By J.M. Ash


15th July 1526 - England

For the first time in months, London seemed like a happy place to be. The winding, brightly-lit streets were crowded with folks in high spirits, and the warm, night air was filled with the sounds of music and laughter. Many were dancing joyously while jesters wandered among them, fooling and performing for those who gave them money. Everywhere, there were small groups of women in beautiful dresses, who giggled and laughed as men tried to win their favour. Fire-eaters roamed, clouds of flame bursting from their mouths in blazing streams while onlookers clapped and cried out in excitement. Even the night sky was not left in peace, as fireworks showered the stars with colourful sparks and muffled explosions rumbled in the sky like claps of flashing thunder.

Almost every person in the small city, nobleman or vagrant, Earl or beggar, was joining in with the festivities that Swinton's Day had brought. In the courtyard of a nobleman's home, things were no different. A large gathering of the rich and the powerful were eating and drinking and talking and laughing, though most were simply dancing merrily to the music provided. There seemed to be not a care in the world; a bliss that would not remain for very much longer.

The ill-fated Judge Garret was joining in with the celebrations and paying for his wine with his bribery money. He clutched the goblet tightly in one pudgy hand, while the other rested on his rather large, extravagantly-clothed belly. Both hands glittered with newly-bought rings and a blushing, giggling young woman was on his arm. He talked to her happily about a man he had sentenced: a Thomas Henshawe of London.

"He may not have been guilty," the Judge was saying, as his bearded cheeks grew ruddy with drink. "But his wife asked me to hang him so she could run off with her lover! She paid me a pretty penny, too." He held a bulging leather coin pouch aloft and shook it slightly. Metal coins jingled inside and his audience laughed appreciatively.

His woman smiled. "How romantic!"

"Yes, but unfortunate for the poor bugger!" another man called, to more raucous laughter. The Judge laughed too and took another swig from his goblet. The red wine it held tasted a little off, but it was not enough to deter him. After another hearty drink, he wiped his mouth with his arm.

"Should we find somewhere more private?" he asked his escort, in a hushed leer that reeked of drink. She blushed prettily, but shook her head, casting a quick glance about her.

"My brother is here. He's keeping an eye on me," she said. Her smile faltered suddenly as her gaze met her brother's. He was glaring at her coldly from the other side of the courtyard. Immediately, she let go of the Judge's arm.

"I must go to him," she explained hurriedly, and she stepped away. "He doesn't look pleased."

The Judge made a grab for her as she slipped out of reach, but he missed, only managing to sway drunkenly instead. He swore in annoyance while his pretty young girl ran to her brother, his irritation increased by the sickly feeling that swirled in his gut. The effects of too much wine, he decided. He staggered away from the gaggles of people to a solitary corner. If he was going to vomit, he did not want others to see it. It would mar his reputation. But the Judge needn't have worried.

Couples danced gaily to the music, passing him by in a haze of lavish clothing and bright colour as he staggered into the shadows of the house. His throat felt as though it were on fire and he muttered a curse as a sharp, vicious pain stabbed at his stomach. The world tipped and span sickeningly, far more violently than it should have. The goblet tumbled from his clumsy fingers to clatter loudly on the flagstones, causing the wine to spill and pool in a crimson puddle on the stone.

The Judge sank down the wall to the ground as his knees weakened. Cold dampness soaked his clothes as the wine drenched him and he muttered a slurred oath. Shifting in discomfort, he slumped still further while he wandered on the edges of unconsciousness. Darkness blurred the world and sounds grew softer, muffled. He shuddered and sweated like a man with fever.

Moths fluttered eerily in the soft glow of the lamps, their pale wings beating gently at the air. He watched them shimmer like ghosts in the light as the illness within him worsened, until he was thrown into a sudden darkness as shadow was cast over him.

The judge lifted his head slowly, his lethargic gaze moving from a pair of booted feet, to the hem of a short, black robe. In confusion, his gaze wandered higher to find a face concealed within the darkness of a blackened hood.

At first, he felt no fear. The Judge simply opened his mouth to tell the stranger to leave. But as he drew breath to speak, he choked without warning. He tasted the salty, metallic flavour of a thick fluid that flooded his mouth and flowed from his lips. He choked again in panic and confusion, fighting to breathe.

The figure remained silent and knelt beside him without offering to help. The light of a nearby lamp washed over them, banishing the darkness beneath their hood. The judge stared up at the stranger blearily, half-focusing on a pair of cold, green eyes that stared out of a metal face. It was the mask that he recognised and it was then that the truth, and the fear, hit him with an unfathomable, crushing force. He wasn't drunkā€¦he was poisoned.

"Assassin!" he gurgled, clutching at his throat in desperation. Blood slicked his grasping fingers, blood that poured from his mouth in a rushing torrent. It dripped onto his costly silk clothes to bloom like a gruesome, scarlet flower.

The masked figure bent down, taking the judge in a firm, unyielding grip as he struggled. "Rest now," whispered a hoarse voice in his ear, low and commanding.

"No," the judge groaned, as fear erupted in an icy flood. "No!"

The Judge began to scream, but the cry was left unfinished. The freezing metal of a blade pierced his throat, killing the sound before he made it.

The Judge gasped and gurgled as his blood flowed in endless rivers, to seep across the floor in ribbons of violent red. Wild panic flashed in his eyes and he writhed and twisted to escape the crushing darkness that came to drag him down. Coldness rose within him, numbing and black. He struggled for a few, broken moments, then fell silent and limp. His last breath sighed from his lips in a death rattle, like an echo of the wind. The life in his eyes flickered once and went out, leaving them blank and glassy in its absence.

A gauntleted hand touched his face, brushing his eyes closed to end his listless staring. The assassin muttered a quiet prayer that nobody could hear. Then they loosened the Judge's body from their grip and let it crumple slowly to the ground. Before it had even fallen, they were gone, long before anybody realised what had happened. Long before the first screams of shock and terror pierced the warm, summer air.

A/N- for info on this story, see my profile. Thank you to everybody who reads and reviews, you've made my day. I'm not really sure what to call this's too long to be a prologue. The first 'half-chapter'. Anyway i hoped you enjoyed it :) Don't forget to review.