Murikeer grabbed Vinsah's upper arm in a steely grip and turned him away from the bear's wagon. "They're all cursed, every one." He his voice was curt and no little frightened under the sudden anger that surfaced and suffused his face. Vinsah staggered at the sudden wrench, startled by his young friend's sudden shift in mood. Not that he, himself, did not feel some dawning anger at the realization that the poor members of the menagerie had once been free people, and human, not so many years or even months ago.
"Muri, I know. What are you going to do?" he asked as he staggered along trying to disengage his arm from the skunk's solid grasp. The sweet chords of a violin waltz filled the camp, piercing over the awed converse of the crowd not terribly far away. Each wagon was separated by its neighbors by a good fourty feet, most of which comprised the long tongues to which each wagon's team of eight horses was usually secured.
"We'll soon see. I mean to ask this Max fellow some very pointed questions, and see what magic he's got to explain this." Murikeer growled with a wave of his free hand to take in the surrounding circle of wagons. He turned a hard look at Vinsah and then released his arm. "You have not been at Metamor long, and I not terribly much longer in truth, but there are some events I know that you do not. Some years past there was a very unsavory man who called himself Sideshow Lew who was reputed to be capturing animorphed keepers to people a traveling freak show." Murikeer led on as the crowd of peasants began to hastily back away from the wagon of dancing deer and violin playing… something. Vinsah could not identify it, and Murikeer was not even looking. "I was lead to believe that he had been run off, unsuccessful."
Vinsah looked around helplessly and suddenly people were running past them, running away from the wagon. The violin went silent. To one side they could see a huge, garishly orange ape clinging to the bars of his cage looking toward whatever commotion was sending the peasants away. Then a scream cut through the night, shrill and panicked and full of agony. The retreat became an absolute rout as peasants scattered in all directions. Vinsah and Murikeer dodged through the onrushing clusters.
Within moments all that remained behind was the Lightbringer and her retinue, and a small cluster of more richly dressed locals who had stopped when one of their member tripped over a wagon yoke. Maxamillian was reeling and clawing at his face with one hand while a blur of motion danced first one way, then the next across the grass a few strides away. One of the showman's bodyguards lay on the ground and it was from his throat that the terrible shriek of agony issued. A full throated roar accompanied that pitiable wail, coming from the direction of the lions' wagon. Then another, higher and shrill, from the orange ape.
Within a breath the whole menagerie was yelling and shrieking and bellowing with such a terrifying cacophony that Vinsah felt the hackles on the back of his neck standing rigid.
The two combatants swept off to one side, a smaller, darting form swirling about the taller man with a sharp skirl of steel on steel. The singing shriek of steel on steel came to a denoument with the meaty noise of metal on flesh and a blade flashed through the air away from the tall, hard faced human. In some alert corner of Vinsah's mind he realized that a hand was still clutching the hilt of that sword, connected to a wrist but no arm beyond that. The human let out a pained roar and backpedaled away from his asailant, clutching at the ruined stump of his right forearm.
In the moment of his assailant's pause to seek another target Vinsah realized, though he somehow knew it well before, who that smaller human was.
"Malger!" he cried, but the sound came out a startled, animalistic squeak that hardly sounded like a name in his ears.
"Malger!" Murikeer's cry was startled and angry, but not as surprised as the priest's. Vinsah took two steps, raction being to interceed and stop this carnage, but a sudden grasp caught his arm and hauled him up short. "Vinsah, no! Don't go near him!" Murikeer snarled, then staggered as one of Grimmarn's guards collided glancingly against him as he belted past before either of them could avoid the impact. Vinsah grabbed at Murikeer as the soldier spun and staggered then regained his feet and charged on into the fray. Other guards were converging from all directions, swarming toward Malger as the bloodied minstrel sought another target.
Two soldiers reached Malger at the same moment, both darting in together and laying out with their slender, double edged shortswords. Each had a small buckler and a helmet, but little else by way of protection. Malger snarled at the first, a sound that was alien to the face that spat angrily at them. Malger struck the lead soldier's blade with such resounding force that he knocked it from the man's fingers. It spun toward the second guard with a flash of sunlight off of polished steel. The soldier reeled up short and threw his buckler out to knock the flying sword aside with a curse. Malger was beyond them before either could recover.
"Eli's blood, he's gone mad!" Vinsah quailed as they watched the minstrel weave through the tightening knot of soldiers like a snake through tall grass. Murikeer released his arm and began striding purposefuly toward the one unmoving cluster of humans sitting still and calm in the sudden sea of chaos surging around them. The lightbringer's face held an expression of startled horror, her large jaw hanging in surprise yet she made no motion to release her men at arms into the fray. All four of them had their swords out and at the ready, great curving single-edged blades of a shadowy black steel that drank in the fading afternoon sunshine. The heavily muscled man who had been pulling her divan held a massive hammer in one thick hand as easily as Vinsah might hold a dinner knife.
"Stay back, Vinsah. Whatever this fight is, it is not yours. Get out of the way." Murikeer said back over his shoulder, pointing toward the cluster of faces at the far side of the wagon circle. Commoners and horsegrooms, wagon tenders and drovers from the commoners' camp, standing around gawking in horrified shock at the unfolding carnage. Vinsah found his feet moving despite himself, retreating from the battlefield.
"Boqu of the staying hands, who held her arms and wrapped her head in a blanket!" Malger cried, without rhythm nor note, a bestial shriek of unbottled rage. His arm carried his blade with so much force that it sliced completely through the man's lower leg as easily as it might through a reed. Boqu never moved to defend himself, his head never turned. He stood as shocked still as a garden topiary until the first touch of the pruning blade shortened him by a stalk. His heavy sword fell and then man followed it down; one with a dull thud of steel hitting grass, and the second with a terrified shriek of mindless agony.
The violent strike drew a fan of blood down the length of his blade, spraying from the tip as the arc continued across and upward, painting a vivid red line across the side of the wagon ten feet distant. Blood splashed as well across the chin of the startled bodyguard to Max's left and across the showman's face in a streak of bright red. Max staggered back with a gasp and horrified cry, pawing at his eyes with one hand as the blood blinded him. His shoulders thumped against the wagon and suddenly there were other hands pawing at his face and throat. The deer, who only moments before had been dancing a sedate waltz, had dropped to their knees and reached through the bars of their prison to grasp at the head of their gaoler. The doe grabbed a fistful of golden blonde hair and yanked is head back painfully. If she'd had a knife or a blade of even the most dull sort his throat would have been a target far too easily cut, but she lacked any tools and could only dig the hoof-like fingers of her other hand into the flesh of his vulnerable throat.
Such delicate hands, so graceful and articulate, but the strength in them was horrifying. Beside her the buck helped, digging fingers under Max's chin and wrenching his head to one side. Behind them stood the striped Addax, her violin hanging from one slender hand as she witnessed the carnage with wide eyes and backturned ears. With a spastic motion she wrenched a string from her instrument, the sound of cracking wood and tortured music a distant twang against the cocophany. Pushing her way toward the bars she tried to wrap the violin string around the showman's throat but the quartet of grasping hands thwarted her murderous intentions.
The guard to Maxamillian's left happened to spy the action from the corner of his eye as Varek moved forward to meet the minstrel that knew far, far too much. Refen the guard's name was, and he was new blood, only two years out of the Academy of Steel in Whitestone. But he was no more innocent than the other three. Why then had the minstrel offered him parole in whatever vengeance he had sought to reap? Had the minstrel only known the mink, the archer that Max's group had waylaid some five years past intending to place her among his retinue?
Max was beyond considering that as the world began to gray at the edges and he found that, no matter how he twisted or how he pulled at the arms grasping his throat, he could not break free. Then Refen's blade swept across and slammed with a loud metallic cry against the steel bars less than an inch over his head. The hands retreated a heartbeat before the steel rang and Max was already falling, his knees buckling under him. The blade passed so close that, even as he fell, blonde hairs fell about his face, neatly severed by the razor honed blade of his hired sword. The showman crawled a short distance before springing to his feet and taking his measure of the situation.
Refen was caught in a struggle with the two deer now, having freed his employer. The buck held his forearm while the doe struggled with his hand, holding the crossguard of his sword to prevent him from dropping it out of their reach. The violinist had looped her makeshift garrotte around his arm and hauled at it so savagely the thin metal strand cut deep into his flesh, eliciting a horrified cry of pain. He releaxed his sword and punched at the buck with his free hand desperately.
Varek faced the minstrel now, alone but for the guards closing in from all sides.
All around them the menagerie shrieked and bellowed, roared and screamed, and shook their prisons.
The peasantry were gone, lit out of the camp and forest as fast their feet could carry them. They would run until they could no longer hear the hellish chorus of death and rage that seemed to echo from every corner of the valley.
The minstrel brought down Boqu with a single blinding lunge and slice, and moved on to Lessan. To his credit at least Lessan had seen the attack coming and managed to get his own blade in position quickly enough to prevent himself from being gutted. The swarthy southlander staggered back under the blinding fusellade of slices and jabs from the smaller man's short blades. None of the blows was individually powerful, but they came with eye straining speed, changing techniques in mid pattern and throwing the academy trained swordsman into confusion. In one instant the swords were extensions of the minstrel's hands, sweeping across and around, up then down, each time ringing from the sword interposed between them and Lessan's flesh. "Lessan the fist, who in his drunken impotence could only manage violence!" the minstrel was yelling with such force that his voice broke and growled, beyond human in its power and anger. "Four times you sent her into darkness, but I can only send you once!"
The minstrel switched his attack in an eyeblink, pummelling Lessan's parrying blade rather than trying to seek his flesh beyond its defense. With each blinding sweep of the twin blades came the shrill ring of steel on steel. Brightly colored tassles whipped and stung, criss-crossing in front of Lessan's face in a dizzying flick of motion as the blades, folded back along the minstrels forearms, harried his parries and drove him back inexorably, pace after pace. His hands moved like the swift punches of a pugilist, backed by the unyeilding shafts of steel bracing his arms, held up in a ready block as the enraged musician wove back and forth in front of Lessan like a demented snake.
Sensing a momentary opening the taller man lunged forward to press an advantage but the serpentine minstrel wove his upper body to one side in an acrobatic twist that no human could have ever accomplished without wrenching his spine. A sword flashed, up and over, converted from mantis to butcher in a single overhand sweep that brought down and across behind Lessan's thrust. Steel bit through the heavy leather gauntlet protecting Lessan's wrist, through flesh, and finally the bone within so smoothly it hardly slowed the blinding chop. With the preturnatural speed of adrenaline and the sense of his own doom, Lessan knew the moment of his failing as soon as he thrust forward. He could only watch in horrified slow motion as the blade bit through his arm to send his hand and wrist spinning away with his sword.
Then the pain blossomed behind his eyes and he could think of nothing beyond that.
The minstrel was gone before he collapsed to the ground, but he cared not a whit.
"Varek the hand!" Malger bellowed and shrieked in that half human voice. One of Grimmarn's men stepped in between the minstrel and his target, sword at the ready. Malger made a feint with one sword, and the man parried, only to find Malger's fist coming in to connect solidly with his nose. Cartillage snapped and the man reeled back, clutching his suddenly bloody nose with his free hand. The man maintained his sword, but fell back, unable to fight on, and Malger ignored him.
"Varek the hand, strangler and thief of light!" Malger accused again, striding around the pain blinded guard. "Nine times! In those long days, nine times your evil touch stole the light from her eyes so that there would be no claws, there would be no teeth to thwart your inept advances." Varek's eyes were wide, his ears ringing with the accusations. In some distant corner of his mind not occupied with the deadly movement of the minstrel's blades there was cold humor. Only nine? Who was this one that the troubador wailed on about, that she had only known him nine times? There had been that many females alone, twice that; and males too.
He said nothing of his decades of crime, grimly standing his ground at the minstrel's advance. Boqu and Lessan were down, but alive. No missing hand would stay Varek his taste of blood, he knew, if it came to that. There was a sword on the ground at his feet, dropped by someone in full retreat. Varek hooked his toe under it and deftly kicked it up and snatched the hilt with his empty hand.
No sooner did his fingers closed around the simple hilt than he was forced to put it to quick use. The minstrel lunged forward, again with that blinding lunge like a striking snake covering more ground than the length of its body should ever have allowed, and smashed both short blades down on his new weapon. Unlike the poorly trained lout that had lost the sword he managed to maintain his grip, letting the weapon fall back and away under the assault as he swept his own sword, heavier and longer, across and down to chop at the arms of his enemy.
Malger danced back and the sword swept at empty air, but just as quickly came out and upward in a reverse sweep that sent the minstrel back another pace. He did not make any motion to block the heavier sword, only stepping back inside the sweep of its strike and lancing one short blade out toward Varek's face. The shorter sword flashed across and batted away the thrust, leaving Varek's left flank open to the swift strike of Malger's second blade.
Varek lunged into a swift turn, sucking his side away from the slash and cutting down and across with the retrieved blade. Again his parry was true and the minstrel's attack turned. The two danced past each other with respective turns and both sent questing slices out, seeking flesh and bone before the motion carried them too far past one another. Steel rang and sang but no flesh was parted. Malger took three paces beyond the larger man, swatting aside the sword of yet another caravan guard, and snarling at the man only inches from his face.
This time it was Malger's turn to stagger before he could put the guard out of his way. The man's buckler slammed into his chest, completely halting his forward momentum, and they stood nose to nose for an instant. Malger's whiskers teased the man's cheeks for a moment before, with a dart of his head and a slight twist, he bit down soundly on the end of the caravan guard's nose.
"Son of a misbegotten whore!" the man yelped, jerking his sword up, but only as far as the blade that caught at the crossguard. Malger's jaws pinched his teeth closer together, until the guard released his blade and reached up to shove his face away with his freed hand. Malger released the man's nose, having only pierced it with one sharp fang, and turned with a sudden upward swing of one blade. He had seen, in the heartbeat before his jaws opened, the horror dawning in the man's eyes. He caught the downward sweep of Varek's heavy blade with his upraised sword, the weight of the blow hammering him to his knees as he fought to keep the shorter, lighter blade in the swordsman's off hand from skewering him. He angled the chopping stroke off to one side with only a brief wrench of his shoulder. Behind him he could hear the caravan guard dancing back hastily to avoid the doom he had seen coming down with that heavy longsword.
Malger gritted his teeth in a feral snarl and lashed upward with his free blade as he saw Max making a retreat. He had moments before the man would escape. Either to the safety of his wheelhouse and whatever weapons he might have within, or to outright flight on foot in the easiest direction given. Varek jerked his sword away and Malger regained his feet. "Varek the hand." His voice was flat and hard now, his breath coming in swift, harsh gasps. A burning knot of pain clutched at his sides from the sudden fury of exertion, but he ignored it. "Nine times darkness and pain, beyond the measure of all others. That is the justice I have come to serve."
"Gods fuck your justice you piss whelped whore." Varek growled, sick of listening to the minstrel's imprecations. He lunged forward with a thrust of the short blade in his off hand, expecting the parry that would tie up one sword and leave his opponent off balance to parry the weight of his own far heavier blade. To his surprise the minstrel did not parry. He stepped lightly a half pace to one side and took the edge of the shortsword through his doublet. Blood blossomed from where the tip scored, but Varek paid little heed. His crossways chop intending to remove the minstrel's head now had two unfettered blades to condend with.
Maxamillian the magnificant lurched to his feet and looked around quickly, guaging the swiftest route to safety away from the insane minstrel. That route was between the hyena and deer wagons where there was no crowd gathered. From there it would be a short sprint to his wheelhouse where he could secure himself against the madman's rage and bloody justice.
He was angered and amazed that the Lightbringer did not order her own warriors into the fray, but she just sat there in her divan, a great fat lump of a giant woman, and watched. Oh, she looked horrified enough at the display of raw carnage, but did nothing to thwart it. What of her magic, Max fumed as he backed away toward the gap between the trailers. What of the great, vaunted clerical powers of the Lightbringer order? She raised not a single finger to put a stop to the madman's rampage.
Had he said something to her? He recalled seeing the minstrel near her divan. Had he claimed some strange protocol of justice from the priestess? Their faith was not something that Max had ever embraced, but he found it a great deal more useful than the narrow focus of the Follower god. They were more powerful, too, in a very mortal, visceral way.
The minstrel took a moment to put one of Grimmarn's men out of the fight, yet again, without so much as laying a blade to him, and turned back to his fight with Varek as Max felt the tongue of the wagon against the back of his boots. He stepped cautiously over it. The minstrel looked over at him, his bloodied face a study in purely animal rage the likes of which he had seen on the bestial faces of his menagerie for years. He was well familiar with it, almost a scholar in angry facial body language now after six years dealing with the unholy beasts. But this was a man's face, twisted up into a grimace of pure feral rage that made him look more animal than some of his charges. It put a lance of icy fear up his spine to behold.
And his hands, who were uncommonly adept at putting down any thoughts of rebellion among his specimens, were falling before his fury like autumn wheat before a reaper's scythe. Abruptly Varek was short an arm at the shoulder, his sweep carrying his severed limb away attached to the heavy blade he had been swinging a half second before. The minstrel fell back a step and with the return sweep of that same blade opened Varek's throat in a spray of vivid red.
"Darkness receive you." He snarled, and Max could hear his voice as clearly as if it were spoken in his ear, not uttered twenty paces away. It cut through the roaring chaos of noise created by the animals in his wagons or the cries of the caravan guards trying to cut off the lone swordsmaster and bring him to heel. It was obvious now to Max that Grimmarn's men had no hope of outright stopping or killing him, and had switched their focus to just trying to surround and corral him.
Varek collapsed in a heap, the stump of his right arm spewing fountains of scarlet red blood while darker blood oozed slowly from his throat. That killing slice had not been deep enough to sever the main arteries to Varek's brain, Max realized. The insane musician wanted his death to be a slow one, and a painful one, forcing Varek to realize his doom long before it swallowed him.
Mad, the man was. Totally cold, bloodthirsty mad.
Max turned and took a step, coming up short when a young, muscled man passed around the back of the hyena's wagon and looked up at him. The young lad, he was only seventeen if Max recalled correctly the details of men too low in caste for his full regard or attention, was carrying a long, wicked looking spear. The blade on it was easily as long as any sword, and four inch spikes thrust out from either side of the blade's root. The young man's attention was only on Max for a brief moment before shifting beyond him to the hideous end of Varek's savagery.
Maxamillian let him pass, glancing back over his shoulder to see where his enemy was. To his amazed horror the minstrel was only ten strides away and closing at a swift walk. Three caravan guards were hastening to intercept him, but one of them had nothing more threatening than half a broken blade. Max had never heard the clash that snapped the sword in two. He quailed at the look on the man's face. Reacting in swift depiration he turned and grabbed the young spearman's shoulder, his other hand shoving between his shoulder blades, and turned his entire body about to thrust the youth toward the minstrel.
The lad let out a startled cry as he staggered forward, gamely bringing up his spear and levelling it at the madman's breast. Quick as a striking snake the minstrel turned, sweaping his near blade in, around, and up to catch the lethal length of the spearman's blade and turn it aside. A protracted shriek cut through the din as the two weapons slid down to lock crossguards, the spear cutting a grazing swath across the minstrel's hip. With a wince and a snarl the minstrel cut across with his other sword, half cutting through the stout wood of the spear shaft. It snapped and folded, bodily jerking the weapon locked against it from the madman's grasp. Yet he continued forward, reaching up with his now empty hand, hooking his grasp behind the young man's head, and jerking him forward while at the same time shoving downward.
The spearman spilled forward over the tongue of the wagon with a startled yelp and gasp as the impact with the stout wooden beam drove the breath from his lungs. The minstrel stepped past him.
Max turned and darted around the wagon, barely twisting aside as he found the master of the caravan guards there. The man only stared at him coldly, his attention momentarily switching to the minstrel as he stalked past in pursuit. He made no move to raise his sword against this foe and Maxamillian shot him a murderous look as he turned his back on them both and ran.
Grimmarn watched Malger stalk past, saying nothing as he watched the enraged minstrel stalk after his retreating employer. He held up one hand as a cluser of his own guards surged into the broad gap between the wagons, halting them with a gesture. Two of them sheathed their weapons and helped his gasping son back onto his feet. "Let 'em be, this aint our fight nae more."
"Grim?" another guard asked, breathless and red faced. Not from the exertion, Grimmarn saw, but from his own broken nose.
"Bloody noble shouldn'a shoved me boy at th' minstrel's blade." Grimmarn growled angrilly as he stooped to pick up the spear and discarded sword. "'E's on 'is own now." He looked at his men dispassionately for several moments, then let out a gruff laugh. "Sorry lot ye louts be, cannae e'en stop a bloody insane minstrel." But he was not bellowing in anger, that was not his style. "Come, let th' noble play wit' 'is new friend. We need t' be about gettin' this mess 'ere into order." He waved his son's broken spear at the chaos of screaming animals in their cages and pale faced menagerie laborers standing around in fearful expectation of worse yet to come.
Few seemed to care that their employer was running for his life from that insane minstrel. Only the lightbringer and her quartet of stone faced men at arms made any move to follow, trotting across the open space between wagons toward the caravan master's wheelhouse. Only an hour before she had supped from his table while her men looked on, engaged in empty discourse with him about the nature of humanity's arrogance. Now she watched with calm disattachment while he fought for his life and three of his personal guards lay bleeding their lives out into the churned grass.
One was certainly dead, the other two might be saved if someone raised a hand to aid them. Her oath to witness and not interfere with the strange, brutal justice that the minstrel was engaged in prevented her from, for the time being, lending a hand to aid or hinder him.
Magnificent Maxamillian, owner of the Magical Menagerie of now manifestly maddened monsters, bolted around the back side of the wagon closest to his own at a sprint, his velvets and lace flying, all decorum and showmanship abandoned. A fox stood at the door, dressed in in a fine silk dress of southern fashion much like his own expensive doublet, but the expression on her narrow red muzzle has far from concerned for his safety. In fact, she looked downright pleased, slender arms crossed over her chest. A scabbarded sword lay in the grass at the foot of the wagon steps, and beside it the kite shield bearing his heraldry; a caged wagon on a field of gray.
"Sheyiin!" Max gasped breathlessly as he charged for the steps. There was no sign yet of his pursuer. "Open the door, Sheyiin, or get out of the way!" the man waved his arm wildly for her to step aside. She did, hopping nimbly down and walking over near one of the tall wheels of the wagon. Her lush, white tipped red tail flitted and lashed behind her as she walked away. Maxamillian took the steps four at a time, which cost him only two strides, and grasped the handle of the stout door.
It did not budge. He yanked again, desperately, with both hands, but the door refused to open. He threw his shoulder against it, but he had built it far too stout for such an assault. It only rattled and threw him back. He snarled angrilly and stepped back down the steps, looking back toward the lions' wagon. The minstrel was there, coming around it now. There was a crimson stain on his right side and a long red slash on his left, but neither seemed to discomfit him in any way. He looked down at the sword and shield laying in the grass where his bodyservant had obviously thrown them before locking the wagon door.
"Sheyiin! The key, you ungrateful bitch! Give me the forsaken key, on your own blood!" Jumping down from the steps he made a lunge for her, but the vixen was far too nimble for such a floundering grasp, and deftly avoided him. Her cold green eyes bored into him with such fiery hate that he fell back, aghast. She had never turned on him before. She had always been the quiet, compliant one to all of his needs.
"I can't, master." She growled, her voice harsh yet somehow edged with an insane pleasure. "I locked it inside. Your sword, master, he is coming for you." Her tail swayed slowly as she stayed just out of reach, looking past him toward the bloodied minstrel. With a wince Max turned to look toward him as well. Another person, dressed in a similar style of clothing, ran up alongside the minstrel and grabbed his arm, stopping him half way between the two wagons.
Max grabbed the momentary reprieve and quickly took up his sword, a slender double edged rapier more appropriate for dueling than outright combat, and his shield. At least the shield was good, stout wood with steel banding. It could hold up against the razor edge of the remaining blade the musician carried.
"Malger!" Murikeer hissed as he grabbed at the minstrel's arm. He could feel tense muscles like cords under his fingers through fur and clothing. Malger tried to yank his arm away but Murikeer maintained his grip, hauling him up short. "Malger, you must stop this!"
The marten turned on him, his eyes wild even with the overlaying illusion that stole their animal brown and left him with purely human blue. Azure, deep and cold like a mountain lake, almost black with his intensity. "She's dead Muri." Malger snapped, jerking at his arm again, but Murikeer held on.
"I know she is, I know. But this is wrong!"
Malger turned, nose to nose, his breath scalding as it flattened Murikeer's whiskers back and set the young mage on his heels. "What is wrong with justice?" he snapped. "What is wrong with pain? You don't know what these monsters have done."
"I do!" Murikeer reached up and grasped his other arm, feeling blood seep through his fingers. Malgers, or someone else's, he did not know. "The lightbringer told me what you said, I know it is for her sake that you do this."
"It is for her memory, but it is for my pain." Malger reitterated, "Justice demands blood. She is dead, kid. You've had your justice for her death, you've taken it with your own hand. Now release me for mine."
Murikeer's hands tightened, "Look what it left me with! One eye gone, and the magic that is my whole purpose leaves me with agony. Is that what you want, Malger? Is justice so expensive?"
Malger tensed and looked over at Max as the man gathered up his weapon and shield. "My pain, Muri. My justice." He jerked back one arm, and Murikeer released him. "For her memory, stay out of this." He turned and faced the showman, whose face was a study in betrayal and fear. Murikeer stood unmoving, his hands slowly dropping to his sides. He heard a cautious step behind him and glanced back to see Vinsah hovering a short distance away. A clutch of menagerie laborers and Grimmarn's guards stood with him, and the Lightbriner with her retinue not far away. Murikeer paced backward until he was among them while Malger moved forward to brace his enemy.
But for the raucous cries of the imprisoned in their cages the camp was quiet.
"Maxamillian, once Lew, once Moe, always Sideshow." Malger pronounced as he walked toward the cornered showman without haste. The vicious anger had clotted to a knot of heavy cold fury in the center of his chest, four long years of suppressed pain and memory flooding to the surface once again. "Kidnapper, I name you. Torturer, I name you. You bade your men beat her, you bade them to break her, and they almost did."
"Break who, gods be damned! I do not know you, minstrel, I do not know this woman you speak of!" Maxamillian bellowed, brandishing his sword with a slash.
"A mink." Malger stepped closer, still well out of reach of the sword. The vixen moved cautiously away, beyond reach of her master's blade and ire, watching with the intensity only a predator can afford to something it knows is about to die. "You never considered to ask her name, though she screamed it at you often enough. You did not listen. She was already changed by the curse, you did not have to imprison her in a cage for weeks at a time, and gamble."
Max surged forward and aimed a slash at Malger's head. The minstrel's block was quick and negligent, sending Max's rapier high with a shriek of steel. He did not press his advantage. "One of the cursed demonspawn creatures, what was this monstrosity to you!?" Max slashed again, snatching his sword away from the parry and thrusting in a lightning swift change of direction. Malger batted the thrust aside and only received another slash across his once expensive traveling shirt that did not score flesh.
"I loved her. And you had her raped. You set your men upon her as a huntsman might set his dogs on a fox." Malger toyed with Max's defense, batting at his shield and sending him back a half dozen paces with his sword. Max hid behind it, ducking back and keeping his blade at the ready to parry anything that got past his heavy wood and steel wall.
"Who in all the hells are you, then! Another demonspawned, occursed, misbegotten monsters from the hell that spat her out?" Max roared in fear and anger, trying to riposte the attacks and regain the ground he was fast loosing. He looked wildly around from behind the protective wall of his shield, and gaped when he saw the short, vicious dagger that his own bodyservant held in her graceful fingers. She was still near the wagon, standing in the shadows between the two great wheels, and met his gaze when he looked back. She smiled, a curling of her upper lips that revealed glistening white teeth in a feral snarl, and beconed at him with the slender stiletto.
Death pressed him in the guise of a simple traveling minstrel spouting justice, and death stood at his back waiting for her own chance. He had little recourse but forward or back, and the wagon would slow him down even if he did cut the betraying vixen down.
He launched himself at the minstrel, shield held before him to drive the smaller man down. There was nothing there to run down, however, for the minstrel merely stepped to one side and, with a swing that was so brutal and swift that Max never saw it, shattered his rapier six inches above the hilt. "I am Malger Sutt. I am judge." The minstrel wailed as he struck the sword. The sound of sundering metal made his ears ring. A hand grasped the edge of his shield and wrenched it aside despite the superior strength of Max's arm. A face came inside his defense as his numbed fingers lost their grip on the shattered remains of his sword. Max felt whiskers, the teasing touch of fur against his cheek as a pair of intense blue eyes bored into his own.
"I am Malger Sutt. I am a jury of the wronged." The minstrel continued as he shoved the shield out and away. Max, in full forward momentum, could not arrest his charge. The minstrel kept pace, backpeddaling easily as a final, feral leer crossed his muzzle. "I am Malger Sutt, executioner." It was that moment that Max found his charge stalled by the force of a blow to his chest that staggered him. He never felt the pain of the minstrel's murderous blade driving through his sternum and heart to emerge between the ribs of his back. He staggered, stopped, and fell back a pace as he looked down at the bloodied hilt with its blue tassles. He grunted at the blow, his breath wheezing from his lungs, and looked up to meet the furious blue gaze of the minstrel. "I am Malger Sutt, one who loved a woman. A woman bereft of justice. A woman whose name was Joy." The wailing howl was gone, replaced by a furious, sneering growl as the two stood face to face on the grass. Max gurgled as he tried to take a breath, but a catching pain in his ribs arrested his lungs. Blood welled up his throat as he blinked at his slayer. Malger's shoulders bunched and his entire upper body flexed, his hand giving the sword buried in Max's flesh a jerking twist. Maxamillian the far-from-magnificent gurgled in pain, his eyes going wide at the sudden explosion of agony in his breast. His empty hand clutched impotently at Malger's forearm, but the minstrel paid the ineffective touch no regard. Malger only leaned closer, an alien tickle across Max's cheek of unseen whiskers as the final words he would ever hear were growled into his ear. "Joy was that mink." Malger said at last, watching the light in Max's eyes slowly fade.
He took a step back, turned his sword violently with a sound of breaking bone, and let the deceased showman's lifeless corpse slide from the blade. Blood gurgled from the savage rent in Max's expensive doublet and he sagged to his knees, then over sideways into the grass. Malger stood panting over his foe, blood dripping from his blade for several seconds before he calmly knelt and wiped it clean on the dead man's doublet.
A heavy voice intuded on the uneasy silence behind him as he cleaned his blade. "Are you quite finished, dreamwalker?" Asked the Lightbringer flatly. Malger stood and turned to look at her, his gaze drifting to Murikeer and a horrified Vinsah beside him.
He nodded. "Yes, mistress. It is done." His voice wavered, weak and spent.
The lightbringer waved one large hand and the four men at arms that had been attending her stepped forward. "Very well. Sieze him."