Roger wore a large gold ring and I took it as proof of his death while my men finished off the rest of the guests and similarly robbed their belongings. I looked the ring over and I realized that I had never truly looked at gold before and the vibrancy of it astonished me. I was keenly aware of the ever-so-slight fluctuations of shade I assumed had been created by whatever the metal had been combined with to increase its strength.
The walls sighed a blood-soaked heaving sigh.
On our way out we threw the torches around the house and fled into the night. Another tossed me a bag of coins and jewelry he had collected from the dead.
I turned back to look at the blaze to see that the shades of gold stood out among the infinitely minute reds and blues and greens, and it was beautiful. I found that it reminded me of a time once that I had been talking to my father and as I looked at him, I was overcome with the feeling that I was seeing him in such a way as I had never seen him before. There had been no profound change in him and nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It was like I was simply seeing him from an angle I hadn’t encountered before, or with a light that never shone before.
I thought to ask him if he had experienced this …if he could relate to me. I thought to ask him if there were two sides to every man as there are two sides to every story. As I wondered if this was some skill I had somehow accidentally discovered the feeling faded as quickly as it had come on and, though I tried, I could never regain it, and I was again locked in my singular view, unable to escape.
As I gazed into the inferno that had been the mansion I realized that this could be bliss or destruction. This could be beauty or devastation.
Two sides to every coin, two outcomes to every story.
The smoke filled my nostrils and I told the First Three to go home, and my shadow image told them to stay and they went.
The lost souls of the recent dead swarmed around me and I told them to go home and my mirror image said stay, and they stayed.
I began to run home. Back to Turtannus. I stayed off the road.
The trees swayed and swerved and melted and whispered, and in my mind I could see myself running the other way…away from walls. Away from Brand. Away from Edwin and Marie. I am suddenly aware of the tear in my armor…the tear in my flesh…where the neck meets the breast.
And my shadow self is unharmed.
Two sides of every coin. Two outcomes to every story. Two paths to every destination.
This divergence becomes obvious to me. Becomes plain to me. I can trace every path backward, but the one ahead is more difficult. I can see a choice. The same choices we all have. Maybe Fate is not just one path. Maybe everything is not decided. Maybe each of the Norns has a separate plan for us, or maybe I’ve just slipped through the cracks.
I pull the ivory coffin out from under my shirt, where it has again made its home, and roll it between my thumb and forefinger. Am I bound by this fate or are other fates bound to me? Do I cut through this sea with my dragon’s head spewing fire before me or do I simply follow in its wake, drawn by a power greater than myself?
I continue through the forest and before long a breeze carries with it the familiar scents of the city. The coal and wood burning. The sex and the sweat. The blood and the alcohol. Even at night I can feel the warmth emanating from the thick stone walls. I can smell a baby crying and a mother’s tears…and I laugh. I stop and I laugh. A long, howling laugh from somewhere deep in my gut and I’m doubled over with tears of my own streaming down my face and I can taste them in the corners of my broken grin.
And my mirror self just watches for a while, a smirk on his face, before melding into the shadow of a tall oak.
When I’ve regained my composure I walk around to the gate on the Old Turtannus side…there would be fewer questions there.
The gate guard looks at me as I approach and he recognizes me.
“Warlock,” he says, “we were hoping you were gone for good. You’ll have to wait till the morning for me to open the gate.”
I wasn’t willing to take the risk of Reynard probing about my whereabouts so I bribed the guard with five gold coins to let me in and ten more to forget that I had come through.
By this time I was exhausted. My body felt ready for collapse yet strangely kinetic. I made my way as far as the stable where I had gutted the Fool and stopped a while to rest.
I laid my head down in the hay and watched it wriggle and squirm with life, but it didn’t bother me . Soon I fell asleep.
When I woke up the sun was bright in the sky. It was sometime after midday and I felt alright aside from some stiffness in my back and soreness where my armor had torn.
I pulled my cloak about me to hide my injury and went to pay a visit to Brand.
I walked into the usual dismal light of The Troll to find Brand upstairs, standing over a table where a man I hadn’t seen before was seated. He was pointing and yelling but I couldn’t make out what he had said and he stopped when he saw me come through the door. “We’ll finish this later,” he said to the man who had now turned to look at me, his eyes squinting in the darkness.
Brand walked over to me saying, “You look like shit, Warlock. Sit down. Have a…have a drink.” There was a nervous note in his voice that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing. He was usually brimming with confidence.
I took a seat at the bar and nodded at the barmaid who brought me my usual.
“You’re doing good, Kol…doin good…doin good,” Brand said as he patted me on the back. “This was…uh…this was an important job. That guy over there? He thinks I should dispose of you. Kill you in your sleep. Poison your mead. Something like that.”
I glanced at the drink in my hand and he chuckled, “Haha…don’t worry. I think he’s wrong. Those people you killed? You said you wanted to know right? That guy Roger? He was the leader of the Turtannus Merchant’s Guild, which is just a fancy name for more crooks and thieves. My competition…that’s all. Only they paid enough to the guards and kings and dukes or whatever to become officially sanctioned. Just more thieves in prettier clothes. That bastard Reynard’ll be here any minute I’m sure. Better hide you somewhere before he shows up.”
I handed him the ring I had taken from Roger’s dead hand and he rolled it over for a second before handing it back to me.
“I don’t want that, it’s all yours,” he said as he smiled and stood up, ushering me to the hidden basement door.
“I have somewhere to be,” I began, “I’ll stay out of trou…” and the door swung open and he pushed me inside.
“You’ll stay here until I tell you to leave.”
I’m tired…I’m always tired…and so I walk down the stairs where the large man waits before the door.
He stands up, checks me for weapons, and lets me through.
The door opens to an empty room. The chandelier has only one candle lit and it casts a dim light over the room. The empty chairs, the scarred table cast shadows across the old salt and blood stains. Water drips down from a crack in the ceiling.
Drip. Dripdrip. Drip. Dripdrip. Drip.
I walk across the room and lean against the corner, letting my back slide down the wall until my elbows are resting on my knees.
I can hear the door open upstairs followed by raised voices. The ceiling between us makes it impossible to hear what is being said. A minute later and he door at the top of the stairs opens and people come scrambling down and I swallow Roger’s ring. A second after that the door bursts open.
I don’t look up.
I hear Reynard’s voice saying, “I knew the ugly bastard was in here somewhere,” and the blood haze is creeping in.
Brand is here too and he says, “Tell him to fuck off, Kol. You’ve been here all ni…oohh,” and I look up to see him falling on the floor.
Reynard says, “I know that’s not true. I know you were outside of the city. You think a little bit of gold will buy your way out of this, you’re seriously fucking mistaken.”
He walks over to me and puts his hand under my chin to force my eyes to meet his.
Take your hand off me…and I clench my teeth. Take your hand off me.
“I know you did it, Warlock. Maybe you’re fine with being this sonofabitch’s errand boy, but not on my watch.”
I say nothing.
Brand scrambles back to his feet and wipes the blood from his mouth with the back of his sleeve saying, “I don’t think you know who you’re fucking with, Captain.”
Reynard turns to look at him and then back to me. “What? This piece of shit?” He brings his hand back to punch me and I stand up, and he shrinks back.
I don’t say anything.
He looks at me for a long minute and says, “How’d you get so fuckin’ ugly?”
And I say something… “My mother was raped and murdered. I was lucky enough to see it happen.”
He doesn’t know what to say. He stutters. “I…I ahh.”
“It was a long time ago. You don’t have to say anything.” And my face is a shattered stone mask.
Reynard looks back at his men and makes a motion with his hand and they come up and start to search me.
They pat me down and one of them feels the armor there and tells me to open my shirt, so I do.
It’s a mess. I’m covered in blood and exposed bone glistens through.
“What the hell? You see this shit captain?”
“Yeah I see it. What’s the deal Warlock? Let me guess, you fell.”
So I laugh and I tell him that I fell and he walks up and jams his finger into the wound on my chest.
I don’t flinch.
I grab his hand and push it away.
“I fell. I was walking through the woods and I tripped over a stump. It wasn’t healed yet and it tore open. That’s all.”
The men finish searching me and find nothing. No weapons. No clues. Just me, laughing and bleeding.
I glance at Brand and he winks.
Reynard says, “I know you did this, Warlock. And I’m gonna watch you burn. Your time is almost up.”
He turns and walks away.