The assassin’s hand
In the privacy of his room, Morath finished fitting the oiled black reinforced jack and looked at his reflection in the mirror he had hired. It was a great fit! Pras may be a miser but he knows how to spend money, Morath thought. Given a half-decent offer, Steaks is his. He arranged his knives and weapon-belt fastidiously and then, partly because he wanted to show Celo the new armor, and partly because he wondered where Edric had gotten to, he locked his chamber and set out to find the pair.
Inside the Guild-hall, Edric received a welcome surprise. Following his nose, he pressed through the pungent scent of potions and embrocation and discovered that the resident apothecary was none other than Brother Keth Alkaran!
“Ah, Edric my friend!” Keth boomed, hugging Edric and kissing his cheeks, “At last you arrive! So long you have travelled the distant parts, and see! You have lost weight, you look thin, it is feasting we must be!”
Keth seemed to think it matter of course, even expected, that potions had been prepared against the impending mission against the evil of the Damsons. Edric could not understand how this could be, but chose not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He made arrangements to meet Keth at the Inn the next day and bade farewell, Celo following like a faithful shadow.
The square was dark, only a few flambeaux burning here and there. As Edric stepped out of doors, a loud report sounded behind them! Celo wheeled around, drawing his blade: four crossbow bolts slammed into him, two embedding themselves in his flesh. At the same instant, a light noose descended around Edric’s throat and he was hauled aloft, up and up towards the roof-tree of the Guild-hall!
Wrenching the bolts from his body, Celo rushed to try to stop the attack: but he missed his chance and Edric, trying to get his hand into the noose, was drawn two body-lengths clear. The Friar’s blood was roaring in his ears and he knew he had mere seconds in which to free himself: his whole body-weight was acting against his own ability to wiggle free and he was strangling! He drew his dagger in a last desperate attempt to cut the noose: consciousness receded to a sharp pin-point: then nothing.
Celo scrambled up the building and levered himself onto the steep roof. In the darkness he could see a large, hunched outline lashing the rope off. He danced lightly up the shingles and reached the roof-tree. He could see the big man, who had drawn back: and behind him, a slender, perhaps female form. As he neared the gable that the rope had to be fastened around, the big figure launched itself full at Celo! Unable to dodge clear, Celo was carried over the edge and both he and the thug fell sickeningly onto the flags below.
Groaning and stumbling to his feet, Celo glanced up. Edric was now limp. He threw his dagger at the barely-seen line suspending the Friar, with no obvious result. Something slammed into his chest: he looked down: it was a slender throw-knife. Pulling it clear, he felt poison burning through his veins. It was agony! A scream erupted from his lips. Seeing his chance, the hulking thug rushed him: but Celo dived clear and used his momentum to once more scramble up the building. He was swiftly weakening, and realized that he had but one chance: to dive off the roof and cut the line! Without waiting to find out if the assassin was waiting for a second shot, he ran a few steps up the shingles and launched himself out and across at Edric. His swing connected, the rope parted, and again Celo fell hard onto the flags. This time, he blacked out.
Morath arrived just in time to see the last part of the drama, and cursed sulphurously. The massive man looming over Edric was no ally, that was obvious! He had good hearing: he stopped, and waited for Morath to approach. Morath beckoned him to “come on.” The light filtering from the open doors of the Guild-hall picked out a grin on the giant’s face, as he lifted a heavy foot and pressed down on Edric’s throat.
Morath leaped to the attack: the two cut at each other, then the giant faded back. Morath’s hand dropped to his kit, and drew forth a phial. He threw: a deadly dust extract of the Black Lotus puffed out around the giant, who toppled with a choked cry. Morath fumbled around the fallen Friar’s throat, located the deeply-embedded cord, cut it away, and felt for a pulse: there was nothing.
Funeral for a Friar
Only a small group attended the funeral of Brother Edric, Friar of Mitra. His companions through the wilderness numbered sixteen, and the presence of Brother Keth Alkaran, Holy Nidrus Priest of Mitra, and Yerra the crazy sexton made nineteen.
“It seems the good Friar made no will, so all of his property belongs to Mitra,” Nidrus said as the earth was tamped firmly onto the grave-mound. “I’ll collect it from his lodgings, and make arrangements to sell off his horses.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Yes, and I will bring representatives of Lord Pras to ensure that Mitra’s will is carried out.”
The fighting men headed back to the inn, grim-faced, the girls sniveling behind them. Zeze in particular had been grief-stricken. The sight of the other girls consoling her had been… stirring. Putting these thoughts aside, Bardic spoke to Hod, Kuruk and Zekias:
“We will join you soon, to drink to Edric. Meantime we have to see about finding a will.” Perhaps those pressing on into the inn thought it strange that Bardic, Celo, Keth and Gollarn all pressed into Morath’s chamber to begin their search, but they voiced no such oddity. Once all were inside, Morath closed the door tight, and locked it.
“How did my funeral go?” Edric asked.
Edric’s plan, devised in a very short space of time after Keth had revived him and he in turn had saved Celo, had been outlined that dawn:
“Last night’s attack has given us the chance to gain a slight advantage. Let it be known that Edric is dead. We will need to find a corpse and have a funeral. Then I shall disguise myself as a common mercenary and hire on with you as you travel out.”
Dealing with the few elementary problems raised by the others, he continued:
“The plan to be bruited about is that with Edric dead, you have decided to either dig up the pink crystals that are so valued by the Damson Master, or have gone a-seeking for jungle gold. Either way, you prepare for an expedition into Keniwec. Mercenaries hired – we’ll need a couple of really tough ones – will need to be told the truth in secrecy, once we are sure of them. We travel to Castle Crow, then instead of making for Keniwec, we locate Garamaine the mountain hermit-ranger, and I make final plans based on what he can tell us of the fortress defenses. Now, Celo, lay out that sketch you made, and let’s see what we make of it.”
Celo’s memory of the fortress entrance and passageways gave little joy. There were no weak points. Far too far from either end of the Roaring Pass tunnel for fire to have any effect, and with a front gate that was guarded heavily. Once inside, it was highly probable that each section could be defended like any major fortress.
“The other person to find is one skilled with locks and bolts,” Edric decided. “It’s not something any of us are particularly good at. Since we can’t risk hiring a woman, it will be a man.”
“Yemmi was pretty good,” recalled Celo. “A cellar key got lost back in town, and he opened it for me.”
“He was pretty quick-fingered, too” chuckled Morath. “But I wouldn’t trust him further than arm’s length. I wonder where he is now? If we do find him, you shouldn’t tell him anything.”
“We’ll sweep him up at the last minute,” Edric agreed.
Yerra the crazy sexton proved deranged – as ever – but helpful. He had found a near-sized corpse and had enshrouded it and buried it as Edric. Now it remained to be seen whether the corpse would be disinterred, or whether the assassin had been convinced.
Using Morath’s mirror, Edric shaved off his beard and trimmed his hair very short. Once the tonsure grew out, he would look a regular mercenary. He looked at his new, clean-shaven reflection and wondered if he could wear a sword convincingly. The youth in the mirror looked back at him uncertainly.
Edric flexed his fingers and stood at Morath’s writing-desk. Some old skills were about to come in handy. He drew forth a sheet of parchment, wrote a will – leaving two gold, eight silver, two copper and a button to the Mitraeum – and aged it using a steeped tisane. Then he rolled it and passed it to Bardic, who would be able to present it as a newly-discovered will when Nidrus arrived.
After Nidrus departed in dudgeon, and having joined Kuruk and Hod in lifting a tankard to Edric’s memory, Bardic was able to assure them that work was still on offer. The plan now – following Edric’s outline – was for an expedition to Keniwec, braving jungle terrors in search of buried treasure. They agreed to hire on, but for 5 silvers a day, not four.
“Gollarn – now I recollect that I was going to visit this Beltanus, and see what he wanted. Perhaps there’s a better job going,” he added for the others’ benefit. “Come guard my back.”
The Guild-hall bore no sign of the violent attack on their companions. The usual sort of people seemed to be avoiding them, and the usual functionaries were hurrying about the bidding of the merchant-councilors. Bardic knew the general layout but not the whereabouts of any particular merchant. He asked and was directed down a passage, and having lost his way a couple of times located a richly-furnished, thick-draped chamber where a solid-built man of advanced years sat. He seemed to Bardic to be vaguely familiar, perhaps a family resemblance to someone. At one side of the chamber a highly-polished desk stood, its surface littered with the ornament and parchments of a merchant of means.
“Aye. You are Bardic, the Cimmerian?”
“I am. This is my cousin, Gollarn.”
“Welcome. Let me call for refreshments and tell you my offer.”
So saying, Beltanus arose and moved to a silken rope-pull. His face worked, and having pulled it violently, he swung back to the surprised pair, screaming:
“You killed my son! I offer you death!”
Six heavily armed and armored men burst out of the drapes and in from the passage!
Always alert, Gollarn had drawn the masterwork Nemedian broadsword his cousin had loaned him, and as the first man charged through the doorway, cut him down in a spray of arterial blood. But the next man rammed his sword deep into Gollarn’s flank and the next sank his axe through Gollarn’s hulking shoulder and down into the rib-cage. All but dead, Gollarn crashed to the floor!
“Die yourself, fool!” Bardic cried, striking off Beltanus’ head and turning to face the armed thugs. Three of them cut into him with axe or sword, and blood streamed down his mighty legs to ruin the fine carpet. With one monstrous blow, Bardic cut a man’s arm off, sending him reeling to bleed to death. More blows struck him and he dropped another. There were only three left: but they showed no sign of quitting. He guessed that Beltanus had accepted his own death and had paid the men well in advance. More blades cut into him as his great-sword razed through armored limbs or crashed through helms. At last, near-drained of life, he stood alone amidst a pile of corpses.
Gollarn pushed himself upright against the wall:
“Well, cousin! That was a fight!Get me a drink, Crom take you! It’s thirsty work, this slaying.”
Sifting the corpses Bardic sniffed at a few costrels and found a couple with wine sloshing in them. Gollarn drained them both and stood, swaying slightly. Meanwhile Bardic continued his search: his scarred brown fingers swiftly collected the dead men’s purses and the gold ornaments from Beltanus’ desk. Then still carrying his naked blade before them, he and Gollarn departed.
A new Sherriff in town
They reached the main hall: it seemed extremely empty. A lone figure blocked their egress. A slim man: head shaven, and carrying twin Zingaran longswords. Bardic’s heart sank.
“Do you remember me? I am Kayan Haduk, greatest swordsman in the land. And now I am Sherriff. I remember you! Bardic, once Royal Guard. What has happened here?”
“What has happened? My cousin and I were set upon by ambush, and killed the would-be killers. Let me show you.”
Bardic led Kayan back to the slaughter-chamber, and described the attack. Kayan’s dark eyes watched the Cimmerian closely, and took in the scene.
“Then you have done well! There is no case here. Let me help you back to the Inn.”
“How long have you been Sherriff?” Gollarn asked as they staggered back. This was the first sign of any law officer above the rank of town watch.
“About one minute. Some merchants rushed from the Guild-hall, screaming that they needed a Sherriff. They appointed me.”
“Does it pay well?”
“I don’t know – they kept running after they gave me the office.”
The new hire
Bardic, seemingly none the worse for wear, contacted Kayan the next day and made an offer of employment. Apparently Kayan would have to be approved by Keth Alkaran, who was carrying on the good work begun by the late Edric. Kayan’s dark eyes rested thoughtfully on Bardic as he was led to the private chamber where the interviews were taking place, and he seemed unsurprised to see that Gollarn, too, seemed to have recovered well.
Several mercenaries or adventurers known to Kayan sat around the wooden table on the wooden forms provided for seating. Kayan studied them as introductions were made. Bardic, Gollarn, Morath, Celo, a young man named Bo sporting a new-shaven chin, and Keth Alkaran. The latter spoke regretfully of Edric’s passing but explained that his will was to continue the expedition against the Damsons. This would be secret. Kayan agreed to terms and shook hands on the deal.
“I will assist with purchasing supplies for the jungle expedition,” the swordsman said, standing.
“We do not expect to actually go to the jungle.”
“It will not be much of a false trail, if we do not have any equipment for such an expedition,” Kayan replied, a trifle superciliously. Keth nodded contritely. Kayan made to go, then turned back and said:
“My advice to Bo is to look less like the dead Edric, when in public.”
Filling up the ranks
Over the next day, supplies were purchased and horses re-shoed and given a health check. Drifting around, Celo and Morath kept an ear and an eye open. It seemed that no outrage had been committed on the grave-site. Gossip around town had dealt with the massacre at Venarium and the massacre at the Guild-hall and had turned to tittle-tattle about the King’s new Hyperborean Mistress, Kelvie Jure. There was scant rumor about the Damsons, but Morath, putting two and two together, deduced that they were forting up and awaiting reinforcements.
Sitting as often as not in the hiring-hall, Bardic and Gollarn assessed the quality of mercenaries showing their prowess and listened to fighting men talk about their prospects. The common opinion in Hieratgate was that as a hiring fair, its days were numbered. The great setback for Aquilonia in Cimmeria might, perhaps, mean new campaigns against the Border Kingdom or Nemedia, but pessimism ruled. It seemed more likely that the hiring fairs would move away south or west. Veteran mercenaries who had been too expensive or picky for the campaign just ended could now be had for a good price.
There were three such, the four talent-scouts reported back to “Bo.”
“We only need one, since Brother Keth will join me in the second rank and we have Kayan, Hod and Kuruk. How do they appear?”
“Xeet the Bearer of Pain or was it Bringer of Pain – enormous, scarred, tattooed freak.”
“Oh dear. Not a good name. I think we should do without tattooed freaks. Too risky. Next?”
“Viktor or Vikros or Vikos Cullwood. Not sure of that first name.”
“A wood-cutter’s family, like Hod. Sounds all right.”
“Apparently he got his byname because he cut down a forest of men. Has a shady past. Some tattoos, and he is also enormous.”
“Hmmm, maybe not. Finally?”
“Forgrim. Doesn’t talk.”
“I take it he’s pretty tough?”
“He’s said to be extremely tough.”
“A barbarian like you, Bardic?”
“Yeah, us barbarians are all the same. No probably a Vanir or Aesir or maybe Hyperborean, but since he doesn’t talk, we don’t know much about him.”
“Silence is golden in this case. All right, Forgrim it is.”
And so the expedition’s numbers were all but full. Keth Alkaran would lead it, Bo/Edric would be behind the planning, with Bardic the chief warrior, seconded by Gollarn and Kayan. Forgrim Hod and Kuruk made it a formidable fighting force. Morath and Celo were the slinking murderers. And now all that remained was the lock-adept.
“’Allo squire, ‘ave I gots a deal for yer? Potions? Yer want potions? I gots all th’ potions yer c’n use!”
“Yemmi! We have a job for you!”
“Oh… er… good?”