“Bomp bomp bomp bomp. Bomp bomp. Bompity bomp!”
Ely hummed a tune, not sure of whence it entered his memory. Perhaps it was from a street performer, he mused. Or a tune from a tavern. Or that time I went to the carnival. Oh, how fun that was! I picked up two wenches that day. And had them both. At once.
A grin curled on his lips as he recalled that night. The kisses. The ripping of shirts and skirts, underclothes and all. The flesh. One milky white. The other darker, the tone of a fine, aged ale.
To hell with the tune. To hell with waiting. Better things lie ahead.
Ely made haste for the door, adjusting his wig as he left. With his wig straight, the false moustache on his fulcrum faltered, nearly coming undone from his skin. He cursed under his breath as he secured it above his lip once more.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Ely paused. How do they know I’m leaving? They still ought to be . . .
“I just need a break,” Gerry replied, his voice echoing through the hall beyond Ely’s room. “Let me rest. My bed . . .”
“. . . Will still be there an hour from now,” Symon assured. The hollow reverberation of footsteps permeated from the corridor outside. Ely, tilting his head, listened to his brothers, whom he gathered were a few doors down from his own.
“Symon, can’t this wait?”
“That depends on you. On your abilities with the javelin. Here. I want you to take this and throw.”
“Throw this down the hall. Straight and true. You don’t even need to worry about hitting a target. For now. I just want to see that you can hurl properly.”
“And if I do, we can stop?”
Ely leaned in closer, waiting. Seconds passed without a sound. Then, metal on stone clanked.
“I know, I know,” Gerry conceded. “Back to the bailey.”
“An hour more, tis all.”
“Easier said than done for you.”
Symon forced a laugh. The two strode down the hall, their steps growing fainter, until they were finally replaced by the jostling of weapons and mindless grunts.
“Poor fools,” Ely said to himself as he snuffed out the candle. “Imprisoned by their stubborn adherence to the rules of our father, who has restricted us to this dungeon. All because we wear the same face.” Ely rubbed the right curl of his moustache between his fingertips, his false locks staying in place. “But not me. Not tonight.”
Ely chuckled to himself as he left his room. As he closed the door, he snuck one last look at his bed, under which lied a heap of clothes arranged to look like a body.
They’ll never know.
He stepped lightly down the hall, in the direction opposite of his brothers, his shoes of soft leather striking the tiles with nary a sound. Once the corridor curved and the rooms were out of sight, he resumed his regular gait, his strides brisk and long. Though underground and a good two-minute walk to the surface, he could feel the draft, having descended from above. The night is warm, he told himself. And inviting. Perfect for a jaunt. Absolutely perfect.
Ely rounded the corner to face a Voiceless guard. The sentry, at attention, kept his gaze forward as the prince passed. Not being able to help himself, Ely waved his hand before the guard’s face. As though pearls set in stone, neither of his eyes moved.
“No, thank you,” Ely said, shaking his head in bemusement after he walked away. Such discipline. A lifetime of self-restraint. For what? To stand in a dank passageway, waiting for a moment of adventure. Not for me!
Ely hurried along, the breeze against his skin growing stronger. Short whiffs carried his hair. The salt from the sea wafted to his nostrils. As he passed another Voiceless, he could hear the crashing of the waves beyond.
He stopped before the guard. Like all the others assigned to the tunnels, he was outfitted with a full suit of plate, including a helm. And as with the others, he wore a bell on his belt, to be used if Terran was breached. Though that was only to be used if the invaders were few.
He flicked the bell. His fingernail dinged off of the outer shell yet it did not ring.
“Removed the tongue, did you?” Ely asked. “Smart.” In such close confines as the tunnels of Terran, even a bell mistakenly rung could emit an echo far and wide.
The Voiceless, with his visor raised, replied not with speech nor his eyes. He stared straight ahead, as he had been trained to do.
“Another mindless cod in a school of fish,” he quipped. “If the moment ever comes, I hope you defend this castle better than you defend your honor.”
Ely paused. He thought he saw the knight flinch. He leaned in, though on closer inspection he could not tell. He considered using the Language of the Hands, so named for those who were deaf or mute that had no way of composing words with their mouths. Many a manor considered the practice heresy, as it allowed for communication that was neither written nor spoken, and at one point in Afari’s history was thought to summon demons from the abyss. Alas, demons had never surfaced so far as Ely could tell, nonetheless, the silent language was discouraged. A pity for the deaf and mute, Ely knew, but an advantage for their Voiceless knights who had no other way to communicate.
The knight before him neither murmured nor spoke with his hands. He remained obedient, as he was trained to be.
“Very well.” Ely stepped aside to move past the Voiceless. “Keep at it.”
Ely marched up the stone staircase lined by torches. Their light flickered wildly, alluding to the opening ahead. As he reached the top, the last one stood unlit, having been blown out. Beyond that sconce, the way shone not, presenting Ely with full darkness.
“Hmmm.” Ely had hoped for the light of the moon to illuminate at least part of the tunnel, as was most often the case, unless clouds or fog had rolled in. Annoyed yet not dismayed, he descended a few steps to the last lit sconce. In its glow, he drew his flint lighter and a small tin box from the pocket of his doublet. He opened the box to find a single strip of char cloth.
“Damn it! I thought I had more.” Ely squeezed the arms of the lighter again and again, sending sparks onto the stairs. “I suppose I will have to find more in Arcporte.”
The char cloth caught a spark and ignited. Seeing it aflame, Ely took the steps two at a time to the top. Just as the cloth was about to give out, he flicked it at the wall to his right. The flaming cloth bounced off the sandstone before burning out. Though that was enough.
From the spot that the char cloth touched, veins of soft blue light radiated, stretching out towards the darkened corridor ahead. Ely, seeing the way illuminated, grinned.
Clank, clank, clank.
Ely glanced over his shoulder, to find the Voiceless at the base of the stairs pounding the butt of his halberd on the stone floor. With the tip of his blade he pointed to the glowing web above and shook his head, his stare having become a disapproving glare.
“Oh, now you move?!” Ely asked in a sharp tone. “Relax. You needn’t worry. It was just a spark, not nearly close enough to ignite the walls nor cause any serious damage.”
The knight narrowed his eyes. Ely returned the gesture. Though he did not relent in his look, the Voiceless did retreat to his station.
Such dreary fellows, Ely considered as he proceeded onward through the hall. He tapped one of the bright blue veins with his index finger. Putting it before his nose, he sniffed.
Much less pungent. The Voiceless will need to apply a new coat.
Ely studied the glowing web. He wondered just how much fire – by torch or brazier or other means- it would take to set off the defensive measure that lined every passageway in and out of Terran. In small amounts, Dywar’s Tears were harmless, a mage’s trick to help miners find their way through those shafts and caves where air had to be conserved and fire avoided. However, in large quantities, the potion proved unstable. Only when paired with stone did the Tears settle. Even then it remained flammable. The Voiceless, as the ultimate measure against attack, had painted the surface of each exit wall with Tears, with all the veins leading to small cisterns carved into the wall. Each repository held enough potion to explode and collapse the corridors should they be breached.
A torch would do it, Ely assured himself. The web of light would grow much brighter than this, igniting the potion in their cisterns and sending the whole passageway ablaze. Yes, a lit torch. A flaming cloth? No, not enough heat. Never.
Convinced he had not tempted fate, Ely continued to follow the lattice of gleaming blue light until he came to an opening barely wide enough to squeeze through. He held his breath as he inched out. He had nearly cleared the confines when his false moustache caught an edge.
“Damn it to Mar!” he exclaimed, as he watched the piece of his disguise fall into a stony crack.
He stepped away from the mouth of the cave, searching for his moustache when a short howl forced him to raise his head. Suddenly conscious that he was in the open, he scanned his surroundings. Nothing struck him as out of the ordinary. The cave, one of many grottos and outcroppings in the vicinity, showed no signs of recent disturbance by another. The hill where he stood, which sloped gently toward the sea in the west, endured the absence of any other soul, as had been the case every night that Ely chose to wander it paths.
A yelp pierced the tranquility. Ely, hearing it a second time, knew it could not be wild. Perhaps a sheep dog. Or a stray mutt. Regardless, it may have an owner, Ely considered as he hurried himself along a game trail.
I wonder if the Voiceless ever make it to Arcporte? he mused as he strolled the winding path past short tree and shrubs. In his younger years, he had spent considerable effort prodding the knights on the intricacies of their lives. Where they slept. If they had families. How they chose to enter Terran from the labyrinth of paths. The responses via their language of the hands had always been curt and generic, providing no real insight into their personalities. Dawkin, on the other hand, had been much more successful in his own attempts, for his curiosity was one borne from a desire to understand every aspect of the castle, especially its architecture. Even then, the knowledge they were able to administer proved vague. But Ely was nonetheless able to pry from Dawkin the fact that the Voiceless had their own tunnels and corridors, secret paths to be used in emergencies, ones that could penetrate every area of the castle, from the dungeons to the gardens to the Throne Room itself.
Such knowledge could be so useful, Ely thought. And deadly.
Shortly within rounding the hill, the candlelit windows of Arcporte were in his sights. He quickened his pace, anxious to embrace a full stein and a loose woman all at the same time. So eager he was to indulge that he nearly fell over a lamb as he approached the city wall.
“Mind your feet, lad!” warned the shepherd.
Ely caught his balance and looked up. Leaning against a crook as she sat on a boulder was the toothless old woman he had known since boyhood, whose name he had never bothered to remember.
“You could have warned me if you saw me coming,” Ely retorted.
The miserly lady cackled. “And miss the fun? Not likely.”
“Where’s your louse of a husband? Drunk inside?” he quipped, tilting his head to the hut underneath a gnarled oak tree.
“Do you hear him snoring? Of course he is not here! He went into the city around midday, hasn’t returned. Perhaps passed out in a gutter somewheres.”
Or with a whore, if the man has any sense, thought Ely. “I’ll leave my coin inside then.”
“Fare is the same as always,” said the hag absentmindedly.
Ely ducked into the hut to find it in disarray. Sheepskin blankets laid strewn about. The kettle had yet to be cleaned from the last meal, stinking of mutton and crusted gravy. Black soot caked the fireplace though the ashes and embers had been removed, adding to the general malodor of the residence.
“Uhhh! Such filth!” Ely said to no one at all. He tiptoed his way through the mess, careful to avoid unnecessary contact with anything inside. He made it to the far end of the hut by the pantry, where cockroaches and mice scattered as he approached.
“I need to a better way of sneaking about.” He lifted the sheepskin on the floor besides the shelving, revealing a cellar door. “I should evict these shepherds from their lot. Raze their hovel.” He opened the door and descended. “Build me a cleaner entrance. A grand entrance. One fit for a sovereign.”
The door above shut, enveloping him in darkness. Not that it mattered, for the cellar was but a hole in the ground with only one way to go: north, into the city.
Ely extended his fingers to grope the surrounding earthen walls. The way proved unencumbered, save for the occasional crunch beneath his feet, which he could only guess was a roach or multi-legged critter of some sort. Still, he felt no urge to cry out in disgust. This filth he expected, the dark securing both his ease and boredom through the unlit corridor. So uneventful was his drab stroll that he started to whistle, with the boundaries of his passage providing the echoing ensemble to his tune.
Bars of light eventually broke his melodious trance to beckon him forward. He came to a set of moss-laden steps and another cellar door, this one wider than the first.
Ely ascended the stairs and reached up to the door. He pushed but found it heavier than expected. He took another step upward to brace his back against the door.
Above, a set of weights shifted.
“What the bloody hell?”
In one motion, he heaved himself up and through the door. The burdens on top scurried and squealed as Ely spilled onto the muck that made up the floor.
“Come on now! My favorite doublet!” he cried as he fingered the muddy filth that clung to his garb. He scrambled to his feet, which slipped and slid, as a familiar voice roared.
“Oh my!” the swineherd laughed. “You came at just the right moment.”
Ely stared up at the loft to glare at his host. The man, as rotund as they came with a bulbous nose, sat atop a pile of straw cradling a piglet.
“Since when did you block the door?” Ely asked, fuming.
“Tis not me that did the blocking. Only the swine.”
“Which you tend.”
“Aye, Sire. I watch over them. Unless I’m asleep. Or napping. Or eating.”
“You are a man dedicated to your calling. Too bad the constable didn’t respond to reports of filth. You and that wench outside the walls would be in the stockades.”
“Aye, too bad. Then how would lords and lads like yourself ever come into our lives?”
“I ought to skip out on paying you.”
“You could. And there would be little I could do about it, what with entrance into the city after dark being against the law and all, and with you a man of rank and me a lad of swine.”
Ely waited. The glow from the cook fire in the corner cast enough light for him to see the grin on the swineherd’s face.
“Out with it!” Ely barked. “I know you are just waiting for the right moment for your clever quip.”
“Oh! Me, Sire? I only meant to add that if you skipped out on paying your underground fare, you might find the entry into the city next time a little more . . . well, I have a sow due to birth soon. She could take up the space which that door occupies.”
“Your point is made, albeit with less prose than even I expected.” Ely dipped his fingers into his satchel to retrieve a copper coin, which he flicked upward into the swineherd’s lap.
“Thank you, Sire.”
“You can thank me by mopping up that filth which covers the door!”
Ely glanced at a stack of feed in the corner. They are still there, he thought. Earlier, he had stowed a nobleman’s outfit in a secret compartment he had fashioned on a day when he knew the swineherd would be at the market. After he finished constructing the hiding place, setting some clothes, disguises, and a purse full of emergency funds, he had covered the hatchway with a burlap sack of feed, betting against the notion that the swineherd would mind its shift. With the sack where Ely had left it, he had won that bet.
Ely considered ripping off his soiled clothes and retrieving his wares from the compartment. The moment passed, though. Best leave them there, he told himself. This isn’t the castle. I have only one hiding spot here. I should leave it be until a more desperate time.
He ducked out of the pigsty that made for a shack and burst into the city, one with no signs of slowing even though the sun had set. The Smallquarter of Arcporte was known for its bustling activity, which continued through all hours even when the rest of the city slept. The arrival of the Ibian Armada had hastened the pace of the neighborhood further, so much so that Ely had to evade porters, messengers and servants who darted to and fro with nary a concern for safety.
He was hardly in the mood for such scampering until one servant, a boy of ten, rounded a corner to smack into Ely and his mud-caked doublet.
“Careful, lad!” Ely shouted.
The boy, bouncing back from Ely, wiped the muck from his face. “You watch it, swineherd!”
Ely, taken aback, stared at the servant as he continued on his way. Then, looking down at himself, he laughed.
I do look like a swineherd, he thought, admiring how in the dim of night his once clean garb had soiled. How delightful! And earlier I tried my hand at being a merchant. What a poor disguise compared to what I have become. I need not worry of theft tonight.
Amused by the turn of events, Ely loosened his gait into a casual stroll and resumed whistling. Now untroubled by the pace of the streets, he made his way towards a two-story public house within his sights.
The crowd of the Mud Wench made itself known a block away, as the open shutters spilled uproarious chatter and folk music in the streets. A few of the unsavory kind emptied from the tavern as well, with two drunkards engaged in a brawl and their small retinues who followed momentarily cutting off Ely’s path. He paused, taking in the spectacle of two men barely able to stand trying to knock each other down. One, with coarse black hair on every inch of his body save his head, beat the air with his fists, while the other, smaller in stature but no less wild, ducked and returned each missed punch with a failed attempt of his own. After a series of disappointing exchanges, the small audience gathered around them began to hiss and reprimand the two while tightening their circle. The men, with little recourse, faced off and bent their head downwards. In the blink of an eye, they butted heads, swayed back and fell limp to the muddy street. Their retinue erupted into cheers. Then, finding their companions unresponsive, dispersed.
Ely grinned as he reached into his satchel. He tossed a coin to each of the fallen men, who moved not when the money landed on their bellies.
“Well done, gents. A good show for all.” Ely’s grin curled further into a smile as a pack of street children descended on the two men and their coins.
Inside, the antics proved no less amusing to Ely. Other near scuffles at risk of being taken outside were ensuing, along with conversation carried on through shouting, the drinking and spilling of ale and the petting and pecking of male patrons with maidens and whores. To accompany the theatrics of the common folk, a band of lyrists and violinists played on stage, with every member ducking and swinging to avoid projectiles of every sort.
Ely surveyed the crowd. All of Arcporte seemed to be represented in the tavern that night. Though he could not recite most of their names, he recognized the faces of many. The cobbler from Falsehill Street. The smiths from the Forge Guild, the baker and his apprentices who sold pasties on the Curved Wharf. Even the beloved town crier, Master Reysen, was present, partaking in stewed mutton and clapping along with the songs.
“Mar, I love this mess!” Ely said as he shoved a patron out of his way. That patron ran into another, guaranteeing a brawl that Ely looked forward to watching from afar.
He wove through the mass to arrive at the bar, where a barmaid with golden locks wearing a brazier far too small barked at him. “Order up already. I haven’t got all day.”
“My dear,” Ely said, coaxing her toward him. “Don’t you look lovely?”
“You gonna drink or not?”
“What? No flattery? Don’t you recognize me?”
The barmaid nearly had it with Ely when her eyes found his hand, which patted the satchel on his belt.
“Aww, Master Anfroy of Har-Kin . . .”
“No matter my family.”
“Yes, of course, how are you?” The barmaid leaned over to embrace Ely. Her motion was awkward but Ely did not mind, for her bosom bulged forward to welcome his chin and cheeks.
“I am in the mood for a good ale. Your finest.”
“Of course,” she retreated to the cask, but not before motioning to his soiled doublet. “I see you’ve had a wild night already.”
“You can say that.”
“The pig,” Ely said as he took the stein from her hand and drank.
Her golden locks bounced as she laughed louder than necessary all while stroking his arm. “Oh, Master Anfroy, how you are a smith of words.”
“The night is young. I still have my wits to string two thoughts together.”
The barmaid, her gaze returning the coin satchel, leaned in to him. “My sister is here. In the kitchen plucking chickens.”
“Shame. I should be the one plucking her.” Ely saw the barmaid was about to cackle once more. He clasped her hand, stopping her. “Enough talk. Go pull her from the back. I want you both. Now.”
“The tavern is full . . . my customers . . .”
“You have another behind the bar,” Ely said, nodding to the aproned tavernmaster at the other end of the bar. “He can manage for the moment. Have a kitchenhand fill your orders.”
“My tip, I . . .”
“I will pay you double.”
“For both of us?”
“Of course. You will have deserved it with what I have in store for you.”
“Master Anfroy!” The barmaid, by no means a stranger to men and their ways, managed to blush.
“Like I said, the night is young.” Ely cocked his head back to finish his stein. “Now go. Don’t you two keep me waiting.”
The barmaid giggled as she swept past other men vying for her attention. Ely, watching after her, slammed his stein on the bar, loud enough to draw the tavernmaster’s attention. “More ale!” Ely shouted at the man as he flashed a silver coin at him. The tavernmaster, his eagerness apparent, complied.
A strong set of fingers clawed into Ely’s shoulder. They swung him around so that he came face to face with their owner, a hairless man who towered a head above him.
“I was waiting for him to get me mine,” growled the bald patron, who was flanked by two lesser men, no doubt his acquaintances.
“Wait some more,” Ely retorted.
“Funny man, I see.”
“I amuse from time to time.”
“I hate funny men.”
“Sounds like you need a good joke.”
The man grabbed Ely by his doublet to slam him back against the bar. The steins on top fell, clattering to the ground. With their fall, the crowd hushed as the music halted.
“What I’ll take is your satchel. Your coins. And an ale, which I’ll drink over your bleeding body.”
His friend to his left drew a dagger from his coat, which he extended to the bald man. The man reached for the blade. Ely, his eyes wide, straightened.
“Do you know who I am?” Ely asked.
Ely nearly forgot his deceptive persona when the barmaid, who had been watching from the kitchen doorway, spoke. “He’s Master Anfroy!” she said.
“Master Anfroy?” the bald man replied.
“Yes, from Har-Kin, Har-Kin . . . oh, what’s the name?”
“Oarrowd,” Ely finished. “Har-Kin Oarrowd.”
“Never heard of it,” stated the bald one.
“It’s an old family of sailors and merchants.”
“I don’t care!”
“Well, gentle fellow, you should.” Ely could feel the man’s grip loosen, albeit slightly. “You see, my coin is appreciated in these parts.”
“Which will soon be mine.”
“Yes, you’ve made that clear. And perhaps, if you had waited outside in the shadows to take me by surprise, the coin could have been yours. But you see, with all these eyes present, you stand little chance of getting away with your deed.”
“No one will squeal. They’re too afraid.” The bald man glared at the crowd. Those around him averted their stares momentarily until he returned his attention to Ely.
“Most won’t because they won’t need to. You hurting me, however, will cause the tavernmaster to lose my patronage, along with many, many women who frequent this establishment. You think you can keep all of them quiet? What of those in the blacksmiths’ guild. Do you believe any one of those hard men fear you? Or the town crier, Master Reysen. Will he go about his route, announcing all is well, when clearly, it will not be?
“You may gut me like a fish, take my coin and drink over my dying body tonight. Tomorrow, you will most certainly see the stockade. Maybe even the noose.”
The man loosened his grip further but still held on to Ely’s doublet. Ely, though scared, was also growing tired of this charade. He knew he had to sweeten the pot.
“Or . . .” he continued. “We can both partake in some ale. And women. At my expense, a treat for you and your companions for letting me live. That is, if you allow me the privilege of keeping my life.”
Ely saw it. The relenting. Yes, the rage was still in the man’s eyes. However, there was less of it.
One of his friends tapped him on the shoulder. “Take his offer and we all leave happy,” the friend whispered.
The bald man considered. “Women, huh? And ale?” He let Ely go.
Ely brushed off his doublet. “Yes! Plenty of both! Tavernmaster! Steins for my newfound friends here. And a woman for each, broken in for their pleasure, of course.”
The audience erupted into laughter. Even the bald man cracked a smile. The band resumed their song as Ely’s would-be assailants grabbed a stein with one hand and a whore with the other.
Ely sighed. This will cost me, he realized. I was hoping for more than one round of pleasure tonight. I could have managed six or seven given my mood, of both ale and whores. Oh well, one hour of each will have to do.
The golden-haired barmaid and her sister, a smaller woman with a pretty face and chestnut hair, found their way to Ely’s side. Forgetting the ale and wanting to put the confrontation behind him, Ely urged them towards the staircase. The two girls giggled as he chased them up to the nearest open room, one with a fireplace and a wide, canopied bed fitting for three.
Ely slammed the door behind him. More giggles followed. Followed by kisses. And caresses. Then the ripping of clothes. First, those of the women. Then his own. The cold of the room struck his skin for a moment, but was overlapped by the soft, warm flesh of one. Then another. They pulled away to the bed. Ely brought them closer. More giggles. Then moans.
The blonde was near climax as the brunette sucked on the nape of his neck when the slow, steady rhythm beyond drew Ely from his ecstasy.
What is that sound?
As he focused on the noise, the ring grew louder and clearer. He had heard it only once before, when his grandmother had passed.
Death. It means death.
Ely pushed both the women aside as he hopped from the bed to the window. He opened it and threw open the shutters to find a crowd below, motioning to Arcporte Castle on the hill above. Aside from the gathering, Ely spotted Master Reysen with a pair of soldiers. He pulled away from the men and arched his back, tilting his head high.
“To your homes. All of you! Return at once. The King has fallen. The King has fallen.”
The crowd erupted into a flurry of conversations. Several asked the town crier what had happened. In turn, Master Reysen, extended his hands and waved them on, crying louder.
“Return to your homes! All of you! The King has fallen. He has fallen!”
Ely had scarcely heard the second line as he bolted through the door and scurried down the stairs. He swept around the audience, which had begun to thin, to come face-to-face with the town crier.
“What happened? Tell me! What is the matter?” Ely demanded.
“My good sir,” Master Reysen replied, shocked and embarrassed. “Where are your clothes?”
Ely looked down. In his haste, he had forgotten to dress. The whole of him was exposed, including his staff, which remained erect from his most recent exploits.
The crowd, momentarily distracted from the distraught news, pointed at Ely and laughed. Not in the mood for such antics, Ely grabbed Reysen by the shoulders. “Tell me!”
“All I know is what I was told,” the town crier admitted. “The King has taken ill. Just tonight. While at supper. He has been retired to his quarters. That is all I know.”
Ely eased his grip. He looked away, contemplating. “Home,” he whispered to himself. “I must get home.”
Reysen, unnerved by Ely’s exposure and mood, stood with his face contorted as the bells from the castle continued to ring. Ely stared at him, looking for something more. All he received was a nod.
“Yes, master, I mean, sir. Home,” Reysen replied.
Ely turned to enter the tavern. At his feet landed his soiled doublet, followed by the rest of his clothes, save his coin satchel.
“Go find yourself another tavern, my dear,” cried the blonde barmaid, her massive bosom uncovered and exposed for Ely and all to see. “Your foolish kind is not welcome at a time like this.”
Ely picked up his clothes and dressed as he moved on, oblivious to the stares which continued after him. He strolled the streets, which were thinning by the minute as the common folk heeded the town crier’s call and withdrew to their homes.
He returned to the sow-ridden hovel to find the swineherd snoring away, his nose serving as an unwelcome instrument horribly out of tune. Ely, with no threat of his secret compartment being discovered, pushed aside the feed stacks in the corner and pounded on a section of floorboard. As he expected, it rang hollow. He removed the false floorboard section to find his property just as he had left it. A fresh doublet laid folded, along with a shirt and trousers. He left the spare coin purse as it was, along with a false beard, an eyepatch and a small jar of special paste Ely used to shape irregularities on his façade. The space was too compact to allow much else, so a spare pair of boots were out of the question. Yet leaning to the side was an object Ely had completely forgotten.
“Why, hello . . .”
He snatched it up to discover it was a small anlace, complete with a stump of a hilt bearing a ring on each side, so that one may slip two fingers through and punch the blade in close quarters. Ely recalled having won it from a Colinnese sailor in a game of eight-sided dice. With a clean blade and a handle of walrus tusk, the item was a treasure to the eyes, prompting its former owner to threaten Ely’s life several times on the night he had won it.
A piglet, like all the others covered it filth, brushed against the leg of his pant. Seeing his freshly worn trousers becoming soiled so soon boiled Ely’s blood all over again.
“I should gut you now and throw your carcass onto that swineherd. That would teach the lot of you to live in such filth!”
The piglet replied by tilting its head upward, sniffing. A small oink escaped its mouth.
Better not, Ely thought again. I would only make a grander mess of this place. He plopped the anlace back into the secret compartment, positioning the false floorboard back into place as the piglet scurried away.
Despite Ely’s earlier insistence, neither the cellar door nor the area around it had been swept clean. In fact, more sows and piglets than before had huddled about it, blocking his passage.
“Move along already!” Ely shouted as he kicked. His boot bounced off the fattest sow, which squealed and ran aside, prompting the others to scurry. Ely looked up, hoping his antics had roused the swineherd. Alas, the round man remained in his slumber, his chorus like the synchronous work of a hundred woodsmen.
“Bloody, bloody, bloody hell!” Ely exclaimed as he opened the door. He went down the steps and through the corridor. The bell ringing from above faded as he strode deeper into the underground passage, until he reached a point where he could hear them no longer. In their absence, with silence his partner, his anxiety mounted. Keenly aware of every patch of ground and each turn, he nonetheless continued on clumsily, as though he was lost.
Then, he caught the sound of them again. Bells, ringing, through and through. Faint at first, their clangs and knells grew stronger as Ely hurried, his steps regaining their strength and purpose.
The door leading out of the shepherd’s cellar stood wide open. Ely took the steps up two at a time, intent on keeping up his pace past the outside of Arcporte and back to the seaside hill from which he came.
Ely gave a fleeting look at the man in the corner. Wrapped in a sheepskin blanket and cradling a growler of ale sat the husband to the hag outside.
“Coin,” the man said, flatly. “Pay up.”
“I paid your wife the fare already,” Ely said without stopping.
The man reached out to grab Ely’s trouser leg. “Pay.”
“I paid,” Ely insisted, pulling his leg away.
“I see no coin.”
Ely’s eyes widened upon realizing his folly. “I will pay you double next time,” Ely offered as he resumed his way towards the door.
“No.” The drunkard rose to his feet, extending his hand. “Coin.”
Ely brushed past him into the chill of the night. Outside, the wife leaned on her crooked staff, urging her sheep closer to the hovel.
“Did this man pay you?” asked her husband.
“He certainly did not,” she confirmed. “Said he would leave the coin inside. Yes, that is what he said when he came.”
The man trotted up behind Ely. “Coin!”
“I haven’t the time for this!” Ely replied. “Double next time, as I said. I must return home.”
“You pay!” shouted the wife.
Her husband caught up to Ely to seize him by the shoulders and turn him around. “Pay!” he shouted, his breathe stinking of pickled herring and sour ale. “Pay! Or I’ll . . .”
Ely scarcely comprehended his own moves until several moments had passed. By then, he was atop the drunkard, his hands fully clasped around his neck. Blood raced down the crack of his nose to his mouth, where several teeth laid in a state of disarray, having been broken from their place. Ely’s hands throbbed, covered in their own layer of blood. Although whether his or the shepherd’s Ely could not say.
“Off of him, you maggot!” cried his wife. The crook of her staff glanced off the side of Ely’s head. Ely sprang up to catch her second strike midair. He pulled the staff from her hands, breaking it over his knee, as the haggard woman sank beside her spouse.
The man gurgled something incoherent. His wife leaned in close, but upon finding that she could not understand, she turned back to Ely. “You nearly killed him!” she exclaimed, pointing.
Ely heaved, with an end of her staff in each of his hands. “If he lives, it’s because I had mercy.” He threw the broken parts of the staff aside.
“I’ll call on the constable, I will. He—”
“Will do nothing to help you!” Ely shoved the old woman to the ground alongside her husband, who continued to spit up blood. “Who do you think the law of this land serves? Rubes like you? Or men like me? Like my father . . .”
Ely paused, the wake of his purpose out of the city dawning on him once more.
Clang. Rang a bell. Clang. Rang another.
His moment of anguish was shattered by the sobs of the hag, who leaned on her side to wrap her arm around her husband.
“Oh, Mar!” she wept. “Oh, Mar! Oh, Mar!”
Ely swung around to traipse through the grass as the shepherd prayed aloud. Her pleas followed him long after he had left her sight, to be carried on the wind and heard by trees and stones, sheepdogs and peasants alike.“Oh, Mar!” Ely made out the hag’s cries as he traversed the hill, her prayers accompanied by the bells of Arcporte Castle. “Why? Why him? Why now? Why?!”