The Tale of Westala and Villtin
By Örjan Westin and Marco Villalta, introduction by ppint.
Edited by Elin Rosén
Once upon a time, in a pub both far away and near, gathered travellers weary from work and the dreariness of daily life to share a pint and a tale. There was chocolate aplenty and once the cat was duly dislodged and his ancestry put in much doubt, the person known to most as ppint indeed induced the sharing of just such a tale.
"You two are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and I claim my five pounds1 – er," ppint paused to do some rapid thinking and then continued on, "– offer to buy you two fine, upstanding fellows a pint or three of mine host's fine, dry red wine, or winter cider, whichever takes your fancy. And should you be temporarily light of pouch or purse, with naught between the twain to keep apart your bellies and backbones, then shall I gladly feast you, upon such provender as may be obtainable locally that is both cheap and good, and both well-spiced and seasoned, and both hot and healthy; for do not the peasants look happier and better-nourished in good season, than their coldly calculating and cruel lords, who live off the fat of their people in summer – and off their muscles and sinews, in times that are lean and hungry, and off the very flesh of their children, and their hearts' blood, when war and famine strike?
"A toast I give you two fine fellows – come, let me refill your cups once more – a health to all who work the land or sea: and may they fare well enough, that they see a little luxury in their lives; enough that they may afford to be more honest than not, and see their flocks and folk all thrive; and to the devil with princelings and princesses, kings queens, and emperors – tyrants all – and to their," he spat vehemently on the floor, "taxmen!
"Now fill up again, and set to; these oddly-shaped flat loaves tear to form spoons of a kind that may be eaten as they grow soggy with the stews' juices, and replenished; while these crusty circular breads topped with an amazing assortment of tidbits crunch and chew most satisfyingly – mind the little green and red fruits, they bite back shocking fierce – and no, I don't know why the cooks put those little stringy yellow cubes on aught but pork: I doubt that anyone truly knows the answer to that; one of life's great mysteries...
"Ah; that was good, was it not? Now what shall we do for music? Your companion has a sweet tooth, and would fain finish off his meal with a sweetmeat or two, sooner than relax with a herb tea? Try him with one of these little spiced balls, or one of these cunning crispy knots of batter in syrup – yes, my friends do have a delicate touch with their confections, and their work is greatly sought after; no, no; I assure you, I pay a price that is fair, but reduced a little for the stories I tell their children (and ofttimes, their parents listen in).
"Now tell me, whence came that bangle: its workmanship is like unto none that I have ever before witnessed? And whence came your comrade's scar; it looks recent, and should fade with time, and a little attention from a friend skilled in medical matters, who lives a couple of day's journey hence – I shall write you an introduction immediately we rise; do not forget and leave without it. But pray tell me, do, how came the two of you to meet – for I see that one of you is not a native, a northerner I should guess, from your build and blond hair; while you yourself, I should take for a native of the hill country a week or three's journey west of here: and there must truly be a fine story to be told, ahind of that!2
"An informer? Why, good gracious me, no; do not so alarm yourselves unnecessarily, nor puzzle as to why I should ask; I make my living by re-telling such tales, suitably altered to protect the not-always so innocent, and their families, and by selling written copies – 'tis a little more complicated than that, but that is the essence of it – to others in my trade, to tell in turn, in their towns and cities; and direct to those who read them at their leisure to their families themselves, as can both afford the time, and have the skill so to do, or have slaves or servants to do this for them.
"So fear not, and speak on freely – rest assured, I shall indeed attribute those adventures more risqué, as might upset any ladies currently upon your arm, as well as those you'd sooner not see laid at your door, lest they attract the attention of those in authority, of those you have tonight told me, to adventurers different by name, if similar of hue... How's this? Your friend says nay, and you concur?
"Well then, I shall not, but pay all credit to your goodselves; and I shall applaud your courage, and honour your proud spirits, in acknowledging all of your deeds and exploits; and trust no harm comes to you or yours, as result of this. 'The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar', indeed!" This last was said with a good natured chuckle.
"And should we meet again, perhaps in East Angular, or even Hanoverian Hinckley, hail me by name and I shall offer you a draught of surprising strength, as will put spring into your step and fire in both your bellies and your loins, such as you may find you have cause to remember days and even months hence.
"Well met, I say; well met!"
Before ppint could withdraw from the scene and promise of more food both hot and healthy, not to forget sweetmeats to tickle ones senses, Orjan, one of the warriors to which this request of a tale had been addressed, half arose and hailed him.
"Wait! Your fare is good and ample, and should you be chattering more than a score of mindless maids, well, I find it easy to forgive you. If naught else, you left my mouth free to concentrate on the food and drink. But it would be uncourteous of us to take what you give and offer no payment. No, don't protest – it's a matter of honour. Something my little companion here is sadly lacking, by the way. But from where I hail, a man's word is his bond, and all debts are paid in full..." At this Orjan the tall northerner's companion Marco, raised his cup and cut in:
"Sir, I do verily have a code of honour, and duly pay my debts, awhilst in battle I make use, nay, good use of all and every dirty trick I am able to conceive. This is why, my friend, I still live and prosper."
With a look that clearly stated 'as I was saying' Orjan continued where he had so rudely been forced to leave off: "... or a man can not stand tall and prou— ouch! Why do they make the roofs so low here, like it was a city of dwarves?"
"They truly did not have tall Northerners in mind when they designed this place. I fear these weak Angles, short and thin-limbed as they are, were the only people that were catered for. If you wish, I can go and have a word with the architect.
"Meanwhile, be seated! Thus you will not thump your head anymore"
"Stop pulling me, Mar... man! I am sitting down now. And stop hushing me. Instead you should try to lure that wench over here, to warm my lap and refill my cup"
These words took the hill-man as his cue to with unequalled charm say: "Yo, bitch! Get yer buns over here, my fellow traveller wishes your presence."
"Ah, that's better," continued Orjan once this crude request had been fulfilled, "They might not know how to make mead, but this mulled wine is warming the heart almost as well. With nutmeg you say? Poor Meg, to be nutted all the time! Haha!" While Orjan looked mightily pleased with himself for this cunning pune, Marco pinched his nose in a pained grimace. Orjan, unfazed by this lack of enthusiasm pushed bravely on.
"Cheer up, my friend. We've still no hurry, and should we be late for an appointment, well, what honour demands it must have."
"This is true. But get on with it."
"Stop looking so miserable, now. Our host is waiting for a story, but your sour looks could put a stop to a master bard."
"I was not aware that one was present." Marco put in with an evil grin.
"No, you're right. That Kzin fellow in the corner over there quoted one, though," mused Orjan before getting back to business. "Now, where was I? Oh, I hadn't started, had I? Well, then, what story should I treat you with? What do you say, my friend? Do you think I should tell the story about the game of legs? Hey, stop kicking me!" he said indignantly to Marco, and then mischievously to the audience:
"You must excuse him, he has no sense of humour either."
"My humouristic sense is not for me to argue. But the story of the game of legs is not amusing. We are not amused by it." Marco said coldly.
"Anyway, I have got a story for you. Not about us two, mind you, but two good men known as... um... Westala and Villtin. Yup." Orjan nodded sincerely and Marco chimed in:
"Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."
"The first as tall and handsome as the second is short and ugly. D'y want t' hear it?" Orjan said hopefully.
"Do recount it, my short and hairy friend. You begin the song, and where appropriate note can be made, I will interleave with my verses."
"Should I forget some minor detail, I'm sure you'll correct me, and should I stray from the straight path of the narrative, I trust you'll guide me right."
"Of course, certainly."
"You see, gracious host, my friend here is the one in our little company who does the worrying for us both. Anyway...
" T'was a dark and stormy night, and outside the city gates the rain fell unrelentlessly on our two heroes, who had arrived too late to be let in the conventional way. Huddled together in what lee could be found in the corner between the mossy stone walls and the large, ironbound oaken doors, they calmly discussed how to gain entry.
"I can't believe this! As soon as we get in I'll spit that fat sergeant on my sword and roast him over slow fire!" Westala muttered, pulling his long blond hair, soaked by the rain, from his broad forehead with a scarred hand.
"You amuse yourself with that, and I'll gut that shifty-looking little corporal," his companion agreed. His dark eyes studied the massive wood. "But for the moment, they're in and we're out. Unless you want to wait here in the rain until morning, I suggest we concentrate on getting inside."
"What, you have an idea?"
"Perhaps. Do you remember that fellow we met last year, the swordsman who'd never stop talking?"
"Um... the one who said he'd never obey a law he didn't agree with, nor break one he found just? Gidallet or something?"
"Gideoallet, that's the man. Do you remember he insisted that anyone should be let in whenever they wanted to, and treated courteously unless they misbehaved?" Villtin smiled. "His lodgings are atop the wall, just a way onwards from here. I think he could be persuaded to let us in."
"Huh! I also remember that he thought that anyone not behaving should be severely burned on hot flames."
"Yes? So what?"
"Wurl... he's got this female friend, you know..." Westala looked a bit sheepish.
"You didn't! Not his wife!"
"No, another man's, but she's a friend of his. A lass from the Western Isle." Westala shrugged. "I was never quite sure what she wanted, though. I think she might have proposed to me."
Villtin looked shocked. "What? Don't say you accepted and then left her! A woman from there would be able to rip that big lump of wood you put on your pillow right off your shoulders without any help, should she feel wronged."
"Uhuh." Westala looked at his friend and shrugged his massive shoulders. "But you know how it is – a fine-looking wench with fiery eyes like that can make any man forget prudence."
Villtin pinched his nose and groaned, like he always did when his companion reminded him that his people were less subtle than the Southerners Villtin was more used to handle. "So... Gideoallet is to be avoided, then."
"A wise decision, my friend" a voice out of the darkness agreed.
In an instant, Villtin and Westala had their blades out facing the stranger together. Peering into the murk, they saw a man approaching slowly, empty hands raised. Dressed in a once splendid robe of velvet, now quite ruined by the downpour, with many intricate designs embroidered in silver thread, he looked like a priest. A sudden flash of lightning revealed a mad glimmer in his dark eyes, confirming the impression.
"Greetings," he said with a warm, friendly tone, "I am Deedeecee, of the Cult of Me. It appears we share a problem, for I, too, wish to gain entry to this fair city. Perhaps we could help each other?"
After speaking thus much without stopping Orjan paused and addressed a passing serving-maid: "Thirsty work, this storytelling. Is there any more of that mulled wine? Oh, thank you. And those stuffed eggs, if you could pass them, nono, just send the whole platter. And perhaps if you'd fill up my cup again..."
While Orjan proceeded to fill his appetite Marco boldly took up the telling.
"As my comrade now rests his voice and stills his appetite, I shall proceed to recount the events, as I remember them, from where he left off—
"Excuse me..." He paused to flick a shuriken towards the farthest wall, where it cleaved a member of a hymenopteron species lengthways.
"I'm sorry," he continued, "but I have this little thing against wasps.
"So, now, to continue the narrative...
" "Possibly," said Villtin, sheathing his scimitar again. "Depends solely on whether you have any string."
"What odd and outrageous plan have you conceived now, my dear little fellow?" asked Westala, and was promptly ignored.
"I am sorry, but I do not seem to have any string," said Deedeecee. "How so?"
"Then do you have any piece of clothing that is sturdy and stringy?"
"Indeed; the lining of my robe is made of a remarkable fabric," said the presumed priest. "It is light, woven out of strong filaments that verily almost glitter in the sunlight, and it can even withstand the heat of naked fire."
"That does truly sound remarkable, nigh on magical," concurred Villtin, unfolding a small but very sharp knife. "And expensive, too. Oh well. I just need a couple of strips."
"What?" exclaimed Deedeecee, backing away.
"Hold him," Villtin told Westala. He opened the left side of the angry priest's robe (thus completely missing the small bottles of potions he carried on his right side) and swiftly cut a few strips from the lining. "There. Don't look so sour, I am being unusually kind to you," he said. "And there are most probably some very able seamstresses in this city, so that little gash will be put in order in no time at all. Here is payment for it." He dropped a small gold coin down the hole in the robe, to further annoy the priest.
Villtin looked upon the gate, stroking his chin – which had not been shaved for three days. It was of old oak, and fifteen feet high. Westala joined his side, leaving the robed man to fume by himself.
"What intend you do?" he asked.
Villtin pulled two short daggers from his belt and secured them to his boots with the strips of fabric. In each hand he took another blade, and planted them in the gate. "I'm going to climb up. If I can only climb over the gate and get inside, I'll unbolt it and let you two in."
Kicking the daggers on his boots into the wood, and using the knives in his hands to steady himself, Villtin made his way up. He used the time of the climb to ponder how it was that his companion often thought that he was more accustomed to Southerners, and that Southerners were more subtle. Villtin had in fact been raised in the North, and often thought that the Northerners were the subtle ones.
Only very silly, quite often.
He neared the top of the gate, and slowed his pace, so's not to draw attention to himself when he peeped over the top. Even so, the moment he reached over it, a raw egg hit him square in the face. He lost balance, and fell on his backside to the ground.
"Figlio di puttana!" he cursed. "Ti taglierò i coglioni e li do a mangiare ai cani! It was your fat sergeant," he said to Westala, who helped him to his feet. "He and the monkey-faced corporal have been eavesdropping on us all along."
"No wonder, then, that your scheme did not work," Westala rather unnecessarily informed him. "I should have told you about my doubts—"
He stopped at the sound of the sniggering on the other side of the gate. Villtin got a determined look on his face, walked up to the gate, and tapped on it gently.
Silence ensued. After a few moments the hatch, at which the two friends had been rejected earlier, slid aside, and revealed the face of the corporal. There was a suggestion that it was worried, though it was hard to tell due to all the boils. Villtin smiled, a hearty and wide smile.
Westala had seen that smile before, and took a few steps back, signalling to Deedeecee to do it also.
"Yes? What do you want now?" asked the corporal.
"I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your little prank, my friend," said Villtin, and in the next instant the guard was held by his collar, almost being pulled out through a hole that was far too small for him. Villtin unhooked a sickle from his belt and put it against the little man's nose. "This is my least sharp blade. What say you about me using it to cut your nose off and make you eat it?"
"Then get this gate open, and as I do not like to be fooled, your sergeant shall open it while I keep you company."
"Do it, sarge, this man is mental," whined the corporal. "No offence!"
"None taken!" said Villtin with a maniacal grin.
The bolts slid out, the gate opened, and Westala, Villtin and Deedeecee were finally admitted into the city of Anorankhmar.
Marco stopped and gestured towards Orjan by way of telling him to take over. "Don't mind if I help myself to another slice of roast and a further mug of cider..." he said as he reached towards the aforementioned items.
"Careful with that cider – it's not the watery stuff we got from the monks at Kopparbergs Abbey, you know. Say what you want about these Angles, they do know how to serve apples. Remember that time when..."
Orjan received an impatient look from his companion.
"Right, I'll get on with it then. Meanwhile, why don't you take a look around to see if anyone's listening in? If our gracious host is going to sell this story, we wouldn't want anyone listening in for free, would we? Not without expressing some gratitude to us, at least."
A chorus of voices were raised from the fire-lit interior of the pub, assuring our heroes that much gratitude was indeed being expressed, although in one shadowy corner a shady character muttered something inaudible. Nevertheless contented, Orjan continued.
" After having bid good night to the guards and the priest – all of whom seemed relieved to part company with them – the two friends made their way into the city. It was, they concluded, unusually quiet. A good thunderstorm did not usually deter the people of the city from pursuing their business, be it lawful or otherwise, but this night the streets were empty, the doors to taverns and houses of both good and questionable reputation closed and barred.
"Where is everybody?" Westala asked.
"I don't know. Do you want to head back to the gate and ask the guards?" Villtin replied with a lifted eyebrow. "Or try to find some lodgings anyway and worry about it tomorrow?"
"Now that you mention it, it has been a long day. Let's find a couple of bunks."
They located an inn they'd stayed at before, and using the same line of argument as at the gate were soon admitted. The young man who had obligingly opened the door rubbed his nose and went to wake the landlord, who soon came bustling out of the door leading to the kitchen with a pink night-shirt, a lantern, a heavy quarterstaff and a befuddled expression, followed by the red nosed boy who had taken the opportunity to help himself to a big cleaver.
"What is the idea? Who are y—" He stopped and lifted the lantern to get a better look at the two travellers. "Oh, hello." He hesitated, then sent the worried boy away with a nod. "You'll want a room, something to eat, cider and ale, I'm guessing."
Westala and Villtin nodded.
"Well, you can have a corner here in the common room to sleep in, and I think I can find you something... Wait here."
With that he was off again, leaving them in the dark. Villtin, whose eyesight was uncannily good, quickly found a table and sat himself down, while Westala swore quietly. Villtin had felt the air of the hearty clap his friend had aimed at his back just as he slipped away, and smiled to himself as the big man lost his balance when his hand didn't connect, took a step sideways to recover it and stubbed his toe on the leg of a bench.
When the landlord returned, he had replaced the staff with a tray and the befuddled expression with a more sombre one. In the light of the lantern, Westala hobbled to the table and sat down with a dark look at his friend. The tray was subjected to a similarly unfriendly glare, as his eyes took in the meagre offerings.
"A bit of dry bread, some cheese and a pitcher of pale beer?" he snorted. "Is that a suitable welcome for old friends?"
"I'm sorry lads, but that's the way it is nowadays."
"What's happened?" Villtin asked as Westala, despite his disappointment, started eating. "We haven't been away for more than a couple of months, and last time we sat at your table it was almost breaking from the strain of all the food you'd piled on it."
The landlord sighed. "I know, but things have changed rather quickly. You know how people here always seem to go with the latest fashion? Well, now they've gone too far." He looked carefully at them. "I trust you two, and I'm indebted to you for the time you saved my daughter from that slaver, but I'm still not sure what I can tell you."
"Mgfh?" asked Westala.
"Save some food for me, you big oaf," Villtin told him, then turned to their host. "What do you mean?"
"It's said that they can listen in on..." he began. "No, I'd better start from the beginning. To start with, a lot of the old families who used to impose some sort of order here have either died or moved out. The city's still functioning, as such, but people are wary now, and waiting to see what'll happen. Then there's the Cult of Me, who's started to gain a lot more influence. They used to be harmless, and ridiculed, but now... Anyone who's objecting to them just disappears. Finally, there are a couple of thugs, called Fix Ballong and Dextra Bos, who've started to run a protection business. Pay up, or you're risking their wrath. They're not only swordsmen, but sorcerers too, it's rumoured. Bos is said to be a renegade Adept of Jobs-Imac, and Ballong can write satires of the old sort, that can make people's hair grow inwards and their flesh rot off their bones."
"So you see," Orjan broke off his narrative, "the situation was serious. Just thinking about it makes me depressed. Perhaps that roast chicken can make me forget the taste of that stale bread?"
"You go easy on that mulled wine. Leave a little for me." Marco said pointedly, and then continued in a hurried whisper:
" 'Make me forget the taste'? Orjan, I thought you meant them to believe this happened to other people. What was that all about?"
"Oh, sh—" Orjan started, then put his hand over his mouth before anything else slipped out. He thought furiously while pretending to wipe some mulled wine out of his beard. Then he continued, almost as though it was what he had intended all along.
"Ah, 'tis a tale well told, if I may say so mesself, when the narrator can taste what his protagonist is eating. I swear I saw myself there, in Westala's place, as the words left my tongue..." He looked around to see if anyone had caught the slight hesitation.
Switching back to his normal storytelling voice Marco picked up the thread again:
"Yes, right. On with the narrative. We last left our heroes listening to the innkeeper's news...
" "You tell us grave things," Villtin said to the innkeeper. "We shall have to investigate this matter. But it will, methinks, have to wait until the morninnggggyyyaaaaahh!!"
He leaped off his bench by the table, grabbed a stool, and slammed it's leg repeatedly on the floor.
"Where'd it go? Where'd it go?"
"Where did what go?" asked Westala, bewildered.
"The spider! I tell you, that thing could have hugged an old Northern five pence coin!"
The spider jumped off Villtin's boot and ran into a corner. Villtin instantly backed two yards, fixing his gaze upon it.
"A spider?" the landlord asked Westala with an incredulous and hesitant smile. "He's afraid of a spider?"
"Never you mind," Villtin snapped, breathing heavily.
"You see, only a few weeks after our last stay here we ventured into cave full of spider demons," Westala explained. "One of the largest charged at his face. It seems to have made quite an impression on him."
Villtin seemed to calm down a little, and then stepped forward, stooped down and quickly picked up the spider.
He waved it in Westala's face. With the legs, it was a good inch across. He also showed it, in a similar manner, to the landlord – "See how you like it!" – before opening a window and letting it out.
Villtin had begun to shiver. "Are there any more of that size?"
"No! I do not believe so. 'twas the first spider I have seen here in ages," replied their host.
"Right." Villtin shook himself. "I'm going out, I need to settle down a bit. I shall not be long."
"I'd better go with him," said Westala. "You never know what he might do when he's in that mood."
A young woman appeared in a doorway to the inner regions, wearing a light blue night-dress with three golden crowns embroidered on it. "What is all the commotion?" she asked. "Oh, hello, Westala."
"Hi, Tessan. How are you these days?"
"Cheers", Villtin grunted over his shoulder before stepping out.
"I am quite fine, thank you. But what's with him?"
"He is a little upset, your father will explain", replied the large traveller. "The slaver, what's his name, he hasn't given you any further trouble, I trust?"
"Affor of the Grey Hem. No, you scared him off for good. Mind you, he was not an unkind, or bad man, he was just... rather peculiar."
"Yes, so I understood when we entered his dungeon. Now please excuse me, I have to keep an eye on my companion. We will speak more with you later."
Westala hurried out into the rain and quickly found his friend. They walked the streets in silence for a while.
Finally Westala spoke up. "The patron was right, though. I have never seen this city so quiet."
"Yes, he was. There truly is something wrong here."
The voyagers soon found out that the streets were not completely abandoned. Rounding a corner into an alley they encountered two men in brightly coloured clothing. Upon seeing the heavily-built Westala and the well-armed Villtin, they stopped, hesitating.
"Er... greetings," hailed the foremost man. "What are so... fine gentlemen doing out in the rain at this time o' night?"
"Wondering what has happened with this city since last we were here, mainly," replied Westala. "We are... travellers from near and afar. I am Westala, and my friend harks at the name of Villtin."
"I am known as Blue Nick, master joculator and storyteller, among other traits. This is James Pauleson, my apprentice."
"Good evening, your graces," greeted the second man. "Marry, nuncle, but I do believe we are ill met by the weather." He capered a little, jingling from the small bells on his clothes.
Blue Nick shot him a dark look. "I thought I told you not to do that anymore."
"It wasn't even trying to be funny."
"I do not want to hear that sort of thing again."
"Anyway", Blue Nick turned back to Westala and Villtin, "we were on our way to Ballong's and Bos's protection service. We were sent by the Cult of Me, to pay their monthly fee", he said, indicating a rather large purse. "Not even they go free from those thugs."
"Sir, don't tell them that!" said the apprentice jester. "We will surely get in trouble for this."
"Don't worry, we have already been informed of the Cult and the 'protectors'", said Villtin. "So, even the Cult has to pay, eh?"
"Yes", said the master scribe. "A hundred and fifty dollars every month. And they in turn have made me write a story about the conquest of Things."
"The conquest of Things?"
"Yes, Things or Stuff Lying Around."
"A hundred and fifty dollars?" queried Westala.
"That is so."
"I say, I say, I say", said Pauleson in the general direction of Villtin, "is your chin not rather large? Are you Lenojay?"
Westala and Villtin exchanged glances.
"All right", said Westala, "I am not complaining about stealing their money – after all, we do that often enough – but was it really necessary to leave the poor Fool hanging upside down?"
"He was a clever-donkey", replied Villtin, rummaging through the purse and counting the money. "Can't stand the sort."
"By his own trousers? Cutting them a little so that they would slowly tear? With his head pointing into a barrel of rainwater?"
"Are you getting at something?"
"No, not at all," Westala sighed, and thus they continued on their way back to the inn.
"There, I think I shall require some more smoked eel at this point." Marco interrupted himself. "And what happened to the mulled wine?"
Orjan reached over and lifted the clay pitcher, preparing to hand it to Marco.
"Oh, sorry, here it... um... it seems to be empty... care for some sherry?" he asked brightly and stretched a hand towards the latter. As Marco took the sherry Orjan continued on with the story.
" Soon enough they once again saw the sign of the inn. A narratively fortunate flash lit up the garishly painted flying rodent and the words that announced they had arrived at The Plummeting Lemming, owned by Lowmar and his wife Kaylad. The name was what had first attracted Westala, years ago, as it reminded him of his home.
This time they had less problems getting inside, and Lowmar greeted them cautiously as they shook the rain off their cloaks.
"Are you okay?" he said, glancing at Villtin.
"Oh, yes. Nothing like an evening stroll to lighten your mood," Villtin replied, weighing his purse. "Now, you've told us why nobody is hanging around," he said with a warning glance to his friend who stifled a laugh, "but that doesn't explain why there's no food and only room for us to sleep in the commons."
"Oh, haven't you heard? The Temple of Afpdor is holding a convocation here and the High Priest himself is coming with his famous hat. Every bed has been booked at least once, and like all churchmen, they're hard on the bread and the beer, but only after having consumed everything else."
"Oh," Westala sighed. "And I assume there'll be lots of public spectacles during the proceedings, large crowds, that sort of thing?"
"Well, certainly. The Temple's well known for its displays."
"I see." The Northman gave his friend a sly look, noticing that his fingers had started to twitch. "We sure picked the right time, then."
Lowmar didn't notice the slightly unusual emphasis he put on his words, and showed them a corner he'd prepared with straw and blankets while they were out. Soon enough, they were both asleep.
As dawn broke, the commons started to fill with the lodgers, whose loud talking roused the two in the corner. A sparse breakfast later they were out in the street. The storm had subsided during the night, leaving only a cold wind, and a hazy sun shone on the puddles and the mud.
"A fine, bright day, eh, gentlemen?" a grubby looking man greeted them jovially as they came across one of the city's larger avenues. "Here for the convocation?"
"Um, yes," Villtin replied, "why do you ask?"
"Oh, you see, fine sirs, I have the honour to offer you these splendid pilgrim's badges," he said, opening his coat to reveal an array of enamel brooches of many strange designs. "This, as you see, shows you've been here, and this that you're going to be here, and this," his voice filled with awe, "shows that you are here."
Westala knotted his brows. "But we don't need to show that we're going here of we're already here, do we?"
"Ah, yes, but you see, you will show that you are a faithful man of, er, the faith, and were prepared to travel hither, proudly showing for the world to see that you're a man of the Temple, not fearing any derision this may have caused."
"But I ain't."
The hawker eyed Westala's considerable height and bulk and mane of blond hair and beard and still managed to say without faltering: "Oh, well, then you'll need it all the more, to blend in seamlessly."
"Just out of interest," Villtin interjected, "how much are they?"
"They're all the rage, I've sold almost every one I've got, but for you, a price in friendship, only two dollars per badge, and that's cutting my own throat!"
Westala shivered as a gust of icy wind chilled his neck. "Talking of throats, that's a mighty fine scarf you've got." Unconsciously, maybe stirred to cramping by the cold, his fingers closed around the hilt of his big hand-and-half sword.
"Oh, well," the seller said hurriedly, "I see you're busy men. Tell you what, I'll give you this scarf as a token of friendship, and let you think about what badges you want until we meet again." He quickly unwound the scarf and pressed it into the hands of Westala, then hurried away on a side street.
"Hey, what a nice person!" Westala exclaimed and studied the scarf. He turned to his friend, only to find him gone.
"Westala, come here!"
Looking around, Westala saw his friend hunkered down in the shadows of a small alleyway, studying what at first looked like a bundle of fine fabrics. As he came closer, Westala saw it was a man, dressed in finery and wearing jewels and gold – the last of which were taken off by Villtin. The eyes of the man were wide open and staring straight ahead and his mouth was frozen in a ghastly grin.
"Yes, but no wounds. Possibly a seizure of some sort. Hold his arm, will you? His right hand is clenched shut, and I need to get the rings off."
As the hand was opened, a crumbled paper fell out of it. Villtin left it on the ground until he'd removed the rings, then took leather wallet with strange symbols embossed on it from his pocket, carefully picked up the paper with the point of his one of his daggers and let it fall into the wallet. "That's it, he's empty now," he said as he closed the wallet and put it away.
Casually, they emerged from the alleyway, and joined the bustle of the avenue, while behind them, the patch of ground the paper had briefly rested on started to smoulder and crack.
Now having spotted the desserts being brought in, Orjan halted and asked hopefully: "Oh, is that a chocolate cake? Can I have cognac with that, please?"
Marco looked up and said dryly: "On the desserts already, are we? Don't take all the tarts." And then as the platters came properly into view, "Ooo, apple pie and custard! Nice enough!"
While Orjan helped himself to the best part of a chocolate cake Marco found time between bites of pie and custard, to indulge the steadily more and more captivated audience their storytelling had gathered.
" Following the crowd, the two warriors came to the city's largest square. Banners were being put up and a podium assembled at one end. There was an almost tangible feel of expectation, even though nothing seemed about to happen quite yet.
"You... boy!" Villtin called to a young man who was passing by. "What is all this about? What is going to happen here?"
The boy would have given him a look like he thought Villtin had spent the last ten years in a back-room somewhere, were it not for the latter's large amount of weaponry.
"Well... Those faithful to the Temple of Afpdor are preparing the arrival of the Massively Reverend and Supreme High Priest, who shall hold a short sermon here and then give his blessing to anyone who should so feel inclined. Word is he is due to come in about four hours."
"Four hours!" said Westala. "And there is already such a crowd?"
"Why, yes. His Highness is very popular."
"Well, there is no way that I shall wait here all that time," muttered Villtin, and Westala nodded in agreement.
"We can have a look around the city in the meantime. See how much has changed."
So, after Villtin had relieved a few people in the crowd of the contents of their pockets, "To warm up", as he said, the friends walked down a broad avenue towards the center of the city. After crossing one of the bridges over the river that divided the city in two, they came to another, by comparison small, square.
Suddenly there was a change in the air. The cold wind that had pestered them all morning changed direction once, twice, then thrice. Some leaves on the ground started to move in circles, then up in the air, as a small whirlwind formed.
It began to move towards an old, worn-down, ruffian house at the side of the yard. It hit, lingered for a few moments, and dissipated.
The house was now in a considerably better shape. The door was new, the windows were changed, the old thatch on the roof had been replaced, and the building had received a fresh coat of paint in light pastel colours.
"You don't see that happen every day," Villtin commented.
"You sure don't," replied Westala. "Freaky."
But nothing more seemed to happen, so the warriors moved on.
After a while of walking down a less crowded road, almost constantly bickering, Villtin hushed Westala and ushered him into a side alley.
"What is it?" Westala queried.
"If you want to avoid Gideoallet, you'd better keep your eyes open. Look around the corner. At the end of the street, his back turned this way."
"Oh. Right. I see him. Whew, lucky you saw him."
"Luck doesn't come into it, my liege," Villtin informed him. "Now, let's go down this way, and we can walk around him."
They headed into a smaller and even less trafficked street. Only four or five people were to be seen, and they soon rounded various corners or went away on other ways, disappearing from view.
And then the street was completely empty. A girl who came walking in the opposite direction gasped, and disappeared the way she came.
Two men were catching up with them. The expressions on their faces were as unfriendly as the swords they carried, despite the smiles. No, smiles was the wrong word. Grins.
Must be getting old, thought Westala. Never heard them coming.
"We have a matter to discuss," said one of the men, wasting no time. "We have learned that you obstructed some of our business endeavours last night."
"You know perfectly well what we are talking about. I am Dextra Bos, and this is my associate Fix Ballong. Yesterday evening you robbed the couriers that carried the Cult of Me's monthly contribution to our insurance company. One hundred and fifty dollars. Luckily, the poor fellows went straight back to the Cult's main gathering place and explained it all, and we have worked out the situation with them. But there is still the matter of the money."
"One hundred and fifty dollars," Bos repeated. "We want it back."
"Is that so?"
"Ply oef coeurse your own fee", Ballong spoke up. "Fiftey doellars per 'ead."
"And supposing", said Villtin slowly, "that we would like to keep our money?"
"Then you lus your 'eads."
Westala and Villtin considered it.
"No. We stole that money fair and square. It's ours now. And you can't do anything about it."
"Yes we can; if you don't pay, we make you wish you had."
Bos drew his sword. "There can be only one group of power in this city. And we aim to be it."
Westala nudged Villtin. "He's got a Fire Brand", he whispered. "I don't think I can fight him."
"All right, I'll take care of him. You occupy yourself with the other one." Villtin drew the two short, heavy swords he carried strapped to his back.
Meanwhile, Ballong picked one of the small throwing knives from the belt across his shoulder and flicked it at Westala's face. Westala caught it by the handle, tossed it up into the air, caught it again behind his back, and returned the favour. Ballong merely shifted half a foot to one side, letting the stiletto pass.
"I think we're introduced now," said Bos. "If we are all done showing off, I suggest we get on with the actual fighting."
"On that, I could not agree with you more, my leech," said Villtin, and advanced.
Having run out of both pie and custard Marco stopped and nudged his companion. "And now I shall make acquaintance with that cheese cake, while Orjan tells how our heroes got out of that mess. And what happened next, of course. Do excuse me."
Orjan looked up from his generous helping of chocolate cake and said: "Mpghf? Gnhmla!"
While Orjan struggled to swallow Marco remembered something that had been on his mind and said:
"Oh, I nigh on forgot; my dear host, I notice that the hall hath gone very quiet. Are the good people in these here lodgings listening in stunned silence, or have we lulled them to sleep with our notorious droning?"
A drunken voice echoed from the back of the smoky tavern: "Shing on, proud minshtrel, or I shall remove your heads – hic – and feed 'em to the shnakes! More, more I shay!" Also there was a shady character, different from the one in the shadowy corner, who was pointedly stropping a stiletto on a piece of leather.
When the crowd had thus assured our heroes that they were not asleep at all, punctuated by only occasional snoring from the far corner of the room, and Orjan had swallowed, he said:
"Now, that's hardly charitable, is it? I haven't even finished my cake. Oh well, I guess you need to get something to eat, to put a bit of flesh on your bones. Just let me finish that cognac..." and continued the story.
" While his friend advanced on Bos, Westala warily eyed Ballong and drew his sword from its scabbard. Curiously, his opponent hadn't rearmed himself again, but was rummaging through is pockets, one eye on the big Northman, while holding out a hand to show he wasn't ready yet. Westala considered cutting him down where he stood, but his curiosity got the better of him.
"Ou es' it, I 'ad it 'ere un minute ago" Ballong mumbled. Then he withdrew a piece of vellum, quickly unfolded it and held it up in front of Westala's face.
"Aha! Voir la vache qui rit!" he cried triumphantly. "Le Pen is mightier than..."
What Le Pen was mightier than would remain undisclosed, as Westala brought his sword up in a graceful arc and sliced the paper in half without touching Ballong's fingers, which were left clutching a corner of the paper. The other half fluttered up in the air, and Westala caught it with his free hand and critically inspected the cut edge.
"A bit ragged," he muttered, "I'll have to spend some time with a whetstone tonight, methinks." Catching Ballong's shocked eyes, he crumbled up the paper, dropped it and shrugged. "Sorry," he said with an evil grin, "can't read".
During this exchange of pleasantries, Villtin had been busy with Bos. His short swords moved swiftly to parry the attacks of the Fire Brand, flicking out in ripostes. To his surprise, he found himself sweating after just a few exchanges of blows.
"Surely I haven't lost my strength and stamina altogether," he thought while ducking under a nasty blow that would have cut the top off his head if he hadn't. "There must be something fishy going on here."
Deftly, he cut Bos' shins while he was down, and when his opponent hastily jumped backwards, Villtin did the same. He wiped the sweat from his brow and noticed that he suddenly felt a lot better. "Oh," he thought, "it must be the Fire Brand. Well, more than one can use unfair means."
He glanced to his side, to see Westala grinning broadly and hefting his big sword in a menacing way. Suddenly his eyes widened, and he looked down at his hand. It shook uncontrollably, and began to take on a purple tint. He lifted it up in front of his face and stared at it. Slowly, with a look of great concentration on his face, he began to curl up his fingers. Sweat was pouring from his brow and he breathed heavily. At last, shaking in the whole arm, he had formed a fist.
"Why you foul..." The fist started to move towards the face of Ballong who stood staring, seemingly frozen in place... "... son..." Villtin saw the blow gaining momentum... "... of..." Ballong saw the gnarled knuckles approaching his nose... "... a..." Bos found he could only move his eyes, following the fist of doom... "... bi..."
His strength all spent, Westala collapsed. The knuckle of his middle finger connected to Ballong's nose with what, had the scene been drawn in an old Batman comic, would had been labelled 'pif' in very small letters, before it joined the rest of his body on its way facedown into the mud.
As if a spell had been broken, the other three men came to life.
"Vraight remarkable!" Ballong exclaimed. "So long, 'is strength must be tres formidable!"
Bos shook his head and returned to a fighting stance, lifting the FireBrand.
"Wait!" Villtin looked at Ballong. "Is he dead?"
"No, he's breathing. He should be dead, but..." Ballong looked like an entomologist in front of an hitherto unseen ant. "I can't say, really, I've never seen anything like it. Fascinating."
"Right," Villtin said in a resigned voice, "you win."
Knives. Long knives, short knives. Knives with curved and straight edges, knives with blades that seemed to be bent into some other dimension. Loads of knives. A plethora of them. And they all had in common that they looked very well used and very, very sharp. It was, one would assume, not the best of sights to greet a man returned to life from the brink of death.
"Argh!" Westala said, confirming he shared the assumption. He closed his eyes again.
"Jolly good," a cheerful voice said next to him, "you've come to. Senex fundum habet, as I use to say."
Westala tried opening his eyes again and found himself looking into a face of the kind you would expect to go with those words.
"Um," he said, "where am I?"
"Tut, tut," the cheerful man admonished, "terribly cliché, that. Can't you try something original?"
Westala did a check on his body. Arms, legs, back, chest... All seemed to be in order. He tried flexing his muscles and they responded as well as ever. As far as he could tell he was in a good shape. Lying on a cold slab of stone on a raised table, as far as he could tell. Now, was he tied down?
"This better?" His hand caught the man by the front of his white coat. He quickly sat up, not letting go of his grip, and pulled the man close. "Now, can you give me an original reason I shouldn't rip you in half?"
The man smiled even wider. "Why, yes, I think I can. You can't kill me."
"He's right, Westala. Put him down." Villtin strode into view. "Not only has he saved your life, but he can't be killed either. Don't you remember Peterwok?"
Westala put the man down and searched his memory. Peterwok... Yes, now he remembered. The man was said to be a genius, or mad. He was the best physician in the city, but regarded with great suspicion because of his great interest in finding out why people were as they were. His investigations were said to involve carving his subjects up into very small pieces. And, as he had said, he couldn't be killed. Rumour had it that he had managed to put his soul into a little blue bottle, and as long as his soul was safe, he couldn't be hurt.
"Oh, well... I guess I owe you thanks."
"Oh, no, my pleasure. I don't often get to study such cases. Most people who've been exposed to Satire Grande have decomposed completely when they're found. I must say I'm impressed with your physique. I wish I could find out how you... Were your parents as strong as you?"
"Eh? Well, me dad was..." Westala hesitated. "He found out he wasn't strong enough to wrestle a bear. It was close, though. Why?"
"Oh, just scientific curiosity. Still I have a sample..." Seeing Westala's expression, he quickly changed subject. "I expect you'll want to get on with your business. I wish you all luck."
Villtin guided his friend outside and took him to a scruffy tavern.
"So, you big oaf," he started once they were seated with a pitcher of cider on the table. "You should by all means be dead by now. How do you feel?"
Westala was busy sloshing cider around in his mouth which felt like it had been thoroughly scraped clean by a very small window washer. He swallowed and sighed. "Fine, fine. But what happened?"
"Well, after you went down, I surrendered."
"What? Didn't you even try to avenge me?"
Villtin gave him an evil grin. "Why? I threw myself at their mercy, and explained that we'd deposited the gold with Gringott the dwarf. Then I handed them the wallet with the receipt."
Westala stared uncomprehendingly at him. "We did no such thing – you can't trust Gringott as far as you can throw him."
"No, but they didn't know we wouldn't do something like that. Bos happily accepted my walled and got the receipt out. Then he reacted pretty much like you, only a lot faster." Villtin took a deep drink out of his mug and refilled it. "It wasn't a receipt – it was a satire I found with that dead guy. I had put it in my blessed wallet, so I felt pretty safe."
Now Westala was grinning as widely as his friend.
"So, Bos is dead?"
"No, Ballong did something that seemed to stop the process. Last I saw of them was him pulling Bos by the feet in the opposite direction I was pulling you in. It was lucky I remembered Peterwok. I reckoned that if anybody would be able to cure you it would be him."
"Well, thanks, I guess." Westala grunted. "You know, I was just curious before, but now it's personal."
"That it is, my friend, that it is."
Just then a maiden arrived, bearing a tray with a bowl of cream and another full of juicy red berries. She held the tray out for the two friends to see and Orjan's head came up at once.
"Strawberries? Well, if you've given the cream a good whipping. Marvellous. Now, I think Marco is anxious to tell you what happens when these two take something personally."
Marco, who had just finished off a generous slice of rhubarb pie was happy to oblige, "Certainly, my friend. As soon as our dear host gets one of the waitresses to bring me some coffee. I'll have five lumps of sugar, please. Yes, five. I think six are too many."
" "But," he continued, "I'm afraid we're going to need an advantage if we're going to beat them. We were too unprepared this time."
"Yes," Westala agreed. "I think we were too confident in our own skills. Better not make that mistake again."
"No." Villtin thought through the battle again. "That piece of paper you caught from Ballong, did it say anything we can use?"
"The satire, you mean? No, it was written in a language I couldn't understand. About as useful to us as a laundry bill. But I told them I can't read because I didn't think they needed to know that, in fact, I actually can."
"I figured. Good thinking. It might give us an edge" – Villtin smirked to himself as he cleaned his fingernails with his foldable knife – "although it's difficult to imagine a situation where it's actually useful. Oh well, we'll just have to see."
He stowed his knife away and looked around. There were a few young ladies of a distinct "negotiable affection" persuasion in the tavern. He overheard a sentence from a nearby table:
"Greetings, Josaphat. Want to have a try?"
"By the way," Villtin turned back to Westala, "perhaps we should visit that High Priest now, maybe he can renew the blessings on my wallet."
"Sounds good," said Westala.
"Right then, let's go." Villtin downed the last of the cider and began to rise. Then he caught sight of something, and froze. "Oh, fæces."
Westala turned around. By the door stood Gideoallet, glaring at them with a face like a thundercloud. By his side was an attractive dark-haired young woman, also with a less-than-friendly expression on her face.
"Can you think of a way to escape that lets them not have seen us?" whispered Villtin.
"Neither can I." He sat down again. "Well, I suppose it was unavoidable."
"Yes, but I would have liked to try anyway."
Gideoallet approached them. "Why, there you are, you lying no good son of a—" He caught a warning glance from the big man, and changed his mind. "– very fine woman." He rallied. "What do you mean by seducing one of my good friends and then abandoning her like a discarded shoe?!"
The woman in question glared at Westala.
"Uh, hello, Tily," Westala said more than a bit sheepishly.
"Well, I'll bhe damned. You do remember me."
"How could I possibly forget?"
"I shall make you remember even better, you dog," grumbled Gideoallet, lifted the unprotesting Westala by his collar and dragged him out of the tavern, with Tily following behind.
"Oooh, he's in for it now," mumbled Villtin, trying to suppress an evil grin. "Oh well, he'll be fine."
Having gone back to the large square, Villtin found a queue up to the podium that looked endless. Confident that no-one would mess around with a walking armoury, he simply strolled past the last people in the line.
A mistake, it turned out.
"Oi, you! Just where do you think you're going?"
Villtin turned around, slowly.
"Talkin' to me?"
"There's nobody else about outside the queue, is there?" said the speaker. "Now get back to the end of the line. If you want to meet His Holiness, you queue. That's the rule around here."
Villtin smiled, and gripped the hilt of his sabre. "Who is going to make me?"
As one entity, the fifteen people standing closest turned and produced booklets.
"We are", said somebody else. "We all carry satires."
"Not as strong as Ballong's", said the first speaker. "Only His Supremeness himself has stronger ones. But we can still... inconvenience you. And you're outnumbered."
Villtin considered his chances. They were having eating disorders. He prided himself to be a man who knew his limits, and when not to push his luck. This was such an occasion. He released his grip on the sabre and went back to the end of the line, but not without a few defying glares to the people in it.
It took about an hour, but Villtin got through the queue listening to (while not participating in) some interesting discussions. There was also some reciting of well-known chants, and when he neared the High Priest he overheard:
"Beheading? Very well..."
"Oh, Random-Fluctuations-In-The-Space-Time-Continuum, he heard us..."
And then it was Villtin's turn. The High Priest of the Temple of Afpdor eyed him curiously.
"Nice collection", he said, nodding at the many blades. "Do you have the whole set?"
"No, I never carry more than I need", Villtin replied with a grin. "Anyway, I was wondering..." He produced his wallet. "Can you enhance the blessings of this?"
The High Priest took the wallet and examined the symbols on it. "Good work. When did you get this?"
"A little more than a year ago, I think. Maybe a year and a half."
"The blessings are still strong, but sure, I think I can do something..."
He started to mumble a chant. "Tertiæ fili perdutum de flirtus con fila de panificius de coitus via..."
The symbols embossed on the wallet glowed briefly.
"There", said the High Priest and handed the wallet back. "It should protect you from anything you put in it for at least five years, unless it gets cursed, of course."
"Thank you." Villtin glanced back at the queue. "Looks like you've got a full day, don't let me keep you."
"You know, that sounds familiar..." But Villtin was already leaving. The High Priest turned to the next person in the line. "Ah, my most pious follower..."
"Yes, I am, actually..."
Villtin returned to The Plummeting Lemming for a meal – it seemed like the most logical place to wait for Westala to return. The inn was crowded, but Villtin managed to get a table for himself, and soon Lowmar had served him a much more adequate dinner than they had received the previous night. The roast and wine occupied him for quite a while, and distracted him completely from the approaching figure.
"Hello there, you tall, dark, handsome stranger. May I join you?"
Villtin looked up. Beside him stood a fetching young ginger-haired lady, dressed in a simplistic-looking, yet intricate white robe-like dress.
"Of course you can. If I said no, I would be out of my mind."
She smiled, sat down on the bench beside him, and poured herself a glass of the wine.
"I gather you are here for the convocation?" said Villtin, trying to get some sort of conversation going.
"That is right", she replied in a bright, aristocratic voice. "I am a most dedicated attendant of this church. My name, by the way, is Lady Skotisplei."
"Villtin, at your service. Swordsman, mercenary, traveller from near and afar."
"Yes, so I see. I must say, I have always been fascinated by you warriors."
"Oh? Pardon me for saying so, but noble Ladies like yourself do not often socialize with us."
"Perhaps that is what tickles my curiosity, then. And if you will pardon me, your speech sounds quite noble itself."
"It is said that an ancestor of mine was a nobleman. But I have chosen my path in life; I enjoy myself as an adventurer."
"You must tell me all about it." She moved closer. "Doesn't it ever get lonely?"
"It depends, Milady. I cannot complain about the comradeship, I have a companion who is a very good friend. But for natural reasons, romantic endeavours tend to be on the short side. So yes, in that respect it does get lonely. Very much so."
"It must be cold at nights, having no-one with whom to warm yourself. No-one to hold close to you."
"It is, Milady."
She moved even closer. "Would you not like to warm yourself?" she whispered.
"With you, Milady?"
One of her hands was gently caressing his groin. "Why not? I managed to get one of the best rooms all for myself. But now I find it so empty."
Villtin looked at the current position of her hand, then back at her with a raised eyebrow. "Milady", he mumbled, "has anyone ever told you that you are rather forward?"
"Many have", Lady Skotisplei replied. "But no-one has ever complained."
"Nor shall I. I always prefer the people I meet to work with me."
"So, you are interested, then?"
"To say I'm 'interested', Milady, is an understatement."
They got up. She led the way upstairs, into a comfortable room with a broad bed, a couple of cabinets, a chest of drawers with a washstand, and a few other pieces of furniture.
Soon his weapons lay in an unordered pile on the floor, and she quickly had his shirt off, stroking a wound on his chest – a scorch mark from the Fire Brand he had hitherto not even noticed.
While their lips met and tongues danced, his hands went astray inside her dress. Suddenly one of them reached behind her back and withdrew a dagger, which he applied to her neck.
She looked more resigned than surprised. "How did you know?"
"Partly by some marks on your hands which can only have come through combat, but mostly by the way you move. I have yet to see a noblewoman, no matter how forward, move like a hunter." He stepped back. "So, 'Lady Skotisplei', who are you really?"
She sat down on the bed, but drew herself up. "I am Newra, the Moonlight Raider."
Villtin looked impressed. "Ah, yes, I have heard about you."
Newra looked up. "Oh? Really? What have you heard?"
"Only good things."
She shot him an inquiring look, but his face was carefully blank. "Right."
"So. Would you mind telling me who sent you?"
"Apart from it going against my code of honour, you mean?"
Villtin was toying with the dagger. "Well, it goes against my code of honour to get killed, so I'd like to know who's after me. And like I said, I much prefer people to co-operate."
They exchanged glances.
"All right, fine," said Newra. "I don't like them much anyway. It was the Cult of Me."
"Well, that figures. My, this just gets better and better. But tell me, if you don't like them, why do you work for them?"
"They paid well. Besides, it was only this one mission."
"Ah, well, that's one of the best reasons in existence." Villtin thought for a while. "Say, what do you think about Bos and Ballong?"
"They should be hung by their feet!" she snapped, fuming. "I tried to fight them when I first came here, but they were too strong for me."
"For us too. Good... So, how would you like to join us against them? We don't like the way the city has changed, with the people living in fear and all. Besides, we have a personal score to settle, at least with Bos and Ballong. And I'm currently not too happy with the Cult, either."
He paused. "Will you help us? You would be a great asset."
Newra considered it.
"Why not?" she said eventually. "We appear to have the same wish for revenge, and I can't beat them alone."
She turned to face him. "Agreed. We'll work together."
"Very well. Let us return downstairs, then, and wait for my companion to come back." Villtin picked up his shirt.
"Wait just a moment," said Newra, "and I'll change to my travelling clothes, and get my weapons." She went to the wardrobes, which turned out to contain a much more sensible and durable leather outfit, together with weapons of a multitude that rivalled Villtin's own. She began to undress, but then stopped.
"You wouldn't mind looking the other way, would you?"
"Yes, I would," said Villtin. "I'd like to see what you're doing, instead of having to deduce it from a stab in my back."
"Do you not trust me?"
"Not for a second. Would you have done?"
They sized up one another.
"No, I guess not," said Newra, and carried on.
After a while Villtin said: "Nice tattoos."
"Thank you," she replied coldly.
"But what's that key?"
"It's a secret."
"And what's that, then?"
She sighed. "I'm not going to tell. You don't tell people secrets. That is why they're called 'secrets', you silly."
There was another moment of tension, as they exchanged glares again.
"Fair enough," said Villtin. "Let me ask you like this, then: is it something that has any relevance to me?"
"No. That much I can say."
Newra dressed, and then geared up with a broadsword, some knives, hooked a crossbow to her belt, and even took a morningstar and slung an axe across her shoulders.
Villtin had also rearmed himself, and presently opened the door. "Let's go, then. Ladies first."
"All right, all right, all right!"
Marco chanced to take a look through one of the small windows and noticed that the stars were beginning to come out.
"My, it is getting rather late. We shall have to continue the tale in the morning. Be sure to have some breakfast ready."
Hearing the wisdom of these words, and also
that there was plainly going to be no more storytelling until the
tellers themselves had had a good night's sleep, people began to
withdraw from the room. Some went to their rooms upstairs, and many went
home, to return upon the coming of the sun the following day.
1 "Or 10 euro? Nah; crowns, florins, schilling, soldii, silver pennies or bezants, even aes & oboloi, and we be down on our luck, or too long in the cesspit of a city, to have aught we can sink our teeth into, to our names... 'tis good coin and plate such as we can buy real food, real drink, fine clothes and gear, good boots and high entertainment with, as makes a heart beat stronger, and alone is worth the risks we take to earn it! Whoever heard of a ‘quest for a hoard of euros’?" back
2 "There is, and they have more than one absorbing tale of their exploits besides; but it's Fritz Leiber's ‘Ill-Met in Lankhmar’, not my story to tell (though I will gladly re-tell it, upon the right occasion, and to the right people; or sell copies to them as are so desirous..." This was said with a wide grin. "‘The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar’ is another of his tales of these two loveable rogues." back
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