The Tale of Westala and Villtin
By Örjan Westin and Marco Villalta, introduction by ppint.
Edited by Elin Rosén
When morning dawned the next day, and the sun showed its bright face above the rooftops, Orjan and Marco came sleepily down the stairs, to the smell of fresh coffee and eggs. The dining room was already filled with people, anxious not to miss what happened next.
Orjan yawned mightily and rubbed his eyes.
"Oh, my. I've slept like the legendary King Ärter."
He scratched his beard as he sat down at a nearby table.
"What's for breakfast? Ah, just bring in the whole menu and a big pot of coffee. Meanwhile, I can remind people that we last saw Westala leaving the Plummeting Lemming Inn in the company of Gideoallet and Tily."
"Ehrm, 'twas a tavern, not the inn," Marco interjected, and then continued, whispering, "Do you not remember that I led you there after we had been at Peter's pl—?" Marco suddenly turned and saw a person sitting much too close for his liking, and as will soon be seen, her own comfort.
"Yes? You wanted? Are you eaves-dropping on us, my friend?" He reached out and violently grabbed the suspected eaves-dropper by the collar and, their faces only inches apart, said unpleasantly:
"Perhaps you are an informant?!" After furious head-shaking from the poor victim, Marco said, "No?" and let go carelessly. "Then make sure to keep your ears out of harm's way," he put in as a final warning.
Orjan looked as the lady, barely reaching his shoulder in height, backed away from the table, nervously patting her disarrayed, blue-tinted curls. With eyes so wide there was hardly a trace of crows feet at their sides, she gathered her pink cardigan closer around herself. While she picked up the handbag that had been dropped as a result of the shaking, Orjan turned to their host and said:
"Yes, it was a tavern, but one of the innumerable ones trying to cash in on the good reputation of Lowmar and Kaylad's fine establishment. Next door to 'The Plumb Lamb Inn', I believe, although that was named after its speciality. There was also in that city a brothel called 'Plump Lambs', confusingly opposite a butcher's with the same name, and a dunnikindiver called Plumbing Lambert. Lowmar was a bit of a trend setter you know. You wouldn't believe how many places has some kind of airborne rodent on its sign." All holes and glitches thus efficiently patched Orjan turned away from Marco and got on with the story.
" Westala meekly followed the dark-haired fighter out from the inn. Tily cast a dark-eyed look around the room, daring anyone to comment before joining them outside.
"Come here," Gideoallet said, "I prefer to not chastise people in public, unless I have reason to leave a bleeding corpse around." Without waiting to see if the big man followed him, he set off down the street in a brisk pace.
Westala turned to Tily with a questioning expression but she just kicked his butt to set him stumbling in the right direction. He marginally avoided stepping on a gray cat which looked at him with a lofty expression.
Curious, he thought. Apparently, Gideoallet wasn't going to kill him. Well, not in public, at least. He shrugged. He still had his sword, and while Gideoallet was known to be very skilled with his rapier, Westala comforted himself with the thought that such a slender blade would have to hit him a number of times before he went down, whereas his heavy hand-and-half would only need to connect once. The many scars on his arms and torso bore witness to this simple piece of arithmetic. The men who'd attacked him with such flimsy weapons in the past had no scars at all, simply because you have to be alive to grow them. Still, he'd prefer not to kill him, as he respected the man.
They walked for a long time, twisting and turning in the narrow streets, until Gideoallet stopped and turned around in a cul-de-sac framed by shabby warehouses.
"Right," he said with a grim expression, "I'll let Tily have the first word."
"You big oaf!" Tily began, and followed with a long tirade enumerating all his faults, real or imagined, in a very un-lady-like language. But then, nobody had ever called Tily a lady.
Westala's thoughts had become increasingly focused on not responding, as he knew that would only make matters worse, but he did wonder how long she would be able to keep up without repeating herself.
Finally, when she was scathingly describing the ugliness of his toes, not having missed a single piece of his anatomy from his "rotting haystack's failed attempt to pretend to be hair" and down, Gideoallet intervened.
"That's probably enough, Tily. Do you feel better now?"
She took a couple of deep breaths, then took a few steps to the somewhat stunned Westala and looked up at his nervous face. He stood two full heads taller than her, but she jumped up, threw her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on the tip of his nose.
This did nothing to help him understand the situation.
"Um," he ventured.
"All right!" Tily was clearly exasperated. "I did propose, you did accept, and then you ran away. I was angry with you, but I've forgiven you. Oh, and you can forget my proposal, I've found myself another Northman. One I can trust." She stuck her tongue out at him. "And he's much prettier than you. And I need your help to find him."
Westala replayed her words in his head in an attempt to understand.
"Um," he ventured.
"What Tily is trying to say," Gideoallet said, "is that her man, Lassie the Robber, has been abducted. She came to me for help, and when we heard that you and Villtin were in town we reckoned you could be helpful as well."
At last, Westala found something he could base an intelligent question on.
"Her man Lassie?"
Tily kicked his shin. "I'll not let you make fun of him. His parents were a bit confused, that's all."
"Hang on, your man is gone, and the whole scene in the tavern was just a sham, was it?"
"In a word, yes."
A young woman emerged from the shadows. Westala stared unashamedly. In a city where pretty young women tended to display more bare skin than fabric, it was very strange to see only a pretty face. The rest of her, and Westala made a bet with himself that the rest of her was equally pretty, was hidden by a long robe which was full of pockets. It had probably been black once, but now it was very faded and stained. Most of the pockets looked like they had been sewn on by someone with a very pragmatic view on tailoring and a great indifference to the idea of colour matching. The stains seemed to be of every conceivable substance, with one brightly yellow starting to smoke as it came into the light. Looking closer, Westala saw smudges on her face as well, but for some reason they only made her prettier. A little orange frog peeked out of a pocket on her left hip.
"Anyway," she continued, turning to Gideoallet, "it's not magic. It took a while to find out, as I didn't know where the danger was, but it's definitely not magic."
"Ah," Gideoallet said, "you haven't met Westala before, have you? Westala, this is ms Marall, an old friend of mine."
"Pleased to meet you, miss."
"No. Absolutely not." The young woman shook her head. "It's not miss. I'm Messy Marall, of the Stargazer clan of the Clench."
Westala had heard about the Clench. According to the stories, they were dispassionately passionate about truth, justice and knowledge. As a people, they were regarded with suspicion, but were often employed as negotiators or investigators. It was said that once they had been given a task, they would never let go.
She turned back to Gideoallet.
"I think it might be a combination of the ink and the way it's written. It's a very distinct form of handwriting and I've found a reference to something similar in an old book of proverbs by Jobs, which says 'Ov alle the Evils in the Worlde, none is grater than the Mescom Icsanser If'.
Tily kicked Westala's shin again and he had to take his gaze off Messy's pretty face while he jumped around on one leg.
"Well?" Tily demanded. "Will you help me find Lassie?"
"Ouch! Yes, of course I will. But don't you think I'll have a greater chance in succeeding if I'm able to walk?"
"Hmpf! Run away, you mean? But listen up, you must go back soon. Lassie was trying to form a cabal, in an attempt to resist both Bos and Ballong and the Cult of Me. He went out to meet some people one night and never came back. We suspect that he was betrayed, and abducted by the people he was trying to overthrow."
"Have you spoken to the people he was plotting with?" Westala asked.
"Of course not, there is no cabal."
"But do you know who he was going to meet?"
"Yes, some friends from old days, I think. Let's see, it was No-storm-in-a-bucket, Bart the woodsman and M'Pik."
"No-storm-in-a-bucket is a tribesman from the Western Isle, Bart is said to be from a land beneath the sea, and M'Pik is just weird." Tily's eyes softened. "But very good-looking." She signed. "Anyway, he was going to try to recruit them, as they are all very old and wise. Oh, and I think he was talking about Lowmar at the inn as well. Him I've spoken to, but he's gone all soft nowadays, so I don't think Lassie seriously considered taking him onboard. The rest..."
Tily shrugged. "They haven't been seen since. I'd guess they've been taken as well."
Suddenly, she sobbed and threw her arms around his waist, burying her face in his chest. "Oh, Westala, so many good people have disappeared. What can we do?"
Westala tried to pat her hair gently, not knowing what to say. Looking around, he saw Gideoallet and Messy deeply engrossed in discussion, and on the roof of one of the houses a gray cat sat, peering intently at him. It looked familiar, somehow, but as soon as he started to stare back, it apparently lost all interest and began washing its ears.
A word barely heard from the discussion caught his attention and startled he strode to Gideoallet and Messy, not noticing that Tily was still clinging to his waist.
"Did you just mention Sherilob?" he asked Gideoallet.
"Yes. According to some rumours, she has come back. It makes sense, I guess. Bos is said to know her well."
Westala started to swear.
"What's the matter? Who is Sherilob?" Tily, having recovered her composure, let go of his waist and looked worriedly at Messy.
"Sherilob is an enchanter, or possibly an enchantress, who employs spiders as her slaves. She used to dwell in a cave, miles to the East." Messy explained. "She is very powerful, and has no concept at all about morals."
"And Villtin's not very comfortable with spiders." Westala said between gritted teeth. "I must get back to him immediately."
"We'll contact you again." Gideoallet said as he strode off.
At this point Orjan was interrupted by the arrival of breakfast. He looked over the contents of the tray as he said:
"Right, what have we here? Toast, marmalade, cheese, egg... Ok, it's a start. Bring me another pot of coffee, will you, and then sit down to listen to Marco telling you about Villtin's reaction to the news."
Marco, who had sat silently while Orjan did his part of the breakfast entertaining, now said:
"Make that two more pots of coffee." The maid started to hurry toward the kitchen, but had gone only a step or two when Marco again spoke up, "And bring the sugar bowl," and then, "And some milk, please, if you have. Or cream, even better." The last was thrown after the maid's disappearing back as the kitchen door swung closed behind her. She soon appeared with two steaming coffee pots, a rather large bowl of sugar, a jug of milk and a rather smaller one of cream balanced precariously on a tray.
"Thank you!" Marco said happily as she set it all down on their table. Then he continued the tale, while mixing and stirring his coffee.
" As Villtin and Newra came down the stairs, they saw Westala just entering the front door. As they met up, Westala and Villtin both asked each other, in unison:
"Where have you been?"
"Where I have been? Where have you been?" they both retorted.
They stopped in confusion, and stared at one another. Villtin gave up first.
"I got stuck in a queue for an hour, just to see the High Priest. Then I came back here. What kept you so long?"
"Nothing!" replied Westala. "Tily and Gideoallet talked to me for merely half an hour. Then I went back to the tavern to see if you were still there, which you weren't. So I went to see if you were here, but no luck. After that, I've been all over the place."
"But not at the main square, evidently."
"On the contrary, my good little man," teased Westala. "I was there too, but I thought you'd walk past the queue instead of standing in it."
"Tried it. Didn't work," said Villtin darkly.
He indicated the young woman at his side.
"By the way, look what I found. Meet Newra."
Westala stared at her. "The Newra? Newra, the Moonlight Raider?"
"The very same," she said, after having shot Villtin a glare.
"So, how did you two meet?"
"Oh, I tried to kill him," said Newra. "But I didn't get very far – sadly."
"Better tell you the whole story," said Villtin and sat down at the table he'd left just half an hour earlier. The others joined him.
"After the High Priest I came back here, like I said. I was just finishing a meal when our new friend here came up to me, in disguise, and offered to show me her room. I went with her, but the marks on her hands, like this for instance, and her way of moving made me suspicious. And sure enough, inside her dress I found this dagger. Newra had been hired by the Cult of Me to kill me, and probably you too. But instead we decided to join forces against the Cult and Bos and Ballong."
"Inside her dress, huh?" Westala asked with a grin.
"What's it to you?" wondered Newra.
"So", said Villtin, "what did Gideoallet and Tily do to you?"
"Well, Tily had some things to say..." – Villtin cringed in jest, grinning – "But actually, it all turned out to be just a hoax. But they did give us a mission."
Westala recounted his conversation with Gideoallet and Marall. He told how the members of the cabal, which didn't exist, had disappeared; No-storm-in-a-bucket, Bart the woodsman and M'Pik.
Villtin stared at him.
Villtin looked down at the table. Then he closed his eyes. He appeared to think very hard. He looked at Westala again, incredulous, with an eyebrow lifted.
Westala shrugged again. "I don't know, that's what they told me. I wondered about it too."
"All right, go on."
Westala finished his story, very carefully, with the news of Sherilob. "Sherilob?" asked Villtin, who was going pale.
"I'm afraid so."
"And you're telling me that she used to be in a cave to the east of here?" His voice was growing as grim an edge as that of the dagger he was holding.
"That's what the Marall woman said, yes," said Westala cautiously.
"Interesting. You don't, perchance, suppose..."
"I think it's possible."
"Indeed interesting. Apart from the task given to us, that would suit my personal ambitions just fine."
The knuckles on the hand clasping the dagger had gone chalk white.
"Hey, watch what you're doing, that's my knife," said Newra.
Villtin looked down. Without even noticing it, he had pushed the blade a full inch into the table.
"Hnh, sorry," he mumbled, and tried to pull it out.
"Here, let me," said Westala. He yanked a little at the dagger, and it was released with a thunk.
Villtin got up, and paced around the table.
"I think the first thing we should do is ask Lowmar what he knows about this," he said, now back to his usual calculating self. "As I see it, we need all the clues we can get."
With narratively perfect timing, Lowmar chose that moment to walk up to them and ask if he could bring them anything.
"Yes, you can," said Villtin. "Most of all, we want information, but we can start with some refreshments. I suspect Westala would require some ale at this point, our lady friend..." He raised a querying eyebrow.
"I'm fine with the wine, thanks, but bring some water as well."
"And I could do with another mug of cider. And fetch us the hare you just took out of the oven," Villtin called to the retreating back of Lowmar. "And the corn bread."
When Lowmar had executed the request, and the warriors had dug in, he left Kaylad and Tessan to tend to the other guests and sat down with Newra, Westala and Villtin.
"So," he said, "what is it that you want to know?"
"We've learned that a man called Lassie the Robber came to offer you to be a member of a cabal he was forming, that was supposed to hold the Cult of Me and the 'protectors' in check," Villtin began, but Lowmar quickly hushed him.
"Shshhh! Do not speak about it, there is no cabal!"
"No, so I've been told," said Westala, "but I got the impression that it was because it never had a chance to form."
"Well, that too. All right, I shall tell you what I know, which is not all that much."
The swordsmen and -woman huddled together to listen to the innkeeper's whispered words.
"Yes, it's true. Lassie was working with three other men—"
"Yes, we already know that much," Newra interrupted.
"What we need to know," said Villtin, "is what their respective roles were. What each of them was doing."
"All right. Lassie was organizing the main structure of the group. Laying out the decision-making process, keeping records, things like that. No-storm-in-a-bucket, a tribesman from the remote parts of the Western Isle, helped him, but also did some other, more specific jobs on his own. M'Pik, another tribal from gods know where, and a strange fellow at that, did some odd jobs as well, like gathering the news and researching a new way of communicating across great distances."
Lowmar paused briefly.
"Now, this is where it becomes interesting, because the only one of them I can tell you anything about is Bart the woodsman. He was the other chief organizer besides Lassie, and did most of the daily work. And they said he had found the perfect weapon to use against Bos, but I never found out what that was. Furthermore, he is from a land beneath the sea – this is known – and it is rumoured that this land was the mythical land that lay west of Graindyke. I may even be possible that he is a descendant from a legendary king!"
"All right," Westala cut in, "go easy on the rumours. So, then, what was your part in all this?"
"None. They did meet here a few times to discuss matters, but they didn't seem keen on letting me in on too much. And I didn't much want any part of it; I have a family to consider and can't take such risks as they, obviously, took."
"So, do you have any idea where they met when they weren't here?" asked Newra.
"No, I'm afraid not. You'd be better off asking Tily, Lassie's wife, of maybe Gideoallet the swordsman. Did you know that he's the only one who has openly defied the Cult and the 'protectors' with any success?"
"We sort of figured," Villtin said. "We have talked to them, well Westala has, and we're going to see them again, although we don't know when." He grunted. "Anyway, you'll have to excuse me a moment..." He stood up. "Cider's bloody lethal if you don't have somewhere to leak," he muttered. "It's still through that door and to the left, right?"
"Hm? Oh, right. Yes," Lowmar replied.
Villtin left them and staggered out to the men's latrine. The Plummeting Lemming had one of the most modern lavatories in the city – Lowmar called it the "Relief Room". It was a basically a shed built onto the back of the inn, with a line of buckets along the "inner" long wall and a row of stalls along the opposite, like regular privies side by side, which could be emptied from the outside. Every day the buckets were replaced by people from the city's fastest-growing business enterprise, colloquially called the "lawyers", who also periodically emptied out the pit.
Normally, Villtin would have preferred the privacy of a stall, but not when people wanted him dead. He checked them to see if there was anyone with murderous intents around, but they were all empty. So he pushed the farthest bucket a bit out from the wall, went into the corner so's to have two sides clear, unbuttoned and eased himself. He had drunk three pints of cider during the day, and it had a noticeable effect.
Just as he was finally finishing, he heard some soft steps on the roof.
An amateur, he thought. It's a bloody amateur. I can't kill a gods-cursed amateur.
Well, I can, but there's no sport in it.
The presumptive assassin was moving towards the outer door directly to Villtin's right. It opened inwards, which worked to Villtin's advantage, and towards the right, which didn't. But since he was done, he just tucked in, stepped behind the door, and drew a knife.
A few seconds later, the assassin threw the door open, a throwing knife at the ready, and was met by a cold blade flat against his cheek, its point half an inch from his eye.
The assassin dropped his knife instantly.
Villtin rounded him, keeping his own knife steadily in place. It was a black-clad, "official" assassin, but the young face and above all the look in the boy's eyes told Villtin it was an apprentice.
Now that he had the boy's full attention, Villtin shifted position of the blade to the other cheek, and pressed more firmly with the edge.
"All right, greenhorn. Who taught you to sneak like a walrus? "
"Question too hard for you? Here's an easier one: who sent you?"
"Man, I know you haven't swallowed your tongue, I can see it, the way you're gasping for breath. But if you don't say something soon, I'll cut it out!"
Villtin relaxed a little. "Look, I don't intend to hurt you. You're too young and too untrained to be worth the effort. But I feel a bit offended when people who want me dead hire rookies like you--"
The word decoy drifted into Villtin's mind and tried to make itself noticed.
He spun aside, conked the apprentice assassin over the temple with the knife handle, drew a small throwing star from his pocket and threw it at the figure emerging from a stall, all in one smooth motion. The shuriken planted itself in the master assassin's throat, and she went down, her crossbow shooting harmlessly at the floor.
Having assessed the situation, Villtin strode over to the corpse, and examined her. She had been rising trough the hole of the lavatory, and was now hanging over the side of it.
Her main weapon, aside from the crossbow, seemed to be a long thin two-hand sword of, if Villtin was any judge (and he was), Eastern origin, which she carried across her back, inside her cloak.
He lifted up her head. She appeared to be quite good-looking, but this fact was obscured by her odd facial tattoos.
"Pity. She looks like a nice lady, one who got to the bottom of things." He took his shuriken back, wiped it off on her clothes, took the sword, and then dropped her back the way she'd come.
The apprentice was just coming too. Villtin pulled him up by his collar, and put the metal star against his Adam's apple.
"Now listen very carefully. I'll say this only once. Go back to whoever it was that hired you two, and tell them that if they want to play games, I'm all game. But they should consider whether they can afford the stakes." He leaned even closer. "And do not try to make another attempt, or you'll end up like your mistress, amateur or not," he finished slowly. He released the apprentice assassin, who ran for it immediately.
Having made sure the boy wasn't going to try something, Villtin went back and joined his friends. On Westala's plate there was almost half of a hare's skeleton, but Villtin didn't comment upon it further than with a raised eyebrow.
"Lowmar," he said instead, "how long was it since you had the cesspit cleaned out?"
"Just a few days ago, why?"
"Well, maybe you should have another look at it tomorrow, I think there's some dead vermin in there."
He dropped the bow on the table, and chucked the sword into Lowmar's arms. The innkeeper stared at the weapons for a while.
"Hey, it's no fair!" said Westala. "Why do you get all the fun?"
"Probably because they know I'm the brains between us," Villtin teased. "Patience, my friend. You'll have your share before long, I suspect."
He paced around the table again, deep in thought.
"You know, as easy as it would be to just sit here and smack down all attempts at killing us, it would get rather tedious after a while. So if we don't know where the prospective cabal was meeting, I suggest we launch an offensive against our antagonists. Do you know where Ballong and Bos live?"
"No," Lowmar replied. "Strangely, no one has ever been able to find out where they have their office, as it were. But the Cult has a meeting place on Molasses Street."
"Good. Perhaps we should pay them a visit tonight, then. In that case, we'd better get some rest now, it's almost six of the clock anyway."
"We can use my room, then, from now on," Newra spoke up, putting down a glass of water. "After all, it has all the commodities – a nice big bed all for me, and I'm sure you two can find space on the floor."
Westala and Villtin exchanged glances. The latter shook his head, smiling.
"Yes, that would work... Tily and Gideoallet will probably appreciate the discretion, too." Villtin stroked his four-day beard thoughtfully.
And then scratched it furiously.
"Arh! Westala, how can you stand going around with a beard? It itches like all hell!"
"You get used to it. And it saves time from having to shave all the time."
"Maybe, but I think I'll rather be without it. Lowmar, could you bring some shaving soap up to the room, please?"
He put a foot on a chair, pulled up his left trouser leg, drew an old hunting knife strapped to his ankle, and felt the edge – the sharpest of all blades he carried. Newra rolled her eyes.
He put it back into place.
"And a razor, too."
Marco stopped talking and sipped his coffee, and then said:
"And now, as our protagonists prepare to get some sleep, I leave the word to Orjan. He's been wanting it for some time now, no?"
Thus prompted, Orjan swallowed the last of his marmalade and cheese toast and said:
"Yup. this part I want to tell myself. You just get it wrong, especially the bit where Westala crouches down. It was intentional. He did not slip on the wet roof, no matter how often you say it."
Recognising that his friend had taken the position commonly known as "that's my story and I'm sticking to it", Marco looked up at the serving maid, who had also stopped to listen to the narrative, and said:
"Well, now that we're awake, we can begin to seriously break the fast. I think I'll start with some soft-boiled eggs3, and then we can move on to the bacon."
Meanwhile Orjan turned to their audience and started speaking.
" Just as they had closed the door to Newra's room there was a knock on it. Westala opened and found Tessan outside, carrying a tray with a bowl of steaming water, a brush, a bar of soap, a hot towel and a folded razor. He let her in and she put the tray on the chest of drawers by the wall.
As Villtin was buffing up the shine on one of his many daggers to use as a mirror, Westala let her out again. Tessan motioned for him to follow and curious he went with her out onto the landing and closed the door behind him. She turned to him and looked up into his face – or his eyes at least, as they were the only features apart from his straight nose that were visible between hair and beard.
"Westala, I..." she faltered, "I heard dad talking about M'Pik... Is it true? Has he been captured?"
"We think so, why?"
She looked down again and nervously started to fiddle with one of the buttons on his wolf skin vest. "Only... will you try to rescue him? Please, say you will." She turned her eyes up again and gave him a shy smile. "If anyone can save him, I'm sure it's you."
"We'll do our best, but why? Do you know him?"
"Tessan!" Kaylad came up the stairs. "What's keeping you? Don't bother the guests, lass. You're needed down in the common room."
Tessan gave a little yelp and with a last imploring look at Westala over her shoulder hurried past her mother who looked sternly after her before walking up to the big Northman herself.
"Now, I heard what she said, and even if she is just a silly little girl..." Amazingly, Kaylad, whom Westala had never known as lacking words, seemed to falter just like her daughter and started to fiddle with the same button. "Do your best to save M'Pik."
"Huh?" Westala wasn't really following the dialogue.
"Oh, the others too, of course, and don't take any risks." Kaylad hesitated, "Be careful."
She hurried down the stairs again and Westala returned to the room.
"Newra, what do you know about this guy M'Pik?" he asked.
"I've just had both Tessan and Kaylad ask me specifically to rescue him, and I recall Tily getting very soft-eyed when she talked about him." He shrugged. "I thought it might be a girl thing..."
Fortunately Newra had put away most of her knives, so he had time to raise his hands in apology while she was still patting herself for a weapon.
"Sorry, no offence intended."
Newra stamped a foot angrily. "I'm not some empty-headed slip of a girl who's turned by any pretty boy!" Now armed with a nasty dagger in each hand, she advanced on Westala. "I demand respect, and anyone who doesn't give it I'll carve it out of!"
"Sorry! Gods! It's not as if I suggested you couldn't fight or were afraid of spiders or anything girly like that."
Villtin, who had finished his shave and was rubbing his smooth cheeks with the towel, gave Westala an evil look while he continued to dig himself deeper.
"I know your reputation, miss Moonlight Raider. It just seemed to me that you might have insights we'd missed, disadvantaged as we are by our sex."
She walked straight up against him and put the blade of a dagger against his chest.
"Do you have anything against my sex?"
Westala looked at Villtin without getting any response, as the latter seemed to be busy not getting involved in the discussion. Westala recognised the look on his friend's face, a look that meant "I have something incredibly clever to say, just give me an excuse".
The big man sighed, cutting the last remaining thread of the previously assaulted button against the edge of the dagger as his big chest deflated.
"I'm sorry I said anything. Let's try not to fight each other until we've handled our other enemies, shall we?"
Newra nodded curtly and sheathed her daggers.
Westala folded his cloak and put it on the floor by the window, then laid down on his back with his head on the makeshift pillow. Ignoring Villtin and Newra's bickering over whether the former would sleep in the latter's bed, he closed his eyes and attempted to picture what it could be like for the four members of the cabal that never was. It began to rain, the drops pattering on the window. A few seconds later, he was soundly asleep.
Somewhere else entirely, someone else was also trying to sleep, but was hindered by a regular sound.
The person turned over on the cold stone floor and tried to relax again.
In the darkness of the cell, Bart the woodsman sat up and stared irritably at the patch of darkness he knew was occupied by his friend M'Pik. "Will you stop that?"
The husky voice of the tribesman answered him calmly. "It helps focus my mind, and the resonances are, because of their pure and simple form, quite beautiful."
"Is that your revolutionary form of communication, then?" No-storm-in-a-bucket asked from the third corner of the cell, "Tossing pebbles at the iron bars in a cell door?"
"No," M'Pik sighed, "That actually works, but requires the use of five cats. I'm thinking about other ways, and came up with another idea that's worth pursuing, provided anyone has a blue tooth to give me."
Bart nodded sagely towards the last corner, although the gesture was lost in the darkness. "It is possible Lassie has one, after the last beating."
The fourth man in the cell didn't reply. Lying in the foetal position, he was singing softly, seemingly oblivious to the multitude of cuts and bruises covering his whole body. "... lunkar vi så småningom..." he sang, gently tapping a foot in time.
"Is he a goner, do you think?" M'Pik asked.
"No. He's just too hard for that." No-storm tried to sound confident. "He's just withdrawn to preserve his strength. Given the right sign he'll come back."
"So, what is the sign, do you know?" Bart asked.
The silence answering him was uneasy, and he settled down again in an attempt to sleep.
The faint moonlight shone down on Molasses Street, gently illuminating the faded sign proudly proclaiming a house as being "The Probing Lemma", meeting place and social club for the city's mathematicians. It was, Villtin decided, something strange about the fact that people would not only occupy themselves with mathematics, but they would seek the company of others with the same bent. On the other hand, he conceded, the house on whose roof he was sitting on bore the sign "The Pimping Llama", and that was possibly even more disturbing. He had no intention of finding out for sure though.
Next to the mathematicians' place was a large building with the insignia of the Cult of Me – a hand holding a round mirror, showing some sort of hairy bag. Try as he might, Villtin couldn't find another interpretation for it than a very bad pun of egotistical. That pretty much summed up their doctrine, as he understood it.
Happy that all the lights were out and everything was calm on the street below, he pouted his lips to whistle the agreed signal to Westala and Newra who were waiting in a narrow alley on the other side of the Probing Lemma, but before he let his breath out he was startled by a gray cat jumping to his side. It looked at him with a very smug expression, purred and turned to look at the street below. Villtin again prepared to give the signal, when his eyes followed the cat's. Someone was walking on the street below.
A man in a long leather cloak and with a tight fitting leather hood covering his head was hurrying towards the Cult house, hampered by a slight limp. Villtin recognised the walk, but from where? As the man paused in front of the entrance a sudden gust of wind lifted his cloak and Villtin drew a deep breath. The black cloak was hemmed with grey, and underneath it the man was attired in a rather outlandish manner. It was Affor the slaver.
Silently Villtin and the gray cat watched him knock on the door, talk briefly to someone on the other side of a little peephole and then enter into a brightly lit anteroom. When the door closed again there was no light escaping.
"So," Villtin said to the cat, "there seems to be no rest for the wicked, eh? We can't trust appearances – this place did look deserted."
The gray cat sniffed.
"So we need to find another way in." Villtin mused and stroked the cat's back.
The gray cat let out a little meow and began walking away, then stopped and looked back at him in an impatient manner.
Villtin grinned, and continued to do so as he followed the cat back to where Westala and Newra were hiding.
After a quick recapitulation of what had transpired, he suggested "So I say we'll follow the cat."
Westala and Newra looked at him, the cat and each other, then shrugged.
"I won't forgive you if we end up looking for a mouse, though." Newra said to Villtin. "I think you're crazy, but as I haven't got anything better to do..."
Westala was looking at the cat. "I think I recognise it from before. It was there while I was talking to Gideoallet and Messy Marall." He looked up at his friend, "But I agree with Newra. This had better work."
They moved out. The cat, Villtin and Newra all moved lithely between the shadows, Westala only slightly less so, until they found themselves on the roof of the building behind the Cult's house. There was an eight foot gap between the buildings and they paused. The gray cat jumped across without hesitation and walked to a roof window. The three adventurers looked at each other.
"I'll go first," Westala volunteered, "I'm most likely to miss and alert them."
The others nodded and he took a few steps back, sprinted to the edge and jumped. He landed with a crack of broken roof tiles, swayed for a moment and gingerly took a step forward on the wet roof. Suddenly, his foot slid sideways and he twisted his body, then crouched down quickly. A crossbow bolt cracked into the roof he had jumped from, and as soon as he heard it pass him by, Westala jumped forward and threw a roof tile at the man who had emerged from behind a chimneystack. Quickly he followed, and managed to catch the now unconscious man as he fell.
"You could have said something," he growled at the cat.
Unperturbed, it started washing itself, then curled up and fell asleep.
A quick look around revealed that there were no more people on the roof, and he waved Villtin and Newra over and returned to the man he'd brought down. He was young, barely old enough to shave it seemed, and dressed in posh clothes. Blood trickled from the cut in the middle of his forehead where the tile had hit him.
"Let's cut his throat, just to be sure," Newra said.
Villtin shook his head. "No, we might want someone to question later, and he's in a convenient place. I don't think he'll wake up in quite a while anyway."
"And if we don't need him, we can just dump him over the edge, so people will think he's slipped." Westala grinned.
"Yes, I noticed it seemed slippery," Villtin said with a smirk, "You were lucky you slipped just as he shot at you."
"I didn't slip, I saw a movement and went down to avoid the bolt."
"Now, really, that's just an afterconstruction. In truth you slipped and..."
"Will you two be quiet!" Newra hissed, "We can't stay here all night."
The roof window led, via a ladder, into a deserted room. Reasoning that brashness was the best disguise, the three boldly stepped out in the corridor and walked towards the stairs at the far end, peeking discreetly in the doorways they passed. One room was fully occupied by mirrors in different sizes, another had a pile of straw men in a corner, a third was filled with numerous braziers with roaring flames, heating it to unbearable temperatures.
"I guess they're doing some sort of training here," Villtin remarked after having found a room with an obstacle course and a set of blindfolds.
Walking down the stairs, they heard voices for the first time. Newra, who was leading the way, motioned for caution and sneaked stealthily down to the landing. The voices were coming from a closed door, and she motioned for the other's to join her.
Westala, being the tallest, found a knothole in the door, quite high up, and could see perfectly. He recognised the voices of Affor and Deedeecee, the high priest.
"But master, it's too dangerous!" Affor whimpered.
"You will obey."
"But why can't you just kill them?"
"Because I haven't managed to break them," Deedeecee snarled. "I must find out if there are others plotting against us."
"Can't you ask Bos and Ballong?"
"No. I don't trust them anymore, not after letting those two ruffians get away."
Affor's voice changed, became more menacing. "When you capture them, I want Westala."
"We'll see. Go now, and arrange the move of the prisoners. Nobody will suspect they're anything but ordinary slaves among the others. You must keep them drugged, though. They are very dangerous."
"Yes master," Affor said, once again subservient. "I'll be ready to move them out the day after tomorrow."
The three adventurers quickly returned to the stairs and hid there as Affor walked away, muttering to himself. After a brief conference, they decided not to kill Deedeecee there and then. Instead they followed Affor down another flight of stairs, and through another corridor. A gust of cold air warned them the front door had been opened and let him out, and instead of following his steps to the unseen doorman, they continued to the end of the corridor where they found another stairway leading down.
It was far longer than the other stairs had been, and the stone walls were glittering with moisture. Whereas the house had been illuminated by chandeliers and candles, their descent was guided by flickering torches in sconces on the walls. At last they reached a landing with a forbidding door. After picking a torch from the wall Villtin opened it quickly.
Four big, heavily armed men immediately stood up from the table in the middle of the room, turning the stools they'd been sitting on over. Abandoning their playing cards, they drew their weapons.
"What do you want? What's the password?" The biggest of the guards said.
Villtin suppressed an urge to pull a knife and thought quickly. Assuming his most superior face, he looked disdainfully at the guard. "You have no right to question my right to be here!" he said in a cold drawl.
To his astonishment, all the guards put their weapons away immediately. "That's correct," the biggest said, "What can we do for you, sir?"
Villtin took a step forward to admit Westala and Newra into the room and thought even more quickly.
Orjan suddenly noticed that the barmaids had begun bringing lunch to some of the other customers and said: "Sorry, got a bit carried away there. Over to you Marco. Me, I'm gonna have lunch, seeing as you've been stuffing yourself all since breakfast." As one of the maids passed by Orjan caught a whiff of the steam from one of the bowls on her tray. "Oh, look," he said, "Is that onion soup with quail eggs? I'll have that for starters then. And pancakes."
"Try the wine, too... It's absolutely fabulous," Marco advised his friend, and then added: "And you're right, I have been stuffing myself. I think I've eaten a bit too much, so I'll just have a glass of water to sip on to keep my throat from drying up. If you please...?"
" "Are the prisoners ready yet?" Villtin asked, just to get started somewhere.
"Already, sir? We thought they weren't going to be moved yet for another few days." The guards exchanged glances.
"There has been a change of plans. We need to move them out now. And you should have had them ready!"
The big guard hung his head.
"My apologies, milord, we were not informed—"
"It is your responsibility to keep yourself informed," snapped Newra haughtily. That's the spirit, thought Villtin. Keep it up, keep it up.
"We are sorry. We shall start preparing them right away, they will be ready within the hour."
"Good, that will do," said Villtin. "But first, before you begin, show them to me."
"And you!" said Westala to another guard. "Go get the drugs, we don't want them causing any trouble."
"Right away, sir."
Yes, it was amazing. It had never occurred to Villtin that simply acting superior and bullying would make any guards oblivious to the warriors' appearance – Newra and Villtin alone outbladed a small army, and while Westala was armed only with a sword, he looked strong enough to rip people's arms out. Which, in fact, he had been known to do occasionally. There was certainly nothing priest-like about any of them.
Then again, there was nothing much priest-like about Affor either, but presumably the guards knew him. They probably mistook Westala, Villtin and Newra for some of his henchmen. Well, it was their loss, wasn't it?
The guard opened a heavy cell door and handed Villtin a lantern.
"Here they are, sir."
Villtin took the lamp and stepped inside, casually stroking his smooth chin. In the room were four chained up, beat up, ragged men, who nevertheless still – if only barely – fit the loose description of the "cabal" members that Lowmar had given them before they left the inn. Though the men were now silently staring at him – it looked as though a few of them had just woken up – Villtin was positively certain that just before, he had heard some low singing in the to him so familiar Northern tongue, seemingly from the blond one in the far left corner of the cell. He appeared to be the one most recently tortured, too, as he was reduced to a black, blue and yellow pulp.
His back to the guard, Villtin put a finger across his lips in a hushing gesture, then continued stroking his chin. He returned out of the cell.
"Very good," he said to the guard, "prepare them. We will wait here until they are ready."
The guard Westala had sent away now returned with a crude syringe and a bottle of some kind of potion. Westala took them, looked at Villtin and nodded barely perceptibly. Newra was fingering on a knife hilt, indicating that she was ready too.
Villtin slowly and carefully loosened his scimitar a bit, and then took one last look around to see if any of the guards had noticed anything. The biggest one was in the cell, occupied with the prisoners, Westala was standing behind another one and Newra close to a third. Villtin nodded.
With lightning speed Westala drove the loaded syringe into his guard's neck, and he went down with a choked gurgle. The other two guards in the room turned their attention towards him, the one closest to Villtin turning around. That was a mistake, but on the bright side it was the last mistake he ever made.
While the third guard looked at his companion slumping down, disembowelled all the way into the backbone, Newra sneaked up to him, put her knife against his throat and told him to stay quiet and not move. Westala tossed her the syringe.
"What the hell...?" the chief guard emerged from the cell, only to a fierce kidney punch from Villtin. He landed heavily and tried to pull his broadsword, but didn't get very far as Villtin stepped on his hand and put the scimitar's point, with all its pointiness, on his chest.
In the meantime Newra had drugged her guard, and Westala went inside the cell to free the prisoners.
"Who are you? Who sent you?" one of them asked as Westala was unchaining him.
"My name is Westala, and my friends are Villtin and Newra the Moonlight Raider. You are Bart, called 'the woodsman', aren't you?"
"Yes, I am. And this" – he pointed – "is No-storm-in-a-bucket, M'Pik, and that's Lassie, known as the Robber."
"Good. We are friends to Gideoallet and Tily, who sent us here to rescue you."
These news raised the spirits of the prisoners considerably, particularly in Lassie, who seemed to recover somewhat from his dazed state and raised his head.
Now freed, the cabal members staggered out and sat down at the table, where there were a few scraps of food and drink left, while Westala and Newra joined Villtin and the guard captain.
"Well now that we've been more properly introduced," Villtin begun, "I'd like to know if you want to give us the information we want."
"No, I don't, and I won't," snapped the guard. It was a rather wheezy snap, but a snap nonetheless.
"Well, that's too bad, because then we're going to have to force you."
"Go to hell," the guard told him, and was answered by an elbow having a high-speed rendez-vous with his jaw.
"Let's try again," said Villtin. "You can start by telling us where the prisoners were going to be taken."
"You don't scare me."
"I don't? Well maybe I don't. But I know someone who will." Villtin unhooked his sickle from his belt and handed it to Newra. "Care to...?"
"By all means..." She took his curved blade and applied it with snake speed to a place that made every other occupant of the room, the dead or unconscious guards excluded, groan, have watering eyes, or both.
"Now can we talk?"
The guard hesitated, but took one look at Newra's expression, and decided that he didn't want to be a soprano.
"Could you repeat the question, please?"
"Where were the prisoners going to be taken?" Villtin said slowly.
"I don't know that. I swear! I don't know! I would guess they were to go with Affor of the Grey Hem, the slaver, and be locked up in his dungeon, but I don't know.
Villtin exchanged glances with Westala. "Sounds reasonable," said the latter, "In any case, they're free now, so we don't really need to know this anymore, do we?"
"Maybe not." A thought struck Villtin and he turned back to the guard. "Say, you wouldn't happen to know where Bos and Ballong live, would you?"
The guard's hesitant silence was quite informative. Villtin looked at Newra. She gave him the sickle back.
"All right, pin him to the floor. Legs spread." She stood up and got her morningstar.
The guard seemed to get some sort of premonition, and started to struggle against Westala's grip (a futile undertaking): the glimpse he had caught of the future included pain.
Newra had taken a few steps back and was starting to swing the morningstar up and down in a circle, slowly walking up to the panicking guard. And they had to hand it to the man, our heroes agreed later, he held out for a long time. The spiky iron ball was whizzing past his groin only inches away when he gave in.
Newra backed away, slowing the orbit of the morningstar down. Westala pulled the guard up to a sitting position and let him catch his breath for a little while.
"They have a stronghold about fifty miles from here, in the hills before the mountains to the south-east. It's quite close to the coast," said the gasping guard.
"Fifty miles?" Westala joined Villtin, who was pondering what they had been told, leaving Newra to watch over the guard. "They must have some pretty fast horses, or let their reputation do most of the job."
"Don't forget they're magicians," No-storm spoke up. "From what we've learned, it's not at all impossible that they're using some sort of spell to travel here."
"All right. You can tell us all you know that can be of help to us, but let's get out of here first."
"Yeah," Villtin agreed. "Speaking of which, how are you feeling? Are you ready to leave?"
"We're all pretty strung out," said Bart.
"Lassie is in the worst shape," M'Pik chimed in. "But if he can manage, so will we, and we all want to get away as soon as possible."
They found a small armoury and loaded a few crossbows and pistol bows to take with them, in case they ran into any more guards.
"So what do we do with Big Guy here?" asked Newra, who had taken up station kneeling down behind the guard's back, fiddling with a knife. "Kill him or just drug him like those two?"
Villtin shrugged. "Whatever takes your fancy," he said, and Newra rammed the knife into the man's temple.
They climbed the stairs and went back the corridor Newra, Westala and Villtin had come through. Despite the late hour, there were still a few people around, and thus sneaking was essential. Which suited the exhausted and maltreated prisoners fine. Particularly Lassie, of course, and Bart, who was supporting him. All the while the cabal members took turns giving the warriors tidbits of information they had discovered about their adversaries, and telling them a little about their captivity.
The ground level was too crowded, so the group had to detour and go up to the second floor to get to the front door.
But, although there were less people up there, luck wasn't with them.
Sneaking warily through a corridor, they suddenly saw a door open in front of them. A priest stepped out and saw them.
"Who are you? Where are you taking our prisoners?"
Although Westala was on him quickly with his big hand-and-a-half, the Cult had been alerted. At the far end of the hall, Deedeecee looked out of his room and called for guards. Eight of them emerged out of side doors.
"Stay back! We'll take care of them!" Villtin shouted to the cabal and charged at the nearest guard, while Newra got her crossbow.
This bow had been a bit manipulated. The string tension was wound down, just a little bit, which meant that it didn't quite have the range and strength of other crossbows, but which did allow for it to be hand-cocked. Newra did so, quickly slid a bolt into the groove, and shot a charging enemy between the eyes.
A cry made Westala turn around. A dozen guards had come up on the prisoners from behind, and the latter were shooting their bows to keep them away. But they didn't have many, and were running out of ammunition fast.
M'Pik shot off his last two bolts, and then took over the task of supporting Lassie. "Bart, we are leaving!"
The woodsman managed to shoot with a crossbow and two pistol bows, but was then quickly overpowered. Westala started to run back to defend the cabal members, but was cut off by three other guards stepping in between him and them. Skilled though the big warrior was, three of almost his own size and strength was one too many.
Deedeecee chose this moment to throw a bottle of potion into the fray. It smashed into the wall above Villtin, Newra and Westala, and the contents started eating away at the wall and the floor, spreading a horrible stench.
"Go!" No-storm shouted, trying to ward off his captors. "Now we know we have help, you can try again another time! Save yourselves now!"
The three warriors regrouped to consider their options.
"We may not get another chance," Newra pointed out. "I say we try to release them now."
The two vicious battle companions nodded. "I agree," said Westala. "We can do it, and there aren't too many guards."
They turned back to free their friends, but another dozen cultists came from the other end of the corridor and cut them off.
"Now they're too many," said Villtin, and they had to concentrate on getting themselves out. The dashed through the decimated group of guards on their side of the hallway and rushed down the stairs. Westala took the lead towards the front door – he was going to knock it down.
The doorkeeper went in his way, armed with a spear. A crossbow bolt whizzed past Westala en route to the guard. It missed, streaking past the guard's face only an inch away, but was enough to make him start. Westala unceremoniously ran him down, snatching the spear, before connecting with the door.
It was smashed out of its frame, and splintered. Westala hardly even slowed down through the passage and ran down the empty streets, joined by Newra and Villtin. Seconds later the cultist guards emerged, and hurriedly organised a chase. But they were too late, the three soldiers of fortune had escaped through the side alleys.
In a narrow street some hundred yards from the Cult house, the mercenaries were getting their breaths back.
"Damn!" Villtin exclaimed, when he felt he had enough air to curse. "We were so close!"
" 'Close doesn't count at the fort'," said Westala sulkily. Newra gave him a lopsided look, but he just shook his head and waved a "forget about it" gesture. "Still," he said, "it all went a lot better than we hoped for. Up to a point, I mean. And now we know where they are."
"For the moment, yes," said Villtin, kicking a pebble. "But in a few days they'll be moved out, and we don't know where to. And now the cult will probably change their destination anyway, so it wouldn't have mattered even if we'd known."
"So then we do what we first thought, before we found the 'cabal'," Newra suggested, "and ambush Affor's slave transport and free them then, don't we?"
"Yes, but then we have to stake out the Cult house until he moves out. And apart from the destination they can change the time, and leave a day sooner, or a week later – Or not at all, they might change their minds completely and keep them here. Besides, they've been alerted, and will surely increase the security whatever they decide to do. Much as I hate to admit it, I think that what we need is reinforcements, it's time to ask Gideoallet to join us."
"Tily will be able to help too," said Westala. "Trust me."
Villtin took a good long look at him. "You know, I think I will."
"Besides," Newra went on, "we left that young cultist up on the roof, remember? Maybe he knows where our people were to be taken."
"Oh yeah, right, I almost forgot. You think he's still there? He ought to have woken up by now, and gone away."
"Only one way to find out, isn't there?" said Westala. "And the Cult will probably not expect us to return so soon."
"Especially since we're coming by the rooftops," Newra grinned.
They moved out. While they walked, Westala took some time to examine the spear he'd taken. "You know, it looks as though the Cultists appreciate quality, and know what they want. This is a pretty damn good spear, I think I'll keep it."
Returning to the back of the Cult house and retracing the way they had made before up on the roof, they discovered that the boy had indeed woken up, but not gone inside. Something was hampering him. Or someone. Or possibly some things.
The gray cat was idly holding a set of claws over his jugular, lying on the roof, its tail whipping back and forth. It purred towards the mercenaries when they came.
"Get this bastard off of me!" the young man demanded. He was scratched across the face and had some claw marks on his throat as well, indicating a few false starts and attempts to escape. The cat let go as Westala hauled the guard to his feet.
"You know," he said, "I think you're wrong there. Noting the lack of dangly bits beneath the tail, I'd rather guess it's a bitch, if the term applies."
"Or something, I don't know," Villtin cut in, "Isn't it only dogs that are bitches?"
"You tell me, man, I only work here."
" 's a cat," said Newra. "Enough said, all right?"
"Right." Villtin walked up to the cultist and put a knife to his throat. The boy clearly did not think this was an improvement from the claws. "Now you listen," Villtin said, "I've had a busy day and I'm in a foul mood. I'm not going to lie about your chances if you tell me fairy-stories, because then you don't have any. Is this clear? Just tell me where Affor is to take your prisoners, and don't give me any ox-excrements, there's a good lad."
"I don't know, gods' honest truth, I don't know. I presumed Affor was going to lock them up in his own dungeon, but only the High Priest and Affor himself knows for sure."
"Damn. No luck there either," said Villtin, sheathed his knife and nodded. Westala kicked the boy's feet out from underneath him, and the boy slid and fell over the edge with a short, abruptly ended scream.
"See?" said Westala. "That's slipping."
Villtin made faces at him, but had trouble keeping his face straight. "Right."
Marco stopped talking and looked thoughtful, then said:
"You know, that soup does look interesting," and reached for a bowl.
As he reached across the table he accidentally bumped Orjan, who had slipped lower on the bench during Marco's narrative, with his elbow. The northerner sat upright with a snort and, just catching his companion's last words, said:
"You go ahead, it's really good and you deserve it for holding our audience captive for so long. I hope you'll excuse my little nap there, but another pot of coffee will get me going in no time."
He looked around and upon locating the serving maid bellowed: "Wench! Coffee, lots, hot, here, now!" Once that was taken care of Orjan had a chance to scan the room more thoroughly, and with surprise noted a certain emptiness.
"Where's everybody gone? Tired of waiting for me? Hmpf! So I am a sound sleeper, what of it? I'm still a faster storyteller than that Jay Krow Ling. I've waited years for her to finish that story about the ermine-clad potter and his weasel... Spread the word, will you, that I'm awake now and we'll see if anybody's still interested in this little tale of ours," Orjan said, and as the audience, alerted by the serving maid and Orjan's bellow for coffee alike, trickled back into the room he started the next part of the tale.
"Right then. Lets see. They had abandoned a remarkably successful attempt of rescuing the cabal, killed some guards (as you do) and interrogated the boy on the roof."
" They quickly and quietly made their way from the roof and moved on to a more select neighbourhood, guided by the gray cat and Villtin's unerring sense of direction. Once they were safely away from the temple, the gray cat flicked her tail at our heroes and disappeared into the shadows.
Newra shivered and hugged herself. "I feel all dirty after that dungeon. The poor men!"
This unexpected display of feminine sensitivity startled Villtin, who eyed her with a posture of manly understanding.
Westala looked up at the sky which had started to lighten up in the cold predawn light. "It's getting early," he said, "and the bath on Akvasulis Street should be open. I wouldn't mind a washup myself, come to think of it."
Without further ado they went to see if a bath could be had, and were happy to see the impressive doors, heavy oak timbers decorated with gilt cascades of bubbles, being opened as they arrived. Polite servants ushered them inside, where the opulence in marble and silk was only slightly less in-your-face than the average harem. The difference, Villtin noted with some disappointment, lay mainly in the lack of nubile females.
There was a brief argument with the manager when he indicated they should leave their weapons by the reception desk. Westala handed over his broadsword, long hunting dagger and newly acquired spear without batting an eyelid, and Newra only objected until she caught a whiff of lavender scented soap, whereupon she unloaded her whole arsenal onto the polished surface of the desk.
Villtin felt uncomfortable about the idea. "Can't I keep just a few small daggers?" he pleaded. "Or some shuriken? They're not really weapons, you know, they're personal ornaments."
But the little toga clad manager was adamant. "Sir, this establishment has been in business for more than two centuries, through three civil wars, many riots, one dragon attack on the city and has always had the same rules. No weapons, no violence, no eavesdropping."
Villtin regarded him with disbelief. "And how do you enforce the last two?"
"With magical measures put in place by the original architect, the great Wheatmiller."
Still the warrior hesitated, until Newra gave him a mocking smile. "You aren't afraid, are you?"
"Of course not," he answered hotly, "I just feel naked without them."
Westala laughed. "You're supposed to be naked when you're having a bath. Come on, I've been here before and it's quite safe."
Newra chimed in, saying "You heard about the compensation theory? That a man with many weapons..."
"That's 'a man with large weapons'," Villtin replied angrily, "and that theory is just jealousy. A man who can wield one kind of large weapon can wield another."
"Is that so?" Newra asked innocently and let her eyes fall on Westala's huge bastard sword and long spear.
Villtin bit his tongue. Then, grumbling, he spent some considerable time removing all weaponry from his person before following the other two through another set of doors and into the changing hall. They shed their clothes and handed them to an attendant, asking for them to be washed and mended as needed.
"What will this cost us?" Villtin asked suspiciously.
The attendant bowed deeply. "For the friends of Westala, it is all free of charge."
Curiously, Villtin and Newra looked at the big man who shrugged. "It's a long story. You remember when we were here, um, three years ago? And you got it into you head that you should enrol as a price fighter at the circus? Well, while you were amusing yourself I made these guys a little favour, so they owe me."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Westala looked embarrassed. "Uh, what would you have said about me risking my life for the sake of a hot bath?"
They laughed and followed him into the bath. Westala led the way past three large, tiled pools whose floor sloped gently from a depth of two feet in one end to eight at the other. Around the sides there were seats, down in the water. There was a haze of vapour over the surface of the first and last and Westala pointed at them.
"The first is quite hot, which is great for softening muscles, the second is about room temperature, for lounging and swimming and the last is just above freezing."4 He smiled happily. "Just like the streams and mountain lakes at home."
"There can't be that many northmen here to make that worth it," Villtin said.
"No, but if you follow me..." He went past the last pool to another set of doors. "This is great for getting both clean and relaxed." He took a thick towel from a pile and went inside.
A wall of hot, humid air struck Villtin and Newra as they followed him. Whereas the rest of the bath house had been lighted with candles, this room got its illumination from a pair of high, arched windows. Clearly, a candle could not be lit in here, and just as clearly the windows would do nothing for any voyeurs, as they were fogged.
"A steambath!" Newra exclaimed.
"Yup. And perpetually hot and steamy, thanks to the magic built into it." Westala seated himself on a wooden bench, the towel protecting him from the hot surface. Lounging backwards, he let out a big sigh and closed his eyes. "I've missed this."
Newra walked a bit further on and sat down on another bench, followed by Villtin on a third. The seats were arranged in groups, they saw. Westala opened his eyes, smiled at them and shouted.
"What?" Newra said.
"I don't know," Villtin replied and rose, "but I'll ask."
He strode over to his big friend. "What did you say?"
Westala, still smiling, nodded towards Newra. "Tell her to come here."
Villtin gave him a long look, turned and shouted to the mistshrouded assassin. "Come here!"
Through the fog he could see her look at him and cup a hand behind her ear. Villtin smiled and beckoned her.
"As the man said," Westala told them when they were all gathered together in one group of benches, "eavesdropping is not allowed."
They got down to planning seriously, sharing what deductions they had made after the foray into the temple. The first conclusion they had made as they emerged from the cultists' was evaluated and confirmed.
"We go southeast," Villtin concluded.
"And I'll stay here and work with Gideoallet and Tily," Newra nodded.
"I think not."
"What? Do you think I would be more useful with you? Flattering, but I want to keep an eye on the cult."
"And I want to keep an eye on you." Villtin wiped the sweat from his forehead. "To be absolutely frank, I'm not altogether sure of you. You changed sides awfully fast, and while I know I am charming, I had not expected such a swift conversion."
Newra turned towards him and put her hands under her fiery hair at the neck to lift it from her back. This manoeuvre had a couple of interesting side effects. Or front effects, as it were. True to his word, Villtin kept his eyes on her. Suddenly he realised that the penetrating gaze he had directed at her eyes had somehow missed. That is, unless Newra's eyes had been drawn by a child, so they were nothing but two round shapes with darker circles in the middle.
The sun finally rose, sending the first red rays through the large windows, painting Newra's soft, silken skin in a warm colour, glistening on the pearls of perspiration scattered over her lithe young body.
Villtin jumped up, grabbed his towel and held it in front of himself, mumbled something incoherent and dashed through the door. A second later they heard a splash and a scream of anguish.
Westala laughed and shook his head. "He never learns."
Newra gave him a questioning look.
"I guess it's because he's a halfblood." Westala was still chuckling. "No real northman would be bothered."
Newra suddenly realised she was naked. So natural had Westala been, so unconcerned, that it was easy to follow his lead without thinking much of it. She blushed, then looked up, nervously and defiantly, to see that Westala's eyes were staring into the distance.
"So you're not bothered?" Newra asked.
He met her gaze, then let his eyes sweep over her body. Surprised Newra saw, not the leering she was used to, nor the cold appraising look she'd had from some employers. The big man just looked at her, interested but not aroused.
"What's there to be bothered about? Skin is skin. You have bits I don't and vice versa. I've got more scars than you, you have more padding. So?"
He looked into her eyes again with a faint smile. "Is a breast an erotic thing? Many men would say yes. But a breast nursing a baby? Just as beautiful, but not erotic." He shrugged his wide shoulders. "Nakedness is only natural. That's how we're born."
He rose and padded over to the door, saying over the shoulder, "I'll be right back."
When he reappeared, he was carrying a tray with three large goblets of chilled fruit juice and was followed by Villtin. The latter sat down again, drank his juice in silence and kept his eyes averted from Newra.
Later the same day, Westala and Tily were walking in a narrow alleyway while Villtin, Gideoallet and Messy Marall were talking and planning back at the inn.
They were in that part of town honest people ignore and merely dishonest people avoid. Every old city has a part like it, usually called the Shades, the Bronx or Rinkeby. In this city it's called The Pit, and over the years it has been used as a dump to get rid of the useless bits of society, in the same manner people un-worriedly throws away mercury thermometers, heavy metal batteries and tins of arsenic-based paint onto the city dump. Out of sight, out of mind, out of my hands, is one of the fundamental truths everywhere.
There was no map of The Pit; you had to navigate by instinct, since streets had a tendency to vanish and appear suddenly, influenced by the latest turf war between the gangs who ruled the area.5 The alleys were straight only by accident, since they tended to follow the route taken by drunken gangs on their way from one tavern to another. Was there a building in their way they usually walked right through, since there were very few masonry buildings left standing. Neither could you judge your direction from the position of the sun, as the Pits were always overcast with smog. It was said that the smog had been put there by the gods to hide the worlds ugliest place, but considering the way gods are said to behave it is unlikely they have any aesthetics to talk about.
Westala had drawn his sword, something he seldom did until he needed it. But after three encounters with men who suddenly appeared out of a doorway or hidden alley, brandishing some sort of weapon and growling "Hand over your valuables or... Shit!" he had judged it prudent. On none of the occasions had he done neither one nor the other of the requested acts, of course, but it was tiresome to hear it repeated.
Either word had got around, or people got, despite all evidence to the contrary, smarter, as they came deeper into the Pit. He hadn't had to kill anyone for a full fifteen minutes now.
He turned a corner and Tily gasped as she saw him collide with himself coming from the other way.
"Autopet!" her Westala yelled, while the other Westala yelled "Grease!" They hugged each other and Tily saw they weren't the same. The newcomer was the same size, just as muscular and had the same long hair and beard, but where Westala's was blond his was more tinted with red. They could have been brothers, twins, clones.
"I thought you were in Byxans," Westala said.
The other northman indicated his enormous baggy pants, made of the finest silk and tied together at the ankles. "I just stepped off the ship from there. I haven't even had the time to get proper clothes yet."
Westala turned to Tily. "This is Autopet, an old friend, from the same village as me. He's a Varing." He turned back to the other man. "Are you free? We're in the middle of a job and can use another reliable man."
Autopet nodded and patted the handles of the two sabres he wore. "Sure, I cold use some exercise." He made sour face. "I thought we'd have lots of fighting to do in Byxans, but no, nobody wanted to fight the Emperor's Varings." He spat.
Westala nodded in sympathy. "If you join us you'll have people looking to fight you all the time. You remember Villtin? He's at the Plummeting Lemming Inn now. Look him up and let him know you're here. We'll be along as soon as we're finished here."
They parted company and Tily tugged Westala's hair as soon as the other northman was out of sight.
"Time to explain," she said, "who was that, what kind of silly name is that, why did he call you Grease and what's a Varing?"
"Ouch. Let go and I'll tell you." He freed himself from her fingers. "As I said, Autopet is an old friend. We grew up together, drank together and fought together. Then he signed on as a Varing some five years ago. The Varings are the personal bodyguards of the Emperor of Byxans. You've heard of that? Huge, old empire, far to the East, reputedly the richest land in the world."
Tily rolled her eyes. "Yes, I know. But why do they need to hire Northmen?"
"Because we can be trusted to be loyal to the man who hired us." Westala talked slowly, as if explaining something obvious to a child. "The guys down there are so full of intrigue they don't even trust themselves. The Varingian guard have proved themselves unbribable, and only the Emperor is allowed to hire Northmen. A lot of us go down there and join for five or ten years or life, even. The pay is very good, and should an Emperor die of age or illness the guard get to take as much treasure as they can carry from his private vaults.6 As for the name Autopet, well..."
"Let me guess," Tily said, "he's a bit of a wanker?"
Westala gave her a blank look. "No. It's a rather convoluted pun on a translation of his paternal name. He's really called Goth, but somehow he doesn't look like one. Some people have names that don't fit them, some do." He sighed wistfully. "Once, I knew a girl called Talula, who looked like it. I don't know where she'd been, but I knew where she was going."
Tily thought about it. For some reason, the name Talula only made her think of custard pies. Lots of custard.
"Anyway, Grease is kind of the same thing, a translation of a nickname in the Northern tongue. I'd be happy if you didn't use it. And you'd better call him Varing, as well." He looked at her in silence for a minute, then: "Now, your turn to explain. What are we doing here?"
"I told you, we're going to see a dog about some dogs."
Westalla mulled this over. "That's what you said before, but I still don't understand. Villtin only said I should escort you, and that's okay, but I'd rather know why."
"Look, you'll see when we get there, it's not far now. Just head that way."
Grumbling, Westala did as she said, and soon they arrived at the docks. Tily guided them to a high fence that separated the docks of the Pit and the better maintained ones on the other side. There was a very small marina there, and in front of it lay the largest dog Westala had ever seen. Large as a Great Dane, muscled as a Rottweiler, it was a monster of a dog. It's small eyes shone with a malicious intelligence as it watched them approach.
Tily slowly walked towards it with extended hands. Suspiciously it sniffed her and then wagged its tail. She to started scratch him behind the ears and motioned for Westala to approach. Somewhat anxiously he closed the distance and offered his hands for inspection. After a sniff and a long stare he passed the test. At least, he was still alive, which, he suspected, meant the same thing.
"We need help," Tily said to the dog. "We need lookouts and scouts. Gideoallet asks you to remember the blood you've spilt together and come to his side."
The huge dog seemed to think this over, then suddenly rose, barked once and bounded away. Bewildered, Westala saw it disappear in the maze of the Pit.
"Don't tell me that dog understood what you said."
Tily hurriedly hushed him. "Dog is the smartest dog there is," she said loudly. She waited a little while before she continued, silently. "But that's probably not saying that much."
"I've never seen a dog like that before," Westala said.
"No, there aren't many left. They were bred as troll hunters. Magic increased their size and intelligence, but they became too unruly. Dog's the only of his kind I know of. But he can help us, he's the undisputed king of all stray dogs in this city. When he barks, the largest Dobermann will jump."
"Oh, now I remember, I think I've heard mentioned the 'Marina Dog' once. So that's him? I thought at the time that it was a person."
"He is a person," Tily protested, "he just happens to like to rip open the jugular of trolls."
"Are we done here then?"
Tily nodded, and without any incidents worth mentioning (as we want to keep the body count low in case there are children listening) they returned to the Inn.
At this point Orjan broke off and stretched contentedly, like a very big and muscled cat. Turning to Marco, he said:
"Right, that'll have to do for starters. Marco? Do you want to continue? If anyone's still interested, that is. Or I can continue by myself now that I have slept properly." He looked around hopefully, and then added:
"Just hand me my pipe and some tobacco first."
"No, I'd better take over now," Marco hastily put in, and then continued a shade heatedly: "I don't know why you always have to exaggerate the steambath episode. Especially as— Villtin has much better self-control than that, which you damned well know. Furthermore, I am quite certain that Newra's little bouncing manoeuvre was intentionally provocative. No, best if I tell the story from here." Before he could really settle in and start doing just that, a thought seemed to strike Marco, and he said:
"By the way, speaking of storytellers, you mentioned one Jay Krow Ling before. I do not think I have encountered her, is she any good?" He looked inquiringly at Orjan.
"Well..." Orjan replied, stuffing tobacco into an old, battered briar pipe, "...you know the old adage that ‘Sex and violence sells’ – a say, by the way, we both hope is still true, I think." He lit the pipe with a match and started puffing. Comfortably leaned back on the bench Orjan talked around the stem of his pipe.
"Anyway, Jay has had some moderate success despite having very little of either, although I believe that the reason she's been very quiet lately is that she's trying to figure out how to get more sex in her stories without alienating her small, existing audience. You wouldn't like her – she tried to make spiders sympathetic." Thus finishing he blew out the match with a smoke ring that rose merrily towards the ceiling.
"Aha, thank you. I'll be sure to approach her works with caution, then," said Marco, before adding:
"Otherwise, for myself," Marco said to his comrade, "I have always been partial to one of the greatest, a good man who – according to his signature – goes by the name Ty Ptt. Then we also have Ian 'Guy' Lou, another good writer, though I am ashamed to admit I have not yet read his most recent works. I liked his stories about the warrior Hammer Tone, though – I know, I know, you think they are dated, but I feel that if they are dated, then they have a historical value, so there!" Marco looked satisfied, then caught an impatient look from the audience. Before he had time to say anything Orjan cut in, gesturing with his pipe.
"You better get on with it now. I know I would appreciate a refresher course in" – he paused briefly to blow a second smoke ring to chase the first – "that 'herry the terry' stuff."
"Oh, sorry. I do stray from the subject, don't I? Well, then, we just heard about Westala escorting Tily to see the fierce Marina Dog..." Marco took up the dropped thread of the tale again:
" As soon as Tily and Westala had left, Villtin, Messy Marall, Newra and Gideoallet got a table and started discussing the next move. The inn was still crowded – practically every room was double-booked, and the common room was bustling – but for some reason no-one seemed to want to intrude on our friends, or indeed go anywhere near them if they could help it.
A map of the area surrounding the city was laid out on the table. "All right. We've learned that Ballong and Bos live in the hills here, by the coast," said Villtin. He had regained his normal cold composure, even though he was clearly Not Talking to Newra at the moment, not if he could at all avoid it. "About fifty miles from the city puts us... here, roughly."
The others followed his finger on the map. "Yes, that sounds about right," said Gideoallet. "There is an old keep up on a mountain spur in that area – the old Masse-Chute Capitale. But if that's where they are, they've chosen a good spot. Devilish terrain, very inaccessible."
"That's where they'll be, then. They're no fools, and I don't think they want company. So, what will we need to get there?"
"Mountaineering equipment, obviously... ropes, bolts, pulleys... There's not much game in those lands, so we'd better bring lots of supplies."
"Weaponry," said Newra.
"Well, obviously weaponry," said Villtin dryly. "I'm not planning on leaving anything behind, and I can hardly imagine you doing that either."
"What can you tell us about the fort itself?" Messy interjected.
"Not much," said Gideoallet. "It's on an outcrop overhanging a rocky coast – it used to be a sentry outpost monitoring the sea. Only one road up there, and it's built right on the edge of the cliff, so from the outermost wall there's a practically vertical drop down to the sea, 200 feet below. The road... well, it would stand to reason if it's well guarded."
"Can we get a more detailed map of the area?" Villtin wanted to know. "This one is at too large a scale."
"That could be hard. Not many people travel to that region these days, so request for maps is low. The only thing I can think of is that one of the museums might have one of the keep and surroundings, but in that case it would be ancient. And the museums have all been shut since the Cult of Me got a foothold."
"I don't believe this! Fifty miles from the largest city in the world, and we can't get a decent map? Brilliant!"
"Meanwhile," Messy Marall said, "there is the matter of the confrontation itself. I've been trying to develop a defence against the effects of Ballong's satires."
"Oh, good. I saw what it did to Westala, and he's lucky to be alive."
"Yeah. I think I'm on the right track, but I need some more time to complete it."
"Doesn't matter much," said Newra. "We'll still need to stay here and watch if the Cult and Affor move the cabal out."
"And then we have Sherilob. She's very powerful, and I'm not quite sure how to deal with her."
"Don't worry about that," said Villtin confidently. "In my experience, most spiders get less feisty once you cut them in half."
They spent some time twisting and turning some alternatives, and reviewing them. Then they started taking notes of what they should take with them. The alarums around them gradually quieted and dispersed.
Suddenly, the front door of the inn opened and a foreignly clothed Westala stepped inside. Villtin rose to meet him.
"Didn't expect you back so soon! But where's Tily? And by gods, what is that outfit? – Wait, you're not Westal— Autopet?!"
"You haven't changed a bit, Villtin," the newcomer said with a grin. "Never let a man speak, do you?"
"Neither man nor woman," replied Villtin and heartily shook the man's hand. "How are you? Fresh out from Byxans, by the look of it."
"I'll have to get some real clothes... Yes, I just got off the ship. I met Westala in The Pit, and he said you have something going on?"
"Yes, we have. Good thing you showed up. Here, let me introduce you." He led the way back to the table and called for attention.
"Everyone, Westala has not developed a rather singular taste in clothing in the last half-hour. This is Goth, a Varing of the Byxantian emperor's guard and a warrior from Westala's village up in the North – an old friend of his. I've seen him fight, and I can tell you that he's not total pants. He'll be of excellent help to us."
"Hallo," grunted the Varing.
"Autopet, I believe you've already met Gideoallet. This is Messy Marall, of the Stargazer clan of the Clench, and this is Newra the Moonlight Raider, whom you may know by reputation." The assorted company greeted the new member as they were hailed.
"'Autopet'?" Newra asked. "I thought you said his name's Goth?"
"It is," grunted Autopet, "but do you think I look like one?"
"Autopet's a nickname," Gideoallet cut in. "But as I understand it, you really prefer to be called Varing."
"That's right," the Northman grunted.
"Do you always grunt like that?" said Newra. "I shall call you Gruk."
"Anyway," Villtin broke in because he could see where this was going, "the Varing will help us. Now, so far we had planned this—"
He was interrupted again, by a call from an approaching Peterwok. This was rather a notable event, because Peterwok never really got out much.
"Hello again, Villtin, I thought I could find you two here. Westala, I need to talk to you. You remember when you were in my surgery, and I— Here, you're not Westala..."
"Oh for heaven's sake, not again..."
"Peterwok," said Villtin rather wearily, "this is Goth the Varing. Also known, to a select few, as Autopet—"
"... but you're better off just calling him Varing. He's a warrior from the same village as Westala, and yes, they are eerily similar. Autopet, this is Peterwok, of whom you've probably heard."
"So I have. And I'm beginning to think it's all true..."
"Remarkable!" said the physician enthusiastically, totally oblivious of the Northman's remark. "The similarity! Your height, build..."
"What's all the hubbub?" Westala looked inquiringly at Villtin, while Tily took a seat. Villtin just rolled his eyes.
The two Northmen stood side by side, and Peterwok's gaze went from the one to the other and back again like he was watching a game of tennis.
"Amazing!" he finally said. "If it wasn't for the colour of the hair... You two could have been brothers! Twins!"
"Yes," laughed Westala, "but we're actually not even related."
"Are you sure?"
"We have different parents, none of whom were related to one another. So yes, we're fairly sure."
"We were even born a few years apart, I was first. Though we did grow up together."
"Truly intriguing. This... well, I suppose I'd better tell you why I came here. It's about you, Westala."
The swordsman raised his eyebrows, and made an inviting gesture to continue.
"Yesterday, when I had treated you for the Satire Grande effects, I took a small tissue sample from you to be able to study your strength."
The physician was about to continue, but interrupted himself when he saw Westala's blank stare. "First of all I don't have a tissue, and second, what could a piece of cloth tell you about my strength?"
"Er, no, not that sort of tissue... I mean cellular tissue."
The blank stare not only remained, but spread throughout the group. Only Messy Marall remained unfazed. "Maybe I can explain. Can I try a metaphor? Well, in much the same way that houses are built of bricks, everything living is composed of cells. But these are so small you can't see them individually with the naked eye, so your body appears to be a single unit."
"We're made out of very tiny living equivalents of bricks?"
"In a word, yes. And there are different kinds of cells. Skin cells, muscle cells, blood cells... Cells of the same type that form coherent units we call tissue – muscle tissue, skin tissue, et cetera."
"Those houses you mentioned, what if they're built out of timber?"
"Then the metaphor doesn't work."
"You know, I could have told them all that," said Peterwok reproachfully.
"Actually, Peterwok," Gideoallet cut in, "I'm quite happy to let you explain, and Messy translate." Westala, Villtin, Tily, Newra and the Varing all nodded.
"Yes, just go on with your story, Peterwok," Tily added hurriedly. "We're all ears."
"Actually, you're not, but it would be interesting to— Well, anyway, I took a small sample from Westala to study his genetic sequence..."
Everyone turned their eyes to Messy Marall.
"Um... sort of a recipe for how we're supposed to be built and grow. It's part of what makes us what we are."
"... but then I thought I could benefit from having more materials to work with, so I set up an experiment with bio-molecular duplication and artificial reproduction, so I would get a synthetic fully-grown animate simile.9 Are you with me so far?"
"I think you lost me around 'experiment'."
"I'm making a copy of you. And when I heard that you were going to fight the people oppressing our city, I thought you could find use for another couple of strong hands, holding a sword."
The company was dead silent. The five non-scientists displayed various expressions, ranging from incomprehension through amazement to slight disgust. Messy Marall's eyes were wide.
"Well," Westala began, "while it is of course welcome news to get more assistance, I'm not sure I understand how you can make a copy of a person...?"
"Cloning?" Messy Marall finally found her voice. "Are you talking about mammalian cloning?"
"I'm sorry," Villtin interrupted, "but what do clowns have to do with this?"
"Clone, not clown."
"Ah, sorry. It's that peculiar dialect of yours."
"Psh! Just because I have a colorful accent—"
"Hey, say that again!"
"Good. All right, about cloning... You could say that it involves taking the 'recipe' I mentioned before from one person, and putting it in – Well, maybe it's best if I ask you this first: does anyone of you know anything about human reproduction?"
There was, ahaha, a pregnant pause while the company raced their thoughts. Eventually Villtin raised a hand.
"I know a thing or two about the practical bits..."
"What about at the microscopic level?"
"Well, does anyone know what an ovum is?"
"It sounds like an old word for egg," Tily suggested.
"Bravo. It's the mammals' counterpart to an egg, a kind of 'original cell', resting in a female's womb, from which all the other cells in the body are derived. The ovum has half of the 'recipe', and the other half is provided by the male in the course of the intercourse. That's why we inherit traits from both our parents, while still being unique individuals." She made a short pause to let the words sink in and the others' blushes fade.
"I think I'm understanding more of this than I expected," Villtin interposed. "So, cloning?"
"Happens all the time with plants. Many plants breed as well – if anyone of you is troubled by hayfever, you are victims of sex-crazed plants. But some plants don't, and when they bud off shoots, the new plant uses the same recipe as the old one. But for animals... Well, it could be argued that it happens with animals as well. Identical twins could be conceived of as natural clones. And in theory, sometimes the ovum could start developing without a conception having happened, using only the female's recipe. The offspring, always a daughter, would then be a 'twin' of her own mother. This is what we call parthenogenesis, or virgin birth. But these occurrences are extremely rare, and to my knowledge there is no adequately documented human case."
"So..." Villtin was arguably the most intrigued of the group, but they were all listening intently. Well, except for Peterwok, who just looked impatient. "If the child is always a girl, then what about that religion that claims that their spiritual leader, who was a man, was born by a virgin mother... that's complete tosh, then?"
"Ah, well, I believe there was a god involved in that story, and that always throws all reason out the window. Anyway, animal cloning involves taking the full recipe from the cell of a person, a purged ovum, and... well, to cut a long story short, it means manufacturing a twin. And most of us delving into the sciences of nature didn't think it was possible."
"Well, I'm perfecting the technique," said Peterwok. "But it'll take a while for him to grow, even though I use my most potent growth-acceleration cocktails. And then there is the matter of teaching him all that he'd normally learn growing up. I'm trying to do most of that with hereditary learning, though."
"Right, fine," Villtin cut him short. "How much more time do you need?"
"I expect that in a week, ten days he'll be fully comparable to Westala."
Villtin made a face. "Hm. I don't think we can wait all that long. But that depends on what we'll need to do before we leave, and how long preparations will take."
"Yeah, have you decided anything yet?" asked Westala.
"Better fill you in. But I vote we go into the kitchen, before we get interrupted again!"
Marco broke off and reached for a cup on the table.
"Excuse me, I just need a sip of water, my throat's all dry..." he said, and then turning to see that Orjan had again started to snore softly, gave his companion a not too friendly kick in the leg.
"Hey! Wake up!"
When Orjan was again sitting up to Marco's satisfaction, Marco continued on with the story.
" They went into one of the back rooms adjoining the kitchen, laid out the map, and briefly recapitulated what conclusions they had reached. Staying in the city a day or two was essential, they all agreed, so that they'd have proper protection against the satires. Beyond that, it was really a matter of wait-and-see, but at least the time could be used to keep an eye on the Cult of Me.
"That's not a lot of planning," Westala commented pointedly.
"No," replied Gideoallet. "There were a few things that got in the way."
"Hm. Climbing and fighting, you say?" said Peterwok. "Then I think I have just what you need."
"Do we get another lecture now?" Newra asked tiredly.
"No, no. This is quite straightforward. Another little project of mine. Let me know when you're ready to leave, and I'll give it to you."
"Do we get a clue on what it is?"
"It's alive. Best if you see it first, before I explain."
No-one wanted to ask any more questions in that direction, so they went on to discuss what means of transportation they'd need, and revised the supplies list. They were joined by Lowmar the innkeeper, and, during quiet moments, Kaylad and Tessan as well.
Finally, Peterwok got ready to leave. "Well, I must get going. By the way, can I ask you a favour?"
"Me?" wondered Autopet.
"Yes, I'm curious if this great strength is something Northern. I'd like to take a sample of you as well, to have something to compare with."
"Well..." The warrior hesitated.
"Oh, don't worry, it'll only take a moment, and it won't hurt at all." The physician fished out a small glass tube and a minute spoon from the pockets of his white coat. "Just open your mouth..."
He scraped the inside of the Varing's cheek, dropped the spoon into the tube and put it away, and then left.
"You know, I'm beginning to wonder if he really is insane, or a genius," mumbled Tily.
"You're not alone," said Messy Marall.
The company got back to deciding what to do next, but there wasn't really anything left that they hadn't already pondered.
Lowmar had fetched the sword Villtin had taken from the dead assassin. "When you go, I want to come too. I owe it to the cabal, I feel like I let them down."
The others were hesitant. "You didn't let them down at all, Lowmar," said Gideoallet. "You have a family to consider. And we're almost too many as it is."
"Yes," said Villtin. "Besides, you're hardly a fighter."
Lowmar didn't reply. Instead, he drew the sword with blinding speed, flicked it into the air, caught it again, and rammed it past Villtin's face, not an inch away. And held it rock-steady there.
Villtin didn't so much as blink.
"Or maybe you are."
Reaching this point in the narrative Marco stretched his back and said contentedly:
"Right, that'll have to do for now. After all this, I need a bit of rest." The last was said with a pointed, sideways glance at the big man at his side. And then, with a straight-on glance at the swiftly emptying table:
"And, possibly, some bread and cheese."
"And well earned it is, I say," Orjan said, referring to Marco's intended rest. "You live and learn, and being around you has always been an education, my friend." He tapped the ashes out of his now smoked pipe and put it back in the pocket it had come from. "Now that the talking's done with, let's get down to some action. We'll start with a bit of sex, I think. Sensitive persons might want to put their hands over their ears and go "lalala" a bit, although no offence is intended." Speaking thusly Orjan went back to the narrative.
" There is, Villtin mused, such a thing as too much information. Last night he had seen a sign whose meaning he had no intention of investigating further. Now, a burglary, a fight, a bath, a lecture, a nap and some shopping later, he stood underneath the same sign, and try as he might he could not ignore the audible clues to its meaning.
As innocently as they could, he, Westala, Newra and the Varing had strolled up Molasses Street in the afternoon bustle. By the doors of The Pimping Llama they stopped, pretending to read the special offers scrawled on a blackboard on the wall. From inside, the exotic noises of llamas in distress – or possibly enjoyment – mingled with the bleating of sheep. It was hard to tell what the sheep were trying to express, since they, as far as anybody has ever been able to discern, have few emotions apart from terror and surprise. Judging from the bleating, though, those two emotions seemed to be vividly experienced.
Subversively looking around, as they assumed could be expected of the patrons of the establishment, and feigning a nervous look of "No, we're not going in at all, we're just standing here chatting a bit. Wouldn't dream of it, don't mind us." they carefully studied the building they had last seen in the dark of night.
Two burly guards armed with spears stood guarding the doors, and faint movements revealed to Villtin's sharp eyes that the roof was better guarded now.
"I wonder if I could get myself one of those spears too," the Varing muttered. He had tried Westala's new toy after the discussions had ended, while the three others had a nap, and he appreciated the quality of it.
"Better not do anyth— Hey!" Villtin objected loudly as he was shoved aside by someone coming out from the establishment. Instinctively his hands moved towards his weapons, but Newra put a hand on his arms to restrain him.
"Don't," she whispered, "That's a Holy Yokel."
Oblivious to the immediate risk to his life the man shouldered past them. He wore a smell of ale and long robes, fashioned of black leather. Only his eyes and nose were visible between the large black beard and an equally impressive black hat. As he walked away, he sang with gusto in a language none of them could recognise. "Neb kyn noc ef nyt aeth id, yr gadwyn trom las kywirwas ae ketwi..."
The three men turned to Newra. "A holy yokel? What, some religious bumpkin?" Villtin asked.
"No, the Bumpkins live in the hills Northeast of here. The Yokels are shepherds, with an intricate semi-matriarchal, clan-oriented society, and a pagan religion that has both pantheistic and nature-spirit aspects. They hold some trees to be holy – oaks for instance – as well as some lakes, springs and rivers."
They all turned around to see Messy Marall coming up to them. Deftly she caught a little orange frog who tried to escape from one of her many pockets and stuffed it into another, then continued. "According to some, the Temple of Afpdor originated among the Yokels, but there was a great schism and the Temple was suppressed for a long time. Nowadays the Yokels are most known for their Midwinter Feast, which draws large crowds every year."
"I was going to say that," Newra harrumphed. "And I was going to say that if you attack one of them, you'll have to spend a lot of effort fending off others." Then she looked at Messy. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, I'm on my way there." She pointed at the building next to the one housing the Cult of Me. "There's a dinner and seminar tonight, and I'll present a paper on the ineffability of pie."
"What, like you can't tell whether it's kidneys or apples in it?" Westala asked.
Villtin looked at The Probing Lemma, wall to wall against the Cult. "A mathematician too, eh?" He gave Messy his most winning smile. "Are you allowed to bring guests? We're really interested, and don't eat much."
Westala and the Varing tried to keep their faces straight.
After a nourishing meal, the four non-mathematicians found themselves at a corner table in the upstairs lecture room, waiting in the shadows for the seminar to begin, each with a pitcher of their favourite drink and a goblet at the table.
"Strange," Westala said, "I always thought yokel and bumpkin were just words meaning someone from the sticks."
"Like you, then?" Newra replied with a smile. "I guess every word has to come from somewhere." She shrugged. "It's like that warlike tribe on the rolling plains. You know, those who worship some fiery bush." She sipped her wine. "Because of their refusal to grow up and accept they're adults, they ritually cut off..." She made a gesture towards her crotch.
Villtin looked at her with horrified eyes. "They cut off their...?"
"So how come they're not extinct?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do they breed?"
She looked uncomprehendingly at him. "Why, like everybody else, I suppose."
"Well, it's not as if it's actually useful for anything. I've done it on occasion, myself. With a sharp knife it's no problem. Sure, you might bleed a little, but not so I would worry." She gave him a big smile. "Maybe, if you're a good boy, I could do it for you someday."
Villtin looked at her, legs tightly together, his face a rictus of horror. Autopet, the Varing, could not hold his chuckle in anymore. "Just the hair, Villtin, just the hair."
"Exactly." Newra explained. "That's why people who do it for, ahem, medical reasons get themselves a wig for that area, and by association that type of wig has come to be named after the tribe."
Westala had been listening to a couple of greybeards on the table next to them, discussing an interesting problem concerning the bridges in a town called Kaninengrad. He turned to them and coughed. "I don't want to intrude on your learned discussion, but my friend Goth here has solved that problem."
They turned to him with interest. "Really? Fascinating! He has proved whether a man can walk over all bridges on the two islands and return to the starting point or not? How?"
"Oh, as I recall, and correct me if I'm wrong here, there was this man who owed Goth a rather large sum of money, and to prevent him from escaping, Goth fired all the bridges from the islands to the shore once he got on the Northern Island. Then, when he had made sure the man was not there, he walked over the last bridge to the other island and fired that too."
The Varing gave a modest nod. "Then I found him, and broke his arms and legs. After that, he couldn't walk over any bridges, had there been any left."
The mathematicians looked at the two Northmen with open mouths. Westala raised his hands. "No need to look so surprised, we're good at that sort of things."
As the two scholars hurriedly left to find another table, Autopet poured himself and his old friend more mulled wine. "You don't want to risk we're overheard, I take it?"
Westala grinned and nodded. "If we're going to ferret out where they're taking the cabal, we can't take any risks of being caught."
Newra gave him a surprised look. "That's it! Westala, you're a genius!"
Villtin looked suspiciously at the level of wine in her pitcher. "He? Newra, are you drunk?"
"No, but it's a great idea." She looked around with a bright smile. "We can't go by force and free them, there were too many guards last time and there'll be more now, right?"
"So we'll have to keep a look out for when they move the prisoners."
Villtin nodded again. At the moment, Gideoallet was keeping an eye on the front of the building, and he had instructed the Marina Dog to watch the back.
"But," Newra continued, "they might be disguised, they might be hidden in... I don't know, in a rolled-up carpet or something, and they might be moved one by one. And if I was Deedeecee, I'd make sure there were a lot of suspicious transports around the time and hope the genuine would be lost in the confusion."
"Yes, I know," Villtin said irritated.
"But if we could get an inside warning, we'd know which transport to follow, right?"
"Yes of course, but what has this got to do with Westala's intelligence?"
"Why, we use ferrets of course." Newra beamed. "There's an apprentice joculator in town with the most amazing crew of ferrets. He used to earn a living putting them in his trousers at village fairs until they formed a union and complained about hazardous working conditions. So he retrained them to form a choir, called the Canon Crew. They're really intelligent and can do all sorts of tricks, and if anyone could spy on the Cult without getting noticed, it's them."
Villtin shook his head. "I don't know. It sounds like something from that weird village in the mountains over the forest." He looked at Westala. "You remember, that's where we finally found that boy we were sent to find, he who hadn't paid his fees to the musicians guild."
"Yeah. Turned out to be a lot more painful for him than it had to be. He had swapped his pipe for a trombone."
"Wasn't it a horn? Trombones usually don't have valves."
"Whatever. Either way he had a funny walk afterwards. And you got bitten by that little white mouse, remember?"
"Anyway," Newra said pointedly, "these are good, and if we can get them to do the spying for us it would be so much easier."
"Oh well, I guess it won't hurt looking into it. What's the chap called?"
"James Pauleson, he's an apprentice of Blue Nick."
"Hmm, I recognise that name from somewhere. Westala, can you remember..." A look at his friend's face revealed that he did remember something, and it wasn't good news. "What?"
"Um, last time we saw Pauleson, he was hanging by his trousers, artfully cut to rip in a little while, head down over a barrel of water."
Newra stared at them. "You must be kidding!" She turned to Autopet who sat staring at the wall with goblet in hand. "Gruk! You've known them longer than I have. Do they always go out of their way to offend everyone they meet?"
He shrugged. "Some people are just easily offended, I guess."
"Anyway, they're working for the Cult. I don't think he's inclined to help us, since we took the money he and his master were carrying from the Cult to Bos and Ballong." Villtin said soothingly.
"Are you sure? Maybe they were just doing someone a favour, running an errand or something? I can't imagine Blue Nick being a bad person."
"She has a point, Villtin," Westala agreed. "Remember how he tried to get Pauleson to stop being a bloody fool? He can't be all bad, then."
"Myeah, perhaps, but would you be willing to risk it?"
"We can ask Gideoallet and Tily to find out more about them," Newra said, "and if they look clean they can approach them. No need to involve you. Especially since we'll be leaving town in a couple of days."
Autopet coughed politely. "Villtin, can you remember the layout of the Cult house? And draw it up?"
Villtin, with the help of Westala and Newra quickly made a set of plans of the building, based on what they had seen and some educated guesses. At first they had been surprised to find neat stacks of paper and pencils on all tables, but seeing how the mathematicians used up four or five sheets just to determine what drink to order it was understandable.
The Varing looked over the plans, thought a bit while humming tonelessly and looked at the table. "Newra, do me a favour and empty your wine glass."
She raised her eyebrows but didn't complain, just swallowed and handed the glass over. Autopet stood up and walked around the table. Carefully he rapped the wall with his knuckles.
"Do you know what's on the other side of this wall?"
"Yes," Villtin said with a superior grin, "the office of Deedeecee. I had already figured that out. But thanks for trying."
The big Northman looked momentarily surprised. "Oh. Yes, of course. But look!" He put the glass against the wall and his ear to the foot of the glass.
The others looked in silence as his brow furrowed in an effort to hear. They didn't even notice when Messy came silently to their table. She took in the scene and started digging in her pockets, finally, after removing the little frog, taking out a stethoscope. This she handed to Autopet before she sat down on the chair he had vacated.
"Well, that went rather well, I think."
"What?" Newra asked.
"My presentation. Of course, it'll take time to examine it in depth, but I feel I fielded the objections rather well, all things considered."
"Good for you," Villtin murmured.
At long last, Autopet let the stethoscope fall down on his broad chest and handed the glass back to Newra.
"In eight days time," he said, "they'll move the prisoners out." He looked soberly at Villtin and Westala. "And you two had better leave the city – they're sending the Dancing Rodents after you, whatever that is, but it doesn't sound nice."
Messy and Newra gasped.
"What is it?" Villtin asked. "I'm not afraid of some rats."
"Oh, the Dancing Rodents are no rats," Messy said. "They're a female death-cult, who only kill men – slowly and agonisingly, working their way down from a smile and a hug. They have, reputedly, never failed. Nobody knows how they track their victims, but no-one has been able to hide from them, and it doesn't matter how many guards you have, they always get past."
Newra nodded. "Their weapons, allegedly the creations of a demented woman called Sume Anders, only work on men, and they are said to be the most potent possible. They are completely fanatical, believing they will be rewarded with unearthly delight once they've finished." She squeezed Villtin's hand. "This is serious."
Westala shifted uncomfortably. "Women? That's not fair. I can't kill a woman."
Newra gave him a surprised look. "Whyever not?"
"It's just not done." He looked pleadingly at his fellow Northman.
Autopet nodded. "He's right. It's dishonourable. If you need to, you disarm them and tie them up, but you shouldn't hurt a woman."
Newra shifted her gaze to Villtin. "You have no such scruples, I recall."
He shrugged. "I'm only part Northman, you'll recall. That sense of chivalry seems to come with the size. Maybe they've been told to be careful with delicate things." He smiled. "Me, I take the custom as they are where I am. If you want to play rough, I'll play rough."
He emptied his goblet of cider and stood up.
"We'd better get moving then. Let's get back to Lowmar."
Orjan, noticing the darkening sky outside the windows, stopped talking and took out his pipe again.
"That's it for me this time. Seeing as how it's getting late, maybe we should continue tomorrow? I seem to recall we were asked to keep the storytelling at a manageable length each day."
At that Marco's head came quickly up. "Whut?!" he said, alarmed, and looked out the windows at the darkening skies. "But, but, but, this means we've talked all the way through supper!"
He stood up and said decisively: "Can't have that," and stomped off towards the kitchen.
Orjan looked after his companion, then remembered something and said: "Oh, and before anyone asks, the popular deciphering spell RotFirTeen won't work on the song of the Holy Yokel. I've tried it. After a long time of study (admittedly mostly spent ogling young, nubile students) I finally managed to find out what language it was, but I can't say it was worth it." He stood up and stretched, pipe firmly set in the corner of his mouth.
"Yeah, g'night," said Marco, who just came strolling back out of the kitchen, around the leg of a chicken he was happily munching on.
3 Pointy end up, the way the gods intended. back
4 The great Wheatmiller was really a great wizard, and the city's bath house was his greatest achievement7. The three pools, for instance, kept their temperatures through an ingenious application of the laws of thermodynamics and the uncertainty principle8. In laymen's terms, there is always a wide variety in the energy state of molecules, so that even a glass of water can be shown to contain both ice and steam at the same time. By applying magical filters, highpass, bandpass and lowpass, Wheatmiller had arranged matters so that molecules more energetic than the filter level on a specific pool were persuaded they should, actually, exist in a warmer one, and similarly molecules less energetic than the filter level were passed onto a cooler pool. back
5 For some reason, two of the gangs are always called the Crips and the Bloods. Recently, the Doves had to universal surprise established themselves as the most vicious and loathsome gang. They had taken their name from a survey of the most despised features of city life, narrowly escaping naming themselves the Taxes. Their trademarked white dove, with an eyeball in its beak and a bloody heart in its claws, is seldom seen outside the Pit, but in that area it's considered prudent to avoid making clucking noises when one is around. back
6 This is actually completely true. back
7 Considering his ability to play with entropy it is a bit surprising that he failed to see the generality of the principles. Instead of a one-off payment, he accepted the contract to build the bathhouse only on condition that he, and his descendants in all eternity, would be paid a commission on every visitor. Unfortunately, he expressed this in absolute, rather than relative terms. Nevertheless, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren are happy that the inflation hasn't been worse, since the annual payout is still good enough to buy a toffee. And a toffee is a toffee. back
8 If you don't know what you're doing – bluff. back
9 Techno-babble? What techno-babble? back
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