This story is by Hannah Tussing and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Zephyra held her head high as the noose slipped around her throat.
“Aww, she’s too pretty for the noose, ain’t she?” One of the soldiers asked as he bound her wrists behind her back.
The other soldier ignored him and turned to the crowd. “This is what happens to thieving harlots!”
Reins snapped in the air and the cart moved underneath her feet. The noose tightened as the cart gave way beneath her. A gasping cry left her lips as the coarse rope slowly strangled the life from her.
Blood pounded in her ears and black spots danced on her vision. Her breath came out in an aching wheeze, and she knew she did not have much longer.
“What is the meaning of this?” Her master’s voice called out through the crowd.
“I come to pay the thief’s price. Release her and five thousand divirs will be yours.”
“Bring back the cart!” Her master said.
A moment later, Zephyra felt the solid wood of the cart scrape against her bare feet and the pressure lessened around her throat. She staggered as the wagon shifted and a soldier caught her arm.
“Told you she was too pretty for the noose,” The one soldier said with a leer as he slipped the noose from her neck.
She spat on his boots as he yanked her roughly off the cart. She stumbled, her body still adjusting to oxygen rushing through her lungs again.
“Keep moving! For such a high price, I’m sure your master wants you in one piece,” The soldier said as he led her towards a man in a black robe.
“Good luck with that worthless harlot.” Her former master said as he strode away with his newfound fortune.
“I have great plans for her,” The man replied.
Zephyra looked up at her new master. The only features the voluminous cowl did not hide were his dark beard and his thin-lipped mouth. He gave her shoulder a light push, guiding her out of the square and down twists and turns of side streets. They stopped outside a rundown stable. He unsheathed a knife and cut off the tight bindings at her wrists. Zephyra flexed her fingers, welcoming the tingle of blood flow.
“This way,” He said, motioning to two horses that were tethered to a post. One was a leggy bay, the other a stocky draft cross. The man nudged her towards the draft mare and gave her a leg up. Zephyra clung tightly to the horn at the front of the saddle, not daring to look down.
He mounted his horse and tugged on the lead rope attached to her horse. Both animals began to walk as the man guided them to the gates of the city.
Zephyra swayed uneasily on the mare’s back, gripping the saddle until her knuckles turned white. Her new master paused at the city gates and held up a hand to the guards. One of them nodded and waved them through. She stared out at the expanse of open road and grassy plains in awe, as she had never been outside the walls of Irgrad.
“What do you want with me, master?” She asked. Already she sat straighter in the saddle, adjusting herself to the mare’s swaying gait.
He turned on his horse so that his upper body was facing her. “Call me Viper.”
“My question is still the same, Viper.”
A slow smile spread across his lips. “You would like to know, would you?”
“Yes, that’s why I asked,” Zephyra said, a hint of impatience entering her voice.
Viper dropped the mare’s lead rope and brought his hand down hard on the horse’s rump. The mare squealed and took off cantering. Zephyra lurched forward, grabbing handfuls of the mare’s mane to stay mounted.
“Whoa!” She said, jerking on the horse’s mane. The mare kept running, heading for a copse of trees near a small stream. She kicked her heels against the horse’s sides, but that only made the mare run faster, now galloping straight towards the stream.
Gripping the horn tightly in her right hand, she leaned down to snatch the rope. Her fingertips grazed it as the mare’s hooves hit the water, knocking Zephyra off balance and tumbling into the stream.
She growled curses as she splashed to shore, her dress soaked and torn. Viper reined his horse in front of her. In his hand, a dagger gleamed in the sunlight. In one swift movement, the dagger was flying at her head. Instinctively, Zephyra ducked to avoid the knife and yanked it from where it was embedded in the earth. She swung towards him, dagger gripped tightly in her hand.
Viper laughed as he kicked his horse forward, wielding another dagger. The knife flew from his hand, grazing her shoulder as she whirled to attack him. Her dagger sliced a gash in the horse’s shoulder, narrowly missing Viper’s thigh. The horse screamed and reared, nearly unseating his rider.
A second later, he was on the ground in front of her, a short sword in his hand. He struck at her with fierce blows, and it was all Zephyra could do to fend him off, as her dagger was no match for a sword.
Zephyra’s foot slipped in the mud and she fell backward. Viper was upon her in an instant, his sword pressed to her throat. A thin trickle of blood rolled down her neck. His dark eyes, now revealed from his fallen cowl, held no remorse.
She brought her legs up beneath him, shifting his weight for a split second. It was just long enough for her to free an arm and clamp down on his right hand, releasing slight pressure on her throat. Viper’s eyes narrowed as he pushed back against her grip, driving the cold steel into her flesh.
“Any last words?” He asked.
“I hope you rot in Hell,” She spit in his face.
“Good,” Viper said with a hissing laugh. “Very good,” He drew the blade away and let her up. “You are as brazen as they say.”
“What do you want from me?” Zephyra asked with a gasp. Every muscle in her body ached as she shook from fatigue.
“To prove yourself worthy.”
“Worthy of what?” She asked, pressing a hand to the bleeding wound on her neck.
He caught the reins of his startled horse and ran a hand down his bloody shoulder. “To be one of my assassins.”
“I’m not an assassin,” Zephyra said with a frown.
He turned to face her, a knowing smile on his thin lips. “No, not yet. But you are stubborn and determined, even when faced with death. Besides,” He said as he mounted his horse, “I know your secrets, little sparrow.”
“I don’t have any secrets.”
Viper chuckled. “Everyone has secrets, little sparrow. And I happen to know yours.”
“How would you know anything about me?” Zephyra asked.
He twirled a dagger between his fingers with a harsh laugh. “I have eyes and ears all over the city. I know you are not just a common harlot. You were trained to wield and throw knives. You have the blood of a killer running through your veins.”
Zephyra crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ve never killed anyone.”
“You’ve never had the chance,” He replied.
“You’re giving me that chance?”
Viper nodded. “You have the makings of a great assassin.”
“And why should I want this?”
“Because,” he said with a twisted grin, “I can offer you freedom.”
Zephyra stood up a little straighter. “Freedom?”
“You work for me and pay off your debt. Then I will free you.”
“What’s the catch?”
Viper laughed. “You serve me faithfully and without hesitation at whatever I ask of you.”
She nodded. “You have yourself a deal.”
“Good,” He said. “Go catch your mare.”
Zephyra looked around, realizing the mare had wandered several yards away, grazing contentedly.
“You’d better hurry,” Viper jabbed his heels into the gelding and galloped away.
She growled under her breath as she jogged after the mare. The horse lifted her head with a snort at Zephyra’s approach. “Come here, you stupid horse,” She said as she snatched up the lead rope. Zephyra shoved her foot in the stirrup and swung her leg over, nearly falling when the mare started walking before she finished mounting. She clung to the horn. “I really hate horses.”
She kicked the horse and she responded quickly, taking off at a canter. “Please follow Viper’s horse,” She said as she jerked on the mare’s rope.
The horse tossed her head, but she caught up with Viper’s gelding and slowed to a steady trot behind him. Zephyra breathed a sigh of relief.
The dirt road stretched across a long expanse of a grassy plateau, giving way to rocky ground after many miles. The road steepened beneath her horse’s hooves and great walls of stone towered beside them. Viper guided his horse up the steep incline, off the main path, and onto a narrow ledge. A great yawning canyon lay to the right and the hooves of Zephyra’s mare were only inches from the edge. She swallowed hard and focused on Viper’s back.
The trail led them down into the canyon. Viper pulled up his gelding beside a rocky wall and placed his hand on the stone. A low grumble of stone scraping stone filled the air and to Zephyra’s surprise, the stone had been replaced with a cavern entrance. Viper rode his horse inside and the mare followed. The cave was completely dark; the only sound hooves clattering on stone and the plink of water from stalactites.
They reached a larger room that was lit with a faint blue glow. The lights moved and Zephyra realized some sort of creatures emitted the glow.
“Welcome to your new home,” Viper said. He swung off his horse and grabbed the mare’s rope. He brought a hand down on the horse’s shoulder and she reared. Zephyra tumbled off her back with a yelp.
He threw a knife at her, which caught her sleeve, pinning her left arm to the floor. She yanked it out and staggered to her feet, expecting another onslaught. But Viper simply turned and walked away, leading the two horses behind him. “We start training now.”
She stumbled after him, ignoring the pangs of hunger gnawing at her stomach. Viper led her into another room of the cavern, this one lit with a few sparse torches on the wall and a lantern that swung from the ceiling. In the center of the room, a man was tied to a wooden post, his clothes torn and bloodied.
Viper stopped in front of him. “Kill him.”
Zephyra stopped midstride and stared at her new master.
“You must kill. Unless you do not wish to be free?” Viper asked.
Zephyra’s hand trembled as she held the dagger. The metal was smooth and cold against her palm.
The man stared at her, eyes stretched wide. “Please, have mercy.”
Zephyra hesitated, tossing the dagger back and forth between her hands, getting a feel for its weight and balance. The knife was small but felt powerful in her hands. She glanced back at Viper, but her master stood motionless, melting into the shadows.
“Please, I beg of you! I have children!” The man said, tears running down his cheeks.
Silent as a shadow, Zephyra struck. Her dagger buried itself in the man’s chest. His scream turned to a bloody gurgle. His body slumped lifelessly against the bindings. Zephyra knelt in front of him and withdrew the dagger. Warm blood spattered her hands.
“Yesss. Very good, very good,” Viper said. His yellowed teeth flashed in the dim light of the swinging lantern. He clapped her on the shoulder, a low laugh hissing in his throat.
“Come, my little sparrow. You have proved yourself worthy to become my assassin.”
“Thank you, Master,” Zephyra said, the flickering torchlight catching the traces of a cruel smile on her lips.