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I stood before the Earl of Hibbert and smothered a huge yawn as he described a young man of his hometown. He noticed.
“Am I boring you?” His voice held menace.
“No, sir, I didn’t sleep well last night.” He smiled, satisfied, and went back to his description of the young man’s daily habits. I would need this information. I was a hired sword (fancy name for a plain assassin) and I was being paid to kill this man.
The Earl finished his description and looked to me for any questions. I brushed a strand of my dark, shoulder-length hair away from black eyes and searched my mind for any unclearness. Surprisingly, I felt a weary unwillingness to accept the job. “One question. Why do you want me to kill him?”
The Earl’s face grew hard. “He had the impudence to show love for my daughter. His father is of a lower rank than me. I will not tolerate it!” The Earl turned to me. “Something that may interest you--his father is Lord Togon.”
Black rage and hatred welled up in me, together with remembered pain. I could feel my face turning grim. “I will kill the boy as soon as possible.”
“Good. I’ll give you twenty crowns now, and fifty at completion.”
“Seventy crowns?” I scoffed. “I’m paid more to kill a simple peasant. My price is two hundred.” I knew that the final price would be less than two hundred and more than seventy, but much haggling was necessary before both I and the Earl were satisfied. Finally, I left the Earl’s mansion, heading first to my home to prepare, then out to a lonely road where the young man was fond of walking.
As I walked, my rage stayed with me. Lord Togon had been responsible, six years earlier, for my transformation into a hired sword. Before then, I had been an ordinary man living in peace with my young son. Except for the aquiline nose he inherited from me, he was the image of his dead mother, whom I had loved dearly. I doted on him, and would have done anything to ensure his happiness.
One day, I wrote a letter to a friend. In it, I gave a comic description of Lord Togon as I had glimpsed him after a grand dinner. I sent the letter and thought no more about it. That is, until the day that I returned home to find my son missing.
Now I leaned against a wall, my tall, rangy body tensed with remembered pain. Every detail of that terrible day was engraved in my memory: my cheerful entrance slowly dampened by the ominous silence, my frantic search through all the rooms, my horrified halt as I returned to the front door where I had started. There was a note pinned to the back of the door with a jeweled dagger. It said, “You will never see your son again. Remember this when you are next tempted to show disrespect for your betters!”
For two days, I was immobilized by my grief. On the morning of the third day, my pain had decreased into a dull ache around my heart and a new emotion filled me: wild rage. Lord Togon wanted me to keep to my proper place in society? Very well, I would take my place as its most feared and hated member--the hired assassin. I would revenge myself on the world that had taken all I loved from me.
Forcing my fury down to a burning in my chest, I ran to my house and changed into my “killing suit.” It consisted of black pants, a black shirt, and a black cape. As I moved to close the drawer, I saw something glittering in the back corner. I drew it out and looked at it, shaking slightly from rage and pain. It was the dagger that had held the note which ruined my life. I almost replaced it in the drawer but paused, smiling grimly at the irony of my idea. Then I slipped it into my sword belt.
I left the house again and set off. For some reason, despite my hatred of Lord Togon, I did not want to commit this murder. After the first few killings, I had ceased worrying about my victims in order to keep my sanity. At least, my conscious mind had. I yawned again. All night I had been tormented by nightmares, which were becoming increasingly common. They all had to do with killing. In some, all the murders I had ever committed were replayed. In others, I agreed to kill a man, then realized that he was myself. I paused in my thought, brought up against a rock-hard wall of unpleasant reality. Although my conscious mind was untroubled by the murders, my subconscious was becoming haunted. I was getting too old for this. The stress and lack of sleep were aging me too fast.
“All right,” I told myself. “This will be my last murder. Satisfied?” There was no answer. Putting my musings aside, I steeled myself for the killing and quietly slipped along the road.
In a few seconds I saw him, leaning against the rail of a little bridge and gazing into the water. Honey-brown hair spilled over his shoulders. A long blue cloak swung over his simple brown clothes.
I slipped up behind him, drawing my sword silently. Even as it swung downward, though, my foot snapped a twig. Without looking round, he hurled himself to one side. My sword bit deep into the wood just beside him. We faced each other, both swords drawn and ready now. I was filled with a mixture of respect for his quick thinking and disgust at my own failure. I was getting too old for this.
“You’re quick,” I remarked, trying to distract him, and slashed at his head. He ducked barely in time and returned a quick blow of his own, which I stopped with my sword. We circled warily.
“I know who you are.” he announced, using my own strategy against me. I barely blocked his sword as it whistled towards my head. “You’re a hired assassin, paid and willing to kill anyone, even total strangers. I’ve often wondered,” we exchanged several blows and backed away from each other, “what motivates you people?”
“In my case, revenge.” With a quick movement, I pulled the dagger from my belt and threw it. It caught him in the chest with a sickening thud. His sword dropped from limp fingers as he clutched at the jeweled hilt, then staggered to his knees.
“Would that I had never left my father’s house!” he choked out.
I stepped forward, twirling my sword. Satisfaction at both a successful job and revenge was my only emotion. All I had to do now was make conversation as he died. “Yes, it might have been better for you had you loved within your own rank.”
“I spoke of another, earlier time. Then I was but a boy and did not go by choice.”
“What?” I hurled my sword away and seized his chin, searching his face. His nose was like mine, his mouth and eyes my wife’s.
“What is your name, boy?” Urgency lent savageness to my voice. He groaned, his hand falling from the dagger, and his breathing grew ragged. “What is your name?” I almost shook him in my desperation; thought better of it in time.
His lips moved. “Leon--Leon Togon.”
Leon had been my son’s name. “Is that the name you were christened?
“N-no. My real name is--Leon. . ” he fought for breath “Dorega.”
“No!” My cry of anguish brought the birds flying out of the trees. I dropped to my knees beside him, my pain as great as if I were the one dying, not Leon.
I reached out and caught my son as he fell to the ground. He stared up at me, bewilderment plain on his ashy face. My tears fell on his well-loved features. In a hoarse, faint voice, he asked “Why--why do you care what my name is?”
“Leon, I’m your father.” Shock crossed his face. “I became a hired sword after you were kidnapped--murdered, I thought--to avenge you. But now what have I done?”
He tightened his lips against a spasm of pain. “Then . . . Father . . . know that,” his eyes closed. “I wished for you. And . . . I forgive you.” He sighed softly and went limp. After a long moment, I knew that he was dead.
I slowly straightened, setting my dead son gently down. The shades of all the men I had killed to avenge him seemed to gather round, mocking me. Carefully, I picked up my sword and cleaned the dirt from it, but did not sheathe it. Instead, I braced the hilts against the ground, the blade pointing upwards.
You, reader, must imagine the rest of my tale. Within a few seconds, I was no longer there to tell it.