Every man has a past, none more so than Draven Reinhardt. Abandoning his old life to settle down as a villager, he struggles to fit in, let alone hold down a job. When opportunity offers the much needed coin, Draven is torn between a promise and a purpose.
But, what’s one last job if you’ve already got blood on your hands?
‘From Man to Man’ is the story of how one man can change – or not – for the best. Prequel to the upcoming novel ‘It Began With Ashes’, the short (6400 words) introduces the reader to a world of suspense, intrigue, and action.
From Man to ManVI.
'Caused more trouble than this was worth.'
The hours stretched long, all the longer for Draven counting their passing. Be it heartbeat, breaths, footfalls, or the tallies in the Tax Collector's ledger – the day had been measured in wearing patience. Made all the worse for the lack of event, stifled by the heat, choked by the dust, Draven had all but torn his bandana after wringing it out again and again.
'I've been more of a nuisance than the Tax Collector.'
Draven squinted after the slight figure, a hand shading his eyes from the all-too-bright, dusking sun. The Tax Collector was an oddity, hardly worth the bother of notice let alone escorting. For a man of his disreputable profession, Nicolas as he had introduced himself, was a vial of poison short from the serpents that snatched coins like eggs from a nest.
'…More chicken than snake.'
Strutting a loping gait, head bobbing, back bent under the weight of the ledger in one arm and the coin pouch swinging from the other, Nicolas seemed to turn more heads for his manner rather than word of his business. A ginger flop of hair and a drooping moustache for wattle and comb, a stub nose as a beak, beady little eyes and stringy legs completed the picture.
With the tax dues paid, Draven followed Nicolas from the village, Shrike trailing behind them. Passing the last of the houses, a log hut belonging to the Herdsman, Draven felt the hairs on the back of his neck stir. Gripping to the axe, his eyes were drawn to the open door of the lone dwelling.
The door swung shut.
'I'm more trouble and less welcome than a Tax Collector…'
Frowning, Draven sank into the hunch of his shoulders. The shadows of the forest were a welcome cloak to his brooding mood, and he was glad when the village was lost to sight.
Padded footfalls, and Shrike appeared at his shoulder. "Glad you've made friends."
"Don't mind the Herdsman. He knows what he knows, and who he knows – anything beyond that takes a good sizing up before he makes peace." Shrike jostled him with an elbow. "And for a lump like you, it'll take a good while to gain your measure."
"Is that supposed to be comforting?"
"It's what it is. The truth if nothing else. As honest as telling you that this job was worth the coin. Easy, eh?"
"Easy." He nodded.
The forest met the silence between them with a quiet of its own. Draven swept the woodland with eye and instinct, and though whether it was the unnatural stillness or the incident at the Herdsman's house, he could not shake the feeling of something amiss.
The Tax Collector snapped a branch underfoot, breaking Draven's concentration. A rustle from the trees snatched his axe to readiness. Chattering, a squabble of birds took to wing, circling the three men once before fleeing.
"Someone's jumpy," Shrike laughed.
Draven spared the Huntsman a baleful eyeful. "How far do we have to take him?"
"No, the half-man half-cockerel."
"Oh, so you do mean Nicolas. You see the resemblance too?"
"How far, Shrike?"
The Huntsman crooked an eyebrow. "Here's as good as any. You watch him and I'll go fetch the horses." Clearing his throat, Shrike called, "Nicolas!"
The Tax Collector turned mid-step, tripping over his own two feet. Squawking, Nicolas flapped his arms, the ledger and coin pouch flying. Sprawling with arms and legs outstretched, coins raining down around him, the Tax Collector groaned. The ledger thumped down on his chest, and the groan turned to another squawk.
Draven choked back a chuckle, though Shrike broke into laughter beside him.
"Quick! Help me!" Nicolas fought his way to his knees, fingers pecking at the dirt to retrieve the coin. "I can't lose a single one. Not a single one. I've counted them all so carefully!"
"Time I fetch the horses?"
"Probably best, it'll give him the chance to recount if needs be." Draven felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. "I'll wait here and-"
Another twig snapped.
"Down!" Draven roared, dropping the axe and tackling Shrike to the floor.
Something whistled over Draven as he scrabbled for his weapon. Hefting the haft in both hands, he made a dive for the nearest tree.
Two arrows quivered into the tree trunk not a hand's width from his head as Draven ducked into cover. The forest erupted into a barmy of yells and cat calls, arrows streaking in from all directions. Draven watched Shrike notch and loose a shot from his short bow, the thrumb of the string met by a pained cry.
"Thought you said this was going to be easy?" Draven yelled.
"Spoke too soon!"
"Can you see them?"
"Yes!" The Huntsman readied another arrow, drawing smoothly.
"Where are they?"
Cursing, Draven peered around the tree he was hiding behind. Nicolas was on all fours clawing for the coins scattered about him. The Tax Collector’s outstretched hand was pulled short, an arrow thudding into the dirt at his fingertips.
Draven ran doubled-over for the next tree along. A shadow leapt from the bushes to meet him, sword swinging. In the blur, Draven made out little more than the flash of steel and the greens and browns of his attacker's garb. It happened fast enough that the blur became a smudge, and the man became a smear of red on the floor as the axe crunched into his chest. Another figure loomed over Draven from the undergrowth, but the axe cut it down to size, chopping into its legs. The return swing finished the job, head rolling beneath a bush.
Sparing no time to admire his handiwork, Draven looked to Nicolas from the safety of the tree. A hooded figure bore down on the Tax Collector, rusted sword raised.
"Nicolas!" Draven shouted.
The Tax Collector looked up, seeing the danger too late. Backpedalling furiously, Nicolas screamed as the sword swept down.
Book Nerd Spotlight
Growing up with the heroic tales written by authors such as David Gemmell and James Barclay, D was inspired to write stories of his own. After joining the army D used his free time to focus on his dream of sharing shelf-space with his idols.
D testifies to the fact that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword – but swords make for better letter-openers. He lives where the army send him, but home is in Chelmsford with his girlfriend. They say that behind every great man there is a woman pulling the strings, but she lets him dance to his own song whilst being the perfect partner in step. D claims that his books would not have been written without her.
David Emrys is not his real name.
Nor is D.