Part 10: Sacrifice

Rogues never sleep easy. They tend to stab too many people in their sleep to be able to find the rest. Interalia’s eyes opened a crack, as she heard someone move about in her bedroom. Nails. She could hear it by the way she walked. Probably going for a comfort break in the latrine outside. Interalia closed her eyes again and tried to drift off to sleep.

“Forgive me,” whispered Nægling, and closed the door behind her.

Interalia frowned. Forgive her? What would she need to forgive her for? She gasped, and her eyes opened wide. Oh damn. She jumped out of bed.

“Nails! What the hell are you doing?”

With inspired speed, Interalia jumped into her armour, and kicked Nix where he lay.

“Whu?”

“Get up, Nix. Nails is gone.”

Nix grinned. “Hmm. Alone at last!”

“Yeah tie a knot in it, stud. I’ve got a feeling that Nails is going to do something very stupid.”

Nix sat up, scratching his head, saw Interalia’s expression and pulled his leathers on.

“Stupid? She looks smarter than your average lug. Why’d she want to do something stupid?”

“Let’s go ask her.”

Together, they ran out of the door, and Interalia could just see the disappearing shape of Nægling’s horse. She ran towards the guard at the gate.

“Hey you! Where’d she go?”

The guard looked down into Interalia’s eyes, a grin on his face. Then, he saw the expression that meant that joking around would be painful.

“Out the gate, and down the road to the West. Said she had some kind of mission.”

“Oh crap. I need a horse, and quick!”

There was a metallic sound behind her and Nix came riding up on a mechanostrider. He tossed her a small metal box.

“Just on loan, mind you. Press the red button.”

Ten seconds later, two swift mechanostriders set off out of the gate, after their friend.

X

Interalia rode a bit behind Nix, wind in her face. Damn, these things were fast! Good. They were also bloody noisy, but she didn’t care. Nix had Nægling’s horse in his sights, but even with their faster mounts, they were having trouble catching up. She was riding in an Easterly direction, keeping north of the road. Bloody Stonewatch Tower.

“She’s stopped,” said Nix. “Oh damn. It’s a camp fire. I think they’ve spotted her.”

“Hurry,” said Interalia. Yes, it was a stupid thing to say, but she couldn’t help it.

At a distance of about a hundred yards of the camp, they dismounted and ran on. Interalia swore silently. The were too late. Just a few yards ahead of them, Nægling, dressed in her white novice’s robes, stepped into the circle of firelight, and cried out loud.

“Orcs of Gath’ilzogg! I, Nægling of Northshire, have killed your warriors.”

She didn’t get the chance to say anything more. She was met, not with the Orcs’ rough voices, but with the howling and barking of Gnolls, who leapt up and charged at her, burying her under a mound of dog-like bodies. One of the Gnolls stood up, and spoke in a Human voice.

“Hold! Your master commands! Do not harm this woman any further. She must be taken to the Tower. Do this now!”

All the Gnolls sudddenly stopped moving, until one of them walked over to Nægling’s still body on the floor. With one arm, he pulled her onto his shoulders and set off, followed by five others.

X

Nix looked at Interalia’s face. “Tower?”

“Ilgalar. To the East. Crap. Let’s get after them before they get too big a lead.” They crept back to within safe distance of the fire, Then, they summoned their mounts. Interalia scowled.

“Damn you Nails. If you get yourself killed, I’ll never talk to you again.”

They set off to the East.


Cuchullainn was seething. How could he have been so stupid? Of course, he should have kept his mouth shut. As long as he’d been alive, it had been hammered into him. Be kind to women. You may think you’re the Lords of Creation, but they are Creation. Cherish them. Honour them. Do not let them come to harm. And now, through his sheer stupidity… Cuchullainn growled, and ran on through the dark, not caring whether anyone saw him in his True Form. There would be hell to pay. Gezza didn’t have anything to do this night. Cuchullainn knew where to find him.

X

Gezza put down his empty mug, and decided to call it a night. Tomorrow, he’d have to lumber himself with that tosser Cuchullainn again. He didn’t relish it, but for some reason, Her Ladyship thought he’d be an asset to the old firm one day. He looked up, called to one of his mates, who was peering out through one of the shutters.

“Oi Baz, What’s that box o’ toys out there?”

“Pigs having a fun night out,” said Baz. “No company for us Gentlemen of Distinction. Best wait a while till they bugger off.”

“Stuff that,” said Gezza. “Got a meeting with me Uncle Ted. I’ll slip out the back. Night all!”

As he walked out of the back door, into the alley, there was a sudden growl behind him, and hands stronger than Human grabbed him and pushed him into the wall, banging his head quite badly. His eyes opened wide as he stared into a face mostly made of teeth.

“Hello Gezza,” said the monster.

Gezza blinked. How did a sodding dog know his name?

“Pardon my appearance, but I’m afraid I am a bit bloodthirsty at the moment. Events this night merit it, I think.”

Gezza stared. “Bloody hell! Cuchullainn?”

“I thought I could trust you, Gezza. I am very disappointed.”

“Breaks me horse to hear it, mate. What the bloody hell are you on about?”

“The young lady I told you about. I believe you… what’s the phrase? Ah. ‘Ratted her out’ to her employer.” Cuchullainn moved a bit closer. “They decided to make an example of her. She died. Eventually.”

“Stupid bitch should have kept a lid on it,” said Gezza. “And for that matter, so should you.”

“I am aware of that. Which brings me back to the subject of ‘trust’. I made the mistake of trusting you. But I do learn from my mistakes.”

“You stupid prick.” Gezza glared at Cuchullainn. “Just what kind of place do you think Madam Frances’ is? Some back room setup where Mr. Brown the grocer can do the things his trouble and strife won’t let him? The House on the Hill caters to needs of the nobbiest of the Nobs, and the richest of the Rich. Warms your heart to think that the Gentry can no more keep their trousers buttoned than you or me, doesn’t it? Thing is, when word gets out that Lord High-and-mighty has his candle waxed by one of these lovelies, there’s a lot of tut-tutting going on in High Places, and maybe, the very reasonable request that His Lordship made to His Majesty gets tossed in the fire. And that means bread ain’t findin’ its way to the proper coffers. And that…” Gezza pointed a finger at Cuchullainn. “That pisses off a whole bunch of high and mighties. And when they are grumpy, they want us to be miserable too.”

Gezza looked into Cuchullainn’s eyes, unflinching.

“So I’ll tell you what I did. As soon as I heard you gabbin’ about His Lordship, I wrote a little note, put your name under it, and dropped it in the box at that jumped-up whorehouse. So they’d think you knew who to talk to, and who not to. And that is the only reason you’re not bobbin’ down the river side by side with your precious little forty-four now. The bitch was dead soon as she shot her gob off to you. The only reason I bothered is Her Ladyship asks me to keep you alive, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why.” Gezza slapped Cuchullainn’s arms away. “Don’t bloody thank me.”

Gezza walked off into the night, leaving Cuchullainn standing with his mouth open.


Warlock Morganth ran a long fingernail along one of Nægling’s many scars. She was hanging from ropes, in the middle of his work room, feet reaching the ground, of course. It was so difficult to talk to people if they couldn’t breathe properly. Judging from the way her eyelids moved, she was about to wake up. She was beautiful. A monument to tenacity. She had taken all that the world had thrown at her and come out fighting. Morganth sighed, a smile on his lips. And he was about to destroy her. Oh, she’d be able to tell him things, of course, but that was almost an afterthought. He lifted her head to look at her face. What thoughts would be behind that scarred face?

“Wake up, my darling. We have much to talk about.”

Nægling blinked slowly. She looked at Morganth with eyes made of steel, and said nothing.

“Now then. What should I call you? Just a name. Lie, if you want. I’ll wring your true name out of you eventually. I just want something to call you besides ‘Precious’.”

“I am Nægling of Northshire. That is my true name. I do not lie, even to creatures like you.”

“Hmm… Nægling. Steel. A piercing weapon. And yet, capable of shattering. It suits you. I am Morganth. Judging from the state of your body, you enjoy pain. I enjoy inflicting pain. Clearly, we are meant to be together.”

“I set out to sacrifice myself, so that my friends might be safe. You threaten me with pain? Three months ago, Gnolls nearly destroyed me. Pain has been with me ever since. It has no sway over me.”

“A few bites and scratches? My toothed minions of little intellect merely wished to subdue you so that they might make a meal of you. They have no concept of artistry in these matters. No finesse. But I do. And so does my assistant. Dharma, reveal yourself.”

There was a hiss of breath behind Nægling, and she looked over her shoulder. Behind her was a woman, and yet not a woman. She had horns on her head, black wings on her back, and a long whip in her hand. She put her hand on Nægling’s cheek and pushed her face forward.

“You will look at my Master only, unless he commands you otherwise.”

Morganth laughed. “Come now, Dharma. Join me here, and let Nægling admire you. She should know what she is about to face.”

Nægling scowled. “A Succubus. We have slain them by the dozen. It does not frighten me.”

“She doesn’t? She should. You are helpless, and she knows every tender, delicate spot on a woman’s body. All the sensitive places on your skin. Normally, a Succubus will take out the eyes first, to enhance the anticipation. But not today. I wish to see them till the very last. Find another place, Dharma. Just once.”

There was a swish, a crack and Nægling was bleeding from her thigh. She didn’t even blink. Morganth raised an eyebrow, pointed. Another crack of the whip and a similar cut appeared just above the first, then another. Morganth raised a hand.

“You are a paladin, and yet you do not heal yourself?”

“I do not wish to be healed. I will complete my sacrifice.” Nægling stared at Morganth. “You want me to betray my friends. I will not do so. This will be my final battle. The battlefield is my body. If I die before I break, then I have won. I will not lose.”

Morganth laughed. “Brave words. I salute you. But I have heard those words before, many times. The stronger the opponent, the sweeter the victory, and indeed, the more enjoyable the battle. Proceed, Dharma. Oh. You may scream. I will not see that as a sign of weakness.”

X

Interalia pushed one more pin out of the way, then twisted. With a small click, the lock opened. Forcing herself to do it quietly, she opened the door. Behind it was a winding stair. She looked up, and started up the stairs. Nix’ hand was on her shoulder. She looked round at him. Nix pointed. One of the wooden steps did not run completely from one end to the other. Interalia bent down, and produced a small shining crystal. By its light, she looked at the step. She pointed. A mechanism was under it. It could either be a trap or simply an alarm. She held her light further up, checking for more trapped steps. Carefully avoiding the step, they made their way up the winding stairs. Interalia listened at the door. Her face hardened and she produced her lockpicks. Nix let her. He knew Interalia was much, much faster than he was in picking locks. Morganth himself, with his key, could not have opened the lock faster. Interalia put her hand on the doorknob.

“Get ready,” she whispered. Nix drew his daggers and nodded.

Interalia opened the door.

X

“Observe, Dharma, how she is putting her mind elsewhere, while her body suffers. No doubt, she has long practiced this technique as her body fought against her. She is indomitable. Try again.”

The whip lashed out.

“You see? This woman can take all you have given her so far, and more.” Morganth put his hand under his chin, considering. “Do I try to find out the limits of what the woman can stand, or do I change my tactics? A bit more, please. Do not spare the more sensitive areas.”

Morganth looked at Nægling’s face. For all he could see there, this could all be happening to someone else. He smiled.

“Dharma, I think I’m in love.”

The whip lashed out again, fast, vicious.

“Oh stop that. Jealousy is not an attractive trait.”

The Succubus snarled, lashed out once more.

“Perhaps,” said Morganth, “I should heal you instead. Remind you what it is to be beautiful once more, and to live without pain.”

Nægling blinked, only once, and said nothing.

X

Nix crouched down, and readied his daggers. “I take the whip bitch, you take the mage,”

“No. I take the bitch. You take the mage.”

“She’s whipping her again. Want to bicker over it? You take the Succubus then. On the count of three.”

“Three,” said Interalia and sprang forward. She leapt up on a table, and from there onto the back of the Succubus. Her arm went in front of the daemon’s eyes, and her shortsword went into its back, with such force that the point emerged from underneath its left breast. It didn’t even have time to scream. Leaving the sword in the Succubus’ crumpling body, she drew a dagger and rounded on Morganth. She needn’t have bothered. One of Nix’ daggers was in his back, the other was slicing his throat. There was a noise like a scream, though it could not have come from Morganth’s lips. Every Gnoll in the tower looked up at the same time, turned to the Master’s chamber and started to run. A bell rang out over the lands.

“Oh crap,” said Nix, putting away his daggers. “Now we’ve done it.”

X

Interalia did not reply. She was checking Nægling’s bonds. Ropes were looped round her wrists. They ran to a wooden cross-bar, and joined together into a thicker rope. The rope ran over a pulley, and down to a clamp in the wall. Interalia pointed. Nix nodded. He grabbed the rope and pulled Nægling up a bit more. Then, he wound the rope round his arm and with a razor-sharp dagger, cut it. He held on tightly. As he was pulled up towards the ceiling. Nægling came down, and Interalia caught her. Her body was slippery with blood, but somehow Interalia managed to lower her to the floor gently, Nix let go and landed soundly on his feet. He took one look at Nægling, then rushed towards the door and slammed it shut. He locked it, and for good measure put a chair under the handle.

“This won’t hold them for long,” said Nix. “They sound pissed off.”

Interalia nodded and looked at Nægling. Her eyes were open, and blinked occasionally, Apart from that, there was no sign that she was conscious.

“She alive?” Nix was standing by the door, listening for noises outside.

“Yeah, but she’s not all here. Don’t know how to bring her around.”

“I suppose slapping her face won’t work.”

“Not funny. Dammit. She’s drawn all the way into herself. How do you get someone out of there?”

Nægling blinked. “A friendly voice usually works.”

Her face showed the pain she was in, for a few moments. Then, it became still again. She looked sadly at Interalia.

“Why did you come here, my friend? Now, we’ll both die.”

“Glad you’re leaving me out of it,” said Nix. He searched his pockets and produced a bottle of red liquid. “Healing potion. Am I a useful Gnome or what?”

“Thanks, Nix,” said Interalia. She accepted the bottle and tried to put it to Nægling’s lips. Nægling struggled.

“No. I don’t want to be healed. Don’t waste it on me. Save yourself. Get out of here.”

Interalia fumed. “After all this trouble? Not on yer life. Drink it, or I’ll make you. We need you on your feet. Us little Gnomes can’t carry you.”

Nægling looked into Interalia’s eyes. Then, her lips parted and she drank the potion in small sips. She sighed, as most of her wounds sealed up and disappeared, leaving only the scars she already had before, more or less.

“The wounds were painful,” she said, “but not dangerous. The Succubus knew what it was doing. I wonder if I could have held out till the end. The shock of the bleeding might have finished me, but how long would that have taken?”

“You’re one mad bitch,” said Interalia. “What possessed you to hand yourself over to the greens?”

“If the Orcs would find out that a Caer Bannog Paladin had killed their warriors, Sir Gerrig would be honour-bound to deliver me to them. I wished to spare him the moral dilemma of sending me to my death, or breaking his word. If he had refused, then there would have been another battle. We are taught to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others.”

“Ye gods. You paladins are worse than warriors. I like you, Nails. Really I do. But I wouldn’t die for you. I’d kill some other bugger for you, though.”

X

Nix walked up, and pushed some clothes into Nægling’s hands.

“Here. Second-hand. Only slightly punctured. And they’re nice and dark.”

Interalia looked round. “Any way out?”

Nix pointed at the door. “There, but that’s got lots of doggies. Windows?”

“This place doesn’t have a moat. Can you fly?”

“Only in one direction,” said Nix.

“I’ll bet there’s a secret passage somewhere. This bastard fancied himself a Dark Overlord. He’ll have a secret passage. All I need to do is to find it.

Nix scowled. “Bet your life on it?”

“Sure. Yours too.”

X

Nægling pulled on Morganth’s discarded clothes. They were slightly too small for her, but it’d do. Burglars can’t be choosers. Nix rounded on her.

“Nægling? We’re going to escape here, by stealth. Interalia and me, we’ll use Rogue tricks, but you’ll have to do it the old way. Listen. What do you hear?”

Nægling looked at Nix, then closed her eyes. “The wind round the tower. Footsteps on the stairs. Cries of our enemies. They are at the lower door, but are hesitant to go in.”

“Good. The first part of passing unnoticed, is to hear, see and feel your surroundings. They are like rage to a warrior, mana to a spellcaster. To know the shape, the sound of the night. Then, you become the night. Move with it. As the wind blows, you move. As your enemy yawns, and is distracted, make your move. When the night is quiet, freeze. Do not move, even if they are looking right at you and you think they may have spotted you. Do not look at your enemy’s faces. They can feel it. Look at their chest. Glance at their faces.”

“Ah. So that is what you were doing with Interalia.”

“Cut the fun. Do you remember what I told you?”

“Yes.”

“Good. In a few moments, I’ll put out all the lights, and then the fun begins. Oh. Come here.”

Nix walked to the fireplace, and took some ashes and soot. This, he smeared over Nægling’s face, and over the lighter parts of her clothing.

“A little extra. It makes your face look less like a face.”

“Hardly necessary.”

“Yes it is. A scar doesn’t change that. Now hold ready. Got a weapon?”

“Yes. A one-hand shortsword. I prefer two-handers, but this will do.”

“Got it!” shouted Interalia. “I thought this room was too small for two fireplaces.”

There was the sound of a small bell next to the door, and running feet below. Apparently, the Gnolls had overcome their inhibitions against disturbing the Master in his room. They found the door shut and started to hammer on it.

“That won’t hold for long,” said Nix. “There’s lots of them.”

“Interalia?” Nægling looked at her rogue friend. “Do we have a covenant with these creatures?”

Interalia gave her a little smile, and shook her head.

“Nope. Open season on Gnolls.”

Some of the planks fell off the door. Nix crouched down, and disappeared into the shadows.

“Here they come!”

Nægling’s body shone with a pure, white light. it grew in intensity until it became unbearable to look at her. As the door finally gave way, it streamed from her, onto the floor, underneath the Gnolls’ feet. The dog-like creatures screeched, tried to retreat, and stumbled onto the ones behind them on the stairs. Nægling called out in a loud, clear voice, words in an ancient tongue, indecipherable, but brilliantly clear in their meaning. She slashed down with her sword, once, and the Gnolls were thrown back onto their fellows. The stairs became a whirlpool of screaming, writhing bodies.

“Holy crap,” said Interalia.

“Consecration and Judgement of Command, actually,” said Nægling. “Shall we leave?”

They disappeared into the tunnel behind the unused fireplace, closing the door behind them. A thin, steep stairway was behind it, unlit and dangerous. As they ran, there was a mechanical click and a blade slashed out of a slit in the wall with inhuman force. Interalia felt the wind as it passed over her head, and laughed.

“Hah! Not good enough, you Human bastard! The Gnomes are upon you!”

“Ahem,” said Nægling. She was taking up the rear guard, walking backwards, peering up the stairs for any enemies. None so far.

“You’re an honorary Gnome,” said Nix.

“I’m two Gnomes, by quantity.”

“Well, we can’t lose then,” said Interalia.

The stairway gave way to a corridor, which opened on a small artificial cave set in the side of a hill. Interalia took a deep breath, and disappeared from sight. Carefully, she opened the door and stepped outside. Nix looked over his shoulder at Nægling.

“Right, we’re heading North. You make your way there. Don’t worry about us, we’ll follow you. Remember, Nægling. Become the night.”

Nix engaged his own stealth and disappeared. Nægling nodded quietly She closed her eyes briefly, and listened to the sounds of the night, as Nix had told her. Then, while the wind blew, she advanced.

X

Day dawned when two Mechanostriders and one Paladin’s charger appeared at the gate of Caer Bannog. They were quietly let in by the guard.

“Good mission?”

Interalia grinned. “We all live. That’s always a good mission.”

They walked to Interalia’s closet. Nægling tore off her borrowed clothes and put on her robe. She looked at the Gnomes.

“I suppose I’ll have to report this to Sir Gerrig,” she said.

Nix shook his head vigorously. Interalia waved her hands.

“Are ye mad?” Interalia pointed a finger at Nægling. “You never ever tell Management anything they don’t need to know. More knowledge only makes them restless. Gives them Ideas.”

Nægling laughed out loud, for the first time since she’d arrived at the Caer. She knelt before Nix and Interalia, and put her hands on their shoulders.

“For what you have done tonight, thank you. Thank you both.”

Interalia put her hand on Nægling’s wrist.

“Nails, you stupid cow. Do not ever do that again. The world’s a better place with you in it. Trust me.”

Nægling smiled a lop-sided smile. Then she got up.

“I think I’ll go…”

“To the chapel, to pray,” completed Interalia.

“To the chapel, to pray,” said Nægling.

Nægling got up, closed the door behind her. She looked back at the stupid sign. Guard Gnome. As she walked away, she could hear Interalia’s voice through the door.

“You’ve got to be kidding! Your mum would have my guts for garters!”

X

She arrived at the shrine that her fellow students had made. It was beautiful, even if they were not. Nægling lit a few candles, and opened the box. She selected two sticks of incense. Lemon and sandalwood. She held them to the candle flame, and waved them back and forth a few times for the glow to catch. She started to kneel in front of the shrine, eyes on the simple symbols used by the Paladins of the Light. Then, she reconsidered. She picked up a pillow from a stool and put it under her knees. She settled down, closed her eyes and turned her face up to the Light.

“Keep them safe,” she whispered. “May the Light keep them safe.”


Cullan stood in the dark alley, eyes closed, head bowed, wondering what to do. No doubt the young lady would be doing her best to convince her employers that he, Cullan, had attempted to force himself on her. He should be angry, but he couldn’t summon up the animosity. If only he’d kept his mouth shut. He should have known better. Maressa would have been alive now. He opened his eyes, looked at the moon. Why? Why would anyone sentence a young girl to such a gruesome death for simply relieving herself of some of the disgust that she must feel? The answer was simple. Money. Bread. Filthy lucre. Greed. Cullan sighed. He might as well join the game. Loren had said she expected her customer at midnight. Cullan looked at the clock on the tower of the cathedral. A quarter past. He should go and see Loren now. Forty gold could buy him favours, or if that became necessary, weapons.

He set off, keeping to cover, to the small room that Loren used for her shady deals. Someone had rented it for her. Most probably Lady Rose. He still didn’t know her real name, and it was unlikely that he ever would. Cloak and dagger. He had used the phrase now and then in his earlier days. Now, he lived it. The cloak, to cover those things that should not be seen. The secrets, never to be told, the small and larger scandals. The dagger, to clean up the little mistakes made by the cloak.

Cullan arrived at Loren’s shop, and mindful of the fact that Loren might not want her guest to meet him, climbed up the wall, onto the roof, where he could look through the window. He had been practicing. Even in his Human disguise, he could now easily pull himself up by his arms. This new dexterity, strength, speed, hiding in the shadows, were the few things he truly enjoyed about his new career. He listened, and recognised Loren’s voice.

X

“Does this place look like Story Corner to you? I only trade goods. No questions asked, none answered.”

“I’m afraid I will have to insist, Miss Loren. I’m not going to buy these vases from you. They are not yours to sell. You will tell us who gave them to you, or things will not go well with you.”

“Is that a threat? People I work for don’t like their people being leaned on.” Pause. “I don’t like being leaned on.”

“Maybe. But they aren’t here now. Mr. Hendricks was in our house for over twenty years, and then your friends cut his throat and dumped him in the river. By the time we found him, rats had eaten most of his flesh. We mean to get the people who did that to him, and make them pay.”

“Aw, what I wouldn’t give to have a friend like you. But that ain’t any of my doing, and I don’t even know the names of half the people I deal with. If people thought I’d rat them out, I’d be out of business in a week.”

There was a sudden noise of breaking earthenware, and a dull thud. Cullan heard the door open, and footsteps of more people coming in. The male voice sounded amused now.

“Oh my sweet girl. You are going out of business tonight. If you tell me what I want to know, I promise you, it’ll be quick and painless. If you don’t, well… Let’s just say that my friends here hope you won’t.”

X

Cullan nearly choked, No! Not again! He bared his teeth in a feral growl. By the time he reached the edge of the roof, his Human form had left him. He broke down the front door, leapt up the stairs, then made himself calm down as he reached the door to Loren’s shop. With one of his claws, he pushed the door open. There were three men in the room. Two of them were holding Loren’s arms while a third held a dagger up to her eye.

“Last chance, Miss Loren.”

Cuchullainn gave a low, soft, sustained growl, almost a purr. The man with the knife turned round, facing him. Revealing yourself like that was against all that Loren had taught him, but Cuchullainn didn’t care. With a sudden bark, he leapt forward, crossed the room. With one hand, he grabbed at the arm that held the knife. The other slashed round, strong claws raking the man’s abdomen. Blood spattered over him, and he tossed the knife wielding man aside like a rag doll. Only then did he draw steel. He hadn’t had time to poison his blades, but it didn’t matter. The two men let go of Loren, who staggered backwards to a table and picked up her own dagger. The men reached for their weapons, but it was too late. With speed greater than the eye could follow, Cuchullainn’s daggers stabbed out. They were dead before they even realised they were too late. Cuchullainn turned to Loren, who was watching him with eyes wide open, holding her dagger out.

“I’ve got you,” said Cuchullainn.

“Stay away!” Loren stabbed out with her dagger. “Stay away from me!”

Cuchullainn dropped his daggers and grabbed Loren’s arm with one hand. His other arm, he put round her shoulders. He pulled her to him, then let go of her knife arm. With both arms round Loren, he searched for, found, the music. His True Form faded from sight.

“I’ve got you,” he whispered.

X

Cullan simply stood there, with Loren in his arms, for a long time. Finally, she took a deep breath.

“Alright, you got me,” said Loren. “Now can you let go?”

Realising what he was doing, Cullan let go, took a step backward, hands in the air.

“Apologies, Miss Loren.”

Loren looked at him, realised she was still alive, and laughed. She touched Cullan’s bearded cheek.

“Next time, do something about the strange and weird first. You’re prickly as hell.”

Cullan coughed. In his younger years, he might have blushed. Loren looked round at the carnage, then back at Cullan.

“So do you mind telling me just what the hell is going on? Why did these brutes knock me out with four thousand gold worth of earthenware for a club?” Loren frowned. “You bloody well could have told me you killed some old bugger for this. I’d have been more careful.”

“I didn’t,” said Cullan. “Gezza knocked him out, I tied him up and put him in the closet. I even checked later to see if he was breathing. He was alive when we left.”

“Hmm.” Loren put away her dagger and rubbed her chin, thinking. “Must have been Gezza then. Imagine that little weasel coming back afterwards to get rid of some old bloke. Unless… Did he get a look at you?”

“I’m afraid so,” said Cullan. “Oh dear.”

“And once he’d seen you, how could he forget you?” Loren shook her head. “I should pull a few strings, ask a few questions. You go to the training hall. I’ll meet you there later.”

“Thank you, Miss Loren. I’m afraid I don’t have the key, though.”

“Nor me. Blessed Light Cuchullainn, have I taught you nothing?”

“Ah. I see. I’ll wait for you there.”

Cuchullainn disappeared into the night. Loren looked at him disappearing down the stairs. She heard a choking noise from the floor.

“Help… me.”

Loren kneeled down next to the man, and looked at his blood-stained face with interest.

“Well, bless me. Not quite dead, are you?” She looked at the man’s stomach. “Hope you don’t have any plans for tomorrow. Was this what you wanted to do to me?”

“Please…”

Loren slowly pulled out her dagger and showed it to the man.

“I ought to leave you to get on with it, really. Just for letting your guts leak out all over my nice clean floor.”

She put one hand under the man’s cheek, raised his head so he was looking into her eyes, carefully placed the sharp point of her dagger against the back of the man’s neck. She looked into the man’s eyes with a little smile on her face, then pushed the dagger in. She pulled it out again, wiped it on a clean bit of the man’s clothes.

“I guess I’m too nice a girl.”


“Hello?”

Loren walked into the training room, quietly, listening, looking round at likely hiding places. With the amount of manure Mr. Cuchullainn had managed to draw upon himself, better be careful. She took a few slow steps into the middle of the room, one hand hovering over her dagger, ready for anything. She frowned.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

There was a polite cough behind her.

“Here, Miss Loren. The coast is clear, unless someone followed you.”

Loren turned round. “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”

“Yes,” said Cullan, “but I suspect that is a clever ruse.”

“Aww, you say the nicest things.” Loren’s smile faded. “You silly bugger. You’ve managed to piss off…” Loren raised a finger. “Your so-called Brethren…”

“I appear to have injured Mr. Cobson’s pride,” said Cullan. “By depriving him of the opportunity to indulge his taste for tormenting defenceless women.”

“Yeah. Oh dear how sad never mind. Second, Gezza. Well done. Anything that annoys the little scab is a good deed in my book.”

Loren raised another finger. “Third, all the girls in the House on the Hill, and Madam Frances. I’m very disappointed. Couldn’t keep your hands to yourself, eh?”

Cullan took a breath. “Miss Loren, I assure you…”

Loren laughed. “Come on. You turn red up to your ears when a girl smiles at you. Havin’ a little fun on the way home? You? She was setting you up. They seem to believe the little tart, though.”

“I cannot blame them for being angry. My indiscretion led to the death of one of the girls.”

“I heard. Maressa. Stupid girl should have known better, honest.”

“I am partly to blame. I should have realised…”

“You’re a wet-behind-the-ears thug. She was a dyed-in-the-wool lady of the night. You had an excuse. She didn’t.”

“Still…”

“You’ve got bigger trouble than feelin’ guilty. Madam Frances has had a little chat with Lady Rose. She wants your hide.”

Cullan ‘s face turned pale. “Lady Rose… Surely she doesn’t think I…”

“Makes no difference what she thinks,” said Loren. “We get lots of jobs from the House on the Hill. Don’t want to lose their business.”

“They’re throwing me to the wolves?” Cullan looked into Loren’s eyes. “Are you…”

“No. You saved my skin back there. I owe you.” Loren’s eyes gleamed. “Even though you got me into that pickle as well. But you could just have walked off.”

“No, Miss Loren. I couldn’t have.”

Loren grinned. “If only we had a bit more time. Oh well. It’s time for you to leave.”

“Leave?” Cullan’s mouth fell open. “Where to?”

“Wrong question love. Where away from, is what you have to think of.”

“But… where in Gilneas can I run to?”

“Nowhere.”

Cullan stared at Loren in horror. “Leave Gilneas?”

“Either that, or spend the rest of your life dead.”

Cullan stared at the floor for a few moments. When he looked up, his eyes looked harder, with new resolve.

“Miss Loren, I’m tired of this. Sneaking about, stealing, killing, watching people I like suffer or die. I’m sick of it. I am ready.”

“Good,” said Loren. “How were you thinking of going?”

“Perhaps I could find a ship out of here?”

Loren shook her head. “Ain’t gonna work. King’s ships don’t sail anymore, and the smugglars are all working for Lady Rose. I know a place where you can get over the wall and out, without being seen.”

Cullan nodded. “Once more, I am in your debt. Very well, then.” He looked round. “I should probably change my appearance.”

“There’s a barber shop nearby. Closed to the public, open to the unscrupulous.”

X

They made their way, unseen, to the barber shop. Cullan found a pair of scissors, and stood in front of a mirror. Loren put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him into a chair. She started cutting Cullan’s wild mane of hair. Cullan leaned back, moving his head here and there as Loren pushed it.

“You have done this before, haven’t you?”

“Name me a profession, and I’ll have done it. Got good tips, too. The trick is letting them get a good look at your bacon bits while you’re washing their hair.”

Cullan leant back in the chair. There was something soothing, almost hypnotic in the snip of the scissors, the soft touch of her fingers.

“There. Want a shave as well?”

Cullan took the straight razor from Loren. “I think I’d better take care of that myself. I have this superstition about people with sharp knives near my throat.”

“Aww,” said Loren. “You’re ruining my pie business, you know that?”

“Is there no end to your talents, Miss Loren?”

“If there is, no-one ain’t seen it yet. Anyway, you’re a great one to talk. You didn’t tell me you were a blimmin’ church.”

“I am a church? Is my body a temple?”

“How long have you lived here? Church organ…”

“Worgen,” said Cullan, with a sigh. “I am sorry. It’s not a subject for casual conversation.”

Cullan stopped talking while he shaved. Loren sat watching him on the back of a chair, boots on the seat. Cullan put down the razor, and looked at himself in the mirror. The face that looked back at him, though painfully familiar, had changed in ways too subtle to put a finger on. The most obvious difference lay not in extra lines, or gray hairs, but in the tired expression in Cullan’s eyes. He wiped off the last of the shaving soap, then turned to Loren.

“Well ain’t you a chipper lookin’ one,” said Loren.

“I don’t feel chipper,” said Cullan. “If it is not an inappropriate question, Miss Loren. Why are you helping me? Your loyalty would seem to lie with Lady Rose, and she wants me dead.”

Loren stepped down, put her hands on Cullan’s shoulders, and looked at him. Her eyes were large, light brown, and incredibly bright.

“You don’t understand? Honestly? Oh Cuchullainn… I love you. I love you, and the thought of something happening to you…” She took a deep breath. “I can’t even bear to think of it.”

Cullan put his hands on Loren’s. “Why? Why must I be burdened with these almost inhumanly good looks, that young and impressionable girls find me so irresistible. If only I could go through life wearing a mask always, to try and avoid this heartbreak.”

Cullan looked at Loren. Loren looked at Cullan. Loren’s smouldering look was too much for Cullan, and he burst out laughing first.

“Miss Loren, I am very fond of you. You are the only person in this madhouse I would not hesitate to call a friend. But I don’t believe you are so smitten with me that you would throw all caution to the wind.”

“Wouldn’t do that for me dear old mum,” said Loren. “It’s Lady Rose. She don’t like being told what to do. Don’t like that at all. So while she’s making a great show of doing all she can to off you, she told me to make sure you got a good head start.” Loren’s face was sad, serious. “But that’s all you’re getting. She’s gonna set the dogs on you, and they’re really going to try hard to catch you. And they’ll kill you when they do.”

“If,” said Cullan.

“If.”

X

Loren saw Cuchullainn reach the end of the rope, and leap down the rest of the way. She pulled up the rope, coiled it and put it on her shoulder. Far beneath her, she saw Cuchullainn go down on all fours and speed off to the East, faster than a racing horse.

“Light speed you on your way, Mr. Cullan,” she said. “And take care.”

She stepped down from the wall, and disappeared into the shadows.


“Hunting a bloody skirtlifter? My pleasure.” The Captain of the guard spat on the floor. “Got just the bunch of scum to do it.” He walked into the guardhouse. “Maceál! William! Dieb! David! Get your hairy arses over here.”

Four men came out of the guardhouse. They had long hair, swords and knives at their belts and were wearing kilts. The Captain pointed at a grizzled, tall man. “This man wants you to hunt down someone who’s been bothering the women of the House on the Hill. Take one of the hounds, track him down, cause him a lot of pain and then kill him. Make him regret the day he tried to grab one of Madam Frances’ girls. Mr. Cobson here will give you one of his shirts for the dog to smell. Off you go!

“Right you are, Sir,” said Maceál.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: