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Chapter I—Rake’s Progress
Haskell fled the dockside tavern with the girl in tow. As they hurried along the warehouses lining the shadowy quay, he didn’t note the waxing gibbous moon reflected in the calm waters of the bay, nor feel the ache of his bruised and bloodied knuckles: he focused only on what lay ahead. It was the only direction he ever looked. Never backward and neither within. He would look anywhere but into the aching, visceral void in his heart. What would it gain him?
He led the girl, laughing, to a shallow alcove. Her face was stained a ghostly blue in the light of an arcane lamppost, a dancing azure flame held within its twisted fingers of iron. She was around his age, maybe eighteen, and average height, but her head only reached his chest. She was beautiful, and her eyes sparkled with mirth and desire.
If only he could remember her name.
Gwen, Keila? He was so good with names but couldn’t remember hers. “Admit it,” he whispered, gazing down her bodice, “you’re a nymph, crawled from the sea to tempt me.” He stooped and brushed his lips along the slope of her neck. She giggled and gazed at him with greedy eyes, lacing her delicate fingers over his knuckles, bloodied against the face of a burly sailor in the tavern. Sailors didn’t like tall Southron folk, even one born in the High City. He was used to it; two years dockside had taught him there were no fair fights, only winners and losers. He rarely lost.
Haskell studied the girl more thoroughly than the lessons put to him by a frustrated string of tutors: she had nursed her drink, not gulped it like regulars of such “excellent” dockside establishments, and the weave of her dress was too fine. Not as fine as Haskell’s white tunic or short oxblood surcoat, but neither was it commoner’s rough-spun. No, she was a shopkeeper’s daughter out for a bit of adventure. He was happy to oblige.
“I . . . never—” she began. He drew her close and kissed her, grabbed a fistful of her long hair, drew her head back, and kissed her throat. She moaned. Her breath was hot in his ear as she ground her pelvis into his thigh.
His mind, thief of every pleasure, turned suddenly to Old Joshua, the shipwright he had visited that afternoon: the very thing he was fighting to forget. Joshua crumpling the paper in his calloused fist, his chin trembling with indignation at the message Haskell had delivered at his master’s behest. Joshua spoke of fighting Master Slade in the Guild, but Haskell knew it wouldn’t matter. His father would have paid off the right people and Master Slade had arranged everything as neatly as his ledgers. In less than a fortnight, Joshua would be insolvent; his ships auctioned to pay debts that Slade knew would come due at just the wrong moment. The ships would be sold on to swell the ill-gotten fleet of Haskell’s dear father, Eskil the Younger. Eskil the Lesser. It was a scheme as genius as it was contemptable. Haskell hadn’t said any of this to Old Joshua, of course. Let Old Joshua try. Maybe he could win.
Haskell forced all this out of his mind as the girl unlaced his breeches. He slid his hand up her skirt. Her eagerness was an elixir to him, a validation he could find nowhere else. He was hard and ready.
“Feckless scoundrel. I knew I would find you here,” Master Slade said from behind, his reedy voice dripping with venom.
Haskell pulled his lips from the girl’s and sneered over his shoulder, his passion sinking like a drowning man at sea. His companion gasped, pushed down her skirt, and huddled behind him.
Master Slade, bent by age, wore a mantle of dignity over his fine robes and a look of utter contempt on his sagging face. Behind him, the tidy rigging of ships moored along the quay glowed in the lamplight like the corded webs of titanic spiders. “Imbecile. I told you to work out those invoices by moonrise. You cannot complete even the simplest task.”
The girl ran. Haskell reached for her, but the silver pommel of Slade’s cane rang off the stone wall in front of him. She vanished around the corner.
“Damn it, Master, she—”
“Was your true love? I suppose you left your coin purse in the tavern?”
Haskell clutched the cut purse-strings at his waist. He grinned; she was good. He could still taste her. She hadn’t needed to steal from him: he would have taken her anywhere, bought her anything just to have her. It didn’t matter if her desire was hollow; that she gave it at all was enough.
Slade’s cane hammered Haskell’s jaw, the pain a flash of light in his vision and a dull, vibratory thud in his ears. He went sprawling onto the rough, cobbled street, and looked up as the old man shook his cane in his face. “You bring only shame on your family, waste every opportunity—”
“Opportunistic thievery,” Haskell muttered while fingering his numb jaw.
“What?” Slade said, his wizened face twisted with disbelief.
“Usurers and moneylenders have nothing on you, Master. I delivered your message to Joshua, that was enough for me.” He looked out over the mirrored azure waters of broad Tuskbay. Khul, the High City, was filled to overflowing with corrupt merchants and preening, backbiting nobles. The cheating, the gossip, the thievery cloaked as business; it was a game they happily played with other people’s lives. The thought of returning to his cramped office in the rat-infested warehouse, of hunching over its tiny desk and gagging at the reek of its scummy puddle and incessantly dripping ceiling, was too much. Besides, penning today’s transactions would make the whole sordid business real; worse, it would make him indelibly complicit.
No, he wouldn’t do it. Not tonight. Maybe never again.
Slade growled and looked skyward. “It’s Joshua's fault for not reserving enough capital—I can’t be held responsible for his fiscal shortcomings. You must be cunning, boy. Have I taught you nothing? Gods know I tried where your father failed.”
“Father’s nothing. My grandfather—”
Slade prodded Haskell's chest with his cane. “Your grandfather was a shiftless rake, like you. Your father—”
“My grandfather was a hero. He broke the orcs. They wrote songs about him. You and father are cowardly cheats.” He pointed to the corner around which the girl had fled: “She had the courage to face her mark, not send some proxy to do her dirty work. I rate her higher than you in my books.”
Slade drove his cane into Haskell’s chest, its tapered, silvered end driving between his ribs, like the grizzled shipwright was trying to press a silver bullet into his heart. “I will beat respect into you, boy, or kill you trying.”
Something splintered inside Haskell. Not in his head or chest—something lower. Deeper. A creeping fire filled him, its heat making him shake and filling his mouth with ferric rage. He looked up, slowly, along the haft of Slade’s polished cane, past the wrinkled, calloused hands, and into the old man’s hateful eyes. The iron heat only grew.
Haskell’s body became a puppet of rage jerked to action by strings of loathing. In a half-crazed moment, he repaid years of Slade’s brutality. He struck his shrinking master without thought of consequence, only justice; and in a heady outpouring of hate, drove his old master to the water’s edge.
And over the side.
The next thing Haskell knew he was running uphill, leaving behind the squalor of the docks for stately abodes of merchants and artisans: stone-clad foothills of opulence below the soaring granite mansions above, each a pale mountain in the bright moonlight. He stole into a cobbled backyard and glanced around, breathing hard and massaging his throbbing jaw. At least the shaking had stopped. The old bastard was probably alive. Probably. Part of him didn't care, but the Guard would, and they would be after him soon.
He crept to a shed abutting the house’s back wall and gazed at a dark, second-storey window. It was high, but he could reach it. He had before. It’s owner was a trader who had risen to prominence on the necks of better men and women: Haskell’s father. Everyone would be asleep.
He clambered onto the shed, its mossy, slanted roof creaking under his weight. Reaching up, he blindly worked his stiletto between the windowsill and catch. He twisted the slim blade up and down, left and right, the window groaning as cold steel splintered old wood. A sharp crack echoed in the yard as the blade and latch broke.
The jolt caused his right heel to splinter the weather-softened roof, and he tipped backward. Flailing for balance, he caught the frame with his fingertips, gripping the carved stone with his nails to stay upright. He steadied himself, looked at the fractured dagger, and swore. The stiletto had been a gift from his sister when he left to apprentice under Slade. She had been his only ally in the family after their mother died, the only one to treat him with anything but scorn. He set the broken dagger on the shed’s roof. None of that mattered now.
He hauled himself up, held his taut body in place with one forearm, and pushed the window open with the other. He reached into the room and tumbled inside. His heel rattled the frame and his arm collided with a side table, knocking a heavy wood carving onto the floor with a bang. He grimaced but remained still.
Nothing stirred in the house.
He pulled himself up by the edge of a large, familiar mahogany desk. His father had neatly stacked ledgers on the desktop, one slim volume open for review over morning mead. How many times had he faced the disapproving man over that desk? A hundred; a thousand? He rifled the desk drawers, taking in the study as he worked. Two wing-backed chairs faced the wide desk at a fastidious angle and the walls were lined with glass-fronted bookshelves, everything meticulously arranged to convey wealth and authority.
Only he couldn’t find the bloody wealth.
“Where is it?” he hissed while rattling the last locked drawer. It had to be inside. He growled and swept the stack of ledgers to the floor.
Haskell stalked to the wall, from which he took a long sword in a battered scabbard. He drew the weapon, pausing to admire its sharp, oiled blade in the pale moonlight. He ran his thumb over the cross-guard, its metal worn by his grandfather’s hand, and admired the protective runes inscribed along the blade and the blood-red garnets in its pommel. Haskell, Son of Eskil, Son of Eskil Orc-breaker. A proud lineage.
He reversed the sword and worked its tip into the locked drawer.
“I don’t think grandfather would take kindly to you abusing his sword, though he would approve of your motive,” his older sister chided from the doorway.
Haskell glanced up and frowned; though, of all the household, he was glad it was Hilda who had discovered him. Her dark braid trailed down the front of a fine silk nightgown. Her face was hard, but her eyes sparkled with amusement, like she was silently laughing at a private joke. They undercut, very slightly, the cold precision she inherited from their father. She gripped a long dagger in her right hand and looked more than capable of using it.
“Where’s the bastard keep his coin?” he demanded.
“Our father keeps his coin in that very drawer, but I will not have you ruin such fine furniture.”
Hilda padded across the carpet and took Haskell’s chin in her left hand, turning his face to examine his bruised jaw in the moonlight. At six feet, she was taller than most men, but her younger brother had surpassed her. She shook her head and pushed his chin aside. “Four years of apprenticeship to a worthy shipwright, yet you persist in your disobedience. Or was this another backroom brawl?”
“Worthy? He teaches more about brutality than ships.”
Hilda sighed. “The world is harder than your master’s cane.”
“I know that.”
“You know nothing,” she muttered. “Father—”
“Is a coward.”
Hilda shook her head and shuffled to the side of the room. “He is hard but sensible. You, however, bludgeon your way through life. The world will never match your naïve view of it, Haskell.” She opened a bookcase and ran a finger along the spines, removing a volume on noble houses. She retrieved a small silver key hidden between its pages and tossed it to Haskell. “This is a mistake, and the last time I help you.”
He caught the key and scowled. “It’s different for you—you’re the favourite. You play his games. I . . .” He kicked a piece of chalk on the floor, which skittered past the carving he had toppled. Fangs filled the oaken dragon’s gaping jaws, its tongue curling up to lick its nose. Intricately carved knotted lines formed its scales, paint clinging to the recesses. Its raised surfaces were hard worn by the wind and waves of the briny sea.
Haskell had adored the heavy sculpture as a child, had run his little fingers over its details. He had imagined the prow it once adorned, the fierce raiders crowding the deck of its longship. He would steal into his father’s office to take down his grandfather’s heavy sword and dream of life outside the city, winning renown fighting orcs and trolls. He had begged to be told tales of how his grandfather had ceased raiding to fight invading orcs, of his battles and adventures, his highs and lows, but Haskell’s father wouldn’t spoil his boy with worthless words or wasted affection. His family wanted to bury their past. They were merchants now, not brigands. He heard those very words in his father’s disdainful baritone.
He picked up the carving in both hands and set it on the open ledger, its weight crinkling the expensive paper. He stooped and inserted the silver key into the locked drawer. It turned with a heavy, well-oiled click.
“You cannot stay in the city after this,” Hilda said. “What life will you make for yourself?”
He lifted a sturdy leather pouch from the drawer, heavy with gold and silver that clinked softly inside. “I’ll go overland with one of the caravans to the borderlands. To Branthall. I’ll be out of Father’s reach there and sign on with the Questers Guild.”
Hilda scoffed. “As a mercenary? There is no glory left in the borderlands. The old wars are over and the Questers Guild is a relic for drunks and failures.”
Haskell rammed his grandfather’s sword into its scabbard. “Then I should fit right in. I’ll make my fortune honestly, fighting Darkwood monsters like grandfather did.”
“You only know half his story. Grandfather could be cruel, especially to Father,” Hilda said.
Haskell buckled on the sword and pouch. “You and Father wouldn’t tell me.”
“He fears you will become his father. You are certainly wilful enough.”
Haskell put one leg through the open window and sat heavily on the sill. She didn’t understand. How could she? They didn’t want the same things. He just didn’t fit in her world.
“What will you do when you run out of coin?” she asked.
Haskell slapped his thighs and flashed her a cheerful smile. “I’ll just keep the coin flowing.”
Hilda laughed despite herself. “You are a fool, Haskell.”
“Don’t let Father miss me too much.” He flashed an impish grin and slipped away.
“He will only miss his coin,” she said.
Haskell jogged through deserted moonlit streets. He had to get through the gates before word of his theft and assault spread. With one hand on his new pouch and the other steadying his sword, he was sure of only two things: the road would be long, and there was no going back.
Chapter II—Bodies in Motion
Haskell peered through the warped glass of the roadside inn’s bay window. No doubt about it: a horseman was approaching. He could see them silhouetted against the treeline lit by the lowering sun. He heard its hooves clopping over the highway’s weathered cobbles: stones laid by the slaves of a long dead empire, its ghost perpetuated by the bones of its design. Haskell had hurried over those same stones all night and day, chased by the spectre of a vengeful posse or messenger sent to raise a hue and cry against him. Sent by his father or Slade. If Slade lived.
The rider drew closer. They were armoured.
Haskell downed his beer and gripped the worn old pack, bedroll, and supplies he had bought from the innkeeper. If he had to run, he would run. If he had to fight . . .
A line of people came behind the rider: a train of walkers, riders, wagons, and carriages travelling along the wide Salmon River swollen by winter melt and spring rain. A caravan so soon: what luck! They must have set out shortly after he did. But then, had they heard about him? He had bribed the gate guards to forget they had seen him, but that wouldn’t likely hold up to any sort of questioning.
He rose, stooping to avoid the broad beams overhead, and turned to the bulbous-nosed innkeeper hunched over the counter. “You’re in luck, a caravan just arrived.”
“Bless th’ gods. Are there rich merchants among ’em?” she said.
Haskell nearly choked. Of course there were: merchants of Khul setting out to ply their trade for the season. He was such an idiot. He cleared his throat and crossed to the bar, trying to force an air of calm over the panic swelling inside. He looked down a hallway through the open back door to a stand of bare poplars beyond the yard. “I think I’ll go for a stroll, good lady,” he said cheerfully.
The innkeeper let out a bronchial laugh. “Lady, he says. Have you decided if you’ll be needin’ a bed tonight, my lord?” she said with a toothless grin. “You’ll be in fine comp’ny, I’m sure—rubbin’ elbows in a big bed with a few rich merchants. Could be some profit in it for a bright young lad.”
Haskell started down the hall, his blistered heels and toes chafing inside boots that felt full of blood. He had never walked so far in his life and wanted nothing more than to lay down on a nice, soft straw mattress; but discretion demanded otherwise. “Don’t hold a spot on my account. The weather’s fine enough to sleep outside.”
“It’ll be as cold as a devil’s behind come nightfall, but suit yourself,” she said doubtfully.
Haskell crossed the yard, the weathered brown cloak for which he had overpaid billowing behind as he made the stand of poplars. He drew up his patched, dark green hood and crouched behind an evergreen shrub, the tip of his scabbard digging a channel in the wet earth. A warrior in a suit of steel plate rode toward the inn atop a dappled white charger.
He looked absolutely regal: his brass-traced armour glowed in the failing light and a fine crimson cloak billowed from his shoulders. Haskell imagined himself in the warrior’s place, only leading a fighting company against fearsome Darkwood monsters. He laid a hand on the sturdy leather pouch at his waist. Soon.
A youth slightly younger than Haskell cantered by astride a tall bay mare. He was dressed in a velvet tunic dyed a vibrant, and expensive, sapphire blue; his fitted, well-oiled boots shone in the sun and the fine gold chain about his shoulders clinked with every bounce of his steed. The mare was huge: at least fifteen hands—five feet—from hoof to withers. Struggling to keep up was a fat merchant bedecked in an embarrassment of gold, the metal jouncing and jostling conspicuously as he rode a smaller but spectacularly glossy black stallion.
All three passed in front of the inn. Haskell did not recognize any of them, though there was something naggingly familiar about the large merchant. Minutes later, Ethan, the innkeeper’s lame, middle-aged son with a face covered in boils, came limping into the yard to cool down the charger and stallion.
Haskell slipped through the trees to inspect the rest of the caravan. If his luck held he might be able to travel with them after all. There was no shortage of merchants in the kingdom, and his father’s circle were a chiefly seafaring lot. Not even all of them knew Haskell, Eskil’s shame. No, it was the caravan or nothing. While the land hereabout might be relatively safe, strolling alone through the Lakewood laden with treasure was a fine way to buy a shallow grave.
Still, it didn’t hurt to be careful.
He broke from the trees with his head down and pack over one shoulder. Walking back along the road, he scanned the travellers’ tired faces as they got as close as possible to the inn. The caravan was large—maybe one hundred strong. He saw guards, traders, farmers, shepherds, travellers, messengers. No one he recognized. Excitement rose in his stomach.
He approached a messenger standing by a chestnut horse. He wore the red and black livery of a noble and wore well-oiled and turned-out gear. Haskell should have better studied his heraldry. “Ho, friend. What news from Khul? You set out, what, this morning?”
“As soon as the sun broke the horizon,” the messenger said.
“All’s quiet in the city?”
“As quiet as ever: a child was struck down and killed in the street by a cart this morning.”
“Ah, that’s a shame. Anything happening around the docks? My sister lives that way and I don’t get into the city as much as I should.”
The messenger shrugged. “Things are always a bit rough dockside but I haven’t heard anything unusual. Sorry I can’t tell you more.” Haskell shut his eyes and sighed, a wave of relief washing away his tension and anxiety: word of his crimes hadn’t reached them. “I’m sure she’s fine, especially if she’s as sturdy as you,” the messenger said, mistaking Haskell’s relief for worry.
“You’re right, she can handle herself,” Haskell said with a wry grin. “Your caravan’s captain—he’s the one I saw at the head of the line?”
“Yes. I saw him go into the inn, which is where I’m headed. Come along if you like. I’ll take a bed as long as one’s on offer—it’s a long way to Siward.”
Haskell clapped the messenger’s arm. “You poor bastard—let me buy you a beer.”
It was getting smoky in the inn, which was packed with the wealthiest travellers. They were smoking, drinking, eating, and talking of world trade and politics. Haskell kept his hood up, just in case, and kept fingering the hilt of his sword on the corner table.
“So you want to join up? Know how to use that longsword?” Captain Nedir asked.
Divested of armour and wearing a slightly worn pair of tan hose and a belted, midnight-blue jacket, Nedir still struck an impressive figure. Much shorter than Haskell, Nedir was broad-chested and strong-backed, his body moulded by the tools and deeds of a lifetime of battle. His face and hands were scarred from countless duels and his brown eyes seemed to look right through Haskell.
Haskell became keenly aware of his inexperience; of how the battered sword between them had more experience than he. He routinely passed for a boyish man, could boast and carouse with the best of them, and gods knew he could hold his own in a fight, but not on a battlefield, fully arrayed. He had the sudden urge to apologize, push the sword across the table, and leave. Eskil’s sword belonged to a real warrior, not him. What did blood count for in the face of Nedir’s poise and experience, or his grandfather’s deeds?
Haskell fought down his mad, fearful urges. “I had some lessons in Khul but learned more in its streets,” he said with all the conviction he could muster. He raised his mug to display the recent scabs and old scars on his right hand.
Nedir’s gaze briefly flitted to Haskell’s hand and a wry grin crossed his lips.
Haskell sipped his beer and gazed at the patrons reflected in the warped window panes.
“What’s your name, son?” Nedir asked.
This was it—all or nothing: if Nedir had heard of his crimes or he was recognized by those in the room, it was over. He choked on his drink, half rising with watering eyes as he launched into a fit of wet coughs.
“Easy there,” Nedir said, leaning forward to slap him on the back.
Haskell felt ten years old. He sat heavily and pushed himself deeper into the corner, clearing his throat and drinking more beer. He tried to ignore the curious looks and derisive laughs from the other patrons.
“Boy can’t hold his spirits!” the fat, blue-velveted merchant bellowed from the opposite corner. His son craned his neck to gawk at Haskell, his mirth plain, but with something else in his eyes. Was it recognition?
Haskell took a deep breath. He had to get it together; he was better than this. He straightened and tried to assume a carefree manner, chuckling at his own awkwardness like it was nothing. “I’m Haskell, Eskil’s Son.”
Nedir’s brows knit together and he more closely scrutinized Haskell’s sword: the garnet-encrusted pommel, worn guard, and the rune-inscribed throat of its scabbard. He cocked his head and looked at Haskell again. “That would make you the Orc-breaker’s, what, great-grandson?”
“Grandson: I am son of Eskil, Eskil’s son.”
“Hm, I had you pegged as a thief fleeing the law with a stolen sword.”
Haskell laughed a little too eagerly. He shook his head and smiled. His relief was overwhelming. Slade and Haskell’s father were careful; they might even have hushed it all up to maintain respectability. Maybe his father was counting his blessings to finally be rid of his prodigal son.
“Where are you headed?” Nedir said.
Haskell glanced up. “Hm? Oh, to Lanesford and Branthall. I want to become a Quester.”
Nedir chuckled. “Young and foolhardy. There’s no shortage of questers headed south to fight, even in these peaceable times. Our itinerary takes us through the Lakewood to Branthall. I’m surprised you didn’t sign on with us in Khul.”
Haskell shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, well, I thought it would be more adventurous to set out alone, but I thought better of it after a day’s travel.”
“That is well, there are dangers enough on the road, even for a well-guarded caravan. You should give up on Branthall and join my company. We head on to Shadowcourt from Branthall—you might even meet their old King Ferd.”
“Thank you, but I want a company like my grandfather. To finish what he started, you could say.”
“You want it all in one go, eh? Careful you don’t get more than you can handle.”
Haskell expected hard fights, dark dungeons, and trackless wilderness. What more could there be? “Did you fight in the Darkwood, Captain?”
“I did my time in that forest—it is aptly named.”
Haskell frowned at Nedir’s vague answer. “I can’t wait. I’ve dreamt of fighting the old enemy since I was a boy. Khul’s politics and double-dealing are too much for me.”
“You’ll find Lanesford a different place now, Haskell. It’s a hard place full of hard people. There’s little glory left in the borderlands.”
“You sound like my sister.”
“She sounds wise. Vagabonds and Guild-traitors dog my caravans now, not monsters of old. In that regard alone do I miss the war: the common purpose.”
“Those who have violated the tenets of the Questers Guild. Rogue Questers, you might call them. Or bandits. They fight for themselves and take what they want from their own kind.”
Haskell nodded. “I’m equal to the danger.”
Nedir gave him a long look and smiled. “Have it your way, son. You will learn, as I did.” He leaned back. “You can travel with us and eat with the other guards so long as you help mind the caravan, but I can’t pay you.”
“That sounds fine.” The security of a caravan and food for the journey? It was more than he had hoped for.
Nedir signalled the innkeeper’s son for another drink. “A word of advice, Haskell: stay out of Branthall politics. There’s more intrigue in that town than a weak king’s court.”
Chapter III—Mean Streets
Froba was hungry. Really hungry. She clutched her grumbling tummy through a tattered, two-seasons-too-small tunic, its left sleeve parted from the shoulder and a fraying hem that was getting uncomfortably short. She sat on the trampled earth near the entrance of a narrow alley, hugged her scabby knees, and gazed listlessly at the mud-caked wattle-and-daub wall.
The afternoon was wearing on and Branthall’s shops were closing. Footsteps echoed from people walking down cobbled Main Street on the other side of the alley, headed to the inn and Questers Guild outside Southgate—her territory. The long winter was over and the ground finally hardening, meaning scores of fighters, thieves, wizards, and mercenaries would soon campaign into the wilds. That required new arms and armour, mended gear, provisioning, and a host of other transactions: the business of war. More importantly, it meant new faces and easy marks.
Froba tossed a silver talent in the air and tucked it in her pouch.
It had been a good day with lots of traffic and plenty of drunks; folk were in high spirits with summer around the corner. Early planting had started, and coin was flowing—right into her fingers. She needed adventurers like a shepherd needed sheep, and Ferd would be after her for his share of the wool. If she didn’t do enough fleecing, he would make her more than hungry.
A chorus of youthful shouts from the south side of town startled Froba from her worries, making her bump the back of her head against the wall. She leaped to her feet and ducked down an alley, slowly creeping toward the commotion as a bent old crone hurried in the other direction. Froba backed against a wall and peered around the corner: a narrow side street sloped sharply downhill, past cramped shacks with fenced yards in which pigs snuffled and scrawny chickens pecked.
Near the bottom, a gang of older youths savagely kicked a smaller boy. He managed to scrabble away, leaving one of his attackers holding a shred of brown tunic, and scrambled up the slope, eyes wide and mouth agape in terror. The jeering youths sent rocks and shouts of “greenskin” and “mullorc” at him up the hill.
Froba knew them, a gang of toughs from the Tannery, the lowest, filthiest part of town. Their victim she didn’t know, but he wasn’t human, not entirely: he was squat and had grey-green skin, wide-set hazel eyes, a small, flat nose, and a monstrously wide mouth with pitted, snake-like lips. A half-orc, with more orc than boy by the look of him. He shot past Froba, who stepped out to face the gang. “Hey, toads, this is Ferd’s turf. Ye want him to drown ye in yer piss pot?” she said.
The boys stopped but kept up their jeers and insults. The biggest stepped forward. Brent was his name. “We ain’t scared o’ Ferd,” Brent sneered.
“Yeah? Why don’t ye come up here an’ say that?”
He took another step but hesitated.
“Yeah, thought so. Better get back to it or it'll be yer da’s who do the drownin’.”
“At least we got folks. Go squat in yer alley an’ cry yerself to sleep. Maybe Ferd’ll come tuck ye in!” Brent said. The other boys mockingly blubbered and rubbed their eyes.
Froba spat, crossed her arms, and glared down at them, maintaining a brave front despite their fiendishly accurate barbs.
“Watch yer back, ye sow,” Brent said. He kicked a fat pig for emphasis, which hobbled away squealing, before tramping after his cackling mates.
Froba knew he was full of shit, but she couldn’t afford a big head. They were all getting bigger, and things didn’t stay the same for long in Branthall. If Brent came after her and won a spot topside she could wind up in trouble quick. He was mean enough to pull it off, too. A wet sniffle sounded behind her and she turned to regard the half-orc crouched behind a nearby rain barrel.
Why had she intervened? She’d never done so before. Ferd didn’t like it when his irregulars mixed or took on help. He preferred to pit them against one another, and gods help anyone who tried to get out or go straight. No one could hide in Branthall. Not for long.
This one, though, wasn’t Ferd’s. He looked too soft. Like a lost pup.
She sighed. “Ye sure ye ain’t no half-goblin? Half-orcs are supposed to be big an’ tough. Yer all scrawny.”
“I dunno—shut up,” he said, wiping his nose and smearing blood across his cheek.
“Ye can always go back downhill if ye’d rather.”
“I don’t know, maybe ye’ll grow into it,” she muttered, scratching her chin. Having a half-orc behind her might come in handy. “What’s yer name?”
She jabbed her chest with a filthy thumb: “I saved yer life, so ye work fer me now. Got it?”
Orod nodded unhappily.
“Good; now, c’mon,” she said, brushing past him. She could use someone to watch her back. He looked like a wimp, but it would be nice to have someone around for a change. Besides, she’d never had a friend.
Froba dragged Orod up the uneven cobbles of Main Street, dodging sellers hawking charms and miracle cures, two disfigured mercenaries arguing the merits of spear length, and a spring lamb being led to slaughter. Froba pulled Orod aside three doors from the Market, causing him to splash barefoot through the gutter.
“Alright, ye gotta know the rules. Southgate’s my spot. Town square’s off limits ’cept for market days like today. Never work someone else’s spot or ye’ll get a knife in yer guts. Got it?”
“No,” Orod said, aghast.
“Gods, yer dumb. Where th’hells ye’d come from anyhow?”
Orod pointed over his shoulder. “Westhill. Me mum used to make an’ mend.” His eyes began to well.
Froba turned away and sighed. “Don't go blubberin’ again. What’m I gonna do with ye?”
“Who’s this milksop?” a gravelly-voiced man said beside them.
Ferd was tall and lanky. Dark, oily hair dangled about his pox-scarred face. His black leather cuirass was covered in steel studs in a repeating diamond pattern—hallmark of the Town Watch. He gazed contemptuously at Orod, one hand rested on his sheathed rondel dagger.
“A gods-damned mullorc?”
“Th-this’ Orod,” Froba stuttered. “them Tanners is getti—” Ferd grabbed her by the arm, his long fingers digging into her flesh as he pulled her up onto her toes.
“Tanners ain’t me concern. Money’s me concern,” he said through clenched teeth.
Orod fell back a step but Ferd grabbed him by the shirt front, dragging him forward onto one knee. “What d’ye mean takin’ on this filth?”
“I need ’im to watch my back. Yer man Grig’s a half-orc,” Froba groaned.
Ferd knocked them together and threw Froba on top of Orod.
“Don’t talk ’bout things ye know nuthin’ of.”
She rolled over and Ferd had her money bag in his hands. “Hey!” she cried, reaching for it.
Ferd gave her a savage backhand, sending her back onto Orod. He tore open the bag.
“A silver and six pennies? A halfwit with a hole in his purse’d turn up more in a week. There’s two of ye now, so it’d better be a sovereign next week. I gave ye the sweetest plum, so make the most of it, or I’ll slit yer mullorc’s throat and see ye hang fer it.”
He threw the pouch in her face.
“But I ain’t never—”
Ferd thrust her down with the heel of his boot.
“I’ve been soft on ye ’til now, and it shows. The first caravan’ll be through any day: work ’em, or I’ll work ye; get me?”
“I got it.” Froba replied.
Ferd gave them each a glower, sighed, and looked into the distance. “I dunno, meybe ye are too soft fer this work. Gods know I tried fer yer mum’s sake; but one or two o’ them Tanners might take to it better.”
Froba surged off the ground and clutched Ferd’s sleeve. “No, we’ll get it—I promise!” She had to. Without Ferd’s protection, she’d be as bad off as Orod, with every hungry brat ready to break her neck for a shot at Southgate. Forget living, the things she’d have to do just to survive . . . She’d rather be dead.
Ferd looked at her and shrugged, as if it was all out of his hands. He pulled free of her grip and trudged toward the market, muttering and shaking his head.
Froba had never stolen a whole gold sovereign before—an impossible amount. A sovereign would feed her and Orod like kings for a month; more than a month. She rubbed her reddened arm and hauled the blubbering boy to his feet. What was she going to do with the idiot? Use him as a decoy, maybe—he was pitiful enough for that. She prodded Orod down the street, her mind a muddle of what-ifs and what-could-she-do’s.
Not a soul on the crowded street spared either of them a second glance.