“Who makes their lair in the sewers?” Fabius grumbled aloud.
“Asking it the fifth time will not get you a different answer, Fabius.” Baldor replied. The royal guard seemed as calm as water in one of the western lakes. Fabius’d always envied the man’s ability to remain unperturbed.
Fabius gave his lantern a wild wave to express his frustration. He needed to find the mastermind before General Viallan sent his troops. Fabius had no intention to share in the spotlight and for once, a need to prove himself to his fathers crept into his mind. No, not for fathers. But for Darius. He went to Halaa for me, in spite of his hate. Fabius readjusted his grip on the sword as he banished the thoughts.
The gray slime covered walls gave off a ghostly glow in the lantern light. It wasn’t pitch dark because of the spaced out grills from the roads under Lushrow, but the flooring of the sewers had become rough and riddled with holes where the water had eaten away the cobbled stone. The Droullins had apparently bothered to pave the sides of the sewer for walking but had taken no care of it since.
“What in the world is that smell? That’s not like the sewers, is it?” Ragnasary stood in front of a fork to the left.
“Trust the cook to smell out stuff,” muttered Leonton, the second royal guard.
Fabius raised his sword and jumped over the stream of water to the other side. A sweet smell wafted through with a draft. “But his nose is never wrong.” Whatever could mask the smell of a sewer did not belong down here.
The lantern’s glow silhouetted the tunnel but failed to clear the gloom through its length. Fabius raised his sword hand and held the blade parallel, signaling his men to proceed. Captain Viallan’s reports had suggested that over thirty people had gone missing but all bar one had been common folk. Five of us should be enough.
What did worry Fabius was the thought that some plant could drive people to abandon their everyday lives and stay in a sewer. This could not be a natural plant, almost like the sparkling silk trees Mariam kept rattling on about.
Even moving on the balls of their feet, the sound echoed through the sewer. The smell grew stronger and Fabius sensed a stronger odour of spices woven through.
They emerged into a large octagonal hall which Fabius chalked up to have been a control centre for the sewers given the large levers set in the walls on the side, much like those used for a drawbridge. Seven other exits lined each wall.
“Reminds me of the Drunken Lizard pub,” Ragnasary commented.
“That smelled a lot worse,” grunted Baldor.
Fabius shushed them and raised his left hand with the lantern and scanned the hall. “There…”
Two women sat hunched around a pot under which a small fire burned in front of the entrance to another tunnel. The companions glided across the stone floor as a unit.
The women did not look up or betray any sign that they had even heard them. Fabius handed over the lantern to Leonton and raised his fist.
Both the ladies seemed to be clothed in typical Awad fashion wearing embroidered cotton tops with loose cotton trousers. Their hair, however, told a different story, unmade and unruly, clearly not having washed in over a month.
Fabius kneeled in front of them. A brownish liquid bubbled in the pot, from which rose the strong incense. The smell hit him like a punch on the nose and he fell back on his rump.
The ladies handled long stalks of wide, sparsely hairy, pale-green leaves that tapered to a sharp point. One plucked leaves and dropped them in a basket, from where the other picked them up and tore it into pieces before dropping them into the pot.
“It takes time to get used to the fragrance,” a calm voice called from an alcove near one of the entrances.
“Who is it?” Fabius bounded up on his feet, his sword at the ready. Leonton turned the lantern towards the voice, his own sword drawn.
Fabius flinched as a torch flared up near the wall. A man wearing a grey tunic stood with a tinder-box. In a nearby alcove sat three other men and two women huddled around another pot, from which rose the same intense smell. A few bundles of clothes lay about them as did a few crates of fruits.
“The doctor squealed, didn’t he?” a man in a leather tunic sat on the other edge of the sewer entrance, his silhouette barely illuminated by the torch. But a glint by his side showed Fabius a large sword propped on the wall.
“The missing soldier from General Viallan’s guard. Why am I not surprised?” Fabius held out his left hand low behind his back with his fingers curled, signaling his men to hold their positions and watch the others. “Why are you kidnapping people?”
The man smiled. “You naïve boy. You think I kidnapped them? They came freely.”
“Taking away their ability to think for themselves by giving this concoction is letting them be free?”
“They think for themselves as much as you do,” the man snarled. “Do not dismiss what you don’t understand. This allows you to see how we can change ourselves and connect with nature.”
“Living in the sewers is so natural,” Fabius smirked, keeping a wary eye out for the man’s right hand.
“You do not pluck out people from the city and put them in a forest. You do it slowly so they adapt. Once they are ready, they’ll go to the Lord of Luck to live in peace, like the ones before them.”
“Lord of Luck? Fancy name for a thug who gives you this weed?”
“He doesn’t just give it, he grows it. Without any seeds, without any water, straight from the soil. In a matter of minutes. All he needs is salt. And he’s no thug. What would young frenzied men like you who gamble and bed tavern women know of living a life of peace?”
Fabius slunk closer. If he could get within range, he could knock the sword from the man’s reach. “That’s why you went after the salt caravans. You intoxicated them with this potion and didn’t even have to fight to take them.”
The man laughed. “The Lord of Luck does not need to intoxicate people. They follow him willingly. We promote peace and harmony, not squabbles and petty battles over lands and your metal flowers.”
“Which is why you carry a sword, is it?” Fabius flicked his wrist to knock the sword over. But before his blade could touch the hilt, the man snatched it up with one hand and his sword swished through air.
Fabius jumped back to put distance between them. His men had all held their swords up for combat. A smile died on his lips as he realized that the innocuous occupants of the hall had pulled out their own swords and daggers.
“Don’t injure them, they are untrained,” Fabius called out as the group spread out to meet the attackers.
I’ll dispatch him quickly and then help the boys. Fabius took stance as the former guard advanced with a smirk on his face. He thinks I’m a novice, does he?
Fabius ducked in surprise as the broadsword flashed past his shoulder. How did he…? He barely got his sword up as the man swung his blade the other way aiming for Fabius’ jugular. Darn, he’s fast. But his mind stopped all thoughts as a whirlwind of strikes rained down upon him.
Fabius cursed himself for the lack of a shield. His one-handed short-sword was much lighter than the two-handed broadsword wielded by the rogue guard. He would have to do with deflections than full-blooded parries.
He countered with a sharp swing directed at the man’s legs. I need to slow him down. But the man riposted his strike with ease and thrust out with a twisting action. Fabius parried with the flat of his blade to avoid his own sword turning in his hand. The Dance of the Puma?
He knew only one counter to that style. Fabius pulled back his left leg and lifting it up on the toes. The guard feigned to the left while his sword arm arced towards Fabius from the right.
A groan went up to his left as Fabius twisted on his left leg and pulled his stomach in to avoid the slice. Baldor dropped to his knees holding his stomach. His stance in disarray, Fabius jerked out of the way of another swipe which crashed into the sewer wall behind him.
“Noooo…” screamed Farius, as a wild haired lady stabbed her dagger into Baldor’s chest. Baldor sputtered blood and collapsed.
Calm. Fabius paused a split moment and swung. His sword missed, though the tip sliced through the green leather jerkin. His opponent managed a smirk at his own spryness. His mind marveled at the speed, but the sight only made him angrier. I need to end this.
Fabius flung himself towards the torch, knocking it out the holder. The torch hissed as it landed on the wet floor and then went out. Dim glows from the fires under the pots was all that Fabius could see. Their own lantern had gone out during the fight.
He sprang away from the wall as he felt the air being split by a sword slash.
“Very smart. You think we can’t see in the dark? The Lord of Luck showers all his follower with blessings beyond your comprehension.”
Fabius’ heart stopped, as he realized he’d doomed them all.
Bright flashes exploded all around them. Fabius shielded his eyes as white smoke clogged his nostrils. He dropped to the ground. His foe dropped his sword and clutched his ears and doubled over.
The ash from the explosions stung Fabius’ eyes and he batted them in quick succession to bring out the tears. A bright light lit up the entire hall. He caught a glimpse of the former guard who shielded his eyes from the sudden light. A loud crack sounded as a staff landed flush on the head of the swordsman, who collapsed.
Fabius blinked again. “Thormane?”
A sharp slap slammed across his left cheek.
“What the…?” Fabius stumbled back from the rage and contempt stark on the face of the showman. He looked around. All the men and women lay knocked out by about ten members from Thormane’s entourage.
Baldor lay dead, his eyes wide open and large red gash on his chest. Ragnasary also lay holding his thigh.
Fabius collected his thoughts, his cheek stinging from the slap. “Thank you, showman Thormane. You saved our lives. But that wa…”
“Never mind that. Do you even realize the danger you put your companions in? Do you know what the potion does to a man?”
“What do you mean?”
“The plant puts you in a state of ecstasy, which is why most of these people appear relaxed and dazed. They are in their own happy cocoon. But their senses are heightened beyond any normal human. They see things which your eyes will miss, they hear from afar and their reflexes are sharper than a lynx.”
“What…how…how do you know this?” Fabius’ grip on his sword tightened.
“Because unlike you I do not rush in like a mad bull only to be gored by a well-placed spear.”
“No, I meant how did you know we were here?”
Another slap stung Fabius’ face. He stopped himself from retaliating. “I’m not leaving till you tell me how you came to know we were here.”
“I overheard General Viallan organizing troops. They will be here in minutes. Now are you going to stand here or are you going to let another one of your men bleed to death?” The showman pointed to Ragnasary.
Fabius’ ears burned, both in shame and anger. He wanted to argue. But the showman was right. He’d led Baldor to his death.
Darius woke up to a cacophony of shouts. Not the usual humdrum of the mornings where they were woken up with kicks and pushed to work in the fields. Tarvus’ sheets lay crumpled and empty.
A lanky bandit stood over him. “Get up sea scum. And line up outside.”
Darius hadn’t seen the man before but one thing he’d learnt was that all the bandits treated the crew with disdain. “No work in the fields?”
“You lot are being sent to Halaa. If you can wield a sword that is.” The lanky bandit had moved over to one of the deckhands. Darius pulled on his half torn shirt and jogged outside the barn.
Most of the sailors from The Morning Tide had been handed wooden sticks carved to resemble one handed swords. Tarvus stood flipping his own stick end-over-end, smiling at a fallen bandit smarting. A few others seemed to be in duels as well and from the way Tarvus’ crew moved Darius knew that the captain had trained all his men. We’re getting out of this blasted camp. He advanced towards the field but a firm hand landed on his chest.
“What can this lame duck do? Where do you think you’re going?” Courash bared his pointed teeth.
Darius glared at the leader of the bandit camp. The man had heaped more misery on them than any other bandit, evidently taking pleasure in every small slap and punch he could land.
“A man who shaves his head? Are you sure you’re a man?” The bandit poked Darius’ midriff. Short hair had sprung up on his head in the few weeks but the large gash on his forehead had forced him to keep shaving his head off. Thankfully, the bandits had allowed Fanou to keep trimming beards and hair through the camp. “Maybe we can use him as a running target for our knife throws or maybe he can keep some of you men happy.” Courash waved around his dagger. “Anybody fancy him?”
“Leave him alone. He’s of more use on this tour of yours than any warrior.” Tarvus walked up to the bandit.
“Oh and why is that? Pray tell, great captain of the sunken ship.”
“Because he’s a cook for the royal army. Without proper food, no soldier can train, let alone fight for his life. You know why Throdden soldiers are so much better than you buffoons? Because our cooks know what to feed them and how much. You want to get some good coin from these fights? Let him come.”
Courash laughed manically. “He adds potions of strength to the food? A warrior is known for the strength he possesses, the swing of his blade and his ability to crush opponents.”
“How about I show you what crushing your opponent really means?” Tarvus raised his wooden sword.
Courash laughed. “A wager? What do I get when I stomp your face in the mud?”
Tarvus shrugged. “I’ll be your personal servant.”
“That you anyways are, sea-dog. But no matter, it’ll do good for your men to see how weak their Captain is.” Courash pushed Darius back.
Darius saw a grin break out on Tarvus’ face. He’s baiting the bandit in.
“But we do not fight with toys, dog,” Courash pulled out his long dagger. “Find yourself a weapon,” he added baring his snake teeth, “if you can.”
Tarvus grin dropped off but he held up his wooden sword tightly. Darius looked around frantically for anything which Tarvus could use as the bandit advanced on him.
“What is happening here?” The man who had stayed their execution came running followed by two others. Darius hadn’t seen the man since the first day.
So, he’s his got own spies. Darius made a mental note.
Courash lowered his dagger. “Why spoil a good fight, Barak?”
“Because only a fool denounces food. He’s a royal cook.” The olive-skinned man pointed towards Darius. “You want to keep feeding the men the same bland stew, the boiled taters and the spit roast meat? We are bandits, not Halan savages. You don’t have the wit to understand that food is not just for filling your bellies.”
Courash grumbled, but said nothing. “Fine then, if you like him so much, take him along. Good riddance. Maybe he’ll drop some poison into all of your food and then you’ll understand why stew is better than any trash he cooks up.”
Courash back-handed the hilt of the dagger on Darius’ face, before storming off.
“What’s your name, cook?” Barak turned towards Darius. The man’s eyes flicked all over him. Darius felt queasy.
“Remus.” Darius replied, spitting out blood from the cut in his gums.
“If you dare tamper with the food, Halan skinning will be a preferable death for you.”
Darius nodded. This was an apt time to make an impact. “I don’t cook food. I create it. And I do not care whether I cook for the Throddens or bandits. I don’t care whether you even eat or throw away what I cook, as long as I get to cook. If you don’t believe how good I can be, today’s dinner will be nothing less than a royal feast. Give me the spices I want and I promise you, you’ll want to bite off your fingers when you are done.”
Barak did not respond and turned around and walked off. Darius looked around. His words hadn’t fallen on deaf ears. The bandits looked at him with something bordering intrigue. A few good meals would win him many favours.
The trials resumed as Tarvus came up to him and clapped him on the back. “I am leaving three of my men behind along with Chavin. They can take care of him and we will always have inside knowledge of what bandits do. They will be in a shock when we bring the armies of Sen-Tian upon them.”
Darius nodded. Chavin had had his gut split open by a broken plank while swimming and hadn’t healed completely. “But why in Sucellok’s beard did you stop me from picking up the sword?”
“Because we don’t know how the fights are going to be. We cannot afford to lose you in a simple fight.”
Darius wanted to object but Tarvus made sense. He couldn’t afford to fall in a meaningless skirmish for money. “So you planned on fighting that madman with a stick to get me on as a cook?”
“Not just for that. I needed a reason to bash his head in.” Tarvus smiled.
Darius looked up at the sun. He would get his men out.