The River’s Mask (Arden #3)

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

Arden looked up from his cups as the fishermen entered the Hobbled Harpist; three of them, their clothes soaked and torn. One was a haggard looking old man, muscled from years of plying his trade along the river. The other two were young enough to be his sons; one skinny but healthy looking, the other tall and heavy, with bloody scrapes on his arms and knees and a half-drowned look about him.

Jon set aside his dishrag and crossed to them. It was just past midday, so the common room was empty, most of the town being hard at work. “What happened, Jaron?” Jon asked, helping the bloody fisherman into a chair.

Jaron, the old fisherman, took a seat before taking a deep breath and beginning. “We were out on the river, good day for it too, our nets were full. We were getting ready to bring our catch in early when they came.”

“River pirates,” the thin man spat.

“They boarded quickly,” Jaron continued. ” We didn’t have any choice but to jump overboard. Bracken’s crew wasn’t as lucky.”

They were indeed lucky. Arden had seen the rafts and small fishing boats that plied the river. He often thought they were lucky not to capsize. None of the fishermen stood a chance against an armed boarding party.

“We set up our nets where the river was at its narrowest, upstream from here. They came from the river and shore at once. We let the river carry us back to Crickhall, but Hus here was hurt when the current threw him against the rocks of the river bed. Taro and I had to carry him here.”

Arden looked at Taro’s slight build and imagined Jaron must have done most of the lifting.

Jon fetched bandages from behind his bar. “We’ve had pirates here before,” he said, applying them to Hus’s wounds. “I’ll send Gorden up to Kingston tomorrow morning, have him fetch some militiamen. Pirates will usually lay low for a while after an attack.”

“These weren’t any regular pirates,” Jaron said. “They were led by a man in an iron mask, forged in a demon’s appearance.”

Arden had been watching Jon apply bandages to Hus, but now whipped around to stare at Jaron.  Are you sure?” he asked.

“Sure as the sun rises.”

A series of images–memories–flashed before Arden’s eyes. The sign outside the Hobbled Harpist shorn in half; flame licking at the splintered wood.  A man stepped into view, masked in a demon’s visage. The flickering flames danced over his dark iron mask and the broad head of his wicked, curved axe.

“Don’t send Gorden in the morning,” Arden said. “Send him tonight.”

“Is it that serious, Arden?” Jon asked. “He caught us by surprise last time, he won’t be able to do damage like that again.”

“It’s more serious than you know.”

“Who is this pirate,” asked Taro, “and why do you fear him so?”

Arden emptied his mug with a long drink. “He calls himself the River’s Mask. He’s vicious, greedy, and utterly without mercy. And he’s proud.”

“What does his pride have to do with anything?” Taro asked. “It’s his blade we have to worry about.”

“His pride matters because it’s what drives him. He wears the mask because it helps him build a reputation. When I defeated him, I took a shit on that reputation.”

“Why do you know so much about a river pirate, Arden?” Jaron asked, suspicious.

“I make it my business to know my enemies. That way I know what they mean to do. The Mask didn’t show much interest in your fish, did he?”

“No,” Hus put in. “Cut them away like they were worthless.”

“A waste,” Jaron interjected.

“How did you know?” Hus continued.

“The Mask doesn’t care about loot this time around. His fight is personal, revenge for his loss. It means he’ll be more rash that otherwise.”

“And you plan to exploit this,” Jon said. It was not a question.

“Send Gorden to Kingston,” Arden said.  “If he rides hard and the militiamen listen they should return by tomorrow night or the morning after. In either case, I intend to greet them with the Mask’s head.”

*

Arden stood at the front of the raft as Jaron and Hus poled it along. They were far upstream from Crickhall, where the river narrowed and trees grew densely on either bank, giving shade to the water’s edges. “Is this where you were attacked?” he asked, without turning around.

“We’re nearing the spot,” Jaron called, ” but I don’t see why they’d stay here. Most pirates go to ground after an attack.”

No sooner than he spoke, small boat with a reinforced prow came rushing around a curve in the river.

“These aren’t most pirates.”

The steel prow of the other boat opened a massive hole in the raft, and water immediately washed over the deck. Arden was thrown into the river.
The water was a shocking cold, and forced the breath from his lungs. Arden surfaced quickly, gasping down sweet air, and kicked out for the shore. Grabbing a protruding root, he pulled himself from the river and onto the muddy bank. He saw the fishermen doing the same, Hus with some help from the other two.

The pirates’ boat slid onto the bank beside him, and the Mask leapt to the ground. He was taller than Arden remembered, but his axe was as wickedly sharp as ever. The other pirates moved to surround Arden, but the Mask waved them back.

Arden smiled; that’s what he had been counting on.

“Come back to lose again, have you?” Arden taunted as he rose to his feet, drawing his sword.

The Mask answered with a swing of his broad-bladed axe.

Arden’s confidence swelled as the fight began. The Mask was an even worse fighter than he remembered. His strikes were clumsy and rage-filled, easy for Arden to avoid.  He danced past one blow and thrust downward, his blade cutting through the Mask’s calf and sinking into the mud.

The Mask screamed in pain, and that’s when Arden knew he had failed. He knew the Mask’s voice, he had been hearing it in his head since learning of his presence, and the scream he was now hearing was not the same voice.

“You never were one to be cautious.” That was the right voice, but it was behind him. He felt a flash of searing pain as a blade opened his back from shoulder to hip.

He hit the ground and rolled over, allowing the cold mud to soothe the terrible cut.
His brother stepped over him, without his mask, his face scarred and burnt.

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

 

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