Excerpt from “The Last Archer’s Return”

on October 4, 2018 in Uncategorized

Joanna was no longer the only one suffering fatigue from the trek to the mysterious crossroads—and she was uninjured, unlike her captor and traveling companion. 

 She continued to watch the Black Count surreptitiously in the hopes that his untended wounds would soon require another stop to rest and regroup.  Though after his most recent backlash towards her, she dared not request or even suggest such a respite–lest he strike her again.  And even though her empty stomach groaned insistently, she also dared not ask him for some of the morsels of food he occasionally withdrew from his pockets and then absently crammed into his mouth—a strip of jerky or a small hunk of bread stolen from the blind man’s cave. 

If it were not for the last remaining slivers of hope she drew from the oddly tenacious black bird that continued to follow them from overhead and the strange silver coin she carried in her pocket, Joanna would have given up already and resigned herself to her fate—which was most likely an abrupt and violent death once they reached the crossroads, if not before then. 

It was also the final words of the blind man that compelled her to keep clinging to hope and continue on toward the crossroads.  Something about his reference to an “unkindness” combined with his remarkably confident manner confronting the Black Count’s blade made Joanna wonder if he knew more than he had revealed to her. 

She also wondered if what had seemed like a betrayal when the blind man sent her away with the Black Count to the crossroads was actually an act of self-sacrifice on his part that had indirectly spared her life at the expense of his own. 

And all for some greater purpose about which she had almost no knowledge. 

Joanna ran her thumb absently over the ridged edge of the silver coin tucked safely away in one of her pockets.  It reminded her of the innkeeper back at the Last Chance Inn, and the last time she had eaten a full meal and gotten a full night’s rest.  Joanna had first seen the same type of coin in the possession of the kindly innkeeper; it had been payment for goods she had delivered to the blind man formerly known as the Necromancer. 

Joanna was suddenly ashamed to realize that it had not really dawned on her until now that the generous woman who had shared food, drink, shelter—and valuable information with her had probably suffered a brutal and bloody death at the hands of her captor. 

“Did you kill her?”  Joanna suddenly blurted out before her sense of self-preservation could hold her tongue.  She struggled to keep her voice low and even. 

She thought she saw the slightest hesitation in the Black Count’s step. 

“What?” He barked, not even bothering to glance behind him at her. 

“I asked if you killed her,” Joanna clarified, choking back the bitter bile of rage. 

“Killed who?” 

“The innkeeper.” 

The Black Count chuckled derisively.  “I’ve killed a lot of innkeepers…” 

Joanna’s eyes narrowed.  “You know of whom I speak.” 

The Black Count snorted.  “So what if I did?” 

He had a point, Joanna could not deny.  So what if he had killed the innkeeper?  She really did not need him to admit it.  And what was Joanna going to do about it, anyway?  She was in no position to exact revenge of any kind.  If she were, she would have found a way to escape her current predicament: physically and emotionally exhausted, and no doubt marching to a certain and unceremonious death alone and defenseless, far from her home and her cat Rhiannon, and not a friendly face in sight. 

And her Serena still lost to her. 

Seething tears of rage trickled down Joanna’s weather-reddened cheeks. 

When she offered no response to his question, the Black Count stopped in his tracks and turned to face her—and she could almost hear the groaning of the tendons in his neck.  She braced herself for another backhanded blow, but she realized she no longer cared.  All she could think about at the moment was the poor innkeeper dying alone, probably gasping her last breaths as she drowned in her own blood in the inn that used to be her father’s—and the poor mute orphan boy who relied on her, orphaned yet again. 

The Black Count’s bleary, feverish stare still smoldered with menace as his beady black eyes found hers.  But Joanna saw something else in his eyes, as well—something very much like the uncertainty she thought she had spotted earlier, which she interpreted as his resignation to a potentially unknown fate beyond the crossroads. 

What she saw now was something more, similar to his expression back at the blind man’s cave when the blind man was goading him with his description of the Black Count’s tormentor and master. 

Vulnerability. 

Joanna suppressed a smile of satisfaction as she dared to hold the Black Count’s murderous gaze. 

Until she saw his bristly-bearded face smile in return. 

It was a ghastly sight, like gazing into an open grave, the fresh dirt crawling with earthworms and maggots. 

“Yeah, I killed her,” he hissed in a raspy voice, gesturing to his sword.  “Didn’t even waste time raping her, the barren old twat.  Cleaved her yammering head from her body with one swing.”  He coughed.  “Like I’m going to do to you before too long.” 

Joanna continued to stare defiantly back at him, biting back her fury. 

“Except…” he added, “I’ll probably rape you first.” 

Joanna blinked, but her gaze never wavered.  Behind her stoic façade, her suppressed smile widened.  He was clearly in no shape to rape anyone, nor was he in any condition to wield his heavy sword—it was all bluster, and he must know it. 

But she would let him think he was fooling her. 

The Black Count took a step toward her.  “Now, if you don’t shut your god-pounding—” 

“We’re close,” she interrupted.  “To the crossroads,” she quickly added. 

This gave him pause. 

“You’d better not be lying…” he growled. 

“What do I have to gain by lying to you and prolonging my inevitable death as soon as we reach the crossroads and you no longer have any use for me?” She reasoned.  “I might as well get it over with.” 

He continued to stare at her blankly, clearly not accustomed to his victims having such a pragmatic acceptance of their impending demise. 

Joanna sighed audibly.  “I’m no fool, I know how this is going to end,” she lied. 

“Good,” he grumbled.  “Then let us be done with it.” 

Yes, she thought.  Let us be done with it. 

 

Copyright 2018

From The Last Archer’s Return, by Scott Cimarusti: the third and final book in the “Last Archer” series, coming soon.

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