A small crowd of figures in dark hoods almost blocked the form of a flailing woman being pinned to the ground. Fury burst through my veins and carried me forward. Quill reached the crowd first and hurled one man into another before hammering his fist into the temple of a man holding a knife. The man fell, driven to the cobbles with all the momentum of Quill’s charge. Angry cries rose from the crowd—which faltered when I hit their flank and dropped two more with my knives before they could think. There had to be fifteen or twenty people in this mob. Almost two dozen people who not only knew about the murders but helped. I ducked a punch from a big man and sliced Azzad across his chest without remorse. Their matching cloaks and—were those candles? —certainly confirmed our ritual theory. I spun and clubbed the next person on the head, “Eliah!” I shouted. I hoped she was already on her way.
I barely saw the jug before a cloud of ash hit me full in the face—it was enough to seal my nostrils and spare my lungs, but my eyes stung. I recoiled, softening the blow that immediately followed the jug. Someone else swung at me from behind but I dodged and, eyes closed, spun a knife into their midsection. The startled grunt was gratifying. Knife fighting blind was not ideal and relied hard on instinct and speed. So, I didn’t think—I daren’t think—I just moved. I heard the moans of the wounded, the slap of boots on cobblestones, the heavy breath and whoosh of air of someone furious swinging for me. I heard the sobbing of the woman—why hadn’t she fled yet? I heard shouts as Eliah and my brother, Ayglos, joined the brawl. And I moved. I moved, striking hard and fast, ducking and spinning and striking again, until I felt space clear around me.
I stood for several heartbeats, Shiharr and Azzad ready, waiting for something else to come at me.
There was nothing but moans and the last sounds of a scuffle some distance away.
“Zare, you alright?” Eliah’s voice.
Straightening, I shifted my knives to one hand and used the other to wipe at my face.
“Stop, stop!” Eliah’s voice was closer, and in a breath, she’d caught my wrist and pulled my hand from my face. I heard fabric tearing and then flinched as she—none too gently—began to wipe the ash off my face. “Your hand is bloody, you’ll just make a bigger mess if you try to clean yourself,” she said.
“Butcher,” I managed, with the last air from my lungs. I kept my nostrils sealed as Eliah worked, despite the fact that it severely limited my ability to complain.
“I’ve had hounds that wiggle less than you,” Eliah sounded quite cheerful. “Smells like someone cleaned their kitchen hearth for this murder.”
She stepped away and I inhaled at last. “Lovely: Greasy murder ash.” I lifted my eyelids, blinking away the sting.
Eliah was standing directly in front of me, her own harlot dress slipping off her shoulder, her face scrunched up critically. “You look awful,” she pronounced, then started using the rag to clean her own savage knife.
“Thanks,” I replied. My hands and knives were slick with blood, and I tried to wipe them clean on my dress—which was also filthy—while I looked around. Sad light from poorly maintained streetlamps illuminated a tableau of bodies—some of them dead, most of them wounded and moaning. My brother was prowling the carnage, dressed like workman but carrying a naked sword and looking terrifying as he pommel-clubbed anyone who tried to get up and run.
Quill was crouched over the prone woman.
“Find us some rope, Eliah. We’re going to need a lot more than we thought.” I crossed the battleground as Eliah snorted. When I reached Quill and the woman, I knelt at her shoulder, “Are you alright?” She didn’t have any enormous wounds I could see, at least.
She blinked up at me, her lips were trembling and she made no attempt to speak. Bruises mottled her pale skin. I felt an urge to stab more people.
“I think she might’ve been kicked in the head. Or she might be drugged. Or both,” said Quill, his glance turned into a frown as he took in my new ghoul-of-ash look, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” I assured him. “They brought a bucket of ash their murder.”
Quill’s gaze sharpened. We were both remembering the grisly mess we’d found in the Queen’s chambers in Dalyn years ago.
“What about you?” I asked.
He lifted his hands to show me the blood on his knuckles—it was just dark splotches in this light, but I knew what it was.
“Aren’t you carrying knives?” I asked.
“I am. But I wanted to use my fists,” he let coldness into his voice, and it made me love him even more. Quilleran Rhydderick was not a vengeful man, but he was a just one. His righteous fury was something to behold. It probably shouldn’t make my heart beat faster. Perhaps I’d been a mercenary too long.
Turning my focus back to the woman, I tried to look gentle and unthreatening. “I’m going to touch your head to see if you’re bleeding, alright?” I waited for her to acknowledge, and I was pretty sure she nodded. I put my hands on either side of her temple and carefully turned her head to examine the side and back. The darkness made it difficult to tell if the shadows in her hair was blood or grime, and I didn’t dare check with my grubby fingers lest I make her wounds worse. I gave up on her head and did a quick check for broken bones or big gashes on the rest of her. Rope hung loose around her wrists, someone—Quill, most likely—had already cut her free. “Can you sit up?” I asked.
Woodenly, she accepted my help to sit up. It was like moving an oversize doll and made me uneasy. Once upright, she looked around the street at the carnage of her attackers. Drawing up her knees, she hunched over herself, and started to cry. Relieved to see movement and emotion, I sat down on the cobbles next to her and looked over at Quill, “I’ll stay with her.”
He nodded and got to his feet. “I’ll finish this.”
By the time Eliah returned with rope and a few men from the Guard, Ayglos had brought over one of the dark cloaks to wrap around the woman’s shoulders and she’d also accepted my arm around her. While they were shackling the living, a cart arrived for the dead. The Guard were understandably taken aback by the situation. No one had expected a mob. But the cloaks, the ash, the wicked looking dagger Quill held up to the streetlight to inspect…it was enough to make anyone’s skin crawl.
Eventually, I persuaded the woman to her feet and steered her through the cobble streets of the Stone Quarter until I reached Valeria’s shop. It was close to dawn, and the few people who were about were either drunk, or on their way to work. Only one or two looked closely enough to even wonder at the state of two ill-dressed women spattered with blood. I was both irritated and relieved by the time I banged on Valeria’s door.
Valeria had dark, wrinkled, skin and hair that was white with age. Her eyes were sharp, though; she saw the blood immediately and was unsurprised. “Did you get the bastard?”
“Bastards,” I corrected. “Yes. Send for your doctor, though. We think she hit her head, or was drugged, or both.”
“Set her in the kitchen,” ordered Valeria, before disappearing to roust her assistants.
There was a long table with benches in the kitchen, and I helped the woman sit down. She lay her torso on the table and lay her head on her arms. Satisfied she wouldn’t fall off her seat, I turned to deal with the fire. Valeria entered the kitchen and watched, her arms crossed over her dressing gown. Fire building wasn’t my best skill, but I prevailed and coaxed a respectable blaze to life.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Valeria, walking forward. “I don’t want you touching it with those hands.”