Chapter 5 of Emergence!

I apologize for the delay! Work and grad school have been taking a bite out of my blogging time, unfortunately. Here is Chapter 5 of Emergence in its edited form. This chapter introduces the final three pieces of the main character puzzle in a marsh-border town in the southeast of the country. This present an abrupt change of pace, of course, after the “explosive” ending to chapter 4. I know that some prefer more linear stories, but I am a big fan of the interleaved format… just the way one would see it in a movie where multiple characters are introduced in a few introductory scenes before the real plot is revealed.

Please note the short interlude at the end of this chapter. It involves a minor character from chapter 1 making a brief re-appearance.

* * *

5 The Scent of Oil

Loric Sarindon never could get used to the smell of the town of Southern March.  As he followed the crowds down Lamplighter Street, one of the main thoroughfares, the stench of the marshland in the distance drove him nearly to distraction. He had spent many of the Summers of his youth here, passing long periods of time well within reach of the misty haze that the Craven marshes emitted every night. It always seemed that everyone else’s noses adapted quickly, blocking out the offensive smell, but not Loric’s. Not for the first time, he found himself thinking that the medium-sized town might be his favorite place in the Land if not for the endless scent of marsh oil.

It wasn’t because the town was particularly pretty… it wasn’t. In fact, it was extremely utilitarian in both its design and appearance. Southern March existed for one thing and one thing only; supporting the production and shipping of marsh oil, the single best lighting and cooking fuel known to man. The town was known from the Highlands to the Blue Islands as the marsh oil capital of the Land. Or at least the parts of the Land within the reach of the Greystone Protectorates.

And it certainly wasn’t because of the town’s culture or nightlife. In all of the seasons that Loric had spent with his mother in Southern March, visiting his maternal grandmother Momma-Deanna, he had never seen a single Bard come through town. Some of the locals said that there had been a few lesser known Bards pass through from time to time, primarily in the Winter when the smells of Craven marsh were weakest, but most of those locals were only slightly reliable. Even decent minstrels were rare in this marsh-side town on the Great River. For the most part, one’s meals in the local taverns and common rooms were eaten with the voices of one’s companions for entertainment.

No, in all of Brandon Duchy, Southern March might actually be the LEAST attractive place to visit, for all of those reasons and more. Everything about his hometown of Pallas, the capital city of Palladon Duchy one week to the west, was hands-down better. Except for one key factor.

West and Surk lived in Southern March. And a couple of good friends made all of the difference in the Land to Loric. But as much as he looked forward to seeing them again after two long years, he was already feeling the pain of the message he needed to deliver.

But the delivery of that message would have to wait, since at the moment Loric could find neither his huge, red-haired and bearded friend Surk, nor the stocky, dark haired West. The front door of the Brayburn Smithy was closed and the rear forges were lit but silent. That was always the place to find Surk, almost any time of the day or night, working hot metal under the tutelage of his famous father. Likewise, Loric had looked for West at the docks near the Currier family’s marsh oil warehouses. But the long, stone wharves were almost empty, the warehouse doors shut and locked. In fact, eight out of ten shops, taverns, banks, and inns that he passed were close to empty. It was as if it were just past dawn instead of the middle of the day. But the streets were rather crowded with Southerners, mostly moving toward the town’s center with Loric.

The sun was bright in a clear blue sky, and the air was pleasantly warm despite the steady breeze that blew out of the west. The buildings of Southern March were of plain design, constructed primarily of white or gray trucstite stone floated downriver from the Granite Hills. One didn’t build many wooden structures around vast quantities of flammable marsh oil.

Upon entering the flat, open town center area of the city, Loric found where everyone was going. There was a huge gathering of townsfolk in the central square of town, right in front of the Mayor’s mansion at the intersection of Lamplighter and Barge streets. Thousands were there, standing in small groups or large, pressing closer to the Mayor’s Mansion or standing still near the edges of the square. Loric – having only arrived that morning – had no idea why.

You’ll be able to spot Surk easily enough, Loric, the voice said silently. He’s grown even taller than you think.

Loric blinked slowly as he walked, steadfastly ignoring the voice, as usual.

There was a large, permanent stage just outside of the fence that surrounded the Mayor’s mansion, usually used for election year speeches, public trials and the like. The stage was empty now except for a wooden podium, but as Loric drew closer and merged in with the crush of the large crowd he began to pick out hints of what was to come from nearby conversations. Duke Kelly’s knights… big new development from Erinor College… improving all of Greystone… all of these comments and more were flitting about around him. Whatever it is, Loric thought to himself, it sounds abundantly political. He had little patience for Ducal Knights or their politics. He had seen just how poorly a common man like his father, no matter how skilled, could be treated by those types of men.

So he returned his attention to searching for his old friends, slowly inching his way through the crowd towards his right. Then his eyebrows lifted in surprise.

Rounding the corner from Barge Street, about 40 yards away across the square, he saw Surk. That is, he saw Surk’s familiar head of thick, long red hair hanging down over his giant-sized shoulders… both significantly higher in the air than ANYONE else’s head and shoulders. Loric was stunned. Given the ready reference of men and women of average height all around the square, Surk had to be more than seven feet tall… and may have been almost that wide across the shoulders. He was big when Loric had last seen him, almost exactly two years before, but he was in another category altogether now. He was a red-headed giant.

I told you he’s grown, the voice chimed in, sounding smug. Loric ignored the female sounding voice in his head once again, instead focusing on pressing his way through the crowd toward Surk. It was a safe bet that West was in the same general area, given that the two young men spent a great deal of time with each other when not working.

As he closed the distance, Loric again felt his heart sink. Now he would have to explain to his two old friends what had really been going on in his life recently. He would have to tell them how the plans they had all made together over the years were no longer valid. He would have to tell them both farewell. As much as he had thought about this day over the past year, Loric still had a pit in his stomach as he thought about what the future held for him. Only twenty Summers old, and he was already pretty much finished… his story ready to come to a close.

Don’t be afraid, Loric, said the voice that only he could hear, reassuring and calm. You are going to be fine. Have I been wrong yet?

Loric continued to ignore the voice, despite the fact that he agreed with her on that last point. During the last few years of his… problem… as his father and mother called it, the imaginary voice had never told him anything wrong. In fact, it had been right a surprising number of times. But the physicians all said that this fact would change over time. These conditions never got better, they had said, shaking their heads in pity. They only grew worse. And more dangerous.

He sighed deeply as he slowly worked his way through the crowd. Through the milling throng of men and women, young and old, he caught a quick glimpse of West’s pensive face. He was standing next to towering Surk just as Loric had expected, but was engaged in conversation with two pretty young blonde women standing to his left. West was shorter than most men and even some women, but was solidly built and strong. He had short cropped, sandy brown hair and dark brown eyes under thick eyebrows, a tan complexion and somewhat sunken cheeks. West perpetually looked like he was deep in thought about something important. Of course, this was usually quite accurate since West was one of the smartest young men in Brandon Duchy if not all of Greystone. Though the same age as Loric and Surk, West had invented or discovered numerous new uses and processing methods for marsh oil, each of which had benefited his father’s already lucrative oil production business significantly. West’s father had nicknamed him “the scientist”, but West himself shirked the title. He was more interested in being a soldier than a thinker. A soldier in the Grey Shields.

That had been the plan for almost ten years now. Surk, an accomplished blacksmith who had learned the craft from his father, West, the highly intelligent son of an established marsh oil producer, and Loric himself, son of a huntmaster whose services were often requested by the dukes of both Palladon and Brandon, had all conspired to abandon their fathers’ professions. Once they reached twenty summers, the age of majority in all Greystone, they would trek to Greystone City to apply for the Grey Shields.

That plan, at least for Loric, was no longer possible.

“LORIC!!!!” A gigantic bass voice boomed across the crowded square. “Loric, you old boot, you marsh-snake, you piece of flame-burnt dross, you!!! You made it!!!”

Surk was a loud as he was big, and he spotted Loric while he was still rather far away. Loric was stunned at just how big the young blacksmith was. Up close, his size was even more stunning; he was certainly over seven feet tall now. His three-foot long red beard was braided into a single long tail that swayed as he talked, and his bright gray eyes were twinkling with joy at the sight of Loric. He wore a simple brown linen sleeveless shirt laced up the front, and brown leather work pants dotted with burns and small holes from working in the smithy.

Smiling despite his dour mood, Loric grasped wrists with his large friend, then gasped as Surk pulled him into a rough bear hug.

“Loric, you mountain dog, you!” West called out, also stepping up and hugging Loric fondly. “Good to see you! But you’re a little late, aren’t you? Hadn’t you targeted the 41st of Spring for your grand arrival? Is everything well? We didn’t see any more letters from you after you cancelled on us last Spring.”

“It’s good to see you too, West! Surk, by the Caroc itself, man… I may be a mountain dog, but you are the entire mountain itself!” Loric slapped the big blacksmith on his beefy arm as he spoke.

“Clean living, Loric, clean living! You eat right, you keep your nose clean, you let the Creator and your body do the rest!” Surk replied with a huge smile.

“Since when do vast quantities of ale and Highlands wine count as ‘eating right’, Surk?” West asked with a wink towards Loric.

“Why, they’re a healthy part of any good meal! Good for the digestive system, my old man always says!” Surk boomed as he frowned in mock indignation, stroking his braided beard. Several other Southerners who were standing nearby in the press couldn’t help but laugh at Surk’s infectious good humor.

“I for one agree with him,” said Loric, turning to West. “Sorry about the lack of letters, West. It’s been a rough last year or two back in Pallas. I’ll fill you in later while we enjoy some health-food with Surk.”

Surk laughed again, turning towards a procession of large horses that had just entered the square from Lamplighter Street. But West kept his eyes on Loric, a quick look of concern crossing his face as he raised one questioning eyebrow.

“We’ll talk, West,” Loric said again, more quietly. West nodded once in understanding, then turned to the blonde women standing next to him.

“Loric,” West said in a clear, formal voice, “this is Aran Rivers, newest account manager in father’s shop, and Clana Ales, new assistant director of processing. Ladies, this is one of my oldest and best friends, Loric Sarindon, Ex-apprentice Huntmaster of Palladon Duchy.”

Loric inclined his head toward each woman respectfully.  “Pleased to meet you each,” he said, and then added with a laugh, “and I sure hope that you aren’t letting West here run you ragged as he teaches you the marsh oil business.”

Aran, her golden hair back in a long braid, inclined her head in turn and offered a small smile. “Pleased to meet you, Loric, and no, Mr. Currier’s been just fine.”

“Mister Currier???” Surk said sarcastically, still watching the growing crowd of mounted men at the far side of the square. “Did they threaten you into calling him that, Aran? Or is ‘mister’ just businesswoman’s code for ‘the boss’ son’!”

The ladies, Surk, and Loric laughed out loud at that, and West just shook his head and grinned. Loric understood very well what West wanted to convey via those introductions. For the past three years, West himself had worked full-time for his father’s successful marsh oil business, Currier Oil. He had really been managing two roles for the company; director of processing for the raw marsh oil as it was unloaded from barges newly returned from a week or so out in the Craven, and as an account manager in charge of sales, distribution, and customer service for some of Currier Oil’s biggest clients. West was training these two women as his replacements.

Surk would probably have no such concerns with leaving his father’s forge. Kurtus Brayburn would almost certainly insist on training Surk’s replacement just as he had trained Surk himself. Both of Loric’s old friends were prepared to leave Southern March.

“So what’s going on here, West?” Loric asked, more to distract himself from his dark thoughts than to find out why the crowd was gathered. “What’s the big event? I gather it’s an announcement from the Queen, right?”

The riders that had arrived from Lamplighter street, about two dozen well-armed members of the Southern March patrol, had dismounted and spread out to encircle the wooden stage. They each wore the light silver cloak and matching boots of their station, with short swords at their sides and crossbows mounted on their backs.  Behind them came four massive, jet black warhorses bearing four warriors in gleaming chain mail and polished leathers. They each wore black and silver berets on their heads and black cloaks trimmed in silver on their backs. The back of their cloaks featured a large image of three silver flames arranged in a triangle; the sigil of Brandon Duchy, Duke Kelly, and his knights.

“I’m sure of it. But whatever it is, it’s not big enough to lure Duke Kelly out of his palace, that’s for sure,” said West sneeringly. “And not enough to bring his First Knight here either. That’s Sir Roder in the lead, and probably a few of his newer arrivals backing him up.”

“You know how Kelly is, Mr. Currier,” said Clana, frowning. “He would never show up to support something from the crown?”

Surk nodded in agreement. “Not unless he was paid to do it. What’s more, I still think Roder is a pretender…” he muttered very quietly, using the derogatory term given to men or women who cheated or bought their way into knighthood.  “I’ve delivered swords and armor to him at his villa before, and seen him use them. I just don’t see it.”

“And here comes Mayor Chatham,” West added, as several patrolmen helped a white-haired old man mount the steps to the stage in advance of the four knights. He moved with the help of a white wooden cane, and looked none too healthy.

“So what’s with the wagons?” Surk asked, staring back at the entrance to the square from Lamplighter.

“Wagons?” Loric asked.

“Ah, well… height has its advantages, Loric, old friend. Sorry about that,” Surk said, pointing briefly over Loric’s head. “I can see a line of about five light wagons parked just at the entry to the square. They are loaded down with something, covered with tarps, and are under guard. You’re the smart one, West… what is going on here.”

“Actually,” West said, donning a grin, “I think I do know what’s happening. The wagon’s tipped me off. Thanks, Surkland old boy.”

West turned back to the stage just as the crowd was being hushed by the patrolmen. The Mayor was about to speak.

“Well???” Surk boomed, flushing as he stared down at West. “Are you gonna tell us your revelation, or what???”

“Or what, Surk.” West grinned. “Now pipe down! You’re about to miss the big announcement!” West winked at Loric again, then returned his attention to the stage.

This announcement is actually pretty important, Loric. It will matter in the future, the voice said to Loric in its silent, feminine voice.

Loric’s eyebrows furrowed in consternation as he tried his best to ignore the words, to block out the very existence of the voice. But he knew it was there. No matter how hard he tried to ignore it, to wish it away, the voice always returned. And that could mean only one thing.

He was losing his mind.

At that moment, the mayor ended his brief conversation with the knights and made his way to the podium.

* * *

“Gathered citizens of Southern March,” Mayor Chatham began, “honored visitors, friends, and families, thank you all for taking a moment out of your busy days.” The thin wisps of white hair that still clung to his head danced in the breeze as he spoke. The four knights stood formally behind him, arms folded across their chests, thick black and silver cloaks swaying lightly in the breeze. West couldn’t help but notice how the sun glittered off of the jeweled hilts of their large broadswords and their service daggers, not to mention the heavy silver and gold encrusted belts that their weapons hung from. Everything about them communicated both wealth and strength. Maybe over-communicated would be the better word. As with all of the Ducal Knights West had ever seen, ostentatious displays seemed to be the name of the game.

“I have the distinct pleasure,” the wrinkled old mayor continued, leaning heavily on his cane, “of being joined by a contingent of the Knights of Brandon Duchy. The Honorable Sir Roder, Second Knight of Brandon, along with Sirs Yendon, Mirkel, and Ost, in dedicated service to Kelly, Duke of Brandon.”

The crowd applauded politely at the close of this formal set of introductions, but were clearly impatient to hear what the big news was from Greystone City. The last time such a city gathering was announced, it was to spread word of the signing of the current peace treaty, such as it was, between MasMindon and Greystone. West was not quite 17 Summers old back then, but he knew a sketchy sounding political move when he heard one. His father had taught him that the only time Mindonites sued for peace was when they needed some down time to prepare for an expanded war.

The mayor retrieved a folded piece of paper from the inside lapel of his white and silver coat, opened it, and began to read in his raspy voice that barely carried back to where West, Surk, and Loric stood with Aran and Clana.  “On behalf of Lorillin, Queen of the Greystone Protectorates and Lady Defender of the Realm, and on behalf of Kelly, Duke of Brandon, and on behalf of our distinguished knights… I am pleased to announce that the scholars of Erinor College have labored to bring you, the people of Greystone, a new communication and information tool that will revolutionize the way all citizens learn of happenings within the Land.”

At this point, Sir Roder stepped forward and produced a tightly rolled, beige bundle of paper held wrapped by a silver cord. Mayor Chatham, always one with a flair for the dramatic, stepped out from behind the podium as he took the bundle, released the cord with one hand, and let the long, somewhat narrow piece of paper unroll from his other hand to rest in front of his chest. West giggled as he noticed that the old mayor was suddenly standing up just fine, despite having to drop his thick cane to display the bundle.

It was obviously a stack of thin parchment paper many pages thick, and there were words and pictures of various sizes all over the front.

“On this, the 55th day of Spring, RC 1299,”Chatham called out proudly, “I give you the first edition of the Greystone Journal! The first current events journal of the known Land!”

That being their cue, the assembled patrolmen of Southern March sprang into action. They left their posts flanking the stage and all around the city square to surround the light wagons that still sat at the mouth of Lamplighter Street. In a moment the tarps were removed, revealing stack after stack of neatly folded beige paper covered in black print. The patrolmen grabbed a large stack each and began handing folded sections to every adult man and woman in the crowd.

West’s eyebrows rose in surprise. This wasn’t exactly what he had heard about in his conversations with Currier Oil’s sales representative in Greystone city. That old fellow, Hans by name, had reported that inventors at Erinor College had created the known Land’s first automatic printing press capable of mass production of books and documents. West thought that was news enough and was anxious for details, but Hans had no interest in science or inventions… only money. But he had certainly been right. If this display was happening in every major city across the protectorates, the Erinor must have a truly massive printing operation established.

West was already considering how he might be able to use large quantities of thin paper like this within his experiments on fire-bricks. Maybe in place of wood chips or sawdust? He thought, imagining this new twist on his idea. If only I had more time…

“Sir Roder, if you would,”Chatham called, retrieving his cane and stepping back to give the podium to the black and silver-clad knight.

“Thank you, honorable Mayor Chatham,” Roder called, not turning to face the mayor as he retreated to stand next to the younger knights. Roder had a thin, scraggly haze of a brown beard covering a round jaw, and small, beady brown eyes. His sword belt was tucked beneath an enormous paunch, and despite being on stage he looked distinctly bored. Though he displayed fine clothing and weaponry, the man himself did not impress. He also produced a piece of paper and began to read.

“Citizens, the Greystone Journal is an invention of Gurdon Masterson, First Monitor of Erinor College Greystone City. It will contain descriptions and pictures of current events from all over the known Land, from the Burnt Peaks to the plains of Theron, from the Blue Islands to the Ice Coast.”

West received his copy of the journal from a silver-cloaked patrolman. It certainly was impressive looking, with a large scripted “Greystone Journal” title bar across the top. Beneath that was the date, Queen Lorillin’s signature, and the name Gurdon Masterson listed as Chief Editor. Masterson was something of an idol of West’s, as he was well known as one of the finest minds in the history of Greystone. West hoped one day to meet the man. Once upon a time, before West had decided that he was much more interested in being a warrior than a scholar, he had dreamt of traveling to Greystone City to study under Masterson himself… maybe even working toward being an assistant Monitor. He still thought that sounded fantastic. But it would not have been enough for him. West yearned to prove himself as a soldier.

“The Journal will be produced initially once per Season,” Roder continued, speaking louder so that his voice would carry over the rustle of hundreds of journal papers and the murmurs of the interested crowd. “But as time goes by and as interest is judged, production may increase to two or three times per season. Each city’s branch of the Erinor will also serve as a local reporting station for events and information that will be gathered and delivered to the Erinor in Greystone City for consideration. Any tax paying citizen of the Protectorates may contribute to the Journal.”

West noticed that the journal was divided into sections by duchy and city. Some articles focused on crime and justice topics like the theft of an ancient book collection from the cellars of Greystone Castle. Others related human interest topics like the boy of only ten Summers who tested into the upper school at Erinor College, Greystone City. Still others discussed foreign affairs like the recent increase in sorties into Jesserin Duchy by Mindonite barbarians despite the Treaty of Falanx.

“These copies of the first edition are free of charge,” Roder concluded, “but from the Summer Season on, each will cost 5 weight of silver. On behalf of Duke Kelly and her royal majesty, Queen Lorillin Greystone, thank you.”

West, however, was quickly back to analyzing the paper itself instead of the words printed on it. He had been so excited, so very overjoyed, that his design for fire-bricks had seemed to work. He had been able to produce dozens of them using the process he had developed, and they worked wonderfully. But he had been completely unable to teach any of the company’s oil processors how to duplicate his success. No matter what they tried, every attempt they made on their own had failed.

That is, unless West himself was there with them. He still didn’t understand that. Surk demanded that there was something special about West that was making it work, but the towering Dramini blacksmith was always quick to imagine magic and mystery in everyday events. The smith had heard far too many Bard’s tales in his youth. West knew better, instead looking for reasonable, scientific explanations for the problem.

His latest thought was that the wood chips and other flammable fillers he had been using simply weren’t reliable enough, that they were too susceptible to fluctuations in humidity and air temperature. But this parchment paper that the journal was printed on… this had promise. He imagined the way he would slice the parchment ultra-thin to mimic the fibrous strands of the wood chips, maybe even allowing the finished fire-bricks themselves to be smaller and denser, and perhaps burn longer…

Without warning, the Greystone Journal in his hands fell apart.

In fact, it nearly dissolved. West started as his hands were suddenly grasping hundreds of hair-thin strands of shredded paper… while the rest of the journal fell swirling to his feet in a beige snow of perfectly thin paper shreds.

West held his breath, afraid to move, as his eyebrows climbed nearly to his hairline. He quickly glanced to his right and his left to see if anyone had seen what had just happened. Only seconds had passed since Roder stepped away from the podium, and everyone seemed to be steadfastly staring at their individual copies of the journal. Aran and Clana were oblivious, Loric was reading the section devoted to Palladon duchy – probably looking for anything mentioning his father, since he often worked for Duke Jorge – and Surk—

Surk was looking right at West. Their eyes met.

West shrugged, wide-eyed, and shook his head, mouthing the words what just happened??? as Surk stared.

Surk blinked hard, then intentionally stepped right up to West, placing his huge booted foot right on top of the pile of paper shreds.

“Well, Loric!!” Surk boomed. “Now that that’s over with, let’s us three retire to the closest tavern and catch up, eh?” He was intentionally being even louder than usual, with a cheerful smile on his face. He slapped Loric on the back to get him moving off towards Barge Street, his copy of the journal tucked under one arm.

“Sounds good, Surk,” West chimed in, quickly walking with the two and leaving the scene behind. He hoped he didn’t look as pale and shaky as he felt. “Aran, Clana, grab a mid-day meal if you’d like, and if you please, let my father know that Loric has arrived. He’ll know where we are.”

“Yes, Mr. Currier,” Aran replied, inclining her head ever-so-slightly. Clana did likewise, and the two women turned and headed in the opposite direction.

“Nightwings!!” West burst out once the women were out of earshot. Loric seemed lost in thought, but turned to see what was the matter. “Surk,” West continued, “… the paper… what in the Land!!!”

Surk looked down at West with wide eyes as he nervously stroked his braided beard with one hand. “You know what I think, Westwind Currier. You know exactly what I think.”

“Hey, West,” Loric said, looking up from his paper. “Where’s your copy of the journal? Didn’t you get one? There’s a story in there about my father!”

West turned to his old friend Loric, but didn’t know what to say. Loric finally caught on to the fact that something was amiss. “What is it, West? You look like you just saw a ghost.”

“Ale!” Surk said, fixing his eyes on the crowded street in front of them. “We need ale, and lots of it. Then… we can talk.”

* * *

The central market of Jesserin City was packed with early morning vendors and price conscious shoppers hoping to take advantage of oft-rumored early-bird specials. The morning air was cool and crisp, almost chilly, and a thick layer of clouds rolling in from the Black Mountains promised that more mid-Spring rains were on the way.

But neither the shoppers nor the weather were on Turog’s mind. Every vendor’s call seemed to split his head open, every clanging weight of gold or silver made his pulse pound in his temples, and all he could think about was downing about a half-barrel of ale and sleeping for a week.

That is, he thought, an unwholesome grin splitting his face, AFTER I collect the rest of my pay.

Turog stumped and pounded his way around the broad expanse of the market, finally stopping and leaning on a stone wall near the front of a small florist shop at the southwest corner of the square.  His ponderous girth was not exactly easy to hide, but he did his best to look inconspicuous anyway.  He looked around carefully, making a show of adjusting the straps on his pack, making sure he hadn’t been followed. It was pointless, he knew. He had made sure to cover his tracks completely. A few weights of silver in the right hands had made sure that several of his men hadn’t made it out of the Oern cuperative. Then a few more coins had ensured that a midnight raid along the Cayn Roadhad eliminated the few men on his crew that remained.

But one could never be too sure.

He hoisted his pack back onto his back and leaned back against the wall, head hung low as if he were a common derelict on a street corner. Once he had counted one hundred passers-by, he ducked into the dark alley next to the florist and broke into a jog that really got his head pounding.

Is it natural to have a headache this long? He thought as he turned right, then left, then right again to wind his way deeper and deeper into the warren of back roads just off of the market square. I might need to get some hannon after all… of course, in a few minutes, I will be able to afford all the hannon I need!

He passed a few shopkeepers hauling sacks of goods or trash into the alley, circled a few empty light wagons, and finally stopped at a black, closed door at the end of a dim dead end. Looking closer, he noticed that it wasn’t just black. It was impossibly, perfectly black. Like the darkest corner of a closed grave brought to life in the shape of a door. No handle, no markings of any kind, marred this empty space in the alley.

He wiped the sweat from his brow with the filthy back of his hand, almost blacking out from the booming throbbing behind his eyes. But he grinned through the pain; he had made it. This was the spot. He could almost smell the wealth he was about to acquire.

He knocked on the black door, a special pattern that he had been taught when he accepted this job working for the Trax.  While he did not like the inevitable strings that always came with working for the expansive crime syndicate, Turog had heard of many common thieves cashing in big by working for them. Now it was his turn.

The door felt vaguely like wood, and produced a dull wet sound like hammering on wet earth. He resisted the urge to touch the door further. He had the distinct feeling that something bad would happen if he did. So instead, he waited.

Minutes passed. Turog began to sweat, despite the chill in the air.  Come on, he thought. If I went through all of this pure hell for nothing…

“Speak,” a low voice whispered from behind the door.

Turog exhaled. He again wiped an amazing amount of dirt onto his head from the back of his befouled hand.

“The Dead Pass,” Turog said in a near-whisper, giving the pass phrase as he had been taught.

More silence.  Turog took a half-step as if to open the door, but the voice came again so suddenly that it made him freeze in place.

“Report,” it said. The whisper was perfectly even, perfectly emotionless. But still it brought a chill to the center of Turog’s bloated frame. He felt like he should be able to see his breath if he exhaled.

Turog swallowed hard, his pulse echoing within the confines of his skull in a painful cascade of sound.

“I think ah found what yer looking fer, master, sir,” he said quietly, bowing his head towards the midnight door several times. His voice had gone dry. He tried to clear his throat, but the moisture wouldn’t come. “’Bout a week or so ago, ya see. My crew and ah, we were trackin’ some good hits movin’ east along the Jury. Easy pickin’s mostly, ya know, master, sir. Small wagon trains, lone ‘orsemen, anythin’ looking like it might be both easy an’ cheap, ya know—“

“The point,” the whisper said abruptly, with a note of finality that made Turog’s heart skip a beat.

“Right, surely, right, sorry, master, sir,” Turog stumbled, bowing his head repeatedly and again wiping his aching brow. “Errr… maybe if ah could come inside, we can sit an’ ah can tell ya the whole long story—“

“The. Point.” This time Turog really did see his breath. The cold was real. He began to feel very, very scared, and decided to move on with his story as quickly as he dared.

“Ya see, we was about twelve strong, workin’ our way along the Jury, an’ we came across these two young bucks. All alone, ‘bout dawn. Not forty summers if ya added ‘em both together. Well, they whopped us! Knocked me clean out, broke a bunch a my crews arms, then the lil’ one… er, sorry, master, sir, the one with the sword was big and tall, and the one with the throwin’ knives was short and lil’… well, the lil’ one was a hidin’ who-knows-where up in the pith trees, see, and split the hands of half-a-dozen of my men with throwin’ knives from so far away ya couldn’t believe it! Now this same crew, master, sir, we’ve taken troops of fifteen to twenty men when we caught ‘em unawares at dawn. An’ ah had bows, too! Good shots, they were. If that don’t sound like young ‘uns with ‘special skills’ like you need, ah don’t know what does.”

Turog’s fear had faded. He was on a roll now, excitedly delivering his report as he pictured the weights of gold that would soon lay at his feet. “What’s more, master, sir,” he continued, “Not a man was killed, ya here me! Just like ya said, they din’t kill a one of us. Now, how’re two young pups like that gonna be that good? They fit the bill, master, sir. An last week, they was on the Jury Road headin’ east. I reckon by now they’d have made it to Haverlin, master, sir. Oh, and the big one, he gave his name. Argand, of Eagle’s Reach.”

Silence. Turog’s head was pounding; the huge knot on the top of his head from that sword pommel hurt worse than ever. The angry red scar that ran down the front of his face seemed to want to split open.  He was seeing spots in the corners of his vision. But it was finally time. Time to get paid.

“Well done,” said the whisper. “Your men?”

“Dead, master, sir,” Turog said. “A few bad sweeps between Oern and here, ya know, and a few deserters, too, but we caught ‘em and hung ‘em. But me, master, sir? Ah’m loyal to ya, and got back here as soon as ah could!”

Another pause. Did the door just move? There was no sound, but through his foggy vision he could have sworn he saw the impossibly black rectangle begin to shift. Turog licked his lips, and risked a smile.  “That’s 200 weight of gold, right, master sir?” he asked.

“It is worth much more than that,” said the whisper. “Much more.”

Turog did smile, then. And he kept on smiling, even as he fell to the alley floor with a black crossbow bolt embedded deep into the front of his skull.

“Much more indeed,” the whisper repeated again, as if addressing the dead thief. But the sound faded as it came, almost seeming to be moving away at a great rate of speed as the words flowed.  A moment later, only silence filled the alley above the corpse of Turog.

* * *

Thanks for reading!

~Kevin

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