WAR IN ARBIN – Book 2 of the Arbin Trilogy – is now available for pre-order on Amazon. The release date is March 5th.
The Books page has been updated with pre-order links for Amazon’s US and Australian sites.
As a special bonus, for a short time, the first instalment Night in Arbin can be found at half price from all retailers.
Below is the first chapter from War in Arbin. Enjoy!
It seemed at times that people thought they knew what was best for me. When I look back I see that when I did what was expected, what was seen to be right, the upshot fell out easy, there was less pain. But nothing changed. It was when I did what was not expected—even if that was nothing at all—that things were different. These times, the latter, I was able to see things differently, to see what maybe I had not been able to see before. And it is these times that I look back and I feel I have done what was needed to be done, and I feel, dare I say it, proud.
What brought me to the roofs that night has been deemed in tales curiosity by some; nosiness by another name; pure boredom, I maintain. The steely breeze shivered under my cloak and stole across my skin. That morning we’d been greeted with frost-webbed windows and a slate-grey sky, and folks spent the day with heads half askew waiting, in vain as it happened, for the season’s first spatters of snow. Along with the cold, the wind carried a smell of staid ice water, but it couldn’t hide the heady stench of rotten fish and river sludge. It buffeted its way down the narrow streets, and here, a half dozen blocks from the Etern, faint sounds of night trades could still be heard. I turned my head that way, and beyond the river the upper city was enwreathed in a warming glow from torchlight and bright mansions, the embrace of civilisation that didn’t reach across the water. Carefully, I made my way down a sharply descending rooftop to a squat warehouse capped with verdigrised tiles, turned my shoulder to the wind. The tiles were slippery in the glistening dew, and soon, with winter fast closing, it would be too treacherous to be up there of a night.
The winter months were traditionally a quiet time for assassins, a time for reflection. There was a saying in Arbin: if you are going to betray a man, do it while the snow falls.
My own maxim is make sure he has a short memory.
The stars were crisp pinpricks of silver overhead, trying to make up for the days’ weakening sunlight, but still doing little to light my way. The gods’ footprints were stark in the trail of the sky, reminding that the colder months were a time of peaceful contemplation and supplication for men of the cloth. The spaces between the constellations were also dusted with faint symbols connecting the heavenly emblems and inviting all sorts of blasphemous interpretations.
It was definitely curiosity that made me cross the hooked alley below and skirt an abandoned tenement to track the sound of gruff laughter. What fool would be out on a night like this?
Perhaps a better question, who could find something to laugh about these days.
Peering around the tenement’s flank I spotted torchlight flickering up from the street below. This side of the building was all in shadow. I shifted to a better vantage point and peering over the rusted out guttering saw three soldiers shuffling from foot to foot to ward off the cold, their breath misting in quickly dissipating clouds about their heads. One, a commander of sorts, stood before the others who were side by side like naughty children. The commander passed the other two a flask, its graven image of the king’s family insignia stood out in fool’s gold even in the dancing shadow of the street.
Crouching, I rested my weight on my heels, then nestled into a deeper pocket of shadow. The cold bricks at my back made me cringe. The soldiers were jesting and laughing amongst themselves, no doubt getting paid well to do their job. Whatever that was. If they even knew, themselves.
The troops had arrived three months past, an entire division, one thousand of the King’s worst men sweeping into Arbin in high spirits and promising war and all the attendant violence and spoils. For half a turn of the moon the drinking halls and gambling dens were infested with squads of heavily-armed, boisterous, but wary-eyed fighters spinning tall tales and rousting the youth with promises of iron and gold.
And since then, silence.
The soldiers had become a fixture in the city not unlike whores: there on every corner, just doing their job, but largely ignored by most of the city’s inhabitants. They were notionally keeping the peace, what with the election coming up, and conscripting likely young lads into the army, but at no great pace, making many of us wonder if the war would ever happen. Being one of those likely young lads, I’d learned to avoid the soldiers’ unwanted attentions, so if they were waiting to make up numbers with volunteers, they’d be grey and bent when the charge was sounded. For all that, they were probably paid much better than whores. Maybe that accounted for the jollity.
A couple of sharp movements below as the two soldiers saluted loosely, the commander taking his leave. No doubt he was sitting on his own pile of gold, just to make sure the soldiers were looking like doing their job. He clasped his hands behind his back and strolled beyond the brightness of the light.
The wind was quieter in this street, but still strong enough to make the torch on the wall sputter and threaten dark. Two large grey moths spiralled round the bright arc as though chasing each other or both being chased by something I couldn’t see. The two soldiers visibly relaxed as their commander rounded the corner and out of sight. They leaned close and shared a low comment barely more than a mumble from my vantage point. Their laughter was cut short as the commander reappeared in the street and strode towards them. They sprung to attention but he waved them down again. He gave them a short command and they saluted as he disappeared once more.
The pair shared a brief look but remained silent, turning away from one another to watch either end of the street.
I was about to leave when a movement on the opposite roof caught my eye.
The assassin, for he undoubtedly was, silently padded in soft-soled boots to the edge of the roof and lowered himself to one knee. Black-clad and hair hidden beneath a raised tight hood, his features deeply shadowed. The kneeling figure was statuesque, only his outline against the blue tinge of the sky betrayed him.
I tried to sink deeper into the bricks at my back, willed the shadows to encompass me. I was suddenly aware of my own breath clouding before me and slowed it almost to a stop.
The figure slowly, methodically pulled a light crossbow from over his shoulder. His gaze remained unwavering on the figures in the torchlit street below. Unaware, helpless, they seemed as cattle penned with a wolf now, and no longer the fierce warriors they made themselves for.
The assassin loaded a bolt in and cocked the bow. Then he sighted down the shaft before settling to watch the soldiers.
Conversation had begun again in earnest below. One of the soldiers was telling the other a story about a woman he once knew. The other laughed at all the right moments, but it was strained as if the story was just beyond his belief.
I had a strange feeling as I observed the assassin watching the soldiers. It was almost a perverse situation, a voyeuristic knowing that I should not be seeing what I was seeing. Yet I could not look away, even knowing what must come.
I could intervene, perhaps even should have. Who knew what the killing of soldiers would bring down on the city? Yet here I was, watching, and it felt like I had a unique view of the world in motion, a privileged perspective. It was almost a sort of amusement, seeing the unusual twistings of the fates at play, and a feeling that perhaps this was beyond me, that I had no right to turn the course of this night.
Another figure appeared on the roof behind the first, and my breath caught.
Though clearly also a man trained in the killing arts, this one appeared somehow out of place. He was much bulkier than the first assassin and did not seem to have the surety of foot on the roofs expected of someone making a living up here. Even as he stood there he seemed to waver in the wind, not crouching to balance.
As the newcomer started forward, it was clear he was making a concerted effort to remain silent, but it looked to be a struggle. He descended the gently sloping roof in short, stuttering steps towards where the first assassin knelt.
The first assassin had not acknowledged the newcomer, so at first I thought they were together. In itself that was unusual, but given recent times I could understand if others were out with people watching their backs.
Unless the noise from the street was obscuring his approach.
And the wind was blowing towards their faces, taking the sound of his steps away.
Was this another sole operator? But why?
My breath was coming in short sharp bursts now as I watched the slow hunt play out. My mind raced as I considered that maybe the fighting among the assassins was coming to a head once more. It had not been business as usual since the Boss had purged his circle, but there had definitely been a renewed sense of safety.
Perhaps that was about to change.
The second assassin drew a knife, the curved silver blade flickering and glowing at the edge of the golden torchlight. One of the soldiers hawked loudly and spat. The first assassin sighted steadily down the shaft of his bow and his finger moved to the trigger.
The newcomer was within a step of the bowman now. A bellowed laugh rose from one of the soldiers and muffled angry voices sounded from the adjoining street.
The assassin lifted his gaze from the figures below and froze, head tilted to the side, sensing something awry.
The killer reached around and clamped a hand over the assassin’s mouth and his knife sunk into the man’s back. The knifeman jerked up his fist as he pulled his victim back from the roof’s edge, the curved blade rising through the assassin. There was no movement for about a minute, the killers locked in a frozen tableau of death, the only sign of life the shallow panted mist from the mouth of the knifeman.
Below, the soldiers shuffled quietly and paced in the small lit space.
The killer lowered the body carefully to the rooftop, shuffling back from under it. He lay the bow, strung and cocked, across the killer’s chest, then stood uneasily and backed his way clumsily and stiff-jointed up the sloped roof.
In the street the soldiers had gone quiet. The killer watched the corpse for an interminable moment as if expecting it to come back to life, then turned and climbed out of my sight.
My breath left me in a gasp and I thirstily sucked in more air. I lost track then of how long I sat in the shadow, watching the dance of the firelight on the eaves across the street, just beneath the faint humped shadow of an assassin’s corpse.
Eventually I rose and picked my carefully across the slippery roofs towards home, clutching my cloak tightly about me against the outside world. The coming snow was reason enough to keep off the roofs in the long months ahead.