At the top of a dark hill they stood: a great horse and a warrior figured against the grey light of the coming day. They had journeyed with little rest for two days, riding through the night, spurred on by an overpowering sense of urgency. Seama feared for the House of Sands, not really knowing what it was he feared. He had tried frequently to gain some remote vision of the enemy in the North but all was shrouded by a yellow, evil fog he could not penetrate. Dark shadows prowled the borders of it, menacing but indistinct: nothing was clear. If only he could be there to help but his duty lay to the west. Tregar would have to cope and Seama could only make sure he got his soldiers without delay.
They waited, breathing hard, sending long streams of condensing air into the predawn cold. The dew was heavy on them in grey beads that picked out the spreading light. They waited to see what the dawn would reveal below. The horse whinnied as a stirring of the air brought with it the smell of the river that was like a sea and far away a gull cried.
Momently the light grew broader and the plain beneath, beyond the shadows of the Esterdales, awoke to the colours of the day: the dark fields becoming summer green and here and there ablaze with ripening gold. The sun was rising in glory behind them but Seama had eyes only for what lay below, down where the meadows came to an end.
There mists from the river rose with the sun, as though she were boiling the waters of some vast cauldron, and because of the mists Seama was denied sight of the river itself; but at the rim of the bowl, yet vague to the eye, was red-walled Riverport. Like a ragged tor thrust above the fields, the city was a haphazard pile of brick and stone, all packed tight within the guardian walls, so dense it was hard to believe that people could live there. From a distance it was impossible to see the many streets and alleys that waited silently for the morning rush and clamour. The sun now glinted on a multitude of windows, dancing in bright colours as she showed off the stained-glass houses of the rich, and the gulls, flashing in and out of her rays, called mockingly for all of the town's people to awake.
The houses were of all shapes and sizes and many stood dwarfed and dark in the shadows of grander neighbours. Near the docks and near the gates it would be seen that the houses were smallest and, unbelievably, even more crowded together, while further away from the bustle rose imposing mansions, the monuments of families long rich from trade and here too were the dwellings of the nobility and the barracks of the militia.
Seama raised his eyes to take in a view of the docks that were the main artery of this heart of commerce and saw a crazy forest of masts and network of rigging standing proud of the tall warehouses surrounding the quays. The masts bobbed up and down and seemed to tangle themselves and suddenly a topsail was unfurled, like a flag heralding the sunrise. The new day was truly begun as the earliest sailors prepared to take to the water, bound for Gothery.
Seama took a deep breath of the fresh, dew bound air and, without waiting to see whether the Mule had caught up, he urged Bellus on to descend the hills. It was a good road and he expected to be in Riverport in time for the morning meal.
Minutes later the Mule appeared on top of the hill, breathing heavily, disinclined to go further without rest but, after braying in complaint a few times, he noticed the acres and acres of sweet pasturage below and decided that things could be worse. Not at all tired, suddenly he charged down the slope with all the packs on his back bumping and clanging and before long he overtook his master.
Behind dirty, red velvet curtains that like the hotel had seen better days, Angren was hiding and looking out surreptitiously through the chinks he had made. He was a weathered man of about forty years, his chin bore a scar from an old fight, his eye was bruised from a recent one. He was careful to lean only on his left arm, as the right one still hurt, and beneath his sleeve there was the mark of a steel-clad boot. Angren felt better today and to celebrate had bathed all over. Cleanliness made his wispy blond hair impossible to keep down and, though he preferred it slicked close to his head to disguise the increasing baldness, today he was beyond caring. He had shaved his six-month beard not simply to make him less easy to recognise but also it amused him to abuse the knife he had stolen. A diamond hilted dagger, made for a prince, was hardly designed for barbering.
He sighed over his half-empty pint mug. It was good beer and, much to his disgust, what he had left had to last him for the next hour. He was down to his last shilling, he had no job and, most importantly, he could not afford to get drunk for the sake of his life.
Rixbur Draven, “The Armourer” as he liked to be known, “Rixbur the Knife” as he was known, a man of substantial wealth according to the standards of the travelling merchants of his day, was a man with few friends but many enemies. And that was how he wanted it to be. Cheating people was one of his many skills, he delighted in treachery, and the suffering of others, preferably a suffering inflicted by him, was by far his chief amusement.
Unfortunately Angren had known nothing about Rixbur when they first met. The weapon merchant had offered him temporary employment as a demonstrator and extra guard for the perilous journey across the Dragon Plains of Aegarde - not for fighting dragons, of course, but because of rumours about brigands and sorcerers terrorizing Gothery's border: even Angren had heard of the Black Company. Rixbur had offered him a small payment in advance (which Angren drank very quickly) and explained that, though his expenses would be paid on the way, his final wages were to be paid on their safe arrival in the Holy Isles.
It was fair to say that Angren was well pleased with the job for the first few weeks and that, in his turn, Rixbur was well pleased with his demonstrator: Angren was an expert weaponsman. The short sword was his favourite: he preferred to get in close to his enemy, but he was at the least competent with a wide range of other weapons, devastating with many. And Rixbur had them all from slings to staffs, arrows to spears, and he knew they sold better when people could see how to use them properly. As for bodyguards, Rixbur had them aplenty though normally he needed only four. Loyal as hounds, he had four mountain men from the far north of central Aegarde: they were huge men and not quite sane, especially when drunk, which they often were.
But, after the crossing of the plains and entry into wealthy Gothery, Angren found that the expenses allowed him were far below his expectation and need. Rixbur seemed to delight in denying him any improvement, almost goading Angren into rebellion. Angren argued his case vigorously, and with increasing venom, but in the end it was not The Knife’s wilful niggardliness that caused him to consider leaving. The big difficulty Angren had was with Rixbur's young wife, Sorella. To put it simply: Rixbur was as cruel to her as he was to everyone else. Angren could barely restrain himself when each day brought fresh bruises for the girl and, when every night brought sharp cries to his ears, beer and oblivion became the only solution. He did try to help her. In a mood of romantic heroism he made plans for her escape. It was to his lasting astonishment that she rejected his offer of elopement. She wanted, actually wanted, to stay with her lawful husband. "It's not really his fault," she told him, "He just needs to hurt people."
Of all the things in life that confused him, and there were many, women were definitely the worst.
All things considered he had seen enough by the time he reached Riverport and he told Rixbur, to his face, why he was leaving. Rixbur took it very well. Indeed, he had expected, and possibly even engineered Angren’s resignation, intending all the while to refuse fair payment. Rixbur claimed that, as the employee would not be fulfilling his part of the contract, the employer was no longer bound to pay. A blazing row developed, with Angren doing most of the blazing, but Rixbur ended it by having the hill men throw him out. That was how he got the black eye. The bruised arm was the result of a more recent encounter.
A deeply satisfying evening of consigning Rixbur’s entire stock, and therefore livelihood, to the bottom of the river had left Angren with a problem: Rixbur was going to kill him. Angren knew this because yesterday they had nearly caught him. He realised now that swaggering around the streets of Riverport as though he had not a care or an enemy in the world had been a little foolish. With Rixbur screaming threats and the hill men at his heels Angren had escaped only because he’d run into a troop of soldiers marching towards the docks. They did not intervene as he brawled with Dog but by the time Angren had managed to pull free, leaving Dog rolling on the floor and spitting teeth, the roiling medley of shopkeepers and shoppers, artisans and apprentices, innkeepers and drinkers, all come out to gawp at and chatter about these Kingsmen and what might be going on, had so bunged up the narrow street that pursuit became impossible and Angren simply slipped away through the crowds.
Since then Angren had felt very uncomfortable indeed. Rixbur was not the sort to let it go. For one thing Rixbur knew nothing about his stock gathering silt in the harbour and must have presumed that Angren had stolen the gear and probably still had it; for another, vindictiveness was Rixbur’s second nature. It would not go well for Angren if they caught up with him again and so there he sat, hidden, waiting for some chance to gain passage out of the city but expecting every minute that passed to bring with it the four hill men or some dark assassin and a great deal of pain.
A tall man, haggard, dirty, walked into the dull light of the inn's common room; stumbled on an unexpected step, his eyes not yet adjusted from the bright daylight outside. Angren was immediately interested: the man carried a small, secure, leather bag close to his body. The sort of bag that fat jewellers carried. But jewellers travelled nowhere without guards, they were soft and pampered, never lean and strong. Angren decided that the man was a robber, come down from the Dragon Plains and, though never a villain himself, Angren wondered whether it might be useful to pal up with him until he made his escape. It would be less degrading, he thought, than taking a menial job on board a riverboat. But how would he get the man to trust him? Besides the man might not be all he seemed. Robbers rarely walk around with their loot all day without selling it. It was safer to take the money and enjoy yourself than run the risk of meeting the man you robbed, still holding the booty. Perhaps he had come to do business at the inn.
The man sat down at an empty table and shouted his order at the waiting girl and she scurried off, a little frightened by him. While he waited, impatiently, he scratched at his greasy whiskers and stared hard at everyone in the room as if to warn them off. Or was he looking for someone? Someone he knew only by description. Angren jerked back into the shadows, suddenly, horribly convinced that the man was looking for him. He gripped the hilt of his sword.
But the stranger made no move except to devour the meat and bread the girl had brought. When he finished he wiped his gravy-stained fingers on his trousers, drank his pint in only three draughts and then took himself out into the street again. Angren was so relieved he tipped back the last of his own beer - and then groaned, realizing what he had done. That did it! No money to buy beer! It was ridiculous. Grabbing his floppy, now rather battered, broad-brimmed hat, he left the house by the back door and, choosing crowded alleyways, he made his way to the docks.
The docks were alive with activity and noise. Boats were being loaded or offloaded, men shouted in wharf-side barter for goods wholesale and nearby a market for fresh fish and fruit from Down-River added to the hubbub. But it did not take long for Angren to discover that something quite extraordinary was going on in the docks that day. There stood the evidence before him: twelve riverboats. Cargo boats normally but now packed full of soldiers, and they flew amongst their flags the King of Par's Standard. It was an army of Pars taking on provisions, and nobody was told for what or why.
There was rumour and discussion all along the waterfront and, no doubt, some of it was closer to the point than the rest. The most credible tale was that Gothery had been invaded and Pars was mobilized to help. It was a reasonable scenario for the citizens of Riverport, but Angren guessed better, as did anyone who had lately come from Gothery. There had been no sign when he passed through that war was expected, and no sign in Aegarde that they were prepared to attack. Two Royal Houses had been garrisoned for the past month in Salthall, a barracks town just north of Riverport, and Angren suspected they were being readied for war in Pars itself, somewhere Up-River.
That must be the answer, he thought, because the only other possibility was that Pars was intending to invade Gothery, and that was unthinkable.
All of this extra activity made problems for Angren. He was too poor to buy passage anywhere but had decided to swallow his pride and secure work as a crew hand on any ship travelling north or back into Gothery: the Holy Isles would be out of bounds for a while. But who wanted new men if the ships were dock bound? By royal decree no ship was allowed to leave the dead-water: failure to obey would lead to incarceration. News of the embarkation was not to leave port. Angren knew that if he went to the city gates he would find them closed.
He hung around. For one thing, there was nothing better to do and, for another, he was a little curious. He managed to get himself close to the centre of activity. What appeared to be the flagship of the River Fleet was being provisioned while the rest of the ships, already loaded, were lining-up in the dead-water ready to go. He looked closely at the people on the quay, hoping for clues, and he saw, in the middle of a courteous cluster, two very important people. Surely they were the Lords Anparas and Temor, together masters of nearly four thousand men at arms.
The courteous cluster, an assortment of men and women not in uniform but some of them well armed, were listening carefully to whatever Anparas had to say. Occasionally one member of the party would step up to receive a roll of parchment. One woman in particular caught his eye and indeed caught the eye of every man lucky enough to be close by. Her hair was a mane of pure gold that shimmered and dazzled in the bright sunlight; she moved with the grace and poise of a dancer; the blue purple robe she wore clung to a lithe yet full shape he positively ached to explore. Though she had her back to him Angren just knew that her face would be quite as beautiful. Both Anparas and Temor seemed to know her well; by his stance it was apparent that Temor wanted to get to know her better. Her sudden laughter was a delight to hear. Angren could have watched the woman all day long but he was released from her spell when a small commotion began towards the rear of the group. Someone was trying to barge through to the front and tussling with anyone who got in his way.
Angren moved closer, mildly curious, but when he saw the man’s face he gasped aloud. Angren was astounded. Without a doubt it was the stranger he had seen earlier, back at the hotel. Aides rushed to intercept him before he could reach the two lords but the man was insistent. He pushed forward and they struggled to keep him back until Anparas intervened. Soldiers held the man secure while the Lord began to question him and, though Angren could not hear the conversation from where he stood, it was evident that the man had some information he wished to sell. The guards relaxed their hold and allowed him to remove a scroll from his bag. His booty was more precious than jewels: immediately they saw the scroll the two Lords waved away the guards and had the man accompany them to the flagship.
Angren was baffled. A Partian noble would never deal publicly with such a villain. Angren could not shake the idea that he was a highway robber but there was obviously more to him than that. After a while of wondering Angren decided he could learn no more. He looked for the beautiful woman but she must have left the quayside. He toyed with the idea of trying to find her, disappointed that he had not managed to see her face, but decided on balance that he had more important things to think about. There was nothing for him here and so he left the docks determined to try the cloth markets. They were always busy and always short of labour. If he was lucky he would be taken on by a traveller who could give him passport into central Pars as soon as the order was lifted. If he was lucky.
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
21/02/2012 wkj fantasy