Cold, pale light spilt through dark clouds in fractured beams, pooling upon the fields and hills beyond the grime-crusted glass window. Starlight flickered between the clouds’ tattered fringes as they drew apart, baring the moon’s full, bright face.
Hello, again. He watched the dark close back over the moon and released a long sigh. Until next time.
A horn tankard thudded down upon the dirty table top. Cider sloshed over the rim and foamed down the side as a pewter plate piled high with steaming, rich, thick-crusted kidney pie thumped down beside it. The innkeeper’s girl hovered at his elbow, nibbling at the nails of one small hand and rummaging in the pocket of her brown leather apron with the other.
‘Here.’ The girl set an apple down next to his small array of artwork, the single green leaf fluttering against the bright red fruit. ‘Like you wanted, mister. The reddest one we got.’
‘Thank you. My name’s still Athion, by the way.’ He took a sip from the tankard, letting dry, sharp cider washed over his parched tongue. ‘You got one of your own?’
‘Nessa.’ The girl wiped her fingers on the brown wool dress beneath her apron and pointed at his little case of charms. ‘You sellin’, Mister Athion? How much?’
Athion pushed the chair beside him out from under the table with one boot, wincing at the scrape of wooden legs across the rough stone floor. ‘Grab a seat, Nessa. Your other customers seem fine enough in their corners, your father ought not to mind.’
Nessa scowled and ran a hand through her stringy, honey-blonde hair. ‘He’s my uncle. Father’s dead, died at the battle near Horston fightin’ Ædyn’s faceless tin men.’
‘Then your uncle’s lucky to have a niece like you.’ Athion untangled the thin leather strings that tied his charms together and waved a hand at the colourful little stone shapes. ‘Which takes your fancy?’
Nessa peered at the coloured rocks with narrowed brown eyes, then pointed to a small, flower-shaped, yellow stone. ‘I like that one.’ She fumbled in her apron for a small brown pouch. ‘How much?’
Athion glimpsed brass falling into the Nessa’s palm. ‘Eight. Call it seven if you throw in a kiss?’
She flushed and spilt coins all over the table. ‘I – I can’t do that. My uncle…’
‘Just a joke.’ Athion shot her a grin and pulled eight coins across in front of his plate of kidney pie one at a time. ‘There, all yours, Nessa. That’s sunstone, that piece. If it sees enough sunlight, it’ll glow for a while afterwards.’
‘Sunstone?’ She squinted at the fingernail-sized charm in her palm. ‘Ain’t that magic stone?’
Athion took a longer drink and released a quiet sigh. ‘You didn’t think I carved these out of pebbles from the side of the road, did you?’ He slid a finger down the front of his shirt and pulled up the slender silver chain to display a clear, crescent-shaped stone. ‘They’re made from sunlight. This one’s the best I’ve ever made, though it’s not made from sunlight.’
Nessa’s flush darkened and she wrung her hands. ‘Well, you don’t look much like someone who uses magic, is all.’
He brushed crumbs off the dark leather of his shirt and the simple white cotton beneath. ‘What’re we meant to look like, then? Should I have a staff, a wand, or some jewel encrusted talisman to wave about? A long cowled robe perhaps? Or, I know, some kind of magnificent pointy hat?’
‘No.’ She waved a hand at the men huddled in the corners. ‘It’s just you look the same as them, as us, and I thought your sort would be different, like the faceless tin men.’
Ædyn’s soldiers. A prickling itch twitched and crawled beneath the skin of Athion’s back. Damn all of them.
He cut himself a piece of pie. ‘I’m not like them. I make fabulous little pieces of art, they use their magic blades to just take whatever they want. They’ve got no self-control and no sense of what’s right.’
The door banged open.
Nessa squeaked and flinched, snapping the thin string of her necklace. A swirl of wet leaves and a spray of rain came in about the feet of a dark-cloaked figure.
‘Shut the door,’ one of the men groaned from the corner. ‘Gods above.’
The figure slammed the door shut and slumped against it. The wet cloak clung to the woman’s heaving chest.
‘Trouble,’ Athion murmured.
Nessa looked up, clutching the fraying string she’d snapped. ‘Sorry, Mister Athion, I didn’t hear.’
‘I was just talking to myself.’
‘Oh,’ she muttered.
The newcomer peeled her cloak off. Silver hair flowed past slender shoulders, save for a single lock dangling over bright purple eyes and pale, unmarked skin. The girl flung her cloak over the back of a chair and sat down.
She’s a stunner. What’s she doing alone in a place like this? He caught a glimpse of gold thread edging the grey furs she wore over her dress. No commoner, either.
He tugged the broken string from the innkeeper’s niece’s hands. ‘Let me fix that for you. Do you want to keep the string? Is it important to you?’
‘It’s just string, Mister Athion, but the rest belonged to my mother…’
Athion slid the charm he’d made and the handful of wooden and stone beads off the string, then pulled a clear thread of his power forth from the air between his thumb and forefinger to replace the string. ‘There, so long as I’m alive, this thread will hold it all together. And I should be about for a while still, I’m sure I don’t look too old yet.’
Nessa gaped as he slipped the beads and the charm back on. ‘That was real magic!’
‘I said I could.’ Athion glimpsed the noble girl staring at them with narrowed eyes. ‘I think she’s trying to get your attention.’
She flushed. ‘Really? Oh no… What am I meant to say to someone like her?’
‘Not one of your regulars?’ He watched the silver-haired girl glance back and forth between them and the door every few seconds. ‘Looks like she’s expecting company.’
‘No,’ Nessa said. ‘Ain’t nobody lookin’ like that ever come in here.’ She tiptoed around the half-open hatch to the barrel cellar to hover near the noble girl’s table.
Athion watched them murmuring together out of the corner of his eye as he demolished his cooling kidney pie. ‘Too young, too rich, and too pretty to be travelling alone by choice, Athion,’ he muttered through the last mouthful of crust. He washed it down with the remains of his drink and twisted the stalk off his apple. ‘Either she’s chasing something, or something’s chasing her… or both, I guess.’
Nessa shook her head and tugged her arm free of the noble girl’s grasp. ‘I don’t know anything about that, milady. It’s all just silly rumours the tin men start so they can come here and do what they want.’
The rich girl let her go, pushing back her chair and climbing upon it in dark, knee-high boots. A circular mark in gold thread caught the light on the inside at the top.
Noble’s crest. Must be.
The noble girl cocked her head, sending the small white fang dangling from her ear swaying back and forth. ‘My name is Ilerwe. Ill-er-way. I’m looking for the Shadow of the Moon.’
A thick, tense quiet fell over the inn.
‘I heard rumours he’d been seen near here.’ Ilerwe brushed the lock of silver hair away from over her right eye. ‘I wondered if anyone could help me?’
The innkeeper came out from the back room holding the spiking mallet in one hand; he left it on the bar as he strode to the far end of it. ‘Aye.’ He jiggled the lever until the barrel hatch closed. ‘We heard those rumours, too. Ain’t got anythin’ to add to them, milady. I’d steer well clear of a man like that, if he’s even real—’
‘He’s real. Ædyn’s soldiers wouldn’t be offering a large reward for him if he wasn’t.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t get messed up in that, milady,’ the innkeeper said. ‘You look like a nice girl, bit too nice to be in here, really. I’d head back home and forget about the Shadow of the Moon.’
‘He’s a killer.’ One of the men in the far corner swung his empty tankard through the air like a club. ‘Heard he’s killed hundreds of the tin men. Thousands.’
‘I heard he was one of Ædyn’s lot once,’ another added. ‘A high up one. Not just a tin man, but one of their faceless captains, that’s why he’s got that fancy sword like they do. Turned against them and swore revenge after they did somethin’ unforgivable even for them.’
‘Thanks.’ Ilerwe climbed down from her chair with balled fists and slumped over the small drink the innkeeper set on the table, passing him a silver piece.
The innkeeper fumbled it and nearly dropped it again after he’d weighed it in his palm. ‘Milady, you could buy everythin’ in the cellar for another few of these.’
‘Keep it,’ Ilerwe said. ‘I’ve only got a couple left, but you can have those too if you’ve heard anything about the Shadow of the Moon that’s not just old stories.’
The innkeeper stowed the silver coin away under his shirt. ‘Why’re you askin’? I heard the Shadow of the Moon murdered not just one of the faceless soldiers, but one of Ædyn’s First Swords… and anyone who’s managed to catch him since.’
‘I need someone who can fight Ædyn’s First Swords, someone I can trust not to change sides for golden promises. And I’ve not heard of anyone else who’s ever killed a First Sword.’
‘Reckon that’s just a rumour,’ the innkeeper said. ‘Ain’t likely anythin’s true in what you hear. He’ll turn out to be some brigand, someone who got lucky and killed a faceless tin man once, then talked it up.’
‘We ain’t heard anythin’,’ the man in the corner told her. ‘But that other traveller, he ain’t from here. He might’ve.’
Athion scowled at the man, staring until he ducked down amongst his companions. He turned back and found the rich girl sitting opposite him. Smooth, porcelain-pale skin lay beneath smudged dirt and wind-chafing. Rain water trickled from her silver hair down her fine cheekbones along her slim, small nose.
Definitely a noble. With hair and eyes like that, she looks like something straight out of some noble’s prized painting of his ancestors. Must be magic in the family.
‘Hi…’ He snuck a glance down at the mark on the inside of the girl’s thigh, but couldn’t make the sigil out. ‘I’m Athion.’
‘Ilerwe. My eyes are up here, Athion.’
He crunched a bite out of his apple. ‘What crest is that? What’s your family name? Are you from the Kingdom of Thuun, or further afield?’
The girl turned her nose up. ‘No business of yours. Have you heard something about the Shadow of the Moon, or haven’t you?’
What a little princess. Athion studied her uncalloused, slim fingers. She’s never done a day’s work in her life.
‘I’ve been about a bit and I’ve heard a thing or two, but nothing to make me think pretty noble girls would want to run off after him.’
‘What’ve you heard?’ Ilerwe leant forward. ‘When?’
‘Like I said. Nothing nice. You’re not one of those weird, sheltered, noble girls, are you? The sort that gets it into their head they’d rather run off after some tall dark stranger than marry whomever their parents chose.’
The noble girl blinked a couple of times and pressed her pale lips into a thin line. ‘No. I need him to help me get rid of Ædyn’s First Swords. Everyone knows he hates Ædyn and that they’re after him, so I know he won’t betray us.’
Athion finished his apple in two quick bites. ‘Good luck. Unless you’ve got a lot more silver hidden somewhere down that dress, you’re going to struggle to convince anyone with half a brain to fight a First Sword. And even then there’s next to no chance they’d win.’
‘He’s meant to fight them for his own reasons,’ Ilerwe said. ‘I could pay him if I had to, though. Have you heard he asks for money?’
Not great at taking a hint, are you, girl? Athion sighed, a soft melancholy creeping upon him. Fine.
‘Nothing of the sort, actually,’ he said. ‘The only rumours are about that sword of his and all the awful things he must’ve done if Ædyn’s soldiers are even a little scared of him.’
‘Well, there are other ways to pay people. Land, titles, stuff like that. There must be something he wants. Most of Thuun’s noble families have been wiped out, so there’s plenty he could have.’
Athion grinned and pointed at her empty ring finger. ‘You can always try offering him whatever else’s under that dress.’
‘What?!’ Two patches of red blossomed high upon her cheeks. ‘Just because I’m not betrothed doesn’t mean I’d do something, so… so cheap.’
‘Well, here you are, a noble girl, chasing after a mysterious man of ill-repute. And a very nice-looking noble girl as well. People are going to make assumptions, scandalous assumptions. Wouldn’t be the first time some noble’s daughter got her head turned by a roguish commoner.’
She glared at him. ‘Nothing of the sort is going to happen. Not with him and certainly not with some vagabond who peddles cheap rocks.’
Athion chuckled. ‘You’re probably a bit young for me anyway.’
‘You’re no older than I am, I’d guess nineteen at most.’
‘Good guess. Dreamy little girls aren’t my type, though.’
‘You know, beggars probably shouldn’t be so choosy.’ She drummed her fingers on the table and smiled, flashing him a set of white teeth and the tip of a pink tongue. ‘Do you like snakes?’
‘No more than dreamy little girls. I’m not scared of them, if that’s what you mean.’
‘Good.’ Ilerwe slid a hand down the front of her dress, flushing when Athion raised his eyebrow at her. ‘Come out, whitey,’ she cooed.
A pale, blunt nose poked its head out of her cleavage, then an arrow-shaped, white head rose out, tasting the air with a flickering, forked, black tongue.
‘Do you usually keep it there?’ he asked. ‘It must look a bit odd at some grand convention of nobles if there’s something writhing around in your dress.’
‘She doesn’t writhe. Lily’s a good snake. She stays very still most of the time as long as she’s kept warm and fed.’
‘Lily? Not the snakiest of names.’
‘It’s a good name.’ She stroked the small serpent’s head with one finger. ‘It’s from lily-of-the-valley. The little white bell-shaped flowers that’re so poisonous.’
‘Is Lily the snake poisonous?’
‘No.’ Ilerwe produced a small mouse from her pocket and teased it in front of the snake’s nose. ‘However, she’s highly venomous.’
Lily latched onto the mouse, sinking her fangs in, wrapping herself around her prey and swallowing it down bit by bit.
‘Right.’ Athion pushed his chair back and closed his case of charms while the snake was occupied. ‘I assume there’s a difference?’
‘It’s poisonous if you die after you bite it. If you die after it bites you, then it’s venomous.’
‘Huh. Always thought they were the same. Still, if it’s all the same to you, your highness, I’d rather not get involved with you or your snake.’
She twitched. Athion tore his eyes from Lily and cast another glance at the crest upon her thigh, but Ilerwe pulled her knees together.
‘If you keep looking there, I’ll get her to bite you.’
I’m sure I remember a snake sigil for some bunch of nobles in Thuun. He scrunched up his face and tried to picture name on the crest. Donin? Dunin? Runin? No, it’s Roenin. Ha, she really is a princess.
‘Ilerwe Roenin,’ he murmured. ‘Princess of Thuun.’
She stiffened. ‘No.’
‘No business of mine, anyway. No need to set your pet on me.’
Ilerwe gathered Lily back into her dress. ‘You’re a bit smart for some vagabond.’ Her eyes roved over him and the cloak-covered bag beside his chair. ‘I need to find the Shadow of the Moon. Ædyn’s armies have besieged the city of Thuun and they’re led by two First Swords. I slipped out and followed the rumours here, but if I don’t find him, Thuun will fall, Ædyn will win, and all the people will be enslaved to that awful city and its six tyrants.’
Athion frowned and a small knot tightened in his stomach. ‘I’m sorry, princess. I wouldn’t’ve mocked your venture if I’d known. It’s rare to see a noble girl with her heart in the right place. Rare to see anyone like it these days.’
Ilerwe turned her nose up at him. ‘I—’
The door banged open.
Five soldiers tramped in with the leaves and the rain. Water trickled over shirts of overlapping metal squares, dripping from bare-faced, spike-topped helms and broad oval shields painted with six white crowns. A sixth soldier visored with a smooth, featureless mask of shining mirror glass stepped in after them, toying with a sheathed blade.
An itch wriggled along the top of Athion’s shoulders like little white maggots in the sockets of a dead man’s eyes. A Faceless One. He took a deep breath. Ædyn.
The soldiers spread out across the floor between the princess and the door. The other patrons scrambled out back through the bar with the innkeeper and his niece.
‘Princess Ilerwe,’ the Faceless One said. ‘You managed to lead us on a merry chase, but the game’s up. You’ll return with us to Ædyn or you’ll die here… eventually.’
Damn. The prickling slipped beneath the skin along his back, like a thousand warm needles sliding into his flesh. No matter where you go…
Athion grunted and uncurled from his chair. ‘Here.’ He pinned the girl’s arms to her sides, lifting her out of the chair and dropping her just short of the barrel hatch. ‘Come grab her.’
‘Get out, commoner.’ The Faceless One waved his soldiers forward.
They picked their way forward between the tables, grinning and licking their lips. Athion smothered a surge of hot distaste.
‘I said out. Unless you want to stay and watch?’
Athion’s stomach churned. ‘I’m not the sort to leave a little girl behind to be raped.’ He heaved on the lever by the bar.
The soldiers plummeted down into the cellar with a great clatter, leaving a single blade wobbling on the edge of the opening.
He hauled the door closed. ‘Good riddance to them.’
‘That was exceedingly foolish.’ The Faceless One pulled the first finger’s length of his blade from its sheath and prowled forward. ‘But I suppose I get her to myself now. Nobody will be too miffed when I tell her she was slain in the pursuit.’
Athion sighed. ‘What is it about power that makes men so easily forget their better nature?’
‘Weak men don’t dare take what they want.’
Athion grabbed the sword from the floor. ‘I don’t suppose you’d just tell anyone that asks she’s dead and leave the two of us be?’
‘Why would I?’ The Faceless One eased his blade from its sheath and set the scabbard upon a table. ‘A warrior like me is worth more than twenty trained men, no hapless vagabond is going to scare me off.’
‘What about small reptiles?’ Athion’s weighed the ill-balanced blade and grimaced at the rusted, nicked blade. ‘Or extremely poorly maintained swords?’
Ilerwe backed away from between the two of them and snatched the spiking mallet from the bar out of the corner of his eye.
He shook his head at her. ‘Don’t—’
The Faceless One leapt at Athion. He cut the long, straight sword away from him and ducked the following strike as the man span and lunged. Athion jumped back from the next slash and kicked the princess’ chair at the man’s legs.
The Faceless One swatted the chair away with his armoured forearm. ‘Pretty good for a peddler!’
He darted forward, cutting hard, close, and fast at Athion’s chest from above. The tip of the longsword whistled past his face twice as he twisted away and back-stepped across the uneven stone floor. His heel struck something solid and the longsword hammered into where the blade and guard met on his borrowed weapon, catching fast a hand’s length from his face.
‘For god’s sake,’ he muttered, bracing himself against the wall. ‘Why did I think I should get involved in this?’
The Faceless One laughed and replaced his second hand on his blade. Little flickers of green lightning arced along its length and Athion’s hair prickled, rising up along his arms. The edges scraped and screeched; the longsword slid closer to his neck until its tip caught fast in the wall.
‘Remarkable.’ The Faceless One’s garlicky breath washed over Athion, his mirrored visor a finger’s length from Athion’s face. ‘I was actually drawing on a fraction of the power of my soul and you were still able to resist my blade.’
‘Perhaps your soul isn’t very strong.’
‘Says the peddler whose head is stuck between a sword and a wall.’
‘Safely stuck.’ Athion tried to squeeze his head out. ‘Though definitely stuck.’
A blur of silver moved behind the soldier.
The Faceless One whirled and caught the mallet in his hand. ‘Not that safely stuck.’ He tugged it free of Ilerwe’s grip and kicked the princess through the bar into the wall.
The noble girl curled up in the wreckage with a faint moan.
He must’ve sensed her. Athion twisted his borrowed sword free. So he can draw on the power of his soul.
‘That’s not how you’re meant to treat princesses,’ he said. ‘It’s a good thing she’s probably just got some bruises or I’d be annoyed with you.’
The mallet exploded in a green flash, spraying splinters across the floor. The Faceless One swivelled and wrenched his blade from the wall. ‘She’s a princess because she was born in a castle. I was born with a powerful soul, really it’s her who ought to be bowing and scraping to me.’
‘There’s more than power to life.’ Athion watched the green sparks crawl along the man’s blade. ‘Power won’t make you happy.’
‘Well, you’ve got about a second to figure out if you’re right.’ Green lightning arced off the edge of his longsword, screeching like metal nails along glass. ‘Perhaps it’ll help to know you were killed by Orud of Lady Alia’s Mirror-Swords, so there’s no shame in your death.’
‘You’ve got a very reflective visor on your helmet, not a mirror-like sword,’ Athion jibed. ‘Lady Alia’s clearly not very good at naming things, you should be called mirror-hats, or mirror-helms, or shiny-faces.’
‘Just die, peddler.’ Orud swung his sword without taking a step forward.
The lightning sprang off the blade with a high-pitched shriek and fierce, bright green flashed across Athion’s eyes. The wall of the inn behind him exploded, spraying splinters and stone fragments over the street.
He brushed the worst of the debris out of his hair and huffed away the dust. ‘I hope you’re going to pay for that, because I can’t afford to.’ Athion swiped splinters off his shoulders. ‘I also don’t want to.’
‘Still alive.’ Orud scuffed pieces of the wall away from under his footing. ‘I see I still haven’t managed to fully control the power of my soul once I’ve unleashed it from my blade, that’s disappointing.’
‘Practice makes perfect,’ Athion said. ‘And I do encourage your pursuit of control. My magic, used in the crafting of my wonderfully beautiful little jewellery pieces, requires almost perfect control.’
‘Well, unless you can make swords, I don’t think your magic is going to be any good to you.’
Athion glanced at the borrowed sword in his hand.
Three inches of warped steel stuck from the hilt.
‘Not ideal.’ He sidled round toward where his things were stacked under his cloak. ‘Are you sure you don’t just want to leave? It’s not like the princess is going to be able to stop Ædyn’s siege of her city. She’s not the sort to go around killing First Swords.’
‘I won’t risk Lady Alia’s venture failing.’ Orud raised his blade and the lightning burst back into life along it, screaming and spitting louder than before. ‘It’s safer to kill the girl, and you, now.’
Athion brushed his cloak off the top of his things and pulled the sheathed sword out from inside the bundle. ‘Then I suppose it’s best this comes to an end before I really do grow annoyed with you.’ He unsheathed his blade and thrust the scabbard back into his things.
Orud’s eyes traced the curved edge of Athion’s weapon back from the tip to where the two-handed hilt met the guard-less blade. ‘Odd for a peddler to have such a nice sword, but it won’t save you.’
The princess dragged herself up on the bar, cradling her ribs with one hand. ‘How are you even alive? He’s one of the Faceless Ones, not some common soldier.’
The moon slipped out from behind the clouds, pouring pale, cold light down through the hole in the wall. Athion’s shadow stretched long and dark across the floor before him as he turned the blade about so the dark side was facing the Faceless Once.
‘Impossible,’ Orud blurted.
The green lightning flickered out.
‘That two-sided blade,’ he whispered. ‘One shining face and one dark… that’s Moonshade, which makes you—’
‘The Shadow of the Moon!’ Ilerwe stamped her foot and kicked a tankard across the inn floor at him. ‘You lied to my face!’
Athion sidestepped the projectile. ‘Sorry about that. I wasn’t too keen on helping you. Actually, if I’m being totally honest, I’m still not.’
‘Traitor!’ Orud let out a burst of bright green sparks all across his body. ‘Lady Alia’s commanded you be brought to her alive.’
‘I don’t really want to see Lady Alia.’ Athion drew the brightness from his heart and thrust it out through the blade.
A soft, silver glow shone from the crescent moon on the sword’s dark side and a pitch black veil fell across the inn.
Its shadow swallowed everything, silent as the death that crept up on men as they slept. Athion felt the warm of the fireplace and the cold wind from the hole in the wall fade. The smell of smoke disappeared, the lingering taste of kidney, gravy, and cider vanished, and so did the brush of clothes on his back.
He stood naked in the void with nothing but the sword in his hand.
A crackling green spark appeared where the Faceless One had stood and a rippling purple flame flickered off to his right. Beyond them the muted hues of the powerless souls of the inn’s patrons scattered into the night
Athion took two steps forward and brought his blade down, shearing through Orud’s collarbone.
‘Dark,’ Orud gasped.
Athion tugged his sword free as the blackness faded and Orud clattered to the floor. His longsword crumbled to rust-red dust upon the uneven stones.
‘Is he dead?’ Ilerwe peered down the front of her dress with wide eyes.
Lily slithered out onto her arm and Ilerwe sagged against the bar, clutching her stomach.
‘Very.’ Athion watched the red spread across the floor and wiped hot droplets off his face with his sleeve. ‘The innkeeper’s going to be really pissed about having to clean this all up, you know, princess.’
Ilerwe tugged her sodden cloak out of the path of the blood. ‘We need to go back to Thuun immediately.’
‘I’m a peddler, princess.’ He slid Moonshade back into its sheath and tucked it away. ‘So unless you want to buy some of my artwork, we’ve really nothing to talk about.’