Jack sat at a table drinking some of his aches and pains away two days out of Dombarton, a journey he had made in half that time. He had mastered the trick of sleeping in the saddle long ago, but it was no substitute for a proper bed or even a nice, solid piece of floor. He had hoped to keep on the road until he was across the border, another day’s ride, but his aching bones and sore muscles outvoted his determination.
The old assassin kept a wary eye on a group of men sitting at a table near the middle of the tavern and was not surprised when they finally stood up and approached him. There were four in total, all armed with swords and pistols, the kind brigands and hooligans liked to carry. Which one they were, Jack did not care. It was obvious by their demeanor that they meant to cause him trouble.
The group’s apparent leader, a middle-aged man who walked with a confident swagger, pulled out a chair, turned it around backwards, and sat down. “What’s your name, old-timer?”
Jack met his eyes, downed his drink, and said, “John. Who are you?”
“William,” the man replied with a sneer.
“Can I buy you boys a drink?”
“Is that what that horrid smell is?” William asked, sniffing at the liniment Jack had rubbed into his tired muscles.
Jack chuckled. “No, that’s the smell of combating old age.”
“Is that right? I just thought it was the regular stink of a Lusanite. The only reason a Lusanite would be in Auradan is if they’re a spy, and we don’t drink with spies. We prefer to hang them.”
“I’m no Lusan spy.”
“Then what’s your purpose here?”
“I’m on the king’s business.”
William’s eyebrows rose. “Is that right? Which one?”
Jack chuckled. “Thorburn.”
“If you work for the king, then you have a pass. Let’s see it.”
Jack shrugged, reached inside his coat pocket, and tossed the forged document onto the table. William took it and held it up toward the nearest lantern.
“Well, would you take a gander at that,” William said as his cronies gathered around to look. “That is one impressive forgery. It’s almost better than the real thing. Looks like we get to use that new rope I bought.”
All four men grabbed for their weapons. The nearest one pulled his pistol and pointed it at Jack’s head, but the old man was already in motion. Jack swung his chair and struck the man’s extended arm, knocking the weapon aside. The pistol spat fire and smoke, and the shot shattered a bottle on the shelf behind the bar. Jack lunged forward and buried a small knife into the shooter’s throat and kicked him into the path of the second man who rushed forward with a sword held high.
William and the third man both drew pistols. Jack dropped to the floor and upended the table. One shot lodged in the cross member on the underside of the barrier. The other blasted through near the assassin’s head, sending splinters of wood pelting into his face.
Jack came up on his knees, aimed the hilts of his swords at the two men, and fired. William recognized the secret weapons for what they were and threw himself aside, narrowly avoiding getting shot. His cohort was not as quick or savvy and the heavy lead ball took him in the chest. Springing to his feet, Jack parried the sword-wielder’s heavy chop with one blade and ran him through with the other. The old man tried to sprint past William before he could regain his feet, but he was not as spry as he once was.
William swung his leg out, tripping Jack. Jack did not attempt to arrest his fall. Instead, he dropped his shoulder and rolled through it. He winced as his bones, lacking much of the padding muscle once afforded them, met the unyielding wood. Jack cursed when he lost his grip on one of his swords and it went skittering across the floor. In spite of it all, he managed to roll onto his feet with a measurable amount of grace.
Jack spied his dropped blade a short distance away, but William was on him before he could reach it. The two swords met with the ringing of steel. The dagger held in William’s offhand came stabbing down at the old man’s leathery neck, but Jack grabbed his wrist and halted the strike.
Williams eyes went wide as he watched Jack slowly push the blade away. “How are you so strong?”
“Ain’t nothing left of me but bone and gristle,” Jack replied through clenched teeth.
Jack’s head whipped forward and caught William in the nose. A second headbutt and a kick to the stomach sent him reeling backward. Jack barely managed to catch himself before falling onto his backside and stumbled for his fallen sword. He grabbed a chair by its back and hurled it at William, hitting him in the chest and face and knocking him to the ground.
The assassin scooped up his sword and raced out of the tavern. He ran down the street as fast as his old legs would carry him. The steepled roof of the barn where he sheltered his horse rose up above the tops of the mostly single-story buildings in the town and headed in its direction.
William was on the old man’s heels as he disappeared into the barn’s interior. He paused outside the large doors, peering around the opening before entering in case Jack was waiting inside to spring an ambush. Stacks of hay bales filled the bulk of the barn’s interior, giving the old man plenty of places in which to hide.
“You know Arman will never let you get close to him, Jack,” William called out as he crept into the barn.
Jack gnashed his teeth. He was glad that Prince Kaiden had not sent the men after him, but he seethed at the fact that not only did King Arman know what he was up to, he had probably set the entire thing in motion, and he had played right into his hands.
“Part of me hoped you would succeed in whatever your ultimate goal was, but I just had to meet the great Jack Lazarus for myself,” William continued. “It’s a shame our paths didn’t cross earlier. Besting an old man takes away a great deal of the satisfaction I might get from killing you.”
“It’s a fool who celebrates his accomplishment before getting the job done.”
“It’s also a fool thing for a man to try to hide when he’s slathered on so much liniment.”
William darted around a stack of hay and thrust his sword forward, letting his nose mark his target for him. The blade stabbed through Jack’s shirt and sank into the wood pillar from which it hung. William broke off his curse as he tried to dive away from the wall of hay collapsing above him. The falling bales bore him to the ground, driving the wind from his lungs and entombing him. Jack wasted no time, found his mount in one of the dozens of stalls, and rode out of town with all haste. It was now a race to get to Arman before his assassin did.