THINGS THAT FLIT
(c) 2007 Alex Bledsoe
I was wearing my black wool cloak, silver cloak clasp, black gambeson, my lightest chain mail under a dark jerkin, gray pants and my shiniest boots. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything a well-dressed sword jockey ought to be. I was calling on the second-richest nobleman in Muscodia.
It wasn’t technically a castle, but Lord Anthony Callendine’s ancestral home was larger and more secure than some fortresses I’d visited. A fifteen-foot stone wall topped with iron spikes surrounded it, and at each of the four corners stood a guard with sword and crossbow. Impenetrable virgin forest closed in on three sides, and only one road led to its gate. I passed through three checkpoints guarded by stiff, surly men in armor before I was ushered into the lavish garden to await the great man himself.
I perused the flowers and statuary until I realized I wasn’t alone. A beautiful girl of around twenty stood slightly hidden by a pomegranate tree and watched me. “Hello,” I said.
She stepped into the open, and a plainer view did nothing to diminish her impact. Her dress was expensive and tailored to her exquisite shape. She had red wavy hair and the kind of sultry manner that could make young men conquer the world to impress her. “Who are you?” she asked in a firm, mature voice.
Alas, I was no longer young, so her charms, while appreciated, moved me only to bow. “Edward LaCrosse. Lord Callendine sent for me.”
She looked me over with considerably less enthusiasm than I’d had for her. “And what do you do?”
“I’m a sword jockey.”
“Less than a chamberlain, more than a mercenary. I help people who don’t want to go through the proper channels.”
“And my father wants to see you.” It wasn’t a question.
I smiled. It had no appreciable effect. “You’ll have to ask him.”
“Ask me what?” a new voice said. A man with broad shoulders, flowing iron-gray hair and the kind of face only a moneychanger could love emerged from a side door. “Alicia, this is none of your concern.”
“You’re right, father,” the girl said, turned on her heel and strode away. The trail of tension she left behind her took several moments to fade.
“A strong-willed girl, like her late mother,” the man said. “I’m Lord Anthony Callendine. I assume you are Edward LaCrosse? Come, let’s sit down.”
I followed him to a bench too small for a pair of grown men to comfortably occupy. He didn’t seem uncomfortable. “Your reputation says you can be trusted with discreet tasks,” he said. “Is that true?”
“Would I tell you if it wasn’t?”
He laughed and patted my shoulder. It did not make me his pal. “Well, I suppose I must trust you, if I want this problem rectified.”
“That usually gets better results. Your summons was rather vague; what exactly is your problem?”
He tossed his gray hair dramatically. I bet he did that a lot. “There are things in that vast forest out there,” he said, and waved his hand to indicate the trees beyond the wall. “Vile, primitive things. Until recently they’ve never been an issue. Lately, however, they’ve begun approaching the house, attempting to violate the sanctity of my home. Two nights ago I found one of them in this very garden. It ran away, but I know they’re simply feeling out my defenses prior to some sort of raid or attack.”
“Things,” I repeated.
“Can you be more specific?” No matter how much money this guy had, I had better things to waste my sword arm on than varmint control.
He looked seriously into my eyes. “Trolls, Mr. LaCrosse.”
I’d had many years of practice keeping my face neutral, and at this moment it all paid off, because the urge to giggle was overwhelming. “Trolls,” I repeated, in the same grave tone.
He nodded slowly, still meeting my gaze. “Yes. Trolls.”
“Just to insure we’re talking about the same thing, you do mean the creatures that live under bridges and make travelers answer riddles.”
“The creatures that only exist in children’s stories,” I added.
“I once thought so as well. But trolls do live in my forest, and they want to get into my house.”
I nodded at the spiked wall. “You seem pretty secure.”
“The best that money can buy. And loyalty exactly worth its weight in gold. But as you know, if someone or something wants in badly enough, they’ll get in. That is why I need you, a specialist. To find out where they live and eliminate them.”
The fee he’d offered me in his summons was considerable, but I wasn’t sure it was enough to overcome my deep-seated reluctance to take advantage of the addle-brained. “Wouldn’t a hedge witch or a moon priestess be more suited to handle this?”
“No!” he almost shouted. “I mean . . . I need a specialist.” He leaned closer for emphasis, and I smelled wine on his breath. “Someone who can wipe up a problem without asking questions.”
“Half my job is asking questions.”
“Well . . . I know you can keep the answers to yourself. Princess Veronica assures me of your discretion.”
I’d once helped the teenaged princess when her dissipated older brother, heir to the Muscodian throne, had gotten into hot water with some local criminals. “So you want to know why these trolls are suddenly after you, or just get rid of them?”
“I just want to get rid of them,” he said a little too fervently.
He’d offered me a lot of money, but I couldn’t accept that much from a lunatic. Instead we contracted for my standard fee, twenty-five gold pieces a day plus expenses, and he did not hesitate when I asked for three days’ worth in advance.
Callendine assured me that the trolls would show up that night, just as they had done every night for the past week. He suggested the best place to catch them would be in this garden, and I agreed. The weather was clear and the moon was waxing toward full, so there should be plenty of light. All I had to do was sit in the dark and wait.
At sundown I picked a spot under a small tree, placed a wooden stool there and settled in, sword across my lap. I didn’t mind waiting; if I had, I’d have picked another line of work. Eighty percent of a sword jockey’s time is spent hiding and watching, one reason we have such an unsavory reputation. The other twenty percent is why we can make a decent living at it.
I’d brought my Lightning Blade brand Dwarfsplitter sword because the hilt looked impressive on my belt, but the flat-black coating on the blade meant I could also keep it unsheathed without worrying about moonlight reflecting from it. I leaned back against the tree, drew my cloak around me to break up any inadvertent human silhouette, and settled in for the night.
Sure enough, shortly after midnight, I glimpsed movement among the bushes. For a moment I wasn’t sure I’d really seen anything. Then it came again: a small crouched figure darting from shadow to shadow among the greenery, moving inexorably closer to the house. It sure looked like I imagined a troll would. I had no idea how it gotten into the garden over the wall, but if there were guards on the grounds, they were inadequate, unmotivated or conspiring with the trolls.
It took several moments, but eventually I saw the shape again, closer than I’d anticipated. It skulked out from beneath an apple tree less than thirty feet away, crouched so low it was almost knuckle-walking. As the moonlight struck it, I finally got a good look at Lord Callendine’s troll. It wasn’t what I expected.
It was a boy, maybe ten years old, naked and covered in the kind of grimy dirt you accumulate living away from civilization. He moved with feral skill, taking patient advantage of the shadows, until he stood just outside the entrance to the house itself. Here he stopped, stood erect and stared up at the dark windows.
I unbuckled my cloak, slipped silently from my hiding place and moved up behind him. I tapped him on the shoulder with my sword. “Hands up, pal.”
He whirled and rushed straight at me. I tried to turn my sword aside, but he was so fast he ran into the edge before I could react. The sound of the blade scraping along a rib was familiar from my days at the wars, but no less excruciating.
I grabbed him around the torso, pinning his arms against him. He leaped and struggled, but made only a slight whimpering sound. Between the fresh blood and the old grime he was slippery as a damn catfish and it took all I had to contain him. I dropped my sword, which made a horrendous clatter on the garden’s stone path, and used my free hand to grab a handful of the kid’s hair.
I yanked his head back and hissed, “Stop it! You’re hurt, and this isn’t helping!” He froze, so I assumed he understood me. His body trembled, which might have been the onset of shock. “What’s your name?” I whispered.
He said nothing.
“Can you speak?”
He shook his head.
“But you understand me.”
After a moment, he nodded.
I released his hair and pulled a piece of rope from the small pouch on my belt. I tied his hands behind his back, and affixed the trailing end to my right wrist. I knew a thing or two about knots, and he realized it when he tried to wriggle loose. Then I checked the wound. It wasn’t deep, but a flap of skin the size of my hand dangled over his ribs and bled freely. “Okay, buddy,” I said. “You need to get this looked at. And then you’ve got a story to tell.”
He renewed his struggles, still in utter silence except for his breathing. I grabbed his hair again. “Stop it. Whatever you’re up to, it can wait until we see about this.”
He shook his head vehemently.
“Too bad,” I said, and released my grip. He immediately ran for the wall, but the rope snapped taut and I hauled him back. Then an idea occurred to me. “Hey; you want to go home, is that it?”
He nodded slowly.
“Then take me.”
He said nothing.
“Kid, if I wanted to hurt you, I’d have stabbed you again, wouldn’t I?”
That logic got through, and he also knew he had no real choice. I retrieved my sword and let him drag me across the garden. He showed me a spot hidden by a flowering bush where he’d squirmed under the wall. I was way too old and heavy to use the same passage, so I took him out through the main gate instead. It was locked, but unguarded; that seemed especially odd given Callendine’s certainty of attack. What was he afraid the guards might see?
The boy led me unerringly down forest paths I never would’ve found at night on my own. Clearly he’d spent a lot of time, maybe his whole life, in this place. I stopped him a couple of times and checked his injury, which had stopped bleeding but must have really hurt. He made no sound of complaint. He made no sound at all.
Finally we emerged into a clearing at the heart of the forest. My prisoner stopped, stood very still and seemed to be waiting for something. As I caught my breath, a dozen more boys, all naked and filthy, scuttled out to look us over. Still more flitted through the darkness, visible only when they moved. None of them made a single vocal sound. Some were older, though none looked younger than the boy on my leash. When I could breathe regularly again I said, “Your friend here is hurt.”
A voice behind me said, “Not as much as you’re about to be. Draw your sword . . . slowly . . . and toss it in front of you.”
I did as ordered. It was a woman’s voice, and when I turned she stepped closer, yanked up my chain mail and pressed a knife tip against my stomach. “I’ll gut you like a sow,” she warned, “and what the knife doesn’t get, the poison on it will." She wore a dark hooded cloak that hid her face.
“I’ll be good,” I assured her.
She pushed back the hood. She had the lined face of middle age, but her hair was dark and straight. I recognized the crescent symbol at her neck as the sign of a moon priestess. “So who are you?” she asked.
There seemed no point in lying. “Eddie LaCrosse. Lord Callendine hired me to find out who kept breaking into his property. He told me it was trolls, but I caught this boy there tonight. We scuffled and he got hurt.”
With her free hand she took the boy’s shoulder and turned him so the moonlight fell on his injury. She dug her fingers into it, which had to be really agonizing, but the kid showed no reaction. Fresh blood where she’d dislodged the scab trickled down his hip. “He’ll live,” she said. “Not that he’d notice.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
She looked at me, gauging aspects of my personality she shouldn’t have been able to see. The insight these women possessed never failed to give me the creeps. “What do you know about your employer?”
“He’s wealthy, he has contacts in high places, and he pays his bills in advance.”
“Did you know he also likes little boys?”
“That’s not true!” another female voice cried.
Alicia Callendine emerged from the forest, a fur cape over her nightgown. “I followed you from the house,” she said. “Dad wouldn’t tell me why you were here, and I had to know what he was so afraid of. I don’t know what this . . . this person has told you, but my father doesn’t --”
The priestess cut her off. “Your father uses little boys as women. He’s been doing it for years, since even before your mother died. He buys them or steals them, and when he’s tired of them just sends them out here to fend for themselves. But not before he makes sure they can’t do any harm to him.”
She turned the boy’s face toward Alicia. There was a swollen spot at the inner corner of one eye. “See that? A thin metal spike did that. Your father drove it past the boy’s eyeball and up into his brains. Simplest thing in the world. When he pulled it out, it left this child with nothing. No memory, no ability to think, no way to survive among men, and no way to tell anyone what your father did to him. But just in case . . . .” She squeezed the boy’s cheeks, which made his mouth pop open. “He also cut out his tongue.”
I was cold inside, but Alicia was absolutely frozen, one hand to her mouth. She stepped closer, but the priestess removed her knife from me and pointed it at Alicia. “That’s close enough. Your family has done enough harm to these children. You should both leave before I forget I took a vow to harm none.”
Something occurred to me. “Why was this kid trying to break back into the house, then?”
“Who knows?” the priestess said. “With his brain scrambled, it could’ve been anything. Reflex, revenge. Even love.”
“Love?” Alicia gasped in horror.
“Your father mimics the actions of love with them. The boy might not even realize it was rape.”
“No, this isn’t possible,” Alicia said. “Not my father, not this . . . .” She sat down and began to cry.
I turned to the priestess. I felt covered in grime that had nothing to do with hygiene. “And what’s your stake in this?”
“Who else would care for them?” she said. “I bring them food, clean the ticks off them, tend to their injuries. At least here they can run free, and aren’t confined or executed as madmen.”
“Hardly.” She touched her necklace. “My job.”
“I don’t believe it,” Alicia whimpered. She hugged herself and rocked back and forth. “How could he do this? He’s a good man, an honest man.”
“He’s a murderer,” the priestess said flatly. “He’s too cowardly to actually kill them, but he’s murdered those boys just as surely as if he’d driven that spike into their hearts instead of their brains.” Then she looked at me. “And now what are you going to do?”
“Me? I was hired to get rid of the trolls. Can you promise me this boy won’t be back?”
“I’ll take him to one of our orphanages. He’s different from the others; if he can think enough to find his way back to the house, maybe he can be taught to take care of himself.”
I cut the rope from my wrist and handed the leash to her. “No more trolls. My job is done.”
“You can just walk away from this?”
I scowled. I certainly didn’t approve, but at the same time, I couldn’t right all the world’s wrongs. I’d tried that before when I was younger, and innocent people had died. “It’s more her problem than mine,” I said with a nod at Alicia.
“My father did not do this,” she insisted, but her conviction had no bite.
The priestess continued to look at me with that annoying, penetrating superiority. It was as if she knew I couldn’t let it go, even though I wanted to. Finally I said to Alicia, “Would you believe it if your father told you himself?”
Alicia blinked at this sudden, outrageous suggestion. “It’s not true, so he’d never say it.”
The priestess snorted sarcastically and asked, “And why on earth would he?”
Lord Anthony Callendine came into his drawing room clad in a full-length, wispy dressing gown that showed off his thin, pasty physique. The fire in the hearth filled the room with its glow. His face was flushed from exertion, and a wistful smile of sensual satisfaction crept over his features as he poured himself a drink.
“You and your new boy toy have fun?” I asked.
He whirled. I stepped out of the shadowy corner, his daughter in front of me. She was stripped down to her shift, her wrists were tied, and I had my hand over her mouth. I said, “Trolls, my ass. Now I know why you sent your regular guards away at night once this started; if they caught one of the boys, they might put two and two together about you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he choked out. For nobility, he was a terrible liar.
“Well, your daughter sure knows,” I continued. “And she’s pretty angry. But I’m carrying a sackful of your gold, so I’ve made sure she hasn’t told anyone else . . . so far.”
“You’re insane,” he whispered. He cut his eyes toward a bell rope in the corner that would no doubt summon help.
“Uh-uh,” I warned. “You’ve got bigger problems. Right now your little girl can still think on her own. Do you want her to stay that way, or should we use one of those spikes on that troublesome brain of hers?”
“No!” he gasped. “Please, don’t hurt her. I’ll do anything you say.”
“Where’s this week’s pleasure puppy?”
“In one of the old dungeon cells. That’s where . . . .”
“Where you keep them?”
“That’s sweet. And now your daughter knows about all that, too. Are you going to cut out her tongue like you do theirs?”
He swallowed hard, and all three of us heard both the hesitation and the dishonesty in his voice when he said, “Of course not. She’s my daughter.”
“Well, it’s your lucky day. I’m on your payroll, remember? I saved you the trouble.”
I spread my fingers over Alicia’s lips, just enough to allow the thick red liquid in her mouth to ooze out between them. I felt it drip from my hand onto the girl’s white shift.
“Alicia!” he cried, and rushed toward her. Then he stopped. He stared at her, then at me, and said very quietly, “So she . . . she can’t talk?”
I said nothing.
He licked his lips nervously. Then to his daughter he said, “It’s painless, Alicia. And quick. You won’t remember or worry about anything afterwards. And you’ll receive the best of care, I promise. I just can’t let you –-”
With a cry of rage so primal it made the hairs on my neck stand up, Alicia wrenched from my loose grasp. The rest of the tomato juice spewed from her mouth as she ran bodily into her father and drove him back against the wall. “You murderer! You pervert! How could you?”
She twisted her hands free of the ropes loosely draped around them, and pounded on him with her tiny fists. He collapsed under them, from their moral weight far more than their physical force. Finally she stopped, breathing hard and covered in sweat and fake blood. “You bastard,” she hissed one final time.
Callendine had his hands wrapped around his knees and lay huddled against the wall.
Alicia turned to me. The tomato juice made her look like a predator interrupted at feeding time. “What do I do now?”
I shrugged. “I’d make sure that boy in the basement gets somewhere safe. Otherwise . . . .”
If anyone deserved to go to prison or face the executioner’s ax it was surely this man, but I also knew people like him seldom suffered the law’s wrath. Any justice, then, would have to come from elsewhere. I met Alicia’s eyes, her innocence now replaced with something far darker. “He’s your father. And since your mother’s dead, you’re the lady of the manor. I’d say it’s entirely a family matter.”
As I rode away from the Callendine mansion that night, I thought I heard a single long, trembling scream, like a man might make as a thin spike dug all the memory and depravity from his skull. Then again, it might have just been the wind in the trees, the same wind that made shadows in the moonlight ripple so that, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw trolls, or blank-eyed feral boys, flitting through the dark.