Chapter 8: The Assassin’s Blade
A thin bloody sliver of the sun remained above the forested horizon by the time the group arrived at Morda. A few birds darted darkly across the fiery sky, heading back to their nests and uttering their cries. The road into Morda--little more than a broad dirt path--was completely empty save for them.
As the town came into view, Link blinked in surprise. Though he had only seen Muran’s
Forestand Naran, both Karradaini settlements had displayed a neat, welcoming air, no matter what happened in their taverns. Whatever he had expected for this town was certainly not what he saw. A tall wooden wall surrounded a cluster of squalid buildings rising crookedly into the air, a barricade of spears standing outside the walls, with narrow gaps before the gates. The buildings themselves seemed in dire need of repair, coming perilously close to tumbling over, while a squat fort, the only thing of stone in sight, sat in the middle of the large town, the flag waving from its height displaying a golden lion on a field of crimson.
“What a horrid looking place!” Pelayla exclaimed, sounding disgusted. Fluttering her wings furiously, she rose from Link’s shoulder and flew forward, alighting between Phantom’s ears.
“That’s Morda,” Noah said less than enthusiastically, removing his hat and packing it away. “The only place in Karradai where it’s not good to be a Rider.”
“What do you mean, not good to be a Rider?” Link asked. “I thought all Riders were revered and respected. Back in Naran, everyone was scraping and bowing as though that pair were gods!”
“Riders are generally considered a step below dragons,” the Karradaini explained. “They are something more than mortal, something greater than people. Those who don’t believe that nonsense--or who just wish to stay out of places heavy under the Riders’ influence, which is pretty much everywhere else--have gathered here, under some descendant of a lord who felt he was slighted when he wasn’t chosen to become a Rider. As such, crime flourishes in that place, and every organized group of thieves and criminals and assassins has a meeting place in there.” He gestured at the wooden buildings, the top floors leaning crazily over the streets. “No Rider has ever come here for nearly two hundred years, after one Rider and her Talar were slaughtered in broad daylight. This is the one place your name won’t get you killed. In fact, people might buy you drinks if you call yourself Dragonslayer.”
“We’re certainly not here for free drinks,” Ria said dryly.
“No, we’re not,” Noah agreed. “Still, I wouldn’t mind a mug or two after we purchase rooms at an inn. There won’t be anything of great quality, but I know of one inn that’s at least clean.”
Pelayla sighed. “Hopefully, they have good mead. That’s about the only drink I can stand. I mean, Deathwhiskey tastes incredible, but the day after is hell.”
Laughing lightly, Romani smoothed her divided skirts over her thighs. “I wouldn’t know; I hardly ever drink. My sister always forces me to drink milk.”
As the group approached the opening in the wall, two grizzled men in stained, mismatched armor lowered rusted halberds, blocking the path. The taller of the two, his lank gray beard speckled with white, narrowed his beady eyes behind the corroding facebars of his helm. The other one, a squat man with incredibly broad shoulders, glowered as he wiped his filthy sleeve across his bulbous nose.
“What d’ya want?” the taller man demanded, reeking of sour beer and sweat.
“We want to spend a night in the town,” Noah replied, shifting in his saddle. Link noticed he hid the backs of his gloves against himself, concealing the black birds embroidered on them.
The guard scowled, muttering, “Jumped-up country folk bloody coming into the town.” Still, he raised his halberd. When the squat man kept his weapon lowered, he barked, “Up arms!”
The shorter man obeyed, but at that moment, he noticed Pelayla sitting on Phantom’s head. Jaw dropping, he pointed, spluttering, “What--What is that?”
Swiftly, Romani swept the fairy up and stuffed her into her quiver. “Oh, that’s nothing,” she said with a smile. “You needn’t worry about it.”
Uttering muffled curses, Pelayla shook the quiver as she fought to free herself. Directing Phantom closer to Storm, Link surreptitiously kicked the quiver, effectively silencing the fairy.
Shaking his head, the shorter guard peered up at Romani, and a lewd grin suddenly bloomed on his ugly features. “My, my, ain’t you a pretty one,” he said. “I didn’t know they whelped ‘em so good out in the country. I’m off in another hour, if you care to join me for some ale.” His suggestive wink left little doubt what would happen after they finished drinking.
Before Romani could respond, Link edged Phantom between the guard and the lanky gray. “We will keep to ourselves, thank you very much.”
The group passed the guards and entered Morda. Behind him, Link faintly heard the older guard mutter, “Bloody country bastard, acting like a lord or more. Once we’re on break, we’ll tell Senna. She wanted us to keep a burning eye on any who stand out.”
Silently berating himself--Hopefully, this Senna is just some official and not one of the people who tried to capture me--Link wrinkled his nose in distaste, staring at the crooked streets that ran every which way, with no order at all. Garbage heaped against buildings, practically alive with the flies that crawled over the piles, and people hovered in the shadows that clung to every structure. At first, he took them for beggars and homeless people, but he noticed the assured way one woman held herself, the far from gaunt stature of a man, and he began reassessing them. If they all swooped down on them at once, he and his companions would surely die.
But they did not swoop down. The people of Morda simply stared at them, some slipping away only to be replaced by others. And ordinary people, in the embroidered styles of Karradai, strode along the streets, shopping and running errands and collecting children after a day of innocent playing. Many eyed the four people riding in--no other horses were in sight--but then affected not to notice, turning a blind eye while watching and studying intently. It was an eery sort of welcome.
After a moment, Noah fiddled with his reins and said, “Uh, Link, you didn’t have to stand up for Ranchgirl back at the gate. I mean, that’s how everyone is here. And you probably heard that one soldier; he’s gonna tell someone about us. So, don’t draw attention to yourself anymore while we’re here.”
“Why did you hide your gloves?” Link countered, angry that the man pointed out what he himself had heard and realized.
“Why do men persist in pointless accusations?” Romani demanded, planting her fists on her hips and glaring first at Noah, then at Link. “Honestly!”
“It’s one of the few things they’re good at,” Pelayla commented wryly, still hidden in the quiver. “Accusations, violence, and getting women pregnant.”
“Funny, Pelayla,” Noah said sarcastically. Glancing down at himself, he said, “I’m sorry, Link, but I can’t stand being mistaken for a country fool anymore. I need new clothes, though anything here will cost twice what I could buy a dozen new coats in my favorite style, and with less embroidery. Oh well. Sacrifices are necessary, sometimes.” He donned an expression worthy of a martyr. “Continue on down this street and you’ll find an inn called The Assassin’s Blade. Get us two rooms, and return to the common room. I’ll meet up with you there.” He heeled Arzosi lightly, heading down another street, this one lined with an open market.
“Charming name,” Link muttered. “Fits in well with the whole mood of this place.”
“We should do as he says,” Ria murmured, urging Heartfire forward. “He says this inn is clean, at least, and I prefer a clean room to one coated in dust and grime.”
In silence, they continued on in the direction Noah had indicated, past decrepit-looking buildings and people that seemed listless and dull-eyed at first but actually watched them sharply, weighing and measuring. A chill wind rose, and Link clutched his cloak close to himself, watching with sympathy as Romani shivered and rubbed her bare arms. While the wind stirred Ria’s cloak, however, it did not blow it open.
Eventually, they arrived at a seven- or eight-storied building, its small, grimy windows spilling light onto the dark street. A sign creaking above the door proclaimed it The Assassin’s Blade, yet despite the dark name, the babble of voices drifted outside, sometimes accompanied by raucous laughter or off-key versions of drinking songs.
“Good e’en, me good master and mistresses,” a ratty boy with greasy hair said, baring his teeth in a semblance of a smile. He wore a plain coat and breeches, both stained and covered in straw, and a stout cudgel rested behind his belt. “You staying at the Blade this fine night? It is the best inn in all of Morda!”
A second boy, twin to the first down to a crooked tooth and a fray in the cuff of his coat, appeared out of nowhere. “Just take your bags, me master and mistresses, and you can see Mistress Tirana about rooms.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout your fine horses,” the first boy assured. Chuckling, he patted his cudgel. “We’ve fought off thieves before.”
“And they all know to stay away from the property of Mistress Tirana’s patrons.”
Ria dismounted smoothly, gray wool swirling around her hidden form. Resting her saddlebags over one shoulder, she said, “They give sound advice. And they must be exemplary fighters to do such a good job of deterring thieves so that no one even thinks of coming near this place.”
The two boys swelled at the compliments. Climbing down off his mount, Link removed saddlebags and knapsack before handing the reins to one of the boys. Romani followed suit, and then as the one holding Phantom seized Heartfire’s bridle, the cloaked woman tossed a pair of red Rupees. The boys snagged them expertly, staring at them for a moment.
“Thank you, me lord and ladies,” they intoned, bowing and leading the horses away.
Link watched them disappear with hooded eyes. So. Show a little money and he was a lord, eh?
“Am I going to have to stay in this damn quiver all night?” Pelayla demanded crossly.
“Just until we’re in our rooms,” Link replied absently. He pushed the front door open and entered the inn. Heat slammed into him, and no wonder, with roaring fires in both hearths. Blinking rapidly in the bright light, he removed his cap and tucked it behind his belt before pushing his cloak over his shoulders, moving aside as Romani and Ria came in after him. Round tables filled the cleanswept room, most packed with patrons sipping at their drinks, though off in one corner a group of three men and one woman, all in thigh-length coats embroidered from high collar to lower edge, sat playing at some game involving a spun poniard and a silken scarf wound about their eyes. Currently, the woman was blindfolded, with her hand before the dagger. One of the men reached down and spun it, and the woman lifted her fingers just before the blade struck her, repeating it a dozen times. Laughing, she removed the scarf and held out her hand, and the men sullenly handed her all manner of jewelry and a few silver coins.
Serving maids in vibrant green dresses with touches of embroidery along the swooping necklines scurried among the tables, bearing trays laden with tankards and plates of steaming food, dodging a pair of men as they suddenly lunged at each other and began pummeling every bit of flesh they could find. From the wall opposite the door, a huge man with glossy waxed mustaches and sunken knuckles strode forward, seizing each brawler by the scruff of his neck. Kicking chairs, customers, and maids out of the way, he opened a door at the back and flung the men out, slamming it behind him and crossing his arms, leaning back against the wall as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Perhaps fights such as that were common.
More than the strange game--one of the men howled, and the others all laughed, dividing a pile of Rupees and jewelry among them--more than the fight, more than the heat, even, the singer prancing atop one of the tables caught Link’s attention immediately. Buxom enough to make the woman in the Vixen seem nearly flat-chested, she cavorted around people’s drinks and food, singing a song fit to make even a Gerudo blush. Her gown covered her from neck to feet, but it was diaphanous enough to make it seem she wore nothing, and at every twirl it seemed in serious danger of falling off. Men ogled up at her--she was gorgeous, stunningly so, with coppery hair and blue eyes large enough to drown a man--and suddenly, she lifted her skirts and displayed her slender legs well past the knee.
“Ah, good evening,” a melodious voice said brightly. “In from the country, are you? A pair of rooms for you?”
Link wrenched his gaze from the dancing woman and suffered a great shock, for a woman who could have been a plump version of the singer stood before him, a smile on her welcoming face. She, at least, wore decent clothing, a yellow woolen dress with some slight embroidery, with a spotless white apron over her skirts.
“Yes, innkeeper,” Ria answered.
The woman turned to regard her, and she nodded, absently patting at her gray-tinged bun. “Ah, call me Mistress Tirana. And a pair of rooms it is. You, there!”
A serving maid with dark eyes hurried up. Glancing at Link, she giggled, cheeks dimpling, and said, “A pair of rooms? Right this way.” She spun around and wove in and out of packed tables, waiting at the foot of a narrow staircase just long enough for Link and the others to catch up to her.
The serving maid led them to a pair of rooms beside each other on the second floor. Opening them, she said, “Just put your things in there, and I’ll see to getting you some food.” Another giggle, and as she glided away, she pinched Link’s arm. He spun around and gaped after her in disbelief.
“Did she really just...?”
Romani glared after her. “Forward hussy! This place isn’t like the Milk Bar at all. A woman should not flirt with a man, and a man should only flirt if he intends to court the woman! And did you see that singer?”
“I’m sure she was wonderful,” Pelayla said sarcastically. “Now that you have your rooms, will you please let me out?”
Walking into the slightly larger of the two rooms, Romani set her bags down at the foot of the narrow bed and drew a couple of arrows out of her quiver. The fairy burst out, beating her wings swiftly, and then she settled on the chipped washbasin, watching as the redhead left bow and quiver in the room.
Ria added her bags to the same room, while Link deposited his in the other. Returning to the narrow hall, he shrugged and led the way back down the rickety steps to the common room. Spotting an empty table, he forged a way to it, passing through three fights and barely avoiding being dragged into a fourth. The three of them sat down, and then a different serving maid swept up with three plates of roast beef and green beans and a mug of ale each.
“You must be from the country. Are you a knight? Freia says you like her.”
Link struggled to comprehend the rapid flow of words, nearly lost as some drunken men bellowed for the absent singer to return. “Freia? Who’s Freia?”
The woman’s eyes widened. “Why, she’s that woman over there.” Her finger pointed at the dark-eyed maid, who offered him her dimpled smile again, coupled with a wink this time. Beside Link, Romani sniffed icily.
Before Link could tell her he certainly did not like a woman who pinched him, Mistress Tirana returned, shooing the woman away. “Ah, do not mind the girls. They are a spirited bunch, if a little lacking up here.” She tapped the side of her head, her lips curving into a rueful smile. “So, where are you headed?”
A few tables away, the singer returned, to much cheering from the men and cold stares from the women. Resuming her lively prancing, she launched into a song even worse than the first, if such a thing were possible. Link stared at her, and the proprietress, following his gaze, smiled warmly. “Ah, yes. My daughter is such a fine dancer, though her voice does not do that song justice. Still, she entertains those vigorous men.”
That’s her daughter? Link thought, stunned. And vigorous? Rowdy is a better term for those unshaven louts.
Without warning, someone placed hand on his shoulder. Leaping up, Link whirled around, reaching for the hilt of his sword. Before his hand touched the weapon, he recognized Noah. He exhaled loudly, hissing, “Goddesses, you scared me!”
The man smiled uneasily, eyeing Link’s raised arm. He only relaxed when the Hyrulian lowered it. Facing Mistress Tirana, he spread his arms and said, “Ti, my fine lady!”
She scowled at him, staring murder at his gloves before glaring at him. “We don’t serve Riders,” she said coldly. “Get out.”
Glancing at his hands, Noah laughed. “These? Oh come now, Ti, how long have you known me? Do you think since the last I saw you I would become a Rider? I stole these from a Rider, on a dare.” Grinning, he reached out and pinched her hip.
Far from growing furious, as Link expected, the woman smiled much like Freia. “Oh, I didn’t recognize you, No. Your hair is longer, and where did you get that scar?” She traced the white line before raking a hand through his shaggy hair. “No matter. It gives you a roguish, dashing air.” And, as she turned to go, she slapped his bottom. “You’re keeping in shape; that’s good. Good muscle there.”
Link sank into his chair, staring first at the innkeeper as she walked away, then at Noah as he sat down. The man grinned back, setting his saddlebags on the floor beside him, and asked, “So, what do you think of my new clothes?”
“They’re... interesting,” Link replied. Noah now wore a brilliant scarlet coat with golden embroidery along sleeves, cuffs, and lapels, over a plain white shirt. “That coat’s... colorful.”
“Are you trying to blind us, Crow?” Romani demanded, pausing in her eating. “Is there even a brighter shade of red out there than the one you’re wearing?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know, Ranchgirl. I’m just mad there weren’t any coats with gems.”
“Why did Mistress Tirana think you were a Rider?” Link demanded, staring at him.
“These gloves,” he replied. “Only Riders get these gloves. I’m not a Rider,” he assured as Link opened his mouth. “My parents really wanted me to be one, though, so they gave me these gloves on my fourteenth birthday.”
“Were they disappointed when you weren’t a Rider?” Romani inquired.
“Extremely,” Noah answered. “Every parent dreams of having a Rider for a child. The only higher honor would have been to be a Rider themselves.”
“Are Riders common?” Link asked, slipping his gauntlets off and tucking them behind his belt. “Does being a Rider run in bloodlines?”
“No, except for the Royal Family. Every member of the Royal Family has been a Rider, back to the beginning of time. The only requirement to marrying into the Royal Family is that you have to be a Rider.”
Forcing a few bites of meat down, Link cleared his throat and casually began, “Do you know Mistress Tirana from somewhere? The way you were going on--”
“Do you think I’d sleep with someone that much older than me?” He shook his head, smiling as a serving maid delivered him food and ale. “No, I’ve helped her out of some tight spots over the past few years, as she has with me. She knows my secrets; unfortunately, she has no secrets for me to know. She blatantly gossips about who her new lover is, and her previous ones don’t turn a hair! She’s incredible.” Admiration filled his voice, and then he began eating with a will.
Grabbing his mug, Link sipped the weak ale and studied the people at the nearby tables. At one, an old man with pure white hair talked animatedly with a robed figure, gesturing in a grandiose manner, while at one slightly further away, a slender mahogany-haired man sat beside two cloaked people, one large and hulking, the other contorted and clutching its tankard in knobby gloved hands. A few tables further on, some people in worn coats started up a drinking song, and those listening to the innkeeper’s daughter leaped on them, beating at them until they silenced or until the tough broke them apart and hauled some outside.
“So,” Noah said, after a long drink. “You remember what we heard that guard mutter? About a person named Senna?” He leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I found out who she is.”
“Who?” Link asked eagerly. Romani nodded, and Ria suddenly gained an air of listening.
Clearing his throat, he said, “Well--”
“Well what?” Mistress Tirana inquired, gliding up. Pulling a chair beside the table, she sat next to Noah, head titled to one side.
“I was just saying I heard rumors about a woman named Senna,” he answered.
She laughed brightly. “No, you must have been a long time in the country! Everyone knows about Senna, though no one knows what she looks like. She’s the king’s new advisor,” she confided to the others, eyes widening with the severity of the news. “A sorceress, so I hear, though mages and the like are so rare here. Some say she’s trying to bring Morda under the ‘rightful rule of the king,’ but so far all she’s done is visit Lord Gregor and tell him to clean up the streets.” Pushing herself to her feet, the innkeeper chuckled as another fight broke out. “Ah, such a lively crowd tonight.” With that, she disappeared.
“What interest would the king’s advisor have with people who stand out?” Link asked the others, focusing mainly on Noah.
“No idea. An advisor. He never needed one before. Riders never listen to people who aren’t Riders.” Shaking his head, he guzzled most of his ale, smacking his lips as he set the mug back down. “So, Link, I know you’re searching for your woman, but why do you want information?”
“I’m trying to understand a prophecy,” he answered. “Hopefully, some old manuscripts and such should help me decipher it.”
Carefully tugging the aged parchment from his pouch, Link unrolled it and began reading, “If you seek to open the Gate, the Key you seek is Sha--”
“You fool!” Ria hissed, reaching across the table and snatching the prophecy from his hands. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Reading that,” Link snapped. “Give it back.”
“You must not read this where anyone can hear,” the cloaked woman insisted. “You must not! Memorize it and destroy it.”
He finally managed to grab the sheet of parchment from her gloved hands. “Why?” he demanded, rolling it up and stuffing it into his pouch of bowstrings.
“It is a dangerous thing to possess,” Ria answered. “There are those with the knowledge to understand that, and not all of them are benevolent people.”
Glaring at her, Link gripped his mug tightly. He exhaled slowly and averted his gaze, barely containing his anger.
“You two aren’t gonna fight now, are you?” Noah asked, sounding distinctly nervous.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Ale splashed onto his hands as he crushed the pewter mug.
“It seems a small thing to be angry about,” Romani commented in a slightly disapproving tone.
“You don’t understand!” Link shouted, his ruined mug flying across the room. “People are always telling me what I can and cannot do! Someone’s always telling me where to go, what to I need to accomplish, when it has to be done! Even when I try to do things for myself, it always turns out that someone claims I had to do it, needed to do it!” He gripped the edge of the table, driving splinters into his unprotected fingers. “I am sick and tired of being told what I must do!”
Abruptly, he realized dead silence filled the common room, everyone frozen and staring at him. Glaring at the people challengingly, Link released the table and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. Worry filled Romani’s blue eyes, mixed with a slight fear that almost made him laugh mirthlessly. Not too keen to love me now, eh Romani?
“I think we have attracted enough attention,” Ria said calmly, rising to her feet. “I suggest we retire to our rooms.”
“I agree,” Noah said, casting Link an anxious look.
Sighing, he stood. “Let’s go sleep. The sooner we can leave this town, the better.”
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