Finally, they received summons to the castle once more. There, the look among the council of lords was of dismay. Arild was also there – his expedition had returned – and the expression on his face told them everything they needed to know, but he explained anyway. He and his men had been turned away at the gates and they were forced to return with nothing but a smattering of hearsay: of riots and a strict lock-down being set in place.
Lord Dhonyl explained the likely reason why Arild had been rebuffed: the two cities had had a difficult relationship ever since the end of the Shalteian Empire. After the empire’s fall, the lords of Kohlen had assumed Aaren, a small holding, to be automatically theirs, but the people’s resolve, favorable location and the leadership of the Sandemars ensured Aaren’s independence. So, clearly, Kohlen was bitter.
And so, they had come up with a new plan – one which, of course, involved the three of them. It was simple really: as unknowns, they would enter the city without brandishing the flags and colors of Aaren, and from within discover what they could.
Gillam expressed his displeasure at sneaking into a city on a mission of espionage. However, he stated, if the lords commanded it, he would do so. Lord Dhonyl assured him it would not be so shadowy. His cousin had recently sent him a congratulatory gift: a cartful of Banythian smokeleaf. He did not care for the stuff – in fact, he was keen to set a great distance between it and himself – and explained that they should take it freely to pose as merchants, with the added bonus that they would be allowed to keep any profit they make. On hearing this, Phaedra’s smile cut across her face from ear to ear.
Lastly, Lord Dhonyl set out their objectives clearly: to enter Kohlen without drawing attention to House Sandemar; to ascertain the whereabouts of the senior Lord Marten and, if possible, bring him back to Aaren; if not possible, then to dispense justice upon him; and finally, to garner anything information about the Priest Prefect Harald.
They went out to see the goods. What struck them first was the smell – a putrid stench not unlike rotting fish. Such a scent would have anyone scurrying but Gillam, a regular, nay, constant user of smokeleaf, recognized the stuff to be of the highest quality. He decided he could not let this opportunity pass by and asked the others to allow him a sample. Phaedra was quick to argue.
“We need all of it to sell!” she said.
Gillam had good reason though. “If I can smoke some of it, I can understand its quality and flavor so that we can be better informed when we try and sell it to knowledgeable customers.”
In the end, she conceded and Gillam went off to have a private smoke. Despite the smell of the leaves, it had smooth, mellow taste with a kick of spice to boot. He had never had anything so refined; this was surely top-end smokeweed. He felt a little tingly all over and realized he was unused to such potent leaves.
When he returned to the others, he learned that Lingen had declared he had pressing business in Egard. Apparently, he seemed genuinely distraught at having to leave them – no one cared. Erol, as Mahala’s supervisor, was concerned about bringing her to Kohlen as she would stand out quite a bit so he left her in the care of Griiz who had welcomed her in warmly. Wendika, on the other hand, was coming along – much to Gillam’s disappontment.
Another argument erupted over where to enter Kohlen. Gillam thought the idea of going past the city by river and approaching from the north, thus minimizing any suspicion they might come from Aaren, was sound, but again Phaedra argued. She said it was a waste of time and was so adamant that Gillam eventually backed down. Bizarrely, just as they all thought that was decided, Phaedra suddenly announced they should head in from the north… Women, huh?
With Vaprus pulling the cart, they had two uneventful days to Sallen, where they flagged down a boat going upriver to Darica. They were welcomed aboard, but the voyage was not at all pleasant as the sailors had a great love of singing and drinking all night long. Ahead of such an important mission, none of them were keen to join in. On the journey, they passed Kohlen, seeing its spread of warehouses and workmen’s houses, its walls and its hold upon a hillock.
They disembarked, quite sleep-deprived, at a village some three days north. All was well on the walk until the second night. Gillam was kicked awake and found there to be a unearthly alarm ringing while Erol, Phaedra and Wendika were up and armed. They were all focused on a spot in the darkness, soon out of which a large bear appeared. The bear, though, took no interest in them, but instead gingerly approached the cart of smokeweed. Just before anyone else made a move to stop the beast, Erol whispered to them all, “Wait.”
He then closed his eyes and mumbled something and out from beneath the cart an immense 10-foot tall bear appeared! It looked at the smaller bear, which hesitated. However, the real one was bold and risked moving closer. Suddenly, the giant bear opened its mouth wide and Erol began to roar with his best bear impression – it was quite good. He eyed the rest of them, indicting them to join in. As one they all roared at the bear who was sufficiently unnerved that it scampered off. The great bear guarding the cart then disappeared.
The next day, Gillam assumed it must have been a dream.
When they finally arrived at the north gate of Kohlen, Phaedra took the lead, posing as the merchant while the others stayed back acting as personal guards – a role Gillam was rather good at. One of the watchman asked her from where she hailed and she quickly told him Dalyria, a city to the north. He accepted her story, letting them pass, but picked out Erol, telling his “employer” to watch his loose hands. Gillam had never witnessed such racism towards Mrissans before and he was a little disappointed in his fellow Lugardian.
As they passed through the gate, they noticed the large number of watchmen milling about. Some were serious about their work, but many could be found yawning or sitting around in guard-houses chewing the fat. Phaedra was intrigued enough to enquire with one of them. She learned that all guards had been placed on double hours, even if they didn’t have a dedicated position to guard; they were simply told to maintain public order.
“Why?” she asked.
“’Cos of the problems down in Gosfallen, that’s the mining quarter.”
“Can we go there?”
The watchman looked at his buddies and chuckled, “Why would you want to go in there? It’d be pretty tough to get in or out of there anyway: the whole place is restricted.”
“Why is that?” Phaedra asked again.
“Well, the peasants got ideas, didn’t they…”
They entered the city and found an inn in the middle-class district, conveniently just around the hill from the mining quarter; then managed to lease a stall in the market district, right along the main street. And after their long journey, and disturbed sleep, they all agreed to take it easy that night.
On the morn, they decided to split up and ask around. Gillam took the first day shift on the stall, using his personal experience to better inform and attract customers. It was a slow start, but he got some interest from other merchants and inquisitive passers-by. Late in the day, he struck a nobleman up in conversation, elaborating on the quality of the smokeweed, and then asking how the mood was among the upper classes. The man told him there was a little nervousness but they were assured of their safety from any riotous outbreaks. He added that the younger brother of the ruling Lord Jaren, Lord Oleh, was keeping them abreast of the situation at all times and he was certain that they would be forewarned if the peasants did rebel.
When they regrouped later and reported what they had learned, Phaedra told them that she had taken a stroll with Wendika around the merchant district and had been informed by a local there that the riots had been over pay and the leader of their group, a foreman called Egil, had suspiciously died during the negotiations. Erol was able to add to that. He had visited a tavern on the near side of the barricades in Gosfallen. Asking around the bar, he had learned that with the river traffic decreasing, Kohlen’s warehouses were overflowing with un-transported materials. As the materials were not moving, the mine owners were not making profit from operations and thus, to save their money, they had asked the miners to mine less ore. The issue with this being that reduced quotas meant reduced wages for the miners. This was what had started the discontent.
On the second day, Gillam visited an inner city gatehouse. He hailed a friendly-looking guard, and chatted about guarding, telling him the truth about his time as a watchman in Lyden, but lying about his current job, continuing the guise of a merchant’s private guard. Of the affair with the foreman, the guard said that there had been an altercation with him and a lord, which his boss, Captain Brute, had personally broken up, taking the foreman up to the hold. What happened after, he was unaware.
As he was quite talkative, Gillam took a shot and asked if he knew anything of strange outsiders entering the city. As luck would have it, the guard had been on duty the night an odd man had approached the gates. He described him as dressed like a noble, but the clothes were dirty and torn up, and clearly mad as he was stumbling about screaming that someone was following him. He was picked up and taken to the cells to sleep and again that was the last the guard saw of him.
When they reconvened later, they all agreed it seemed highly likely that this man was Lord Marten senior. Phaedra, who had been on the stall with her darling Wendika, reported that she had talked to a rich customer – a man very knowledgeable about smokeleaf and his clearly long-suffering wife – about the latest news. He told her that in order to stop the spread of discontent, extra men had been taken on from Darica to the north and they had the assurance that the lords were trying to get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, Erol had visited the Kohlen’s Temple of the Mother. He had gone to learn any information on the whereabouts of Harald, but the Priest Prefect there knew little. Indeed, he was much more focused on the church’s attempts to deliver food and aid donations through the blockade to the people of Gosfallen. Erol learned that every day they requested to be allowed in to administer to the people – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The archer believed that this could be a way inside.
However, eager to get to the heart of the issue, Erol went out alone that night intending to cross over the hills and enter Gosfallen.
He did not return all day. He had told them this was to be expected as he was to enter and leave the area under cover of darkness, but still it was hard not to worry somewhat about the Mrissan; if he were captured or killed they would likely never know about it and never see him again. Their worries were exacerbated when, during the day, an announcement was made that the city guard were cracking down on any individuals attempting to enter or leave the restricted area around the barricades – exactly what Erol was doing.
The Phaedra-Wendika pairing took the stall that day (and later reported terrible sales which infuriated the money-loving rogue immensely). Gillam took the opportunity to sign up for the tournament. He went towards the hold and found the admissions desk located at the foot of a road which wound up the mound upon which the hold was built. He had to admit it was a little intimidating, perched above the city as it was with it great stone walls – it certainly dwarfed Aaren’s – but having seen Lyden Castle and the enormous structures of Trikala, Gillam just shrugged it off.
The man at the desk was flanked by guards. Despite this, he cheerily beckoned Gillam closer.
“Come, come! Sign up for the tourney! Which event will you be entering?” he rattled off. Before putting ink to parchment though, Gillam had a few questions.
“What are the prizes?” was the obvious first.
“Well,” he smiled, “there’s 300 gold for the winner of the melee, and 400 for the winner of the archery. And both winners will get a seat of honor with the lords at the banquet that follows.”
That sounded a worthy prize and a good chance to get closer to the top brass.
“Why now?” Gillam asked.
“Oh, you know, to attract talent and to keep the guards up to shape. Captain Brute expects his best men to enter.”
“I mean, why hold it now with this present situation?”
“Well, it was already organized. Actually, it’s a bit late this year. Lady Eva is in charge, but really she isn’t at all interested in it so every year it gets delayed more and more. But Lady Vitora seems to enjoy it so… the show must go on.”
“Vitora?” he enquired.
“You’ve not heard of Vitora? She is Lord Jaren’s…” the man glanced at the guards, “well, you know…”
The man and the guards were looking suspiciously at him and even Gillam now realized he had been prying too much. He quickly signed up for the melee – under the pseudonym Gerry which he felt he needed for some reason – and left.
He was still interested in this tournament and now this Vitora. He let his watchman feet do the work and they took him to a bar in the Aappen area. However, this time they let him down. The barman and his regulars had little to say about the event and had only rumors to talk about the lady Vitora, describing her equally as angel, witch, princess and whore, despite none of them having actually seen her. They warmed to Gillam though and promised to give their support when he announced he would be entering the tourney.
Late in the night, Erol returned with a lack of shoes and a fragrance of piss. He looked like he had had a tough time of it and it was a blessing he was back at all. Though very tired he told the others what he had found in there. After crossing the hills, avoiding construction on guard towers, and shimmying down a cliff face on the Gosfallen side, he found the area littered with garbage and disrepair but strangely quiet. He had come across a storehouse being used by the residents en masse as temporary housing. There he chanced to catch up on some sleep for a few hours. That was how he lost his shoes.
Walking around the next morning with his feet wrapped in linen, he saw people making do with what they could: drinking dirty water and eating unlucky rats. They were going hungry but all they could do was grumble and try to keep going. He drew quite a bit of attention with his clean clothes and bow.
After speaking with a pick-axe-wielding door guard at one of the guild-houses, hoping to speak with the leader of the miners, he did as he was recommended and waited in the central square. Around noon, people began gathering there and soon a cart packed with food arrived surrounded by a squadron of city guards. The people heckled them but no one moved to attack. The guards shoved the food off the carts and then hurriedly exited. After they were gone, the people looked at the food hungrily, but still no one moved. Then the miner/guard, his fellows and his boss Hendrik arrived and began rationing out the food to the people who waited duly in line.
From the crowd, Erol had picked out a man who looked totally out of place. He wore fine but filthy clothes, was covered in fresh-looking bruises and had a look of starved desperation. He befriended the man, named Karl, as they waited in line, learning that he was an engineer who had been investigating a sabotaged mine collapse at the time the riots began and got stuck on the wrong side of the barricades. He had a wife and children living in the affluent Kilden area of the city and missed them terribly, and when he learned that Erol was planning to cross the hills out of Gosfallen, he begged to be taken with him. Erol refused knowing that escorting someone else out of here would be suicide but assured the man that he would seek out his wife and let her know he was surviving.
He then waited till nightfall – witnessing the riots in the evening – and climbed the cliff face. But tonight the city guard had upped its lockdown: the wooden towers had been completed and were manned and there were patrols along the ridges. He narrowly missed being pissed on while hiding from one of these patrols but managed to get back safely. He didn’t elaborate on this, much to Gillam’s disappointment.
The next day, Gillam manned the stall while Erol and Phaedra went to sign up for the tournament. For some reason or other, business was booming and by the time they were back, he had earned more in one day than they had in the past three. He treated himself to a celebratory Banythian smokeleaf cigarette (or five) and thought (aloud) that maybe he had found his calling as a merchant. Phaedra sneered and shook her head.
They practiced that evening, for there was one more night before the big day.
The tournament was held within the walls of the hold in two makeshift arenas. As both the melee and archery competitions would be held subsequently, they would not be able to watch each other, so Gillam and Phaedra wished Erol (who had taken on the alias “Arol”) good luck and then went to the melee arena to prepare. Gillam eavesdropped on Phaedra’s pre-fight pep talk from Wendika. It was all stuff about being one with the sword, seeing with your eyes, and stuff like that. Gillam rolled his eyes and went about his own pre-match preparation: a smoke and thoughts of Kushlu. Oh, and remember to hit them, hard – on the head if possible.
They entered the arena with around 40 others, all brandishing wooden versions of their favorite weapons. A horn blew and the free-for-all began. Gillam was quickly faced with a quick-footed brawler who dodged his attacks again and again until Gillam finally managed to smash the blighter in the face with his shield. As the man went down, Gillam heard a chant from the crowd which went something like this: “Gerry Gerry, pumpkin berry, he so scary, he…” He didn’t quite catch it all, but he saw the bar regulars cheering for him and gave them a wave.
Behind him a voice spoke. “Who are you waving at, pretty boy?”
“My adoring fans,” Gillam replied as he turned around only to find not one, but three guard men. They quickly surrounded him and started beating. Gillam struggled to get a hit on the sword-and-shield wielding man in front of him, while being whacked repeatedly by the spear-carrying one. Suddenly, the whacking stopped and the man let out a squeaky groan instead. Gillam saw him crumple to the floor, hands clutching his groin, and behind him, with a big grin on her face, was Phaedra. He hated to admit it, but she had saved his ass for sure – of course, he wasn’t about to thank her for it.
She quickly dealt with the sneaky fellow that snuck up on Gillam from behind, while he finally managed to get the upper hand on the one in front of him and sent him flying with a shield bash. Just as their scuffle ended, the horn blew to signal the end of the round. Gillam’s fans cheered again, but as the beer flowed their chant became even harder to comprehend.
While they rested and recovered, Erol returned from the archery with the news of his narrow victory. They congratulated him heartily.
Phaedra was first up in the knock-out rounds and she defeated her opponent in almost one shot. Gillam also had an easy time knocking down his axe-wielding opponent, and so they both entered the semi-finals.
And the inevitable moment arrived: they were matched against each other. After a brief moment of shock, Gillam realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to stamp some authority on the little rogue. As they stood before each other, he saw that Phaedra was also relishing the chance to fight against him.
“I’m gonna beat you senseless,” he shouted, only half-joking.
“I’d like to see you try,” she grinned back.
The fight began and before Gillam knew it, Phaedra was behind him, having slid through his legs in a flash. She bashed him over the head so hard his helmet rang like a bell. Both surprised and annoyed, Gillam spun around and caught her in the neck with his sword. Though she tried to block, it made little difference as she was knocked to the floor. The rules stated that this meant the match was over, but it wasn’t enough for Gillam and he could see the determined look in Phaedra’s eyes. He offered his hand to lift her back to the feet and around them the crowd gasped. She looked at his hand, and instead lifted herself up, nodding at him in thanks. The confused announcer declared the fight restarted.
Gillam decided to get the first hit in this time and he charged straight at her. His obvious attack was easily side-stepped, and though he attempted another swing that brushed through her hair, she quickly slipped into prime position and caught him hard in the kidneys. Gillam coughed with the shock of pain, but kept himself afoot. He turned once again and brought his sword crashing into her side, sending her to the floor once again.
This time, the announcer declared the fight over. Phaedra sat on the floor shaking her head while Gillam waved to his fans. She got to her feet and shook his hand, a new look of respect in her eyes. Gillam also gained a new appreciation of her skills and told her honestly, “That was a close fight, you almost had me!” Of course, he wouldn’t tell her that he was genuinely scared he would lose a couple of times. She walked from the arena to her Wendika, patting Gillam on the shoulder as she left.
In the final, he was up against a fighter with a chain whip and buckler. He was daunted – he had never fought against such a weapon before. Even before the fight began, the man was swinging the chain around over his head, and as the horn blew, he sent it flying in Gillam’s direction. It missed, but it certainly sent the message loud and clear.
Gillam went all out and swung furiously at him. His sword missed but his follow up shield knocked him flying back towards the arena wall. The guard kept his footing though and threw his chain again. Gillam tried to block but the thing hooked around his blocking arm and sent it swinging heavily into his back. Gillam was raging now, and his next shield attack sent the guard crashing into the wall, and falling to the ground.
Once again, Gillam let his opponent stand and glanced at the crowd. Maybe he had taken one too many blows to the head today, but he was sure he saw Vaprus swaying among the bar regulars as they chanted drunkenly. The guard saluted Gillam as the fight restarted, but no sooner than it began it was over for good. Gillam caught the guard with another bash of his shield and this time sent him flying, literally – toppling over the top of the arena wall and collapsing in a heap on the other side. The crowd went wild.
A short while later, servants came to escort Gillam and Erol to the banquet. They entered the hall to great applause and were sat at either end of a long table, with the high nobles between them, while other minor nobles sat at tables ahead of them, and the rest of the diners sat in the squabble beyond them. Phaedra was somewhere among them. Between Gillam and Erol, sat Captain Brute, Vitora, obvious from her beauty, Lord Jaren Tulleken, his siblings Oleh and Eva, and a Priest Prefect.
Lord Jaren opened the banquet and they dined. While Gillam ate greedily (he had had a busy day…) he watched Erol talking to the priest intensely and wondered what it could be they were discussing. He attempted to strike a conversation with Brute next to him. The Captain was stoic, drinking only water and sitting rigidly in his chair, and spoke bluntly. Gillam wanted to get into his good books and was quick to explain that he himself was once a city guard, but Brute was quick to question why a person who could defeat his best men in martial combat would ever be ‘retired’ by any city watch. After hearing Gillam rattle off excuses, he simply said, “You fight well, but you have no honor,” and returned to chewing his food meticulously. Gillam was stunned into silence. Never before had his honor been questioned. He tried to shake it off but he would not forget that for a long time.
After a time, Lord Jaren stood and announced it was time to present the prizes. He gave Gillam his gold in a bag, and gave Erol his reward in a small chest. Just as Jaren was turning back to his subjects, Erol made his own announcement.
“Thank you! I will be donating my winnings to people suffering in Gosfallen.”
From the silenced crowd, Gillam thought he heard someone scream bloody murder.
Jaren looked perplexed, but suddenly the priest sitting next to Erol popped up and announced, “On behalf of the Priests of the Temple of the Hunter, I graciously accept…” This seemed to satisfy everyone.
The banquet went on. Gillam turned his attention to Vitora. She was young, pretty, with a cheery nature and dainty posture.
“Your reputation precedes you,” he called to her around Brute’s back.
Vitora eyed him. “What reputation would that be?”
“Your beauty, of course.”
She gave him a smile out of courtesy and stated, “You fought well today.”
Gillam didn’t know what to say now his usual lines bounced off her. He blathered about Lyden, which peeked her interest somewhat and then she asked, “What do you think of Kohlen?”
“It has its charm,” he answered, “but there’s a tension in the air…”
At this, Vitora glanced at Lady Eva with an expression that was a sudden shift from the carefree air she exuded before. “That’s true…”
Gillam sensed she could tell him something more. “Sitting in this chair is making me stiff after a day of fighting,” he said, “Would you walk with me?”
She refused and the reason why was soon revealed.
Lord Jaren stood once again to make another ‘important and joyous’ announcement. He took Vitora’s hand, she stood, and he announced they were to wed. The hall erupted in cheers which raised higher as he announced that a special wine would be served. What Gillam failed to notice, and learned from the others later, was that the cheer among the other nobles was delayed, and was distinctly non-existent between Oleh and Eva.
Gillam, now with no one to talk to, supped on the fine wine, until he was surprised by a tap on the shoulder. The Priest Prefect, introducing himself as Jens and the city’s arbitrator of disputes, took him aside and requested to hire him for an important body guarding task on the morrow. He didn’t elaborate but he was so insistent, Gillam could not refuse.