1 - Marlow
Despite the oppressive heat, Marlow kept his jacket zipped right to the top so as to hide his bloodsoaked shirt.
“Next stop, Riverrun Station,” the driver’s tinny voice came out of the tannoy. Gods, he sounded bored. Marlow would give anything to be that bored. He hadn’t been bored in about seventeen years.
Not even spending eleven months in prison had given him the chance. From the moment the gates had shut behind him, he’d been laying the groundwork for his next job. He’d got out just this morning and no sooner had the bastard rays of the summer sun hit his face than his scheme swung into action. Now, here he was just six hours out of prison and all his hard work had paid off, just as planned.
He patted the rucksack on his lap and noticed there was still blood under his fingernails where he hadn’t been able to wash it out. And he remembered being surrounded by dead bodies.
Well, okay. Not exactly as planned.
The train lurched to a stop and Marlow pulled himself up. The woman opposite him did the same. She smiled.
“Hope you get on well on the farm,” she said to him as she gathered her bags and folders. The farm thing had been a load of bollocks, of course, but he couldn’t exactly tell her what he was actually doing with his life.
“Yep, thanks,” he said. “Good luck with the teaching. You’re going to need it up there.”
She shrugged, politely and they clambered off the train and went their separate ways. Marlow glanced at her as she disappeared into the throng. It had been nice chatting to her, pretending to be normal. A productive member of society. But that wasn’t really him.
Marlow and society weren’t really on speaking terms.
“You want a job?” the very ugly man said to Marlow. Marlow looked up at him. Not only was he ugly, he was tall. Tall and ugly was not a good combination.
“I was told there’d be work here, yes,” Marlow said.
“You bin out prison ’ow long?”
Marlow looked at his watch. “Fifty eight minutes.”
The tall, ugly man laughed. The other criminals laughed with him. “So much fer the King’s fuckin’ Justice!”
“The King’s Justice isn’t what it used to be,” Marlow admitted.
The group was sat around a table in a Meereenese takeaway and restaurant, the Red Sands. It was mid-morning and aside from Marlow and the others, the place was empty. Outside, the blinding, scorching, summer sun was beating down as usual, even at this early hour. Shoppers and commuters could be heard making their way out and about as this little back-alley part of Landing began to wake. In here, though it was dark, cool and quiet.
The normal Ghiscasri paintings of pyramids and desertscapes adorned the walls of the establishment - and the multiple images of the Harpy showed quite boldly on which side of the Ghiscari Civil War the proprietor’s sympathies lay.
“You got a name, jailbird?” said the tall, ugly man.
None of your fucking business.
“That a first name or a last name?”
The giant grunted as he looked Marlow up and down, assessing him with huge, scabby eyes.
“And you say Feliks sent you?”
Marlow nodded. “He says hi, by the way.”
One of the other men chuckled and said, “Feliks fucking jailbird.” The others chuckled too. Feliks was well-liked here, despite never managing to stay out of prison for more than five minutes at a time. Feliks’ standing was good news for Marlow.
Eventually, the ugly giant shrugged, “Well, that’s fine, then. I’ll be checkin’ with Feliks a’ course, just to make sure. As I’m sure you’ll appreciate, if he tells me he don’t know anyone name a’ Marlow then we’ll be killin’ yer, right off.”
“Of course,” Marlow nodded.
“You came by at the right time, as it ‘appens,” the big man continued. He took a sip of tea from a cup that would have been tiny even in Marlow’s hand. “We need a few extra guys. We got a delivery comin’ in a few hours.”
Marlow tried not to smile.
“You don’t say.”
Marlow’s coach finally pulled into Darry transit station and he stifled a grimace of frustration as he saw the trains from Landing turning up too. Landing and Darry were both on the Kingsway Line and if he could have caught a direct train, he’d have been here ages ago. Instead, he’d been forced to take the Riverlands Line all the way out to Riverrun then coach it cross-country back here to Darry. Still, he’d been in a rush and Riverlands trains were cheap. He had fuck all cash and even less plastic. No Casterly Rock card, no Braavos card. You needed a name and a life to have plastic. He had neither. So he went where his meager cash could get him.
The thought of money made Marlow heft the rucksack a little, keeping an eye out for muggers. Darry was a decent sized town. It was nice, like Riverrun, full of friendly, middle-class families. Not a place overburdened with stick-wielding thugs. In Landing, yes. Up north, in Winfell, absolutely yes. But here, not so much - which would make it all the more annoying if he lost the bag to one, just fifteen minutes away from his destination. Marlow had to admit, though, he had far more to fear from overheating than he did from muggers. Carrying the bag and keeping his jacket zipped right up in this fucking heat...
They’d been predicting the Long Summer for years, he’d read once. They’d been hip deep in suntans for about three years by the time they knew for sure it had hit. Cue celebrations and TV Specials and local newspaper supplements. They reckoned the Long Summer could last as long as seven years.
Ten years in, now though. People aren’t bloody cheering anymore.
Marlow took in the walk as he passed the Trident Primary School, the Trident Car Wash, the Trident Shopping Centre... Everything around here was bloody Trident something. In short order, Marlow arrived at his destination - Trident Mill. It wasn’t a mill, though, not anymore. Just a housing estate in a very respectable part of town. The kind of place Marlow would like to live one day, knowing full well that day would never come.
He rapped on the door. Locks and chains scraped, the door opened and an old man’s face peeked out.
“Well, well, look who’s back in the land of the living! Come on in, lad!”
“Uncle Joff. Good to see you.”
Just fifteen minutes later, Marlow was washed, changed and sitting in Joff’s study drinking coffee, eating a slice of ginger cake and being surrounded by books and antiques of every size and shape. He’d always loved being here. Had done ever since he was a kid.
A table fan blew cool air across the room. Marlow was glad of the breeze. New clothes, something to eat and drink and getting inside out of the sun. Marlow had been out of prison nearly seven hours now but only in the last twenty minutes had he actually felt like it.
“Sorry I couldn’t come and get you from Riverrun, by the way,” Joff said, hacking himself a chunk of cake. “Car trouble.”
“You still driving that old thing? You need to take it into a Gendry’s.”
“Ha! Not even a Gendry’s mechanic could work the necessary miracles needed to fix that old rustbucket. It’s a fucking Sept it needs, not a garage.”
A brief, shallow smile crossed Marlow’s face.
“And how is King’s Landing these days?” Joff asked.
Marlow shrugged. “No idea.”
Joff smiled and shook his head, “You’re a Landing lad, through and through. Yet the only time you’ve been back in ten years is to serve time there.”
Old friend or not, Marlow was in no mood to talk about his fascinating relationship with his hometown. “Look, do you want what I’ve got or not?”
An eager smile crossed Joff’s face as if he was eight rather than eighty. “Just being polite with all the smalltalk shit.” He set his plate aside. “You know I’m always interested in anything you bring me. I’ve always got buyers on the go. Come on then, let’s see this great surprise you got yourself covered in blood for.”
Marlow opened the rucksack and fished out a small, wooden box and placed it carefully on the table. It was about a foot in length and half that in height and it had a red and gold coloured clasp.
“You’ll want your gloves for this one,” he said.
Doing a bad job of hiding his excitement, Joff pulled out a draw from under his desk and produced a pair of pristine, white cotton gloves. Carefully pulling them on, he stared at the box and flexed his fingers in anticipation. Finally, he opened the lid.
His eyes widened when he saw what rested inside. His hands went over his mouth.
“Do you know what this is?” he whispered in stunned awe.
“’Course I do,” said Marlow. “You taught me enough of those old bloody stories.”
Joff’s eyes fixed on Marlow, suddenly serious. “History, Marlow. Not stories. History.”
Marlow shrugged. “I know it’s the replacement for the hand that killed a King.”
Carefully, ever so carefully, Joff reached in and lifted out the heavy, metal object. It was bronzed and dulled with age. What once must have gleamed in the light, now sat sullen and dead. And still, it was beautiful.
“The Lannister Hand!” Joff exclaimed. He suddenly tore his eyes off it and frowned at Marlow. “How in the Hells did you get hold of this?”
Marlow raised his cup and took a deep breath to stop a shiver. All he could think of was blood.
“I’m not entirely sure you want to know.”
“Fuck off, it were never a goal! It should ‘ave been disallowed!” Rodent scowled, his teeth like mangled gravestones. “We shouldn’t never a’ been relegated! Fuckin’ ref was a Wolf all day long!”
“It was a goal, Rodent, and a perfectly good one. And you did get relegated so shut up and get over it,” said Jim. “You’re just bitter because the so-called Ironmen can’t stay in the Prem League longer than five seconds before they get kicked out again. And Winfell kicked you out good and proper last season because you were shit - so pay the iron price for that fucker!”
Jim, Marlow and Z’nak chuckled quietly. Rodent did not.
The four men stood at the back of the Red Sands. Marlow felt as though he’d been in the place all bloody day. It was obviously a front for the criminal gang that were his new employers. After his ‘job interview’, he’d been taken to Jim’s flat to get something to eat. Then an hour later, they were back here on his first assignment.
The other side of the restaurant, three Tyroshi businessmen were talking to the ugly giant whose name was actually Francis. Marlow had taken Francis for middle management but it turned out he was actually second in command to the group’s leader, Kevan. The tall, slim and very pale Winfell man had piercing eyes and jet black hair, slicked back in the Southern style. He was sat next to Francis now, as they discussed business with the foreigners. Business in this case being how much to pay for the item the Tyroshi had brought with them up the Blackwater. The small, innocent-looking wooden box on the table with the red and gold clasp.
“Actually, I have a nephew on trial with the Wolves. Micah Daan, his name is,” said Z’nak. He was a big, round Meereenese man with stupid eyes, a cruel mouth and a heavy Ghiscari accent. “He was courted by old Thorne himself. The old man came down and took him up to Winfell just last week.”
“Cool.” Jim nodded. Even Rodent, the Ironmen fan, appeared impressed.
Marlow just shrugged. “Well, it’s good that he’s willing to start at the bottom and work his way up.”
The other three looked at him. Z’nak sucked his teeth in derision. “Wolves hater, are you? Let me guess - you are a Stags fan.”
“My uncle took me to my first game when I was five,” Marlow said, not moving his gaze from the meeting at the table. “Watched the Landing Stags batter the Winfell Wolves five-nil to lift the cup. There’s only one top team in Westos, Z’nak, and the Wolves ain’t it.”
This time it was Z’nak’s turn to suffer the laughs.
Marlow glanced around the restaurant. They were just one group of four. There were three other groups and the Tyroshi had brought just as many with them. Everyone was packing.
“What’s with all the iron?” Marlow asked quietly. “Just for this little box? Is it valuable?”
“Apparently, but I don’t think that’s the main reason,” said Jim. “They haven’t said so, but I reckon this is all because of her.”
Marlow glanced at Jim, brow furrowed.
“She’s new on the scene, last couple a’ months. So you might not have heard about her with you being banged up,” Jim went on. “They call her the Broken Toy.”
“The what now?”
“Yeah, I heard of her, too. She’s hit a bunch a’ diff’rent gangs,” said Rodent. “Some bird, all on ‘er own. She comes in. Sometimes day, sometimes night, don’t matter. Comes in and kills everyone. Don’t take nothin’. Just kills everyone.”
“And nobody knows who she is?” said Marlow. “Nobody’s seen her face?”
“Oh, they’ve seen her face, alright,” said Jim. “Why do you think they call her the Broken Toy?”
Marlow’s intrigue was beginning to blossom into full-blown concern. More questions began to form but his attention was suddenly drawn back to the table - the business seemed to have taken a bit of a turn. The Tyroshi were looking over at Marlow’s group. Marlow went cold. They were looking over at him. So was Francis.
So was Kevan.
Slowly, the tall, thin man unfolded himself and rose from his seat. He straightened his tie, eyes fixed on Marlow the whole time. Then, Francis in tow, he walked slowly over.
“Good afternoon. So, you’re our new recruit?” said Kevan softly. He had the bearing of a southern aristocrat and the voice of a northern bear. “Feliks’ friend?”
Marlow nodded. “That’s right, ser.”
“Yes, funny thing. Our Tyroshi friends over there just told us something very interesting. Apparently, they’re paying part of their fee to someone also named Feliks. What a co-incidence.”
Marlow groaned. Instantly, he could see where this was going. Feliks was the one who’d told Marlow about this drop. They’d planned this together. Marlow would infiltrate the gang, steal the box, sell it on and they’d split the profits. Unfortunately, Feliks was both greedy and stupid. He’d made some kind of side-deal with the sellers - which meant he’d set the whole drop up in the first place.
“Double-dealin’ ain’t never a good idea,” Francis growled. “’specially when yer a stupid arse’ole who uses your own fucking name for both deals.”
“Of course, like I said, it could all just be a big co-incidence,” said Kevan amiably. Francis pulled out a .45 and began screwing on a silencer. Kevan wasn’t smiling anymore. “But my business doesn’t like big co-incidences.”
And that’s when the window shutters went down.
The entire room was plunged into darkness, the sunlight instantly gone. Replaced by tiny shafts that illuminated the room in strips. Marlow’s hand went straight for his gun. He could barely see anything. But he could hear the screams just fine.
There were gunshots and yells of confusion. But within the commotion, Marlow could hear it. Something moving softly, almost casually. A blade. Whipping through the air and squelching itself into flesh. The screams from big, burly men sounded like screams of little children. Someone was gutting them like so much market-day fish.
Marlow backed himself into a corner, his hand on his gun but his gun still in his jacket. He couldn’t stop chills of fear raking through his body. He’d been in gunfights aplenty in his time. But this was something else.
A vase next to Marlow’s head shattered as a stray, panicked gunshot tried to hit something, anything, that might save the man who fired it. But the man who fired it died with something choking his screams into gurgles.
Suddenly there was a scream in his ear. A pair of terrified eyes were illuminated by a strip of light. Rodent. Marlow jerked his head away as his face and torso were splashed with something warm and salty and Rodent’s eyes disappeared.
Marlow couldn’t see anything more than scraps but the sound filled his brain with full and graphic images of what was happening around him. He could hear the distinctive voice of Z’nak, pleading with some God or other but a heavy thud cut his prayers - and his head - off short. Francis’ enraged growl - which Marlow realised had been going on the entire time - suddenly turning to a whine of abject pain and fading out. More gunshots. More yells. More screams. And the entire time, the calm, unhurried casual movement of a point of darkness moving among them.
And then there was silence.
Marlow tried to regain his wits, tried to get his breathing under control. He looked around. Now the muzzle flashes had stopped, his eyes began to adjust to the dim light. Had he been missed?
How the fuck am I still alive?
He glanced towards the window and saw the silhouette of a person. A woman. She was looking at him. He couldn’t see her features but he could tell from the outline of her head that something was wrong with her face. Something misshapen. The dark hid her eyes but Marlow could feel her gaze burning into him. She hadn’t missed him. She’d left him.
Dimly, he became aware she was carrying something. She raised it and then, as calmly as if she had finished a meal, she slipped the long, long knife into her jacket. She turned away, opened the door and strode out into the sunshine. The door swung closed behind her, merrily ringing the bell as it shut.
Sunlight had briefly flooded the restaurant when the door had opened and Marlow finally saw his surroundings. Bodies. Bodies everywhere. Throats slit, heads shot wide open, entrails stuffed in mouths, faces cut from heads. There were limbs that Marlow couldn’t match up to their owners. The Tyroshi, Francis, Kevan, Jim... everyone was dead.
The box sat on the table, untouched.
Marlow grabbed it and ran.
“That sounds… fun.” Joff blinked.
“Yeah…” was all Marlow could think to say as he took another sip of coffee.
“Okay, look,” Joff said as he carefully put the bronze hand back into the box, “I’ll pay top pennies for this piece. It’s a classic. Lost for centuries. I’ll sort out the details with you later, okay? But listen, I’ve got a job for you. A big one. You interested?”
Marlow shrugged. “Sure. As long as there aren’t any psychotic women involved.”
“Sorry, I can’t guarantee that. There are women and I’m pretty sure at least one of them is borderline psychotic,” said Joff. “It’s up in Winfell.”
Marlow sighed. That shithole? Well, work was work. He hated going up North but he also hated to stay idle.
“Okay, go on, then. What’s the deal?”