I had counted eight shadows milling about the tavern door. Three had remained while five moved to places unseen. I assumed at least two would make for the creaking back door, and at least one would remain ahorse, waiting to run down any person foolish enough to run.
I didn’t know if Mortimer was upstairs or down, or hidden in some alcove beneath the ancient wooden floors. I decided it best to not let these men find out. I mouthed two silent prayers to the Old Gods; one for me, and one for the men I was about to kill.
Crouched near the front door, I slid a long dirk from its leather sheathe and held it backwards against my right forearm. With the other, I grasped a tiny sliver of metal; a needle-like blade that I used to kill without much mess. As the first man stuck his head in the door, just behind his make-shift torch, I thrust the needle upwards into his neck, severing the tiny bundles of nerves near the back of his spine.
He hit the ground hard, his muscles dead and only the wooden floor to catch him.
The door flung open under his weight and a second man darted in to catch the first. He was greeted by a flash of folded steel, and a gaping wound across his face. A second quick strike to his lower back sent him into the long sleep.
With two down, I rolled behind a support beam near where the locals had been drinking. Strong wind blew through the open door, extinguishing the two lanterns near the bar and on the hearth. The fireplace whipped and danced, feeding on the gust of oxygen. The entire tavern was bathed in a low light.
An assassin’s playground.
A third man moved near the doorway, but kept safely behind the frame of the door, trying to peer into the darkness beyond. As I eyed him, I heard movement near the back door. Seconds later, it burst open, rotten wood splintering across the room. A quarrel from a well aimed crossbow grazed my shoulder, ripping my leather chest piece and tearing the soft skin around my collar bone.
I flung a dagger in response. Blade over hilt it rolled, until it found a new home lodged permanently in the eye socket of one of the men storming the back entrance. I drew my short sword. The element of surprise was gone and my off-hand was injured and bleeding. This would come down to steel on steel, that is, unless one of these cowards brought a gun.
The man at the front entrance had stepped into the tavern, his long cavalry sabre glowing with a surreal power in the torchlight. I knew he’d have a hard time swinging that big a blade indoors, so I let him tip-toe forward, looking for me with long swings of his flame. The second man near the back had retreated at the sight of my dagger sticking from his friend’s skull.
As I decided who was the next victim of my knives, I heard glass shatter on the upper floor. The two I had not accounted for must have scaled the side of the building and broken their way in through a second story window. As the man with the sabre turned to look at the stairs, I made my move. My first stroke met a timely riposte. As he swung to counter, his long blade caught a piece of wood in the rafters. Unable to dislodge it, my sword easily pierced his stomach and chest; an upward thrust that hit more organs than it missed.
His body slumped and died, the sabre shaking where it stuck in the crossbeam.
I darted up the stairs, ignoring the man at the back door. Mortimer was no fighter. He may be able to kill a man, but against someone with any kind of training, he’dbe an easy target. The upstairs was pitch except for the glow of the waning moon. I heard two men whispering, one trying to give commands, the other arguing with him. Their talking gave away their location. Their pointless banter was as good as a death sentence.
The first fell before I had even stepped in the room, my needle finding a soft spot near his ear. The second lost a hand as he rose it to parry, and fell screaming before I silenced him permanently. Mortimer was not upstairs. This tavern had no obvious cellar, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hide secret places, left over from the Plague Era and Oliver Cromwell’s reign.
I sat for a second to catch my breath and wipe the blood from my blades. There were two left by my count, one downstairs with a crossbow, and a man atop a horse outside. I quickly peered through the broken window to see a man on a huge destrier. It was a powerful, gorgeous horse, with a black mane and a chocolate coat. I wanted to avoid hurting the horse if I could; my last horse had died to a volley of muskets and I longed to ride a powerful steed again.
I waited at the top of the stairs to see if the crossbowman dared to follow me up. My earlier attack had left him sheepish, and I’m sure he had by now seen the devastation I had left on the tavern’s floor. I couldn’t chance rushing him; as much skill as I put behind my short sword, a crossbow had range, and I knew this gent could fire it well, given the chance.
I pried the top off of a tobacco barrel near the pantry at the top of the stairs. Wrapping two lengths of shipping twine around it, I made a make shift shield and braced it against my weakened off hand. All I needed was one chance; once chance to catch his bolt, one chance to close the gap. A crossbow was lethal, but dangerously slow to reload.
It was over quickly. The bolt pierced the top of my shield and before the man had even drawn a second quarrel, he lay dead. I unstrung the shield and threw it down, admiring the quality of the bolt lodged in the wooden slats. It was a shame to kill a fletcher of such skill, but fletching was a dying art, giving way to gunsmithing and the black powder arts.
Before I bothered searching for Mortimer, I knew I had to do something about the horseman trotting lazily outside. He could not have known what had happened inside, short of the scream of the man I dismembered upstairs, so I had time to think. I watched him closely through a downstairs window. He moved back and forth on his huge beast, a two-shot pistol in one hand, the other on the reins.
I hated guns. Cowardly devices that required no skill but could kill with impunity. I wanted the man dead, but I also wanted his horse. A makeshift pike would not suffice; it would put me too close to his pistol, and might hurt the horse. He was too far away to rely on a thrown dagger, and my skill with a crossbow was admittedly lacking.
Instead, I filled an old clay growler with the lamp oil from the lantern near the bar. I ripped off a small patch of cloth from my already torn tunic and shoved it into the top of the bottle. The temporary fuse lit easily when held over the open fire of the hearth and I had only seconds before the bomb exploded in my hand.
At the sight of the fireball created from my cocktail, the horse reared in fear and sent its rider sprawling. As he fell, I sprinted until I couldn’t feel my lungs, short sword out, sharp, and ready. By the time I was on him, he had regained his feet, and saw me, blood in my eyes. He lowered his pistol, but was never able to fire.
I wiped my blade on the grass. A queer silence fell over the tavern, a silence that can only follow a bloody, angry battle. I broke it as soon as I knew no men were left alive.
I heard nothing for a few minutes expect the hooting of an owl and the crackling of dropped torches.
At the second shout, I heard a loud “thunk” and the sound of footsteps across a wooden floor. At the doorway appeared my fool brother wearing a tricorne hat and wielding a pathetically small dagger.
“Is it over?” he squeaked.
“Yes, brother. You’re lucky I arrived when I did.”
“I’m so glad you got my message; they’ve been hunting me since Dunwich.”
“Who has been hunting you?” I knew Mortimer was in trouble, as usual, but not what kind of trouble.
He said this as he moved towards the corpse of the horseman. He dug through his small clothes, searching for something. At last, he pulled a small leather fold free and threw it at my feet.
A Scotland Yard Badge. Special Investigator Albert Haynes, Directed at his King’s authority.
A lump formed in my thorat.
“Mortimer…what have you done?”
9 out of 10.