“It will work, I tell you!” Ratche rose from the table, walked to the open door and stood there looking outside. Sunlight streaming through the door flowed around him, illuminating tiny motes of dust floating in the air. “No one will know if we’re careful. How could they?”
It was the 28th of Ober. Jacer and Ratche were alone in the communal room they shared with the others who worked for the Rattler. Their jobs were to keep the streets of Dargon clear of debris and human waste and make sure the next rain would wash away everything else. They also had to remove the occasional dead body.
“What if we get caught?” Jacer sat close to the fire staring into the flames. “I don’t want to get caught again. Once was enough for me. Did you see the way the Rattler just stood there looking at us when they got us out of the guard house?”
“So we get caught; what they gonna do to us?” Ratche took a sip of his cold coffee. Outside, the setting sun filled the street with shadows. “Last time we was in the guard house they fed us leftover boar and hard-crusted bread!”
“Yeah, they did at that,” Jacer turned to look at the open doorway. “And it was pretty good. I wished I had some right now. It’s better than rat on a stick or the watery stew the Rattler gives us.”
“Oh fark you. At least you get stew,” Ratche moved closer to the fire and stood next to Jacer. “He has me on bread and water. What I wouldn’t give for a bit of mutton. But I seems to be out of coinage at the moment.”
“I told you those Rounds you got from the body of that fancy pants wouldn’t last long,” Jacer said, “not the way you kept throwing them away.”
“I still got that sigil thing,” Ratche said in a low voice. “I bet it’s worth at least a Mark or two if I can find someone to sell it to.”
“You need to be careful with that,” Jacer said. “It may be more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Anyway, I thought Floralee loved me as much as I loved her,” Ratche said. “You know how that goes, well, maybe you don’t.”
“Ratche, you had just met the woman. Then you decided you were going to kill her husband so she would marry you. Think of what would’ve happened if I hadn’t stopped you,” Jacer said. “You should thank me for that.”
“Thank you for getting me thrown in the guard house and put on rations?” Ratche tossed the remnants of his coffee onto the mud floor and then poured more from the pot sitting next to the fire. “If you had left me alone, he would be dead and I would have my Floralee. I should smack you upside the head instead for farking it all up.”
“If I did not stop you, you would have been hanged for murder.” Jacer held his hand above his head as if he were holding a hangman’s noose while tilting his head onto his shoulder and making a choking sound. “Being dead and all, what would you do then?”
“If I was dead I wouldn’t have to listen to you anymore, now would I?” Ratche tried to smack Jacer on the top of his head but Jacer moved out of the way.
“Don’t go messing with me again; you know my mother said I was a sensitive man,” Jacer said. “You’re just trying to be mean, that’s all.”
“A sensitive man are you? Well, I don’t need a sensitive man; I need me a large woman with huge breasts and a round backside! Just like Floralee.”
“I don’t care if she has huge breasts or not,” Jacer said. “A woman to take care of me, that’s what I need.”
“Who?” Ratche asked. “Floralee? I told you to stay away from Floralee. She’s mine.”
“No, not Floralee,” Jacer said. “I wasn’t talking about her; I was talking about the woman I’m going to marry. And you had best better just forget about Floralee.”
“One of these days she’s gonna be mine,” Ratche said.
“What about the house?” Jacer asked.
“If we can make whoever is in charge of moving people out of Pickett’s Let think we actually live there, we will be able to move into one of the new houses they’re building,” Ratche said.
“But what’s the rush?” Jacer asked.
“Don’t you remember?” Ratche knew Jacer’s memory wasn’t very good and it seemed to be getting worse. “You said Stanant overheard the duke talking with the Master Architect about moving everybody out of Pickett’s Let so the Doravin can move in. The duke said they would tell everyone sometime before mid-Deber.”
“So we have until mid-Deber to build a house in Pickett’s Let and wait until they move us into a new house.”
“Now you’re getting it,” Ratche said.
“And once we get a house,” Jacer said, “I will be able to get a wife.”
The early morning wind was cold, hinting at a nasty winter. It blew right through the holes in Ratche’s cloak, chilling his bones. When he was young, the cold did not bother him, but now, he dreaded the coming winter. His mind turned to Jacer, who was older than he was. If Ratche was going to suffer, then Jacer would do more so. Ratche wished he could help his friend, but he knew there was nothing he could do.
Ratche stood in the alley behind Murson Street looking east toward the Street of Travellers at the area called Pickett’s Let. Why its name was Pickett’s Let, no one seemed to know. The best guess was that it was the name of someone famous. Ratche did not care.
It was the 12th of Nober. Every day for the past sennight, Jacer and Ratche had passed by the edges of Pickett’s Let after their work shift was over, searching for a place to build their temporary home. They had to pick a spot far enough into the swamp, yet not too close to where anyone else lived. They had to make it look like they had been living there for some time; if they could do that, they could truthfully claim to be living there.
Neither man knew anything about building. Ratche wonder how hard could it be. After all, whatever they managed to build would not have to last long. It only had to last just long enough for the city guard to get to them. During the nights as they cleaned the streets and alleys of Dargon, they collected items for use in the construction. Planks of wood, boards, discarded sacks, anything they thought they could use. Each morning after their shift, they hid these items in the Let where they could get them later.
Shortly after second bell, Jacer and Ratche were walking through the Let.
“I’m tired of walking through mud,” Jacer said. “Every day we’ve been walking through the mud and I’m tired of pulling leeches off my feet.”
“Just think of it as a free trip to the doctor,” Ratche said. “You don’t have to pay anyone for the bleeding.”
“You’re a wise ass,” Jacer said. “Don’t you ever take anything seriously?”
“When I see something serious I will,” Ratche said.
“It’s cold, I’m muddy and I just want to go back to Rattler’s,” Jacer said. “This is a stupid idea.”
They reached a drier section of ground where several large black ash trees had taken root. The trees and their roots formed what was almost a little island. Three sides were water and the center was overlapping roots covered with sod. A small bridge, also made of roots, was the only direction anyone could approach that would reach the center of the trees.
“Don’t give up now,” Ratche said. “This area right here, I think, is perfect. Look, there is only one way in. The large tree there will give some protection from the rain and all those smaller trees around the area will block the wind.”
“Plenty of wood around here to make a fire,” Jacer said, his voice sounding a little more optimistic. “If we can get it to dry.”
“Now all we have to do is build our new home,” Ratche said. “Do you know how to build a fire?”
“Yes, I know how to build a fire,” Jacer said. “Did you know that a faggot of wood is just enough to burn a witch?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Ratche asked.
“Nothing,” Jacer said. “I just wanted to show I’m not as stupid as you think I am.”
On Nober 16th, Jacer and Ratche were working on their house. It was a cold day, and dark grey clouds hung low in the sky. So far, luck had not been on their side and they were having a hard time getting anything to go together.
“Drag that piece of wagon over here.” Ratche held up a section of wall as he looked around for something to support it. “We can use that to hold up this corner.”
“I still think if we turn the wagon on its side, we could use the floor as a wall.” Jacer pointed to the wagon they had found in an alley near the Inn of the Serpent.
“You can’t use the floor as a wall; what are you thinking?” Ratche asked. “That’s just stupid. Everyone knows you can’t use a floor as a wall.”
“Why not?” Jacer asked.
“You can’t walk on a wall, you walk on floors,” Ratche said. “If you tried to use the floor as a wall, how could you walk on it?”
“If you say so,” Jacer said. “But I still think …”
“Stop thinking and drag that over here,” Ratche said. “I can’t hold this up all day. If you think too much, you might hurt yourself.”
Jacer bent over and tried to drag the piece of wagon but found that it was too heavy for him to move. Instead of moving the piece of wagon, Jacer grabbed his back with both hands and fell to the ground moaning.
“I think I have broken my back,” Jacer said as he lay on the ground writhing in agony.
Ratche’s arms grew tired and he could no longer hold up the section of the wall. He let go of the wall and tried to step away. All progress they had made on building the hut so far tumbled to the ground as the hut deconstructed itself into a pile of broken refuse. A large piece of wood landed on Ratche’s left foot.
“Ungh,” Ratche grunted and began hobbling around on his right foot while holding the left one. “Now look what you made me do.”
As Jacer lay on the ground moaning and Ratche danced around above him, the clouds gave way and a heavy downpour of rain started to fall.
“Why did I ever agree to come out here with you?” Ratche asked through clenched teeth. “You and your stupid ideas.”
“It wasn’t my idea; it was yours,” Jacer groaned, still writhing on the ground.
“Oh shut up, Jacer. No one likes a know it all.”
By Nober 26th Jacer and Ratche had actually made some progress on their hut. It was not complete, but it gave the appearance of someone actually living in it. They still spent the larger portion of each day trying to sturdy up their home. If anyone were to come along and see the hut, it would appear as if it had been there for some time.
“Did you see that?” Jacer stood in the doorway of their crudely constructed hut looking at the stream surrounding their island.
“See what?” Ratche sat on a wood crate trying to build a fire, and having very little luck at it.
“That thing that just swam by the door,” Jacer said. “It had to be ten feet long! It was all teeth, scales and claws.”
“I didn’t see nothing,” Ratche said, “and you didn’t either.”
“You’re lying, I can tell,” Jacer said. “You know I saw something and you just don’t want to admit there are things out there.”
“So what if there are things out there?” Ratche asked. “We only have to put up with them long enough for the Town Guard to get to us and move us into a new house.”
“I don’t like it here one bit,” Jacer said. “The floor is wet; the air is wet. I can’t get a good day’s sleep for nothing. Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to breathe underwater.”
The sod covering the roots that made the floor shifted underfoot when walked on. A blanket could not be directly on the floor would quickly become soaked.
“I’ll give you a Bit if you will just shut up,” Ratche said.
“I don’t think you have a Bit,” Jacer said.
“I’ll owe it to you,” Ratche said. “You can trust me.”
“Straight,” Jacer said. “I can trust you to stab me in the back if I turn around or feed me to one of those monsters out there to save yourself.”
“I didn’t stab you when you hit me in the head with that pipe, did I?” Ratche asked. “And if it were a choice between you and me and a monster, well, your mother always said you were a sensitive man.”
“Damn right I am,” Jacer said.
“Wanna go to Maxim’s place and get a beer?” Ratche asked.
“No!” Jacer shouted. “We are not going back to Maxim’s place no matter what you say. I think Maxim would call the guard as soon as he saw you.”
“Straight. Want to go get a beer at the Serpent instead?” Ratche asked. “I’ll let you pay this time.”
“Straight, but don’t go falling in love again,” Jacer said. “I don’t think I can take it again.”
“I’m never gonna fall in love again, at least until the next time,” Ratche said.
On Nober 30th, during the darkest part of the night, Jacer and Ratche were making their way through an alley just off Commerce Street.
“Have you told the Rattler why we aren’t sleeping with the others during the day?” Jacer asked.
“No, why would I do that?” Ratche got annoyed at Jacer at times, but he loved the older man like a brother. “I mean, if he knew what we are doing, he might tell us not to.”
“Don’t he wonder where we go during the day?” Jacer took a rake out of their cart and used it to move a pile of gong into the gutter. “We eat his food and what not, and then we just disappear.”
“If he don’t ask, he don’t care,” Ratche said. “And if he don’t care, why should I tell him? It’s not like we are actually required to stay there.”
“What if something happens to us?” Jacer asked. “Nobody will know where we are.”
“I’m pretty sure no one would care where we are,” Ratche said, “or what happened to us. As long as we do our jobs and don’t get into any trouble, why should the Rattler care where we sleep?”
The duo continued walking along until they came to an alley behind the Street of Travellers. It was dark, but they were used to it. Ratche had good night sight but Jacer was not so lucky.
“How much longer do you think it will be until they get to us?” Jacer asked. “You know I don’t like living in that shack. I don’t like living in the swamp and I don’t like feeling wet all the time. Today something crawled across my face while I was sleeping. I think it was a snake or something with a lot of legs.”
“Well, why didn’t you catch it? We could have eaten it for dinner,” Ratche said.
“Why didn’t you catch it?” Jacer muttered. “Do this, do that, go over here. That’s all I ever get.”
“What was that?” Ratche asked.
“Nothing,” Jacer said.
“Good. Don’t make me turn you in for stealing that mug you took from the Serpent,” Ratche said.
“I did not steal that mug,” Jacer said. “You did!”
“Mayhaps I did,” Ratche said. “But when they come looking for it they will find it in your stuff.”
“You wouldn’t do that, would you?” Jacer asked.
“No, I’m just poking at you,” Ratche said.
“You’re just mean, that’s what you are,” Jacer said.
“I’m sorry,” Ratche said. “Will you forgive me?”
“I’m tired,” Jacer said. “We work most of the day on the hut, and then we spend all night working.”
“Straight,” Ratche said. “But in the end it will be worth it. Just think of what we can do when we have our own house!”
“But I’m tired now,” Jacer said. “Do you think it would be ok if we took a short nap?”
“I’m not sure,” Ratche said. “Everyone else is on the other side of Dargon. I don’t think anyone will see us. But just to be safe, you sleep first. I’ll stand watch.”
“Straight,” Jacer said. Then he curled up behind their trash cart and was instantly asleep.
Ratche sat on the cart, watching up and down the alley. His eyes started getting heavy, so he stood up to walk around. After a few trips around the cart, he sat back down and was asleep within a mene.
Nober became Deber. Jacer and Ratche took a few days off from the construction of their hut to celebrate the New Year on the 1st of Deber. Ratche drank until he could neither see nor walk. Each time, Jacer would help him back to the hut.
Once the New Year celebrations were over, Jacer and Ratche continued collecting bits and pieces to use to finish building their hut. Each morning before their shift ended, they deposited their finds at the edge of Pickett’s Let near The Street of Travellers. When they were free for the day, they slept some and then spent most of their time trying to finish their new home before returning to the Rattler’s compound for the nights work shift.
Finally, after much work and frustration, they actually had a small ramshackle hut to call their own. Of course, if a storm were to hit or a strong wind were to blow, their hut would probably come crashing down around them.
The most important thing was their hut was complete before the duke made the official announcement.
On Deber 15th, just before the third night bell, most of the people who worked for the Death Rattler gathered in their common room to eat a meal before the night shift began. Ratche sat in the corner on a wooden stool gnawing on a chunk of hard-crusted bread. He had to soak the bread in water because of a sore tooth. Meanwhile Jacer waited in line to fill his wooden bowl with stew from a steaming pot over the fire. Ratche’s mouth watered for just a taste of the stew, maybe a small sample, but he was not going to get one. He could bully Jacer into sharing his, but someone would see and that would just cause more trouble heaped upon Ratche’s head.
Dreidel the cook served the stew, making sure each person got at least one small piece of meat in their bowl. Ratche noticed Dreidel smiling at him and he knew Dreidel was enjoying his punishment just a little too much. Several times Ratche made it seem like Dreidel was guilty of various things when actually Ratche was the culprit.
Varrus entered the room and began pounding on a wooden crate with a cudgel. “Listen up ya bunch of gong eaters!” Varrus stepped upon a wooden crate so everyone could see him. He was second in command under the Rattler. If Varrus said something, it was as if the Rattler himself had spoken. It only took a few breaths for everyone in the room to stop talking and pay attention. Varrus had the tendency to turn the cudgel upon people when they did not listen to him.
“I’m sure you have all seen the new people who have arrived in Dargon. Their called Doravin they are repairing the bridge between Old Town and New Town. So far they have been keeping to themselves, but that is about the change.”
“The Rattler learned in a meeting this morning that the Doravin are going to settle in Pickett’s Let,” Varrus said. “They have begun dismantling the stone ships they arrived on and are going to be using the stone to build a small city in the swamp. It seems apparent they plan to stay.”
Just then, the Rattler stepped into the common room. The Rattler was old; no one knew how old he actually was. His hair was still black, despite his age. It was dirty, knotted and reached halfway down his back. His face was pale, almost lacking in color and covered with lines. His skin looked like melted candle wax. He wore layers of frayed robes tightly wrapped around him that hung loosely from his arms. His gnarled hands had large swollen joints. In his left hand, he held a knotted staff about fourteen hands high. The staff had a crude, rust-spotted spike fitted onto the bottom and a gourd-shaped protrusion at the top.
The Rattler scared Ratche so much that just being in his presence caused him to feel sick to his stomach. Ratche looked away before the Rattler spotted him staring.
“What does this mean to you?” Varrus asked. “I’ll tell you what it means to you because you are too stupid to understand it on your own. It means that all of you, especially Ratche and Jacer, had better stay out of trouble. When the people who live in Pickett’s Let find out they will be losing their homes, they probably won’t take it very kindly and there will be trouble.”
The Rattler shook his staff, producing a hollow rattling sound that echoed through the room. Then he slashed his hand through the air in a few quick gestures; the man was mute and so used hand-speak to communicate. Ratche had no idea what the Rattler was saying.
“For the present, stay away from the old quarry, the new quarry and any area where the Doravin are,” Varrus said. “Stick to your usual routes and if you see any Doravin, stay clear of them.”
The Rattler shook his staff again. He made a few more hand gestures at Varrus.
“That’s it,” Varrus said. “Everyone out, it’s time to go. Everyone except Jacer and Ratche. The Rattler wants you to stay for a few menes.”
Ratche knew his number was up. He did not know what, but he was certain he had done something. He tried to think of anything, any reason why the Rattler would want to see him. But as usual, his mind was blank. So that left only one conclusion he could reach.
“Jacer, what have you done now?”
Once everyone but Jacer and Ratche had left the room, Varrus said, “The Rattler has noticed that you two have been acting very odd lately.”
“What do you mean odd?” Jacer asked. “We ain’t been doing nothing that we’re not supposed to be doing.”
“Shut up, Jacer,” Ratche said. “You’re going to get us in trouble.”
The Rattler shook his staff and the teeth inside the gourd rattled. Varrus watched the Rattler’s hand gestures for a few breaths.
“Rattler says you two have been staying gone most of the day,” Varrus said. “Normally it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do. But with the Doravin and all the other gong going on in town Rattler is afraid you’re going to cause trouble. Of all the people working for the Rattler, you two seem to be in trouble far more than any of the others.”
“It’s not my fault,” Jacer said. “I try to stay out of trouble.”
“We know who the cause of most of the trouble is,” Varrus said.
“We ain’t been doing nothing we ain’t supposed to be doing,” Ratche said.
“Well, what have you been doing?” Varrus asked.
“Well, Ratche thought we could –” Jacer started saying, but Ratche quickly interrupted him.
“We would rather not actually have to tell you what we have been doing,” Ratche said. “See, there’s this whore that Jacer wants to marry, except there ain’t no way it’s ever going to happen.”
The Rattler rattled his staff again and made hand gestures at Varrus.
“A whore? Is that what you’ve been doing?” Varrus asked.
“Well, no, but, yes, I mean –” Ratche said.
“Rattler says he don’t care what you do,” Varrus said. “But don’t let it get in the way of your work. Some of the others said they saw you sleeping when you should have been working.”
Jacer and Ratche nodded their heads in agreement. Ratche thought they might just be able to get away with their plan.
“Ratche, do you remember the body you found in Ober?” Varrus asked. “The really fancy dressed man?”
“Yes.” Ratche’s heart skipped several beats in his chest.
“A man came by here yesterday asking questions,” Varrus said. “He did not say what he wanted but he wanted to know who found the body. He might come looking for you to ask you about it.”
On Deber 28th, at a couple of bells past midday, Jacer and Ratche were asleep in their temporary new home when someone knocked on their door. Ratche was still hung over from the previous night of drinking. Jacer, as usual, did not have as much to drink so he was the one to answer the door.
“What’s going on?” Jacer asked. He stood on the inside of the door, but did not open it. “Who are you? What do you want? We’re not here so go away! Leave us alone.”
The pounding on the door only grew louder until Jacer was afraid it would wake Ratche. He opened the door and looked out. Bright sunshine blinded him. He shielded his eyes with his hand and tried to see who was outside. He could barely make out the forms of two men and a woman.
“I am Leftlyfoor Transfelt,” The older of the two men said. “This is my wife Lortasly. And this is our son, Randele.”
Jacer just grunted. His mind was still asleep.
“We didn’t realize you were out here and almost passed you by,” Leftlyfoor Transfelt said. “How long have you been living here?”
“Ah, well, we’ve been here for a while now,” Jacer said. “Just me and my partner, Ratche.”
“We didn’t think anyone lived this far back in the Let,” Leftlyfoor Transfelt said. “Have you heard the duke has ordered all of us to move out of Pickett’s Let and into new houses he is building in town? Now, most of us don’t want to move, as this is our home and has been ever since before we were born.”
Jacer stood in the door with his mouth hanging open. He wasn’t sure what Leftlyfoor was taking about, but he thought he was here to throw them out the hut before he and Ratche got their house. Their ruse was over.
“So, we’re having a meeting tonight at the Longshoreman’s Guild house to talk about what we can do to fight this forced move,” Leftlyfoor Transfelt said. “We’ve spoken with just about everyone, and we’re hoping you’ll be in the meeting.”
“I will tell Ratche,” Jacer said. “He’s not going to like this.”
“I agree,” Randele Transfelt said. “None of us will stand by and let the duke order us about. He may be the duke, but this is our land.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Jacer said. “I meant Ratche –”
“I understand,” Randele Transfelt said, interrupting Jacer. “You just can’t find the words to tell how enraged you are by this act of war the duke has committed. Yes, I said it, it’s an act of war and we will not stand by and let the duke steal our homes and land from us.”
“Ratche is not going to like this at all,” Jacer said. He watched the three people return the way they came and then closed the door.
Later that day, Jacer and Ratche were in their hut trying to decide what they could do.
“What do you mean they don’t want to leave?” Ratche asked. “How could they want to stay here in the swamp?”
“Don’t ask me,” Jacer said. “We came here just to leave.”
“What did they say?” Ratche asked. “They had to tell you something, some reason they want to stay in this miserable swamp.”
“If I remember straight,” Jacer said, “they said this was their land and they were not going to leave without a fight. The younger one said they were going to war if that’s what it took.”
“Ol’s balls!” Ratche cursed. “It’s always something trying to throw gong into my plans. I don’t want to stay in the swamp; I want to get out of the swamp.”
“Should we go to the meeting?” Jacer asked. “What do you think they would do if we didn’t go?”
“I think we have to go to the meeting,” Ratche said. “Maybe since they don’t want to go, we can work our way so we can go sooner. But we have to make everyone here think we are with them.”
“But we’re not with them,” Jacer said. “We’re just here for the house.”
“Of course we’re not with them,” Ratche said. “But we have to pretend we’re with them to make them think we want to stay in the swamp. That way we can jump the line and get out first.”
“You’re making my head hurt,” Jacer said. “Are we going to the meeting or not?”
“Yes, we’re going to the meeting,” Ratche said. “Don’t you ever listen to anything I say?”
An early winter snow was falling as Jacer and Ratche made their way through the swamp searching for the Longshoreman’s Guild house. They had no idea where it was located, just as they had no idea where anything else was located in the swamp either. During their wanderings, they came upon several empty houses and a few still occupied.
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” Jacer asked. “We’re going to die in this swamp. They will find our frozen bodies in the spring when it thaws.”
“We’re not going to die,” Ratche said. “The swamp’s not that big.”
“But it’s cold and I’m wet,” Jacer said. “I just want to go back to town.”
“We’re not going to give up now, not when we’re so close,” Ratche said. “If we can just hold out a little while longer, we will make it.”
“I hope you’re right,” Jacer said. “I’m tired and I just want a good night’s sleep someplace where it’s dry.”
After ten or fifteen menes wandering around lost, the intrepid pair came across a small island in the swamp. As they stood on the other side of the stream, they saw four Doravin standing on the island talking in their strange language. The Doravin wore heavy interlocking plates of stone and had large metal disks hanging from their belts.
“Look, it’s the Daringee,” Jacer said.
“Get back,” Ratche said. “Don’t let them see you.”
Jacer ducked behind a tree where he could see the Doravin, but he hoped they could not see him. Ratche also hid behind a tree.
“I wonder what they’re doing out here?” Ratche asked.
“Maybe they’re picking out the place where the want to build their house,” Jacer said. “Just like we did.”
“I don’t think so,” Ratche said. “They can’t be doing nothing good. They have to be a spying or something like that.”
“Could be looking for the Guild house,” Jacer said.
“I bet you’re right,” Ratche said. “They’re going to attack and kill everyone at the meeting. Taking them by surprise and then they’re going to rape all the men and kill all the women.”
“I think you got that backwards,” Jacer said.
“Got what backward?” Ratche asked.
“About what the Daringee are going to do,” Jacer said. “About the raping part.”
“No, I’m pretty sure I’m right,” Ratche said. “And they’re called the Doravin.”
The Longshoreman’s Guild house was almost full. To Ratche, it seemed as if all of the remaining occupants of Pickett’s Let had turned out for the meeting. Jacer and Ratche were just inside the door where they could slip out if they needed to. They could hear everyone who spoke, but they could not see very well. For the past bell, ever since sunset, people had been taking turns speaking about what Pickett’s Let meant to them. The Let was more than just a home. The Let was their life. The Let provided for them; it took care of them. They would not leave, not without a fight.
“I say, if they come to take our homes, we fight them!” Randele Transfelt said. “We will not let the Duke take our homes and our lands and give them to the Doravin!”
Roars of support and approval echoed through the guild house.
“Gather your arms; take up your spears, swords, and bows. We will not go. We will fight!”
“We can use the Let. It will protect us. We will wait for them in ambush. We know our homes; they do not. We will bleed them until the Let flows red with Doravin blood!”
Roar after roar, yells of support, and shouts of anger echoed for a full mene before Randele could regain control.
“Those of you that will stand with me, gather your arms. Gather your sons and daughters. We will make our stand and Dargon shall know we of the Let fear no one!”
“We will fill the Let with the blood of the Doravin,” someone shouted.
“Yes,” Randele said. “We will turn the Let red with the blood of those who oppose us, be it Doravin or be they Dargonian!”
“Blood! Blood! Blood!” Everyone started chanting.
“Kill them,” someone shouted. “Hang them,” someone else shouted.
“Down with the duke! Kill the Doravin!” Many of the Letters started chanting. “Down with the duke! Kill the Doravin!”
Jacer and Ratche managed to slip away amidst the chaos that followed.
On Janis the 8th, Jacer and Ratche were just coming home from their work shift with the Rattler. A fresh layer of snow covered the ground, and most of the waterways in the Let were frozen. Winter had come early this year and it was going to be a bad one.
“Ratche, looks like something is stuck to the door,” Jacer said. “What is it?”
“It’s a note,” Ratche said. Neither Jacer nor Ratche could read, but they knew it could not be good news.
“Well, that’s it,” Ratche said. “There goes our chance of ever getting a house.”
“What do you think it says?” Jacer asked.
“It’s probably from Randele and the rest of the hot-headed Letters telling us we have to die here with them.”
“I don’t want to die in the swamp,” Jacer said. “I want to die an old man, in bed with my sweet fat wife. Or if not with my wife, then at least a whore.”
“You are an old man,” Ratche said.
“Straight, but I’m not ready to die yet,” Jacer said. “I got a few years left.”
“We better head back to the Rattler before anyone sees us,” Ratche said. “At least we will be safe there.”
“Might as well bring the note,” Jacer sad. “Maybe Varrus or the Rattler will read it for us.”
“We can’t,” Ratche said. “If they find out what we’ve been doing we will never live it down. Just think how much gong Dreidel will give me if he finds out.”
“I guess you’re right, as always,” Jacer said.
“Straight,” Ratche said. “At least you know I’m always right.”
The cold, snowy winter passed and spring slowly arrived. On the 8th of Vibril, Jacer and Ratche decided to go for a drink. As usual, the Serpent was crowded when they stepped inside. They wove through the crowd on their way to the bar, smiling at a few familiar faces. Jacer ordered a couple of ales and paid for them with two Pennies. The barman poured the ales and set them on the counter. Jacer gave one of the mugs to Ratche and then they made their way toward a raucous group telling stories. Instead of joining the group, they sat at a table in the rear of the room.
“Make that ale last,” Jacer said. “I don’t got a lot of Bits. Why is it you never have any money? You’re always getting me to pay for everything.”
“I just don’t seem to be able to keep any money,” Ratche said. “I don’t know where it goes, but it goes just the same.”
“Maybe Dreidel has been stealing your money”, Jacer said.
“What?” Ratche turned to face Jacer. “You don’t really think he has been do you?”
“I don’t want to cause no trouble …” Jacer said.
From across the room a big man shouted, “Enough of these tired old saws. We have a new tale for you. One that happened to us this very night!”
“Did you get rolled by some shadow boys? Again?” Ratche shouted.
“Ratche, watch out,” Jacer said. “That guy could pound you into the ground if you’re not careful.”
“I could handle him,” Ratche said. “Just because they’re big, don’t mean they know how to fight.”
“Did you hear that?” Jacer asked. “They said something about buying everybody a drink.”
“I could use another one,” Ratche said.
“I can’t hear too good over here,” Jacer said. “Can we move closer?”
“And lose our table? I don’t think so,” Ratche said.
“Oho!” someone shouted. “Hektar, did the duke stop by for tea?”
“Did he say the duke was coming by for tea? I don’t think the duke would come here,” Jacer said.
For a moment, everyone in the bar grew silent. Then the big man continued his tale.
“What’s he saying?” Jacer asked. “I can’t hear nothing. Tell me what he’s saying.”
“Says he and his men were hire by someone to sneak into the Doravin camp to do a bit of spying,” Ratche said.
“What were they looking for?” Jacer asked.
“Shut up and I’ll tell you,” Ratche said.
“It’s not my fault I fell into a frozen puddle in the Let and lost all the hearing in my left ear,” Jacer said.
“Sounds like they were looking for a rock,” Ratche said. “A rock that glows with pretty colors. And you should have known that log was rotten and would not hold you up.”
“I’d like a rock like that,” Jacer said. “If my mother was still alive, I’d give it to her. How was I supposed to know the log was rotted?”
“I’m sure you would,” Ratche said. “I’d just sell it and be set for the rest of my life. And anyone with a lick of sense can see when a log is rotted.”
Someone shouted, “Ol’s balls! You expect us to believe that, Hektar? You’re going to need to show some proof, or you’re going to be spending your Round after all.”
A smaller man stepped up beside the big man telling the story. He reached into a pocket and held up something for the crowd to see. Neither Jacer nor Ratche could see the object.
“I thought you said it was glowing,” someone said.
“It was,” the big man said, “’till we stole it.”
“I don’t think –”
The crowd started to murmur as if something was happening. Ratche could not see, so he climbed upon his chair and put one foot on their table for balance. Now that his head was above the others, he saw the stone the man was holding in the air glowing with a glimmer of light. Everyone grew quiet as the glimmer started pulsing, almost like the pulse of a beating heart.
“Do you smell that?” Ratche asked.
“Smell what?” Jacer sniffed at the air, trying to see what Ratche was talking about. “I don’t smell nothing but you.”
“Har Har. I smell a gong load of trouble and it just walked in,” Ratche said. He pointed to the doorway where four Doravin wearing interlocking plates of ornately carved stone were standing. One of the Doravin had a dark blue colored stone plate in the center of his chest. All four Doravin moved across the room toward the man holding the glowing stone.
“That belongs to us,” said one of the Doravin. The smaller man stepped forward to hand the Doravin the stone, but the larger man pulled him back by his collar.
“Prove it, stonehead,” said the big man.
“It’s going to turn nasty in here,” Jacer said.
“I agree,” Ratche said. “I can’t afford to get rousted by the guard again.”
Pushing became shoving, and that led to a wild swing by the big man. His hand hit one of the stone plates on the Doravin and made a crunching sound. The big man howled in agony, holding his crumpled right hand.
“Let’s head toward the door,” Jacer said.
“Straight,” Ratche said.
“Return what you stole,” The Doravin hissed through his mask.
“Get them!” someone in the crowd shouted.
The bar erupted into sudden movement. Shouts, angry voices and the clang of metal upon stone rang through the room.
On their way toward the door, both Jacer and Ratche picked up mugs and took big swigs of ale, beer and even wine. Ratche poured the contents of several mugs into one and took it with him. After dodging and weaving their way across the room, they made it to the door and stepped out into the cold night air.
From somewhere in the city the sound of a whistle and running feet echoed through the streets.
“The guard are on their way. We better hide,” Ratche said. “Let’s move across the street and watch what happens.”
“Yeah, we’re just innocent bystanders who came out to see what all the noise is about,” Jacer said.
“Be quite and watch,” Ratche said. “And don’t look suspicious.”
“I’m not the one that looks suspicious,” Jacer said. “You are.”
Six city guards arrived and rushed into the Serpent. Several menes later, two guards stepped out of the Serpent and looked up and down the street. “It’s clear,” one called to someone still standing inside. After a mene, the rest of the guards escorted the four Doravin outside. They surrounded the disarmed Doravin and then led them down the street toward the guardhouse.
“I tell you, this is not going to end well,” Jacer said.
After leaving the Serpent, Jacer and Ratche went to work. Both men were heavily bundled in furs and blankets to fight off the cold. Just before dawn, they were making their way down an alley pushing their four-wheeled cart nearly full of junk.
“Like I was saying earlier,” Jacer said as he picked up a broken horseshoe and tossed it into the cart, “I don’t think the duke knows what them Daringee have been doing.”
“What have the Doravin been doing?” Ratche asked.
“I’ve heard tell …” Jacer was saying when just then, from around a corner up the alley, there came a rumbling of stone. It sounded like a wall falling down.
“What was that?” Ratche asked.
They left their cart, rushed around the corner and then stopped dead in their tracks. Less than ten feet down the alley, a large circular opening had appeared in the rear wall of the guardhouse. The stones from the wall had fallen into the alley and Four Doravin stepped through the hole into the dust-filled alley. The Doravin looked around for a breath and then ran down the alley toward Jacer and Ratche.
Neither Jacer nor Ratche could move, but they could, and did, pee on themselves as the Doravin ran toward them. One Doravin hesitated as he reached Ratche, as if he were going to stop. Ratche was certain the Doravin was going to kill him. One of the other Doravin, the one with the blue stone plate, spoke a word and all four of the Doravin ran past the two men and toward the street. Both Jacer and Ratche squealed like women. Ratche passed out and fell to the ground.
When Ratche woke, Jacer was eating a chunk of hard bread and gnawing on a pig knuckle. They were both sitting in the same cell.
“What are you doing?” Ratche asked. “Did you save any for me?”
“Yes, there’s some for you,” Jacer said.
Ratche snatched up a chunk of bread and started eating. He also found a pig knuckle for him.
“What happened?” Ratche asked, between bites of bread.
“Seems the Daringee from the Serpent escaped,” Jacer said. “I told the sergeant everything I saw. He wants to talk to you too.”
“Why are we in here?” Ratche asked. “We didn’t do nothing wrong.”
“Does it matter?” Jacer asked. “No matter what we do, we always get the short end of the shaft.”
“At least there’s food,” Ratche said. “I told you they feed us good in here.”
“I think that Doravin was going to kill me,” Ratche said. “I saw it in his eyes. I think the one with the blue stone thing was their leader.”
Several menes later, a town guard opened the cell door and they were taken to see the Duty Sargent. Ratche held onto the bread and took it with him.
“Jacer and Ratche,” Sargent Cepero of the Dargon Town Guard said. “Why do your names sound so familiar?”
“We don’t know,” Jacer said. “Maybe you’re getting us confused with two other people?”
“No, I’m sure I have heard your names recently,” the sergeant said. “Give me time, I’ll remember when. I think someone might have been asking about you.”
The sergeant rose from behind his desk and filled a cup with coffee that was boiling over the fire. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes,” Ratche said. Ratche thought something was wrong here. Why was the sergeant being so nice to them?
“You?” Sergeant Cepero pointed to Jacer.
“No. Coffee keeps me up so I can’t get to sleep in the mornings,” Jacer said.
Sergeant Cepero poured Ratche a cup of coffee and then handed it to him.
“Now tell me,” Sargent Cepero said. “Just what you were doing behind the guard house so early in the morning?”
“Jacer, didn’t you tell them we worked for the Rattler?” Ratche asked.
“I tried to, but I seem to have forgotten,” Jacer said.
“Like I was trying to say, we work for the Rattler,” Ratche said. “We were making our way through the alley picking up stuff when we heard this big noise. We rushed around the corner and there was this big hole and the Doravins came through it and they were wearing these heavy plates of stone and then they was going to kill us and but the one with the blue stone plate said no, and then I woke up here. I think I pee’d on myself.”
“I think I did too,” Jacer said.
“I see,” Sargent Cepero said. “So you just happened to be there. Can you remember anything else?”
“No, that’s about it,” Ratche said.
“Straight,” the sergeant said. “You’re free to go. Get out of here before I change my mind.”
“Do you have any more pig’s knuckles?” Jacer asked.
On Firil the 10th, one day before the spring equinox, Ratche returned to where he and Jacer had built their hut. As he expected, the roof had fallen in and the walls were all but gone. Very little remained to show for all their efforts.
As he sat there, commiserating with himself about his troubled life, he heard someone whistling. He looked up and saw a rather fat man walking along the path in the swamp. The fat man spotted Ratche and waved.
“Ho, fellow Letter,” the fat man said. “How be you on this fine spring day? Could you wish for a finer day?”
“Not so good,” Ratche said. “Seems everything I do just turns to gong.”
“Oh, is that so?” The fat man asked. “Why do you think the gods have cursed you?”
“I don’t know,” Ratche said. “I just wish for once I could get a break, have something go my way.”
“Did you know the couple who used to live here?” The fat man asked. “They were a bit odd, yes they were. I only met the older man. They up and moved after they got their notice from the duke that it was their turn to move into Marser’s Mansions. Yes sir, just up and left.”
“What?” Ratche asked.
“I’m telling you the truth of it,” the fat man said. “They got their note from the duke and they were gone. They left so fast, they even left the note still tacked to the door.”
“Do you know what the note said?” Ratche asked.
“Sure do,” the fat man said. “I’ve seen enough of them. It said something like: By order of the Duke Clifton Dargon, you are hereby commanded to report to the housing project being built by Dargon’s Master Architect Gilvelle Marser for relocation. Present this document as proof.”
“You mean …” Ratche stopped mid-sentence and ran toward the collapsed shack to start searching for the note.