Grunting, stumbling and cursing mingled with the growing plaintive groans of the other travellers in the common room, now being roused by the fracas. Vorel paced his way back from the door: his toe stubbed on something heavy, and reaching down, he guessed it must be a hefty press or trunk at the foot of the closets that stood centrally in the common room. Celo, uncertain in the dark, groped back to his own bed, located his pack and began unearthing a candle stub and tinder. He heard a snick from the window, as the latch on one of the heavy shutters was forced.
“More incoming!” – Celo
Vorel stooped, grasped hold, and hefted the trunk above his head.
“Sing out, Morath, I’ve got something for our guest!” – Vorel
Then something smashed on the ceiling, a light was flicked in: illuminating Morath writhing atop a near-pinioned intruder! The sharp tang of naphtha was quickly replaced with the stench of scorching leather, cloth and flesh as Morath, the intruder and several feet of bed and floor were set alight!
Morath rolled clear, beating out the scorching flame. Celo rushed through the flame past him, giving his erstwhile captive a buffet with his pack as he passed, dived into the shutter and out of the window! Vorel stepped around the closets, closed on the helpless man, and brought the trunk down on his head! The stench of burning flesh grew stronger.
Behind Celo, cries of alarm now filled the room, alerting the whole inn to the danger of fire. He landed agilely, only to be struck by flung darts. Poison coursed through him, making him stagger. The glint of firelight from above picked out four dark-cowled figures surrounding him. He cursed himself for a fool for not tying a small knife to his neck as Morath had, but reasoned that a good dagger was merely a foe away!
Up in the chamber, Morath saw that the villain that had flung the oil-bomb was still at the window-ledge. He snarled with fury, powered himself forward, and smashed through the remaining shutter, bearing it and the helpless foe hurtling to the ground! They landed with a sickening crunch of broken shutter and broken bones – but Morath landed atop the pile!
Vorel finished beating the searing flames off his feet, hopping and dancing clear of the several men trying to smother the fire, back over to his bed nearest the door. He looked back along the room: there was no sign of any more foes and all he could hear of Morath or Celo was the sound of fighting below. Time to leave! He flung on his baldric and sword-belt with two swords and a sturdy poniard, slung his pack over the other shoulder, bid adieu to those trying to beat out the fire, and took a step to the door, whence more fire-fighters were arriving. Then paused, shrugged, and ran back around the closets standing in mid-chamber, and leaped through the now-gaping window. Something pliable and giving wrapped itself around him as he did so, and he hit the ground hard, completely tangled in a net!
Morath had met nearly the same fate. Seeing Celo roll nimbly through the surrounding dark shapes, he attempted the same, but was netted even as he gained the mews between inn and stables. A gas bomb was flung after the net. His dark garb prevented him from being harmed by several more darts, and he even cut his way clear while holding his breath, but at the last second, more dark-garbed figures flung more darts, then closed and pinioned him.
Celo had fared worse if anything. His roll carried him clear into the mews where from the street end he could hear Bardic’s war-bellows and screams of men being cut down by the Cimmerian’s deadly great-sword. But that move exposed him to even more darts, and by the time he reached Bardic’s side his legs felt like jelly.
“Time to flee and plan our vengeance later – are you with me Celo?” – Bardic
“Gurk. Oigl. Can’t run” – Celo
Bardic attempted to heft his comrade with him in one mighty arm, but the Tauranian was no slender bard and his sturdy frame was well beyond what even Bardic could carry one-handed at a run. Celo sank down helpless, barely able to breathe, as Bardic raced away into the shelter of Shadizar’s nighted streets.
“One should always be open to new experiences” – Shadizar street proverb
Morath had remained at least half-aware as he was bundled up, toted out of the mews, and slung in a delivery wagon along with his comrades. Judging from the noises, he knew they had not left the city and had gone a long way across it, though to what quarter he could not guess.
The trio was ported within some building, carried through passages to a cell, stripped to breeks, and manacled wrist and ankle. Their wrist-manacles were secured back to pins in the wall above, keeping them uncomfortably upright and unable to reach more than a foot either way. Time passed, and Vorel regained consciousness, and Celo showed signs of movement. He raised his head and looked about.
The Tauranian was by now a veteran of prisons in two different countries. He took in their surroundings. The manacles were lockable, he was glad to note. One of the lessons learned from his time as a guest of the state was to keep at least one implement secreted away. Being in his mouth, it would not be easy to unlock a manacle without a hand free.
Beside Celo – who was chained in the middle – Vorel also regained his feet, and groaned as the blood re-balanced itself in his body and he felt the burns on his feet. He gently eased his shoulders, and assessed the shackles. A veteran Bossonian archer becomes strong. Few men alive could span a bow as Vorel could. Was there some weakness in the chain or shackle he could find?
Morath’s eyes burned red with fury and frustration. It was as though some whimsical deity, hearing his oath never to return to Shadizar, had forced him back and consigned him to the living hell of some Zamorian cult’s prison!
As the three – taking Celo’s advice – bided their time and worked out the routines of any guards passing, Celo contributed his experiences and Morath, at their encouragement, harked back to his childhood in the Shadizar slum. He’d grown up in a sleazy area known as Cutthroat’s Alley. It featured a couple of taverns, a bakery and a locksmith-cum-fence. A priest of a local temple – he wasn’t sure of which odd Zamorian deity – had kept him alive until at an early age, he’d taken shelter under the wing of the local gang, learning to steal and as his size and strength increased, to rob by violence. The locals were a hard-handed, ruthless lot but his gang had been wiped out by some rival gang, and he hadn’t waited around to see if any of his fellows had survived.
From time to time, a Zamorian rogue peeked through the massy iron bars that ran floor-to-ceiling between passage and cell, and grinned mockingly or taunted them as the pleasure took them, but at no certain interval. Vorel decided to try his strength. Getting his weight forward and bracing his feet on the wall behind him, he pushed forward and out against the wrist-manacles. He strained until the veins on his forehead and neck stood out like cables, but nothing budged. Then he jerked one side, then the other. Blood begin trickling down from each wrist to begin dripping onto the floor.
“Vorel, enough for now!” Celo, alarmed
“I think there’s some movement in the pin. I’ll have another try later” – Vorel
Judging by their stomachs and weariness, it was a half day after their capture before a meal arrived.
“His nibs wants you to keep body and soul together… for now!” – Zamorian thug
And a small meal it was: one plate with one unleavened loaf and a dollop of pot-scraping stew, between the three of them. Covered by a crossbowman, the custodian unlocked the wrist manacles and allowed them to sit. Seated, they could all reach the bowl he placed in front of Celo.
Celo took the chance to transfer his lock-pick from mouth to hand, while he ate.
Once they had emptied the bowl and sipped a ladle of water each, the guards shackled them back up. This was a much more careful operation: none was given a chance that would be aught than a death sentence.
Time passed, the peek-throughs became even less regular, and Celo decided to try his luck with the pick.
“Celo! You’re still carrying some toxin, and I’m fit enough, and I can use a lock-pick too! Pass it to me!” – Morath
Celo strained his right hand sideways to Morath, who fumbled his attempt to snag it between fingertips. The sliver of horn fell to the filthy cell floor. Cursing did no good: they now had to wait for another chance.
From the ache in their bones, it was evening. Footsteps approached, and guards appeared at the bars:
“Someone to volunteer for a change of entertainment! Let’s see” (with a leer, to Morath) “his nibs is keeping you to the last! So one of you other two!” – Thug
“Take the reedy one in the middle – he looks half-dead already!” Second thug
Celo was unshackled and dragged away. When he returned some hours later, his head lolled drunkenly and he was deadly pale: and Morath could see bloody puncture wounds on his neck. With the guards well clear, Vorel and he exchanged a look.
“That about does it. It’s time to test these chains seriously” – Vorel
Gathering his strength again, the rangy, broad-shouldered Bossonian pitted himself against the far pin in the wall. If he could get that clear, he could at least reach Celo. Blood begain to run off his injured wrists again: but still he strained: and with a sharp jolt the pin gave way, clanking onto the floor, and he was flung to his knees by his own impetus. He was rewarded by a cry of alarm from somewhere out in the passage.
“Vorel! The pick!” – Morath, urgently
Sweeping it up, Vorel passed it into Morath’s hand and turned his attention to the door bars. They looked massive. He stepped forward, and was easily able to clutch them with his free hand. He pulled: there was no give in them at all. Old the bars might be, but they were also iron 2” thick. Footsteps were coming close. Vorel hastily snatched the pin and chain up. He had now to stab the pin back up into its socket and pretend nothing had happened. A jump up and stretch – a stab – the pin slid into place as he swung round to face the bars. But it was too late!
“Trying to break our fixtures are you? You’ll pay for that you round-headed old dog!” – Thug
As the thugs began opening the cell door, the three waiting within could only wonder what fate had befallen Bardic.
Were it not for the rugged inheritance of the barbarian born, Bardic would have shared his comrades’ cell. Slipping out of the stables, he had been struck by flung darts even before he could unleash his primitive fury on the shadowy figures around the inn. More struck him as one after another fell before his mighty great-sword! As the attackers resorted to clambering back up the inn walls, and ever more arrived, Bardic took his decision to flee.
Hours later he nursed a tankard in a seedy anonymous tavern as limberness returned to his sinews. It was there that Cass found him.
“I know which direction they took the horses. We should be able to find them” – Cass
“And once we find the horses, someone there should be able to tell us where the sellers come from” – Bardic
Bardic’s appearance was distinctive. At Cass’ advice, he stripped the hilts down and removed the cross-guard from his sword. Once wrapped in sacking and smeared with dirt, it looked much like a sturdy staff. Cass had come disguised in Morath’s own voluminous hooded cloak, and it proved large enough to do for Bardic. Finally, Cass took Bardic through the rudiments of acting like a beggar.
“People see what they expect to see, mostly. You’ll be fine” – Cass
And so a nondescript young man and a remarkably sturdy beggar made their way from tavern to tavern, market to market, all that day. Cass seemed not to begrudge spending money on tips and drinks.
“It’s expenses, anyway. Morath will be sure to honor his agreement” – Bardic, reassuringly
“And there’s the 5 silvers at the end of it too” – Cass, cynically
Cass inevitably did most of the talking: Bardic playing a sturdy beggar crouched nearby. He gained no coins in his upturned helm-come-begging-bowl; merely advice that he ought to get a job. Finally, they worked their way to the horse-fair that contained their mounts. Cass spent quite some time with the horse-coper.
“Bardic, can you speak much Zamoran? I’ve been able to learn that the man knows something, but he needs convincing. How convincing can you be?” – Cass
“Let’s see… I know words for goat, ale, talk, coin… maybe I could loom, somewhere nearby?”
“All right, we’ll do it that way. I’ll bring him yonder into that alley, you be sitting ready nearby” – Cass
And so it went. Somehow off guard, the coper followed the “young man” into an alley momentarily away from open spectacle, somehow he tripped, and the next moment he found himself pinned flat on his back, his arms held in steely grip, and a stiletto was poised ready to ram the last couple of inches through the back of his mouth. It was held by the young man, and the eyes that held his evinced not a trace of pity or mercy.
Having gained directions to a quarter in the south known as Cutthroat Alley where the stolen weaponry would have been fenced, Cass convinced the coper to sell back their horses, and write a bill of sale as well. Gold exchanged hands – not a lot of gold, but enough to make Bardic raise his eyebrows. As they recovered their steeds and checked the saddles and bridles were the originals, he commented:
“So that’s where the gold went!”
“Gold?” – Cass
“The holy man’s gold, the coins you just paid” – Bardic
“Oh, that gold. I paid the man with his own coin. He didn’t notice me lighten his purse, being on his back and pinned” – Cass
By early evening the pair had located the city precinct where Cutthroat Alley was to be found. Bardic, with an eye to Cass’ safety, rented lodgings and stable-room so they might rest up before venturing into what was likely to be enemy territory. Cass fell asleep with the brawny Cimmerian seated across the small chamber at the open window, gazing out over the busy night streets.
Cass awoke six hours later at Bardic’s firm touch.
“I’ll sleep for a few hours – wake me at first light” – Bardic
The two were soon afoot and working their way quietly through streets and alleys where night-time activity was giving way to more legitimate occupations. Neither sleepy-eyed harlot bound for bed, nor the odd alley-slumped corpse paid heed to the pair as they scaled a warehouse that in turn allowed access to a high roof overlooking most of the alley. Bardic was still carrying his “staff” and wore Morath’s billowing cloak, but his abilities as a climber overcame this handicap. Cass proved no mean climber, and they were soon crouched low on the roofline, gazing down.
Cutthroat Alley was, in fact, a cluster of alleys formed by a jumble of two-story buildings. From their limited vantage, the pair could make out a few open spaces, apart from the “entrance” to Cutthroat Alley between their building and the next south. Scents and a general noise of brisk activity told Bardic the building they had scaled was a bakery, and that across the “entrance,” a tavern. A cupola atop a building standing alone suggested a temple of some sort: and as they watched, a robed priest accompanied by some children began opening the door to it.
One open area to the south-east featured a community well, and at least a half-dozen people were engaged drawing water or waiting their turn. Another on the north-east was merely a slice of barren, cobbled ground in front of a nondescript building, where a couple of idlers lingered. They were still in deep shadow, but perchance the sun, now a glow on the horizon, touched that yard earliest.
As the sun cracked its brassy rays over the horizon, a broad platter of bake-stuffs was delivered to a building facing the well. A Brewster carried a keg of some sort from the inn to the same destination. There was a suggestion of guard-like behavior in the way the double doors were opened by a couple of the people there. Bardic studied that building, and those around it. All of the rooftops connected to each other on that, the eastern side. But they needed to know more.
About ten minutes later, a nondescript idler slouched into the alley and over to the temple. Bardic could see that Cass had altered gait and demeanor just a little, so as to look more like a ne’er-do-well local. Time passed, and Bardic reassured himself that even evil priests had down time. Then at last Cass emerged from the temple with two small children in tow. They wandered over to the bakery. Taking his cue, Bardic met them at the door. Bardic bought the undernourished brats a sweetmeat and Cass briefed him in undertones as they gobbled their treat.
Father Rish seemed a nice old buffer, perhaps a bit simple, and easily tapped for general information. He knew virtually nothing of the dark side of the area. He did not live there during the night, as he looked after street orphans elsewhere. The locksmith, Gruddart, operated from the building immediately south of the temple. The whole of the eastern side was a gambling hell where non-locals were welcome.
“I’m moving the priest off my ‘evil priest’ list and onto my ‘good priest’ list. The list that’s short enough I can remember each priest on it. Pity really – if he was evil we could really find out what’s what” – Bardic
Having seen the children back, Cass returned and the pair kicked around a few ideas, ranging from “storm the place” to “break through the roof” to “dress up as swanky high-rollers” but eventually settled on “fake delivery men.”
So as the first bell tolled, a pair of unlikely-looking baker’s boys carried a broad trencher – long enough to conceal Bardic’s great-sword diagonally under it – from the bakery across to the double doors of the gambling hell.