The Return of the Striking Knights
A Tale of Westala and Villtin
By Elin Rosén, Marco Villalta and Örjan Westin

Part One


It started, as often is the case, with curiosity. Of course, the d'Avid family had always been inquisitive, beginning with the founder of the line who started with simple questions along the lines of "Your money or your life?". Through ambition, daring and the ever effective combination of charm and ruthlessness he made himself a name and was later ennobled in recognition of having killed and dismembered a dozen thugs who attacked the king of Anorankhmar.1

The fortunes of the family had waxed and waned over the centuries, but there had always been this streak of curiosity running strongly in the line. That sort of people are useful. Dangerous, but useful, and they had often been called in by the reigning monarch to find things out. What are our enemies planning, who will win the races, what is the name of that handsome lady, and how can we find out if this crown is really massive gold -- those were but a few of the many questions they had supplied the answers to.

But since the civil war which led to the demise of the monarchy, there had been more wane than wax, and the current holder of the title, traditionally named Kendy, was not busy with any official positions or holdings outside the city. He did, however, have an extensive library, gathered together by generation upon generation of curious d'Avids. If he didn't know something, he could probably find it somewhere, especially if it was obscure.

Lord d'Avid was not the kind of person you would associate with nefarious plots and power struggles -- that kind of thing had long been bred out of the line. In fact, if the theories are correct and millions and millions of almost identical universes lie separated side by side by nothing more than a choice, it is true to say that in a million universes Lord Kendy d'Avid continued studying whatever took his fancy, oblivious to what was going on in the city outside his substantial town house in one of the more select neighbourhoods. In a million universes he peered over old annals and chronicles and wrote essays on history, governance and leadership. In a million universes he had no part in the silent revolution.

But as chance would have it, in this particular universe he looked up from the tome he was perusing, noticed a bit owlishly that the late summer sun was shining through the dirty windows in the library and made a choice that set him on a different path. He rang for the butler and asked, to the servant's surprise and concern, for a coat and purse, as he was going out for a stroll about town.

A few minutes later, he blinked against the light and took a deep breath, trying to recall when he had last been outside. Still in deep thought over this matter, he stepped out into the street, only to be knocked down by the past.

"Oh, I do apologise," the past said and helped him onto his feet, "I hope you are all right?"

"Um, yes, thank you," Kendy said confusedly, trying to recall both when he had been out last and who he saw in front of him.

"Well, I am sorry, but if you'll allow, I really need to be on my way."

Kendy, still shocked, simply nodded. Then, when it was too late, he called out.

"You, wait, who are you?"

The past was no longer there, but had stridden confidently into the future.


The common room of The Plummeting Lemming was dark, lit only by the last fading embers of the great log fire that had burned earlier in the evening. The city was unusually quiet at the moment, even for the subdued state that had lately become normal. Since many of the Citizens were at the festival in nearby Hanoverian Hinckley, the inn had closed early. The kitchen however glowed warm and inviting.

Kaylad, who owned the inn with her husband Lowmar, stood ladling soup into bowls and passing them around the large central table that functioned as workbench for the cooks, and dinner table for the innkeepers' family. Lowmar himself busied himself with pouring drinks for their guests, delighted to have his kitchen full of beautiful, and in some cases not overly dressed, women.

Tessan, Kaylad's and Lowmar's daughter, was chatting to a pretty but somewhat subdued young woman Lowmar had only come to know in the past little while. Her name was Mega Vole and she was a former member of the Dancing Rodents, a group of female assassins, though you wouldn't have known it to look at her. Since arriving in Anorankhmar she had abandoned her Dancing Rodent-issue leather microskirt and heeled boots in favour of more comfortable clothes. Currently she was dressed in a long, soft gown of fine, dark blue wool and her hair was tied up in a simple ponytail.

Next to Mega Vole sat a striking woman, whose already good looks were enhanced by the confidence she radiated. Her name was Fiftyseven and she was an even more recent acquaintance of Lowmar's. She had been one of the women kept by Affor of the Grey Hem, a slaver who had made it a habit to kidnap Tessan, and had helped rescue the girl. For which Lowmar was eternally grateful, though he had been made to understand Tessan was never really in any danger. Affor, it seemed, was not quite as fierce as his reputation would have it.

Unlike Mega Vole, Fiftyseven had stuck by the tools, and clothes, of her trade and was dressed mainly in chainmail and her own skin, with patches of green and black leather to cover the more interesting bits. Lowmar tried not to look at her more than necessary lest Kaylad saw and thumped him for it. She was easy on the eyes, though.

The other women in the room Lowmar had known for a long time; there was Messy Marall of the Stargazer clan of the Clench, Capulette, with her husband Gideoallet, and Tily, another longtime friend. They were all chatting and laughing, mainly about the events of the past few weeks.

During the last year Anorankhmar had suffered under the pressure of a group that called itself The Cult of Me and a pair of thugs and sorcerers employed by them, Fix Ballong and Dextra Bos. The Cult had kidnapped some of Lowmar's friends, men that were trying to raise resistance among the citizens, and things had looked very bleak.

Then Westala and Villtin had arrived in the city, a pair of adventurers and mercenaries that periodically came to Anorankhmar in search of entertainment. Lowmar and Kaylad had come to know them the first time Affor kidnapped Tessan, some years ago. That time it had been the mismatched adventurers who rescued her, and they had been friends of the innkeepers ever since.

When the two had found out about the missing "cabal", as the resistance group was known, they had set out to find them. Lowmar had accompanied them on this mission, as had two more adventurers; Newra the Moonlight Raider, and Autopet, a longtime friend of Westala and Villtin. Meanwhile Affor had turned up again and taken Lowmar's absence as his chance to get Tessan back.

Luckily Capulette had heard and, not being a woman who let things lie if they needed fixing, had gone after her. At Affor's hide-out Capulette had met Fiftyseven and convinced her to help save Tessan. All this Lowmar had been told when he returned with Westala, Villtin and the freed cabal after having defeated and disposed of Bos and Ballong.

Suddenly the door banged open and an enormous pile of rolled up documents stumbled in, followed by an equally enormous pile of bags and parcels. Last came a young red-headed woman with a big sword on her back.

"No rush, no rush," she grinned, "here's something for everyone."

"Trust her, I think we might even have a kitchen sink in here somewhere," added the pile of parcels.

Once all the bags and things had been put on the unused end of the table together with the documents, Lassie -- Tily's man and retrieved cabal member -- and Autopet were revealed. They brushed themselves off and were handed a bowl of steaming soup each by Kaylad.

"Hello Newra," Capulette said, "did you have any trouble getting the things?"

"No, the boys were very good." She patted Autopet, who wasn't fast enough to get away, on the head.

She started sorting through the rolls of parchment. "We have maps of the city and countryside, plans of the sewer system,2 land deeds matching the names Mega Vole supplied and the addresses of every registered seamstress and masseuse in and within fifty miles of the city.

And this," she held up a slender roll, "is my piece de resistance; Certificates from the seamstresses guild, signed, stamped and sealed, and with our names on them." She handed one each to Fiftyseven, Messy and Capulette.

"In the other pile we have bolts of cloth, pins, needles, good scissors and cutting knives, measuring tapes, chalk, some soft leather, thimbles and assorted other goodies." Newra pulled out a parcel wrapped in soft tissue paper.

"This, is for you," she handed it to Mega Vole, "Courtesy of Ally Chance over on Beech Street. Oh, and she says you owe her an enormous favour, by the way." Newra directed the last at Lowmar, who groaned.

Meanwhile Mega Vole had unwrapped the parcel and was blushing furiously. It held a spectacular red dress with a corset-bodice decorated in embroidered silk and lace. It was sure to cling flatteringly, Ally Chance's skill with a needle was legendary. Almost as legendary as her other skills.

"She says good luck with the young man." Newra added mischievously.

"With that dress I think he might be the one needing the luck," Capulette grinned.

"Yes," added Fiftyseven, "or the cold bath."

Mega Vole blushed furiously. Despite her former profession that kind of jokes made her uncomfortable, it was so personal now that it wasn't a job. Of course, having left the Dancing Rodents while still being an apprentice might have something to do with it too.

As soon as the others had stopped chuckling they rolled out the maps and got down to business.

"All right," Newra began, "Mega Vole, you said that the Dancing Rodents live in a sort of walled village or complex in the hills up the coast from the city." She looked at the map.

"Yes," Mega Vole nodded, "about three days travel away. It has to be somewhere unnoticable, out of the way, it's pretty big."

"Oh," Kaylad said suddenly from over by the stove, "that has to be the old Sunfriar monastery."

As one the others turned to look at her. "The what?"

"The Sunfriar monastery. Don't you remember, Lowmar? When we were kids, every spring festival these strange monks in orange robes would come into the city to dance the sundance. I talked to one of them once and he said they lived in a monastery in the hills north-west of the city. And they always came by boat."

"I've never heard of them. And what spring festival?" Tessan interrupted, "You've never said anything about that."

"No, Kaylad's right," Lowmar said with a faraway look in his eyes. "There used to be a spring festival of the sun. There used to be monks, but it has to be, what... 40 years ago now, at least. Before any of you were born."

"What happened?" Capulette asked. "How come none of us have ever heard about it? I was born here after all, and so was Tily, and Tessan."

"Well..." Kaylad hesitated, "I'm not really sure, I was only a child at the time myself. There was some sort of trouble between the monks and the nobles. One year they just didn't come and the festival had turned into a market. I remember everything was very tense and none of the grown-ups wanted to talk about it. After a while I guess we just forgot." She shrugged. "I only remembered just now, I haven't thought about it in years."

"But the Dancing Rodents have been around longer than that, haven't they? I thought it was an ancient organisation," Fiftyseven asked, mystified.

"That's what leads us to this," Autopet said and opened another map, one that showed the streets and buildings of Anorankhmar.

"This house," Autopet indicated a house by the southern wall of the city, "is owned by a Lady Valanis, first name Solerie, and according to Mega Vole she is the in-city contact of the Rodents. Apparently her house used to be the Dancing Rodent headquarters before they moved the organisation out of the city."

"At least that's what mistress Peril Rat said when we first came there anyway." Mega Vole added.

"As you may notice the house backs onto the river," Newra continued, "and we believe that there is a disused sewer outlet there that has been converted so boats can come in at night, thus avoiding the gates and having to declare content of said boats."

"Valanis is pretty well known in the slavery and exotic toy trade," Fiftyseven commented, "Affor never did business with her, but she has a good reputation in certain circles. A very bad one in others. She refuses to trade with men, considers them not quite human I've heard. And if even half of what I've heard goes on in that house is true, I'm not so sure she is either."

Gideoallet nodded. "I've heard the name. There was something about an assassination attempt on one of the nobles a few years ago. One of Lady Gleur's friends I believe, quite the young dandy."

"That secret dock is how the Rodents get in and out of the city unnoticed, anyway. I remember it was like a stone-walled tunnel under the house." Mega Vole supplied helpfully.

"So if you can get in contact with this Valanis you may be able to get in contact with the Rodents." Lowmar concluded.

"Exactly," Newra agreed, "and this is where we get lucky. The certificates Ally Chance signed for us makes us members of the seamstresses' guild, and we know that someone claiming to work for this Lady Valanis is in fact looking for seamstresses to employ right now."

"We do?" Capulette sounded confused.

Newra looked pleased with herself and nodded. "We do. Miss Chance told us when we went there to ask her about that other business."

"Ah, so that's why the certificates," Fiftyseven realised.

"And that's why you've filled my kitchen with sewing supplies," Kaylad observed drily.

Newra nodded again, with a grin much like that of a cat who has just caught a fat sparrow. "Ladies, we have a way in."


The barman at The Unobtrusive Beagle, the most popular tavern in Hanoverian Hinckley, took one look at the approaching men and decided that he wasn't going to argue with anything they said. The tall one was too muscled, and the slender one was too armed.

And they were real weapons, and real muscles. He'd seen plenty of odd costumes over the last couple of days -- the band of troubadours dressed up as ogres probably took the cake -- but there was nothing fake about these two. Exaggerated, maybe, but he wouldn't say that to their faces. Or indeed anything more offensive than:

"What can I get you?"

"My turn to buy, is it?" said the porcupine of edge-tools, who had dark, short-cut hair. "Wait, don't tell me. Ale?"

The muscle-man, who had fair hair and beard, nodded happily. "And cider for you, right?"

"Right," said the barman. "Spangled Chicken? Sturdy Arc?"

"That'll do nicely," the mercenaries chorused. Then they exchanged glances.

"Should we stop doing that?" asked the shorter man.

"Yeah, it's getting a bit scary," the taller man agreed.

"Oh, hello!" A very lightly sober man slapped the points-outwards pin-cushion on the back. "How'ya doin', mate? Feelin' better now? You were looking a bit pale before at the sword-fightin' demonshtrashun! Ya know, when yer frien' took a swing at yer shield! Took ya by shurprise, did it? Hahaha!"

The swordsman frowned, appearing to the barman like he pondered which blade to gut the drunkard with. "Actually, no, I knew he---"

"Well, don' think more about that now, mate. Whassat yer drinkin'? Barman! Another pint o' cider for master Villtin here. And I'll have one too."

The barman looked at Villtin, then at the coin the drunkard had slapped on the bar, then at the drunkard himself, then back at Villtin.

"Go on, you heard the man," the warrior said, got his drink, and followed his friend outside.

Around the big bonfire, dancing shapes moved through the smoke in sinous movements to the beat hammered out by a woman frowning in concentration.

"Pretty good, eh?" Westala elbowed his companion, who promptly swore.

"Watch it! I've got a full pint of cider in each hand here."

"So drink them, then."

Villtin shot his big friend a dark look. "You should know by now that I don't drink..." He paused, awkwardly aware that the music had stopped and he had shouted the three last words out for all to hear. In quieter tones he concluded the sentence: "... much."

"Want any help?" Westala asked hopefully.

Villtin ignored him, preferring to rest his eyes at the woman who had supplied the music. She took a towel and wiped the sweat from her forehead, then wiped the big metal pan she had been playing on. A wooden cinder from the fire drifted lazily through the air, and landed in the pan.

"Hey, wood, beat it!" The woman flicked it back into the fire with a drumstick.

"Out of the pan and into the fire," Villtin muttered darkly.


Villtin turned to Westala. "Oh, nothing. It's just..."


Villtin took a swig of cider. "Nah, it's nothing. Just a sudden sense of dread."

Westala's hand dropped to the handle of his seax, a large utility knife hanging horizontally from his belt, and looked around furtively. "Where?"

"Nowhere, you big oaf. There are no threats here." Villtin took another swig of cider, from the other pint. "I just got a sudden feeling we'd be heading into danger soon."

"Oh." Westala grinned. "Like walking into a big forest and ignoring the sign saying 'Here be dragons'?"

"Trust me, if there's a sign spelling out a warning, I will consider it most carefully."

Villtin looked into his cups. "Halfpint, meet halfpint," he said, and carefully poured the contents of one into the other. He put the empty cup down and raised the other. "Pint."

Westala emptied his own and grinned. "Now that's a good idea, I'll have another ale, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind. It's your turn to buy."


The Voyagers' Club was one of the most exclusive establishments in Anorankhmar, steeped in history and power. For centuries it had provided a home away from home for those nobles of the surrounding lands that did not have a house in the city, and rooms had been passed down from father to son for generations.

Lord Kendy d'Avid peered at the discreet brass plaque announcing the club's existence and nodded to himself before taking a deep breath and pulling the handle. The door didn't budge.

The peer blinked and took a step backwards, confused. Could the club have closed? He tried to remember when he had last visited but found his memory a bit hazy. Had he been ten or eleven years old? His father had insisted he'd wear his tartan cap, and he had hidden that on his eleventh birthday because he decided he was too big to wear a garment only seen on those with small minds. So, he must have been ten, then. Or was it the school cap his father had insisted on?

Lost in thought, Kendy didn't notice the tap on his shoulder at first, but the subsequent poke in the back made him turn around. The fancifully dressed nobleman he saw standing in front of him lowered his walking stick and frowned.

"Out of the way, man! Don't you have any respect for your betters?"

Kendy jumped aside, stammering excuses, pulled his hat off and let the man past. Without a second glance at Kendy, the man put his hand in his coat pocket, took out some coins and dropped them in Kendy's hat. Then he pushed the door open and entered the club. Kendy heard a voice greet "Lord Drikhen" before the door closed.

He blinked again, put his hat on, took his hat off, extracted the money, smiled when he saw that the coins were zorkmints - a currency not accepted anywhere since they were made of an amalgam of bauxite and cellulose - pocketed the coins, put his hat on, took a step forward, pushed the door and entered the club.

A gray-haired majordomo greeted him gravely and gave him a long searching look before bowing from the waist.

"Lord d'Avid. Allow me to welcome you back to the Voyagers' Club, sir."

"Thank you." Kendy ransacked his memory. "Ah, yes, Monocul, is it? So you're still around? I trust your brother is well?"

"Yes, sir, thank you for asking. My brother Subterr is still looking after the supplies of drinks here."

"Yes, of course," Kendy exclaimed, "I remember my father spoke very fondly of his beers."

"That was very kind of him, and with your permission I shall tell my brother you said so." The majordomo hesitated for a brief moment and continued with a concerned frown. "Ah, I should inform you, sir, that tonight, formal attire is called for."

Kendy looked down on himself. Red socks, blue knee-length breeches with orange stripes, green velvet coat over a saffron shirt... His hat, in purple felt, fell off his head. He narrowly beat Monocul in picking it up again.


"A tie is usually called for, sir." Monocul coughed delicately. "As are shoes."

Kendy looked down again, surprised. "So that's what I forgot to bring! I knew it was something, and I've been wondering what all the way here. Be a good chap and try to find a pair for me, will you? And a tie. I'll be in the library."

"I'm afraid the library has been reserved for tonight's lecture, sir. Can I recommend the slightly mauve drawing room?"

Kendy frowned. "Lecture? What lecture?"

"It's a rather recent idea," Monocul frowned slightly, "which has been a regular feature once a week the last twenty years or so." His voice said clearer than words that as far as he was concerned, this meant it was only a passing fad. "Tonight's subject is Principles of Governance, chaired by the Clench scholar Marall. It will begin after dinner."

"Fascinating!" Kendy rubbed his hands. "Sounds like I'll have a real night out, eh? It's good to be back, Monocul. Put me down for a seat. And for dinner. And shoes, of course."

"Very well, sir."


The candle was dripping little beads of wax onto the tablecloth, staining it. Somewhere behind her a man was playing the violin, badly but with great enthusiasm. Mega Vole noticed these things because she was too shy to look at the man in front of her, and he was too shy to speak to her. She wished she hadn't worn the red dress, it was much too fine for this restaurant, and it showed too much skin and curves.

What if he didn't like her curves? She wished she were a bit more confident, confident enough to use her training maybe. To be able to use that walk that made men melt. But she wasn't a Dancing Rodent, now. And she wanted him to like her, not her training. But what if he didn't? She had no experience with men, not really.

What if he wanted to kiss her and she didn't know how to do it right? She would die for sure then. And he'd never want to see her again. Which really wouldn't be a problem if she was dead, she supposed. But then she wouldn't be able to see him even if he wanted to see her again. What if he wanted to see her again? Surely he'd notice that she wasn't really what he wanted if they went out a second time? Or even this time...

He was so worldly, with that dashing scar on his chin. Probably came from defending some defenceless woman... no, not woman, no other women... some defenceless child, that was better. Conon! Even the name was heroic. Mega Vole sighed.

"Um... er..." The young man across the table said, and then fell quiet again. "Er... That's a very nice dress," he finally ventured.

It was a damn fine dress, he thought. Showed all the right bits in the right way. If his friends had been able to see him now, eating - well, sitting anyway - with the most beautiful woman in the room, in the city even! Though Kev would probably have made a move on her then and she'd have realised that she was here with the wrong man.

He didn't have any moves. He wasn't worldly. He wasn't in her league. How he had ever dared ask if she would have dinner with him he'd never know.

She had been beautiful then too, when he saw her in the market. She was wearing a blue dress and her hair was tied back too keep it out of her face. She was buying a fish.

Fish, he sighed to himself, wonderful thing. Why had he never realised before what a delightful animal fish was? All silvery. And blue! The best colour in the world!

Mercifully the food arrived and gave them something to do, and something to talk about. As the evening went on and the food was accompanied by wine the talking grew easier, and at the end of the night they were both laughing and looking radiant.

"What happened to you, to give you that scar?" Mega Vole asked, forgetting her shyness.

"Well... once when I was a kid we were playing knights and bandits, and I was the bandit. When I was defeated I was tied to a tree, on the farm where I grew up. And then when they had tied me up the neighbour's dog came running and scared everyone. In their hurry the others only untied my arms, so when I tried to run I fell on my face."

Conon smiled crookedly, "I usually say I got it while fighting for my life and single-handedly fending off a whole gang of bandits..."

Mega Vole laughed, he really was very very cute.


Kendy settled down in a comfortable armchair and had a look around. The library looked much like he remembered it from his last visit, although it seemed much smaller than it had when he was a child. By the table at the front a pretty young woman in black robes was looking through her notes, and he surmised this was the Clench person who would hold the evening's lecture.

Other members of the club came in to take their seats, and Kendy amused himself by identifying them from old memories and older portraits he'd seen of their ancestors. That aquiline nose suggested its owner was of the Remillard-Muldowney family, and that suave expression on another face must belong to a Gleur, he surmised. There was the man he'd met coming in, Lord Drikhen, and a cheerful, somewhat chubby face and vertically limited stature indicated a Sopracasa.

It was with some surprise Kendy realised the latter was Victor, his old school chum. Of course, the last ten years or so Kendy had kept pretty much to himself, and before now he hadn't really reflected on the passing of time, but seeing Victor in a neatly trimmed goatee was still strange.

Presently the company settled down, servants brought drinks to all who wanted them, and the majordomo introduced the young woman as Messy Marall, a noted Clench scholar. A genteel applause followed, and she began talking.

"Gentlemen, tonight I will to talk about governance, a subject I am sure you are all intimately familiar with." At this, a number of the noblemen gave little nods. "I will not presume to lecture you, but rather discuss with you the constitution of our fair city."

She took a sip from a glass of water. "First of all, how is Anorankhmar governed?"

Kendy sat up straight, his hand high in the air. "Ooo, me, miss, ooo, ooo..."

She gave him a surprised look, then nodded.

"Ooo, miss, the city is governed by the mayor, who is appointed by the senate, which comprises one hundred and forty-nine seats that are held by the noble families, miss. The mayor can make laws but any nobleman may challenge them and may take it to the senate for a vote, and seventy-five votes against will strike it down, miss. If the senate wishes to make a law the mayor must accept it, but it has to gather at least one hundred votes in the senate to pass, miss."

She gave him a big smile. "Very well done, Lord...?"

"d'Avid, Kendy d'Avid," he said, both shaken and curiously stirred by his own audacity.

"... Lord d'Avid. So it is stated in the constitution, which was written and signed by the heads of those one hundred and forty-nine families, who led the movement against the monarchy. It also says specifically that those numbers are absolute, not proportional."

She checked her notes and took a another sip of water. In the silence, Kendy noted a muted sniggering around him, but he ignored that when she began talking again.

She elaborated on the principles behind the constitution, argumented on its paragraphs, and described the organisation of the departments that managed the daily workings of the city.

Kendy listened with great interest, occasionally frowning at one of the other lords who seemed more interested in drinks and gossiping than the lecture. He found it fascinating - as he was wont to find any new information - and when Ms Marall eventually concluded her lecture, he stood up and applauded.

When he realised he was the only one doing so, he blushed and quickly sat down again.

"My lords," Messy said, "I thank you for your attention, and hope you have heard something of interest tonight. As you know, the last time the senate convened was nine years ago, to decide whether the stars in the official livery should be replaced by crescents. Since then--"

Kendy frowned. "Excuse me miss, did you say nine years?"

"Er, yes, why?"

"Why hasn't there been any more sessions since?"

Messy gave him a surprised look. "But, surely you must know?" She glanced around the room. "I mean, most of you gentlemen are senators, aren't you?"

There was an affirmative chorus, and Kendy, after racking his memory, recalled his father had mentioned having a seat in the senate once, long ago.

"Erm..." Kendy said. "I've never been to a session. My father took care of that, and since I inherited the title I haven't been called."

"I haven't had a call for a session in years," the Remillard-Muldowney fellow said sourly. "I can't recall when I last received one."

"Well, there you have it then," Victor Sopracasa shrugged. "That means that all is well with the city."

Lord Drikhen, who was sitting to Kendy's left, emptied his glass of brandy and eyed the lecturer. "Looksh pretty enough from where I'm shitting, I'd shay."

This brought laughter from the other lords, and a slight blush from Messy.

"I remember that livery vote," another lord said, "and I haven't seen any point in participating in any more after that. I have more important things to do with my time. As far as I'm concerned, a mayor should be able to do his job without running to us asking for advice all the time." He shrugged. "Seems like we've finally got a capable fellow, so we should just be grateful for that."

"Hear, hear!" Lord Remillard-Muldowney stood up and raised his glass. "To the mayor!"

The other lords followed suit, although Lord Drikhen had to be supported by a servant to avoid falling over. "The mayor!"

Messy looked at them in bewilderment. "My lords," she said when they had quieted down again, "I think the reason the mayor has not asked for your advice is that he died five years ago."

There were exclamations of surprise, and Lord Drikhen stood up again, raised his glass, saw it was empty, had it refilled, and raised it again. "May he resht in pish! To the mayor!"

The other lords followed suit. "The mayor!"

Kendy waved his hand in the air.

"Ooo miss, then we must elect a new mayor, miss."

"Er... yes. That would be the prudent thing to do, Lord d'Avid, but I'm afraid there is a slight problem. The mayor must be elected by a grand majority, that is one hundred votes, and there are currently not that many members of the senate in the city."

She gave him an apologetic shrug. "I thought you knew," she said in a small voice.

Kendy looked around, shocked, as this sunk in. The assembled lords evidenced a range of reactions. Lord Remillard-Muldowney shrugged, Lord Drihken argued with a servant, insisting on another refill of his glass and repeating he was "schober, damme", and Victor Sopracasa surveyed the room with a calculating look.

Messy Marall gathered her notes and left, but Kendy remained seated, listening to the conversations around him. It seemed that the prevailing sentiment was that if the city had worked five years without a mayor, then it could jolly well go on doing just that. As long as their own vassalls, serfs and servants worked hard, the lords had no reason to care about the city.

As Lord Remillard-Muldowney summed it up: "The mayor only governs the commoners, anyway, and what are they to me?"

Long after the other lords had left the library, and Lord Drikhen had been carried to his room, Kendy sat thinking. He looked up at the bookshelves lining the room and muttered "Who can be made mayor, anyway?" to himself, before taking out a large volume on law and putting it on a reading table.


It was past dark and Lassie and Tily were walking home along the river, somewhat unsteadily and giggling quite a lot. It appeared they had been enjoying themselves at one of the city's many taverns. Occasionally they stopped for a quick kiss, or a not so quick one.

It must have been purely by chance that their way took them right past Lady Valanis' house, and that they chose that spot for one of their not so brief kisses. And that they happened to notice the number and placement of the guards and what people came or went through the large door in the surrounding wall.

And certainly it must have been an accident that Tily lost her shawl right by the river, so that Lassie had to climb down the embankment and get it just as a small, unlit boat left through a hidden opening in the house's river wall. Just as it was certainly by chance that neither of the two could be recognised as one of the seamstresses who would be paying a visit to the house on the following day.


Fiftyseven pulled distractedly on her skirt, it was a long time since she last wore a dress and she was feeling a bit claustrophobic. Sadly no-one would believe she was a seamstress in her usual garb so she had surrendered to necessity.

Finally Messy came around the corner, walking fast and a little out of breath.

"I'm sorry," she said as soon as she reached the others, "I just went over to drop something off at Peterwok's, but then he mentioned this experiment he was doing with Autopet and Westala and Wise Martin, and how he lost the samples and we got into a really interesting discussion about what a magical flux can capacitate on a temporal level and..." Messy noticed the others' blank stares and trailed off. "Well, it was very interesting anyway."

"I'm sure," said Fiftyseven drily. "Are we ready?" The others nodded assent and they all set out towards the southern wall and lady Valanis's house.

The house, when they got there, turned out to be just as big and impressive as Tily and Lassie had said. It towered over the in itself quite impressing wall that surrounded it, and sat like a private fortress between the city wall and a row of small houses on the edge of the Pit.3

There were crenellations on the roof, and gargoyles, spires, turrets and strange and twisted pointy things. It looked, in fact, like a small castle that had got some sort of horrible cancerous skin disease. The gate in the surrounding wall on the other hand looked like it had been designed by a very competent gate builder who just happened to have a fetish for iron studs and spikes and a complete lack of restraint. It was huge and of solid age-blackened wood.

Capulette scratched her chin. "It's funny," she said as they stopped in front of the building, "how you can live in a city all your life and never know that something like this is in it."

"Yes," agreed Newra, "it's quite... noticeable." They stood in impressed and somewhat apprehensive silence for a moment before Capulette decisively stepped up to the gate and knocked with the huge iron knocker. After a little while, just long enough that the four women were debating whether to try again, a hatch opened and showed a pair of brown eyes.

"Yes?" a female voice, presumably belonging to the person with the eyes, said from behind the gate.

"Oh, er, hello," Capulette began, "we are seamstresses and we have heard that your mistress might know someone who..." The hatch slammed shut. Capulette turned to the others and shrugged a "what now?" kind of shrug. Newra went up to the gate and knocked again. The eyes returned as the hatch was opened.

"Yes?" The voice said again, impatiently this time.

"Does the name Sume Anders mean anything to you?" Newra asked. The eyes met hers for a moment.

"Certificates?" The voice asked. Newra handed over the papers from the Seamstresses' Guild and the hatch slammed again.

The four women looked at each other.

"Welcoming bunch." Newra commented.

"Very," Capulette agreed.

"At least she took our papers," Messy said, "I hope we get them back."

"Yeah," Newra shook her head, "I don't think Madame Chance would be too impressed if we showed up again today asking for new ones."

Time passed, slowly, as it usually does when you are waiting and don't know for how long you'll be standing there.

"Hold on, I think something's going on." Fiftyseven alerted the others after what seemed like an eternity and probably was about ten minutes. Sure enough the enormous gates soon opened and revealed a tall woman in a plain black dress. She was, unusually, wearing a gleaming sword at her hip, and it looked to be far from just an accessory.4 When the woman turned and motioned for them to follow her the skirt was revealed to be divided, as though for riding, and her black hair was gathered into a tight braid.

Fiftyseven, Capulette, Newra and Messy followed the strange woman across a narrow courtyard and into the main building. As they walked down a brightly lit hallway the woman addressed them.

"Lady Valanis will see you. You will not address her unless spoken to. You will be polite. You will answer questions. You will not stray in body or in attention. My name is Wilkinson, you will call me Captain." Her voice was strict and monotone, stating indisputable facts rather than suggestions.

Thus it was rather a surprise to be greeted with a cheerful "Oh there you are!" by a beaming whirlwind of a woman when they entered the room at the end of the hall. That wasn't the only surprise though. Usually you didn't see noblewomen wearing huge leather falconry gloves indoors, especially not in combination with a black opera mask and golden-yellow brocade gown. Of course they did rather match the leather bodice of her surcote.

"Willie here has told me so much about you! Do come in, sit down!" The woman exclaimed and gestured towards some chairs with the rolled up certificates she held in her left hand. "Oh my! I haven't introduced myself. Solerie Valanis, my friends call me Gilette," Lady Valanis said and offered her right hand to be shook, seemingly oblivious to the three long blades that protruded from between her fingers.

"Er..." Fiftyseven managed.

"What?" Lady Valanis looked blankly at her hand and seemed to notice the knife for the first time. "Oh! Silly me, forget my own head next." She reached her hand out to Wilkinson who calmly undid the straps and put the fist-knife on a side table. "I do apologise," Valanis continued, "I was just down in the games room. Do sit," she repeated and gestured to a comfortable looking couch and matching chair.

To keep on the safe side they had all decided to use fake names. So when they were all seated and Capulette started introducing them they were Susan, Agnes, Maggie and Polly.

The story they told Lady Valanis was that Capulette/Agnes, Fiftyseven/Polly and Newra/Susan had all been working as seamstresses for a travelling theatre company but had decided to leave when the director was killed in a freak accident after trying to rape Susan. The three girls had come together to Anorankhmar to make a new life for themselves. There they had met Messy/Maggie who was fed up with cooking and cleaning for a smith with half her brains and roving hands. Since Maggie had picked up quite a lot on how to work with metal (buckles, rivets, grommets, small blades and simple mechanisms) from her former boss they decided to go into business together.

"But we found that the market for that kind of... ah... specialised clothing wasn't as secure here in Anorankhmar as we had thought," Capulette concluded and spread her hands helplessly.

Lady Valanis nodded encouragingly.

"So we came to you" Newra cut in, "as the word on the street5 is that you would know where to look."

"And that you'd be sympathetic to..." Fiftyseven smirked. "Well, let's just say that we are all less than happy with our experiences with males, and should the chance for some revenge and retribution arise, I don't think any of us would complain."

When they had finished telling their story Lady Valanis sat quietly for a while, distractedly fanning herself with their certificates. Suddenly she sprung up and shouted for Wilkinson who had taken up position by the door.

"Willie! Get my knives and take one of the vermin from the cellar to my games room. I think the ceiling hook will suit today." She started pacing the room, muttering angrily to herself and gesturing. Then she plopped down in her chair again and started fiddling with the straps of her fist-knife. "Willie will have rooms made ready for you," she said monotonely towards the women on the couch, "one of the maids will be up later with your dinner and wine. I prefer Kyantee but if you like something else, just ask." She stood up again, looking uncomfortable. "If you'll excuse me..." she said and almost ran from the room.


Finding dry wood hadn't been a problem, thanks to the last days' warm and dry weather, and the fire burned with a merry crackle to it. A breeze dispersed the smoke to a safe transparency, and a big rock hid the camp from being seen from the road. The place was about as secure as it could get, and it was really rather pleasant.

Westala and Villtin had walked quite a long way since last morning. Being sought by people who want to see you dead is a great motivator. But apart from travelling quickly, it wasn't something they seemed to worry about. And the time they walked had been passed entertainingly by comparing notes from the festival.

Westala had found the account of the blue sheeprustlers particularly entertaining, especially when Villtin told him about how they had capped it by making off with a large silver statue of a tortoise.

"I can't believe I missed that."

"Well, it's a bloody big festival, with lots of things going on all the time." Villtin shrugged. "You can't see and do everything, so you'll have to pick what's most interesting."

"That's true, of course. We pulled quite a crowd to our swordplay demonstration. I was a bit surprised by that."

"Don't you think it's simply that people are impressed by swords and like to see people who know how to use them?"

"Yeah, I'd think so. But with the size of that crowd, we could have made a fair bit of money if we'd charged admission. But I guess you took care of that your usual way?"

"Who, me?" said Villtin innocently, inspecting his nimble fingers. He grinned. "No, actually, I didn't. I don't know why, but I guess the sheer number of people impressed me so much that I just forgot. I made up for it afterwards, though, so money shouldn't be a problem."

Westala shook his head, smiling. He got out a purse of tobacco and a battered old briar pipe, which he stuffed, lit with a small twig from the fire, and started puffing.

After a while, Villtin checked the pot that was simmering over the fire. Food's ready," he announced.

They ate, and Westala cleaned out his pipe.

"The swords demo was a popular event, in any case," he said. "I heard say lots of people were disappointed they missed it. Even the High Priest of the Temple of Afpdor was sorry he was otherwise occupied at the time."

"I heard that too! Bit worrying that a man of faith would be interested in swordplay, though. Are there any religious wars going on that I haven't heard of?"

"Not that I know... No, but you tell me what that man isn't interested in."

"I hear he gave up rather quickly on rodents that throw themselves off cliffs." Villtin's grin faded as he grew serious. "There's one problem with the popularity of our demo, though. When word gets around, the Dancing Rodents will know where we've been."

"I know. That's why I insisted that we leave before anyone else did, so that we'd have a bit of distance between Hanoverian Hinckley and us by the time word does get around."

"Oh, so that's why you dragged me away before I could have any lunch. Okay, good thinking."

"I just hope it's enough to shake them off. But how big of an informant network could they have? It's not like they're an..." Westala winked. "... Assassins' Guild, is it?"

"Heh! You never know... But that was a fun game, joining a mock guild for the weekend and competing for points. Might get a bit awkward if people were to take it too seriously, but I thought it was handled well."

"Oh, yes. What guild were you, again?"

"Thieves' Guild, of course!"

"Oh, right, I remember now. I still think you went a bit over the top when you stole the lemon slice out of the High Priest's glass of water."

"Well, I certainly hope he thought it was fun! And you have to admit, it was in character. What guild were you?"

"Plumbers'. But I wasn't very active in my guild."

"And how many points did you get for that?"

The blond Northman looked puzzled for a moment, then his face split into a wide grin. "You're a nastier man than I am, Ramoc Villtin."

Villtin made a little bow. "I know. Anyway, it's a fun idea to have criminal guilds like that. I wonder if it could be made to work for real somewhere."

"You're just saying that because you'd join the thieves' guild in a snap," Westala teased.

"Nah. Too many rules, if we're going by the system they had at the festival. Subscription fees? Not being allowed to kill people because it infringes on the Assassins' rights? A percentage of all swag to go to the guild? And receipts all over the place? Nah, I'm much rather self-employed.6 You're right, it probably wouldn't work."

"Well, I wouldn't say for sure. Just look at Anorankhmar. The so-called 'secret society' of assassins there is almost socially accepted, and has been working fairly openly for over a hundred years. They even have formal rules."

"Them? Please. Don't you remember the ones that Bos and Ballong, or if it was the Cult of Me - I don't remember which, and I don't really care - the ones they sent on us? I killed one and scared off the other, and we didn't hear a peep from them after that."

"True. Bit strange, isn't it?"

"Not really. I think they're too set in their ways. Apparently they've gone bonkers with the bureaucracy. Bureau-crazy, if you like. I'm guessing they still haven't filled out all the reports on how the mission failed."

"Is it really that bad?"

"From what I've heard, I think the only form they don't have is a satisfaction survey for the victims after they've been killed."

"Okay, you're right. Their efficiency isn't that high, then. But we could try joining them at the next festival, though."

"What, the Assassins' Guild?" wondered Villtin. "Don't you think the Thieves' Guild would be more fitting for us two? Or possibly the Barbarian Alliance, I heard some talk about having one next time."

"Why wouldn't the Assassins fit? We've killed for money a couple of times."

"That makes us contract killers, not capital-A Assassins. We're not noblemen, for a start."

"Neither was anyone else in the Guild this time, to my knowledge. It's a game, remember? And I'd think we'd be very, very good at it." Westala put on a frown of mock concern. "You know, sometimes I think you're taking this authenticity thing a bit too seriously."

"True, that. On all three counts," Villtin grinned.

"Besides, you can't do the same thing time and time again. That just gets boring, right?"

"I guess we could try... if we're accepted into it."

"Fair point. They may not want us in it."

"Probably not. All right, changing the subject, what's the plan for tomorrow?"

Westala thought for a while. "I think we should change direction, the first crossroads we come to. We've gone far enough north, and we've followed the same road since we left Hanoverian Hickley."

"You're right. And we obviously can't turn back south."

"That would be a bit silly. So, east or west, then?"

Villtin's face went blank. "We are not, repeat not, under any circumstances, going to go west. Am I making myself clear?"

"Why, um... see... a... Oh, all right. East it is, then."

"And we'd better avoid the people of any villages, too. The fewer people who can tell where we've been, the better."


Lord Sopracasa closed the ledgers covering most of the fine desk in front of him and sat back in his comfortable chair with a sigh. The tin mines on his estates, the main source of income to his family for generations, were running out of workable mineral. That was not good. Not good at all.

And speaking of no good at all... He pulled the cord behind his desk to call his manservant. After a couple of minutes, the door opened.

"Malindrew, fetch the-- Good grief, man! What has happened to you?"

The manservant, a tall, gangly man, as lean and keen as a greyhound, and currently sporting two black eyes, shuffled to a halt. "I've been mugged, my lord."

"Really? Did the muggers find it worth their while?"

"No, my lord, I had no money. That's why they beat me some more."

"Well, I hope they enjoyed that, at least."

"They certainly seemed to, my lord. I think it's horrible that an honest man can't walk down the street without being assaulted."

"How do you know? The last honest man found in Anorankhmar was tarred, feathered and tied backwards to a donkey that was whipped out of town, fifty years ago." Lord Sopracasa thought for a moment. "Pour me a sherry, and tell me: Is it really that bad out there?"

"Yes, my lord." Malindrew gave him a glass. "There are lots of gangs now, and the watch doesn't do anything about them."

Sopracasa raised an eyebrow in surprise. "We still have a watch?"

"Yes, my lord, but they've been paid to keep out of so many areas that most of them have moved into the watch house." Malindrew wiped his nose on his sleeve. "You only see them at the city gates, where they can extort money from people who want to pass. That's where they get their money from, bribes and gate pennies."

"Well, that's not my problem. My problem, Malindrew, is that I am running out of money."

"Really, my lord?"

"Yes. And if I can't find another source of income, I'll have to let all the staff go, and I'll have to go out on the terrace and do what a gentleman is obliged to do in these situations.

"Will you kill yourself, my lord?"

"Good grief, no. I'll scream and kick the cat. I guess I could kill you, though. That might earn me a medal for services to humanity, and then I could sell the medal."

"Do not worry, my lord, for I have a cunning plan."

"Would this be a plan as cunning as your idea to paint your toes black so the holes in your socks wouldn't show?"

"Even cunninger, my lord. First, you become mayor of the city, and then you make a thought tax, so that anyone who thinks needs to pay money."

"Should be cheap for you, then." Lord Sopracasa stood up and walked to the window. "Unfortunately, there are two minor flaws in your plan, Malindrew."

"Really, my lord?"

"Yes. There aren't enough senators left in town to elect a new mayor, and those who are here all hate each other. The only thing they could agree on is that breathing just might be necessary to keep living."

Lord Sopracasa sipped his sherry and studied the neglected gardens surrounding his old mansion. "No, there's no other way out, I'm afraid. Fetch something I can kill you with."

"Aw, do you have to kill me, my lord?"

"Yes. I'm only annoyed the muggers didn't do the job properly."

"Well, they're not very organised, my lord. Those sorcerers, Bos and Ballong, killed all the gang leaders."

"Indeed. And then they disappeared. What a city! Not even the criminals are properly organised."

"Maybe they should elect a mayor, too?"

"Should make an interesting election campaign, at least. Vote for Thug the Mugger! He'll steal candy from children and let everybody beat up grannies. Nice with a bit of honesty in a political campaign."

"I'd vote for him, my lord, I like candy."

"Indeed. But given that the mental capabilities of your average thug is on par with those of a slug that has drunk itself to death on cheap beer, and for the same reason, the chances of a capable leader emerging are very small. The criminals are no better off than the rest of us, in that regard."

"So nobody gets a mayor then? That's hardly fair, my lord. What are the criminals going to do with all the money they're stealing?"

"That, Malindrew, is a very good question." Lord Sopracasa emptied his glass. "Fortunately for them, they will soon have a very capable leader."

"Really, my lord?"

"Yes. I have a cunning plan..."


"It'd be nice to get beyond these bloody woods soon."

"Quit griping."

"I like griping."

Dusk was falling on the fourth day since Westala and Villtin had left the island of Tanta Hill, the site of the festival in Hanoverian Hinckley. The forests had gotten darker and weren't as pleasant as before.

The road forked into two. While the one to the right showed plenty of signs of traffic, the left-hand one looked like it had hardly been used for many months. The two mercenaries exchanged glances.

Villtin jerked his thumb towards the left road. "Well, we did say we should avoid the crowds..."

"M-hm, but we're not that desperate, are we? There's something wrong with these tracks. Look, every single horse that's gone by here has been galloping. Even the ox-carts have gone at a fair speed -- just look at the distance from where a wheel hit this stone here to where it touched the ground again. People are in a hurry to get past this stretch of the road."

"Bandit country, perhaps?"

They brightened up at that prospect. Where there were bandits, there were usually valuables, and if you caught the bandits there was a chance of getting a reward, as well.

Suddenly Westala froze, intently focused on something.

"What is it?" wondered Villtin. Years of experience had taught the two warriors to read each other's expressions very well, and he slowly reached for the comforting weights of his weapons.

"I thought I heard something move in the woods to the right," Westala murmured, not looking in that direction. "Someone walking softly."

Villtin, a hand on the hilt of his sabre, pretended to study the tracks on the road and listened intently. A wolf howled somewhere behind them, and he relaxed again.

"Pff. We're not paranoid at all, are we?" said Westala.

"Nah, just careful." Villtin grinned. "Bordering on yellow-tailed, but just careful."

Another wolf howled, much closer to them. Then a third one, nearer still, replied. And then a low, drawn-out howl came from the direction Westala had pointed out, only yards away. More wolves joined in the call, in front, behind, and to the right of them.

Villtin drew his sabre and a throwing knife. "On the other hand," he said above the chorus of howls, "we're not paranoid if they really are out to get us!"

Big wolves came out from between the trees, sizing the two warriors up and surrounding them almost completely. The howls were replaced by growls.

"This isn't right," said Westala. "Wolves aren't supposed to hunt like this!"

"Don't tell me that, tell them!"

Something darted between their heads. Silhouettes of jagged wings were beating quickly against the darkening sky. The bats flew straight at their faces, too small and too fast to fend off.

And they all flew in the same direction, curving back as soon as they had gone past to make another run. There were dozens of them, and more came out of the forest every second. All going towards the left-hand road, as if wanting to push the mercenaries before them.

The wolves advanced. Over the forest a dark cloud rose, a swarm of hundreds of bats. Westala and Villtin turned and ran in the only direction they could.

They couldn't outrun wolves, they knew that. But when they looked back, the pack had only now started to lope. It was like they wanted to give the men a head start.

They ran past a sign next to the road. The top had broken off, but the rest read:


"I wonder... what the bit... at the top said!" shouted Westala, between gasps for breath.

"Probably... 'You Are Too'... you know what... the nobles are like... about trespassing!... But hopefully... we can take... cover there... This is one crowd... I'd like to avoid."

"Save your breath... for running!"

The forest dropped away on both sides. The road went up a tall rocky hill, with a castle at the top. Behind Westala and Villtin, the wolves were gaining ground, and the bats kept swooping down.

They sprinted up the hill. The drawbridge was down and the gate open, so they ran right inside. The portcullis slammed down behind them.


Lord Sopracasa paced the library. "Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot," he mused. "I need to find a way to intimidate them."

"You could dress like a black snake, my lord," his trusty servant offered. "Snakes are scary."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Malindrew. My coat of arms has one of those, and it wouldn't be hard for even a common thug to figure out who I really am."

"But if they don't know who you are, how will they know you're the boss?"

"I'll have to invent a persona that both hides the fact that I'm an upstanding citizen and sets me apart from those half-monkeys."

"If they're half-monkeys, you can dress as an ape," Malindrew said.

The nobleman halted and gave him an irritated look. "I'm standing here in my fine, civilised library and you're telling me I should take the shape of an ape? No, quite the opposite. I shall call myself 'The Upright Man', and disguise myself in a black cape, with a hood to hide my face."

"So you'll rob in the hood, then, my lord? That's good, plenty of the gangs have hoods, so it fits well with being the boss of thieves."

"Not only thieves, Malindrew. I shall become the boss of all sorts of criminals, from pickpockets to robbers, from burglars to ladies of the night."

"What ladies are those? Are their eyes very sensitive to the light?"

"No, I'm talking about the corseted women of negotiable affection. They provide an important service to the community, after all."

The lord's face expressed the kind of genuine concern usually seen on little children who have found a hurt kitten. "I guess I'd better do my civic duty and look after them. Not only shall I take over all the gangs, but I'll also wear the cape of the totty capers and become the boss of bosoms."

Malindrew clapped his hands. "Your ancestors would be proud of you, my lord, they were also ambitious men."

"Yes, indeed." Lord Sopracasa looked at the many portraits of stern-looking men hanging in the library. "Every single one of them proving that to be a proper nobleman you only need to be a lucky bastard with the morals of a one-penny whore."

"And I'll be your trusted lieutenant, my lord."

"Yes, we'll call you 'Robbing Boy, the wonder dog' I think." Lord Sopracasa gave his servant a critical look. "Malindrew, you have a brain the same size as that of the little red-breasted birds that go 'tweet, tweet' in wintertime, and you're about as intimidating as a sponge."

"Thank you, my lord." Malindrew clicked his heels together and executed a sloppy salute. "Together, we'll clean these mean streets."

"Oh, go away, Malindrew! Run off and find out what gangs I can take over. There is no time to lose."


The wolves glared at the men for a short while before leaving. But they didn't give the impression that they'd given up the chase. On the contrary, they seemed quite content to see Westala and Villtin behind bars.

The warriors found themselves in a small courtyard. Nobody was there to greet them, so they tried the gates into the castle itself. Sparse torches lit a single path along the halls inside.

"Ah. Right. Let's see now. Solitary castle in dark, foreboding land? Check. Lack of welcoming committee? Check. Single lit path amid dark, dangerous-looking hallways? Check."


"Smells like it."

"Walk right in?"


There were no windows, so even in broad daylight the side corridors would have been murky. In the half-light of dusk, they had the deep darkness of dragon caves in fairy-stories. The trail of torches seemed to lead all around the castle, up stairs and down stairs, before eventually ending by a set of doors.

As they stepped through, Westala glanced at Villtin. If the thief's mind had been clockwork, the sight before them would have greased the wheels and wound up the spring.

The chamber was decorated like a harem boudoir, all in pink and ornated with gold. There was a large bed with a multitude of big soft goose-down pillows. In a corner beside the bed was a sizeable pile of gold and jewellery.

"Well, well, well, not bad at all," said a pretty young woman who wasn't wearing too many, or too opaque, clothes. "Welcome to you both. What brings you here?"

She took a grape from a golden fruit-plate and put it in her mouth, in a way that would have made old men straighten their clothes and wish they were forty years younger.

"We seek cover, my lady," Villtin said when he'd found his voice. "We were chased by a pack of wolves and a flock of bats, and it was all we could do to escape into your castle."

"Then you have come to the right place, here there are plenty of covers to take." She brushed her long dark-blonde hair out of her face. "I like to think I am not batty, and I only wolf things down when I am really hungry."

Villtin raised an eyebrow. "What are your appetites? I am not a bad cook."

"Good, I look forward to trying some of your cuisine. May I know your names?"

"Where are my manners? Joran Westala and Ramoc Villtin, wandering warriors."

The woman suddenly seemed uneasy. "Er... are you knights in shining armour?"

"No, no. Heavy armour hampers your movements, and we neither need it nor lack ways to get through it," said Westala. "We are not knights, just swordsmen, who work where we may."

"And although I say it myself, we are good at what we do," Villtin said with a suggestive smirk.

Her smile returned. "I'm glad to hear that, and I bid you welcome to Ormbo Castle, wandering warriors."

"Thank you, my lady. You are the... mistress of this castle?"

"You could say that. The real master is the Prince, I'll take you to him. Follow me, please."

She opened a side door and walked out into another hallway. After exchanging meaningful glances, Villtin drew a couple of daggers and held them underhand, hiding the blades behind his forearms, as did Westala with his seax.

The woman led them down a short flight of stairs. It was pitch-black, but they sensed they were in a large, wide open space. A great hall, or possibly a cavern. A rank smell filled their noses, a mixture of odours the likes of which they had only suffered before at alchemists' shops.

"Here we are," the woman announced. "Can we have some lights, please?"

Fires flared up all around the room. It was a cavern-like hall, with stone pillars and galleries around the walls. And everywhere, squatting on the floor, perched on the balconies, clinging to the walls and hanging from the ceiling, were sinister lizard-like creatures. The room was crawling with dragons.

Westala and Villtin looked around, and resignedly put their knives away. Knives against dragons... simply wouldn't cut it.

"I am the dragons' favourite," said the woman. "I accompany them and tell them where there is gold to be found, and they share it with me. I am the---"

She was interrupted when a couple of dragons started squabbling. Screeches and chattering filled the air, and drowned out the latter part of the sentence.

"Pardon?" said Westala.

"I said, I am---"

A high-pitched screech blotted out her words. The dragons' chatter was growing louder.

"What?!" said Villtin.


There was a shrill whistle from the far end of the hall, and the dragons finally stopped fighting. They lit some braziers and went back to rest.

Westala and Villtin frowned, puzzled. "The law?"

"Not the Law, as in city watches and county sheriffs. I am the LAW. It's an honorary title, it stands for Lewd Aurophilic Woman." She smiled widely. "Dragons like those."

At the end of the hall there was a throne, with a person lounging in it. Well, it might be a person, anyway. It looked more like another dragon, but it was no bigger than a man and had man-like features. His skin was a dragon's -- tough, almost shell-like, scaly and golden -- and he had a snout, but it was small and delicate and his eyes were human. He was dressed in few clothes, but of expensive materials, with an insignia embroidered on his vest.

"There is the Prince," the LAW said. "A very rare kind of man. Dragons are normally solitary animals, and very territorial, but once in a while a Prince of Dragons emerges, who has the power to gather them into a weyr." 7

"What's that symbol?" Villtin asked.

"It's his name, but it can not be pronounced."

As they approached the throne the Prince of Dragons rose. He looked at the LAW with a questioning expression.

"Masters Westala and Villtin, my lord. They are mercenaries -- not knights in armour," she added quickly, "and they sought refuge here when they were chased by wolves."

"And bats," Westala reminded her, feeling it shouldn't be left out.

"And bats, yes. Of course."

The Prince looked like he was smirking, but that might just have been the build of his face. "Very well, then. If refuge you sought, then refuge you shall have. You are welcome to stay as long as we like."

Westala and Villtin exchanged glances.

1Of course, the official version of the story doesn't reveal that he was the leader of the attackers, or that he urged them on and then attacked them from behind as soon as he was sure they were occupied by the monarch's guards. It does say, though, that when asked he gave his name as Kendy from the hamlet Aveide, and he was given a manor in the same village in reward by the grateful king.

The unofficial annals of the family reveal that his real name was William Robert Neone, known and feared as "Butcher Bill", but he chose to point to the brother he had just slain and declaring him to be the famous outlaw in order to earn a substantial bounty. back

2Once upon a time Anorankhmar had been the centre of the Anorian empire, which sprawled over most of the continent known by the ancients as Decrementafinalis and all the way to Candymars on the edge of the Kinawan lands far to the East.

Back then the city was organised, prosperous and, thanks to the efficient sewer system constructed by Emperor Artifex, a lot less dirty than it was now. Since then the sewers had mostly been forgotten and fallen into disrepair, but they were still there, perforating the ground under the city. back

3Every old city has a part like it, usually called the Shades, the Bronx or Rinkeby. In this city it's called The Pit, and over the years it has been used as a dump to get rid of the useless bits of society, in the same manner people unworriedly throw away mercury thermometers, heavy metal batteries and tins of arsenic-based paint onto the city dump. Out of sight, out of mind, out of my hands, is one of the fundamental truths everywhere.back

4It might, given the women present, be odd to remark that a woman wearing a sword was unusual, but our heroes were quite unusual women and in any case rarely wore dresses and swords at the same time.back

5Specifically Roper's Street, where you can find such famous houses of ill repute as The Red Lantern, Blancheglise and The Welcoming Hedgehog.back

6Many are those who have waxed lyrical about the wonders of self-employment, but Terry Pratchett said it best: "The thing about being self-employed is that 8 AM happens to other people."back

7"weyr" is the collective noun for a collection of dragons. The origins of the word are obscure, but it has been suggested that it is a contraction of "why are", from the phrase "why are you all running away?" which are commonly the last words uttered by the person who doesn't spot an approaching weyr. Modern scholars say this is a back formation, however, and that "weyr" is a cognate of "weigher".back

Because of the scales, see?

© Elin Rosén, Marco Villalta and Örjan Westin 2006.