This short fiction is inspired by Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge, to pick five characters out of a list of fifty randomly generated characters and write a 1500 word story about them.
The clumsy, wise, sleazy mentor on the wrong side of the law.
The quiet wanderer.
The agile heir.
The domineering assassin looking for a challenge.
The friendly musician.
This doesn’t work very well, but at least I finished it.
Warning– there’s some language at the beginning.
Copyright 2014 by Douglas Daniel
It had rained for two days before, and now a large motley of folk waited for the river to come down far enough for them to cross. To be precise, they waited for the ferryman to tell them it was safe for him to take them over. “Fuck you all,” he said, when some of the merchants waiting to get their mule-train across complained. “Fuck you and all your pox-ridden mothers. I ain’t going until it’s safe. Think I want to risk feeding the fish because you fat bastards got impatient? Fuck you.”
Some might have taken offense at his forceful language, but he was the only one who knew how to work the ferry, he and his very large and numerous sons. And then there was the platoon of Imperial troops garrisoning the crossing, who told the travelers that the ferryman made the rules for the river and that was all there was to it.
So they waited– merchants, soldiers on leave, pilgrims, the young heir of a noble estate to the east, along with his retinue, a young couple going to Binsola to find work in the silk factories, a party of traveling musicians, a trio of grim, well-armed men, and one foreigner.
The foreign-man’s name was Mankin. He did not mind the wait– he had nowhere in particular to go, and he was in no hurry to get there. He had come down from Dan-es-reti that spring to see what sort of work a foreign sword might find. Now the autumn rains had come, and he was still looking.
There was an inn near the crossing, but it was often crowded and stuffy. Mankin liked to come out to the river bank, where there was a stone shelter. In the shelter the ferryman’s sons kept a fire going, so it was comfortable, unless the wind picked up. Mankin often sat there, watching the river, tending his sword and thinking.
The third morning a number of folk came out to look at the river, thinking it looked hopeful. The young nobleman was among them. He sat on the stone floor of the shelter. Mankin thought he was waiting for someone.
One of the musicians was there, as well, tuning his lute. As Mankin warmed himself at the fire, he bobbed his head in greeting. “Think we’ll cross today?” he asked Mankin.
“Maybe,” Mankin said, holding out his hands to the fire.
The musician waited, but Mankin said nothing more. “Oh, the joys of conversation,” the lute-player said, but he smiled as he said it. “Care for a tune?”
“I don’t know any Bukani music,” Mankin said.
“Ah– well, I’ll just play something to cheer everyone up,” the lute-man said. He started a lively song.
From up the river-bank an old man came stumbling toward the shelter. He wore the robes of a scholar-priest of the Fifth Rank, although somewhat askew and soiled. At the sight of him the nobleman bounded to his feet, in a motion that made Mankin’s joints ache just to see it. “Kura!” the nobleman said. “Where have you been?”
“Dear boy, surely you can guess,” the old man said. His words slurred, and he grinned lopsided.
“You’ve been to the song-house! Dammit, Kura, you know the company of women is forbidden you….”
“Now, my boy, you’re not going to begrudge your old tutor a harmless diversion or two?” the old man said. “Believe me, young lord, when you’re my age, a warm, female welcome will be most…welcome.”
The nobleman looked fit to burst. “Sit down, you old fool. No, not by the fire, your breath will set everything aflame.”
“Oh, the flame of love, the flame of love,” the musician improvised, strumming, “it o’erthrows e’en the wise….”
Mankin considered beating the fellow about the head with his own lute, but just at that moment the three grim men appeared. Their leader studied the river as if it had offended him personally. He wore expensive armor; his sword and daggers were the best Mankin had seen in a long while.
The musician’s tune trailed away. He edged closer to Mankin. “D’you know who that is?” he whispered.
“Not a clue,” Mankin said.
“That’s Shumon, the highest paid assassin in the Eastern Dasan,” the musician said. “Maybe in the Empire.”
“Really.” Mankin peered at the man. “And they let him walk around free?”
The musician snorted. “Foreigner. Don’t you know anything? Assassin is a lawful trade. The Assassins are a mighty guild. Their contracts are approved by the Emperor himself.”
“Huh,” Mankin said. There were some things about this empire he just did not understand.
Shumon turned away from the river to the fire. He looked at the lute-player, dismissed him. His eyes settled on Mankin. “Ho, a stinking outlander,” Shumon said. “What’s your business, foreigner?”
“Looking for work, nothing more,” Mankin said.
“Yeah?” Shumon said. “You any good with that sword?”
“Fair,” Mankin said.
Shumon smiled nastily. “Just ‘fair’? Aren’t you going to claim to be the greatest swordsman who ever drew blade?”
“No, because I’m not,” Mankin said.
“Bah,” Shumon said, disgusted. “And here I was hoping for a bout. Maybe I’d have given you a cut, you could have said, ‘I got this from Shumon the Great’.”
“You go around the countryside making people fight you?” Mankin asked.
“When I can,” Shumon said. “I need to keep my skills sharp, not just my blades. Practice is what I need, against real opponents, but there’s hardly anyone these days who can challenge me.”
“Huh– that makes you special. Most men just want to get through the day in one piece. They don’t go looking for trouble.”
Shumon swelled. “I’m not most men. I am Shumon, the man who slaughtered Lord Ehan and all his soldiers. I strangled Lord Gesaon and pitched his body from his own walls. My name is feared in the Empire. Noble lords pay me not take contracts against them, out of fear of my name. Women come crawling to please me.”
“Well, that sounds like easy money,” Mankin said. “Good work, if you can get it.”
Shumon peered at Mankin. “You’re afraid of me,” he said.
“Yes,” Mankin said. “But, then, I’m afraid of many things.”
Shumon sneered. “I fear nothing. Nothing can touch me.”
Mankin shook his head. “No, that’s wrong. Any man can be touched. And there are things every man should fear.”
“Maybe you,” Shumon said. “Not me.”
Mankin shrugged, and kept on warming his hands.
Soon after the ferry-man declared the river crossable. The travelers would cross in the order they had paid their fare. Mankin crossed with the nobleman and some of his retinue; Shumon and his two followers, despite their protests, had to wait for the second trip.
The nobleman and his men had to wait on the far bank– a second group of his party, with Kura the scholar-priest, were coming after Shumon. When they came ashore, and the ferry started back, Mankin bowed to the nobleman. “My lord,” he said, “may I beg a favor?”
The nobleman nodded. “Surely.”
“Would one of your men hold my horse’s reins for a moment? I have something I need to do.”
“I will hold them myself,” the nobleman said.
Mankin bowed again. “Thank you.”
He walked down to the water. The bank was covered with pebbles, worn smooth by the river. The water lapped at his boots. Mankin bent down and picked up a pebble, about the size of a hen’s egg, and very nearly the same shape. As he did, the ferry left the far bank, with Shumon, his men and their horses onboard. Shumon was facing the far bank, shouting something at someone, and laughing an ugly laugh.
Standing up, Mankin reached beneath his jacket and untied the slingshot he wore about his waist. The stone fit perfectly in the leather cup. Mankin weighed it for a moment, felt the wind on his right cheek, judged the motion of the ferry. He swung the sling, twirling it over his head until the leather whistled, and let it the stone fly.
The pebble flew true across the water. Shumon turned around just in time to take it square in the forehead. He staggered back, hit the rail of the barge, and toppled right over backwards into the river. Water splashed eight feet in the air.
Mankin tucked the slingshot away and walked back to the nobleman. The youngster stared at him in amazement, his mouth open.
“Thank you, my lord,” Mankin said, taking his horse’s reins from him. Out on the river, the cries of Shumon’s men indicated that Shumon was not coming back up in a timely manner– indeed, that he might not be coming back up at all.
All to the good— but now there was no time for dawdling.
“You– you sank him,” the nobleman said.
“Yes,” Mankin said, sighing. He put his boot in the stirrup, mounted. “I just can’t stand loudmouths.”