by David Pilling
|part 1 of 4|
Hasan al-Asim was a murderer. He murdered on a professional basis, for money, and he only murdered those whom he personally had a grudge against. Since he was a member of an ethnic group despised, hated and exploited by almost everyone in the Southern Kingdoms, this included a lot of people.
He had arranged to meet his latest clients in an alley not far from the tiny ghetto where he and his people, the Shunned, were forced to live. His clients were five men, tall bulky Southerners in drab cloaks and hoods.
Their leader was a powerfully built man stinking of wine and garlic who introduced himself as the Baron. Hasan judged him to be a typical Southern lord, arrogant and cruel and bigoted.
For their part, the Southerners were confronted by a short dark-skinned man with a narrow face marked by deep lines of suffering and privation. Hasan wore loose robes made of cheap dyed wool with the sign of the Shunned, a circle within a circle, sewn in black thread on the sleeve of his right arm.
“I received your message,” said Hasan, uncomfortably aware that the Baron’s followers had surrounded him. “How can I be of service?”
“Speak when you are spoken to, filth,” snarled one of the hooded men.
The Baron impatiently waved him into silence. “There is a man I wish you to kill,” he said in a deep voice used to command. “He is rich and well guarded. I am not proud of having to resort to the likes of you, but I must.”
Hasan forced a smile. “Please to explain?” he asked.
“I have heard that you people are skilled in bringing death by... dishonourable methods.”
You people. The Baron’s contemptuous tone irritated Hasan, and he dug his nails into his palms, forcing himself to keep calm. “Yes,” he said softly “we are skilled murderers, rapists and child-killers. Or so they say in the ballads and chapbooks.”
“I am not here to chop words with you,” the Baron hissed. “Here is payment. Accept it or walk away.”
One of his followers unfastened a pouch hanging from his belt and tossed it at Hasan. It landed by his feet and spilled open, disgorging bronze and copper pennies onto the dirty flagstones. There was just enough money to feed him for a month.
“A king’s ransom,” said Hasan. “Now I have two choices. I can take the money and risk my life attempting to kill your enemy, or I can refuse and be stabbed in the back by the man standing behind me.”
There was silence for a moment. Hasan waited. He could feel hot breath on his neck and knew he was one signal away from death.
It didn’t come. “You have my word,” the Baron said irritably. “If you refuse the job then you will leave here unharmed. It is in your nature to be suspicious, but I am a gentleman.”
Hasan suppressed some bitter comments about his past experience of “gentlemen” and knelt to scoop up the pouch of money.
The Baron nodded. “Good,” he said, “we have a bargain. My men will give you the details.”
Hasan watched in amusement as the Baron turned and hurried away, followed by all but one of his followers. He was plainly keen to get away as fast as possible, propelled by disgust with both Hasan and himself for doing business with such a person.
Hasan was briefed by the man that stayed behind. Their master had invited his enemy to dinner at his castle in a week’s time. Why he had done so was none of Hasan’s concern. He would be taken to the kitchen while the feast was being prepared. The food intended for the target would be pointed out to him and then he would do the rest.
“I fail to see why your master needs me to poison his rival,” remarked Hasan. “Poison is not difficult to obtain, or, failing that, a sharp knife on a dark night can do wonders.”
“Poison? Knives in the dark?” exclaimed the hooded man. “My lord would never stoop to such methods!”
“Yet he is happy to pay me to do his dirty work for him.”
“You do not count. You are Shunned. What you do is not important. Thus my lord can employ you with a clear conscience.”
Hasan smiled. “I will bear that in mind.”
The hooded man told him to come to the alley again at dusk, whence he would be taken to the Baron’s castle. Then he slipped away, leaving Hasan alone with his money.
On his way back to the ghetto, a group of children yelled abuse at him and started to throw stones. Hasan turned on them, baring his teeth in a savage grin and half-drawing his curved dagger from its sheath. They fled, wailing in terror. Shunned he might be, but Hasan was no target.
The Baron’s castle was unimpressive, nothing more than a small square keep atop a mound encircled by a timber stockade. It skulked among the flat marshy plains a few miles west of the city, clinging to the drab landscape as though afraid someone might steal it.
“Is that your master’s stronghold?” said Hasan to the men who had brought him there. “In my homeland it would barely qualify as a watchtower.”
Someone cursed and struck the back of Hasan’s head. Hasan staggered theatrically. “Careful.” He grinned at the one who had hit him. “Don’t handle me too roughly, or else I might break. Then your master would have to do his own poisoning.”
The man cursed again and reached for his knife. One of his comrades laid a warning hand on his arm and spoke softly to him. He nodded and subsided, breathing hard.
“When this is over,” he said, pointing at Hasan, “I shall come to your filthy ghetto and seek you out. My name is Sir Brasco. Remember me.”
“I look forward to our meeting. Now lead on.”
Without further argument they took him towards the castle, leading their horses at a walk. As they got closer Hasan heard faint strains of music, pipes and drums, drifting on the night breeze from the direction of the keep. Drunken singing and hoarse shouts of laughter mingled with the din. The Baron’s feast was under way.
After clambering through the ditch, no easy task in the dark, they emerged in the shadow of the stockade. A postern gate was cut into the frame of the drawbridge and one of Hasan’s escorts knocked softly on the timber. A spy hole shot open, whispered passwords were exchanged and the gate creaked open to admit them.
Hasan was bundled through the door and confronted by a lean thin-lipped greybeard with a group of men-at-arms behind him.
“I am the Baron’s steward,” said the greybeard, looking at Hasan with an expression of extreme distaste. “While you are here you will follow my instructions. Understand?”
Hasan nodded. The gate swung shut behind him and the steward moved away towards the keep, beckoning the men-at-arms to bring Hasan with them.
The kitchen was a cavernous chamber with a high arched ceiling on the lower floor of the keep. One entire wall was taken up by a massive hearth, inside which roared a blazing fire. Half a dozen spits loaded with meat were placed over the flames, turned by kitchen boys protected from the roasting heat by straw targets soaked in water. Iron, bronze and clay pots full of bubbling stews were positioned inside smaller fireplaces. Everywhere was heat and noise and a cloying abattoir stench.
To Hasan, whose creed forbade him from eating red meat six days out of every seven, the kitchen seemed like an imitation of Hell. He noticed that most of the kitchen staff paid him no heed. Any who gave him a second glance had to cope with the basilisk glare of the steward and quickly turned back to their work.
Hasan was taken to a side table, upon which was a silver dish piled with steaming slices of mutton, pork and beef covered in a thick brown sauce.
“This is for our master’s guest.” said the steward. Then he turned and disappeared into the throng, leaving Hasan to wrestle with his conscience.
It was a short battle. Hasan had no qualms about poisoning Southerners, even complete strangers. On the ring finger of his left hand was a bronze ring adorned with a crimson brooch. He flipped back the brooch, which was hollow inside and filled with a fine white powder, and emptied most of the contents over the meat. The powder quickly sizzled and dissolved.
Hasan glanced around for the steward and saw him standing beside the archway that led out of the kitchen. The man was glaring at him suspiciously, so Hasan nodded to signal that his task was done and began to make his way through the heat and bustle to join him.
As he pushed and weaved a path through the milling cooks, varlets and kitchen boys, he noticed another silver dish lying on a bench to his right. The dish was piled high with the best cuts of meat atop a thick trencher of wheat bread, and beside these was an amphora of rich claret.
Hasan could guess who the dish was meant for, and wasn’t about to waste such an opportunity. As he slid past the bench he palmed a speck of white powder, all he had left but enough to poison a roomful of Barons, into the claret.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by David Pilling