An excerpt from

Blackthorn

Amanda Lloyd Jennings and Samantha Jennings

Darkness was his friend, engulfing him like a cloak as he squatted in the shadow of the chimney stack on the rooftop. He felt safe, secure. Even from the watchful eyes of the Watch tower two streets away, bathed in the rays of the setting sun as the wood-shingled and slate roofs caught the light. Nothing frightened him in the dim light, for he was darkness itself. His name was darkness: Blackthorn. His clothes were dark as night, blacks and browns, and tight fitting. His hood was pulled over his head and a mask over his face. Only his eyes were visible, with soot smudged around them to hide his pale skin in the shadow of night. He moved around in the shadows, keeping his eyes on his mark in the dimming distance.

The twin moons – one the colour of red mist – that brightened with every inch the sun dissipated behind the peaks of the snow-caped Eswyr Mountains to the west, clung to the greying aether as if appeased of the golden orb’s departure. The city was slowly cloaked under cover of profound darkness. Yellow glows sporadically illuminated from open windows as city dwellers and servants lit their candles. Men wandered the streets with glowing metal rods lighting street lanterns.

Blackthorn stared intently at the merchant down in the street as he walked from the market place towards his usual tavern, the Witches Brew. His orders were simple: take out the merchant, Thadrick, before he made contact with his Sneaker. The Sneakers ran the underworld in Hale, a fair city once, long before the Great War from the north started, but now it was just another hellhole of rat-infested, shitty streets. Unless, of course, you lived in the rich district.

Blackthorn watched them now, scurrying around like ants in the dirt. But the rats that he thought of were not the four-legged kind. They were the scum, the worst kind of rat, because they carried the plague of treachery and corruption, which ate at the very heart of the city. Not just spies after information. No. This information would cost the lives of hundreds or even thousands of innocents. The sort of plague that ate everything in its wake as it swept across the land, taking what it wanted, and not just the old or the sick, it took children too, something which he found repulsive. Even slavers feared this plague of vermin. Only death would win this particularly savage game.

The victims would be taken, sorted, and disposed of according to what was acceptable to the cause. Children were brainwashed and retrained to fight against their own people. Even their own families would not recognize them after their Cleansing, as it was called. King Tyrus had been fighting this infection for what seemed like a lifetime. Far from the east they came, wiping out whole districts as they went, and even some of the smaller countries had succumbed to their plunder and destruction. News had reached Blackthorn that some of the agents of the feared Hadrin Ra were here in the city. Nameless agents of death roaming free, seeking to pull down key members of state.

His mark walked through Bow Street as he headed towards Bakers Street. Blackthorn had tailed him all day, watching him from the shadows. Thadrick had met with his usual fellow merchants, traded a few choice pieces for some other worthless trinkets, and then moved onto his stall at the market place. He had spent most of the day pushing his wares on the unsuspecting public, trading away their hard-earned money. A necklace to make you feel god’s love, a pin which marked you out for god’s undivided attention, as if they had nothing else to do but seek out the poor bugger who would buy such worthless pieces of metal.

Thadrick moved away, veering off to his favourite haunt, the Witches Brew. He knew this because he had been trailing him for three days now, and each day Thadrick had kept to a repetitive routine nearly every day, except that he made plans to meet with his Sneak tonight and pass on what knowledge he had gained.

Blackthorn eyed the next rooftop of wooden shingles, and when he saw that no one was looking his way, he moved with the skill of years in his profession. He was one of the best in his field of expertise, moving and killing silently. However, he needed his mark to talk first, or he could have taken him out long ago.

Thadrick was at the junction of Bridge Street and Little Tongue Street, a well-known hive for muggers and pickpockets alike. But they had become wary of Thadrick, as he had shown himself to be full of surprises and not without skill of tongue. The sun would be setting soon, and the long dark shadows would reach across to even him. It was time to move.

Jumping from rooftop to rooftop, Blackthorn kept out of sight, and moved with the silence and agility of a cat. He was light on his feet, even for a big man as himself. He had learnt over the years that if you wanted to survive, you had to be silent as well as deadly, or you became the victim.

Thadrick whistled an old tinker’s tune, but it was strained, even to Blackthorn’s ears. He displayed behaviour of someone nervous and anxious, fearful even, looking behind himself continuously, as he turned each corner, getting closer to his destination. Far across the city the bells rang out eight times, signalling that it was time for the Night Watch to come on duty. Timing would be of the essence, and he could not afford to miss this window of opportunity.

Blackthorn dropped down into an alley, shrouded in darkness. The alley was just ahead of Thadrick, by twenty paces. Blackthorn leaned from the shadows and peered at the merchant, who was twirling something on a chain attached to his waistcoat of fine cloth. Was it a key? Blackthorn could not tell from this far away. He paid it no mind. It was not his primary goal. Focus, he told himself. Lose focus and you’ve lost your advantage, lose advantage and you’ve lost the game. But this was no game. To lose the game was to die or be captured by an agent, either way, you’re dead. And dead is dead.

Ten paces. Blackthorn fingered his short blade. He made sure not to touch the point as it was laced with poison, and he always wore thick dark gloves. He made sure he had the antidote with him at all times, just in case.

He checked the alley and the street for movement other than Thadrick and found none. His senses told him that it was clear. Unlike the past few days, when his mark walked with the air of confidence and bravado befitting an experienced merchant, his behaviour changed to that of a man carrying a nervous disposition, with almost the look of desperation etched into his features.

A noise sounded in the dark and Thadrick’s head snapped around to his left, his hand reaching into his waistcoat. A cat jumped down from a low roof and disappeared into the darkness. He blew out a sigh of relief, then continued down the alley. Thadrick was no fool, his eyes were scanning all around him, and he was armed with a long-bladed scimitar. A favourite weapon of the Edean traders. No doubt he had other knives concealed elsewhere upon his person as well.

Five paces. Voices sounded of drunkard cheer further up the street from the direction of the Inn. The sun had completely disappeared behind the mountains, its light that had cast over the city moments before was now faded to little more than a glowing orange line across the mountain’s snowy peaks. The low light of dusk cloaked the city in its shroud of grey, as the shadows grew deeper and wider. He made sure his mask was secured and his hood pulled tight. Nothing must give him away before he struck. He flattened himself against the wall, dark shadow engulfing him completely. Step, step, step. Thadrick’s large bulk wobbled across the alleyway entrance as he headed down the street. Blackthorn moved silently. He waited until Thadrick had passed him by and, with stealth born from skill surviving the dark shadows, Blackthorn struck.

Lightning fast reflexes motivated him. His hand snaked round and clamped tightly upon Thadrick’s mouth, the other grabbing his sword hand and bending it behind his back in a painful hold. With strength even a Numarian wrestler would be proud of, he half dragged, half guided his victim into the deeper shadows of a narrow passage that swallowed them both from sight.

Thadrick tried to wiggle free, his left hand reaching to grab behind him, but Blackthorn’s hold on his bent arm tightened and he gasped with a gurgle as his body stiffened with pain. Blackthorn made sure that Thadrick did not see him as he faced his victim to the wall.

Releasing his hand from Thadrick’s mouth, Blackthorn showed him the blade. The low moonlight caught it and the green substance staining the tip of the steel. Thadrick suddenly stopped thrashing around as he became attentive to the situation.

“I was going to pay him at the end of this week-” Thadrick squeaked.

“I’m not interested in your gambling debts,” Blackthorn hissed in his ear.

Sweat ran down Thadrick’s face, as he realized that he was in a situation far more dangerous than he thought. “What do you want,” he asked. “Who are you?”

“I want to know what you know.”

“About what? I don’t know anything, I swear.” Thadrick licked his dry lips.

“You were going to see your Sneaker tonight, what were you going to tell him and to who?” Blackthorn twisted Thadrick’s arm when he did not reply immediately.

The merchant yelped, then said in a high-pitched voice, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know any Sneakers.”

“Don’t lie to me!” Blackthorn growled with disgust. “You’re selling information to Vaǵa. What is it?” When Thadrick did not answer, Blackthorn raised the dagger to his eye. “You know what’s on this blade, don’t you? One small scratch and pain in seconds . . . death in minutes.” Blackthorn let the threat hang in the air. Almost everyone in Thadrick’s profession knew what venom of the Corbran snake looked like, and what it could do.

“I. . . I wasn’t . . .” Thadrick stammered, his body shaking.

“You fat fool! What did you think was going to happen? Did you really believe that we would leave your tongue unchecked, divulging secrets you’ve learned to him? He uses people like you, then he spits you out like the vermin you are. Why do you think there are so many bodies floating in the river? He kills those he cannot trust, and he trusts no one.”

Thadrick started blubbing as the facts sunk in. He knew now just who had him at knife point. He did not need to know his name, only that he was one of the Nighthawks - agents of the king, feared throughout the kingdoms for their skills and torture techniques.

Blackthorn tightened his grip on Thadrick’s arm and brought the knife closer to his neck. Thadrick gasped as he felt the blade’s edge upon his flesh. “Alright,” he breathed, “alright, I was going to see my Sneaker. He’s waiting in the Witches Brew.”

“Go on,” said Blackthorn thickly, as Thadrick paused.

“I don’t know much, only that someone is in the city, someone from the south. They’re looking for . . . needing information about King Tyrus’ movements. I was told to give him something. That’s all I know, I swear.”

“That’s not hard, anyone can know where he is; they only need to see where his guards are.”

“No, they want to know his plans, his whereabouts, where he will be.”

Blackthorn grew silent as he thought. His mind raced at what this could mean. Assassination. It stank of it. He had to find out all he could and quickly. “And what is his name, this Sneaker you were going to meet tonight?”

“I can’t tell you, they’ll kill me.”

“I’ll kill you if you don’t!” growled Blackthorn impatiently. “So talk, or it won’t be pretty what’s left of you.”

“I-I can’t.” Thadrick whimpered. “Do what you have to.”

Blackthorn fell silent, realizing now the reason why the merchant has kept back his tongue. “Your family,” he said quietly, almost a whisper. He slackened the grip on Thadrick’s arm slightly, who nodded. It put a whole different perspective on the situation: kidnap the target’s family and they will do anything to protect them, even if it meant it could lead to their own death. It was a price, it seemed, the merchant would gladly pay in exchange for his family’s safety.

Emotions clouded Blackthorn’s thoughts. Anger, hatred, sadness, regret. They were all things he felt as he was faced with a similar predicament, only the difference was, it was not his family threatened at the end of a blade. The king’s life for Thadrick’s family. The king’s life always came first, but every time he had difficulty justifying the death of innocent women and children. When the sounds and voices of other people drifted down towards them from the street, Blackthorn moved Thadrick further down the darkened passage. Pale moonlight shined off the cobblestone ground and rooftop ridges and shingles.

“What information were you to give this Sneaker?” he asked forcefully.

Thadrick hesitated, and then his shoulders sagged against the wall as his situation came clear to him. His eyes were downcast and his body fell limp like a man filled with lost hope. He was a man who felt he had no way out; to be handed over to the king’s guard, branded a traitor and then killed, sentencing his family to certain death, was no option for him and Blackthorn knew this. With difficulty, and another twist of Thadrick’s arm, the merchant produced a small piece of folded paper from his pocket.

Blackthorn relaxed his hold on Thadrick and snatched the paper. He let go of Thadrick’s arm and backed away far enough to read what was on the paper in the dim light. The ink was pale and the markings small, but what caught his attention was that it was in a hand he did not recognize. He could read three different languages and speak five, but this was something else, a form of odd-shaped symbols – a script he had never seen before.

A faint rasp of steel sliding against a scabbard rung through the silence. “Kill the merchant: those were my orders,” Blackthorn said, as his steely eyes met Thadrick’s. The merchant had his hand tucked into his jacket, obviously holding the hilt of his sabre, and froze at the Nighthawk’s stare. “Do you know why you’re still alive?” Thadrick swallowed hard and slowly shook his head. “It is because I find myself in a position to help you and your family, in exchange for your services to the king. Your mark will be lifted and you will no longer be branded a traitor. Your choice.”

Thadrick faltered, his hands trembling. After a moment, he slid his sword back into its sheath, and sighed heavily. With a shaky voice, he said, “W-What do I have to do?”

“Tell me what you know, then meet with this Sneak tonight, but,” Blackthorn said, emphasizing the last word, “tell him that the man they are waiting for has been . . . delayed.”

Thadrick suddenly stood with his back straight. His face brightened with hope. However, as quickly as it had come, it passed. “B-But what about my family? Without the note they are as good as dead.”

“With or without, it makes no difference, they could die anyway, even if you do everything they ask,” Blackthorn said bluntly. Fear shined in Thadrick’s eyes and swept over his face. “Do you usually give notes to him?”

“N-No,” the merchant stammered, swallowing past the iron lump in his throat, “this is the first time. I can’t even read it. It’s just meaningless gibberish.”

“Not to them it isn’t; its meaning is important to someone.” Blackthorn thought for a moment. This was critical, one wrong move and everything could fall apart. He looked up at Thadrick and said, “Tell your Sneaker, you have to meet up with this southerner before he will give you more, and that he requires proof of who he is dealing with. That should buy us more time, for now.”

“But what sort of proof? I don’t know what to ask for,” whined Thadrick.

“The Sneakers have a symbol they use that is usually given out only by one of the higher members, and they’ll have to meet up before they can decide upon that cause of action.” Blackthorn eyed the merchant curiously, wondering whether he was up to the task laid before him. “Vaǵa will have to be informed first, so it’s your job to make sure you insist that this man has the proof he needs, or he will leave, understand?”

“I . . . I understand, I think.” Thadrick said, his voice trembling. He seemed nervous and unsure of himself, his eyes glancing down at the ground. “But, what if they don’t buy it?” He looked at Blackthorn with soulful eyes. “My family’s lives are at stake,” he continued, “and mine, for that matter,” he added as an afterthought.

Blackthorn knew exactly how the merchant felt; to learn of his family’s abduction and to be used against him was a hard notion to accept.

“You sell trinkets to the people every day for money, I’m sure you can find the right words to sell your Sneaker a piece of information. The price is just a lot higher. Besides, you’re used to selling lies, so lie convincingly.” Blackthorn slipped the note into his pocket and turned to leave, saying over his shoulder, “Leave your family to me. Meet me here tomorrow night at the same time, and don’t be late.”

Blackthorn left Thadrick staring after him and disappeared into the shadows. He had to meet up with someone and quickly.