They walked for two hours, through winding streets and darkened passages that even Yakov had not known existed, until finally they reached their destination. It was a rundown building, non-specific in appearance save for that it was, in comparison to its neighbours, the least deteriorated, which was hardly saying much. Yakov recognised the area implicitly from the blackened timber frames and the layer of ash that blanketed the dirt roads.
A month ago a fire had raged through the poor district, started some had said by a band of revolutionaries, though most of the people Yakov had encountered had found fault in this explanation. It was, after all, a strange way to oppose a monarchy by destroying the homes of those who might support your cause. He recalled that Mikhail had hinted at far darker reasons, heavily steeped in a superstition and paranoia that Yakov’s rational mind told him was foolish. He had claimed that the Mother of Flames had caused the disaster out of mercy for the desperate. He had been drinking, as he was wont to do before turning to religion for answers, but the reality was that fires were not uncommon in the poor district. Such occurrences were generally accidents, and one of the many symptoms that the region boasted. Yakov had never had much time for either conspiracies or religion. Survival was more important than either.
The knight was ahead of him now, standing in the doorway and propping the door open with a steel-capped boot. He quickly scanned the streets, but there was no one around. Satisfied, he grunted to himself, looked at Yakov and nodded towards the interior of the building. ‘Get in.’
Yakov obeyed without questioning. After the first half hour of travelling he had considered making a break for it once again. His body still ached, though the pain had lessened considerably. It was not that which kept him loyal though. It was the image of the guardsman’s broken body, and the speed and efficiency with which the knight had dispatched him that stopped him from running. Yakov had met some cold individuals in his time, but their motivations were base, and shared across the district. He could understand what such people needed in order to stay friendly. Sir Khelenys on the other hand was a mystery to him. There was no telling what he might do if he ran, or what he still might do if he obeyed.
Sir Khelenys noticed a momentary pause in Yakov’s steps and he leant down, grabbed his tunic in one meaty fist and thrust him through the doorway before closing the door with an almost reverent delicateness that belied the aggression of his former action.
Yakov slid across the hearth, rotten wood splintering as he did so and cutting deep into his clothes and the already bruised skin beneath. With a groan he righted himself, and stared fearfully at the black silhouette that loomed before him.
‘Take a seat,’ said Khelenys gruffly. He pointed to a discarded pile of chairs, most with broken legs or so damaged that they looked only suitable for kindling. With great effort Yakov sought a chair that looked at least remotely stable and promptly sat down upon it.
For a moment silence descended upon them as the knight turned his back on the boy. Yakov watched him intently for any sign of impending violence, but when the man turned back to face him he was merely holding a lit candle which he then used to light a number of torches around the room.
The illumination did little to improve the rooms aesthetic or put Yakov at ease. The only noticeable decorations the room contained, aside from the pile of damaged furniture, were thick and unpleasantly writhing cobwebs, each of which caked the corners of the room or hung from the ceiling like ghostly icicles. Beyond where Khelenys was standing Yakov spied the frame of a portrait. It was chipped and the paint was faded, but most curious of all was the torn canvas that hung loosely from it. The specks of gold paint indicated that at least at one point this had been a treasured possession for whoever had lived here. It was also not the kind of thing a peasant might be able to afford.
‘You led those guards on a merry chase,’ said Khelenys, breaking the silence.
Yakov did not reply.
‘You will want to talk,’ continued the knight. He pulled up a chair and sat down. Even seated he was a vision of terror. ‘Talking right now is important to your survival. You do want to live, I assume?’
‘Yes,’ said Yakov.
‘Yes, sir,’ corrected Khelenys. ‘You have lived on these streets your entire life, correct?’
‘You know them quite well, I’d wager. Well enough to break away from a guardsman or two.’
Yakov did not respond.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Yakov. He licked his lips, realising suddenly that they were very dry. ‘Many time.’
‘Many times,’ Khelenys repeated, automatically correcting Yakov’s speech. ‘Not the most difficult of tasks I am sure, though for a runt like yourself it is almost impressive.’
The knight chose his words carefully, and spoke slowly. He stared at Yakov’s face as though searching for a reaction. Finally he nodded to himself as though he had found what he was looking for.
‘You don’t like people talking down to you, do you?’
‘I tolerate fools,’ said Yakov, before he could stop his mouth. His face reddened. ‘But I don’t have to like what they say.’
‘Very smart,’ said Khelenys. His tone almost mocking but his face remained set in a grim stare. ‘You’re a born survivor. You follow when you need to follow, you shut your mouth, most of the time at least, when speaking might put you in danger, and you showed at least the barest amount of initiative running from those guardsmen. You’re a born follower.’
There was silence again as the two stared at one another. To Yakov’s surprise it was Khelenys that broke his gaze first. He turned towards the ruined portrait as though reflecting on something.
‘We have something in common, you and I,’ he said without looking back at Yakov. ‘My family was born noble, but I was raised in the poor district. Right here in fact. I know what it is to fight every day. I was younger than you when I made my first kill.’
‘I’ve killed plenty,’ Yakov blurted out, though he did not know why.
‘I doubt that,’ said Khelenys. ‘A killer knows his kind. You’re not like me, boy. Not yet, of course, but you could be.’
‘Be… a knight?’ asked Yakov. Though he still did not know for sure what the word meant, he felt a curious mixture of pride and dread.
‘Gods no,’ snorted the knight. ‘For that you would need noble blood, or balls of molten iron. Neither of which a boy like you could possibly possess, but be thankful for it. A knight’s life is thankless. Contradictory expectations and fancy titles aside, we are killers, and little more. We’re not what you might expect.’
Yakov stared at him in confusion.
The knight smiled, exposing jagged yellowing teeth. ‘You didn’t understand any of that, did you?’
Yakov shook his head.
‘Fuck me, but I should have guessed,’ laughed Khelenys. The sound of his bellowing laughter was somehow discomforting. There was an inherent aggression to it, and the speed by which it came and subsequently dissipated did little to relieve the growing fear that Yakov felt.
There was a brief respite as Khelenys pulled up a hip flask, removed its cork stopper and took a swig. His aim was poor and red trickling liquid dripped down his bristled chin and onto his armour. After a second he fastened the flask up once more and replaced it at his side.
‘Times really are dark,’ said Khelenys, suddenly and unexpectedly sobered once more. ‘I’ll get to the point then. That man the guardsmen arrested, he’s up to his eye balls in all sorts of bad business.’
Yakov jumped out of his chair. ‘I tell you nothing!’
Khelenys glared at him. ‘Sit the fuck down, boy’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘I don’t need you or any other to testify against the bastard. I already know what he’s done. His fate is already decided. What isn’t decided however, is the fate of any man, woman or boy that has at any time aided this particular piece of shit.’
Yakov obeyed the knights order, and remained sitting in perfect silence. His skin paled as Khelenys finished talking.
‘Like I said before,’ continued Khelenys, ‘you know when to keep quiet. That’s an admirable quality, but it’s wasted on a man like him. I already know that a boy matching your description has been running errands for him. Petty stuff, I’ll grant you, but this man you’re so loyal to has had his time. He will taste steel, and so will anyone that has conspired with him regardless of crime or circumstance. Now that particular boy might just be you, or maybe a considerable mistake was made on the part of one over-zealous guardsman, I don’t care which it is. Either way the Black God gets his due.’
Yakov felt his pulse racing. Once again all he could think about was the way that just two hours ago Sir Khelenys had killed a man in cold blood as though it had been nothing at all. He could feel warm vomit rising in his throat.
‘But you caught my attention today,’ said Khelenys, ‘and so I’m offering you a choice. You can follow your comrade to the afterworld, and pray that your death is a slow and painless one, or you can do what I tell you.’
‘This is your choice, boy,’ said Khelenys. ‘Death, or life. Loyalty, or servitude.’