Jan 202014
 

I stood in the failing light with my hand pressing against my most recent of wounds. The pain was sharp but not unbearable, and I was thankful once more for the simplest of runes I had at my disposal. We still had some light to see by, did the three of us, and details that had faded from attention as the fight remained in sharp focus were starting to become clear. Broken bottles and damaged household ornamentation littered the ground along with more corpses. Dead bodies seemed to be an almost permanent part of my life back then, and I set about dragging them away from the open ground inside the ranch.

Every step I took sent another spike of pain from my leg up my spine and set off a flash behind my eyes, but the work needed doing. Brand seemed to have vanished once more, scouting the area for other threats no doubt, and Valerius was rushing to the aid of his countryman, dressed in the raiment of the priesthood. And a toma it seemed. The partisans and their servile lackeys looked to have had their fun by torturing the poor dumb creature as well as the priest. The animal was swiftly put beyond pain, with a dozen or so arrows still buried in its flesh.

The priest was doing much better, but I left Valerius to the God botherer. I’d had enough of such things from Skuza, and could only imagine how much more intense the priest would be in his desire to see us all on the true path.

As I was stacking the bodies away from where we would be sleeping, the others made their way into the ranch, looking about them, checking for dangers not yet neutralised. I nodded and smiled as they led the wagons in, overhearing Skuza admonishing his faithful caravan master for not rushing sooner to our aid. I can’t blame Vitus for keeping the Numare as far away from danger as possible, but it was heartening to see Skuza willing to lend a hand to his traveling companions. I didn’t fear so much for our employer – Vitus would have done everything in his power to keep him safe from harm – but well meaning amateurism can be downright lethal to everyone when employed in sword play, no matter whose side one was on.

Drazar was amongst them and he made eye contact, his deep blue eyes flickering in the reflected light of the fires even behind his damnable mask. In a few moments he was beside me, “You’re hurt my friend. There is little I can do today, not after the previous excitement, but I can at least reduce the severity of your wound”. With that he stepped closer and put a hand on my arm, his fingers cold enough for me to notice through thick leather, but a strange and comforting warmth spread from these digits and through my body.

It seemed to do enough to restore my humours to something close to where they belonged, but physically I can’t see that anyone looking would have noticed much of a difference. Caderyn in fact was looking me over as I stood, feeling the strangest tingle from the half Daemon’s grasp, and he didn’t seem impressed. I can only imagine how pale I must have looked after loosing a fair bit of blood and having no chance for a rest all day. “Kantrel”, says he, “I can take care of this, sit yourself down”.

Ever the proud one I tried to argue my case, after everything that we’d been through I didn’t want anyone to think that I wasn’t willing to put in with everyone else on the unpleasant task of cleaning up, especially considering the kicking that he’d taken at the hands of the Corbie and not asked for a rest. I had barely gotten the first three words clear before I was interrupted, “You look fuckin’ terrible, There’s not much left to be done, and we can get it done without you. We’ll need you in good shape for the night and for tomorrow, so get yourself sat the fuck down. Now.”

Stubborn and willful I may have been, but he was right, and letting my pride get in the way of what was the best for everyone would be the action of a fool. I nodded my head and walked towards one of the larger fires, picking up anything that would burn as I went, adding it as fuel before I sat down.

Everyone was inside by now and busying themselves while the light remained. Brand had returned, and with the aid of Catranasia and Caderyn were sorting and loading anything of value into the wagons, increasing our pay off with every scavenged item. Valerius had lowered the priest down from the wall he had been tied to, and had given him something to help him sleep while others had done the decent thing and taken down the hanging corpses of the family that had once lived here. There’s no reason to believe they were nice people who had spent their lives working towards the betterment of their fellow man, but even if they were bastards to a man of them, getting hanged for living where others would rather you didn’t, just wasn’t fair.

With the bodies taken care of, and a nice pot of tea on the go thanks to yours truly, the buildings that made up the ranch and family home were scoured too. As hard as it was to imagine anything left of value, a few more items were loaded into the almost overflowing wagons. It also seemed that we were not the only living people still dwelling within the ranch. Brand and Valerius returned from the main house with an old and swarthy looking fellow in tow.

He was dressed in latest fashion of the Margomarissi; that being a strange mix of Pelosian clothing and more functional garb more likely to be seen on farmers and frontiersmen. He spoke the language well, and seemed to take the fresh crop of corpses in his stride as he surveyed us. Over his shoulders was a leather strap that at first I took to be part of a weapon sling, but as he stepped out of the shadows, he was revealed to be carrying a fiddle over his back. “No no, I don’t call this place my home”, he says, in answer to a question from either Brand or Valerius that I had not heard, “I was just passing through and was called upon to entertain, as is my calling in fact. The gentlemen I found here were already in their cups, drinking some hateful concoction that seemed to get them drunker and more angry than it had any right to. Damned near blind too! Appeasing them seemed to be the order of the day”.

“Safe to say they weren’t friends of yours then?”, asked Valerius, hand never too far from the hilt of his weapon.

“Friendship is very much a matter of opinion that changes quickly depending on the situation. For instance, as of this moment, you all look very friendly to me, but the fact that you came here and killed all of these men, means you wouldn’t have always looked as such”. He smiled as he spoke, but kept his distance from us, obviously still sizing us all up.

As old as he was, I was fairly sure he was of no threat to us, even if he had his suspicions about our party, so I offered him a drink of warm tea and a spot by the fire that was slowly cooking the toma that Brand had earlier butchered. “Take a seat friend, we mean you no harm”.

“Ah”, he replies, moving closer at last, “that’s just what the last fellows said, and it didn’t end too well for them it seems”. But he took the cup, and lowered himself to the ground with the aid of a stick. Closer up, he looked even older, but who’s to say what was age, and what was caused by a life hard lived. He seemed friendly enough, but I remembered his earlier comment, and just how friendly the negotiator from Thorgrim was while threatening to kill us all. Still, he had my curiosity, and while injured I was happy to sit and talk.

“The Names Kantrel”, I began, “and like yourself, we’re just passing through. If you’re heading in the same direction, you’re more than welcome to tag along”.

“Well now lad, the road is indeed a dangerous place, and based on the day’s adventure, I think I could do worse than keep you lot company for a spell. For all the violence carried out here, it’s nice to see you taking the time to look after them that survived. Do you know if the girl’s still down the well by the way”? He asked it in such a throw away manner, at first I took it to be the set up for a joke, but his eyes stayed cold and focused as he asked, no hint of a smile on his face. Valerius and Vitus were on their feet faster than I could even form a word, rushing towards the well as I tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

The entertainer, called Silver Piece – presumably something to do with the money he has earned in his vocation – managed to work out what I was trying to ask, and filled in the details while a rope was prepared. The partisans had soon tired of their most basic of sports and were convinced that the masters of the house had more treasure hidden away. After raping, torturing and eventually killing most of the remaining family without finding out anything of use, they had come to their own conclusions. With the buildings ransacked, there would have been few hiding places left, and one of the swine – drunk, high, or stupidly – had thought of the well.

With no easy way to search it though, they had resorted to simply throwing young women down it and hoping for the best. After the first two had perished from the fall, the third had survived, but when she claimed not to have found anything, they had simply left her down there to die. This was hours past, and she had long since stopped crying for help. I turned towards the well in time to see my companions pulling a near naked and soaking wet slip of a girl up from the darkness. She fell to the ground the moment she released the rope, and her skin was blue below the waist.

Catranasia and Fjorlief were soon at her side, the Hutzlunr Vytch well versed in treating those exposed to freezing conditions. Although almost completely silent, the poor thing seemed happier to be around the women, shying away from anyone else who even came close to her. Around her neck was a metal collar, marking her out as another of the ranch’s serviles. It seemed that the partisans were just as happy to torture those who lived under the rule of the Pelosians too.

Once she was able to walk, stiffly and with help, Brand and Valerius went with her and her minders to the smithy, and between them removed the mark of her servitude. Slavery is far from the most noble of ways to make a living, but I am not so naive as to expect anyone reading this to think my family’s fortunes weren’t built in some way on such trading. The Pelosians seem much more at ease with it though, with even their own citizens being forced into servitude when unable to pay a debt or convicted of a crime.

These periods of forced labour are supposed to be limited, until the debt has been paid or the crime worked off, but clever masters keep their workers in chains for a very long time. Not only must the debt be worked off, but the master may also add on charges for the food the servile eats, the roof over their head, and the rags they wear while working, adding more and more the longer the wretches are detained. It looked like the girl’s time was at an end though, and all I could do was hope that she would forget all of this as soon as possible, and start a new life for herself.

*     *     *

As everyone settled down for a slightly early night, I took the time to discuss my injury with Valerius. Although the pain was still present, flaring up at the slightest damned provocation, it seemed like I was over the worst of it. So much so that I wasn’t even allotted anything from his supply of medicines. I choose to think that this was down to his respect for me, and belief in my fortitude, but it might just have been because he was a miserable bastard who didn’t like me much. Either way, he checked my injuries and made sure they wouldn’t get any worse.

He also took the time to bring up a slightly more delicate matter. Since we were on a Pelosian road, by the end of the next day we would have been past a check point. A military one at that, and as such it would likely be a bit more thorough than a civilian one. In the back of one of the wagons there still laid an expensive and flamboyant weapon that would be sure to attract some unwanted attention. “It’ll get us all hanged”, he says, “and what good will its value do us then. Get rid of it before we set off, as I won’t swing for you”. Fair point, thinks I, and agree that come the morning, the problem will be solved.

Watches were set as normal, and knowing that I would be stiff and sore come the morning, I unrolled my blanket and did what I could to get comfortable. We all slept under that stars that night – with Skuza giving up his wagon for the still unconscious priest – as no one looked keen to spend the night under a roof that had seen such horrors. As the rooms were being cleared, a store room was discovered – everything of value removed or destroyed of course – containing the corpses of four young serving girls. Each had been beaten and used in the most despicable of ways. Three looked to have died from the severity of the beatings they had taken, but the last stared out of one dead eye, the other socket a home for a small knife, the handle slick with blood.

As Silver Piece had pointed out when asked earlier what kind of songs he sang, and he replied, “At this time, it seems to be naught but dirges, there’s nothing but death hereabouts”. A maudlin thought, but none of us could deny the truth of it.

Some hours later I was roused by Caderyn, who told us of an overseer’s cottage on a rise above the ranch that looked to be lit from within. It was so far away, with too much open ground to worry me much, and since I had other plans that morning, I trusted Brand to investigate and he up and vanished into the predawn grey.

With a length of rope in hand, I carried the mace to the edge of the well and set about lowering it down slowly, so as not to make too much of a noise and awaken the others. Once I felt it touch bottom, I sliced the rope and let it fall in after the weapon. Vitus walked past as I was working, giving me a respectful nod as he did so. I’m not sure if he knew of my reasoning, but regardless, I had mended a bridge in sore need of maintenance by leaving it behind. For now.

I wasn’t quite ready to give up the thing entirely though. Like the armour that Caderyn had hidden earlier, I knew that we could get a pretty penny for it indeed when placed in front of the correct buyer. I took my knife and carved into a brick on the side of the well a simple representation of the rune I had been working on. I would give Caderyn a simple copy of it in the morning, should he make his way back without me, but no else would know what it meant. Not for many a year at least.

With plenty of time left, I set about memorising more runes for the day. Some had proven very useful indeed, others hadn’t even been used, but at the time, what I really wanted was to try out the rune of my own design as soon as possible. It was considerably more complicated than anything else that I had been taught, and would take longer to learn and master. With time being short, I made some tough decisions that morning, but when the customary screaming and hollering started, I felt surprisingly confident.

The morning ruckus, courtesy of the New Raphelian who was far more than he seemed, was muted that day. In deference to the traumatised young girl, he had left the ranch and took of his Daemon bothering a fair distance away. I was still ready with warm drinks and the fire coaxed back to life to reheat last night’s toma though, and took the time to thank Brand for his consideration as we packed and readied for the day’s travel.

It should have been a good start to a very positive day. True, we had pissed off one of the most powerful warlords in the region, but we were alive and had rescued a couple of people, and would likely make a pretty profit on the goods we’d snagged in the process. Sadly, the Pelo worshiping priest was up and about, and seemed less than pleased with his potential new traveling companions. Not only was he pushing for more work to be done for our universal conversion to Pelo’s way, he was decidedly unhappy about embarking on journey with a New Raphelian savage, a partisan looking Dummonii, and the man in the mask, Drazar.

I did my best to defend our employer’s efforts in turning us all from the heathen pass, but Skuza seemed determined to get himself into trouble. I understand that he was looking forward to returning home and filling the ears of all who would listen of his brave and daring exploits, but informing the priest of our little trip through the caves of the dead was not exactly a smart move. I was swearing under my breath – and in Dummonii – while the priest tried even harder to be an insufferable little bastard, having spied the slip of a girl whom we had rescued the evening before. “That servile has been released! She has much more to work off before she can be judged free by a council of Numare”!

Caderyn looked to me to translate this gushing torrent of self important bullshit, and I was glad for the distraction. I would have been more than happy to punch the pious little prick and be done with it, but didn’t fancy pushing my luck. It was one thing to kill a warrior of God when he was hell-bent on murdering one of our party, but quite another to just punch a sickly and injured man because he was being an arse. Luckily, both Valerius and Skuza were able to reason with him before my patience ran out and was replaced with anger and violence.

They convinced him that after all she had endured at the hands of the partisans, her debt should be considered repaid. Two Numare seemed able to outbid one priest, but if we were in a major Pelosian city, I imagine things could have gone very differently indeed. Cowed by their words, and very lucky not to have a broken nose, he shut his trap on the matter and accompanied the boss into his carriage, leaving the rest of us to make our way out of the ranch.

Drazar had done more for my injuries that morning, and the ministrations of Valerius had done wonders, allowing me almost full freedom of movement again. I took advantage of this to drop behind from my usual position at the head of our convoy and walked at the rear, keeping pace with Daemon blooded masked man, honouring a promise to teach him my language. I had already gone through the basics, and decided to make it fun that morning, teaching him instead a bawdy dockside song. Along with what it all meant of course.

There’s little point learning how to speak to a Raphelian unless you’re going to pick up a fair few curses and expletives. Luckily our new traveling companion Silver Piece knew the tune of this one, and with a fiddle helping out I had everyone in the rear wagon joining in as we walked.

I bang on the door but you won’t let me in, ’cause you’re sick and tired of me reeking of gin. Locked all the doors from the front to the back, And left me a note telling me I should pack.

I walk in the bar and the fella’s all cheer, They order me up a whiskey and beer. You ask me why I’m writing this poem, Some call it a tavern but I call it home.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk Pour my beer down the sink I’ve got more in the trunk.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk And I’m going to be drunk till the next time I’m drunk!

You’ve given me an option, you say I must choose, ‘tween you and the liqour, then I’ll take the booze! Jumpin’ on Western down to the south side, Where I’ll sit down and exercise my Bajo’s pride.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk Pour my beer down the sink I’ve got more in the trunk.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk And I’m going to be drunk till the next time I’m drunk!*

*     *     *

A good bit of fun of course, but we still had places to be, and were on a Pelosian road. I left Drazar working on his words and wandered back to front to exchange words with Caderyn, “We’re soon going to be coming across some men of both military and Pelosian persuasions. I hate to tell you this my friend, but they won’t be too keen on seeing you at the head of this caravan”.

“Bugger it”, he swore, “You’re right, there’s no point starting trouble, but if it comes looking for us, just give me a shout and I’ll come and cut some fuckers in half for you”. An offer I would happily accept if needed, but until then, he did the sensible thing and took a position closer to out rear.

Within minutes I was sure that I had timed the move damned near to perfection as we saw some Pelosian troops lamenting a wailing at the side of the road. At first I took them for a lancer unit that had been all but destroyed, but Vitus was quickly to the front to investigate the noise and looked down his nose at them. I raised a quizzical eyebrow at him as he turned his back on them, “Numare cavalry”, he answered, spitting onto the ground. “Gentleman soldiers with almost as little training as Skuza, come out here to the badlands and then go and get all poetical and weepy when then quite rightly get slaughtered or end up having to eat their mounts. Not worth the time it’d take to piss on them”.

I couldn’t help but notice he had kept his voice low throughout that summary, but could hardly blame him. He had the freedom to talk to me as he saw fit, but would risk his that – and maybe even his life – if he was overheard badmouthing a Numare. As we continued on our way, the reason for the lamentations was soon obvious; ahead of us at the side of the road was a large pile of dismembered tether, some still wearing the barding and colours of  a Pelosian unit. With no clue what had happened to them, we carried on our way, but the sight of Pelosian soldiers mourning their dead was something we would have to get used to due to its frequency.

Silver Piece didn’t seem to concerned with all of this though, and when he spied a gathering of legionnaires, he nodded to us and smiled before peeling off to join them. As the distance between us increased the sounds of a melancholy tune being played on a fiddle drifted past us on the wind.

I can’t say I was sad to see him go, having known him for less than a day, but the manner of our meeting was enough for him to come to my mind on occasion even now.

The morning turned into afternoon as the sight of bodies and troops grew with each passing hour. It was an unusual feeling to be all but surrounded by armed troops and dead bodies, but to feel somehow safe. Vitus and Valerius soon joined me at the front with a friendly nod. “I think it might be best if we took point from here”, said the physician, with Vitus dipping his head in agreement, “We’re not far now from the check point, and with a Numare at our front, we’ll get through a damned sight quicker. Vitus here looks the part too, but it’d best if the Legions built up slowly to the rest of you”.

A good point, condescendingly made, so I bowed and dropped back. Caderyn was still at our rear, so I kept pace with Skuza’s carriage and whistled along to other shanties that I had in mind to teach Drazar. Ahead of us, the crowds of people began to thicken until we were nothing more than the back end of a long queue of humanity and beasts. With Valerius bullying and cajoling the lower born we quickly made our way to the special area for Numare only.

Skuza was soon in his element, and when the book-keepers at the gate demanded paperwork, he swiftly presented his travel papers. The doctor did most of the talking from I gathered after the fact, and with good cause. It seemed that honourable Ser Skuza was unwilling to allow any conversational opportunity to pass with recounting the tale of the Caves of the Dead. This kind of thing was guaranteed to put the wind up any officious bean counter, so Valerius was forced to interject, giving viable and believable reasons for us stepping off the approved path.

Meanwhile, we were all getting eyeballed by a mixture of legionaries and hired mercenary guards making sure we were all law abiding and respectable citizens. Of course, we weren’t but most of us at least managed to put up a pretty good pretense. The Pelosians know how much my countrymen admire their civilisation  - so much so that they often copy indiscriminately anything of Pelo that looks interesting, without bothering to find out anything about its cultural significance – and all I got was a friendly bow. I returned with a deeper bow, showing humility and respect, and was promptly ignored.

As all this was going on, in the damnable heat of the day, we were unlucky enough to have a most singular fellow in front of us, trying his best to get through the checkpoint to deliver his goods to the city. Dressed in clothing similar to a monk’s habit, he was shouting some nonsense about interring all of his countryman’s remains within a crypt. This explained the smell at least. His barrow was filled with limbs in a heaped pile. Flies surrounded him and were soon seeking sustenance on us all. Thankfully for us, the border guards eventually tired of his shouting – and the smell – and heaved the barrow down the slope and away from the road. sadly, many other people were below us seeking a way into the city, and one unfortunate family had their afternoon rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of dozens of rotting limbs.

There were still plenty of guards to keep an eye on us though, and Brand got a bit more attention. Vitus had the good sense to indicate towards me, as if we were together, to which I nodded a reply. A smart move when dealing with a society that actively embraces slavery. The women were largely ignored, apart from an occasional leering look that I recognised well having used it several times myself. And then there was Drazar.

I didn’t know what had put him in such an odd mood, but he looked ready to challenge them for his right to exist in the Pelosian heartlands. Thankfully he seemed to have the good sense to give in to their questioning before they tried to drag him away and throw after the limbs, but the answers he gave seemed to perplex them at first. Knowing him as I did, I could see how much untruth he was spinning, but they should have been able to see through his poorly fabricated lies regardless. I have known many watchmen, and no matter how stupid they appear to be, one should never underestimate their ability to see through fabrications and lies.

A minute later though, and they were walking away to investigate the next caravan. Insofar as it’s possible whilst wearing a full face mask, the dowser looked pretty smug, and I can’t say I blame him. Ideally I would have preferred him to be able too talk round a couple of guards without resorting to mind manipulation – as I’m sure I had just seen – but since it worked, I wasn’t about to complain.

Even a Numare still waits at the whim of bureaucracy it seemed, as the long minutes dragged by. Glancing about the other travelers, I spied a few selling meats and drinks for those waiting, and made sure we were all taken care off. I had partaken of finer repasts by that point in my life, but since I had a hell of a lot worse to come, I should have been more grateful. Still, the warm herb tea was pleasant enough.

Before we all succumbed to starvation and boredom, the high born returned with their paperwork correctly notarised and stamped, allowing us to continue into the city. Like most settlements on this side of the border it was split into districts, with the citizens allowed into the higher areas, and the rest of us scum relegated to the lower districts, with the whores and the skrites. Such is life.

It was easy going once we were inside, with Skuza staying with the wagons until we set up in a hostel. With a short backwards glance him and Valerius made their way to the Piamarium, leaving us in the Axe & Lamp, possibly the finest tavern in the Profanarium. We had a few choices on our rooms, with the cheapest being bedding down in some large communal area. Slumming it though I was back then, I fancied better than that after our journey that far. After making a few inquiries, there were more private rooms available for a few extra coin.

I was very glad I asked, as poor Vitus informed me that his masters purse didn’t stretch to even the simplest of flop house floors. I could have slept with the wagons once more, but remembered that I had a spare purse about my person, and offered up the spoils of my victory against Haaken Chains to pay for everyone to get a night’s sleep on something marginally softer than dirt. For Vitus I went one further.

He was a man that inspired trust, and I wanted him to trust me. I knew that I had risked that trust by dealing with the warrior priest, and although some well placed words had put me past the worst of his ire – and disposing of the mace went even further to repairing that smoldering bridge – he was still keeping half an eye on me. Well, after the last few days we’d had, nothing mends some wounds better than a bottle of nice wine. The innkeeper was quick to help me, thinking me wealthy for paying for all the rooms and seeking his advice on which wine to purchase as a gift. When I presented it to Vitus, his face split in a wide grin and he quickly ripped the cork free with his teeth, pouring some into a goblet.

Before he had the chance to offer it around – and I’m certain he would have done, generous fellow that he was – I stopped him, “This is just for you my friend. On this long and dangerous road you have dealt with us fairly and kept us safe. Your master is a good man, but at present he isn’t able to reward you as much as you so clearly deserve. Drink this bottle yourself. Thank you.” This got a smile, which is about as good as I could have hoped, but more was to come.

He stood back from the table, and with raised drink, exclaimed, “To Ser Eduardo Skuza, my noble employer. May he spend the night far away from us for a fuckin’ change!” I couldn’t help but agree and raised my own goblet of small beer in toast with everyone else.

*     *     *

The Axe and Lamp knew their clientele well, and after days out on the road surviving on game meat and what roots and tubers we could scrounge for a stew, I was happy to partake of some tangy fruits and peppery vegetables while we drank and spoke of past adventures and future concerns. One topic very much on the minds of those with coin in pocket and a Daemon-may-care attitude to the future was the evening’s attraction; Pelosian fighting moles! Small creatures with sharp claws and teeth, and a nose that resembled tentacles, they were apparently highly prized. Asking around it seemed that you could buy one as a pet for a few bits of tin, but laying your hands on a trained fighting sod came it a handful of Gold Jacks.

The frenzy that surrounded the gambling on them fighting seemed to justify the prices, even if the individual bets weren’t that high. You have to remember of course that this was a down and dirty road side hostel, and I imagined a small fortune would have changed hands that evening alone.

An old itch began to make itself known as my eyes drifted over the chalk boards with names and numbers scrawled all over them. Those days I struggled with the written form, but I could still make sense of a book keepers board, no matter what language it was in. The crowds were already baying even though the sun was still in the sky and I’d had no more than two small beers, and I started to think about ways to make money.

We could get Fjorlief to work her will on the champion of our choice. Drazar seemed like he could tell a bluff from the truth, and in dire circumstances Caderyn’s and prowess in a fight could be used as a distraction. As this thought briefly crossed my mind I saw that the Dummonii was already engaged thusly, slamming the face of some poor unfortunate into a table with alarming speed.

The disagreement seemed to be over almost as swiftly as it begun though, with both parties moving away to rejoin their respective groups with no recriminations. Looking about the room, it was obvious that such activities were normal, and engaging in any tricky would surely result in a large brawl. I shook my head, remembering just how often I would lose everything but my trousers in the chance houses, and drunk as a monk would demand honour be satisfied. People got hurt when that happened; occasionally people died. I looked down at the dregs of my second drink and pushed it to one side.

I had left my home to stay off that path, to become something more. My new friends seemed happy to gamble and fight and drink, but I was happy just being in their company. With a few coins left in Haaken’s purse I offered one last round for them and returned to the bar. While there I bent the innkeeper’s ear once more, trying to ascertain anything of use for the last leg of our voyage. Most rumour seemed to indicate that with the war wrapping up for the year, attention would be placed elsewhere. The reason for hostilities ceasing was also being discussed.

When the head of any mercenary company dies, it has ripple effects, but it seems that a power vacuum had formed when a rather important one was murdered. Not only that, but another was looking to compete for the positions of People’s Champion in the very city we were heading towards. This would put them in effective control of a large body of fighting men, even if not able to give them direct orders, but by manipulating their various animosities. I had sense of foreshadowing at this news, but returned with the drinks rather than pick at scab of an idea only half formed.

Fjorlief had decided to take the  chance on a fighting mole that had caught her eye, and staked near to her last coin on its victory. I wasn’t sure, and still aren’t, if she engaged in trickery to see it to victory, but she managed to walk away with a bit more money than she started. With luck being on our side, I thought it would be a good time to call it a night. Although the sun had only just set, I wasn’t sure how long it would be before I could once again sleep under a roof, and wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity.

Saying my good nights, noting that Vitus had already done considerable damage to his bottle, I made my way towards the stairs when something gave me pause. Looking back over my shoulder I saw what looked to be another of Thorgrim’s men. My breathe stopped in my throat as it was clear that he was heading towards the table I had recently departed. With my hand on the hilt of my Baseado, I stepped down once and took the time to size up this potential threat.

He was a big fellow, no doubt, and carried himself with easy confidence, but something wasn’t quite right. At his waist was a naught but a knife. I felt sure he could kill with it as easy I could with my own weapon, but since I was far from the most well equipped warrior in the room, it didn’t make sense that he would try to take us all on with nothing but a knife. His eyes gave something else away; he wasn’t looking around the room for other threats, or at least not to himself. Following in his wake was the final clue though.

He was a smaller, older man, wearing a slightly faded red cloak and toga. His hair was rapidly calling the retreat away from a highly aggressive forehead, and the only thing he carried was a stick to help him walk. But, he walked with just as much confidence as his taller friend, and was smiling to himself as sighted our group sat around the table, recounting the highlights of the mole fight.

I knew I could beat them both to the table, and maybe even slide the Baseado deep into the big lad’s ribs while I did it, but even with Drazar’s help I was still far from fighting fit. Discretion seemed the better part of valour at the time, so I simply stood at the table’s edge as they approached. The big one just stood, towering over all of us by Fjorlief and myself; the elder took a seat and began to talk. His voice carried just far enough without him needing to raise it at all, making it clear that he was used to talking to large groups of people, and even more used to having his word heeded.

“Good evening. Your master will soon be arrested for being unable to pay his debts”. Understandably this caused something of a commotion amongst us, but since I was one of the few sober heads still sat at the table, I motioned for him to continue. “There are those of us who would rather not see this take place. For all of his faults, and he is in possession of a multitude of them, he still has friends. Those searching for him now are not amongst this number.

“This is just a friendly warning, if you wish to continue your journey – remain in possession of your goods and chattels – I advise you to waste no time.” The smile was gone. This was a real thing. We had all worked hard to make it this far with no reward – hell, Caderyn and I had ditched a fortunes worth of armour and weaponry just to get through this alive. Many of us had bled for our employer, either through loyalty, greed, or – in my case – the promise of fulfilling a contract with a man of influence. We had to act, and act quickly.

*Lyrics reproduced and altered without permission of Flogging Molly. Go and check out their stuff!

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