Sunday, 12 June 2016

Blood and Gold - Part 1 of 3

Here beings the second short(ish) story for Tales From Esdaria. Set several hundred miles east of where Watcher of the West took place, and some three decades later, Blood and Gold tells a very different story. 

It follows Daith, a criminal and a member of one of many gangs plaguing the poorest parts of the Altmerian city of Baradun. The ruins and slums Daith prowls with his band of law-breaking bandits are a far-cry from the shining castles of the Imperial Heartlands.

Part two will be released on Friday 17th of June.

Shadows and weak light spluttered across the moulding 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 light. 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.

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