The quiet between the soft plod of horse hooves amplified Irek’s thoughts until they echoed in his skull. The dark spaces between the trees did not help his unease. There were stories about this place. Irek cleared his throat. “Not too far now.”
Lord Valentin’s face remained shadowed and shifting in the swinging light of their saddle lanterns, leaving Irek to wonder if the young man had heard him. The lord gave no nod or murmur of acknowledgement, and the silence followed them down the overgrown hunting trail.
There was nothing left to say, Irek rationalized, and the quiet was perfectly natural. They certainly had little in common aside from their destination. Lord Valentin was a man with enough money to hire Irek, and Irek was a man with enough need to accept. Irek had picked Lord Valentin out at the crossroads town, standing with his too fine, unseasonable, coat and dust covered boots. They’d shook hands, Irek’s rough palms catching on Lord Valentin’s silver threaded gloves.
The journey had started out pleasant enough, a ship up the river, and then a caravan as far as the tradepost. Irek’s navigation had been indispensible, and Lord Valentin had been inquisitive filling the empty hours with questions. Irek and the others had happily entertained him with tales of their, then, distant destination. Filled with myths and rumors of ancient cults, arcane prohibitions, and ritual murder, the ruins made for good campfire fodder.
But now, the young man had been silent for hours and Irek had begun to hate him for it. Aboard boat and wagon, Valentin charmed the hired hands with easy wit and generous coin. Among the others, an hour hadn’t passed without Valentin flashing money or an eager request for stories. So close to Valentin’s goal, that affability was discarded, leaving Irek feeling as if he’d been tricked into liking the sullen lordling.
They pulled up before the edge of the river to water their horses and slip from saddles. Only a few miles from the ruins, Valentin didn’t want to stop, but Irek insisted. Their mounts were struggling and they needed the rest. Valentin frowned and Irek pushed, reminding the young lord that there was little point paying a guide if you didn’t listen to them.
Irek unfurled his bedroll to lay down as he waited for Valentin’s breathing to slow. Without a fire, their small camp was dark under the stars. Irek listened to the soft clink of horse tack and ignored the growing silence and his thoughts within it. Some at the trade post had warned him, others had wanted in. But Irek could handle a single, soft-palmed, boy himself and didn’t want to share the take.
There was no need to risk the ruins to get paid, foolish fourth sons lost their lives all the time trying to prove their name in the wilderness. He pulled the knife from the scratchy wool bedroll and crept towards the lord’s bedroll.
A cold quiet laid over the camp like a blanket. Irek moved with soundless footfalls, this was not the first time he’d collected payment early. When he reached the cool cotton of Valentin’s bedroll he stopped, listening. No crackle of fire distracted him, and even the horses did not stir. But there was no breathing either.
Silence rushed into Irek’s ears. Lord Valentin was gone. Irek swore, breaking the quiet as he moved about pulling up his pack. Valentin would not be far without his guide, but the trip would be wasted if Valentin managed to get into the ruins. Irek could not break the peace there and Valentin’s silver gloves would do little good to Irek at the bottom of some pit trap. He set off into the soundless night after the lordling, the knife ready in his hand.
Better late than never, I am still a thief this week despite being out of town. For this round, I stole a navigator from Apprentice, Never Master.