The Tale of Westala and Villtin
By Örjan Westin and Marco Villalta, introduction by ppint.
Edited by Elin Rosén
The morning broke bright and crisp, golden sun rising above the rooftops as though delighted to brighten the new day. Not a cloud was to be seen as morning turned to mid-morning and bluebirds twittered gleefully on branches in full summery bloom. Couples completely failed to dance blissfully in the streets, happy hawkers were nowhere to be seen, for all the town was in the pub, waiting for another day's storytelling to begin. Just as soon as Orjan and Marco saw fit to wake, that is.
"Good morning, everyone," Orjan said as he came walking down the stairs, looking rested and eager. "Sorry I slept late, but I did feel a bit worn after yesterday's long session."
"Indeed," Marco agreed, "So did I; as tired as I was all day yesterday, I don't now why I didn't turn in early. I mean, I know the story. After all, I w— I've heard it before," Marco quickly corrected himself before continuing, "And I still can't believe we talked our way through both lunch and dinner proper. Good job I remembered to get a bite to eat while you told the story." The two men walked to their usual table, looked around to make sure the serving girls were standing by, and sat down.
"Now let's see," Orjan began. "As you know, I'm not much of a breakfast eater, so perhaps just a pot of coffee." Almost before Orjan finished his sentence a steaming pot and two cups were put on the table in front of him.
Orjan filled one of the cups and drank appreciatively. As he put down his cup, he continued ordering his breakfast.
Recognising the look on his comrade's face Marco shook his head slightly and sighed, amused, "Oh dear, we're in for another long session. Better ask for a plate of cold cuts right away, then. Please?"
"And a pile of pancakes," Orjan continued. The pancakes, like the coffee, were produced almost before he closed his mouth, by a second serving maid, while a third put an enormous platter of cold cuts in front of Marco. "Just for starters, eh?" she smiled and winked.
Orjan looked at the plate, then up at the beaming faces of the maids, and said: "Thank you." while nodding a slight acknowledgement to their having anticipated his and Marco's wishes.
" Capulette reined in her horse and turned to Dog. "Thank you, but I can follow the track myself from here. You are needed in the city."
She watched him lope off and patted the neck of her horse.
"Just you and me now, but we'll have no problems, will we?"
"That depends." From the shadows of the trees a man appeared, dressed all in black. "What do you want here?"
Capulette studied him. Tall, pale and black haired, with heavy boots showing beneath a long black leather coat, he moved with the smooth confidence and balance of the experienced warrior.
"That's none of your business."
The man opened his coat slightly and withdrew a long, slender sword with a carved ivory handle.
"It might be. Are you looking for Affor? If so, you'll come no further."
"Is that all you've got, only one sword?" Capulette said disdainfully.
The warrior lifted the sword over his head and held it absolutely still with both hands on the long handle, then brought it down in an arc and stopped the motion. His hands were suddenly empty.
"There is no sword."
He parted his hands and swiftly brought them together in a loud clap. "But then again, there can be only one." His hands held the sword again, and with his eyes fixed on her he twirled it around in a most impressive and intimidating manner.
Capulette looked, sighed, pushed her hat up a bit, drew both her pistol crossbows from their saddle holsters, and shot him.
Suddenly, it appeared to her as if time had slowed down. She could see the two bolts moving leisurely towards the warrior, leaving ripples in the air. He bent over backwards like a Goth limbo-dancer and swerved out of the way, beneath the projectiles.
Then time resumed its normal pace. The bolts smacked into a tree behind him and he straightened up, smiling confidently.
And hit his head on a low branch, knocking himself out flat.
Capulette looked thoughtfully at the prone body.
"Well, that's one sad bastard, and that's official."
Mega Vole waited for a long time in the darkness, until the sorcerer, the spiders and the fellowship were long gone. Then, with a sigh of resignation, she picked up her small backpack and climbed down from the ledge from which she had overlooked the encounter that had ended in two deaths. She felt numb.
A small lamp gave her a little light, and patiently, resignedly, she explored the vast cavern, found a narrow tunnel leading to the other side of the chasm and then a way out.
The stars were out when she finally emerged on the mountainside.
"He's dead. You saw him fall. You saw how deep it was. He's gone. Simple as that." Newra's voice was exasperated. "Accept it."
"No." Villtin shook his head. "He isn't dead."
"What? You would know if he was, like a lover in an old romance?"
"No. I just know he isn't dead."
"Maybe so," Autopet said, "but we can't do anything for him, whether he's dead or alive."
"How come you take it so calmly?" Lowmar asked. "I'm shocked, and you've known him for far longer than I have. You grew up together!"
The big Northman shrugged. "Yes. So? People die all the time. You remember them, and you honour their memory, but as long as you are alive, you are more important than the dead."
Newra nodded. "You can't expect to reach old age when you're a mercenary."
"No, that's true, and I've lost friends in combat before. But that's beside the point. The dead are gone, the living remain."
"Is that what... he would have said?" Lowmar asked.
"Yes. We tend to take the pragmatic view." Autopet put an arm around the shoulders of Villtin. "Come on, Polo, you know he wouldn't have wanted you to mope around."
Villtin looked up with a quick grin. "Nobody has called me that for a long time." He straightened and looked up at the stars. "You're right, of course, although I refuse to accept that I've been moping."
He sighed. "Well, I still think he's alive, but as you say, it doesn't really matter at the moment. I guess we should post a guard and try to get some sleep. It's been a long day."
Here, at the foot of the mountain, there was a barren plain stretching away towards a dense forest. Their camp was set up in the lee of some large boulders, with a stream trickling nearby. The dragon had drunk thirstily from it, and when it didn't seem adversely affected, they had cautiously filled their water skins.
A simple stew was bubbling over the small fire, tended by Lowmar.
"I didn't know you were called Polo," he said. "Is it a nickname, like Autopet?"
"No, it's an old family name, given to every son in honour of Polo Farfarer, who was a Cyning and explorer."
"Oh, an old word meaning king. Polo was the son of Roi Gules, a sea captain, and taking a leaf from his father's book, Polo went exploring. He came back and told tales of a newly found land across the sea. He called it whine land, because the inhabitants complained all the time, blaming someone else for their own failures."
"And he became king there?"
Villtin laughed. "No. He wasn't believed and the king at home insulted him, so he lost his temper, killed the king and succeeded him."
He helped himself to a bowl of stew. "There are many stories about his adventures. In one, he travelled to the centre of the world and met the secret ruler of all men and gods. Once, when he was caught in a storm between Piero and Firmalocale, he..."
Autopet, who had silently volunteered to take the first guard shift, smiled behind his beard. After the almost panicked rush to get out of the mountain, and the arduous climb down its side, Villtin had needed a bit of time to grieve, as he had himself. But being the leader, Villtin could ill afford it, so Autopet had put up the façade of calm acceptance and done his best to reconnect Villtin to his responsibilities.
Now, he silently promised himself that if he got out of this alive, he'd hold such a wake to the memory of Westala that Lowmar's barrels of cider, mead and ale would all run dry.
There were houses in the trees, Villtin pointed out. The forest was stately, with huge trunks widely paced, and strangely tranquil. High up they could all, once it was pointed out, see houses and platforms, connected by rope bridges, forming a city beneath the silvery canopies. There were no straight lines, no right angles, only smooth, organic curves.
The houses seemed to be deserted, however, and out of reach.
"They must have rope ladders," Autopet speculated.
"Unless they live their whole lives up there," Lowmar suggested.
"If there is anybody living there at all," Newra added.
Villtin was silently scanning the strange city above them, his sharp eyes looking for threats.
"There!" he exclaimed.
The others looked but could see nothing. Villtin shook his head.
"I could have sworn..." he said, almost to himself. "It looked just like Peterwok."
Autopet gave him a worried look.
"No, of course not. I made a mistake." Villtin pinched the bridge of his nose. "Did I just say that?"
"Yes," Newra assured him gleefully.
"I must be very tired, then. Let's get out of here." He skirted a small pool and walked on, towards the sound of a river.
The river ran in a deep gorge, twenty yards wide.
"It looks like there's been a quay there, on the other side," Newra pointed.
"But there's no bridge over by the river quay," Villtin said sourly, "and unless you can capture a lot of stupid slaves, we're not going to build one."
"I think there is a bridge downstream, though," he continued, squinting along the gorge. "Looks rickety, but..."
A guttural "Hai!" interrupted him, and they all turned around. From the forest came a group of... men. Or man-like creatures, at least. The head-, arm- and leg-count largely conformed with that of men, and they did walk upright. At least twenty of them advanced slowly, brandishing huge cleavers.
They were dressed in dark, dirty leather, contrasting starkly to their pale skin. Many had strange metal designs riveted to their faces and arms – a red jewel over the eye being a particularly popular feature. On their chests they had what looked like a white mushroom painted.
After a bit of shuffling, a leader emerged, dressed in white tunic, black and white chequered trousers and a white wobbly hat that looked like it had been the model for the devices they sported.
"Who shumbe du!" he said and waved a spatula with a finely honed edge.
"Pardon?" Villtin rested his right hand lightly on the handle of his scimitar while discreetly arming his left with a throwing knife.
"Er... no thanks, we have only just met."
"Look, I don't understand a word of what you're saying, old chap. Terribly sorry."
Autopet came to his side. "I think... It sounds almost like Dalamal."
"Dalamal?" Villtin whispered.
"The language of a tribe of people up north, the Dalamas."
"Oh, yes, I've heard of them. Do you understand this then?"
"A bit. Let me try to talk to them."
Autopet walked up to the leader and had a hushed conversation, the returned to his friends, a worried frown on his face.
"They call themselves the Bork, or 'The Fighting Bork-Hai of the White Hat'," he told them quietly. "In short, what I think he said was 'Impudence is futile' and if we don't surrender we will be 'fricassimilated'."
"What's that then?" Villtin asked.
"I'm not sure, but I think it means they'll carve us up into tiny pieces and assimilate us by eating us."
"Are you sure you understood him correctly?"
"No. How could you tell?"
Villtin ignored that. "So we have to fight them?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Hang on," Lowmar said. "I might have a secret weapon."
"Oh?" Villtin was instantly interested.
"Yes, I noticed that one of the small kegs of salted herring I brought has gone rotten. I've seen it happen before, and the stench is quite horrible. They're downwind from us, and I reckon that once they get a sniff of this, they'll run away."
"Ah..." Autopet said.
Lowmar produced a small keg from his backpack. Internal pressure was straining against the riveted bands holding it together, and a faint but altogether horrible smell wafted away from it.
Villtin backed off. "Just make sure nothing comes this way."
"Um..." Autopet said hesitantly.
Lowmar hefted the keg and heaved towards the Borks. It landed on a rock, just like intended, but instead of bursting, it let out a small spray of stanching liquid and bounced back towards them. They jumped out of the way and the keg rolled over the edge of the gorge, down into the river.
"Well, it was a good idea," Villtin said and armed himself with scimitar and matchyeti. "Shame it didn't work."
"Out of the way!" Autopet shouted and pushed the rest of them aside.
Not a second too soon. The Bork ran after the keg and plummeted down into the river, shouting "Shushtromming!" and "Bork bork bork".
They stared in astonishment as the last of the Borks jumped down, shouting "Let's go!" in a nasal falsetto.
"As I was trying to say," Autopet said when the last leather-clad body had been swept through a series of whitewater-covered rocks in the river, "if I recall correctly, the Dalamas regard rotten, fermented herring as a delicacy. You could probably have used it to buy safe passage, but," he shrugged, "this works just as well, I guess."
The bridge was, indeed, rickety. Four ropes were stretched over the gorge, and a set of weathered planks formed a floor. Autopet eyed it dubiously.
"No worries," Villtin said, "I'll go first and check it."
And so he crossed, without any problems at all. After checking the moorings on the other side, he sauntered back.
"I'll bring the dragon with me now. It's stable enough, but I wouldn't want to overload it. Him and me, first, then you three. Okay?"
Again he traversed the bridge, this time leading the dragon on its leash. Once over, they sat down and waited for the others. The rest of the fellowship moved more slowly and nervously, for the wind had picked up and the bridge was swaying from side to side.
When they had reached the middle, one of the planks split in two under Autopet's weight, but he managed to catch himself on the two ropes serving as railing and with the help of Lowmar and Newra he soon climbed up. After that, they all moved even slower.
Villtin fretted, impatient for them to reach his side. He cast a glance at the dragon, who stared intently at something in front of it. It was a moth, he saw, flying erratically, like it knew where it was but not where it was going, or maybe vice versa, but never both. It landed on the nearest mooring post.
The dragon didn't hesitate long. Its tongue shot out, breaking the post. The moth, unhurt, fluttered to the next and again the dragon lashed out.
"No!" Villtin jumped up, but it was too late for him to do anything. With a creak, the bridge broke lose from the edge. Everything happened very quickly. Autopet, who was in front and saw what was happening, grabbed the rail with one hand.
"Ohshekohshekohshek, I'm going to die!" Newra screamed, but Autopet managed to catch her around the waist with his free arm.
Lowmar caught hold of Autopet's foot and held on as hard as he could.
Then they all shouted "Whee!" as the bridge followed the path of least resistance, went down and over and slammed itself and them into the rock wall of the gorge.
"Shek?" Autopet asked dazedly once he regained his breath.
"Green marsh gunk."
Lowmar looked up, and in a confused voice offered his most current reflection on what he saw.
"Villtin's right, that is a nice behind you have there."
Newra shook her head to clear it. "We're hanging on the remains of a broken rope bridge, with a crazy dragon on the other side, and you think it's a good time to worry about an ass?"
They hung in silence for a little while, catching their breath. Newra tentatively tried her weight on one of the planks, but it broke off and fell down into the river. Then she tried to take hold of the rope, but it was too thick for her hands to hold securely. Lowmar did not fare any better. Only Autopet had hands large enough to hold on, and between gritted teeth he complained about the strain on the one hand holding them all up.
Newra wrapped her arms and legs around his neck and body, respectively, in a manner Villtin had only dreamt of, thus freeing his other arm.
"Can you pull us up?" she asked.
"Who do you think I am, Fezzik?" Autopet answered irritably.
"No," she answered calmly, "I've never heard of him. Is he strong?"
"Well, he's a wrestler in Byxans, the only one besides Westala who has ever bested me in arm wrestling."
"Did you ever beat him?"
"Oh, yes, about half the time." He took a few deep breaths. "But this isn't really the time or place for this conversation. Can't you use those octopus thingies?"
"No, it's shale, all crumbly."
"For Yurmalke's sake, man, just shut up and climb!" Lowmar shouted. "Think about Westala!"
Autopet closed his eyes and relaxed. Then he started to climb, slowly, upwards to safety.
After much effort Mega Vole had managed to get a fire going and sat huddled in front of it in, wrapped in a blanket. She wasn't far behind her prey, but the fiery determination that had filled her earlier had been replaced with despair. She was without supplies, without guidance from her mentor; alone in a wilderness filled with strange monsters, she began to question her beliefs. She had never, she admitted to herself in the honesty of the night, been properly despising of men. Mainly, she'd joined the Conga Rats for the cool outfits. And of course, there were worse careers for women. But she couldn't claim she despised all men any more. She'd seen an act of unselfish bravery from a man, sacrificing himself to save his companions – one of them a woman who had reputedly tried to kill his best friend. He hadn't needed risk his life to protect her. But he had. And he had died.
She shivered in the chill night, haunted by doubts, preoccupied with her own misery. She never heard his approach, but suddenly he stood there in front of her, an apparition of white against the darkness. She gasped in shock, then gathered her valour around her like a cloak, shed the blanket and stood, confronting him with her sword in her hand and her body posed to distract, just as she'd been taught.
"Are you..." She faltered.
He just stood there, looking dazed, swaying unsteadily. His long sword still sheathed in a scabbard slung over his shoulder, his right hand clasping an ornately carved walking staff. His hair, his beard and his clothes were white as snow, just like his skin. The pale blue eyes were the only colour showing.
"Have you come to haunt me?"
He didn't react to her words, nor to her appearance. His eyes were focused in the far distance. Then he opened his mouth under moustaches seemingly fused with the tangled beard. Small flakes of something white fell down. "I have come back." A whisper, barely heard.
Mega Vole felt the gooseflesh ripple over her body, her nipples hardening against the cold cups of steel that were the most prominent part of her costume. Chill, both of the night and the fear of this uncanny encounter, gripped her body and mind. He just stood there, unmoving, silent, while she fought to regain control. Slowly, in a display of bravery she had not thought herself capable of, she sheathed her sword and reached out. Touched something solid.
"You are no ghost." There was wonder in her voice. "But I saw you fall, I saw you plunge into the depths of the mountain after my Mistress."
She withdrew her hand, the tips of her finger lingering for a moment on his white skin. She lifted them up to her face and rubbed her now white fingertips together. "It's chalk!"
The white figure hunkered down in front of the fire and closed his eyes. The light from the flames flickered over him, and she saw that he was completely covered in chalk. There must have been a pool of water in a layer of chalk, far beneath the stone bridge he'd fallen from. That would have broken the impact of his fall. Let him survive. But more than survive, he had found his way out of the mountain, without light, without knowing what fate had befallen his comrades. Hurt, cold, battered and bruised, he had come out of the mountain. No wonder he looked dazed.
She could kill him now. She could. He was helpless. She could simply slit his throat, or kill him in the more traditional manner of her order. She should kill him now. She should.
But she wouldn't.
With a sigh, she admitted that she was no true Conga Rat. Then she gathered up her blanket, draped it over his unmoving shoulders and gave him an awkward hug. A friendly, comforting hug, like the ones she remembered receiving from her mother, in another life. It was, she thought with a wry smile, a hug that more than anything showed that she was no longer a Dancing Rodent.
"He gave me a staff."
The hoarse whisper made her jump. "Wha... who?"
"A slim, elfin man. Said it would help me. Said it was a fairy-staff. It lit my way. Met him under the mountain. I'd swear he's elvish. Gave me a staff. Said it would help. Said it was..."
His voice sounded like sandpaper on fine crystal. He must have swallowed enough chalk to make him plastered, inside and out, Mega Vole thought. She found her water bottle and offered it; then, when he didn't touch it, got the cork out and put the flask to his lips. Slowly, drop by drop, she got some water down his throat.
At long last she managed to lay him down by the fire, rolled up in the blanket. He still held his staff tightly. Strangely revived by severing the bonds to her previous life, Mega Vole foraged for firewood, then sat and watched him sleeping. In the morning, he might regain his senses and show a violent reaction to be nursed by her, but she'd face that challenge then. For some reason, she was sure she would manage.
Orjan stopped talking, stuffed his mouth with pancake and said between chews: "So, the fellowship was broken into three parties. I'll let my good friend Marco here continue the story."
Having swallowed, Orjan took out his pipe and resumed his habitual puffing. Gesturing with the pipe stem towards Marco to urge him on.
"Go on, you've been silent long enough, man."
"Well, you seemed to be on a roll, and I didn't want to interrupt you," Marco replied with a mischievous grin on his face. Then, gathering both his features and thoughts into something resembling seriousness, at least if you were across the room, and squinting, Marco continued his telling.
"Hmmm... Yes, that's a good place to leave off. Could take a while to get there, though, so you'd better get something to nibble on in the meantime." The last with a nod towards Orjan and the audience.
" Lowmar looked at the remains of the bridge and pulled his beard anxiously.
"Well, that's just great! That's sweet, that is! We're in some pretty trouble now, I tell you! This game is already over!"
Autopet grabbed him by the collar. The Varing didn't often get annoyed – about as often as Lowmar was distraught – but he was now. "Are you finished?"
"What are we going to do now?" wailed the innkeeper. "What are we going to do?!"
"Well, if you want to get across the gorge, I can always toss you. Hm? How about that?"
"Let him go, Goth," Villtin called across the river. "This isn't getting us anywhere."
"Any suggestions?" asked Newra, leaving Autopet glaring at the sobbing Lowmar.
Villtin thought about it for a while, looking upstream and downstream along the river every so often. "Unless anyone has a better idea – in which case I want you to speak now or forever hold your peace – I'll go back upstream with this damn dragon and see if the gorge doesn't get more shallow. Maybe the river is fordable somewhere. You three go on downstream, there might be another bridge, or the river might calm down and form a pool that you could raft across, or whatever." He squinted along the gorge again. "I can't see anything near here, but it's getting too dark to see properly anyway. Let's say that if we don't find anything within the next two days, we come back here and think of something else. How's that sound?"
Newra nodded. "Reasonable. Oh, and if I happen to stumble over any stupid slaves, can I capture them?" she grinned.
"You do that. We'd better get going as soon as possible, I don't want to stare into the abyss for too long."
"Right. 'Ill departed by twilight', or something."
"Oh, do shut up. 'See you later, love!'"
Capulette was just about to stop for the night to strike camp, and reined in her horse. She had chased after Tessan's captors all day, the only notable event of which had been running into three of Affor's henchmen. Presumably, they were still lying in a pained heap on the ground, and would possibly never recover fully.
She dismounted and lifted the saddlebags off, and was more than a little surprised to turn and find the man with the black clothes and leather coat standing nonchalantly ten yards away from her.
"Oh, look, it's the sad bastard again. When did you overtake me?"
"I didn't. I was here all the time."
Capulette put the bags on the ground, and rested her hand on the hilt of her weapon. "But I last saw you a day's journey back."
"Huh. What, you have a twin brother?"
"No, but distance is just an illusion, like everything else. When I came to after our last meeting" – the man had the decency to look embarrassed – "I decided to wait for you here instead."
Capulette shook her head. "Who are you, anyway?"
The pale man drew his ivory-hilted katana. "Well, those who try to get past me generally know me as 'the barrier'."
Capulette nodded thoughtfully. Then she dived for her pistol bows and shot at him again. She didn't expect to hit, but planned to rush him while he dodged the bolts.
He didn't dodge the bolts. Time slowed down as it had before, but the "Barrier" didn't twist out of the way. Instead he put up a hand, like a halting signal.
The bolts slowed down, and stopped. Time got back to normal speed, but the bolts hung motionless in the air. The Barrier picked up the one at the front and studied it briefly, before dropping it to the ground. He executed a little wave and the other bolt dropped too.
Capulette glared at him. Then she drew her cavalry sabre and rushed him anyway.
It was like moving through thick syrup. Her perception of time felt quite normal, but everything moved ten times slower than they should, if not more. Except for the Barrier, who moved unhindered at what Capulette perceived as "normal speed".
Their blades met, and skidded along each other edge-on as the man stepped out of the way. Sparks cascaded off the edges. And then Capulette fell flat to the ground.
The Barrier circled around her. "Want to try that again? You know, giving up and going back is the only way you'll survive this."
She got up and attacked him again, this time with less force, not rushing blindly. Sparks flew each time the blades crossed. Despite all her skills with the sabre, as quickly as he moved – or, from her viewpoint, as slowly as she moved – he had no trouble fending her off.
On the other hand, she found that while she couldn't move very fast, since her perception of events was unaffected she could plan her strikes quite well, as well as parry or avoid his blows. But it was a tiring fight.
She brought her blade around in a fierce swing. The Barrier twisted out of the way, of course, but it gave her the chance she'd been waiting for. There was a broken-off tree branch just next to her.
So while the strange man was still straightening up, Capulette fought the slow momentum, dropped her weapon, picked up the branch and swept out the Barrier's feet from under him.
"Dodge this," she grunted.
The man fell on his back, and when the wind was knocked out of him, time got back to normal. Another whack with the branch sent him off to dreamland.
Villtin could have punched the dragon for being so short-sightedly stupid back at the bridge, but it had given him a double hiss – with one mouth inside the other – and he'd thought better of it.
He had to admit, though, that it had been very handy for splitting logs to make firewood. He now sat tending to a roaring campfire, the dragon curled up asleep some way away.
Villtin put another log on the fire, and sighed. For all his assertions to the rest of the fellowship, reality was beginning to set in. He'd seen for himself how deep the ravine under the bridge had been, and there was simply no way that anyone could survive such a fall. Except possibly if there was a deep pool of water down below, but what were the chances of that?
Still, he simply would not accept that Westala was dead on any less than being presented with a corpse. What he really wanted to do was go back inside the caves and search for his friend, even if he had to turn the mountain upside-down and tear the place to pieces in the process. But he knew that it was a practical impossibility, especially right now.
He looked up at the dark shape of the mountain. He glared at it. And put another log on the fire.
Another roaring campfire.
Newra didn't have a dragon to prepare firewood, but she had a warrior from the North and an innkeeper and that worked every bit as well.
"What a gods-forsaken place," she muttered, mostly to the air. "I've crossed parts of these lands before, and never seen any reason to go slow."
"I can't understand why it's so empty," said Lowmar. "There's healthy grass and shrubbery everywhere I look, you'd think there'd be something living of it."
"Oh, there is game, just not much of it. And mostly it's small, I haven't seen tracks of anything bigger than a hare. I guess the animals share my sentiment about this place; it's bloody depressing."
"Well, we could do with coming across something soon, we're running a bit low on supplies. We had to leave too much behind with the cart, and then we lost more in the caves."
"Yes, but we shouldn't be very far from the fort now," said the Varing. "We'll raid the larder on the way out."
"How far, do you think?" asked Newra.
"Can't be much more than twelve, thirteen miles, as the crow flies. If only we can cross the river, we should be there before the end of tomorrow, I think."
"Good. Gah! All this talk about food has made me more hungry. I'd kill for a chocolate cake right now."
"Funny you should say that," said Lowmar, "because I had actually brought a couple of bars of chocolate. I don't think I could whip up a cake out here, but chocolate is always chocolate."
"That it is. So where is it now?"
"In the stuff we left with the cart."
"What?! You brought along rotten herring but no chocolate? What the hell kind of prioritising is that?"
"Well I didn't know the herring had gone bad, did I? And herring is more nutritious than chocolate."
Newra looked like she could have killed even without a cake, but restrained herself. Lowmar quickly changed the subject.
"Any bets on who'll find a way to cross the river first, us or Villtin?"
"Unless we're closer to something, my money's on Villtin," said Autopet. "Man walks pretty fast."
Lowmar grinned. "I've noticed. Is he in a permanent hurry, or what is it?"
"And how do you think he's holding up?" asked Newra. "Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to leave him alone."
"Why, are you worried?"
She nodded. "Bit concerned, yeah. I know what you told us before, but still. I wouldn't want anyone to be alone after their best friend just died."
"Oh, he'll be all right," said the Varing brightly. "He's doing just fine."
The Dog trotted down an empty alley close to the Cult of Me's quarters. Like most of the streets in the city, it was devoid of movement at this time of night. Uncharacteristic for this usually lively city, and so Dog, who quite liked the bustling of the place, was glad to take part in an attempt to get rid of the cause.
Not entirely devoid of movement.
Out of a side alley padded a grey cat. It stopped dead in its tracks when it saw the huge dog.
There was one of those wonderful moments when cat and dog just notice one another, are forced to acknowledge that what's in front of them actually exists, and size each other up. It's somewhat similar to a time-slice picture, only in real time.
Dog took a leap forward. Intelligence had taken a back seat to instinct on this one.
"Mreeoww!" the grey cat screeched, and took off along the streets.
The Marina Dog bounded after it. The chase took the barking mad canine following the startled monochrome feline halfway across town, in and out of alleys, up and down stairways, dodging the occasional stroller who had braved the city's mood – and who threw themselves flat against the walls as the pair thundered past.
In the end the grey cat took a wrong turn into a dead end. But although it was left lost for escape routes, it wasn't left lost for options. As Dog closed in, it clambered up a drainpipe, jumped off and made a backflip. Two and a half backwards somersaults, one and a half spin, pike formation.
It landed on the dog's back, and, with a speed that would have put a snake to shame, reached down below with a set of claws.
Dog froze up instantly. And that's the great thing about intelligence: when instinct fails, it's there to catch you. Very slowly, he turned his head and looked at the cat glaring back at him. He whined softly, as if to say, "Ah. Yes, I get your point. All five of them, in fact. Well put."
Carefully, the cat slipped down to the ground with a soft mewling: "So long as we understand each other."
Westala woke up, and did the corporeal check-up your sub-conscious does every morning:22 all limbs and extremities present and accounted for, although most of them extremely sore. One head, albeit with a splitting headache. Throat and skin very dry, eyes irritated.
Not the best of mornings, then.
Mind unpleasantly slow, memory a gaping hole. He didn't know where he was or what he was doing there; he could only just remember who he was.
Definitely a bad start to the day.
He sat up, slowly and with much effort, and was surprised to find the softness of a blanket around him. He blinked a few times, which seemed to help his eyes.
He was as white as a ghost. Hadn't expected that. He certainly didn't think he was dead, and his aching body agreed with him. Further investigation showed that he was covered in chalk, but he was at a loss to find a good reason for this state of affairs.
He took in his surroundings, which seemed to consist of a small clearing in a dense forest and the remains of a campfire. He could hear the trickling of a stream nearby, and indeed, through a gap between the trees he could see it coming down the mountain, far away in the distance. Right on the edge of hearing he thought he could make out the roar of a river.
The mountain seemed to spark off a memory, although he wasn't sure what of. But when he saw the Dancing Rodent, sitting asleep with her back against a tree, his recollections of the previous night began to trickle back.
What was a Dancing Rodent? He didn't know, but apparently this girl was one. A cult... a female death-cult, yes, reputed for killing men in sensually inventive ways. And now they were out to kill him and... He hesitated. His friends?
Who were the people who had been with him?
But this girl had tended to him, last night. Cared for him, given him water, kept the fire going.
Westala found that an odd way of trying to kill someone. Of course, it was entirely possible that she was just waiting for him to regain his full mental acuity to make the kill more of a challenge, but he deemed it unlikely.
She stirred and woke up. As soon as her sub-conscious had finished its start-up body audit, she opened her eyes and looked around.
"Oh. You're up."
"On... only just now." Westala's voice was still hoarse from his dry throat. Her initial nervousness calmed, the girl offered him her water bottle. He drank gratefully.
"How do you feel?"
"Better now. But I don't remember much of anything beyond last night."
Her mouth dropped open. "You've lost your memory?!" It came out as a whisper.
His brow furrowed with thought. "No," he said eventually, "not lost. Not exactly. Feels more like it's... misplaced. It's like..." He waved his hands vaguely in the air. "... it's all out there, but I can't find it. I can feel the shape of it, but I can't reach it."
He looked her in the eyes. "Like you, for instance. I can't help thinking that you're supposed to be trying to kill me. Instead, you nursed me, last night. You probably saved my life. Why?"
The girl sighed, wondering where to start.
"How much do you remember?"
"I remember finding you. I remember walking towards the light of your campfire. Not in great detail, though, because I was a bit dazed."
"You looked as much."
"Thank you," he smiled wryly. His gaze fell on the staff he still held tightly in his hand. "I remember the elfin man who gave this to me, and finding my way out of the mountain. And before that, a sensation of... falling...?"
Only a slight change in the tone of voice suggested that the latter was a question, but he looked at her inquiringly. And now she had a place to start.
"You did fall. You were up on a narrow bridge in a great cave in the mountain. My Mistress chose that place to kill you all, but instead you killed..." She stopped. "No, actually you didn't. I have to be honest at least with myself. You stood up to my Mistress with such might that she could not control herself, and she fell into the chasm. Then Sherilob came, and dragged you down too."
"The false straw-man collar. I shouldn't have taken it off."
He stared ahead of him. "I'm not sure. It... tricks Sherilob somehow, but I can't remember why."
He took a deep breath. "Even on the way down, the spider tried to kill me. It hauled me in on its line, like a fisherman. But I managed to break some of its legs and its jaws, and tear free from the web. Then I... I caught a reflection in something further down, something lighter against the deep dark. I think I jumped off the spider, towards that lighter spot."
He looked at his white-covered person. "Turned out to be water. I nearly lost consciousness when I hit it, I guess I'm lucky I didn't break my neck. After that, everything became a bit hazy. I don't know how long I fought to get back to the surface, or how long it was until I met the elvish man."
The Dancing Rodent stared at him, her mouth ajar. His relating of the events had been dead calm, with a hint of fascination at how much he could remember of them. She was awe-struck at this display of composure, and sought in vain for a suitable comment. "Oh!" didn't quite seem to cut it.
"They're all right. Your friends, they're all right." She grew anxious by his blank look. "Don't you remember them?"
He didn't answer immediately, and it worried her. "I remember that there were people with me," he said eventually. "And I remember that they are good friends of mine. But I don't remember anything about them."
She was pinned down by those pale blue eyes. "But you say that they're all right?"
"Yes." She realised she was whispering. "Yes, they got out of the mountain and came into the forest here, they're all right. I saw them camp by the stream you hear now, and I followed them into the woods."
"To kill them?"
She couldn't look him in the eyes. "Up until yesterday, yes. That was my intention. But I couldn't have done it without my Mistress, and even before meeting you last night... I don't think I have it in me."
"That's good enough for now." He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "What's your name, by the way?"
This time it was her brow that furrowed. "I haven't been called by my real name for a long time. They give you a new name when you join the Conga Rats, see, to show that you have moved beyond your old life."
"Seems like I'm not the only one here who has memory problems, then." He smiled faintly. "Well, what did they call you, then?"
"Mega Vole," she said with a hint of defiance, as if daring him to make a mockery of it. But he just smiled wider, and kindly.
"I like it. It's a name with potential. I'm Westala."
They shook hands. Then they looked at the white smears Westala left on everything he touched.
"You should be called Grease," Mega Vole teased.
"Argh, please don't."
"I don't know why, but I remember being utterly fed up with it. Look, I need to have a wash. We'll have to get the fire going again, so I can dry my clothes."
"I can take care of that. But are you sure you want to wash in the stream? The water is cold!"
Westala grinned widely.
"Not a problem!"
Capulette was quite sure that she had tightened the ropes quite securely. She had tied the Barrier up very well. Nevertheless, he was gone, and the ropes lay on the ground as if he'd just evaporated out of them.
Something Capulette found just as odd was that he hadn't killed her in her sleep. If he had been able to get loose, he'd have had every opportunity, and if he worked for Affor, he'd have every motive. Of course, she knew that there were warriors who wouldn't kill someone who couldn't fight back, but she hadn't expected it from one of Affor's henchmen. If that's what he was.
Whatever his reason was, though, she didn't worry too much about it. She doubted she'd seen the last of him, if she continued hunting Tessan's captors. Which she intended to.
"Another time, Barrier," she muttered.
Villtin had walked for about three hours come midday. He'd found what he'd been hoping for.
The forest had ended after only about five miles, he guessed, just over a third of the way he figured he'd covered so far. After a few twists and turns of the river he had emerged onto a plain. He'd passed a few rapids, above which the water had been ever closer to the level of the plain, and here finally he'd found a ford.
The river was much wider here, and quite fast-running, but only a few feet deep. Villtin looked back along it, down towards the distant suggestion of the forest, then across it towards the opposite bank, and addressed the dragon but mostly the world at large:
"Right, I guess we have to decide which way to go now. I think we can manage to catch up with the others if we move fast enough, assuming they haven't already found a way of crossing downstream. If they have, though, then we'll have ended up on opposite sides of the river again, and mighty silly we would look then, wouldn't we? Then again, they can go ahead to the fort and do a lot more than we can. But of course it would be good if we could... regroup, be together."
He surveyed the landscape again. It was a boring landscape, but the only available one.
"Oh, sod it. Come on." And with much swearing at the contact with the cold stream, he walked down into the river.
When the splish-splash of the dragon behind him stopped, he turned to find it looking intently into the water, the end of its tail hovering a few feet above the surface. Suddenly it shot down with barely a ripple, and when it came up again there was a wriggling fish skewered on it. The dragon caught it quickly and started munching away.
"Oh, you like fish, don't you? Certainly looks like it's very precious to you."
The dragon tilted its head towards him.
"And you can stop staring at me like that. Do you know how unnerving it is to be stared at by someone who has no eyes? Now catch a few more for supper, and then get a move on."
He started walking again, and to a random observer he looked as composed and casual as he always was. Until you realised that he carefully avoided setting his eyes on the mountain in front of him.
Westala and Mega Vole made their way between the trees. The cold bath had brought back more of Westala's memories, mainly from his childhood in the North. His spirits rose at the same pace as his recollections returned, and moreover this forest was quite light and pleasant, unlike the dark woods he could vaguely remember from just a few days ago. Presently he leaned on the walking staff and looked up at the tree-top city.
"For some reason, I keep expecting to see Peterwok up there."
"Pete... what, the mad doctor on Chopping Street?"
"Yes. I think I know him, at least I've met him a couple of times. Um... you said he lives on Chopping Street, right?"
"That's the one off Simple Street, isn't it?"
"No, it's off Affordable Street."
"Ah, right. It runs in parallel with Simple Street, and crosses New Pounders, correct?"
"Yes, now you're right."
"Good. Me and street names..." He shook his head.
"Do you want to stop here to eat?"
"No, let's get down to the river first. It can't be far now."
He shifted his weight off the staff and resumed walking. Not long ago, he knew, he had leaned in the same way on a spear of fine quality. Well, shit happens.
They reached the river, quite near the remains of an old rickety bridge, and like the fellowship before them they wondered how to get across. The sides of the gorge were too deep and too steep to climb, Mega Vole pointed out, and even if they hadn't been, the river ran too fast.
"Eep!" said Westala.
"Yes, that's my reac—" She stopped as her brain replayed the alliteration at her. "Now, don't be naughty," she grinned.
"Or what, you'll make me go to sleep?"
"Without dessert!" She waved a finger sternly at him, before turning back to the river. "I think there is a quay some way upstream. Or perhaps was is more correct to say. The ferrying must have ceased long ago, so they couldn't have crossed there. Do you think they went upstream or downstream?"
But Westala wasn't listening.
He was sniffing the air.
"I know this smell!" he said, and stalked off upstream.
Mega Vole almost had to run to keep up. In the weak wind, following the flow of the river, she picked up a faint but bad smell. Her nose wrinkled.
"Where ever do you know this from? It's awful!"
"I know! I never thought I'd actually be glad to smell it!"
The Northman stopped, sniffed around carefully, corrected his direction and set off again. Eventually, he slowed to a halt and kneeled down by a piece of rock. It had a bleached scorch mark on it.
"It's corroded!" the girl behind him exclaimed. "What in the name of Sume Anders corrodes rock like that?"
Westala took a deep sniff. "Surströmming," he said absently.
"Sorry, that's 'sour herring', insufficiently preserved herring that has fermented and gone rotten. There's a tribe of people up north, the Dalamas, who regard it a delicacy."
"I can't say I understand them. I maintain that it's awful."
"It's absolutely foul." He smelled the stone again. "The innkeeper who was with us had brought a few kegs of herring. We're on the right track."
"Yes. We weren't too keen on letting him come, but he insisted. If only I could remember his name! He's not a tall person, I know that much. But he's not precisely short, either – he's more sort of low... Low..."
Mega Vole looked helplessly at him. Then a name she'd overheard in the Magdala caves drifted through her mind and waved for attention.
"Yes! Yes, Lowmar. We rescued his daughter from a slaver once. Oh, and Goth, Autopet, was with us also. I'd be damned if I don't remember him, we grew up together. And then... uh... the woman... and my brother in arms, who has been my companion in more battles than I care to remember... than I can remember, right now..."
He snapped his fingers irritably, and Mega Vole gave him a sad, pitiful look. Carefully, the girl put a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm afraid I can't help you with the woman. The only name I know for sure is that of the young man, since he was our other... um."
She trailed off. With some degree of sarcasm, he gestured for her to continue, which of course only made her more embarrassed.
"... intended target."
"Sooo? What is his name, then?"
"Villtin," Westala repeated flatly. "Right."
"You don't remember him?"
"Not a lot of bells ringing yet, no. Ironic, isn't it? The one person I feel I really should remember, apart from Goth, I can't. Go figure."
"How can you be so calm about it?"
"Well, at least I know that my memories are returning. Hopefully it's only a matter of time before they're all back."
The Conga-Rat shrugged. "If you say so. I wish I could be as philosophical about it if I were in your place."
"Anyway, with a bit of luck we'll soon catch up with them, and then I can ask them about anything I can't remember."
"That's true. Well, then I ask you again: should we go upstream or downstream? Your guess is probably better than mine."
Westala looked up and down the river, stroking his beard. "I really have no idea. But they couldn't have used that bridge, and we know they came through here. Let's go on upstream."
"All right. We should stop to eat soon, too, but I'd prefer somewhere less... whiffy."
"Good point. I wonder why they threw away a herring keg there."
"To get rid of the smell?"
"No— well, yes, but why smash it against a rock first, in that case? They could have just dropped it in the river, or left it behind in some place."
"Well, I don't know. I guess they had their reasons."
"I swear," said Gideoallet, "sometimes Peterwok just gets too weird."
"Why, what did he do now?" said Tily. They were out on one of their many walks around the city to see to it that the fear and distrust didn't get entirely out of hand. It didn't right now, the visit of the High Priest of the Temple of Afpdor had livened up the atmosphere somewhat.
"When I met with him this morning, he was unloading a cartload of frogs. Said he needed them for some kind of experiments. I thought his experiments mainly involved grinding up mice, but he told me 'Normally, yes, but sometimes frogs are better'."
"What were the experiments about?"
"Look, I didn't have Messy with me to translate his gobbledygook, so I have no idea. He said something about sticking copper and zinc rods in a lemon." The swordsman shrugged.
"What's that got to do with frogs?"
"Search me. I'm not sure I want to know. Oh, and he mentioned drying their skin. And when I was leaving, he asked me if I knew a good toy-clothes maker."
"You mean he wanted dolls' clothes?"
"Small silk trousers. To put on the frogs. I said, 'but frogs don't normally wear clothes', and he said, 'precisely, that's the point'."
"Did you smell boiling mercury around the place?"
"It would have been slightly less disturbing if I had."
A smirk played on Westala's face while he prepared a meagre meal.
"What's so funny?" wondered Mega Vole. The swordsman looked at her, and the smirk turned into an expression of growing panic.
"Um. I just remembered something about Villtin. Er... I'm afraid he's a bit of a womaniser."
The girl gave him a look of polite incomprehension.
"Many of the female persons he comes across are subjected to his attempts of seduction, is what I mean." And now the longness of worry was developing on her face as well.
"You mean he might..."
"Yes, precisely. Then again, maybe not – there's another possibility that you may find even worse. He may try to kill you. He's never taken very kindly to people who are out to kill him."
"But I'm not! Not anymore!"
"I doubt he'll stop and listen long enough to find out. And remember, they saw me fall into that chasm, and I only survived that out of blind luck. So you might want to stay back a bit until I've explained the situation."
"But... but... What about that woman? She was trying to kill him too!"
"Yes, but not very seriously. And we quickly discovered that we have common ambitions. Now, make no mistake – Villtin doesn't trust Newra, even though he's got the hots for her."
"Yeah, I remember who she is now, I forgot about that. She's Newra the Moonlight Raider."
"That was the Moonlight Raider?!"
"You know about her?"
"Why, of course! Even though she does not properly hate men, her displays of female strength have made her well respected among Rodents. Everyone knows about her."
"But no-one told you she was with us?"
"No..." She fell silent. She'd already done the maths, and the bottom line was not showing her anything she really liked to see.
Westala said nothing. He couldn't think of anything to say.
And so the few crumbs of bread and slices of watery sausage were eaten in silence. Until the Dancing Rodent stopped her hand halfway to her mouth.
"What is it?"
"You're an accustomed outdoors person..." The girl had something on her mind.
"Yes, that would be fair to say. Guilty as charged."
"How long ago do you think that bridge fell?"
There was a pause.
"Hard to say with rope-and-plank bridges that old, really," he replied brightly. "Could have fallen any time between twenty years ago and yesterday."
There was an altogether too long pause.
The good news was that they'd found a way over the gorge. The bad news was that it was an arc of rock, which looked anything but safe.
"I've just about had enough of narrow stone bridges," said Lowmar. They too had left the forest behind, and reached more rocky country. Here, as the river had carved its course through the shale, it had left a natural arc behind.
"I couldn't agree more," said Newra, "but it seems like the only option we've got."
The Varing was poking at the stone with Westala's spear. Flakes and crumbs broke off and fell down with every touch.
"I'll go last," he said. "I think it will hold, but I'm afraid if I go first there'll be tensions in the arc so that it won't support either of you afterwards."
Newra stepped out on the bridge. She thought she could hear it creak, but decided it must have been in her imagination. She walked softly on, shale flaking under her feet, and got herself across.
Lowmar next. He treaded carefully out, and although flaking profusely, the shale held. Until he was on top of the arc.
A chunk of rock broke from under his foot. Spilling no time to think, he lunged himself forward and landed on all fours. His face chalk white, he tried to spread his weight out while at the same time not moving a muscle. The bridge creaked and groaned, but held together. Slowly, he could crawl to safety.
There were big cracks in the rock now. Autopet looked at them with a calculating expression.
"It'll hold!" he called to the others. "Catch this!" He took off his backpack, swung it over his head, and threw it clean across the ravine. The spear followed shortly after. "Now get away from the bridge!"
Newra and Lowmar saw him back off twenty yards to get a good run-up.
He sprinted like a fast-train. The bridge crumbled, then broke, and started to collapse. Autopet didn't slow down – if anything, he ran even faster. He managed to stay ahead of the crumbling rock until he had five yards left, and made a mad leap. He landed on the edge of the cliff and rolled forward, just a moment before the last piece of the arc broke off and fell.
Lowmar and Newra gave him a hand up.
"See? Told you it'd hold."
"Yeah, right," said Newra. "We'll obviously not be coming back this way. I hope Villtin has found another way to cross."
"Told you it'd hold!" The Varing grinned maniacally. "Prove me wrong!"
Westala and Mega Vole were emphatically not discussing fallen bridges. Which, since that was nagging on both their minds, meant that what few safe conversation topics they could come up with were quickly exhausted.
Not that they didn't try.
"That city in the tree-tops we saw..." said Westala. "I wonder if the people who lived there were big on sports."
"What kind of sports could they have done there?"
"Damned if I know, but I do know that people have managed to think up recreational activities for virtually every habitat. There's no reason the people that lived here couldn't have had 'Forest Games' to crown a Sylvan Champion, or something."
"Well, I guess not."
Westala took in the surroundings. "Looks like we're coming out of the woods. I wonder how long it'll be before we find a way to cross the river."
Mega Vole was pointing straight ahead. "Westala, look!"
Villtin had walked for another two hours, after a quick lunch of dragon-speared fish. Now he had about three hundred yards left to entering the forest.
Which someone was coming out of.
Even at this distance, Villtin knew who one of them was, and started running. He could see the person who must be Westala, if there was an ounce of fairness in the world, look around himself. The female figure next to him looked like a Dancing Rodent.
Like he cared about that right now.
The girl raised her hand and pointed at him. The man followed her gaze, and started running too.
At fifty yards apart, Villtin slowed to a walk, breathing heavily. He still didn't dare trust his eyes as he went up to Westala.
And grabbed him by the collar and waved a finger in his face.
"Don't you ever pull a stunt like that again!"
And then he embraced him. When he spoke, it was a whisper. "Damn it, Joran, you scared me!"
"Gotta keep you on your toes, Ramoc," the Northman smiled.
"I knew you weren't dead," said Villtin, letting go.
"Yeah, right. Like you could tell. What are you now, a lover in an old romance?"
"Oh, shaddup. Stop mocking me and tell me how you survived instead, ya big oaf."
"Largely thanks to her," said Westala and indicated the approaching Rodent. "So I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't kill her."
"All right. How about..."
Westala ruffled Villtin's hair. "I'm glad to see you alive too. You know, there was an old bridge about five or six miles back. We were worried you might have been on it."
"We were, sort of. It fell thanks to that stupid creature over there. I'd already gone over, but Autopet, Newra and Lowmar were on it when it fell. But they're all right, they managed to get up again."
"Where are they now?"
"They went downstream, we split up to look for another way to cross the river."
"You obviously found one. What are you doing back here?"
"I thought I'd try to catch up with them, in case they didn't find anything. But screw that now, the four of us can go ahead and take on Bos and Ballong if need be. There's a ford about two hour's walk from here."
"Yeah, two hours at your speed."
"Oh, shut up and get moving."
Without warning Marco suddenly rose and went into the kitchen, past the surprised-looking serving maids. Shortly rattling of cupboards and drawers could be heard, as well as other less easily placed sounds. After a few minutes Marco reappeared holding what appeared to be... well, dinner for five frankly. It was what can best be described as a loaf of bread cut in half and filled with the produce of a reasonably sized farm. Marco returned to the table, sat down and dug in. At this point the cook, who had joined the listeners, suddenly sat up straight, a horrified expression on her round face, and then dashed into the kitchen.
Marco took a bite of his... sandwich, for want of a better word, and, chewing, addressed his somewhat stunned audience:
"I'm forry, but I'm hun'ry. I'll jus' have a sammich and 'en I'll continue."
The munching went on for quite a while, occasionally punctuated by muffled groans and wails from the kitchen.
When Marco was finally finished he looked up and said:
"Wot?! I didn't say it would be a small sandwich!"
" Gideoallet had been out on another walk around the city. He didn't much like to call them patrols, but would admit that, in effect, they were.
Tonight he'd had reports that Bos and Ballong were in town, collecting protection money, but hadn't been able to find them. He grumbled. That was just what the place needed, a scare that made people forget the break they'd just had.
Gideoallet turned. The voice came from a narrow alleymouth. It's always a narrow alleymouth.
It was a pimp. The abundance of gold jewellery left little doubt about it. But as pimps go, he was dressed rather unusually; the slick suit was there, but in shades of green and khaki that combined to produce a camouflage effect. Camouflage that didn't work very well against a brick wall, but that's pimps for you.
"Ey, maybe I can help you? You look like a man who's thinkin', 'Man, I could use some good poon right now, I wonder where I can find myself some bitches?'"
"Um..." Gideoallet was looking down the street.
"Nah, nah, don't be shy. It just so happens I can supply you with all the bitches you can eat. However you like 'em, I's got 'em. If you wanna know where the ladies are at, you come ask me, Andrés 'El Perro' Perròn".
Gideoallet kept glancing to his side. "You know, you might find it wise to shut up right about now."
"Don't worry. My bizness leaves a one-hundred-percent guarantee of satisfaction. My ladies are always happy to take care of a man and polish his sword. I's got hos that are quiet, I's got hos that can play feisty. Any way you want 'em, just name it. 'El Perro' can get you any kind o' bitches."
Now looking constantly beside him, Gideoallet tried to interrupt again, but to no avail.
"Prices? Very reasonable. The tricks my gals can play you, you gonna find it worth every centavo. Trust me, when 'El Perro's' gals play tricks, they play tricks that blow your mind. Satisfaction gua-ran-teed."
Tily stepped around the corner.
"Tricks, you say? I'll give you tricks. I'll show you a trick with a rainwater barrel that a couple of friends of mine called Westala and Villtin have taught me, doggy boy!"
"No! Tily! Bad!"
Westala and Villtin had had some bad experience with towers, but at least this one didn't howl like the spooks of a thousand hounds.
The fellowship was watching the Masse-Chute Capitale fort from the cover of a low hill. To their left, a road – now overgrown, but still recognisable as a frequently used path – wound its way up the mountainside and out the outcrop to the fort. About a mile from the gates it passed between two tall cliffs, where there was a guard post.
The party was slightly below the level of the fort, and too far away to see anything clearly. But there was no obvious way to get closer – or rather, closer and higher – without leaving cover.
"Well," reflected Westala, "we have all day to come up with a plan."
"The way you think, it's gonna take all day," teased Villtin. Hollow-eyed, he went on to comment on the foremost thing on his mind: "Gods, I'm tired."
"You would be," said Autopet. "I don't understand why you insisted on taking all the guard shifts yourself tonight."
"Might as well, couldn't sleep."
"Couldn't, or wouldn't?" mumbled Mega Vole. Everyone heard her, but pretended not to.
"Anyway," said Villtin, "we don't need all day to think of a plan. It's simple. Problem: we need to get higher up to see what's going on around the fort. Solution: we climb the mountain."
"There's no cover up there," mused Newra. "We'll run a great risk of being spotted."
"I know. We can't run around up there, all of us, we'll have to minimise the scouting party as much as possible. One person is obviously too little, but any more than that isn't good either. Westala and I go, the rest of you go down towards the coast. Get as close to the fort as you can, set up camp there. We'll catch up later."
"Just be careful when you cross the road, so the guards don't notice you."
"Don't worry." He grinned. "We'll be sneaking real quiet like."
Capulette stopped, and dismounted. She had been following the tracks of Tessan's takers for hours, but now she couldn't anymore. They had disappeared.
She searched the terrain systematically, in ever wider circles, but found nothing. She couldn't even find any evidence that the kidnappers had covered their track behind them – the ground was soft, and even a thorough smoothing would have left some signs. But the trail simply stopped abruptly, in mid-stride by the looks of it, as if the people and horses had vanished into thin air. She drew her weapon. She suddenly had a funny feeling that she wasn't alone. But the thin woodlands didn't – couldn't – hide any threats.
She mounted, weapon still in hand, and slowly rode on to widen the search for the tracks.
"All right... I think we know enough of the outer guard routines to go take a look inside."
Villtin had cleared a smooth patch of sandy soil, and was drawing in it with a knife.
"The front face of the fort is heavily guarded. Affor's henchmen and cultist goons, by the looks of it. The bastions on the corners..." He placed pebbles on the corners of the crudely drawn square. "... overlook the terrain at least a mile out. Down the road, even more."
"These two sides have permanent guard posts halfway down them – here and here." Westala leaned over to point with his hunting dagger. "Clearly visible from the front corner bastions even at night. The front is patrolled from one corner to the other every half hour. And every hour, two guards walk the entire perimeter."
Lowmar whistled under his breath. "You'd almost think they were expecting trouble."
"Yeah. But I think they're just being cautious, not taking any chances with valuable prisoners. Now, the only side that's virtually unguarded is this one, and that's where we'll go in."
"Why don't they guard it?" asked Newra.
"Because it's impossible," smiled Villtin. "That's the side facing out to sea. Nobody can enter that way, or so they think. The cliff is steep, in fact there's even an overhang, and the fort wall is smooth. They don't need to guard it, because there's no way to get in that way without mountaineering equipment, and then you'd alert everyone in the fort by hammering the nails in."
"But we'll be using Peterwok's octupus things." Newra nodded approvingly.
"Yep. Y'know, it's silly, the way life can imitate stories sometimes. This is almost exactly what Hammer Tone did."
"Doesn't that worry you?" asked Lowmar. "With all these similarities you see, it looks like Bos and Ballong are preparing you a trap."
"If they'd read the Hammer Tone stories, certainly," said Westala. "But before Peterwok told us his inspiration for the octopus...es? -pusi? -pusii? Whatever. Before that, I'd never heard of them being available here. Something Villtin has complained about for years, I might add. What about you?" He nodded to Autopet.
"Well, no, but on the other hand I've spent the last five years in Byxans, so don't take my word for it."
"All right," said Lowmar, "I'll admit that I've never heard of them before either. But still..."
"We'll be careful," Villtin concluded. "We're not going to to quite the same thing anyway. The plan is that I go up first, riding on the back of the dragon. I'll take a look inside, see what everyone is doing, then let you in through one of the lower balconies. Then we'll find the cabal. After that we'll see what happens. Questions?"
Newra raised her hand. "The big watchtower. Anyone in it will see you climbing over the parapet."
"The big tower is basically a relic from back when the fort was a coastal sentry post," replied Westala. "We saw exactly zero activity in it. The masonry is in disrepair and looks unsafe. I don't think anyone's been in there for years."
"We'll wait until dark until we break camp," concluded Westala. "Let's get some food and rest in the meantime."
Villtin chanced a glance down. In the dark it was hard to tell just how high up he was, but he couldn't decide if that made him feel better or worse. He saw the glow of a breaking wave and estimated his altitude to about twenty yards. The dragon was a quick climber.
He took a new hold on the spike-like protrusions on its back and shifted his weight. He had Newra's crossbow slung over his shoulder, together with three torches. In case he was captured he would, very reluctantly and not until a good deal of pain had happened, reveal that they were to be dropped at specific intervals as an "all clear" signal. The truth was that a torch dropped straight down was a warning; if all was clear Villtin would throw one torch as far off to one side along the wall as he could, then another to the other side. The third he would keep, in case he needed to make a late warning.
The dragon was reaching the brow of the overhang and Villtin motioned to it to slow down. With some acrobatics he unslung the crossbow and loaded it. If the guard was standing at the parapet and looked down, there wasn't much Villtin could do other than discourage him from killing him and make a hasty escape.
The parapet was empty. That, though, was no reason to lower the weapon; the seawards guard wouldn't have a lot to do but look at the sea, and the obvious position for that would be leaning over the parapet. Something was very wrong.
Villtin steered the dragon towards one of the lower balconies, to get a bit of cover as they went higher. There were four balconies on this wall, but the doors to them could only be opened from the inside without causing noise.
Once under one of the upper ones he stopped the dragon again. The top of the wall was less than ten yards up now, and he strained his hearing as hard as he could, listening for any signs of danger.
Very carefully, they moved forward again. The speed they were going at now could only be adequately described as crawling. There was no point in taking unnecessary risks.
Just below the edge, Villtin stopped again, and tried to think. They hadn't made any sound. No-one had looked down at them from the parapet, although he realised now that he hadn't paid attention to the bastions. But it was probably too dark for anyone over there to see the wall properly, since no torches burned anywhere nearby.
That meant that if there was anyone waiting to take a potshot at him, they wouldn't know exactly where he was. He listened intently. Where the hell was that guard? Well, he'd need a fraction of a second to adjust his aim.
He swung himself up and poked his head over the edge, then immediately dived back down again.
No bolt whizzed past over him, no-one shouted any warnings. He tried to sort out what he'd had time to see. Grey stone, the walls of the top floor, the big tower high above, an empty walkway... and a slumped human figure.
A loud snort gave him a start, and almost made him lose his grip.
The silence returned. He poked his head up again and saw the guard, sleeping with his back against the wall, a few yards to his left. He slipped over the parapet and wondered what to do next. A sleeping guard was an element of low risk, but not quite as low as a dead guard. He checked the crossbow and stepped up to the sleeping man.
Voices. Someone was coming this way. Villtin grabbed on to the dragon and let it scramble up on the roof, just in time. Two other guards came around the corner.
"Would you look at this?" said one of them. "Abe's asleep again. I don't think there's one night he hasn't fallen asleep on his post."
"Heh, we could always blackmail him about it. Get it? Asleep on his post, blackmail. Get it?"
"I got it, but it wasn't funny. Oi, Abe, wake up!" He prodded the sleeping guard with his foot.
"Rise and bloody shine, sleepyhead. Can't you at least put up an appearance?"
"Hey, you'd nod off too if you were posted here," said the roused Abe. "Most boring job on this whole pile of rubble."
"All right, I'll take that bet. I'm sick of playing cards against Hort anyway, he always wins. Doing something else for a while sounds great to me."
"You're on. Anything to get me out of here."
Abe and the guard with the bad jokes left. The remaining one walked up and down a few times, then leaned on the parapet and looked down.
"Pointless shit for a job. Who's gonna climb up here?"
Villtin grinned. Even if he would manage to stay awake, this guard seemed to take his mission just as seriously as sleepyhead Abe, and probably wouldn't be too much of a risk. He seemed to be setting up some kind of solitary game, completely ignoring the sea view, but moved around too much for Villtin to safely sneak up to him and strangle him quietly. Ah well, no matter.
There were holes in the roof where the masonry had decided it didn't want to play anymore. Villtin peered down into the darkness of one of them. He dug in a pocket, took out a small box-like device and used it to produce a small flame.
Once upon a time a clever man had combined the ideas of the oil lamp and the steel. He'd made a little container for the fuel, stuck a wick through a hole in the top, mounted a tiny steel and a small fine-toothed metal wheel next to the wick so it could be pelted with sparks, and had ended up with a device that was perfect for lighting cigars.
The device was called a Swisho, after the stage name of its inventor. He was a comedian, and toured variety theatres across the continent together with his four brothers: Rubbo, Piano, Gringo and Gladdo. The lighters were very popular, but not all that common. Villtin's Swisho was an extra expensive gold-plated one, which he'd lifted off a merchant.
The tiny flame didn't provide much light, but enough to reveal a corridor. The fallen stones had been stacked to the sides, suggesting that the hallway was in frequent use. Villtin jumped down, hoping like hell his knees wouldn't make that clicking noise knees always make when you bend them too quickly.
He dived into a nearby doorway and armed himself with a shuriken. But nobody had heard him, nobody was around.
The dragon trotted off somewhere. Villtin found a stairway and went down one floor. The prisoners were probably held in one of the lower floors, he guessed, since that was the most common location of dungeons. But he wanted to know what Bos and Ballong were up to first.
He found them on the next floor down. They were in a larger hall, possibly once a briefing room, two floors tall with a gallery all around. He crept close to the rail and listened to the conversation below.
"Did you get a couple of those cultists to prepare a guest room?" said Bos.
"Oui. All done. I shell take care of the dinnér and wine myself, zough. I do not trust zose thugs to get eet right."
"Good. Just in time, too – our guest has arrived."
Villtin had just enough time to worry that Bos had referred to him, when a door opened and an all-too familiar, tall hooded figure entered the room.
And changed. The figure's stature diminished, the dark cloak became a red dress, and other changes rippled all over the apparition. In the end there was a tall woman standing by the door. Extremely beautiful, but it was that frosty, calculated beauty, normally associated with Greta Garbo or Nicole Kidman.
Villtin gaped. So that's why there was such ambiguity about whether Sherilob was male or female. He (or she), as a shapeshifter, could be either. Villtin wasn't at all taken by his, or currently her, beauty – in the transformation, while the morphic signal hunted between stations, he'd caught a flash of another shape. It wasn't a clear image, but it involved metallic spider legs, and that was quite enough to make him ill at ease.
"Show-off," Bos grinned. "Welcome."
"Thank you," said Sherilob, with a molten-chocolate voice that almost made Villtin forget the shrill piercing cry in the Magdala caves a few days ago. Almost. "What's with the guard force, are you planning to scale up the business?"
"I wish. No, the reason they're here is also the reason I wanted to see you. You know that religious cult of self-centering, the Cult of Me? They'd managed to capture that cabal that wanted people to ignore them. But then it turned out that the cabal had friends, who are now setting up a stupid resistance movement. Normally I wouldn't worry about it, but now we hear they've got help from the Clench. So the Cult asked us to babysit their prisoners."
"Wait a second. The Clench, you said?"
"Yes. From the Stargazer clan, apparently."
"Oooh, that could be Messy!"
"You don't seem to mind."
"I don't, actually. Don't tell anyone, but I've had run-ins with her before, and that was a world of fun. She's always on about how I 'try to impose my views on everyone else', like it's supposed to be a crime. But it's so amusing to argue with her."
"Well, it looks like you'll have ample opportunity to do that in the near future. Personally, I just want people to pay their insurance fees like good law-abiding citizens, and don't make a fuss. We're making pretty good money at the moment, but in a few years time, who's gonna know what happens?"
"Also, ma Cherie-lob," said Ballong, "it iz not only the Clench that are dangereuse, there is also Gideo-alléz the wordsman, and recently a couple of soldiers-of-fortune called Westala and Villtin. And they are right clever bastárds, too – they tricked Dextra to use one of my satires on himself."
"Shut up, will you?" said Bos, clearly not happy to be reminded.
"All right, but I'm washing my hands of zis. I'll haf to go and prepare dinnér soon."
Villtin decided he'd heard enough and was just about to leave, when he caught a movement in the corner of his eye. One of Sherilob's pets, a spider the size of a terrier, was scampering towards him. Then it suddenly stopped and shied.
He risked a look behind him. There was the dragon, crouched down low and with the point of the tail hovering like a humming bird. It shot out and speared the spider clean through. It was completely soundless, not as much as a whooshing noise when the tail cleaved the air. The three people below didn't pay attention to the galleries. No-one had noticed anything.
But something had registered something, still. An instrument, looking rather like an opaque glass cube, started giving off a high-pitched whistling sound. Bos stopped in mid-sentence, picked it up and studied some kind of information on it.
"Yo Fix... I think we've got something here."
Ballong frowned. He picked up a similar instrument and activated it. It too started giving off a repeated whistle. His expression froze.
"I think Dextra may be right..."
Noticing that Orjan had used his free time, while Marco talked, to order lunch (which the cook had reluctantly produced mumbling something about starving come winter) Marco decided that it was time for another well-earned food break. He gestured for Orjan to take over and grabbed the nearest fork.
Orjan looked at his companion and softly shook his head. "Well, what can I say? I'd never behave like..." Suddenly Orjan noticed that the cook had indeed had to raid the special larders. "Oh! Chargrilled emu! Well, just a bite then."
Between chomping on his food Orjan prepared to get on with the story. "Actually, I thought you'd leave Villtin hanging on the cliff, but nevermind." He took another bite.
"So. If you don't mind, I'll take a break now and then..."
Orjan paused to look pointedly at Marco
"... so I can get some lunch too. If I spend as much time telling this story as I have before, I fear someone might empty my plate."
" Gideoallet was... well, more prowling than patrolling. A sudden gust of wind extinguished the torch, leaving him standing in the faint starlight, cursing. He waited a while, to allow his eyes to get used to the darkness, them moved carefully on. The houses he passed on the street all had carefully closed shutters, letting no light escape from within. If, indeed, there was any light within, he thought wryly. It was hard to tell, nowadays, which houses were empty and abandoned, and which were simply barricaded by frightened people.
The sound of approaching steps from a crossing street just ahead made him slow down and transfer the useless torch to his right hand, getting ready to unsheathe his rapier with his left. In his mind, prudence and curiosity had a brief fight, leaving the former beaten and sulking, ready to say "I told you so," then he silently pressed his back to the wall and sidled towards the street corner.
Flickering light revealed that the group – for he could hear the footfalls of many studded boots on the cobbled street – carried torches, so he did not peer around the corner, but waited, instead. Soon, he saw a man with a scarred face, dressed in the private livery of some noble, followed by more guards, armed with halberds and carrying torches. Stupid, the thought, they'd have to drop the torches to use their weapons properly. Just then, the leader spotted him.
"Well, hello! What do we have here?" he shouted, holding up a hand to halt those following. "A skulker, it seems. What are you doing out at this hour?"
The man took a torch from one of the halberdiers and held it aloft. "Armed, too, I see, and carrying an unlit torch. Why would anyone walk around in the dark with an unlit torch, I wonder?"
Gideoallet studied the group. The halberdiers looked like the kind of men who would be known to even their mothers as "Butcher" or "Slasher," lacking the capacity to remember a name that wasn't derived from their sole purpose in life, but the leader seemed to be an intellectual in comparison. Well, so would a slug, but he did appear to be more curious than hostile.
"I'm looking for an honest man," Gideoallet said, coming out from the shadows.
"I am an honest man."
"Would I lie to you?" the man grinned.
Gideoallet smiled. "I hope not. Actually, my torch was blown out by the wind as I was on my way to—"
"Lady Gleur's manor!"
The man who had interrupted him came out from behind the halberdiers.
"Good thing we met you, Gideoallet, I was just pondering whether I should ask captain Pinchogal here to make a detour to pick you up, but I see you decided to meet us along the way."
"Oh, hello, Roi." Gideoallet nodded to the man, hiding his confusion.
Roi Nimco was a man who described himself as 'poet, thespian, musician and bon vivant', a phrase most people would equate with the more manageable label 'bum'. What game he was playing now was anybody's guess, but Gideoallet decided to tag along, to see what would happen.
"I was not informed of this." The scarred man, now identified as captain Pinchogal, rubbed his chin. "He's out after curfew, and milady Gleur is a staunch supporter of the need for civil order. He should be taken into custody, or possibly beaten to teach him the error of his ways. You do not skulk around armed without punishment."
The guards come to attention at the prospect of a little diversionary violence.
"Do not be ridiculous, captain!" Roi drew on all of his considerate powers as an actor to fill his voice with contempt. "I have been commissioned by your mistress to write and produce the best play ever made about her honourable ancestors, and in order to do so I need this man. He's working for me, as an expert of fighting on stage. He's not armed, he's merely bringing a prop for the production."
Pinchogal looked at Roi for a moment, then grunted and signalled for the men to fall in. Gideoallet found himself surrounded by thugs, beside Roi, and hustled along.
"So, what's this all about?" he whispered.
"Like I said, I've got a commission. The first of the line, Apollyon, was by all surviving accounts a bad 'un and I'll... present another angle of him." Roi kept his voice down. "You patrolling?"
"Yes." Gideoallet sighed. "Sometimes I think 'Why me?', but then I tell myself 'If not you, then who else?' and go out again." He walked in silence for a while. "Lady Gleur? I thought it was, what's his name, Sir Jean Gleur who held the title?"
Roi shrugged. "Well, yes. Apparently his sister holds it now – lady Jean Gleur. She's been having quite an impact on the social circuit lately, with lavish dances and parties."
Gideoallet nodded. He paid scant attention to the nobles, but knew that Roi moved in the most diverse circles. Personally, he preferred to keep his circles undisturbed.
Villtin tensed and held his breath. Slowly, careful to make no sound, he readied a throwing knife. He might be able to get one of them by surprise. After that, well...
"What is that?" Sherilob asked.
Bos looked up. "Oh. Well, it's a sensor of a sorts. It detects movements of magic items in the vicinity."
Villtin thought unkindly thoughts at the dragon.
"I would have thought there were plenty of magical creatures hereabouts." Sherilob noted politely.
"Oh, absolutely, but it's tuned to dead matter only. There are plenty of curious items in the area. For instance, we found those." Bos pointed to a shelf. On it, Villtin could see nine figures, about a foot tall, exquisitely carved from some translucent golden material.
"Would that be the nine princes of legend?" Sherilob asked.
"Yes, Maladict, Roi, Gaius... all of them. They are supposed to enable you to travel between worlds, but we haven't been able to figure out how, yet."
Bos returned his attention to the glass cube, frowning.
"A-ha!" Ballong exclaimed. "Focus!"
He peered intently into the cube. "Zere iz unuzually much ztatic interferenze... But it appearz to be a ztaff of zome zort. Incroyable! I can not focus properly... Oui, a ztaff... Made to control ze mind... perhapz..."
Villtin saw Sherilob stiffen. Then there was a repeat of the uncanny transformation. Villtin closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, a tall, handsome man stood there.
"A staff to control the mind? Would it be about six foot tall, ornately carved, and emanating a sense of... rationality?"
Ballong fiddled with the cube before he answered. "Oui, very possible... But ze interferenze... It iz as if it iz both close and far away..."
"What is it?" Bos asked. "Do you know what it is?"
"I fear so," Sherilob said, "but the interference? If this item is what I think it is, the resonance should be very strong."
Villtin carefully patted one of his pockets. The little adobe brick was still there, and he sent Peterwok a grateful thought.
"Well, maybe it's the mountains." Bos said. "It appears to be far away. So what is it?"
"It is the Staff of Sista."
"Never heard of it. What does it do?"
"It promotes rationality." Sherilob said. "I've been searching for it in the caves of Magdala for a very long time, but every time I've thought I've come close it is as if someone has snatched it from my grasp."
"Rationality? Iz zat all?" Ballong asked.
"All? Do you have any idea what that means? It means that if it were to be brought into the city, your little business would be over, since people would not be affected by your satires, or intimidated. They would realise that they could stand up against you if they but joined together. The Cult of Me would lose their followers, since people wouldn't need the peer approval. It would strip people of prejudices, of irrational fears and superstitions."
Villtin smiled. Westala's elf-staff seemed a very potent weapon indeed.
"Ah. Well. Let's wait a while and see if it comes closer." Bos said smoothly. "It might not be that – there was a lot of interference, and I couldn't get any focus at all. How about we go and have some dinner, shall we?"
Villtin waited until the three magicians had departed, then left the hall to continue scouting.
Orjan broke off and looked at the diminishing food at the table. Spotting something that appealed to him he said:
"Right, if I can just have some smoked trout, I'll continue afterwards. Oh, I just had a thought! Wouldn't it be nice with some background music? Do we have any lyres here?"
At least fifty hands shot forward in unison, all pointing at Orjan himself.
"Why are you pointing at..." Then the pun hit home.
"Ha ha. Very funny. Not!" The hands were withdrawn, except for one at the back, which was shaking up and down with badly concealed laughter and a voice going "Lyre! Lyre? Lyre!" to itself. There's always one.
Deciding to ignore both the joke at his expense and the sniggerer in the back, Orjan continued. "Oh well, I'll just imagine I hear some music then. It would have enhanced the storytelling, but..."
" They had settled down at the foot of the cliff to wait for Villtin's signal, resting and conversing quietly.
"So, I see you're still faithful to Lady Vivamus," Autopet said, nodding to Westala.
"Yeah. And you still carry Shortarse and Wit-yearner?"
"Well, they've served me well so far." Autopet shrugged. "I'm used to them."
The other people looked at the two Northmen with varying degrees of bewilderment.
"What are you talking about?" Lowmar asked.
"What? Oh." Westala patted his long sword. "This is Lady Vivamus. I named her after an old mercenary motto: 'Dum vivamus, vivamus'."
"What does that mean?" Mega Vole asked.
"It's a stupid life, this life."
"So... you call your sword 'Lady Life'?"
"Well, she's saved my life on a number of occasions." Westala smiled. "Autopet's are called 'Ars brevis' and 'Vita longa', which admittedly sounds better than in the common tongue."
Lowmar turned to Autopet. "Whyever did you give them names like that?"
"To be fair with people I'm fighting, of course," the tall Northman said. "From my point of view, most people I've fought have been shortarses. And since they're fighting me, they can't be very bright, so they should yearn for some wit. This way, at least they get to face their equals."
They all laughed at that, and some of the tension they hadn't even noticed dissipated.
"What is it like, being a mercenary?" Mega Vole asked.
"Well, food, rest and payment is uncertain, your friends get killed or hired by the opposite side so you have to try to kill them, you're often lonely, you get to do all the nasty jobs ordinary soldiers don't want to, ordinary people think you are an outlaw, and..." Autopet's voice trailed off and he turned to Westala. "Um, can you remind me again?"
Westala smiled. "Because sometimes the duties are light, the pay is good and the food ample. But mostly I think it's an excuse to follow that old poem."
"What poem?" Lowmar asked.
"The road becomes my bride. I have stripped of all but pride, so in her I do confide and she keeps me satisfied."
Newra smirked. "Yes. Well. And who said men aren't romantic? You could have been a trader, and done just as much travelling."
"So why did you become a mercenary, then?" Mega Vole asked.
"At first I just set out to kill one. There was this man who said to me that by the look in my eye he could tell I was going to cry and asked if it was over him. If it was, he said, I should save my tears because he wasn't worth it."
Newra sighed. "I was young, stupid and in love. Those three often go together, I realised later. Anyway, I couldn't accept that he'd leave me for the open road, so I went after him. Once I'd started on the road myself, and left his remains behind, I more or less just kept going."
She drew her sword. The pattern-welded blade shimmered in tones of gray. "This was his, he called it his old, gray widowmaker. I caught up with him and asked him 'What is a woman, that you forsake har, the hearth fire and the home acre, to go with that sword?' and I took it from him and killed him."
"Widowmaker." Mega Vole's voice was sad. "That's what it is, isn't it? Widowmaker, orphanmaker..."
She drew her own sword. "This, I was told, is called 'Wazzer'."
"Because it's sharp or because it's used in a fluid manner?" Westala asked.
"What? No, it was named after Bessy Wazzer, a female general who knew everything about warfare. She had a setback in a battle, and retreated to save the lives of her soldiers. She was going to return to battle the next day, but the enemy sent children into her camp, and they told all the soldiers that they were going to lose because it was bad luck to be led by a woman. So in the night the soldiers cut her throat and deserted."
They fell silent after that. Then Lowmar cleared his throat.
"I wonder how Villtin is getting along."
"Damn!" Villtin swore quietly. He had just reached another dead end. The place was a warren of corridors, passageways and stairs, and he had been looking for the rooms behind the balconies for a while.
"How many passages must a man walk down," he muttered, "before he can call it a day?"
Lady Gleur stood in the middle of an opulent ballroom, surrounded by young courtiers. She was lavishly dressed, her dark hair set up in an intricate fashion. The footman who had showed the swordsman and the actor in left them by the door and hurried over to tell her they had arrived. Lady Gleur turned and walked to them, stepping lightly, measuredly, like a dancer.
"Come in here, dear man, have a cigar. You're going to go far, fly high, you're never going to die, you're going to make it if you try; they're going to love you." She pushed a cigar into Roi's gaping mouth. "Well I've always had a deep respect, and I mean that most sincerely. The play is just fantastic, that is really what I think."
"Um... thank you, milady."
"And this is the man who will make sure no-one is hurt on stage?" Lady Gleur studied Gideoallet closely.
"Yes, milady, Gideoallet, milady," Roi stammered. "He's very well thought of in..."
She silenced him with a wave of a hand and studied Gideoallet.
"Pleased to meet you, milady," Gideoallet bowed, "I have heard much about your dances..."
"My good man," she said airily, "I'll have you know that I'm rather upper class, high society." She smiled patronisingly. "The gods' gift to ballroom notoriety. I always fill my ballroom – the event is never small – the social gossip says I've got the biggest balls of all."
She delicately lifted a dainty handkerchief to her nose and sniffed its perfume while her companions dutifully laughed. Gideoallet noticed that she had an unusually large adam's apple.
"Some balls are held for charity and some for fancy dress, but when they're held for pleasure they're the balls that I like best," she continued with a suggestive smile. "If your name is on the guest list, no one can take you higher. Everybody says I've got great balls of fire."
Lady Gleur returned her attention to Roi.
"I'm looking forward to seeing your production. If there is anything you need, just let me know and I will help you." She fluttered her eyelashes. "I am known in some circles as a... thespian, you know."
She dismissed Roi and Gideoallet with a curt nod, and they withdrew backstage.
"And that's how the nobles see the situation, is it?" Gideoallet fumed. "Only thinking about their own pleasures, while the people cower in fear."
Roi poured himself a cup of wine and shook his head. "Treachery and treason, there's always an excuse for it, and when I find the reason I still can't get used to it."
Gideoallet followed his example. "And what have you got at the end of the day? What have you got to take away? A bottle of whisky and a new set of lies, boards on the window and a pain behind the eyes."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. It does seem quite hopeless."
Gideoallet's face hardened. "No. It's never hopeless. But this will have to be worked from the edges, from the darkness behind shuttered windows. From real people, who one day will have had enough." He refilled Roi's cup.
"Everybody's got a secret, my friend, something that they just can't face. Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it, they carry it with them every step that they take, until some day they just cut it loose, cut it loose or let it drag them down."
He sipped his wine.
"That's where it will start. Where no one asks any questions or looks too long in your face. In the darkness on the edge of town."
Roi looked at him and smiled. "Talk about a dream; try to make it real, you wake up in the night with a fear so real, you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come. Well, let's not waste our time waiting."
He raised his cup for a toast. "You've got to live it every day. Let the broken hearts stand as the price you've got to pay. We'll keep pushing 'til it's understood and these bad men start treating us good."
Gideoallet joined him in the toast, then sighed again. "And the battle's just begun, there's many lost, but tell me who has won?" Morosely he looked into his cup. "The battlements are built within our hearts, and mothers' children, brothers, sisters are torn apart."
"Let's make a promise," Roi suggested, "that we'll always remember. No retreat, man, and no surrender."
At the Masse-Chute Capitale, Bos and Ballong remained standing as Sherilob sat down by the dinner table.
"We always have a toast, before we eat," Ballong said pointedly.
"Oh, go ahead, don't let me interfere," the shapeshifter said lazily.
Bos shot him a dark look and cleared his throat. "To protect the world from devastation!"
"To unite all people within our nation!" Ballong answered.
"To renounce the evils of truth and love!" Bos continued.
"To extend our reach to the stars above!" Ballong concluded.
"Dextra!" Bos said.
"Fix!" Ballong said.
Solemnly they sipped their apertrif.
The ritual completed, they sat down by the table after Ballong had served the light, fruity yet dry white wine he had chosen for the first course.
"So what were you saying about this staff?" Ballong asked as he surveyed the crystal cup of small prawns gently fried with garlic, young yellow peppers and lemon.
"The Staff of Sista? Well, it promotes rationality, as I said. Which is why it was hidden in the caves of Magdala in the first place, I believe."
"Why? Most people would think rationality was a good thing. Of course, if it would interfere with our business it would be bad, of course, but... Was it some king who didn't want his subjects to think or something?"
"No. Much knowledge has been lost, of course, but it seems clear that there was a magician called Sista, who was a very rational man, by all accounts. He was annoyed with the irrationality, superstition and emotionality of his servants, so he somehow fashioned this staff, that affects people nearby. He didn't notice any difference in himself, since he already was rational, but he was happy that the servants seemed to be more rational."
"They became known as the Sistas. After a few days, they came out of the kitchen and killed him."
"Why, what happened?"
" 'The Sistas are doing it for themselves', it was written." Sherilob smiled. "I'm all for rationality, myself, but unlike Sista, I know what it means."
"Superstitions, religious beliefs, groundless fears... yes, they are irrational, but not the only things that are. Morals, ethics, compassion, empathy, duty... They are just as irrational. They are just prejudices of different kinds. And when the servants were stripped of these things, they had no reason to stay their hand from killing their master and take his valuables. They stuck together, because they noticed that the effect wore off once they got a couple of miles away from the staff, and having attained complete rationality, they wanted to remain that way."
The first course was cleared away, and the pheasant was served, with a slightly bubbly rose wine.
"Hang on," Bos said, "why didn't they just kill each other, fighting for the staff?"
"Why? They were rational. And what one realised he could be sure the others would realise too. Together they were strong, and no-one could take the staff and threaten the others, because then they would co-operate. And the sort of personal status-pursuit everyone is taking for granted simply did not exist among them. They made rational decisions, without pride or passion."
"So what did they do?"
"Well, they sought riches, and physical pleasures, and security. But they didn't overindulge – that would have been irrational. If someone stood in their way, they killed without hesitation or gloating. Or malice, for that matter. In the end, they were all killed, and the staff was hidden in the Magdala cave, since it couldn't be destroyed. But there is still a song that in a warped way recalls them."
"But why... if you find it, you will be just like..."
Sherilob smiled. "As I said, I have spent a long time in the deepest tunnels of Magdala, looking for it, and at times I have been very close. I have felt it. And I want more."
Bos and Ballong exchanged a worried look, and the rest of the meal, while featuring excellent food and wine, suffered from a decidedly second rate conversation.
Orjan sat back and surveyed the table in front of him. The food was markedly gone. Off to one side three serving maids were bobbing along going "A-doo-wop-wop-wop" to themselves.
Orjan waved at them to get their attention and asked: "Can I have a pot of coffee, please?" The girls nodded and went "yay-yay-yay" before bobbing towards the kitchen.
Orjan took out and lit his pipe, then addressed his, by now slightly impatient, audience.
"I'm not done yet, but a break every now and then makes it more pleasurable for us all, I think."
As soon as Orjan had finished his coffee he again took up the tale.
" A flickering light went down the cliffside and landed with a hiss in the breaking waves. Seconds later, another followed it down and landed on the narrow strip of dry shingle on which they were waiting, making Lowmar scramble out of the way.
"It's time to go," Westala said and stood up. He picked up the still burning torch and tossed it out into the sea. "We'll leave everything we won't need in the fort here, under those rocks, so we can pick it up if we survive."
"If?" Mega Vole asked. "That doesn't sound very inspiring."
Westala turned to face her. "It wasn't meant to be. Now, since you are an unplanned addition to the party, we will all keep our eyes on you in case you decide to betray us."
"What?" Newra exclaimed. "She saved your life! How can you doubt her?"
"The same goes for you, Newra." Westala said flatly. "You went out to kill Villtin and me, just like her, and if you have changed sides once you can do it again. If either of you makes a move to hinder or betray us, I will kill you without further warning."
The women stared at him in offended astonishment, and Autopet jumped up. "Dammit, Westala, you're a man, not a golem! You know, that doesn't sound like something I would have thought you would say. Villtin, yes, but not you. When did you become so cold and unemotional? They haven't betrayed us so far, have they?"
Westala raised an eyebrow. "Highly illogical. The dangers we face are too great for us to be hampered by emotional distractions."
The tension was palatable, until Lowmar changed the subject. "I've stuffed as much as I could into that crevice, but she cannae take any more." He held up a bag. "Should we bring these bricks Peterwok gave us?"
"Yes, thank you for reminding me." Westala said. "And make sure all of you have one on your person." He felt in a pocket on his tunic and withdrew some sad pieces of crumbled adobe. "Fascinating. Mine seems to have dissolved – although I do remember it was whole when I was wandering around in the tunnels of Magdala. Give me a new one, please."
Lowmar handed him a fresh brick, and went around to the others too. All their bricks had deteriorated somewhat, and were replaced with fresh ones, and Lowmar hastily explained their purpose to Mega Vole as she was given one for the first time.
"I apologise for being so harsh, ladies," Westala said. "I don't know what came over me. Ever since I faced that..." He looked at Mega Vole.
"My former mistress, Peril Rat?" she asked.
"Yes. Resisting her was the hardest thing I've ever made myself do, and then the fight with the spider, the fall, the seemingly endless tunnels... I've felt very confused ever since. And I am grateful for your help." He sighed. "Maybe it's the prospect of facing sorcerers... I hate fighting wizards!"
"Uh-hu. Rather face snakes," Mega Vole agreed. "Well, apology accepted. In some ways, I'd rather be seen with distrust than desire. It seems more honest, for some reason."
She put her arms around her. "Right now, though, I'd give a fortune to have my warm, red woollen shirt. This short skirt and these high boots might look good, but give scant warmth."
"Seven to nine it will be warm enough once we're inside, and a big red shirt would only make you a visible target" Newra told her, then turned to Westala. "Are you going to bring your staff or spear?"
"No. The staff has been useful in providing light, but both that and the spear are too long and unwieldy. We don't know what we're facing, and if we have to crawl through narrow tunnels we'd be seriously hampered by them. Leave them here – I doubt anyone will pass by and steal them."
It was still dark when Capulette awoke, shivering, from a nightmare that fled from her memory as soon as she opened her eyes. It had been bad, though. A few embers still glowed in the remains of the small fire she had made when she made camp where the tracks ended, and she carefully fed them twigs until it was burning again.
Only then did she see the black shape on the other side of it, and sprung to her feet while unsheathing her sword.
"Yes," the Barrier answered, "me again. I'm always with you."
"Even in the middle of the night?"
"You know the day destroys the night, and night divides the day. Try to run, try to hide..." He smiled, but did not advance.
Capulette reined herself in. She had tried to fight him, and while she had managed to get past twice, she could sense that she wouldn't be so lucky the third time. On the other hand, he hadn't killed her when he had the chance. Thinking about it, she realised that even though he could move with normal speed when she and everything else was slowed down, he had only defended himself from her attacks.
"What are you?" she asked.
"I am the kind of man women dream about."
Something clicked in her mind and the pieces fell into place. The sense of moving through syrup, his amazing abilities, the strange things he said...
Capulette smiled and raised her sword. On the other side of the fire, the Barrier did the same. She focused her mind, then flourished her weapon over her head and swiftly brought it down in a cutting movement in front of her, then halted its arc abruptly.
"There is no sword," she said, and both her own and the Barrier's weapon disappeared.
As did the fire, and the clearing. She found herself standing on nothing in a featureless, gray void, facing the Barrier. His expression hadn't changed.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, concentrating hard. She was almost there, she could feel it. She just had to break on through to the other side.
"In the end," she said, "there can be only one."
She opened her eyes, and the Barrier shattered to pieces, like a broken mirror.
She opened her eyes again and found herself back in the camp. Where the Barrier had stood, there was just some detritus. In the light of the fire, she could see the tracks continuing.
She sighed deeply. "It was just a dream."
She wondered idly where Affor had gotten the protective spell from, then noticed the pre-dawn light in the east and gathered her things. Today, she was sure, she would find the slaver.
As silently as they could, they collapsed onto the balcony one by one. Westala and Autopet had taken the exhausted women on their shoulders about half-way up, so they had had help placing the octopus thingies, but the climb had been very hard on everybody's arms and shoulders. After resting a short while, they armed themselves and entered the opened door to the dark room leading onto the balcony. After a few steps, the faint light entering through the door gave up and they stopped, uncertainly.
"Dark in here, isn't it?" The hollow voice seemed to come from all around them.
Then Villtin opened the shutters of his lamp and rose from the barrel in which he had been hiding and smiled a greeting.
Orjan stopped talking and took out his pipe. He inspected it critically and eventually decided that it was too much bother to clean and re-light it right then. after all, it was getting quite late.
"You know, I think we'll draw the line there, for today."
Orjan stood up and yawned, then said:
"And tomorrow, we should reach the end of this saga."
To which Marco responded with a barely heard "Optimist".
Despite it being barely heard Orjan heard Marco's remark quite clearly and responded with a peevish:
Now, come on. I missed the big party in Hanoverian Hinckley the last time and you've been telling me about it ever since. I'm not going to miss it this time around, so I say we hurry up with this story.
Marco looked serious, for once, and replied:
"You're right, of course. To have a chance to get there, we really must finish this story by tomorrow."
He thought for a bit, then suggested: "Perhaps we should talk faster?"
"Hm... Tell you what, let's skip the threatening volcano eruption that was plugged by that fortuitous asteroid, shall we? That should save a bit of time." Orjan suggested instead.
"Sure thing. It's not that relevant anyway." Marco replied with a shrug.
The audience, though mystified by this exchange, were too tired to protest, indeed some had already fallen asleep at the tables as soon as Orjan had stopped talking. The rest had caught Orjans yawn and the room was now full of miniature black holes. Orjan smiled and said:
22 When you wake up at 4 am and forget who you are, it's because this check-up was never executed. back
23 Virtually all worlds in the multiverse that are inhabited by avatars of human beings have a word for positive affirmation, derived from two alphabetical letters. These are not always O and K, but that is surprisingly often the case.24 But apparently never for the same reasons: on one world they stem from a newspaper editor's funky spelling, on another they're the initials of a popular politician, on a third they commemorate the capture of an Ogre Keep. What seems to be universal is that everyone forgets the original reason, and there is much dispute and many myths as to what it might be. back
24 On worlds where they are "TV," though, it should be pointed out that televisive technology tends to be shortened to something else. back
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