Art Of The Kill


Art of the Kill is a short story set in the Weissland port city of Ordail. It is set 110 years before the White War.

Art of the Kill

“That’s it. Better. Keep moving, you always want to keep your motions fluid. Apathy is death.” The voice said.

Jerrod continued the exercise, listening to the voice. The voice, it sounded so ominous described like that, he thought. The voice was in fact Jerrod’s mentor, teacher, master or what-have-you. Master was the term Jerrod liked the least but which was most apt. Jerrod thought of the man as a voice because at the moment it was all he could attach to the person, blindfolded as he was. Jerrod Durant could not tell where his mentor the Black Arrow was. The old man would no doubt say something like a true assassin should be as hidden as that which is not there, or something to that effect.

Jerrod could not stand such philosophical nonsense. Who ever heard of a philosophical assassin, he thought. His thoughts were interrupted by the voice “No, no, no boy! This poor technique will not do, focus on the task at hand or your opponent will take you to task. Enough, you’ve butchered the art enough for one day. Take off the blindfold and see to your chores boy.”

Jerrod lowered the training sword and pulled off the blindfold. His face was red and hot, more from embarrassment and anger than from exertion. Looking at the disappointed, disapproving expression on his master’s face made it all the worse. Jerrod walked away to do his chores. That probably angered him the most, his chores. What was he, a skivvy? A slave? He was training to be an assassin not a fiddlesticking maid, he fumed.

At times Black Arrow reminded him of his father. Never proud, never impressed, the bastard. His father might not have been impressed but he was certainly surprised when Jerrod had stuck that knife between his shoulder blades. A year Jerrod had been training, a year since he had travelled from his home in the Realm of Purity to a port, stowed away on that ship and arrived in Ordail. He had sought out the infamous Black Arrow and boldly asked him to be his apprentice. Jerrod doubted there were many with the guts and initiative and drive which he possessed. None in fact, he thought.

His chores were to clean the house, prepare the table for dinner and generally keep the manse tidy. Black Arrow had two servants to do such things, but he made Durant do them anyway. The manse was a suitably large and impressive building, but not too impressive to be noticed much amongst the other rich buildings in Ordail. Black Arrow had said that it was called hiding in plain sight. Jerrod wondered why hiding was necessary, surely enemies should simply fear you enough not to contemplate making a move against you. He would ask Black Arrow about it over dinner. Jerrod also wondered why Black Arrow always cooked his own meals. Perhaps it’s to avoid being poisoned, he thought. He would have to learn about poisons, good clean way to kill someone.

The next day Jerrod and Black Arrow left the manse to go to a tavern near the docks to meet a contact. This fine drinking establishment was called the Broken Helm Alehouse and the name was the classiest thing connected to the place. The point was to use different taverns, Inns and pubs so that nobody could follow a routine or notice them going to the same place too often. Phane Ashlock was the name of the man they were going to meet, a contact who passed on contracts from clients who did not want to meet directly. Some were afraid, others not wanting to be seen amongst criminals or already had contracts on themselves. Jerrod found it rather ironic that about twenty-five percent of all assassin contracts were taken out by those with a price on their head already, trying to exact revenge before they were taken down themselves. It was payback from beyond the grave, or an attempt to end their death-mark by ending whoever was paying for it. Jerrod Durant could see the logic, as a client could not pay if they themselves were dead, but it rarely worked nowadays. He knew that many nobles who went in for assassinations had death funds and the like, secret stashes to make sure that final hit was carried out.

As they entered the alehouse the sounds and smells bombarded Jerrod’s senses and he barely heard Black Arrow say “Follow me and don’t speak unless Phane speaks to you.”

Jerrod nodded with a scowl and followed his master to a table at the back of the large room full of people, tables, chairs and thick smog which hung in the air as dozens of individuals smoked pipes and added their own smoke to the cloud. The air was cloying and Jerrod pulled part of his cloak up around his mouth and nose. Black Arrow walked up the three stone steps onto the raised area at the back of the alehouse. This area was clear of the smoke, a more private space for those who required it. Both Black Arrow and Jerrod sat down across from Phane Ashlock without saying anything.

Phane made little in the way of acknowledgment, just began speaking quietly “Arrow. Durant. I’ve got two contracts for you. Should I continue?”

Black Arrow replied curtly “Of course.”

Phane put a hand through his short, wavy blond hair, pushing it back and said “The first contract is being taken out by a noble by the name of Barrington Smythe. A new player in the assassination game, he asked for the best and he knew enough to say he wanted Black Arrow.”

Black Arrow kept his face emotionless; an impressive trait as far as Jerrod was concerned. The assassination business was like playing a game of cards, you wanted to play them close to your chest and never give your opponent any clues as to what you were holding. And of course give them no inkling that you were cheating either. After all, Jerrod thought, it’s only cheating if you get caught.

Black Arrow said “What can you tell me about Mark?”

The question was one which Black Arrow used to discuss the target or targets of his contract to avoid mentioning words like target or hit when others could be listening. Jerrod had noticed that he would change the name from time to time, although Phane always knew what Black Arrow meant. Sometimes it would be Elim, for enemy, or Teresa, for target. Whatever name popped into Black Arrow’s mind at the time. Phane answered “Mark is six feet, lean, I’d guess around a hundred and ninety pounds. He has an interesting scar on his chin, running vertical. From a knife fight I hear, which he won. He’s a mid-level runner for a dock rat named Hunter Kinos. Mark sometimes gets called Tiran Stark.” This last sentence was also common, a way of giving the proper name of the target without explicitly calling attention to it.

Black Arrow asked nonchalantly “My fee?”

Phane smiled slightly and responded “Your standard for a single.” Money was never discussed in such a setting as this. Black Arrow preferred to stick to terms like standard, or percentages of the standard. Money never changed hands in a public setting; it was always done in a secluded location, often outside of the city.

Black Arrow asked simply “Reasons?”

Phane replied “A misunderstanding. Stark stole some supplies from a warehouse. It seems he misunderstood how rich and angry Smythe was about that.”

Black Arrow nodded and said “Second course?” Another misdirection which they knew meant details for the second contract.

Phane Ashlock slowly turned his head, looking around casually as he took a sip of his drink. He finally said “A personal problem. A thug named Bill Culland has taken a liking to my sister. I think it would be best for my sister if he had an accident.”

Black Arrow thought for a moment, keeping his expression blank. Then he said “Fine. The fee?”

Phane replied confidently “Standard, not a challenge for you.”

Black Arrow said equally as confidently “Plus ten percent. Personal is just a byword for more trouble than it’s worth.”

Phane sighed slightly and said “Ok, agreed. I’ll be going now. Next time you’re in town.” He stood up and walked away, heading out of the alehouse. Jerrod knew that next time you are in town meant to send him a message when the contracts were completed.

They waited for around fifteen minutes before they got up and left themselves, heading back to the manse to begin planning for their new contracts. Still Black Arrow was quiet, barely saying anything as they walked through the streets away from the docks. Jerrod liked Phane, almost. He was not as annoying as most of the other contacts Black Arrow worked with. He did not have any of the strange and irritating character flaws and personality traits the others seemed to collect like facial ticks, lazy eyes, nervous disposition and squeaky voices. Jerrod assumed it was all stress related. After all, the contacts spent most of their lives within blades reach of assassins. Dozens of assassins. Dozens of rival assassins. Contacts had to be paid for their services of course, first they were paid by the assassin and then they got a commission from the clients to interact with the assassin on their behalf. The contact made a healthy living, but at the risk of losing ones health, and life. A middleman was important, but if they got a bigger share than was considered fair then someone might decide to eliminate the middleman, so to speak.

Black Arrow had detailed how they would carry out both the contracts. It was a simple thing to learn the whereabouts of both individuals, Stark and Culland. They were both common scum, just little cogs in criminal terms. They would start with Stark. He was the most dangerous of the pair, given his knife fighting reputation. It was a simple plan. Durant would distract Stark and draw him out, and then Black Arrow would kill him. That was the most annoying thing for Jerrod. He was always the bait, or the distraction. Just for once why couldn’t Black Arrow be the bait? Jerrod thought bitterly. Or at least someone other than me. Of course this brought up another rankle. How was Jerrod Durant ever going to become a proper assassin if he never got to kill anyone?

Jerrod knew what he was supposed to do. He was to find Tiran Stark and convince him that there was someone waiting in a nearby location who was challenging him to a knife fight. He would then attempt to lead Stark to the location, where Black Arrow would be concealed so the older assassin could kill Stark with his trademark. What Jerrod Durant really wanted to do was challenge Stark to a knife fight and beat him, but he knew that Black Arrow would never allow it. Durant prepared himself for the mission. He put on plain and simple tan trousers, and a plain white shirt. He fixed an old and worn looking brown belt around his waist before putting on a pair of short leather boots which were scuffed and scraped and black in colour. He fixed a basic cloak of dark green woollen material around his neck, fastening it with a simple iron clasp. The cloak had a patch stitched on to cover a rip, and the edges were frayed. The entire outfit was designed to make him look poor, ordinary and unimportant. It was to make him blend, rather than stick out. He concealed two daggers about his person, one in a sheath contained on the inside of his right boot, running alongside his ankle, and the other held in a downward facing sheath inside the sleeve of his shirt.

Jerrod and Black Arrow walked out of the manse into their private courtyard. Black Arrow said to Jerrod “Remember, do not look at the rooftops and do not get between me and the target.”

Jerrod nodded and replied “Of course. I know what to do.”

Black Arrow responded harshly “Make sure you do. Wait five minutes and then leave.” The tall man turned and nimbly, more agile than might be expected for his size and age, climbed up onto the wall of the courtyard. He swung a grappling hook expertly before catching it on the roof of a nearby building. Almost like a blur, he swung from the rope and landed with both feet planted perfectly against the wall of the building, and began climbing the rope to the flat roof. Jerrod Durant watched as his master passed out of sight as he moved from rooftop to rooftop. It was one of the main reasons he had this manse. It was perfectly placed for gaining access to several flat roofed buildings which were not residences. Even if they had been occupied at all times, few people would have ever heard the assassin as he was as quiet as a shadow. Jerrod ruffled his blond hair before pulling the hood of his cloak up over his head. The front edge of the hood hung over his face, pointed like a dagger, or the beak of a bird of prey. It covered much of his face, including his sharp angular nose and thin, tapered cheeks and chin. His cold and callous blue eyes looked out from the hood, piercing the darkness with avian acuity. There was a strong wind blowing in from the harbour. He sat down on the wooden bench nearby and waited. Once five minutes had passed, Jerrod got up and headed away from the manse. He was going further into the interior of the city to reach the harbour on the other side. Stark was a runner in the docks area and he spent most of his evenings in a tavern just off the harbour called The Drunken Wolf. It was the main hangout of Hunter Kinos and his men. They sat in the tavern, drinking the place dry even though Kinos owned the tavern, and filled it with whatever whores were stupid but pretty enough to entertain them. Jerrod could walk in there, although he would have to tread carefully once he did. In Jerrod Durant’s opinion, he could take any one of them, but all of them at the same time was pushing it. More to the point, he was not being paid to kill them. He did not do this for free.

The city seemed deserted. Even though Ordail was a bustling port city, much of the foot traffic was generated during the day and at night most activity was limited to the harbour and nearby area. When Jerrod reached the harbour he headed off to the right. Up ahead, nestled in a corner, was The Drunken Wolf. Its front façade ran diagonally, while the buildings either side ran parallel with the straight square stonework which formed the dockyard. As Jerrod slowly walked towards the tavern, he looked around; taking in all the information he could gather about the location. He spotted an alleyway nearby. Jerrod walked over to it stealthily, checking into the darkness with keen eyesight. It was very dark, and had many crates stacked here and there. It was the best location; he could get the man to believe his opponent was hiding out of sight.

Jerrod Durant turned back and walked over to the tavern. He took a deep breath, steadying himself. Carefully he checked the sheathed and concealed dagger at his sleeve. Feeling the hard, smooth surface of the weapon, he believed he was ready. From here Jerrod could hear the sound of many people talking, laughing, and singing. It all melded into a constant murmuring. He could see the soft orange light cast through the window of the tavern by the glow of many candles within. It almost looked cosy, friendly, welcoming. Jerrod Durant knew it was not.

Taking confident, yet short steps, he stooped his posture. Jerrod pushed open the faded green, wooden door. He stepped inside and kept moving. Only a few people looked up and none said or did anything to make him seem unwelcome. Jerrod looked around, moving his eyes but keeping his head still, just like Black Arrow had taught him. He spotted Tiran Stark, sitting at a table near the centre of the room with two other men. Jerrod meandered over to them, making sure not to make his route too direct. As he reached the table he said “Are you Tiran Stark? I’m looking for a man called Tiran Stark.”

Stark looked up from the card game he was involved in and said warily “Who wants to know?”

Jerrod replied “I don’t know, I was just supposed to bring a message to Tiran Stark. A man matching your description.”

Stark narrowed his eyes “What description?”

Jerrod held his arm close to his body and pointed at Stark’s chin. He was making himself seem smaller and less of a threat. He had changed his voice as well. Jerrod was seventeen and his voice had a harsh, cold quality to it. He had disguised it, speaking softer and more childlike. He had also let his Puritan accent creep back into his speech. Coming from the central area of the Realm of Purity, his accent was not as harsh as the northern areas, it was friendlier. He said “Your scar.”

The man grunted, perhaps in dismissal. Stark replied “What’s the message boy?”

Jerrod hated being called ‘boy’. He hated it when Black Arrow called him that, but he hated it even more now. Jerrod was sickened by this common scum criminal talking down to him. But still, Jerrod was on a mission, and he kept that in mind as he said “There is a man waiting outside. He says he wants to challenge you to a knife fight. He also says you should go out to face him, and not bring any of your men.”

Stark raised an eyebrow then slammed a fist down on the table, making the cards jump and scatter in different directions. He growled “Challenge me by sending a boy to bring the message, damn his hide. Who is this bastard? What’s his bloody name?”

Jerrod answered “I don’t know. He never told me his name, just to bring the message.”

Stark jumped up from the table and said “Fine, come on then boy, take me to this nameless man. I’ll stick him good an’ proper.” Stark began to walk to the door.

Jerrod followed and then both of them stepped outside. Stark looked around, squinting and searching. Jerrod motioned with his hand “He’s over here, somewhere in the alleyway. That’s where he was waiting.”

Stark hesitated for a moment, then clenched his jaw and set off, his hands balled into tight fists, the knuckles white. He said “Hiding in the shadows eh? Soon see to this coward.” As he reached the alleyway, he drew a knife from his belt. He took a few steps into the alley, brandishing the blade in front of him, waving it back and forth to ward off attack. He said “Come out and fight coward.” Then he said to Jerrod “How much did he pay you for bringin’ the message to me anyhow?”

Jerrod smiled slightly, standing up to his full height and speaking with his ordinary cruel-sounding voice “Oh, we only get paid once you’re dead.”

Stark frowned, and turned slowly to face the boy. He was about to speak, when there was a sound. Vhip followed shortly again, vhip. Two arrows slammed into his back with a double thwap. Stark staggered and when he opened his mouth to speak his words were replaced with bloody spittle. He slumped down dead, the two arrows protruding from his back. The fletching was expertly made, dyed pitch black. The shaft of the arrow was a dark wood, stained black in a similar way to the fletching. After all, this was how Black Arrow had earned his name.

Jerrod did not look up at the position on the rooftops where the arrow had come from; he knew that Black Arrow would already be gone anyway. He simply turned and headed back to the manse by an indirect route, ensuring nobody could follow him. Upon returning to the manse there was little to say. Black Arrow was usually tight-lipped unless he was teaching Jerrod a lesson. Jerrod returned to his room and put away his weapons. He lay down on the bed and quite quickly fell asleep.

Morning arrived with an unnatural haste. Jerrod woke and sat up as sunlight streamed through the window. It seemed only moments ago that he had fallen asleep. Jerrod dressed quickly and went to the training room to begin his morning exercises. As he trained Black Arrow entered and said “Today we will deal with Culland.”

As Jerrod threw finely balanced daggers at a target board he replied “We’ve already gone over the plan.”

Black Arrow said “The plan has changed. It seems that Culland has heard something about who Phane Ashlock is. Culland is a thug; as far as he is concerned Ashlock is just a higher tier criminal and will send thugs after him to beat on Culland.”

Jerrod responded “So? We still have the element of surprise then. He doesn’t know there is a price on his head.”

Black Arrow shook his head “No, we don’t. Culland has decided that the best way to avoid these ‘thugs’ is to stay out of sight. And wouldn’t you know it he’s staying out of sight in Phane Ashlock’s sister’s home.”

Jerrod stopped training for a moment to wipe his face with a cloth. He said “What will we do then?”

Black Arrow explained “Mira Ashlock has a fairly impressive home. Phane has used quite a lot of his money to set her up in it. Solidly built, very few approaches, and in a busy area of the city. Phane clearly wanted to help protect his sister, but now all he has done is given the target a great hiding place.”

Jerrod responded “Sounds difficult. But surely he can’t stay in there forever?”

Black Arrow said “It is possible he will stay there for quite a while, and we don’t have the time to wait around. I want this done and over with so we can move on to better targets.”

Jerrod Durant smirked “You were right, more trouble than its worth.”

Black Arrow ignored Jerrod’s attitude this once and nodded “Yes. So we will need to get to Culland. Mira goes out for food and other things, generally living her life as normal. We should prepare some supplies and set up a watch. When she leaves, that is when we’ll take him. I do not want her to be around when it happens. It must be silent, clean. You understand?”

Jerrod sighed and growled “Oh not again. I hate being the damned distraction. Now you want me to keep some woman out of the way so you can kill Culland?”

Black Arrow smiled, showing white teeth which contrasted with the bushy brown beard which covered his face. He said “I thought you’d say that. No Jerrod, I will follow Mira and distract her if need be. You are going to infiltrate her home, kill Culland and get out without leaving a trace of yourself.”

Jerrod could barely contain his excitement. This is what he had been waiting for. This is the chance he had been wanting for so long. This would be his kill, his chance to show Black Arrow how good an assassin he could be. He said “This is great. When do we get started?”

Black Arrow held up a hand in a calming gesture and spoke “Soon. First we need to go over the architect’s plans which Phane has provided me with. Then we prepare our supplies and make our way to the north-eastern district of the city. There is still more to discuss, but for now, finish your exercises then join me in the study.” The older assassin turned and left the training room. Jerrod smiled and went back to his training with renewed vigour.

After he finished training Jerrod walked left out of the training room and down the corridor to the study. He opened the rich wooden door and stepped inside. Jerrod walked over to Black Arrow who stood at a polished wooden table. On the table, there was a large and heavy-looking piece of paper, similar in size to many maps. It was the layout of Mira Ashlock’s home. As Jerrod approached, Black Arrow said “The building has three floors. Front and back doors, only small windows on the ground floor, larger windows on second and third floors, skylight in the rear roof leading to the third floor, no attic. What’s the most obvious entry?”

Jerrod answered quickly “Back door.”

Black Arrow said “Right. What’s a good assassin’s entry?”

Jerrod answered without hesitation “The rear skylight.”

Black Arrow smiled slightly and asked “What are we? What’s our entry?”

Jerrod said “We’re the best. We use the second floor, rear windows, second from the left.”

Black Arrow said “Good, well done. And why that particular window?”

Jerrod knew what he was doing, saying “It is less likely to be checked often, less accessible, making it seem more secure. Plus the left side of the building is partly obscured by the next building.”

Black Arrow looked almost proud “Full marks, I’m impressed.”

Jerrod asked “What next?”

Black Arrow replied “Weapons, equipment and supplies. I will be lightly armed since I am to act as diversion. But I will be armed, should you need support.”

Jerrod nodded “I will go and prepare then.” Jerrod Durant left the study and went to gather everything he would require. He selected a short sword and a brace of throwing daggers. He also took an ordinary knife as well. After all, he thought, there is no need to be complacent. He took some minor climbing equipment, a lock-picking kit and put them away in a small satchel. He put on clothes which were dark and not baggy; he could not afford to have clothing snag on anything when climbing. The cloak he put on was a dark grey. With everything he would need gathered, Jerrod headed to the main hall of the manse, where Black Arrow already stood waiting.

Black Arrow himself was wearing an off-white shirt of rich fabric, and over the top of that, a burgundy tunic with gold buttons. The rest of his clothing was equally rich or noble, and would help him play the part of a friendly merchant if he needed to intercept Mira Ashlock. He said “Are you ready Durant?”

Jerrod replied “Yes, I’m ready.” It was only after he had answered that Jerrod realised Black Arrow had called him Durant. Not boy, not apprentice or student. It was as if he was giving Jerrod more respect now. Or at the very least he was giving him the opportunity to prove himself.

Together the assassins left the manse, and began to walk towards the north-eastern district. They walked side by side, with their weapons concealed apart from Jerrod’s short sword. There was little out of the ordinary about them, many would merely see a merchant with a young bodyguard. It took them over half an hour to reach the area around Mira Ashlock’s home, navigating through the crowds of the bustling city. Black Arrow headed to the square just across from the building while Jerrod moved stealthily into what little shadow there was at the side of the building. From here he would wait for a signal from Black Arrow.

It took almost an hour but eventually Mira Ashlock left the building by the front door. As she danced away towards the markets, Black Arrow sent the secret signal to Jerrod. Within seconds Jerrod Durant darted into action. He disappeared around the back of the building as Black Arrow watched. The older assassin would wait a few minutes before carefully trailing Mira Ashlock.

Jerrod looked intently at the building, seeing the window he would use. Taking the length of rope from his satchel, he uncoiled it deftly. There was a small grappling hook attached to the end and he held the rope in one hand as he began to swing it around quickly. He let it fly, and the hook caught fast on the architecture above the second floor windows. Jerrod tugged on the rope twice, testing it, before beginning his ascent. It took him only seconds, Jerrod had a natural affinity for climbing. When he reached the window, he checked it carefully. It was locked, as he had suspected it would be, but this was only a basic lock. It would not take long to open it. In a crouching position on the ledge, he reached into the satchel and took out the lock-picking kit. He took a simple pick, merely a small, angular piece of metal. Putting the rest of the kit in the satchel, he held the pick in his teeth while he did so. He took the pick from between his teeth with his other hand and put the pick in the lock. With deft and practised movements, he turned and twisted and rotated the pick, until a slight click was heard. Jerrod smiled as he put the pick into the satchel. This was almost too easy. He opened the window quietly and slowly, just enough to slide half of his body through the gap. He reached up gently and pulled the grapple hook from its lodged position and quickly wound the rope up. As he pulled himself inside, he noticed that the floor was wooden, quite likely creaky and noisy. It was also about three to four feet below the window sill. A small drop, but potentially loud and attention grabbing. He waited, got himself into the best position possible, then almost soundlessly dropped to the floor, landing in a crouch. He looked around, seeing several rooms, but no sign of his quarry yet.

He silently placed the rope in the satchel then stood slowly and closed the window. Gently, with delicate motions he drew a dagger and stepped carefully along the corridor which ran parallel to the stairs down to the first floor. From the layout of the house, Jerrod knew there were seven different rooms on this floor, four on the third floor, and eight on the first floor. It was a large house, and Jerrod had to search it quickly and quietly. With the dagger held downward and his other hand holding his cloak around him, Jerrod Durant began his work. He moved speedily yet made virtually no sound. Heading along the landing in the direction which would lead him to the top of the stairs, he made a move for the three rooms which were at this side of the stairs. The one to the left was a closet, hiding place if necessary, and the room on the right was a secondary study. The one directly ahead of him was one of the three guest bedrooms in the entire house. This could be where Culland was sleeping, unless they were sharing a bed. Jerrod began to wonder if Phane’s sister was a whore or not. It did not matter to Durant, but it could be useful emotional information to use on Phane Ashlock. After all, Phane would be his contact one day, and Jerrod Durant enjoyed having as much leverage as possible over people. Jerrod reached out and inch by inch turned the handle on the door to the closet. It was mostly empty, but with old cloth and other items, he could hide in here if he needed to. He did not think it would be necessary, but he left the door open just a crack anyway. He stepped up to the bedroom door and pressed his ear against it lightly. From within he could hear nothing at all. With the dagger ready, he opened the door gently. Without hesitation Jerrod stalked into the room. A cursory glance revealed nobody in the room. Leaving the room, he heard a sound downstairs. He froze for a moment.

Out in the square, Black Arrow had been about to leave to fulfil his part of the mission. He had waited about three minutes, more than enough time for Jerrod to get inside, it would not be long. Just as he turned to walk away, the veteran assassin froze. Running back along the street and right to the door was Mira Ashlock. There was no way he could stop her or warn his pupil without raising alarm and causing a scene. That had to be avoided, Phane did not want his sister involved, and he wanted an incident she would not witness. Black Arrow could only stand and watch as Mira ran up to the door, opened it, and rushed inside, closing it behind her.

Jerrod moved fast, determination marking his face. He reached the door to the master bedroom, and rushed inside. As he had hoped it was not occupied. He closed the door and pulling the door to the closet, stepped inside and concealed himself. He knew what he had heard, Mira Ashlock’s voice. She had called out “I’m just back, I forgot my list. Have you seen it?”

There had been no answer. Wherever Bill Culland was, he had not heard her. That meant she would come upstairs and that was bad for Durant. He could not be discovered and certainly could not kill Culland with the woman around. He would wait, Jerrod could be patient. Once she found the list, she would leave. He waited, straining his ears to hear whatever he could. Jerrod could be patient. He could wait until he got the right moment. From his position in the closet, Jerrod could look through the keyhole on the door and see the door to the bedroom across from him. It was closed, the way he had left it.

As Mira Ashlock ran up the stairs, she jogged along to the master bedroom. Jerrod could see the handle on the door turning slowly, and then the woman opened the door and took a step into the room. She stood there in the doorway for a moment, looking around. She did not give any indication that anything was amiss in the house. As she stood there, light footsteps approached and then Jerrod saw Bill Culland step into view. He said to Mira “You’re back quick. What’s wrong?”

Mira turned and replied “I forgot my list. Have you seen it?”

Bill seemed to think for a moment before saying “In the kitchen I think.” He leant in and kissed her on the cheek. The woman smiled and began to head away, towards the stairs to the first floor. Culland followed her.

Jerrod had gotten his first good look at Culland. He was not impressed. Culland had clearly come from one of the rooms which headed to the other side of the house. This was where the stairs to the third floor were situated and Durant felt it was a safe bet that Culland had been up there. That was why he had not heard Mira Ashlock return, and hopefully why he would have no clue that Jerrod Durant was waiting here to kill him.

Bill Culland was in his late twenties roughly the same age as Mira Ashlock, as near as Jerrod could tell. Culland was a little under six feet with a bulky build. It was difficult for Jerrod to judge, but Culland seemed to have a portly or rotund face, a bullish neck and a barrel chest. His arms looked well-defined and strong. A slab of meat for hitting people would be Jerrod’s quick assessment. Thugs did not need to be heavily muscled, just big, tough and heavy-hitting. Black Arrow had once joked that thugs were hired purely for the bone content in their skulls. Culland had short brown hair, and it was thinning slightly. He had chestnut-coloured eyes. All in all, there was not much distinguishing about Bill Culland; he just looked like an ordinary, average, run of the mill citizen. He did not have any scars like Stark had, nor the keen-eyed look of a killer which Stark and many of his cronies bore. In fact, Jerrod was almost double-guessing himself as to who Culland really was. He did not act like a thug, and had spoken in a polite and refined manner to Mira, now that Jerrod Durant thought about it.

Mira Ashlock was short, perhaps even as short as five feet three. She had curly, shoulder-length blond hair, the same colour as her brother. Mira had a slight figure, shapely, and Jerrod thought that she would be considered pretty or attractive. Not that Jerrod Durant cared; he did not care about anything other than himself. Jerrod watched and waited as they headed down the stairs together. He sat back, playing the dagger across his knuckles, between his fingers; much like other people might use a coin. He had some time to pass as Jerrod could not easily leave the closet until he was assured that Mira had left and he could deal with Bill silently and efficiently. This was his big chance, this was Jerrod Durant’s opportunity to step out of Black Arrow’s shadow and prove his worth and skill. This was his shot at becoming Jerrod Durant, assassin, instead of Jerrod Durant, assassin’s apprentice. He would not fail. He was the best, trained to be the best, and soon, he would even be better than Black Arrow.

Durant patiently waited; it was all he could do. Time seemed to pass slowly as he waited, and he was starting to get irritable. He should not be huddled here like this, it was demeaning. Phane Ashlock should have simply been practical and written his sister off as an acceptable loss, Jerrod thought. Have them both killed and be done with it. He let out a brief sigh, then caught himself, held the breath and released it normally and quietly. All of this waiting was making him sloppy, making him dispense with his careful, calculated, time-honoured and practiced training. The training was not just to make him stronger and faster and better at fighting, it was to keep him alive and unseen, unheard. And now he was screwing that up just because the events were not going to the plan. And Jerrod knew that the plan was never absolute, there were always deviations, and there was always random happenstance. The twist of fate was like the twist of a knife, cold, stinging, and shockingly abrupt.

As he listened, Jerrod could hear muffled voices from the floor below, and after a few minutes he heard the soft wooden slam of a door being closed normally. Gone? He wondered as he listened silent and breathlessly for further sound. Nothing seemed to come; no sound seemed to signal anything further. And then he heard footsteps, heavy, landing with slow and purposeful taps against the wooden surface of the stairs. Gradually they got louder as Bill Culland reached the top of the stairs and walked towards the master bedroom. But the footsteps did not stop, they continued past and away from the room, heading through a door and calmly receding. Jerrod knew that Culland was heading back to the third floor, and that was where Durant would make his move. That was where he would strike and that was where Culland would die. He waited two more minutes and then slowly stood up and opened the door to the closet, dagger in hand. Leaving the master bedroom Jerrod held the dagger in a downward position, the blade resting against his forearm. He crept stealthily along to the open door on his right, the large room beyond was a study with several chairs and couches as well as a bar. Durant kept walking slowly through the room, towards the open door on the other side. This would lead to another corridor, similar to where he had entered, with a set of stairs going up to the third floor of the house.

As Black Arrow calmly watched the house, he saw Mira Ashlock leave again. He breathed a silent word of relief and casually wandered away from the square and along the street which would lead him to the market area. That was clearly Mira’s destination now. And Jerrod would do his part before long.

Durant neared the door, prepared to plunge the dagger into the heart of his target. He could not be sure exactly where Culland was other than beyond that door, and so the young assassin braced himself. Jerrod waited a moment then swept through the door, quickly checking left and right, eyes searching for Culland. As he turned his head, his hood snapped back and forth with the precise movements of a bird of prey. He continued on, walking to the foot of the stairs. As he stood at the bottom of the stairs, he drew a throwing dagger as well, and then began ascending the staircase. He knew that the stairs opened up into a large room instead of a corridor. He would have no cover there, no chance of using stealth to remain concealed. The third floor only had four rooms. Two of them were the remaining guest bedrooms, sitting side by side at the back of the house. There was also a small washroom up there to be used by the guests. The large room, which took up much of the front section of the house on that floor, and where the stairs entered, was a parlour. It was open, with large windows which doubled as doors, to open onto the small balcony area on the front of the house. If Culland was in this room, which to Jerrod’s mind, he most certainly would be, the assassin would have to be very quiet going up the stairs, and extremely quick once he was at the top. He needed Bill Culland dead in ten seconds or less, because that would be all the time it would take for him to reach the balcony and be seen by the people below. If Culland raised an alarm, Jerrod would have failed. He refused to be a failure.

Jerrod slowed down; focussing all his concentration and skill on making sure he made no sound. He went down into a crouch, trying to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible. He could not afford to be spotted before he was ready. An assassin was only as good as his training, and Jerrod’s was the best.

Black Arrow continued to follow Mira Ashlock at a discreet distance. He watched as she spoke to people in passing, talked with traders selling their wares, and went on her way. Time was of the essence, and Black Arrow could only guess as to how Jerrod was getting on. He followed the woman as she turned left into the wider street where the main market was. He was starting to get anxious. She could decide to turn back at any moment and he would not be able to hold her attention for long. Intimidation was his forte, not distraction or persuasion. Just as he thought time was running out, Black Arrow got a reprieve. From further along the street, Phane Ashlock walked towards his sister. As he engaged her in conversation Phane gave Black Arrow an imperceptible nod which the assassin returned. Black Arrow turned and made his way back towards the house. He needed to check on his young protégé, and perhaps end something which was taking too long. Black Arrow picked up his pace.

Jerrod peeked above the level of the floorboards, and saw Culland sitting in a chair reading a book. Quickly Durant moved up to the top of the stairs. Out of the corner of his eye, Culland spotted the shape. He stood with a look of shock on his face, standing so fast that the chair was knocked over. He said sharply “Who tha—”

Before Culland finished Jerrod threw the throwing dagger with a quick whip-snap of the wrist. As it sliced through the air, Culland reacted with speed unthought-of. The dagger struck, planted firmly in the thick pages of the book. Culland tossed it aside casually, moving forward a few steps. Jerrod was unfazed, fast reflexes were common; Jerrod Durant was faster by far. He moved towards Culland and quickly made two swipes with the knife at chest height. Culland dodged the first, but the second caught him. His shirt was ripped, and there was a very shallow cut across his pectoral muscles. Culland seemed to shrug it off as if the wound was nothing. Jerrod knew the wound was nothing as well; he had not expected some thug to be this skilled. Something was not right here. Flipping the blade downward, Jerrod raised his arm and went for a plunging strike for Culland’s heart. But the man grabbed his arm, turned his back to Jerrod and heaving, tossed him into a cabinet and the wall. There was a clatter and thump, and Jerrod felt the jarring impact of his own body on hard wood. With a snarl Jerrod stood and repositioned himself, saying “You’ll pay for that.”

Culland backed off, his way to the stairs now clear. He said “You came here to kill me. Did you expect me to beg for my life boy?”

Boy. The word seemed to sting more than being thrown around. It was insulting. Jerrod tried to remain calm, to keep his training fresh and clear in his mind. He edged towards Culland, and Culland edged away, neither of them making the move to run. Jerrod gripped the fallen chair as he walked around it, keeping his eyes fixed on Culland like an eagle spotting its next meal. Without warning, Durant flung the chair at Culland and dashed forward. The man ducked the chair, but did not have the time to flee. As Jerrod thrust with the knife, Culland spun with it, wincing in pain as the metal cut into his left arm. But once more, it was a light cut, not deep or severe. As Culland continued to turn he used his left arm to guide Jerrod’s knife arm wide and passed him, and slammed his right fist into Durant’s cheek. The blow staggered him, and the heavy kick to the gut sent him crashing into a table, the wood breaking under his weight. At once Culland bolted for the stairs, taking them two at a time. With only a few seconds to recover, Jerrod Durant leapt up and gave chase, thundering after his quarry.

Black Arrow moved quickly, arriving back in front of the house. He glanced about; making sure nobody was paying attention to him. Black Arrow walked over to the gap at the side of the house, walked around to the back and entered the backyard like Jerrod had done earlier. He made his way over to the back door. Without climbing equipment, he would need to pick the lock and go in there. He was sure time was running out, he did not know how long Phane Ashlock would keep his sister away from the house for.

As Culland ran he used everything he could to get away. He ran through the open doors and slammed them shut behind him. Jerrod had to slow and open them before rushing on again. Culland tossed furniture and other objects in the assassin’s path. When Culland neared the door which would lead to the corridor with the stairs to the first floor, he slowed and grabbing a tall bookcase, pushed it over at Jerrod. He ran on, slamming the door behind him. Durant felt pain as the bookcase hammered down on his back and head, but the bookcase was light, and he kicked it away and flung the door open again. He ran on, using all of his speed to close the gap once more. Instead of running around the banister and down the stairs like Culland, Jerrod put one hand on the railing and spring-boarded himself over and turning in the air. He had timed it right and landed on Culland’s back near the bottom of the stairs and sending both of them sprawling and clattering on the stairs to the ground. The knife fell from his hand, skidding and sliding away across the floor. Jerrod wrapped his arm around Culland’s neck and held his wrist hard for extra leverage, trying to choke the man. Culland stood up and twisted, turned this way and that, trying to shake Durant loose. He hammered Jerrod in the ribs twice with and elbow, loosening his grip slightly. Culland gasped and grunted for breath, then spun and pushed back with his feet. He smashed Jerrod bodily into the wall with all his weight, and a second time as Durant fell off to the ground. Culland thumped his boot down onto Jerrod’s chest, winding him and causing him great pain. The man ran on, heading for the back door. Shaking the cobwebs from his head, Jerrod pushed himself up to his feet and ran on after Culland, as fast as he could in his injured state. He drew the short sword from its scabbard as he went.

Black Arrow could hear the crashing and fighting going on inside. He tossed the lock pick away and prepared to kick the door in. Just as he stepped back to raise his foot, the door was flung open and Culland barrelled into him, knocking him to the ground. The man stamped on his hand, and kicked his other foot over Black Arrow’s head as he stumbled onwards. Culland stopped short now, turned and dragged the second man to his foot before throwing him further away into the yard. Black Arrow rolled, trying to regain his senses.

As Culland advanced on the fallen form of Black Arrow, Jerrod rose from the shadow of the house. Silently he moved forward, with the short sword in his hand. Culland was not paying attention, not this time at least. Without warning or hesitation he struck, gripping Culland’s shoulder and slamming the point of the blade into his back, aiming right for the heart. The steel slid through the flesh almost bloodlessly, Culland fell dead within seconds. As Black Arrow began to stand up, Jerrod lowered his weapon and said “He didn’t even see me coming this time.”

Black Arrow straightened his clothing as he replied “That is what it is Durant.”

Jerrod asked “What?”

Black Arrow smiled “The art of the kill.”

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