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A Dance of Mirrors

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A Dance of Mirrors

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Author: David Dalglish
Publisher: Orbit, 2013
Series: Shadowdance: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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One has conquered a city. The other covets an entire nation.

In book #3 of the Shadowdance series, Haern is the King's Watcher, protector against thieves and nobles who would fill the night with blood. Yet hundreds of miles away, an assassin known as the Wraith has begun slaughtering those in power, leaving the symbol of the Watcher in mockery. When Haern travels south to confront this copycat, he finds a city ruled by the corrupt, the greedy and the dangerous. Rioters fill the streets, and the threat of war hangs over everything. To forge peace, Haern must confront the deadly Wraith, a killer who would shape the kingdom's future with the blade of his sword.

Man or God; what happens when the lines are blurred?



Torgar staggered out of the tavern with the blood of a stranger on his knuckles.

"I want my sword," he said to the four burly men who had persuaded him to leave.

"Come get it when you're sober," one said as he shut the door.

"Well, at least give me my damn drink!"

No such luck. The sellsword cursed and howled until his lungs hurt. Feeling better afterward, he made his way through the streets of Angelport back home. Home, of course, was his little room in the Keenan family's magnificent estate, as captain of their mercenaries and guards. Not that he needed to do much anymore. With the thieves' war ending nearly two years ago, his life had grown significantly quieter. And quieter meant boring. He wasn't quite as young as he once was, either. When he first agreed to work for Laurie, he would have crushed at least a dozen skulls before they flung him out the door of a tavern. But now?

"Getting old," Torgar grumbled, bracing a hand against the nearby walls to steady his walk. "How in Karak's name did that happen?"

Surely it wasn't that long ago he'd been a feared mercenary. The Bloody Kensgold was... gods help him... seven years ago? He turned and spit. On that night, he'd hunted thieves, drunk himself stupid, rescued Madelyn Keenan from Thren's little hideout, and overall had himself a glorious time. A shame those days were behind him. Well, all but the drinking part.

Without his sword, he felt naked traversing Angelport's streets. Big as he was, he doubted any ruffians would be dumb enough to try hustling him. That, and he certainly didn't look like a man loaded with coin. But he liked having his weapon with him anyway. All it'd take was one bad turn, one lucky snot with a dagger and a hungry belly, and he'd go from Laurie Keenan's trusted mercenary to just another rotting hunk of meat to be cleaned up by the city guard. Thankfully he encountered no one on his way home. The streets were strangely quiet. Laurie had mentioned something about the elves; perhaps that was the reason. The whole city stank of nervousness.

At the gates to the Keenan estate, he saluted the single guard keeping watch.

"Morning," Torgar said.

"Not for four more hours."

Torgar grinned. "Aren't we picky?"

The guard looked him over. "You're early. And where's your sword?"

"On loan. Care to let me through?"

Drunk or not, Torgar was still the boss, and the guard begrudgingly turned and unlocked the gate.

"Take the servants' entrance at least," the guard said. "Lady Madelyn's getting tired of you waking her up."

"That so, eh?" Torgar asked, heading straight for the front doors. "Too fucking bad."

Halfway across the expansive lawn, he began singing a tune, butchering half the lyrics but not caring. When he put his hand on the door handle, he stopped and sighed. Laurie's son, Taras, slept not far from the main entrance, and he'd been having a devil of a time catching winks because of his newborn. Madelyn could rot in an open grave for all he cared, but he held a soft spot for Taras.

"Fine," he said, thudding his head against the thick wood of the door. "You owe me, bud."

He left the main path and walked the worn dirt track around the mansion. Compared to their first home in Veldaren, it wasn't nearly as large, but it housed over fifty members of the family, plus guards and servants. Torgar spotted a couple hiding behind a tree, no doubt a guard and a maidservant having themselves a good time. He resumed singing to startle them, and grinned while imagining their surprise. Their lack of reaction left him disappointed. Worse, something about it felt wrong, and he looked back just before turning a corner.

Neither was moving.

"Gods damn it," he muttered, trying to think through his pounding head. "Asleep, right? Just asleep."

He went to check them anyway. Slumped against the tree, with their bodies positioned in a mocking embrace, were two guards, their throats slit, their armor soaked with blood. Torgar stared at them for a full three seconds as the alcohol in his brain gave way to his many years of training. He grabbed one of their swords and then checked his immediate surroundings, in case the killer lurked nearby. When he saw no one, he hurried toward the back door. So far no alarm had been raised; otherwise the guard at the gate would have known. The bodies were warm, blood still dripping from their wounds. Whoever this killer was, he wasn't far.

The grounds seemed vacant enough, so he looked to the rooftops, desperately wishing he hadn't drunk so much. He saw several shadows that might have been men hiding, but with his headache it was impossible to know whether his mind was playing tricks. No time, he decided. Raise the alarm. Get every guard armed and scouring the place. He was in no position to play hero.

The servant door was locked, and he pulled out the key from a chain around his neck. As he inserted it and turned, he felt the hairs on his neck stand up. One of the shadows...

"Shit!" he cried, flinging himself back. A dark shape descended, blade in hand. Torgar blocked with his sword just in time. Before he could react further, his opponent landed on top of him, elbows and knees ramming his face and chest. Collapsing onto his back, Torgar rolled, narrowly avoiding a stab to his throat. He continued rolling and did the only thing that seemed logical. He hollered his brains out.

"Killer!" he screamed. "There's a killer out here! Wake the fuck up!"

He pulled out of his roll and onto one knee as his opponent's sword came slashing in. He tried to parry it and was only partly successful. Blood splashed across his vision as the edge tore through his face. He spun from the force, landing on his stomach. Teeth clenched, he waited for the killing blow to land. It never did. Looking back, he saw the door was open, his key still in the lock.

"You left me alive?" Torgar asked, struggling to his feet, his free hand clutching his face. "Big mistake, you bastard. I'll make you pay."

He felt warm blood spilling across his fingers and mouth. A huge gash across the bridge of his nose was bleeding heavily, and he wondered if he'd pass out before the night was done. Cursing, he cut off a large portion of his shirt and pressed it to the wound. It hurt like blazes, but it was the best he could do for now. Sword held high, he rushed into the mansion.

The hallway was mostly dark, with only small oil lanterns burning at the various intersections. He had no clue who this assassin was targeting, but Torgar knew who paid his wages and that man belonged at the top of the list to protect. Hooking a right, he headed for Laurie and Madelyn's room. He tried shouting for help, but it hurt his nose too much. His eyes watered, hampering his already blurred vision. Several times he rammed into a wall, adding more bruises to his aching body. All throughout, he heard cries from the guards. Most were tracking positions, calling out all clears. But every few moments, they let out frightened shouts, if not death screams.

Reaching Laurie's room, he felt hope at seeing the door closed. He kicked it open and barged in, only to have something hard and blunt strike the back of his head. Torgar dropped to his stomach, and he vomited uncontrollably.

"Damn it," Torgar said, glaring at Laurie standing to the side of the door, dagger in hand. His wife sat on the bed, also holding a blade.

"I thought you were the intruder," Laurie said, offering his hand. Torgar ignored it, instead using the wall to brace himself as he stood.

"You're an idiot, Laurie. Why the hilt?"

"I wanted you alive for questioning."

Torgar looked back to the hallway, listening for sounds of battle.

"Next time, use the pointy end," he said. "Stay in here and bar the door."

A trio of guards approached, and Torgar saluted with the hand holding the bloody bandage.

"Any clue where the fucker is?" he asked.

"Toward the front," one said.

Torgar's ears were still ringing from the blow, his vision so blurred he couldn't make out the man's face. He took a wild guess at his name, not caring if he got it right.

"Stay here, and guard them with your lives," Torgar said, nodding toward Laurie's door. "Gary, you're in charge."

"Where are you going?" asked the one on the left.

"To make him pay for this," Torgar said, gesturing to his nose. He rushed toward the front half of the mansion, and sure enough he heard sounds of battle. His gut sank at the noise. This was no normal assassin sent to smother a sleeping man or pour poison into a bottle of wine. This guy could fight. Torgar listened for steel hitting steel, or people dying. All around him, he heard doors locking, the servants barring their rooms and staying inside like he'd trained them. Good. Last thing he needed was a bunch of frantic idiots crowding the halls.

As he neared the front entrance, he stumbled upon five corpses of his guard, their blood staining the blue carpet. Torgar could hardly believe the sight. Surely it wasn't just one man doing all this?

And then he heard a scream.

"Taras," he whispered, his blood running cold.

It took him a moment to remember the way. Gods, what he'd give to be sober! He passed by three more dead guards, confirming his dread suspicion of the assassin's target. Despite the pain it caused, he screamed as loud as he could.

"Everyone to Taras! To Taras, now move your asses!"

At his friend's bedroom, he found the door already open. A dead guard was propped against it, the wood's white paint stained red with gore. Heart in his throat, Torgar stepped inside. Despite his years of training, warfare, and executions, he was still not prepared.

The assassin knelt amid the carnage, his sword deftly slashing at a bare spot on the floor. Torgar must have made a noise, for the assassin looked up. His face was hidden by a heavy black hood, his body wrapped in cloaks.

Torgar lifted his sword. "Come on," he said, wishing he felt as tough as he sounded. "Come die, you sick fuck."

The assassin stood, and his head shifted so Torgar could see a faint glimpse of his face in the dim moonlight streaming through the broken windows. He was smiling.

"Not tonight," the man said. Smoke burst at his feet, flooding the room. Torgar coughed as it stung his eyes and throat. He slashed wildly a few times, but no attack came. When the smoke cleared, the man was gone. Torgar walked to the center of the room, creating footsteps in the drying layers of blood. His sword shook in his hand.

Taras and his wife, Julie, lay dead and in pieces. Their maidservant's body was slumped against the closet door, her throat opened by a gash that went from ear to ear. As Torgar's heart caught in his throat, he heard a horrific sound break the silence--their newborn girl, Tori, wailing. Guards flooded the room as he picked up the child from the stained bedsheets. Her wrappings were bloodied, but she was unharmed.

"Where'd he go?" a guard asked as the others gasped and cursed at the sight.

Torgar shrugged, having no answer.

"Like a damned wraith," said another. "We'd see him, and then he'd be gone."

Hearing a cry, Torgar looked back to see Laurie fall to his knees before the doorway. Madelyn stood behind him, her face like glass but for the tears that ran down her cheeks. They dared not enter, for there was no reason, no way to clutch the bodies to their chests. The massacre was too horrific. Too complete.

"Who?" Laurie asked. "Why?"

Torgar looked to the symbol at his feet, drawn in Keenan blood.

"I don't know," he said.

"Give her to me!" Madelyn cried, her sudden outburst startling. Torgar carefully stepped across the gore-coated floor, gladly handing Tori over. All he felt was rage. Having a child in his hands didn't seem right.

"I'll find out who did this," he said. "I promise I'll make him pay a thousand times over."

Little comfort for any of them, but it didn't matter. The assassin had left his calling card, and because of that, it would be his death. Few crossed a member of the Trifect and lived. As Laurie and Madelyn were led away from the scene, Torgar stabbed his sword into the center of the symbol, which seemed vaguely familiar. He'd seen it before, years ago, or at least heard it discussed. And then it hit him.

A single open eye, drawn in the victim's blood.

"The Watcher," whispered Torgar.

Copyright © 2013 by David Dalglish


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