Precipice

Written by E. R. Shanor and L. Harp

August-December 2002



“Sanders?”

She hadn’t really expected him yet, for when he left on a trip to search out a tailor rumored to make robes such as he favored but with the strength of lesser suits of armor, he’d said he would be gone a fortnight. Still, Sinaedh knew, just as she knew the flagstones beneath her bare feet were chilled by the night, that someone had been in the house. Had it been he, surely she’d have woken to pleasure the likes of which they’d often shared together in their bed. No, he wasn’t home.

What then?

A frown forming, she carefully trod down the stair, thin robe clutched about her form. Hazel eyes swept over the rooms below. No one. Still…

Yes, there was something.

The frown intensifying, she walked to the long table, reaching for the lone sheet of parchment lying on it. As she lifted it, it hid what was below until her puzzled gaze had read the few words printed there in elementary block letters, as if the writer either was hiding his true nature or hadn’t mastered the art yet. “YOUR NAME WAS HIS LAST WORD.”

“No,” she said softly, blinking as those words sank in. “No…,” the denial cut short by a gasp. There, where they had been hidden by the parchment, were two trinkets, once glittering, now filmed by dried blood. The cross she recognized, a masterpiece of carving that had been part of her family for many years. It had been her father’s gift to her husband-to-be. Next to it a simple band of gold, once containing magical energy that made it gleam more than the gold it was, now dulled and lifeless. His ring. She’d given it to him on their wedding day.

“No,” she moaned softly, sinking to her knees, crushing the parchment to her breast, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“No!”

She cried when she wasn't thinking. She thought when she wasn't crying. She'd have to avoid those of her own guild, those she called family. How could she face them? Some of them hadn't liked him from the beginning, though they tolerated him for her sake, she knew. Some of them viewed him as a good friend. Regardless of their feelings for the man himself, she knew they'd overwhelm her with kindness and concern for her. She didn't want that.

"No," she whispered to herself, finally finding the courage to open the door and step out on the street of Camelot. "I need to know."

Instead of the black crepe draping the building faces she expected, or wailing mobs waiting for her to step out of their house and cry with them, there was... normalcy. Normal people rushing from one place to another on given tasks. Normal vendors hawking their wares. Normal guardsmen walking normal rounds.

How can this be?

With wide eyes and fists clenched tight, she took one small step then another, off the porch, onto the cobbles themselves. Foot traffic swirled around her, parting for her then closing back again. Faces of people she knew but not to talk to, faces of complete strangers. No faces of friends, either his or hers, and for that she was grateful. With a small nod to herself, she turned left and walked up the hill to the castle itself.

The wailing wall, as she'd called it before, loomed before her, a stark reminder of why she'd left the house. Slowly, alone now as the crowd broke off in different directions to follow their own needs, Sinaedh approached. On this wall were boards listing those found dead by patrols in various lands. Kneeling before it, as she was every day, an aging woman in black rocked back and forth, a low whispered breath as she repeated one name... "Arthur". Hesitantly, Sinaedh reached in a pouch at her belt, pulling free a gold coin. She knelt before the woman, gently taking her hand and pressing the coin into it. There would be others who would bring food, clothing, necessities for life for this mourner. For now, Sinaedh looked into the woman's face, tears springing into her eyes to match those that gleamed in the watery blue of the older woman. For a moment, the mourner's gaze fixed on Sinaedh. "Live," she whispered, fingers tightening where their hands met. Then recognition faded, and once again her gaze fell on the distance, and her chant began again... "Arthur".

Biting her lip, Sinaedh slowly rose and turned to face the wall. Each step felt like climbing a mountain, but she took them, finally standing before the board with the most recent notices. Tears blurred her vision as she scanned the first few lines. A sweep of her hand across her eyes, then she resumed her quest, reading over the names of those departed, lips moving with whispered prayer for each, until she reached the last.

His name was not there.

It took time, but she slowly gained control of her heartache. The pain remained, but no longer did she start awake during the night, reaching for him. No longer were her eyes rimmed with red. She looked in the mirror and nodded. She could face them again.

It seemed like a lifetime from the first time he’d explained his bondage to her, but finally her friend Randon had completed the tasks that were set for him by the Guild of Shadows, save one more assignment. He’d sent a message to her, and after staring down at it, wondering for a moment if she were truly strong enough to face this, her oldest friend in the land, who was the elder brother she’d never had, she finally nodded to the boy. “Yes, please tell Brother Randon I will meet him and join his party.”

Though she normally looked about at the forests and reveled in the lush growth, this time the paths leading through the towering trees seemed dark to her. Clouds lowered across the sun, and a sudden storm drenched the party, sending men’s steps sliding over the ground. Shivering, Sinaedh followed up into the hills as the party pressed on. Birds’ calls echoed from far away, but they were muted. They know, she thought to herself. They see me, and they know.

She looked up in surprise as those she traveled with drew to a halt, facing up the hill to a ruined dwelling. Sections of the wall had fallen in, and the building they could see showed bright sunlight that had followed the storm gleaming through the destroyed ceiling and roof. A force had claimed this ancient place, and it was this force they must defeat.

“All ready!” came the call, and she prepared herself, prayer on her lips. A moment’s silence, the twang of a bow, and then the fury was upon them.

She’d had no time to do anything but try to help those who were injured. Perhaps it was a blessing. The activity removed her from her own mourning, though small failings of her own left her drained and tears in her eyes as all sat to recover their strength before returning home. Randon moved among them, thanking each individually. “Sister?” he asked, finally crouching before her. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she whispered, lying, reaching to swipe a hand over her eyes. “Yes, only weary.”

He nodded slowly, looking at her for a moment more before reaching a strong hand to squeeze her shoulder. “We’ll head back home now. Then, if you’re not too tired, you can help me pick out a dye.”

She nodded mutely, looking up at him as he beamed a smile. She should be happy for him, she knew, but that happiness lay in a lump, dulled by her own pain. Still, if she didn’t react normally, he would know, and question her. Was she ready for that now?

She reached up to hug him. “Congratulations, Brother Randon,” she whispered.

The trip back home seemed shorter than the journey there. She followed the crowd to Camelot, eyes downcast as the guards congratulated the returning warriors and mages. She trailed through the streets, ever farther from the boisterous congratulatory party that grew in size as those who knew Randon joined him in celebration. They turned the corner, then crowded into the small cloth shop, and there she stopped, tears filling her eyes. No. She couldn’t go there.

She backed slowly away, blinded by tears, seeking a dark corner, a place to hide before she was missed. Stumbling as she backed into a cart, she sightlessly groped around it, back into a darkened corner of the shed it sat before. There, the tears fell again, and she did nothing to stop them. A fist pressed to her mouth to block sobs that might escape and cause anyone to look in her direction. She knelt in the darkness, rocking back and forth like the mourner at the wailing wall, tears streaming down her cheeks.

His smile faded as he realized that she was not among the small crowd in the cramped dye shop. Sinaedh had seemed distant lately, and Randon had guessed that she was carrying a burden that she was not quite ready to share. But he new her as well (or better) than anyone else, and he knew that sometimes he had to pry those burdens away from her for her own good. He attempted a smile to each of his friends that had gathered in the small shop as he excused himself and stepped out onto the cobblestone street.

The mercenary peered with hawklike concentration through the faces passing up and down the crowded street until he caught the flash that he needed; a flash of flame-red hair moving into a secluded and shadowed corner. He silently made his way across toward her, and found her on her knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing. With a sad frown he approached and laid a gauntleted hand gently on her shoulder, attempting to comfort the woman who he had taken into his life as a sister when they were children.

"Sister," he said softly, "what weight do you carry that has your heart torn so?"

Slowly, she turned as he helped her to her feet. Her legs still weak under her, she embraced the mercenary, her returning sobs making the words difficult to understand.

"Sanders...they...they..."

As Randon held her out at arms length she drew a hankerchief from her beltpouch, and opened its folds to reveal what it was covering. A cross, stained with blood, and the ring that Sinaedh had shown Randon on the day of her wedding outside the abbey, before he had walked her down the aisle in the stead of her father. They had belonged to the man she had wed that day. Now they served as a memorial. With glassy eyes he pulled her back to his chest, as her sobbing began anew.

"Who did this?" he whispered through clenched teeth, his anger rising.

Sinaedh pulled away from him, wiping her eyes and attempting to regain her composure.

"Tell me who has done this thing, who has caused you such pain. When I finish with them they will know the true meaning of suffering! They will beg for their end, but it will not come quickly, I vow to you!!"

She dropped her gaze to the ground as his voice escalated. Only then did he realize that he had lost his composure. He glanced at the people passing by in the street, all of whom had also dropped their gaze and quickened their pace a bit, eager to be about their own business.

"I...I do not know who would do such a thing, Brother Randon," she said meekly, "I only know that he is...gone." Tears streamed down her already tear-stained cheek, and he did what he had done so many times before. The rough, battle-scarred warrior gently lifted her chin to look into her eyes.

"I am sorry for your loss, sister. I can only do what I know to do. Please trust me in this."

She nodded deliberately and pressed a folded piece of parchment into his hand. From the corner of his eye he saw another friend approaching. "You must tell her," he whispered. "Her words will be of more comfort than that of a tired old warrior."

He brought the corners of his mouth up in an attempted smile as Christiana approached, a look of concern on her face. Sinaedh nodded to Randon as he turned to take his leave, nodding in turn to each of the ladies.

He pulled the hood of his cloak over his head as the air above him rumbled and lightning began to streak across the sky, dusk approaching. The parchment still in his hands, he made his way to the dark alley that concealed the entrance to the Guild of Shadows. He had envisioned this day much differently than it had turned out to be; instead of breaking his ties with the guild that had trained him to be the efficient killer (and sometimes thief) that he was, he was about to bind himself even more closely to them for the sake of another. Before releasing the catch that would open a concealed door and allow him passage into the building, he paused and glanced up at the forboding black clouds that had invaded and conquered a previously blue sky. His sister was standing on a precipice, and more than one storm was brewing tonight.

"Come in, come in...Master Redpath," Falton spoke in a snake-like hiss.

Randon had wanted this day to be different; had wanted to finally sever his ties with the outcast guild that had trained him for so long. He did not regret the skills he had learned under the stern tutelage of Master Falton and the others of his rank, but he deeply lamented the price he had paid for those lessons: the blight it had put on his soul; the calluses it had put on his conscience. Yes, he had pictured this meeting a thousand times in his thoughts. He had even readied his words for the moment, but fate, it seemed, had different plans. Thunder boomed outside and shook dust from the rafters that held back the earthen ceiling of the dark tunnel where Randon faced his mentor. He spoke, but not the words he had hoped to be speaking.

“I have need of information,” he began, “about the death of my sister’s husband.” Falton lifted an eyebrow and cocked his head toward Randon in a gesture of surprise at the mercenary’s words. Apparently he had been expecting something altogether different from what he was hearing. “His name was Sanders Cavendish; he was a cleric of the church, and was murdered in cold blood with this note left for his bride to find.” Randon thrust the note at his mentor, urging him to have a look. “I need to find out who did this. I must exact punishment for this deed.”

“Punishment, eh?” Falton asked with a slight chuckle. He quickly narrowed his eyes and his tone became somber. “You know that information does not come without a price, mercenary. You will be further indebted to the guild, you understand. You will not be released of your duty to us.” A smile spread across the lips of the Master, no doubt already devising ways to use Randon’s skills to his own benefit, never mind the guild.

Randon peered into the face of his mentor and wanted nothing more than to slice the man’s throat and leave him to rot in the tunnel, but he had higher obligations than himself. He had put ending Sinaedh’s suffering above his own, and he meant to go through whatever was needful to finish it. “I understand, Falton,” he said with as much resolve as he could muster, “and I will do what I must to satisfy my debt for this.”

Master Falton grinned and folded the note, placing it in the pocket of his belt pouch, having never looked at it. “Return at sundown in two days. I shall have an answer for you, I am sure.” He turned on his heels and walked away from Randon, back into the shadows that had no doubt birthed him.

Two days. The mercenary would return, but for now he could do nothing but attempt to keep his sister comforted and surrounded by friends. Then this would end. But his torture would not. Would it ever?

The mercenary sat the mug down on the worn mahogany bar and tossed the barkeep a silver piece with a nod.

“Off to the frontier again, Master Randon?” Duncan asked with a slight frown.

“Where I’m off to is my own business, barkeep,” he replied curtly as he spun and headed for the door.

Duncan stood for a moment in stunned silence, watching the warrior stalk out of the tavern. In all the years they had known each other, Randon had never been short or abrupt with Duncan. The keeper of the tavern that the Company had informally adopted as their makeshift home was not even aware that the mercenary had it in him to be so calloused for no apparent reason. Little did he know the torment that the previous two days had brought to Randon.


The mile wall seemed barren of any and all signs of life as he approached, but he knew better. The structure had been erected shortly after the death of Arthur to bottleneck the armies of the Norse (who had dramatically increased their attacks once they received news of the fallen king) and give the defenders the upper hand in slowing the invading hordes. No hordes were pouring through today, although they would have met no resistance, apparently, had they decided to attack. Randon’s eyes darted to and fro as he climbed the creaky wooden steps to the lookout tower on top of the wall, checking for any movements that might give a hidden enemy away. Noticing nothing awry, he slowly opened the door to the tower and entered, suddenly with the tip of a sword pressing against the skin of his throat. As he shifted his eyes to the wall next to him, he released the grip on the hilts of his swords.

The armsman breathed a sigh of relief as he sheathed his sword. Randon frowned slightly as he clasped the forearm of his brother in arms.

“Rhyllan, what are you doing out here alone?”

“I could ask the same of you, brother. I….needed some time to myself,” Rhyllan replied.

The mercenary nodded slowly, looking to the floor. “As did I.” Randon walked to the wall and peered out through the slits that allowed sight into the Norse side of the wall. “Any sign of the enemy, vigilant one?”

Rhyllan shook his head. “Not all day.” Randon noticed that the armsman looked worn and weary.

“I’m relieving you of duty, General,” Randon said with a wink. “Take yourself to Benowyc and get a hot meal and some rest. I can keep watch.”

The armsman sighed and nodded. “Aye, I suppose you can, for a bit. I’ll return soon.”

The mercenary nodded and ushered Rhyllan out of the tower. “Godspeed to you, brother.”

Randon watched as his friend walked down the dusty road back toward Caer Benowyc, noticing a slight limp that the armsman had developed from the many wounds he had received over the years on the battlefield. The mercenary rubbed his shoulder, wincing slighty. “Aye, my brother,” he said softly, “old warriors are the hardest to kill, indeed.”

There was no warning before Randon felt the cold metal enter his side, puncturing through his armor and skin. Had the kobold assassin’s strike been true, and had not been stopped by a rib, the mercenary would have surely met his end. As quickly as the blade entered, Randon spun around, throwing his knee up and into the face of his attacker, causing bone and cartilage to snap, and stunning the kobold. Just as quickly, Randon had drawn both of his own blades and moved in for the kill. The assassin was still reeling as Randon brought both of his blades down in a crossing pattern across the blue-skinned throat, spilling the kobold’s lifeblood onto the already blood-stained floorboards. Rage burned in the mercenary’s eyes; then he felt the poison, and his vision blurred. He sheathed his swords, staggering toward the tower door.

You fool, he thought to himself, Sinaedh is depending on you. How could you put yourself in harm’s way knowing that?

His strength draining, the mercenary stumbled and tripped halfway down the stairs, collapsing to the ground. His breath was coming in short gasps. As the world around him faded into darkness, he noticed a cloaked form running toward him, screaming his name.

((there was more to this, written by Randon I think, but unfortunately I have lost it. If I find it I will put it here.))
 
 
Onward Eris' Handmaiden

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