Note – This is a short story that i wrote for Sarah as a bet. It’s set in a grimy fantasy medieval world which is populated my magic, dragons, etc..
Most tales about journeys start with the band of hero’s assembling and setting off to right some wrong. Bollocks to that, this story starts off with me running like buggery away from a robbery gone bad. Let me start off by saying it wasn’t my fault, I’d teamed up with a hard man from the western provinces called Bruno. I’d planned to use him for humping and dumping and as muscle in case anything went wrong; and something did go wrong, Bruno went wrong, unfortunately, it turns out that he was a nutter.
I say it wasn’t my fault, but had I have been honest in the first place and told Bruno where we were breaking in to, his reaction might have put me off hiring him, let me explain this.
The job was fairly simple, break in at four in the morning, use knockout pads, saps, neck-locks or darts on the guards, pick the lock on the strong-room in the cellars, load up back-bags with gold and commerce notes, and sod off, no one hurt; so far so good.
I’d arranged to meet Bruno in the backyard of the Severed Cat’s Paw, it was the pub in which I lived and conducted all my business from and it’s where this story really started.
Chapter 1 – Creep
The whole area was as quiet as an ugly whore’s bedroom a week before payday, that is to say there were a couple of drunks clumsily groping around in a back alley. I was standing in the shadows against the wall just inside the rear entrance to the pub, I’d told Bruno to be there at three bells, so I could quickly run through the plan before moving on, I wasn’t going tell him the whole job until we actually got there, that’s just me being cautious, the less people know about my plans, the less chance they have of buggering me over.
The night was clear with beautiful bright stars and a sliver of a moon, enough light for me with my eyes, but not really enough illumination for prying eyes to cause me a problem. The night air was fresh and damp, which made a nice change for this part of the city, the fresh part that is, there was always plenty of damp; people emptying chamber pots, drunks vomiting or pissing against the walls, and that was just the women!
Three bells came and then sodded off south for a holiday, but still no sign of Bruno, I should have called it off there and then and gone back to bed, but if he did turn up I didn’t want him blundering around making noise looking for me.
Finally at a quarter past three bells I heard him coming down the street trying to be quiet; but the only way he could have been any louder was if he was wearing a full suit of armour with sleigh bells strapped on to it. If this was what I was going to have to work with, I was going to have to be at least 50 yards in front of him at all times as we made our way to our destination.
He didn’t so much come into the courtyard, as blunder through, how he missed bumping in to the walls I’ll never know. He stopped in the middle, stood still and peered around looking for me. What did he think I’d be out in the open, all romantic and lit by candles or something? Standard practise in these situations is to slide in silently staying close to the walls, stay in the shadow, hold a darkened dagger or sharp stiletto and wait for your eyes to adjust or for your contact, very carefully, to make themselves known.
Bruno turned around slowly and tried to stare into the shadows, I never understood why people did that, it was pointless; guard in the light, bad guy in the dark, equals fucked guard, simple maths! But that said, it’d saved me on several occasions, and not just with the guard, it was quite handy when sneaking away from husbands.
He stank of booze but seemed to be handling it well, once again, mistake on my behalf, I should have told him to go home there and then but for three things, he was clearly in an ugly mood, he was very large and thirdly, I had an inside man, who was going to open a window for me at exactly 4 bells and I needed to be there for them.
The inside man was actually a very beautiful twenty-three-year-old Sylfaie woman called Hazel, who needed to get away from this life of whoring slavery. Sylfaie are considered exotic, they are tall, willowy and graceful, oh yes, and green skinned and usually with brownish grey hair the colour of tree bark. It’s a well-known fact that being the same colour as the forest around you is a good way of staying hidden in the forest and this made them extremely hard to catch for the slavers.
However, slavers being an enterprising lot when it comes to their merchandise, had solved the problem of catching the Sylfaie, they simply waited until high summer and then burned the forest down and caught whatever tried to flee. This also meant they ate well as they killed anything that came out that wasn’t slave material and since there really isn’t much of a market for four footed animals in the brothels, they tended to shoot as many deer as they could.
I moved up behind him, moving silently on felt soles, reached out and touched his shoulder and then melted back several feet, and as I expected he leapt in the air, came down and swung a massive fist around trying to hurt his assailant. That was crap for a start, a real scaredy-cat would have had their fist swinging while still in the air, trust me I know; the difference is that when I swung around it was usually my heart in my mouth, piss in my trousers and a knife in my hand.
Sorry, did I mention that I’m a coward? And I’m always aware. With my heritage, it takes someone special to creep up on me, hence the piss in the trousers remark. If someone has managed to get behind me and I’m not aware of them it means they wish to harm me, and I’ve always felt that spinning in the air trying to slash someone with my dagger and at the same time spinning in the air trying to splash someone with my urine, will either kill them or disgust them in to backing off, either works for me.
Some people would explain away the fact that his fist hadn’t connected by saying self-depreciatingly ‘Luckily he missed me’. Bollocks to that! The reason his fist didn’t connect was that I knew what he was going to do and self-preservation barged its way in to my subconscious and bullied me to get the fuck out of the way.
When the weather was shitty, I used pitch soled boots to quieten my tread, creeping around in the rain with felt boots was ridiculous and could lead to a couple of bad things. First was you squelched as you tried to creep past the guards, and secondly, when the guard squelchingly cornered you, they’d mock you before running you through.
The squelching was bad enough, but if the last words you hear are from some paid thugs taking the piss out of your choice of footwear, well, that was unforgivable.
Of course, the pitch-soled boots weren’t perfect, if you didn’t watch where you were going, you would end up with all kinds of debris stuck to the soft sticky bottom of the sole. And I can tell you from experience that cleaning dog or human shit from something soft and sticky is a chore.
We reached our destination with a few scant seconds to spare, this pissed me off as I like to get there a bit early and have a scout around, but now there was no time as the window would be opened for a few seconds only. The window and the area surrounding it was in the darkness
I stood to one side of the window and held up my hand for Bruno to stop; this gained me a frown of incomprehension from him. How hard can it be to understand hand signs? A hand held up, palm facing outwards means stop, a hand held out with the palm facing inwards and then beckoning back and forth means come here. How could this man be a criminal, he was probably too stupid to tie his own shoe laces, gods above knew how he coped with the toilet!
When I’d asked around, discretely, mind you for someone to help me on this job, Harry the Bounce had recommended Bruno; in hindsight I should have known better as Harry wasn’t quite right in the head since his accident. His nickname was a joke, a bit like calling the biggest bloke in the gang, Tiny, or the fattest one, Slim. Harry had got his nickname the day he’d fallen three floors whilst being chased by the guard over the roof tops, in other words, Harry the Bounce, didn’t!
I’d needed muscle in a hurry as I’d only had a day to put this together, or rather I really needed someone to carry another bigger and heavier bag than me, that way there was more loot, and to be truthful nearly all men were bigger than me. Bruno was contracted for a specific fee, and the rest went where I wanted it; but already I was starting to have doubts that Bruno was going to keep to his side of the bargain, but I’d deal with that when I had to.
Keeping Bruno about 30 feet away, we waited for a few minutes, me folded back in to the shadows, Bruno actually seeming to block the shadow, also my idea of waiting in the shadows revolved around not moving a muscle, Bruno’s idea of standing still involved shifting his weight from one foot to another while seeming to wash his hands.
There was a slight noise, barely discernible, and the window swung open, clever girl had oiled the hinges, but then she was just as interested in this going right as I was. Bruno noticed at last that the window was open, his mouth dropped open and his expression became surprised at the fact that a large square black hole had appeared in the wall, I wasn’t sure what he was expecting, someone leaning out of the window waving a lantern, a firework display, maybe a fucking lighthouse beacon.
Moving to under the window, I crouched and sprung up the four feet on to the window ledge; Hazel was standing to one side the shutter mechanism in her hands, she gave a slight jump backwards at my appearance, but no noise or fear. She was dressed for travel in a long warm looking dark dress with a cloak tied back behind her and the hood also folded back; even in this light, or lack of, and wearing the most practical clothes possible she looked lovely, no wonder that Sylfaie were in such demand.
A brief nod and I turned and beckoned Bruno over using the beckoning back and forth motion, hoping that he was able to understand that; he could, and he made his way over with his interpretation of quiet. He sort of climbed/fell in through the window and as he regained his composure and straightened himself he noticed Hazel and stopped dead and stared. “You’re from the woods!” he whispered loudly, like I said, not too bright.
Hazel just stared at him for a couple of seconds and then ignored him and turned to me “He’ll be by in about two and a half minutes at the most, what do you want me to do?” The next part of the evening’s work was for me only “Nothing”, I nodded to them both “You two stay here and stay silent, I’ll deal with the guards.” Hazel had timed the guard and we knew just how long we had until he patrolled past this point again
There were two reasons why the robbery had to be done tonight; the first was that instead of the usual six guards there were only four, and they were over-extended between both patrolling the brothel to make sure nobody got in and just as importantly, to make sure nobody got out, and keeping a physical guard on the strong-room in which the city’s main gangs kept the majority of their ready-to-move gold and commercial notes until they could be fed back in to their various enterprises or in to a friendly bank.
The second reason was that tomorrow Hazel was being sold to one of her clients and that didn’t bode well for her continued good health. Sylfaie, or Forest People, or Greenies were much sought after by the sex trade. Male and female were usually tall, graceful and beautiful.
Their bodies could endure punishment that would maim, scar or kill a regular human and they were disease resistant. From what I’d heard, Hazel’s client had gone as far as he could with her while she was property of the brothel, which is why he was buying her tomorrow.
My plan was simple, Bruno and Hazel to stay where they were, me to run around and take down the all the guards before I started work on the strong-room door. My method of operation was always the same, it never varied; it didn’t matter if it was a goldsmith’s workshop and house with a family, or a mansion with a couple of guards, or now, a brothel stuffed with gold and whores.
I always spent the first part of the robbery removing any chance of being discovered, then I could take my time robbing the place. Sneaking around was all well and good, but it was bloody exhausting if you have to do it for any length of time. My method was better, incapacitate all present and then stroll around as if you own the place and steal the place blind.
There were stealthier thieves than me, but they were mugs, they’d creep in, spend twenty minutes or so creeping around, pausing at every noise and finally make off with what they could fit in their pockets; as I say, mugs! I carried out a robbery several months ago where after putting all the family and servants to sleep, and packing everything I wanted in to several large bags, I’d loaded up a handcart and wheeled it all away. The hardest part had been muffling the wheels, but the house had plenty of curtains that did the job nicely.
There were also times when I’d actually helped families as well. If I went into a house and one of the household members was having trouble sleeping, after a visit by me they slept soundly through the rest of the night; although their rest was somewhat spoiled by the discovery of the robbery the next day.
Anyway, back to tonight. After re-briefing Bruno and making sure he understood that he stayed in place, I melded in to the shadows and moved down the corridor in the direction the guard was going to come. Around the corner and about twenty feet away was some kind of dresser which seemed to sit in its own shadows, a perfect spot for me. I stood there a minute or so waiting and then came the glow of a directional lantern gradually getting brighter as it came to the corner ahead of me.
I waited until the guard turned the corner and was heading my way, before crouching down in the black. Waiting until the guard came around the corner was the best thing to do, for a split second it allowed me to see that he was on his own, roughly how tall he was and if he was wearing armour, particularly a gorget. The lantern’s a bit like a baby blanket in that it’s comforting, but in reality it’s about as much use as a real baby blanket in keeping the bad things away.
As he paced down the corridor he wasn’t even bothering to use his lantern to check behind the other statues and furniture that lined the corridor; he was an idiot, if he’d been properly trained, he’d be using the lantern as part of his defence strategy; he hadn’t been trained and was going to pay for that any second now.
He walked blindly past me, more interested in keeping to his schedule than in finding small men lurking in the shadows, so I slipped out behind him, kept pace and reached around and pricked his free right hand before sliding off to the left behind and continuing to keep the exact pace he was.
If I’d done it right the needle would be felt as an insect bite and nothing more, if the poison worked properly, he’d make it about twelve steps before going down to his knees in tired confusion and then onwards down to his face and be rewarded with about four hours heavy sleep.
Success! About twelve paces later he went down on one knee, shook his head tiredly, set the lantern down slightly to one side and then pitched forward asleep. One down, three to go; time to go hunting.
The next guard alternated between the bottom of the stairs which led up to the girls’ rooms and a short corridor leading to the guards restroom, within which was the entrance to the strong-room, even when the men were resting they were keeping an eye on the door.
Clever really, most of the guards were local men with families, either wives and children or parents and siblings, if any of them tried to steal or double-cross the syndicate, something very bad would happen to those left behind.
I quietly continued on down the corridor the way I’d been going originally, my theory was that the guard at the bottom of the stairs would be watching out for his mate to complete his circuit; therefore, in theory, his attention would be focused away from me.
The theory was spot on, he was leaning against the wall not quite dozing and watching for the tell-tale glow that would signal the imminent arrival of his colleague. Sometimes, very rarely it’s necessary to kill someone to achieve a task, I didn’t want tonight to be one of those nights.
I’d gone nearly a month without killing and I felt good about it, all virtuous and all that. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy killing, I don’t mind it at all, those I kill generally deserve it. The other thing is that when you are as big a scaredy-cat as I am, and you break in to someone’s house it’s usually, if not always quicker and easier to kill them all, than to mess about drugging them and risk capture.
But if I simply killed everyone in each house I robbed then there would be an awful lot of families waking up dead, rather than an awful lot of families waking up with a mild headache. This trail of the deceased would soon have the city guard and the criminals looking for me.
I’d tried my hand at assassination for a while but just didn’t enjoy it, don’t get me wrong I was very, very good at it. As well as being handicapped by being shorter than most other men I am also a freak in that I can smell or sense blood from a great distance away. If I can get a smell of someone’s blood, piss or sweat I can usually track them down, and if I can track them down, I can kill them, but always on my terms.
Moving up to stand silently behind him I took my time and tapped him on the side of the head with my sap, it connected with a decently soft and satisfying thump. As he went down I took his weight and although I couldn’t stop him going down, I was able to control his descent to make sure there was the minimum of noise. Once he was down, he also got a scratch on the back of the hand.
Two down, two to go; these two were together and that meant it was easier for me. I continued a few paces down the short corridor to the remaining guards. One was standing, leaning on his back against the strong-room door the other sitting opposite him at a table with several plates of half-eaten food on it, and was telling a story. Stopping a few feet back from the doorway, and using my blowpipe I put a dart into the neck of each and then waited.
The first dart went into the man against the door, straight in to the artery in his neck, and even as that dart struck I was lining up on the sitting man, his dart hit in the same place on his neck. The guard at the door brought his hand up to squash or chase off the insect that had bit him and contacted the dart. He pulled it out and stared at it, turned in my direction and with his face filling with anger took a step towards me; he then went down in to a squat, before falling on to hands and knees and then stretched out and went to sleep.
The man on the chair, had also pulled his dart out, he stared at it for a split second and worked out from which direction it came, looked over, and tried to make it personal. He tried to stand but instead went in to a ridiculous walking lunge and toppled over. We now had a couple of hours before it started to get light, but all I would need would be a maximum of five minutes to get through the door and another ten minutes at the most to load up the bags, then another forty minutes to get back to the Paw.
Not wanting to be uncomfortable, I pulled over one of the chairs that the guards didn’t need anymore, sat, pulled out my kit and listened to the lock give its secrets away to me. Two cock-ups and then then the pins engaged, and the lock clicked open. Cleaning up my picks and replacing the two darts carefully in their case, I returned to where I’d left Bruno and Hazel and then that’s when lucky old me encountered the next challenge of the night.
Walking around the corner I interrupted a tussle between the two of them. Bruno had Hazel backed up against the wall, one hand up her dress, the other gripping her left wrist, painfully, judging by the expression on her face.
She was trying to fight him off quietly and judging from the context of her words not wanting to be raped in silence; he was threating her in a harsh whisper to keep her mouth shut while his left hand was trying to twist its way into her, while his right hand was clearly hurting her with its grip
The man was as mean as he was stupid, that is to say very! I’d just moved around the building and taken out four armed guards and he was about to challenge me in my environment. In a bar or a clean (okay, a dirty) fight in the street he’d more than likely win; no, he’d definitely win, because the second it came to violence I would do my disappearing act.
As for Hazel, just because she was a whore didn’t mean she would enjoy being raped, after all, I enjoy a drink, but that doesn’t mean I’d enjoy someone ramming a bottle down my throat or up my arse. But he was a foot and a half taller than me and packed with muscle.
“Bruno, fucking stop it, leave her alone, we’ve got a job to do” I whispered harshly; why I whispered I don’t know, habit I guess. He turned his head in my direction “Are all the guards down?” he whispered. “Yes, now stop it.” I replied.
His reply confirmed that he wasn’t really a master thief who under stood the concept of get in, steal shit, get out, “I’ll not take too long with this, and she’s not going to complain too loudly” He had frozen, but not stopped his assault, while he replied and then played a game that I always lost, he stared in to my eyes in challenge.
So I did the only thing I could, I turned away. I knew he was smirking as he’d not even had the decency to wait until I was facing the other direction, he knew he’d beaten me and that as I was half the man he was in almost every respect, I wasn’t going to challenge him over something as petty as this.
I mentioned earlier that I’m a coward, I am, and I have no shame in it; however, I’m also a vindictive little bastard. So, in other words, cross me and I’ll back down, but you’ll have to watch your back for the rest of your life; by that I mean you will really have to watch your back, as late one night when you’re enjoying a knee-trembler round the back of the pub, it will grow a knife.
Bruno turned back to Hazel, his hand still gripping her wrist; he shifted his grip slightly and started to twist, it was to be the first painful step of forcing her into submission; however, the thing about having your back to someone is that they can’t see what you’re doing, it goes double that when the fuckwit also turns his back.
Both of my stilettos were encased in soft wood sheaths, except the blade edges, they had a hardwood gutter softly clamping them, the best thing about this set-up was that no matter how fast or slow I withdrew them, they never made a sound. This evening the stayed true to the philosophy of not buggering me over, and stayed silent as they came out.
Soundlessly, I moved up behind Bruno, picked my spot and delicately as possible rammed the blade in my right hand into the back of his neck. Due to the angles involved, him big, me small, the blade went in at an upward trajectory and slid painlessly into his brain. Normally at this stage I’d make a quip about him not knowing he was even dead. Ahh, fuck-it I will! He was probably too stupid to know he was dead.
One moment, he was full of life with a hard on and the next he was a really fucking heavy bag of meat. The thing about dead people is that the second they’re dead, Mr Gravity pays them a visit and if you happen to be standing behind them with a knife buried in their skull you have to make a choice, quickly.
You either leave your knife in there, and if still attached to your hand, you go down with them, or you could punch the blade in as far as it would go and rip it out as fast as you can and allow the body to make the trip to the floor on its own – guess which I did? Anyway, as I said, my environment, my rules, my win!
Hazel stared down at the dark pile of clothes and dead flesh, took a deep breath, and said “Thank you” as she rearranged herself and quickly regained her composure “What now?”
As far as I was concerned two things had changed, and both of those were for the worse, number one, I was leaving a large slab of evidence on the floor that could be traced back to me, and number two, we would now be carrying less as we legged it; still, as the old saying goes, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers, but they can kill people they don’t like’
Leaving large and dead where he, sorry, it, was, we walked around to the strong-room door and the two sleeping guards. As the guards didn’t need them anymore we unhooked a couple of lanterns off the walls and took them in to the strong-room with us,
The strong-room was about thirty paces across and the same deep and mostly lined with large metal security cabinets. In the deeper shadows in the far right-hand corner was a set of shelves fixed to the wall stretching from floor to ceiling and scattered about on the shelves were various shapes in the dark. In the middle of the room was a large solid work table with six solid cushioned chairs pulled up to it.
A true money counters room, all was functional and plain, no frills and nowhere to hide money or thieves. From under my cloak I took off my back-bag and from within it two further identical rolled up back-bags, one of which I dropped and kicked under the table, after all Bruno didn’t need it. The other two I dumped on the table.
“Haz, do you know how to configure these?” I asked placing my hand on the one from within my bag. “I’m from the forest, not an idiot. Is this one mine?” she replied moving it from under my grip, and got to work in the weak lantern light setting up the straps for herself.
I stepped over to the nearest cabinet, if they’d stayed true, then the bottom four draws were full of gold and the top four were full of commerce notes or deed and such like.
Running down the centre of the cabinet was a heavy steel bar, locked into place in a bracket at the bottom, this arrangement meant that two people had to be present to secure the cabinet, but only one when the padlock was removed, providing you don’t mind a bit of noise.
Padlocks are usually easier to pick than door locks and this one proved no exception, the security bar quietly thumped on to the cushion I’d placed under it and I allowed the whole length to then fall gently to floor.
Starting with the fourth drawer up, we filled both of the bags a quarter full, any more and they would have been too heavy to carry, hence the need for the recently deceased Bruno. The rest of the space in the bags we stuffed with the notes.
Once we’d loaded up I took a moment to wander over to the stack of shelves in the corner for quick look. Small items of art and gold and silver pieces that wouldn’t conveniently fit in to the drawers were scattered over the shelves; some of them very nice, but practically impossible to fence in this city.
An object on the second shelf up sitting in the gloom at the back caught my eye, and I crouched to take a better look. As the shape suddenly resolved itself, my breath caught in my throat and I forgot to breathe for a second or two and clutched the edge of the shelf in front of me stop from falling over. I took a breath to get some air back in and with a slight tremble in my hand I picked up the object.
Several years ago, when I’d left home to make my own way in the world, my mother had, as I left, explained the reason for my inability to develop further and it all revolved around a missing key, one of which was sitting on the shelf in front of me. I went back and under Hazel’s curious gaze I rearranged my back-bag, dumping some of the gold and notes on to the floor and stuffing in the key.
My original plan had been to return to the pub with Hazel, lay low for a week, drink, arrange transport for Hazel to get her back to the Northern forests in the hope that she’d make contact with her people, and drink some more while planning the next score; Now however, I had two reasons to move on.
Although I’d never met Harry the Bounce before yesterday, any intelligent pursuer who knew their way around the dark side of town would soon work out that Bruno did a lot of work for him, pay him a visit, and ask him some extremely searching questions.
These searching questions would be preceded by the removal of fingers or teeth or something else that, and Harry the Bounce would become known as something along the line of Fingerless Harry or Harry the Ball-less; and soon a description of ‘Small man, dressed in black, armed to the teeth, cowardly, a crook’ would circulate and there would be a price on my head and my anatomy in general.
The second reason was that what I’d just packed away in the bag had the potential to change my life, and to be honest the change would do me good, all I had to do was get it to my parents.
About fifteen minutes had elapsed since we entered the building, so in other words with one attempted rape, one murder and one plan that was now blowing in the wind, one magical key, the timeline was the only part of the original plan intact. Hazel and I left the way we’d come in, when I say we, I meant me and Bruno, Hazel was already in there, remember!
We drifted back to the pub taking the route that we’d used to get there. Hazel proved to be capable of moving very quietly, she was always about five feet behind me, moving and freezing when I did, and although she wasn’t as quiet as me, she was still quite impressive. If I’d been a slaver I’d have sold her to a thief not a brothel, perhaps I could suggest that as a new market opportunity to the slavers.
As soon as we were back in the Paw, I stashed Hazel in the kitchen with a couple of saddlebags and instructions to fill them with food and first-beer and went and woke Taylor to explain the situation. Taylor had run the pub for me for the past couple of years and as far as everybody was concerned he owned the place and I just rented out one of his rooms long term.
He came downstairs and when he came in to the dimly lit kitchen and saw Hazel his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. I made the introductions, “Hazel, Taylor.” they nodded to each other, Taylor struggling to keep his eyes off her said to me “What’s happened?” My reply of “Bruno fucking happened” tore his eyes off Hazel and on to me, I continued “He crossed me, and I had to kill him.”
I quickly explained what had happened while necking a couple of first-beers and eating some dried sausage and reasonably fresh bread left over from the previous day, Taylor always left something out for me to eat when I returned, it was just something he started doing a couple of months after I’d moved him in as the owner.
As I started to talk, Taylor had stepped over to the cold room and brought out a plate of fruit, which he placed on the table in front of Hazel. Catching my look, he said defensively “What! Everyone knows Greenies don’t eat meat.” He also poured her a glass of first-beer, everyone who came to the pub got a pewter or clay mug, very rarely did he hand out the glasses.
Taylor and Hazel listened in silence while I quickly ran through the night’s events, when I’d finished, Taylor nodded to Hazel and asked, “What now with Hazel?” Hazel had stopped eating the fruit and was watching me a bit more intensely than before, which was only fair as the next sentence or so would dictate how her life was going to go.
“A slight change,” I replied, “I’ll take Hazel now.” I went on to explain “I need to get away from here as by mid-morning they’ll have worked out who did the job and then they’ll come knocking. Also, I now have some unfinished business in the Scultone hills.”
That last part got their attention, Hazel spoke first “The artefact you picked up?” This was followed by “What artefact?” from Taylor. Difficult questions to answer truthfully, so I didn’t bother, I shook my head “When it’s time for you to know, I’ll show you.” I nodded to the saddlebags at the end of the table, “Both of you please make sure they’re filled as much as they can be, I need to get rid of these.” I held up the back-bags.
Of the night’s proceeds I kept a handful of coins and a small stack of notes, and of course the key, the rest went in to a secret room in the basement which only Taylor and I knew about, it was filled with loot that I hadn’t sold yet or wasn’t in a hurry to sell, gold and silver plates, goblets, jewelled necklaces and bangles, etc. There was also a sizeable amount of gold and silver coins, there was enough in there to allow me to live comfortably for several lifetimes; but thieving was fun, a way of staying alive and motivated.
Chapter 2 – Walk
Horses don’t respond well to me, but then again, a lot of dogs, cats, humans, etc. aren’t overly happy having me around, as a rule they try to bite me, scratch me or fuck me over. I’d had Merry since he was foaled and personally trained him up, and then spent a lot of time with him, and a result he was comfortable in my presence.
Hazel came out and watched me saddling and preparing Merry and asked me a number of questions about what and why I was doing. In her world, her original world that is, not the recent world, horses ran free and when ridden didn’t have saddles and tack.
After Merry was saddled and loaded, I mounted with a single leap and held out a hand to Hazel, who used it to steady herself while she also leapt up, bloody show-off. It took us nearly half an hour to reach the North Gate, by this time Hazel had her cloak wrapped around herself and her head covered with the hood. As I walked Merry through the gate I gave the guardsmen a wave.
Even with the two of us Merry had no problems maintaining a steady pace, and we made good time to the outer edge of the border forests. It should have taken seven or eight days, but Hazel and I ate, drank and dozed in the saddle, we only stopped only so Merry could feed and rest; and as a result, we reached our destination in five days.
On day three our first-beer ran out, but it wasn’t a problem as now we were well away from civilisation. That evening we found a small stream which Hazel confirmed was clean. In the cities the main drink couldn’t be water, it was usually too polluted with shit, debris and dead bodies, which is why everyone drank first-beer. The beer wasn’t alcoholic, but during the process all the diseases and badness were killed, and as such all drank it from toddlers to the old.
We both smelt pretty ripe by then, me in particular; the worst I got from Hazel was a strong smell of woodland moss, the kind of smell the moss makes deep in the forest when it’s been raining, not the worst smell in the world, but from now on whenever I ventured deep into the woods I would forever think of a sweaty unwashed green and brown woman.
We rode into the edge of forest mid-morning on the fifth day, and within 30 minutes we were being followed and quietly surrounded. As I mentioned before, I can do quiet, but these people took it to a whole new level; I would like to say that I could sense their presence, but Hazel had to breathe in my ear “My people are all around us, we need to stop now and get down slowly.”
We both dismounted and following what I considered to be sound advice from her, I put my hands on top of my head and made sure not to make any sudden moves; as a fighting strategy it had its flaws, as a means of staying alive when surrounded by pissed-off green and brown people, it was excellent advice.
We didn’t have to wait long, a tree trunk in front of me seemed to slowly come apart, and resolve in to a large tree and three Sylfaie, all armed with weapons equally camouflaged. I sensed movement and life resolving around me and realised that we were totally surrounded. Now in a normal situation the word ‘Totally’ would be redundant; you are either surrounded or not, but not here, the green bastards were also in the trees almost above me, all watching and waiting.
One of the anonymous faces approached and stared at me for a few long seconds, ignoring Hazel. He released the tension on his bow slowly, which was a good thing as releasing it fast would have been bad for me. Keeping his eyes on me, he shouted a command and all the other weapons visible relaxed and a great deal of tension seemed to ebb away.
“Your kind have nothing to fear from us” he said maintaining eye contact, then inclining his head to Hazel who had moved up to stand by my side, ” Thank you for returning one of our lost children from the humans” I nodded back, being polite was the least I could do since they weren’t going to kill me.
I was made welcome for the night and taken to a bathing pool and allowed to wash both me and my clothing. Most of the Sylfaie wore very little and as a result I spent a lot of time either staring at the ground in front of me or concentrating on the trees above, although that didn’t always work as often they would be up there watching my progress.
While I was cleaning up, several of them took Merry away and cleaned him up and made sure he was fed and watered properly for the first time in several days.
That evening we gathered around a large fire and ate, while by request, I told the story of how we came to be here, putting the emphasis on rescuing Hazel, not on the theft. We each had a large bowl of fresh vegetable stew followed by cakes stuffed with fruits and nuts. I had to sprinkle a handful of dried meat into my stew, I don’t mind vegetables, but only when they’re overwhelmed with meat.
Chapter 3 – Run
The next morning with my saddlebags stuffed full of fresh and dried fruit and veg and fresh water, I was led to the edge of the forest several miles away from where we’d entered, the new route took a good distance off my journey and would save me at least a day of travel. The other bonus is it would throw any pursuit off my trail, well that was the theory, and as is usual with me and theory, one of us always lets the other down.
The route to the hills was fairly simple, exit the forest, head East, keep going East, go up through foothills, keep going East, hit the city of Scultone and stop. The route wasn’t too taxing, it was mile after mile of both beautiful and boring grassland with numerous small rivers and streams dissecting it.
At this time of the year the grass was still green and fresh and soon the migrating herds of buffalo and deer would come sweeping through to stock up for the winter. There would be no large predators on the route as they were migratory as well, following their food source; any that stayed here all year round would have had to learn to dig small creatures out of their burrows whilst keeping one eye firmly fixed on the sky.
I made good time that day, well what I mean is that Merry made good time, I sat there and daydreamed until the sun had gone down. We’d entered the foothills late that afternoon and were now permanently moving uphill. Camp that night was simply taking the saddle and tack off Merry, rubbing him down and then letting him feed and drink as he wanted.
I didn’t bother with a fire, there was nothing to burn and I didn’t want the flame or the smoke to draw attention. So after a tasteless meal I curled up in my sleeping bag and dreamt of a woman with green skin, and slept soundly until waking in the dew sodden dawn.
That morning after I had finished saddling and loading Merry I took a few seconds to stare back down the hills in the direction I’d come and had a shock. There was a band of people and horses several miles away at the bottom of the foothills, they were on the trail that I’d come up. Bastards had to be trailing me, after all, between the Greenies of the Northern forests and the legends of the mountains of Scultone, no sane or good people ever came this way.
They must have followed our trail to the forest and then rather than go in, skirted around it looking for tracks, which thicko here had provided, although strictly speaking it wasn’t really my fault, if Merry had have been more stealthy they wouldn’t have picked up his trail.
From what I could make out they were in the process of breaking camp. One of them stood a little distance away probably relieving himself and gazing up in my direction. Despite the distance and lack of detail visible I could tell the second he spotted me, his shoulders came up and a hand came up to shield his vision from the dawning sun
Then his head turned, and he must have started shouting as all the others stopped what they were doing, to first look at him and then to follow his outstretched arm pointing in my direction, bastard! They must have all spotted me as well as the camp was galvanised with a new urgency. Mr Pisser finished his business and re-joined the rest in saddling and mounting their horses.
I suppose I should be flattered, there were eight of them after me and judging from the shapes on their backs and sides they were well armed, if they knew my reputation, they’d have turned up with at the most a couple of rusty knives and some funny quips. But from what I could see this lot had shields and large swords. Carrying that kind of equipment was going to slow them down and would be of no use in any fight here.
I turned and urged Merry in to a trot, at the moment there was no need to go balls-out and risk blowing him this early in the day. They had a choice of race after me and blow their horses or simply follow me and catch me at my destination. I did have some advantages, I was lighter than them, I had a good horse, and I knew exactly where I was and just how much further I was going.
So long as I arrived before them I was safe, even if it was a minute or so ahead of them, they’d not be able to touch me. For the rest of the day I played a game; every time I lost sight of them in the in the dips of the hills, I’d urge Merry to a faster pace and then as the ground rolled upwards I’d slow back down to my original pace.
I think it was midday before they realised I was opening the distance between us and spurred their horses forward in to a gallop, and by doing that, long-term, made it easier for me. The horses were galloping uphill and were several miles behind, unless these horses were magical there was no way they’d be able to maintain that pace for long.
Merry and I continued trotting and sure enough within five minutes they’d brought their horses down to a walk; Merry could continue at this pace for another five miles or so and then I’d have to dismount and walk him, but even then we’d gained a couple of miles on them.
Late that afternoon we crested what was for us the last hill. There in front of us built in to the mountain was Scultones Rest, the mythical ruined city of men and dragons and my final destination. Scultones Rest was the first in a long mountain chain that divided this land up. Once men and dragons had swept across the land bringing at first terror and death, but then later, peace enforced through the might of flame and claw.
As we got closer, the mountain and city got bigger until it seemed to tower over us. The city walls were forty yards high and some twenty wide and the city gate was as well preserved and strong as the day the dragons and men and women left. Each time I came back here I had to wonder why a city populated by dragons had to have a fucking great wall running around it. I can just imagine two conversations, one from the dragons’ point of view:
Dragon city builder number 1 – “Well we’ve built this city and filled it with dragons and warriors, what should we do next?”
Dragon city builder number 2 – “I know, let’s put up a wall 120 feet high.”
Dragon city builder number 1 – “Why? We’ve got dragons, loads of them, fucking great big dragons.”
Dragon city builder number 2 – “Because!”
Dragon city builder number 1 – “Fair point” Turns to knackered builders “Come on boys, let’s build the biggest wall in the world around the city.”
Dragon city builder number 3 – “But we’ve got dragons!”
And one from the attackers point of view:
Attacker number 1 – “Come on boys, let’s mallet Scultones Rest.”
Attacker number 2 – “But they’ve got dragons, lots of them.”
Attacker number 1 – “Good point, well presented, let’s go home instead.”
The above points of view may be a bit simplistic, but I stand by what I say, a forty-yard-high wall around a city full of dragons is overkill; but today it was a blessing. I unsaddled Merry, gave him a slap on the rump to send him on his way and walked in through the massive open gates to the city.
It took me five minutes to close and secure the gates and then I started the zigzag trudge up the main street past the buildings derelict and empty, but still seemingly sound, the surface of the road was still in one piece, but like the architecture surrounding it, dirty with its age.
The buildings were a variety of sizes, some meant to hold families of humans and some were clearly ornate entrances in to the mountain, those were burrows where the dragons could live either singly or as a family. In front of these were large open areas where the dragons could laze or launch themselves in to the sky, most of them had worn down areas showing the dragons favourite areas and positions.
There were no weeds or greenery anywhere, the magic that delayed the decay of the city prevented anything that could do damage from taking root, and that included wildlife. The place was silent other than the wind and my footsteps and increasing panting.
Several hours later as I was walking near the top with my leg muscles screaming at me, begging me for mercy and punishing me by cramping up, I came out into a large open area the edge of which opened out over practically the whole city. I sat on the edge and finished the food and water I’d lugged up and stretched out my legs and tried to see where my pursuers were. Nothing, the gates were still secured and as far as my eyes could see, nothing moved.
Chapter 4 – Fly
Fuck it was cold. Cold and wet! What the f… It was dawn, the sun was just coming up over the hills and I was covered in dew, soaking wet and freezing, I’d fallen asleep and slept through the late afternoon and the whole night. A moment’s panic as I searched for the gate, but as I was in the dawn light and the sun’s rays had not yet reached down there I couldn’t see if it was open or closed.
Something two tiers down caught my eye, other than me and my hunters there was no life within a couple of miles or so. I sat frozen with my eyes fixed on the spot I’d seen a brief flash of movement and waited. I wasn’t going to move any more than was necessary until I knew what it was I’d almost seen, if I moved I’d capture their attention. For several minutes I sat there staring down the mountain watching and waiting.
There it was again, this time on the turn between the next two levels below me, a group of men trudged up the road. The lead man had obviously seen me earlier, because as he rounded the corner his eyes sought mine and he waved. Bollocks, my stomach suddenly had a black empty pit of despair, it was Sweet Darius, the owner of the establishment I’d robbed, and as the rest of the group came in to sight, the black empty chasm in my stomach got even bigger.
Six of the others I recognised from around the city, the seventh, judging from his dress was a guide. The little git also carried a large coil of rope over his shoulder, which explained the open gate I could now see down in the distance as the sun struck the city walls and then came flooding in through the open gate before it came over the walls.
Of the six, four were mercenaries, hard men who’d made a life’s work out of fighting and killing and they had hung all over their bodies what must have been all the tools of their trade, swords, shields, knives and one also had a mace.
Why the hell would he bring a mace, between the eight if them, I counted at least nine swords, daggers and knives were too numerous to count quickly, did he really think that after they’d all lined up and either chopped multiple bits off me or stuck their swords and knives in me there would be a need to batter my head in as well?
The other two I knew as my competition, they were thieves like me, both of them very good ones and also capable of extreme violence as well; but then you don’t get to make your way up the food chain of any of the syndicates without being able, and willing, to remove those who block your advance.
Although they were only about a hundred yards away they would have to travel along the zigzag another three hundred yards or so to reach the level I was at. I didn’t hang around and got up and started to run towards the last of the buildings in order to reach the top of the mountain beyond it.
My stiff legs protested at first but after I’d reminded myself that they’d be chopped off if they didn’t put in a bit of extra effort now, they seemed to warm up and my stride soon settled down as I worked the stiffness out of my muscles.
As I reached the gap, I paused and looked back, the cheating bastards were swarming around the edge near where I’d been sitting; they had had ignored the road and used the rope to come straight up, that meant they had a grappling hook or something. As I stood there and tried to come up with a strategy they pulled the last man up, abandoned the rope and started after me.
I suppose my immediate strategy should have been to run like the wind, you know, go all fleet-footed and outpace them, but that was pointless, they’d just keep chasing me, I needed them just behind me, and just out of immediate danger range, but where I could keep my eyes on them. They didn’t have a bow; therefore, so long as I stayed at least twenty yards in front of them I should be okay.
As I led them a dance to the top of the mountain, hopefully they would separate and split up as the fitter ranged ahead of the slowest, this would hopefully allow me to pick them off one by one. Too be honest, any plan that is littered with the word ‘Hopefully’ probably wasn’t the best in the world; but it was the best I could come up with given the circumstances.
For the next thirty minutes, give or take, I stayed just in front of them. Having obviously read my strategy guide, they stayed together as a group and tried to catch up. Every time I glanced back and Sweet Darius caught me looking, he’d give a friendly little wave, bastard.
Although I was lighter and faster, I was also out of water and food and my throat was parched dry, although if the hunting party caught me, they’d have remedy for that. Between those woes, the fear that was tearing my insides and the altitude, my strength was going fast, I didn’t have much more in me.
A couple of minutes later my final destination came into sight, a slight cliff edge running around the top of the mountain, it was the last obstacle to the small plateau that topped the mountain. It was about ten yards high and I’d climbed it many times in the past. One last hurdle to overcome and hopefully I was home and dry.
Without breaking stride, I ran to the cliff and leapt up as high as I could, I hit the face about seven feet up and my feet and hands immediately slipped in to the handholds I’d cut years ago, the stone felt like home, each bump, each nook and cranny familiar to me; with barely a pause I continued up to the top. A quick glance confirmed they were still about fifty yards behind me, I’d done it.
And as is usual for me, just at the moment of self-congratulation, it all went wrong. Something smashed in to the back of my head ramming my face against the rock. A wave of dizziness and blackness pulsed through my mind destroying my vision as I lost my grip with my left hand. If I hadn’t been resting on a slight incline a few feet from the top, I would have recoiled and overbalanced backwards and fell.
As it was I hugged the cliff with my body and held on even tighter with my right hand, while trying to work out what had hit me, all the while unconsciousness threatened to sweep all from my mind and send me to my death.
The back of my head hurt so much it had probably been caved in and my brain must have been oozing out; with tears running down my face at the pain I reached over and behind and placed my opened left hand gently on the wound and applied pressure over the whole area, trying to ascertain the amount of damage.
My hand came away soaking wet with blood but at least the skull seemed to be intact, and my sight was returning, my vision was clearing from the centre of the eye, or so it seemed; my world was shrunken down to the rock a couple of inches in front of me.
As I tried to work out what had happened something thumped in to the wall a few inches from my right hand sending out fragments of rock stinging and cutting my hand, I caught a glimpse of a something small and grey bouncing away and tumbling down the face of the cliff; the bastards were trying to break the bones in my right as a way of encouraging my descent.
I got my left hand back on to its hold and with dizziness threatening to take over, I continued up the final few feet to the edge. Just as I pulled myself over the edge rock slammed in to my right arse cheek.
“DAMN IT TO ALL THE HELLS”, I roared as my right leg went numb and I flopped on to my front with blood running down from the back of my head on to my face to drip on to the stone. I managed to flail around to face the edge and took a quick look over.
The guide was swinging a sling and watching for me to stick my head over. Even in my confused state I got my head down and out of the way quickly, a second later a piece of lead the size of one of the pair of a grown man’s balls went through the air exactly where my forehead had been.
The sharp overwhelming pain in the back of head was being replaced by a throbbing pain that was threatening to close my eyes as the weak morning sunlight seemed to be far too bright.
I don’t think I passed out, but I definitely took it easy for a minute while I tried to get my mind and vision back working together. Scrabbling back a few more feet from the edge I tried to stand up; between the pain from my head and the pain from my arse, I could barely manage it, but I tried anyway.
I’d got about thirty yards from the edge and had to sit down, when the first of them came over. It was one of the thieves, of course you’d send the thieves, they were quicker and used to climbing.
He stood there back to the edge watching me, waiting while the rest of them climbed up, the guide was last, little bastard; he and I had a score to settle. They all stood there for a couple of minutes passing around a water skin, not hurrying, bastards, What I’d give for the contents of that skin, and a long lay-down, definitely a long rest, somewhere soft with no rocks. We stayed watching each other while they caught their breath and drank.
They all looked suitably refreshed and raring to go; whereas, I could barely stand and although my vision was better, the pain inside my head was absolutely crippling. Enough sitting around, I stood up and limped over past the rock and over the slight rise to my home. I was now on a small plateau, a couple of hundred yards wide and long, and few feet from where I’d emerged was a large mound of earth,
I headed for it and as I approached it I nearly bumped into two massive jewels which were suspended in the ground at nearly head height; no, disregard my last statement, they weren’t gems, but dragon eyes.
Really big dragon eyes. It turns out that I’m bit of an expert on a dragon’s eyes, it’s easy! Blue for contemplation, green for peace, purple when amorous, yellow when hungry, red when angry, and glittering looking at a fire through rubies red meant it was fucking furious.
This dragon had the latter; it would have been uncomfortable if they’d been purple; also the other thing besides the eyes that you immediately noticed, was that this dragon was enormous. It was about a hundred feet from tip to tail and its posture spelled bad news for all humans around, its body was camouflaged to allow it to blend in with the terrain, although I wasn’t sure why that was.
If I was a dragon, I’d want everyone to see me. It’s not like it has to hide in the sands to ambush its prey, I mean it’s the biggest land animal ever and it can fly and its scales and skin are impervious to just about all that nature and man can throw at it.
Unless of course it was that colour to stop people following it around and talking non-stop about its majesty, probably babbling on about beauty and such right up to when a dragon with red eyes got pissed off with the attention.
The dragon’s head swivelled as I ran by, noting my passage and dismissing me as no threat. Then it swung around to face my pursuers who had been gaining on me and carrying lots of pointy things; they’d stopped dead in their tracks and were staring in stunned disbelief as the dragon raised itself on to all four legs and sucked in a deep breath.
Sailors will tell you that a shark in the ocean can smell blood in the water from a couple of miles away. That’s nothing to a dragon, they can smell blood, piss, body odour and fear from about ten miles away and home in on it in a heartbeat, which is coincidentally, something that tends to stop shortly after said dragon’s arrival. Anyway, this dragon didn’t need to use its sense of smell to know that these interlopers were terrified.
Top tip for anyone facing a dragon and certainly one that the surviving knights of old knew, when a dragon breathes deeply in, something really bad is going to come back out. Luckily for me none of my pursuers had much experience in dragon fighting and continued for a few more fatal seconds to stand and stare.
What came out was an eruption of flame that spread almost instantaneously into a moving wall of fire that was wide enough to engulf the whole group. The rolling flames first slammed into the group and then washed over them.
At least four of them must have been breathing in as the flame struck as they went down twitching as the wall passed by, judging by the speed they went down and their postures, they were already dead with their lungs and throat cooked.
When you rip the head of a chicken and place it down, it runs around headless in circles for a few seconds or minutes until the body realizes that it’s dead and then it falls over scrabbling in the dust, let’s call this the chicken dance!
When a dragon breathes on you, it’s much the same, with the exception of the head being missing, although I suspect the recipient will be wishing their head was actually missing; they run around blindly in circles screaming if they still have a tongue and after a few seconds or minutes, shock or damaged lungs kills them, let’s call this the dragon dance.
The remainder of the hunting party got to do the dragon dance while I flopped exhaustedly on to the ground and listened to, and then smelled, them dying.
The longest lasted for nearly two minutes before his overloaded nervous system gave in and allowed him to die; this was probably because he was at the back and someone had blocked the full force of the flame; I hoped it was the guide, the little shit deserved it.
I wasn’t capable of running anymore, I was absolutely knackered, so staying where I was I turned to meet my fate, the one, up until now, I’d done my best to avoid for so long.
The dragon orientated its body towards me and thrust its head forward on its long neck so its smoky breath and large fangs were only a couple of feet away from my face; I just stared into those beautiful ruby jewelled eyes, reached up and stroked the muzzle and said “Hello mum, sorry I haven’t been in touch; I’ve got something to show you.”