Bloody Path of Retribution
Warnings: contains violence, gore, foul language, references to rape and necrophilia
Bannon pushed the door open cautiously, then froze. The servants’ entrance opened on a small storage area, half filled with barrels. A few feet away stood the innner door. — And there was a shem standing guard right there!
However, the shem didn’t move. In fact, he wasn’t exactly “standing” guard, he was sitting on one barrel, wedged back between another stack of barrels and the wall. As Bannon held his breath, the white-whiskered guard let out a rumbling snore.
The two cousins breathed a silent sigh of relief and looked at each other. Bannon glanced at Soris’ crossbow and jerked his head slightly, indicating to him to shoot the guard. Soris’ eyes went wide and his mouth dropped slack in disbelief. Bannon frowned and shook his head in annoyance. The light-footed elf crept forward, his borrowed sword at the ready.
Bannon had never killed anyone before, but he didn’t dwell on it. His only concern was not making any noise as he dispatched an obstacle in his way. Without hesitation, he thrust the sword through the man’s neck. The guard’s eyes flew wide in surprise and shock. His mouth gaped and air rushed from his severed windpipe, but they did not connect into a death scream. With a gurgle, the shem collapsed, still party wedged upright on the barrel.
Soris eased the door shut behind him. “Did you have to kill him?” he whispered. “We could have snuck past.”
“Yes,” Bannon replied quietly, but firmly. “He was between us and the way out. We’ll need a clear path to take the women out of here.” He didn’t mention that they might be running for their lives at that time, pursued by who knew how many Kendell guards. No sense borrowing a garrison of trouble too early. “You sure you’re up to this?” Bannon asked his cousin. They were in hilt-deep, now. This was no time for second thoughts.
Soris took hold of himself and nodded. He closed his mouth firmly. “Yeah. It’s just… different when they’re not attacking.”
“The women won’t be attacking,” Bannon reminded him. “That won’t stop the shems from hurting them.”
Together, they passed the inner door into the large kitchen. Half a dozen elves bustled about the tables and the huge cookfire. A few of them looked up and stopped their work to stare. One girl let out a muffled squeak and fled to the pantry. Bannon put a finger to his lips, entreating the elves to keep quiet. As one, they all turned towards the cookfire.
There, a bulky, bald shem in an apron was busy harranguing another of the elves about the soup. He cut that off abruptly, perhaps sensing all those eye upon him or noticing the sudden lack of chopping and cutting noises. He turned quickly and scowled at Bannon and Soris. “Where is that delivery?” he blustered. “The bann will have a fit if his roast partridge hasn’t got the currant jelly sauce! Well, what are you just standing there for? Didn’t the Maker give you the sense He have a goose?” The way he was going on, the cousins couldn’t get a word in edgewise if they’d wanted to. “I swear! The Master can’t loosen his pursestrings enough to hire decent help? Giving you stupid knife-ears such opportunitis you do not deserve! Eh–?” The shem paused in his tirade to blink at them. “Where did you get those weapons? What have you been playing at?”
“Um, we found them,” Soris offered.
“Just outside, there,” Bannon quickly jumped in, “by the fence. We thought we should take them to the armory. Someone might steal them out there.”
“IMBECILES!” the cook roared. “Did you forget about the currant jelly entirely? The bann will have your ears for this, if I don’t get to them first! I’ll –!” The familiar sound of a glass bottle breaking over a shem’s skull filled the air. The cook’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he crumpled heavily to the floor.
The red-haired elf behind him nimbly leaped out of the way. He tossed the broken bottle neck onto the shem’s paunch, where it bounced and rolled off. “I don’t know what you guys are up to, but he’s had that coming a long time.” He yanked at the strings of the apron he wore and shucked it off over his head. “And I don’t want to know what you’re doing here, but good luck!” He tossed the apron on the table and moved to follow the others who were already beating a hasty retreat out the door.
“Wait,” Bannon called after them. “Did you see them bring any elven women in?” The elf shook his head. “Where’s Vaughn’s chambers? Is that where he has his ‘parties’?”
The redhead grimaced and came back to them so he could lower his voice. “Upstairs, east wing, towards the back. Go across the main hall and turn right. Use those stairs.” He flicked a glance at each of them. “Maker help you, and I never got a good look at those dozen bandits who broke in here.” With that, he darted out.
“Great,” Soris moaned, “we just have to go through the whole estate. How many guards do you think are between us and there?”
“Quiet,” Bannon shushed him. He edged closer to the door leading out of the kitchen, cocking his pointed ear. He heard several voices beyond, talking jovially, as well as the clink of cups and platters. It reminded him that they’d never gotten to the wedding feast. Oh well, his appetite was ruined, anyway. “Sounds like half of ’em are in the dining hall,” he answered Soris’ question about the guards.
“If we burst through and surprise them?” Soris asked half-heartedly.
“We’ll get killed,” Bannon confirmed. If only the hahren had allowed more elves to come with them. But who would have? No one was as close to Shianni as her brother and cousin — no one close enough to risk their own necks. Nola only had one aged mother. And the women of Highever had no one at all. No one but their reluctant husbands. Bannon chewed his lip a moment. “I have an idea. Go into the pantry; see if there’s any strong-smelling liquor.”
While Soris did that, Bannon retruned to the entryway storeroom. He followed his nose to the acrid tang of a bowl of rat poison. Rummaging around in the barrels, he came up with a bottle of the stuff.
He returned to the pantry to catch up with Soris. “Ugh,” he said, catching a whiff; “have you been sampling them?”
“No!” Soris insisted. He held out a bottle of strong brandy. “How about this?”
“I don’t think the guards are allowed to have the good stuff.” Bannon turned to the mousey elf servant who was huddled in the corner, half-hidden by a cask. “Where’s the rot-gut?”
She edged out slightly, her watery brown eyes wide. Hesitantly, her arm stretched out, finger pointing to a shelf.
Soris nabbed a jug and pulled the cork. “Whew!” he exclaimed, nose wrinkling.
“Yeah, that’s the stuff,” Bannon agreed.
The duo performed a bit of quick alchemy out in the kitchen. They poured some of the rot-gut out onto the comatose cook to make room in the jug for the full dose of rat poison. Bannon put on the discarded apron. He tucked the shortsword down inside it, against his leg. The hilt stuck out, so he grabbed a hand towel and artfully draped it over the pommel.
“This is thin, cousin,” Soris said, watching him with a jaundiced eye.
“Come on, all my plans work,” Bannon insisted, forcing more confidence than he felt.
“What am I going to do with this?” Soris hefted the crossbow.
“Load it,” said Bannon, busy brushing off his apron and straightening his hair the best he could. “Keep the door propped open a little after I go through. If things go wrong, start shooting.”
“You’re going out there by yourself?”
Bannon shrugged. “It’s my ‘thin’ plan.” Soris nodded and stood back. Bannon pushed through the swinging door with the jug in both hands.
No one looked up. Good. Bannon started refilling mugs, his head down and his demeanor servile. Just another invisible elf servant, no more worthy of notice than the furniture. He kept his right side, where the sword hung heavily on his apron, away from the shems. The third fellow spared him more than a cursory glance. “Is that blood?” he asked, eyeing the gore spattered on Bannon’s pants.
“Yes, ser,” Bannon agreed quickly. “I was out slaughtering the pigs, ser.” He backed up, careful not to let the sword swing wide, and moved to serve the men on the other side of the table.
“There’s no blood on your apron,” the astute guard remarked, frowning in suspiscion.
“I’ve been having the most awful day, ser!” Bannon splashed liquor into the guards’ mugs as quickly as he could, for the first man was already quaffing his. He distracted them by prattling on in the most annoying fashion. “First, I tore my only pair of work pants. And then I was late, because I had to change. Cook was furious, and he made me go slaughter pigs. And there was no apron in the smokehouse! Then I–”
“Shut up you whiney knife-ears,” one of the men said. “Nobody cares about your damn’ problems.”
“Yes, ser!” The six men at the first table had been served. Bannon turned about to reach the near side of the second table. He started pouring poison into their mugs.
The observant guard snorted. “It was just gettin’ entertaining,” he griped.
“What did you think?” the first guard asked. “He fought the boys at the front gate and went on a killing spree?” He took another gulp from his mug, grimaced, and belched prodigiously. “Is it just me, or is this swill more godawful than usual?” The rest of the men grabbed their mugs and downed some of the drink, just to see.
Bannon turned with alacrity to get to the last three men on the far side of the second table. Hemmed in as he was, the sword thunked against on of the chairs. “Ow!” he yelped, hoping to disguise the sound of metal on wood. “So sorry, ser!”
“Watch it, you clumsy knife-ears!”
The first guard grabbed his stomach. The third had a queasy look crossing his face. “Something’s not right,” he said. “Did you…?” He peered blearily into his mug. To his left, the second guard belched deeply, and white foam flecked his lips, removing all doubt. “You poisoned us!” The quicker guards scrabbled for their weapons.
“Now!” Bannon yelled, flinging the jug at the nearest shem’s head and ducking down. He wasn’t taking chances with Soris’ aim.
A bolt shot out from the kitchen and planted itself in the back of the skull of a guard who had jumped up between the tables and into its path. He pitched forward, splashing soup everywhere. Only three guards hadn’t been served yet, those on the far side of the second table. Of those on the near side, the one on the right hadn’t touched his drink yet, the one nearest Bannon had had a taste — plus a faceful, and one lay on the table with a bolt in his brain. The six men at the other table were in no shape to fight. They writhed in their chairs, spilling out onto the floor, convulsing. One tried to vomit out the poison, but only managed to cough up blood.
Bannon pulled the sword free, slicing the apron string as he did so. Still crouching, he swept the blade low across the legs of the man nearest to him. It clanged against metal greaves, but the shem fell back off balance. Bannon cut upwards, under the man’s guard, and managed to stab him in the belly, though not deeply, owing to the leather cuirass he wore.
Another bolt flew past the guard’s face as he stumbled, and this one thunked into the chest of one of the last guards. Soris might not be hitting what he was aiming at, but he was doing a damned good job so far.
The last two hale guards charged around the table, weapons out and eyes full of murder. Bannon was still hemmed in by the tables, several chairs and a bunch of shem bodies, so he escaped the only way he could — he leapt onto the table top and whirled, aiming a kick at the first shem’s face. The man’s head rocked back as he staggered into the man behind him. Luckily, that guy was armed with a mace, or the first might have been impaled.
The half-poisoned shem lunged up onto the table, lumbering with clumsiness and weakness. Bannon turned and snapped his blade down on the back of the guard’s neck. It had the same effect on him as it had on the mabari whose spine he had severed. The man collapsed, paralyzed or dead.
“Are you out of your mind?” someone yelled. It sounded like Soris. Bannon did feel like a wondertale hero dancing around up here amidst the soup tureens. He leaped down on the far side just as the guard with the mace brought it crashing down where he’d been. Crockery shattered, and Bannon hoped there weren’t more guards within earshot. Another bolt whizzed by, over the guard who had lunged.
“Aim lower!” Bannon called.
“Get the archer,” the swordsman told his comrade, sending him off with a shove. To the other, with the wounded stomach, he gestured that they should circle the table and trap the elf between them. “Give it up, knife-ears,” he growled hatefully, stalking his target.
“Not when I’m winning!” Bannon grinned ferally. He was out of his mind! These two shems were going to jump him, two on one — what was he going to do?
A scream of anguish cut through the dining hall, and the guard going after Soris fell, clutching his leg. Bannon winced in sympathy. “Yep, that was aiming lower all right.”
And Andraste bless him, the swordsman couldn’t help but glance over for a split second. Bannon lunged. He, too, aimed low, noticing a lack of armor on the guard’s legs. The blade bit flesh, slicing through the man’s thigh. He cried out and went down. Bannon didn’t wait; he swung blindly at the other man. The guard caught the sword on his own blade.
Bannon backed and parried in turn. The man was weak, clutching his bleeding stomach with his free hand. He could take this guy! Suddenly, the other guard limped up, and Bannon found himself desperately blocking and backpedalling from the dual onslaught. They nearly cut him on several tries, but the billowing apron fouled their aim and their blades. And they forgot about Soris. The other elf had relieved the one guard of his mace and slammed the weapon into the shoulder of the guard on Bannon’s right. The man turned and for a minute, it was a pair of one-on-one fights. The wounded humans faltered, and finally the elves prevailed.
They stood winded, panting deep gulps of air that seared their throats. “Thanks, cousin,” Bannon gasped.
“That’s my job,” Soris bantered back weakly. “Bailing you out of all the trouble you get yourself into.” He turned his head back towards the carnage. A few of the shems still moaned in pain. He shuddered. “Let’s get out of here.”
Bannon shook his head. “Grab some armor, first.” Soris protested that it wouldn’t fit, and he would not wear bloodied armor. Nor would he touch the shems who were still twitching on the floor. Bannon cursed and moved as quickly as he could. He stripped the cuirasses from the two smallest guards, and shoved one at Soris. “Put it on,” he insisted. “It could save your life.”
He pulled off the apron and drew the armor on over his head. He struggled with the unfamiliar buckles and straps, cursing and chafing at this time wasted not moving. Finally, he just tied the straps to each other, as tightly as possible. He still felt as if he were wearing a leather barrel wrapped around his torso. Until he looked at his cousin, who was having a worse time. “Here,” he said impatiently. He wadded up the apron and stuffed it under Soris’ armor. They looked ridiculous, but at least they had some protection.
The two elves crept through the halls, Soris’ finger tight on the crossbow trigger. They met no one, save for an elderly elven woman brushing one of the carpets. Bannon put a finger to his lips again, and she remained silent, but decided to find some other, more out-of-the-way carpet to clean.
They passed the grand double doors at the front of the estate. There were no guards in evidence here, though there must surely be some posted outside.
Another oldster patrolled the east hall, strolling up and down its length rather than marching. Bannon and Soris positioned themselves in a small room off the end of the hall, then lured the guard in with some judicious noise. As the shem crossed the threshhold, Soris popped up from behind an armchair and shot him, while Bannon leapt from behind the door and finished him with a sword strike to the neck. They closed the door on the body and continued until they heard voices.
The hall was punctuated by a doorway. The two elves crouched on either side, listening to the guardsmen who had turned the corner just beyond.
“Drag her in here,” said the first, a young, clear voice.
“Come on, Polke,” grumbled a tired voice. “We gotta dump the body.”
“Then we can eat,” said the third, thick and low.
“After a little fun,” the first insisted. “You can’t let a pretty elf wench like that go to waste. The Lord won’t mind — he’s busy!” Soris’ face tightened in a scowl; Bannon gripped his sword harder.
The third voice said, “She’s dead.”
To which the first replied pragmatically, “She’s still warm! Just a few minutes.” There proceeded some dragging noises and a thump. Bannon dared a peek around the doorway; he saw one of the guards dragging Nola’s body into a side room. The other two looked on in disgust, but didn’t try to stop him. Bannon ducked back as they started to turn.
“Fine,” the tired grey voice said. “But you can finish hauling the carcass out by yourself. We’re gonna get us some eats.”
Bannon looked across at Soris and pointed at his head. ‘No Helmets,’ he mouthed clearly. Then he mimed punching himself in the head, and Soris nodded. The two elves pressed themselves against the wall beside the door.
“Sick fuck,” the low voice growled.
“She was pretty, though.”
The two shems walked through the door, and the elves swung their weapons at their unprotected heads. Soris’ mace crunched skull and his man went down. But Bannon’s sword deflected off the thick bone. The guard stumbled forward, cursing in pain. He started to turn and draw his weapon. Bannon swung hard at his neck, and blood sprayed out in a crimson fan. He squinched his eyes shut and turned his face as he got sprattered by the hot liquid. “Ugh,” he coughed quietly, wiping his mouth.
He swiped at his eyes to clear them, wishing he still had that apron. When he could see again, Soris was gone. An unmanly shriek came from down the hall. Quickly, Bannon ducked through the doorway and went to the side room, his heart in his mouth.
The shem was dead, in a compromising and completely unflattering position, with the fletching of the crossbow bolt sticking out from… well, to be fair, it was the biggest unarmored target facing the doorway. Soris had finished him off with a blow to the head and was busy vomiting in the corner.
Bannon backed up, looking a little green himself. “Come on,” he said.
Soris wiped his mouth shakily. “We should…. We can’t leave her like that.”
“No,” said Bannon. “When they come in here, I want them to see. See what’s been going on in here. See why we did it.”
“But… she….” Soris gulped.
Bannon skirted the grisly tableau on the floor and grabbed his cousin’s arm. He tugged Soris away. “She’s gone on with the Maker,” he said softly. “She’d want them to pay for what they’ve done.”
They exited the room and paused at the foot of the grand staircase, firming their resolve.
“We’ve got to get to Shianni and the others,” said Soris. Colour began returning to his cheeks as he looked up.
“Let’s hurry,” Bannon agreed; “but be careful. He’s bound to have more guards.”