The Streets of Wardeen: Episode I
The rain drummed down hard onto the dirt streets of the city of Wardeen. It drenched everything in its wake and created a cacophony of sound as the droplets pounded into the puddles and pools that had rapidly formed in potholes and wagon ruts that littered the roads. The wind tugged at the buildings, disrupting the displays of goods arranged before the open shop fronts and rattling doors and shutters in their frames. People dashed to and fro between awnings and doorways, cloaks wrapped tightly around them, trying to go about the last of their business for the day.
None of them acknowledged or even noticed the skinny little human boy who trudged wearily on his way. Not even the two men who barged past him, nearly catapulting him into the path of an oncoming carriage as they entered the welcoming warmth of a coffee house. The boy managed to regain his footing just in time to avoid being crushed under the wheels of the stately looking vehicle, or beneath the hooves of the horse pulling it, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid the tide of freezing, fetid water thrown up as the carriage ploughed through a deep hole.
The boy stood rooted to the spot for a moment, shocked to the bone by the freezing deluge, watching the carriage disappear into the gloom, not a backwards glance from the driver, perched high up on his seat, nor from whoever the occupants were inside. Not that he was expecting any kind of apology. His whole body was wracked by a convulsing shiver and he willed himself to move again. Wrapping his arms tightly around himself and gritting his teeth to try and stop them chattering, he plodded on. In reality, the tide of water had changed his situation little. His patched and threadbare tunic and knee length trousers were already soaked through, and the cloth wrappings he had wound round his bare feet were so saturated with water that it oozed out of the fabric with every step.
As he reached the end of the street and stepped into a small square, he raised his head and slicked back his sodden black hair from out of his face so he could peer at the nearby landmarks. The water droplets clung stubbornly to his hair, trying to plaster it back into place across his forehead, and reluctantly dribbled down the brown skin of his face. He narrowed his brown eyes, which appeared almost black in the dim light, as he tried to spot anything that might give him an indication of where he was. Spying the wildly swinging sign of the Fish Hook Tavern through the sheets of rain, he set off across the square, weaving his way in-between the people rushing for shelter.
Passing through the pools of light that spilled out from the cracks in the door and the windows of the tavern, he could hear the raucous crowd within and smell the tantalising odour of cooking wafting above the sour stench of stale beer. He sped up, trying to get past the delicious scents as quickly as possible, before his stomach cottoned on and began to raise more of a fuss than it already was.
Despite the knowing hunger that tortured him, he had had a successful day judging by his usual standards. Though the three copper coins were the only rewards of the begging he had done that day up around the city’s bazaar, he had managed to steal a handful of nuts and an apple from an unguarded stall. He had wolfed them down in an alleyway before his theft could be discovered by the stall’s owner, or his treasure discovered by other urchins. That meagre meal now seemed like years ago, the joy of the haul extinguished by the storm that had rolled in from the Ocean of Memaran and his long trudge from Wardeen’s Bazaar island to South Isle where he now was. He could have stayed in the north of the city and tried to ride out the storm in a doorway or alley, but bitter experience had taught him that this was not a good idea. Not only were people very unfriendly when they found an unwelcome visitor squatting on their stoop, but the other urchins and down and outs that stalked the alleyways of the city’s more prosperous districts were highly territorial, aggressive and unpredictable. No, best to find somewhere secluded, where he could easily get lost and bed down for the night and there was nowhere better in Wardeen than the Rahma.
The Rahma though referred to in the city’s official records as a district located on South Isle was, in reality an enormous slum. Its ragged houses were scattered higgledy-piggledy across the area, defying the logical layouts of the streets in the rest of the metropolis, which here had morphed into a confusing network of alleys and snickets, a maze that only those who lived there could navigate with any certainty. For those wishing to hide, whether from the authorities or any other of life’s problems, it was the perfect place to retreat to. Having said that the Rahma was by no means safe, far from it. It was a place of thieves, smugglers, prostitutes, charlatans and murderers, which the city guard only ventured into if it was deemed absolutely necessary, and then only in large numbers.
For this reason, the boy got off the winding main street that ran through the heart of the slum as quickly as possible and took the side streets towards his intended destination. He was heading for a group of abandoned warehouses, built by an enterprising man of means nearly thirty years ago on the banks of one of the branches of the River Tashghil that carved up the city into its many islands. The original intention of the project had been to make the financier a tidy profit by using the cheap land and labour of the Rahma to run a new and busy export centre. However, this plan was stymied before it had even got off the ground, when the Republican Assembly passed a law dictating that all trading activities into and out of Wardeen must go through the Great Harbour. The project was abandoned and the six completed warehouses and seven partially completed structures were left to rot, becoming a scar on the northern side of the slum. Though they had been as economically useless as any other initiative that had been tried in the Rahma, they did at least provide a space where one could find shelter amongst the many stacks of abandoned building materials and mouldy packing cases. There were plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in.
When the boy popped out of a side street opposite one of the cavernous structures, what little light hadn’t already been blocked out by the angry storm clouds over head had almost disappeared. He crossed the quiet street at a run, braving the full force of the rain and wind one last time before darting through a jagged hole in the wooden wall of the building and entering his refuge. He had a regular hiding spot within that he bedded down in almost every night. Even though the warehouse was pitch black, his feet guided him through the piles of rotting wood, bricks and other detritus, following a well worn route to a group of crates, covered with a dusty sheet of sacking, into which he crawled and made himself as comfortable as he could on the musty pile of rough fabric he had hoarded within. As he lay in the darkness, his eyes began to close as he finally gave in to the weariness weighing down his mind and body.
* * * * * * * * * *
The boy’s eyes flew open and he lay as still as he could, trying to slow his breathing so that he could listen more closely to the noises happening around him. He had been awoken by the shuffling of feet and the sound of voices that was drawing closer and closer to his hiding place. Then warm, yellow candle light began to partly illuminate his nest, creeping through the gaps in the crates and causing huge shadows to be thrown up by its flickering. Slowly, he wormed his way to one of the cracks and peered through it to see what was going on.
In the warehouse beyond he could see a group of five figures holding lanterns stood in a group around six feet away, clearly waiting for something. Four of them were large, well-built men, humans who glanced around nervously, their free hands twitching towards where the boy guessed they were hiding weapons within their coats. All four of them looked like they’d seen a fight or two, judging by the scars that ran across hands, arms and faces. The clearly broken and then poorly reset nose of the one closest to him, was revealed as the man turned to look beyond the crates that made up his hiding spot. The fifth figure, however, seemed much smaller than the others, standing only just over 5 feet in height, their body less bulked out with muscle. Beyond this it was hard to distinguish any other features, for they were swathed in a long black cloak and hood that covering them from head to toe.
‘I don’t like this, he should be here by now.’ The crooked nose of the man swung back round to the hooded figure as he spoke, the old injury giving his voice a thick, heavy sound.
‘Don’t fret, Baalor, he’ll be here soon enough. I’m sure he’s just been delayed by the weather.’ The voice that sounded from within the hood was smooth and calm with a honeyed edge. It failed to sooth Baalor, who continued to fidget and stare off vainly into the darkness.
After several more minutes of intense waiting, the noise of quiet footsteps sounded again in the gloom and the four men wheeled around to face it, their weapons half drawn, ready for a scrap. The hooded figure sighed wearily and turned much more slowly to face the oncoming footsteps.
‘Calm yourselves gentlemen, this is our man. Malnush, there’s no need to fear, come into the light.’
Stepping from the shadows a small stocky figure emerged into the light of the lamps. Malnush was a dwarf with strong, broad shoulders, whose effect on his physique was spoiled somewhat by the large pot belly that strained the belt around his trousers and protruded beyond the folds of the cloak he had donned to protect him from the rain. All of his clothes were dark with rain water, from his fine leather boots to the now misshapen and sodden velvet hat that he clutched in a hand adorned with several rings that sparkled in the lamp light. The dwarf wiped a water droplet from his nose with his other hand and nervously tugged at the sides of his brown, turning grey mutton chops and moustache.
‘Well Malvolio, I’m here’ Malnush said tentatively, taking another nervous step forwards, his eyes, darting in-between each of the four humans, who stared back menacingly.
‘Yes, I can see that, but given we’re not here on this splendid night in the loveliest of location for a chat, forgive me if I cut to the chase. Did you bring the required capital?’
The hooded figure of Malvolio took a step forwards and carefully removed a pair of leather gloves from his long fingered, delicate hands revealing the deep blue skin beneath, which then moved up to his head and pulled back the hood to reveal his face. Like his hands, the skin of Malvolio’s face was deep blue, with carefully cropped hair, light blue almost grey in colour, thickly crowning his head and matching the neatly trimmed goatee cultivated to a sharp point on his chin. His face was split by a long slightly pointed nose, and his almond shaped eyes surveyed the dwarf with a careful expression, the lamp light reflected in the silver, pupil-less pools.
Malnush rummaged around within his cloak and produced a fat purse, bulging at the seams which he held out in a slightly shaky hand. Malvolio strode forward and plucked the purse from the dwarf’s hand, weighing it in his own as he took a few careless steps back towards his escort.
‘Oh come now, Malnush, there’s no need to be afraid, we’re all friends here’ Malvolio said, noticing the dwarf’s still trembling hand. He opened the purse and peered inside. He carefully removed one of the coins from within and bit into it delicately, scarring the face of the knight emblazoned on one side. ‘This all seems to be in order. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that you can go back to your fine establishment and get warm. We shall arrange for the shipment to be dropped off just after midnight. Make sure you’re waiting at the back door to your shop, don’t worry we already know how to get there, our porters will want to be in and out as quickly as….’
Malvolio stopped speaking and cocked his head to one side.
‘Baalor did you…?’
‘Yes, I heard it as well.’
Within the crates, the boy held his breath, horrified at the prospect that he might have made the noise that grabbed the attention of the figures in the warehouse. He didn’t know who they were, but he knew enough about the underworld of Wardeen to guess that the blue-skinned man and his accomplices were members of one of the many gangs that vied for supremacy of the city’s dark soul. People who would not take kindly to being eavesdropped on. After a split second of everyone collectively holding their breath, the boy heard a click from somewhere beyond the confines of his den. However, the sense of relief at knowing that he hadn’t given himself away was quickly erased by an overwhelming sense of dread. There was someone else here.
Malvolio was clearly having a similar thought to the boy who, still with his eye to the crack between the crates, saw the man visibly tense and then dive behind a pile of building material. A moment later the silence was shattered by several loud snapping noises, along with the sounds of Malnush and the four humans left in the open area sprinting for cover. The boy’s hiding place shuddered as someone crashed into one of the crates and then the sounds of fighting erupted all around, weapons clashing against weapons, cries of pain and the grunts of people struggling against one another. Whoever had crashed into his hiding place had shunted the crates closer together so that his peep hole was all but closed up. All he could see now were flashes of the people beyond fighting for their lives. Eventually, the ruckus subsided and the boy heard Malvolio’s voice again, a note of acute exasperation colouring the speech.
‘Well isn’t this just fucking marvellous? Trust the Teraleks to find a perfectly good exchange that is none of their fucking business and then piss all over it.’
‘I told you something didn’t feel right about this, and that I didn’t trust that Malnush neither….’ Baalor’s thick voice rumbled angrily from closer at hand.
‘Well there’s no need for you to be too concerned about that now given he’s now got a crossbow bolt in the throat….’
As the two of them continued to bicker, the boy’s attention was caught by a strange, sickening sensation in his hand, as if it was being submerged in warm water. He looked down and drew it into one of the remaining chinks of light, to see what was happening. His hand was red with fresh blood. His heart leapt into his throat at the sight and he let out an involuntary gasp.
‘What was that?’ Baalor’s voice sounded as if it had turned to face his hiding place.
The boy didn’t hear Malvolio’s response, his heart was beating too loud and fast in his ears, deafening his senses. It was taking all of his willpower to remain still and to keep himself from throwing up. He didn’t hear the man’s heavy footfalls coming closer. The next thing he was aware of was the rough material that covered the top of his nest being torn away, light from a lamp spilling over him and then Baalor’s meaty hand grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and plucking him roughly out into the open.
‘What have we got here then? Hold still you little shit!’
Baalor cuffed the boy roughly around the ears before throwing him onto the floor. He yelped as he landed awkwardly on his left shoulder, and then yelped again as he saw the chaos around him. There were people lying scattered all around, their bodies lacerated and punctured with fresh bloody wounds, dead eyes staring up into nothingness. As the boy scrabbled upright he saw one body slumped against one of the crates that he had been hiding inside. The man’s torso was peppered with crossbow bolts and the blood which soaked his shirt and trousers had dripped from one of his limp arms into the confines of the boy’s hiding place.
Malvolio looked up to survey Baalor and his captive. He had been squatting next to the body of Malnush which lay spread-eagled on his back, a bolt embedded deep in his neck a look of permanent surprise and horror painted on the dwarf’s face. Malvolio withdrew his hands from the folds of the corpse’s clothes, sliding them dextrously into pockets beneath his cloak and straightened up again. There was a loud slap as Baalor smacked the boy across the face again, sending him sprawling to the ground once more.
‘Who are you working for? How much did they pay you to lead them here eh?’
‘Give it a rest for Walanni’s sake will you Baalor? You know damn well who’s behind this, you only have to look at them.’
Malvolio stalked to the nearest corpse of one of their assailants and pulled up the sleeve of their jacket to reveal a large tattoo of a serpentine dragon winding its way up the man’s forearm and onwards to his upper arm.
‘Let the boy go Baalor, he’s just an urchin, here at the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s seen enough, let him get off and crawl back into whatever hovel he came from.’
‘That’s right, he has seen too much!’ Baalor snarled, lunging at the boy again, who just about managed to scuttle out of the way towards Malvolio. ‘You know what the boss said, she said no mistakes and no witnesses. Well we’ve already had one big fucking mistake happen here haven’t we, but we can at least make sure we follow the second part to the letter.’
Baalor had drawn a wickedly curved shortsword from a scabbard beneath his cloak and was bearing down on the boy, who shuffled back across the rough floor, trying to get away. He hadn’t got far before he bumped into Malvolio’s boots. As he looked up to see what the obstacle was, he could see Malvolio’s hands were gripping the hilts of the two daggers that hung from his belt. The man was standing staring resolutely up at Baalor.
‘He’s just a child, we should let him go.’
‘Step aside Vittra filth! I always thought you were soft, but I never thought you’d get all soppy and sentimental over a sewer rat. No matter, if you don’t have the balls to do what we must then I will. Stand aside, I’ll slay the scum at your feet if I have to.’
Baalor didn’t alter his course, but continued loom over the boy, raising his sword above his head, ready to strike. The boy cowered into the ground, a whimper escaping his lips. Then for a second, his vision became slightly fuzzy, as if a film had just been placed over his eyes. He fell back, Malvolio’s legs no longer supporting him and he looked around for a sign of him. Baalor had clearly been effected too, for he stopped in his tracks and rubbed his eyes with the back of a hand. The muttered curses that he was uttering erupted into a scream. His whole body arched back as he fell to his knees, revealing Malvolio behind him, withdrawing one dagger from the man’s back. The second dagger shot up and drew a ragged, bloody line across Baalor’s throat and he fell forward, body convulsing as it bled its last.
‘You always were a fucking prick’ Malvolio sighed, wiping the blades of his daggers on Baalor’s still twitching corpse. ‘A blunt and mindless instrument if ever I saw one, but I’ll admit you did have your uses….’
Striding over the corpse, Malvolio advanced on the boy, sheathing his daggers and then squatting down so he could stare into the petrified urchin’s eyes.
‘Now tell me that nothing that happened tonight had anything to do with you? Otherwise I’ve just created an awful bureaucratic headache for myself.’
The boy shook his head vigorously. Malvolio’s silver eyes continued to gaze into the boy’s, as if staring into his soul, judging him.
‘What’s your name?’
The boy shook his head again and looked around, his face a mask of fear and confusion.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?’
Another shake of the head.
‘Don’t say much do you? Well for the moment I’m going to call you… Faas, yes Faas, you remind me of a little Faas mouse. I don’t suppose you know what one is do you? You don’t get them this far north. Tell me have you got a home, parents, anything?’
Three more tremulous head-shakes.
‘Well then, why don’t you come with me, I’ve been needing a new gofer for quite some time. Apart from that little squeak you made earlier you’re quite the stealthy little guy, always useful. I can arrange for a bed, fresh clothes, food, but you’ll have to work for it, unless that is you want to stay living on the streets…?’
A definitive shake of the head, with the faint lines of a hopeful expression creeping onto the dirty face.
‘Good, come on then.’
Malvolio straightened up and began to stalk off into the darkness, wrapping his cloak around him. The boy still sat on the floor, stunned by what had happened, a stroke of good luck at last, but he was afraid that it might not be what it seemed.
‘Quickly now Faas, keep up!’ Malvolio’s voice sounded impatient from the darkness.
Scrabbling to his feet Faas dashed after Malvolio into the dark. So far the devil he knew had shown him no kindness, perhaps the devil he didn’t would….