The rain poured down ceaselessly.

It was the first of the heavy spring storms that hit the southwestern coast of Ardwynn every year.  Here in Rivers End, the most southern of the Great Cities, no one dared to venture out into the downpour.  The fierce winds whipped about as if the gods were hurling their emotions upon the world.  Debris from torn rooftops, broken fences, and the like occasionally blew past the covered porch where Cuvass the Harper sat.

He’d come out of the Griffin’s Wings to get a bit of fresh air.  His throat was getting too old to take in all that pipe smoke those damned Dra’diib kept spewing out.

Damn li’l bastards smoke an’ drink like there’s never goin’ to be a t’morrow.  The ways this storm’s brewin’ up there’s likely not to be either.

As if to endorse his statement the wind sent a swirling gust upon the porch that blew the cover off his harp.

Eya, ya bastards up there!

A mock curse to the wind lords as he shook his fist at the sky.

If ya soak my strings I can’t eat none.

Following this came a low growl of sorts.  He draped his harp again, this time placing a leg of his chair on the corners of the burlap cover.

Cuvass was not a bad-tempered man by nature.  He just got a irritable when his body was uncomfortable, and when the rainy season began his bones tended to ache.  With that thought he sat back and rubbed his shoulders.  He had a number of reasons to be thankful, and he was.  He could have been without shelter from the storm, and shivering in some shanty-town alley of the ’Tween.  He could have been starved, his belly growling and wondering where his next meal was coming from.  Yes, things could be a whole lot worse.

Btrium, the owner of the Griffin’s Wings, was in every night.  He had hired Cuvass to play the “old ballads.”  Btrium appreciated a good conversation with an old-timer like Cuvass and had one of the more successful inns on the south side.  So Cuvass did more than simply make ends meet.  He actually made a decent living at the old inn.

Cuvass had been playing the Griffin’s Wings for many years now, and even though his old fingers could no longer pick as they once had Btrium still let Cuvass hang about and play.  Don’t misunderstand, Btrium was indeed the Crown Prince of Bastards.  The only reason that loud mouthed braggadocios muck puddle hadn’t thrown Cuvass into the street was because harpers brought in business; Dra’diib business mainly, and the stout little Dra’diib drank more ale, smoked more tobacco, and gambled away more money than any other peoples that wandered through the south side of Rivers End.  Men that could play the harp were few.  Fewer still were men who knew Dra’diib ballads as Cuvass did.  Yet, if another Harper came along that could play them better, Cuvass would be on his arse in a mud puddle faster than he could say, “Gods damn yer ugly arse to the Void, ye ungrateful bastard!”

Thinking about all that made his knuckles ache, and he rubbed them feeling a little insecure about his station in life.  With his brow furrow into deep old lines Cuvass lean back in his chair, listened to the storm, and brooded over these matters.

It was then that he saw it; far down Griffin Street, a dark grey form slowly advancing down the center of the road.

What the hells? 

Cuvass squinted his eyes to make out the approaching shape. It was a rider upon horse.  Of that he was sure.

I’ll be tarred and tortured!  Who’d be so stupid as to be out in this mess?

The rider approached from the south—no doubt a traveler from out of the city—and trotted along as if he had all the time in the world, seeming oblivious to the heavy, knife-like drops of rain that stabbed down at a sharp angle.  Even his horse seemed unbothered.  There were no mounts tethered down in the street.  They were all in the city’s overflowing stables to keep them out of the storm.

The rider appeared to be a man, from dress and posture; he wore a long cape and a wide brimmed hat tied about his chin.  The sleeves of his heavy coat were strapped at the wrists over his gloves.  Leather chaps flapped about over his boots that rested in deep stirrups designed for aggressive riding.  Over his right shoulder could be seen the pommel of a longsword that was worn battle fashion across his back.  The horse was laden with packs as if for a long journey.

The rider stopped before the porch of the Griffins Wings.  The horse looked at Cuvass, a suspicious glint in its eye.  Cuvass thought it odd that the horse had looked at him so.  He then realized that the rider had not dismounted.  Cuvass looked up, and met the gaze of this Stranger.

Rain poured down and dripped from the sharp features of the man’s face.  He looked pale—ill even—almost as one dead; a corpse sitting upright in the saddle.

Cuvass swallowed hard.

Gods look at him!  He could be dead!

Cuvass couldn’t recall the man moving at all as he had ridden up the street.  Not even a tilt of his head against the gale.  Sure would explain his casual attitude with the storm; wouldn’t really matter it if you’re dead.

Cuvass didn’t know what to do.  Should he say something?  What if the rider was really dead?  Maybe he was possessed. Cuvass was frozen by the dilemma.

It was strange, but deep down inside he was truly afraid of the possible consequence of taking any action at all.  It was like he was afraid the Stranger might suddenly, violently burst to life, and attack him in some way or another.  Or maybe he’d simply fall over dead and splash down into the mud.  Anything could happen, and whatever it was, Cuvass did not want it to be his doing that caused it.

Cuvass’ memory carried him back to a time in his youth; his first deer hunt.  His father, with a single perfect bow-shot, had brought down a great stag. Cuvass’ father had made him walk up to the huge beast and give it a swift, hard kick in the ribs to see if was still living.  This was to build the young boys courage he was told.  The dreadful apprehension of the few moments it took to walk up to the stag had been so awful and the scar on his memory so deep that even now at this totally obscure time it had the power to flash through his mind at the slightest semblance of emotion.

Suddenly the Stranger moved.  He acknowledged Cuvass with a quick nod, then he adeptly swung down out of the saddle.  Muddy brown water splashed up on his boots then was quickly washed away by the rain.  He tethered the reigns of his horse, then walked up onto the porch, still seeming in no great hurry to be out of the weather.  He headed for the double swinging doors of the Griffins Wings the stopped.  His head turned and he looked down at Cuvass.

It was intense that look … almost unbearable.  It pierced something deep within Cuvass, like an impalement of his soul, and following close behind was a deep, deep dread.  Cuvass had endured a great many things in his life, but he could not endure that stare for long.  Before he knew what his body was doing his mouth open and spoke seemingly of its own accord.

“Play a song for ye?”

The Stranger’s hand moved slowly to his waist, and disappeared behind his cloak.  Cuvass stiffened.  The Stranger then produced a large coin.  He rubbed his thumb over the surface three times then flipped it to Cuvass.  The Harper watched it spin, the dim grey light of the afternoon reflecting of its golden faces as it spun towards him.

Golden?  Could it be?

The coin landed heavily in Cuvass’ hand.  He brought it to his mouth and tweaked his jaw sideways so his last remaining teeth could be brought down on it.  The surface of the coin gave ever so slightly.

Fires of the hells, it is gold! 

He turned it over and over examining the two faces in total disbelief; one side was a dragon in flight, the other was the sign of the Royal House of Ardwynn.  A royal gold sovereign would keep Cuvass living comfortably for many moons!  He stood up faster than his old bones had let him move for a very long time.

“Play a song for ye?  Damn them all, I’ll play every song that I ever …”

The Stranger was gone, leaving only the doors to the Griffin’s Wings swinging behind him.  The Harper hesitated, puzzled.

How’d he ..? 

He shook his head and followed the generous music lover into the inn.

The first sensation that took Cuvass as he stepped through the doors was silence; it seemed deadly quiet in the pub.  His second sensation was visual; a flash of light at the far end of the bar.  His eyes snapped there, and at first he could not believe what it was he saw.

The head of Btrium, the owner of The Griffin’s Wings, was spinning to the ground, spraying a dark gout of blood as it went.  His hands reached up and groped for a head that was no longer there.  Cuvass could see the terror and surprise in Btrium’s eyes as his head bounced upon the floor planks.  Less than a blink later there followed two more flashes.  Then Btrium’s bodyguards dropped near their boss’ headless corpse.

It’s the Stranger! 

With a fourth flash the killer sheathed his sword.

Gods!  How did he move so fast? 

Then slowly, methodically, the Stranger backed out of the Griffin’s Wings; he locked eyes briefly with all in the pub as he went.  With each quick glance was given a silent warning.

Cuvass was the last to look into those eyes, all he found within was malice and murder.  Cuvass’ hand went limp, and dropped the coin.  It tumbled to the floor.  There it bounced then spun, as a top spins, for several seconds—the only sound in the pub—then it slipped between the floor planks never to be seen again, as the assassin disappeared back into the storm.




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