Gafgarn and crew run into trouble as his encounter with Smidgin catches up with him. Imadi finds out she isn’t the only person from her country who’s come to the Kingdoms.Read More
Gafgarn: The Eternally Unfurnished has been released as an audio-book-type podcast with Chronosphere Fiction by Fishbonius Studios! Check it out on Podbean, iTunes, Spotify, or Fishbonius Studios' website, and support us on Patreon. Fresh voice acting and sound effects launch Gafgarn from the page right into your face!
“I still can’t believe Smidgin had a wife,” Gafgarn exclaimed once more from the top of the rolling carriage. Though the copse dwindled on the horizon behind him, the last words of the now very-dead bandit stuck to Gafgarn like the stench of bear dung.
“Apparently so,” Illaeda added.
“And you’re sure neither of you knew?” Gafgarn asked, gesturing at his two underlings.
Dorin raised his hands in innocence, “Nae, ‘ee never spoke a word about it Gaf. ‘ee wasn’t one tae talk about ‘is personals anyway.”
“We weren’t with his outfit long enough to know much about him, sir,” Sully added. “Dorin’s right, he wasn’t exactly open about his past. We took his orders and guarded the camp, that’s just about it.”
“How long were you with him?” Gafgarn asked.
“Myself...a little over a year, I think. Dorin was there before me.”
“Aye, a few years in tha gang. But I was hardly his go-to, I just took care of chores and guarded the wall. Some heists, but always just another pair of eyes.”
“For a couple of lookouts, you two didn’t do so badly back there,” Gafgarn said. Then he pointed a meaty finger at Dorin, “Except you need to work on your lead feet. Mine are stuck in metal, and you’re the one that almost gets us killed dragging yours like a couple of anvils.”
“Oi, the rock was covered with dirt and leaves, ‘ow was I supposed tah know…”
“No excuses. You’re not just a lookout anymore. Read the land, learn to be more careful and precise. It’s not just your life on the line, remember that.” Then the giant sighed, “If I were with my people, we would’ve cleared the wood without any of them noticing. It wouldn’t have even broke a sweat.”
“Sorry, boss,” Sully said, “But...it didn’t look like you minded too much at the time.”
Gafgarn allowed a tiny smirk to grace his stony visage, “It was a fun little row. It was nice to let loose a little.”
Illaeda nodded at Imadi, riding her horse next to her on the trail, “Our new friend here was...impressive.” All turned to Illaeda in response to her unfamiliar tone of reserved esteem, like the light of a rising sun peeking out beyond a dark horizon.
Imadi nodded her head, nestled in the shadow of her wide hat, and said, “Thank you. I’ve killed many criminals with this blade since I was young. Looks as if you’ve been doing the same.” Gafgarn found the warmth of the moment between the two women startling, like the rare red wolves of his country. Suddenly he wished he could have seen Illaeda in action himself.
The group travelled through countryside filled with farmland. Simple cottages and barns of wood and thatch stood lonely and serene amid expansive fields of grain, potatoes, and lettuce. The day was pleasantly clear, with the sound of birdsong and farmers’ tools accompanying party’s trek. They saw no one other than straw-hatted farmers until they neared the dense city that loomed at the end of the road.
A great wooden palisade circled a gently rolling acropolis built atop three large hills. A stone keep crowned each hill with crenellated walls surrounding them. The largest hill lay furthest into the city, the largest keep atop it overlooking the city like a monolithic sentinel. Unlike Hausto, the construction here was more predictable, with notably less wobbly or leaning architecture. Outside of the walled keeps, the acropolis was a mix of wooden and stone buildings, with tapered or flat thatched and tiled roofing. Cobblestone boulevards lined with ostentatious gated estates wound about the hills, shining in the daylight like glistening serpents.
The group approached the palisade, entering the city through a wooden gatehouse flanked by towers populated with archers. Smells of food, human waste, and livestock overpowered the senses immediately, and the sounds of musical taverns, aggressive merchants, bedraggled beggars, and scintillating brothels created a discordant symphony of human activity. Here, below the splendor on the hills, muddy streets teemed with common folk who lazily made way for Gafgarn’s gang. Many gave sidelong glances at Imadi and Gafgarn with mild curiosity. The main streets were wide enough that the carriage and two horses could have rode in side-by-side, if not for the throng of people around them.
Wither led them down a main boulevard flanked by shops and various inns. Other streets met the main thoroughfare at odd angles, and shadowy alleyways threaded between buildings, graffiti and posters decorating their walls. A recurring picture was a fox ready to pounce with a spear in its jaws. Out of these alleys scurried children, many in little more than rags. Some sat by the road’s edge with mournful eyes gazing at passersby or, just as intensely, into nothing. Others ran with upraised palms to strangers, clamoring with their tiny, strained voices for any crumb or coin they might earn through pity.
Imadi responded to the display with a look that somehow expressed both resentment and empathy. Gafgarn thought he understood. His people raised their children to earn their keep; it was important to learn that overcoming struggle was a part of life, but the sad weakness before him was worse than a dusty, empty mead barrel.
“What kind of people allow such squalor to befall their young?” Imadi asked no one in particular.
“Well, dear, the great people of the Kingdoms, of course!” Wither exclaimed playfully.
“Must be an orphanage nearby,” Sully said.
“What?” Imadi spat.
“An orphanage. Many of the larger cities have ‘em. The different kingdoms war all the time. Wars take parents from children, and so does the crime at home. A lot of kids are left in orphanages.”
Imadi watched as a group of raggedy urchins approached another passerby and begged profusely. She noticed a smaller child sneak behind the would-be benefactor to pilfer a small pouch on his belt. “And these orphanages let these children starve and steal?” Imadi asked.
“Not always,” Sully explained, “There are punishments waiting for these ones. But many don’t want the lives the Church of the Void builds for them in the orphanages. They’re given only enough to keep living, taught only the Cosmonomicon, and are rarely shown anything other than cold discipline. In a world that’s forgotten them, why wouldn’t they take what they’ll never be given?” Sully watched the children intently, a faraway look on her face.
Imadi brought her horse closer to Sully, who sat on the carriage, and leaned in as she spoke to her, “Because it’s thievery. The crime against these children does not beget more crime from them. There’s still a choice.”
Sully’s face twisted into a sneer, “If there’s another way, I don’t see it. All I see is survival.”
“What survives? Filth? I can’t believe this is allowed.”
“Believe it,” Sully snapped. Imadi moved her shaggy mare away from the carriage with a huff. Sully sat rocking on the bench next to Wither wearing a loathsome frown. She could have mentioned she was raised in one of those orphanages, she could have argued that she was more than just filth, but something stopped her. She wasn’t sure if it was anger or shame.
Gafgarn’s grumble interrupted her thoughts as he asked, “Cosmonomicon?”
Dorin responded from the opposite edge of the carriage rooftop, “It’s a book, Gaf. From the Church of the Void. Book of beasties and critters and scary whatsis and whosis out in the great Void ‘round the earth. Theys living out on other planes n’ such, waiting tah eat us, or love us, or judge us or what ‘ave you. Gods ‘n the godlike, supposedly.”
Gafgarn remembered the statue in Hausto’s church, a great mass of tentacles with eyeballs instead of suckers. He wondered momentarily what kind of creature it was supposed to be, but quickly dismissed it as absurd. Gods existed in the earth itself, in its plants, soil, sky, and seas, not out in the shapeless, sparkling darkness seen at night. “Begging children and monsters. The Kingdoms are a strange place.”
Beyond a bend in the main road, Illaeda pointed Wither towards a large building, and they made their way to it, parking the coach in its stable. Wither paid the stablemaster for everyone’s bill, then they left their horses for the inn. Above its entrance was a hanging sign painted with a skeleton pouring a liquid from a flagon into its mouth, the contents spilling through its bones to puddle beneath its skeletal feet. Below the illustration was the title “The Wasted Cadaver.” Each entered, Gafgarn regarding the sign with amusement. Imadi led the rear, taking a moment to scan the street before entering.
Illaeda made her way directly for the bar, winding her way through a large room full of thick round tables. It being midday, only a few were occupied with lunchtime diners. Several strong-looking men and women stood cross-armed at the entrance and around the inn, their eyes scanning the group with the careful boredom of hired muscle. They paid special attention to Gafgarn and Imadi, their clothing, Gafgarn’s size, and Imadi’s serene but guarded demeanor; all details indicating them as curious, if not dangerous, outsiders.
As they neared the bar, Gafgarn could make out a balding head behind the counter. It only just rose above the bar, a porcelain mound with thinning red hair. The head turned to the approaching Illaeda, bushy eyebrows rising and a smile emerging within a bushy, lengthy beard. Two muscular arms raised in welcome when Illaeda leaned on the counter bearing a grin of her own.
The spoke with a luscious, gracious voice, “Illaeda! My favorite one-eyed demoness of the hunt, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Artag,” she said, “good to see you. The place is still standing, so things must be going well.”
“Aye, as good as can be in a city like Esthelring. Things as they’ve been, lass, The Wasted Cadaver might find itself situated firmly in the chaotic midst of mayhem. But that’s the way it always is, eh? You be needing a room then?”
“Several. First, do you have a moment?”
“For the Guild, always. Let’s have a chat in my office.” He made to move then stopped when he noticed Wither. Artag graced the group with another pearly grin. “What a lovely day it is when the Cadaver welcomes Professor Gollsteen. And welcome you are, my mustachioed master. It’s been years, I think,” Artag bowed lightly.
“Yes, old boy, so it has! I do recall the leisure and levity to be found at your respectable, if grimly christened, establishment. And low to those that fail to recognize the greatness of your character disguised by your diminutive stature.”
Artag bellowed happily, “Haha, oh did I miss the overwhelming effluence of language that spouts from that mustache of yours. I do hope you’ve brought that overloaded coach of yours?”
“Always, old boy.”
Artag happily clapped, and said, “Then we’ll have business later. Come, bring the whole crew with ya.”
Artag made his way from behind the bar, careful to make eye contact with his guards around the room. Gafgarn noted Artag’s build; though small in stature, he was built like a bull. He led the group through a doorway between the bar and a staircase leading up to the second floor. Inside was a long hallway filled with the aroma of cooking. As they walked down it, they passed the kitchen, a busy affair with multiple stoves and several hands about. “Pallard!” Artag yelled, “I’ll be in my office.” A young man in an apron jogged from the kitchen back down the hallway, presumably to man the bar. Artag continued pass several doors before he reached the last, a simple aperture with a shiny, bronze handle placed low so that he needn’t stretch to reach it. He lead the entourage in.
Inside was a monument to luxury, an abode of tasteful opulence. His furniture was all of a dark mahogany, consisting of several bookcases, a large desk, several chairs, a couch, a round table, and shelves. One corner of the room was partitioned by a wall, presumably for a bedroom. A deep red carpet covered most of the floor under the chairs and table. Matching pillows with copper-colored tassels adorned the seating. Behind the desk cluttered with papers was a large upended barrel on a stand bearing the elegantly carved legs of a lion. Gafgarn liked the spigot extended from the barrel and the ornate flagons shaped like upward-facing lion-heads. He’d never seen a lion in real life, but they looked like formidable creatures akin to the great bears and wolves of his realm.
“You like lions?” Gafgarn asked, pointing.
“Well, I sure hope so. My pa and I were awarded that set and that keg stand for thirty years of innkeeping and brewing. The lion’s the symbol of Esthelring Kingdom. At least, the royal family Esthel, we’re two generations into that one now. We’ll see how long that lasts.”
Gafgarn approached the keg, admiring it. “Maybe you’d like a drink?” Artag asked, grabbing a tankard and hoisting it Gafgarn’s way.
“Mead. My family’s brew. The inn doubles as a distillery in an extension out back.”
Gafgarn twisted the tab on the spigot, letting the thick, golden-brown fluid fill the lion’s mouth. “Hm, mead. Before I united the clans, they met in peace once a year for a mead brewing competition. I don’t know if we’re more proud of our mead or our fighting. One often leads to another, and not always in the same order.”
“Figured you for an outlander, what with the wolf on your head,” Artag said, “It’s rumored the mead from the Wilds is unmatched. I wouldn’t mind testing that rumor.”
Gafgarn savored the aroma before taking a large pull. It was a full-bodied affair, with touches of honey and spices that left a tingle in the back of the throat. He wiped a dribble on his chin with a sleeve, and commented, “Not bad. Best I’ve had in your Kingdoms so far.”
“We haven’t been in business this long because of our impressive height,” Artag joked. “Come, have a seat.”
“Suit yourself, but none of the furniture bites.”
“You don’t know furniture like I do.”
Artag sat in the fancy lounger with the group huddled about, and began, “Odd group you have here Illaeda. Two outlanders, it seems, and with the Professor no less. What brings you into The Wasted Cadaver?”
“We’re looking for someone,” Illaeda answered.
“Well, of course ya are! What kind of Hunter isn’t at any time? But with a crew like this, must be special, am I right?”
Illaeda nodded her head, “This mark would stand out. Albino skin, jester hat, might have a young woman with him.”
Wither interjected, “Yes, old boy, barely a woman, with golden hair. Most likely looks distressed.”
Illaeda paused, then smiled at Artag, “He’s medium height, so he might look pretty tall to you.”
Artag returned the smile, “Oh, ha-ha, right, a height joke. Very original, lass. If you were listening, I already beat you to it. When would this fella have come into town?”
“No more than a day ago. Not long before we came into the city just now.”
Artag scratched his beard in thought, then responded, “Mmmm, no, can’t say I’ve seen or heard of him. You sure he’s here?”
Imadi interjected, “I may have seen him coming this way from Hausto.”
“Well, I’ve been in the inn most of the last few days. I can’t say I see much of the city anymore. It’s not safe if you want to stay neutral.”
“Neutral?” Gafgarn said.
“Aye, everyone is on a side these days. The two Ducal houses and the King. It looks all fine n’ dandy on the surface, but as per usual in the Kingdoms, there’s warfare beneath the pomp and politics.”
“Warfare? It’s a city, not a warzone.”
“Nothing in the Kingdoms is as it seems, outlander. The Ducal houses’ve been jockying for power for decades now, and the city’s underbelly is where all that tasty jockying happens. The guard and knights are the king’s, but his eyes are on expansion as always. His main army is away even now, fighting over a blasted hill. He underestimates the city’s criminal element. And the regular folks here pay the price--protection taxes, grifting, extortion, and worse. Play by their rules, pay their protection taxes, or they take you out of the game.”
“Your leaders just let this happen?” Imadi interjected, her voice bearing teeth.
Sully responded, “For centuries, everywhere in the kingdoms. So we’re left in the middle, to be part of it, or a victim of it.”
Imadi gave her a vicious look, “No, there’s another choice. A people can keep their leaders responsible for their own actions.”
“I agree,” Gafgarn said, “
Artag continued, “Aye, we’ve had our fair share of revolutions too. Sometimes it comes from the gangs themselves, just a replacement of one crown for another, but this time we have a full-fledged citizen uprising on our hands. They’re collectively called the Fox, named after their leader supposedly. I’m sure you saw the signs coming in. Between the king, the ducal houses and their gangs, and the Fox, the city’s a bubbling cauldron ready to spill over. The gangs leave The Wasted Cadaver be because we work with the Guild, and like everyone else they’re afraid of crossing that line. But it’s only a matter of time before even that won’t matter.”
“Things looked fine out there,” Sully remarked.
“Look closely, stay in the city for more than a few nights, you’ll see the signs I’m sure. Just be careful after dark.”
Illaeda stood and said, “Thanks Artag. If you hear anything about AJ, let us know okay?”
“Hold there, lass. I like you, and I’m happy I’ve got the Guild’s protection, but a stay at the Cadaver isn’t as cheap as it once was...particularly because you and your friends are going to attract a lot of attention.”
“Oi, sounds like we’re being gouged,” Dorin announced.
“The Guild pays for the muscle you saw guarding the place, but that’s it. Keeping you and your charges safe has become harder than ever. This is the safest place in the city by reputation alone, but when that cauldron spills over...no one’s going to avoid the flood. Higher prices mean insurance, I could hire more guards on my own, and worse comes to worse, our ticket out of the city.”
“Don’t worry old boy, between myself and the Hunter here, we can pay any price,” Wither said. He reached into his jacket and took out a piece of iron similar to a coin. He flipped it casually to Illaeda, who caught it. Upon inspection, she saw it bore a smudge of blood and the characters “10 S” and “Smidgin.” The last she saw of this, she had tossed it at Smidgin’s ruined corpse.
Wither continued, “You dropped that. Take Gafgarn with you to collect; don’t argue, take credit for the kill. While you’re doing that, Artag and I have other business to discuss, don’t we old boy?”
“Ah, I better pour myself a flagon for that bit. Illaeda, our business is sound, there’re plenty rooms available when you’re ready to claim them.”
“Thanks,” Illaeda said, pocketing the piece of metal. “We’ll see you later.”
As Illaeda rose to leave, the others followed suit. Gafgarn drained what was left in his tankard and nodded to Artag, who responded with a hefty grin. Then the group left to brave the city of Esthelring.
Illaeda lead the group with an eager pace. After some time navigating the winding streets and narrow alleys, the troup came to a building of brick and mortar. A great bronze medallion emblazoned with the arrowhead symbol of the Guild hung by chains above the entryway between two wood columns carved with spirals. Bold red tile decorated the angular, swooping roof, which stretched out beyond the building’s walls creating broad eaves. A wooden fence extended to the left of the building, hiding a small courtyard housing a stables and a blacksmith. Illaeda entered through the building’s arched doorway, the group trailing behind her.
The interior of the building was spacious. A lounge stretched invitingly beyond an ascending stairway. Luxurious, stout armchairs were surrounded by walls populated with paintings of natural scenery like snowy mountains and seasonal forests. Several polished weapons, blades still keen, sat on wooden placards and beautifully carved racks. Crystal decanters, their liquids of gold and brown sparkling from sunlight from high, narrow windows, rested on stout shelves. A counter ran along the entire back wall. In that wall were two doorways, one of which was a heavy, metal affair. Illaeda made her way in that direction, and the group followed.
Gafgarn found himself mesmerized by the room. He was disappointed to find there was no hammer present, but each piece of weaponry was exquisite. Though hardly an artist, he found the paintings equally entrancing, their depictions of natural vistas, particularly mountains, making him think of home. A grin graced his beleaguered features. He wandered in that space, appreciating its decor and its notable lack of dust, until he found a recliner lined with fur. So lost in his reverie was he that he forgot himself and quickly eased into the chair, which promptly shot out from beneath him. Gafgarn hit the floor hard, then launched himself back onto his feet. He looked back at the chair with a grimace, then at his comrades now waiting at the counter. Beyond it was a new body, a man in a leather vest and long-sleeved, ruffled shirt, with a hand on the pommel of his blade and a very surprised look on his face. Gafgarn gave him a sneer as he rejoined the group, and the man relaxed with a shrug.
“Right,” he said, “Not too sure what that was about. Anyway, Illaeda, yes, good to see you again so soon. It’s only been a few days, you got the scoundrel already?”
“Yes, Baert,” she said, slapping the blood-stained coin with Smidgin’s name on the counter.
“Really?” Baert replied, a playful eyebrow raised, “Well, story is, some giant from the east with a wolf-cloak took the self-proclaimed Bandit King out. Someone like, say, this big fella with sitting issues.” The man regarded Gafgarn with a grin. Gafgarn made to lean on the counter threateningly, but then thought better of it and simply scowled.
Ilaeda sighed, “Word travels, doesn’t it?”
Baert laughed, “Don’t fret, lass, story is you was there too. Looks to me you’ve been working together. Well, a kill in cooperation with others is still a kill for a Hunter. Have ye any proof? Head? Ear? Toe? Maybe skinned one of those monstrous tattoos off him?”
“Just these witnesses,” she waved at the group, “all present during the act, except the lady in the robe.” Imadi nodded her head at Baert.
“Fine,” the man sighed, then rapped off a statement as if memorized by rote, “Do all of ye swear under oath that Illaeda the Hawk have rights to claim this kill, and pledge that yer lives be forfeit to the Guild’s mercy should this vow be found untruthful?”
Gafgarn shared quizzical looks with Sully and Dorin. Illaeda motioned for them to respond.
“Aye!” said Dorin.
“Yes!” Sully agreed.
“Yeah,” Gafgarn grumbled.
“Good. Let me grab your reward,” Baert snatched up the coin, unperturbed by the crusted blood on it, and moved to the heavy metal door. He jingled a ring of keys as he unlocked the door, a heavy thunk reverberating from within. He entered beyond it into a small room and closed and locked the door behind him.
A man with short-cropped blonde hair and a tailored beard approached the counter next to Illaeda, nodding to her as he did. He wore a peculiar red outfit similar to Illaeda’s, with chain mail and plate pauldrons sewn into the fabric of his coat. “Long time. Sounds like you bagged the Bandit King?”
“Harden,” she greeted him, “yes, we did.”
“Oh, with help? That’s not surprising, you never were one to work alone.” Illaeda’s body tensed briefly at this. “I guess it’s good someone finally took him out of the game. It’s a shame that he’ll probably be replaced by some other egomaniac soon enough. But that’s how we get paid, right?” Illaeda responded with a level stare. “You always go big, don’t you? Never the small marks. Heading out soon for the next big score?”
“We’ll be in town for a while now, actually. Leads on my next one says he’s here.”
“Oh? And who’s that? You aren’t going after one of the underbosses are you? We all know what’s going on in Esthelring, but that could be suicide. And if you’re successful, you might bring the wrong type of notoriety to the Guild.”
“No, I’m not interested in the politics here.”
“You’re...not still after the jester, are you?”
“I might be.”
Harden put on a look of concern, “You’re gonna have to let that one go, Illaeda.”
“So you can net the huge bounty on his head?”
“You know why. It’s been proven time and time again that we should never make a hunt personal. People slip up, make mistakes, take things too far. We all know what happened, everyone wants a piece of him, but for you this is too deep, the wound too fresh.”
Illeada grimaced at him.
“Sorry,” he said, regarding her eyepatch, “I didn’t mean that literally. Seriously, Illaeda…”
“Enough. Yes, I’m still looking for him, and evidence thus far suggests he’s in the city.”
“Here?” he said, surprised.
“Yes, here. I’m going to find him, and kill him.”
“Because of what he did, he deserves it, but…”
“Because he’s an animal that needs to be put down.”
“We both know why you’re after him. Revenge is just going to get you killed.”
Illaeda responded flatly, “Let me know if you hear anything, will you?”
Harden gave a look of resignation and nodded. Baert returned to the counter with a sack of coins, which Illaeda snatched up quickly. “Thanks,” she said to Baert, then turned to Harden and said, “See you later.”
The group left the building, and in the street outside Gafgarn placed a humungous hand on Illaeda’s shoulder to stop her walking. “Revenge?” He asked.
“It’s none of your business. Just let me do my job.”
“My people are relying on me to fix my problem. They need me, before they’re at each other’s throats again. And peace or not, without my leadership it’s only a matter of time before my people or the Kingdoms start another war. If this thing with AJ is personal, I don’t have a problem with that, I just need to know you won’t screw this up.”
“It’s personal to you too.”
“Not like you. On that bridge in Hausto, he got the better of you with a piece of wood. You let your guard down. On the road, you didn’t seem to have any problems taking out a whole crew of bandits. Your friend back there might have a point.”
“I’m fine,” Illaeda growled.
“AJ...he took your eye, didn’t he?”
Illaeda raised up on her toes and poked a solid finger into Gafgarn’s chest as she spoke, “Ask me again, and I’ll smack that cloak right off your head, I don’t care how big and tough you think you are. I’m going to find some leads, we should split up and canvas the city. Don’t follow me. I’ll see you tonight at the Cadaver.” With that, Illaeda turned into the crowd of cityfolk and stormed off.
“So, what do we do now?” Sully asked.
Dorin yawned loudly, “Aye, ‘ave we done enough talkin’ and traipsin’ yet?”
Gafgarn looked at Imadi, who seemed unconcerned, and remarked, “You’ve been pretty quiet.”
She smiled, “I’m new to these lands, to you. I preferred to observe and listen. You’re a curious group.”
“Right. So, what’re you going to do?”
Imadi chuckled, “I haven’t really thought about that yet. This has been all so...intriguing. I know next to nothing about the Kingdoms.”
“Well, I think I’d like to get familiar with the area. If we’re going to find AJ, that’ll help.”
“That might benefit me as well, though I can’t stay in the city for long.”
“We might be here a while. Maybe you should move on,” Sully said with a hint of scorn in her voice. Gafgarn’s eyebrows danced in surprise like tumbling acrobats.
“I’m curious about this AJ and the taken girl. I’d like to help, and seeing as a free room waits for me if I do, I’ll work with you for the time being. But I’ll explore the city on my own for now.”
“Going to wander some more?” Sully asked.
“That reminds me,” Gafgarn said, “before you said you’re just a wanderer. Wither said you’ve come a long way, and I’ve never heard of Yodoru. Why are you in the Kingdoms?”
Imadi smiled, “A...pilgrimage, you could say. To learn. To exact justice when I can.”
“You jus’ walkin’ ‘round, takin’ notes and woopin’ arse? Jus’ for funnies?” Dorin exclaimed.
“Something like that. The...wooping arse...is my duty. Evil, in all its forms, is the prey of the Binai-Fandwa.”
“Big-Eye Fartwad?” Dorin chuckled.
Imadi stifled his amusement with a stony look, “Binai-Fandwa. My order. We ensure the injustices I’ve seen today never happen in Yodoru. And they don’t.”
“So you’re like the city guard of your people?” Gafgarn said.
“Much more. But enough. We waste daylight. I’ll keep my eyes open for this pale joker.” Imadi adjusted her had slightly and nodded to her three comrades before joining the stream of bodies flowing through the street.
Gafgarn watched her hat bounce in the crowd before turning to Sully, growling, “What’s your problem, Sully?”
She crossed her arms and met his fierce gaze, “You really believe that load?”
“Aye Gaf,” Dorin agreed, “‘er story’s as clean as a latrine. I wouldn’t buy that tripe if it was free.”
“I know she’s hiding something. What I meant was your attitude.”
Sully looked at the ground, sullen, “She thinks everything’s so simple. Not everyone gets to choose their life.”
“You mean what she said about the orphans?”
“They didn’t get a chance to choose. It’s not their fault if they turn to crime if that’s all they have. Imadi thinks she’s so much better than everyone else, like life’s so simple. She’d sooner kill Dorin and me if she knew we were bandits only days ago.”
“You’re right, she would. She would try. I’m your boss, remember?”
Sully looked up at him, and responded, “Thanks boss. She just...really got to me. No one’s going to look out for those kids, not in the way they should anyway. They stay in the church, brainwashed and afraid, or they leave and fend for themselves. She talks like she doesn’t even care what that’s like.”
“Sounds like you do.” Sully kicked lightly at loose rock and nodded her head. He placed a hefty paw on her shoulder and continued, “Don’t worry about her...though, she is right about one thing. We don’t have time for excuses. Your past is yours, but I need you, now, to do your job and do it well. So let’s get moving and find this bastard with my gauntlets.” Sully nodded and the three moved into the crowd.
No one noticed the two figures huddled in the shadows of a nearby alley. They watched Gafgarn, Dorin, and Sully with eager eyes.
“You follow them,” one told the other. “I’ll tell the Madam they’re here. That’s the one she wants right?”
“Yup,” the other said, “Big, wolf cloak, that ‘not-from-around-here’ look. Couldn’t be anyone else. I’ll tail ‘em.”
“That crazy comedian’ll be interested too. Looks like we’ll all be having some fun tonight. Catch up with you later.” The speaker trotted down the alley, while the other moved into the crowd in Gafgarn’s direction.
No one noticed another body move from a different alley into the crowd on that same street, either. In the street, passing townsfolk gave curious glances at his white clothes with asymmetrical, intricate, colorful designs, his wooden, stilt-like flat shoes, and his wide-brimmed, woven, flat hat. Many of those townsfolk swore they had just seen a woman dressed just like him pass only moments ago.
The town bustled, crowded with patrolling guardsmen. Many were hungry for retribution, knowing their allies had been butchered in the catacombs beneath the city. The Bulging Baron’s crew was equally piqued, the loss of their own causing search parties to scour the countryside. No one seemed to care much for the baron himself, excepting that his murder was so brazen as to be unbelievable. His swarthy crew only wondered as to who might replace him, and if the new head would continue their employment.
Captain Tedev issued his orders to scour the dilapidated city, but knew their target would be gone. None had seen him since the encounter in the catacombs. He held no hope that a sign of him would be found and acted with resigned stoicism. After he felt the guard was duly roused and occupied, he asked Gafgarn’s group to join him in his office. As eager as they were to continue their hunt, he insisted, promising to take little of their time. When he mentioned the aged bottle of spirit he kept for particularly difficult days, the party’s interest intensified and all agreed to take the moment to collect themselves.
They made their way through Hausto’s disorienting buildings and streets, passing bristling patrols sending brief salutes to the Captain and awed gazes to Gafgarn. Sully and Dorin had previously mentioned to others their exploits in the catacombs, and apparently word spread about the Wolf floating in the dark, flying like an arrow. Gafgarn returned the flabbergast and dazzle with a sneer; he wasn’t intent on being anyone’s sideshow. He gave sidelong glances--obese with dismay--at his two underlings, who remained silent and avoided all eye contact. They finally came to a teetering building with barred windows and a corral in its back yard, weapon racks indicating the area was used for sparring. Only a few guards remained to watch the mostly empty cells.
On the upper floor they came to the captain’s office. It was a basic and bare affair populated by a sturdy but simple desk and a small cot. With a heavy sigh he sat and indicated all present should do the same. Gafgarn unsheathed his mallet and leaned on it for support. Wither lit his gigantic, curving pipe, sending gentle billowing puffs into the dark ceiling.
“I know you have places to be, but I thought it might be of benefit to stop for a moment and take stock of things,” the captain began. As he did so, several guards brought in soup and bread for everyone, and laid several cups on the desk. The heat and aroma managed to brighten the gloom of the evening somewhat. The uncorking of the bottle Tedev retrieved from a drawer brightened the room even more. He poured into each cup as he spoke, “This AJ is more than some cutpurse. If he’s still in the area, I want to catch him, but it might help to know more about the scoundrel. At least you three know something, right?” he indicated Wither, Illaeda, and Gafgarn and placed the bottle aside.
Illaeda spoke first, “You’d be disappointed to learn that the Guild knows very little. AJ stands for Albino Jester, we don’t know his name. Or where he’s from. Or even what he’s after.”
“Then what do you know? You’re supposed to detect things the Kingdoms’ regular guard won’t, right? So detect.”
She took a pull from her cup and relished the sweet and spicy flavor within, then continued, “AJ acts almost compulsively, so much so that it seems he thinks little before doing anything. In every town and city he’s committed a crime, there’s almost never a communication to anyone about what he wants. No demands, no blackmail, no ransom. He just causes chaos.”
“Often, but not always. Sometimes his crimes are almost juvenile. In a small town he’s accused of stealing everyone’s socks in a night and leaving them in a bear den. Once he changed all the names on a horse racing leger and caused an uproar at the betting office.”
“What’d he change the names to?” Gafgarn asked.
“I don’t remember the specifics, but each was...scatological.”
Dorin chuckled, choking on his laugh when Sully placed an elbow in his ribcage.
“Well, so, why the murders?” Tedev asked, “what’s the point of all this in Hausto? And why are you so passionate about this man professor?”
It was Wither’s turn to speak, “Because, old boy, one of his many villainous deeds includes kidnapping. My sister, to be precise. And I’m very eager to have her back before the scoundrel does something contemptuously more...regrettable.”
“As for Hausto,” Illaeda cut in, “AJ’s actions are usually chaotic, prone to whatever insanity drives him. It doesn’t seem they were all connected...except for the chair thing.” Her one eye regarded Gafgarn.
“Yeah, what’s the deal with that?” Sully asked.
“That bit is obvious enough, isn’t it, old boy?” Wither muffled as he smoked his pipe. They all looked at him and he grinned, pulling the pipe out and raising his cup for dramatic effect, “He’s got a crush on Gafgarn.”
“Ol’ Jokey’s got a thing for Gaffy?” Dorin exclaimed in surprise.
Illaeda chimed in, “AJ is fascinated by him. The bodies in chairs are proof enough: it’s the curse.”
“He’s taunting me, trying to piss me off,” Gafgarn explained.
“Is it working?” Illaeda asked.
“Yes,” Gafgarn growled.
“I can’t blame him for finding your...affliction...interesting, but is he really just killing people to poke fun at you?” Tedev asked.
“I already told you captain,” Illaeda answered, “He’s crazy. This isn’t beyond him.”
“Each killed was in a position of power or authority,” Gafgarn muttered.
“The dead...right, simple enough, I suppose. Though going for the Baron was pretty ballsy. Over-the-top, even.” Tedev said.
“Sir, you have that in common with them too,” Sully remarked to Gafgarn.
“I know. Deposed, but still a leader.”
“I don’t understand,” Tedev said.
Illaeda explained, “The Wolf here has a throne waiting for him back home across the border. Apparently he united all the clans in the wildlands. They won’t follow him if he can’t sit on his throne, however.”
“Wow,” Tedev responded, whiskers bristling, “I didn’t realize I was escorting and arresting royalty. And you united the clans, that’s no mean feat after centuries when the only time you’d see them work together was to fight off an invasion from the Kingdoms. You might make for a valuable political prisoner, you know.” Gafgarn eyed him with angry suspicion, and Tedev responded with raised hands and an innocent look, “But I’m just a captain of the guard, I’m in no one’s army or court. I put myself as far away from that mess as I could. I’m loyal to the crown and all, but I’m done with wars and fool machinations.”
“Is that why you’re in this backwater?” Gafgarn asked
“Yes. Volunteered for it. My men are ill-equipped, undertrained, and hardly motivated, but I appreciate that challenge rather than licking the boot of whoever was born from whoever else’s Void-praised blood.”
“What about the baron?” Sully asked.
“He mostly stuck to himself, as long as I stayed out of his way. We left each other alone, made our lives easier. I cared about the city, he cared about...other things.”
“You know captain, I could use a man like you. You’re obviously capable and wasted here. My people appreciate strength and honor. Seems you’ve some.” Gafgarn said.
“No, no, no big fella, I’ve had enough of politics. I just protect people, and that’s fine by me. No need to make things more complicated.”
“Sounds like there’s a story behind that,” Illaeda said.
“Another life, one full of politics and oaths I’d rather not revisit. My only loyalty is to the people of Hausto now, and I rather like it,” Tedev stated flatly and changed the subject, “Anyway, what would you recruit me for, Gafgarn? Going to invade your own lands and lay claim by force? The Kingdoms were successful for some time, but there hasn’t been a victory on our side in years. How could you expect to do any different? And won’t they still reject you if you can’t sit on the throne?”
“My people appreciate strength. Even a farmer can fight, but not all can lead. I’m in enemy territory, peace or not, I’ll need at least a small troop to watch my back while I work on fixing this.”
“Back to that,” the captain interjected, leaning forward onto his desk, “What in the world was that? Is this really happening? I saw it with my own eyes, but...is there really some sort of magic at work here?”
“It appears so, old boy,” Wither responded, “and it seems tied to those immaculate boots.” Illaeda sniggered in disbelief, giving the room a look of disapproval. Wither continued, “Think what you want, dear, if proof points only to the impossible, then it must be true.”
“So why not just take off the boots?” the captain asked matter-of-factly.
“Tried. Can’t,” Gafgarn said with a shrug.
“Well that’s a shame,” Tedev said, “So you’re just going to be like that for the rest of your life?”
“What’ll you do?”
“Wasn’t too sure...until now.”
Illaeda cut in, “Did you notice something odd about the Baron’s office?”
“Aside from all the dead folk, you mean?” Tedev joked. Dorin laughed.
“Something was missing. None of the Baron’s jewelry, none of his valuables, nothing that could be sold easily and for good coin. Only one thing.”
“Those gauntlets,” the captain answered.
“Indeed, old boy. Those with the same design and spotless affect as these very boots,” Wither waved dramatically at the gilded footwear.
“Why take them, though? What’s AJ’s game now?”
“Like I said,” Gafgarn rumbled, “To piss me off.”
“Translated: it’s to ensure we follow, old boy,” Wither finished.
“He knows we’re interested in them. The gauntlets guarantee Gafgarn will pursue him,” Illaeda said.
“Fine, so the giant and the professor have common cause. And what of you, Illaeda? Surely there are easier bounties? Maybe AJ is worth a great deal, but couldn’t you find easier prey, maybe even make more in a shorter amount of time?”
Illaeda seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if a thought crossed her mind like a blizzard, freezing her. Then she quickly regained her composure, and responded, “I like the challenge. And yes, AJ is worth a great deal.”
“Sounds like there’s a story behind that,” he replied. Illaeda gave him a nasty look. Tedev looked pensive for a moment, then shook his head, “Alright, fair enough. None of my business anyway, I’m just curious. Well, if you’re all done with your food and drink, I’d be happy to let you rest here, we’ve plenty beds…”
“No,” Gafgarn said as he returned his mallet to the place on his back, secured by a tight loop of leather, “we can’t afford to lose him. If we rest, it has to be on the move.”
Exiting the compound, Wither confronted Illaeda in a hushed tone, “It seems you’ve a personal grudge with our wayward jester. I understand, but I assume your vendetta won’t get in the way.”
“It’s just a job, I don’t know what you’re talking about,”
“Keep convincing yourself. Just don’t get in my way. And none of this apprehending him alive, I know the guild often values a mark more when it still breathes. When I find him, I find my sister, and he dies. I accept nothing less.”
“Belive me Wither,” Illaeda hissed, “That won’t be a problem.”
The group left without further delay. Captain Tedev watched them from the rickety wall until moonlight no longer illuminated their place on the road north. He let out a sigh of relief, and left to finish his spirit and sleep.
The party on the road slept on the move, Gafgarn and his two underlings on the roof of the carriage, Illaeda in the saddle, and Wither in the driver’s seat. Many doubted that Wither had slept at all when they awoke in the early morning to find him still huffing on his pipe.
As they trundled along the path, a broad wooded copse ahead and Hausto on the horizon behind them, they saw a figure sitting on the crumbling stone wall on the side of the trail. When they neared, it appeared it wasn’t alone. Its entourage consisted of the bodies of five other individuals in the grass behind the figure. Even closer, they could tell the figure was a woman, and she was cleaning a long, thin, one-sided sword in her lap. Her skin was dark ebony, her black hair braided tightly against her scalp into an intricate design that wove around itself asymmetrically, ending in a tight, boxy spiral on the right side of her head just above her ear. Her eyes, a subdued golden-brown, regarded her blade serenely from a face that could pass as sculpted from polished obsidian, with high cheekbones and a resolute, pointed chin.
She wore a stylized white robe with an ornate, high, narrow collar that plunged to her bosom in the shape of a dagger. Spacious sleeves descended to her wrists, the bottom of her shirt to just above her ankles, the robe parting at her waist. Intricate embroidering followed the edges of the robe around the wrist, collar, and hem. The design was strikingly asymmetric, like the rows of braiding on her head, with interlocking shapes and bisecting lines in a flashy array of gold, orange, various hues of red, and highlights of turquoise. Below she wore loosely-fitting golden pants, and her shoes were simple wooden platforms with prongs reaching to the ground like tiny stilts. A round, flat hat of a woven woody material rested on the wall next to her gently rocking in the light breeze. A shaggy brown horse rested next to her with a large rolled pack in various colors on it’s back. To all present the display was mezmerizing.
It was hard to tell with her attire, but she seemed slim from the shape of her neck, wrists, and ankles. The arm that didn’t tend to her blade hung limply to her side. Gafgarn wondered if it was injured.
The carriage came to stop in front of her. From his vantage point atop the wagon, Gafgarn could see the dead were cheaply dressed, and each wore a red bandana tied somewhere on their bodies. He dismounted, causing the vehicle to rock behind him, and approached the stoic woman, her eyes still lowered to her blade.
“Run into some trouble?” Gafgarn asked.
The woman raised her eyes, which shone in the dull light of the day like a predators’, and responded cooly, “It seems they did. Thieves that thought me an easy target. They thought wrong.”
Illaeda dismounted as well and looked towards the bodies, “Five on one. Hardly a fair fight.”
The woman had resumed tending her blade, “Not fair for whom? They were just brigands, not warriors. Not an ounce of the art between them. It would be a sad waste of life if theirs were worth anything.”
Sully crossed her arms and gave a disagreeable look in response. She had been one of them before, after all, and she felt her life was worth something. But she held her tongue, for now.
“You aren’t from around here are you?” Illaeda asked, regarding the woman’s clothing.
“What gave that away, I wonder?” she replied with a sly smirk.
“She’s from the west,” Wither interjected, “the far west, across an inland sea, a country called Yodoru.” She gave him a curt nod, and he smiled back, “You’ve traveled no trivial distance, miss…?”
“Imadi,” she replied.
“...And your people are something seldom written about, and never seen. What brings you to the Kingdoms?”
“Just a wanderer,” she said.
“Sounds like someone I know,” Wither grinned. Gafgarn gave him a stoney look.
“Your arm looks hurt,” Gafgarn said.
“This? No injury, it’s an affliction from birth.”
“Doesn’t seem to slow you down,” Illaeda said, standing amid the corpses in the grass.
“Not unlike you and your eye, I would guess.”
Illaeda touched the patch over her eye, tracing the symbol on it, “I was born with a pair though.”
“We all lose something. Perhaps we choose whether those losses cripple us or not. You and I decided not.”
Gafgarn huffed impatiently, feeling the woman’s words weigh on him. He heaved himself back onto the carriage. “If you’re fine, then we need to move on.”
“Have you seen anyone strange? An albino with a jester hat?” Illaeda asked.
“He might have a girl with him, likely bound,” Wither added.
“Someone on horseback entered the wood, but they were too far off to see clearly,” the woman responded, “Could be who you’re looking for.”
“Then we should go,” Gafgarn muttered.
“You might not want to go that way,” she said, nodding lightly at the woods.
“Why not?” Gafgarn asked.
“Because the rest of the crew these idiots belong to are waiting in the trees over there. More than these made to attack me, but they fled when I cut down their friends. When they were running away, I heard them say I wasn’t their intended target. Something about a big outlander with a wolf cloak. I’m guessing that’s you.”
Gafgarn hopped off of the carriage once more, causing it to sway and rock again. Illaeda looked to the copse ahead, slipping her shield onto her arm in anticipation. Wither puffed heavily at his pipe. Sully and Dorin traded knowing looks.
“More with those bandanas?” Gafgarn asked, indicating the corpses.
Imadi gave a curt nod and stood, accentuating the movement with the satisfying slide of her sword sinking into its scabbard at her waist.
Gafgarn hefted his hammer, resting it on his shoulder as he gazed into the copse. “Any idea how many?”
She placed her hat on her head, secured around her chin by twine, and said, “Only two ran. I haven’t exactly looked, but it sounds to me like you’ve got the history, so you tell me.” She raised her eyes to his, expectant.
“Seems the lady wants to accompany us into the fray,” Wither announced.
“Why”? Illaeda asked.
Imadi responded, her robe fluttering subtly, “Sounds like a bunch of thieves. That’s as good a reason as any.”
“If you’re looking to loot them, they won’t have much. They fled their camp Gafgarn demolished without taking any time to carry anything off,” Sully explained.
“I’m only interested in their lives.”
The party then witnessed something truly rare. Gafgarn turned to them bearing a grin beaming with glee, his chest puffed in anticipation, and stated with the richest mirth any present had heard bubble up from his gravelly baritone, “Then let’s go claim them.”
Wither chimed in derisively, “Now, you aren’t suggesting we just saunter directly into a trap, are you, old boy?”
“We? No doc, just you. And it won’t be their trap, it’ll be ours.”
Shortly after in the advancing dawn, the carriage trundled through the copse, the trail so narrow that overhanging branches scratched against the passing vehicle. It’s lone driver puffed happily at a basic corn-cobb pipe bouncing with the rocking of the wagon. A stalwart horse tugged the affair along, huffing the comfortably cool air in his own way. Seemingly unbeknownst to either, eyes watched from the brush at either side, peering from behind trunks and among boughs. They watched hungrily, anticipating the valuables they might glean from the coming robbery. Some were disappointed that the wolf-hooded outlander was nowhere to be seen, but they nonetheless relished the chance to murder the suit. Fingers wrested anxiously on bowstrings and around hilts.
Two gruff-looking men stepped from the verge into the path of the carriage, which caused Wither to pull lightly on the reigns, stopping Percy. He puffed and looked expectantly at the two strangers. They wore red bandanas around their heads and brandished an ugly looking sword and spiked mace. Wither smiled at the weapons, noting the chipped blade and that the mace looked like little more than a small piece of lumber with iron spikes driven through it.
“You,” the mace-wielder commanded, pointing his weapon at Wither, “off the carriage now. No sudden movements, or you’ll find an arrow through your brain.”
Wither grinned and puffed, then replied, “The thing about weapons, old boy, is that maintenance, regular and practiced, is key. Now, I see you two fine, strapping lads, and I think to myself, ‘here are some gentlemen, though entrepreneurial of spirit, plagued with poorly maintained tools.’ Indeed, your souls are willing, but how can you capture that evasive seductress called success with such decrepit arms?”
The one with the blade inspected his weapon, a look of dismay on his face, and said to no-one in particular, “Mine is looking a might bit worse for wear.”
“Shut it, idiot,” the mace-wielder replied, “and you, no more talking, no more tricks. Off the carriage or I’ll smash that jaw off myself.”
Wither rose and dismounted, still happily puffing, and continued, “No need to be ashamed, old boy, for I carry the salvation that shall make your murdering and thieving all the more efficacious and pleasurable.”
He stepped to the door in his carriage, opened it, and stuck his body in, undulating with efforts to find some hidden gem within. In moments, he returned to the road bearing a small device composed of two crossed wood slats fixed to a small platform with hinges and springs. The sides of the slats that faced inwards had a polished stone affixed to them so that they resembled shears.
“This, old boy, will keep any blade sharp for years to come,” he began, taking his place in the center of the road. As he continued hocking his invention, he listened intently for a sign from the woods.
Malicious intent silently waited with bated breath in the form of bared blades and drawn bows amongst the brush and trees on either side of Wither. Some high, some low, these loathsome individuals locked eyes on their quarry, ready for Wither to make a wrong move or for any surprises that might spring from the carriage. Some of those eyes scanned for the wolf-cloak, hoping for the opportunity to exact revenge. Hearing about a handful of their comrades being cut down by a wandering swordsman further stoked their ire, so wolf or not, many were eager to take their frustrations out on the thin suit standing in the road. Some recognized him as the wiry figure that came into the camp as the dust settled, dispatching their fellows where he could.
So intent was their attention that none noticed the clandestine approach of others in the wood. Sticking low, Gafgarn, Sully, and Dorin approached silently from one side, while Illaeda and Imadi skulked along from the other, capturing the ambush in a pincer. Wither continued prattling on, hocking his wares and putting on an act of ignorance, while the rest of the group closed in on the bandits
Gafgarn always preferred open battle to sneaking around, but as he saw his prey ahead, he knew the strategy was sound; they were outnumbered three to one. Better to thin their numbers from the shadows before drawing a skirmish. Still, after recent events, the opportunity to bust some heads brought a sense of exhilarated peace to the behemoth. Gafgarn huddled with his cohorts and whispered, “Spread out and stay quiet. Sully, take care of the ones in the trees. Dorin, clean up any that might notice. And watch your footing.” He watched the two split, then approached his first victim leaning against a tree. His great hammer in one hand, Gafgarn reached around the man with the other, his hand grabbing the bandit’s face and slamming the back of his head into the stout trunk. With a satisfying crack the bandit’s body slumped and slid down the timber, leaving a trail of glistening blood in its wake. Nearby, a body fell out of a tree with an arrow from Sully’s bow stuck in its neck, and a bandit near it had his throat slit before he could sound an alarm. Dorin used his victim’s bandanna to wipe his blade as he nodded to Gafgarn, and the three continued.
On the other side, Illaeda and Imadi made swift progress. Illaeda used her shield to knock a woman to the floor, then dispatched her with a knife to her heart. Imadi darted between two sentries, precisely and quickly skewering one and then slashing to the other in one fluid motion. Using her bolas, Illaeda brought an archer down from the canopy, and Imadi glided in to finish him off. Unsheathing her sword, Illaeda cut down another in the brush just as his eyes caught her slinking at him.
Each team moved toward the trail in this way, cutting a swath with a mixture of expertise and luck. Several more were cut down silently until Dorin tripped on a stone, hitting the ground hard behind another target. As the bandit swiveled--his eyes lit with surprise when they caught sight of Dorin scrambling to his feet--an arrow flashed by his side, missing him by inches. He let out a whistle as he saw Sully notching another arrow. His whistle was cut short as, with a bellowing roar, Gafgarn rudely introduced the business end of his hammer to the bandit’s face.
In the road, the two brigands were kneeling over Wither’s contraption, the one with the blade sliding it carefully between the crossed timbers. A whistle and then a roar erupted from the trees, causing the two to look into the wood with alarm. Then they turned to Wither and stood, one with his mace at the ready, and the other testing the sharpened end of his sword with a gentle touch. It’s now razor-keen edge cut through his thumb like butter, a rivulet of blood trickling down his hand onto his wrist.
“Ouch...wow, it is much sharper,” the thief said, while the other moved to attack Wither. “I think we’ll keep it after we kill you,” he finished.
Wither raised his hands and shrugged innocently to show he was unarmed. Suddenly, a bolt shot from his left wrist into the trees, causing a body to fall from a tree into the undergrowth at the side of the trail. The two would-be thieves looked on, dumbfounded, as Wither dawned a bloodthirsty grin, smoke coiling from his corn-cob pipe like a snake prepared to strike. The mace-wielder pounced, swiping his bludgeon down at Wither’s head. Wither stepped sideways, the mace missing his face by a hair. He simultaneously jammed his hand into the bandit’s chest, his secret blade piercing the man’s heart. Finally recovering from his surprise, the sword wielder rushed in, cleaving the air. Wither brought up the blade from his right hand to block and the sword slid off of it with enough force to break the mechanism. The blade hung limply by Wither’s hand, and small pieces of metal and springs fell from his sleeve. Wither ducked under another swipe and brought the bloody blade on his left hand into play, puncturing his attacker’s gut. As he let the body fall, an arrow stuck into the ground near him, and he looked to the wood at his right to see several more brigands erupting from the brush. Wither ducked and ran to take cover behind the carriage, shooting each of his mini-crossbows as he went. One bandit ducked nimbly below a shaft, while another slumped in agony on the road, clutching his side. At the carriage Wither crouched, taking shots at the approaching attackers.
In Gafgarn’s section of wood, madness broke out. The trio revealed, every bandit there turned from the road and pressed the attack. Gafgarn grinned as he charged into the fray, his hammer at the ready. Dorin unsheathed his sword, his dagger still in his other hand, and prepared to defend himself from the onslaught. He was sure he would die; there was a score of armed devils bearing down on he and Gafgarn. The nearest to Dorin collapsed in a heap as an arrow skewered his skull. Sully quickly switched out her bow for her blade and sped to Dorin’s aid. The two worked back-to-back, winding between and around each other as they fended off blows and took advantage of openings. Sully blocked a sword strike and kicked her opponent in the groin, then spun to cut the wrist of a hand clutching a blade aimed for Dorin. Dorin cut an enemy down in the leg, swiveling to cut the throat of the man still reeling from his groin hit. Then he locked eyes with an archer, bow drawn, a deadly arrowhead pointing right at him.
Gafgarn was there in a flash, the hammer breaking the archer’s arm before the shot could be taken. It was as if a dam had burst and Gafgarn was the flood, he, his bulk, and his hammer an overwhelming force flowing around Dorin and Sully, taking all in its path. He was an artist with his hammer, knowing how to perfectly follow through with its weight, each swing an elegant brush stroke moving right into another, launching from one target to the next. He roared and bellowed as he shattered one bandit’s shield, launching the foe into a stump, then continued with the swing into an uppercut at another approaching his rear.
Meanwhile, Illaeda and Imadi took full advantage of the chaos. Distracted by the alarm raised on the other side of the carriage, bandits hopped from the trees and advanced towards the road, their backs to the two women warriors stalking towards them. Both charged, cutting down the unsuspecting force like wheat. By the time any had noticed, six more lay dead and four survivors struggled to mount a defence. Illaeda and Imadi split the rest between each other. Imadi made quick work of her two targets, connecting to a parry from one and feigning an opening to swiftly deflect a blade from the other before cutting the two down in one stroke. Illaeda charged into a woman chucking an axe, the blade sticking into her shield harmlessly. The bandit fell back from the blow, tripping over a stone. Illaeda blocked the swing of a mace with her blade, then caught a second swing with her shield. Feeling the weapon bounce from the impact, she used the opening to cut a fatal gash into her opponent’s gut. Then she spun to finish off the woman with a thrust, catching her mid-charge, dagger in her hand. Confirming the forest lay devoid of the living, the two women approached the road, Imadi flicking her blade to shower blood on an unfortunate shrub.
They found Wither sitting atop his carriage, several dead bodies with bolts in them around and on the carriage. He nonchalantly kicked a body overhanging the edge as he gingerly lit his pipe. Wiggling his mustache, he greeted his companions with a smile and puffs of smoke shooting from his nostrils. Surveying the scene, Illaeda noted only one sprawling body showed any evidence of life; a bandit at the side of the road clutching a bolt in his side, moaning. She made her way to him.
Imadi cut across the trail to the opposite side, stopping short as a body hurtled out from the brush to crash violently and sickeningly against the carriage. Wither rocked with the motion it caused, looking over his shoulder at Gafgarn sauntering casually from the wood. His hammer, slick with gore, rested on his shoulder, and remnants of his bloody work flecked his entire body. He let out a weighty sigh of satisfaction as Sully and Dorin walked out from the brush, still looking about for more attackers. Imadi flicked her blade once more and approached Illaeda.
The hunter kneeled over the last surviving bandit, his life quickly fading, pain on his face.
“Any more of you left?” She asked.
“Screw you,” he answered through clenched teeth.
“This was foolish. Smidgin is dead, there’s nothing to be gained for you by seeking the wolf.”
“We didn’t know he’d be sneakin’ in the woods. And there’s plenty to be earned,” he hissed.
“You guys’re really stupid, you know that? You take out the Bandit King, and think you can just walk away? Mark’s been put on you. Every thief, murderer, and beggar’ll be keeping an eye out for you.”
Illaeda could hear Gafgarn’s heavy footsteps approach and stop behind her as she asked, “Who would care, exactly?”
“Someone close to Smidgin. Someone pretty pissed off by you killin’ him. Someone who thinks your heads are worth somethin’.”
“Family? Brother? Sister?”
The man laughed, coughing blood, “Oh, nothing so pleasant as all that.”
“Who wants me?” Gafgarn growled.
He laughed and sputtered once more, then replied with a bloody, pale grin, “His ex-wife.”
The morning’s overcast skies remained, the wetness of the city less pronounced, and the air had a subtle pleasant coolness to it. The estate was in the center of the city, or just about, it was hard to tell for Gafgarn, what with all the twisting streets and alleys among the leaning buildings. Not that he or his cohort could see much of where they were or where they were going, the way Captain Tedev and his horde of guards crowded and ushered them every step of the way. Wither, the blood on his face quickly drying, would yowl and yammer at times, but his rebellious raging was met with swift retribution.
“You puss-nosed, ankle-biting philistine, he’s getting awa…” A gauntleted fist to the gut.
“Let go of me you bow-legged, swine-loving churl…” A sword hilt to the head.
“Pardon me, old boy, were you aware that the digested remains of a rat are resting on your upper lip...” A blow to the throat quieted his outbursts, causing him to walk with a body that hung limply between two guards. His protests were resigned to muttered sputterings for the remainder of the march.
Promptly they came to a wall bending around both ends of a street. Beyond it one could see the high roof of the estate, black and maroon flag waving lightly in the wet breeze. The captain led the procession to a heavy double-sided reinforced gate around the bend, large enough Wither’s cart could fit through. He knocked hard with his plated fist, to which the other side responded with the heavy lifting of a lock. The doors swung open to reveal a small group of leather and mail clad men and women bearing looks of dismay.
“‘Bout time,” a woman in the front pronounced. “Captain and prisoners in, the rest of you back to the streets.”
Captain Tedev rustled his mustache with a frustrated sigh, then turned to his guards and pointed, “You two, wait out here for me. The rest of you are dismissed to your regular duties. Don’t let me catch you at the library unless you’ve been assigned there, there’s still a whole city of people here. Well, now, get moving.” The guards disbursed in all directions, the sound of metal boots and clinking armor following their reluctant footsteps. Wither roused, dusting off his suit and betraying no injury.
“Fine,” the woman continued, “In to see the Baron, don’t dawdle now.”
“I never dawdle, Eyer,” Captain Tedev responded gruffly, leading Gafgarn’s group forward.
The guards here were even less kempt than those in the city. They were swarthy, with close to unshaven faces or scraggly hair, some with hoods pulled so far over their heads most of their faces were hidden in shadow. Men and women of such differing appearance, from skin to scars to clothes to armor—their ragged demeanor their only common trait—it was easy to conclude that they hailed from many different places in and outside of the kingdoms. Gafgarn was reminded of Smidgen’s bandits, and figured these were closer to a gang than an organized, uniformed soldierly force. Not that they appeared any less dangerous; eyes—lazy or drunk or otherwise—watched the interlopers with wariness and greedy hunger, and each man and woman had a weapon close to hand.
“Why do I feel like I’m being sized up?” Illaeda said.
“Because you are,” Gafgarn grumbled.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” Wither greeted and bowed his head as they walked.
Sully waved and nodded to a few, like old friends. Dorin shook some hands as he walked, even embraced one with a hearty “Oi mate, noice tah see yah!” Both stopped cold and continued on with lowered heads when they saw the look Gafgarn shot them.
They walked across a large yard, inhabited by a dingy stable to their left and several slumping buildings of wood to their right, possibly barracks or storerooms. Small patches of garden bestowed surprising splashes of color and fragrance amid the dreary surroundings. In the center was a modest two-story estate of the city’s common stone, a pair of iron-reinforced doors stretching high beneath a pointed gable. Two guards were at the short steps leading up to it, one sitting, cleaning her nails with a rather large knife, and the other half-asleep against against the wall, arms crossed. Captain Tedev lead the group through, pushing the doors open as he walked into a grand, dusty foyer. He continued up a single staircase to their left to the second floor and down a hall to an unassuming door. Old framed paintings hung askew on the walls alongside torn or faded tapestries, cobwebs ruffling as the group walked by them. Gafgarn could feel the dust of unclean, long-lived in quarters filtering into his voluminous nostrils, his face contorting into an annoyed grimace. He thought of his halls in the great fortress of Direrock Deep, with the heads of woodland beasts on plaques decorating the walls. No hints of dust ever dared grace those hallowed grounds, and all, handmaid to warrior, made sure of it. This Baron, with his disheveled crew and abhorrent housing, impressed him little.
Captain Tedev stopped at the door, two shady-looking guards on either side, and faced the group. “Baron Mardoo is known for many things, but first and foremost is his...size. None of you will comment or joke on it. And please, whatever you do, if you’ve heard his nickname, do not repeat it here.” Illaeda smirked while Sully and Dorin sniggered. Gafgarn looked at each face for a hint, but only got a sly shrug from Wither. Captain Tedev placed two raps on the door, and at the hughty command of “Enter” in a muffled tenor from the other, he opened and gestured for the others to follow.
They filed into a large room centered by a grand desk of dark wood, the surrounding walls lined with banners of the same design as the flag above the estate. An ornate rug of colorful reds, oranges, gold, and black floral and arboreal designs depicting blooming flowers, twisting vines, and antler-like trees covered much of the floor. Two heavy chairs of red velvet with hanging tassles lay before the desk, accompanied by several more plain oak variations presumably brought in from another room. A wide plate lay on the desk’s surface, delicately balancing its mountainous cargo of turkey legs, potatoes, gravy, grapes, and large chunks of mutton. Beyond that heaping mound, staring interestedly at them all, was one of the fattest men Gafgarn had ever beheld.
Baron Mardoo was middle-aged—wrinkles only beginning to assert themselves—and fair skinned with deep-set dark brown eyes above a pointed nose that defied his round cheeks and sloping jowls. A jet-black beard descended henceforth, dearly in need of cleaning, flecks of food clinging in its oily brambles. A paw of sausage-like fingers, each adorned with a silver or gold ring of jewels, stroked and combed that foody beard as Mardoo leaned back and regarded his new guests with interest. That hand’s equally bejeweled sibling hung over the side of the chair, loosely clutching a half-eaten apple. He barely fit into his gargantuan velvet seat, rolls of fat from his sides and back falling over the arms and back of the chair like frothing yeast over the rim of a bowl. He wore a massive black shirt with gold embroidered lions on both of the breasts and a grey coat with shiny silver buttons and black trim. Various necklaces of silver, gold, and beads hung low past the plummeting collar of his shirt that exposed curling black bushes on his upper chest. Several hooded guards stood about the room.
“Park yer rumps,” he said as he motioned to the chairs across from him. Het took a meaty bite from his apple as everyone except for Gafgarn moved to sit. “Find a perch, big man,” Mardoo ordered through a full, chewing mouth, gesturing to an empty chair.
Gafgarn looked at the seat like he was going to eat it but wasn’t looking forward to the taste.
“What, yer people don’t have chairs?” Mardoo pressed, flecks of apple showering the desk and his beard.
Gafgarn shrugged, his arms still crossed, “It’s not big enough for me. I’ll stand.”
Mardoo looked down at himself, his seat creaking with the effort, then back up with a grin, “They seem pretty sturdy to me, big fella! And you’ll refer to me as ‘sire’ while you’re in my presence. You don’t want to sit, I don’t care, I don’t want you bastards to waste more of my time than needed.” He paused to lean forward on a heaving arm, his face turning to regard the entire group. “Now, I can place some of ya,” he nodded at each as he listed them, “You’re with the guild, clear enough. Guild’s always welcomed, lass.” Illaeda registered an undertone of sarcasm and disdain, but maintained her cold disposition. “You’re that inventor, weapon-dealer, whatever. Anyone who’s anyone knows your carriage and suit. Mayhaps we can do some business later.” Wither nodded and grinned. Mardoo continued, pointing at Suly and Dorin, “I don’t know you two there, but it’s obvious enough you answer to this big one afeared of chairs over here. Odd bunch. You come into my town and raise chaos, destroy property. Murderer or no, that’s a heavy affront as outsiders, don’t you think?”
“All under guild business, sire,” Illaeda responded.
“That so, lass? Then you all be with the guild, I presume?”
“Just myself. But they aid in my hunt, and are so protected under the rights of Guildship, sire.” She spoke levelly, her tone professional and full of authority.
Mardoo pounded his fist on his desk and sternly pronounced, “Don’t you lecture me of your infernal Guild law, I know what it be. But you bring vagabonds and a Wilder. It’s enough you’ve these two criminals with you,” he pointed at Sully and Dorin, noting their wide-eyed expressions, “aye, I know you be highwaymen...but this beast-man? Peace or no, big-man, you be on the wrong side of the border, and Hausto situated as it is, it be my charge to protect the Kingdoms’ edge here.”
“Great job of doing that, I’ve been in your country for weeks.”
Mardoo shoved himself out of his seat to stand, his body rippling and jiggling with the effort. “Watch yer tone, barbarian!” he yelled, “I don’t know if yer people respect their leaders, but here in the Kingdoms, titles mean something. I won’t broach another offense from you, and I’m not talking about sending you back to your forests.”
My people earn their respect, Gafgarn thought, every muscle in his body calling out to teach that lesson to this bulbous sack of meat first-hand. If it were just him and the Baron, perhaps he would, but killing him would do no good for their pursuit of AJ. He met the Baron’s glare and nodded, noticing then a peculiar sight in the corner of the room over the Baron’s shoulder.
What he noticed utterly demanded his attention. It wasn’t the weapon rack with a sad collection of poorly kept swords hanging on leather-wrapped wooden pegs. It also wasn’t the shelves above littered with valuable-looking trophies like a golden, jeweled goblet, necklaces and rings, a jade dragon, and a shining curved dagger. It was, at the top of the shelf, a pair of shining gauntlets. Gafgarn’s eyes gravitated to those gauntlets with intense fervor for two reasons: one, they were the finest-crafted, cleanest, shiniest things in the room aside from his boots, and two, they were silver-white with red, flowing designs that Gafgarn knew to be an ancient language.
“Those,” he said, pointing with his chin, “where did you get them...sire?”
Mardoo huffed and jiggled as he struggled to look over a shoulder at the shelves, “Those? Right impressive, eh? No class, but at least you’ve a good eye. You know, I’ve never cleaned them, but they always look like that. Strange. Anyway, none-a-yer business where I got ‘em. They’re mine, that’s all should matter to you.”
“Ever put them on, old boy...er, sire?” Wither asked through teeth clenched on a pipe carved like an upwardly belching frog.
Mardoo paused, at first surprised by the presence of the pipe that had not been there a moment before, then regained his composure and raised a fist grasping a meaty turkey leg, “On these paws, professor? I’d sooner fit a brassier. Enough with all the questions, I brought you here, now shut up and pay attention. Since you bring this filth into my city, this clown, I’m going to respectfully decline your wish to hunt. Captain Tedev’s men and my private guard will see to it that this murderer is found, without destroying anything else. Murdering a First Tentacle...whoever did this’s going to bring down the wrath of the church on himself, nevermind my own. A fool.”
“So you don’t know who you’re after then, sire?” Illaeda asked.
“Don’t get smart with me. A man of white skin, red eyes, wearing a jester hat. Pretty hard to miss, lass, and I’m surprised to find with all your Guild craft and reputation that you’ve yet to catch him. Let him slip away, I hear, and by the looks of that hurt on your face, I’d say it be true.”
Illaeda thought to comment that Mardoo looked like he could catch nothing, but thought better of it, “You speak of his appearance, but not of who he is. This isn’t a common criminal. The guild was made to catch criminals like this. You need me, sire.”
“What I need is you and your group out of my city. Be on your way before I keep you here...in chains.”
“You’re welcome to stop us. I’m sure the guild’ll just overlook your tampering in our business. ‘Cause that’s not a big deal at all.”
“The guild can shag a maggot.”
A questioning brow soared above Illaeda’s good eye that regarded Mardoo with a fiery mixture of disbelief and wrath. She leaned forward, her fingers threaded neatly together and her elbows on her knees, “I don’t need to remind you, I’m sure, of the accords, older than the Kingdoms themselves. Guild work is as official as any monarch’s or their lesser vassals’, and can only be refused or punished by landsmeet trial. My actions, as well as those of my companions, are sanctioned by law, so should you imprison us and call for a trial, your head is on the block. I do my job, sire, and that is it. Make your choice.”
At that moment, a plated city guard entered, saluting the baron with a fist across his chest. Mardoo took a mighty bite of turkey, chewing with rage and exasperation. Captain Tedev gestured for the guard to come closer.
“Sir,” he said, his breath short and sweat beading on his brow from the supposed run to the estate, “the jester is gone.”
Mardoo choked and sputtered in response. Illaeda shook her head while Wither shot upright, puffing smoke wildly. Gafgarn placed a heavy hand on Wither’s spindly shoulder, locking him in place as surely as a steel brace.
“How?” Captain Tedev asked, a hand massaging his temples as he leaned in his chair, “it was one building, we had it surrounded.”
“At first, we didn’t know, ‘til a librarian told us about catacombs underneath the library. Goes out to both wings, then out under the city. Maybe even beyond the walls, he says”
Captain Tedev sighed, “No one knew this?”
The guard looked around the room sheepishly, “Well, maybe we forgot. Most of us grew up here haven’t thought about ‘em since we were kids. Even then, we thought they was just stories. Not really interesting anymore.”
“Captain,” Illaeda interjected in a curious tone, “why didn’t you know of them?”
“I’m not from here, Hunter. A handful of years, and none have ever spoken of tunnels to me.” He turned a questioning gaze to Mardoo, who replied by jamming a chunk of mutton into his mouth.
“See!” The guard said, his face beaming, “Not something we really talk about.”
Captain Tedev stood and gave the man a hard look, “Hold the entrances that we know of. Hold the librarian as well, we need to talk. I’m coming right away.” He gave a salute to Mardoo.
(Mardoo) “Captain, speak to my First on the way out, you know her. Ask about the catacombs, she will have information for you. Find the murderer. Alive if you can. Now get out of my office, the lot of ya. Professor...I may call on you later.”
As they walked through the hall and down the stairs, Wither asked Gafgarn, “Those gauntlets, old boy...unmistakably related to your ill-fated footwear.”
“Unmistakably,” Gafgarn admitted.
“I’ll bargain for them, should that gluttonous windbag be serious about seeing me later. Which he very well should be.”
“Doc, you should really clean your face. What was Mardoo’s nickname, anyway?”
Captain Tedev stopped at the large doors and leaned in to Gafgarn, using the back of his hand to stifle his answer, “He’s known as the Bulging Baron.”
A light drizzle accompanied the group’s return to the two buildings that comprised the library, the afternoon maintaining the day’s interminable gloom. Guards milled about outside, reporting to Captain Tedev that none had been permitted to leave either building. They entered the building where Illaeda had given chase to find several more guards standing around an old man in simple robes. Illaeda recognized him as the one who had yelled after AJ as he fled, saying something about a stolen book. The group moved to greet the aged librarian.
A guard spoke, “Sir, this is the one said he may know where the jester hides.”
Captain Tedev looked at the old man, who sat and fidgeted nervously, and declared, “Name?”
“Eberd,” he squeaked.
“Explain yourself. And plainly, please, we’ve work to do.”
“In the wing across the street, what was joined by that bridge, in a small cellar for storage is an entrance to ancient catacombs, older than the city itself. You move one of the shelves, it takes some strength, and there’s a doorway in the rock, leads to underground passages”
“What’s the nature of these passages?”
“None know about them but I and most of the Baron’s private guard at the estate. Mostly abandoned, many passages collapsed and unusable. One leads out of Hausto, beyond the walls somewhere. I had an interest in them in my younger years, but there’s not but rubble and darkness down there. Whatever their original purpose, it’s just a path for smuggling and secrecy now.”
“So one way in, one way out? You’re sure of this?”
“Yes. This city’s been leveled in the past. Such is war. Must have caused all the cave-ins. It would take a serious excavation to open any of the other ways, and Mardoo uses it rarely as it is.”
“Take us there, then.”
The man rose and tottered out of the building with the captain in tow. The others followed, Illaeda taking a moment to retrieve her bola still wrapped around the twisting handrail. Outside, the group followed the bent figure around the building. Soon they came to the heap formerly known as the bridge that linked the two library wings. Workmen that had been brought to the site now lugged wood and hefted beams into organized piles. Eberd, still shaking from nervousness and age, lead them further around the second building and into a doorway. Inside, this wing looked similar to the last, the biggest difference an open trapdoor in the floor in a corner. Guards milled about here as well, saluting Captain Tedev as the group passed to the trap door. A ladder lead down into a cramped space crowded with crates, chairs, a spare table, and shelves of candles, ink, and parchment. Eberd motioned towards a shelf loaded with candles and Captain Tedev called for two guards to move it. With effort they slid it aside to reveal a ragged archway in the rock leading into pitch blackness. Captain Tedev ordered the two guards to remain while the group continued on. He demanded Eberd keep to his side and that several candelabras be taken to light the way.
The crew delved carefully through the cramped hall, Gafgarn hunched slightly to keep from hitting his head on the rough-hewn, low ceiling. Even with the dancing lights the darkness was oppressive, revealing only a few feet in any direction. The librarian tottered behind Captain Tedev, craning his neck to see beyond the group, pointing to the proper direction whenever they came to a split or an intersection. No one spoke and they stepped lightly, moving slowly to keep from making any noise. For some time they traveled, finding no sign that anyone had come before them.
“How much farther, old man?” Captain Tedev whispered.
Eberd’s squeaked through panting, nervous tiredness, “Not much. There should be a chamber, then a straight path…”
A deep throated chuckle echoed through the hall, snaking around the group, raising hairs on each neck. Captain Tedev motioned the group to halt, and all craned to see into the darkness ahead. Gafgarn awkwardly turned to look back the way they came to Sully and Dorin covering the rear. Sully held a candelabra out in a feeble attempt to pierce the blackness, then turned to lock eyes with Gafgarn and shrug. He turned back to see Captain Tedev looking his way and gave as much a nod as he could, indicating that they should continue.
Minutes passed, and another chuckle rumbled through the halls. It was easier this time to tell it came from ahead of them. Captain Tedev carefully and silently unsheathed his sword and lead the group into the dark. The laughing continued more frequently now, goading them. Heavy with impish imperiousness, it caused Gafgarn’s brow to furl and nostrils to flare in irritation. Illaeda hefted her sword and shield, and Wither’s fingers danced in anticipation. Passed another crumbled pathway, turning into another path at an intersection, the laughing continued to creep through the halls like a stalker. Finally they stopped at a three-way intersection, Eberd pointing around a corner to a wider hall at a startling sight.
Two rows of simple wooden chairs stood face-to-face, their backrests against the stone walls, extending into the black and blocking the entire path. Captain Tedev shoved his light out into the hall above the chairs to look as deep as he could, but the chairs continued beyond their sight.
“Eberd, you or anyone you know put these here for any reason?” Illaeda asked in a hushed tone, her eye positioned just so to see through the bodies in front of her.
“N-no, this hall is usually clear. We’ve no use for chairs down here, no one sits around in the dark. Our pastime is reading, after all. ”
“No meeting place for Mardoo’s cronies, old boy?” Wither murmured.
Eberd scratched his hairy chin, “None of my business if there were, but they use the catacombs for smuggling and sneaking out of the city. I don’t think the Baron let anyone he worked with outside of the city into the catacombs anyway. Better to keep the entrance hidden in case some crook got wise.”
Gafgarn gazed back at Sully and Dorin with a questioning glance that appeared all the more threatening as shadows danced across his face. Then he asked in a whisper that nonetheless carried the stony presence of his voice, “Smidgin ever come in here? Your band? Anyone?”
“No, sir,” Sully responded without hesitation.
Dorin added, “Gaf, don’t think so. Times we met Mardoo’s folk were in the forest or the camp.”
Sully continued, “Deal was the Baron would work with us, but only on his terms. Smidgin never really cared for the city here--already had his own turf--and with the extra information and gear, we could waylay some nice caravans.”
“And then he’d pay you, supplies or gold?” Gafgarn asked
“Aye,” Dorin answered.
They all looked down the tunnel, the chairs seeming to dance in the flickering light of their candles. Another throaty cackle, full of self-assured excitement, rumbled through the halls. There was no mistaking where the laugh came from, though; it radiated from beyond those chairs.
“Any way around, Eberd, down that way?” Gafgarn asked, pointing down the continuing hallway.
“No, just a cave in. This here is the way to the exit.”
“What’s wrong, Gaffy,” AJ’s voice, full of glee, echoed around them, “You seem stressed out. You should have a seat, take a load off.” Then he peeled into a brief, mocking fit of laughter.
Gafgarn rumbled with the rage boiling up inside him. He reached for his hammer with one hand, but stopped as he realized AJ would be long gone before he could smash his way down that hall. Smashing would make him feel better, but he’d have to save it for AJ. The rest of the group could continue, but what would he do? Could he keep searching in the hopes that the crooked librarian was wrong? No, he needed to get down the hall as soon as possible, as crowded as it was with the dreaded chairs. He cracked his neck in anticipation.
He lifted a gilded foot above the first two chairs, felt that strange force that pushed him away. As he dropped his boot, he could hear the chairs vibrating against the wall and each other. Then he pushed hard against them, their shaking becoming a cacophony of wooden rumblings, and he could see them wobble. His foot slipped off and away from the chairs, and he stamped it on the floor in frustration. He turned and attempted to sit, but was pushed back towards the group. “Blasted chairs!” he cursed.
“There’s one thing you can try, and you know it,” Illaeda said.
“It won’t work,” Gafgarn responded.
“Come now, old boy. Let’s see just what this curse of yours will do,” Wither said.
Gafgarn huffed as he turned back around, and without hesitation, took a few quick steps and launched himself over the row of chairs. He quickly fell, feeling a force push upwards against his entire body enough to slow but not stop his descent. The moment his chest hit a seat, he was catapulted upwards into the hard rock ceiling, hitting it like a sack of meat. He fell back down and was repulsed once more, this time catching himself before hitting the ceiling. As he fell again, he could feel the force slowing him, and he bobbed back upward before touching wood. He bounced in midair for a few moments, each bounce smaller than the next, until he floated gently in the air a hand’s length above the chairs. He looked back at his companions, faces struck with surprise, Wither, Sully, and Dorin scarcely stifling a giggle. Illaeda nodded her head, betraying herself with a tiny smirk.
“Let’s get going,” Gafgarn commanded, as if nothing strange had happened at all. He thought of claiming a candelabra, but dismissed the idea. He’ll see me coming, he thought. I’ll fly through the air, in the dark, and surprise him. Or he’ll be waiting for me.
Sully reached him first, having pushed through the group. She moved her hands in the air over and under Gafgarn, looking for something to do with them, but stopped, absolutely dumbfounded. “Are we supposed to...push you, or...something?” she asked.
“Just follow me. Keep up. And ready yourselves.”
Gafgarn reached out with both arms, his movement causing the chairs below him to rumble again. He grabbed at the sides of the walls, and with one herculean push, launched himself down the hallway. That strange force persisted as he went, pushing up against his body, harder if he bobbed closer to the chairs, each emitting a creak or clatter under him. A frown crept onto his face as he heard, knowing that if AJ lay in wait, the sounds might reach him. He thought of readying his hammer, but the movement of reaching back caused him to wobble awkwardly, pitching forward to almost clip his nose on wood. No, better to gain speed and surprise his foe.
Again he pushed himself down the hall, this time with greater force, sending him into a barrel roll like a slow, awkward bird. It was a strange sensation, like he was a boat and the air beneath him water. Until now he was pushed, or shoved, or launched, or a bed or chair would slide or fall as sought to rest upon it. Now he found himself in an odd equilibrium, a weightless stone floating into that clammy abyss. To murder or be murdered. As strange as it was, he was ecstatic.
Finally the the creaks subsided behind him and that familiar pull to the ground returned. In absolute darkness he fell into a hard roll, coming to slide on his boots into a stony wall. As he collected the wind knocked from his lungs, he hefted his hammer and listened intently. For a few chilling moments, only the occasional clacking of a chair from the approach of his companions far behind reached his ears. Until, finally, something greeted him.
“‘Bout time,” AJ’s voice called from the darkness with the friendly timbre of one calmly entertained, “we’ve been waiting for you for a while now. Silly you didn’t bring a light with you, you were loud enough floating in here. I wish I could’ve seen it, but I guess I’ve seen your kind of flight before. I’m a huge fan, really, it’d be great to give that monster-hand a shake. Unfortunately, I’ve a problem, as we’ve not brought a light either.”
We? Thought Gafgarn. Who else is with him? AJ seemed like one who worked alone. Then Gafgarn’s thoughts moved to Wither’s sister. If she was in that room as a hostage, that would complicate things. Gafgarn stepped forward into nothing, making no sound as he went.
“You really are a hoot, buddy” AJ continued, “You don’t think you can find me in this, can you? As much as I’d like to formally meet, I do have something else I need to attend to. I was worried about leaving my friend here alone, but now that you’re here, I know he’s in good hands. You should take a seat with him, he’s sure got a lot to tell you.”
Gafgarn stepped further into the darkness, towards some unseen point where he knew the jester would be.
“Now, now, I told you I wouldn’t leave you alone, no need to get upset. I’ll be around, you can believe that; you’re just too much fun. Let the professor know I’m taking good care of his little girl, would you? Toodles!”
The sound of light footsteps resounded off the wall, each a reverberating decrescendo of the previous. Gafgarn sprinted forward into dark nothingness, chasing the receding sound. It seemed his run brought him no closer, the pitter-patter of AJ’s retreat becoming ever quieter, until finally a much louder, much more present sound halted Gafgarn’s pursuit. It was like the earth cracking in half, roaring from the space ahead and shaking the floor beneath Gafgarn’s boots. Worse, a billowing wall of dust and air slammed into Gafgarn like a storm. He staggered and covered his face, cursing the dust as it stung the skin and choked the lungs. Dust was almost worse than AJ...it could never be squished.
Weak light permeated the dark behind Gafgarn, the sound of skidding chairs and fast, heavy steps following it. He turned to see Sully hopping from the hall of chairs into the chamber, candelabra held high and knife poised low. Illaeda and Wither followed, a sword bared and wrist-bows raised, Dorin, Captain Tedev, and Eberd close behind, their curious faces peering from around the corner.
“Earthquake?” Sully asked, her eyes darting in all directions
Wither answered, “No, dear, that would not be the rumblings of anything produced by nature. That would be the product of an ingenious concoction from a place very foreign and unreachable for most in the Kingdoms.”
“That murderous swine is a madman,” Illaeda growled between clenched teeth.
“Oi, what was it then?” Dorin asked.
“An explosive,” Wither announced flatly, “Something I would greatly like to get my hands on. How AJ got one is beyond me, but it seems he’s used it ahead, which undoubtedly means…”
“The tunnel’s collapsed,” Gafgarn finished as he stepped from the dark into the light like a great, stony shadow.
“You know of explosives, old boy?”
“Only rumours,” Gafgarn grumbled, “something that can move and break stone and light the sky.”
“Simple tricks, old boy. If only they’d trade their secrets, I could teach them a thing or two about ingenuity.” Wither’s voice rasped with the thirst of a parched man glancing life-giving waters across an impossible chasm.
“That’s nice,” Sully remarked, “but I think you guys should take a look at this.”
She held the flickering light before her and marched, motioning Captain Tedev to follow. Together their flames revealed the chamber, the center of it occupied by a single man clad in half-plate armor, his hands bound behind him as he sat in the same type of chair as was crowding that long hallway. His head hung low, and the remnants of perspiration dripped from the ridge of his nose and black hair that hung over his face. Firelight revealed bruises, a cut lip, and a dark deluge of fresh blood glistening on his tarnished breastplate and dripping onto the floor. A sword lay nearby next to an extinguished torch, and crumpled by a distant wall were two more armored, bloodied bodies. Captain Tedev rushed to those against the wall, then to the man settled in the chair.
“Good men, these. Rare in these parts,” he uttered with a tone of sad respect, “I thought this AJ to be just a knife in the dark, an assassin that kills and runs. These would have put up a fight.”
“Not enough,” Illaeda replied flatly as she knelt to examine the sitting corpse, “not for AJ.”
“Liver-spotted fecal-warming hedge-pig,” Wither hissed
“Why’s ‘ee in a chair?” Dorin asked, gesturing at the macabre scene. “So was that tentacle-head, roight? The jester got a thing fer reclinin?”
Illaeda and Wither looked at Gafgarn knowingly, but none responded. Gafgarn took the candelabra from Sully and walked around the room, finding only one exit other than the collapsed path and the chair-ridden hallway, and this one already blocked by rubble. He kicked the stone and grunted, returning to the group to announce, “There’s no chasing him from here. Librarian, where does that path go?” Gafgarn nodded his head the way AJ had fled.
“Out, I’m sure,” the old man replied. “If he went that way, he’s out of the city, most likely.”
“Eberd,” Illaeda said, “what was the book that AJ took?”
“When I was chasing him through the library, you yelled after him, saying he needed to return a book.”
“Oh, right. The night before, he stayed late. Had never seen him before, but the library’s public. He picked out several tomes, history books and memoirs from the ancient war, the rebellion that broke the empire and gave birth to the Kingdoms. I didn’t notice him leave, but one of the books I saw him with was missing”
“What was it, old boy?” Wither asked
“Arming Chaos, it was. A journal of a famous blacksmith of those times, it’s considered a chronicle of old techniques and styles, tracks some events, but otherwise reveals little about anyone or anything particularly important.”
“Important is relative, old boy,” Wither said, his eyes communicating a hidden understanding to Gafgarn and Illaeda. All three of them looked down at Gafgarn’s boots, glinting in the candlelight as if just polished. “In any case, not much we can do here, is there?”
“No,” Captain Tedev stated with a hint of resigned sadness, “We should report back to the Baron. I’ll have my men take care of the dead.”
“Oh boy,” Sully said sarcastically, “I’m reeeeeally excited to see that thing again.”
What would the Baron think of their failure? What might he do? As they trudged through Hausto’s streets underneath a sky just beginning to hint at the approaching evening, they knew they would find out.
But when they returned to the manse in the middle of the city, they were met with a different scene than expected. The courtyard bristled with the leather-clad and cloaked, all forms of weapon drawn, each at their highest guard. There had been a death in the yard it seemed, two guards at the rear of the estate slain quietly, their bodies only just discovered. And something worse. Inside, the shady folk ran about, investigating every corner and nook, with a particularly grumpy retinue in the upper halls crowding the Bulging Baron’s doorway. Beyond, Gafgarn and his companions found a most peculiar, but eerily familiar, scene. The Baron and four of his henchman were slumped into chairs, dead from knife wounds, arranged around the impressive desk as if in a meeting. The strangest detail, however, was a small note written in ink in the most eloquent, flowing handwriting anyone alive or dead in that room had ever seen. The note was pinned to Baron Mardoo by his own knife, and it read:
"Even in death, they know more comfort than you."
And, Gafgarn noted, those pristine gauntlets with a shocking likeness to his cursed boots were nowhere to be found.
The carriage rolled lazily along a lonely road below an overcast, dull sky. A rolling plain of green and brown grasses littered with round stones and boulders extended in all directions. A forest lay on the horizon behind the carriage, a little less than a day’s travel from its border. Low crumbling walls of stone lined the road before them, sloping and dissembling into nothing but a stroll behind them. Percy’s hooves occasionally splashed in a shallow puddle or squished among thick, viscous mud. Gafgarn sat upright on the roof of the carriage, his legs hanging over its edge, his weight causing it to lean delicately. The hood of his cloak, a wolf-head, hung over his face as if devouring him, its fur still damp from the recent rain. He almost grinned at the landscape, the air earthy and wet without a hint of dust. It reminded him of home.
A shaggy, chestnut horse strolled alongside the carriage by Gafgarn, Illaeda relaxedly riding, the shield on her back rocking with the horse’s movements. A thin trail of smoke accompanied thick puffs ascending from a large curving pipe, through Wither’s elegant mustache into the grey sky. Dorin sat next to him, arm in a splint and sling, and Sully on Wither’s opposite side with her bow in her lap. The three were listening to Illaeda question Gafgarn once more on his otherworldly handicap.
“So, you’re trying to tell me you can’t use furniture at all? Lean on a counter, sit on a chair or stool or bench, lay on a bed?”
“No. They move, or I move.” Gafgarn’s tone reverberated with boredom.
“Then how can you can lie on top of the carriage?”
“This carriage was constructed to transport people in utmost comfort, true,” Wither interjected, “But a roof is a roof. Its purpose is to keep the effects of nature out, not our burly layabout above it.”
“Then that which classifies as furniture are things built for comfort?”
“It would seem so, dear,” Wither responded.
“But the roof supports him now, shouldn’t it be considered furniture by its use? You still benefit from its comfort. Doesn’t make any sense to me, how would the boots know the difference?”
“No idea,” Gafgarn said, “Don’t care. All that matters is what it does, not if what it does makes sense to you.”
“And this means you’re ready to believe, girl?” Wither asked.
Illaeda chuckled, “No, but if I lift a feather and it’s as heavy as a rock, I know it isn’t just a feather. Evidence points to truth, and we’ll all know it in time. I’ll figure it out. For now, I’m happy to get some irons around AJ’s wrists.”
“Is that really what we’re calling him?” Gafgarn asked.
“You can call him Red Eyes the Comedian for all I care, old boy,” Wither hissed, “He’s a dead man.”
Beyond the the road leading them north, a stony wall atop a flat rise floated into view. As they neared it, small towers--little more than wooden platforms with simple thatched roofs and wooden, barred balconies--lined the perimeter of the wall. A tall, arched entranceway faced the road, its iron reinforced doors of oak open to the sporadic, lonely traffic of carts from farms arriving with loads of hay or foodstuffs. A tall estate of the same rounded stone rose above the walls deep in the center of the city, a flag of red and black chevrons drooping in the windless sky. A hawk hunted a pair of crows above, circling and diving together in a beautiful dance of death.
Before the arched entranceway, the descending road split to the east and west, stretching out with the same low walls along its sides into rocky plains dotted with unkempt thickets. The group rode past the crossroads, looking disinterestedly at a weathered signpost with dirty, cracked boards pointing in each direction. The names of places painted on them, once bold and helpful, now sat faded and illegible. Archers in chainmail and tabbards of the lonely flag’s colors gave the group little heed from the wall above as they neared the entrance. Guards with pikes watched lazily as the travelers passed into the city proper. On the inside of the walls, precarious wooden scaffolds bore tilted stairs, moldy ladders, and rickety walkways along its inner perimeter. The whole thing looked like a swift kick could bring it all tumbling down.
“Shoddy work,” Gafgarn muttered.
“So derelict, the effort to construct it could hardly be called work, old boy,” Wither chimed, “the way the walls sag, I can hardly fathom why they even bothered.”
“That’s Hausto for you,” Illaeda added, “an outlier city, the most southern in the Kingdoms of its size. The Barons change out here often, sometimes revolt, sometimes sickness, sometimes they just get bored, renounce their fealty and hoof it to some dark, shady place.”
“Baron Mardoo’s in charge these days,” Sully announced. “He works..well, worked, closely with Smidgin.”
At a hard look from Gafgarn, Dorin added, “Aye, Smidgin’d steal from the baron’s rivals, and ee’d be left alone in return.”
“Mardoo’s in charge of some serious, low-hanging, rotten fruit,” Illaeda said, taking in her surroundings with a look of disgust.
Wither repacked and lit his curving, large pipe, saying, “Dark political machinations aside, if he’s got an engineer worth a frog’s snot, I do believe this visit could prove lucrative. By the look of our surroundings, however, I’d say the frog found it a bad trade.”
It was almost frightening lurching into Hausto’s streets. Like the encircling walls, buildings sagged and bulged, stone walls billowing outward and sinking inward, so much so that some structures had thick wooden props against their walls. Taller buildings of two or three stories seemed to wiggle into the air like stalks of a wiry plant, tilting and twisting as they rose. Many doorways held ill-fitting doors, too large so they scraped or skidded as they opened or closed, or so little that they swung haphazardly. Even the aforementioned streets seemed to twist and bulge comically. The city looked as if it were underwater, undulating with undercurrents and waves.
Barely fitting between buildings, they followed the main street into the city, quickly finding themselves in a crowded square. The people looked less unusual than their surroundings, many still wearing jackets and cloaks in various colors but all in the most basic of styles. Without his wolf-cloak and extreme size, Gafgarn might have fit in well, but Wither and Illaeda stood out as well as royalty. Guards, many in tarnished half-plate armor, stood near a large building with a peaked roof at the other end of the square.
Unlike its haphazardly constructed brethren, this building stood tall and rigid, built from cut and shaped granite and limestone of sullen grey and black hues. Along its peaked roof and minarets, spears of dark metal twisted into the sky. They progressively increased in height from the edges to the peak of the roof like a frightening spine. Stained glass windows depicting orbs of color in swirling masses of mixed hues and stark black darkness lined the walls. To Gafgarn, the building exuded the type of aura that made one want to stray as far away as possible, and he felt his muscles tighten in its presence. Wither, on the other hand, might say it was the type of building that might give some particularly daft people the willies.
“That, old boy, is the kind of establishment that might give one an intense sensation of discomfort. Something you are ardently familiar with, I’m sure,” then he looked at Sully and Dorin. “You, I suspect, might call that sensation the ‘willies.’”
“What is that place?” Gafgarn asked.
“It’s a church, Gaf,” Dorin responded.
“Tentacle of the Void,” Illada answered matter-of-factly. “As chilling as it may look, every city has a church devoted to it. They believe in other worlds and realities out in some void that surrounds us. It’s the most prominent religion in the Kingdoms, with plenty of off shoots or reinterpretations.”
“Dopplegangers in their own right. All with their slew of cosmic boogeymen,responsible for all manner of miraculous phenomena and divine terror,” Wither commented with an airy sense of sarcasm. Then he mused, “Really, not much different than back east, right, old boy? Spirits in your trees, demons in your blades?”
“The working end of my hammer wouldn’t mind answering that question for you, doc,” Gafgarn said. Wither chuckled in return, snapping Percy’s reigns with glee to bring the carriage into the square.
Townsfolk crowding the square concentrated their attention towards a broad balcony above the entrance to the church, where several guards spoke and gestured at a specifically interesting chair. It was ornate, true, a carved mahogany beast of a seat cushioned by velvet, but it was particularly fascinating because it was hanging over the edge of the balcony by its rear legs, and there was a motionless man seated within it, a wound rope around both tied tightly to the balustrade. Blood stained a cascade of opulent necklaces and his black robe with silver trim; even from this distance, it was easy to see his throat had been slit.
Percy cut through the edge of the crowd to a dingy-looking inn, respectable only for its well-kept stable. Wither and Illaeda paid its keeper for the care of their horses and carriage. The hunter retrieved three pairs of bolas, heavy looking balls joined by a strong rope, from her pack and fixed them to her belt. The group made their way through the crowd towards the precariously suspended corpse.
As they neared, they could hear a man yelling over the din, demanding the crowd stay back and ordering the men above to cut the dead one down. Three figures, similarly robed like the corpse but lacking its silver trim, looked up at the body and consoled one another with red faces and moist eyes. Gafgarn and the others met the circle of guards keeping the crowd at bay as the robed mourners turned to the man belting commands.
It took only one glance to tell he was in charge. His half-plate armor, worn and tarnished like the others, still shone with a herculean, miraculous effort. His surcoat bore not one blemish, its colors vibrant and clear. His face, wrinkled with middle age and fair but for the dark circles around his amber, almost golden eyes, was chiseled from stone, with a broad chin and high, pronounced cheekbones. A gigantic, expertly trimmed, thick mustache descended from his upper lip like a bristly, regal cape. If one could puff a pipe with respect and admiration, Wither was doing so at the sight of that wondrous lip-warmer. Said magnificent whiskers currently faced the mourning trio.
“Please, Captain, you must take him down,” one of the robed women begged, “We can’t bear to see the First Tentacle like that.”
“It’s a disgrace,” the robed man sobbed, “who would do such a thing?”
“Absoutely, yes, we’ll bring him down at once,” the captain consoled. He pointed up at the balcony, “You up there! What’s taking so long? Get the man down immediately!”
“I wouldn’t do that, captain,” Illaeda barked. She attempted to move into the circle, but found herself stopped short by the butt of a halberd pressed neatly, if curtly, against her. The man holding the weapon looked down at her with a stolid face. She drilled a hole into it with her own stare.
The captain approached her, a sense of incredulity in his steady gait, “And why should I care what you would do, miss?” She raised her eyebrow in response and made to look at the eyepatch on the other side of her face. The captain’s eyes followed and then returned to her singular functioning orb, now glittering with assuredness. The captain sighed, “A public murder and a hunter in my city, within the same morning. I thought the rain felt particularly icy today.” He pointed a metal thumb over his shoulder, “you have a quarry who might be responsible for this?”
“Quite the introduction,” Wither remarked, then refitted his pipe between a wide, toothy grin when the captain shot him a stern look.
“The guy I’m after might be involved, captain. I’ll tell you more after I’ve gotten a better look.”
“This is my city, Hunter. I can give you the details after I’ve investigated myself.”
“As much as I’d love to preserve your masculinity, I’m more interested in finding a killer than arguing with you. I’m here on guild business, so, I suggest we get to work.” Illaeda retrieved a metal tag from within her coat and flashed it at the captain. On it were emblazoned the letters “AJ” and the number “1000 G.” Her arrowhead pendant swung from the movement mockingly.
The captain glowered, but acquiesced, “You and your companions come with me, stay in sight of me at all times. Do your business, but keep me informed of your findings while you’re here, and make sure I get to see the bastard that did this, dead or alive, before you leave. And if you’re as good as hunters’re supposed to be, I expect you’ll be leaving soon. I’m Captain Bronson Tedev. Welcome to Hausto.”
Captain Tedev’s eyes scanned the group as they came forward, until they came to rest on Gafgarn. The captain took in the outlander’s massive size, poured over his wolf-cloak, and glittered at the notice of those inlaid, shining boots. “Where’s the rest of your suit?” He asked. Gafgarn grunted, cracking his knuckles with flexing fingers. Captian Tedev continued, unshaken, “Not too useful without the rest, hmm?”
He led them through the church’s broad, angular doors into an antechamber. An alter between two archways greeted them. Twisting, dark tentacles rose from the floor to embrace and rim a pool of the darkest water Gafgarn had ever seen. As Captain Tedev led the group to a stairwell at the side of the entrance, Gafgarn looked in the water and saw no reflection, but instead a pure crystalline blackness that threatened to drag him in. Instead of suckers, the tentacles had rows of bulbous, lidless eyes. As he walked by an archway, he saw the main hall lined with long wooden pews that, even with the sky overcast, lay awash in swimming colors from tall stained glass windows. A pulpit of stone, all tentacles, stood at the head of the hall in front of a massive, grotesque statue. It was a creature of tentacles and mouths, a mass without order or reason, with colorful tapestries displaying ornate symbols hung over outstretched appendages. Gafgarn snorted at the unearthly display, but a sense of unease persisted to cling to him like a bad smell. At least the place wasn’t dusty.
The balcony was wide and deep, large enough for Gafgarn’s troupe and a handful of guards, who currently stood perplexed by the scene before them. Illaeda was already pouring over the body, taking in every detail, while Wither puffed busily as he watched. A thick rope wrapped around the man, chair, and balustrade in a chaotic fashion, crossing, overlapping, and knotting like wild vines. Gafgarn leaned over the edge of the balcony to watch Ilaeda examine the deep, clean gash in the corpse’s throat, the robe beneath it stained, though the rope was rather clean in comparison. The man’s fingers, poking out from between the wound rope like struggling weeds, were decorated with heavy rings of gold and silver and jewels depicting tentacles, eyeballs, and globes. His jeweled and gilded necklaces swung with a playful, brief breeze, the blood on them almost dry. Illaeda looked down, and Gafgarn followed her eye to the ground directly below the man, and he saw nothing of note. Finally, she touched the dark robes and looked at her fingers as she rubbed them together. She nodded her head in satisfaction.
Illaeda stepped back and spoke, almost as if to herself, “He was killed last night, but not here, and most likely in his sleep.”
“Why would you say that?” Captain Tedev asked.
She looked at him sharply, “The ropes aren’t as bloody as his clothes, so he wasn’t in bonds when he was killed. There’s no blood below on the ground, so it stopped dripping by the time he was brought here.”
“Rain,” Captian Tedev commented.
Gafgarn shook his head and looked at Illaeda, “Clothes are dry, right?”
“But for the blood, yes. So are the ropes. It rained early, before dawn, so he was brought out here after that.”
“Still under the cover of darkness, I presume,” Wither added, “Unless your guards are so blind as to miss a man being tied up in a chair on a balcony in the middle of a square.”
Captain Tedev looked at his guards, who scratched their heads and shrugged, and answered sternly, “No, it had to be early, after the rain then, though I’m not sure how it wasn’t seen until sunrise. Any reason as to why?”
“Something personal, maybe” Illaeda continued, “It wasn’t a robbery, he still has all his jewelry. The way the ropes are tied, it’s overkill, like it was done by a child…”
“Or a madman, old boy” Wither added.
“Guys?” Sully called from the edge of the balcony, but the discussion continued unheeded.
“The cut is clean, so no struggle,” Illaeda moved on, “Though I don’t understand the chair. A message?” She and Wither shot quick glances at Gafgarn, who shrugged his massive shoulders in return.
“Sir?” Sully called. “Gafgarn, sir?” He ignored her, his attention set on the chair, a sudden confusing maelstrom of disgust and longing storming within him.
“Oi, Gaffy!” Dorin called over the group, who all turned to face him. Sully stood pointing over the edge of the balcony, and Dorin continued, “I think ee’s out there, sir. Peepin’ right at us.”
“Well don’t point at him, idiots,” Gafgarn commanded as he and the group marched to Sully’s side.
“He’s already lookin’ right at us, it hardly makes a difference, Gaf! Uh, I mean, sir.”
In a huddle they peered into the mass of onlookers, and in the midst of them, dead center, AJ stood wearing his jester hat, bells shining, above a wide, toothy grin. He stared at them, unmoving. He was, in fact, looking directly at Gafgarn, making the kind of eye contact easily confused between intensely intimate or disturbingly maleficent. It made Gafgarn’s blood boil and teeth grit. It also caused him to miss Illaeda and Wither launch themselves over the balcony.
Captain Tedev’s voice rippled through the square like a horn, “Seize the jester! Alive if possible! Everyone move, now!”
The rabble scattered as guards moved in to catch AJ. Illaeda and Wither were already darting between scurrying cityfolk, Illaeda reaching for the bolas on her belt and Wither testing the tension in his wrist-crossbows. They pushed people aside like leaves. AJ winked at Gafgarn as he spun and darted out of the square into an alley. Gafgarn’s rage incensed, he lept over the balcony in one bound, landing at a sprint and bellowing orders.
“Sully, ready your bow and follow me! Dorin, don’t break anything else, stay with the carriage!”
Sully took advantage of the convenient stairs, leaving Doring shrugging his shoulders and flapping his broken arm like a helpless hatchling.
The city launched into mass hysteria, the sound of an alarm bell ringing out over the city. It was one thing to indulge in the morbid curiosity of murder, but it was another to see the murderer running free. Folk barred themselves in the twisted buildings, onlookers shouted from windows, and guards sprinted about in their armor, halberds and swords at the ready.
Illaeda and Wither were arrows through a swarm of bees, quick to reach the alley. They caught the tail-end of AJ turning a corner into another street and gave chase. Gafgarn was on their heels, knocking over any in his way, a stone from a catapult in the swarm. Nothing slowed him, though he swerved to avoid a chair or two in the narrow alley. Around the corner, the three pursuers saw AJ running directly into the path of three guards.
“Fool shouldn’t have shown himself,” Wither huffed, “street’s too narrow for him evade them. I daresay he’s trapped!”
“Don’t underestimate him,” Illaeda cautioned, adjusting the bolas in her hand.
AJ never faltered or slowed. He ran right at the guards, sliding on the wet stones underneath the blade of a halberd. As a sword sliced down to decapitate him, he launched himself over it in a forward flip. The last guard, surprised by AJ’s sudden engagement of flight, found his face rudely introduced to the soles of AJ’s shoes. From the flat of his back he watched AJ flee, then dazedly gawked at his pursuers, chasing their prey’s joyous cackle.
Around a corner into a larger street, Illaeda threw her bola without hesitation. It churned through the air between onlookers and fleeing innocents, directly toward the legs under that bouncing jester hat. Until AJ grabbed a passing man and placed him between the bola and himself. It whipped around the unwitting citizen’s knees, causing him to totter into an awkward fall. AJ shot back at his hunters a self-assured grin just as arresting as the bola. It slammed into its targets with the force of all the rudest of gestures.
“Bastard,” Illaeda hissed through gritted teeth.
“Degenerative scum-sucking flesh-balloon!” Wither shouted as he launched a bolt at AJ.
The missile whistled through the air until it met the blade of a simple dagger. With a sharp ping!, it harmlessly ricocheted into a wall, while AJ tucked the blade back into his jacket as he ran into a tall building.
“Wither, around the other side! Illaeda, down this way, I’ll follow him in!” Gafgarn yelled.
“He’s mine, Wolf!” Illaeda returned, continuing her sprint into the building.
“Not one of your soldiers, old boy!” Wither called as he rounded the structure’s far corner.
Sully caught up to Gafgarn, bow in hand and quiver on her back. “Sir…” she muttered.
“’Bout time,” Gafgarn grunted as he waved for her to follow. They ran down the opposite side of the building as Wither, their eyes scanning its wall. “Look for any doors or windows, and if you see him, shoot him. Try not to kill him.” Sully knocked an arrow as she trotted behind.
Inside, Illaeda found herself in a two-story library, the upper floor a surrounding balcony with iron handrails, twisting iron staircases in the corners leading upward. Books, their spines a kaleidoscope of colors, lined tall shelves, and long tables spanned the length of the single room. The building seemed to lean slightly to the right. Windowless, the chamber was lit by candelabras on the walls, tables, and in the hands of readers and perusers. AJ was running down a central path between the long tables as a crook-backed old man pointed a shaking finger at him. “Hey! Ornery prankster, you have to return that book you stole! Get back here, thief!” AJ laughed, vaulting onto a table and launching himself onto the rail of a staircase. Illaeda chucked her second set of bolas at the jester. He heaved, jumping sidelong and upwards onto the balcony railing and swiveling over it, never losing momentum. The bolas missed by a hair, wrapping harmlessly around the stairway railing once blessed with AJ’s presence.
AJ grinned and waved as he made his way to a rickety door on the back wall. Illaeda gave chase, taking a more traditional route up the staircase. Reaching the second floor in time to see the back door swing shut, she cursed her luck and fingered the last set of bolas on her belt.
Outside, AJ sprinted across a makeshift wooden bridge that creaked and twisted across a dingy street to a sister building. A crossbow bolt flitted by AJ’s head, drawing his attention to a disgruntled Wither on the street below, taking aim for another shot. A single open eye pierced at AJ through roiling puffs of smoke from his pipe, chomped tightly between angrily clenched teeth. AJ practically pranced as he ran, a look of absolute glee on his pale face.
“Villainous arrogant canker-ridden rotworm!” Wither yelled as he let fly with another bolt. AJ smoothly ripped a loose board from the bridge, swinging it up to catch the bolt. Hearing the sound of whirling bolas, he threw the board back where he came, and caught it again as the bolas wrapped around the board and snapped it back to him. Another bolt from Wither whistled into the board as AJ blocked it, and he turned to Illaeda, almost on top of him, unsheathing her sword.
“You look flustered,” he hissed as he dodged her blade, “Relax with a healthy dose of fiber!” He slammed the board into her head, smashing it to splinters and sending her reeling. He looked down at a gash on his belly, blood staining his cut shirt and jacket. He squealed with excitement, “Ooooo, you got me leakin’! Not enough to cause me to spill, though, but nice try.”
Then the bridge rocked violently, the sound of wood snapping and breaking reverberating through the street. Gafgarn stood below, the splintered remains of one of the bridge’s supports on the ground next to him. Hammer in hand, he wound up for a blow to another crooked support. “Illaeda!” he yelled as he swung. She heard and dove off the edge of the bridge, catching herself among its webbed struts. Then Gafgarn’s hammer met wood, and with a thunderous crack the bridge rocked and wobbled. Another bolt flew by AJ’s face as he ran, laughing, the bridge under him teetering towards Gafgarn. “Sully, now!” Gafgarn yelled as he ran. Sully pulled her shaft back and let fly, the arrow flying swiftly and true. AJ leapt from the falling bridge to the doorway in the building, Sully’s arrow just grazing his shoulder. Below, the bridge plummeted into the street in a shattered heap. AJ caught himself on the ledge and climbed up and into the building, leaving only his joyous cackle for his pursuers.
“I’m not letting him get away!” Wither raged.
“We have to get around the building, find the exits,” Illaeda yelled, sheathing her sword. A single trail of blood trickled down the side of her face.
When they turned to make their way around the building, rows of guards blocked their path on either side of the street, with more arriving from corners and alleys. Many others rushed to surround the building. Gafgarn brandished his mallet, staring down the guards with all the severity of a cornered, starving bear.
Captain Tedev walked through the barricade, Dorin in tow between the iron grips of two guards.
“What’s the meaning of this, Captain?” Illaeda barked, shield and sword in hand. “Never wise to bar the Guild from its work.”
“Baron Mardoo has demanded your arrest,” the Captain announced. Gafgarn thought he sensed an edge of distaste in his voice. “Your hunt may resume after you’ve had an audience with him. By his order, his permission is needed, not mine.” This time there was no mistaking it, Captain Tedev practically spat. Gafgarn never understood taking orders from someone that commanded respect rather than earning it. The Kingdoms are indeed a strange place, he thought..
“We take you to see the Baron now,” Captain Tedev announced, extending an arm into the city, waiting for the group to comply. His face was stone, with no hint of doubt or insincerity.
With AJ so close, Gafgarn, Illaeda, and Wither were loathe to quit the chase, but the sharp ring of unsheathing swords quickly quieted their urge to resist. Illaeda complied, sheathing her sword with a frustrated grunt. Gafgarn stood tall, great hammer on his shoulder, a look on his face that begged any to take it from him. Wither, still on the opposite side of the fallen bridge, calmly straightened his suit as he walked over the wooden rubble. Then, with all the abruptness and terror of a pouncing creature, he sprinted at the captain. The force of Wither’s rage was met with a swift plated fist to the face, Captain Tedev’s free arm wrapped around Wither’s, outstretched to plunge a now-visible blade into the captain’s neck. The professer crumpled, and Captain Tedev motioned two guards to fix iron handcuffs to his wrists.
“I won’t let him get away!” Wither raged drunkenly. “So close! So near, that murdering, abducting jackanape, and you overripe, impertinent, putrid pustules are letting him go...No! No! We need to save…”
Captain Tedev knelt and grabbed Wither by his bloody face, and curtly said, “He will not leave this city alive. But until you meet the Baron, his fate is none of your concern.” The captain rose to meet Gafgarn’s heavy gaze, and announced, with all the commanding power of gravity itself, “Baron Mardoo awaits.”
The morning grew sour in Illaeda’s mouth. Something was wrong, she knew, she could feel it in the very ground around her. Dawn’s light only just embraced the sky above, clear in bright hues of orange and red. She overslept. With a stretch she fought aches from sleeping on the forest floor. She used only a cloak as a pillow, leaving her belongings packed on her shaggy mare. The chestnut horse regarded her with sleepy eyes weary from their travels. Illaeda’s quarry had not been easy to track, and had flown further than she anticipated.
She rolled her cloak and packed it, giving her steed a gingerly pat before tending to herself. Laying in her armor was uncomfortable, but she learned to rest wearing it if the need arose. Her prey couldn’t get away because she was too busy getting dressed, especially not this one. She dusted off her teal high-collared, long-sleeved jacket of studded leather intricately laced with mail and adjusted her black leather gloves. She peeled leaves off of her sand-brown leggings, armored at the knees, and tapped on the plate-tipped toes of her boots. Her guild dress was made for combat, but light enough not to slow the wearer or hinder movement. From her neck hung a jagged arrowhead of polished stone on a braided leather necklace, resting on a red shirt just above the part in her jacket. She tied her short red hair behind her head and picked up her heater-shield of steel-reinforced oak where it had lain next to her and strapped it to her back. Her sword, a common, long, straight blade, still rested in its scabbard on her belt. Finally, she adjusted the black leather eyepatch over her left eye, the symbol of the arrowhead etched into it, while an uncovered globe of green on the other side of her little freckled nose peered out into the morning hungrily. Moments from stirring from sleep, she was ready to get to work.
First was to check on her mark. She climbed the boughs of a nearby tree, as she had the night before, to gaze at the fortified knoll in the nearby clearing. From her belt she took and extended a spyglass, black with gold trim. There the knoll stood, stony and buttressed by walls of wooden logs, a camp nestled along its top. A hubbub was afoot, the entire camp stirring, torches still burning in watchtowers, their archers looking inward rather than to the surrounding landscape. Not smart, she thought, but maybe something she could use to her advantage.
What everyone was watching was obvious; a gigantic man with a wolf cloak sauntered up the knoll, through the horde of scoundrels, right up to the throne at the knoll’s peak and laid his maul down, head first. A challenge issued, it looked like. An even taller, pale, shirtless man was talking to the first. Smidgin, no doubt running his mouth, she thought. Every bounty hunter knew the Bandit King, of course, and almost as many carried a tag for him, dead or alive. Illaeda did, but he wasn’t why she’d ridden for weeks, sleeping in the wilds most nights. Her real mark was worth much more. Now, where was he?
Suddenly, movement just at the edge of her spyglass. She caught a pair of legs and feet topple over the side of a watchtower. No one else seemed to notice, the crowd now intently watching the two giants wrestle near the dragon-throne. Was Smidgin trying to push the wolven giant into it? She watched the other towers, and surely enough another guard slumped over. This time, she could just barely make out a crossbow bolt in the support beam the guard had just been leaning against. Ah. Now she understood. The Wolf must have tricked Smidgin, using his fragile ego against him, and a force outside was giving support while the camp was distracted. They must be in the trees, she thought, somewhere by the lower end of the wall. She could feel the tension rise, her blood practically boiling with it. These punks are going to ruin everything.
The two wrestling idiots were surrounded by the entire camp now, bodies piling on top of each other, trying to…were they trying to make the Wolf sit in the throne!? Completely absurd. None of it made sense, causing frustration to furrow her brow. Then she flashed a dimpled grin as she caught sight of what she was looking for.
A jester hat, four bells hanging from tentacle-like protrusions, bounced around the crowd. Its wearer obviously spied a carcass on a rock in the enclosure, and even narrowly avoided a shot from the hidden sniper in the trees. Then it was lost in the crowd, but nothing else changed, no clamor to find the killer, no alarm raised. The last she saw of it, it seemed to bound with the energy of intention. Illaeda realized she had to move now before she lost him again.
She stowed her spy glass and began to climb down when her wary eye caught catastrophe on the knoll. The Wolf and the throne shot out in opposite directions. The giant spun through the air, he and his mallet launching the mob in all directions like a tornado. The throne slammed into Smidgin and the crowd, plummeting with the bandit king through his tent and into the log wall. The collision echoed in the clearing, dwarfing the clamor of pain and destruction. The wolf landed among unfortunate bandits, slammed under his weight. She wondered, what caused them to go airborn, as if slung from catapults?
Hastily she leapt from the tree, landing in the saddle on her shaggy mare. Her steed’s hooves thundered on the forest floor, dashing towards the camp. Before she broke a sweat, they arrived at the destroyed camp, some of the injured and afraid already fleeing into the surrounding forest.
Illaeda found the front gates wide open. Apparently those within considered the Wolf too fascinating to secure the encampment. Amateurs. The shaggy horse trotted them in and up the knoll, winding through debris, the unconscious, and the dead. Illaeda analyzed the scene with a keen eye, missing no detail. Most tents had collapsed, their contents—food, supplies, weapons, bedrolls, furs, elegant clothing, golden and jeweled plunder—lay crushed and spread about moaning bodies. Sacks, boxes, trunks, baskets, all manner of cargo and container lay in disarray, their pilfered contents, shimmering in the morning sun, spilled and scattered. The place was an absolute mess.
She continued up the knoll, coming upon the location of the odd brawl between Smidgin and the Wolf. Some bandits began to rise from the ground with groans and curses, fleeing the camp into the woods, dragging any loot they could carry. Even the injured helped themselves to an item or two. Those moving avoided her like she was a sickness, averting their eyes as if the simple sight of her could strike them down. She worried not about them as she wove through the camp. No king, no kingdom, she thought, just cowardly rats now. Two, a man and a woman, stood at the top of the knoll, the man holding his arm as if broken. Their bandanas were nowhere to be seen. As Illaeda came closer, she could see their awed gazes focused on the Wolf, who was currently regarding the punctured and crushed carcass pinned to the toppling outer wall by a portion of a once ornate throne.
“I forgot to ask about the girl,” he sighed to himself.
“What girl, Wolf?” Illaeda said cooly, as if acquaintances.
Gafgarn shifted to look at her, his hood pulled back to reveal a scarred and disinterested face. He hefted his maul in one hand like it was a tiny carpenter’s hammer rather than an immense instrument of war.
“Where is your friend?” she asked as she dismounted. She looked out at the trees, then once more at the two gawking bandits, still standing where they were wearing flabbergasted expressions. Her stony eye and relaxed smirk, on the other hand, expressed a level of unconcern often reserved by most for ants or motes of dust. She stopped a few paces from Gafgarn, releasing a visible sigh as she observed Smidgin.
“Well,” she said, “finally something he won’t get back up from. That death was a long time coming. Would have preferred the blow was from me, but…can’t really complain if an evil bastard like that’s put down.” She removed an iron token from a pocket within her jacket and flung it at the bloody, mangled corpse. Gafgarn saw it for but a moment, flat and oblong, with ‘Smidgin’ and ‘10 S’ etched into it. “Not really who I was lookin’ for, but I could’ve used the bounty all the same.
“What’s your name, Wolf?” she asked. “Where’s your friend?” After his silence, she continued, undeterred, “You have a real name? Don’t tell me it really is ‘Wolf’…we had enough of dumb names with that carcass over there.”
Gafgarn responded with a cross of his arms and a raised eyebrow.
Illaeda shrugged at him, “Suit yourself, Wolf is a name I guess. You happen to see where a guy wearing a jester hat went?”
Gafgarn recalled the man she mentioned, sitting and watching him as he entered the camp. “No,” he said, shaking his head.
“Right, too busy doing whatever you did to him,” she motioned to the dead king, “care to explain?”
Again, Gafgarn regarded her with all the deference of a wall. She was pretty and smelled of earth and travel, and he liked that, but would prefer to keep his predicament to himself as much as he could. Wither discovered him, but maybe this…whatever she was, wouldn’t.
“Fine, I’ll figure it out myself.” She walked nonchalantly to the body, her eyes investigating every detail with a voracious intent. Gafgarn found himself investigating her details, her dress fancy to his tastes, but as ready for battle as any of his people’s armor. He had never seen hair so fiery red and eye so green. Smaller than his people’s women, she was no less built for combat; as solid as a stone, she was not what he expected to find in the Kingdoms. Everyone in his country could fight in the name of their people, but the Kingdoms rarely fielded women in wars past. Sully and Dorin sat now, still bearing the look of the dumbfounded.
Illaeda poured over the scene before her. Her eye missed nothing, from the way blood splattered on shattered logs and the splintered throne, to the way it so solidly and brutally stuck in and through flesh and bone. She looked at the top of the knoll, then back to Smidgin. She observed the surrounding destruction: tents crushed in the path of the throne’s flight, bodies and objects scattered about. She walked up the path the throne had taken, her eye cut a seam in the ground. Many things were toppled or destroyed, but there were no drag marks. She came to a divot in the earth and knelt over it, feeling it, measuring it in her mind. She looked back to Smidgin, then to the top of the knoll again. She stood and continued up the path, stepping lightly, eye a sharp blade. When she came to the spot where the great seat had rested, she knelt. Signs of a scuffle were everywhere, footprints over footprints, crushed grass, the smell of blood and sweat, but where the throne had stood remained a long rectangle of stunted grass and marks of a brief but violent slide back towards Smidgin’s corpse. A quick glance back, Gafgarn watching her attentively, then a glance in the direction the Wolf had flown. Illaeda rose, wiping the dirt from her hands, wearing a self-satisfied smile.
All eyes watched as she returned to stand before Gafgarn, her walk a saunter that seemed to declare the very ground underneath her her own. “Okay, Wolf, you ready for this?” She continued without giving him a chance to respond, “You came into this camp, your friend watching you from a tree somewhere over in that direction,” she pointed over the low end of the encampment’s wall, “and you goaded Smidgin into some stupid wrestling match. You bet him he couldn’t make you sit in the chair. Somehow, it took not only him, but the entire camp to get you into it while your friend killed anyone he could with a crossbow. An insanely powerful one, for this kind of range and accuracy. I don’t know why he bothered though, because you did…something…that practically leveled this place.” She motioned towards the top of the knoll as she continued, “you and the throne shot out in opposite directions, the throne at an extreme velocity. I’ve heard rumors of explosives, powerful and compact, from across the Altaen Sea, but I see no burn marks, no crater. Besides, you’re not that well traveled.” Gafgarn raised a single brow even higher from its already elevated perch. Illaeda went on, “No contraption, and you’re strong, maybe could’ve flipped the thing, but not while the whole camp was on your back. It was carved from a single solid log, maybe a whole tree; you’re a big guy, but not that big. No drag marks, though, so it wasn’t pushed back, didn’t even touch the ground except for that one spot,” she pointed at the divot in the ground, then added, “that’s where Smidgin must have fallen out in front of it while it spun to pin him lengthwise, dragon-tail first. Otherwise he’d just be pulp…well, worse pulp.” She wrinkled her nose at the body, then gave Gafgarn a commanding look with hand on her hips. “So, Wolf, how’d you do it? Tell me ‘magic’ and I’ll slap you so hard across the face with my shield you’ll have to run back across the camp to pick up your teeth.”
Gafgarn shrugged away the image of the throne spinning in the air in front of a helpless airborne Smidgin and answered flatly, “Magic.”
Illaeda glared at Gafgarn and opened her mouth to reply when a peculiar sight trudged up the knoll and knelt over a quivering body. It looked like a moving bush, the size and shape of a tall, lanky person, carrying an immensely large crossbow with an array of lenses along its stock. The bush nodded its shrubbery head and gesticulated its leafy hands as if in conversation, then abruptly began beating the prostrated bandit with the butt of the crossbow. Illaeda had only seen one thing more ridiculous—a man and a throne jettisoning into the air in opposite directions. The humanoid foliage continued up the knoll, swiveling its head as if looking for another victim. He found one shortly, a man trying to crawl away, and repeated the process. Bush knelt, moved as if in conversation, then beat the poor sucker, quickly and viciously. If she wasn’t staring at a bush, she would conclude these beatings were born of a passionate hatred; after all, why beat them when a swift bolt would do? Why kill them at all when they’re already injured and helpless? A bringer of justice, she had a list of lives taken in the name of peace and coin, but the bush had to be after something personal.
“First it’s magic throne-launching, now it turns out your sniper-friend is a bush,” she said jokingly.
“He’s not my friend. I don’t really know what he is,” Gafgarn muttered.
The shrub sauntered up to the pair, crossbow resting on a shoulder, and faced Smidgin’s murder scene. “Fine work, fine work indeed!” it chimed happily, “you certainly are a singular destructive force, old boy! Bravo, I knew without any uncertainty you would rise triumphant! Now,” it continued as it turned to face Gafgarn, “what did our precious Smidgin say about the girl?” Illaeda barely moved, waiting with her arms still crossed, while Sully and Dorin looked on in an ever-heightened state of amazement.
“Nothing. I forgot to ask,” Gafgarn said. The bush went rigid.
“Excuse me, Shrub, who are you exactly?” Illaeda interrupted.
The bush pulled back a hood and mask, revealing Wither’s mustachioed face, currently wearing a very red, very severe look. This close, Illaeda could see stitching and cloth, that the twiggy-leafishness was fabricated. The man before her was wearing a very clever camouflaged suit.
“Dear, as much as a beauty such as yours is deserving of the best of introductions, I have a pressing matter,” he turned on Gafgarn, “I told you not to forget, old boy. Where is the girl?”
“I have no idea, Wither. Even if I had asked, I don’t know what she looks like. There were plenty of women here.”
“I’m uninterested in this band’s particular co-ed status. She wouldn’t have looked like them, she’s a prisoner, young, likely in distress. You didn’t see her?”
“Not through a stinking heap of bandits, no.”
Wither practically tore out of the bush-costume, revealing his suit of blue and pinstripes, somewhat sweaty but none the worse for wear. His eyes searched hungrily while his head jerked in all directions. “The jester then, did you see him? If somehow a girl in distress evaded your view, the albino with that blasted hat surely could not.”
Gafgarn was surprised by the mention of the albino jester, Wither had never mentioned him before. He answered, his curiosity peaking, “I saw him when I was coming in. I’d never seen an albino before, but he was interested in me. Not like the rest, more like he knew something.”
Illaeda interrupted once more, “AJ is crafty, he must’ve known you had something up your sleeve. Whatever that something was.” Her eyes narrowed at the two men. She didn’t like that she could only conclude something impossible had happened on that knoll.
Wither recoiled with disgust, “You gave him a name!? Scoundrel hardly deserves one!”
“More like a designation, no one knows his real name. And I’m pretty sure he took off with your girl.”
Wither became rigid once more, even his chest ceasing its constant movement. Gafgarn found it odd to see the man stop moving or talking. Whoever this girl was, she had to be extremely important to him. Wither’s pale color returned and shoulders relaxed when he started breathing again.
“My dear, my name is Withersmod Gollsteen III, commonly known as Wither, and it is a great pleasure to be in the presence of such striking beauty,” at this he gave a flourishing bow. When he returned to standing, he wiggled his whiskers and, in the most polite and sincere voice Gafgarn had ever heard, asked, “To what Hunter do I have the pleasure of speaking, dear, and to where did you see our mischievous joker retreat?”
Gafgarn could hardly believe his ears, but Illaeda didn’t move, her arms remaining crossed. A smile graced the men’s presence, seeming to brighten the knoll with its own light.
She bowed he head slightly, politely, “Illaeda. He went North, maybe, vaulted over the toppled wall behind what’s left of Smidgin. Someone much smaller, likely a young girl, was with him. We might be able to catch them, could I track them, but…”
“What?” Gafgarn asked.
“How do you know where he went?” Wither followed.
“Bloody hand prints,” she answered. “Some blood smears, most likely from feet and shoes. On a log by Smidgin, probably climbed right over his carcass. I imagine the girl is shoeless. When Smidgin’s crew trades in bodies, feet aren’t the parts they care about.”
Gafgarn stepped between them, his intimidating size demanding attention, his arm cutting between them like a hammer, “Stop. Now, right now, it’s time to tell me what’s going on.” He stuck a muscular, sausage-sized finger into Wither’s face, “You tell me what you’re after.” Then, he did the same to Illaeda, “You tell me who and what you are and why I should care.” They both looked at him with serious faces, and he responded with a jutting point to his boots, “I get pushed around enough by these, I won’t spend another moment with the two of you until I have some answers.”
Wither responded, his usually rapid speech slowed by the heavy weight of an audibly deep hatred, one that bubbled up into each word like a sickly toxin, “The girl is my sister, old boy. Kidnapped by the jester a mere fortnight ago and brought to this decrepit den of degenerates and denigrates. I will rescue her, nevermind the souls in my way.”
Illaeda explained, “Dr. Gollsteen’s sister is one of many young men and women who’re kidnapped regularly for sale in some of the less-kind kingdoms’ slave trades. Smidgin’s band was more known for stealing and killing, sometimes secretly paid by barons and dukes to thieve from or otherwise sabotage one another.”
Gafgarn was unsurprised to find that the Kingdoms would secretly use criminals in their petty power struggles, but he took note of it and continued listening.
“AJ, as the guild calls him, is a high-value bounty; serial killer, thief, arsonist, extortionist, assassin, torturer, all kinds of dark and disruptive deeds. He never uses the same name, if he uses any at all, and moves between kingdoms often enough that local authorities never find him. He finds a place, makes trouble, then disappears, leaving destruction and despair and taking almost nothing he didn’t arrive with. He’s the reason I’m here today, and you two let him go.”
“She belongs to the guild, old boy,” Wither added, “and should have used the opportunity we gave her to catch him.”
“Yeah, well, why’d you miss, Professor?” she snapped. “You had a great chance to take him out and you missed it. Too used to selling your death machines you haven’t put enough practice into using them.”
Gafgarn’s eyes bolted between the two while Wither regained his red tone and choked on unspoken words. Back home, a quarrel like this was settled with skill, cunning, or strength--a game of baldimong, the challenge of a hunt, or a regular old brawl. As of recently his mere presence would silence and bury the argument like death itself, if not from fear, then from respect. Instead he stood in a broken camp on a knoll in a forsaken country, thrown from his own, stuck in boots as cursed as a backhand to a swarm of scorpions. Infuriating.
Gafgarn turned on Wither, “We find your girl, you help me out of these boots?”
“Yes, old boy, twas the deal! Now she’s…”
Gafgarn interrupted, swiveling to Illaeda, “You hunt the man that has his sister?”
“That’s what I just bloody explained, now didn’t I?”
“Then we find him, and when we find him, we have her. Between a bounty hunter, an inventor, and a cursed emperor, AJ will be put down and the girl safe. You get your bounty, you get your sister, and I get rid of these.” He pointed to each of his companions and the boots respectively. “Now, I have something to take care of before we leave.”
“No, no, no,” Illaeda declared, “I’m not doing anything until you tell me how the two of you pulled this off,” she motioned all around her, “and the Hunters usually work alone.”
“How’s that worked out getting AJ so far?” Gafgarn said, flashing a smug, scarred grin. “And I already told you: magic. I can’t use furniture.” Then he walked away as if nothing he said was abnormal. Illaeda looked as if tentacles had sprung from the back of his head and both were gesticulating obscenely at her.
Wither puffed at a long, thin pipe, contented. Gafgarn swore to himself that the man had always had a curved, ornate pipe, and that it was still sitting on the seat of the carriage in the forest. Did he have a trove hidden in his suit jacket?
The giant walked up the knoll straight at Sully and Dorin. Sully sat holding his broken arm, flinching in anticipation of the beating to come. Dorin stood straight and still as a rock, eyes wider than moons. “You two,” Gafgarn announced, “how about joining an outfit worth the air it breathes?”
“What are you on about, old boy?” Wither called.
Then he grinned at the delirious pair, “I’m thinking, if we’re on the hunt and all, it’s time to rebuild my army.”
Gafgarn awoke to the carriage underneath him rocking to a halt. Above the stars twinkled beyond the thick boughs of trees arching over the dusty road. They must have been on the road for a significant amount of time, because even though the roof of the carriage was hardly a bed fit for an emperor, Gafgarn felt rested. He sat up on the front edge of the vehicle, causing it to tilt precariously forward, and stretched. Wither still sat on the driving bench, pipe glowing in the night, reigns in his hands.
“Good morning, old boy,” he said without looking, his gaze fixed on a spot in the forest, “I’m glad you’re awake. We’re near the place I’ve deduced Smidgen’s camp will be.” Gafgarn looked in the direction of Wither’s gaze, and could see in the shadows of the underbrush an opening into another pathway. It looked like a squeeze for the overburdened transport. Wither lightly snapped the reigns and Percy led them, quietly creaking, into the brush.
Gafgarn was relieved, as the dust from the road still clung in his nostrils, and the soil in the brush seemed content to remain underfoot. “So what do you know about their camp, Doc?”
Wither’s grand mustache bristled, “It’s on a knoll, quite simply fortified , most likely with timber collected from the surrounding forest, typically occupied by approximately a hundred scoundrels.”
“You want to infiltrate a camp with a hundred armed men to kill their leader? You said they were camped on a knoll. Even at night, how do you expect the two of us to get in and out unnoticed?”
“Typically a hundred. I’m certain you recall I’ve been hunting them? Those numbers have noticeably thinned, old boy.”
“Fine. But even if there’s less, they’ll see us coming if they’re smart…”
“Which they aren’t, mind you…”
“…so how are we going to sneak in?”
“Oh, we aren’t, old boy.”
“Good. For a moment I thought you might be crazy and stupid.”
“No, I know we can’t sneak in. Disguises wouldn’t work either, you’re much too big and I wouldn’t wear their desolate trappings as long as breath dwells in my lungs. No, old boy, we—rather, you—are going to walk right in and gain an audience with the fair Smidgin’.”
“You’re a fool.”
Wither chuckled, “fools are just men with more imagination. You have a wonderful gift for violence, but our quarry requires tact and ingenuity. I wish to take advantage of your unique physical hindrance, old boy.”
“Slipping off a chair will hardly help me kill a hundred men.”
“Ah yes, though it certainly aided you in besting a few. A curse it may be, but you can use it to your advantage. I’m more interested in the effort it would take to keep you in that chair, old boy.”
At this Gafgarn ceased fidgeting with the pommel of his mallet and delivered to Wither a stern, quizzical look, one eyebrow sky high and questioning eyes lit with the kind of light only a match of impatience may kindle. “Think,” Wither responded, his unflinching grin still resting beneath the championed mustache, “Smidgin is a proud, powerful man. He loves proving his strength, and that is how he has gained so many followers. Give him a challenge he cannot hope to win, old boy. I will take care of the rest.”
With a snap of the reigns, diligent Percy lead the cab into a slight depression in the underbrush next to the path. After it was parked, Wither moved quickly to the carriage door and opened it. Then, without hesitation, he stuck as much of his body in as he could, slithering in between his many stacked belongings. “Wither, what are you going to do?” Gafgarn asked in a grumble as he watched the thin man’s legs flip in the air. “Ah!” Wither exclaimed, pulling his body out of the carriage along with several bags and boxes that fell to the ground, their hidden contents tinkling. In his hands he held an extremely large crossbow decorated with a row of lenses along its top. Wither seemed to be unaffected by its tremendous size and weight.
“How are you carrying that? How did that even fit in there?”
“Now, old boy, I’m off!” Wither said excitedly as he hoisted a heavy-looking quiver of bolts and what looked like a carpet of leaves over his shoulder and bounced away toward the brush. He yelled back, “Don’t forget to ask about the girl, old boy!”
Gafgarn watched the wiry man bounce into the darkness. Left to himself, he noticed one of the bags that had fallen out of the carriage spilled oats into the bushes and dirt. Discovering it was a feed bag, he picked it up and gingerly strapped it onto Percy. The mare welcomed it calmly and immediately began mashing its contents in content. Gafgarn scratched it behind the ears and saw Wither had left his pipe on the carriage bench, some embers within gleaming their last. He thought momentarily of trying its contents, but decided against it. If Wither’s behavior could indicate much, whatever was in that pipe might not be in Gafgarn’s best interest.
The faintest hint of light began to change the sky from a pitch-black star-pocked void to a dark blue, with hints of red and orange spilling out from the east. A new day arrived, and Gafgarn grinned at the fact that it would be the last sunrise Smidgin would see. Anticipation thrumming in every sinew and muscle, wolf-head-cloak pulled over his shaven head, Gafgarn trudged eagerly down rest of the worn path.
Gafgarn made his way to the edge of the wood, enjoying the smell of the dustless underbrush as he went. The forest reminded him of home, a lonesome comfort. Then the trees and bushes thinned and Gafgarn saw before him the great knoll Wither described. It was tall and sloping, its tip far above the treeline, and ringed with large, flat-topped stones sticking up and outwards like crooked teeth. Between these earthen molars were erected wooden walls of logs and slats, circling the knoll as a grim, pointed barrier. At the highest points towers occupied by ragged-looking, haggard men armed with bows overlooked the surrounding area. The knoll rose and flattened beyond the wall, and it was littered with tents and hovels. This was the great camp of Smidgin. Gafgarn thought the encampment could be taken by fewer than a score of his own, though at least a hundred men had to be inside. More than he could take on his own, but still he continued.
Gafgarn walked towards the tall gate, snorting at the camp as he went. He noted a section of wall that dipped lower than the rest, that it faced the direction Wither had bounced off to. Two towers guarded the gate on either side. A man above him pulled a shafted arrow back and pointed it at him, a woman in the opposite tower doing the same. They both wore familiar red bandanas around their faces.
“Stop there,” the man demanded, “Drop yer things an’ go back the way ye came, an’ we won’t stick ye.” His speech was quick, each word crowding the next. It seemed his tongue threatened to fly out of his mouth, spinning and twirling, whenever he spoke.
“I’m here to see Smidgin,” Gafgarn declared.
“What fer?” the man responded.
“Cause I heard he’s bigger than me. My business is with him.”
Both nasty-looking arrows pointed their jagged points on him like the fangs of a snake. The guard responded once more, “‘ee is. Now ye know. Beat it.”
Gafgarn’s nostrils flared, the air billowing beneath them. He reached back and gingerly hefted his gigantic hammer. “I’m here to take charge, boys. How’d you like to be part of an empire?”
“My empire. I have one, to the east in the wilds. You aren’t so dense you haven’t heard of it?”
The woman on Gafgarn’s right relaxed her bow slightly, looked over to her comrade and asked, “Wait, Dorin…you don’t think he’s the one, right?”
The first answered without flinching, “What would ‘ee be doing ‘ere, Sully? He’d have an empire to run, right?”
“Right…yeah…what would you be doing here if you were he?”
“Recruiting,” Gafgarn said, “I heard about your little outfit, sounds like Smidgin is an amateur, I’m here to see if you’re ready to be part of something real.”
The one named Sully nearly dropped her bow, “You’re out of your mind, you know that?”
“Come on. You’d fight for a cause.”
“I fight fer meself, an’ that’s cause enough,” Dorin snapped, “Now drop yer things an’ turn ‘round. I nae be askin’ ya again, crazy bastard.”
Gafgarn stepped forward, his keen eyes focused on Dorin, who promptly let his shaft fly. At least he’s a man of his word, Gafgarn thought. The arrow bounced off of the mallet’s head with a sharp ping. Sully quickly loosed her own arrow, which shattered with a swift kick from a gleaming boot. Both guards stood dumbfounded as the giant continued, undeterred. Their eyes followed his boots, mouths salivating, minds wondering the price they might fetch.When he reached the gate, he lifted his great bear-paw of a fist and knocked, the contemptible wooden doors trembled, and the sound of people rousing rising from the other side.
A voice erupted from somewhere beyond, raspy and incredulous, “Did someone just knock on my door?”
No one answered the voice. Gafgarn knocked once more.
“Holy crap, is that for real!?” The voice was closer know. “You two, on the wall, who’s the idiot on the other side of the door and why aren’t they dead!?”
“Giant, said ee’s ‘ere to see ye, sir. Wants to take over, ‘ee does.”
“And he’s still frigging breathing!?” The voice was much closer now. Gafgarn thought it sounded like the man was constantly choking. His voice was grating, like rusty blades rubbing together. Another reason to silence it.
“Blocked our arrows in flight, sir, like dey was nothin’,” Dorin answered.
The sound of a large wooden beam being lifted away from its saddle against the doors was followed by their slowly swinging outward. Several unkempt men were pushing them open, blades in their free hands. A well-worn path led up the knoll to a haggard group of men and women with bows drawn. All wore red bandanas tied around their heads or arms, most with frayed edges and dirty stains. Except for one, who sat on a bench with distant interest. He was a young man, pale with red eyes, something Gafgarn had only heard of but never seen. Instead of a bandana, he wore a jester hat on his head, red, black, and silver stripes extending out along patched and resewn tendrils of cloth to shining bells that glinted in the rising sun.
In front of them stood a shirtless man covered in poorly healed scars from all manner of injury. A particularly nasty one arced across his long neck. Any part of his pale skin that was not decorated in this way was by crude tattoos: naked posing women—two with particularly round bosoms on a shin each—skulls in piles, various instruments of war, and several gruesome-looking monsters eating people alive. An eyepatch covered one eye, and the other, pale blue and icy, regarded Gafgarn with a combination of amusement and annoyance. Gafgarn noted that Smidgin was, surprisingly, slightly taller than him, but longer-limbed and lanky.
“Well, you’re a big one, aren’t you?” Smidgin rasped through a crooked grin, “Must not be too smart though, wakin’ me and my boys like this. On our day off no less. So, could you block all of them?” He motioned at the bowmen behind him.
“Maybe not. But I didn’t come here to fight off your troops. I’ll be leading them now, unless you can stop me yourself.”
“Your camp. It’s mine now. You want it back, you’ll have to win it back.”
Smidgin let out an irritating cackle, “Wow. You really are a special brew of dumb, aren’t you? Do you know why these men follow me? Because no one’s ever beaten me one on one. I might as well just let them finish you, that’s what I have them around for. It’ll save me the time.”
Gafgarn stepped forward, “Alright. I’ll challenge you…and your entire gang. You might not even have to lift a finger. I’ve come all this way to take you on, you really going to disappoint me?”
Smidgin grunted. “No. I’m always down for a row, punk. But you can’t beat me and my entire camp in a fight, I don’t care how big or fast you are. The last idiot I went toe-to-toe with got close, gave me this” he pointed at the scar on his neck, tilting his head back so it stood out even more, “and I beat the life out of him while I bled. Just missed the spot, I was too quick for him. You really expect to do any better?”
“Who do you think you are, man?”
Gafgarn walked up the worn road into the center of the camp, where tables, benches, tents, and crates of plunder were scattered about in disarray. All made way for him as he went, scowls and confused gazes following his every giant step. The pale face and red eyes followed him as well, a crooked grin creeping onto his face, bells jingling with the turn of his head. Smidgin followed just behind, forehead creased with waning patience. Then the wolf-cloaked behemoth of the east stopped and pointed his great maul at a large, ornate chair carved out of a solid oak log into a sprawling, winged dragon.
“I am Gafgarn, emperor and unifier of the Eastern Tribes, and I’m here to prove you’re nothing in comparison. I’m not interested in making you bleed, though. Make me sit in that, and you win” he said, “If you can’t, then I win, and your gang belongs to me.”
Smidgin keeled over, bellowing in a mad rasp, and his vagabonds followed suit. The jester hat simply sat and watched. During the laughing, no one noticed a man in a tower suddenly fall out of it and over the wall, a slender crossbow bolt lodged in his brain. “You’re kidding me, right? I’d rather just fight you, that sounds like more fun.”
“Afraid you can’t do it, then?”
Smidgin bristled, “Naw, naw man, of course I can. It’s just, that chair is mine, stole it from a hold up north, pretty awesome catch. I never let anyone else sit in it. It’s like my throne. You know what a throne is, right big man? Shouldn’t you be sitting on your own?”
Gafgarn regarded Smidgin with a look of indifference. Then he walked over to the chair and stood in front of it, placing his maul head first on the ground. He crossed his arms impatiently, and declared, “you get me in that chair, and my weapon’s yours. Take it east, my people will know it. You’ll own more than a hill after that.”
The Bandit King shook his head, “You really think I can’t get you in that chair?” When Gafgarn didn’t move or respond, Smidgin shrugged, “Alright, big man. Ready that arse of yours for one hell of a sit-down.” The crowd around them--now almost fifty strong, Gafgarn thought--began to shuffle and chatter with anticipation. Smidgin placed himself directly in front of Gafgarn, looked down into his eyes and winked. Gafgarn simply uncrossed his arms and huffed, preparing for the first move.
Smidgin smacked into Gafgarn with the force of his entire body, hands on the eastern man’s shoulders. Gafgarn braced his body, bringing his weight low and pushing back. The crowd buzzed and hollered, the clamor of excitement drawing attention away from the limp body of a woman falling off of another tower, bolt through her heart. The two giants dug their feet into the earth as they pushed against one another, their exertions already causing sweat to gleam in the early morning sun. Smidgin adjusted his position and grip, trying to find a way to budge his opponent, but Gafgarn countered every move, keeping his weight low. After several grueling minutes, shining silver boots had only been moved towards the throne a few inches, soil piling behind the heel yet no spot of dirt blemishing the footwear at all.
The crowd continued to roar and cheer, pulling in closer with each passing moment. One man on a tower moved to descend its ladder, but stopped when something briefly caught the sunlight in the corner of his eye. He looked at a neighboring tower, its occupant seemingly leaning against one of its posts limply. He watched as the body tipped forward and slumped on the platform, a bloody bolt still lodged in the post. When he opened his mouth to raise an alarm, a force shot him off of the ladder. He landed hard among jutting stones, the projectile lodged in his throat and the life quickly and quietly draining from him. With a gurgle he was spent, unseen behind the stones, the unknowing and raucous mob but several strides away.
Smidgin and Gafgarn were locked together, an immovable mass with four legs twisted and jumbled. Every few moments, Smidgin would roar and shove, gaining mere inches at a time, but he was edging Gafgarn closer to the throne. A silver-white heel almost touched the great seat now, and Gafgarn furrowed a sweaty brow over hard, focused eyes. Smidgin gritted his teeth, cursed, huffed, and grunted, putting every ounce of his strength into push after push. Gafgarn never made a sound.
“You’re getting pretty close, wolf-man,” Smidgin grunted, adjusting his grip around Gafgarn’s barrel chest. “How long do you think you can really keep this up?”
“Longer than you,” Gafgarn teased.
Smidgin practically growled in response, “Great thing about being me is that I still have a crew, and why have ‘em if you never use ‘em? Delegation, man. That’s what it’s all about.” Then he yelled over the din around him, “Let’s give this moron a throne! Hands on!”
With that, a group of five bandits closest to Smidgin dove into the wrestling match, pushing Gafgarn from his sides and bracing Smidgin’s back. The six men against one, Gafgarn’s wall noticeably slacked, and he found himself struggling to keep his weight forward. He felt his boot hit the throne, and braced against it with the other. Arms and shoulders straining with the effort, Gafgarn stood his ground once more. In the corner of his eye, he caught a body falling from a tower. He hoped no one else saw.
“More!” Smidgin yelled, and several more bandits rushed in to pull and push at Gafgarn from all angles. “Hold him! Rope!” Smidgin ordered, and then released himself from the struggle. He moved around the throne so he stood behind it and Gafgarn, and a woman from the crowd trotted over with rope looped around her shoulder. He quickly took the rope and wound it around Gafgarn’s torso, braced a foot against the back of the throne, and began pulling.
“You should have set down some rules, punk. I’m impressed with your strength, but you ain’t clever.”
With this and more than ten others now pushing and pulling at Gafgarn, he could feel his muscles, burning with his effort, tiring. His body fell further back each instant, enough so that he moved his hands to brace himself, pushing down on the throne’s armrests, his knees beginning to bend into a sitting position. Still, he fought against the tide.
“Let’s finish him, lads! Everyone on this fool!”
The entire mob joyfully entered the fray, piling onto one another and Gafgarn, pulling at the rope with Smidgin, finding every angle at which to push and pull. Gafgarn was almost sitting now, his body floating above the chair awkwardly, nearing the wood with excruciating slowness. The whole of the camp atop Gafgarn, his body began giving in, pain enveloping every muscle and sinew as still he fought. Then he felt it, a strange tingle in his boots, like the ground was subtly vibrating. Below him, between his buttocks and the chair, he could feel a force, an inexplicable lifting away from the earth. It was pleasant, like a cushion rising upwards against him, but the result was extraordinary, halting his descent immediately.
From where Smidgin stood, he could see Gafgarn had yet to sit, though he was so close that only the blade of a sword might fit between the giant and the seat. “Seriously? What, are you pushing yourself up with your own farts?” He grunted under his breath. Then over his exertions, he yelled at his cohort, “How useful are you if you can’t get one man to sit down!? Put your backs into it! Heave!”
The crowd piled and pushed as one, and finally Gafgarn could take no more and felt his arms and legs give out. His boots vibrated even more now, and the force pushed him away from the chair like a moving wall. Even with that, he felt himself falling, and knew that he would be in the seat in a moment. So he took a deep breath, and settled in when he finally touched.
“Hah!” Smidgin grinned with delight, still straining against the roped behind Gafgarn, “You lose, you fat-nosed lout! I knew you were nothing but--”
The throne and Gafgarn suddenly shot out in opposite directions. Gafgarn barreled through the crowd like a stone from a catapult, and he just barely grabbed the haft of his hammer as he flew. He spun through the air, launching bodies in all directions as he went. The great throne shaped from a solid log, easily heavier than several horses, plummeted into Smidgin and his surrounding group. Bones cracked, heads smashed, and bodies toppled as it flew, with Smidgin catching it in the gut, the air in his lungs lost, and flying back with it. He and the seat crashed through tents and crates, finally careening into the perimeter wall, dust and debris everywhere.
Gafgarn picked himself up from a pile of unconscious bandits. Looking around, the top of the knoll was a mess, with bodies and various objects scattered about. As he hefted his hammer and made his way to where the throne once sat, Gafgarn noticed among the groaning injured, lucky unconscious, and silent dead numerous crossbow bolts meant to kill or maim. Wither was busy during the pile up, it seemed. None who stood challenged Gafgarn, instead watching him in disbelief or tending to the wounded. Sully and Dorin, the guards from the front towers, followed him from a safe distance, their awe of the experience worn plainly on their faces.
When he reached the topmost point of the knoll where the log-hewn throne once sat, he found and empty space with a trail of destruction striking out in two separate directions: Gafgarn’s flightpath and that of the dragon-shaped seat. He followed the chair’s trail, and found at its end destroyed tents, scattered henchmen, and Smidgin’s scarred and tatooed remains pinned against the outer wall by a solid piece of wood. One of the dragon’s wings held the Bandit King aloft, the rest of its mass strewn about, splintered and fragmented. Several other bandits met similar fates, odd bits of the seat permeating their corpses. There was no sign of the albino or the jester hat.
A quiet thwuk! alerted Gafgarn to something behind him, and after he reeled around, he saw a bandit with a bolt in her head falling back. He followed the bolt’s trajectory to the canopy of the forest over the lower section of the camp’s wall and saw nothing at first. Then something moved in the lush greenery, what looked like a giant crossbow momentarily raised among the bows of a tree. Wither was saying hello. Gafgarn nodded towards him, then regarded the very dead Smidgin with distaste. Then he remembered something.
“I forgot to ask about the girl,” he grumbled.
Gafgarn always hated dust. Not dirt really, or mud. That kind of dry, annoying dust that wafts up from underfoot when trudging down a lone highway. Like the lone highway we was currently trudging that night. The dust always got in his nose and eyes, as it did now, and he hated it. It smelled awful. He loved mud, it was cooling and comforting, especially in the heat of battle. Soil had a lovely earthy smell and was a great companion to bashing skulls in. Even sand was nice, hugging his feet while he strangled a dervish, or a soldier, or, well, anything, really. Gafgarn thought he could remember strangling a camel once, but he wasn’t sure. The dust was annoying; even in the cool night air he couldn’t stand it. And on either side of him lay a vast, thick forest of low, prickly trees, so walking on the side of the road was out of the question. Therefore, he begrudgingly trudged, like a grumpy bull elephant who wished he could forget.
Gafgarn was large, certainly larger than most. He was a mammoth of a man, typically a head taller than any other he’d ever kept company with. Or killed. He walked down the road silent but for his heavy footsteps and deep breathing. He breathed deeply to keep himself calm. His feet were heavy due to the large, impressive boots he wore. In fact, they stood out among his other belongings. A ragged and tattered wolf-fur cape hung from his shoulders, its gnarled hood covering his enormous head. It looked worn away from years of use, and old bloodstains had soaked permanently into some patches of fur. A long leather-bound haft jutted over his right shoulder from under the cape, seemingly attached to some form of weapon. He wore an even worse-looking brown leather jerkin over a black cotton long-sleeved shirt. The sleeves of the shirt were frayed at the wrist, and the elbows had small holes about them. His black pants fared no better, the right leg with a large torn hole over a scarred and gnarled knee. Rough knuckles rose from contemptible fingerless gloves. He was unremarkable aside from his size and his boots.
They were, by far, the most magnificent and useful boots he’d ever seen. More than most had seen, in fact. On his crude visage, they demanded the eye’s devotion. A silver-white metal protected the toes, heel, ankle, and bottom and top of the foot, with odd black and red designs inscribed into them like tendrils or vines. Only Gafgarn knew they were actually from an ancient language, a cipher of some sort. He didn’t know much about it, only what the effects of the inscriptions on the boots did. Even in the clouds of dust that rose from Gafgarn’s heavy steps the sublime boots appeared spotless and pristine. The insides had been laboriously padded. No toe was ever bruised from smashing, which was a favorite pastime of the giant. Nails bent under the soles, which was great, as sharp objects in his feet seemed to annoy Gafgarn more than dust did. All manner of weapons recoiled from striking the boots, and he had grown to love this fact and became quite adept at blocking attacks with his feet. Usually he just punched people. Or squished them.
Thinking of squishing people made Gafgarn hungry, so he was happy to see the light of a large inn just around a bend in the road. He could hear the ruckus of happy drinking, flirting, and fighting, and his spirits lifted. He stood in front of the inn for a moment, taking in the smell of meat pies, ale, and sweat and was taken back to his encampment with is men, drinking alongside them, pinching the wealthy buttocks of a passing wench, and occasionally brawling, usually over pinching the wealthy buttocks of a fellow man’s wife. Gafgarn never understood marriage. He pushed the happy memory aside, pulled his hood down slightly, and entered the tavern.
Everything stopped when Gafgarn stepped in. Every word cut off, every mouth halted mid-chew, every pull from a tankard frozen, and every eye on the giant. Then those eyes rested on his boots. They widened, and Gafgarn could see some mouths salivate. The large inn was full of dirty-looking men, all with red bandannas on. One skinny man in a blue suit with black pinstripes sat in a corner with piles of books, barely taking notice of the new occupant. His dark blue eyes moved quickly behind small spectacles, and his grand, bristly mustache twitched as he mouthed words in a hectic speed. Several waitresses nervously continued about their business. Gafgarn simply gazed back from under his hood and clomped to the bar, pushing aside a stool to stand in front of the barkeep. “C-can I help you?” the thin man said in a weak voice as he looked up. Gafgarn placed several copper coins on the table and muttered “Ale and food”in the low, grumbly voice one would expect to come from a pit of crocodiles in need of root canals. The barkeep didn’t bother counting the coins, but quickly filled a tankard for the giant, grabbing a meat pie, and bringing them over. Gafgarn ate the sizable pie in three gargantuan bites, and then slowly enjoyed his ale, standing the entire time. The bartender suggested he take a seat, but Gafgarn simply ignored the tiny man.
As the giant enjoyed his ale, gazing into it between gulps, a group of four ragtag men shuffled up behind him with knives and swords drawn. Hearing them unsheathe their weapons, Gafgarn turned around, taking a deep pull from his tankard. As one attempted to speak threateningly—a large, dirty man still resting a healthy head under the behemoth—Gafgarn raised an imposing palm up to stop the man mid-sentence. He took one last, long, deep pull of ale, finishing off the tankard. His head moved far back, making his hood fall as he looked down at the men. Gafgarn’s face was gruff and dark, with a bulbous nose, squared face, and large, expressive brow. He had a beard of stubble, with hair of equal length on his head. It looked as if he had shaved his entire head sometime in the week prior. Scars decorated his features, cutting down his chin, along a cheek, across thick lips and through an eyebrow. Bored dark brown eyes browsed the faces of the awestruck men standing before him. His head rested resolutely on a neck thicker than the typical man’s thigh. Veins popped along his muscles like the roots of a tree from solid stone. He rested the empty tankard on the counter and stood looking at the men.
The large, scraggily one with the empty threat continued, “Yer shoes, mate. Theys shiny an’ look loik they’d fetch a noice proice.”
“And?” Gafgarn responded indifferently in his deep, impartial voice. The man smelled of dust.
The men exchanged confused looks. Then, the smallest of the four stood on his toes and prodded Gafgarn’s chest with the tip of a dagger, “Oi, ye daft or summat? We’d loik tah fetch that proice, see? Hand ‘em over easy-loik an’ we’ll leave ye tah yer drinkin’.”
Gafgarn swiftly struck out, smashing the man’s face with a fist as large as his head. The dagger spun in the air in front of Gafgarn’s chest as the man hit the floor, unconscious with a broken nose. As the dagger stuck in the floor, the larger man reached to punch Gafgarn in the jaw. He was knocked out cold by a quick elbow to the chin. The third man swiped down at Gafgarn’s knee with his sword, but Gafgarn was again far quicker. He brought a boot up to deflect the weapon, simultaneously grabbing the back of the man’s head and thrusting it into his rising knee. The man slumped to the floor, holding his face and making odd chocking noises. Gafgarn looked to the fourth, who backpedaled on buckling knees. The man placed his fingers in his mouth, letting loose a piercing whistle. Everyone except for the suited academic stood up where they sat, readying clubs, maces, swords, and daggers.
“Ye really are daft, lummox,” the fourth man said, smiling. “This’s Smidgin’s posse, aye? Ye’re gonna haveta answer for that one, mate.”
“Is that really his name? Smidgin?” Gafgarn responded, raising a huge eyebrow.
The man laughed, “Aye, he runs this ‘ere highway, an’ he’d loik them boots. Now, we’ll be takin’ them off yer corpse.”
Gafgarn stood by the bar, unflinching as the group of men began walking slowly forward, brandishing their weapons and crooked smiles. In the corner of his eye he saw the well-dressed man stand up. The man grabbed the heavy book he was reading, closed it, and walked nonchalantly around his table to the nearest hoodlum, who, so focused on Gafgarn, hadn’t noticed the skinny man’s movement. He stood behind the hoodlum, feeling the covers of the heavy book for a moment and smiling innocently. Then, abruptly, his eyes and smile widened into something Gafgarn could only think of as astonishingly psychotic as he slammed the heavy book across the backside of the hoodlum’s head. The man fell unconscious to the floor as the well-dressed man then tossed the book with all his strength at the nearest bandit. The book slammed the target’s nose just as he turned towards the well-dressed man. Several other men twisted around in surprise.
There were ten men between Gafgarn and the well-dressed man now, and what happened next did so very quickly and very brutally. Three men lunged at Gafgarn, who lifted a stool with one hand and smashed it against two of the men, launching them. The third man tackled Gafgarn at the waist, pushing him back into the bar. He attempted to catch himself with his arm, but it slid off of the counter strangely, as if the surface had been covered in slippery soap. The giant toppled awkwardly to the floor just as the third man’s axeblade bit into the bar top. From the floor, Gafgarn kicked out at the man’s knee and smiled in satisfaction at the pop as the kneecap knocked out of place and the man squealed in pain. A fourth rushed over, swinging a club at Gafgarn’s face. He blocked it with one boot and used the other to break the man’s ankle. The man screamed as he hit the floor, but was cut short by an elbow to the back of the head. Gafgarn vaulted up onto his feet just as a fist hit him square in the eye. He recoiled, falling into a chair, which inexplicably slid out from under him. As he dropped onto the floor, he reached back to grab the chair by its backrest, swinging at his fifth attacker. The chair showered the area in splinters and pieces and the man fell to the floor unconscious.
At the same time, the well-dressed man raised his arms up, pointing loose fists at his group of bandits. With a squeeze of his fingers he launched bolts out from his sleeves, shooting two men in the head. As they slumped to the ground lifeless, three other men rushed with weapons brandished. Two more finger-twitches and bolts stuck into two more heads. The last man rushed the well-dressed man with a knife, stabbing down at his neck. The well-dressed man was quick. In one fluid movement he stepped forward and under the strike, reaching out and snapping the man’s wrist with one hand while slamming his other palm into the man’s stomach. As he did this, a blade shot out from his sleeve with a soft mechanic noise, cutting into the bandit. The well-dressed man smiled once more as he slowly stepped back, releasing the bandit. He watched the man slouch down in pain, and then stood silently watching as he gathered a black handkerchief from under his jacket and used it to clean his blade.
Gafgarn had stood up at this point, looking around at the bandits. The one with the popped kneecap was still squirming and whining. Gafgarn kneeled over him and asked, “Where is Smidgin?” The man just whimpered and held his knee. “Tell me where he is,” Gafgarn demanded.
“I can’t tell ya,” the injured man responded, “He’ll kill me. You messed up my knee!”
Gafgarn grunted, “These boots mess up a lot of things. Tell me where your boss is, or I’ll show you more they can do.” Gafgarn stood and tapped his toes on the floor. He was never a very patient man.
The man spoke between pained gasps, “No, please, don’t, no more. Further down tha road, there’s a small trail, real easy ta miss. Take that fer about a day, look fer a knoll out in the forest. We got a camp out there. He’s there. Ah, man, this really hurts.”
“Good boy,” Gafgarn smirked, serving a quick punch to knock the man unconscious. He turned to the well-dressed man, who had begun to walk over.
He talked in an eloquent, relaxed, and friendly voice that lubricated the ears like a silky aural molasses, though it flowed like a torrent, “Well, old boy, it seems these miscreants lacked the certain kind of wisdom sorely needed for survival. How they thought to best you, I’m quite uncertain, though the why is very clear.” The suit’s eyes gazed down at the boots. Gafgarn simply snorted, turned about, and ordered another drink.
The suit persisted unruffled, walking over to the bar and sitting on a stool next to the giant. “I do believe I have misplaced my manners, I am Doctor Withersmod Gollsteen III, but you, my good sir, may call me Wither. Or Gollsteen. I haven’t quite decided yet.” At this point, Gafgarn was standing with a tankard up to his lips again, facing Wither, looking bored. Wither continued, his smile present even through his eloquent, rapid speech, “And you, old boy, in who’s shadow do I have the pleasure of being bathed? Hmm?”
Gafgarn finished his pull and looked down at Wither, responding curiously, “I see small arrows in the men you killed, but no weapon.”
Wither chuckled, amused and pleased by the question, “Old boy, what an astute inquiry! I’m sorry to say I must correct you, those are bolts, not arrows. Typically used in crossbows, you see, one of my beloved inventions available only up north. Not utilized this far south very often, so it comes as no surprise your observation would prove inaccurate. You wouldn’t recognize it anyhow, being that my weapons are concealed.” At this, Wither pulled down a sleeve to show something Gafgarn had never seen before. There was a contraption like a small gauntlet of leather with metal bracings around the wrist and rectangular metal chambers on the top- and underside of the arm. Both chambers had a hole facing out towards the hand. The top chamber’s was large enough for the small bolts to fit through, and the bottom chamber’s was long and thin, cut for a blade to slide through. Two rings of metal were worn on the middle and ring finger with a wiry cable running from each into the chambers.
Wither continued, pointing at the chambers and speaking proudly and quickly, “I have two small crossbows housed in the upper chamber, and a spring-loaded blade in the lower, you see. The cables attached to these two rings have been precisely measured so that a mere flick of a finger may set them off. It’s quite simple really. Don’t you agree, old boy?”
Gafgarn had stood perfectly still during the explanation. He raised an eyebrow and took another pull of his tankard, then responded gruffly, “I prefer squishing my enemies.”
“Ah, yes, so I see,” Wither acknowledged, looking around the room behind him. He allowed enough silence for a groan or two to reach his ears, smiled at them, and continued, “I find your demeanor very interesting, old boy. Your impressive boots belie your humble-yet-gargantuan appearance, and you seem to forego the use of a stool. Why, I think I saw you slip clear off of the bar top. Sweaty palms, perhaps? And did that chair move of its own accord?”
Gafgarn could see where this conversation was heading, and it annoyed him. He grunted and looked down at the skinny man with a look that could burn a hole through stone.
“A sensitive subject, then,” the wiry man smiled, pulling at his mustache, “but I remain curious, nonetheless. Perhaps I can risk an educated guess? If one were to believe in magic—I choose cautious skepticism—one could say that your effect, or lack of effect, on furniture is mystical in nature. One could go further and presume that you are cursed. Uncomfortably.” At this Wither chuckled to himself, smiled manically, and continued, “Now, looking at your attire, only your footwear seems to stand out as previously foreign to your decorum. One could then leap to say, as I am, that your strange affliction is tied to your stunning shoes.”
Wither smiled vaingloriously at Gafgarn, brimming in the knowledge that he knew he was right. Gafgarn would have usually smashed someone with an attitude like Wither’s by now, but there was something about the man he liked. Maybe it was the pleasure the man had taken in killing the bandits, or the blue striped suit he wore. Maybe Gafgarn was curious as well; the stranger was an enigma, cruelly smart, seemingly psychotic, obviously narcissistic, but somehow he felt harmless at the same time. Gafgarn had never met anyone who could be all those things at once. He looked at Wither now with more interest than annoyance. This was rare for Gafgarn. Extremely rare.
Wither responded to the change in Gafgarn’s features, “It seems that now you have grown curious like me. No longer annoyed?”
To this Gafgarn responded straight-facedly as he leaned down into Wither’s face, “I am always annoyed.” He then stood straight up again and asked, an eyebrow cocked, raised to the heavens, “Why did you attack these fools?”
Wither brimmed, “Yes, indeed, surely you didn’t need my help, but, you see, I have been seeking this Smidgin’ fellow for quite some time, and disposing of his men has become somewhat of a pleasant pastime for me. The bandit king—some call him that, you see—stole something very important to me, and I want it back. So the inventor becomes the assassin, the hunter, and I grow close to my prey. And you, my nameless colossus, are going to help me.”
Gafgarn beheld a grin on Wither’s face that simply begged to be smacked off the face of the earth. It was the type of grin that gained the ire of angels and demons alike and blinded most mortals. It was as evil as it was gorgeous, and as full of ego as it was charity. Gafgarn leaned in once more, practically hunched over as he brought his darkened face threateningly close to Wither’s, and asked “Was that a command? I may be mistaken, but I swear I just heard you demand something of me.”
Wither barely moved at all, his smile remaining, shining and bright, “Oh, yes, a barbarian emperor typically doesn’t take orders, but instead gives them, isn’t that right old boy?”
Gafgarn stood, bristled, and clenched his fists, giving Wither a stern look of dismay.
“Before you commence the smashing, old boy, hear me out,” Wither suggested innocently, lighting an elegant mahagony pipe so large that it almost seemed comical, bending back on itself like a swan’s neck. “I would wager, correctly if I might add, that you used to lead legions. These men would find that incredulous, preposterous, but I know better, old boy. The seemingly simple wolf-hair cape upon your shoulders is traditionally worn by high-ranking warriors from the tribes in the East, which I know were united under one banner in the last fifteen years. Quite astonishing, really, as they were often more interested in scrapping with one another over paltry forests than banding together to hunt real game. You would agree, old boy, as you are the man who lead the campaign to unite your people. I know because I’ve heard the chatter in the kingdoms near your borders. You know they are quite afraid, don’t you, old boy? Some fear you might want to reclaim the lands that were stolen from your people generations ago. What do you think, Gafgarn the Indomitable? Or was it impregnable? Or obstinate?”
“Pertinacious,” Gafgarn growled.
Wither laughed and slapped his knee in amusement, “Ha! Old boy, I knew a leader of his people could know more words than I like smash. Those royals assume you to be some simpleminded, laughable, insensate brute, but I’ve always known better. I like you, old boy, though I suppose you'd be unfurnished these days. Haha!”
“How can a boy be old?” Gafgarn interrupted.
Wither continued as if Gafgarn had said nothing, “It is so unfortunate to find you wandering aimlessly, as I know you are. A lost emperor, a leader of nothing. How can you be a leader if you can’t even sit on your people’s throne?”
“Get on with it, seer.”
“Please, I’m an academic, an engineer, an inventor! A performer in the pantomime of physics, a dealer in deathly devices, I, old boy, am a doctor! Not some dusty, cobwebbed, sycophantic tree-climber. I, old boy, am a student of the world!” Wither had gotten red-faced, eyes bulging through the smoke of his pipe, and was standing on his toes with upraised fists. He slowly sat back down on his stool, eyes locked on Gafgarn’s, holding his pipe lovingly and puffing all the while. Then he smiled brightly, “Now, here is why I am so certain of your assistance, old boy. I will guarantee you your throne, as well as the ability to recline upon it once more, should you assist me in my endeavor, which, old boy, you of course will.”
“You are out of your league. And mind.”
“The latter, debatable. But let me ask you this, old boy…”
“Why do you keep saying that…” Gafgarn interrupted, annoyed.
“Have you had a scientist take a look at your forced orthopedic tenancy?”
“My what? I’ve never met a scientist before.”
“Then how do you know I can’t help you?”
Gafgarn grunted his version of a chuckle and leaned in again, half-smiling, “Doc,” he said sarcastically, “do you know why I have these?”
Wither looked up at the ceiling innocently and said, “Not the faintest idea, old boy, but I can risk another hypothesis; they certainly didn’t belong to you, and you didn’t come to own them on good terms.”
There was a moment of tense silence. Gafgarn picked over the odd man as he thought about the proposition. Wither was right about everything, but he also seemed unhinged and untrustworthy. He looked to be useful, Gafgarn would give him that. He was quick and deadly and smart, but not so much that Gafgarn couldn’t take him out should he back out on the deal. Most of all, Gafgarn knew he needed help. He was aimless, and worse he yearned to return to his people. They understood strength in a way that even the doctor could not. He predicted the doctor also knew nothing about relieving the curse, but he had nothing to lose anyway.
“Okay, doc. I’ll help.”
Wither jumped up excitedly, yelling “Hazaah, old boy! Together, this should be quite an easy task. We can ride out immediately and take them down under the cover of night!”
“But I can’t take on an army of bandits on my own.”
“Give yourself more credit, old boy! Besides, he doesn’t have an army, just a posse, didn’t you hear the squirming gentleman with the reversed kneecap?”
“You said he was a bandit king…”
“Oh, just a silly moniker these ruffians prefer. You know, sheep in the herd, old boy!”
“Are you sure?” Gafgarn felt annoyed again, which was usual.
“Indubitably, old boy, you haven’t a thing to worry about,” Wither slapped Gafgarn on the shoulder; or rather, he attempted to and ended up jovially smacking his hulking arm instead. Then he continued as he raced around his table collecting his books into several satchels, “We’ll take my carriage out to the knoll, we should reach it quickly enough, and I’ll give you all the details on the way. Come, old boy, our dear Smidgin awaits! We’ll make him but a smudge on the earth. Haha, Smidgin the Smudge, indeed!”
Gafgarn followed Wither out of the back of the tavern. He spotted the bartender huddling in a corner behind the bar, who tremulously thanked Gafgarn for his business. A horse and an old-looking carriage sat in the back tethered to a pole, the horse gingerly drinking from a trough. Wither rushed to jam his satchels into the carriage, which was piled high with large bags and boxes inside and on the roof. After shutting and latching the door, he raised himself onto the front seat and grabbed the reigns as he puffed his heavy pipe.
“Would you untie Percy for me, old boy? Then take a seat here and we’re off!”
Gafgarn untied the horse from the pole, petting it on the face as he did so. “Percy,” he said to the horse, in a gruff but somehow soft half-chuckle. Then he tromped over to the carriage’s driver bench and lifted himself up. The carriage tilted awkwardly to one side and then leaned forward as Gafgarn climbed over the bench to sit on the roof. Wither scooted outward to prevent himself from sliding off. He snapped the reigns and Percy, struggling at first, pulled the carriage through the small driveway back onto the main highway. Wither smiled manically into the night, the light from his pipe beaming on his excited face while puffs of smoke rose into the cool air. Gafgarn laid on his back into a pile of boxes and bags in an attempt to relax. He stared into the night sky, taking in the bright stars, secretly excited to squish someone with such a stupid name.