Chapter One

The man had finished explaining the job he wanted done. He looked at the younger man who sat across the table, waiting for a reply. He wished that he could have somehow hid his nervousness, but that would have been impossible. Looking into the emotionless face of the most dangerous man alive was not something that was easily done.

The younger man knew almost immediately he would accept the job, but he took a long time in responding. He could see the man hiring him was nervous, and he decided to make the man wait. Ivan was used to people being nervous around him; almost everyone was. "I kill him, bring you the ring and his slave, and you will pay me two hundred gold?"

"Yes," the nervous man said quickly. "Will you do it?"

Ivan took more time before saying anything else. The job was simple, and Ivan would have done it for only ten coins, but he was not about to tell the man that. He was to kill a man, not of any great importance, and bring his ring and his slave to the man. The only part about it Ivan did not like was the fact he would deal with a slave. There was nothing he hated more than slavery, but from what he understood, the girl had lost her spirit, and Ivan knew there was nothing he could do to help her. What difference did it make to him who owned her? "Yes," Ivan finally said. "How do you want him to die?"

The man had not even considered that. He just wanted the man dead and did not think that Ivan would ask how he wanted the man to die. "It doesn't matter to me. Just kill him."

Ivan stood from where he sat and pulled his black cloak around him to conceal the blades he carried on his belt. He usually carried many more weapons, but he had only gone out for a drink when the man had started to ask around for an assassin. Actually, he had only pretended to be getting a drink. Ivan didn't drink alcohol, finding that it was too dangerous for him. "I'll do it after dark. I'll come back here."

Without waiting for the man to say anything else, Ivan turned and went towards the door of the smoke-filled tavern. A few people watched him as he left, but most of the denizens did not care about him. Ivan knew how to find to sort of place where even if he were recognized, very few people would care. Before exiting, Ivan pulled the hood of his cloak up. He knew he could not be recognized once he stepped outside. If he were, he would have more trouble than he wanted to deal with.

It was close to dark, and Ivan was heading towards the small inn where he left some of his weapons and traveling gear. After he had left the tavern, the assassin found the house of the man he was going to kill. The man who had hired him told him where to find the house, and he also mentioned that he was always out during the day. Ivan easily found the house, and like the man said, it was empty. After going in through a side door, Ivan took a quick look around and left.

He was now on his way to pick up the rest of his weapons. He knew he would not need them, but he was always fully armed when he was working. He was aware that he could run into unexpected trouble, and he liked to be prepared for anything. The only thing Ivan would be missing was his partner, who had decided not to come, saying he had personal business elsewhere. But Ivan had worked for a long time on his own, and he knew he could take care of himself, so he was not worried about being alone.

The streets were nearly empty. Most people were already at home since the sun was almost beyond the horizon, and they needed the sun's light to see. Ivan was not too concerned about the lack of light. He could see very well with very small amounts of light, and he knew that the moon would be nearly full that night. There would be more than enough light for him to see with.

The few people that were out did not pay any attention to the cloaked man. It was not uncommon for people to keep their hoods up, and since his weapons were concealed, no one thought anything was strange about him. Ivan, on the other hand, paid close attention to everyone he passed on the streets. He did not want to be caught off guard and be attacked. Years earlier, when Ivan had not been as experienced, a small gang had attacked him. Ever since, he was always careful when he was on the streets, even when he was cloaked.

Ivan saw a man in decent clothing on the other side of the street and a skinny girl in an old, dirty dress following him. He did not see them as a threat and would have kept walking if he did not hear a loud cry. Quickly, Ivan drew his sword and turned in the direction of the sound. Across the street, he saw the girl on the ground and the man standing over her, yelling. All that Ivan could tell was that the man was angry. The man kicked the girl and walked away.

Ivan watched the man leave, but before he was even out of sight, Ivan was crossing the street. There were no horses on the street, so Ivan did not need to wait before crossing. When he reached the girl, she was starting to stand. She saw him and froze, fear in her eyes.

Ivan saw that she was scared and did not go closer. "I'm not here to hurt you," he said. He did not actually know why he was there. He had just crossed the street and felt a strange desire to try to help the girl, although he knew there was nothing that he could really do for her.

She looked at him, not sure what to think. She could tell from his voice that he was a man, and the all that she got from men was pain. But something seemed different about the hooded man. He did not seem like the type that would hurt her for his enjoyment. She shook the idea that he would help her out of her mind quickly. She did not know him, and she had no reason to believe he was any different from the other men she had known.

"Can you stand?"

"I think so," she said quietly, so quietly that Ivan could barely hear her. She started to stand again, and she managed to get on her feet, but she started to fall down. She expected to hit the hard ground, but instead she found strong arms gently holding her up.

Ivan saw immediately that she would not be able to stand on her own for very long, and he caught the girl before she hit the ground. His arms were around her waist and she was leaning against him. "Careful," he said.

"I have to go," she said as she started to pull away from him.

He loosened his grip on her, but he did not release her. Something did not feel right about letting her go back to the man who had hurt her. "Don't go back."

"I have to." She pulled away from him and started to walk away. She tried to run, but her right ankle hurt too much for her to run for very long.

Ivan fought the desire to go after the girl. He had a job to do, and he could not let anything or anyone get in the way. He knew that there was nothing he could do for the girl, anyway. If she was willingly going back to her master, she was too passive for Ivan to help her. He knew he could buy her and set her free, but she would be unable to survive. Forgetting about the girl, Ivan continued towards the inn.

Nitria could not help thinking about the mysterious man as she limped "home". For more than three years, she had been a slave, and in that time, no one had spoken to her as he had. He seemed to actually be concerned about her and uninterested in hurting her. She told herself that if she spent more time around him, he would turn out to be like the others, but she wanted to believe otherwise. During her first year of slavery, she believed that someone would save her, but she lost hope.

After meeting the cloaked man, she wanted to hope again. But she knew she could not. If she dared to hope for a savior, she would only be hurt when he did not come. There was not hope for slaves like her. The only escape from slavery was death, and Nitria did not want to die.

When she finally reached the house, Nitria knew she was in trouble. There was barely any light, and most of it came from the nearly full moon. She wished that she did not have to open the door and face her master, but she knew things would be much worse if she did not. She hated not having any options. Slowly, she opened the door and walked inside.

"Took you long enough," said a familiar voice once the door was closed. Sitting in a chair with a bottle of alcohol was Nitria's master.

Nitria looked at the ground, not daring to meet his gaze. "I'm sorry, master," she said.

He stood up from his chair and set his bottle on a table after taking a drink. He walked over to the frightened girl. "What's your excuse this time?" He shoved her into the door.

"I… My ankle. It hurts." She did not want to tell her master about the strange man, so she told him the other reason for taking so long in getting back.

A strong hand hit her face, stinging it. "Don't blame this on me." He slapped her again, slightly harder.

"No, master. It's my fault."

"Then you should be punished." He had not had that much to drink, and he was not drunk. He would be able to fully enjoy the beating he would give her.

He pulled her away from where she was against the door and pushed her to the ground. Before she hit the ground, he grabbed the fabric of her dress. The dress was old, and was torn, and it ripped off easily. He kicked the bare girl multiple times in her stomach and ribs. She was holding in her tears and her cries of pain, so he stopped kicking her.

Nitria was not sure what was happening. He had never stopped in the middle of a beating. She glanced up and immediately wished she had not. He had taken his pants off and was getting on top of her. She had been on her side and he pushed her onto her back before entering her.

When she felt him inside her, she was no longer able to hold back her tears. She closed her eyes as he thrust in and out. The pain was incredible, and she did not think she could take much more. It was not the first time he had raped her, but he had not done it in so long, she was not used to it. He usually took pleasure in hitting her with his fists.

When he finished, he stood up and put his pants on, leaving Nitria on the floor, still crying. He left the room, and Nitria started to crawl to a corner, thinking he had finished with her.

She had not gone very far when he returned. Again, Nitira glanced at him, and again, she wished she had not. In his hand, there was a whip, covered in old, dried blood. Her blood. He had only taken a few steps when she began to cry again. The lash of the whip was another thing she had not felt in a long time, and another thing she had not wanted to feel again.

Her master kicked Nitria until she was lying on her stomach and then struck her with the whip. She cried out in pain as the whip caused a painful cut on her back. He hit her again, and continued until she had eight long marks on her back.

After the eighth blow, he decided he had enough and went towards his bedroom, taking his bottle of liquor with him. He would punish her more in the morning. He quickly finished his drink and went to sleep without even feeling the effects of the alcohol.

Ivan had everything that he needed. He had his long sword, which was strapped to his back, and his shorter sword on his belt along with several daggers and knives. He would only need one blade to kill the man. He was not sure if the man would be asleep or not, but it did not matter to Ivan. Awake or asleep, he would be an easy kill.

He entered the house the same way he had earlier and was in the kitchen. He left the kitchen and was in the large front room. He left that room quickly and went down the hall towards the bedrooms. There were four, and the first two were empty. Ivan opened the door of the third one and saw someone sleeping on the bed. Stealthily, Ivan walked over to the bed.

The moonlight came in the window and was enough for Ivan to tell that the person in the bed was the man he had come to kill. He stank of liquor, and Ivan assumed he had been drinking. Ivan took a dagger from his belt and without hesitation, slid the cold metal across the man's throat.

Once the man was dead, Ivan cleaned his blade, took the ring from the man's finger, and left the room to find the slave. He checked the last bedroom, but it was empty. Ivan knew that there was a cellar, and he was going to go down to look for the girl there. He went into the main room and was going towards the kitchen when he hit a table with his shin.

He swore loudly and looked at the low table that he had not noticed. He rubbed his shin, and was about to go into the kitchen when he heard a small sound. He had his weapon ready as he looked towards the noise. He saw a slight movement and knew it had to be the slave. No one else lived in the house.

Nitria watched Ivan as he came closer. She hoped that he would have left her alone, but she was not that lucky. She held in the tears that threatened to fall. She did not want to cry before he even touched her.

"Stand up," Ivan ordered uneasily. He was not the kind of man who gave orders, and he did not like the way it sounded.

Something about his voice seemed familiar, but Nitria was not sure. She was just glad it was not her master. She wrapped her arms around herself as she slowly stood up. She did not say anything; she only waited for another order.

"Come here."

She started to walk towards him, trying not to limp. Ivan noticed that she was limping and remembered the girl from the street. He remembered how she had also limped. He took a few steps closer so she would not have as far to go. When he was close, he gently reached out to help her stand. He was surprised when his hand encountered bare flesh.

"Where are your clothes?"

"My master took my dress," she said quietly. "It's ripped."

Ivan recognized her voice as the girl from the street immediately. He wondered if she had recognized his voice. If she did, she gave no sign of it. "I'll go find something for you to wear. Wait here."

Nitria did as she was told. She leaned up against the wall and waited for his return. While she waited, she remembered where she had heard his voice before. He sounded just like the mysterious man from the street, the one who seemed to care. She wondered if it could really be him. Perhaps he had come to save her.

When Ivan returned, he had a pair of pants and a shirt that were too big for the half-starved girl. He gave them to her and she put them on. She had to hold the pants up to keep them from falling down. "I need you to come with me," Ivan said once she had finished dressing.

"It is you," she said quietly.

"What?" Ivan was a little surprised, but the girl mistook his surprise for anger.

"I'm sorry, master," she said quickly. "I won't do it again."

"No, no, it's okay. You didn't do anything wrong. But what did you mean by what you said?" He realized that she must have remembered him from earlier. Usually, when people said something like that to him, they realized he was the assassin who so many people wanted to kill, so he associated those words with danger.

"You're the man from the street," she said. "What are you going to do with me?" She asked the question without thinking. She cursed herself for being so stupid. She knew she would be beaten for sure for asking questions.

"I, uh, I'm not going to do anything," Ivan said. "I'm just going to get you out of here. I won't hurt you."

Nitria wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe that he was going to be the person who would save her from her life as a slave, but she could not trust him. Even though she did not trust Ivan, she was still willing to go with him. She did not think he could be any worse to her than her master. "I'll go with you."

"Can you walk? Or do you want me to carry you?" He did not want her to hurt herself anymore, but he did not want to do anything to her she did not want. If she did not want him to carry her, he would not.

"You can if you want, master. If you want me to walk, I can."

"But what do you want?" Ivan knew it could be difficult to get her to make a decision on her own. "Does it hurt you when you walk?"


"Would you prefer that I carry you, then?"

"If you want to, master"

"This isn't about me. Would you be comfortable if I carried you? I understand if you don't want me to touch you."

"I guess I'd be comfortable." Nitria was not sure what Ivan was trying to do. She thought that he was going to trick her somehow.

"All right. Do I have your permission to pick you up?"

Nitira was not sure what to say. She did not know what he wanted her to say. She could see him getting mad at either response. She was sure he would not like "I don't know" as an answer, so she decided against saying that. "Yes," she said, hoping she made the right choice.

Ivan moved to pick her up, but when he put his hand on her back, she whimpered in pain. He quickly moved his hand away. "Did I hurt you?"

"No. My back is sore."

Ivan thought he knew what happened, but he would have to see her back. He would need to do it where there was more light, so he decided he would wait until he was outside where the moon's light was brighter. He put his arm around her waist and picked her up from there and carried her outside.

Once they were outside, Ivan put her on the ground gently. "May I look at your back?"

"If you want to, master."

"Don't call me that. Does it bother me if I do look? I won't do anything else."

"You can, master."

Ivan gently lifted the back of her shirt and saw what he feared he would. Whip marks. And they were fresh. He felt bad for the girl, and he doubted that she had done anything to deserve that sort of treatment. After seeing the marks, he was not sure what to do. He was supposed to take her to the man who had hired him, but he did not think he could. Can I really take this girl to a man who will probably be just as cruel as that other bastard?

He glanced at the girl, wondering what his other options were. He had two choices. He could either take her to the man, or he could keep her with him until morning, and then decide what to do from there. His conscience would not let him bring the girl to the man. He just could not do it. He would not take the girl to her death.

He picked the girl up and carried her to the inn, positive he was going crazy. He did not know what he would do in the morning. What if she had no where to go? He could not stay and take care of her, and he could not leave her on her own. He tried to stop thinking about it. He had other things to think about. Like how he would explain to the man why he did not have the girl with him.

When Ivan got to the inn, he went into his small room. He put Nitria on the bed, and then went to his bag, which was on the floor near the door. Inside, he carried everything he needed for traveling. He had a piece of flint, money, rope, and several small jars, most filled with poisons. He took the largest jar from his bag and walked over to Nitria.

She had been watching Ivan as he went through his bag, scared of what he would take from there. She thought it would be something to cause her pain. She could not see what it was he had in his hand, but it did not look like anything that he would use to hurt her.

"Lie down," Ivan said.

Nitria started to lie on her back, but Ivan put his hand under her neck before she could. "No. On your stomach."

"I'm sorry, master," she said as she did as she was told. She was frightened and was trembling slightly. The only reason she had to lie on her stomach was when she was being whipped. She did not want to be whipped again.

"It's okay," Ivan said as he took the lid off the jar. He put the lid down on the bed and lifted up the back of her shirt. He put two fingers inside the jar and scooped out some of the gel inside. He gently rubbed the gel on her back where the whip marks were, being careful not to hurt her.

Nitria was surprised when she felt the cold gel on her back. She did not know what Ivan was doing, but it felt good. She was glad he was not whipping her like she feared he would.

"Did that help?" Ivan asked as he put the lid back on the gel.

"Yes, master. Thank you."

"Don't call me that. I've got to go somewhere. Stay here and get some rest, all right? I'll be back before morning."

Ivan left the room, still fully armed. He had to go back to the tavern and explain to the man why he did not have the slave with him. Ivan hoped he could come up with a good excuse in time.