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Chapter 1

The inky blue-black sky began to lighten into a cold bright blue. It touched the wooden thatched houses and lit the empty-stalled market. Its pale glare woke sleeping animals and snuck into vegetable gardens plucked completely bare. The light seemed to reach everywhere but the dark, thick forest. The pines and cedars that engulfed the Kingdom of Twickerth could grow to over 60 feet; these trees were both prized and uprooted, as wood was the industry of the kingdom. However, the cutters were careful with their felling, the tree must be allowed to re-grow less the wood and work disappear. ‘The tree may be cut but the forest must remain’ was the common saying. This wood would soon be felled again but for now these tall trees provided a line of cover surrounding their target, the village of Twickgrove.

“Dawn has come and soon they will all awake.” The speaker was tall, with a bald head and dark skin. He was dressed in simple black cloth and black leather with no armour other than a mail vest and crude pot helm. It was no different for most of the company of men he had joined, poorly fitted out for the work ahead, unlike the leaders. The company had been created by five leaders and these men were known as the five heads. The purpose of the company was simple: they were swords for hire, usually hired for distasteful work.

 The dark-skinned man had been granted the rank of second commander, which meant only the commanders and leaders were above him, but it also placed him in the front line. Just to the left of him were the five leaders of the company, who were in front only because of their rank and not because they would be in the thick of the fight. The leaders were a mixture of men; short, tall, white, dark, fat and thin, but all had an air of menace. Their garb was similar, black and simple, but the five heads also wore finer pieces of armour and even fine pieces of jewellery; this was their method of keeping their wealth close to their person. The dark man was new to the company, so had no such wealth to display. He had needed work and they had been recruiting fighters who weren’t afraid of blood, and he had very little fear in his life at all. The conscription had gone well; an additional 20 or so men had been gathered to the company ranks. Each new recruit had been further tested in skill of arms and general intelligence. The results of this test determined their place and rank. As a son of a knight the dark man had gained rank but not respect. None of the new recruits were trusted, they would have to show their commitment first.

“A pointless statement,” one of the nearby leaders barked back, responding to the dark-skinned man’s words. This man was tall, with a square jaw and small sharp eyes and looked like a leader to the young, dark man.

“Perhaps, but it has poetry, Finish, that you can’t deny.” Finish was not the leader’s true name but that was the only name he used. That was the way of the company, only nicknames were used, and each man guarded his true name as closely as he guarded his life. The nicknames were given to each new man by the other members of the company once they had drawn their first blood and earned it. The dark man did not have a name yet, nor did the other newcomers, but the coming battle would create them, or kill them.

The leader, Finish, spat over the side of his horse.

“Pretty words hold no more weight than ugly ones,” he spoke in a snarl.

“They will wake, but this will be their last sunrise.” A nearby commander spoke in a greedy voice. His hair was long and matted, which had earned him the uninventive name of Tangle. Finish turned to look at the commander and tilted his head. This action instantly caused commander Tangle to salute and walk on. The dark man had read the same message in that unusual gaze, this was a conversation for the five heads alone. The leaders continued to discuss matters in low voices, ignoring the men and the men respectfully ignored the leaders in return.

“Waiting is thirsty work,” a skinny man to the dark man’s right said. He then pulled out a large flask and offered it round the men closest to him. The dark man didn’t know the skinny man’s nickname, if he had one yet, so he chose to refuse the drink but didn’t discourage the others from accepting the offered flask. One man drunk repeatedly, swigging deeply at the liquid. The men around him laughed at his behaviour.

“Enough,” Finish’s voice rang out loud and clear. Silence fell instantly, the authority audible. “Soused men will die fast, we need our wits about us, our sober wits.” Finish turned to another commander nearby. “Wisdom, make sure the lines are in perfect formation, no mistakes. We won’t get a second chance at this.” Commander Wisdom set off, riding his black and white patched horse, splattering mud on those behind him. Wisdom the dark man knew had been here sometime, the leaders had sent him ahead to gather knowledge of their target. His report had been very detailed, including that he had often spent his time here wet through. Their journey, too, had been slow and wet, the rain had plagued them since arriving in this land. A bad sign some men muttered, the dark skin man didn’t care for talk of signs though and soon stopped the muttering.

All ten of the commanders were wandering the lines now, checking each man in turn. In total there were around ninety of them, the dark skin man had counted. The commanders looked to one another, nodded, and then saluted to the leaders. The company was ready.

“We should have gone already; throat slitting is nights’ work,” the fourth leader spoke out in a nervous spew. He was short and full of anger and for unknown reasons bore the nickname Frost.

“You lost this debate already, killing breeds chaos and we will embrace that chaos. We have the numbers and caution is not our purpose here.” Finish spoke clearly and, not for the first time, the dark man wondered what their purpose was here. To deal death to all who lived and breathed in the village, that was all he had been told. It was all any of them seemed to know. He was intelligent enough to know it would be dangerous to ask more, the company did not trust him yet. He knew for a fact that the more seasoned members and leaders of the company had taken bets on which of the new recruits would be killed and which would run. For some reason he was a favourite for running by many of them, he couldn’t fathom why. The dark man was not frightened or weak willed, he had long ago learned who he was. He was not a knight like the other men of his family, he didn’t get to carry that honour. He carried death, that was what they said, and if he carried death why not deal it.

They waited until the sun was high in the sky and the morning was well underway before moving.

“We need the people out of their homes where we can reach them,” the first leader had insisted. “Raiding house to house is too slow.” So once the market was open and the village was fully awake, they fell upon its people. The cobbles of the village ran red with the thick blood and the sound of screams echoed from every house and street. Some of the villages fought back, some were armed, some found crude weapons and others used their fists. It made no difference, in the end they died just the same. The company losses were few, but there were losses, as predicted, not that the commanders cared unless they lost their bets. When the work was done Finish arrived to finish those who were still dying. The dark-skinned man did not baulk, just as he knew he wouldn’t, he stood and watched as Finish did his work. Then he felt something grab his ankle and raised his sword. He looked down on a fallen man clutching a young child, probably his son. The boy was already dead, his head a red ruin, but the man had slow-bleeding wounds. One shallow wound to the gut, two deep gashes along his legs and a small shallow cut to his head. But it was the look in his eyes, a deaden hollow look that held the dark man’s attention.

“Mercy, please, show mercy, please,” the father cried out, pleading. The dark man crouched down to look at him.

“Leave him, I will come to him shortly if he doesn’t do me the favour of dying first,” Finish barked at the dark man. The dark man said nothing. He put his sword away and instead pulled his knife and slid it right into the man’s heart.

“That’s all the mercy I have,” he said, not sure if he meant the words as an offering or an apology. When he stood up Finish was standing over him.

“There you go, that’s your name earned, ‘Mercy’ it is.”

“Mercy,” the dark man repeated, “seems fitting.”

“Just don’t make a habit of it.”  The dark man, now named Mercy, nodded to Finish in acceptance.

The men moved off in separate directions after this, Mercy without aim, Finish to find more dying. Mercy was heading south towards the border line which was marked by a small band of trees and a thin wooden fence. He wasn’t sure why he was moving this way, there were barely any bodies or buildings here to check. Still his feet moved until he reached the fence, he stopped there a moment knowing he couldn’t linger long. They would need to be gone soon, they could not waste time, still he lingered. At first, he didn’t know what he was looking at, but something in the trees ahead caught his attention and held it. As he stared, he spotted movement. It was slow and darting, a flickering in and out of the trees, someone was out there. He stared a while longer and made out that the fleeing figure was woman. The women had her back to him, her long light brown hair lay down her back, and she hid for a moment behind each tree before daring to move on. She was slow moving and that was clever, or he would have noticed her sooner. He knew he ought to call out or follow her, their orders had been clear, no one was to be left alive. But what did one woman matter. She was injured, he was fairly certain of that, something about the way she was moving. How far could she get, the villages of this kingdom were not close together and she had no supplies. She would not make it far. Mercy turned away and left, letting her continue her pointless escape.

When he returned to the village there appeared to be a loud argument happening.

“I told you, she’d be out in the streets.” The first man was unknown to Mercy, fair and confident and young.

“We can’t know that. We will have to search.” The second man was the commander Tangle and he spoke in a rough, barking voice.

“And how do you suggest we search for some unknown woman?” the first, confident man asked. Mercy had a sinking feeling, so he left the arguing men and entered the house which seemed to be the centre of the debate. The small wooden home consisted of two rooms. The main room was set up as the cooking and eating space with a large inbuilt fire stove. Above this there was a raised platform built around the stone chimney which held the sleeping quarters. The other room was smaller, designed for sitting and resting. In this room lay the bodies of two men. One was another new company recruit Mercy recognised and the other was a clearly villager from his clothes. Next to the bodies were two wooden axes each engraved with a name, Kenneth Shepard and Kurten Shepard, Mercy read. Family heirlooms he guessed. It was clear the man had put up a fight, but he had had no experience fighting with axes. There was blood spray over all the chairs, a knitting and embroidery basket, small carved tables and a stand that held the only book in the room. The open pages held only a few drops of blood, but it was the ornate writing that intrigued him. He approached closer to read. It was a family book containing the names and details of all the relatives; the open pages held two names: Myra Rivers and Myrbeth Shepard. Mercy couldn’t say what it was about the family home that interested him, perhaps it was because it had been so long since he had been welcomed into a home. He pocketed the book without further analysing the compulsion.

He moved back into the cooking room where the signs were of the house being hurriedly abandoned. A second door was wide open, and something was burning on the stove rack. It was clear a woman had lived in the house, too, and with these clues it wasn’t hard to guess the sequence of events. The company had converged to fight the man, while the women escaped, and this caused the argument. He went back out of the house to tell what he knew; it was possible it wasn’t the same women he saw but it seemed likely. However, when he got outside the argument was over and the men were being rounded up.

“We have lingered here too long; we need to depart now,” commander Wisdom was yelling, and the other commanders were rousing the men that were looting the houses. So he shrugged and moved out with the others. What difference would one woman make after all?

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