Twig contemplated the last words of the last Holy Assassin he had killed: Silk the Beast. It was the name of the next target of the Holy Assassins. Twig trusted the killer’s dying words. For some reason, the Holy Assassin had felt the need to tell Twig to kill Silk. “Carry on since we no longer can,” the Assassin had said. Sometimes, people called the Assassins the Ferryman’s Messengers.
Night surrounded Twig. He sat on a stone sticking out of the side of a hall. It commanded a clear view of the road north out of town and the woods around it. With only one break, he had been sitting on the stone for three days watching the valley for motion. Animals that moved among the woods caught his eye--wind moving the trees around--occasional resettling of snow as it melted or froze. From the stone he could see a mile to both the north and south. In the time, though Novoselic the murderer had been quiet in his movements, Twig had watched him move here and there in the valley. Novoselic checked his several snares for rabbits and ferrits and birds. He caught nothing for the first two days—his hunger must have been ravening. On the third day, Twig watched the subtle bending of bracken and the rushing of little creatures that indicated Novoselic’s passage along one of the gametrails on the far side of the valley. Novoselic must have found some creature in his snare because after a short time Twig saw the glare of a small fire, lit behind a pile of stones and whitening the already white snow only a tiny bit. Cooking his meal Novoselic would remain still for a time. That suited Twig.
Rising, Twig jumped off the stone jutting from the hill. He landed in loose snow—snow from the nights on the stone fell off his shoulders. Where he landed the hillside fell steeply to the road. In the powdery snow, Twig slid down the hill, keeping his feet and pushing off the trees that got in his way. Soon he reached the flatter bottom of the valley. He scurried across the road. When he reached the far side of the valley he began running up the rising ground. It soon became too steep to run straight up the hillside. He began grabbing onto trees, swinging to the higher side of them, and leaping further up to the next tree. Soon, he gained the snow-covered pile of rocks providing Novoselic cover for his cooking fire. Twig felt the flickering heat from the fire and the gurgling heat from the murderer. The smell of a quaill being skinned tinged the mostly still air.
Landing from his last leap on a craggy stone, Twig climbed the pile. Gloves tucked into a strap on his pants, he pried his cold fingers into the snow-filled cracks in the stones, the rough edges threatening to cut his skin. He kept his movements light, protecting his hands. Soon he reached the top of the stones and crouched just past the apex, looking from under his hood down at the rough man and his little cooking fire. Novoselic had a waxpaper poster in his hands. He examined it close to the cooking fire—the quaill half-skinned in the snow beside him. The poster had the face of a far southern man, with thick black hair and a trimmed goattee. In the etching his eyes looked intense and he smiled wildly. The poster said, “Wanted: Silk Golinvaux, enemy of the state. Known psudonyms: The Beast, Garrote, Black Ghost…” The list continued. It never listed his crimes--though it offered a huge reward. Far larger than Novoselic’s. Novoselic no doubt wished to turn in Silk and hoped to gain his own pardon.
There was the face of the man a dying Assassin asked Twig to kill. A strange suggestion. And Silk an enemy of the state. With the new turn his life had taken, Twig almost thought he’d do it.
Novoselic rubbed the back of his neck, as if he felt a chill. He glanced behind him as he did. Twig’s silhouette caught the corner of his eye. For a moment, Novoselic paused, looking sideways toward Twig. He then dropped the poster of Silk. Wheeling on the balls of his feet, staying in a crouch, Novoselic spun to face Twig. With the wheeling momentum, he drew and launched a knife at Twig. The knife flew well—Twig watched it spin toward him. It flipped through the frigid air. Novoselic began moving away from the fire the moment he released the knife’s handle.
The knife came within Twig’s reach. He moved aside. While he did, he raised a white hand. His fingers touched the cold, unpolished blade. Brushing the coarse metal, he slowed its flipping momentum. His hand found the handle; his fingers wrapped around the old bandages winding round it. Looking back at Novoselic, Twig stood. Novoselic had already started running.
Words seemed unnecessary during the last few weeks in the hills. Twig killed three murderers and gave them his message to carry. Each of them, with frighted recognition widening their mad eyes, attacked him like he had walked from their nightmares. They feared someone else who looked nearly like Twig. None of the desperate murderers had been willing to tell him anything. When he caught up to them, they fought tooth and nail—big rough men that they were—and went into a mad rage. He tried to preserve them long enough to inquire. The first died of stress—he had been starving and freezing for weeks. The second ran off a cliff. The third began to babble; he had already lost his mind and fought till Twig subdued him. Each were more fragile than men usually are. They were cold, mad men, and Twig got no wisdom from them. Their ghosts, he hoped, carried his messages. Ghosts have more stability of character, or so the stories say.
Novoselic ran from his little fire, his half-skinned quail, ran from whoever it was he mistook Twig to be. Twig began to hunt, Novoselic’s old knife loose in his hand.
Continued on December 23...