AS ALWAYS, the road stretched out before Octavian Rose looked long, barren, and lonely. The last of the autumn foliage had shriveled to a few curled brown leaves that skittered across the dirt path, and the tall grass alongside it had withered to hollow, washed-out stalks. Octavian hoisted the pack containing all his worldly possessions onto shoulders that didn’t feel strong enough to bear it. He checked the dagger he kept on his belt to protect himself and the pouch on his opposite hip that held a handful of copper coins. After a last look back at the quaint farmhouse and barn that had been his home for the past few months, he turned toward the muted gray sky and landscape and started out. The lower the sun sank beneath the mountains to the northwest, the less the contrast between the ground and the heavens. Slowly, all the color bled out of the world, leaving it chilled, numb, and as void of life and energy as Octavian felt as he forced his feet to carry him along the path.
He was dead, at least in the eyes of his father and anyone else who mattered. That spring, he’d left his torn and bloody cloak in the lair of the bandits who had kidnapped him. The memory of the unlikely accomplice he’d found for his ruse coaxed a rare smile to his chapped lips. Whenever he felt like he could no longer be strong, Octavian summoned the memory of the assassin—probably not much older than his eighteen years—who’d killed a dozen men and aided Octavian in feigning his demise. That assassin, who’d refused to tell Octavian his name even after they’d been quite intimate, had been strong, more than capable of taking care of himself against anything the world hurled in his direction, and Octavian aspired to the same.
With renewed determination, Octavian headed north, hoping to encounter a village, a tavern, or a small camp before full darkness fell. He’d slept along the road before, but it was dangerous, not to mention cold this time of year in northern Selindria. He’d spent the summer helping a family mow their hay and harvest their wheat, and in exchange, they’d given him a share of their meager food stores and a cot in the barn. With winter pounding insistently at their door, the farmers could no longer afford to offer Octavian hospitality, and he didn’t expect their generosity or pity, not when he’d never received either from his blood relatives.
The assassin who could have just as easily killed him had granted Octavian a chance to make his own way in the world, to choose his path and live without another’s yoke around his neck. Octavian shivered. His belly hurt from too many months of too little food, his muscles ached from too many hours of work for too little coin, and he wanted to collapse in the dry grass by the roadside, but he couldn’t. He’d partially earned and partially been given his freedom, and he couldn’t squander it, so he forced himself a few hundred yards farther along the rocky path.
Goddesses, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his independence, but he knew it wasn’t this: working odd jobs from dawn until dusk for barely enough food to sustain himself. The assassin who had let Octavian go after killing his captors had warned him against displaying weakness, and so Octavian had never asked for charity. He’d earned his keep, but he wanted more. He wanted much more: power, respect, and influence, though not in the way of his Cast-Down savior. He didn’t want to live relegated to the shadows, cutting life down from the periphery, unable to walk into the light and claim his just rewards. No, if he played the game, he wanted to win, and more than that, he wanted to hoist his spoils into the air to the cheers of the masses. He wanted greatness, and he wanted recognition. As he trudged along the road, he tried to formulate a plan to achieve his goals. He knew he needed to make a name for himself, a name others would one day speak with reverence.
By the time the crescent moon had risen, frost sparkled on the desiccated grass and rounded stones lining the road. Octavian’s breath wreathed his head in a frozen halo, and he rubbed his tingling hands together. Up ahead, a few fires burned a little way from the road, a semicircle of high, jagged rocks partially sheltering whoever warmed themselves beside them. Octavian paused and touched the hilt of his dagger. Campfires could mean many things: traveling merchants, farmers, people visiting friends, or bandits and worse. The small blazes punching holes in the cold and darkness could indicate a group of men who’d slit his throat for the few copper pieces in his pouch, who’d possibly do things that made him wish for death first, so Octavian moved off the road to escape their notice. He might have been raised the son of a wealthy merchant, but life on the road had been a harsh tutor, and he wasn’t a fool. Slowly, trying to squelch the crunch of the grass beneath his holey boots, he hid himself behind a copse of stunted, leafless trees to listen to the men seated around those fires.
A quick count revealed six men, and horses snuffled and pawed the ground somewhere beyond the circle of light. Octavian didn’t see any wagons or carriages, which meant these men rode. Few people beyond knights and sell-swords rode rather than traveling in coaches or drays. Octavian crouched down and crept a little closer. Being a thief would never bring him the glory he coveted, but hunger had forced his hands to close around the possessions of others before. Growing up, he’d never imagined feeling such desperation, and he’d remember it—being stuck between starvation and dirtying his hands—before he ever judged another man.
Even now, the distant heat of the campfires lured Octavian closer. He trembled, hands losing feeling and nose running, as he observed the men sitting on the ground. They wore mismatched—probably scavenged—bits of plate, chain mail, leather, and furs. An argument seemed to rage between the man in the nicest armor, probably the leader, and a big fellow in a dented breastplate partially obscured by a heavy fur-lined cloak. Plumes of fog, orange in the firelight, sprayed from their mouths as they shouted at each other.
“And I’m telling you, Lyman, reputation is everything in this business! See how many more jobs we can get when word gets around we not only failed in what we were hired to do, but let our patron, the patron paying us to provide safe passage, be captured!”
Lyman, a stout man with an ample belly and a dark beard, pointed a gloved hand at the other man. “We were paid in advance for our work, you goddess-damned fool. We still have the coin, whether the ones who provided it were captured or not.”
“You have no honor, you serpent!”
Lyman spat on the ground and wiped his mouth on the back of his arm. “I’m a fucking mercenary, and so are you, Myrddin! You’d do well to remember it.”
“It doesn’t mean I’m a filthy coward!” the man called Myrddin said. “We need to make this right. It’s the only decent thing to do.”
Lyman’s supporters outnumbered Myrddin’s two to one, and the one man sitting behind Myrddin looked even younger and smaller than Octavian. Part of Octavian thought he should cut a quiet path back to the road and put as much distance between himself and an altercation that looked ready to escalate to bloodshed as possible, but more of him sensed a glimmer of an opportunity. If this group of mercenaries split, both sides might be looking to bolster their ranks. Perhaps Octavian could convince whichever side seemed more promising to take him on. Mercenary work paid better than farmwork, and with the tenacious fingers of winter wriggling into the land deeper every day, farmwork would be drying up, and sleeping along the road would no longer be an option. Traveling alone would become more dangerous as men grew hungrier and more desperate.
“What are you suggesting we do?” Lyman got to his feet faster and with more grace than Octavian would’ve expected from a man his size, and the three men behind him followed suit.
Myrddin neither flinched, stood, nor looked terribly impressed with his leader glowering down at him. When he spoke, he didn’t even raise his voice, his tone calm and practical, but defeated. “What I think we should do is track the people who took our patrons and their goods. We should liberate both, and then we should see them safely to their destination, just as they paid us quite well to do.”
“Fucking fool. We’re in Cracked Tooth territory here. Likely as not, the Teeth are the ones what took ’em. You honestly want to go up against them with a group as small as ours? When we already have the coin for the job?”
“And you honestly want to abandon a family to goddesses know what terrible fate?”
“What do I care, Tam Myrddin?” Lyman drawled the other man’s name into a mocking snarl. “You’d do well to remember you’re not a knight any longer, just a sell-sword like the rest of us. You’d be smart to take the gold we earned and buy yourself a pint of ale, a bed, and a whore to warm it. That’s our lot, my fine friend, not your misguided nobility.”
Myrddin shook his head. “I’m paid to fight. Paid for my sword. That doesn’t mean I’m a swindler, a thief, or a callow-hearted bastard who turns his back on the people he swore to protect. I have my honor, whether or not I have my title.”
“Oh, and what are you going to do?”
“What do you think, Lyman? I’m going to do everything in my power to save those people. I want to be able to stand the sight of myself the next time I see it reflected back at me from my washbasin.”
“You’re on your own, then!” Lyman shouted, spittle flying from his mouth.
Myrddin stood. “I am hardly surprised.” He lifted a large sword, slid it into the scabbard on his back, turned in the direction of the horses, and disappeared into the darkness, with the gangly youth scampering behind him. A few moments later, the trotting of a pair of horses sounded on the road and quickly faded into the distance.
Still squatting in the shadows, arms wrapped around his knees, Octavian considered his options. Offering himself to Lyman would be more practical; Lyman had a camp only a few dozen feet away, with fires, bedrolls, and something savory smelling crackling over the flames. Lyman had more men following him, and he planned to move on to another lucrative job while his former comrade, Myrddin, planned to undertake a mission with no chance of recompense and even less hope of success. But some of what Myrddin had said resonated within Octavian. The big mercenary had a point when it came to reputation. Who in the world would ever hire Lyman after word of his cowardly indifference spread? He’d practically swindled those who’d employed him. What would it mean for Octavian to have his name associated with men who couldn’t finish a job? Besides, Octavian had no desire to be like his assassin, taking any job for coin. He’d been desperate before, but he was not yet desperate enough to let life force him to that, so he snuck back to the road and started to jog along it. With nowhere else to go, the two mercenaries would be found along this path before long.
After an hour or so of running through the frigid night, his muscles twitching, his chest tight, sweat freezing to his face, Octavian spotted a candle-sized flicker of light about a mile to the east, in a narrow cleft sheltered by ironstone. Taking a deep breath, he readjusted the straps of his pack and raked his sweaty hair back from his forehead. He had to make these men see him as capable, someone they wanted by their sides. He could not let them see the pampered son of a wealthy merchant, a boy who’d been handed everything and waited on in exchange for obedience, approaching their camp. As he walked from the darkness into the light of their fire, he held his hands open and out to his sides.
Both men heard Octavian before they saw him, and before he’d taken three steps into their light, the tip of a sword and a nocked arrow pointed at him. He refused to cower and forced himself to keep walking until Myrddin said, “Stop there, lad. Who in the Shades’ are you?”
“My name is Octavian Rose.” If he wanted it known, he had to say it, and say it as if it meant something. “I am looking for work.”
“Move along, then, son,” Myrddin said, lowering his blade a few inches. “Neither of us is looking for a pretty lad to warm our bedrolls tonight.”
“You think—what? No! I am not a whore.” Later, he would have to isolate the part of him that gave that impression and cut it out. Perhaps his desperation shone through some part of him worn too thin to hold it in. When he had the luxury, he’d find the tear and patch it. “I understand you are about to undertake a dangerous mission, and I thought you could use another blade by your side.”
The two men looked at each other. The younger one rolled his eyes, stowed his arrow in the quiver on his back, and went to rub his hands together over the fire, having obviously dismissed Octavian entirely. Myrddin sheathed his sword, and Octavian resented them not seeing him as a threat worthy of holding weapons against, but he didn’t let it show.
“Can you use a man to help you rescue your patrons who were taken?” Octavian persisted.
Shoulders slumping and expression softening, Myrddin offered Octavian an indulgent smile. “Aye, a man we might be able to use, but I’m afraid I have less than no time to play nursemaid to a boy with dreams of grandeur. You should get home to your family before you worry your poor mother, lad.”
That feeling of desperation, the one he despised controlling him, wrapped around Octavian as he stepped closer to the much larger man. “Look at me. Look at my clothes. My boots. The bones beneath the skin of my face. Look at them, and tell me if I am a man being fed by a loving mother.”
Myrddin pursed his lips, then said, “We can offer you something to eat and a seat by the fire.” He gestured toward the little blaze with his big hand, and his companion made an exasperated sound and shook his head.
“I can help you,” Octavian persisted, struggling to keep the anxiety from tainting his tone. “I am not looking for charity.”
“Sit,” Myrddin insisted, and Octavian obeyed. He took the canteen the man offered and gulped at the bitter wine within, letting it warm him from his throat all the way to the pit of his empty stomach. He couldn’t suppress his sigh of satisfaction any more than he could turn away the strips of dried meat and chunk of hard bread the man offered him, though he resisted his instinct to shove them into his mouth whole and swallow them barely chewed.
After he’d eaten, disgusted at the way his basest needs interfered with his ambitions, Octavian said, “I want to help you on your mission.”
The young archer snorted, but Myrddin patted his shoulder to silence him. “Lad, I’ve no idea how you know what we’re planning, but it isn’t something we want a novice involved in. Do you know how to use a weapon? Do you even carry one?”
“Aye.” In a smooth, swift motion, Octavian reached beneath his thin, tattered cloak, drew his dagger, and presented it, hilt first, to Myrddin.
From a few feet away, Octavian saw the mercenary was probably ten years older than he, maybe more, with long, knotted, blond hair and neatly trimmed whiskers a few shades darker. He had strong, dark brows and pale eyes, though Octavian couldn’t discern their color in the flickering light of the dwindling fire. Still, something in his gaze made Octavian want to trust him. Myrddin’s eyes were not cold and dead, as his assassin’s had been. Again, he thrust his blade toward the other man’s waiting hand.
Myrddin reached for the dagger, but at the last moment, he recoiled as if it were on fire. “Sweet goddesses, boy! I—Where in the world did you get that? You—you’re not—”
“No, I’m not,” Octavian reassured him with a smile. His assassin had done him more than one favor. The dagger the Cast-Down had offered him was distinctive if one knew what to look for, and apparently Myrddin did. Many people doubted the existence of the Order of the Crimson Scythe, the world’s most dreaded cult of assassins, but belief or no, everyone feared them.
“Then how?” Myrddin asked. “Goddesses, how do you hold that and still walk in the light of the world?”
“It was a gift,” Octavian explained. “The one who offered it to me… I like to think he saw something in me he didn’t want destroyed by a petty thief or someone who would accost me on the road. Why, I cannot say.”
The young archer grunted and made a few quick gestures with his hands.
Myrddin laughed. “Dirk thinks perhaps it was your… uh, beauty the assassin did not want lost.” Clearly, “beauty” wasn’t the word the archer had expressed, but Octavian didn’t ask for the truth. He probably didn’t want to hear it.
“He could have killed me,” Octavian protested. “I certainly could not have stopped him.”
“No, my lad.” Myrddin stirred the coals in the fire with a stick. “No one can stop one of them. Still, it does not mean you can handle yourself in a fight, or that you wouldn’t be worse than an annoyance to Dirk and me. We have our hands full as it is. You are not trained to use that blade. If you were, we’d both be dead without having ever heard your breath on the wind. Is there anything else you can offer us?”
Octavian sighed. “Are you wounded anywhere?”
“Are you hurt? A bruise? A scratch?”
“Just….” Octavian slipped his dagger back into the scabbard by his hip, frustrated. If he could just convince someone to give him a chance, he’d show what an asset he could be. He knew there was more to him than a small man who’d led an easy life until the past spring. The assassin who had let him live had seen it. But Myrddin still looked at him like he’d sprouted two heads.
Dirk came to his rescue, rolling up his sleeve to reveal an infected cut a few inches above his wrist. Octavian wrinkled his nose at the rotten smell emanating from the wound, but he closed his eyes and rested his fingertips at the edge of the old cut. He felt the life and vitality siphoning from him to the other man, and he grew dizzy. He was vaguely aware of his body curling backward and prepared himself for the impact of the frozen ground against his back and head, but thick arms caught and steadied him. Myrddin’s breath warmed his cheek when he spoke.
“Bleeding Shades, you’re a mage!”
Hard steel plate pressed against Octavian’s cheek, and he leaned against it despite the cold of the metal. “So far, I’m best at healing.”
At the edges of Octavian’s vision, Dirk the archer gestured wildly.
“Aye,” Myrddin said. “I can see it would be useful. So, you want—”
The archer grunted.
“If you say so,” Myrddin grumbled. “I hope we’re not sorry for taking him on. Personally, I had hoped to avoid the need for a healer’s skills. Give me a few big lads who know how to swing a blade over a mage any day.”
Octavian wriggled out of Myrddin’s grasp and forced himself to sit up straight even though the world still wiggled and spun around him. He didn’t want pity; he’d show them he could stand on his own. Though he knew he shouldn’t use his magic again so soon, that it would strain him, this was his chance to get himself in with what seemed an honorable and capable couple of men, a chance to do something others might talk about. “I can do more than heal.”
Over the summer, alone in the barn where he’d slept, he had been practicing, struggling to understand his gift and make it do his bidding. He’d only been partially successful, but he hoped it would be enough to impress the two mercenaries. Mages, after all, grew rarer with each generation. Noticing a pile of small stones stacked about a dozen feet away, Octavian took aim. No sound or flash of light came from his fingers, but the air rippled with the familiar scent of burnt minerals before the rocks flew apart and scattered in every direction. Octavian willed away the gray glitter pouring in at the edges of his vision. He kept his voice even and strong. “I can knock down at least a few men with that spell.”
It was a lie; he’d never tried it against a living thing, but the mercenaries looked impressed. Octavian had to press his advantage. Laying his palm flat against the frigid ground, he closed his eyes to concentrate. A moment later, a tremor ran through the frozen soil, making the gravel strewn over it quiver and bounce. Myrddin swore under his breath, and Octavian opened his eyes in time to see Dirk poke out his lower lip and nod. Octavian pulled his knees to his chest and held them tight, letting his cloak fall around his arms and legs so the others wouldn’t see his hands trembling. “So do you think you have a use for me?”
Dirk moved his hands so fast they made Octavian’s head spin. In response, Myrddin shook his head.
“What’s he saying?” Octavian asked, hoping Myrddin answered before he passed out. Goddesses, he just had to endure until he could pretend to fall asleep of his own free will.
“He doesn’t like you,” Myrddin said. “He thinks you’re soft, inexperienced, and think too much of your magic.”
In the world of wealthy merchants and their noble patrons where Octavian had been reared, things weren’t said so plainly. The rich and so-called civilized men and women traded snide, subtle insults and backhanded compliments, but no one spoke his mind. In a way, Octavian appreciated not having to decipher the hidden meaning, but the assessment stung—probably because he knew it was true. When he looked over at Dirk, the archer raised his chin and met Octavian’s gaze defiantly. Instead of relying on Myrddin to translate, Octavian spoke to Dirk directly. “I thought you said earlier that my skills might be useful.”
The archer slashed and stabbed at the air, scowling as he moved his fingers at various angles.
“Dirk says you’d be worth having if the fight goes poorly and we need patching up, but he doesn’t think you’d last long enough in battle to draw that cursed knife. Why do you carry that thing, anyway, he wants to know. He says it is bad luck and you should throw it into Estrella Lake or bury it in holy ground.”
Octavian skimmed his fingers along the dagger’s hilt. “I am fond of it, and it has served me well.” He didn’t tell them it represented the first stroke of good luck he could remember having, and that it held a deeper, more personal meaning that he’d never share with another living soul.
“Well, Dirk says he doesn’t want to take you on just to watch you die, that you’d do better to look for work on a farm, or a shop, or a—Oh, Dirk! There’s no need for that! Lad can’t help being nice-looking. Doesn’t mean he should resort to selling—”
“I suppose I should be on my way.” They might not want him, might not see any value to him, but Octavian would be damned if he’d sit idly and let them make him the butt of their crude jokes. One day, when he showed the world what he could do, they would be sorry for turning him away. One day, as soon as someone gave him the chance to prove it. It would not be tonight, though. He’d depleted his energy and left himself vulnerable for nothing.
As Octavian stood, his eyes stinging and his cheeks hot, eager to escape before the mercenaries noticed his childish reaction to their rejection, Myrddin caught his wrist, pulled him back to the ground, and met his gaze. “I have told you what Dirk thinks. I have not said I agree with him. Likely as not I’m an old fool, but the way I see it, a lad who can walk into a mercenary camp as you did has stones, at least. Stones can count for more than skill sometimes.”
The big man indicated a bedroll near the fire. “Get some rest. You’ll need it. Have some wine too. It might be your last chance. I’m still not sure you won’t get yourself killed tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Octavian said.
Without meeting his gaze, Myrddin waved at the pile of blankets and furs. “Save it. You can thank me if you survive.”