This is something that I wrote years ago. It was intended to be the first chapter in a book, but other obligations carried me away so long that when I returned my ideas about the book had changed so dramatically that this chapter simply couldn’t be used. Nevertheless, it has been edited to a degree, but it remains rough. Since that time, I produced a thorough manuscript featuring Eliza as a main character, but that too has since been delayed due to ever-new consideration on my part of how the narrative should actually play out.
The evening sky boiled and billowed with the bilious fury of a vengeful god pounding his indomitable fists upon the invincible vault of heaven. The black and boisterous clouds that consumed altogether the starry lights of the glittering firmament resounded and sharply shimmered bright with his fury that struck superlative sparks from the dusky shroud of pregnant darkness. The rain came down effluvial and did not merely soften and moisten the closely-crowded paths of rootless mud that proved a slippery obstacle amidst the unrelenting downpour; indeed, the streets were virtually abandoned of soaked and shivering travelers, far more numerous with the swaying torches ensconced within leaded glassware that danced choral amidst the pitiless wind that bade them bounce upon their housings.
The cast of regretfully heavy foot-falls came plodding about the corner, splashing about the heavy mud amidst the growing flood. A figure, enshrouded within an increasingly water-heavy cloak of darkened green, rounded the corner, struggling to maintain a safe and regular gait upon her unsteadied soles. The enkindled and guarded flame of a public house stilled and nevertheless bade welcome upon the weary traveler—the silent crier for an establishment known as “The Sultry Priestess,” known to be a hive of undesirables, untouchables, and even the occasional capital criminal. Staggering upon her slippery feet with inexorable purpose, she nevertheless went among the vacated way not unobserved, laying a dainty and woman-like hand upon the thick and wax-preserved door of ancient and unmaintained manufacture which squeaked and reeled upon its hinges with ear-piercing protest against this unhoped and undesired intruder, who knew already well the dangers she exposed to herself in such display of presumptuously child-like innocence.
But innocent she was not, and in the full view of the suddenly silent mass of men huddled wearily about their cups, illuminated darkly amidst only the flickering light of dying candles, she worked her way with expert and dancer’s care, not so much as brushing past, producing irritation, the gambler’s eyes of luckless men intent upon their gambler’s games. The room rumbled with violated irritation, the presence of a lithe and feminine figure intruding upon their long-deserved depression, but she maintained herself to her purpose, resolute under the shadows that obscured her mysterious countenance. Moving forward, but hopefully out of place, she alighted upon the crowded bar to meet the defensive gaze of the bartender’s jaundice-eyes with her own, flashing grey amidst the simmering candle-light.
Content to spare her a terrible misery, he thought, still suffering the dull recollection of his own familial miseries, he bade her leave. “Go. Get out of here. That’s your only warning. This place isn’t for you. I won’t serve you so much as a cup of lukewarm milk, darling child.”
But she possessed her own purpose, a potentially lethal purpose, and from that understanding she could not stray from her own path, and she placed a jingling bag of coins upon the bar, catching the eyes of every man within. “You have information,” she began with a strange accent—no city accent certainly, something that seemed terrifically antiquated, but not without its own somehow magical charms.
“Keep your money,” he replied with a pointed whisper, and he continued to chide her, “leave now. Go. Take your money and go.”
But she continued unabated. “I need to find a man—well not exactly a man, but a dwarf. They say he frequents this establishment. Ancient, they also say, and a potent killer in his own right—at one time a lawman, they also say.” With this, she flashed a blade from beneath her heavy cloak, implying blood or money; one will pay.
And with this he was irritated, and he knew this darkening hall to be filled from brim to brim with poniard-ready men of varying but violent caliber. But armed with a once-father’s contempt of violence, he bade her with a knowing glance across the simmering hall, to a corner that the light seemed itself to flee, a figure within, of unknown proportions, enshrouded within the protecting veil of mother-night.
“Ask him,” is all he said before returning to this mundane tasks.
The room rang eerily quiet, with only the crackling of the midnight torches to prove the verifiability of hearing. Perhaps then she would have succumbed to the cruel assaults of desperate and remorseless men keen on little more than clinking gold and the softness of a well-born woman’s pliant flesh, but directed into the darkened danger that lingered somnolescent within the corner, they continued to abate, knowingly terrified of an ancient danger obfuscated within. Much better than to gamble poorly amidst painted cards than to gamble their lives away upon the violent contemptuousness of a dwarf’s sensibilities.
Scanning her gaze askance, she had already forgotten the bartender as she moved away with acrobatic grace, not so much as grazing the suffering napes of the inebriated within. A shadowed figure lingered within, resting upon a bottle-besotted table pressed within the darkness as if an exile in mirror of its catatonic occupant.
Without so much as a prayer, without even the cast of a whisper from her thin lips, she rested herself upon a rickety chair that would have spelled for a heavier load utter collapse.
“I’m looking for a lawman,” is all she said.
Without so much as grunt, his breathless gaze remained unchanged, fixed in place by the terrors of the maze of his own mind.
Seeking lower, she attempted to meet his tired eyes to no effect, as he continued in the self-punishment of his own altogether too considerate thoughts.
“I’m looking for a lawman,” she repeated, as she, without a clink, produced a bottle from her concealments, exposing her lovely, leather-bottled frame with a single motion for his eyes alone.
But it was not the production of her athletic and competent frame that shook from him his own private and long-protected misery but the production of the excellent bottle itself, complete with another gasp of thought-shattering goodness that would bring at least another evening’s worth of mind-befuddling numbness.
His gaze arose, and he grinned a yellow-toothed smile that spelled a desperate acquiescence. And with a master’s dexterity he thumbed the bottle’s cap away and began the imbibing of its brown-bubbling contents.
“So you’ve heard a thing or two,” he replied finally, “and you’ve come seeking an ancient lawman—so you say. But goodness upon goodness,” he started with a snarl, “your memory must be ancient, more ancient than men, to remember my adventures—my terrible labors in the sordid service of justice that have rendered a proud dwarf of dwarves into the shattered creature that lies here before you.”
But it seemed she had no time for the self-pity and self-loathing of so proud and sometimes senseless a people, and she replied with mechanical rhythm of breath, “Time enough for your exhausted stories later.” She squeezed out her odor-reddened cheeks amidst the potency of his violent breath. “I need to know, and I need to know now if you can be the experienced lawman that I now require, ready to follow my direction at a moment’s notice.” She paused as if ashamed of what would come next. “I have coin, lots of coin, if you should observe my desperate request. I’m ready to requite you thoroughly, if you should just provide me what you have in natural abundance.”
“Being a drunk?” he asked with a child-like smile belying his fatigued years.
“Being a clever fellow of unsullied virtue, one who is not only willing but known to sacrifice for the cause of justice.”
“So you just go about walking within the dens of blameable criminals looking for sapphires of perfect character?”
“Far from it,” he replied, offended by the strange and potent sin of her surroundings. “You’re a difficult creature to track, but your friends speak well of you. Very well. Superlatively.”
“I must meet then these friends of mine and bid them mind their own business.”
“Come come now,” she replied, chastising, “enough about them and that, but now about you. Are you not Jorgal Bloodaxe, adjudicator of Base-Booming Hold, and child of Vaddinghus Bloodaxe, its one-time exhortator?”
The mention of those several names seemed to strike the dwarf severely, drawing away the sutures of ancient pains and miserable woes to expose old wounds to new and shivering air. Drawing up his blood-shot eyes, he replied only with a nod, ashamed to relay what was in his mind a truer truth.
“I am those things. I am enough of those things for you. Child… you try my patience, and the gold doesn’t matter. Speak now you what bothers before my patience is irrevocably lost and we should have no common cause for regular hospitality.”
“Well,” she began matter-of-factly, “I was contracted by a certain city official to provide evidence of the corruption of several powerful city archons–”
“A thief procuring the resources of a thief?” replied he with inappropriate amusement.
But she didn’t so much as break a sweat or miss a word as she continued unabated. “A city official, to remain nameless. He bade me seek out the evidence that would prove the truth of his words and perhaps expose so dangerous and insidious a plot as might threaten or whole city altogether with miserable harms.”
“Be that as it may, why bother rescuing the decrepit shoals of Pitter’s March?”
It was if her ears could not hear his own ill-contempt. “I may… have discovered more than a little than I could handle… on my own. And I may be in some very serious danger, and I may have exposed my client to the same. I hate to say it, but I require the services of a wizened lawman, someone who possesses the talents of a killer besides.”
At the word “killer,” his eyes beat blood-red and it seemed that steam seemed to effuse from his gnarled ears, but against his betrayed desires to beat back the black bile of his heart, and maintained a straight if nevertheless twisted countenance. “That is all fine and dandy, little girl,” he began overflowing with contempt, “but what can you really expect me to do, stand before the arbitrator with inhuman potency of argument or hack my way through a legion of murderously-intended assassins?”
“I wouldn’t have sought a non-human if I desired merely human strength.”
A dull pause lingered, and within the flickering candle-light he exposed his graven features. His black hair, almost now consumed entirely in gray, played out abundantly above his serious and battle-scarred features—his profound brow exposing a pair of sharp blue eyes that had once glittered with the fires of the contempt of nefariousness.
Without emotion, he asked simply, “What then would you ask of me?”
The door hurled open, and then dull clank of armored men stormed sulkily within, content outrageously to be spared, for at least a moment, from the fury of the unrelenting rain that obliterated the evening. A man, tall and well-built, held forth an unreadable scroll in indictment, as the bar’s denizens caught quick and open-mouthed gaze of the crested tabard he wore bearing the insignia of the Grand Prince that ruled Pitter’s March. “A woman,” he started, “named ‘Eliza the Pluck’ was seen entering this establishment.” “Establishment,” the bar nearly glimmered with amusement of that final word. “Surrender her to us immediately, and we shall no longer trouble your evening.”
All eyes immediately and without will rested upon the cloaked figure huddled within the corner’s half-light, seized from the conversation with her burgeoning compatriot, who slowly rose in his half-addled state from his lowly station.
With an officious voice he demanded simply, “You will provide the summons held in hand, that I might identify its validity?”
But the sheriff seemed almost outraged by the simple request, as if something virtually unheard of, and would perhaps have drawn his sword then and there but for the dwarf’s strangely commanding accent, something more demanding and yet more considerate than the ken of men.
The dwarf strode forward, and snatched the object away from the apparently stunned sheriff, scanning its unintelligible lines with an old intelligence. He retorted simply, “this summons lacks a watermark. It is therefore invalid. Return to your officer and beg him behave according to the word of the law, as you should understand it.”
The sheriff had never heard such contempt of his authority, and he had absolutely no interest in debasing himself in front of his superior, who still was in consideration of his promotion. As such, he had similarly no interest in returning empty-handed, and rang out without care, “Shut your bloody mouth, dwarf. It’s on our sufferance that we even endure the wheezing of your miserable soot-caked lungs. Hand the witch over, or you’ll suffer the pointed end of my pitiless blade.”
He drew his pointed blade, and his comrades followed suit, as the collected hall hurled themselves to the walls in anticipation of cruel violence.
But Eliza, enfolded within her cloak, couldn’t stand it any longer for this new guardian to suffer alone in her defense, and rising from her weakness-groaning chair, she revealed from under her hood her marvelous features. She was clearly no city-goer, certainly not be birth and certainly neither by upbringing. Within the glint of her green eyes galloped the mysterious vigor of the sylvan spirit, the predication of her laughter-loving soul that ran about the green and brown of the bush and bough. Her golden, wispy hair shimmered like samite straw amidst the simmering half-light of the life-abandoning candles and ensconced torches of the bar. But more than any of that, her features possessed a strangely feminine directness of character that was not of typically female possession; her frozen eyes struck like daggers in the hearts of evil and insidious men, so accustomed to their contempt of manly virtue that they considered the latter as something somehow evil and also alien. An amazon, tried and true, she cast aside her cloak and produced a simple, straight blade that gleamed with a pale light.
But before she had the opportunity to send be blade swinging, singing through the dark-pregnant air, Jorgal was already upon the embattled sheriff. Brandishing a single-edged blade of shadowy, dusky metal, without missing a beat, he hurled himself upon the sheriff closely, and made bloody work of his increasingly shattered form, driving the blade once, twice, and then beyond counting under the scales of his brazen mail until the sheriff remained nothing but a lifeless and crimson form of no importance stiff upon the floor, staining the wooden boards beneath despite their years of re-applied and protecting wax.
Not wanting to miss a beat similarly, and certainly not one to be outperformed, Eliza raged ahead with her shining steel in hand, meeting the second soldier blow for blow with supreme and peerless elegance. And within few flashes of white steel and a few pitiless slashes upon tender flesh, her blade found home within his blackened heart, and he came to collapse, mud-besotted, upon the unforgiving floor to join the stiffening corpse of his own captain.
But the third soldier, gauging rapidly the battlefield to change, could not be halted from his tireless rout, and he hurled himself screaming into the opaque darkness of the earth-rumbling storm, seeking out another lieutenant, that they might rise in legion against this cruel and blood-spattered pair of new murderers.
The flickering candle light seemed to still, and the crowd of collected untouchables armored in tattered and dusky leathers issued not so much as a gasp of breath or a clink of cups, huddled unblinking upon the age and smoke-stained walls that had in another time shown brilliant in red cherry-wood.
“God damnit!” the bartender roared, storming forward from the abandoned bar, “it was enough, you moronic midget, your outrageous tab, and far more than I should have suffered, but this—this?! Not just two men, and certainly not any of our regular visitors—but two city guards, one of them a captain—dead and bloody and soon to be stone cold upon my floor! How am I ever supposed to answer for this?! I should slash you from stem to sternum!”
“Oh come come now. It’s not like they’ll be looking for you; god knows the room’s filled with witnesses. And besides, I’m sure the girl’s coin will prove more than sufficient to pay my drinking debt.”
Fuming with impotent rage, the bartender practically danced about, tugging mercilessly upon the thinning strands of his receding hair, and spouted unintelligible obscenities upon invisible victims, though it only seemed to further outrage his temper.
The rain hadn’t so much as dreamed of relenting, heavy drops clattering as cannon-shot upon the earth, to collect also in growing rivers that rushed against light-less store-fronts topped with the modest domains of bakers, butchers, and cobblers huddled upon the dull orange glow of receding fire-lights. The retreating guard was nowhere to be seen, and impossible to track amidst the dissipating mud. Whatever were screams of murder and terror that had echoed through the night, it was now grown silent.
Washing away from himself the crimson of fresh gore, the fruits of his vicious slaughter, which had stained his greasy and unmaintained clothes, the dwarf spoke up, a note of exhaustion evident upon his tongue.
“Sounds like you’re stuck in it now, but are you sure you want to go through with it? You still may be able to escape town. Exile’s better than hanging.”
“I wouldn’t have come to see you if I considered that an option.”
“My employer’s due to be executed within a day.”
“No point in sticking around town if you’re not going to be paid.”
“It’s more than that. The soldiers we cut down, just now, are my fault. And that’s just the icing. I screwed up, and I exposed my employer to mortal danger.”
“So what exactly are you hoping to get out of me?”
“They say that you’ve got a reputation for the law, that you’re an aged and respected investigator. Regardless of the judge’s political inclinations, he’ll be strung up himself if he ignores persuasive evidence.”
“Find damning, probably highly guarded evidence and present it to a reliable and just magistrate within only twenty-four hours.”
“Well, from the bloody mess behind, it doesn’t seem like you’ll have any difficulty with the resistance.”
“Oh—that’s not it. The evidence should be a simple enough matter, but to find a good-hearted and honest magistrate, especially on short notice—may indeed prove impossible.”
“Well come on then, before we find ourselves joining your employer upon the gallows. I assume you have somewhere we can go?”
“Ehh…” she replied, baring her teeth in begrudging nervousness, “my home has already been raided, and it appears someone close to my employer revealed my safe-house.”
“And how did he figure that out?”
“She, and it’s a long story.”
“So you’re homeless.”
“Home is where the heart is.”
“I could use a decent bite of venison, actually.”
She seemed not to understand.
“Alright alright alright, then. If you’re serious about this, I’ll bring you back to my own meager lodgings. Nothing extravagant, and the thing is absolutely filthy with leaks, but we should be safe within for a least for a few hours—before someone at least as clever as yourself comes looking for me.”