This blog post was created for Chuck Wendig’s FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: THE FOUR-PART STORY (FINAL PART).
The basic idea is that everyone who is involved this week will wrap up stories other writers developed in the previous three weeks.
I chose to finish to the short story The Hand That Wields started by Matthew X. Gomez and extended by lisoeta1 and then Cameron Mount. If you click on the aforementioned author’s names, you’ll be able to read part one, two, and three of the story on the respective authors’ blogs. I’ve also included the entire text of the story below. My additions start under the heading Part Four.
“Wake up Otto! Visitor here to see you.”
Otto rolled over on his pallet, cracking one reddened eye open. “Why would anyone come see me?” he mumbled, his tongue heavy from sleep. Sitting up, he opened his other eye and scratched at his tangled beard.
The guard shrugged. “They don’t tell me these things. All I know is the magistrate said to let them see you. So I’m letting them.”
Otto grinned through the iron bars of his cell, revealing teeth filed to points. “Some days I’m surprised to find anyone even remembers I’m down here.”
“Yes, well.” The guard shifted from one foot to the other, his hand dropping to the cudgel slipped through his belt. Someone that Otto couldn’t see cleared their throat. “Ah, right. This is the prisoner you wanted to see.”
Otto didn’t recognize the people once they came into the torch light, but from their fine, rich clothes and the way they held bits of cloth up to their nose to block out the stench, he figured they must be important somehow.
“This is the prisoner, then?” The speaker was older, and Otto could tell he used to be large and muscular, but too many soft years had turned muscle to flab. His eyes though were cold and blue as an iceberg. His companion was younger, his daughter maybe, and her hair was red-gold in the torchlight. Otto felt a familiar stir under his ratty pants. It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman.
Otto looked around dramatically. “Who me? No, I’m the King of Rats. Welcome to my kingdom!” He chuckled. “Yes, I’m the prisoner. Excuse me if I don’t rise to my feet.”
“Do you know who I am?” the man asked.
Otto shook his head. “Someone important. More important than the magistrate at any rate.” He cocked his head to one side. “You want something done, but you can’t be seen doing it, isn’t that right?” He scratched at his head, and finding a louse, squeezed it between his finger and thumb. “I’m not sure how much I can help you down here.” Otto sprang up, and grasped the bars in his hands, straining against them until the veins in arms popped, his eyes wide. “As you can see, they’ve made sure I’m not going anywhere.” As he sat down, he made sure to rattle the chain attached to his ankle.
“What if I told you that I could have you released?”
“You’d have to be the Jarl himself to make that happen.” Otto sighed and lay back down on his pallet, rolling so his back was to his visitors. “Now if there isn’t anything else, you’re interrupting my morning nap.”
“Not the Jarl.”
Otto cracked his eyes back open. The girl had spoken, her voice soft as velvet. “Who then?”
Otto grunted. “There’d be trouble for her if the Jarl found out she was the one that let me go.”
The girl sniffed. “If my father cared, I wouldn’t have to be down here in the first place.”
“Carolina, this man is no more than a beast, we should-”
“Who do you want killed?” Otto sat up, hands on his knees. His eyes were bright and alert, and a predatory grin split his mouth like a cut from an axe.
The chaperone stepped forward. “That is none of your concern-”
“My betrothed,” Carolina replied. “No, that’s not right. The man who was to be my husband. He broke off the betrayal, shaming me and my family. Only his family is too important, and has too many allies, so my father refuses to go to war on my behalf. And if my father was to be found to have anything to do with his death…”
“You’d be stomped back into the mud,” Otto finished for her. “So you came all the way down here to look for me? I’m flattered. What’s to say though that I don’t disappear as soon as I’m out of this cell? Are you sure you can trust me?” Otto’s grin grew wider.
“No,” Carolina replied. “You’d disappear into the woodwork like the rat you are. That’s why he has accompanied me.”
Otto narrowed his eyes and looked closer at Carolina’s chaperone. Despite his finery, he looked harder than most of the nobility Otto had dealt with. Deep creases lined his face, and Otto would bet good coin there were the callouses of a fighter on his hands. “He’s to accompany me?”
Carolina nodded once, a short sharp gesture that reminded Otto of a bird. “That’s right. Bjorn will make sure you don’t stray from your path.”
Otto leaned back, the grin vanishing all together. “Assuming I agree, there are a few things I’ll be needing.”
“We already have your belongings gathered,” Bjorn said. “A well-worn axe, a suit of mended mail, three daggers, a silver chain, and a satchel filled with various herbs. Do you require anything else?”
Otto shook his head, his eyes bright. “So what’s the name of the soon to be deceased?”
His name was Rattenberg, Egil Rattenberg. Otto had been in that hole for a long time now but even he knew who that was. Or at least, whose family he was connected to. The Rattenbergs were the oldest, most powerful family in the Kingdom; more powerful that the Jarl himself. It was no wonder the Great Baron did not wish to ruffle their feathers. If suitably provoked, the Rattenbergs could squash the ruling family and its patriarch like bugs. Otto looked at the girl, a reluctant sense of respect gnawing at him. Damn! Pretty ballsy of such a willow of a girl, he thought, to go after the two most powerful families in the land.
“When do we leave?” he asked, eyeing his belongings through the prison bars with longing.
“Right now!” the girl said, her voice incongruously authoritarian for such a young one. “Will you accept the mission?”
Otto threw his head back in laughter. “No, I prefer to lay here with the rats. Of course, I will take it.”
The odd pair took Otto to a hovel on the edge of town where they obviously expected him to set up shop. “Hell, no palace for me then?” he quipped, dropping his few belonging on the dirt floor by the door.
“This will be your home until such time you have completed your task,” Carolina explained, holding her kerchief to her nose in distaste. “Bjorn will stay with you through the whole thing. Don’t stray and do not betray us or he will make sure you sorely regret it.” Otto did not doubt for a moment that she meant it. There was something almost sinister about that girl. Coming from someone like him this was high praise indeed.
Left alone with Bjorn, who immediately started cleaning up a corner for his own use, Otto opened his satchel and scanned its contents. His yellowish bark-like face lit up at the discovery of an old friend; he rolled the herb in his fingers, stuffed it into the mouth of an old wooden pipe and lit it up with a great puff. His body slid down the wall until his legs were stretched out in front of him as the effects of the hallucinogenic herb took control of his body in waves of pleasure. It’s been too long.
Sometime during his drug-induced stupor, Otto watched Bjorn as he transformed from an obviously rich nobleman to a non-descript street bum; no-one would give him the benefit of a second-look now. Brilliant, Otto thought before drifting off again.
By the time, the drug effects had made their way through and out of his body and mind, his chaperone was waiting, non too-patiently, a mean looking dagger in his hand and a scowl on his face. “Are you done?” he asked, not really expecting or wanting an answer. “It’s dark outside. We have to go.”
Otto shook himself like a wet dog, slipped the mail suit over his head, and examined his battle-axe. The last one was a mere precaution; not exactly what he liked to use in his victims. He was a more hands-on type of criminal, literally. Weapons were all nice and dandy but there was nothing like a kill brought on by your own hands, tasted in your tongue… Otto shivered in anticipation. Killing made him feel alive. As he walked through the filthy town streets heading toward the Rattenberg’s house, no attempt at conversation was made from him or his partner-in-crime.
The Rattenberg’s family house was a fortified manor, strategically built hovering over the highest hill in town like a giant crow hovering over the carcass of a dead animal. Otto had the nagging suspicion that his usual way of gaining access to people’s houses was not going to work here. Even from a distance he could guess several armed guards keeping watch from different spots behind the battlements. They would be soon spotted if they didn’t take some kind of evasive moves. Surveying the ground around him, Otto found a ditch of some kind that ran almost all the way up the hill. Closely followed by Bjorn, he sprinted to the edge to examine it closer. It was about five feet deep even though there was no way of knowing for sure. The bottom was covered in a murky foul smelling mud that may or may not be camouflaging a much deeper dip.
Not stopping to analyze the situation to deeply, Otto jumped in. The murk came up to his shins, adding another foot to his original estimate, an unexpected boon to better hide their approach. After waving the other man in, he started making his way up the hill. The ditch meandered up and down the hill, which was frustrating but they made their way up steadily and unobserved. The path ended just a few yards away from one of the side walls. Climbing out of it, they both stooped and ran silently until they could count on the solid protection of the wall. There, there rested for a few minutes, winded and thirsty.
“How are we getting in?” Bjorn finally whispered, curiosity winning over the fear of detection earning a look of disapproval from his partner.
Otto nodded his head toward the right where a small gate broke the monotony of the dark stone wall. It was most certainly the kitchen door and at this time of night, there shouldn’t be too many creatures stirring in there. They moved, their bodies hugging the wall, until they were right by the wooden entry. Surprising the harden criminal, Bjorn fiddled with the lock and was able to open it without as much as a squeak. As Otto had predicted no one was moving in the kitchen. A few sleeping figures punctuated the hay-covered floor here and there but they were able to enter the manor unchallenged. It didn’t take long to make their silent way to the upper floor and Egil’s private quarters.
“You stay here and guard the door while I take care of our man,” Otto muttered. In reality, he had quite an intricate plan in mind as to how to take care of him. Much like an artist, Otto took great pleasure in a job well-done and took great care with details, liking his killings to be slow and painful. Bjorn would probably not approve of his methods so it was best if he didn’t get to watch.
The other man picked the lock with amazing ease, again and Otto slipped inside being careful to close the door behind him. The only light in the room emanated from the great fire in the hearth. Otto felt his pointy teeth with his tongue in anticipation of the kill and scanned the room for the nobleman. The bed was empty and it took him another scan to realize that someone was sitting in front of the fire.
“So you found me,” he heard a male voice say from the chair. “Sit yourself down. You may want to hear what I have to tell you.”
Otto stepped forward and raised his notched battleaxe for a killing blow, but his swing was checked by a hand from behind. Bjorn stepped into the firelight and nodded at the man in the chair.
“Sit, Otto. And listen.”
“You were the chaperone of Carolina. It was you who brought me here.” Otto shook the dirt-caked hair out of his eyes and glared at his erstwhile companion, but saw no movement or attempt to explain, so he moved deeper into the room and took a seat opposite the nobleman. The easy chair he was in was a match for the one where Rattenberg lounged, a half-empty goblet in his hand.
“I am here to kill you.”
“I am aware of that, Otto. And despite your slip of the tongue earlier, I also knew beforehand that it was the daughter of our great Jarl who sent you here.” Rattenberg coughed a deep, phlegmy cough, leaned his head down, and spit into the fire, where it crackled against the dying light. “I am already dead.” He gestured to his abdomen.
The assassin now noticed a dark, spreading stain on the noble’s tunic.
“You see, then, that your services are not needed, my dear murderer. I have already been murdered, and not by that slip of a woman or her hired goons. No,” Rattenberg paused and hacked again. “I have been put to my death by the Jarl himself.”
This was a twist that Otto had not suspected, but a glance at Bjorn showed him that the bodyguard had been fully aware of this development. “Damn that weed,” Otto said. “And damn that woman. And damn you, too.” The last was directed at Bjorn, who merely smiled as though he’d expected no less.
“And what then is my role to be now?” Otto knotted his brows as he tried to puzzle it out himself. He was supremely unsuited to this kind of intrigue, and, not for the first time in his life, he wondered how he’d managed to find himself so deep in the shit.
Rattenberg took a long, slow draught from his goblet before addressing the murderer. “It is merely this, Otto the Axe. The Jarl must die. No,” he raised his hand to ward off Otto’s objections. “Do not try to rationalize this. There has been blood, and when my body is found tomorrow, there will be a war. That much is unavoidable. And that much is as it should be.”
“Carolina wished for there to be no connection.” Otto spat at the mention of his benefactor.
“So naive, that girl,” explained Rattenberg. “So much the child still. And yet, for the Jarl’s daughter to rise, she must do so alone, and at the cost of much bloodshed.”
Otto’s eyes crossed. Rattenberg laughed at the obvious confusion before choking again. It took the man a few minutes to recover, during which time Otto wondered if the full story would be forthcoming before Rattenberg expired.
He turned to Bjorn, the questions plain on his face, but the chaperone shook his head. Evidently he did not have all the information either.
When Rattenberg had recovered his breathing and was able to speak again, it was much softer, raspier, and with a much quicker, if mildly slurred, pace.
“The Jarl and I had a pact. I was to marry Carolina in exchange for my army. This would have weakened my power to rebel, but given me a measure of political control, and my heir with Carolina would have held the Barony. Ah, it was like any court intrigue, but I heard tell of the Jarl’s desire to cross me and have me killed before the marriage could be consummated. So I broke off the betrothal and prepared for war.”
Otto was just barely following the thread, except the bits about betrayal and war, things he was extraordinarily skilled at. But he kept his eyes on the noble’s face, trying to glean what he could from the man’s last words, and hoping merely to find an escape clause hidden in the story. It so far did not seem to exist.
Rattenberg continued his brief tale. “I underestimated the speed at which the Jarl could respond to this effrontery, instead laying word through my hired man,” he nodded at Bjorn, “to the lady Carolina that my actions needed surreptitious response. It was Bjorn who suggested you might be a valuable ally in this.”
The murderer turned to study the firelight playing over the features of his companion. There was something there, some bit of familiarity, but he could not place it. Then Bjorn smiled, and the light glinted off a false tooth, his canine.
“You bastard!” Otto made to leap from the chair, but another coughing fit took both he and Rattenberg by surprise.
The noble breathed his last word. “Letter.” He pointed at a desk against the wall, and slumped back into his chair, his goblet falling to the floor and spilling the blood-red wine across an ornately woven rug.
A long, drawn out hiss wound its way out of the dead man’s throat, punctuated by a long squealing and wet sounding fart.
“Well, I guess he’s dead then.” Otto said rather matter-of-factly.
Bjorn just nodded his head slowly.
Neither Otto nor Bjorn made another move for a long time, but Bjorn kept smiling. Showing off his teeth, and his false canine. Otto knew only imperial eunuchs from…
The assassin didn’t want to finish that thought. He enjoyed killing people. It was a simple, strait forward pleasure. Otto enjoyed walking up to a man, wrapping his hands tightly around the man’s throat, and looking deep into that man’s eyes as all life slowly vanished from them.
Simple. Direct. Tactile. Pleasure.
Felon or not, Otto didn’t sign up for political intrigue. He couldn’t give a fuck about the plights of the nobility, or their concerns for made up concepts like divine right, land ownership, and money. Nobility are notorious for endless feuds going back generations over something a petty as who wore the wrong color to a wedding or who didn’t perform the right greeting the first time two of them met.
Otto should have known better when that sweet little fawn came to visit him. Sweet – she’s probably just as vicious a viper as all the rest. Still, he should have stayed in his cell. Getting involved with nobility is the quickest way to the executioner’s block.
It’s easy enough to get away with killing beggars and unlicensed whores. No one important really cares about them, and their deaths aren’t even going to be investigated. All one needs to do is not linger over their corpses until the guard shows up. And no one will bat an eye if a man kills a known cutpurse, brigand, pirate, or fellow murderer, again, given the killer doesn’t practically announce his deed. Hell, local guards and officials may even unofficially pass along thanks, in one subtle way or another.
Slaves are another matter. A man can get away with killing one if he’s got enough coin to cover the loss of property. Unfortunately, Otto never believed in the concept of money and, when he mistook a very neglected and poorly cared for slave for a beggar, the murderer ended up with a bill he couldn’t pay. And like all penniless debtors, Otto was thrown into prison.
It felt like hours had passed since the noble’s final death rattle. The fire in the hearth had burned down to embers and both men glowered at each other from that shadows over the cooling corpse. Ruminating on how he got here, and reminiscing about simpler times would not get Otto out of this mess.
Otto finally broke the long standing silence. “So, are you going to get the letter?”
Bjorn glanced over at the desk and then back to Otto. His eyes lingered on the killer’s well-worn axe. “Rattenberg was addressing you.”
Otto sprung to his feet, waving his axe around as though it were an extension of his hand. “Oh, I’m sorry. Do I,” he stated forcefully, thumping the axe head against his chest, “look like a man of letters?” Moving the axe to point at Bjorn, Otto continued, “Plus, you’re the one good with locks. Rich men tend to lock their drawers. So, being that I know I can’t read the letter, and I might not even be able to get it out of the table, I think maybe you should get it and read it and let me know just what the fuck is going on.”
The look on Bjorn’s face changed from one of concern to one of agitation and annoyance. Otto fought back a smile. Instead, he did is best to appear pissed off and impatient.
“Fine.” Bjorn practically spat out the word. Begrudgingly, he hauled himself to his feet and trudged across the floor to the desk.
Otto didn’t let up and stuck to the larger man like his shadow. Just as Bjorn started to lean over to examine the desk, Otto interjected, “Is it locked?”
Bjorn violently shook back his shoulders as if to warn Otto to step back. The eunuch didn’t glance behind him, but hollered back. “I just got here. I haven’t even gotten a chance to look at the lock yet. For the gods’ sakes man.”
“Sorry-sorry. Right.” Otto smiled at the back of Bjorn’s head as he stumbled through his apology. Shifting his grip on his well-worn axe, Otto took a step back, and Bjorn leaned over to examine the desk once more.
When the large man bent over again, Otto impatiently asked, “So it locked?” and stepped back up behind Bjorn. The murderer made sure that his groin bumped into the eunuch’s rounded rump.
Bjorn let out a frustrated breath before responding. “Move back. Now.” Otto tightened his grip on his axe and raised it quietly. The killer didn’t respond verbally, but instead gently prodded the larger man’s ass again.
When he spun around to face Otto, Bjorn’s face twisted with rage and fury. “You worthless-”
The man never got a chance to finish his sentence. Otto had brought his heavy battle axe down on the other man’s crown the minute he turned around. There was a sickening crunch when the axe smashed in Bjorn’s cranium, and the man crumpled to the floor. The man’s skull had been thick enough to keep Otto’s axe from cleaving through it. Instead, Bjorn’s head displayed a deep, weeping ‘V’ shaped gouge running from his hair line to his nose.
Looking down at the twitching form below him, Otto sighed and replied, “I’m sorry for that. I don’t like being tricky. I like being very strait forward. It feels better to kill a man when he sees it coming. When he knows his life is leaving him, you are the cause, and he can’t do nothing about it. But, on the other hand, I don’t like being tricked either. And you. You were trying to pull one over on old Otto. Weren’t you?” Bjorn murmured unintelligibly as he convulsed on the floor, bleeding all over the very expensive carpet.
Taking in a deep breath and looking over the dying man once more, Otto raised his axe and brought it down again – this time with all his might. In one smooth stroke, the blade bit through the Bjorn’s thick throat and a fountain of blood sprayed forth from what remained of torso’s neck.
After taking in his handiwork for a few minutes, Otto smiled and heading off into the night.
“Better when when he sees it coming, but always good no matter what.”
If any of the other authors who worked on this story are reading this, I hope you enjoyed my conclusion!
The text for the first three parts and the image were used in this post without seeking permission. I believe their use falls under fair use. If they are yours, and you feel their use is inappropriate; please contact me and let me know.