Saturday, 25 June 2016

Blood and Gold, an Original Story by Rob Hebblethwaite

Shadows and weak light spluttered across the rotting room from a cluster of thick, waxy candles upon the low desk. If it had been within a castle chamber, or a deep, dark dungeon, the light would have been eerie. Instead, it simply seemed feeble and impoverished, rather like the chamber which it struggled to illuminate. No light from the world outside breached the thin, single pane of cracked glass that was set irregularly into the battered wooden wall behind the desk, for the night was dark and stifled by many dark thick clouds.
‘Is this really the best you’ve managed to find?’ Hardhand Lewis said, waving a dismissive heavily-ringed hand at the pretty, thin young woman standing in front of him. Sheepishly, she retreated from the filthy, wood-panelled room that was rancid with the stench of cheap ale and mead. Upon one wall, a slashed portrait hung in a gold-brushed frame, the paint on which had long since cracked and begun to peel off. On the other, a moulding tapestry of a dragon hung limply from a cracked wooden bar.
Rubbing his eyes with the fat forefinger of his right hand, and tweaking his neat orange goatee beard with his left, Hardhand Lewis gazed across the filthy, small room from where he sat behind a large, gleaming-polished desk,propped up at one corner with a lump of brick. ‘Daith, my sweet brother, you’re going to have to do much better than this if you want us to ever make any money.’
            Daith ground his teeth together and spat onto the louse-ridden floorboards. ‘It wasn’t my idea to pour all of our money into this sour old hovel,’ he snarled. ‘And now you have, you won’t accept any of the girls I bring you, so I fail so see how this is my fault.’
            Hardhand Lewis spread his arms wide. ‘Why would I accept these common hussies, Daith?’ he said. ‘We’re a premium establishment! We need the best, not peasant girls in cheap makeup!’
            ‘Premium?’ Daith said in a whisper, his anger barely concealed. ‘You think stuffing this glorified shack with stolen goods – goods I stole – makes this cheap excuse for a brothel worth something?’
            Hardhand Lewis spread his arms wide a second time, the many rings on his fingers clinking together, and the heavy gold chain he wore about his neck and over his tatty purple silk doublet bouncing upon his impressive stomach. ‘Daith, my brother,’ he said, ‘we are not common thugs! We are the Deadtown Kings! Tell me, sweet, dear brother, do we not deserve to at least live like kings?’
            Daith’s fists closed about the hilts of the two daggers that hung at his waists. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, doing everything he could to try and control his rage. ‘You seem to think,’ he began in a low hiss, ‘that you can waltz into any old slum and for it to become your kingdom. Lewis, there are dozens of other gangs in Baradun, at least four in Deadtown alone!’ He was yelling before he could stop himself, gesturing frantically at his fat brother’s round, balding head. ‘The Crimson Hand could crush us man-to-man in a fight if it came to it, and now you’ve brought some massive wooden monument to your misspent vanity right on the edge of their territory!’
            Be quiet!’ Hardhand Lewis smashed his large fist into the low, well-polished desk, dislodging the stone upon which one corner rested. ‘If the Crimson Hand are such a threat, Daith, then get out onto the streets and hurt them! That leader of theirs, Bloody Lizbet, is a woman, yet you seem terrified of her!’
            Daith stepped forwards and looked down at his brother. He was of middling height and lithe, athletic build, the opposite of his gargantuan ginger sibling. About his sinewy, tough frame he wore black leathers and a tatty grey cloak of thin wool. His lank black hair was loose and drifted into his eyes as he glared down at his bald-headed and red-bearded brother, and his pale and cold face twisted angrily. His cheeks and nose were pointed and, and the lines that etched themselves into his face twitched with cruelty wrought upon his features by the nicks and scratches of a hundred sword-fights.
            He ignored the comment about the Hands’ fierce leader. Daith knew a straight-up fight with Bloody Lizbet was suicide. ‘And what, pray, are you going to do whilst I’m gone solving problems that you have created?’ Daith hissed. He could feel the weight of his large bastard-sword on his back. It was like the reassuring hand of a friend, reminding him that he always had an ally. A better friend than this fat lout has ever been, Daith thought darkly as he glared at his brother.
            ‘I am going to sit here and drink wine,’ Handhand Lewis said. ‘Then, I am going to write a letter to Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford to try and convince him to stop sending those blasted inquisitors to the Black Hoof. He genuinely believes the barmaid is a witch – can you believe that?’
            ‘Well,’ Daith snarled, turning on his heel and striding out of the room through the low door, ‘one of his men did hear her slate that so-called Divine Empress the Vidorians do so love,’ he growled over his shoulder before he slammed the door behind him.
            The filthy corridor he stood in was dark and dismal, lit by a single covered candle about half way down which spluttered a weak light onto the wood-panelled walls. There was one window, though the night outside was pitch-black and Daith knew he would see nothing he had not already looked upon a thousand times before. He paused for breath, closing his eyes for a few moments and loosening his grip on the two daggers at his waist.  Useless, fat, stupid, ugly-…
            Daith’s eyes snapped open and he glared into the gloom. ‘What?’ he hissed.
            Two men emerged from the shadows. The first was a short, chunky-framed dwarf with an ornately braided beard as black as coal What was visible of his broad face was pocked with lines and mottles. The second was a skinny, lean young man with a black eye and a front tooth missing. Both wore simple, tatty brown tunics and trousers, though on their feet wore hefty, mud-splattered boots. ‘We heard you shouting,’ the tall, thin man said, ‘just wanted to make sure it’s all alright-…’
            ‘Be quiet, Brint,’ Daith hissed. ‘If I was alright, do you think I’d be standing in this corridor with my eyes shut, trying not to think of a reason to march back into my brother’s office and hack his head off?’
            Brint, the young man with a missing tooth, swallowed nervously. The stocky Dwarf beside him rolled his eyes and drove an elbow into his thigh. ‘Nice one, idiot,’ he muttered.
            The young Man aimed a swift kick at the Dwarf. ‘You shut up, Hobbs.’
            Daith rubbed his eyes, enjoying the gloom of the corridor whilst the Man and the Dwarf began to bicker in front of him, cursing and swearing at one another under their breath. ‘Get your black,’ Daith said once he had tired of listening to the fruity insults the two men were throwing at each other. ‘Whether I hate him or not doesn’t detract from the fact we have work to do.’
            The two men immediately ceased their quarrel and withdrew from within their belts two strips of black cloth. Quickly, they each tied the strip around their upper right arm and stood facing Daith. The Deadtown Kings used their ‘black’ to identify one-another, the same way the Baradun Brawlers had identified each other with cross-shaped tattoos on the backs of each other’s hands.
            ‘Where are we going?’ the tall, skinny Brint said once he had finished fumbling with his black strip of cloth.
            ‘We’re going to-…’ Daith began. He stopped abruptly when he saw what Brint was wearing on his head: a ragged leather cap, through which tufts of his greasy brown hair stuck. ‘Take off that stupid thing,’ he hissed. ‘You look like a village fool.’
            Brint quickly whipped it off his head. ‘Sorry, boss.’
            Daith glared at Brint for a few moments longer. ‘Please tell me you at least remembered your damned club this time?’
            ‘Of course! Of course I did, boss!’ Brint’s hands shot to his hip and he struggled with something there, concealed by shadows. After a few moments of tugging and pulling, he produced a long, heavy, dented bat. He held it up, a small smile on his face. ‘I got more too!’ he said, slotting the club back into the leather thong from which it hung. ‘See this? I won it in a game of dice,’ he said, holding up a nasty yellow flint knife.
            ‘Very good,’ Daith said, far from impressed. He fixed his steely eyes on Brint and stared hard at him for a few moments until the young man dropped his gaze. ‘Hopefully you’ll be able to get that club from about your waist a little bit quicker if we have trouble.’
            The young fellow swallowed, but said nothing.
            ‘Hobb,’ Daith snapped, holding out a hand, ‘some.’
            The Dwarf grunted and reluctantly took a small wooden flask from the hip of his belt and passed it to Daith. ‘You dare drink all tha’ an’ I’ll ‘ave yer guts fer-…’
            He fell silent when Daith shot him a fiery look. The black-haired rogue uncorked the brassy stopper that had been hammered into the round wooden flask and took a quick swig. Strong, sweet honey-scented mead touched his tongue for a few moments, and suddenly everything seemed alright again. Reluctantly, he took the flask away from his lips and refastened the stopper. ‘You’ve excellent taste, as ever,’ Daith said and handed the flask back to the black-haired Dwarf.
            ‘Of course I do!’ the Dwarf muttered, fastening the receptacle back to his belt. ‘An’ I’d kick ye in t’ parts if ye said otherwise.’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed as he eyed the black-bearded Dwarf up and down. ‘Do I need to ask you if you’ve got that silly little sword of yours?’
            The stocky Dwarf’s eyes narrowed. ‘Nae,’ he said, ‘an’ I’ll ‘ave ye know it’s called a seax, an’ it’s a fine Westernean weapon. Not the crap ye Altmerians forge – flimsy junk which breaks when ye pick it up.’
            Daith was unable to stop a small, sly smile tweaking his lips. He liked Hobb. The Dwarf had spirit, and was a useful fellow to have when in a tight spot. ‘That’s enough fun,’ Daith snapped quickly, letting the smile vanish from his cold face. ‘We’ve things to be doing. Keep up, you two louts.’


Deadtown was a carcass. Fifty years ago during the siege of the city of Baradun – the capital of the former kingdom of Altmeria – the outer districts of the city had been utterly annihilated by Emperor Lyshir III. Fire and stone had crushed the walls and decimated the outer-districts. Tall, red townhouses with slate roofs had been burned to little more than their black frames – charred skeletons that had stood still and abandoned for almost half a century. Prosperous merchants and traders’ stores had been crushed by the huge boulders hurled from imperial catapults and trebuchets, and their ruins had succumbed to the fire of the siege. In the years since, what had once been a flourishing and prosperous district turned into a slum, attracting the poor and miserable, the drunk and the homeless, who now squatted amongst the skeletal husks of the long-destroyed buildings. Thus, it had earned its name: Deadtown.
            Gangs had moved in shortly after. Those who had nothing had even less once the thugs who crawled over Deadtown had demanded money for ‘protection’. At first, Daith had feared what may happen should he be caught shaking down an old lady for her spare coins, but the imperial patrols were scarce in the district. The governor of Baradun, a white-haired, near-deaf old man called Georgius, cared not for the ruined district, neither had the three administrators before him. Money was poured into making what was already good in Baradun even better. The great cathedral to the Divine Empress stood tall and proud in the centre of the city, built in recent years with Altmeria’s money, whilst the immediate richer districts of the city continued to thrive. Crime hardly touched the inner districts, but Deadtown was a hive for lawbreakers.
            ‘What is it now, Brint?’ Daith snapped at his young comrade.
            ‘What if we run into the Hands?’
            Daith rolled his eyes. ‘Then you’d best whip out that club of yours and get whacking, because if you don’t, you can be sure I’ll whack you – with my sword,’ he snarled. ‘Now, shut up. We’ve got money to make.’
            The Crimson Hand controlled a large part of eastern Deadtown. In recent years, they had been taken over by the savage Bloody Lizbet, a cruel woman with a history drenched in the blood of butchery and mutilation. The old leader of the Hands had been so terrified of her he had handed over control of the gang to her without so much as a splutter of resistance – though she had killed him anyway.
The Hands were an old gang, and one of the most powerful, claiming to have been established during the siege of the city to fight as insurgents against the Vidorians should they ever breach the walls. Fat lot of good they did, Daith thought bitterly as he stalked through the shattered frame of a burnt-out townhouse – the great trebuchet-flung boulder that had shattered the roof was still visible, lodged in the far wall. Daith and his brother Lewis had not even been born when Baradun fell to the Vidorians, but his father had fought in the defence. Around two decades later he and Lewis had been born – Lewis four years before Daith. His father had been stabbed to death by a Crimson Hand thug just four weeks after.
            ‘We’ll get ‘em for it,’ Lewis would always say when they were small. ‘We’ll get the Hands for what they did to Pa.’
            As soon as they were old enough, Lewis had brawled his way into the Deadtown Kings, who were no more than a bunch puny, dirty scavengers at the time. Once he had earned the respect of the vagabonds and thieves who made up its thin and meagre ranks, Lewis had taken charge. Now, near-on a decade later, the Deadtown Kings were one of the more successful gangs in Deadtown. They were not the largest, nor were they the richest, but they had a few hundred thugs and a couple of coffers of coin to their name.
They had made most of their money from shaking down the peasants in their small territory, and from stealing from the rich folk within the inner districts of Baradun – they were one of a very small number of gangs brave enough to chance the Vidorian Legionnaire-filled streets. Over the last twelve months, however, Hardhand Lewis’ view of the Deadtown kings had changed. He had begun buying places: a rancid old tavern called the Bloodhound and his large wooden tower-like structure which Daith hated. He wants the Hands to suffer, Daith thought as he kicked a stray dog aside. And now he thinks he’s in a position to do it.
            ‘This is it,’ Hobb said as they passed through the shattered ruins of an old warehouse. ‘We’re now in th’ Hands’ territory. Should we really be wearin’ these black rags ‘bout our elbows?’
            ‘Yes,’ Daith said coldly. ‘Lewis wants the Hands to know we’re not afraid of them.’
            ‘We not?’ Brint said quietly.
            Daith glared at him. ‘No,’ he said through his teeth. ‘We’re not.’
            Brint swallowed. He had taken off his patchy leather cap and tucked it into his belt, revealing his messy, greasy brown hair. ‘Okay, boss,’ he said meekly.
            Daith spat onto the floor and turned away from the Man and the Dwarf with him. He led them through the shattered buildings, barely lit by the moon and littered with debris. The only light came from the makeshift campfires the homeless had set up throughout the shattered district around which they clustered, pulling ragged and tattered cloaks about their shoulders, under which they wore threadbare tunics and shirts. A few of them lifted their eyes and looked at Daith warily. He was, after all, dressed much better than they were in his smarter yet simple leather tunic and boots. The presence of so many weapons on his figure filled them with fear, and those sitting in his path scuttled away into the shadows when they saw him coming. Those left shrank away at the size of the large sword on his back.
            Between the broken carcass of another old warehouse and a run-down grocers with its roof fallen in, Daith stopped. The whole place was deserted. The short, shadow-shrouded, once-cobbled street that lay between the two buildings was completely quiet, and only partly-lit by a far-off, low-burning fire. There were not even any beggars around to steal money from tonight, and most of the homeless folk preferred Hands territory because they extorted less out of them. Where are they all? he thought. Usually, the Hands watched their territory like hawks. Men with crude red fists painted on the fronts and backs of their shirts and tunics would stamp up and down the streets, kicking the beggars and grabbing any stray animals that they could find for food. They would skulk in back-alleys, linger in the rafters of broken buildings and-…
            The rafters.
            Brint let out a cry and Daith leapt aside, rolling away. Something crashed down into the spot where he had just been standing, and he heard the whip of steel through the air. Daith yanked his bastard-sword from his back and raised it as quick as he could to block a blow that did not come. Instead, standing in the middle of the filthy street before him, half-illuminated by a far-off campfire and wreathed in the shadows of the night, squatted a man. His face was hidden by a hooded cloak, though the painted red fist of the Crimson Hand was clearly visible on the side of his hood.
            Hobb was the first to react. With a cry, the dwarf leapt forwards and pulled his vicious seax from his belt. With precision and strength, he whipped the short, sharp blade around and across the thigh of the attacker before leaping onto his back and stabbing him again and again. As he did, two more figures melded out of the night’s shadows, heads hidden by dark hoods and nasty iron blades in their hands. Daith could clearly see the red fist of the Crimson Hand painted on their hoods. None of them appeared to be women, though, meaning Bloody Lizbet was not amongst them. Daith had heard the stories of how she enjoyed going out at night with a gang of vicious female killers to hunt and kill the men of rival gangs, slidin g from the shadows and leaving only blood and bodies in her wake. We stand more than a fighting chance if she is not here!
            Without another thought, Daith leapt forwards. He shoved the trembling Brint aside, who was struggling to pull his wooden club from his hip with his wobbly fingers. Lowering his blade for an upwards stab, Daith charged the nearest of the two hooded figures and drove the blade into his stomach. His foe let out a gurgling cry and slumped away, dropping his sword and clutching at his pierced guts. Blood cascaded over his fingers and Daith danced away, putting a few paces between himself and the last unengaged Hand, before spinning to face the man.
            Hobb was locked in a grapple with his severely bleeding foe, whilst Brint cowered in the shadows, his eyes wide and scared. Useless cretin, Daith thought. The final Crimson Hand man was on his feet was the largest. He was balanced in build – broad of shoulder and chest, yet not to the extent it hampered his movements. His cloak and hood flew back as he lunged at Daith with a savage, sharp dagger, revealing for a moment a weathered and bearded face scraped with a rough, gravelly stubble for an moment. He was perhaps of an age with Daith, but he was at least three inches taller – and much stronger.
            Daith tried to block the lunge with his sword, but the force of the stab sent a jarring vibration bouncing up his arm. He grunted and stumbled backwards, losing his balance as he slipped on some mud concealed by shadows. As he fought to find his footing, he twisted his ankle and, before he could react, his assailant was upon his again. His foe was in too close; Daith could not find the room to use his sword. Quickly, he dropped the weapon and grabbed his foe’s wrist with his weaker hand, but he could not hold off his foe’s strike. The two men struggled, the dagger getting closer and closer to Daith’s side with every moment. With his spare, empty fist, Daith tried to grab one of the daggers from his waist, but his foe’s free hand grabbed his wrist and twisted it. Daith cried out, and in that moment, he felt the dagger pierce his side.
            Pain flared through Daith’s body as the short, sharp dagger slipped through his leather tunic and broke his skin. He felt it cut, but he could not say how deep. Adrenaline flooded his senses, and the whole world seemed to go numb. With one last, final effort Daith tried to throw his attacker off him, but he felt his wrist twist and strain. He was helpless. Lewis, you prick, he thought bitterly. You’d best hope I don’t come back as a revenant or some other form of folk nonsense and haunt your fat backside for coming up with this stupid idea.
There was a sudden crack and his foe staggered forwards. The big man with his grizzly-looking stubble let out a grunt and bit his tongue, spitting blood as he stumbled into Daith. The dagger in Daith’s side twisted agonisingly before sliding out, and Daith thought he would faint. In an attempt to defend himself, the tall man let go of Daith’s wrist and put his hand on his head, but as he did there was another loud crack. His dagger slipped from his sturdy hand and he toppled towards Daith, the strength going from his legs. The pale-skinned Drakensang brother writhed away, clutching his side as he did so. When he glanced at his hand, his fingers came away slick with blood.
Brint stood over the large, fallen man. His eyes were wide with fear, but in his trembling hand he held his battered old club. For a moment, he looked as if he was going to faint. ‘I hurt him,’ he said quietly. ‘I hurt him. Is he okay?’
Hobb appeared at Brint’s side, wiping the blood off his seax on a fragment of cloth. ‘I should hazard not,’ the Dwarf said with a shrug of his big, round shoulders. ‘Ye did give ‘im a good clonk on ‘is noggin after all.’
Brint’s eyes were wide as he looked at the man mumbling and rolling on the floor. ‘What do we do with him now?’ he said quietly, his mouth hanging open.
Daith snarled, clutching his side, ‘I’m going to hurt him,’ he hissed. The dagger wound flared with agony, seriously so, but with each stab of pain Daith found himself getting angrier and angrier. ‘I’ll show him,’ he hissed. ‘I’ll show him for wounding me!’
With an angry snarl, Daith grabbed his sword from where it had fallen in the dirt and spun to face the Crimson Hand’s man, writhing on the floor and clutching his head. He lay prone, rolling and wriggling sluggishly, like a worm left to slowly dry in the sun. In silence, Daith raised his sword above his head, his pale face a picture of total fury. With both hands around the hilt of his own large sword he hacked it down indiscriminately, again and again, each blow landing hard upon the writhing Hand thug. His first blow cut deep across his fallen foe’s back. The second hit his thigh. The third sheared his hand clean off. The fourth struck so deep into the Hand thug’s skull that it lodged there for a few moments, and when Daith hauled it free a great torrent of shadow-darkened blood spilled forth from his head.
Daith looked at the butchered carcass of the Hand thug and smiled – the crude red fist painted on his hood was stained darker red with blood. For a few moments, Daith stood still, satisfied with his cruel work. Then, suddenly, a terrible jab of pain wracked his body and he staggered backwards. ‘All the gods, damn this,’ he growled.
‘Why did you do that?’ Brint’s slow, simple voice slithered through the night. ‘Why did you kill him?’
Daith whirled as fast as he could to face Brint. Still, his eyes were wide and vacant, and his mouth hung open. ‘Because he was my enemy,’ Daith hissed, ‘and because he stabbed me.’
‘But what if we get in trouble?’ Brint said quietly.
‘Trouble?’ Daith sneered. ‘You’re worried about trouble? Brint, you lackwit, we are the trouble, and we-..’
‘Daith,’ Hobb’s voice sounded strange in Daith’s ears – slow, deep, and somehow far away; ‘you are in trouble.’
‘Don’t be st-… be stupid…’ Daith said, but he was struggling to hold himself up. His head was light and the world seemed clouded – as if he was looking at everything through a dark, blurred mist. Quite suddenly, a terrible agony wracked his whole body and he gasped, breathless with pain. Stumbling, he opened his mouth to speak: ‘I’m fine,’ he managed to slur. I can’t show these two idiots that I’m hurt, he thought, but he found thinking hard against the waves of pain shaking his body with every quickening heartbeat. ‘I’m-…’ he began, but he could not find the words to finish. ‘I’m-…’ he tried again.
Daith’s sword slipped from his fingers and he clamped his hand over his side-wound, though the pain shaking the rest of his figure was just as terrible as that which originated there. He heard the blade dully clatter across the filthy, once-cobbled street. Face-first, he crashed into the dirt, though his world had already gone to darkness before he hit the ground.


Every part of him was being stabbed. Thousands of needle-like knives pierced his flesh, opening his veins, and spilling his blood. He could see it before him, his own body welling with gore and dripping in thick, red ichor. Tiny trickles of it came from all the hundreds of wounds that broke his flesh, flowing over his naked figure, and, like streams to a river, joined together into a great raging torrent of crimson, in which he found himself drowning. You fool, Lewis, he thought. You complete fool. This is your fault. This is all your fault.
            He had heard the stories of how some people, if angry enough when they died, were able to reconnect with their bodies after death. Their vengeful spirits would tear free from the Netherverse and claw their ways back to their corpses, and force them to rise again. He tried to make himself that angry. He pictured his fat older brother stark-naked, surrounded by hundreds of plates of exotic food, endless decanters of sweet and multi-coloured wine, and the most beautiful women he could think of. You fat scumbag, he thought. You get all the pleasure whilst I get stabbed by a common thug. I’ll have you for this. I’ll have you all for this.
            Daith choked his way back to consciousness. Something that tasted like death itself was upon his tongue, and for a few moments he thought he was going to vomit. His side burned with renewed pain and as he tried to scream, whatever it was that was in his throat lodged itself there. He descended into a fit of terrible coughs, each of which put more strain on his side. He opened his eyes as he choked, but saw only blurs – a tall, thin figure and a great, bushy, black beard. Then, there was another: lithe, well-built, smiling in satisfaction. Daith blacked out again.
            I can’t blame Lewis for choking to death on my own throat. He recalled the image of Hardhand Lewis’ great, fat gut covered in wine, food, and women, but it did not make him so angry now. You fool, he found a voice chastising himself. You did this. You failed. You’re the one who couldn’t outfight some thug in a cloak. You weren’t good enough.
            ‘He’s waking up! Boss? You’re here?’
            You’re the one who’s done this. You’re no better than that fool companion of yours – Brint. That common little boy with a name everyone else has. There are a hundred thousands Brints, Bhriynts, Brynts and Brehnts. You just ended up lumped with the stupidest – but you’re stupider. Even Brint doesn’t choke to death on his own throat.
            ‘He’s tryin’ ta open ‘is eyes. ‘Ow ‘is ‘is wound lookin’?’
            And that Dwarf. You wanted to be a king and look who you rule – a dirty little maggot with a face as scarred as the Vidorian’s border with Feldurn Forest. Those Elves cut them up pretty bad there, but not as badly as you’ve been cut up by some simpleton with a cheap knife.
            ‘Step away,’ a new voice said. The gnawing doubt that plagued Daith seemed to vanish, like mist before a gale. ‘His stitches are good, but if you agitate him, he may start coughing again.’ The voice was strong and rich, pleasant on the ear, yet stern and authoritative. Who is this?
            Daith forced his eyes open. This time, there was nothing in his mouth. Carefully, he swallowed and blinked away the blur upon his vision. He was in a room of some kind – small, dingy, lit by a few candles and a small window. Light was pouring in from outside, and he could see blue skies beyond the shattered ruins of Deadtown.
He found himself lying on a low, narrow table, stripped to his waist. His side hurt, but not as much as it had done. He touched his wound with his fingers and found his middle wrapped tightly with a thick and heavy bandage. As his vision cleared, Daith suddenly became aware of three figures standing at the end of the table on which he was resting, all eyeing him. The first, small and broad, with a heavy brow and charcoal black beard. The other was tall, thin, slack-jawed, wide eyed and ragged-haired. That stupid hat is back on his idiot head.
            There was a figure Daith did not recognise. He wore a dark hood over his head, though Daith could make out his pointed, hairless chin through his gradually accustoming eyes. He was also well-built: he had the shoulders of an archer and strong legs, as well as a well-toned torso, which was tightly hugged by a dark green leather tunic.
Once his vision had fully returned, Daith struggled into a sitting position. ‘Who are you?’ he managed to croak. His throat burned with thirst, and every syllable made his gullet feel as if it were about to tear. ‘What have you done to me?’
            ‘Boss, he’s-…’
            ‘Shut up, Brint,’ Daith croaked and tried to drag himself up further. His side stung awfully, but he refused to let it stop him. ‘I asked him, not you,’ he wheezed, jerking his head at the hooded figure.
            The anonymous person regarded Daith in silence for a moment. Then, lifting his hands to his hood, he revealed his face. Long, platinum-blonde hair cascaded down over his shoulders, forming a glittering frame for his chiselled and handsome face. His brilliant, emerald-green eyes glittered like gemstones against his pale face. From his golden hair protruded two long, pointed ears that reached to the crown of his head in length and height. He smiled at Daith, and the young Man found himself charmed.
            ‘My name is Aruvel,’ he said in the same liquid-silk voice. ‘You are Daith Drakensang, and you’ve been unconscious for near-on half a day. I saved your life.’
            ‘You’re an Elf,’ Daith whispered in shock. How did he get into Baradun – let alone across the Altmeria-Bel-Segorian border!
            The Elf, Aruvel, chuckled. ‘Well, I’m glad to see the poison that was hammering through your veins hasn’t made you go blind.’
Daith ignored the witticism. ‘How are you here?’ he said, narrowing his eyes. ‘I thought the Imperials had you at your border.’
‘Not as thoroughly as they would like to think,’ the Elf said. ‘I have my ways, and the imperials have their weaknesses. You’re an Altmerian, I’m sure you know as well as I do that they’re far from perfect.’ Aruvel smiled wickedly, flashing perfect white teeth. Daith found himself ashamed to admit it, but he was excited by the Elf. Everyone in Deadtown was so slow and miserable. Human, Dwarf or Gnome, they were dirty, smelly, and witless. This Elf, though, this mysterious blonde-haired creature with his pointed ears and sharp features, was interesting. And attractive, Daith thought, swallowing uneasily.
‘Why are you here?’ Daith asked quietly. As exciting and interesting as the Elf was, he did not trust him in the slightest. A fellow like this isn’t in Deadtown because he wants to be. He’s here because he’s after something.
The Elf paused for a moment. ‘Brint – it was Brint, wasn’t it? Ah, good – be a lad and fetch your boss the wineskin in the next room. Hobb, you might want to find him that nice doublet,’ Aruvel said calmly, smiling at each in turn. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Man and the Dwarf left the room without so much as a grunt of noncompliance. Daith watched, stunned into silence, as they walked past him and out of a low, shattered door that he had not previously seen, positioned behind the table on which he lay.
            He whipped his head around to glare at the Elf. ‘No-one orders my boys around,’ he said in a threatening hiss.
            ‘I wouldn’t argue with me,’ Aruvel said in the same calm, polite voice. ‘You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me – and I’d also be nicer to Brint. He may not be the sharpest quill in the pot, but he is the one who carried you here.’
            ‘Brint?’ Daith said in disbelief, his face creasing into an angry glare of disbelief. ‘That bony weevil? He can barely lift that useless club that he carries around.’
            ‘Yet, I believe he saved your life with it. That’s two of us you owe.’ Aruvel lowered himself onto a stool at the bottom of the table and folded his hands under his chin. ‘You’re Daith Drakensang, brother of Lewis Drakensang – or Hardhand Lewis, as he likes to be called – am I right?’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed. ‘What do you want?’
            ‘A favour,’ the Elf said with a smile.
            ‘For what?’ Daith grunted.
            ‘In return for not letting you die a long, horrible, agonizing death,’ he said with a smile. ‘Say, if you agree to help me, I may have some information for you on where the thug that stabbed you got his poison.’
            Daith glared at Aruvel. ‘And just what am I going to do with that?’ he growled. ‘Write it down somewhere, all pretty and in nice letters?’
            Aruvel let out a small huff of polite laughter. ‘You’ve been doing this criminal cartel thing for nearly a decade, yet you don’t see the value in that piece of information?’
            ‘Lewis deals with information. It makes him fat,’ Daith snarled angrily, his hands tightening about the edges of the table on which he sat.
            Aruvel’s teasing lips quirked into a small smile. ‘Are you going to live in your big brother’s shadow forever, Daith?’ he said. ‘With this little titbit of information, not only could you get some revenge against the Crimson Hand, but you may be able to track down one of their suppliers – maybe even a supply store of some kind. Think of the damage you could do!’ the Elf paused, ‘Think of how rich it might make you,’ he finished, tauntingly.
            Daith’s face twitched. ‘What do you want?’ he snapped.
            ‘Your help,’ Aruvel said with a thin smile. ‘As it stands, I need the freedom to be able to come and go from Baradun as often as I want over the next few months or so,’ he began. ‘There is a slight possibility that, in time, this might become a little more…’ the Elf trailed off and stroked his hairless cheek for a moment, searching for a word, ‘…problematic.’
            ‘Speak plainly,’ Daith said and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I’m in no mood for riddles and songs.’
            Aruvel rolled his emerald green eyes. ‘The Vidorians are at war with my people,’ he said quietly. ‘They are my enemy. A lot of them are here: their generals, commanders, administrators, religious leaders. I’d like to remind them that these men and women who sit in their ivory towers, growing fat on their gold, that they are not untouchable.’
            Daith raised an eyebrow. ‘You want me to smuggle you into and out of Baradun when the Empire seals the city after you’ve murdered various high-ranking Vidorians?.’
            Aruvel chuckled. ‘Yes.’
            ‘And in return for me sticking my neck out for you, you want to, what, give me information?’ Daith laughed. ‘My brother may be the one of us who deals with the coins and the numbers, but even I can see this is folly.’
            Aruvel’s blonde eyebrows raised and he smiled. ‘Is that so?’ he said. He rose from the stool which he had been perched on and took a step towards Daith. ‘These ears hear a lot,’ he said, taping the log, pointed ears that protruded from his hair. ‘I know many things about the Crimson Hand, the Alley Rats, the Gutter Kickers, the Deadtown Dogs, and others. Of course, these things would be beneficial for you to know. I could probably even tell you where the Hands’ leader – that foul woman Lizbet – is right now.’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed. ‘Information is fickle,’ he said, ‘and how would I know you aren’t lying?’
            ‘Would I save your life just to lie to you?’ the Elf said with a shrug. ‘Look, how about this: I tell you were the man who supplied this poison is for nothing. Then, when my words are proved true and you are on the road to profit, come and find me. We can negotiate then.’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed again. He pushed himself off the narrow table on which he sat and gingerly placed his weight onto his feet. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘I don’t trust you, to be honest,’ he said with a shrug. ‘If this is a trap and I wind up dead, I’ll-…’
            The narrow door to the room creaked open and Hobb and Brint appeared. Daith turned, barely acknowledging Brint before snatching the wineskin from his hand and drinking long and deep from the vessel. The wine was cheap and acidic, but it lubricated his throat well enough to take some of the stinging thirst away. Once he was done – and the skin was near half-empty – he tossed the skin back to Brint without a word, who stumbled to catch it.
            Hobb cleared his throat, stepping out from behind Brint. ‘Is this the catch?’ he said, holding up a fine black and grey leather doublet. Daith’s weapon-belt, bastard-sword and daggers were all slung over the Dwarf’s big shoulders. ‘Look as if it’d fit Daith, ‘ere.’
            Aruvel nodded. ‘Indeed it is,’ he said. ‘We can’t have our friend here running around in that slashed-up, bloody old garment he was wearing.’
            Hobb stepped forwards and passed the smart doublet to Daith. Once he was fastened up inside the garment, re-equipped his plethora of weapons, Daith turned to face Aruvel. ‘So, this information,’ he said, pushing his dark hair out of his face, ‘what is it?’
            Aruvel smiled. ‘The poison that almost killed you is rare. It’s called kingsbane, and is very tricky to create. There is only one place in Baradun you could get it: Pestell’s Apothecary,’ he said.
            Daith snorted and shook his head. ‘Pestell’s? What a load of rubbish. Do you really expect me to-…’
 ‘The thug that poisoned you had this in his pocket, if you don’t believe me,’ the Elf said, cutting Daith off and slipping from his own pocket a small and empty vial, no larger than a thumb. Clearly stamped on the front of it was the letters ‘P’ and ‘A’.
            Daith’s eyes widened. ‘You’re lying,’ he snapped. ‘You think I’m so much of a fool to believe you? Pestell’s is an up-market place, right in the city centre! The Hands can’t possibly have connections there, they’re a bunch of dirty good-for-nothings! Besides, if I walk in there, I’ll get battered by the Vidorians!’
            Aruvel shrugged. ‘That’s the information. Do with it what you will.’ He threw the vial to Daith, who caught it in his hand and tucked it into is belt, begrudgingly. He looked up at the Elf one last time to see he had a small robin sitting on his shoulder. The tiny bird looked at Daith and tilted its head to one side, curiously. Stupid Elven magic, he thought.
            Daith’s glare shifted from the robin to the gently smiling Elf for a few moments before he rounded on his heel and marched out. His side ached terribly as he went, but he was too cross to let it show. He’s played me, he thought, That pointed-eared jerk wants me to go marching up to Pestell’s so I’ll get done by the Vidorian guards. He’s working with the Hands, he must be. They want me dead because they know I’m the real threat. Lewis is just a fat lout behind an old stolen desk, rubbing his coins together and drinking cheap wine.
            Daith stormed down a dark, narrow corridor and kicked open the door at the end. Brilliant sunlight flooded the room and the youngest Drakensang brother stepped out into the street. He had been in the lowest, mostly undamaged floor of a once two-story townhouse that had long-since fallen into disrepair. Its furnishing had been pillaged, and its top floor and roof had caved in. Quite desirable, he thought to himself. How else would the Elf have got hold of such a sheltered place if he were not working with the Hands?
            Daith stalked down the filthy street. The cobbles were drowning in mud and filth, and the walkway was crammed with the homeless and the poor, swathed in ragged cloaks and hats almost as stupid-looking as Brint’s. In the light of the day, Deadtown did not cease to be miserable. If anything, the cold light of the bright, early autumn day simply elaborated the horror of the place. The extent of the destruction could be seen clearly: great charred husks of homes, burnt-out stores, and wrecks of warehouses slumped on one another, like ancient, burned bones washed from a cemetery after a rainstorm.
            Daith whirled to face Brint. ‘Will you shut up?’
            Brint’s mouth snapped shut and he looked at the floor. ‘Sorry, boss,’ he whispered. Beside him, Hobb rolled his eyes, though Daith could not tell who the gesture was intended for. ‘I just wondered what it is we’re doing.’
            Daith gritted his teeth. Stupid fool, ‘Is it not obvious?’ he said. ‘We’re trying to find our bearings. I’ve no idea where we are!’
            ‘Eh,’ Hobb cleared his throat, ‘I coulda told ye; we’re just south-west o’ yer brother’s great wooden shanty-tower.’
            Daith blinked. ‘What?’ he snarled.
            The stocky Dwarf shrugged. ‘Did ye think we’d carried ye deeper into Hand territory? Nae, Aruvel found us after ‘earin’ Brint cry out fer ‘elp, an’ he led us ‘ere. Yer safe.’
            ‘What is this?’ Daith said, looking around at the desolation about him, ignoring the fact he owed the two men words of apology and thanks, ‘Baradunian Blighter territory?’
            Hobb nodded. Brint remained silent, his eyes still on the floor.
            ‘Right,’ Daith snapped, glaring at the two men. ‘I’m not taking you two louts with me to Pestell’s Apothecary. You both look like beggars someone’s pushed half-decent boots onto. Go back to my accursed brother and tell him that doing what he told us to almost got the three of us killed. I’ll go to Pestell’s by myself.’
            Hobb’s big, dark brow furrowed in a heavy frown. ‘Are ye sure tha’s a good idea? Ye ain’t lookin’ too chipper yerself, lad,’ he said, folding his brawny arms.
            The dark-haired Man glared at the Dwarf. ‘I’m fine,’ he hissed. ‘Do as I say. Last time I checked I was in charge.’
            Hobb held up his hand in surrender. ‘Very well,’ he said in a resigned, slow voice. ‘Jus’ make sure you’re careful.’
            ‘I’m not a little boy, Hobb,’ Daith snarled, turning on his heel and continuing on the filthy road they had been walking down. ‘I don’t need you to hold my hand. Go and see my brother before I kick you there myself.’
He left the tall, thin Man and the short, brawny Dwarf shaking their heads at him. I don’t need them, Daith thought, coldly. It was probably Brint’s incessant whining that drew the damned Hands out from their lofts in the first place.
            Daith stalked off, trying to ignore the pain in his side. In truth, he simply wanted to be alone. Though he fought it, he had been glad to see Brint and Hobb when he had awoken. He was ashamed and embarrassed by his defeat – something they had both witnessed – and could only think of sending them away as a cure for the shame he felt. He was ashamed that he, one of the two leaders of the Deadtown Kings, had almost been bested by some Hand thug. Some common hoodlum with a dagger – a poison dagger! Not only some lackey, but some coward lackey to boot.
As he thought on what had happened, he felt sick: a nauseating weight sat in his stomach – a great lump of disgrace and regret. It shall not happen again, he told himself as he kicked his way through a ring of beggars sitting about a meagre campfire. One who protested received a swift boot to the face that broke his jaw. It cannot happen again. I am Daith Drakensang; I am the Deadtown Kings.
            Aruvel was the worst part. The Elf, so flawless and perfect, with his shining, smooth skin and charming smile. His green-grey leathers which grime did not seem to touch, and his liquid-smooth voice. Humiliation and envy burned in Daith’s heart. So superior and pretty, he thought and spat into the dirt. So effortlessly graceful, yet so sickeningly sweet. The simple fact that it had been an Elf that had saved his life grated on him. Wood-jumping, twitchy folk, Daith thought to himself as he marched northwards, taking a right at an old, charred signpost that marked the edge of the Baradunian Brawler’s territory. What magic has he woven into me? Like Hobb or Brint’d know, those two idiots. They should’ve just cut his head off and let me die.
            The Baradunian Brawlers controlled a slither of territory between the Deadtown’s King’s stretch in the southeast and the Deadtown Dogs’ southerly streets. For a long time the gang – who only accepted thugs who had previously been incarcerated for affray and assault – had been struggling, as vicious street-skirmishes broke out between the Deadtown Kings on their eastern side and the Deadtown Dogs on the other. Now, they were more or less an empty name, a ghost of a gang that haunted the soot-blackened rafters and shattered house-walls that had been their meagre territories. Turned out that just being able to punch someone hard wasn’t much good against knives and swords, Daith thought with a small grin.
            As he took another road, heading north once again, Daith noticed the architecture quite suddenly change. The siege-shattered houses ceased to exist and small, modest homes appeared instead. The folk became better dressed, and the streets cleaner.  The people, however, were not happy, that much was obvious. Every time an Imperial soldier in his set of black-steel armour marched past, he was glared at by the resentful Altmerians – though most were Men, there were a handful of Dwarfs in the disgruntled number. Daith knew well that, for the citizens of Baradun in particular, they were seen as an occupying force. They had arrived, served their own, and kicked everybody else to the curb. The social stratifications were widening: those of middling income were vanishing, either slipping into the upper-echelons of society or, much more commonly, plunging down the ladder and into the ever-growing populace of Deadtown. This is good, Daith thought with a smile as he walked past a merchant’s stall selling only wizened, wrinkled apples. The more people in Deadtown, the more people for the Kings to rule.
            Daith found his dark mood beginning to disappear. With a smile upon his thin lips, Daith looked at the poverty slowly creeping its way into the rest of Baradun, and felt a small smile touch his cheeks. The future is bright, he thought. Not for these louts, but I can almost hear the coins clinking.


After another hour or so of walking, the low, humble houses that had lined either side of Baradun’s middling streets changed once again. Those cottages with humble, yellow thatch slowly began to transform into huge, looming townhouses with imposing, timber-framed faces. Some were so tall that they leaned forwards, as if glaring down upon the denizens of Baradun below. Soon enough, the great monuments to imperial capitalism had choked out the smaller houses. Everything on either side of the glittering street he found himself on was worth more money than he had ever seen.
            The merchants, once humble fellows peddling apples and pears, were now selling fine, shimmering silks and great rugs imported from other parts of the world. ‘Western carpets!’ one fat merchant dressed in white fur and crimson satin cried, ‘Western carpets, all the way from Westernea and the Free Kingdoms! Rare, exotic craftsmanship, stolen from right under the traitor King Gared’s nose! Here today for your purchase!’
            Daith suddenly felt very exposed. The smart doublet he had been gifted by Aruvel made him look like a nobleman when in the poorer parts of the city. But now as he made his way towards the city centre, it made him look terribly out of place. Then, when he rounded once final corner, he found himself in the city centre. Before him, the huge, recently constructed Cathedral of the Divine Empress stood tall and proud, the epicentre of the city. Before it was a wide, well-cobbled square in which there was a large, burbling fountain. The richest, most upmarket shops and taverns surrounded the square, their fronts painted with oranges, reds, blues and greens, and their signs glittering with painted gold. However, none of these caught Daith’s eyes.
The Great Keep was a massive building. How Lyshir III ever got inside it when he sacked the city near-on half a century ago is beyond me, Daith thought as he eyed the massive structure, sitting atop its tall hill in the northern reaches of the city. It loomed, glittering and oppressive, far beyond the high slate and timber roofs that made up the houses, shops, and taverns that made up the wealthiest, most privileged parts of Baradun. The Great Keep itself was a huge, square building with its own wall around it and a jagged rampart. Even at this distance, Daith could see imperial soldiers crawling over it like flies upon a corpse – small, black, swarming. He spat onto the stone.
He knew where Pestell’s Apothecary was – everyone did. Mister Stevinicus Pestell was the finest supplier of medicines, herbs, balms, potions and salves in Altmeria. Now nearing his eightieth year of life, he had begun as a back-alley substance dealer some sixty years ago, selling hallucinogenic mixtures to down-and-outs. Eventually, he had set up a run-down little shack on the edge of the city. Though his shop had been obliterated in the Vidorian invasion half a century ago, his business had skyrocketed. When word had spread through the Empire’s ranks that there was a man in the city working wonders upon the wounded and dying with mixtures of herbs, swigs of potions, and soothing balms, they had endeavoured to track him down. Once they had found him, the Empire had quickly put him to use for the talents of the then thirty-year-old alchemist, and Mister Pestell had been able to open up a fine, green-fronted shop in the centre of the city.
Daith looked upon the flaking green paint and the old, golden lettering upon the front of the alchemist’s shop and clenched his jaw. The big panes of leaded glass gave little away as to what was going on inside the building, for it was so dark and dusty beyond the motley arrangement of old vials and painted decanters in the window display that he could see nothing. He had never met Mister Pestell, but he knew well the man’s reputation for jibes and wit. Daith was hardly in the mood for jokes, and his side was aching as if someone had just kicked his wound. Maybe I can steal some salve or balm or something when the blind old fool isn’t looking.
            Taking a breath, Daith walked to the heavy door and pushed it open. As he did, there was a tinkling sound above him as a tiny, battered brass bell jingled. Daith stood as tall and menacingly as he could and stalked into the gloom towards the counter, keeping a hand on one of the daggers at his belt as he did so.
            ‘What, by the Divine Empress, are you doing here?’ said a voice that was too authoritative and powerful to be Mister Pestell’s.
            Daith froze. As his eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom, he saw three tall figures in white standing by the counter. Between where he and the white-robed men stood were several shelves full of general potions and tonics, a few bottles of earthy-coloured balms, and many expensive glass instruments that glittered in the faint light that broke into the shop. Two of the figures wore hoods over their heads and robes open at the front, revealing their heavy leather britches and hardy boots. They had swords and their waists and great golden phoenixes emblazoned on the chests of their pristine clothing.
The centremost figure, had his hood down whilst his companions kept their faces hidden. He was the tallest by a few inches, and had iron-grey hair, neatly kept, and an equally tidy moustache and beard. He wore heavy black boots under his white and gold robes, upon which a red-tinted phoenix was sewn. About his neck hung a huge gold necklace, made up of many gleaming disks, all wrought with words and symbols Daith could not read nor understand. Even in the gloom he shone with pride, power and authority.
            ‘Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford,’ Daith said, his lip curling as he spoke. He found his hand tightening around his dagger. ‘What a surprise, seeing you here. After a balm for your aching joints? It must get tiring chasing after shadows.’
            The lord-inquisitor’s eyes narrowed. ‘As for you, I heard you came a cropper in a fight recently,’ the man said in his cold, commanding voice. ‘Here for a tonic of herbs for the pain? Or is it to try and take away the guilt and shame that you, Daith Drakensang, were bested by none other than a common thug? That hovel of a tavern your brother bought would probably provide a better remedy for that sort of pain.’
            Daith glared at Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford. ‘You don’t know anything happened,’ he said coldly. ‘You Vidorians don’t care about us in Deadtown.’
            Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford, tall, strong, and commanding, joined his hands behind his back and seemed to get lost in thought for a moment. ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘I don’t care much for Deadtown. Why would I when it’s crawling with villainous scum like you? The Vidorian Legion keeps the roads into and out of the city safe, so if we have to sacrifice a few districts to keep the squabbling, dirty thugs like you out of our hair, so be it. You’ll all slaughter each other into nothingness soon enough anyway, and when the last one of you hoodlums hits the ground, you can be damn sure that the Vidorian Empire will be there to pick up the pieces you so callously shattered and threw away.’
            ‘Says the man who keeps sending his white-robed lackeys to poke around the Black Hoof,’ Daith grunted and spat onto the floorboard. ‘You know well that’s Kings territory.’
            ‘There are no kings in the Vidorian Empire,’ Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford said with disdain. ‘There is only Emperor Lyshir IV and the Divine Empress herself. There are also no such things as – what was it that charming woman in the Black Hoof said? – “the Syr” who she claimed would “have their wily ways with the Divine Empress before long.” Care to explain that?’
            Daith was about to respond when, from behind the three inquisitors, a helplessly wizened and frail-looking old man with one blind eye and no hair appeared, hunched and pouting. He held in his hands a sealed crate with no obvious markings other than a crudely drawn phoenix in charcoal. ‘Here’s your order,’ the alchemist said, shooting a nervous, half-blind glance at Daith, who stood by the door.
            Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford waved at one of his men, who stepped forwards and took the crate from the old man. ‘Thank you, Pestell,’ he said with a small bow of his head. ‘I’ll leave you with your next customer,’ he said, turning to leave. ‘Oh, and Daith,’ he said, pausing him as he made his way to the door, his two inquisitors behind him, ‘if Mister Pestell has any reason to make a complaint against you, or if anything should happen to him, you can expect a visit from me. I know exactly where that ridiculous excuse for a structure your brother has bought is. Maybe I could burn it down? Vidoria’s flames should rid Deadtown of your taint.’
            ‘By all means, please do,’ Daith snarled at Heatherford. The man was a good half-head taller than he was, and he had to tilt his head back to glare into his eyes. ‘If you can even summon the nerve to walk into Deadtown.’
            Heatherford’s lips curled into a smile, and for a few moments he stared into Daith’s face before turning and leading his men out of the apothecary’s shop. The brass bell tinkled as the door opened and closed again, a shrill little cry in the dark and dusty space. Then Daith was alone with Mister Pestell.
            The youngest Drakensang son turned. ‘Good day, Sir,’ he said, striding through the shelves of sparkling, bright-coloured potions and glittering, orb-like alchemical instruments. ‘Do you have a moment?’
            The grizzled old man’s wrinkled lips twisted horribly. ‘For you?’ he said. ‘No.’
            ‘That’s a shame,’ Daith said with a shrug. ‘Because I have some questions for you.’
            Pestell’s mouth twisted into a toothless grin. ‘And if I don’t give you the answers you so desperately seek?’ he said in his croak of voice. ‘What’ll you do? Start breaking things? Hit me? Kill me? I know how you thugs work, you’re all the same.’
            Daith looked at the shelf next to him. It was lined with many different pieces of glass equipment involved in the creation of potions and substances. There were expensive-looking mortars and pestles of marble, decanters of thick green and purple glass, and flasks of tough, well-burnished leather. Daith picked up a particularly expensive looking alembic and held it in his hands. The two, bulbous, glittering glass orbs and the shaft that went between them twinkled in the half-light of the dingy room. ‘A beautiful thing, this,’ he said, eyeing the glittering glass and the gold-etched stand on which it stood. ‘How much?’
            ‘More gold than your little band of hooligans can pull out of its arse,’ the old man said. ‘And don’t you even think about breaking that. I’ll have Heatherford and his boys tear you all to-…’
            Daith hurled the alembic at the old man. It whizzed past his head and shattered on the rear wall of the dark room. ‘Who did you give the kingsbane to?’ he said, stepping forwards and standing over the counter.
            ‘You think you can scare me?’ the old man said. ‘I survived the siege of Baradun fifty years ago. You couldn’t possibly-…’
            Daith slipped the empty vial that Aruvel had given him from his belt and held it up. In the ailing light he saw that there were still a few drops of dark grey, swirling liquid at the bottom of the container. ‘So you didn’t make this?’ he said, letting the ‘PA’ emblazoned on the vial catch in the light.
            The old man laughed. ‘I made the vial, yes. What makes you think I put whatever was inside of it in there?’
            ‘Kingsbane,’ Daith growled. ‘I doubt there are any alchemists in this city other than you who can make the stuff.’
            Pestell laughed again. His dry, hoarse voice was beginning to grate on Daith’s already short nerves, and he could feel his temper rising. ‘I probably did,’ Pestell said in a mocking groaning tone. ‘Not that I remember.
            Daith reached across the counter and grabbed Pestell by the front of the old green robe he wore. He dragged the old man onto the wooden counter and grabbed hold of his mouth. Pestell kicked and fought, trying to push Daith’s hands away. ‘I’ll have Heatherford get you!’ he said. ‘I’ll do it!’
            ‘Like he will,’ Daith hissed, pulling the stopper of the poison vial out with his teeth and spat it across the room. ‘As he said – he doesn’t care about Deadtown. He won’t come looking for me. Now, tell me who you gave the kingsbane to before I tip what’s left of this down your throat.’
            The old man’s face suddenly paled. ‘I can’t remember!’ he squalled, his conviction suddenly lost. ‘Please, if you want to kill me, not with that! Cut me apart with your daggers, but not that!’
            Daith’s eyes narrowed. ‘Then tell me whom you gave this to,’ he said. ‘I know already it was the Crimson Hand! For it was they who had it upon their daggers! Did Bloody Lizbet come and threaten you? Did she steal it? Tell me!’
            The old man shook his head slowly, still fighting against Daith’s arm, writhing where he was pinned on the counter. Still, Daith held the open, near-empty vial of kingsbane threateningly over Pestell’s head. ‘No,’ the old man said in a breath. ‘Not the Hands. They could never afford it.’ He stopped, his half-blind vision frantically looking around the room, as if hoping for someone to enter and save him. When no-one came, the old man seemed to give up. ‘The Inquisition,’ he said quietly.
            Daith’s eyes grew wide in shock. ‘What?’ he said. ‘But the Hands-…’
            ‘I don’t know how the Hands got it,’ the old man spluttered. ‘They never came here, they never have done, they know they can’t afford my wares – by the Empress, I doubt they’d even understand what it meant if you told them kingsbane is flammable! It’s Heatherford! Heatherford’s taking it!’
            Shocked, Daith’s arm went limp and the old man struggled free. In a moment, he had shot into the back room behind the counter from which he had originally emerged, shouting and yelling for help. Daith span and looked out of the shop’s front window. Outside, people were stopping and peering in. Curses, Daith thought.
In a flash, he leapt over the counter and ran into the next room – a damp little storage space full of boxes. It was as dingy as the first, but there was a single, small window to one side. Pestell was gone, and Daith was now on borrowed time. Already, he could hear people coming into the shop. There were shouts coming from behind him, and from somewhere before him, he could hear Pestell crying for help. Without a second thought, Daith hurled himself through the window.
            Luckily, he was already on the ground floor. He landed hard on the stone cobbles of the side-street that ran parallel to Pestell’s shop in a shower of shattered glass. He jarred his wrist as he landed and the wound in his side felt as if it had been created anew. He let out a choked cry of agony as terrible, hot pain shot through his side. Daith’s vision blurred and he felt his head begin to swim, but he hauled himself to his feet and set off at a staggering run away from the square. I have to find where Heatherford is taking that poison, he thought. If he’s giving it to the Hands, we have a larger problem than I ever anticipated.
He also knew that he was now working on borrowed time. Pestell would run straight to the Vidorians, and the moment his words got to Heatherford, there would be trouble. In truth, Daith was unsure whether or not Heatherford would march into Deadtown with a party of inquisitors and set his brother’s hideous wooden half-tower on fire. He doubted it, but there had been a cruel glint of promise in Heatehrford’s eye that made him uneasy.
            Daith had no idea where he was. As he staggered through Baradun’s up-market backstreets, past well-dressed men and women walking with small, ornamental dogs and cats with squashed faces and curled tails, it stuck him he had absolutely no idea where Heatherford would be. If he has not returned to that monstrosity of a cathedral, he could be anywhere – even in the Great Keep. As he thought to himself about how he might find Heatherford, the extent of the damage he may have just done to the Deadtown Kings struck him. If Pestell found Heatherford before Daith did, Heatherford may call the guard and march into Deadtown with the purpose of slaughtering the Kings. Would he, though? Daith thought. The nauseating feeling in his gut told him that the lord-inquisitor would, simply to spite Daith.
            Pain and panic began to grip Daith as he staggered forwards. I need to warn Lewis, he thought. As much as he hated the thought of admitting any kind of failure to his brother, they would need the whole gang on alert if they were to ever hope of surviving an attack by the Vidorian Inquisition – or worse, the Legion itself.
            Aware of the cold, suspecting glances he was drawing from the gentry whom he passed as he stamped though Baradun’s cleanest, most expensive streets, Daith quickly found the post-midday sun and used it to point himself eastwards. I need to hurry, he thought. This is a right mess. A real filthy mess.
            As Daith stalked eastwards as fast as his wounded body would carry him, the grandiose properties began to slip away. Replaced by familiar thatch and slate-roofed buildings, the streets became slightly more unkempt. The folk did not glare at him as the nobility did, and he was able to pass on through the poorer districts of the city with ease. The moment he clapped his eyes on the first burned-out and rib-like timbers of Deadtown, he felt a great sense of relief wash over him. They loomed above the roofs of the last few proper houses like strange standing monuments; dark and brooding, a shadowy reminder of a time of pain and strife – and Daith had never been so glad to see them.
            Ducking into a familiar-feeling alley, Daith made his way towards Hardhand Lewis’ shanty-tower. The alley was wide and large enough for five or so people to walk abreast, and it squatted between a narrow, stone-walled cottage with withered thatch on its roof, and a decimated building, so wrecked and ruined that it was completely unidentifiable. One or two homeless men squatted in it, huddling under cloaks and rags to try and preserve what warmth they could on the bright but blustery day. The alley was nearly empty, aside from a large pile of rotting and forgotten boxes and barrels on one side and a cluster of figures at the end. In too much of a rush to think, Daith began to hurry down the alley, but when he saw three white robes and the flash of a many-disked golden medallion, he dived behind the nearest low barrel.
            ‘You brought us the same as last time?’ a high-pitched, feminine voice said from somewhere in the middle of the group. ‘That alchemist has you duped. This junk is just his spit in a vial – it’s useless.’
            ‘The formula needed adjusting slightly,’ a voice that Daith immediately recognised as Lord-Inquisitor Heatherford’s said. ‘Pestell assures me that these will do better. However, I can’t help but think that if your man had struck better, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation right now.’
            The vicious crack of a hand slapping a cheek rang out down the alley. Daith peeked over the barrel he squatted behind and saw steel and iron flash in the sun as weapons were unsheathed. The two inquisitors and Heatherford now stood a few steps back from the other group, revealing a familiar-looking crate with a charcoal phoenix upon its face on the floor between the two parties. The two men with Heatherford had their weapons unsheathed, but Heatherford did not.
Opposite them, at least four women in hooded cloaks bearing the crude red fist of the Crimson Hand stood with their own array of clubs, swords, and daggers at the ready. ‘Put those weapons down, girl,’ the woman’s voice said from amidst the hooded figures. ‘I could take all three of these Vidorians in a fight and not one of them would scratch me.’ There was an uneasy silence and a complete stillness from the other end of the alley. Daith peered over his barrel and narrowed his eyes. Come on, he thought to himself, kill each other.
            ‘Sheathe your weapons,’ Heatherford’s voice said quietly. ‘I’ll forgive you this insult, but consider it your only second chance. If you fail to uphold your end of the deal, I shall have the Legion march into your precious little spot of territory and gut each and every one of you.’
            ‘And as I said last time, we welcome you to try,’ the woman spoke again and stepped forwards from the group of hooded female figures about her. She was slender and lithe, with a shock of brilliant bloody-red hair tumbling down her shoulders. She was pale-skinned and young, wearing a tight black-leather doublet and trousers of a matching dark shade, and silver-buckled boots on her feet. Underneath, she wore a frilled white shirt, the ruffled sleeves of which blew about her arms. At each hip hung a vicious, double-edged sword.
            Daith had known from the moment he heard her voice that Bloody Lizbet was standing at the far end of the alley. Part of him had simply clung to the hope that she was not in some way embroiled in an elaborate scheme with the Vidorians to see the Deadtown Kings brought to ruin. Heatherford is not the problem, Daith thought as he watched the woman step forwards and place a foot on the familiar-looking crate. Lizbet is his hand, he is simply one particular arm of the Empire dangling her in our affairs.
            ‘I don’t want to have to ever come back here again,’ Heatherford said in a hiss. ‘Do as we told you and the Inquisition will continue to work alongside you and your little group of bandits. If you fail, however, there can be no more chances. We will not be seen in Deadtown again, and you can deal with whatever repercussions you face for your botched actions alone. Understand?’
            Lizbet stooped down and picked up the familiar-looking crate. ‘Then here’s to a long and prosperous friendship, Lord-Inquisitor!’ she said and turned on her heel. She hoisted the crate up and down in her hands as she walked away, and Daith, from where he sheltered behind the barrels and boxes discarded in the alley, saw the three inquisitors recoil.
            ‘Be careful with that!’ Heatherford snapped at Lizbet, who was now walking down the alley towards Daith. ‘Those are highly volatile!’
            Daith sat, his brow furrowed and his mouth hanging slightly open. What is going on? he thought to himself as he watched Heatherford and his inquisitorial accompaniment turn around and leave, walking out of the alleyway and taking a left, out of Daith’s line of vision. As he watched them vanish, Daith’s mind raced. Why is Heatherford working with the Hands? he asked himself, ducking back behind the crates. There was no time to come up with an answer, though – he could hear the Crimson Hand approaching. He could hear female voices and he chanced a glance out from his hiding place.
Daith was close enough to see Lizbet’s pale face crease into a mocking sneer as Heatherford called after her. He shrank back, deeper into the shadows cast by the crates and boxes, suddenly gripped by fear. Bloody Lizbet carried herself with a confidence that Daith knew he could never replicate. She was girlish in her gait and expression, yet there was a twitch of madness upon her face that tugged at her cheeks and twisted her lips. There were faint creases at the edges of her eyes and a smile-line either side of her mouth. Her face was pretty, and she had two magnificent, hazel-coloured eyes. Daith knew, though, that it was all a lie.
She was an artisan sheath of the finest craftsmanship in which a savage, barbed dagger was hidden. The lines on her face which for many would be becoming of her beauty and character – and the small scar on her chin, which Daith noticed as she walked closer and closer to him – were, as Daith well knew, nicks and cracks in the mask she wore to hide her cruelty.  Though Daith would never admit it to anyone, the sight of the woman teriffied him.
            ‘Where now, Lady Lizbet?’ one of the hooded and cloaked women Lizbet kept as her guard asked as they strode towards Daith.
            ‘Storehouse,’ she said in a sing-song voice. ‘Let’s get these somewhere nice and safe, then we can talk about killing the Deadtown Kings and taking their little spot of territory from them.’
            The shadow she cast across him as she passed was particularly cold. Daith felt his whole body shiver, and the wound in his side was gripped with imagined ache. He could feel the dagger there again, and in his mind’s eye he could see Lizbet’s white-toothed leer as she pushed and twisted one of her swords into him. He shut his eyes and waited for Bloody Lizbet and her companions to have passed before he dared glance out of his hiding place. And now I have to follow her, he thought.
His feet trembling and hands shaking, Daith slipped out from behind the boxes and barrels where he had hidden and made after the retreating group.


It had only been a short walk until Daith had found himself in Hand territory. He had snatched the ragged cloak from the shoulders of a beggar to hide his finer-than-average clothing as he went. The tattered hood was crusty with bird faeces, but it served its purpose – hiding his head and concealing the large sword on his back and the daggers at his waist. No-one looked at him as he followed Bloody Lizbet and her all-female escort, and he was able to pass the gaggles of hooded-and-cloaked Hand thugs without attracting any unwanted attention. Reeking bastard was only going to piss down it anyway, Daith had thought as he pulled the long, thin and patchwork garment tighter about his shoulders.
            Still, Daith could not work out why Heatherford was helping the Crimson Hand. The man had always been so aloof of matters in Deadtown, refusing to risk dirtying his nose by sticking it into the business that went on there. The only times the man ever appeared amongst the ruins was when matters of the faith compelled him – such as his dealings with Hardhand Lewis following the incident in the Black Hoof. As far as Daith could tell, though, there was no reason for Heatherford to be involved. No-one had spoken a word against his god, on this occasion at least.
Following Bloody Lizbet through Deadtown’s streets was like walking in the aftermath of a terrible tempest. Anyone who looked at the vicious, red-haired woman wrongly was beaten black by her female escort. Anyone who dared speak against her had their legs broken at the knee. Daith had watched as one old woman who had flung a curse at Lizbet’s back had her elbows shattered by two of the women accompanying her. As Daith had passed, she had begged him for death, which he obliged her with a flick of his knife across her throat.
Daith lingered at least one-hundred paces behind Bloody Lizbet at all times, dodging into alleyways and crouching in buildings every time the frightening woman made so much as a move to look over her shoulder. Daith began to understand why the Crimson Hand were so successful. Literally everyone is terrified of them, he thought as he watched two large young men leap out of her path and hide behind a low broken-brick wall.
            But the worst came when people dared fight back. Around mid-afternoon, a group of half a dozen dirty young men holding clubs stepped out of the carcass of an old townhouse. Each was pale and his eyes wide, but all clutched their crude weapons with conviction.
            ‘We’re sick of your cruelty,’ the lead lad said, a brawny, short fellow with a blunt woodcutting axe in his fist. ‘You should get gone from here.’
            Bloody Lizbet had carefully placed her crate aside and looked at the brawny man. She said nothing and simply smiled at him for a few moments before, with an ease and grace Daith had never seen before, she whipped her two swords from their sheath and cut four long, deep wounds into the man’s torso before he could so much as cry out. Another was dead before Bloody Lizbet’s female guards had drawn their own weapons, and the others died before having the chance to so much as lift their crude weapons. The beggars, homeless, and poor in the long, wide street all screamed and fled, though the hardier, braver ones looking for some loot skulked in the closest buildings, eyeing dropped weapons and unspoiled clothes. Even once they were dead, Bloody Lizbet’s swords continued to sing, slicing open silent flesh and bathing in blood. By the time she finally stopped hacking away at her fallen enemies, she was drenched in gore.
Time passed. The dying light of the bloody red sunset, far away to the west, bathed the remnants of Deadtown in a morbid red sundown. Long, eerie shadows were cast across the ruined streets, and the city of Baradun sunk into the dark crimson cloak cast over it. Esdaria was beginning to grow dark when Bloody Lizbet and her followers finally turned into a large, shattered warehouse against one of Baradun’s walls. Lizbet seemed to have taken the longest route possible to her destination – probably with the intention of hurting as many people as she could along the way.
 The two-storey warehouse’s roof had completely collapsed, though the walls of the place still stood, each twice the height of the average Man, and on each wall was painted a large, red fist. This must be the place, Daith thought. The great, looming city wall behind it was ragged and cracked in places, symbolic of the lack of care the Vidorians had for the city of Baradun beyond its richest districts. All around the Hand’s building too, as it was with the rest of Deadtown, were wrecked and ruined structures large and small.
            There were two Hand thugs standing by the doors – big, brawny women in tatty cloaks painted with the red fist painted on the side of their hoods. They both stood aside as Bloody Lizbeth entered, still covered in blood and carrying her crate from the Vidorians. She kicked the doors open and disappeared within. She emerged a few moments later, bereft of her box of poisons – at least, Daith had convinced himself it was a box of kingsbane – and waved a hand to the two large women who had been guarding the door to the ruined building. The two women grouped up with the rest of the Hands that were following Bloody Lizbet and together, they all left. Daith watched as the nine-strong group of fierce women made its way northwards, disappearing into the dark of the evening-swathed alleyways. Suddenly, the wrecked building was left all alone.
Daith emerged from the shadows which had concealed him and glanced around; there were only a few of the poor and homeless nearby, skulking in the wrecked and ruined buildings, but none of them dared approach the bloody red fist-painted building. They’re all afraid, Daith thought nervously. He swallowed and glanced around, making sure there were no Hands lurking, watching, and waiting for someone to try to get in. Given the display of earlier ferocity which had left six men dead, though, Daith doubted anyone would ever dare to try.
Taking a deep breath, and trying to ignore the pain in his side, he ran across the space between where he had been hiding amongst the rubble of long-destroyed buildings and to the Hands’ storehouse. He wrenched on the door handle and, to his shock, it swung open. Without as much as a thought, Daith threw himself inside and dodged into the nearest shadow. He strained the stitches in his side as he did so, and bit his tongue as hard as he could to stop himself from crying out. He squatted in silence for a few moments, cloaked in darkness, enjoying the chance to rest his limbs – chasing Bloody Lizbet across the city had been hard, and his wound had begun to ache awfully.
Daith took long, deep breaths and glanced around the building he was in. Apparently, though as he had identified from the outside, the building had once had two storeys. The first-floor ceiling remained intact, whilst everything above it had been reduced to ruin. As a result, none of the ailing sunlight of the dying day reached the ground floor of the storehouse, and Daith was utterly reliant on the few candles and lanterns left littered around the room for guidance.
He was, indeed, in a storehouse. The walls were of weak, rotting wood and up against them were great piles of stolen rugs and silks. There were crates of stolen produce too, and even a few dried pig carcasses hanging from one of the sturdier beams. There were big pointed piles of weapons scattered across the floor, whilst in-between them were large, heavy, sealed chests and wooden crates, the sight of which filled Daith with joy. ‘Aruvel, you genius,’ he whispered to himself. He rushed to the closest chest and heaved the lid open. Hundreds of gold coins spilled out from inside and Daith’s heart leapt. ‘I’ll smuggle you into the city any day,’ he whispered, ‘any day, rain or shine, come war or peace. Even if the world was ending I’d smuggle you-…’
Something made a noise. Daith’s head whipped around and he stared into the shadows at the back of the large storage room. The flickering candlelight illuminated a small, familiar-looking wooden crate that sat in the middle of the wide space, as if left there for him. Something is not right, Daith thought. Why would someone leave candles and lanterns lit in an empty storehouse? Especially one packed full of dry old rugs, wood and-…
The noise came again. It was a pained, far-off moaning sound, like the wailing, half-hearted exhalation from the dry and parched lips of a dying man. Daith froze and drew his bastard-blade from his back, enjoying the reassuring weight in his hand. Again, he found himself afraid, standing alone in the middle of a rival gang’s storehouse. I wish Hobb and Brint were here.
Carefully, Daith took a step towards the familiar-looking wooden box, tiptoeing as quietly as he possibly could. The terrible moaning noise came again, but this time it sounded like the wind between the wooden boards that held up the building. The cold finger of fear touched Daith’s heart, and he felt his resolve falter. Cold sweat was upon his brow, and his hands were beginning to tremble. He gripped his sword tighter and held his breath, the wound in his side aching more and more with his quickening heartbeat. You can do this. You can do this.
Daith hurried to the wooden box and squatted down beside it, keeping his sword in hand all the while. There, on its face, just as the one that Pestell had handed Heatherford, was the crude charcoal drawing of a phoenix. It must have the poison in it, he thought to himself. And if it does, I can take it and use it somehow. Pestell and Heatherford said they were volatile, maybe I can make them catch fire – perhaps I can make a distraction and have the Kings pillage this place. He prized the lid open with his sword. His eyes widened with shock.
There were at least four-dozen vials of kingsbane within, their eerie, swirling grey-liquid contents contained within many vials all stamped with ‘PA’. But Daith barely noticed them. On top of them lay a thin piece of battered and ink-stained parchment, smeared with blood where fingers had held it. Across its face was written a simple message. ‘Looking for these?’
The groan came again, louder and much more pronounced. Daith tossed the sheet of parchment aside and leapt to his feet. Holding his sword before him, he looked into the dark shadows that hid the rearmost space in the storehouse. Terror had poured into his heart, and with each ka-thump the wound in his side flared in pain. The wound was making him feel nauseous – or was it his own terror? – and he began to feel lightheaded. What if Aruvel didn’t get all the kingsbane out? What if it’s going to flare up again? I’m going to die.
White-faced and wide-eyed, Daith continued to feverishly glance around, at a loss as to what to do. He was certain that there was someone hiding somewhere with another dagger laced with kingsbane, ready to plunge into his heart. As he frantically spun about, thrusting his sword at shadows and jumping at his own footsteps, he noticed that the candles were only positioned in the front-most half of the storehouse. The rear of the room was completely lost to shadow and darkness – from that darkness came yet another groan. Something is very, very wrong.
‘Who’s there?’ he called out. ‘Show yourself!’
The groaning came again, louder this time. There was a note of blind, numbing fear in it too that made Daith’s heart hammer ever harder in his chest. Then, as Daith took another step towards the shadows, a huge crash sounded from behind him and light flooded the storehouse. He span around, staring at the wide-open doors to the warehouse, through which the last dregs of the sunset poured. Nine female figures stood there, their silhouettes surrounded by the red of the sunset sky outside.
‘I never thought I’d encounter someone as much of a fool as your brother,’ a sing-song, feminine voice came from the door, ‘yet here you are, just as Heatherford said you would be.’
Daith kept his blade up, never taking his eyes from the nine shadowy figures before him. His palms were slick with sweat and his tongue felt heavy in his mouth. A terrible fear writhed in his stomach as he looked at the tall, lithely-built woman that stood in the middle of the group. She was plain to see, for her dark red hair flashed and shone in the last of the sun. Eventually, she stepped forwards, walking slowly towards were Daith stood over the box of poison.
‘Is that it?’ Bloody Lizbet said, stopping perhaps eight paces from where Daith stood. ‘So dumb you can’t even speak?’
‘What do you want with Heatherford?’ Daith managed to garble in some desperate attempt to show he was not afraid.
Lizbet snorted. ‘That’s it?’ she said. ‘That’s all you’ve got to say?’
‘Tell me.’ The sound of his own voice shamed Daith. He sounded so quiet, so weak, and so afraid. ‘Tell me before I split you open.’
Bloody Lizbet let out a shrill, sharp laugh. ‘Oh, Daith,’ she said, ‘don’t be so bitter! I’ve not done anything to you have I?’
‘One of your thugs nearly killed me!’ Daith yelled, taking a step backwards, gripping his sword tightly.
Lizbet put a hand on her hip and shrugged a shoulder. ‘Aside from that,’ she said with a dismissive wave of her other hand. ‘Go on, what have I done to you? After all, you and your brother are the ones who’ve brought that horrible insult of a building overlooking my territory. I’d say you struck the first blow.’
Daith could think of nothing to say. ‘If you aren’t going to answer my question-…’
‘Oh, indulge me!’ she squeaked excitely, skipping forwards a pace. When Daith drew back his sword as if to strike her, Bloody Lizbet froze and raised her hands. ‘Just look behind you.’
‘You think I’m stupid?’
‘Just do it.’
As if on cue, a low, awful groan came from behind Daith. There was something dreadfully familiar about the slow, dull tone with which the moan sounded. It fell quiet and, for a few moments, there was nothing but silence in the storehouse. Daith kept his eyes on Lizbet, whose beautiful, hazel-coloured irises glinted and gleamed in the light cast about the storehouse by the candles, lanterns, and sunset. Slowly, carefully, Daith turned his head. He did not allow for his eyes to leave Lizbet until the last possible moment, and even then he glanced back to make sure she had not moved – which she did not.
The area of the room which had previously been hidden in darkness and shadows was now bathed in the red half-light of the sunset. Even in the terrible, crimson dusk, the blood that was splattered up the walls and across the floor was plain to see. Two figures were there, one tall and thin, one short and stocky. The smaller figure was already dead, his body having succumbed to the huge amount of damage it had taken. He had been stripped to the waist and flogged, huge flesh-crevasses had been whipped into his small but broad back, his brawny arms, his barrel-chest, and protruding stomach. He lay in a pool of thick, coagulating blood that soaked his coal-black hair and beard.
The second figure was strapped to the wall, his legs and arms pulled away from one another so they stretched across the wood in a large cross-shape. He had been stripped to his underclothes, and a rag was stuffed into his mouth. His body and arms patterned in a great covering of many small cuts, bruises, and burns. His nose was broken, one of his ears had been cut off, and the nails had been pulled from his toes.
‘We found them wandering around Deadtown earlier today,’ Lizbet’s terrible voice sang from behind Daith. ‘I was not surprised that you were not with them, as I thought that the little nick with the kingsbane-poisoned dagger would have dealt with you. I will admit, however, that I was most shocked when Heatherford told me he had encountered you in none other than Pestell’s Apothecary! I thought he must be lying, or that the accursed women he worships had sent a ghost to haunt him for being such an insufferable cretin.’ Lizbet stopped and gestured at Daith. ‘Yet, here you are. And, coincidentally, here they are, too.’
Daith looked down at Brint. The young, helpless man lifted his face and two bloody, empty eye-sockets stared at Daith. The noise that came from behind the rag stuffed into his teeth was so low and forlorn that Daith felt a small twinge of pity in his chest. ‘Why did you do this?’ he asked with a helpless shrug.
‘Because why not,’ Lizbet said with a laugh. ‘I’m surprised you aren’t more upset,’ she said in an exaggerated, patronised voice. ‘Weren’t they your friends?’
Daith looked at Brint’s helpless, semi-lifeless figure and the corpse of Hobb. For a while, he was silent, peering, almost curiously at the blood that caked their frail forms. The two men had worked well with him; Hobb was quiet, but driven in what he did. Brint was exceedingly stupid, yet loyal like an old dog. He looked at the blood and tried to feel something other than revulsion, but could not. Eventually, he looked away from them and snorted. ‘I don’t have friends,’ he said. Behind him, Brint let out a long, sad groan.
‘Well, isn’t that a shame,’ Lizbet sighed.
Hands were on Daith suddenly, and his weapon was ripped from his grasp. He cried out as someone kicked the backs of his knees and he was wrestled to a kneeling position, held in place by three of the women with Lizbet. Someone else then drove a fist into the wound in his side and he pitched forwards, dizzy with agony. He felt as if he would vomit all his insides out, but as he lurched and choked, someone grabbed his hair and whipped his head back.
The remaining five Hand thugs Daith could see had pulled dark, rusty crossbows from under their cloaks and now aimed them all at Brint. Each of Lizbet’s female thugs had a heavy, broad-headed, barbed bolt – the kind used for smashing through the heaviest of heavy armour – loaded into their crossbow. Without so much as a word of warning, all simultaneously fired. 
Daith tried not to look shocked when the shafts smashed through Brint’s body. One went straight through his middle, shattering his spine and pinning Brint to the back wall. Another hammered into his neck, snapping the bone there and rending his windpipe wide open. The third, poorly aimed, smashed through his forearm, whilst the fourth and fifth crushed his chest. The young man did not even have the chance to cry out; he simply lolled forwards, still fastened against the wall, blood and entrails oozing from his many horrid wounds.
‘Brint,’ Lizbet said slowly, gazing at the corpse. ‘I understand it’s a common name? Under any other circumstances I’d assure you that you’d be able to find another. Not today, though,’ she said, breaking into a short laugh. She looked at the broken body of the young, poor, dirty man for a few moments more before turning her back on him. Bloody Lizbet paced around the ever-darkening storehouse main-room for a few moments, the last of the blazing sun upon her fiery hair, and a thoughtful expression on her face. Suddenly, like a shot, she leapt across the room and landed in front of Daith. She fell to her knees and looked into his face.
  ‘You asked what I’m doing with Heatherford?’ Lizbet smiled, touching the tip of her nose against Daith’s. ‘It’s simple, really; I love hurting people, and he said he’ll help me hurt all of the other gangs in Deadtown. Once they’re all dead and gone, I rule Deadtown. I suspect Heatherford and the Vidorians think that once they only have to deal with me, their lives will be easier, but no,’ she said and giggled. ‘Once there’s just me, I’ll take back Baradun. I’ll drive the Vidorians from Altmeria, and we will be free from imperial oppression.’
Slowly, Daith shook his head. ‘That won’t happen,’ he said. An idea was forming in his head, but he had to break free of the vice-like hands of the three women that held him. He knew he could not struggle his way out, so he had to be crafty. ‘Someone will best you.’
Lizbet spun about, her fiery hair a blazing halo about her head. She settled her eyes upon Daith and glared at him. ‘Best me?’ she hissed. ‘No-one can best me!’
Daith snorted. ‘I’ve seen you fight,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen you slash up beggars and poor-folk armed with sticks. All it would take is one person armed with a sword and you’d be finished.’
Bloody Lizbet made a choking sound as she fought with her shock to find words. ‘How dare you!’ she screamed. ‘I am the finest swords-fighter in Altmeria – no, in all of Esdaria! Get off your knees, pick up your sword and face me!’
For a moment, the women who held Daith looked at each other uncertainty. When they made no move to let Daith get to his feet, Lizbet screamed at them so wildly that her words were lost to the awful noise she made. Each woman immediately removed her hands and Daith staggered to his feet. His sword was thrust into his hand by one of the hooded and cloaked Hand thugs, and he was free to move.
Daith quickly looked around the room. Every move he made, Lizbet copied him; her eyes fixed on what he was doing, and where he was going. She sought out his every weakness with her mad brown eyes, and Daith had no doubt she found more than enough to exploit. His side ached awfully, and he could feel a sticky wetness forming around his wound. The earlier blow to the injury had reopened it, and he was already beginning to feel weakened and nauseous. I have to get this right first time, he thought.
Lizbet’s eight hooded and cloaked thugs spread themselves out around the room, blocking the door and leaving enough space between the piles of weapons and treasures for their leader and their prisoner to fight. Daith was relieved no-one had moved the box of poison, for his idea hinged on its use. It lay, discarded and open in the middle of the floor. With great care, Daith positioned himself so it was immediately between him and Bloody Lizbet. He then walked backwards as far as he could without drawing attention to himself, until he could feel the warmth of one of the few oil-burning lanterns and clusters of candles that were scattered about the room on his back.
‘Is this it?’ Lizbet suddenly said, drawing her two swords. ‘You’re hoping to, what, walk me to death?’ Her words were greeted by laughs from her all-female guard, who began to cheer and chant her name. Lizbet grinned and began to walk towards Daith, slowly but surely. She hopped and skipped, even doing a twirl which sent her large, ruffled sleeves billowing about her. Soon, though, she was but a pace away from the box of poison.
She stopped and looked down at it. ‘I won’t even be needing this anymore. I’ve no doubt that once you’re dead, your useless brother won’t be able to hold the Kings together,’ she said. ‘How sad is that? Heatherford came all the way out here for nothing.’
Not yet, Daith thought. Wait. ‘I don’t know what good it’d do you,’ he said and spat onto the filthy, rotting floorboards. ‘You’ll probably lose either way.’
Again, Lizbet’s eyes grew wide. ‘You were lucky,’ she said in a hiss. ‘Kingsbane is a particularly nasty death, if used correctly.’ She bent down and picked up one of the small vials. Examining it closely, she squatted over the box and held the vial in the faint light of the sunset and the candles. ‘Apparently, I’m told that if used properly, it’s a truly agonizing death.’
Daith laughed. ‘You’d know all about that,’ he said, unable to hide the wolfish grin on his face.
Lizbet looked up, turning her gaze away from the vail between her fingers. Quickly, Daith reached behind himself and grabbed the oil-filled lantern he could feel warming his back. The simple iron and cheap, thin glass case the flame was held within was blisteringly hot and he felt his fingers burn as he seized it. Before Lizbet could move, and before her thugs could react, Daith hurled the lantern as hard as he could at the box of poison.
For a moment, the whole world went white and everything was a terrible blur of fire and screaming. Lizbet was enveloped in a huge, yellow fireball that tore up over her and set fire to the thin, half-rotten ceiling. Daith’s ears rang with terrible noise and he felt many tiny shards of glass whizz over his face as the vials full of Kingsbane shattered. He shut his eyes and turned his body away for fear of one embedding itself in his eye. A second later, he forced them open again and he began to run.
He ran past Bloody Lizbeth, who lay more or less where she had been squatting over the box of poison. Both she and the box were lost to a great eruption of alchemical-substance and lantern-oil fed fire. She neither moved nor made a sound, her body itself becoming fuel for the growing fire. Her undershirt was ablaze, and the thousands of shards of broken glass had torn her face to pieces. The dry, dusty old roof above was already nearly completely ablaze, as were many of the dry rugs and tapestries stored against the walls.
Sod the gold! Daith thought as he sped towards the women at the door. One of them had dashed into the room to try and grab a few handfuls of gold from a nearby chest, and as Daith ran past her, he raked his sword across the back of her legs, assuring that the Hand thug could not escape the inferno. As he did, he heard the roof behind him begin to collapse, and the terrible cries of the trapped thugs split through the chaotic noise of the inferno now gripping the storehouse.
The three women left at the door suddenly drew their weapons and blocked Daith’s way. He was suddenly trapped between a wall of steel and a whirling mass of fire. He paused as behind him he heard more of the building collapse. Taking a deep breath and ignoring the agony wracking his side, he raised his sword and charged.
Suddenly, the middle-most of the three remaining women fell, an arrow ripping through her neck. The woman immediately to her right dropped her guard and Daith ran her through with his sword so hard that he carried the hooded and cloaked thug – who was almost as large as he was – back half a dozen paces, before both of them collapsed into a bloody heap. Daith jarred his side again as he fell, and a great wave of pain shook his form. He rolled off his gutted adversary and looked into the dark sky.
Above him, the last woman appeared, a crude axe in his hand, raised above her head. Daith tried to lift his sword, but his arms were weak and he knew he would never be able to deflect the blow, nor could he roll away from it, for his body was so wracked with pain. I can’t do anymore, Daith thought. He was not sad as he faced death’s axe, only exhausted and grateful.
The axe fell, as did the woman holding it, who let out a shrieking cry of pain. The weapon slipped from her hand and crashed to the ground beside Daith’s head – the hooded Hand thug who held it collapsed on top of him, her knee driving itself hard into Daith’s wound.
The agony that gripped Daith was unbearable and his senses numbed. His vision began to blacken to the same shade as the dark sky that lay beyond the firestorm that gripped the Crimson Hand’s storehouse. The last thing Daith saw before he passed out was a hooded figure carrying a bow, nothing more than a dark silhouette against the brilliant, domineering light of the conflagration. The figure walked towards Daith, slowly and deliberately, and just as darkness took Daith, he thought he saw a tiny bird – perhaps a robin – sitting on the figure’s shoulder.


‘You lost the gold,’ Hardhand Lewis said from the other side of his well-sheened desk. Outside, morning had risen cold and grey over Baradun, and Deadtown remained the bleak and lifeless carcass it always was under the miserable, drizzling sky.
            ‘Yes,’ Daith responded through clenched teeth.
            Hardhand Lewis put his face in his hands and rubbed his eyes. ‘I could not care less about that Man and the Dwarf that she killed. If you’d managed to have brought back even a fistful of gold, I wouldn’t have minded about the whole situation!’
            ‘I almost died. Thanks for your fraternal concern.’
            The fat leader of the Deadtown Kings waved a hand and let out a long, sad sigh. ‘I suppose I’ll have to issue some orders,’ he said, rising from his seat onto his short, oddly thin legs. He turned to look out of the single, small window behind his desk and out across the shattered district. ‘Men must be sent to pick over the ruins before the Reds do – if they haven’t done so already,’ he said in a sad, much-strained voice. ‘They’ll also have to secure the Hand’s territory before they have a chance to reorganise themselves.’
            Daith glared at his elder brother’s wide back. ‘And I suppose you’re going to criticise me for not being able to go with them?’
            ‘Damn right I am,’ Hardhand Lewis said coldly. ‘Not only do you lose the Hands’ gold and destroy a wealth of their treasures, you get yourself stabbed, burned, and nearly killed again. Do you have any idea how busy I am?’ Lewis said, glaring over his shoulder at his brother. ‘Do you have even the faintest idea how much work it would be to replace you?’
            Saying nothing, Daith rose to his feet. He grabbed hold of Lewis’ heavy desk and flipped it over, sending parchments, cheap quills, pots of ink and several piles of carefully stacked and sorted gold coins flying across the floor. He turned and marched towards the door, ignoring his brother’s furious cries.
            ‘Daith! Get back here, you disrespectful little worm!’ he bawled and yelled. ‘Daith! You will show me the respect I deserve! I am the leader of the Deadtown Kings and I demand that you-…’
            Stopping in the doorway, Daith turned and looked at Lewis as he pushed the door to his brother’s office open. ‘I really hope that someday someone cuts your throat,’ he said, and left the room.
            Once he was back outside his brother’s ridiculous-looking shanty-tower, Daith took a deep breath of the rancid Deadtown air. What a pit, he thought to himself as he looked across the abandoned and uncleared wreckage from the violence a half-century ago and the filthy people who lived amongst it.
            ‘How’s the side?’ a soft, gentle voice said from beside him.
            ‘Better again, thanks to you,’ Daith responded.
            Aruvel stood beside Daith and the two men looked across the wreckage that was Deadtown in silence for a few moments. Eventually, Aruvel pushed a large, heavy pouch of coin into Daith’s hand. ‘I’ve left the rest at the Black Hoof, as we agreed.’
            Daith nodded, tucking the coin into his belt and covering it with the heavy cloak that Aruvel had stolen for him just that morning. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Did you-…’
            ‘Yes, I made sure to leave enough coin lying around amongst the ruins of the Hands’ storehouse to throw your brother off – should he arrive before the Hands do,’ he said in his soft, gentle voice. ‘No doubt he will, though, as the Crimson Hand are in chaos now Bloody Lizbet is dead.’
            Once again Daith nodded. ‘And you wanted us to get you from a farmstead on the eastern edge of the city in four weeks’ time?’ he asked.
            ‘Indeed,’ Aruvel said with a smile. ‘I quite look forward to coming back. Now, I had best be off. Things to do, you see. Best of luck with the Deadtown Kings – try not to die.’
And with that, Aruvel was gone. Hidden under his grey-green cloak, the Elf strode off into the great labyrinth of many ruined streets and paths that ran like bloodless veins through the broken corpse that was Deadtown.
            Daith was left alone, aside from the Deadtown Kings’ thugs and the poor of the district who milled around close by. He put his hand on the pouch of coin under his cloak and grinned to himself, feeling the encouraging weight of the metal with his fingers. I’ll show you, Lewis, he thought to himself. Despite his injury, Daith was feeling good. He had already forgotten about the gruesome scene that the remains of Hobb and Brint had painted with their entrails; bloody and burned, they had been, discarded like waste meat.
Just check, he thought, touching the gold again. Just one little look.
            He took the pouch from his belt and opened it. The gold and silver coins within absorbed the dull light of the day and cast it out again in a haze of shining yellow and white. Daith felt the corners of his mouth twitch upwards – not because of the gold, but because of the note tucked into the top of the large leather pouch. ‘Try the Pink Maiden’ was all is said. Tucking the note and the pouch of gold safely away, Daith set off. The future was looking bright, and it glittered and sparkled with the glint of blood and gold.


As ever, sharing this with you all has been great. Watching the page views, recommendations, and list of countries this blog has reached grow and grow is a really wonderful feeling.

As of the time of writing this, I have another two short(ish) stories ready to go. The next, as teased, is a special piece I've worked on with a close friend in order to produce, and more details on the other - what will be the fourth story overall - will be released at a later date.

As ever, thank-you from the bottom of my heart for taking your time to read my work; your feedback, as ever, has been wonderful. Please, if you can, take a moment to share this blog with your family, friends, and so-on, as the more people who view it, the better.

Thanks again, to each and every one of you,

Rob Hebblethwaite 

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