A Celestial Night
(OOC: Set in early 1107, written by GJ Marklew)
It was wet, no surprise there. It had been wet all year, ever since the magic had raged across the seas, ever since the Cataclysm had split the land and torn the sky. Sometimes the rain settled in a gentle mist, sometimes great rivers fell in torrents from the sky. Most of the time, there was just the constant drizzle that made the earth mud, that soaked tent and man alike, the sort of damp that would not dry, that drained the warmth, and hope and energy from all it touched.
The constant wet did at least mean that there were few people on the streets to hinder the courier as he sped on his way, and fewer still who were inclined to investigate the cause for the commotion he made hammering on the door of the smart but small house that was his destination. Someone heard at least, because a lantern flame burst into life at one of the upper windows, and soon there was a patter of footsteps, and the sounds of bar and bolts being drawn back.
The door opened, revealing a tall, red headed woman, a cloak clutched tight around her nightgown, and a furious expression on her face.
“What is the meaning of this? I’ve a babe trying to sleep and here you are rousing a riot like Arthur’s riding again. Be off with you, before I have you driven off!”
The courier straightened, and doffed his cap.
“Bag pardon, Maam. Urgent message for the High Sheriff. I’m to deliver it to him personal like.”
The last was a lie. But it was, the courier figured, the best chance of getting out of the rain for at least a while. The woman glared at the parchment he proffered as if it was coated in goat dung, and sniffed – she was obviously not happy.
“Very well then, I suppose you best come in. Although why he’s needed now when he’s only been back this last hour I don’t know. You can wait in the hall, and you needn’t think to touch the good pewter either.”
He followed her within, to a narrow hall. The woman moved on, up some stairs, so the courier took a seat on the only chair, and gazed around. Against the far wall was a chest. Curiosity getting the best of him, the courier casually stood, glanced around, and opened it. Inside was the pewter, plates, cups, flagons. Picking up a cup, he examined it, and then threw it back with disgust. If that was the good pewter they could keep it.
“If Aliset sees you in there, your life’s not worth living. She loves that set.”
The speaker stood at the bottom of the stairs, holding a candle, and the courier recognised him at once – who wouldn’t? Even in shirt and britches, without any regalia of office, the dark haired man carried himself with the confidence of office, a confidence that commanded, and expected, obedience, and his face was surely known across Lantia. The courier wasn’t sure whether to bow or salute, and ended up doing both, suddenly nervous.
“Lord Trevelyan, I wasn’t, I didn’t mean, erm, I was just…”
The High Sheriff silenced him with a wave.
“Never mind that. I wouldn’t leave that chest unlocked if I didn’t hope someone would do off with them. You’ve got a message for me?”
“Yessir. Here sir.”
He handed it over, hoping the other man wouldn’t dismiss him back to the damp and cold too soon. The Lord Trevelyan took the parchment, and scanned it quickly. In the light of the candle flame the courier could see his face. It looked tired, older than he expected, and the dark hair that had allegedly once had the girls of Tamarus, Andulus, Camelot and half of Lantia swooning was flecked with grey. He glanced up, and saw the courier standing there.
“Head out to stables at the back. You’ll find an elf…no need. Looks like he heard you come in.”
A door off the end of the hall had opened, and a figure emerged. Stocky and bearded, but with the unmistakeable pointed ears of the elven kin. He was wearing tall boots, made for riding rather than walking by the courier’s guess, and was trying, without much success, to brush flecks of straw from his clothes.
The High Sheriff was moving quickly now, scooping a leather jack from where it dripped on a stand in the corner, and shrugging into it with a brief grimace of distaste at the damp.
“Wenceslas, who’s around, Elrood?”
The elf shook his head, and gestured. The waving fingers made no sense to the courier, but Lord Trevelyan seemed to understand.
“Of course, he had duties at Camelot after the Arcane Council meeting. Hargrim and Karen with him are they?”
Wenceslas nodded, and waved his hands again.
“Irinaye’s with the Queen, I remember. Nethaniel and Footnote then?”
The elf was nodding, and waving again. Lord Trevelyan looked pleased at something
“Excellent, if Rhapsody’s over we’ll need him as well as Nethaniel and Footnote, Avalyn and Amy too if they’re around. Can you ride for them now? Ask them to meet me at the docks. I’ll need some help with this…”
Ronald the Crab was happy. Sprawled in a rocking chair on the porch of the warehouse, he watched his gang going happily about their business. Their business was good, the Cataclysm and its after effects had created enough confusion, not to mention enough desperation, that profits were easy enough to make if you were only smart enough to see the opportunity, and tough enough to take it. Fortunately, he was both tough and smart, and feared as well – the steel spike which had served instead of a hand since Phillius Doyle had taken his for a little matter of borrowing some goods from a caravan saw to that. Fear had been enough to secure him this warehouse, backing onto the waterfront, with its entrance down a secluded alleyway. Smarts had got him the latest opportunity – a vision which allowed him to see further than the confines of this benighted backwater. Let the Benefactor and the Darkendale squabble over Lantia, he was looking wider, he was going international. The buyers for the latest cargo were spread the world over, and their agents came with the purses of nations at their belts, looking for goods nobody else in Lantia was supplying.
It was the agents that he was waiting for now – he’d sent the word out months ago that he was moving into the business, and tonight they were coming from all over to sample the wares, from Teutonia, Italia, Agyptus, Mauretania, Byzantium and further yet. What he had for them tonight was good enough, he thought, to get the bidding going, but if they saw what he had to offer in general, they’d be back asking for specifics, for specialist needs, and his sources were plentiful – the countryside, with villages so isolated, the seas teeming with ships stranded far from ports, the streets teeming with the dispossessed, the orphaned, the scared and the penniless. He’d make enough money from tonight to go into business big time, and then the sky was the limit. Contentedly, he took a swig from the bottle in his good hand.
The bottle shattered.
Confused, Ronald looked from the wine stain that was rapidly spreading across the front of his best doublet to the jagged bottleneck he still held. Then he looked down, and saw the short, cruel, crossbow bolt that had caused the damage. Surging to his feet he looked down the alley, and to his horror saw a large group, some in the red and black livery of the Order Celestial, and some bearing the blue and white badges of the Sheriffs’ office, beginning to advance down from one end of the alleyway. Already half a dozen of his people were down, clutching at bolts that had smashed into their bodies, one screaming in agony on his knees and clawing at his stomach. Now however the gang were fighting back, and one of the crossbowmen who had got too close, was on his back with Willy Tinsmith’s throwing knife jutting from his throat. Others of his gang had drawn swords, knives, axes, clubs and were looking to the Crab for guidance. He didn’t spend much time thinking – no lawman would spoil this night. Leaping down from the porch he hurled the remnants of the bottle hard into the face of a young watchman (Nelly Tanner’s boy he thought) who was trying to creep along the edge of the building, and followed up, thrusting his spike hard at the lad’s stomach. He felt the give of the lad’s jack as the spike forced its way though the leather, and then the soft yielding of the flesh. When he saw the realisation, and the pain, blossom into Tanner’s eyes, he twisted the spike once, twice, jerking it clear and turned to urge his men on as the boy crumpled to the floor.
It was then he saw it, lifted high, glinting eerily in the wet moonlight as it cut down a man.
Justice, they said the Sheriffs called it. Killer was the underworld name. Some said it was magic, some said it was just old. Some said old FitzOliver had taken it from a demon, some said it had been forged for him by an Ancestor. Whatever the truths, whatever the lies, all knew it, all had seen the brutally heavy, old fashioned broadsword, whether worn on the hip of the old Hammer, or raised by the High Sheriff at the place of execution. And now it was here. And if it was here, it meant that He was here too. Sir Aldous, the Lord Trevelyan. High Sheriff of the Lions, Councillor to the Queen, Lord Steward of Andulus, Marshall of Armies, former Grand Master of the Order Celestial and the bearer of the ancestors knew what other titles. And if He was here, Ronald the Crab wanted to be elsewhere. If he’d learned anything all those years ago in Avalon, when Phillius Doyle had taken his hand along with his brother Reginald’s life, it was this. The local watch was one thing, and if you were brave enough, and strong enough and smart and quick enough the Sheriffs weren’t a problem. But if you messed with the high ups, if you crossed one of those who sat high in the councils of power, and advised the High Sheriff, you would be lucky to get out of it with your head. And if the High Sheriff himself was on your case…
Ronald turned to flee, thoughts of fighting fleeing from his head as fast as his comrades were flying from the fray, and then stopped. For coming up the alleyway now, from the other end, was another group, a solid, heavily built man in the tabard of a Knight of the Order, was wielding a great two handed sword, longer even than the Killer, hacking and cutting two handed, sending the blade singing through the air as though it were as light as a feather. Those of the Crab’s gang who didn’t fall back before that merciless blade were scythed down like so much wheat. The three Godwin brothers, Edward, Ned and Teddy tried flanking the Knight, dodging quickly around and between the great strokes of the blade, and, for a moment it looked like they might succeed, as the blade stopped swinging, just for a moment, caught, briefly on some unfortunate’s ribcage, but, just as they advanced on the Knight, their long knives gleaming, just as Ronald thought that they’d secured his escape route, two women, dressed in the red and black entered the fray, short swords darting cutting, taking Ned in the throat, and Teddy across the knees, and then that ferocious Knight with the giant blade, was coming again from one end of the alley, whilst the High Sheriff, with Killer cutting through the air was coming at him from the other.
It was Willy Tinsmith, pulling him back, across the porch into the warehouse, others followed, Ed Godwin, Billy the Bow, about eight or so of the original three dozen crew. Somehow, they got in, and slammed the door shut, hurling the stout bar and bolts into place, oak and iron giving them a breathing space.
“Out the back and swim for it boss?” Willy looked more scared than Ronald had ever seen him, pale and sickly, the scars earned in a hundred knife fights standing white against his tan.
“Can’t”. That was Billy, his green leathers usually so fashionably clean, smeared with blood. “I stole a peek. They’re already bringing up barges, they’d pick us off like flies off cheese”.
“Crab!” It was the High Sheriff’s voice. “The game’s up. Come out now, or we’ll take the door down!” As if to emphasise his point, the door shuddered on its hinges, as though someone were trying to knock it down, but the bolts and bar held.
Ronald was thinking fast now. Out the front wasn’t an option, neither was escape over the water. Surrendering would lead to an early meeting for him with the Killer. But there might be a way…
“Trevelyan, ‘that you?”, he called through the door, as Godwin, Billy and the rest clustered around.
“Well I’ll do a deal. We ‘ave ‘ostages in ‘ere. Now me and me boys are going to stroll out o’ here nice ‘n easy like with a knife at their throats. Any silly business they’re for it.”
“I mean it, Trevelyan!”
Then the reply. Was it his imagination, or did the High Sheriff sound nervous? Maybe he wasn’t so tough.
“Don’t try it, Crab.”
He’d have to call his bluff, show the stuck up noble bugger he meant business.
“Don’t try it Crab!” His impression of the High Sheriff drew laughs from the men, even now. “Don’t be nasty and hurt people! Ed, get what we need from the cellar.”
Like all decent warehouses, this one had a hidden cellar, accessible either by a trapdoor inside, or, for when more subtlety was needed, by a small, and well hidden door, just above water level at the back. Edward Godwin moved to the trapdoor now, a tall wiry man, seemingly unphased by seeing his brothers cut apart just a few minutes earlier. Stooping, he unbolted the trap, heaved it open, and then was thrown back, blood fountaining from his throat, his head near cut from his body.
Out of the trapdoor, erupted fury. For an instant Ronald thought, impossibly, that a storm had blown up inside the building, then that that a wolf, or some beast of legend had been trapped in the cellar. By the time his senses told him that what he was seeing was a swordsman, another four of his men were dead or injured. The swordsman was short and slender, seemingly barely there at all, but he moved like a dancer, cutting with a flick of the wrist, turning a blow with the twist of his waist, dodging like air round swinging clubs and hacking axes. The Tinsmith went down next, his shoulder speared, his last knife cut from the air, and then the swordsman turned on Ronald, and his face was terror itself, darkness writhing across and about it, and his eyes, his eyes burned with fury and power, his eyes were old, no, not old, ancient, and when he looked into those eyes, Ronald knew that it was no creature of Edreja that he faced. As it advanced upon him, Ronald looked around, searching desperately for aid. Amazingly he found it, across the other side of the room, Billy the Bow kneeling, levelling his crossbow…Billy the Bow falling forwards, a surprised expression on his face, a knife in his back, a figure of shining gold standing behind him…
Still it was coming for him. He was against the wall now, and suddenly his spike felt too heavy to lift. Horror was in front of him now, the sort of terror dimly remembered from childhood nightmares, the sort of terror that hinted at things from long ago that humans thought they’d forgotten. He felt the stream of urine, warm against his leg. He wanted his brother, his mother, and now the silver sword was darting towards him. He heard the door crash from its hinges as the blackness took him, and somewhere, far away, a voice seemed to be shouting, a voice he thought that he should know…
The great double doors at the back of the warehouse had been flung open, the fresh sea air doing little to clear the stench of the place. Aldous Trevelyan looked on as outside, the Watch helped the people from the cellar out of the hidden entrance, into barges. Nethaniel was out the front with the rest of the Watch, dealing with the survivors of the gang. From the cellar, came the sound of retching. That would be Wenceslas – the cellar had been enough to make the strongest of stomachs heave, and, despite the battles he’d seen and the wounds he’d patched, nobody could accuse the elf of having a strong stomach. He’d be alright ‘though – Rhapsody was down there, his glamour although slightly less bright than it had been in the heat of battle, was still bright enough to lift shadows in the darkest of places. Speaking of which… He glanced over to where Footnote stood, apparently deep in thought, gazing at the hole in the beam. Footnote’s sword had made that hole, when it pinned the collar of Ronald the Crab’s new doublet to the wall, securing the gangster so that he couldn’t have run, even if he hadn’t fainted. He’d had to keep the Crab talking, so that Footnote and Rhapsody had enough time to make their way into the cellar unseen, but he rather wondered if he hadn’t left them down there too long.
As if he’d noticed the attention, the fey looked around and spoke. His glamour, Aldous was glad to see was less prominent than it had been before.
“So what do you make of it all?”
“I really don’t know yet. Slavers in Lantia – in Tamarus of all places? It could just be a thug getting big ideas, but something just…”
“Doesn’t seem right? I think you’d better see this Aldous.” That was Avalyn. She and Amy had been searching the warehouse, but now she was holding a piece of parchment out to him.
Aldous took it and read it, his face whitening as he did so. He turned to his friend.
“Footnote, we’ve got trouble.”