Title: The Third Path
Genre: medieval!au, slight fantasy!au
Length: ~23,700 words
Warnings: graphic content, language, violence, mature themes, indistinct mentions of rape
Summary: Kyungsoo is a traveling swordsman. Jongin is in need of one. But working together proves less simple than Kyungsoo initially thought it would be.
A/N: this is actually, technically, a specific au of sorts, but if I said what it was people will probably be able to guess who wrote this lol. All references will be given their due credit post-reveals.
On the dawn of the fortieth day, Kyungsoo arrived at the village.
It was nondescript, as inconsequential as every other peasant settlement in the country. The roads were torn and muddy from last night’s rain, deep with barrow wheel tracks. A few chickens tottered about. Most of the villagers were already awake, out to fetch water, browse the produce stalls.
The notice board was to the south of the village, situated across the road from the Silver Mink Inn and next to a patch of sunflowers, crowding the stump of an old, rotting tree. Some looked at him as he rode past, disinterested, or frightened, or wary. Recent wars had made them immune to the sight of sigils and plated armour, but Kyungsoo wore neither. He was strapped up in a combination of hardened leather and blackened chain mail, leaving him without a mark, unrecognizable; to the villagers he could have been any kind of trouble. Kyungsoo eased off his horse, Persimmon, and held the reigns as he glossed over the notices.
Missing goat. Matilda’s birthday party. An official statement about the summer harvest mass, posted by the Church of the White Oaks. Willing to trade for a silver soup ladle, see Lars. Swordsman needed.
The last one Kyungsoo read carefully. A villager emerged from a nearby hut and staggered over to stand next to him, scratching his belly. He smelled of sour milk.
“You’s a knight?” the man drawled crudely.
“No,” Kyungsoo said.
“Ye, ya don’t look like one. Knight’s armour’s shiny. Bet yer some sort of hunter, eh?”
“Where is your lord’s estate?”
“S’over there, up that road. Keep your right ear to the sun, up the fork. He’ll be on a hill of burdock.”
The villager picked his nose as he watched Kyungsoo climb up his horse. “You’ve got some fine armour there, stranger. You ain’t a knight, then ye best keep an eye on it. Merchant’ll pay a pretty penny for that leather.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Kyungsoo said.
The Agelheart Estate was enclosed within a wooded pasture, rolling hills of dogwood and potentilla bending the road leading up to stone walls. The gates were open, built of fine heavy iron, a roaring bear’s head ornamenting the thin bars.
The courtyard was not well-kept, but it was clean. Unpruned rosebushes swarmed the cobblestone paths, branches sagging beneath the weight of its own blooms. A fountain stood with moss and dirt covering the exposure-worn cracks, edges rounded with rain and sun. Unattended, a small black dog trotted about and sniffed at the patches of dandelions. He paid Kyungsoo no mind.
The mansion, by comparison to its underwhelming grounds, is effectively impressive. Its reinforced walls of white plaster and sloping red tile stood erect against the eyesore blue shining overhead. It had not been built very long ago. Heavy olive-gold drapery peeked out from three flights of windows. The double-doors were of thick oak, intricately carved, two more bear’s heads hanging in the form of solid brass knockers.
“And what is it you want, then?”
Kyungsoo craned his neck up. From the large balcony overhead a young boy was leaning against the banister, the sleeves of his blouse hanging like hammocks from the skinny arms crossed over the railing. He was fair, cheeks freckled slightly with the sun, the muscle between his dark eyes clenched tight. Kyungsoo was putting his bets that this wasn’t the lord, or even the lord’s boy—his blue tunic was plain, without ornamental embroidery, and did not extend to his knees the way it often did among the wealthy.
“I’m looking for the lord of the manor,” Kyungsoo said. He held his gaze, undeterred by the boy’s bluntness. “I’m here about the notice.”
“You a knight?”
Kyungsoo sighed. “No.”
“Lord Jongin doesn’t deal with common vagabonds,” the boy announced, shoulders squared. “You have no business here. Off to the highways with you!”
“Luhan, will you shut your bloody mouth?” a voice carried out from within, sounding exasperated. As if yanked by a chain the boy turned and darted back into the manor, without so much as a parting glance, a wisp of light hair gleaming in the sun before he disappeared.
Kyungsoo rocked back and forth on his heels patiently and waited until the manor doors opened.
“Go on, get out of my sight,” someone said, shooing the boy out, who now had a small satchel in his hand. “And tell your mother to send your brother next time. I’ve had it up to here with you making a mess of my cellar stores.”
Luhan didn’t say anything, and he stuck his tongue out at Kyungsoo as he ran past, his satchel jingling and shoes kicking up mud in his wake.
“My apologies for that,” the voice from within said, and finally took a step out, so that he stood straddling the doorway. “Cobbler’s son. We let him earn a few coins and a full belly for feeding the horses.”
The man was young, no older than Kyungsoo, but a few inches taller. His posture was prim, his expression the appropriate balance of polite study, but his wine-red robes were dishevelled and improperly bound upon his figure, as if he’d been dressing himself in the dark. He had fine features, a strong jawline and wide forehead, typical of nobility; but there was also a uniqueness in the pouty mouth and feline eyes. A single ruby-set gold ring adorned his slim hands—the family heirloom.
Kyungsoo turned to face him fully. “I’m here about the notice,” he said, exactly as he’d done to the boy.
The man blinked. “Notice?”
“This one.” Kyungsoo retrieved the parchment from the crevice of his breastplate and unfolded it. The man took it gently, read over its contents. “It was posted back in town.”
“Oh,” the man said. “Oh. Gods, I’d posted this ages ago, I didn’t think anyone would…” He seemed to come to himself, and extended his hand. “Jongin, first son of the house Kim.”
“Kyungsoo, of Brodich.”
“I’ve heard of the one. Lovely town, by all rumours. Please, come inside.”
Kyungsoo looked around. There was something deeply peculiar about the place, and it didn’t take long for him to figure out what. The manor was completely barren of staff. From the foyer to the dining hall, not a single footman, steward, or housekeeper could be spotted. The floors were clean, but the vases and sculptures decorating the furniture were covered in a thin layer of dust. An odd smell pervaded the place, as if someone had cooked several meals at the same time and then left all of the food out uneaten. It explained a few things, including the lord’s sloppy visage; it was likely that he was, in fact, dressing himself. When Kyungsoo was seated, Jongin left to fetch his own wine and goblets, and an offering of slightly-overripe peaches.
“Quite the space you’ve got to yourself,” Kyungsoo said, as Jongin set the tray down.
“Ah—yes. A lot of our staff…they quit, a little while ago.”
“Any reason in particular?”
Jongin shifted uncomfortably. “Yes. The family’s come under some heavy speculation. It…has something to do with the notice I posted.”
“Start from the beginning.”
“Y-Yes, of course. Please, help yourself.”
“Thank you,” Kyungsoo said, and picked up one of the peaches, turning it over in his hands.
Jongin leaned back against his chair for a moment, and then abruptly remembered who he was and sat up again, folding his hands on the table and clearing his throat. “My cousin,” Jongin said, and cleared his throat again. “I have a cousin, Joonmyun, first born of Lothair. A little while ago he’d been on the road, settled in Elburry for a bit on some business. It seems he’d been studying under their apothecary, learning botany, alchemy, something of the sort. Wasn’t anything unusual in that, he always talked of becoming an army doctor. The details have been skewed, but rumour has it his teacher’s work dabbled in…the darker arts. You know, spells, witchcraft, all the like.”
“Dangerous times to be taking an interest in witchcraft,” Kyungsoo said. The sound of nails clicking against tile drew close, and the black dog from the gardens trotted into the room, again unaccompanied. He sniffed the leg of Kyungsoo’s trousers, and then sat at his feet, ears perked and gaze locked on the potent-smelling fruit. “Let me guess. Their work didn’t sit well with the villagers.”
Jongin grimaced, ashamed. “The Church caught wind of it. He—my cousin, and the apothecary—they were impaled. Needless to say it sent the family name into shambles. Locals are afraid our bloodline houses some old, malevolent magic. Baseless accusations, to be sure, but it’s made something of our household all the same. So many of the staff quit. I’ve only got the game keeper and a single chamber maid left.”
Kyungsoo dug his thumb into the fruit. The flesh gave way easily, nearly blood-red with ripeness, the juices running down his finger to stain his wrist. “You want me to retrieve the body.”
“I—that’s…that’s part of what I want. I want to retrieve the body myself. Bring it back to be buried. But I fear going alone.”
Kyungsoo relaxed, wiped his sticky hand on his trousers. “A bodyguard. Well, that’s certainly a service I can provide.”
“Were you expecting different?”
“When you said retrieving the body was only part of it, I assumed you were going to ask me to execute the ones responsible for your cousin’s death. But from the way you talk, crossing blades seems inevitable. Are the villagers hostile?”
“I—I figure they might be. Calling on the Church and all. I heard it was a full house the night they were killed.”
“Then let’s discuss my reward,” Kyungsoo said, returning the uneaten fruit to its platter. The black dog craned its neck, trying to lick his hand. “You set a fair deal. But consider this a hazard raise. I’ll settle for an additional 30 crowns on your asking price.”
“Price is irrelevant,” Jongin said dismissively. He was leaning forward in his chair now, eyes brightening with the prospect of seeing a just end. “So you’ll take the job?”
“Hold on,” Kyungsoo said, lifting his hand placidly. “One more thing. I need you to extend your hospitality to me over the course of the next moon cycle.”
Jongin balked. “I—pardon?”
“Your house. I’m sure it’s got plenty of room with most of your family and staff gone. I need somewhere to stay, a roof over my head for the next three weeks. One of your villagers advised me against staying at the local inn. Theft seems to be a problem down there.”
“Poverty, I’m sure you mean,” Jongin said, but he still looked bewildered. “I—I don’t understand. Three weeks?”
“Three weeks. No more, no less. Well, unless chance should have it that I need to leave sooner than that. But the stay would not be indefinite. If it’s a matter of exhausting your supplies then I’ll pay a rental fee.”
“No, it—that’s not—I’m sorry, it’s just a little difficult for me to take in. No one’s ever asked me…”
“I would say no rush,” Kyungsoo said, rising idly from his chair, “but I don’t know how long your cousin’s corpse has been sitting in the village square.”
Jongin paled. “N-No, you’re right, of course, I’ll—would it inconvenience you to ride out at first light tomorrow?”
“As long Persimmon gets some water and food before we depart, I don’t see why not.”
“Persimmon? Oh, of course, your mare, yes, I’ll get some oats fetched for her right away.”
Then Jongin did the unexpected thing, and grasped Kyungsoo’s right hand in both of his. Kyungsoo barely avoided flinching, startled, with Jongin’s eyes ablaze as he looked at him.
“I can’t tell you how important this is to me,” Jongin said. “Thank you, Kyungsoo.”
Kyungsoo eased his hand away as politely as he could. “You might want to save your thanks until after the body’s retrieved. Afraid I can’t tell you how much of it there’ll be left to get.”
With Jongin preparing for tomorrow’s voyage, he ordered his single chamber maid, a girl named Irene, to draw Kyungsoo a bath, and fetch a basin and shaving cream for him. The black dog—whose name was Fergus, as it turned out—trotted into the bathroom after him and sat down to one side as Kyungsoo got undressed. “Like what you see?” Kyungsoo said.
It was his first hot bath in days, and the relief was acute as he slipped into the water, muscles sore and worn from endless riding. A bar of soap had been left for him, made from boiled figs and lemon rinds. He thoughtlessly sudsed through his hair and over his body both. Soon his skin was two shades lighter, the dirt settling at the bottom of the tub.
Kyungsoo leaned his dripping head back against the rim. Living on the road was a much more trying task than he’d anticipated, finding work even more so. He learned after the first job that chasing down a runaway sow barely paid enough for horse feed, and after the second that sometimes villagers were desperate enough to propose more than what they had to offer, forcing him to walk with only half the promised reward. Bartering, haggling, even threatening; once, he’d never known those things, but the open fields were harsh. If he’d continued letting people swindle him he’d have been dead a week and a half ago.
As far as this job went, he could be comfortable for a month, if he was really getting his two hundred and seventy crowns. Jongin struck him as a deeply nervous man, one who didn’t know what to do with the trials he now faced, and it made him transparent. Kyungsoo knew little of the region, didn’t know how the master of the house had come into his fortune so young, without aunts or uncles or siblings to be seen anywhere, but doubtless Jongin was alone, and too naive for his own good. Any old thief would have made a field day of demanding payment up front and then slitting his throat for the rest of his treasures. Heck, the villagers could have done the same, if they’d mustered their stupid cow brains together.
The bath rejuvenated him, and after rinsing off and making use of the razor, he found that a fresh shirt had been laid out for him, and that his trousers had been dried near the fire and then beaten with something to clean it of mud stains, his boots brushed to similar effect. Kyungsoo dressed and carefully strapped all of his armour on, looped his longsword back around his waist.
He found Jongin near the stables, speaking to a man who could only be the gamekeeper, considering he had a pair of rabbits gripped in his left hand by the necks. Jongin turned and introduced him as Yixing. “I’ve just explained that he and Irene are to look after the place in my absence,” Jongin said.
Yixing gave him a stern once-over as he shook Kyungsoo’s hand, while the latter tried not to grimace when he realized his palm was still stained with rabbit’s blood. “So you’re a swordsman, are you?” Yixing said.
“Where have you trained?”
Kyungsoo sensed then that he wouldn’t get away with spewing anything so easily now. “I didn’t study at an academy, if that’s what you mean. Our old blacksmith taught me, back in my village. He’d lived on the islands and served the jarl there for most of his life.”
“No interest in joining the Church or the Guard?”
“Definitely not the Church. The Guard turned me away on account of my knee. Twisted it bad falling from a horse once.”
“Does it encumber you?” Jongin cut in, looking worried.
“Only if I walk a great distance. But the Guard didn’t want to take any chances, should it lock up or give way at an inopportune moment.”
Yixing only looked only mildly convinced. When Jongin went away to help Irene hang bed sheets, the game keeper said, in a voice that came off as a veiled threat, “You look after him.”
Kyungsoo bowed respectfully, and Yixing threw him one more glare before leaving to skin the game.
Dinner was rabbit stew and day-old bread, and both Yixing and Irene were invited to sit at the dining table, a sight unheard of at any other lord’s estate, under normal circumstances. Yixing ate little and quickly, retreating to plow the last of the fields before sunset. Irene left soon after to prepare a bed for Kyungsoo.
Jongin noticed Kyungsoo studying the family portraits hanging on the walls. “That’s me with my mother’s side of the family,” he said, indicating the largest one. “My father had no siblings, otherwise they’d have been in the portrait as well. My mother’s two older sisters and their husbands. Joonmyun is the eldest child standing to the left. And that’s me, the baby in my mother’s arms. Can you see?”
“I can,” Kyungsoo said.
“That was done not too long before my father passed away. They said it was some deformity of his heart. After that it was me with my mother and two sisters. All girls. Not much fun for building slingshots.”
“Where are they now?” Kyungsoo asked plainly.
Jongin’s eyes flitted to his plate. “My sisters are married now, moved east with their husbands to live on the other side of Londerrtain. My mother…she’d been of weak health for a while. The news of my cousin was too much for her to bear.”
Kyungsoo’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Correct me if I’m wrong. Your cousin…”
“Has been dead for approximately fifteen days.”
“So, your mother passed—”
“Eleven days ago,” Jongin said stiffly. “Forgive me, I don’t wish to dwell on it.”
Given the choice dwelling on it was exactly what Kyungsoo wanted to do. “Alright,” Kyungsoo relented after a moment.
Jongin took a deep breath and looked back up at the paintings. “That’s me and my sisters there,” he said, pointing to another one. Two girls of equally attractive features flanked a small boy no older than five, all three of them scowling against the bright sun. “They used to put me in dresses and tie my hair, when I was small enough for them to get away with it. But I grew fast. First time I pushed one of them over they stopped right away.”
Jongin, Kyungsoo decided, must not have had a real conversation with someone for some time. Yixing and Irene didn’t look much like chatters either.
“It’s still strange that they’re gone,” Jongin continued. “Even in our adult years we’d tease and rib at each other. Perhaps once this is done with I’ll pay them a visit. Do you have any siblings?”
“I do,” Kyungsoo said. “An older brother. I haven’t seen him since he married, either.”
“Suppose that’s how it works,” Jongin said, trying a tiny smile. “Got to leave the nest to make one of your own.”
“Probably best that way,” Kyungsoo agreed amiably, wiping his bowl clean with the last of his bread before popping it into his mouth. “I won’t keep you. You’ll need a full night’s rest for the journey.”
“Ah, yes.” Jongin stood up as Kyungsoo did. “Um…thank you, again. For helping me.”
“Of course,” Kyungsoo replied, before promptly leaving to find his room, unaware of the still-curious gaze that trailed his back as he went.
The first signs of daybreak streaked the sky with violet-blue as the two men saddled their horses and mounted, Jongin’s mouth set in an anxious but determined line. Yixing, Irene and Fergus came out to see them off and stood side-by-side, one with her hands folded neatly in front of her, the other with his hands more casually stuffed into his pockets. Fergus stood with his tail wagging, but he whined, sensing that his new friend was going somewhere he could not follow.
“The journey should take no more than six days,” Jongin said, sounding more sure of himself than he looked. “If I anticipate that it will take longer I’ll send word to you.”
“Yes, My Lord,” Yixing said.
Seeing as he had not met them very long ago, Kyungsoo didn’t give any parting remarks, except to nod at the dog, and merely clicked his tongue, nudging Persimmon forward. With a somewhat clumsy motion Jongin urged his dappled grey mare after him, and the two of them eased into a trot as they veered off the estate and onto the main road.
“So were you always a swordsman?”
Despite looking uncomfortable and out of his element, Jongin did his best to entertain his hired help—“entertain” being the intended effect, but the conversation didn’t venture far beyond simple inquiries or comments towards their surroundings. “Look there, how that patch of weed blossoms such delicate flowers,” it was one moment, and then, “Don’t you find that leather difficult to move in?”
Kyungsoo couldn’t say he didn’t appreciate his effort, but the effort was so apparent that it just made it still the more awkward.
“Not always,” Kyungsoo said, leading. Their shortcut through the woods led the path to turn narrow, too narrow for both horses to ride side-by-side. “I was a farm boy once, like most folk. Shelled the peas and fetched the eggs and all that.”
“So why were you trained?”
“Blacksmith liked me, I suppose. I certainly took enough interest for him to like me. Then again, he never bore children. Maybe he was hoping that I’d ask after the craft someday, take over the lodge.”
“Your parents raised no objections to you leaving the farm?”
“If they did they knew it didn’t matter much. My older brother’s already got two little ones, a third to come by winter. They manage fine without me.”
There was a bout of silence, in which Kyungsoo expected he wouldn’t hear the next question till another twenty minutes from now, but after a few beats Jongin spoke again.
“My mother never let me play with the village children,” Jongin admitted. “My father liked them well enough. He traded goods with them, knowing cloth and plums were harder to come by than trout or potatoes. He asked after their families and sent flowers if someone was sick. But I never once saw my mother speak to them. She’d turn their nose up when they came. If the village boys came around to ask if I wanted to go fishing or berry-picking with them, she’d push me further into the house, insist that I never go out or speak to them. She was worried I would grow stupid, or vile, spending time with them. So for a long time I didn’t know of farm life, or company, besides the servants and the tutors.”
“What a hard, lonely life it must have been,” Kyungsoo said, tersely. “Maybe your mother was right. Maybe you would have grown stupid and vile, and spent your time rolling in the hay and picking hollyhocks instead of looking for a stupid, vile farm boy to help fetch your dead cousin.”
There was a pause. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I know you didn’t. Here’s something your mother probably never mentioned when she shut you indoors. It’s that stupid and vile as we may be, we get offended too. Nobody likes hearing that a person grew up too good to partake in modest work, and they don’t like hearing talk about themselves in the third-person. If you’d tried that trick in another village you’d have been booted out on your arse with pitchforks behind you, or worse.”
“I’m sorry,” Jongin said again, in a small voice. “I-I didn’t—I’ll be more careful with my words next time.”
For someone who was as secluded in childhood as he claimed to be, he certainly wasn’t very spoiled or pompous-sounding; most other lords would have gotten all puffed up and red in the face and thrown their titles around, not knowing that it didn’t mean pig shit to anyone with a sword on their hip and bellies to feed. Not expecting such a timid answer, Kyungsoo left it at that, allowing the silence to come over them again. Persimmon tossed her head, having grown agitated at the tone of Kyungsoo’s voice. Kyungsoo ran his hand over the mare’s neck to soothe her.
“Village isn’t for some miles yet,” Jongin murmured, less sure of himself. “Did…do you want to rest?”
“No. Not unless you think your horse needs one.”
“Oh, I…I think she’s okay.” Jongin looked down at his mare, Moonshine. “This is only the second time I’ve ever ridden her. I never had much reason to travel.”
“Surprising. You could, if you wanted to. Your house is clearly empty.”
Jongin winced a little. “Yes.”
Kyungsoo looked up at the tree line for a moment, then gave a sigh. “We can rest, if you want to.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay.”
“Don’t be shy. It’s better to be in good shape while we’re moving.”
Jongin paused. “Maybe…maybe in another half hour or so.”
“That’s alright,” Kyungsoo said, trying to make it sound like an invitation. He means well, Kyungsoo decided. Heart’s in the right place, anyway. Maybe I should go easier on him.
Persimmon snorted and suddenly shook her neck, irritated, and Kyungsoo turned and saw that Jongin hadn’t reigned in his steed in time and bumped into Persimmon’s haunches. “Sorry!” Jongin squeaked.
Elburry, in comparison to the village of Hawick from which they’d come, was no bigger but substantially more pleasant to the eye. To the right of the village was an orchard, from which red and yellow apples were already falling, and to the left were vast fields of wheat, where several villagers worked with stooped backs, pulling the weeds from between the stalks. They arrived just as the sun was beginning to set on their second day.
The stake from which Jongin’s cousin was impaled was visible against the horizon, towering over the stooped village huts. Death by impalement had been an inherently feminine method of execution, so they would have had to make an incision in the body first before driving the stake up between the legs, travelling through the torso until its sharpened tip made its appearance between the slackened jaws at the neck. From first glance Kyungsoo saw that it had been here for well over a week since his death; crows and other carrion-eaters had eaten their fill already. What decaying flesh still clung to the bones reeked, sending a repugnant stench downwind. The corpse’s face was utterly unrecognizable.
The colour drained from Jongin’s face, and he stumbled off his horse just in time to drop on all fours and vomit on the side of the road. Kyungsoo barely noticed him, too focused scanning the village perimeter, eyes narrowed. Joonmyun’s stake was the only one erected here.
“What’s your business?”
Kyungsoo turned. Three villagers approached, a scowl pulling their dirty faces. Their tunics were ripped and patchy, their leather shoes filled with holes. Around them, the other inhabitants poked their heads out of their windows, watching them.
Kyungsoo faced them and motioned at the rotting carcass with his head. “We’re here for the body,” he said calmly.
“That piece of scum was committing blasphemy,” the first villager said. One of his friends spit on the ground behind him. “Was making them spells and other witch things. We heard.”
“And his friend?”
“If he got any, they sure as hell ain’t here.”
“Well, regardless,” Kyungsoo said, “his family wants to bury him in the family crypt.”
“He can’t. Church’s orders were clear. He has to stay on that pike till his carcass falls apart. You ain’t taking him anywhere.”
Kyungsoo subtly looked around. They certainly had the whole village’s attention now. Everyone had stopped what they were doing, soapy laundry halfway scrunched against washboards, children pulled in from their flower picking by the shoulders to be anxiously pressed against their mother’s legs. Not even a dog could be heard barking.
“This is a fight you don’t want to start,” Kyungsoo said.
“Shut your mouth, cunt,” the villager said, pulling out a bludgeon, and his two friends did likewise, advancing. Kyungsoo spread his feet and put his hand on his sword.
“Wait!” someone cried, and Kyungsoo’s view became obstructed by a head of dark hair. The villagers did not wait, and promptly back-handed Jongin across the face, a loud thump that sent the boy sprawling to the ground.
Kyungsoo drew his sword immediately, and before the head of the ring could wind up again he lunged in and slashed him from his wrist to his elbow. The villager howled and dropped to his knees, blood spurting wetly against the dry ground. The second one charged forward with a yell, but he was blundering and clumsy; Kyungsoo evaded him easily and flicked his wrist twice, one across the belly and cutting through his tunic to leave a wide, shallow cut, the second travelling up his left cheekbone, nearly slicing his ear clean in half.
The third seemed to be too slow to process what had just occurred, and his face was an expression of pure, simple blood thirst as he raised his bludgeon over his head with both hands. Kyungsoo ducked, side-stepped, and with one clean swipe slashed open the tendons at the back of his heels. The villager crumpled instantly, his legs giving way beneath him, leaving all three of them wailing and bleeding against the dirt.
Instinctively Kyungsoo lifted his blade, looking around for other attackers, but there were none; only a single scream from one of the wives somewhere that he couldn’t pinpoint, fear etched into the faces of the onlookers as they cowered back. After waiting several moments to ensure that it was over, Kyungsoo leaned down and wiped his sword clean on the trousers of one of the villagers, who had fainted from the shock of his injuries, and sheathed it.
He approached the stake, looking it up and down before giving the base a push. It shifted a little under the force; clearly the villagers hadn’t gone to much trouble to stick it deep into the ground. Kyungsoo wrapped his arms around the peeling wood carefully and began to pull, a grunt leaving his lips. It took a couple of minutes, a sweat breaking out over his forehead, but soon the stake gave way, the bottom of it lifting up to graze the surface of the dirt. Kyungsoo had to use all his strength to lower it slowly, and not let it crash to the ground on its side, so that what was left of the body wouldn’t fall apart on him.
“Jongin,” Kyungsoo panted, straightening up. “Give me a hand with this.”
There was no response. Kyungsoo looked over and saw that Jongin was still sitting on the ground, a messy cut across his temple from where the villager had hit him. He kept pressing his hand to the wound and then staring at the blood on his hand, eyes blank. Kyungsoo realized then that he was dealing with someone who had never been injured before, really injured, and was going into shock.
“Shit,” Kyungsoo muttered.
He turned back to the body and grabbed it beneath the armpits, back straining as he slowly pulled the body off of the pole. The tip disappeared back into his throat, travelling through the corpse until making its re-appearance from between his legs. Kyungsoo grabbed the blanket hanging off the side of Persimmon’s saddle and wrapped the body up to the best of his ability. Then he threw it over Persimmon’s haunches, who stamped her feet in protest, clearly not enjoying the smell it emitted either.
“We’ve got to go. Come on, get up,” Kyungsoo said, bending over and grabbing Jongin’s arms to haul him to his feet. Jongin stood up numbly, still shaken, and he had to be led to his horse and instructed into the saddle.
The last thing Kyungsoo did, after swinging himself up into his own, was take a pouch and throw it at the feet of a woman frozen nearby, who stifled a shriek and startled back. “Compensation for the body, and for wounding your villagers,” Kyungsoo said. “Dress the wounds now, before an infection settles in.”
The woman nodded her head jerkily. Kyungsoo urged both of the horses forward, and left the village without another look back.
They rode for a few miles, until Kyungsoo deemed it safe, before directing them into the brush and tying the horses up. By this point Jongin was looking pale and woozy again, the blood drying in blackened streaks down the side of his face and neck.
“Here,” Kyungsoo said, lifting his hands up. Jongin looked over, still a little muddled, but he slowly eased off of the saddle with Kyungsoo’s help. Kyungsoo directed him to sit against the trunk of a tree.
“You okay?” Kyungsoo asked, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and pouring some water from his canteen over it.
Jongin swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing for several moments as Kyungsoo began to dab his face clean. “Y-Yes.”
“Stupid of you to run in like that. Said yourself the villagers might be hostile.”
“I, I didn’t think—I wasn’t armed, I didn’t think they would—”
“I’m sure your cousin wasn’t armed when they impaled him either.” Kyungsoo pulled out his rubbing alcohol next and wet his handkerchief again. Jongin flinched when the cloth came in contact with the wound, but he didn’t make a sound. “Next time, leave the rash decisions to me.”
Jongin lifted his eyes to examine Kyungsoo’s face. His pupils were shaking. There was fear in them, fear of having been attacked, of having faced death at the hands of some bloodthirsty villagers. He startled a little every time Kyungsoo touched him. “You sure you’re alright?” Kyungsoo asked.
“I am. I just needed to sit down for a bit.” Jongin licked his dry lips as he looked at him. “I…didn’t know you could do that.”
Kyungsoo paused, lowering his hand and exhaling carefully. “I can. And I can see from your face that you’re well aware of what I can do, now. So I’m going to ask you to tell me the truth right now, because it would be in your best interest to do so.”
“I—I don’t know what you’re—”
“Cut the shit,” Kyungsoo said in a low voice. “You told me your cousin was an apprentice to an apothecary, but his stake was the only one around. The villagers said he didn’t have anyone with him. Tell the truth. What was your cousin really doing?”
For a moment it seemed as though Jongin wouldn’t answer, too gripped with fear, his mouth trembling. It took him a minute to gather the courage to find his voice, clearing his throat.
“My cousin was betrothed to his beloved,” Jongin said, in an unsteady voice. “A girl from some high-standing family in the mainland. Our family is not particularly wealthy, but my cousin worked his fair share, hoping to gain enough standing to win over her parents. I suppose it worked, for a time. News of their wedding floated by.
“You can imagine a beautiful and wealthy girl of twenty is not without more suitors than she can count on her hands and feet. It seems my cousin was outbid. Her parents took a more…lucrative interest, I suppose, in wedding their daughter to a Middle Eastern prince. Nothing particularly outstanding where they come from, but a prince all the same. My cousin was devastated. Said it was true love, that she loved him more than any gold some far-away prince could offer her. I’m afraid I’m not certain of the details.”
“But you know something,” Kyungsoo said, eyes trained over the lord’s expression carefully.
Jongin bit his lip. He couldn’t meet his eye. “I don’t know. That’s the honest truth, I’ve no idea what really happened. There have been rumours, deeply troubling ones, that say my cousin was desperate, that he began looking into ways to dissolve the engagement. The problem lies in the fact that, whatever he did…it worked.”
“I’m sorry,” Kyungsoo said, “come again?”
“It…it worked. Some extended uncle from Gods knows where had died suddenly, left ‘his favourite nephew’ a staggering fortune. To make matters worse that Middle Eastern prince disappeared, completely out of the blue. Not a silken scrap nor sapphire-studded sabre left of him. And the girl, his beloved…she all but lost her senses. It’s said she did nothing but babble endlessly of marrying Joonmyun, even if he was there with her, the girl clinging to his arm like a leech. She’d enter a frenzy if anyone tried to tell her otherwise.”
Kyungsoo rested his weight back on his heels, sighing through his nose. Jongin looked up at him, eyes searching his face. “What do you think of it?”
“Sounds like your cousin got some serious help,” Kyungsoo said simply. “Unnatural deaths, disappearances, strange behaviour. There’s no way he did all this on his own. The possibilities are endless, at this point. Do you know what became of your cousin’s betrothed?”
“I’ve only heard stories. It got to the point where she no longer had enough mind to care for herself. She became decrepit, utterly despondent whenever my cousin left her alone for any period of time. And then one day he left to buy her some flowers, and she just…died. The doctors said it was from grief.”
“Then it was foolish of us to come here,” Kyungsoo said, throwing the handkerchief into Jongin’s lap angrily. “You have no idea what your cousin was dealing with. Devil knows who or what it was, but they weren’t playing around when they was carrying out Joonmyun’s wishes. You should have told me the damn truth from the start. If they figure out that we’ve caught on to this—”
“What about you?” Jongin shot back, eyes blazing now. “Do you think I’m stupid? That I don’t know a skilled swordsman when I see one? Either your blacksmith mentor was more than just a blacksmith or you’ve been lying to me too. Are you even a village boy? Who are you, really?”
Kyungsoo pressed his mouth into a hard line. “Not now. I’ll save that for when we get back safe to your manor. And that’s assuming I survive long enough under your game master’s wrath. I’m sure he won’t like to see that I’ve brought you back in less than perfect condition. Now come on, let’s start moving if you think you’re not going to throw up again.”
He stood up, muscles sore from squatting so long, but before he could go anywhere Jongin scrambled up and grabbed his arm.
“Wait,” Jongin said, “There’s still—we don’t know what really happened. You’re right, the possibilities are endless. But he was being helped by someone. I want to know who it was.”
“Jongin,” Kyungsoo said calmly, “have you lost your mind?”
“Think about it. We’re not so helpless, between the two of us. You’re obviously an experienced fighter, regardless of where you’re really from, and if we ask the right people they’ll run their mouths the second they hear that I’m of status. And it’s not like either of us have anything better to be doing other than sitting around and twiddling our thumbs back at the manor. You were just going to laze about for three weeks anyway, weren’t you?”
“Hold on—” Kyungsoo began uncertainly, but Jongin’s grip only grew stronger as he leaned in close, eyes alight with determination.
“I’ll pay you more crowns if that’s your concern. Please, I can’t sit idle with so many of my kin fallen because of this. I need to know that they can rest in peace, avenged for their troubles. I’ve got no other allies, no one else I can count on for this.”
“You overestimate us. What can two men do in the face of this? It’s already become bigger than we know.”
“Two men can certainly do more than one can,” Jongin said resolutely. “If my cousin could find the people he needed to get the job done by himself, surely we can accomplish the same.”
He’s not giving up, Kyungsoo realized. The idiot certainly made a sight, all bloody and banged up and still ready to go hunting for the one responsible. Christ, there’s no telling if this goose chase is going to be worth any amount of gold.
Kyungsoo pulled a hand over his face. “If I see one sign that this is going bottoms-up—”
“I won’t hold you to the contract. You’ll get the original reward plus the thirty extra crowns you wanted. And I won’t tell anyone about what happened just now, back in that village. I swear to it.”
“Where would we even start?”
“My brother was studying at the Lavenham University in Londerrtain, before all this happened. There might be some clue in his belongings, a person who spoke to him last. Maybe we can start there.”
His hand seemed impossibly warm around Kyungsoo’s wrist, and the elder wondered if the lord was already running a fever. “We’ll see about that,” Kyungsoo said reluctantly, sliding out of his grip. “So, Londerrtain.”
Jongin nodded. “Londerrtain.”