7. A Past Unfortunate

Meryl teetered on her stool with a temper bottled up like champagne: easily contained but once unleashed would explode with a chaotic furor. What she was really wishing for was a knockout, drag-out, table-smashing, bottle-hurling drunken melee; the kind that left serious property damage and added a slew of names to the banned patrons list. But by now Meryl knew better than to be the person to actually start a barroom brawl. Simply participating in an ongoing battle would ideally earn a night in the lockup, but actually starting such a fight could be solid grounds for sending her to prison for much longer. And with that kind of time to investigate and a rap sheet like Meryl’s, it seemed likely she’d never leave.

                So the chief order of the evening was to get a few of her fellow patrons riled up enough to beat on each other a bit, and then, after the chaos was good and ensuing, Meryl would be clear to launch herself into the fray and thoroughly unwind. It was a victimless crime in Meryl’s estimation as the type of person who would come to a dive like this would be just the type to enjoy a good alcohol laden melee.

The bar was currently teeming with sailors, most of their pockets lined from their work on King Gaius’s last expedition and their bellies overfilled with cheap ale. There were also a few scattered merchants and farmers about, but fortuitously there appeared to be no off duty guards or slumming royal types ruining the otherwise good prospects present in the bar that night. Meryl began to comb the bar for a punter who looked drunk enough to put his fist through someone’s face at the first insult and another drunk stupid enough to insult him.

She found her first mark nursing an oversized stein of something thick and viscous and an oddly off-putting shade of brown. The drunk was a massive barrel-chested thing, with long brown hair escaping wildly from beneath his raggedy stitched leather cap and a matching beard erupting from his face; a thoroughly tanned puggish face that was crisscrossed from crown to chin with cuts of various ages. The men was holding his mug in one hand and his head in the other - lest he topple sideways from his stool and smash open his head, or even worse: spill his drink. The man was clearly a sailor of some sort as he was still decked in salt stained seafaring garb and heavy leather boots, and Meryl decided he was the type of hardened salty dog who would likely have no problems caving in a few faces.

Due to his long hair and massive beard, Meryl decided that she would call him Hairy.

                The second man in Meryl’s devious scheme was similar to the first, sans the hair and a large number of his teeth. At some point in the night, he seemed to have lost his shirt, revealing a wide tanned chest densely packed with tattoos and scars. Given the absurd number and size of his scars, Meryl figured that he must be some sort of professional fighter or mercenary – the kind of guy who gets cut up for a living. Mark number two was currently caressing a glass empty of liquor and Meryl knew he would soon be stumbling to the bar for a refill.

Due to his shaved head, Meryl decided to call him Baldy.

It was worth noting that Meryl was pretty drunk at the time – under normal circumstances she would have come up with a nickname that was at least marginally less stupid.

Meryl moved herself into position, resting against a wooden pillar behind the bearded sailor. She gripped her tankard in one hand and shoved her other into her well-worn blue long coat, trying her very best to look nonchalant. She sipped from her brew overly casually while watching Baldy slowly stagger his way up to the bar, bouncing this way and that off the backs of other patrons like a poorly shot billiards ball. As Baldy drew up behind the sailor, Meryl gave him a clandestine boot to the shin which sent him toppling forward into Hairy. At the same time, she splashed her ale all over Hairy’s back, soaking his jerkin and overcoat.

               

                “Aye! What the hell ‘as that mate!? I’ll have ye know this is me best jerkin!”  Hairy screamed, toppling his stool over backwards as he blasted to his feet. He whipped around and snarled, showing a face full of rotten teeth. He towered over Baldy, swaying heavily, but he was doing his damned best to remain upright. “You’re a dead man,” he growled.

                “If you want yer innards to stay on the inside, I’d move on lad,” Baldy snarled. What he lacked in height in made up for with pure thickness of muscle. He thrust his burly arm out, grabbing Hairy’s now soaking collar and readying his other arm for what was sure to be a devastating blow.

                The bearded man scowled and pulled back his arm as if to return the favor, but he hesitated there a moment, leaving his arm dangling awkwardly hanging in an awkward sort of half-punch state. His scowl transformed into a pensive frown, and slowly the half-punch became no punch as he lowered his arm.  “L-look. Maybe…Well maybe I overreacted a bit. S’just a wet jerkin, right?”

“Yeah, I, uh, suppose yer right. What are we doing here, bout to throw punches over a spilled drink? We must look a right couple of assholes. I’m sorry, I dunno what’s got into me. My mistake lad, my mistake,” the tattooed thug said, releasing Hairy’s collar and offering him a rag to dry himself.

                “No, no, it’s alright mate, it’s alright,” Hairy said, wiping the front of his coat with the rag. “I shouldn’ta reacted the way I did. I work down at the docks an’ I been puttin’ in real long hours and me overseer’s been a real arsehole lately and it’s done put me in a right foul mood. Not your fault, friend. Sorry I screamed at ye.”

                “It’s ok, I know how it goes. Really I do. I apprentice for Hal Ragston at the smithy, guy’s been working me near to death lately. Hell, I gotta come down to this pub most every night just to blow off some steam. By the way, I can get me wife to clean up yer jerkin for ya, if ya wanna come by me place later.”

                “Hell, I’d love that! Name’s Harry, put ‘er there mate!” he said, thrusting out his hand.

“No shit,” Meryl said under her breath, her jaw dropping.

                “Glad to hear it! Me name’s Baldwin, pleasure to meet ya!” he replied, grasping Harry’s hand in his and giving it an overly vigorous shake.

Meryl wanted to think that if she were a bit more sober, she would have at least dubbed him Baldwin instead of her now lame-seeming Baldy.

“I foresee a great friendship in our future lad!” Baldwin said, grinning from ear to ear.

                “Seriously? Are you guys kidding me?” Meryl asked. The two men turned and looked at her inquisitively. “By Saxum, you boys are ninnies.”

                “Lass, if we wanted some wench mucking up our conversation, we’d ‘ave summoned the bar wench. Best get gone if ya know what’s good for you,” Baldy said.

                “Excuse me?”

                “You heard him, this here’s man business, we don’t need no bitches meddlin’ in our talks,” Hairy added.

“Mistake,” Meryl stated, punching the bearded prig square in the jaw. Blood sprayed from his mouth in a sanguine arc and he toppled backwards onto the beer sodden floor.

“Ha! Are you fer real girly?” Baldwin asked.

Meryl gave her reply in the form of turning and pummeling him in the nose with the flat of her palm. He reeled backwards, his eyes clamped shut in surprise as bright red began to leak from his nose. It was probably broken but it was too swollen to tell at the moment. Nursing his enflamed snout, he quickly regained his composure and picked up a nearby stool, hurling it at full strength directly at Meryl’s head. She nimbly ducked underneath it and the stool exploded into the back of some unsuspecting patron behind her, breaking apart with a deafening crack.

The stool’s unintended victim was a massive man who shrugged off the blow and lumbered to his feet, turning around with a deadly grimace carved upon his equally deadly looking his face. His frown was as sharp as a sickle and his brow had passed the point where it could be called furrowed; it had been driven into some further angry state that Meryl didn’t have a definition for. By the sheer severity of his form, this new contender looked to be ready to murder the man who had murdered his buzz. She looked the man in his eyes and saw an intense fire raging in his black eyes, the kind of fire one uses to commit arson. She saw this, and then motioned him towards Baldwin.

The stooled man screamed and sprinted towards his accidental assaulter, his long leather coat billowing behind him in an altogether dramatic fashion as he weaved in between other patrons. For a man of his tremendous size, he was surprisingly nimble. The man inserted his fist solidly into Baldwin’s unsuspecting gut and the terrible blow elicited a sound that was somewhere between a scream and a whimper. Baldwin doubled over in pain, clenching his teeth and grasping his now bruised abdomen.

This gave his attacker the chance to spin off his long leather coat and throw it over Baldwin’s head. He whirled Baldwin around so that Baldwin was facing away from him, and then kicked him headlong into a table full of sloppy drunk sailors. The table collapsed in a cacophony of splintering wood and bone as Baldwin toppled through it, sending mugs full of booze flying into the air and the swill the Sowing Sow dared to call ale went sloshing all over the floor.

                The sailors, as it turned out, were not happy about the new placement of their beer onto the floor.

While it hadn’t started exactly as she had anticipated, Meryl had gotten her desired result: the bar was pure bedlam and she was out brawling in the middle of it. Sailors were smashing stools over farmer’s heads, merchants were climbing atop the bar to hurl bottles at travelers, and the barkeep was standing atop a table in the corner brandishing a knife in each hand and screaming obscenities. For her part, Meryl was in the thick of it, throwing punches at random drunkards while dodging hurled bottles and flying bodies. While the bar’s denizens were a scary looking lot, Meryl was pretty sure that she’d been in more fights than the rest of them combined – and she was probably right. As a result, she was doing far more hitting than being hit and after ten minutes of fighting she was looking little worse for wear.

                Her long red braid was a blur behind her as she ducked under flying stools, rolled over fallen fighters, and injured as large a number of drunken people as she possibly could. Over the course of the night, that number grew to be a very large one indeed. Meryl bobbed and weaved through the crowd, throwing out jabs, uppercuts, crosses, and some questionable below-the-belt type hits seemingly at random. Meryl was trained by a boxer who was drunk all the time, but her style was much closer to traditional boxing than drunken boxing – though with a healthy dash of dirty street fighting mixed in for flavor.

Meryl was certainly keen to blow off some steam – her last job with Gig had gone horribly wrong and they had wasted weeks casing, bribing guards, and perfecting disguises only to walk away with nothing. All she had to show for it was a tattered blue dress back in her bunk, some jars of makeup she’d never use, and a month’s worth of weeks she could have spent stealing and weekends she could have spent drinking and fighting and stealing some more.

Meryl was in the midst of some much needed de-stressing when she saw a rotund merchant oddly squatting over in the corner. The man was darkly tanned and was bedecked in a very nice looking purple and gold striped silk shirt, a heavy purple silk coat with a gold silk shawl draped over it, some baggy gold silk pants, purple silk boots, and a, what Meryl was guessing was silk, purple hat. The very snappily dressed man was squatting so oddly because beneath him was unconscious sailor and he was picking his pockets.  This was not at all in keeping with bar fight decorum in Meryl’s opinion, so she dropped what she was doing (which was hitting some farmer repeatedly in his face) and charged at the merchant. On the approach she cocked her fist back to ready a knockout blow.

 

As with many things in life, Monty’s jaw just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The consequences of this at this exact moment were that his jaw forcibly met Meryl’s fist, even though the punch was actually meant for a squat, thieving merchant crouching before Monty. That far, far luckier man had slipped while picking some guy’s pocket, narrowly missing having his already unhandsome face made even unhandsomer. This left Monty’s poor, unlucky jaw open to receive a devastating blow that dismantled it almost entirely.

In their many training sessions together, Sir Larien had drilled it into Meryl that in all facets of life the most important thing was to ‘Always follow through’. That particular advice had always stuck with Meryl and had come in great handy in many facets of her life. In particular, following through on a punch had helped her tremendously in the hundreds of fistfights she’d been in since her days as a page. But right now that advice only served to make sure Monty’s jaw would probably never look quite right again.

                “What the hell? I wasn’t even fighting,” Monty attempted to articulate through his thoroughly broken mandible. What came out was more of a “Wharshthafrell? Urwarshtanteburnfurgtig,”which Meryl found she could make no sense of.

What did make sense to Meryl, however, was that she better get the hell out of the Sowing Sow. And then the sailors’ district. And then, for good measure, Ironsson altogether.  Meryl  was slowly coming to realize, even through his disfigured jaw, that the person she had just accidentally assaulted was none other than Monty Carlyle. This was an unfortunate turn for Meryl as Monty Carlyle wasn’t a sailor like many of the other patrons of the Sowing Sow. Nor was he a farmer or a merchant. Monty Carlyle was the one and only son of Duke Arthur Carlyle. And while punching a duke’s son is almost always a bad move, punching the son of the duke of the town you’re currently hiding out after your last failed heist is universally a worse one.

Unfortunately for Meryl, this was the very blunder that she had just committed and she realized now that it was time she made her grand escape. Meryl pushed Monty to the ground and turned to run, plowing through drunken brawlers and ignoring Monty’s incomprehensible screaming as she made a mad rush to the door. Meryl reached the decaying wooded door and wrapped her hand around the dangling iron handle, grasping the heavy ring and pulling with all her strength.

As the door began to pull open, she felt a heavy hand land on her shoulder and begin to tighten like an overly ambitious nutcracker. The hand spun her around and revealed its owner to be none other than a smoldering Baldy, though by now he was looking much, much worse for wear. While he wasn’t exactly awash with teeth before, Meryl saw that he was now left with a singular incisor hanging from the top of his bloodied mouth. His right hand was a crumpled mess that looked like a steak that had very recently been tenderized.

“Lass, in all thith fightin’ I dun loth most o’ me teeth and broke me hand. Moreover, it dun killed me fuckin’ buzz! I intend to make you pay for that cheap thot earlier.”

                “With your hand like that, I don’t see how you’re gonna make me pay for anything. Look, for reasons I’d rather not get into, I gotta go. Escape. Abscond. Get out of this location, is what I’m saying. So if you’ll just move out of the way, I’ll let this slide.”

                “Let it thlide!? Bitch, I will wuin you,” he said, doing his very best to be intimidating through a toothless scowl.

“And how are you plannin’ on going about that? Baldy, it looks like you been on the losin’ end of every single fight in this bar. Do ya have some kinda plan, hrm? Figurin’ I won’t fight back? Are there any thoughts at all knocking around in that thick skull of yours?”

                There were a few choice thoughts flitting around in Baldy’s thick skull as he slammed it into the bridge of Meryl’s nose, forcing her to her knees and causing a rill of blood to leak from it. His good hand remained on her shoulder, pressing her onto the splintery wooden boards that passed for a floor in the Sowing Sow. Wooden slivers dug into her hands as she tried to force herself up, but Baldy kept her forced to the ground. The splinters were tearing up Meryl’s cloth trousers, piercing through them as if their sole purpose was to slice open her shins. Baldy drew back his knee and slammed her hard in the chest as she tried to stand.

                Baldy went to knee her again but this time Meryl was ready for it. She spun to the right and jammed her now splintery palm up into his crotch. His brown cloth pants began to seep red as he wordlessly worked his mouth. It was difficult to tell what Baldy was trying to say as all that was escaping was a high pitched sort of muttering, but Meryl didn’t care. What she cared about was that his hand released her shoulder and he stumbled backwards, sitting spread eagle on the ground and grabbing his eviscerated manhood with both hands. Big, beady tears poured from his eyes and his face scrunched up in shock. Meryl climbed to her feet, picking out a few of the biggest remaining splinters from hands as she stood over Baldy.

                “You’re lucky I have to go,” Meryl said, turning towards the door and grasping the iron handle once again.

                “Well, not that lucky,” she said, turning and punching him in the mouth. As Baldy collapsed on his back, Meryl reached for the iron ring for the third time only to find that the front door was already opening. The shabby door swung open and three Ironsson guards stood menacingly in the doorway, the cool night air rushing in from behind them. The two short squat men stood in the back, clad each in a full set of heavy steel armor, replete with intimidating bascinets that ensconced their entire faces in shadow. They both stood at relative ease, their shoulders back and their hands resting on the longswords dangling from their belts.

At their front, and closest to Meryl, was a much taller man bedecked in a worn heavy black overcoat, a scuffed pair of brown leather boots, and a roughhewn scarlet cowl. His right eye was covered by an embroidered cloth bandage servicing as an eye patch. His good eye peered out searchingly from under his overlarge cavalier hat. It was an intriguing shade of blue, hinting that it had spent much of its time staring at pristine skies. His thin lips converged in the barest suggestion of a frown, as though they weren’t truly committed to the grimace his furrowed brow and squinting eyes were so devoted to.

“Quite the brawl we’ve got going here isn’t it?” the tall man said, his lips barely parting as he spoke.

                “Yes, well, it would seem so, wouldn’t it sirs?” Meryl said, doing her best to keep a cool, even tone. “And am I ever glad that you’re here to break it up! I decided to come into this bar to unwind only to discover that it was in a state of complete and utter disarray. I was just coming to report the incident to you. Now that you have already arrived, I think I shall be going.” She made to move past the officer in front, but he gently placed his hand on her shoulder.

                “Are you Meryl? Meryl Malladies?”

                “Can’t say I’ve ever heard of her. What sort of a last name is Malladies anyway?”

                “Well, my sources tell me that it isn’t her real last name, it’s some concoction of her own. I hear she picked up the childish thing when running with some insipid ne’er-do-well who goes by the name ‘Gig Bootstrap’. Stupidest thing I ever heard. One of my informants tells me everyone in his ludicrous den of thieves picks some new last name to style themselves some sort of intimidating thugs. Load of stupidity, if you ask me.”

                “They sound like a supercilious lot,” she responded. She was doing her best to sound well-read, and she had read supercilious once in a book given to her by Larien. Ever since, she’d been laboring under the delusion that ‘supercilious’ meant extremely silly. “In any event, now that that is all cleared up, I really must be going. Best of luck to you gentlemen on catching those contemptuous rogues.” She pushed past, knocking the hatted officer’s hand of her shoulder and starting down the cobblestone steps.

                “Not so fast, Meryl,” he said, grasping her arm. He squeezed down on it, not rough enough to be painful but enough to let his power be known. “I’ve orders to bring you in.”

                “Let me go, you have the wrong girl.”

                “I’m afraid I cannot.”

                “Then I guess I’ll have to make you,” she said, yanking her arm free and moving away.

                The two other guards’ swords clattered from their scabbards as they yanked them free, glinting in the dull torchlight. “You move and you die,” the guard on Meryl’s right said. “It’d be my pleasure to end a rogue like you,” said the other.

                “Kelrik, Elrik, swords away. You won’t be causing any problems, will you sweet sanguine?” the officer said, slowly walking towards Meryl. He ran his scarred right hand along her cheek, his eye searching her face. “Trust in me Meryl. Follow me and I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”

                Meryl nodded wordlessly and let herself be led by the officer deeper into Ironnson. The officer’s demeanor was gentle and kindly, leading her by the hand through the twisting streets of the city. The two other guards followed silently behind, their hands grasping the hilts of their swords, just daring Meryl to try to escape. The party sallied on in silence, which the officer broke after a while by, rather oddly, launching into a lesson on the history of Ironsson.

                “I grew up in Ironsson. My dad was a rat catcher, if you can believe that. This town was his home from birth, and his dad’s, and his granddad’s even. You know that Ironsson started as a bandit’s camp? Can you believe that?” he said, as they wended their way through confusing network of streets in the cramped inner city. “It’s true, used to be the main outpost for a gang called the Sons of Iron. My dad told me they were the most feared band in the southern Auriun Empire. Said they were called the Sons of Iron because they favored iron weapons over steel. Said they had a huge vault with thousands of iron weapons and armor, and if you got let into the gang they’d send you down into the vault and you could take whatever you wanted.

                Meryl nodded, her hands trenched deep in her pockets as the officer continued his narration. They walked down the deserted cobblestone streets of the Central District of Ironsson, lit only by the torch the officer was carrying. It was totally quiet at this time of night; most people were deep asleep, deep in their cups at some alehouse, or deep in some whore at a brothel. In any case, the streets were rarely treaded at this hour. Meryl exhaled sharply and watched her breath mist upwards into the nighttime air.

                “Anyways, this gang kept growing bigger and this camp kept growing wider and wider until it was pretty much a full-fledged city. The Sons of Iron always flew this red flag with these crossed swords on it. My dad had one, gave it me. Guess his granddad gave it to him after his time in the Sons. Anyways, that’s why a lot of the buildings still have red flags or red banners.”

                The way they were going was really starting to confuse Meryl as they winded in and out of side streets and alleys. She could have sworn they’d passed the same inn twice and she thought she heard the other two guards muttering something about being lost. The officer stopped and pointed to a bar called the Dapper Owl, noting that it was still emblazoned with red flags to prove his point.

                “So, you’re probably wondering how come there’s no more bandits here if this was a bandit town. Well, as the town started to grow, the crown understandably started to take notice. They sent out some knights to take care of the problem, but I guess they underestimated just how many Sons of Iron lived here. They knights were slaughtered to the man. So the crown sent another deployment. And another, and another. The Sons kept killin’ every knight they sent, and stacking their bodies into a massive mound at the north end. Get this: they left all their weapons and armor on ‘em cause they were steel. You know that big hill in the front of the town with the statue of Sir Garret? Yeah, eventually the corpse pile grew so large that the empire had to just drop some dirt over it and pretend it was just a regular hill.”

                Meryl nodded, giving a look of manufactured understanding. She’d heard the story of Sir Garret’s corpse hill before, though the Empire usually put forward a version where it was the corpses of the Sons of Iron interred beneath the soil. Meryl noticed now that their path had begun drifting from the central part of Ironsson where the jail was located towards the slums of the so-called Crofter District (though it was known to most as the Rat Ward).

                “So obviously the King at the time was none too pleased at the big pile of dead knights, and the increasing influence of Sons of Iron in the south. So he sent one of his chief advisors, guy by the name Lief, down to Ironsson in secret. Lief organizes this secret meeting, right, with one of the heads of the Sons of Iron. Think that guy’s name was Uldren, or Ildren, or Aldren, or something like that. Anyways, Lief organizes this meeting in secret with this person. And he proposes to Uldren, Aldren, whoever, he proposes to him that if he’ll sabotage the Sons defenses, they’ll install him as the Duke of the whole town. This prospect apparently was enticing to the fellow, so he set about opening some of the northern gates and ordering the Sons to guard the south side.”

                “So the King sends this big fleet of knights. Ten times the size of his last legions, and they march right in through the northern gates. Take the Sons completely by surprise. ‘Cept Aldren, of course. Aldren’s hidin’ out in the central building with some of the other leaders. So anyway, the knights ride in and start killing the Sons. Just slaughtering them really. Knights had never made it past the Sons’ defenses before this, and the Sons were completely caught off guard. So the knights begin marching through the city, killing all the Sons they can find. They slowly make their way to the center of town, and they go into the tent where Aldren’s at.”

                By now, they were solidly in the slums. Rats were scurrying about the cobblestone streets, and Meryl spotted more than one corpse lying out in the open air.

                “So Aldren comes and greets the knights with open arms. Serves up the other leaders on platter. And you know what they do? King’s nephew, Jon the Right he was called, comes in and kills Aldren. Just stabs him right in the stomach. You believe that? Just like that. Aldren apparently looks into the eyes of his betrayer and says, ‘How could you deceive me? I gave you everything you wanted. How could you?’ And you know what that bastard Jon says? Do ya?”

                He stopped and stared at Meryl, apparently awaiting her answer to one of his questions for the first time. “Uh, no, can’t say that I do. Sir.”

                “Well, Jon the Right stares Aldren in his eyes and he just says “Easily.” Ha! That’s all he says as he cuts the poor bastard’s throat. Anyways, long story short, Jon the Right becomes the duke of this here town, rather wryly names it Ironsson, and forces all the former Sons of Iron to work in service of the crown as slaves. Get this, though. He makes it so their children are slaves too. Now as slavery got to be unpopular, they decided to repeal the law, so all descendants of Sons would be equal citizens. Still, as you probably know, descendants of the Sons are usually treated like garbage round these parts. People won’t sell ‘em homes, they can’t work nowhere, hell lots of inns won’t even let ‘em sleep there. Crazy if you ask me.”

                The officer led their party down a darkened alley that dead-ended a few hundred feet in. It was ensconced by rows of dilapidated stone buildings on either side, and ended in a small square dotted with a few bales of rotting hay. “Well that’s about it for my history lesson. Kelrik? Elrik? What’d ya think? Was it informative? Did you guys learn something?” They both mumbled something in response. “What was that? Take off your damn helmets, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

                “I said I think we better get this lass to the jail,” one of the two guards said, holding his freshly removed helmet in his arm.

                “Or we could just gut her here and be done with it,” the other said, doing the same.

                The officer sauntered in between the two guards, standing coolly in their center with a wide grin plastered on his face. “Gentlemen, you know I always like to avoid unnecessary bloodshed whenever possible,” the officer said, spreading his hands in an apparent gesture of amicability.

                Meryl thought she saw something in his hands sparkle in the moonlight, but before she had time to discern what it was the officer’s hands were both buried in the two guards’ necks. Clanking and clattering could be heard as the two men struggled to unsheathe their blades, but the officer spun into a neat crouch, sending blood arcing around in him in a crimson helix. The clattering of blades soon faded away, only to be replaced by the gurgling and sputtering of Kelrik and Elrik’s dying throes.

                “Of course, sometimes it is unavoidable,” he said once their babbling had quieted. He disappeared his daggers into his coat and continued, “Meryl, help me throw these bodies into the haystacks.”

                Meryl did as she was bid for her mysterious savior, grabbing first Kelrik’s legs as the officer heaved him up by the torso. They flung him into a stack, then did the same with Elrik. They both then set to piling on some loose hay over top of the corpses.

                “Won’t people notice the smell?” Meryl asked the man.

                “Meryl, you haven’t spent much time in the Rat Ward, have you?”

                “Who are you? Why are you helping me?”

                “I honestly forgot I was still wearing this outrageous getup.” The guard lifted his wide brimmed hat and removed the tattered eye patch, revealing the mildly handsome countenance beneath. Thin brown scruff covered a face defined by high cheekbones and a chin as sharp as a dagger. His sparkling blue eyes squinted as he smiled and said, “Meryl, it’s me, Gig!”

                Meryl let out a muffled scream of excitement and scooped Gig up of the ground in a monstrous hug. “By Saxum, that hat really did a great job of hiding your face, where’d you get it? And since when do you wear a beard? More importantly, what the hell are you doing dressed as an imperial officer and how the hell did you know where I was?”

                “Let see… In order, I nicked it off some sailor in Vamira, I’ve been growing this beard since that last wanted poster with the drawing of my clean-shaven face, I’m dressed as imperial officer so I could save your ass from certain doom, and what was the last one?”

                “How the hell didja know where I was!?”

                “Oh, yes. That. Well, one of my fences here in Ironsson heard word that Leto himself has pulled some strings in order to have you brought in. Given that this is Leto we’re talkin’ about, if you’re brought in by him, you’re never gettin’ brought out. So I figured I better come save you while I had the chance. Also, we probably should not be dawdling by two fresh corpses of actual imperial guards. I don’t think even a magnificent costume such as this and marvelous acting skills such as my own could get us out of that.”

                They started walking, as casually as they could muster, out of the dim alley and into the streets beyond. Gig, of course, had extinguished his torch so the going was slow in the enveloping blackness of the Auriun night. Once they had made it back to a main street, they followed the light spilling from the inns and bars and whorehouses that were still open at this time of night.

                “Gig, how did you get those imperial guards to follow you? Think that you’re an officer?”

                “Far easier than you’d expect. I filched this coat of some officer when he was asleep at a bar. I put on the coat as well as the hat and the eyepatch, found two guards, and told them I was an officer sent to retrieve them so’s we could arrest you. They just assumed I was telling the truth; they followed me without question. Say anything confidently enough and it becomes true.”

                “Well, we did still murder them in an alley.”

                “True. Say anything confidently enough and it becomes true to people who’d rather it be true than have to question anything.”

                “You didn’t have to kill them you know. They’re just guards.”

                “Ah! How long have you known me Meryl? They weren’t just any old guards, they were Leto’s men. His assassin’s actually. You’d think he’d take to the time to hire smarter people to covertly murder for him.”

“I’ll just be glad to have Ironsson at my back. You know, after the Ragnel job I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again Gig.”

Gig had long been a friend of Meryl’s. He was one of her former traveling companions and an occasional business associate. He was a serial rogue and ne’er-do-well who had a proclivity for ‘moving’ anything that wasn’t nailed down and nailing anything that moved. Once Meryl lost Larien, she found herself lost and without purpose or friends. For a time, she simply wandered the Auriun plains, stealing vegetables from farmers’ fields and camping out beneath the ceaseless stars. She wandered this way for months, wallowing in solitary grief and poverty until she was picked up by Gig and his roving troupe of thieves.

Gig was the group’s perennial leader and only continuous member; most members of his gang found themselves maimed, jailed, or dead. Often all three, and not always in that order. This was in large part due to Gig’s penchant for recruiting wretched vagabonds and penniless scoundrels into his den of thieves. While they all certainly had the need, most of them simply didn’t have the talent. Some thought Gig was just preying on the most desperate of society, but Meryl always got the feeling that Gig just had a soft spot for those types. Gig had himself been an impecunious rogue during his youth until he was rescued by a group of bandits and he discovered that his natural guile and quickness of hand would serve him well in thievery.

Once Meryl had fallen in with Gig and his lot, her days were full of running protection for the gang’s various operations, clashing with the local law, and learning everything there was to know about taking what didn’t belong to her. Meryl’s tall and muscular build didn’t lend itself to stealth, so she quickly adopted a more smash-and-grab approach to stealing. When Gig robbed a place, the only thing amiss would be some missing jewels, maybe a vanished knick-knack or a purloined pillow he fancied. With Meryl, you’d be lucky if your house was left in one piece. Her strategy did have the advantage of it often being impossible to tell what exactly was missing in the midst of the total chaos she left in her wake.

Gig and Meryl worked side-by-side for years, evading the law by moving from town to town, stealing in a city for a few weeks before moving on to greener pastures. Meryl had grown up a roving child and had developed something of a wanderlust, so this suited her just fine. They had found decent success in this, setting up a network of thieves and fences around most of the Auriun Empire. While neither of them were rich, they both enjoyed a lifestyle that was significantly more comfortable than most common peasants could aspire to.

Their last job, however, had gone terribly awry. The result of which was that they had both been taken into the custody of the crown. Being that they were a somewhat infamous duo, the constable elected to split them up and jail them in different cities, figuring that they would be far less likely to mount an escape if they were operating solo. And even if one of them did manage to break out, they would never be able to find where the other was jailed. Gig was sent to the massive jail in Ironnson, and Meryl was transported to a dingy prison in Sowsdutter.

The constable had not figured on the both of them breaking out independently. Meryl had actually broken out first, and had set about making a grand tour of all the prisons around the Auriun Empire in an effort to find her lost partner. As guards tended to get suspicious if you just showed up at a jail asking whether a known criminal happened to be detained there, Meryl preferred the more direct method of getting thrown in jail for some petty charge and scoping out the inmates once inside. Ironically, if Gig hadn’t escaped already, Meryl would have found him tonight anyways after having been jailed for the certainly deserved charge of barfighting.

Such was fate, Meryl mused.

“I was looking for you, you know,” Meryl said. “I’ve seen the inside of six, well five jails looking for you. Would have been six if I’d succeeded in getting arrested tonight.”

Meryl and Gig continued their way towards the outskirts of Ironsson. They stuck to the shadowy alleys of the Crofter’s District as long as they could. When they’d reached its end, they crossed over into The Thoroughfare where most of the middle class people lived, bakers and blacksmiths and the like. The sky was a deep and utter black, as if the moon had decided it had better things to do and the night could just light itself, thank you very much. They stumbled forward on the dark and uneven streets, groping the sides of buildings where they could to make out where they were going.

“Oh I know, my people in Sowsdutter and Vamira both mentioned that you’d been jailed there. I was following you, trying to find you, but I was always a step behind. Til I heard Leto had a bounty out for you in Ironsson. Dunno how that bastard knew you were in town. I got more informants than I know what to do with and still he-”

He was interrupted by an old man who shouted at them from underneath some wooden outcropping on the side of a house. The man was incredibly rough looking, with wispy white hair growing in uneven patches on his leathery head. He was clothed in what amounted to little more than brown rags, though it was clear this was not their original color. The old man’s body was taut as drawn leather, and as he approached Meryl could see the muscles and sinews moving beneath his wrinkled skin as he hobbled forward. His eyes were wild and wandering, moving wildly this way and that, but never seeming to focus on any one thing in particular. “Bread,” he said to them.

“Excuse me?” Meryl said, trying to meet his gaze but finding it to be quite an impossible task.

“Bread,” he repeated, furrowing his brow and frowning at them. “Bread,” he said again.

“Bread? Are you asking us for bread? I’m sorry, old man, but we are in the midst of some covert operations,” Gig said. “I’m sure you understand. Look, we haven’t got any bread. Please let us through.” Gig started to move past the man, gently placing his hand on the old man’s shoulder to move him aside.

The old man’s eyes grew wide and he jumped back in front them, throwing his arms wide to block their path. “Bread!” he yelled. “Bread! Bread!” His voice was growing louder now, spittle flying from his lips as he waved his arms madly about. He flung his chest out and his head reared back, staring up to the moonless sky and screaming bread, as if to inform the gods of his desire for baked sustenance. If he kept this up, people would soon be coming out to check what he was yelling about, though Meryl suspected they’d leave once they discovered it was only bread.

“Look old man,” Meryl said under her breath. “We don’t have bread. It’s the middle of the night. Why would you think we had bread? Who just carries bread around at this time of night?” The vagrant was now simply ignoring them, the wild look in his eyes growing ever wilder as he began to dance around, his face pointed ever upwards at the starless sky. His deranged calls for bread echoed throughout the deserted street, piercing the sky with a disconcerting cacophony of yeasty lamentations. Meryl heard stirring inside the houses as locks unlocked and latches unlatched.

“Alright!” Gig yelled. “Alright! Shut up, old man, shut up! Look here. I’ll get you some money and you can buy some damn bread in the morning. Just shut up and I’ll get it for you.” The old man quieted and stared at Gig, his wild eyes finding focus for the first time. His peered at them with distrusting eyes, his mouth moving wordlessly as if he was already eating the bread this money would buy him.

“Never in my life did I meet a man who loved bread so. You are the world’s most ardent proselytizer of bread. What I think you should do is bake the world’s biggest loaf of bread and hollow it out and create in it the world’s first Temple of Bread. They could surely find no better pastor. Later on, perhaps, you could make a noble sacrifice in the name of bread and become the world’s very first bread martyr” Gig said as he thrust his hand into the pocket of his heavy overcoat, looking down as he rummaged around for the spot he’d stashed his money in his newly purloined coat.

The vagrant seemed to be getting impatient now, and he began hurrying towards Gig as fast as his knobby knees could take him.

Then he was moving faster than his knobby knees could take him. Far faster.

He was in a dead sprint and before Meryl could react the old man drew a dagger from his stained rags and leapt towards Gig. Gig looked up just as the dagger entered his stomach. He toppled backwards, his long coat fluttering as he spilled onto the rough cobblestone street.

The old man loomed over him, his eyes now sharp and focused.

“Leto sends his regards.”

And like that he was gone, disappeared forever into the inky night beyond.

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