, and Midge echoed his movement, taking a step backward. Unlike Shen, the diminutive assassin preferred to keep a distance between himself and their unsociable host. For the first time since the beginning of their conversation, Ness smiled knowingly. Then he planted his axe in the stump and dragged his fingers through his flaxen hair.

The tension lessened slightly.

Just then a tall young woman appeared on the porch. Her light, almost-white hair was held back in a tight braid, and she was wearing a long black skirt and a linen tunic. When she saw the strangers, her dark blue eyes flashed with rage, and her thin lips pressed into a straight line. A shadow ran across her face and Whip involuntarily reached for his pouch. He had a talisman blessed by a priest of Melot in there. He knew that the amulet would be of no help against her, but the foolish superstition proved stronger than his reason. Only at the very last moment did he restrain himself and remove his hand.

Now he had to keep an eye on both the man and the woman.

“Good day, Layen.”

She ignored the greeting. She looked at her husband. He looked back at her in return. It seemed as if they were speaking with their eyes. Layen turned around and went back inside. Just before she closed the door, she cast the unwanted guests one last warning glance.

Midge let out a relieved breath. He’d been holding his breath the entire time the woman was on the porch.

“Didn’t you used to work as a threesome?” Ness asked Whip.

“That we did,” said the leader wryly, showing just how pleased he was with the circumstances that had foisted a fourth upon him.

“All right, tell me why you’ve come,” said their host, pulling on his shirt.

“Mols sends his regards.”

“There’s no way I’d believe that he sent you all this way just for the sake of a greeting.”

Whip frowned.

“Not just for that. He sent me to tell you that they are offering five thousand sorens for your head. And just as much for Layen.”

The carpenter remained unmoved. “Are you really here to aggravate me and tell me that Mols is that hard up?”

“No, he simply wanted to warn you. In remembrance of your old friendship.”

“That’s very kind of him. How did he find me?”

“How should I know? A little birdie whispered it in his ear. I’m told what to do—nothing more. The reward was offered about two weeks ago. There was a rumor that you were alive. It’s pretty clear that they want to make a trophy out of you. And you must agree that it will be easy to find idiots willing to do anything for that kind of money.”

“Quite so. If there’s one thing in this world of ours that will never change, it’s idiots. Midge, relax and get your hand off your knife.”

“Sorry; habit,” he apologized hastily, and as evidence of his peaceful intentions even stepped back toward the gates.

“So you understand that these whispers of so much money have not gone unnoticed. Your life is at risk.”

“What else did my old friend wish to convey?”

“Not much else. It was Joch Threefingers who named the price.”

Fire flashed in his gray eyes. And then it instantly faded.

“Well. Thank you for the news. Give Mols my thanks.”

“Actually, he’d much prefer that you gave it to him personally.”

“I’ve not been missing Al’sgara so much that I would return.”

“It’s dangerous here—all the rats know you. Don’t flee. We’re staying at the inn. We’ll be there for five or six days. If you change your mind, let us know.”

“An honorary escort?”

“Something like that. Take it easy.”

Without saying a further word, Whip walked to the gates. Midge was the last to exit. True to form, he left walking backward.

 

2

I wasn’t about to show them out. That would have been too great an honor. I stayed on the porch, watching as the runt closed the gate behind him. That fellow is truly repulsive. In the good old days in Al’sgara I’d had a face-off with him. At the time, it was Midge who had to step aside. But that doesn’t mean that he recognized my right to take the best contracts. Far from it. It was nothing more than a temporary, forced retreat. And now, despite all the years that have passed, I could expect trouble from him at any moment. I will not turn my back on him.

The unexpected arrival of my former business associates had made quite an impression on me. The Damned take them! Until now I had thought us impossible to find. Five years of moving from place to place and all of it in vain!

We hadn’t lingered anywhere for long, and we didn’t allow ourselves to become acquainted with anyone, let alone befriend them. We held ourselves stiller than the water under the grass. Layen and I knew that regardless of the fact that we were long dead to all, they would keep looking for us. Especially in the first two years.

We successfully avoided the roundups. At that time the Guards, the Viceroy’s soldiers, and the Walkers’ people were searching for a man and a woman. Twice they all but caught us, and twice we escaped by the skin of our teeth. Then, when the worst was over, we kept being cautious. Thus another three years passed. Subsequently, believing that everyone had forgotten about us, I brought Layen to the very outskirts of the Empire. To the south. Beyond the Blazgian swamps. To the forest.

We had spent two tranquil and happy years in this village. Neither my wife nor myself was especially overjoyed to live in such a godforsaken place, but we needed to bide our time, wait it out a little longer, and then head to the sea and try to find passage on a boat of some kind. To sail off somewhere even farther away.

And now, just when I had begun counting the days until our departure, the past, from which we so long and successfully ran, was insensitive enough to just show up at our door. It passes all understanding how they could have found us after we’d run like jackrabbits, twisting our trail so the hounds wouldn’t catch us.

It’s laughable!

That which the spies of the Walkers could not accomplish, that old buzzard Mols had pulled off with ease. How? How, the Abyss take me, had he found us out?

The door swung open and Layen sat down next to me. We were silent for a time. We just listened as Whip’s associates climbed up onto their horses and rode away from the house.

“What do you think?” I asked my wife.

“They speak the truth—you can’t run from the past; sooner or later it will catch up with you. We have maybe a week, but no more. Then it will be too risky to stay here.”

“It’s too bad we’ll have to leave all this. It’s a good house.”

And I really did think it was too bad. It’s funny. All the time I was dreaming about leaving this hellhole, but now the time has come and I am loath to just abandon it. After all, I’d built this house with my own hands.

“These past few years have turned you into a real homebody, my dear,” she said, grinning. “You weren’t like this before.”

“You were different, too,” I said, copying her grin. “The time has come to get back on the road.”

“Mols could be lying. He’s wanted to send Threefingers off to the Blessed Gardens for a long time. And here we are at hand, fortunately for him. There’s nothing we can do but remove the client. And that’s exactly what Mols is counting on. Whip didn’t tell you that he was waiting for your thanks personally for nothing.”

“We’ll have to get rid of Joch, that’s true. But will that really help us? If those who are searching for us are lying in wait, it won’t do any good. They won’t let us live in peace.”

Layen frowned and rested her head on my shoulder. My sun understood who I was talking about, who might still be searching for us. The very same people who were searching for us when we faked our deaths and left Al’sgara behind forever seven years ago.…

 

It was already the second day that the snow had been falling. Massive white flakes dropped continuously from the low gray sky. They settled on the bridges, on the squares, on the trees, on the watchtowers, on the market stalls, on the red tiled roofs, on the spires of Melot’s temple, and on the hoods of the people walking by. Al’sgara the Green, as the capital of the southern province of the Empire was called, had been transformed into Al’sgara the White.

The children were overjoyed at the fresh snow. For everyone else it was just an inconvenience. It was the start of spring, but the snow was pouring down just as if it was the Feast of the Moon (an important religious holiday celebrated in the middle of winter). Such truly awful weather!

I cursed inwardly and rubbed my gloved hands together. My fingers were beginning to go numb. Cold ruled supreme in the attic where I had been loitering for the past three hours. Admittedly, there was nothing surprising about this. The glass was missing from the window and an icy wind was blowing through the attic. Yet another inconvenience was added to this—darkness. The meager light streaming in from the evening street was no help at all. But I didn’t dare light a candle. Of course, the chance that some passerby would see the flame was not all that great, but it wouldn’t do to risk it.

Damn it! This damn cold! I began rubbing my hands against each other more strenuously, but the tips of my fingers still refused to get warm. It’s a good thing that this really wasn’t the middle of cruel winter. Otherwise I would have already dropped dead.

I cautiously looked out onto the street. And cursed again. It would be fully dark in half an hour but the target was still nowhere to be seen. She was an hour late. The bell on the Overgate Tower of Hightown (the oldest part of Al’sgara; it was built on the Cliff, as that part of the city used to be called, around which the rest of the city subsequently expanded) rang twice. It was nine o’clock. Damn it. Where is she? Where? I realized I was getting nervous.

It’s no wonder. The purse Layen and I had scored for this was rather large. Fifteen thousand sorens in denominations of five-hundred-soren gold Imperials—an insane amount. That kind of money had never been offered for just one person’s head. Not even for a Viceroy. Such a contract was worth all the possible consequences. We decided to risk it.

True, we’d have to take care of today’s business and disappear forever, but with that kind of money (which, incidentally, had been paid up front), we wouldn’t have a care in the world.

When I had told Layen about the proposal, received from an unknown client, she did not bother trying to dissuade me from the risky venture. She realized that I’d already taken the bait. She heard me out without speaking and then stood up just as silently and left the room, gently closing the door behind her. She returned after an hour. I do not know where she was that whole time. By her reddened eyes I could see that she had been crying but it would not do to ask her about it. She hated it when someone witnessed any weakness in her. So I pretended that I didn’t notice anything.

Layen sat down at the table, took me by the hand, and nodded. My sun was still with me. And that meant that we could take on the job. Without her participation the contract wouldn’t be worth a Blazog’s empty eggshell. They’d drag me out feetfirst.

The view from the attic was dreadful. I couldn’t see much, only a small space just in front of the exit from the square and what was located directly below the window. I knew that I would have to shoot from this extremely awkward position. I’d barely be able to see the target.

Anyone who had even the slightest understanding of archery would say that constructing a “nest” in such a place was absurd. That’s precisely why I chose this spot. When the chaos starts, all the attention of the security will turn to the bell tower and the house of the wealthy nobleman standing opposite it—you could arrange a truly excellent ambush there. And it would be very convenient. But it wasn’t worth sitting in such an ambush because you could only leave it in one direction, and that led to the cemetery. And in my opinion, I’m still too young to be sent there.

Ness?

Layen had been silent for more than an hour and her voice resounding in my head caused me to flinch.

I’m here, I answered her mentally.

The target isn’t. I’m worried. If she doesn’t arrive within the next fifteen minutes I think we should leave.

I see.

I frowned in vexation. She was right. The chance of missing the shot in the dark was far too great. And I couldn’t miss. It needed to be a clean shot. A single shot. There simply wouldn’t be time for a second.

Warmth ran along my spine in a tender stream and I relaxed my tense muscles. I exhaled gratefully and leaned against the wall. My mate, who was located at the far end of the street, knew when to comfort me.

Layen possessed the Gift, although she was neither an Ember nor a Walker. She had the ability to speak over a distance with anyone. But this was not the limit of her abilities, even though no one knew about most of Weasel’s other talents besides me.

How she had been able to kindle her “spark” without the help of the Walkers—this was something I did not understand. I did not want to ask about her past, and she never initiated such conversations. It is possible that it was too dark, and that it would do no good for me to crawl into her soul. I swear with everything I am, that it didn’t matter to me who she had been before. So I simply told myself that it was an established fact—Layen has the Gift and that’s that. I knew that I loved her and that I could trust her. We were not just friends and partners, but also family. No one but Mols had any idea about the latter, but he never asked about it as he wasn’t one to pry into other people’s private business.

She’s here! I see her. Get ready.

I calmly took off my warm gloves and tucked them into my belt. I put on the ones I used for shooting. Then I picked up my one-hundredand-eighty-pound (the draw weight of the bowstring) bow. Resting the bottom limb to the ground, I leaned on the upper limb and, holding my breath, forced the string into place. I had shot this monstrosity over a week ago and easily managed to pierce an oak plank from a distance of two hundred yards. It’s too bad that I’d have to leave it behind. But after the assassination it would be utter stupidity to walk about on the street with it.

I’m ready.

They’re coming down the street. Quickly. They’ll be near you in a minute.

Got it.

On my signal.

I nodded and then immediately realized that Layen couldn’t see me.

She’s got six with her. Two Embers and four of the Viceroy’s Guards. Two have crossbows.

I’m more worried about the Embers.

A warm wave once again rushed through me.

Don’t worry. I’ll take care of them.

I chuckled. Layen had the most difficult job—she had to overwhelm the sorceresses, to take away the protection they afforded the target. Not for long. Just for three, perhaps even four seconds. Just enough time for me to take the shot.

Suddenly the falling snowflakes swirled. A moment later their speed and direction changed. The northwest wind had replaced the north wind. This was not good.

The wind changed. Layen was also keeping track of the changing conditions. Northwest. Gusts. A quarter of a finger.

A quarter of a finger. That’s even worse. I’d need to aim slightly off and pray to Melot that when I shot the fickle elements did not act up. It’s a good thing the bow wasn’t weak, and that the arrow was heavy.

I see. I’m aware. Thanks.

Twenty seconds. They’re near the treasurer’s house. Walking toward you.

I tried to even out my breathing. Exhale, inhale. This is a normal shot. Nothing more. I’ve been shooting with a bow for as long as I can remember. I spent the war in Sandon. And in war everything is far more complicated. At least here no one would run at me with a sword. I just needed to sight, aim, and do what we had been paid for.

Grabbing the arrow that had a white arrowhead made of some material I was unfamiliar with, I quickly examined the fletching. Was it crooked?

The client’s man had given me the arrow along with the compensation. When Layen saw it she refused to pick it up. All she said was that such devices were created to kill the foundation of the Gift in people, to extinguish their spark and to destroy the very soul of the mage. I’d felt uneasy about this “present” from the beginning. But using the arrow was a nonnegotiable term of the contract. I had to clench my teeth and accept it. But I had no idea how it would behave in flight.

We’ll meet in Haven (a neighborhood of Al’sgara next to the sea), where we agreed. If I don’t come after an hour, leave without me.

You know very well that I won’t go anywhere without you!

We were intending to leave the city, but not in the way the client had planned. There was far too great a chance that he or she would decide to kill off the people who had done the dirty work. Layen had come up with her own plan and was now prepared to put it into motion. Only she and I knew where we were going after the task. For everyone else, Gray and Weasel would just disappear. They would die.

I rested the arrow on the bowstring and did not take my eyes away from the snow-covered street. Twilight. The idiot lamplighters are late again. Damn it! I need light right now!

The wind’s still moving to the northwest. Half a finger. After a minute it will change to the north.

I’ll keep that in mind.

Good luck. There they are!

And then I saw them. A group of people walking quickly toward Sacrum Square. In the front were two Guardsmen, followed by a woman. Then two more people behind her. The procession was tailed by a pair of soldiers.

The tip of the arrow suddenly gleamed with a purple light. I almost dropped it.

Layen! The arrow is glowing!

Don’t worry. It senses the spark of the target. One hundred and five yards.

Don’t worry? If they got it into their heads to look over in my direction I could forget about luck.

Which one of them? The first one?

Ninety-five yards. No. The second to the left.

Are you sure?

Yes. Listen to me. The one in the sable coat. Ninety. As soon as I say.…

I watched the small female form in the sable coat. They were approaching the minimum distance but I didn’t shoot. It was a bad angle. After a moment the second woman obstructed my view of the victim.

Ninety-five… one hundred… one hundred and five…

She was walking farther and farther away from me. Another twenty seconds and the nearby house would block my view.

To the north. A quarter of a finger. A wagon is coming toward you. It will hide the target in eight seconds. Wait. One hundred and ten.

I watched her back as it withdrew. But I fully trusted Layen’s instincts. There was the wagon. A moment and it was gone.

One hundred and fifteen.… Now!

Years of training took hold. I acted without thinking. I raised the bow up, drew explosively (a shot from a powerful bow generally has to be made without a long pause while holding the string taut and aiming. Because of the great force of the tension the shot proceeds like a so-called explosion since both hands jerk away from each other) and shot.

Twang!

I immediately jumped back from the window to the wall, having noticed that the arrow darting toward its target was leaving behind a purple trail.

Layen acted simultaneously with me. Of course, I didn’t feel anything but I knew that the protection of the unsuspecting Embers had been crushed.

Thwack!

For a moment the street was illuminated with the purple light. The arrow had found its target.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The din from outside made it clear that the Embers had recovered and were striking out at random. Layen was quiet, fearing that now the sorceresses might be able to hear our silent communication. I hoped with all my heart that my sun had already fled.

I dropped the bow and, slipping off my gloves as I ran, fled from the attic. I descended to the second floor by way of a rickety ladder. I opened a door and entered the room I had rented out earlier, where I changed quickly into an apprentice baker’s smock that was lying on top of a loaf of fresh bread. I did not neglect to rub my clothes and hands with flour.

As I walked, I bit off a chunk of bread and, chewing, opened the window that led out onto the backyard. Having measured off the distance, I leaped onto the shed. From there I dropped down into a snowbank. I stood up and looked around.

The yard was empty. I ran up to the low fence, easily hopped over it, and passed through a breezeway that emerged into a narrow alley. And then, without any undue haste, I strolled away. I could hear shouts, muffled by the distance, coming from Rukovits.

From my spot all I could see was the looming bell tower. Or more precisely, what remained of it. The Embers had gone berserk and, without pausing to think, were focusing their magics along the upper floors of the nearest buildings, hoping to wound the assassin.

Well then. It’s a good thing I made my nest in a less noticeable spot, otherwise I would have been flattened. By the time they understood the what and the how, Layen and I would be far away, and our alleged corpses would be found burnt to a crisp in the old hideout of Jola and Ktatak. I hope my friends will forgive us for burning up one of their storehouses.

I left the scene with brisk strides.

 

“I’ll get ready,” Layen sighed, and stood up from the steps.

I shook my head, banishing the recollections. Seven years have gone by, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

“Yes. You’re right. We’d best ditch the village by tomorrow evening. I won’t be able to pick up the money.”

“I’ll fetch it. But I’ll do it tomorrow.”

“Alone? Are you sure you’ll manage?”

“Quite sure. Will we tell Whip?”

Whip was not a bad man, but it would not do to stay too close to him.

“No.”

I frowned. I really didn’t like the idea of her going into the forest alone. But only she could get at the money. That was the truth.

“And if he figures it out and decides to keep us company?”

I considered the alternatives and declared, “It would be better for him if he didn’t find out.”

Layen smiled tightly and went back inside the house.

 


Chasers of the Wind © Alexey Pehov, 2014

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