The two tall men moving through the crowd were unremarkable at first glance. Although both had a number of inches in height over most of the sojourners bound for the city, they were not dressed in a manner any different from all the others who were moving along at the excited pace of tourists and ambitious merchants. Both were covered in gray cloaks that looked to obscure large packs, and the larger of the two clanked when he took an errant step into a divot in the roadbed or moved quickly around a new pile of ox dung. The other dodged these effortlessly, making little apparent noise as he sliced untouched through the throngs of peasants.
But the whole of the crowd clanked when it moved, the entire line leading to the city was cacophonous with the noise of metal pots and pans clanking against wagon sides and floors, the rattle of heavy chains around the yokes of the large southern oxen, the occasional sound of cheap chain armor tinkling as some young lad, hopeful of a mercenary position, or perhaps even possessed of a letter from his town elders commending him to the Guards, loped along, sweating under the stifling heat of metal adornment and martial excitement. All the noise and excitement directed at Venne, where a hero known only in legend had recently come back to life, if only for a little while.
For now, Valister Olorin lay in an unwakable sleep deep in the heart of the church of Lor, the Crystal Cathedral, a monument to the god Lor that had been raised in the middle of the new city as Haarkedamia slowly rebuilt itself at the end of the Kasnarian invasion. The temple itself was a marvel, hundreds of feet of impossibly graceful spires of milky white crystals, flying buttresses supporting them that shone in the sun like diamonds, every detail of the stonework, walls, floors, and ceilings intricately inlaid with scenes from Lorian legend: the creation of humans, the war against the devils, the councils of the gods. All who saw the Cathedral exclaimed about its impossible details and construction, claiming that is must have been constructed by magic. And it was, but not the type they knew, it had been created by the magic of commerce. Mountains of gold from the coffers of Lor’s churches had gone into the hands of the world’ greatest artisans: dwarven stonecutters, elven sculptors and woodworkers, even a handful of gnomish gemcutters. All had been handsomely rewarded by the church of Lor to build this monument to his majesty. And now, this place housed an equally impressive legend, the savior of Haarkedamia, in unending slumber.
“These damn crowds. Every minute we don’t make it inside the walls this job is getting harder.” The quieter moving of the two figures threw his hood back in a frustrated manner, quickly scanning the people around him, his gray eyes seeking out any reactions or recognition. Finding none, he turned back to the larger man. “It’s going to be impossible to move through this mob even when we get inside. Venne can’t handle all these idiots. Where are they going to stay? There’ll be urchins and grandmothers sleeping in wagons up and down every street in the city.” He shook his head vigorously as he looked down at his feet. “Why the hell did we agree to do this?”
“Because we wanted their money.” The voice was without inflection, and the larger man did not remove his hood to acknowledge his companion’s frustration and gestures. He continued to stare ahead at the Eastgate portcullis, thrown wide to the crushing mass of humanity. He could already see that the Guard had already given up on trying to search every wagon headed into the city. If they could just get in the gate before nightfall, which was close, they would be fine. “Besides, you know what this place will be like once we do our job. It’ll free us up to take care of a few more things before we get out.” The voice was matter of fact, as if paying careful attention to a very tedious activity, neutral but careful. The large man shrugged under his shapeless cloak, triggering a number of small clinks and pings as he shifted his wide-set shoulders.
“But Tacit won’t. . .”
“Tacit isn’t here, Crynus. You’d do well to remember that. Whatever he is off doing, that’s a choice he made. We’re here. This has to happen.” The voice didn’t rise, there was no emphasis, simply the statements. Like reading off a bill of goods.
The smaller of the two sighed, “Malus, we knew damn well when we took this job that we were going against…”
“Against? Have you chosen a side? Has Garenol Crynus come to choose where he stands in the coming war? Really? Does your father know?” Finally a hint of inflection in the voice. Taunting, almost a laugh.
“Do not mention my father again, Malus.” Garenol had stopped walking, and was slowly pulling black hair out of his face. His cloak had been pushed back, revealing a number of sword and dagger handles protruding from the layers of cloth.
“Keep moving, idiot. You have nothing to prove to me.” The voice had gone back to neutral.
With a grunt, Garenol whipped his cloak back over his weapons. When he looked around again, he noticed that a slow moving wagon had come up beside him during the conversation. The large wagon had three children in it, two boys and a little girl. All threepeered over the edge of their father’s wagon, eyes wide and blue. They’d never seen what their dad called a high elf before. Garenol’s pulled back hair had revealed pale skin, angular features, and the high pointed ears common to the race. These kids had seen wood elves, the short, ruddy skinned elves more common here in the south, but never an elf like this: over six feet tall, pale, gray eyed and imperious looking. The revealed abundance of weapons hadn’t helped. The kids looked scared. His smile did little to relieve the looks on their faces.
Turning away from the wagon, Garenol stalked up behind Malus, who had not bothered to stop moving, the pair now perhaps a quarter mile from the gate. Already along the sides of the road, merchants and vendors too impatient to make the gates had pulled to the side of the path, let down gates on their wagons or thrown out colorful blankets on the hard packed soil and begun hawking wares of every type: food, drinks, blankets and small tents, various kitchen equipment designed for small fires. Everything for sale hinted at a long occupation of the city by folks coming in out of the country. One enterprising individual had already carved a number of sticks in the style of Olorin’s legendary walking stick, and was plying a brisk trade.
As the wagons and people began to bottleneck in an attempt to all move through the city gate, Garenol fell in behind Malus, laughing quietly to himself as he thought of Malus as his battering ram. He put out a thin hand to place in the middle of Malus’ back to let himself be lead through the crowd, as he was too busy looking up at the walls and battlements of the Eastgate of Venne. The outer wall was thick stone, tan streaked with darker browns, quarried out of the nearest of the Barrier Peaks. The outside had been smoothed carefully by stonemasons to prevent grappling hooks or skilled climbers from being able to enter the city undetected. Atop the wall were first a row of arrow slits, in ten foot intervals, the tall thin vertical slits slashed horizontally with five foot breaks for possible crossbow use. That feature spoke to Garenol of dwarven craftsmen, and he wondered at the motivation of the dwarves leaving their stronghold of Coryntor, high up in the Barrier Peaks, to come work on a human castle.
Looking up as they moved under the first portcullis, he saw the murder holes in the roof where hot oil or boiling lead could be poured on top of invaders in case the first gate was breached. Garenol’s father had once joked to him about that feature in Old Venne, and how little good it had done the Guard back then. “Kind of hard to dump oil on invaders coming in through thirty of forty unplanned holes in your walls.” His father, always so obsessed with protection, and now a paranoid king. He deeply hoped he wouldn’t be recognized.
As he was gazing around, taking in as many details of the city entrance as he could, he lost track of what was happening in front of him, as Malus moved through the crowd like a tiller. Malus was focusing on the second gate already, he didn’t care about the little details, as he knew Garenol would already have committed most of these things to memory. What worried him was more immediate, that people on foot were being channeled into a single file line by the Guard, and being moved through a small side gate next to the main, where they were being examined carefully by a team of guards. And a magistrate, his blue robes and pendant of office clean and official looking in this sea of browns and grays. A scroll case hung from his leather belt along with a number of small pouches.
“Garenol, you need to pay attention.” Malus was moving his arms underneath his shapeless cloak, and metallic noises were emanating. “This may not be as easy as we thought.”
Garenol finally took his eyes off the fortifications and stood on tiptoe, looking over Malus’ shoulder at the quickly consolidating line of people on foot. “Damn,” he said under his breath as he began to quickly size up the situation: number of guards, height of the walls around them, bystanders.
“Just keep moving, and don’t make eye contact, Malus,” Garenol said quietly as he pulled his hair back over most of his face. Malus’ eyes had always been the only remarkable thing about him, wholly black circles where most had brown or blue. They were disconcerting, somehow both menacing and disaffected. He was not particularly popular in the rougher taverns. Garenol couldn’t count the number of nights he’d slept on the ground outside a town instead of in a warm inn bed because Malus had invited the town ruffian outside the bar to repeat an off comment. If he’d just let them go back inside after he’d dealt with them . . .
“Are you paying attention?” Malus said as he rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck. “If this sours, we will need to move fast, which way are you going to go?”
“If I need to, I’m just going up,” Garenol jerked his head toward the closer of the two walls. “You?”
“Same as always,” Malus replied calmly.
“Shit. Can you please just get through this quietly?” Garenol hissed over Malus’ shoulder as they drew closer to the small archway where five guards and a robed figure stood overseeing the pilgrims entering the city.
“I’m always quiet,’ replied Malus. “Just make sure that you remember where our room is.”
“The Bloody Fist Tavern, yes, I know. Look, Malus, just look straight ahead at that arch and try not to. . .”
“You, sir. Please step this way.” The voice of bored but attentive authority. An older sergeant of the Guard with a thick red mustache was waving his hand half-heartedly at Malus.
“Just remember, Malus. No one should know who we are,” Garenol pleaded as Malus stepped slowly towards the waiting Guard.
“No one knows who I am, Garenol,” Malus said over his shoulder in a joking tone as he stepped close to the Guard and looked down at him.
“Oh god,” Garenol muttered to himself as he slowly began to move his hands closer to weapons. His eyes rolled back slightly as he was trying to remember a spell.
“What’s your business in Venne today, sir?” the guard asked in a bored voice for what was probably the four hundredth time that afternoon. He finally looked up at Malus. His eyes widened as he made eye contact, and then he stepped back involuntarily.
“Debt collection,” Malus replied.
“I see,” stammered the Guard, while gesturing to a private for the board he was using to mark notes. “How long do you plan on staying in Venne?”
“As long as it takes,” Malus grinned.
The Guard cleared his throat, “Very well. Make your mark here on the tablet, go with Lor.”
The sergeant was already looking back to the line of people for someone less disturbing to question. Malus walked towards the door with Garenol trailing. “That was a bit close,” said Garenol, “Thanks for not just killing...”
“You, sir. The debt collector.” The robed magistrate who was standing with the group of Guardsmen was gesturing at Malus. “Could you take that cloak off? If you are bringing wares into the city we need to see them for tariffs.”
“Of course, sir,” Malus’ black eyes sparkled as he reached to unclasp the brooch, a gray metal oak tree, holding the large, shapeless cloak.
Garenol sighed behind Malus as he, too, pushed back the edges of his cloak away from his arms. “The Bloody Fist? Meridian Road by the lake?”
“Right,” replied Malus quietly as he dropped the cloak nonchalantly into the street. The younger Guards gasped as the few veterans among them drew their short, heavy swords. The magistrate scrambled to get behind the Guards, fumbling with a pouch on his belt and already gesturing in the forms to release a spell.
Malus stretched his arms back over his head, revealing a full suit of plate armor, black enameled. A sword and hand axe hung hafts forward from a black leather belt around the armor. “The mage?” Malus inquired over his shoulder as he drew both weapons.
“Right,” replied Garenol. He gestured around Malus at the magistrate, and a small crackling ball of purple energy flew towards him, emitting sparks and shooting out small bolts of static electricity. The magistrate froze in reaching into the belt pouch and pitched forward into the street. The ball zipped towards him, and upon hitting the mage, there was a crackling flash of light and a hollow thump.
When everyone’s eyes had readjusted from the blinding flash, the mage was a dripping red film covering most of the Guards and the small shack behind them, Malus was already among the remaining Guards, swinging both weapons with a speed that would not be believed of a man his side.
Garenol was gone.
7 - Berlin
8 years ago