Chapters 1 – 10

Chapters 1 – 10

She Wolves and the Son of Nine Dragons

1  Gunmage At Night

The rain had ceased, but the night’s wind rattled over the cathedral’s slate roof, driving the rainwater down into the stone gutters. From there it sluiced along drainpipes that ran the length of the building’s flying buttresses and poured out the stone mouths of a dozen gargoyles. The  infernal sentinels crouched, ever-vigilant, on the end corner of each buttress, vomiting rainwater into the church yard, thirty feet below. Empty shadows lurked under the unmoving wings of each statue, but under the south-most gargoyle crouched an extra, more substantial shadow. The dark clad figure pressed up under the granite limbs, one hand clinging to the cold, hard stone, the other grasping the butt of a magelock pistol, each grip as desperate as the other. Shivering in the frozen wind, the figure stayed stock-still, fearful even of breathing too deeply.

From his vantage point the entire south side of the Five Fingers could be seen, where lamplight and red lanterns glittered from a dozen dozen windows. Business was still brisk despite the late hour and the bitter weather. The cathedral though was built on the city’s only high hill, to be a bastion of holiness in the sea of the city’s corruption; a beacon to the lost. For Matthias Warlock, gunmage and heretic, it was more like a prison tower. The magic spell that had allowed him to attain the cathedral’s roof had faded now and he was precariously positioned. Looking over the rooftops, he fancied he could pick out Catskinner’s Alley, where his assailant had first ambushed him. He had made good time to reach the cathedral, leaping on spell-shod feet from rooftop to rooftop, but the hunter had kept pace most of the way. There was a moment he thought that he had lost her over the Wild Houses, but now he was not sure. Blinking through the rainwater that dripped down from the gargoyle’s wing, Matthias scanned the ground of the churchyard, the gravestones and the statuary, looking for any little sign of movement in the shadows.

“Where are you, you damned zealot?” he muttered to himself.

Seeing no movement, Matthias carefully clambered around onto the top of the gargoyle, ending up lying on his back between the two bat-like, granite wings. Staring up at the sky, he flicked open the two breech locks of his double barreled sidearm. He reached into his ammo pouch on his belt and made an unpleasant discovery. There were only two shots left, powder and balls deftly wrapped in his best tamping paper. Even in the dark his arcane senses told him that both shots were rune carved, capable of channeling his spells to their targets. What troubled him though was that one of the two was a bullet he had all but sworn never to use, carrying it on him every day since the night he took it from a pistolwraith’s ephemeral corpse. He did his best to keep his fingers from trembling with cold and fear as he slid the accursed shot into the under-barrel and then the other shot into the over-barrel.

“Normal shot first,” he thought. With luck he wouldn’t need to dare the pistolwraith’s curse. He flicked both breechlocks into place with his thumb. Clutching the magelock to his breast like a beloved pet, he stared up at the sky, the rain clouds being blown out toward the coast. As the stars appeared, Matthias thought to pray.

“Would you hear me up here, Morrow?” he thought. “And if you heard, would you listen? Or are you like Menoth, impassive to the sufferings of those who fail your teachings?”

As the bright moonlight burst from behind the storm clouds, Matthias decided that it was probably best for a heretic not to pray, lest he incur further divine wrath. He placed his faith in his magelock and resolved to meet his fate. Flipping over onto his belly, he crawled forward slightly, so that his face was over the gargoyle’s head. Carefully, he pushed his gun hand out over the edge, sweeping the pistol carefully back and forth. Like many of his profession, Matthias had mastered the arcane ability of seeing through the barrel of his sidearm. Though his head and body remained hidden, he could see the entire church yard from his weapon’s vantage point.

The new moonlight revealed a graceful figure, cloaked and hooded, carefully stepping over the flagstones of the churchyard. In her hands was a long, single-edged blade, the polished steel glinting subtly in the moon’s radiance. Her movements were cautious and plainly she was searching for her prey. With slow, deliberate steps she approached the foot of the buttress where Matthias hid above. Never once did she look up, instead anticipating an assault from between the gravestones where so many hiding places could be found.

This was an opportunity that Matthias could not pass up, though it offered only a slim chance of success. He had expended most of his arcane energies simply in keeping the magehunter at bay. What little power was left might be enough though, if his strikes were sure. He would have to take the gamble.

“Be light as the breeze, yet descend like a thunderclap,” he whispered to himself, reciting the maxim he had learned years before, as a novice of the Order of Keeping. “It seems that I will depend upon you after all, Lord Morrow; or at least upon your training.”

Matthias drew his legs up under his body and then launched himself in a graceful somersault out over the front of the gargoyle and down the side of the buttress. His left hand traced the masonry as he fell, controlling his descent by means of a mystical technique known to the monks of Morrow’s most sacred orders. He fell as swiftly as any man might, but in a manner of control few men knew. With his right hand he took careful aim, and when still ten feet above the magehunter, fired the first bullet. The rune etched shot erupted from the barrel, carrying with it an enchantment of electrical energy, and struck the woman’s shoulder with both bullet and shocking arcane power. She staggered backward, her hood thrown back revealing her blonde elvish hair and pointed ears.

“How do you like that, Retribution bitch?” Matthias snapped, landing on the flagstones as comfortably as stepping from a cart or dismounting a horse. He went immediately to one knee in a strong firing stance, ready if the second shot were necessary.

But the second shot was the cursed one, the bullet he was loath to ever fire. When the Retribution assassin recovered and charged at him with her sword, he hesitated. The moment was crucial and the magehunter’s blade struck his sidearm cleanly from his hand, causing it to go sailing into the dark shadows amidst the gravestones. The elven woman smiled as she swung razor edged blade in a vicious backstroke.

“Mother Scyrah will be avenged,” she whispered triumphantly in the Shyric tongue, the language of her people.

“I’ve never even met your damn mother!” declared Matthias, who knew his fair share of foreign languages. The magehunter’s blade came close, but he avoided it by stepping inside the swing. Before the assassin could react, he had engaged her in a grappling embrace, one hand on her sword arm, the other clutching for her throat. If he could force her to relinquish the sword, he would have the advantage.

For a time the two of them struggled together, Matthias seeking to disarm the magehunter, the elf seeking to disengage herself enough to use her sword to full advantage. At least once, he felt the sword’s sharp edge deflected by the enchanted cloth of his midnight blue mage robe.

The gunmage began to feel  he might be able to gain the upper hand when both combatants were distracted by an ominous whooshing sound. Matthias looked over his shoulder in time to see a tiny ball of rushing flame, just before it struck the ground beside them. There was an earsplitting eruption of flame and noise. Matthias launched himself aside with the impact, responding as he had long ago been trained. The fireball scorched his body, even through his magical protections, and he fell heavily against the foot of the cathedral wall, dazed and badly wounded.

The magehunter was not so lucky, and she received the spell’s fiery blast fully. As she fell dead, a tall, strangely armoured figure, stalked from the graveyard shadows. It carried a baroque trident with iron tines that twisted and flared in an alien design. About it’s person it carried numerous other weapons, equally strange in their manufacture. The figure was armoured, but the armour was more akin to the shell-like skin of a crustacean, with articulated segments like fine plate armour, but lighter and far more maneuverable. In the few spaces between the armour it seemed the creature’s skin was a deep blue.  About its waist was a fine leather belt, in which was tucked the magelock pistol of Matthias Warlock. On its left arm it bore a buckler of steel and leather. As it shifted in the moonlight the leather showed itself to be a human face, skinned and cured to form an unspeakable trophy.

While the monstrous new attacker bent over the body of the dead magehunter, Matthias stirred from his daze. Badly burned, and with two ribs broken by the explosion, he was in intense pain. He shook his head to clear his vision, while the newly arrived stranger ignored his suffering groans. By agonizing stages, Matthias levered his wounded body up from the ground, using the cathedral wall for support.

“You bastard, what umbral pit did you spring from?” he muttered, spitting blood from his burnt lips.

The alien hunter turned its head slowly towards him, two slitted eyes staring out from its carapaced head with a gleam that seemed like madness or bloodlust. Standing up from the magehunter’s body, it stalked casually over to where Matthias stood, sucking ragged painful breaths into his lungs. It paused only a few paces away from him, watching for a moment. As much by arcane instinct as by sight, Matthias recognised his pistol in the thing’s belt. The thought of his precious sidearm being stolen from him filled him with rage.

The strange trident lifted, the deadly tines pointed to his throat as he stood stock still, not having too try to hard to look helpless. As the killing blow came, he dropped low beneath it and then surged at his enemy. The surprised hunter staggered as the first blow landed with stunning force. Matthias did not hesitate this time, but rained a cascade of strikes upon the shell like armour, using fists and elbows, feet and knees. The force of his onslaught drove the creature from its feet and he threw himself upon it, landing with both knees upon its chest. In his rage he felt none of the pain from his wounds, intent only upon his foe. As he struck again and again, he stared into the thing’s eyes, thinking to see fear or anger or hatred; but those lidless eyes stared out at him showing no sign of any human thought. It was thoroughly alien to him.

Before he could stop himself, Matthias seized his pistol from the creature’s belt. Thrusting the barrel up under the monstrous chin, he depressed the trigger for the second barrel. The pistolwraith’s shot blasted through the chitinous helm, it’s cursed power slaying the creature outright. The light from the alien eyes faded and with it the rage left the gunmage. The pains within him rose like the murmuring of a crowd growing swiftly to a roar. His hands ached from the continual strikes against the monster’s armour. He pushed himself up from the corpse, but his legs were too weak to hold him up and he fell heavily sideways, sucking in rough breaths that scoured his lungs like sandpaper.

“Cursed is the man who cannot retain his temper!” ran the adage of the Order of Keeping; the order that had cast Matthias out as a heretic. Remembering the words, he shrugged painfully. What was one more curse to him?

In his hands, the butt of his magelock pistol gave him an anchor, a sense of himself that slowly steadied his swimming head. He wondered if that last, evil shot would come to haunt him, as so many other of his decisions haunted him in life. He was uncertain, but his sidearm was there with him, like the comfort of a true friend; perhaps his only friend.

2 On the Streets of Five Fingers – Part 1

The rays of the dawning sun turned the rain-sodden streets to liquid gold, the wet flagstones glistening brightly. Blinking against the glare, Matthias Warlock made his way slowly back to his lodgings. The night had been long and difficult. Following the battle in the churchyard, he had stripped the two bodies of whatever he could find that might have been valuable and then headed straight to the house of an apothecary he knew, just off the Serpent’s Way. There he traded much of the ‘loot’ for two healing draughts, which he had consumed without delay. With his wounds now healed for the most part, he returned to his rooms he kept above the training hall of the Corvis’ Knight Dueling Academy.

The Academy hall was the largest in its ward, with a stone walled hall occupying the ground floor, and then two levels, built of wood, above. In the upper levels were lodgings for Academy members in good standing, a private training area for advanced students, the Master’s rooms and, it was rumoured, a substantial armoury. The Academy had been founded nearly a century previously by a veteran of the Cygnar army. How he had come by the wealth he expended in the construction of the impressive school was still the subject of some speculation.

Swiftly climbing the Academy’s stone steps, Matthias ducked his head under his collar to avoid the heavy droplets of water falling from the eaves high above. Once inside the door, he straightened his knee length robe and kicked the water and mud from his boots. Arrayed around the walls were racks of training weapons, some of wood, others of iron. Against the back wall was a shrine to Ascendant Markus, patron of soldiers and guards; students were expected to pay homage before every class. In the middle of the training floor two young men drilled with quarterstaves. It was unusual for the Academy to be so empty at this time.

Matthias was struck by the mighty figure of an ogrun male standing at the foot of the stairs. The ogrun was easily eight and half feet in height and heavily muscled. He leaned indolently against a stout warcleaver, but there was an alert look in his dark eyes. Though probably not expecting trouble, he was clearly ready for it. Sparing him a sideways glance, Matthias climbed the stairs. As he made his way down the hallway, the gunmage heard voices coming from behind the door to his rooms, which was ajar. It occurred to him that the Academy’s bursar might be clearing out his belongings, having long threatened to do just such a thing. He burst in to confront the old coot.

Instead he found a woman dressed in leather armour, studded with iron and dyed a deep scarlet. The armour was cut to resemble a ladies’ corset, with the woman’s cleavage fashionably displayed, and had been clearly tailored to suit her hair, which was pinned high in a font of fiery curls. It was her thin face that drew Matthias eyes, however. She had the high cheekbones, emerald green eyes and point tipped ears that were characteristic of the people of Ios. Down the left side of her face was a long scar, possibly from a sword stroke, which drew the eyes but did little to mar her graceful features.

Reacting to the woman’s elven heritage, Matthias instinctively drew his magelock and pointed it at her face, fearful that she was a sister to the magehunter he had fought in the churchyard in the night. He was completely surprised when the elven woman threw down herself, drawing a brace of elegant, gilded pistols from holsters that Matthias had not at first noticed. Scanning from the woman’s gunbelts up her body to the two guns in his face, he smiled.

Matthias’ attention was drawn by the sound of steel scraping free from a scabbard. Glancing sideways he saw a second woman, who had been standing out of sight behind the door. Like her companion she was also armoured, but hers was a steel breastplate, with greaves and gauntlets. Her hair was shoulder length, the colour of ebony and she held a fine hand-and-a-half blade, with competence and confidence. Most striking of all though was her beautiful face, with dark eyes beneath fine arched eyebrows. Her skin was the colour of cream. While the elven woman was striking, the scar notwithstanding, her human companion was stunning in appearance.

“Put up your weapon, sir,” said the woman with the sword. Matthias shrugged and withdrew his pistol. The elf in red held her guns on him a moment more and then withdrew them too, returning them to their holsters.

“Nice pair,” Matthias said.

“Excuse me?” she asked, looking up suddenly and clearly offended.

“Your pistols,” explained Matthias with a nod. “Fine workmanship.” The woman’s offense appeared to ease.

“Now,” continued the gunmage. “Would you two ladies mind telling me why you are waiting here in my rooms? I assume it is not to ambush me, since you’ve surrendered your opportunity for that.”

“We are seeking a man called the Warlock,” said the redhead. “Are you he?”

“It depends why you are looking.”

“Do not try us, sir,” rebuked the swordswoman.

“Would you stop calling me sir; it is like being back in the army!” snapped Matthias, the long night at his back wearing his patience thin. “Now please, I have returned here to rest after a long and unpleasant night. Do me the courtesy of stating your business clearly.”

He pushed past the swordswoman and through the door to his bedroom. Walking over to the battered old side table he pulled his robe over his head, leaving himself naked to the waist. Instead of a belt, he wore a sash of burgundy coloured cloth. The sash was wound about his middle several times and the two ends hung at one side. There was embroidery, in black and white stitching, on each end. Matthias plunged his hands into the washbasin on the side table, scooping up the water and splashing his face and chest. He rubbed himself clean and then toweled off the water with a cloth left for the purpose.

Outside his bedroom door, the two women continued their conversation, as if he were no longer present.

“This barbarian is the one you wish to hire?” asked the dark haired one. “I cannot believe it.”

“I don’t know,” answered the red head. “He has a certain appeal.”

“Do not be lascivious!”

Matthias rubbed his fingers through the short, ash-blonde hairs on top of his scalp and then down the lone braid that hung from the back of his head. When he was done, he pulled his robe back on. Then he emerged from his bedroom.

“Ladies, allow me to stop you there,” he said. “I am not a mercenary for hire and I am not currently accepting new students, so whatever purpose you sought me for, I am afraid that I am unlikely to accept. I am sorry if your journey has been a long one but…”

“You haven’t even heard our proposal,” protested the pistoleer.

“True,” said Matthias with a shrug. He was about to usher them out and take his rest, when there was a knock at the door. “Enter,” he called.

A young boy poked his head through the door, a page of the Academy. This one was an urchin named Brent, rescued from the squalor of a beggar’s life by the Master of the Academy.

“Beg pardon, master Matthias,” he said seriously, tugging at his forelock. “Gosling boys ‘s in the street, callin’ you out.”

“Are they indeed. Thank you Brent. Please go tell the Master that I am out the front speaking with them, would you?”

“Yes master,” said the boy with a nod, but he stood staring at the two beautiful armoured women in the room.

“Run along, Brent!” commanded the Warlock as he headed to the chest against the wall behind the door. With his reverie broken, Brent the page rushed off down the hall.

“Gosling boys?” asked the elf.

“Gosling Street Runners actually,” replied Matthias, reaching into the chest and producing a pair of hand axes with spikes projecting from parts, like the heads of a halberd.

“Katrena’s hooks?” asked the dark haired warrior rhetorically, recognising the weapon.

“Can’t you tell them to wait till you’re finished with us?” the elven woman asked, clearly somewhat peeved at the interruption to her business proposal. “They called upon you second.”

“They are not paying me that kind of call,” Mathias said with a half smile. “I tell you what ladies…what are your names?”

“I am Viridian Swift,” said the elf. “My companion is Honour Pendragon.” The woman named Honour scowled that her name had been revealed without her permission, but said nothing.

“Well then, Lady Viridian; Lady Honour,” Matthias said bowing slightly to each one in turn. “If you will please excuse me, this is business that may not wait. If, at its end, I am still here, I would count it a signal honour for you to accompany me to breakfast at the pie shop on the corner; Harris’s it is called.”

“If you are still here?” Honour asked, plainly unsure of his meaning, but Matthias had already left the room. The two women followed him as he walked with a confident gait with the twin axes held in his left hand. He descended the stairs, slipping easily past the ogrun waiting at the bottom. As the two women rushed up behind him, the ogrun looked to them for direction. Honour shook her head, while Viridian also slipped past the armed giant-kin.

As he headed to the door, Matthias paused momentarily to raise both axes in salute to the shrine of Ascendant Markus, out of respect for the traditions of the Academy rather than a belief that Markus might actually bless him. Then he turned and stepped out onto the wet street. A crowd had gathered, standing back several dozen paces from the Academy’s entrance. Standing on the cobblestones, in the middle of the ring created by the spectators, were four individuals. Two were skinny men, barely more than youths, rough-shaven and shirtless, with rough woollen knickerbockers and runner’s slippers; each carried a quarterstaff. Another was a much burlier man with a bushy, black moustache. He wore a long, leather blacksmith’s apron and wielded a heavy sledgehammer. The last figure was almost finely dressed, at least in comparison to his comrades. He wore doeskin breeches and elegant leather boots, though these were badly scuffed. Over a developing paunch he wore a purple silk blouse. Like the hammer wielder, he also had a bushy moustache, though his was well trained and greying. He carried a rapier, scabbarded and hung from a broad leather baldric. On his head was a leather hat with a turned up brim on one side that sported a rosette of dyed goose down; gosling feathers. All four were members of the Gosling Street Runners, a gang of street thieves and stand-over men that dressed their activities in the pretence of being bearers and messengers. The aging dandy was the gang’s leader, Oily Hermes Forstaff.

“There you is, Warlock,” declared Hermes loudly when Matthias appeared. “I come from two of my boys who breathed their last ‘afore dawn, you bloody dog!”

“Would these be the two fools who crossed me at Catskinner’s Alley last eve?” asked Matthias in an equally loud voice. With the many events of the preceding night, the two street thugs from the start of the evening seemed a distant memory.

“Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that Warlock, but I know it was you what done for ‘em!”

“I do for all thieves stupid enough to try me, Hermes; you know that!” declared Matthias. Hermes hand went involuntarily to a scar hidden beneath his blouse. Two years previously a bullet from Matthias’ gun had nearly slain him; even the best healers could not remove scar.

“You bastard!” spat the man with the hammer. Oily Hermes put his hand on the man’s shoulder and then drew his rapier.

“We’ve got grievance, gunmage. We come to take the blood what’s owed to brothers.”

There was a moment’s pause. Behind him, Matthias heard Honour, Viridian and their ogrun companion as they stood in the entranceway, looking out through the door.

“No guns?” he asked.

“No guns!” said Oily Hermes.

“Right!” Matthias undid his gunbelt and dropped it onto the steps. He scanned his eyes around at the spectators, addressing them directly. “You here are all witnesses. I fought alone; the Corvis’ Knights were never part of this. When the greencoats ask, that is what you will tell them.”

Taking one axe in each hand, Matthias walked down the steps and onto the street. The crowd murmured in excitement as the four Goslings fanned out to surround him. Matthias ignored the other three and walked straight for Oily Hermes. The gang members had almost no time to get close to the gunmage before Matthias’ confident stride carried him straight into melee with their rapier wielding leader. Hermes lunged with his rapier, but Matthias was ready. He struck the blade away with one axe and stabbed with the end point of the other. Hermes desperately put his hand in the way, trying to deflect the axe. Instead the point pierced his palm and he cried out in pain, staggering backwards. Blood sprayed onto his silk shirt.

There was a loud crack as one of the staff armed men struck Matthias on the back. Matthias grunted and then staggered sideways as the other staff wielder tried to knock his feet out from under him. He managed to keep his feet, however, and quickly charged back at the attacker, his right hand axe raised over his head. The young man raised his staff to block the strike, but this only made him more open to the left hand axe, which Matthias drove point first into the young man’s stomach. The ganger doubled over, dropping the staff, and then the right axe fell, staving in his skull.

The man with the hammer and the second staff wielder looked to each other, uncertain whether to proceed.

“Don’t just stand there, have at him!” cried Oily Hermes.

The hammer man lunged forward, barrelling into Matthias, who staggered backwards, feet slipping on the wet flagstones. He went down on one knee, which saved him, as the quarterstaff arced through the air above his head. Sidestepping the quarterstaff that had missed Matthias, the burly man swung the hammer above his head and brought it crashing downwards. Defending with both axes, the gunmage tried to stop the assault, but the heavy weapon had enough power to continue some way on its course, falling into Matthias’ shoulder. The struck arm sagged under the pressure, seemingly broken, but when the hammer wielder tried to draw his weapon back for another stroke, he found that Matthias had it trapped between the hooks of the two axe heads. The man shifted his grip to try again, but Matthias was ready and when his grip was weakest, he found the haft twisted from his hands. Even as the heavy iron head thudded to the cobbles, Matthias spun himself backwards, keeping low and swung his back leg in a clean arc that tripped the now disarmed man. Not rising from his crouch, Matthias axe rose and fell upon the man’s right hand, severing fingers and tendons. The man gasped in pain, but to his credit did not cry out.

The second staff man thought to charge while Matthias was down, but before he even brought his weapon to bear, the gunmage threw his right hand axe, striking in the sternum and dropping the  runner dead on the spot. Matthias transferred his remaining axe to his right hand and began to stalk towards Oily Hermes, who stood cursing in pain and trying to staunch the wound in his hand. As the gunmage approached, Hermes could make out a growing bruise on his face. The downward hammer blow had struck not only his shoulder, but also cracked his cheekbone and jaw on the way past; the ugly swelling was quickly turning a purple and black. Before Matthias could close the distance between them Hermes looked upward, as if perhaps about to pray, and nodded.

There was the loud crack of a rifle’s retort, and Matthias was knocked from his feet, spun about like a kite in the wind. There was a burning pain in his side, and his sight darkened. As he struggled to rise, he heard Oily Hermes’ voice almost crack as the gang leader screamed out, “Again! Shoot him again! Finish him!”

Two more shots rang out over the crowded street, and Matthias’ collapsed into the rising darkness.

—-

Following the final two shots, there was a cry from the second story window where Oily Hermes’ sniper was hiding. The gang leader turned to see his man fall from the window to the streets with a noise like a falling sack of grain. Hermes looked around the street to see a red headed elf in red leather standing on the steps of the Academy, two pistols smoking in her hands. Hermes screamed with inarticulate frustration and lunged forward, thinking to finish off the downed Matthias Warlock with his rapier.

Before he could reach the unconscious man however, he was confronted by a huge, muscled ogrun with a warcleaver. The heavy blade was pointed directly at Oily Hermes’ chest and it was clear that he would never close with the ogrun before the huge blade cut him down. Looking from the ogrun’s stern gaze back to the Academy entrance, Hermes observed a second armoured woman behind the elf, wielding a battle blade. The elven woman was herself in the process of reloading her pistols.

“You poxy bitches can’t watch over ‘im all the time,” he shouted, waving his fist. “He’ll get his!”

“Clear off, or you’ll get yours!” declared the elf. To emphasise her words, the ogrun stepped forward menacingly. From down the street, as if to finally make up Oily Hermes’ mind for him, there was the piercing sound of a brass whistle; the greencoats were coming. Oily Hermes turned and pushed his way through the crowd, leaving his underlings to face the law without him.

—-

Matthias came to, his eyes blinking in the cold morning sunshine. Before his vision could clear though, he heard the murmuring of a calm and serious voice offering prayers to Morrow. For a single moment he wondered if he were still a monk, his life since leaving the temple no more than a dream from which he was now awakening.

Then he felt the pains, the various wounds that wrapped him in a burning grip like a gauntlet, red-hot, fresh from the forge. As the prayers continued, the pains began to recede. Slowly the piercing glare began to fade to less painful morning light. Clouds sailed across the sun; one of the clouds resolved into face of a celestial beauty. As the wound in his face was healed by her ministrations, Matthias realised that it was Honour’s face he could see. She was kneeling over him where he had fallen in the street.

“Can you hear me?” she asked. He nodded, and then a puzzled expression came over his face.

“I was sure he said, ‘No guns’,” he said with a smile.

3 On the Streets of Five Fingers – Part 2

The horse trough’s icy water turned vaguely pink as Matthias Warlock plunged his head beneath the surface, washing away the blood from his recent street battle. The elven gunfighter Viridian Swift, and the lady warrior Honour Pendragon stood by at the entrance to Harris’s Ale & Pie shop, along with their anonymous ogrun companion. Matthias sluiced off the excess water with his hands and then bent to recover his paired axes. The two Katrena’s hooks were even more bloody than he had been, but he did not wash them. Instead, he hailed a washerwoman as she passed with her basket of clothes. He offered the bent woman two galleons for one of the cleaned blouses in the basket. The woman accepted the sliver coins readily and handed over a shirt of course cotton fabric. The gunmage carefully wrapped the still bloody axes in the shirt so that none of the blood was on the outside of the wrapping and then motioned to his companions that they should repair to the pie shop.

The inside of Harris’s was beneath the level of the street, patrons having to descend a flight stairs to find themselves among tables and benches and the mingled scents of simple cooking and rich Ordic tobacco. Glass windows at street level allowed some of the morning’s light to filter through above the patrons’ heads. Two serving wenches danced adroitly between customers with large trays perched upon their hips, maintaining a steady circulation of full tankards of ale and pastry cases stuffed with pork, lamb and onions.

Matthias lead the others down the stairs and across the eatery to an empty table. Few of the other patrons cared to notice the two women with him and even the ogrun warrior bringing up the rear raised little attention from the jaded patrons of Harris’s. The waitress glided up to ask if they would like to eat or only to drink. A golden royal from Matthias purse bought pie and ale for all. The wench skipped away to fetch their order, sparing a moment to glance jealously at the two warrior women seated with the gunmage.

“I must thank you for your aid,” began Matthias as the serving wench vanished into the kitchen behind the bar. “Where did you learn to shoot like that?”

“I served, with the Cygnar pistoleers, 1st regiment,” answered Viridian with a knowing look.

“Indeed,” said Matthias. “The King’s own?”

“That’s right.”

“So what is this business you wish to discuss?” the gunmage asked with a strange smile.

“You know Prelate Marsendat, don’t you?” asked Viridian.

“Aye…though it’s been several years since he and I last spoke. Last I heard he had been commissioned by the Church to preach in Corvis.”

“He died in Corvis,” announced Honour, flatly.

“The recent troubles, no doubt,” Matthias said. “A great loss to the Church and to Cygnar.”

“Yes,” agreed Viridian. “It is a great loss to us as well. It is because of his death that we are forced to seek you.” Silence followed this cryptic statement, as Matthias searched the faces of the two women.

“No,” he said at last, as if they had asked him a question. He looked over his shoulder to see if the girl was bringing their ales.

“What do you mean, ‘No’?” asked Viridian, looking puzzled.

“I mean, ‘No, I am not going to take you to that island’,” answered Matthias.

“You must! You are the only one living who knows the way!” blurted Honour, her patrician demeanor lapsing momentarily. The Warlock leaned in suddenly, fixing her eyes with an intense stare.

“Marsendat and I were shipwrecked on that island with nearly thirty others and we two alone escaped with our lives!”

“Morrow spared you for a reason,” said Honour. “Even a heretic such as you could see that!” Matthias glared at her but said nothing.

“Look, just hear us out, would you,” said Viridian quickly, trying to cover her companion’s ill chosen words. “I mean, as a brother veteran; there’s the honour of the swan between us, right.” Matthias chuckled and shook his head. Viridian and Honour looked at each other in concerned surprise. “How can you refuse?”

“There are three ways that I can refuse,” explained Matthias. “First, Marsendat and I swore an oath to Morrow never to reveal the island’s location; I may be a heretic but that doesn’t make me an oathbreaker. Second, it is precisely because of the events on that island that I was put out of the Order of Keepers, so you understand I have no love for the place; and finally, I’m not impressed by third rate con artists trying to play upon my loyalties.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Viridian. The ogrun who had otherwise stayed silent, growled at the gunmage’s insults. Before anything could happen though, Matthias thrust his right arm across the table and pulled the sleeve up to the shoulder. On the muscle of his upper arm was a tattoo of a crown over crossed pistols.

“Second Pistoleers are the King’s Regiment. It’s the Homeland Loyalists who’re the First!”

“I thought you served with the First,” said Viridian.

“I could not, I am Scharde,” explained the Warlock with a sneer. “Loyalists are all native born. They would not have taken me; neither would they you, like as not.” Viridian looked away, ashamed by having her ruse so easily torn away. From the moment she had opened her mouth about service with Cygnar, Matthias had known she was a liar.

The gunmage stood to leave, pulling down his sleeve as he did so. With desperate speed, Honour reached out her gloved hand and grabbed his arm. All pretence of superiority left her and her eyes implored the angry gunmage to hear her.

“We are desperate and have no other hope,” she pleaded. “I would not normally try to play upon a service done, but we could easily have left you to the mercies of that treacherous dandy and his sniper ambush. You owe us your life!”

“Mayhaps,” agreed Matthias reluctantly. “But that is a small debt, I assure you.”

“We have a comrade, a beloved friend, trapped upon that island. The Prelate described you as a man of honour and loyalty. You would never have left your comrades to die; help us to show the same loyalty to ours!”

Listening to Honour’s words, Matthias wondered churlishly if she would be easier to ignore if she were not so achingly beautiful. Even begging, she was as fine a woman as had ever deigned to speak to him.

“The Prelate would never have told you these things about me,” he protested.

“He didn’t have to,” agreed Viridian, reaching into her belt and producing sheets of fine paper. Neither vellum nor rough parchment, the paper was fine and expensive. Taking it from her hand, Matthias unfolded the sheets, noting as he did so that the folds were well worn and feathery at the edges; these sheets had been folded and unfolded, read and re-read many times. The pages were topped with the seal of the Church of Morrow and the sign of the Exarch of Caspia on the bottom. They were copies of high level church correspondence. Just holding them in his hands gave Matthias a chill, for these two women and their ogrun bodyguard were clearly more important and influential than he had imagined. He sank back down on the chair as he began to read the report detailed on the pages.

“Marsendat made that report soon after you both returned,” explained Honour. “He credits you with his survival.” Matthias shook his head in good natured disbelief.

“You would not believe it,” he said, a wry smile twisting his lips. “I keep my oath to Morrow and get expelled as a heretic; Marsendat breaks his oath and gets promoted to Prelate.”

“Our friend was with an expedition that was following Marsendat’s report,” Viridian said, ignoring Matthias’ comments about the dead Prelate. “They have been gone for too long and no divinations of the Church can obtain any word of them.”

The words on the page and the two women’s story was much to absorb in one sitting. Matthias looked up at the windows, trying to order his thoughts, when a flash of green cloth in the streets outside caught his attention.

“Speaking of reports,” he said. “Did no greencoats turn up to see what was going on while I was unconscious.”

“Only one,” said Viridian, a strange smile playing across her face.

“It appears that I owe you for that too, then,” said Matthias, his eyes tracking movement past the windows. A number of green clad legs were visible from where he was seated.

“No debt there,” said Honour with pride. Her ogrun companion chuckled deeply, like gravel rattling and echoing in a large wine barrel. “We saw the little weasel off.”

“What?”

“We saw him off,” Honour repeated “The corrupt worm was demanding a bribe to prevent your arrest. I cuffed him for a cur and then Dokor chased him away with the butt of his cleaver.”

“Are you touched in the head?” Matthias asked, slapping his forehead in disbelief. The numbers of green clad individuals in the windows was rapidly growing and they were moving towards the pie shop’s front door. “Paying the fine is how things are done. You can’t just give the law a kick in the bum!”

“He was corrupt,” Honour protested. “I will willingly face trial for my actions; no magistrate will convict me. My actions were perfectly just.”

“This isn’t Caspia, woman! There are no magistrates or courts here, not for commoners or foreigners. The greencoats keep order, not justice. You pay the fine and tug the forelock and are thankful when they go their way!”

The door to the pie shop swung open and four greencoated lawmen with chain coats and short barrelled muskets smartly took up position on the stairs. Honour was taken aback by the Warlock’s rebuke and Dokor the ogrun growled ominously. Conversation dropped to nothing as the clack of the musket hammers being drawn back echoed through the shop. There was a loud clattering thunk as the serving wench nearly dropped their order onto the table with surprise. From the top of the stairs an authoritative but unseen voice called out; “Matthias Warlock and companions, you are under arrest for the crime of violence against an officer of the law. Come quietly or we will shoot.”

Honour Pendragon spat a curse, but the words were lost as chaos suddenly erupted in the pie shop. Patrons and serving wenches bolted, scattering chairs and tables in desperation to flee the line of fire. Perhaps unnerved by the crowd or perhaps simply apathetic, the musketmen on the stairs fired their first volley. Members of the crowd fell wounded while two younger men in uniform quickly darted down the stairs and replaced the empty carbines with freshly loaded muskets. As the marksmen took aim again, Matthias wrenched up the table, flinging it onto its side and diving behind it for cover. Viridian, Dokor and Honour swiftly joined him, crouching behind the heavy wood.

“They didn’t even give us a chance to surrender,” protested Viridian, both her pistols drawn and ready.

“Welcome to the Five Fingers,” quipped Matthias as the next volley of musket fire struck splinters from the table.

4 The Green Knight

Splinters flew from the table top as another volley of musket fire struck home. Honour swore reflexively, her mouth twisted into a scowl and Dokor hunched down closer to the bare earth floor, hiding his large body as best he could behind the single piece of furniture.

“It appears our surrender has become moot,” observed Matthias wryly. “I hope everyone has made their peace with Morrow.” The two women cast him stern glances, their eyes slitted in disapproval of his levity.

“Look,” said Viridian. “If all they want is money, why don’t we pay them and have done with it?”

“All they wanted was money, but it’s gone beyond that now!” said Matthias. “Now it’s about pride and honour.”

“What pride can corrupt dogs have?” spat Honour, her tense hands gripping the hilt of her sword. She seemed to be frustrated rather than frightened, as though having to hide for her own safety were a burden. Matthias was reminded of the kinds of young knights who get themselves killed chasing vainglorious victories; ‘all heart and no scars’ as veterans say.

“Your attitude doesn’t help us. You humiliated their man in full view of the street,” said Matthias. “They will probably kill us simply to reassure the populace of the power of the greencoats.”

“Heavy handed,” muttered Viridian, as the sound of breeches being locked echoed across the pie shop; the musketmen were preparing to fire again.

“Order, not justice,” answered the Warlock. He seemed about to say more when he noticed a fine cloud of plaster dust fall from the ceiling. Cocking his head, he listened. There was a dull, distant thud and more plaster dust fell.

“The lamps are shaking,” observed Honour, looking up. For his part, Dokor placed the palm of his hand onto the floor, feeling the vibrations as the thuds continued. He sniffed the air and then looked out the windows along the south wall of the pie shop, as if expecting to see something.

“Something large approaches from the south,” declared the Ogrun simply, taking a better grip upon his warcleaver.

“The Green Knight,” said Matthias, shaking his head wearily.

“Green Knight…?” asked Viridian.

Before Matthias could answer, there was a loud hissing sound in the street beyond the south wall. Two massive cast iron feet could be seen through the windows, as well as a new cluster of greencoated figures. There was a moment of silence and looking over the lip of the upturned table, they could see that the musketeers were at the ready, awaiting only the signal to fire.

“We must go now…!” said Matthias, though his words were all but consumed by the sound of the south wall and ceiling being torn asunder. Support beams creaked and cracked; masonry erupted in an explosion plaster and debris; bricks shattered like glass. In the midst of the destruction, a massive, iron figure shouldered its way through the pie shop wall. Cogs and gears larger than a person’s head, turned and ground, as forge-black, metal fists struck again and again at the walls. Eyes of green glass stared out from its head, which seemed like the helmet of an armoured giant. Steam hissed from its boiler-plate body, on which was painted a device in emerald green; a knight’s shield.

“Morrow preserve us,” whispered Honour, as the steamjack known and feared throughout the Five Fingers as the ‘Green Knight’ continued to pound its way through the shop wall, threatening to demolish the building as it did so. The ceiling’s support beams, foot thick pylons of solid hardwood, creaked ominously as the ‘jack’s assaults began to take their toll.

“That roof’s gonna go!” shouted Viridian over the thunderous noise.

“So are we!” declared Honour.

She nodded an unspoken instruction to Dokor, who hefted the upturned table onto his shoulder. With a bellowing battle-cry, he charged towards the musketmen on the stairs, using the table like a shield. Taken aback by the suddenness of the assault, two of the musketeers failed to even fire their weapons before the table crashed down upon their heads. Coming from close at Dokor’s side, Honour used the table like a boarding ramp, running across it to reach the two other musketeers on the higher steps. Her armoured boots landed on a step between the two men and she laid about with her long blade. The first rifleman fell without firing, but the second managed to get a shot away. To his horror, the musket ball ricocheted off the shoulder plate of Honour’s armour and embedded itself in the wall. Honour grunted at the pain of the impact and then her sword bit deep into the man’s neck. He fell dead and his musket clattered over the stair rail to the floor of the restaurant.

“Shall we?” offered Honour, gesturing to the door like an usher or a footman standing by his carriage. Viridian and Matthias dashed for the stairs, squeezing past Dokor. On the top of the step, Matthias paused to survey Honour and Dokor’s handiwork.

“Impressive,” he said with a nod and a smile. Honour smiled back with ferocious joy.

The Green Knight half fell into the pie shop’s main serving room with a dusty crash after finally smashing a hole large enough for its cast iron bulk. It’s gears rattled loudly as it turned at the waist to face the fleeing fugitives. Then it paused. Matthias and Viridian dashed out the door just as a slender, green-coated man clambered over the rubble of the hole left by the Green Knight. He reached the floor of the pie shop in time to see Honour exit through the door.

“Get them,” he shouted at the steamjack, which hissed and rattled back into motion. With a belch of coal smoke from its exhaust, the Green Knight tossed the broken remnants of the pie shop’s furniture aside and charged towards the fleeing Dokor. As he ran up the stairs the ogrun warrior tore off one of the upturned table’s legs and threw it at the steamjack’s operator. His aim was askew however, and his makeshift projectile only bounced harmlessly off the girder’s of the Knight’s right arm. Then he was out the door, into the midday light.

—-

Captain Horace Fauxall, commandant of the watch, was pleased to see the fourth fugitive emerge from the pie shop. The ogrun came to a halt next to the other criminals, who stood still in the street, like timid deer. Between himself and the fugitives was the entire of his command, fully one quarter of the greencoats’ total strength. Most were armed only with the brass-bound batons that were the standard issue amongst the Five Fingers watch, but some held swords or spears and at least a dozen carried pistols. It was clearly overkill, turning out so many men at arms for only four lawbreakers, but Horace understood well the integral relationship between power and the appearance of power. Street fights between rival gangs were one thing, openly beating one of his watchmen was another thing all together. The Captain wanted to make sure that everyone in the district understood who was in charge. The gunmage Matthias Warlock had skirted around insolence and lawlessness for a long time. Now it seemed he had gathered himself a crew and was prepared to flout the greencoats’ authority openly. Horace would not tolerate it!

Behind the emerging ogrun the walls of the pie shop began to groan and spit pieces of brick. Horace cast a wary eye upward as he noticed cracks extending from the pie shop in the building’s basement all the way to the top floor, three storey’s above the street. Like so many steamjacks, the Green Knight was a simple machine, powerful but not given to sophistication. It needed to be kept on a short leash or else it could easily run amok. Horace turned to his sergeant of the watch, who was standing beside him.

“Tomask needs to call that bloody thing off,” said Horace. “Where is the little bleeder?”

“In there,” replied the sergeant, horrified, as the pie shop building began to topple into the intersection. The ground shook and a vast cloud of rubble and debris cascaded onto the cobbles of the street. Horace tried to shout a warning to his men but was knocked flat by a piece brick that struck him in the chest. Dazed, he watched the dust blow over him like a dirty pink fog. Vaguely, he thought that there was something he should be concerned with but he couldn’t remember what. The important thing danced like a will-o-the-wisp at the edge of his mind. Whenever he tried to grasp it, it flitted away, teasing him. In spite of this though, he felt warm and quite restful. He lay for some time, enjoying the peaceful silence

Horace’s restfulness was disturbed by the face of his sergeant, which appeared, blood-streaked and dirty, in his view. The sergeant seemed very worried about something. Then another face appeared; it was Rector Habrann, priest of Ascendant Solovin. The Rector was saying something that Horace could not hear. Then he felt a hand grip him under his head and he realised that his hair was wet. He wondered vaguely if he had fallen in a puddle. The Rector’s mouth continued to move and as it did so, Horace’s hearing began to return. At first it was only the priest’s words, beginning as a far off whisper and then growing in tone and timbre till the rich syllables of the healing prayer washed through him. Then gradually came other sounds, such as the occasional rattle of settling masonry, intermingled with pained groans and moans. Last of all came the panicked calls of his men, rushing to see to their wounded. As his sergeant and the Rector levered him upright, Horace finally grasped the will-o-the-wisp. Sitting up he could see the carnage that the collapsing building had wrought.

“Your head is healed,” said Rector Habrann in his gentle voice. “But you still have other wounds.”

Captain Horace shrugged off the priest’s hand and made to stand up, but he was struck breathless by a savage pain in his chest. His head swam dizzily.

“You have three broken ribs,” explained the Rector apologetically. “It’s a good thing that you were wearing your chain shirt, or the brick which struck you would surely have killed you.”

Horace absorbed the man’s words as he looked about, seeing easily half of his men wounded or worse. Tempers were frayed, several of his men bickered even as the dying needed aid. Fury like a blossom of red hot blades bloomed in Horace’s heart. He fixed his sergeant with a glare.

“The Warlock’s mob?” he asked in a growl equal parts pain and anger.

“Escaped, we think,” said the sergeant with a shake of the head.

“Send a runner,” began the Captain, then he stopped as a fit of agonised coughing shook his body. He swallowed painfully and regained control of his battered body. “Send a runner; close the bridges and tell the Commander. Get every spare ‘coat over here. They’re going to go to ground somewhere! We want to keep them in the district and we want a ratter down every hole they could hide in. We’ll flush the bastards out and when we do I’m going to tan their bloody hides for a new cloak!”

The sergeant dashed off, certain that the Captain meant every word. As the man rushed off, the Captain cast another eye about, making a more thorough assessment of the damage. When he realised that he could not see the greencoats’ steamjack, he called to another of his men, sitting nearby; “Where’s the Green Knight?”

The man nodded to the pile of rubble where the pie shop had once been. “Buried under there,” he said. “Someone said the dust had put the boiler fire out, clogged the pipes!”

Horace wanted the steamjack back up and operational as soon as possible. “And where’s Tomask?” he asked.

“With the Knight, I guess!”

5  Thane of the Red Serpents – Part 1

The sunlight shining in the window of Matthias’ rooms was tinged orange by the dust cloud floating over the district from the collapse of the pie shop building. Inside, the four new met companions were grey from the same dust and the dry scent of broken mortar filled the room. Viridian sat upon Matthias’ bed, massaging her calf, which had been struck by a small piece of flying brick from the collapsing edifice. When the three storey block had fallen, it had been into the intersection and away from the part of the street where Matthias and the others had been standing. Seeing their chance, they had fled back down the street as the avalanche boomed across the cobblestones and struck down the waiting greencoats. They managed to outrun the havok in the street, except for Viridian’s minor wound; when the flying stonework had knocked her from her feet, Dokor had ducked back and scooped her up without a word. Now they were holed up in Matthias’ rooms at the Corvis Knight Duelling Academy.

Dokor crouched under the frame of the open door, with Honour standing next to him, watching Matthias Warlock move back and forth between the bed and his chest, packing a kit bag. With a practiced eye the gunmage swiftly sorted through his possessions and neatly packed them into the canvas bag. It was striking how little he actually owned; only a spare pair of trousers, three leather bound books, an assortment of odds and ends and a hardwood box which held his gunsmith’s kit, bullet maker and pistol cleaning tools. Last of all, on top of everything else, the Warlock packed the two wrapped axes into the kit bag.

“You still have those things?” asked Honour, incredulous that he would continue to carry the bloody weapons.

“I suspect that they will come in useful quite soon,” answered Matthias.

“Well at least clean them,” Honour urged.

“That would substantially reduce their usefulness.”

Honour was astonished by this comment. She looked to Viridian, to see if the red haired pistoleer understood his meaning, but Viridian shook her head, equally at a loss. Matthias pulled the cords on his bag and tied it closed. Hefting his worldly possessions onto his shoulder, he turned to the others.

“Time to go ladies; gentleman,” he said.

“Where do we go?” asked Honour.

“You may go where you wish,” Matthias offered with a flourish of his free hand. “I mean to leave the Five Fingers as soon and as directly as I may. To stay would be to tempt my greencoated fate, I think.”

“Why do you fear these watchmen so?” asked Viridian. “They seem to be little more than thugs.”

“Of course they are thugs!” snapped the Warlock. “They are thugs with the law on their side. Look, Five Fingers is full of competing interests. It is a maelstrom, a storm at sea, with every wave crashing continually against all others. Riding in a ship atop this roiling ocean, protected from its dangers, are the nobles and the Merchant’s Guild. Like the passengers of any ship, they do not genuinely care what happens beneath them as long as they stay afloat. The greencoats are the crew of this ship of state, charged only with keeping the vessel seaworthy and keeping the maelstrom at bay. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” muttered Honour. “A poetic description, I’m sure.” Matthias stalked the short distance between himself and the armoured woman, coming to stand in front of her with his face mere inches from hers.

“I would wager that a fair number of the greencoats are currently buried under that rubble, never to arise to draw breath again,” he said in a low, terse voice. “When the maelstrom sweeps some of the crew into the sea, do you know what a Captain does? He orders the entire crew on deck to ensure that the ship still sails and does not flounder. That is what is happening right now, I can assure you. The entire watch being mobilised to find us and kill us!”

Dokor shifted forward awkwardly under the low roof. He put his hand between Honour and Matthias, laying his palm on Matthias’ chest, pushing the gunmage a step backwards.

“Stand down!” Dokor ordered with a surprisingly clear and clipped pronunciation. It was the surprise of the ogrun’s erudite speech, as much as the strength of his push, that caused the Warlock to step off from the confrontation. Dokor and Honour both glared at Matthias and the gunmage returned their ire, as the tension in the room grew. The Warlock’s fingers twitched involuntarily, his hand hovering dangerously close to the butt of his magelock.

“Where will you go?” asked Viridian quickly, seeking to defuse the imminent conflict.

“To the docks, probably,” Matthias explained. “As long as I can get to the lifts before they are closed. Then I will look for a ship heading out as soon as possible. Put some distance between me and here as fast as I can.”

“We have a vessel,” said Honour smugly. Matthias snapped a cold look at her. “It seems that our Lord Morrow is showing you the righteous path. Coming with us makes so much more sense now, does it not?”

Matthias turned his eyes upward and let out a long sigh of frustration and exhaustion. All he wanted was to sleep somewhere safe; now even that was denied to him. Eventually he looked back to the confident lady warrior. “Why are you so desperate to find that island?” he asked wearily.

“We told you, a beloved comrade of ours is there. We go to her rescue!”

“She is already dead, you know that,” said Matthias. “Everyone dies there!”

“We believe otherwise,” countered Honour.

“And we must try, regardless,” added Viridian.

“Alright, I will show you the way,” agreed Matthias, shaking his head with a sour frown on his face. “But we have to get to the docks as fast as possible.”

“To the lifts then,” Viridian said as she jumped up from the bed, a grimace passing over her face when she landed on her injured leg.

“No,” Matthias disagreed. “Not the four of us; not to the lifts. There is somewhere else we need to go instead!”

—-

The four companions made their way through back alleys and streets so narrow that the sides of the surrounding buildings crowded out the sky above. Matthias Warlock guided them through midday shadows, under eaves and past open doorways that led to commerce so unspeakable that daylight would never shine upon it. They passed by the back of a leather tanners yard, the noisome stench of the curing hides causing them to cough and their eyes to water. At last they made their way up a wooden stairway to a balcony running the length of the back of a brick tenement. The hardwood steps creaked under Dokor’s feet, the struts beneath swaying more than was comfortable, but the structure held.

The gunmage strode along the balcony, past windows shuttered or curtained against the cold and the evil of the world outside. Halfway along, two burly men festooned with knives of myriad styles and designs, confronted the advancing group, blocking the way.

“I am here to see the Thane,” said Matthias. The two men glanced at each other.

“You got business?” asked one. His breath smelt rotten and his brown, stained teeth showed several gaps.

“No I just thought I would pay the bloodthirsty little monster a social call.”

“You got a smart mouth!”

“Yes, well,” Matthias conceded. “I am sure you could discuss it with my friend here.” He looked over his shoulder at Dokor, whose eight foot frame filled the walkway at the back of the group. In spite of the distance between them, Dokor’s traditional ogrun polearm would easily have reached either of the two men blocking the way. With a grunt that was meant to sound like disinterest but still sounded like fear the bad-toothed man stepped aside, as did his mate. Matthias, Honour and Viridian pushed past, but Dokor took up a position standing in front the two knife men.

“I shall await your return here,” said the well spoken ogrun.

The three continued down the balcony a little way until they came to a doorway, blocked by a heavy curtain, more like a blanket, plainly capable of keeping the cold at bay. Matthias pushed the dark weave aside, offering the way to Viridian and Honour.

“Dokor will watch out backs,” said Honour confidently as she stepped past the gunmage.

“No doubt,” agreed Matthias, looking back down the wooden walkway to where the two knife wielders stood uncomfortably in the presence of the gigantic warrior.

“Who were they?” asked Viridian.

“Red Serpents,” whispered Matthias, following the two women into the dim quiet beyond the curtain.

“Another gang?”

“Yes.”

The room that the three of them stood in was dim, with the only light coming from a fire crackling in a grate  in the far side wall. There were two men seated on the floor, with tattered cloaks wrapped about them, to ward off the cold. They were ready to rise and confront the new arrivals when a sour voice called from beyond the room’s only other door; “Who let in the bloody draft?”

“We are here to see the Thane,” Matthias explained. The two men appeared to relax. One of them nodded to the other doorway, but as he did so he drew forth a heavy crossbow from under his cloak. He smiled in a knowing fashion, making sure his message was clear. Matthias smiled back, predator to predator.

“Who is this Thane?” asked Honour quietly as Matthias led them to the inner room.

This room was as bare as the antechamber had been. Another humble fire burned here to light the room in a wan, yellow glow. In the middle of the room three sat about a table, playing cards. One was a human, willow thin and dressed in dirty leather and moleskins. The second was a gobber, a bright gold ring in his nose and another three in his left ear. The last was a dwarf, a typically solid Rhul, with long black hair in numerous plaits. His clean shaven face was marked with numerous tattoos in some foreign tongue. As the three companions entered the room, he rose from his seat and threw his cards to the table.

“What d’you wankers want?” he demanded in a heavily accented voice.

“Honour; Viridian,” said Matthias with a sardonic smile. “May I introduce Garreck Three Fingers Short; the Thane of the Red Serpents!”

6 Thane of the Red Serpents – Part 2

Garreck Three Fingers Short, Thane of the Red Serpents put down his cards and stepped out from behind the table. As his body shifted, a large bore pistol was visible tucked into the back of his trousers. He cracked his knuckles noisily as he stood surveying the gunmage and his two female companions.

“You better be ‘ere on business,” he said, cocking his head lazily on one side. “I’m losin’ at the table an’ ain’t in no mood for payin’ court.”

“It’s business,” said Matthias. There was silence for a moment as the Thane waited to see whether he would go on.

“Well? What, then?” asked Garreck, making a show of his impatience. The Warlock reached into the pack on his back and drew forth the parcel of wrapped axes; the two katrena’s hooks he had used in the morning’s street battle. With a deft throw, he tossed the parcel onto the card table with a heavy clatter that scattered coins and cards.

“There is the blood of four Goslings on those,” Matthias explained as Garreck’s gobber companion unwrapped the package. The inside of the blouse was smeared with drying red streaks and it made a ripping sound as the clotted blood was pulled from the blades. The Thane looked at the two weapons, stroking his tattooed chin as he did.

“Only two of ‘em’s dead though,” he commented, showing that he had already heard of Matthias’ combat outside the Corvis’ Knight Academy.

“Plus the sniper!” protested Viridian.

“Plus the sniper,” repeated Matthias. “That’s good service by the Red Serpents. You still pay bounty on Gosling feathers.”

A wordless conversation passed between the Thane and his men, their eyes debating the pros and cons of the Warlock’s presence. Finally Garreck turned back to face the visitors.

“What you want?” he asked.

“We need your help getting to the docks.” The Thane guffawed with puzzled laughter.

“Do I look like a mekanik?” he asked. “What you need to come to me for that?”

Three Fingers Short’s laughter made Viridian and Honour uncomfortable. The human at the card table also payed them close attention. Their skin crawled under his gaze and Honour in particular felt on a ready edge. She rested her hand on the hilt of her sword, a provocative gesture.

“There’s a green gate we need to get past,” Matthias explained. Garreck fixed him with a cold gaze through slitted eyes, then cast glances back at his men. He noticed that one of them was too busy undressing the women with his eyes to pay attention.

“That trouble with the Green Knight?” said the Thane, crossing the short distance to the card table. He gave his lustful cohort a heavy handed cuff across the back of the head. The man rubbed his scalp in angry discomfort, glaring at his boss momentarily and then lowering his eyes in submission. “That was you? You done a lot o’ damage there!”

“T’was their ‘jack that did the damage,” Honour declared. “We were offered no opportunity to make a peaceful resolution to the event.”

“Ooh she talks as fancy as she looks!” declared the gobber with a cackling laugh.

“Aye, ‘at she does,” agreed Garreck. “E’en fancier ‘an you Warlock!” Matthias nodded.

“You get your information very fresh indeed if you know about the Green Knight already,” said the Warlock. “The dust has not even settled yet.”

“This be my quarter,” Garreck declared with savage pride. “Nothin’ ‘appens ‘ere as I don’ know ‘bout it!”

“And yet the Goslings walked straight up to the Academy steps and issued me a challenge in broad light. What was that about?”

Garreck’s eyes narrowed angrily at Matthias’ implicit accusation. “You’r’ wearin’ out’cha welcome, gunmage!”

“So let us down your tunnels and we will be out of your hair!” snapped Matthias. The three Red Serpents recoiled as if slapped by the Warlock’s words. “Oh honestly, don’t look at me like that,” Matthias continued. “They are not the Five Finger’s best kept secret, you know!”

“Them tunnels’re the most precious asset of the Red Serpents,” said Garreck through gritted teeth. “No one not blooded to our brother’ood ‘as ever laid eyes on ‘em and lived.”

“Then we would become the first, would we not?” said Honour. Her words were like an icy wind that blew away the conversations. Three Fingers Short lapsed into silence, considering Matthias’ request. He was plainly loath to take non-Serpents anywhere near the ‘secret’ tunnels, but since they already knew of the tunnel’s existence, it made keeping them out seem a little pointless.

“No, it ain’t worth it!” Garreck declared at last. As the companions absorbed his decision, the man seated at the table made a foolish suggestion.

“’Ere, Garreck,” he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Maybe ‘e could give us each a go ‘round wif’ ‘is whores. I’d sell me own muvva for a taste o’ that one!”

In a single swift stroke, Honour’s bastard sword swept from its scabbard and bit deep into the card player’s throat. She drew the blade back with a wrench and he slumped to the table, dead.

“Well that was a damn fool thing ta say!” declared Garreck as the man’s blood flowed across the cards and coins scattered on the table. Honour stood by with her blade still drawn, blood dripping from its edge. Looking back at his man one last time, Three Fingers Short noticed the cards that had fallen from the dead man’s hand.

“Oh, ‘t looks like ya saved me some money,” he said, realising that he had another losing hand.

“Enough to buy us a trip through your tunnels?” asked Viridian cheekily. Garreck couldn’t help but smirk.

“Yeah, alright. I’ll take you three there…”

“Four,” corrected Matthias. “We have a companion awaiting our return outside.”

“Four then,” said Garreck with a shrug. To the gobber he said, “Get this cleaned up while I’m gone, will ya Greyfingers.”

Greyfingers the gobber nodded.

“And tha’s my money right there,” Garreck added. “I know how much was bet, it better be there when I get back! You can have ‘is pocketwatch if ya likes.”

Garreck pointed the party to the doorway and led them out. The two guards in the outer room seemed surprised by the sight of Honour’s bloody blade as she paused to clean it on the room’s rough woollen curtains. They had heard no sounds of struggle, so they were not sure what had happened. When Greyfingers called them in to clear away the corpse, their thoughts turned immediately to the question of who would replace the Thane’s fallen lieutenant. By the time the body was out the door, the Red Serpents had all but forgotten about Matthias Warlock and his strange and pretty companions.

7  Smuggler’s Tunnels

The bronze hinges of the ancient gate screeched in the flickering shadows as Garreck Three Fingers Short opened the way into the secret tunnels of the Red Serpents. He thrust his glass lensed lantern through the open gateway and then paused on the threshold. Bending down, he inserted a flat piece of wood underneath a section of the gate frame, wedging it in tightly.

“Trap?” asked Viridian with a professional interest.

“Drop down spikes,” said Garreck, pointing to a series of finger-wide holes in the lintel of the gate. “Nasty if they run through you.”

“And they form a second gate to block entry,” Viridian said, admiring the thinking behind the lethal security device. “Very nice!”

“Yes, well shall we continue then?” asked Honour. She looked over her shoulder at Dokor, mentally sizing up his chances of fitting into the narrow tunnel. Garreck recognised her concern.

“He should be alright,” said the gang leader. “S’not as tight as’t looks. We ship a lot o’ cargo through these tunnels. Now you’se better follow me, since there’s lots o’ traps twixt ‘ere and the bottom!”

Holding the lamp overhead, Garreck stepped through the gateway and headed down the carved stone steps. The others followed, one after another, and found that, true to Garreck’s word, the tunnels past the gate were much wider than they first appeared. Nonetheless, Dokor was cramped in narrow passages and forced to duck his head continually. The butt of his warcleaver frequently smacked against the walls, as he manoeuvred the awkward polearm around twists in the passageway.

“Do you trust this dwarf?” asked Honour of Matthias in a whispered voice that echoed regardless in the tight space of the tunnel. Three Fingers Short disarmed another pressure plate, not bothering to explain the danger it might have triggered otherwise.

“Not in the slightest,” answered Matthias. “But I see no other choice for us. Right now the streets above us are swarming with the Greencoats, out for blood I would expect.”

“They are corrupt; how do the people abide them?” Honour shook her head in disbelief.

“The people have little choice,” explained Matthias, carefully stepping over a puddle on the stair below his foot. “It grows colder.” Off to one side an unlit passage yawned, cold and impenetrably dark.

“We’s deep in the Finger, now,” echoed Garreck’s voice from below. “E’en in high summer this place’s cool and damp! We used to store contraband down ‘ere, for years, but everyfin’ rotted away in the wet.” Viridian chuckled, plainly amused by the notion of smugglers losing their inventory because of their obsessive secrecy. Even Garreck’s black disapproval did nothing to dim her amusement.

They continued downward, careful to step only where Garreck approved. “Only me an’ me most trusted knows every one,” he declared of the passage’s seemingly vast number of traps and dangers. For a time the stairs grew very steep and the companions were forced to walk with one hand always upon the walls for support. Twice Dokor slipped, his booted feet too large for the steps, and nearly tumbled down upon his comrades. His size spared them however, as he never had to reach far to save himself. By the time the stairs began to shallow though, he was scraped and scratched and his leather tunic was badly marked and torn.

The shallowing slope of the stairs gave way to a single passageway, and then the tunnel widened further until it became a chamber, several yards across. Garreck walked confidently up to the dead end wall at the other end of the chamber. Set in the stone was a rusted iron ring, in the middle of a flat circle that might have been a door if not for the lack of an outline or gap to separate door from wall. The air of the chamber was moist and smelt of the sea; salt and rotting seaweed. Viridian wrinkled her nose at the air.

“So this is it?” she asked.

“Aye,” agreed Garreck. “Now we wait.”

“For what?”

“For night fall!”

“Why?” asked Honour as she drew close to the lamplight, her suspicious eyes shadowed in the pressing darkness.

“Rhulic hands carved these tunnels, centuries ago, during the occupation of the Orgoth,” Garreck explained. “Talented with stone like no man nor Ios ‘as ever been, they started the smugglin’ trade ‘ere in Five Fingers. They set this door so it won’t open, won’t even seem like more’n a piece a rock ‘til no sun shines on the outside.”

“A smuggler’s door,” observed Viridian with an approving nod. Garreck returned the nod.

“So we simply wait?” asked Honour, frustration furrowing her brow.

“Does anyone have a deck of cards?” Matthias asked pleasantly.

—-

The hours passed slowly, with Garreck crouching in silence against the rough stone wall and tending the lantern. He showed the patience for which his people were famous. Honour and Viridian quickly lost their patience with the waiting though and they took to alternately sitting on the ground and pacing back and forth. At length, Dokor invited Honour to prayer and the two knelt upon the rock and prayed to Morrow. Honour’s impatience abated as she sought solace from her god, leaving Viridian alone in her frustration. For his part, Matthias sat crosslegged upon the floor with his back against the wall, apparently sleeping.

After what seemed an interminable time, Garreck pushed himself up with a groan, stretching his stout legs. He trimmed the lamp’s wick till the glow was extinguished. In the sudden darkness, an oval of glowing light appeared in the stone wall around the iron ring. Three Fingers Short gripped the handle and gave a hard shove. The magical, stone door swung outward in a smooth motion, revealing the night sky beyond. The starlight shone into the chamber and Viridian, Honour and Dokor breathed audible sighs of relief.

“You mob’d never survive a day as Rhul,” said Garreck with a snide smirk.

“I have neither the desire nor the need to survive even an hour as a dwarf,” said Honour.

“Never know, you might like it,” Garreck quipped. “I suppose we should wake the gunmage.”

“No need,” came Matthias’ voice from the shadows. “Are we going or staying?”

“We’re going.” Garreck led them out onto a rocky ledge, some twenty feet above the lapping waves of the river. “We follow this around not ten yards and end up on the back of the south docks.”

The companions made their way around the rocky bend and were struck at once with the sight of the bustling docks of the Five Fingers, the ancient wood and stone network that linked the bases of all five mesas of the city. While the city itself rested upon the tops of the vast pillars of natural stone, each more than a mile across, around the base were the docks, stone footings supporting jetties, berths and bridges. A hundred ships of every nation rocked gently on the tide while far to the north, the hiss of the massive steam driven lifts could be heard over the gulls and the shouts of a thousand dock hands. While there were occasional ladders and the odd secret tunnel, like the Red Serpents’, the main method of transit between the river level and the city above were the huge, steam-powered, iron lifts that ran up the side of the largest mesa, climbing on cogged wheels like a monstrous black beetles. Even in the dark of the evening, lamplight lit the whole of the lift track, from river to roof, as the locals put it. If the companions had tried to make their way down to the docks via the lifts they would surely have been spotted by the greencoats.

Walking onto the dock footings, the group emerged from between to stacks of wooden crates, bearing the mark of a Khador trading house. As they did they were confronted by a group of armed men, and a few women. A motley gathering, all wielded a blade or mace of some kind, and in the centre of them was Oily Hermes, his wounded hand bandaged, but still wearing the blood stained blouse of the morning’s battle.

“Been waitin’ fer ya, Warlock,” declared the boss of the Gosling Street Runners. “Figured we’d turn out the whole crew fer this party!”

8   On the Waterfront

“A trap!” hissed Viridian, hands to her pistols.

“We are betrayed!” declared Honour, looking to Three Fingers Short standing at the back of their number. The dwarven bravo shuffled his feet backward, apparently preparing to bolt back to Red Serpent’s tunnels. His flight was stopped though, as Oily Hermes called out to him.

“T’ain’t no escape that way, Garreck,” shouted the leader of the Gosling Street Runners. “You’ll find that door’s locked for good, far as you’re concerned!” From behind Oily Hermes the small, greyskinned figure of a gobber appeared, his nose and ears pierced with gold rings.

“Greyfingers?” said Garreck in surprised and confusion. “ ‘Ave you betrayed your brothers?”

“Not me brothers, just you, ya daft dwarf,” answered the gobber, his eyes slitted and his lips twisted in contempt. “The Red Serpents’s mine now. An’ me name’s Roggilint; you were the only fool as ever called me Greyfingers!”

“There’s a new way of things, Three Fingers Short,” declared Oily Hermes, eliciting chuckles from his gang. “The Goslings and the Serpents is allies now, and we embrace our new brother Roggilint.” He reached a hand down to rub the gobber’s ear affectionately, as though he were a pet or a favourite child.

“You fool,” said Garreck, a strange compassion mixed with anger in his voice. The deposed gang leader drew out his pistol and a long dagger, holding each at the ready. “Ready to shed some more Gosling blood, Warlock?”

“You would fight with us?” asked Honour, astonished by the fast moving politics of the Five Finger’s streets.

“Not much choice now!”

There was the familiar ratcheting of musket hammers and several Goslings moved aside to allow riflemen and pistoleers to step to the fore. There was a fraction of a second and then smoke and fire erupted in the space between the two forces, followed closely by the sound of musket balls striking home. Oily Hermes had told his gunners to focus upon two foes, the gunmage and the ogrun, thinking to remove them from the fight at the first and then to make an easy job of the remaining foes. It did not work out the way he hoped.

Knowing that danger was coming, Matthias Warlock conjured a shield of arcane energy that managed to deflect the bullets aimed at him; two shots deflected harmlessly and a third bit its way into the wooden dock mere inches from Viridian’s booted foot. She never even noticed. Only three of the four bullets aimed at Dokor found their target, and none of those fatally. Rather, it seemed that the shots served only to enrage the ogrun warrior, for he bellowed a deafening warcry that echoed over the noise of the docks, and charged through the smoke at the Gosling marksmen. Two fell under the executioner strikes of the giant’s cleaver before any could even think to defend themselves. The stand-off dissolved into chaos as the battle was joined, and Matthias rushed forward to support Dokor.

Still standing between the stacked crates, Honour drew her blade and lifting it high, offered a swift prayer to Morrow and Katrenna, ready to charge into battle. It was this that saved her, as looking up she saw the crates being pushed just before they fell. Her adamant battle blade smashed one heavy box as others fell into the gap and she shouted warnings to her comrades. Swiftly following the crates came several Goslings, wielding fighting knives and thinking to drop down in ambush. Instead they found themselves confronted by three ready opponents. Viridian fired a volley from both pistols as Garreck and Honour used their blades to good effect, and all four gang members were dead almost as soon as they landed upon the dock.

Dokor continued to attack the other Goslings, laying about with his long-hafted weapon. In short order, all of the gunners were wounded or slain and the other Goslings were circling about him, trying to get inside the reach of his warcleaver. His strikes were too swift, driving back assailants, even as he sought new opponents. Dokor’s sheer power would be enough to give even battle ready knights pause; the street fighting Goslings were at a loss to do aught to even slow his raging assault. Nonetheless, like swarming flies, they continually did their best to flank him and at the same time avoid his blows.

For his part, Matthias weaved through the battle like an expert dancer on the dance floor. Weaving, bobbing and dodging past opponents more concerned with the roaring giant laying about them, the Warlock quickly found himself confronting Oily Hermes and his new-found gobber friend.

“Twice now the gods have spared you when you faced me Hermes,” said the Warlock. “Are you just too stupid to live?”

“I’ll survive you this day gunmage!” spat Hermes.

“I think not.”

Matthias began a spell, eyes focussed on the Gosling leader, but he was interrupted when Hermes seized up the surprised Roggilint by his shirt and hurled the little gobber one handed, like a bowling ball. Matthias dodged to his left as the gobber traitor went sailing past, barrelling into a Gosling behind them. Even as Matthias dodged though, Oily Hermes was lunging with his rapier, the weapon’s fine point tracing a scarlet line along the Warlock’s neck, a half second from tearing his throat out. Not pausing to reflect upon his luck, Matthias stepped into Hermes, using one hand to grasp for the gang leader’s rapier, while the other punched at his face. The blow crashed into Herme’s face, cracking his cheek bone and jaw. The Gosling leader staggered back, but managed to keep control of his rapier, wrenching it from Matthias grip. Now some way from the main of the combat, the two men faced one another; Hermes face was filled with venomous hatred.

Keeping his breathing steady by force of will, Matthias cursed his luck, having had not one chance throughout the day to stop and buy more ammunition. He could feel the comforting weight of his magelock, tucked into the back of his sash and yet it could not serve him as it should. Hermes lunged again, a clever series of thrusts. This time Matthias merely retreated, drawing the Gosling leader farther from his gang. As the last stroke of the rapier fell short, the Warlock lunged inwards with a sweeping uppercut. Hermes saw it coming and managed to shift his head out of the way, taking the impact on his shoulder. Matthias danced back again and the two men continued to circle, looking for a new opening. Oily Hermes leaned forward, about to lunge again, when he hesitated. Matthias could see by his expression that Hermes had seen something behind him. Leaving one hand out to guard against an attack from Hermes, he sidestepped and looked back over his shoulder to see the diminutive figure of Roggilint charging toward him. He put his other hand up to guard against an attack, but was astonished as the Red Serpent’s new leader rushed straight past him and jumped at Oily Hermes. Completely surprised by Roggilint’s attack, Hermes did nothing to defend himself and fell backwards as the gobber returned treachery for treachery.

“Throw me will ya?” screamed Roggilint. “I’ll show you! I’ll show all you stupid long shanks and your stupid games. I’ll show you ‘ow a gobber kills ‘is enemies!”

Oily Hermes screamed as Roggilint stabbed him time and again with a short bladed dagger, no larger than a paring knife. The gobber was lost in a rage of repressed hatred, stabbing the Gosling’s leader in the face, neck and chest. The furious assault had not abated when Garreck Three Fingers Short came up behind Roggilint and, wielding his own short sword swiftly and adroitly, slit the gobber’s throat. As Roggilint rolled off Hermes, Garreck looked to Matthias, who stood by.

“I guess I never did show ol’ Greyfingers much respect,” Garreck observed. “Still, don’t make it right that ‘e betrayed me!”

Matthias only shrugged and then stepped over top Oily Hermes body. Crouching down, he could hear the gang leader sucking his last gurgling breaths through his slashed and torn larynx. Roggilint’s knife had ravaged Herme’s face and as Matthias leaned close, he realised that his enemy could not see him, for his eyes were too damaged.

“I spared you twice Hermes,” Matthias whispered. “It is a shame to waste mercy.”

The gunmage swiftly conjured a spell, and touched his fingers to Hermes chest. A charge, like a tiny shock of lightning, leapt into the Gosling’s body and he breathed his last. Matthias stood up over Hermes corpse and faced the melee. With a loud voice he cried out; “Oily Hermes is dead! The Gosling is dead!”

The combat paused, and then ceased altogether. Dokor, the rage seeping from him with the blood that flowed from his wounds, leant upon his warcleaver wearily. Honour and Viridian held weapons at the ready, unsure of what might happen next. Those Gosling Street Runners still standing began to drift away, like revellers dismissed from a party. Some paused to carry off their dead or wounded, most walked off like mourners at a funeral.

“That ended quickly,” observed Viridian, holstering her pistols.

“They was only ‘ere on Oily’s business,” explained Garreck, cleaning his short sword. “Nothin’ ta fight for if ‘e’s dead!”

From across the docks there came the fluting cry of brass whistles, along with the shuddering thump of giant, iron feet. Matthias and Garreck looked swiftly in the direction. Honour ignored the noises, instead prayerfully tending to her ogrun companion’s wounds. Viridian shared the concerns of the two Five Fingers dwellers.

“What is it?” asked the elven pistoleer.

“Looks like they’ve dug the Green Knight out,” Matthias said.

“And they’s comin’ in force,” Garreck added.

“So what now?”

“Now we flee!” declared the Warlock. “Perhaps you would care to show us the way to that boat you mentioned?”

9   New Allies

The companions’ boots thumped upon the thick hardwood planks of the jetty as they rushed to their boat, a small steam paddler named the Puffing Bey. Honour leapt with confidence from the dock’s edge to the gunwales, calling out to the pilot to stoke the boiler and get them under way. Viridian lead the others to a single plank gangway, skidding slightly on the wet wood. She was quickly followed aboard by Dokor, who ducked into the cabin and rushed to help with the boiler. Lastly came Matthias and Garreck. The two of them paused at the gangway and looked to each other.

“My thanks for your help, Three Fingers Short,” said Matthias. The dwarf nodded with a grim face and then looked over his shoulder to the dock. In the distant lamplight they could make out greencoated figures rushing about the dock, seeking out survivors of the Gosling Street Runner’s ambush.

“It looks a bit hairy back there,” Matthias observed.

“Will be for some while, I’d say,” agreed Garreck. “It’s not goin’ ta be business as usual and that’s even if I manage ta get the Red Serpents back under heel!” The dwarf sighed like a man defeated, too weary to contemplate the next leg of his life’s journey.

“Come with us!” invited Matthias. Garreck shot him a suspicious look.

“You serious?”

“Yes. Of course where we are going is no fest day, I assure you, but at least you won’t have to deal with the Greencoats. And I think I could use a street smart blade at my side on this little voyage.”

Garreck considered the offer quietly. When the day had dawned he was powerful, feared and secure in his position. Now, his most trusted lieutenant had turned on him, his gang’s power base was rapidly eroding under the power of the greencoats and he was in fear for his life. In all likelihood, even if he stayed, this would be his last day in the Five Fingers. With a wry smile he nodded and then walked down the gangway. Once on board, he and Matthias pulled the plank after them and moved aft to help Viridian cast off. The elf noted Garreck’s presence on board with a raised eyebrow and a shrug. Then the three of them drew in the lines and the Puffing Bey began to pull slowly from the jetty.

Soot-filled smoke belched from the twin iron stacks, as the paddle wheels at either side of the main cabins started to creak and turn. From the wheel house at the top of the vessel a voice called to someone in the bow. Following the shouted orders, a crewman leant out over the gunwales and pushed the bow further away from the jetty with a heavy gaff-hook. For many moments, the little steamer made slow progress away into the darkness of the river at night. From their place at the stern, Viridian, Matthias and Garreck could make out the figures of the greencoats working their way along the docks, arresting anyone suspicious. Two guardsmen armed with brass-shod clubs worked their way down the jetty, checking each moored boat in turn. By the time they reached the Bey’s moorings, the steamer was just reaching the main course of the river’s flow, beyond sight. Silhouetted by the lights of the docks, the two men were clearly visible. The passengers on the Bey breathed a sigh of relief when the guards turned and walked back down jetty.

“Do you think they knew it was us?” asked Viridian as Matthias and Garreck sank down to the deck, sitting with their backs against the gunwales.

“Maybe,” answered Matthias with a shrug.

“Even if’n they di’n’t, they soon will from the Goslings they arrested,” added Garreck, slipping further down and stretching out on the deck. In spite of the uncomfortable position, he was soon fast asleep, snoring loudly. Viridian took up a place sitting next to Matthias. As she lowered herself she noticed a trickle of blood running down her left arm; investigating, she found a small dagger cut just near the shoulder.

“Tsk, I took a hit,” she said, plainly annoyed. “I didn’t even notice.”

“It can be like that when the blood’s up,” said the Warlock, staring up at the stars. Viridian fished in a pouch at her belt and drew forth a small, silver case. Opening the case, she drew forth a cigarillo. She put the cigarillo to her lips and flicked back a covered section of the case. She pressed the cigarillo end into the opened section and sucked it  to life with obvious satisfaction. She was about to close the case when she noticed that Matthias was watching her.

“Want one?” she offered. Matthias shook his head.

“No thanks; forsaken vice.”

“What?” asked Viridian as she packed her cigarillo case away.

“It’s a church thing,” explained the Warlock. “From my days in the Order. Novices are often asked to show their commitment to the faith by forsaking a vice, taking something worldly that they enjoy and swearing off it for life. All the members of the Order do it at least once, most more than once.”

“What sort of things?”

“Tobacco; beer; strong drink; sex; gambling; any form of dissipation; that sort of thing.”

“So you swore off tobacco?” asked Viridian. Matthias nodded and the two of them sat together in silence for a time, watching the stars and listening to the sound of the paddles in the water. Then Viridian turned back to face her companion.

“I thought you were a heretic?” she said bluntly. With a weary breath he looked down from the stars, searching her face by the light of her cigar.

“I was put out of the Order for heresy, yes.”

“So, why do you still stick to an old commitment?”

“Because I do not consider myself a heretic,” said Matthias. “The heresy I am accused of does nothing to negate my beliefs and it is no justification for breaking oaths that I made in all honesty.”

“See, I don’t understand that,” said Viridian with a shake of her head. “I can’t see any point in staying loyal to folks who become your enemies. That just seems dumb to me.”

“It is more complicated than that.”

The pair lapsed once again into silence. Eventually, Viridian came to the end of her cigarillo and stubbed out the last little bit on the palm of her glove. She threw the stub away overboard. From the wheelhouse came the sound of voices and then of footsteps coming down the stairs to the deck. A man emerged onto the stern deck where the three were seated or sleeping. He carried a lantern with him and by its light, Matthias was able to get a clear view of him. He was young, several years younger than the gunmage; his hair was dark brown and close cropped. He was wearing a long and fine tunic over equally fine leather breeks. On his feet were black leather shoes with polished silver buckles. In spite of the man’s young age, he held himself with an air of contemptuous confidence, like that of an arrogant noble. Behind him came Honour, wearing only her tunic and sandals, her breastplate and greaves put off.

“So this is him,” said the young man with a sneer, staring down at Matthias.

“Yes,” said Honour, then she noticed Garreck’s sleeping form. “What’s he doing here?”

Viridian cast a casual eye to where Garreck lay.

“It looks like he’s sleeping,” she said. “But it might be a trick question.” Matthias smirked to himself.

“Don’t try to be smart, Viridian,” said the young man. “It doesn’t suit you.” He turned to face Matthias again. “I’m not happy about you being here, you should know that. We don’t need low-born heretics with pretensions to arcane power on this trip. You’re only function is as a guide. Remember these words and your time on board will be pleasant enough.”

“And just who are you?” asked Matthias through slitted eyes.

“He is Jonneran Kelter, mage of the Fraternal Order,” said Honour with pride. She clasped his hand.

“Her fiance,” finished the young mage, placing a proprietary kiss upon Honour’s cheek.

“Of course you are,” said Matthias with a sigh, though he couldn’t help noticing that the mage’s public display of affection was not entirely welcome. “I am just sure it will be a pleasant voyage.”

10   Life Stories

The heat from the open firebox door scoured their faces as Garreck Three Fingers Short threw a final shovel full of coal on the fire. He nodded to Matthias Warlock and the gunmage pushed the heavy iron door closed with a long handled stoker. Garreck wiped the sweat from his dirty face with the cuff of his discarded shirt, then he struck the roof of the boiler room with the shovel’s handle. Above the sound of feet running could be heard, as the ship’s crewman rushed to the wheelhouse to tell the Captain. Soon enough the valves opened and the steam engine began to chug noisily. The Puffing Bey’s paddle wheels turned faster, the sound of the splashing water clear even through the ship’s wooden hull. Garreck put down the shovel, took up his shirt and headed onto the main deck, followed by Matthias Warlock.

“It’s funny you know,” said Garreck, shrugging his shirt back over his sweaty torso. “Me da used to be an engineer on the first Khador railroad, stokin’ boilers. He was always hackin’ an’ coughin’ with soot-lung; it killed ‘im in the end, an’ broke me mam’s heart. I swore I’d never do tha’ kinda work; now look at me!”

“I am not the man to talk about broken vows with, Three Fingers,” said the Warlock. “My list is so long, I do not even remember it all.”

“Pheh! Two years you was in my territory an’ I know you never broke yer word tha’ whole time!” Garreck declared.

“You know that do you?” asked Matthias, his eyebrows arched in suspicion.

“You drew a lot more attention than you knew, gunmage.”

Matthias shrugged. He leaned on the gunwales and looked at the rushing river beneath them. The water darkened as the little ship was reaching the mouth of the river. Even now, the north bank was receding and the ship’s course was tending south to follow the coast. In another few days they would reach the north-most of the Scharde islands, the Warlock’s homeland. Then they would head west, out to sea and on to their final destination. Garreck leaned next to the Warlock and tapped him on the elbow, drawing his attention to the prow. There on the foredeck was Honour Pendragon. She was kneeling in prayer.

“What’s her story, d’ya think?” asked Garreck. Matthias shrugged.

“Paladin and devotee of Katrena, near as I can determine,” he said.

“There’s more to it than that, I can feel it. I’m a good judge of folks.”

“Like with Greyfingers?” asked Matthias with a sly smile. Garreck scowled.

“We’re never going to be close friends if you keep bringing up painful memories,” said the dwarf, reminded of his former lieutenant’s betrayal.

Matthias chuckled. Over his shoulder he heard footsteps coming down the gangway steps from the upper cabin. Turning he saw Viridian making her way down the stairs, buckling her armoured leather bodice in place and blinking in the sunlight.

“Here is one who could tell us the tale no doubt,” declared Matthias. “Didst we wake thee from thy rest, sweet lady?” Viridian flashed the gunmage a sour look and then stepped down onto the deck with a stretch and yawn.

“What time is it?” she asked, not sounding fully awake.

“An hour after dawn.”

“Gods! Why are you both awake at this hour. Your chattering out here made me think I’d overslept.” The two men exchanged smiles.

“Sorry m’lady,” said Garreck with a low bow that caused his plaited hair to drag over the boards of the deck. “I have been showing the young sir here the finer points of boiler stoking, to while away the fresh hours of the new day.”

“Are all dwarves as funny as you?” asked Viridian, reaching into her cigarillo case and lighting herself a morning smoke.

“Oh no, I’m quite exceptional in this regard,” quipped Garreck.

“Humph,” snorted Viridian, leaning back against the ship’s railing while the other two went back to looking over the side again. “So what was it you wanted me to tell you?”

“We were wondering about Honour,” explained Matthias. “Who she is? Where she comes from?” Viridian spat over the side in disgust.

“Of course,” she exclaimed. “You want to know about Honour! Everyone wants to know about Honour. What’s wrong with me, hmmm? Why doesn’t anyone want to know my story?”

“Alright,” said Garreck with a shrug. “What’s your story? How come a pretty thing like you is chasing around getting into gunfights and lawbreaking? I mean sure, you ain’t noble born like the other one, but I know two dozen rich merchants who’d take a pretty thing like you, marry ‘er and pamper ‘er to the end o’ their days, even with that scar o’ yours!”

“How do you know I’m not noble born?” asked Viridian, staring with slitted eyes through the smoke of her cigarillo.

“It’s obvious!” declared Garreck. Viridian’s look darkened further, her smoke dipping downward as her mouth twisted in a scowl. “It’s yer ears!”

“There are no noble half-elves,” confirmed Matthias. Viridian softened suddenly, realising that there was no implicit insult to their reasoning, only an awareness of obvious truths.

“Sorry,” she said. There was silence for a moment, as the two men from Five Fingers waited to see if their questions would be answered. After a long drag and a deep sighing breath, Viridian began her story.

“I met Honour when we were both little girls,” she said. “I was a sewer-rat orphan, cutting purses for the poor-house boss. Honour was an abbey brat, cloistered away to get her convent education. I used to scale the convent wall in the morning and she’d feed me fruit from the orchard, while I told her stories of the poor-house and lifting coins. She was so sweet. Even then she was more beautiful than any girl I’d ever seen. I loved to talk with her, but I was jealous too. She’s the reason I got this.” Viridian waved her hand around her face.

“The scar?” asked Garreck.

“No the face,” Viridian replied. “You don’t think an orphan street thief grows up to look like this do you? I used to be a right poxy little bitch!” Matthias and Garreck were plainly puzzled by what she was saying.

“When I was about fourteen, I was running with a crew, kinda like the Red Serpents, only all younger. We took down a silk merchant, robbed him blind. Really daring, we were. When we split the proceeds I took every crown of my share to a witch I knew. I paid her the lot for a beautiful face; saved my life too, ‘cause a week later assassins hired by the silk merchant started tracking us all down. They were looking for a ugly little street girl with a dirty mop for a head. They never imagined that the fine looking young lady with the perfect cascade of red curls was the one they wanted. I got work in a whore house and made a pretty coin for a few months, until some drunk drew a knife on me ‘cause he didn’t feel like paying. I got the knife from him and cut his throat, but not before he left me his mark. Maybe a merchant might marry me, but I know only the beggars would sleep with a hacked up whore.”

Viridian lapsed into a thoughtful silence, her fingers absently tracing along the fine, white scar on her cheek. For a moment there was only the puffing of the boiler and the splash of the twin wheels as they turned the water. Overhead, a gull called as it winged its way over the river mouth.

“So how’s it that you’re running around with pistols and an ogrun?”

“While I was a whore, Honour didn’t have much to do with me,” Viridian said quietly, as though the memory were painful. “Then, afterward, she tended my face with her sisters in the Order. They do charitable works for whores and low born women. After that, Honour left the abbey and we both joined the army for a time, travelling around and seeing the world with Dokor.”

Matthias cocked his head, puzzled by something. “Honour left the abbey and joined the army?” he repeated. “How does that happen? Convent education is not something you waste on a soldier. It’s for the daughters of nobles and rich merchants.”

“Tell me about it,” Viridian replied. “Honour’s family stopped paying for her education. They decided not to waste…”

“Must you parade my shame and dishonour like a fishwife’s tale?” came a serious voice. The three of them turned to see Honour standing nearby, listening to their conversation. Her face was stern, but her eyes were red rimmed, as if tears were forming. Nonetheless, her voice was clear and commanding in the morning air. “I thought whores knew how to keep secrets!”

Viridian recoiled, stung by the rebuke, but Matthias only chuckled.

“Not any whores that I have ever met,” he said with a sardonic smile.

“Nor me,” agreed Garreck. “Biggest gossips you’ll ever meet, is whores. Not like the tight-lipped pistol maiden ‘ere! Wouldn’t you agree, gunmage.”

“Oh surely,” said Matthias with a vehement nod. “Viridian’s nothing like a whore!” He flashed the red-haired half-elf a comradely smile. Then he turned to face Honour fully.

“Besides,” he said. “There have been enough secrets and half truths on this journey to last a good while. It’s time we began to trust one another!”

“Fine! What do you want to know?” asked Honour, with the appearance of one staring into the abyss and contemplating the jump. She looked directly into the gunmage’s eyes and they searched each other for a moment, seeking out soulful truths. Matthias saw deep hurts, fears and pains that were usually buried under the rampart defences of pride and honour. Before he could say anything though, Garreck jumped in with his own question.

“Alright,” said the dwarf. “What’s this island we’re going to and why?”

As Matthias watched, the pain sank and hid away, like a drowned swimmer sinking into the night-dark ocean. Honour’s pride and dignity straightened her back and she steeled herself for her answer, looking away from Matthias Warlock’s eyes.

“Very well,” she said, but she was interrupted as Jonneran Kelter, her fiance, arrived on the deck. He placed his right hand on her arm gently and she stopped speaking.

“There’s no need to waste breath explaining our mission, if you don’t wish to,” said Jonneran, indicating the others with his free hand. This hand wore a fine metal glove, similar to a knight’s gauntlet, but not so bulky or solid looking.

“It’s not a question of wasted breath Jonneran,” said Viridian tersely. “When you travel with comrades, you don’t keep needless secrets.”

“‘Comrades’; is that what they are?” asked Jonneran with another dismissive wave of his hand. “No, I don’t think so, Viridian. You may not understand this, but familiarity breeds contempt. Once you make friends, it’s so much harder to give orders.”

“What would you know about giving orders, whelp?” scoffed Garreck. He turned and folded his arms, staring up at the young mage with a belligerent glare.

“I was born to it, Rhul!” Jonneran retorted. He seemed ready to go on, but Honour cut him short.

“Oh, just let me tell them!” she said, exasperated. “Otherwise it will only breed trouble for the rest of the journey.”

“But sweetest one…,” protested Jonneran, until he saw the hardness in Honour’s eyes. It appeared that she did not like being called ‘sweetest one’ in front of others.

“Oh well fine!” he spat. “Tell them if you must! It’s a waste of breath, I assure you!”

He broke away from Honour and stalked across the deck to sit on the gunwale on the opposite side. She watched him go, her face showing some momentary confusion. Then she turned back to face Matthias and Garreck.

“We are traveling to this island,” she explained. “Because of a holy vision I received in a dream, a year ago.”

“A vision?” repeated Garreck, incredulous. “You’re kidding.” He looked from Honour to Jonneran to Viridian; their serious expressions put paid to his disbelief.

“What vision?” asked Matthias Warlock.

Continued in Parts 11 – 20

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