Kincaid was lying on the ground of a small cell. With his legs curled up and his arms around them, he was dreaming. It was before his eyes, as clear as it had been that day – a cottage in the woods, a small garden patch on the left, smoke coming out of the chimney, a pregnant woman lying in the puddle of blood in front of the cottage, someone’s mocking laugh. He woke up, feeling tears on his cheeks. Not again, Marry, he thought, please, no. Kincaid had been dreaming the same dream, over and over, for three years. Three, long years which he had spent in a dungeon of the royal castle, in a dark cell full of rotten straw and fungus. He heard footsteps and saw faint torch light coming from the corridor. He squinted and covered his eyes, as the person who carried the torch approached his cell.
“Wakey, wakey!” the guard with a torch said.
“You’re coming out, you lucky scumbag,” the other one said and opened the cell door.
Kincaid tried to say something, but he couldn’t utter a word. The guards entered the cell, picked him up, and dragged him out. Am I still dreaming? he thought, as they were going down the corridor. They reached a heavy door and one guard opened it. The other one pushed Kincaid into the room. The door slammed behind him. He was kneeling on the floor of a small room with two chairs and a table.
“Come closer, please, and sit down,” someone in the room said, “I have been waiting for you.”
It was quite dark, so he didn’t notice a man sitting behind the table at first. The man was wearing all black. He was around thirty, black shoulder-length hair was slicked back. Kincaid got to his feet, walked up to the chair and sat down. On the table, there were two goblets, an ewer, and a plate of food. His stomach growled loudly.
“Are you hungry? Please, help yourself,” the man said and poured some wine into the goblets.
Kincaid threw himself at the food and wine. Bread, cheese, sausages, pickles, and red sweet wine seemed to him a feast worth the king. While he was eating, the man watched him closely with his dark eyes. Kincaid finished and returned the gaze.
“Are you finished?” the man asked.
Kincaid nodded his head.
“Good, my name is Dnott. The ‘D’ is silent. I have an offer for you,” he said and sipped some wine. Then, two pieces of paper appeared out of nowhere in his hands.
“What are those?” Kincaid asked and moved uneasily in his chair.
“So, it talks. One is the verdict that put you in this charming dungeon almost three years ago, can’t you remember?” Dnott smiled. “It says here that you killed a pregnant woman, Marry Taft I believe was her name, while her husband—”
“I am innocent!” Kincaid raised his voice.
“Everyone says that.” Dnott shrugged. “But I know that you didn’t do it. I’m here to give you this.” He put the second piece of paper on the table. “If you do what the king says, you’ll be a free man.”
Kincaid picked up the piece of paper and read it very slowly. The plan started to form in his head. He smiled viciously.
“Where do I sign?” he asked.
Kincaid entered the village in the pouring rain, it was growing dark. Narrow streets were empty, so everyone must have been at the inn, from where he heard laughs and music. He turned his horse in that direction. It’ll be wonderful to see old Bailey again, he thought, and to taste his ale. When he approached the inn and dismounted, an equerry walked out of the stable to take his horse. The boy tried to peep under Kincaid’s hood.
“Mind your own business, laddie,” he growled from under the hood.
The equerry walked away quickly toward the stable, leading Kincaid’s horse by the bridle. Kincaid approached the door. He looked at the signboard that was hanging above him. It depicted a black cat with green eyes, the writing said: The Black Cat Inn. Kincaid thought, I wonder if that moggy is still alive, and opened the door. The warmth, the light, and the music hit him, as he stepped inside. Many faces turned, as he walked towards the counter. Few of them were familiar. He saw the innkeeper behind the counter with his back turned, looking for something on the shelf. Kincaid approached.
“Greetings, do you have a mug of ale for a wanderer?” he asked.
“And who is asking?” the man asked back, still facing him away.
“An old friend,” Kincaid replied.
“Yeah? I hear that all the—”
The man turned around, cutting off his own words. His face froze with the expression of an endless astonishment. The innkeeper was around sixty, almost bald, with a small clump of gray hair at the back of his head. He was also quite obese which gave him the look of an old good uncle.
“Well? Will you not welcome me, Bailey?” Kincaid asked, trying not to laugh at Bailey’s face. He felt sudden lightness in his heart, seeing that wrinkled familiar face.
“Kincaid? I… I…” Bailey stuttered. “What are you doing here?” he added.
“What do you think, old man? I am free – courtesy of our majesty the king,” Kincaid said, “may his reign be long and prosperous,” he added with fake dignity.
“Wasn’t he the one who had put you in the dungeon in the first place?”
“Less talking, more drinking!” Kincaid said and put his hand on the counter with
a loud slam.
“You haven’t changed a bit, you lucky bastard,” Bailey said. He took a mug and poured some ale in it, “except for your looks,” he added, “you look… different.”
Kincaid knew how he looked like. After he had been released, he had cut his brown hair and beard, leaving only half an inch. But three years in the dungeon had taken its toll. He had many wrinkles and sunken cheeks. The only thing that hadn’t changed was his eyes. They were still piercing, and bright like a melted tin. Kincaid accepted the drink, smiled, and drunk it dry. A black cat jumped on the counter and looked at Kincaid with middling attention. He caressed it with a free hand, the cat purred.
“Oh, the rightful owner of the inn!” Kincaid laughed. “How old is he?”
Bailey said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the one after whom I named this inn. Or maybe it’s just another stray. I can’t remember.”
“Well, if so, I would have another ale,” Kincaid said.
“First, you will tell me exactly what happened, then you will get more.”
Kincaid looked wistfully into the cup and sighed.
“Fine, but people are starting to stare at me,” said Kincaid, looking around the inn.
“Well… no wonder,” said Bailey, lowering his voice, “people know what you did, your name is known around here, and well, everywhere else too.”
“I didn’t do it!” Kincaid raised his voice.
“Keep it down, I know you didn’t,” Bailey said gently.
They stood in silence. Kincaid noticed more faces glowering at him.
“Off you go with the story, my old friend!” Bailey said after a while and put his fat hand on Kincaid’s shoulder, “I’m dying to know everything. I’ve missed you.”
Kincaid accepted another mug and said, “A man called Dnott, who had come to me from the king himself, offered me freedom.”
“Freedom, aye? Not for nothing, I imagine,” Bailey said.
“Obviously,” Kincaid said bitterly, “I have to—”
“Oi! you tha!” said someone behind his back. Kincaid turned around.
Three men were standing before him. They looked like simple villagers, but certainly they had had one too many. There was also something in their eyes that was telling Kincaid they weren’t just ordinary village dwellers. He had known that it was going to happen sooner or later. He just wished it would be later. Oh Marry, help me, he thought.
“Go away,” Kincaid said slowly, “and no harm will come to you.”
“You are a murderer,” said a man from the group, “you belong in prison.”
Everyone in the inn was watching the scene. The music stopped. Kincaid cursed under his breath.
“I have an official document, signed and sealed by the king himself!” Kincaid said loud and clear, taking out the piece of paper, “it says that anyone who would try to bother me, or stop me in fulfilling my mission, shall be imprisoned and punished!” Kincaid waited a while, and then he continued, “but those who wish to join me in my quest, can speak to me, in private.”
People gathered in the inn muttered.
“He is telling the truth!” Bailey said, “and besides, this is my inn, and he is my friend. So, if anyone is not content with that, I suggest leaving The Black Cat immediately!”
Three men that had provoked Kincaid earlier disappeared in the crowd. Kincaid breathed a sigh of relief. He thought, Yes, you rats, flee to your master. The music started to play again, people returned to drinking, but the tension was still in the air.
“What on earth—” started Bailey, but Kincaid interrupted him.
“Later,” he said, “show me the table.
Kincaid sat in the corner of the inn, his table was hidden in the shadow. People would look at him from time to time but he didn’t care. He was waiting for the six sits at his table to be taken. Taken by the people who, he hoped, would agree to help him. The first person who approached the table, was a tall and bald man with a long black beard. He was wearing a brown habit. Kincaid couldn’t tell his age.
“Greetings,” he said, his voice was surprisingly soft, “is this seat taken?” he asked, and without waiting for the answer, he sat down next to Kincaid, “my name is Friar Edon,” he continued, “I would like to join you on your quest.”
“Will you be of any use?” Kincaid asked, raising his eyebrow.
“I will. I know roads, woods, towns, languages, and people. I can also whomp quite well, if necessary,” he said and put his hand on Kincaid’s, “I also know that you are an innocent man and your cause is righteous.”
“I see…” Kincaid scratched his head and moved his hand away.
“Am I interrupting something here?”
The woman who asked the question, looked thirty, had long purple hair, black eyes, and pale skin. She was wearing a long black dress. Kincaid noticed a ring on her finger, it was a miniature human skull. He also found her accent quite posh.
“No, not at all,” he said and showed her the chair.
She sat down.
“My name is Ivaness Nightfall-Crow,” she said with dignity.
Friar Edon cracked up. Ivaness gave him a murderous look.
“I’ve heard you’re assembling a team,” she said, “I’ve also heard that you are a murderer.” She didn’t bat an eyebrow.
“No, I am not.”
“Don’t worry, I know how to handle a dead body,” Ivaness said flirtatiously.
Friar Edon stood up and said, “Listen, Diveness Nightfart-Crap, or whatever your name is, necromancy is prohibited.” He frowned. “And if I ever—”
“I know, darling, calm down,” she said, “the only thing I have ever tried to resurrect, was a dead mole, and I’ve failed miserably.”
“But you are familiar with magic,” Kincaid said.
“Indeed, I am. And my name,” she said to Friar Edon, “is Ivaness Nightfall-Crow.”
Suddenly, the third person sat down at the table. She was a young short-haired, blonde in her twenties. Dressed in a black riding outfit, she was looking at everyone, as if she was surprised that she had found herself at the table.
“Why are you all staring at me?” she asked.
“We are contemplating your beauty.” Friar Edon flouted.
“I know you,” said Ivaness, “you are Edelinne, the youngest daughter of our king’s brother. Princes Edelinne.”
“What of it?” asked Edelinne, “I am here to join him,” she pointed at Kincaid and added, “that’s all I have to say.”
For a minute, there was a complete silence. Everyone looked at each other. Kincaid decided to break the silence.
“Alright then, let’s clear things up a bit, shall we?” Kincaid said, and introduced everyone, including himself. “That’s not everyone, as you can see, there are three chairs left. Let me present you to the old friends of mine.”
Kincaid waved, and three women came up. They were identical, every detail in their hair, faces, or clothes was indistinguishable. They were wearing simple brown leather outfits, but very neat. The rest at the table avoided looking them in the eyes.
“Famous, or rather infamous, Sleeping Sisters: Alena, Milena, and Helena.” Kincaid introduced everyone once again and asked them to take a sit.
“My uncle had a wanted notice given out to catch you after you had killed one of his officials,” said Edelinne, “it was ten years ago, I am impressed.”
“Thank you,” said Helena.
“He deserved it,” added Milena.
“Definitely.” Alena summed up.
Kincaid smiled at the sisters and said, “I’ve missed you.”
Friar Edon said, “Yes, even I know that Sleeping Sisters kill only the bad guys.”
“And that is why I have gathered you all here tonight,” said Kincaid, “because bad guys are coming to visit The Black Cat, and we will welcome them properly,” he ended.
Everyone leaned down, as Kincaid explained the plan.
It was almost midnight. The Black Cat inn was full. People were chatting, drinking, dancing, and laughing. But they weren’t aware of the massacre that was going to happen any minute. Kincaid and the others sat restless in the corner where the light could not reach. But the people didn’t notice it, they were too busy with enjoying themselves. The innkeeper Bailey and the black cat were behind the counter, watching the guests.
“Any minute now,” said Kincaid, “get ready.”
Suddenly, the door opened. Ten men entered the inn, soaking with water. The music stopped once again, people stepped back, Bailey crouched behind the counter, holding the cat. This is it, Kincaid thought, I have been waiting three years. I can’t hesitate. He stood up, came out of the shadow, and looked at the leader of the group. The man looked at him too and laughed. It was before his eyes, as clear as it had been that day – a cottage in the woods, a small garden patch on the left, smoke coming out of the chimney, a pregnant woman lying in the puddle of blood in front of the cottage, someone’s mocking laugh. We meet at last, he thought.
Kincaid raised his arm, pointed to the leader and said quietly, “This is Chizok Taft, the man who killed his wife, Marry Taft, three years ago, oh Marry, give me strength, and MY unborn baby.”