Rien and Kera led their horses into the stalls at the back of The Tipsy Dragon.
“Where do I put her?” Kera asked, looking around uncertainly.
“Towards the back,” Rien said. “This town isn’t safe for man or beast.”
“Then Sina should be just fine,” Kera declared, laughing. “She’s neither.”
After settling their horses for the night, Rien and Kera went into the tavern. “I forgot to ask,” Rien said. “How do you find Sharks’ Cove?”
“I don’t like it. The people are so unfriendly…everyone in Dargon was nice…even to me.”
Rien smirked. “As a rule, the larger the city, the more impersonal it is. There are quite a few that are better at it than Dargon.”
He paused at the bar, surveying the room. Brice was the only one of the staff in the room that Kera recognized. He was behind the counter, serving drinks and chatting with customers.
“Come on,” Rien pulled on Kera’s arm. They went down to the bar and sat down at the far end, away from the rest of the patrons. A moment later Brice came over.
“It’s about time!” he exclaimed, gripping forearms with Rien. “Did everything go well?”
“Quinn’s dead,” Rien said. “So’s Arvel. Quinn killed him in a joust before I got there.”
“Better inform his family,” Brice sighed. “I thought he was a little young to be sent out there.”
“I sent a message to his father and to Lord Tomich from Port Sevlyn,” Rien said. “I took Kera there to show her the store.”
Brice nodded. “Glad to see you training someone. We need new blood.”
Kera threw a puzzled look at him, but said nothing.
“When is your rotation out of here?” Rien asked.
“Next month. Deber first.”
“As soon as your friend,” Brice gestured at Kera with a grin, “tries her plate on.”
“Who was supposed to replace him?” Rien asked.
“Arvel, but he thought he might go to Phedra since he came here early.”
Rien dropped his head into his hands. “Send a message to…”
“Hey, barkeep!” someone yelled from the other side of the room. “How long do I have to wait here?”
“Go on,” Rien said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“You took me on as `new blood’?” Kera asked when Brice left.
“That’s what you’ll become if you decide to stay,” warned Rien, putting his arm around her shoulders. “It’s not that bad a job if you know what you’re doing.”
“Pays better than Liriss.”
“How would you know what he pays?”
“Well, I suppose…” Kera smiled, stretching the words on purpose.
“You really want to try this?” Rien asked.
“Why not? It’s just a job, right?”
“Good. I’m glad you think that way,” Rien said with a smile. “Let’s go. I’ll sign you up and make your hanging around legitimate.”
They both got up and went to the back room. Rien rifled through the desk and a cabinet and finally turned to Kera.
“I used to know where everything was,” he complained.
She smiled ironically. “Could be they don’t trust you…”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Rien asked. “I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. This really is dangerous work. People die, sometimes horribly.”
“Understand where I was before,” Kera pointed out. “I could die there just as easily — a disgrunted traveller turning his sword on me or another thief eliminating competition…or even the town guard having an `accident’. At least here I would be taking these risks for a good cause…”
“Are you sure?” Rien asked again, looking intently at her.
“Look, you can’t even begin to imagine what went through my mind when I was told you were killed. I had plenty of time to wonder about this type of a lifestyle since then. I’m willing to take the risk.”
“All right,” Rien said, “but you will have to wait until someone tells me where everything’s been moved to.”
Brice stuck his head through the door. “You two want to eat?”
“Yes,” Rien answered. “We’ll be right there,” then turning to Kera, added, “Let’s drop our gear off downstairs first.”
The rest of the evening passed quietly. Rien spent a lot of time talking with people he had not seen in months — comparing notes, discussing events and making plans. From listening in, Kera understood that he was of some authority here and perhaps that authority reached well beyond this place.
Before going to bed she tried on the plate armor Enneth made for her. To her surprise, not only did it fit perfectly, but it was also comfortable.
“My father was a tailor,” Enneth said, chuckling at her confusion. “He always said no one had to come to him for a fitting twice. His secret was not to use his arm to make measurements, but something exact and solid.”
Kera retired before midnight. Rien was still busy talking and the group seemed very familiar with each other and Kera felt as if she was intruding. She tossed and turned for a long time, unable to fall asleep. The conversation she had with Rien shortly after their arrival still fresh on her mind. In truth, she was not half as confident about her choice as she made Rien believe she was, but it was her only excuse for staying. Not that she believed he’d make her leave.
“So do you feel homesick yet?” Rien asked Kera the next morning when he was showing her around the city.
“Sort of,” she admitted. “I always thought Dargon was a dirty town, but looking at this…”
Rien surveyed the dock in both directions. Trash lay about as common as the wooden walk of the docks, which were in a bad state of disrepair, with an occasional sleeping drunk mixed in here and there — a sight he saw many times. “If you think this is bad, wait until you see Magnus…”
“We’re going to Magnus?” Kera asked, her eyes sparkling.
“Not now, but I’m sure you’ll get there sooner or later. We travel to all the `exotic’ places.”
Kera smiled. “It’s quite a change, being able to travel all of a sudden. I never left Dargon before, you know…just a quick trip to the woods or out to sea once in a while… That first night we spent in the forest, I was scared stiff! Now it’s starting to get interesting. I just hope I don’t get over it.”
“You won’t,” Rien assured her. “Every place on Makdiar is different.”
“And have you been everywhere yet?”
Rien almost let a smile slip out, but successfully hid it behind a smug expression. “No,” he said. “The world is much bigger than you think,” and with those words, tapped Kera on her nose.
“So where have you been?”
“Well…I’ve been to Dargon,” he grinned ear to ear.
“Help!” a female shriek pierced the usual low rumble of the docks.
Rien turned in time to see a young woman jerk free from a burly sailor and start running towards the buildings at the other side of the dock. The sailor ran after her, followed by another man. Their path would take all of them past Rien and Kera.
“Get her out of here,” Rien ordered Kera, making a snap decision, and stepped forward just after the girl ran by. The sailor, hot on her heels, collided with him. Both fell to the ground and the second man chasing the girl tripped over the pair and fell down as well.
Rien regained his feet at the same time as the sailor. The girl being chased was gone and Rien got just a glimpse of Kera turning down another pier. The sailor, barely recovered from the collision, was not paying attention to Rien, scanning the docks up and down the boardwalk for a sign of the girl who had escaped him.
“Watch where you’re going!” Rien shouted and punched him in the gut, to keep him occupied. The sailor turned a light shade of pink and sank to his knees.
A small crowd was now gathering and Rien turned to the other man getting up. “You!” he pointed, but the man took off through the crowd, after his target. Rien decided to let him go. By the time he could get through all the sight-seers, Kera would have plenty of time to make her escape.
A new group of sailors was coming up from the pier and Rien pulled up the man that he hit by the shirt front.
“Let go of him!” one of the sailors ordered, rolling up a loose sleeve on his arm.
“What’s going on here?” another voice sounded from behind Rien and the crowd parted to let a pair of city guards through. Rien still held the gasping sailor.
“If he can’t walk on land, keep him in the water!” Rien told the man’s assembled companions contemptuously and gave the sailor a shove in their general direction.
One of the guardsmen folded his arms and stared at Rien. “You from around here, kid?”
Rien gritted his teeth. Kid indeed! “Yeah! What’s it to you, old timer?” Two could play the game.
“Get lost,” the other guard told him and pushed through to the grouped sailors. “You boys been docked here long?”
Rien smiled to himself. The guards did not normally pick on the locals, just the visitors. It was one of the many things that gave Sharks’ Cove its reputation (and some say it’s name).
“Well, boys?” the guard asked again as the sailors shuffled before him. Antagonizing the local guard was not a good prospect at any port, but particularly in Sharks’ Cove.
The man who tripped over Rien pushed his way back through the crowd and surveyed the scene. He was empty handed and angry.
“You, men, get back to work!” he barked and they obeyed. “What do you want?” he asked the guards.
“I want to know how long your boys are going to be starting fights on my streets!” one of the guards snapped at him.
“We’ll be gone by morning,” the man said and walked past the guard.
“Now you just wait there!” the guardsman ordered and followed him.
The man turned around, visibly agitated. “This is a private pier. Get off it or I’ll have the men shoot you where you stand!”
Rien smiled to himself and slid out through the crowd. It would be too long a confrontation to observe and he chose to disappear before anyone recalled his part in the initial incident. When he returned to The Tipsy Dragon, he found Kera, Adrea and the girl from the pier talking in the back room. As he entered, they all stopped and looked at him.
“Everything go well?” he asked Kera.
“No one saw us,” she said, assured.
Rien took a seat at the table. “Don’t let me interrupt.”
“You’re not,” Adrea said. “We just sat down.”
“Good,” Rien said.
“First of all,” Adrea started, looking at the girl across the table, “my name is Adrea. This is Rien,” she pointed in one direction, “and Kera,” she pointed in the other.
“I am called Deneen,” the young woman answered her. She looked slightly older than Kera, blond hair, brown eyes. Her tunic was torn on the shoulder from where the sailor had grabbed her and a purple bruise highlighted her left cheekbone. “I wish I could repay you for what you did…”
“Can you tell us what happened?” Adrea asked. She could not help but be concerned over what she saw.
Deneen’s face paled a bit. “Nothing. I just ran into a little trouble.”
“Why were they chasing you?” Adrea insisted.
“Sailors,” she said too quickly. “I guess they’ve been out at sea for too long.”
“Is that why your clothing is torn?”
The girl looked down at her tunic. “Yeah…I guess.”
“And the bruise?” Adrea asked, indicating her swollen cheek.
“I was hit.”
“You couldn’t have gotten it today. It’s already turned purple.”
“I was hit at home,” Deneen corrected herself.
“Are you from around here?” Rien asked.
The girl nodded after a moment. “A village up north.”
“We would prefer you tell us the truth,” Rien stated. “There are no villages to the north or is it in the marsh?”
“We didn’t save you so we could hurt you,” Adrea interjected. “We want to help. Please, tell us what happened.”
Deneen wiped a tear from her cheek. “I was with them for a while. I…” Her voice cracked. “I can’t…”
“We want to help,” Adrea repeated, laying a gentle hand on her arm. “What happened? Were you kidnapped?”
Deneen nodded, but still did not look at Adrea.
“Were they holding you for ransom?”
The girl shrugged. “My family isn’t rich…and there were many others.”
Adrea shot a questioning look at Rien. `Slavers?’ She did not need to say it aloud. Her expression said it all. She’d dealt with them before.
Rien’s features darkened and he got up. They took care of a runner the year before. “They said it’s a private pier…” was all he said.
“Get Deneen something to eat,” Adrea asked Kera as Rien hurried downstairs.
“I’m not hungry…”
“Then bring some refreshments. No alcohol.” When Kera left, Adrea turned back to the girl. “Where are you from?”
“Do you know where you were going?”
“How long were you on that ship?”
“A week, I guess. I don’t know.”
Adrea thought for a moment. “How many others were there?”
“About fifty, I think.”
“Do you know the size of the crew?” Rien asked from the stairs. He returned to the table holding a ledger and sat down.
“No,” Deneen answered.
“They told the town guard that they would leave by morning,” Rien told Adrea. “I’ll try to make sure that they don’t. According to this, that whole block was sold a year ago to Gerald Roderick, Baron Morgan’s brother…and the previous owner was Gaius Caligula himself.”
Adrea sighed. “So much for it being simple coincidence.”
“Was anyone removed from the ship?” Rien asked, looking over at Deneen.
“No. We just got here this morning.”
“Were there any plans to?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you get away then,” Adrea asked.
“Not everyone was chained,” Deneen answered. “I guess they will be by now.”
Kera returned from the bar room carrying a tray with drinks and placing it on the table, sat down.
“Thank you,” Adrea smiled to her.
“Did any of the names I mentioned sound familiar?” Rien asked.
“Just Baron Morgan, but I guess everyone in Quinnat knows him,” the girl said.
“What about `Abyssment’ or `Quirin’?”
Rien got up and paced a bit. “Kera, I want you to get some rest. I’ll have a job for you this evening.”
“I want to go to the Abyssment tonight,” Adrea said.
“You have an eight month old daughter to worry about,” Rien answered. “I will go with Brice. You can watch the store.”
“Rien! She’s old enough for me to get back to work! You don’t expect me to spend the rest of my life here, do you?”
“When I need you to risk your life, I will ask you,” Rien answered bluntly. “Until then I want you to follow my lead.” He closed the book, looking at Adrea. The statement came across very harsh. “I know you’ve been here a while and I know you want to get back to work, but if something happens to you out there, I’ll be the one responsible. Just a few more months, please?”
“If you see anyone, go in the water,” Rien instructed Kera.
“In that?” she peered into the murky Laraka. “I might be more willing to commit murder.”
“Watch yourself,” Rien said one last time and dove into the cold water.
Kera watched him swim noiselessly down stream to the pier with the slaver ship, then turned to watch the shore. She wondered how crazy a man had to be to jump into an ice filled river in the middle of winter. Some people just have this thing for pain. She scanned the street, trying to forget what Rien was doing. The thought alone sent shivers up her spine. Just like the docks in Dargon at night, there was no sign of life here.
Rien let the current carry him down to the ship a half block away. There were some lights up on the deck, but no evidence of people, only two guards at the tip of the pier, intensely watching the area of the docks.
He caught himself on the hull of the ship and carefully maneuvered underneath the pier. The oars of the ship were out of the water, folded against the hull, like some giant wooden bird. Releasing his grip on the supports, Rien swam back to the ship and around to the front, fighting the current on the way back. Keeping close to the ship made it a little easier. The oars on the opposite side were folded up as well, but one of the two steering oars at the aft of the ship was not retracted and hung over the rushing water.
Rien positioned himself under it and hoping it was secured up on deck, did his best to jump up to grab it. It took him two tries, but he finally managed to force himself out of the water far enough to grab hold of the oar. The cold wind almost made him let go and drop back into the water, but clenching his teeth, he pulled himself up and moved, hand over hand, to the rear of the ship. He looked at the deck of the vessel and not seeing anyone, swung over the railing.
After a few moments of waiting, Rien drew his dagger — the only weapon he had on him — and made his way to the mizzen mast. All of the mizzen sails were down and the ties were secured to a set of marked hooks on the mast. He found the one that held the main rope support and put the dagger through it, twisting it around once. With any luck this would weaken the rope enough to snap under the full weight of the sail.
A noise on deck made Rien turn around quickly. A sailor obviously far gone with drink, made his way up the gang plank and spotting Rien, headed fo him.
“Gooth rum,” the sailor said, his speech slurred and a wave of alcohol made its way past Rien.
“Appears so,” Rien took a step back in disgust.
“Wan’ zome?” the sailor held up an empty bottle.
Rien shook his head.
“Suit yourswelf,” the sailor coughed and started walking away.
“Hey, wait,” Rien stopped him. He couldn’t afford witnesses.
The sailor turned back with a dejected look on his face.
“Let me see that,” Rien pointed to the bottle.
The sailor put it behind his back. “No. Is mine.”
“Great,” Rien muttered under his breath. “Please?”
The sailor took a step back and Rien instantly realized something was wrong.
“I don’t know you,” the man declared and Rien smiled innocently.
“RUNAWAY!” the sailor bellowed at the top of his lungs and Rien heard hurried movement on the pier. He charged at the sailor, using his body weight to knock the man against the starboard railing and, breaking through, they both fell into the rushing water of the Laraka.
Kera stretched out on the empty pier, looking up into the dark winter sky. The bright constellation of Perantu, the falcon, hung almost directly above her, the talons reaching towards the ocean. The pier was dry and small ledges on the sides prevented wind from blowing across it. She was not concerned about being surprised by anybody. Her senses improved vastly during the time she had lycanthropy and she felt she could rely on them as much as most animals relied on theirs.
When Rien told her to get some rest so she would be ready to do some work at night, she did not even think he meant for her to spend her time guarding an empty pier. Even Liriss was better at finding interesting things for her to do. At least it would be worth it to see Rien all wet in this weather.
Sounds of splintering wood and a splash in the water made Kera look over to the ship. She saw a few shapes appear on deck, rushing about, looking into the water, but not much more. It was almost obvious that Rien had been seen, but got away. Kera glanced back to the roadway at the foot of the pier and, not seeing anyone, made herself comfortable with her head propped up on her arms, to watch the commotion on the neighboring dock. The people there gathered in a group, one in the middle, standing on something that made him two feet taller. He swung his arms out to the river, then pointed to shore. People started splintering away from the group. Kera sighed and continued watching. Whatever Rien had done must have gotten them very upset.
The man in the middle of the group jumped down and disappeared on the far side of the ship, as did the men remaining with him.
Some splashing noises diverted Kera’s attention again and a moment later two hands grabbed the the edge of the pier not far from her. Rien pulled himself up.
“What did you do?” Kera asked.
“I was surprised,” Rien said.
“The man was drunk. I didn’t think he would be a problem. Come, we best leave before the guards decide to search here.”
“Dry yourself off, first,” Kera instructed. “You won’t get any sympathy from me if you catch a cold.”
Rien grabbed her arm and yanked her after himself. “I won’t ask for any.”
A few blocks away from the pier they stopped in an alley and Rien accepted the towel from Kera. “They won’t be able to set their sails. When that man showed up I was hoping he was too drunk to recognize me for a stranger, but he wasn’t as far gone as I had hoped,” Rien said, drying his hair. He then took the bag of dry clothes Kera held out to him and started changing. “Hopefully the crew will realize he was drunk and no slaves are missing and leave it at that. He thought I was a slave…”
Kera sighed. “What if he figures out you’re not a slave? He won’t stay drunk forever. He’ll tell them you were an intruder committing sabotage.”
“He won’t realize it. He’s dead.”
“You killed him?”
“We fell in the water. When I surfaced, he wasn’t there. I suspect he was too drunk to swim.”
“So what now?”
“You go back. I need to know what’s happening. I am going to the Abyssment. Brice should be there by now.”
Kera nodded, unsure of her task and Rien dumped the wet clothes in a pile of trash. He then turned to her and took her by her shoulders. “Be careful. I don’t want to be pulling you out of the river, understand?”
“I’ve trailed people before. I know how it’s done.”
“Be careful,” Rien said again, embracing her. He disappeared down the street.
Kera looked up and down the alley after he left, then took the long way around to get back to the docks. Her greatest concern was dodging the crew of the ship that was searching the streets and hopefully to stay out of the way of the town guard, which as yet did not know her and with any luck, would have no reason to make the acquaintance.
Rien paused at the entrance to the Abyssment. The bar was busy with customers; much busier than The Tipsy Dragon on the best of nights. He made his way past a group of people arguing in the doorway and located the table where Brice sat.
“Roderick’s at the bar,” Rien said, sitting down.
“I know. He’s been here a while,” Brice said.
“The man next to him,” Rien went on, “is the one from the ship. He was the one chasing Deneen.”
“He just got here a few minutes before you came in. Roderick appears to have been waiting for him. He turned away a wench when that man came in.”
“I damaged his ship,” Rien said. “He’ll be sorry he left it. It will have to stay in port through tomorrow.”
“We may need more than a day.”
“Can I get ya some’ing?” a bar girl came up to the table.
“Milk?” Rien grinned. She gave him a blank look and Rien said; “Akvavit.” Still puzzled, the woman left to get his drink.
“Look,” Brice nudged Rien, “they’re going up.”
Rien looked towards the bar. Roderick and his companion were now at the foot of the stairs, giving some instructions to one of the workers. After a few short exchanges they went upstairs.
“I’ll check it out,” Rien said, but Brice stopped him.
“Let me do it. I get paid to do this. You’re paid to cause trouble.”
Rien smiled and sat back down. “I’ll make sure the bar maid doesn’t take anything.”
“Thanks. That drink cost me a fortune.” Brice slid out and disappeared up the stairs after the two men.
Rien accepted his drink from the bar girl and settled back to watch the room. The beverage was too strong for his liking and although he could not complain about his alcohol tolerance, he preferred drinks that did not distort their flavor with the amount of alcohol they contained.
The Abyssment, owned by Gaius Caligula, the resident crime boss of the city, was the largest tavern in Sharks’ Cove and was very popular with the local youth and shady population. If something was happening somewhere in Sharks’ Cove or one of the neighboring areas, it was a good bet that the information, if not the people responsible for the act, would be available in the Abyssment that same night. Most of the events were directly supervised by Caligula himself.
Lord Gerald Roderick, the brother of Baron Morgan Roderick, was rumored to have many dealings with Gaius Caligula, but because of the political sensitivity of the issue, it was hardly ever discussed in public and often “over-looked” by authorities.
All these threads linked the ship at the northern docks to the underworld of Sharks’ Cove, so gathering information at the Abyssment was a sure bet and as it usually does, it seemed to have been the right guess.
“You look pretty bored,” a female voice said near Rien and he snapped out of his trance-like train of thought. A tall, dark haired woman stood almost directly in front of him. “Mind some company?”
Rien gestured for her to sit down.
“You alone?” she asked.
“Not any more,” Rien smiled. “You?”
“I was. The idiot who brought me here dumped me for some tramp.”
“Better find out about those types early in the relationship,” Rien said, not unsympathetically.
The woman nodded, sipping her drink. “You come here often?”
Having observed Roderick and his companion enter a room, Brice climbed out the window at the end of the hall and made his way from window ledge to balcony to window ledge, until he found the balcony of the room where the private meeting was taking place. Making himself comfortable under the window, conveniently cracked, to let air (and voices) circulate, he proceeded to listen in on the conversation.
“…flat fee!” Brice caught the conclusion of Roderick’s angry statement.
“We had an agreement,” another, more controlled voice replied.
“You will pay me what they are worth, not what you pay for the substandard merchandise you deal in,” Roderick spoke again.
“My lord,” the other man insisted, “you are selling me harlots. Experienced, but used merchandise.”
“Pleasure slaves, Isom, are better if they are experienced.”
Brice shifted a little to be more comfortable, still listening to the two hagglers inside.
“When have you heard of a willing slave?!” Roderick lost his cool. “It costs me a lot of money to kidnap people off the streets. I can’t afford a loss.”
“You old fart, who do you think you’re dealing with?”
A loud slam made Brice sit upright. It came from inside, but he looked down into the alley just to be sure it was quiet there. No one was to be seen.
“You do that again and I’ll personally make sure your head is cut off and tossed into the bay!” Roderick said again.
“Thirty marks for the six,” the other man said. “Not a bronze more.”
“You’re going to go out there and sell them for over fifty and you expect me to take thirty? Forty marks!”
“Thirty-eight…No. Don’t go. Thirty-three.”
“Bring them to the warehouse tonight.”
Brice heard footsteps, followed by the door slamming, then a deep sigh and someone pacing the room. The meeting was over.
“So you just travel around,” the woman said to Rien. Her name, he learned from their lengthy conversation, was Jenye. “Sounds exiting.”
“Actually it’s boring as hell,” he answered. “And the pay is bad. You’d think mercenaries get paid well, but that’s an old wives tale.”
Jenye laughed. “You know, you don’t look much like a mercenary.”
“Do any of us look like our chosen paths in life?” Rien chuckled. “My last doctor was rolling over sixty, acting under thirty and had a beard that would look better on a goat and now you’re telling me you’re a physician too.”
Jenye burst out laughing. “You know, that sounds just like somebody I know in Magnus.”
Rien cracked a smile. “So what do I look like?”
Jenye placed her chin in her hand and studied Rien intensely. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Brice at the bar looking at him as well. Brice pointed to the exit and Rien responded with a signal, not removing his attention from his companion, who did not appear to notice the exchange. Brice left the room.
“You look…” Jenye began slowly, carefully studying Rien, “…like an artisan…an artist, maybe…or an entertainer…”
“I suppose that’s better than the last evaluation I received. The town guard mistook me for a bounty hunter…of course the body I carried in with me could have led them down the garden path.” Rien glanced around the bar. There were plenty of people present, although it was well into the night. “I’d best be going,” he stood up. “It will be a long day tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Jenye asked. “You haven’t even touched your drink.”
Rien glanced down at the Akvavit. “It’s far too strong for me. I prefer to keep on my toes, not my back.”
“It all depends on what you’re doing,” Jenye said seductively and Rien’s eyebrows shot up.
“It does indeed, doesn’t it?”
“Why don’t you look me up sometime soon?” Jenye offered Rien her hand. “I visit here at times.”
“I just might,” Rien said and left after a quick good night.
Jenye watched him go, then finished her drink. One of the Abyssment’s bouncers appeared at her side.
“Get up,” he pulled her to her feet. “Let’s go.” His strong arm shoved her forward.
“Hey! I can walk!”
“What’s going on?”
“Lord Roderick wants to see you.”
“You know her?” Brice asked when Rien came out of the Abyssment.
“No. She came up and asked for company not long after you left. Made me look less conspicuous sitting there. Why?”
“I saw her talking to the man Roderick and Isom were talking to,” Brice answered.
“The other man. The one you said was with the ship. That’s what Roderick called him.”
Rien frowned. “She could have been there for reasons she neglected to mention…perhaps I should take her up on her offer.”
“I was under the impression she wanted to see me again. Doesn’t matter now. What did you find out?”
“Isom is a slave trader. Roderick sold him half a dozen slaves for thirty-three marks.”
“Thirty-three? Sounds like he got taken. Were the slaves up there?”
“No. Roderick is supposed to deliver them tonight. I don’t know where they are held, but they are to be sold at some warehouse. I guess somewhere along the docks.”
“That doesn’t give us much time,” Rien said. “I don’t want them on that ship and I don’t want the ship leaving town.”
“They could be in any of a countless number of places,” Brice said.
“Or,” Rien turned to face him, “if they need to be near by and secure..?”
“Roderick’s townhouse,” Brice picked up, “or Quirin.”
Rien turned to look at the silver tipped spire, visible over the roofs of the buildings, pointing up to the sky, somewhere in the middle of the Laraka delta. “Morgan is involved?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Baron was involved, but he is out of town and Gerald always has access to the keep.”
“Why don’t I take the keep and you check on the townhouse?” Rien offered.
“You must love that river.”
Rien grinned. “Remind me to tell you what happened before I got here.”
Quirin Keep, built by Duke Vezakis over three hundred years ago was the original fortification for entrance to the Laraka. Since that time it was sieged, modified, abandoned and rebuilt a number of times. Currently it was nothing more than the residence of the local baron, Morgan Roderick, who liked nothing more than a large moat between him and his subjects. Most of the responsibility for Laraka’s defense now fell to Gateway Keep, set a few hundred leagues upstream where Vodyanoy joined the Laraka.
None-the-less, Quirin was still a fortified castle, with guards and defenses and trying to swim there in the middle of a cold winter night was far from an easy task. Rien patiently watched the small island a half league, or half fathom, as any sailor worth his weight in ale would say, away for any sign of motion, but it did not appear as if any guards were braver than the weather. Rien undressed and after hiding his clothes under the pier, went into the water. For a second time this day he wondered about his masochistic tendencies in this weather. Taking a deep breath, he dove into the cold water and swam towards the island visible up ahead.
It took Rien a while to reach his destination, fighting against the current that threatened to drag him out into the ocean. Sharks’ Cove was after all named for the hungry fish that visited the Shandayma Bay as much as for the people who lived there. He made it to the shore of Quirin and dropped on the sand, letting it absorb some of the water, so the cold wind coming in from the ocean would not be as noticeable.
After a few long moments Rien pulled himself to his feet and moved up the slope to the road he knew existed above. In one direction the road led to a pier where Rien previously spotted a ship. In the other direction was the castle itself. Rien stood indecisively at the edge of the road, wondering if it would be better for him to check the ship, which could leave any minute, if it indeed was to ferry the prisoners to the mainland tonight or the castle, where better information could be obtained.
Finally he decided to check the ship first. If there were prisoners on the island, his best chances lay in making sure the boat did not leave with them aboard. Keeping to the trees at the side of the road, Rien started out east, to the island’s small port.
A single ship stood docked, with a small compliment of guards and sailors sitting around a comfortable campfire on shore. Rien patiently watched them from the trees.
The forest around the pier was cleared out and Rien could not get close enough to hear the conversation, although it was obvious they were not guarding anyone. After some time Rien saw one of the guards get up, pick up his equipment and after a few more words to his companions, start towards the road to the castle. A hundred feet into the woods, Rien confronted the man and with a single hit from behind, knocked him to the ground.
Dragging the stunned man down the incline to the river, Rien splashed some cold water on him, to bring him around, and asked about the slaves.
Still a little dazed, the guard eyed Rien. “Aren’t you cold like that?”
Rien backhanded him. “Where are the slaves being kept?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking…”
Rien submerged the man’s head in the water. He had no evidence that the man knew, but a strong suspicion existed. A little persuasion could go a long way. “Know what I’m talking about now?” Rien pulled the man back up and immediately shoved him back under. People who had the chance to think things over usually made better long term decisions.
Rien pulled the man up again. “Well? Know the ones I mean?”
The guard started coughing and Rien pushed him down for a split second and brought him back up.
“Once more and you stay under for good.”
“The castle…” the guard continued coughing and Rien punched him in the face, knocking him out again.
If the kidnapped people were in the castle, which was becoming more and more probable, Rien did not have the means to get them off the island. For that matter, he had no idea what to do himself. Deciding to accept challenges as they came along — hopefully one at a time — he changed into the guard’s clothes and took the road in the direction of Quirin Keep.
Brice held still on top of the broad stone wall of Gerald Roderick’s villa as a guard walked down the street. `Paranoid,’ Brice thought and slid down the other side into the garden. The house was set some distance into the garden and some of the lights were still lit. Brice stealthily slipped over to the building and knelt by the wall. It was not the first time he’d been sneaking around Lord Roderick’s property. The Baron’s brother was suspected of a number of criminal doings in the past and Brice had kept track of him on a number of occasions.
Making sure that no guards were in sight, Brice climbed up a tree by the house, moved hand over hand towards the roof and jumped down onto it. A couple of sudden voices made him get down while people passed by the side of the house. The men were discussing horses in the stables. He peered over the edge, watched them go by, then moved in the opposite direction.
The lights in the small two story house behind Roderick’s residence that was used to house staff were still on. In particular, the barred window on the second floor, which was reserved for people Roderick did not want to leave, was what Brice was after. He got up to look into it from where he was. Inside he spotted at least two women.
Brice sat back down with a sigh of relief. He had found them. Now he could either stay and see what happened or sneak out and find Rien. He decided to stay. That way he would be present at the sale and perhaps be able to interfere.
Dressed in the armor of the guard he knocked out, Rien freely entered Quirin Keep. Everything was quiet, as would be expected in the middle of the night. He made his way past a sentry beginning to fall asleep in the entrance hall. A bright fire burned in the giant chamber which the hall opened into. At the far end Rien observed a twin staircase, starting at a common point and splitting right and left as it spiraled to a second story balcony. He traced the outline of the second floor with his eyes, making sure no guards were present. Everything was clear and starting with the first door on the right, Rien proceeded with his investigation.
He found the back stairs in a small corridor a few rooms deeper into the castle. Once again, there were no guards or people present and he quickly made his way down to the lower level. This level was dark and cold and smelled of stagnant water, probably because it stood not much higher than the water level around the island. None the less, the floor was dry and clean and after a good hour of looking around, Rien was satisfied that there were no prisoners here.
Rien made his way back up by a different stairway. It led to the kitchen, where for the second time this night Rien encountered a drunk.
“Have some,” the bearded man slammed the bottle on the table. Rien recognized him as the dozing sentry he passed on his way into the castle. Accepting the man’s offer, Rien sat down at the table. It would certainly be tougher to throw this one into the water to cover an escape.
“Lonely work, sentry duty,” Rien said.
The guard nodded. “You new around here?”
“I was hired over from the town guard a few days back.”
“Were you now…which part?”
“Ah. I was working the docks a few years back.”
Rien smiled. It was a safe topic. “Messy area. I’m afraid we always kept as far from there as our patrols could take us.”
“Not my problem any more,” the guard shrugged. “Roderick hired me a few years back. Cleaner, safer, better pay.”
“Oh, no. His brother. You?”
Rien shrugged. “Some big fellow with a scar.” There was one in every outfit.
“The one with the front teeth missing?” the guard asked. “Yeah, he thinks he’s the next best thing to the king.”
“How’d you get here?” Rien asked.
“Regular staff shuffling, they say.”
“So that slave bit is only a rumor?” The guard looked drunk enough for a change of topic.
The guard eyed Rien suspiciously. “What slaves?”
Rien leaned back comfortably, self assured. “You know…there are rumors in the streets.”
“What sorts of rumors?” the guard’s eyes narrowed.
“That the Baron’s brother is keeping slaves in Quirin.”
Rien’s companion roared with laughter. “He’s too chicken to endanger Morgan. Morgan keeps the sling away from Gerald’s ass.”
“At the townhouse then?” Rien asked.
“Right!” the guard slammed his mug down on the table and continued laughing.
Rien waited patiently. “You’re serious?”
“Yeah,” the guard went on. “Why do you think I was put here? He doesn’t want me to know!” And with that he broke into more laughter.
“Mustn’t be your day,” Rien said and slammed the almost empty bottle against his head. The guard slumped down across the table and Rien quickly got up to leave. He had lost a lot of time following a false lead and now he had to make it up. With any luck Brice would be on top of it. Rien briskly walked out of the kitchen, down the hall and to the exit.
“Halt!” a guard rushed into his path.
Rien almost drew the sword.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m returning to the dock.”
“I didn’t see you come in,” the guard said belligerently.
“I came in over an hour ago,” retorted Rien, determined to bluff the situation out — one trace of his passing in the kitchen was enough.
The guard stepped aside with a muttered curse and Rien hurried out. He quickly made it to the beach, disrobed and entered the cold water. A half hour later he was at the north shore of the Laraka, getting dressed again.
Brice watched carefully from the roof as six guards removed as many people from the servants’ building and led them to an enclosed wagon. Each of the four women and two men were gagged and their legs bound (their arms were already tied behind them) before they were deposited in the wagon. Then two guards got inside, one took control of the horses and the wagon was rolled around to the front of the main building. Brice watched the procedure carefully, memorizing each face, each movement. He did not feel himself capable of challenging six armed guards, not to mention all who would be within ear shot of a struggle, but instead, when the wagon rolled past his position on the roof, he rolled over the edge and onto the canvas cover over the wagon, the top of which was almost level with the sloped roof of the building. He held still for a few moments, waiting to see if a sword was going to surface near him or a crossbow bolt tear through the heavy fabric, but none did. He successfully made it on board for the ride. It did not take long.
As the wagon stopped, heavy footsteps sounded on the wooden walk at the side of the building, followed by Gerald Roderick’s voice.
“Is everything ready?”
“Yes, sir,” the driver answered. “We’re ready to go as soon as you are.”
Brice raised his head to look around. He could just see the top of the teamster’s head sticking out mere inches above the top of the wagon. Somewhere to the side people walked by. Someone got into the wagon and someone got out. Brice put his head back down, releasing a deep breath. He should have checked how high the teamster was sitting before he got on for a ride. It could have been a costly mistake.
“Bring me my horse,” Roderick called to someone. “You, meet me at the warehouse. You two, go with him.”
Brice pressed himself closer to the wagon as it moved on. By the time it reached the gate to the street, two mounted guards joined the wagon. Once it was outside, Roderick and a third guard joined the growing caravan. One man took point, with Roderick a little behind him and the other two men rode behind the wagon. All Brice could do now was hold on for the ride and pray that the rear guard did not notice him.
Kera watched the tall thin man, who had chased Deneen when she first encountered him, pass her on the boardwalk of the pier. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed him turn and look after her. She focused her attention behind her as the man fell out of her line of vision. She feared he would follow her, do something, but all her instincts and training told her not to make any sudden moves and not to act as if she feared him. She continued walking ahead, not changing her pace, not turning to look, but all her attention was concentrated behind her, trying to detect unnatural movement or sounds.
The man did nothing to alert Kera and she did not turn back to avoid seeming suspicious or concerned. By the time she made it to the corner and looked back, the man had turned down the pier where his ship was docked. She turned down the pier she was at and making it to the end, climbed up on a crate and made herself comfortable to watch. The slaver ship appeared in the distance, a dark shadow a block away. After a minute a group of people appeared on the deck and after some shuffling around, left the ship. They turned north when they got off the pier and started walking away from her. Hopping off the crates noiselessly, Kera followed the small squad.
After a few blocks the group turned down a side street and by the time she got there, they were gone. Kera cautiously walked down the alley, looking right and left, examining the road for any trails. Behind her she heard horses and a wagon and throwing a single glance back, hurried on ahead. She collided head on with a man dressed in light armor who appeared from nowhere. She was grabbed and forced up against a wall by a doorway as two mounted men, followed by a wagon, rode up behind them.
“Lord Isom!” the man holding Kera called through the doorway.
The tall thin man stepped out. “Good,” he muttered, looking at the wagon, then turned to Kera. “This is the third time we meet today. I consider it twice too many for a coincidence. Who are you?”
“I…” Kera paused as a well dressed man dismounted his horse and came over.
“Well?” Isom asked again.
“I…I was just walking,” Kera said.
“Really now? Walking every place I go?”
“Who is she?” th other man demanded.
“Don’t worry about her, Roderick. She will be leaving with me at sunrise. She obviously wanted to see the ship.”
Kera tried struggling, but the guards held her tight. She kicked him and for a moment he lost his grip on her, but another took his place.
“Take her inside,” Isom ordered and went in.
“Bring the ones in the back of the wagon, too,” Roderick ordered.
From his position on top of the wagon, Brice was able to observe the six prisoners brought into the building, leaving behind the teamster and a guard. The two men exchanged a few words about the work and the late hour, then the guard announced that in the course of the trip, the mead he drank before had travelled its course and he needed to have it pass on. [Original text censored for a mature audience.] He wandered down the alley and the driver leaned back against the wagon.
Taking his cue, Brice crawled up the top of the wagon to the front, then dropped a loose loop of rope, hanging off a hook next to the driver, around the man’s neck and gave him a shove. The length of the rope broke the driver’s fall and he was able to regain his feet on the ground, but Brice quickly pulled it back up, choking the man. A minute later he let the body dangle to the ground and took his seat.
Releasing the reins leading to the two horses and picking up the whip that was left on the bench, Brice jumped to the ground. By now the guard was returning and Brice snapped the whip behind the horses as hard as he could. The animals instinctively pulled forward, away from the sound, wanting to avoid getting hit. In their charge they knocked over the guard and the wagon rolled over him with a soft squish, dragging the teamster behind. Readying the whip again, Brice stepped through the door. He was not sure how he would deal with the half dozen men he knew were inside, but he knew Kera would help and hoped that the prisoners would do the same.
Rien observed the action taking place beneath him. Both Gerald Roderick and Isom were in the room, along with ten guards, six prisoners and Kera. He had the gut feeling that she would get into trouble when leaving her to watch the docks, but at least nothing serious had happened yet. With any luck, nothing would.
“Very good, very good…” Isom walked around the bound people, looking them over. He would stop at one or the other, poke at them, study their faces, their builds. Each time he would smile a satisfied, self pleased grin and go on. “Perhaps we can do business again, soon.” He turned to Gerald. “Pay him.”
Out of the corner of his eye Rien noticed the door crack open and Brice slip in. He smiled to himself. The odds had just improved.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to count this,” the nobleman said, accepting a pouch from one of Isom’s guards.
“By all means.”
Gerald Roderick poured the gold coins into his hand and started counting off the thirty-three Marks due him. Isom used the time to walk over to Kera and to examine her. He took hold of her head under her chin and turned her to face him. “I will go a lot easier with you if you tell me who you are and why you were following me. Who do you work for?”
Kera pulled free from his grasp and turned away. She could not move more than that because of the two guards holding her.
“One less. Doesn’t matter. Tie her,” Isom told the two guards.
“They’re all here,” Roderick said, finally done counting. “The slaves are yours.”
“There is one more matter,” Isom said. “The runaway.”
“I am doing everything in my power,” Roderick stated. “If she is to be found, my men will find her.”
“They’d better,” Isom growled. He produced five more gold coins and gave them to Roderick. “Thirty-eight Marks for your cooperation.”
Roderick pocketed the money. “No trouble.”
“Take them out,” Isom instructed the guards.
Rien moved swiftly along the ceiling beam and jumped down on the two guards attempting to tie Kera’s hands. He landed with both feet on one man’s shoulders, forcing him to the ground. Jumping off the fallen body, Rien swung his sword at the other man, cutting deep into his chest. The element of surprise was now lost. With a roar four guards charged for him.
Rien backed over the first man he attacked, to stand next to Kera and readied for the assault. He noticed that Kera had picked up the fallen guard’s sword, a loose rope still tangled around her left wrist.
Brice stepped out of the shadows behind the guards. One man was staring up at the ceiling, expecting someone else to drop down. Not wanting to disappoint the soldier, nor spoil the surprise, Brice struck with the whip, silently looping it around the guard’s neck. The man screamed a silent scream, grabbing at the end of the whip caught around his neck. Brice yanked him back and stabbed him with his dagger. As the man was falling, Brice had re-wrapped the whip around the legs of a guard by Isom and pulled him over. One of the other guards responded, but tripped over the struggling man.
On the other side of the room, Rien knocked over two men with a low swing of his sword. Kera met the charge of the other two, barely remaining on her feet, and a second later Rien came up on the other side of the two and struck one down. The other, disoriented by attacks from the front and behind, stepped directly into Kera’s swing.
The remaining four men on the ground surrendered, but both Roderick and Isom were gone.
“I’ve got them,” Brice went for the door, but one of the men immediately clambered to his feet and challenged him. Brice threw the whip, tangling it around the guard’s legs. As the man fell back to the floor, Brice made it into the alley, but it was empty. He came back inside to see Rien cutting the ropes binding one of the prisoner’s hands.
“They got away.”
Rien looked back, annoyed, but said nothing. Angry words would not change the situation. He looked down at the men they had fought, sitting on the floor. Seven of the ten were alive, but two were unconscious from their wounds. “Leave your weapons and go,” he ordered and five men quickly got up and left.
Rien picked up a dagger from one of the guards and handed it to the woman he’d cut loose. “Free the others. The man who was selling you is Lord Gerald Roderick. The man who was purchasing you is Lord Isom. Report them to the town guard.” He turned to Brice and Kera. “Let’s go.”
“Wait! Who are you?” one of the people called out.
Brice looked at the woman with a sheepish grin. “We’re the ones who rescued you.”
Outside the warehouse Rien paused, looking at the dead guard lying in the street, wheel marks forming an impression in his chest and torso. “What happened here?”
“The driver must have lost control of the horses,” Brice grinned. “Good thing it worked to our advantage.”
Rien looked over at Kera. “I assume you’re all right. If you want to get some rest, go on to the inn. I want to check on the ship.”
“Rest? After all this? You’re kidding! I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to!”
“Let’s go then. It’s getting light.”
The three started west, towards the docks along the bay.
“I see you finally learned the whip,” Rien said to Brice.
“I finally convinced Deven to teach me…but I don’t think he’s seen the light of day since then. How was the castle?”
“I doubt Morgan is involved in his brother’s doings. Gerald even rotated some staff he didn’t want involved with his activities to Quirin.”
“How did you get here then?”
“I went back to the Abyssment to have a word with Jenye, the woman you thought was spying on me,” Rien said. “She was. She sent me here.”
“She just up and told you?”
“Not quite. I had to get tough.”
“You beat up a woman?” Kera asked.
“Not in the Abyssment,” Brice laughed.
“Not that anyone would notice,” Rien retorted. “I simply put a little fear of me into her. She was reasonably cooperative when she thought I could do more harm than the people she worked for.”
“I wasn’t expecting you to show up,” Brice said. “Nice to see you’re still resourceful.”
“Was there anyone else that Roderick was holding?”
“Not that I could tell. From his yapping on the ride over, this appears to be a market he hasn’t had a chance to exploit yet. I hope this helps him make up his mind our way.”
Rien nodded. “Hope we can stop that ship.”
“How do you expect to stop it?” Kera asked.
“When I snuck on board, I damaged some equipment. If they don’t notice it when they put up the sails, one may tear when the rope snaps.”
“But what if they don’t come back to repair it? Can’t they do that out at sea?”
“They could, but they shouldn’t. I’m more concerned that they’ve already found the torn rope and replaced it. All we can do right now is hope it works out.”
“With any luck,” Brice added, “those people will report their ordeal to the town guard soon. If not, we’ll have to find some other way to get those guards on board.”
By this time they were walking along the docks, towards the pier where the ship was docked.
“Where are you going after your rotation is up?” Rien asked Brice.
He shrugged. “If nothing comes up, I thought I’d go by Magnus and then down south. It’s getting too cold for my taste out here. And that reminds me, how was your swim?”
A smile appeared on Rien’s face. “I’m not paid nearly enough to do this three times in one night.”
As they walked on, he told of his adventures on the slaver ship and on the isle of Quirin. It was not long before they reached their destination. The ship was pushing off from the pier when it came into their sight and Kera suggested they watch from an empty pier near by. Watching from piers was something she did a lot of lately, she added souly.
The ship maneuvered out to sea on oars alone.
“Why aren’t they raising sail?” Rien wondered aloud. “The tide is going out and the winds look favorable.”
“I think we lost this one,” Brice said. “Best find out their destination and see if they can be stopped there.”
Rien nodded grimly. The ship was a good half league out, when a couple of sails on the fore mast were put up and then the ones in the rear. Rien held his breath in anticipation, wanting to see his plan work. A long minute later a few of the sails were snapped up by the wind and fell, dangling aimlessly in the breeze. Other sails started to be lowered one by one, when a cross beam on the mizzen mast tilted, fell to the deck and slipped off into the water, taking a few of the oars with it. A sheet of canvas remained dangling loosely over the starboard side.
“I guess they’re coming back now,” Rien said, tension gone from his voice.
“Just how much damage did you do?” Brice asked.
Rien shrugged his shoulders. “I just weakened the rope. I don’t know what they tangled it in.”
The following day Rien and Kera saw Deneen off. They got her passage on a barge going up to Port Sevlyn. The rest of the people captured by the slavers were taken off the ship by the town guard who appeared on the pier en masse soon after the crippled ship docked. The sailors surrendered peacefully after a few heated words with the troop lieutenant and were all taken into custody. Surprisingly, Isom was not on the ship and Rien never got close enough to the group to find out why. On the whole it did not matter. The slaver had lost his ship, his crew and his cargo. It would take him a long time to recover the loss, if he ever could, but somehow Rien felt that Lord Isom was not one to give up easily, if at all.
“What do you think happened to him?” Kera asked Rien after Deneen waved for the last time.
“Isom? I’d imagine he had a different way of getting to his destination or perhaps didn’t need to go…I doubt we scared him out of business.”
“So what now?”
Rien scanned the dock area. Everything appeared as it had the morning before. People rushed about on errands, ships were being unloaded on the piers and the customary drunks littered the sides of the walks along the buildings. “Looks like nothing here has changed,” he sighed. “Not that it ever does. Is there anything you want to do?”
“We were sight-seeing yesterday,” Kera offered.
They mounted their horses and started up river. “I suppose I can show you the Abyssment. It’s given me countless hours of pleasure watching the drunks and the winos.”
“No place like Sharks’ Cove,” Rien smiled. His expression suddenly became serious as he spotted a familiar face in the crowd. A young girl with auburn hair and amber eyes, that stood out at a distance, rode towards him on the horse he took to Dargon almost a year ago.
Something inside him said `Eelail’, but instead he raised his arm and shouted at the girl: “You! You stole my horse!”