Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Blood and Gold - Part 3 of 3

In the final part of Blood and Gold, Daith finds some of his worst fears being realised. The Crimson Hand's grip around Baradun is much tighter than he had first thought, and he finds himself face-to-face with tragedy and disaster.

I hope you've enjoyed reading Blood and Gold as much as I enjoyed writing it. For those of you who can't wait to get your teeth into the next piece of Esdarian-based literature, fear not! The third short(ish) story is well on its way to completion and shall be released within the next few weeks. Again, it is a drastically different tale to both Watcher of the West and Blood and Gold, but more on that later. For now, enjoy the last part of Blood and Gold. Happy reading!
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, they might actually be some use.
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. Daith 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 vial 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.

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