A light from the window illuminated the sparse lawn in front of the Tenorbekk cottage. It stood at the end of a dirt lane on the edge of the town where houses sprung up on the banks near the forest. Eirikr stood in the shadow of a large oak tree across the road and watched the front door for an hour before a man emerged and shouted something back inside before slamming the door shut. As he walked down the path to the road leading to the town, he whistled out of tune.
Eirikr ducked back behind the tree; he did not have to look to see the man would have been handsome except that his features were sharp and cruel. He knew them well; any time his father needed something “taken care of,” Sten showed up in the parlour in his dirty shoes and cap. The first time he saw him, the man was barely a man: he was a lad of seventeen who already had an air about him that gave six-year-old Eirikr an uneasy feeling. When his cold blue eyes settled on the boy, his grin caused Eirikr’s heart to skip a beat from fear. Kolrson Tenorbekk gave Sten orders to guard a particularly large sum of money being used as bait to trap a shopkeeper that had been skimming profits.
“You will go unnoticed and then strike if necessary,” Kolrson had said.
His father had not blinked an eye when Sten reported the shopkeeper had stumbled into his knife and was dead.
At the end of the road, a man joined Sten and they laughed loudly as they clapped each other on the back. As they disappeared around the corner, their raucous conversation echoed through the fading evening. Eirikr bet that they were heading down to the pub when he looked around the tree toward his home. Every fiber of his being wanted to go inside and embrace Ninim. He could hardly breathe he craved her touch so much; instead, he turned and followed after Sten relying on the man’s voice to lead the way.
He managed to trail Sten and his buddy to a seedy tavern near the northern docks. He waited outside for half an hour before deciding he should not keep Eruviel waiting any longer. With his gaze still on the door of the tavern, he started to turn and head down the alley.
A boy half his age went tumbling to the boards of the road.
“Hari! What are you doing here?” Eirikr reached down and hoisted the boy to his feet as he pushed back his hood.
Hari ducked his head and mumbled something Eirikr couldn’t quite catch. Eirikr knelt to level his eyes with his. Hari repeated his words but kept his eyes on the ground at their feet. “Ma told me to watch fer ye. She dinna think ye were dead like that man said.” Hari lived two houses down from him and Ninim. His father Harek often hunted with Eirikr and his mother made the best venison sausage in Esgaroth. Ninim loved to learn from the other woman and they often spent many hours cooking together.
“Your mother told you to watch for me? Tell me what you know, Hari.” Eirikr spoke in a whisper with his finger to his lips. His eyes darted to the tavern across the alley.
“That man ye followed here,” Hari said quickly, “he said ye died in the Mirkwoods. That he were ye cousin from Dale and he were here to take care of Missus Ninim. But all he does is yell at us kids and throw up in the garden. He-” the boy looked up briefly and turned red, “-he isn’t very nice to anyone, Master Tenorbekk. Not even Missus Ninim.”
Eirikr nodded. “I know he isn’t, Hari. I am here to make sure he goes away.”
Hari’s eyes brightened as he looked up at Eirikr. “Ye are? How are ye gonna do that?”
Eirikr took a deep breath. “I am not sure about that yet. But he is here because Missus Ninim is here. If I take her with me, he will leave, too.”
The boy ducked his head again and Eirikr could see his cheeks darken. “I dunno if the Missus would be able to go anywhere, Master Tenorbekk.”
“What do you mean, boy?”
Eirikr did not mean to sound so cold that the boy took a step back.
“I-I shouldn’t say, sir. It isn’t my place to say.” Hari took another step back and started to turn. “I should get home, sir. Ma will start to worry as it’s after dark.”
Eirikr caught Hari’s arm and held him firmly. “Hari. What did you mean?” he demanded with what he hoped was calm authority instead of the panic he felt inside. “Is Ninim all right?”
Hari shook his head and said, “Y-yes. I think so. I promise not to tell Ma yer back. She’d just make a big fuss over all of it, anyway.”
Eirikr looked at the boy for a moment. “Hari, I do not know what is going to happen over the next few days. I want you to stay away if you can, though, okay? Play down in the square or go into the woods. Go fishing with your father and then stay inside at night.”
Eyes wide, Hari nodded and Eirikr finally released him. “I promise, Master Tenorbekk. Just…just you take care of Missus Ninim, okay!”
As the boy ran off down the dark alley between two merchants’ homes, Eirikr stood and watched him. He looked back at the tavern where Sten drank with his associates and then raised his hood back over his head and started back toward the nicer part of town.
* * *
Eirikr stepped inside the Silver Reel and scanned the common room for the familiar face. Eruviel sat drinking at a table well to the side of the busy room and he made a beeline to the chair opposite her. He kept his hood up as he sat trusting in her instinct and Elvish senses to keep his back.
Eruviel looked at him expectantly. “Well, mellon?”
“You look comfortable,” he noted instead of answering her implied question. “Did the men in the square shed tears when you bought trousers instead of skirts?”
A dark brow arched over her green eyes. “You better order a drink, gwador, before your empty hand brings a tear to the barman.”
Eirikr smirked and said, “He knows my face; perhaps you should buy it for me.”
Rolling her eyes, she pushes her drink toward him. “You have news. You best be ready to share when I return.” Eruviel stood and patted his shoulder as she passed him to go order another drink.
Eirikr took up the mug and savored the house ale. He missed the bitterness of the pale lager Ditmar brewed and the cool finish revitalized him.
When Eruviel returned, he looked up at her with sincerity.
“I was followed. There is no need for concern, but my pursuer did provide some insight.”
Eruviel glanced toward the door. “Is he here? Where is he?”
With a shake of his head, he brushed aside her concern. “I sent him home. Hari revealed Sten’s presence is unwelcome by all, but he also said that he did not think Ninim would be able to travel. He would not say any more.”
Her eyes wrinkled as she frowned. “Do you think she’s ill?”
Eirikr tried to maintain a neutral expression. “It is hard to say. I did not see her when I trailed Sten from the house to a tavern on the north side. I hoped to – I won’t lie and say I did not. But the evening would be the best time to strike if he has a habit of spending his time with the dockworkers.”
Eruviel nodded. “I had an encounter with some lovely young men in the market. It seems your farrier friend was correct; trouble is brewing in Lake-town. We need to be cautious.”
Nodding, he downed the rest of the drink and passed her some coin. “Get a room here. We can bring Ninim here to regroup; they would never expect us to do anything but flee as soon as we extract her.”
Again her brow arched. “Are you sure? Wouldn’t that allow your father’s men to return to him?”
Eirikr dipped his head. “Yes. But he would never believe we would not run. He would never believe we would try to get Abiorn nor would he guess you have business in Dale that needs tending.”
She nodded slowly, her eyes never leaving his face. “You think he would send pursuit away from Dale, leaving him vulnerable.”
“If we are lucky. I hope he will realize the trouble is not worth the coin.”
“And what of you? I assume you don’t intend on staying here.”
He shot a glance over his shoulder. “No. I don’t think it’s safe for me to do so. In fact, I should head for the woods now. I tomorrow night, I will meet you on the north side of the square…” he trailed off as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “Do what you will until then.” Before she could protest, he stood and strode away from the table. Sticking to the edges of the room, he made his way to the door and quickly ducked out into the street. He walked briskly to the east toward the bridges to the shores. The feeling of being watched did not fade as he ducked down shadowy shortcuts trying to lose the tail.
It wasn’t until he crossed the bridge and neared the shadows of the trees did the sound of something whistling through the air warn him of the knife. He spun to the left and stooped to his knee as the blade whizzed past and struck the trunk of an evergreen. The thud of boots storming near alerted him of his charging attacker. Instead of rising to meet him, Eirikr stayed low feigning injury. As the man reached for his neck, Eirikr burst to his feet and knocked him off balance. As he fell, the attacker kicked out at Eirikr’s knee. He only just managed to dodge the impact, but the movement it took caused him, too, to fall in a heap on the grass.
The moonlight flashed off the dagger pulled from a sheath beneath the man’s arm. Before he could get a grip on it, Eirikr slammed his fist into the man’s mouth. His knuckled bruised against teeth and in the back of his mind, he mused that they were probably torn. He rolled, dragging the man with him. The momentum caused them to tumble over one another until his attacker sucked in a cry; Eirikr pulled back and saw the knife in the man’s neck. The blood pulsed from the wound, pooling beneath the man’s head and soaking into the ground beneath him.
Scrambling to his feet, Eirikr wiped his mouth with his swollen knuckles and looked down at the dying man.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
Choking on his own blood, the man possessed the audacity to laugh. Flecks of red flew out from between his lips and spotted his dirty shirt.
“Y-yer wife s-says hullo,” the man managed to articulate before he started drowning on his own blood. Eirikr watched the blood slow to an ooze with each pulse of the cretin’s heart. He would not have the luxury of bleeding out quickly. No, it would be a slow death.
Gritting his teeth, he reached down and pulled a third knife from the man’s belt. He had helped the passing of animals he hunted. He knew how to end suffering quickly and with mercy.
His fingers flexed around the hilt of the knife and he slowly raised it as he stared down at it. It was long – more a dirk than a dagger. He turned it over and stared at the carving of a wagon wheel in the dark wood.
“Where did you get this?” he asked. He did not need to. It had lain in a chest beneath Ninim’s wedding gown. His hand tightened around the hilt and he dropped to his knee beside the man. “How did you come across this weapon?”
The man looked as though he wanted to laugh again. Eirikr seized the front of his bloodied shirt and pulled him up.
The man’s eyes started to glaze.
“No, damnit, where did you get this?”
The man went slack as he lost consciousness. A growl of frustration escaped Eirikr as he sunk the dirk into the man’s chest with both hands, sending him – and the answers to Eirikr’s questions – to the beyond.